May 23, 2023
My friends (and one or two foes) have informed me that my past few columns have been downers. “Can’t you do something a little lighter?” they ask.
“Also, what’s your take on the WGA strike?”
Happy to oblige, friends and foes who for once are not an imaginary opening-paragraph device to assist in justifying a topic. Let’s do something lighter, and writer.
I consider myself exceptionally movie-literate; I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve had to see a film twice to truly “get it.”
Okay, one finger on one hand. Because I can only think of one movie: Barton Fink. The first time I saw it, I didn’t fully grasp that Barton is the bad guy. Sure, the Coens make it clear from the get-go that Barton’s pretentious; nevertheless (and I hate to employ the overused term “subversive,” but this was certainly the Coens at their subversive best) the film still hits all the right notes to make viewers feel as though we should be sympathizing with him.
On the surface, Lipnick the studio chief is the villain. But as much as Barton is presented as the leading man and audience surrogate as we follow (what we think is) his “hero’s journey” through Hollywood, he’s actually the heavy. Paid handsomely by Lipnick, Barton delivers a screenplay that’s nothing more than a regurgitation of his hit play (it’s heavily implied that Barton has only one script in him, and he’s already used it up). Worse still, Barton boasts about championing “the common man” while actually despising the common man. Barton’s defining scene is when he’s out dancing with a lady, celebrating the completion of his self-cannibalized screenplay, and a young sailor who’s shipping out the next day asks to cut in. Refusing to oblige, Barton berates the seaman for not being deferential, for not recognizing his superior station.
It’s Turturro at his best, playing a four-eyed nebbishy New York Jew screaming at young handsome Gentiles, “I’m a writah, you mahnstahs! I create for a living!”
Which brings us to the Writers Guild of America and the strike. I’m not gonna weigh in on the money end of things—the residuals, the pay scale—because that’s not what interests me. The studios/networks/streamers are all crooked, and book-cooking is as much a time-honored part of the industry as status cars and coke. The aspect of the strike that fascinates me involves the thing that seems to be more important to the striking writers than a few extra bucks from streaming: AI. Specifically, the fear that AI will replace human scribes.
The fact that (predominantly left-wing) writers are walking the picket lines chanting variations of “You will not replace us” is such a neat little (and obvious) irony, only professional writers could be dense enough to miss it.
The best explanation of the WGA’s beef with AI can be found in an interview last week with the great philosopher and intellect Justine Bateman (local entertainment reporter Sam Rubin had hoped to interview Tina Yothers instead, but she’s in Myanmar negotiating a civil war settlement).
Here’s how Bateman, who apparently has “a computer science degree from UCLA,” presented the WGA vs. AI conflict:
Basically, you just feed AI a lot of information. Like if you like Waze, you feed it all the maps, you feed it all the real-time traffic, and then you give it a task, “Take me from spot A to spot B in the shortest amount of time,” and it delivers that task based on all the material you’ve given it. The really kind of harsh reality of AI in the entertainment business is it’s trained on all of our past work, all of our scripts, our films, all these actors, performances, all of this, so it’s a regurgitation. It’s an amalgamation. You give it a task, and it spits out some new product based on all of our past work.
Okay, why’s that funny?
I mean, apart from the fact that I can’t read it without envisioning Peter Griffin cutting in at the end and saying, “Shut up, Mallory.”
It’s funny because what Bateman describes is exactly what human writers already do. Screenwriting and series writing is often—to the point of being almost always—“regurgitation,” “amalgamation,” and “some new product based on past work.”
Bad writing is why most movies and series suck. It’s rarely the acting (I’ll pretend I never saw that clip of Lizzo on the Baby Yoda show); it’s typically the writing. Mediocre talents cribbing from mediocre talents.
I fail to see the problem should studio and network heads choose to use AI to get amalgamations for free. I sympathize with the Lipnicks on this one. Writers brought this problem on themselves by being hacky and uninspired. Back in the 1980s and ’90s I knew TV writers who carried briefcases full of regurgitated story lines that they’d simply recycle for whatever show hired them. In TV terms, that’s what constitutes a “good” writer: someone who can adapt familiar story lines regardless of a show’s characters or premise.
I’ll give you an example. The last time I tried watching broadcast TV, sometime in 2011, I checked out the DreamWorks-produced postapocalyptic sci-fi drama Falling Skies (aliens decimate the world, survivors fight back, etc.), and there was a B story about a “tuff grrrl” teen survivor who’s lived a hard life alienated from her loved ones and a “girly-girl” survivor who has a loving family and the two of ’em bond as the latter shows the former how to drop her steely facade and do her hair and emotionally “let people in.”
What the fuck’s that got to do with aliens having destroyed the world? Nothing. It’s a bad writer who’s carried that “tough girl bonds with girly-girl” subplot in his briefcase for twenty years, and he pulls it out for whatever show hires him.
These are the people who worry that AI will replace them. And they should be worried. They’re at risk because they’ve made being uninspired the industry standard.
Now, if you say this to a TV or movie writer, guaranteed they’ll respond, “Hey, we just write what we’re told! Blame the showrunners, the producers, the studio and network brass! With their cost-conscious ‘have it done yesterday’ marching orders, how can we possibly produce great art?”
At its core, the writers’ response is, “If David Chase doesn’t do Grave of the Vampire he never does The Sopranos.” 1972’s Chase-penned Grave of the Vampire was so formulaic, AI totally could’ve written it. But it was written by a human, who then used it as a springboard to another job, which was then used as a springboard to another job, and eventually that human got enough clout and we got Tony Soprano. That’s the WGA’s case against AI. Human writers have to be paid for the bad stuff in order to work their way up to where they can do the good stuff.
The counterargument to that is, the same technological advances that give us AI also give writers who have “the good stuff” inside them the opportunity to bypass Grave of the Vampire and “shine” right out of the gate, by finding more creative ways to make themselves and their estimable talents known to the world.
Remember when Nancy Pelosi claimed that Obamacare (which I would wager most WGA members supported) would free Americans from “job-lock,” so they could quit their “bad jobs” and “write poetry”? She actually said that. With Obamacare, you can ditch your lousy job and write great literature!
Okay, writers. If you’re only churning out mediocrity because the bosses make you, and now the bosses are threatening to pay you less, well…you’ve got your Obamacare—go write your masterwork!
Unless…the writers are full of crap and 99.9 percent of them don’t have a Sopranos in ’em and the regurgitated pap is all they’re capable of.
Take the case of Devon Avery, a writer with genuine talent who bypassed the system. His short film One-Minute Time Machine won awards and was seen and loved by millions of people across the world. But what happened? The concept was stolen by the execrable MCU/Rick and Morty hack Jeff Loveness, who only knows how to pilfer and regurgitate other people’s ideas.
Loveness won an Emmy by recycling Avery’s film (I cover that in greater detail in this week’s Substack).
Loveness is now hard at work walking the picket line, because he of all people knows that if AI replaces human writers, he’ll be the first out of a job. Because there’s nothing he can do that AI can’t; they both watch, copy, repeat. Except AI does it for free.
On top of the simple truth that AI is only a threat because the bulk of TV and film writers are nothing more than regurgitators/amalgamators themselves, you have the additional wrinkle that today’s young media consumers spend way more time and money playing videogames and watching others play videogames on Twitch than they do watching (or paying for) streaming shows and Hollywood films.
The first week of the WGA strike, who was out there handing free pizza to the writers? Hasan Piker, and if I could think of a word more extreme than “execrable,” I’d use it to describe him (but here even my considerable wordsmithery fails me). Piker is a far-left cunt who’s made millions of dollars playing videogames on Twitch. Yes, that’s all he does. He plays videogames and other people watch him. And he’s made more from that than most writers will make in their lifetime.
He was passing out free pizza as a cruel prank: “It’s because of people like me, who’ve shown that Zoomers don’t care about scripted narratives but rather videogames, that you’re being phased out, you morons. So here’s some pizza; I’ll use the footage of you eating it to earn even more money on Twitch!”
And the writers ate the cheap pizza served by the guy who’s killing them. It was the greatest-ever real-life illustration of “Eat shit and die.”
The WGA strike will eventually end, just as the last one did. Stephen Abootman will get some bubble gum and Bennigan’s coupons, and things will go back to normal.
Which is bad news for the writers, because between the fact that AI can do, faster and cheaper, what every uninspired hack can do, and the fact that today’s 35-and-unders just wanna watch Twitch or OnlyFans and that’s where the money is (thus giving studio and network heads even more reason not to pay for human-created scripted regurgitation), “normal” doesn’t favor writers.
In Barton Fink’s world, in the Hollywood of old, the “mahnstahs”—the studio heads and “common men”—needed writers. They don’t now, not in today’s world. Between AI for the bosses and videogames, Twitch, etc. for the masses, they’re fine without the likes of Fink.
Time to collect your things and go sit on that beach, Barton. Your journey’s coming to its inevitable conclusion.