Thursday, January 12, 2012

In defense of Diablo Cody

I love when blog posts generate other blog posts. My review of YOUNG ADULT prompted reader Tim W. to write this:

You should do a blog post in defense of Diablo Cody. What seems to be the biggest complaint among her detractors is that her dialogue is not realistic and too stylized. That bothers me because there are few writers that actually seem to have a unique voice and when one does, they get jumped on.

I’m not opposed to stylized writing at all. But for many writers it’s a double-edged sword. They get discovered because they have a unique voice, but if that’s the only style they can write in they run the risk that the style goes out of style and they can’t adjust. How often have you seen this in rock bands? How are all the Disco groups doing these days?

At the moment Diablo Cody is very much in favor (despite my disappointment at YOUNG ADULT). She was nominated for a WGA Award the very day I panned her movie (proving again – what do I know?). I personally like her style. I loved JUNO. This was my review. And then I had some fun imaging the notes Diablo Cody would receive from a typical studio executive. You can find that here.

The big knock is that all of her characters sound alike and that’s true. Going in you have to know you’ll be watching a very stylized movie – the same way you would going into a Coen Brothers or Tim Burton film. Or a movie musical. You sacrifice realism, which can make the movie special and unique or kill it. You could get ROGER RABBIT or HOWARD THE DUCK.

All of David Mamet’s characters sound alike. Same with Harold Pinter’s. And Larry Gelbart’s. To me that's a good thing.   If the writing is good. 

Do you like the TV version of MASH? That was all Larry. I think we’d all agree that no one talks like those zany medicos at the 4077th.. We’d like to be as clever and funny at Hawkeye. But the truth is if Hawkeye Pierce were your co-worker, after two weeks you’d be throwing him down the elevator shaft.

I love Aaron Sorkin’s style, but he has to have the right subject matter. WEST WING was phenomenal. So was SOCIAL NETWORK. Those brainiac characters were right in his wheelhouse. But when the arena was behind-the-scenes at SNL, Tina Fey’s style was more on the mark than his.

Look, if TV and movie dialogue were true to real life no one would watch. Who wants to listen to endless prattle, incessant stammering, and a million “y’knows” and “likes”? I bet if someone really did a documentary on a paper products office, in order to put together one half hour that had as many funny things as the TV version they would need to shoot ten million hours of film. (I know that’s a little off topic. We’re talking about very stylized writers. But the point needs to be made that all dramatic writers need a little latitude.)

So in this age of network interference and homogenization, I say thank goodness for Diablo Cody, and Aaron Sorkin, and David Milch, and Amy Sherman, and every other truly distinctive writer except Tyler Perry.


Anthony said...

Thanks for putting Amy Sherman on that list! Through the whole Roseanne incident, I kept hoping somebody would mention her... including Roseanne. The period in which she wrote for the Roseanne show encompasses the years that I really loved that show, and I've always credited Sherman (in my mind) with fleshing out the Connors into people who I cared about as a viewer. And even though everyone talked with that very particular cadence and speed on Gilmore Girls, it's a gold standard to my tastes for TV writing. Jezebel James, though... well, everyone has their off-moments.

David O'Hara said...

If I'm not mistaken, Hawkeye had graduated high school. He may have even gone through college and med school... and he wasn't 15 years old.

Terry said...

I am one of those who complained about Diablo Cody in your previous post. I get your point here and stylized writing is great. I guess it just comes down to personal taste.

I find her writing to be cloying and a little too self-satisfied and cutesy for my taste. But I love most of the other writers you mentioned - Sorkin, Gelbart, Mamet.

I would have to disagree, however, with your assessment that all of their characters sound alike. Are you honestly saying that Hawkeye and Frank Burns sound alike? Or Colonel Blake? Or Hot Lips? To me, an average viewer, these were all distinct personalities with their own point of view. There wasn't as much of that in Juno. Everything was Diablo's point of view and there was only the vaguest distinction between which character was saying it.

I find the speeches of Hawkeye Pierce to be witty and clever, even if nobody in real life would say those things (though I will admit there were times when it could be a bit much). I find the speech of Juno to be annoying for the same reason. To borrow a phrase from Spinal Tap, there's such a fine line between stupid and clever.

Michael said...

It's like baseball broadcasting. I am listening to the "Baseball Voices" CD of Dave Niehaus's greatest calls and life story. I loved Dave, as, of course, Ken did. But if he had broadcast in, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles the way he did in Seattle, I don't think it would have worked. Vin Scully is the best ever, but Chicagoans think he's too even-handed--they like rooters. You have to fit your style to the market, or, should I say, your market has to fit your style.

404 said...

I have to admit I am one of those people who find David Mamet to be very annoying and anything but enjoyable. I don't know why I can suspend disbelief and annoyance at certain writers' style (I love the Coens, for example) while having such a hard time with others like Mamet. I remember sitting through Glengarry Glen Ross just getting so mad at all these forced and unrealistic speeches that I was forced to sit through. I wanted to scream "Just shut up, already, and take a damn breath!" at the screen. Almost no one talks like that, spitting out words like bullets from gatling guns. It was like Mamet was writing only to impress himself, and I could imagine him wringing his hands with glee at how clever he was being.

Johnny Walker said...

I look forward to "In defense of Tyler Perry".

(I love Diablo Cody, before anyone accuses of otherwise.)

Tom Quigley said...

Ken said...

"Look, if TV and movie dialogue were true to real life no one would watch. Who wants to listen to endless prattle, incessant stammering, and a million “y’knows” and “likes”?"

One of the reasons that I was never a big fan of shows such as CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and UP ALL NIGHT is that they are NOT totally scripted. And while the general consenus is that Larry David is a comic genius, to leave expressing the "voice" of the characters in the hands of the actors as they improvise usually ends up watching them go the long way around to get to a point.

I'd rather listen to the work of a good writer who knows what he or she wants the voice of the chracters to be (similar though they are) and have it result in smart, concise writing than to suffer through a cast trying to find their way as if they're doing a dress rehearsal.

Ethan said...

I look forward to "In defense of Tyler Perry".

Adding on to that sentiment, if not a defense I'd like to get your expanded thoughts beyond "except Tyler Perry".

I'm not a Tyler Perry fan per se, but he apparently has found a loyal audience and what you or I think about him/his work isn't going to change much.

From what little I have seen of his films/videos (one of my tenants pretty much has his catalog on a loop) his approach seems to be "let's do a skit about [throws dart] ... infidelity." (Acting happens)

DJ said...

Can't some of the writing be a specific sort of genre? 404 said that he can't suspend disbelief in Glengary Glen Ross, but writing to dazzle and play with the language is just as valid as a form of film/theater. Shakespeare has many moments he's just playing for fun, yeah?

I guess I'm saying that aiming for "realism" or even the generally accepted "everyone should sound different" are both a style of writing. Sometimes, some writers, it's about the words. May not be your cup of tea, but it shouldn't be maligned just cause it isn't what you'd prefer. Am I crazy?

Larry said...

I think you do Larry Gelbart an injustice when you say all his characters sound alike. M*A*S*H wsn't like an Aaron Sorkin show where everyone, high and low, is capable of the same back and forth banter (though I still think Sorkin is a good writer). Gelbert, based on M*A*S*H alone, could certainly do the rat-a-tat Grouchoesque style of a Hawkeye, but he was to get very different comedy out of Henry Blake, Frank Burns and Radar.

Tim W. said...


Glad I could help give you some inspiration for your blog. Considering how much free enjoyment you've given me over the years, I'm happy to give you, at least, a little help in coming up with ideas.

I've always hated the "it's not realistic dialogue" argument. Nothing in the movies or on TV is realistic. Even documentaries are heavily edited. If you don't like the style, then that's fine. That's just a matter of taste.

Although I admit I've never seen the Unites States of Tara, I enjoyed both Juno and Young Adult. Does she write young and quirky? Sure. Aaron Sorkin writes older and smart. Woody Allen writes angst ridden and intellectual. People specialize in different styles, even writers who don't have such a unique voice.

I don't hear many people complaining that you just write comedies.

By Ken Levine said...

What I meant, in regards to Larry and MASH is that the dialogue for all the characters is super clever. There's a joke, or turn of phrase on almost every line. No one enters or exits a room without a quip. Each script is dense with wonderful jokes, wordplay, and Americana. As someone who tried to write in that style for a couple of years I marvel at how good he was, how facile he was, and how perceptive he was.

People can watch Larry Gelbart MASH episodes two or three times and still pick out things they hadn't noticed before. The writing was very stylized.

Ralph Hitchens said...

I disagree about Aaron Sorkin; not only West Wing & Social Network, but Sports Night and Studio 60 were both outstanding, in my opinion. The latter has both humor and drama, something we can't say about Tina Fey & 30 Rock.

Kirk said...

You comment about how in real life someone would get so sick of Hawkeye's one-liners, reminds me of one of the funniest episodes of the last couple seasons of Mash. BJ, tired of Hawkeye's constant wisecracks, bets him he can't go 24 hours without making a joke. Hawkeye DOES win the bet. Much of the episode's humor revolves around Hawkeye stifling his wisecracks as craziness occurs around him, notibly from a subplot that has Charles trying to get back at the officer that sent him to Korea by telling him that Margaret has the hots for him, exactly the kind of joke Hawkeye and Trapper played in the show's early years.

HogsAteMySister said...


I've always wondered something. Is it common for sit-com writers to be forced to include "PC of the day" issues in their scripts? Examples? I ask as a practicing Catholic, which would probably get me burned at the stake in Hollywood. Cheers.

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

Ralph Hitchens,

I hate to agree with Ken when he's refusing to humor my curiosity about what's so unforigvably wrong with Whitney Cummings, but he's right. West Wing and Social Network are on a whole other level from Sorkin's other projects. I haven't seen a West Wing episode in years, and I still care about those characters. I've watched Social Network at least five times despite determinedly not giving a shit about those people in real life. Sorkin just makes them irresistably compelling. But Studio 60 I watched once, enjoyed, and immediately forgot. Liz Lemon, on the other hand, I'm totally in love with, and let's face it, she starts that race at a serious disadvantage to Amanda Peet.

Pete Grossman said...

Want some brilliant Mamet dialogue that isn't Mametesque? Watch The Verdict. And speaking of Mamet, yeah, I agree Glengarry Glen Ross can be a run-on mouthful, but it doesn't get any better than Alec Baldwin's turn.

Pete Grossman said...

Thought Diabo Cody's dialogue in Juno was snappy and fun. Great delivery by the actors. Thoroughly enjoyed the picture.

cshel said...

I like all of the aforementioned writers, including DC. But I'm only familiar with Juno and Young Adult, and seeing her talk as herself. I'm very curious to see her next film, Lamb of God, which she not only wrote, but will be making her directorial debut on, I believe. It will definitely be her voice all the way.

jbryant said...

The only dialogue that grated on me in JUNO was Rainn Wilson's character. I had no problem buying that Juno and her friends would have similar speech patterns (and maybe her father's glibness shows where she got hers). And her simpatico banter with Jason Bateman's character shows their mutual attraction -- they're performing for each other to a certain degree. Jennifer Garner's character doesn't sound like any of these others, if memory serves.

Tim Jones said...

I guess this is off-topic, so please forgive if necessary.

I'm a real tv trivia hound, and I've come up against an enigma the solution to which is apparently so trivial as to have vanished altogether. However, in a last ditch effort, I was directed to Mr. Levine's blog as to the horse's mouth.

Here's the question: Who is the handsome blonde woman who is seen in the background of many Cheers and Frasier episodes. In Cheers, she appears most often as a bar patron, in Frasier as a KACL employee, although sometimes as a Cafe Nervosa patron. The secret of her identity must have been an inside joke with the cast of Frasier because in one episode Roz, while celebrating their return to the air, simply refers to her as "You."

I'd be forever in the debt of Mr. Levine or anyone else who can reveal the identity of this extremely ubiquitous but unknown extra.

Mark said...

When I see her picture, I am reminded not of her writing, as respectable as it is, but how she has the prettiest and sexiest smile of any writer I have ever seen. A hottie for the literature circles! Brook (her real name) forces us "word guys" to think not about words, but action, lustful action. Very fortunate man, her husband is!

Wout Thielemans said...

I disagree about Sorkin too: The Social Network sucked the big one, and his trademark ping-pong dialogue is as empty as they come. Especially in Sports Night where both leads were almost indistinguishable from each other.

Did like the exit line from A Few Good Men (There's an officer on deck!) and his pilot for his show about newscasters, though.

gilmore said...

Amy Sherman has been considered by many to be a one shot wonder. Her previous work (aside from Roseanne) were flops. Gilmore Girls was Amy, that's why it worked. It came at the right time, hit gold with casting, and on a network where no one expected anything from it, even held it's own against American Idol. After Gilmore, there came Jezebel and an untitled pilot that was not picked up. Maybe she has another one in her, sure hope so.

D. McEwan said...

I saw Joe Mantegna and Peter Falk perform Glengarry Glen Ross live onstage, and Mamet's language was music. On film, it's too stylized, because film is a more realistic medium. It's why musicals work better on stage than in films also. You can accept stylization easier onstage, where the people are clearly on a platform in the room with you, ignoring you (except when they are pandering to you), so reality doesn't much enter into it anyway.

This is why the characters in Mamet's script for The Verdict (or for The Postman Always Rings Twice, or Hoffa, or Wag the Dog, or State and Main, or Hannibal, all written for the movies) don't speak like the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross, which was written for the stage. Boy, did I not want Peter Falk to shut up.

"Ken said...
Look, if TV and movie dialogue were true to real life no one would watch. Who wants to listen to endless prattle, incessant stammering, and a million 'y’knows' and likes'?"

I so agree. In a 1957 letter to Marlon Brando that I happened to read last week, famed and revered (though not by me) writer Jack Kerouc wrote: "What I wanta do is re-do the theater and the cinema in America, give it a spontaneous dash, remove pre-conceptions of 'Situation' and let people rave on as they do in real life. That's what the play is: no plot in particular, no 'meaning' in particular, just the way people are."

As I read that, I thought: Kerouac was a moron. That is a recipe for unwatchably boring theater and "cinema".

I get plenty of the way real people really talk while really talking to real people. Not once, when watching a play by Shakespeare, have I wished they would "just let people rave on as they do in real life" rather than recite all that great prose and verse.

(Okay, in some less-quality productions, or ones of his lesser plays, I have wished they would prattle on a bit less. I definitely wanted the Perecles I saw at The Olivier Theatre in London in 1994 to shut up. Terrible production of Shakespeare's worst play. Even the then-unknown Toby Jones couldn't save it.)

Shakespeare: when it comes to distinctive writing styles, he's the king, and yet, his characters do have individual voices within the overall Shakespeare voice, not unlike Larry Gelbart's characters only not as funny.

T Beck said...

My late brother-in-law Steve actually was as witty as Hawkeye. Only person I've ever known about whom I could say that.