Thursday, December 29, 2011
In the beginning : THE ATONAL SCREENPLAY
Any one that has written a screenplay, especially a feature-length screenplay, and is familiar with the constituent elements of musical form will be aware of the relationship that exists between the realisation of a screen story and the composition and performance of a piece of music. Both are essentially time-arts distinguished by the way in which their common elements contribute - in both - to building and releasing emotional energy in time.
Both screenplays and musical compositions have tempo, texture, tonality and dynamics, as well as beat and meter, timbre, harmony, and dissonance. They are differentiated by the fact that the musical experience is fundamentally conjured out of sound and silence; whereas the dramatic experience proceeds by way of images and cuts.
Another element central to both is voice, which references character. On a rudimentary level, you can delineate the musical “characters” in terms of percussion, string, brass, woodwind and keyboard instruments, as well as the human voice. In the creation of a musical experience, each participates and contributes to the Voice of the whole. Likewise, with the screen story, one encounters the voices of the individual characters, as well as the voice (or attitude) of the character that is writing the screenplay, and/or directing it, who also gives voice to his or her tribes, allowing them to have their life in the act of speaking through the story.
The best screenplays and the best films have a voice. Some might refer to it as style. When crystallised and associated with the specific obsessions of a particular director it some times becomes a genre. It is more than anything else, an attitude, a way of looking at and listening to the world. This filmic voice is not merely composed of the many, individual voices of the dramatis personae; it is the voice of all of the musical elements of the story in concert with each other, and includes both what is both visible and perceivably invisible through context and subtext.
Any screenwriter that has ever worked as a medium, that has undergone the initiation of channelling characters and story, understands the essential musicality of the act. Images have tone and weight; scenes have pitch; a character’s contradictions create texture and subtext; the close-up screams. For the medium it is not enough to simply grasp this intellectually, it is important that he/she feels it bodily, the same way you feel music when immersed in it. You cannot enter the drama unless you also enter its music.
The experience of momentum, which is absolutely essential to the creative process, is the dance one does to the music one hears in act of finding the story. By “momentum”, I mean the bodily sense that one is being carried along by forces more powerful and compelling than one’s will. As one enters into the music of the story one tunes in to the inherent rhythms of the characters, images, and sounds. And as one returns again and again, the sluggishness, begins to dissipate. To act or not to act is no longer the question. One participates in the dance. And in the swirl of activity one is captured by movement, by action, by change – and the experience is exhilarating.
Too many film schools, as well as any number of screenwriting gurus and an obscene number of how-to-write tomes, have made a business of catering for fledging screenwriters and filmmakers by exploiting their belief that the only thing standing between them and an Oscar is the right kind of knowledge. If only one knew enough, one could easily become rich and famous. Unfortunately, almost all are susceptible to that eternal malady – “that last great infirmity of the soul” – which is FAME. And whilst I don’t deny the value of technical knowledge, such knowledge matters very little if the story one is trying to tell doesn’t matter, either because it’s incoherent or because it simply fails to make us care.
What most schools encourage is the uncritical use of jargon, embodied in “recipes, grounded in information, knowledge and choice. For those that embrace such wisdom there is no shorter path to success than through someone else’s advice. Alas, there are few things more pathetic than the sight of an eager screenwriting student hopefully doing the rounds of any number of teacher/script editors looking for validation of his or her undiscovered genius. While not the rule, generally, I have met enough of them to make me more than little squeamish about some of the well-meaning but misguided philosophies that inform the film school industry.
Where are the schools, the teachers, the gurus that understand the creative potential and opportunities afforded by the accidental, the chaotic, the anxiety of exposure and the way in which the unexpected insinuates itself into the creative process? These are the elements that make magic possible, and in most film schools they are mostly ignored, played down or, at best, equated with mistakes and shortcomings.
Certainly, the screenwriting enterprise involves choices; that is not at issue. What is at issue is the screenwriter’s uninformed belief that the writer is the only one entitled to make those choices. This can never be the case, not even when the writer insists upon it.
During the 1960s, I was enrolled in a music course at university where the professor argued that the major difference between tonal and atonal music was predictability. Remembering this, I wondered if this notion might not offer an important insight into the process of dramatic screen story-finding, both in its conception and in its realisation.
Screenwriting is often a lonely, isolated occupation. Cooped up in a room, keeping company with disembodied beings, is not the sort of activity most humans would find appealing. It is easy for the writer to lose sight of his or her own validity. “What are you doing?” someone asks. “Writing a screenplay.” They look back, slightly suspicious or confused. “Oh, but what do you really do?” I have long believed that the insecurity of screenwriters stems largely from their inability to prove their existence. In fact, one might say they don’t exist at all until their screenplay is made into a film, and even then it is the screenplay that exists and not the writer, not unless the film wins an Oscar, in which case the award invariably goes to the producer. Sigh...
What most writers want – though few of them would admit to it – is a guarantee. They want to believe that what they are doing is going to amount to something – like a bad parent: all this blood and sweat and tears poured into this “kid” – he better go out there and make something of himself. Ah, if only one could predict the outcome of one’s efforts! Predictability offers security. Indeed, our ability to predict the future and to have it occur in the way in which we predicted is always a source of great comfort to us. Imagine how disturbing it would be to go to sleep in one’s bed tonight, and, without knowing why or how, wake up in someone else’s in the morning. This is the kind of thing that happens to writers all the time, especially the good ones. So, wouldn’t it be better, safer, and less nerve-wracking if there were some way that the screenwriting process could be made more predictable – some plan that made it possible to see where we were, where we’d been and, most importantly, where we were going? Of course, it is better if the screenplays themselves aren’t predictable, but what about the process of writing one? How predictable is that? And if predictability is not possible, or even wanted, what implications might this have in terms of choice?
I hate to be the one to break the news, not that it should be news, but predictability breeds predictability. You can’t plan for surprise, or freshness, or originality. You can consciously choose those things either. The choice is not to be or not to be; the choice is to dance or not to dance. And when it comes to dancing (read: the adventure of finding a story and its characters), the best choices are hardly ever the result of conscious decision-making.
Let me break it to you this way : the best choices are those that are made by the story, by its music, atonal though it may be at first. What the story shows us and what it goads us towards is openness, effortlessness, spontaneity. It is never the story that resists these impulses, but only ourselves, clutched by an unmanaged fear that were we free enough to let the story become whatever it will we might expose something better left hidden, or open ourselves in ways that leaves us vulnerable to attack. No, we must not let this happen. Story is our fortress, not an escape plan.
For many, the surprising and credible dramatic story beckons almost inaudibly from beyond the ramparts of ego, teasing and tempting us with some faint hope for what lies beyond the walled-city of our prejudices. There, near the vanishing point of a self-important perspective, it is easier to hear than to see. Attend to the music, to the voices, atonal though they may be. If one is to become part of the dynamic musical chemistry of story one must stop tampering with the energies that are at play. Instead of operating from the mistaken belief that you are creating the music (or the drama) become one among many free players that are allowing their playfulness to be, and dance.