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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Jobs

Typically as a company transitions from an enterprising, creative new venture to a large organization to be managed, a staid CEO replaces a visionary founder. In the case of Steve Jobs at Apple, the very nature of the man’s vision was not only inherently at odds with the status-quo underpinning of a large organization with a budget, but also essential to the company’s business model. Hence, the company, including its shareholders, paid a price for years for jettisoning Jobs. The film, Jobs (2013), is centered on the distinctiveness of Jobs’ vision. Although the film also hints at why this distinctiveness is such that the company would (and did) lose as a large organization after making the typical founder-to-CEO transition.


On the surface, Steve Jobs’ vision was to create new products that people could use. In fact, Jobs wanted the invented products to play a ubiquitous role in people’s lives—even being a virtual extension of their arms. Considering the Apple phones, laptops, ipads, and ipods that resulted from this vision after its initial desk-top computer manifestation, Jobs turned out to be incredibly successful. Perhaps the lesson we can draw is that it takes a lot of time for a different vision of society to come to fruition. Besides the sheer time it takes to invent and implement a product that is radically different, the tyranny of the status quo in institutions as well as a society itself acts as a solid counter-force that holds the process back—especially from one invented product to the next on the long way to the vision being realized.
The vision was so massive in terms of how much it would change society, including what people do on a daily basis, and so different from the status quo societally that the normal transition from a founder to an organizationally-ensconced CEO threatened the realization of the vision from being accomplished. As if this problem were not enough, the film shows the viewer just how much of an asshole Jobs could be (someone actually calls him that in the film). More typically of a founder, Jobs also tossed out the strictures of budges on a regular basis. In the film, he says that the next product line should risk the whole company, presumably because of the sheer differentness of the next invention. In fact, he also says that he wants different, not just better. So rather than assume that the company’s focus should be on an incrementally better version of the Apple II desktop computer, he pushed the untested Macintosh project, to which he had been tasked by the CEO, into front and center for the company even though that project by its very nature as radically new needed more money, staff and time (including a two-year extension on the delivery date) than the board could accept. At the time, seventy percent of the revenue was coming from the Apple II, so why not act like a company in business and focus on the winner rather than an untested product line?
Yet to Steve Jobs, the very point of Apple (and perhaps any company) is not finally to maximize profit, but, rather, to build something that will not only be useful, but will change society. It was the status quo and its sycophants that Jobs pointed to as the societal sickness. The year 1984 would not reflect George Orwell’s book, 1984, which describes an autocratic, totalitarian society. Apple would see to it that a different society would exist—different to not only the status quo prior to 1984, but also a future in which people do not have the ability (and thus freedom) to express themselves as unique (and free) individuals. Jobs wanted employees whom society viewed as crazy for thinking outside the box—even questioning societal assumptions. This included thinking outside the organizational box—even questioning organizational constraints that enforce the status quo. HR departments don’t usually seek out such people to hire. The distinctiveness of Job’s vision thus meant that the company could not be run as other companies—those that are inherently ensconced in the societal and even organizational status quo. In fact, large corporations even unwittingly promote and enforce the societal status quo because they can make a lot of money in it.
How to break the natural law of founder-to-CEO transition in organizational lifecycles by retaining a founder’s power while still giving some heed to financial constraints is the question that the film does not answer; Jobs is simply replaced, then let back in again. The vision gains new force, but what of the running of the large organization viably so it can continue to deliver financial resources for different, rather than just better, projects that are untested and by their very nature long in gestation? In short, what if a founder’s vision is not so easily replaced by an organizational mission that everyone pays lip-service to but in actuality ignores? Apple depended on Jobs not only because of his inventive brilliance, but also the very nature of his distinctive vision.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Post

In Spielberg’s The Post (2017), the fateful decision to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers centers on Katharine Graham’s being willing to rebuff her newspaper’s lawyers, who represent the company’s financial interests, in favor of Ben Bradlee’s argument that free speech of the press as a check on government in a viable democracy—the company’s mission—is of overriding importance. As important as this critical decision was historically, I submit that the film allots too much attention to the decision and even the relationship between Graham and Bradlee at the expense of other deserving matters.


The film gives scant attention to Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine and military analyst who “brought the Pentagon Papers to The Times, and later to The Post, motivated by an all-American notion that the nation’s citizen’s had the right to know more about what was going on half a world away in a war financed by their tax dollars and fought by so many of their children.”[1] The script does not include, for example, his statement, “Taking an oath as a public servant does not mean keeping secrets or obeying the president—it’s respecting the Constitution.”[2] The viewer sees little if any of the internal struggle that must have led to his conclusion.
Secondly, that Ellsberg first brought portions of the Pentagon’s study to The New York Times is shown in the film mainly through Ben Bradlee’s competitive disappointment rather than showing more of what was going on at The Times. In fact, whereas Bradlee and Graham could look to The Times as a precedent, Arthur O. Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, had no forerunner and thus “took on far more risk,” James Goodale, the paper’s in-house counsel at the time, has written.[3] “It’s as though Hollywood had made a movie about the Times’s triumphant role in Watergate,” he added.[4] Neil Sheehan, the lead reporter on the story, has said in retirement that Sulzberger “was absolutely heroic in publishing the Pentagon Papers. . . . He was all alone in making his decision.”[5]
Thirdly, and most importantly, although the film gives viewers the “important lesson . . . that, in both cases, family-led newspapers placed their journalistic missions ahead of business imperatives. And they did so under intense governmental pressure,” scant attention is allotted to the contents of the articles themselves.[6] Little is revealed other than that administrations going back to Truman’s lied to the American people regarding American involvement and prospects in Vietnam. The film highlights the lying by showing Nixon’s Secretary of State blatantly lie to the press on his view of the prospects for winning the war. The viewer is left with the image of a misled public that is nonetheless supposed to hold its government accountable. Even so, the film does not convey much of what the Pentagon study found. The scattered, cryptic references made at Bradlee’s house are not sufficient, given the potential for informing the viewers, and thus a sizable portion of the American people, on just how bad the lies were by spelling them out.
The medium of film, as well as its popular situs in modern society, can handle making “deep” philosophical issues transparent. In the case of The Post, the increasing power of the American presidency, referred to academically as the imperial presidency, could have received attention, as could have the particular cover-ups by Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon—each lie specified rather than glided over. It was not just Richard Nixon, who can be easily relegated as the crook who occupied the White House for a term and a half. That several presidents successively lied points to something systemic getting in the way of democratic accountability in the U.S. Besides the growing power of the presidency since World War II, the ease by which administrations can insulate themselves from the public, rather than being accountable to it, would have come through more in the film.
In short, more substance on the main character, the Pentagon Papers, as well as the initial roles of Ellsberg and The New York Times, could have come in by not giving so much screen time to the Bradlee-Graham relationship and even the competing interests within The Washington Post. The result would have been more of a multi-level film.  



[1] Jim Rutenberg, “Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ Provides Fitting End to Turbulent Year for the Media,” The New York Times, December 24, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Seminarian

A closeted gay student at an evangelical seminary is a contrast with a rather obvious clashing point, with the predicted ending being that the student is kicked out and must find or come into his own identity free of exterior constraints. Yet The Seminarian (2010) smartly avoids that road well-traveled. Instead, the screenwriter risks giving theology a prominent, and perhaps even central place in the film. The venture is at odds with the bottom-feeder mentality of Hollywood represented in the film, De-Lovely (2004), in which Cole Porter’s bisexuality occupies center-stage. Comparing these two films, irony drips off the screen as De-Lovely, which is patterned after a theatrical musical, looks down on Hollywood and yet has a common theme, while The Seminarian is a film through and through and yet takes the high road by supposing that the viewers can and will stay through some substantive theology, which transcends social issues and even the dramatic.
Theologically, The Seminarian, through its protagonist Ryan, wrestles with the relation of God as love and the love that is in human relationships. Specifically, if God made us capable of feeling love for another person so to demonstrate that God is love, then why do we suffer in relationships in which there is love? Ryan, who is suffering because he is falling for a guy he met online but keeps postponing a second date, runs the risk of using theological analysis to work out a personal problem. He supposes that we suffer in matters of love here below because God suffers for want of love from us. The unmentioned implication is that Jesus suffers on the Cross because we have fallen short from loving God. We have hurt God and so stand in need of being redeemed in order to be able to love God such that it will not suffer from want of our love. The suffering servant on the Cross is not just a human suffering, but also the divine suffering. Yet doesn’t this imply that God is incomplete in some way? God may have created humans so to be loved by us—hence the hurt from having love denied—but God itself is the fullness of love. As Augustine and Calvin emphasize in their respective writings, God is love. This is the subtitle of the film!
So, as in most theological problems worth their salt, an internal problem can be found and begs to be solved. Although Ryan attempts a solution in his thesis, the problem of God being complete unto itself is not addressed in the film. Perhaps God voluntarily created a vulnerability within the divine when he created humans to love, and thus glorify, it. The second person of the trinity, the Logos, is a part or manifestation of God since before the beginning, and we can perhaps find the vulnerability—even if still when the suffering of God is potential—meaning before the Incarnation of Jesus as a god-man, fully human and fully divine, and even so fully able to suffer. In other words, the divine in Jesus suffers too; it is not just his human nature that suffers. Interestingly, the Gnostic text, The Gospel of Philip, has the divine leave, or abandon, Jesus on the cross just before he dies, and thus after he suffers. The question is perhaps whether love that is by its very divine-nature complete or whole yet suffer. If so, the pain would be from humans not loving God as we were meant (by God) to; the pain suffered by God would not be from a want of divine love.
It is significant, I submit, that a Hollywood film would give viewers such ideas to ponder rather than focus on the gay-guy-meets-conservative-religionists element of the narrative—a theme which had already enjoyed pride of place in many films that tease the tension that is in a society in motion. To be sure, Hollywood is indeed still capable of dishing out banal sugar to a superficial public, but this makes the choice made in the screenwriting of The Seminarian all the more noteworthy and deserving of emulation.



Sunday, September 23, 2018

De-Lovely

Cole Porter (1891-1964), an American composer and songwriter, is the centerpiece of the film, De-Lovely (2004). The film begins when he meets Linda, who would become his wife. Their relationship is at the center of the story, as well as Porter’s love songs sung throughout the film. Although the complicated nature of the relationship takes center stage, the film can be viewed as a moving snapshot of the first half of the twentieth century, when film made inroads that would dwarf the stage.


The message is clear: quality (e.g. clever humor) was be sacrificed, or “dumbed down,” to be attractive to the much larger movie-market. In other words, entertainment would have to become virtual eye-candy to be attractive to the ordinary American. In the film, Porter’s “Be a Clown” is meant as a swipe at J.B. Meyer even as the eye-candy visuals were deployed to tickle his ribs so he would be oblivious to the insult being leveled at his industry, and thus himself.
Linda Porter is more direct at the film’s party at the set, likening Hollywood to being deep down in an ocean—suggestive of the bisexual activities of Cole having found ready outlets in L.A.—rather than being in warm and sunny southern California. No opening after-party on Broadway would take place literally on a stage. How low class that would be!
Lastly, after watching a private screening of Night and Day (1946), in which Cary Grant is implausibly cast to play Cole Porter, neither Cole nor Linda is impressed. Looking at the attempt to capture Cole’s life in film, the couple could be concluding, moreover, that the ascendancy of film would result in a new decadence—a new low—in American entertainment.
Had they been around, the Porters would have stayed home rather than see the slew of disaster sans narrative films, such as Earthquake (1974), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and San Andreas (2015).  An interesting question is how Cole Porter viewed the decline in the number of Hollywood musicals beginning in the 1950s as the studio system started to come apart. He likely did not appreciate the dollar argument wherein what is produced should be what will maximize revenue, even if Porter benefitted financially from higher ticket sales of his films. It seems to me that the film medium is not to blame, for the film, Amadeus (1984), shows the existence of low theatre in the eighteenth century, before cinema would come into being.
Both theatre and film can go to the most base in terms of humor and narrative to titillate certain market-segments, while producing truly astonishing quality. Hence, films like Dumb and Dumber (1994) have not been made with an eye to getting an Academy Award, whereas films like The Iron Lady (2011) and Lincoln (2012) likely were. Astonishingly, actors like Meryl Streep can play in both camps, such as in starring in films like The Iron Lady and The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and yet also films like Mamma Mia! (2008) and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018). I am not saying that the latter films cannot or should not be taken to be entertaining; rather, I am pointing to the sheer distance between such films and those that receive best picture and acting nominations at the Academy of Motion Pictures. The existence of films such as Dumb and Dumber does not negate the high art of the films that are nominated (and win) Academy awards.

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.

Sources:

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).