Dickens and Christmas

ChristmasCarolBookThere are plenty of folks out there crediting Charles Dickens with “inventing” Christmas. That’s a pretty drastic overstatement, but there’s a grain of truth to it. At least one author posits that, with the publication of “A Christmas Carol”, Dickens rescued his own career and shaped the celebration of Christmas as we know it today. For those who wish to pursue the matter, an intelligent refutation of that premise can be found here.

For the record, as much as a lot of people would prefer otherwise, Christmas is in fact the celebration of the birth of Christ. In our pluralistic society, people are free to ignore that fact, just as they ignore the “true meaning” of Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. You don’t have to celebrate it as such, but that’s the way it is.

The mode of that celebration, however, is quite a different matter. For example, the December date is well known to have been a later invention. Reindeer, Christmas trees, gift giving, and wassailing – not to mention Santa himself – are all among the pieces of extraneous baggage that have been heaped mercilessly on what is a simple observance of a historical and spiritual event of significance to a huge percentage of the world’s population.

Neither Dickens nor his masterpiece needs the superfluous acclaim. “A Christmas Carol” is as brilliant as it is timeless. It honors what people call the “spirit of Christmas” with only a slight nod to the religious aspect of the holiday. As such, it tends to be tolerable to all stripes. Yet the theme of repentance and transformation conforms perfectly with Christian orthodoxy. In the grand tradition of great art, it works equally well as edification and entertainment.

XmasCarolI just watched my favorite filmed rendition of the story, the 1984 version starring George C. Scott. It edges out the surprisingly high quality animated Mr. Magoo musical version.

(One reason I prefer that version to any other is the supporting cast, which includes several performers from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Dickens’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”. In a previous post, I made no bones about my tremendous admiration for that production.)

Some of the scenes and lines of dialog in the book are as fresh and meaningful today as they’ve ever been. The poor still struggle, barely noticed, at the feet of the rich. Dickens’s bleak portrayal of that situation is neglected in many dramatic presentations of the story.

I reproduce the exchange between Scrooge and The Spirit of Christmas Present below. Now as it was then, the prose is rich and evocative, the message relevant and convicting.

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

It makes me wonder what the bell strikes today.

NB: As I’ve noted elsewhere, the lesson of Scrooge and other Yuletide scoundrels has been lost on us today, to our shame.

TV full circle

[No time for a long post today. Life takes up all my time. Weird about that, huh?]

magni-tvIt occurred to me recently that a lot about television, in spite of its rapid evolution, is coming full circle. For a long time, in the early days of TV (no, I don’t remember them) interest seemed to focus more on the newfangled technology than on the admittedly skimpy and weak content.

Today, although the content is more sophisticated than ever, talk is still mostly about technological innovations in things like screen size, type, and resolution, sound, source (cable, satellite, Internet), 3-D, and other novelties.

A big topic is resolution: What used to pass for HD is already old hat. 4K is hot. Great if you have a nice big screen at home. Not such a big deal if you’re watching on your phone or tablet, which everyone seems to be doing. As the screens get smaller, seeing anything at all is a challenge for some of us.

I see us going back to TV’s nascent days, when families would put some kind of magnifying device (including fishbowls!) in front of the tiny screens so the whole family could sit brasiltvaround to watch. I’m not alone in this outlook. According to Terry Gilliam’s brilliant film “Brazil” that’s what our future holds, along with a lot of other nasty stuff. His vision wasn’t meant to be realistic, but it turns out he wasn’t far off the mark in more ways than one.

Other “cutting edge” improvements:

Curved screens will soon appear on virtual store shelves. What’s the big deal? My old Zenith had a significant convex curve to it. Didn’t make “Lost in Space” any more credible.

3-D, which for my money adds no real value to any medium except View-Master, refuses to go away.

The worst new feature for televisions has to be “3-D multi-view”. This allows two people, both wearing geeky glasses with built-in ear buds, to watch two different shows on the same TV at the same time. Could we possibly make an isolating activity more isolating? Why would we want to?

Besides visual changes, sound is also important. HD sound is great. Unfortunately, I have low-def (closer to high-deaf) hearing.

Here’s hoping Santa brings you a fishbowl to put in front of your Android.

Peace on Earth

I’m old enough to remember the 60’s and, unlike some of my contemporaries who find the era’s fashions, language, and music a bit dated, I have no desire to distance myself from that connection. It was a great time. We’d run around in our tie-dyes and bell bottoms waving protest banners with what now seem to be quaint phrases such as:


Perhaps the most naive of them all was this one:

whatifwarThis is the one most likely to make people cringe. On the surface, it’s seems so naive, almost childishly optimistic. It sounds so crazy. To quote Steely Dan, “Only a fool would say that.”

But what if it really happened?

It did.

For a very short span of time during World War I (the conflict ironically called “the war to end all wars” – talk about naive optimism!) both sides refused to play the game of killing each other for the benefit of absentee generals and politicians.

Over the years, I’d heard stories about the so-called “Christmas Truce” of 1914. This past week I read a thorough history of the events in a book called “Silent Night” by Stanley Weintraub. A movie about the truce was made in 2005. “Joyeux Noel” creates a compelling composite of the actual events by centering on a single group of combatants on the Western Front.

Both book and movie are excellent works, but the truce itself is the amazing tale. Bands of enemies mingled with each other, singing Christmas carols, playing soccer, burying their dead, trading keepsakes, sharing food and drink, and generally getting to know one another. Guns were laid down and differences forgotten. Nearly a million people had already given up their lives for this mindless standoff. Beginning on Christmas Eve that year, a hundred thousand suddenly came to their senses and grasped at the outrageous opportunity to celebrate Christmas with Peace on Earth, if only for a couple of days.

When word of the impromptu truce got back to the powers-that-were-but-no-longer-are, all ensconced in luxurious digs and downing fine food and drink for the holidays, they were incensed. Threats of transfers, court-martials, and even firing squads were brought down on the lowly servicemen who were bogged down in frozen or muddy trenches.

The high ranking officers and politicians thought it insane for the soldiers to drop their weapons and spend Christmas getting to know the enemy who had been painted by each opposing nation as barbaric, evil, less-than-humans who deserved to be and must be eradicated. Those same elites saw nothing crazy about throwing young lives at each other in a futile attempt to move their lines a few yards either way in the pointless and protracted conflict. After all, they were out of harm’s way themselves. Some things never change.

As the groups of enemies fraternized on the few hundred feet of No Man’s Land that separated them, they actually became friends, sometimes making plans to get together after the war. By meeting their foes, British and French troops came to realize that Germans weren’t monsters who crucified children as they had been told. The Germans learned that their foes were just like them, with the same dreams and desires, most with families they missed.

Some people objected. One member of the German army who was alarmed by the actions of the soldiers said:

Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?

If you find this man’s opinion resonates with yours, be aware that his name was Cpl. Adolf Hitler.

In 1914, everyone thought the end of the war was imminent. It ended up dragging on for another four years, causing millions of casualties. Worse yet, it planted the seeds that grew into the next and even greater conflict, World War II. Author Weintraub in his book makes the compelling case that, had the perpetrators of the war followed the lead of its victims toward peace, we might have not only avoided the second Great War, but the Bolshevik Revolution might never have occurred, thus eliminating more conflict from the world in ensuing years.

Today, armed conflicts seem to be ubiquitous. Once more, it’s not quite clear what people are fighting about, but it’s usually the same thing: enemies are demonized as evil fundamentalist (or atheist – take your pick) demons who want to take away our precious way of life. If you were to talk to most of those enemies, you’d find, just like those men in the trenches in 1914, that they are human beings like ourselves who only want to live their lives in peace.

In the next war, could we have all the leaders – political, military, and religious – slug it out among themselves while the rank-and-file watch from a safe distance? It would make great reality TV.

The more common motivation for war today is to give the big weapons manufacturers an opportunity to showcase and sell their wares. If a few thousand kids are killed in the process, that’s a price the stockholders of said companies are willing to pay. I’m reminded of the opening scenes of a rare good superhero movie, “Iron Man”, when Tony Stark, between bedding women and sipping champagne, sells a gazillion dollars worth of killing machinery to everyone in sight but misses the downside until he becomes a victim of his own products.

Jesus – He’s the guy that started this whole Christmas thing – says, “Love your enemies.” I’m pretty sure, as the saying goes, killing them isn’t what He meant. Is there a better way to celebrate the day than to refuse to kill the people Jesus said we should love?

That is what would happen if they gave a war and nobody came. Maybe it’s not so childish after all.

(For more reading, here’s a fascinating article from nine years ago.)

Too big to be good

tooBig2There’s an infamous saying that almost brought down the American economy. “Too big to fail.” (I already wrote about this in my other blog here, but this post takes the idea in a different direction.) My own take on that absurd concept is, if something’s too big to fail, it’s too big. Period. Note that the statement is actually a lie. Nothing is too big to fail. Failing happens regardless of size. Just ask the Empire.

My own preference is for small: small cars, small churches, small stores, small restaurants, small businesses in general. I’ve worked for big companies – I’m talking BIG companies – and small companies. There’s no comparison. For the most part, the big ones are hell, the small, paradise.

My preference for the petite extends to movies and movie theaters. Yes, there’s a place for the blockbuster playing at the regional Imax theater, but it’s a small place. (That shouldn’t surprise you.) This was brought home to me in the most tangible way possible this past week. I saw BIG movie in a BIG movie house. A few days later I saw a small movie in a cozy little theater. The former was torture, the latter a joy.

technicolorAt the risk of life and limb*, I’ll tell you about the BIG movie. “Interstellar” was BIG in stars, budget, marketing, and most painfully, length. It felt more like a three hour physics lecture than a story. (You remember “story”, don’t you?)Yes, of course the special effects were amazing. Let’s agree that effects are always amazing and be done with it. They no longer have any meaningful impact on the quality of a movie, any more than the fact that it’s in “full living color!”

For my money, the more important contributors to movie quality consist of things like the following: Consistent characters, cohesive story, and humility of length, all in short supply in Interstellar.

When the credits finally, mercifully rolled, I realized I’d forgotten it had been directed by Christoper Nolan, a man who specializes in BIG, at least since “Dark Knight”. So I hated the BIG movie, with its physics borrowed from Madeline L’Engle, interviews stolen from Ken Burns, and everything else taken from Stanley Kubrick.

And the venue? There’s nothing to like about Generic Cinema 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13-14-∞.

LunaTktForget BIG. Let me tell you about the small venue. It’s called “Luna” and it’s found in a remodeled mill building, nestled in with a bunch of funky little (do you see a theme emerging?) shops. The audience sits in easy chairs with tables nearby on which to put snacks and drinks. None of the seats are half a mile from the screen from which the movie is just a rumor. Even the tickets at Luna are cooler than the the ones at Generic Cinema 1-2-3-4-5-∞. See what I mean? →


Take a seat, any seat at all.


Luna in your living room.

Which looks like a more enjoyable way to see a movie?


The movie I saw at Luna was small. It was about people, not aliens – ideas, not bombs – real places, not CGI landscapes. Most movies happen to you. I like a movie I can settle into. There’s a place for both in the world, but not in Generic Cinema 1-2-3-4-5-∞.

I don’t think there’s a place for me there either.

* Publicly criticizing a Christopher Nolan movie, I’ve come to find out, can be hazardous to your health. When I made disparaging comments about “Inception” in this post, I was taken to task with a profanity-laced harangue from someone who must have a degree in Missing the Point. I expect to hear from the same guy this time, with his master’s thesis in Cluelessness.

Creative communities

communityI’m all about community. I crave being part of a community, I flourish in the context of community, and I love building communities. It doesn’t matter what the little society is built around – church, MS, philanthropy, sports, the arts, or pure recreation. Where two or more are gathered, there I want to be in the midst of them. That’s why I speak and write so often (like here and here and a lot of places in between) about the value of support groups for those with MS.

So today I felt like writing about communities. This blog being centered on writing and film, it’s creative/artistic communities that are on my mind.

If I can break it down a bit, I see two flavors of such communities. The first would include temporary gatherings for specific purposes: individual plays, films, concerts, and recordings, for example. My experience participating in such efforts has invariably proven to be fun, exhilarating, and inspiring… for a while. There’s a sort of “postpartum” depression that often sets in when they end, as they always must.

No matter how brief, I wouldn’t want to miss those opportunities for the world. Whether singing in a choir or acting with a troupe, there’s nothing like being part of a collective creative consciousness all aimed in the same artistic direction. To get a glimpse into that world, read the book I wrote about in this post.

As you might have guessed, the second type of creative community is a long term one. They last for years, lifetimes, or generations. Members of these collectives pour their creative energies and encouragement into one another thus enhancing their work and their lives. Some are formal, others more a matter of proximity.

laurelcanyonThe folkies of 50’s Greenwich village were a hotbed of creative (and cultural and political) growth. In the 60’s, the Motown area gave rise to R&B and Haight-Ashbury nurtured the roots of modern rock’n’roll. Those communities were responsible for seismic shifts in culture. Though not considered MIPartistic, Silicon Valley was for a time as creative a community as the world has seen. Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon, portrayed so effectively in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”, was an intentional community that hosted some of the century’s most celebrated artists and writers.

After all, what is a band, an orchestra, or an architectural firm but a community of creatives? These gatherings are so much more creative and productive than the individuals involved could ever be. I feel confident in asserting that the community known as The Beatles was far greater than the sum of its parts.

Those kinds of groups always seem to eventually fall victim to bloated egos, tempestuous personalities, and conflicting agendas. That’s part of the baggage of the stereotypical artistic personality. Which is probably why artists of all stripes tend toward isolation.

inklingsMy personal icon of a literary community is the Inklings of Oxford, UK. The most prominent members of this discussion group were J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis – not sure if using one’s initials was a prerequisite to membership. What I would give to hang around at the Eagle and Child Pub with these guys discussing their latest work and ideas. I’d be lost, of course, but humiliation is a price I’d gladly pay.

Inklings meeting room, Eagle and Child Pub, OxfordSeveral years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Oxford, dining at the Bird and Baby, as its customers often called it, and also hearing a lecture on Tolkien in the adjoining building. I was staying in a house on the same street in Headington where Tolkien once lived, driven to the talk by a gentleman who had been a friend of the Tolkien family, accompanied by the caretaker of the Kilns, Lewis’s home. I’ve never had a more fulfilling, if thoroughly vicarious, literary experience.

I’m not sure why this was on my mind. I can’t say I’ve ever been involved in one of those long-term artistic communities, although the prospect is appealing. The funny thing is that writers are notorious loners and introverts, which would fight against any impulse to be part of a larger group. For many, the value must win out over the personal reticence.

Gotta go. I’m running late for a meeting of one of my collection of communities.

Relaxing in Lewis's study. Where's Jack?

Relaxing in Lewis’s study.
Where’s Jack?

As I Wish

I just finished one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long time. It wasn’t just the book by itself, but the entire experience. It combined two of my great joys: books and film. This was a book about the making of a film from a book. The book and film are “The Princess Bride”.


“The Princess Bride” is among my favorite films. In fact, I consider it a perfect film. Every part of this movie is as good as it could possibly be. William Goldman’s original book is great, his screenplay brilliant, the cast impeccable, Rob Reiner’s direction inspired. It’s funny, exciting, romantic, poignant, and very, very smart. Reading about what went on behind all that merely added to the whole package.

asyouwishCary Elwes, who exquisitely portrayed farm boy Westley, the Man in Black, and Dread Pirate Roberts wrote “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride” – as unwieldy a title as your bound to find, yet appropriate for this tale. It’s a memoir of his experiences as a very young actor in his first starring role.

Although the movie is now (can it possibly be?) 27 years old, his recollections, like the movie itself, have the freshness of today. He captures the same innocence, excitement, and naiveté with which he approached the filming. It had all the immediacy and enthusiasm of a kid’s essay about hitting the winning home run in a little league game. But that little league game didn’t go on to become one of the most precious cultural icons in American history.

Clearly, making the movie was as much fun as watching it. I have to confess a bit of envy as I read. Those are the kinds of experiences anyone who loves film would love to be part of. In my own life, I’ve experienced the fun, camaraderie, and passion that goes into a dramatic presentation. It’s really quite unparalleled. I couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like to be involved in something as magical as “Bride”. At least, I couldn’t until I read Elwes’s wonderful book.

If you don’t like the movie – an “inconceivable” thought – I suppose the book won’t mean much to you either. Clearly, you don’t have a beating heart. If, however, you’re a fan of Fezzik, Vizzini, Miracle Max, Inigo Montoya, and all the rest, this is a must-read.

Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

Game Over

vidgamemovieI like movies but I don’t much care for video games. This isn’t an unfounded bias based on my age or a disconnect from current culture. (My video game experience goes back to the pre-Atari days). No, the reason is my preference for story.

Aristotle had it right, in my opinion. A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That separates it from pageantry, which is a continuous display without a plot. Thus, I prefer plays to parades and Olympic competition to opening ceremonies.

This bias extends to my preference for baseball, which I see as a plot-driven competition (complete with 9 “chapters” with no clock) as opposed to basketball, soccer, and hockey, which are continuous action.

Today, the line between the movies and video games has become blurred, if not invisible. Movies are made based on video games. Screenwriters write for video games. Actors voice video games. It seems that, now, gamers are writing some of the movies.

This struck me when I recently watched the movie “Divergent”, a film made from a YA novel of the same name. Not surprisingly, it echoes many features of the wildly successful “Hunger Games” series: onion-skin-thin YA characters in a dystopian society trying to kill each other off. If you think the similarities in these logos is a coincidence, I have an Amway franchise you’d be interested in. (I’m not alone in this. SNL noticed the connection, too. Check it out.)










I can’t speak for the book because I haven’t read it, but “Divergent” the movie was mind-numbing for me. As I watched, it felt like I was trapped in a video game. The protagonist, Tris (rhymes with Katniss from “Hunger Games”; get it?), has to survive multiple levels of challenges not a whole lot different than those faced by Mario Brothers. In case the obvious isn’t obvious enough, she even gets a score for each level. All middle, no beginning or end; not exactly Aristotelian.

There is a plot buried somewhere under all the mundane action, one-dimensional characters, and hackneyed relationships but it’s as trite as it is uninteresting.

And, guess what. Like a video game, it doesn’t end. The vapid protagonist and all her shallow cohorts simply set themselves up for the next level, er, sequel. Oh joy.

From all appearances, a movie in a similar (i.e. exactly the same) vein is “The Maze Runner”. This flick dispenses with any pretense. The name is a game and the plot appears to be trying to play a game.

This one is also based on a book. The usual suspects: YA, dystopian, trilogy (i.e. built-in franchise).  Once more, I have to confess that I haven’t read this book. It could be a YA classic that will make us all forget “The Chocolate War”, “A Catcher in the Rye”, and “The Giver”.

I’m betting not.

This class of pulp seems to be churned out at a factory somewhere and judged not on their ability to challenge or inspire, but on their potential for selling cookie cutter movie franchises and tangential tchotchkes to gullible adolescents.

Mario would be all over them.


Start at the beginning…

harehatterSpeaking of movie trends that annoy me (which I was, though you’d have no way of knowing since you aren’t here listening to me rant) in recent years, a lot of films have messed around with the order of things. They obviously haven’t listened to the sage advice of the March Hare and Mad Hatter in Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland,

Mad Hatter: Something seems to be troubling you. Won’t you tell us all about it?

March Hare: Start at the beginning!

Mad Hatter: Yes, yes….and when you come to the end…..STOP!

It seems that once “Pulp Fiction” came along, the whole space-time continuum was thrown to the wind with scenes falling wherever they landed. The value of that gimmick can be debated in PF, but it doesn’t always work. (Opinion: It does more than work in “Memento”; it’s crucial and brilliant.)

bttfThe only places where messing around with time is always excusable are time-travel movies: the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Déjà Vu”, “Terminator” movies, and all the rest, some good and some (and I’m thinking here of “Somewhere in Time”) excruciatingly bad. The only truly meaningful time-travel movie is the one that treats the concept with the flippancy it deserves: “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. (Good news: There will be a third B&T movie with them as adults… or as adult as they could possibly be, I’d guess.)

Less adventurous directors have decided they can hedge their bets by swapping just one scene: The end.

I can’t even count the number of films I’ve seen post-PF where the first scene is the end of the movie. This technique has been used effectively in great films such as “Sunset Boulevard” and “Citizen Kane”. None of the movies I’m thinking of are “Citizen Kane”.

Here are a few possible reasons directors use this cliché:

  1.  It was used in successful films such as “Sunset Boulevard” and “Citizen Kane”. Wrong answer.
  2. The last scene is usually a “grabber”. There’s no point grabbing the audience’s attention at the end of the movie. That could be too late. Grab’em right up front.
  3. You’re unsure whether the audience will stay awake until the end so you want make sure they see it ASAP. If that’s it, you got bigger potatoes to fry.
  4. No point waiting for critics to give away the “spoilers” when you can do it yourself.

That last one is the one that bugs me. Should these movies have a warning at the beginning the way some reviews do? Warning: This movie contains its own spoilers. They all want to be Lucy, the ultimate spoiler:rosebud

I’m waiting for this movie opening:


I have the mixed blessing of a miserable memory. True story: My wife and I were watching a movie not too long ago. As it approached the denouement, I called out – as I am wont to do – what I thought would happen next. My more able spouse corrected me. “No, he gets shot. Don’t you remember they showed it at the beginning?”

sunsetboulIt wasn’t ruined for me, but it was for her and all the other non-brain-damaged folks who watched it. The “good” news is that the movie was a flop and pretty much no one saw it. So much for copying “Sunset Boulevard”.

As a public service, I’d like to list here all those movies with built-in spoilers… but I forget what they are.

Kill the cat

(Don’t worry, cat-lovers. This isn’t the mad ravings of a felinocidal maniac. There are cat people in my family I’d have to answer to, including the one who trained his cat to turn on the lights.)

Have you ever had the feeling that something wasn’t right but you lacked the confidence to mention it to others because you thought it was just you? I had that sense about movies. They’re running together, each one hard to distinguish from another. The only differentiators are the kinds of superpowers the protagonist has, the planet (or dimension) the aliens are from, or the evil-empire-of-the-month whence arise the powers that are going to wipe out the free world as we know it.

It’s deja vu all over again. Same story, different characters. Is it just me?

As a screenwriter, I had a theory. There are dozens of different philosophies out there about structuring screen stories. As the brilliant screenwriter William Goldman (“Princess Bride”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, etc.) succinctly puts it: “Screenplays are structure.” In his “Poetics”, Aristotle started it all with the simple three-act structure. Some version of that structure has since been applied to stories of all forms: books, plays, movies, fireside ghost tales, and everything in between.

savethecatIn the screenwriting world, there have been dozens, perhaps hundreds, of refinements suggested to that basic structure. I’ve studied many of them – McKee, Vogler, Truby, Field, Hunter, and more. They range from flexible to downright Draconian. The most rigid of all was laid out in a book called “Save the Cat”, by the late screenwriting guru, Blake Snyder. My theory was that too many modern screenwriters had bought his formula down to the last beat.

I was right. At least, I have some agreement out there.

prefabA couple of days ago, I stumbled on this article from Slate. The author confirms my worst suspicions and fears. (Unfortunately, because the article is over a year old, some of the links in it are dead-ends.) According to this article, in complete agreement with my personal experience (and probably yours), many modern movies are actually prefab creations, like 60’s tract houses. The STC philosophy breaks a film into 15 “beats” that must be hit. That’s one predetermined action that will occur every six minutes in a 90 minute movie. There isn’t a lot of flexibility there. You can read the article to get a better understanding and at the same time seal your cynicism.

For this reason, I’ve pretty much stopped viewing Hollywood blockbusters. They’re all as bankrupt as their namesake video chain. The funny thing is that I’m not missing anything. By seeking out smaller, character-driven films rather than tentpole behemoths that measure their budgets in the hundreds of millions, I’m seeing better films.

bynumbersAs someone trying to sell screenplays, it would behoove me to sell my creative soul and buy into this paint-by-numbers philosophy. While I agree that the structure of a screenplay is critical, I’d rather not write at all than churn out plug’n’play, cookie cutter, straight-off-the-assembly-line widgets that will be gone and forgotten in a month anyway. I might be cutting my own throat commercially, but I’ll retain as much of my dignity as any screenwriting hopeful can.

Bad movies of good stories

inspired by actual eventsRecently I watched what looked, from descriptions I’d read, like an interesting movie. It was a fabricated story “inspired by actual events”, as opposed to “based on a true story” or “inspired by a true story” or “based on actual events.”

According to the blurb on the DVD cover, the film was “Astonishing.” As it turns out, the only thing about the movie I found astonishing was that it got made at all. Surprisingly, the “actual events” that inspired the story were more horrific than the ones actually portrayed in the movie. More often than not, the opposite is true. Otherwise tepid events are typically sensationalized to titillate potential viewers. That should give you an idea of how grim these particular “actual events” were.

There are a number of questions and concerns that films like this raise in my mind:

First, when is a true story not a true story? Is it fair to sell fiction as fact? The Academy Award winning best picture of 2012, “Argo”, brought this question to the fore. It was publicized as, “Based on the declassified true story”, but it was more fiction than history. How discerning is the average moviegoer? From my perspective, not very. Therefore, in a very real way, we’re rewriting history.

Then, is it fair to review a movie’s content versus its quality? I’ve seen plenty of weak movies that tell amazing stories ripped from headlines or history books. Great story, mostly because it was great in real life. The movie, not so much. Still, these are worth watching. One good example was a biopic (probably heavily fictionalized) about Cesar Chavez, a man whose story should be more widely known. The film was marginal, but it was important to see because I regularly need to be inspired by great – and real – men.

That also brings up the question of whether the moral content of a film should be included as part of its review. In today’s political climate, a siskel-and-ebertracist film would almost certainly be trashed, as it should be. Yet misogynistic films and TV shows seem to be proliferating without much resistance. One could legitimately say that the moral judgment of a story is dependent on the morality of the reviewer. But doesn’t the reviewer’s bias come into play in any review? If every reviewer agreed on every movie, we could eliminate personal prejudices as a factor. But then we would never have had Siskel and Ebert arguing about the direction of thumbs. What fun would that be?

So then, of what value are critics’ opinions? Probably none at all, except in those rare cases where all the critics seem to agree. But even then, if I’d listened to that unanimity, I’d have missed out on some films I consider terrific. (Call me weird.) Worse are the films I’ve seen because the cognoscenti decreed them great and they’ve left me feeling like I needed a good scrubbing afterward.

Unless you have a particular reviewer whose opinions always align with yours – Ebert was one who came closest for me – you’re pretty much on your own.

Like me, be your own best critic.