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.



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

Producer Lindsay Doran is a self-aggrandizing idiot. 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.

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 school studying  theatre.  Unfortunately film schools around the country, including 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 theatre 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 she spent trying to figure out what makes the  great Hollywood films so memorable and emotionally potent.  She 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, she 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 has been stolen from theatre (Casablanca in fact was based  on an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s) and it’s embarrassing that Ms. Doran doesn’t even realize it.  She’s now running around Hollywood getting paid to give  self-help seminars to  producers as though she’s solved a great mystery; as though no one had thought of any of this before her; 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 herself as a great thinker and voice in the wilderness, realizing in her Hollywood vacuum that the best narratives are those in which people don’t necessarily get what they want but learn to survive anyway.  Shocking.  She could have saved herself a lot of time and energy by asking the nearest playwright.

Friederich Nietzsche

A playwright might have advised her 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) and 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.

David Mamet

You see, Ms. Doran, 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.  Why? Because like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, total 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 you have discovered through your own convoluted and costly means, movies (and plays) that endorse this belief are fun but forgettable.

The memorable and positive protagonist is one who comes out the other end of her or his desperate journey loving life and wanting to go on anyway despite confronting loss, regret 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 to wisdom because it makes viewers vicariously wiser and prepares them for their own journeys.  This powerful approach to narrative storytelling is nearly universal in Western culture going back to ancient Greece.  Next time you’re stumped by a great cinematic question please start by ignoring Hollywood market researchers and your favorite pop psychologists, and asking the nearest playwright.  You’ll likely get your answers there.

“So where does Ms. Doran go from here?” Rickey’s article asks you in its conclusion. Hopefully to see a few plays.

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

[images via nytimes.com]


Adios, Miss Pilgrim

Frederica Sagor Maas, Silent-Era Scriptwriter, Dies at 111. New York Times obituary, 1/14/2012.

Frederica Sagor Maas, Silent-Era Scriptwriter, Dies at 111

Published: January 14, 2012, NEW YORK TIMES

“She told of Hollywood moguls chasing naked would-be starlets, the women shrieking with laughter. She recounted how Joan Crawford, new to the movies, relied on her to pick clothes. Almost obsessively, she complained about how many of her story ideas and scripts were stolen and credited to others.

“Frederica Sagor Maas told all — and maybe more — in interviews and in her memoirs, which she published in 1999 at the age of 99. Before dying on Jan. 5 in La Mesa, Calif., at 111, Mrs. Maas was one of the last living links to cinema’s silent era. She wrote dozens of stories, adaptations and scripts, sat with Greta Garbo at the famed long table in MGM’s commissary, and adapted to sound in the movies, and then to color.

“Perhaps most satisfying, Mrs. Maas outlived pretty much anybody who might have disagreed with her version of things. “I can get my payback now,” she said in an” CONT’D AT NYTIMES.COM>>