Monday, September 12, 2011

800 Words: The Aaron Sorkin Problem: Part 1

I’m surfing channels on Saturday morning, agonizing about how to write my Washington Post review. On Starz is The Social Network in HD, the single greatest American movie released since movies became an obsession for my 14-year-old self.

The Social Network is not just a movie that expands the possibilities of what movies are capable, it’s a movie that portrays a question which we all ask in every era of human endeavor. Is there potential for human nature itself to change? We are 11 years into the 21st century, and as we have in every generation since the existence of thought, we wonder if intellect has grown to the point that it may master human nature. Will secrets be a thing of the past? Will privacy? Will self-reliance? Will ephemerality? Will delayed gratification? And will they be missed? Can we be happy without any of them? Can we input all our personal information into networks without them being used to conquer us? Will our grandchildren read about the ambiguities of memory and privacy as something they can identify with, or as quaint historical artifacts?

If, like me, you suspect that the answer is still no, then you view humanity’s online migration with as much alarm as excitement. It would be nice to believe that science and technology were capable of demystifying human beings. Perhaps we are no less a hydrochemical machine than a computer is an electrical one, so machines we may be but we are still human. And being human means we must allow for the thought that our increased public presence on facebook, our increased reliance on google searches, our decreased capacity for expansiveness on twitter will lead to as many setbacks for humanity as it will benefits.

(“The Future, Mr. Gitts.” Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown)

The Social Network is, inevitably, a portrayal of what is supposed to be new kind of human being -- more machine-like, incorruptible and less prone to error. In this way, Mark Zuckerberg is clearly not quite human. And yet, because he has a black hole in place of a motivation, he’s a very old sort of human. Like Charles Foster Kane or Noah Cross, like Bazarov from Fathers and Sons or Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, like Edmund or Lady Macbeth, he is a person who aims to change everything about the world in which he lives. Why must the world be changed? Is there any better reason to change it than the simple fact that he thinks he can?

And because Mark Zuckerberg believes that the world can be changed, he does change it, and yet he doesn’t. The glorious new era which the internet and facebook promise to lead human beings will come crashing down with the same destruction as every other rapid metamorphosis has in human history. Yes, the internet can bring us many great new things, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The promise of Zuckerberg’s better world never materializes, and in place of a glorious new world comes rampant, massive destruction. I’m not sure that I have ever seen a work of art document the beginnings of this type of attempt to change the world better than The Social Network.

What makes this movie fantastic is the rapid-fire dialogue, as machine-like in its efficiency and order as the issue upon which the movie touches. But what makes the movie extraordinary is the messy ambiguity that remains unsaid. True to the orderliness of everything about the screenplay, the dialogue would have us believe that Mark Zuckerberg was motivated to create facebook by the loss of a woman. But everything in David Fincher’s direction and Jesse Eisenberg’s acting shows that he is motivated by something far more primal; a basic (in)human compulsion to create this website that he can neither explain nor control nor understand. We neither do nor are meant to understand Mark Zuckerberg’s motivations, neither do nor are the filmmakers, and neither I would venture does Mark Zuckerberg. Does Mark Zuckerberg have a motivation? Does he need one?

(The World of Mark Zuckerberg’s head)

This is the paradox of The Social Network’s filmmaking. To create the question of whether Zuckerberg created - and embodied - a new form of human being, the movie needed a writer so skilled that it could tackle a question no smaller than “what makes human beings do what they do?”. But in order for the question to be asked, the question could never be asked.

If Aaron Sorkin had blatantly inserted that question into the screenplay, it would kill the whole movie. But I’m fairly sure that question never occurred to Sorkin to ask. In the world of Aaron Sorkin, there’s nothing that cannot be explained in five seconds. Every scene has a conflict that must be developed. Every character has a motivation that can be summed up in one word. Every screenplay has a beginning, a middle and an end. He does not write screenplays, he writes schematics.

(Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. Mark Zuckerberg’s great-grandmother?)

And those schematics happen to be the most elegant prose written in English today. Is there anyone working in literature, poetry, the essay or theater today who can write as elegantly as Sorkin? Surely Sorkin’s work isn’t possible without David Mamet’s fast-talk puzzle-plays, but even Oleanna and Speed the Plow are clumsy turtles compared to any episode of Sports Night. Christopher Hitchens writes a mean essay, but he takes paragraphs to articulate a point of view that Sorkin can get through in thirty seconds of West Wing dialogue and still have time to articulate two other points of view. Roth and DFW can pack explosions into a sentence, and they both certainly run a better marathon, but neither can pack the hydrogen bomb explosions you see in a Sorkin teleplay chosen at random. If you want to find a competitor to Sorkin, you have to go back to the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studio -- the classical elegance of the world of Hawks, Capra, Lubitsch, Sturges, Cukor, Hitchcock and Wilder in which everyone was articulate and charming, and every character seemed to exist to seduce us and each other body and mind. But listen to the dialogue of An American President or Charlie Wilson’s War and try telling me that its speed doesn’t make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sound like a paraplegic.

(“There’s Nobody Who handles Handel like you handle Handel.” Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours)

This is a phenomenon unlike anything in classic Hollywood. There are few lines which you recall an hour later, much less years. There are zingers aplenty, but none that can be appreciated without five minutes of context. The whole aesthetic of a Sorkin script is a sensory overload - we encounter an orgy of sinfully seductive words at top speed, one delight piling onto the next with animal excess. Sorkin seems a Shakespeare of dialogue, combining effects at a speed which we are permanently behind. In the case of Shakespeare, it adds up to bliss. With the exception of The Social Network, Sorkin’s scripts add up to exhaustion.

Why is Sorkin just a virtuoso and not the cosmic genius his gift should allow him to be? Because there is nothing there but the words themselves. The characters in Aaron Sorkin scripts are virtually interchangeable, mere vessels for witty banter who never live off the page as characters fully developed. Has Sorkin ever created an inarticulate character? An uncharismatic one? An atypical one? This isn’t Shakespeare. This is Shaw.

A writer can do a lot worse than George Bernard Shaw. But Aaron Sorkin is a screenwriter who blogs for the Huffington Post. George Bernard Shaw was the most productive writer of the twentieth century - with a mind that operated at top speed for the whole of a seventy-five year career. His plays are just one aspect of an achievement that takes in dozens of short stories, 5 novels, 60 plays, journalism, political polemics, music criticism, literary criticism and philosophy. In his spare time, he wrote a quarter of a million letters.


But today Shaw is known, if at all, for his plays. And his plays display a fearsome intellect and a still more ferocious wit. But Shaw is another writer whose work is completely hidebound by the fact that all his characters sound exactly like George Bernard Shaw. The action of his plays is less dialogue than it is debate. His plays are neither about characters nor plot, they are about ideas. The best of them: plays like Don Juan in Hell (itself an excerpt of Man and Superman) and Pygmalion (the basis of My Fair Lady) are vessels for brilliant characters to show brilliant plumage in brilliantly mounted organizational campaigns - as though they were for the military or advertising. There is never a dialing down of wattage - if Pygmalion works, it’s because Eliza Doolittle turns out to be just as brilliant as Henry Higgins and a complete intellectual match for the man who made her. Not that we should be surprised - her father, Alfred Doolittle, is an equally brilliant man who just happens to be snubbed because of his Cockney accent. Even Freddy, the upper-class twit, manages to be idiotic in a strangely articulate way. I know, I know. My Fair Lady is amazing. But My Fair Lady is a love lettter to Edwardian culture. Without the songs, it would simply be social commentary to a generations of Americans that elect manglers of the English language to their Presidency. Try to think of how much would be lost with the absence of the songs. Would Henry Higgins misanthropy seem nearly as charming without “I’m an Ordinary Man”, or would Eliza Doolittle seem nearly as sparkling without “I Could Have Danced All Night?”

But as a social critic, Shaw was second to none. His plays were brilliant exposes of hypocrisy, pomposity and pedantry, and did so with more clever lines per minute than were heard this side of Seinfeld. As a social critic, Shaw dwarves Sorkin. But as a purveyor of stage language, as an organizer of theatrical effects, as a coordinator of plotlines, Sorkin beats Shaw, no contest. Shaw sustains dramatic tension over a few hours at most, makes his points, ties it up. Sorkin wraps up each episode in a tidy bow and still keeps the tension going with linear arcs from episode to episode, season to season, show to show, movie to movie.

(“The Scene” part 1)

For the well-made play, there are few better exercises than the Courtroom Drama. The plot, the conflict, the tension, the development and the resolution are built into the screenplay. It has a beginning, middle and an end. In the words of Roger Ebert, “...A Few Good Men is one of those movies that tells you what it’s going to do, does it, and then tells you what it did.” And because the script is completely air-tight in its construction, it may contain huge ideas within it. The movie (based on Sorkin’s own play) is about nothing less than what it takes to defend the United States. We watch Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson debate issues of the most paramount importance to our lives, and then we realize, this is exactly what a Hollywood Movie should always be.

(“The Scene” part 2)

Or should it? The complaint is hardly new that Hollywood makes movies about what it takes in our crazy world to remain on the side of righteousness and virtue, and always takes the side of the most virtuous, most righteous people. There are never any compromises to the necessity of vice in a movie by Stanley Kramer or Tim Robbins or Michael Moore. Try picturing a version of Twelve Angry Men in which a legitimate argument is made that maybe the defendant killed his father. Try picturing a version of Cradle Will Rock that realizes that its subject would have made for a better musical were it not meant as Communist agitprop. Try picturing a version of Fahrenheit 9/11 in which Moore allows for the possibility that there just might have been unevil thoughts behind the decision to go to war with Iraq (albeit wrong ones). One doesn’t have to be a conservative to see the problem with this. It’s perfectly alright for artists to take political stands in their work, but it should never be at their work’s expense. What’s the point of a work of art when the same point can be made in a political debate?

(I don’t care how much people love 12 Angry Men. This is one of the worst scenes in any movie I’ve ever seen.)

It’s precisely this problem that ruins The American President. We’re presented our pornographic dream of a White House; full of brilliant, attractive, virtuous, liberal politicians who never have anything but the best interests of the American people at heart. It’s a given that everything they believe is correct, and all they have to do is follow their gut instincts in order to produce the best outcome for the America. All it takes is one magical speech and the President can reaffirm the trust of the American people. All Republicans are snivelling moral midgets who are completely upfront about their desire to corrupt the discourse of the country. There is no sense that Republicans believe what they believe because of ideology, only pure and unadulterated corruption. Even if this were true in real life, it makes for utterly terrible drama.

And yet we almost buy it. Why? Because we want to so desperately. A world with President Andrew Sheppard is something we desperately want to believe is possible. We want to believe that our leaders can be geniuses who dress like a Brooks Brothers commercial and banter like Bogie and Becall. But Andrew Sheppard doesn’t exist, and if he did, he’d be a demagogue. What else can you call a President who can dispel all suspicions and rally the country with a single speech? It is a movie that exposes the rot of Hollywood’s dream of America for exactly what it is. It is an elegant, glamorous, Hollywood movie that harkens back to all the great traditions of the Golden Age. It is also one of the purest pieces of agitprop in cinema history. And the worst part is that it worked. Thanks in part to Aaron Sorkin, a generation of American liberals were raised with the idea that a teeming mass of their countrymen are waiting for a great leader who can inspire our country to better things. They thought they found that leader in Barack Obama, and when he proved to be merely the best president in half a century rather than a wet dream, they hollered betrayal.

(Has American democracy ever been advocated less democratically? American liberalism uber alles.)

And then came Sports Night. Family Guy called it “a comedy too good to be funny.” But that misunderstands the whole point of Sports Night. Sports Night is not a comedy, it’s a romance. If it operates on a higher quality than The American President or A Few Good Men, it’s because it’s about something more than simple-minded pieties. It’s about the romance of sports, the romance of TV, the romance of working on deadline, the romance of interoffice politics and the politics of interoffice romance. The only problem is that there’s little but romance in the show. Characters uniformly love what they do, they do it well, and they all live a happy-go-lucky existence. Even their dark moments seem to exist only to make us admire them more. The action is so jam-packed that there isn’t a single boring or banal moment. In fact, there isn’t even a moment that’s about banality. For all you hear about it, there is barely a single moment of the show in which you see characters actually compiling stat databases or going through the process of color-checks. A Matt Weiner or David Simon would find ways of making the boring stuff about their job interesting, Aaron Sorkin’s solution is to avoid it altogether.

(The West Wing in embryo)

The Sorkin trademarks of The West Wing were already there: the walk-and-talk conversations, the reverence for Ken Burns-type history, the treacly endings, the knight in shining armor guys trying to heal and woo emotionally battered women, and the manichean paranoia that gives characters the sense that everybody not in the club is trying to destroy what they do.

(nerd in shining armor tries to save dame in distress)

There are lots of fascinating elements to Sorkin’s scripts, but the least commented upon is their utter paranoia. Over and over again, we see Sorkin characters defending themselves against people who want to destroy everything which they work for. If you’re in the club, you’re a figure of absolute good. And since you’re beyond reproach, anybody who questions what you do is an evil interloper.

And there lies the problem with Sorkin’s romanticism. He finds romance so romantic that he will inevitably play the Romantic to the bitter end. How many hours of Sports Night were devoted to executives trying to meddle with the show? How could anyone mistaken this for anything but a meta-commentary about Sports Night?

Any creative artist who has ever been in a situation in which the choice presented is to compromise or fold knows how this ends. The clashes between production and talent have inspired artists far greater than Sorkin. But in the end, the guy with the money always gets his way.

(...except for in Aaron Sorkin scripts)

If the above clip is a meta-commentary, then consider why Isaac Jaffe asked if the network would guarantee that everybody gets to keep their jobs if they made the compromises. Is it possible this was Aaron Sorkin’s ultimate concern, is it possible that we’re meant to think this was Sorkin’s ultimate concern? Well, Sorkin had a chance to save most of Sports Night’s jobs. After ABC cancelled, he got offers to continue it from HBO, Showtime and USA. Yet he turned them all down so he could focus on The West Wing. What amazes about this decision is not that this may have been craven and self-motivated. It is that Sorkin lacked the foresight to realize that a writer as obsessed with control as Sorkin would have far more of it in the earlier days of premium cable. HBO specialized in difficult writers with too much vision for network television. But Sorkin made it clear that he had to succeed on network TV, because surely nothing cable produces can compare with the prestige of network television.....

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