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Posts Tagged ‘Chekhov’

What in the hell is an “objective correlative”? And why do so many movies and plays have one?

There are things in your life that you’ve attached meaning to. When you see them they conjure up memories of people, places and events. If I give my wife Toblerone chocolate it’s a fond reminder of a train trip we took in Switzerland years ago. My office is full of things that remind me of special productions I’ve worked on over the years—a soccer shirt from Brazil, a bottle of wine from South Africa, a poster from Aspen. Just glancing at those objects reminds me of positive life experiences.

I have an emotional connection to those items that is not intrinsic to their being. And it’s not materialistic (total cost of those items was under $50.) but rather symbolic. The chocolate, the shirt, the wine, the poster all point to something beyond the common material itself. (Sometimes items of meaning are free. I have a matchbook from a place called the Beehive, a coffeehouse in Pittsburgh, where I did a video shoot 20 years ago.* I smile everytime I see that matchbook.)

Writers of books, plays and movies tap into that emotion when they give meaning to certain places and objects. It’s what T.S. Eliot called the “objective correlative.”

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
T.S. Eliot/Hamlet and His Problems

In the movie Forrest Gump, when the older Jenny comes upon her childhood home an emotion is immediately evoked—upset, she begins throwing rocks at the house. And in the voice-over Forrest says, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.” The double whammy there is Jenny not only feels that emotion of remembering an abusive childhood, but the audience feels it as well. There’s a connection. An emotion that we feel for Jenny, but also an emotion that we personally know that, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.”

One of my favorite examples of an objective correlative is the volleyball in (another Tom Hanks movie) Cast Away. Hanks’ character, stranded on a deserted island, befriends a volleyball, paints a face on it, names it Wilson and it becomes his companion. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. and director Robert Zemeckis knew exactly the emotional impact it would have when Wilson is tragically lost at sea. (Another tragedy is Wilson the Volleyball is uncredited in the film.)

Now audiences don’t look at Jenny’s childhood house or Wilson and say, “Oh, look, an objective correlative.” It’s an emotional reaction. Objective correlative is just the technical phrase of something that’s useful to have in your writer’s tool kit.

“Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie. Objective correlative: the glass unicorn whose horn gets broken in the second act by the gentleman caller. Yes, a fragile sensitive little glass unicorn figurine. Fanciful? Beautiful? Tragic? Poignant? Phallic? Call it what you will, but baby, it brings with it a host of emotions. When it happens on stage, it’s damn powerful.”
Richard W. Krevolin
Screenwriting from the Soul
page 71

The more a writer is fond of symbolism (as Tennessee Williams was) the more likely you are to find a objective correlatives in their work. I’m sure there are other writers who’ve gone their entire career without giving a second thought to the concept of  a objective correlative. (Though they probably instinctively had them sprinkled throughout their work.) But if even the basic concept of an objective correlative turns you off as a writer, consider that one of the mostly highly regarded movies in the history of cinema, Citizen Kane, is filled with objective correlatives; the puzzle, the snow globe, and, of course, Rosebud.

It’s the cherry orchard in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, it’s the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s the compressed air and cattle gun in No Country for Old Men, and the list goes on and on and on. You get the point. Now if you really dig this kind of thing here are some additional thoughts and quotes on the matter:

“I had never understood what Eliot meant by the curious phrase ‘objective correlative’ until the scene in Gatsby where the almost comically sinister Meyer Wolfshiem, who has just been introduced, displays his cuff links and explains that they are ‘the finest specimens of human molars.’ Get it? Got it. That’s what Eliot meant.”
Richard Yate
Some Very Good Masters
New York Times Book Review, April 19,1981

“I borrow the term Objective Correlative from T. S. Eliot and adapt it to mean an external object that represents a character or a state of mind. Rocky’s locker is Rocky’s manhood. When it is taken from him, it is like a castration. In Truly Madly Deeply, the cello is Jamie. In About Schmidt (by Louis Begley and Alexander Payne), when he sees his carefully prepared reports in the garbage, it represents the entirety of his life’s work.”
Hal Ackerman
Write Screenplays That Sell
Page 207

In one episode of the great TV program Northern Exposure Chris (John Corbett) defends his master’s thesis and actually uses the term  ‘objective correlative’ and identifies T. S. Eliot as the source. Which led David Lavery to write,  “Though I cannot be absolutely certain, I would venture to say that this may have been the first, and perhaps the only, time ‘objective correlative’ was ever discussed in prime-time.”

*Quirky fact: The cameraman for that shoot I did in Pittsburgh 20 years ago was related to Geroge Romero who directed the original Night of the Living Dead.
Quirky fact 2: Just went to the Beehive website and learned that according to one of the owners Scott Kramer, “The name Beehive came from a place in France where all the artists were living in the 1930s. Artists can come here and ideas can flow.” Check it out if you’re in Pittsburgh, or the next time you go there.

Update 5/15/13: According to the The Writing Barn post Craft Talk Tuesday with Carol Brender, “Term [objective  correlative] first coined prior to 1850 by Washington Allston , but later given its more literary meaning by T.S. Eliot in an essay about why Hamlet is a failed play.”

Scott W. Smith

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To blog daily is a monster beast to feed and I wish I had some great system to feed that monster. Instead it tends to be like manna I get just for the day. But when I find myself stuck for a post I don’t turn to the Internet to find something fresh, I turn to books I have read and reread over the years. And usually in some highlighted text and old friend jumps up and down saying, “use me, use me.”

And so it is today when I turned to the book Conversations with Arthur Miller (edited by Matthew C. Roudane) that I found the following quotes on writing by the great Death of a Salesman playwright:

“The very impulse to write springs from an inner chaos, a crying for order, for meaning and that meaning must be discovered in the process of writing or the work lies dead as it is finished.”
Arthur Miller interview with Chrisitan-Albrecht Gollub
Page 287

On being asked “What stimulates you into writing a play?”
“If I knew, I could probably control the inception of it better. I’m at the mercy of it; I don’t really know. I cannot write anything that I understand too well. If I know what something means to me, if I already have come to the end of it as an experience, I can’t write it because it seems like a twice-told story.”
Arthur Miller interview with Henry Brandon/1960

“Ibsen used to present answers. Despite the fashion that claims he never presented answers, he of course did. In the Doll’s House and even Hedda Gabler, we will find—and in Chekhov, too—we will find speeches toward the ends of these plays which suggest, if they don’t overtly state, what the alternative values are to those which are misled the heroes or heroines of the action shown…So far, I will admit, the bulk of literature, not only on the stage but elsewhere, is an exposition of man’s failure: his failure to assert his sense of civilized and moral life.”
Arthur Miller interview with Phillip Gelb/1958
Page 36

Note that Ibsen was a big influence on Miller’s early years as a writer. Miller even did an American translation of the Ibsen play An Enemy of the People.

Scott W. Smith


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In all of the many books I’ve read on screenwriting and screenwriters I don’t recall the name Peter Stone being mentioned once. Perhaps that’s because his films, mostly written in the 60s and 70s, aren’t the most timeless classics from his era—but he did win an Oscar for co-writing Father Goose (1965). In fact, I believe Stone was the first writer to win an Oscar, and Emmy and a Tony. (Even today that’s a small list.) One of the most popular and enduring films that he worked on was Charade (1963) starring Cary Grant. And the script for Sweet Charity (starring Shirley MacLaine and directed by Bob Fossee) was written by Stone, and still has a fan base.

Contemporary writers may know Stone as the screenwriter of the original movie The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (1976). Stone had a solid background not only having a father (John Stone) who was a screenwriter and producer of more than 100 films, but he earned a Master’s degree from Yale. He died in 2003, but fortunately we have a glimpse of some of his views on writing from his audio commentary on the Charade DVD. There the Oscar, Tony and Emmy winning writer talks about one form of writing that didn’t mesh with his skill set.

“When I couldn’t sell the original screenplay (for Charade) I was advised by my wife, and my agent concurred, to turn it into a novel. I had never written a novel and it was in the course of writing the novel that I came to realized that I had no ability for writing novels at all. It’s a different set of muscles. There are very, very few people who can write dramatic material and narrative prose. Very few. Chekhov could do it. There are some today who can do it. Richard Price can do it. Crichton. They just call on a different set of muscles. One is descriptive and uses language in a way that dramatic material does not.

Dramatic material—everything has to be revealed through behavior, that’s all you have to reveal it with. And description plays such a small part in it. It’s just a different set of muscles at work and I don’t have them, or I never developed them, or I wasn’t interested in them or something. But I sure discovered it immediately. So it was a rotten novel.”
Peter Stone
Charade DVD commentary

That in part explains why Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck never thrived in Hollywood. Is there sufficient proof to say that novelist trying to become screenwriters or screenwriters trying to become novelist leads to excessive drinking? Stone boils it all down for us: It’s simply “a different set of muscles.”

Related Post (as someone who has done well writing novels and screenplays); William Goldman Stands Alone

Scott W. Smith

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I wanted to find a quote for St. Patrick’s Day from a screenwriter with Irish roots. The quote I found isn’t about screenwriting but I got a kick out of it and I did find a way to tie it into what this blog is all about. It’s from actor/writer/director Edward Burns (Saving Private Ryan, The Brothers McMullen). I’m not 100% sure of the context but it appears to be in a reference to actors who are bothered by paparazzi popping up around every corner.

“If that stuff really bothers you so much, you should go do regional theatre. Go do Chekhov in Iowa. No paparazzi will be following you.”
Edward Burns

See Iowa is always the bench mark for obscurity. (Hence, the title Screenwriting from Iowa.) And speaking of theater in Iowa, congrats to Theatre Cedar Rapids for the renovations they just completed on their historic theater following the flood of ’08 that had the water as high as seven feet inside. It took a lot of time and money to restore it to its original state.

Fans of the movie Office Space may be interested that Ron Livingston was born in Cedar Rapids and has performed on the stage at Theatre Cedar Rapids.  A visit there as a teenager helped give him inspiration to become an actor.

“I remember being in 10th grade and being a part of Marion High School’s job shadowing program and being asked to pick something that I might want to do for a living. I told them I was thinking about being an actor—and in a lot of parts of the country they would have looked at me and laughed and told me to pick something else—but my guidance counselor was able to pick up the telephone, and a week or so later I was able to follow Richard Barker around as he held auditions and gave me a tour of the theater and told me what it would be like to be a professional actor…I’ve very proud to be a part of Theatre Cedar Rapid’s history.”
Actor Ron Livingston

While  paparazzi may not be following you while you’re writing or performing for regional or community theaters in Iowa (or wherever you live in fly-over country) but it sure could lead to bigger things. In fact, just to tie this back into St. Patrick’s Day, the Provincetown Playhouse (on Cape Cod in Massachusetts) not only had a part in the spread of the “Little Theater” movement 100 years ago, but they helped launch the career of  the great playwright Eugene O’Neill.

It would be fun someday to do a screenwriting seminar at the Provincetown Playhouse or Theatre Cedar Rapids and to tap into some of that history and hopefully inspire the next generation of writers and actors rising up from seemingly obscure places.


Scott W. Smith


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“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
                                    Blanche DuBois’ character in A Streetcar Named Desire
                                    written by Tennessee Williams (Univ. of Iowa grad)
 

Last Friday after my shoot in New York I asked an actress what was the must see play in New York and she said Ruined. I was unfamiliar with the play written by Lynn Nottage despite it winning the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year.  So it was time I got up to speed. In pervious trips to New York I had seen Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Chekhov’s Three Sisters and was game for a drama as they appeal to me more than the large musicals.

I was told tickets were $75 so I was hoping to score some discounted tickets. Then I found out the show was closing its run on Sunday which meant that getting tickets to see one of the last three performances Ruined might be a challenge. I found out that all three performances were in fact sold out, but that I could come to the box office and see if there were any returns.

So here is the short story of how I relied on the kindness of strangers.

The first stranger to help told me which subway to take to get to the City Center where Ruined was being performed. The second stranger to help asked me if I wanted to use her subway ticket that was still good for another hour. I arrived at the City Center box office half an hour before the window even opened and an hour and a half before the performance. And there was already a line of 13 people.

As the line grew longer we were told that only a handful of people would probably get in. At least one couple toward the back of the line sent one person into the street and the eventually got tickets which was a little frustrating. It was turning into its own little drama. As it got closer to the time for the start of the play the line in front of me got smaller but it the odds didn’t look good. Would I be best to try my luck on people walking in who had an extra ticket?

Since I had waited in line so long I decided to try my luck staying in line. The was only one person in front of me when the lady at the box office told the group in line that there were no more tickets. Sorry. Thanks for playing. A few of us lamented about how close we came. The women in front of me said she came half an hour before me and somehow that made me feel better. The guy behind me was from L.A. was flying back and this was the only performance he could try and see. I at least could come back for the show that night and try my luck again.

But I’m also not prone to giving up. And this is where persistence and providence met. I also factored into it that there might be one person running late who had an extra ticket. So all alone now to scrap for tickets I asked a couple people running a little late if they had an extra ticket. I got that knowing smirk that says, “Sorry beggar.” 

Then my third stranger of the day, Renee from Brooklyn, showed up. “Do you happen to have an extra ticket?” Without stopping she said, “I sure do. Follow me.” And a few minutes later I was sitting down watching Ruined. I’ll write about the play itself tomorrow, but what makes my story all the better is when I tried to pay Renee from Brooklyn for the tickets she said, “No, just enjoy the play. And pay it forward.”

I haven’t always depended on the kindness of strangers, but it’s nice to see it played out in real life every once in a while.

The whole experience made me think back a couple years ago when I was freelance producing for a company in Orlando and the owner of the company gave me a couple tickets to an Orlando Magic game just a couple hours before the game started. I couldn’t find anyone to go so planned to give the ticket away to whoever asked. I walked around for a few minutes before this little boy about 10 years old said, “Do you have an extra ticket?” I did.

He was savvy enough to notice I was giving him a valuable lower bowl ticket and his eyes lit up. Made my day.

Remember the old saying, “You have not because you asked not.”

 

Scott W. Smith 

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I’m up in the Twin Cities again for a shoot and happened to be driving through St. Paul yesterday when I heard the news that Al Franken was officially declared the winner of the Senate race that has been in limbo for eight months. It was a good day to be a talk radio host up here. Remember this is the state that once chose Jesse Ventura for Governor.

Because it’s tucked away in the upper midwest, Minnesota kind of flies under the radar for the rest of the country so they have to do some interesting things to get attention.  There’s a great mix of people up here and that’s helped  produced a variety of creative talent from Prince to Diablo Cody. 

A couple days ago I mentioned that Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange lived in the Minnesota -St. Paul area for a period of time while they were raising their kids. So I thought it would be fitting to find a quote from Shepard and I found this one from an interview he did in St. Paul back in 2004:

“I’m self-taught. I learn everything by doing it. I wasn’t born knowing how to write a play. You do it and hopefully you keep evolving. One really great thing happened was that I discovered Chekhov’s short stories. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really start reading them ‘til about 5 or 6 years ago. I’d always kind of dismissed Chekhov and didn’t really know why. When I came upon the stories, and started really reading and studying them, I couldn’t believe it. I read every single one.”
                                                  Sam Shepard
                                                  Interview with Don Shewey
                                                  Rock-And-Roll Jesus with a Cowboy Mouth 

 

Scott W. Smith


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“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
                                                         Gordon Gekko
                                                         Wall St. 

“Our entire economy is in danger.”
                                                         President George W. Bush
                                                         September 2008    

“When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod?”
                                                        
 Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman)
                                                          Cars       

                                                    

This is a look at two Hollywood icons. One fictitious, one real. One that’s alive and well and one that just died. 

But before we get to our heavyweight match-up let’s look at why I’ve put them in the ring together.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid. It’s always about the economy. Well, usually. Understanding economics can help your screenwriting greatly.  

First let me clarify that if you’re looking for “The Economics of Screenwriting” (how much you can get paid for screenwriting)  then check out Craig Mazin’s article at The Artful Writer

Few things are as primal in our lives as the economy. Wall Street’s recent shake-up joins a long list of economic upheaval throughout history. Just so we’re on the same page, the word economy flows down from the Greek meaning “house-hold management.” I mean it to include how people, businesses, villages, towns, cities and countries manage resources such as money, materials and natural resources. 

That is a wide path indeed. It’s why college football coach Nick Saban is on the cover of the September 1, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine as they explain why he is worth $32 million dollars to the University of Alabama. Why is the economy center stage once again in the most recent presidential election? Because… it’s always the economy, stupid.

Looking back you’ll see economics at the core issue of not only Enron, Iraq, 911 and the great depression but world wars, famines, and even the Reformation. I’m not sure how much further we can look back than Adam and Eve, but that whole apple/fruit thing in the garden had huge economic (as well as theological) ramifications. (In fact, it’s been said that there is more written in the Bible about money than about salvation.)    

There is no question that economics plays a key role in films as well — in production as well as content. On some level it’s almost always about the economy. This first dawned on me when I saw Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” for the first time and I realized the thread of money in it. Then I read Ibsen’s play  “An Enemy of the People” and noticed the economic theme there. They I started noticing it everywhere in plays, novels and movies.

From the mayor’s perspective the real danger of Bruce the shark in Jaws is he threatens the whole economy of the island town. In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney takes the boat back out because money is tight. Dustin Hoffman auditions as a women in Tootsie because he can’t get work as a male actor. Once you see this you see it everywhere in movies. 

Here is a quick random list where money, need to pay bills, lack of a job, greed and/or some form of economics play a key part in the story:

Chinatown
Scarface
Titanic
Sunset Blvd.
Tootsie
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella 
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Rocky 
Jaws
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
Big
Greed
Body Heat
Falling Down
The Godfather
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 
The Jerk
Gone with the Wind
The Verdict 
Gone with the Wind 
The Grapes of Wrath
Risky Business
Do the Right Thing
Hoop Dreams 
Rain Man
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Gold Rush
Home Alone
Babette’s Feast
The Incredibles
Castway
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 
Rollover 

And it’s not limited to dramatic films. It’s hard to watch Hoops Dreams, Ken Burns’ The West, or any Michael Moore documentary and not connect it to economics.

So if you’re struggling with a story or struggling what to write, open up that door that explores economics. You don’t have to write The Wealth of Nations, but at least explore some aspect of it.  Join Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and other great writers who tackled that monster.

One thing living in the Midwest the past five years has done is help me understand how the world works economically. Because on a small level you see when John Deere is selling tractors locally, nationally and globally it helps the housing market here as the standard of living increases. The Midwest was the only place to to see homes appreciate last quarter. (Other parts of the country saw a 2 to 36% drop.)  But that wasn’t always the case.

When the farming crisis hit in the mid-eighties and John Deere (Cedar Valley’s largest employer) laid off 10,000 of it’s 15,000 employees and people were walking away from their homes. A film that came out of that era was the 1984 Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange film Country filmed right here in Black Hawk County. (By the way John Deere the company celebrates today 90 years being in this area. If you’ve ever eaten food they’ve had some role in it along the way.)

Three years later Oliver Stone’s film Wall St. came out the same year Black Monday occurred as stock markets around the world crashed. It was the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history since the great depression. (It only ranks #5 now.)  So here we are 20 years later still trying to figure it all out as two of the top ten largest stock market drops have been in the last two weeks. (Sept 29 update: Make that three of the top ten stock market drops have occurred in the last two weeks.)

(I’m sure Stone felt good when Wall St. first came out, kinda of like “I told you so.” But on the DVD commentary Michael Douglas said that he often told by stock brokers that they got into the business because of the Gekko character he played. Douglas said he doesn’t understand because he was the bad guy. But how many of those guys now in positions of leadership in the financial crisis had Gekko as their hero? To quote writer/professor Bill Romanowski one more time, “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”

The news will tell us what happened, critics will tell us why it happened, and it’s up to writers to tell us what it means. For years now I have noticed in many different states that more often than not when I go into a convenience store I see someone buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets and I ask myself, “What does this say about about the direction we are heading?”

Screenwriting is a place where we can pose those questions –and the playwright Ibsen said it was enough to ask the question.  So get busy asking questions. And if the economy gets worse remember this Carlos Stevens quote:

”Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”

On the opposite end of Hollywood from Gordon Gekko is Paul Newman. If there ever was an example of a talented actor/director and giving businessman/ social entrepreneur it was Ohio-born and raised Newman who passed away last night. Newman’s films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict will always be favorites of mine.

“I had no natural gift to be anything–not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches–not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
                                                                                            Paul Newman 

 

(Newman’s Midwest roots extend to performing in summer stock theaters in Wisconsin and Illinois. And an Iowa connection is his last Academy Award nomination was for his role in The Road to Perdition which was based on the graphic novel by Iowa writer Max Allen Collins. And don’t forget that the Newman’s Own label was inspired by Cedar Rapids artist Grant Woods’ American Gothic.

I find it interesting that the three largest legendary film actors coming up in the 50s were all from the Midwest; Marlon Brando (Nebraska), James Dean (Indiana) along with Newman.)

Gavin the lawyer Newman played in the David Mamet scripted The Verdict says words that are just as relevant today as when they we spoken a couple decades ago: “You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, ‘Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…’ We become tired of hearing people lie.”

The world is upside down when we pay executives millions in golden parachutes when they drive a company into the ground. And that’s after they lied about the about the companies financial record along with their hand picked spineless board of directors. And after they’ve cashed in their own inflated stocks while the stockholders and employees are shortchanged.

But how nice to see a company like Newman’s Own whose entire profits from salad dressing and all natural food products are donated to charities. The company motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” To date Newman and his company have generated more than $250 million to thousands of charities worldwide. 

“What could be better than to hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are?
                                                                                                      Paul Newman

P.S. Robert Redford had hoped he and Newman would be able to make one last film together and had bought the rights to Des Moines, Iowa born and raised Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods

“I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn’t decide if we were too old to do it,” said Redford. “The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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