Monday, December 12, 2005

The Computer Says 'No'

For those unfamiliar with the BBC’s wildly successful comedy sketch show, Little Britain, David Walliams plays a character where he’s a disinterested and rude travel agent (actually, he’s playing it as a woman) who perfunctorily checks out her customers’ queries only to frustrate them as she gives them the maddeningly reply of: ‘the computer says no’.

It’s a one trick kind of sketch because it relies on that particular catchphrase but it’s consistently amusing (to me anyway) because it highlights the blasé attitude so prevalent in people who are supposedly in some sort of customer service capacity.

Having spent most of last week moving house, it was a deeply stressful and anxious time that was mostly reliant on other people doing various tasks that they had been paid to do and they had promised to undertake.

Inevitably, the disappointment and frustrations of these promises not being fulfilled took their toll to the state where I was overcome with emotion and relief when someone actually did their job. Note: not going to that extra effort or deserving of praise - just doing what they were supposed to do.

And in my present mind-set of (un)packing boxes, misplaced items and disconnected broadband, my aggravated thoughts about people’s slack attitudes took a tenuous turn to screenwriting and filmmaking.

It occurred to me that today’s society is deluged with everything it could possibly want, from home technology to visual wizardry at the cineplexes. Subsequently, or quite possibly consequently, a certain complacency has set in regarding what’s presented to us as entertainment and what we choose to watch.

You can work your ass off on a script. Literally pour blood, sweat and tears into what you consider a dramatic masterpiece, or at the very least, something you feel has true value, only for it to be deconstructed in an hour and a half (or sometimes less) by a cynical script reader who’s already thinking about what he wants for lunch (the script reader says ‘no’).

As spec screenwriters, this is the situation we find ourselves faced with - doing our best to appease the gatekeepers only to be dealt with a swift and dismissive rejection for all our pain and effort.

But think about actually getting a film made. Oh the joy. The production, the camaraderie, the new friendships forged (and forgotten). The battle with the budget, the seduction of the stars, the edification of the edit (eh?).

Then your script, your dream, makes it to the screen - to the great cinema going public. And then what? Some reviewer reduces your big break or your lifetime’s work to ‘two stars’. A digestible sound bite for the entertainment super wave of information. The computer says ‘no’. Next.

There’s something not quite right in the mix. Audiences want to be told a good story, they want to be entertained, involved and moved. And yet, sometimes when a film or TV series come along that does everything it’s supposed to do, it can fail to find an appreciative crowd because they’re down watching Doom.

Some terrific films have been made out of spectacle and violence and visual effects but when the producers/distributors choose to bombard us with these ingredients in the hope of making a sale, the entertaining effect can quickly deteriorate. Carefully placed moments of scale and spectacle can have a much more pleasing effect than those that try to dazzle at every opportunity.

But with audiences becoming more accustomed to CGI and 'escalating' standards of entertainment, what are filmmakers and screenwriters supposed to do to keep everyone’s attention fixed on the screen?

Critics and audiences are only too ready to sigh and moan when Hollywood doesn’t give them what they want but the system’s only responding to the market and what the audience has claimed they like. It’s all too easy to slip into casual consumer mode of ‘want/don’t want, like/don’t like’ but with just a bit more effort of choice and application, this pervasive, dismissive habit may actually turn. And hopefully one day, the computer will say ‘yes’.


James Moran said...

Congrats on the move. I heard somewhere that moving house is as stressful than divorce and bereavement, that they're in the top 5 most stressful things ever list. It might not be true, I have no idea where I got it from, but it sounds about right...

Anonymous said...

Welcome back to the internet, dude.

Tim Clague said...


You're right of course. That's why I'm always discussing and pushing writers to avoid as many gatekeepers as possible. Take your blog - you don't need anyones permission to do it. You did it, and we love it. If we don't love it we go elsewhere but what do you care.
Making movies should be more like that. So forget high cost CGI nonsense. The business model for it is crazy. A low budget, high class film may have a smaller audience but a more loyal one. And maybe you can even make it yourself. That way - its what you want it to be.

Tim Clague
My Blog