Coming up in this column: Salt, Farewell, The Recruit, It’s Love I’m After, Strawberry Blonde, Canyon Passage, White Collar, Burn Notice, Mad Men, but first…
Fan mail: To pick up on a couple of comments from US#51 first. “B DeGuire” is defending film noir, which you will remember I am not a fan of. I can agree with much of what he says, but I am still not crazy about the genre.
“AStrayn” wondered about my implication that the sequel to Understanding Screenwriting will not be published. Here is the situation. The first book came out in April 2008, and it has done reasonably well. One person at its publisher, Continuum, told me there are fewer returns (bookstores sending back copies they do not sell) than there are from many other of their books. When I was in New York in July 2008, I talked to the folks at Continuum about ideas I had for three more books. The first would have been USII. At that point they were interested, although neither one of us wanted to do a contract at that point. I generally prefer working on spec, since that means I can do it my way. Then the recession hit in the fall of 2008. It has whacked the publishing business very hard. Continuum has pretty much decided to do textbooks and get out of doing more general books, which USII would be. Continuum is not alone in its belt-tightening. Other publishers are slimming down their list of books. One area being particularly hit hard is serious books about screenwriting (as opposed to those “Write a Screenplay by My Rules and you Will Make a Million Dollars by Tuesday”) books. This is not helped by the fact that two of the most heavily promoted “serious” books about screenwriting in recent years, David Kipen’s The Screiber Theory (2006) and Marc Norman’s What Happens Next (2007) were both a) dreadful books, and b) bad sellers. I have talked to several people about a number of publishers and they say publishers are all cutting back on books. I talked in US#20 about Claus Tieber, the Austrian film scholar, looking for an American publisher for his book. He never found one. So those of us who are in the business of writing about screenwriting are in for a tough few years. I am going to continue working on USII and will eventually find a publisher, whether it is Continuum or not. After all, my first book, the biography of Nunnally Johnson, was turned down by over thirty publishers, most of them twice, before it got published.
Meanwhile, the struggle goes on. In US#19, way back in early 2009, I mentioned I was doing a “resume enhancer,” a scholarly article for a book of essays. I completed the first draft and sent if off to Jennifer Smyth, the first-rate film historian who asked me to write it. She didn’t like it because it was not academic enough, e.g., I did not quote every other film scholar who has written on the subject, I did not neatly summarize everything, etc. I did a second draft that did a little more summarizing. She liked it better, but sent it off to one of the official readers for the British publisher. He really did not like it, at least partially because I quoted—gasp—screenwriters. Jennifer figured there was no way to get it past him and any other readers, so she dropped it from her book. I subsequently sent it to the prestigious Australian online scholarly journal Senses of Cinema. They recently published it. You can read it here.
And David Ehrenstein was back with some interesting tidbits on US#52. He thinks Christopher Nolan is Richard Thorpe compared to Resnais, although I think he is more Charles Waters, as long as we are going for really obscure directors. Actually, I like Inception a little more than my review would indicate, since it had a fairly high level of invention. Not unlike a Charles Waters musical. I also agree that we need to get Providence out on DVD. I have been hoping to see it for the third time for decades.
Salt (2010. Written by Kurt Wimmer. 100 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day One: It’s a typical spy movie opening. Evelyn Salt, our heroine, is being tortured in her underwear by the North Koreans. Was James Bond so skimpily dressed when the North Koreans tortured him in Die Another Day (2002)? We jump ahead two years. Salt and Winter, her sort-of-boss, are leaving their office for the day when they are called in to interrogate a walk-in. He’s a Russian who claims to have knowledge of a plan to kill the President of Russia when he is in New York for the funeral of the Vice President of the United States. And, he says, one of the Russian undercover agents involved is…Evelyn Salt. Now if this were a serious examination of the tradecraft of spying, there would be a lot of discussion about this. If the underwear didn’t already tell you what kind of picture this is the fact that Salt is put into custody and immediately, and imaginatively, escapes from a secure, locked down building does. It also tells us that this is a character who is going to do things on screen.
The escape is followed by a terrific chase using cars, buses, trucks and who knows what else. Salt is not only smart, but very athletic, which continues to build interest in her character. The fact that she stops in the middle of her escape to make sure the neighbor girl will babysit her dog while she’s on the run tells us she is a nice person. So we think she is probably not a Russian plant.
The chase is long enough that by the end of it we have pretty much figured out what the structure of the film is going to be. Salt is going to go to New York and in the big finish, she will stop the assassination, probably with the help of a nerdy computer geek. Guess again. The funeral starts less than half an hour into the picture and is over a little over half an hour in. And it ends with the Russian President being assassinated.
But, but, but…the dog.
If Wimmer throws us fast balls with the opening twenty minutes, the rest of the movie is nothing but sliders, curves, and scroogies. After the funeral, Salt contacts a group of people and we expect they will play an important part in the—whoops, they’re out of the picture within ten minutes after we meet them. Wimmer’s got a good change-up as well. He is playing with what we assume the structure of a film should be and keeping us off-balance. He’s helped a lot by having Angelina Jolie as Salt. A lot of the hype about this film has been that Salt was originally written for Tom Cruise and when he passed on it, it was rewritten for Jolie. Cruise, who is not stupid about his own career, probably recognized the part was not for him. Cruise is a very open actor, with hints of depth in his best performances (Born on the Fourth of July , Magnolia ). He is simply not mysterious on the screen the way Jolie is, and since we are constantly trying to figure Salt out, her presence is a major asset to the film. Matt Zoller Seitz’s wonderful review goes into that in more detail than I will here and probably better than I could. Matt is also right about Wimmer’s additional work tailoring it for Jolie adding a lot to the film.
The additional casting also plays games the way Wimmer’s script does. Pay particular attention to the casting of Andre Braugher in what appears to be the nothing role of the Secretary of Defense. You don’t hire someone with that power unless…
Farewell (2009. Original screenplay by Eric Raynaud, adaptation and dialogue by Christian Carion, based on the book Bonjour Farewell by Serguei Kostine. 113 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day Two: No Angie in her undies here. The one scene that seems about to be a chase never does, becoming instead a great payoff for a red herring planted earlier in the film. This is a much more realistic story about spying than Salt, but just as compelling in its own way.
It’s based on a true story about a Russian KGB colonel in Moscow, called Sergei here, who gives piles of secret information to a French engineer who works in Moscow. The focus in the film is on the relationship of Sergei and Pierre. We are never told how Pierre became Sergei’s go-to guy. Sergei knows Pierre’s boss and apparently approached him. The boss sent Pierre to what we see in the film is their first meeting. Sergei really does not want to deal with an amateur, but realizes it may be for the best when the French send a pro, who is immediately put under surveillance by the KGB. Sergei comes to trust and like Pierre, while Pierre becomes more and more upset at being a spy, for which he has had no training at all. Early on in the film we meet the wives of the two men and we get a lot of everybody’s domestic life. Sergei is constantly having difficulty dealing with his sulky teenage son, Igor, and is convinced that his wife is having an affair with another KGB man. Pierre’s wife is increasingly bothered by Pierre’s lying to her.
We see a lot of the tradecraft involved in the meetings of Sergei and Pierre: the neutral locations (including one in which Sergei gets his picture taken, but not by spies), the shifting methods of transportation. All very ordinary stuff. But then we hear what is being passed to the French and ultimately the Americans: it lives up to its reputation as information that helped the west win the Cold War, but it is mentioned very casually by the people involved. This is what day-to-day intelligence gathering and evaluation involves. The writers, including Carion, who also directed, make it as watchable as the action scenes in Salt.
Sergei is eventually caught by the KGB, and the picture slows down a little more than it should in the last hour, but it still gives us some terrific scenes. We have Sergei and his wife, Sergei and Igor, and a border crossing that is one of the more suspenseful scenes you are going to see this year. We also get scenes with President Mitterand of France and President Reagan. Reagan is played by Fred Ward, and there has been some criticism of his performance, one critic noting that he sounded more like Clint Eastwood than Reagan. But this is Reagan in his tough guy mode rather than his folksy mode, even if you don’t believe his sophisticated film analysis of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in one scene. And he is much more entertaining than the block of wood who plays the president in Salt. Willem Dafoe plays the head of the C.I.A., “Feeney” here but obviously based on William Casey, and he gets a good scene near the end that explains a lot of the political maneuvering over Sergei and his material.
If you want non-stop action, see Salt. If you want a more realistic look at the great game, see Farewell.
The Recruit (2003. Written by Roger Towne and Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer. 115 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day Three: In the course of the discussions of Covert Affairs with my various contacts with experience in Intelligence work, this film got mentioned by a couple of people. One said that C.I.A. alumni found the training scenes in here to be more accurate than in other films and especially Covert Affairs. This is why we do not allow the C.I.A. to be film critics in a democracy.
Yes, the first half may be accurate, but it is not all that interesting. Walter Burke, an Agency man, recruits James Clayton and we see some of the training at the Farm, as the Agency’s training site is called. The details are mildly entertaining, but nothing we have not seen or guessed at. Burke is the traditional tough teacher with no nuances, and Clayton is still in a huff because his father died in 1990. Not a word about his mother. Clayton assumes that his father was in the C.I.A., and Burke strings him along. We assume that what we see in the training is going to pay off later in the film, but very little of it does. In the training we get a briefing and demonstration on how to follow people, but Clayton and the others seem to have forgotten all about that when they get in the field. Compare that to the payoff in Farewell to Sergei telling Pierre not to make it hard on the people following him, since if he makes it easy on them, they will come to like him and be less suspicious of him.
In the second half of the film, Clayton is looking after one of his classmates, whom Burke tells him is trying to steal a big secret. This alas leads us to lot of typing-at-the-computer scenes, the bane of modern movies. We do get action scenes, but the big finish involves a plot twist that is there primarily to give Al Pacino, who plays Burke, one of his traditional arias. There is a nice twist on something he says later in the very final scene if you want to wait for it.
OK, secret agents, pop quiz to test your powers of observation: Other than being about the C.I.A., what else connects Salt and The Recruit? It’s right there in plain sight in the items on their two films. Go back and look.
Kurt Wimmer wrote on both of them. He was one of three writers on The Recruit, and the film very much has the feeling of having all its rough edges rounded off in the development process. In the case of Salt, the development process of turning it from a Tom Cruise vehicle to and Angelina Jolie vehicle appears to have made it better. The characters are more interesting and the twists are far more compelling.
Two more things from my friends who dealt with spooks. Agency alumni thought The Good Shepherd, the 2006 film on the early days of the O.S.S. and C.I.A., was an attack on the white male culture of the Agency. They also thought no spy worth his salt would have ignored Angelina Jolie the way her husband does in the film. Which may be why Jolie’s Salt is such a tough cookie.
It’s Love I’m After (1937. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the story “Gentleman After Midnight” by Maurice Handline. 90 minutes.)
Pauline was right: I first read about this film in Pauline Kael’s 1968 book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. She had a collection of program notes on 280 movies, including a paragraph on this one. She describes it as a “thoroughly incredible light farce” with Leslie Howard (Basil Underwood) and Bette Davis (Joyce Arden) as a couple of egotistical actors. She enjoyed the performances, noted that the there are typical ‘30s comedies characters like millionaires, butler, and heiresses. She writes that “The pace is sluggish and Archie Mayo’s direction (from Casey Robinson’s screenplay) is—to put it kindly—uninspired, but the movie is a rather pleasant bad movie.” When I disagreed with Kael’s judgement on a film, I completely disagreed with it; when I agreed I completely agreed. This is one of those times when I agreed. But it took me 42 years to get around to seeing the film. It’s one of those films that is not yet on DVD and has never been on tape. I’ve never come across it on television. It showed up this July as a part of a great series the UCLA Film Archives is running called “Rarities from the Warner Archive Collection.”
Basil and Joyce are actors who fight as much as they act. They are obviously the forerunner of Fred and Lilly in Kiss Me Kate (both the Broadway show and the 1953 film), and as Kael indicates, Howard and Davis are having a marvelous time cutting loose. Marcia West, the heiress, develops a mad crush on Basil, and her fiancé persuades Basil to go to her estate and act like a cad to help her get over the crush. Hijinks ensue. Robinson’s screenplay uses all those ‘30s character and situations well. We don’t usually think of Robinson as a comedy writer. His credits include swashbucklers like Captain Blood (1935), soap operas like Dark Victory (1939), and literary adaptations like Kings Row (1942). The script here is not a great screwball comedy script, but it is a good one. He sets up situations nicely, develops the complications well, and above all, gives the cast a lot of great stuff to say and do.
As Kael suggests, one problem is the direction by Archie Mayo. Mayo started in silent films, writing and directing silent comedy shorts, but none of his silent comedies are classics. He is better known for his Warner Brothers melodramas of the ‘30s like Bordertown (1935) and The Petrified Forest (1936). There is at least a Master’s thesis waiting to be written on why Mayo could not move successfully from silent to sound comedy. In It’s Love I’m After, he’s letting the actors be a little too farcical for the material, which really requires a slyer touch. His directing suffers in comparison with others in the field at the time, like Capra, Hawks, Leisen and Cukor. Watching this film, you can just imagine what one of those guys would have done with this. Preston Sturges, in the ‘40s, got his actors to work at this farcical level, but that was because he had written the characters that way. Robinson had not.
I think also there is a problem in the editing by Owen Marks. Marks, who was a great film editor (Casablanca , Treasure of the Sierra Madre , and East of Eden ), tends to hold too long on scenes. Eric Blore, one of the great supporting actors of the period, plays Basil’s butler Digges. He has some great bits, many of them involving his skill at bird-calling, but often Marks will hold on him for a few seconds after he has completed his bits and reactions. It kills the pacing of the film. Kevin Tent, one of the great contemporary film editors, was a student of mine at LACC. When I saw Election, the 1999 film he cut, I was struck by how precise his cutting was. There were laughs he got by cutting on exactly the right frame. One frame either way and the jokes would not have been funny. I am not sure he could have “saved” It’s Love I’m After, but he would have made it sharper.
Strawberry Blonde (1941. Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein, based on the play One Sunday Afternoon by James Hagan. 98 minutes.)
Second feature: The second feature at the UCLA Archive screening after It’s Love I’m After was this film. It is the second of three films made from the Hagan play. The first was made under the name of the play in 1933 while the play was still on Broadway. The third was a 1948 musical again made under the title of the play. That third version was directed by Raoul Walsh, who directed the second version. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz later.
The current version was written by the Epstein twins, Julius and Philip. They had come to Warners a few years before and eventually developed a reputation for light comedy. Strawberry Blonde is not exactly light comedy, but it has some light touches. Biff Grimes is a dentist in turn-of-the-century New York. He is in love with Virginia, the local beauty. She marries his semi-friend Hugo, and Hugo becomes rich via some shady dealings in the construction business. Biff realizes Hugo and Virginia are not happy, and that he is much better off married to Amy. Amy starts out being something of a free-thinker, although the Epsteins (and perhaps the original play) undercut that when we find out her mother was not really a suffragette and she does not smoke cigarettes. The piece is an odd choice for Warner Brothers, the home of gangster movies and melodramas. Not to mention an odd choice for its director, Raoul Walsh, who was better known for his very macho adventure movies. Maybe it appealed to his sentimental side, although I am not sure Walsh had a sentimental side. I suspect that Walsh decided to do the musical version seven years later because Strawberry Blonde feels like a musical. There is an enormous amount of turn-of-the-century music played and sung, and I am surprised that in 1941 it did not occur to them to do it as a musical in the first, or second, place. Especially when you consider that James Cagney plays Biff and a young Rita Hayworth is Viriginia.
For reasons that defy understanding, the film was shot in black-and-white (well shot by the great James Wong Howe, but the print shown had been made with inconsistent illumination, so it varied from light to dark within scenes) instead of color. Maybe it was just Jack Warner being cheap, a not-unknown event in Hollywood.
Canyon Passage (1946. Screenplay by Ernest Pascal, based on the Saturday Evening Post novel by Ernest Haycox. 92 minutes.)
From the writer and producer of Stagecoach!: This one popped up a little while ago on Turner Classic Movies. You may or may not believe that I had not only never seen it, but never even heard of it before. In spite of the fact that it is from the writer and producer of Stagecoach, I loved it.
I have never been that much of a Stagecoach fan. Dudley Nichols’s screenplay does the original story no favors by hyping the Indian attack storyline, making the film rather ungainly. The Indian story begins at the start of the film, then ends 15 minutes before the end. The Ringo Kid story starts 20 minutes into the film and goes to the end. As I wrote in my book Screenwriting, “The characterization is clichéd, and the only reason the characters work at all in this version is that [John] Ford bullied the actors into believing them.” On the other hand, other Haycox stories have made some good movies. This is one of the best.
The producer is Walter Wanger, who produced Stagecoach, and according to Robert Osborne in his introduction on TCM, Wanger wanted to reunite at least some of the cast of that film for this one. He did not manage to do that, but he did get a good script from Ernest Pascal. Pascal was very active in the Screen Writers Guild, serving one term as president in the ‘30s, but his filmography is not particularly distinguished. This may be his best script.
Although nominally a western, it is more a frontier story, bearing a slight resemblance to Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). The setting is a small town in Oregon in the 1850s, and the film is in the great tradition of westerns that deal with the tension between individuality and community. There is at least a scholarly article if not a Master’s thesis on the theme of individuality and community in this film. The film begins in Portland where we first meet Logan Stuart. He has come to town on business and he is all business. By ten minutes in, we known he is an in-charge sort of person. One of his tasks is to pick up Lucy, the sort-of fiancée of his friend George, and take her back to the town. We get the trek, against gorgeous Oregon scenery, meeting a variety of neighbors as we go. They include a woman Logan is interested in, Caroline, who is staying with the Dances. But wait a minute. Logan is played by Dana Andrews, the star of the picture, and Lucy is played by Susan Hayward, another star, and Caroline is “just” the British actor Patricia Roc. So why is Logan not interested in Lucy? Well, she belongs to George. And George is played by Brian Donlevy, who made his reputation playing villains (Sgt. Markoff in the 1939 version of Beau Geste, to name the most obvious one). But here he is a nice guy. Pascal lets us know he is weak, given to gambling and probably not entirely faithful to Lucy. Pascal has created in George one of the more complex characters that Donlevy played in his career. You would not see this in a traditional western.
Logan runs a freight service, George a bank, and they are very much involved with the community. Both help out, although George reluctantly, when the community gets together to build a house for a young couple. The house-building is interrupted by Indians, and the film makes a nice point that the Indians do not object to the settlers moving in, but they do object to them building houses, since it says they own the land.
The town bully is Honey Bragg, and Pascal and/or Haycox has given him some light touches as well. Honey is played by Ward Bond, and Pascal has, as he did with Donlevy, created a richer character than Bond usually played. Honey comes into town specifically to fight Logan, and Logan has to agree, since as the townspeople tell him, “The town wants it” i.e., the fight. Logan beats Honey and Honey leaves down. It is much later in the picture when we see Honey kill the horses that Logan and Lucy are riding on, and later than that when we see him about to attack two Indian girls he sees swimming. That attack sets the Indians off, and the house we saw built is burned down. Honey is caught between the Indians and the community, whose people turn their back on him, and the Indians kill him. Several of the community members we have come to know and love are killed. Logan decides he is finally ready to settle down in the town, but Caroline refuses to move into town. In a very nice moment, she says she prefers living at the Dance’s farm out in the wilderness. Since George has been killed in all the action, Logan and Lucy do end up with each other.
We get all of that in 92 minutes. I did not even mention there are songs written and sung by Hoagy Carmichael, including the Oscar-nominated “Ole Buttermilk Sky.”
White Collar (2010. “Need to Know” episode written by Joe Henderson. 60 minutes.)
Always nice to have a black lesbian around: In US#31 I talked about the first episodes of this series, and I mentioned that Diana, the black lesbian F.B.I. agent, was dropped after a few episodes and was replaced by a straight Latina. As much as I love straight Latinas, I was glad to see that this season they brought back Diana. They also made a specific point of Peter and the others welcoming her back. The advantage of having her as part of the team showed up in this episode. Peter and Neal are trying to take down a corrupt politician. Diana is helping Peter trying to find “the box” for Neal, and she comes to his house one night with information. The politician has sent out spies and they take pictures of Peter and Diana. They show them to Neal, who is working undercover for the politician. Thinking quickly, Neal tells the politician that Diana is a high-priced call girl. The politician knows a pimp who runs call girls and thinks they can use Diana to get dirty stuff for blackmail on Peter. A meeting is setup at a party between the pimp and Diana. He tells her that as an “audition” he wants her to pick out somebody at the party and get him to hand over $10,000 in cash. Neal is there and she picks him. While they wait around in a hotel room for Peter and Mozzie (of course) to come up with the money, Neal tries to work his charm on Diana, even though he knows she is gay. What this leads to are a couple of nice scenes in which they bond as friends, much better than if it were just a straight, pardon the expression, seduction scene.
The storyline is that Neal gets the politician to draw attention from the F.B.I. investigation by pretending to be against a large development in his district, saying instead he wants a playground for “Timmy Nolan,” a completely fictitious kid. The large development is also fictitious. In other words, he is “wagging the dog,” as in the 1997 movie of the same name. Which nobody mentions in the entire episode. Which I for one find highly unlikely. Everybody in politics knows about Wag the Dog.
One peculiarity of these first episodes of this run of White Collar is the relative absence of Tiffani Thiessen as Elizabeth, Peter’s wife. She does not appear in this episode, and had only one scene in each of the first two. The scenes looked as though she was green-screened in. I was afraid she was being written out, which would be too bad, because she is a nice counterpoint to the plotting. But an eventual check of the Internet told me that Thiessen had been pregnant during the spring. She had a daughter in June and is going to be back in the last episodes of this run.
Burn Notice (2010. “Past & Future Tense” episode written by Jason Tracey. 60 minutes.)
Spy week at “Understanding Screenwriting,” Day Four: Burn Notice is moving along nicely, integrating the other burned spy Jesse into the team. This episode, however, was one of their weaker ones, which is too bad, since it had great promise. A conference of intelligence professionals takes place in Miami. Our guys spot a Russian wet ops (assassination) team. They kidnap one of team and get him to tell them who their target is. He’s a retired C.I.A. guy named Paul Anderson. As Sam points out to Michael after they meet Paul, he’s the “ghost of Christmas future.” So Tracey is going for the idea that Paul is what Michael might become. Except that is never developed. Instead we get banter between Michael and Paul, who is played by Burt Reynolds. Now you would think Reynolds and Jeffrey Donovan could do banter with all four hands tied behind their backs. But Tracey just does not give good banter. Their scenes fall flat, and the idea of Paul being a spectre for Michael never gets up a head of steam. Hey, we all have our off days.
Mad Men (2010. “Public Relations” episode written by Matthew Weiner. 60 minutes.)
It’s ba-a-a-ck: Things are not going well for Don Draper. I don’t just mean all that last season stuff about his former company collapsing and his wife divorcing him. That’s chicken feed. Besides, he’s started a new company and as he finally admits to a reporter at the end of the episode, he is the star of the new company. But being a star has its problems. The episode opens on an uncomfortable Don being interviewed by a reporter from Advertising Age. Don, a man who holds his secrets in, is not giving the guy anything. When the interview is published, one of their clients drops them because they are not mentioned in the article. Then Don tells off another potential client and throws him out of the office. Don’s in trouble because he seems unable to do the things he does best: sell and persuade. At the end of the episode, he is back on track a little, given a better interview with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal that Bert Cooper has set him up with. Things may get better for Don. But we all hope not. No, we do hope they do. No, we don’t. And so it goes.
Early in the episode Roger has fixed Don up with a date, his first real one since the divorce (later we see what he has been doing for sexual release in the meanwhile, and it’s not nice). The girl is a friend of Roger’s wife Jane. She looks like Don’s ex-wife Betty, but she is her own character. Writers who want to learn how to establish a character as quickly and deeply as possible should study this scene in detail. Look at how much Weiner gives us about her in just a couple of minutes. That’s great writing, even if we never see the girl again.
A personal note. I have mentioned in passing that I was on the East Coast during the time of Mad Men and that I think the show captures the nuances and attitudes of the time perfectly. In this episode, Henry, Betty’s new boyfriend, suggests that on the weekend after Thanksgiving 1964, when Don has the kids, he and Betty should get away for a day or two. The place he suggests: The Griswold Inn in Essex, Connecticut. I know it’s a perfect romantic inn because about two weeks after Henry and Betty would have been there, my wife and I spent our honeymoon there.
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: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer
When it rains, it pours.
When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”
Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.
See the teaser below:
Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.
Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who
A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.
A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.
Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.
See below for the new season’s trailer:
Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.
Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis
Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.
Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.
With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.
Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.
Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.
Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.
Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?
Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.
Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.
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