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Understanding Screenwriting #30: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #30: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, The Undercover Man, Union Pacific, 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year, Moonfleet, The Mouse That Roared, Drop Dead Diva, Disneyland Summer 2009 but first…

Fan Mail: You guys are letting me down. I would have figured that in US#29 my comments on Departures, Tetro and two Fellini films would have ticked off somebody enough to comment, but I guess not. So on to the newest haul of goodies.

The Hurt Locker (2008. Written by Mark Boal. 131 minutes): Sometimes first-timers get it right.

The film opens in Iraq in 2004. We are with a three-man bomb disposal squad. The leader, a careful veteran named Thompson, prepares to deal with a possible bomb by the side of the road. He sends out the robot, then goes himself. The other two hang back, since they are clearly supporting characters and may get zapped quickly. Thompson is the star of the unit, and since he is played by Guy Pearce, the one recognizable face, he is obviously the star of the-BOOM-he’s dead. If they are going to kill off Guy Pearce so quickly, nobody is safe, which Boal needs to establish. The scene also establishes the careful techniques required in bomb disposal.

So Thompson’s replacement, Staff Sgt. James, shows up and he does not follow any of Thompson’s procedures, but recklessly jumps right in to deal with the next bomb, which turns out to be several wired together. You may have seen this shot either in the trailer or as the photo in the ad. It is as creepy in the film as it is in the photo, if not creepier. Given what we know about the process from the first scene, his behavior shows us his character. This script is a great example of the truism that action is character. Mark Boal is a journalist who covered Iraq and wrote the article that In the Valley of Elah was based on. He is in the grand tradition of journalists who went on to become good screenwriters, from Roy McCardell through Herman J. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson up to Cameron Crowe and Joe Eszterhas. As a journalist he was used to recording what people said, not what as a writer he thought they ought to say. The dialogue in The Hurt Locker is generally very natural, with only a couple of scenes where you hear the clicking of the writer’s computer keyboard.

Structurally the film is very episodic, as the lives of the bomb disposal people tend to be, but Boal has made each episode different, with new challenges for us as well as for the soldiers. What starts out as a demolition in the desert of assorted bombs they have found turns into a meeting with a group of British mercenaries tracking down members of Hussein’s government. The lead mercenary turns out to be played by Ralph Fiennes, so you know from Guy Pearce’s fate that he will not be around long. He’s not, but the firefight turns into a long, suspenseful sequence, not just an action sequence. And it is a sequence that lets the relationship of James and Sgt. Sanborn, who first resented James, develop out of the action. Sanborn was one of those we thought in the opening scene was going to get killed quickly, but he has turned into a major character. The relationships and revelations about character provide a spine for the episodes without being obvious the way it would if done by a screenwriter who had spent his time reading screenwriting manuals rather than living the experience with the bomb disposal guys.

Titles tell us how long the unit has on its rotation, and then we get a short sequence of James back in the States. We can see he is unhappy not being where the action is. Boal gives us a great single moment of James in a large, really large, supermarket, baffled by all the cereal choices. A friend of mine who saw the film with his wife said his wife came back from shopping later and said it was just like The Hurt Locker. No surprise that by the end of the picture James is back in action in Iraq. Listen to how little in terms of dialogue it takes to tell us he is going back. Show, don’t tell.

(500) Days of Summer (2009. Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber. 95 minutes): Wait for it.

This rom-com opened to reviewers going on and on about its freshness, enough so that, contrarian that I am, I began to check the similarities to other movies. The writers have turned this into Annie Hall meets Hiroshima Mon Amour. It is about an ordinary guy, Tom, and the woman he is convinced is “the one,” Summer, told not in chronological order, but by skipping around the 500 days of the relationship. That works rather well, as in when we see the couple late in the relationship but early in the picture moping about Ikea and only later in the picture but earlier in the relationship do we see their early, funny days at Ikea. OK, but Woody and Alain have been there before, although Neustadter and Weber handle it very well.

Early in the film/later in the relationship we get a great scene in which Tom’s prepubescent sister is called in as the wise one in an intervention with Tom about Summer. Nice character, but I saw her before as the little sister in Gregory’s Girl (1981). Then a scene of Tom, a wannabe architect, showing Summer buildings of L.A. is a nice variation, but still a variation, of the similar scene in Hannah and Her Sisters. On the bright side, unlike Monsters vs. Aliens (see US#24) this is not just a checklist of other films. The writers use these elements well enough on their own, and with Tom they have created a character we can all sympathize with. He is convinced Summer is “the one” but she does not want to get serious. Since this is written by guys, she is not as well developed as Tom is, although a lot of that in the first part of the movie is her resisting getting serious.

Then, an hour into the movie, the film begins to change and deepen in some very interesting ways. We go to a wedding of a former co-worker of Tom and Summer. Even though at that point the relationship is officially over we know from the number of the day that precedes the scene that it is not really over. Tom and Summer have a couple of nice scenes about a couple trying to figure out what their relationship is now that their “relationship” is over. This is not a typical rom-com scene, although it does have an Annie Hall-ish flavor to it, but by then we are so into the two characters and their story that we don’t mind. Then Neustadter and Weber pull their two best tricks, and we learn something very interesting about Summer and her attitudes, which makes her as equally interesting in terms of this relationship as Tom. The second trick builds from that beautifully and ends the movie with what other critics have called the funniest closing line of any movie this year. I cannot disagree.

Chéri (2009. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on the novels Chéri and La Fin de Chéri by Colette. 92 minutes): Wait for it, but you may not find it worth the wait.

I was very disappointed in this, since I like a lot of Christopher Hampton’s previous work. His stage play and later screenplay for his adaptation of Les liaisons dangereuses (the 1988 film was called Dangerous Liaisons just to make sure American audiences would not think it was in French) shows that he is one of the few English writers who can deal with the French. You could not tell it from his script for Chéri, which starts out with a lot of very clunky voiceover exposition, some of which is covered in more dialogue in the opening scenes. The dialogue then becomes rather flat and Stephen Frears, who directed Dangerous Liaisons, has let or encouraged the actors to overact, especially Kathy Bates in one of her worst performances.

Part of the problem in the first half of the movie is that so much of what is going on is inside the heads of the characters. Hampton has not found a way to get it out in dialogue. Instead we get a lot of shots of Lea, the aging courtesan, and her much younger lover, Chéri, moping about. She is more active than he is, which is part of Colette’s joke, although not as amusing as it was in 1920 when she wrote the novel. The picture picks up in the second half, which is based on the second of the two novels. Chéri has let himself be married off at his mother’s insistence to a rather shallow young girl. Both Lea and Chéri thought, like Summer in (500) Days, that this was just a passing thing, but they realize they were and still are in love. Now Hampton has given the actors something to do: Suffer, which both Michelle Pfieffer as Lea and Rupert Friend as Chéri do well. Whereas (500) Days has built up enough good will toward the characters and the story to make the stronger ending pay off, Chéri has not, and the ending is not as devastating as it should be.

Public Enemies (2009. Screenplay by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman, based on the book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the F.B.I. 1933-1934” by Bryan Burrough. 140 minutes): When a screenwriter dies, he becomes a DIRECTOR.

Michael Mann first came to attention as a television writer, particularly on the great seventies series Police Story. Joseph Wambaugh, the cop-turned-novelist who was one of the creators of the show, was particularly impressed with Mann’s ability to do research. Wambaugh was hesitant to criticize the accuracy of Mann’s scripts, which he did a lot of with other writers. See the chapter on Police Story in my Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing for some of his comments. In spite of the legends that grew up about it, Mann was not the creator of the series Miami Vice. That was Anthony Yerkovich, coming off Hill Street Blues, but Mann took over as executive producer from Yerkovich and made it his own. Not necessarily for the better. Ed Waters, who wrote on the show in its second season, later said, “In an effort to keep that visual look that they did so successfully on that show, they would go to a location that would take them three or four hours to get to, and they would shoot a page and a half that day, so something had to give. You have a 55-page script and seven days to shoot it in, you have to shoot seven and a half pages, or whatever, and if you shoot one and a half pages one day, you’re in trouble. So a lot of things were sacrificed to preserve that style. Many of the stories suffered. When you are scrambling to meet the schedule, story values and plot points are going to fall by the wayside. They did.”

When Mann began to move from television into feature films, both as writer and director, he used the bigger budgets and longer production schedules available in features to make the productions as detailed as his previous interest in research could make them. Sometimes, as in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), his script supported the production. Sometimes, as in the film version of Miami Vice (2006), the script did not. What Mann has been falling into is the trap that many screenwriters fall into when they become directors: They become so desirous of playing with as many of the toys of film production as they can that they lose sight of their original talent as writers. You can see this in the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, the Wachowski Brothers, Oliver Stone, and James Cameron, to name only a few. John Grierson once wrote, referring to Josef Von Sternberg, that when a director dies, he becomes a cinematographer. I think when a screenwriter dies, he becomes a DIRECTOR. It’s happened to Mann.

The book Public Enemies is based on is a wide-ranging study of crime in the Depression, but aside from some brief cameos by Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, the focus is on John Dillinger. Mann and his writers’ view of Dillinger was that he was cool. Unfortunately that is about it for characterization of Dillinger in the film. When the F.B.I. begins to close in on him, his coolness seems more like stupidity than high style. It is a limited view of the film’s hero.

Out of the research in the book, Mann and his second co-writer, Ann Biderman, began to focus on the rise of the F.B.I.. Unfortunately this is put in terms of making J. Edgar Hoover seem like a thirties Dick Cheney (yeah, I know, he sort of was, but still) and the techniques of the F.B.I., particularly the interrogation of Billie Frechette, seem like the Bush years. I mentioned in US#24 in writing about both Monsters vs. Aliens and Parks and Recreation that those seemed to have been conceived in the Bush era and now seem dated. The same is true of this element of Public Enemies.

Part of the problem with the script is that the writers have not given Mann many actual scenes. There is nothing in here that is the equivalent of the coffee shop scene between De Niro and Pacino in Heat. What we get instead is the buildup to the scenes—a LOT of shots of characters walking into buildings, rooms, etc. Mann’s direction here is like that of the late career Otto Preminger: More establishing shots than there are scenes (look at Advise & Consent [1962] and In Harm’s Way [1965] and you’ll see what I mean). I suppose Mann could defend it here in that it shows Dillinger always in motion, but it leaves his film rather shallow. Even when there is a scene, like the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge, the writers have not shaped it as a scene. It is just a lot of men firing a lot of guns.

Dillinger is not the only one with very little characterization. There are a lot of supporting actors, but with a couple of exceptions, they are given very little to do. The major exception is Peter Gerety, who puts a lot of life into the lawyer the mob gets for Dillinger. Giovanni Ribisi does a couple of interesting things in his one moderately large scene as Alvin Karpis, but it is too little, too late.

The Undercover Man (1949. Screenplay by Sydney Boehm, additional dialogue by Malvin Wald, adaptation by Jack Rubin of the article “Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone” by Frank J. Wilson. 85 minutes): Public Enemies, 1949 style.

The day after I saw Public Enemies I caught this one on TCM. The obvious thing to say is that this film is better than the new film because the script is better. Yes and yes, but… In this script, we have characters, which we don’t much in Public Enemies. Frank Warren is a Treasury accountant involved in the effort to bring down the “Big Fellow,” who is never named. He is obviously Al Capone, but Capone was caught in the early thirties, so that might have made it seem dated by 1949. Warren is concerned about how his obsessive hunt for documents is not helpful to his marriage, a fact he and his wife talk about. Every time Warren seems to find a potential informant, they get killed. One of the Big Fellow’s accountants has squirreled away a ledger and just as he decides to turn it in, he is killed. His mother and daughter bring it to Warren just as Warren is about to quit. They persuade him that for the sake of his family as well as theirs, he has to go on.

In addition to Warren, his wife, the criminal accountant and his family, and assorted potential informants, we also get a nice characterization of the Big Fellow’s lawyer, very well played by Barry Kelley.

The picture was made as a B-picture at Columbia, and the director was Joseph H. Lewis. The following year Lewis would make the film he is best known for, Gun Crazy. Here the budget undercuts the story. If Public Enemies is overproduced for its script, The Undercover Man is underproduced, all backlots and quick location shots that do not necessarily match the studio streets. It is impossible to tell what city the film is supposed to take place in, since location shots are clearly Los Angeles, but the studio street is more New York or Chicago. There is at least one flubbed line that was not reshot. Unlike Mann, Lewis hardly ever moves his camera, but when he does, as in the killing of the account on the Columbia backlot city street, he gets the most out of it. According to a 1974 article on Lewis by Myron Meisel that appears in the anthology Kings of the Bs, in the big dramatic scenes, Lewis used three cameras and let the actors improvise the scene. I seriously doubt if Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, would have let Lewis have three cameras, and the dialogue is a little too well-shaped to have been improvised. But then Meisel was writing in the day when everybody believed everything directors told them.

Union Pacific (1939. Screenplay by Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, and Jesse Laskey Jr., based on Jack Cunningham’s adaptation of the novel Trouble Shooter by Ernest Haycox, with uncredited additional writing by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, Stanley Robb, Jeanie Macpherson, Stuart Anthony, and Harold Lamb. 135 minutes): De Mille and his cast of thousands of writers.

In writing about Cecil D. De Mille and his use of writers in FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I noted that “The screenwriting style of the De Mille films is just as suited to his star-director personality as the style of the Marx Brothers films [De Mille and the Marx Brothers were at Paramount at the same time], films suited to their star-actor personalities.” De Mille of course focused on spectacle (there are two train wrecks in Union Pacific), but there is also a pompous solemnity in the writing, no matter who the writers were. De Mille, who was his own producer, pushed all the writers (the list of uncredited writers comes from Robert S. Birchard’s thoroughly researched book Cecil B. De Mille’s Hollywood) to adopt his particular house style. The result in Union Pacific is dramatically very clumsy. As often in De Mille films, there is a lot of setup before he gets to the good stuff. The first two hours of his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments are virtually unwatchable now, but the second two hours at least have some energy. In Union Pacific we get a lot of plotting against the railroad by Barrows, a businessman who is supposedly supporting the Union Pacific in its trek west but is in fact betting most of his money on the Central Pacific coming east from California. Barrows sets up Campeau to run a gambling and liquor operation along the route to slow down the Union Pacific. The Campeau story seems to be the main story, but about 2/3 of the way through he goes missing and does not show up again until De Mille needs a shootout at the end. The first of the two train wrecks does not come until almost an hour and a half into the picture. The second one comes very quickly after the first. Jeff, the trouble shooter, has suggested that they can lay track over the snow rather than going through a mountain. They try it and the track collapses, killing the engineer. Did I mention that Jeff is the hero in this movie? Nobody blames him for his really bad idea. Not even Mollie, the woman who loves him, even though it is her father who was killed in the wreck. De Mille and his writers simply do not take the time to deal with trivial issues like those.

In FrameWork I mentioned that the writing in Union Pacific has a kind of crude energy, but looking at the film again recently, I am not sure it does. The script spends a lot more time than it needs to on the romance of Jeff, Mollie and Dick, an old army buddy of Jeff and now Campeau’s partner. For a film about the building of the railroad, we are indoors a lot, or at least on soundstages. The second unit train scenes, done on location in Utah and California, have a little energy, but are not a patch on those in the 1924 film The Iron Horse, where the conventional plot is less of a downer to the epic scale of the film.

Union Pacific was criticized at the time for its portrayal of the Indians, and rightly so. There is no Indian character that we come to know in the film, and the Indians generally behave stupidly. Their one smart move is to topple the water tower to make the train crash into it in the film’s first train wreck. Then they just dance around and loot the train, waiting for the cavalry to show up and kill them. The other character in the script that raises my PC hackles these days is the hero’s sidekick, Fiesta. As played by Akim Tamiroff, he is as clichéd a Mexican-American as you could find, constantly talking about his different wives in various towns. He reminds us this picture was made in Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939. The same year we had the awful Mexican-American stereotypes in Stagecoach and Prissy et al in Gone with the Wind. Some things have improved in American films.

1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year (2009. Written by Gary Leva and Constantine Nasr. 68 minutes): See, I told you it was Hollywood’s Greatest Year.

This was a documentary produced by Warners that showed up on TCM as a companion piece to their running a lot of the films from that year. As you might expect, we get the usual film historian and critic suspects, and as usual, not much mention of screenwriters. In fact, there are only two. At 47-minutes in, critic F.X. Feeney mentions in passing that Young Mr. Lincoln was written by Lamar Trotti. The second one, three minutes later comes from, whoa, not an historian, but an…actress. Claire Trevor mentions that Dudley Nichols’s screenplay for Stagecoach didn’t have one wasted word in it. I could argue that point, but for now let it stand. Fellow film historians and critics, if an actor, who has to say the words in the script, recognizes the value of a screenplay, shouldn’t the rest of us?

On the other hand, I know several of the people interviewed and they all have shown appreciation for the work of screenwriters before, so they may well have mentioned some writers and had those comments cut out.

Moonfleet (1955. Screenplay by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts, based on the novel by J. Meade Faulkner. 87 minutes): Treasure Island meets Great Expectations.

I was not going to write about this one, since it is such a dud, but I got to browsing in the second volume of John Houseman’s memoirs, Front & Center. This was one of the films Houseman produced for MGM in the middle of the fifties. It was based on a novel that had been a hit in its day and had been recently reissued. Houseman inherited the project from a producer who had left the studio. He recalls, “When I came to examine the novel I discovered that it was a sparse, rather somber tale of a boy and a gentleman-smuggler operating on the southwest coast of England. The screenplay by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts had sought to liven it up through the injection of a whole slew of eighteenth century clichés: A wild gypsy girl; a jealous, slightly insane mistress; a wicked Lord; a mysterious titled lady in a gilded coach; a Byronic hero-villain who finally sacrifices his life to save the boy’s.” OK, clichés are our friends, as Crash Davis has told us, but here they are just tacked onto a not-very-interesting story. The gypsy shows up at the beginning, gets a nice dance number and then disappears. I kept hoping for the gypsy girl to come back. No such luck.

The director is the humorless Fritz Lang who obviously had no feel for the material. To make matters worse, Houseman and MGM made the picture in CinemaScope. On the soundstages. In Hollywood. With ’Scope, you’d think there would be more than one brief second unit shot of a castle in England.

The Mouse That Roared (1959. Screenplay by Roger MacDougall and Stanley Mann, based on the novel by Leonard Wibberley. 83 minutes): Silly fun, but not much more.

The setup of the Wibberley novel is amusing: The Duchy of Fenwick has its famous wine hurt by the marketing of a similar American wine and decides to declare war on the United States. They assume they will lose and the Americans will be as generous to them as they were to the Germans and the Japanese after World War II. Unfortunately, they win.

This was one of the first pictures to make fun of the Cold War and possible nuclear war, and it deserves recognition for that. It has been overshadowed by the films that followed, especially Dr. Strangelove (1964). Even in its first release, Mouse was criticized for not doing as much with its idea as it could. The jokes tend to be rather obvious, and there is a lot more slapstick than it needs. One of the writers of the film was Roger MacDougall, who had written the play and screenplay based on the play for The Man in the White Suit (1951). That film does everything right that Mouse doesn’t—it is a very sharply observed comedy of attitudes.

There were two reasons that Mouse did well. It made Peter Sellers a star. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that, like Alec Guiness in the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, Sellers would play multiple parts: The Grand Duchess (in makeup and dress similar to the Lady Agatha that Guinness plays), the Prime Minister, and the nominal hero of the film, Tully Bascome, a gamekeeper who leads the invasion army. Sellers does not show the range that Guinness did, but the script does not call for it. Still, he is amusing, and you can see his multiple characterizations for Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove coming. Strangelove does everything Mouse would like to do, but does it with, well, genius.

Ah, the second reason. Never underestimate the importance of getting a comedy going with a great laugh. It disarms the audience and puts you ahead of them. Here the best laugh in the film comes even before the credits. We get the Columbia logo, except the lady with the torch is a real woman. Who picks up her dress, shows her legs, sees a mouse, shrieks and runs off the pedestal.

Drop Dead Diva (2009. “Pilot” written by Josh Berman. “The ’F’ Word” written by Joshn Berman & Carla Kettner. “Do Over” written by Alex Taub. Each episode 60 minutes): Here Comes Mr. Jordan meets All of Me meets Legally Blonde meets Samantha Who? meets…

Yeah, it’s recombinant. And complicated to set up. Which Berman does with considerable economy in the pilot. Deb, a ditzy would-be model, dies in a car accident, but when she gets to the pearly gates, or rather office, she manages to get her soul sent back to Earth. But into the body of a plus-size lawyer named Jane, who was shot at the office. Fred, the bureaucrat at the pearly office, comes down as Jane/Deb’s guardian angel, and he helps explain the ground rules. Deb’s soul is inside Jane’s body, but Jane’s brain retains her legal knowledge. Berman has shrewdly established that Jane was already reading self-help books when she was shot, so Deb’s Elle Woods-Stuart Smalley self-improvement affirmations strike a chord. So, why watch, other than to play spot the reference?

Unlike Samantha Who?, Berman has really thought through what it would be like for Jane/Deb to go through this, and he has written a variety of reactions for her to have. Brooke Elliott, most of whose work has been in theater, is great at channeling both Jane and Deb. Look at the Jane in her lust after doughnuts while the Deb in her resists. Look at Jane’s joy at remembering legal information while at the same time having the Deb part of her head hurt from having to actually, like, you know, think. Elliott is just as good at this as Steve Martin was in All of Me.

The plotting of the pilot gets Jane/Deb involved in a couple of cases that Deb can help out with, and I am not sure how often the writers will be able to go to that well. There is also a running plot of Deb’s grieving boyfriend just having been hired at Jane’s law firm, which may give us some scenes, but if he is the sort of smart guy who likes a skinny airhead, would he be attracted to Jane?

And the show is going to have problems with its sponsors. Jane is a “plain jane” and Deb will undoubtedly give her a makeover of some kind, which should make the cosmetic advertisers happy, but at least one commercial on the premiere was for a weight-loss program. Isn’t that slapping your star in the face? And will Elliott manage to avoid having to become anorexic? I hope so. There are too many skinny women on television already. Although I have to tell you that Stacy, one of Deb’s friends, is played by April Bowlby, who was spectacular as Alan’s girlfriend Kandi on Two and a Half Men. She is very thin, but I don’t mind because she can be very funny. She and Elliott did not get much going in the pilot, but the two of them are reason to keep looking in on the show.

“The ’F’ Word” seemed to backslide a little bit from the pilot. Stacy is already working on a plan to have Jane slim down and the new Jane is already wearing more makeup than the old Jane did. And nobody seems to have noticed. The legal cases are not that interesting, and to top it off, the writers end the episode with Jane and Fred talking over one of the cases…out on the balcony. Come on, folks, I know three or four months is forever in television, but some of us still remember Alan and Denny Crane and their balcony.

“Do Over” is a little better. Taub is giving Elliott and Bowlby the right kind of lines to get a little comic rhythm going. I am not sure having Stacy, a would-be actress, play a business woman to put a person Jane is suing on the defensive is really convincing, since it seems to be Bowlby playing the businesswoman, not Stacy. The structure is still two legal stories per episode, but in this one they gave the wrong one to Jane. She should have had the one about the shrink who “killed off” the wrong multiple personality, since that would have resonated with Jane more than the story she got. And haven’t any of the writers ever seen any of Shakespeare’s comedies? Surely Deb’s ex-boyfriend Grayson could have the same kind of confusion with Jane/Deb that the heroes in Will’s plays have when they are confronted with beautiful women pretending to be men.

Disneyland, Summer 2009: Spare parts.

My daughter and I took my grandson to Disneyland and California Adventure the other day, and the contrast between the old Disneyland and the new Disneyland/California Adventure was more striking than ever.

Walt Disney himself was never much interested in the present. Main Street is not Main Street Los Angeles 1955 but turn-of-the century small town America. Frontierland is the past. And both of those are the past seen as nostalgia rather than history. Nostalgia sells, history doesn’t. And Tomorrowland looked to the future. One of the reasons that California Adventure, the park across the plaza from Disneyland has never worked very well, either artistically or commercially, is that it has never had the magic of the original park.

One of Walt Disney’s great skills was his ability to focus on story, as we have discussed before in relation to John Lasseter and Pixar. That focus is a part of the original rides in the park. The Peter Pan flight over London in Fantasyland takes you on a trip. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride takes you into the bayous of south Florida, then past the caves, the castle, the pillaging and burning of Port Royal, the pirates in jail, and finally back into the “real” world. (Kudos to the folks who did the remodeling of Pirates; they have not laid on stuff from the movie too heavily. The captain of the ship opposite the castle is now Barbossa, but Captain Jack Sparrow is almost hidden in his first two appearances. He shows up full form at the end of the ride, and the audio-animatronic people have outdone themselves in capturing the nuances of Johnny Depp’s performance.) The Indiana Jones Adventure is very much in the tradition of the storytelling rides. The best of the California Adventure rides, like the Grizzly River Run (a white water rapids ride) and Soarin’ Over California, take us on a trip, but the other attractions are more conventional. They, and the original idea of the park, are too closely aligned with reality to work in the Disney context.

The big show this summer at Disneyland is Fantasmic, a sound-and-light spectacle at the Rivers of America in front of New Orleans square. Unfortunately, in its taking up of Walt’s interest in technology, there is more sound and light then there is narrative form. We get songs, water plumes, dancers, fire, a group of actors doing Peter Pan shtick on the sailing ship Columbia, fireworks and probably more things I cannot remember. I think, but cannot be sure, that it is about Mickey outdoing an evil queen. My daughter said the show included everything my 17-year-old granddaughter hates about Disney: The misogyny of evil queens and surrealism. In between the plumes of water and the fireworks, there are images projected against a curtain of smoke. Some of them are identifiable to Disney fans. When Mickey first comes on, we get bits and pieces of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia. Later we get similar bits and pieces from one of my favorite pieces of Disney surrealism, the Pink Elephants on Parade from Dumbo. But since they are all projected into smoke, you cannot see them very well. I realize the studio owns the material, but I am sure if anybody else wanted to use the material in this way, the studio would say no. It seemed to me to be nothing more than cannibalizing the past for spare parts, expecting us to be nostalgic about them. He said, tugging at his Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

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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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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