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Understanding Screenwriting #52: Inception, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Story of Louis Pasteur, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #52: Inception, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Story of Louis Pasteur, & More

Coming up in this column: Inception, The Girl Who Played with Fire, City Island, The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein opened up the whole can of worms, as is David’s wont, this time about famous script doctors that I will get around to dealing with when I write about a film that brings it up. He mentions particularly Robert Towne’s contributions to Bonnie and Clyde. Towne himself tends to downplay his work on that film, and my friend Elaine Lennon, who did her doctoral dissertation on Towne, tends to agree with Towne. At least on that issue.

Inception (2010. Written by Christopher Nolan. 148 minutes.)

Chris, meet Fred and Alain. Fred and Alain, meet Chris: I was a little surprised to read the Monday after Inception opened that the post-50 year old crowd liked the film least of all the demographics. With all the concerns going in about whether audiences would be able to keep up with the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream storytelling, I figured an age group that began their filmgoing careers with the films of Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais would have no trouble following the film. In 8 ½ (1963) Fellini is a master at jumping from reality to dreams to the past to conditional tenses without ever losing the audience. The viewers always think they know where they are, at least until Fellini pulls the rug out from under them. And in Providence (1977), Resnais and screenwriter David Mercer whip up an extraordinarily evocative and emotionally moving game involving dreams and reality, so much so that the film has a totally different feeling and meaning the second time you see it. One of these days I will have to see it for a third time and see what it turns into then.

What may have happened with my age cohorts is that they know Fellini and Resnais too well and were therefore not as dazzled as the younger generation. What may also have happened is that they found those earlier films more emotionally satisfying than Inception. For all their playing around with the medium, Fellini and Resnais base their films in the emotional reality of the characters and use their assorted cinematic devices to get into their characters. According to Jeff Goldsmith’s excellent article “The Architect of Dreams” in the July/August 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting, Nolan was very aware of the problem, and as the story evolved over the years he tried to get deeper into the emotional elements of the story. The problem is that he did not, certainly not on the level of Fellini and Resnais. There are scenes, particularly in the second half of the film with Cobb and his wife Mal as well as those with the senior and junior Fischers that should move us more than they do. Unfortunately they have not been emotionally prepared for. The Fischers are pretty much generic warring father and son, and Mal is an emotional enigma, even after we learn sort of what she is up to.

Nolan had the original inspiration for the film when he was 16. If there is any general rule the Matrix films (1999-2003) and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) should have taught studios, it is never EVER let directors make films they first thought up when they were in their teens. Inception is not as stupid as those movies because Nolan has at least tried to develop the characters, but he has been unable to balance the concept of the film and the characters. Over the last eighty-some years since Un Chien Andalou (1929), surrealism has been domesticated in films and television, and Nolan is aware that he can take the audience anywhere. He is also aware that because movies can go anywhere, there had better be a reason why we are going there. He does make that clear, like Fellini on a good day, and the film is relatively easy to follow if you are paying attention. Nolan does a very good job at keeping the levels of dream and reality clear, but those levels are often mechanical and not as emotionally evocative as they could be. When Cobb goes into the deepest level to find Mal, we get a world he and Mal constructed. It is visually imaginative, but emotionally rather generic. The places they lived in obviously have meaning for him and for her, but not so much for us, since we don’t know what specifically they mean to Cobb and Mal. Getting across what something means to the characters is one of the most difficult things a screenwriter has to do because you have to figure out how to show it. That usually involves a lot of setting up, which Nolan foregoes here to deal with the mechanics of the invading of dreams.

Another problem of letting directors make movies they first thought up when they were in their teens, especially science fiction ones, is that the movies tend to be completely humorless. There are one or two hints of what might be jokes in Inception. I particularly liked the one about rain showing up in a dream because one character forgot to pee before they started, but Nolan is almost as humorless a director as Scorsese and Lang (see US#43 for details on those guys). Leonardo DiCaprio used to bring a certain humor to his roles, as in Titanic (1997) and Catch Me If You Can (2002), but lately he has begun to fall into the Harrison Ford/Kevin Costner/Denzel Washington trap of wearing a mantle of great seriousness he assumes becomes a star of his stature. See below for a classic early example of the problem. DiCaprio’s ponderousness makes his Cobb less interesting than he could be. Ellen Page, as the architect of the dreams, has a couple of reaction shots that suggest she sees some humor in here, but they are only in the early part of the film. Chris, would it kill you to put in a couple of yuks? Fred and Alain did.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009. Screenplay by Jonas Frykberg, based on the novel by Steig Larsson. 129 minutes.)

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The last hour of Gone with the Wind: You may remember from US#47 that my wife managed to hobble out to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before the fracture in her leg was diagnosed. She is now well on the road to recovery and walked well enough to get out to see this film recently, the second of the Lizbeth Salander movies. Unfortunately this one, with a different screenwriter than the first, is not a patch on Dragon.

I loved that Dragon moved at a lickety-split pace; this one drags badly. We are over half an hour into it before we get a connection between the story Blomkvist is working on (well, he’s not the one working on; a couple of freelancers are) and Lizbeth. Part of what made Dragon compelling on screen was the relationship between Blomkvist and Lizbeth, but in this film there are only together briefly in the final scene. This can work in a novel where the author can use all kinds of literary devices to make us feel the connection, but on screen we want to see them together. Blomkvist mooning over emails she sends is not the same as having them go at each other, in all senses, in front of our eyes.

Lizbeth here is not the bizarre Lizbeth we all know and love from the first one. Yes, she still has the tattoo, and a couple of nose rings, but other than that, she seems almost…normal. And who the hell wants a normal Lizbeth? This film also totally misses the social context of the first one. I mentioned in writing about Dragon that I thought it would be hard to do an American version since the central story of the Vanger family was so embedded in Swedish culture and history. That’s not true here. Yes, the chief villain was a Russian defector several years ago, but that has very little to do with the rest of the story. He could have been just any badass. I mentioned in writing about The Secret in Their Eyes that the filmmakers were very aware that they were making a movie, and not just an episode of a TV show. The criminal story here could easily have come out of Law & Order: SVU and in fact I seem to remember an episode of that show that dealt with a similar storyline. Yes, this film does tie it together with Lizbeth’s story, and we got a lot more backstory on Lizbeth than we did in the first one, but I am not sure that backstory tells us that much more than we already know. This whole film reminded me of the last hour of Gone with the Wind. In the first three hours, you get the pre-Civil War South, then the war, then the Reconstruction. In the last hour you have lost all that social context and end up with a lot of interior scenes of everybody dealing with their personal problems, which frankly, my dears, are not that interesting.

I particularly liked how the screenwriters of Dragon created, or picked up from the book, a wonderful gallery of supporting characters, particularly the Vanger family. Frykberg doesn’t do that here. The two reporters (well, one’s a sociologist) who bring the story to Blomkvist and Millennium are bland. The cops investigating the murders are standard issue. Neidermann is mostly reminiscent of Robert Shaw’s Grant in From Russia With Love (1963). Zala, the superbaddy, is like every other superbaddy you have ever seen, except his looks. He is supposed to be seventy, but his face is also supposed to be burned. He is played by a much younger actor with a makeup job that does not make him look anywhere close to seventy, even with the scars.

When a film goes wrong, especially if a sluggish pace is part of the problem, a viewer has the time and inclination to pick up on bits that don’t make sense. Here are four that bothered me: Lizbeth has a flashback of seeing Neidermann somewhere, but where did she see him before? Neither my wife nor I could figure it out. My wife thinks it was in a scene that was in the book but not in the film. Secondly, it is WAY too convenient that Lizbeth accidentally leaves her keys at the hospital when she visits Miriam. Third, how does Blomkvist know where Lizbeth is headed at the end? My wife’s mother was Swedish, so my wife realized that the one location Lizbeth finds is close to one the reporters find and tell Blomkvist about, but unless you know Swedish geography, you’re lost. Fourth, at the end, what happened to Neidermann? My wife says that in the book he thinks he sees a ghost and runs away. We get nothing that tells us that in the film. Let’s hope the third one in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009), which will be released here in the fall, is more like Dragon and less like Fire. On the other hand, it is also co-written by Frykberg, so don’t get your hopes up.

City Island (2009. Written by Raymond De Felitta. 104 minutes.)

City Island

Boy, are marketing people really, truly pissed about this movie: Suppose one of my screenwriting students came in and pitched an idea for a film. It’s about a family, and every member has a secret or two he or she is hiding from the other members of the family. Vince, the dad, is a prison guard who wants to be an actor. Joyce, the wife, has told everybody she’s given up smoking but hasn’t. Vivian, the daughter, has not told the family she lost her scholarship and is now earning money as a stripper to be able to go back to college. Vince Jr., the son, watches porn on his computer. What would my reaction to the student’s pitch be? It sounds too schematic and mechanical. Everybody’s got a secret? Can you juggle all those and bring them all to a satisfactory conclusion? Well, De Felitta managed it. And to throw in another secret, which helps unveil all the others, Vince brings a prisoner, Tony, from his job to stay in the family home without telling the family that he is the son he had before he met Joyce.

De Felitta makes it all go. How? First, he makes the characters interesting beyond just their secrets. Look at the character details in the first family dinner. We also know the characters want things, not just to hide their secrets. Vince Jr. is not watching the usual kind of porn, and that leads to a relationship with a neighbor that turns out differently than we figured it would. Vince wants to be an actor, but he has very little confidence in his abilities. He is encouraged by Molly, his scene partner. The theme of secrets is carried through when their acting coach, Malakov, assigns the class an improv involving telling their partners their deepest secrets. De Felitta manages the neat trick of writing the Vince-Molly relationship so that we believe it is not a romantic one.

De Felitta then paces the script well, so that the secrets are revealed as we go along, not just in one rush at the end, although he has enough left for a big finish. He also helps his script by letting us know what the secrets are, so when somebody jumps to the wrong conclusion, we anticipate lively scenes when they discover the truth. De Felitta also makes elements serve more than one purpose. We think Vince Jr. is just being a dork when he talks to a pleasingly plump girl he knows and manages to piss off, but the girl shows up again by the end of the film. Tony “performs” the speech he used in prison to get guys to back off for Vince, and Vince uses it as part of an improv at an audition. And Malakov shows up outside the class in a way that is both funny and sad.

This is a small indie film, but as my mantra goes, you write good parts, you get good actors. Julianna “The Face” Margulies is wonderful, totally different as Joyce than she is on ER and The Good Wife. Andy Garcia is moving nicely from leading man roles to character leads, which is what Vince is. Alan Arkin is an obvious choice as Malakov, but he gives that scene a little extra zing.

OK, so it is a charming little film. It opened in March and is still running, having brought in about six and a half million dollars. Why is it pissing off marketing people? Because there was virtually no marketing budget for it. In other words, the audience found the film on its own and is turning out for it. OK, not in Toy Story 3 numbers, but enough so the film will probably break even. That’s a good thing, right? Not for marketing people. What happens if the industry realizes that most marketing spending is a waste of time and money? Guess whose jobs are on the line? Back in US#49, I reviewed Sharon Oreck’s book Video Slut. In it, she mentions producing one music video they had to rush into production. The record had come out and was selling well, and the marketing people couldn’t stand the idea that the record could sell itself without their help. So they wanted to get a video out so they could claim it helped the sales. And Sharon made the video. After all, it was her company on the line as well.

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935. Story and screenplay by Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney. 85 minutes according to Leonard Maltin, 87 according to IMDb.)

The Story of Louis Pasteur

Scarface becomes Shirley Temple: In the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Warner Brothers did a series of biographical films, nearly all starring George Arliss as assorted famous men of history: Voltaire, Alexander Hamilton, and Disraeli. The latter he played twice, once in a silent 1921 film and again with sound in 1929, which won him an Academy Award. You may remember from US#42 the quote from screenwriter Julien Josephson about the similarity of writing for Arliss and Shirley Temple: “…it’s the same formula: the bright little character gets the best of the grown-ups.”

When Darryl F. Zanuck left Warners in 1933 to form 20th Century Pictures, he took Arliss with him. Warners was busy making money with gangster pictures and early musicals, but they had a fondness for the prestige the Arliss films gave them. That is probably why they decided to do this film. The Arliss films were all under 90 minutes, as was this one. The question was, what actor could replace Arliss, who was a distinguished English theatrical gentleman of the old school? Well, Scarface of course. Warners had the star of Scarface and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (both 1932) under contract. Thomas Schatz, the author of the great study of the studio system The Genius of the System, says in his book that Warners thought of Paul Muni as showing the toughness of Cagney with the stage experience of Arliss. They gave him role of Louis Pasteur, and it worked. Paul Muni won the Oscar for his performance and became the primary star of the Warners biopics of the ‘30s.

The Story of Louis Pasteur follows the Arliss pattern. The hero “gets the best of the grownups” who disagree with his scientific work, and he still has time to twinkle in approval at young love, in this case his assistant, Dr. Martel and his daughter Annette. Arliss twinkled better than Muni, and this side of the “great men” was dropped in future films. Now, since we all know that Pasteur developed the system that keeps our milk healthy, the film is going to be about that. Nope. It is thrown away in a couple of lines early in the film, since the film starts after he has developed the process. Well, they are limited to 85 or 87 minutes, but I suspect that the writers focused on his latter efforts to develop vaccines against anthrax and rabies because they are more dramatic. The writers changed his work on anthrax from being done with chickens to being done with sheep, I suppose because sheep are more cuddly and dramatic than chickens. The problem with the script is that everybody who opposes Pasteur is seen as idiotic. This is often the case in scripts about the Great Men of History. Gibney and Collings are not as bad as writers of some other films. Dr. Martel at first has his reservations about Pasteur, but then becomes his assistant. Dr. Charbonnet is Pasteur’s primary opponent, and the writers give him a nice scene near the end when he and Pasteur come to terms.

The film was made for about $300,000 and was a considerable success, both commercially and artistically. Not only did Muni win an Oscar, but so did Collings and Gibney.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937. Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, and Geza Herczeg, story by Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg, source material Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson. 116 minutes.)

The Life of Emile Zola

Muni on his way to becoming Mr. Paul Muni: The Story of Louis Pasteur proved that Muni could carry a biographical film. The studio began looking for a follow-up. According to Schatz (the background on this film is from his book), Heinz Herald, an agent, approached producer Henry Blanke with an idea for a film on novelist Emile Zola’s defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer unjustly convicted of treason. Blanke and Muni liked the idea and Hal Wallis, then the supervisor of historical films, asked Herald and German expatriate writer Geza Herczeg to work up a treatment. The treatment, 18 pages long, emphasized the connections with Pasteur: “Pasteur fought bacteria, while Zola opposed lies…Like Pasteur, who had to face obstacles, Zola had to suffer from defamation, prison, flight and deportation.” They eventually turned it into a two-hundred page script, which would have run over three hours. That was given to Norman Reilly Raine, then a staff writer at Warners. Raine is best known for his Tugboat Annie stories in The Saturday Evening Post, which became a series of films. Raine did the final drafts of the script.

The film opens with two guys in a grubby room complaining about the cold and the broken windows. It is well into the scene before we learn they are Zola and his best friend, Paul Cezanne. Yeah, that Cezanne. The first half-hour of the film depicts Zola’s rise to fame as a writer covering subjects many find distasteful. The French Army is particularly upset over his book The Downfall, which attacks the army general staff and its handling of the Franco-Prussian War. By thirty minutes into the film, Zola is successful, and Cezanne thinks he is too successful and too comfortable. Muni, by the way, is better in this first part of the film. Like Olivier and Welles, he loved covering his face with makeup (when he got his Oscar for Pasteur, the only person he thanked was his makeup man), but playing the younger Zola, he is clean-shaven and more of his charm shows through. Then the beard and the wigs begin, along with a pince-nez he works like worry beads. There is very little of the Arliss slyness we caught in Pasteur and more of the eyeball rolling that became his default setting as an actor.

In the second half hour, Zola is slowly drawn into the Dreyfus affair by Mrs. Dreyfus (one of the few errors I found in Schatz’s book is that he says that Mrs. Dreyfus is played by Josephine Hutchinson, who played Pasteur’s wife; Dreyfus’s wife is Gale Sondergaard) and by his friend Anatole France. The drama begins to pick up and go beyond the simple “get the best of the grownups” of Pasteur. The writers are using the longer running time to develop the story and characters in more depth. They even give us elements we do not need, as in a scene in the first half-hour where Zola meets the model for Nana. What we have here are the beginnings of the mature Warner Brothers narrative style of the ‘30s and ‘40s: piling on as much as you can get into the picture. While I love Schatz’s book, neither his nor others about the studio system got into the different narrative styles of the studios. (Sorry, that’s me being a little self-serving at Schatz’s expense; FrameWork, my book on the history of American screenwriting, which does lay out the studio narrative styles, did not come out until after he had written his book.)

Although Zola is very much a star vehicle, the writers give us a lot of other characters and provide scenes for them. Joseph Schildkraut won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Dreyfus. Zola is given a nice speech when he reads to his friends his letter to the president of France accusing the army, but then in his trial for libel, the other characters do all the talking. Or at least until Zola’s summing up, which the director William Dieterle shoots in a single five-minute-plus take. Muni is a like a pig in slop, addressing the camera as the jury. If you like ham, you’ll love this scene. But it works. The film is so full of life and details (this film cost nearly $700,000, over twice what Pasteur cost) that it manages to contain the excesses of Muni’s performance. A performance, by the way, that is richer and more varied than his Oscar-winning Pasteur.

The Life of Emile Zola won the Oscar for Best Picture, and the writers for Best Screenplay. Muni was nominated but did not win. But he was so important to Warners as their prestige star that he was soon being billed as “Mr. Paul Muni.” He shortly thereafter left Hollywood, supposedly dissatisfied, at least according to Wickipedia this week. Read Schatz’s book for details about the behind-the-scenes problems on the making of this film and you will see why Hollywood was glad to see Muni and his ego get out of town.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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

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

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That Was Something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

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

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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