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!

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.

 

The Aesthetic Question

As I have indicated elsewhere in this blog, when my book The Screenplay as Literature was first published, it was not well-received by critics in the United States.  For the most part, I felt that the early critics of my book had not actually read it; thus they could not fully grasp its purpose and central tenets.  However, one rather scathing review at the time did indicate that the reviewer had indeed read the book and did grasp the arguments that I put forth—although, he was quick to dismiss them.

This review, which appeared in The Journal of Modern Literature, begins by stating that “Indeed, the book [The Screenplay as Literature] would not even be worthy of reviewing were it not so symptomatic of the pabulum put forth by most studies which compare film with literature, the former almost inevitably bleached by the latter.”  And he wastes no time in getting to one of the core tenets of the book, quoting me as follows:

 Lastly, our study must be more aesthetic than technical: the quality and validity of a particular writer’s or filmmaker’s thoughts and ideas must take precedence over his particular mode of expression.  Although  the dictum  “The variations of a theme are more important than the theme itself” may be acceptable for music, it could never be acceptable in film, which as we shall see, must deal with reality and not abstraction.

Very much related, this reviewer also quotes another central tenet of my book:

“it must always be borne in mind that a film can be no better than the idea from which it has sprung. . . .”

The reviewer, an ardent adherent of the so-called AuteurTheory, takes me to task for purportedly dismissing cinematic techniques for “ideas,” something that the above quotes from my book may suggest, but not entirely accurately.  For him (the late William F. Van Wert, by the way), along with many of the critics of today, aesthetic questions should have little or no place in modern cinema.  He even extols American“Auteur” directors (e.g. von Sternberg and Hitchcock) who deliberately chose badly written scripts and transformed them into good films—if such a thing is actually possible. Why are these central tenets?  For the same reason we would make them the central tenets in any discussion of great novels.  Would anyone include a novel with a trite story or developed from a faulty idea in any canon of great Literature, even though the author demonstrates superior writing skills?  I think not. Nor should they in any canon of great films.

What then is the aesthetic question?  Well, if a film has a Lajos Egri-stlye premise, we might ask if the filmmaker did indeed prove or demonstrate his proposition.  But for most films the question is far more subtle; yet in almost every instance we have to ask:  “What exactly did the writer or filmmaker intend to do, and did he succeed in doing it”?  In this regard the films of Federico Fellini are highly illustrative.

Federico Fellini was one of the pre-eminent filmmakers of his day (mid-1950’s until his death in 1993).  Many of his films were. and are still , considered masterpieces (e.g. La Strada and 8 ½, 1954 and 1963, respectively).  Fellini, who usually collaborated on the writing of his screenplays, was one of the very first filmmakers to completely master his medium.  Such mastery was often discernible in his extensive use of the moving camera, music, color and the precision in his casting.  Nothing in a Fellini film was arbitrary; every element was meant to dazzle the viewer.  And the fact that you were watching a Fellini film was unmistakable.  Yet many of his films were neither critical nor financial successes.  A case in point would be his Juliette of the Spirits (1965).

Derisively called, by some critics, a female companion piece to his previous hugely successful    8 ½, Juliette of the Spirits is the story of the wife of an unfaithful middle-aged public relations director who seeks to find her own individuality.  This is made all the more difficult as she struggles to be freed from the oppressive influence of her husband, family, “friends,” and, very central to the story, terrifying hallucinations.  However, the film, despite its cinematic pyrotechnics, didn’t work.  In my The Screenplay as Literature I pointed out that the there was little credibility in the miraculous transformation of the heroine of Juliette of the Spirits at the end of the film  “for a character that for all her life has passively let herself be acted upon and dominated by others.”  Where did Fellini go wrong?   Frankly, I don’t think that I know the answer.  Perhaps it was in his avowed purpose “to restore to woman her true independence, her indisputable and inalienable dignity,” even though he openly admitted that “to undertake to speak calmly and clearly about a woman is almost impossible for a man.”  Or perhaps it was Fellini’s over- use and over- simplification of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques that worked so well for him in 8 ½.   What is important, though, is that in this instance Fellini failed:  the questionable validity of his concept could not be masked by his brilliant mode of expression.

Today in America, and other countries as well, we have several filmmakers, who, like Fellini before them, also have mastered their medium.  When you see one of their films, even if you are not totally overwhelmed by its cinematic pyrotechnics, you certainly won’t be bored.  But often after seeing one these films you may come away with the feeling that you have just partaken of a sumptuous meal yet are still hungry.  This begs “the aesthetic question.”  Critics need to address it instead of just effusing praise for the filmmaker’s enormous talents– because when audiences  leave the theater, they most assuredly will.

 

 

 

Death of a Reviewer

In an earlier post, entitled “What is Criticism?”  I bemoaned the fact that film “reviewers” had all but disappeared.  I defined film reviewers as people who wrote for daily or weekly news outlets, but usually had no background in film or the arts (in contrast with so-called critics).  What they did have, however, was a taste in films which mirrored that of their readers—which explained their tremendous popularity with the public.  Furthermore, they usually made no pretense at all on basing their reviews on anything other than their own taste: their reviews either exhorted their readers to see a particular film or not waste their time and money—there was nothing in between.

Sadly, the last genuine film reviewer that I knew of passed away a few weeks ago.  His name was Edward I. Koch (1924 – 2013); he was also a very colorful former three-term mayor of the City of New York.    “The People have spoken.  Now they must be punished,” he was often quoted as saying after the voters had unceremoniously turned him out of office in the early 1990’s.  Being suddenly out of a job, former Mayor Koch did what many other involuntarily unemployed people do to fill in the time:  he went to the movies, often as many as three times a week.  However, this was not something new to him; he grew up during the Depression when almost everybody did the same—no matter how impoverished they were.  “Karl Marx had it all wrong,” he has been quoted as saying.  “Religion is not the opiate of the masses.  It’s the movies.”

Before long a local publisher of a small weekly neighborhood newspaper heard about Koch’s movie-going habits and invited him to become their rmovie critic.  After haggling over his compensation (they finally settled on $250 a week), the former mayor began his film reviewing career in earnest.  He delighted in disagreeing with the “critics.” “Don’t listen to them.  Listen to me,” he would often say.   Koch’s reviews were straight forward enough:  he either liked a film or didn’t.  He awarded no “stars.”   But that didn’t mean that his reviews were not thoughtful.   He would often go to great lengths to explain what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish, whether he liked the film or not.  Although he professed to have no special knowledge of film, that didn’t inhibit him from pointing out what he considered to be bad writing and bad acting.  Most important, Koch (at least in the reviews of his that I have read) was never dismissive of a film, no matter how much he disliked it.  He appeared to respect the fact that numerous people may have devoted years of their lives in the making of it.  This was in stark contrast to his demeanor in politics, where he was not known to suffer fools gladly.

In 2011 Koch gave up his regular film reviewing duties.  However there was one film that he purportedly wanted to review but never did: a documentary on his life (which he actually screened before his death) that recently opened in New York.

One area in which his loss, I believe, will be especially felt is within the film industry itself: he seemed to like many of the films that he saw.  You can still see his reviews on the internet at mayorkoch.com.  And I recommend that you do so while they are still available.

The State of the Cinema of Today

For several weeks now I have agonized over writing about the above topic.  It is not that I didn’t know what to say, but how to say it.  Then, by chance, I came across a film critic that was unfamiliar to me who happened to say the very things I wanted to say, but far more eloquently.  The piece he wrote began by proclaiming that “cinema, as a fine art, in every country of the world, presents a picture of absolute bankruptcy (italics my own).”  And as for Europe, their “film industries continue uninterruptedly with their programs of popular drivel and their desperate duplications of Hollywood, the European cinema as a creative force in Western civilization is utterly and hopelessly dead.”  However, it was for the American film industry that this critic reserved the most venom.  After quoting a colleague who had uttered in disdain that “in the past five years…not a single picture of the highest order of importance had been produced in the United States,” he flatly stated that “no conceivable mental gymnastics can lead one to imagine that a film art worthy of the name exists here today.”    Our very perceptive critic unequivocally attributed this sorry state of affairs to “the failure of the American film people to apprehend the real powers, capacities and resources of the cinema, beyond those necessary to a standardized, straightforward narrative technique.”  However, he did not hesitate to give “the devil his due,” stating that “Taken for what it is, the American entertainment film stands as the best of its kind in the world….The Hollywood movie is immeasurably superior to its many imitations throughout the world.”

Alright, enough of this charade!  You probably have guessed that these observations were not made recently.    Perhaps, twenty years ago.  Or maybe thirty?  Wrong.  It was actually written 77 years ago–1936!   The name of the critic was Seymour Stern, and the title of his essay was “The Bankruptcy of Cinema as Art”.

Besides being a critic, Seymour Stern had worked closely with D.W. Griffith during the latter’s most productive years.  You can certainly understand Stern’s dismay in seeing how, with the advent of sound, with its cumbersome and unwieldy equipment, cinema was being taken back to the Stone Age.  And as for the mass importation by Hollywood of actors, playwrights and directors from the Broadway stage, who had no background at all in film, this must have been equally distressing.  Remember, Stern worked with Griffith when this celebrated film pioneer was innovating on almost a daily basis.   But it is not so much because of Stern’s acerbic assessment on the cinema of his day—which could very well be applied to the cinema of today– that I call your attention to him, but rather for his intriguing proposals for breathing new life into what he saw as a bankrupt institution.

Stern offered a five point program of what he considered to be radical innovations (for 1936, that is).  They are as follows:

  1. Establish in the United States a university of the cinema, “with the emphasis on the formal and aesthetic problems of the motion picture.”  This, Stern urged, should be subsidized by the government.
  2. “A Theater of the Cinema should be established in at least every large city of the United States.  Here great films of all countries and of all periods should be projected in constant revivals.”
  3. The Film-Art movement should be revived.  “There should be a resurrection of film societies for purposes of discussion of the nature and destiny of the cinema  . . . The chief purpose of these clubs , however, will be to heighten interest in the exhibition of classics and experimental films at the theaters of the cinema.”
  4. “Independent creative film production should be subsidized by the government as the logical fruition of its support of the film university.  The tragic exclusion from the industry of thousands of talented young men and women all over the country in favor of distinctly inferior and even degenerate talent should give the government pause.”
  5. On this point, Stern urges a nationwide campaign against the censorship of the motion picture.  (It should be noted that in 1936, film censorship—whether by government or the industry, itself—was widespread in the United States, as it was throughout the world.)

What is most interesting about Stern’s “radical” proposals is that all of them have been tried or exit today in some form or another not only in the United States, but other countries as well.  America has many comprehensive film production and film studies programs at prestigious universities throughout the country; these are in addition to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, which is partly government funded.  And during the 1960’s and 1970’s most major cities had movie theaters (called “art houses”) that exhibited worthy films from around the world, and usually in the format of retrospectives.  Furthermore, film societies have always existed in the United States, but not to the extent they are to be found in other countries.  As for government subsidies for independent film production, they have never been substantial in the United States, but they have been extensively used in most other countries—to mixed results.  On Stern’s last point, although government censorship has virtually disappeared in the United States, self-censorship still exists, primarily in the obtaining of “ratings” for exhibition purposes (e.g., ”R”; “PG,” etc.).  For those of you not familiar with the American motion picture ratings system, these ratings specify who can view certain films, not whether they can be exhibited, similar to what exists in most other countries today.

Utopian as his proposals may have sounded for his time, Stern understood that they in themselves were no panacea; for without people with the extraordinary talent to realize them, they were essentially useless.  He cautioned: “One Intolerance (Griffith’s 1916 monumental film) is worth all the “good” films Hollywood has ever made.”  For Stern, the only remedy for what ailed the movie industry was a creative remedy.  And he concluded by saying, “When this idea [i.e. the creative remedy] is fully understood by those who wish to “revolutionize” the movie in this country, a real revolution will be possible, then, and not before then, will the cinema become the glory, instead of the pointless joke, of American civilization.”

 

Is The Screenplay Really Literature?

I am sure that many of you who have been following this blog were wondering when I would finally address this subject.  Well, today I propose to do just that.  The reason that I have been tardy in joining this debate is because I believed that this question has been answered long ago, if not by me, then by others.  But before I present a definitive answer and the arguments to support it, let us examine this question in its historical context.

In 1943, in a preface to one of the first volumes of screenplays to be published in the United States, John Gassner put forward the rather audacious proposition that the “screenplay” could be considered not only as a new form of literature but also as a very important form in its own right.  However, although Gassner was a respected literary and theater critic of the day (and Professor, too), his proposition was not well received by his literary and academic colleagues.  Gassner’s arguments appeared to treat the word “literature” at its most basic level: as something that is written or read.  And most of his essay (titled “The Screenplay as Literature,” by the way) compared the screenplay to the stage play; in a revised edition he underlines this analogy by stating that “my sometimes far too logical mind tells me that if the drama intended for the stage can be called a form of literature, so can a screenplay.”  Gassner never directly addresses the question of whether or not screenplays were worthy of being called Literature (note I use the word here with a capital “L”).    Although he does state that ”film writing already has substantial claims to literary recognition,” he does little to support that contention other than noting the screenplays included in this volume (I will address their merits later on).  Yet he appears to undermine that assertion when he states: “There is indeed no intrinsic reason why film art cannot use or produce notable literature,” implying that it had yet to do so.  Furthermore, his collaborator on the editing of this volume, successful screenwriter Dudley Nichols, appeared to contradict him when he states that “the screenplay might easily become a fascinating new form of literature” and then proceeds to explain why it had not.

Twenty-seven years later, I came along with my book The Screenplay as Literature.  What prompted me to write it was the status that cinema itself had attained—that of an art (if not literary) form.  The post-Second World War cinema had proved once and for all that the cinema not only could entertain people but enlighten them as with, with the same subtleties and complexities that are to be found in any other art or literary form.  This “renaissance” in film could be traced in part (at least in inspiration) to a 1948 article written by a French critic who ultimately became a film director—Alexandre Astruc.  In this article, entitled the “La Camera-Stylo” (“camera-pen”), Astruc first called attention to some of the changes that cinema was undergoing at the time:

“. . . the cinema  is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel… [having become] a form  in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsession exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel.”

Astruc went on to boldly predict that

“From today onwards it will be possible for the cinema to produce works which are equivalent, in their profundity and meaning to the novels of Faulkner and Malraux, to the essays of Sartre and Camus.”

Many critics have assumed that because of the title of my book and my acknowledgement of Gassner’s pioneering work, I actually concurred with his arguments on the literary status of the screenplay.  It was quite the contrary: besides using the word “literature” in a much different sense—I referred to it as “the highest level of artistic and intellectual achievement attained by a particular people or culture”–I implied that there was an equally important criterion that had to be met: that the writer writes for the screen in order to express himself in way impossible in any other medium—and not simply for the money to be earned. The screenplays that Gassner selected for his anthology, all superb examples from Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, do not meet, I am afraid,  this essential criterion, notwithstanding the fact that two of them were based on a novels which led to their author’s receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.  All of them, I believe, were adaptations of novels, novellas, biographies and short stories (the name of this volume was, by the way, Twenty Best Film Plays).  In fact, if I had been around in 1943, and all I had to work with was the product that was coming out of Hollywood at the time—polished as it was– not only would I not have written my book, I certainly never would have had the temerity to use the title “The Screenplay as Literature.”

Although my work might not have adequately addressed all the issues surrounding this “controversy,” for the next fifteen or twenty-years the issue remained dormant.  However, with the world-wide proliferation of cinema studies programs, and the concomitant need to publish scholarly books and write University theses, this “debate,” has resurfaced.   Although the emphasis today appears more focused on what a screenplay is (e.g., is it a “sovereign” work, only a blueprint, etc.) rather than its literary qualities, if any.  Now, let me cite some of the most frequent reasons given for denying the screenplay the status of literature, and my responses to them.

Screenplays are not written to be read (or published).  Obviously, I could state the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were not written to be read or published.  However, I primarily want to contradict the sweeping assertion that screenplays are not written to be read:  they most assuredly are!  They are written to be read by those who may be called upon to invest considerable sums of money to produce them, by creative talents, such as actors and directors, who will be asked to devote several months of their lives to work on them, and the myriad of film crafts persons who need to be inspired. As long as most cultures remain primarily verbally rather than visually oriented, the art of the cinema will be dependent on the word pictures of the screenwriter, at least in the earliest stages of production.

The Screenplay is only a blueprint for a production, not an autonomous work of its own.  First I object to the term “blueprint” to describe a screenplay.  Only a building professional or architect can read a blueprint.  Almost anyone today can read and understand a screenplay, even a final shooting script, because screenplay terminology, such as “cut,” “pan” and “close-up,” have become part of the standard language.  In fact, a screenplay is eminently more readable than a play script, in which stage terms such as “stage left,”  “stage right,” “upstage” and “downstage,” can be utterly confusing for anyone but a theater professional.  As for whether or not a screenplay is an autonomous work of its own, the fact that it is meant to be produced as a film need not detract from its completeness or validity: the screenplay is no less an autonomous work than is the play script—which is also meant to be produced.

A Screenplay is meant to be produced only once while a play is capable of inspiring a thousand different ways of being staged.  The assertion that screenplays are not capable of being produced more than once is factually untrue.  Films–and thus the underlying screenplays—are constantly being remade.  It is quite common to see a film/screenplay in one language and culture transposed into another language and culture.  And in these remakes new interpretations are given.  For example, the 1957 American film Twelve Angry Men, with a screenplay by Reginald Rose, was remade into a Russian film, 12, in 2007.  The story of both films centers around a jury of twelve men who deliberate on the fate of an adolescent boy charged with murder.  While the original version deals almost exclusively with the dynamics of the American jury system, with little or no social commentary, in the latter version the plot serves as a prism through which the ills of both Soviet and post-Soviet Russian society are examined.

Screenplays are often credited to multiple writers and it is difficult to determine who contributed what.  Literary critics have always shown a bias to the sole author, often ignoring worthy works which lack the same.  In fact, the cult of the “auteur,” of which Francois Truffaut was the chief architect, demands it.  However, there is nothing in any definition of “literature” that requires sole authorship.  Woody Allen is a writer-director whose original screenplays frequently dominate the American Motion Picture awards season.  Yet it is interesting to note that his arguably best film, Annie Hall (1977), was based on an original screenplay that was a collaboration.  (Annie Hall won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress.)

A Screenwriter does not have the same control over his work as a playwright or novelist. There is no reason why a screenwriter cannot exercise such control.  For example, when Budd Schulberg, a successful novelist and playwright, was approached to write the screenplay for the award-winning On the Waterfront (1954), he was told by the director, Elia Kazan, that he would not change one line of dialogue in his script without his permission—the same as he would with esteemed playwright Tennessee Williams.  (Kazan was the principal director of William’s plays on Broadway.)  Then, of course, there are the many directors who write their own scripts.  However, the fact remains that because of the enormous expense of making a feature film, those who finance films will always exercise some sort of creative control in order to protect their investments; but that in itself is not a sufficient reason to deny the literary status of the screenplay.

Published Screenplays are purchased mainly by “fans” that have already seen the films, whereas published plays are bought by readers who most likely have never seen them produced but have a literary respect for their authors.  At one time paper-back versions of screenplays (with plenty of photos from the production) were published to coincide with the release of the films; this was done as a cross promotion between movie studio and publisher.  No doubt the people who bought these “promotional” screenplay editions were essentially buying them as souvenirs or movie memorabilia.  Promotional screenplay editions are much rarer today, but screenplays continue to be published in large numbers.  I would presume the market for these published screenplays encompasses more than mere “fans,” appealing, for the most part, to those who have seen the films but want to know more about them, which attests to their enduring qualities.

There is probably no end in sight to this academic debate on the screenplay’s legitimacy.  However, the question itself may have already been answered by the numerous University English and Literature departments that are now offering “Screenplay as Literature” courses in order to attract students who no longer read books.

 

 

What is Criticism?

When I consider what I sometimes consider to be the sorry state of film and the screenplay today, I am inclined to believe that one of the reasons for this is the lack of meaningful criticism.  Or to paraphrase a statement made in 1945 by the celebrated novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler, there is no art of the screenplay because there is no real criticism of it.  Chandler considered the film critics of his day to be essentially critics of entertainment, with little knowledge of how films were made.  Indeed, that would be preferable to what we have today: critics who think that they know everything there is to know about film but sadly don’t.

What then should be the role of the film critic and film criticism?  Let us first look at the history of film criticism in the United States.  But before we do, I am going to define two terms in a way they may not be commonly used today.    The first term is “reviewer.”  This is a person who I will define as someone who writes about film, usually for a daily media outlet, making recommendations for his readers based on his own personal tastes, which, hopefully, are shared by his readers.  Next, there is the “critic.”  He usually expresses his opinions in books and periodicals and, more recently, the internet.  The ideal critic would be someone who writes for the benefit of the creator of the work he is critiquing; thus his criticism should be constructive.  In order to be effective, the critic must know something of how films are made (even financed).  And above all, the critic must know what it is the filmmaker is trying to achieve.  Now let us see how this distinction has manifested itself in both the past and present.

In the early days of cinema in America those who wrote about film for the daily newspapers were essentially “reviewers,” no matter what else they were called.   Many of them began as ordinary journalists who covered mundane subjects such as crime and sports; few had any background in the arts.  Their success was measured on how much their taste mirrored the taste of their readers; and often it did.  Those called “critics,” on the other hand, wrote almost exclusively for the literary and intellectual periodicals that appeared on a weekly or monthly basis.  This afforded them more time to reflect on the films that they critiqued, or screen them again if they so desired (few did).  Although it would be inaccurate to say that the taste of these critics reflected that of their readers, their incisive and erudite writing was generally appreciated by their readership.  And they were immensely influential, especially when it came to foreign films, which, in the 1960’s, they reviewed almost exclusively.  If those “critics,” who include Andrew Sarris, who wrote for the Village Voice, and John Simon, who wrote for New York Magazine, did not write reviews that were constructive for the filmmakers whose films they reviewed, they were, on the other hand, helpful in alerting their readers to exceptional films that were not mere entertainment (they rarely reviewed studio films).

In the 1970’s, a new type of film critic emerged, as personified by two newspaper reviewers/critics from Chicago:  Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel.  Those two hosted a national syndicated television program that reviewed four or five films a week and included clips from the same films.  Siskel and Ebert were well versed in film and provided to a national television audience a level of criticism available then to only those who lived in large cities or subscribed to prestigious weekly and monthly periodicals.   But there was a downside to this, for they usually lumped together artistic foreign films with commercial Hollywood fare.  Gradually, the line between the two types of films began to blur.  Whereas critics such as Sarris and Simon would never discuss the likes of a Sergio Leone (a very talented Italian commercial filmmaker) with filmmakers such as Bergman and Fellini in the same review, let alone mention them in the same sentence, the critics of today would probably do so, making no distinction between the three.

Today the term critic refers to all who write about film for newspapers, periodicals, television and the internet.  Contemporary critics are usually well versed in film; and more often than not they fill their writing with references to obscure films and filmmakers.  However, in essence, they are nothing more than “reviewers”:  because despite their very erudite writing, their opinions about a particular film are invariably predicated on their personal tastes.  Do not expect to find constructive criticism in their writing, let alone a real understanding of what the filmmakers attempted to achieve or how they went about doing so. 

So where does this leave us, particularly for the screenplay?  It leads us back, I am afraid, to the 1945 citation by Raymond Chandler which I provided at the beginning of this blog:  without any real criticism of the screenplay/film there can be no art of the same.  (By the way, my The Screenplay as Literature was not a book of film criticism, although there was some.) Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect critics to write for the benefit of the filmmakers that they critique rather than for the benefit of their readers.  And maybe in the future the internet can provide an outlet for those who want to write constructive film criticism for the benefit of filmmakers and screenwriters.  But for now, if filmmakers or screenwriters want real criticism of their work, they will have to provide it themselves.