Yesterday The foreign-language Oscar committee released the first nine nominees that compose the shortlist which will be whittled down to five nominees on February 2.
The nine nominees are these ones here: El Secreto de Sus Ojos by Juan Jose Campanella (Argentina), Samson & Delilah by Warwick Thornton (Australia), The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner by Stephan Komandarev (Bulgaria), Un Prophete by Jacques Audiard (France), The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke (Germany), Ajami by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (Israel), Kelin by Ermek Tursunov (Kazakhstan), Winter in Wartime by Martin Koolhoven (Holland) and The Milk of Sorrow by Claudia Llosa (Peru).
Europe is well represented by The White Ribbon, a German film that gained the Palm d’or at last year’s Cannes film festival and by Un Prophet by Jacques Audiard. Unfortunately the Italian-Sicilian drama Baaria by Giuseppe Tornatore, didn’t make it for the foreign film academy award. Same thing for Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere about the secret life of Benito Mussolini.
Italy as a foreign country doesn’t make it to the Oscar shortlist since 2005 with Cristina Comencini’s Don’t tell that didn’t get the award anyway. The question today and tomorrow is always the same: what happened to the country that more than any other foreign nation contributed to the history of film in terms of originality and universal appeal? The last italian movie to win the foreign film academy award was Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, back in 1998. That’s 12 years ago. I dont’ want to come out as too much pretentious but being an insider of the italian situation, (not by choice) I know the real and exact extent of this matter. Let me first premise I really hate to use the word “I” while writing a story but here it’s absolutely necessary as I am reporting facts involving myself and my direct experience on the field. Get load of this: the holy truth is Italy doesn’t have screenwriters anymore because Italians hate screenwriters. Italy just has directors who think and believe they are direct descendants of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello and Federico Fellini. Indeed this is the main structural difference between not only Italian cinema and American Cinema but also between European Cinema and Hollywood: the fact that Europe has historically considered cinema as the seventh art while Hollywood has always considered movies as entertainment industry. Nothing new under the sun but this is the necessary premise.
Indeed in Italy cinema works basically like this: a director picks up a story and roll it up to the screen. That’s it. Very romantic, but… sorry it doesn’t work like that buddy!! Back in 1995 after I had realized there was something different between American movies and European ones…(It was not a matter of anything special, it just…American movies… I mean Hollywood movies were just f.. er…much…way way better), I decided to dig in depth to find out what this difference relied on. Nothing less: I entered a PhD and chose a research project on Hollywood film narratives. I went to Hollywood and I met screenwriters and producers and they addressed me to the main Hollywood screenwriting theories. Then I went to Stanford and worked as researcher there, spending enormous sums and energies to hit the spot of this matter and get it to the very heart of it.
Finally I had my first enlightenment: I discovered Hollywood films were all based on a certain undefined unspecified narrative structure….. I knew there was something going on underneath. I just didn’t know what it was but I knew… there was something hidden from plain sight…. Then I found out there was a real NARRATIVE FORMULA. Although even if tomorrow morning you walk to the Coffee Bean on Sunset and stealthy go talk to any Hoollywood screenwriter, none of them would tell you a real formula exists, nor he would tell you these Hollywood film theorists have been ever listed in film credits. Hihihi.
But no secret can be hidden forever said Abram Lincoln. Indeed I found out that especially famous screenwriters they really have hard times admitting they attended screenwriting seminars held by major Hollywood theorists such as: Robert McKee, John Truby, Lew Hunter, Linda Seger, Chris Vogler, Syd Field etc….why? Although, very strangely on Robert McKee’s website home page and book cover there are a number of citations.These citations they all regard his former students.
Go to Robert McKee website. On the home page you can read it in capital letters.
There we go: “Robert McKee’s Former Students Have Written or Co-Written:UP,Angels & Demons,WALL•E Lord of the Rings I, II, III, A Beautiful Mind, Desperate Housewives, CSI, Law & Order, Grey’s Anatomy, The DaVinci Code, Million Dollar Baby, Ratatouille, Iron Man, Bobby, Cars, Shrek, So You Think You Can Dance, Quantum of Solace and Many Others.”
Same thing on John Truby’s website: Larry Wilson, co-writer of Beetlejuice and The Addams Family states: “I think of all of them Truby’s the best… his stuff cuts the deepest, and allows you to develop the most detailed structure and outline of any of the teaching methods.”
The most common objection screenwriters raise against Hollywood theorists such as Truby or McKee is “they did not write anything that went on screen”. In particular McKee has been criticized by Joe Eszterhas, for being someone who teaches screenwriting without ever having a script of his made into a film. McKee has responded to such criticisms, saying, “The world is full of people who teach things they themselves cannot do”, while admitting that even though he sold all of his written screenplays, he still lacks their screen credit since they were only optioned and not produced by the studios. McKee is listed, however, as the screenwriter of the movie Abraham. (1994) J’accuse Citizen Kane (1991) Double Dare (1 episode, 1985) and a 1979 tv series named Mrs. Colombo. Would you like to talk about the movie Adaptation? Mckee almost plays the leading role…..certainly he’s portrayed as a Hollywood symbolic figure, he represents the screenwriter’s lighthouse, his mentor. I personally think that movie is Hollywood official tribute, a real unexpected hommage to a man who in my modest opinion besides being a genius gave Hollywood the strenght and the power to keep up as the cornerstone of world cinema.
Although if movie credits is the criticism basis from which they move, I would pick up Lew Hunter, Emeritus at UCLA TFT, that is “the temple” of Hollywood screenwriting students. Let’s admit please that Lew is the knowledge source of Hollywood most successful screenwriters. Hollywood screenwriters of the past twenty years they mostly come from TFT and specifically from his course.
Lew Hunter, with whom I had the privilege of working with at his Screenwriting colony cannot be the target of the same criticism McKee and Truby have been receiving, as he’s an award winning screenwriter and his screenwriting course is almost legendary: the world famous 434. Indeed Lew Hunter’s course and his bestselling books are named with the number 434 after the UCLA course he used to teach at.
With Lew Hunter we enter the gotha of Hollywood formula, his books and courses have extraordinary testimonials: from Steven Bochco to Francis Ford Coppola to Jane Campion. You still claiming a Hollywood narrative formula does not exist as such? Well I don’t think you can raise any more objection about it. Indeed a Hollywood formula does exist and it is very very complex and very sophisticated. Otherwise Hollywood movies were just as bad as those from Italy. I am not saying the Hollywood formula entirely relies on these above mentioned authors, but they certainly are the basis of it. Then there’s the sancta sanctorum and the secret Hollywood circles that helped to enrich the formula with new tricks.
After I discovered all this and started to hang out in Hollywood, I went to some not-that-fancy parties on the hills and got completely stunned when I was listening to all these super famous writers talking of characters unconscious needs, narrative levels, story arches and number of pages. At these parties I heard questions such as “hey you, what’s your character’s problem?” or “What’s your page 33 like?””What you got at page 7?” At the beginning I thought these people were all crazy, then after I got much deeper into screenwriting, I understood these people were real genius and they spoke of a secret formula, of its rules and tricks.
Because even if we re talking of a formula here, you still have to engineer a work that requires a real craftmanship. Today I am no more a Hollywood insider but I would pay to have the chance of crashing at any of these parties, just let me know where they are. Indeed these parties are the modern literary salons of the nineteen-hundred century. In Hollywood I learned how the subtext works in film dialogues, people reading Jacques Lacan to make up subtext at the deepest and most powerful level. Average people think screenwriting it’s just you got an idea and you sit down and write. Yeah. That’s it baby. Right on the spot.
I heard and learned screenwriters tricks you would never imagine. You can have just a little idea of what I am talking about if you know or go watch the famous Quentin Tarantino monologue, from Sleep with me (1995). This monologue that sounds like a giant joke on homosexuality, it’s indeed a screenwriting lesson on psychological subversion in Hollywood screenwriting. It tells you exactly how things work when you re deep into this matter. Indeed Tarantino’s monologue it’s just a very narcisistic claim to mean “I know how does it work and I want to teach you something”
Indeed in Hollywood there exist a sort of Sancta sanctorum of Screenwriters but it’s absolutely secret and no outsider is allowed to get inside. It’s like the mafia in a sort of way: where writers secretely exchange notes and tricks by whispering on their colleagues ears at very secret house parties and if you re not in you won’t ever ever know.
Just Amazing. Well what’s the matter between this and the holocaust of Italian cinema? Absolutely nothing. That’s why I am reporting here this story, just to let you know that first of all in Italy you don’t have real screenwriters because screenwriting is seen as something that denies access to artistic filmmaking. In Italy (and this come from my direct experience) you have directors who obviously manage screenplays too but as a sort of obstacle they found between them and the movie. That’s it. Last year I went talking with one of the most important producers in Italy and we were talking about film productions and how do they make up decisions. He told me “well you know in order a movie to be produced here, one chance is you have to make an international story…”An international story? what the hell is that? I went backwards with my mind reviewing all of my screenwriting knowledge: maybe it’s that Lajos Egri pamphlet I didn’t read?..mmmh no, maybe it’s Linda Seger, but…nada… I couldn’t find any possible match that could even get close to “an international structure”. It’s maybe something from the Hollywood sancta sanctorum? Maybe. I swear the god, this guy told me “you need an international story”. This gives you the extent of the real problem. And my thoughts went to that exceptional misunderstood figure that made the recent Hollywood history who was never considered nor celebrated enough in my opinion: Donald Clarence Simpson. He was a producer who mastered structure. No international stories, he actually used to say:”well first of all, in the morning right after breakfast I like to abuse a screenwriter” Don Simpson knew the narrative formula very well, he used to perfectly address screenwriters in developing structure, he was a real talented screenwriter who worked as producer. And that’s another difference with Italy (and Europe in general): Italian producers don’t know what screenwriting is. Too bad. Somebody may object: “how does it come that Italy used to make great movies back in the 50’s and the 60s’did they know any formula? Yes they did. They did buddy. It was a completely different era then, De Sica knew Aristotle three act structure that is basically what Lew Hunter teaches today on his 434, Fellini studied Gustav Jung and Joseph Campbell, do I have to go on?
Everybody knows it’s much easier to forget something than to learn it.
I am very sorry about the Holocaust of Italian cinema, but this is completely true, once you loose the screenwriting theory you re more than lost baby. Last year when the movie Baaria went out I wrote a review on these pages, that you can verify by reading it because it’s still On-line. In this review I specifically wrote: 1) “Giuseppe Tornatore’s movie is definitely not a Hollywood high concept movie”2) “the protagonist does not have an explicit and specific goal as it happens with commercial movies”, 3) “neither there is an unconscious narrative level”. Unfortunately these few forecasting lines just demonstrates that if your foreign film does not fit into the Hollywood formula, or let’s say better, if it’s not “readable” under the classical Greek structure, it’s very hard you can make it at the Oscar or at any other American contest.
The problem is here we re not talking just of Baaria which is also the first “italian blockbuster”. Here we re talking about the entire Italian film production that is completely unaware of what a complex narrative structure is made of. They don’t know what structure, character development, subtext or unconscious narrative level is.
In order to supply some help for my home country I have published a book in Italian last year: “High Concept, marketing and narratives in hollywood movies” that is a sort of introduction to the classical Hollywood screenwriting formula. The book was sold out right away obviously but I think the publisher made no more than a thousand copies but maybe I am exaggerating on the numbers of copies actually printed…..Anyway, last year in July I gave one copy to Giuseppe Tornatore and to the major italian producers and directors, who looked at it and at me as I was giving them a harp plectrum or just any other book on cinema. Still at today I really doubt it they even opened it… This is an international story people!!!No kidding!!!
This is actually a big giant problem, that won’t be solved tomorrow. Instead of considering it the real basis of filmmaking, Italian directors see the screenplay as a real obstacle between themselves and their movie. And you can’t go talking to them trying to explain how does it work in Hollywood. They would look at you as you come from Pandora so you just want to cut it off.
That’s why Italian movies won’t be awarded of any international prize until this situation will change. I hope this holocaust will end and we ll be back with Italian cinema but you have to consider what Marcellus Wallace said to Butch: “you might feel a slight sting…..that’s pride….f**** with ya”. Italian cinema is Butch and you know how Butch is going to deal with that slight sting….”
Americans don’t’ really realize how much the Hollywood narrative formula affected the literary theory in the past thirty years throughout the Hollywood screenwriting theories. Also becasue these theories affected not only filmmaking but also traditional writings, indeed the major bestselling novels are all based on the same formula we ve been talking above. But that’s another story. In the future ahead, fifty or a hundred years ahead, students will learn how McKee, Hunter and Truby changed the narrative theory and the history of cinema of screenwriting and traditional writing. Maybe then the holocaust of Italian cinema will be ended. Who knows.