Coming up in this column: I Am Love; Winter's Bone; Video Slut: How I Shoved Madonna off an Olympic High Dive, Got Prince into a Pair of Tiny Purple Woolen Underpants, Ran Away from Michael Jackson's Dad, and Got a Waterfall to Flow Backwards so I Could Bring Rock Videos to the Masses (book); This is Korea!; The Desert Rats; Hot in Cleveland; Some Summer 2010 Television, but first…
Fan mail: If you read #48 right after its posting, you may have missed an interesting comment on it from Ed Sikov. He's the author of On Sunset Boulevard, the great Billy Wilder biography I mentioned in the item on Stalag 17. I said in the column that Sikov had not told us what Wilder thought of the TV series Hogan's Heroes, which bore a more than passing resemblance to Wilder's film. Sikov commented that he did not include that because he never got to interview Wilder for the book. His description in his comments of meeting Wilder later is worth going back and looking at.
I suppose I picked up while reading his book that he had not interviewed Wilder (he mentions it in the Preface), but I had forgotten it in the twelve years since his book came out. His book is so good and so thoroughly researched that it does not make any difference. This goes to a point I have made about this column before: there are a lot of ways to understand screenwriting. You will notice sometimes I have quotes from the writers. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I discuss producers' contributions, both good and bad, to screenplays. Sometimes I will discuss studios and networks and their part in the collaborative process. What I try to do in the column, and what Sikov does brilliantly in his book, is gather as great a variety of information as we can and organize it in ways that will educate and entertain readers. If you have any interest in Wilder, you probably have already read Sikov's book. If you haven't read it, it really is required reading.
I Am Love (2009. Screenplay by Luca Guadagnino & Barbara Alberti & Ivan Cotroneo & Walter Fasano, story by Luca Guadagnino. 120 minutes.)
Letters to Juliet goes to the art house: A serious, sweeping, romantic story set in Italy with one of our finest actresses in a part developed specifically for and with her. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, it turns out.
Guadagnino, who also directs, has worked with Tilda Swinton before on two films, and they have been talking about this one for several years. According to Peter Debruge's article on the film in the May/June issue of Creative Screenwriting, Guadagnino came up with the original story, then worked with Alberti to fill in the details. Then Guadagnino had Cotroneo cut down the overlong script Guadagnino and Alberti had written. Guadagnino felt Cotroneo's draft "lost complexity and pace," so he worked with Fasano on another draft. They have all certainly created a star vehicle for Swinton, and she gives it everything she's got. What got lost along the way was a lot of material on, for example, the problems of the Recchi family, which was influenced by Guadagnino's love of Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family. What the writers ended up doing (and there were rewrites up through the production) was dropping everything else needed to make the film work as anything other than a vehicle.
I liked the opening shots of the film. If you know the film is set in Italy, you are expecting warmth and sun, but what we get are shots of Milan in the dead of winter, covered in snow. Who knew they had snow in Italy? Well, what other Italian films have you seen that had a lot of snow? Then we get a family dinner with the Recchis, who own a large textile business. It is Christmastime, but it is also the birthday of the grandfather, who is announcing he is turning over the business to his son and grandson. Because of the cuts in the script, we don't really get to know the family members here, or get much beyond the change of the family business. Compare it to the opening half hour of The Godfather (1972) in which we get to know a lot of people and are introduced to a lot of plot lines. Or, more recently, the opening sequence in Summer Hours (2008, See US #27), where we get hints of the characters that are later developed. The other characters in I Am Love, especially the other family members, are generally not developed. I have written on many occasions about the importance of establishing characters and situations, and we will see in this film how not doing well in this opening scene—and elsewhere—hurts the film.
So we get sort of introduced to the family, but then we do not get any forward movement until 26 minutes into the film. (That is exactly when screenwriting guru Syd Field says the first plot point should come. I cannot imagine the four writers here read Field, but you never know.) The plot point here is a relatively small one: Emma (Swinton), the wife and mother, discovers her daughter, Elisabetta, is gay. And doesn't have much of a reaction to it. Compare the lack of reaction to the Suarez family's set of reactions to Justin coming out in the last episodes of Ugly Betty.
An hour into the two-hour movie, the story finally picks up with Emma falling in love with her son's friend Antonio. She is a Russian who has married into this great Italian family; he appears to have a middle or lower-class background. What do they see in each other? We have no idea. They kiss, in an out-of-focus shot, or did they? It is not immediately clear if they did, or if it is just Emma's fantasy. Swinton's reaction in the next shot is interesting, but does not make clear that it was only a fantasy. A later fantasy appears to be one both of them are having, but again it is not clear. Anyway, they eventually start making love, out in the lovely Italian countryside. Relax, they are not freezing their privates; several months have passed since the first scene, and it is now summer. We literally get the birds (on the soundtrack) and bees (in close-up) as they roll around nude. The writers and the director fall into the classic problem of doing a sex scene: it is all too generic. We have no idea how THESE two people make love. Go back and look at the sex scenes between Nuke and Annie and Crash and Annie in Bull Durham (1988). Annie and Nuke do not do it the same way Annie and Crash do it.
Antonio is a chef, and Emma teaches him how to make a Russian soup she used to make for her son, Edoardo. You can see what is going to happen. Antonio prepares it for a big Recchi family dinner. Now how would you play the scene where Edoardo realizes what is going on? Simpler is better: he could see the soup and expressions of surprise, amusement, bafflement, jealousy, and realization can all cross his face. Nope, the writers give us a whole pile of cutaway shots that pound into our minds what he is thinking.
Later Emma and her husband, Tancredi, are in an empty church after a family tragedy. He gives her his coat to ward off the chill. She admits to her affair. His reaction? He takes back his coat. If Tancredi had been written and played as anything other than a block of wood, that detail could be telling. Here it's not. It just seems silly. The writers have simply not established Tancredi well enough for it to pay off.
Emma decides to leave the family. The family housekeeper, who is presented as simply a loving soul, helps Emma pack. What other reactions can the housekeeper have? What if she says, "Take me with you"? Then what happens? No such luck. There is a moment as Emma is leaving where she faces Elisabetta. I think we are supposed to believe that Emma's discovery of Elisabetta's lesbianism has helped free her own inhibitions, but that has not been developed. If it had been, then Elisabetta's slight nod of approval to her mother would have been a heart-stopping moment.
Emma leaves, leaving the door to the garden open. Well, it's a nice garden—this is Italy after all—but Ibsen has pretty much told us that in situations like this, you slam the door.
Winter's Bone (2010. Screenplay by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell. 100 minutes.)
Meanwhile, back in the real world…: In writing about Hamlet 2 in US#42 I mentioned it was one of those films that seemed to the audience at Sundance that it was a lot better than general audiences later thought it was. The same thing may be true, although not so drastically, with Winter's Bone. The film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which may tell you more about Sundance than it does about the film.
Like I Am Love, it starts out OK. In this case we learn visually that seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly lives in a cabin the backwoods of Missouri, takes care of her younger brother and sister because their dad, Jessup, has taken off and their mom is sick. Then we get the clear set-up for the story. The local sheriff comes by to tell them that Jessup had put up the house as collateral for his bail. He's skipped out and if he does not show up for court, the family will lose the house. So far, so good. Ree is going to try to track down Jessup. Since he spends his time cooking up meth in a variety of locations, that may not be so easy.
So Ree goes off to talk to people who may know where Jessup is, many of whom are relations, both close and distant. This is the backwoods after all. So we get scene after scene of Ree going to people's houses/shacks, asking the woman of the house if they have seen Jessup, and then being run off by the man of the house, usually with a weapon. I am sure the characterizations of all these people are completely accurate, but they are not very interesting. They all have the same sullen look and attitude, and it gets real hard to tell them apart. You keep hoping Ree will run into somebody with a little emotional flare. Hell, I'd settle for somebody who cracks a smile once or twice. The writing is very repetitive. Backwoods folks don't want to snitch on their relatives. We get a little beyond that in what we find out about Jessup, but not much. Ree is a plucky character, but only within the limits of her world. Yes, she gets off a couple of zingers at all her sullen relatives, but that is hardly enough to hold our interest. Several reviews of this film have compared it to Precious (2009), and I have several of the same problems with this one that I did with that one (see US#38 for details on Precious).
The writers do give us a potentially great scene, which Granik as director does not get as much out of as she could. Without giving anything away, Ree is taken to see Jessup, but not in the way she thinks. Her relatives instruct her on how to get the information she needs to save the family home. It is scary and creepy, but Granik and Rosellini seem to be missing a humor gene that could turn the scene into a classic. After all, remember what happens after Norman Bates pushes Marion's car into the swamp?
Video Slut: How I Shoved Madonna off an Olympic High Dive, Got Prince into a Pair of Tiny Purple Woolen Underpants, Ran Away from Michael Jackson's Dad, and Got a Waterfall to Flow Backwards so I Could Bring Rock Videos to the Masses (2010. Book by Sharon Oreck. 245 pages)
Sorry, but I just couldn't resist: I have never been much of a fan of music videos for exactly the same reasons I have never been a fan of porno movies: not enough plot or character. I know that is very old-fashioned of me, but it is just one of my character flaws. So what am I doing even reading a memoir by one of the leading producers of music videos in the '80 and '90s, let alone writing about it in "Understanding Screenwriting"?
Sharon Oreck, the author and producer, was a student of mine at Los Angeles City College in the mid-'70s. She came to us as an unwed mother in her teens who had dropped out of high school. As she says in the book, the LACC Cinema program was a perfect fit for her. She made friends there that got her jobs working on low-budget features, which led to her producing music videos in 1984. Since I don't watch music videos, I haven't seen most of the ones she writes about, but the rest of you may have.
The book, as you might guess from the title, is hilarious, and I laughed my ass off all the way through it. Oreck is a wonderful writer. The book is also moving in several sections, where she deals with her pregnancy and her having to close down her company. It is also wonderfully observant about the people she dealt with, and not just the stars like Prince and the Jacksons, but also all the bodyguards, hangers-on, crew people, music executives, et al. From a distance, making movies and music videos sounds glamorous, but it is hard work, and you have to deal with gigantic egos. The book is one of the most accurate portrayals I have read on trying to work with people who think they are geniuses.
There is very little discussion in the book about the writing of scripts for videos, since the scripts are more vague concepts than scripts as we know them, which is exactly why I have problems with videos: they are all concept and very little development. For all the surrealism in them, they tend to be visually repetitive, since the genre generally requires continually cutting back to the performer at least pretending to sing. OK, you see, I can bring anything around to screenwriting. So now go read the book and laugh your ass off.
This Is Korea! (1951. Narration written by James Warner Bellah, Frank Nugent, and John Ford, all uncredited. 50 minutes.)
Unseen, and understandably so: You may be aware that John Ford made documentaries for the government during World War II. You may even have seen his classic 1942 film Battle of Midway. And if you are lucky, you may have already laughed your ass off watching his 1941 Navy film Sex Hygiene. This is Korea! you probably have missed, unless you caught it a few weeks ago when Turner Classic Movies ran it as part of a program of films about the Korean War.
Since Ford was still in the Navy Reserve when the Korean War broke out, the Navy asked him to do a film about the war. The war started in June 1950, and in early 1951 he and several cameramen went to Korea. They were there for a month, and then Ford came back to the States and cut the picture. One of Ford's weaknesses as a director was the lack of a strong sense of structure. See my comments on Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) in US#15. Here he simply had a lot of unrelated footage and did not find a way to put it together. Unlike Battle of Midway or its closest relative, John Huston's San Pietro (1945), which deal with specific battles, there is no dramatic structure. We see a collection of shots of Korean children (Huston puts the Italian children at the end of San Pietro in a wonderful montage; Ford just starts with a bunch of kids), then shots of American soldiers marching and fighting. Ford cuts away to military leaders he admires, but for no other reason than his admiration.
Ford got James Warner Bellah, who had written the stories Fort Apache and Yellow Ribbon were based on, to write a narration for the film. Ford also got Frank Nugent, who had written the scripts for those two, to write another narration. As Ford's grandson Dan Ford says in his book Pappy: The Life of John Ford, "Nugent's narration was more cinematic and logical, but it lacked the emotion and intensity of Bellah's." Ford edited the two versions into one. On Midway, he had had James Kevin MacGuinness rewrite Dudley Nichols poetic narration into something more emotional, and he was trying to do the same thing here, but the final narration in Korea is simply unfocused. Not unlike the war itself, which may have been the problem, as in the final section of the film, where the narration suggests that the soldiers do not know what the war was about, which contradicts the occasional fervent anti-communism of the first part.
The film was released briefly in theatres, with Herbert J. Yates, the head of Republic Pictures, which distributed it, and the Navy arguing who would get the profits. There were no profits, and the film slipped into oblivion.
The Desert Rats (1953. Written by Richard Murphy. 88 minutes.)
Are we apologizing this year?: As I mentioned in US#15 while writing about Valkyrie (2008), in 1950 Nunnally Johnson wrote and produced The Desert Fox, an intelligent look at Field Marshal Rommel's involvement in the July 20th plot to kill Hitler. The film was a hit, but there were complaints both in the United States and Britain about so sympathetic portrait of a German officer only five years after the end of the war. Normally studios do not make reparations for films that make money, but Fox followed Fox up with Rats three years later, and even a dunderhead critic like the New York Times' Bosley Crowther thought that it showed signs of being an apology.
The script in this case is by Richard Murphy, whom you may remember I have written favorably about before. In US#12, I suggested Fox put out a four-pack DVD of his films. The current script is one not up to the two I dealt with before, Boomerang! (1947) and Panic in the Streets (1950), even though it was nominated for an Oscar for best story and screenplay. The script deals with the British defense of Tobruk during the African campaign in 1941. Capt. Roberts, a Scottish officer (although Richard Burton makes him vocally Welsh), takes over a new unit of Australian soldiers. He tightens up the discipline, a plot line not unlike that of Fox's much better 1949 film Twelve O'Clock High, and they put up a spirited and successful defense against Rommel. The script is rather lumpy and episodic. We get a first battle on the front lines, then a night raid against a German ammunition dump, and finally Roberts's unit holding the perimeter until re-enforcements from Cairo arrive. In addition to all this there is Roberts's relationship with an unlisted man, Tommy, who used to be his teacher years before. Tommy is something of a coward, but nothing much comes out of that.
The film seems an apology for The Desert Fox in two ways. First, it praises the Brits and the Aussies who beat Rommel. The second way is more interesting. James Mason plays Rommel both in Fox and here. In Fox, his Rommel is subtle, intelligent, witty, a bit vain and, like all the other Germans, he speaks the King's English flawlessly. In Rats there is nothing subtle about him. He speaks German in his first two scenes, and then very guttural English in a scene where he talks to the captured Capt. Roberts. In other words, same actor, but the writing and the performance have turned the character into a conventional Nazi.
Oddly enough, I think it is the Roberts-Rommel scene that may have been what got the script its nomination. Even though Rommel is something of a cliché in the scene, we still see some of the intelligence we saw in Fox as he tries to get information out of Roberts. And Roberts is just as intelligent in parrying Rommel's thrusts. It also helps, of course that you have James Mason and Richard Burton carrying your water.
Hot in Cleveland (2010. "Pilot" and "Who's Your Momma?" episodes written by Suzanne Martin. Each episode 30 minutes.)
What do you believe?: In the opening scene of the pilot, Melanie, Joy and Victoria are on a plane flying to Paris for a vacation. The jokes start fast about these women being over the hill. I am sorry, but Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Mallick are not over the hill. Bertinelli does not look as though she has aged a day since she was a teenager in One Day at a Time back in the '70s. So the jokes do not have a ring of truth about them, which the best jokes usually do. But both the women characters and the show itself seem to buy into the Hollywood idea that any woman over the age of 21 is on a downhill slide. Now you might get away with having the women believe that, but it seems really stupid for the show to believe it. The show seems to think that the humor will be in making fun of the women's ages rather than in the more transgressive approach of assuming the women are not over the hill and making the attitude that they are look ridiculous. And the women behave stupidly in the first scene as well, especially when they think the plane may crash. Wouldn't at least one of them not shriek?
So the plane makes an emergency landing in Cleveland, the three women go into a bar and, lo and behold, the men look at them as though they are as attractive as they really are. Granted, the women are from L.A., so one can understand their surprise, but the show seems to think men finding women their own age attractive is a bizarre occurrence that can only happen in Cleveland. Melanie, who met her ex-husband and his younger trophy fiancee on the plane, hooks up with a plumber and spends the night with him. She decides to stay in Cleveland, even though she finds out later he is married. Joy and Victoria decide to stay with her in Cleveland for the two weeks they had planned to be in Paris. Obviously they will stay longer, or there is no series.
The second episode, "Who's Your Momma?", is a little bit better. Martin is not beating us over the head with the age business, but way too much of the show is still jokes rather than character humor. The women are not completely stupid in this episode, and Victoria's hanging out at the Big 'n' Easy store, where customers recognize her from her years on a soap opera makes sense. We get a potential character story arc with Joy, who dates a young man she realizes may be the son he had as a teenager and gave up for adoption. The scenes that work out that story are not as well written as they might be.
It remains to be seen as to whether the attitude of the show towards these three women can develop beyond the cliché. It also remains to be seen what the franchise of the show is. The setup for the show is that they are women of a certain age dealing with their new life, but the franchise is: what do they do? Lucy Ricardo wanted to get into show business. Detectives solve crimes. Doctors treat patients. What are we going to want to watch these women do for 13, 22, 44, or however many, episodes?
Some Summer 2010 Television
Just a few to catch up on:
Justified came to a nice conclusion, sort of leaving it up in the air as to how straight Boyd Crowder has really gone. The two drivers from Miami kill Bo, Boyd's dad, and while Boyd had it in mind to kill him himself, he's got to light out after the one surviving driver, because, well, they killed his Pa. The backwoods characters in this show are much more interesting than those in Winter's Bone, which raises a question. The people at Sundance saw Bone before Justified began its run. Would that have liked it as much if they saw the film after they saw the show, as I did? Or would I have liked the film better if I had not been watching Justified?
In Plain Sight has not brought Allison Janney-Pearson back, but has alas brought sister Brandi back, along with a guy who claims to be Brandi and Mary's stepbrother. Kill him and bring back Allison, please.
Burn Notice has returned. Michael woke up in a room somewhere, and Vaughn, who presumably is with the Company or the Organization or whatever they call it, congratulates Michael for leading them to Simon, who is now locked away. So Michael is back in everybody's good graces, except that he knows the people who worked to get Simon free are still out there. So Vaughn puts Michael to work and his first job ends up unknowingly burning another spy, Jesse. Oops. Needless to say, Michael is sympathetic to Jesse's predicament and offers to help him, without telling him it was him who burned him. Jesse says that he will find whoever burned him and kill him. So we have that to look forward to in this season. Meanwhile, Jesse joins the team, and the various writers have created an interesting situation of the new kid trying to fit into the threesome. Fi doesn't like him, then does when he suggests some kind of violence. Jesse changes the group dynamics in some ways that are going to be fun to watch. Well, of course they will be.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.