Film & TV: September 2006 Archives

Theme

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It's been a little while since I wrote about screenplay theory...

Over at The Artful Writer, Craig Mazin has posted an interesting bit of theory on the relationship between theme and plot structure.

Craig sees theme as:

A proposed argument, e.g. "There's no place like home," "It is better to love and lose than never to have loved at all," "The unexamined life is not worth living." In this sense, "theme" could actually be referred to as "The Answer."

Like most mainstream American screenwriters, Craig's definition of "theme" coincides with the one that Lajos Egri laid down in The Art of Dramatic Writing. (Egri calls it "premise," but "theme" seems a more common way of describing it.) I don't know if Craig has read Egri, but certainly many writers have. When I was at USC grad school, I was advised that Egri was the granddaddy of script theorists.

What's interesting to me is that, as a viewer of film, I've always gotten the impression that European films (and, perhaps, American indie films) define theme differently. In the American mainstream, theme is a sentence. In Europe, it seems to be a phrase, or even a noun. "There's no place like home" is an American-style theme. A European-style one might be "the human longing for home," or even simply "home."

As I said, this was my impression for a long time as a viewer. It was confirmed recently when I sat down with one of my favorite European directors for a script I'm writing for him. He decided early on that the theme of the book I'm adapting is "escape." An American director might have looked at the same book and concluded the theme was, say, "You cannot escape your nature."

(As with any blanket Americans-are-like-this-but-Europeans-are-like-that statement, I'm generalizing greatly, and there are numerous exceptions. Indeed, Egri himself--the found of the theme-as-sentence school--was Hungarian-born. )

Done well, there's nothing wrong with either approach. It's only when it's done badly that the differences really start to emerge. I find badly written American film to be too pat and too obvious.I find badly written European film to be maddeningly unclear or evasive. I enjoy the best-written films of all sorts... But because I personally prefer films that err on the side of ambiguity, I like the European approach a bit more. Obviously, it's a matter of taste.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kurtz

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An actual, untouched scan from the TV listings in last week's Time Out: London:

Yes, that certainly would be the high point of the series...

Backstage at the Emmys, 2006

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When my friends Rob and Sheryl went to the Emmys in 2004 and 2005, I posted their star-studded backstage roundups here at Yankee Fog. But their 2006 writeup is so Emmytastic, it requires its very own website. Go there, and be shocked by the decadent tales of backstage Hollywood, where the water flows like champagne and the martinis cost eleven bucks.