Saturday, April 23, 2011


“Coming to meet halfway is possible only between people who are mutually honest and sincere in their way of life.” I Ching

I gave up reading books about the craft of screenwriting a long time ago. The two or three I actually dipped into made my head ache. Forget about inspiring vision or even a modicum of passion; they simply reduced the process of dramatic narrative to a manipulation of events, turning points and positive and negatively charged actions. Fair enough, I guess, if you’ve managed to actually get past the 100 or so blank pages that go into the writing of a feature screenplay. Alas, none of them inspired vision, let alone an ear for character.

In 2001, when Robert McKee came to AFTRS (the Australian Film, Television & Radio School) to present his legendary “medicine shows” on writing the thriller, comedy and feature drama, he managed to do little more than bequeath a lexicon of jargon that would colour and create a semblance of communication and knowledge where in fact there was almost no understanding at all. For a fortnight after his visit the school’s corridors, cafeteria and conference rooms were alive with buzzwords. “Story-arcs”, “turning points” and “inciting incidents” enlivened the discourse, or at least provided a type of delicious gravity and sophistication that had not been there before. The old language game had been renovated into a new language game – somehow more relevant and profound than what had been there before. Armed with this new jargon and encouraged by the dramatic power of a forceful and charismatic speaker, the students attacked the scripts that were being written and rewritten, produced and directed, shot and edited with a renewed sense of creative dedication. But it was just another language game, or rather a differently worded version of the old game with a sense of sophistication that was merely symptomatic of the malady of the usual mind-set in which ego, unmanaged fear and manipulation continue to inform the values of the ambitious, blind and deaf.

The screenwriter working as a medium can find no solace or encouragement in the pronouncements of those for whom story is reducible to what the writer DOES to the story ant the CHARACTERS. This sort of creative chauvinism is anathema to the mediumistic screenwriter and filmmaker. What is important is not so much what you do, but what you don’t do. To understand this better, consider for a moment the Chinese concept of Wu Wei (无为.). Wu Wei is an important tenet of Taoism that involves knowing when to act and when not to act. “Wu” may be translated as “not having” or “not possessing”; and “Wei” (2nd tone) may be translated as “action” or “doing”. The literal meaning of Wu Wei is "without action" or “no action” – a strange concept to be introducing into a dicussion about dramatic storytelling, in which action is central to its movement and meaning. Paradoxically, the application of Wu Wei to dramatic screen storytelling (or story-finding) is expressed more directly by the concept of “wei wu wei” : "action without action."

The practice of wu wei and the efficacy of wei wu wei are fundamentally the achievement of a state of perfect equilibrium, or the alignment of action with intention. In practical terms this alignment manifests as spontaneity, resulting in an irresistible form of "soft and invisible power" over things (the self, others, a country).

Spontaneity is a quality of performance - what sports people refer to when they speak of a player or a team as being “in the zone”. Mediumistic screenwriters write “in the zone”, and they do so not by force of will but by learning to act without acting.

Confucius once compared a virtuous prince to the North Pole, saying that he did not move; everything turned around him. There are magical, occult justifications behind this idea of a power obtained by 'inaction'. In the ancient Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Although water is soft and weak, it has the capacity to slowly erode solid stone. Water is without will (i.e.: the will for a shape), opposing wood, stone, or any solid material that can be broken into pieces. It can therefore fill any container, take any shape, go anywhere, even into the smallest holes. When sprayed in thousands of small drops, water still has the capacity to reunite. Eventually – as is its nature – it returns to its source, to the eternal sea. Furthermore, while always going downward, water rests in the 'dark valley'—where biological life is regenerated. The creative vision of the correspondence of birth with death, youth with age, strength with weakness – the yin and the yang of our being – the situation of irony that is the story of human history – that makes truth out of existence and existence out of the irony inherent in good and evil – enlarges our understanding of the story that we are telling, which is also and equally the story that is telling us.

Several chapters of the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Tze, allude to 'diminishing action', or 'diminishing will', as the key aspect of the sage's success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the universe already works harmoniously according to its own laws; as a person exerts her/his will against the world s/he disrupts the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a screenwriter/filmmaker should not exert will. Rather, it is how s/he acts in relation to the natural processes already extant that is critical. In terms of a story the natural processes involve more than the writer, the writer’s knowledge and the means of notating the writer’s ideas. A story’s natural processes are the actions of the characters and the sources of these actions – and the characters here referred to are not simply those characters that inhabit the screenplay, but also the character that is the story’s audience and the characters whose tribe or tribes are being dramatised by the actions of the dramatis personae.

Wu Wei has also been translated as "creative quietude," or the art of letting-be. It is evidenced in the spontaneous gestures of artists and dancers, sports persons and musicians, acrobats and actors, indeed anyone that instinctively understands the value of getting out of the way of the creative energies that move in and through them. The act of letting go or relinquishing control does not mean sloppiness or any dulling of the mind; in fact, it is the very liberation of thought, an effortlessness that does not strain to be either open or closed, interested or disinterested – it is akin to pure consciousness – a being INSIDE THE MOMENT, inside the drama, naturally open, available and responsive to one's own multifarious nature and the natures of those with whom one shares the finding that is the dramatic story played out in the actions of all of the characters.

As one diminishes doing, one diminishes all those actions committed against the Tao (read: the natures of the characters and the nature of the story itself), which already exists like the sculpture inside the uncarved stone - the already present natural harmony. As one begins to cultivate Tao (or Being), one becomes ever more in harmony with it and, according to Chuang Tze, attains a state of Ming, or 'clear seeing'.

It is in the state of Ming that the Taoist is in full harmony with Tao, and 'having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing that he does not do.'

It is upon achievement of this Chinese equivalent to 'enlightenment' that both the sage and the truly original and revolutionary filmmaker begin to perform wei wu wei, or 'action without action.' Thus the filmmaker – like the sage - will work in harmony with Nature to accomplish what is needed and, working in perfect harmony with the Tao, leave no trace of having done it.

“Coming to meet” is best understood as a contract made between two people. If one is indolent in performing his part, or has mental reservations about what he is willing to do, the contract may fail. Although such a person may have entered the contract without any immediate objections, his attitude may contain objections which arise only at the time his obligations are to be performed. Such a person may secretly feel that contracts are not to be taken seriously, or, on seeing how difficult it is to fulfill his part, he may hedge on doing it because of some idea that all contracts are subject to fitting into his concept of what is “reasonable.”

We must avoid egotistical enthusiasm when we think we are making progress, or discouragement when the dark period ensues. Throughout the cycle we learn to remain detached. Holding steadily to the light within us and within others. The instant we strive to influence, we “push upward blindly.” If we insist on accomplishing the goal at all costs, our inner light is darkened and our will to see things through is damaged.

Inner withdrawal is an action of perseverance that has its own reward, but only when it is modest perseverance, not an attempt to impress others by getting them to notice our withdrawal. In many situations the problem is resolved, not through any external action that arises spontaneously on our part, but by simply “letting it happen,” through letting go of the problem. Our “action” is to “let go".


Onik said...

Wow, thank your for this interesting article relating wu wei with screenwriting. Amazing connection!!

Onik said...

wow a connection with screenwriting and wu wei!!! truly ingenious, thank you!!!