Archive for Brander Matthews


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 17, 2013 by dcairns


I finally decided to get myself a copy of Play-Making, a Manual of Craftsmanship by William Archer — the book Preston Sturges read when he was laid up with appendicitis and which turned him into a creator of Broadway hits the moment he’d devoured the last page. Maybe it’ll do the same for me! (I think he also read Brander Matthews’ guide to writing plays too — and this book is dedicated to BM.)

It’s not hard to see why Sturges would respond to this text — it has a high-flown style which occasionally plunges into comedy to make a point, so that it not only expresses the dramatic principles which the great filmmaker would exploit, but it also occasionally touches on the tone he would use. You can see this in the following passage, I think. Like today’s better screenwriting manuals. Archer begins by establishing the pitfalls of any guide to the craft ~

“There is thus a fine opening for pedantry on the one side and quackery on the other, to rush in. The pedant, in this context, is he who constructs a set of rules from metaphysical or psychological first principles, and professes to bring down a dramatic decalogue from the Sinai of some lecture-room in the University of Weissnichtwo. The quack, on the other hand, is he who generalizes from the worst practices of the most vulgar theatrical journeymen, and has no higher ambition than to interpret the oracles of the box-office. If he succeeded in so doing, his function would not be wholly despicable; but as he is generally devoid of insight, and as, moreover, the oracles of the box-office vary from season to season, if not from month to month, his lucubrations are about as valuable as those of Zadkiel and Old Moore.”


One could be mean and say that Robert McKee has in some ways gone beyond anything Archer dreamt of by combining pedantry with quackery (do you prefer the term pedackery or quackantry to describe this hybrid approach?).

I was startled by how familiar was Archer’s definition of drama (“Any representation of imaginary personages which is capable of interesting an average audience in a theater”) — and then I realized that all the insights of Chapter III of Playmaking had been condensed into Chapter 12 of Alexander Mackendrick’s On Film-Making. At least he gives credit, though — the chapter is called William Archer Revisited.

Near Myths

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2008 by dcairns

dwarf star 

(Dwarf guy from Lang’s SIEGFRIED)

Longterm Shadowplayer Elver Loho emailed me some while ago with a query for the blog, which I’ve been meaning to get around to. But it’s a toughie:

‘I come from a background of computer science and we had plenty of
great academic journals in the field. A lot of research was happening
all the time and academic journals are a great way to keep up with it.
Now that I’m making the switch to screenwriting, I find that there are
a couple of guru-written books on the subject that everyone likes
and… that’s pretty much it.

‘Hell, the biggest works about on one of the most important aspects of
screenwriting — story structure — were written more than 50 years
ago by Propp and Campbell and don’t even mention movies. I haven’t
come across anything that would even begin to rival the research that
those two guys did.

My name is Propp and I love to shopp!
(Vladimir Propp & his magic lamp)

‘This is depressing. Surely, there’s academic research going on in the
field, right? Because I was browsing the online database of academic
journals that my local university library has and there’s a ton of
journals on literature. I even found an issue that was wholly
dedicated to the phenomenon of text in Ancient Roman wall paintings.
Surely if there are people who care enough about text in Ancient Roman
wall paintings to write research papers on the topic, there must be
people who care enough about film to write research papers on the
topic. But where are they? Where do they publish their research? And
is there even research going on in the field or are we trapped in a
New Age type of guru worship?’

Elver’s right, firstly, in that practically everything to do with screenwriting is depressing! Most good scripts don’t get filmed, many lousy ones do, and even the good ones that make it through often get mangled in the process. (I’ve been part of this process as both re-writer — for my sins — and re-written.) The research situation being depressing is consistent and unsurprising.

Magazine-wise, these are probably the best shows in town:

Expensive, but pretty good as I recall.

But they’re clearly industry rags rather than academic journals. I must admit I have a hard time picturing an academic journal on screenwriting — I think it would end up containing historical research rather than scientific principles because I don’t entirely believe there ARE any scientific principles in screenwriting. The Robert McKee / Syd Field approach is about as “scientific” as it gets, and much of the time those guys are just passing off opinion as fact or industry norms as universal principles. (Also, Field is a horrible writer, who apparently thinks “sets up” is one word: “setsup”, which sounds like a SAUCE.) Most of the gurubooks contain some insights I find useful, so I do read them, but I think it’s wise to take what resonates for you and discard the rest.

I've lost McKee

(For instance, I think knowledge of mythic structure is fantastic to have at the back of your mind as you’re shaping a story, but it’s a terrible point to start from, and no guarantee of anything, as George Lucas’ extremely variable storywork on his STAR WARS saga shows. I think Umberto Eco’s essay on CASABLANCA maybe gives a better clue to the success of STAR WARS than Joseph Campbell — think of it as a mass restyling of clichés rather than a New Myth for Our Age. Mythic structure starts from the point of universally recognisable archetypes, which is really the same as stereotypes. Whereas I’d rather start with real human qualities and then maybe connect them to myth as I go.)

I just don’t think there’s a science to study, so what we’re left with is criticism, which isn’t something you can pilot a spaceship on, as this blog probably proves. Writers work on a combination of craft and instinct: a competent beginner can learn craft, but you can’t make it work for you worth a damn without the right instincts — which you can develop by writing a lot, if they’re there in the first place.

It’s very good that there are so many screenplays available online now, and many many books on screenwriting to pick and choose pearls of wisdom from (while hopefully discarding all the plastic beads of received wisdom).

Incidentally, the book that sparked Preston Sturges’ glorious writing career was A Study of the Drama by Brander Matthews. The differences between stage and screen-writing are so obvious as to scarcely need enumeration, so I’m wondering what gems it contains… it seems to be a little expensive to pick up secondhand though.

Splurge on Sturges?