adapting to the 21st century

everyone has a role

Twin brothers Nicolas Cage and Nicolas Cage as  struggling screenwriters in Adaptation .(Spike Jones, 2002)

Twin brothers Nicolas Cage and Nicolas Cage as  struggling screenwriters in Adaptation .(Spike Jones, 2002)

In a recent lecture for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA),  James Schamus explained to a large group of fellow screenwriters that they are not artists. After all,  he says, there is nothing magical about artists, and no artist is "superior" to any screenwriter, critic, or producer. Why, then, he asks, do creative people aspire to the "artist" label?  To demonstrate his point, Schamus describes a scenario. Imagine, he says, that you are walking out of a theatre having just seen the latest Hollywood blockbuster: Pièce de Merde: Part Three  from "Studio de Crème de la Crap". You are discussing it with a friend. 

... I assume you did not turn to your date and say: "That film was terrible. The script was great, but the film, what a terrible job they did with that script!"

Schamus wants his audience to consider why we can’t hate a film but love its script. Screenwriters, unlike playwrights, write directions for a cast and a production team that is only likely to work together once. Everyone on the team must work together in the interest of filming a movie—a packaged product—that will be released to the public. Once individual screenwriters start seeing themselves as artists, they are less interested in collaborating or working with other screenwriters, as a group. As a result, says Schamus, screenwriters have difficulty organizing and banding together, when necessary, to intervene in the corporate process. So, he suggests, we should change our thinking habits. 

Films, Schamus reminds his colleagues, are a relatively recent art-form. When they were first "invented", and as the technology improved in the early half of the twentieth century, no one was quite sure how to define movies. No one could quite figure out how to package, own, or take credit for any given movie. Schamus describes how the industry came to define a film's copyrightable material:

A movie, it turns out...is the telling...not even the story but the telling. The narration. In order to consume a film, you assume a narrator who is telling the story. And to the extent to which the film creates...this experience of narration...it becomes a copyrightable property. 

The idea of a 'movie' had to be defined – distinguished from still photographs -- in order to be copyrightable. No one wanted to copyright every individual frame of a film since, for obvious reasons, that would have been an extremely laborious process. When we copyright a film, we declare ownership of a particular series of juxtaposed images, combined in a particular way, so that they ‘tell’ a story. Copyrights are not exactly ‘natural’ to the art-form since they were designed to protect the financial interests of movie studios. Overall, Schamus advises his colleagues, we do better as an industry when we look back upon recent history.

The divide between Hollywood and academia is not as large as some might think.  Like screenwriters, film and literary scholars seem to forget that intellectual copyrights are a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of us are horrified by the idea that our articles, or even our ideas, will end up in someone else's hands -- either another scholar's, a student's, or a random paper thief on the internet. Plagiarism feels like a violation, it makes us angry, so we waste time and effort trying to find how our ideas escaped from our clutches. We are understandably angry when someone else lays claim to our words and ideas. When we are in writing-mode, we are in our most vulnerable state; our moment of sincerity. But anger is a waste of time  and so is revenge.

In reality, evidence of plagiarism comes only in tatters, in breadcrumbs. We may find bits and pieces of our ideas scattered all over the place, and yet it is often an impossible case to prove. The burden of proof falls on the original author rather than the one that steals. Usually, no evidence exists to back up the claim that our ideas have been copied. Over time, that anger turns into despair upon the realization that there is nothing that can be done. So we justify it away: other scholars, working in the same field, think of similar topics and ideas all the time. Perhaps other film scholars choose to write about the same films, year after year, because those films are “canonical”, whatever that means. These are a few of the justifications, and in many cases these justifications are warranted. We cannot always know for certain, all of the time.

This does not mean that I should throw up my hands and discontinue my research, or that I should quit writing about films. Why should we feel threatened by the work of scholars, like ourselves, on similar topics? Perhaps we are afraid that the ideas of others will make our own ideas appear less original or ignorant. But why should we view admissions of ignorance in such a negative light — especially if we are willing to admit what we do know and what we don”t know from the outset? When we don”t admit to ignorance, we are far more likely to succumb to bullshit.  Eventually, therefore, our frustrations must turn into something else; a new outlook, a new method. If projects end continuously in feelings of despair, helplessness, and bitterness, the paper thieves win. 

As scholars, when we write about movies , we take precautions to adhere to certain pre-established  guidelines. We all know, for example, that we must not assume that our readers are familiar with the objects of our critique. We cannot simply jump into an analysis of a film without providing any background information at all. So we give the full title of the film, the name of the director, year, and a 1-2 sentence summary of major plot points. This is why, in high school English class, we learn to expect that our readers would not be as familiar with our topics as we were. So we write to our audience, and we explain.

At the same time, we learn quickly that the main feature of interpretive essays is the voice of the critic. So, when we are critics, we cut plot summaries that are too long and we replace them with interpretation. While our voices must be strong, we should not forget why we are writing. The critic serves a particular, and an important, function. But like the screenwriter, the scholar is not an artist. Criticism and commentary are not themselves works of art.

The academic star-system is an alternate Hollywood system—both equally elitist. Those scholars who are the most famous in their respective fields are, whether they admit it or not, vedettes. This fact alone is not necessarily problematic. But critical work involves interpretation—an acquired skill involving creativity and rational thinking. A certain number of vedettes neglect the latter in favor of the former. But eschewing rationality and clarity in favor of glossy words, controversy and obscurity, is a disservice to critics, readers and artists alike.