Monday, March 28, 2011

The Manual Malaise

How screenwriting ‘principles’, as advocated by teaching approaches to screenwriting and most books on the subject, are rendering screenplays formulaic, contrived, superficial and soulless.

As it transformed into a multibillion-dollar industry over the last few decades, cinema, like any other business, started getting governed by market demands. The form and content of films needed to become more and more user-friendly, in order to provide audiences with easy, uncomplicated and instant gratification. In other words, cinema became a product, and profits the primary motive. This was inevitable and there really is no use arguing with this. To cater to the demand of screenplays that would be embraced by large audiences, there was a deluge of screenwriting manuals (referred to as ‘books’) in the marketplace. Each manual seemed to have found a formula or principles or guidelines that would result in a successful script. The arguments presented were persuasive (often supported by elaborate diagrams), and soon, screenwriting came to be governed by principles laid down in these manuals. Each manual strove to outdo its predecessor by laying down ‘groundbreaking’ approaches to screenwriting, so that we have reached a situation today where stories in cinema have become formulaic and contrived, characters have been reduced to stereotypes, and character motivations are usually false. Compounding the problem is the approach taken by most screenwriting teachers, which is similar to that of the manuals. This essay argues that screenwriting does not need an ‘approach’. Good screenplays flow naturally, without following any set guidelines. The craft is intuitive and therefore, hidden from view. I will also attempt to show how the ‘manual approach’ has led to loss of creativity in screenwriting. I am using for my argument the screenplays of two well-known and highly regarded films: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman; Director: Michel Gondry; 2005) and A Short Film about Love (Screenwriters: Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Krzysztof Kieslowski; Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski; 1988).

My argument will attempt to show that the former, like most recent films, has, intentionally or unintentionally, fallen prey to the ‘manual approach’ to screenwriting and, while impressive on the surface, is in fact, a shallow, soulless, by the numbers screenplay, peopled by stereotypical characters. In contrast, A Short Film about Love is an organic, moving work featuring genuine characters and complex, real emotions.

My assertion, finally, is that to learn to write a script, one does not need manuals, but a more organic approach that allows space for some magic to creep right back into films. What this approach is, I’m still unsure of, but my feeling is that it involves less of the study of simplistic screenwriting principles and more of an in-depth analysis of a vast number of individual screenplays. (Being an avid reader of other forms of fiction is also essential, of course.) If we were to do this study of several great scripts, I have no doubt that we’ll see broad patterns and, if you will, principles. But I suspect these will be too broad, too basic, and too few to merit a book-length manual. More like a chapter really.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that screenwriting courses at film schools be done away with. (I wouldn’t have continued my involvement with the teaching of screenwriting if I didn’t believe in it.) Lectures, workshops, analyses, mentoring are all extremely valuable for the learning of screenwriting. I’m merely questioning the ‘manual approach’.

Note: I shall be considering the scripts of the finished films for the purposes of this essay. Also, this essay is written with the assumption that readers have seen both films.

Why these two films
First and foremost, the choice is instinctive. Eternal Sunshine has always made me uncomfortable; always given me the feeling that I’m watching a video game rather than a story that gives me an insight into love, or characters that move me by their pathos. On the other hand, Kieslowski’s film is one that never fails to pull me into the emotional (as well as physical) journey of the characters, one that flows from one scene to the next via a natural escalation of conflict, one that works with economy and precision without seeming to do so.

While Kaufman’s Oscar-winning screenplay illustrates perfectly the pitfalls of the ‘manual approach’, A Short Film about Love is a screenplay that seems naturally crafted, if that’s possible, precisely because it refuses to be tied down by principles. It is also interesting to note that while both are well-regarded, important works, they came out almost twenty years apart, one in Hollywood and one in Europe. While it would too simplistic (though tempting) to reduce their differences to those of era, continent and auteur, these are facts and cannot be ignored.

I must mention here that I do not consider Eternal Sunshine to be a bad script; it is, in fact, much better than most films that have appeared in the last few years. It’s clever, so clever, in fact that it almost succeeds in camouflaging its flaws behind little screenwriting tricks. It could have been so much better, if only it had explored the full potential of its premise and not fallen victim to the manual syndrome. (Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich is a relatively superior screenplay in this respect.) I am taking an extreme position in order to make a point and Eternal Sunshine is certainly symptomatic of the malaise afflicting most scripts today. Also, I had to choose a script worthy of analysis by virtue of its success amongst critics and audiences, rather than pick a soft target.

Approach to this essay
I am going to avoid the obvious approach of taking elements like Story, Character, Structure etc. and comparing the two screenplays point-by-point. This approach runs the risk of straitjacketing the two screenplays into predetermined parameters. Also, one will be compelled to compare specific elements where a comparison may not be relevant. I propose to take you through each screenplay, to understand how it unfolds, with only an occasional comparison of specific elements. I understand that this approach may be tougher on the reader since it does not facilitate easy conclusions. But just as screenplays should not be mathematical, neither should an essay on screenwriting.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The film begins with introducing the protagonist, Joel Barish, who skips work on Valentine’s Day (after spouting a cliché about the holiday having been invented by greeting card companies) and ends up in Montauk. We’re interested, the cliché notwithstanding, because the character seems promising and Gondry dazzles us with his hip directorial style. In Montauk, Joel sees Clementine, first at the beach, then at a restaurant. Joel’s voiceover tells us he falls in love with every woman he sees. Joel is coming across as a shy man who mouths funny lines. (‘Sand is overrated. It’s just tiny little rocks.’ ‘Nice is good.’)  So far so good.

Joel and Clementine get chatting in the train, she having made the first move. And now, signs of stereotyping begin to emerge. Clementine is ‘a vindictive little bitch’, the Hollywood-style ‘free spirit’ who speaks her mind, is attractive, ‘unusual’, gregarious and funny. (She stays at this impossible level right till the end of the film.) Joel, on the other hand, is shy and ‘complex’, but his dialogue is funny, because dialogue must be interesting, character be damned. So, characters meant to be dissimilar, end up speaking similarly. Also, faithful to screenwriting principles, we have two ‘interesting’ people who are very unlike each other, whereas, life tells us that even people who are not so unlike can have interesting relationship issues. But no, a film cannot take this chance. They end up at Clementine’s place where she continues being the extroverted ‘free spirit’. In case we didn’t notice, she also proceeds to state everything:

Clementine: I mean, I'm always anxious, thinking I'm not living my life to the fullest, taking advantage of every possibility, making sure I'm not wasting one second of the little time I have.

She states much more, and they set a date for ‘honeymoon on ice’ the next night. And so, to further underline that these people are ‘quirky’, they must go to a frozen lake. Where, to further emphasize her free-spiritedness she must use the words ‘ass’ and ‘fuck’. But wait a minute, these are also ‘sensitive’ people, so they must gaze at the stars and speak about constellations.

They return from the frozen lake, Clementine runs into her home for a toothbrush and the film goes into flashback. Joel is sobbing uncontrollably, the day before Valentine’s Day. We are teased with a glimpse of what is the memory-erasing procedure getting under way, after which we flash further back. Joel is with friends. Clementine has broken up with him and refuses to even recognize him. An upset Joel is told by his friend that Clementine has had him erased from her mind. Let’s pause a little here. This is what the manuals would call the end-of-Act-I-moment. (Either this, or the moment a couple of minutes later when Joel decides to undergo the procedure himself.) We’ve been introduced to the characters, we know the situation and now we’re ‘ready’ to get into the ‘real’ story, which is about Joel deciding to get Clementine erased from his mind and then rebelling against the procedure because he has realized he loves her. Why do we have to wait 25 odd minutes before the real story begins? Why can’t it begin at the beginning, like it does in A Short Film about Love, as we shall see subsequently? Eternal Sunshine could begin with Joel discovering that Clementine has had him erased and we could get to know the characters as the film progresses. Why wait for the ‘set up’ to be over? Why the need for such a dogged adherence to the principles of structure? Why can’t the story be allowed to determine the structure, instead of the other way round? Yes, the first 25 minutes of Eternal Sunshine, at least in terms of dazzle, are effective. Kaufman and Gondry have created a feeling of anticipation and suspense and we want to know more. The opening sequences also provide the opportunity of coming full circle in the end. However, there’s a price to pay. Because as per the manuals the real story can begin only at the end of Act I, and Act I has taken up over 25 minutes, the screenwriter is not left with enough time to explore the struggle of the protagonist. Or perhaps the screenwriter is not interested in truly exploring the protagonist’s struggle, so he uses principles of structure to maneuver the story down a predetermined path. But more on this a little later.

Joel goes to Lacuna, meets Dr. Mierzwiak, hesitates for an appropriate duration (one scene with friends) and decides to go ahead with the procedure. The memory erasure process begins (backwards) and we see the memory that led to their break-up. We now discover the problem with their relationship – he’s too possessive, too jealous, too suspicious. Basically, he cannot deal with her free-spiritedness. Okay, so now it looks like there could be some complexity to Joel, he could even be interesting. Except that, very soon, we see a memory where Clem wants to have a baby and Joel doesn’t. Now I’m beginning to get suspicious. Jealousy, not wanting to have a baby... The problems are getting a little too typically male. And multiple, which is what happens when there is no real problem to explore. But let’s wait a bit. There’s an embarrassing scene establishing Mary as a quote freak, before we move on to the next memory and next problem in the Joel-Clementine relationship. Now you get the king of clichés: she says he doesn’t talk with her and she doesn’t know him! This is turning out to be a self-help-article relationship. (By the way, just so no cliché is left out, he also doesn’t clean the hair off the soap in the shower.) Clearly, multiple problems have been created to distract from the absence of a real problem. When there’s nothing to say, one ends up saying everything. They have no real problem because they’re not real people but types. The film has already become a victim of the manual syndrome. Unusual and unalike characters have resulted in cardboard cutouts and thus we’re left with the problem that there’s no problem between them.

Since a film needs a ‘bad guy’ (because the script knows there’s no real problem, a bad guy may help provide the necessary ‘complications’), Patrick has to volunteer to steal Clementine’s affections and complicate the plot artificially. Why the need for the Patrick-character? Since the story is about how Joel decides to get his mind erased of Clementine and then struggles to retain her in his memories, this struggle should be strong enough to power the screenplay. But it isn’t, because, as I said earlier, the script isn’t interested in truly exploring his struggle, the promise of the premise: should he or should he not erase Clementine? That would have been interesting, but a) difficult, and b) complex, and therefore not so easy to ‘consume’ by the audience. And so, the script plays a trick upon us: it quickly pushes Joel into the procedure and makes it unstoppable once started. Whereas, it would have been infinitely more interesting to either give Joel the option to stop the procedure until at least a certain amount of time into it, or give him a few days before he makes up his mind about it (the latter option would also go better with Joel’s character, since it is Clementine who is supposed to be ‘impulsive’, not he). That way, his dilemma could have been explored beautifully: do happy memories prevent him from going ahead with the procedure, or will he go ahead with it because the bitter memories outweigh the happy ones? The screenwriter could explore the conflict in Joel’s mind, which is what this film should really be about. But since the film refuses to explore this dilemma, it is forced to fall back upon principles of structure. With a curtailed struggle, it needs an Act I – which, on closer scrutiny, turns out to be mostly exposition – to fill the time. After which, the truncated struggle fits comfortably into the Act II template, since the only real obstacle is the unstoppable nature of the procedure. However, the script knows that this is a rather weak obstacle, and poor Patrick has to step in to bolster it. Patrick, strictly speaking, doesn’t even serve a plot purpose. He’s there just because you need a bad guy to make the protagonist’s struggle seem tougher. (There’s another muddled sub-plot in the film – of Mary and Stan. What does that do? Nothing. Zilch. Nada.) The script is incapable of exploring the complexity of a simple plot. So the plot must be complicated in order for it to seem complex.

Let’s proceed and see how the script falls further prey to a manual-imposed structure. It’s about mid-point now and the main ‘struggle’ of the film needs to begin. Joel needs to ‘want’ to stop the process (the main ‘struggle’) and so, sure enough, we see a ‘happy’ memory. Very conveniently, he didn’t see a happy memory earlier, because that would have meant Joel starting his struggle too soon into the film. So the first few memories have to be bitter. And so the struggle of the protagonist begins. (It’s odd that no one before Joel wanted to exit the procedure, since everyone must have a happy memory or two to motivate them. But then I suppose that would make the central conceit of the film untenable. So we must assume two things: that no one before this loved as deeply as Joel and Clementine. And, no one before this was as smart as them.) Joel and Clem decide to hide in a memory where she doesn’t belong (how they get to a memory where she doesn’t belong is another matter but I’m not going into the logic of the premise) because the protagonist, as the manuals tell us, must be ‘pushed’ to ‘the end of the line’, no matter how contrived it might look. So they hide in some ‘quirky’ childhood memories with Joel repeatedly stepping out of character and into Jim Carrey mode. Mierzwiak has to be brought in to track Joel and Clementine down. (Mierzwiak also needs to come into the picture so that Mary, his smitten office receptionist, can get a chance to get disillusioned by this process and eventually spill the beans to everyone who underwent the procedure and thus wrap up the plot. So purely functional is this subplot of a naïve young woman exploited by her much older boss.) The filmmakers have also managed to give us a glimpse into Joel’s somewhat repressed childhood, because everything must have a cause, and the cause must be clearly stated because if it isn’t then no one will get it, seeing as it doesn’t come through in the story that is unfolding.

And soon, the procedure is back on track, ‘pushing’ Joel and Clementine further, ‘testing’ their love further. We see some more ‘struggle’, till, structurally, it’s time for the film to proceed to its ending. At this point the characters, in keeping with the manual approach, are in an impossible situation. There is simply no way out. So now the script must take recourse to another ‘principle’: if we see the protagonists struggle enough, we will forgive the film if it lets them off the hook, however illogically! And so, because we have seen them make this ‘great’ effort (like hiding in his ‘humiliation’ – when he’s caught masturbating by his mother. See how unafraid the film is?) to stay together, we will forgive the writer for giving them an escape route, an opportunity to be together. And so, Clementine whispers the magic words, ‘Meet me in Montauk,’ and their subconscious retain this, because their love is so true. Somewhere before this, of course, the pretentious title of the film has also been dealt with via a ‘Pope Alexander’ quote. Much in keeping with the manuals, to justify the appearance of the quote a character must be a quote freak.

Flashback over, Joel and Clem end up listening to each other’s tapes about the other person, get mad at each other and then:

Clementine: I'm not a concept, Joel. I'm just a fucked-up girl who's looking for my own peace of mind. I'm not perfect.

Joel: I can't see anything that I don't like about you. Right now I can't.

Clementine: But you will. But you will. You know, you will think of things, and I'll get bored with you and feel trapped... because that's what happens with me.

Joel: Okay.

Clementine: Okay.

One cardboard cutout deserves another. ‘Fairytale’ ending. Everything tied up. Just like the manual said. What could have been an exploration of romantic love turned into a mere technical exercise. We get to know a lot about the two main characters and yet we do not get to know them at all. The problems in the relationship are left unexplored because the emphasis is on creating a clever little film from a clever little premise. Too clever, unfortunately, for its own good.

A Short Film about Love
The film begins with a brief prologue. A boy’s bandaged wrist. A woman moves a hand to touch it, an older woman’s hand stops her hand. Then we see a boy of about 18 – Tomek – as he lies in bed, asleep, dreaming about a beautiful older woman who is seen in her home through a window. The boy smiles. Not a word has been said, but the effect is exquisite, if impossible to describe. We know something terrible happened to the boy and yet his memories seem happy. Already we are hooked, by an odd juxtaposition of images. Something no manual can teach.

The film moves into the past. Tomek steals a telescope and sets it up in his room. Then we see the beautiful woman coming into the post office where Tomek works. She’s here to pick up a money order for which she has received a notice. Tomek, who is clearly besotted with her, tells her there is no money order for her. She leaves. Next we see Tomek studying in his room. An old lady comes and asks him to watch Miss Poland on TV. He goes with the old lady and watches for a bit, then his alarm clock rings and he returns to his room. He calmly uncovers the telescope, diligently wraps the cloth with which the telescope was covered, and looks though the telescope as the beautiful woman – Magda – walks into her apartment. He’s happy to be doing this. Without a word being said we discover she’s an artist. He phones her, she answers and when he doesn’t speak she calls him a jerk. He calls her again and says ‘sorry’. Then she removes her bedcover and opens the door. A man enters, they kiss and it’s clear they’re going to have sex. Tomek can’t watch anymore. Very economically, the whole situation has been set up in this scene. Not a word is uttered to give information to the audience. The screenwriters respect the audience enough to not patronize them, instead taking them along on a cinematic journey, with the confidence that whatever information is needed will emerge naturally as the film progresses. So we don’t know the relationship between the boy and old lady, and though we may guess that the notice for the money order may be forged by Tomek so he can see Magda from up close, the viewer is not insulted by the filmmaker by having this information forced down his throat. This restraint imparts a mysterious quality to the film. Cannot be taught by manual, because how do you teach exactly what to reveal and what not to? The manual approach tends to simplify – either reveal all, or nothing.

We’ve seen the protagonist stealing, we’ve seen him spying on a woman in her intimate moments and it’s clear that he’s been doing this for a while, and we’ve seen him make a blank call to her. The screenwriters, again, have the confidence to show us their protagonist doing ‘bad’ things because they know that doing ‘bad’ things doesn’t necessarily make a person bad. So we’re already identifying with a peeping tom, in fact even feeling sorry for him, perhaps because we’ve seen his bandaged wrist.

Tomek now watches Magda in a supermarket where she’s come to buy milk because there’s no milkman these days. Then there’s another scene between Tomek and the old lady as she reads out a letter to him. It’s clear she’s very fond of Tomek and he of her, and though we begin to sense that they’re probably not mother and son, it is not made clear yet. Some people might argue that the mysterious quality that this sort of thing results in is unnecessary and tiresome. Perhaps, but this is a quality that permeates life, and therefore must be captured by cinema. Such withholding of information may occasionally seem irritating, but that’s mainly because we are used to watching simplistic entertainments designed for easy consumption. And in any case, this information will emerge in due course, naturally.

Tomek proceeds to watch Magda and she has another man at home tonight. Tomek has been watching Magda for many months, but now he’s getting bolder, he’s ready to take this relationship further. The film caught Tomek at the precise point in his life when he is ready to step up efforts to engage with Magda – when he stole the telescope. The plot now moves forward. As Magda proceeds to have sex with her new lover, Tomek calls up the gas company to report a leak in her apartment and interrupt her lovemaking session. Also, the old lady tells Tomek that if he wants he can bring a girlfriend home.

The narrative moves rapidly to the next stage as Tomek tells the supermarket attendant that he’ll deliver the milk. He delivers the milk and gets a chance to see Magda, at home, in her nightclothes. Nothing more. But nothing less either. Via each scene in the film, the plot is being taken forward significantly, but naturally.

That night Magda returns home late. She’s had a tiff with her lover who drops her home. Tomek watches Magda as she cries (over spilt milk!), then he goes to the old lady’s room, where they talk. And now, all of a sudden a fresh insight hits us. Each one of these three characters is hopelessly lonely and in pain. Tomek is attempting to build a relationship with Magda to assuage his loneliness, the old lady is trying to hang on to Tomek to assuage hers and Magda has been having sex with men so she can have company. And all of this the screenwriters have done in a most natural way, without proffering extra information. The screenplay is clearly not slave to a simplistic, manual-like interpretation of structure. There is no clear Act I or end of Act I, where the story takes a turn into Act II and moves into the ‘real’ story. Because the ‘real’ story, about Tomek spying upon Magda and getting increasingly obsessed with her, starts at the beginning of the film, when the telescope is stolen. Not at the end of Act I, like in Eternal Sunshine. A Short Film about Love begins the story when the film begins because it has the confidence to know that we will get to know the characters during the story and via it. Why waste 25-30 minutes in exposition when that time can be used to tell the story? And this story needs time, because unlike in the case of Eternal Sunshine, here the screenwriters will not shy away from exploring its complexities. We have much more information about Joel and Clementine (how they met, how they fell apart, Joel’s repressed childhood) and yet we hardly know the characters because the plot requires them to act like robots rather than human beings. We know hardly anything about Tomek and Magda and yet we seem to know them very well. Knowing about a character must not be a substitute for knowing a character. I am not recommending that all films emulate the structure of A Short Film about Love. Each story must find its own structure. A Short Film about Love succeeded in finding its.

So Kieslowski’s three sad, lonely people draw us into their world. Tomek uses physical pain to camouflage a deeper pain, while Magda uses the sensation of running her finger through the spilt milk on the table to distract herself. A haunting image, and certainly not the stuff of screenwriting manuals.

And now, the central relationship moves to the next level. Another fake post office notice is slipped into her mailbox by Tomek. Magda comes to the post office and tells Tomek that she wants to see someone ‘older’. An argument with the postmistress later, Magda walks out in tears and Tomek, who can’t stand to see her so, follows her and confesses the truth. She’s upset because she should be upset, but, having asked Tomek to get lost, when he turns around and walks away, she almost calls him back. Perhaps she understands him a little. Perhaps she’s a little flattered. Or maybe she’s just behaving like a human being, and people occasionally do inexplicable things.

That night Magda reveals her cynicism, her bitterness and her anger. She first makes Tomek watch while she has sex with her lover, then tells her lover about Tomek. The lover proceeds to beat up Tomek: ‘Don’t do it again. It’s not nice at your age.’ The old woman, who has seen it all, nurses Tomek.

The next morning things go further. (In fact, manual-purists will be pleased with the rapidity with which the plot unfolds!) When Tomek goes to deliver milk, Magda accosts him and mocks him sadistically, then asks why he watches her. He tells her he loves her and she asks him if wants to sleep with her. He says he doesn’t. She’s taken aback, because she suspects he means it. The choice of characters now becomes clear. It had to be an experienced, cynical woman and an innocent boy who still hasn’t lost his idealism. He reminds her that once she too was idealistic, just like him, and it alarms her that she has gone and lost that idealism. What if she has made a mistake? A blunder? Wasted years and years, compromised her morals because she was weak enough to give up hope without a fight.

Tomek gets up the courage to ask her to come for ice-cream and is delighted. We now see the man in white (unexplained by the film, and by me).

Tomek and Magda are at a restaurant. She tells him she doesn’t believe in love. He tells her about himself. He’s learning Bulgarian because he had a Bulgarian friend at the orphanage. He has only one friend now, who is away and whose mother he stays with. This friend also used to watch Magda. Magda mentions a steady lover who left her, never to return. Tomek remembers him. Tomek used to like him. Magda plays with Tomek now, asking him to caress her. He’s a challenge to her. She has to prove to herself that she was right in losing hope and becoming bitter, that it’s not her fault. She has to conquer the boy and demolish his idealism. And so she takes him home. Notice how we discover Tomek’s relationship with the old woman, and how naturally this information has been slipped in. It may not have hurt the story if we’d known this earlier, but discovering it now adds to the impact. At the precise moment when Magda and Tomek connect physically, are we told that Tomek has no family. Talk of dramatic impact.

At her apartment, Magda continues to mock him, describing the sex act and sexual arousal clinically and graphically, taking away all notion of love from it. (The lonely old lady is watching all this through Tomek’s stolen telescope.) Magda then makes Tomek feel her, and when he ejaculates in his pants she says: ‘Love… that’s all it is.’ Tomek is devastated. But Magda has failed too. She knows that his love for her was pure, as only an adolescent’s love can be. She knows she gave up hope too soon. She told him a few minutes earlier that she’s not a nice person. She didn’t mean it then, but now she knows it’s true. Magda is instantly repentant. She has been ‘pushed’ to the ‘end of the line’ by the purity of Tomek’s emotions and yet we do not feel like we’ve been manipulated, probably because of three reasons. One, the choice of characters who are real and genuinely flawed. Two, although the premise (a boy watching an older woman through a telescope) is not extraordinary, the plot escalates naturally from one incident to the next. And three, the element of mystery, which assures us that we’re watching life unfold. Cannot be taught.

As he runs out of Magda’s building and into his, Tomek comes across the man in white again.

A remorseful Magda fishes out a pair of binoculars to watch Tomek, but he switches off the light. Magda puts a banner in her window saying, ‘come back, sorry’. But Tomek has seen the unpleasant side of life and this is unacceptable to his idealism. He proceeds to slit his wrists. Magda, unaware of this, continues to be in a disturbed state of mind and turns her lover away when he rings the bell. Tomek is taken away in an ambulance and Magda goes to his place and meets the old lady. The old lady is evasive, merely saying that Tomek is in hospital. She clearly sees Magda as a threat, like a mother would. The tables are turning, the plot has reached almost soap opera melodramatic levels but by now we’re so invested in the characters of the peeping tom-cum-thief and the morally questionable, sadistic woman that we do not mind.

Now it’s Magda’s turn to get obsessed. She looks for Tomek, waits for him and when a phone call comes, believing it’s him, she tells him that he was ‘right’. She watches his window through binoculars. One might argue that her obsession is no more than a concern since she feels responsible for whatever it is that has happened to Tomek. And yet, the fact remains that Tomek means much more than this to her. Though saying that now she has fallen in love with him may be going too far, he has certainly restored her faith in love. She has recovered her idealism and is ready to deal with the pain of love again. Too pat? Perhaps. Do we mind it? Nope. We don’t mind it because the screenplay has delivered on the promise in the premise. A lonely boy has been hurt badly, because the screenplay refused to pull punches and allowed life to unfold without seeming to interfere. A woman’s soul has been stripped bare; she has been shown in all her ugliness, because human beings often are ugly. We continue to empathize with the characters because we have been touched by their pain and reminded of our own ugliness.

After Tomek returns from hospital, Magda goes to see him, but the old woman will not allow her a moment of privacy with the sleeping Tomek. The film ends with a beautiful scene, a ‘fairytale’ ending. (Apparently, Grazyna Szapolowska, the actress playing Magda, wanted a fairytale ending for the film, an ending different from Decalogue VI, the shorter version.) Magda looks through Tomek’s stolen telescope and sees herself as he saw her – crying (over spilt milk). Tomek comforts her.

The journey is complete. Tomek will have come of age, Magda has had her faith in love restored, the relationship between the two has gone the full distance and at no point did one get the feeling of watching a mathematical theorem being proved. The characters are real and weak and flawed and ‘bad’ and so we can identify with them. Are we wiser about love? Now that would be a bit much to expect a film, even a Kieslowski film, to do. For that we will have to continue to depend upon our own experiences, go through our own pain. Just like Tomek and Magda.

If we look carefully at how the script of A Short Film about Love unfolds, we will note that there is a certain precision about it: each scene takes the plot forward significantly but not by too much; each character has a growth; information is revealed with a precise economy; things come full circle as Magda gets obsessed with Tomek; and there’s a ‘fairytale’ ending. And yet the mathematics, which must have gone into this, never reveals itself. My belief is that the mathematics, or craft, is invisible because the script is not slave to a set paradigm. Even when it ends up following certain broad principles of storytelling, it succeeds in going into territory that the manual approach is unlikely to reach. This ‘craft’ is impossible to define, and each script demands its own. The moment we define it, it becomes formula, thus not allowing intuition to play its part. In A Short Film about Love, real, interesting characters have been put in an interesting situation, after which all the screenwriters have done is follow them, study their every move and show us what they do. The craft is intuitive. In Eternal Sunshine, on the other hand, ‘principles’ of the craft determine the story and the characters, and the mathematics cannot, therefore, stay hidden. It shows up repeatedly, in a dogmatic 3-Act structure, too much information, stereotypical characters, a token and mechanical struggle, and a contrived fairytale ending. And so, while on the one hand we get a moving story that touches our hearts and minds, on the other we have an emotionally hollow, gimmick of a movie that dazzles us on occasion, but never quite succeeds in making us feel for the characters.

The manual approach has destroyed many a potentially good film. Perhaps what we need is a non-approach.

There’s a quote attributed to Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” I think anyone involved in writing screenplays must memorize these three rules.