Read Good Shit On Musings
“Written by Joe Eszterhas” is a phrase that has not had much of a workout on US cinema screens in over twenty years—and it’s arguable whether the 1997, 19-screen nationwide release of certifiable shitshow Burn Hollywood Burn: An Alan Smithee Film exactly qualifies as “a workout.” But for those of us who had the parental training wheels come off our theatrical filmgoing in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, there were few individuals more central to our cinematic coming-of-age. And with perhaps the sole exception of Shane Black, a different animal in any case, none of the others—the Spielbergs, Camerons, Tarantinos—were exclusively screenwriters. For over a decade, the Hungarian-born, Hollywood-minted superstar writer of Basic Instinct bestrode the adult-oriented commercial screenwriting mainstream like a smirking colossus in a tight dress wearing no underwear. And given that Hollywood is primarily how the USA, the most loudly, proudly self-created of nations, expresses itself to itself and to the rest of the world, by the man’s own bombastic standards it’s only a slight exaggeration to suggest that America, between the years of 1985 and 1995, was written by Joe Eszterhas.
“A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture—then I destroy it. In the end though, nothing is lost: the red I took away from one place turns up somewhere else.” — Pablo Picasso
Writing is boring. Not the act itself—actually doing it can be exhilarating, your head “vibrant with the static of unelaborated thought,” as Philip Roth once described the onset of the creative process. No, it’s watching someone write that’s boring. Next time you see someone in your office crafting an email, look at the way they just kind of stare at nothing for a while, then peck at keys, then shrug and repeat the whole thing before hitting Send and going to the bathroom. It’s always like that. Half of writing is just looking off into space, trying to get ideas to come to you, which is pretty challenging to dramatize on screen. You’re watching someone think, which means you’re trying to watch something invisible.
Criterion’s three-film box-set of the works of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory—My Dinner With Andre, Uncle Vanya, and A Master Builder—features several supplements, including an interview between the theater artists and writer Fran Lebowitz. She makes a frank confession: “I don’t like watching theater.” Gregory, a man who’s spent his entire life in the theater, says he feels the same way.
Lebowitz explains that she loves to be drawn into a good film or novel, but, with the exception of Shawn’s work, she’s never experienced the same with theater. She’s not alone. While theater may not exactly be a dying art form, it was long ago upstaged by cinema and television as our de-facto entertainment, and our appreciation for it has dwindled in kind.