another way films are different from novels; a fun puzzle

19 November 2009, 7:44 am

With the screening of Welcome to Academia at the Brattle we got a survey from the film-makers full of stock intro-course questions, like “Which character did you find easiest to relate to? Why?”*

It was so hard to be constructive.

Kirk Davis and Elzbieta Szoka seem to have concocted their dark comedy** of sexual and power dynamics in a small liberal arts college in ignorance of the fact that every single white male mid-life crisis victim employed by a small liberal arts college has written at least one novel on the same topic, a great many of which have actually been published. Not only does Davis and Szoka’s script perpetuate many treadworn clichés of the academic politics novel***, but it’s also marred by clunky and unconvincing dialogue. It suggests to me that while the authors might have observed some of the power struggles while they were matriculated somewhere or other, they didn’t really understand enough of what they saw to write about it from the faculty member’s perspective.

Generally, I think novelists and film-makers are expected to improve over time.*** I’m certainly more lenient when I review a debut novel. But a debut novel requires far less effort to bring forth than a debut film. In many cases only the author and a handful of editors need to buy in to the delusion, whereas even an independent film like Welcome to Academia has a substantial cast and crew.

A film is also far less mutable. Plenty of authors have substantially revised early novels, or labored to keep them out of print. With film — assuming the expense of re-shooting is out-of-the-question — the creators are limited to reworking whatever wound up in the cameras.

So if you had all the film stock from Welcome to Academia sitting in front of you, and a modest editing budget, how could you make a good movie from it? My idea (sparked by a comment in the post-screening discussion; I can’t take full credit) would be to rip-off Guy Maddin’s Careful: convert the stock to black & white or sepia, digitally introduce scratches. Make the soundtrack crackly. Ditch all the current music and go for orchestral melodrama. Interpose title cards between the scenes. By emulating the feel of early talkies, I think you could make a virtue of the already stagey performances, and make the audience more forgiving of the cartoonish, shallow characterizations.

Two notes:

  • Even though I haven’t enjoyed all of the films I’ve seen during the current Eye Opener series, I’ve really enjoyed the series itself. The lively discussions afterward make for a fun experience even (or maybe especially) if the film itself is lacking, and I’m definitely looking forward to more Eye Openers.
  • Neither my wonderful fiancée nor I will write about last week’s screening of The New Year Parade, because we didn’t get to see it, because we were waiting for a roofing contractor who never called to say he wouldn’t show (and incidentally, introduced a leak where there had been none before).

* paraphrased, because I turned my survey in like a good do-bee.

** I think they were shooting for “satire,” but it’s not barbed enough to qualify.

*** the women’s studies professor is the most offensive, even if The Wire’s Callie Thorne turns in the film’s best performance in the role.

**** the people with exactly one good novel in them are not actually novelists. But contrast with rock music, where more proficiency does not necessarily imply more artistically successful and some acts struggle throughout their career to recapture the authenticity of their earliest recordings.

One comment on “another way films are different from novels; a fun puzzle”

  1. amy

    I have to disagree that turning this into a silent film would have improved it. The script was flat, predictable, and trite; no amount of cinematographic artistry can help if the story and dialogue are horrible.

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