Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"OK, here's my thing..."

So I just watched the final episode of The West Wing. Think I'm too tired right now to feel anything very acutely, but I'm aware nonetheless that this is quite a significant moment for me. I've adopted a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone talking about it (to some people, anyway) but I honestly feel like The West Wing has been, along with The Simpsons, one of the great works of popular art to emerge in recent years. I'm writing as someone who doesn't (any longer) have a tv, so I don't see much of what's going on, maybe it's absurd of me to make pronouncements about 'popular art', is something anyway 'popular' just because it's on tv?, I don't know. But the quality and dynamism of the craftsmanship, in the writing, the directing, the performances, has been quite exceptional -- and I'll miss it.

Aaron Sorkin's writing in the early seasons was particularly extraordinary -- not many American writers produce dialogue with that kind of high-strung musicality. Tony Kushner, yes; Adriano Shaplin, in a somewhat different neck of the woods, yes, absolutely. In the novel, Tom Spanbauer. (Just got a hold of Now Is The Hour -- will try to write about it here soon. All looks very promising.) But my guess is, none of the above have watched The Philadelphia Story as often as Sorkin, which is in itself an indicator of his greatness. It's funny, looking back on those early episodes on DVD -- as I often have, late on weekday evenings, just to pass the time between new shows -- how mannered the dialogue is, how stilted in some ways. How everyone talks like Sorkin, I guess. "OK, here's my thing." And that curious phase he went through of having people speak in bullet-points. They'd say things like: "If you proceed with that line of action, they're going to respond in the following ways: ..." And you'd sort of hear the colon. And then there'd be a list. I don't know whether it was a conscious PowerPointy stylisation, but lots of characters started doing it.

In my most recent (though not now very recent) book of poems, No Son House, there's an odd fish of a poem about Aaron Sorkin, written around the time that his whole narcotics fracas was exercising everybody; I'm extremely interested in how psychoactive drugs affect language use, in the chemical and hormonal influences on characteristic prosody. It's not a successful poem, really, but it's got some of the eerie overpressured quality I was reaching for. In particular I'd been thinking a lot about the scene at the end of episode 19 in the first season (yup, I'm afraid I'm that much of a fanatic...), the big argument that blows up between Bartlet and McGarry. Seems to me that exchange is -- forgive the untimely cliche -- a masterclass in screen writing and acting, a two-character dialogue to file right alongside the iconic campfire scene in My Own Private Idaho or the excruciatingly brilliant scene between Jeffrey Wright and Christopher Walken in Basquiat. The last line of the poem quotes a line of McGarry's (speaking of Charlie Young): "I'm going where I want [to] because a man stands up." (The "to" is in brackets there because I cut it from the poem -- rhythmically it was too expansive.) Like so much of Sorkin's writing -- the mark of a truly risky writer, I suppose -- it's faintly preposterous out of context, but deeply and persuasively moving when it occurs in the scene.

Why am I writing all this? I don't know, I just enjoy thinking about The West Wing, I can't think of any other tv programme I'd write about like this, except possibly The Muppet Show. There was a letter to one of the newspapers a few weeks ago, the Guardian I suppose, calling WW "fascistic". That's lodged in my mind, and I don't know quite what to do with it; it's not easy to dismiss out of hand. It's somewhat connected with the hawkishness (which I did sometimes find uncomfortable, the near-fetishistic regard for military hardware above all), but it's more about the block deployment of specialised language. Which I won't get into now, or I'll be up all night.

Anyway, I won't say too much about the last episode because most folks in the UK won't see it for another few weeks. But I'm interested in how low-key it was, after a fairly haphazard final season; once the result of the Presidential election was determined, the whole series kind of unravelled. But of course that was perfect. Everything, looking back, the doldrums of season 4, the sniping in season 5, just fit so well with the plausible dynamic of a two-term administration.

And the funeral of You-Know-Who a few weeks back was just about the saddest thing I've ever seen on screen. (Unless we're going to count the death of Jen in Dawson's Creek: but we're not, are we?, that would irretrievably ruin my rep as a man of more-or-less awesome discernment and integrity. Though it would be true to say that I expelled so much mucus during death-of-Jen that I was maybe three or four pounds lighter at the end of the show.)

Anyway. Enough. Exhausting day. Did very little, but after an extremely stimulating and frustrating weekend, with a fair few personal ups and downs in it too, I spent all day today feeling really turned on creatively. I've been feeling a bit pent-up of late about various projects that I want to be working on but can't practically make happen, and various other projects that I don't really want to be working on but which are paying the bills. Nice set of problems to have, I know, but today I was almost nauseous with the sense of wanting to work as a matter of the greatest urgency on the things I most want to be doing. I couldn't concentrate on anything, couldn't sit still. Bought a load of books even though at home there's a pile of unread stuff, a tower of paperbacks that's already reached the height of the sunflower that I wear sticking out of the top of my top hat. I'm pleased with today's haul -- Brecht, Perec, Cixous, Alec Finlay... -- but I can only read two sentences of anything at a time before I get an itchy brain and I have to do something else. What I really felt the need to do today was sit by the river for a while and just think. Or possibly not even that. Just flatline. Maybe tomorrow...?

In the meantime: if you're reading this, Mr Sheen: you da man. (Uh, let's be clear, I'm directing that comment to Martin Sheen, West Wing alumnus, and not to Mr Sheen, the frankly unconvincing superhero whose existence was contrived to promote the furniture polish that bears his name. To that Mr Sheen, I say only this: you may, indeed, shine umpteen things clean: but, sir, you are emphatically not da man. No offence intended.)

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