Monday, July 26, 2010

Atlas Shrugged: The Movie?

The ludicrous, appalling news came out on Saturday:

After nearly four decades of development hell, a movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's doorstop novel Atlas Shrugged finally went into production this past weekend. If you're a Rand fan who had been patiently waiting for years for a quality film based on the book, prepare to be disappointed: The picture, which will tell only half of the epic story, is being helmed by One Tree Hill actor Paul Johansson, who will direct and star as the mysterious industrialist John Galt. Johansson took the gig at the last minute, since producer John Aglialoro would have lost the rights to the novel if the film hadn't entered production by last Saturday, with almost no prep time, a rushed production schedule, a relatively tiny $5 million budget, and a cast of unknowns.

I sighed when I read that press release. But I go back a long way with Ayn Rand’s magnum opus.

Like many people I first read the book in high school, where I was swept up into its binary view of human existence -- the geniuses versus the boobs. Of course, I identified with the genius contingent – the Hank Reardons and Francisco D’Anconias, rather than the boobs, whose very names were a form of moral onomatopoeia: Wesley Mouch, Kip Chalmers and – my personal favorite – Balph (“Not Ralph,” he tells everyone around him, “Balph!”) Eubanks.

I sensed even then that the book had major problems from a screenwriter’s point of view as well as a literary critic’s – all the geniuses fleeing the world seemed to sound exactly alike, in ways that say … Leonard Bernstein, Lee Iacocca and Pablo Picasso, probably wouldn’t. Or, as a random update … take Steve Jobs, Billy Collins and Philip Glass – what are the chances they’d be standing around in some top secret Colorado valley barking out Ayn Rand’s philosophy and finishing each other’s sentences?

I’d say, close to zero.

Then there’s the speeches … not two or three page soliloquies – I’m talking about ten or fifteen page slabs of indigestible didactic ‘kwonking’ – a term my father coined years ago for the sounds made by veteran bores …or the grown-ups in animated Peanuts cartoons. As the inimitable Sam Goldwyn remarked many years ago, “Arias went out with Shakespeare” And that’s not even counting the endless reiterations and redundancies of John Galt’s dreaded final lecture to a captive audience of American boobs reduced to the Stone Age by the disappearance of Galt and his elitist cronies.

Ever more problematical was the setting. In 1957, Ayn Rand was writing about the future … but that future looks as antique as an issue of Life Magazine from 1977 right now. Ayn Rand’s ‘future’ doesn’t work, and setting the book in the past is futile because the past never resembled her America, either.

What a quandary.

Ultimately, I stopped caring, because I got sick of Rand herself and her pre-Tea Party libertarian politics. But I always followed the film-making attempts with a mild rooting interest. There are great dramatic moments in the novel – when Dagny Taggart trades her diamond bracelet for the ‘clunky’ piece of Reardon Metal jewelry that Reardon’s icky wife is sneering at during a big party; Reardon and D’Anconia stopping the steel mill ‘break out’; the bum telling Dagny the story of the ruined car company where Galt designed his motor; the young physicist working on Galt’s unfinished formula seeing three months of work erased from the blackboard by a janitor …and replaced by a single perfect equation. Yes, Galt is the janitor, and if that sound suspiciously like Good Will Hunting, take it as an homage. There’s so much more: Galt’s torture scene, where the machine breaks and he instructs his clueless interrogators how to fix it; the first run on the John Galt Line, the perfect hamburger made by the exile philosophy professor in a Colorado greasy spoon, because he can’t doing anything .less than perfectly (even grilling a burger).

So, as various deals to make the movie rose and were shot down over the years (kind like skeet), I kept thinking g about arranging all these good scenes, cutting out the stupid stuff and the speeches, and stringing a tight, exciting story line out of them. Of course, I knew no one would ever hire me to do that and even if they did, the Rand estate would never allow such radical changes.


But I was particularly irked recently, when I realized exactly how they could update the story, using the railroads. We need our railroads now. They represent our greatest infrastructure investment and asset. Building the John Galt line would be a stroke of political genius today, and at least a partial solution to our connected problems of fossil fuel addiction and global warming. You don’t have to set Atlas Shrugged in the real past or Ayn Rand’s future. You could set in the present and make it unexpectedly relevant at the same time.

Oh well.

That’s not going to happen. No, they held out for the TV pretty boy’s five million dollar vanity project.

And I have to say, it feels like poetic justice.

Seriously: for thirty-five years, Ayn Rand herself, and then the Ayn Rand estate has guarded the book with such virulent orthodoxy and paranoia, turning down a virtual Who’s Who of talented writers and directors over the years because they threatened to change one word of the holy text, that no film or TV series had ever come close to production. Even the effort before this more recent one, with a script no less a screenwriter than Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and a stellar cast that was said to include Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, fizzled over questions of length and content. And now, because of this relentless, almost feral posture of steely eyed unflinching integrity, the book is going to wind up as a hopelessly compromised piece of inept, straight-to-DVD trash.

Wesley Mouch would be proud.

But it makes me sad for Ayn Rand. That obsessed, brilliant, batty old dame deserves a whole lot better.

A New Demographic For the iPad

So I was sitting with my soon-to-be-ninety-year old mother in her room at Our Island Home, trying to teach her how to use her new lap-top. I had already failed with the iPod – the concept of turning a dial with your finger tip to scroll down a list may seem ‘organic’ and ‘intuitive’ to my twenty-five year old son. For his grandmother it’s simply impossible. The main problem overlaps with our laptop computer conundrum: she just doesn’t have the manual dexterity to spin a dial precisely, or guide a cursor from a touch pad. She has no conceptual difficulty – she’s no Luddite. She used the big Apple desktop computer my brother bought for her in Long Beach. She cruised the internet, e-mailed her friends, even downloaded the occasional symphony on iTunes. She could handle a mouse in those days.

She still loves the game; she just can’t pass the physical.

As a result, she’s off-line and even more isolated from friends and family. The problem seemed insoluble, just one more checkmate in her on-going chess-game with mortality. But the solution was right in front of us. Tired of the lesson I said, “Can you just go to the X in the upper right hand corner and close the program?” She abandoned the touch pad and simply touched the X with her finger. Nothing happened of course, except inside my head. It was suddenly so obvious. Her intuitive response was to touch the screen. My mom needed an iPad It’s the perfect technology for her, eliminating the ordered, indirect commands and physical manipulation of the controls. Yes, computing has gotten so sophisticated, so intricate and complex, that it’s finally simple enough for my mother to use.

This is a huge breakthrough, a tremendous liberation. I called my brother; he agreed to buy the iPad. Mom should have it in a week or two. We’re very happy, but somehow I don’t think this little story will ever make it into an iPad commercial. This is definitely not the cool demographic Apple is trying to seduce. Yet for most of the prosperous, college-educated consumers Apple covets – people who own a smart phone and a laptop and even a Kindle – there’s no real use for the gorgeous tablet computer, except as a high-end toy. The text doesn’t use e-ink; the movies are hard to watch in certain light, they don’t synch well to other machines, won’t charge with a USB connection to a PC … etc etc. None of that matters to my mother, for whom simplicity and ease of use trump every other consideration. It’s a shame Apple can’t run an ad about this – ‘The Computer for People Who Hate Computers” or “Think Young” or maybe, best of all -- “The Little old Lady from Cuppertino” (I’m sure Jan and Dean would go along, for a free iPad or two of their own).

I can’t get the song out of my head: go granny, go granny, go granny go.

Thanks to the brand new shiny red super stock dodge of a tablet computer, the granny in my family is on her way.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why TV is Better Than the Movies

A few months ago I eagerly ordered a few seasons of The Man from U.N.C.L.E, one of my favorite television shows when I was a kid. I remembered sleek sets, cool villains, glamorous action set pieces. My memory was kind. The actual show looked almost comically cheesy and awful forty years later. Those were the days when television was derided as “the vast wasteland”, and though there were some quality offerings – The Defenders. Paladin, I Spy, The Twilight Zone – most of what the networks were offering between the cigarette ads was low-budget dreck. An actor who moved from films to TV was committing career suicide, and even in the mid-eighties, when unknown bartender Bruce Willis scored the lead in Moonlighting, the idea that he could jump to features – and for the impossible, unbelievable payday of five million dollars – was shocking and bizarre.

Well, times have changed.

As the quality of big studio Hollywood movies declines, television has become the venue of choice for the most talented writers, actors and directors in Hollywood. There are a number of reasons for this. Television has always been a writer-dominated business, with directors – especially in comedy – playing a secondary role. The rise of cable further enhanced this hierarchy. When the great Matthew Weiner, whose show Mad Men starts its eagerly awaited fourth season on Sunday night, said in the Emmy- award acceptance speech. “The difference between me and the rest of you is that I have complete creative freedom” it was like a battle cry. The quality of work that such unfettered inspiration produced over the last decade – from The Sopranos, Six feet Under and The Wire to Weeds, Dexter and Treme – has made most of the films produced in this era look puny and venal by comparison.

The idea of letting creative people do their work unmolested had gradually seeped into Network television, also, from The West Wing to Friday Night Lights, both of which are as good as anything on cable, and in some ways better since the demands of a network show are so much greater. Treme’s first season consisted of ten episodes, written by a brilliant team. A The West Wing season demanded more than twice as much work -- twenty-two episodes, most of them written by one crazy, drug-fueled genius, though Aaron Sorkin did have a staff of writers and a group of political experts to suggest story lines and make sure the details were accurate.

Now film actors are happy to do television. Glen Close had flourished on Damages and David Caruso was lucky to get back onto CSI Miami after a string of forgettable films.

This shouldn’t be anything new: the real explanation for television’s new ascendancy has been an intrinsic part of the medium, all along. The first hint of television’s narrative superiority over the movies came with the adaptations of two Irwin Shaw novels. An unjustly neglected writer these days, Shaw was a wildly famous and profligate best-selling author from the forties until his death in 1984. His big World War Two novel, The Young Lions, was made into a pretty good film with Marlon Brando playing a disaffected Nazi and Montgomery Clift as a Jewish soldier. Like most films made from books, it was inevitably a disappointment to both the writer and his fans: so much left out, altered, elided – so much lost in translation.

In the seventies ABC did a mini-series based on another Shaw novel, Rich Man, Poor Man. It was a huge hit an inspired other ‘long form’ productions – like Roots and The Winds of War.

Clearly, this was the way to honor a novel and do justice to the complexities of its character and story-lines. In the eighties Television started exploring this concept more and more, though without the burden of adaptation. Shows like Hill Street Blues, L.A.Law and E.R. seemed to be using the techniques of soap opera in their continuing story lines, but the hystrionics and clich├ęs that characterized ‘daytime drama’ were wholly absent from these more sophisticated shows. They worked like literature, showing characters and situations developing over time, with multi-layered subplots, let-motifs and ambiguous resolutions to problems TV had rarely bothered with before – the aftermath of a police shooting, for instance, or the conflict of conscience for an abortion provider.

The great series we’re watching now, like Mad Men, are the logical continuation of this process. Though a contract dispute or a cocaine conviction can throw a series into confusion and mediocrity, though at the networks, ratings and censors and advertisers can skew the content of a show, for the most part these programs survive; and some of them triumph. We are living through a golden age of television right now – a mass medium that triumphed precisely because it chose to narrow the appeal of its shows, even as movie studios seek to reach the largest possible audience with the most possible explosions and the broadest narrative gestures. Television – whose early hedgemony was shattered by cable and the internet – has learned to embrace the niche audience. A million people watch Mad Men each week. That’s a slim movie audience and a catastrophically tiny network one. But it’s enough for Weiner. He’s not playing to -- or writing for -- the crowd, he’s not trying to hit every demographic, and every ‘quadrant’ of some hypothetical test audience.

He just wants the smart people.

And he gets them, like the rest of this new elite: Sorkin and the three Davids: Simon(The Wire, Treme) Chase (The Sopranos), and Milch (Deadwood). These are the new auteurs, and their work is the stuff that will hold up forty years from now, when the comic book adaptations, sequels and star vehicles special effects extravaganzas are long forgotten. It’s a tough truth to absorb, especially if you’re in the 100 million dollar movie business, but as Don Draper memorably pointed out to Peggy Olson in the first episode of Mad Men’s second season,

"Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. YOU are the product. You- FEELING something. That's what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can't do what we do, and they hate us for it."

But we love you, Don, and we await the next season of Mad Men just as we anticipate the new Jonathan Franzen novel or the American readers lined up on the dock for the next installment of Little Dorritt. The novel isn’t dead – it’s alive and dangerously robust, and television of all things, that ‘great wasteland’ that gave us Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard, proves that extraordinary fact beyond the shadow of a doubt.

It’s an irony Dickens himself would have appreciated.

The Road to Publication, Part One

It’s a long, washed out, pot-holed road that goes in circles, or takes weird detours to cliff edges or turns into muddy dirt and disappears into the scrub. But I’m cruising it again now, for better or worse, and I thought it might be interesting to document the journey. If this particular stretch of cracked macadam winds up at a sinkhole or a chain-link fence with big NO TRESSPASSING signs, so be it.

The trip may still be interesting.

I’ve traveled this route before. Three years ago I cold-queried an agent with a different book: Owners, the one I’ve been posting on Open Salon for the last month or so. The novel was set on Nantucket and this agent loved the island. She asked to see pages but felt uneasy when I told her the book was incomplete. Still, she liked what she read. We worked together for a few months, but she was having a baby and getting out of the business. She passed me on to a New York agent she knew. I worked with this guy for a year, finishing and revising-- and then he sent my nicely buffed and polished 92,000 words out on auction to twelve publishers.

I was riding high.

Then they all rejected it … and he retired.

I went from having a hot book and a big-time agent to having an un-publishable pile of pages and no representation -- in less than two weeks. Career whiplash happens on the road to publication: fasten your seatbelts.

I’m obviously hoping this time will be different. I have a few more advantages now. Some I earned – like my MFA degree; some I didn’t: like my name. After many cold queries and very few requests for pages and no real progress I finally decided to query my father’s agent. I had met him at Dad’s memorial service and he seemed like a decent guy. A Google search proved he was a major player in Hollywood. It felt like cheating but I no longer cared.

Here’s the query letter I sent out to all those agents (It took slightly less time to write than the book itself):

HEAT OF THE MOMENT, complete at 78,500 words, tells the story of an ordinary high school English teacher whose obsessive sexual passion for a student drives him to statutory rape, blackmail, grand larceny and finally murder. Invoking novels like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and Josephine Hart’s Damage, as well as a history of film noir movies from The Blue Angel to Body Heat, the hero of HEAT OF THE MOMENT is always at least two steps behind his teen-age femme fatale, never fully aware of her actual intentions until it’s much too late. At the end of the book, after destroying a man’s life and getting away with it, she has the bad luck to cross paths with the serial killer and snuff-film auteur whose exploits have formed a counter-point to the main story. His wry “You’re pretty enough to be in the movies” makes it clear she’s met her match, at last: barracuda vs. shark.

Part crime thriller, part cautionary tale, this journey into the land of worst possible outcomes would be a hellish trip to experience, but (I hope) a perversely entertaining one to read.

I'm a member of the WGA(west), with numerous script options and assignments( from such production companies as Hemdale, Tetragram, Concorde New Horizons, Howard International, and Arama) behind me, but no screen credits yet. I recently received my MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and have built a modest but discernible readership (as much as 3000 hits for my most popular posts) on Open Salon. Several of my essays have been featured at, including recent eulogy for Robert B. Parker and a belated valentine to the NFL. If you'd like to see all or any part of the book, let me know.

Thanks for your time and attention –

The query netted a variety of responses over the next few months, but the main reaction was silence. Personally, I prefer that. I send out masses of queries, to names picked out of a fat paperback guide to agents, and I promptly forget about them. If they’re not interested in me, the last thing I want is to be reminded of their irksome, critical existence. It’s a kind of arrogance, anyway -- this assumption that they’re important enough for me to be hanging on breathlessly to read their comments.

Anyway, in the interests of full disclosure, (and vicarious entertainment) here are a few of the more interesting responses:

Thanks for sending along those opening pages of HEAT OF THE MOMENT. The writing is great and it certainly held my attention, but this one is just a bit too creepy for most of the editors with whom I regularly do business and I worry that the lack of sympathetic characters will further limit its appeal. I’m going to pass with some reservations. Another agent may know just the right editor but unfortunately I don’t.

I am going to turn you down for strictly personal, arbitrary, some would say snotty reasons. I hope you receive my comments as nothing more damning than had I written "I prefer Indian food to Italian."

I think you've crafted a plot that would appeal to a number of agents.

But, as a reader (and thus as an agent) I am more steeped in reality based writing than a plot twisting page turner. The meeting one of Susan's previous victims in rehab and especially the revelation that the whole scenario was actually her machinations for someone else to take the fall for murdering her father may well work for a best selling novel and film, but it hits my reading taste buds as artifice I just can't buy into. I could say the same thing about 90% of the books on The New York Times bestseller list.

Please don't change a comma on my account. You simply need to find the right agent.

I appreciate your sending over the manuscript; I read into it, and you definitely do what you do nicely. But it feels much more like a modern thriller than the sort of classical hardboiled/noir crime fiction we look for, and these days we have so few slots that we really have to focus on books that fall right in our sweet spot. I wish you all the best with it -- but we're going to pass.

I made the crucial mistake of answering this rejection. On the road to publication that’s like doing a fast lane change without signaling or checking your blindspot. It tends to irritate the other drivers.

Here’s our subsequent e-mail exchange:

Thanks for the quick response ... I understand your view, but the story does evolve into much more of what I think you want ...and as the book came out a little too long for the series, some of the early part could be cut for pace. I don't mean to presume on your time or your patience, but I now regret not sending the 1,100 word synopsis. It would have to given a sense of the bigger picture. I'm pasting it below, so you can take a look if you have time. Anyway -- thanks for your courtesy and attention.


I don't doubt that what you say is true -- it might evolve into all sorts of things. But if the opening isn't right for us, our readers will never get to find out what it evolves into, since they'll put the book down, the same way I did. I don't mean to be harsh, but I figure it's best to be honest. I hear this all the time from people -- "The book has a great ending!" or "Just wait till you get to chapter 8, it's amazing!" Well, maybe. But I'll only get to chapter 8 if I find chapters 1 through 7 compelling.

Could it be cut? Could it be edited? Sure; any book could. But what I've got to look at is what you sent.

And in the 10 days since you sent the book to me, I've received 20-30 other books by other writers, all of whom as just as eager for us to publish them and all of whom have passion for their books, and most of whose books are also perfectly good (if not necessarily right for us). Most likely the answer will be no to every one of them -- and to the next 30, and the 30 after that -- and that means I can only spend so much time on any of them.

Apologies again if I'm coming across as a jerk -- I don't mean to -- but the only way I can survive the flood of incoming submissions is to read quickly, make the best decisions I can, and move on.


Note to self: don’t do that again.

The rest of the responses were just the usual “Not for us” rejections, but my final effort produced this note:

Thank you for following up with us. We're very excited to read the sensuous, drug-filled adrenaline narrative you've whipped up. Godspeed on any concurrent projects, Steven, and have a great rest of the week.

That sounded refreshingly positive. It was written by an assistant, but I Googled her and saw that she was a cool twenty-something with her own web-site and some sharply written flash fiction published in various e-zines.

To proceed with the submission, I had to download an agency document giving all kinds of waivers and permissions and promising not to sue them under a variety of what I can only call drastically litigation-appropriate situations. No problem: I’ve signed these release forms before. I never got around to filling this one out, though, because my Dad’s agent sent me this short e-mail:

I'd love to take a look at the first 100 pages - can we do that?

I didn’t have much hope at that point; nepotism usually backfired somehow, and it was frowned on in my family, anyway. I remembered my Dad’s favorite anecdote about Verdi’s son, who wrote a requiem mourning his father and gave it to the old man’s music publisher, whose devastating response was: “You should have died. Your father should have written the requiem.”

But it was worth a try, and it turned out to be the real beginning, the on-ramp to a road I hadn’t traveled in quite a while.

Pack a lunch -- we’ll start the trip together, next time.