Word is Getting Around

The news is spreading about the Da Vinci Code “Othercott.” This past weekend I attended a seminar in New York for aspiring Christian screenwriters hosted by Act One. Many of those attending had already heard of the plans for attending a film other than DVC on the weekend of May 19. Many were giving the news to those who had already heard it. So far the plan has been publicized on blogs, podcasts and Christian radio stations.

It has also just made the pages of one of America’s premier Catholic publications, Our Sunday Visitor, in an article titled “The Da Vinci Code Wars.” Reporting on Janet Batchler’s “Othercott” initiative, author, Colleen Carroll Campbell, writes:

It’s not a bad idea. America’s movie moguls may be insenstive boors when it comes to religion and morality, but they are acutely aware when it comes to the bottom line. . . In the week before the [Oscars], a poll from MSNBC.com and Zogby International found that 60 percent of Americans believe Hollywood’s values are at odds with those of most Americans. Had Hollywood producers been listening, they might have discovered a reason for our declining interest in our work. But movie moguls are a tone-deaf lot, and in the end, the ring of the cash register may be the only message they can hear. (OSV, April 9, 2006, p. 17).

This initiative is already becoming popular. Stay tuned . . . and don’t forget to go to the movies on May 19!

This is Real “Choice” — and Truly Pro-Life

Here’s some news from the Feminists for Life website:

Feminists for Life supports the Coercive Abortion Prevention Act introduced Thursday, March 16, 2006, by Michigan women legislators. The five-bill package identifies very specific forms of coercion from financial threats to physical violence, which could result in jail time and/or fines. Abortion providers would be required to expressly screen women for coercion, inform coerced women of their rights, and refer them to domestic violence agencies.

“There is nothing pro-choice about having no choice,” said Feminists for Life President Serrin Foster. “Women deserve better than unwanted abortions.”

The legislation stands in stark contrast to a lawsuit—nicknamed “Roe v. Wade for Men”—filed on March 9 in U.S. District Court in Saginaw, Michigan. The suit, supported by the National Center for Men, contends that men should have the choice to “decline fatherhood,” including financial responsibility, in the event of pregnancy. State courts have ruled in the past that any inequity experienced by men is outweighed by society’s interest in ensuring that children get financial support from both parents.

“We have heard from too many women and girls who had unwanted abortions due to threats of withholding financial and emotional support,” said Foster. “Women and girls have repeatedly told us stories of being thrown out of their home by boyfriends, husbands and parents who said they would pay for an abortion, but if she has the child she’d be on her own; employers who found pregnancy and parenting incompatible with the job, educators who tell women they can’t possibly complete their education if they have a child.”

“The worst cases have been those involving not only verbal threats to withhold financial support and emotional support, but those where physical violence has been used against pregnant women,” said Foster.

Why don’t those who claim to be for “choice” ever support legislation like this?

Truth on Trial

Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, are now suing author Dan Brown for plagiarism over his book The Da Vinci Code.

On one side, the authors of the 1982 (supposed) non-fiction best-seller claiming Christ isn’t divine and that the Church is a fraudulent murdering institution, say that Mr. Brown not only stole the conclusions reached in their book, but also copied whole passages. Brown and his lawyers in turn insist that “you can’t copyright history.”

Here’s a snippet of Mark Shea’s DVC blog:

One of my readers astutely pointed out that the authors of Holy Blood Holy Grail seemed to him to be tacitly acknowledging they had written fiction with this suit. After all, nobody sues a World War II historian for stealing the idea that Hitler invaded Poland. That’s because historical events are facts and nobody can lay claim to them as intellectual property. So if it’s an historic “fact” that Jesus was a dead rabbi with a pregnant girlfriend, then what’s the point of suing somebody for saying so? But if it’s a fictional conceit, then the authors of HBHG have every right to sue Brown for stealing their idea.

That’s right — if Baigent and Leigh stick to their claim that their book is non-fiction or history, they are unlikely to get a dime, but if they would simply admit, “all right Dan Brown stole our TOTALLY FICTIONAL concept and plot,” then the Da Vinci Code author could end up paying them a hug amount of money.

Come on guys, you know you want to. . . Think of all the money – and if you do, the world’s Christians will get satisfaction.

Will greed win out over bigotry? Stay tuned . . .

The Celluoid Ceiling

So the Oscars are over now, and no time to do a post-morten on them, except I’m very glad that Crash won over the terminally dull Brokeback Mountain. Which led to a number of critics and commentators lamenting that Hollywood lacks the guts to salute Ang Lee’s “courageous” film about love between men. Which brings me to . . .

Forget the gay cowboys, folks. As one of the people accepting an award for Memoirs of a Geisha said, what really takes courage in Hollywood is to make a film about women.

Or even by women. Or with women involved. A week or so ago I read some startling statistics about women in Hollywood. They’re contained in a report called “The Celluoid Ceiling” by Dr. Martha Lauzen. The latest statistics available, they deal with the top 250 films of 2004. You can read the full report here. But here are some samples:

Women comprised 16% of all executive procucers, producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, and editors on these films — a decline from 19% in 2000.

Women comprised 5% of all directors on these films, down 6 percentage points from 11% in 2000. In other words, the precentage of women directors was slightly less than half that of 2000.

Women comprised 12% of all screenwriters, down from 14% in 2000.

If you ask me, those are very discouraging statistics. Women are not even making slight gains in Hollywood; in fact, their role is declining. And for a woman who wants to be a screenwriter, especially so. I’ve heard a number of explanations from people in the trenches in Hollywood. Most are quick to deny that there’s any real sexism. You see, they say, women just aren’t as agressive as men in pursuing what they want, including in Hollywood. According to Greg Beal, director of the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, about equal numbers of women and men enter the fellowship competition, but women don’t enter as many scripts as men, who tend to enter two or three scripts at a time. So that’s why more men win!

Forgive me for not buying it, but I can’t help thinking that something else is coming into play here. It’s well known that Hollwyood execs are largely male (women have actually made more inroads here than anywhere, but evidently not enough). They tend to write for a young male audience: 13 to 29, or 18 to 34 are some ballpark figures. They claim that this is the most profitable audience for films — though the truth of the connection, as one insider has pointed out, may simply be that most execs themselves are males under the age of 34. Therefore there are some favored genres in Hollywood, comedy, horror, action, sci-fi — and they aren’t genres in which women play a large role, or generally have much interest, though this is changing. Here’s some interesting advice from a screenwriting magazine, from a guy who has clearly absorbed the mindset:

[Speaking of a high-concept-type comedy] “We’ll naturally have a love interest, but this isn’t a rom-com . . .[she may motivate the hero, but] the story isn’t about her.” He advises writers to avoid writing “pages and pages” of romantic scenes between them, because after all, she can’t be allowed to take away from the “hero.” (“Write the Logline First,” Michael T. Kuciak, Script Magazine, September-October 2005).

Yet another writer whose name I can’t recall, adivised us in an earlier issue of the same magazine that though in a romantic comedy, the focus should be equally on both partners in all their neurotic glory, “in a straight comedy, [the female love interest] is just there to make our guy feel good about himself.” In other words, don’t waste any time on characterization of a female lead, unless you’re writing romantic comedy, and for heaven’s sake, don’t give her too much screen time! Did it never occur to him that a comedy can have a female protagonist?

My personal experience is even more discouraging. I’ve submitted a script of mine a couple of times to Triggerstreet.com, a site associated with Kevin Spacey’s production company, where aspiring screenwriters review each other’s work. What I’ve learned there is eye-opening – and not necessarily just about my script. You see, the screenwriters who use the site tend to be predominantly young and male, and to be writing the types of films (action/adventure, horror, sci-fi) that the studios want. They’ve already absorbed the mindset. Several writers have advised other writers that they have too many female characters in their films, which the studios don’t like. Any time someone submits a script that has a female lead (and deals with something other than having stuff blow up), some reviewer is bound sooner or later to say: “Right now I see this as a Lifetime movie for television, not a feature film.” In other words, if it deals with a woman in a prominent role, or is about relationships, it doesn’t belong on the big screen.

My own script, The Marquise, is about a woman and her struggles against a historical background of eighteenth-century Paris. It’s also a romance — very much so — but primarily I consider it a serious epic historical drama. Not so the reviewers. One warned me that “no self-respecting straight male” would be going to such a film, so naturally its box-office potential wasn’t that good. Two others told me that what I was writing was “straight out of a Harlequin romance novel” (this from guys who have obviously never opened a Harlequin romance novel in their lives–how would they know what one of them is like?). At least I was spared the “Lifetime movie” crack.

To be fair, some of my best and most helpful reviews on that site have come from more mature-minded male reviewers. But there is just a mentality in Hollywood that it’s hard from women to combat. No wonder it’s so hard for them to send in their scripts. And not to get noticed when they do. And things don’t look as if they’re going to turn around soon — unless women screenwriters do something about it. But what? Any ideas?

Two Writers

There are many cliches about the artist/writer’s life; one of them is that artists are basically very screwed-up people. In fact, it’s been raised into something of a romantic myth. This seems to have been proven by the fascinating Academy-Award nominated film Capote. Truman Capote, a rejected child who became a flamboyant and out-sized character, always begging for attention and recognition. After becoming fascinated by the story of accused killers Perry White and Richard Hickock, he made it the basis of his most famous book, In Cold Blood.

Capote felt a real kinship with White because of their abused childhoods. But in pursuit of his story, he was drawn into moral compromises that made him even more akin to his subject. He lies, makes promises he doesn’t keep, and manipulates his the two killers, pretending friendship while planning to let them die, as long as he has his account of the murders.

Finally White confesses to the writer that the moment he saw fear in his victim’s face, recognition that he could become a killer, he quickly decided to prove him right — and shot him. Capote, listening, seems to become at least partly aware that his own seeking for recognition has made him a monster. The titles at the end of the film tell us that he never wrote another book.

Critics (who are writers) are naturally fascinated by this aspect of the film — the Faustian bargain that a writer can make in the name of art. But Capote actually portrays two writers. Fascinating as Truman Capote is, the other writer is even more fascinating to me. I first read her book as a young girl, when my father was assigned to an Air Force base in North Carolina in the late 60′s. I read it to pieces; I practically memorized it. It taught me things about the South (a new place to me), about racism and about humanity that I couldn’t have gotten so well in any other way. A kind of radiance has always hung around the author for me and I’ve always longed to meet her. She is, of course, Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ll never forget my amazement when I learned that the model for the character of Dill, the childhood friend of the heroine Scout, was none other than Lee’s own childhood friend Truman Capote.

Beautifully portrayed in the film by Catherine Keener, Lee is as clear-eyed and self-effacing as Capote is self-deluded and narcissistic. When her first and only novel is published, she isn’t yet the famous literary figure that Capote is. People mistake the title of her book, speak patronizingly to her, and ask questions like “Its a children’s book, isn’t it?” She winces, but replies politely, “Well, yes, it’s about children.” Yet when her book becomes world famous, wins the Pulitzer Prize for literature, and is made into an award-winning film, she doesn’t change. She always gives the impression of being more concerned with her friend’s decline than with her fame, which she never speaks about. She doesn’t try to be the center of attention at parties with talk of the writing life. At the gala party for the film version of Mockingbird, Capote stands as though posed for a photograph, while being ignored by everyone, while Lee speaks with her friends, seemingly ignoring the cameras. And yet when she asks Capote, someone whose ideas she truly values, for his opinion of her work, he is too absorbed in his own trouble to answer.

Few critics have written as much about Lee as a character in the film — and of course she is a supporting character. One thing we’re not told at the end of the film is that Lee also never wrote another book after her best-selling novel. She seemed happy to return to obscurity. Perhaps because she saw what seeking for fame did to her friend. We also never learn anything about her writing process, or what facing racism did to her.

It’s something of a shame that the true sacrifices made for art aren’t quite as exciting on film as the ruinous temptations. As for myself, I’d rather be more like Harper Lee.