Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Treatment

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Vital stats:
Format: conversations with cinematic creators
Episode duration: ~30m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

Before screenwriters write a screenplay, they often shop around what’s called a “treatment,” or “a concise overview of a screenplay.” This knocks against my own class of cinephilia as one of those Bad Hollywood Things, as yet another industry convention enabling the laziness and conventionality of mainstream cinema. You write yourself a treatment, then you slather some more words on top of it, then you slather some images and sounds on top of that, and bam: you got yourself a big slab of un-integrated nothin’ headed to a theater near you.

But though I pulled that definition above from the web site of The Treatment [RSS] [iTunes], the show has little business in that shallow end of film’s creative pool. The program doesn’t read treatments; it gives them. Administering said treatments, veteran film critic Elvis Mitchell engages a slew of directors, writers, actors, and others in conversation about their work. He knows that no treatment based upon a list of pre-written questions can succeed, and he knows that a truly effective treatment must reach well beyond the cultural area at hand. Mitchell’s guests make movies, but he knows better than to talk to them only about movies.

As a production of KCRW in Santa Monica, The Treatment thus stands in further evidence for that station’s spooky aptitude for one-on-one interview shows. Two years ago, I Podthought about KCRW’s Bookworm in this space, and the shows turn out to be counterparts. Both run for half an hour. Both deal in two-way dialogue, not simple (indeed, simplistic) extraction of answers. Both have hosts you’d want to hang out with. This quote from a Film.com interview with Mitchell sheds light on their common method:
[James Lipton] sits down with that stack of questions, and like a prosecutor he never asks a question that he doesn't know the answer to. And for me that's where it gets interesting, where I want to start is the question that I don't know the answer to and with any luck they don't know the answer either, and it becomes a conversation about that. You know, there's a kind of connection you make when people are just weighing things out. Sometimes it gets to be that moment when somebody says ‘I've never said this before,’ because in conversation we tend to not say that kind of thing. But, you know, that's the kind of thing that happens.
No knock against Lipton; Mitchell had Lipton on [MP3] and they made one of my favorite Treatments. He also had Werner Herzog on [MP3], which resulted in an interview I plan to listen to over and over until something goes wrong in my iPod. The man talks to Wayne Wang [MP3], he talks to Charles Burnett [MP3], he talks to Wes Anderson [MP3] [or previously] [or previously] [or previously] — he talks to everyone from whom all growing film geeks need to hear.

But here’s the thing: Mitchell also gives the treatment, without lowering the level of his discourse a hairsbreadth, to creators of movies film geeks might write off as, well, dumb. Your teen comedies. Your remakes of seventies television shows. Your Kevin Smith projects. Your Guy Ritchie adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. The Treatment’s hardest-core fans say that, if you didn’t like a movie, you need only listen to Elvis Mitchell draw out its director’s inner intelligence to convert your artistically inferior experience into, if not an artistically superior experience, then at least an artistically interesting one. They’re right.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation that, this week, needs 196 new subscribers to survive the year.]