Monday, March 23, 2009

Book reviews

Some more books for your enlightenment and enjoyment!

THE 3RD ACT by Drew Yanno (Continuum, 2006)

This is the first screenwriting manual focusing exclusively on constructing the third act and creating of powerful endings. As problems in the third act usually have their origin in the first act, Yanno obviously spends some time going over theoretical basics; but for the most part, the book does exactly what it is supposed to.

Yanno provides a structural analysis of the third act, which he claims has never been done before. The steps he discusses are the setup of the final battle, the final battle itself, the outcome of the final battle and the denouement, with a bridge between the outcome and the denouement occasionally present as well. The discussion isn’t limited to this structural model, though. There are chapters on just what makes a good ending, and on the perceived necessity of a happy ending in Hollywood films (which prove to be less omnipresent than often thought).

Yanno shows his model in action by analyzing the third acts of several films (including Good Will Hunting, Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan and Casablanca). But he doesn’t stop there: in later chapters, he first examines some third acts which don’t really work, and then discusses some controversial endings such as can be found in Million Dollar Baby, Se7en and Lost In Translation.

Of course, screenplay analysis isn’t an exact science (I agree with Yanno that Minority Report’s ending doesn’t work, but for different though complementary reasons), but Yanno argues his case well, and his structural model for act 3 is an effective tool for shaping and maximizing the impact of any script’s final act.


If there is one negative aspect of the increased popularity of screenwriting manuals and gurus, it must be that they lead to a certain uniformity in the approach to writing, which tends to limit the possibility of innovation. Film professor J. J. Murphy confronts this situation by analyzing a number of independent films, to discover how they work while breaking the ‘rules’.

Films discussed range from Memento and Fargo to less popular fare such as Gummo and Safe. Murphy examines each film in detail and shows clearly how they use different narrative strategies to achieve their aims.

Sometimes the protagonist is made passive, cause-and-effect logic is replaced by dream logic or association, and non-linear narratives can achieve effects which are impossible in a linear story. Throughout the book, Murphy criticizes people like McKee and Linda Seger for their prescriptive approach to screenwriting.

Murphy’s analyses are generally clearly laid out and convincing, and he proves that there are many other effective approaches to cinematic storytelling. He fails to point out one comment element to all these films though – they were all written by their directors. The deviations from the norm are part and parcel of the overall approach to filmmaking, not merely a factor of the screenwriting process.

It’s almost impossible for a screenwriter to write an ‘experimental screenplay’ which will then get picked up by a producer and turned into a movie, simply because it’s so hard to get other people to respond to a non-traditional vision.
This is an important book on screenwriting, which makes several excellent points. But writer-directors will undoubtedly benefit the most from it.

SCREEN PLAYS: How 25 screenplays made it to a theatre near you for better or worse by David S. Cohen

David Cohen’s professional career as a screenwriter may have been short, but he will forever be part of that select band of fans who managed to get their foot into the door of the Star Trek franchise. In the excellent introduction to this book he recounts his bittersweet screenwriting experiences, which led him to become a full-time entertainment journalist.

The script bug has never completely left him, though, and in this book he examines how 25 screenplays, from mega-hits like Gladiator to complete obscurities like The Caveman’s Valentine, were written, sold, developed and made. The focus is completely on the screenwriters, and as is to be expected, several of the war stories are surreal.

For instance, screenwriter David Franzoni sold Gladiator off a pitch, stayed on during the entire process as a producer, but was replaced several times as a writer during the development period AND finally ended up writing the final draft anyway. Luckily, others have had happier experiences (David Hare’s work on adapting The Hours was especially rewarding).

And then there are cautionary tales as when a lot of talent comes together only to result in a resounding flop (Random Hearts) or how difficult it can be to get back in the business after you’ve been away for years – even when you were the most succesful screenwriter on the planet for several years (Shane Black’s return to filmmaking with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).

Covering a very wide range of writers and film genres, and written in a consistently entertaining style, Screen Plays is highly recommended reading. I have but one suggestion for Mr. Cohen: bring on the sequel, already!

INTERNATIONAL FILM GUIDE 2008: The Definitive Annual Review of World Cinema edited by Ian Haydn Smith

After a one-year hiatus, the International Film Guide is back, with a new editor and a new sponsor (Turner Classic Movies). And that’s very, very good news for film aficionados everywhere.

The Film Guide provides an overview of the entire global film production in the year 2007, but for once the ‘missing year’ (2006) is also covered, albeit briefly. An impressive number of knowledgeable experts on every major and most minor film-producing countries provide essays which the state of the film industry, notable successes and failures of the past year, important figures and eventual political developments.

Needless to say, the amount of information is staggering and anyone with the smallest interest in film will add dozens of titles to his or her ‘must see’-list. The selection of the experts is first rate as well – I was especially glad to see Tim Youngs, long-time web presence and film festival consultant, as the writer for the Hong Kong section.

The book opens with a few longer sections which focus on important contemporary directors (including Paul Greengrass, Susanne Bier and Guillermo del Toro), a specific country which gets looked at in detail (this year it’s Germany), the documentary and the DVD Market (singling out the most interesting cinephile releases of the past year). An In Memoriam essay pays homage to the most important filmmakers who passed away in 2007, and the book ends with a global box office list and information on international film festivals and markets.

The International Film Guide 2008 is a delight to browse and read. An indispensible addition to any film lover’s bookshelf.

1 comment:

bathmate said...

Very interesting posting. Thanks for the info. Keep it coming.