YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

That's Entertainment. That's Too Bad.

August 06, 1995|David Mamet | David Mamet is the author of "Oleanna" and "Glengarry Glen Ross," among many other plays. His screenplays include "The Untouchables," "The Verdict" and "The House of Games."

Screenwriting used to be referred as "writing titles"--it was a description that persisted as a survival and then as a nostalgic anachronism into the early 1940s.

The old joke has it that a neophyte screenwriter, in the early "talkies" era, penned: "She comes into the room. She discovers him there, and words cannot describe the scene which then ensues." The joke, for those insufficiently hip, is this: If words cannot describe the scene, what the hell is the screenwriter getting paid for?


The Screenplay has become the late-20th Century equivalent of tatting. Anyone can take a hand at it, and it is counted as "honorary work": That is, it is considered neither a pastime nor an avocation, but a potentially rewarding use of one's time.

And it may well be. Those countless hundreds of thousands working away on their screenplay idea may have their dream come true--for, like tatting, writing the contemporary screenplay requires only the minutest understanding of the rudiments.

If the film is a drama, the writer must be a dramatist of great or less ability; he or she must be able to craft a progression of incidents that piques and holds the attention of the audience. But films have degenerated to their origins as carnival amusement--they offer not drama, but thrills . (The early nickelodeon showed a freight train steaming toward the audience, and they, unused to the technology, said "how real," and were stunned. Today's computer morphing, blue screen, etc., function similarly).

It doesn't take a dramatist to "script" a film based on thrills. The requirements of such films are, in effect, fairly identical to those of straight-out pornography--the minimal plot is merely a sop to our sensibilities, so that we may assure ourselves that we've retained some modicum of self-respect--the plot is the well-brought-up young woman's first ritual refusal.

As in tatting, or mime, the skills in contemporary screenwriting are accounted difficult by courtesy; the few variations from the norm are about as innovative as the sartorial accessorizing of the rich. Perhaps there was a Golden Age of Drama in the movies, perhaps not. And perhaps I delude myself to think that the business once was overseen by filmmakers rather than exploiters.

The difference, to me, between the two categories is this: Each wants to make money, but the filmmaker intends to do so by making a film. The Byzantine structure of the studio system, like any terminal bureaucracy, rewards the bureaucratic virtue of adherence to the system.

And the system starts with the script reader.

This is the entry-level position.

Bright young people, fresh from the hierarchy of the university and the film school, begin here. They are given scripts and understand that they are to endorse the predictable--that any deviations from formula will be made by their betters. They are to stand at the gates and reject the unusual. It must be terrible job. I'm sure it is--wading through reams of printed paper day by day, an activity both worthless and boring.

In the late '60s, the small theaters had made available to them, for the first time, significant amounts of grant money. Where once these theaters were run by and succeeded through the efforts of those who could communicate with an audience, now they were captained by those who could write grants. Similarly, where once the screenplay was written to appeal to the star, or the director--to those who would make it into film--now it is written to appeal to the bored script reader.

The screenplay of today has, in effect, become a novel.

We have heard "Words cannot describe the scene which now ensues." Ha ha. But I have read "You guessed it: Here comes the sex scene--I'd write it for you, but my mother reads these scripts"; "He comes into the room, and we hate him--we really hate him"; "outside the window New York, in all its Vicious Splendor"; and, my favorite, "He turns and walks away from the camera. Nice butt, kid."

Now, the last haunts me like an Escher drawing, something that can have no basis in reality. Let us consider it as an instruction. To whom it is addressed? To the casting agent? But the writer compliments not the actor--as yet unchosen--but his or her own conception, his or her thought . The writers compliment their own thought. Similarly, if we consider it a description, we find that it is a description of something we have not shared--the writers' thought, and by extension, their ability to think.

It's monstrous.

Can such a phrase help the actor or the director? No. But it serves the same purpose as the final film--it appeals to the jaded.

"We hate him." No doubt, as "he" is meant to be the villain. This enormity skips the fact of the film altogether, and refers directly to the emotions of the audience.

Los Angeles Times Articles