It will surprise exactly no one to learn that one of my formative influences was J. Michael Straczynski’s science fiction novel for television, BABYLON 5. In retrospect, it’s a big part of what made me want to be a writer, and specifically a screenwriter. It also shaped many of my views on morality, ethics, and, yes, politics.
One of the storylines that played out over the first four seasons was how a duly-elected president of the Earth Alliance slowly turned into a democracy into a totalitarian dictatorship, and how its citizens cheered him on with each new measure that slowly eroded their rights. Some of his tactics:
Campaigning on a platform to put “Earth first.”
Declaring that he would return to the principles that made Earth great.
Stirring up anti-alien sentiment.
Stoking fear about an enemy who was out to destroy their way of life.
Ousted government officials and replaced them with people loyal only to him.
Encouraging the electorate to turn on each other.
Threatening journalists who challenged him with jail.
Questioning the sanity of dissenters.
Questioning the patriotism of those who disagreed with his extreme measures.
The election of 2258. I’m with her.
Even as a 13 year old watching in 1997, this stuff didn’t go over my head. The parallels to history were clear, even to me, and none more so than the allusions to Hitler’s rise to power. At the time I actually recall thinking the show would sometimes veer into the heavy-handed with that story. I mean, we all learned about this in school. We’re not idiots, we’ve learned from history. Did we really need such an obvious parable?
A few years later, 9/11 happened, and all of a sudden I was seeing and hearing talk everywhere that reverberated in my mind. Where had I heard this kind rhetoric before? Oh, right. Babylon 5.
So it turns out that yes, yes we absolutely do need parables like Babylon 5. We need to be reminded over and over of lessons from history because otherwise we get complacent, and we forget, and we let it all happen again. And again. And again.
To invoke it is to make the point that you’ve run out of anything substantive to talk about. Usually it’s a justifiable way to shut down an argument.
But with that said, here’s my question: at what point is it okay to call a spade a spade?
There’s a TED Ed video titled “How did Hitler rise to power?”
Here are some excerpts:
The Germans felt they had been betrayed in World War I by politicians and protesters. Hitler’s bigotry and paranoid delusions led him to pin the blame on Jews. His words found resonance among many anti-semitic people.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews had integrated into German society, but many Germans continued to perceive them as outsiders. After WWI, Jewish success led to ungrounded accusations of subversion and war profiteering. It can not be stressed enough that these conspiracy theories were born out of fear, anger, and bigotry. Not fact.
Combining anti-semitism with populist resentment, [Hitler’s] manipulative public speaking drew increasingly larger crowds.
After the German economy collapsed in 1929, Hitler took advantage of the people’s anger, offering them convenient scapegoats and promising to restore Germany’s former greatness.
Left-wing opposition was too fragmented by internal squabbles to handle the crisis, and so the frustrated public fled to the Nazis.
In 1932, Hitler ran for president, losing the election to decorated war hero General Von Hindenburg. But with 36% of the vote, Hitler had demonstrated the extent of his support.
Advisors and business leaders convinced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor, hoping to channel his popularity for their own goals.
Hitler steadily expanded the power of his position while his supporters formed paramilitary groups and fought protesters in the streets.
Hitler raised fears of a communist uprising, and argued that only he could restore law and order.
In 1933 a young worker was convicted of setting fire to the parliament building. Hitler used the event to convince the government to grant him emergency powers.
Within a matter of months, freedom of the press was abolished, other parties were disbanded. and anti-Jewish laws were passed.
Disturbingly, many of Hitler’s early measures didn’t require mass repression. His speeches exploited people’s fear and ire to drive their support behind him and the Nazi party.
Meanwhile, businessmen and intellectuals, wanting to be on the right side of public opinion, endorsed Hitler. They assured themselves, and each other, that his more extreme rhetoric was only for show.
Decades later, Hitler’s rise remains a warning about how fragile democratic institutions can be in the face of angry crowds and a leader willing to feed their anger and exploit their fears.
Look. I don’t believe that Donald Trump plans to systematically exterminate Muslims. Though, to be fair, I’m sure most Germans in 1932 didn’t believe he was planning to exterminate the Jews either.
But the question lingers: how could the German people have known what was about to happen? How can we know?
History. History is how we can know. If Babylon 5 can make it obvious to a 13-year old, it shouldn’t be much a challenge for an adult of voting age who’s ever read a fucking book.
So a hypothetical Trump supporter is either unaware of these parallels or they see them and they’re simply not bothered. It’s one or the other. And while there are genuine neo-Nazis and white supremacists living among us (the sometimes painful price of pluralism, folks–but still worth it), I have a question for the Trump supporter who falls into the latter category. A genuine, honest-to-God question: is there anything Donald Trump could say or do that would concern you? I’m not trying to troll or antagonize. I’m trying to understand.
I think these are things fundamentally absent in the American character. But that doesn’t mean that Americans are above falling prey to those same tactics. That doesn’t mean we can’t falter. That doesn’t meant that people aren’t scared and ready to run into the arms of a strongman authoritarian ruler.
Do I think Donald Trump is evil? No. But I think he’ll do anything to win, anything to be loved, anything to get the biggest numbers. And he’s found success with this particular rhetoric and this particular group of embittered people.
But if they turn out enough support, I’m sure he’ll have no compunction about doing whatever will make them love him more.
In times like these I find myself asking: What Would John Sheridan Do?
Addendum: I also wanted to note the passing of Jerry Doyle last week at 60, the actor who played Security Chief Michael Garibaldi on B5. He’s the latest in a long line of B5 regulars who died much, much too soon: Andreas Katsulas, Richard Biggs, Jeff Conaway, and Michael O’Hare. jms wrote an honest and heartfelt tribute to Jerry Doyle that deserves a read. All I can add is that Garibaldi, as created both by jms and Mr. Doyle, was a character who taught me that it was possible to fight your demons and win. But also that the fight is never truly over.
Recently I wrote that I confuse my tendency to focus on positive aspects of a piece rather than the negative for a difficulty forming strong opinions. Because critics tend to be the loudest and most certain, they must be smarter than me to be have such certainty.
But obviously that’s bullshit. I have very strong opinions about many things. I just usually concentrate on what works rather than what doesn’t because I want to like things and I want them to work. It’s a mistake to confuse that with not having a critical eye.
Now that I’ve given myself permission to like things that other people don’t without feeling like I’m not as smart as they are, I’ve realized that the flipside is also true. It’s okay to not like things that other people like. This too can be a difficult proposition: when popular consensus swings one way, it’s natural to wonder how you can miss something that everyone else seems to get.
I’m not a fan of the Lord of the Rings. I’ve read the books, seen the movies, and it just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve horrified people with that opinion. I’ve sat patiently while they explain to me all the reasons why it’s so good, and I understand. I’d feel obligated to articulate why I didn’t like it, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter one iota. I just don’t like it. Enough said.
There’s a tendency to confuse having a contrarian opinion with having extra-super discerning taste (especially on the part of the contrarian). That is, of course, absurd. People who like Lord of the Rings are not stupid.
It’s possible to acknowledge a valid point while still maintaining your overall opinion. And it’s important that you allow yourself to be swayed by what others say, or else we’re just talking to hear ourselves talk and missing out on having a meaningful conversation.
So now you’ve considered and deliberated and have solidified your opinion. Great. The only other thing you need to know? Don’t be a dick about it.
I grew up with the Ghostbusters films. I love them to pieces. (Yes, even the second one.) I had a proton pack. “Egon Spengler” entertained at my fifth birthday party in lieu of a clown. When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became all the rage I clung to my Ghostbusters action figures in an early example of fan loyalty.
Basically, my Ghostbusters bonafides are pretty spectacular for someone who wasn’t of theater-going age when the original movie came out.
That said, I’ve never liked the idea of a Ghostbusters 3. Coming so long after the 80s films, it just seemed too likely to veer into nuke-the-fridge territory. Doubly so after the death of Harold Ramis. When most of the appeal of the movie is already predicated upon seeing the original cast together again, continuing without a major member of that cast would only make the loss more acute.
Nor did I like the idea of a reboot film. That is, I didn’t until the announcement of a reboot with an all-female cast. That, at least on the surface, seemed like a different enough take on the material that it might be something unique and special in its own right. And the notion of gender-bending a “boy’s movie” has the added bonus of being a somewhat progressive, even subversive proposition, which is always a good thing in my book. I’d even go as far to say that it’s worth doing on that basis alone.
…but now there’s come the news that there is another Ghostbusters film in the works, this one with a male cast. Coming so close on the heels of the announcement of the all-female reboot, and immediately staking out its territory as a “guy-centric” Ghostbusters film, it’s hard not to see this as anything other than a lack of confidence in the “girl movie.” And there’s an uncomfortable implication that the female-led film is somehow not worthy of carrying the Ghostbusters mantle on its own. That it’s not a “real” Ghostbusters movie.
Suffice to say, this is problematic at best. I know that Akroyd and director Ivan Reitman are protective of their franchise, and it seems to me that they either weren’t included or weren’t interested in the direction the studio wanted to go with it. I wasn’t in the room and I have no idea who objected to what and why. I just know that the end result is a situation that, well, looks pretty damn sexist. I’m not saying there was any conscious sexism on the part of anyone involved, but that’s the thing about sexism. It’s sneaky. And it doesn’t have to be conscious to exist.
I’m also sick of hearing people arguing against the movie on the basis that it’s “ruining their childhood.” Grow up. We’re living in a post-Star Wars prequels age. We know how to get over disappointment. Reboots and sequels get made and they don’t always live up to our expectations, but our childhoods are still there as we left them. (Assuming you have left, that is.)
This particular remake actually has something going for it, because there should be an all-female Ghostbusters in 2015. It’s sad that women have to fight to prove that they’re just as funny or capable as men, and this reboot is a statement that unfortunately still needs to be made as loudly and as clearly as possible.
But the best reason to make this reboot is that it’s going to be fucking funny. The boys are going to have their work cut out for them. I just wish we didn’t have to highlight and strengthen divisions between the sexes by feeling the need to make a “guy’s movie” in response.
I’m impressed by critics. After watching something for the first (or maybe second) time, they have to form a strong and distinct position that they have to be able to stand behind. Every so often I’ll come away from a movie or a TV show with such a fully-formed, opinion, but just as often I find I need time to articulate exactly what I think.
Take the most recent season of House of Cards. I had the luxury of being able to hole up one weekend and excitedly watch all 13-episodes in two days. I came away with generally positive feelings, and as is my routine after watching something new, I quickly went online to read what other people had to say about it.
I was very surprised by what I found.
There are a couple of message boards that I read regularly, and the House of Cards thread was, well, pretty damn negative. There’s always some hyperbole on internet forums, and some people just get their kicks in by sniping from the sidelines, but the general consensus was that this season was not of the same quality as the first two. There were some very articulate arguments to back up these judgments, and I read them with an open mind. There were valid points, even some that had already crossed my mind. But it was the certainty that struck me the most. How right they were and how wrong the show was.
There they were, laid out point-by-point, all the reasons why the show was objectively bad and why I, therefore, was stupid for not realizing it. Maybe these people were smarter than me. Or maybe I just don’t have strong opinions about things.
After a bit more thought I shrugged away both of those thoughts. No, I’m not stupid, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I have very strong opinions about very many things. So why, then, such a disparity between my opinion and theirs?
That’s a big question, but here’s my first grasp at an answer: I want to like things. Did I like everything about House of Cards season three? No, but nothing so glaring that it hampered my enjoyment of the piece. I’m willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt, especially knowing that they have a guaranteed fourth season coming down the pike. Maybe some of the things that made my antennae stand up will make more sense after seeing how they play out next year. I don’t know. But I do know that this latest season was far, far better than many of these armchair critics were making it out to be.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion when it comes to something as subjective as a piece of creative work. I grant that. But I’d wager that not one of these hyperbolic internet posters has ever written a novel, or directed a film, or produced a television series. Or maybe they just like feeling smart, and pointing out flaws in a work demonstrates their superiority more than showering praise. Part and parcel of any creative pursuit is acknowledging the risk that your ideas might not work the way you hope. Many writers and directors admit they fear being “found out” as a fraud, that everything good they’ve done until that point was a fluke.
It takes courage to do that. Certainly more courage than sniping from the sidelines.
See reddit user beardsayswhat’s original list of “unpopular” screenwriting opinions here.
1. Most amateur screenwriters write movies they wouldn’t see. I read a lot of loglines that are poorly written, but even if they were snappy and sharp, they’re for what could be generously described as character dramas and more accurately as tedious faux-deep nonsense. Write rad shit. Write things people want to see.
If there was ever a point where I would have bristled at advice like this, I can’t remember it now. This is just common sense, and frankly, I don’t understand why this would be an unpopular opinion. Maybe some read that and think he’s advocating becoming a sell-out, or to stick to churning out formulaic, commercial fare. But what he’s really saying is don’t be boring. Not to never write something experimental, or that explores real issues, or that says something important. Do any or all of those things. Just don’t be boring while you do it.
As for bit where he seems to shit on character dramas, I don’t think he means you can never write a character drama, or that your high-concept script shouldn’t include strong character drama. Remember, this is advice for non-established screenwriters. Writers who are trying to get noticed. A screenplay about a lovelorn white guy who finds new meaning in life when he meets his manic pixie dream girl isn’t going to raise any eyebrows. (I admit that The Lionshare has surface similarities to some of those cliches, but I think it successfully tells a story with deeper meaning. Plus I made that movie seven years ago, sue me.)
Don’t be boring. That’s a great motto. You know how to tell if you’re writing something boring? If you are bored while you’re writing it. Even if you think you’re writing something with limited appeal, if you have enthusiasm for the material, that enthusiasm will come through. Enthusiasm is infectious. Don’t be boring.
This also doesn’t mean you have to write something that appeals to everybody. If it excites you, there are others out there who will feel the same.
In my last entry I gushed over meeting Ronald D. Moore. You know one of the most important things I learned from him? Not to treat your characters, or your stories, like porcelain dolls. There’s no reason to play it safe when you’re writing a story. You can, and should, take risks. If what you’re writing feels perfunctory, take a step back and re-evaluate. What’s the craziest thing that could happen in your story? How would it change things? What if you, gulp, went ahead and did it?
Go ahead. Kill that character. Jump a year ahead in time. Have the will they/won’t they relationship be consummated between seasons when no one is looking. How did that change things?
Maybe you decide it’s not right. That’s fine. It’s probably not a good idea to shock for shock’s sake. Whatever you do should work within context and should enhance the story you’re trying to tell. But, at the very least, this is a good exercise to challenge yourself and make sure what you’re writing is the best, and most interesting, that it can be.