Light vs. Dark

When Joe Biden officially accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president this week in a forceful and, frankly, awe inspiring speech, he opened his remarks with a quote from the late African American civil rights activist Ella Baker:

Give people light… and they will find the way.

I’m not much of a light vs. darkness guy because I tend to see the world in infinite shades of over analytical grays.  This accounts for my lifelong disinterest in comic books and all things superhero and sword and sorcer-ish from the time I was a pre-pubescent up through the present day.

Sometimes I wonder if I ever would have made it out of young adolescence with all my limbs intact if I had grown up in the age of Harry Potter.  (Note: I’m the kid in the corner with his arms folded wondering why we can’t instead talk about Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie).

Also me in the corner

Though I imagine I might have figured out a way to find value in Harry’s lessons.  I’ve pretty much had to do this as a writing mentor for any number of students inspired not only by the worlds of Potter, but by the actions in Marvel, DC, Spielberg and Lucas.

I try to temper my enthusiasm

Of course, the lesson in this is to not be so quick to dismiss out of hand something that is not your thing.  If you do it that fast it is likely the universe will actually put you in a place where you will absolutely be forced to keep dealing with Dumbledore or the inevitable Avengers 5, 6, or 7 until you can stop dismissing it from way up on the very high perch from which you sit and choose to judge.

Such was my experience listening to Mr. Biden – oh heck, let’s just call him Joe cause that’s what he likes anyway and that’s what fits these days when you’re speaking with or writing about him.

And Joe it is

As Joe talked of being the harbinger of light in these dark Trumpian times I had a knee jerk, split second intellectual reaction of imperious resistance.

He can’t possibly be putting it this simply in these horribly awful and complicated times, could he?  I mean, this isn’t Star Wars or a Marvel movie or even one of my students’ basic notions for an as-of-yet unwritten studio blockbuster.  This is real life.  And real life these days is….

EXACTLY about darkness and light.

Much to my surprise.

It helps that it’s color coded

This is because in that instant I finally got why many young people of all ages crave superheroes and sorcery.  When things go so bad all around you it helps to have a powerful figure of stature on a stage that big drawing the curtain back, looking you in the eye and assuring you that the power of the light inside you is enough to fight the darkness attacking you IF you deign to believe in it.

In fact, in this case it is especially powerful because, unlike most superheroes, you don’t have to fight the fight alone.  You have a whole force of ordinary people very much like you and if you simply pool your forces together you can together shine bright enough to…

*cough* *cough*

Well, I was gonna say light up the lights of Broadway, which explains so much of why I never gravitated towards superheroes to begin with.  But instead, let’s go with vanquish the darkest of enemies, and call it a day.

Because by now you know what both I (and Joe) mean by the metaphor.

There are some moments in time where simplicity rules no matter how complicated you think it all is and I want to get.

Well, this too

We’re living through incredible darkness at the moment, as Joe’s 25-minute speech pointed out.

  • There are 176,000+ Americans dead from COVID-19
  • There are 5.68 million Americans infected with the virus
  • The U.S. leads the world in confirmed cases and deaths
  • More than 50 million Americans have filed for unemployment this year
  • More than 10 million Americans will lose their health insurance this year

And yet this just in from the President’s counselor and all-around right hand gal Kellyanne Conway when asked about plans for this week’s Republican convention:

You are going to see and hear from many Americans whose lives have been monumentally impacted by this administration’s policies.  We definitely want to improve on the dour and sour mood of the D.N.C.

Ah yes, behold all the doom and gloom.

But, um, how will that strategy improve on the dour and sour mood of the D.N.C.?  I mean, if we actually have real Americans speak? 

Well, there might be a casting call going on right now since its just been announced that two producers from Trump’s The Apprentice have been signed to help guide the festivities and wrangle talent.But here’s what we do know at the moment.  The Missouri couple that a few months ago toted assault weapons at Black Lives Matter demonstrators, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, are scheduled to appear.  As is Nicholas Sandmann, that smirky Kentucky teenager who got up in the face of Native American elder Nathan Phillips at the Lincoln Memorial last year and tried to stare him down with a Cheshire cat smile that only the Church Lady could love.

Talk about darkness vs. the light.  Or shall we say, the Light vs. the Dark.

Ugh, fine, I get it.

Well luckily, I don’t have to because Joe did it for us in his way.  All  we have to do now is follow his lead and make the right – I mean left – choice.

Though admittedly I have a ways go with that.  On Monday, the night before the convention began and three days before Joe spoke, an elderly masked woman and I were riding up the elevator alone to the same floor in a medical building on our way to different doctor appointments (Note:  Don’t worry, I was only getting an allergy shot).

In any event, during the ride she suddenly turned to me and  said:

Excuse me sir, I’ve taken it upon myself to be the town crier, in this upcoming election you must vote for Trump.

To say the least…

To which I proceeded to say things to her I have never heard myself  say out loud to anyone and couldn’t print or put on TV.  This was after excoriating her on her feelings about Black and Brown people and telling her to turn off Fox News and educate herself.

Though before she accused Joe of being senile and having Alzheimer’s.  To which I shouted back at her down the hall (Note: We were no longer in the elevator):

Well, you should know about that!  And good luck with your message in Los Angeles….HONEY!!!

Yep

This is all another way of saying the light has probably come for me and us just in the knick of time.

Sutton Foster – “Gimme Gimme” (from Thoroughly Modern Millie)

Screenplay by… Adam Schiff

Everyone likes a good story.

But what is a good story and how do you construct it?  Then, how do you tell it?

I brought my students to a panel this week at the Writers Guild Theatre that featured the 2020 WGA nominees for best screenplay.  Overall, they had a great time listening to writer-directors Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Rian Johnson (Knives Out) and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), as well as the screenwriters responsible for Joker, The Irishman, Booksmart and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, among others, talk about how they do what they do.

Allow me to sweep up all those names you just dropped

Even if they aren’t always the best at speaking in person about it, these women and men know a ton about story construction and how to seduce an audience through visual, verbal and other means.  They are tasked daily with figuring out what makes people tick and give them a computer screen, a piece of paper and/or a camera, you would undoubtedly be dazzled by what they come up with.

In the last 12 months, many of you already were.

But as they spoke, I couldn’t help but think of another former screenwriter, my congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA).  On that very night he had just spent hours on the Senate floor, as the lead House manager for the Impeachment of Donald J. Trump, trying to convince a recruited audience to vote for the removal of a president many voted for and still continue to support.

For those disgusted with politics, think of it like the nasty studio head purposely test marketing your new movie (Note: The one he hates) before a hostile audience he gleefully assembled in order to determine whether it will be released or not.

Or just think of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell…doing anything at all.

The purest definition of #ShtEatingGrin

The screenwriting skills of Rep. Schiff, who back in the nineties actually moonlighted as a screenwriter (Note: He received an offer from film producer Nick Weschler (The Player) to option his crime thriller The Minotaur while working as an assistant U.S. attorney) were on great display all week.

Though he had a lot of help from six other extremely articulate fellow male and female managers in proving his case, he was the one principally tasked with how to structure and execute the narrative they were about to perform.

Is it any wonder then that he chose to start with a quote from Alexander Hamilton and end with another from Atticus Finch?

My 15 minutes will never be up!

Too much a reach?  Consider that Rep. Schiff was primarily trying to put pressure on a handful of senators to allow key witnesses Trump had previously refused to allow testify before Congress to at least finally be heard.

To do this he had to not only construct a legal narrative but present his case in a way that the public could understand so they might also apply some outside pressure on their representatives to hear those stories and vote in favor of impeachment.

So what better way to prove his case to them than to quote Hamilton, the only Founding Father to have a musical named after him that is currently an international phenomenon, one that has grossed more than half a BILLION dollars on Broadway alone, has more than 20 touring companies worldwide, a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a record-setting 11 Tony awards.

… and here’s a #ShtEatingGrin that is deserved!!

I mean, when Congressman Schiff starts out by likening Trump to the type of charlatan none other than HAMILTON warned us about, a man unprincipled in private life… bold in his temper… known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty… to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day it carries some weight, right?  Not to mention it doesn’t hurt when Hamilton also characterizes that man as someone who, much like Trump, could only be trusted to pursue his own interests.

Which is to say nothing about Atticus Finch, hero of THE great American classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.  That’s the same one that none other than Aaron Sorkin recently adapted into a hit Broadway play that is just about to start its own two-year international tour.

BONUS: Ed Harris with Hair!

Every writer knows the moral weight Atticus Finch’s words carry when we seek to convince an American audience (or any American) to use the common sense their parents taught them when they were kids about the differences between right vs. wrong.  But it takes a screenwriter’s knowledge of both drama and the audience they’re tasked with seducing to know where to place it.

Gotta say as a screenwriter and teacher of writing myself, I was incredibly pleased my very own congressman was smart enough to give the Atticus quote his key ACT THREE moment in the Trump case.  Especially when Schiff himself confessed on the Senate floor that as a young lad he first heard those words from his own father (Note: Just as Mockingbird’s own writer Harper Lee had heard them her own Dad, fictionalized as Atticus).  To drive the point home further, Rep Schiff revealed that he even attributed Atticus’ words to his own father before learning years later they were actually being passed on to him by his very moral Dad only because he had taken the time to actually READ the classic story and PARENT with it. (Note: Nice touch when speaking about the well known to be NON-READING Trump).

This will be the worst school trip ever

But that wasn’t all.

As one watched Rep. Schiff and his colleagues unspool the case against our ELECTORAL COLLEGE POTUS (Note:  Full Confession; I was riveted to my DVR), it was hard not to once again recall the WGA event.  Particularly that moment when Greta Gerwig told the audience that it was only because she found out LW’s writer Louisa May Alcott managed to hold on to the copyright of her novel at a time when women were mostly powerless, that SHE was able to come up with the boldest female empowerment moments for Jo, Alcott’s heroine, in this new movie version.

Greta deserved Betta #saoirseknows

This idea of digging deep into the facts and constructing your narrative around real actions your main character takes (or took) rather than claims he/she makes was also on display with each Trump video clip Schiff and his posse unspooled on the Senate floor as they were crosscut with evidence of the true real-life contrary actions taken by Trump and documented by staff, cabinet members and in some of his own candid audio tapes in the House managers’ presentation.

It also brought to mind Rian Johnson’s confession about tricks he uses as a screenwriter as he plans his stories for ultimate dramatic effect.   He freely confessed that 80% of his writing process is outlining and structuring his story just as The Irishman’s screenwriter Steve Zailian’s admitted that in order to figure out how to execute every film story on which he’s hired (Note: See his IMDB page and be impressed) he needs a plan and OUTLINING is a good way to come in with a PLAN.

First note in outline: This line must appear every 10 minutes

No wonder after the über-outlined case against Trump unfolded on that very first day even arch adversaries like Sen. Lindsey Graham took Schiff aside and privately shook his hand at the intricately planned and structured way in which he laid out the story he was telling, convincingly taking the senators, step by step, through the Trump narrative HE had decided to tell in order to prove his case.

Of course as everyone in Hollywood knows, particularly screenwriters, you can do everything right and still not get the results you want.

Think of that film recut at the last minute (Note: Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons).  Or consider that terrific cult movie not released properly that first time around (Note: Harold and Maude or The Rocky Horror Picture Show) that had to be rediscovered months or even years later because their messages were sabotaged by the arbitrary moment in which they were determined to first arrive.

Once upon a time this film was a box office bomb

I can’t help but worry whether this will be the case for the storytellers in the Schiff posse, no matter how well constructed and executed their narrative might be.  Particularly when I read this sobering statistic in the Cook Political Report:

A majority of seats in the U.S. senate represent just 18% of the country. 

This means that ANY hope for a majority vote on any one issue in the Senate could conceivably be SUNK by a GROUP OF SENATORS accounting for UNDER ONE FIFTH of all voters in the country.

In other words, the will of more than EIGHTY PERCENT of the country that agree with my Congressman, and me, on the Trump of it all, could EASILY be ignored in the next week.  Or even two or three.

You got that right, Sutton.

This is not the Hollywood ending Schiff or anyone on the WGA panel that evening would write.    But, and not to be a downer, it is also important to remember that for all his wisdom at the end of To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus LOSES his case.

Will we settle for an ending to a similar story that took place almost a full century ago?

Or will we create our own narrative?

Hmmmmmm.

Original Hamilton Cast – “My Shot”