the screenplay as literature

The screenplay is a blueprint; a manual; a selling document for producers, a technical document for cast and crew; there shouldn’t be a word in it that is not absolutely necessary to ‘tell the story’. If you are trained to be a screenwriter these days, then you have heard this, in various ways and in no uncertain terms.
We screenwriters are well aware of how many adjectives we should use to introduce our characters. There is no doubt in our minds about how many turning points we need and in which pages. We are even trained to tell ourselves to KISS – keep it simple, stupid. Just in case it ever crosses our mind to think of ourselves as actual authors, responsible for making decisions about the nature of our work.

Well, this is not the kind of screenplay i have in mind. No.

Screenplays can be literature – even if ‘literature in flux’, as Claudia Sternberg puts it. Actually, screenplays should be literature – if we are interested in watching intelligent, sensitive, unpredictable, thoughtful films, films with a beating heart.

As a reader, i am forever mystified by how very differently we think when it comes to theatre plays. For who would ever question Beckett, Ionesco, Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Oscar Wilde or the Greek tragic poets as literary figures in their own right? Even though playwrights, too, write for directors, actors, set and costume designers, electricians and sound designers… And even though many screenwriters are also revered playwrights, we still insist on these double standards.

I read screenplays out of curiosity – to untangle, say, the riddle of The Usual Suspects; or see how the explicit sexuality in Kronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, or the sinister undertones of Haneke’s The White Ribbon, or the silent despair in The Insider read on the page.

Read them for the dialog – for Hanif Kureishi’s sardonic one-liners; or McDonagh’s lightning-fast wisecracking In Bruges.

More often i read them for what is there between the frames so to speak – looking for the elusive something when a film casts a spell, and it isn’t quite the performance, or quite the dialog, or quite the direction. This something – an underlying texture, a mood, an uncommon depth of theme and character – is often to be found in the screenplay, and indeed most often it resides beyond the ‘absolutely necessary’ wording. The Piano, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, your favourite Lynch, or Bergman, or Coens film, Naked, Don’t Look Now, Pi, are some examples that spring to mind.

Indulge me for a moment, and let me offer you two examples of lavish, extravagant, and absolutely essential, detail.
One is Alain Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad (dir. Alain Resnais, 1961), this incredible feat of a writer’s mind, who not only visualises every single brain-twisting detail of the finished film, but also practically invents the opulent palazzo, long before any casting or viewing of locations.
The other one is Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (dir. Jon Amiel, 1986), this ingenious blend of pulp fiction, melodrama, hospital drama, musical, and close-to-the-bone autobiography; a masterful piece of self-exploration and self-exposure that we are used to expect from a novel rather than a film (and yes, it is actually a tv series, but Potter’s brilliant mind is worth bending a few rules).

Of course, i read the masters. Harold Pinter to Charlie Kaufman, Jean-Claude Carrière to Paul Auster to Peter Handke, Raymond Chandler to Ben Hecht to Leigh Brackett…

Then there are the many that have slipped my mind.

And then, there are the far too many, that are indeed not written to be read.


PS. A few months later, i learned i was not alone in this one. In November, i was contacted by someone who has been making the case for the literary values of the screenplay since 1973. That year, Douglas Garrett Winston published a book with the title The Screenplay as Literature. Today he writes a blog with the same title – and it is well worth a visit:


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thank you, Lauren Bacall

for breaking the moulds – being legend and woman, feisty and funny, sexy and wise –, for the honesty, the sense of pride, for showing us beauty at every age

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Robin Williams












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The spirit of a whole film captured in a single line (or three).

  • …words are insufficient. Almost everything except things like ‘pass the gravy’ is a lie of a sort. And that being the case, I shall shut up.
  • There is something to be said for silence.
  • You dive at your own risk.
  • I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.
  • Welcome to the 7 1/2 floor…
  • It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing?
  • Lip my stockings!
  • Wednesday, play with your food.
  • These people are extras. Extra people. Extras are so patient. They just sit. Extras. These humans are extras. Extra humans.
  • Only do me a favor? … Stop calling me Vernon.
  • I’m running out of heroes, man… Guys like you are in short supply.
  • You are being followed, William Blake.
  • I never forget an Oola.
  • It’s a very difficult thing – but I’m nice to her.
  • Do you have any famous last words? … ‘Not yet’ Is that famous?
  • Silencio
  • Oh, and… pass the gravy.

And the films, alphabeticaly. The match is yours to make.

  • Being John Malcowich, 1999, screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
  • Dead Man, 1995, screenplay by Jim Jarmusch
  • In Bruges, 2008, screenplay by Martin McDonagh
  • Iris, 2001, screenplay by Richard Eyre & Charles Wood, based on John Bayley’s memoirs (x2 lines)
  • Lost in Translation, 2003, screenplay by Sofia Coppola
  • Mulholland Dr., 2001, screenplay by David Lynch
  • The Addams Family, 1991, screenplay by Caroline Thompson & Larry Wilson, original characters by Charles Addams
  • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1988, screenplay Terry Gilliam & Charles McKeown
  • The Big Blue [Le Grand Bleu], 1988, screenplay by Luc Besson, Robert Garland, Marylin Golden
  • The Insider, 1999, screenplay by Eric Roth & Michael Mann, based on the article ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ by Marie Brenner
  • The Maltese Falcon, 1941, screenplay by John Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Piano, 1993, screenplay by Jane Campion
  • Venus, 2006, screenplay by Hanif Kureishi
  • Wings of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin], 1987, screenplay by Wim Wenders & Peter Handke
  • Wonder Boys, 2000, screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon (x2 lines)

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Counterpoints, double (triple) bills, sides of the same coin, variations on a theme… The thrill to see favourite films reflect and complement each other.

The Sheltering Sky (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990) & Hideous Kinky (dir. Gillies MacKinnon, 1998)
Two journeys to Africa for disenchanted Westerners, and to the edge. Insightful direction that does justice to the complex original novels of Paul Bowles and Esther Freud, arresting performances, and strong female leads by Debra Winger and Kate Winslet, that take us face to face with the unknowable.

Round Midnight (dir. Bertrand Tavernier, 1986) & Bird (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1988)
Two stories of jazz, of talent and doom side by side. Two sax players – jazz legend Dexter Gordon plays a fictional jazzman; Forest Whitaker, in his first leading role if memory serves, is Charlie Parker. Once-in-a- lifetime leads, made possible by two truly supportive supporting acts.

Quills (dir. Philip Kaufman, 2000) & Lunacy [Sílení] (dir. Jan Švankmajer, 2005)
Two takes on the charismatic, intense, radical, notorious Marquis de Sade, while imprisoned in an insane asylum. Probing the limits of free will, challenging our very notions on pornography, authority, sanity. Two films that pull no punches. And a tour de force performance from Geoffrey Rush.

Capote (dir. Bennett Miller, 2005) & Infamous (dir. Douglas McGrath, 2006)
Made practically simultaneously, two powerful versions of Truman Capote’s infatuation with the murder case that inspired In Cold Blood. There is integrity in both, and i am forever fascinated by comparing writing, tone, pace, themes visual and verbal. And the charismatic casts, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones on the title role, Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock as his grounding companion Harper Lee, Clifton Collins Jr. and Daniel Craig as his dark alter ego Perry Smith.

El Espiritu de la Colmena [The Spirit of the Beehive] (dir. Victor Erice, 1973) & El Laberinto del Fauno [Pan’s Labyrinth] (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
The trauma of the Spanish civil war through the eyes, the soul, of a child. When reality becomes unbearable, a young girl retreats into a world of her imagination; which proves just as frightening and cruel as her suffocating life.

La Belle at la Bête [Beauty and the Beast] (dir. Jean Cocteau, 1946) & The Company of Wolves (dir. Neil Jordan, 1984)
Fairytales for grown-ups – the way they were intended. Telling of the wild side in human nature. Though filming with meagre means in occupied France, Jean Cocteau still manages to bring a touch of magic and create an enduring classic. And, more recently, Neil Jordan co-writes with Angela Carter a daring update of Little Red Riding Hood.

Forbidden Games [Jeux Interdits] (dir. René Clément, 1952) & Turtles Can Fly (dir. Bahman Ghobadi, 2004)
Children at war.  Making sense of life and death, in a farmhouse in occupied France, in a Kurdish refugee camp in Iraq. Tales, amusing and devastating , of childhood endangered, resilient, imaginative, lost; of its ever-surprising (though sadly not endless) talent for survival.

Sunset Blvd. (dir. Billy Wilder, 1950) & Mulholland Dr. (dir. David Lynch, 2001)
Tales of Hollywood; of dreams, desire and loss; of success, excess and decay – told by a dead protagonist.

The Fog of War (dir. Errol Morris, 2003) & Il Divo (dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2008) & The Iron Lady (dir. Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)
A frank, brave face-to-face with Robert McNamara; a mesmerising personal take on sharp, obscure, fiercely private Giulio Andreotti; a fictional portrait of an elderly, frail Margaret Thatcher as she loosens her iron grip on the here-and-now. Three controversial, larger-than-life political figures in intimate, intelligent, candid close-ups.

Pi (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 1998) & Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman, 2008)
A brain looking at itself – the obsessed mathematician looking in numeric patterns for the key to the universe; the traumatised soldier searching for his own locked-away memory. Both very personal; each with its own visualisation of existential angst – the grainy, shaky, fragmented black and white; the beautiful and chilling animation – so effective, it nearly becomes part of the viewer’s own life experience.

Le Doulos (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962) & Miller’s Crossing (dir. Joel Coen, 1990)
Two ‘handsome movie[s] about men in hats’. And about friendship, loyalty, double-cross, the balance of power, love, loss, betrayal, integrity, taking sides… above all, in style.

The Beaches of Agnès [Les plages d’Agnès] (dir. Agnès Varda, 2008) & Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (dir. Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre, 2012)
Two honorary ‘grandmothers’ – though i prefer them grandes dames – one of the nouvelle vague, one of performance art. Two wonder-full, witty, endlessly inventive artists tell of their life, of their art, of Art and Life. Powerful, playful, moving, mind-altering stuff.


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if love was left to the saints

…how poor our (cinematic) life would be.
Thankfully, there are antidotes to Valentine’s Day sugar-rush.

  • Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders, 1984). The spell of love, in all its beauty and pettiness. A lingering, melancholic, tender cinematic poem.
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (dir. Ang Lee, 2000). Love and its hazards, a recurring theme in Lee’s films. This one i choose for being less of a caution and more of a celebration, of love young and mature, wild and everlasting.
  • The Piano (dir. Jane Campion, 1993). Love as an awakening, a negotiation, a give-and-take of body-and-soul; something beyond words, and more like music. An archetypal tale of love through a woman’s eyes.
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman (dir. Hector Babenco, 1985). Two men locked together in a prison cell; two different species discover their common humanity, through a web of romance, reality and make-believe. A complex tale on the nature of love, imagination, freedom. With William Hurt and Raul Julia at their finest.
  • Farewell My Concubine (dir. Chen Kaige, 1993). Love, art, and reality; the private and the public. The tumultuous relationship between two actors of the traditional Chinese opera, with China’s 20th century history as the backdrop. A visually ravishing, in every way awe-inspiring film, both epic in scale and hauntingly personal.
  • A Short Film about Love (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988). Sensitive, dreamy, earnest, clumsy, elevating young love, awakened to reality. It happens in Poland of another era, but it is a timeless tale of all us hopeless romantics.
  • The Consequences of Love (dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2004). Falling – in love, and from grace. Toni Servillo’s rigid, middle-aged loner gradually loses all dignity and self-control when he experiences unlikely, hopeless, transforming love. A moody, hypnotic, uplifting downfall.
  • Secretary (dir. Steven Shainberg, 2002). Deviant love – an original, daring and endearing undertaking. Humour, darkness, provocation, wit, in a fine balancing act. Especially from the two leads – James Spader, who is no stranger to risqué roles, and delightful, courageous Maggie Gyllenhaal.
  • Dolls (dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2002). Love in eternity. Three stories, one perpetual cycle. Poetic reflections on love lost and found, painful and redemptive, bonding and binding. Love as a decision, an obsession, and the mystery of free will.

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what i saw Inside Llewyn Davis

Doris Lessing has described how she imagines herself ‘standing in for all the other writers who work so hard and who don’t win prizes’. This is the first thing i thought of after watching the new Coen Brothers’ offering.
I shall explain myself.

First though, some other random thoughts.

Coming to a foreign land without a map or guide – that’s how i came to Inside Llewyn Davis. The film then became a riddle to be solved, an invitation to use one’s ‘little grey cells’; with the Brothers offering clues but never the whole story, and never ever answering the question What it is About.

How to go about it then, ‘reading’ a film? I start with the obvious – the title.
And Inside Llewyn Davis, well, obviously, invites me to look inside the character, tells me that there is more to Llewyn Davis than meets the eye.
The Brothers make it at once easy and challenging to look inside Llewyn.
The camera lingers on his face, with more close-ups than usually in their films. There is no intricate camera work, no elaborate settings, no distorting lenses. And yet. What we are confronted with is the deadpan face of a man who doesn’t give away very much at all.
Eventually, in the effort to understand what takes place behind the words he speaks, and regardless of other characters’ views of him, i found myself providing – making up, i suppose – the inside of Llewyn Davis.

This is what i imagined.

Behind his sombre face, i saw the pain of a loss, much deeper than he will let on.
Consider this. Two brothers, and as close creative partners as the Coens, present one half of a duo who lost his other half to suicide. No matter how many bad jokes this seems to inspire in others, for Llewyn it has to be serious.
Indeed when his hopes for a lucky break are shattered, followed with the well-meant suggestion he should join up again with his partner, ‘This is good advice’, Llewyn answers; in what sounds like a private joke on his own suicidal thoughts. It is, it seems, this grief inside Llewyn Davis that creates his gloomy disposition, his often painful frankness, his tough luck, the (often commented upon, but not quite identified) overall melancholic mood of the film.

Another way to see inside Llewyn, are his songs. There are several hints to this, including the line ‘Play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis’, which can be read in two different ways. It is only when he sings that he becomes, well, alive, fully present. And he is probably the most talented of the lot. His heart-rendering Hang Me, Oh Hang Me (note the suicide theme, there from the very beginning); The Death of Queen Jane (sure enough, there can’t be much money in this); the Shoals of Herring that moves his absent-minded father (though not quite to tears), shine a dark light that matches his disposition, and captivate his audience, both on- and off-screen.

And so, hoping for that lucky break, Llewyn sings his way ‘all around this world’. His Odyssey makes allusions to both Homer’s original and James Joyce’s modern version. The seaman’s life – to which he may or may not return -; a woman far away – a Penelope – who has given birth to his child; his own life as a wandering troubadour, all hint at the Odyssey, which in Homer’s days was practically a long ballad. Then there is his Irish name, and his travelling companion, the ginger wandering cat that goes by the name of Ulysses.
(There is also an inside joke here. A not-quite-likeable character, so the theory goes, can be redeemed by a single act of goodwill, a so-called Save-the-Cat moment. Llewyn gets plenty of opportunities to literally save a cat, and he so eagerly takes them all – all but one, to be precise -, he even saves the wrong cat.)

His luck, however, begins and ends with saving that cat. However much talent, sincerity, integrity, hard work he may put in, Llewyn won’t get his break. His lot is to prepare the ground for, say, Bob Dylan, who is glimpsed performing at the Gaslight Café just before the last scene. Who, however, doesn’t by any means stand out. It is only with hindsight that we recognise this young songwriter in the background. More than anything, it seems to be a happy twist of fate, a matter of right-place right-time, that distinguishes him from Llewyn.

So, back to Doris Lessing. Like Lessing, the Coens, Dylan, all those who have our attention and our respect, are the gifted and fortunate ones, the success stories, the winners. Llewyn Davis is the Brothers’ ballad for those ‘who work so hard and who don’t win’. Does that make him a loser? Well, funnily enough, not anymore – for now he is a hero.

Anyway, this is how i saw it.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

Dumbfounded. Not sure i should write anything at all. When so many others are much closer, much better placed to express the loss.
Still, silence was no good.

Two thoughts then.

One. Death of a Salesman seems to form a neat cycle in Hoffman’s on-stage life, as one of his first roles on high school and his last on Broadway was that of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s classic. It’s for you to decide on the meaning of this, and whether there is any.

Two. My own favourite is his shy, compassionate Everyman Phil Pharma, home nurse to Jason Robards’s dying patriarch. Phil does not question neither does he judge the questionable indeed characters surrounding him; instead he becomes the driving force that leads them to mutual understanding, and forgiveness.
Let us bear in mind for a moment that this most astute of actors’ directors,
Paul Thomas Anderson, created his Magnolia characters very much after the personalities and real-life trials of his actors.
Enter Robert Falls, who directed Hoffman in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s drama on addiction and disintegration. He talks of the ‘emotional cost’ it had on the actor, then adds: ‘He just brought every fiber of his being to the stage. He was there – with his depth of feeling, depth of humanity – and no other actor I’ve ever worked with ever brought it like that, not at that level.’
In the two directors’ insights, i see a common thread. Humanity, generosity, depth, compassion, call it as you will – could this, i wonder, be the essence of the man? His great, overwhelming, capacity for empathy – this seems to be the source of his exceptional talent; his gift and his, alas fatal, weakness. A painful honesty seems ultimately to be the legacy, the inspiration and responsibility he passes on to us.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, farewell.

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in place of prologue

Thinking aloud about cinema – this is what i do in these pages.
In no particular order – whatever comes to mind, and to heart.
This is not objective criticism; it is flawed, single-minded, selective, limited
by time and place and space, by memory and temperament; it is personal.

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Questionable heroes for uncertain times. And for dark winter days.

  • Harry Fabian, Richard Widmark’s troubled small-time crook, in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950). Of all the glorious anti-heroes who inhabit and define film noir, Fabian is possibly at once the most flawed and most haunting – and, rather tellingly, the film was made while Dassin himself was being persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Penniless, weak, deceitful, desperate to ‘make it’ in a dubious world, Fabian spreads tragedy around him. His end brings out the dreamer in him, and his redemption.
  • The Wild Bunch (1969), going out in a blaze. Sam Peckinpah’s outlaws are heading to their demise; and they know it. End of an era, in slow motion.
  • Naked (1993). Stark is the word that comes to mind. Chilling and very close to the bone. The modern-day counterpart of the urban outcast must be Johnny in Mike Leigh’s unsettling film. A mind-blowing David Thewlis, as a man with nothing to lose, a sad, sadistic, yet gripping character; a doomsday prophet with a fierce intellect, who wanders in the city spouting out painful truths; and leaves us with an ambivalent, uneasy aftertaste about our compromised, complacent existence.
  • There is no thinking of the doomed, without thinking of Fassbinder. Anything with the magnetic presence of Hanna Schygulla is good enough for me. But nothing’s like the slow burner that is Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). (As for trespassing to tv territory, this is more a cinematic marathon rather than a mini-series.)
  • How to choose among the eternally charming loners, outsiders, rebels – all those children of film noir – in the French New Wave? To this impossible task, my answer is Au Voleur [A Real Life] (2009), by Sarah Leonor. A peti thief and a school teacher on the run, leave town for the waterways and the forest. Guillaume Depardieu, intense and vulnerable, painfully so, in one of the last roles of his life, opposite gentle, subtle Florence Loiret-Caille, find a moment of freedom, peace, and childlike joy, in this poetic new take on the New Wave themes. The soundtrack is a gem, too.
  • A community forgotten by time are the real-life protagonists of Bombay Beach (2011), a once fashionable California resort. But this is so much more than a documentary of existence on the edge of society. Director Alma Har’el looks at these lives with rare sensitivity, looks beyond the flawed humanity, to uncover warmth, wisdom, poetry.
  • Leaving Hollywood, the rat race, life as we know it; leaving life. Ben drinks himself to death in the warm, understanding embrace of worldly-wise prostitute Sera. Chronicle of a suicide in jazz undertones, in Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas (1995).
  • Unquenchable, with a desire that could be well called Hunger, are brother and sister in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011). Yet they are neither unaware nor unashamed, and their unspoken pain shines a soft, mesmeric light in the decadent, dead-end atmosphere of the film.
  • Of all the endearing fighters for lost or obscure causes in Jim Jarmusch’s world, Ghost Dog, The Way of the Samurai (1999) seems here the most apt. Forest Whitaker’s hitman lives and dies after an ancient samurai code and its forgotten sence of dignity – one more modern hero in the wrong time and place, who choses his own singular way out.
  • The alternative Philipe Marlowe, as portrayed by director Robert Altman, screenwriter Leigh Brackett, and Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye (1973). A subtle, inventive take on Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled hero, long after his golden age, he now takes on traits of his writer – who once wrote that ‘of course Marlowe is a failure’. Or is he?

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