Tony McKenna applies marxist theory to screenwriting.
If ten people were put in a room and asked to come up with a list of great film directors, the numbers would probably be quite high. We all know the names, Scorsese, Hitchcock, Bergman, Cameron, Loach et al. Now ask those same people to come up with a list of screen writers. That roll of names will probably be a good deal shorter. David Simon perhaps. Lena Durham. Aaron Sorkin anyone?
That, in itself, is kind of odd. I don’t want to malign the role of directors because it is an important and necessary one. When one thinks of the shower scene in Pscyho, say, one is aware of the aesthetic skill which underpins the horror. Hitchcock not only shows his protagonist being stabbed to death half way through the film (revolutionary in itself) but also depicts the murder in terms of 77 different camera angles. Not only is the victim carved and sliced with the knife, but also by way of the camerawork itself. A grim form of ingenuity indeed.
The director’s touch doesn’t have to be so visceral in order excite feelings of apprehension or horror, of course. Consider Spielberg’s masterful Jaws and the long, deep shots of the abyss of murky dark which seems to stretch out indefinitely beneath the helpless flaying of a pair of legs that breach the surface somewhere high above.
And yet Jaws existed as a novel before it was brought to the big screen. The world knows the name of Steven Spielberg and yet, today, there are few who are familiar with the name of Peter Benchley, the writer and journalist through whose mind that notorious Great White first swam. Indeed it was Benchley who gave birth to the haggard, water-shy character of Police Chief Brody, the cocky college boy but brilliant biologist Hooper, and perhaps most memorably of all, the driven, demented Ahab-like Quint. Yes Spielberg interpreted these characters, perhaps one might argue he brought them out more fully, but he did not create them.
And that is why it irks me no end when I hear the deep, booming tones of an advert promoting a film as ‘Steven Spielberg’s Jaws’ say – i.e. an advert which displaces the primary source of the creative act from the writer to the director. Notice too, we rarely do this when the writer is famous in historical terms or in their own right. Romeo and Juliet is rarely said to be the property of the particular director – rather it is nearly always presented as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Again when we think of something like Harry Potter, our first thought is nearly always with J. K. Rowling as opposed to Chris Columbus. That directors can either make or break a good script is almost unquestionable; their role is a significant one. But, to me, it is foremostly about interpretation. The director in a film is the equivalent of a conductor in an orchestra – he or she works with a given material and coordinates the different elements which are required to manifest say Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a totalised performance. But is there a conductor out there who imagines his or her efforts to have priority over the brooding 19th century German composer himself?
Why is it then, in Hollywood today, the directors and even the producers are almost always accorded more prestige, and certainly a greater level of financial renumeration than the writers? Part of the answer might lie in the broader structures and relationships of our social and economic existence.
In the early days of economics, thinkers tended to see the source of wealth simply in its external expression – i.e. they saw it in the level of money a treasury could hoard by being particularly frugal, or the amount of trade a nation could facilitate by being particularly canny. But those theorists who developed some form of the labour theory of value – and they stretch from Thomas Aquinas, through to Benjamin Franklin, and onward to Smith, Ricardo and Marx – tended to understand that the true basis for wealth lay at the level of production.
They postulated, with varying degrees of concreteness, that the value a particular commodity holds is determined by the (socially necessary) labour (time) embodied within it. So, for example, a diamond is worth more than a banana because it contains within itself the ghostly echo of all the labour operations required to bring it to market: the miners who cleave it from the rock, those who separate the pure material from the ore, those who transport it, those who cut and polish it and so on. The banana is an altogether simpler prospect to bring to market, requires less labour, and therefore fetches a lower price at point of sale.
And so it is labour power at the level of production and distribution which infuses a particular product with its value. Money itself is a measure of this value – that is, a measure of the labour time which is embodied in any given commodity. The high monetary level of Bill Gates’s fortune, therefore, represents nothing other than the billions of labour operations enacted by hundreds of thousands of people in factories and labs around the world who work to create Microsoft products. And yet, every product, every commodity, does not exhibit this fact nakedly and openly. When one looks at the diamond or the banana in a shop or on the market, the metaphysical, social labour which is crystallised within it retains a spectral invisibility; it is not a palpable property of the object in the way in which the yellowness of the banana or the hardness of the diamond is.
For this reason the social relations which underpin the commodity – the labour power which is embodied in it and has been harnessed by the capitalist thereby – are rendered invisible. The diamond or the banana presents merely as a pure, finished, isolated ‘thing’ whose price is entirely dependent on the demand for the product in question (For this reason theories of supply and demand have been prevalent in economics from the time of Jean-Baptiste Say onward). To put it as Lukács does, the social relations are disguised, for they are converted into the purely tangible properties of a thing – they are ‘reified’, for they seem to perish in the physical actuality of the product we immediately encounter.
Experiencing things in their immediacy thus has important consequences. If we are not able to penetrate to the deeper level of social relations which are disguised by the objective appearance of the commodity form, then it is easy to understand why those who accumulate those commodities, who are able to accrue them to themselves and sell them at a profit are perceived as generating that value and that profit in the first place. After all, is it not a part of common parlance to say – ‘Bill Gates made over a billion dollars’ – does not such an assumption hold within itself all the trappings of immediacy by vanquishing the labour activity of the legions of workers who create that wealth?
In a world in which ‘reification’ provides the primary appearance of the deeper economic mode and the social relations which underpin it, then it is almost inevitable that the active component of wealth creation is displaced from its true source in labour power to the group of individuals who direct, oversee and invest in the labour process more generally and thereby appear as the bearers of the ‘thing’ – that is, the class of investors, owners and managers who control the capitalist system of production. Such reification provides the necessary but veiled appearance of an economic process which takes place at the metabolic level, but the logic of such a process also intrudes and warps the forms of culture and the way in which we experience them.
In the case of the writer-director issue, we can see that the creative act is displaced from its true origins in the writer onto a secondary source, the director – an entity which is responsible for structuring and facilitating the creative material, but does not in itself give birth to it.
That Hollywood in particular should be, on a cultural level, particularly susceptible to the broader economic logic of reification is particularly understandable because it is a multi-billion dollar industry whose aims and prerogatives have been increasingly fused with capitalist corporate culture and its representatives in the political system who look toward Hollywood as a potent and lively source of potential PR and one of the prime movers in creating forms of cultural hegemony.
The Oscar nominated screen writer Jose Rivera describes the early twenty first century as a period of time when the studios really ‘got really fat on the Bush years’ because the political climate more generally was so ‘pro-business, pro-corporation’. New York Times writer Jay A. Fernandez argues that, of late, the fusion between business interest and cultural production in Hollywood has become so entrenched that it ‘has forced a mercenary corporate culture down through the very human ranks of studios and networks that used to be filled with actual movie and TV lovers. Now it's as if the top executive ranks are a different race – brutal bean counters, not simpatico cinema dreamers’.
As a result of this process the rights and the royalties of the writers on the ground have increasingly been degraded. Temporary contracts, precarious working conditions, little cover, and underfunded unions are more and more the order of the day. In 2007, for instance, the main union for writers in the UK – the Writers' Guild of Great Britain – received 5.6 percent of all revenue for DVDs its writers had written the scripts for. At the same point in time the equivalent body in the US received 0.3 percent for the efforts of its affiliates with regard to the same work.
The writer John Fernandez noted how in sixty percent of the guild were earning under $70,000 a year, and that while 12,000 writers in that same year earned $56 million collectively a single CEO from Viacom received $75 million by way of a severance package.
Clamping down on the jobbing writer’s existence, rendering their working conditions precarious and their wages low, can help create a more supine work force where competition for the meagre positions and perks on offer is high. This has the added benefit of compelling writers to tailor their scripts in accordance with the aspirations of the studio big-wigs who tend to bridle against innovative and original storylines, while gravitating toward those vehicles which offer a more friendly and banal depiction of an aesthetic world unblemished by fundamental political and social conflict.
The type of scripts which offer high returns in the short term by trading in on tried and tested commercial formulae. At the same time, however, the immiseration of the writers is always in danger of reaching a critical mass, which can explode into the type of political conflagration which was exhibited in 2007 when 90 percent of the Writers' Guild of America got behind a mass strike which brought many thousands of writers into its remit.
At this point the strike became a focal point for the broader panorama of class conflict in which the nation itself was embroiled. For example, in 2007, the studio bosses hired democrat officials such as Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane among others, officials who were employed to besmirch the strikers in the mainstream media, and these figures were notable for having provided public relations services for the Clinton administration.
The economic depredations the Hollywood moguls sought to impose on the writing workforce, therefore, increasingly flowed into the political context of the neoliberal stratagems and practices of the broader epoch in which the concentration of financial power at the top pushed to facilitate a working existence which was ever more regulated and rationalised, so that writers were compelled to generate scripts in much the same way a factory generates products – perfectly parcelized gobbets of words which would feed into the broader conveyor belt of aesthetic production.
Or to say the same thing, the aesthetic process itself had increasingly been subject to the processes of capitalist reification. The creative act more and more manifests in the production of a rigid, brittle ‘thing’ which had been compelled by the commercial pressure of the moguls as they more and more structure the labour operation in accordance with capitalist prerogatives.
But in compelling their work this way, in reducing and immiserating their conditions, the bosses were as well pulling the writers into the slipstream of a wider current – the vast swathes of people who experienced more generally the intensive commodification of their labour product on the part of a small cabal of financial interests.
Will Koza, an assistant for the film studio Paramount and a keen participant in the strike of 2007, understood the writers’ struggle against the studios to be the microcosm of a far more fundamental trend: ‘The dominance of six conglomerates? Well, that’s true for everything, really. The whole world is controlled by a few people and it’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller until people start doing something about it.'
The way in which the travails of the writer are brought into contact with the fundamental social processes of workers who are struggling for their livelihoods in the face of the neoliberal onslaught, also provide the writer with an encounter with those living experiences which provide the reality behind the reified appearance - the true nature of the social contradiction and exploitation behind the pristine guise of the market product.
In other words, it forces the writer to confront the reality which the processes of reification disguise, the elemental social powers and forces which are at work behind the façade of stability and integration which any modern capitalism seeks to promote. And the truth of this, especially in the last decade, has been increasingly evinced in the aesthetic realm, through shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad.