No shit, dingus. Pardon my French, but in Carrie Rickey’s 1/15/12 New York Times article “Perfectly Happy, Even Without Happy Endings,” Hollywood once again shows its complete ignorance of its own origins. Still a rebellious teenager, the US film industry would rather pretend theatre doesn’t exist and that Hollywood sprang forth from itself, rather than admit that it actually inherited plenty of brains and good looks from its nerdy parents.
Louis B. Mayer once supposedly said, “Theatre is a flea up an elephant’s ass,” the elephant of course being Hollywood. More accurately — and what I tell my screenwriting students every semester — is that theatre is a 3000-year-long dog and motion pictures are a hundred-year-long hair on that dog’s tail; that maybe one day film will evolve to the point that it bears no resemblance to theatre but that day is still a long way off, and that budding filmmakers and screenwriters would do well to spend a little of their time in school studying theatre. Unfortunately film schools around the country, including the esteemed institution where I teach and of which I’m a graduate, seem intent on doing everything they can to shield their students from the power of live performance, ignoring theatre as inferior, obsolete, old-fashioned, insisting that the only legitimate form of narrative storytelling is film, all the while stealing from theatre on a regular basis.
In Rickey’s article we meet the latest example of a smug Hollywood cannibal: highly successful Hollywood producer Lindsay Doran, who discusses all the time, energy and resources she spent trying to figure out what makes the great Hollywood films so memorable and emotionally potent. She analyzed a lot of movies, consulted with market researchers and pop psychologists and concluded that, gasp, positive movies do not necessarily have happy endings (Casablanca, To Kill a Mockingbird, Titanic, et al). Indeed, the most powerful films of all time, she concludes, mingle accomplishment with great loss. In other words, “the accomplishment the audience values most is resilience.”
So far, so good, except that all of this has been stolen from theatre (Casablanca in fact was based on an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s) and it’s embarrassing that Ms. Doran doesn’t even realize it. She’s now running around Hollywood getting paid to give self-help seminars to producers as though she’s solved a great mystery; as though no one had thought of any of this before her; as though the poignant plots and character arcs of these great movies happened by accident. It’s bad enough that so many in the film industry still prefer to think the 3-act plot structure was invented by Hollywood during the 1940s studio era rather than being lifted directly from opera and traceable all the way back to ancient Greece. Now we’ve got Doran, casting herself as a great thinker and voice in the wilderness, realizing in her Hollywood vacuum that the best narratives are those in which people don’t necessarily get what they want but learn to survive anyway. Shocking. She could have saved herself a lot of time and energy by asking the nearest playwright.
A playwright might have advised her to simply spend an afternoon reading The Birth of Tragedy by Friederich Nietzsche (coincidentally mentioned in the same NYT issue in Alexander Star’s review of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book American Nietzsche, A History of an Icon and His Ideas) and Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet, or skipping both books and going straight to the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita or the writings of the Buddha.
You see, Ms. Doran, the primary purpose of drama has always been to show unhappy people going through suffering to try and stop their unhappiness, experiencing complete and utter despair along the way, and learning that they’ll never be happy (even if they do accomplish their main goal in the plot) but that life is worth living anyway. Why? Because like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, total happiness is impossible to achieve. Hollywood stole its narrow definition of “happiness” from 19th century stage melodramas which said all anyone needed to be happy was a good spouse, a good job, and entry into the middle class. In other words, achieving the American Dream will make one happy. As you have discovered through your own convoluted and costly means, movies (and plays) that endorse this belief are fun but forgettable.
The memorable and positive protagonist is one who comes out the other end of her or his desperate journey loving life and wanting to go on anyway despite confronting loss, regret and learning that they’ll never get everything they want. This is called gaining wisdom. As I hinted at above, this unfortunate fact of human existence is also summed up by every major religion: to live is to suffer.
Any good playwright can tell you that audiences tend to feel healed and redeemed by watching someone else go through this tough journey to wisdom because it makes viewers vicariously wiser and prepares them for their own journeys. This powerful approach to narrative storytelling is nearly universal in Western culture going back to ancient Greece. Next time you’re stumped by a great cinematic question please start by ignoring Hollywood market researchers and your favorite pop psychologists, and asking the nearest playwright. You’ll likely get your answers there.
“So where does Ms. Doran go from here?” Rickey’s article asks you in its conclusion. Hopefully to see a few plays.
By the way, Ms. Doran, I can show you some killer spec screenplays that I promise you’re going to love. Seriously. Have your people call my people.
[images via nytimes.com]
For the updated version of this post click here, 10/2/15. Below is the old version from 2011.
Let’s Stop It Before It Claims Lives
by Dr. Harold Koplewicz, President, the Child Mind Institute
“In the mass shooting in Arizona Saturday there were heroes who prevented even more bloodshed…But there are others in this story who could have, and I believe would have, been heroes if they had the knowledge and tools they needed to stop Jared Loughner’s descent into mental illness.
“It’s heartbreaking to read the accounts of college students and professors who noticed Loughner’s bizarre and frightening behavior, shared their fears with others, but didn’t see a way to get Loughner effective help…It’s terrible to imagine a student actually sitting by the door of her classroom because she was so afraid of another obviously mentally ill student — and outrageous that it took more than a single day to resolve the situation. In fact, it took three or four weeks before her concerned professor, and others who had Loughner in their classes, were able to have him removed…What his professors didn’t do is acknowledge that he was a risk to both himself and others, and call the police.
“Schizophrenia, if that’s what this is — or any of the other psychiatric disorders that can lead to psychosis — doesn’t develop overnight. There are warning signs, and those signs didn’t prompt the intervention they should have. ” FULL STORY AT CHILD MIND INSTITUTE>>
But alas, according to the New York Times (see below) the fuzz did visit Loughner’s home, but they can only do so much until a person commits a crime. Cops can’t arrest someone because they read Nietzsche or went to a lame party and decided they’d rather sit alone and read a dictionary, and drop them off at the psych center. (And I hate when the media in this country do this; ‘he read books so he must be crazy.’ Yes, this guy is a maniac but are they suggesting that reading made him crazy? Or are they suggesting that he was crazy, therefore he read books? Either way it’s a silly message to send our kids. The Clinton administration did the same thing after Columbine; the Dept. of Ed. sent out a guidebook for teachers to help them spot troubled students, and one of the warning signs was students who spend an inordinate amount of time in the library reading books! Remember when studiousness and staying out of trouble was a good thing? Now it makes you odd, and dangerous. I guess if you’re a violent bully on a daily basis then you’re normal. I’m only saying, look elsewhere for the root of evil or of psychosis. Thankfully there are organizations like the above-mentioned Child Mind Institute that make some sense.)
Regarding Loughner and the fuzz, couldn’t the cops (including the campus cops who were extremely aware of his frightening classroom behavior) have gone to a next of kin, as in Loughner’s mom or dad, to strongly recommend that they have Loughner forcibly committed? Loughner wasn’t just reading intellectual books. He was acting dangerous and seemed to enjoy, and gain a sense of power from, making people afraid of him, like his classmates, former friends, and neighbors.
And now the Times article:
Police Say They Visited Tucson Suspect’s Home Even Before Rampage
By Jo Becker, Kirk Johnson and Serge F. Kovaleski; nytimes.com
“The police were sent to the home where Jared L. Loughner lived with his family on more than one occasion before the attack here on Saturday…The news of police involvement with the Loughners suggests that county sheriff’s deputies were at least familiar with the family, even if the reason for their visits was unclear as of Tuesday night.
“The account by Mr. Loughner’s friend added some details to the emerging portrait of the suspect and his family. ‘He was a nihilist and loves causing chaos…he was sick in the head,’ said Zane Gutierrez, 21… [Loughner] talked about reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s book The Will To Power and embraced ideas about the corrosive, destructive effects of nihilism — a belief in nothing.
“He added that Mr. Loughner ‘used the word hollow to describe how fake the real world was to him.’ …He also said that Mr. Loughner had increasing trouble interacting in social settings — during one party, for instance, Mr. Loughner retreated upstairs alone to a room and was found reading a dictionary.
“After his arrest for possession of drug paraphernalia in 2007, Mr. Loughner was ordered to attend a diversion program run by the county attorney’s office…But the program is primarily educational, focused on ‘the dangers of drugs and the dangers of substance abuse,’ rather than the kind of in-depth counseling that friends, including Mr. Gutierrez, strongly felt that Mr. Loughner needed.
“‘It got worse over time,’ Mr. Gutierrez said. He said he stopped talking to Mr. Loughner last March, when their interactions grew increasingly unpredictable and troubling….’He started to get really paranoid.’” FULL STORY AT NYTIMES.COM>>
Another update: As I predicted, there were plenty of other symptoms besides what books he read; in fact, there was an avalanche of warning signs right under everyone’s noses, even right under his family’s noses, yet they decided not to have him committed. Why? Why on earth not? FULL STORY AT NYTIMES.COM>>
[image by me; baby head sculpture by Ron Mueck, Boston Museum of Fine Arts]
While I’m discussing Medicine, Man and Tesla’s Letters now being available on the Kindle, I may as well discuss THE GOLDEN HORSESHOE: A LECTURE ON TRAGEDY. I conceived, wrote, directed and performed this 75-minute autobiographical tragicomedy about family skeletons, Nietzsche, Elvis and a trip to the Underworld in 2003. It came about because I had met Michael Wiener, an amazing performance artist of whom I was a big fan, at a party once. Doubtless I had consumed many martinis, and began blathering on to him about something or other. At one point he stopped me and said, as I recall it, “You’re a good storyteller. You should come and do something sometime at this show I co-curate at the Gershwin Hotel.” I was flattered, said sure, didn’t think he was serious.
Six weeks later I got a call from Michael’s co-curator, famed artist and Andy Warhol cohort Neke Carson, asking if I was interested. I said sure, and that I had a whole spoken-word, true story kind of thing worked out. He said great, why don’t you come by in two days and tell me more about it. In truth I had no idea what I’d do, so I thought – What’s the best true story you’ve got, Stanley? What’s the (continue reading…)