Call this blog, More Has To Happen - or if you must, call it Charlie Bowe’s blog, since I’ll be writing many of the posts. It is about screenwriting, cinema, media, related arts in the New York area, and a little about history and politics.
It’s for people who find movie ticket stubs in their jacket pockets with their coins and their lint, and their expired metro cards.
It arose from my years of providing coverage for other people’s screenplays, and reading my friends’ stories just for the hell of it. I can sling the jargon or lay down an opinion in plain English as need be, but the essence of my advice is almost always the same: More has to happen.
It’s not just that the sample of writers I know personally are skewed toward an “independent film” sensibility that sometimes results in deadly slow stories – although it probably is. And it’s not just that I find it tedious when asked to enjoy a “character study” in which I learn about a protagonist, or what happened in his or her past, while he or she does close to zilch in the present – although I do!
It’s that the eye of a camera, or the words of a capable narrator, can tell us a rapturous story about almost anything, as long as something is at stake for someone we care about, and as long as the right details are selected for the telling…if we get the details right, and use them to tell the story.
But why have I laid out such a hopelessly broad swath of content on the path before us? (I mean, come on, “history”?) Why not reduce it to a more reasonable scope by focussing on one thing such as, say, screenwriting, or feature films? Because the context of cinema has always been essential to understanding it, and that context today is one of diminished expectations, if not survival in the face of oblivion.
To write about cinema is necessarily an act of nostalgia. Cinematic conventions were all established during its highly commercialized formative years, but cinema can’t shake those conventions even though it’s well into its late period as narrative art form, one that stays afloat on the tenuous business model of online streaming, or on plain old rich people’s largesse, while catering to a niche market the way theater and modern dance do.
I often say that writing a screenplay is more like writing a Baroque cantata than a Romantic symphony. Old Germans such as Bach and Telemann wrote staggering amounts of work that to my untrained ear often sound more or less the same. They were writing for an audience, like a cinema audience, that expected things to arrive in a certain order, and to arrive on time. A few hundred years later, the kids such as Beethoven and Brahms wrote fewer works, but much more adventurous and self-expressive ones, writing for an audience that was willing to follow the writer to higher and stranger mountaintops, and that demanded to be surprised or gratified for doing so.
Without question, some filmmakers have aimed high, like the Romantics, and made superb films that surprise at every turn, and turn us on to new experiences. This kind of story-telling can be sublime but is more often maddening, or just a bore. Cinema is at its best when it follows the Baroques, when it assumes that its audience has arrived with specific expectations and then gives ‘em what they want.
Of course, we can’t keep re-writing Chinatown or Sex, Lies, and Videotape, so we dress it up – we make people think that one thing is coming, then deliver another – but that is what’s called writing. To practice screenwriting as a craft is to weight cinema toward this kind of film. Ultimately a good screenwriter gives the audience what he or she prepared it to want, even when it didn’t realize it was being played all along. Which is not to say we hold the viewers in contempt. On the contrary, that is what they asked for when they clicked “Download Now,” or pressed “Play,” or in the best of worlds, as an act of selfless love of cinema, when they bought a movie ticket and sat down.
So, let’s talk about films, and how to tell good stories, and when necessary, which is much of the time, let’s remember that we’re at a unique time in the history of this sensational art form. The heroic story of cinema itself may well be in its third act, but I’m not ready for it to end yet. More has to happen.