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robertogreco : sense8   2

The Transformative Experience of Writing for “Sense8” | The New Yorker
"A large number of the American writers I know, and I know a few, are involved in writing or developing long-form narrative television. One reason for this was recently provided by John Landgraf, the C.E.O. of FX Network, who said that four hundred and fifty-four scripted original series had aired in the U.S. in 2016; he thought that the number could rise to five hundred this year. Apparently, the industry needs writers and, black-hole-like, is sucking in galaxies of them. Until I was asked to work on “Sense8,” I’d never been interested in that particular black hole, even though I had come to believe that American television had overtaken narrative literature in its ability to deal with contemporary realities. No novel has addressed the Bush years’ crypto-fascist notion of “leadership” with the same clarity of thought as “The Sopranos.” If you wanted to understand the waste laid by the so-called War on Drugs, you wouldn’t read a novel—you’d watch “The Wire.” Television, in other words, offers opportunities to confront and report from the world as it changes.

Before “Sense8,” my screenwriting experience consisted of co-authoring a script with the Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić for her comedy “Love Island,” in 2014. The rest of my writerly life had taken place in the self-imposed isolation of my head. I don’t take part in workshops or writing groups; I don’t share ideas or drafts with my fellow-writers for feedback; I make all the decisions and am responsible for every word in the book that I am writing, acknowledgments included. My solipsistic authorial habits would seem to feed into a common misconception about writing, which is that it is merely a conduit for the writer’s interiority, and that a good writer—or even just a capable one—possesses the skills to transfer the contents of that interiority onto the page with as little loss as possible. Much of the creative-writing industry depends upon that misconception and the promise, implicit or explicit, that the acquisition of those skills is unconditionally achievable. I’ve grown to be suspicious of that notion, as I have learned that writing generates the content and therefore transforms—or even creates—the interiority. Writing is a means of interaction with the world, and therefore it changes the writer. If it doesn’t, it contains no discovery and merely reproduces the already known and familiar. Writing, I believe, should be a matter not of execution but of transformation.

My screenwriting experience confirmed my belief. While Lana, Lilly, and Joe were responsible for the foundations of the show—for all the characters and their narrative trajectories—my role was to make proposals that would be taken up by the other people in the room and spun around a few times. The version of the proposal that emerged would have little to do with the original, yet belonged to me as much as to everyone else. In the course of one of those spins, I realized that, whenever I spoke or listened to someone, I was looking at the center of a circle that was delimited by the participants. Somehow, we started calling this space, and the collaboration that it housed, the Pit. A whole Pit-related phraseology soon emerged: “I’m going to throw this into the Pit.” “Let’s spin it in the Pit.” “The Pit concurs.” “The Pit needs a pendulum.” I enjoyed losing myself in the process, which felt all the more fascinating for the fact that the distinguishing characteristic of the heroes of “Sense8” is an ability to inhabit someone else’s mind. All this may be yesterday’s news to the film, television, and theatre people out there, but I’d never experienced the pleasure of temporarily losing my intellectual sovereignty—of watching my bright idea be destroyed, only to be transformed into something entirely different.

After that week in 2015, David and I went back home. (My home is about five blocks away from Kinowerks; David’s is in Ireland.) For the rest of the year, we were regularly assigned scenes to write on short deadlines. Cognizant of their place and role in the larger narrative, we were tasked with working out the dialogue and the details, tossing in our suggestions for a remote Pit spin. “The Wolfgang and Lila dinner, 2-3 pages, tomorrow,” Lana would write in an e-mail. The following day I’d submit the requested two to three pages. Lana and Joe would perform the bulk of the Pit work, developing, amending, or just rejecting the pages we sent in. Over the course of three months or so, I sent in some hundred and twenty pages, happy in the knowledge that not a single one of them would make it to the final seven-hundred-page script in the form in which I had written it."



"In my literary projects, the plotless structures I gravitate toward allow me to seek connections and meanings that emerge primarily not from characters and events but from language and the potentialities of thought within it. I think inside endless semantic, syntactic, rhythmic variations. Both David and I were continuously tempted to apply our respective colored pencils to the pages of the script (David’s grammatically persnickety alter ego is named Lawrence and likes to use a green pen), but there was little time and even less need to attend to the language in the way we were accustomed to. We did, however, often discuss the structure of individual events and their positioning in the larger plot. For instance, the second season of “Sense8” ended with a cliffhanger, the resolution of which would necessarily prohibit certain future plotlines. There was, nevertheless, an infinite number of possibilities for the plot that would follow; not unlike language, our plot was a discrete combinatory system, in which from a finite number of elements any number of combinations could be made. From our respective couches (which Lana, David, and I named, for reasons that I cannot explain here, “Illumination,” “Ireland,” and “Doom,” respectively), before making any notes, we spent hours reshuffling the abstract, as yet nonexistent structure of the story.

During one of those sessions, I had a near-Proustian involuntary memory of a time, some thirty years ago, when I was a freshman at an engineering college. My friend and I were studying together for an advanced-differential-calculus exam, solving tough integral problems, until we ran into one that we could not break. For two days, for at least twelve hours a day, we sought a solution; the process required reducing the integral to some identifiable type and then applying a preëxisting algorithmic protocol. (We finally called in a math-genius friend, who looked at the unbreakable integral and solved it in just a couple of steps.) The memory made me realize that plotting a narrative is a logical, algorithmic operation, albeit one that has an infinite number of possible outcomes, rather than one correct resolution. Building a plot is like creating an algorithm from scratch, starting before the problem is even defined and then backtracking after the desired solution has been selected.

The memory also suggested that my subconscious was following a logical algorithm. My dreams are usually amorphous, featuring a field of confusingly connected events—a description that also applies to most of my work, as well as to my waking mind. The subconscious authority governing my dream life, however, had lately begun to insist that the events and the characters in my dreams be logically connected, that they follow one another causally. In recent dreams, I’ve struggled to connect discrete events, so much so that I’ve woken in despair. Once, I dreamed that I was a screenwriter trying to untangle a plot knot. Some dreams have featured “Sense8” characters, others those from the New Project, who sometimes act like real people in my dreams and are sometimes just structural problems that I have to solve.

Back in my early years in the U.S., at the time when my English was in transition from tourist to survival mode, I’d catch myself dreaming in English, and noticing, in my dream, that the people who shouldn’t be talking in English were doing so. Even more bizarrely, I would recollect English conversations with my family or friends, which would certainly have taken place in our native language. I interpreted those dreams and memories as my subconscious mind welcoming this non-native language. If I hadn’t absorbed the new language in that way, I wouldn’t have been able to write any of the books I’ve written in English, or to have lived a full life in this language. I am writing this on the last day of the Pit’s screenwriting session, overwhelmed by the feeling that the sandbox is about to be dismantled, that my friends will go back to their separate lives and careers, and that, very soon, I’ll be returning to my former, stark, monastic literary practices. What the experience of exultant plotting at Kinowerks may have done to my mind, I cannot begin to know, at least not yet."
aleksandarhemon  2017  writing  sense8  collaboration  collaborativewriting  english  languageacquisition  dreams  dreaming  memory  kinowerks  television  screenwriting  howwewrite 
october 2017 by robertogreco
Sense8 and the Failure of Global Imagination | thenerdsofcolor
"There should be word for the exhilaration of a half-success coupled with the glowing disappointment of the half-failure, that two-sided coin. People who don’t speak German would say that there must be a long-ass German word for it. There isn’t, but German has the virtue of allowing someone to make a half-assed attempt at coining it. Ehrgeitzversagensschoene? I mention this, because this is one of the primary failures of the show: it attaches itself to Americans’ perceptions of how things are in other idioms, as much as, or more than, it attaches to how things actually are.

To put it plainly: Sense8’s depiction of life in non-western countries is built out of stereotypes, and of life in non-American western countries is suffused with tourist-board clichés. The protagonist in Nairobi is a poor man whose mother has AIDS and whose life is ruled by gangs; in Mumbai we have a woman in a STEM career marrying a man she doesn’t love and engaging in Bollywood dance numbers; in Korea we have a patriarchally oppressed wealthy corporate woman who also happens to be a kickass martial artist; in Mexico City we follow a telenovela actor. London and Reykjavik are filmed using tourist locations and anonymous interiors.

Worse, the filmic clichés of each country are brought to bear on the production in each location — each organized by a different director: Nairobi is sweaty, garish, earth-toned, radiantly shabby; Mumbai is multicolored, and Hindu iconned, full of the jewelry, silks, flowers, and jubilant crowds that burst out of classic Bollywood; Seoul is clean to the point of sterility, with little patches of grass and mirrors and windows everywhere, a grey, hi-tech aesthetic; Mexico City is jewel-toned, rife with skulls, full of melodrama deliberately reminiscent of the telenovela; etc. I believe, quite literally, that the filmmakers primarily learned about these other cultures through their films, and considered that enough.

And finally, the pop-cultural elements of the show are all American. There’s no evidence of local or national culture influencing how the non-American characters view themselves or live their lives. The Kenyan sensate idolizes Jean-Claude Van Damme (who is, granted, not American, but known for his role in American action films). The German sensate claims Conan the Barbarian quotes as his personal philosophy. The Icelandic DJ in London puts on 4 Non Blondes’ hideous anthem “What’s Goin’ On?” and infects the entire cluster with a dancing/singing jag. Where there’s no American cultural lead — in Korea and Mexico, and even in the Ganesh-worshipping Indian sensate’s life — the characters’ life philosophies are a blank.

The Wachowskis take advantage of the apparent international ascendancy of American pop culture to unify disparate cultures, when the way American pop works on non-western cultures is often counterintuitive to Western minds. Sense8 also displays a profound lack of recognition of local pop cultures even when they would definitely have influenced such characters. In the show, American pop is specific, non American pop is generalized and clichéd, as in the Bollywood dance, or entirely absent.

The universality being promoted here is a universality of American ideas, American popular culture, American world views. It’s like Stephen Colbert’s idea of freedom of religion:

“I believe that everyone has the right to their own religion, be you Hindu, Jew, or Muslim. I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”

If the entire show were an even spread of such thin notions, I could dismiss the show, or even enjoy it as as a guilty or problematic pleasure. But Sense8 has two great counter virtues.

The first is in the depiction of the San Francisco sensate, which is the best representation both of the city and of that particular community that I’ve ever seen on TV. Nomi, a trans woman, is first seen wandering through a very locally-informed San Francisco cityscape during Pride weekend. At every level, the limning of Nomi’s character and the study of San Francisco are intimate, layered, nuanced, and above all, specific. Nomi doesn’t fall off a bike somewhere in San Francisco, she falls off a motorcycle in the Castro during the Dykes on Bikes parade, which she rides in every year with her girlfriend, a gesture of extreme importance to her identity. She doesn’t meet-cute her girlfriend in a random park; she remembers a key moment early in their relationship where her girlfriend stands up for her against a hostile TERF during a picnic in Dolores Park.

It’s the specificity that rings true to this San Franciscan, and that signals to all viewers that this world is real, and the character is alive within it.

It’s a vision of how the entire show could have been, if the Wachowskis could have figured out in time how to bring this level of intimacy and specificity to their depiction of all the characters, and all the cities. Because Tom Tykwer, himself a Berliner, directs the Berlin sequences, you see a little bit of this familiarity in the locations chosen for that city and in the character of Wolfgang — his East German origins, his family’s Slavic name and orthodox religion, etc.

But none of the other sensates, including the idealistic Chicago cop, bear anything close to the level of intimate knowledge or specific detail that Nomi or Wolfgang have. In fact, pay attention and you’ll see how generalizing the locations and incidents are. For example: in Nairobi, the sensate’s bus is robbed in what the characters themselves call “a bad area,” i.e. they don’t refer to the district by its name.



But even this failure in the rest of Sense8’s world is countered somewhat by its second great virtue, which is that it commits totally to its clichés and rides them out to their conclusions. Thank the slow pacing for this. The entire 12-episode first season covers a story arc that would generally be covered in the first two episodes of any other show (the sensates are introduced, discover each other, start to learn the rules of their condition, meet their antagonist, and finally successfully pull off their first combined action). The very deliberation with which the story unfolds forces the writers to unpack details of each character’s life and situations that bring a kind of life and reality to the clichés they’re embedded in. Details are forced into the narrative — one by one in each character’s arc — and each character eventually becomes rooted in these details, even though they often come late in the season.



In a discussion before I wrote this piece, I disagreed with a friend about the handling of language in the show. I really appreciated the choice of having all characters speak English without forcing them all to speak English in cheap versions of their “native” accents. And, given that this was an American TV show, I didn’t expect the makers to force American audiences to read subtitles. My friend, however, pointed out that it would have been… well, less hegemonic for everyone to be actually speaking their own languages.

Upon reflection, I have to agree that having the dialogue in non-English speaking countries translated would have offered the translators an opportunity for input about the content of the dialogue. And if the Wachowskis had hired writers from each culture to translate not merely the text but also the entire culture and idiom — up to and including changing plot points and points of view to better fit with the local culture of that character — this could have solved their whole problem.

Whether or not you believe in the universality of human experience — whether or not you believe in a single global imagination — the only way to attempt to depict a true global imagination would be to create — in the writers room and on the directors’ chairs — a facsimile of a sensate cluster. Just imagine it: eight equal auteurs, each in their own physical location and cultural context, striving together — and frequently pulling apart — to achieve a single, complex story on film. Even the failure of such an enterprise would have been far more ambitious, far more glorious, far more Ehrgeizversagensschoen, than the Sense8 we actually got.

And if it had succeeded?

There are four more seasons to go on this show — if the Wachowskis get their way. Let’s hope that in the future their globalism is more than just an aesthetic decision.

Bottom line: yes, watch it. Binge it. Its failure is far more interesting than the success of almost anything else happening at this moment. And it’s truly one of the most diverse shows on TV right now."
sense8  tv  television  wachowskis  universality  language  culture  global  2015  clairelight  stereotypes  universing  translation  humans  human  humanexperience 
june 2015 by robertogreco

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