By Scott Ross
Two deaths in the news within a couple of days of each other captured my attention last month. One of them filled me with sadness. The other…
As an atheist, I respect life too much ever to gloat over anyone’s death. But I would have to verge on sainthood not to feel that the world might have been better off had certain people never entered it.
Diane Miller Disney died on the 19th of November at 79, from complications that set in after a fall this past September. She seems to have been a remarkable person in many ways. One example: Her championing of Frank Gehry’s design for the Walt Disney Concert Hall ensured its completion as Gehry envisioned it. As Christopher Hawthorne noted in his Los Angeles Times appreciation of the Hall on its 10th anniversary, “Only when Walt Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller made a final gift contingent on Gehry’s full control of the design was the impasse broken.”
David Colker’s Times obituary of Disney puts it rather more bluntly:
Miller used two powerful weapons — her name and her money — to keep Gehry on the job, and she didn’t let up until she knew his position was safe.
There is no shame in this, surely, and much to appreciate, particularly in a woman who shunned the natural limelight (to coin an oxymoron) to which she was uneasy heir as the daughter of Walt. She was able to wield extensive monies in support of the things she cared about, and did so. When one thinks of the plethora of hereditary blowhards in the world who take and take from everyone — but especially from the poor, and from those whose cheap labor supports them and their reactionary ideals (the Walton family springs immediately to mind) one can scarcely help admiring Diane Miller. That she helped found the Disney Family Museum as well as the Disney Concert Hall largely, perhaps, from her sense that her father’s memory was in danger of being lost amid the perennial hoopla, good and bad, that regularly attends coverage of the corporation that bears his name, hardly diminishes her very real passion: Her philanthropic work on behalf of concert music in San Francisco and the Napa Valley, and exposing the young to it, are only tangentially related to her father, if at all.
I was interested to read that Miller was horrified by a book I thought superb, Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Well, naturally. Walt was her father, a man she adored. And while Gabler’s book was by no means hackwork or a concerted smear on his memory — no Marc Elliot he — I was until recently unaware of how many factual errors it appears to contain. I’m sure I noted a few as I read it, animation being one of my greatest passions, but they did not sink the book for me, as they appear to have for others. Michael Barrier, author of a competing (and less well-read) biography, has compiled some fairly damning examples.
But Barrier, if his blog is any guide, appears to have a horror of “liberalism,” particularly of the Eastern variety, and so resents Gabler’s take on Disney, rebutting as it does so many of the myths — self-generated, or indulged in after Disney’s death by the company and exacerbated by popular misconception — that have accreted to the man.* If Gabler gets some of the details wrong, I can live with that, however uneasily. Others will correct them, and have done so. But the reach of the book, and its attempt to comprehend a man of so many vast contradictions — and, it would seem, so much dissatisfaction with the world and frustration at his own inability to create any world he could relax in for long — struck this reader as exhilarating, even profound. That Gabler’s approach may have caused the Disney family grief, or anger, I can well understand, and sympathize with. And as Diane Disney Miller seems to have been a lovely woman, of great heart, I am sorry for that. I hope in time to undertake a more critical re-examination of Gabler’s book.
One book I will be happy never to assay again, however, is the now-late Sid Field’s. It is a truism that no one man, or text, can be blamed for the sickening state of American movies, of course, but in Field’s case, I am tempted to make an exception.
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Field’s hideously deified “bible” of the craft, made its appearance in 1979. Within five years, the adult movie was dead.
I am not laying the demise of a form that sustained Hollywood, and its audience, for 60 years (despite the overwhelming impulse of the businessmen to check it that kept us, until the late 1960s and early ’70s, from enjoying the sort of cinematic honesty that is taken for granted in countries other than our own, and which still protects tender American sensibilities from such horrors as having to acknowledge that children have genitals) solely at Fields’ feet. The massive success of Star Wars, and Hollywood’s slavering desire to replicate it, are as responsible for the shift as anything this self-styled “guru” of mediocrity wrote, or published.
Still… Consider Fields’ two basic theses: All screenplays must have a three-act structure, and all scripts must have regularly spaced “plot points.” And he has examples! Famous examples! Pick any random thousand movies and look for ways to cram your dicta into them. Doubtless, you can create any sort of drivel in the form of a rubric and shoehorn whatever contrivances you wish onto their surfaces. But for all that Field championed items such as Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown, his horribly influential Screenplay relied upon the formulaic in all things. It demanded the clichéd; it deified hackwork. That Chinatown itself violates nearly every one of Field’s precepts for a successful screenplay is merely rancid icing on an especially indigestible cake.
The influence of Fields, and his absurdly dogmatic book, on two generations of screenwriters has been drear. Many defend Screenplay via the spurious notion that while, yes, Fields had a formula, it is those without talent who abuse that formula, and who are to blame for the bad rap some of Field’s readers (such as myself) have given him. But the movie industry took Field, and his specious formulas, to heart all too readily, to the point where nothing that deviates from them has stood much chance of being produced by a Hollywood studio in 30 years. Some very gifted screenwriters have come to grief employing these peremptory notions, right along with the hacks. In the Fields version of the movies, dangerously individualistic ideas are to be scorned, the arresting narrative flourish that eschews the rigidly commonplace is to be avoided, and endings that do not resound with happiness are the worst of all committable sins. (And where does his precious Chinatown fall on that scale?) †
In the Fieldsian universe, there must never be a Greed, or a Magnificent Ambersons (let alone a Citizen Kane.) Or a Klute, a Nashville, a Cabaret, a Godfather, a GoodFellas. Brigid O’Shaughnassy must get off at the end, and fall into Sam Spade’s arms. McCabe must rise from that snowbank and rescue Mrs. Miller from her opium dream. The Blind Girl simply has to fall in love with the Tramp. Scottie will pull Madeline back from the edge of the tower, Norma Desmond will refrain from shooting Joe Gillis in time to show him the error of his ways and send him back to Betty Schaefer’s arms, the Wild Bunch will ride off together into the sunset with Robert Ryan, and Evelyn Mulwray will escape her father and drive away, laughing, with J.J. Gittes. Endings must be tidy — and, above all, happy. Ambiguities must be expunged. Nihilism and despair must be conquered by the magic wand of positive thinking. Pre-adolescent dreaming must prevail. Dialogue may occasionally be piquant, but shall not be permitted to go over anyone’s head. No shading allowed.
Precisely what has, over the past two or three decades, gradually driven from the theatres of America we who once lived to go to the movies.
So long, Sid. Thanks for all the laughs.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross
*Barrier also has scant respect for Pinocchio, the movie I consider the finest animated feature ever made or for Friz Freleng, whom I regard as one of the four of five certified geniuses of short subject animation. So as Baby June Hovak never said, caveat emptor, everybody.
†Field no doubt would have preferred Towne’s original ending, in which Evelyn does get away, gunning down her incestuous father into the bargain. The climax we now know and, if not love, at least understand and appreciate, was invented by Roman Polanski, and implemented against Towne’s strong objections. Even Harlan Ellison, no mean story-man himself, later leapt to Towne’s defense, citing Polanki’s interference as a prime example of auteurism gone wild when of course it is exactly the opposite: Evidence of what can happen when a great filmmaker brings his personal experience and outlook to bear on already strong material, deepening it. Without that appallingly appropriate ending, Chinatown would be half the movie we remember, and would almost certainly not have attained the classic status it now enjoys. Ellison could have chosen any one of a thousand other such stories, and been on the mark; for him to miss this obvious point, in his zeal to come to the aid of a fellow scribe, is astonishing.