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Understanding Screenwriting #100: Ruby Sparks, Premium Rush, Hit & Run

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Understanding Screenwriting #100: Ruby Sparks, Premium Rush, Hit & Run

Coming Up In This Column: Ruby Sparks, Premium Rush, Hit & Run, Paul, 5 Fingers, The Password is Courage, The Closer/Major Crimes, but first…

Fan Mail: Yes indeed, folks, this is the one hundredth Understanding Screenwriting column. Since it is a virtual column, we are celebrating with a virtual party. Step over to the virtual table and have a piece of the virtual cake. Didn’t the decorator do a great job recreating my picture from US#99 of the Cattle Pocket in the Alabama Hills? At the other end of the table is the virtual popcorn. You will need a real hand wipe to clean the butter off your hands. In the virtual ice chest, you will find virtual Diet Cherry Coke and virtual Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper. Enjoy, enjoy.

Keith asked me a while ago if I wanted to stop the column at 100, a nice round number. I told him I was having way too much fun doing it. I intend to keep on doing it until, to use a line of my brother’s, it starts interfering with my naps.

In the Fan Mail category, “Lylebot” picked up on the comments “eyesprocket” had that I responded to about learning how to understand screenwriting from this column. Lylebot notes that he is not a would-be screenwriter (he obviously doesn’t live in LA), but a scientist and just interested in learning in general about screenwriting. I always liked to have non-film majors in my classes at LACC because they brought interesting points of view. I can see why Lylebot doesn’t have a great interest in the technical stuff, or my whacking the screenwriting gurus. He’s interested in the process of writing, and I think he and I can agree that you can learn a lot about writing in general from screenwriting, especially in they area of structure. He notices that in the item on Bourne Legacy I mention screenwriting only in talking about the new character in one paragraph, but then talk about other things. I may have misled him, because in my comments in the Fan Mail section I suggested that in the Legacy item that would be one element you could find. This is why I never told my students in advance “Here are the five important things you should learn from Citizen Kane.” If I did that, those five things were the only things they would find. Most of the other stuff in the Legacy item has to do with how the screenwriting is carried through in the production of the film.

Lylebot brings up a crucial point, one that anybody writing about screenwriting has to deal with: how much description of the plot and the characters do you have to give? I wrestled with this in the book Understanding Screenwriting and I wrestle with it on every item in the column. And sometimes I lose the wrestling match, and there is way more description than I need, but I try to keep cutting stuff to just the essentials the reader needs to understand what I am getting at. I am sure Lylebot sometimes runs into that in scientific writing as well. Lylebot is also right that sometimes I shortchange the analysis, which is especially noticeable if I have over-described. It’s a constant struggle. But one worth having, at least from my perspective.

Tom Block commented on his trip to Lone Pine, pointing out there are a lot of film locations in the area, not just the ones I mentioned. He also had a link to his blog so you can see his pictures of what he did there on his summer vacation.

And David Ehrenstein and I agreed, for the fourth time in recent weeks, on something. The sound you hear is hell freezing over.

Ruby Sparks (2012. Written by Zoe Kazan. 104 minutes)

She’s no Eliza Doolittle: Calvin is a thirtyish writer who had a big success with a novel he wrote in high school. And he has not been able to write another one. Oh, boy, those are danger signs all over place. Watching writers write is boring. Watching them not write is even more boring. And he goes to a shrink, so we are going to have some more boring scenes in which they talk about it. Fortunately Kazan understands the problems and avoids most of them. The exposition we get about Calvin comes very quickly. We also see he is socially inept, because he cannot even score with a young woman at a book reading who is dying to do him. And it is the shrink who suggests that Calvin just sit down and write something, anything, to get the words going. That’s a standard piece of advice to writers who have writer’s block, by the way, since it gives you permission to turn off the critical side of your brain, at least for a while.

So Calvin starts writing (on a typewriter, no less; well, maybe it’s his lucky typewriter, although with ten years since his last novel, I would think not so lucky) and on the page creates Ruby. And she comes to life. We and others in the film assume she is just a figment of Calvin’s imagination, and Kazan has some witty ways to teach us all that Ruby is real. Shortly after the halfway point, Calvin takes Ruby to a family gathering to meet his hippie parents, and the picture begins to go off the rails. Ruby is much more outgoing than Calvin and fits in better with his family than he does. But Kazan doesn’t develop that idea. Nor does she have Ruby turn into an independent woman on her own. She’s not threatening to run off with Freddy Eynsford-Hill. One can be glad that Kazan doesn’t follow the standard pattern in Pygmalion stories, but she does not replace it with much. Calvin gets upset that Ruby only does what he wants, or what he writes. This gives us a dramatic scene where Calvin writes Ruby happy, which she becomes, then sad, which she becomes, etc. Kazan is also an actress and plays Ruby, and I suspect this scene is what made her want to write the story this way. The scene is a real actor’s showcase, but as with many such scenes, it takes us out of the story. Kazan could have developed this better.

Eventually Calvin and “his” Ruby break up, he writes the story in a novel, which is a big bestseller. And then he runs into a woman who looks exactly like Ruby. Well, she’s also played by Kazan. And she seems to be exactly like Ruby, which is a very weak ending. If Calvin learned anything from this experience, it ought to have been that he could deal with a real woman. It would not have taken more than a couple of lines to establish this new woman as completely different from Ruby. It might have made for a better film is this final scene happened a little earlier and we got to watch Calvin deal with the new woman.

Premium Rush (2012. Written by David Koepp & John Kamps. 91 minutes)

Premium Rush

This is how you make a B movie: David Koepp is best known for his scripts for big blockbusters: the first two Jurassic Park movies, the first Mission: Impossible movie, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). He has also written and sometimes directed smaller films. He was the writer of Panic Room (2002), a great “enclosed space” thriller, and he co-wrote with John Kamps and directed Ghost Town (2008), which I wrote about in US#33. Premium Rush is one of his smaller films, and the script is a perfect model of how it should be done.

The plot is simple: Wilee (as in Wile E. Coyote) is a bicycle messenger in New York City. He is assigned to deliver an envelope before 7. A bad guy will do anything to get his hands on the envelope. So right away you have action establishing Wilee zipping in and out of New York traffic, with all the comments from drivers as he goes by. So we know this is going to be a very kinetic film, to put it modestly. As with so much in this script, we don’t get any more than we need to know about Wilee’s character: he loves speed, he has no gears on his bike, and no brakes as well. He has a girlfriend, Vanessa, who is also a messenger, which is useful for later plot developments, and she is being hit on by another messenger. And that’s all we know about them. And all we need to know up front.

Wilee picks up a slim envelope from Nima, a young Asian woman at Columbia. Nima has roomed with Vanessa, and uses the bike messenger service for the university, so her asking for the service makes sense. Before he can get off the Columbia campus, he is stopped by a man who says he is with university security and needs the envelope back. Wilee doesn’t give it to him, partly because security of the packages is guaranteed by his company. I would have thought he would have been suspicious of anyone who claims his name is Forrest J. Ackerman, but neither Wilee nor anybody in the audience I saw it with picked up on that. We know “Ackerman,” actually a cop named Monday, is not a good guy, but look at how long before we find out how bad he really is. Monday is played by the great Michael Shannon, who bears a slight resemblance to David Letterman, so when Monday is in high dudgeon he seems like Letterman at his crankiest. Well, I thought that was funny.

Koepp and Kamps are as careful as Burt Kennedy is in the Ranown films to hold off telling us useful information until we would kill our grandmothers to know it. Look at how long it takes us to find out what’s in the envelope: a movie theater stub with a smiley face. Big help; look at how long it takes for us to find out what that means. And even longer to find out why. Koepp and Kamps understand that you will need some quieter scenes as a change of pace from all the bike scenes and they use those to catch up on the plot points, rather than delve into character. And then we are ready to get on the road again. The writers also borrow a trick from Buster Keaton’s The General (1927). In that film Keaton is chasing his engine in the first half, then being chased by the Union army in the second half. Wilee is chased by Monday in the first half, then Wilee has to chase down the messenger (the one who hits on Vanessa, of course; nothing wasted here) before he delivers the envelope to Monday at the wrong address. And the writers save some of their best invention for the last: Wilee has to escape from a police impound warehouse, which means riding his bike over the cars and trucks there.

Not only is the script good, but Koepp as the director understands something very basic about speed on film. It does not matter how fast an object is going if we cannot feel its speed. You have all seen establishing shots of jet airliners flying through the sky. They are traveling 400 to 500 miles an hour, but you cannot tell because you have nothing to judge them against. A bike going through New York traffic here gives us a sense of the bike’s speed relative to everything else. Koepp’s cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen has shot a lot of second unit stuff for big action movies so he knows how to make it look great. That’s not true of the next film.

Hit & Run (2012. Written by Dax Shepard. 100 minutes)

Hit & Run

This is not how you make a B movie: Well, the opening is sort of charming. Charlie and Annie are in bed talking about the present, how this day is going to be great, how it…where the hell are Burt Kennedy, David Koepp and John Kamps when you need them? The dialogue in this film is anything but laconic, and a lot of it has the air of having been improvised by the actors, but then not shaped either in the rewriting or editing. Shepard not only wrote the script, but plays Charlie, and is the co-director as well. He and Kristin Bell as Annie, make a semi-charming if loquacious couple. Annie learns that she has the opportunity for a great new job running a new department at a university. Which university? Well, it’s UC, as University of California. But there are several UCs throughout the state. Charlie and Annie eventually wind up in Los Angeles, which would make it UCLA, but it’s never called that in the film.

Annie has to go to this UC, whichever one it is, for a job interview. Great, Charlie can drive her (I am not sure they establish why she just can’t drive herself). Ah, there’s a problem. Charlie, full name Charlie Bronson, is in the Witness Protection Program and the people who want to do him harm are in…Los Angeles. Now as a longtime fan of In Plain Sight, I have picked up a thing or two about Witsec. Shepard apparently never watched the show, or just got sloppy. Charlie has managed to keep his car from the old days, which Mary Shannon would have driven off a cliff by the first commercial break. He has told Annie he is in Witsec; Mary would have slapped him upside the head for that. And Annie has told her ex-boyfriend about Charlie in Witsec. OK, as we know from In Plain Sight, the people in the program can behave stupidly, but this seems excessive. On the other hand, the marshal watching out for Charlie is no Mary Shannon. He is Randy, and he cannot seem to do anything right. He’s funny in some scenes, but just over the top in others. The one good laugh in the film comes from how Randy’s sexual orientation is revealed.

So Charlie and Annie go off. Her ex, Gil, sees them driving off in Charlie’s old car, gets the registration, which is in Charlie’s real name, and finds out about Charlie’s case. Did I mention that Shepard is sloppy? Try this: Gil is already Facebook friends with Alex, the head of the gang that’s after Charlie. So car chases ensue. And Shepard and his co-director David Palmer, do not have a clue how to film speeding cars. We get lots of shots of cars driving down the highway, but very little sense of how fast they are going. The chase will stop eventually, and then start up again, stop, start up again. Shepard does not use those non-chase moments for anything interesting, the way Koepp and Kamps do. Shepard’s idea of a changeup is to have Charlie and Anna switch cars.

Koepp and Kamps use Wilee’s occupation in interesting ways. Annie is a specialist in conflict resolution, but never see her use whatever her skills might be. OK, Alex has a gun and just wants the money he thinks Charlie has hidden, but you could have written a couple of very inventive scenes of Annie outhustling him with her skills. Nothing of the sort appears here.

Shepard has gathered so many of his friends for this film that, because the script is so mediocre, the film feels like a home movie. Most of the actors are given free reign; Tom Arnold does a nice job with Randy, and Jason Bateman has a great understated scene as a marshal. Bradley Cooper, trying to break out of leading man parts, is Alex, but the script does not give him anything inventive to do. A wasted opportunity, as is the film.

Paul (2011. Written by Simon Pegg & Nick Frost. 104 minutes)

Paul

This could have gone wrong in so many ways: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been working together, mostly as actors, for over a decade. Pegg co-wrote and he and Frost starred in both Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), but this is the first time they have collaborated as writers on a feature. I never caught Shaun, but I did see Hot Fuzz. The latter was funny, but awfully sloppy, especially in the writing. So I gave Paul a miss when it was in theaters last year, but caught up with it now via HBO. It is much sharper than Hot Fuzz, and it avoids the pitfalls of the story they set out to tell.

Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two British comic book geeks who have finally managed to make a trip to America. Here’s the first hurdle the writers get over: Graeme and Clive are likeable. Give us likeable characters and we will follow you, even to ComicCon. Yes, ComicCon is nowadays a very easy target, but the writers don’t dawdle. And we get a nice scene with the guys and sci-fi author Adam Shadowchild, who is obviously tired of meeting the public. Note his bottle of hand sanitizer. Then Graeme and Clive hit the road, intending to stop at all the standard UFO spots: Area 51, Roswell, etc. And when they get to Area 51, who do they run into in a diner but Pat Stewart, the waitress. That could be not much of a scene, but Pat is played by Jane Lynch, who you want for those three or four minutes. Lynch also shows up at the end and nails a great scene with Kristen Wiig in which you get a whole set of possibilities for their relationship in five or six lines. And next the boys pick up Paul. Paul is an alien, who has just escaped government captivity. He looks like all the images of aliens. He is not, however, a sweetheart like E.T. He is foulmouthed, but that is not all he is. He has learned a lot about American culture in his sixty years of captivity and he has contributed to it as well, as a great little cameo shows. Graeme and Clive, who have seemed similar, have two different reactions to Paul, so we get some character dynamics between them.

They stop at a trailer park and end up picking up Ruth. In a typical Hollywood version of this story, she would be a buxom, dim-witted blonde. She’s not. She is a born-again Christian who does not believe in evolution (check out her T-shirt), at least not until Paul shows her the light. Then she decides she does not have to be a goodie-two-shoes anymore. In the typical Hollywood version we would get a lot of nudity and simulated sex. Not here. We get her trying to learn how to swear. She’s an amateur at it, and listen to the lines Pegg and Frost give her. Yes, I am aware that some of them may have improvised (Kristen Wiig plays Ruth), but the writers obviously laid out the template for the improvisations. As opposed to Hit & Run, the writers here have given their new BFFs a lot of great stuff to say and do.

Needless to say, Paul and the guys are being chased, and the director Greg Mottola is just as good with chases as he is with actors. The senior officer of the case is Agent Zoil, played by Jason Bateman, and he is even better here than in Hit & Run, because he has better material. His underlings are Haggar and O’Reilly. They are klutzes, and most writers would leave them at that, but Pegg and Frost given them their own plot, which complicates everything. Although our guys set out for Roswell, they end up in Wyoming, where Paul first landed. And we meet the little girl who saw him land. She is now an old lady, living alone, because everybody has always made fun of her for claiming to have seen a flying saucer. Blythe Danner is wonderfully sympathetic in the part, and then the guys give her a great pay-off line as they drive away from the farm. So why, other than to see her, are we in Wyoming? Didn’t you see Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)? Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

5 Fingers (1952. Screenplay by Michael Wilson and, uncredited, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the book Operation Cicero by L.C. Moyzisch. 108 minutes)

5 Fingers

Epistemological thrillers: I watched this one again several months ago and have been meaning to write about it ever since. As I was writing this column in the dog days of summer film releases and before the fall TV season started, it seemed the time to do this one and the one that follows. I had another movie on DVD from Netflix that I was going to watch. I had made lunch, along with a big bowl of popcorn. But the DVD was flawed and would not play. I am not about to waste a good bowl of popcorn, so I went through my collection and pulled out my VHS copy of 5 Fingers. (There is a DVD out, but it is a Korean one and sort of a mess, at least according to those who bought it on Amazon). The film is one of the greatest spy movies of all time.

L.C. Moyzisch was an attaché at the German embassy in Anakara, Turkey, during World War II. He was approached by a man offering to sell him photos of classified English documents. Moyzisch, with the approval of his superiors, made the deal, giving the spy the code name Cicero. Cicero delivered. And delivered. And finally delivered documents that outlined the plans for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. And the Germans did not believe any of it. Well, some of them did, and some of them didn’t, and nobody took action on the information. This may well have been because the British Double Cross system, which ran all the German spies in England and some elsewhere, had been feeding the Germans misinformation, letting them know the invasion was going to be at Calais. There is, by the way, a great new book by Ben MacIntyre called Double Cross, about five of the major double agents the Brits used. In any case, the Germans did not believe Cicero’s information. Moyzisch wrote his book about it in the later ‘40s, and 20th Century-Fox picked it up.

The screenplay, a fictionalized documentary version, was written by Michael Wilson before he was blacklisted. His structure and scenes are terrific. His Cicero is named Diello. The name of the real Cicero was Elyesa Bazna, and you can read the Wikipedia entry for him here. Wilson makes Diello a former valet to the Count Stavski, and now friend and lover to his widow, the Countess Stavski. There was no such character in real life, but it gives the film a smart romantic element. As in real life, Diello was the valet to the British ambassador, who made the mistake of bringing classified material up to his private quarters. He kept it in a safe, which Cicero easily broke into to photograph the documents. A new alarm system was finally Cicero’s undoing, but he escaped the British and the Germans, who wanted to kill him as well. In the film he ends up in Rio, but the Countess has earlier skipped town in Turkey and gone to Switzerland. Diello is alone with his money.

Darryl Zanuck was trying to keep Joseph L. Makiewicz on the Fox lot. Mankiewicz had recently won Oscars for both writing and directing for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950) and was anxious to get out from under Zanuck’s thumb. Mankiewicz loved the story and agreed to direct the film. He also agreed to do an uncredited rewrite. Several things I have always assumed were Mankiewicz contributions turn out to be in Wilson’s script. The Countess, whom Mankiewicz renamed Staviska to make her more feminine, seems like a typical Mankiewicz woman, which may be why he was attracted to the story, but she is a creation of Wilson. Mankiewicz certainly redid the dialogue. Wilson claimed Mankiewicz did not change that much, but Mankiewicz’s biographer Kenneth Geist (his book is Pictures Will Talk and most of the information about the film is from it) compared the screenplays and found more Mankiewicz than Wilson in the dialogue. Geist quotes the Wilson and Mankiewicz versions of one scene and you can see the difference. The dialogue is so good that during a screening several years ago at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (FILMEX), there was a spontaneous round of applause after one great dialogue scene. You just did not hear that kind of great dialogue in films in the 1980s.

Wilson and Mankiewicz give us a great final scene, which I for many years assumed was probably fictional. The Countess, who has been keeping Diello’s money, escapes with it to Switzerland. Diello makes one last score (the Overlord documents) and goes to Rio. He is living the life of luxury when his banker shows up to tell him the British bank notes with which he opened his account are all forgeries. The forgeries have also turned up, he says, in Switzerland. Diello tosses his money in the air and laughs.

In the early 1980s we were visiting friends in Lancaster, England, and they suggested we watch a rerun of a miniseries they had loved. It was called Private Schulz (1981), in which the main character, a German forger, is ordered to make…British currency. I don’t remember if I literally slapped my forehead, but I knew that was the money they gave to Diello and the Countess. Since the Germans did not believe his material, why should they pay him real money? There was also a 2007 German film on the subject called The Counterfeiters.

Why didn’t the Germans believe him? As I mentioned, the British Double Cross system had them convinced the invasion was going to be at Calais. Secondly, as MacIntrye in his book and Christopher Andrew in his history of MI5, Defend the Realm, make clear, the Germans were incredibly thick-headed and easy to deceive. But beyond that, the Cicero story raises the basic epistemological questions about all intelligence work. And historical research for that matter, especially film history. How do we know what we know? How do we evaluate the information we get? What is the source? How can we know if the source is playing us, either deliberately or not? Most of those questions get raised by the characters in 5 Fingers.

At the end of 5 Fingers, the Countess sends notes to both the British and German ambassadors saying Cicero is working for the other side. He may well have been. John Masterman, one of the men who ran the Double Cross system, later claimed that Cicero was a double agent working for the British. I find this doubtful, since the whole Double Cross system was devoted to giving the Germans the wrong information and Cicero was giving them the real stuff. Masterman may have been covering up a rumor that Mankiewicz discovered during his location shooting in Turkey: that Bazna was the gay lover of the British ambassador. Needless to say, the 1952 film does not even suggest that, although James Mason is a lot better looking that Bazna was.

Bazna never left Turkey since the Brits and the Germans were not out to kill him. He later wrote an autobiography…but why should we believe any of it? Watch the movie instead. Wilson and Mankiewicz are great tellers of tales in their own right.

The Password is Courage (1962. Screenplay by Andrew Stone, based on the book by John Castle. 116 minutes)

The Password is Courage

Speaking of epistemological problems: This is the other one I saw a few months back. It’s the story of Charles Coward, who had a knack for escaping from German prisoner of war camps. The book the film is based on spends more time on his more famous adventures than the film does. Coward claimed to have broken into Auschwitz and rescued hundreds of Jews. Many of those claims have since been called into question, since Coward was very imprecise about the names of those he saved. The film is a more lighthearted look at his time at Stalag Luft III. Hmm, that place sounds familiar. It was the prison camp in The Wooden Horse (1950, which I reviewed in US #75 ), as well as the one in The Great Escape (1963, which I mentioned slightly in US#78). So what we have here is a film going over territory that by now we pretty much know. Since this version is mostly Coward’s version, it appears from the film that he was Big X, and the Scrounger, and…well, nearly everybody. Which we would find mildly amusing, except that the scenes that Stone writes, presumably from the book, are not a patch on the ones the various writers on The Great Escape developed. I wrote in US#78 about how much I liked the tailor scene in Escape, since the tailor behaving like a real tailor gave it texture. Here the equivalent scene is flat and literal. And so it goes in the rest of the script.

The script does give Stone, who also directed, a chance to do some action scenes of the kind he loved. He liked the physicality of the real thing. In his 1960 film The Last Voyage, he actually shot on board a sinking luxury liner. He here he stages a nice, full-sized, no-model-work train wreck. Andrew Sarris, writing about Stone in The American Cinema, says, “If they [his wife was his editor] want to blow up a train, they blow up a real train.” Then Sarris has “One sobering conclusion: If the Stones had made On the Beach [1959, about the end of the world], none of us would have been around to review it.”

The Closer/Major Crimes (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes)

The Closer

Going and coming: After seven seasons, Brenda Leigh Johnson is leaving Major Crimes and going to work in administration for the District Attorney, thus bringing The Closer to an end. Brenda Leigh was a great character. She was a tough Southern woman put into the macho Los Angeles Police Department. She loved Twinkies, always said “Thank Ye-e-e-w,” and was ruthless in the Box. She was as good as Frank Pembleton in Homicide: Life on the Street at sweating people into confessing. She was often on the outs with her boss and former lover, Chief Pope, but not in the usual rouge-cop-versus-by-the-book-boss way. She was a character with a lot of nuance along with her hard-driving personality. And she had a great supporting cast of characters. I have written before on several occasions about how the writers use the reactions of the members of her squad for both drama and comedy. Her mom and dad showed up, but they were not given as much time as Mary’s family in In Plain Sight, thank goodness. Fritz, Brenda Leigh’s boyfriend/husband, was a little too good to be true, but that was only a minor flaw.

Why was Brenda Leigh leaving? Because Kyra Sedgwick, the actress playing her, wanted to leave the show. Brenda Leigh was a very intense character, and I can see why Sedgwick might want to give her up after seven years. Actors very often get tired doing the same character over and over again, either in television, movies (Sean Connery giving up Bond), or the theater. Actress Irene Tsu, the former student of mine I have written about before, once told me she hated to do theater because she didn’t like doing the same thing over and over again. So Sedgwick left the best role she ever had to do…The Possession (2012). Actors.

Rather than close down the show completely, the powers that be decided to continue it. In 2009 the show brought on Captain Sharon Raydor as kind of a watchdog over Brenda Leigh. Raydor plays her cards very close to her vest, so we never quite knew if she was supporting Brenda Leigh, or about to rat her out to her bosses or opposing attorneys. On The Closer we learned very little about her, and that added tension to the show. The powers that be have now spun off a new show from The Closer called Major Crimes, in which Raydor replaces Brenda Leigh as the head of the Major Crimes unit. Chief Pope has gone on to become Chief of Police, and Sgt. Gabriel has gone off with Brenda Leigh. The rest of the squad remains. So far it has been a bumpy start.

Because Raydor has never been as open about her emotions as Brenda Leigh was, there are not the kind of great scenes you had with her predecessor. We have learned that she was married, is now separated from her husband, and has grownup kids. That does not really help us much in the stories the writers are telling. In her first episodes, she is taking care of a teenage male hustler named Randy, a witness in a murder investigation, but the scenes with him are not very interesting. Raydor does not have a specific talent the way Brenda Leigh did. She and the Deputy District Attorney want to make deals with the criminals to save the money of trials, but discussing a plea bargain is just not as compelling as an interrogation. There is some friction between her and the squad, especially Provenza, who objects to the plea-bargaining, but it’s minor. You have a good supporting cast of characters, but Raydor has not really been re-conceived as a star part. In The Closer, the cast was supporting and not just an ensemble. It remains to be seen whether the writers can get the balance right.

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.

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blog

Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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