I had this gripe about American movies before I began studying screenplays, and it’s only become more acute since then.
American films, even indies, push story, plot (which are not the same, btw), and character to an extreme that, for me, compromises my ability to truly enjoy the film.
I loved Little Miss Sunshine. But even that film seemed to ask itself, “what can happen now that will make the stakes the highest? How can we create more conflict? How can this character be more extreme? “.
I understand that scripts that do not have this self-awareness are usually rejected, and there are many films made that are boring because they lack such ambition.
But there needs to be a balance between entertainment and art.
One of the books I am reading cites a famous memo an American film producer sent to a major studio (his name, the company, and the exact quote escape me – I’ll look it up later at home and post it). The essence of the memo was, “American films are a mix of entertainment and art – with the emphasis on entertainment. European films are the opposite.”
I have a difficult time now watching films with this awareness. The best analogy I can make is to becoming aware of a laugh track during a sitcom. You don’t notice it, then one moment it hits you. You get distracted and start just listening to the canned laughter, thinking, “wow, this fake laughter is in there to manipulate how I feel.”
Imagine films were made with laugh tracks? You’d notice it right away, and you’d have a very difficult time enjoying the movie.
In much the same way, I’ve noticed the deliberate exaggeration of script elements and they’ve begun ruining my movie watching experiences.
OK, now on to some other gripes.
A few weeks ago I watched Sunset Boulevard. I decided to do so because all the screenplay books I am reading keep citing the film for its mastery of various techniques.
Now, I realize the film is very old, and maybe that will explain my issues with it.
First, the acting sucked. It is over-acted – it has the drame you’d expect from theatre actors. The characters speak like people would write. When they exude emotion, you feel like you are watching a scene from Romeo and Juliet.
And then there are scenes like this one:
At the end of the film, the police are asking Norma Desmond why she killed Joe Gills.
Norma is not even paying attention to them, as though she doesn’t notice they are there.
And the police proceed to fire off dozens of questions, one after the other, maybe one every two seconds. They don’t wait for a response, and each question changes topic.
Now, in reality, let’s imagine how that would go down…
“Ma’am – Where were you this morning at about 11:30 AM?”
Norma doesn’t respond.
“Ma’am, I am talking to you. If your intention is not to talk, we can involve your attorney. Would you like to have your attorney present while we ask you questions?”
Norma doesn’t respond.
“Ok, if you are exercising your right not to speak, then we will have to take you downtown and you can call your lawyer there…”
So I have both awareness and confliction over the exaggeration issue as I write my screenplay. I think the one thing I have going for me is that I am writing a film based on a true story that has the exaggeration built in, so I won’t feel like I am disingenuously stretching every aspect of a script for the sake of entertainment.