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Coming Up in this Column: The Kids Are All Right, Tom Mankiewicz: an Appreciation, The Informant!, Siberiade, Manhattan Melodrama, Rubicon, White Collar, Covert Affairs, but first…
Fan Mail: You may have missed Elaine Lennon's comments on Inception, which were a late addition in the comments section on US#52. She is very perceptive about what the lack of Christopher Nolan's brother Jonathan working on the Inception screenplay may have meant for it.
When I turned in US#53, my computer was misbehaving and dropped a section where I was writing about the scholarly article I had written. The paragraph just stopped when it got sent off to a publisher's reader. To find out what happened you can go back to #53, where Keith and I have added the section that got dropped. It will also give you a link to the article.
On US#53, David Ehrenstein caught one of my occasional errors. I had the last name of the director as Waters, not Walters. Now you know why I do not wear a robe and a pointy hat and claim to infallibility. He also asked about my not mentioning the director Jacques Tourneur in the item on Canyon Passage. I had thought about it, since I liked Tourneur's direction, especially his handling of Ward Bond and Brian Donlevy, but passed on it. I do sometimes mention directors, and sometimes don't. After all, this is a column on screenwriting. And I also consider it a kind of karmic payback for all those times directors get mentioned and often credited with stuff the writer did while the writer does not get mentioned at all. David and others mentioned Tourneur's other westerns, including Great Day in the Morning (1956), which I intend to watch when TCM shows it on Monday, August 16th.
I know Tourneur is something of a cult figure, but at least one person who worked with him was not enormously impressed. Tourneur did two films that Philip Dunne wrote, Anne of the Indies (1951), which I will have to tell you about some time, and Way of the Gaucho (1952), which Dunne was the producer on. The latter was shot in Argentina to use up Fox funds frozen by the government, and Zanuck assigned Dunne to produce it in Argentina. Zanuck figured that since Dunne loved politics, he would have fun playing with the Juan Peron regime. You can read Dunne's autobiography Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics for the details. Anyway, when I did an oral history with Dunne, I asked what he thought of Tourneur. He said, “Jacques is a very, very nice fellow, perfectly competent and capable. He's a very decent man. We had no problems at all… I did the script and I was the producer, but I would listen to him. He is not a creative man in that sense. He was not really a script man at all. You gave him the stuff and he shot it.” As we talked about several times before, a lot of directors, including many critical favorites are like that: you give them a good script and they give you a good movie.
“BilliPilgrim,” just back from Tramalfador I would guess, liked the discussion of spy films (see below for another item about Covert Affairs) and suggested other theme weeks. I really work more by targets of opportunity than thinking out grand strategic designs. He does suggest dealing with films about hit men, which I am not likely to do. As I tell my screenwriting students, if you believe American films and television, most American men work as cops or hit men or both and most American women work as strippers or hookers or both. I think it is about time for a moratorium on movies about hit men.
The Kids Are All Right (2010. Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg. 106 minutes)
And the grown-ups are even better: This picture started with Lisa Cholodenko, who also directed, having two ideas. The first was to show a functional lesbian family. That's a situation, not a story. The second was, what would happen if a child in that family grew up wanting to know about the man who donated the sperm. That's a story: the characters in the family are going to do certain things, other family members are going to have reactions to that, and the donor may turn out to be…well, who? And what happens then? That's where the estimated fifty drafts of the script started.
Cholodenko started writing on her own, as she had on her two previous features, the 1998 High Art and the 2002 Laurel Canyon. She ran into Stuart Blumberg, who wrote more commercial films than she did, such as Keeping the Faith (2000) and The Girl Next Door (2004). He brought some comedy chops to the project, which helped make the characters more accessible, since Cholodenko wanted to go beyond the art house niche of her previous films. Cholodenko and Blumberg discussed almost every possible option for every event. Think of all the possibilities that could go wrong. The choices they make of which option they pick could be the wrong ones. The comedy could trivialize the material. It's not enough to come up with a pile of good ideas. Creative work is not just coming up with great ideas. Selection of which ones you use is crucial: you have to pick the ones that will work best for your script. (The background on the development of the screenplay is from Peter Debruge's article in the July/August 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting.)
Fortunately, Cholodenko and Blumberg picked right. Let's start with the family. This script gives us one of the best looks I have ever seen at what I would call a “lived-in marriage.” Nic and Jules have been together for a long time and it shows. They love each other; they get on each other's nerves. They are not, thank God, the standard “love us because we are neurotic” types that Nora Ephron gives us. They have their flaws, but they have their strengths as well. And they are a great couple: Nic, the doctor, is hard charging (for better or worse), while Jules is more down-to-earth (also for better or worse). The writers have come up with a lot of details about these two that ring true of any married couple. I particularly love that they watch gay male porn in their bedroom.
The kids are nicely drawn as well. Laser, the younger brother, ticks off his parents by hanging out with Clay, whom we and his parents can see is nothing but trouble on a stick. How much more interesting that is than if, as they had thought at one point, Laser had a relationship with his sister's slutty friend Sasha. Then you would be in typical teen movie land. Joni, the elder sister, has just finished high school and is preparing to go away to college, which provides a structural tension to the film. It is Laser, along with Clay of course, who finds the gay porn, which we thought was just a comic detail. This leads to a terrific scene of Nic and Jules talking to Clay, thinking he might be gay. How do you liberal gay women deal with the possibility he is gay. However, he only wants to know why they watch it. And we get an interesting answer from them.
It is Laser who wants to track down the father. Joni is reluctant, but since she is eighteen, she can get the information from the adoption agency. And Paul, the father, turns out to be an equally multi-faceted character. He is nice and at the first dinner with the family, he makes a good impression, although less so on Nic. Now the family dynamic changes, which gives Cholodenko and Blumberg new scenes to write. Cholodenko's earlier films were weak on structure, and Blumberg obviously helped here. We get a sense of the story moving, as the scenes fit into place. The turning point is when Jules has sex with Paul. Wait a minute, she's gay. But he is paying attention to her, as she designs his garden, which Jules feels Nic is not doing. This is easily the trickiest scene in the film. If Cholodenko and Blumberg had not made all the right choices leading up to it and in the scene itself, the scene could have been a disaster and killed the picture. As it is, the Jules-Paul affair has caused a lot of discussion on the Internet and elsewhere. What the writers avoid suggesting is that Jules is just temporarily gay and can be “cured” by a “real man.” The film does not think that, as indicated by Jules knowing the affair is wrong and eventually dumping Paul, and the film also subtly lets us know that Paul does not think that either. He is just a guy who has been doing what he wants for most of his life and more or less getting away with it. Notice how his relationship with Tanya, one of the workers in his restaurant, establishes his attitudes toward relationships, which helps us see his affair with Jules accurately. And since Jules is the earthy but flaky one, the affair with Paul is something she could easily fall into, as she does in the film.
I have written a lot about the characters here, which leads to one of my mantras about screenwriting. When you are writing for the screen (or the stage), you are writing for performance. The writers have created a gallery of great roles for the actors to play. And, boy, do they play the hell out of them. I have always found Annette Bening a little cold and distant, both on film and in the stage productions she has done in LA. That fits Nic's brittle personality, as in her wonderful outburst about composting. The writers and Cholodenko have given her a lot more to play as well. Look at the variety of reactions she has as she discovers the “evidence” of Jules and Paul's affair. Bening gives us an aria of visual reactions. This may be her richest performance ever. Julianne Moore gets her moments as Jules as well. The writers, following in the Nicole Holofcener pattern (see US#47), give their characters unpleasant sides as well. Look at Jules firing her Latino gardner helper because he sort-of knows about her and Paul. Maybe Holofcener's Catherine Keener is the only other actress alive who could make us both irritated and sympathetic in that scene, but Moore manages it here. Listen to and watch Jules's “apology” to her family at the end. It's a verbal aria and Moore gives it a great reading.
As good as Bening and Moore are individually, they are also great at getting that “live-in marriage” feeling the writers provide. You believe these two are married and have been for years, not only in what they say, but how they physically deal with each other, and I don't mean sexually. And they also play well off the two actors playing their kids, especially Mia Wasikowska as Joni. You may remember I thought she was brilliant as Alice in this year's version of Alice in Wonderland, and she is just as good here. Unless she goes all Lindsay Lohan on us, she is going to be a BIG star. Josh Hutcherson as Laser is not bad, but he suffers in comparison with the three women. On the other hand, he gets and beautifully delivers a great payoff line at the end of the film.
Tom Mankiewicz: An Appreciation: While I was working on this column, I came across a notice that Tom Mankiewicz died of cancer on July 31st. As I mentioned in US#44, Tom was a Yale classmate of mine who went on to write three of the James Bond films. You can check out what he had to say about writing Bond films in that column. We were more acquaintances than friends in college. I think he thought I was a hillbilly from the Midwest and I thought he was an East Coast snob. I may have just been put off by the fact that the would-be actresses in the Yale Drama School found him a lot more interesting than they did me, especially after they found out he was the son of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve , et al). We met up again about ten years later when he came to one of my classes at LACC and talked about his adventures in screenwriting. We had both matured a bit by then, and he was charming and delightful. When he was directing on Hart to Hart in the early '80s I tried to arrange to go on the set and see him work. Unfortunately, the one day I was available, they were shooting with a live lion and the insurance company would not let anybody else on the set.
While Tom is best known for his work on the Bond films, he also worked on the '70s-'80s Superman films, and did a lot of script doctoring. The best piece I have found on him is on a British website on all things Bond, although the Los Angeles Times obituary has some nice quotes from people who worked with him. His career was not quite up to that of his father or his uncle Herman, but then whose is? Tom certainly entertained us over the years. And he was happy with that. As he told the Miami Herald in 1987, “I don't apologize for entertaining people.”
The Informant! (2009. Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald. 108 minutes)
Talk about your unreliable narrator!: I had missed this one when it came out last year, but I wanted to take a look at it. Or rather a listen to it, since it has an extreme example of what is called, in literary circles, an unreliable narrator.
When Burns came across the non-fiction book by Eichenwald, what struck him was not only the story, but the main character. Mark Whitacre was a vice-president at Archer Daniels Midlands in the early '90s. He eventually became an informant for the FBI about price-fixing at ADM. Except that there were all sorts of things that he did not tell the FBI. As in the close to eleven million dollars he arranged to have himself paid in the form of kickbacks. Burns figured that the time was ripe for an informant story, since The Insider (1999) and Erin Brockovich (2000) had just come out. But Burns had a problem. The more he looked into the story, the funnier he found it. It was not unlike the problem T.E.B. Clarke had in the early '50s when he started out to write a screenplay about heisting gold bars from the Bank of England. Clarke intended it to be serious, but the details seemed funny to him. So he turned it into the classic 1951 comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. Fortunately, Burns's pitch was picked up by Steven Soderbergh, the director of Erin Brockovich. (The background is from Peter Clines's article in the September/October 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting.) Soderbergh had done his serious version with Brockovich, and he felt that The Insider was the definitive whistle-blower movie. And he found the material funny as well.
What struck Burns about Whitacre (from the book; Burns did not meet him or his wife while he was working on the script) was that he seemed bi-polar. Burns told Clines that he had always liked the unreliable narrator in Melville's The Confidence Man adding, “I always thought that would be a really cool device to have in a movie. When you start looking at Whitacre as a character and his demons, it lends itself perfectly to the idea of an unreliable narrator, because that's how the world experienced him. I hope the fun is in some ways like the experience that Shephard and Herndon (the two primary FBI agents) had of him or that his friends had of him. He's the charming, funny, kind of goofy guy who seems, if nothing else, kind of harmless and nerdy. He's a Ph.D. in some very arcane field. And then all of a sudden you realize there are inconsistencies in his story and then the fun begins. You go on this ride of realizing, 'Oh my God, did this guy take us in because he's a master criminal? Or is he someone who—because he has a real psychological disorder—can't control himself?'”
But Burns goes beyond just unreliable. Yes, there is information we get that turns out not to be true. But one of Whitacre's characteristics is that he goes off on tangents, and that becomes part of the narration as well. You know how I always say that you shouldn't write anything in the script you don't need? Well, this is sort of an exception. We don't need to hear the tangents in story terms, but we do in terms of Whitacre's character, as well as in terms of making the film different from the whistle-blower movies that have come before. One of the few things Marx (Karl not Groucho) said that is still true is that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. If you are writing a film about a subject that has been done to death seriously, it is probably time to to do it as farce.
The Informant! (both the exclamation point in the title and Marvin Hamlisch's relentlessly jaunty score make sure we know it's a comedy) did not do well at the box office, and I suspect the total unreliability of the narration may be the cause. The narration is funny, bizarre, and inventive, but it may have been too much for regular audiences. There is also a bit of Hollywood condescension towards the people of the Midwest that did not help. But somebody else is going to do what Burns did and make it work better. It is too interesting a technique not to use again sometime.
Siberiade (1979. Written by Valentin Ezhov and Andrey Konchalovskiy. 260 minutes on the current DVD. Check the IMDb for other running times)
Not Doctor Zhivago: This is one of those legendary Russian films I have heard about for years and never seen. I found it browsing through the foreign film sections of Netflix. Given its running time, it may be best to watch on home video when you can take as many potty breaks as you need.
As you might guess from its length, this is an epic. It begins in the early years of the 20th century and goes up to the late '60s. Mostly we are in the village of Elan in Siberia, and we follow members of two families, The Solonins, who are the richest people in the village, which does not mean much, except to them and the villagers. The other family is the Ustyuzhanins, who are poorer. That description suggests more of a family saga than the film turns out to be, since we tend to focus on individuals in different parts of the film. The film was made at the beginning of the last decade of the Soviet Union, so it is still sympathetic to Communism, although we do get a variety of responses to it over the years from the characters. In the last hour or so it is critical of the bureaucrats in Moscow, but only to a limited degree. I ended up not finding this film as compelling as the 1999 film Sunshine, which follows a Hungarian family through most of the twentieth century. Because it was made after the fall of the Soviet Empire, it can deal with the politics better than Siberiade. Sunshine's characters are also better drawn than the ones here.
We are introduced to Kolya Ustyuzhanin as a boy stealing dumplings from the Solonins. Even as a kid, he is flirting with Anastasia Solonin, and she with him. But it is not a Romeo and Juliet romance. Kolya becomes enchanted with a revolutionary, Rodin, who hides out in the village. Kolya grows up to be Nikolai, who runs off with Anastasia to join the revolution. She is killed, but he comes back with their son, Alexei, to try to find oil in the area. Nikolai is killed by one of the Solonins, and Alexei goes to World War II, where he saves the life of Phil Solinin, without realizing who it is. Alexei becomes an oil driller and returns to the area, as does Phil, who is now the Party Regional Secretary. Phil hopes they find oil, since otherwise Moscow wants to flood the whole area. The well finally comes in—in terms of Russia in the '60s, that's a happy ending.
Yes, it is very Russian. Kolya's father hears the trees weeping when he cuts them down to make a road. Everybody is superstitiously afraid of the Devil's Mane, one of the local natural landmarks. They all drink a lot, and laugh uproariously. The characterizations are rather shallow, and the acting variable. Andrey Konchalovskiy also directs, and his brother, Nikita Mikhalkov (also a director) plays the adult Alexei, and Andrey lets him get away with a little too much. Igor Okhulpin is too much of a blank as Phil, especially since he is the dominant character in the last hour.
Yes, the film is not as sentimental and soap opera-ish as Doctor Zhivago (1965) and probably more authentically Russian. On the other hand, as nicely photographed as it is in Russia, I missed Freddy Young's brilliant cinematography that convinces you Spain, Finland, and Canada are Russia. Not to mention Maurice Jarre's score and the definitive Lara, Julie Christie. On the other hand, if you happen to be near a haystack with Natalya Andreychenk's grownup Anastasia…
Manhattan Melodrama (1934. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the story “Three Men” by Arthur Caesar. 93 minutes)
Melodrama's the word for it: This one is famous for being the film John Dillinger went out to see the night he was shot. Michael Mann uses clips from it in last year's Public Enemies, but I found that the clips only emphasized how little dramatic action there is in Public Enemies. There is a lot of drama going on in Manhattan Melodrama, which lives up to both words in its title.
Manhattan Melodrama sets the pattern for most of the Warner Brothers gangster movies of the later '30s: Two kids, Blackie and Jim Wade, are orphaned at a young age. They grow up to be on opposite sides of the law. Blackie runs gambling clubs and occasionally shoots people, but only those who deserve it. Jim grows up to be a fighting D.A. and later governor, Blackie having conveniently killed off the one guy who threatened to ruin Jim's campaign. Blackie is eventually convicted of another murder, and when Jim offers him a pardon, Blackie tells Jim of the other murder and nobly agrees to go to the chair.
Wait a minute. Warner Brothers? Manhattan Melodrama was an MGM film. Well, the studios all stole from each other, and if MGM was going to lay down a good template, why not steal it? Especially since Manhattan Melodrama won an Oscar for Best Story. (See the discussion of The Dark Mirror in US#51 for the nuances of the writing awards in those days.)
Well, at least it's got the MGM gloss. Not really. This was produced by David O. Selznick during one of his stays at his father-in-law's studio before he went independent. The budget, according to Thomas Schatz's The Genius of the System, was only about $300,000, while Selznick's production of David Copperfield (1935) was a little over $1,000,000. The budget limitations show. Yes, the fire on the cruise boat is a nice Slavko Vorkapich montage but it's not expensive, and the political convention where Jim is nominated for governor is done with one large closeup of a man making the nominating speech. Yes, Clark Gable, who plays Blackie, was one of MGM's biggest stars, but Myrna Loy, who plays Eleanor, his girlfriend who marries Jim (I told you it was melodrama), was not yet a big star. And Selznick had to fight to cast William Powell as Jim, since everybody else at MGM thought his career was over. Early in the picture, Blackie sends Eleanor to let Jim know Blackie will be late for a meeting. Eleanor jumps into Jim's car. They have never met before and they sit in the car and get acquainted. Pretty straightforward scene. Except that this is the first teaming of Loy and Powell, and boy, does the chemistry between them just jump off the screen. They followed this a few months later with The Thin Man, also a low-budget movie, just in case everybody had guessed wrong about the Loy-Powell chemistry. They weren't wrong, and the sequel two years later had all the MGM production gloss that Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man do not have.
The film helped the career of Tom's dad Joseph L. Mankiewicz as well, although there is very little that is distinctively Mankiewiczian about the script. Mankiewicz had come out to Hollywood at the encouragement of his brother Herman and worked at Paramount. According to Mankiewicz's biographer, Kenneth L. Geist, he came to MGM and proceeded to turn down the first three assignments he was given, infuriating the powerful producer Harry Rapf. He ended up on this one, and it was a hit while all the other three were flops. He stayed at MGM until the early '40s, when he moved to 20th Century-Fox and eventually took up directing.
Rubicon (2010. “Gone in the Teeth” episode written by James Horwitch. “The First Day of School” episode teleplay by Henry Bromell, story by Henry Bromell & James Horwitch. Each episode 60 minutes)
Agreeing with Robert Lloyd: The Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd began his review of the two-part series opener of this show this way: “With its new series Rubicon, AMC appears to have set itself the challenge of mounting a show even slower than its Mad Men. And it has succeeded.” He's right. Boy, is he ever right.
I don't mind slow. See my comments in US#40 on the Romanian film Police, Adjective (2009) for a discussion on the uses of slow. Or my comments on any of the Mad Men episodes. But if you are going to go as slowly as this show goes, you had better give us something in return. Look at my comments on Don's first date on the season opener of Mad Men in US#53. Or look at the “morning after, in the office” scene in the “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” episode of Mad Men, written by Tracy McMillan & Matthew Weiner, in which Don, who has seduced his secretary the night before doesn't talk to her about it. Both are slow scenes, especially the latter, but there is a lot of character detail we get.
No such luck in this show. Will Travers, our hero, is an intelligence analyst at one of those many private firms that contract work from the government. But he's been a really bad mood since his wife and child were killed in the Twin Towers on 9/11. OK, he deserves to grieve, but it does not make him much fun to watch, since all he seems to do is sulk. There appear to be no other colors to his personality. The same is true of the other characters. In “Gone in the Teeth” we do get a lively character, Will's boss David, but he is killed off early on. Will's associates are one-note at best.
We might stick with them if we saw them actually doing any intelligence analysis. Process is always a useful thing to show, since it can involve the audience. Look at Thomas looking at the blowups of his photographs in Blow-Up (1966) trying to figure out if a murder has been committed. We get virtually nothing here in terms of the process of analysis. At one point Will and his team (he has taken over from the late David as head of the team by the second episode) are tasked with finding out who a couple of people in a photograph are. They find out about one of them, but we have no idea how. Think of how previous films and series have used the occupations of their characters, such as making Don Draper as an ad man.
White Collar (2010. “By the Book” episode written by Alexandra McNally. 60 minutes)
Tuesday August 3rd was a good night from the USA network, take one: One of the advantages of creating a whole gallery of interesting characters in a series is that every so often you can let one of the minor ones be the focus of an episode. It was Mozzie's turn on this one. Mozzie, for those of you who don't watch, is a friend of Neal, the con man working with Peter, the FBI guy who captured him. Mozzie is into all kinds of not so legal stuff, as we saw in the “Need to Know” episode. Here we find out he has a crush on Gina, a waitress in a local coffee shop. When he thinks she has been kidnapped, he asks Neal to see what the FBI can find. Eventually Peter et al realize what Neal is up to, and McNally neatly balances the professionalism of the FBI against the rogue antics of Mozzie, who threatens to upset everybody's plans. The FBI is going to send Tommy, Gina's boyfriend who has stolen money from a weapons dealer, to make the exchange, but Mozzie gets there first and bluffs his way in. Meanwhile, he has left Neal a message that he is setting up a “perfect exchange,” a plan he and Neal worked up. Unfortunately they never had a chance to try it and they discover it is not so perfect: the weapons dealer can kill the middle man, Mozzie, once he tells him the details of the exchange. Mozzie gets rescued, thank goodness. He is too much fun to kill off.
Covert Affairs (2010. “No Quarter” episode written by Steven Hootstein in the on-screen credits, or by Meredith Lavender and Marcie Ulin on IMDb. 60 minutes)
Tuesday August 3rd was a good night from the USA network, take two: The Company obviously does not want to send Annie Walker out on a difficult assignment, so she is assigned an easy one: go to Zurich to trade suitcases in the airport with an agent of the Mossad, Eyal. If everything goes well, the episode is over in two minutes. Everything does not go well. A grenade goes off in the airport, but Annie manages to hold on to her case. She eventually ends up at the safe house where she is nearly killed by Eyal, since he didn't think she would be there. Well, what with budget cuts, the Company and Mossad have to share safe houses (that's not my line, it's Eyal's). Can she trust him? Can he trust her? He's almost as good looking as she is, so is romance going to blossom? And who's trying to kill them? The writer(s) get a lot out of the by-play between them, both dramatic and romantic, and it is obvious Piper Perabo (Annie) and Oded Fehr (Eyal) are having a lot of fun. There is action (Annie rappelling down an elevator shaft) and comedy (trying to get a bride in a leg cast up to dance so they can recover Annie's briefcase hidden under the table), as well as some interesting reactions. Eyal figures out the guy trying to kill them is a rogue Mossad agent by the way he attacks the building, and Eyal says at the end he is rather ashamed that such a well-trained rogue agent was not able to kill him and Annie. We think he is probably joking.
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.