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Zola and the Prefiguration of the Practice of the Film Script

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Zola’s work, in developing those plans which scholars have called preparatory dossiers, frequently presents amazing similarities with what is generally called a film script, or screenplay, aiming to provide guidelines for a classical narrative film, which fundamentally means a series of texts that pave the way for the filming work. It is with such a text, or pre-text, as a point of departure that later the film script proper is elaborated, with the more or less direct collaboration of the whole film crew.

The demonstration of this fact has, in our opinion, direct consequences for two sets of problems concerning, above all, the discipline of comparative literature. The first is the one that leads to the in-depth knowledge of that intermediary text, the script itself, which is a compromise between the verbal and another type or substance of expression.

The second one leads us, by developing the comparison, to deepen the mutual illumination between literature and the cinema, through which one may question whether or not the discourse of film and the language of cinema are consequences of the filming technique, that is, of its optical and mechanical engineering, and whether the script is a necessity in the conducting of the operations in the process of chain production.

This latter consequence can have determining effects in the debate relating above all to the “origins of cinema,” given that it is our intention here to demonstrate that something very similar to a script already existed in the production of an individual narrative practice, a previous, “handmade” practice, in literature. Such a practice could therefore not be linearly attributed to the demands of the industrial or semi-industrial production of cinema.

The development of a perspective of this kind immediately requires the answering of a preliminary question: what is a script? Or rather, the right question must be: what do we understand a script to be, as a point of departure, given that one of the points of arrival, or at least a passing point in our heuristic path, is (as we mentioned in the previous paragraph) an in-depth study of that very text.

Whatever the question, however, it is not easy to answer it because the problem is complex at various levels. The script, the written text which provides guidelines for the filming, can be written by someone who knows or does not know filming technique (studio, machines, editing, lighting, sound effects, actors) in varying degrees, from knowing little or nothing to knowing a lot; it can be written (at least partly) by someone who knows how to tell a story or someone who doesn’t.

And this type of alternative could go on and on. In practice, and to shorten the argument, the model which has imposed itself so far, thanks to its wisdom, derives from two combined efforts: a well presented narrative, with the principal situations and the action well conceived, with the settings or the milieu clearly stated; and a verbal enunciation with very precise instructions about the visualization or even the perceptions in general.

As Pudovkin would say to aspiring scriptwriters – or screenplay writers, as he used to call this new brand of associates[1] – that is what happens when the story line is well conceived, and in agreement with its general basis: novelistic, dramatic, tragic, but in any case getting rid of any verbosity of little interest and even detrimental to the progress of film production work.

Thus, from here on, provisionally at least, we can take as relatively close and almost equivalent two concepts which refer to that intermediate text: the script, or shooting script, which fundamentally is guided by the demands of the principle that film work is an industrial process, therefore tending to include minimum signs of literary intervention and much more technical and stage annotations (whose degree can vary greatly, but, if it is totally followed by the director, it will end up being a verbal planning which entirely reproduces the film); and the story, which can contain many more marks of a poetical-literary nature, but which can also limit itself, quite often, to the general suggestion of points of view, action, characterization of characters and settings, and narration, which the film director must transform into precise instructions for poetical-filmic and technical-cinematographic procedures.

A story can even be devised by a person with a reasonable knowledge of cinema, and it can indicate, for example, that it is necessary to present a crowd, or an assembly, or a meeting, in two different positions in long shots; however, it is up to the film director, with more or less intervention from the scriptwriter and the director of photography, to decide if those shots are horizontal or crane shots, if they should be two, with simple cut or raccord (and of what kind), or whether s/he would rather use a camera in motion.

And all of this, in principle, will be part of the shooting script proper. Given that it is our intention to evaluate Zola’s preparatory studies as models foreshadowing the demand for certain narrative enunciating postures which characterize the poetics of classical narrative cinema, it will be most relevant to compare the principles of naturalism which led to Zola’s “dossiers” with the general models for scripts or preparatory texts. However, we shan’t do it by taking the writer as point of departure.

Rather, we shall use roughly the normative principle, as it applies in industrial production, in order to try better to understand the cultural scope of Zola’s free creative posture. It is perhaps not irrelevant to begin by closely reading Pudovkin’s words, written between the second half of the nineteen-twenties and the early thirties, because they bear the weight of the entire tradition and influence of the literary model of the realist and naturalist novel upon the major guidelines of cinematographic work itself; and also because Pudovkin is one of the most important theoreticians for the consolidation of a certain “ideal” type of screenplay in classical narrative cinema.

In “Cinematographic screenplay and its theory,” we read the following: “It is very important to understand that even in the general preparatory work for a screenplay one must avoid indicating anything whatsoever which cannot be represented cinematographically or which is not essential. The text must include only that which can be used as expressive and effective plastic material [… ] In the screenplay in question what should have been described is a scene expressing, in visible and visibly expressive terms, “the most abject misery” [… ]. One can object that this work belongs to the next phase and can, in fact, be attributed to the film director, but to that I should reply again by emphasising that it is plastic material that must always be present, from the very first moment, in the author’s visual imagination. ”

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