The disappearing writerFebruary 11, 2008
Looks like the writers are coming back to work. Amazing that the executives thought they could just do without them. It must have come as some shock to see everything slow to a stop. How could these scribbling nobodies have so much power?
In fact, writers should be flattered to be taken for granted. It means they’re doing their job properly. After all, it is only when you cease to sense a guiding hand behind a work of fiction that the fiction suddenly takes on life. ‘Characters’ become ‘people’, ‘scenes’ become ‘events’, and when something bad happens, you feel it at a gut level… none of this is possible if you sense that the writer is manipulating every last thing that happens (which he is). So you could say that the job of the writer is to disappear.
But to disappear from a script is one thing, to disappear from film history, or from the regard of those who hold the purse strings, is quite another. In ‘Adventures In The Screen Trade’, William Goldman blames the auteur theory for removing the writer from the picture. So Frank Capra is a God but Robert Riskin is…what? A technician of some sort; a typist, maybe. Certainly not someone worthy of attention or study.
Gore Vidal pointed out that in David Thomson’s supposedly definitive ‘Biographical Dictionary of Film’, there is not a single writer in the book. Not a one. (Update: Shane points out that I’m wrong here. There are two writers in his book, Ben Hecht and Ernest Lehmann. However, I don’t count Garson Kanin because he was also a director). So Clint Eastwood is a genius for directing ‘Unforgiven’, but David Webb Peoples, who conjured the whole thing out of thin air, who created living, breathing, characters where hitherto there was, precisely, nothing, is, again, what? Certainly not someone who deserved an Oscar in the same year that the film received four.
What’s doubly strange is that it’s generally writers who participate in this removal process. Film critics fell for the auteur theory hook line and sinker and for years you never heard word one about the screenplay in a review (especially if it involved a name director who gave the author a jolly). When I was a film critic, I was as guilty of this as anyone else, and it’s only when I started writing scripts myself that I bothered to learn who wrote some of my favourite films.
Another writer, Joe Queenan, recently berated sitcom writers, stating that the sitcom hadn’t moved on since “I Love Lucy” (which I guess is true if you just completely ignore about thirty shows since, from ‘Bilko’ through to ‘The Simpsons’ to ‘Curb’). Of course, there are a lot of hacks out there, lazy writers who have a one-size-fits-all approach to writing sitcoms, but the least of them is still creating Something Where Before There Was Nothing, which is a Brazilian times more valuable than one of Joe Queenan’s never-quite-interesting- enough-to-make-you-think think-pieces.
That Queenan could have such contempt for creative writers speaks volumes as to his understanding of the process. That is to say, he has no understanding of the process, because if he did, he’d be a lot more humble. But again, it’s almost not his fault, because good writers are disguising their efforts so expertly that even the idea that there was a process disappears.
Draining the well was a valuable lesson for everyone involved, not least the writers themselves. Sure enough, Hollywood went 404 in no time at all, and at last the writers proved that they were actually an important part of the picture. Look what happens when the people who turn nothing into something aren’t working. Nothing happens. But nothing happens in a big, big way.