Upon reflection, it’s interesting that the WGA – the Writers Guild of America – has decided to go on strike. It’s not that these studio scribes don’t have their rights, and the ability to properly execute them, in order to protect their Union and their honor. And no one would argue that the new media – the Internet, downloads, DVDs, and future formats – need their residual and fee structures reviewed and settled. But there’s a bewildering lack of vision here, something that goes to the very heart of what’s happening to cinema in general. While it may seem harsh to say it, somebody needs to – screenwriters are screwing up the artform.
Now part of this is proactive. Mediocrity can be found all over the movies, from journeyman directors who wouldn’t know creativity if it bit them in the Rob Schneider cameo, to underage actors who lack the life experience to successfully tap into their supposed sense memory. But even the most accomplished and rewarded A-List performer can be paralyzed by directionless dialogue, pointless plot twists, and incomplete thematic elements. The late, great Gene Siskel once said that a vast majority of the bad film he experienced failed in the script stage – and by the look of many in 2007’s underachieving cinematic class, it’s the reason large entertainment ambitions have resulted in such mediocre motion picture product.
First, a clarification. Only the most naïve of film fan believes that a writer’s words arrive onscreen unscathed. Between studio input, director vision, actor interpretation, pre-production doctoring and punch-ups, onset skirmishes, focus group fine tuning, test screening comments, last minute reshoots, and MPAA mandated cuts, it’s hard to imagine how anything someone puts on paper makes it to celluloid unaltered. Insider stats have illustrated that approximately 40% of what the author of a screenplay creates lasts until the final phases of moviemaking. And while that number might seem high, the truth is that it takes into consideration the writer/director combo that uses such a status to protect their work. Without them, the number is rumored to be closer to 20%.
So, sometimes, it’s not all the scripts fault. But let’s take a look at the notion of film writing from a bigger perspective. When a political thriller like Rendition is greenlit, someone obviously sees the potential in the project. They read the words of an untried, unproven Kelley Sane, and start to do some immediate mental casting. Two years later, Reese Witherspoon is carrying her post-Oscar baggage as your lead, Jake Gyllenhaal is your hunky CIA scrub, and the entire Arab world is a group of flash paper fanatics just waiting for the right religious rationale to suicide bomb the planet. Toss in some gratuitous torture, a subpar subplot involving star-crossed Muslim lovers, and the pitch meeting prose practically creates itself.
Too bad Sane didn’t let the screenplay do the same thing. While the jumbled narrative approach taken by director Gavin Hood couldn’t have helped matters much, one senses it was part of this scribe’s original intent. After all, when we learn the truth at the end, and realize the actual time frame of the events we’ve been watching, there’s supposed to be some manner of emotional and intellectual epiphany. Unfortunately, it all ends up playing like one giant joke, a gratuitous gag that treats the audience as children. Apparently, viewers can’t handle a straightforward story of Middle East policy failures and citizen torture. The tale has to be gussied up with unimportant tangents to keep the pea-brained viewer in constant check.
It’s a similar situation with the sappy and stupendously maudlin Things We Lost in the Fire. Foreign filmmaker Susanne Bier took the scattered script by feature first-timer Alan Loeb and tried to distill as much meaning and emotion from it as she could. But there is no doubt that when looking at the reality of a widow and her late husband’s heroin addicted best friend shacking up under one overpriced roof, the mind behind Fox’s one hour drama New Amsterdam failed to fully grasp the psychological or logistical flaws in such a set up. Disconnected, overflowing with pointless flashbacks, and dizzying in the number of motivational inconsistencies, it was as if Loeb looked up the worst facets of melodrama and decided to incorporate each and every one – and do a piss poor job in the process.
From El Cantante, which took the biopic format and then stupidly shifted the focus away from the central subject (salsa superstar Hector LaVoe) to Feast of Love, where big picture pronouncements about love and life were weirdly wedged into a Terms of Endearment tearjerker, scripts undermined many a Hollywood heavyweight. But there are also incidents where a screenplay suffers from the opposite problem. Instead of being insufficient indicators of a story’s true intent, they are overwritten maelstroms that fail to make their point in profound – or even an appreciable – manner. In the case of these purposefully pompous efforts, the more words and ideas on the page, the less success the end result.
Take the upcoming Lions for Lambs. If polemics were pastries, every attending audience member would be in danger of instantaneous obesity. Robert Redford directed this dopey debate like the stagiest play in the history of one set theater, and then made it even more bombastic by turning a liberal leaning eye on the entire Iraq/Middle East equation. Of course, The Kingdom scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan apparently decided to reverse the fine work he did on said Peter Berg directed action thriller. Instead of enlivening his preachy monologues with some manner of movement, he simply wrote his screeds and let the filmmakers find a way to make it sizzle. In Redford’s mind, this meant keeping everything inert and absolutely sedentary. Even our army men spend the majority of their screen time supine.
Sadly, something that could have been a significant anti-war statement comes off like Vietnam for the easily impressed. Toss out a few figures, give the characters enough personal history to soften their manipulative moralizing, pepper it all with “We Hate Bush” blame, and the end result should look like Platoon from the politician’s point of view. Instead, it’s a horrible unfocused mess – just like the deconstructionist Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In a genre that’s seen more reinvention than Madonna in mid midlife crisis, this adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel by Australian Andrew Dominik is like a mini-series micromanaged down to John Jakes sized scribblings. It’s so desperate to capture every facet of the book upon which it was based, and the era when it is set, that it ends up marginalizing the myth it is hoping to create.
It’s not that the movie doesn’t have its moments, it simply has far too many of them. When we realize that Dominik’s take on the material will be more 19th century fame whoring and stalking than hammy horse operatics, our heart leaps. But then we are bogged down with side characters, ancillary subplots, tangents that never pay off, and an ending that literally forgets the meaning of that word. While some have championed this effort as a thoughtful, expressive look at the celebrity of the day, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is fifteen films all vying for cinematic relevance. Only half of one manages to maintain its position.
Certainly each example described can be argued over and supported. There are critics who claim that Lions for Lambs is a pointed and balanced presentation of the War on Terror, while Things We Lost in the Fire is an amazingly deep and affecting story of hope. Yes, that voice you hear in the background is indeed the late Jim Jones, and he’s got a supersized Kool-Aid Slurpee with your name on it. The truth is, ever since Akiva Goldsman became the bearer of Oscar Gold, when Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were given the same Academy consideration, when Paul Haggis can pull 47 intertwined clichés out of his tuckus and still be considered the cream of the crop, there is something wrong with this print picture.
Perhaps if the writers were striking over aesthetics instead of cash, they’d gain more sympathy. The industrial unions figured this out in the ‘80s. Now, when they go to the mat during negotiations, it’s over USA friendly facets like job security, trade protection, imports and tariffs, and the scourge of outsourcing. If a few extras greenbacks result from such bait and switch strategies, all the better. Honestly, if a spokesman for the WGA got up and said something like “we demand that management recognize the autonomy of the author”, if they went on to whine, “We want failed SNL comics to stop adlibbing their own lame lines. We seek redress for every instance when a clueless bunch of demographically specific viewers alter our narrative arch. We want a halt to all script doctoring and authorship by committee. We will except nothing less than the same respect and creative control you give your best directors, your superstar performers, and your high profile producers.”, they’d have our hearts and minds. Currently, it’s pennies for DVDs.
Writers have always been the third class citizens of the creative conspiracy known as film. Harlan Ellison often argued that the reason he stayed away from all forms of visual media was that, the minute you signed the contract, the studios saw the exchange of cash as the end of the writer’s worth. Even in arenas (Star Trek, Babylon 5) where his input was appreciated, he was viewed as a pushy, persistent pariah. While their paychecks might not reflect it, at least not since the rightly named Greed Decade made the screenwriter as marketable as the movie itself (Joe Eszterhas! Shane Black!), what the members of the WGA really need is a boost of artistic integrity. As long as they keep churning out chum, any call for more moolah will seem like the blind leading the avaricious. And they control the core of the artform. Maybe it’s the audience that should stage a walkout.