Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

Belinda Raguesto Returns from Switzerland

The L’Aiguille Verte and Le Mole mountains at sunrise, Geneva, Switzerland, December 16, 2019 (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Film executives, in their multitudes, are the inevitable dross of any successful endeavor. With too much cash on hand, the progenitors of the successful business imagine the ability to delegate drudgery while retaining control. They hire experts who hire experts; but they can delegate neither inspiration nor final authority, only the power to say “No.” This, in fact, is a good definition of a film executive: one who lacks the power to say “Yes.” 

No movie was ever made out of “the Development Process.” Films have always been made because someone with power bet on someone with a record. 

Since the Hegemony of the studios (whether MGM or Netflix), the person in power has usually been an ennobled bureaucrat. In any case, he or she, like any hegemon, at some point found
it good to enjoy the perquisites of power by gathering Loyal Underlings, or “henchpersons.” 

But (see King Lear) the Loyal Underlings, of course, developed, each, his or her own agenda. They saw they could most easily gain power from not making films, insisting on more funds to explore, to research, or to “reach out” to: women, gays, African Americans, the disadvantaged — in short, they made the perennially new discovery of the power of passivity, of “the Committee.”

Everybody happy, well, I should say.

Now, as one actually involved in making films, as writer or director, I came up, through long years, against a raft of studio executives, and had lunch with them all and the horse on which they rode.

I gained considerable weight but realized that no deal was ever closed at Lunch. Why? The Great (the decision-makers) were not going to devote a lunch hour to the company of Stoop Workers. 

No, The Great do not lunch with their gardeners, however beautiful the azaleas. 

Yes, but why, I, a fresh young thing, wondered, were the lunching studio executives even so such fools? Did they not see, could they not read the script I was offering (a masterpiece)?

Answer, no, they could not, as that was not their job. And, I always thought that they lacked imagination.

But, no, they, like you and me, are full of imagination; we all spend our days dreaming and scheming, of wealth, revenge, glory, love, and so on. That’s why we have movies, to let somebody else carry the weight for two hours.

The executives, being human and full of desires both wicked and inevitable, possessed imagination. But even should they find it in themselves to imagine success through supporting scripts that might bring happiness to many and wealth to some, they were restrained from the step by a lack of understanding. They did not know how to read a script.

Nobody in Hollywood, save some directors, has ever known how; and few, in days of yore, and probably fewer today, even bother. A film is green-lighted on the basis of its cost, cast, subject, and director. The reading of a script is, a brief review will confirm, considered superfluous; as is a script itself.

The script actually exists to describe to the cameraman what to shoot; and to tell the actors what to say. Everything else is beside the point. No actor ever reads stage directions, and most directors allow the actors to “improvise” (babble) as such is likely much more interesting than the written dialogue.

Writers were praised for “writing action,” or “writing steamy love scenes,” but both of these (essentially identical) treats are always and only made up by the director, with no reference to the script at all.

Few have ever understood the nature of a script. It is a recipe. Here are three recipes:

1) An approach plate: 

It tells a pilot, landing on Runway 27 at Carson City, Nev., one way to do so.  

A pilot will take it in at a glance, understanding that it is the simplest way to describe a procedure, which, when followed, will deliver him to Runway 27. Finally, it means only “Fly here, descend to this altitude, then fly there.”

2) Music in a “fakebook,” a compilation for a musician asked to play requests.

We note the arrangement has only the treble (the melody) and chord symbols above. No amount of imagination will allow the untutored to play the piece out of a fakebook; it requires a modest technical understanding of the cycle of fifths.

The closest the untutored can come to a mechanical understanding of a script is its comparison to a recipe, an approach chart, or a fakebook. A recipe details the ingredients, and the procedures for their combination, which, if followed, would result in the desired product. 

3) Here is a recipe for sponge cake.

But it takes an unwonted effort of will on the part of the executive to refrain from taking a bite of the recipe, and discarding it because it’s supposed to be sponge cake but “it tastes like paper.”

The film executive, chained to his rock, can know nothing of the joy of imagining, in the recipe, the majestic dramatic-or-comedic triumph the finished product might be.

But the life is not devoid of entertainment, for the scripts that cross his or her Ikea or Biedermeier desk may hold the interest, as they are, in effect, Supermarket Novels preceded by the magic words: Fade In.

E.g.: 

Fade In

A low warm wind, its warmth preferable to the hot blast which had, until yesterday’s weather change, parched this arid plain, brings with it, now, at sunset, a desert sweetness, flowing into the open patio of that ancient hacienda, in the Raguesto Family since the days of the Spanish land grants. Allowed to go to ruin in those wars which plagued Texas for one hundred years, it was reconstructed in the Twenties, when Benito, the last of the poor Raguestos, a dying subsistence farmer, struck oil on the land, to which Belinda, his great-great-great-granddaughter, has now come for the first time — returned from a sheltered upbringing in the convent schools of Switzerland.

She lowers her dressing case to the dry, cracked soil, and looks out over the endless miles, their only relief an odd cactus.

Belinda

. . . huh . . .

One, of course, may not film the scent on the wind, or how today’s temperature may have differed from yesterday’s, or that the land was once this or that, and now it is not. Or that Belinda is the inheritress. None of it is filmable. It cannot be shot, acted, nor, thus, perceived, by any audience.

Why, then, is it part of something called “a screenplay”?

Were it an actual screenplay, it would read like a recipe. Thus:

Fade In:

Ext. Bleak Barren Southwestern Plain — Day 

A soignée young woman in couture traveling clothes lowers her posh valise to the ground, and looks around her.

But, the executive says, “I don’t get it. Why is she there, what does she want, and what in the world is going to happen next?” The ability to inculcate those questions in the minds of the audience is, of course, the job of the dramatist. It is the creation of a recipe. When done well it can pique the interest of the actual customer, the viewer, without whose support both the writer and the executives would starve.

Our Constitution is, in essence, a recipe in the form of a contract. The contract is between our citizens and the representatives we elect. It is a recipe for cooperation, to which we citizens can refer, whose contractual terms we can then, theoretically, enforce to bring about the results for which the document was intended: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is no more a “living breathing document” than is the approach plate or the recipe for sponge cake. It is intended as a protection against those who consider themselves wise enough to disregard it; and to protect ourselves against the impulse to credit their wisdom — to which error we are particularly prone in times of anxiety.

The lyricist John Burke, in his intro to “Pennies from Heaven,” wrote in 1936, a deep Depression year, “No one appreciated a sky that was always blue, and no one congratulated a moon that was always new. So it was planned that they should vanish now and then, and you must pay before you get them back again.”

Milton Friedman taught that the dismal science, economics, was, finally, arithmetic; for which work he won the Nobel Prize, and for which he deserves the gratitude of all job-seekers other than economists.

When our Congress pauses in its rain dance, we will find that it did not rain pennies from heaven, but that perhaps the dark clouds will have blown away some of the executives.

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