Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Blast From The Past 1 reviews of The Comic Toolbos and Which Lie Did I Tell?

In this feature I'll be posting articles and reviews I've written for Screentalk, the now-defunct magazine for screenwriters which began as an ezine and now has become the very excellent Moviescope magazine. Where necessary, they will be expanded and/or updated from the original version.

Today, a few book reviews to get us going:

Anyone who intends to pursue a career in writing comedy would do very well to check out John Vorhaus’ The Comic Toolbox : How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not ( 191 p., Silman-James Press, ). Within this tome the aspiring humourist will find tips and pointers on everything from thinking up silly names to developing a sitcom script.

Vorhaus adopts a very hands-on approach : no other manual I know has captured the flavour of being in a real-world workshop as well as this one. The exercises (of which there are MANY) are part of the text, and the author encourages his readers to do each and every one of them (even pretending to wait around while they’re working on the assignments). As such, anyone can be sure that after having worked through this book, their humour skills will have increased significantly.

The book starts off with a definition of what humour is (see the previous post), and then goes on to explore such topics as developing comic characters, developing comic premises and storylines, and explaining comedy tools which are a part of every pro’s repertoire. The wealth of information is astounding. Moreover, Vorhaus is really concerned about increasing the creativity of his audience, and to get everything off to a good start he offers some very effective ways of silencing the inner critic which so many writers struggle with.

Though it dates from 1994, this book has stood the test of time admirably. And Vorhaus is actually funny throughout the book, making it a delight to read and proving beyond any doubt he knows what he’s talking about. Highly recommended!

Which Lie Did I Tell, William Goldman's semi-sequel to Adventures In The Screen Trade, is a fairly unique hybrid of autobiography and screenwriting manual.
The book is divided in four parts : an overview of Goldman's career from 1980 onwards (when the phone stopped ringing for years), a detailed look at some of his favourite scenes ranging from Bergman to the Farrelly brothers, a section on what makes good cinematic stories and an original screenplay which he developed for the book and then sent out to his peers to critique.

Some of the material in the first section has been available before in the introduction of some of Goldman’s published screenplays for Applause Books, but it is still an interesting read. One does sense that he is more angered and embittered by the Hollywood game now than twenty years ago. In the second part Goldman presents his favourite scenes (excerpted in full) and then explains his reasons for liking them and giving some tips and pointers along the way on why these scenes work. However, the approach is not clinically analytical, but highly personal. The emphasis is not so much on the actual writing as on the emotional links Goldman has with the presented examples.

The third part of the book becomes more hands-on. Goldman offers four story ideas, mostly based on real events, and shares his thoughts on whether they would make good movies and what challenges an adaptation of this material would pose. Here the book becomes more inspiring and actively stimulates the imagination of the reader.

Finally, Goldman lets us peek over his shoulder as he writes a new script. Actually, he only develops it half-way through, but this is still a unique opportunity for the reader to experience the creative process of a world-famous professional.

Now, for some bizarre reason screenplays or treatments developed for screenwriting manuals are generally execrably bad. Amazingly, Goldman’s offering, The Big A (for adventure), is equally dismal. The story of a divorced private eye who trains his two horribly precocious kids (who just happen to be the world’s greatest sketch artist and actress, respectively) in surveillance techniques, is wildly implausible, uninvolving and weak in characterization. Don’t take my word for it - this is the conclusion that all of Goldman’s peers come to as well, and they include the Farrelly brothers, Scott Frank and Callie Khouri, among others. It has to be said that it’s quite brave and honest of Goldman to include these negative reviews of his work. In a way, this part of the book is very reassuring to novice writers : even the biggest names in the business can produce sub-standard work, and wrestle with the same problems as we lesser mortals. I would have preferred to witness the birth of a new masterpiece, though.

Which Lie Did I Tell is somewhat schizophrenic : it doesn’t seem to know whether it’s pitched primarily at a general audience or at screenwriting students and pros. This means that there is less meat to it than one could wish for, while a general reader might want the focus to be exclusively on Hollywood horror stories. Still, it does contain a fair amount of worthwhile information and illustrates how Hollywood changed in the last three decades. It is also very readable, although I must confess that near the end I began to tire of Goldman’s overly manipulative style. While I doubt it will achieve the legendary status of its predecessor, it is certainly interesting and entertaining.

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