Friday, November 20, 2009

Are Screenplays readable?

The opening of Paul Schrader's screenplay to Taxi Driver is an exemplary exercise in visual character study. It starts with:

"Travis Bickle, aged twenty-six, the consummate loner. On the surface he appears good looking, even handsome; he has a quiet steady look and a disarming smile which flashes from nowhere, lighting up his whole face. But behind that smile, around his dark eyes, in his gaunt cheeks, one can see the ominous strains caused by a life of private fear, emptiness and loneliness. He seems to have wandered in from a land where it is always cold, a country where the inhabitants seldom speak. The head moves, the expression changes, but the eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking, piercing empty space.

It is a combination of adjectives, similes and facial description that has been used time and time again, not just in screenplays. But the technique’s natural home seems to be screenwriting; screenplays need to be both concrete and suggestive, and not much else. The actor needs material to extrapolate on and the director needs a picture to form in his head.

In the following paragraph, Travis is described in greater detail: "He wears rider jeans, cowboy boots, a plaid western shirt and a worn beige Army jacket with a patch reading 'King Kong Company, 1968-70.'"

All of this makes for great reading in itself and the finished product, the film Taxi Driver(1976), consequently makes for fascinating viewing. But that is just the issue; a screenplay is only a part of a sum. The sum is what you see on a screen. The director and screenwriter may even be the same person (in the case of Taxi Driver, they are not), but the screenplay remains only part of the advancement. It is a mean, and not an end.

To get at the screenplay’s role in this advancement—the process moving towards completing the film—we must consider is that sometimes a screenplay is not necessary at all. Far from every fine movie has one. Especially in the first thirty years of cinema, screenplays were strictly limited objects; they were called ‘scenarios’ and sometimes even scenarios were not present. D.W Griffith apparently kept all of the scenes and the chronology for Birth of a Nation in his head. Buster Keaton would remark late in his career that he had never seen a script; the precise content of his films came about through simple brainstorming and happenstance. Eisenstein made Battleship Potemkin on the basis of a scenario that ran for only a few pages.

The practice of screenwriting and the modern elevation of screenwriting to the form of a separate art, are modern occurrences that came about by the transition of films from silence to sound. With the development of sound came the introduction of dialogue and voice-over narration. Only around the 1930’s and 40’s did screenplays start to gain in supposed literary value. Writers such as William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler moved to Hollywood and started churning out screenplays such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Films began adopting novelistic devices and with this heightened sense of realism came a heightened sense of artistic importance. If the reputations bestowed on the Director were that of the visionary or ‘the Auteur,’ then the screenwriter earned the reputation of the character developer and the plot-stirrer. The screenwriter was the solitary artist who lit the spark. Once this fact was recognized, a batch of distinctive screenwriters could be named. William Goldman, Tonio Guerra and Jean Claude-Carrier were some of the screenwriters from around the world who Directors wanted to work with. They may have even been Auteurs themselves. In that case, the logic went, why not publish their screenplays?

But many of the great filmmakers since have continued the traditional practice of limiting screenplays. Robert Altman shot Three Women (1977) without a shooting script; just a few images he had witnessed in a dream. Mike Leigh never uses screenplays until the very last minute, and they are always comprised of months improvised material by the actors. Bela Tarr remarked recently that he and his screenwriting collaborator, Laszlo Krasnahorkai, only wrote a screenplay for the producers of the films. The point, in other words, is in the hands of the many people collaborating on the film, and is gleaned from a set of images. In the cases of these directors and their films, only the most rudimentary outline—or, a scenario-- has sufficed. Their films are no less character driven or narrative structured; to call a Leigh or an Altmam film such would be blasphemy. But nobody would think of publishing a collection of notes that runs for a page or two, and it is impossible to publish a dream. The general public would not understand it, nor are they meant to.

This is not meant to be value argument about how good any given screenplay or screenwriter is. But ideally, a screenplay is just for the director, the actors and the film crews. It is not literature; it is not meant to expand knowledge or 'open minds,' it is meant to provide a framework for moving imagery. This should be the first task on a screenwriter's mind, rather than providing entertainment, or food for thought, for the general readership. But the idea that they should provide these things has led screenwriters to arrogance, clumsiness and overzealousness. The Coen Brothers publish anthologies of their screenplays; Werner Herzog has boasted of his screenplays, which he publishes himself, as being "new forms of literature." Charlie Kaufman, the newest, hippest screenwriter to get name recognition, is hailed as a screenwriter with a distinctive style that shines through in each film he makes. As a result, he has the inclination to write the same film again and again, with different bends of genres, and louder levels of zaniness being shook up in a jar and spilled on to a page. The process becomes fractured in this case; the misguided (if talented) screenwriter is trying too hard to make their work stand alone.

The publication of screenplays is an extension of this arrogance. Yet there may be some value to reading them. They are interesting insofar as they give a glimpse in to a film's development. It is interesting to read scenes that were left out of the film, or details that did not come to pass. Then again, this could be the same argument given to including DVD extras and deleted scenes. Even if screenwriters are the author’s of their films, and even when they have left a mark on each film they’ve written, why throw the inner workings out in to the world to fend for themselves? Ingmar Bergman once said that his scripts were “skeletons awaiting the flesh and sinew of images.” Taxi Driver is a very pretty skeleton. Let’s keep it in it’s closet, along with the lenses, bank statements, film stock, and everything else that created that sinew of images.