Screenplays Strange & Deviant: What Did Aristotle Know About Screenwriting

Screenplay Strange Deviant

By Arik Cohen

You know that pop song that gets stuck in your head?  You know, the one you end up loving despite all your defenses against it?  It’s sort of a lazy song actually, perhaps it’s even bad, but boy is it catchy.  British pop singer Cher Lloyd has a few tracks that I admit I love, even though they are sort of horrible and have titles like “Swagger Jagger”.  I’ve heard people mention “Call Me Maybe” as a song they hate to love.  I would bet every person reading this has a pop song that you absolutely adore, have on a Spotify playlist, have synced onto your ipod, but wouldn't play in front of your significant other until at least ten years into the relationship.

Well, what happens when a script reader comes across the screenplay equivalent to this pop song?

It’s an interesting question.  As a judge in a screenplay competition, it’s my job to give every script a fair shot to impress, so what happens when I subjectively love the ever-loving crap out of a script that I objectively hate?  What happens when a script is sort of terrible, perhaps even lazy, but somehow I still like it?  It happens more than you think.

Take a script I read earlier in this contest that I will refer to as SCRIPT-A.  Now, SCRIPT-A doesn’t have a third act.  It just isn’t there.  The characters are pretty wooden.  The real title is something that just makes you groan, and the plot is hard to follow.  It is objectively a bad screenplay.  But somehow, it is never truly boring.  It’s always fascinating.  Not in a so-bad-it’s-good way, but it somehow wins you over with its incredible confidence in writing, despite the fact that it really shouldn’t be so confident.  It’s like when you play Chess against someone who plays such a bad game that he’s unpredictable, and even though he’s a terrible opponent it’s fun as hell to play against him because – unlike all the other chess players – you truly don’t know what he’s going to do next.

When I finish the last page of a script like this (usually ending in 80 pages or 140 pages, these sorts of scripts ignore page-count convention, though I think out of ignorance), I now have a conundrum.  I’m supposed to grade this script on its different attributes.  How were the characters?  The story?  The structure?  The writer’s voice?  Well I guess, technically, they’re bad.  The characters are mediocre at best. The story is undercooked.  The structure deviant for no reason and the writer’s voice is overly descriptive.  But despite all that I LIKED this script!  Something about it spoke to me.  Is this what Aristotle meant when he said, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts"? Like a viral pop song, something about it made it fascinating and enjoyable.  At the end of the day, someone wrote a script, I read it, I enjoyed it.  Shouldn’t I give it a positive review?  But how can I give it a positive review if the different attributes are all poor?  How can I give it a positive review if I can’t defend it?

So, what do I do?  Do I send it to the second round because I enjoyed it?  Or do I give it a “pass” because it’s just technically bad on so many levels?

There are movies that fit these criteria.  The most obvious example for me is Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006), a strange, abstract, ostentatious piece of filmmaking.  After the success of Donnie Darko, it seems Kelly was given carte blanche on creative output.  The result is a film that critics called “incoherent”, “pretentious”, “immature”, and “misdirected.”  Audiences avoided it like the plague, making it a box office failure and a home video failure, never really achieving the cult success of its predecessor.

Yet I love it.  I love the hell out of it.  I bought the blu-ray at full price.  I kept the blu-ray in my car when I worked on the Disney Studios lot since my boss was friends with Southland Tales­-star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (I wanted to have it handy for him to sign if he ever showed up, but he never did).  Sure, the characters are inhuman, the plot overly complicated, and the tone- goofy, but nobody can call it boring.  Every moment is something off the wall and crazy.  Once a musical number breaks out at the midpoint where an injured drug-dealing ex-soldier (played by freagin’ Justin Timberlake) starts lip-syncing a track from The Killers for no obvious tonal, story, or thematic reason, you just have to let go and soak it all in.

I can’t defend Southland Tales to my friends.  I’ve tried, but I fail.  Sometimes a work connects to you on a level that’s either difficult or impossible to explain.  (For Southland Tales I think it’s the film’s dream-like tone that resonates with me.  I have strange, abstract dreams and this film feels like it could be one of them.)  But whatever it is I don’t trash talk the film because I admit its faults.  I didn’t refuse to purchase the blu-ray for $29.99 because I couldn’t explain my love for it to other people effectively.  I give it my full support.

And that’s what I did with SCRIPT-A.  I can totally see another judge in the second round squashing its dreams of being this year’s winner.  I can totally see that judge coming to me afterwards and asking what the hell I was thinking.  “How could you send this to the second round?” they’d ask.  “The characters are mediocre at best. The story is undercooked.  The structure deviant for no reason and the writer’s voice is just okay.”

“I know.” I’d reply.  “I agree with every criticism you lob at it, but I liked it.  I can’t defend it, but I enjoyed it.  Because even though I figured you probably wouldn’t like it, there was small chance you would see in it what I did.  And I’ll be damned if I didn’t give a script that entertained me that chance.” 

I will quit this business before I have to reject a script for objective reasons that I subjectively loved.  I’d quit and then go home and watch Southland Tales while listening to “Swagger Jagger”.  Keep your objective perfection, I’m hanging with my homies Cher Lloyd and Richard Kelly!

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