The Screenplay, Imagism, and Modern Aesthetics

By Boon, Kevin Alexander | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Screenplay, Imagism, and Modern Aesthetics


Boon, Kevin Alexander, Literature/Film Quarterly


The screenplay has been the uncle in the attic for most of film's history-largely (though not wholly) ignored and abandoned after it has served its usefulness. Seen by most as an interstitial literary product, the screenplay emerged out of the need to control film production. It evolved from the scene lists employed by Georges Méliès and others at the turn of the century and became a legitimate literary work in 1904 when American Mutoscope and Biograph successfully copyrighted Frank J. Marion's scenario for The Suburbanite as a "dramatic composition," but screenplay form was not codified until the 1910s when Thomas Ince "located the essence of the movies inside the screenplays" and divided film into "two distinct movements, two discrete labors, the writing and the execution" (Geuens 85). Thus, in its earliest form as a literary work sui generis, the screenplay surfaced during the modern period in American literature, taking shape during the 1910s and achieving full realization in the late 1920s. As we might expect from a concomitant form, its style reflects modernist aesthetics, particularly those articulated by the imagism movement, which, according to T. S. Eliot, began in London in 1910, and whose most vital publication period dates between 1914 and 1917.

Ezra Pound's modernist imperative to "make it new" is inadvertently actualized in the new screenplay form, although modernists, like most people, failed to attend to this new form of writing The screenplay was not dismissed as nonliterary; it was simply not acknowledged. But the screenplay was in some ways an ideal modernist work It had no direct antecedent (odier than the early influence of theatre), and adhered to no model other than language itself. It was unquestionably "new," but was it literature?

We might make the overly simplistic argument that because it is composed of text and can be read (as everything, in a postmodern sense, can be read), it automatically qualifies as literature. Such a position, however, renders the term moot. If it is to be used at all, the term "literature" must render distinctions, and, in rendering distinctions, it must inevitably evoke aesthetic judgment and facilitate the differentiation of a work from other works (beyond issues of genre or form), implying qualitative distinctions. This is the reflex that makes literary criticism possible and distinguishes it from (though not to the exclusion of) interpretation. Literary criticism demands articulated judgment. It may encompass communal subjectivity, as in the case of critical movements, but it is nonetheless subjective, as evident in H. L. Mencken's pejorative observation that literary criticism is "no more than prejudice made plausible" (153).

Underlying literary criticism is the notion that simply because a work can be examined, does not mean that it should be examined, yet unless we examine a work, we cannot judge its merit. It follows that we cannot orient the screenplay to literary studies until we pay more attention to the screenplay. Screenplays cannot be considered literature until we acknowledge the possibility that they may be literature. What we discover when we begin to examine screenplays is that they are as amenable to literary critique as poems, novels, and stage plays, and like poems, novels, and stage plays, they can be examined independent of dieir individual performances.

Literary Qualities of Screenplays

Imagism and Scene Descriptions

The imagist movement sprang up in America around 1912, the year Max Sennett formed Keystone Studios.1 It was principally a poetic movement founded by Ezra Pound along with F. S. Flint and Hilda Doolittle, but its principles parallel the screenplay art. The focus of the movement was the "image," which Pound defined as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." He argued that "it is the presentation of such a 'complex' instantaneously which gives the sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the greatest works of art" ("Retrospect" 4-5). …

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