While it should come as news to absolutely no one that Sony is readying Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (IMDb) for the big screen (Would it surprise anyone if Dan Brown’s grocery list fetched an eight figure deal?), what might come as a shock is the price paid to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. That price, $4,000,000, is a new record for a “for hire” project, and ties the payday Shane Black received for “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (IMDb) for most money ever paid to a screenwriter for a single writer credit. Goldsman secured this filthy lucre despite tepid (read hostile) reviews of his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code (IMDb). With this record-setting paycheck, and kudos from the ever-fawning LA Times column “Scriptland,” does this signal a new golden age of screenwriting? Not according to this LA Weekly article “Screenwriters in the Shit“. It’s articles like this that make me want to move to the sticks and take up animal husbandry.
1. Tonight, fans of the exquisite Friday Night Lights will be able to tune in to network TV (NBC) for the show’s fifth and final season. If you are both a fan and a subscriber to Direct TV, season five is old news; it aired there in October and finished out in February. But what strikes me about FNL – and why it seems fitting to write about it here at The Millions – is its appeal to those of us who live just outside of TV culture proper. In the vein of David Simon’s The Wire (which Simon has described as being conceived “as a novel”) and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, Peter Berg’s twice-adapted series -- first from the nonfiction book by his cousin H.G. Bissinger, then from the feature film which he both wrote and directed -- falls into a growing broadcast category, i.e. TV for readers. But unlike the aforementioned cable series, “Friday Night Lights” may be a less obvious fit for, say, urbanite literary viewers. For one, it’s about high school football as the center of all hopes, dreams, and tragedies – for teens and adults alike. For another, it is set in a small, dusty, conservative West Texas town, the fictional Dillon (the book takes place in Odessa, as does the film). The central characters are the Dillon Panthers’ head coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton); they go to an evangelical church and have a strong marriage and a smart, mostly well-behaved daughter (Aimee Teegarden). Gen-Xers may be imagining something along the lines of an ABC after-school special (Helen Hunt as Quarterback Princess anyone?). Well, yes and no. 2. Virginia Heffernan perhaps put it best in a 2008 article in the NY Times Magazine: "[Friday Night Lights] ferociously guards its borders, refines its aesthetic, defines a particular reality and insists on its authenticity." By guarding its “borders,” she means that FNL’s sole focus is on the episodes themselves, resisting what has become standard in TV marketing – online franchising in the form of tabloid features, extensive merchandising, and audience participation via wiki fan sites. According to Heffernan, this decision on the part of FNL’s producers might be a central reason for its modest-to-poor ratings – a mere 5-6 million viewers in Seasons One and Two, down to 3-4 million in Seasons Three and Four (compare with, say, American Idol, which has garnered some 25 million viewers, Heroes, with 13 million, or even Glee, with 9 million). A quick search reveals that, since 2008, merchandising and online community sites have expanded, but modestly, relatively speaking: 500,000 Facebook fans, compared with 12 million Glee fans or the 7 million fans of a completed series like Lost. It’s a crucial decision, if you think of FNL (and I do) as well-crafted art. The serial narrative – in both TV and literature – when offered up to fans as participants, can become vulnerable. Speaking about her recent article in the New Yorker about epic fantasy author George R.R. Martin, Laura Miller said, “The more invested your fans feel in your work… the more entitled they feel to complain… and hassle you… Your fans can become involved in speculating about what might happen next.” The creators of FNL are not interested in what fans want or need to happen to the characters, but rather about what must happen to them, in the world they’ve created. Writing about NBC’s decision to renew the series in 2007 for a second season, Heffernan wrote that “its survival has become small but meaningful evidence that goodness exists in prime time.” That we’ll be seeing the launch of season five on Friday – even as it will be the last – seems a small miracle of sorts. 3. Like Heffernan, and her counterpart at the New Yorker Nancy Franklin, I love Friday Night Lights. I am admittedly a latecomer (thank you, Maud Newton), and like many who love the show, was blindsided. I watched all four seasons on DVD, compulsively, over a period of about six weeks. In other words, I experienced the world of Friday Night Lights as if reading a long, absorbing novel – the conclusion to which I both eagerly anticipate (though I’ve avoided all spoilers and previews) and prematurely mourn. Marlon James once said in an interview that the most significant bit of advice he received from his teacher Colum McCann was to “risk sentimentality.” And perhaps this is the primary distinction between a network show and a cable show, a “family” show and an “adult” show – between FNL and its more glamorous and/or gritty literary-TV cousins. Friday Night Lights is something different, and welcome – an unflinching portrait of contemporary America that is not at all clever or ironic; that is both earnest and real; that dares you to care, and to embrace the notion that heart and personal morality are at the center of everything we do – regardless of what we say (or even write) – which is compelling indeed, in a pleasurably painful way, for those of us who traffic in the sometimes disconcertingly abstract world of words. The difference, for me, has been felt; I have been here before, after all – DVD marathons of entire series seasons crammed into a weekend or two. But unlike my previous TV love-affairs (a kind of serial monogamy: The West Wing, The Wire, Deadwood, Generation Kill, Breaking Bad and Mad Men; hopeful but underwhelming first-and-second dates with 24, Weeds, and In Treatment, and a brief infatuation with Glee), which have perhaps illuminated, impressed, and entertained more than they’ve moved me, this one has inspired deep emotional attachment – to the town of Dillon, to individual characters and their sagas, to the “particular reality” that Heffernan wrote about – an attachment that I’ve carried with me into my days, my moods, my human existence. When Coach Taylor initiates the zen-like call-and-response in the Panther locker room before each game – Clear eyes, full hearts – and the team erupts with primal conviction, Can’t lose!, I am convinced, utterly, of its truth. 4. The artistic merits of FNL are many – depth and complexity of characterization; impeccable casting and performances (Chandler and Britton are extraordinary, along with Brad Leland as a philandering yet endearing has-been quarterback who can’t let go, and Zach Gilford as the underdog second-string quarterback Matt Saracen who is thrust by tragedy into the QB1 position); rigorous authenticity of place, speech, and story-lines. Much has been written about the documentary-style shaky-cam aesthetic and intimate close-ups, which is nowhere near my area of expertise; but yeah, I’d say it works. Beyond these merits, what has surprised – and in a way instructed – me most is how effectively FNL employs what is essentially formulaic drama; that is, how aware we are of being immersed in a constructed moral universe, and yet how little the drama’s predictability compromises either one’s engagement or the show’s objective artfulness and excellence. For example, in Season Four, everyone’s favorite drunkard hunk Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) – a recently graduated Panther (fullback) who can’t sit through a college class to save his life – joins his older brother Billy in illegal activity, twice: once to steal copper wire so they can sell it, another time to strip down stolen cars. They need the money. They are good, downtrodden guys, albeit occasionally major fuck-ups. Billy has a baby on the way. Tim has his eye on a piece of land we all want him to have. They have no parents, no safety net, limited options. My viewing partner turned to me and said, “Are they gonna get away with it?” Immediately we knew the answer. Of course not. Why not? Because they’re taking a short cut. Short cuts come back to bite you in the world of FNL, everything must be earned. Tim doesn’t fit at college, we get this, we don’t blame him really; but still, he was offered a scholarship and he ditched it. (It’s complicated, this college thing; it’s your only way out of Dillon, but who's to say everyone should get out?) And yet, knowing the outcome, the process of their getting caught still makes for intricate drama; because they’re good guys, because they do and don’t deserve legal justice, because the characters have fucked up so many times but we want them to do better; and because Tim faces his fate with the largeness of character we know he has in him. Another example is the way the football action itself is used to advance plot. You almost always know what’s going to happen during a given game: some player is going to succeed or fail, according to the character’s dramatic journey. And yet it’s almost ridiculous how gripping it is to watch it unfold – Matt Saracen throwing interceptions and losing his QB1 spot to an upstart prick freshman in Season Three; running back Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) getting side-tackled hard while playing with a serious hip injury he’s kept secret throughout Season Four; geek-turned-kicker Landry Clark (Jesse Plemons) going for a 45-yard field goal in the final seconds of the final game of the season. All of Season Four is built around an underdog uphill climb for the ragtag East Dillon Lions (with Coach Taylor at the helm, now the victim of aforementioned prick freshman’s prick father’s maneuverings to get him transferred after a local gerrymandering debacle), and of course we know where it’s going: there’s nowhere to go but up. Still, the battle is replete with the absorbing defeats and triumphs of both game and life. Season Four is also where we see a more explicit emergence of racial issues (featuring The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan as the East Dillon quarterback), handled like everything else on the show – as part of the fabric of everyday life. 5. FNL reminds us that high school is an entire lifetime. Everything important that’s ever going to happen to you happens during those four years. If you weren’t convinced before, you believe it after four seasons. Emotions and relationships shift quickly and in major ways from episode to episode, and we buy it, because that’s how youth happens, that’s real life in America. The other dynamic that feels both TV-dramatic and real is that 1) bad things are always happening to good people; 2) good things do happen to the down-and-out; but then 3) bad things inevitably come back around to knock them down again. People heading for nowhere start to find a little bit of somewhere; people who have it easy get the ground pulled out from under them, and they slowly claw their way toward something real. Everyone is changing, evolving, regressing, progressing; predictably, yes, but also just like in life. And in the midst of all the chaos, the writers give us Coach Taylor and Tami – “no better depiction of married life and married love on TV right now” (wrote Nancy Franklin in 2007) – on whose door nearly every troubled teen and adult in town eventually knocks at some ungodly hour. 6. If you’re like me, if you approach TV-watching like monogamous love affairs – with books as priority, I want my TV to be good, I want it to be meaningful, and I want to commit – then give FNL a shot. Because what you also want is for your TV shows to offer something literary books sometimes don’t: a (passive) emotional ride driving an (active) soul-level engagement. FNL strikes this combination brilliantly. It’s TV for sure, and network TV; it might take you a few episodes to adjust, to get used to all the busty women and their half-naked outfits (I almost quit out of cleavage overload), to remember that this is high school in a dead-end town and that boys and girls verbalize how much they love each other pretty much hourly and make bad decisions even more frequently. But the creators of FNL have successfully shown me that this is a place and a group of people worth getting to know. If small-town West Texas is a place you might otherwise consider nowhere of consequence – like Simon’s inner-city Baltimore, or even Annie Proulx’s Wyoming, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg – FNL will change your mind, and I dare say your eyes and heart as well. In the immortal words of Coach Taylor (say it with a twang), “I promise you that.”
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Longtime readers of this blog may know that I'm an enthusiast of HBO's serial dramas... which these days is about as unique as being a Springsteen fan. (Which I also am, but nevermind). Still, I don't spend nearly as much time thinking about The Sopranos or Deadwood as I do thinking about books. And so it was only this week that I discovered that a "dream team" of crime novelists has taken over the writing of my new favorite show, The Wire.My wife had popped in the second disc of Season Three, and I heard myself say, "Wow, this is really well-written." Plot, character, and setting have always been The Wire's strong suits, but in this particular episode, the dialogue and symbolism attained a nearly Milchean richness. I jogged back to see who was credited with the teleplay, and found that it was... Dennis Lehane, of Mystic River fame.Turns out Richard Price, author of Blood Brothers and George Pelecanos, author of The Night Gardener are also sharing writing duties. I have a lot of respect for these three, for whom crime fiction is art, as well as entertainment. Price's Clockers may not be Faulkner, but the depth of its reportage on the drug trade elevate it far above the kind of by-the-numbers pulp that fills the airport racks. "I really admired that book," David Simon, creator of The Wire, told an interviewer. "It unearthed an entire world that had never been contemplated by the literary world. 'Clockers' paved the way for a lot of the split point of view that The Wire relies upon."And given the solitary nature of the novelist's art, the idea of these three, bound by geography and class sympathies as well as by trade, trading ideas over pizza and beer... well, it's enough to make a fellow writer jealous. Simon joked with a co-producer, "I got Pelecanos, Price and Lehane. Who do you want next year, Philip Roth?"Stranger things have happened. Quick - someone call Elmore Leonard's agent.
Seventeen years ago, when Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet hit the scene, I was in eighth grade, mouth gleaming with metal, hair rusted with Sun-In, and so randy for Leonardo DiCaprio that I watched him gambol and die three, or maybe four, times on the big screen. After one particularly fraught viewing, my best friend and I wrote his name in popcorn on the sidewalk. "Leo," formed the lips of the concerned passers-by. Three years prior, I had demanded that my parents take me to see Strictly Ballroom (again) on my birthday, with classmates in tow. The brooding Paul Mercurio paved the way for Leonardo lust, at a confusing fifth-grade time when I just wanted to do a coltish paso doble in front of a Coca Cola sign, but was also strangely agitated by the sight of glistening chest hair against white tank. Fast-forward to college, when I spent stretches of my freshman year listening to the dance remix of "Come What May" (from Moulin Rouge!) while playing a computer game called Snood and smoking cigarettes until my index finger turned yellow. It's safe to say that I have kind of a thing for the films of Baz Luhrmann. I had basically forgotten this thing until the meditative days leading to the release of The Great Gatsby, when, it is equally safe to say, I got into a kind of weird place. That I had arrived at said place was clear when I decided to listen to the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack for the first time in many years and, upon hearing the jangling guitars of Everclear's "Local God," burst into tears at my desk. There were several factors contributing to this outburst, but part of it was the appearance of residual shreds of feeling, artifacts from a time when sights and sounds and Leonardo--the Baz Luhrmann trifecta--went straight into the viscera. (You had better hope you don't spend your teen years taking in total garbage, because that's formative garbage.) When I read San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle opine recently that Romeo + Juliet was "too contemptible even to be called a desecration," I know that he never lay in virginal bed with headphones and discman, listened to Thom Yorke utter the eternal invitation "I'll be waiting, with a gun and a pack of sandwiches," and just felt so much. I have been waiting for The Great Gatbsy. I have been waiting, and listening to Des'ree sing the theme from Romeo + Juliet (and weeping), and admiring the new film's fabulous geometric gold-and-black title credits. I have been basking in the surge of enthusiasm for Art Deco, which happens to be my favorite among the Arts. In the past several weeks, I have seen a lot of commentary about not liking The Great Gatsby (the novel), followed by a second wave of tweets saying that saying you don't like the novel makes you seem like a douche. And I felt very above it all, because I have a void where the strong feelings about The Great Gatsby should be. A novel that all school-children read is a public benefit, like a park -- anyone can have a concert there or rent it out for a wedding. I love movies, but always forget to see them, and usually end up making some miscalculation where I miss every single good one and then see Fast and the Furious VI in the theater (or recently, the appalling Trance). But I was ready for Gatsby, ready for abandon and riots of feeling. And I went to the movie, even paid the extra dollars for 3D (I have never seen a 3D movie and had some anxiety about it, but really trusted the vision of Baz), and I left dry-eyed and just a little bit disappointed. Baz Luhrmann is so faithful to the text, in his way, and all the huge sets in the world cannot expand the essential narrowness and economy of Fitgerald's novel. By the time Daisy and Gatsby got together, I knew there weren't going to be any more parties. And as they neared the end of their doomed affair, I was actually sort of bored. I became resigned to watching Leonardo's strange orange glow and the stunning curve of Carey Mulligan's eyebrows. (For the record, I loved Carey Mulligan, and not just for her bewitching eyebrows and flawless skin. I liked Toby Maguire too--he achieved a good level of flaccid goodness and faint corruption.) There is such a thing as too much fidelity. What I enjoyed the most in the movie were the anachronisms and departures (which, of course, are largely embodied in the music). Is that Frank Ocean I hear? Yes, please. Is that Amy Winehouse as sung by Beyoncé and André 3000? Vibe, while Lothrop Stoddard rolls around in his unvisited grave. But I think Luhrmann's extravagant style needs something really sentimental at the back of it, and The Great Gatsby is a totally unsentimental story full of unsympathetic people. If there aren't going to be a lot of feelings, I needed more spectacle, more choreographed dance scenes (and ideally, fewer shooting stars and floating letters). As Fergie counsels on the soundtrack, "a little party never killed nobody." I still don't really understand what the 3D glasses were for. I did two things on an impulse today. I spent money (silly money, all things considered after the popcorn and aforementioned 3D tickets) on The Great Gatsby soundtrack, and I spent the afternoon at work shimmying and experiencing the terrible majesty of Lana Del Rey: "All that grace, all that body. All that face makes me wanna party." And then, back at home, I watched Romeo + Juliet again. Nothing in my life thus far has made me feel my age quite the same way--has made me feel that staid, ungenerous phrase, "I'm a married woman"--as that first glimpse of an absurdly young Leonardo DiCaprio. It made me go slightly cold, like realizing that I had experienced lustful thoughts for a Bieber. O, Leonardo! Of all the boy gamines whose faces I tore out of Seventeen and put around my room, only he remains on the screen, year after year. A candle still burns for him, in the dark windows of my heart--but not for his curiously bronzed Gatsby. As a character, Gatsby is unconvincing. As a Gatsby, Leonardo is unconvincing. I'm not certain whether that means he was successful or not. But I was not feeling it. Re-watching Romeo + Juliet, it amazed me how much I remember about that movie , how I recognized even the minor characters as old friends. When Leonardo or Claire Danes cocked an eyebrow, I knew all about it, because my best friend and I once catalogued all of their facial expressions and gestures. Thanks to that movie, I can today quote select words of the Bard with 100 percent more accuracy than from any other work of his I might name. You can't repeat the past, but at the end of the movie, I cried. Who knows if it was those rogue adolescent icebergs breaking off and ramming the oceanliner of adulthood, or if it was that deathless story, or the fact that Baz Luhrmann did a bona fide super job making it come alive. I kind of think all three. I cannot make an objective assessment of this new film, because the Season of Gatsby found me in my rowboat, attempting bold experiments in time travel and sensory recollection. But you have to save some sensations for the next generation. I made it through Gatsby with nary a tear shed. When the lights went up at the end of the show, however, the two girls in front of me turned to one another. One said simply, "That was emotional." And so we beat on.
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I saw an incredible movie on Friday night, The Triplets of Belleville. It's a very odd French, animated film. Barely two words are spoken the entire film; instead it is all raucous song and a canvas that is blissfully full of movement and energy. It was a joy to watch. Here's the trailer.More WoodyAs was discussed in the comments of my recent "bookfinding" post, it turns out that all three of Woody Allen's humor collections are available in a single volume entitled Complete Prose of Woody Allen. Or they were available, anyway. This one appears to be out of print, although used copies are for sale. Meanwhile, Ms. Millions has been attempting to read Without Feathers and has been unable to get very far because she can't stop laughing. Every time I look over she's silently guffawing, too winded to hold the book in front of her face. It reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about the world's deadliest joke.
Anyone fatigued with Game of Thrones, the socio-technological phenomenon — most illegal downloads! most on-line videos of viewers watching characters die! — may find their interest piqued by the show’s challenge to modern assumptions about adaptation and the idea of canon.
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