Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Filming Impotence: Hollywood's attempts to dramatize writer's block

As I sit in my room, staring blankly at walls, scratching my head, and occasionally making use of my chair's swivel function, attempting to distill marketable content from the swill of ideas in my mind, I have arrived at one irrefutable conclusion. It is impossible to honestly film the "creative process" of writing without boring an audience to tears.

This isn't to say that successful methods have not been found: Film, like life, will find a way to market everything. The key point here is realism. Take a moment to reflect on your movie-going career. Most films about writers spend little to no time focusing on the writing process. The reason is simple: audiences might enjoy watching Will Shakespeare woo the well-to-do society girl masquerading as a player, but they are not interested in watching him try ten different variations of "A rose, by any other name...", pause to eat the Shakespearean equivalent of a microwavable burrito, and then try ten more.

Pictured: Shakespeare decides between red and green chili.

To eradicate this problem, film has adopted the Truffaut method. Francois Truffaut, a famous french filmmaker, once said that he demanded that movies "express the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between." Movies about writing express either the joy or the agony of writing. Here to help us today are two case studies: Adaptation and Shakespeare in Love.

Poor Charlie Kaufman. If anything in Adaptation is to be taken literally, it must be the battle royale between Kaufman's ideas and The Orchid Thief. Here is a fantastic example of the creative process at its worst. Kaufman sits in his room for hours, trapped in a mental breakdown, writing the same sentence over and over, and, in what must have been the highlight of his day, masturbating to the dust jacket of the book he tries to adapt. As a sometime writer, I can say with sometime confidence that Adaptation represents the nadir of the creative experience. Rarely is one moved to tears by a case of writer's block; almost as rarely as achieving sexual gratification from the idea of finishing a paragraph. The extremes, however, are what makes the scene work. Kaufman's frustration and anger are so palpable they leak off the screen.

Joy, it would seem, is more difficult to convey. To do so, most filmmakers revert to Hollywood's oldest, favorite trick: the inspirational montage. If Sylvester Stallone can become a proficient athlete in the time it takes to play "Eye of the Tiger," then Shakespeare can surely crank out a few acts of Romeo and Juliet, if provided with upbeat string music. Shakespeare in Love does exactly that. And somehow, inexplicably, it works. The montage as a dramatic tool has become so ingrained into our collective consciousness that it's nigh-impossible to do anything but smile and hum along. It worked for Shakespeare.

As for the "in between?" When a writer lacks 80s rock anthems to speed their process, but isn't crying quietly in the corner? I have no use for it.

Even if it's where I find myself.


Do you have any use for the in-between? Is it possible to convey apathy, or is it necessary to stick to the extremes? Educate me.


  1. I think Hamlet 2 had a great writers' block sequence, at least from the point of view of a chronic sufferer of the affliction. It pretty much takes the reality, the 'in-between', and films it. Not good for drama, though, I guess. At least in my experience, writers' block is the absence of drama.

  2. I heartily concur with your last sentence, and therein lies the problem, from a film perspective. Hamlet 2 is a really good example, though. Man, I had completely forgotten that bit, but it fits very well. Thanks for pointing that out!

  3. I would say that most of life occurs in the "in between" but it is the extremes that we remember most vividly. The in between may be more realistic, but it's the extremes that we all like to read about or see in movies.

  4. Exactly, and that's the problem. Nobody pays $9.00 to see something they see every day--heightened drama is what sells.