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News from the Eastern front: Dumitru Carabăţ’ Poetics of the Screenplay

"Towards a Poetics of Screenplay"

Dumitru Carabăţ

  • Editura UCIN
  • Bucureşti, 2014
  • 491 pagini

News from the Eastern front: Dumitru Carabăţ’ Poetics of the Screenplay

     Here is the first translation of a theory on screenwriting, hidden so far from the Western audience by the shade of the Wall still present, at least economically. Spre o poetica a scenariului cinematografic — translated as „Towards a Poetics of the Screenplay” — by Dumitru Carabăţ, first published in its original language almost two decades ago (1) is representing a major Romanian contribution to film narratology.
     Professor Carabăţ was born in Braila, on the Danube, in southern Romania, on the 24th November 1932. A graduate of the post−War Şcoala de literatură (a famous local literature school of the early communist period) and of the Russian−model based IATC (Institutul de artă teatrală şi cinematografică) in Bucharest, he was a prolific screenwriter. He wrote dozens of scripts in between 1958 (Prima melodie/ The first song, Andrei Blaier & Sinişa Ivetici, Romania) to 1987 (Vulcanul stins/ The Extinct Volcano, George Cornea, Romania).
     He is mostly known for Codin (Henri Colpi, France/ Romania, 1963) — co−written with Yves Jamiaque and the director Colpi himself — an adaptation of the novel of another son of the Danube (Panait Istrati) which won the Best Screenplay Award in Cannes in 1963. He was the professional screenwriter−type of the period, the work−for−hire kind and one of the important writers of the Romanian socialist film industry of the sixties and seventies, with remarkable craftsmanship and prodigious efficiency. He wrote contemporary or historical movies, original subjects or adaptations, of its own or suggested themes, without favouring a specific style.
     Yet, some of his most notable works were contributions to films of directors out of the official communist list, such as Savel Stiopul for which he wrote Ultima noapte a copilăriei/ The last night of childhood (1966), a coming−of−age film, fresh — for that period — in story and style, totally destroyed by the intervention of the censorship which found the film too daring portraying an unacceptable independent, modern, young generation: „I don't recognise my story anymore” — the writer will declare later, being forced to re−write almost entirely the dialogues after the picture−lock!
     In the mid−sixties Dumitru Carabăţ was appointed „director artistic” (an executive management position some−how similar to the one of a creative producer) at Casa de Filme nr. 3, one of the socialist film production companies, a privileged position that — as he personally later confessed — couldn't hold for long, due to a major burn out caused by the constant fight with the censors and political pressures. However, in this position he contributed to the production of one of the milestones of the Romanian cinema, Pădurea spânzuraţilor/ The Forest of the Hanged (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1965).
     Soon after the premiere of this Ciulei last movie, Carabăţ stepped back from production, moving to the academic field and in 1970 became the first and — for decades — the only academic teaching screenwriting in a systemic manner at the Romanian film school. The Institute was founded in 1950 having as model the Moscow Gerasimov Cinematography Institute (the VGIK), yet until the arrival of Carabăţ, screenwriting wasn't a distinct subject in the Bucharest film school. The texts forming the corpus of his Poetics are the result of thirty years of his screenwriting classes. This memorable, weekly meetings dedicated to storytelling, narrative structures, film analysis and practical coursework, have been attended by several generations of important Romanian filmmakers, including some of the New Romanian Wave representatives (such as Tudor Giurgiu, Radu Muntean, Corneliu Porumboiu, Alexandru Maftei — author of the photos included in this edition — a.s.o). Alongside George Littera, the legendary film historian and Florian Potra, the film theorist and writer, he was one of the significant scholars of the Romanian cinema school, contributing to the development of the Romanian film studies tradition.
     In his academic work Professor Carabăţ relied mostly on the classics of narratology and structuralism — widely studied in the sixties and seventies in the socialist university milieu —, its formalist forerunners, Roman Jakobson and the Prague Circle, Viktor Şklovski, Mihail Bahtin and, last but not least, Vladimir Propp, whose major oeuvre (Morphology of the Folktale) constitutes the foundation of the narrative model propose by Carabăţ' Poetics.
     If such authors were editorially available in that period, very few Western books on scripting (to use Steven Maras (2) generous definition), screenplay theory or any industry−related activity were published in the post−Cold War Romania. The only Anglo−American cinema−related contribution to be found in the bibliography of the Poetics is the Art of film of the British film archivist Ernest Lindgren, not necessarily the most prominent film specialist, but accepted in communist Romania due to a professional profile much closer to a Henri Langlois−type; the local censorship was more permissive to French and Italian left wing intellectuals, and to the movies they produced or discussed.
     Paradoxically, one of the key lines of the Poetics, the definition of the theme seen as the relationship between a compositional project and an artistic meaning lays at the intersection of Lindgren's understanding of the plot and Pudovkin's vision of the theme as a narrative unifying concept — a sort of post−Yalta cultural meeting of two very different personalities and societies, originally put together by the combinatory vision of the Professor.
     Dumitru Carabăţ first book on writing for the screen, „From Word to Image: a proposal for a theory of adaptation” (1987, Meridiane, Bucharest), is an in extenso analysis of Luchino Visconti's filmic works with literary extraction. The method, research and bibliographic foundations of the Poetics are prefigured here, while a central chapter, Narrative reconfigurations of adapted literary texts; rests essentially on Propp's theory of narrative functions which will be taken to another theoretical level of development in the Poetics.
     The appearance of this text in 1987, ironically one of the coldest of late communist Romania, a winter of famine and desperation preceding the Revolution, is itself noteworthy. In it period when resistance, even through culture, seemed hopeless, the book had no propagandistic introduction — a must have at the time — a reason to be left obscure in those dark days with just two hours of electricity...
     It took the author another decade to release in print Towards a Poetics of Screenplay — luckily enough some of the former students of professor Carabăţ became production & media moguls after the Revolution and have delivered a nostalgic homage to the memories of their youth by supporting the publishing (and later the translation) of the writings of their academic mentor.
     The apparent theoretical indecision contained by the title of the book is explained in the introduction: there are two types of Poetics, says Dumitru Carabăţ, therefore „we propose a prescriptive Poetics only to the extent that it proves to be descriptive first”. The descriptive theory therein contained is without a doubt an extremely valuable one — Dumitru Carabăţ is a master in analysing, dismantling and re−combining classical plots such as the extended analysis of To Live or Citizen Kane — but the author doesn't permit himself to be emphatically prescriptive.
     When Professor Carabăţ was publishing his Poetics, the how−to−manuals era had already been flourishing in West for a while. Syd Field's Screenplay — The Foundations of Screenwriting was a best seller with multiple re−editions. Yet, the Romanian author wasn't aware at that time of Field, Seger, Truby, Mc Kee or any other script evangelist work. He was reading only French and some Italian and it took him a while to be exposed to the French version of Screenplay, Making a good script great or Anatomy of the script (Story is the only „Bible” of screenwriting to be translated into Romanian, quite recently).
The lack of Anglo−American specialized references is somehow giving charm to this innocent Poetics of the East — a theoretical Heaven that hasn't been touched by the „curse of the scriptwriting manuals” (3). Yet, at the time of the publishing of the book, professor Carabăţ was also ignoring David Bordwell's „blasphemy” against the icon of Propp (4) and Claude Bremond's criticism (5) or even the elder dispute of Claude Levy Strauss with the Russian formalist. Carabăţ will address Syd Field's (and in a certain extent Mc Kee's) method in his latest essay, A minor adventure: Writing a Screenplay (6) a brief, ironical epilogue to his theory on screenwriting. (7)
     The main narrative theory of Towards a Poetics of Screenplay is based on a five segments structural model challenging the famous 3 acts structure paradigm of the aforementioned script evangelists. This noteworthy original structural approach announces other Western authors, such as Pierre Jenn (8), who later on will try to reconcile the 3 acts paradigm with the complexity of the Shakespearean−drama's five part narrative composition. The ambivalent identity of Carabăţ theory (linked to the descriptive vs. prescriptive dillema) is perfectly synthetised by Steven Maras in a personal note he generously wrote at my request on the Poetics: „my assessment of Carabăţ' work is that it is a fresh and complex one, with strengths that also constitute weaknesses in terms of the current publishing readership and market. In terms of strengths I see some insights into screenplay form, rhythms, action, etc. providing a very different approach to screenplay structure. But the fact that it is a contribution to understanding the screenplay, and also that it is a contribution to poetics itself is also a kind of weakness as the focus on screenplay dissipates somewhat. It's not clear if Carabat is trying to develop a five part model that could be deployed (which might be an expectation of some readers) or whether his model is a proof”
     Even not marked precisely as rigid prescriptions, elements of Carabăţ' theory are extremely useful to the modern writer. This is the case of using Viktor Shklovski's (Art as a Device) terms of „slowing down” or „vectorizing” applied to the technique of suspense or plotting (e.g. — beginnings are „vectorial” equals in Hollywood terms that the set up has to be built in the first ten minutes of the action), the concept of scaletta (the Italian concept based version of the outline) or the development method by expanding the narrative predicates — in other terms a method of writing a step−outline and further more a treatment a.s.o. — making the book a noteworthy and useful reading in spite of some parts which the contemporary, pragmatic, reader might consider as esoteric. Apart from this, some issues of this not very inspired translation, from the quotes of some other languages to the accuracy of the terminology of the current version, might make the reading sometimes difficult, however we believe the efforts will pay−off for the wannabe screenwriter or the passionate scholar in search for different, unique and challenging points of view on screenwriting.
     Last but not least this first English edition of Dumitru Carabăţ's major work marks the debut of UCIN (Romanian Filmmakers Union) Publishing; the editorial selection of this title (together with Studies in film typology) is witness to its importance for the local film studies contributions.
I do hope that this first attempt to throw a message in a bottle over the Wall will have a happy ending helping the text to find a Western editor able to properly reveal this text to a broader audience.
(1) 1997, Bucharest: PRO
(2) Maras, Steven (2009) Screenwriting − History, Theory and Practice, London: Wallflower Press
(3) Martin, Adrian: Making a bad script worse: The Curse of the Scriptwriting Manual, accessed 17.02.2006)
(4) Bordwell, David: Appropriations and Impropprieties: Problems in the Morphology of Film Narrative, Cinema Journal, 27, no. 3, spring 1988
(5) Bremond, Claude; Verrier, Jean: Afanasiev and Propp, Style, 18, spring 1984
(6) 2012, Bucureşti: Asociaţia Scenariştilor Români
(7) As a result of this process of updating to the American paradigms of screenwriting a long — and somehow contextual confusing — note on Field is attached to the current version of the Poetics.
(8) Jenn, Pierre — Techniques du Scénario, FEMIS, Paris, 1991
(Towards a Poetics of Screenplay, Bucharest, March 2014)
Cuvinte cheie: cinetipar, dumitru carabat, lucian georgescu, recenzie carte, towards a poetics of screenplay