Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 2000
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On a wonderful way to make a living
Resident alien
Soccer by the numbers
Drowning our kids in bad writing?

On a wonderful way to make a living

The TV cop drama Dragnet used to begin with a voice-over intoning, "The story you are about to see is true." Millard Kaufman '39 opens his new book with a similar statement: "In the last half-century--give or take a few years-- everything reported in the following pages took place."

Took place in Hollywood, that is. Kaufman's Plots and Characters: A Screenwriter on Screenwriting (Really Great Books, 1999) is a candid, irreverent, and entertaining book of advice on writing movie scripts. The author draws on a 50-year trove of anecdotes to describe what it's like to be a working screenwriter. His desire, he states, is to teach "the requisites of a viable screenplay."

Kaufman concedes there is no shortage of books on how to write for the movies, but says, "The great majority of screenwriting books out there come from people who have never written screenplays. I have no grudge against them. But the only way you know a business is to participate in it."

Director, John Sturges (left) with Kaufman on the set of Never So Few.
Photo by Alan J. Bearden
Best known for writing the Academy Award-nominee Bad Day at Black Rock, Kaufman was also the co-creator of Mr. Magoo. He says he wrote his new book partly to answer persistent questions about writing posed to him whenever he spoke at a film school. Also, he wryly notes, he had time for the project: "At the age of 82, I haven't had an offer of a truly first-class screen job for about 10 years. Pictures have always been a product aimed at young people, and there follows the corollary that in order to understand the thought processes of kids, you have to have a young person do it. Of course, you can go overboard. Black Beauty wasn't written by a horse."

Kaufman approaches the reader with what seems to be a resigned but good-humored take on the writer's status in the movie business. In Plots and Characters, he notes, "If Mel Gibson so much as touched a camera, a prop, a lamp, or a Ritter fan, the whole backlot would strike, but he can cock up a script with immunity." But in conversation Kaufman's not so casual: "I have been aggressively fighting the primacy of the director, and before that the producer. I do feel that the relationship among producer, director, and writer is out of whack. I don't claim to be unprejudicial on this subject, but I think the primary contribution to any movie is made by the writer."

Plots and Characters first discusses the film business, mainly through anecdotes, many hilarious. The author then delves into the nuts and bolts of disciplined writing: keep a journal, don't throw away a manuscript just because no one seems to want it, read books from which movies have been made and think about what was changed and why, and "put something down on paper, even if it's wrong." He discusses the evolution of theatrical drama, how to create a plot, the imperative of great characters, and the two cardinal virtues that shape a screenplay: conflict and empathy.

Kaufman's book takes many opportunities to warn the would-be film writer of the perils and frustrations of the business, but does so with so much affection and good humor, it's unlikely to warn anybody off. He says, "I think a great way to live would be to not work at all. But writing is a wonderful way to make a living, if you have to make a living." --Dale Keiger

Resident alien

The aliens that populate How Aliens Think (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), Judith Grossman's new collection of short stories, are closer to home but no less foreign than the little green men variety.

They are residents of planet Earth whose trajectories through life run outside the standard path--of society, culture, politics, or sexual behavior. Susan, the protagonist in two of the stories, is in transition from England to America, and not settled in either country. In another tale, "A Wave of the Hand," the main character realizes that, oddly enough, her "father" is a woman. In "The Two of You," a young academic studies passion and desire but is disconnected from her personal feelings.

The stories blend memoir and narrative fiction, loosely following Grossman's own life's path, from suburban England to American academe. "I thought it just as well to treat that boundary as permeable," says Grossman, a visiting associate professor in The Writing Seminars. "It is naturally a porous one anyway. Even if you think you're treating something from memory, memory does its own creative work."

Like Susan in the title story of the collection, Grossman herself sailed to America while in her early 20s to study literature on a Fulbright scholarship. Leaving home was wrenching, says Grossman. People who left were viewed as deserters heading "into a foreign dimension," she says.

Being an alien fits organically with being a writer, she believes. "It's also the writer's condition. The writer needs to be a part of and have enough distance to be able to pull back and see part of that scene." --Melissa Hendricks

Soccer by the numbers

Geert Ridder is a soccer fan, a follower of Ajax, traditionally one of the most powerful teams in Holland. He's also a Hopkins professor of economics. Occasionally he gets to combine the two interests, applying econometrics to some question of soccer.

"Sports produces a lot of numbers," he says. "To extract information from those numbers requires models." And econometrics--the application of statistical techniques to the analysis of data, is well suited for the task.

Ridder and some Dutch collaborators have studied the effects of player ejections on the outcome of matches, the means of evaluating the performance of national team coaches, and whether greater parity among soccer clubs would promote attendance at league matches.

For the study on player ejections (for offenses such as illegally bringing down an attacking player as he breaks free to the goal), Ridder and his colleagues studied 140 matches over three seasons in the two Dutch professional leagues. They had to account for several variables. For example, there's a linear progression in goal scoring (more goals are scored later in a match), and weaker teams have a greater propensity to use violent tactics against stronger teams, and thus suffer more ejections.

In the end, they concluded that from a statistical standpoint, it was often in a team's best interest to stop an attack by pulling down or tripping the attacker, at the risk of losing a player to ejection. This was particularly true later in the game. A team was better off playing short-handed for the rest of the match than risking a probable goal from an attacker's unimpeded shot. The researchers could even designate a precise time as the turning point. Says Ridder, "After 18 minutes [of elapsed game time], you should always stop the attacking player."

Ridder and his friends have also tried to predict the outcomes of the last two World Cups. They correctly picked Brazil in 1994, but missed on France in 1998. "That's a rather risky business, I tell you," Ridder says. "We published our results in the Dutch papers and stuck our necks out." He smiles. "We looked ridiculous sometimes." --DK

Illustration by
James Yang
Drowning our kids in bad writing?

Francine Prose admits that many years ago during a family vacation she bribed her sons to read, paying $5 per story. She needn't do that anymore. Her offspring, now 21 and 17 years of age, read avidly--but she says it's no thanks to the books they've been taught in school.

Prose, a novelist, journalist, essayist, and former faculty member in the Hopkins Writing Seminars, returned to campus to discuss her recent provocative essay "Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read," published in Harper's last September. For that article, which she characterizes as "a polemic," Prose examined approximately 80 required reading lists from American high schools and found what she regards as one bad book after another- -Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

As literature, she says, these books tend to be sentimental, simplistic, and full of fundamentally bad writing. "Rather than exposing students to works of literature that expand their capabilities and vocabularies, sharpen their comprehension, and deepen the level at which they think and feel, we either offer them 'easy' books that 'anyone' can understand, or we serve up the tougher works predigested."

Furthermore, Prose said, books are taught not as literature, but as lessons in values or civic responsibility, or used as opportunities to engage in pop psychology. Case in point: a popular sourcebook for high-school English teachers that advises teaching Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men "to show how progress has been made in the treatment of the mentally disadvantaged."

"You can't teach Huck Finn and avoid talking about racism," Prose said, "but there are a lot of other things to be said about that book as literature. Twain could really use the language."

Some have taken Prose's essay to be an attack on multiculturalism. That, she said, was not her intent. Her point about Angelou's book, for example, is not that it's African-American literature, but that it's poorly written, in her view chockablock with mixed metaphors, bad similes, and turgid prose. Why waste time on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she asks, when you could have students read the work of James Baldwin, an African American who produced genuine literature?

"I can't tell you the trouble I've gotten into since this piece came out," Prose said. "But it's trouble I'm glad for." --DK