Soylent Green is…tomorrow!

The Year: 2022
The Place: New York City
Population: 40,000,000

That’s what the title reads at the beginning of Soylent Green (written by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison). I recently watched it beginning-to-end for the first time. As ’70s thrillers go, it’s all too average, though full of pleasures like seeing a bearded Edward G. Robinson play an old cop who keeps dropping Yiddish and dresses like Picasso.

The Rifleman, Ben Hur, and Holly Martin all meet in the future.

The Rifleman, Ben Hur, and Holly Martins all meet in the future.

2022 is of course, coming fast – it will be the year we elect Mayor DeBlasio’s successor, if he serves eight years – and it’s fascinating seeing what the dystopia imagined by New Yorkers in 1973 got right.

The New York of Soylent Green is a place where the rich live in high-rise comfort, and the police have such plebeian incomes they have an easier rapport with the servant class than the owners. The working class rarely sees fresh produce, and the “greenhouse effect” is a phrase thinking people are used to hearing but incapable of doing anything about. So far, so good.

Two things, though, completely date Soylent Green. One is that the lifestyle and aesthetics valued by the rich are all futuristic, like something out of Sleeper. In 1973, cities were hemorrhaging money and middle class people, and porcelain sinks were getting landfilled to make room for brand new faux-formica fixtures. What would become the new juggernaut of “good taste” was already germinating in the artists’ lofts of Soho – exposed brick, faux peasant kitchens, warm interiors, early 20th century artifacts, functionality, etc. – but the extent to which the upper middle class would go for this was apparently hard to fathom back then.

Its vision of working class deprivation is also less than prescient, more a lazy rehash of 1984. The Stalinist bread line where every person, in drab clothes, is merely a number was still the great fear. Huddled masses slept in doorways. That the future poor would live in cheap suburban apartment buildings, or welfare motels outside of Monticello, seemed impossible. And all you have to do is look in the window of any bodega whose LED lights advertise “EBT accepted” to see that the working poor’s environment is full of colorful, attention-grabbing “choices.” Nutritious as Kool-Aid and just as headache-inducing.

Room 237 (2 x 3 x 7 = 42)

I finally saw Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary Room 237, about The Shining. It’s worth a watch: four or so well-read Kubrick fanatics going on in detail about the deeper meanings of The Shining. It makes for enlightening TV, but frustrating, on account of Ascher’s big decision to leave out any talking heads and merely use them as narrative voices. All the video is either lifted from The Shining  (screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson) or other Kubrick films, or stock footage, with a little original stuff shot in a cinema. It has the effect of making the fanatics the narrators instead of the subject, gracing their opinions with the air of “truth.”

Riding a Big Wheel through the subconscious.

Riding a Big Wheel through the subconscious.

It’s a film that invites you to go along for the ride and listen to the sometimes persuasive, sometimes specious opinions, which is all for the best, I suppose. Like having a friend who’s just read a book about the Masons, sometimes the best way to engage the material is to let him talk till he’s done.

The point it goes to prove for any ol’ filmmaker is how little it takes to establish a theme. One detail repeated once, cross-referenced with another, and you’re already weaving a subliminal story in the viewer’s mind.

Only near the end does one of the disembodied voices remind us that themes may possibly emerge for reasons other than the author’s intent. It’s the first time anyone acknowledges that Kubrick, famously obsessive as he was, was a mortal too. His films were stuffed with dreams and sex and the human penchant for murder, sure, and lots details such as the number 42 that were more than coincidence, but to believe in  them so reverently when Kubrick’s own assistant called them “balderdash”  betrays the laziness of both artistic hero worship and conspiracy theorizing itself. Did Kubrick consciously plan every single implication in The Shining? Of course he did. Just ask the Masons and Trilateral Commission members  from the Federal Reserve, who bought nuclear technology from the aliens.

Dichotomous Pairs

Long story short, Kevin Hart is hilarious, but first let me tell you a true story: I was on a train last week to go see Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia in the West Village. A must-see, last day of a week-long run, rarely on the big screen, etc., and I was late. As the train crossed the bridge I could see I wasn’t just going to miss the previews – which are mercifully only about five minutes at Film Forum – I was going to miss the first five minutes or more of the film.

Michael Ealy and Kevin Hart.

Michael Ealy and Kevin Hart.

I have a Plan B for this situation, because I’ve been late to films longer than I’ve had a smart phone.  I get off at Houston Street, and walk past the Angelika, the Sunshine and then the Village East and beyond till I find a film I haven’t seen yet that’s starting reasonably soon. I ended up at About Last Night, the new comedy from the director of Hot Tub Time Machine.

What a turn my day took!

About Last Night is a remake of a 1986 comedy (written by Tim  Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue) based on Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. This time the rewriting credit goes to Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) and somewhere between her and star Kevin Hart, the comedy pops, one joke after another. Myself and three other people were at this matinée, 75% of us rolling in our seats.

Now don’t laugh, but this was on my mind a few days later when I went to BAM for a screening of Mean Streets (screenplay by Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin). The raunchy office camaraderie in About last Night is one of the few things left from Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and it occurred to me how many films of all genres have two friends as their narrative backbone. More so in the early 70s, probably – when Mean Streets and Sexual Perversity were both written – when writers were still working under the long shadow of Lajos Egri and the whole notion that the way to start writing a story was to craft two characters and make them dichotomous opposites in as many of their characteristics as possible.

Both About Last Night and Mean Streets are about pairs of young guys in which the straight man is the protagonist and his wild friend presents complications and unexpected opportunities. From this starting point, if you’re writing a drama, you think of all the ways your antagonist tries solving his problem, and how they go wrong. If you’re writing a comedy, just…well, just cast Kevin Hart.

Mean Streets, for all its sprawling narrative flaws, is still my north star:

Want everyone else to buy into environmentalism? Never say “Earth”

One of my side-gigs is running a worksop on story-telling for non-profits for my friends at Social Impact Studios in Philly. This blog post about heather Smith really speaks to the choices lots of environmental groups are facing about how to frame their campaigns…and how to win them more often.


Like most screenwriters, I am a tad jealous on the morning after the Oscars, but more mystified by all the righteousness in the opinions about what the Academy should or shouldn’t have rewarded this time around. It’s not a national film academy with a public mandate, it’s a professional association obsessively protective of its own brand. As far as the two best screenplay awards go, I’m just glad to see them go to earnest writers rather than offered as consolation prizes to the loser in the best director or best film category.

Oh! Dessa!

Oh! Dessa!

I am, however, overwhelmingly jealous of the writers of tabloid headlines. I was born for that job! Reading Vladimir Putin’s self-serving comments about the U.S. and NATO’s double standards today, I muttered “Putin To O: ‘CRIMEA RIVER!’

They’re pun-happy and tasteless and veer hard to the Right, these tabloid writers. But the liberals who don’t admit to at least a little soft spot for their best work take themselves far too seriously – and might even do their own cause a disservice.