Enjoying the delicious sleaze that is the McDonnell trial? Well, obviously what we need is the TV movie version to clarify it!

Here’s my plan. I’m going to quit my job and focus all my attention on developing the screenplay of the entire case — I think a six-hour TV event on one of the cheesier cable TV channels (Lifetime? SyFy? Cinemax?) will be ideal. 

The hardest part is finding a good actor to portray Bob, the Virginia governor who finds himself (allegedly) in a tortured marriage and too poor to play with the Big Money boys, yet also prone to a Christian public sphere in which the state mandates trans-vaginal ultrasounds to women seeking abortion. If this is the real Bob:

Bob McDonnell

Then I’m thinking we can age Matt Damon a bit to portray him on the small screen. Damon has a lifetime of playing morally ambivalent and downright creepy characters (Talented Mr. Ripley, Bourne, The Departed…) in ways that will flesh out the true glory that is McDonnell (okay, we’ll age him a bit):

matt-damon-bourne-5 Now that that’s solved, on to the Maureen McDonnell conundrum — which I solved the minute this scandal began to break. How to portray a woman relegated to the sidelines as Bob’s “better half” but without any of the cash to look the part? How to portray the woman who’s apparently taking the fall for her husband — voluntarily or not, it’s not clear — by having his lawyers portray her as the real villain in the case? The real Maureen has had a tough role to play for years now:

453775864So clearly, the ideal actor to portray her is Heather Locklear — yes, the perennially sharp-tongued star of Melrose Place in its glory days of the 90s (as well, apparently, as the 2009-10 reboot of the series which I regrettably missed).

heather-locklear drugI don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see this series. And best of all is the casting of Jonnie Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, the creepy tobacco product-based health tonic company. The real-life Jonnie has a look in his eye that, for me, evokes a combination of an unpredictable Willy Wonka and Frank Underwood from House of Cards:

52bde3147fc0fSo clearly Kevin Spacey is my dream version of Williams. What do you think? Will my TV movie version be more worth watching than the real-life tawdryness of the McDonnell’s marriage getting dissected in court every week?

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I watched the BBC’s recent 3-hour version of Great Expectations (2011) last night and was left with one thought: why hasn’t anyone told Estella’s story? She’s waaayyyy more interesting than Pip.

Nota bene: while this version is fine — and Gillian Anderson does indeed make an eery Miss Havisham — who can take seriously the notion that this Pip (Douglas Booth) hasn’t been kidnapped for use as a male prostitute?

Pip is a nice kid, to be sure, but he’s also self-pitying, predictable, and somewhat delusional re: Estella. In contrast, Estella is riveting. Adopted as a tiny child by Miss Havisham, the only life she has ever known has been within the weird world of Satis House, where her benefactress teaches her to destroy the hearts of men.

The “great expectations” people have for Pip consist of the notion that he might become something other than a blacksmith. Yawn. Whereas Miss Havisham expects Estella to enact revenge on men. Now that’s interesting.

The BBC’s most recent Estella (Vanessa Kirby, above) is very beautiful and conflicted indeed, but I liked the child version (Izzy Meikle-Small, left) even better — she’s got a set to her jaw and a cock to her eyebrow that indicate a relish for the lessons she receives from her adopted mother. It appears quite realistic that a 12 yr-old girl would enact such a persona con gusto, particularly if she has allowed herself to believe that she is beautiful and that there is no reality outside Satis House.

But she doesn’t, does she?

And thus begins their complicated relationship.

Jean Simmons in the 1946 film adaptation

Seen from Pip’s point of view, Satis House and its awful, decades-old decaying wedding decorations constitute a bizarre, topsy-turvy world, and he mixes his growing love for Estella with his fascination with this world of books and wealth and objects … as well as with his interest in saving her from its corruptions. Seen purely through his eyes, Estella has been led astray by Miss Havisham’s madness but retains an essential goodness in her soul.

Or so he believes. But then, these are the beliefs of an essentially boring person. What might it look like through her eyes?

Claire Redcliffe in a 2008 theater production in Manchester, Eng.

Estella is both better educated and smarter than Pip is, and has a strong sense of irony. When he asks about the house’s odd name, she explains that it means enough. “It meant, when it was given, that whoever had this house, could want nothing else. They must have been easily satisfied in those days, I should think,” she adds with a lovely bit of acidic implied commentary on how things have changed since it was named. Pip just stands there with his mouth open.

How might the story look if she were fleshed out, if we explored that odd life she lives inside Miss Havisham’s mausoleum? Rather than merely see her through Pip’s eyes — Pip, who loves her stupidly and believes she is truly good inside that heartless exterior (yawn, again) — how might she describe her own life?

Gwyneth Paltrow, of course, in the 1998 Alfonso Cuarón film that placed the whole thing in modern times

Such a tale could say a very great deal about the prisons inhabited by 19th-century women, in which their sole purpose as young, lovely things is to prepare themselves for marriage. Miss Havisham has sought to undermine this only insofar as she wants Estella to make herself as cold as ice, impervious to love and capable of destroying the hearts of that sex who ruined her all those years earlier.

Of course, we know Estella has a mind of her own. When Pip punches the pompous little Herbert Pocket in the eye, she lets him kiss her. She’s smart enough to know that Miss Havisham is not all wrong. What does love gain a woman? The deployment of her heart is the only way she might have a degree of power in society. It should not be seen as merely a “natural” sign of woman’s weakness.

And yet, what does her lovelessness get her? She marries the cruel Drummle — for what? He has no heart, either, so in exchange for her coldness she gets abused. All those years of building a heart of ice, simply to learn that it has achieved nothing. The book tells us virtually nothing about their marriage, which is precisely why we need a retelling of this tale.

Such a tale would also have something to say about relationships between mothers and daughters. Later in life, when Estella returns from gaining her European education, Miss Havisham learns that she has done far too good a job with her adopted daughter, who lacks love so utterly that she can barely stand to be in her mother’s presence. We are supposed to receive this news as yet more irony for the bitter old woman — but how different might that scene appear if we knew that Estella was exacting revenge on Miss Havisham even more than on the entire male sex?

Even better, it would illuminate that divide between a woman’s exterior appearance — and all the baggage piled on top of the question of a woman’s beauty — and her inner life, a life and intellect she learns to conceal from view.

And finally there’s the rich vein of subject matter concerning Estella’s mysterious parentage. Considering Dickens’ near-obsession with lineage and family, Estella’s story could be far more interesting if one of her major goals in life is to find her true parents and the story of her adoption, rather than have them hidden from her forever.

I’m telling you, there’s meat on these here bones. Estella beats out every other character in the book for great character potential; in any reasonable person’s retelling, Pip would be reduced to a secondary or tertiary character. C’mon, creative friends: who’s going to take on this job of giving us The Girl of Satis House?

Why are stoner comedies always about dudes? Just yesterday I caught a few minutes of one of my favorite great (i.e., stupid) stoner comedies, Jay Chandrasekhar’s Super Troopers (2001), and spent an hour fantasizing about what a female-oriented stoner comedy might look like. The Showtime series Weeds (2005-present) comes close, perhaps … but I’m taking this opportunity to make a pitch: what the world needs now is a great (i.e., stupid) female-oriented stoner comedy.

Here’s what I’m thinking: it’s going to be about librarians.

Great stoner films of history: Super Troopers

Seems to me that stoner comedies work well when they take a cultural stereotype — bumbling state troopers, middle-aged lie-abouts with penchants for bowling, slacker college kids — and take those characters on a wacky adventure.

You take a little of the office dynamics from Parks and Recreation, stir in some of the spooky library scenes from Foul Play (1978), sprinkle with some Tea Party types who’re so incensed about taxes that they want to close the library, add a few of the romantic library scenes from Party Girl (1995), maybe a dash of librarians vs. the anti-librarians from The Desk Set (1957), and you’ve got yourself a winner.

Great stoner films of history: The Big Lebowski

You want cultural stereotypes? Librarians offer any number of them, of course, from the disapproving “shush!” type to the cranky weirdo who doesn’t really want you to touch any of the books to the naughty librarian who takes off her glasses suggestively and perhaps unbuttons the top button of her sweater. Less stereotypical is the fact that librarians have become cultural heroes for privacy and free speech by standing up to Homeland Security wanting to know all the details of your library record. Librarians are a rich, untapped source of great narrative potential.

Moreover, anyone who spends time in an urban public library knows the patrons are, well, interesting. Libraries are full of homeless people, sketchy types trying to look at porn on library computers, little old ladies looking for that series of books about a lady detective whose cat helps her solve crimes, lots of children, and that person with spectacularly flimsy claims that he/she is sure he/she returned that book that has now amassed $230 in overdue fines.

Great stoner films of history: Friday

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the Harry Potter franchise will also know that libraries play a serious role in earnest stories, too — uncovering mysteries, pursuing knowledge, improving one’s chances at success and love — so our librarian stoner hero might also need a dash of the “books are awesome!” alongside the wacky stuff.

From my brief experience working in a library I can also assure you that librarians are stunningly attractive to the people they assist. Honestly: if you’re looking for dates, work in a library. I’ve never been propositioned so often, and I didn’t even try the whole naughty librarian getup.

Great stoner films of history: Up in Smoke

So I figure my female-oriented stoner film will have librarians assisting patrons with information about hydroponics; fighting Tea Party types who want to shut down the library (BTW, do you know about this great campaign to save the library in Troy, Michigan?); uncovering corruption in city hall; and finding their enjoyment of medical marijuana helps to foster a few romances.

Naturally, my film will feature scenes in which people do things inside the library that aren’t ordinarily permitted: have hot sex, dance on tables, drink beverages, and bypass the parental/ pornography controls on internet library terminals. Naturally, our heroes will get the munchies.

Great stoner films of history: Harold and Kumar, etc.

I might even have to reprise one of my all-time favorite Saturday Night Live skits, featuring Russell Putnam (Jack Black), an investigative reporter for High Times magazine, who uncovers governmental corruption but gets so stoned he has, well, a little trouble with focus.

Hollywood: as usual, I remind you that this great (i.e., stupid) plot concept is available for a surprisingly affordable price and, like all my brilliant plot concepts, can be purchased easily and quickly! Just contact me at didion [at] ymail [dot] com to start the exciting process of bringing this crowd-pleasing script to life onscreen!

About a week before Ocean’s Eleven (2001) came out, I saw the original with Frank Sinatra et als (1960). It was terrible. All the more reason to love the Steven Soderbergh version. He took the bare bones of the original but did some pretty serious rewriting and major character development to give us style, humor, better actors, and a better ending.

Just think what you could do with a film like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, which is already pretty good. It’s just too long and has some other issues as I’ll detail below. As I occasionally like to offer up my own brilliant plot ideas for an eager reading audience, here’s my advice to Hollywood: tweak this story and you’ve got box office gold!

The original story centers on Ku (Shih Jun), a mild-mannered, unambitious scholar in a small village who refuses to follow his mother’s advice and apply for a better-paid job in the magistrate’s office. One day he encounters two strangers: first, he’s commissioned to paint a portrait of a sinister-looking man named Ouyang (Tien Peng); and second, that night he hears strange noises coming from the abandoned and reputedly haunted house across the way. When he investigates, he’s spooked by a strange and ghostly figure who later proves to be Miss Yang (Hsu Feng, above), a laconic, unsmiling, beautiful woman on the run from a corrupt official who wants to execute her and has hired Ouyang to do it. Ku teams up with her to help (as much as a clumsy scholar can), and the remainder of the film traces their attempts to escape. It culminates with a terrific battle scene in a bamboo forest with some kickass Buddhist monks, which shows this film’s influences on later wuxia greats like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).

The dvd copy I got, a simple VHS-to-DVD transfer, shows the film’s abundant wear & tear — all those night scenes are almost too muddy to see, and you often see scratches or grit on the film itself. At just over 3 hours it’s long and seems to end 3 different times. Still, this tale has great characters, terrific fight scenes (including one in a bamboo forest that has huge potential for re-imagining, and not just in a Crouching Tiger imitation way), and — best of all — a ghost-story subtheme.

Nor does it need to be set during the typical wuxia never-never land of an unspecified past of swordsmen and secretive martial arts sects. In fact, I can imagine a great modern version taking place amongst Chinese Americans of a 1940s San Francisco or perhaps one of its agricultural regions nearby, like Watsonville or Gilroy, during the same era that saw the internment of Japanese Americans. Can’t you just imagine the final fight scene taking place in a redwood forest or a eucalyptus grove, or perhaps on the oceanside cliffs south of Monterey? (Hollywood: call me and we’ll talk. My screenwriting and/or consulting rates are shockingly affordable.)

No matter the setting, the first order of business is to switch up the protagonist. In the original, our hero(?) is Ku, the bumbling scholar — but although we need to start with him, once we meet Miss Yang she needs to supplant him as protagonist. (I mean, even us bumbling scholars don’t really like to see ourselves as protagonists.) Ku pales in comparison. He reminds me of that creepy dude in my college dorm, the one who always seemed to leer at you from his doorway. Miss Yang could also use more of a back story, as well as clearer motivations to explain, for one, why in the world she has sex with Ku, with his creepy toothiness and weird makeup. (The Feminéma rewrite might have to find a more Chow Yun Fat-style sexual partner for Yang. Mmmmm.)

Second: don’t drop the creepy haunted-house subtheme midway through the film. The film’s first half takes place on the best set ever: a lonely, run-down village, at the center of which is a hauntingly memorable abandoned home and compound that used to belong to a military general. What a set it makes. The white plumes of the tall, ghostlike pampas grass constantly block your view of what’s going on. Spiderwebs everywhere — fabulous! It provides the setting for one of the film’s best big fight scenes, during which our heroes scare the bad guys by making them think real ghosts are attacking them on all sides. Afterward, however, we leave the haunted house and don’t return.

I say you can bring it back in with the Super-Dooper mystical Buddhist monks, who make a couple of handy appearances in the film’s second half. No matter how this story gets rewritten, the monks stay in.

Best of all, just imagine the possibilities if our sword-carrying heroine and her monk friends are not just battling corruption (Californians trying to grab Chinese-American land and business as well as those belonging to Japanese Americans, possibly?) but also World War II, nativism, and 1940s sexism. It could be a cross between blaxploitation and wuxia — with just enough historical and place-specific context to make it interesting.

Hollywood, remember how much money Crouching Tiger made? It ranked as the 19th most profitable film worldwide of 2000 and raked 44 film prizes from 14 different awards-granting institutions.

Now, finally: a title. A Touch of Zen might sound a bit too tame for the action I foresee.

  • Zen and the Art of Surviving a War?
  • Zenifornia
  • Mod Zen Explosion?

Academia as gothic horror

25 January 2012

And they say professors are ineffective, boring types who spend all their time thinking about the esoteric. Clearly they haven’t been reading the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Usually academic novels emphasize satire. No one who has ever attended a faculty meeting doubts there’s plenty to mock. Also, satire is easier; it’s a form of humor that does not ultimately throw one into a state of existential angst or lead one to ask oneself, “Should I just quit this stupid job?” One tends to try to view one’s own work with the same sardonic grimace and soldier on.

But let’s face it — the worst aspects of academic are not grimly amusing but horrific. (James Hynes understood this with his utterly memorable collection of gothic-horror novellas, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror. Hynes, how did you also manage to make me laugh during these tales?)

In this week’s Chronicle we learn of the operatic drama taking place at San Francisco’s California Institute of Integral Studies, where two anthropology professors — a husband-and-wife team — have been fired after having worked at the Institute for 25 and 14 years, respectively. The school charges them with having “breached student confidence, falsified grades, misapplied funds, and otherwise engaged in unprofessional conduct, generally to ensure the loyalty and obedience of those they taught and advised.” Moreover, the school says it was

“shocked at the climate of fear and intimidation” Ms. Chatterji had fostered, and it found “deeply disturbing” Mr. Shapiro’s complicity in creating such a climate, “centered around a cultlike idealization” of his wife. It said his “unwavering and uncritical support” for his wife “gave little hope for reform or remediation.”

Where’s a screenwriter when you need one? “Cultlike idealization”? “Climate of fear and intimidation”? This is Hollywood gold! (Sorry, the Chronicle article is password-protected, but you can read more here.)

So here’s a couple of recommendations to screenwriters:

You have to capture the subject position of grad students accurately to convey the horror of this situation. All grad students are under the thumb of, indebted to, and subject to the whims of faculty advisors. Some advisors are good and ethical people; many are not. Many view grad students as clinging, unsatisfactory servants who need to just figure out how to be brilliant on their own. Some of them use grad students as chauffeurs, grading machines, or dartboards. Chatterji and Shapiro were accused of using grades to demand servile loyalty from grad students. But I also know of cases in which advisors demanded blow jobs from their female grad students or complained bitterly that a student had married someone the advisor disapproved of. Actually, I know other stories too, and I’m sure you do as well.

You have to capture the often nonsensical world of academic celebrity — those rare figures who achieve national or international acclaim for their work and command fawning respect from students and fellow faculty alike. In a strange world driven by intellectual insecurity and indefinable, vague notions of “importance,” no one among us can ascertain which individuals or books or articles are truly Important. Rather, it’s determined by ubiquity: if the crowd seems to be running in that direction, they must have a good reason. “Well, if Professor X’s book keeps getting used in grad classes and cited by scholars, it must be Important.” Thomas Kuhn, anyone? Structure of Scientific Revolutions? It often makes no sense why one academic becomes a celebrity and another does not.

And finally: You have to capture the ways academics are unable to keep boundaries between their personal lives and their work lives. This article makes reference to Chatterji and Shapiro gossiping about their grad students’ personal lives widely even after promising total confidentiality. For many academics, gossip is a way to traffic in power — but it’s also fun for its grisly combing over of personal details. Conferences are horrible places because of the gossip.

Looking forward to the film — aren’t you? And in case anyone needs a consultant for writing this script, I’m available at didion [at] ymail [dot] com!

Ever since hearing that the 1971 documentary Growing Up Female (dir. Jim Klein and Julia Reichert) was selected for the National Film Registry, I’ve been trying to find a copy. (The closest I’ve come is this fabulous 5-min. clip, which you should watch too and beware of too easily thinking, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”).

Here’s my pitch to documentarians: we need an updated version. You know who else wants an updated version? Riley, our future president:

Riley’s right to start in toy stores, just the way the 1971 film starts in a day care. Here are some other hot spots I hope the documentarians will visit:

  • “breast-araunts” like Twin Peaks and Hooters
  • girls’ sports: the good (confidence, strength, great role models) and the bad (the pressure to appear straight straight straight; the dismal sports opportunities for women beyond college)
  • abortion politics: talk to a young woman who’s going to give birth to her rapist’s baby because of the law or access issues (or, frankly, because of brainwashing)
  • girls who come out as gay or trans (or, alternately, choose not to come out)
  • religious and church messages to girls about gender roles and sex
  • girls’ clothing choices and body pressures to be both whisper-thin AND have a hot badunkadonk
  • children’s TV programming (talk to Geena Davis about this)
  • the pressure to get into college
  • messages about gender and sex in pop music
  • the assholes at Lego who claim that “months of anthropological testing” tell them that girls want pastel-colored Legos despite years of girls wanting regular Legos
  • college sororities and college feminist organizations (and college anti-racist or ethnic organizations, which can have retrograde gender or sexual dynamics)
  • mother-daughter relationships; domestic chores meted out to daughters and sons
  • the effect on girls of presidential candidates who want to outlaw The Pill in their eagerness to “protect life” (that is, everyone running for the GOP nomination) and Pres. Obama, whose commitment to women’s reproductive health seems, well, changeable
  • teenagers growing up in quiverfull or fundamentalist Mormon environments

PLEASE. Not just because it could be an amazing document for the future. For all of us feminists who need to see what’s going on now. For everyone who forgets their own little protected bubble of a world is not a reflection of the whole.

I spent a week this summer absolutely riveted by the classic 19th-c. gothic mystery/ psycho-sexual thriller, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. What a great read: originally published in 1859-60 in installments, this novel begs for a top-shelf interpretation with great actors.

It seems, at first, to be a love story between a poor drawing teacher named Hartwright and his wealthy, lovely pupil, Laura Fairlie, a love forbidden by the class gulf between them and, even more so, by Laura’s engagement to Sir Percival Glyde. But don’t be fooled. The real story features Laura’s half-sister, Marian Halcombe, a woman so intelligent, pragmatic, and adventurous that graphic novels should make her their heroine. Her counterpoint is Sir Glyde’s best friend and consigliere, the insinuating evil genius Count Fosco, surely one of the most iconoclastic villains in novelistic history.

What are Marian and Count Fosco fighting over? The very soul and freedom of women.

It’s got to be a miniseries, because the plot uses too much minute character analysis, requires hairpin plot turns, and demands certain set-piece scenes — like when Marian climbs onto a roof during a raging storm to overhear Fosco and Glyde laying out their evil plans. I reckon it demands a full six hours. The only decent treatment it ever received was a five-hour series in 1982 with Diana Quick doing a superlative job as Marian, but the low-budget stationary BBC cameras and poor film quality of that time, as well as the disappointing Alan Badel as Fosco just seem dated today. Don’t even get me started on how disappointing the 1997 version was, despite starring the fabulous Tara Fitzgerald — it butchered the plot to winnow it down to two hours.

So, to begin: can I recommend Jennifer Ehle as Marian? She’s too pretty, of course, but we know from her sneaky turn as Lionel Logue’s middle-aged wife Myrtle in The King’s Speech (right) that she’s still willing to do period work; and what we really know from the six-hour Pride and Prejudice (1995) is that she can do a lot of screen time while being riveting in every single scene, and that she can manage the subtle psychological cues in 19th-c. conversation.

I’m at a loss for the right man to play Fosco. He’s got to be fat, good with an Italian accent, and a consummate actor. Most important — and this is where both Badel (from the 1982 version) and Simon Callow (from 1997) went wrong: he needs to show how he completely controls his own wife with a combination of evil misogyny and gaslighting, and he needs to show that he falls for Marian — but it’s not love, exactly. That’s where the psycho-sexual drama gets the most creepy: Fosco is the one man who realizes Marian’s true genius and admirability, yet he’s also the one man you are most afraid of. It’s a rare opportunity for a male actor, if you ask me: to show how he observes her with a combination of erotic desire, feeling challenged intellectually, and feeling the need to exert full mastery over her, like a cat who wants to kill a mouse, yet also wants to play with it.

What I want to see with my miniseries, in the end, is that the pat love story between Walter Hartwright and Marian’s sister Laura becomes overshadowed by that fun-house mirror version of a love-hate story between Marian and Fosco.

The gothic creepiness of the story — the occasional appearance of the titular woman in white, who bears a weird resemblance to Laura; the way Fosco and his wife are gifted with poisons and drugs; Fosco’s skill in manipulating everyone from servants to his friend Glyde — all of this unfolds in a way that would make for the most delicious of all mid-winter miniseries indulgences. It shows that recurring theme of 19th-c. literature, the marriage plot, in its darkest shade. It’s a radical story hidden inside a gothic mystery, which a clever director and screenwriter can unpack.

Producers: believe me, this is TV gold. In case Andrew Davies isn’t available to write the screenplay, my email address is didion [at] ymail [dot] com!