Saturday, February 16, 2008

Welcome To Black History Month

Or maybe this is African American Heritage Month, which I think is the same thing, just with some new PC lingo... but “African American Power!” just doesn’t sound the same. Even though they have added a day this year, it is still the shortest month of the year. Heck, it’s more than half over! And we throw in a bunch of other holidays and events, which makes that short month seem even shorter. We have Ground Hog Day and Valentines Day and Presidents Day... no Black Presidents yet, but that may change soon.

I wonder where all of the Black movies are this month? Is WELCOME HOME ROSCOE JENKINS it? You may not know this, but African Americans go to the movies in disproportionate numbers. It’s a major audience segment in the United States... so where are the movies this month? They opened GREAT DEBATERS over the Christmas holidays, to sneak it in for Oscar consideration. But why isn’t February - kind of a slow box office month - capitalizing on Black History Month by releasing several films that appeal to that large cinema audience? Every studio ought to be fighting for that audience this month... and doing a wider release of movies like GREAT DEBATERS this month... It would be a cool time to re-release the film, since it just won an NAACP Image Award. I doubt ROSCOE JENKINS will win one.

I’m kind of pissed off because I was going to use this short month to talk about some of my favorite films that just happen to star African Americans... starting with the great family film SOUNDER - except that film is not on DVD anymore. What? This is a great film with an amazing story and dialogue that I’ve quoted in articles about screenwriting (because they are universal life lessons). How does this film go out of press? This is the kind of movie everyone should watch during Black History Month.

I guess I could talk about SHAFT’S BIG SCORE or THREE THE HARD WAY, but even though I love those movies, they may not have much in the way of universal life lessons... But I bet I could find one or two if I tried. That's the cool part about mainstream movies - they are great at disguising larger messages.

Some people wonder why we don’t have White History Month... but isn’t that just about every month? And what about Hispanic History Month and Asian History Month and Indian (Native American) History Month and Indian (from India) History Month and... Well, we are a country of many different heritages, but only 12 months.

So I say - take one. You want a month? Just take it!

PBS has been showing episodes of Julian Bond’s great documentary EYES ON THE PRIZE about the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, which coincided with the Anti-War Movement and prison reform (Atica! Atica!) plus the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.... a turbulent time in the United States, but a great time - people were standing up for what they believed in. Fighting for what they believed in. (And this lead to the anti-establishment cinema of the 70s and all of those great films.)

These days we seem to be complacent.

Maybe we shouldn’t be?

Maybe we should stand up for what we believe in? Make it part of our screenplays?

On a message board a couple of days ago, I said that speeches and overtly political or social movies don’t seem to work - people don’t go to the cinema for sermons... they want *entertainment*, they want escape. But we can use the power of story to make our points without any overt preaching. You got something to say? Stand up and say it... with a story.

No speeches. Nothing overt. You want to be subversive.

The PIRATES movies seem to be big fun adventure films - but the first film makes the point that sometimes a good man (Will) must do the wrong thing (become a pirate) which is completely against the law in order to do the right thing (save the woman he loves). The second film and third film have anti-government, anti-capitalist messages... but the average audience member probably didn't notice any of that. It was just part of the story. Nothing hit them over the head... but maybe they will worry a little bit more about big business using government to further their global marketing plans.

One of my favorite films is the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS about aliens who take you over and turn you into ultra-conformists. You don't think for yourself - you follow the leader blindly. The government, the police, everyone wants you to just give in and become one of them... but our hero stands up to them (not easy). Okay, now this is a scary sci-fi movie, not some sort of political film... except it's really both. One on the outside, one on the inside.

My thing is blue collar workers - we (I used to be one) are completely under represented on film. It seems like most movies are about guys who wear suits and work in offices - sometimes we don’t even know what they do in those offices. Blue collar workers are almost invisible in American movies - and I think much of that is due to the people who write scripts usually not having much blue collar experience. You may not have noticed this, but they are closing factories right and left in the United States and moving those jobs to other countries. We now depend on other countries to manufacture things... and that bites us on the butt when the low cost manufacturing creates lead based Mattel toys and defective kid car seats and... Crap! I’m preaching!

Instead, I usually channel this stuff into a screenplay. My protagonists often work with their hands, and the stories sometimes have backgrounds in the blue collar world. I want to make sure people realize that car they drive was build by *people*. You know that chair you’re sitting in? Somebody made that. And if we don’t do something, the people who make everything are going to be *Chinese*. I want to make the people who make things *visible* in movies.

So, you want a month? Take it. Figure out what you want to say and find a way to say it in a story. I believe in sneaking your message into mainstream films, so that hundreds of millions of people around the world will hear it. They go to the cinema to see some big summer adventure flick... and come away wondering if a good man must sometimes break the law to do the right thing or if you should just go with the flow or stand up for what’s right or...

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Emotion Pictures.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Fish Tacos at Islands.

MOVIES: RAMBO - This is either the sketchiest movie ever made, or Kabuki Theater at its finest. It almost seems like there was no script, they were working off a treatment. The story is so simple, the characters are so simple, everything in this film seems like the rough draft - completely undeveloped...

But maybe that’s by intention.

Rambo is a man of few words, and really huge arms. In last year’s ROCKY return, Stallone was an old burn out who didn’t have a chance in Hell of going ten rounds with the champ. Rambo is a different kind of burn out - a man who has seen to much killing. Stallone’s arms are huge, his body in great shape... but his face is kind of puffy. Old. Beat up. And that works. When we first see Rambo, he’s living in Thailand (I think) catching exotic poisonous snakes for some tourist side show. I’m not sure this job really exists, and it seems like something from another movie, but I guess they had to come up with something for him to do.

He’s hired by a group of missionaries to go up river into Burma to do missionary stuff. Rambo tells them they should just go home - but probably used less words than I just did. The missionaries all look the same and act the same, except one is female. Non one has any character in this film. That might work for Rambo - he’s kind of an icon - but doesn’t work for these folks, because we need to care about them, so that when they get captured by evil army dudes in Burma we will want Rambo to go in and save them. Since Rambo refuses to take them up river, they send the girl missionary to talk to him... except that would require dialogue. So, they look at each other for a minute and speak maybe 5 words between them, then we cut to Rambo on his boat taking the missionaries up river. Where’s a naked Daryl Hannah and a slightly crazed John Lithgow when you need them? None of these missionaries had any personality at all.

No scenes, no moments, no real interaction between characters.

There is an interesting connection between the lead Missionary and Rambo - both are men who believe a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do... except there is no conversation about this and no actions that compare and contrast this...

So, after a bunch of time, Rambo gets them up river and then returns to his life of snake catching... end of story.

But one night the Minister from the church the missionaries came from, Ken Howard in probably a full minute of screen time, shows up at Rambo’s place and says the missionaries were kidnaped by the evil army dudes and he’d like Rambo to take a boat full of mercenaries up river so that they can rescue the missionaries.

Cut to, Rambo piloting the boat of mercenaries who are going to rescue the missionaries.

Now, these mercenaries has absolutely no personality - no *character*. We have a kid and a bald mouthy guy... and the rest. Compare them to the Space Marines in ALIENS - where over a dozen different characters are complete individuals after only a few minutes of screen time. That’s a good group to compare these Mercs to, because all of those Space Marines began as characters in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD 2. James Cameron wrote the script for that, was rewritten by Stallone, and took his Merc characters from *that* script and dropped them into ALIENS. You’d think Stallone might have learned something from that, but I guess not. We end up with these completely interchangeable characters... which screws up any chance of caring about them when the shit hits the fan and Rambo has to save their sorry asses. The mouthy Mercenary dogs Rambo, but that’s it. If you think this is setting up that big scene where they have to set aside their differences and work together, you got the wrong movie.

The Mercenaries blow it, Rambo saves their sorry asses...

But in the most violent scenes ever put on film. People’s heads *vaporize*.

Okay, the Evil Army Dude, that’s about as much personality or character as he gets, has this “hobby”. He takes prisoners to one end of a rice paddy, throws land mines in the water, then forces them to run across the rice paddy. They step on a land mine - we get to see big chunks of their bodies fly. This is frightening, sick stuff... and you want the Evil Army Dude to die some horrible death. So, when the rescue turns into a chase about three quarters of the way into the film, we are ready for Rambo to set traps and kick some ass... and that’s what happens. Evil soldier guys get blown to bits, have body parts shot of, or have their heads explode...

And we cheer!

Isn’t it cool when that bad soldier gets blown in half?

Dude, that guy’s legs got blown off at the knees! Now he’s, like, crawling!

Man, the whole top of his head just vaporized! And he’s still running! Cool!

Okay, this brings up a really good question - why do we like violence? I know that some of you are saying that *you* don’t like violence, but the majority of the people in that cinema audience, both men and women, were cheering and laughing as people were being blown to bits very realistically on screen. You may not like violence, but the full cinema at this RAMBO showing liked it - and I suspect that was why they were there.

Is it life affirming? When I was a little kid, I liked horror movies because I *survived* them. That made me stronger. When we see somebody killed on screen and it’s not us, do we feel like survivors - and is that what makes us cheer? The more scary the monster, when I was a kid, the greater the joy of surviving... is the same true with more violent scenes in a film?

Or do we have a savage streak? Something sick and primitive that turns other people’s violent deaths into sport? There’s syndicated TV show on Sunday nights that is all about vehicle crashes - it’s 30 minutes of wrecks. Not the car race, not who won the car race, not who drove really well in the car race... but the people whose cars crashed and flipped a half dozen times and then whatever was left of it caught on fire. People watch this show. Um, I watch that show sometimes. Did people cheer the violence in Rambo because they are just deeply disturbed?

I don’t think that second one is true, because RAMBO opens with real life footage of atrocities in Burma - and nobody cheered. I felt kind of queasy, and people around me where gasping (not cheering). And when they showed the innocent villagers being blown up by the land mines hidden in the rice paddies, no one was cheering... they were getting mad at that Evil Army Guy for being such a bastard and hoping that Rambo would kick his butt good.

So it seems that *revenge* is part of the equation. That innocent people - even though we know they are actors and these are special effects - getting killed makes us angry. But bad guys getting killed makes us cheer and laugh.

Okay, so many many bad army guys get killed in really violent ways, and finally we come down to the lead Bad Army Guy - he’s the commander. He ordered all of the rice paddy races where innocent people were blown to bits (that we get to see). He’s the ultimate bad guy in this film, even though he has no dialogue. So, how do you think he gets it? What do you think Rambo does to him?

If you guessed Rambo throws some land mines in a rice paddy and forces him to run through the rice paddy... you’d be wrong. That’s what we want Rambo to do to him. That is “justice” in the world of action movies.

But Rambo just stabs him with a knife and kills him - over in a couple of seconds.

Then Rambo goes back to his life of capturing snakes...

Not really, he goes home to see his father. Now, given Stallone’s age, if his father is still alive he probably won’t even remember he has a son. But Stallone’s dad seems to live on a horse ranch somewhere that looks like it exists only on a Hallmark card.

What movies will Stallone sequel next?

PAGES: Actually did 7 pages on the action spec, and it looks like I may have landed a job writing another script. I'll bring you up to speed on this stuff in a couple of days.

- Bill


Anonymous said...

“These days we seem to be complacent.
Maybe we shouldn’t be?
Maybe we should stand up for what we believe in? Make it part of our screenplays?”

I am so moved by your post. I weep.

I weep because black-on-black crime is so out-of-control in this country…so many have not even seen SOUNDER.

I weep because …so many don’t even know what their own Street name means (ie, MLK Avenue.)

I weep because…I feel helpless.

So YES, I will learn to write.
I will learn how to make my sreenplays STAND UP for me.

Thank you for your wonderful post Bill…you are truly a very
Beautiful man.

Thank you for making BLACK HISTORY MONTH special on your website.

Christian M. Howell said...

Next up, Cliffhanger.

Chris said...

Thanks Bill. As an inexperienced amateur who has been struggling to get my first screenplay done and out of my head, I've been insecure about the blue-collar origins of the characters (and myself, too). Will they resonate with others? That kind of thing. Your post today just gave me a little confidence boost. Something I needed, and something I thought was a weakness I'm beginning to see as a strength.

Anonymous said...

Bill, I think you hit on something interesting about the Rambo film.

I have not seen the movie, but from your synopsis, I gather that Rambo went to save the captured missionaries because of the girl who initially persuaded him to go do "missionary stuff". Rambo cares about the girl.

You say that the characters have no personality and are boring, etc. Given that the film's title is Rambo, I would not expect a character study, so I believe you through and through. We have no reason to like these "characters".

But Rambo does care, which brings up a situation where the audience might be wondering "why are you doing this?" instead of wishing the hero would act.

Point is: the audience needs to feel what the character feels. We need to like and admire this female missionary as much as Rambo does. I repeat that I have not seen the film, but this is a universal screenwriting tip. If the character cares and we the masses don't, the writer has only done half the work, and it won't work.

Richard McNally said...

SOUNDER was a great film, wholesome and deeply moving. Script Secret of today was informative--that MIDNIGHT COWBOY was X-rated seems amazing, also amazing that it won the Best Picture Oscar, I thought it was a drag, downbeat and hopeless. And for LAST TANGO not to have gotten an X-rating is a joke, though it was a haunting film that lingers permanently in mind. Weeping Anonymous I'm sure is supporting Obama, that could help with her or his feeling of helplessness. As to infiltrating one's screenplay with politics--I am a deeply political person and my first screenplay, unlike the fiction I've written, did not have a hint of politics in it, which surprised me, I got so caught up in the gangster action that politics never entered my mind. Same with the second one I'm working on, another noir. I guess politics (code word for the binary opposition altruism/brutality) is irrelevant to gangsters. I'm writing about revenge and murder, and perhaps I am merely, as Sissela Bok maintains in her work on entertainment violence titled MAYHEM, contributing to the sum total of evil in the world. G. Bataille has written in LITERATURE & EVIL: "Art is not innocent." Uncomfortable to think this, that one is a purveyor of evil; yet as you point out in your RAMBO critique, people (paradoxically) find happiness in watching violence (which in real life would scare the shit out of them); so if one is supplying humanity with happiness, how guilty is one?

Congratulations on your assignment, look forward to hearing about it.

Anonymous said...

"Weeping Anonymous I'm sure is supporting Obama, that could help with her or his feeling of helplessness. As to infiltrating one's screenplay with politics--"

This might not be the place, but if not, Wcmartell can kick me to the boards.

What I aspire to do is make people think. Not infiltrate my screenplay with politics.
Because the TRUTH of the matter is…the “black-on-black” crime that concerns me is not about politics. That problem is about lack of knowledge. Just plain old SOS(stuck-on-stupid.)

Recently there was an all out WAR in my city. In the Black Community. The police department basically hid. I’m not mad at them…that certainly would have been my approach.

I started a screenplay, I only got through the hook, but it simply shows a couple of teenagers (black & white), who are very popular at their high school. Minding their own business, just out and about, they get caught up in a battle of the guns.

These boys are killed.

This brings folk (who would otherwise never even speak) into each other’s homes.

My goal is not to shove my political opinions down anyone’s throat…so speaking of Obama…

The guy hasn’t really shown me what he would do under pressure (that is certain to come in this country.)


On the other hand, has shown (while in the White House with Bill “hornyman” Clinton) that she is the kind of human-machine needed to turn things around and run this country. So far…she’s got my vote (unless she weeps again, then I might start looking at McCain.)

-weeping anonymous

wcmartell said...

Yeah - let's keep the political discussion on some politics boards. I want you to be passionate about what you believe in, and find the way to sneak that into your screenplays - but I'm sure we're all passionate about different things - and we probably don't agree on many things.

But we agree we want to see good movies.

- Bill

Anonymous said...


wcmartell said...

Okay, and sometimes movies so bad they are good. Though, maybe not all of you agree on that.

- Bill

Richard McNally said...

Not to be argumentative but urban violence rising from a "lack of knowledge" presupposes the inadequacy of our educational infrastructure, which is a profoundly political issue. Sorry you have to be exposed to it--the violence--firsthand. What city are you talking about? How widespread was the violence? Were there fatalities? What set it off? What brought it to an end? Beginning, middle, and end, to stay on a cinematic rather than a political track.

Anonymous said...

“Not to be argumentative but urban violence rising from a "lack of knowledge" presupposes the inadequacy of our educational infrastructure, which is a profoundly political issue. Sorry you have to be exposed to it--the violence--firsthand.”

You’re right. Our educational infrastructure is a political issue. However, it is hardly responsible for the NONending violence that we tolerate in this city.

As for being exposed to it firsthand…I’m definitely not SOS. I moved as far away as my finances would allow. I watch from the safety of my living room on my television set…and it’s not pretty.

I saw a mother…in shock, as she walked to see her teenage son lay dead in the middle of the street.

BUT ANYHOW, I really want to write this story…it burns inside of me. I am so angry.

“What city are you talking about? How widespread was the violence? Were there fatalities? What set it off? What brought it to an end? Beginning, middle, and end, to stay on a cinematic rather than a political track.”

Pick my city. Pick any city in this country, violence is so widespread. It’s as if people are just walking around looking for somebody to murder. We’re right in the middle of it…and there is no end in sight.

Can we as Writers DO SOMETHING?

Anonymous said...

awesome tip today, Bill -- finding the unpredictable ending -- taking it to heart

Richard McNally said...


Sartre believed literature could be a political tool when he was young, gave up on this idea when he was old. Robbe-Grillet saw no political role for literature, saying, "In art, nothing can be known in advance," which is to say one may not sit down and plan the subject matter or style of a story before writing it. And then there's the old maxim: "The writer doesn't choose the subject, the subject chooses the writer." It all comes down to one's personal, deeply personal, choice, a choice that is part reason, part memory, part imagination, part emotion, part intuition, part subconscious, part super-ego--and wholly YOU.

But enough pontificating.

Bill, today's Screen Secret on unexpected endings ... yes, they are a must ... people love them because they contrast so starkly with the numbing predictability of working in an office or plant or restaurant as the wage slave of a propertied and parasitic elite that amuses itself by playing games like financing movies that the slaves watch to find some temporary relief from their bondage. In the long run, everything is political. Proudhon wrote: "Property is theft," and he was right, in my opinion, and our society is grounded in crime--that's why there are social problems right, left, and center. Drastic change is imperative, restructuring is impertative. True education is crucial. And yesterday the New York Times editorial said: "Continue to ignore the plight of urban schools [and they probably will continue to be ignored, because there's no immediate financial profit to be gained from improving them], and soon about half of New York City's one million school-children won't graduate from high school." Half. Wonder what they'll end up doing.

Enough pontificating.

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