September 14, 2006
Michael Tolkin takes on L.A. excess, family dysfunction and private-school politics in sequel to his
Hate the game, love 'The Player'
The fall season is upon us, with new books, movies and TV programs all vying for our attention as palliatives to the news of war, terrorism and melting ice caps. Even as the days get shorter and our own day of judgment looms imminent, we wonder: Is there a hero out there who can set us back on the path of reason, on a course of love, someone to heal us and show us the way -- someone, who is, in the words of Lermontov, "a hero of our time?" Yes, as a matter of fact, there is.
All hail Griffin Mill and "The Return of the Player," by Michael Tolkin. Eighteen years ago, in "The Player," Tolkin introduced us to Griffin Mill, a studio executive who gets away with murder -- literally. Tolkin's successful novel was followed in 1992 by a Robert Altman film version, for which Tolkin wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay.
Since then, Tolkin, who is now 55, has published two other novels, "Among the Dead" and "Under Radar," directed two movies, "The Rapture" and "The New Age," for which he also wrote the screenplays, and he has received credit on several successful produced movies, including "Sudden Impact" and "Changing Lanes." He's also written and rewritten many other screenplays.
Now Griffin Mill is back, and despite his past crime, he wants to bring people together -- to have them connect honestly and ethically. He says, "I know you, and I know what you want." Griffin Mill has changed.
If "The Player" was very much a novel of manners, of the customs of Hollywood, "The Return of The Player" is a novel of ideas, with Tolkin taking creative leaps to express his many thoughts and theories on everything from teenagers (and yes, he has read the work of clinical psychologist and author Wendy Mogul, his wife), family love, marriage, Moses versus Homer (or that "the structure of Greek legends make good movies and the structure of Jewish legends make mediocre TV series"), to what Bill Clinton could and should have said.
I sat down recently with Tolkin in his Hancock Park office to talk about the return of "The Player," and I found that, like Griffin Mill, Tolkin has a lot on his mind.
Our conversation veered from the state of the movie industry and movies to Abu Ghraib and the end of the American myth of a code of honor, to Tolkin's experience with a Wexner fellowship studying Judaism, to changes in Reform liturgical services, to reasons for optimism in a world of pain -- or, at least, reasons not to despair.
Tolkin's insider cred is both earned and inherited. His father, Mel Tolkin, wrote his way from musical theatricals and summer Pocono Camp Tamiment sketch revues to head writer of Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows," where his now-legendary writing staff included Lucille Kallen (Mel Tolkin's former writing partner), Neil and Danny Simon, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Michael Tolkin's mother was a vice president of legal affairs at Paramount.
The Tolkin family moved to Los Angeles from New York when Michael was 10. He became bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel and graduated from Beverly Hills High School. Tolkin then went back east to attend Middlebury College. After graduating, he returned to New York, where he worked as a journalist for such publications as The Village Voice, before returning to Los Angeles to embark on a screenwriting career.
By the late 1980s, Tolkin was a working screenwriter. His script for "Gleaming the Cube" (released in 1989 and now a skateboarding cult classic) was about to be made when he got an idea that, as he recalled , "didn't feel like a movie." "I had never had that happen before," Tolkin said. He explained that within the first few pages he had a character in a dilemma, and that the way it works for him, in the four times he has had ideas for novels, "the dilemma becomes a question and then an organizing principle."
"The Player" reads today, much as it did when originally published, as a polished literary effort -- more like Daniel Fuchs' "The Golden West" than Nathaniel West's "Day of the Locust" -- a novel by someone who knew the lay of the land and despite it was going to stay in Hollywood.
What "The Player" had going for it was a sense of the real -- it took for granted that this was the way the game was played and was neither dismissive nor critical; it just told the facts. Yet by putting Griffin Mill in the center of the story, it presented Hollywood as a world that stood apart from morality, a concept that met with no resistance. Griffin Mill came to embody Hollywood in his day, much as Ari Gold on "Entourage" does today.
So imagine my surprise when Tolkin revealed that "The model for Griffin was never anything in Hollywood." Turns out Tolkin found his inspiration in Washington, D.C.
"It was Eliott Abrams lying during the Iran-Contra hearing," Tolkin confided. "That's who it explicitly was -- but only to the degree that watching Eliot Abrams lie at the time, I wondered: What had happened to guilt? How can this guy sleep at night? Then I started to think about the ways in which 19th century guilt was a matter of the soul; early 20th century guilt was a matter of psychology. Now guilt had become more a neurotic tick than anything profound. Some people really didn't have it. We were a sociopathic culture. And then I went from there."
"The Return of the Player," is a sequel only in the loosest sense. First of all, it has very little to do with the Hollywood of studios and movie making. But it has everything to with living in Los Angeles at this particular moment in the 21st century, and that is intentional.
Tolkin explained that the idea for "The Return of The Player" came to him about four years ago, when he was having a conversation with a producer about an executive who was broke. Although Tolkin understood broke to mean out of money, somehow the phrase "down to his last couple of million" came into the conversation. Later, as Tolkin sat in the chair in his office, the opening sentence came to him, "Griffin Mill was broke; he was down to his last $6 million."
"I started working on it really from that idea," he recalled. "It all came to me: That he was 52.... It took me half a page before I found out that he was remarried, that he was divorced from June, and that his wife wanted a divorce from him. The first 25 or 30 pages I wrote in about 10 days, and they haven't changed significantly in the four years since I started working on the book." "What I wanted to write was a novel about Los Angeles, not about Hollywood. I wanted to write a book which took for granted that people understood what The Grove was, what boba was, what neighborhoods were, what waiting in line at the ArcLight was like. I wanted to write a really local novel. I wanted to write about private schools for kids and teenagers and avoid what I think is pretty much exhausted, the story of Hollywood."
For Griffin, movies are about heroes, and the structure of movies is about the hero's journey, a fact any development exec who has read Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey," which purports to apply the principles of Joseph Campbell to three-act screenplay structure, can tell you. In the novel, Griffin decides to leave the movie business and make himself the hero of his own journey. He allies himself with Phil Ginsburg, a near billionaire who wants to reach the next level of wealth, all in the pursuit of finding a safe haven for his family, his two wives, and three children, in a world that he fears is about to end.
So why does Griffin believe Hollywood is dying?
"One of the things that Griffin understands is that the movies are dead," Tolkin said, "because the myths are gone, because the myths are dead. Once everybody analyzes the structure behind myths, and you're watching a movie and the movie is deconstructed and broken apart before you, you can't follow the narrative. You are following the structure and that's not entertaining. The movies can't take you out of yourself."
Tolkin told me that after he finished the novel, he spent the summer "going to the movies and walking out of the movies and not going to the movies." As he talked to his friends who were doing the same, "especially people in Hollywood who don't go to the movies anymore," he found that "there's no joy in the movies." At meetings, people no longer talked about what movie they saw over the weekend, except to say how disappointed or disinterested they were. What they talked about was "The Sopranos."
Tolkin mentioned that his 19-year-old daughter "hates the movies," adding that, "She hates the movies in a way that I hated Lawrence Welk when I was 15. She dismisses the movies."
Tolkin's explanation: "The movies used to be about characters. Characters have migrated to television.... The quality of the writing, the quality of the acting, the quality of the storytelling, it's much more interesting on TV."
Television is compelling, Tolkin feels, because it is about family. By contrast, he said, "there may be movies with individual moments of heroism, but the idea of the hero is finished, and that was killed by Abu Ghraib."
"The thing that changed America, which also changed popular culture, was Abu Ghraib," he said. "With Abu Ghraib, the American myth of its own superiority was destroyed. Its own idealism was destroyed."
"Abu Ghraib expressed the result of something that was happening in the culture for a long time," Tolkin said, "which is the coarsening, the hardening, the introduction of cruelty."
"Even though soldiers have been cruel -- America has been racist; the Indians were killed -- there was an ideal, a code, Humphrey Bogart, Bob Dylan, the outlaw. There was a code of honor that one lived up to. Because the Constitution describes a code of honor: You live and let live, you respect each other. Even if we hadn't been doing that, it was something to aspire to, and it was a myth you could keep returning to."
But Tolkin feels that myth has fallen by the wayside: "In the way that Zeus is a myth. A lot of people used to believe in Zeus, and that fell apart, another story came in. A revolution is a story that becomes a myth that becomes an organizing principle."
"The movies can only express ... different attributes and different aspects and different ways of thinking about that organizing principle in a culture; and that organizing principle in this country is finished or really, really sick.
"TV is interesting because [it shows us] all the fragmentation and the effect on the family in society. It's like dreams, if you look at TV, from 'The Office' to 'Deadwood,' 'The Sopranos,' 'The O.C.,' 'Lost,' [each of these is] a picture of a family. The doctor shows and cops shows have characters who are essentially decent and untouched by history, untouched by current events. They live in a bubble of idealism. But everywhere else, you see the effects of the culture."
For example, Tolkin said, "The reality shows [show] the naked competitiveness, the squalid selfishness and the process of elimination. That's pretty brutal. The hero is the one that survives, by what? By cheating? By organizing? By getting rid of the others? By politicking, by sneaking...."
"That's a different myth than what we used to have. That's a different story," Tolkin concludes.
"And that's what my novel is about. That's what I wrote. That's why I wrote it. Because I was thinking of all these things, and I wanted to -- express that." But tell us, Michael: What do you really think?
As my head was reeling from Tolkin's searing exegesis, I, too, realized what the "Return of the Player" is about -- getting one's panic under control by becoming the master of your own fate and taking responsibility for being connected to your family. As good a recipe for living in the modern world as any, because if you can do that, you can feel much better about the world and your place in it.
Griffin Mill is 52, and he is panicked, as many of us are, because he works for a studio that he will never run; his family are all alienated -- everyone hiding out in his or her own private space; and the world itself is out of control. His only solution is to attempt to create a happy ending out of a potential tragedy. As Tolkin explained, the other key to understanding "The Return of The Player" is the Edith Wharton quote that prefaces the novel that "Americans want a tragedy with a happy ending."
This, too, is Tolkin's mission. "The Return of the Player" is filled with improbable plot turns, leaps of faith, leaps of folly, scenes and speeches that defy our expectations of where the story will lead -- culminating in moments of sheer chutzpah, that like the novel's hero, lead us to a happy ending.
When I asked Tolkin how Bill Clinton comes to make a cameo in the novel, after joking that it was paid product placement, Tolkin said, "I was trying to imagine something wonderful. It's one of these things where you're sitting at your desk, and you have a great cackle of pleasure, an idea bubbling out of the cosmos: Here, have him talk to Clinton."
Tolkin continued, "I wanted to give Griffin the happiest ending possible. I think, given the state of the world right now, given the nostalgic fantasy that but for the blue dress Clinton would have solved the world's problem, talking to Clinton to try to understand the world in which we live right now, who wouldn't want to do that? If you have that fantasy [as many do]." Plus, Tolkin admitted, "I wanted Clinton to say what I've always wanted him to say."
But beyond explaining himself, his marriage and his actions, Clinton becomes Griffin's confessor, and then leads him to consider King David "who sent Uriah into battle to die so he could marry Bathsheba." And what Clinton has to say about King David has a profound effect on Griffin, leading to the novel's surprising conclusion.
Which leads me to a different point. In our conversation, Tolkin told me, "Griffin's thinking more.... Part of his panic is that he's got an expanded consciousness, and he's frightened."
In the years since the publication of "The Player," Tolkin's consciousness has also expanded, in part from his studies as a Wexner fellow, a program seeded by retail magnate Leslie Wexner, which aims to educate potential Jewish volunteer leaders from diverse backgrounds in Jewish history and the challenges facing the Jewish community.
Tolkin grew up in a home that was not particularly observant, like many families that belonged to Reform synagogues in the 1950s. By the early 1990s, he belonged to three temples: the Orthodox B'nai David-Judea, the Conservative Temple Beth Am and the Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood. He was studying with Rabbi Danny Landes, who is a faculty member of The Wexner Foundation, when he was invited to apply to become a fellow. For Tolkin, "The great thing about Wexner was the study." It is a program where one can learn from teachers from all over the spectrum, from historians to Reform and Orthodox scholars.
"What I discovered for myself, what drew me to studying with the Orthodox, was the discovery that the Reform prayer book had the prayers in Hebrew, but the translation was at best free form, and at worst inaccurate. When I discovered Artscroll [a publishing imprint of Jewish texts translated from an Orthodox perspective], I started looking at the more stringent translations, and I discovered a poetry and a structure in Jewish prayer that I never felt before." Tolkin noted that today, many congregations are creating their own new prayer books with renewed love for and emphasis on liturgy, which he sees as one of the greatest changes and improvements for "Klal Yisroel and the Galut."
Griffin Mill isn't Jewish, but his wife Lisa is, as is his partner, Phil Ginsburg, who stages a lavish bar mitzvah for his son. His outsider status allows Griffin to be an observer at events that other Jews might sit in judgment of. He is not searching for a spirituality that will force him to feel guilty, rather he is looking for a way to be honest -- and to connect.
Although Tolkin asserts that there is nothing about the events of the last four years that would make Griffin any less panicked, it also true that there is nothing that would make Griffin, and by that measure Tolkin himself, not embark on a journey to renounce that panic.
I can't say that I really know Michael Tolkin, although we went to the same college -- Middlebury -- and while our years there did overlap, we didn't know each other then. Coincidentally, in the years since graduation we have both made contributions to the college aimed at improving Jewish life there. Still, here and there, over the years, I've run into him, often at gatherings in support of Jewish causes.
I am always reading and hearing about how Hollywood refuses to support Israel or that Jews "are afraid to come out of the closet on Israel," but in my experience that is not the case. As Mel Gibson well knows, the International Jewish Conspiracy does meet on occasion, and over the years I have found myself in the same room, event or meeting as Michael Tolkin. He has written for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, speaking out forcefully against anti-Semitism, and presenting his drashes on matters secular and biblical, dressing down narrow-minded conservatives and fundamentalists, and shining some light for the rest of us wandering in the desert of modern America.
On some of those occasions, I have observed that Tolkin seemed to be under a dark cloud. So I asked him if, like Griffin, during the writing of the novel the balance had shifted between his own pessimism and optimism. He quipped, "Yeah, but I won't tell you which way."
But as we discussed reasons for optimism in a world of worry, Tolkin said the following: "Judaism teaches that despair is really a sin. That's as important a teaching as any. We have a couple of days a year proscribed for mourning, and that's it. And you don't bury somebody on Shabbos."
To put it another way: Jewish tradition and storytelling is partial to the well-articulated kvetch. However, for a story with a happy ending, you'll have to turn to Griffin Mill and "The Return of The Player."
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.
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