Weaving A Different Magic, Part 2

The obsession with the “rules of screenwriting” that I described in two previous blog posts (this one and this one), can be expected, of course, in books about screenwriting by screenwriters. This reflects a natural and understandable tendency on the part of screenwriters to think of their work as the primary basis of film. But this is a little myopic on the part of the writers, as if the final movie is simply a translation of their work into a different medium.

The screenplay is only one element that goes into a movie, and is no more determinative of the power of the final movie than other elements, like the acting, the cinematography, or the director’s style and choices. Filmmaking as an art is not about accurately translating the story of the screenplay to the screen. It’s about using the screenplay as one element among others to create a separate and new work of art that can certainly have different and greater artistic goals than the screenplay’s narrative.

The non-narrative aspects of the film experience are as important to the art of film as the story. We must always think about the experience of the audience, what emotional or mental states the audience goes through, the journey they go on, which as Werner Herzog pointed out, is different from the journey the characters go on. This is created as much by the style of the film, which involves the director’s, cinematographer’s and actors’ choices, as by the script.

Screenwriters often forget this, and too often when screenwriters get a chance to direct, their movies are stylistically unimaginative, workmanlike, competent, with the focus on a straightforward, classical re-imagining of their script to the screen.

We also see this almost-exclusive focus on story in a lot of film criticism, as Matt Zoller Seitz talked about in a recent blog post. Seitz observes how most current film criticism avoids talk of style or form and focuses instead mostly on issues of narrative, plot and characters (with occasional nods to good acting or beautiful cinematography).

But, as Seitz insists, the art of movies is as much about how a story is told as the story itself. The style, the filmmaking, is what makes it a movie, and not a novel, or a play, an opera, or a dance, all equally viable forms in which to tell a story.

Is the editing fragmented or languorous? The camera in motion or static? The lighting naturalistic or stylized? The color palette vivid or subdued? Why is this shot held so long? Why is that scene shot from that particular angle? And how do all these choices affect the mood or contribute to the communication of a point of view?

I don’t want to denigrate the need for a great script as part of any great movie, but don’t be misled into thinking that relating a narrative is the only and ultimate objective of filmmaking. It is conjuring an experience for the audience that is the ultimate objective, and in creating that experience, narrative is only one element, no more important than all the others.



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