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Look Backward, Move Forward

March 9th, 2010


Janus Face



Every screenplay should tell a tale in a way that draws the audience in and pulls them along with the story; it doesn’t mean that the story always moves forward: sometimes it stands still (think Gus Van Sant’s nihilistic “Gerry,” or Vincent Gallo’s oddball “The Brown Bunny”), or perhaps it actually moves backwards, like “Memento” or “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” But usually, the film’s story and plot move forward… 

But that’s not necessarily the way the medium of film is best understood. Sure, looking forward yields the new, the untried, the unique – unless you remember the past and realize it’s actually been done before. All you really need to do is go back to cinema history to recognize the forerunners of today’s ‘cutting-edge’ films.’ “Paranormal Activity” was preceded by 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project,” which owes a great deal to various cinema precedents like “The House on Haunted Hill” or even German expressionist filmmaker Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligiri.” Stylized camera angles, expressionistic lighting, deliberate pacing and strategically-timed action is nothing new: if you look backward, you’ll see it’s all somehow been done before..  Granted, CGI and creative visual effects may mean that the scare will carry a heavier scream decibel level, but the bottom line is that someone’s probably thought of it before; so now, you, as a writer, can improve on it! 

So the best way to write a good new movie is to know lots of old movies. And, as far as I’m concerened, the older and worse the better: I’ve always enjoyed finding the ‘seams’ in a bad movie, so I’ll confess I watch as many ‘bad’ movies as good ones. Sure, it’s fun to watch a classic like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” but it’s just as much fun to watch an obscure wanna-be, like “Zabriskie Point,” a ‘failed experiment’ by eminent Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. (By the way, if you want a great experience in ‘existential cinema,’ watch Antonioni’s compelling collaboration with actor/pal Jack Nicholson, “The Passenger.” Just don’t try to understand everything you see – that’s the secret of Antonioni: some things are just too enigmatic to comprehend fully.)  

Antonioni and Nicholson on the set of "The Passenger," 1975


But if you want to understand the future of film… look backward. See a startling image? It’s the future rushing to complement everything you’ve known before.

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