Bummer people – they deliver

depressedDepression is rampant in our culture. Growing up, all I knew about depression was the unemployment and soup lines. It was something my teachers and older people talked about. Now it seems everyone is depressed. If you aren’t downing Prozac, Lexapro, or Zoloft by the fistful, you aren’t trending.

Depression is real. I don’t want to diminish that fact. It’s a serious medical condition that can be fatal. Medication is often a valuable tool to combat its ravages. That being said, I’m of the opinion that there are non-pharmaceutical approaches that could either lessen its effects or – who knows? – relieve it completely for some milder cases. The prescription I’m suggesting here is – excuse the esoteric medical jargon: avoiding depressing stuff. (Note: I’m not saying this as a cure, but why feed the flame?)

This weekend I watched an incredibly depressing movie. Worse, it was a depressing mini-series. Four hours of non-stop misery. Eventually I had to minimize the pain by fast-forwarding through some of it. If I’d watched it to the end (at normal speed) I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions. And if I were already depressed? I just thank God I wasn’t.

2015OscarsWhy are so many movies depressing? Look at the Oscar nominees: Birdman, Whiplash, American Sniper, and Boyhood are a sad group. Don’t subject yourself to any of them if you’re trying to keep your mood upbeat. The others are either less so or I just don’t know enough about them to judge. They could be wallowing in the slough of despond with Foxcatcher, Still Alice, Gone Girl, and the rest of that lot for all I know.

Not a “Sound of Music” in the bunch.

I’m not saying we should have a non-stop parade of “happy, happy, joy, joy” fluff, but couldn’t we at least have one every now and then? Is life so joyful that we are well-advised to dampen everyone’s moods lest they overdose on excess happiness and levity?

Let me suggest that it’s the other way around. Life is so depressing for so many that, instead of feeding that, we should consider ways to counteract it. Making more positive movies is one possibility. I’m no lone curmudgeon in this opinion. A couple of years ago I heard a talk by film producer Lindsay Doran (Sense and Sensibility, Stranger than Fiction) in which she mentioned this issue. This NY Times article gives an overview of her talk. (It’s worth a read for this and her other fascinating insights.)

conversationI’m not talking about “happy endings” in the classic fairy tale sense. Just lighten up a bit now and then, please. There’s a place for dark films. One of my favorite films of all time is also one of the darkest: “The Conversation” is a brilliant piece of paranoid pleasure. On the opposite end of the bleakness spectrum is another of my favorites: “The Princess Bride”. It actually has a fairy tale ending. You won’t find many movies as different as those two, connected only by their genius.

It’s not just about the number of dark, hopeless, depressing movies there are. With so many Oscar nominees falling into that category it gives the impression that a positive movie can’t be good. Joy can’t be taken seriously. When is the last time a performer in a comedy won an acting prize? Is comic acting really so effortless that it can be dismissed? The award mavens would have you think so. (Personal note: It ain’t.)

This, of course, reinforces the problem. People want to make movies that others take seriously, which means they must make serious and, if possible, morbid movies.

Look at the top grossing movies for 2014 and you’ll see a different picture. For the most part, people are paying to see more positive movies. If dollars drive the movie industry, how to explain this gap?

Saint Paul once said:

…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.

Just don’t expect to get them too often at the movies.

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”.

pb2

“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.

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.