Friday, May 26, 2006

PG 13

Why is the new film A Prairie Home Companion rated PG13? I mean, it just seems odd. I have not seen it, and I will wait to rent it on DVD. Now, it was directed by Robert Altman (go figure) and I have heard the radio show so many times I do not understand why it would not just get a PG rating.

Schreiber Theory

It hit just before the 2006 Oscars Awards. It has since taken Hollywood by a storm, and may get its author "killed" (that's only a figure of speech, of course!)...

I applaud David Kipen's no holds barred attack on auterism's biggest sleight of hand trick, since Andrew Sarris first dropped his bombshell on the American movie scene some 40 years ago.

The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History (Melville, 150 pp. $12) is an edgy, dazzingly manifesto which challenges the old film school theory – namely, auteurism – that gives all credit to the director. Aside from its stark reminder of the all but forgotten truth (that film is a "collaborative" art, remember?), Kipen's book encourages us to honor "the mother tongue of America's first screenwriters." The author uses the Yiddish word for "writer" to coin his Schreiber Theory, which firmly decrees that knowing who wrote a movie is often the most important factor in deciding its value. (...Or for those of you in the "underground" knowing what has been "encoded" at its epicenter!)

Kipen's new heresy topples the old orthodoxy by studying the careers of screenwriters past and present in a witty, two-pronged attack.

In part one, he dismantles auteur theory and presents a convincing argument that screenwriters are "the real priests"... the guiding geniuses behind our best films. Granted, the American movie screenplay is but a "blueprint" for an eventual film, and because of that the writer's work may be an uneven tapestry affected by everyone who touches it – but it is not true to say that the image and texture of a film (created by the director) is a fair judge of its creative center.

If that last sentence troubles you, hear me out: I am NOT arguing that we knock directors from their pedestals, so we can replace them just as blindly with the writer. (Hey, I love Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen Spielberg, and George Lucas as much as any one!) However, from the standpoint of storytelling – Andrew Sarris and the French designers of auteur theory have done film theory a great disservice at the level of its essentialism. We have putzed around long enough with our half-hearted apologias, star-driven delirium, and production greed.

Globe correspondent, Saul Austerlitz, writes: "... the very terminology of auteurism [raises] a question: If the director was the auteur (or author) of the film, what of the poor ink-stained wretch who had actually written the script?" Or to put it in today's vernacular – the only person with kahunas big enough to sit down, stare at a blank computer screen, and create something out of nothing! (Been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt.)

In part two of Kipen's book, he treats us to a compendium of mini-biographies of great screenwriters of the past and present. That is, "Who wrote Casablanca?" "Who wrote Twelve Monkeys?" "Who wrote Dead Girls Don't Tango?" Oh, and, "What else did they write?"

Bottom line: It all makes The Schreiber Theory an engaging read, a one-of-a-kind desk reference for movie lovers and film students alike. The book mounts a fresh reply to the director-centric rubbish that has ignored the manner in which writers have been forgotten, marginalized, and shafted when it comes to apportioning credit in the world of American filmmaking.

Okay, fellow scribes, it’s your turn!

(P.S. - David Kipen has been one of America's leading book and movie critics for over fifteen years, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Boxoffice, The Atlantic Monthly and many others. He was the editor of Buzz Magazine and books editor for The San Francisco Chronicle. In September 2005, he became Director of the Literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C. and Malibu, CA.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Why FADE-IN?

Screenwriters, agents, managers, development execs who make their living "by the page" will immediately recognize them... The first two-words of a Hollywood movie script: "FADE IN" -- everything after that is carefully crafted/scripted... Sometimes it's what's said, sometimes it's what's not said, but more often it's the way it's said that counts. It cuts to the heart faster and more vividly than nearly any other kind of writing.

For years I've been working within classical American film genres, trying to respect their form while attempting to make the moment-to-moment behavior of my characters new and, hopefully, more contemporary and complex.

Writing is a lot like life in this regard. There's a place, a substrata that we need to get to, that exists way below the surface of what seems to be going on. When it "works" it's like a flash of light that illuminates both our character and the situations of our lives.

So how can that be easy? If it was easy, everybody would be doing it (instead of talking about doing it). Writing, like life, is the highest expression of human creative potential. If you enjoy both, or either -- I welcome your thoughts, here.

Best wishes, and keep writing!