The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Writer apartheid

The following quote is taken from the Feb. 16 posting at Chekhov's Mistress. The post is about a book by David Kipen entitled The Schreiber Theory (link in quote), and, while it focuses the workings of the film industry, it has relevance for the topic of this site as well:

Like it or not, we avid movie fans subscribe to the auteur theory. French for “author,” this school of film criticism focusing solely on directors has permeated the industry since emerging about 50 years ago by critics-cum-directors Truffaut (who coined the term), Godard, Rohmer and others. David Kipen, in The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History, says “auteurism has conditioned us to concentrate on the themes and motives common to a given director's filmography, all at the expense of those poor, obscure hacks who only wrote the damn pictures.”

He's right. Aside from Charlie Kaufman, I find it difficult to think of any writers whose work excites mention among the press or my friends in the same way a director would. Who says “Have you heard about Steve Zaillian's latest movie?” You might if you knew he's credited for writing Schindler's List, The Falcon and the Snowman, Gangs of New York, and Searching for Bobby Fischer....

Kipen's beef is not so much with directors, but with the institutionalization of the idea that directors are the dominant creative force in film. In fact, he duly acknowledges the collaborative effort of filmmaking, as critics of auteurism have always done, but wants to put writers - schreibers in Yiddish, the mother tongue of many of America's first screenwriters - back into the spotlight they deserve.

I'd take Kipen's argument -- and Bud Parr's commentary on it -- a step further. The irony of the movie industry is that while it is so culturally powerful, it has such a capacity to diminish the creative power of the individuals involved in it. The plight of the screenwriter is a good illustration of this.

People with the ambition to become film-makers often find themselves in a situation where they have to compromise so much in order to get a project green-lighted, that the "auteur option" ends up receding endlessly from one's grasp. This despite the central place that movies occupy within our culture as a whole. But then, it's all perfectly logical: the cost of making a movie is so high that of course compromises have to be made.

In the publishing industry, a different economic dynamic is at work: because sales of literary fiction in particular are shrinking, the problem faced by the writer is not the cost involved in making a book (expensive, but nowhere near as prohibitive as a film), but the walls that publishers have built around themselves. Publishers these days have to perform an elaborate set of calculations in order to decide which "project" to green-light. PR people have gotten involved in editorial processes. Compared to screenwriters, the literary author finds him or herself involved in an cultural industry at the other end of the spectrum of mass popularity. The great irony is that both figures -- screenwriter and novel writer -- fight an endless battle against marginalization.

And, yep, therefore the point I keep hammering at: a need for new forms that merge the good points of each while sidestepping the really enormous costs of making a movie.


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