Saturday, December 1, 2012

Script-Doctor, Heal Thyself! or How to Tell a Story in an ADD World

There's this thing in Hollywood called a Script Doctor.  This Script Doctor is a paid professional who takes your screenplay, and regardless of how literary or well done it is, charges you tens of thousands, nay even hundreds of thousands of dollars, to make it into a hackneyed formula piece.

The Script Doctor and his Snake Oil have been around for a long time. 

The Marx Brothers with Irving Thalberg.  Thalberg is the one seated at the desk (in case you couldn't tell).

 After the Marx Brothers had made their classic films at Paramount, Irving Thalberg served as producer and Script Doctor on their first two MGM films, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937).  He inserts a formula into both screenplays - the brothers are made to be sympathetic figures fighting for good, who come to a point just before the climax of the film where all seems lost, but they rally at the end and good defeats evil.  The brothers filled this formula nicely with A Night at the Opera, which had some very good writing to go along with it, but A Day at the Races and the embarrassing trio of Marx Brothers films at MGM that followed showed more formula than comedy, and Groucho et al. became weak parodies of their former selves, when they were at the height of their careers making movies that were simply funny and not contrived.


Last weekend, I saw three movies, the fascinating documentary Brooklyn Castle, and the Hollywood hits Argo and Lincoln. 

All were well-made films, entertaining and interesting to watch.

The real-life cast of Brooklyn Castle

Brooklyn Castle had no script (being a documentary) and hence was saved from the ravages of Script Doctoring. 

Argo was compelling and fun, but was clearly Doctored.  For, in the same way that the Von Trapp family escapes at the last minute from the Nazis in The Sound of Music, when in reality they simply walked to the station and boarded a train; so, in Argo the Americans escape with a hair's breadth of room as the fiendish Iranians chase their plane as it taxis down the runway, when in reality, they simply boarded three separate jets to Switzerland without incident.

Lincoln was easily the better of the two fiction films.  Why?  Because it told a complex and intricate story in a way that was neither hackneyed nor conventional.  It was not a typical Hollywood movie.  It was not (at least not obviously) Doctored.  And that, coupled with the tremendous acting and staging and photography, made for a really first class movie.


But over on Facebook, a Facebook friend of mine who is well known in Hollywood for encouraging Christians to make movies that are outside the ghetto and actually good (Barbara Nicolosi of Act One) seemed, in my opinion to miss the point, when she posted ...

So, I want to say that at times, the production design and central performance in "Lincoln" were so stellar, that I was distracted from the fact that I was watching a deadly slow, talky, episodic seminar with too many characters and too little theme.
Now, of course, there's no disputing on matters of taste, and many of Barbara's friends chimed in agreeing with her. 

But Lincoln is about as much of a "deadly, slow, talky, episodic seminar with too many characters and too little time" as Shakespeare's history plays are.  Granted, an extended mini-series TV treatment as John Adams received may have been a better format for the way in which the story was told (it would certainly have provided more time, and been much more expensive to produce) - but have we come to an era where an adult drama about complex issues like politics and slavery are deemed dull and talky if they don't feature car loads of Iranian terrorists chasing commercial airliners down the runway? 

Thank goodness the Lincoln script wasn't Doctored - or at least wasn't Doctored in that way. 


A while back I wrote on Shakespeare's Macbeth, and on the one scene in Macbeth that critics have long felt interferes with the pace and movement and development of the story (Act IV, scene iii).  I show that this odd scene is actually central to the theme, and while excising it or cutting it back would keep the pace up, it would also harm the artistic integrity of the work as a whole.

Now, I'm an old vaudevillian.  So I'm not saying that "entertainment is bad" and "artistic integrity is good" - any drama needs both, and from what I've heard of Barb Nicolosi, she's very rightly insistent upon that; and that's something her Christian-in-exile students very much need to hear.

But have we really become so puerile as a people that we can't follow the characters and politics of a movie that tells a story that is entertaining because of the richness and complexity it explores?  Must all of our drama be snappy and quick and "Ooh!  Shiny!"  Are we an ADD audience in a shallow world where only formulas and gimmicks can reach us?

Hollywood is always tempted to show a chase scene - to show Booth running after Lincoln firing shot after shot, as Lincoln jumps from the balcony and swings from the scenery of Our American Cousin, with the final shot felling our beloved president as a huge explosion tears Ford's Theater to bits in a giant conflagration.

That's Hollywood. 

But that ain't Lincoln. 

It's a better movie than that.


DISCLAIMER: I am using Barb Nicolosi and her argument as a straw man.  I'm sure she's not saying that content must be sacrificed to Script-Doctoring-for-the-Attention-Deficit-Disordered.  I'm sure her assessment of Lincoln goes beyond the sound bite she posted on Facebook.

But there are many out there who do feel exactly that way, and that is one reason Hollywood movies are as bad as they are.


Kevin O'Brien said...

[A Canadian friend of mine writes this in an email to me ... ]

Kevin another reason Hollywood sucks is that they take a true story like
the one Argo is supposedly based on, remove the operative actors who made
the real story happen, and ascribe all their actions, insights, wisdom,
temperance, diplomatic prudence, and far-sighted cool under fire to the Ken
doll du jour, and leave it at that.

If "Argo" is a re telling of a true story, then "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire
Hunter" is the more faithful rendering of the President Lincoln story.

I know this because it so happens that my father, who spent 29 years
working in the Canadian foreign service in North America and overseas, was
a longtime professional and personal friend of Ken Taylor's since their
early days working together in Ottawa.

Not only was the "Argo" story simply modified to "fit formula" but it was
done without reference to reality. Perhaps realizing the potential "bad
optics" this could generate, producer Ben Affleck hastily arranged a
pre-release screening, invited Ken Taylor to attend, and left it at that.

My dad won't waste his time on Argo because its all fake. ...

I would say this script doctoring of which you speak doesn't involve
anything like a promise to "first, do no harm" ...

Judging from what Affleck et al passively did to Ken Taylor and the reality
of his real-life role in its reality, with this project, I'd have to
conclude it's not so much Doctoring as "Vulturing" -- of a bound victim
tied to a stake.

Paul Stilwell said...

My favourite film of all time, Stalker, consistently receives its fair share of like-minded criticisms calling it "slow" and "talky", and I can't stand it.