Thursday, July 12, 2012

800 Words: The Aaron Sorkin Problem - Part 4

Seventy years ago, Aaron Sorkin would have been screenwriter to the giants - a writer who can write eloquent dialogue beyond our wildest imaginings, capable of fusing humor and sadness together as firmly as a diamond; capable in the right mood of Shakespearean eloquence and Chekhovian pathos. Seventy years ago he would have been a  creenwriter of choice to Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Hawks, Capra, Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor, Huston, Minelli, Ray, Sirk, and would have made better movies for them all (Oh dear, I sound like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay).

The studio system was far from perfect, it was a factory which churned out product for a focused grouped audience on schedule. Whether good or bad, the product must come out on time. No envelopes were pushed except by mistake, and studio heads did everything they could to drive difficult talent out from the industry. But Golden Age Hollywood also nurtured talent from cradle to grave - if you exhibited talent, there was always steady employment. In 1935, a young writer with Sorkin’s talent would be personally supervised by Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick, and producers like them would consider it a mission for him to create the best possible product for their pictures. The studio system did not produce most of the greatest movies ever made, but they cared about their product in ways most studios today can never be bothered with, and as a result produced a stunning amount of damn good movies. Some greater movies may have been made later, but so did a lot of far worse ones.

How many contemporary writers of Sorkin’s talent find those types of opportunities? Today’s screenwriters, like everybody else in Hollywood, are free agents; forced to claw their way to the top because there is no mechanism in place to ensure that talent will ever get the opportunity it deserves. And when a talented person is lucky enough to be promoted up the food chain, there are scant people to navigate him on the journey to utilize his talent.

In so many cases, Aaron Sorkin teleplays can be viewed as recreations of the studio system - or any other functional workplace. His shows derive their interest from watching benevolent places where authority figures can always tell us what is right, and derive their danger from less benevolent people standing in their way. Would that Aaron Sorkin worked in the studio system..., a screenwriter and script doctor of genius who could write on order for whatever situation Hawks and Hitchcock demanded.

Aaron Sorkin writes romances about people who do bold, innovative, extraordinary things. Yet the manner in which he writes about them is as artistically timid, conservative, manipulative, and formulaic as words can possibly be. Through television, artists like David Chase, Matthew Weiner, and Larry David may have created the American literature of our age and expanded the capacity of human thought in ways we still can’t imagine. Aaron Sorkin uses his gift to recreate a formula best used seventy years in the past. He is an extraordinary artisan, perhaps the most extraordinary wordsmith on television, ever, or on any screen. Yet like any competent artisan, he is in dire need of a great artist’s guidance.

One can’t help noticing a steady trend in every one of his shows as the reviews get worse and worse. The trend is not the reviews, the trend is the shows, and they’re absolutely steady. Aaron Sorkin has applied precisely the same formula to every show he’s ever done - whether the workplace is a TV show or a political office or an administrative building or some melange of all three, there are absolutely consistent archetypes at work - the brilliant but arrogant young men, their benevolent father figures, the women made ditzy by emotional damage, and...of course...the snivelling moral midgets who remind the other characters that the real world exists. Sorkin’s shows have been almost completely consistent in their brilliance to idiocy ratios - it’s the public that’s finally tiring of it.   

Is The Newsroom really as bad as everybody says? No, it’s not. The first three episodes have some genuinely good moments, but few people can watch it without noticing that the good stands next to moments fully as cringe-inducingly horrible as anything on TV (Studio 60 for example...). No one will ever accolade this show with the plaudits of The West Wing or The Social Network, but it takes an effort to not notice that it’s at least better than terrible....though perhaps not too much.

The entire Sorkin approach is grounded in screwball comedy - the fast paced repartee, the unconsumated sexual tensions, the elegant social mores, this is all the Golden Age Hollywood which anyone can watch in Bringing Up Baby, Some Like It Hot, The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story. Even The West Wing has its roots in the old Hollywood talkies in which great writers who could never get a novel published tried to fit a script the length of a novel into ninety minutes. But whereas Preston Sturges fit Huck Finn into ninety minutes, Aaron Sorkin could fit Moby Dick. Sorkin isn’t writing screwball comedy, he’s writing eightball comedy (speaking of cringe-inducing...). But the pleasures of verbal sparring seem superficial to most people, it seemed superficial to many people at the time. Many famous classics with this approach used a sermonizing tone to assuage their guilt that perhaps this pleasure of watching people talk fast was too substanceless and morally lax. The result was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 12 Angry Men, On The Waterfront and the entire career of John Wayne. Art, and particularly movies, do not exist to create sermons. Sermons are meant to simplify the world and create the idea of a particular action for the listener to enact. But unlike sermons, art is not a hammer with which to bang society into whatever shape we see fit. Art is about contemplation and making our perception of world more complex, or at least it is in my world. Everyone has reasons to act the way they do, and a worldview which frames characters either as beacons of moral strength or as moral midgets sending us to Sodom and Gemorrah is simplistic at best, and fascist at worst. But if all this is true for the speed of the sounds emanating from Golden-Age Hollywood, how much truer is it for the light speed of an Aaron Sorkin show?

If the talent of Aaron Sorkin can be divided into something similarly simplistic, it would be ‘fair’ to say that the better angels of his talent reside within his sheer verbal enthusiasm. Like Hepburn and Tracy, Bogie and Becall, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, Sorkin’s characters exist solely for the sake of verbal sparring.  The entire Aaron Sorkin experience is grounded in the idea that it might be fun to watch His Girl Friday on cocaine; and when the high comes down, it might be nice to put on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington again to put your conscience at ease. Within Sorkin’s personality is a Mozart of dialogue, yet that same brain houses a Jonathan Edwards worth of fire and brimstone.  

...more as this story develops....


  1. "it was a factory which churned out product for a focused grouped audience on schedule." How, exactly, is that different from what we have now? This is an era where Adam Sandler is making a Tonka Trucks movie. It doesn't have a backstory like Transformers, or the slightest hint of conflict like Battleship, but he's admitted it's being made because people already know and like the property.

  2. You just described exactly how it was different. Hollywood had quality control - it aimed to make movies with intelligence and standards. The product may have fallen too short of the goal too much of the time, it might have been too tasteful, too pandering, too bland, but the average Hollywood movie of that time was far, far more intelligent than the Hollywood movie of today. It was probably just as hard to make a great film in those days, but it was much, much easier to make a good one.