Impunity As a Result of 80s and 90s Pop Culture.

“The wicked flee when no one pursueth.”

Being an adult in the room has not been cool for several decades, since about 1970s, I’d estimate. The last movie about an adult in the room – a sober, responsible government official who defeats the bad guy was probably ‘Jaws’. Since then it’s all been downhill.

The 1980s were the worst offender. “Why do you have to wreck the company?” Charlie Sheen asks Michael Douglass in ‘Wall Street’. “Because it’s wreckable!” he snaps back. And with this, he embodied the spirit that has been haunting us ever since.

In the beloved 1980s teenage comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ we’re asked to sympathize with Ferris – a rebellious but smooth teenager whose quest to skip school is impeded by numerous antagonists: school principal and his nagging sister. It’s a cool, funny movie that I used to enjoy watching. But the more I think about it now (thinking is really a fun killer – you’ve been warned) the more I sympathize with a worry-wart Cameron and Ferris’s older sister, rather than a free-wheeling, fuck-the-rules Ferris. Cameron is actually a much more complex character because he had some semblance of a development arc. Ferris ends up his day in the same way he started it: a spoiled brat never to be held accountable by anyone. This movie, along with a bunch of other classics like Animal House and Caddyshack are 1980s version of ‘move fast and break things’ mindset of a modern day.

Then came the 90s with Goodfellas (still watch it every time it’s on), Glengarry Glenross (Alec Baldwin kills it!), and again, we were asked to relate to and even hold as paragons of a certain postmodernist virtue, characters who break the rules and/or assert power by sheer force or insult. But it is written so well, by such talented writers, and played so brilliantly, that it’s hard to look away. It’s just fun, it’s over-the-top for dramatic effect, why even bother overanalyzing it?

Even more recently, in The Hangover, one of the villains was a character’s nagging wife, bent on spoiling the guys’ fun. The existence of such a caricature makes it easy for a male character to abandon responsibility when there’s a ‘big bad mommy’-type out there whose sole purpose is to stifle guys’ (and they’re almost always guys) freedom and fun. ‘Big bad mommy’ represents not necessarily a female force, but is a stand in for an overweening government, a ‘big brother’. If you want to write a buddy comedy, but have to adhere to basic screenwriting rules that require you to have an antagonist, such a trope villain (a nagging wife, an obsessive school principal) is the lowest hanging fruit, but it always works. It’s easy to write, easy for an audience to understand, and easy for many to relate to, as in their daily grind they, too, fight their own version of a ‘big bad mommy.’

But who and what’s there to rebel against now? Who is the ‘nagging wife’ in our lives today? A ‘Big bad mommy’ doesn’t run things anymore. Evil clowns from ‘It’, like Stephen Miller, do. But the appeal of rebelliousness didn’t go anywhere. A man has been told that he has to rebel against someone or something, otherwise his life will lack meaning. If, instead of being a feckless high school student, you’re finding yourself to be an adult in the room, to hold all the reigns of power, the game stops being fun because then you are asked for accountability. But, as we learned over the decades of pop-culture message, guys can not be held accountable and should, instead, be praised and even mimicked for their unorthodox way of skirting responsibility.

The late Christopher Hitchens was obsessed with women’s ability to kill a man’s fun. Oh, I used to love Hitch, I thought he was, like, the smartest guy I ever read. (Made me think that if I was 25 today, I’d probably be reading up Jordan Peterson and marveling at his brilliance). Hitch was incredibly skillful with words and precision, and gave his thick sentences double, triple meaning. Now, since I’m in the middle of deconstructing our treasured pop culture icons, I find him to be an example of incredible talent and rare wordsmanship wasted on the service of excusing one’s anti-social behavior by manufacturing an artificial villain.

Of course, a ‘big bad mommy’ prototype does not have to be a literal mother or a wife. It is a gray-suited government official, an SEC bureaucrat, a DMV worker, even a Nurse Ratchet – anyone who makes the proverbial trains run on time, keeps order in an institution. I added Nurse Ratchet on the list because the villain of an iconic Milos Forman’s movie (my favorite movie for a period of time) was a metaphor for totalitarianism, but today we suffer from a different ailment: chaos. We do not live in a world where our dreams of freedom are being stifled by sadistic nurses; we live in a world where the lunatics have overtaken the asylum. Again, I invite you to think of Jack Nicholson’s character – a rebellious man totally devoid of any responsibility. And again, this is the kind of role models we grew up with and internalized. Is there any wonder then that people ‘running’ things (I intentionally put ‘running’ in quotes) prefer to think of themselves as victims yearning to break free? Break free from what? From liberals calling them names?

Hillary was an ultimate stand in for a ‘nagging wife’ type. She was that school principal that could, should she have won, hold at least some of the ‘Ferris Buellers’ accountable. She presented not just political but existential threat to our schoolyard order (or rather lack of it). And this could not be allowed to happen.

So, who should be the villain then, you might ask. Good scripts and good stories are those that, in addition to or rather instead of, external villain, focus on the internal demons of the character. Someone’s fear manifesting as aggression. Someone’s insecurity manifesting as bravado. Someone’s ‘unresolved childhood trauma’ manifesting as cruelty. The dark forces we fight are within us. The bottom line is, no one is really trying to ‘get’ us. “Wicked flee where no one pursueth.” But how do you have fun then, when no one ‘pursueth’ you?

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#Screenwriting #Offtopic

As a beginning writer you write ‘by the book’, with an ‘exciting accident’ happening in the first 10 pages, with midpoint ‘elevation’ and ‘all is lost’, etc. Because of that structure demand is why we get endless films where we know what happens next, while Hollywood is still wrecking their brains trying to figure out why people stop going to the movies.

But then look at a few movies/series that have broken the mold and became iconic in their own way: The Room – the worst movie ever made; The Big Lebowsky – unconventional; Twin Peaks – incomprehensible, self-indulgent. I almost want to read a hypothetical review of The Big Lebowsky’s script if the writer wasn’t Coen Brothers but some no-name: “The main protagonist is missing a goal and thus lacks a development arc. It’s a meandering script in need of a more a solid structure and conflict elevation. What propels him to act?” Fuck! Can people be propelled to act by lesser stakes than the world coming to an end or having an incurable cancer? But as soon as you, keeping with the industry demands, come up with a fantastical, contrived set-up they are ready to throw another complaint: the character is not relatable enough. So, if the first 10 pages have to grip you, a generic industry gatekeeper says, someone has to be assassinated on page 2 or a nuclear warhead has to be stolen; AND it has to introduce an average guy, preferably an accountant, but who nonetheless possesses special skills and can stop the coming mayhem. That’s what the prevailing structure, the modern script conventions are asking us to write. That’s how we get crap scripts and crap movies.

But back to unconventional scripts: Imagine that all of those films were written and/or directed by a woman. Imagine bringing a script that features a backward-talking character that is neither dead or alive (Twin Peaks) to a studio reader. You’d be accused of inhaling too much cat urine to be writing something so incoherent and self-indulgent. The use of allusions and obscure references is like an inside joke – only select few are allowed to use it. Maybe I’m missing something but please name a movie or a script by a woman where she employs a passing reference to some obscure cultural phenomenon. I can’t think of any, but I don’t think that’s because she wouldn’t think of one. It’s because she doesn’t want to risk it. So we see women directors avoiding the designation of ‘crazy cat lady’ by making movies about ‘relationships’, or ‘you go girl’-types – straightforward, unambiguous topics that gatekeepers and critics can delight in and eventually greenlight. Kathryn Bigelow found another foolproof way to make it as a director – make movies about war. Another topic lacking ambiguity (war is bad) and thus a reliable vehicle to build a career as a female director.

But hey, if that’s what it takes to break through… If that’s what will pave the way for my mushroom-induced stream of consciousness to be brought to a screen near you, then, hell, I’ll take it. Maybe at some point there will even be a movie about a movie with James Franco in it.

Certitude vs Doubt

I find it interesting that many Republican politicians, upon leaving public office, undergo a curious transformation. Their right-wing fervor subsides, they mellow out and turn into normal, reasonable, even compassionate human beings. Look at Bush II and Schwarzenegger. Such post-factum metamorphoses don’t befall Democrats; retired Dems don’t become hardline pro-life, supply-siders and foreign policy hawks after leaving office. Such ideological shift is a purely Republican phenomenon. I won’t be the first to conclude that right-wing politics is a total act, a show. Fox News would be a prime example of such a glittering, buffoonish arcade, selling Tarot reading to the gullible. In fact, this ‘total act’ theory holds up if you look at how any of the GOP and its satellite outfits operate: they put on a show to sell you a product.  And when a right-wing pundit or a politician leaves the racket he doesn’t have to be a salesman anymore. Thus the subsequent mellowing. A John Kasich is more likely to become a hippie upon retirement than a Chuck Schumer to become a hardliner. Democrats believe in their product, thus they have no need for a later change of heart; Republicans merely use their product as a tool, easily discarded when no longer useful for business.

 

Right-wing politics is an act that doesn’t require special training. All it requires is a projection of certitude. Perhaps such certitude is why it is easy, for a liberal, for the sake of argument or for fun, to assume the role of a conservative. We can make ourselves sound like Bill O’Reilly without any effort. Hell, a Fox News personality is an easy game. To take it a few notched up on a difficulty scale, any leftie in my circle can provide a lucid, informed argument, quoting both dead and living conservative intellectuals and sound like William F. Buckley in the process. Normally, they would be talking about personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, etc. They would be quoting Burke, Hayek, Ayn Rand, Grover Norquist, etc. We’d talk about the deterioration of traditional values and sound like Frum and Brooks and Charles Murray. Of course, that doesn’t mean we would agree with the argument we were making; it means that we are informed enough to be able to make it, to assume that kind of mindset, to see where the other side is coming from. An average informed liberal, if asked, can defend conservatism better than an average conservative. We just don’t want to.

 

Conservatives are incapable of a similar role-play. A conservative’s attempt to play a liberal would quickly deteriorate into making an over-the-top caricature: “Let’s put all the disabled Muslim lesbians on welfare; let’s abort all babies; let’s take all the guns away!” Conservatives are incapable of speaking the language of liberalism, even for the sake of gamesmanship, because that language eschews simplicity. Liberalism is an awareness of the essential duality of a human nature. If conservatives made an honest attempt to speak liberal, honest being the key word, it would make them pause and ponder, which would then prevent them from engaging in a half-assed, mocking affectation. (Btw, that also explains why the majority of actors and screenwriters are lefties: they are required, by their trade, to ponder what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes). A conservative worldview, like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, is a rather simplistic, one-dimensional realm where bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. A well-written conservative character, on the other hand, would, through a personal accident or a personal flaw, begin to see others’ humanity, not just his own. A priest who doubts the existence of God; a Wall Street shark who finds Jesus – you get the idea. Real life makes that happen to a conservative, but not before he leaves the circus for good. On twitter I follow several former Bush staffers and GOP operatives who don’t hold any public office anymore, and all of them have undergone a massive turn of heart. Today they sound like bleeding-heart liberals, talking about helping the poor, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

 

A thoughtful argument of a conservative trying to imitate a liberal would go something like this: Personal responsibility is a great idea, but there will always be people among us who will need help. As a society, we can’t leave them on the side of the road. Free markets is also a good idea but they can’t function properly without at least some regulations: the vulnerable must be protected from the unscrupulous and the contracts need to be enforced. These functions need government interference. Abortion is bad, but banning it is antithetical to individual liberty – a revered conservative notion, btw. Religion has a place in society but should be kept private and if you must bring it up in public life, focus on its calls for mercy rather than on a watchful, vengeful Deity.

 

To come up with these arguments a conservative would be forced to think about a particular circumstance, an individual story, a person behind the statistic. But nuance and ambivalence don’t sell. Simplicity and certitude do. Today’s Republicans operate on such a contrived certitude; they claim to know how things should be, and the reason things are not this way is because the pure, unentangled experiment in their minds has not yet been tried. If you point out that it has, like in Kansas, they will counter that we should just give it more time. Paul Ryan knows, just knows, that health care for every American is a certain road to serfdom. Why? He just knows.

 

If Paul Ryan were to write a story, his main character would be devoid of a pensive, wistful state. If that character were to find himself thinking, it would be about how to maximize profits or defeat the baddies. His life story would be a cookie-cutter amalgam of hard work, overcoming adversity, becoming rich and driving into the sunset in a convertible. There would be no underlying theme, no personal struggle, no moral ambivalence.

 

For the foreseeable future Republicans will keep successfully selling their product; they have perfected the trade over the decades and they have a talented salesman. In the meantime, Democrats can ponder about the following narrative: an effete hipster from Brooklyn moves South, buys a gun and becomes a badass.