Friday, September 16, 2011

800 Words: The Aaron Sorkin Problem - Part 3

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And four years later, we got Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - Aaron Sorkin’s drama/comedy/romance/dramedy/tragicomedy about what goes on backstage at Saturday Night Live. Or so we were led to believe. In fact, it was nothing more than a roman-a-clef in which Sorkin his puts contempt for NBC (which he renames NBS...get it?) on full display, virtually names names, and declares from episode 2 that his intention with this show is to revolutionize everything about how television is created, produced and distributed. Once again, credit must be given: Studio 60 was not a bad show, it was just a total, utter disaster. It was a misfire of genius -- a complete, ignominious failure of the most brilliant variety. It was like going to a ballet produced by Diaghilev, composed by Stravinsky, choreographed by Nijinsky with sets by Picasso and the resulting production being dancing chickens. Who knew a car wreck could be this entertaining?

(This is eerily prescient....and not in the way it’s supposed to be....)

The show began with Aaron Sorkin devoting the first scene to blasting television, blasting NBC, blasting his sponsors and blasting anybody dumb enough to still be watching. After the opening, Sorkin proceeded to write in a bunch of fake newscasts during which anchors somehow saw a parallel to the movie Network, and were therefore moved to compare the action of the first scene to the writing of Paddy Chayefsky. Such modesty.

(Aaron Sorkin’s Mad as Hell)

The only work of Chayefsky’s which is still particularly well known is Network - the famous mid-70’s satire of network news. But for Sorkin to compare his opening scene to Network is almost beyond belief. Network was about how blowhards can dominate the airwaves to stoke fears. Howard Roarke wasn’t a whistle-blower, he was an unhinged demagogue -- Glenn Beck’s saner grandfather. But Aaron Sorkin seems to think that Howard Beale is a hero -- the grandfather of Bill Maher or Keith Olbermann (whether they’re heroes are for another day). Once again, Sorkin tells us that all it takes to change the world is one theatrical speech. And once we hear the clarion call of reason, the entire world will move back to the direction of virtue and right.

Studio 60 is as much a fairy tale as The West Wing or The American President. But in this one the Grimms Brothers get a co-writing credit. We’re no longer watching a heroic collective doing battle against an enemy that goes mostly unseen. We see the forces of good battling the forces of evil in full, ugly view. There are two types of characters on this show: flawed characters whose flaws are never visible to us, and scummy douchebags whose loathsomeness melts your skin. The NBS chairman, Jack Rudolph - played by Stephen Weber, is Sorkin’s (and everybody else’s) worst nightmare of a studio executive. He’s our worst nightmare because he’s competent and smart enough to think on the level of his talent. He understands that the guys at Studio 60 are trying to revolutionize everything about the relationship between television and its corporate sponsors, he just wants them to fail.


Studio 60 proclaimed itself in its second episode as the ‘very model’ of a modern television show, yet it never missed a chance to preach about the impossibility of producing good television. It’s a show about what’s supposed to be the funniest TV show on television, yet its characters mope about the set as though the Bartlet Administration put on a production of Hamlet during a nuclear war. It displays sketch after sketch supposed to demonstrate that it’s possible to enlighten audiences at the same time as making them laugh, yet the sketch comedy was unfunny to a point well beyond pathetic. It preached about the importance of keeping good morals in television, yet was there a single show in television history that used a bully pulpit to settle scores so blatantly?

(Only Studio 60 would treat not only Sting but his f(*&ing Lute with reverence)

Was there ever a more anticipated television comeback than Sorkin’s? And was there ever a show so eagerly awaited that went away so quietly? It was a disaster of epic, epically entertaining proportions; a show so risible as to be almost every bit as watchable as a great show. Not a failure, a flop. Once again, credit must be given. To make a flop takes real talent, the only other requirement is a complete lack of self-awareness. Most bad movies go unremembered, but every film geek remembers North, Howard the Duck, Heaven’s Gate. When talented artists make terrible products, they’re often just as viewable as the good stuff.

(This is how Washington works.....)

Which is why the self-awareness of Charlie Wilson’s War came as such a welcome surprise. For the first time in Sorkin’s career, we see an acknowledgement that glamor is not what changes the world. To be sure, Charlie Wilson’s War is every bit the romance and fairy tale of every other Sorkin script, but this is a very different sort of fairy tale. This movie is a joyride in which we watch the two least distinguished people in Washington begin a chain reaction that brings down the Soviet empire. For West Wing fans who’ve never seen the movie, imagine a West Wing episode in which the heroes are Bingo Bob Russell and Oliver Babbish, and it happens to be the best episode they’ve ever made.

Perhaps it took fifteen years of writing about politics, but Sorkin finally seemed to realize that change is never affected by the most charismatic people in the room. In a world capital where everything can be stopped or moved (usually stopped) by bureaucrats, the pettiest bureaucrat is the most powerful person in the country. And so the key to bringing down the Soviet Union lies within a professionally mediocre congressman and a rogue CIA agent who couldn’t care less about his orders. There is neither a happy ending for the characters nor a sense that what they did was of benefit to anyone. The movie ends on an admirably ambiguous note in which Charlie and Gust are left to wonder if they did not in fact create a greater monster than the one they brought down. If anybody wants a political movie that gives a true sense of how Washington works, I would point them to this one before any other. It is usually the least distinguished looking people who hold the most power, and even the most successful policy makers can never be sure that they did more good than harm.

(We’ll see...)

I have no idea as to who’s responsible for the unqualified success of Charlie Wilson’s War. Did Sorkin simply follow George Crile’s book (which I’ve been meaning to read since college) event for event? Did he get lots of guidance from the great (and still under-rated) Mike Nichols? Or has he just learned that much in the intervening years about human nature?

It’s still difficult to say. The Social Network was not his triumph alone. As all great movies are, it’s a lucky meeting chemistry between great writing, great directing, great acting, sympathetic producers and a great production team. My own sense of what made it work is because it was a perfect mismatch of two great but limited talents. In so many ways, David Fincher is a director who works like Aaron Sorkin’s shadow self. If Sorkin can’t stop gushing about the wonders of the world, Fincher can’t stop harping on its horrors. His movies are brilliant monuments to pessimism and misanthropy which take as much delight in indecency as Sorkin does in its reciprocal. Se7en plays like a game show in which we have to guess what incredibly brilliant manner the serial killer will plan his next victim. Fight Club is a movie possessing an entire philosophy that seems to advocate nothing less than a violent, totalitarian overthrow of bourgeois values. The ability to meld Sorkin and Fincher would seem no more plausible than melding the writings of Karl Marx and Ayn Rand. But in The Social Network, these antithetical approaches combine to form a view of human nature that is as close to perfectly balanced as movies become. With a more optimistic director, The Social Network would have merely been the story of a guy who lost a girl and built a website. With a more pessimistic screenwriter, The Social Network would have become the story of an idiot savant who will take us into the dark ages. Instead, the movie becomes about possibilities. Mark Zuckerberg may or may not be human in the way that we are. But by watching his interactions, we are forced to ask if he has made us become more like him. And if we have, is that an improvement or a step backwards?

(Cain and Abel?)

These are questions that seem far beyond either the writer of Studio 60 or of Charlie Wilson’s War. This movie touches on questions so universal that they can only be asked by a great artist who always puts substance ahead of surface. If the brilliant language ever ceases, we will know that Sorkin is ready to plumb depths on his own.

The West Wing won an Emmy in every season of the four for which Sorkin was its head writer. The Sopranos lost out every year until Sorkin left. But which was the show that went deeper into dramatic possibilities? Into the American experience? Into the nature of human beings? One was a network television show about the biggest possible subjects in the most public setting. The other show was a premium cable show about a minuscule American subculture that operates in shadows. One show gives us characters who speak in gold-plated Oxonian English. The other gives us characters who speak in street-wise malapropisms. One show speaks to our longings for the success we wish we had. The other speaks to our fears of what it may take in our country to achieve success. One show has flawless characters who view the problems of the world at arm’s length. The other show has flawed characters who though they seek redemption, are the problems of the world. The West Wing is the world as we imagine. The Sopranos is the world as it is.

(The Pine Barrens)

We will not know if Sorkin is ready to get his hands dirty for a while yet. His next project is “Moneyball.” A movie about the 00’s Oakland A’s which he co-wrote with Steve Zallian (screenwriter for “Schindler’s List”). This is another project that is not entirely his. So if it becomes a real statement on human beings, it won’t entirely be his doing.

Nobody should doubt that this movie will be entertaining. But will it be true to baseball in the 21st century. Moneyball is a book about how a small-market baseball club in a run-down city made a desperate scramble to assemble a competitive team. It’s a great story, but it’s terrible for baseball. The “Moneyball” example has never been replicated. But every large-market baseball team can point to the ‘Moneyball’ example of the Oakland A’s to justify not sharing their revenue with other teams. If ever there were an example of how Aaron Sorkin’s life-affirming idealism is based on a lie, this will be it.

And after that comes Sorkin’s new HBO show about an idealistic liberal cable news network: More As This Story Develops. There’s little to say about this except to relate that when my friend (whom we’ll call Der Fersko for now) first told me about it, he came up with a much more fitting title: You Knew What You Were Getting.

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