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.

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.

 

 

 

The Role of the Screenwriter Today

You may think that today’s topic concerns the plight of the few hundred or so writers, mostly in the United States, who earn their livelihood writing screenplays and their struggle for the recognition they so rightly deserve.  Not at All!    As far as today’s post is concerned, they can cry all the way to the bank!  For what I really want to discuss today is the aspiring screenwriter and his struggle to discover whether or not he has any role at all.

When I lived in New York several years ago and attempted to launch a career as a screenwriter, I used to be jealous of my friends who were artists, actors and playwrights.  I was jealous of them because they could pursue their art with little or no financial success.  A painter can always paint; the cost of the materials is not great.  And there is always some place to exhibit his or her work.  How exhilarating it is to have a show opening, even if most of the attendees are friends and relatives and nothing is sold.  And as for actors, there are always unpaid showcases where they can exhibit their talent:  never forget that an actor lives to act.   Then there are the playwrights.  For them there is always some small non-profit theater group eager to perform their plays, especially if they are one-act plays with only two or three characters.  But for the aspiring screenwriter, it is a totally different story.  Because of the tremendous cost of the production and distribution of motion pictures, even for the most low budget ones, realization of the aspiring screenwriter’s work through his own efforts is usually totally out of the question.  Regrettably , the plain truth is that  a screenwriter without a produced film is like a musician without an instrument.  Usually the aspiring screenwriter will write a dozen or so screenplays—if that many– on speculation.  If nothing happens with them, which generally is the case, the aspiring screenwriter usually gives up and moves on to some other form of writing where the odds are not so stacked against him.

Yes, it is a rather bleak picture that I have painted for the aspiring screenwriter.  But then, a few weeks ago, I began to think that perhaps there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.  It suddenly dawned upon me that right in the palm of your hand, within your smartphone, there is more technology than was available to Jean Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer for their early films!     Just what do I mean?  Of course, I am not suggesting that someone use a smartphone to make a feature film—although that is not impossible.  But for the cost of a smartphone or less you could conceivably buy a video camera/recorder that is adequate for the task.  Some of you who read an earlier post of mine in which I advocated for screenwriters being allowed to be just screenwriters may see a contradiction here.  Not necessarily so, because unfortunately, the screenwriter, as with anyone else seeking to get their foot into the door of the film industry, must often take things into his own hands, from submitting his script to a major actor ,to getting all or some of the financing for his project.  But let us return to the “smartphone” analogy.  Just what would this entail?

The first thing that would probably come to mind is the concept of “thinking small.”  Of course, we are not talking about a film with a cast of thousands or multiple car crashes and explosions.  But remember the old adage “write about what you know?”  So what would an aspiring screenwriter most likely know about?  The same thing that Godard, Truffaut, and Rohmer knew:  a story about a guy, a girl and an apartment—remember Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s.  And if the story takes place in New York, there most likely will be a couple of scenes in a coffee house; in London, a pub; and in Paris ,a sidewalk café.  These are locations that should cost you little or no money to find.  What about actors?  Surely they should cost you some money to obtain.  Perhaps—but maybe not as much as you think.  The American screen and television actors union has, in the past, been very accommodating in allowing their members to appear in low budget and student films for little or no payment at all (of course, if the film makes money you will have to pay them their minimum rate).  But what if you live somewhere other than the major American cities where most professional actors live and work.  Well, there are always amateur actors; for amateur acting groups can be found in almost every community—and many of them are quite good.

Alright, now that you have found your actors, what about the crew?  No problem, because with the proliferation of film and television production programs throughout the United States (and the world), volunteers should readily be available.  But what about the director?  Well, naturally you, the screenwriter, would be the first choice: who else knows the story and the characters better?  However, if this still seems like too daunting a proposition, I am sure that a volunteer can readily be found.

But if you do produce your own film (video), what do you do with it?  How do you get it seen, distributed?  Why, on the internet, of course.  There are numerous venues for screening films/videos on the internet; and it is very likely that more people will see it there than at the second and third tier film festivals where most first time directors’ independent films wind up.

Isn’t that really setting your sights too low? you might ask.  Not necessarily.  Do not forget that the highly successful film Meet the Parents (2000) was first produced as a very low budget film with unknown actors.  A major American studio saw it, bought the rights and then remade it as a big budgeted film with major actors.

Would I do something like this?  Probably not.  Should you?  Well, that depends—that is, depends on you.  But whatever you decide, it may no longer be accurate for the aspiring screenwriter to say that whether or not he has a career to pursue is dependent on the decisions of others.

Update – July 2015:

I have recently read about filmmakers who have indeed used their I-phone to create their films and have had them screened at the Sundance Film Festival.  One filmmaker stated that he preferred using an I-phone because the non-actors that he employed were more familiar with it and thus was less intrusive than more traditional filmmaking equipment.  I guess that my post was not as radical as I thought when I first posted it.

Who Was Lajos Egri?

A few years ago, when I began to reacquaint myself with the study of the screenplay, I was surprised to see the name of Lajos Egri being associated with screenwriting manual writers and film studies programs located primarily on the West Coast of the United States.  I noted that he was particularly highly regarded at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.  This both puzzled and surprised me because Egri, the author of a very old book on playwriting, was rarely ever mentioned on the East Coast of the United States; furthermore, I considered his work extremely dated when I first read it decades ago.  This prompted me to re-examine this very interesting man and his work.  I now share this re-examination with you.

Lajos Egri was born in Hungary in 1888.   He immigrated to the United States when he was eighteen years old and earned a livelihood working in the New York City garment industry.  He is purported to have written his first play when he was ten years old.  In New York he also wrote plays, but was not a well-known playwright.  In 1942 Egri published a manual on play writing entitled How to Write a PlayThis manual was revised and republished in 1946 under the title The Art of Dramatic Writing, which was, as far as I can discern, revised at least once more. At some point, I am not sure when, Egri opened a school for writing in a small office in midtown Manhattan (New York).

We do not know much about this school of Egri’s. I was only able to find two pertinent references to it: one is an article in the New York Times (1961), and the other is a reference by one of his students—a very young Woody Allen. The New York Times article describes how one of his students, a sixty-three year-old grandmother, had her first play produced on Off-Broadway; it received mixed reviews and ran for only a few weeks. (By the way, sixty-three years was considered old in those days.)    Allen, while generally praising Egri, described the other half dozen or so students in his class as “real losers–some fat house wife, a salesman.  There was no one in the class under forty-five years of age and nobody knew what they were doing…”

Sometime in the early 1960’s Egri moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to offer writing classes (in his home) until his death in 1967.  The edition of his book that I own states that Egri “now resides in Los Angeles, California, where he is teaching and working with members of the film industry.”  However, I was not able to substantiate that he had any impact on Hollywood during the few years that he lived in Los Angeles.

By now I am sure that some of you suspect that I am sitting behind my computer screen, smirking at this obscure, humble immigrant: this tailor by trade who eked out a meager living by mentoring would-be playwrights with precious little talent and less chance of success.  After all, he wasn’t a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.    Totally Wrong!   Lajos Egri was a man I could admire.  He was absolutely brilliant!

Every hundred or so years–if we are so fortunate–a person comes along who can see things that no one else can see.  A person who sees order where others can only discern chaos.  A person who perceives simple, but profound truths where others can only perceive confusion.  A person who is able to see the forest despite the trees.  Lajos Egri was such a person.

What Egri did was to set out to uncover the secrets of successful play writing.  His methodology was straight forward: he saw every play possible (from the classics to the Broadway fare of his day) and he read all the major books on playwriting that were in print at the time.  Then, he formulated his discoveries in a very simple and direct way.  His major discovery was that although the authors of most books on playwriting used different terminology and proposed differing theories, they were essentially saying the same thing: which is that all plays must possess what Egri termed a premise.  Whether they talked about a “theme,” “thesis,” “root idea,” “goal,” “aim,” “driving force” etc, they were really talking about a “premise.”  And whether this was true or not, that is, that other authors writing on dramatic art actually meant the same thing, is unimportant.  What is important is that Egri believed that it was true.

To understand Egri one has to understand Henrik Ibsen, a Nineteenth Century Norwegian playwright who was a major influence on him.  Ibsen, in the late Nineteenth century, introduced a type play that served as a major model for succeeding playwrights for the next sevent-five years: plays which took place in a realistic milieu and employed idiomatic dialogue—but more importantly, plays that prove and/or demonstrate a socially-significant premise.  In his The Art of Dramatic Writing, Egri uses Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as his main teaching example and thoroughly analyzes the play.  The major tenet that Egri derives from Ibsen is that all plays must have a well-formulated premise.   For Egri, the “premise” was “a tyrant” that demanded that the playwright go in only one direction: its absolute proof.   The approach that Egri recommends for writing a play is to start with a well-formulated premise and then select the characters that will prove it.  For example, according to this methodology, if your premise was “Poverty breeds crime,” and your protagonist is a young man who grows up in poverty and then becomes a criminal, the young man cannot have a brother who becomes a priest, because that would undermine the premise.  Nor can he have friends who are the sons of rich men, but turn to crime for the thrill of it.

Egri gives a very interesting but bizarre example of this “tyranny” of the premise.  He presents the premise that if a girl cannot find any other means of support, she will turn to prostitution.  The protagonist he chooses to prove this premise is named Irene, an attractive young woman who lives in a small town and comes from a good family.  She goes to New York to become a dancer, fails at that and then sinks into prostitution.  But we know that not every girl who comes to New York and fails to succeed as a performer (or some similar endeavor) becomes a prostitute—or at least we would like to believe so. There must be something else she could do?  Egri’s answer is that in order to prove your premise you must choose a girl who under these circumstances does just that—becomes a prostitute.  Furthermore, Egri urges that you, the playwright, must make Irene try every conceivable way to avoid prostitution.  But, according to Egri, she must fail! Otherwise you will not be able to prove your premise.  In fact, he goes so far as to say, “If, for any reason, we feel that prostitution wasn’t the only way out for Irene, you have failed as a craftsman and as a dramatist.”  (Italics by Egri.)   To be fair, it must be understood that Egri is not saying that any girl would do this, only a girl with  Irene’s ( mostly selfish and vain) character traits.

The premise, as Egri defines it, is also a capsule summary of the plot.  But it was not in plotting where Egri excelled the most: it was in his treatment of character.  On this subject Egri broke with Aristotle, who decreed that character was secondary to plot.   What is more important, Egri asks:  plot or character?  That is a pointless question, Egri would answer, because plot emanates from character.  If you have chosen your characters well, and fully understand them, then they have no choice but to take the path that you have destined for them—the path that proves your premise.  On the subject of character, Egri acknowledges that  the great Russian playwright Chekhov “has no story to tell, no situation to speak of, but his plays are popular and will be so in time to come, because he permits his characters to reveal themselves and the time in which they lived.”  Regrettably, Egri never fully explains how the success of Chekhov’s essentially “premise-less” plays relates to his own seemingly contradictory theories.

One area in which Egri particularly excelled—and in which other manual writers usually completely ignore—was in his analyses of why certain “bad” plays succeed at the box office.  And in this vein, his analysis of Tobacco Road, a play about an impoverished dysfunctional family in the American Deep South during the 1930’s is particularly insightful.  “The play has characters, but no growth,” he points out.  But these were not ordinary characters.  These were characters that you could smell.  “Their sexual depravity, their animal existence, capture the imagination,” Egri astutely observes:”The most poverty-stricken New York audience feels that its fate is incomparably better. . . . The audience, mesmerized, flocked to see these animals who somehow resembled human beings.”  But Egri’s penetrating analysis didn’t stop there.  He notes that Jeeter Lester, the central character, is “a weak-kneed man, without the strength to live or die successfully.  Poverty stares him in the face, his wife and children starve,” yet he does nothing. ”Is he a weak or a strong character?” Egri asks.  “To our way of thinking he is one of the strongest characters we have seen in the theater in a long time,” he answers. “Lester stubbornly maintains his status quo, or seems to maintain it, against the changes of time….in his weakness he is exceptionally strong, and condemns himself and his class to slow death rather than change.”

Egri had some very sage advice for the aspiring writer:  “If you are interested not in writing good plays, but in making money quickly, there’s no hope for you,” he warned. “Not only won’t you write a good play; you won’t make any money. . . . . write something you really believe in,” he advised.  And lastly, “Don’t write for the producers or for the public.  Write for yourself.”

Egri was indeed brilliant, and I have incorporated certain of his concepts, particularly those dealing with character, in my own work.  His conceptualization of premise has been embraced by both critics and industry professionals alike.  Yet Egri is dated, terribly dated.   Plays and screenplays with Egri-styled premises are rare today.  Audiences are too sophisticated; they have seen it all.  There is little you can prove to them that they don’t already know.  And they don’t like to be preached to.  As a further illustration of this, Ibsen (who Egri greatly admired) is rarely performed today, while Chekhov is continually revived.

If you write like Egri would have you write, your work may very well be criticized as being didactic and contrived, with wooden characters as well.  On the other hand, If you write like Chekhov, critics might very well say that your work is unfocused and diffuse.  The creative processes of both approaches are different, although one is not necessarily better than the other.

Every writer—novelist, playwright and screenwriter alike—should read Egri, if for no other reason than to be able to defend their work should it be criticized for not adhering to his dogma.  As to why Egri is so widely embraced on the West Coast of the United States, I think it has more to do with the fact that for a long time his manual on playwriting was the only one to be found in bookstores, not because he had lived and worked in Los Angeles for the last few years of his life.

Lajos Egri: a very wise  man–and a name you should know!

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.”

 

The Screenwriter as . . . Screenwriter

One of the criticisms of my book The Screenplay as Literature was that it appeared to be more about filmmaking than screenwriting.  And there was a good reason for that.  You see, at the time when I wrote the book, although there were a great  many screenwriters lucratively plying their trade (in Hollywood, especially), there were none that I knew of in America (nor in Europe either) that were predominantly writing screenplays to express themselves in this new literary medium–if to express themselves at all.  There were no screenwriters that you could compare to playwrights such as a Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams:  playwrights who had chosen to devote themselves almost exclusively to the stage and were most comfortable in doing so.  Oh, yes, there was the occasional noteworthy original screenplay written by a writer best known for his or her work in another medium (e.g. playwright  Arthur Miller’s screenplay for The Misfits), but that was hardly enough to inspire me to write a book entitled The Screenplay as Literature.  What did inspire me was the work of men who had chosen to express themselves exclusively in the making of films.  These men, whose names include Bergman, Godard, Fellini and Antonioni, not only made films, but they either wrote their own scripts or collaborated on their writing; thus my use of the term filmmaker to describe them.  Furthermore, although the aforementioned filmmakers were accomplished writers, especially Ingmar Bergman, they appeared to be more at home behind the camera than sitting behind a desk, writing.  In fact, most of them confessed that they found the literary (writing) process rather  frustrating–an inadequate means of expressing their cinematic ideas; however, they did admit that the screenplay was a necessary first step, if only to prove on paper the validity of their film ideas.

This brings us to the central problem in advocating for “the screenplay as literature”:  It is difficult to make the argument without the screenwriters to go with it.  That is not to say that there are no screenwriters:  hundreds of screenplays are being written and produced each year.  However, are they being written by writers who have chosen to express themselves almost exclusively via the screenplay?  For the most part, they are not.   Why is this important?  Because just as it is difficult to think of the great novelists and playwrights of world literature of not wanting anything more than to pursue their art in their chosen form of writing, it is difficult to take seriously writers of screenplays  who do not consider screenwriting as their main literary pursuit—no matter how good they are at it.  This problem is further compounded by the fact that virtually all directors who write their own scripts want to be considered directors first and writers second, if at all.  And let us also not forget the frequent characterization of the majority of screenwriters as aspiring (if not frustrated) directors.  Now let us look at why this state of affairs exists, and how it undermines the proposition of “the screenplay as literature.”

The lack of what I call real screenwriters can be attributed to two appalling  conditions: the first is that screenwriters get very little recognition for their work and are, for the most part, virtually unknown to the public; The second is that screenplays, by themselves, receive little respect—and  particularly from the people who turn them into films. Let us examine the first condition:  the anonymity of the screenwriter.

Many would trace this problem to the popularity of Francois Truffaut’s “La Politique des Auteurs,” a position that Truffaut took in the late 1950’s (and expounded in the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinema), which endeavored to give the credit of “author” to certain directors who did not write their own scripts.  This gave rise to the elevation of the status of the director—and usually at the expense of the screenwriter.  However, as far as Hollywood is concerned, the marginalization of the screenwriter predates considerably “La Politique des Auteurs” and the ascendency of the director.  There (Hollywood) the producers (and even the distributors, too) have long taken credit for the films they have produced.

Why is this such a detriment to screenwriters?  Because if individual screenwriters are virtually unknown to the public, it is almost impossible for them to develop an audience—a following, that is.     Filmmakers such as Woody Allen and the late Ingmar Bergman developed followings for their films (for which they usually wrote the screenplays); and this, indeed, allowed them to grow as artists, to experiment.  However, since I have written The Screenplay as Literature, I can think of only a few American screenwriters whose work is or was known to the public for films which they were not also the director.  The most notable are the late Paddy Chayevsky and Charles Kaufman; the first was the author of Network (1976), arguably the best American screenplay of the second half of the Twentieth century; the second is best known for comic films that make substantial use of fantasy, such as Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

You might very well ask why is it important that there be writers who are not the directors of the screenplays they write when so many directors do write their own screenplays—and do so very well?  And it is worth noting that the renaissance in cinema that I wrote about in The Screenplay as Literature took its inspiration (in part)  from an article written in 1948 by French critic (and subsequently film director) Alexandre Astruc, entitled “La Camera-Stylo.”  Here Astruc argued for scriptwriters to direct their own scripts; “or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of filmmaking the distinction between author and director loses all meaning.”

What then is the need for the autonomous screenwriter?  The need exists because the talent and temperament to be both a writer and a director may not necessarily reside in a single individual: one may excel in one endeavor but not the other.  In the theater, playwrights who direct their own plays are rare.  And few novelists long to be editors (or publishers, too).  At one time we revered writers (e.g. novelists and playwrights) as simply writers, not as hyphenates as well (e.g. writer-directors).  We have romanticized writers who spend many months (or years) writing in isolation—away from the glitter and distractions of Los Angeles or New York: writers who no sooner than they hand off their just completed work to their agent or publisher, plunge into their next project.  These are writers who have so much to write, but so little time to do so.  And certainly little time to spend on the onerous details of production—and film production, in particular.  In a perfect world, producers, directors and film companies would be beating a path to the doors of screenwriters to get a first look at what they are working on, not the other way around.  And if it is not enough that screenwriters themselves get little respect, it is far more egregious that the screenplay itself, and particularly the original screenplay, gets even less—the second impediment to “the screenplay as literature.”

 Dances with Wolves (1990) was an American film that won Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (even though the novel it was based on started out as an original screenplay).  Yet when the author of the screenplay initially attempted to have it produced, he was told to turn it into a novel first—which he did.  How insulting!   If a painter approached an art gallery to have his work exhibited (and, hopefully, sold), would he be told to turn his paintings into sculptures first?  I think not.  The sad fact is that the film industry—and particularly in the United States—has always had an enormous distrust and disdain for the original screenplay.

 If today I were to arrive in Hollywood with a trunk full of worthy scripts, written by writers who have seen every film, read every screenplay, and even possess university degrees in film and screenwriting, I would be laughed out of town—assuming that I actually got in to see anyone of importance. “Bring me playwrights!  Bring me novelists,” they would tell me.  “But don’t bring me screenplays or screenwriters!  We are surfeited with them.”  Been there!  Done that!  That is not to say that original screenplays are not, and cannot, be sold.  However, if you do not have strong industry connections (and representation, too), you have a better chance of winning the lottery than of selling an original screenplay.

We have not yet reached the center of “the screenplay as literature;” in fact, we are not even close to itAnd we never will be–until cinema fully embraces the concept of   “the Screenwriter as  . . . Screenwriter.” 

 

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.

 

 

Playwright versus Dramatist

Today I am going to define two words in a sense that they are not commonly used; the two words are playwright and dramatist.  Usually, the terms are used synonymously, but for the point I wish to illustrate, I intend to give each a separate meaning.  I will define a playwright as someone who is drawn to the theatre as a medium of creative expression—and more specifically, as a medium of creative expression that comes from within him or her—but not necessarily autobiographical.  This person has decided that he primarily wants to write plays rather than novels or poetry and will usually endeavor to learn as much as possible about the theatre before seriously undertaking an actual writing project.  A dramatist is also drawn to the theatre and also chooses to express himself exclusively through this medium; but unlike the playwright, the dramatist does not find his material from within himself, rather he looks for material that he can dramatize, that is, to put in a form that makes for good theatre, and he often finds this material in novels, biography (history) and current events.  An example of such a dramatization would be a play from the 1950’s called The Caine Munity Court Martial.  This play was based on a novel entitled The Caine Mutiny, in which the actual court martial dramatized in the play comprised only a small part.  In fact, court trials real or fictional, have often been favored by dramatists.  Compulsion (a 1957 play based on the Leopold and Loeb trial, not the recent play based on the author’s life) and Inherit the Wind (the Scopes “Monkey” trial) are some examples of the former (coincidentally, the actual defense lawyer depicted in both plays was the great Clarence Darrow).

On the Broadway stage throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Tennessee Williams was the preeminent playwright of his day; no one doubted that the plays which he wrote came from within (although they were not necessarily autobiographical).  Audiences flocked to each new work by him to see what new insights he had for them on the human condition.  But that does not mean that his plays were invariably critical or box-office successes; most were not.  At the same time there were many plays performed on Broadway written by what I have defined above as dramatists.  Many of these plays were written by two person writing teams and were hugely successful.  The fact that today most of these plays are now forgotten, as well as the dramatists themselves (while the works of Tennessee Williams are still performed), should not detract from their dramatic and entertainment value.  Today, little original drama is performed on Broadway, whether it be the work of playwright or dramatist.  Most of the latter now work in television, where there is a huge demand for this entertainment fare.

You probably would think that I hold the work of playwrights in higher esteem than I do of that of dramatists.  Not true.  The creative process may be somewhat different, but one is not necessarily better than the other.  And the line between the two is not always clear; nor are the two mutually exclusive.  For example, Jean Giraudoux did not write Tiger at the Gates (Le guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu) because he felt that the Trojan War provided sure-fire dramatic material: instead he was looking for a vehicle through which to dramatize his brilliant insights and ideas.  And the same could probably be said of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.

And now this brings us to film.  Here we also have the equivalents of playwright and dramatist.  And most filmmakers, directors and screenwriters belong to the latter category.  But again, the distinction is not always clear.  Why do I believe that this distinction is important?  Because it determines how we must critique them.  I came to this realization years ago while conducting a screenwriting workshop at the New School of Social Research in New York.  I found that when working with participants who were truly writing from within my role was almost that of a therapist.  I would often say things to them like, “You’re not the only naïve young woman to come to New York from a small town and be taken advantage of.”  Or, “You’re not the only young man to face disappointment and be treated unfairly.  Get over your self-pity.”  When people write autobiographical fiction, they often tend to justify bad life choices and change the way things really happened in order to make themselves come off better.  So it was not uncommon for me to ask them if they were really being honest with themselves.  With writers who were more of the dramatist variety, my method of working with them was on more of a detached—from the material, that is–professional level.  If they were writing a thriller, I might suggest that they put in more plot twists or point out that their story was too predictable.  And this brings me to my next insight:  When dealing with “playwrights” we must critique not only the Work, but the writer as well!  In such instances, the only way to improve the work is to improve the writer.

Illustrative of this insight is Federico Fellini’s 8 ½.  In this celebrated film, Fellini found an apt subject for his burgeoning cinematic talent:  himself.  His alter-ego in the film, Guido, also a filmmaker, states that he wants to make an honest picture, one without lies.  And how did Guido first attempt to do this?  The same was as Fellini: by making a film in which his protagonist—really himself—instead of facing up to his personal crisis directly, abstracts it—that is, reflects on it on a much broader basis: e.g. mankind, including the Catholic Church, attempting to leave the earth in a gigantic spaceship in order to start over again (the actual reason for the ridiculous rocket-launching platform set).  And, as pre-production on the two films progressed—Fellini’s and Guido’s—both became more autobiographical, and consequently less abstract and more honest.  Thus by confronting his inner demons (without reservations), Fellini’s work steadily improved; hopefully the work of his alter ego, Guido, will improve in the same manner.

Playwright, Heal thyself!