Saturday, May 14, 2005

The finger pointing at the moon....

Via MeFi I see that there's a new movie screenplay site called, creatively enough, the Internet Movie Script Database. And available for perusal on this site is the script for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. No, I haven't read it. I'd like to be surprised by some things on Wednesday night, after all.

But in the ensuing MeFi thread, I found this comment that demands response:

A child could have written this hokey, bantering, creaky screenplay (from scene 39:"Anakin and Dooku continue their fight. It is intense!").

Apparently this commenter is of the idea that this bit of description is somehow problematic. Maybe he was looking for something along this line:

Anakin stares Dooku in the eye before lifting his lightsaber above his head and smiling. There's something in Dooku's eyes that suggests raw fear of this young Jedi, now no longer the easily-beaten boy of two years before. And when the fight begins again, it is of such intensity that the folk-singers of the Galaxy begin spinning their lyrics almost immediately....

Or something like that. I mean, as an action descriptor, this certainly brooks no comparison to, say, William Shakespeare's description of the stage events. Here's how the Great Bard did it, from the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet:

They fight.

Ummm...that's it? "They fight"? That's not very poetic, is it? Well, how about this, from the last scene of Hamlet, when Hamlet and Laertes are dueling:

LAERTES wounds HAMLET; then in scuffling, they change rapiers, and HAMLET wounds LAERTES.

A tiny bit better, but not by much. "They change rapiers"? How would that happen? Is there some custom whereby at some point in a duel, the combatants exchange weapons? Or do they both drop their arms and then, recovering them, pick up each others' blades? Probably the latter, but that's my point: A script is mainly a blueprint, and it's up to the director to figure it all out. It's up to the director to "bring the script to life". A script's purpose is to provide structure, not to spell out every single detail along the way.

Or, to take a more contemporary example: the West Wing episode "Posse Comitatus". At the end of this episode, President Bartlet is at a theater watching a play when he slips out into a corridor to order a shadow operation to assassinate a foreign official who is also a terrorist. Bartlet's been struggling with the morality of this decision all through the show, but now he "pulls the trigger" and heads back to his theater seat. In the episode, we see Bartlet's silhouette cast upon a light curtain as he returns to his seat, clearly a visual metaphor for the "shadow operation" he has just ordered. It's one of my favorite visuals from the series. Here's how Aaron Sorkin, however, writes this moment in his teleplay:

BARTLET's still standing at the back of the mezzanine listening and watching. BARTLET looks over at the shaft of light that's been made by LEO opening the door. LEO looks over at him. There are people who've killed people and people who haven't and BARTLET'll never be in the second group again.

That's it. No mention of silhouetted shadows on curtains at all. That, apparently, was a decision made by the director or production designer or whomever.

Screenplays don't tell you everything. There's no way they can.

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