"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Schindler’s List

In German-occupied Poland during World War I, Oskar Schindler spent millions to save 600 Jews from the death camps. In the 1993 film, Schindler’s List, the gradual transformation of the luxuriant capitalist is evident as the film unfolds. At the end,  he comes to an emotional realization as to the worth of money as compared with human lives. He realizes that had he not spent so lavishly, he could have saved even more lives. He realizes, in effect, his selfishness that had blinded him even to the obvious severe suffering of the Jews around him. The story is thus not simply that of greed giving way to compassion. 

In the film, the greed of the capitalist is in tension with the power of a labor-camp director, Amon Goeth. The latter luxuriates in shooting the Jews almost wantonly, while Oskar Schindler luxuriates in spending the surplus profit made off slave labor in his factories.  Simply put, shooting such cheap laborers harms the efficiency of the plants and thus reduces the profits. So Schindler attempts to convince Goeth that real power is exercised “when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.” 
For example, when a Roman governor pardoned a man guilty of stealing, real power was applied.  It is easy to shoot a defenseless Jew in a labor camp in which the state sanctions such an act de facto and de jure, but pardoning evinces power because the granter goes above, or contrary to, the law. In another sense, Goeth needed little self-discipline to shoot a Jew for screwing up on a task, but, given Goeth’s pleasure from killing, he had to draw on self-restraint in pardoning a boy for not having cleaned Goeth’s bathtub enough. As Nietzsche points out in his philosophical writings, the richest pleasure from the exercise of power comes from overcoming urges within. There is more power, in other words, in resisting an intractable urge than in overcoming a foe on a battlefield.
In one scene, Schindler attends Mass. His faith, which is barely touched on in the film, is in a sort of power, that of meekness, that turns the typical notion of power on its heels. Not only are the last, first, and most of the first, last; the very notion of a suffering servant suggests that standing up especially for unjustly suffering servants such as the Jews in Nazi Germany, partakes of power more than does putting those Jews to death. This comes through in the scene in which Goeth and other Nazi officials watch in bewilderment as Schindler takes off his nice suit-coat in order to help shoot more water through an expended hose into the train-cars, which are filled to the brim with Jews heading to a death camp. People drunk with the power esteemed in culture like that of the Nazi Germany are at a loss, even stunned, in witnessing another, qualitatively different, sort of power. The two powers are that different. Accordingly, the world would be much different were the predominant sort of power relegated and the more subtle power highlighted.
Whereas for centuries money or wealth was assumed in Christianity to be indicative of greed, Christian writers during the Italian Renaissance wrote of good use. If wealth is spent on good causes, the wealth itself that is spent is surely not of greed, for the heart is in a good place.[1] At the end of the film, Schindler realizes that all his wealth had been of greed because he had not used it on good causes, such as in saving people even of a different faith. Facilitating the exercise of another faith—as in Schindler encouraging one of his workers, who is also a rabbi, to say a prayer at sunset on a Friday at the plant—evinces the deeper, more ultimately satisfying sort of power, whereas acting to enrich one’s own religion can be said to be too convenient, or easy, to do so. Using wealth can thus be in sync with the sort of power that so perplexes the Nazis in the film.

1. See Skip Worden, God’s Gold, available at Amazon.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Christian Films as Distinctly Theological: A Theological Project

Should films with a distinctively religious theme and narrative water down the theological dimension so to be more acceptable in modern, secular society (i.e., a broader range of movie-goers)? The success of films like The Last Temptation of Christ, The Nativity Story, The Passion of the Christ, and Son of God suggest that theology should be embraced rather than tempered if box-office numbers are at all important. The genre should thus be distinguished from historical drama. Screenwriters and directors engaging in the religious genre would be wise, therefore, to distinguish the theological from the historical even in handling religions in which the historical is salient in the theological.
Adam Holz, an editor at the Christian pop-culture site, Plugged In, warns against making a Christian film as a historical piece. “I think we live in a culture right now that isn’t particularly interested in history, so with historical epics, you almost need some {hook}.”[1] That hook is none other than a distinctive take on the theology. Mel Gibson, for instance, emphasized the violence in the Crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ. Last Temptation notably challenged some fundamental theological assumptions. Both films are set in a historical context, but history itself is not the issue. Neither film is a historical biography like the relatively unsuccessful film, Paul, Apostle of Christ.
In the cases of Judaism and Christianity, the concept of salvation history makes it difficult to ply apart the theological as distinctive. God makes a covenant with Israel at a certain point in its history—in the exodus from servitude in Egypt—and Jesus makes the vicarious sacrifice for mankind when he is crucified when Judaea was a province of the Roman Empire. Even just in using the present tense in referring to theologically-rich moments in the past, I am expressing the tension between the theological and the historical—that the theological in such cases is not simply history. Because the Exodus and the Passion Story were both written as faith narratives, they cannot be taken as historical accounts. No historical evidence exists, for instance, of a historical Jesus, and yet, Jesus is depicted as such in the faith narratives of the Gospels. It is indeed difficult to view the theological in such a case as distinct. Even though the historical Jesus movement sought to get back to the historical, I submit that the proper task of the Christian religionist is to uncover the distinctiveness of the theological. This doesn’t mean divorcing it from history; the two are so intertwined in the Gospels. Rather, the task, of which screenwriters and directors can partake, is to depict in moving pictures how theology is its own stuff—how, in other words, it can come into its own even when it is mixing with other domains like history, psychology, science, and even metaphysics.
My favorite scene in The Greatest Story Ever Told eerily depicts the whipped and thorn-crowned Jesus carefully walking down a hallway toward Pontius Pilate. The Roman’s facial expression suggests that something very different—a different, unknown kind of strength—is in the frail man who is remarkably still intact. The strength being depicted so well by the images and the music gives the viewers a glimpse of something distinctly theological. The historical setting is thus transcended; the film is not really about history. This example illustrates how filmmakers and actors can wrestle with the distinctive nature of the theological and how it can be depicted and heard onscreen.  

An elaboration of the distinctiveness of theology, with implications for relations to other domains, is in the booklet, "Spiritual Leadership."

1. Patrick Ryan, “Christian Films’ Success Deserves More Faith,” USA Today, March 28, 2018.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Modern Society Reflected in Screenwriting: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

In what could be taken as a rendering of modern society, David Howard (p. 82) characterizes the “heart of dramatic writing” as thinking of “the actions of the characters and how they should be seen by the audience.” Howard is referring specifically to storytelling by screenwriters. Whereas the novel genre is particularly well-suited to exploring the interior lives of characters (e.g., their thoughts and feelings) via the expository word and the stage privileges dialogue due to the limits on action (and place), film is a visual medium, and thus uniquely able, or free, to capture actions and vistas. Hence, Charles Deemer (p. 64) advises aspiring screenwriters: “Always look for ways to tell your story visually without words.” It is as though he were stuck in the “silent” era, before the “talkies.” That films having soundtracks were referred to as talkies, at least initially, suggests that dialogue was (and is) no small matter in the film genre of storytelling. In fact, some stars who were quite notable during the “silent” era found the transition to “talkies” rather daunting, if not impossible, given the importance of voice, which pertains specifically to dialogue.

Accordingly, Howard’s (p. 82) dictum that the “action stays with us more effectively than if any of these characters had simply spoken dialogue expressing their hatred, passion, or change” can be subjected to a dose of healthy critique. Behind the action-hypertrophy evinced by Howard may be the fact that the mobility of the camera gives it a rather unique benefit in storytelling, at least relative to the confines of a stage. Furthermore, the modern proclivity toward action (and function) could simply mean that Howard is reflecting modern (Western) society. The hegemony of empirical science and the value put on vocation are what I have in mind here. If I am correct, then we, being moderns, would naturally tend to overlook the overemphasis on action in film because of what we ourselves value. This essay is thus to say to the fish: Hey, look at the water!

According to Howard (p. 83), the “weakest scenes [in film] are ones in which dialogue is expected to carry all of the dramatic weight by itself.” Even worse is including dialogue that has no other purpose than to inform the audience of “facts of which they must be made aware” (i.e., exposition). Even so, Howard (p. 87) acknowledges that a “good line, a well-turned phrase delivered in just the right way by an actor, can have a very powerful impact on the audience.” In fact, dialogue is where a screenwriter “can express his inner poetry to greatest advantage.” Howard (p. 87) then retreats back onto safer ground by declaring: “Talk is a small part of what we do as human beings, and it should be a small part of how we expect to tell our stories to the audience.” Subjecting “talk” to do rather than mean, however, is already to relegate the spoken (or written) word. Indeed, “what we do as human beings” expresses a functionalist value that is clearly salient in modern society. At a party, someone being introduced says, “I am a lawyer” rather than “I do lawyering.” A crasher at the same party says, “I am a writer,” rather than “I write for a living—well, ok, I fantasize at least about money coming with writing.” Philosophically speaking (L.A. collectively yawns here), we moderns are wont to reduce ontology to functionalism. The slippage “works” monetarily, unless one happens to be a philosopher, occupier, or rascal like Euthyphro, who thought he know more than he did before he sat down with Socrates (hint).

Particularly where the dramatic conflict is internal—within the protagonist—the spoken word may have an advantage over action. “Externalizing the internal is a perennial problem for the screen story-teller—how do we know what somebody really feels or thinks? Usually this is solved by putting characters into action so that what they do tells us what they feel and think, regardless of what they might say” (Howard, p. 273). To be sure, what people say can belie what is going on beneath the surface. However, between the distinct realm of external action and the internal life of a character, there is Cartesian (i.e., mind-body) distance. Dialogue can be interpreted as a bridge of sorts, being external yet more revealing of—closer to—what is going on inside.

For centuries, novels and the theatre, as well as traditional oral storytelling, have highlighted the written and spoken word as a key to revealing characters (and thus story) and unlocking the human imagination. In philosophy of mind, it is argued that we cannot even be aware of something as something (i.e., as an entity) without having a word for it. In the words of Sellars on Wittgenstein (another collective yawn out in L.A.), there is no pre-classificatory awareness. This claim seems to me to be pretty radical—that we can’t even be aware of a car unless we have a word for it (i.e., “car” or “automobile”). My point here is merely that language may be very important to the human mind, and more specifically in how we humans experience ourselves and the external world. This may explain why for millennia humans have emphasized words in storytelling; the craft has not been (though it perhaps could have been) doing actions with perhaps just an occasional word or two (e.g., pantomime). The importance of inter-titles to the storytelling in silent films (i.e., the strain to read them in time) and the rush to invent and then produce “talkies” point to the salience of words in storytelling. The actions here speak louder than Howard’s (and your?) words. Ah, you say, “Got you there! Actions speak louder than words!” Check-mate? Should I admit defeat? “Holy scrabble, Batman!” (Robin’s character is impeccably “shown” in his “Holy” lines from his tone alone, through dialogue).

In film, a character’s spoken word can be more revealing of his or her internal state than can even a riveting action. The relative closeness of tone and expression of voice and face, respectively, plus the mental choice of diction, to one’s emotional state can be betrayed, but this does not bring external action any closer to the internals. In other words, even if people can act, still the voice and face are inherently closer, and this explains the innate edge that dialogue has over action, generally speaking, in “solving” the problem of “externalizing the internal.” Besides, action too can be faked, even as words are genuine; action does not always speak louder than words. In fact, even the effort to fake what one says can be shown in the faking itself, and thus the speaking can be artfully revealing. So it would appear that Batman has managed to escape a sordid, tilted lair once again! “Pow! Wham!” Take that—words overlaid on (insufficient?) action—you ninja-action hegemons who rule the modern world! Upended by a philosopher no less!

Lines written and delivered well by an actor can be very powerful, period, as well as in revealing a character’s inner dynamic or state. In spite of my academic training that is rooted in tomes and treatises (with some film studies and acting courses thrown in for good measure), distinctive lines from movies are more likely to come to my mind when I am “out and about.” Besides the obvious social benefit in this proclivity (quoting from Nietzsche on morality is not the best way to get invited to a party), lines with meaning spoken in a distinctive tone and backed up by good characterization stay with me much more vividly than do lines that I read—even if the latter are substantively richer inherently. It is the gestalt of the various senses—which coincides with the integrative feature of consciousness itself as well as the inherent closeness that is possible between speech and the internal—that film is able to infuse in les spectateurs via characterization. Beyond the potential for stunning visual vistas and huge visceral explosions, this scorched-like infusing is a unique (and prime) advantage of cinema.

Consider, for example, the following line: “A baby should have seen it!” (Gen. Hill in Gettysburg). The line by the wounded Confederate general reveals his character as well as the reason for Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg far better than any action could. Consider too: “Will you die for him?” (The priest in The Seventh Seal). The repetition of this line by the priest infuses the theme of the entire film inside the viewer while evoking the character’s violent internals. How many times has “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn (Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind) been repeated, while Scarlett’s gaze of the vista of wounded soldiers has faded with time. “Go sell crazy somewhere else” (Melvin in As Good as It Gets), more than throwing the little dog down the laundry shoot, reveals Melvin’s attitude toward people. In another role and film, Nicholson flawlessly delivered a whopper, “You can’t handle the truth,” which went on to eclipse the entire film (I can’t even remember the title—A Few Good Men?).

The value of the spoken word in film is perhaps proved best simply by recalling the classic gem, The Wizard of Oz. Who does not recognize: “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!” Who can forget: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” The staying power of this line demonstrates how film dialogue can take on a life of its own in being used as a place-holder in popular discourse. Interestingly, the sound mixer or editor must have erred because the Wizard is saying the line while still walking the curtain back—away from the visible microphone he had been using to project the loud Wizard voice in the large hall! Dorothy and the others (and us!) should not have been able to hear the imperative through the Wizard's PA system. It may be that the oversight was the result of relegating dialogue in favor of action, even if unconsciously. Yet it is the line (rather than the image of the large green head) that survived into another century.

Less popular a line but certainly no less revealing of the Wizard’s character is the Wizard's line that is notable for the distinctive and unmistakable kind tone of Morgan's delivery: To the Tin Man, the Wizard says “Remember my sentimental friend, a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” The fraud, it turns out, is not such a bad guy after all, and the sentiment itself points to or suggests the same exists in the Tin Man’s character. Interestingly, the Wizard later selects the Scarecrow to replace him, to be assisted by the Tin Man and the Lion. Is reason over love one of the messages of the film? 

My main point is that even relative to action, the spoken word in dialogue can convey the internality of characterization and deliver the dramatic punch of heightened conflict. Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” is much closer to his internal state than even his subsequent action when he tries to go after the defense lawyer only to be physically restrained. While the audience’s anticipation of possible “real” conflict made literal in a fist fight is dramatically of value, I question Howard’s “solving” the problem of “exteriorizing the internal” by the default of “putting characters into action.” I am not dismissing this strategy; rather, I’m merely contending that what a character says can be a better solution because words combined with tone and facial expression can be more revealing of thoughts and feelings. Just because film has a strategic competitive advantage on the action front does not mean that action eclipses speech in being inherently indicative of what is going on inside a person. I sense an always implied in Howard’s dictum that points to an element of dogmatism in his broader thesis.

If I am correct, then neither dialogue nor action should be stepwise privileged in screenwriting. Exteriorizing the internal can privilege dialogue even as action can be allowed to (sometimes) speak louder than words. The distinctive freedom of the camera (and the visuals afforded by the screen) can still be leveraged while backing off a bit from the proclivities of modernity that at their worse produce an “action flick” highlighted by a bus or cruise ship out-of-control. In actuality, action as an end in itself (think of Kant’s categorical imperative) reflects values in a decadent modern society that treats substance and authenticity, including real connections between people, as an “oh, by the way” kind of afterthought even in storytelling. Should film be a projection of cultural decadence as if part of a race to the bottom, or is there a higher calling for filmmakers in understanding the medium itself. Filmmakers can challenge hegemonic societal values by understanding the craft itself from its own standpoint rather than simply as a reflection of modernity. Cinema is a modern invention, but it need not be unduly constrained by the values of modernity in how story and storytelling are understood and accomplished.


David Howard and Edward Mabley, The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993).
Charles Deemer, Screenwright: The Craft of Screenwriting (Xlibris, 1998).

Screenwriting as Dramatic Sense-Making or Ideological Subterfuge?

Howard (p. 165) claims that the screenwriters of Witness (1985) were “wise enough not to attempt to coerce an answer out of the material, to make this an indictment or a thesis instead of an exploration. If they had the definite answer to force and violence in society, they shouldn’t [have made] a film but should [have gone] directly to the United Nations with it. What they have created is an exploration of a complex and troubling issue. Modern urban society isn’t depicted as all bad and the Amish aren’t all good; there are forms of force in both societies, just as there are admirable things about them both. While, in the end, one use of force triumphs over another, that can hardly be a universally applicable solution. Rather, what the filmmakers have done is to make the audience confront its own feelings about violence and the use of force, to see that it is complicated and there are no pat answers, but, most important, to explore how each of us feels about the various faces of force we come to know in the story.”


In the end, “one use of force triumphs over another,” but Howard claims that this choice does not represent an answer or thesis because the triumph of the force of community pressure (e.g., the Amish witnesses) over the force of violence “can hardly be a universally applicable solution.” I find this argument to be weak and even fallacious. As Howard admits, the film’s resolution is that the force of community “triumphs” over the force of violence. This is an answer to the question that asks which of the two types of force is more forceful. While certainly not everyone’s answer and not on the more general topic of “force and violence” in society, the “triumph” does represent the screenwriters’ answer to the question: which force is stronger: community norms or violence? At the very least, a point of view is expressed in the answer. It is implied, furthermore, that community norms should be valued over the violence of a hero (and certainly of a villain). Another implication is that a community should not be intimidated by threats of violence; silent witnesses have sufficient power to stop a villain from shooting even though he or she has the “monopoly of force”—or so we have been led to believe.
Should the film Witness have ended without an answer that can be taken as an ideological poiont-of-view? Had the screenwriters followed Howard’s advice, the audience would be left in the dark concerning whether the pressure of Amish witnesses resulted in the corrupt cop shooting Samuel or handing over the gun. The audience would be forced to remain agnostic concerning which of the two forces represented dramatically is inherently more powerful. Any ensuing exploration, as in discussing the theme at a coffee shop afterward, would suffer from a certain indeterminacy left by the film. More to the point, the audience could deservedly feel ripped off in not getting a full payoff through a resolution.
Rather than not expressing a view concerning which of the two types of force is (and ought to be) more powerful, the screenwriters were effective in proffering an “answer” or thesis because they had represented the contending theories fairly. “Modern urban society isn’t depicted as all bad and the Amish aren’t all good,” Howard writes. “There are forms of force in both societies, just as there are admirable things about them both.” Rather than being shoved down the audience’s throats, the answer or thesis provided as the resolution can thus be incorporated as one thesis amid the contending points represented throughout the film. The writers’ motive is not felt to be so much to preach as to explore the phenomenon and proffer one answer as if “and here’s what we think.”
“Preaching,” in contrast, occurs when a film is itself a one-sided view. The motive is to push one interpretation as the definitive answer. This is what Howard is reacting against, and with good reason. Nobody likes to be preached at. Ironically, “preaching” actually diminishes or detracts from a writer’s influence. In the field of business and society in business schools, for example, some of the writers are ideologues pushing an anti-corporate agenda. Their writing is not respected as academic scholarship outside of their own cadre.
Once I attended a conference at Harvard Business School on Amitai Etzioni’s socio-economic “theory.” The gurus at the “Mecca” of business academia told Etzioni that he was merely trashing the neo-classical economic paradigm without in its place proffering another theory. In spite of (and perhaps indicative of) the lack of academic content in what was in actuality an ideological thrashing of corporate capitalism, someone in attendance (presumably a professor from some university) stood up at his desk at one point and declared, “We should form a labor party!” as he pounded the desk with a clenched fist. I was stunned, but not really very surprised. So it goes when credibility has been compromised by “scholars” who are at their core advocates rather than explainers.
Screenwriters are also explainers in a way, as they explore a phenomenon of human experience by means of storytelling. According to Bill Johnson, storytelling is a process—one that “involves understanding the dramatic issue or idea at the heart of a story, and arranging a story’s elements to bring that issue to resolution in a way that offers the story’s audience a dramatic experience of fulfillment.” Johnson goes on to specify the relevant “unmet desires and needs we carry within our hearts” as being satisfied by “a sense of meaning and purpose” that can come through story. In other words, like a leader through vision, a storyteller can satisfy the basic human instinct for meaning by means of sense-making.
While an answer can surface during (or as a result of) an exploration of a dramatic idea, the point of the venture cannot be to prove a specific thesis. Besides the inherent multivaliancy of meaning being compromised by an overweening ideological agenda, the answer in a resolution should come out of the dramatic conflict, which is a working out of the dramatic idea, and therefore not predetermined a priori. In other words, a dramatic idea cannot be exhausted by a particular ideological agenda, so emphasizing the latter must result in the former being to a certain extent eclipsed. Furthermore, because characters take on lives of their own as they interact in the dramatic conflict, they cannot be pre-programmed or scripted. Hence, the resolution of that conflict cannot be known up front, though it can be foisted, artificially.
Therefore, the screenwriter’s motive going in should not be to prove or advocate an initial thesis. Rather, curiosity or interest in a question involving the human condition lies behind the exploration, which in turn gives each new ground its due even as the story works its way to a completion (yet on a continuing road). This is actually not far from what motivates a scholar and how one conducts a study (this is perhaps why professors tell so many stories as part of their lectures).

In both cases, the passion is (or should be) directed on a phenomenon rather than on the writer or scholar him- or herself. This is my “answer” or thesis in this particular instance; it was not my point in writing—nor could I have even known of the “answer” arrived at here when I started my ratiocinations above, for the ensuing reasoning led to it. Nor do I view my thesis as set in stone or definitive, for I am still curious about the topic, so it won’t be long until my thoughts again take flight, leaving my little thesis behind as though it had always been destined to live on the island of misfit toys. Similarly, a screenwriter’s attachment (and loyalty) is to the curious phenomenon at hand and to story itself as an explanatory, exploratory device, rather than to a thesis or “agenda.” Sporting an answer along the way need not eclipse the exploration; indeed, a good effort grounded in passion for the phenomenon is apt to spawn a thesis or two, which in turn can be viewed as an oasis. The really mature screenwriter will even view them as mirages! Indeed, is not a story, including its characters and their little spats, a mirage of sorts? The key is perhaps to hold this perspective and yet to be able to take one’s stories seriously enough—without preaching.

David Howard and Edward Mabley, The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993).

Bill Johnson, Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writinghttp://home.teleport.com/~bjscript/index.htm  See also Charles Deemer, Screenwright: The Craft of Screenwriting (Xlibris, 1998), pp. 117-19.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Writing an Original Screenplay

Jay Fernandez of The Hollywood Reporter asks, “Who’s to blame for the lack of original movie projects being submitted to film studios these days?” He points to vertical integration and a bottom-line reliance on pre-branded franchises, plus diminished film slates, producer deals, and writing jobs. Indeed, in early 2011, spec submissions were down by more than half.

Given the increased competition and the pressure of the studios, writers and agents “looking to maintain careers and commissions” have been “abandoning original screenplays to deliver template-fitting material.” As one lit agent said, “It’s the system that’s at fault, not the writer.” Of course, it could also be argued that studios have been going for known commodities, such as in multiple sequals, because the writers have run out of material. According to one studio head, writers “can’t get themselves up to write something original.”

I must admit I have looked at all the formulaic films and wondered whether narrative itself had been exhausted. The rigidity of a screenplay’s structure and format, for instance, must surely narrow the sort of narrative that can come through the pipeline.

For example, having an inciting event 10 to 12 pages in and a critical event about 10 pages from the end means that the narrative’s tension runs from 10-12 pages in until 10 pages from the end. Having a regularity akin to Joseph Campbell’s journey of the hero, a screenplay’s protagonist is bound to be seeking to restore equilibrium from 10-12 pages in until 10 pages from the end. Would it kill a narrative if the protagonist is seen in his or her new world for more than ten pages? Might the viewers enjoy seeing the protagonist in his or her original world for more than 10-12 pages? Furthermore, how might film narratives differ if the instigating event were to happen up front?

As tempting as it might be to loosen up the screenplay format (assuming it is arbitrary from the standpoint of what makes good narrative), it is worth asking whether original narratives are still possible even within the screenplay box. If they are possible, it is worth investigating how writers can come up with original plots. I suspect the answer lies in the writer becoming aware of the assumptions in his or her extant stories so as to be able to relax or change paradigms or frameworks so as to come up with novel narratives.

Also, a writer could do worse than study classic myth so as to get a deeper sense of basic themes that could be woven into new fabric for today. By this I do not mean that modern writers should simply pour old wine into new bottles; rather, the ancient ingredients—once known—can be interwoven in new ways to create new plot structures.  Simply engaging in thought-experiments in coming up with innovative short stories can be like weight-lifting for the writer interested in going out and playing in game of screenwriting. 

Of course, context matters, and studios having allowed themselves to be more dependent on remakes and reinventions has translated into “creative stagnation,” according to Fernandez. Working within the confines of prefab projects, writers are given the house in order to decorate it. As one writer observed, “You can’t build your own house, and you can’t change the house.” That is hardly the sort of context in which the narratives that can generate real interest in cinema are likely to be purchased, let alone written.

As the field of writers narrows and the studios become increasingly risk-averse as the costs of producing a film increase, creativity must be reckoned as collateral damage.Yet even in this eye of the needle, even just those few writers who have gained entry can think outside the box and make alliances with the talent to lobby producers for relatively small-budget projects. More ideally, actors and even producers could use the social media and explore blogs in order to look beyond the usual suspects if only to get an inkling of the alternative stories out there in small electronic ponds called blogs (perhaps one all-too-imaginative writer will write a screenplay on the blog-pond monster that eats up the radiation in Japan and saves the day--the antithesis of Godzilla).

In short, there are indeed fruitful alternatives to deconstruction (e.g., the New Wave, Neo-Realism). We need not eclipse narrative, as if the human race has outlived story-telling. We need not give up on the possibility of rich, new stories that have not hitherto been thought and told.


Jay A. Fernandez, “Crisis at the Movies: No New Ideas,” The Hollywood Reporter, May 20, 2011, pp. 8-9.

Thursday, August 3, 2017


Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) is an intriguing story based on vocational functionalism, which in turn is based on deism. In other words, the film essentially applies an early modern theological "argument from design" to a pillar of modern society: one’s profession. In this regard, the film is not just a kids’ movie. The visual "3D" feature is not where the real depth of the film is located. The story achieves its fullness beyond the visuals in having several levels around a core philosophy, which serves as the story's core meaning. For this reason, Hugo has the potential to become a classic. In this essay, I explore the philosophy that lies at the basis of the film's story. I begin with deism and tie it to functionalism.

Deism posits that God is akin to a “clock maker,” designing Creation, “winding it up,” and then "stepping back" to let it work without divine intervention. The salient divine attribute is that of designer. The world, in turn functions as designed. Because the design comes from God, malfunction due to a problem of design is theologically problematic. Indeed, not functioning as designed can be viewed as evil, or at least immoral. Furthermore, if perfect design ensues from a divine designer, bad fits in nature's design must be held to be problematic. For example, the bodies of a man and woman to fit together quite well sexually; the same cannot be said of two men, yet what if the two men are in love? Those who value love are not likely to view the physiological relative lack of natural fit as problematic, yet the fact that the male and female fit is better is difficult for them to ignore. Lest it be objected that the relative lack of fit is not from God, it is difficult to hold that God is omnipotent and still maintain that design-induced malfunction is not sourced in God.

In Hugo, the deism is not made explicit, so its theological problems are not dealt with directly. Rather, the theology is implied as Hugo observes the world could be one big machine. If so, it follows that even people might be machines. Because each machine contains just the number of parts needed, if the world is a machine, then—Hugo reasons—he must have a purpose even though he doesn’t know it because he has no parents to tell him what it is. In other words, Hugo faces existential angst because he does not know his function.

Combining society-as-machine with deism, Creation itself is one machine consisting of machines. In one scene, Hugo dreams that he himself consists of the internals of a clock, and furthermore, that everything is wheels. An implication is that God does not create extra parts (or extra machines). Put another way, God does not permit unnecessary machines to go on existing. The orphanage represents the place where such machines—the reprobate—go. As enforced by the train station’s inspector, kids without parents do not work, and therefore much be removed from society. To work again, Hugo says, is to do what one is supposed, or meant, to do, as per how one was designed (by God); it is to have a purpose, without which one faces nothing short of nihilism. Essentially, this is functionalism, the philosophy that one is what one does. In business schools and especially in the business world itself, people tend to assume that function explains what one is. Even in ordinary conversation, someone is wont to say something like, “I am a lawyer.” The implication is that the vocation identifies who one is. Alternatively, the sentence could read, “I do lawyering.” This sentence refers only to function, rather than ontology.

The film identifies having a function—working (as a machine works and in the sense of having a job)—not only with what one is supposed or meant to do, but also with having a home. This is ethically problematic, for it implies that people who do not work do not deserve having a home. This problem provides the basis of the film’s dramatic tension. According to Hugo’s understanding, an orphan without a home (i.e., parents) cannot know, and therefore perform, his function; he cannot work as designed. He is thus surfeit in society-as-machine, whose parts can only be necessary. Kids that don’t work (at recognized jobs) do not legitimately exist, from the vantage point of society so conceived. More abstractly, meaning is presumed to depend on function, or being able to work. Everything, including everyone, is supposed to work—meaning being meant to have a particular function. This is the deist ethic.

What of mentally or physically impaired people who cannot work as designed? Does vocational deism justify the Nazi killing of members of society deemed worthless because they are retarded? Should unemployment compensation be stopped because the unemployed are not working? Moreover, does human worth come from function or design? A person who has not found his or her functional raison d’etre might wonder if he or she deserves to exist. This is essentially what Hugo is about.

Hugo’s objects of desire all represent means he thinks will lead him to discover what he is “meant” or “designed” to do—how he was designed to function. He is driven to overcome all odds to work; he is a machine, as are we all, and he is driven to discover his purpose. His antagonist is ultimately nihilism, which can be defined here in terms of not having a purpose. Home represents the security of having evaded non-existence (or expulsion from society, as in going to the orphanage) by having found one’s necessary function and thus being able to work “as intended” and thus as one should. Deism provides the theological background here, as the design is presumed to be the basis of purpose. Ironically, Hugo’s function is to fix human machines that no longer function as designed. His function is sourced in the design of his heart in having compassion for others who have broken down. Interestingly, he didn't have to recognize his design or function in order for it to work throughout his journey. To function vocationally making use of one's design (e.g., as in Asa Butterfield being a natural actor), however, one must first recognize the natural ability in order to apply it in a job.

Hugo is an amazing story in covering several levels precisely because it goes from Deism (abstractly) to functionalism as vocation (tangible). In laboring (i.e., working), a person works like a machine works. For the viewer, the questions go from whether function proffers worth to whether our function from design is that which we use in our work. In the documentary on Woody Allen on PBS (2011), the comic points out that some people can draw really good pictures, such as of horses. Allen admits that he does not have that talent. He goes on to say that jokes, however, naturally come to him, even while he is taking a walk. It is simply how he sees the world; the jokes just come to him. He has an aptitude that is natural for him. The obvious implication is that each person naturally does some things better than other things. If a person has no idea of what comes naturally—perhaps because he or she is so close to it—that person could presumably benefit greatly by discovering it. There is indeed very little choice in one's "gifts." They are what given in one's design. If a person realizes and functions in line with one's natural excellences, one is on what Joseph Campbell called “the blissful path.” However, if worth is not derived only or primarily from function, then the blissful path does not depend on discovering one's natural talents; being transcends doing. In Hugo, this issue is front and center, with Deism serving as the foundation.

See related essay: "Oscars: Beyond Eye-Candy"

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


In 2016, Robert McIntyre, a graduate of MIT, became the first person to freeze and then revive a mammalian brain—that of a white rabbit. “When thawed, the rabbit’s brain was found to have all of its synapse, cell membranes, and intracellular structures intact.”[1] The film, Realive, made that same year, is a fictional story about a man with terminal cancer who commits suicide to be frozen and revived when his illness could be cured. In the context of McIntyre’s scientific work, the film’s sci-fi demeanor belies the very real possibility that cryogenics could realistically alter fundamental assumptions about life and death even just later in the same century. What the film says about the life and death is timeless, however, in terms of philosophical value.

Diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, Marc Jarvis opts for cryogenics. His body is to be frozen and revived when technology has advanced to the point of being able to reanimate him and cure the cancer. “I’d be able to live longer,” he blandly tells his friends, who are skeptical. For this to happen, he responds, “I guess I’d have to trust humanity.” He is referring to the advent of the necessary medical technology, rather than to the question of whether global climate change might extinguish the species in the meantime. This “sin of omission” by the screenwriter is particularly strange, given physicist Steven Hawkins’ prediction at the time that the species would have at most a century left on a habitable Earth.

In the story, living longer isn’t Marc’s actual goal, so he may well be indifferent to the plight of the species as he informs his friends of his decision to go with cryogenics. He does not commit suicide with the hope of being revived when he could be cured so he could live out the rest of his life.  As he tells Elizabeth, his nurse after he is revived 60 years later, in 2084, “Suicide was my way of fighting the arbitrariness of cancer.” Suicide, he tells her, was “the only way of avoiding the agony and the uncertainty of when death would finally arrive.” In retrospect, he says that being able to end his life at his choosing gave him the power to die peacefully. He had not really thought he could be reanimated; suicide, he tells Elizabeth, “gave me back control over my life.” He had accepted death; things were fine as they were. He accepted his experience of life as that which it had been, even though he was still young (roughly 30). The fear was gone, he tells Elizabeth more than 100 arduous days after having being revived. His fear of death is still gone, he informs her as he then asks her to help him commit suicide again. He has already died once. He is once again prepared to end his life. His final wish: “To be nothing again, to disappear, to finally rest in peace.” Why? To return to an after-life existence in heaven? Or out of a preference for not existing over the pain of living?

Just after being revived, he is enthusiastic. “I was going to die,” he tells the medical team in front of his bed. “I was going to disappear, forever, and I’m alive again. I’m alive!” But he quickly realizes that his “new life” comes with some rather serious drawbacks, medically speaking. At least for some weeks, his body seems permanently “on the verge of collapse.” He records the following for future posterity: “Life, what do we expect from it? Certainly not this fragility, this half-speed existence. We definitely don’t expect a medical history full of afflictions and minor defects, a propensity for phlegmbosis, numbness in the extremities, involuntary movements, loss of equilibrium, scaling of the skin, irritation of connective tissue, respiratory insufficiency, cardiac insufficiency, incontinence, impotence. You don’t expect so many limitations so soon.” His physician tells him that he could expect a life like people with chronic diseases or the elderly, and he would have to maintain at least periodic connection to a machine that keeps him alive. In erroneously assuming that these conditions would be permanent, both Marc and his physician dismiss the likelihood that medical science would continue to advance. 

To be sure, Marc’s medical team knew Marc would lose all of his memories, after which no medical science could bring them back. You expect at least to keep your memories, Marc narrates for posterity. “What if your memories were erased as well? What will become of me once my memories have faded?” Fortunately, a device exists in 2084 that can allow people to recover memories without actually remembering anything, but he dismisses it outright too. He could still draw on those stored memories mentally—hence indistinguishable from him really having the memories—and perhaps advancements in medical science could literally grow more “gray matter” such that Marc would someday begin to accumulate new memories. In short, the static nature in the assumptions made not only by Marc, but, more astonishingly, by his medical term in 2084 is astonishing, given their experiences with medical advancements.

At any rate, Naomi, Marc’s girlfriend before he died, had herself frozen in hopes of being together with her true love again someday. Elizabeth wants to assure Marc, “Someday you two will be able to be together again like you were before; it’s only a matter of time.” Here in Elizabeth we find the openness of a dynamic assumption; medical science should be regarded as a moving target!  Yet he isn’t buying it. He knows Naomi’s bodily condition is not good; the process of freezing had not gone well. “I don’t even want to imagine Naomi if she’s trapped in someone else’s body, someone else’s life,” he tells Elizabeth. “That’s your fear talking,” Elizabeth correctly tells him. In short, Marc has lost hope—faith in medical science and even in life itself. Accordingly, he wants to commit suicide again, and he wants Elizabeth to bracket her own hope and assist him.

The nineteenth-century European philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, aptly describes Marc’s rationale for killing himself “for good” (i.e., without any hope of being reanimated again). “A man who kills himself does not take his life, it has already been taken from him. That is why he kills himself; he destroys only a semblance of himself; what he casts away is a mere shell whose kernel, whether by his fault or not, has long since been eaten away. But a healthy, normal life . . . is and should be man’s highest good, his supreme being.”[2] Marc expects a healthy, normal life; it is his god. Yet paradoxically death is not his enemy, for suicide is to him simply a preference for not existing over life without his god.

Life and death are of course the true characters in the fictional drama. Expectedly, religion is in the mix, though surprisingly only explicitly in a few instances in the film. The position taken in the film, through Marc as a witness—albeit fictional—is that life “is nothing more than a state of matter . . . there’s nothing transcendent or divine about it.” As such, life is merely biological. In fact, Marc opines that it is life that’s “scary, not death.” Life is “always on the verge of extinction.” A human life can quickly, and unexpectedly end without the person having any control over it. As for the soul, Marc figures it is maybe “the part that is lost when you freeze the meat and thaw it out again.” In short, the film adopts a materialist perspective. There is no after-life, other than revitalized, or unfrozen, life itself. In other words, being reanimated—not resurrected!—is the only after-life, or, more accurately, life after life. In between them: nothing. Not existing. How hard this is to apply to ourselves!

“Welcome back to life, Marc,” the physician says as Marc regains consciousness upon being revived. “Do you remember anything about the other side?” Is there an afterlife?, the physician wants to know. The first report of a possible “eye-witness” of heaven in human history is underwhelming: “Fear, dying, waking up,” Marc answers without a hint of excitement. Later, he makes it explicit: “Before I died, I thought there was nothing after death. Now I’m sure.” He is the only person alive immune from what Feuerbach describes as the fantasies of profligate human imagination. Marc records his (or the screenwriter’s) own thoughts as follows: “Why do we yearn so desperately for life after death? What is it that we want? Perhaps reward for our grief, or punishment for our sins. No, what we really expect to find is what we already know; what we once had and lost. If there was something, we would turn it into more of the same—the same chaos and the same beauty, the same reward for the same effort, the same tale by the same idiot. If there was something, it would probably be purgatory.” In other words, we construct, or hope for, an after-life looking all too familiar—human, all too human. The “most sensitive, most painful of man’s feelings of finiteness is the feeling or awareness that he will one day end, that he will die,” Feuerbach suggests.[3] All a person knows and experiences is premised on the ongoing—perceptually-seeming “ever” present—basis of existing, the end of which must surely be felt to be torrentially horrendous. A human’s “defense against death is the belief in immortality.”[4] People who think they know for a fact there is an afterlife might want to pause at word in italics. None of us know, which is why the screenwriter of the film has Marc’s physician ask.

The physician—a man of science!—is disappointed in Marc’s answer as it is well within the realm of biology. He wants for there to be a religious dimension so much that he over-reaches cognitively. In presenting Marc to the public (i.e., investors), for example, he refers to Marc as “the first person resurrected.” However, resurrection is a distinctively religious term that refers to a spiritual-physical body; Jesus’ resurrected body, for instance, goes through the door of the Upper Room and yet he is hungry so he asks for a fish! Clearly, more is going on here than reanimation or revitalization. Cryogenics does not even constitute the sort of miracle as Jesus performed in bringing Lazarus back to life, and yet Marc's physician refers to his successive cryogenic attempts, including Marc, as Lazarus!

In short, Marc’s (albeit fictional) body is not supernatural, and yet the physician uses terms suggestive of a religious miracle. In fact, he refers to Marc as the first resurrected man more than once in the film. It is as if man of science were driven instinctually to make what is human, divine. According to Feuerbach, “Man makes a god or divine being of what his life depends on only because to him his life is a divine being, a divine possession or thing.”[5] God is beneficent (because good), and thus of use to humans—hence petitions are made as a matter of course in many liturgies, but the underlying presupposition or basis of this belief in the divine attribute is that human life is itself of great worth (i.e., divine).

Therefore, Marc while still young and yet seemingly deprived of God’s beneficence has a knee-jerk reaction for his life to go on, albeit after some time of not existing. Alternatively, he could pin his hopes on heaven, yet he dismisses it even before he knows it to be a fantasy of the human imagination tinged with fear. Yet even in ostensibly wanting to live more, or again, it is to be on his terms.

According to Feuerbach, we are the gods—or, more accurately—our human ideals are our true gods—the potential of the species, which Feuerbach erroneously claimed is infinite. The danger in idolizing our ideals lies in settling for nothing less. Hence Marc acts rashly, I submit, in committing suicide again. His god is human, all too human. If Feuerbach was right, even the ostensibly religious deity is really just human life in its infinite potential. Yet the terrain of our experience is finite—our perception, feeling, and cognition only go so far. Even cryogenics in itself could merely extend a human life, rather than making human beings immortal.


[2] Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 52.

[3] Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 33.

[4] Ibid., 34, italics added.

[5] Ibid., 52.