Custom Screening: Tootsie Pops and the city

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In television terms, this column is a pilot…” is the opening statement I have arrived at as I reluctantly minimize the iTunes window that has been indulging my procrastination for the last two hours with back-to-back “Sex and the City” episodes.

Remember that moment in “Pulp Fiction” when Jules tells Vincent how a television company will hire actors and shoot a pilot script? “Some pilots get picked and become television programs. Some become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing.” Well, I am that she and sitting on top of that ever-tempting iTunes window is my nothing.

Once, in my screenwriting class I was struggling with something that much more resembled a pilot — my first screenplay.

Why did the characters not leap off the page? Why did I not connect with them? In my mind I had the 1970s “Upstairs Downstairs,” in front of me I had the 2011 remake — two dimensional and uninspired.

It only started to come together when my professor asked me the question that lies at the centre of all good film and television writing: “Why do you care?”

So why would I care about Film and TV enough to write a column about it? When I was 17, a provincial theatre where I grew up on the South Island of New Zealand staged a production of Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys.”

In between the cramped blocking and mangled accents was a line that has echoed through my life ever since. Hektor, the old humanist professor explains the importance of literature to his student. He said that when we find a thought or feeling in a novel that we relate to, “it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” The joy of communally experiencing something makes film and television – the world’s universal visual media – enchanting.

Pop culture is so wonderfully universal that it has become a conduit for how we express and articulate ourselves.

In the pilot of “Girls,” who didn’t relate to the moment when Shosanna tries to work out who Jessa would be in “Sex and the City” — “you’re definitely a Carrie with some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair. That’s a really good combination.” Indeed, Girls stakes its premise on us being able to relate to the characters’ ability (and sometimes their inability) to relate to “Sex and the City.”

Of course the universality of mass media isn’t all cosmos and Manolo Blahniks. When it comes down to paring down society to a collection of characters, sometimes writers fail to into the trap of trying so hard to pigeonhole a certain section of society and end up with a mindless stereotype (See: Joey circa Friends seasons 8, 9, 10). Worse, many minorities are completely unrepresented on screen.

But good writing transcends superficial differences of color, gender and nationality and focuses on the universality of the human experience.

Why else do you think American film and television are so successful overseas? No one forces us to watch that stuff. We laugh and cry at it as anyone else does. Indeed, Hollywood routinely does better box office internationally than domestically.

So alone in my bed, with an old Tootsie Pop sticking unglamourously to my elbow and 11,000 kilometres from family, friends and the now derelict theatre where I first saw “The History Boys,” I listen to Carrie harp on about how guilty she feels for screwing Aiden over and wonder at how I can’t possibly imagine being alone. That iTunes window opens up to the world, to Carrie and to all the other people who have laughed with her just like me. Screen culture’s greatest strength is its global appeal.

In constantly striving for the lowest-common denominator it illuminates the highs and lows that light at the base  of the human experience.

Far from isolating us in darkened theatres and dorm rooms, it connects us to each other. So much so that I decided to write a column about it. I’m such a Carrie, you know what I mean?