Me You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work, JJ Murphy's useful book on the varying structures of indie scripts, should be of particular interest to budding screenwriters as well to those critics with an interest in, as Variety would say, "scribes." The elongated title names three of the films focused on here - others include Gus van Sant's Elephant, Jim Jarmusch's first feature the deadpan Stranger Than Paradise and Linklater's Slacker (which seems de rigeur for any discourse on independent film over the past 20 years, but less commonly analyzed for its screenplay).
If the book has a fault it's that Murphy, a Professor of Film at the University of Wisconsin, can get a bit too bogged down in rehashing point by point the plot for each film dissected, occasionally without enough analysis or context. Particularly in the first chapter's detailed examination of Stranger Than Paradise, the plot recap is especially trying if you've seen the film. But the book does find its rhythm more in each subsequent chapter. One may ask, why rehash Strangers Than Paradise rather than some of the other truly innovative screenplays, say, Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich (but is that an "independent film"?) - yet when you look a more elaborate film like Malkovich you can see that, as out there as it is, the script does follow a classical three act structure (the painful process of writing therein Kaufman would later deride, or at least chronicle, in Adaptation).
The book could also use more analysis in some of the chapters, but detailing plot points are necessary to examine how Jarmusch (and the other directors in the other sections) varies so wildly from conventional hollywood screenwriting.
In a discussion of Hal Hartley's comedy Trust, trying to explain the structure of a Hal Hartley screenplay seems a bit like trying to explain a platypus - it's a freak of nature, one of a kind, any attempt to explain it will seem futile -- but Murphy makes a valiant effort. What goes into a Harmony Korine script would seem outside any rational human being's mode of description, but again Murphy does well to break a challenging film down by the way the script works (and doesn't) - in that case the freakish comedy Gummo, in my opinion the most clearly divisive film looked at here - you either love it or hate it - along with Elephant.
At first blush the high school shooting drama Elephant might seem an odd choice, seemingly practically scriptless, and, as Murphy admits, "it's ultimately not character-driven," but, he points out, it actually has a 3-act structure, and while it starts slow it does build to the expected tense payoff in the last act. The highly structural approach in Elephant can be off-putting, too, but Murphy's examination of Van Sant's storytelling actually made me want to go back and see the film, to appreciate it more.
Most interesting from a screenplay structural standpoint - in the most obvious way - is Christopher Nolan's Memento (from a short story by his brother Jonathan), and while that specific script may be the most analyzed previously of the batch featured here it's still worthwhile to revisit. Alongside that film and Elephant in a section labeled "Temporal Structures" (an introduction to each section would have been useful) is Tarantino's first feature - interestingly though not surprisingly, the majority of the scripts featured here are first films - Reservoir Dogs, which uses a flashback structure. We know even more clearly from QT's enthralling follow-up film, Pulp Fiction, how much he abhors "cinema's inherent linearity," Murphy quotes him as seeing his structure as following that of a novel, which go back and forth all the time, rather than call them flashbacks. Whatever you call it, Murphy argues that thescrambling of time gives the narrative greater complexity (and, take that Syd Field! who considers flashbacks "a dated technique.")
Other scripts featured in the book include Alison Anders' Gas Food Lodging, an interesting film that frankly could've benefited from more script focus - Murphy heads that chapter "Shifting Goals and Focus", which I'd argue was one of its problems, but, as the author points out, the film's strong female characterizations and Wim Wenders-ish storytelling make it more than worthwhile; the Coen Brothers' Fargo, which makes some interesting choices along the way (including not introducing the central protagonist until well into the story); Todd Haynes' Safe, a fascinating film with a script that would be hard to teach to a screenwriting class; David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which one could write a whole book about but Murphy does well to explain the film's dream logic (in fact, I'd recommend this chapter to anyone who watches that film and comes out of it, as many do, utterly baffled); and lastly Miranda July's recent debut feature Me You and Everyone We Know, which Murphy uses as a way to look at ensemble approaches to narrative, which that film did about as well in its sweeter, more low-key way as many of Robert Altman's key films.
All told, the book is a most useful approach to writers and filmmakers (often the same person, it should be noted, commonly a major difference between Hollywood films and independents) who broke the mold, the Syd Field model of the standard script paradigm, to bring their unique voices and visions to the screen via the written word - in many cases more the latter than one might initially have imagined.