Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Player

Tim Robbins in The Player directed by Robert Altman
My favorite movie by Robert Altman is "The Player". Every scene builds on the energy of the one which precedes it in a manner often described in screenwriting guides but rarely found in an actual movie. Tim Robbins, an actor who to me seems as if he would be more at home on stage, comes off very believably as the cutthroat ultra-ambitious movie executive Griffin Mill in what is my favorite of his performances. The movie is based on the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, and I believe this is, largely, why it works so well. Certainly, Altman's ability is not to be questioned, but there has to be a foundation. It's probably fair to suggest that many if not most of the best movies are based on novels, especially these days. This logic extends to Altman -- here are some of his movies which are based on novels: MASH (novel by Richard Hooker), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (novel by Edmund Naughton), Thieves Like Us (novel by Edward Anderson), and The Long Goodbye (novel by Raymond Chandler). Lastly, I would mention one of my all-time favorites, "Short Cuts", based on collected short stories by Raymond Carver. Carver's writing is succinct and a bit dry, and carries more between the lines than most writers can express directly. Altman's cinematic handling of this material matches its source -- a very rare achievement in moviemaking -- in fact it's possible that he surpassed the scope of Carver's stories.

Ann Thompson's new column covers Tolkin's sequel "The Return of the Player". (It wouldn't be right not to mention Anne's excellent blog, Risky Biz). Tolkin was well into a career as a Hollywood writer at the time he wrote "The Player" and it's always been assumed Mill was based on a real movie exec. I've always assumed Mill is a composite). The aspect of Thompson's write-up that most interested me is her frank description of script doctors as having to "suffer years of indignity writing scripts by committee inside the studio industrial complex, where you have little control over the results but make a handsome living." She continues to posit that it's easy to understand why a writer would prefer writing novels for the control and satisfaction it offers.

I started out writing screenplays but recently discovered writing shorts and novels -- and I couldn't agree more. In general, screenplays utilize high-school level syntax. In fact, the very rules of proper syntax are often ignored for the sake of brevity (there's a strict industry-standard page count to adhere to) and you get stuff like: Nick stumbles in, looks around frantic, is shocked to see Dr. X sitting at far end of room smoking cigar -- a faint grin (dances) across his face.

This tour de force might be followed by dialogue such as:

So. We meet again.

I've been expecting you.

Whereas, in a short or a novel you might enjoy throwing something together, like: London isn't that cold in October, but when it rains and the wind kicks up it can be pretty nasty. I ducked into the nearest doorway, shook the water off and went into the pub. It was warm, smoky, and crowded inside and there was a healthy buzz of conversation. I expected everyone to turn to see who had come in like they do in old Westerns, but no one did so I proceeded to the bar and sat next to a quirky looking fellow with wild hair and gleaming blue eyes who gives me a friendly nod before returning his attention to a tall glass of something black and fizzy. The bartender approaches and, for an American, I do a fair job of ordering a stout.

Really. How can you compare the two? Screenwriting may bring in the bucks and the script doctor's phone may ring off the hook, but (good) prose enlivens the mind and soothes the soul. Besides, how much of your life experience can you put into the characters of a screenplay? With the need to meet demographic demands, stay within the confines of a PG-13 or R rating (the only ones that regularly make money), as well as budgetary constraints, struggling with whether or not a given A-list actor could deliver a given line with credibility, rewriting endlessly to meet the whim of the next suit with an MBA, screenwriting doesn't give you much wiggle room and is rarely rewarding on a personal level, especially if you farm out your skills to studios seeking fixes for their library of broken down screenplays in the hopes of producing that one gem that will yield a box office steamroller. But, novels… You can get back at your worst enemy (or, if you don't have any enemies, invent some -- then destroy them), exorcise your darkest personal demons, live vicariously through your characters -- all while creating some nicely crafted sentences and stories that appeal to a more discerning audience -- (hopefully).

I love movies and I look forward to making them, but the peaceful, satisfying life of a novelist beckons. For now, I'm going for the brass ring, a persistently ringing phone, and the happy/frenetic seven-day-a-week schedule of a successful Hollywood screenwriter (I'll let you know as soon as I get there). But, when it becomes possible I will retire to a life of quiet days spent reading novels or the paper and, when the mood strikes, writing novels or short stories, or something, next to a partially open window in my modest home near the beach at the end of a long driveway. I know I won't be able to fully put aside my love of slick (mostly) superficial Hollywood movies -- perhaps I'll have one (any one) running in the background with the sound turned off while I make dinner and watch the sun set. If you call you may expect to leave a message -- my answering machine will be on.

Alan Green

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