Monday, 9 May 2011

Films - All About The Screenplay?

Andrew Hirschhorn looks at the importance of the screenplay in film in his critical essay, Towards a Sustainable Film Industry. Considering the viewpoint that, as Hirschhorn says, "The screenplay is the heart of a film"; exactly how has this been proved and how does this 'belief' account for the quality of present day films. Hirschhorn claims that "a good film has never, to the best of my knowledge, come from a poor script, however good the director, whereas plenty of mediocre directors have been rescued by a well made script". Reflecting on how much authority the auteur theory has lost, it is interesting to notice where the primary focus of films currently lie in the industry.

Hirschhorn states that very few scripts are accepted by producers from unknown writers (less than than 1% in either the UK or the US). Accordingly more than 60 % are based on existing literary properties, and a writer known by or recommended to the producer. Hirschhorn anchors the fortunate fact that "it is, however, rare for a low budget film not to make a profit eventually, as the world wide demand for product for television and DVD/video is so strong that almost anything made to broadcast standards (a technical rather than aesthetic definition) will end up filling a slot on daytime television somewhere, and help provide its producer with a steady income". How sad that the aesthetic definition should be put on the sidelines. This marginalization is mainly initiated from the moment that the script is chosen to either make the cut or not. Hirschhorn argues that what makes a good script all depends on what sort of market the film is aimed at - there are different cinemas addressing different audiences. Each of these markets demands a different sort of story, handled in an appropriate style, but there are two generally accepted rules: as Godard said, all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end (though not necessarily in that order); all films are collaborative efforts, with the enterprise driven by a producer.

With my interest in low budget independent films, I found that as Hirschhorn states, an 'art house movie' has fewer audience expectations to meet and therefore is less bound by the 'rules' of linear (syntagmatic) storytelling that dominate more mainstream production. With the advent of digital video (dv), these films can be made with 'soft' development funding, and released on cable, over the internet, or just be shown on the festival circuit. They are sometimes 'picked up' by a distribution company and 'cross over' into the commercial market, but they usually function as 'calling cards', as do short student films. New directors like Shane Meadows (24/7 and A Room For Romeo Brass), Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher), Andrew Kotting (This Filthy Earth) and Ben Hopkins (Simon Magus and The 9 Lives of Tomaz Katz) got into feature film making via this route.

So, eventually it is still the industry that decides what makes a good (i.e. potentially financially successful) script. THeir decision is based on the (formulaic) harmonization of the elements in a screenplay such as: genre, concept, theme, plot construction, pace, characterization, dialogue, visual realization, feasibility and marketability. Other headings that are used by some producers include: inciting incident, dramatic question, character goal, antagonist/protagonist, stakes, resolution and sympathy/empathy. Most of the industry approved scripts prefer action, rather than reflection - "which is why action driven genre fiction, and the nineteenth century novel, with its emphasis on the hero's journey, tend to be most attractive to those filmmakers who operate within the tradition of the 'classic Hollywood narrative" according to Hirschhorn. Although not universally adopted, this kind of narrative tends to provide most of the world's financially successful movies. It is often said that Hollywood makes High Concept movies to make money, and dramas to win Oscars.

The 'rules' of successful (genre and multiplex) screenwriting are much the same as the descriptive 'rules' for drama as the Elizabethans developed for themselves: A single main plot with a theme or narrative hook that can often be summed up in a sentence, a subplot, a protagonist, an antagonist, a catalyst or inciting incident, a point of no return when the main character decides what they really want and a Second Act (the main action) which develops the story through obstacles and problems that hinder the protagonist from achieving their goals.

At its simplest, we could have a central figure who simply wants to be happy, and life, through a variety of agents, makes this impossible (the central theme of most dramas and melodramas, and social realist films). This usually leads to a positive closure, and this will have been set up, partly by the audience's expectations of the genre. If the film has an open or unresolved, or unhappy ending, then the opposite should happen - we believe and hope that they will finally succeed, then suffer with their failure. Hirschhorn then contradictingly ends by exclaiming the fact that "a film, which has to tell a story from beginning to end in 90-120 minutes or so, has a totally different narrative language based on mise-en-scene, action, narrative compression and characters who are defined by what they do, rather than what they say, and above all has to give the audience visual pleasure".

Ultimately it is obvious that films are 'meant' to be something different. Yes there is the industry that conforms the primary 'quality' of the scripts, but shouldn't these preordained decisions be undermined? Or at least questioned, as is the Postmodernists 'duty'. So much more can be enfolded from the spark-creating core of a visual experience as intense as a film. Why then should this enigmatic medium of expression be confined to any kind of border whatsoever? Films should be reflected upon and considered with the same intensity with which it should be made. Nevertheless this could all be said in idealistic vain, but as the ancient storytelling tradition will most probably prevail, such views will hopefully not be continuously bypassed.

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