The Schreiber Theory and Bambi vs. Godzilla

By David Kipen
By David Mamet

In the days when I used to care about movies, one of my favourite movie guides (a genre that has since been put on the endangered list by the all-powerful Internet Movie Database) was Halliwell’s, and in particular the early volumes prepared by Leslie Halliwell himself. One of the unusual things about it was the way it listed writers ahead of directors in the credits. This was no accident. Halliwell wanted it that way because he felt that writers were, all things considered, just as important as directors to the finished product.

In fact, for a long time they were even more important. The screenplay in the old studio system was everything, with directors just hired to hold the camera. This importance, however, did not translate into money, status, or power. Screenwriters were still regarded by the studios as disposable, unglamorous, virtually anonymous hacks. Producer Irving Thalberg, who should have known, was of the opinion that “the writer is the most important person in Hollywood, but we must never tell the sons of bitches.”

Of course, this was all a long time ago. As Variety editor Peter Bart succinctly put it in his account of the summer 1998 film season The Gross, today “the writer really doesn’t matter.” No kidding. Two of the Academy Award nominees for best screenplay of 2006 didn’t even have screenplays (Borat, which was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay because it was basically a series of improvised sketches based on a character from Da Ali G Show, and United 93, which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay but was also heavily improvised).

Clearly the writer is no longer the most important person in Hollywood. Indeed he has largely become an irrelevance whose function is now handled by committee. This is the reality faced by critic David Kipen in The Schreiber Theory, subtitled “A Radical Rewrite of American Film History.” It’s important to flag that final word. In so far as the Schreiber Theory has any applicability, and I think it has some, it is retrospective. It offers a new way of understanding and interpreting film history. What makes it radical is its (I think belabored) opposition to the once fashionable auteur theory, which was an idea coming out of French film criticism that saw the director as the primary creative author of a film. “Schreiber” is Yiddish for “writer,” and Kipen sees his essay as “an attempt to explode the director-centric farrago of good intentions, bad faith, and tortured logic that goes by the name of auteurism, and to replace it with a screenwriter-centered way of thinking about film.” After all, “despite the shifting tides of critical theory, film has always been a writer’s medium.”

Well, no. That’s going a bit too far. Still, Kipen does make a somewhat plausible case for screenwriters having “more recognizable signatures, and better batting averages” than directors. And so there is ground here for a revision of film history. The problem is moving forward. As noted, the status and importance of the screenwriter is not in the ascendant. And Kipen admits that, if anything, “screenwriters have it even rougher in an ever more globalized Hollywood than directors do, because dialogue – while only part of what screenwriters do – is still the part that most often gets lost in translation.” In addition, the dominance of comic book/videogame/action-oriented juvenilia has pretty much displaced the art of the word. “The old emphasis on voice and script has given way to an Esperanto of violence and spectacle.” At least in America. L. A. Times film columnist Patrick Goldstein is quoted as saying that “In today’s Hollywood, if you’re talking about serious drama, the original script is almost as extinct as the wooly mammoth.” As a result, “It would take some serious wishful thinking to look at the current filmmaking landscape and see a terrain ripe for schreiberist revolution.” By putting forward his “schreiberist countermyth” to the auteur theory, however, Kipen hopes to inspire or at least gently prod the industry in a new direction. His manifesto is just “a necessary practical prelude to finally getting a few better movies made.”

It’s something we’d all like to see. After all, one can’t help but look at the immense amount of money, talent, and hard work that Hollywood absorbs and be a little in awe at how massive a creative failure it is. The question of how things went so wrong (if they were ever right) is one that has exercised critics quite a bit over the years. The typical response, that it has become all about the money and the product industrialized, is not entirely convincing since the movie business has always and only been about the money and has always been an industry. Nevertheless, beginning with the screenplay (which is as good a place as any to begin), David Mamet lines the usual suspects up as the villains of the piece. The title of this irregular collection of musings, Bambi vs. Godzilla, is a metaphor for the conflict between show people and businesspeople in Hollywood. One doesn’t have to know Marv Newland’s short film to guess who wins. And so in answer to the question “How Scripts Got So Bad,” he points to how “the industrial model demands conformity.” Opposed to the dedicated and skilled laborers and creative visionaries who actually make films is the corporate bureaucrat counting beans.

This much is old hat and, as Mamet puts it, “boo hoo” anyway.

Mamet is a master of dialogue and voice, but can scarcely write a coherent paragraph of prose. Bambi vs. Godzilla comes snarling off the page like a cranky monologue. Cranky, and for such a successful writer surprisingly bitter too. Years after the squabbles over Oleanna he’s still pissed off at political correctness, and has now added a nearly hysterical anti-anti-Semitism to his little list. The Western press is anti-Israel? Hollywood is out to get the Jews? Accusations of a liberal bias in the news seem reasonable in comparison to claims as paranoid as these.

In a book as random and meandering as this one can only hope to pick up an occasional insight. Often these come in the form of bits and pieces of Hollywood wisdom preserved in anecdotes. But Mamet has some good original material as well, typically expressed as snappy and provocative analogies:

The Hollywood corporate bureaucracy is the same as that of Enron: “executives who saw that the power to grow wealthy stemmed from the brave decision to stop making anything at all.”

Summer blockbusters are like the Defense Department: “we are reassured by their presence rather than their content or operations. As examples of waste they appeal to our need – not for entertainment but for security.”

Modern screenplays are like personal ads: “Just as the personal ad is written not to attract anyone specifically but only to avoid exclusion, the ‘lazy Sunday mornings’ screenplay strives to appeal to all – or to those who think it might appeal to all. In this it also resembles a political speech, written to lull and, by its soporific cadence and vocabulary, to allow the listener to intuit whatever the hell he wants.”

Today’s comedies are like porn, or the circus: “a loose assemblage” and “presentation of individually complete, intellectually empty effects (tricks, turns), such that the progress, one to the next, mimics the emotional journey undergone by the listener involved in the progression of an actual drama.”

This is all interesting stuff. Unfortunately it is buried in a slap-dash text that one imagines being more fun to listen to than to read. A lot of the time Mamet seems to be talking off the top of his head as well. His synopsis of Bambi Meets Godzilla (the movie) suggests that he has not actually seen it. And he wildly misattributes a line from Henry V to Othello, where it would make no sense at all. Noticing mistakes like these, one starts to wonder how much faith we can put in some of the other things he says. Unconventional thinking is always appreciated when it comes to making critical judgments, but is The Killing “the world’s greatest film noir”? Is Galaxy Quest a “perfect film”? These are the sort of throwaway opinions we might toss into an informal conversation, but I don’t think they stand very much looking into.

“American film history may currently be entering its third act,” Kipen writes. Or maybe not. My own sense is that film as we have known it is over. This is based on two observations: (1) more of the audience is electing to stay home and watch DVDs on their home entertainment systems, which is a different experience from going to the theatre; and (2) videogames have replaced movies in terms of sales. Whether film, which has always been a species of mass entertainment, can survive with all of its enormous costs as a form of fringe culture is doubtful. Perhaps, however, such a shift might lead to a situation where Bambi will be able to escape Godzilla. The giant lizard will be off destroying cities elsewhere, and the next generation of David Mamets will be able to reclaim the suddenly less-than-commanding heights of Hollywood.

When no one, alas, is looking.

Review first published online March 6, 2007. With regard to Bambi Meets Godzilla, “one of the great cinematic delights of the sixties,” Mamet provides the following synopsis for “those who have not been blessed”: “a young scampering Bambi crests a hill and looks winningly to the right and left. He raises his ears, sensing danger. A huge billion-ton monster, Godzilla, comes over the hill and stomps Bambi into preserves. Roll credits.” Almost none of this is correct. Bambi does not scamper, does not look to the right and left, and there is no hill to crest or come over. The short film almost entirely consists of opening and closing credits.

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