Thursday, November 17, 2005

Everyone's a critic. I'd prefer it if everyone were The Critic

We've all read movie reviews where the critic says something or other about the screenplay. On the surface, this seems kind of unfair, seeing as how they haven't read the screenplay and they had no idea what it said. It's an absolute truism that a great screenplay can easily be made into a terrible movie -- perfect structure, dialogue, and characterization can be undone by poor casting choices, poor editing choices, or any number of other things.

On the other hand, it's impossible1 to make a great movie out of a terrible screenplay. If the dialogue, story, and characterization are bad to begin with, there's nothing you can do in the production process to make them good. Aside from, you know, changing them.

So who should get the credit or (when due) the demerits for a film's screenplay? Imagine a review for Oscar Bait II: Jerked Tears. The critic says that the director was "saddled with a clunky script." The director, who made last year's Oscar-winning Oscar Bait (and several other decent-to-good movies), is obviously talented; therefore the fault must lie in the script.

Well, no. A movie is built from a screenplay, but there are ninety thousand choices in it that are not in the screenplay. And the sum of these can sink a film, no matter how good the screenplay was. Miscasting, misdirecting, whatever. So it seems unfair for a critic to criticize the screenplay of a film based on viewing the film it was made into.

But what if a movie is great? Great movies always2 have, at root, a great screenplay. So if the movie was good, it would be accurate for the critic to say that it was made from, e.g., "an excellent, witty script."

Except by this logic, a screenwriter can never be excoriated in a review because there's no way to know whether the bad movie is the fault of the screenwriter; but a screenwriter can get praise for having written the great script that this great movie was made from. I should be so lucky as to be on the receiving end of this "problem," but it still strikes me as irrational that this should be the state of things.

What if by criticizing the screenplay in so many words, a critic really just means to criticize the structure, dialogue, or characterization? Since that's what screenplays contain, it seems fairer if that's what the critics mean. Except there's still a difference between criticizing the actual screenplay that existed at the beginning of production, and criticizing the structure, dialogue, and characterization (SDC) that were present in the movie.

There are untold countless tales of great screenplays being purchased, mangled in the development process, and then made into mediocre films, despite the screenwriter's best efforts to preserve the screenplay's quality. (The argument can be made that the screenwriter agreed to suffer this indignity by participating in Hollywood, but it is not fair, in any sense, for a critic to specifically blame the screenwriter for a movie's shortcomings, when there was nothing the writer could have done.) Fewer, but no less important, are the great screenplays that remained intact until preproduction began, and then suffered the filmic equivalent of a career-ending knee injury while in production.

So the "rational" thing is for critics to render their opinions of the SDC that are actually present in the film, in so many words. Don't even mention the screenplay, because you haven't read it, and referencing it is meaningless. Making everything worse is the fact that the credited screenwriter may not actually have been materially responsible for the production script, so even if you had read it, you may well be crediting the wrong person by mentioning them. (Again, the argument can then be made that screenwriters willingly subject themselves to being mis-credited merely by participating in Hollywood, but it is not just by any stretch of the imagination.) Even if the writer is always correctly credited, the fact remains that the critic still hasn't read the screenplay.

But rationality hardly applies to Hollywood, fame, and anything that touches them. Film critics are ostensibly providing a service: Telling their readers whether a movie is worth spending the time and money to see. Some publications and their critics aspire to more highbrow analyses of a film's worth, rather than simply analyzing whether or not it passes the magic point at which it flips from being not worth seeing to being worth seeing. To a degree, movie reviews are themselves content.

The upshot? I don't know, I'm not drawing any conclusions here, just going through the arguments. Should something be done about this? Probably. What? No clue.

1 Yes, even for a computer. (+1 point if you got the joke.)
2 Not always.