Friday, October 9, 2009

Swinging Pendulum or Wrecking Ball?

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


I came across an article by D.T. Max, from the New Yorker, awhile back that had what I believe is a chilling and prescient observation for screenwriters. It was a profile of screenwriter and director, Tony Gilroy making DUPLICITY, and along the way, the article weighed in on several interesting aspects of movies and screenwriting today. For example:

“Today, the film industry considers adult-oriented drama a small target, and one that is getting smaller. Middle-aged Americans don’t go to the movies; young adults and teen-agers do, and they prefer action to talk, in part because they believe they know every possible movie character already. A screenwriter interested in human behavior can find himself ignored by big-studio executives looking for movies propelled by spectacle and superheroes. ‘The trend is making movies that don’t need screenwriters,’ a top Hollywood screenwriter explained to me by e-mail"

These comments recall and echo a quote by critic, Clive James, one I’ve used in this space before: “If any one thing is wrong with the movie industry today, it is the unrelenting effort to astonish."

Consider Max’s point:

“…they prefer action to talk, in part because they believe they know every possible movie character already.”

This has got to bother fiction writers of every stripe. If true (that they DO know every character), we might as well go home because the video and PC game companies are already cleaning up the battlefield, and we’ve been DOOMED for years. Remember the article’s later remark, “The trend is making movies that don’t need screenwriters.” The Irving Thalbergs will have won (“The Writer is the most important person in Hollywood, but we must never tell the sons-of-bitches.” – attributed to Irving Thalberg, 1939). If it’s any consolation, it’ll be a Pyrrhic victory. Unlike the group experience of movies, people don’t want to play video games in the same room with each other. For one thing, they’d have to change their pajamas every day. So, if they continue to produce video games for theaters…

Screenwriting is not like gunslinging. There’s always someone faster, but if someone brings a gun to a grenade fight, well… The movie industry expects to save itself with the new 3-D technology. But if the audience has already seen it all the last five times out, well you can’t win over an empty house.

But… if, instead, Max’s point is only true by perception (that is, they merely BELIEVE they know every character), then there is perhaps the barest chance that a career can yet be had writing movies with any degree of story subtext or meaning beyond “killing the baddies.” Sooner or later, it ain’t gonna play anymore.

While these quotes are out of an article whose stock in trade may be seen to be making pithy and hip comments, I have to confess that I’ve noticed the way things have been going, myself. It used to be that a movie would come out and it would be seen as a great new take on a genre. I’m thinking of films like BONNIE AND CLYDE, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, HALLOWEEN, THE WILD BUNCH, CHINATOWN, THE STING, ANIMAL HOUSE, BLOOD SIMPLE, etc. Now, there are gobs of imitators of each of these going back to when they were new. And how many newer “new takes on a genre” have we seen? Fewer and fewer. In fact, the pretty good (or even very good) imitators seem to fade away. Remember BLACK WIDOW? SNEAKERS? SILVERADO? GODFATHER 3? MAGIC? CAT PEOPLE? Didn’t think so. And it’s not Alzheimer’s kicking in, either. I would’ve listed more but, well, I can’t remember them. Unfortunately, having missed some kind of genre-bending transformational event, some paradigm shift as happened in the ‘60’s with the influence of international films and the change in the culture, movies have been exiled into self-reference, self-parody. Oh, sure, they’ve always done it. Now, unfortunately, it’s nearly all they do.

It’s kinda like the way classic rock (from rock’s beginnings through—stretching it—maybe the late ‘80’s) is sooo much better, so much more inventive and relevant, so more varied and interesting, than nearly all of what’s been coming out since. And that’s giving the earlier period its weird spawn: bubblegum, glitter, and disco. Where is this decade’s White Album? Where was the ‘90’s candidate, for that matter? Rap? Grunge? Hip Hop? Emo? Is that all ya got? ‘Cause I’m telling you, my Honor Student from his Clash-revival cover band can DESTROY your freshly un-showered, self-pitying, break-dancing, boy-toy on his worst day! And he doesn’t need Joey Ramone watching his back, either. But we… “happy few” …get fewer and fewer. Like George Thorogood: now, it seems, we drink alone.

In his article, Max goes on to write:

"Gilroy believes that the writer and the movie-going public are engaged in a cognitive arms race. As the audience grows savvier, the screenwriter has to invent new reversals—madder music and stronger wine. Perhaps the most famous reversal in film was written by William Goldman, originally in his 1974 novel MARATHON MAN, then honed for the movie version. Laurence Olivier, a sadistic Nazi dentist, is drilling into Dustin Hoffman’s mouth, trying to force him to disclose the location of a stash of diamonds. ‘Is it safe?’ he keeps asking. Suddenly, William Devane sweeps in to rescue him and spirits Hoffman away. In the subsequent car ride, Devane starts asking questions; he wants to know where the diamonds are. After a few minutes, Hoffman’s eyes grow wide: Devane and Olivier are in league! ‘Thirty years ago, when Bill Goldman wrote it, the reversal in MARATHON MAN was fresh,’ Gilroy says. ‘But it must have been used now four thousand times.’

"This is the problem that new movies must solve. As Gilroy says, ‘How do you write a reversal that uses the audience’s expectations in a new way? You have to write to their accumulated knowledge.’ Before Gilroy wrote DUPLICITY, audiences had been trained by the mixed-up time schemes of MEMENTO, AMORE PERROS, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Moviegoers got used to an aesthetic of disorientation. They also have DVDs, so they can watch a film twice to untangle its story, and the Internet, which allows them to look up a bit of jargon or insider information. Reality is a confluence of fragments, to be apprehended bit by bit; watching a movie has begun to approximate the rhythm of a Google search."

I recall seeing MARATHON MAN and feeling that that reversal was strong, quite effective, but, not nearly the best ever. Despite his films since, I have to go on record as saying the ending reversal in M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE beats it. And while I never saw it before hearing about it, I’m told the same is true of the big reveal in Neil Jordan's THE CRYING GAME. Of course, both of those were writing to that “accumulated knowledge” held by audiences. These were shocks by their sheer “over-the-top-ness,” recalling Clive James’s point. Maybe the whole thing started when Jack Nicholson literally beat the truth out of Faye Dunaway in CHINATOWN. Remember, this was 1974… before Mackenzie Phillips bared her soul to Oprah just to jump-start her stagnant career. Talk about over-the-top!

But, I believe that one needn’t feel only an envelope-pushing revelation has a chance with audiences, anymore. Subtlety and concealment can render the most otherwise commonplace reveal circumstantially staggering. It’s context, you see. And context can only work in an environment with dimension, three or four, at least. Or, with Kaufman’s stuff, five. And we won’t even get into David Lynch’s universe. If we don’t grok the length, breadth, and depth of a character, we can’t understand what his actions cost him. When you can appreciate the profound and utterly sublime achievement of Mac Sledge in Horton Foote’s TENDER MERCIES, you can appreciate our notion of subtlety, when it comes to revelation.

Movies need some truly fresh thinking. Charlie Kaufman can’t do it alone. As has been said many times before, good writing comes out of life and living, not seeing some earlier movie about it. As someone who has written way more than his share of material inspired by previous material, I’m not saying that one can’t or shouldn’t. It’s a question of what’s done with it. And it’s also a question of the creative process, itself. In my forthcoming book, LATERAL SCREENWRITING, I explore techniques and methods to refresh writers’ approaches not just to stories, but to the creative process itself. We need to re-think how we think. The mind is not mined out. Using the concepts lateral thinking expert, Edward de Bono developed for the left-brain world of business, I’ve returned them to the right-brain world of writers and artists, where creativity originates. The problem with the creative side is that while it’s potent, like a berserker sacking Northumbria, it’s also chaotic. While this is great for laying waste or getting outside the box, it is inconsistent when it comes to results. Rigorous methodologies and techniques can bring consistency to such chaos, and that’s what LATERAL SCREENWRITING does. It is the first book on screenwriting to really offer anything new in many years.

So, is the malaise and stagnation found in Hollywood product because today’s audience has seen every character, knows them inside out, is bored with them, and so needs ever bigger explosions, ever more outrageous superheroes and villains? Or is it because most of them have only seen the most recent characters, the bad imitations, and these have tainted the old ones out of a lack of context? So, now, because of the bad, they’ve become jaded enough to give up on even the possibility of any good ones?

If that’s true, let’s all start boning up on the intricacies of a weapon that can trump the BFG 9000. Like the gunslinger, there’s always a bigger gun.#


Lee A. Matthias

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