12:30 AM EST, February 23, 2013
In 1945 Raymond Chandler wrote a screed against Hollywood, and Hollywood screenwriting, for the Atlantic Monthly. "An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon," said the man who later characterized his adopted residence to the south, La Jolla, Calif., as "nothing but a climate." In the Atlantic he vented: "An art which is capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived, all but the very best novels verbose and imitative, should not so quickly become wearisome to those who attempt to practice it with something else in mind than the cash drawer."
Writers have the first word in the movies, by definition. And then typically they are told to go enjoy that climate while their blueprint is turned over to the contractors whose minds, again by definition, are very much on the cash drawer. It's different, or can be, when the writer directs his own work, as did Quentin Tarantino on his latest historical-cinematic mashup, "Django Unchained." If there are two sorts of scripts in the world — those you notice, and those you don't — Tarantino is the ringleader of the first group. He writes dialogue (and, more comfortably for him, monologues) designed to let his people talk and talk and then kill, before setting up the next round of retributional bloodshed.
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Tarantino is a strong bet to win his latest Oscar for his "Django Unchained" screenplay, which accomplishes everything Old Hollywood, New Hollywood and Off-Hollywood admires: It's a little bit off-center and personal (in that it's mostly about Tarantino's favorite movies) and it has made nearly $350 million worldwide. I'd rather see the original screenplay award go to John Gatins for "Flight." But Oscar night isn't about getting what one prefers; statistically, it's Night of the Losers, because there are so many more of them.
This year's Academy Award for adapted screenplay is either heading toward "Lincoln" or to the favorite to win Best Picture, "Argo." Should playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner win for "Lincoln," that plus "Django Unchained" will make for a fascinating set of bookends: America in the time of slavery. Two contrasting solutions to injustice. Both come from writers who really write. Both have found a big audience.
And the scripts that should've been nominated?
Each year, the overlooked un-nominees in the screenwriting categories have little in common except this: They tend to care a little less about rooting interests and audience identification. They're more like a stimulating novel or a play, even if they're not based on either a book or a stage script, than a highly processed slice of Hollywood cheese.
I keep coming back to "The Master," writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's confounding portrait of a lost soul in post-World War II America, and the self-appointed religious leader who takes him into a Scientology-like fold. This novelly film is typical for Anderson, in that it's roomy and, by design, incomplete, untidy. Early teaser trailers for "The Master" contained moments and whole sequences not found in the final cut. The forthcoming DVD/Blu-ray release gathers some of the deleted scenes together, tantalizing the viewer with varying shades and implications. Early drafts of Anderson's screenplay hit the Scientology parallels pretty hard; as he went through the drafts prior to shooting, and then into the editing, either for legal reasons or aesthetic ones, he eased up on the parallels. In the film's release version scenes emerge, mirage-like, without the sort of pretext or context we're used to, even from Anderson. And that's part of the film's magic: It is a dream, not a literal-minded chronicle with a traceable dramatic arc. While Anderson might be the first to acknowledge he has trouble finding his endings, he writes and shoots and reaches like no one else in American movies. And unlike Tarantino, he directs like a born director, a seer, as opposed to a flamboyant screenwriter in a position of directorial power.
A poetic master of the dying fall, Anderson never was a probable candidate to land one of the five original script nominations. "The Master" misbehaves too flagrantly (it's like protagonist Freddie Quell) to fit in, the way Tarantino's act manages to fit in and play to any room, anywhere.
My other favorite un-nominee, Terence Davies, adapted and directed the 1952 Terence Rattigan drama "The Deep Blue Sea." He, too, is a wizard of the small, intimate, often painfully revealing moment, in this instance serving Rattigan's story of doomed love between a married woman (Rachel Weisz in the film) and her unreliable lover (Tom Hiddleston).
Davies served the source material while going his own way with it, reordering the action, inventing new scenes, distilling others. He managed to make a Terence Rattigan film inside a Terence Davies film, the same way — and this was an extraordinarily unlikely success story — Steven Spielberg managed to make "Lincoln" an unusually muted Spielberg movie as well as a rich and melodious Tony Kushner play. It wasn't a play, of course, or based on one; it was simply a screenplay that behaved like one, in its attention to language as an exemplar of character.
Anderson and Davies never had a shot this year. But they're getting better all the time at directing themselves without indulging themselves, without making things easy or aggressively palatable for the audience.
"Just tell me something that's true!" Freddie Quell screams at his mentor in "The Master." That line never even made it out of the trailers into the final version, but in a movie year dominated by debates regarding the factual veracity of everything from "Argo" to "Zero Dark Thirty" to "Lincoln" to, who knows, "Wreck-It Ralph," it was bracing to spend time in the chilly waters of "The Master" and "The Deep Blue Sea" — where the only truth that mattered was the dramatic truth between two fictional characters trying to pull themselves together, even as their worlds were being pulled apart.
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