Films About Fiction: ‘Paper Man’ and ‘The Answer Man’

I’m putting these two movies in the same post because Jeff Daniels plays essentially the same character in both. They also came out in the same year, 2009. And not coincidentally they both have the word ‘man’ in the title.

These movies are about a man. He is struggling with middle age, coming to grips with his life and the choices/mistakes he made; he is learning to accept himself.

But at first he’s deeply unhappy. Despite being a successful writer, or perhaps because of it, he is an emotional child. He’s not a misanthrope — and therefore of no relation to the type we saw in Young Adult (2011). This guy actually likes people.  

But he hates himself.

Because of his self loathing, he’s isolated, experiencing ennui, and in need of companionship. He’s a hermit and a sad sack.

In The Answer Man, he’s written a book of Q&A’s with God and now everybody thinks he can actually talk to God, only he can’t, so he’s living a lie. In Paper Man, he’s written a novel, and it was a failure, so now he’s having writer’s block and generally lamenting his unproductive life (he also never had kids). The misery leads to outlandish behavior, a.k.a. hijinks, until he meets a woman who sets him straight.

We’ve got this guy who can’t seem to figure himself out and acts like a jerk until he’s ‘fixed‘ through a positive encounter with a person of the opposite sex, in one case romantically and in the other case more father-daughter.

So why a writer? Why not make this man an office drone burnout (like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt).  Because writers in films are generally indulged their eccentricities the way ‘normal’ people are not.  In fact, their idiosyncrasies are mined for entertainment value — and middle-aged writers especially are depicted as introverts struggling with inner demons (think Paul Giamatti in Sideways or Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction. For that matter, think of the protagonist of Adaptation or any movie penned by Spike Jonze).

By virtue of a certain artistic mystique, these characters allow the audience to indulge in empathetic sympathy for that neurotic self-torment we all engage in to some degree.

Notably, being writers also allows them to wax eloquent about things perceived as beyond the ken of everyday folks — in the case of these two films, that thing is spirituality and the extirpation of the heath hen. This is useful for the screenwriters, I guess, as it gives them a soap box.

Perhaps these everyman heros have to be writers simply because that makes them easy proxies for the screenwriter. And, therefore, to a lesser extent, us all. All insecurities manifest.

Films, Uncategorized

Films About Fiction: Young Adult

Young Adult (2011) works on that shopworn trope of the writer as misanthrope to tell the story of a prom queen soured with age, returning to her home town to try to suck the life out of her high school sweetheart’s happy marriage.  Meanwhile, she drinks too much and works on the final novel in a teen romance series.  That’s the plot, but plot is the least interesting thing about this movie.

Instead it’s a character study of author-protagonist Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a woman self-absorbed to the point of absurdist satire.  For screenwriter Diablo Cody there was something inherently progressive about portraying a woman this emotionally retarded:

I knew a lot of people like Mavis—not as malicious as her, but who are kind of slovenly immature like her, which is the opposite of the way we’re used to seeing women portrayed. I relate to that really strongly and wondered why we didn’t see them in movies. When the movie came out, sure enough, I had so many women tell me that Mavis reminded them of themselves—which I’m proud of, because it’s tough to admit that you’re like Mavis.

Young Adult movie poster

Cody goes on to compare her to a Kardashian, but why then was it necessary to make Mavis a writer?  Why not make her a TV personality or some kind of dilettante (or both)?  Well, we wouldn’t have that great title, for one thing, and for another the kind of books that Mavis writes form a sort of commentary on the kind of person she is.

Although Mavis does several things that are traditional of writers in the movies — struggles to put words into her laptop, eavesdrops for inspiration, and writes in voice over — she is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the similarly self-indulgent character of Hank Moody in Californication.  She has achieved a modicum of notoriety as a writer, at least in her home town, but she has done it by writing someone else’s books.

She may be loath to cop to her true status, but Mavis is just the latest hack hired to tackle one of these never-ending series upon which the publishers continue to slap a popular author’s name (even after the author is dead), and then foist upon the YA market.  I guess those books sell, because from what I can tell it’s an increasingly common practice.

In any case, Cody is using the novels — and the YA genre as a whole — as a metaphor for Mavis’s shallow, hollow self-involvement.  Govindini Murty summed it up pretty succinctly in her Huffington Post analysis:

Charlize Theron’s Mavis embodies all the narcissism of modern popular culture. She’s obsessed with reality TV (the Kardashians drone on in the background of several scenes), a medium that has elevated the navel gazing of minor celebrities to the level of major entertainment. Mavis writes young adult novels that are only thinly-disguised relivings of her own high-school glory days, and she’s otherwise obsessed with appearances and shallow celebrity status. The film repeatedly shows Mavis studying herself in the mirror — either in depressed self-loathing after an alcoholic bender, or with vain self-satisfaction as she puts on makeup to impress her former boyfriend.

All of this comes together in one ridiculous, yet poignant scene:  Mavis arrives at a bookstore in her hometown to find copies of her novels stacked together on a table.  After she convinces the clerk that they’re her novels, despite the fact that there is a famous author’s name on the cover, he tells her this display is the final effort of the store to sell them, and nobody is buying.

Hiding her hurt, Mavis offers to sign the books to increase their value, but the clerk stops her because the books can’t be remaindered if someone has written in them.  In one blow he crushes what little of her self esteem was left.  And, of course, she tries to sign them anyway, because when they disappear so will the proof positive that she ever amounted to anything special.

Films, Writing Tips

Films About Fiction: Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris (2011) is a Woody Allen film about a fantasy many writers have of living among their idols in the past, and features lovingly sketched caricatures of Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others.

To the delight of Gil Pender, the nebbish screenwriter who is magically transported from our time to theirs, these luminaries cavort through the Paris night demanding that artists love passionately and speak truly. Whereas Gil is only now learning to follow his bliss.

The most cringeworthy moment, for Gil, is one in which his shallow and derisive fiance and her pretentious friends dismiss his literary aspirations as sentimental fantasies. They’re right, of course, but speak with a total disregard for his feelings. The crux of their criticism is that Gil is too cowardly to show his novel to anyone and not enough interested in other people’s opinions.

That’s all set to change, however, when Gil steps through the looking glass and into a flapper party straight out of the Twenties. There he encounters his literary idols and, immediately entranced, starts asking them to read his work. Apparently, he wasn’t afraid, he just wanted the evaluation of somebody he considered truly worthy. That or he had the good sense not to show it to his mean-spirited companions.

Finding readers is an interesting conundrum for writers. It must be done, but you’re almost certain not to like what they have to say. Good critiques push for improvements, sometimes contradictory ones, and it’s up to the author to sift for gems. On top of that, hearing criticism requires an ego strong enough to withstand it. There are those that thrive by this process and those who wither.

In Paris in the 1920s of course, writers workshops did not exist as they do now. Instead they had salons, the most famous of which was Gertrude Stein’s. These meetups served some of the same purpose as a writing group, but without the formalities. Gil visits a salon and gets direct input of the most basic sort. He is told to fix one big thing, and in a single day rewrites the first four chapters. In reality this is not how these things work, of course.

Peter Turchi has a thoughtful and realistic discussion of writer workshops at his website. He describes them as laboratories and medical theaters, acknowledging that they can be instructive, but warning that they are too often “intent on finding fault.” Turchi says all writers have “horror stories to tell: stories about rude behavior, harsh comments, savage ‘advice,’ someone trying to dictate how someone else should write, writers in tears, writers enraged, or friends who feel obliged to ‘defend’ each others’ work.”

The reasons for this are reflected in the film when the Hemingway character, asked if he will read Gil’s novel, says something to the effect of, “I already know that I will hate it. If it’s bad, I will hate it because it’s bad, if it’s good I will hate it because I did not write it. All writers are competitors.”

To get away from the jealousies and trash talk, Turchi recommends focusing on a work’s intentions first and then taking the foray into craft.

One of the most useful things a workshop can do for the writer is to reflect the intention of the work back to her. It is of course helpful to give the writer suggestions for developing the work; and it’s useful for every writer to learn to diagnose the ailments of a draft that falls short. But falls short of what? If the conversation doesn’t begin by trying to recognize the work’s intention, there’s a great risk that the suggestions offered will be suggestions for ways to make the story what the speaker thinks it should be, or could be, or might be.

This puts the critique firmly on the side of the author, and to my mind that’s the only place to be in a workshop. In this regard, Midnight in Paris may be a bit flip with the details, but its feeling is correct. What Gil gets at the salon is a thoughtful critique, delivered in a respectful manner, with no other intention save the improvement of the work. He takes this critique to heart, and produces something better.

At some point Gil quotes Hemingway to himself, saying that all modern American literature can be traced back to Huckleberry Finn. Twain is a great example in critique, too; he always shared his unpublished manuscripts with “a private group of friends.” In the following video, read by John Lithgow, Twain describes the 14 types of people whose opinions he sought. It’s an amusing and insightful look at how writers get feedback.

Who is Mark Twain? from Flash Rosenberg on Vimeo.


Films About Fiction: Californication Season 1

The main character in Californication is novelist Hank Moody (David Duchovny).  Hank has a bestselling book, God Hates Us All, that got turned into some crappy movie and that got him to L.A., made him rich and pissed him off.  Now his wife has left him and his life is ruined.  Seriously, that’s the plot.

The fact that Hank is a writer is, to use the proper term, a narrative device.  The show, at least in Season 1, isn’t much about writing.  The closest Hank gets is tossing his laptop against the floor in frustration, because he can’t write.  When he does finally write something, it happens off screen.

The thing is, Hank isn’t really a writer anyway.  Not in any realistic sense.  His life isn’t about sitting around thinking about syntax, grammar and all that literary garbage.  Hank’s life is all about easy women, drugs and booze, and sleazy adventures.  Hank is a sexy boy-man; God’s gift to women except the one he wants.

Hemmingway, Mailer, Kerouac, et al., notwithstanding, writing is not a highly manly pursuit.  You don’t kill anything or even chop down any trees.  There’s no grunting or sweating.  It mainly involves sitting in a chair.  If it is historically associated with men, that’s only because men were for a large portion of history the only gender educated in writing.  Nevertheless, there is a sort of myth or legend of the male writer as certain kind of man, and Californication works that legend as its fulcrum.

I don’t want to bag on the show too much, though, since I kinda love it, and also because embodying this mythological writer being has Ducovney producing some of his best acting since he was a transsexual FBI agent on Twin Peaks a million years ago.  But, I have to make the point, Californication is not about writing or being a writer.  It’s about being a *rock star*.  Although, in this case, that rock star happens to be rocking out on an Underwood.Californication Season 1

(Yes, literally.  The fact that he uses a typewriter for the one thing he writes becomes a major plot point.)

What gives the show its narrative drive, what it gets, is the dynamics between men and women.  Hank, whose baby momma left him because he never ‘put a ring on it,’ is sleeping with anyone and everyone who comes along.  And lots of people come along, one or two in every episode.  The way he flirts with, beds or avoids bedding all of these various L.A. tarts, is what the show is about and what makes it fun.

Californication is only about writing in the way that Sex in the City is about being a columnist — it’s a convenient setup.  It bears other unfortunate resemblances to that show, as well, but with the genders, and coasts, reversed.


Films About Fiction: 2012

For my second entry in ‘Films About Fiction’ I’ve decided to examine 2012.   I don’t know, I guess it was the only movie I could find that was actually less appropriate than Re-Cycle.  This flick is all about blockbuster eschatology and big budget special effects, but it’s also unexpectedly about the redemptive power of fiction.

Make of this what you will, but 2012 was very good at making me worry about how to navigate beneath vast quantities of seawater without being crushed by gigantic debris. And the fact that the protagonist was a writer only aided my escapist enjoyment.  (Especially as any elements of metafiction were very well buried.)

Played by John Cusack, this protagonist is a young novelist whose first novel, Farewell Atlantis, sold an unsatisfactory number of copies.  And he appears not to be working much on his next effort.  Instead he’s become a limo driver … and his wife’s left him … and his children don’t respect him … and etc.  He’s down on his luck and probably suffering from writer’s block, and thus the film can do away with any need to depict the work of writing and instead embrace frenetic, stupefying destruction for the entirety of its 2 hours and 38 minutes.

It’s a techno-thriller retelling of Noah’s Arc, what the director calls a “biblical flood movie,” but one that has more in common with Tom Clancy than the Old Testament.  The fact that Cusack plays a writer isn’t particularly important to the plot.  But his book, which is a fictional version of exactly what the characters find themselves facing, becomes an inspiration to people who are trying to do the right thing in a time when it’s all but impossible.  Get it?  It’s a statement about the ability of fiction to inspire!  Trite perhaps, but a nice touch in an otherwise unintellectual exercise in action adventure.

And, if you think about it, it’s also a comment by the film on its own status as a work of art.  The implication being that even trashy fictions can be important and influential.  April fools?


Films About Fiction: Re-Cycle (Gwai wik)

It’s a new year and I’m going to inaugurate my first blog feature: Films About Fiction. The writing process is probably one of the least interesting things to watch, right up there with doing dishes, so why are there so many motion pictures that feature author protagonists? That’s what we’ll try to find out. And the first, and probably worst, flick I am choosing (completely randomly) to explore this with is Re-Cycle (2006), by the Pang Brothers.

This Hong Kong horror fantasy is about a young woman writer under pressure to follow up her successful trilogy of tragic romance novels.  Being a genre film, she’s super cute, and she’s decided to write about ghosts!  Cue spooky music.

“They say writing about spirits brings them to life,” her friend warns.

Sure enough, as soon as she gets to work, strange things start to happen.  It’s almost as though the characters she’s creating, starting with  a long-haired, oddly lanky female protagonist with “a strong will to live,” are coming to life.  In one of my favorite moments, the pieces of scrunched up paper in her waste paper basket (these things are ubiquitous in films about writers) even start coming to life and crawling around the floor, getting her to reconsider drafts that she’s thrown out.

Soon the writing is taking over; she can’t delete what she wants to delete, and she finds herself acting out the things that she writes.  Then the spirits reveal themselves, and she crosses over into a “lost world of abandoned things.”

Apparently, all the thoughts that writers have and then scrunch up and throw into waste paper baskets don’t go away, instead they end up in this other world as living breathing entities, who have to get along with everything else that has ever been thrown out:  toys, deceased relatives, aborted fetuses. So, you’ve got zombies and stuffed animals running around and well, pretty much everything else, apparently even half-assed architecture, all squished together, and broken, in a realm built mostly from the motifs of your typical mythological underworld.

And, for no reason at all, parts of the world occasionally disintegrate the way they do when they’re eaten up by the Nothing in of The Neverending Story (an important work of metafictional fantasy I promise to discuss at length later).  What this disintegration might mean is never explored, because the movie is more about running away from scary things rather than considering the implications of them.  It’s also, it turns out at the end, a sublimated love story.

The protagonist, see, was abandoned by her lover and, well, you can put the rest together, it doesn’t really tell us much about fiction.  Except to say you shouldn’t give up, not on yourself or on your ideas. Fiction is a lot of work, requires many rewrites and often gets neglected entirely by audiences.  But fiction also has important stories to tell.  And they can be as real in their way as the memories of living people who have passed away.

Was Gwai wik any good?  That’s up to someone else to tell you; I’m not writing film reviews on this blog, just exploring some implications.