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Remembering Syd Field: The Aristotle of Hollywood

By Prince Gomolvilas & Brighde Mullins

We visited Syd Field in his storybook house near Coldwater Canyon just four days before he passed away on Sunday. Syd was very aware that he would die soon, but he seemed to be at peace about it -- there were no tears shed over his debilitating illness (hemolytic anemia), no self-pity over the inevitability of what was to come. His halcyon demeanor made sense, given his longtime spiritual practice of Siddha Yoga Meditation under its founder, Baba Muktananda.

He did get emotional once during our visit. We gave him a card that was signed by his current students in USC's Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program, where he had been teaching since 2001. The students expressed what so many before them had felt -- that they learned so much about dramatic structure from him, that his scope of knowledge about film and the screenplay form was inspiring. Syd began to cry but stopped himself, setting the card aside so that he could appreciate it later by himself. He seemed humbled by the sentiments -- was it possible that he didn't quite know how deeply he impacted not only those who studied under him but also an entire industry? Is there anybody working in film today who hasn't read Screenplay, one of the seminal books that led outlets like CNN to name Syd the "guru of all screenwriters"?

Syd was, of course, influenced by Aristotle -- and like Aristotle, whose Poetics shaped the culture millennia before us, Syd's writing about writing shows the deep pleasure he got from viewing drama with a critical and creative eye. He demystified writing, but he always honored the metaphysical aspect -- the art, the story -- and his theories have provided a way of understanding screenplays and dramatic forms for generations of writers. He would rhapsodize about a film but also be able to analyze how it was working. His primary interest was character (not plot!), and his roots were actually in theater (he started out as an actor). His legendary sagacity, wit and equanimity came from both his teaching and his spiritual practice. This was what made him such a great mentor.

As Syd talked to us -- sitting up in the hospice bed that had been placed in his living room, in a house that once belonged to George Gershwin -- about how he would miss the MPW program, he segued into his life's other loves, his other memories. How his cinematically beautiful wife, Aviva, would drive him to campus to teach because that's what he really wanted to do, even at the onset of his illness. How Michelangelo Antonioni admired the beautiful picture window in Syd's living room so much that he insisted it always remain intact, that he claimed he could make a whole movie about that window. How he learned so much about scenecraft by playing Lucky in a production of Waiting for Godot long ago in the San Francisco Bay Area.

We are reminded by something that Pozzo says in Godot: "I don't seem to be able to depart." Ironic because he and Lucky, unlike the play's protagonists, are able to depart. As we walked away from Syd's house, as we looked at him one last time, framed through that magnificent window, he seemed, like Lucky, able to depart. What a compelling lesson we left with. That's so like Syd -- teaching until the very end.

Prince Gomolvilas is the associate director and Brighde Mullins is the director of the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.


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