Who was Lewis Helmar Herman?

If you happened to read the memoirs of successful twentieth-century American screenwriters, you might have come across  anecdotes about how upon being offered their first screenwriting assignment and not having the slightest idea of how to write one—most of them were novelists or playwrights—they headed down to a nearby all-night bookstore and purchased a book on screenwriting.  Most likely the book they purchased was A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting by Lewis Helmar Herman.  First published in 1952, the book is still in print.  But just who was the author of one of the most widely-read books on screenwriting?  Oddly, on the back cover of my copy of the book there is absolutely no information about the author.  Even the Wikipedia has no entry for him—and they have entries on just about anyone.  Given what I believe is Herman’s importance, and spurred by curiosity, I undertook my own investigation on the internet of this very remarkable man.  Unfortunately, my investigation didn’t turn up a great amount of information.  I did learn that he was born in 1905; however, I couldn’t confirm when he died, or if  in fact he was still living—which would make him 111 years old—though my sleuthing has led me to believe that he passed away in New York City some time during the 1990’s.

My investigation revealed some interesting aspects about the man.  Herman was a type of writer who is very rare today:  a writer who makes a living writing plays, books, articles and short stories.  (In my library I have a copy of a book he wrote on American dialects)  Furthermore, in the 1940’s Herman went to Hollywood to write screenplays, which I surmise was only for a few years.  Additional investigation reveals that he most likely headed-up the United States Army’s motion picture center in New York City during the 1950’s.  Unfortunately, for the last thirty or forty years of his life, the trail went cold for me.

But just what is Herman’s importance besides the fact that his book has been so widely read?  Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that during the 1980’s film academics in the United States proclaimed that during the 1930’s. 1940’s and 1950’s American cinema had enjoyed a “classic” period—never to be equaled again—and the secret of its success was indeed “secret.”  This spurred film scholars and a new crop of manual writers and script gurus to delve into the archives of the major film studios in search of Hollywood’s most closely guarded “trade secrets.”  However, what these film scholars and would-be gurus failed to realize or acknowledge was that these supposed trade secrets were hiding in plain sight—in Herman’s all -encompassing 1952 screenwriting manual.

Herman revealed all, particularly the mainstay Hollywood plot gimmicks, particularly “the plant,” “the old switcheroo” and “the weenie”—referred to as “the MaGuffin” by Alfred Hitchcock.  Although Herman knew all the gimmicks, he was critical of their overuse by Hollywood.  He complained that “In Hollywood the gimmick is the most overused stock in trade.  It is because of the gimmick that Hollywood pictures stress plot to the detriment of genuine characterization.”  Herman did not simply dwell on gimmicks; he even provided an exposition on a “three-act” structure.

Although Herman worked primarily in Hollywood, he was well aware of foreign (non-U.S.) films, particularly their strengths and weaknesses.  He noted that while American films often opened literally with a “bang,” e.g. someone being shot in the opening scene, European films—and British films in particular—began at a much slower pace.  He noted the following:

It is obvious from their pictures that the British believe the gradual –and therefore natural—development of character is vitally important.  So they begin their pictures with an overall visual exposition of the milieu in which the action will take place . . . .  This done, they go in from the general to the specific, by showing the people who will be involved in the action as they go through their normal workaday lives.  From this they become more specific, and single out the protagonists and antagonists, so as to set them up in their proper relation to each other, and to the story line.

Only when these expository preliminaries have been attended to do they begin to get into the action itself.

Herman went on to note how this slow build and slower tempo persisted throughout almost the entire length of a British film, picking up only at the end.  Although Herman understood the logic of this type of slow build, he noted that it did not always produce good results; in fact in some instances he found that there was an almost robot-like adherence to its employment.

Lewis Helmar Herman: the author of the only screenwriting manual you will ever need!

The Writer and Modern Psychiatry

In an earlier post I discussed how the mental health profession has relied heavily on film for teaching examples and the reasons why.  Today I will discuss how the screenwriter draws on (and perhaps should) modern psychiatry, if not for inspiration, at least for authenticity.  For much of the previous century, films incorporated very little insight from psychiatry.  There were two reasons for this: the first was the fact that psychiatry was still in its infancy; the second was  that most writers had very little contact with the mentally ill.  People that were seriously mentally ill, such as schizophrenics, were almost always placed in mental institutions and thus the public had essentially no contact with them.  There was one exception to this, and that was the psychoanalytic theories and techniques of Sigmund Freud.

The influence of Freud was pervasive in 20th century films, particularly in the area of symbolism. In my Screenplay as Literature I wrote about Federico Fellini’s use of Freud’s theories in his films, particularly in his marvelous 8 ½ (1963).  But despite Freud’s popularity with certain filmmakers, audiences and critics could ignore Freud and still enjoy their films.  For example, with 8 1/2 you could know nothing about Freud or understand little about the inner psychological conflicts of the main character, Guido, yet find the film highly entertaining.

In the last quarter of the 20th Century, psychiatry and mental health practices in general changed dramatically in the United States.  In short, the mental institutions were emptied out, as their former patients were dumped on the public on the justification that powerful new drugs could control their serious mental illnesses.  Thus, for the first time, the public was introduced to people suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder (i.e. manic-depressive).  Then there were the classification of many new syndromes that impair behavior such as attention-deficit and post-traumatic stress syndromes.  Anyone who has watched the television series Law and Order is probably aware of the difficulty that prosecutors have in securing convictions against felons, particularly in the case of murder, due to the proliferation of evermore “syndromes” that can be offered up as a defense

These advances have provided writers with much new material, plot and character wise.  The cable television series Homeland is an intriguing example of this.  In this series the main character, a high-ranking officer for an American spy agency, suffers from bi-polar disorder, for which she takes powerful medications.  It is indeed a breakthrough to depict people with mental illness able to excel in high-powered jobs.  What is fascinating about this series from a writing point of view is that we are never sure when the main character becomes infatuated with a new man if this is a symptom of her bi-polar disorder or actual love.  The same could be said when she becomes stubbornly insistent on her work-related insights—is this genius, or the failure of her medications to work properly?  In any event I am sure that qualified psychiatrists are employed to act as consultants to the show.

The real challenge today may not be serious mental impairments such as schizophrenia, for which people may be institutionalized, but impairments that are referred to as personality disorders. The better known (to the public) of such disorders are paranoid, obsessive-compulsive, narcissistic, and anti-social.  The latter is particularly important for writers of crime shows because it is estimated that up to thirty percent of imprisoned criminals are diagnosed as having anti-social personality disorder (by the way, people who are diagnosed with this disorder are alternately called sociopaths and psychopaths).

Why are personality disorders a challenge for the writer?  They are because most of the characters that writers write about, particularly the most interesting, may be covered by such diagnoses.  Why is this a problem?  It is a problem because it difficult to incorporate the concept of free will.  People diagnosed with a personality disorder may not be capable of making valid choices, such as between good and bad and rational and irrational.   So the problem for the writer when dealing with characters that appear to have one of these disorders is the following:  when trying to determine what the character is going to do next, do you consult a book on dramaturgy and plotting or a psychiatric manual?

A recent cable television series provides an interesting example of a dilemma such as this.  Here, during the first two seasons, one of the main characters does the following:  is unfaithful to her husband, destroys the marriage and family of her lover without remorse, steals drugs from a hospital for her own personal use, willingly participates in illicit drug dealing, lies to her lover (now her second husband) about who got her pregnant, and finally is perfectly comfortable in having him go to prison for a crime that she committed.  You wouldn’t be overreaching if you concluded that this character exhibits many of the characteristics of a psychopath. Keep in mind that she is very sympathetically portrayed (her first child died due to a tragic accident).  And I neglected to mention that her lover/new husband is a classic narcissist.  The question we have to ask ourselves is the following:  is this a story about a woman who desperately wants to get her chaotic life in order or the unfolding of a horrendous train wreck or both?

As a disclaimer I wish to make it clear that I do not purport to be an expert on mental health issues.  My intent is simply to highlight the challenges that these issues present for writers today.  No matter what your opinion is about modern psychiatry, the examples of its relevancy and practice confront us on a daily basis and can no longer be hidden-away behind the locked gates of mental institutions.

The Screenplay and The Actor

One regret I have about my book The Screenplay as Literature was that I did not give enough attention to the contribution of the actor in the production of a film.  We all know that the casting of a particular actor in a film can overshadow almost everything else, making it impossible to conceive of the film without him or her.  For example, who could think of the film noir classics The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep without Humphrey Bogart?  Or The Godfather without Marlon Brando?   Furthermore, the influence of the casting of a particular actor in a film can even affect the underlying  screenplay, especially if the actor is a major star, as the two following examples illustrate.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a 1944 film musical set during the time of the1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.  The story of the film concerns a family living in St. Louis and the anxiety and uncertainty caused by the husband/father’s decision to move his family to New York in order to start a new job.  The star of the film was Judy Garland, who was then 22 years old.  At the time Judy Garland was “America’s Sweetheart,” and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

In the film Judy was to sing a song entitled “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  The lyrics to the song began like this:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It may be your last

Next year we may be living in the past

When Judy Garland was first given the lyrics to read, she protested that she could never sing them.  She is quoted as saying, “If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll (the audience) think I’m a monster.”   (Margaret was Margaret O’Brien, who played Judy’s younger sister, to whom she was to sing the song.)

The lyricist of the song, Hugh Martin, was unmoved, telling Judy that the lyrics he had written perfectly fit the screenplay, no matter how depressing they sounded.  Finally, one of the other actors in the film said to him, “Do what she asks and change the lyrics; if you do you’ll have a huge hit.”   Martin did change the lyrics, which began as follows:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Let your heart be light

Next year all our troubles will be out of sight

I am not familiar with the source material (a novel) for the film, so I cannot comment whether or not the changes made to suit Judy were an improvement or a detriment; but in any event the audience did not seem to mind:  Meet Me In St. Louis turned out to be the second highest grossing film of the year.  And as for the song in question: it has become an American standard—played again and again at Christmas time.

In 1976 John Wayne made a Western entitled The Shootist.   Wayne was an enormously popular actor who had appeared mostly in Westerns for over five decades.  In most of these films he portrayed  a hero, who although often violent and sometimes uncouth, was nevertheless “a straight-shooter.”  In The Shootist, Wayne deviated somewhat from his usual roles; here he is an ex-gunfighter with an unsavory past who was dying of cancer.  When Wayne read the screenplay for the first time, he noted to his chagrin that his character was to shoot someone in the back.  Wayne is then alleged to have said, “Mister, I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back.  Change it.”  Well, the script was changed: someone was shot in the back, but not by John Wayne.  Since I am not conversant with the source material for the film (a novel), I cannot say that this was an improvement.  But in any event Wayne’s multitude of fans never had to witness their beloved hero shooting someone in the back.  This turned out to be Wayne’s last film; he passed away three years later.

The Premise Revisited

In earlier posts I defined the “premise” as a proposition that must be proved or demonstrated; furthermore, such propositions are often of a profound nature with social significance (e.g. “poverty breeds crime”).  That is the way that the premise has been used in plays and films, although I pointed out that premises in those two mediums are somewhat rare today.  However, in American television, not only is the premise not rare, the word has taken on an entirely different meaning.  The meaning in this instance is almost synonymous with a “gimmick”: something that distinguishes one television show from another; and often such premises are quite outlandish.  Thus we have had shows about genial genies, flying nuns, talking horses and favorite Martians.  My personal all-time favorite for silliness is “My Mother the Car”, in which a car is the reincarnation of the main character’s deceased mother.  As the premises of these shows cannot really be proved because they are fantasies, the audience must suspend disbelief in order to enjoy them.

However, for “serious” series shown predominately on cable television, there are some more subtle—and also insidious—premises that viewers must also accept beforehand; and they fall into two broad categories.  The first, for shows dealing primarily with criminals or persons engaging in criminal behavior, is that” bad people can do bad things—e.g. brutality and murder—and be not so bad people.”  The second is that “good people—e.g. non-criminals—can do bad things—e.g. infidelity and substance abuse—and still be good people”.  Weighty premises such as these in plays and films we would expect to be conclusively proved or demonstrated by the end of the production.  But because these series often go on for years, it is not reasonable to expect their viewers to wait that long to see if the premises of these shows prove to be true.  Thus, the audience must “buy in” to them from the beginning.  I must say that for the shows of the first type—and I have seen many—the criminals, despite their professed devotion to their families, appear to me to be little more than brutal thugs.  And as for the second type, the ones dealing with so-called good people, in the end the main characters strike me as totally self-absorbed, caring little about the people they hurt as the a result of  their selfish pursuits.  So why do I watch such shows if I fail to “buy-in” to their premises?  That is a good question.

Well, for one thing, I like to keep up on what is going on in the arts and entertainment.  And you have to admit that many of these shows are well produced with top-notch talent.  Or perhaps I simply find them to be a guilty pleasure.  Then again maybe the real reason I watch them is because they make me nostalgic for a simpler time, when cads were cads and criminals were criminals; and it was not politically incorrect not to like them.

Once Upon A Time In America: Underground Films Revisited

It seems that anyone making a movie or television series set in New York City in the 1960’s and early 1970’s finds it  irresistible to include something about the Underground Film scene that flourished in New York at that time, particularly as it relates to Andy Warhol and his bizarre friends/entourage. (In an earlier blog post on Andy Warhol, I discussed some of the reasons for this fascination.).  Furthermore, I find it rather amusing to see casting notices for some of these projects which contain the names of persons long forgotten and hardly known during their “15 minutes of fame” that  derived from their association with the Underground movement.  Just what were Underground Films?

Well, that’s difficult to say because it was such an eclectic movement; but one thing these rather amateurish films had in common was the cachet that they were films that you were not supposed to see.  I know that the concept of forbidden films may be difficult to comprehend today, when with cable television and the internet, “anything goes” and there is “everything for everybody”; however in those dark days there  was certainly something conspiratorial in just attempting to see such films  You learned about screenings mainly by word of mouth and announcements  in Underground (i.e. counter culture) newspapers—which, themselves, contained things you were not supposed to read, written by writers who often employed noms de guerre. Most screenings were held in lofts in the industrial part of town or church basements.  In fact, just getting to these showings was scarier than anything you would ever see on the screen.  And  having made your way to one of these films, if you felt that the man sitting next to you might be an undercover agent, you may  not have been paranoid : Underground filmmaker Jack Smith’s  notorious Flaming Creatures (1963) was seized by the authorities after its first public showing, never to be screened again for decades; and one of Andy Warhol’s films suffered a similar fate.

What happened to the participants of the Underground at the end of their “15 minutes of fame?”  Most moved on.  Andy Warhol, for example, went on to make films that were more and more exploitive and commercial.  However, for many “moving on” meant moving on to the next world, as so many of them died tragically young.

But to get back to the special fascination that this particular era has today, it seems every talented young actress wants to play the tragic Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick; British actress Sienna Miller played her last.  And then there is the enigmatic Nico of Warhol’s illustrious Velvet Underground; what a splendid role for an actress who possesses her statuesque good looks. But what about Mario Montesz, another Warhol “superstar”?  How would a good actor play one who was universally acknowledged to be so terrible?  Mario Montez was a female impersonator who patterned himself after Maria Montez, a Hollywood actress who appeared in many exotic low budget adventure films. (It should be noted that Maria Montez was considered by many as “the world’s worst actress.”)   And as far as female impersonators go, Mario Montez was, himself, considered to be“pretty bad.”   But perhaps the  key to portraying him can be found in critic Parker Tyler’s astute observation: “Mario Montez does not impersonate Maria Montez; he is (that is, wishes to be) Maria Montez.”  Mario passed away in 2013; sadly, he was one of only a few veterans of the Underground to have survived to old age.

Let the record show that once upon a time in America, if you were determined and not afraid, you could see films that you were not supposed to see!

Wild Strawberries Revisited

The past few weeks here in the United States, we have experienced  something of a stir about the publication of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman, which is a sequel to Ms. Lee’s 1960 acclaimed novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird.  This much anticipated book has taken 55 years to finally appear—the reasons for which I will not go into here.  Much of the controversy about the book is not just literary; it has to do with the fact that it appears the central character (of both books), attorney Atticus Finch, is not the man we thought him to be, prompting more than one front page article on the subject in the New York Times.  Why should there be such an interest in a fictional character?   Well, maybe some of that interest has had to do with actor Gregory Peck’s superb interpretation of him in the 1962 film adaptation of the first book.  But beyond that, a lot has to do with the peculiar and rare phenomenon where a fictional character becomes much more than a fictional character; in fact, takes on a life of its own.  And what particularly intrigued me, as I have learned in following the controversy, is the fact that more has been written about the character Atticus Finch in journals aimed at the legal profession than in literary ones.  This non-literary fascination with Atticus Finch recalls to mind a similar such fascination with the character Isak Borg of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries.

The name Isak Borg is probably not well known to the general public—and that also includes the film-going public.  But he is well-known to the mental health profession in America; and that is for two important reasons.  The first is because Isak Borg is seventy-six years old, which is unusually old for the main character of a film.  The second reason is that in America, mental health professionals (e.g. psychiatrists) are severely restricted in writing about their patients in professional journals.  Furthermore, they are usually prohibited from writing about the perceived mental problems of people they have never treated, particularly public figures.  So who can they write about?  Why fictional characters, of course.

The use of literature to illustrate an important theory is not new to the field of mental health: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, used a character from ancient Greek drama, Oedipus, to formulate one of his most important theories—the oedipal complex.  Although Freud had no knowledge of the film Wild Strawberries—he died years before the film was made– the film made a distinct impression on three people who are/were practitioners  of the field that Freud helped pioneer: psychotherapy; I will recount some of those impressions now.

Dr. Harvey Greenberg in an article entitled “The Rags of Time” (1975) subjects Isak Borg to the rigors of psychoanalysis.  Characterizing his study as “psychoanalytic notes on Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries,” Dr. Greenberg pays particular attention to Isak’s childhood relationship with his mother, whose perceived coldness figured prominently in the psychological and emotional problems that plagued Borg throughout his life.   Dr. Greenberg also provides a Freudian interpretation to the many dreams of Wild Strawberries.  In particular, he points out that at least one of the dreams in the film was what Freud termed an “examination” dream, in which the dreamer finds himself taking an exam in which he is ill-prepared for ;  however, the purpose of such a dream is to reassure the dreamer of  his ability to handle and resolve current stress or neurotic conflict in his life.  This is perhaps a key to understanding Isak Borg’s character: for most of his life Isak had to overcome disappointment ithat he was ill-prepared for: e.g. his fiancée abandoning him, a loveless marriage and an unfaithful wife; but persevere he always did.  (It should be noted that in Swedish the word borg means fortress.)

Erick Erickson was another mental health care professional who saw in Isak Borg a promising teaching tool.  Erickson was more than just a health care professional: he was a giant in the field.  A renowned psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist, Erickson broke with Freud in the area of personality development.  Whereas Freud concentrated almost exclusively on the infantile development of the psyche, Erickson saw its development as a lifelong process.  Erickson divided this development into eight stages:

  1. Infancy
  2. Early childhood
  3. Play Age
  4. School Age
  5. Adolescence
  6. Young Adulthood
  7. Adulthood
  8. Old Age

In a chapter {A Life History: Revalidation and Reinvolvement ) from a book [Vital Involvement In Old Age (1986]] that he authored with two other people,  Erickson uses Borg’s life to illustrate the above eight stages.  Obviously the last stage, old age, has particular significance as it relates to Wild Strawberries.  Erickson explains that the word wisdom symbolizes the strength of this last stage of life.  It is indeed ironic to associate the word wisdom with Isak Borg, as wisdom was the one thing that escaped him for most of his life, despite his education.  Erikson, in justifying the use of a fictional character to present his theories and clinical findings, goes beyond the obvious need to protect the privacy of actual patients; he notes that “artistic works of greatness have a way of presenting in a convincing form some total truths about life, which rarely characterize other reports and abstracts of a human life, making it truly a life history.”

Dr. Bob Knight, in his book Psychotherapy with Older Adults (1996) also employs Isak Borg as a teaching example.  Dr. Knight stresses the cautions that need to be taken when employing a “life review” with elderly patients—and certainly Wild Strawberries was a “life review,” among other things.

The central aesthetic question pertaining to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, as I indicated in my book The Screenplay as Literature, was whether or not Isak Borg undergoes any significant change after this “life review.”  My answer was that he did not.  Furthermore, I wrote, “Besides, from the point of view of dramaturgy, what would be the point of such a change anyway?  At the age of seventy-six, what effect on his own life and the life of others could such change have?”  I then noted that Isak’s wife was dead, and then there was the rather acrimonious relationship between Isak and his son.  However, where I may have seen a mellowed, somber stoicism as the  best outcome for Isak, Knight sees hopeful potential.  He points out that Borg still is mentally sharp and could practice his profession if he so chooses.  Then there is the fact that he soon will become a grandfather—so why shouldn’t he become a doting grandparent?  And as for romance, Knight reminds us that his cousin Sara, who is now 75 years old and still beautiful, is a widow: why not marry her?  Keep in mind that Sara rejected Isak when he was a young man and married his older brother.

Well, I don’t see any of the above as likely to transpire, particularly a marriage between Isak and Sara.  I still stand by my original literary analysis of the film and screenplay—rather than a psychological one.  But, then again, who am I to deny that where there’s life, there’s hope!

What is Genre? (Part II)

In my previous post I defined genre as a category of film (usually American) that was made primarily for commercial reasons (usually in a prior era) and which transcended its commercial underpinnings.  Because the accolade of genre was usually bestowed by critics to films years after they were made, it would seem the term would only have significance to film historians—and perhaps it should.  Yet the term is frequently being associated with contemporary filmmakers.  It is not unusual to hear that a filmmaker’s next project will evoke another era, such as the 1940’s, and this is further reinforced when the film is made in black and white.  And if there were any doubt about what the filmmaker is planning to do, it becomes abundantly clear when critics praise him for having made a genre film and paying homage to long deceased directors.

You may detect that I might have a problem with a contemporary filmmaker unabashedly making a genre film.  Do I and should I?  Well, let me put forth a question.  If I bought my clothes in vintage clothing stores—and many do—what would people think when they saw me walking down the street in clothes of a bygone era?  That I have good taste in clothes?  That I am making a fashion statement?  Or perhaps that I am an eccentric who wishes that he lived in a previous century?  No matter how people would regard me, it will be entirely different than how the original owners of the clothes were regarded when they wore them in the appropriate era.  Bear in mind that the term genre is not synonymous with timelessness or classic.  What worked in one era may not work in another.  Audiences change.  In the 1930’s and 40’s, everyone went to movie theaters to see films.  Today, that audience is much smaller and younger.

Does that mean that contemporary filmmakers shouldn’t make genre films?  Not necessarily:  especially if the genre serves as an inspiration rather than a road map.  Quentin Tarantino is a very talented filmmaker who has had great success in re-inventing filmmaking  from another era for new audiences; his Kill Bill (martial arts), Inglourious Basterds ( World War II action films), Django Unchained (spaghetti Westerns), and  Jackie Brown (Blaxploitation) are a few examples.  As to their artistic merit, I will leave that question to the critics.

What is Genre? (Part I)

In my The Screenplay as Literature I employed the term genre very sparingly; regrettably I never defined it.  Because this term is often inappropriately used as it refers to film, I will endeavor to define it now.  But before I do so, I would like to provide some background as to how the term originated.

From my perspective, the term is most relevant to the American film industry.  Loosely defined, genre is “a type or category” of film.  Obviously there can be a multitude of types or categories of films, but as the American film industry has always been pre-occupied with financial gain, the types or categories of films that most interested it were those that were “guaranteed” to make money.  This begs the question: is there actually any category of film that is guaranteed to make money, regardless of its quality or merit?  My answer is that I really don’t know, but much of the “business model” of Hollywood is based on the assumption that there is such a thing.  And that is the primary reason that so many films imitate other films that were successful at the box office.

So what are some of these categories that the American film industry believes or has believed to make money?  Terms such as melodrama and comedy are much too broad; but with a category such as “action-adventure” you may be getting warm.  “Romantic comedy” is a pleasant sounding word—though sometimes derisively referred to as “a chick flick”—but a proposed romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson or Anne Hathaway would certainly warrant the attention of the studio bosses.  But it is much further down the film industry “food chain”—the realm of independent production and distribution—where the quest for this “fool’s gold” takes on an even greater significance.  In this “jungle” there is no margin for error: if you don’t deliver what the theater owners and audiences want, you are out of business.  And because films from the independents have had to be marketed on other than their merit—assuming that they had any—they were often referred to as exploitation films.

What are some of the film types that the independents believed to be profitable?  Well, kung fu or martial arts films are a good place to start: in the early 1970’s every independent distributor had to have its own kung fu film.  And in New York City, there was a least one theater on Forty-Second Street that exhibited martial arts films twenty-four hours a day!   But the most lucrative type of film for independents has to be the “slasher” film.  This is a very violent and gruesome horror film: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth film franchises are prime examples.

So how would I thus define genre?  I would define it as a type of film made for purely monetary reasons yet transcending its commercial underpinnings. And how is this accomplished? Usually by having a very powerful theme.   So what are some examples of genre?  Unfortunately, it is easier to define genre than give examples.  Obviously, whether a film transcends its commercial purpose is a purely subjective observation; but whether a film was primarily intended to make money is not always clear, even in Hollywood.  For example, so-called “road” films have often been considered genre and indeed have long been a Hollywood staple.  What characterized these films is their depiction of a long journey across the United States (usually by car) where those embarking on this journey meet bizarre people along the way.  And if much of the film takes place in the American Southwest, so much the better, as it reveals wide expanses of beautiful but empty landscape, conveying a feeling of alienation (an important theme frequently found in these films).

While many “road” films were recognized for their artistic aspirations, it is not a certainty that they were made in order to make a lot of money, even though they were primarily financed by the big Hollywood studios.  The seminal film in this category is Easy Rider (1969), which was both a box-office and critical success; yet the filmmakers responsible for it appeared to be more interested in making an anti-establishment statement than in getting rich.   Owing to the success of Easy Rider, a number of other “road” films were financed by Hollywood in the 1970’s; to my knowledge, few of them performed well at the box office.

So is there really a true film genre according to my definition?  Well, for the 1970’s you might want to consider “spaghetti” Westerns.  These are Westerns in which there is an inordinate amount of violence and where there is no clear differentiation between good and evil.  Most of them were made in Spain, and not by Americans—although they masqueraded as American films.  These films were immensely popular throughout the world; and if they happened to be directed by Sergio Leone and starred Clint Eastwood (“The Man with No Name”), even more so.  Of course, in order to be truly genre, you would have to find that these films transcended their purely commercial genesis.  Many, including critics, did think so.

Now that we have defined genre, we need to examine what is its significance for contemporary filmmakers and critics.  This I will do in my next post.

 

What Makes a Good Screenplay?

One aspect of my book The Screenplay as Literature that came in for pointed criticism was my brief treatment of the subject of “what makes a good screenplay.”  Here the critics were right.  Not because what I had written was not valid, but because the subject really had no place in a book entitled The Screenplay as Literature—just as the subject of “what makes a good novel” would have no place in a book entitled “The Novel as Literature.”  The question is much too subjective; and the variety of reasons why a screenplay may be considered good, may have nothing at all to do with whether or not it should be considered as Literature in the first place.

Certainly we would be inclined to think that a screenplay that is turned into a good film would be considered good. Screenplays (or versions of the same) are written for various purposes, and why they are good depends on the purpose for which they are written.  For example, a screenplay written on speculation, that is, for the purpose of being sold, might be written one way; whereas a screenplay written to be directly filmed might be written in another way (e.g. a shooting script).  Some writers may write a screenplay that leaves a lot to the imagination of the reader (or director); others may write in a manner that leaves nothing to the imagination.  Sergei Eisenstein once remarked that a shooting script is “an instrument to transpose a fact, abstracted into a concept, back into a chain of concrete single actions.”   But it doesn’t have to be that way: that is, a screenplay doesn’t have to be taken to the shooting script level; furthermore, a shooting script doesn’t have to break down a concept into concrete single actions:  it can remain on a metaphorical level.

Arguably there is no right or wrong way to write a screenplay, although there are certainly conventions.   So do I have any advice for the aspiring or working screenwriter?  Yes, I do, which follows.

My most important advice for the screenwriter is that it doesn’t matter how you get there—that is, to a completed screenplay—just get there!  Do what works for you.  Start at the end and jump to the beginning.  Or start in the middle and jump to the end: it really doesn’t matter.  The important thing is to start—to start writing.  The late French writer-director Eric Rohmer wrote that “To shoot a film is always to shoot something.”  For, as he said, “one never makes a film out of nothing.”  And it is the something that is the most critical—and elusive—element: no one can tell you where or how to find it.  In most cases it simply happens.  Ingmar Bergman wrote that for him a film begins as “something very vague—a chance remark or a bit of conversation, a hazy but agreeable event unrelated to any particular situation    It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street.”  According to Michelangelo Antonioni, “A picture probably has its birth in the disorder within us, and that’s the difficulty: putting things in order. . . . to recognize an idea out of the chaos of feelings , reflections, observations, impulses which the surrounding world stirs up in us.”  Lajos Egri (who I discussed in an earlier post) states that you can begin your work “with a character or incident, or even a simple thought.”  Tennessee Williams related that his renowned play A Streetcar Named Desire began simply as a vision of “a woman in her late youth . . . sitting alone by a window with moonlight streaming in on her desolate face.”

Once you have found that something—that beginning–what comes next?  Again, it is what works best for you.  Ingmar Bergman and Erich Rohmer early in their careers would write their first drafts in the form of novellas.  In the case of Rohmer, he would often write in the first person, but in subsequent drafts and the final film, this first person narration would disappear almost entirely or be conveyed through the dialogue of the other characters.

Today, screenplay writers tend to write master scene screenplays, that is, screenplays that are not broken down into shots.  This is in contrast to the detailed shooting script that Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote for the break-through Last Year at Marienbad (1961) because he could conceive of it in no other way than through concrete images.  Again, what is important is what works for you: what turns your formless inspiration into a completed work.  Furthermore, with script formatting software you can always edit your first draft in whatever form you feel is most acceptable for the intended reader.

It should never be forgotten by the screenplay writer that film is a collaborative art.  Don’t be afraid to avail yourself of the talents of the costume designers, music composers, special effects and stunt coordinators, and numerous technical advisors that will be associated with the film.  You don’t have to think of everything—but you could.  In that vein the very successful American screenwriter and novelist William Goldman remarks that in comparison to the novel, the screenplay gives him a certain freedom from research.  The screenplay has few conventions and even fewer rules—and rules can be broken.  It is a literary form that allows its practitioners complete freedom to express themselves—but only if they should choose to avail themselves of this freedom.

 

 

 

Michelangelo Antonioni Revisited

A few years ago (2007), headlines were made when two legendary filmmakers died within one day of each other: Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, respectively.  They, including Federico Fellini (who died in 1993), had dominated European filmmaking during the late 1950’s and throughout most of the 1960’s.  Most people, whether cinema lovers or not, were familiar with the names of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, while Antonioni, who had continued to make films into his nineties (he died at the age of 92), was largely forgotten.  I have often asked myself why his name has faded while those of his two illustrious contemporaries have survived.  Sometimes I think the reason is to be found in the fact that none of his films have ever been made into Broadway musicals: Fellini has had two musicals based on his films and Bergman has had one.  I often wonder why someone has not adapted Antonioni’s L’avventura into a musical, although I am sure someone has at least thought of it.  What I am really saying here is that for an average audience, Antonioni was probably the least accessible of the three.  Let us now review Antonioni’s long and distinguished career and his contributions to film as art and “the screenplay as literature.”

Although Antonioni had worked on the fringes of Italian film production for many years, he did not make his first feature film until the age of thirty-eight in 1950.  The plot of his first feature, Cronaca di un amore, a sordid melodrama, is not important for us.  But what are important are the discoveries he was to make in filming it.  For example, his habit of shooting rather long scenes was born spontaneously on the very first day of filming.  Soon he began to follow his characters until he felt the need to move on to another exercise.  For Antonioni this was the best way to be real, to be true:  that is to be inside the scene, exactly as in life.  But it was not just in the use of the camera that Antonioni was to make discoveries in the making of his first film, but in storytelling as well.  After Cronaca di un amore  opened in Paris in 1951, one French critic observed that the film “spins no plot; on the contrary, it draws a discursive tale to which the word ‘End’ is written only after the play of events has dispersed its three characters.”

I vinti  (1952), La signora senza camelie (1953), Le amiche (1955) and Il grido (1957)

In his next four feature films following Cronaca di un amore, Antonioni continued to make important discoveries and develop new techniques.   This was particularly true with regard to the subject of pictorial composition (e.g. the framing of the shot).  In this regard he went far beyond what had been the accepted conventions at the time.  For example, it had long been known in theater, and subsequently recognized in film, that the position of the actor’s body in relation to the audience (e.g. full face and profile) affected the intensity (strong, weak, etc.) of the dialogue delivered by him.   However, Antonioni discovered that   “a line spoken by an actor in profile doesn’t have the same meaning as one given in full-face.  Likewise, a phrase addressed to the camera placed above the actor doesn’t have the same meaning it would if the camera were placed below him.”  Thus, pictorial composition in Antonioni’s films came to serve as a means of conveying meaning—and sometimes meaning not directly expressed in the script—as well as feeling, intensity and mood.

Perhaps the most important discovery about cinema that Antonioni made during this early period was concerned with plot and story construction.  “Thus I have rid myself of much unnecessary technical baggage,” he related, “eliminating all the logical narrative transitions, all those connective links between sequences where one sequence served as the springboard for the one that followed. . . cinema today should be tied to truth rather than to logic.”  And how would Antonioni accomplish this?  By structuring his films according to the rhythm of everyday life, and not according to dramatic conventions—that was what would come to be known as The Cinema of Antonioni.

It was not until 1960, when his sixth feature film, L’avventura , was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, that Antonioni’s cinematic techniques and discoveries were to achieve the world-wide recognition and attention they so rightly deserved (up until that time, Antonioni was little known outside his own country, and none of his previous five features had yet been released in the United States).   Antonioni referred to this peculiar love story as a “mystery in reverse.”  A girl (Anna) vanishes and her friends conduct a search but never find her.   At the end of the film, the remaining characters go off in different directions, apparently forgetting about the lost girl.  What infuriated many of those who first saw this quite remarkable film at Cannes was that they never did find out what became of the girl, Anna.  This is not as illogical as it may seem, critic Pierre Leprohon observes:  “what concerns Antonioni . . . is the characters and their relation to themselves and to events.  Why, then, should he sustain interest in facts that have ceased to interest the heroes of the story he is telling?”  This was indeed a revolutionary concept in 1960: for an author to concern himself with only those things that interest his characters—and not his audience—was akin to giving them a life of their own, something utterly unheard of in cinema at that time.

While L’avventura did deviate significantly from previous theatrical traditions, it still contained one age-old dramatic element—although perhaps unintentionally—suspense.  In Antonioni’s next film, La notte (1961), however, even this element is lacking: we are not so much concerned with whether or not the protagonists find a way out of their predicament, but with the magnitude of their problem and how they go about solving it (or perhaps their lack of concern about finding a solution).

La notte (“The Night”) examines an intellectual crisis that is faced by an Italian writer, Giovanni; his relationship with his wife, Lidia: and the disintegration of his marriage—all three of which are obviously inter-related.  An American film of the same period and with the same subject matter would probably have concentrated on the reasons for the writer’s mental state and the failure of his marriage—a la Freud—relying heavily on the use of flashbacks.  However, Antonioni does no such thing: he does not attempt to analyze the situation—there are no flashbacks; he merely presents the situation as it exists for our examination, which covers approximately eighteen hours   in the life of the protagonists.    This one day (and night) in the life of the protagonists is not, however, just any ordinary day; in fact, it is a very important day, when a great deal of self-knowledge is to be gained (the couple come to the terrible realization that they no longer love each other).

In his next film, L’eclisse (1962), Antonioni continued to expand and perfect the techniques noted in La note and L’avventura.  L’eclisse (“The Eclipse”) is the third and final part of this trilogy examining the phenomenon of love (or lack of it) in our time—a modern love story (ca. 1962).  The film deals primarily with one character, a young career woman, Vittoria, and her new lover, Piero, a stockbroker; there is a strong implication that this relationship, like an “eclipse,” will be short-lived.  New for Antonioni in this film  are a very unusual documentary on the Roman stock exchange  and an Eisensteinian montage at the end that in an abstract manner attempts to tie together all the narrative and thematic threads of the film into one unified statement.  The rationale for this documentary digression into the world of money and banking is to illustrate the prison of investments and speculation that Vittoria’s lover is trapped in, affecting his every aspect, including his love life.  Antonioni’s premise is that the “world today is ruled by money, greed for money, fear of money” and that this “leads to a dangerous passivity towards problems of the spirit;” yet his premise becomes lost in this story where the two protagonists are so vibrantly alive.    The montage at the film’s end, however, is more successful than the aforementioned premise.  Here Antonioni juxtaposes several shots (fifty-eight in all) which show the places where most of the liaisons between the heroine and her lover took place and where they were, for brief moments, so happy, but shots in which the two lovers are conspicuously absent, perhaps a comment on the permanence of things and objects contrasted with the ephemeral nature of human relationships.

Antonioni’s next film, Deserto rosso (1964) is unquestionably his most masterful—the culmination and total perfection of his previous cinematic techniques and discoveries, as well as his first experiment in the use of color.  Deserto rosso (“The Red Desert”) is the story of the mental deterioration of a young, married woman.  Here, Antonioni’s use of color is a completely subjective one: the colors that we see are by and large exactly those that the characters see (Antonioni is reported to have painted a marsh gray for this film because that was the way his characters felt when they looked at it).

After Deserto rosso, Antonioni made three films in English.  I didn’t find any of the three particularly distinguished, but I will recount them for you anyway.  In 1966 Antonioni made Blowup, a mystery about a fashion photographer set in the “swinging” London of the 1960’s.  In 1970, he made Zabriskie Point, a film that dealt with the American “counter-culture” movement of the 1960’s.  Finally in 1975 he made The Passenger, another mystery film.  The first one, Blowup, was the most successful of the three, both critically and financially.  However, as this was essentially a purely entertainment film, it did little to advance the art of film or Antonioni’s reputation, although his mastery of his medium is certainly in evidence.  Zabriske Point was an unmitigated disaster, both critically and financially, although the film was meant to do more than entertain—which it certainly did not.   The Passenger, which starred Jack Nicholson, was, at least for me, the most interesting of the three.  It contained a seven minute scene consisting of one take that is still talked about today.  It is not easy for a filmmaker to transition from one culture and/or another language to a new one:  Antonioni’s experience in this regard demonstrates why.

Antonioni was to make just three more feature films during his lifetime.  They were Il mistera di Oberwald (“The Mystery of Oberwald”), 1981; Identificazione di una donna (“Identification of a Woman”), 1982; and Al di la delle nuvole (“Beyond the Clouds”).  I have to admit that I have seen none of the three, so I cannot comment on them.   Furthermore, none of them received wide distribution in the United States .
Antonioni was very supportive of my work on The Screenplay as Literature and graciously gave me permission to quote extensively from his screenplays.  One year when I was going to the Cannes Film Festival I had learned that Antonioni was also to be in attendance.  I brought with me a copy of my book in which I wrote a dedication and which I intended to give to him.  The dedication reads as follows:

To Michelangelo Antonioni,

The greatest creative talent that the Cinema has ever known and the inspiration for this book.

Regrettably I never met up with him that year, or any time afterwards.  By the way, I do not find that the passage of time has changed the validity of the above dedication.

Michelangelo Antonioni was ahead of his time.  Even today he is still ahead of his time.  Maybe in another fifty years Cinema will finally catch up with him.