I like writing. Fiction, non-fiction, lyrics and verse, whatever, it’s all good. Some of my heroes in history were writers, (though some were not, notably Jesus and Socrates) and I have found myself desirous and verbally able to begin an apprenticeship of admiration and imitation of their writings, and experimentation with my own.

Movies are the new narrative medium. (Does anyone doubt it?) Nothing will ever replace books, I am sure, partly because of the Holy Books that form the idealogical (and narrative) center of such world religions as Judaism, Islam, all forms of Christianity and (to a lesser degree) Hinduism and Buddhism, and partly because all forms of literature, especially narratives, are “built” out of words alone, and, as Plato pointed out, words are the most malleable of media, more flexible than clay, paint, or stone. Images are more vivid than words, but, at the same time (and for the same reason) more limited.

Film is the quintessentially Modern Medium. 1. It employs images as well as words (as well as music etc.), making it accessible to any audience, literate/illiterate, educated/uneducated, old/young, North American/European and so on. 2. It relies entirely on Modern technology. 3. It is a “preserved” art form but has all of the virtues of theater. It is to live performance what books are to live lectures. 4. In its most successful iteration thus far, the movie-producing organism that is Hollywood, it is ruthlessly capitalistic and profit-driven. (Filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky do exist, whose projects were often funded by Russian government art programs rather than studio investment dollars and consumer sales, but they are no longer common.) Film-making has also (largely) been blissfully ignorant of the great narrative traditions that have come before it, both oral and literary. The Iliad is condensed into a 163 minute “epic” war movie, featuring some of today’s hottest stars, that ends up “borrowing loosely” from Homer rather than “translating him to the Big Screen.” Virgil has yet to be touched, to my knowledge. I have heard rumours of a Dante picture in the works, but who knows. Ovid, Lucan, Aeschylus, Sophecles, are as distant from the modern film studio as they are from the modern mind. Even though some of the Classic Story-lines have been successfully translated into film and successfully re-told as such, movie-making remains an exciting opportunity to tell new story-lines, in a new style, with new themes, characters, and underlying messages. If America was the Land of Oppurtunity, Film is the Art of Opportunity.

For the two proceeding reasons, I like writing and I like the new theatrical medium, I made the only logical decision I could make: I decided to write a screenplay.

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler

4 Comments

  1. I realise this is a personal apologia for why you are interested in screenwriting, but I’m not convinced that words are essential to cinema as you seem to claim in point 1. Talkies were a later development, even if an inevitable one, and words appeared in silent pictures only as interruptions. But even Peter Greenaway, who bemoans the excessively textual basis of film, seems to admit at the same time that cinema will never escape the text’s hold on it.

    But I realise the emphasis in point 1 may have been on images, and that movies function like stained glass windows for the illiterate, which is fair enough.

    I object to point 3 on the ground that insofar as cinema is preserved theatre, it lacks the comaraderie between performers and audience that is most essential to comedies (via laughter) and musicals (via applause). You are right that the academic book loses little compared to the live lecture (unless there is a Q&A afterwards in which the reader cannot participate), and the reader has the additional benefit of being able to pause and re-read for his own clarity. But I think the more relevant comparison to theatre and cinema is the live rock concert vs. documentary footage of the concert.

    I would also put acting-based character plays in the category with comedy and musicals, since filmed versions are usually just a pratical method of making a performance more accessible, which is good insofar as it enfranchises a huge demographic of people who cannot visit Broadway or afford tickets to live plays in their own town, but it is still a derivative form like the lecture in print, and unlike the novel written to be a book.

    Consequently I think film is best used for things that can’t be done on stage, such as special effects, outdoor locations, action movies, and stories in which the medium is essential to the telling, like point-of-view thrillers. I also think filmed musicals have evolved to better exploit the medium in their current incarnation as music videos, but the current “revival” of big screen musicals like Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Hairspray seems to be a devolution from Moulin Rouge which could only exist on film not the stage.

    I agree with you that film is the best popular medium for pure narrative, as the current production of LOTR at the Drury Lane theatre brought home to me so vividly. But I don’t begrudge Hollywood’s lack of interaction with pre-novel-era authors since adaptations almost inevitably reduce literature to just plot without metaphorical subtext other than that implicit in the plot itself. (Check out Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy for a pleasant exception.)

    But that said, the intertextuality of most films is incestuously limited to other films, as many (primarily American) filmmakers think only in terms of movies and are not actually well read, producing “art” that is entirely (even pompously) derivative, however talented they are technically (cf. Tarantino).

    Sorry for assaulting you with a microphilsophy of film but you’re talking about one of my favorite subjects so I couldn’t resist. Looking forward to your next post.

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  2. Thanks for the (as always) thoughtful comment, Nobody. Or should I say “thanks for the assualt”? Microphilosophy, macrophilosophy, middlecrophilosophy, it’s all good.

    A clarification. You are right and I agree that preserved media “loses something” in the act of preservation. In fact, I would go farther than you did and say that a live lecture loses something (if not laughter or applause, probably, as you mention, the availability of Q&A) when it appears in a book, just as it gains something(such as permanence, wider accessibility) at the same time. They are different mediums and have their virtues and vices, which apply to the distinctions between them in whatever form. They have their special functions, as you began to ennumerate.

    I think, overall, that live media are superior since they more directly (with less mediation) imitate Reality and Life, but that is not to denegrate the lesser of the two goods. Books have saved my life multiple times. My God wrote a book. The goal, for both, is to propel maturing human beings into greater maturity, life, and happiness in the present moment. The present moment is not a “preserved” reality. Even memory is admittedly imperfect and only retains aspects or dimensions of the original reality. Memory, like the static arts, may be dead, unless re-invigorated in the present, but we oftentimes need “dead” art to live a “live” life.

    It’s an interesting point about a live rock concert and a documentary of the same concert… Makes me think of movie premieres or Tenth Anniversaries (like ET, if memory serves) where the movie plays with talking but no music, and a live orchestra performs there in the theater. Seems like an in-between format… Do you have any thoughts on that?

    You’ve convinced me that movies have a special role, namely to do things that could not be done (or not done easily) on stage. It seems that “adaptations” of other stories have their purpose, but I wonder if film makers wouldn’t do better to spend less time thinking about what stories already in books and plays can also be told in Film and a lot of time thinking about what stories Film can tell and Film alone. Not because such movies would necessarily make the biggest blockbuster profits, but because they would more efficiently and rationally move the art forward.

    I have added Cocteau to my Blockbuster Queue.

    Even though most adaptations I have seen (even those of such indelible quality as a Shakespeare play) have been decent-to-middling at best, I still think some more work needs to be done (work I am doing, and will do, as best I can; I’m not leaving it up to “the experts”) thinking about what modern film can bring to bear on classical stories. Not just classical plots either, but the whole classical worldview; the themes, the characters, the metaphors, the sub-texts, the challenges, the questions, etc. Film, as a whole, is not as connected with the Great Tradition, as a whole, as I would like to see it become. There must be something that Dante or Shakespeare or even Christ would have done, artistically, that they simply could not do because of the restrictions of the written and spoken and 2D arts. We have to find those things, and do them ourselves.

    This disconnect from our historical context is perhaps cause, rather than mere correlation, with regard to the pathetic “incestuous intertexuality” we see especially in Hollywood. I don’t care if you’re as smart as Tarkovsky or Bergman, drawing on a Great Tradition of a little over a hundred years is inevitably going to produce inferior allusions than drawing on a tradition of over two millenia… unless, of course, your hundred year tradition includes the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

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  3. So as to “praise the good” as the good Hugh bids us, and so as to avoid mere whining, I will say that a big movie studio (do they get any bigger than Disney?) has picked up a story that satisfies the criteria I am suggesting, namely, it ties in directly with the art and culture of the broader Western civilization.

    What story? Narnia. Disney has recently decided to produce all seven movies of the Chronicles. Perhaps inadvertently, since Lewis is such a master at gathering, containing, and successfully re-deploying material from the past, they have also decided to deploy a flesh-and-blood, through-and-through Classical children’s series into the minds and hearts of millions of (largely unsuspecting) viewers worldwide.

    The books are a perfect choice because of the high demand for “fantasy” films, and, with Harry Potter, LOTR, etc., the consumer frindliness to Series Pictures, and because they’re good plain fun. They are a perfect choice for the kind of advancement of film as an art that I am talking about because, a) they are intelligently and thoughtfully composed, b) they are aware of the Great Tradition, c) (which is different,) they draw on the Great Tradition, and that primarily for their themes and characters, rather than obvious plots.

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  4. It’s an interesting point about a live rock concert and a documentary of the same concert. Makes me think of movie premieres or Tenth Anniversaries (like ET, if memory serves) where the movie plays with talking but no music, and a live orchestra performs there in the theater. Seems like an in-between format… Do you have any thoughts on that?

    That is, after all, how all movies were originally shown, accompanied by a live organ or piano. It inclines me to regard music as more essential to cinema than speech, and reminds me of Hitchcock’s quote that “Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”

    Leone had Morricone write and record the entire score for Once Upon a Time in the West before filming, then Leone shot and edited the film according to match the music, and the result is amazing. On the other hand, Hitchcock and De Palma both insist a scene must work without music first before adding a score. But I love manhy of the scores for their films, especially those those with melodramatic music set to visually calm images, in order to convey the inner turmoil of a character.

    Another director who is good at achieving an almost silent-era purity of cinema is Kim Ki-Duk: “I have a process where I eliminate dialogue and replace it with actions that can speak the same truth, if possible.” You can see it at work in a movie like 3-Iron which is practically a silent film but completely engrossing nonetheless.

    You’ve convinced me that movies have a special role, namely to do things that could not be done (or not done easily) on stage. It seems that “adaptations” of other stories have their purpose, but I wonder if film makers wouldn’t do better to spend less time thinking about what stories already in books and plays can also be told in Film and a lot of time thinking about what stories Film can tell and Film alone.

    I absolutely agree with you there. De Palma is probably my favorite filmmaker because his movies are based on visual concepts rather than textual ones: “The content of my films is a secondary issue. I don’t start with an idea about content; I start with a visual image.” In other words, the content should be appropriate to the medium, or else why film it?

    Apologies for all the quotes; I’m not appealing to authority (though they are), just quoting them because they already said it better than me.

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