Monday, October 23, 2006

Ethics as Aesthetics: Aaron Sorkin

Last Sorkin post for a while, until I am ready to write about why Studio 60 is not working.

Plato distrusted the arts, because he was concerned that its beautiful illusions would interfere with day-to-day morality. People would be under the illusion that they had access to truth, when they had only fictions. Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, the first four seasons of West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) is Plato best enemy. On the surface, Sorkin’s characters -- almost all of them, even the bad guys -- appear to be the apotheosis of ethical models in art: loving, strong, smart, deeply principled. Just to name a single example, an entire episode of Sports Night is given over to one of the main characters struggling to choose a charity to donate money to. Sorkin is a genius, one of the greatest living writers in any medium (I would put him alongside Grant Morrison and John Ashbery, and I plan to at some point). But he uses ethics, not as a model, but as an aesthetic device, the way a painter might select a particularly picturesque tree. The only complaints I have heard against Sorkin -- at least until Studio 60 -- boil down to the same objection: he is not realistic. But complaining that Sorkin is not realistic is like complaining that ice cream has no nutritional value, it misses the point. Sorkin is the only genuine – which is to say persuasive – inheritor of the films of Frank Capra, especially Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra is a filmmaker who is such a part of Americana that it can be hard to see how watching his films can be anything other than a study of the nostalgias, especially as Its a Wonderful Life hits with such regularity at Christmas. But they are great films, and Sorkin keeps them alive. Ethics as Aesthetics, beautiful, moving, unrealistic objects. Screw content. Sorkin is pure style over substance. I don't care that much what writers have to say -- as someone once noted Milton could have put all his thoughts on God into four or five pages -- I care how they say it. And Sorkin is a master.

On Studio 60 the parts are there, but they are just not persuasive in the same way. But that is for later.


Madd_Hadder said...

Thank you. I have found Sorkin to be a genius since I first read the stage version of A Few Good Men and while Studio 60 is not perfect, I still find more joy watching that show than I do any other program on television with 24, Smallville and Veronic Mars running a close second.

Pat Moler said...

I never thought of it that way. Also, I just realized that I've studied aristotle and socrates, but never plato. I'll have to start reading his stuffs.


Geoff Klock said...

madd_hadder: that is the thing to remember. I still love Sorkin and will continue to watch and enjoy the show. Compared to almost everything else it is a great show; it is mostly in the context of West Wing and Sports Night and A Few Good Men that something seems off.

Marc Caputo said...

It's funny, but when presented with a reality that is completely different than our own (let's say, almost all of the comic book universes), we have no problem accepting their reality, or version thereof. When the reality is so close to ours, we can't accept the differences as easily. Maybe Sorkin's universe is accessible by the Authority's carrier through the Bleed.
Hey, maybe that's where Morrison's first Authority arc is taking place! The Sorkinverse!
Now that would be one mother of a crossover - we'd just need a retcon of Felicity Huffman/Dana Whittaker, for starters.

Anonymous said...

What was The West Wing other than an idealized reality? A way to offer up the Bill Clinton that progressive thinking people WANTED rather than the one which was. If the object of that show wasn't to be realistic, why did it consistently have 'ripped from the headlines' elements driving the plot?
Even the early underpinning MS plot can be (Easily) seen as a parallel to the Monica Lewinsky thing as it was a secret which the president lied about to his staffers and the public.

I think I disagree with the premise that "the main objection boils down to not being realistic" I think that the 'main objection' tends to be that Sorken populates his universe with different shades of himself... not that the characters are "unrealistic" but rather that they exist to make a point. Back in In Living Colour there was a sketch where people would get sentimental and talk about "the tough realities of life and race relations" and Keenan Ivory Waynes would come out and say "MESSAGE!" from what I've seen THIS tends to be the main complaint about Sorken, that when he fails, the entire production is built around ideological moralizing rather than Character or Plot.
did anyone read the Onion bit I posted in the last entry? I think it's really stunning to see how quickly S60 is falling out of favour with even its most ardent early supporters.
I hope that no one thinks that I am "trolling" these S60 pieces... I'm still watching the show (clicked the Ed2k link for the new one this morning b4 work) I am trying to "ride the seesaw" though:

Geoff Klock said...

Ping: first off thanks for the seesaw link. It's amazing how much of that I already know on some level just from getting in fights with people.

I see your point about MESSAGE, but my point here is this never bothered me because I don't think the message is the point, the writing is, the words and speeches. My problem with Studio 60 is not that is is preachy -- though it is -- but that the writing (the speeches, the uplifiting moments) is not on par with the West Wing.

Today I found this article on Slate that has a lot of very smart things to say about why Studio 60 is not working; it's the best thing I have seen on the subject so far.

Geoff Klock said...

Marc: I shudder at the thought of the new Morrison projects meeting with the new Sorkin project. These are writers I LOVE, and both have been doing less than their best work lately.

ping33 said...

as a side-note about the Peter Sandman link... I came across his stuff in regards to Bird Flu and Terrorist Attack preparedness and had NO idea that he had defined his Seesaw theory in terms of the West Wing. I didn't even know it when I posted the first bit drawing the same connection between West Wing and Monica... I googled "Seesaw Theory" and Sandman while writing my post script and in a Carlos Castaneda/Jung/interconnectedness of all things moment that was the first piece which came up (cue scary music)