Chair in Space

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 3.37.37 PM

Almost two weeks ago I went to a screening of Interstellar at the Motion Picture Academy. About a day and a half later I had my first ever attack of sinus-related vertigo, which is a condition characterized by extreme dizziness, nausea and vomiting.   Were they related? I’m not quite sure.

Certainly, it is tempting to get on the bandwagon and blame Interstellar for all the ills of the world, including my own. Plus, I can’t for certain say that the film didn’t make me dizzy – both literally and figuratively. But what good does it do to complain about it? For as much as I am stuck with a lingering case of vertigo every time I move my head around a bit too fast, there is no escape from the cultural impact of a new film by a director as renowned and popular as Christopher Nolan.

Maybe I need to borrow his suit?

Maybe I need to borrow his suit?

The most that we all can do is deal with both illnesses – my vertigo and Nolan-mania – as best we can. Of course I, for one, have a sinus rinse, cortisone nose spray and antibiotics to counter the Big V and it’s slowly getting better.   But right now there is no known treatment for Nolan-mania or those determined to spread it around to the rest of us. Certainly, quarantine hasn’t seemed to work as a cure for other recent outbreaks, not to mention it’s mostly unpopular. And in this case, it’s counterintuitive. If we know anything Nolan, it’s that you don’t try to remedy the effects of him or his films with anything that is even vaguely unpopular.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown...

Heavy is the head that wears the crown…

Full confession upfront: there is nothing Interstellar offers to exactly hate but an absence of hate does not necessarily translate into a presence of love. It has its moments, though one would expect that in any movie with an almost three hour running time and a choice from among the best of what commercial Hollywood has the offer in terms of above and below-the-line talent. But what it has little of is sustained and coherent dramatic tension as well as a plot that is entirely discernable to those who have never studied astrophysics. Not to mention it has nothing truly original to say in the final analysis, that is unless that message was encoded and transmitted in a way that only people in another galaxy or time dimension could discern and then explain to us naysayers in simpler terms – which is certainly possible given the atmosphere Nolan-mania has us now living in and the literal lack of it we get in the film itself. And NOTE: No, these are NOT SPOILERS (not that you’d understand them if they were). NOR WILL THERE BE ANY!

Alright, Alright, Alright.... continue on

Alright, Alright, Alright…. continue on

The one indisputable piece of good news here is Interstellar is an attempt at taking chances and doing SOMETHING, even though a dizzy, cloudy-headed, middle-aged sinus sufferer like me didn’t quite get what that was or at least can’t recall it. And this is very much better than the choice to make NOT VERY MUCH NEW or NOTHING MUCH BUT MONEY that most big studio movies/filmmakers are opting for these days.   So one supposes sickies like us – meaning we who have somehow avoided the disease of Nolan-mania but are nevertheless still considered ill in the culture as we know it – should be grateful. And to answer your next question: Yes, it has truly come to that.

Yes. YES.   And – YES.

I happened to catch Interstellar with two other screenwriter friends – both of who went to film school – which I didn’t – and both of who have more major studio writing credits than myself. In my mind, this somehow means they were more likely to be bigger fans of the previous three hours but this didn’t turn out to be the case. One liked it a bit more and one a bit less than myself but we were all in the general ballpark of – huh??? Still, given what we’ve all experienced in Hollywood during the last decade we all agreed we were happy a movie that was trying something “different” – though none of us quite could verbalize what that was – was at least given the green light.

One of these things is not like the other...

One of these things is not like the other…

Given the fact that I can’t let a subject drop – as should be evident by now – I couldn’t help but then pose this imaginary scenario to my two friends:

If you had submitted this screenplay in any of your screenwriting classes, what would have happened?

One immediate answer was: “Oh please, it would’ve been ripped to shreds,” and the other was a non-verbal head shake which I translate to, “Are you kidding, even in my most neophyte writing days, this is nothing that I could ever do because I would never, ever write anything as pretentious as this.”

But more telling was the follow-up one of my Nolan-immune buddies posed:

“Suppose we each submitted this to our agents or managers?” Before I could even answer he jumped in. “I can tell you what would happen, they’d NEVER send it out. They’d throw it right back at you. But Nolan has earned the right to do whatever he wants.”

Yes, this is true. And well deserved because this is how the system we’ve all signed up for works. Yet as the Spiderman comics themselves at one time wrote, and the Spiderman movies decades later once offered:

With great power comes great responsibility.

(Note: Most sources credit Voltaire for first coining this phrase. Still, Stan Lee adapted it to modern times and who am I to argue with the one guy who has probably out-Nolan-ed Nolan?).

Ya damn right!

Ya damn right!

Another perspective on this is what that same writer friend, who also happens to be a parent, quickly added:

Sometimes it helps when there are people to tell you NO.

This speaks to the imagined nirvana for most of us doing creative work – a world where we can do whatever we want, a place where there are little if any “no”s, and a situation where we are both paid and given almost unlimited money in order to make our visions come true.

Hmm, be careful what you wish for or at least consider if you are always the best judge of what you are wanting.  Because above all else there is always one ultimate power – your audience.   No one can ever take away your artistic power to do anything what you want but a lack of audience disposes of the money and creative freedom in Hollywood as quickly as others think it seemingly came. This can be problematic once you get to a certain place if you’ve gotten used to the perks or enjoy making a sizeable living. Sure, it’s a high-class problem but then again – everything is relative. There are those back in your hometown who fantasize daily about living yours or my dingy little non-Nolan-like life – especially if it has anything to do with show business.

One of the oddities for me of Interstellar was how much its first act reminded me of… Michael Bay’s recent Transformers 4: Age of Extinction.

GASP!

GASP!

The same life-has-passed-him-by scientifically handy good ole boy Dad, the similar spunky daughter who has always been Dad’s favorite and is probably a tad too much like him, and the identical heartland Americana setting where the American flag is sacred but its citizens have somehow been betrayed by a government that has either disappointed them, betrayed them, or out and out lied to them. There are secrets, there are shadow corporate interests and there is the advancement of technology that might or might not destroy, betray or save the world.

Well, one supposes the way you make a tentpole film is to somehow tap into the mythic family and the Heartland (whether it be faux Nebraska or Texas), right? Hmmm, not necessarily. No one makes a blockbuster tentpole like James Cameron but not even Avatar or Titanic chose to delve in so obvious a territory. Not that those two films both didn’t have faults and employ archetypes but somehow it felt as if, well – they had a bit more coherence, emotion and well, dare I say it…honest humanity?

... and I just remembered they were blue

… and I just remembered they were blue

Part of Christopher Nolan’s appeal and originality is that his films are a bit colder and more brittle and that is certainly an admirable stance to take rather than to drown viewers in bathos. It’s what makes his take on the Batman films so compelling and how movies like The Prestige and even Inception – both of which have emotional characters making odd and sometimes even distancing choices – work as well as they do. It’s also part of what put him on the map to begin with in Memento – a movie that perfectly employed his high intellectuality with the very flawed and/or too perfect husbands or former lovers he likes to put at the center of his movies.

This, among many reasons, is why Interstellar is a head scratcher. It’s good that it’s not Transformers or Gravity or 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film Nolan himself admits was an inspiration here) but – exactly WHAT IS IT???

The only thing I can come up with is an overly long studio film with technical Irving the Explainer speeches that feel as if they were written by the guys or gals who want to get paid to author books like Stephen Hawking for Dummies but are not quite yet masters of the craft. But Christopher Nolan is at his best a master of film. That’s why Interstellar is so confounding for so many of us, and why we can’t drink the Kool-Aid. To do so would be like saying we enjoyed a Big Gulp that has sat out in the sun for too long and lost its fizz.

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Storykillers

Norman's next victim

Most of us like a really good story in real life and in the movies.  So why is it so tough these days to find a really good story in the movies while we are surrounded by too many good stories in real life?

Before we go any further let’s be clear – by good we’re not necessarily talking about cheery, happy or life affirming.  A GOOD story is a story that grabs you and doesn’t let go; that affects you emotionally and perhaps makes you cry; that makes you bust a gut laughing (no small feat) or perhaps merely amuses you in ways that make you pleased.  For example, The Arab Spring contained many, many good emotional and affecting stories while the output of a filmmaker like Michael Bay (because he’s so easy to pick on and rich and famous) doesn’t.  A screening of Adam Sandler’s performance in “Jack and Jill” has negative 24 belly laughs and doesn’t help tell a good story while watching Jon Stewart (yes, I know he isn’t a film or filmmaker but tough) skewer Sarah Palin’s recent performance on “Today” has more than a few chuckles and tells a very good but certainly not life-affirming story.

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I suppose any or all of the stories or sub-stories contained in these films or a Jon Stewart monologue could ultimately be life affirming, cheery or happy.  But if there are only one of those and no more it is more than likely that by our (my?) definition, it is not a good story.

Confused?  Me too.  And so are today’s story makers.  There is a lot of disagreement in the ranks about what constitutes good storytelling in 2012, especially in film.  For example, I have actually heard more than a few filmmakers say recently that story is just one of many tools to be used in narrative film (their words, not mine) and that many good movies these days don’t really need much plot or story to work at all.  Really?  Go back in time and tell that to Charlie Chaplin, Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder or Francois Truffaut, just to name a few.  Or perhaps stay on this plane of humanity and ring up Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson and Chris Nolan, and have a talk with them about it.  Better yet (and because I doubt any of them has a hell mouth into the past or any of their phone numbers) – perhaps it would be worth it to sit down and watch some of their work and tell us – is there not a good story at work there?  I mean, even “Tree of Life” has a story (Yeah, it does) whether you liked it or not.  (And no, I am not going to endorse it, explain it or intensely dislike it so you can easily categorize me as the old-fashioned artistic philistine that I know you may be dying to do).

The fact is too many would be hipsters, especially in movies (and in life) today are overly interested in breaking the rules or taking advantage of the changing faces of technology in the digital age and not interested enough in truly understanding the very, very simple tenets of drama.  In figuring out what, if anything, they actually have to say that’s worth watching, or even listening to and executing it in a way that tells a really good story.

Almost dry.... sigh.

As a writing teacher, if I have to try to interpret one more fractured narrative from students who don’t want to think a story through ,I’m going to scream.  On the other hand – I greatly admire those who actually take the time to develop a story and a reason for telling a story out of order and will run right towards that project quicker than I run away from phony morning show hosts from small Alaskan towns who work in NY one year and brand it as the home of “lamestream” media the next.  But I digress.

And that IS the point.  Digression, that is.   Let’s get it out there –

There is nothing wrong with beginnings, middle and endings.  That means out of order, in order or somewhere in between.  There is also nothing to be ashamed of if you are a writer who likes a story where there is a main character, conflict and an ending of some kind, or maybe a group of main characters who each make their way through 3 or 4 or 5 smaller somethings.  Only – please —  take me somewhere.  Although not to Sofia Coppola’s last movie “Somewhere” because that truly was a movie to nowhere and exactly the kind of film I’m talking about. (Yes, I liked “Lost In Translation” and “Virgin Suicides”).  Sofia (and you)-  don’t hold my hand through a film – I’m over 13 (at least chronologically).  But when you bring me into a candy store and ply me with samples don’t tell me when I want to buy a few boxes of something that you’re out of chocolates.  I get really, really upset and likely will search the web for the latest episode of my guilty pleasure TV, play a round of my favorite video game (well, not me – but someone else will) or even consider reading a book or tablet or….wait for it…simply start talking to a person live in real time rather than giving anything else you have to say in the future another chance.

A still from "Somewhere." Or a picture of me watching it.

The obviousness of “300” or “The Hunger Games” is one thing.  But watching a plethora of the out of order scenes that were “J Edgar” last year made me wonder how the story of one of the most compelling and aberrant figures of 20th century America could be rendered so deadly dull and muddled.  There are many good stories to be told about his life but in trying to “hip up” the overall storytelling the filmmakers forgot one thing – the overall story.

At this point most of us don’t expect technologically driven films to get too deep and complicated.  But isn’t that too easy?  Why can’t “Avatar” have real three-dimensional characters with subtext in addition to images highlighted with endless backgrounds and foregrounds?  I don’t need Errol Flynn, Bruce Willis or even Sigourney Weaver to kill aliens.  But don’t make me watch a lazy film story like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and – when audience and critics bring up confusing plot holes or its lack of commitment to an ending or point of view – cop out by claiming that it’s all about what’s “not there” and that the story is open to interpretation.  Obviously, all good stories are open to interpretation – as is everything else in life.  That’s what we human beings (and chairs) do all day – interpret actions, reactions and as ourselves act accordingly.

Something's wrong with these glasses... I don't see anything.

If this feels like a diatribe, well – I suppose it is.  But as the modes of delivery of stories change so do the structure of the way most stories are told.  As they have through time.  Except, except — narrative stories are still about character and action and conflict.  There is nothing wrong with a story whose ending is open to interpretation (watch “Blow Up”) but there is something afoot when the entire story feels just as confusing as the ending and you finish it up not really knowing or caring about most anyone or anything you’ve just seen.   Yes, I’m talking to you “Hunger Games” and also to __________________  (fill in the blank with the disappointing films of your choice in the last few years).

A bit too in-sync.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m an indie film kind of chair.  When “Back to the Future” came out (and please don’t hate me for this) I was a young writer and unabashedly kept telling people that it just felt like “a bunch of scenes on index cards that were perfectly shuffled together.” (Needless to say, that didn’t win me many Hollywood friends in the eighties).  For me, it was “too perfect.”  But I do also want to occasionally be thrown a bone.  Film stories as diverse of Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards,” Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” have really, really strong characters and stories and gut busting humor (well, to me anyway), as well as unforgettable images.

Certainly, it’s unrealistic to expect every film to hit those storytelling heights.  But it would be nice to think that the storytellers are at least trying to do so.  And that audiences are vocal enough, with both their words and dollars, to demand it.