Schamus discusses dilemma of truth-telling in fiction

Courtesy of Vassar College.

James Schamus is an accomplished screenwriter, producer and director who, along with producing and writing a handful of my favorite movies (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Lost in Translation,” “Coraline,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”), teaches professional practice and film theory at Columbia and co-founded the production company Good Machine. Schamus visited Vassar on Oct. 25, providing a chance for students to directly exchange ideas with him. The talk combined his extensive academic bona fides with the practical knowledge of a long and fruitful career in the film industry.

Sharply dressed and equally precise in his speech, Schamus wasted little time before diving headfirst into his subject matter. He did, however, preface his talk with a brief digression on its form, which he revised after presenting it at a screenwriter’s conference in Berlin a week before. Hereflected on the self-congratulatory tone in many professional gatherings of this kind. Skeptical of the blanket adulation many in the creative industry have for the power of “storytelling,” Schamus hoped to use this talk as a non-academic self-critique, one addressed directly to the various professional storytellers and soon-to-be professional storytellers in the room.

He presented his talk in the form of 20 distinct fragments, the first of which highlighted two important themes: the impressive rise of documentary filmmaking in the last few years and the networks of personal information, advertising and media which form the omnipresent backdrop of all contemporary storytelling. Viewers are always choosing one narrative over a litany of others. When stories are presented as consumer choices, characters begin to resemble boxes filled with characteristics designed to be relatable for a target demographic.

Schamus asked the audience to imagine the role of the “nobody,” the empty box, the archetype or representative in storytelling and in Western thought. In contemporary terms, the “nobody” is the opposite of the “somebody,” a person with a right to their story, or even a right to their publicity. Fiction works on the dichotomy between these two poles, asking us to relate to non-real persons, whose stories we would normally not be able to access. These narratives about nobody can be entered by anybody. Schamus highlighted the importance of fiction in the historical fight for equality by different groups.

Can we demand that the oppressed speak? Schamus suggested that we can and must, but this doesn’t come without complications. Linking fiction to the language of the “nobody,” Schamus emphasized that deceiving nature of objectivity, for often the truth of someone’s speech is contained precisely in the ways that they contradict established fact. The opposite is also important to consider: The lies that someone speaks are best revealed by the ways in which they conform to the particular facts. Schamus used the example of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s detailed calendar to accentuate the specific dynamics between speech, truth and power.

Schamus then turned to a discussion of the material position of the storyteller in the production and sale of film content. Film revenue comes primarily from advertising and hence from the ability of content to collect personal information about its viewers. Major chains of data are endlessly processed to determine the viewer’s tastes and consumption preferences, maximizing the effectiveness of an advertisement. Executives favor stories with smaller and shorter packets of attention-grabbing content, more data points and more room for advertising.

Within this context, the storyteller generates revenue for the media distribution company. In many ways this model resembles the past, but it also differs, notably because data relevant to the production of content has become so privatized that none of it is even available to the creators of said content. That is to say, whereas before box office numbers were a way for storytellers to get royalties from the content they created, contemporary TV show writers, for example, have no access to the royalties or the data that captures the engagement with their content. They are also unable to tell which characters are most “relatable” or which “nobody” sells the best. For storytellers, the scientific aspect of storytelling is rendered inaccessible by the material context of those tools. The complicated moving pieces of Schamus’ talk ended with a moral imperative: For the storyteller, truth must remain a matter of feeling and art but not science.

Schamus ended the presentation with a rapid-fire question-and-answer session. David Gabriel ’19 asked about the challenge of balancing contemporary relevance and immediate connection with longevity. Schamus answered by extolling the virtues of sustained focus and technological disconnection, which, at the cost of decreased cultural engagement, empowers one to craft stories that connect with people deeply. Another student asked about the entrance of machine learning into not just algorithms but also the actual production and writing of movies. Schamus took the opportunity to reflect on the paradox of algorithms that pretend to predict human behavior. The outcomes of these algorithms are always contingent and provisional. Furthermore, they often change behavior themselves. Schamus noted the connection between algorithms that predict viewer taste and algorithms used in predictive policing, concluding the event in a cautionary tone while fusing his insider knowledge with pertinent academic analysis.

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