Happy Birthday, Orson. May 6, 1915

“It has no boundary… It is a ribbon of dream.”

– On the Movies

“Everyone will always owe him everything.” – Godard

In Ray Kurzweil’s fantasia, Orson Welles is with us today at one hundred. But the great ones remain regardless – nanobots or no, and Orson Welles’s work keeps unfolding, keeps revealing itself, keeps offering new surprises and fresh discoveries. How much he accomplished in how many spheres remains Herculean. There were some six thousand productions in radio, theater, film and television. No other artist can claim numbers within even an order of magnitude of that achievement.

What’s more, this summer we’ll have a great deal to say on this blog and elsewhere about his civil rights work – he was the first director in history to stage an all African and African American version of Shakespeare, sometimes called ‘The Voodoo Macbeth” – a massive success during the Harlem Renaissance. He directed Raisin in the Sun a year later – both shows are recounted by James Baldwin in his indispensable book on our national divide as seen through the theater and cinema: “The Devil Finds Work”. His final radio program through the summer of 1946 centered around the brutal beating in South Carolina of a black soldier, Isaac Woodard,  and led directly to a federal investigation and finally to President Truman’s integration of the federal work force and shortly afterward the entire armed services.

Still, while his political work remains largely uncelebrated, the artistry continues to grow, and I have learned as much from Welles as from any other artist, including Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Wordsworth, Dali, Nabokov, Page – thinker or craftsman. My catalogue of insights inspired by him fills several notebooks, so I’ll mention just two of the indispensable lessons I’ve learned studying Welles’s films these last twenty odd years.

First, it’s possible for narrative arts to be baroque and commonplace at the same time – in both character and conceit. It’s a rare sensitivity that can marry the majestic and the mundane and find in each characteristics of the other. The dynamic is abundant in Shakespeare and Dickens; otherwise it’s a rarity, and it showed diminishing returns with the fade of romanticism toward the end of the Victorian era. Welles was the first (was he the only?), to show us that these extremes could live comfortably even among the various austere and internal modernist idioms of the twentieth century. Kafka’s particularly intricate banality, to point to one example, was called and raised in Welles cubist masterworld rendering of ‘The Trial’ – it’s an intuitive adaptation to set beside Kubrick’s Lolita.

Second, having spent his formative years in the theater, Welles always understood that the camera wasn’t a single perspective, or a single viewer, but that inside the theater of that black box, in row after row behind the ground glass, sat eight or nine hundred people. He used the camera accordingly, and in every shot Welles ever made he maintained that pronounced and affectionate awareness of his audience.

Both of these intuitive capacities go to the Power of Scale, one of the most potent tools in the Conceptual Screenwriting box.

Happy Birthday, Orson.

JP Saladin

Tom Swift V


Structures and Scaffolding: The Seven Course Meal

Beckett was known to answer his door to guests with a bottle of Jameson’s in one hand, fingers of the other capped by shot glasses, held up like glassine flowers. Visitors would pluck one and he’d pour. “There,” he’d say, raising his own glass. “It helps.” Narrative Structures are Everywhere.

i. Cocktail Hour. Apéritifs aren’t necessarily a ‘course’ in the fully prepared seven course meal of traditional French service, but most menus open with them, and there is something to be said for the shock, the chill, the florals, the tickle, the bubble and the loosening of tongues and emotions that comes with a drink before dinner. A Martini, a French 75, or an Old Fashioned with its muddled sugar cube, bitters, cherry and orange (topped with a few fingers of bourbon), the conviviality of a glass raised opens more than the palette to the opportunities of congress promised by a long meal.

French 75 For Screenwriters, we can imagine that cocktails correspond to the opening logo, the first strains of music and the first images – in some of our favorite movies, purely abstracted: the opening fences upon fences at Xanadu in Citizen Kane; the breezy outer garden of Howards End; the rolling, glistening and twittering Enterprise in JJ Abrahms’ recent Star Trek. 1. The traditional first gustatory course, once the guests have taken their seats, comes under the delightful name ‘Amuse Bouche’: amusements for the mouth. These are most often presented as single bites or sips served in spoons, small glasses, tiny plates, or on wooden or steel skewers or small forks. At his restaurant in Trump Plaza in NYC, Jean Georges Vongerichten says this course “is the best way for a great chef to express his or her big ideas in small bites”. [It is interesting to note that incantatory Amuse Bouche has its twin at the end of the meal with the similarly prudent Petit Fours. But we will come to that!] Amuse-Bouche In a script we can think of this course as the first great image of the story, the signature and iconic shot establishing the story’s ‘mise en scene’ a gesture that strives to achieve what Wordsworth said of the best poetry (I’m paraphrasing), “that it is great by the degree that it must teach you how to read it.” Continuing with our previous examples, this would be in Kane (a film obsessed with scaling effects), the utterance of ‘Rosebud’ and the smashing of the the Snow Globe along with the so humble miniature house inside it; in Howards End the first glimpse of the amber lit interior of the country house full of laughter, the sneaking of the lovers into the garden, and their first kiss against the oak; and in Star Trek the obscene, menacing entrance from the wormhole of the Romulan mining ship and the breathless reaction it evokes on the bridge of the doomed USS Kelvin. 2. Soup. This course serves to settle the palette and increase the appetite. It should continue the theme of the dinner, but with a calming effect; it presents a few moments of hesitation, reflection and anticipation – anticipation almost to the degree of delayed gratification. It is a slow, deliberate course that invites curiosity and conversation. The Soup Course In Kane this corresponds to the reflective March of Time News Reel (which in a moment will be rejected by the News Reel staff as too impersonal); in Howards End it’s the scene around the house next morning when the promises of the previous evening still seems full of possibility; in Star Trek it is the introduction of the childhood lives of Kirk and Spock in Nebraska and on Vulcan – subtly suggesting their altered histories and their future stories. [Tomorrow: Appetizers through Sorbet!]

Beyond the Hero’s Journey: Civilization and Its Discontents

In this interview on “Democracy Now” Matt Taibbi speaks to the institutional, intertribal goo that clings to big corporate cases and their prosecutors and is abetted by the chokingly anxious confusion that the public – that’s you, me and everyone we know – still feels about BBF: Big Bank Fraud.

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 8.34.49 AM

It’s not enough that we get ‘The Insider’ once a decade or that we have to rely only and forever on Michael Moore to get these stories out to wide audiences. A good start to telling these stories lucidly enough to help the public stay alert in the jury box is Matt’s Book, a worthwhile companion to Piketty.

Tom Swift V, JP Saladin

Beyond the Hero’s Journey: Creation Stories

Usually an animal – crow, jackal, serpent or coyote – will be instrumental in the third trauma of creation – exile from the garden.

What are those lions plotting?


The Golden Age — Lucas Cranach the Elder.

From Biblioklept.