Wednesday 1 June 2016

Book Review: "Bambi vs. Godzilla"

I first encountered David Mamet years ago in his book Make-Believe Town. That contains a collection of reminiscences and essays which ramble across a range of subjects, some of them to do with the movie business. His application of Biblical principles to success at poker being, perhaps, the most surprising element. 
   Since then I have been catching up on Mamet's books, by way of a kind of drip-fed literary diet. The latest has been Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business
    In it Mamet references almost two hundred movies, of which I have seen less than half. If you want to know what the term "a broad education" refers to, read a Mamet book.
    In Bambi vs.Godzilla, Mamet addresses many aspects of the film business, with almost half of it given over to a series of observations about the practice of screenwriting. What follows is a short selection of quotes from that book, in no particular order.
  • Storytelling is like sex. We all do it naturally. Some of us are better at it than others. 
  • Screenwriting ... a plot reducible to five lines on one side of one sheet of paper. 
  • How does it go? Once upon a time, and then one day, and just when everything was going so well, when just at the last minute, and they all lived happily ever after.
  • The filmed drama is a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goalso that he is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants. 
  • To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:
    1. Who wants what from whom?
    2. What happens if they don't get it?
    3. Why now?
  • These magic questions and their worth are not known to any script reader, executive, or producer. They are known and used by few writers. They are, however, part of the unconscious and perpetual understanding of that group who will be judging you and by whose say-so your work will stand or fall: the audience.
As an American occupation, screenwriting has replaced knitting which it, in some ways, resembles; the rules for both are simple, and both involve sheep. Richard Weisz
  • A perfect movie: The Lady Eve, written and directed by Preston Sturges. ... We may reflect that its description contains none of what the ignorant refer to as "characterization," nor does it contain any of their beloved "backstory." 
  • It begins with a premise: the hero wants something.
  • He cannot just desire something. For the screenplay to be coherent and compelling, his desire must be awakened by a new circumstance. That circumstance is the film. 
  • (In The Lady Eve) Barbara Stanwyck meets the love of her life, Henry Fonda. The film starts because she meets him. The progress of the film is her progress toward the attainment of her goal. When she attains it (in the last ten seconds), the film, the story, is over.
  • The audience wanted to know what happened next. That is more or less the total art of the film dramatist: to make the audience want to know what is going to happen next. 
  • The garbage of exposition, backstory, narrative, and characterization spot-welds the reader into interest in what is happening now. It literally stops the show. 
Cinema, at its most effective, is one scene effectively  superseded by the next. Isn't that itGeorge Stevens
  • The entire practicable sentence was, of course, not "Cut to the chase" but "When in doubt, cut to the chase." Good thinking.
  • "Stay with the money." The audience came to see the star. The star is the hero; the drama consists solely in the quest of the hero.
  • "You start with a scalpel and you end with a chainsaw." Don't be too nice about cutting the film; throw away everything that's not the story.
  • "In the morning you're making Citizen Kane; after lunch you're making The Dukes of Hazzard." At some point you're going to start running out of time. Plan your time by sticking to the essential story. You're going to cut everything else anyway.
  • The various limitless seminars in filmmaking dotting our coasts and making increasingly making inroads upon the hinterland ... have little to do with the actual making of movies.
  • When you get a great script done with great actors, then you have a classic.
  • The Godfather, A Place in the Sun, Dodsworth, Galaxy Questthese are perfect films. They start with a simple premise and proceed, logically, and inevitably, toward a conclusion both surprising and inevitable.
A guy comes home from college to find his mother sleeping with his uncle, and there's a ghost running around. Write it good, it's Hamlet; write it bad, it's Gilligan's Island. Lorne Michaels
  • The rule, then, in filmmaking, as in storytelling, is "leave out the adjectives."
  • One really doesn't start to learn how to write a script until one has been on a set—on the set one learns the difference between what is filmable and what is merely pretty words. ("Outside the window, New York—in all its vicious splendor" is charming verbiage and all that, but, script-in-hand, on location, its director is going to be hard-pressed to learn from the script where to put the camera.)
  • Dramatic structure consists of the creation and deferment of hope. That's basically all it is. 
  • What keeps them apart? (Billy Wilder) The engine of a love story is not what attracts them—we know that: they're young and pretty. The work should go into the construction of the plausible opposition to their union. 
  • The language of the modern screenplay is like that of the personals column. The descriptions of the protagonist and the lovelorn aspirant are one: beautiful, smart, funny, likes long walks and dogs, affectionate, kind, honest, sexy. These descriptions, increasingly, are the content of the screenplay—replacing dialogue and camera angles, the only two aspects of a screenplay actually of use.
  • "Smash, bash, crash: the world becomes a steel cauldron of pain." "Yes," says the young script reader. "Yes. Hot stuff indeed. Boss? This is hot stuff. This person knows how to write action."
       "Loves hazy afternoons. This well-educated beauty finds loveliness all around her. Perhaps you do, too...?"

First posted: 20 August 2012

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