Thursday, May 4, 2006

Woeful Tales of Hollywood

Ed Cline made some interesting extensive comments to my remarks on the Roth / Revolution fiasco (ie, the failed studio that produced such mega-hits as "Gigli").

I particularly liked Ed's observation:
"I think the secret motive of directors and producers who “remake” the oldies is
the same as Ellsworth Toohey’s in The Fountainhead, when Keating is assigned to
“remake” one of Roark’s buildings, and Toohey remarks: “Let’s see how you can
bitch this up.” "
This is *so* much of what Hollywood remakes are about. (Name a remake it isn't true for? Just recently, for instance -- "Planet of the Apes"? "Flight of the Phoenix"? The list is endless of crappy remakes. Hell, Hollywood isn't happy to just bitch up *good* movies; there's an endless list of remakes of utter garbage.

And then there's the sequels. It's almost a cliché that sequels stink, with some rare exceptions. Here I'm sure the motive isn't so much a deliberate attempt to "bitch something up" as it is to pimp a good movie into an out and out prostitution franchise.

A very good movie (in my opinion) that dramatizes this very well, despite some philosophical shortcomings, is "Network". Done through the medium of TV's own whorish standards (I don't think anyone in the 70's could have ever anticipated the complete aesthetic bankruptcy of Hollywood today, and that's not to say that Hollywood wasn't bad in the 70's), it culminates with the on-air assassination of a television "prophet" whose ratings have declined -- killed by members of a competing show about real-live members of a communist revolutionary group that commits bank robberies, murder and other acts of terrorism on each episode.

I'm frequently (and I mean this seriously) reminded of Ayn Rand's comments on "our cultural value deprivation". She was writing in the 60's, and while I think she could have anticipated where we are now, I'm sure she wouldn't have wanted to be here with us. The decline in cultural values is so vast, even from when she wrote, that from my point of view, we might as well be living in a Black Hole on the other side of the universe. I never go to movies anymore for a reason. (I forced myself to go see one the other day, first time in two years -- a waste of $5 for a matinee.) Not that some good sparks don't flash up now and then, but speaking as a "culture" of aesthetics? Zippo, sans even the lighter fluid.

What's almost more sad is the attempts at doing something semi-serious. For instance, the movie I went to see was "American Dreamz", a quasi-Network story about American Idol gone crazy. But while it had some mildly interesting (though cliched) angles here and there, it meandered without a coherent point, culminating in the death of the self-aggrandizing host who is blown up by an American soldier who felt jilted by one of the contestents the host slept with. Mostly, it seemed a smarmy vehicle to make a point about the "war on terror" with Dennis Quaid re-enacting the Left's favorite cliché's about George Bush. Overall, pathetic and not very funny.

So, yes, I go back to Ayn Rand's 1966 essay on our "cultural value deprivation", or her 1962 essay on "the esthetic vacuum of our age" and think, "she never would have wanted to be alive right now".

By the way, just to give you an idea of the gulf between then and now, here's some of the Academy Award nominees in 1962:
Lawrence of Arabia
The Longest Day
The Music Man
Mutiny on the Bounty
To Kill a Mockingbird
Birdman of Alcatraz
Days of Wine and Roses
The Miracle Worker
The Manchurian Candidate
That Touch of Mink
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The seeds of decline were evident in some of the movies I left out and even in the better ones, but for some real perspective, here's the movies for 2006:
Not too much worth noting among these dogs. Interestingly, one of the nominees for best song was


I guess we have to.


-----Original Message-----
From: Edward Cline
Sent: Wednesday, May 03, 2006 8:31 AM To:
Subject: Woeful Tales

Allowing for inflation, here are my ten cents worth on A Tale of Woe and related subjects. And if I seem to toot my own horn, that can’t be helped. My comments may be passed along to Robb’s list.

Lack of practice for crappy writers, or no practice at all -- and I can’t believe most of the films I see coming out of Hollywood have been scripted by practiced writers, or if any were, then the directors and rewrite committees screwed up competently written scripts -- can account for the miserable state of movies today. Excuse me if I write from the perspective of a novelist and not a screenwriter, but many people ask me how I do what I do, that is, get them interested in my stories and characters. Often I’ll tell them I write from a director’s point of view. Which, when I think back on how I constructed scenes and consecutive scenes in a logical sequence, is what I seem to do.

For example, in connection to the Sparrowhawk series, I learned a great deal about how to frame a single, crucial story event in the context of a very noisy and contradictory celebration. This was in Godfather Two, when young Vito Corleone is stalking Don Fanucci over the roofs of Little Italy during the San Genero Festival, with the intention of committing murder in the midst of a religious holiday. And, of course, the first two Godfather movies are matchless dramatizations of the corruption and disintegration of a “moral” man, Michael Corleone (culminating in his ordering the murder of his brother Alfredo -- lots of Christian moralizing in the films, but effectively done). But the San Genero scene was one lesson (among many) I never encountered in any writing courses, some of which I took ages ago to see if anyone had anything intelligible to say on the art, and no one did. I was on my own.

Many years later, I applied the principle of that scene to one in Book Two of Sparrowhawk, when Hugh Kenrick fails to bow to the Duke of Cumberland during a state visit to his home, and then throughout that book, contraposing Hugh’s development as an individual against the pomp, circumstance and corruption of mid-Georgian England.

In short, I usually visualize scenes and consecutive scenes, and that’s only after I’ve established the story. The task is to translate the visual into the prose and verbal. Briefly, that’s “how I do it.” I don’t think this is unique to my method, either. But, it took lots and lots of practice over the years and creating a mountain of trash containing dialogue, narrative and ideas that just didn’t work. But it enabled me to link the battle of the Marvel Caves in Book One to Bunker Hill in Book Six, among many other themes, plot progressions and subplots in the series.

And since I’ve written a coherent, thematically integrated story, I have no problem writing about it “objectively,” that is, for the publisher’s catalogue. The copy just seems to flow from my pen (or keyboard).

Since my novels (historical and otherwise) are plotted, most of today’s screenwriters wouldn’t be able to tear apart and recast them or abridge them for film production for whatever nefarious reasons. I don’t know anyone in Hollywood today who’d be able to even attempt it (or want to -- “It’s too complex!”). In Sparrowhawk, you can’t tell the story of Jack Frake without telling the story of Hugh Kenrick, and visa versa. The epistemological void in Studio City is too vast. The writers there are utterly clueless about their profession, and philosophically rudderless, usually of their own choice.

Robb’s right: if Objectivist writers could develop a cadre and develop some aggressive business savvy, they could clean up in the arts, provided they could find the funding or the capital investment. But you can bet it won’t be the Spielberg-Lucas axis. However, witness the appeal of the Harry Potter movies, which nominally deal with moral issues and interesting conflicts and feature sympathetic characters, but are set in the realm of magic. Imagine what Objectivist/Romantic writers could accomplish by focusing on reality.

However, my publisher has been shopping Sparrowhawk around Hollywood with no measurable success. What the marketer encounters is indifference or utter hostility, and doesn’t understand the reception that the “high concept” of Sparrowhawks gets. Excuse my hubris, but I would say it must be like pitching a calculus equation to a guy who can barely count on his fingers. The “concept” is too “high” for him to grasp. His mind is fried. Or, if a studio type has read the book, he’ll tell my publisher he’s looking for another vehicle for Jim Belushi or Tom Cruise, and this ain’t it, goodbye and stop wasting my time.

And Sparrowhawk would be a dream to script for a Masterpiece Theater caliber series, two hours devoted to each of the six titles. Or a three-part series ala the original Star Wars format. The most frequent question I’m asked at booksignings by people who’ve read some of or all the series to date is: When’s the movie coming out? (Or, when’s the audio book-on-tape coming out?) The uninitiated, un-savvy, esthetically starved reading public (or mine, at least) can imagine Sparrowhawk as a movie. Why can’t those fast-track Hollywood executives imagine it? I guess because if they zipped along that fast track, they know they’d crash into an end of the line barrier. Like Jon Voight in Runaway Train. Well, good riddance, and make room for creators who care about what they’re doing.

That’s about a comparatively safe subject such as historical fiction. Can you imagine the strokes Robb’s script would cause if anyone in Hollywood ever read it? SAG and Directors Union would probably issue their own joint fatwah on Robb. Or pass the job on to CAIR or some other Islamic hit squad.

I’ve written some unproducable plays, as well as some awful novels, and learned from the experience. I think many screenwriters have also written unproducable plays or scripts, but learned nothing, because they substitute their own judgment of what’s good or bad with others’ criteria that have nothing to do with good writing. So, they keep churning out awful scripts and less-than-compelling, unimaginative stories. Observe how Hollywood is cannibalizing many of the better oldies (e.g., The Ladykillers, The Manchurian Candidate, etc.). That’s either a measure of Hollywood’s bankruptcy, or of its culture of malice for the good, or of a combination of the two, warped by a political/ethnic/gender agenda demanded by politically correct producers, directors, agents and other power lunchers.

I think the secret motive of directors and producers who “remake” the oldies is the same as Ellsworth Toohey’s in The Fountainhead, when Keating is assigned to “remake” one of Roark’s buildings, and Toohey remarks: “Let’s see how you can bitch this up.” Or words to that effect. Also, factor in what I am certain is Hollywood’s demonstrable contempt for the American movie-going audience, one it shares with the publishing industry: we’re all swine out here, we’ll fall for anything, and Hollywood and the publishers are pragmatic (read dumb) enough to believe it. Which is why both industries lose and waste so much money.

Our master of ceremonies asks how anyone could miss the fact that so many of their scripts are pure garbage. I don’t think they know the difference anymore between garbage and good. I think most of the Hollywood honchos are what Robb characterizes as casual idiots. Relativism in ethics and subjectivism in esthetics sabotaged their brains long ago and far away.

They’ve got the epistemology of parrots. If you told them that, they’d either resent it or give you a blank stare. What’s morality and esthetics got to do with it? If you encounter that kind of response, there’s no point in continuing the discussion. I don’t. You may as well try to persuade a devout Muslim that he’s worshipping a non-existent ghost, and not a very jolly one, either.

So, I think Joe Roth and his failed Revolution Studios and Sony Pictures got what they deserved. Screenplays, novels, and plays ought to be thinking-intensive, and all three of those parties seemed to have believed they could make bundles of money and make Hollywood “history” without thinking, or not much of it.

As for educating writers, well, where? Is there any institution that teaches aspiring screenwriters the basic principles of drama? Film school? University? College? High school? None that I know of. And don’t get me started on the daft “creative writing” programs. About a quarter of my publisher’s author stable are graduates of creative writing programs and I wouldn’t touch their books with a ten-foot pole. Many of them have been optioned by Hollywood, which is not surprising, given the near-psychotic state of that entity.

As for my books, I don’t expect any of them to be optioned any time soon, no more than I expect Bush to wake up tomorrow and think: Gee, maybe we should just gasify Iran before it gasifies Boston, repeal the income tax, and put anti-soda pop Clinton in jail for treason.

I’ve dwelt on this subject because I happen to love movies -- good movies. It was The Time Machine (George Pal’s) and North by Northwest, which I saw when they first ran, that aroused my interest in story-telling, and Lawrence of Arabia that clinched it. That, and introducing myself to the Romantic literature of the past, and AR’s novels, chartered my (chosen) course. But, like Robb, I just don’t bother going to movies any more, and if I do bother, it’s certainly not expecting to encounter values or for the re-invigorization of my spirit, but for academic reasons, to see what Hollywood is trying to get away with this time. Dull, discouraging work.

Ed Cline April 2006

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