A film lover insists the writers are the movies' stars

COMMENTARY

Commentary

March 17, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

His father, a surgeon at Cedar Sinai, took out Edward G. Robinson's gall stones. That's David Kipen's one family connection to the movies, even though he grew up in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. His love for movies, though, has been constant.

"Remember in your Harvard essay, you needed to list five books that changed your young life?" he asks over the phone from Washington. "One of mine was either Leonard Maltin's TV Movies or Stephen Scheuer's Movies on TV."

No wonder he ended up at Yale.

Kipen, since September Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, has penned a sharp, funny manifesto called The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History (Melville House, 172 pages, $12). It aims to take down the idea that directors are the key authors of movies. Kipen agrees with Irving G. Thalberg that "the writer is the most important person in Hollywood." Unlike Thalberg, he wants to start a critical revolution.

"Schreiber" means "writer" in Yiddish. With his title Kipen pays tribute to the background of many classic Hollywood writers and pokes fun at the director-oriented auteur theory with its highfalutin' French. Kipen hopes the schreiber will become the first person you think of when you ask (to borrow Peter Bogdanovich's title) "Who the Devil made it?"

Kipen hopes his revolution will accomplish three things: (1) lead Netflix renters to better choices, (2) strengthen the literary values of American pictures and (3) liberate Hollywood writers from Rodney Dangerfield status.

Before his NEA post, Kipen worked at the San Francisco Chronicle for seven years, first as book-review editor, then book critic. But Kipen's no critical carpetbagger. In college, he wrote blurbs for Movies on TV. He later reviewed movies for the Hollywood Reporter, the L.A. Daily News and Boxoffice magazine. And, as an editor at the now-defunct Buzz magazine, the upstart rival to Los Angeles magazine, he scored his greatest pre-schreiber pro-screenwriter coup.

"When the Getty Museum opened, we knew that the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles magazine would do fawning, 10-years-in-the-making- at-a-cost-of-over-a-billion-dollars kinds of pieces. So I got half a dozen screenwriters a tour of the Getty a couple of months before it opened on the pretext that they were art critics. And then I solicited pieces from them on how to use it as a film location. Which worked out nicely, because they all wanted to blow it up." He called the package "Die Hard at the Getty."

Both his director of literature job and his book about screenwriters stem from his "fundamental regard for writing as the purest unfudgeable fingerprint" of the human soul.

"I write this book making fun of directors, and lo and behold, by the time it's published, I am one," jokes Kipen. His wit is one of the book's main pleasures. His opening "Pre-Credit Sequence" invites the curious to read this anti-tome either as an antidote or a parody of the auteur theory. He includes 75 pages of thumbnail critical sketches under the heading "Roll Credits."

Kipen hopes that readers will use The Schreiber Theory "to match wits with Inspector Hound" - test his insights against the celluloid evidence - the way, in his college days, he used Andrew Sarris' auteur bible, The American Cinema. Kipen includes entries for scribblers as up-to-date as Susannah Grant of In Her Shoes) and Charlie Kaufman of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). (To Kipen, Richard Corliss in his similar 1974 book, Talking Pictures, made the mistake of "focusing too much on the Golden Age.")

"The epiphany for me was when I realized that three of my favorite movies - Charade, Skin Game and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three - were written by the same screenwriter, Peter Stone," says Kipen. In the book he writes, "they're all a lot more unmistakably the work of the same writer than, say, Skin Game and I Was a Communist for the FBI are of the same director (Gordon Douglas, for anybody keeping score)."

As an inveterate scorekeeper, I must point out that the director of Skin Game was not Gordon Douglas, but Paul Bogart.

High on his own fecundity, Kipen stays loose (a good thing) and occasionally swings wild (not so good), whether including Terry George (Hotel Rwanda, Some Mother's Son) after promising to exclude writer-directors, or blithely giving King Vidor co-credit for directing Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz. (Vidor shot the Kansas scenes after Fleming laid them out.)

Anyway, isn't this whole idea of schreiber-ship just a Bizarro-world version of auteur-ism? Shouldn't Kipen's quest to return words to their primacy focus on verbal and dramatic quality rather a shreiber's personality?

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