Sunday 9 September 2018

Writing about film-making - Max Berghouse reviews Mike Figgis' "The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations"

Mike Figgis
Although Mike Figgis has not been active as a film director for quite some time, the years between his last film in 2012 and now have been substantially occupied by his position as a professor of film studies at graduate level. And in his working life he has scarcely been inactive: a rock musician, film director (of both commercial and quite experimental films) and now author of a text which is independent of his film scripts. This is a serious work and could not be for a moment considered a vanity production.

This writer gets considerable pleasure from writing for this blog. I have also nurtured for many years something which has proven to be the completely ludicrous aspiration, the idea of becoming more involved in "the industry" principally as a scriptwriter. Although I have abandoned this aspiration, I am nonetheless drawn to books about the industry which fall within the broad ambit of "how – to – books" presumably within that broader classification of "creative writing". So ultimately this book is another "how to" book, laden with examples, substantially from the commercial cinema, including some of the writer's own films with the added soup├žon of criticism about the industry.

The number of “dramatic situations” referred to in the book’s title is of course significantly large and is rather harder to digest than some writing with a simple overarching principle like "the hero's journey" and it is not the sort of thing one can read with particular interest cover to cover. Lists of dramatic potentialities (like this) date back well over a century and this book is a continuation of these sorts of lists, with the exception that it is exclusively concerned with cinema. Unlike other creative activities like painting or writing, the entry price of cinema is significant, indeed substantial.

So it is absolutely no surprise that the author, being completely honest, has written to fulfil the commercial imperatives of the industry generally. His own relationship with the commercial industry is well known as ambivalent. This also comes across in his writing, because he frequently indicates that under one or other particular situation, there is the inherent danger that the industry requires a serious matter to be trivialised or an erotic matter to be rendered pornographic. In other words, debased. 

That is not to say that this book is not captivating and interesting. It is. Many of the examples he gives within each dramatic situation are interesting indeed and are certainly helpful to any prospective writer or writers who wish to turn their dreams into reality. Mr Figgis engages quite overtly in contrasting the joy of creativity in writing purely and simply, with writing with a mind towards the industry's expectations.

There is something inherently contradictory about writing about "creativity" in a generalised sense while indicating that it can be truncated into thirty-six clearly delineated categories. This is less a problem if the substance of the writing is concerned with creativity as expected by the commercial industry. That seems to be the warning. So while the author conveys his best wishes to the tyro writer, he writes of the perils of having too high expectations.

I'm writing this review although I cannot say that I have closely read the entire book. I have read a number of the "situations" and browsed through the rest. It simply isn't the sort of book that you read; rather you dabble, depending upon your interests at the time. I tried a self-designed test to see if the 36 principles were rigourous and I did so by trying to work out whether the unending Marvel Superheroes films fall within any particular dramatic category. I don't think they do, but on the other hand I don't think they are inherently "dramatic".

Mike Figgis "The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations", 208 pp, Faber, ISBN 978 0 571 30504 9

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