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Virtually every film that is poorly received critically, and often
commercially, is a victim primarily of one thing: bad writing. By "writing"
I mean the combined work involved in using words for plotting,
characterization, dialogue, thematic development, originality, etc. It is
easy to think of many unambitiously executed films that have succeeded and
survived because they were well-written. It's much less easy to think of
poorly written films that have anything to recommend them besides immediate
box office appeal (allowing that "Titanic was well-written) although many
poorly-written films are teachable and (too-frequently) taught.

The primary reason many films are poorly written is not only because many
are written for children, action- and sex-hungry drudges or tired couch
potatoes. The main reason is that few people really read anymore. The
skills and sensitivity needed to recognize and respond to a "well-written"
work - which often requires prolonged time, solitude, leisure, automatic
comparison to a canon of quality, practise in using literacy or literary
skills (even in common daily work) - are not developed. Many screen/tv
writers understand this and know they must appeal to viewers who not only
lack reading knowledge but to viewers whose chief "literary" references and
are to other movies and non-verbal cues - which is why understanding many
non-verbal formats is called "literacy."

This situation is very unlikely to change, though the persistence of
"independent" filmmakers will probably endure as long as filmmaking is
affordable at some level - perhaps even increase, though with increasing
idiosyncrasy, as home computers enable individuals to produce what only
groups and corporations could do previously - desktop production imitating
desktop publishing.

An era of well-written cinema will become - as it already shows signs of
doing - a historical not an aesthetic phenomenon, perhaps encompassing the
period 1929-1980, with  exceptions made for silent films, documentaries,
animations and of course the independents, which may also suffer from a
constant erosion of a cinematic context that depends on the values of
literacy. Some of the great theorists and critics - Bordwell, Benjamin,
Farber, Ray, Everson, Kaplan -  will always be able to portray almost any
film as a brilliant, contingent, complex creation, and part of a tradition
or movement the elements of which have greater implications than its
examples ever could. For these people we can be - hesitatingly - grateful.
Even as their criticism begins to overpower the experience of film going,
they are only doing, for us, what many filmmakers have long ago abandoned -
reconstituting imagery with literacy.
Paul B. Wiener
Special Services Librarian
SUNY at Stony Brook
Melville Library
516/632-7253
fax: 516/'632-7116
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