Monday, April 29, 2013


Drop by a bookstore and you can find numerous books about screenwriting, far more books you might think than there are active screenwriters.  And maybe that’s ok – one reason books exist is to let us immerse in activities we would never actually do or perhaps dabble with doing or maybe actually can’t do.

So then why do so many colleges offer classes in screenwriting?  The best that one of these students can hope for is that they might be able someday to write a commercial or instructional video for an employer.  In fact even then they would be better off learning as they go like most screenwriters have done.  Whether this makes screenwriting classes the equivalent of the mythical basketweaving classes is hard to call – you might argue that students learn discipline and control of language – but that’s not a comparison that could be easily dismissed.

The even bigger picture is that despite all this instruction and support there can only be a very few people who would claim that Hollywood writing is in any conceivable fashion being well-done.  We all realize that screenwriting is far worse than it was even thirty years ago, across the board no matter whether you’re considering structure, dialogue, concision or pacing.  And I’m including TV as “Hollywood” because even if you consider The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost or even The Walking Dead, True Blood or The Wire as somehow superior to other TV they are all severely damaged by the demands of a medium that requires padding, extension and subplots.  (The Brits, at least here, do this better.)

But it was actually three films and a specific item that started me wondering about this.  Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, The Green Hornet and Conan the Barbarian all have a prologue and in each case the prologue is utterly unnecessary.  The material is what once upon a time would have be considered backstory and brought up in the main story as needed.  Now we’re treated to plodding displays of every single motive and character beat.  The idea of backstory still exists apparently but now is something to fill out running times or to eliminate any confusion or ambiguity.

Admittedly these three films are all quite bad but as far as screenwriting goes they aren’t Hollywood anomalies.  Enormous hits like Avatar or Iron Man are if anything worse.  Even acclaimed films such as recent Oscar nominees Moneyball, Inception, Midnight in Paris, Argo and (seriously?) Avatar don’t show much to contradict this, though admittedly even if most Oscar nominees typically aren’t particularly good films they also typically aren’t especially bad ones either.

This all comes back not necessarily to screenwriting classes and books but to the idea inherent in them that screenwriting is basically learning certain structures and techniques.  I’ve read the Robert McKee book and that perhaps sums it up.  McKee’s book either displays the obvious or jumps into the silly but basically it’s an extended attempt to turn learning exercises into master technique, or even dogma.  However useful the idea of three-act structure might be on a theoretical level it does have a purpose in guiding somebody learning to write.  It’s not necessary to learn that way and in fact that may not be best way to do it but it does have a function.

What’s happening though is that this is turning into the way all screenplays are being conceived and structured.  That’s why we’re seeing prologues and exposition and character moments and movies that are far too long.  There’s just too much clutter.  This is unavoidable for TV shows because they have to run for certain amounts of time and use a certain number of actors (at least American TV).  Not to mention that networks can’t leave well  enough alone and insist on continuing shows past their sell-by dates.

And there’s too much effort on making the three-act story fit three acts.  It’s increasingly rare to see in media res used though many films could benefit from it.  One of my all-time favorite TV episodes is from Firefly that opens with the captain alone on the ship, so wounded that he’s barely able to crawl and the ship counting down to self-destruction.  How many films would open like that?  (Actually one of the deleted scenes for The Avengers was a Maria Hill debriefing that would have made most of the film a flashback.  It was wisely removed not just for the flashback issue but because the tone was off.)  What made the Firefly episode more memorable, if a bit showy, is that along with the story of the captain’s struggle against the clock it had flashbacks to show how he and the crew got to that point and then a second set of flashbacks relating how the crew came to be on the ship together.

You could argue that the sorry state of screenwriting is really due to those perennial bad guys The Money Men.  They’re the ones insisting that stories be completely clear, that there be no gaps or ambiguities, that characters be likable and reasonable (or if they’re antagonists then mean and reasonable), that every little thing be explained and filled in.  So writers are just giving the studios what they want which is what the studios think the public wants (or at least tests well).

Which perhaps answers my initial question.  There are books and classes about screenwriting because that’s how the assembly line keeps running.  And I’m hardly the first person to point out that it’s the glamour of movies that brings people to that business against their better judgement so if they see a way to create a ticket to that ride then what could be better?  Even if they really know it’s never going to happen they can still convince themselves that hey just maybe it could if only I had the time, connections, ideas, luck, right software.  Because after all writing a screenplay is just like making a sausage….

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino 2012)

In an odd way Django Unchained reminds me of Cars.  That film was Pixar’s first failure and, consequently or causally, looked like a Pixar imitation while Django Unchained is Tarantino’s first complete failure and looks much like a Tarantino imitation.  Except that few imitators would have let their film stretch so far that a good hour or so should have been removed.

Consider the opening where Dr. Schultz inexplicably arrives from the exact opposite direction of the slave train so how did he know about the sale of a particular slave?  Or why he rides with Django all the way to the next town before either of them discuss what he wants?  Yes, this is nitpicking - both points could easily be explained and don’t much matter anyway.  But why set up a plot based on tracking down three brothers only to resolve it immediately, apparently at the first plantation the duo visits?  Only to then bring out the longer plot point of Django searching for his wife?  What’s the purpose of the entire winter sequence?  I suspect it was just a way to pay tribute to The Great Silence but supposed that it could be considered Django’s training.  It’s not at all clear if there’s any good reason to delay Django’s search through the winter.

The film basically meanders along, oddly slack and with little of the brisk dialogue that Tarantino favors.  Apparently the point is to show Django’s growth from his start with a (re)birth, to where he is taught to dress and read, sits down for a bedtime story then learns from the doctor until at last he’s a murdering, bombing, wife-saving Man.  The whole thing is so simplistic and even cartoonish (one sequence could have come from Blazing Saddles) that the film has nothing to say about slavery (which Tarantino perhaps learned about from viewing Goodbye Uncle Tom) or race or anything really.  Maybe it wasn’t meant to say anything but it’s not even entertaining except for bits here and there so that doesn’t leave us much of anywhere.

I’m still not sure whether Tarantino meant for us to notice, if in fact he noticed himself, the ethical problem of Dr. Schultz.  As a bounty hunter who can bring in a bounty dead or alive he chooses dead, something he explains in such a deadpan tone that it sounds more psychopathic than reasonable.  More to the point is this means that the legal system, if not justice in the broader sense, is being bypassed - there can never be a trial.  The suspect is prejudicially determined guilty.  Considering the vague descriptions and lack of photographs there’s certainly a good chance for misidentification, though admittedly this point starts to wander away from the film.  DU isn’t about the mechanics of bounty hunting though the blatant disregard of ethics is certainly to the point.

As an aside, this is a movie version of bounty hunting.  Such hunters weren’t officially part of the law enforcement system until well after the Civil War and most of them during the period in the film tracked slaves and deserters primarily.  And they only got half the bounty if the suspect was dead.  All this seems to have varied widely but it does point to some historical uncertainties in DU.  At the very start we’re told that the film is set in 1858 “two years before the Civil War” which of course is wrong.  I tried to see if Tarantino explained this but all I found were some people claiming that this is him deliberately adding historical inconsistencies though I didn’t really understand to what purpose.  In Walker Alex Cox added blatant anachronisms with the purpose of drawing a continuity between 19th and 20th century meddling in Central America.  That film wasn’t entirely successful in such a purpose (and of course ignored that Walker’s expeditions had no government backing unlike most of what the US did the following century) and Django Unchained has no similar point to make.  Besides being off about the start of the war by a single year looks far more like a plain old mistake rather than some deliberate effect.  I also noticed that instead of Brunhilde (or variant spellings) the character’s name is spelled Broomhilda just like the comic strip.

It’s nice to see Franco Nero, the original Django, in a cameo though it would have been even better to have also included Tomas Milian who had the lead in the demented Django Kill...If You Live Shoot (whether or not he’s actually called Django in that film).  The geek part of me thinks it would have been cool to have peppered the entire film with actors who played Django in the many films using that name, though most were simple retitles for the English-language market.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

German Book 3

J.W. Thomas (ed) - German Verse from the 12th to the 20th Century in English Translation (1963)

Well, this is very annoying.  I wrote the review for this and apparently at some point deleted it without posting.  I don't feel like rewriting it (and in any case have returned the book to the library) so a few points:

*  The translations are all by the editor J.W. Thomas and though he doesn't explicitly say so he appears to be trying to duplicate the original meter and rhyme scheme in English.  This starts out well (perhaps the song-like nature of the medieval verses are more musical than poetic?) but increasingly seems to hobble the translations.

*  As far as I can tell from comparing to other anthologies this is a fairly standard representation of poets.  There are a few that don't appear in others (such as the Penguin anthology) but I have no idea if those are idiosyncratic choices or just the second-tier writers that will always change with the person making the selection.

*  The modern pieces are missing such big names as Brecht and Benn.  There's no indication whether this is due to copyright, whether Thomas feels they're not important or if they're after some unstated cut-off date.

*  There are some glosses as headers to the poems that mostly are unneeded.  The bios for each poet are useful as far as they go but Thomas is determined to link most poems to the actual life.  A strong and not uncommon impulse but does it really matter whether a particular work was intended for the woman who would become the poet's wife?  Thomas' introductions to each era are broad and simplistic.