#TV Pilot #Screenwriting

So my TV pilot made it into Screencraft semi-finals. I submitted it last year, too, and only advanced to QFs. Rewrote it and scored a deeper run this time around. This script also got an 8 on Blacklist.

 

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Guest Post: Life for Yourself as a Way Towards Putinism.

(Below is a essay by Dmitry Ahtyrsky which originally was written in Russian. I helped translate it into English as I think its message is not only applicable to Russia, but to modern-day US, and it echoes a lot of what I was writing about recently but with more depth and insight.)

By Dmitry Ahtyrsky.

One of the central shortcomings of anti-Bolshevistic discourse of post-Soviet Russia during Perestroika was the gospel of the so-called ‘life for yourself.’ The old notion of serving the ideals has compromised itself, as those ideals turned out to be false, simulative, manipulative, and buffoonish. As a result, selfish cynicism has been declared to be an ideal condition. “Thoroughly chewing your food, you help the society.”[1] Abstract economic doctrines of such economists as (Milton) Friedman’s, which are regarded as either neo-liberal or neo-conservative and which state that your best contribution to society is to maximize your own profit, proved to be conveniently handy.

‘Life for yourself’ evangelists, however, have ignored the fact that the society in USSR has not been collectivist, but, on the contrary, it has been deeply atomized. A cog didn’t serve in the interest of parts of the mechanism that comprised the machine. It didn’t serve anyone at all; to be more precise, it served only in its appearance, without possessing an agency. A society is a society, as opposed to a mere collection of individuals, only when it includes free, voluntarily cooperating persons. Even if this collection of individuals as a whole serves a purpose, that purpose is not the well-being of the whole, but some external interests. Moreover, those interests are those of a deity or an evolutionary process, but, instead, of people, who, along with the power, have also appropriated the function of speaking on behalf of a deity, delivering the laws of God and/or Nature to the masses. Enthusiasm fueled by repression is false. Such conditions of reigning false enthusiasm nurture atomized, profit-seeking, self-interested egoists – and ‘social’ becomes a euphemism either for a direct coercion or corrupt interactions. In such a system the word ‘corruption’ means a ‘corruption’ of a coercive hierarchy rather than a disintegration of horizontal societal bonds – producing a maxim that ‘the only thing worse than a corrupt totalitarian regime is a NON-corrupt totalitarian regime.’ The absence of genuine horizontal collectives not overseen from above – the collectives of equal individuals – IS an absence of ‘society’. As a result, every separate person in such a simulative ‘society’ resides in his own solitary confinement cell and can interact only with prison guards.

When such an atomized individual finally leaves the heavily structured system of control and domination – the system that has stimulated atomization, as opposed to collectivism – he’s being invited to continue behaving in the same way he did under the false collectivism: “Live for yourself.” What does such an invitation mean and where does it lead us given the absence of civil society and its institutions? Did those advocates understand that the emergence and operation of civil society are simply impossible in a world where such an egotistic manifest reaches its goal and plants itself in the mass consciousness of all those separate atoms, unaccustomed to critical thinking?

Naturally, those ‘living for themselves’ never became citizens. As a result, the ‘civil rights’ that they have received turned out to be no more than a simulation, a weak forgery prompting giggles from slave holders and slave traders. The ‘freed’ contingent failed to form a society. Individuals haven’t learned how to be free, as this pseudo-freedom of an egoist offered neither equality nor brotherhood. In this egoistic pseudo-freedom there can be only masters and servants.

Instead of leading towards freedom, the hatred of all things ‘social’ led, instead, towards the ‘new old slavery’. Unable to self-organize, the sheep found themselves not on greener pastures, but inside another corral. Civil society emerges only through free, uncoerced striving towards a common good, which is understood on the basis of a peer-to-peer networking consensus.

This striving towards the common good assumes a decidedly critical analysis of power. Resistance against such power that seeks to suppress and control by decomposing the social whole into atoms represents striving for the common good and not, as a authorities would like us to believe, an ‘anti-social behavior’. Actual resistance is possible only in an atmosphere of mutual help and cooperation; only after this condition has been met can the emergent force – in the form of civic association – work with the ‘administration.

One can argue that even the most selfless and idealistic knights, when they acquire power, could become tyrants. This can happen when there’s a misperception that the structure of oppression can one day become ‘ours’, when people put their trust in it without any levers of control, hoping that, at last the ‘wrongs will be righted.’ They won’t be. Civil society is a constant civic activism, constant peer-to-peer cooperation counteracting the corrupt and parochial social tendencies. Any state lacking such social activism will, in a very short time, become a fascist, totalitarian state.

It is precisely this kind of process that we’re witnessing yet again. And Putin isn’t even an initiator of it. Putinism is, among other things, a result of cynical-egoistical constructs that show contempt towards anything ‘communal’, that scorn any altruism. Constructs that are more fitting for a mob boss in a strictly enforced criminal hierarchy than for a free citizen.

By the way, any talk of “homeland” or, in a broader sense, of common good, is frequently understood as being about the rulers – in the words of Saltykov-ShchedrinMany tend to confuse the two concepts: “Fatherland” and “Your Excellency, or, as an old Soviet adage goes, “In our country everything is for the good of a man, and I have even seen that man.”  The possible aversion (the consequence of the past simulations) towards the idea of common good can be compared to an attempt to cure a headache with a guillotine. Thus, Putinism, with its characteristic assessment of any social activity as ‘everything is paid for’ and ‘everything is PR’ is the logical extension of such egotistic denial of ‘communal.’ As it turns out, the exalted egoistic cynicism of ‘free individuals-wolves’ can effortlessly convert into ‘extreme declaration of forced jubilation’ at the appearance of the master.

Let’s not confuse ‘common good’ with ‘Your Excellency’. Let’s not forget that the word ‘republic’ literally means ‘common affair.’ The existence of this ‘common affair’ and the shared efforts in the name of ‘common good’ is precisely what enables a person to be free, to possess individual freedom, as well as freedom of choice and a claim to privacy. Refusal of the ‘communal’ destroys the ‘private’, producing the atomized lack of individual space. Under slavery both the common and the private cease to be. A slave lacks both individuality and society.

An egoistic cynic will, inevitably, conclude that a ‘bad master’ can be rid of by means of a ‘good master.’ Such cynic is ready to accept a mediocre master if that means protection from social chaos. This dynamic will continue until social cynicism is overcome. True freedom is only possible within an amiable, friendly framework, in the openness towards an equally free and respected Other. Such openness yields real, as opposed to simulative, society. And this openness transforms an atom into a person.

 

[1] A popular quote from a Soviet satire ‘Twelve Chairs’ by I.Ilf and E. Petrov

 

Girls as Cinematic Vessels of Demonic Possession.

An evil little girl is one of the most favorite tropes of a horror movie genre. Just to name the most iconic ones – The Exorcist, The Shining, The Ring – they all feature little, pre-teenage girls as channels of evil.

I don’t think it’s accidental. What drives a little girl? Nothing that would make sense in our adult world. She’s interested in nature and ponies. One day, when she hits puberty, she will discover the money-sex-power triad and things will never be the same. The evils of a teenage girl, and really of any adult, are boring and predictable: meanness, greed, obsession with hierarchy,  trading on her sex-appeal. We do not find any of this scary, because we understand where she’s coming from. We are all operating in the same mutually-understood, dominant social framework.

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Do you think these girls care about their future career or earning potential or meeting a nice guy?

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But it is the pre-pubescent girls (along with mentally sick) that really scare us in horror movies. We don’t know what drives them. ‘Nature and ponies’ realm is alien to us, adults. Those residing in that realm are scary to us because we don’t know how their mind works. ‘Nature’ and ‘ponies’ are signifiers of things that do not fit into our modern values system of ‘money’ and ‘profit’. Because they don’t yet speak the language that any of us speak, because they don’t yet understand and don’t really care about ‘how business is done, how the world works’, we realize that we can’t reason with such a person, and thus can’t cure her possession. At least not until she hits 13, when we all can exhale with relief and welcome her to our ‘normal’, real world order. (Now, I’ve heard, from many parents, that puberty is even worse than childhood, but in the context of what I’m discussing here – horror movie tropes – children, girls especially, are scarier than teenagers).

Take the twins from The Shining or a girl from Hereditary. Do you think any of these girls care about their future careers or earning potential or meeting a nice guy? This is what’s scary about them: with their irrational behavior they telegraph the existence of a world that operates with notions that don’t produce profit or pleasure. Thus the carrier of this bad news, of this unprofitable sentiment – a girl – is, implicitly, a threat to our normal way of life. She’s more horrifying than a monster, because, and I will repeat myself, we know what drives a monster – he or it needs our flesh or brain to survive; a monster is not really scary because its behavior can be rationalized and thus harnessed. But a girl – who the fuck knows what’s on her mind. She’s on par and perhaps even surpasses, in her terror factor, the silent goons from Halloween and Friday the 13th.

The films featuring the possessed girls, however, never choose to explore this very ‘nature’ and ‘ponies’ aspect of girlhood. Instead, the plot usually revolves around curing them from evil ailment or sending them back to hell, and saving the main protagonist – an adult. One day, a script will be written where such a girl ‘cures’ an adult of his, shall we say, misconceptions. It’s a novel concept, but some are already beginning to chip away at this, like Game of Thrones.

Quick Notes on Election and Post-Election

Even though the results trickle down slowly, it does turn out to be a wave. Democrats are on track to win more House seats than they did in the wave of 2006. In the Senate Democrats faced an extremely tough map, having to defend 26 seats (and Republicans defending only 9). That they only lost 2 seats in such an unfavorable setting is indicative of electoral strength, not weakness. Still, anything can happen with the remaining seats in FL and MS. Remember last year in Alabama?

Happy to say that both of the candidates for whom I canvassed (Mike Levin in CA-49 running for Darrell Issa’s seat, and Jacky Rosen running for Senate in Nevada) won.

Given the above numbers I’m really puzzled with the proliferation of post-election articles arguing about Democratic weakness going into 2020. More people voted in these midterms (estimated 113 mln) than did in any midterms in the last 50 years, signaling a strong public engagement and dissatisfaction with status quo. With 47 seats Dems will have to flip 4 seats (assuming Trump wins reelection) and only 3 seats if Trump loses. Republicans will be defending 22 seats, many of them in blue states. Primary targets will be ME (Susan Collins) and CO (Cory Gardner), plus possible pick ups in NC and IA. Totally doable.

A favorite of the ‘Dems in disarray’ genre is ‘Hillary is running again’ trope. I’d like to address this one specifically. Hillary is not going to run. People who write such articles are either acting on their own wishful thinking or simply getting paid to write it. Sure, it would be fun to have Hillary run again so that they can throw mud at her and talk about ‘locking her up.’ The problem with this is that Hillary is not that dumb and/or power-hungry and conniving as the right-wing would like her to be. Hillary haters spent decades making a caricature out of her with such zeal that they ended up believing their own bullshit. They pictured her as power-hungry, thus they concluded that it is impossible for her to let go. But the truth is, Hillary is not stupid and not as power hungry. She’s able to recognize what her name and presence entails in the modern political discourse. She knows that the only contingent out there that genuinely wants her to run is Breitbart and Infowars crowd. She won’t indulge them. Nice try though.

 

The Grand Inquisitor, the Strong, and the Weak.

The dilemma raised in the Grand Inquisitor passage of Brothers Karamazov can be summed up as such: Can people come to ‘love thy neighbor as yourself’ on their own, without being prodded either by whip or by carrot, or, in Dostoyevsky’s words, by authority or by bread? Can they be good without witnessing miracles or submitting to an authority?

This is a monumental ask. An average working man can barely take care of himself. We see weak, scared people around us everywhere. How can we ask of them to reject their simple, undemanding comforts to take care of a stranger or mind some higher ideals? Such a demand, Grand Inquisitor argues, should be made only of a strong person, the one who understands and can handle that understanding both physically and mentally. It’s not easy to do, even for the strong. Grand Inquisitor is a strong person but not in a sense that he can bend the weaker people to his will (although he can certainly do it through the authority vested in him). His strength rests in recognition that such weakness exists in most people (rather than pretending, like libertarians, that it doesn’t), reconciling with it and availing himself to do the dirty, ungrateful job himself: being a guide to the weak, depraved and scared of freedom masses, to provide them security and happiness in exchange for freedom.

Happiness in this context is different from the way we view happiness. In Grand Inquisitor’s world human happiness is an abdication of responsibility, of having to make tough decisions. It is a faculty that is better relegated to the figure of authority. And really, we know many people who have handed over that capacity (to be happy) to others.

In his own way, Grand Inquisitor is right: he views his job as a burden that he has to carry in order to relieve the unwashed masses from having to think and take responsibilities – attributes (or side effects) that come with freedom. He saves the weak from having to live in freedom, which they, as he demonstrated to Jesus, can’t handle on their own. But Jesus is also right: What good is ‘goodness’ if it is mandated or ordered by an authority? What if people only love their brother out of fear of a vengeful deity in the afterlife or a state/church authority in this life? Can people be good on their own free will? Jesus, by refusing to show miracles or wield authority, deliberately erred on the side of a free choice or free will of anyone to come to the conclusion that we’re all brothers and we have to love each other.

Is Jesus then the voice of the strong few and Grand Inquisitor – the voice of the weak many? This conclusion would flatter those who think of themselves as strong. Not only do they find themselves on top of the worldly hierarchy, they are also invited to think of themselves as doing God’s work.

But if you’re also a thinking person, the implications of the Grand Inquisitor/Jesus metaphor are so horrendous, so bone-chilling and so threatening to your daily way of life that, upon understanding the core of this argument (that if you choose to be free you essentially become an outcast), the only sensible course of action is to forget you ever read this and retreat back into the world of busyiness and daily errands. And that’s what billions of us do. Career, family, sports, TV shows, travel, weekend BBQ. Proving Dostoyevsky right yet again: that we’re the feeble-minded creatures of routine, that we’re indeed the weak who, when given a choice, prefer Grand Inquisitor’s world order to Jesus’s.

This sticky psychological residue, this constant cosmic and public directive to be ‘doing something’ haunts me from time to time to this day. It’s impossible to shed it completely, as I’m a product of my time and our contemporary values, which I’ve diligently internalized and excelled at for decades.

I remember how disdainful I was towards the what I considered ‘rabble’ during my subway commute to and from work. I understand now that my short tolerance for the riff-raff was borne out of my own misery, although I would deride anyone who would’ve pointed that out to me at the time. Of course, I considered myself strong, because of the shit I had to deal with on the trading desk, the kind of shit the unwashed couldn’t even come close to comprehending. My definition of ‘strength’ was itself faulty. I equated it with my social position and the efforts I undertook to get there.

But, in Jesus’s terms, strength is a mental preparedness for a life of obscurity and nothingness. This preparedness is what frees you from the toxic treadmill. It’s the ability to say ‘fuck it’ and disappear into the woods or into the desert. It’s very hard to do. Smart, driven but weak people, like for example hedge funders and tech bros, understand it, if only subconsciously, when they accumulate real estate in Vermont or in New Zealand, hoping to, one day, enjoy the serene beauty and solitude after years on the battlefield. Of course that day never comes because, according to our modern day ethos, abandonment of the game is an admission of defeat, an anathema. Fear to appear weak is a driving force behind ambition and is a definition of weakness. The entire Trump administration reeks of that fear.

The strong among us are those who are not afraid to be labeled losers. It’s those few who either abandoned the conventional rat race or were never part of it to begin with. It takes either balls or total insanity to do it. Jon Stewart, who left his successful and beloved show to tend a rescue animals farm. Crazy cat ladies. Priests – genuine kind, not the pedophiles and the pseudo pious (Pharisees). The social workers. The hermits. Artists who create art for art’s sake. Everyone who’s involved in an activity that would get a condescending giggle from a run-of-the-mill New York cocktail party crowd.

Is it possible to be strong and stay in the game? Yes, if you do it for others. This way you become a Grand Inquisitor.

 

On Canvassing.

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I’m an introvert and I like to be alone. I generally dislike talking to strangers. Canvassing the votes, which is really just going door to door in a neighborhood, seemed like a terrifying idea at first. What if they want to get into the intricacies of Obamacare? (I first started doing it in 2012). What if I don’t know enough about the candidate to answer their question? What if they think I’m a Jehovah’s witness? People are suspicious of any sort of unsolicited street enthusiasm, and expect to be sold a bag of goods. They open the door, cautiously, and there I stand, with my resting bitch face. They’re immediately intrigued!

That’s the good thing about canvassing – you’re not trying to sell people anything. On the contrary, you’re encouraging them to stop being a consumer and actually become a citizen, and you’re showing them an available avenue to do so. Generally they will be responsive to you even if you don’t have a ready answer for them. “We’re trying to gain/hold the control of the Senate/Congress” is a good enough answer.

As a canvasser, you will be given a list of voters that are already registered Democrats. You won’t be asked to knock on doors of Republicans and try to convert them. The whole purpose of this exercise is to bring out people of your own party to the polls, not waste your time on goners. So you probably won’t find yourself talking to a belligerent redneck, as was my original fear. (As a side note, my canvassing experience shows that even when an R somehow makes it to your list, they tend to avoid any sort of confrontation. People generally just don’t want to be assholes in a face to face encounter. Worst case they shut the door.)

So, if you feel like the time has come to do more than just post on Facebook and complain, there are plenty of opportunities to canvass in and around your area in the coming weeks. In just a few clicks you can find the nearest candidate’s office and show up there for a 2-3 hours of meaningful exercise (both physical and civic).