Simple Films and Complex Lives, Composing, 10/04/2014

Because I can’t spoil my philosophical work about this Social Epistemology review on my blog, I’m going to talk about writing today. In particular, I’m going to write about Wonderboys, an old film from 2000 that I saw in theatres. I was one of about 47 people who saw it in theatres, and as my friend B sells off his DVD collection before moving to a different encoding region, I picked up his copy (along with Life of Brian and Viridiana). 

Watching this movie when I was 17 made quite an impression on me, and I was glad to watch it again. It got me interested in Michael Chabon’s novels, and I later picked up a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. I liked it just fine at the time, and eventually loaned it to my friend D. I didn’t get it back before he went to China for two years, and now he lives in Vancouver, so I don’t exactly see him that often. I don’t take it personally, though. I’ve kind of soured on Chabon’s books over the years. The stories are collisions of wildly implausible coincidences. They make poetic sense, but I just don’t jive with that kind of writing anymore.

But the thought I had about the wildly implausible plot of Wonderboys and Kavalier and Klay doesn’t really apply to the kind of idea I want to talk about right now. Really, Chabon’s narratives are structured like screwball comedies: crazily improbable events and eccentric characters who make darkly poetic statements about life colliding in one enormous clusterfuck of a story where, despite the apparent chaos, all the parts fit together, and everything constitutes a coherent and internally consistent spatial-temporal-social whole. When I was younger and got angrier about this sort of thing, I would have written about the ridiculous implausibility of such plotting arrangements. Now, I just say that I prefer to write other kinds of stories.

Wonderboys featured a lot of beautifully lit shots of
Michael Douglas looking very confused.
But a thought occurred to me as I was thinking about the storyline of Wonderboys last night, after watching it again for the first time in about a decade. Spoiler-free, here’s the basic plot of Wonderboys. Michael Douglas plays a college creative writing professor who has basically sunk into a rut trying to follow up his successful first novel. His current manuscript has just passed the 2600th page, it’s full of ridiculous details, he’s a regular marijuana user, and it only ever seems to stabilize him in the same non-productive pattern he’s been on for the last seven years. The movie is about the absolutely mad weekend of wildly implausible coincidences that inspires him to pull himself back together, take responsibility for himself, and reassert the self-control required to achieve anything in his life.

This is a stylized story, and a lot happens in the 100ish minutes of the movie, as well as the 400ish pages of the novel. But it all happens in a weekend. And for me, a story like that needs a lot more room.

Because the movie starts with Michael Douglas in the deepest pits of his rut. What I’d write, if I were to tackle a story with that kind of arc, is that I’d start with the disciplined, responsible person who uses his talent to achieve a success that creates a brilliant reputation, a healthy amount of material wealth, and a heritage of admiration. Then, in the attempt to follow it up, our successful protagonist slowly falls, by a series of innocuous, unnoticeable steps that are barely even conscious enough to be called decisions, into that unproductive rut where nothing gets done. Then in the last quarter, the protagonist realizes the state of their life, maybe in some kind of ridiculous weekend that shocks complacency away. And the book ends as the upswing kicks into gear. 

You see, when I thought last night about Michael Douglas’ character in that film, Grady Tripp, I realized that we never really got a broad picture of him. The story of Wonderboys sees him at his worst, then tracks the dawn of his self-awareness. The tragedy has already happened. And the nice thing about a novel (or a multi-season television show) is that you have the space to depict not only the achievement, but the fall from grace into self-absorption, the sad repetition of the long rut, the redemption, and the crawl back to self-respect. Would you read that?

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