What Can We Steal From Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America?

Title of Work and its Form: God Bless America, feature film
Author: Bobcat Goldthwait (writer and director)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD and may be available on streaming services.

Element of Craft You’re Writing About: Tone

People of my generation know Bobcat Goldthwait as a comedian and as the Police Academy officer with the haggard hair and funny voice. In the 1990s, he reached the pinnacle of human achievement by marrying Nikki Cox. In the past decade, Goldthwait (who is also from the Syracuse area) has become a respected writer and director.  (Seriously, the films are very good!)  God Bless America, like Goldthwait’s other films is as funny as it is dark. Frank is a divorced dad whose daughter hates him as much as she loves her cell phone. He believes he is striking up a sweet romance with his company’s receptionist…only to find that she has reported him for harassment. It is no longer politically correct, after all, to send flowers or lend books to a woman who hasn’t told you to back off. After being fired, Frank learns he has a terminal brain tumor. He can no longer tolerate the incivility and stupidity of American culture and decides to use his remaining time on Earth setting things straight. He starts by killing one of those spoiled reality show brats. Much to his surprise, he takes on a sidekick: a 16-year-old girl who feels the same way about the vapid nature of contemporary American culture. The middle-aged man and teenage girl go on a killing spree that climaxes in a fitting manner.

Like I said, Goldthwait is a Syracuse native. I saw Frank (Joel Murray) walking around a city square while talking to his daughter and…things looked familiar. Lots of cities have a fountain like that, right?  Hmmm…I guess a lot of cities have a reflective pool, I suppose. At last, I realized that the actor really was in Downtown Syracuse heading off to work at the Federal Building. Admittedly, it was pretty cool to see a familiar place on the silver TV screen. Seeing Syracuse wasn’t the problem. What jolted me was the geography of the film. Okay, fine. Frank is in Syracuse. Cool. I love that he worked at “Bank of Onondaga.” Awesome. But then he leaves to begin his killing spree. Was he near Syracuse when he shot the spoiled brat? I would swear that some of the “travel” shots were taken around Syracuse.  Mr. Goldthwait is wielding a double-edged sword.  It’s fun to see locations you recognize, but it can also shake your viewer from the illusion of reality that you’re trying to create.

I go to the movie theater about once a year. Do I hate films? Of course not. I hate the people who go to films. They talk and text and shout and bring their kids to midnight movies…terrible. I particularly hate when people will shout a description of what is happening at the screen: “Hey! That’s The Rock! See? It’s The Rock.” Yes, madam. I know it’s The Rock. We all know it’s The Rock. Goldthwait shrewdly has Frank continue his quest against crudeness and civility in a movie theater. Frank shoots everyone who was being rude. The scene takes on a new meaning after the terrible shooting in the Aurora theater, but try to think of Goldthwait did in a pre-Aurora context. Theatergoers were literally in a theater watching Frank correct the behavior of rude theatergoers. How many people do you think stopped texting when they realized what was happening onscreen and why? Goldthwait used the medium to extract additional meaning out of the scene.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Make sure you establish a real and workable geography for your story. Instead of empathizing with Frank, I was wondering if he was still in Syracuse. The next day he was in Virginia. Then, I don’t know. Don’t make your reader think about maps or math. A writer must somehow figure out how to add local flavor without working against his ultimate goal: to tell a story and send a message.
  • Understand that some people will live in the same place as your characters and will have special knowledge that may exceed yours. Short story master Lee K. Abbott once told my class about a letter he had received from a reader. Lee had mentioned in one of his stories a specific (and quite real) golf tournament that took place during summer in Arizona. The reader politely corrected him; pointing out that the tournament could not take place during that season, if only because of the sweltering temperatures. Lee acknowledged that he failed that particular reader. His goal, of course, was to inspire the gentleman to empathize with the character and to become immersed in the story’s dramatic situation. Instead, the reader was jerked out of the flow of the story, thinking about geography instead of human relationships. We want to do our best to make sure that the reader’s focus remains on the story, not on the outside world.
  • Make full use of your medium and the ways people are inherently consuming the work in question. Shakespeare did this with Hamlet’s play-in-a-play. When Hamlet is lecturing the actors who were portraying actors, he could also have been speaking directly to the actors. (Remember? “Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.”) Audiences who understand the different meanings of the lines will enjoy the multiple layers.

Our First Literary Theft: A Declaration of Principles

Ladies and gentlemen…boys and girls…and everything in between: Welcome to Great Writers Steal.  Here’s hoping that we all enjoy taking a closer look at the literature we love.  (In all of its many forms.)

What will happen here?  Well, folks, I will be posting with some kind of regularity what writers can steal from other creative works.  I do mean “all kinds.”  The poet can certainly borrow from the nonfiction writer, just as that nonfiction writer should understand the way a poet combines words to make them sing.

To some extent, we should all be cultural omnivores.  You may not be a country music fan; goldurnit, there is at least some country music that will mean something to you.  Maybe horror movies aren’t your thing; that’s fine.  But you should still understand why the men and women who write them do what they do.  One day, you will read about what you can steal from an episode of a popular sitcom.  The next, you will read about a poem from a small literary journal.  Literature and art are the means by which we become human; shouldn’t we strive to be as complete as possible?

It is true that there are no new stories to tell; even a genius like Shakespeare knew that.  What makes the difference is how you tell your story and the methods by which you communicate your thoughts and feelings.

It seems altogether fitting and proper that we begin by stealing an idea from one of the best films ever made: Citizen Kane.  In the film, Orson Welles plays Charles Foster Kane, a trust fund baby who decides it might be fun to run a newspaper.  As he embarks on his new enterprise, he tells his colleagues that he wants the paper to be as important to the city as the gas that fuels the lights.  He therefore begins with a Declaration of Principles that will be plastered on the front page: a set of ideals that will guide him each and every day.  In that spirit, I offer…

A Declaration of Principles for Great Writers Steal:

1) I will provide the literary community with a resource that I hope will inspire writers and readers of all interests and levels of experience.  From the beginning screenwriter to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, there will be ideas here that you hadn’t previously considered.

2) I will serve as a tireless champion of the great works that mean something to all of us.  There are great techniques to be stolen from art ranging from Beowulf to the new single from The Band Perry.  That said, I consider it a duty to convince readers to appreciate a wide range of art and not to ignore the timeless classics.  (I beg you, don’t die having seen Honey Boo Boo and not having seen Citizen Kane.)


Kenneth Nichols