Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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Sabine Chalvon-Demersay.
A Thousand Screenplays: The French Imagination in a Time of Crisis.
(translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan)
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 199pp. $20.75 paper (0226100693), $36.99 cloth (0226100685)

In 1991 the public network France Télévision issued a call for fictional screenplays. Twelve winners would have their works produced and shown on television. The goal was to offer a springboard to young authors, directors and “idea people.” The response was ovewhelming: 1,120 synopses were submitted, or more than 20,000 pages of plots and characters by French-speaking writers.

Sociologists Dominique Pasquier, Dominique Jacquin and Sabine Chalvon-Demersay read the submissions, not as official judges but as sociologists. They sought insights into “the contemporary French imagination,” reasoning that since the proposed screenplays were to be works of fiction the screenwriters were theoretically free to dream unfettered. Alas, the first reading left the sociologists with a disturbing sense that the writers had formulaic visions of a world in crisis. The synopses depicted a world inhabited by individuals plagued with self-doubt who questioned the very possibility of maintaining any interpersonal bonds with others. Sabine Chalvon-Demersay had a closer look, and this book reports on a subsequent in-depth analysis of 817 of the synopses (eliminating non-fiction submissions and works that were still out with official readers for the competition). She also contacted many of the authors to find out more about the aspirations and strategies of aspiring screenwriters. (She corresponded in writing with about 300, had telephone conversations with more than 200 and face-to-face interviews with 25).

Much of the book is devoted to a study of social world depicted in the synopses. Chalvon-Demersay treats the collection of synopses as a social phenomenon in itself and analyzes them as though together they painted a picture of a world. First she presents an overview of the synopses in an entertaining account of the characters, plots and themes illustrated with richly textured quotes and descriptive passages. Some of the trends she observes are not surprising, such as the over-representation of young characters, but other observations shock or amuse. For example, when Chalvon-Demersay looks at how long the action depicted lasts she finds a surprising emphasis on immediacy. Most action lasts only a few hours or days, with only 3 % of the total spanning a lifetime. Lives depicted in the stories are full of short-term relationships and encounters taking place at the pace of video games. Common elements in the settings, characters and plots point to an underlying set of shared assumptions about a world in crisis due to the failure of social institutions. She notes that those who manage to play the system are suspect “The darkest figure we encounter is that of the real estate developer...whereas the others have lost control of the instruments of global domination and seek simply to hang on individually to what power and money they have left in a world that is beyond their control, the developer is still the master of all worldly mechanics and workings; he decides, he expropriates, he constructs, he becomes rich....He is neither a lowlife nor a degenerate: he is the last of the scoundrels” (48-49). This first chapter is a fine example of updated Durkheimian methodology in the tradition of the École Française de Sociologie.

Suddenly, in a creative and welcome transition, the focus shifts in a more literary approach akin to contemporary work in the field of cultural studies or film studies. Three remaining chapters in the main body of the book each explore a different formulation of what Chalvon-Demersay calls “social settings” ranging from the most distant social bonds in the public arena, through the relationships in private life to individual constructions of solitude. Reading these chapters is like watching runners for movies or reading a surrealist novel. The material is dense, rich, enticing, with quick-paced transitions that are sometimes a bit disconcerting. Far from a criticism, this effect enhances the overall experience of reading the book and draws the reader into the uncertain, changing worlds portrayed by the contestants.

We are roughly awakened from our reveries by an intense, and potentially controversial conclusion followed by two thought-provoking appendices about selected theoretical and methodological issues raised by the study. In these closing sections of the book, Chalvon-Demersay accomplishes what in sports journalism might be termed a terrific ‘save,’elevating what might have been just an entertaining case study into a noteworthy contribution to the field of sociology of the arts and sociology of culture. Here the author positions herself viz à viz quarrels in sociology of the arts, in an attempt to distance herself from reflection theory – which is, broadly put, the idea that art reflects social reality. (The rejection of reflection theory is a key tenet of recent work on the social construction of artistic creation/production, mediation and reception.)

In her final assessments Chalvon-Demersay reaches to Charles Taylor’s work on the ethics of authenticity and theories of artistic practice inspired by Michael Baxandahl. Her reading of Michael Baxandahl’s l’Oeil du Quattroceno draws heavily on his notion of compromise in the work of the artist through the use of conventions shared in a common culture to create art capable of bringing fresh insights into the common image of society. Chalvon-Demersay finds these practices at work in the testimony of the contestants about balancing a desire for personal expression with the anticipated expectations of the television station’s judges and eventual audiences. Their convincing depictions of the impossibility of action in a world without hope notwithstanding, it seems that the aspiring screenwriters had both hope and the drive to act creatively. Twelve of the plays were produced and aired in 1993 and 1994.

Chalvon-Demersay thus observes at last that the screenplays were not indicative of what the prospective screenwriters thought about the world or society in general but rather what they believed should be put in the public arena. The visions were designed for an intended audience of judges and publics to fit the conventions of a medium. In a disarmingly candid discussion she intimates that she herself came to this realization only gradually. This book thus offers a rare opportunity to witness the interaction between empirical research and theory and its evolution over the course of a research project. As such it would be a useful reading for graduate students and upper-level undergraduates interested in theories of artistic creation.

Jan Marontate
Department of Sociology
Acadia University
January 2000
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