days o screenwriting yore

Sometimes a movie comes on cable, reminding me that not so very long ago people used to actually write movie scripts, rather than construct them for the global market. I have no idea who wrote "Superman II," but it is one of those movies where even the day players' throwaway lines are juicy, implying a writer with a worldview, a life of observations and experiences, a thrilled appreciation for language and the way people use it....anything but the sheerly mercantile, dumb-it-down-so-the-suits-will-feel-smart attitude that prevails now.

So, in this movie, they actually say these things:

"....actually, i don't really like television. i was at home reading Dickens."
"...we'll have a kissing contest later...."
"....you gotta kick ass if you wanna be a peacemaker..."
"....see, you only smell strong...."

It doesn't really matter who says these lines, but let me do a quick translation into how those lines would be written now by your average L.A.-expatriate Harvard-mafia laptop-geek wannabe hipster screenwriter looking to make their first big sale:

1. "....actually, i don't really like television. i was at home reading Dickens."

CHARACTER DEFINITION LINE ALERT! Rewrite as:

"...I don't watch TV. Except for Iron Chef."

(to maintain sense of pussy-ness, while adding hip cross-network product placement)

2. "...we'll have a kissing contest later...."

TOO MUCH THINKING! Rewrite as:

CLOSE-UP on Lois as she bats her eyes fetchingly, and place the tip of a pen in her mouth, as she consider's Clark's champagne bottle.

(studio exec note: what's "fetchingly?" you're fired. )

3. "....you gotta kick ass if you wanna be a peacemaker..."

TOO MUCH IRONY! Rewrite as:

"Go kick ass, deputy. Lock and load. Keep your powder dry. Shoot to kill. Leave no man behind."

(replacing tone-bending whimsical note with hard-ass military aphorisms that the writer has heard from other movies)

4. "....see, you only smell strong...."

WTF? Rewrite as:

MEDIUM SHOT of large, fat, beer-swilling armwrestler wearing red trucker hat, because everyone know that fat people who are truckers are inherently funny (and smelly).

....and my point here is, "Superman II" is not exactly an art-house gabfest. Its modern obvious equivalent would be "Spider-Man II." But if you look at the clumsiness of the dialogue in "Spider-Man II," the basic lazy unwillingness to explore that is in deference to all the kick-ass visual effect sequences, cheap MTV montages, and super-contrived homilies ("you can't get on if you never got off..?") by which the film achieves its effect, you see that things really have changed over the past 20 years. For the worse.

The audiovisual art of film has advanced in that time, surely, perhaps because there are innovators, obsessed people, working on the technology to improve it. The art of writing for film has absolutely declined, perhaps because there are a lot more people sitting at home, watching TV for ideas on what to write about.

Comments

kristen said…
i liked some of the writing in spiderman II. it was hella better than the writing in spiderman I, anyway!

but i also like the writing in burton's Batman, and i'm not sure that you do. there could be fisticuffs over that one.

otherwise, i agree with you. the pop culture in-joke makes me want to barf.
dm said…
Batman is alright, but nothing special in my book. I'm sure that Joker stuff seemed funny on paper.
Did you really write, "hella better?" Spiderman II's script was not hella anything except hella insulting.
kristen said…
it's a matter of taste, i suppose. it may have still been insulting, but spiderman #1 was a lot worse, IMHO. all those snarky comments spiderman makes are inconsistent with Parker's character and take you right out of the action because they're so danged corny.
dm said…
ok, well, my differing opinion on that is that Spiderman is supposed to be snarky. He's sarcastic and clever in the comic book, and in the movie he was just sort of cheesy glib. he's peter parker's id, or anyway, he's supposed to be.
kristen said…
well, you're too tied to the comic. i've been told the same by others who read the comic - that his dialogue was lifted right from it. BUT... being loyal to your source material doesn't necessarily make a good film, and we all know comic book dialogue is notoriously BAD. (strong on story, weak on language.) it would be fine to make Spidey Peter's id, if it were done so in a believable fashion. As someone who never read the comics - I found those snarky remarks to be dumb and unconvincing. I would hope that Peter's id would behave in a manner more consistent with his personality. If he's repressed in certain areas of his life during the day, those areas should be unleashed when he puts on the costume. It's hard for me to believe that his id has a yearning burning desire to be a snarky co-host of "I Love the 80s".

I particularly hate the scene with his boss, where he says "C'mon kid, mommy and daddy are talking", or something to that effect. Terrible.