Last class

After more than forty years teaching in UCLA’s screenwriting program, I have retired.

At a research institution like the University of California, however, not teaching but ‘research’ or, in the arts, ‘creative activity’ is a professor’s first obligation.

Before anything else, therefore, I am a writer.

Writers never retire.

The last meeting of my (some say legendary) Film/TV 434 section occurred on a Monday night in March, the day after the Oscars awards show. 434 is UCLA’s course catalogue number for Advanced Screenwriting Seminar, a workshop meeting three hours weekly over the ten week academic quarter, with eight writers and their instructor around the table, each student writing an original feature length screenplay.

During that last session there was substantial discussion regarding the previous night’s Oscars.

Full disclosure: I am notorious for hating all movies. I do not, however, hate all movies. I hate merely most movies.

Isn’t art generally rotten?

As I have written and lectured in Westwood and across the globe, to many people it seems otherwise. Consider, for example, that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City every painting and every work of sculpture is timeless and eternal.

People get the impression that paintings and sculpture are always worthy and that film (and television and new media) are not. They forget that for every painting at the Met there are hundreds, indeed thousands, of useless, worthless, aimless, pointless, lame, stupid paintings.

They do not hang in museums but lean against the walls of attics, basements, and garages.

All the same, here’s saluting the amateurs who created them.

However limited their talent, women and men and children reached, stretched, took risks, and attempted to make creativity a part of their lives. Even if their work does not merit sharing with others, through their efforts, however halting, making art expanded and affirmed their humanity.

Classic works in museums have stood the test of time. Since their creation centuries and even millennia in the past, the lousy stuff has faded into obscurity, which is consistent with the nature of expression that is inept.

Film and TV, on the other hand, are contemporary; they are in our face right now. There has no time for the culling, the drifting away of work that lacks merit.

Film, therefore, is no worse than, say, painting and sculpture; it is merely equally bad.

At the time of the final class meeting I had seen seven of the year’s Best Picture nominees: The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, The Post, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Minnesota, Phantom Thread, and Get Out.

Except for Get Out, I hated them all.

Shape of Water? Between my naps I could make out something about a woman who has a romance with a fish. And that fish costume? My three-and-a-half-year old grandson would have flunked arts-and-crafts at his pre-school for work so shabby.

Lady Bird? A yak fest. Wonderful players to be sure, but aren’t they called ‘actors’ and not ‘talkers?’ When the director is ready to roll film, she calls out, “Lights, camera, talk?”

Actors can’t fare better than the script that is handed to them.

The Post? The writers never figured out whose picture this is. Precisely who is the protagonist? It’s clearly not the Daniel Ellsberg character, but is it publisher Katharine Graham or editor Ben Bradlee? And do we need scene after scene at one restaurant and then another with actors around the table running their mouths, when they’re not otherwise gabbing on their phones?

As with too many films this year, indeed every year, the actors did not act so much as narrate the story.

It’s called screenwriting, not screen talking.

Consider the end of Lady Bird. The protagonist walks out in front of her house, yanks out a cell phone, dials her mom, and recites a speech about forgiveness. But the word ‘drama’ derives from the Greek word meaning ‘to do.’ Can’t the writers invent something for their lead character to do?

Call Me By Your Name, ditto. More than two hours of blabbing.  At the end, yet another phone call, this time without the speaker even present in the scene, his voice merely heard over the phone.

And immediately prior, we have the father and son sit down in the living room to—what else?–talk. Their chat lasts longer than the Bronze Age. At one point In the middle the scene, the father says, “And I want to say one more thing…,” after which he says eight hundred more things.

In a rising-and-falling singsong parody of a wise Jewish voice, the cartoon father reports how pleased he is to learn that his son is gay. This enlightened acceptance might work wonderfully in life, but this isn’t life; it’s a movie. Instead of agreement and consensus, audiences seek conflict, controversy, and confrontation. Wouldn’t it play better if, instead of delight, the father expressed outrage, shame, dread, and humiliation? Wouldn’t it  be better drama if he became forever estranged from his son? Isn’t that the way it plays out in the incomparable Fiddler on the Roof when one of the daughters marries outside the faith? Does that heartbreak not make for sharper drama?

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri? After the second billboard I walked outside of the theater in Los Angeles, California.

Phantom Thread? An orgy of posturing and face-making by Daniel Day Lewis. He wins the Oscar for this amateurish performance in which he appears to have looked up ‘thoughtful’ in Acting for Dummies.

Get Out, on the other hand, tells a story. It is about something. More to the point, it’s about someone.

That someone is me, a privileged, advantaged white guy who all too often, along with his family and friends, fancies himself above racism, unable to recognize the Missionary Complex residing inside him at his core. Does not his desire to bring ‘uplift’ to his downtrodden, oppressed, darker sisters and brothers testify only to his invisible (to himself) sense of superiority?

I am one of those liberated white dudes who stops African Americans in the street to tell them I attended the 1963 March on Washington and heard fist-hand Dr. King’s “I have a dream!” speech.

Get Out also underscores a long held notion regarding genre that is dear to me. Simply stated, genre is bullshit. There are only two genres: 1) good movies; 2) bad movies.

With me trashing the lot of Best Picture nominees and also the winner, the eight students attending my final class yanked out their otherwise prohibited ‘devices’ and loaded the AFI’s and IMDB’s Best Ten Movies lists. The titles include among others Casablanca, Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Annie Hall,and others.

Did I like any of them?

I love them all.

I asked the students, what are the two key differences between these films and (for the most part) the Best Picture nominees for 2017?

First, as already mentioned, the Best Ten-list pictures have all stood the test of time. The vast majority of movies made at the same time have drifted away; yet these few gems remain.

The other difference? Each one of them tells a compelling, arresting, engaging story.

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