Break out the TV Guide; television is rapidly replacing art-house theaters as the only place to See classic films. The art-house circuit is shrinking–not just in the big Cities, but also at the college campuSeS where moviegoers once found regular acceSS to classic films, including foreign titles. Now, instead Of showing the works of such filmmakers as Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Charlie Chaplin (and the other mainStays of the Circuit), along with such revered chestnuts as Casablanca, The African Queen and even Marx Brothers comedies, many college film programs opt for third-run action pictures starring Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Daily Variety recently dead-panned, “Say the words French filmmaker to the average college kid these days, and he’s likely to think Jean-Claude Van Damme.”)
So what’s wrong with this picture? For would-be Screenwriters, plenty.
After all, if you don’t have a Sense of where movies have been, how do you know which direction to take them in? To understand the medium, and the craft of storytelling and Structure, you must go back in time.
Trends are just that; moviegoers will eventually tire of Quentin Tarantino-inspired screenplays in the same way they’ve tired of car crashes and explosions. But, as I’ve said in previous columns, good stories never go out of style. And more than anything else, the classic movies abound in solid storytelling-along with distinct (and sometimes highly original) filmmaking.
If you don’t get the American Movie Classics channel or Turner Classic Movies or some other cable network that specializes in golden oldies, you’re missing out on important screenwriting lessons.
Of course, when watching classic titles you must suspend modern sensibilities when it comes to delivery and technical advancement.
A few years ago when I was working for Fox Television, I co-produced a regular segment on an entertainment news show about the making of classic scenes from classic movies. For one segment we rounded up the director and editor of 1952′s High Noon, the Oscar-winning western about a marshal who, on his wedding day, must appeal for help when he learns that a gunman and his gang are headed for town-on the train due at noon.
In weaving together the filmmakers’ recollections with scenes from the movie, one thing became readily apparent: It took that train an awfully long time to chug into town. And Gary Cooper’s laconic walk down those dusty streets to the climactic showdown seemed to go on and on. Moreover, compared to shootouts in some recent westerns (such as Tombstone), the gunplay seemed on the creaky side. In order to make our TV segment move, we used especially snappy editing. Our segment moved so quickly that we joked about bringing the train in at 11:35.
One thing we never poked fun at, though, was the story–all about a crisis of conscience, in which the cowardly townsfolk abandon the marshal and allow him to face his enemies alone. The uncompromising movie ends with him throwing his badge on the ground and riding off with his bride. Few films today are as compelling–or as daring.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to see High Noon on a big screen as (yes) part of a college-film program. At the time, the movie was also a staple of the numerous film retrospective houses in Los Angeles. Sadly, there are now but a handful of such houses, even in the film capital of the world.
Yet if movie art houses are on the wane, both off and on campus, the number of cable channels are growing, creating new venues for classic movies. Would-be screenwriters should take advantage of them. The screen may be small, but that doesn’t diminish the art of storytelling. Plus, the popcorn’s cheaper.