Author: Brian Bizier

Notes on a Process

I hate writing. I love editing.

I can’t remember ever writing a first draft of anything: scripts, essays, nothing. I have a tendency to block those experiences out, largely due to the overwhelming frustration that accompanies the creation of a first draft. And because this is my blog post and I don’t want it to bring me down, I’m going to reflect on the only part of my process I actually enjoy.

I tend to view my process as one of curation rather than creation. I start with a sense of wanting to tell a story about X or interrogate issue Y, from there curate an amalgam of characters, scenarios, ideas, themes, et cetera, and by degrees winnow out unneeded elements until I have something with a structure and an ideology. For this project, I knew I was interested in a few different things:

  • Revenge, as a concept or structure
  • Continuities between antiquity and the present
  • Narrative tension, as an opportunity to expand the kinds of stories I write

As I gathered materials, I assembled more themes I wanted to explore:

  • Relationships between women and men
  • Digital mediation of communication and its effect on dehumanization
  • Obfuscation and paranoia

At the outset I didn’t know where, if anywhere the congruities were between these ideas. I started sketching out scenarios and characters in my notebooks. I began to imagine turning points and revelations. I drew pictures of what the people and places, and things I saw might look like. Eventually I had a story. I put it away for two months.

One of the things my writing teachers have impressed on me is the importance of critical distance, the idea that you cannot write objectively if you are too close to your subject. So, I used my break to work on other projects, relax, play with my dog, spend time with friends and family. I returned to my thesis a little over a month ago and saw a document that needed real work. The dialogue doesn’t cut, many scenes are flat, themes and ideas with potential are either too subdued or too obvious, tense scenes aren’t tense, characters aren’t consistent, the list goes on. Fortunately, these are all fixable problems.

I find that once I identify a problem — say, a character not having a clear arc — I like to do a read-through of my script only focusing on that one problem. I edit, I elide, I expand where necessary. There’s always a ripple effect throughout the rest of the document; often fixing one problem creates half a dozen more. Fortunately, doing this kind of editing work almost always throws other issues into sharper relief, making them generally easier to identify and fix.

I also find that this point in the process is when I really like to identify other works to draw from. For my thesis, I’ve found essays and books by Donna Zuckerberg, the plays of Thomas Middleton, the novels of Thomas Pynchon, and films by David Fincher and Joel and Ethan Coen (among many others) to be instrumental to refining the ideas and techniques in my screenplay.

I’m still refining the script. I’m still busy with classes, drama productions, and post-graduation plans. But I’m more confident than ever that my project is moving in the right direction.

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End of the Summer

This has been, by far, my calmest summer since starting at CMU. In past years I’ve been working on Capitol Hill, often for more than fifty hours a week. One of the many reasons I pursued Dietrich’s honors thesis program was to find time to think and write and read and catch up on all the media I’ve neglected while working, both in Pittsburgh and D.C. In that sense, I can say without qualification that this summer was a success.

In another sense, I feel that as a writer I’m never as far as I want to be. I don’t have a complete first draft, or a concrete roadmap of where I want my project to go. That’s one advantage I believe my peers in more technical, research/experiment-oriented fields have over me. And yet, I’ve always found my scripts to be at their most exciting at the point when I know the least about them. That excitement will sustain me over the course of the fall and spring semesters, as I draft, revise, edit, and cut a new work into existence.

Harold Bloom wrote a book in 1973 called The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Bloom was interested in how writers struggle with their influences, how we are both inspired by great writers and trapped by fears of never surpassing them. He found that great poets were able to successfully integrate their predecessors into their work, rather than trying to supplant them or sidestep them completely. My goal this summer was to identify and understand those writers who have influenced me for years; my goal in the weeks to come is to integrate them into my process.

On the Intersection of Feminism and Revenge

“But were she able, thus she would revenge…”
– Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy –

How do works of popular entertainment critique the societies which enabled their creation? In the world of revenge drama, the answer to that question often takes the form of another question: Who has the right to seek revenge? In Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the hero Orestes is caught between a philosophical rock and a hard place. Honor demands that he kill his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his own father’s death, but in doing so he risks his immortal soul. Orestes does not heavily weigh the fact that Clytemnestra herself was an avenger. By murdering her husband Agamemnon, she achieved justice for his murder of their daughter, Orestes’ sister, Iphigenia.

All of which is to say that Orestes and the gods held the life of Mycenae’s king to be more precious than that of her queen. By forgiving Orestes of his crime and empowering the court of Athens to resolve issues of justice in the future, Aeschylus (in the voice of Athena) gives legitimacy to the patriarchal power structures that have enabled the death of multiple women through the trilogy. This is just one reading of an incredibly intricate and impactful text, but it reflects a throughline in revenge drama that has stretched through early modern theatre to the present day.

Questions of gender and society are at the forefront of many revenge plays, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women. These plays often see women as the victims of horrible crimes. Due to the nature of these crimes–ranging from incest to murder–and the restrictions placed on women, female characters are frequently denied any chance to pursue their own catharsis. Lavinia in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a prime example. Although she suffers greatly, it is her father who is responsible for seeking vengeance (and it is her father who is ultimately directly responsible for Lavinia’s death). Titus is a hard play for modern audiences to wrap their heads around, because in his play Shakespeare deliberately blurs the lines between parody, critique, and tragedy. Nevertheless, one point is painfully clear: In Elizabethan as in Greek drama, women do not have the right to seek their own justice.

These were some of the thoughts running through my mind as I began researching the rape-and-revenge subgenre. Nearly every film in this category has the same basic structure: woman is assaulted, woman escapes or recovers, woman kills her assailants. Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave is perhaps the most infamous example. First released in 1978 and still banned in certain countries today, the film has drawn criticism for its brutal depiction of sexual violence and torture. For years, academics have debated the film’s feminism; Zarchi claims to have made a feminist film. But in 2018, perhaps the best cinematic response we will ever get to I Spit on Your Grave was released in the form of Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. Fargeat’s film empowers its female protagonist especially through the use of cinematography. Where Zarchi’s camera focused on the suffering of its protagonist, Fargeat focuses on the callousness of the male antagonists. Revenge revels in being an exploitation film just as much as I Spit on Your Grave, but by working to make familiar images uncomfortable it transcends the pulp genre from whence it emerged to become something altogether new, tense, and exhilarating. Filmmakers like Fargeat prove that there is still space for ancient tropes in cinema and power in using those tropes to upend even the most toxic of genre conventions.

Day 1

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
– Old Klingon Proverb –

Bloody, sanctimonious, and macabrely farcical; there are seldom few literary genres as distinct as revenge drama.  Francis Bacon characterized revenge as “a kind of wild justice,” the mission of an avenger who must operate outside the law to achieve redress for inflicted wrongs.  Because they reflect the failure of human institutions to respond to human crises, revenge stories have always flourished in societies quick to condemn evil but slow to correct it, outwardly righteous but inwardly corrupt.  Which is to say, always.

Dramatists in early modern England took this ancient form and challenged all its conventions. Where Aeschylus and Seneca wrote about gods and semi-divine heroes, Shakespeare and Webster portrayed the suffering of mortal innocents and had the audacity to laugh at their misfortunes.  Lurid acts of violence, once relegated to the imagination, were depicted, sensationalized, exaggerated to the point of absurdity.  Protagonists in classical revenge stories were men and women seeking to balance divine justice and personal honor.  Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists forever shifted the balance towards the individual and the nihilistic.

This trend was echoed in the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s.  Free from the Hays Code and the influence of film studios, filmmakers had more latitude to explore material theretofore considered verboten.  Writers and directors had drawn inspiration from revenge drama for decades; they were now free to depict the violence that had long lingered on the periphery of American cinema.  Independent filmmakers in the 1980s and 1990s brought a necessary lens of introspection to the revenge film genre, especially to its often troubling depictions of violence against women.

The history of revenge drama is long and complex, intersecting at various points with legal theory, gender theory, comedy, politics, religion, and myth.  My aim this summer is to immerse myself in this world, one I have encountered as a playwright and screenwriter, but one with which I am ultimately unfamiliar.  In doing so I will prepare myself to engage more fully in the deeper questions revenge drama poses and be better able to turn my own thoughts on the nature of vengeance into a tightly-scripted work of cinema.