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'
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"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.