This substantial follow-up to the hilarious, brilliantly-structured Adventures in the Screen Trade focuses rather more on the trade and less on the adventures, a fact that will please those looking for practical insight into the realities and technicalities of screenwriting, but perhaps disappoint those looking for pure entertainment.
This book is packed with information, opinions and examples, but there are three basic concepts that remain with me most vividly a few days later:
1. Screenwriters should enter a scene (and by extension, the story) as late as possible. Scenes should generally be crafted to communicate as concisely and efficiently as possible, taking every opportunity to utilize context and subtext without wasting time on the page. I know this is probably the first thing you learn in Screenwriting 101, but it was a novel concept to me.
2. Directors are overvalued and writers are undervalued. Goldman is not unbiased on this point, of course, but there is a lot of evidence that directors often receive excessive, exclusive praise for aspects of a film that were almost entirely the result of someone else’s work. For example, a writer can create a powerful scene, specifying every detail from the timing to the camera angles, but once filmed, the scene becomes inextricably tied to the director. The example Goldman uses is the famous crop duster sequence in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. It is clear from the script that Hitchcock contributed almost nothing, creatively, to the scene, but what was the writer’s name? I certainly don’t remember.
3. Protect the spine at all costs. Goldman believes that every story has a spine–an irreducible core that should not be altered, no matter how much the surrounding details might change. I thought it was fascinating how, in his example, he boiled each vital part of a book down into one word, creating a short list of essential words that drive the story. His goal, when translating a book to film is to find and preserve the intent of the original material, which allows a great deal of latitude in how the peripheral aspects are treated. This idea will provide much food for future thought whenever I encounter films based successfully or, more likely, unsuccessfully on books.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed Goldman’s first book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, very much.]
Reading this book was a strange experience because I could not separate it in my mind from the 1987 film, which I had seen many times before I realised it was based on a real book and many, many more times before actually reading the novel for the first time (years ago). I was delighted to experience all the “extras” that didn’t make it into the movie but contribute to a novel that is hilarious and fantastical. Goldman’s editorial asides, biographical anecdotes and surprisingly plausible insistence that he is merely the translator, not the creator, of this tale, create a mind-bending false reality that seems to blur the line between fact and fiction (when actually, it’s all fiction). The book is also a valuable read for those interested in screenwriting and filmmaking. When compared to the movie, it is an education to realise what was left out, what was added in, and what was changed by an author who is also an accomplished screenwriter.
[Why I read it: I was too young to completely understand the book the first time; it might never have ended up back on my reading list if one of my sisters-in-law hadn’t mentioned it and given me a craving.]
Oh, a book about movies written by a film critic! I thought. I watch films critically and write. And I read books. How perfect. So I grabbed it off the new-arrivals shelf at the library. It almost felt like my professional duty to read this book, since it is on a topic about which I often inflict my own thoughts on others and nothing encourages infliction-worthy thoughts more than continuing education.
After a couple chapters, my main impression was What does the word “indexicality” mean and why is the author using it on nearly every other page? Without internet at the time, my only recourse was to point this impression out loudly and often over the course of several pages, while receiving no sympathy from my nearby siblings. Once reunited with the internet, I discovered that “indexicality” means a sizeable Wikipedia page worth of very large words, but paradoxically, seems to mean less the more you read about it. Which, conveniently, is also one of the main problems with this book.
I only made it to page 60. It is one thing to wade through difficult text in order to understand complex concepts but quite a less pleasant thing to gradually start to suspect that the concepts are mostly bollocks and your time has been wasted. I believe that Hoberman’s ideal audience is not rewarded by the comprehension of any great ideas, but merely by the appealing frame their thick, hipster glasses make around the words on the page and the sweet sweet joy of recognizing in print the names of all those dreadful indie films they pretended to “get.”
Perhaps it seems that I am just bitter and Film After Film is too advanced for me to understand. That could be true. But if being smarter means using the phrase “neo-retro primitivism” without irony (23) and considering WALL-E to be “the twenty-first century’s quintessential motion picture to date” (40), then so be it.
That was a natural ending for this review, but I just can’t send this book back to the library without quoting Hoberman’s [unintentionally] hilarious explanation of the deep meaning behind the zombie film genre. He claims that “Perhaps the problematic distinction between dead and undead allegorizes, among other things, the ambiguous relation between analog and digital image-making” (31). HAHA! That is… that is just… I have no words…
Two things must accompany the reading of this book, besides an appreciation of the more technical side of films: immediate access to imdb.com and an empty list entitled “Films to watch.” For me, this was a good introduction to many iconic directors with whom I am regretfully unfamiliar and a fascinating glimpse into how others watch, enjoy and are influenced by a variety of films. An example of the book’s power… after reading the interview about Citizen Kane, I am inspired to re-watch the movie (despite hating it the last three times I saw it). The only thing I didn’t like was the inevitable inclusion of spoilers for many of the movies.