Galloway on Film: The Romance of the Word

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Steven Spielberg accepts Thalberg Award in 1987

Thirty years ago, Steven Spielberg warned us not to lose our love of words. Sadly, nobody paid attention.

In March 1987, after a rip-roaring beginning to his career that had led many in the Motion Picture Academy to dismiss him as an upstart, the 40-year-old Steven Spielberg was given a make-good, if a rather impressive one: the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, handed to producers for a lifetime’s worth of work.

The director was at the pinnacle of his career, but was still more highly regarded for his box office than his artistry; he remained in many minds one of the “kids with beards,” in Billy Wilder’s memorable phrase, fresh off a slew of blockbusters (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark), but uncloaked with the mantle of greatness that wouldn’t fall on him until 1993’s Schindlers List, and the breathtaking invasion sequence of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan.

It’s hard to believe the upstart is now 70 years old, and that he just celebrated his birthday Dec. 18, an elder statesman already, the only figure accepted as such industry-wide.

Thinking of him the other day, my mind turned not just to his films, but also to his remarks on receiving the Thalberg, perhaps the first moment when he addressed a truly global audience.

Like many, I expected him to use his speech to speak of his love of film, or name the giants on whose shoulders he stood or outline a way forward for an industry that — then as ­now — lived in fear of its imminent demise. Instead, he caught me by surprise.

“I’m told Irving Thalberg worshipped writers,” he said. “And that’s where it all begins. That we are first and foremost storytellers, and without, as he called it, ‘the photoplay,’everybody is simply improvising. He also knew that a script is more than just a blueprint. That the whole idea of movie magic is that interweave of powerful image and dialogue and performance and music that can never be separated, and when it’s working right, can never be duplicated or ever forgotten.

“Most of my life,” he continued, “has been spent in the dark watching movies. Movies have been the literature of my life. [But] the literature of Irving Thalberg’s generation was books and plays. They read the great words of great minds. And I think, in our romance with technology and our excitement at exploring all the possibilities of film and video…we’ve partially lost something that we now have to reclaim. I think it’s time to renew our romance with the word.”

Our romance with the word. A fine expression, but how dated it seems today.

It’s not just that Hollywood’s wordsmiths, the screenwriters, remain low on the totem pole, but also that words themselves no longer matter quite as much, either in the entertainment business or the world at large.

You can see that in everything from the paucity of our vocabulary to the contradictory promises of a president-elect whose words shift shape from day to day, seemingly without consequence. Once, words wielded the same strength as swords; now they seem perishable, fungible — and every other –ible you care to name.

The film business, where everything begins with the word, seems to be spinning faster and faster away from valuing the words themselves.

Tony Gilroy might have earned more than $5 million for his work on Rogue One, but it’s the Star Wars brand, not Gilroy’s, that’s getting kudos for the mega-hit. Simon Kinberg may have been brought in as the fix-it guy for the X-Men franchise, but he was there to produce, not merely write. Even Spielberg, who has worked with such eminent scribes as Tony Kushner and Steven Zaillian, remains the dominant figure on his pictures, whose writers are often perceived (though not by him) as second bananas.

“I’m as culpable as anyone in having exalted the image…at the expense of the word,” he admitted in that Thalberg speech. It took his genuine wisdom to see it.

Only in television do writers reign as kings, and maybe that’s why the best creative work is now being done on TV rather than in film. But their words are still seen as a blueprint, rather than things to be cherished for themselves.

Writers matter less because reading matters less. And the less we read, the less important writing becomes.

I can’t think of the last time anyone raved about a book. The only one of late that got any buzz in the entertainment world was Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, an oral history appreciated more for its stories than its style.

Loving words as I do, I was still taken by surprise when two friends showed up to (separate) lunches armed with books. Needless to say, both were writers (and distinguished ones at that). Nicholas Meyer was reading Laura Auricchio’s The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered; Nick Kazan had a collection of essays from the Paris Review.

It would be foolish to say there are no film writers doing exceptional work. But they’re an increasingly endangered species, and one wonders when the industry will learn to protect them.

Last week, when the Writers Guild announced it would give its career-achievement nod, the Laurel Award, to Oliver Stone, I wondered how many other writer-directors will get the chance to shine like him and stamp their identity on their screenplays as profoundly as he has.

Without them, the movie business is in danger of repeating the errors of the French film industry in the wake of the New Wave. Back then, directors were elevated so high, writers fell by the wayside. Perhaps as a result, no French director has since emerged to rival Truffaut and Godard.

It’s not just the film industry that’s to blame. Twitter and the Twitter universe are playing a role, too. We’re so used to words being used in ways brief and fast, we’re falling out of the habit of engaging with anything long and slow. Soon, readers will get bored by anything that consumes more than 140 characters. Maybe Twitter is the haiku of its day, but I haven’t seen the proof.

What Twitter has in clarity, it lacks in mystery. F. Scott Fitzgerald warned that things would perish for being too easily understood; but Twitter — just like the film business — wants clarity at the expense of all else.

Great art, however, only slowly reveals its meanings, which deepen and alter over time and, like great perfumes, merge with our own scent. We need to return to reading to know how to sniff out their layers.

“Only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers,” Spielberg cautioned.

Watch out, folks. That generation is about to go MIA. 

For more Galloway on Film, please check out the archive.

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