Sorkin Says

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There was a time not so long ago when I thought being a teacher in the creative arts signified some sort of failing.

After all, as Woody Allen’s doppelgänger, Alvy Singer, once famously quipped in Annie Hall:

Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.

Many views, Woody, as it turns out, are not as clever as we once thought they were.

As it also turns out, the not so long ago I refer to in my own thought processes was the eighties. Which, given what’s going on in politics at the moment, feels like it was yesterday. To refresh all of our memories – it was a time when the homeless (nee poor) were vilified and money was viewed as the god and goddess of all things as exemplified by one of the most popular movie anti-heroes of the time, Wall Street’s financial baron, Gordon Gekko. In case you don’t remember, he once famously quipped Greed is good. Which pretty much sums up the callousness of thought through most of the decade for those who weren’t there. Or, as I prefer to think of it: the anti-Reagan reality.

At least the cell phones got better

At least the cell phones got better

In any case, this was all brought to mind by none other than Aaron Sorkin when he spoke this week at a panel of this year’s Writers Guild of America award-nominated screenwriters.

At one point towards the end of the evening the entire group of eleven nominees were asked by a young screenwriter, who was now attending UCLA on a military scholarship, how he could possibly proceed with the third act of an in-progress screenplay he clearly hoped to one day sell, that he felt required him to move his story into trans-racial characterizations he feared the world was not ready for.

He's listening

He’s listening

Clearly sensing the real pain and terror in this young man’s voice, it was the famous and most acclaimed of all the writers on the panel who eagerly jumped into the deafening silence and told him:

Don’t ever NOT write something because you think we’re not ready.

Hmmm. It seems that at least one who can do clearly CAN teach. Imagine that.

And Sorkin knows something about writing a character we’re not ready for #unicorns

Well, of course I’m leading with the best example of the evening. The world of mentorship is not a yellow brick road of rosy results and Emerald City glitz and glamour. Amid all the intellectual thought, encouragement and new potential roads of inspiration, there are too many others who are either ill equipped or whose methods are steeped in the art of the teardown and pretentious self-involvement. Every one of us has met at least one of them. The tough love gurus who secretly revel in telling you outwardly or implying to you all too unsubtly that your work sucks. This is usually done through a loop of lecturing where they relate a rating system of all the famous and/or commercially successful people in the field who are really lesser-than hacks you should be not only be absolutely unimpressed by but revile. That is if want your new god-like mentor to secretly continue to bestow upon you their pearls of wisdom.

ahem

ahem

This type of story was bestowed on said WGA audience by none other than panelist and current Oscar/WGA nominated screenwriter of Carol, Phyllis Nagy. It seems as a younger person, Ms. Nagy became a protégé of Patricia Highsmith, on whose seminal novel, The Price of Salt, Ms. Nagy’s screenplay was based. Ms. Nagy, then a copy editor at the NY Times, recalled a 30-minute limousine ride she took with the quite prickly Ms. Highsmith at their first ever meeting in the 1970s during which the novelist spoke only once every ten minutes to ask her a mere three questions. 

The first question was: What do you think of Eugene O’Neill?

Ms. Nagy’s reply: Not much.

To which Ms. Highsmith gave a very encouraging nod of approval.

well aren't you fancy

well aren’t you fancy

Okay, stop right there I thought from the audience. Eugene O’Neill. Really? The guy who wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh and well, you get the picture. I don’t care how damn talented or famous she was – really? What does that get you? Or anyone?

Yet it seemed this was exactly the right answer because here we are all these decades later where this once young writer has gotten all of this 2015-16 attention for adapting the older writer’s 1950s story she eventually received the rights to. Or perhaps it was Ms. Nagy’s answer to Ms. Highsmith’s second question:

What do you think of Tennessee Williams?

Because this time Ms. Nagy managed to give the seal of approval to Mr. Williams – an acknowledgement she claims Ms. Highsmith quite heartily endorsed at the time.

Phew.

Tell me again how great I am.

Tell me again how great I am.

I don’t know Ms. Nagy but one hopes this is not the kind of attitude that gets passed on from one generation to the next. Yet I know it frequently does – not necessarily in Ms. Nagy’s case (Note: As I said, I don’t know her) but to other non-famous or more famous instructors and artists of all kinds my students have told me about and I myself have encountered or read about through the years.

Well, like any experience in life, you take the good with the morally questionable and try to balance it all out with your own actions. This is not unlike writing your own stories or living out the actions of your own life. Call me corny or crazy, and I’ve certainly been justifiably referred to as both, but I much prefer the conversation and mentorship I had in the eighties with Bo Goldman – who I don’t consider so much a mentor but an off-the-cuff Sorkin-like teacher I was fortunate enough to encounter during the course of a day.

Mr. Nice Guy

Mr. Nice Guy

As a young writer I met Mr. Goldman, the two-time Oscar winning screenwriter of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard who had yet to write big studio movies like The Perfect Storm and Scent of A Woman. His agent was a new friend of mine and generously told him I was a talented young writer (Note: Who had only written one semi well-received screenplay at the time) working on a new script. I will never forget Mr. Goldman probably seeing the forlorn terror in my eyes after he asked me about what I was working on and listening patiently as I tried to explain it. But more importantly, I will also always remember him smiling generously at me and saying: Don’t force it, don’t beat yourself up, it’ll come.

He then went on to share several stories of difficulties from his own life, always putting himself and me on equal status as writers.

The reason I can’t remember the stories is not that they weren’t memorable but that Mr. Goldman’s largesse to even include me in the same sentence with him when it came to the craft that he was so lauded for at the time was both shocking and humbling. But he didn’t see the world, as some in the commercial arts do, as a competitive playing field where one is trying to best the next person nipping at your heels behind you; or attempting to put down another more renowned and lauded than you.

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Instead it was important for him to hear my story and reach out a hand of reassurance, as no doubt someone had done for him – or not done for him – confident that in doing so he was risking nothing of his own status and perhaps enhancing it. After all, what artist doesn’t want to spend a moment or two sharing the pain and/or difficulty of the journey, hoping in some way it dissipates its affect on the psyche. Of course, on the other hand, he could have just been being nice. I suspect it was both.

This is what teaching is about and what true mentorship is. It’s also what being a human being is about. And it feels equally good to both receive and give it – no matter what anyone writes or says about it.

Needless to say, Mr. Goldman was a welcome exception to the eighties. But it’s often the exceptional we remember – no matter where we are or regardless of the times.

Watching the Gross

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I thought I’d grown used to the movies I like grossing very little money but it’s sobering. Still, this shouldn’t be surprising. I can now get into films as a senior citizen in some places. I know, I’m shocked too.   When I went to see the Steve “Jobs” movie a few weeks ago I almost passed out. But still paid full price.

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Clearly, I’ve permanently strayed from the “youth” demographic Hollywood covets no matter how many times my peers say 50 is the new 40, 60 is the new 50, 80 is the new 20 and death is something that happens to OTHER people. That’s scary enough. But to realize that not one of my favorite films is among the 50 top grossing movies of the year – well, that’s positively un-American. It’s like my entire country has turned on me when I wasn’t looking. And in more ways than one. On the other hand, it’s not the first time. I lived through the eighties, Ronald Reagan and Forrest Gump winning the Oscar yet I am still here whining about it all as our first African American-president completes his second term of office and Birdman was last year’s best picture winner. Inevitably, these types of things, as well as life, do run in cycles.

And yet…

Hard as it is to recognize I have come to understand that like many Americans the movies are my touchstone. Each year at least a handful reflect what myself and our culture were thinking or feeling en masse and, when they worked really well, even showed us alternative ways to cope. Did Michael Keaton really go out the window at the end of Birdman? Who cares – it raised the question of just what are the alternatives we all face when trying to survive as an artist of any kind. And if one believes, as I do, that anything you attempt to do well in life does indeed have some sort of artistic element to it, it is essential we continue to consider these questions. And spend less time pondering how high of a gilded wall we can build around ourselves to keep out those who are different. Ironic, isn’t it? That a country built on a melting pot of difference should be faced with the 2015 Shakespearean question of how we engineer and preserve our current gene pool to exclude as many others as possible.

There’s a reason why, at its essence, drama hasn’t really changed very much since the Elizabethan period or even as far back as the ancient Greeks.

Still works!

Still works!

Which in a roundabout way brings me back to The MOVIES, 2015.

If you’re a member of a Hollywood guild each year you’re fortunate enough to receive DVDs of many of this year’s movies so you don’t have to move your privileged ass off the couch and make the effort to go to the movie theatre if you so prefer not to. (Note: Well, you wouldn’t either if you didn’t have to and had a decent TV setup at home – give me a break)

So being the lazybones (nee whore) that I am I decided that after gorging myself on turkey I’d continue gorging myself on some of the movies I got in the mail and have not yet seen. I also decided to go out to the movie theatres and pay for a few others as well as attend several industry screenings (Note: Yes, for free – I’m not only getting lazy in my old age but also cheap). And what continued to amaze me is that without exception the films that I really enjoyed continue to make very, very little money at the box office. How long before these types of films are not made at all? I fear, not very long.

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I'll ask Matt Damon)

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I’ll ask Matt Damon)

Now before you go saying I’m part of the problem because I’m not going out to see my films enough – you’re only partly right. Like all of you, I should venture out and support my local theatres more than I do. But also know that part of the marketing budgets of all production companies include sending out free DVDs to guild members not to be kind but to get us to VOTE for said film in an enormous array of awards competitions that the industry will use to promote the winners and get you/us – the audience – into the theatres to see or into the stores to buy or into our heads to stream. For better or worse that’s the way the system works. Bottom line dollars.

I suppose this explains why as a Writers Guild member two of the early DVDs I received were for Furious 7 ($353 million domestic box-office gross) and Jurassic World ($652 million). Did anyone really think these would win any writing awards? (Note: That question was rhetorical). No, it was about spreading the word. Well, fyi, I’ve previously seen both a Furious AND a Jurassic movie before and was entertained. I tried briefly with both of these. Oh God. I might be old but I’m not brain dead. Yet. Which is why I turned them off.

As for some of the others – well, here I am to do the job that I was sent to do by the studio overlords – spreading the word. (Note: As if I wouldn’t give my opinion anyway).

TRUMBO

He is Spartacus?

He is Spartacus?

This is the story of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and how his intellectual liberal leanings sent him to jail for a year in the 1950s merely for being subversively un-American as a member of the Communist party. (Note: Think of him as a Muslim under a future Trump administration).

More interesting is the tale it tells of how Trumbo, once out of a jail, worked secretly writing tacky low-budget movies under assumed names and got his other unemployable writer friends jobs doing the same via a hidden writer’s clearing house he ran out of his house. With the help of his wife and children. Who answered five different telephone lines and served as their script couriers.

As played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, this Trumbo is a witty, erudite crusader, family man who takes advantage of the people around him while at the same time loving them and his country in the most unorthodox of ways. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance that will surely get him an Oscar nomination. The movie takes a long time to get going and in the first half especially feels a bit like a choppy, TV movie biopic from the 1970s. But ultimately it’s smart, breezy, clever and not without some meaning. And slickly made by director Jay Roach.

AND — It’s made less than a $1 million after three weeks of limited release.

Verdict: Watch it.

TRUTH

Would you... Rather?

Would you… Rather?

I was where most of you probably are on this. Robert Redford playing Dan Rather in a movie that shows us how Rather got pushed out of the anchor chair at CBS because of a 60 Minutes story he did on George W. Bush’s questionable military record of service? A story where sources recanted their original claims but nevertheless a story that was never proven factually inaccurate?

#1 – I don’t want to hear any more about Dubya. #2 – Redford is about as similar to Dan Rather as I am. #3 – It’s my private time, I want to be entertained by a film not forced to think about unpleasant stuff I was forced to live through all too recently.

Well, the film is not really about Dubya at all but about how the news you see on TV is put together and just how influential political dynasties can be “behind the scenes.” More importantly, Redford might not look anything like Rather but he’s got his speaking cadence down pat and is ultimately absolutely believable as the veteran Texas newsman – in fact it’s the best he’s been in a movie in many years. Who knew? Not any of us because no one is going to see it. Since it’s release in October it’s grossed about $2.5 million.

Oh, and then there’s Cate Blanchett starring as Rather’s real-life producer Mary Mapes, a tough-talking Texan she gets exactly right because she doesn’t slather on the accent but instead accentuates her intelligence. The whole film is smart. And –

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING.

SICARIO

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

My students will hate me for this because they seem to love this movie. Why? I have zero idea. Emily Blunt is as good as she can be as an FBI agent drawn into the web of breaking up a Mexican drug cartel by her CIA overlords as well as by others. But…it’s a labyrinth of action with character development and logic so spare as to be almost non-existent. And after a while it simply becomes preposterous. And a bore.

I’ve experienced first-hand as a writer notes on the strategy of throwing audiences right into the world of a movie without much of a convincing setup and allowing the viewer to play catch up. This sometimes works – as it did in the first season of True Detective. And it often times fails, as it does here. But then again, it depends what you mean by failure. Sicario has grossed $49 million in the U.S. alone and another $34 million overseas so far. That makes it a bit more than a modest success in the world of the balance sheet of a film with no above the title movie star or director. It’s also a world where logic and dialogue don’t matter as much the various kinds of actions that are ultimately delivered.

Verdict: SKIP IT. Though you could do worse (Note: See Furious AND Jurassic).

CAROL

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner... what can ya say?

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner… what can ya say?

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two seemingly mismatched women falling in love in the repressive 1950s under the direction of Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, HBO’s Mildred Pierce). This movie was MADE for me!! You’d think.

It’s beautiful to look at. Cate Blanchett’s mink coat and shimmering blonde hair and red lipstick are breathtaking. As is every single room, piece of jewelry and choice of scenery and period motor vehicle and hotel room and tacky apartment and cheap motel room. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s a movie in love with artifice – and itself. The drama is real and sometimes palpable but as someone is said to have once said, “it’s like watching paint dry.” The same emotional beats are played over and over. Time and again.   It’s based on the seminal lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which she published under a pseudonym in 1952.   But never for one moment do you feel as if you’re watching anything other than a book unspooling in movie time without any of the nuanced language that made it so special.

The two actresses are wonderful. Everything is pretty. And it does show us how much a great deal of the world has changed. But…well….

Verdict: PASS – which is not to say there is not a great deal of skill and intelligence here. Would I watch it before Jurassic and Furious again? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I should just force myself to get all the way through the latter two for the first time. Though Carol needs the money more. It’s grossed about $500,000 in 10 days of limited release. And I doubt there’s a ton more to come. DVD/streaming sales? Maybe. But…OK, I’ll stop now.

BRIDGE OF SPIES

A Spielberg movie written by.... The Coen Brothers?

A Spielberg movie written by…. The Coen Brothers? 

I popped the DVD to this in and had low expectations. I mean, it’s the tale of the reluctant negotiator spy type American hero of the 1950s as played by Tom Hanks and directed by Steve Spielberg that somehow you believe deep down in your soul you’ve seen before…. but directed by Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman or by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Except it’s not any of those. Or really that much like them.

Tom Hanks is very good, very believable and very likeable – in an authentic, throwback Americana way. It’s a tough act to pull off an insurance lawyer turned hostage negotiator in period clothes but somehow you buy it all. At this point it’d be shocking if Mr. Spielberg did not direct an infinitely watchable movie. And this one is pretty darn watchable – thanks also in great part to Mark Rylance’s brilliantly understated performance in a role you need to see rather than read about from me. He anchors the film. And if you think that’s easy when you’re not a movie star, you’re wrong.

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING. It won’t change your life but it’s engaging. Though at a $67 million box-office gross it’s the equivalent of Trumbo or Truth in dollars for a Spielberg pic. That may not be fair but it’s the way the industry thinks. And for our future films bodes a bit ominous.

Feel free to agree – or disagree. But just know the top five grossing films of 2015 are Jurassic World ($652 million); Avengers: Age of Ultron ($459 million); Inside Out ($356 million); Furious 7 ($353 million) and Minions ($336 million). And that’s just in the U.S. alone. Films that are more adult – nee a bit more complicated or intellectually challenging – are in trouble. And need our support. At theatres, on DVD, or yes, even for free. It’s who we are. Or were. Our choice.

Oh you'll be adding me to that list pretty soon....

Oh you’ll be adding me to that list pretty soon….

P.S. Note #1: I did very much enjoy Inside Out but it’s an animated film and they’re in a category of their own. This is not a snob thing but everyone likes at least one animated movie a year except a dear friend of mine who I still can’t convince to embrace Aladdin – the gayest animated movie that’s ever been made. I’ll work on him, though.

P.S. Note #2 – Just got home from a screening of The Danish Girl. Eddie Redmayne and his co-star, the Swedish film actress Alicia Vikander, will both receive Oscar nominations. As will others behind the scenes. It’s mainstream yet unusual. Thought-provoking though not too complicated. And timely in that it follows one of the first medical cases of gender reassignment. Verdict: See it. People actually speak in full sentences, and often more than one sentence at a time. Plus, nothing blows up.

At least that’s something.