Monday, November 2, 2009

"Whimmed" to Death

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.


On submitting to Hollywood, writer-director, David Lynch, referring to one of his earliest films, a short, THE ALPHABET (1968), once stated:

“That was the first time I ever submitted something, and someone was going to read it, and judge it, and decide whether they were going to pay for it. And you realize that, in Hollywood, a person writes a script and then they give it over to somebody and a certain process starts happening where the person that you give it to wants to understand it. And so a lot of stories get clarified to death (italics, mine). And now there’s like, ten people reading this thing. And they all need to understand it. And by the time all of them understand it, there’s no abstractions left, it’s not what the person originally wanted, there’s fifty million compromises already on this thing. And not one of the ten, maybe, is happy.”

And later, 

“When you write a book, there’s maybe your editor or somebody reading it, but it’s way more pure, and many things can be explored. Chances can be taken, and things don’t have to be explained.”

--- “Lynch on Lynch,” Edited by Chris Rodley, Faber and Faber, 1997, p. 51.

“A lot of stories get clarified to death.”

“You got that right!” say I. In fact, it may even be an understatement.

From the very beginning it was obvious that David Lynch was seen as an artist. He was given a measure of respect, allowed a latitude, that most new or almost-new writers and writer-directors rarely, if ever, get from the system. He only had to deal with clarifying his work to the power structure. Others, more often than not, have to justify.

Lynch’s stories, at least for me, lack clarification. They are odd, obtuse, ambiguous, and illogical. That’s why I like them. I like to explore Lynch’s ideas, test my responses, attempt to make sense of things, and accept my failures as “rain checks” for trying again another day. Life is ambiguous. We don’t know everything about everything. So things puzzle us, seem odd, obtuse, ambiguous, and even illogical. Lynch’s films are merely life… amplified, or… focused-down, right down to the terrific dramas playing out in the life beneath our feet.

I don’t want everything tied up into a nice pretty little package with a bow in my stories. I want there to be more waiting there for me to discover.

Way back in 1940 or so, science fiction author, Robert Heinlein, published a story called, “And He Built a Crooked House,” about an architect who designs a house in four spatial dimensions (plus one of time), rather than the three (plus time) we think we live in (if you’re interested in a description of what it’s like to do that and how it would be experienced, go here). I want that house! ‘Cause that’s where David Lynch writes his movies.

But the issue of accessing the film industry and its money, and the concomitant allowances and compromises one has to make to function in that system is interesting (in the Chinese curse sense). There are good and valid reasons for both positions in the struggle between the artist and business. And while I am sympathetic to business’s argument that it takes most of the risk by paying out those enormous sums, I cannot take a wholly practical, wholly arithmetical view. There’s a reason art is beyond the capabilities of scientists, executives, and accountants. Science and business are about how we live. Art is about why we live. “Why” trumps “how.” Animals get by on “how.” Only we need something more, and that’s “why.” And that’s art.

In the military a dichotomy is often drawn between the strategic and the tactical. Tactical is the immediate goal. Strategic is the bigger picture. Tactical is taking the hill, winning the battle. Strategic is winning the war. Art informs us about the processes of living so that we can assess for ourselves what living means for us. Art is strategic.

In a better world, business would serve the artist so that the artist could serve society. There would be failures and system-abuse, to-be-sure, but there would be benefits that out-weighed them.

In this world, art, of necessity, struggles with realities that unwaveringly demand an un-realistic success. And, yet, while the failures are legion, in every but the financiers’ minds, the benefits still out-weigh them.

In Screen Plays: How 25 Scripts Made it to a Theater Near You - For Better or Worse,” HarperCollins, 2008, p. 4, author, David S. Cohen offers some comments on the studio development process:

“One successful screenwriter observes that when movie people have meetings, people defer to the cinematographer on matters of lighting, because he’s the cinematography expert. They defer to the production designer on the look of the movie, because she’s the design expert. But nobody defers to the screenwriter as the story expert. Almost everyone feels free to talk to the screenwriter as if anyone could do story better than he can.

“There are plenty of reasons for this. One is that a good script often looks effortless. The story flows so smoothly that you can’t imagine it turning out any other way. The characters say what they say and do what they do because it’s their nature. The whole thing seems to just work.

“In fact, it seems so solid, so inevitable, that it looks easy to improve it. Can’t we try this? Wouldn’t it be more interesting if we did that? I’d like it if we could put this in...

“Writers know, though, that a structure that looks as solid as a granite statue can actually be as delicate as a silk tapestry. Pull on a thread and the whole thing can unravel. Nonetheless, development executives, directors, and stars yank on those threads, then leave the writer to try to weave something beautiful from the debris. As a result, studio ‘development’ is one of Hollywood’s ongoing embarrassments. A studio will buy a spec script for a small fortune, put it through years of expensive rewrites, and at the other end of the process wind up with something they never would have paid ten cents for if it had been sent to them in the first place.”

And that’s on good days. On the bad ones the material goes into “Turn-Around,” awaiting another studio or producer to buy it away for the money already invested; or… it vanishes forever while languishing in Development’s netherworld, that storied state of anti-Purgatory known as “Development Hell,” Lost there in some kind of “Dantean eighth ring,” it well and truly is never to be heard from again.

In Development Hell, the studio-system’s Devil’s Island, almost anything can happen, bad or – remarkably – good, though none should be seen as any sort of expiation of sin. Here, the sins may really begin. First, as David Cohen describes, the studio piles on more sinners, other writers. The writers, in turn, labor at the beck and call of a procession of directors and stars, each of whom, on departure, as in the mythical story of Sisyphus, allow the “rock” of the script to roll back to the start. But, closer to a snowball than Sisyphus’s rock, the script may now hold much of what each writer has added. Why? Because the studio paid for it.

Only a leap of faith by an individual with the power to wield it will ever gain the script its freedom. And only an artist will ever restore the script to its original raison d’ĂȘtre. In nearly all other cases, the script will not have met the fate David Lynch described of clarifying itself until its magic has gone away. Instead, to borrow a term used by D.T. Max in his New Yorker article (referenced elsewhere in this space), it will have been whimmed to death. #


Lee A. Matthias    

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