Archive for January, 2011
Is plot dead?
I had a recent argument with a playwriting student who thought it was. It wasn’t just plot that was dead. She told me that the whole concept of character-driven narrative structure in dramatic writing, the so-called “well-made story”, was out-of-date, bourgeois and boring.
Actually, to say we were “arguing” is putting it strongly; I teach in a low-residency MFA program, and so our discussion was not only quite civil, it was quaintly epistolary, conducted via letters over several weeks. What’s more, this student is no kid. She’s also smart as a whip and has worked as a theater professional around the world. She’s mulled about this kind of thing for years. And so I gave serious thought to what she had to say. In the end, I still disagreed.
By the end of the semester, we may not have seen things eye-to-eye. But she taught me a lot about postmodern theatre and I read a bunch of plays I hadn’t read before, many of which I thought were terrific. I also like to hope I convinced her, even a little, of the continuing power of that ancient (I would actually say hardwired) form, the well-told story. Most important, because I had to defend my position, the exchange made me think hard about something I’ve spent years taking for granted: the importance of that strange thing we call narrative structure.
Every writer in the guild – screenwriters, TV writers, news writers – depends on structure. It’s our go-to weapon, our primary tool of choice: kind of like our t-square/hammer/calculator/Singer sewing machine, all rolled into one. Without a solid structure, a story, any story, slowly collapses in on itself like an improvised Lego suspension bridge. I’d go so far as to paraphrase Thomas Edison and say that good writing is 1% inspiration and 99% structure. Sure, dialogue is important; but like everything, it serves the story. And story is basically all about structure.
Structure, of course, isn’t some kind of rigid code, a one-size-fits-all Iron Maiden into which one must cram one’s genius. Good writers are constantly tinkering with structure, which arises from specific characters, their situation, their wants, and their problems. Good story structure, after all, can be anything: it can be loopy and deconstructed; it can turn chronology inside out, shatter the fourth wall, break reality, and be as full of surprises, misdirections, and dead ends as a moonlit neighborhood in Venice, the kind you chase a murderous dwarf through because you’re convinced it’s a kid in a red raincoat. So what makes structure good? As has been said of music, if it sounds good, it is good. If the structure makes organic sense with the story that’s being told, if it drives the action… then it’s good. If you’re riveted to your chair, if you keep your hand off the clicker, if the ending resonates so much that you’re still talking about it weeks later… then whoever the writer is, she or he has earned that paycheck.
Recently, some WGAE colleagues and I were talking with a room full of producers/writers who work in non-fiction TV—(this means shows like The First 48, Steven Seagal: Lawman or Four Weddings) mostly for cable. One producer/writer was talking about a show she works on, which features a medical pathologist who performs autopsies. A colleague of mine said she was a fan of the show and that she was always delighted there was a surprise ending, a twist at the end she hadn’t expected. The producer/writer gave a wry smile and said, “Yeah… because we put it there.” Of course, it’s something we all knew intellectually… and yet there it was a visceral reminder in a specific example. The producer/writers of nonfiction TV are masters of story structure, the same as the rest of us; and they deserve to join our ranks and get a union contract.
Joe Berlinger’s back is against the wall. Last week the independent filmmaker, already facing crushing debt from legal bills, was dealt a major blow in his continuing fight against the third-largest company in America: Chevron.
It’s a battle that epitomizes the hardship individuals face trying to challenge corporate giants that punch back with a knockout force of high-powered lawyers and unlimited cash.
What’s more, Berlinger’s struggle continues to raise serious First Amendment issues and – as we approach the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision – throws yet another spotlight on the increasingly pro-business stance of the nation’s legal system.
It was this past May when my friend and colleague Bill Moyers and I first wrote about Berlinger’s documentary “Crude” and its legal troubles. The film tells the story of how Ecuadorians challenged the pollution of rivers and wells from Texaco’s drilling in the Lago Agrio oil field, a rainforest disaster savagely damaging the environment and the local population’s health that’s been described as the Amazon’s Chernobyl. When the petrochemical behemoth Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001 and attempted to dismiss claims that it was now responsible, the indigenous people and their lawyers fought back in court.
In May, federal judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered Berlinger to turn over to Chevron more than 600 hours of raw footage used to create the film. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit limited the amount of footage to be turned over (although it still amounts to more than 500 hours) but ordered Berlinger to submit to depositions.
Now, on January 13, that same court ruled, as reported in The New York Times, that Berlinger “could not invoke a journalist’s privilege in refusing to turn over that footage because his work on the film did not constitute an act of independent reporting,” and that the argument “that he was protected as a journalist from being compelled to share his reporting materials was not persuasive.” As evidence, the court said that the film “was solicited by the plaintiffs in the Lago Agrio litigation for the purpose of telling their story, and changes to the film were made at their instance.”
Berlinger responded, “While the idea for ‘Crude’ was pitched to me by Steven Donziger, one of the Lago Agrio plaintiffs’ lawyers, this was not a commissioned film. I had complete editorial independence, as did 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair, who also produced stories on this case that were solicited by Mr. Donziger. The decision to modify one scene in the film based on comments from the plaintiffs’ lawyers after viewing the film at the Sundance Film Festival was exclusively my own and in no way diminishes the independence of this production from its subjects. I rejected many other suggested changes and my documentary ‘Crude’ has been widely praised for its balance in the presentation of Chevron’s point of view as well as the plaintiffs’.”
Were mistakes made, errors in judgment? Perhaps. But the court’s ruling fails to fully understand the nature of news and documentary reporting and will have a chilling effect on journalists who constantly receive information and suggestions from sources representing a variety of interests and points of view. It’s the professional journalist’s job to sort through them on the way to determining the truth. As Moyers and I wrote in May, “This is a serious matter for reporters, filmmakers and frankly, everyone else. Tough, investigative reporting without fear or favor – already under siege by severe cutbacks and the shutdown of newspapers and other media outlets – is vital to the public awareness and understanding essential to a democracy.”
Just as dismaying about this latest ruling is the endless sinking feeling that the courts more than ever are stacked against the individual seeking redress against big business. In the 39 states where judges are elected, corporate cash has poured into judicial races – contributions have more than doubled in recent years, prompting Sandra Day O’Connor to say, “No state can possibly benefit from having that much money injected into a political campaign.” And in the federal courts, well, suppose Berlinger’s case were to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. A recent Fortune magazine cover proclaimed it “the most pro-business court we have ever seen,” and, as the Times more understatedly noted last month, “It is clear … that the Supreme Court these days is increasingly focused on business issues.”
In case you missed the Times story over the holidays, it was headlined “Justices Offer Receptive Ear to Business Interests.” Scholars at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago prepared a report analyzing nearly 1,500 Supreme Court decisions across almost six decades. It found that, “The Roberts court, which has completed five terms, ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time, compared with 46 percent in the last five years of the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, and 42 percent by all courts since 1953.”
According to the Times’ Adam Liptak:
The Roberts court’s engagement with business issues has risen along with the emergence of a breed of lawyers specializing in Supreme Court advocacy, many of them veterans of the United States solicitor general’s office, which represents the federal government in the court. These specialists have been extraordinarily successful, both in persuading the court to hear business cases and to rule in favor of their clients.
Many of these lawyers work for or with the US Chamber of Commerce and its National Chamber Litigation Center, which calls itself “the voice of business in the courts on issues of national concern to the business community.”
The Times reported:
The chamber now files briefs in most major business cases. The side it supported in the last term won 13 of 16 cases. Six of those were decided with a majority vote of five justices, and five of those decisions favored the chamber’s side. One of them was Citizens United, in which the chamber successfully urged the court to guarantee what it called “free corporate speech” by lifting restrictions on campaign spending.
The court’s independence – and historic skepticism about the needs of corporate America – are relics of the past. Here’s what was in a 2007 edition of BusinessWeek magazine:
Robin S. Conrad, head of the Chamber of Commerce’s litigation arm, notes that the judicial branch offers an alternative forum where business can seek changes it has failed to win from other branches of government. In the 1990s, the chamber and other business groups made this a vital part of their tort reform strategy on a state level, pouring money into local judicial campaigns to reshape state supreme courts and, ultimately, state laws. Now with a US Supreme Court that’s not allergic to business cases, the approach is playing out on a national level….
It was President Calvin Coolidge who in 1925 famously declared, “The chief business of the American people is business,” a sentiment this Supreme Court and much of the American judicial system would stoutly embrace. But ironically – especially for journalists and filmmakers like Berlinger – he made the remark in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Its title: “The Press Under a Free Government.”
Truth and freedom, Coolidge said, “are inseparable.” There is “no justification for interfering with the freedom of the press, because all freedom, though it may sometime tend toward excesses, bears within it those remedies which will finally effect a cure for its own disorders.”
A radio and TV producer named Himan Brown, an important figure in media broadcasting, passed away in 2010. On December 10th, a dramatized history of his life which I wrote was performed at the Martin E. Segal Theatre, CUNY Studios, in New York.
Mr. Brown’s accomplishments in radio drama included “The Inner Sanctum” with its signature of a creaking door and the ghostly voice of Raymond welcoming you to that place. “The Inner Sanctum,” The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre,” and many of his other shows utilized thousands of scripts by our writers.
In the 1970’s, he produced a Madison Square Garden spectacle saluting Israel for defending itself successfully against an attack by her enemies. And he produced a short film starring Edward G. Robinson. In a courtroom setting (borrowed from “Perry Mason”) Robinson condemned the Soviet Union for its anti-Semitism. I was the author of that film.
The memorial event on December 10th was performed by a troupe of wonderful actors all of whom worked with Brown in the past. They included Marian Seldes, Tony Roberts, Bob Kaliban, Russell Horton, Roberta Maxwell, Jada Rowland, and Paul Hecht who directed the show. Vintage radio clips were provided by David Saviet. The tribute was produced by Melina Brown, Hi’s granddaughter.
The principal hope of Hi Brown in his later years was that the golden age of radio might be some day revived, a move that would be welcomed by us all. Especially by those of us who remember the unique rewards of radio, the locations created by sound and dialogue that become more vivid than million dollar sets; the unequaled adventures and pleasures arising from our own imaginations, aptly described by Hi Brown as “the joy of listening.”
Jerome Coopersmith is an award-winning dramatist whose work ranges from multiple episodes of Hawaii 5-0 to Broadway’s Baker Street (a musical adventure of Sherlock Holmes). His awards include a Tony Nomination (for Baker Street), a Robert E. Sherwood Award for television writing, and Best New Play of 1998 (Reflections of a Murder) awarded by the Charlotte Repertory Theatre Festival.