Django Unchained, Lincoln, and the Use of History

16 Jan

lincoln-poster-gun-steven-spielbergThis January, it is common to find film critics such as this rather witty one comparing two new and somewhat controversial films, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. Along those lines, the comparison between the gun-slinging Django and the politically savvy Lincoln has been humorously and visually made in the Django/Lincoln/James Bond mash-up poster that you see here. Both movies are made by white men about the subject of slavery; both feature heroic white men who over the course of the movie become devoted to the cause of emancipation; both have been nominated for best picture awards this year, and both have been discussed in light of the directors’ earlier films about the Jewish holocaust — Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

So, it’s not surprising that people would compare them, but I’ve got a slightly different take on these movies than what I’ve seen the critics say, and I think the critics have been avoiding both the real question and the troubling implications not only for these two movies, but for most movies. The real question, of course, is the use of history — why? who cares? Or to respond to a sentiment I often hear from students sometimes about watching movies just for “enjoyment” and not for any deeper meaning, why is history enjoyable? And the more troubling implication of this question has to do with the anti-social quality of both films, and I will explain what I mean by that at the end of this blog post by comparing Tarantino’s approach to the blaxploitation genre with the older 1972 film The Legend of Nigger Charley upon which Tarantino’s movie is based. But before that, I will briefly summarize and respond to the things critics are saying.

First, although there are some similarities as I mentioned above, critics and the public in general have all pointed out important differences. Both of Tarantino’s films (Django Unchained and Inglorious Bastards)are violent revenge fantasies that self-consciously play with the genre conventions of blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns, and both of Spielberg’s are about actual historical figures and purport to teach us something true about history. Django features a black man who engages in trickery and kills a lot of white men in order to free his wife; Lincoln features a white man who engages in political trickery during a war in which millions were killed in order to free slaves. Django is a bromance between a white man and a black man in which both characters develop and change as they get to know each other; Lincoln is a solid rock of righteousness, folk wisdom, and pragmatic virtuosity who never wavers and never changes.

Probably the most controversial aspect of both films is their use and abuse of history. Since Spielberg claims his Lincoln is “true,” he has been criticized for many historical inaccuracies (e.g., here and here, though curiously these inaccuracies are less worrisome to the American Historical Association’s executive director here.) The most troubling inaccuracy of course is the film’s strange occlusion of the abolitionist movement, especially Frederick Douglass’s influence. Many historians and theorists, from Angela Davis to Eric Foner, have demonstrated the importance of these movements on American politics in general and on Lincoln’s own mindset in particular. Along those lines, popular culture has also responded to Spielberg’s movie, and here is a somewhat amusing satire most of which is pretty accurate (until the end, when he starts talking about hats and beards.)

But the exclusion of this historical information is not the only problem. The movie even goes so far as to suggest that such radicals need to be contained when at a key moment in the film Thaddeus Stevens pragmatically shifts to the political center, when in fact it was the radicals who did most of the real work before Lincoln even took office. In what is probably supposed to be a touching scene but for me was a nauseating one, Lincoln’s very difficult and controversial shift from a separatist position (blacks free but separate from whites) to an integrationist position — a shift that was brought about by Douglass and other white and black abolitionists — is contained in a rather sentimental conversation between Lincoln and his wife’s maid. (And I use the word “contained” deliberately — in terms of narrative, quite literally the whole issue is contained in that one conversation and appears nowhere else, and hence in metaphorical terms, the issue is contained and its historical and political implications are prevented from contaminating the heroic image of Lincoln that Spielberg wants to present.) The two black women portrayed in the movie appear to be mere domestics, but in real history they were activists and organizers.

In contrast, Django has been criticized by Spike Lee and others less for its inaccuracies than for its disrespectful attitude towards the seriousness of slavery as well as in his perverse delight in having his characters so cavalierly brandish about the n-word (e.g., here and here.) To put it another way, few people expect historical accuracy from this sort of film, but what’s troubling to Spike Lee is that the movie transforms something horrible and traumatic into something hilarious and enjoyable. It trivializes something that we ought to take seriously.

But what’s historical fiction for, anyway? Accuracy? Perspective? Patriotism? Honoring the past? Hating the past? In discussing Lincoln with a friend, we both agreed that what Lincoln did well was focus very intently on a single month of time and bring to light the sort of hard and dirty political maneuvers that might lay behind any piece of legislation that came to define the very soul of the United States and our political system. This is a movie we could imagine a high school teacher showing in a U.S. history or civics class. And indeed, the movie begins almost like a high school class, with some minor characters attempting like schoolboys to recite the Gettysburg Address from memory. But of course, what’s missing from all the political maneuvers is any sense of why any of the political figures feel or think the way they do. We don’t get a rich sense of what motivates any of the political positions. The issue of race that other critics have brought up is part of this problem. We don’t see the years of hard work that the abolitionists put in to make that happen. We don’t get any sense of black people as politically organized. But this is just part it. In fact, we don’t see any social organization of any kind or any aspect of American culture. We only see the epiphenomenal political superstructure on top of the much more complex cultural base, and what’s insidious about that is that it isolates politics and political action from the very stakes that political representation is supposed to be for in the first place.

Of course, Lincoln would be a very boring movie if it were only about the politics. Spielberg has to humanize the characters and give them a semblance of depth, and this is especially important and hard to accomplish for the character of Lincoln considering that this is a character who does not develop because his heroic image is based on his rock-like consistency. Spielberg achieves this semblance of depth by shifting the focus of the story back and forth between the political intrigue and his family. The camera technique that Spielberg uses to achieve this is the deep focus shots pioneered by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, where what is happening in the foreground relates to or contrasts with what’s happening in the background. But for Welles, this deep focus technique was used to create ironic juxtapositions that revealed a deep ideological and psychological conflict. In contrast, for Spielberg, the family man foreground functions to humanize and justify Lincoln’s politically unconstitutional maneuvers in the background. What if, instead of all the family imagery, we were given a broader view of the culture in which Lincoln lived? This might diminish his agency and his heroic image, and more to the point, it would undermine Spielberg’s hagiographic use of history to celebrate heroic, individualist pragmatism at the expense of radical social organization.

For me, for all its differences, Django has the same problems as Lincoln, even though its abuse of history is for entirely different ends. First, what I think is politically effective and amazing about Django can be summed up by telling my experience watching it in a movie theater in downtown Brooklyn. The audience was a mix of white, black, Latino, Asian, etc., but seemed mostly white. What I saw as Tarantino’s achievement is that every time the black character killed a white character, everyone in the audience cheered. But of course what’s missing from Django is precisely the politically and socially organized black community that is also missing from Lincoln. Just as in Lincoln, we see no positive culture in this film. Instead, in both films (and also in the new James Bond films that I just wrote about recently) we see individual heroism against a vague backdrop of a negative culture, and specifically in the case of Django, this heroism is mostly manifest in Django’s talent with a gun and with his partner’s ability to twist the law towards his own ends. (To qualify this, I would say that what’s actually really great about Django is that unlike Lincoln we do have character development as the two men become friends; by the end of the film, what Tarantino has carefully and brilliantly plotted is a very clever role reversal as the white man and black man gradually switch positions.)

It might serve us well to compare Django to its predecessor from three decades ago, The Legend of Nigger Charley and its sequels The Soul of Nigger Charley  and Boss Nigger which were also box-office hits. How does Tarantino’s new movie differ from the older blaxploitation film that inspired him?

Obviously, in the early 1970s, it was a new and astonishing thing to have heroic black men brandishing guns, beating up whites, and getting the girl at the end of the film. And these movies were not intended only for black audiences. White audiences liked them too. Of course, at the time, as the excellent documentary BaadAsssss Cinema showed, the black community was deeply divided over these films, some celebrating them for giving the same sorts of roles to black characters that whites had always enjoyed in the movies, and others condemning them for emphasizing crime, sex, violence, and derogatory language (i.e., the n-word) — things for which the black community had been stigmatized. What’s different about the debate in the 1970s and the debate over Django that people are having now is that in the 70s, these films really were doing something new and enacting a cultural transformation. One can’t say that about Django.

But there is a deeper and more profound difference. In movies such as Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Nigger Charley, we frequently see scenes of groups of black men having serious conversations about what to do and how to improve their lives and overcome racism. Nigger Charley even concludes with a multi-ethnic alliance between whites, Native Americans, and blacks against corruption. This important dimension of the plot was totally missed by the critic Roger Ebert in his review. The plots of these movies are not especially complex, but they allude to the ways that racism is complex and sometimes functions in ways that are not obvious. In contrast, in movies like Django, racism is simply the ideology that evil men have, and in Lincoln, racism is simply a back story that we’re already supposed to know about but is left unexplored. Additionally, in Tarantino’s homages to blaxploitation Django and Jackie Brown (and in my view Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best movie by far and is more attentive than Django to culture and society), the n-word is simply tossed around because Tarantino says “that’s how people talk,” but in The Legend of Nigger Charley, it is always a word that is spoken by white characters who clearly use it as a term of oppression until the end, when Charley appropriates it as a term of revenge in order to inspire terror in the very people that once terrorized him. That complexity which was central to the older blaxploitation films is absent from Tarantino’s.

In sum, the older blaxploitation films were attentive to the complexities of culture and the difficult labor of social organization in ways that Django and Lincoln are not.

But I am still begging the question I raised at the beginning of this post, what is the use of all this history? To say that historical movies educate — or even more complexly to say that we learn a lesson from the past about what we ought to do in the present — doesn’t explain why we enjoy them and doesn’t explain the necessary functions of simplification, anachronism, sentimentality, and fantasy. This should be obvious to anyone, and it should be especially obvious to those of us versed in the theories of Jacques Derrrida, Gilles Deleuze, Stuart Hall, Jacqueline Rose, etc. but most of the negative criticism has focused on the question of accuracy and representation, while the positive reviewers have responded that accuracy doesn’t matter. In fact, accuracy does matter, but neither simply for the sake of being accurate nor simply for the sake of fair representation to identifiable groups (blacks, whites, etc.) Rather, it is a question of our psychic relation to the past and how the past continues to function in our shared culture as a marker for who we are and who we want to be. The past is a screen that we project ourselves upon, where we imagine political agency and power, and in this sense, what is disturbing about Lincoln and Django is that the directors are projecting a profoundly anti-social vision of human agency that is both ruthless and divorced from broad-based cultural work.

Skyfall, Globalization, and the Ghost of History

14 Jan

A few years ago, I wrote a post in my other blog, Theory Teacher’s Blog, about how the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace was symptomatic of globalization, and I later expanded that post into a scholarly article entitled “The New James Bond and Globalization Theory, Inside and Out,” for the journal CineAction that was published in the fall of 2009. The text has been put on the internet without my permission by the Free Library [here]. In it, I discussed many of the theorists of twenty-first century globalization who have argued that the old international order of nation states has been superseded by a new global order in which nation states are merely part of a larger network of transnational and local relations that include multinational corporations, finance capital, criminal organizations, non-governmental organizations, social and environmental movements, etc. Whether or not that is actually true, it is a way of thinking about the world that, I argue, is reflected in recent cinema. In my view, Bond was not unique, but rather typical of this paradigm shift within the movie industry in general and spy thrillers in particular, and I later blogged about the movies The International and Duplicity to expand my argument. So, when the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall, was released this year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the first Bond movie, I had to see it. And considering that this is the most profitable Bond film of all time,  scoring huge at the box office, I was very curious whether the new movie would confirm my theory about Bond films, and several of my friends and colleagues asked me whether I thought so.

In some ways yes, in some ways, no.

For sure, the actor Daniel Craig continues to play the constantly brooding, angry version of Bond, instead of the pithy, urbane version of Bond performed by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and others. But my point is that the new Bond style is not just Craig’s acting — it’s the whole thing, and it’s a “whole thing” that relates to the history of globalization.

The question that the characters of Skyfall ask over and over again is whether the fictional Bond character, as well as the real British intelligence service MI6, is irrelevant in our globalized, postmodern world. The movie brilliantly layers this idea, as Bond appears to die, but returns, and at various moments in the movie, Britain’s Parliament debates the relevance of MI6 and the double-O agents. In one scene, Bond and Q sit in front of a painting of a “grand old war ship inevitably being hauled off to scrap,” and Eve Moneypenny jokes about Bond being an old dog with new tricks. As the gorgeous theme song by Adele begins, “This is the end,” and later Bond jokes that he specializes in resurrection. (By the way, Bond’s resurrection is not a new theme; consider You Only Live Twice, Never Say Never Again, and GoldenEye.) Amusingly, and not so coincidentally, critics have been asking the same question that the movie itself asks. Is the Bond film a dead genre, or does it have to reinvent itself or resurrect itself to stay current and hip… and… uh… not suck. And there appears to be a general consensus that Skyfall represents something new, some critics celebrating the movie for its innovative new take, and others trashing the film for failing in the attempt. However, I have a slightly different view than the critics. For all the obsessive worry about relevance and newness, the film actually asserts a troubling and ridiculously nostalgic return to the old Bond.

But before I explain what I mean about this nostalgic return to the old Bond, rather than a further elaboration of the new Bond, let’s review how Skyfall repeats some of the stuff I mentioned in my article about Quantum of Solace. Most of the “globalist” ideas appear in a speech that the villain Silva gives when he and Bond first meet. Silva pontificates about all of Bond’s outdated attachments to the nation-state and the old order: “England… empire… MI6… you’re living in a ruin and just don’t know it yet.” (Ironically, they are having this conversation literally within a ruin that Silva himself created.) He goes on to explain how easy it is to destabilize nation states by rigging the stock market and elections. In a sense, Silva’s speech is somewhat similar to the argument I made about globalization and the withering of the nation-state in my article, but with one key and unsurprising difference. What was good about the previous Bond movie Quantum of Solace is its recognition that in the real globalized world of today, it is the U.S. and British governments who are doing all that “rigging” and often collaborating with clandestine and criminal organizations in order to do so. This was the first time in Bond history that the British government was not unequivocally on the side of good. The plot was complicated enough to map out a somewhat complex network of relations, which moved beyond the simplistic good-guys versus bad-guys story that was so typical of the older Bond movies. What’s stupid about Skyfall is the world’s geopolitical complexity is reduced to the character of Silva, whose insanity represents pure evil, and who would be a totally absurd character if it weren’t for the brilliant acting of Javier Barden. What is even more troubling is Bond’s response to Silva, that Bond represents a “resurrection.” But a resurrection of what? Silva has just trashed the British empire, and who would want to resurrect that?

In a sense, the new Bond film reduces the complexity of history to an Oedipal drama. (I’m not the only person to notice the excessively Freudian structure of the plot; for instance, see David Denby’s review in The New Yorker and another in the Atlantic.) Whereas Quantum of Solace traces the return of history in terms of American geopolitical strategies coming back to bite America in the ass, Skyfall is strictly a Freudian fantasy where the injured MI6 agent with mommy issues and a bruised adolescent ego returns to attack his former boss, who is represented as a mother figure. The film is brilliant on this point, especially when Silva shows what the cyanide capsule did to his face when he tried to kill himself in order to protect Great Britain; in that scene, he is both figuratively and literally the monster that MI6 unintentionally created. We might pose an analogy between this monstrosity and the monstrosity of so many militant groups created by the United States and Europe in other countries that backfired — Ronald Reagan’s al Qaeda being the worst. But the movie doesn’t do that. Instead we have two ghosts (or, “the last two rats,” as the movie repeatedly jokes) — the ghost of Bond returning from the dead in order to fight the ghost of Bond’s evil twin. Both of them feel wronged by MI6, and for Silva, M clearly represents the “phallic mother” figure whose love he seeks but whom he also wants to master or destroy. However, unlike Silva who returns from the dead to wage a personal war against M and MI6, Bond returns from “enjoying death” to protect M and MI6 because, he says, “we are under attack.” In this way, the movie projects international politics onto the personalities of individuals, and any geopolitical context that could have been explored or even just alluded to in the background has almost entirely disappeared from view. The movie even attempts to justify its own narrative blindness by means of an odd version of globalization theory’s thesis about the reduced role of the modern nation-state when M tells Parliament that “our enemies are  no longer known to us, they are no longer nation states; they are now individuals…. and the shadows is where we do battle.” (Ironically, of course, their enemies are very much “known” to MI6, because apparently the “individuals” are former MI6 agents.)

Three quarters of the way through a very long movie, it appears that Silva’s postmodern, globalized insanity has got Bond and MI6 beat, so how is Bond to fight back? The answer is by going back in time, where, as Bond says, “we have the advantage.” And so we travel to Bond’s childhood home, Skyfall, a mansion in Scotland. To complete this nostalgic image, the old home appears to come with its own endearing old caretaker, Mr. Kincaid, who appears with a shotgun on his arm as if just back from a pheasant hunt. Here, a number of things are completely unique and new about this Bond film. First, this is the only time in Bond history that Bond’s childhood is a major part of the plot. In all other Bond movies, Bond’s life before he became an agent is totally absent, and it’s hard to imagine him anything but, as if he sprang like Minerva, a fully formed agent with tuxedo, martini, and Walther PPK pistol from the brain of Zeus (or, in this case, from the motherly brain of M.) Second, this is the first time that most of the explosions happen inside of Britain. Usually, Bond goes to other countries where he and the villain callously destroy much of that nation’s cultural heritage, but in Skyfall, both MI6 headquarters and Bond’s childhood home are destroyed (and please note the Freudian connection between his childhood home where his parents died and his adult home at MI6 where the life of his new “mum” — his boss M — is threatened.) Lastly, and most importantly, this is the first Bond movie where Bond cries, and over what does he weep so many tears? Yes, the death of his surrogate Oedipal mommy, M.

Since the death of M (mum) is the climax of the movie, we might think back to when Judi Dench was first introduced as the new M — not surprisingly in the last movie to also question Bond’s relevance in a post-soviet era, Golden Eye, when Judi Dench calls Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” In the history of Bond films, GoldenEye represented a major turning point for three reasons. First, because it was produced after the longest gap in time between Bond films, as studios really did believe the genre had died with Timothy Dalton. Second, it was the first Bond movie to be produced after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, so it very directly raised the question of whether MI6 and Bond were still relevant.  Third, GoldenEye replaced the sexist, old-boys-club feel of the earlier Bond movies with more progressive roles for women, including Judi Dench as M, a more outspoken and capable “Bond-Girl” (e.g., Natalya Simonova, played by Izabella Scorupco in GoldenEye). By the time we get the new Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the pathetic, Bond-worshipping Moneypenny character has also been dropped from the story. Curiously, while in her first movie, Dench as M criticizes the old agents like Bond, in her last movie she defends them, and she defends them just in time to signal a return to the arrangement of the older Cold-War-era Bond movies with a new male M and a doting Moneypenny. What excessively Freudian Skyfall stages is the death of the “phallic mother” (M).

I’d like to pause for a moment to emphasize the paradox and the curious contradiction. On the one hand, critics are saying this is a “new” Bond movie (which of course annoys me, because I argued that it was Quantum of Solace that was the “new Bond.”) But on the other hand, it is a movie that nostalgically gestures back to the older films and performs a wish-fullfillment fantasy of a return to an older world order.

But of course we can’t go back, and what really makes this movie “new” and interesting is the troubling Freudian discovery that it can’t go back. Bond blows up his childhood home, which he says he has always hated, and its image burns like the ghost of history, an uncanny and very un-Bond-like image that haunts the movie’s end. This is wonderful cinema. For a full minute of screen time, everything is dark except for this burning house. In addition, even more important than the destruction of Bond’s two homes (his childhood home and MI6 headquarters), I’d like to suggest that one other aspect of this movie also undermines the desire to return to a simpler time. As some critics have noticed, the “Bond girl” Severine was the victim of sexual abuse and human trafficking when she was just a child. Bond’s discovery of this, and Severine’s self-betrayal, is perhaps, the most interesting moment in the film — the only moment of a troubling Real of globalization in the entire movie which is otherwise little more than a Freudian fantasy. Actress Berenice Marlohe is brilliant here, her whole body trembling with fear, rage, and hate towards the world order that the movie represents. And for both Lacanian and Foucaultian theorists of the Real and of the body, it is important that it is the actress’s body that communicates this. I assume that the horror of this scene is meant to dramatise what a horrible villain Silva is, but the horror is so great it almost overwhelms the whole movie. As dozens of scholarly articles on James Bond have noticed, Bond’s relationship to women is, of course, symptomatic of the fallen British empire’s relationship to the world. We may recall that what was totally unique and unprecedented in Quantum of Solace was the chaste relationship between Bond and the Bond-girl, Camille Montes, with whom he does not even try to have sex, but instead gives a brotherly peck on the cheek. Instead, in Skyfall, what is unprecedented is that the history of Severine’s exploitation is admitted, and the tragedy of her situation more painfully understood. In a way, both the excessively chaste Bond and politically radical Bond-girl in Quantum of Solace and the realization of Severine’s history in Skyfall are two sides of the same coin — the horrible Real of globalization that can no longer be properly sexualized and neutralized by a debonair hero. In truth, it is Severine who is the tragic heroine of globalization in this movie. Bond is not.

Let me explain why not. Traditionally, most Bond films end with both Bond and the Bond-girl together in each other’s arms, but at the end of the new Bond, Severine has died, Moneypenny has been transformed from a badass agent to a cheerful secretary, and the woman in Bond’s arms is his mommy, M. If I may make a joke on Newsweek‘s infamous cover story in 2009 after the government bailed out the auto industry, “We’re all Socialist Now,” we might speculate that if the popularity of the latest Bond movie says anything about our culture today, as it anxiously looks ahead to a troubled brave new world, it says that “We’re all Children Now.” At the beginning of this essay, I promised that I’d say something about why Craig’s brooding style is more appropriate for the new Bond than the adolescent humor of the old Bond — Craig is a lovable, angry child.

Muppets, Fox, Fish, and Political Propaganda

2 Feb

In December, Fox News spent seven whole minutes blasting the new Disney movie The Muppets for being dangerous socialist propaganda that brainwashes children. Although few would think of Disney as a “liberal” corporation, Fox targeted all Hollywood as promoting a liberal agenda and asked why Disney did not produce children’s movies that blamed President Obama for the financial crisis. It even suggested that movies like The Muppets are responsible for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Fox’s attack of the Muppets seemed laughable to many, and so Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart [here] immediately responded with his usual parody, and a couple of weeks later someone created a mock interview on YouTube where muppets Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy talk about what Fox News said. The scenario, I think, illustrates several points raised by Stanley Fish about “interpretive communities” in his classic essay, “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” included  in his book  Is There a Text in this Class? In that essay, and in other of his essays, Fish argues that people learn very specific strategies for “reading” texts, and that they learn these strategies in different public contexts, and so, depending on where one is (e.g., in a classroom, in a bar, on Fox television, in Congress), there are different norms and expectations for the reader and for the text.

First, let’s watch the trailer for the The Muppets, and quickly review its plot.

The movie focuses on the deep friendship between a man and a muppet from a small town who go to Hollywood to tour the Muppet Show theater. Their relationship is complicated because the man has grown up and recently married, but still feels responsible for the muppet’s well-being.  After they arrive, they soon discover that the theater is falling apart and that the cast from the original movie and television show (produced in the late 1970s) has scattered across the world. A greedy oil baron Tex Richman plans to buy the theater, tear it down, and drill for oil. The muppet cast is reunited to raise money to buy back the theater by producing a telethon show. There are several themes in the movie, including friendship, working together to pursue one’s dreams, and a deep nostalgia for the old show and for our childhood innocence. The timing of the movie’s production is not surprising, since all of the people who watched the original show as children in the late 1970s now have children of their own.

Fox News focuses on the fact that the villain is a rich oil baron. Here is its interpretation of the movie:

There is no denying that Fox is correct that the evil character is both rich and an oil executive. Instead of demonizing oil companies and CEOs, the Fox News show says it wishes the movie would celebrate rich characters for achieving wealth through hard work. Ironically, Fox News fails to notice that Kermit and Miss Piggy are rich characters who achieved wealth through hard work. In contrast, the villain Tex Richman achieved wealth through intimidation and deceit. One could interpret the movie to be celebrating the honest pursuit of the American dream against the dishonest pursuit of money simply for the sake of more money, but Fox instead asserts a more paranoid interpretation.

In response, the mock interview with Kermit and Miss Piggy reject the assertion that the movie is dangerous propaganda by pointing out other plot elements in the movie and by questioning the ethos of Fox News. See here:

In particular, Miss Piggy suggests that Fox News is not even “news,” which raises a question about news that is similar to Stanley Fish’s question about poetry: how to recognize “real” news or “real” propoganda when you see it. Kermit immediately agonizes over how Miss Piggy’s comment will get “interpreted” on the internet. Although Fox may say that their program is “news,” Miss Piggy is suggesting that it isn’t — that perhaps the Fox network doesn’t follow the journalistic standards set by the Society of Professional Journalists, as the controversial documentary movie Outfoxed has claimed. Ironically, the reason why many doubt the content of Fox News is exactly the same reason that Fox News claims to doubt the content of Hollywood movies: political bias and content that is more ideological than factual. Hence, when many “read” (or watch) Fox News, they do so with an interpretive strategy that assumes Fox’s intention (the sort of “authorial intention” questioned by both New Critics and post-structuralists such as Roland Barthes) is political.

The highly politicized context in which Fox News interpreted the movie and in which Jon Stewart and Miss Piggy interpret Fox News  is something they all acknowledge themselves: the fact that recently questions have been raised about the special tax breaks the oil companies receive at the same time that the cost of gasoline goes up for consumers and the companies make record profits. It appears that the interpretive framework through which they interpret media is the zero-sum game of power politics. Fish’s point about “interpretive communities” seems a somewhat useful concept for understanding all this absurdity. Fox is not objectively wrong that the movie’s villain is an oil executive, but what others may not see in (or “read into”) the movie is how this particular villain is a “representative” of all oil executives or anyone “real” at all. Indeed, very few people think the muppets are real, and the movie self-consciously makes fun of its own unreality and ridiculousness. Why does Fox News miss that? Towards an answer to those questions, think about Stanley Fish’s anecdote with which he begins the essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” about students in a classroom on seventeenth-century poetry who were able to find meaning in something that wasn’t even a poem just because they were told it was a seventeenth-century religious poem. In other words, if one assumes that a given sentence must contain metaphor and religious symbolism, then one will look for it. Likewise, if Fox assumes a zero-sum political game where all public media is either for or against its political position, then its interpretive framework will lead them to “read” something along those lines.

So, we can see how “interpretive communities” and context guides the reading of a text, but Fish goes on to explain that the relationship between text and interpretive community is even more complicated than that, because not only do readers make meaning, but also meaning makes readers. What does this mean? If we agree that reading is something we learn to do, then it’s easy to see how we become different sorts of people the more we learn to read, and the most obvious example of a community of people centered on the practice of reading and interpreting a text in a particular sort of way is the Church and its Bible. Likewise, in the case of the Muppets and Fox, we can see that communities are formed around the practice of reading and interpreting the world in particular ways. However, it is also true that different texts encourage different sorts of reading practices, and here we might turn the tables on Fox and confidently say that it is not The Muppets that is “dangerous” (a movie that wants us to laugh and cry and wonder about the world), but Fox News that is (a program that wants us to be angry and to see the world in terms of winners and losers.) Bing!

There is, however, something missing from Stanley Fish’s analysis of interpretive communities, and this is something that Michel Foucault explains in his essay “What is an Author?” and his book Discipline and Punish — and that is power. My own problem with Fish’s “interpretive communities” concept is that it assumes an equal playing field where communities just happen to form themselves. Fish’s own example of the classroom (a somewhat unconvincing anecdotal example, in my opinion) fails to acknowledge his own position of power as the professor of the class. The students have to go along with his silly exercise whether they believe it or not. Likewise, Fox and Disney are both powerful corporations who are themselves sponsored by other powerful corporate interests (i.e., the oil companies.) So, what about power? How does that work?

TV Drama Script Writing: NYPD Blue’s Plot and Scene Structure

11 Jan

We are coming to the end of the workshop, where we move from big questions about story telling and the technology of television to the small questions about format and plot. Today, I want to focus on the first and fourth episodes of the second season of NYPD Blue, wich first aired in October and November of 1994. The first episode is a perfectly written episode according to the classic pattern. The fourth episode is less perfect, but there was a reason for that. The show’s main actor, David Caruso, had decided to quit, and so the writers of the show had to figure out a way for him to plausibly leave the story. Then, episode five had to bring in a new character, played by actor Jimmy Smits. We will discuss episode five at our next workshop on Friday, and our textbook Writing the TV Drama Series includes an analysis of that script.

But for today, I want to focus on the relationship between the central plot and the subplots and the four-act structure of television. According to Robert McKee’s book Story, which we have been reading for the past two weeks, movies need at least three acts, and what constitutes an act is a significant turning point. In McKee’s opinion, the turning point is the key element of the act. However, McKee is talking about movies, which are somewhat different from television. In her book, Writing the TV Drama Series, Pamela Douglass points out that American television typically has four acts because the television networks want to have four commercial breaks. It is important to realize that this structure is simply an effect of the need for commercials. If the broadcasting station is run by the government or some other entity (such as cable television or nonprofit television), then the act-structure will be different depending on the delivery system. Another difference between movies and television is that movies usually come to some sort of resolution at the end, but television must continue on indefinitely, always somewhat open-ended. Nevertheless, what both television and movies have in common is that the subplots and central plot must reinforce each other. Subplots can simply function to elaborate the setting and characters, but more interestingly, they can do one of three things: they function as a contradiction (or counterpoint) to the theme of the central plot; they can resonate or repeat the theme of the central plot; or they can create complicating context or present obstacles to the drive of the central plot. These subplots have a different pace than the central plot in the three-act or four-act structure, but they all have various turning points, and the final act is always quicker. In addition, unlike novels, each scene of television must contribute to the development of the plot, and each beat must contribute to the scene. What constitutes a “beat” is typically an action and reaction between two characters.

So, let’s look at NYPD Blue. In every episode, the first act always presents what McKee calls an “inciting incident” and always begins either at a crime scene or at some intimate personal scene. Either a crime is the inciting incident that begins the plot of that particular episode, or a personal interaction between two major characters is the inciting incident that develops the longer central plot of the whole season. This opening first act must function as a lure to keep the audience watching. It must present a clear problem that needs to be resolved. Then the show rolls the credits and theme song, and then there is a commercial break. After the commercial, act two of NYPD Blue usually begins at the police station with a scene that includes several “beats” between different characters that develop the central plot and various subplots. The advantage of locations such as police stations, court rooms, and the front desk of an office is that these are locations where many different characters mix together. Characters enter and exit frequently, so many different plots can be developed easily and quickly.  All television shows have such a location where this happens. Historically, in Renaissance drama from sixteenth century such as William Shakespeare’s plays, this location was usually the king’s court, but in later plays, after modern capitalism and commodity culture began to develop in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this location was often a coffee house or tavern or some other public space. (By the way, the philosopher Jurgen Habermas discusses this historical change in his famous book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.)

The first episode of NYPD Blue’s second season is about the theme of police corruption and the complicated, contradictory motives of the characters. The central plot for the whole season is the court case involving Officer Janis Licalsi’s shooting of the criminal mafia boss Marino. The dilemma for Detective John Kelly is whether to lie in court in order to protect Licalsi. So the theme of the episode is the problem of police corruption and the moral question of whether it’s every OK to lie in order to protect someone. The two subplots of this particular episode present a counterpoint to the theme. One subplot is the discovery by Detectives Kelly and Sipowicz that two other cops are stealing from drug dealers in an apartment building. These cops are obviously corrupt, and their motives are selfish. In contrast, John Kelly’s corruption and his motivation for lying appear somehow right, selfless, and even noble. The role of the Internal Affairs Bureau (I.A.B.) is interesting here. In the case of Licalsi and Kelly, the I.A.B. appear to be the antagonist as it investigates the possible corruption of Licalsi and Kelly. But in the case of the bad cops who steal from criminals, the role of the I.A.B. appears to be the ally of the protagonists Kelly and Sipowicz. The contradictory role of the I.A.B. presents a beautiful counterpoint that presents a deeper, ethical contradiction that the audience must think about. So, here, the relationship between central plot and subplot is a “contrapuntal” (a counterpoint.)

The other long subplot throughout the first and second season of NYPD Blue is Sipowicz’s struggle with alcoholism and his romantic relationship with the District Attorney (D.A.) Sylvia Costas. The first episode of the second season includes a short subplot whose theme is similar to the long subplot. The short subplot is the case of an abusive husband whose wife is afraid to bring up on charges. We can see that the two subplots mirror each other. Both are about a man struggling with alcoholism and a violent temper, but in one the man is good, and in the other the man is bad. This subplot of the abusive husband also relates to the story about Kelly and Licalsi in that both plots demonstrate the limits of the legal system in light of the personal conflicts in people’s daily lives. In this subplot, Sipowicz wants to help the abused wife, but he can’t because the legal system won’t let him. Likewise, in the case of John Kelly and Janis Licalsi, the legal system seems to punish them for their actions which might have been right or necessary. In this sense, rather than be a counterpoint, this is a case where the subplot that resonates (as Robert McKee puts it) with the central plot.

But beyond the question of how the subplot relates to the central plot, the more difficult and fundamental question is how to structure the story. Notice that the first scene of act one and the last scene of act four are mirror images of each other. The symmetry is perfect, which is why I said that this is a perfectly structured episode. In scene one, Janis Licalsi and John Kelly are at Kelly’s apartment, discussing the dilemma — the dilemma of whether Kelly should lie in court. They are uncertain how to protect each other, and they are afraid to have a romantic relationship. By the end of the show, in the final scene, back at Kelly’s apartment again, after the court drama, they are committed to each other and decide to begin again their romance. What happens in between these two scenes that causes the characters to change, and how do the various subplots contribute to the development of the main plot?

Act two includes several scenes each of which function to develop the main plot. The first is the court scene where Kelly lies about his knowledge of Licalsi’s actions, just as he said he would do in the opening scene. The next scene is back at the police station where I.A.B. is investigating Kelly and also where all the subplots mentioned above can be introduced. As I mentioned above, the show always develops the second act at the police station. Notice how specific “beats” within the scene at the police station all contribute to more than one plot. The case that Kelly and Sipowicz plan to investigate creates context for the central plot by showing their character and their job. The case of the abusive, alcoholic husband creates an opportunity for Sipowicz to talk to the D.A. Sylvia Costas, which develops the romantic story between them. This case is also a useful counterpoint, since Sipowicz’s own relationship is affected by his alcoholism and his temper. As I mentioned above, television dramas often have a single public location that allows various characters to mix and develop several subplots quickly and efficiently, and that’s what happens here. But the real dramatic action never happens at this location. It always happens somewhere else. At the end of act two, Kelly goes to a restaurant, has a dramatic fight with someone who accuses him of lying, and then ends his relationship with a girlfriend (a short plot arc developed at the end of season one) by revealing that he is still in love with Janis Licalsi. This is a major turning point, so of course the commercial break happens at the end of the scene, which is indicated by the music. Turning points in television are usually planned to occur right before the commercial break, so the audience will have a minute or two during the break to wonder what will happen next. Act three follows from the turning points at the end of act two by presenting several confrontations (or “beats”) between characters. Each “beat” creates another turning point as the characters are now in the position of having to deal with the issues presenting in the previous act. Finally, act four offers a resolution, first when Sipowicz confronts the abusive husband, second when he and Kelly catch the bad cops, and third and finally when Kelly and Licalsi decide to start their romantic relationship over again.

Episode four is somewhat different from episode one. Its big idea or basic question is whether it is right or wrong to cover something up. The central plot is the I.A.B.’s investigation of Kelly’s lie in court to protect Licalsi. The subplot is Sipowicz protecting the reputation of an older cop who died of natural causes in the bed of a prostitute. Both are situations where a bad thing is covered up, but the central plot is serious and tragic in contrast to the subplot which is a comic counterpoint. Meanwhile, the driving action of this episode is the accidental death of a baby and the efforts of Detectives Sipowicz and Kelly to discover the truth about the killers. This plot contributes to the major plot because it shows that Kelly is a good detective, even though the I.A.B. has decided to end his career. Hence, the three plots all reinforce each other, but in different ways, either as a counterpoint or as context. Each act of the episode will include scenes to develop these three plots, and each plot contributes to the development of the other plots.

Act two — after the credits, theme music, and first commercial break — is structured to move back and forth between serious and comic scenes. The serious scenes are the investigation of Kelly by the I.A.B. and the interviews with the dead child’s mother Sandy and her possibly criminal boyfriend Duane. The comic scenes are the efforts of Sipowicz to move his old friend from the prostitute’s apartment to the friend’s car. This back-and-forth between serious and comic scenes is an example of counterpoint that I mentioned above.  These scenes develop the problem introduced in the opening scene — the dead baby and the dead cop. Act two develops the dramatic tension when Detective John Kelly and Duane have an argument about what really caused the baby’s death. The question is raised about the truth of what happened. We the audience want to know what the truth is, and of course it is exactly at this moment that the commercial break happens. Then, after the music, act three begins with a turning point — the answer to the question, when Sandy sees her dead baby, becomes upset, and confesses the truth. This important turning point changes the plot of the story, because now we know what really happened. The next scene after this dramatic moment is back at the police station where the dramatic turning points can be developed. And as I said before, notice that the real dramatic scenes are always in some private space (e.g., bedroom, hospital room, interview room) or in an open space (e.g., the street, battlefield, etc.) where conflict can happen intensely. I call these locations “turning point” locations. In contrast, the details are always developed in more neutral public spaces (e.g., the police station, the front room of an office, or a cafe.) I call these “plot development” locations. Act three concludes dramatically when the police arrest the criminals who killed the baby, and of course, after this dramatic turning point, there is another commercial break.

But of course, arresting the criminals is not the conclusion of the whole episode. Although it is the conclusion to a subplot (the question about who killed the dead baby), this subplot is not really the important idea of the episode. The previous acts developed a theme, and the theme is about when people lie or disobey the rules in order to cover up a problem or accomplish a goal. So, the final act after the last commercial break is one long scene that includes a series of many “beats” to resolve the theme. All of the beats take place in the police station, and each of them is a short conversations between two characters. First, Detective Martinez talks with the prostitute Sandy about what to do. Then he talks to Kelly about how to help Sandy. Interestingly, Kelly advises him to obey the rules and not help her. Immediately after this scene, Lieutenant Fancy reveals to Kelly that he will lose his job. Ironically, he is losing his job precisely because he didn’t obey the rules as he advised Martinez. Then Kelly reveals the development to Sipowicz, who then challenges the police chief. Meanwhile, Martinez does not take Kelly’s advice, but in a sense does what Kelly would himself do rather than what Kelly said to do. Finally, Kelly says goodbye to Martinez and walks out of the station. His walking out of the station door is an obvious metaphor for the end of his career and also the end of that actor’s role in the show. I summarize all these short beats because each beat in the scene contributes to the conclusion of the episode and the development of the thematic tension. I also want to show that each beat is an interaction between two characters, and this interaction involves some conflict or difference of opinion between them. A good show presents contradictions, not morals. Morals are for politicians, priests, and children. In contrast, real life has contradictions, dilemmas, and tension. A good television program for adults will present contradictory or opposing views (counterpoint) on the same theme.

TV Drama Script Writing: supplemental reading

9 Jan

Some trainees in Ethiopia have expressed interest in other reading materials beyond what’s on my syllabus for the workshop on TV drama script writing. In my blog posts previously, I have often included hyperlinks to the books on the syllabus and to other sources of information. In response to the interest of the trainees, today I want to add some more readings here. First, on the syllabus is the important textbook book The Screenplay: A Blend of Film Form and Content by Margaret Mehring, who discusses a lot of the things I mentioned in my January 5th blog post about how the peculiar technology of film and video camera affects the way a story is told. In earlier blog posts, I have already included links to the books Story: Structure, Substance, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee and Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas that we are reading for the workshop.

There are some other sources worth mentioning. Syd Field wrote a book called Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Based on that book, he made a useful film entitled the Screen Writing Workshop. You can click on the hyperlinks for his website, his book, and the workshop film, but here also is the first 15 minutes of that workshop on YouTube:

In addition to these practical guides for writing screenplays, there are numerous books of a more theoretical nature. For example, there are the classic essays of the most important and influential filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, which have been translated and collected in a book entitled Essays in Film Theory: Film Form. Another is the important book by the film critic and theorist Andre Bazin translated from the French, What is Cinema? One of the classic works of feminist film criticism is Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey. I couldn’t find the entire text of that book on the internet, but her shorter article that summarizes the whole book is [here]. One of the most famous Africa film critics is Manthia Diawara. His book African Cinema analyzes the history of its development. These are all foundational, classic works. In addition, in my blog post of January 2, I included a YouTube video of the famous philosopher Slavoj Zizek talking about film. His books Looking Awry and Enjoy Your Symptom! are useful introductions to thinking critically about movies and television. For my “Introduction to Film Studies” course that I taught last year [syllabus], I used a new textbook by Bill Nichols entitled Engaging Cinema, but unfortunately this is not available yet on-line.

My blog post today is just a beginning, but in my opinion, more important than reading these textbooks and theoretical books is to watch films and TV shows critically and to practice discussing and writing about them. Writing is like a sport — practice, experiment, practice. Meanwhile, if anyone has any other suggestions for reading or useful hyperlinks, please let us know by posting a comment!!!

TV Drama Script Writing: the technology of the sound-image

5 Jan

My previous blog posts for the TV drama script writing workshop in Ethiopia [syllabus] have focused on character and plot, but now I want to focus on the technology of story telling. All media has its own specific form of technology. This is obvious enough, but what is less obvious is the effect of that technology on the character and plot of a story. The technology of theater is the stage, which amplifies the voices of the main characters, so the primary way the story is told is through dialogue between those characters. The technology of a novel is the printed page, and so the main character of any novel is the authorial voice of story-teller. This voice can be the actual voice of the author or the fictional voice of a persona, but either way, it is this authorial voice that is on every page, not the voice of any of the characters. In that sense, the sort of story and way of representing characters in a novel is clearly different from a stage play. In contrast to novels and plays, the technology for movies and television is the motion picture camera. Only the camera is in every single scene, insisting on its point of view for each and every image. Therefore, when one begins to write for television of film, one must consider that the most important character is the camera itself.

The idea that the camera is the most important character might bother some people who believe in the humanity of fictional characters, but it is the camera-as-character that gives television and movies not only its power but also its greater humanity. In terms of power, the director of plays controls the movement of the actors on the stage — where they stand, where and when they enter and exit, which direction they are facing, how they relate to each other, etc., but the audience is motionless. The director has no control over the audience. However, for television and movies, the director also controls the camera, and the viewpoint of the camera is also the viewpoint of the audience. Therefore, if one considers that the most important character in film or television is the camera itself, then one must conclude that the character of the camera is in a very visceral sense the audience. Because the directors of a motion picture control the point of view of the audience, they are almost like a gods, and that is the magical power of the motion picture. But the machine of the camera has the potential to possess even more humanity than the make-believe characters of a novel or stage play, because it represents the audience.

video of police beating Rodney King

So, let me explain how important the camera is to effective story telling in TV and film by analyzing some scenes from the penultimate episode of NYPD Blue‘s first season, which we watched for our script writing workshop. The theme for this episode is a very controversial issue: police violence. The context is the many cases when police have shot or beat unarmed black men by accident. One of the most famous cases is the beating of Rodney King in 1991. The police officers were acquitted in court, and this sparked riots in Los Angeles from April 30 to May 4 in 1992. This episode of NYPD Blue entitled “Guns ‘N Rosaries” aired May 10, 1994, just two years after those riots, and it is clearly responding to the issue of police violence and racism, and in my view it also very deliberately takes the side of the police. Personally, I find the ideology of the television show troubling, and I don’t agree with it. But in this blog, I want to focus attention on how the camera functions as a character to tell a story about police violence and to control the perspective of the audience.

Let’s look at the opening scene of the episode — the “story event” or “inciting incident” as Robert McKee calls it. After Detective Greg Medavoy tells the receptionist Donna that he is upset because he caught his wife in bed with another man, he and Detective James Martinez go to interview a witness. They are sitting in their car stuck in traffic. There is a lot of background noise because of the traffic, but the audience does not see the street because the camera focuses close up on the faces of Medavoy and Martinez. We only know there is traffic because of the noise and because the detectives say so during their conversation. In the car beside them, there is an angry black man. The black man starts an argument with Medavoy; the argument escalates, and then he raises a gun. Martinez sees this happening, pushes Medavoy out of the way, and quickly shoots the man. Later in the episode, Martinez is upset as he wonders whether or not he did the wrong thing and killed an innocent man. This is the central plot of this episode that communicates the theme of police violence, a theme that is also communicated in the longer plot arc of the entire season about Officer Licalsi’s guilt over killing the mafia boss Marino. In the end, we learn that the gun had no bullets in it, but that the man had been abusing cocaine.

The story ultimately vindicates Martinez, but I argue that the camera plays a very important role in this vindication. Before the man raises his gun, the camera shows us eye contact between him and Martinez. The camera cuts back and forth between close ups of Martinez’s face and the man’s face. This does two things. It helps create tension, and it also helps the audience understand what Martinez is doing when he reacts by shooting the guy. If the director had not cut back and forth from one face to another first, then the shooting would not make sense to the audience. Hence, something as simple as a few camera angles contributes significantly to the story telling and communicates a lot of information in just a few seconds. After the shooting, then the camera backs up and moves from close-ups of the main characters to a long shot of the whole street. It is only now, after the event is over, that we see the setting, and we see that Martinez and Medavoy are in a mostly black and poor neighborhood of New York City. The scene ends, and then NYPD Blue’s theme song and credits roll, and then a commercial break. What if the scene had begun with an establishing shot of the setting first? Usually film and television begins with establishing shots of the setting so the audience can get a sense of the whole situation and then cuts to close-ups of the main characters, but this scene does the opposite. I believe the decision to shoot the scene like that was made in order to emphasize the point of view, humanity, and individuality of the police officers rather than the social context of the event.  In addition, the question that upsets the police for much of the episode is that they can’t find the angry man’s gun, so Martinez doubts himself. He wonders if he imagined the gun. However, the camera clearly showed the audience the gun, and even showed us in slow motion to emphasize its presence. So, while the police are searching for the gun, the audience knows there was a gun. What if the camera had never focused on the gun but left it an open question? After all, it was an open question in Martinez’s mind, so why not leave it an open question in the audience’s mind? Ideologically, since the television show is taking the side of the police, it can’t leave this an open question because that would raise too much doubt in the audience’s mind. In my opinion, the show would be more interesting and more provocative, and also far more controversial, if it had done otherwise. Near the end of the episode, the dramatic importance of the police’s perspective is demonstrated when Detective Kelly points a gun in a journalist’s face and asks the journalist whether or not there are bullets in the gun. His excessively made point is that the lives of police are at risk and they have to make fast and hard decisions without all the facts. In my opinion, the show would be more compelling if the audience had the same doubts as Martinez and community, but in any case, my argument here is that the camera is the most important character, because it is the most important point-of-view that affects the unfolding of the story and its meaning.

Similarly, in the following scene after the commercial break, the camera cuts back and forth between close ups of the various police officers (main characters) and the crowd of angry people in the street. This back-and-forth between camera shots creates dramatic tension and antagonism between the police and the crowd which concludes in a fight between police and people. Again, close-up camera shots of the police emphasize their humanity in contrast to the long shots of the crowd. When the fight breaks out, the scene ends with ominous music and slow drums, which are a counterpoint to the fast and chaotic nature of the fight.

This reverse of this incident of police violence and guilt is the exceptional case of Officer Janis Licalsi. Both Martinez and Licalsi killed someone, and both of them express guilt and remorse for what they did. In both cases, the other officers support them. In both cases, the audience is asked to think about the rightness or wrongness of their action. However, in the case of Martinez, he is vindicated, and in the case of Licalsi, she can’t live with her guilt, and she turns herself in. In both cases, the camera plays in important role in telling the story. Let’s look at the scene when Licalsi confesses her crime to a priest.  In this scene, the camera does almost the opposite of what it does in the opening scene when Martinez shoots the angry black man.

In this scene (#5), the camera begins with an establishing shot of Licalsi and a priest walking in the park. We see the park first, and then the camera focuses on their faces. Remember that the earlier opening scene began with close-up shots of the faces and ended with a long shot of the street. Also, in contrast to the first scene of the episode with Martinez which is very chaotic and loud, this scene with Licalsi is very quiet. After Licalsi and the priest walk to a park bench, the camera gives the audience a very artistically composed image of the priest hovering over Licalsi. This image is almost like a painting. In it, Licalsi appears vulnerable because her face is below the priest’s. The arrangement of their faces in the image contributes to the meaning of the scene. Licalsi is upset and doesn’t know what to do. The priest says, “You know what you should do.” But what does the priest mean by that? The audience can’t really know, and the writers of the show wisely do not tell the audience the answer right away. The question is left open, and so the audience wonders what Licalsi’s decision will be. This is good writing. The camera contributes to the meaning by moving behind them. We see the backs of their heads as they sit in the park, looking across the river at the skyline of the city. The audience sees what they see. The camera slowly pulls back to a long shot, and music begins. The music stands in for what the characters are thinking and the difficult decision Licalsi must make. Hence, the camera angles and the “sound-image” communicate the meaning of the scene and asks the audience to think about what Licalsi is thinking. This sound-image ends the second act of the show, with the audience wondering what will happen during the commercial break. The following scene answers that question when Licalsi goes to Lieutenant Fancy’s office and confesses to him. Her former lover Detective John Kelly is wondering what she is doing. He looks anxiously at the window of Fancy’s office, through which he can see Licalsi. The camera then gives us a close up of his face and a close up of her face. This cutting back and forth between viewpoints shows the eye contact through the window between the two characters. This simple camera work communicates a lot of meaning. The relationship between the characters is highly emotional and intimate, but now the window of police bureaucracy and the legal system stands between them. All of this is communicated in just two seconds through the movement of the camera. A good script writer has to keep in mind the important role of the camera for creating meaning, character, and plot for movies and television dramas.

TV Drama Script Writing: minor characters, ideology, and the illusion of depth

2 Jan

In my previous blog post for the TV Drama Script Writing workshop in Ethiopia, I promised to critique Robert McKee’s emphasis on the “inciting incident” and the “gap between expectation and result” as the basis for dramatic action. Although I agree with these two points, in my opinion McKee seems too interested in the authenticity of the story and not interested enough in its illusory qualities. As a result of his bias, the many examples of movies he talks about in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting are mostly straight dramas and suspense thrillers. He has little to say about comedies or about dramas that are self-consciously ironic. In fact, he has surprisingly little to say about humor or irony in general. He also has little to say about the problem of ideology and issues of race, gender, class, and nation when creating characters. The new movie Hugo, by the famous director Martin Scorsese, highlights how the art of making movies is more similar to the art of magic than the art of truth. My argument today is that complexity and depth are illusions. Minor characters play an important role in creating that illusion, as one purpose of minor characters is to give depth to the major character. And this relation between major and minor characters does not necessarily reflect the reality of the subject matter or the biases of the author. Rather, the TV or film aims to reproduce imaginary relations in our daily lives. Such is the ideological aspect of TV and film and the moral responsibility of writers and directors.

First, what do I mean when I say that depth is illusory? To give an example, I want to start with one of the most classic early films, City Lights, by Charlie Chaplin. The main story is about a poor, homeless tramp who falls in love with a blind flower girl. At the beginning of the film, she mistakenly believes that he is a rich man. Because he is in love with the blind flower girl, he tries to become the person that she thinks he is. Over the course of the film, he encounters a real rich man who is benevolent to him when drunk, but stingy and cruel when sober. You can watch the whole film by clicking [here], but below I’ve inserted a brief YouTube clip of the famous philosopher and film critic from Slovenia, Slavoj Zizek, talking about it:

What gives the tramp’s character depth and complexity? Is it the real details of his life? Is it his background as a member of what Karl Marx called the lumpenproletariat? Certainly, I think writers ought to do a lot of research to get background information for their characters, but in fact, we see very little realistic information in Chaplin’s film. What gives the tramp depth is not his real background. The details of his life are unimportant. Rather, what gives the tramp complexity and depth is what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls misrecognition. The tramp is consistently in the “wrong place” at the wrong time — first sleeping on the new statue during a ceremony and then being mistaken for a rich man by the blind girl. It is this humorous case of mistaken identity and out-of-placeness that gives him depth. In other words, it is not true identity that gives a character depth; rather, it is the audience’s ironic awareness of mistaken identity and the way other characters react to him that gives him depth. The blindness of the flower girl is a metaphor for the matter of perspective and the instability of identity that is the meaning of the film.

Now let’s look briefly at the first scene of the third episode of NYPD Blue, which we watched for today’s workshop. (If you don’t know the show, you can read brief summaries of all the episodes [here].) Officer Janis Licalsi’s father walks in the door. He confesses to her that he is one of the cops indicted on corruption charges. This is simple enough. But what gives the scene its power and depth is when he then continues to misrecognize his daughter. He believes that she is innocent and good. He tells her that he is proud of her. In response, she falters and can not reveal to him that the mafia has already used her. She can’t say anything because she already knew he was a “wrong cop,” and she knows that because she has also become a “wrong cop” in order to protect him. Her silence and inability to respond to his recognition is what gives her depth. Other moments of misrecognition continue throughout the first act of the episode. Detective Kelly misunderstands Licalsi’s motivation. Later, Detective Sipowicz misunderstands his boss Lieutenant Fancy’s motivation and even blames Fancy’s African-American racial identity. The sub-plot of this particular episode is about a mother who refuses to recognize the truth that her two sons are drug addicts and have killed her next door neighbor while trying to rob her. Each different scene of the first act of this episode shows a different misrecognition. The misrecognition is the “inciting incident” that destabilizes the character and gives the story its drive. The second act develops each of these misrecognitions as the characters attempt to understand each other’s true identities. The final act is the reconciliation when the characters overcome their prejudices and come to terms with each other.

If we think of characterization as an illusion — more like magic than like truth — then one of the tricks of illusion is misrecognition. It produces dramatic irony and causes the audience to want the misunderstanding to be corrected and resolved. It also causes the audience to believe that there is more to the character than the surface. If one character misunderstands another character, and the audience is made aware of this misunderstanding, then the audience suspects there must be a lot more depth to that character. The audience never actually has to find out the details of that depth. The misunderstanding is enough to give the illusion that depth is there.

But what of the role of minor characters? In simple stories, minor characters rarely have depth. So, in the case of Officer Licalsi’s father mentioned above, his character is rather simple, and his function in the episode is to give her character complexity and depth. Hence, the complexity of the main character always requires several minor characters, and likewise, the major plot arc always requires several minor plot arcs. These minor characters and sub-plots help to establish the personality of the major characters. Sometimes a minor plot helps develop the major plot, but sometimes it is just a distraction that gets in the way of the major character and prevents him or her from pursuing the primary goal. However it functions, it should always give complexity and depth to the main story.

The danger is that the relation between major and minor characters is often an ideological relation. Which characters are given depth and which aren’t? Why is one character’s point of view more valued than another’s? We might think of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play Rozencrantz and Guildernstearn Are Dead that re-tells Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of two minor characters. Or we might think of Robert Altman’s movie Gosford Park which at first appears to be a typical Agatha-Christie-style murder mystery about upper-class people at a country estate, but instead focuses entirely on the depth of the servants. If we go back in time to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American literature, white male characters in novels, plays, and movies were always given the illusion of depth. Often black minor characters functioned only to give depth to the white character. As the Nobel-prize winning American novelist Toni Morrison argued in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the black character usually functioned to make the white character look good. In other words, if the author wanted the reader to admire the bravery, intelligence, or kindness of the white protagonist, then the author included a cowardly, stupid, or selfish black character as a point of contrast or object of pity. Morrison argues that centuries of literature repeated such “misrecognitions,” and so such literary stereotypes contributed to a racist ideology. More recently, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina made a similar point in his sarcastic satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa” that parodies the prejudices of American and European journalists. Likewise, in Ethiopia, what if all the central and complex characters of a story belonged to one ethnic group, and all the minority characters with little depth belonged to other ethnic groups? Or what if the protagonist was always upper class or always a male, and never poor or never a female?

A good TV drama will overcome such prejudicial stereotypes by drawing attention to the misrecognition through dramatic irony. As I mentioned before, one of the things I like about NYPD Blue is how it shifts perspective from Detective Kelly’s point of view to Officer Licalsi’s point of view. At the beginning of the show, Licalsi is a minor character who simply contrasts with Kelly. Feminist film criticism has often pointed out that female characters function in simplistic, sexist movies as nothing more than complements to the male protagonist. But eventually, because both Kelly and her father misrecognize her, she becomes a truly complex character who struggles with difficult ethical dilemmas. Her out-of-placeness is the “inciting incident” that drives the plot, and as a result she becomes the most interesting character in the show.

Another way to think about this has been beautifully expressed by the famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED lecture, “The Danger of a Single Story.” I have inserted her lecture into my blog here:

Her lecture begins with a story about herself as a young writer trying to imitate European writers. Her lecture exposes a basic misrecognition about her own identity and the identity of “literature” itself. But in the context of television, it also reveals a danger. If the television show uses minor characters only to help create the illusion of depth in the major characters, then it risks producing a dangerous ideology that values some individuals and degrades others. Adichie emphasizes the moral responsibility of writers to tell the points of view of many different people. There are many ways to tell such human stories. One way is through dramatic irony that reveals misrecognition, as I mentioned above. Another way is that the “inciting incident” of a story brings two individuals together who normally don’t know each other. This is the basis for the famous movie The Breakfast Club which puts five high school students of very different backgrounds in the same room, and the audience watches them overcome their prejudices and get to know each other. Likewise, one of the appeals of the detective story genre is that the detective’s job is to cross social boundaries (e.g., class, race, gender, nation, religion, etc.) and discover the truth. Finally, another way to reveal misrecognition is through postmodern irony or parody that draws attention to the illusion of the dominant stereotypes and the artificiality of film in order to make space for alternative stories and minority points of view. The concepts “point of view” and the artificiality of the filmic “frame” and the “sound-image” will be the subject of the next workshop.

TV Drama Script Writing: Gaps and Metaphors

31 Dec

There are several questions I want to raise for today’s post, which I am writing after watching the second episode of NYPD Blue. In a movie or TV show, what gives an event meaning? And when we think of “meaning,” we can think of literal and symbolic meaning. What makes a story move forward? Why do we desire what we don’t need? What makes a character complex? What is the difference between what the character desires and what the audience desires?

In answer to these questions, Robert McKee’s textbook Story makes two important points. His first is about the gap between expectation and result. A character acts in order to achieve something, but the result is different from what the character expects. This gap drives the plot forward. McKee’s second point elaborates upon his first point. He observes there is always a dialectic between the action of one character and the reaction of another character. The protagonist’s action is always somewhat extreme or excessive or surprising in some way. That’s what makes it an interesting story. The action taken by the protagonist is not what you or I would do in such circumstances in order to achieve the goal. It’s what this unusual character would do. The unusual action provokes an equally unusual reaction, and then the protagonist must react again, and so on, etc., etc., so that the plot unfolds according to this special, somewhat strange and excessive logic that is unique to the particular story. The characters are repeatedly unsuccessful at the beginning of the story. Stories begin with failure. The unusual action taken by the character also provokes the audience to wonder about the deep psychology or background of that character that causes him or her to take such action. The audience then desires to discover two different things. The first thing is whether the unexpected action will be successful or exactly how the “result” will be achieved in spite of the dialectic that inevitably frustrates the protagonist’s desire. The second thing is what the secret motivation for the main character’s action is. Here is a YouTube video of McKee talking a bit about this in answer to a student’s question:

I have some disagreements with McKee, but I will explain my disagreements in another blog post. For now, let’s just see if McKee’s theory works for the second episode of NYPD Blue. Focusing on Detective Kelly’s character, we can see that his desire is to provoke a reaction from the mafia boss Marino, but because this is a TV drama and not real, his action is excessive and extreme. The police department is worried and considers disciplining Kelly because they fear that he is simply taking revenge against Giardella for shooting his partner. The meaning of the episode is clear: what is the line between justice and revenge? The audience is put into the position of wondering whether Kelly’s actions will succeed and whether they are “good” actions to take. The plot unfolds according to this dialectic between the police and the mafia.

But dialectical relations are never stable, and some other event or “third” character must intervene somehow. The dramatic climax of the first act of the episode, when Officer Janis Licalsi suddenly shoots Marino, is the unexpected result of Kelly’s actions. Kelly had no knowledge of Marino’s power over Licalsi and no understanding that his romance with Janis Licalsi had any connection to his attempt to get Giardella, and consequently we the audience experience “dramatic irony.” Dramatic irony is when there is a gap between what the audience knows and what the character knows. The audience is made aware of this through the character of Licalsi, who knows that Marino intends to murder Kelly because of Kelly’s excessive action. This gap of dramatic irony also adds to the suspense and keeps the audience interested in the story.

But there is also another kind of irony, and this is “tragic irony.” Kelly’s excessive action, motivatived by guilt over Sipowicz, provokes an excessive response from Marino which in turn provokes an excessive response from Licalsi. Moreover, what the audience fears is that Kelly’s efforts to solve the problem and this logic of excess will turn back on him. His action seems to be creating more chaos, rather than more order, until Licalsi saves him. In other words, we fear that Kelly’s action will have the opposite effect that he intended, and this special kind of gap between a protagonist’s expectation and result is what is called “tragic irony.” It is this kind of irony that lends depth, complexity, and meaning to the theme of justice-versus-revenge.

What I like about this particular moment in NYPD Blue is how the show shifts from Kelly’s point of view to Licalsi’s point of view.  Kelly’s motivation is justice/revenge against Giardella for shooting his partner Sipowicz, whom Kelly sees as a fallen father figure in need of redemption. Licalsi’s motivation is actually quite similar to Kelly’s as she desires to protect her corrupted father from exposure. Both characters have a complex relationship to a father or father-like person whom they love even though he has done wrong. In a sense, if we think of the drama structurally, Licalsi temporarily takes Kelly’s place. It is Licalsi who acts powerfully and decisely. She simply kills the bad guy. The police department can’t do this and must follow rules. Ironically, when Kelly discovers what Licalsi is done, he is naturally upset, but I don’t think that he is upset simply because he learns that Licalsi’s father was a “wrong cop.” Rather, I think he is upset because she has done exactly what he and Sipowicz fantasized about doing. In other words, she did exactly what he was afraid to do. Confronted with the image of his own desire, he recoils in disgust and horror. This is the difference between a simple TV drama and a bad one. In a simple story, the object of desire is clear and rational. In a complex story, the protagonist tragically or comically discovers that the object of desire is not what he or she actually wants.

If we think about Licalsi metaphorically in the manner of Freudian psychoanalysis, we come to see that the “dangerous woman” is a metaphor for Kelly’s dilemma. She is able to close the gap of his desire. Just like Eve completes Adam in the Bible (because all human beings are born incomplete), Licalsi completes Kelly. But this apparent completion is just a metaphor for what we innately lack, because in reality we are afraid to actually get what we want (just as Adam and Eve have to leave Eden after Eve gives Adam what he desires.) There is a lot more to say about the relationship between Officer Janis Licalsi and Detective John Kelly. In my opinion, their complex and interesting relationship is an example of what is missing from Robert McKee’s theory. I believe we need to consider the useful contribution of feminist theory. I will discuss feminist theory and criticize McKee in another blog post, but in this blog post I simply want to show how the television drama NYPD Blue illustrates some of McKee’s points.

Lastly, I want to conclude by pointing out the many minor plots in NYPD Blue, because the subject for next week’s workshop on Monday is the relationship between major and minor characters. Like all television dramas, there is a major plot that happens over the course of several episodes, and there are many minor plots inside each episode. In a good show, the minor plots and the major plots have a thematic relationship to each other so that what happens in a minor plot might contribute in some way to the “gap” between the protagonist’s expectation and result. So, in this episode there is a father grieving over his murdered son who attempts to take his revenge against the judge who wouldn’t admit evidence against the murderer because of a technicality. There is also the character nick-named “4B” — a lawyer who lives in apartment number 4B in the same building as Kelly’s ex-wife — who takes revenge against the man who robbed him in the basement laundry room. The title of the episode is “4B or Not 4B” which is a pun that alludes to the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To be or not to be,” which Hamlet says during his meditation on whether he should take his revenge against his evil uncle. Hence, this episode of NYPD Blue presents the audience with four separate revenge plots. Each character experiences a gap between expectation and result, but more importantly the minor plots contrast with the major plot. The minor plots are examples of how revenge might be wrong. In contrast to these examples, the major plot Kelly’s vengeance seems to the audience more like legitimate justice. In other words, the main character only seems good to the audience in contrast to other characters who are worse.

TV Drama Script Writing: Why NYPD Blue?

29 Dec

For the workshop on TV Drama Script Writing in Ethiopia [syllabus] that I mentioned in my first blog post, I have chosen to focus on the first and second season of the show NYPD Blue, a drama about the New York Police Department that started in 1993. In this post, I want to explain why I chose it and then analyze its very first episode in order to explain why it is a good show.

I looked at many different shows and talked to many different people before deciding on NYPD Blue for this workshop, and I chose it for two simple reasons. The first reason is that the textbook Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas includes interviews with the writer and the producer of that show (David Milch and Steven Bochco) and includes an analysis of the script of one of its episodes. So, it’s convenient, and the writing workshop will read that analysis of the script on the last day, January 13th. The second reason is that not only did the show win many awards and significantly influence television, but also it follows some of the basic, classic patterns for TV drama. Therefore, it’s useful for teaching those basic, classic patterns. To be honest, it’s not my favorite show. My friends and I used to make fun of NYPD Blue by calling it “NYPD Butt,” because it was the first show on American network television to frequently show men’s and women’s butts. My favorite show is The Wire. But in contrast to shows such as NYPD Blue and Law and Order, which follow all of the classic rules for TV drama, The Wire breaks all the rules. What I wish I could do is first run an introductory workshop on NYPD Blue where we learn the rules and learn how to make a good show, and then at some later date run an advanced workshop on The Wire about how to make a truly great show.

So, let’s look at the very first episode and try to understand why it’s good. According to Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, a well-known textbook by Robert McKee, a good story must have meaning, and what gives a story meaning is structure. He defines structure as “a selection of events… composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life” (page 33). Somewhat differently from McKee’s idea, one can also think of structure as the relation of various characters, settings, and events to create meaning (and the meaning is precisely in that poetics of relation).  The important point that I see in McKee’s book is the argument that the event is the key to a good story.

Some might argue against McKee and say that the key to a good movie, TV show, or play is a well-developed character, a provocative idea, or an important moral or political message. For instance, considering the political and social aspects of each character’s identity, the selection of characters in NYPD Blue is not random or accidental. Each character comes from a different ethic background: Detective Andy Sipowicz’s ethnic background is Polish, Detective John Kelly’s background is Irish, his ex-wife Laura’s is English, District Attorney Sylvia Costas’s is Greek, Detective  James Martinez’s is Puerto Rican, Officer Janice Licalsi’s is Italian, and Lieutenant Arthur Fancy’s is African-American. The show is not about ethnicity, but it is clear that in the 1990s, producers felt they needed to appeal to a diverse American audience, and the ethnic and racial identity of the characters was a central issue in some episodes. I suspect that Ethiopia has a very similar situation since its audience consists of Amhara, Tigray, Oromo, Somali, Gurage, Afar, Sidamo, and many others, so I imagine that a succesful television program in Ethiopia ought to include strong characters and cultural elements from those different backgrounds. But the main idea of NYPD Blue is not cultural background. Rather it is the moral ambiguity of police work. What makes police drama as a genre so compelling and so popular on American television is that the line between good and bad is sometimes unclear. On a simple level, the cop wants to catch the criminal, but the cop also has to respect the rules and the rights of citizens which sometimes prevent him from accomplishing his goal. This is the “meaning” of the police drama, which usually focuses on the complex and ambiguous relationship between cops and ordinary citizens. Thus, in any police drama, there needs to be “good cops” and “bad cops” so that the audience can think about the contrast, and the central characters need to struggle with internal conflict — conflict between their loyalty to the public good, their loyalty to their fellow officers, their loyalty to the government that employs them, their loyalty to their own moral principles, and their own self-interest and their personal lives. We see such conflicts in the main characters of NYPD Blue‘s first season: Sipowicz, his partner Kelly, and Kelly’s lover, Licalsi.

For McKee, however, more important than character or message is the “story event,” which is an event that sparks a series of other events that create problems for the characters and force them to make tough decisions. NYPD Blue begins with a rather small, seemingly insignificant event that quickly escalates into a larger, terrible problem. By means of these events, the show is able to communicate a lot about the characters and the moral ambiguity of police work in just a few short scenes — in just 20 minutes. Scene one is at the courthouse where we see Detective Sipowicz and District Attorny Costas lose their case against the mafia criminal Alfonse Giardella. Sipowicz’s response to the situation indicates his character when he loses control of his emotions. Because of the event, the audience quickly learns that he is a “bad cop” who breaks the rules in order to do his job. The event also quickly shows a contrast between him and his partner Detective Kelly, who is calm, good-looking, and in control of himself. Scene two is the police station, where we learn the cause of Sipowicz’s failure — his alcoholism. The effect of this knowledge is that Kelly faces a moral dilemma. How can he be loyal to his job, to his partner, and to the public when these loyalties seem to conflict with each other? The third and fourth scene move from the public lives of the officers to their private lives: Kelly is getting a divorce from his wife and Sipowicz is getting drunk. The action becomes more intense in the fifth scene when the public space of their work and the private space of their personal problems explosively come together. In this scene, Sipowicz drunkenly attacks Giardella in a restaurant, which leads to disciplinary action, and he loses his job. Sipowicz’s reaction to his problem is not surprising, since the show has already established his alcoholism. The criminal Giardella predicts that Sipowicz will get drunk with his favorite prostitute, and Giardella uses that knowledge to attempt to kill Sipowicz. The intense scene marks the end of the first “act” of the show, and we can see how the first act was simply a movement from a very small failure to a larger failure. Each event (or each scene) presents the characters with situations about which they must make hard decisions.

The conclusion of the first act when Sipowicz gets shot by Giardella also signals a turning point in the story. In the textbook Story, McKee notes that a good story must have several turning points, moving from positive to negative (page 123). McKee claims that turning points move the story from positive to negative or from negative to positive, and they always relate to the main theme. In NYPD Blue, the main theme is the moral ambiguity of police work. So, Kelly of course feels responsible for everything, because he suspects that his decision to end his partnership with Sipowicz is what caused Sipowicz to attack Giardella. Now he becomes emotionally involved and begins to break the rules. His actions are risky, as he harasses the mafia and has sex with Officer Licalsi.  In other words, after his partner is shot, then Kelly’s character becomes more like his partner’s character. So, in terms of the theme of a police officer’s moral ambiguity, the story moves from a negative representation (Sipowicz’s failure) to a positive representation (Kelly’s success) of similar behavior. The second act is a mirror of the first act, but with a positive instead of a negative aspect.

The second act climaxes when Kelly’s ex-wife catches him with Officer Licalsi. This event signals a transition to the third and final act, which must in some way resolve the dialectic between positive and negative — between good and bad. Giardella arrives at the police station with his lawyer, then the mafia boss Marino proposes a deal with Kelly which Kelly heroically rejects, and next he comes to an understanding with his ex-wife. The various problems and dilemmas are starting to get sorted out, and the positive and negative behaviors are coming to some meaningful resolution. Finally Kelly visits Sipowicz in the hospital. In this concluding scene, the audience finally learns Kelly’s deep emotional connection to Sipowicz when he whispers, “you’re like a father to me.” This especially has meaning since we know that Kelly’s real father died in that same hospital, and it also explains the second act. Metaphorically, the events of Sipowicz’s life generate (like a father generates a son) the events of Kelly’s life.

The important thing to realize here is that character matters, and the moral message matters, but for television, more important than character and message is the organization of events that make the story work. It is the story event that matters most because it sheds light on both the character and the meaning of the show. NYPD Blue was famous for being a “realistic” police drama, but in actuality, most of the events are not realistic at all. What makes them seem realistic is that the episode begins with a small ordinary event that is realistic (Sipowicz’s failure in the courtroom and his alcoholism), but this leads to a series of events that magnify the problem which gets bigger, less realistic, but more exciting and compelling.

But lastly, because this is television and not a movie, the show has to give the audience a reason to watch the next episode. Suddenly, at the very end, the audience learns that Andy might recover, and suddenly the audience learns that Officer Licalsi is not who she originally appeared to be. She is working for the criminal Marino. As I explained in my previous blog post yesterday [here], movies are like sex, and notice that the two climactic moments in NYPD Blue are a failed, negative sexual encounter when Sipowicz gets shot and a successful, positive sexual encounter between Kelly and Licalsi. But television is like marriage, so the climax is not the end. The relationships between the characters and with the audience must continue.

TV Drama Script Writing: Becoming a Good Writer?

28 Dec

What does the word “good” mean, and how does one become a good writer? Does the word “good” mean something unique for television that is different from what it means for the movies, live theater, or novels? These are the questions for my first post to my Film and Media blog.

Why am I asking these questions? Right now, I am sitting alone in a classroom at St. John’s University in Minnesota. It is 8:00 a.m. in the morning in the middle of winter, just a few days after Christmas, and nobody is here because the school is on vacation. A few thousand miles away, a group of people in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia are sitting in a classroom at 5:00 p.m., watching a classic TV drama from the 1990s, NYPD Blue. After they watch and discuss the show, they and I are hoping to have a conversation via Skype about writing scripts for serial TV dramas. This is the first workshop organized by Sandscribe Communications on the development of Ethiopian television. This blog that I am writing now is meant as a supplement to the workshop and also as a backup in case the Skype connection does not work. If you want to see my syllabus for the workshop, click [here].

Before I get to the question of what the word “good” means, I want to get to the question of how one becomes good. The metaphor I like to use is the metaphor of the marathon runner. Writing is like running a marathon. To be a good marathon runner, you have to practice a lot. (Actually, to be honest, I’ve never run a marathon, but I have done several triathlons, and I had to run, swim, and bike almost every day.) Most of the time, marathon runners are not running races. They are just practicing. To become a good writer, one must also practice. Most of the time, you are not finishing scripts. You are just practicing. Anyone can run a marathon if he or she practices enough. But if you stop training, even if you are the most talented runner, you will be unable to finish. Your muscles will become weak and will forget how to complete that distance. And a good marathon runner is not a good soccer player or dancer. The muscles are different for each sport. Your brain is a muscle, so just like running, when you stop using your brain to write every day, your brain muscle will become weak and will forget how to finish the script. Also, runners get better when they run with other people, not when they run alone. They learn to run faster and farther when they run with others and measure themselves against others. And this gets me to the question of what “good” means.

What is good depends on other people, but for television writing, this is much more complicated than marathon running. When you think of other people, including other writers and your audience, you begin to ask yourself why are you doing this? What is your purpose? Is the purpose to make a political statement? Is the purpose to sell a product, like in advertising? Is the purpose to make the audience happy? Do you want to make people cry? Do you just want other people to like and respect you? Are you writing for Americans, for Ethiopians, or for the whole world? According to the book Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas, television is different from movies because the goal of movies is to make the audience gasp and exclaim “wow!” One might compare a movie to sex, as a good movie gradually becomes more exciting and more intense and then reaches a climax and then is over. Instead, television shows make the audience feel comfortable, as if the characters on the show are the audience’s friends or family for an hour each day or each week. So, if one might compare a movie to sex, then one might compare television to marriage. (That was a joke.)

I agree with professor Douglas in some ways, but there is something wrong about her perspective that reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in which television becomes a government tool for brainwashing the public by giving them the feeling of interpersonal relations without any real relationships — that is to say, television seems almost like a drug that gives people simple emotional feelings without the real emotional connection, without the complex ethical dilemmas, and without the challenging conflicts that we face. For me, the essence of good writing is an honest and respectful attention to the ethical dilemmas of the characters in a way that helps the audience think about how the decisions of ordinary, everyday life connect to the big picture of the whole world. A good story does not start with an answer and a clear sense of right and wrong. It starts with a question (or a dilemma or a problem or even a failure), and relates that individual question to a bigger context. (A good example of this is the book of Job from the Bible, and we should remember that Job never gets a clear answer to his questions from God.)

So, I question professor Douglas’s book, but to be fair, it seems that she also believes as I do that television can be something better than it has been in the past. Television is changing, because the tools for making television are changing, and the world is changing. Here is a YouTube video of her talking about her book:

So, the question I still have for my friends in Ethiopia is not what makes a good TV drama in general. Instead, my question is what makes a good TV drama in Ethiopia for the year 2012? What do you think?