Thursday, March 02, 2006
Cake. All Right Here?
Do you read screenplays? If not why not, if you read plays? Or perhaps you do: then which? Are screenplays even readable? & come to think of it, do you really read plays? It’s been ages since I have.
But I’ve read a screenplay recently, a well-suited one: Withnail and I. I just saw the film last year, so I’m a decade plus late to the party. More British comedy, chock-a-block with catchphrases. A very readable script, because the movie was all dialogue. On the page I’m not embarassed by the excerable cinematography. & the staging directions are quite narratorly, novelistic:
110. EXT. REGENT’S PARK. CAMDEN TOWN. DAY.
The park is as bleak and deserted as its ever been. The afternoon is dissolving into threadbare rain. They walk the paths like they’ve done a dozen times before. But they were together then. And now they’re already alone. Strangers already. And the sweet and sour music is but an addition to the wider sentiment.
One curious note. In the movie, Danny the drug dealer says, “We are sixty days from the end of the greatest decade in the history of mankind.” In the script, the superlative is missing, & it’s just “this decade.” Given recent obsessions here at The Valve, this might be an interesting shift.
Withnail & I is the film that gave meaning to Richard E. Grant. I haven’t read that screenplay (I do read a lot of screenplays, and plays, yes really! Mostly funny plays, though) but I can well imagine it’d be very readable all right. Although without the memory of Grant’s diction (and Richard Griffiths’s) it might not go off with such a tremendous bang.
I’ll just pause for a moment till the urge to make random out-of-context quotation subsides.
Right. I wondered about that direction you put in the post. Is it a pre- or post-movie artefact? Nice bookform published screenplays fall in two categories; either some more or less accurate transcription of the shooting script, minus all the technical markers, or else a post-production transcript of what made it into the final cut.
The scenic narration in post-production scripts is sometimes verging on the novelistic, like this excerpt, but with the interesting twist that it’s technically ekphrasis, and I would guess is generally read as such.
Typically, shooting script directions are minimal. I think the received wisdom is that actors and technicians neither want nor need that level of instruction from the writer. But Withnail & I is far from being a standard movie. And where the writer also directs the script process is often a lot less regimented.
The lack of superlative you’ve pointed out is more typical of a shooting script, but if there are few significant differences it is probably an unintentional reversion to an older version of the script, maybe one that was used as a basis for the transcription.
As far as I can remember, I’ve only read two screen plays, both by friends, neither of them produced. It doesn’t at all surprise me that, as you pointed out Laura, there is a difference between shooting scripts and post-production transcriptions.
And then we have story-boards. It seems that Disney invented them for working on cartoons and that the practice was picked up by live-action film-makers. I don’t know how common the practice is—always, sometimes, “when we can afford it.” But that it exists at all is interesting.
For better or worse, movies are a more complicated business than plays and that complication requires a lot more prep work. At the same time, when a movie is done, it’s done—except for directors’ cuts and such on DVDs. Movie scripts aren’t put out there so anyone can make a movie, whether your high-school drama club or the community theatre or a professional company in Minneapolis, etc. Some few movie scripts are optioned and then, from those, still fewer enter into production and end up on screen. Only once.
Of course, there are re-makes. But they don’t start with the old script. They start with a new script. At least, that’s my assumption. I also assume that the people who do the remake are familiar with the orginal, or with the original and the previous remake(s).
* * * * *
I don’t understand how film criticism could have existed before VCRs and now DVDs. Unless you can look at the film, in whole or in parts, several times, at will, it’s almost impossible to get “descriptive control” over it. The few times I’ve written movie reviews I’d see the movie at least twice. I don’t see how professional reviewers do it. Well, yes I do. It’s a short form, the analytic demands are not high, and they make mistakes—even the best of them. By that I mean that they report things that weren’t in the movie, flat-out factual mistakes, not matters of interpretive or evaluative judgment.
I’ve been interested in anime for the last 2 or 3 years. Sometimes I’ll watch sections several times, starting and stopping so that I can make accurate notes. On occasion I’ll step through a sequence frame by frame. It’s the only way to see what’s going on.
Some of the pre-production scripts I’ve read are very heavy on scenic narration. It may depend on the writer’s background—I remember reading something about some Hollywooded novelist—Faulkner, maybe?—going absurdly overboard at first. (The most extreme examples that come immediately to memory, though, are Alan Moore’s comic book scripts.)
And then there are the pre-production scripts that are basically novellas, like Rohmer’s, Antonioni’s, or Tarkovsky’s—as if the writer/director needed to invent a literary source from which to adapt....
Bill, it’s certainly easier to write (what I would consider) scrupulous criticism about individual movies which can be re-viewed, paused, rewound, and so on, at the scholar’s convenience, and it’s a lot easier to do that after VCRs, LDs, and especially DVDs. (Sometimes a film archive will let you have access to a print on a viewing table, but the pressure’s even worse than with print archival material.) I wouldn’t have been able to do anything quite like my Cluny Brown piece without the French DVD.
But I still would have managed something, I think. And Godard wrote some pretty delightful criticism even though rumor is he rarely sat through an entire screening. Something more akin to theater or live-music criticism, maybe? Anyway, something in which a presumption of formality or authority would be absurd.
Something more akin to theater or live-music criticism, maybe?
Yeah, that’s what it is. And it can certainly be done very well. But there are limits to what you can achieve that way. And in the case of live theatre or classical music, you may be reviewing a performance of an older work with which you are already familiar. If a play, you may even have read the script one or more times; if a piece of music, you may have examined the score.
As an example where you need to look and look and look, I’m doing a presentation on Fantasia and I’m interested in a certain sequence in the “Rite of Spring” episode. It’s a tracking shot that starts out focused on a small fish and ends up 20 seconds later focused on a four-legged amphibious creature poking its snout above water. Then the screen goes black for a few seconds and then see see a pond, with mountains behind it, and some brontosauri (the name I learned as a kid, it may have changed in the last 20 years or so) in the pond in the background and a turtle-like creature in the foreground. The transition from land to sea is in no way marked in the music. For example, the music doesn’t stop during the second or two the screen is blank.
I didn’t even focus on the musical continuity until maybe my fifth or six viewing of the sequence. If you’d asked me about it prior to that, I don’t know what I would have said. But that continuity is very important.
And then there is that fish’s swim to land. There are two, maybe three, points in the 20 second swim where they do a match cut. In between those points the fish’s form is either stable or morphs smoothly. But, I’m going to have to watch it again to verify whether or not we have two or three match cuts. Just which it is really isn’t that important. It’s more important that they are match cuts, and I’ll probably have to do some frame-by-frame stepping to verify that.
Do I think these are important issues? Well yes, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing the work. But I certainly don’t know in any ultimate sense that they are. But I’m interesting in how these things work, and close observation is part of that particular drill.
Speaking of criticism before the DVD, an interesting case is Cavell’s The World Viewed. In the original preface, he goes on at length about how everyone--his students, newspaper film reviewers, even Truffaut!--misremembers film. Then in the preface of the second edition, he goes on to describe all the memory errors that were in the book, some of which would seem to weaken his claims. He then explains how they don’t. He’s resourceful that way.
Ray, I had a couple of Faulkner screenplays on my exam list and can tell you, almost definitively, that the final, pre-shoot versions of the scripts were always tamed by his co-writers. The only time you see hints of Faulkner are in diction. So, in The Big Sleep, you have:
CLOSE SHOT - MARLOWE
as he stands before a portrait, examining it with interest. It is a portrait of General Sternwood, in regimentals, beneath crossed battle-torn cavalry pennons and a sabre . . .
He’s resourceful that way.
He is! And he’s very persuasive about it too. Even if you don’t care for his concluisons he does a service by raising the issue of whether the relative inaccessibility of the film text means it can’t be the object of serious and sustained investigation.
Then again, there are plenty of film critics who seem capable of prodigious feats of recollection - I suppose it’s something you can train yourself to do, with enough practice and judicious note-taking.
"If a play, you may even have read the script one or more times; if a piece of music, you may have examined the score.”
Yeah, there was a kind of weird reversed-chronology about post-production scripts for us pre-VHS. But I read all the ones I could get, from _Why a Duck?_ hackwork to Cahiers du Cinema’s scenarios and Simon & Schuster’s Film Scripts, and sometimes before I could find the real thing at a rep house. Godard’s 1960s work translated especially well to script-with-stills books, which may have contributed to his academic dominance. (Alfred Guzzetti’s deluxe _Two or Three Things I Know About Her_ pretty much replaced my need to see the movie again.)
Scott, one of these years I expect I’ll remember the overly explicit screenwriter. In the meantime, here’s Alan Moore writing a Batman comic:
I have a bootleg copy of his script for the high-art anti-CIA polemic, _Brought to Light_—if anyone’s interested, I can provide a sample this weekend.
(Sorry about the clunky formatting—pMachine is swallowing / ignoring HTML again.)
Bob Lax, who was a film critic for Time in the 40s, told me that they assigned a secretary to accompany him to movies & take down stenographic notes on what was going on. I don’t know what Kael or Sarris did.
When I lived in Manhattan a few years ago, among the many sidewalk vendors there were some who sold bootleg screenplays: not the sort of thing you’d expect people to buy off the sidewalk, but there must have been enough customers to make it profitable. (For all I know, the vendors are still there.) I confess I picked up a couple: a screenplay of Dr. Strangelove that was quite different from the actual film (I later found another copy of this screenplay in NYU’s library, so it wasn’t a hoax) and a screenplay of the unproduced sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
These aside, I mainly read screenplays when I’m curious as to the differences, if any, between the script and the film.
For what it’s worth, I’ve started writing screenplays, but with the aim to get them published in that form (ie., as novels) rather than have them produced as films… Or, since that sounds terribly modest, the first goal is to get them published; whether they’re produced later is not why they’re written.
My link isn’t working correctly. For those that are curious, my blog is http://www.screen-novel.blogspot.com
Interesting that we are increasingly told by rather narrow minded litcritic types that ‘the novel can show us someone thinking’ when a film lets everybody think all at once, so that several readings are possible from one showing.
The Withnail script would be a hoot.