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#LFF: Schamus Delivers Lessons in Redacted Storytelling

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 28, 2009 at 6:01AM

James Schamus is not your ordinary Hollywood player.
Thompson on Hollywood

James Schamus is not your ordinary Hollywood player.

He's a BAFTA-winning, Oscar-nominated screenwriter (often collaborating with director Ang Lee on such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Taking Woodstock). He's CEO of one of the surviving studio specialty divisions, Focus Features, which brought Taking Woodstock and A Serious Man to the London Fest. And he's a raging academic. The tenured Columbia University film professor has written a monograph on Carl Theodor Dreyer's Gertrud, and on Tuesday gave what he calls an "anti-keynote" speech at the London Film Festival, entitled "My Wife is a Terrorist: Lessons in Storytelling from the Department of Homeland Security."

Thompson on Hollywood

Schamus was appalled when his environmental activist wife, who he considers to be an upstanding member of society, had a run-in with the department of homeland security. He looked at her redacted file, mostly blacked out with magic marker, with horror. And he decided to apply his academic tools to the deconstruction of her "narrative" and present the results at the London Film Fest rather than deliver yet another standard address "where people like me intone about the challenges of our digital future, new distribution models, the threat of piracy, etc."

Instead, he opted to talk about "what the film industry has to learn from contemporary narrative theory, by way of a discussion about my wife, who apparently is a terrorist. For the most powerful narrative factories today reside not in Hollywood but in places like Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and in the various unnameable suburbs of Maryland and Colorado and Georgia where hundreds of thousands of workers toil within America's vast homeland-security bureaucracies, spying on the rest of us - and they have a lot to teach us about storytelling."

Bow-tie lover Schamus, who abides in Columbia-adjacent Morningside Heights (where I lived until I was 28) and keeps a list of the tastiest restaurants in Paris, told the London Fest crowd about the "changing role of narrative in an increasingly digital and ubiquitously monitored contemporary society."

That's especially true in London, where I saw white mounted surveillance cameras everywhere, part of what he calls a "tidal wave of surveillance."

He's actually planning to expand his analysis into a book: Harvard University Press has the first look.

This article is related to: Festivals, Studios, Stuck In Love, Universal/Focus Features, Screenwriters

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.