The other day, while discussing the evolutionary psychology of archetypes, I touched on the controversy about using patterns in writing: specifically the story-pacing “beat sheet” popularized by Blake Snyder in his Save the Cat! series, which has come under attack as a scourge of quality writing.
Peter Suderman at Slate blamed the recent trend of spectacular awfulness in film-making on Snyder’s beat sheet, but former MGM Studio Executive Stephanie Palmer vehemently disagreed, pegging as the real culprit the fact that movies are “incredibly hard to make.” Palmer’s primary methodology is to set up straw-man syllogisms to (mis)represent Suderman’s point-of-view, then fail to address the formal errors in the syllogisms she invents while making inane assertions that in no way rule out anything Suderman said.
Not. Thinking. It. Through.
But the main reason I want to respond is that she resorts to the laughable George W. Bush excuse for failure: “It’s hard work!” If you find a job too hard, let someone else do it!
Palmer introduces the “it’s really hard” argument with the following.
On the surface, Suderman’s argument goes something like this:
- Movies are bad.
- Movies are being written using the Save The Cat (sic) formula.
- Therefore, the formula is partly to blame for bad movies.
This is simply not true. The truth is: Movies are bad because they are incredibly hard to make.
It looks like she’s trying to set up a sort of illicit minor fallacy, but Suderman never says that all movies are bad or that all movies are made using Snyder’s formula. Notably, even taking it as a bare argument for why some movies are bad, it’s still a straw man because Suderman provides a mechanism for the Snyder formula to result in bad movies, a mechanism I believe makes perfect sense.
This is important because, without that mechanism, the syllogism she presents actually is false. Instead of relying on this, however, she responds with an illogical statement about movies being hard to make. The statement is illogical as a refutation of Suderman’s thesis because it’s entirely possible for movies to be hard to make and partly spoiled by the Snyder formula.
Palmer also makes a rather inane point about the script not being the movie—the blueprint isn’t the building, either, yet that doesn’t mean you can start with a crap blueprint or that the quality of the blueprint doesn’t matter.
But, let’s get to the crux of why “it’s hard work” is an awful argument, in any field. The most telling of Palmer’s fake syllogisms is a reactionary, anti-elitist snipe about “allowing average people to write” …
Suderman’s argument could also be viewed like this:
- Save the Cat (sic) has a straightforward approach to writing.
- This makes it easier for average people to write movies.
- Movies are bad.
- Therefore, the problem is allowing average people to write.
Of course, the problem is that no one knows how to make a hit movie or even a good movie. If people in Hollywood knew how to make excellent movies, that’s all anyone would make. Writers with tremendous intellects—geniuses, even—have written scripts that turned into “bad” movies.
I won’t even go into the bad form, except to say that you shouldn’t rely on syllogistic form if you don’t understand it. The first premise should read: “The straightforward Save the Cat! approach makes it easier for average people to write movies.”
The deeper problem here is that “average people” is Palmer’s euphemism for “averagely talented writers.” She hedges elsewhere by contrasting it with “smart people” and the “issue of intelligence.” But, smart at what? Intelligent at what?
Palmer uses the populist “average people” euphemism because her position cannot bear the question: “Why on God’s green Earth would we want anything at all done by people with merely average talent in that thing?”
ALL PROS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL
However, this numbskull egalitarianism opens up a new avenue of inquiry: perhaps movies suck because averagely talented people are making them, and not because Blake Snyder enabled them. Perhaps Hollywood suffers from its talents being diluted by average people who have been boosted beyond their talents by economic origin and social networks, what Thomas Jefferson referred to as the “artificial aristocracy [of] wealth and birth” as contrasted against the “natural aristocracy [of] virtue and talents.”
This might explain Palmer’s complaint that movies “are incredibly hard to make.” Yes, film-making is hard, but like everything else it’s much harder for some people than it is for others. The distinguishing factor between those who find something hard and those who find something “incredibly hard” is raw talent.
Insofar as “it’s really hard” becomes someone’s justification for craptastic performance, they probably shouldn’t be doing whatever it is.
As usual, we see that the deceptively upstanding “hard work” ethic is hostile to even the notion of innate distinction and excellence in human beings. It’s predicated on a cloying egalitarian myth that glosses over the fact of intellectual diversity, attention to which would also unveil the merit-less placement of incompetents based on their socioeconomic and familial privilege.
For example, two words: After Earth. Can we please stop suffering the averagely talented offspring of the undeniably talented Will Smith?
KICKING DA VINCI WHEN HE’S DOWN
Palmer’s accurate observation that even “geniuses” occasionally make bad movies really doesn’t change the issue. Michael Jordan occasionally lost a game, too. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s way better at basketball than an “average person” like me.
My point? I don’t belong on a basketball court during a professional game and average people have no business being involved in the process of making movies.
And, when I say “average people,” I mean the business folks as well, who seem content enough to make ROI and have no vision of making better (and thus even more profitable) films. As Jim Collins would say, “The good is the enemy of the great.”
Formulaic writing is an issue, but it’s only part of the problem. Misplaced egalitarianism and complacency in the face of merit-less participation are other significant issues, not just in Hollywood but throughout the marketplace.