Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Who the Devil Made It? Writers vs. Directors
By Matthew Price. The Boston Globe, January 29, 2006

The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film Theory, by David KipenNext week, moviegoers will likely be buzzing over a best actor nomination for Joaquin Phoenix for his performance in “Walk the Line” and yet another best director nod for Steven Spielberg. But there probably won’t be too much water cooler chitchat over the nominations for best screenplay.

If screenwriting isn’t as obscure as, say, sound editing, the role of the screenwriter is peculiarly marginal. It’s hard to make a great movie without a great script, yet it’s always the director’s name that’s slapped onto the title. “Play it Again, Sam” features a screenplay by Woody Allen from a play by Woody Allen and stars Woody Allen, but it’s billed as “a Herbert Ross film.”

According to critic David Kipen, we’ve been brainwashed by a pernicious way of thinking about movies that favors the director over the writer. In his lively polemic “The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History” (Melville House), out next week, Kipen shines the spotlight on the screenwriter and takes aim at “auteurism,” the influential theory of moviemaking that emphasizes the singular vision of the director in making a great film. Derived from the French word for “author,” the “auteur theory” claims that although moviemaking is a complex collaboration of producers, actors, writers, and a small army of technical specialists, it’s the director who is the true “author” of a film.

Nonsense, says Kipen. “We’re seeing the consequences of an irrational and disproportionate emphasis on directing at the expense of screenwriting,” he said recently. To redress the imbalance, Kipen proposes a “screenwriter-centered way of thinking about film”-the “Schreiber” of his title is Yiddish for writer-in the hope that he might “explode the director-centric farrago of good intentions, bad faith, and tortured logic that goes by the name of auteurism.” In the process, Kipen hopes that we’ll become more enlightened filmgoers, and that moviemaking itself might improve if we all become better Schreiberists.

Like many other fancy cultural theories, auteurism is a French import. In the early 1950s, a group of young intellectual cineastes-Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rhomer, and François Truffaut-formulated a “politique des auteurs” on the pages of the film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Tired of the middlebrow literary adaptations and bloated costume dramas of mainstream French cinema, and in search of a more authentic brand of filmmaking, they turned to an unexpected place: the dream factories of Hollywood.

Dubbed the “hitchcocko-hawksiens” for their love of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, the Cahiers critics championed films that were commonly dismissed as vulgar entertainments-Westerns, film noir-and their enthusiasms could shade into hysteria. Truffaut had this advice for anyone who didn’t like Hawks or another auteurist favorite, Nicholas Ray: “Stop going to the cinema, don’t watch any more films, for you will never know the meaning of inspiration, of a view finder, of poetic intuition, a frame, a shot, an idea, a good film, the cinema.”

As film historian David Thomson, author of “A Biographical Dictionary of Film,” points out, Truffaut and Co. “hero-worshiped the idea of the film director because they wanted to be film directors.” (Indeed, they went on to form the core of the French New Wave.) But the auteurists also succeeded in casting the director as the artist behind cinematic art. Before, the director was seen as someone standing around doing the bidding of others, a cog in the studio machine. (Asked once about a 1939 film version of the famous Bronte novel, legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn bellowed “I made ‘Wuthering Heights,’ William Wyler merely directed it.”) Thanks to the Cahiers crew, the director came to be considered a genuine creator.

Nowadays, Kipen argues, auteur theory is curdled conventional wisdom, and it has deformed the way we watch the movies. “For too long, scholars, journalists, and films buffs have parroted the auteurist party line,” he charges, “all at the expense of those poor, obscure hacks who only wrote the damn pictures.”

Kipen thinks we should look-and listen-closely for the stylistic signatures of a writer’s body of work. To the objection that film is a visual medium, Kipen points to the verbal pyrotechnics of the Hepburn and Tracy era, when writers like Ben Hecht were banging out great script after great script. “American screenwriters,” notes Kipen, gave movies “a style that valued word above image, verbal swagger over visual sweep.”

But Schreiberism isn’t just a guide to a bygone era of filmmaking; it’s relevant to just about any decade, Kipen argues. Take the ’70s, when directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola stormed the scene: Why not lavish some attention on Robert Getchell, who wrote Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”?

But what about a film like Orson Welles’s classic “Citizen Kane”? What happens, a la Kipen, when you put the writer back in the picture? Welles wanted to make a movie unlike any that had been made before, but according to Thomson, “he ran into a creative brick wall.” It wasn’t until he met a writer named Herman Mankiewicz, who had spent most of the ’30s toiling away on fluff like “Girl Crazy,” that “Kane” came together. Mankiewicz wrote a script that allowed Welles to inhabit the life of William Randolph Hearst; the rest is film history.

“Mankiewicz was absolutely essential to the structure, the tone, and the texture of ‘Kane,”’ says Thomson. “I do not think we would have the film we have without Herman Mankiewicz.”

But J. Hoberman, film critic of The Village Voice, endorses the notion of Welles as auteur: “At the very least, Welles created the opportunity for Mankiewicz to write a script of a lifetime. In terms of their importance in film culture-in American culture-you can’t compare them.” In this view, Mankiewicz’s “Kane” could be seen as a freakish one-off; indeed, very little in his scriptography suggested that such brilliance was lurking, and he enjoyed marginal success afterwards.

Andrew Sarris, the film critic credited with importing auteurist theory to the states, likes to point to a control in the experiment: A director can make a great film even out of a bad script. Sarris says that Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause” shows how a director can triumph over bad screenwriting. “It’s all this tired social worker rhetoric and all these cliches about the family,” he says of Stewart Stern’s script, “but then you look at the film, and it’s fantastic; it has all these other elements to it. There is a tremendous emotional force in Ray’s direction.”

Even if we wanted to become better Schreiberists, there are many obstacles in our path. Writing credits rarely reflect who did what on a film, and ghostwriting has been a Hollywood phenomenon since the Golden Age. Take “Gone With the Wind”: Ben Hecht rewrote the first nine reels of this sprawling epic, but producer David O. Selznick gave sole credit to Sidney Howard. Kipen urges the Writers Guild of America to reform its credit attribution protocols and do a better job of promoting its members by holding retrospectives “devoted to the work of individual screenwriters.”

One deserving writer is Robert Towne, whose legendary script for the 1974 film “Chinatown” is a staple of screenwriting classes. Indeed, a Towne retrospective would offer a vital map of the movies of the ’70s era, while also highlighting the problem of attribution. Towne is one of Hollywood’s ghostwriters extraordinaire: As an uncredited writer, he’s had a hand in some of the best known movies of the last 40 years, among them “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Godfather,” “The Parallax View,” and “Heaven Can Wait.”

Will any of this make us more savvy filmgoers? Kipen thinks it will. “We’ll have a better idea of whom to thank for the movies we already love,” he says. But does it make sense to elevate the writer above the director, as Kipen suggests? Hoberman contends that “to fight against auteurism is a kind of a rear guard action; we’re all auteurists now. There are more things that a director can do than a writer in the process to shape a film.”

Even some writers aren’t sure whether they want all the credit Kipen would give them. Towne says of “Chinatown,” which was directed by Roman Polanski, “There was something in the script that never would have been realized or emphasized in the way that it should have been had it been anybody but Roman.” And he says sometimes it’s neither the writer nor the director who authors a movie. “On any given movie, it’s the strongest voices,” says Towne. “Jerry Bruckheimer is the auteur of Jerry’s movies.”

Kipen despairs that good screenwriting is as marginalized as ever. In his new movie, “Bubble,” Steven Soderbergh worked from an outline by his screenwriter and had amateur actors improvise their dialogue. Still, Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) is one writer who is forging his own Schreiberist vision these days. Kaufman’s innovative, if exasperatingly clever, screenplays have given him name recognition rare for a film scribe. Perhaps it’s fitting that one of them, “Adaptation,” is about the struggles of an angst-ridden screenwriter.

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