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Friday, December 9, 2011

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 Writing. http://home.teleport.com/~bjscript/index.htm  See also Charles Deemer, Screenwright: The Craft of Screenwriting (Xlibris, 1998), pp. 117-19.