War in Europe

US Department of Defense post-strike bomb damage assessment photo used by Joint Staff Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy Maj. Gen. Charles F. Wald, U.S. Air Force, during a press briefing on NATO Operation Allied Force in the Pentagon on May 5, 1999. Photo via https://www.defense.gov/Multimedia/Photos/igphoto/2001238761/

I keep hearing intelligent, well-informed journalists and commentators referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as some version of “the first war in Europe since the end of WW II.”  This is mindbogglingly false. Do we have collective amnesia?  I hope not.

Here are some trigger words to jar our memories: rape camps, ethnic cleansing, Srebrenica, Milosevic, Karadzic, Slovenian War, Croatian War, genocide, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian paramilitaries massacring Serbian Orthodox Christian civilians, Serbian paramilitaries massacring Croatian Catholic civilians, Yugoslav Muslims being hit hard by all of them, UNPROFOR, Kosovo War, Balkans Conflict.

It culminated in the US, under the auspices of NATO, bombing Belgrade, the first time a European capital had been bombed by another country since the end of WW II, and Russian tanks rolling into Kosovo with the blessing of the US and NATO.  The circumstances at that time were very different than they are in the present conflict. During the entire period of the breakup of Yugoslavia, about 150,000 people died and the wars created millions of refugees.

I am not suggesting a question of whether we should or shouldn’t have bombed Yugoslavia. Opinions run wild on that and I’m not trying to spark a debate. I’ve had enough of those to last me a lifetime. I’m pointing out that to call Russia’s Ukraine invasion the first war in Europe since the end of WW II is to shamefully disregard the many thousands of civilians who suffered and died during what are now collectively called The Yugoslav Wars. Let’s not erase these victims from history.

I would have liked to see at least one news article these past five days that began with something like, “Not since the wars in Yugoslavia have we seen such a…” or “Not since the US-led NATO bombing of Serbia, albeit under markedly different circumstances, has there been a…”  But not one. The Associated Press’ description of the present horrific invasion of Ukraine is the only accurate one I’ve stumbled upon so far:  Putin’s invasion is “the largest land invasion in Europe since the end of WW II.”  That is true, even though it seems crafted to circumvent any mention of the US and NATO as being the first to bomb Europe since the end of WW II. Right or wrong, for or against, the Yugoslav Wars need to be acknowledged instead of wiped from our collective memories.

I am very opposed to Russia’s Ukraine invasion and proud that the world is standing up to Putin, much to his surprise, but I’m seeing that often our messaging is not accurate and erases this tremendous loss of  lives that only ended about 22 years ago.

Will we have forgotten about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 20 years from now? We might not think so right now but I fear we will forget. As an American, this saddens me.

I was in Serbia and Croatia just before the period of our 1999 bombing campaign, thanks to receiving an award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and was inspired to write the anti-war play Tesla’s Letters. I later returned to Croatia to teach at a summer film and theatre workshop sponsored by the Soros Foundation and Zagreb University. Tesla’s Letters premiered in New York in April of 1999 during the NATO bombing campaign. Here is the New York Times review of it for further context.



Protected: Chapter 28 – Alice Through the Looking Glass

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Stop, Thief! Playwrights Once Again Laughing Watching Hollywood Chase its Tail

Producer Lindsay Doran proving what all playwrights know: Hollywood is full of self-aggrandizing idiots.

No shit, dingus.  Pardon my French, but in Carrie Rickey’s 1/15/12 New York Times article “Perfectly Happy, Even Without Happy Endings,” Hollywood once again shows its complete ignorance of its own origins.  Still a rebellious teenager, the US film industry would rather pretend theatre doesn’t exist and that Hollywood sprang forth from itself, rather than admit that it actually inherited plenty of brains and good looks from its nerdy parents.

Louis B. Mayer once supposedly said, “Theatre is a flea up an elephant’s ass,” the elephant of course being Hollywood. More accurately — and what I tell my screenwriting students every semester — is that theatre is a 3000-year-long dog and motion pictures are a hundred-year-long hair on that dog’s tail; that maybe one day film will evolve to the point that it bears no resemblance to theatre but that day is still a long way off, and that budding filmmakers and screenwriters would do well to spend a little of their time in film school studying  theatre. 

Unfortunately film and cinema studies programs around the country, including those at the esteemed institution where I teach and of which I’m a graduate, seem intent on doing everything they can to shield their students from the power of live performance, ignoring theatre as inferior, obsolete, old-fashioned, insisting that the only legitimate form of narrative storytelling is film, all the while stealing from theatrical traditions on a regular basis.

In Rickey’s article, we meet the latest example of a smug Hollywood cannibal: highly successful Hollywood producer Lindsay Doran, who discusses all the time, energy and resources they spent trying to figure out what makes the  great Hollywood films so memorable and emotionally potent.  Doran analyzed a lot of movies, consulted with market researchers  and pop psychologists and concluded that, gasp, positive movies do not necessarily have happy endings (Casablanca, To Kill a Mockingbird, Titanic, et al). Indeed, the most powerful films of all time, Doran concludes, mingle accomplishment with great loss. In other words, “the accomplishment the audience values most is resilience.”

So far, so good, except that all of this is already well-known in theatre (Casablanca in fact was based  on an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett & Joan Alison) and it’s embarrassing that Ms. Doran doesn’t realize that.  Doran’s now running around Hollywood getting paid to give  self-help seminars to  producers as though they’ve solved a great mystery; as though no one had thought of any of this before; as though the poignant plots and character arcs of these great movies happened by accident.

It’s bad enough that so many in the film industry still prefer to think the 3-act plot structure was invented by Hollywood during the 1940s studio era rather than being lifted directly from opera and traceable all the way back to ancient Greece.  Now we’ve got Doran,  casting themselves as a great thinker and voice in the wilderness, realizing in their Hollywood vacuum that the best narratives are those in which people don’t necessarily get what they want but learn to survive anyway.  Doran could have saved a lot of time and energy by reading a Greek tragedy or asking the nearest playwright.

Friederich Nietzsche

A playwright might have advised Doran to simply spend an afternoon reading The Birth of Tragedy by Friederich Nietzsche (coincidentally mentioned in the same NYT issue in Alexander Star’s review of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book American Nietzsche, A History of an Icon and His Ideas) or Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet, or skipping both books and going straight to the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita or the writings of the Buddha.

You see, Hollywood, the primary purpose of drama has always been to show unhappy people going through suffering to try and stop their unhappiness, experiencing complete and utter despair along the way, and learning that they’ll never be happy (even if they do accomplish their main goal in the plot) but that life is worth living anyway, e.g., Prometheus, who succeeds in his goal to bring fire to humans but is still suffering at the end.

Why? Because like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, happiness is impossible to achieve.  Hollywood stole its narrow definition of “happiness” from 19th century stage melodramas which said all anyone needed to be happy was a good spouse, a good job, and entry into the middle class.  In other words, achieving the American Dream will make one happy.  As this particular producer has discovered through their own convoluted and costly means, Hollywood movies that endorse this belief are fun but forgettable. As independent filmmaking icon John Cassavetes once famously said, Hollywood makes movies about romance, whereas he made movies about love; that romance happens between two people who don’t live together. Love, on the other hand, is sometimes messy and ugly and involves two people sticking together through thick and thin.

The memorable and positive protagonist is one who comes out the other end of their desperate journey–whatever that is in the plot–loving life and wanting to go on anyway despite confronting loss, regret, death, and learning that they’ll never get everything they want. This is called gaining wisdom.  As I hinted at above, this unfortunate fact of human existence is also summed up by every major religion: to live is to suffer.

Any good playwright can tell you that audiences tend to feel healed and redeemed by watching someone else go through this tough journey because it makes viewers vicariously wiser, and prepares them for their own life journeys and their own struggles.  This powerful approach to narrative storytelling is nearly universal in theatrical traditions around the world. 

“So where does Ms. Doran go from here?” Rickey’s article asks in its conclusion. Hopefully they ignore market researchers and pop psychologists and go see a couple of plays. 

By the way, Ms. Doran and other Hollywood producers,  I can show you some killer spec screenplays that I promise you’re going to love.  Seriously. Have your people call my people.