Thursday, March 29, 2007

American Beauty

Submitted by Juliane Cartaino as part of our Screenwriting Blog-A-Thon:

"If you want to learn how to write, you have to read". So goes the hackneyed adage so oft invoked to inspire aspiring fiction writers. I assumed the same holds true of aspiring screenwriters such as myself, and as such embarked on a quest for an appropriate screenplay to peruse. So, having never read (nor written)a screenplay before, imagine my delight to realize that masses of screenplays are, at my discretion and leisure, available on the Internet(thank you, mysterymanonfilm, for the many useful resources to script websites).This brave new world is like a mental candy store to any self-respecting cinephile. What's next, cellular phones?

As you can probably surmise, I am as new to computer and internet technology as I am to screenplays, but even being a techno newbie and a script virgin, I nevertheless managed to find several to pick, read, and analyze.

I imagine the challenge of reading an unproduced script and assessing it for its possible theatrical adaptation would be that certain je ne se quois ability to visualize the finished product. In this."assignment", the process is reversed: the script is read but assuming a corresponding movie has already been produced and assuming the dear reader is relatively familiar with said film, the images that correspond with the exposition, the tonality of the actors' voices, the cadence and inflection of their speech...these and other aspect's of the script's theatrical production have already been cemented in the reader's memory. It's like reading a recipe for something instead of eating it. At the same time, reading a script to a previously viewed movie is a trigger for so many repressed memories of the original viewing experience that-depending on how much time has elapsed-it's like taking out that box from the back of your closet, and having no idea what was in it even though you packed it yourself, yet opening it to discover mementos from your childhood that make you feel like no time has passed at all.

Such was my experience with the first screenplay I read in its entirety, just tonight, which was American Beauty. Having seen the film many times before, I figured it would be familiar. I bought my first VCR about six years ago (Remenber what I said about being technologically behind the times?) Anyway, you can't very well purchase a VCR without a tape to go with it and that was the one I picked. I couldn't really afford to buy any other tapes for a bit, so for several months I just played it in a loop since I didn't have cable either. Anyway, bits of dialogue from the film would kind of hypnotically permeate my daily routine. For example, whenever Annette Bening's character, Carolyn, would ambitiously proclaim the mantra-like, "I will sell this house today," and then go about ferociously cleaning, it would inspire me to scrub the countertops in my own house that much more thoroughly. This movie was like one of those decorative fireplace logs that never goes out, not some piece of plastic you have to take back to Blockbuster by five o clock.

My point is that after that many repeated viewings you would think that it would be so familiar that it would be old hat. In fact, quite the contrary. I don't know if it was the amount of time it's been since I've seen the film, or the change in and/or novelty of the medium but I read it with the kind of can't-put-it-down-hide-under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight avid interest usually reserved for cliffhanger novels. They say that you don't always notice good acting, but you certainly notice it when it's bad. The same must be true of scripts. Before I settled on American Beauty I tried to read other scripts for movies I had seen but I found the exposition and other technical aspects of the formatting so distracting that it was impossible to forget that you were reading a script. Whereas,a script in which the story and dialogue stand alone so well, it is easy to suspend disbelief and find yourself immersed in it. That is a thing of beauty indeed.

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