A few weeks ago, a friend was thinning out the books on his shelves and stacked in corners in his living room and dining room and bedroom and even on the kitchen counter (he’s a poet), and he invited me over to look at the books he was planning to get rid of, in case I might want one or two. Or a dozen….
Of course I leapt at the chance to glom onto still more books, despite the fact I’m long, long overdue myself for a similar book-thinning. Among the books I grabbed was Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (Warner Books, 1983), the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter and novelist. Goldman wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All the President’s Men, among many others, and the novel Marathon Man and screenplay for the movie version.
The copy of Adventures that I got from my friend is a thick (594 pages) trade paperback, published in 1983. It was printed on cheap paper gone brown and brittle at the edges. I started reading it the night I got it; the front cover promptly fell off, and I’ve now been using it as a bookmark. But no matter…. It’s a terrific read.
It’s an “insider’s” look at Hollywood, the business and people of filmmaking, and the art and craft of screenwriting, but an insider’s look from the POV of an outsider. Or maybe it’s an outsider’s look from the inside. Whatever. Here’s Goldman on his early impression of LA, not long after arriving from the outskirts of Chicago to work on “Butch”:
Los Angeles terrifies me.
But my particular crazies are not why I find writing so difficult. It’s more this: Everything’s so goddam nice out there.”
I generally don’t have a lot of patience with enormously successful guys writing about the awful burdens of their success, the burdens of their fabulous wealth and their fabulous fame and that fabulous house in Malibu overlooking the blue Pacific, but Goldman doesn’t do much of it, and when he does, it’s with a certain disarming wit.
Of more interest are his punchy, funny takes on the business of filmmaking. Here he is on studio executives:
NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.
Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess—and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
Then Goldman gives an example in Raiders of the Lost Ark:
Raiders is the number-four film in history as this is being written. I don’t remember any movie that had such power going in. It was more or less the brainchild of George Lucas and was directed by Steven Spielberg, the two unquestioned wunderkinder of show business (Star Wars, Jaws, etc.). Probably you knew that. But did you know that Raiders of the Lost Ark was offered to every single studio in town—
—and they all turned it down?
All except Paramount.
Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything.”
About half-way into the book, we get to the nuts-and-bolts stuff about script writing. This part includes the full script of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, plus Goldman’s wry commentary on it. I’m not there yet, but am looking forward to it (I did sneak a peek and read a few pages last night). I’m always trying to write a screenplay. Maybe something of Goldman will rub off, or one can always hope…. If you’re interested in movies, filmmaking, or script writing, or you just like a fun read, I highly recommend this book.
If you’re the sort who likes a nice little bout of raging paranoia before nodding off, then boy do I have the book for you, Robert Scheer’s latest, They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy (Nation Books, 2015).
I bought it about a month ago, after a lecture on privacy, or lack thereof, Scheer gave in Berkeley. Scheer’s a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication (he also has an online magazine, truthdig.com—very interesting, check it out). Scheer’s book is basically about how Google and Facebook and other such “private” internet firms are colluding with various government agencies such as the NSA, FBI, and local police to track our every move… and thought. Google and Facebook are invading our privacy because they’re interested in selling us stuff; they’re gathering every piece of information about us that they possibly can, to anticipate what we want, and target ads accordingly. The government has other priorities, but the end result is the same, the destruction of our democracy.
Scheer argues that privacy is freedom (also the title of chapter four in the book), and that lack of privacy destroys democracy. The problem, Scheer says, is that we’re happily tossing aside our privacy (and thus our freedom) for the sake of convenience as we buy stuff online (whenever you click that little “I agree” button below the pages of fine print none of us ever reads, you’re agreeing to give up any expectation of privacy).
The Snowden revelations have forced companies such as Facebook and Google to make a show of fretting over our rights to privacy, but the fact is they continue to make available to the government all the information we give them, and all the other information about us they glom onto in other ways, such as our political views, which can be quite accurately assessed simply by noting the websites we click on.
Did someone say Orwell?
Indeed, the divide between corporations like Facebook and Google and government, police, and security agencies is more porous than ever—and that’s the definition of fascism: a collusion of business, government, police, and military to control the people.
Scheer quotes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg trying to explain how this is no big deal, given the fact we give up our privacy quite willingly: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.”
So privacy’s a “social norm,” not a constitutionally guaranteed right?
Our founding fathers wrote the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as a defense against the unlawful intrusions by tyrants into our privacy: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated….”
Apparently Zuckerberg skipped his civics class. And apparently Google’s Eric Schmidt didn’t get the memo, either. But of course profit always trumps ideals like privacy. Here’s Schmidt on the topic: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” If anything, his attitude toward privacy is even more chilling.
Our founding fathers understood that the simple fear of intrusion was enough to stifle free speech and free thought, and that this fear stifles democracy. Scheer’s argument is that as a first step toward regaining our democracy, we need to start be being afraid again, very afraid. And then demanding a renewal of privacy protections at all levels, commercial and governmental.
I’ve just started Scheer’s book (I paid cash for it—track that, NSA!), and until I finish Goldman’s, I’ll be reading Scheer in short spurts, usually when I need something depressing to read as a relief from Goldman’s upbeat narrative.
What’s your go-to literary downer? Upper? Do you frequently choose your reads by anticipated emotional impact? Ever?