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!


Andy Warhol Revisited

When we look back at the turbulent 1960’s in America, along with the very somnolent 
1970’s which followed, two names from that era are still prominent today:  Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol.  Mr. Jagger’s name has not only survived, but he has too, still performing with his rock group the Rolling Stones with the same vigor and intensity that made him famous in the Sixties.  I guess you could say that he is the gift that keeps on giving.  The posthumous celebrity of Andy Warhol is also rather intriguing:  in his lifetime he was a shameless self-promoter whose work many have said was of dubious artistic merit.  Yet his stature continues to grow:  every month we read how his paintings have achieved new records at auction, and more books have been written, and more films have been made, about him and the colorful (and sometimes) tragic hangers-on who frequented his notorious “Factory” than of any other comparable figure from the Twentieth Century—with the possible exception of F. Scott Fitzgerald (of “Roaring Twenties” fame).  Not bad for someone whose name has been associated with the quote “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”  Perhaps this remarkable fascination with him can partly be explained by the fact that Andy Warhol and is bizarre entourage may have been the closest thing we had in the Sixties to compare to the celebrated literary salons of the 1920’s and the 1930’s (e.g. Gertrude Stein in Paris and  Dorothy Parker and the roundtable at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, respectively).  But it is not Andy Warhol the dubious celebrity that I wish to re-examine here, but Andy Warhol the filmmaker.  Although the stature of Andy Warhol the pop artist has grown immensely since his death, his stature as a filmmaker has not.  And that is shame, because he should be considered as one of the more important filmmakers of the second half of the Twentieth Century.

 Warhol was associated with a movement in America referred to as The New American Cinema, or more commonly, “The Underground”.  This group of very diverse independent filmmakers, mainly located in New York, came together in September 1960 to issue a vituperative manifesto condemning what they called the perverse “official cinema” of their day:  Hollywood.    What this very disparate group of filmmakers had in common, besides their loathing for Hollywood and all it stood for, was that their films were rather amateurish, technically inept and made with mostly amateur equipment.  And in those instances, where they did employ “actors,” they tended to be exhibitionist amateurs.  (Although Warhol is often associated with “The New American Cinema”, it does not mean, as we shall see, that he shared their political views.)

 Warhol was a “Johnny-come-lately” to the New York Underground scene, not making his first film until 1963, the year in which he is reported to have acquired his first movie camera.  But Warhol quickly made up for lost time and became the most prolific filmmakers of the entire movement.  So prolific had Warhol become that critic Sheldon Renan was able, four years later, to divide his work into four periods, although Renan was quick to point out that Warhol’s combined films actually constituted part of one huge work: a definitive documentary on the scandalous people who made up New York’s bizarre demi-monde.  But it is not the subject of Warhol’s films–shock and degradation– that I wish to examine here, but Warhol the visual artist, which is reflected best in his earliest films.

The films of Warhol’s first period, such as Eat (1963), Sleep (1963), Haircut (1964), Kiss (1964), and Empire (1964), were primarily characterized by their static photography (e.g. little or no camera movement) and very mundane subject matter (e.g. a man sleeping for six hours and the Empire State Building photographed uninterruptedly from dawn to dusk).  It is not at all surprising, given the unorthodox length of these first films (along with the fact that little or nothing happened in them), that the preponderance of critical opinion concerning Andy Warhol as a novice filmmaker was that he was either a charlatan, or, at best, the perpetrator of a bizarre hoax, meant to be an insult to the intelligence of his audience.  Yet nothing could be further from the truth; for what Warhol was attempting to do was to discover the artistic potentialities inherent in the film medium, as if he himself were the first filmmaker ever to conduct such an inquiry.  The magazine Film Culture—in awarding him their Six Independent Film Award (1964)—noted the experimental and exploratory nature of these earliest films of Warhol.  They extolled him for “taking cinema back to its origins, to the days of Lumiere, for a rejuvenation and a cleansing. . . ..We begin to realize that we have never, really, seen haircutting, or eating.  We have cut our hair, we have eaten, but we have never really seen those actions. . . .A new way of looking at things and at the screen is given through the personal vision of Warhol . . .” {Italics my own}.  Warhol undoubtedly was not jesting when he said in a 1966 interview that the filmmaker who influenced him the most was Thomas Edison! 

If it can be accurately said that the films of Warhol’s first period explored the potentialities of black-and-white cinematography, then the films of his second period began as an exploration of the potentialities of the sound film.  And just as was the case with the first sound films made in Hollywood in the late 1920’s, Warhol’s first experiments with sound were also “one hundred per cent talkies.”  More often than not the actors (or “non-actors,” more precisely) would stare blankly into the camera and chatter incessantly.

Having discovered that films could talk, Warhol, just like Hollywood before him, determined that talking films demanded stories: thus the need for writers who could write talking scripts, both for Hollywood and Warhol.  This was a critical juncture for Andy Warhol; for whereas his previous film endeavors were akin to still life studies that solely reflected his own personal vision, his sound films  were collaborative efforts that may not have reflected his own personal philosophy.  A case In point was Warhol’s collaboration with Ronald Tavel, a playwright who was associated with New York’s Theatre of the Ridiculous.  Tavel, like most people associated with The New American Cinema, also endorsed their anti-Hollywood bias.  This is certainly reflected in Warhol’s Harlot (1965), a savage parody of the life of the late Hollywood star Jean Harlow, for which Tavel wrote the script.  But this seems to be the furthest from Warhol’s true feelings about Hollywood, as all his life he appeared to have been enthralled with its stars and glamor (case in point: Warhol’s celebrated silk-screen portrait of Marilyn Monroe).

These early sound films, which were directed by Warhol in 1965 and 1966, constitute his second and third period.  Although these films were often scripted, they relied heavily on improvisation.  Here Warhol developed a very unusual improvisational technique in which the “actors” say things to each other which have little to do with the roles they are portraying, or the story-line, but which were solely intended to “put on” the “actors” they are playing against and elicit responses that are often humiliating and embarrassing.  In some instances it has been alleged that Warhol made up false stories about what one “actor” said about another in order to provoke an enraged response—which it usually did.  This may be all too familiar to those of you who have watched cotemporary “Reality” television, of which Warhol is the true father.

The films of Andy Warhol’s fourth period were generally put together from separate half-hour takes that featured different “superstars” from his growing repertory company (and which often exploited their pitiful attempts at self-degradation).  Warhol’s two major works of this period were Four Star (1967) and The Chelsea Girls (1966)Four Star consisted of twenty-five hours of film footage made up of one-real segments.  The film was exhibited one time only in New York for its entire length.   Afterwards, it was broken down into mostly two-hour segments and released as separate films.  In Four Star Warhol continued his exploration of the film medium, this time in a segment in which he experiments with the potentialities of color film stock (just as he did with black-and-white in Empire).  Called “Sunset in California,” this segment depicts a complete California sunset, highlighting the extraordinary color changes that it is possible to observe during one of nature’s most beautiful events.  However, it was Warhol’s second major work of this period, The Chelsea Girls, which constituted his piece de resistance and his most important contribution to film. Released a year earlier than Four Star, Chelsea Girls was a Greenwich Village version of Dante’s Inferno in which the tortured denizens of the New York sub-culture (of which Warhol was, again, the chief chronicler), candidly bare their souls (and sometimes their bodies, too) before a cold, cynical camera that grinds on without mercy.  But it is not the subject matter of The Chelsea Girls which distinguishes it from Warhol’s other films, but his employment of split-screen, double projection, with the sound alternating between the two screens.  Remarkably, the technique appeared to work.  I remember seeing the film at a large theater on Broadway (New York City).  Most of the audience comprised people who wanted to see the newest avant garde thing.  However, they had paid good money to see the film and expected to be engaged.  And it appeared that they were; I recall  few of the audience walking out.

Unfortunately, The Chelsea Girls, along with most of Warhol’s early films remain lost films.  They are “lost” not because they do not exist but because they can now only be seen at infrequent museum showings.  This is a shame because I believe that a wider audience exists for them and could learn much from them; I, myself, wish that I may have the opportunity once again to see The Chelsea Girls and explore its many layers of innovation.

After The Chelsea Girls and Four Star, Warhol’s output of feature-length films increased, but the amount of innovation to be found in them, if any, declined.  Most of these films were Gay-themed parodies: Lonesome Cowboys (1968), for example, was a Gay Western.  Subsequent to his recovery from a gun-shot wound  in 1968 that was inflicted by an irate actress from one of his films, Warhol ceased to direct films entirely.  Films that were labeled “Warhol” films continued to be made for years afterwards, employing the Warhol style and many of his entourage, but they were directed by others and possessed little merit. 

Many directors have come to film from the visual arts, but few have had the humility to first learn and master the medium as Andy Warhol had once done.  And most have made the same mistake that Warhol did, which is to plunge into narrative filmmaking without first fully comprehending its complexities.  For that reason narrative films made by visual artists are usually visually impressive, but narratively disappointing.  For a brief period Andy Warhol, with his talent and discipline as a visual artist, took film in a new direction.  But because of personal reasons, or perhaps a growing lack of interest, Warhol abandoned filmmaking as a creative outlet and concentrated his enormous talents elsewhere. 


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. 


The Importance of Theme

In my book The Screenplay as Literature, I gave a brief treatment on “theme” in cinema and how the term differs from “premise.”  In this work I defined “theme” as a thought-provoking idea that pervades the entire production—an idea that is often simple and profound.  I pointed out that a “theme” and its meaning should always be self-evident to the audience—even if only on an subconscious level—not demanding proof or demonstration, but development instead.   This I contrasted to a “premise,” which I defined as a proposition that must be proved or demonstrated.  Subsequently, I became dissatisfied with my earlier treatment of this important topic, primarily because my book did not included a suitable example of a film with a full-blown theme; I had endeavored to include one, but for reasons I cannot go into here, I was compelled to drop the chapter dealing with such an example (the film, by the way, was Hiroshima Mon Amour).

Sometimes the theme of a film is related to its premise.  For example in the very harrowing Soviet film Come and See (1985), set during World War II in Russia, the premise is that war brutalizes its victims:  robbing them of their humanity, and for the young, also robbing them of their youth, even their childhood.  This is really a subset of the theme, which, in this instance, can be stated in a number of ways:  The Apocalypse of Our Time, War is Hell, and Man’s Inhumanity to Man. (By the way, the title of the film is a Biblical reference to the destruction wrought by The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.)  In this monumental film the theme is developed by depicting scenes of greater and greater brutality and horror.  The premise, on the other hand, is demonstrated (or proved) by a “coming of age” story in which the protagonist, a young, adolescent partisan, is thoroughly brutalized by his wartime experiences (shockingly, his hair turns prematurely gray at the film’s end).

Sometimes this dramaturgical concept of a theme is confused with the way the term is commonly employed in the film industry.  In this instance, “theme” or “action-theme” is used to describe what a film “is about.”  Thus “a secret agent prevents a terrorist organization from detonating a stolen nuclear weapon and destroying a major city” might well be the “theme” of a James Bond film.  And sometimes a filmmaker endeavors to make what his film is about rise to the level of a theme in the higher sense.  The British film Love Actually (2003) is such an example.  Here, in the opening scene at London’s main airport, Heathrow, we are told (by a voice-over) that love is all around us; and we are shown various couples (lovers, families) who obviously share love.  The film then goes on to depict various relationships (ten in all) from all strata of society (including one involving a Prime Minister and another involving a couple who meet on the set of a porno film) which end in committed relationships and  marriage. or hopefully will.  The film ends where it began, Heathrow airport, where we see many of those same couples coming together (if they have not already done so).  Love Actually is a very clever and well-made film.  But in the end it is just a film about love; its contrived love stories never rise to level of “theme”.  We just don’t feel the love.

Some of the more intriguing examples of theme are to be found in some rather unexpected places.  The films of Charles Chaplin, a comedian and director whose film career began in the silent era and spanned several decades, provide just such an example.  Chaplin’s signature hapless tramp, with his little mustache, battered hat, cane and clumsy gait clearly embodied the indomitableness of the human spirit.  No matter how much he was beaten down by the vicissitudes of life–and beaten down he was–he always picked himself up, dusted himself off, and walked off into the sunset with his peculiar gait, ready for whatever life would throw at him next.   In the early days of silent films, the actors had no names.  But theater owners had only to put a cardboard representation of the little tramp in front of their theaters and the audiences would come–because they knew who he was.  He was them!