Coming up in this column: The Young Victoria, The Last Station, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller (book), Libeled Lady, Return to Cranford, The Good Wife, Some January 2010 Television, but first:
Fan mail: Nobody’s logged in yet, so we will get right to the main events.
The Young Victoria (2009. Written by Julian Fellowes. 105 minutes)
We are not all that amused: It sounds like a great idea: the love story of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Although we are most used to the stuffy dowager that Victoria became in her old age (see The Mudlark  for the genteel view), she obviously had some passion and intensity (see Mrs. Brown  for the livelier view). We haven’t, however, had much of the younger Victoria. The Brits tried in the 1937 film Victoria the Great, but as Leonard Maltin notes in his movie guides, it is rather “stodgy.” The current film is not particularly stodgy, but it is rather flat and literal. Fellowes, who wrote Gosford Park (2001) and is an actor, just simply has not dug deeply enough to make the characters come alive. Given his experience as an actor, and given the characters he created for Gosford Park, this is a real surprise.
Here is a scene that gives a good example of the problems in the script. Fellowes establishes early on that since Victoria is the queen, she has to be the one to ask Albert to marry her. It is also established that Albert knows this. So naturally we are expecting a proposal scene. We have those setup lines, but later in the film Fellowes jumps into the scene without any other preparation. We do not see her getting ready to meet Albert to propose. We get no sense of any concern on her part that he might say no. Yes, she knows he loves her, but my God, what if he really doesn’t? As a queen, what is she going to do if he doesn’t say yes? What about him? When does he realize what she is going to ask? In the film he sort of gets it from the beginning, but what if she hit him with this on an off-day? He’s a nice guy, but what if he had been distracted? Or what if he gets it while she’s just warming up and plays with her a little bit. As it stands, she asks, he says yes, they hug, end of scene. Many other scenes in the film have the same problem.
Fellowes may have fallen into the trap many screenwriters do of assuming that because the people and events are real, they do not need to be dramatized. Not true. The screenwriter has to make them come alive by giving them depth and texture. We get snippets of it in Fellowes’s script, particularly in the character of Lord Melbourne, Victoria’s first prime minister. King William is given some texture, but not much depth, and his widow Queen Adelaide is given a good scene or two with Victoria, but most of the others are one-note.
One of the early promoters of the film was Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and you would think with her on board as a producer, the script would have been a lot livelier than it is. Where is some good old-fashioned toe-sucking when you need it?
The Last Station (2009. Screenplay by Michael Hoffman, based on the novel by Jay Parini. 112 minutes)
Stop the presses! Helen Mirren gives a not-so-perfect performance: Parini’s novel is a tricky one to adapt. It tells about the last days of Leo Tolstoy using three narrators. Hoffman decided to focus on one of them, Valentin, who is sent to be Tolstoy’s secretary by Chertkov, the head of the Tolstoyan movement. Valentin is a young, celibate believer in the movement, and Chertkov wants him to keep an eye on things at the Tolstoy estate, especially Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya. Chertkov is trying to persuade Tolstoy to change his will, leaving the copyrights to his work to the Russian people. Sofya is determined to keep them in the family. So Valentin is our “access character” who takes us into the Tolstoy compound.
As Hoffman writes and directs him, we get a closely detailed look at Valentin and his reactions to his experiences, at least in the beginning of the film. As we spend more and more time with the Tolstoys, Hoffman loses the focus a bit on Valentin. Hoffman makes Tolstoy himself a rich character, and Christopher Plummer gets all the nuances. Sofya unfortunately is a one-note character. She is either yelling at Tolstoy about his will or trying to seduce him. Hoffman does not provide the nuances for her. So Helen Mirren is going full blast through the entire film. Not surprisingly, she told Hoffman, “This is one of only two scripts I’ve ever read that I didn’t want to change anything.” Hoffman, talking to Peter Debruge in the January-February 2010 Creative Screenwriting, said that when he suggested changes in the script, Mirren talked him out of them. Well, if Helen Mirren tells you she wants to say your words exactly as you originally wrote them, would you object? Sometimes, however, writers and directors have to be tough bastards to make the film work. Chertkov is also a one-note character, and while Paul Giamatti gets as much out of his waxed moustache as Joe Pesci did with that hairpiece in JFK (1991), he gets tiresome as well. The film gets very repetitive and slow. My wife dozed off a couple of times in the film, but did not really feel she missed anything. There is probably a good ninety-minute film in the material.
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (2008. Screenplay by Tennessee Williams. 102 minutes)
Too bad Tenn is not around for a rewrite: When director Jodie Markell was studying acting in New York, a teacher showed her a copy of the screenplay Tennessee Williams had written in 1957. Markell became enchanted with it, and eventually got a producer to obtain the rights for her first film. The script is not awful, unless you have no taste for Williams’s Southern Gothic approach, but it clearly needed some revision. Markell made some minor changes, but not enough.
Fisher Willow is the daughter of a big landowner in the South in the 1920s. Off-screen in the script, but on-screen in the film, the landowner dynamites a levee to provide water for his land, and people are drowned. Since the film is very low budget, Markell should have left it off-screen, or done it in a much more expressionist way. It does not get the film off to a good start. As a result of the deaths, Fisher is shunned by polite society, but she is determined to be part of the debutante season. Well, sure, she is a Southern lady, and of course she wants that. But on the other hand, she is also a handful, sharp-tongued, always looking to cause trouble. She is older than the other debutante girls, she’s been to college and to Europe, and she spent time in a mental hospital in Europe. Williams does seem to be piling on the troubles here, but we get a sense of the two sides pushing and pulling on Fisher: She wants to be part of society, but she knows, unlike the other girls, that there is more to life than the closed-off Southern society. Since none of the regular boys will be her date for the parties, she asks Jimmy Dobyne to be her date. He is the grandson of a former governor, but his father is an alcoholic who runs the commissary on Fisher’s father’s property. Jimmy is a nice-looking guy who helps his dad out. That’s it. That’s all there is to Jimmy. He has no point of view of his own, no sense of irony, no sense of humor, no nothing. While Bryce Dallas Howard acts up a storm as Fisher, Chris Evans just stands there as Jimmy. It is like Blance Dubois without a Stanley, Maggie the Cat without a Brick, or Alexandra Del Lago without a Chance. What Markell needed to do was either rewrite Jimmy at least a little, or direct Evans better to give him more to do. At least let him crack a smile.
The dialogue is distinctly Williams. A lot of it is excessive, as often happens with Williams, but some of it is not so bad. His plotting, never his strong suit, is not that bad, although there are a couple of major holes when Fisher and Jimmy get to the main party in the film. Williams creates an ex-girlfriend for Jimmy, whose behavior gets weird at times, although she is one of Williams’s realists in her understanding of the way the world works. Williams also brings in the aunt of the woman throwing the party, which gives Ellen Burstyn a nice cameo. The best in the cast is Ann-Margaret as Fisher’s aunt. She shows a restraint that Williams’s writing does not always encourage, to put it politely. Ann-Margaret realizes that sometimes you can be more effective playing against the lines rather than with them. Bryce Dallas Howard should take lessons from the original Kitten with a Whip.
Horton Foote: America’S Storyteller (2009. Book by Wilborn Hampton. 292 pages)
Not what we were hoping for: Longtime readers of this column may remember the piece I did in US#21 on Horton Foote after he died last year. I admire him very much as a writer, even if the interview I did with him back in 1990 did not go well. So I was looking forward to this new biography. Hampton is one of the theater critics of the New York Times, as well as a long time journalist. He knew Foote and talked to him over the last several years of his life. Alas, that is pretty much the extent of his research. He did read both of Foote’s memoirs, but lists only four other books in his bibliography. He interviewed only five people, other than Foote’s family, who knew or worked with Foote. Talk about skimpy.
Hampton captures the gentleman side of Foote very well, but misses anything else about him. Hampton mentions at one point that Foote’s future wife Lillian was watching him direct a play and saw a side of Foote she had never seen before. Fine, but Hampton gives us no idea what the other side was. My guess is that it was the toughness I mentioned in my US piece. Later, Hampton mentions a situation in which Foote might lose his temper, but it is the only mention anywhere in the book that Foote might have had a temper.
Hampton also takes Foote at his word, particularly when Foote is talking about those he worked with. Foote was a gentleman and did not tell tales out of school, even when I am sure he knew better. Hampton appears to have very little knowledge of the film business. He believes Foote as taking Sam Spiegel at his word that it was the studio’s and not Spiegel’s fault that Lillian Hellman got hired to write the screenplay based on the Foote play and novel The Chase (1966). Foote understood human beings too well to believe a master manipulator like Spiegel for a second, but Hampton does not seem to understand that.
The big theme that Hampton misses almost entirely is what Foote’s career tells us about the changes in American television, film, and especially theater over the last seventy years. When Foote started writing stage plays in the late ‘30s, he of course wanted them to succeed on Broadway, as every playwright at the time did. What he discovered over the years was that as Broadway was more and more hostile to serious plays, there were other, better outlets for his work. His work for live television in the early ‘50s (“A Trip to Bountiful,” “A Young Lady of Property”) was well-suited to the intimacy of television, and, in the case of A Trip to Bountiful, a low-budget indie film in 1985. The same is true of his film work, notably the 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird and his 1983 original screenplay Tender Mercies, both of which won him Oscars. Hampton mentions, but does not seem to understand, the significance of the fact that many stage directors in the ‘80s first became aware of Foote’s work through his films. And those directors were not Broadway directors but regional theater and later Off-Broadway directors. By the last decades of Foote’s life, American theater had changed, and the regional theater movement, which was a mere sprig in Foote’s youth, had become enormously influential. It was the regional theater productions of Foote’s plays that eventually brought his work back to New York, which finally won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with The Young Man From Atlanta in 1995. The East Coast intellectual establishment was finally catching up with what was going on in America: its kinds of distinctions between the High Art of Broadway and the trivialities of film and regional theater had broken down completely. Hampton makes a point at the end of the book that Foote was not as well known as such playwrights as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams because he did not have the kind of flamboyant personal life they did. Hampton is wrong. Foote was not as well known because he never had a major hit on Broadway, which for years defined in the East Coast intellectual establishment’s mind as to who was a major playwright. The intimacy of his writing was much more suited to live television, independent films, and regional and Off-Broadway theater than it was to the land of Wicked.
Libeled Lady (1936. Screenplay by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, story by Wallace Sullivan. 98 minutes)
Disagreeing with Leonard: Leonard Maltin lists this one as four stars, his highest rating, but I would only give it two-and-a-half or maybe three. Yes, it is an MGM starfest, with Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow, but they are not particularly well-served by the screenplay. Maurine Watkins wrote they play Chicago, which became the 1927 movie under that title, then the 1942 movie Roxie Hart, then the basis for the Broadway musical which was made into the 2002 film, so this was a writer who knew her way around newspaper comedies. Howard Emmett Rogers was a journeyman screenwriter whose name pops up on a variety of MGM films. According to the IMDb, he did the uncredited dialogue for the 1934 Jean Harlow film The Girl From Missouri (although the screenplay was co-written by Anita Loos, who hardly needed help on dialogue) and wrote the screenplay for the 1935 Myrna Loy-Spencer Tracy vehicle, Whipsaw. Rogers is best known in Hollywood history as being one of the most conservative screenwriters during the Red Scare. On the other hand, he also pointed out the hypocrisy of the left when they suddenly defended Hitler after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. George Oppenheimer’s credits are a little more impressive, since he wrote for everybody from the Marx Brothers to Errol Flynn. Wallace Sullivan’s credits are mostly stories and “contributor.” Keep in mind the writing credits for this film pre-date the current Writers Guild arbitration process and were decided on by the studio, in this case MGM, which was notorious for giving credit to the last writers who worked on the script more than the earlier writers.
The setup is that a newspaper has inadvertently run a story claiming socialite Connie Allenbury has helped break up a marriage. The story was dropped from later editions, but Connie’s father has been looking to get the newspaper for years. Haggerty, the editor, comes up with a scheme to have Bill Chandler, who is good at this stuff, expose Connie, thereby wrecking the libel case. Haggerty’s idea is that Chandler will marry, in name only, Haggerty’s fiancée Gladys, then accompany Connie back to the States from London. While on board the ship, Chandler will arrange to make it appear that Connie is carrying on with him, a married man. OK, plenty of ‘30s screwball newspaper comedies have plots that are just as ridiculous, but they usually have more narrative drive than this one. This script is constructed in a typical MGM way: The focus is less on the story and more on creating scenes for the stars. So the scenes with Connie (Loy) and Chandler (Powell) are charming and the best thing in the picture. I do not need at this point in time to discuss the chemistry Loy and Powell had, but it is on display here, and I might add that Loy was one of those actors like Cary Grant who had good chemistry with nearly everybody she worked with.
One problem is that the story goes on and on after they get back to New York, as though the writers kept trying to come up with further complications. By the end of the film the situation is so tangled that the final scene ends with everybody laughing and agreeing to fix things without any indication of how they are going to do it. Another problem is that the dialogue is not nearly a patch on the great dialogue that Riskin wrote for the Capra films, or that Hecht, MacArthur and Lederer came up with for the 1940 classic His Girl Friday. This is a particular problem for Harlow as Gladys. She is playing her usual wisecracking dame, but with very few good wisecracks. She really needed Loos or John Lee Mahin or the combination of George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and Donald Ogden Stewart on Dinner at Eight (1933). Of course it also helped that the latter had George Cukor as director, while Jack Conway, the director here, is content to set up two-shots of the actors nose-to-nose yelling at each other.
Return to Cranford (2009. Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, written by Heidi Thomas, based on novels, short stories and essays by Elizabeth Gaskell. 180 minutes)
If you have to go back to Victorian England, this is the way to do it: A couple of years ago, PBS had a big hit with the BBC miniseries Cranford, a look at life in an English village in the 1840s. It was originally a huge hit in England as well, and the BBC commissioned the producers to do a sequel. See, it is not just Hollywood and the Transformers. So in January we had Return to Cranford, which was not an easy piece to write, as the original had also not been. Gaskell, who was a contemporary of the Brontes, wrote lovingly about the village she grew up in, but let us just say that narrative drive was not her strong suit. The material started out as stories in Charles Dickens’s magazine Household Words. They were so popular that Dickens ordered more, leading Gaskell to say, “If I knew I was going to write more of them, I wouldn’t have started to kill people off.” The problem the filmmakers faced was how to tie all the details into a narrative. As Birtwistle said, “We left two storylines from Cranford (the novel) out of the original series, so we did have some original material to go back to for this. We joined it together with another novellas [sic] and a short story she wrote about Cranford. We did the same process as the first with interweaving all the stories.” (The background for the film comes from a review by Mary McNamara and an article by Susan King in the Los Angeles Times.)
In the first miniseries, Matty Jenkyns’s sister Deborah died, and the new one picks up two years later. The main overall arc that Thomas uses is the coming of the railroad to Cranford. It is not the joyful occasion it is in so many American films. The ladies of the town, including Matty, are not at all happy about the possible disruption of the life of the village. So far, Lady Ludlow has refused to sell her land to the railroad, but when she dies, her son Septimus, who has been off spending the family fortune in Italy, comes back to sell the land. Another running story is the death of Martha, a friend of Matty’s, and Martha’s widower Jim, who now takes care of their baby. It is Jim’s decision to leave Cranford, since he thinks it will not grow without the railroad. That persuades Matty the railroad might be a good thing. The finale of the first of two parts is a trip on the train that Matty persuades the ladies of the town to take. Look at the reactions that Thomas has given the ladies. In part two, we get a romance between William Buxton, the son of one of the most important men in the village, and a lower class girl, Peggy. Mr. Buxton does not approve. Peggy is also dealing with her brother, who has stolen money from the railroad. Another storyline involves a teenaged boy who has been sent off to school by the financial arrangements of one of the townspeople. All those stories come together in a scene of a train wreck. In spite of that, the village accepts the railroad, and Matty uses her money to reopen the town assembly hall as a way to promote the idea of community.
As I mentioned in the item on The Young Victoria, Fellowes simply does not give his Victorians depth and texture. Thomas does. The characterizations of the townspeople, especially the ladies, are wonderful and varied. When one of them reacts to something, it is not just a general reaction, but a specific reaction that this character would have. Yes, it helps that they have Judi Dench as Matty, but it helps even more than they have given her a lot to do.
The Good Wife (2010. “Painkiller” episode written by Corinne Brinkerhoff. 60 minutes)
Firing on all cylinders: As I have mentioned before (US#34 and #35), I think this series is the best new show of the season. It started off very well, introducing us over several episodes to a variety of characters as well as stories. There have been the stand-alone cases each week, but also the continuing complexities of Alicia’s dealing with her imprisoned husband Pete. Now that all of that is set up, the writers are using it in interesting ways. This episode is a prime example of that.
Alicia is interviewing Molly, a potential nanny for the kids. We and Alicia like her, but Alicia’s mother-in-law doesn’t. Well, we know both Alicia and the mother-in-law, and Alicia is more likely to be right. Right? Nope. By the end of the episode it is clear that Molly is spectacularly unsuited to be a nanny, particularly for Alicia’s kids.
Alicia is called to a hospital, where a high school quarterback has died, likely of an overdose. Alicia’s firm is representing the hospital and the doctor, so Alicia has to tell the doctor not to talk to the boy’s family, even to offer his sympathies. While we can see the reasons for that, many lawsuits could have been avoided if someone in that situation had just spoken sympathetically to the family. Meanwhile, Kalinda is photographing every detail in the ER room. Ghoulish, but necessary from the law firm’s point of view. What other law series have you seen that gives you this kind of realistic detail?
When the hospital learns the doctor actually prescribed medications from his house rather than the hospital, the hospital drops their support of him. He wants Alicia to continue on the case. The firm, which represents the hospital, which pays them a lot, does not want Alicia to do it, but reluctantly lets her. Alicia talks to the quarterback’s mom, who is also a single mother raising kids on her own.
In the Peter story, Kalinda goes to see Peter in prison. She was fired by him once, but she is telling him that Childs, the current states attorney and the one who got Peter in trouble, wants her to report to Childs any inside info she has on Peter. Peter knows that Childs had wiretapped his home phone, so he asks Kalinda to agree to work for Childs to find out what is on the tapes. Now is Kalinda really working for Peter? Or is she doublecrossing him and working for Childs? We don’t know yet (other than in movie logic terms; Kalinda is one of the breakout characters in the show so the showrunners are not about to get rid of her).
Remember the sympathetic quarterback’s mom? Well, she is the one who got the high dose pills that killed her son. She got them from a dealer at the gym where she and her son worked out. He borrowed her pills. Obviously the case gets dropped.
Some January 2010 Television
Other things to watch while Jay and Conan duked it out: Desperate Housewives seems to be getting a little more serious than it has been in the past, at least if the episode “How About a Friendly Shrink?” (written by Jason Ganzel) is any indication. The episode begins with Katherine talking to a shrink in the hospital she is in. She is seriously re-examining her life and actions. She seems concerned about the truth, which seems awfully unlike the Katherine we have come to know. I kept expecting to find out she was pulling the shrink’s leg, but she was not. Later Lynette goes to talk to the therapist Tom is seeing, and she starts unburdening herself to her. Look, guys, if everybody on the show is going to go into therapy, take it seriously and come out all better, YOU DO NOT HAVE A SHOW. Maybe I need not have worried. In the next week’s episode, “The Glamorous Life” (written by David Flebotte) the snark was back. The therapist Tom and Lynette were seeing turned out to be a terrible actress in a community theater production, and when they told her she was bad, she kicked them out of therapy. That’s the Desperate Housewives we know and love.
Two and a Half Men’s “Yay, No Polyps” episode (story by Lee Aronsohn & Chuck Lorre, teleplay by Don Foster & Jim Patterson & Mark Roberts) got the usual gross-out jokes you would expect from Charlie getting a colonoscopy. The writers nicely handled the need to take laxatives the day before, but there was more going on than that. He told Chelsea that he had scheduled the colonoscopy so she would not drag him off to visit her parents in the Midwest. She made him go through with it, and drove him to the office for the procedure. Very often Chelsea has not seemed to see through Charlie’s schemes, but this one she did. As he is going in for the procedure, she tells him she has invited her parents to visit them instead. We have met her mother before, who is a bigot. We meet her father, Nate, this time, and he is a very macho type, nicely played by Stacy Keach, Mike Hammer his ownself. Nate takes Charlie and Alan out to a bar for drinks, and it becomes clear as the scene in the bar progresses that the dad is not quite as straight as we thought. He notices a gay couple kissing, but does not seem particularly upset. Then he gets to talking about his buddy from his submarine days in the Navy. In the tag at the end, we hear Nate and his wife arguing and Charlie takes Nate to the hotel, where Charlie meets the Navy buddy. He recounts all this to Chelsea, and then lays the kicker on her: The Navy buddy is black. The blackout line is Charlie asking Chelsea, “Can I be the one to tell your mother?”
White Collar came back with new episodes and ran into a problem shows often do when they come up with a cliffhanger/twist at the end of a season or half-season. The twist was that Pete, the F.B.I. agent running Neal, the con man, was the man that Neal’s ex-girl friend had been dealing with. With the new episodes, this makes Pete a little darker and more serious than he has been, which threw off the balance of the show and made Tim DeKay’s performance a little straighter than it had been. It took them a couple of episodes to make clear that Pete is not “the man” who is running Kate, but is someone trying to find out who “the man” is. And that in turn got DeKay back into his more entertaining grove.
Burn Notice came back with an interesting opener (“A Dark Road,” written by Matt Nix). Yes, Michael is now looking for the guy who killed Diego, the contact that might get him in, and in later episodes he finds him. In the opening, in the “do-gooder” story, Michael had to send Madeline, his mom, to worm her way into the confidence of a clerk at the hall of records to get some, well, records. Nice to see a little more of Maddy. Even nicer that the clerk was played by Tyne Daly. You may be old enough to remember that Sharon Gless, who plays Maddy, and Tyne Daly co-starred in the ‘80s woman cop series Cagney and Lacey. What was nice about this episode was that neither one of them were playing a variation on Cagney or Lacey. Gless and Daly were just a couple of old actor friends playing together and having a good time. That shows some restraint on Nix’s part as both writer and showrunner.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand’s “Pilot,” written by Steven S. DeKnight, certainly lived up to the blood part of its subtitle. There was some, but not much, sand, but mostly there was a lot of slo-mo bloodletting. The inspiration was less the film Spartacus (1960) than Gladiator (2000) (complete with battle in the forest) and 300 (Lots of CGI backgrounds). Since this was basic cable, the home, as my daughter put it years ago, of “nipples and commercials,” we also got a lot of nudity, both male and female. Joel Silver, the producer of action movies, insists that there be a “wowee,” or action scene, every 10 minutes in his films. Here the wowee was the nudity, and the hype for the series was that eventually we will see Xena’s bare breasts, since Lucy Lawless is one of the stars. Men and women of varying persuasions may be delighted about that. While I don’t mind nudity, I would have preferred a little less borrowing in the script.
30 Rock brought back Nancy, but have not yet done that much with her. Still, the chemistry between Baldwin and Moore has been well served by the scripts.
Life Unexpected has been described at “Juno meets Gilmore Girls,” but so far it is not up to either one. The “Pilot” episode (written by Liz Tigelaar) sets up that Lux, a fifteen-year-old who has bounced around a variety of foster homes, is looking to get emancipated. Because of a paperwork foul-up (how convenient, but as Johnny Carson used to say, you buy the premise, you buy the bit), she has to track down her birth mother and father to get them to sign her form. As luck would have it (you buy the premise…), both are still in town (Portland). She finds her dad, Baze, first, and he lives over a bar and hangs out with other arrested adolescent males, including the token nerd and the token black guy. He thought that Cate, the woman he got pregnant the night of the senior prom in high school, had an abortion. Cate is a radio talkshow host whom, it turns out, Lux listens to all the time. Cate’s radio personality is that of a single woman who has dating problems, but her on-air partner Ryan is also her off-the-air partner. In this episode, Lux is sort of a smart-mouthed kid, although not in the same league as Juno, but by the second episode “House Inspected” (also written by Tigelaar) she had become more of a typical sensitive teenager, which is not nearly as much fun. Cate is much more professional than Baze, and the scene at the end of the pilot where she falls back into bed with him was totally unconvincing. Oh, yes, one other thing. None of them talk as fast as Rory and Lorelai. They and the show may get up to speed…
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.
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man
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.
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.