Monday, February 1, 2010

LEM DOBBS - Screenwriter

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 consider myself pretty aware of the film scene in general, and screenwriters in particular. I’ve studied it all for years, seen LOTS, and found what I believed were the brightest and best in both categories. A week ago, if someone were to have asked me about Lem Dobbs, I would have said “I’ve come across him a few times, seen two or three of his movies (The Limey, Dark City, The Score, etc.) liked them, heard the stuff about his unproduced screenplay, Edward Ford being one of the greatest movies never made, but I don’t know much beyond that.” Then I read this.
For the serious screenwriters out there, I am telling you now: Stop what you’re doing, click that link, and read until your eyes fall out. And they will, because it’s huge!
Okay, wait until after you finish this post. But then, go there and read what interviewer (& poet, & literary critic) Dan Schneider asks and screenwriter Lem Dobbs has to say.

Here are a few short clips:
The true believer is someone to whom the truth, in fact, has not been revealed.
When I looked around as a teenager, the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood were the best screenwriters in Hollywood.  Now the most successful screenwriters are simply the most successful screenwriters.  Anti-screenwriters, really.  They don’t seem to have any sense of cinema at all.  No more great dialogue or memorable lines.  No great stories or characters or sequences -- or movies, in the end, that will mean much to film history.  You can read all the interviews with all of them and almost never come across any references to films or writers of the past.  Except maybe STAR WARS.  It’s really virtually a dead profession.  And even mindless Hollywood seems to know it.
Sometimes everything is rewritten except that which ought to be.
It’s easy to talk about how great American cinema was in the 70s.  It’s not so easy -- or politically correct -- to mention that there were no D-Girls (Female Development executives) then.  Or that there’s a far less homogenous Hollywood, and general population now, of far less educated people.  Even those who allegedly are.  If you read a review in Variety in the 60s, and it said:  ‘This movie will appeal to the college crowd,’ you would automatically assume it was something arty or elevated or foreign.  Same exact words now and it means it’s moronic garbage for beer-guzzling apes.
When someone says, “They’d never make that movie now” -- that’s exactly the movie I immediately want to sit down and write.  Or try to.  Let the cards fall …
It’s absolutely amazing that you can go buy a five-dollar pen and a five-dollar notebook (and those are kinda pricey), and a matter of months later someone might give you hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe even millions, for the ink that was in that pen that you scratched into that notebook.  No wonder so many people have that dream.  But that was never my dream.  I swear, it never even crossed my mind.  My dream, taking a leaf from Walker Percy’s THE MOVIEGOER, was Steve McQueen jumping a barbed-wire fence on a motorcycle and William Holden swimming across the River Kwai with a knife between his teeth.
I like interviews, especially with filmmakers and writers, because they are primary sources rather than fan-boy crap, magazine filler, or published, so-called critical studies. I prefer interviews with the people who’ve been there and done that. I collect interviews when they put them into books – the magazine versions are usually just puff-pieces. I used to love the old interview talk shows: Cavett, Snyder, Kup’s Show, even Donahue, sometimes, and recently James Lipton’s series. I loved reading the Playboy interviews (after checking out the pictures first – I’m not a monk). The greatest of those included the Stanley Kubrick interview back when 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, the Oliver Stone interview around the time of JFK, and that amazing Don Rickles interview from the late ‘60s (should anyone out there remember that far back).
Today, though, interviews, and especially screenwriter interviews are becoming scarce. There’s the latest Backstory volume, Backstory 5, Interviews With Screenwriters of the 1990s, Edited by Pat McGilligan, though even that is smaller than the earlier volumes. But this interview... this is a keeper. First, at 53,000+ words, it is book-length. But quantity isn’t what makes it a great read. No, what these two gentlemen discuss over the course of those 200+ pages encompasses virtually all of what matters in the movies. This is quality stuff and said so quotably well, I’ll be mining it for material for two years, at least.
Lem Dobbs may be the screenwriting equivalent of Slaughterhouse 5’s Billy Pilgrim, a man “unstuck in time,” because he’s probably as far as you can get from today’s politically-correct, blockbuster-to-the-exclusion-of-all-else, Hollywood. One could chalk it all up to the stereotypical curmudgeonly old man. Except he’s not an old man. And he’s pretty much right. And I write this, having gone on record with an almost contrary view concerning the auteur controversy.
In that case, I am actually not so far from his view: like him, I believe films are the result of a group effort, in most cases. He just lays the blame (or the praise) mostly at the director’s feet. I feel that often sells writers short. But I don’t discount the director’s contribution, nor his ability to affect the final result profoundly.
Dobbs is a product of the movies of the sixties and seventies. They and their predecessors both domestic and foreign, have provided him with his aesthetic. And when he applies it to the Hollywood product of today, it ain’t pretty. The hegemony of the tent-pole production, the franchise series, the super-hero, the “outa-control” jocks and nerds, and the former television executives now in charge of motion pictures (along with their brethren, the former agents and freshly-minted MBAs from the ivy league), not to mention the unfortunate one-two punch of two admittedly great movies, JAWS and STAR WARS, have had the effect of transforming movies so profoundly that there may now be no going back.
Today we endure new multi-picture franchises for each member in the Marvel and DC comics pantheons. And their only real competition are the endless American Pie imitators, the rare rom-com, and the great stuff Pixar continues to make. Hollywood has consolidated. In these enlightened, multi-cultural, and all-inclusive times, it has focused-down to pretty much one demographic: late teens, early 20s, mostly male. But even that group no longer settles for great stories. They want them faster, bigger, and dumbed-down. As Dobbs puts it:
Who was the ‘villain’ in THE GREAT ESCAPE, or THE DIRTY DOZEN?  Remade now -- and don’t think they’re not trying -- there would have to be an evil, evil, evil, evil Nazi in alternating scenes, constantly snarling, “I want them caught, I want them stopped, I want them dead!”
Dobbs, like William Goldman in my recent post, feels the painful loss of the great breadth and depth of movies we once enjoyed. And it has never been said so eloquently. #
Lee A. Matthias

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