Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why I Am Bad at T.V. (but also great)

I recently made the decision, which may or may not have been influenced by a hearty amount of wine, to participate in Script Frenzy, a yearly event during which people from around the world attempt to write a 100-page play during the month of April. I should point out here that the last time I attempted to write a play was about 10 years ago, when I was a first-year at the Renaissance School for the Arts and took a playwriting class with the late Fred Gaines. I learned from this experience that writing a play is actually really, really hard -- especially if you write like I do, by which I mean if you find dialogue extremely challenging to write and rely heavily on description and pretty language to make it seem like something is happening when you write narrative. However, I'm coming back to give the medium another try for a number of reasons. I've been exploring the idea of dialogue and monologue within the medium of poetry recently, and also the idea of human voices acting as both a time marker, an instrument, and a mode of transportation for words. My friend Monica and I were discussing recently how exciting it must be to write a play and see it come to life through the eyes of directors and actors, and how in the case of film, the director has the privilege and responsibility to allow his or her imagination to become canonical. Think of books that you've seen remade into movies. If you read the book first and then saw the movie, are you able to remember what you thought the characters looked like before you saw the movie? Are you able to remember what you imagined the world to look like? I find that, in many cases (Harry Potter, anyone?), I can't. In a way, the director's imagination has superseded my own. I was telling Monica about the poem that I have fermenting that involves two parts, which I've recorded as my own speaking voice as a duet. Certainly, the choice (in this case made out of the necessity of 3 a.m. alone in my bedroom) to record both parts myself creates a certain canon effect. But what would happen if the voices were a man and a woman? Two men? What if the voices were very old? What if they had accents other than American? What if they had speech impediments? I've enjoyed imagining how actors would create the characters in my poems.

I've also been considering the role of good writing in TV, film, and stage. What makes it good? I might argue that what makes good writing is the ability to connect -- but how exactly does one accomplish that?

Consider the case of the show Huge (you can, and I recommend that you do, watch the whole thing on Hulu). After close to a year of hearing wonderful things about this show, and reading reviews by pop culture critics who hold similarly radical ideas (and how I wish these ideas didn't have to be radical!) as I do about the importance of diverse forms of media representation for minorities of all conceivable categories, I finally got around to watching the show. And I was totally floored. (This, right here, is why I am both good and bad at TV: I don't own one, and I don't watch TV all that frequently. It often takes repeated and persistent nudges from varied sources to convince me that maybe I should watch something. But, when I do and if I love it, invariably the show will have been cancelled by then. See: Arrested Development, Firefly, and now Huge.)

The show takes place at a "fat camp," and deals primarily with the friendships that form among the teenagers that are the campers. But I don't think that description would have compelled me to watch the show -- after all, I've never been overweight, and I've definitely never been to fat camp. What makes Huge extraordinary, though, is that on some level, I could identify with every single character. Especially as someone who has gone through the different stages of camp life -- from camper to counselor to program director -- there was so much that rang true for me, or reminded me of someone close to me. There are some scenes that are so true that they were sometimes difficult to watch. There's the fickleness & fidelity of close teenage friendships and the heartbreak that so frequently accompanies it, the goofiness of being a camp counselor and putting on a happy face and jazz hands through the most challenging of situations, the conundrum of what to do when a camper's parents just won't leave, and how to tell a camper sensitively that he or she needs to employ better hygiene. There's the utter fear that the boy you like will read your journal. There's the feeling of ascending in the camp hierarchy to feel the pressure of living up to those that came before you. There's the navigation of making peace with your body, despite whether it conforms to what's accepted culturally as acceptable.

And Huge's ability to make all the characters ring true is its triumph. And I think that's a big part of good writing, and something to shoot for in my own screenplay. How do you make the audience ache when your character makes a bad decision? How to make them grieve for failures and celebrate for victories? It all seems like both the hardest and the most important thing (amazing how many times these two categories seem to overlap).

For those of you who are going to watch and are interested in reading some commentary -- I recommend Lesley Kinzel, who writes the blog Two Whole Cakes. You can read her comments on Huge here. She's an extremely perceptive and funny writer -- I'm actually going to see her live with Marianne Kirby (event info here) in a few weeks. Occasionally, she writes something in her recaps that makes me cackle with glee, such as her description of George, the counselor on Huge who is the most conventionally-attractive male character, as looking "about as tough as a baby lemur." (Funny because it's true, and also, how cute are baby lemurs?!)

Oh, also, as a very important PS -- Gina Torres, who plays Zoe on Firefly, plays the director of the camp. I think she is a totally spectacular actress, and it seems like she picks great projects, so I look forward to seeing what she does next. (Although, it is probable that in everything I see her in, a part of my brain will say, "Why, Zoe?! You're supposed to be with Wash!") Also, one of the campers is played by Hayley Hasselhoff, who is David Hasselhoff's daughter. And if I'm mentioning that, I definitely need to mention that the show's main character, Will, is played by Hairspray's Nikki Blonsky. And Gina Torres's character's dad is totally the dad in Sixteen Candles, and his character is awesome because it's very reasons-why-your-dad-is-funny. The cast is overall spectacular. There are just so many reasons why this show is awesome -- beyond what I've mentioned so far, it's so refreshing to see race, class, disability, sexual orientation, and gender expression explored in a sensitive way on a mainstream TV show. It's what Glee tries to be, but fails. Oh, also, when was the last time you saw a TV show take a nuanced view on eating disorders, and even showed that in order to have one, you don't have to be thin? Never? Yeah, me either.

This concludes my diversion from screenplay-writing! And now, back to work/play.

EDIT: Oh, and just one last thing! Somebody found this blog the other day by Googling "I have so much street cred..." I have never been so proud of anything. Srsly. #streetcredFTW

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