Ahh, the 80’s, he said with mist in his eyes…
Well – that’s the decade I was young in. And that’s when I became aware of the concept of reading a film rather than merely watching it, (though I actually didn’t see many films back then – the army (the Lebanon war, the Intifada – what a jolly old, dreadful time) and my university studies were too time consuming), so I guess that’s why I do have a softer spot for some of the films of that era which are generally dismissed here. But although I do agree that one can trace the roots of the terminal condition of story-telling in American cinema back then, still, the full bloom of it materialized a couple of decades later.
A few years ago, an Israeli film maker made a short film for tv which was a hysterically funny, fresh and original take of the absurdity of life (and death). Based on the success of that early film he was invited to a workshop for writers at Sundance, where he was offered help with developing the script for his first feature film. It was based on his own personal recollection of his troubled childhood growing up in a kibbutz. The end result, while still containing some interesting observations, was painfully “well made”, structurally predictable, generic coming of age story. And hearing this director proudly tell how inspiring it was to be mentored by this great American writer (could it be William Goldman?), and how he learned how to shape his screenplay according to some golden, sacred rules, it was so obvious where the life was sucked out of his genuinely heartfelt creation.
And this is my big, painful issue with American cinema (and more and more with Israeli too). There is this self inflicted, voluntarily put on narrative straight jacket which is inflicting most screenplays. It can be traceable everywhere. It’s maybe more elusive but it seems it’s almost as mandatory as the Hays Code once was. And as was the case with that code, these current ground rules are originated in fear (and greed) and again, as it was in old times, there are talented people who managed to play around them. So what we get time and again with most American films and tv shows, is a narrative driven by well known, “proven” maneuvers, a lot of simplistic cause and consequence actions, brightly lit closures and explicitly spelled messages, and of course, the obligatory happy, or at least reassuring, ending. So way too often, even when one is surprised by some twist of a plot, there is this sense, if not in real time then in retrospect, of an inevitability which is not rooted in the story which is told or the nature of the circumstances or the characters of it but rather in some grad old axiom of what film realm should be. And it’s more and more about coming up with a sharply defined plot and avoiding like a plague a true, subtle emotional and moral ambiguity. It’s all about avoiding the need to face adulthood and the frustrations it brings along with it. (I think this is was some of us are so devoted to a show like Mad Men, which, among other things, explores and dwells in this ambiguity).
(And yes, being myself, I must say this. An added flavor to this very sophisticated in its own cynical way juvenile simplification is having our-way-of-living taken for granted as a gospel, a metaphorical and way too often literal flag waving, xenophobia or at least ignorance of the “others”).
I can’t help it, but for all its technical (and writing a screenplay is a technique too) sophistication, for me, the script of Gravity (and for the sake of this discussion, it stands for numerous other films) felt as it was conceived by a 12 year old boy, assisted by his 16 year old brother with the dialog. Even worse – not by an adult who reconnect with his inner 12 year old (another tiresome, meaningless cliché) but by someone who tries to emulate what a generic preteen would relate to without being challenged. And this tendency originates in the fact that for too many people in film making, and probably the majority of filmgoers, the way they view Life and the world we live in, (personally, but more relevantly artistically), is not a result of looking at them for what they are by for how they are reflected in popular culture. So they are bound to reproduce patterns and reshape reality into recognizable ways of expressions instead of freshly, unaffectedly, and therefore, God forbids, maybe even disturbingly tell a story in a new and surprising way. So we use a lot of terms like stylization, myth making, references and so on, but alas, way too often they are smoke screen for over simplified, lazy and even cowardly storytelling. And that’s where I’m coming from.
p.s. and this is the kind of exchange of ideas I was referring to, Okri.