An Afternoon with James Schamus
Saturday, May 1
1:00 PM Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
1881 Post Street (at Fillmore)
Members $20, general $25
The Film Society proudly presents this year's Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting to the inimitable James Schamus. An integral contributor to the American independent film business for more than two decades and a kindred spirit and collaborative partner of director Ang Lee, Schamus is both an award-winning screenwriter and producer who is also a film executive. As a screenwriter Schamus received an Academy Award nomination for his work on Ang Lee's multi-Oscar-winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and he has collaborated as writer and producer with Lee on 11 feature films including Taking Woodstock, Lust, Caution, The Ice Storm and The Wedding Banquet. An onstage interview with critic and cultural theorist B. Ruby Rich will be followed by the West Coast premiere of the newly completed director's cut of Ride with the Devil (1999).
Schamus, Plural and Singular
By Howard A. Rodman
The idea of a unitary Schamus is as ludicrous as the single bullet theory. No lone Schamus could subtend so large an angle. One needs to speak of Schamuses, or, perhaps, Schami. Nabokov once observed that "reality" is a word that only makes sense within inverted commas. Perhaps "Schamus" is a word that only makes sense if it applies equally to the plural. Like "aircraft," "trousers," "eyeglasses" or "fish."
Writer, builder, scholar, producer, family man, chef, public intellectual, mogul, friend-it's a multiplicity of identities rarely seen outside early silent serials (Fantômas, Mabuse) about disguised archfiends. Even his name suggests the plurality: As Wikipedia wryly notes, "Friends, acquaintances and even rivals sometimes refer to him as James James, Schamus Schamus, or Seamus Seamus because his first and last names are etymological cognates."
He is almost literary in his effects. So one might say, "The first time I laid eyes on James Schamus he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers." One might say, "Stately, plump James Schamus came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed." One might say, "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel James Schamus was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
But if the Schamus we speak of today is but one of all possible Schami, it is, I would maintain, the most important one, the central one, the generative one, the smallest and most determinative figure at the heart of the matryoshka doll. And that is Schamus the writer.
David Kipen's gracious polemic, The Schreiber Theory, postulates that screenwriting careers are every bit as dense, as identifiable, as those of directors. In this case, since nine of his screenplays were realized by Ang Lee, it's hard to disentwine. But it's more than fair to say that there are gestures, themes, preoccupations that are distinctly and definitively Jamesian.
The easiest to talk about would be a loving attention to period and context. Schamus's screenplays, whether originals or adaptations, take place in a specific somewhere, at a specific somewhen. From Qing Dynasty China to the 1860s Kansas/Missouri border to the Catskills of 100 years later, we always know where we are, when we are.
Schamus likes to set his work at the end of eras, where something new might-or might not-be just over the horizon. No screenwriter has read his Gramsci more carefully, or taken his apothegms more to heart: "The old world is dying and the new one cannot yet be born-in the interim a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." But what to others might seem a dour injunction is to Schamus a vast land of writerly opportunity.
Another thing one notices is that Schamus's characters are rarely at a loss for words. His characters tie themselves in knots in spite of (one might even say because of) their insight, their articulateness. "I have a husband," says Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) to her too talkative long-term lover Ben (Kevin Klein) in The Ice Storm. "I don't particularly feel the need for another."
There are linking leitmotifs in Schamus's work-the obsession with the Fantastic Four in 1997's The Ice Storm nicely prefigure 2003's Hulk, which itself could be seen, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before it, as a meditation on Green Destiny. But if we were to choose but one dominant chord, it would be (pace James Dobson) a focus on the family.
Whether it's Alex trying to juggle wife, son and father in Pushing Hands, the three daughters struggling to define themselves in Eat Drink Man Woman, the post-nuclear families of The Ice Storm or the literally transformative Oedipal rage of Bruce Banner, Schamus's characters are, first and foremost, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers. Schamus is clearly cognizant of Philip Larkin's famous four-word description of family, but again sees opening and occasion where others might see mere doom.
We are defined by family, constrained by family, but learn who we are within it, learn to transcend ourselves in our attempts to escape it. For Schamus, in the most unsentimental of ways, families are the source of our problems and our strengths: the rope and scaffold, the bed and board, the rock and the salvation.
But all of this is to speak only of Schamus the writer. Limitations of space and venue preclude us from devoting sufficient time to the multiplicity of Schamus detailed above. But the writer Schamus is informed by all of them, even as he lives within their matryoshka-doll embrace. And all of us, in turn, are informed by his largeness of heart, his generosity of spirit, the pessimism of his intellect, the optimism of his will. May his tribe increase.
Howard A. Rodman wrote the screenplays for Savage Grace, August and Joe Gould's Secret. He is professor and former chair at the School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California; serves on the board of the Writers Guild of America, West and is a frequent artistic director of the Sundance Writing Labs.
James Schamus Selected Filmography
2009 Taking Woodstock
2007 Lust, Caution
2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
1999 Ride with the Devil
1997 The Ice Storm
1994 Eat Drink Man Woman
2009 James Toback
2008 Robert Towne
2007 Peter Morgan
2006 Jean-Claude Carrière
2005 Paul Haggis