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Understanding Screenwriting #80: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #80: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, The Guard, Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks (book), The Spy in Black, Contraband, Escape, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein took grave exception to my observation that The Help was not just another “white person saves the day for black” viewpoint. My point was that the film goes beyond that. I realize there is a great split on that point, as about the film as well. I always love it when a film stirs up the kind on controversy The Help has. I think in this case it is because the film has gone some places other films have not, even if it has not gone as far as David and many, many others think it should. I’m looking forward to films that do go further than The Help, as much as I love that film.

“Denvercash77” asks what the “official opinion” of Slant is on The Help. My own view of that, and others who write and edit Slant and the House are free to disagree, is that both operations encourage a great variety of opinion about whatever we write about. That’s what leads to the kind of ongoing discussions David and I have had about nearly everything since he discovered “Understanding Screenwriting.” One of the things that writing my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing re-enforced in me was the enormous variety of responses people can have to a single movie. And how even a single person’s response to a film can change over time, as we have seen in some of the “Summer of ’86” pieces. There is no “official opinion,” especially in a blog like the House. If you want an “official version,” read the New York Times. They specialize in that sort of thing. We don’t.

Amigo (2010. Written by John Sayles. 128 minutes)

Are water buffalos this year’s Ishtar? Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of fertility, war and sex. You would think with a resume like that, she’d be big in pictures. Unfortunately, no. She is one of the goddesses prayed to in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance, which was not a hit. And she lent her name as the title for Elaine May’s 1987 disaster. Well, water buffalos are turning into this year’s Ishtar. First there is a long series of shots at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee (2010), which you may remember from US#72 did not put me in the contemplative mood the film intended. Then a couple of weeks later oxen, the American equivalent, showed up in the opening of Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and that one ended badly, or rather didn’t end at all, but just stopped. So you can imagine my trepidation when one of the opening shots of Amigo has an honest-to-God water buffalo. Unfortunately water buffalo movies are 0-for-3 this season.

I love John Sayles, his scripts, and his films. His 1979 Return of the Secaucus Seven started the indie film movement of the last thirty years by being a fresh, inventive look at the ‘60s generation. Aside from a bad experience with Paramount on Baby, It’s You in 1983, he has avoided dealing with the major studios, except for doing script doctoring on films like Apollo 13 (1995). He writes and directs on his own films, selecting the kind of stories that nobody else is telling. The hallmarks of his films are his ability to write an enormous range of characters and his great ear for dialogue. The flaws in his films is that he is not as accomplished a director as he is as a screenwriter, and he can get overly preachy on the liberal side of the pulpit.

Amigo has none of his virtues and all of his flaws. It’s the story of the involvement of the U.S. Army in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. We are with a small group of soldiers who are asked to pacify a village in the middle of the jungle. The Americans are very standard-issue ugly Americans, or if not ugly, certainly naïve. None of them pop off the screen the way Sayles’s characters usually do. Nor do the Filipino characters. The head man of the village and the leading man of the film is Rafael, played by Filipino star Joel Torre with, alas, a very 2010 movie star haircut. Sayles is ordinarily good at getting into characters from other cultures, but not with Rafael. The rest of the villagers are not particularly distinctive either. Compare them to the ensembles in Sayles’s films such as City of Hope (1991), Lone Star (1996) and Sunshine State (2002). So we spend a lot of time with the characters, both American and Filipino, but they are not very interesting to hang out with. The dialogue is alas Sayles in his preachy mode, and the insights Lt. Compton, the officer heading the unit, comes up with are about what you would expect and very bland.

Sayles’s direction does not make the best of what the script provides. I kept thinking of the hypnotic spell Terrence Malick cast with another group of American soldiers in the jungle in The Thin Red Line (1998). Were there any water buffalos in Thin Red Line?

So, John, sorry I didn’t like this one, but I will be there for your next one. Unless it is entitled The Water Buffalos of Ishtar. There are limits, even for me.

Circumstance (2011. Written by Maryam Keshavarz. 107 minutes)

Circumstance

Just your typical below-average Persian Lesbian romance: Although there are no water buffalos in this film, it still gets off to a bad start. We are in Tehran and hanging out with two teenage girls, Atafeh and Shireen. They are best friends forever, they dream of going away somewhere else where they will have more freedom (cue fantasy scenes), they flirt with boys, they flirt with each other. But their flirting with each other is written and more crucially directed by Keshavarz so that it seems more serious than it might be. So we get that there will be a lesbian romance. This is Keshavarz’s first feature as a writer and director, and she doesn’t get the tone right in this scene, which gives away way too soon what the movie is about. So the film then spends way more time than it needs to with the girls larking about while we are a good twenty to thirty minutes ahead of the movie. The first hour has a lot of stuff we don’t have to know. This is a typical first-timer’s mistake, assuming we need a lot more exposition than we do. How quickly do you think it takes Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson to do the following in the opening of Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Lawrence dies; there is service more him; we meet Brighton, Allenby, Bentley, the Medical Officer, and Murray; we learn they all have different views of Lawrence; and we get to Cairo? Five minutes and forty seconds, and that includes the credits.

We do get some amusing scenes with the two girls hanging out with sort-of boyfriends. The guys take them to a hidden video store where they watch Milk (2008), which leads them to a dubbing session (how? Not clear) in which they are dubbing the sex scenes of Sex and the City (2008) into Farsi. These are amusing scenes, but what movie are they from? They don’t seem to be from this one, at least as written and played. And they are not so good that you can’t not include them, although presumably Keshavarz thought so. You’ve got to kill all your darlings, kid. Several scenes give us a look at Iranian culture, but not with any depth or freshness. At the end of the film, some of the credits mention this was developed in the Sundance Institute. We know the development process in Hollywood can flatten out scripts for studio films, but the same thing can happen in indie development as well. The dubbing scenes probably played well in a workshop and the assumption was they would work in the film. Likewise, the assumption on the development level was that the story of two girls in Tehran who become lovers was going to be enough to carry the picture. It’s not, and a whole lot more sharpening of the script in terms of character and plotting needed to be done.

Having said that, the film begins to pick up in the last half hour. Atafeh’s brother, Mehran, has come out of either jail or rehab, and is now a member of the Morality Police. He rats out the girls (not for their lesbianism, but because they drive around in cars with boys) to the Morality Police. That’s even though he has the hots for Shireen (whom he has sexual dreams about—one nice shot in the film is his reaction to waking up from one of those dreams). Merhan manipulates the situation so that her family is glad to marry her off to Mehran to keep her out of trouble. Atafeh and Shireen are miserable about this, since it never occurs to them they can use their situation as sisters-in-law to continue their romance. Mehran has set up surveillance cameras in his house and he catches Atafeh being emotionally if not sexually intimate with Shireen. Atafeh finds the cameras and what he has recorded, but doesn’t do much with the information. She goes to Shireen and asks her to leave Tehran and go to their dream county, Dubai. (These are not worldly girls.) Their final scene ought to be a killer, but there is nothing there. Atafeh asks, Shireen doesn’t do or say anything, and we see Atafeh leaving in a car. I suspect part of the problem is that while Nikohl Boosheri, who plays Atafeh, has a lively presence on camera, Sarah Kazemy, who plays Shireen, is beautiful but completely unexpressive. She is not up to what should have been the demands of the scene.

The Debt (2010. Screenplay by Mathew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughn, based on the screenplay for the film Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum. 114 minutes)

The Debt

Finally, I picked a good one to go see: I have no complaints about the first ten minutes or so of this one. We are introduced to the young versions of Rachel, Stephan and David, three Mossad agents in 1966, who have come back to Israel after killing the notorious Dieter Vogel, the notorious “Surgeon of Birkenau.” Then we get introduced to the same characters in 1997, who are celebrating the publication of a book by Rachel and Stephan’s daughter about the mission. At the celebration Rachel reads aloud the passage where Vogel is killed and we see it acted out in flashback. And we see the older David throw himself in front of a truck rather than go to the celebration. No nonsense about us being twenty minutes ahead of the film, it’s way ahead of us, and we are running to catch up.

Finally we settle into a lengthy flashback sequence of the mission in 1965-66. The Israeli version this one is based on has less of the flashbacks and focuses more on the older characters. (I have not seen the Israeli film, but Michele Gendelman, a screenwriter and colleague of mine at LACC—she has taken over my screenwriting course—has, and points of comparison come from her.) The three younger agents are in East Berlin (West Berlin in the Israeli version; the writers of the new version are making it more difficult for the agents), and Rachel, on her first field mission, is required to identify Vogel, who is now a kindly gynecologist. The examination sequences, also in the Israeli version, are even more squirm-inducing that the dentist scenes with Szell in Marathon Man (1976). The plan is to kidnap Vogel, put him on a trolley stop in East Berlin that is nominally closed because it is part of the West Berlin rail system. See the advantage of East Berlin? In a great hair-raising sequence not in the earlier version, the transfer goes wrong and the trio is stuck with Vogel in a small apartment. The pressure on all the characters, including Vogel, builds up until he escapes, as we saw in the earlier flashback. Except this time Rachel does not shoot him. He gets away, and the trio decides to tell their bosses that they killed him and got rid of the body. They come home as heroes, which they remain to this day, telling their story to future generations. Yes indeed, this is a classic “When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend” situation.

Making a movie in which the same character is played at two different ages is enormously difficult. You have to write both versions of the characters so we believe them not only in their own scenes, but that the young ones will become the older ones. Movie after movie geeks that. In the 1994 version of Little Women, I just never believed that Kristen Dunst’s young Amy would grow up to be Samantha Mathis’s older Amy. The best example of it working is Kate Winslet as the young Iris and Judi Dench as the older Iris in Iris (2001). The Debt comes close to that standard, and does it with three sets of characters. The younger Rachel is on her first assignment, still a little green, but up to the job. The older Rachel is a tough cookie. We see the beginnings of that in the young Rachel, and the writers give us a one-off, a nice single scene set in 1970 in which we see the young Rachel, now married to Stephan, turning brittle. It helps of course that you have the fabulous Jessica Chastain (is there nothing this actress can’t do?) as the young Rachel, giving an even better performance than she does in The Help. It’s also useful to have Helen Mirren as the older Rachel, so that when we come out of the long flashback Mirren is there to grab us into the modern story.

The quality of the writing and casting extends to the two men. When I first saw Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington as the young Stephan and David, respectively, I thought they should have been playing the other parts. Worthington physically looks more like Tom Wilkinson, who plays the older Stephan, and Csokas looks more like Ciarán Hinds, who plays the older David. But the emotional temperature of the actors are perfectly matched. The casting works, as it does with Chastain and Mirren. The characters at both ages are so beautifully written (the film is as much a character study as a thriller) that we believe everybody at every age.

So then what happens? Why did David kill himself? Because he learned that there is an old man in a hospital in Ukraine claiming to be…Vogel. This happens a lot earlier in the Israeli version. Stephan, now high up in the Mossad, can’t go tie up loose ends because he is in a wheelchair. David is dead, and that leaves…Rachel. After all, she’s the one who had the gynecological exam from Vogel. So she goes off, breaks into several offices (I thought she was retired from the service, but once a sneaky one, always a sneaky one), and the hospital room and discovers the man…is not Vogel. Whew! Don’t get up to leave just yet…

The Guard (2011. Written by John Michael McDonagh. 96 minutes)

The Guard

And another entertaining one: You know a picture has you when you start laughing before anybody says anything. A carload of probably drunken young Irish kids are zipping down the highway, rock and roll blaring. Their car zips past a cop car. The camera stays on the cop in the car, Sergeant Gerry Boyle. He makes no move to give chase. We hear a crash off-screen. Boyle has no reaction. The audience laughs. He turns his car’s engine on and goes to investigate. There are bodies all over the road. He checks A) to see if they are dead, and B) their pockets to see which of their drugs he wants to keep for himself. What we have here is a small town Irish Andy Sipowitz, and he is going to be even more fun to watch.

John Michael McDonagh is the brother of playwright (Beauty Queen of Leenane, Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman) Martin McDonagh. As a filmgoer you know Martin McDonagh best from his writing and directing In Bruges (2008). If that film’s combination of language foul and otherwise, comedy, and violence appealed to you as it did to me, you are going to feel right at home with The Guard. It helps that this McDonagh uses his brother’s favorite actor, Brendon Gleeson, to play Boyle. It appears that the McDonagh brothers and Gleeson are going to be one of those writer-actor combinations like Loos and Harlow (see US #79). Not only has this McDonagh written another great part for Gleeson, he has made it a little deeper than the ones his brother has given him.

Although it may seem like it at the beginning of the film, there is more to the film than just Boyle being a character and offending everybody with his language and behavior. We are afraid in the opening scenes this is going to be an old cop/young cop movie, but the young cop leaves the picture abruptly. Boyle is soon partnered up with a prissy—compared to him—African-American F.B.I. agent Wendell Everett. That produces scenes that are more interesting than the ones with the young cop. Everett is in Ireland investigating the possible landing of a drug smuggling boat with $500 million worth of drugs (and listen to the fun McDonagh has with that number in the dialogue). It turns out that for all Boyle’s vices, he is one of the few honest cops in the neighborhood, maybe in Ireland, which leads to a wonderful line about the impossibility of bribing Americans. At least compared to the Irish.

As the plot gets more complicated, we continue to laugh, especially at Don Cheadle’s reactions of Everett to Boyle’s excesses. McDonagh, who also directed, understands as did Buster Keaton that the reaction to something is just as funny or funnier than the thing itself. In addition, McDonagh is sneaking up on us. We begin to see that Boyle is facing some serious moral and ethical decisions, and since we like him as a character so much, we emotionally involved in his choices. He and Everett get into a shootout with the bad guys, and it appears that Boyle has either died in the fire on the boat, or else drowned. Except that a twerpy little kid reminds Everett of some stuff we thought was just one-offs and typical Boyle bullshit. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t, and McDonagh leaves it very, very open at the end. Sometimes, and this time is one of them, not knowing is the most satisfying ending of them all.

Tough as Nails: The Life and Times of Richard Brooks (2011. Book written by Douglass K. Daniel. 249 pages)

Tough as Nails: The Life and Times of Richard BrooksA disappointment: In US#73 I mentioned this book when I talked about two Richard Brooks films that showed up in a retrospective of Brooks films at the UCLA Film Archives. I finally got around to reading it and I have to say it is second rate. But that’s not third, fourth, or fifth rate as so many film books are.

As the subtitle says, it is about Brooks’s life and films. The films pretty much were his life, since he was a workaholic from the get-go. He was a journalist, both in print and radio before World War II, then wrote a novel called The Brick Foxhole while still in the service. It was eventually made into Crossfire (1947), but with the murder victim changed from a homosexual in the novel to a Jew in the film. Brooks’s first big credit, as I mentioned in US#78, was Key Largo (1948), and he soon landed at MGM and began directing in the early ‘50s. His filmography includes Blackboard Jungle (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), The Professionals (1966) and In Cold Blood (1967).

Daniel does give us a lot of details about the films, mostly about Brooks directing, since that produces lively quotes about him being a holy terror on the set. But there is also good material about the writing. Sinclair Lewis, the author of the novel of Elmer Gantry, told Brooks to read the reviews of the book, which Lewis thought had pointed out many legitimate flaws in the book. Brooks did and it helped him focus the material for the film. Daniel is good on the way Brooks dealt with the censorship of the time in adapting two Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), whatever you may think of the results.

Although Daniel had a researcher working on digging up stuff, Daniel, whose two previous books are about television, doesn’t seem that well versed in film history. He mentions that a minor Brooks script, To the Victor (1948) was filmed on location in Paris, “an extravagance for the time,” but that was a period when Hollywood was beginning to shoot on locations, particularly overseas ones, a lot. Daniel writes that “By the summer of 1947 the House Committee on Un-American activities…was preparing for hearings…” HUAC had been looking into Communism in Hollywood for several years, and in fact had some hearings in Los Angeles in the spring of 1947. And nobody seems to have caught the irony of Robert Black having a line in In Cold Blood about a bunch of trash being the treasure of the Sierra Madre. Blake appeared in the Huston film as a child actor.
Daniel is also a very sloppy writer. Blackboard Jungle was released in 1955. Daniel writes, “The biggest controversy erupted that fall when the Venice Film Festival selected Blackboard Jungle for exhibition. (It had been awarded a diploma of merit at the Edinburgh Film Festival the previous November.)” OK, what year did it go to Venice and what year did it go to Edinburgh? It’s not clear in the book.

This book is part of the Wisconsin Film Studies series from the University of Wisconsin Press, which produced the excellent Glenn Lovell biography of John Sturges I have mentioned. The series editor is Pat McGilligan, whom I think almost as highly of as I do John Sayles, but it looks like McGilligan and Sayles, like Homer, are nodding this time around. Make up your own water buffalo joke here.

The Spy in Black (1939. Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger, scenario by Roland Pertwee, based on the novel by Storer Clouston. 82 minutes)

The Spy in Black

The beginning of a beautiful relationship: Pressburger was a Hungarian screenwriter who worked in Germany before escaping to France in 1934 and then to Britain in 1936. He is best known for his long-time collaboration with director Michael Powell on such elaborate and exotic films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). But even they started small. This film is their first collaboration.

In the summer of 1938 Pressburger had already written one script for Alexander Korda, the Hungarian producer working in England. Korda called him into the office one day. Korda said he did not have any more work for him, unless (Pressburger later said, “I was soon to learn that with Korda there was always an ’unless’”) he might like to try to save a project called The Spy in Black. Korda and London Films had the great German actor Conrad Veidt under contract. Veidt’s place in film history was already secure with his classic performance as Cesare, the somnabulist, in the 1919 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Veidt had also left Germany in the ‘30s and ended up in London, but nobody could find a project for him. Korda and his American executive producer on loan from Columbia Pictures had tried to get a script, but nothing worked, probably because there was no obvious part in the novel for Veidt. Pressburger was given the latest script, by Roland Pertwee, and came into a meeting a few days later with Asher (the American), Pertwee, Korda and Michael Powell, who had already made a name for himself with the 1936 film The Edge of the World.

Pressburger proceeded to outline a totally new story that had almost no relationship to the novel. It not only was a better story, but it had a great part for Veidt. Asher and Pertwee were furious, but Korda assigned Pressburger and Powell to work on the script with Veidt. Pertwee’s name stayed on the credits, although very little of his work remained in the script. (This backstory is from Pressburger’s grandson Kevin Macdonald 1994 biography, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. Macdonald’s comment on Pertwee’s credit is that “Throughout the Thirties the writing credits on British films are often better fiction than the films themselves.” True in America as well, as we have discussed.)

The story they came up with has Veidt as Captain Hardt, a German submarine captain in World War I. (There is no submarine captain in the novel; the spy is a minister.) He is assigned a mission to go to the Orkney Islands, off the upper tip of Scotland, and make contact with a woman who is a German spy (a variation on the minister in the book). She knows a drunken traitorous British Naval officer who will give her the sailing orders for the British fleet. She will pass this on to Hardt, who will then be able to torpedo the British ships. But the Brits have discovered the plot and replaced the German spy with a British one. And she and Hardt develop an attraction.

What Pressburger brings to the script is a wonderful light touch. The film is very much in the tradition of the British Hitchcock movies of the late ‘30s, but there is more warmth and feeling than Hitch managed. We first meet Hardt when he is coming off a long mission, and he and his First Mate go into a fancy restaurant in Germany hoping for a great meal. But the restaurant is out of everything they want. We get that Hardt is cool and sophisticated as well as in charge. We are then introduced to Anne Burnett, the teacher going to the Orkney Islands that Hardt is to meet. Unfortunately, either the writing, or the cinematography, or just the print TCM showed leaves us very confused as to what happens to her. She’s kidnapped, but by the Germans or the British? And when she shows up on the islands, is it the same woman? The actresses look a lot alike, but they are different. The explanation of what happened comes much later in the film, and makes even less sense than the kidnapping scenes in the dark, as well as not being particularly believable. But then Hardt and the teacher, now played by a young and glowing Valerie Hobson, meet, and the movie takes off. Powell, whose Edge of the World was acclaimed for its location filming, wanted to shoot on the islands, but Asher, watching the American money that made up some of the budget, refused. Powell was eventually allowed three days of shooting on the islands, but with none of the cast.

When it turns out the teacher is in fact an English counterspy, Hardt becomes a tough, but not mean, military leader, trying to escape, commandeering a ferry, and trying to rescue some trapped German sailors. He fails of course, and the teacher looks noble as she realizes she has done the right thing for King and Country.

The Spy in Black was shot in late 1938 and released August 12, 1939. Within a month World War II had started and what had been a light thriller was now one of the first wartime propaganda films. And sometimes you get even luckier: In October the British battleship Royal Oak was sunk, probably by a German submarine, off the Orkneys. OK, not lucky for the men on the ship, but for the box office. Let’s keep our priorities straight here, folks.

Contraband (1940. Screenplay and Original Story by Emeric Pressburger, scenario by Michael Powell and Brock Williams. 92 minutes)

Contraband

We’ll always have the Three Vikings: Needless to say, after the success of The Spy in Black, Korda and everybody else thought the team should make another one. So Pressburger came up with the script for this. (I have no idea what the “scenario” credit is in this case. On Spy it was to give a credit to an earlier writer; here it may be something more like a shooting script that Powell worked out with Williams, a journeyman writer with no distinguished credits. See Macdonald’s comment above on screenwriting credits; he makes no mention of Williams in his book.) He could not make Veidt a sympathetic German after the war started, so he is now Captain Andersen, a Danish sea captain, whose cargo ship is stopped by the British Contraband Control. The first twenty minutes or so of the film is almost a documentary on the Contraband Control offices and how they work, part of the propaganda aspect of the film. Powell was now able to get outdoors, and the ship sequences are great to look at it. It helps of course that he has F.A. Young as his cinematographer. If you don’t know who he is and what he did later, look him up.

While the ship is at anchor, Mrs. Sorensen, a Danish woman who has been living in America, gets off the ship, along with Mr. Pidgeon, a talent scout who is always reading Variety. Mrs. Sorensen has snitched the leave papers the Brits gave to Captain Andersen. So Andersen goes ashore and tracks her down. We get a lot of scenes of Veidt and the still young and glowing Valerie Hobson doing all the charming stuff that Pressburger writes for them. By now the three knew each other well, and Pressburger put in stuff based on what he knew of them. The couple ends up at a restaurant called The Three Vikings; typical in-joke: Pressburger making fun of Veidt’s problem with English pronunciation, as he did in Spy, in this case with the word “viking.” The restaurant was a virtual duplicate of one Veidt and Hobson ate at in real life. The restaurant is run by the twin brother of Andersen’s first officer, although he and the staff seem more like natives of Pressburger’s Hungary than Danes.

About halfway into the picture, the spy stuff starts. Mrs. Sorensen and Mr. Pidgeon as well turn out to be spies, tracking down a German spy ring in London. Action ensues, including a fight in a warehouse filled with busts of Neville Chamberlain. Andersen uses one to knock out a bad guy, then says, “I always thought he was tough.” In both Spy and even more so here, Pressburger has written scenes that let Powell and his crew develop a German Expressionistic visual style. Well, if you have the star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it makes sense to surround him with a look that he will feel at home in. Here the film uses the fact that the blackouts have started at the beginning of the war to add to the visual subtlety. The film grossed more than Spy. Pressburger and Powell would move from these two into more expressionistic films. Hobson later went on to star in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and marry politician John Profumo, the swine. And what of Veidt?

Escape (1940. Screenplay by Arch Oboler and Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Ethel Vance. 104 minutes)

Escape

Round up the usual suspect: Veidt came to America. Contraband was released in England on May 11, 1940, but not in America until the end of November. In he meanwhile Veidt had made Escape, which was released in early November 1940. The film was based on a best-selling novel about an American who goes to Germany (although the country is never mentioned by name in the film; the Swastikas do give it away though) to try to track down his mother. She was German born, as was Mark, the American. She returned to Germany, but he has lost track of her. She is in fact not only in a concentration camp but soon to be executed. Mark makes friends with the Countess, an American woman who is the mistress of General von Kolb. Guess which part Veidt plays?

Arch Oboler was best known for the radio show Lights Out, which started in the ‘30s and continued through the mid-‘40s. Which may explain why the first hour or so of Escape, his first screenplay, is so bloody talky. The director is Mervyn LeRoy (see US # 79), who by this time had moved over to MGM from Warners. His directorial style had become more typically MGM: slow and stately, with lots of Jack Conway-type two-shots of actors talking nose to nose. LeRoy says in his autobiography Take One that Veidt was his original choice for the role, but was unavailable. LeRoy started shooting with Paul Lukas, but had to let him go, since the part was not right for him. Boy, that’s the truth. Von Kolb is a general, but not a Nazi, and is rather disdainful of the Nazis. In his earliest scenes, he shows the charm that Veidt showed in the two Pressburger films. Veidt was a hell of a lot more charming on screen than Lukas, who had other skills. The combination of charm and threat was necessary for the part, since the Countess was being played by Mrs. Thalberg herself, Norma Shearer. We have to see that von Kolb has some appeal, and Veidt gives him that. In terms of the balance of the film, he gives him too much. Mark is played by Robert Taylor, who never seemed more like a block of wood than he does here. Everybody else is livelier than he is, but Veidt especially. Pauline Kael, as she often did, pretty much got it right when she wrote that “the villain is so much more attractive than the hero that the whole thing turns into a feeble and overproduced joke.”

The film is a little better than that in the second half, which I suspect was written by Roberts, our old friend from Ambush (1950, see US#45) and True Grit (1969, see US#67). Mark, with help of assorted people, arranges to get his mother out of the camp. The camp doctor gives her a drug that makes her appear dead, then signs the death certificate. An old friend of Mark’s, who has been established as the person who carts the coffins out of the camp, arranges to take this coffin. Circumstances force them to go to the Countess’s house. Guess who shows up there? The scenes in the house should be a lot more suspenseful on screen than they are. Think of the final twenty minutes of Notorious (1946) and you can see what they could have been. I ping on Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend, but the son of a bitch could direct.

Veidt does get a nice death scene, with Shearer, livelier than usual, talking him into a fatal heart attack. MGM really was too genteel a studio for Veidt. He soon moved to Warner Brothers, where he went head to head with Humphrey Bogart, a more fitting adversary than, eew, Robert Taylor. And in his second to last film before his death at the age of 50, Cesare of Dr. Caligari got something not many actors get: a second role that secured his place in film history. He was Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942).

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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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 30

To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 25

This week Madonna’s iconic hit “Like a Prayer” turns 30. The song is, by all accounts, her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer’s most ardent critics can’t help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from ‘80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1x2z_rY1Fjk

Pepsi Commercial

Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered “Like a Prayer” in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled “Make a Wish,” was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single’s forthcoming music video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79fzeNUqQbQ

Music Video

Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer’s response was coyly defiant.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xvjnay4kS8

Blond Ambition Tour

Madonna’s first live incarnation of “Like a Prayer” was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (“Life is a misstaree, eve’one mus stan alone,” she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she’s never been able to recapture.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4vSbVWm6F8

Mad’House Cover

Dutch Eurotrash group Mad’House’s claim to fame is their blasphemous take on “Like a Prayer” from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band’s version is stripped of the original’s nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you’re most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee’s rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)


MTV On Stage & On the Record

Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off “Like a Prayer” in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna’s comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn’t diminish its enduring magic.


Sticky & Sweet Tour

After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of “Like a Prayer” during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack’s “Feels Like Home” for an amped-up techno mash-up.


Super Bowl XLVI

Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with “Like a Prayer,” and though she wasn’t singing live, it was the closest she’s ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song’s transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance’s final message of “World Peace” seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.


Met Gala 2018

Last year, Madonna dusted off her old chestnut for an epic performance at Vogue magazine’s annual Met Gala. The event’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and “Like a Prayer.” Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shroud, flanked on both sides by a choir of monks, as she sang a Gregorian-inspired rendition of the pop classic. The performance also featured a portion of a new song, “Beautiful Game,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Complete Winners List

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS. Which isn’t to say that the ceremony wasn’t without its surprises. For one, whoever decided to capture Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performance of “Shallow” from A Star Is Born in one single take that would end with the pair sitting side by side, rapt in each other and framed in Bergman-esque repose, should hereby be responsible for every Oscar ceremony moving forward.

For some, though not us, Green Book’s victory for best picture came as surprise. As our own Eric Henderson put it in his prediction: “Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.”

In the end, the awards went down more or less as expected, with the only real shock of the evening being Oliva Colman’s stunning upset over Glenn Close in the best actress race. (Glenn, we hope you are on the phone right now trying to get that Sunset Boulevard remake to finally happen.) Black Panther proved more indomitable than expected, winning in three categories (none of which we predicted), and Free Solo pulling a victory over RBG that was the first big sign of the evening that, then and now, AMPAS members vote above all else with their guts.

See below for the full list of winners from the 2019 Oscars.

Picture
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book (WINNER)
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Director
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma (WINNER)
Adam McKay, Vice

Actor
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (WINNER)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Actress
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite (WINNER)
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book (WINNER)
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee (WINNER)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly (WINNER)
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay

Foreign Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Documentary Feature
Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (WINNER)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, RaMell Ross
Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
Of Fathers and Sons, Talal Derki
RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen

Animated Feature
Incredibles 2, Brad Bird
Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson
Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda
Ralph Breaks the Internet, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (WINNER)

Cinematography
Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (WINNER)
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin

Production Design
Black Panther, Hannah Beachler (WINNER)
First Man, Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre and Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero and Bárbara Enrı́quez

Original Score
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson (WINNER)
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

Original Song
All The Stars from Black Panther by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
I’ll Fight from RBG by Diane Warren, Jennifer Hudson
The Place Where Lost Things Go from Mary Poppins Returns by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Shallow from A Star Is Born by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice (WINNER)
When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Costume Design
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter (WINNER)
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War, Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl, and Daniel Sudick
Christopher Robin, Chris Lawrence, Mike Eames, Theo Jones, and Chris Corbould
First Man, Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, and J.D. Schwalm (WINNER)
Ready Player One, Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler, and David Shirk
Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Dominic Tuohy

Sound Mixing
Black Panther, Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter Devlin
Bohemian Rhapsody, Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali (WINNER)
First Man, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
Roma, Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio García
A Star Is Born, Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow

Sound Editing
Black Panther, Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Warhurst (WINNER)
First Man, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
A Quiet Place, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
Roma, Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay

Makeup and Hairstyling
Border, Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher, and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Dehaney (WINNER)

Live Action Short Film
Detainment, Vincent Lambe
Fauve, Jeremy Comte
Marguerite, Marianne Farley
Mother, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Skin, Guy Nattiv (WINNER)

Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep, Ed Perkins
End Game, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Lifeboat, Skye Fitzgerald
A Night at the Garden, Marshall Curry
Period. End of Sentence., Rayka Zehtabchi (WINNER)

Animated Short
Animal Behaviour, Alison Snowden and David Fine
Bao, Domee Shi (WINNER)
Late Afternoon, Louise Bagnall
One Small Step, Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas
Weekends, Trevor Jimenez

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Blog

Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynch’s Obsessions

Lynch’s paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.

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Someone Is in My House

Though famous for being a filmmaker and co-creator of the TV series Twin Peaks, David Lynch works in many other mediums, including music, sculpture, photography, furniture-making, and painting, the last of which is the wellspring of his creativity. Lynch has painted since the 1960s, finding his voice among the ruinous squalor of a once-rough Philadelphia. Inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon, Lynch developed a style that’s rich in the irreconcilable contradictions that would drive his cinema. His paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.

At times, Lynch has been dismissed as a “celebrity painter” who nets prestigious exhibitions based on his fame as a filmmaker, as well as on the urge to utilize his other art as a kind of decoder ring for his films. These claims may be partially true, but this doesn’t mean that the art itself isn’t extraordinary, and there’s a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynch’s reputation within pop culture. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life featured hypnotic footage of Lynch in the studio of his Los Angeles home, smoking and creating new canvases. Last year, the book David Lynch: Nudes collected his empathetic, erotic, and astonishingly subjective photography of nude women. Now there’s David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynch’s painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.

Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynch’s ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that it’s vast yet repetitive and insular. Across the spectrum of over 250 stills, this volume spotlights the many techniques that Lynch utilizes. After perceptive essays by Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna, who places Lynch’s work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynch’s grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynch’s work that’s divided by medium, starting with “Works on Paper” and continuing with “Painting/Mixed Media,” “Photography,” “Lamps,” and “Film and Video Stills.”

Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynch’s ongoing evolution as an artist. The book ends with a brief biography, which will probably be well-known by anyone driven to buy it, and a list of Lynch’s exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynch’s art might’ve more vividly emphasized the wild multi-pronged simultaneousness of his imagination. But this is a small issue, as this volume offers the gift of relative accessibility, allowing cinephiles and other aesthetes the opportunity to access a major and generally rarefied mine of Lynch’s workload.

To open Someone Is in My House is to plunge into landscapes of darkness inhabited by deformed humans and other creatures, who have distended, shrunken, or extended appendages, heads that are animalistic or brutalized, and bodies that are often either a collection of tumorous protuberances or are merely composed of a few lines like primitive stick figures. Among this darkness is bright color, usually red, which offers beautiful illumination that’s understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness there’s a light of injury in other words, as Lynch is obsessed by the idea of people coming in contact with nightmarish entities and being destroyed or severely hurt in a manner that suggests enlightenment to be a kind of state of higher confusion.

Someone Is in My House

Photo: Prestel

In Lynch’s art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and people’s faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynch’s paintings are obsessed by the home as a symbol of our illusions of stability and how easily they can be violated. This art is surreal, in that it conforms to no requirements of literal representation, but it’s also overwhelmingly docudramatic in its emphasis on its own DNA. The lithographs on Japanese paper, for instance, which are some of the most starkly memorable of this book’s many unforgettable images, are driven in part by their sense of fragility. The ink appears to have been applied to the canvases in a frenzy, and seems as if it could quite easily be wiped away. Lynch’s multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artist’s fingerprints and are built from globs of materials, suggesting how easily they could be morphed again by another god. (Or by us, who could in turn by victimized by other gods such as Mr. Redman, a quasi-corporeal explosion of carnage that haunts Lynch’s oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)

Lynch’s art is also driven by the preludes and aftermaths of events. In This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago, a phallic string of guts explodes out of a man with a characteristically vague and misshapen face—a Bacon-ish image that occurs against a symmetrical interior backdrop that would be at home in an Edward Hopper canvas. Acknowledging these influences, McKenna goes on to write one of the most profound things I’ve read about Lynch’s paintings: “They have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.” Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonic—at once assertive and self-effacing—style has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.

However, Lynch’s primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy that’s been shattered—a normalcy that never existed and which is embodied by houses that are composed of only a few skewed lines. These houses might be harbingers of nostalgia for Lynch’s characters, but they’re hollow or—in the case of Lynch’s lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmen—closed off and ridden with secrets that are impossible to know. Many Lynch characters also face their brutal reckonings with a becoming and majestic dignity, such as the nose-headed subject of an untitled 1971 pencil sketch.

Though Someone Is in My House is adamant that we take Lynch’s artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isn’t entirely resistible. Lynch’s art clarifies to an extent what his films are also doing: valuing moments of privatized emotional experience, and often suspending plots in time so as to show how individual epiphanies can knock us off the course of our own “narrative”—that is to say, our lives.

Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynch’s mind in the art that’s included in this book from 2010 forward, is a collection of scenes and images that bind the existential cosmic with the domestic rituals of our lives. For most of us, finally connecting with a lost love at a coffee shop means more than considerations of the unknowable evil that may or may not pull the strings behind the curtains of eternity. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper became unstuck in time because he took for granted the heaven of his kinship with the townsfolk of the hellish yet pastoral Twin Peaks. He failed to recognize what the subjects of many of Lynch’s paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, “Life happens through us, not because of us.” Throughout his career, Lynch has mined a vein of ecstatic powerlessness.

David Lynch: Someone Is in My House is now available from Prestel.

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