30 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 20, Five Easy Pieces, by Carole Eastman and Bob Rafaelson

If you wouldn't open your mouth, everything would be just fine.

 image via

Five Easy Pieces is about a man who doesn't fit in anywhere. We meet him working construction, hanging out with Rayette the waitress and his work buddy, Elton. He bowls, flirts, fucks in an uneasy truce in the trailer park. We sense, though, that he's not really part of that scene.Then his pal Elton gets busted for an old robbery charge; turns out Elton wasn't as simple a hick as we thought, and himself a guy that wasn't whom he seemed to be.

Then Bobby visits his sister, Tita. It turns out she's a classical pianist in the mold of Glenn Gould making a recording. She tells him that their father has suffered a stroke. Bobby heads up north to Washington, and stashes Rayette in a motel while he visits his family in a Victorian mansion on a island. Along with his father and his sister, we meet Karl, his brother and a teacher, as well Catherine, his brother's fiance. He seduces Catherine, then falls in love with her. Rayette shows up out of the blue, and Bobby, with his last real hope smashed, leaves his family.

Five Easy Pieces is audacious in insisting on portraying a character, rather than hitching one to a plot. It's audacious in its structure: for about the first half of the movie, it all seems random. Then it clamps down as it peels back the layers. We finally get inside Bobby himself as he almost involuntarily spills his guts to his father:
 [to his father] I don't know if you'd be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean... Most of it doesn't add up to much... that I could relate as a way of life that you'd approve of...I'd like to be able to tell you why, but I don't really...I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I'm looking...for auspicious beginnings, I guess...I'm trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation...My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn't be talking. That's pretty much how it got to be before... I left...Are you all right? I don't know what to say...Tita suggested that we try to...I don't know. I think that she...seems to feel we've got...some understanding to reach...She totally denies the fact that we were never that comfortable with each other to begin with...The best that I can do, is apologize. We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway...I'm sorry it didn't work out.
He says this to a man who's paralyzed, expressionless, and locked in a wheelchair. We don't know if the father understands anything.
This film also works along a series of contrasts: SoCal oil fields, all orange and red, and the Pacific Northwest, cool and green. Country and classical. Rayette, the waitress, and Catherine, the classical pianist. Oil rigs and concert grands This even extends to the title; five easy pieces are the music by Chopin, Bach and Mozart, but they're the five songs by Tammy Wynette, too. 

He's a man out of place. The blue collar world is vivid, but narrow. The musical and intellectual milieu has its own tight constraints, and Bobby's lashing out, caught between the two extremes.

Brilliant, brave and offering all the jolt of a great novel.

And one of the great movie endings:

28 September 2010

Open Season by Stuck Mojo

Merci, M. Caza!

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 19, White Nights, by Luchino Visconti

Mario: Go to him. Go to him. don't be sorry. I . . . I was wrong to try to make you doubt. Go to him. And God bless you for the moment of happiness that you've given me. It's not a little thing. Even in a whole lifetime. . . 

Based on Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name, White Nights tells the story of Mario, a loner who falls in love with Natalia, a sensitive, isolated young woman in an anonymous town. He first meets her as she seems to be contemplating suicide. He finds out that she met and fell in love with a man who took lodgings with her and her blind grandmother. The lodger captured her heart, but left a year before, with no word and without ever contacting her since.

Mario begins to fall in love with the beautiful, shy and innocent girl. She pulls a "let's just be friends" number on him, because her heart still belongs to the lodger. He grudgingly accepts this status, but he works as much as he can to change her affections.  Natalia gives Mario a letter to deliver to the lodger, to let him know she's still waiting for him and still loves him. After a struggle, Mario tosses the letter in a canal and tries to forget Natalia. He runs into the next night, though, as she waits, filled with hope, for the lodger to meet her.

This is too much for Mario, who takes her under his wing, dances with her, gets into trouble, and finally seems to win her heart in a beautiful scene filled with snow and poetry. But, who should show up? The lodger himself. Natalia has the joyous reunion she'd prayed for. Mario's left in the cold.

Yeah, pretty corny stuff, I admit. It has a plot line that is, frankly, ridiculous. A girl waits for a year for a guy with no word? No hope? Not a hint? And the man left her for no real reason, and still even lives in the same town. Yet, the lodger shows up by a ludicrous coincidence at Just The Right Moment. (Are we more cyncial now, or did that happen in the 19th century? Does it still happen now, or are we too stupid and blind to recognize it when it happens, or do we slap a pop psych label on that emotion and ignore it? Are we smaller people, was literature more false, or are our lives smaller, more niggling, and more petty than before?)

Even though White Nights may  make no real sense rationally, it slays you emotionally. It's told from Mario's point of view. Lonely. Bored. A bit maladroit, socially, not at all smooth with other people.  If you've ever wandered alone through a city, you know right away how he feels, even down to the hope of meeting that mysterious, beautiful Other.

And when you've met that person, it's amazing how clumsy you can be, how turned around inside while you're faking a smooth act on the outside -- how conflicted between trying to use stratagems to seduce her and overwhelmed by your emotions and your own need for her underneath. And how oblivious, mysterious, scattered that other person can be to all our schemes, hopes and feelings. And how filled in inchoate yearnings, and how that can make you act in all sorts of ways you know aren't. . . you, the daylight you, anyway.

So it works despite the clumsy plot conventions, because it is finally about characters and the relationship between them and the utter sorrow that comes with them. As well as the chance for nobility and right action in the face of that. Mario moves from being a common fellow into a true hero. That it's through suffering, just makes it Dostoyevskian, and perhaps a bit suspect, but damn, you feel its truth down in your marrow.

Hoellebecq on work and sex

So what made you write your first novel, Whatever, about a computer
programmer and his sexually frustrated friend?
I hadn’t seen any novel make the statement that entering the workforce was like entering the grave. That from then on, nothing happens and you have to pretend to be interested in your work. And, furthermore, that some people have a sex life and others don’t just because some are more attractive than others. I wanted to acknowledge that if people don’t have a sex life, it’s not for some moral reason, it’s just because they’re ugly. Once you’ve said it,
it sounds obvious, but I wanted to say it.

I don't know a French person who likes this guy. But he's the Damien Hirst of French lit, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Against the burqua

 image via
. . .And yet the burqa must be banned. All forms of veiling must be, if not banned, strongly discouraged and stigmatized. The arguments against a ban are coherent and principled. They are also shallow and insufficient. They fail to take something crucial into account, and that thing is this: If Europe does not stand up now against veiling — and the conception of women and their place in society that it represents — within a generation there will be many cities in Europe where no unveiled woman will walk comfortably or safely.

Parents in these neighborhoods ask gynecologists to testify to their daughters’ virginity. Polygamy and forced marriages are commonplace. Many girls are banned from leaving the house at all. According to French-government statistics, rapes in the housing projects have risen between 15 and 20 percent every year since 1999. In these neighborhoods, women have indeed begun veiling only to escape harassment and violence. In the suburb of La Courneuve, 77 percent of veiled women report that they wear the veil to avoid the wrath of Islamic morality patrols. We are talking about France, not Iran.

The association of Islam and crime against women is seen throughout Europe: “The police in the Norwegian capital Oslo revealed that 2009 set yet another record: compared to 2008, there were twice as many cases of assault rapes,” the conservative Brussels Journal noted earlier this year. “In each and every case, not only in 2008 and 2009 but also in 2007, the offender was a non-Western immigrant.” These statistics are rarely discussed; they are too evocative of ancient racist tropes for anyone’s comfort. But they are facts.

...While it is true that some women adopt the veil voluntarily, it is also true that most veiling is forced. It is nearly impossible for the state to ascertain who is veiled by choice and who has been coerced. A woman who has been forced to veil is hardly likely to volunteer this information to authorities. Our responsibility to protect these women from coercion is greater than our responsibility to protect the freedom of those who choose to veil. Why? Because this is our culture, and in our culture, we do not veil. We do not veil because we do not believe that God demands this of women or even desires it; nor do we believe that unveiled women are whores, nor do we believe they deserve social censure, harassment, or rape. Our culture’s position on these questions is morally superior. We have every right, indeed an obligation, to ensure that our more enlightened conception of women and their proper role in society prevails in any cultural conflict, particularly one on Western soil.

Claire Berlinski

27 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 18, Eyes Wide Shut by Frederick Raphael and Stanley Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut is a Kubrikian take on marriage -- that is, an examination that affirms the institution while looking bleakly at the temptations that threaten it. We meet Doctor Bill Harford and and his wife, Alice, as they prepare for a fancy ball, er, dance during the Christmas holiday season. At the sumptuous mansion of Mr. Zielger, each faces the first in what will be a series of challenges to their domestic bliss in invitations to stray. Later, his wife, provoked, will eveal that she, too, is capable of reckless sexual desire. Harford meets a med school buddy of his, Nick Nightingale, who will supply the password to a decadent orgy in a palatial estate on Long Island. Discovered before he can do much, Harford is nearly subjected to some unnamed punishment, which a beautiful woman offers to undertake herself. The next day, he can find no trace of Nightengale, no answers and the dead body of the woman who redeemed him. Ziegler spells things out for him (or does Zielger merely lie to him?). Harford goes home and confesses. His wife forgives him, tentatively. The script ends on a note of cautious hope rather than a ringing affirmation.

I've always admired the movie intensely since I first saw it in the theatre. I don't know of many other works, literary or cinematic, that deal with the struggle between desire and marriage as well. Lee Siegel does a better job than I could of weighing its merits in his essay that appeared in Harpers, not long after the film came out. You can read the essay here.

It's a fine script, but out of all the ones I've read, it seems the most dependent upon the director's contribution. Not to slight what the other directors brought to their scripts, but much of the metaphors and the significant symbols weren't quite there in the script itself, in the way they have been in the rest. It's less of a stand alone object and much more like a sketch.

Early on, I realized I was reading an early draft, so I scrounged around for a later version, and found it in the book published with the short story by Arthur Schnitzler that it's based on. The two drafts were mostly the same. The major differences that I noticed in my casual reading were the ending and a voice over, which was removed for the final version. Alice's speeches describing her fantasies and dreams were shortened by half or so. The other changes were mainly streamlining and sharpening the action. 

For example, in the first draft version, when Bill goes back to visit Domino, the hooker, he meets her roommate and an older, 41-year-old woman. He learns that Domino has a disease. In the final version, the older woman disappears -- she's extraneous, and Domino becomes HIV-Positive, a much stronger dramatic choice. The final scene between Ziegler and Bill moves from their just sitting around to a scene featuring a red-covered billiard table.The dialogue is less neutral and more American. Zielger's language in particular is saltier and more colloquial. And one of the early shots, of Alice sitting on the toilet with an open door -- about as economical a way to telegraph the advanced and staid condition of their marriage as you can imagine -- came with the later draft as well.

Another critical difference is the ending. The earlier draft ends with Bill and Alice still in their bed. Morning streams in, and their child bounces up to them. In the final draft and the movie itself, we see them shopping at FAO Schwartz with their daughter. And it ends with Alice's killer last word.

For the voice over, my guess is that they made the choice initially to reinforce the "tale" aspect of the story --- to add a sense of distance, to help reveal the thoughts of the characters, but to reinforce the overall notion that what we're watching is less a literal take on a married couple in Manhattan, but something more like a myth or a dream. "Once upon a time. . . "

Still, you can see why they ditched it. The voice over tended to spell things out too neatly.It didn't add much that an observant viewer couldn't figure out herself. And it twisted the movie into telling you, rather than showing you, what was going on.

So, a nice mini course in how to make a script better and more cinematic.

26 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 17, Slumdog Millionaire, by Simon Beaufoy

Police Inspector: Money and women. The reasons for make most mistakes in life. Looks like you've mixed up both.

    I wanted to read something recent, something respected, and something that made some serious coin at the theaters, so I picked up Slumdog Millionaire at the library and dug in.

    Quite a feast, and, like a lot of fancy dinners, in ended with a too sweet finish for my taste. Briefly, it's about a kid from the slums of Mumbai/Bombay who's on a quiz show. He's about to win tens of millions of rupees, when he gets worked over at the local police station. No one believes that an ignorant slumdog could know the answers, so they torture him to find out if he's cheating. In a series of flashbacks, we learn how he knows the answers -- and we get a fast moving and dramatic portrait of the underbelly of Mumbai.

    The action starts immediately. We see Jamal undergoing torture at the station, wham! cut to the tv show, wham! more gnarly torture, wham! For a long time, the film script stays way ahead of the audience, and as soon as we think we're caught up, it throws in some more heavy duty action, or a grand emotional scene. Chase scenes, cliff hangers, gun battles, gangsters, young love, this really has it all.

    At first, I thought it was a totally ingenious way into a slice of Indian life that was both dramatic and informative, moving. Sort of like an Oliver Twist for the twenty-first century. On steroids

    But the Hollywood clichés start sneaking in about the same time as the love story takes off. No matter how well machined the script is and how well it toys with expectations, you know exactly how it's going to end midway through the script.

    Anyway, it was a fun read, very fast. Some things to keep in mind:

    • The principle of contrast: high/low, rich/poor, fortunate/tragic. Just like Dickens.
    • The work of forward propulsion
    • The importance of keeping the audience off balance: one scene was ingenious, where a character is about to off the bad guy, but the safety catch is on. It stops the normal progression of bang bang, he's dead. A small example, but a smart move.

    25 September 2010

    20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 16, The Magician/The Face by Ingmar Bergman

    image via

    The Magician was the last script in the Bergman anthology I have, which was really the only reason I read it -- completeness and convenience. I'm glad I did.
         It starts out much like some long lost story by Isak Dinesen. In 1842, troupe of . . . what to call them? Faith healers? Con artists? Charlatans? Magicians? Anyway, a troupe of magicians which includes a genuine witch pass through some haunted woods. Along the way, they're forcibly invited to stay as "guests" at the mansion of a city counselor in Stockholm. There, the police chief, a politician/rationalist and a scientist put the group through some tests, while the presence of the troupe disrupts the bourgeois order of the house. Suppressed emotions boil to the surface. The master of the house Vergerus, tries to bore into the mysteries Vogler, the head of the troupe, seems to possess. Vergerus also wants to seduce Volger's wife.
         Vogler, artist, con man, mesmerist, operator of the magic lantern, wields a curious kind of power over his hosts, yet his power is ephemeral and illusory next to the brute force the guardians of society can exert. Racked by self doubt, Vogler can only find confirmation of his talent in the response of the audience. Capable of real miracles, yet reliant on chicanery,  he remains mysterious to himself.
         After a spectacular deception, then near disaster, the troupe triumphs. We enjoy a happy ending.
         The script is also like Dinesen in its themes: what is the nature of identity? When does playing a role cross over into becoming real? How is it that you can lie your way to a deeper truth? Vogler, of course, stands for the Artist, and probably is a self-portrait of Bergman himself, struggling with faith, creation, and the flimsy yet massively powerful nature of cinema and theatre.
         The mash-up of genres, the power of allegory, Bergman's unwillingness to explain away the genuinely supernatural elements of the script, the wildly veering directions in tone are all related to the theme. Perhaps the material ran away with him and his own obsessions took over. But his skill put those divergent elements to work for him, creating a totally original take on the nature of identity and art. I'm even more in awe of Bergman's artistic courage and craftsman's skill.

    24 September 2010

    20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 15, Citizen Kane by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles

    Citizen Kane is familiar territory, hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time. Perhaps it's too a little too familiar, a little too picked over. For me, the script at least, was virginal and new, and it was long past time to read it.
         Briefly, Citizen Kane tells the story of a newspaper mogul who reaches near domination of media in the United States, then falls, done in by his massive egotism and his gargantuan need for love. Essentially, a man who has it all, then loses it. It's difficult to read this script without feeling the overwhelming presence of Welles behind every page -- his voice and his face so embody Kane that you can't get away from him.
         Welles and Mankiewicz clearly aimed for Shakespearean greatness: a prince of our time, magnificently gifted, but tragically flawed, ground up by his own hubris is the recipe Aristotle cooked up. They take that story and then refract it, break it up and tell it from the point of view of people who knew Kane. The fragmentation applies to the way time is treated as well: a flashback within a flashback is the default scene, with complexities on top of that.
         The story structure itself creates meaning and reinforces one of the themes of Citizen Kane. Who are we? What is the nature of our identity, or that of those whom we love or fear?  How can we ever know a friend, really, or a husband? Only by what we see of him, by what others say about him. If he's famous, we may catch glimpses through the media, and their stereotyped presentations. 
         It's deeply accomplished, and worth the praise it's won when you consider how the script beautifully marries form to meaning. I could cite element after element of the story that achieves this, and I'm sure a lot of other commentators have detailed these.
         What struck me, too, was that a lot of the devices that receive tribute in the finished film, such as the brilliant sound design and the innovative editing, are in the script itself. Only the script for Ikiru comes close to Kane's careful attention to auditory elements. In fact, if you'd handed the script to another director and if he'd followed the instructions, then critics would probably be talking about that guy's brilliant directorial approach to sound.
         By coincidence, maybe, this is yet another movie masterpiece with a flawed protagonist who fails, which makes three out of the 15 I've read so far: Sunset Boulevard, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and now, Citizen Kane. You could also count Bonnie and Clyde as well as All Quiet on the Western Front. Taxi Driver has a deeply messed up protagonist, but his arc is more complex.

    23 September 2010

    Crossbow by David Michôd

    "My Lie" Why I falsely accused my father . . .

    More than 20 years ago, Meredith Maran falsely accused her father of molestation. That she came to believe such a thing was possible reveals what can happen when personal turmoil meets a powerful social movement. In her book "My Lie: A True Story of False Memory" (the introduction of which is excerpted on Salon), Maran recounts the 1980s feminist-inspired campaign to expose molestation, which hit feverish levels in 1988 with the book 'The Courage to Heal." As an early reporter on the story, Maran observed family therapy sessions, interviewed molesters and steeped herself in cases where abuse clearly took place. Meanwhile, she divorced her husband and fell in love with a woman who was also an incest survivor. Maran began having nightmares about her own molestation and soon what had been a contentious relationship with her father turned into accusations of unspeakable crimes. Eventually, she came to realize the truth. She was the person who had done wrong.
    via Salon

    Fascinating and horrifying. Makes you wonder what other psychological orthodoxies are fueling lies.

    22 September 2010

    20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 14, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, by John Huston

    Howard: . . .. Aw, gold's a devilish sort of a thing anyway. You start out to tell yourself you'll be satisfied with twenty-five thousand handsome smackers worth of it, 'so help me Lord and cross my heart.' Fine resolution. After months of sweatin' yourself dizzy and growing short on provisions and findin' nothin', you finally come down to fifteen thousand and then ten, finally you say, 'Lord, let me just find five thousand dollars worth and never ask for anything more the rest of my life.'...Here in this joint, it seems like a lot, but I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn't be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death'd keep you from trying to add ten thousand more. Ten you want to get twenty-five. Twenty-five you want to get fifty. Fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know, always one more.

     image via

    Stripped down to its bones, this is the story of a man driven insane by his greed -- or, more precisely, by the damage greed does to his soul. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of my favorite films, but I haven't read the script until now.

    The character arc here is more like a sagging slope. We first meet Fred C. Dobbs when he's down on his luck in Tampico, cadging centavos from whomever will give him one. He seems a bit rough-edged, especially the way he treats that little kid with the lottery tickets, but overall, an okay guy. Generous even, when he offers up his share of lottery winnings to Curtin, who becomes his partner.

    With the help of Howard, an old prospector who knows the ropes, they head out into the wilds of Mexico to find gold. They hit a vein. And as the gold dust piles up, so does Dobbs' suspicions. Although both Howard and Curtin saved his life, he can't trust them. His thoughts drift towards murder. While Dobbs is the most infected, none of them are immune to the corrosion of greed. You can see this clearly in the scene where the three discuss what to do with an interloper: kill him, or not?

    On their way back with their riches, Howard gets detained by helping an Indian boy. Dobbs, driven mad by greed, takes out Curtin and descends into madness.

    In some ways, it's like reading a nineteenth century novel, something out of Joseph Conrad, for example. The script is packed with bandits, venal bosses, picaresque bums, Indians, life in the wild away from civilization that demands toughness, a life of danger and hardship with the promise of treasure. A boy's paradise. What makes it adult is that the environment and action serves to reveal character. It's far from cowboys and Indians and much closer to the heart of darkness.

    So much to admire -- the gibbering chatter of Dobbs muttering to himself like a tinpot Shakespearean, lost in the vast indifferent desert. Fate, in the face of a street urchin, handing him the lottery ticket, dooming him with good luck. And the supremely ironic ending as the wind blows the dust away.  Some other elements are more Hollywood: the happy endings for Curtin and Howard. What stuck out more in reading script more than when viewing the film were the series of coincidences that the plot hinged on. But these are minor, niggling issues compared with the terrible and destruction of Dobbs, the average guy. Bust out your Aristotle, because Huston does evoke fear and pity with all the skill of a great dramatist.

    This is another movie with a lead character who is less than sympathetic. Ah me, another "rule" shot to hell.

    Things We Already Know

    Things We Already Know

    Saul Leiter

    Photo by Saul Leiter

    21 September 2010

    20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 13, Taxi Driver by Paul Shrader

     “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time.  True force.  All the King’s men can not put it back together again.” 

    Travis Bickle gets a job driving a taxi during the graveyard shift. His mental and social isolation is near total, despite living in New York City. He fixates on a beautiful campaign worker, blows it, then decides to assassinate a presidential candidate. Along the way, he meets Iris, a 14-year-old runaway and her pimp, Sport. He tries to help her out, and she turns him down. When he tries to assassinate the candidate, the Secret Service spots him before he carry out his plan. Travis then turns back to Iris and in a blood-soaked rescue she didn't ask for, he blows away her pimp, her gatekeeper and a mafia guy. In a brief epilogue, we find out that he's become a hero to the media, and to Iris' parents.

    In reading the script, we spend a lot of time in Travis' head. It uses voice over extremely powerfully, and that reinforces our placement into his world. The diary entries clue us in to his desperation, but it's never on the nose. Beyond that, each detail is so carefully chosen that as the script unfolds, we inhabit Travis' point of view more and more. We're confronted with filth, porn, the kinds of guys who want to put guns up their cheating woman's pussy and blow her away, with junkies and the nighttime/nightmare world of the city.  It stinks of a sexuality that's curdled and twisted. It aches with loneliness, connections missed or muffed or never made. And underneath it all, the buzz and snap of violence, random or rationalized. I arrived at the point that as a reader (and a viewer), that the massacre at the end feels right, although it's completely deranged.

    And you know what else? NO BACK STORY. Not a second of some lame-ass exposition filling us in on Travis' troubled youth. The script drops hints along the way, and we see him sending a card to his parents, a scene that speaks for so much more than its surface content. Btu I hate the way movies seem compelled to give you details about this character or that. Here, we get: a Viet flag. An army jacket. His familiarity with firearms. His statement that he was honorably discharged. Each of these could be true, but we know Travis likes to build myths around himself. So each could be just a prop. I think it's likely that Travis is a genuine vet, because that speaks to the more abstract theme of American Violence -- which is so skilfully subsumed by the insanity of Travis and our tendency to identify with him that the standard liberal message is blotted out.

    I noticed, again, the warping power of an actor's charisma. Travis is much less sympathetic on the page. Even though de Niro did nothing to compromise the mess of the man, his warped sexuality or the psychotic violence under the surface, de Niro's still absolutely magnetic. You can see why it all poisoned John B. Hinckley (although,as Ed Dorn said, "What's so crazy about wanting to fuck Jody Foster and kill Ronald Reagan?").

    (Post script: I didn't know, until reading the script that the most famous line, "You talkin' to me" was improvised on set by de Niro.)

    What a mad, bad, balls out epic script this is.

    Too cool not to include: De Niro prepped for the role by driving a taxi; this is hack's license

    images via

    20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 12, Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett

    "I am big, it's the pictures that got small!"

    Joe Gillis, a screenwriter down on his luck, hides out from some repo guys and winds up in the arms of Norma Desmond, a legendary star from the silent era. He slips into a new life as her gigolo, loathing himself even as he begins to admire the crazy extravagance of Norma and fear her fragility.  He has a shot at redemption. A young woman and he collaborate on a script; work and love might pull him out of the luxurious mire Gillis is stuck in. But as we know from the very opening shot of Gillis' being hauled out of a swimming pool, it ends badly.

    Maybe it was coming off The Seventh Seal, but the Gothic elements of the script really stood out: the decaying mansion, the crazy lady in the attic, the mysterious manservant, the fog, the sepulchral gloom of the rooms, the truly amazing scene with the funeral for the dead monkey (not only Goth, but yet another omen of doom for Joe Gillis. And that's just for starters.

    Yet, all that atmosphere, it's tightly structured.Wilder and Brackett are every careful in setting up Gillis' descent. Each step is logical, as methodical in its way as a geometric theorem.

    The narration, caustic, cynical, and biting, is justly famous.
    Well, this is where you came in, back at that pool again, the one I always wanted. It's dawn now and they must have photographed me a thousand times. Then they got a couple of pruning hooks from the garden and fished me out... ever so gently. Funny, how gentle people get with you once you're dead.
    I was struck, too, by its fairy tale quality, the mythic feel of it with its mad sorceress and flawed knight.

    This script feels . . . grand. Big. All the way around. I've been trying to put my finger on this specific quality of movies made in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. I watched In a Lonely Place recently and it had that same mythic grandness, something absolutely specific to the medium and the period. Parts of it are corny, there's no way around it. Melodrama lurks just at the edges of the action, and I doubt if anyone, even in the late 40s, really acted that way. But who needs clay-footed realism when the Queen of the silents is falling apart so beautifully?

    La notte


    20 September 2010

    Oh yeah, baby.

    The Money Shot: music.
    It kinda relates to the script I'm reading now. And no, the script is not the Devil in Miss Jones, either.

    Errol Morris and Werner Herzog and images in the cave

    You can see the full conversation here.

    20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 11, The Seventh Seal, by Ingmar Bergman

    [Block's squire, Jöns, returns from asking directions of a man who turns out to be long dead.]
    Block: Did he show you the way?
    Jöns: Not exactly.
    Block: What did he say?
    Jöns: Nothing.
    Block: Was he mute?
    Jöns: No, milord. He was most eloquent.
    Block: Indeed.
    Jöns: But very gloomy.

    A knight and his squire travel through a medieval Sweden wracked by the plague. Death himself comes for the knight, who challenges him to a chess game. This gives the knight a brief reprieve. He looks for God and tries to understand what life could mean. Along the way, they meet penitents who lash themselves, a small troupe of actors, a painter, a young girl accused of being a witch, and a theologian turned thief. 
    The actor's family, Jof, Maria and their baby, may hold the answer, or part of it. Along the way, Block, the knight wrestles with the silence of God, the silence mentioned when the seventh seal was broken in the Book of Revelations.
    The only certainty is Death.
     But Bergman holds something out to us, a hint, a suggestion, a sign of his own:
    Block: I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk.
    [He drinks from the bowl.]
    Block: And this will be a sign, and a great content.
    Norishment given by a loving wife, a beautiful woman, a humble artisan of the theatre.

    This sort of stuff seems ripe for parody, and sure enough, Woody Allen has some fun with it. (I wonder why Monty Python never tried.) But as a reader, you get sucked right in to the world of the script. It only rarely feels like an Allegory. Perhaps that's because the philosophical exchanges are usually brief, emotionally charged and come after gut-wrenching action. It doesn't feel like a sermon, either, because the ideas are vividly realized with flesh-and-blood characters who struggle, dream and breathe. Bergman throws in a lot of honest-to-goodness action, thrills and bone-chilling scares along the way, too. The scene with the flagellants creepy. The preparation of the "witch" for her burning wrenches your soul with pity. 
    What stands out for me are 
    • the creation of a single, unified vision, supported by each aspect of the story
    • the shrewd sense of pacing and rhythm
    • the layers incorporated in each scene. They always work on multiple levels. You can be easily distracted by the aesthetic and philosophical content, but they're also concrete, relevant and advance the story
    And, of course, the overall ambition and brilliance of the script. Reading it, I admired Bergman's prose very much -- along with everything else.

    17 September 2010

    Next level people

    griff: You eventually met my friends, Ninja and Yo-Landi. Do you know that they went across to the overseas and met everyone that helped them go superlarge on the interwebs?
    Clayton: I believe it. They're two of the sweetest, most genuine people I've ever met, very giving and no bullshit.
    griff: Did you ever imagine meeting such next level people?
    Clayton: I only leave the house to meet next level people.

    20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 10, Smiles of a Summer Night, by Ingmar Bergman

    -How could a woman ever love a man?”
    -A woman’s view is seldom based on aesthetics. And one can always turn out the light.

    Nothing like actually reading a man's work to blow away the cliches. If you think all Bergman can produce are gloomy Nordic tales, you need to read this sunny, frothy and charming piece, or, even better, see the movie.
         Smiles of a Summer Night is set at the turn of the last century, and it seems as much a product of French or Central European boudoir comedies as a Bergman film. It skips through an intricately plotted set of  lover's games. Women scheme. Men are their pawns and their buffoons, despite all their surface dignity. Marriage is a banal trap, but love . . . love is the drug, the force, the driver. Simple lust gets its time in the moonlight as well.
         Bergman takes all the figures of a bedroom farce -- the young, innocent lovers, the slightly jaded roué, the earthy housemaid, the duel played for slapstick, and, of course, the discovery of the rival in the boudoir -- and plays with them as skilfully as Marivaux or Lehár ever did. Epigrams zip through the air as fast as Cupid's arrows, and many of them seem like something Chamfort might have coined.
         And it's all . . .sexy, even without looking at the lovely Swedish actresses who took the roles in the film.
         Shadows lurk in the night, though: the old woman who once herself played the game of love as a beautiful courtesan, now reduced by age. We're reminded of the brevity of love and the variability of the crazy human heart.
         Smiles of a Summer Night is poetic, lyrical. A fizzy champagne surface, with a melancholy heart pulsing beneath.
         I'm overwhelmed, really, with the power of Bergman's imagination, and his ability to create vivid characters and his complete mastery of dramatic form. It seems as if he was able to take any narrative device, any trope and turn it to his own use.

    Barbed Wire Love

    Stiff Little Fingers

    One of the great album covers, by one of the great bands.

    Eliot Porter: Window in a Tin Wall

    Window in a Tin Wall, Eureka, Colorado, Eliot Porter

    Red hair

    20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 9 Wild Strawberries, by Ingmar Bergman

    image via
    A distinguished professor in his 70s drives down to receive an honor with his daughter-in-law. Along the way, he picks up some hitchhikers, has a nice lunch, and visits his mother. He arrives at his destination, talks with his son, and accepts his award.
    Within that simple progression lies a rich, sometimes painful and profound peeling back of the layers of his life. It deals with the bedrock issues: what is the nature of identity, and self, and how does that relate to those whom we love, whom we ignore.
    And how one simple summer morning can echo down a life forever .
    Dreams, memories and nightmares each take their place along with the present of the story.
    We discover that Borg's present  -- like our own -- is linked with the past. The past isn't even past. It continually shapes us, and we pass those scars on to our descendants, just as Borg has with his son.
    It's not all gloomy. Comic relief comes along the way. Bergman also holds out the possibility of change at the end; Borg, even in his seventies, can make discoveries that may alter his relationships.
    The form of the script itself, as with The Hours, is more like a novella interspersed with dialog than a standard-format screenplay. Bergman even writes Wild Strawberries in the first person, Borg telling his own story, describing what he sees and what he feels. As with several narrators, we can deduce from the action and the dialog that Borg's not an absolutely reliable source, but we know him intimately as the script unfolds.
    And the form of the presentation determines the meaning of the story. Flashbacks and nightmares aren't decorative, or an easy way to fill in back story; they're integral to Bergman's view of identity, a view which seems both true and compassionate.
    Wild Strawberries has always been a touchstone film for me, but somehow I'd never read the script. Now, if it's possible, I admire the film and its creator even more.

    16 September 2010

    Only one escape

    A man has only one escape from his old self: to see a different self in the mirror of some woman's eyes.

    -- Clare Boothe Luce



    Photo by Dany Peschl, via

    15 September 2010

    20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 8 Holy Matrimony by Nunnally Johnson

    image via

    I chose this script because I needed something a little lighter after The Hours, and because I haven't read a comedy script yet. This screenplay is in an anthology called Best American Screenplays 2. It was the only film I hadn't heard of, so that was another factor.
    It was very charming, and, honestly, I laughed out loud a few times as I read it.
    The set up works like this: in 1905, a famous British artist is called back to London to receive a knighthood. The problem is, the artist -- Farll -- is pathologically shy and hates publicity. But, his King calls, and he must go. Once in London, his valet dies. On impulse, Farll exchanges his identity for that of his manservant, Leek. 
    Farll/Leek finds domestic bliss in the arms and at the hearth of Alice Chalice, an efficient and shrewd woman in her 40s, whom he marries.
    Complications ensue. 
    It's very funny, take my word, starting from the reversal of the tortured artist stereotype. Here, the talented artist just wants a comfortable chair, a pipe, his paper, a stroll in the morning and the cleanliness of a well-run household. Bourgeois bliss. Farll, with Alice at his side, manages to surmount the difficulties, but it's not easy and Johnson exploits the twists with economy.
    In that none of the scenes involve farts, puking, semen, slapstick or any of the other staples of modern comedies, it's perhaps a bit dated. One of the plot points, involving moles, seemed drawn out. Otherwise, the script was streamlined, delivering the most fun per minute, skillfully setting situations up and then paying them off with flair and imagination.
    It was fun, entertaining, and a fine model for precision and craft.

    13 September 2010

    "I believe in my own obessions. . . "

    image via

    I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels. 
    JG Ballard


    20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 7, The Hours by David Hare

    Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of these terrible times again and I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices and can't concentrate. So I'm doing what seems to be the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I know that I'm spoiling your life and without me you could work, and you will, I know. You see, I can't even write this properly. What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me. And incredibly good. Everything is gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.

      This was fucking brutal. I thought Ikiru was emotionally tough. I had to put this one down a few times so as not to embarrass myself. I don't deal with the topic of suicide very well these days. I particularly hate it as a dramatic construction: it seems like a lazy solution, an easy way out for a dramatist stuck in a dilemma, or even worse, a cheap thrill. Oooh. Killed himself. Hea-vy. Instant drama, just add tears. In real life, the act of suicide rocks anyone near it so far beyond the cheap and shallow theatrics of most movies and plays, that they seem like graffiti scratched out by syphillictic monkeys on a shit house door.
      Not this script, though. 
      I doubt if I'd ever have read this script except for the enthusiastic recommendations I'd heard, particularly by Charles Deemer. He thinks it may presage a new hybrid form somewhere between the standard screenplay form and the novel, drawing strengths from both but becoming something new.
      So, what the hell, I hunkered down. It's a triangular story. On one end, Virginia Woolf working through the day of her suicide in a kind of flash forward, then during the inception of Mrs. Dalloway twenty years before. The other leg of the triangle is an L.A. housewife, reading Mrs. Dalloway and coming to terms with the meaning of her life in 1950. The final leg of the triangle is New York City, 2000 as a book editor puts together a party, much like the fictional Mrs. Dalloway. The party is for a poet dying of AIDS.
      Yeah, I know. How does that gratingly arty premise have any right to work? I haven't seen the movie itself, and now I'm a little reluctant to, in the same way you don't want to have a favorite novel spoiled by an adaptation. On the page, it sure as hell works.
      Because we're all struggling for meaning, whether we like it or not. Suicide is the ultimate refutation of the possibility of finding meaning, and suicide is never just an individual act. Ironically (and God loves irony), claiming that meaning can be equally harmful to innocent bystanders.
      And literature helps us approach at least a tentative sense of what that meaning might be. Yet, literature can also harm us, twist us or even destroy us. The stories are concrete, well fleshed out, with vivid characters. You'd expect the Virginia Woolf sequences to be the richest, but each part of the triptych carries its own weight.
      Each of the stories interlink with each other. This is not merely a matter of clever structure or literary legerdemain. In fact, they become resonant, reinforcing, and, finally, emotionally rich. They also deliver an occasional plot punch.
      As Deemer says, the form of the script itself is more literary, offering the kinds of pleasures you get from reading a short piece of fiction. The action sections are fleshed out, describing the characters, their behavior and suggesting their emotions and thoughts. The dialog is written as in a standard screenplay. Yet, nothing about the prose is extraneous or useless, and if I'd been asked to direct this (heh) I would have found all of Hare's prose very helpful. 
      It's a remarkable achievement. First, in solving the problem of adapting a novel that's primarily based on the inner lives of its characters. Second, in managing the shifts in time and between stories. Finally, in bringing three woman so vividly to life -- a life which we struggle to understand.

      The Hours, by David Hare. Based on the novel by Michael Cunningham
      Michael Hare discusses writing The Hours here.

      12 September 2010

      20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 6 The Seven Samurai, by Akira Kurosawa

      Danger always strikes when everything seems fine.

      The Seven Samurai is one of the greatest films ever made. It has everything you could want in an epic: romance, hard-won wisdom, battles. The plot's simple. A village, under the threat of attacks by bandits, hire samurai to protect them. Within that structure -- simple enough to work for an animated movie like A Bug's Life -- Kurosawa's able to weave a series of subplots that touch on different facets of his theme. The action's united by a simple spine: defend the village. The script is united by it's overall theme, which is: what is courage, or more broadly, what does it mean to be a man?

      Heroism here is similar to what it was in Ikiru. To be a hero is to be courageous, stoic, hopeless and generous. You act without expectation of reward; the action is its own reward.

      They say it's easier to learn from bad scripts and movies than good ones.  Still, reading this I was impressed again with the need for a buffoon or a clown -- just like Shakespeare. Kikuchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune, works as a buffoon, but more like an id. Impulsive, rash, emotional, he stands in for the audience in a way that the very noble Gorobei cannot. Gorobei is a kind of superman, the perfect bushido. Kikuchiyo is all too human. The main characters form a kind of template that you can see in a lot of later sixties action movies, as well. The stoic and brilliant leader, the callow youth, the robust action man, the slick one who's almost inhumanly good at his job, and the random crazy guy. 

      I was overwhelmed, this time, with the huge ambition of the project. Kurosawa aimed at Shakespeare and John Ford as well as wanting to entertain a broad audience (just like Shakespeare and Ford).

      The original script, like the complete version of the film, has been lost. What I read was a transcription of the dialogue, with the action and angles described. Very tough read what with seven names to keep track of, the rest of the characters. It was a surprisingly tough slog because no concessions were made to the reader, rather than the viewer.