When I lived in Washington, DC, I remember there being a slew of excitement in the local newspapers and in local bookstores when a book like Primary Colors came out. Local interest is a big seller in books, especially when there’s scandal involved. Here in Los Angeles this means that books about Hollywood get top billing, and there are lots of them on the local bestseller lists at any given time. They come in a few different flavors. There’s the now-we-can-finally-make-all-those-juicy-stories-public, recent-history-of-Hollywood books. These books come out a generation or so after the action depicted in the book takes place. The main players have either died or they no longer wield any power so their stories are fair game for the reading public. Connie Bruck’s biography of Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, When Hollywood Had a King and A. Scott Berg’s biography of Katherine Hepburn, Kate Remembered are two recent examples. Then there’s the down-in-the-trenches, you-have-to-be-there-to-really-get-it, borderline-inside-joke, behind-the-scenes-entertainment-industry-workplace-dramas. Take David Rensin’s book The Mailroom, which, as far as I can tell, you would only want to read for one of two reasons. You once worked in Hollywood mailroom and you want to reminisce about those high-energy, low-pay days back before you became a high-powered agent, or you desperately want to become a high-powered agent and you want to read up about what it’s like in the mailroom, your first step on the road to glitz and glamour. Finally there is the true story thinly disguised as fiction like producer Robert Cort’s recent novel, Action!. I got to thinking about all of this Hollywood literature because of a recent review by Caryn James in the New York Times that assesses the latest crop of Hollywood lit. (LINK). Wading through big-selling tell-alls like Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures and Joe Eszterhas’ Hollywood Animal and all the rest, she finds a novel that transcends the Hollywood genre in The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters and also mentions that when it comes to books about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West is “unsurpassed.”
I’ve been writing a lot about film adaptations lately, so I was thrilled to stumble onto this very cool series at the Guardian which each week is turning a critical eye on a new famous film adaptation. The latest is on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
I am a fan of nostalgic genres, as my last list testified: Not the least of the charms of the country house movie, following in the tradition of classical pastoral, is that the country house comes to represent a pre-Lapsarian, Edenic space associated with leisure, pleasure, and harmony. Usually this harmony is destroyed or interrupted (“Brideshead” is the archetypal example of this: Ryder returns to a decayed and abandoned Brideshead as a soldier during World War II, and begins to reminisce about the golden age gone by), but it’s the idea that – however fleeting or fragile – such happiness and peace and pleasure shared with friends is possible.Today I share with you another list, for another nostalgic genre: the school story. These pieces are often simultaneously nostalgic for the youthful abandon and friendship and simple pleasures of schooldays, and meditations on the betrayals and abandonment that turn children into adults. I largely exclude American high school movies (they seems a different beast) in favor of boarding school novels and films:Claudine a l’Ecole, ColetteNicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens (Oh, the horrors of C19th Yorkshire schools: now in a good movie adaptation with Charlie Hunnam and Jim Broadbent.)Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (and numerous film versions)Vanity Fair, William Makepeace ThackerayThe Group, Mary McCarthyHow I Grew, Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical reminiscences of boarding school in Seattle, and a deflowering scene to match (outdo?) the famous one in The Group“To Serve Them All My Days” (BBC miniseries)School TiesRushmoreThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (Maggie Smith in her prime playing the titular Miss Jean is a knockout)Picnic at Hanging Rock (awesome and insane – Victorian repressed sexuality done 70’s style – it will haunt with you)The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola was definitely watching Picnic at Hanging Rock before she made this)Young Sherlock Holmes (an early Barry Levinson movie – if you didn’t watch it in the 80’s as a child, do now)Flirting (great Australia movie: Thandie Newton, a very young Nicole Kidman, and Noah Taylor, plus a priceless scene involving boxing and Jean-Paul Sartre)The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman (women beware women)Frost in May, Antonia White (also the translator of Colette’s Claudine novels)Maurice, E.M. Forster (novel and film both great – the brief joys and inevitable tragedy of homosexuality in turn of the century England)Trouble at Willow Gables, Philip Larkin (one of my favorite books of all time – PL’s imitation/parody of 1940’s girls school novels is beyond delightful – sensual, campy, absurd, delicious)It Was Fun in the Fourth, Nancy Breary (an original 1940’s author of English girls boarding school novels – a hoot, and great read with the Larkin)Tom Brown’s School Days (oh, brutality. And now in a fine film adaptation with Stephen Fry as headmaster.)”Such, Such Were the Joys” (George Orwell’s essay on the horrors of the English public school, the full text is available at george-orwell.org)Harry PotterA Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnet (there’s a recent movie adaptation of this C19th children’s classic, but the book’s great – some problems with Orientalism, I grant you, but I stand by this childhood fave)Dead Poets’ SocietyLost and Delirious (Mischa Barton and Piper Perabo: A Separate Peace/Dead Poets’ Society for girls: also features falconry)A Separate PeaceCruel IntentionsBrick (I know it’s set in an American high school – but it’s so noir-y and all-consuming it feels like a boarding school: plus Joseph Gordon Levitt is becoming Heath Leger circa 10 Things I Hate About You – uncanny)The Skulls (It takes place at a college, but there’s something juvenile about a secret society)Goodbye, Mr. ChipsPrep, Curtis Sittenfeld (I haven’t read it, but I want too)The Emperor’s Club
I recently bought a DVD set for my six-year-old son that featured the following offenses: reckless gunplay, the detonation of high explosives, apparent vehicular homicide, assault with a baseball bat, plunges from great heights, electrocutions, jailbreaks, punches, slaps, kicks, and shoves into oncoming traffic. For good measure, there was also a healthy dose of cross-dressing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my son has been transfixed by the gift: Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Vol. 1.
There wasn’t much behind the purchase beyond the fact that I’d loved Looney Tunes as a child, and hoped that he might, too. Every Saturday morning, from 10 to 11, I sat before my parents’ balky Zenith to watch Bugs, Daffy, and the rest beat each other senseless with blithe and winking glee. As I watched the shorts with my son, I felt as if I’d last seen them just a few weeks before, not during the Reagan era. “Oh, man, wait ‘til you see what he does here,” I kept saying, just before some comically heinous act. When the deed was carried out — a push from a circus high-dive; a rifle-blast to the face — it happened exactly as I’d known it would.
As each episode concluded, I found myself struck by how smart the humor was, and how sharply it was delivered. The bulk of the shorts were made between 60 and 70 years ago, yet outside of the obvious markers — rotary telephones, daily milk delivery, cameras with flashbulbs — they hadn’t aged at all. Bugs Bunny’s quick wit, despite his Old Brooklyn accent, was as deft as ever. In the wake of this summer’s Confederate flag controversy, Yosemite Sam’s belligerence felt practically on-the-nose. And Pepe LePew’s pursuit of the white-striped feline was as squirm-inducing as anything from Seth MacFarlane or the South Park guys.
Why was I so surprised by Looney Tunes’s freshness? Most likely because, over the last few years, I’ve forgotten what cartoons can do. My son has come to favor shows like Chuck & Friends, Thomas and Friends, and Clifford the Big Red Dog. The programs are aggressively bland, crammed with supposed “lessons,” and so focused on the themes of teamwork and sharing that they border on the satirical. Whenever I walk through the room when my son has the TV on, I invariably hear a snippet of motivational-sounding talk delivered in a faux-uplifting tone.
On its face, such positivity seems an obvious good: Like most parents of six-year-old boys, I’ve spent much of his post-toddler life trying to get him to “play nice,” to view other children as more than mere beings intent on grabbing his toys — to not, in effect, act like he’s six years old. So if he wants to waste a half-hour with a TV show, why not let it be one that promotes behavior I’ve been campaigning for?
The answer lies in the reality that my desire for him to not “act like he’s six years old” is as likely to be fulfilled as my wish for him to win the 2036 Cy Young Award — a fact borne out by recent childhood-development research. A 2013 Harvard experiment showed that children can distinguish between “fair” and “unfair” — but don’t necessarily use that understanding to share with other kids. In the study, children were given stickers to keep, then asked how they would distribute them to their peers. As The Boston Globe’s Carolyn Johnson wrote at the time, “Children of all ages agreed that other children should split up the stickers evenly. But when it came to their own sharing, younger children were far more likely to keep more for themselves.” The sticker-hoarding subjects were “a bunch of self-aware hypocrites.”
As if such findings weren’t frustrating enough, there is evidence that, for young children, the concept of sharing can be almost neurologically impossible to grasp. One widely cited study from 2012, published in the journal Neuron, found that the area of the brain involved in impulse control was, unsurprisingly, more developed in adults than in children — suggesting that, in the words of LiveScience.com’s Linda Thrasybule, “selfish behavior in children may not be due to their inability to know ‘fair’ from ‘unfair,’ but rather an immature part of the brain that doesn’t support selfless behavior when tempted to act selfishly.” In other words, children’s brains must grow before they can share those treasured stickers.
None of this is to say that a child’s selfishness should be excused or tolerated — when your kid doesn’t want to share a tennis ball at the park, you can’t pat him on the head and tell the other parents that “recent studies prove it’s okay for my son to be a dick.” But if my lessons on kindness and sharing, repeated ad nauseam and delivered in increasing volume over a number of years, haven’t produced much effect, why would those lessons — delivered via Thomas’s sleepy narrator or a talking Tonka truck — have any effect either? And if those shows’ central message is doomed to fail due to the natural limitations of our children’s brains, what do the shows consist of? Beyond immobilizing a child so that you can have a cup of coffee, what point do they serve? My son’s collection of Thomas trains, $11.99 a pop, seems the most likely answer.
Ironically, it was distress over prefabricated, product-ready cartoons — cheap, noisy crap like He-Man and GoBots — that has brought us to this point. In the decades since the creation of Looney Tunes, a number of formal efforts, such as the Children’s Protection from Violent Programming Act, were undertaken to soften children’s programming. Though that bill ultimately died in the Senate in 2001 — like a coyote falling from a desert plateau, I am tempted to say — the Children’s Television Act, passed a decade before, was already bringing about an era of self-policing throughout the industry. As The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2012, “networks were [now] required to demonstrate that their programming slates included educational material — although what was ‘good for children’ was not necessarily the same as ‘good.’ In 1992, that big purple optimist Barney became a hit.” Today, it seems that children’s programming has split into two camps: absurdist fare such as SpongeBob SquarePants and The Amazing World of Gumball — which hold their baffled young viewers’ attention through a blend of color and speed — and treacly post-Barney pap like Thomas and Chuck & Friends.
In this climate, it’s difficult to imagine something as smartly anarchic — and yes, as violent — as Looney Tunes ever being green-lit. (Even Wabbit, a Looney Tunes reboot that recently premiered on Cartoon Network, is surprisingly strained, a combination of mediocre animation and dutiful homage.) This is unfortunate, because when I observe my son as he watches a Bugs Bunny cartoon — wide-eyed and tickled, forever on the edge of laughter — I see a real engagement there, the inverse of his Thomas-induced stupor. And far from being mindless “Itchy and Scratchy” mayhem, something to legislate against, Looney Tunes had genuine lessons — likely unintentional, but clearly there — embedded in each short. They taught that intelligence was more important than aggression, as Bugs outwitted Yosemite Sam and Tweety Bird outwitted Sylvester, time and time again. Through Pepe LePew, they conveyed the stupidity of lust; with Wile E. Coyote, they showed that pure desire sometimes wasn’t enough to obtain the thing you want.
Unlike contemporary cartoons, Looney Tunes didn’t have a thing to say about teamwork or caring or sharing; on the contrary, its characters nearly always acted alone. Is Bugs Bunny teaching my son to be independent any more than Thomas the Tank Engine is teaching him to be a better kid? That I can’t say for sure. But at least while he’s watching Bugs Bunny, we can share a genuine laugh.
Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We’ll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel’s movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel’s movie is breathtaking – one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I’ve had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven’t read this novel of Carey’s, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda’s factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey’s novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse’s book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar’s father.This Boy’s Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff’s memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother’s bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack’s mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff’s prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there’s Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you’re in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert’s novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg’s deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast – Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon – is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture – a charmed, leisured life – is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella’s reading of his source text gives Highsmith’s book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece – necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don’t be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it’s about where you go after you commit suicide. But it’s not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down – kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from “Arrested Development”) and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There’s a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there’s also something quietly humane and understated about it. It’s refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them:
The English Patient – It is not Michael Ondaatje’s fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first, but I wasn’t as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler’s List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, “Oh hey, I’d like to watch Schindler’s List,” just as I might think, “It’s been a while since I watched High Fidelity.” That’s kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession – This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It’s like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited – Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson – I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn’t feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from “Emergency,” to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba’s extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone – probably because it loses Barbara’s wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara’s lesbian obsession with Sheba – in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!
Each week, my wife and I sit down to watch the most recent episode of Showtime’s The Affair — a somewhat queasy activity for any married couple. The series, now in its second season, traces the destruction caused by a husband’s lust — which ultimately leads him to abandon his wife and four children for an unstable seafood-shack waitress.
In January, the show won a Golden Globe for Best Drama, and Ruth Wilson, who plays Alison, the damaged mistress, won the award for Best Actress. It’s difficult to argue with either of those choices. The Affair is an extremely thoughtful, well-crafted show, with a Rashomon framing device that is both effective and unsettling. Its cast — not only Wilson, but Dominic West, as Noah, the unfaithful husband, and Maura Tierney, as Helen, his betrayed wife — all burn convincingly. It’s not particularly entertaining, but the level of commitment on display is indisputable.
Most of the criticism of The Affair has to do with its pacing: compared to shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, The Affair moves glacially. Certain episodes have left me feeling that, not only has the ball not been moved downfield, but no play has been called at all. Nevertheless, the show is at its strongest when it slows things down: the knowing glances between Noah and Alison as they lie to their dinner hosts; Helen’s father waxing nostalgic in the backseat of a cab.
This is what its makers are going for: an undeniable realism that hits its viewers in the chest. In an interview with HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall last year, Sarah Treem, The Affair’s co-creator, said, “We wanted to tell a story about two good people…You have kids and then you meet somebody by chance who you think is your soul mate. What do you do?” In attempting to answer that question in a believable way, Treem has set her show up for a peculiar kind of failure: when something actually happens on The Affair to move its story along, it often feels jarring and untrue. When Noah’s teenage daughter bursts into his new home, cursing and furious — or, far worse, the show’s current engine, a Revenge-level plot about a vehicular homicide — you can almost sense Treem’s embarrassment. Sorry, she seems to say; I need to build some scaffolding around those knowing glances. In this, she has become a victim of her own success: the greater its authenticity, the more false The Affair often feels.
This has been an issue that films have dealt with for decades: how can something be both entertaining and true to life — which, as we are all acutely aware, is overwhelmingly mundane? From Wild Strawberries to Ordinary People to Drinking Buddies, movies have grappled with this paradox to varying degrees of success. On television, the problem has been exacerbated by the medium’s drama-driven “golden age,” which has allowed showrunners like Treem to create, essentially, movies without end. Shows must now perform an act, from season to season, which once had to be performed only from show to show: maintaining our interest without letting things get too wonky. And this is most difficult to pull off for shows such as The Affair — and Parenthood, Brothers and Sisters, In Treatment, and many more — that strive for realism above all else. Well, not above all else. More than anything, they want to stay on the air. And naked emotionalism isn’t the surest path to big ratings.
Friday Night Lights, which aired from 2006 to 2011, was, for all its raucous stadiums and bone-jarring collisions, one such quiet show. A conversation between husband and wife, or two struggling brothers, carried greater weight than the Dillon Panthers’ drive towards a championship. As Connie Britton, one of its stars, said in a 2011 Grantland oral history, “It’s not a show about football. It’s a show about community and family and the way people interact with each other.” As such, it was always on the cancellation bubble, and in response, it pulled a nearly-fatal stunt to kick off season two: it had one of its meekest characters commit murder. In the Grantland piece, the gimmick was explained: “We were coming to the end of Season 1, and the show was critically well-received,” said supervising producer David Hudgins. “But the numbers…So we thought, let’s do something big, something shocking and titillating and provocative.” Jesse Plemons, who played the unlikely murderer, said, “I never imagined Season 2 to go like it did, with the storyline about Landry murdering Tyra’s attacker.” Producer John Zinman admitted, “In retrospect, I think we would all say, ‘That was a bad call.’”
I didn’t need the benefit of hindsight to tell me that; I remember turning to my wife as we watched the episode and saying, “What the hell was that?” But for the all flagrance of Landry’s ratings-chasing violence, such things happen on such “authentic” shows many times per episode; it’s all a matter of degrees. On Parenthood, it’s an argument that sends someone storming from a room, or a business that gets hit by burglars. On Six Feet Under, it’s a kidnapping by a crack addict, or the accidental ingestion of Ecstasy. On The Affair, it’s Helen getting stoned in Washington Square Park and having vengeful sex with her ex-husband’s best friend.
Movies can avoid these speed bumps more easily, because they don’t need to drag us along for a span of years. Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is a nearly perfect film in which little of consequence ever seems to happen. It’s 111 minutes long. The aforementioned Drinking Buddies hinges on even less, but remains almost mystically entertaining. It runs an hour and a half. TV dramas, however, don’t benefit from such brevity. In Treem’s HitFix interview, she said, “We’re only doing ten episodes the first season, and I had asked for that, because I knew that I had ten episodes of really great story and then beyond that I was gonna start reaching.”
The Affair — now 15 episodes in — isn’t reaching yet, but it is entering a phase that seems unique and fairly uncomfortable. Its realism is so assured that its necessary, story-moving dramas have come to seem loud and fraudulent. Treem’s goal was for us to believe that we’re just like these characters, and that — not high-octane thrills or McGuffin-packed storytelling — is what draws us in to her show and others like it. Who hasn’t thought of being unfaithful — of burning the whole thing down and starting over, just to see what it’s like? But the difference between our lives and those of television characters is that we don’t need extraneous drama to earn an annual renewal. We just keep on living, and it can get pretty boring sometimes. That’s why we watch TV.
It is hardly news by now that Broadway theater has become a high-priced museum of its former self. This year’s Broadway season, which kicked off earlier this month, will feature a few new plays, including a limited run of Outside Mullingar from Pulitzer-winner John Patrick Shanley in January, but for the most part Broadway theaters will host the usual disheartening mix of jukebox musicals, retooled Disney movies, and revivals of hoary classics populated by downshifting movie stars.
For those who care about theater as an art form, it is this last category, the endless stream of revivals of classic American plays populated by movie stars, that really hurts. Sure, there are theaters off-Broadway and in other cities around the country that still commission and produce new plays, but the Broadway revivals, like the production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones that opened earlier this month, show that there was once a time when serious new plays found favor not just with a small, theater-loving elite, but with a broad cross-section of middle-class America.
My own grandparents, like many educated young people in the 1940s, loved culture and fine things, but they lived in an isolated mill town in Southern Virginia without good bookstores or restaurants, much less a vital theater scene. So, like thousands of their fellow Americans, once or twice a year, they hopped a train to New York to eat a few decent meals, shop at the department stores along Fifth Avenue, and “see the shows,” which for them meant Broadway. This was, for a generation of American provincials like my grandparents, the height of sophistication and an annual ritual that sustained New York theater for decades.
Now that golden age of serious, culturally ambitious drama is gone forever.
Or is it? Certainly, given the sky-high ticket prices and the emphasis on circus-like musicals catering to baby boomer nostalgia, the next generation of great American dramatists like Tennessee Williams or Lorraine Hansberry, whose 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun is being revived this spring, won’t be returning to Broadway any time soon. But in fact we have a platform for serious, character-driven drama in this country, and it is more popular and broad-based than Broadway ever was. It’s called cable television.
The inexorable slide of quality theater from the cultural mainstream and the rise of cable TV as the defining dramatic art form of the 21st century is a prime example of technological “creative destruction” at work. The theater of Broadway’s Golden Age was indeed terrific stuff, but as a consumer product it was wildly inefficient. Because shows were live and unrecorded, they could be seen by a limited number of people, many of whom had to travel hundreds of miles to get to the theater. Successful Broadway shows spawned touring companies – as hit musicals still do to this day – but such tours are costly to run and audiences in the smaller cities inevitably get a watered-down version of the real thing, with lower quality actors and production values.
Cable shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, which airs its series finale this Sunday, are cheap and easily accessible to anyone with a subscription to cable or Netflix. More importantly, though, thanks to a complex set of market forces, all the incentives push cable channels to hire top-drawer actors and writers and allow them the artistic freedom to create compelling characters and story lines, much the way the best Broadway plays did half a century ago. This fragile cultural moment won’t last – more on that later – but for now it seems clear that if Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry were writing today they would be showrunners for a cable series, because that’s where the audience is.
You can measure the Golden Age of American theater in many ways, but I would mark it from the 1944 debut of The Glass Menagerie to the opening night of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1962. There were, of course, serious American playwrights before then – Eugene O’Neill is the best-known, but there were plenty of others – but those writers always seemed slightly ahead of the popular culture of their time. Likewise, many great American plays have debuted since 1962, and a select few, like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, became part of the wider national conversation.
But for a short time after the Second World War, American commercial theater hit that elusive sweet spot where popularity meets ambitious social and artistic agendas. In his fascinating 1987 autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller speaks of this era as
a time when the audience was basically the same for musicals and light entertainment as for the ambitious stuff and had not yet been atomized…So the playwright’s challenge was to please not a small sensitized supporting clique but an audience representing, more or less, all of America.
Miller explains how this broad-based, yet culturally hungry audience shaped the work of the era’s two greatest writers, himself and Tennessee Williams. Both men were, to differing degrees, outsiders to American culture – Williams because he was unapologetically gay, Miller because he was a Jew with strong radical beliefs. In another era, Miller says, they might well have slanted their work to please a minority audience that already agreed with them, but suddenly in the postwar years there was a mainstream audience waiting to hear what they had to say, and being both great artists and profoundly ambitious men, they opened their work outward to a mass audience.
To do that, they didn’t preach to their audiences like Clifford Odets did in his political plays of the 1930s or bash the viewer over the head with a bleak vision the way O’Neill too often does in his plays. Instead, Miller and Williams created characters – indelible, psychologically complex protagonists like the struggling salesman Willy Loman riding on a smile and a shoeshine or the tragic, half-mad Blanche DuBois forever depending on the kindness of strangers. These characters had to be psychologically complex and indelibly drawn because that’s how you appeal to a heterogenous audience not already united by social background or political outlook: you get audiences to care deeply about a character, to see themselves in someone who may not be in any outward way like them. Once you’ve done that, an audience will follow you anywhere.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the movies that put an end to Broadway’s Golden Age. Hollywood’s own Golden Age, stretching from the advent of sound in the late 1920s to the late 1950s, roughly overlaps that of Broadway. No, it was TV that killed the Broadway of Miller’s era – that and probably the jet plane. At a time when the only viable home entertainment was radio and all but the stratospherically rich traveled by train, car, or boat, Broadway theater was part of a broader leisure industry that catered to Americans like my grandparents yearning for cultural experiences they couldn’t enjoy in their own hometowns.
But once the desire for entertainment could be satisfied by a magic box in the living room and a desire for horizon-broadening travel could by satisfied by plane trips to Europe and beyond, Hollywood and Broadway had to adapt or die. They did so by splitting their audiences – “atomizing” them, in Miller’s terms – into high and low. After a decade of trial and error, Hollywood reinvented itself in the 1970s with ambitious, director-driven films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and money-spinning summer blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. Broadway did much the same thing, filling the bigger houses with crowd-pleasing musicals like Cats and A Chorus Line while supporting more adventurous, writer-driven work by the likes of David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Wendy Wasserstein.
This worked for a time, thanks in large part to off-Broadway and the regional theater movement, which allowed playwrights to grow their careers at subscription-based resident theaters around the country and then bring their most popular work to New York for a money-making Broadway run. This system, low-paying and outside the mainstream as it was, still made for some pretty terrific theater. Shepard, sustained by a long-running affiliation with San Francisco’s Magic Theater, introduced audiences to his singularly bleak and funny Western vision, while August Wilson, who premiered most of his plays at the Seattle Repertory Theater, opened a window onto working-class black characters quite nearly invisible to the mainstream.
But while regional theater provided an audience for more adventurous fare, unlike in Arthur Miller’s day, it was no longer the same audience that went to see the big musicals. Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson, talented as they were, were no longer writing for “an audience representing, more or less, all of America,” but for the “small sensitized supporting clique” that Miller saw as an artistically narrowing force. And then, lo and behold, the free market worked its magic. As Broadway ticket prices escalated to pay for ever more lavish, spectacle-driven musicals, it became harder to persuade theatergoers, even the ones who like the more ambitious stuff, to risk several hundred dollars on a new play.
Enter Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano. Gallons of ink have been spilled, and thousands of terabytes expended, trying to explain why audiences have become so obsessed with characters on modern cable shows, but as Adam Davidson demonstrates in a December 2012 New York Times “It’s the Economy” column, the answer has more to do with business models than any quirk of culture. When there were only three major networks, programming success depended on producing a great number of shows that were just incrementally better than what was on the two other networks, which inevitably led to the creation of a vast wasteland of expensively bland mediocrity.
But once cable blew up the TV dial, giving viewers hundreds of channels to choose from, programmers had to shift their strategy. Now, it wasn’t enough to be just a little better than the competition; now, your shows had to be a lot better. You didn’t have to come up with a huge number of great shows, just one or two at a time would do, but they had to be so good that viewers would become obsessed with the characters and story lines to the point that they would shun cable providers that didn’t carry the channels where those shows appeared.
In other words, out of the morass of network TV, the very technology that ended Broadway theater’s Golden Age, came a sort of small-screen Broadway in which a few big talents – David Simon of The Wire, Lena Dunham of Girls, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, and so on – have been given wide artistic latitude to create characters and stories audiences will care about. Because cable providers often operate as near-monopolies, the average cable bill has doubled in the past decade, and viewers pay close to $90 billion a year for cable service. That is a huge pot of money, and for many cable companies nearly half of their revenue is pure profit, so there is an enormous incentive to get the formula right.
But as Davidson points out in his Times column, this fragile model is already fraying at the seams. So far at least, cable subscribers aren’t canceling in large numbers, but as piracy becomes more pervasive, fewer younger people are signing up for cable in the first place. “When people in their 20s move out of their parents’ house or dorm room, they are less likely to get into the habit of paying for cable,” he writes. “If they get addicted to Breaking Bad, they’ll often download it free through file-sharing services like Bit Torrent or wait for it to come out on iTunes.” To make up for lost revenue, cable providers have to jack up rates, which drives more new viewers away, setting up a vicious spiral that, according to one industry expert Davidson spoke to, could cause the entire edifice to collapse as early as 2016.
What comes after that? The short answer is nobody knows. It could get seriously messy there for a while, leading millions of Breaking Bad and Mad Men obsessives to bore their children with talk of the Golden Age of Cable. But if this history teaches us anything, it is that there is always going to be a sizeable audience that cares about quality drama enough to pay real money for it. After all, in the 1940s, Broadway’s principal competition was local amateur productions and guys on their front porches telling funny stories – a sort of analog version of today’s BitTorrent downloads and YouTube cat videos. My grandfather, who told some pretty funny stories himself, was willing to plunk down serious money to take his family to New York for a few good meals and a chance to see the best writers and performers of his age. I have no idea what entertainment technology will look like when my future grandchildren begin to hunger for something more edifying than a quick joke or a funny story, but my bet is they will be able to find it if they are willing to pay for it.
Image via studentrush.org