One of the projects I’ve been working on recently is a novel. Not long ago, I completed a chapter describing the back story of one of the main characters. I felt it was important to describe how and why he arrived at the point in time and space where he became involved in the story I want to tell. The chapter essentially described the history and eventual dissolution of his marriage. I completed the first draft and put it aside, pleased at how it turned out and the additional, unplanned details it discovered.
Then one day last week I found myself, as I am prone to do, idly flipping thru channels on the television when I chanced upon a deliciously bad Lifetime channel made for TV movie. Although this was apparently one of the rare handful of such movies that didn’t star either Meredith Baxter Birney or Jaclyn Smith, I found myself blissfully relishing the over emoting of the anonymous, soap opera caliber actors and the cliché ridden dialogue. The woman was breaking up with the man, and as I smugly marveled at how terrible it was, I was suddenly jarred by something the woman said. I won’t reveal the offending line, but it was, I kid you not, almost verbatim the same as one of the lines I had written for the ex-wife in my transcript. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so smug. Suddenly, I was filled with doubt. Is my attempt at a “serious” work of fiction in reality no better than a Lifetime movie?
So the rationalizations began. First, I rethought the Lifetime movie. Maybe the writing really wasn’t that bad after all. Maybe it was the delivery of the actors, or the staging by the director, or the lighting, or the theme music that made it bad. I then thought of perhaps the best screenplay ever written, by Julius and Phillip Epstein and Howard Koch for “Casablanca”, and remembered that instead of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the studio’s first choice for the roles of Rick and Ilsa were Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan. Without Bogart or Bergman or Claude Rains, such lines as “round up the usual suspects”, “here’s looking at you, kid”, and “we’ll always have Paris” would probably at best be long forgotten, at worst, in the hands of less capable actors, be remembered as cheesy camp.
Be that as it may, this Lifetime movie was just bad. Whatever ultimately made it bad, it certainly wasn’t the intentions of anyone involved with the production. No doubt the writers intended to write a compelling story, while some of the actors were likely convinced they had landed their big break, and that this was the vehicle that would propel them to stardom. Nobody starts out with the intent of creating a bad film or painting or story.
I’ve always had a morbid fascination with really bad movies and music. It started when I was a kid in the late 60s, when on Saturday afternoons they’d show some of the many bad sci-fi movies from the 50s. I loved the ridiculous and silly plot lines, the cheap and cheesy special effects, and how the actors all looked so serious as they battled with the evil monsters in their incredibly bad costumes. There were so many, my favorite being “Brain From the Planet Arous”, in which an evil brain from, you guessed it, the planet Arous, inhabits the body of the great bad actor John Agar, the Laurence Olivier of bad sci-fi films and one time husband to Shirley Temple. Even as a child, as I laughed at what was supposed to be frightening me, it occurred to me that these were real people acting, and that real people had come up with the story, and I wondered, did they realize the result was as bad as it was? Did they realize that a floating and talking brain was strange enough, but to have a second brain, a good brain, inhabit the body of a dog? Didn’t this strike anyone making the movie as just plain silly?
I think Tim Burton nailed it in his biography of possibly the worst movie director of all time, “Ed Wood.” In it, Johnny Depp portrays Wood as someone who has an intense and insatiable appetite to create. Like so many great artists, he has internal demons and eccentricities that drive him on. Unfortunately, he has none of their genius or artistic instincts or talent, and his output is laughably bad. But as told byBurton, that isn’t what matters. While the film is consistently funny, it is also touching, especially the poignant relationship between Wood and the dying Bela Lugosi (in an incredible performance by Martin Landau) – I dare anyone, after seeing Burton’s film, to watch Lugosi’s scenes again in “Plan Nine From Outer Space” and not think of the human being that Landau brought out. There is a wonderful scene in “Ed Wood” near the end when Burton imagines a frustrated Wood storming off of the set and walking into a Hollywood bar, where he encounters Orson Welles, and the two have a conversation about their frustrations dealing with the studios. In the end, Wood’s spirit and enthusiasm triumph over the mediocrity of his output.
It’s this spirit, the ability to be so moved by art that one is driven to create, that I think is at the core of being human, and it’s too elemental and universal to be restricted to only those who have talent. Too often the fear of creating something bad suppresses the need to create. I realize this now, and am spurred on to finish my novel, even if it never gets published, even if it ends up unintentionally riddled with clichés and stranded sub plots and cardboard characters, and even if it ends up being made into a Lifetime movie. Whatever it ends up being, when I finish it, it will be complete and it will be mine – and hopefully I’ll be motivated to create another one.