Oni Magazine

From Voyeur To Psychic: Reconsidering The Screenplay Through The Lens of the Avant-Garde by Anneka Jin

Oni Magazine
From Voyeur To Psychic: Reconsidering The Screenplay Through The Lens of the Avant-Garde by Anneka Jin

If you were to question a moviegoer in the year 1902 about the most exciting part of cinema, their answer would most likely sound like a variation of this: the novelty of the relatively new apparatus of the film camera, and with it, the possibility of a new form of entertainment-the moving image. When the first film cameras and projectors were produced in the late nineteenth century, they were marketed primarily as a technological marvel, projecting short, documentary style-clips of daily European/North American life alongside newsreels and documentation of “exotic” locations, which usually meant somewhere in Africa or Asia. Early films were often single-person productions in which the cameraperson had full control over both form and content. Because these films consisted of a single shot, no script was necessary, only a scenario, which described the events in the shot and could be used both as instruction to the filmmakers and marketing for distributors.

 

As filmmakers like Méliès and Edwin Porter learned to string shots together to present narratives, a greater need for organization arose. Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902)  is thought to have been shot with the first ever example of a modern screenplay, a list with a short description of each scene (with names like “Loading the Gun” and “Prisoners!!”) as well as brief descriptions of the characters and action. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) was shot from the first example of a script written in what is now known as “Master Scene Format,” which describes the events that take place through the entirety of the scene, without cuts. However, the continuity script, or the screenplay in its current form, didn’t emerge until 1912, conceived by filmmaker Thomas Ince as a means of organizing characters, locations, and action in a scene, making it possible to produce multiple films at once, and out of order, in an emulation of the assembly line. But, in many cases, the content of the story itself was less important than the images being produced: Méliès, for example, saw narrative as merely a pretext for staging elaborate special effects. Interest in the narrative content of films themselves didn’t occur until the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, when exhibitioners and producers became interested in attracting a middle class audience (as opposed to the working class immigrants that gave the medium its start) and realized that presenting highbrow, nuanced, and “refined” storylines to fit the delicate tastes of their target audience were the key to doing so.

 

Yet, in the twenty-first century, film and television have become what is arguably the most dominant source of cultural narratives. The influence of film, especially Hollywood film is inescapable; everyone watches movies, which both reflect and construct societal views on gender, race, class, and morality. Much as myth was used for centuries to both instruct and entertain, movies (and television) deliver readymade bundles of cultural ideology to waiting audiences, who internalize and set about enforcing them in the real world. And historical audiences were just as aware of its influence as contemporary ones: by the early 1920s, a little over a decade after narrative had found its union with celluloid, the social and political power of film was fully understood by government officials and religious lobbyists who made moves to oppose its corrupting moral influence.

 

However, in certain ways, the film industry still seems stuck in a century past. Film today is an almost universally accepted art form, as a result of an enormous body of scholarship and avant garde experimentation that was already in full swing by the mid 1920s. But, as Chelsea Phillips-Carr notes in a previous issue of Oni Magazine, the current climate of film study and criticism prioritizes formalist analysis over an examination of the political implications of both singular films and the work of auteurs, valuing an examination of the apolitical “text” of film form over the (deeply integral) discussion of sociopolitical factors that shaped the film’s production and reception. This mentality, which is arguably just as present in the education of filmmaking as it is in film study, exerts considerable influence over the elements of film deemed viable sites for development and experimentation. It is now possible, for example, to watch a film which consists of moth wings taped to a strip of celluloid, or to experience a multimillion dollar blockbuster with surround sound in 3D; that the film industry is plagued by racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and sexual predation (both in front of and behind the camera) is often brought up as an afterthought, even though it is these elements which will almost be a spectator’s primary concern.

 

In many ways, then, the near-fetishistic focus on technology and film form that occupies both Hollywood and the avant garde serves as the medium’s greatest stumbling block in fully utilizing or even realizing its social influence. To counter this phenomenon, I propose situating the screenplay as a new site of avant garde experimentation. Drawing inspiration from the treatment and reception of stageplays in relation to theatrical performance, I believe viewing the screenplay as a new form of literature-that is, focusing on formal and stylistic elements allowed by the written word-will shift the medium’s focus from the visual to the emotional and political: not the images themselves, but the ideology they convey.

 

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To propose an understanding of screenplays as literature, we must first understand both the connection literature already has to film. The literary adaptation is hardly a stranger to cinema, originating in the first decade of the twentieth century, at the tail end of a period known to film scholars as the cinema of attractions, when production companies realized the works of Dostoevsky and Shakespeare were an easy way to gain the approval of the middle-class white audience they so craved. In this vein, it's easy to view the literary adaptation as a tool of cultural oppression. However, this landscape has clearly changed over the past century: In 2016, a striking chunk of critically acclaimed LGBT films, which ranged from pieces from established auteurs, like (Park Chan Wook's The Handmaiden) to indie sleeper hits (Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and, most notably, Barry Jenkins' Academy Award-winning Moonlight) had direct literary connections. The Handmaiden is a reinterpretation of Sarah Waters’ Victorian crime novel Fingersmith, Certain Women is based on a collage of short stories from American writer Maile Meloy, and Moonlight was based on an unpublished play (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) by Tarell Alvin McCraney.

 

One notable feature that all of the aforementioned films share is their remarkable diversity in front of and behind the camera. Moonlight, based on a play by a black gay man, has a black director and screenwriter and features a romance between two men, who are black and Afro-Latinx, respectively, while The Handmaiden and Certain Women both create characters who are more diverse than their literary counterparts. The Handmaiden is based on the story of a romance between two white women and reconfigured by a Korean director into a love story between two Asian ones, while Certain Women changes the gender of one of the protagonists from the heterosexual Native American male of Meloy’s original story to a Native American woman, effectively transforming a heterosexual love story into a gay romance.

 

This trend has continued on into cinema of the present: 2017 saw the premiere of Disobedience (set for a release in 2018), a lesbian love story set in an orthodox Jewish community, based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, and Love, Simon, based on a novel by Becky Albertalli, will be released in 2018, and feature an interracial relationship between two boys, one of whom is black. Indeed, a literary source seems almost necessary to depicting LGBT characters on screen: as film critic Mark Harris notes, depicting gay characters poses a distinct challenge to screenwriters, because it requires them to change the way the character themself is written, rather than write a character of unspecified race or gender and cast a marginalized actor (a scenario which is far from ideal and can easily do more harm than good) letting audiences see the diversity for themselves on-screen.

 

While very few screenwriters appear willing to tackle it, this challenge perfectly illustrates the difference between literature and film and the corresponding strengths between the two mediums. Literature specializes in interiority, giving us a degree of access to the thoughts of characters that is virtually unprecedented in any other artistic medium. In many ways, literature is the closest we can get to knowing the mind of another person, as characters, or autobiographers, notably those of the Scandinavian autofiction movement, are apt to reveal more about themselves to a reader then they would in everyday conversation. At the same time, the act of reading requires the reader to generate their own mental images, posing challenges for writers seeking to represent diversity. A character of uncertain or unspecified race will almost certainly end up being imagined as white, and it's easy to skip over the part where a character’s appearance is described or forget it halfway through. As a result, in a story where racial identity isn't a driving focus, it's easy for a character's race to get lost in the mental mix, especially if they have names (like Susan or James) with European origins that are, as a result, most commonly associated with whiteness.

 

Ultimately, literature is a primarily cerebral medium, within which characters are, to a great degree, presented as a collection of thoughts and actions in an imagined mental space. How the character looks, what they wear, how they move, and the qualities of their voice are all factors which indicate racial background (indeed, due to the constructed nature of race, they essentially comprise it completely) are not--and because of the constraints of the medium, cannot be--a central point in a literary work. Most authors, save those who go out of their way to include dialect or broken English in a character’s speech (very often to an overtly racist effect), task the reader with remembering a character’s appearance through the course of a lengthy work from a few lines of description alone, a duty that is likely near impossible for many without some kind of illustration or other visual aid.

 

As Cecilia Tan writes in Uncanny Magazine, the conventions of “good” or “masterful”  writing “rely not on what was said, but on what is left unsaid” and thus exclude any person or viewpoint that is not immediately familiar to a straight, white (or, in many cases, English speaking and western as well), male, cisgender audience, as their identity would require too much explanation for “the pinnacle of ‘craft.’” Indeed, this reader-author relationship means that the most human characters, the ones that are most necessary for representation and diversity, are more likely to disappear completely, absorbed from their identity of origin into the (racist, misogynist, homophobic) neutrality of the “universal” human experience, having been cut loose from the stereotypes which usually demarcate race or gender.   

 

Film, by contrast, makes diversity apparent, by virtue of an actor's physical presence. In film, a character's race and/or gender is impossible to miss, and thus, impossible to forget, but their thoughts are opaque. Our empathic relationship to an onscreen character is the same as that of having a conversation with a person in the real world: we can see and hear them clearly, but can only guess at their thoughts through behaviour and expression. While literature draws us into an interior world, film leaves us squarely on the outside. But, through the merging of the two in a page-to-screen relationship (or, in rarer cases, screen-to-page), it becomes possible to combine the strengths of the two mediums in a manner that surpasses them both. The literary source gives us insight into characters and world, while the film adaptation reassures us that the people and places we imagined are real. As we watch the film, we're given a remarkable level of psychological insight into the characters, transformed from a voyeur, stupidly watching events unfold, to a psychic. Indeed, if a book is written well, watching the movie adaptation may bring us closer than we may ever get in the real world to knowing the mind of another person. Book vs. Movie has long been a subject of debate, but book and movie constitute a medium in its own right, one with a remarkable capacity to humanize, one with radical implications for depicting the humanity of historically marginalized people.  

 

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It is this relationship, the connection between the interiority of the written word and the physical reality of the screen, that possibilities for screenwriting emerge. Writing a novel-length work to accompany every film released is clearly impossible, although it is common practice with big budget franchise movies such as Star Wars, which boast expansive (and profitable) extended universes that continue far beyond the reach of filmic text. Nor is it unheard of amongst auteur directors (Lynch commissioned Laura Palmer’s Diary from his daughter Jennifer in the hiatus between seasons of Twin Peaks, and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinel was developed parallel to and released alongside Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Most notable, perhaps, is Japanese Avant-Garde dramatist and filmmaker, Terayama Shūji, who translated the same idea from avant-garde play to multimedia book and finally film: Sho o Suteyo, Machi e Deyô (Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets). Throw Away Your Books began as a piece of traveling experimental theatre, in which Terayama invited local teenage poets to read their work onstage, and shared the title of a book made in collaboration with artist Yokoo Tadanori, then translated visual and thematic elements of both into the final filmic work.

 

But examples like Terayama’s, or even Lynch’s or Kubrick’s, are rare, and incompatible with both the pace of the mainstream film industry and the limited means of independent filmmakers. They are also ultimately unnecessary as a means of revealing the interiority of characters onscreen, as the process of filmmaking comes with a built-in source of text: the screenplay. Screenplays are filmic documents, but also, by nature, literary. Yet this literary component is almost always ignored: the goal of the screenwriter, we are told, is to get their script made into a movie. The screenplay thus functions as a recipe that can only take shape under the formal mastery of the director, the technophilia of the cinematography, and the allure of leading actors; as a document in its own right, however, it is unfinished. Compared to the screenplay’s closest literary cousin, the play, for which writers have won Pulitzers and even Nobel Prizes, and which boast a remarkable degree of formal innovation, screenwriting as an art appears shockingly (although, given film’s short history, understandably) undervalued and underdeveloped.

 

Like screenplays, plays are a starting point, obviously intended to be enacted and implemented by others, yet many boast striking writing styles and even formal innovation. Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, for example, calls for a part of the play to be set in “the Europe of Women,” describing the place thusly: “Enormous room. Ophelia. Her heart is a clock.” Such language obviously rejects a literal translation onto the mechanics of the stage, as does “the Madonna with breast cancer” who later appears on a swing, and Müller’s description of Horatio as “an angel, his face at the back of his head.” These descriptions, save that of Ophelia, are not only clearly abstract but physically impossible to represent; how would one indicate that a Madonna had breast cancer, for example, let alone depict the breast cancer “radiat[ing] like a sun” as the script requires? Rather than literal directions, this language serves as a challenge to the director, requiring them to offer their own interpretation of Hamletmachine and translate that into the physical, concrete world of objects and movement. It also establishes the initial text as an object in its own right, a piece of literature that can stand on its own, even alongside the theatrical performance that springs from it.

 

So too does Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow is Enuf. For Colored Girls, described by Shange as a “choreopoem” that incorporates music and dance alongside spoken monologues, is written without capital letters and incorporates vernacular language, shortened words (your becomes “yr,” except becomes“cept”) and unusual punctuation (“and” is represented by an ampersand). As with Müller, Shange’s textual arrangement cannot be properly translated onto the stage. Why represent “and” with a symbol whose existence will be entirely unknown when the word is spoken aloud in performance? What purpose does a lack of capitalized sentences serve when capitalization is not apparent in the spoken word? For Colored Girls, then, functions as an independent text, whose aesthetic properties stem from literary technique as well as the vision of the director.

 

Perhaps even more adventurous in its exploration of literary form is Anne Carson’s Antigonick. A translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, it not only features absurd and bizarre language, including hybrid Greek-English words (bebarbarizmenized, from the Greek bebarbarōmenōi, meaning barbarian) and nonsensical phrases (man, who appears as “wondrous” in David Grene’s translation of the same text, becomes a “terribly quiet customer” under Carson), but was published as pages of handwritten text punctuated by surreal illustrations. Carson’s interpretation of the text takes Müller’s even further: not only is the text itself an object, but the book in which it is published becomes one as well.

 

Yet this language and innovation feels remarkably absent from the language of screenwriting. At this point in film history, when narrative cinema is a convention that has been present for little more than a hundred years, the script still conceptualizes itself as a servant to the final, finished movie, relegating any experimentation with form (and resulting acclaim) to the realm of the director. Even if experimental scripts similar to Müller’s, Shange’s, or Carson’s have been produced, they have never been distributed, rendering any literary innovation they might have made obsolete. Most screenplays are never formally presented to the public; some are leaked, or surface during awards season, but beyond that, their distribution is never a priority. Certainly, unlike plays, they are never formally published, let alone regarded as literature.

 

And yet, it is the screenwriter who controls the politics of the film: who talks, who is silent, who is deserving of development and who remains static, and who is worthy of appearing on-screen at all. The director can control the actors, props, and overall “vision” of the film, and the editor can control its pacing and organization, but the ideology of the film, its thesis and social impact, rest primarily in the domain of the script. To fully appreciate and take control of the immense social impact of cinema, then, requires a re-evaluation of the role and importance of screenwriting in the process of film production. The more a screenplay is valued, the more film as an industry and medium can be induced to value the interior world. When characters grow closer to beings, as opposed to objects for which the camera to focus on (which, in a medium that primarily values form over narrative, all characters essentially are, but this is a plight that belongs distinctly and painfully to women), the act of making a film will become inherently more empathetic. Formal innovation in screenwriting-one that places it in the same class as literature, which makes it culturally valuable to have it released to the public and studied alongside novels, poetry, or stageplays as an example of the written word-will make it possible to analyze the interior world of a film with the same degree of insight that scholars and filmmakers devote to exterior features.

 

While the aesthetics of the avant-garde (with their aims to defamiliarize and provoke) may not be the best suited for producing deeply empathetic, compassionate written work, I believe that drawing attention to the literary possibilities of the screenplay will place greater stress on the importance of cinema’s narrative elements, especially its characters inner lives. And, though film as an industrial product can never truly be revolutionary, recognizing the significance of the screenplay will render empathy a central rather than sidelined goal of the film medium: one that will make it valuable for writers to embrace the challenge of telling stories that are unfamiliar, uncanonized, and for that exact reason, urgently necessary.