Coming Up in This Column: Mission: ImpossibleâGhost Protocol, The Descendants, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, My Week with Marilyn, Love & Other Drugs, The Great Moment, Susan Slept Here, but firstâŠ
Fan Mail: In talking about the final shot of the wedding of the twins in The Palm Beach Story, David Ehrenstein dragged out his favorite Fritz Lang quote about how itâs âbecause in the script itâs written and on the screen itâs pictures. Motion pictures they call it.â That does not exactly apply here. Sturges set up the wedding in the script and he could well have written in the reactions of the âother twins.â He didnât, but he added them as a director, developing what he had written. And itâs not in this case âmotion pictures,â because you can see their reactions in a still. The point I am making with a lot of the Sturges Project is the relationship between script and film is a lot more complicated than we normally think. David in his quotes about Sturgesâs working method from Ruth Olay demonstrates that.
I may have given David the impression that it was my opinion that Mary Astor was not good in Palm Beach, but that was Sturgesâs feeling. I think she is terrific. Sturges wanted her voice higher than her normal range and was disappointed when she couldnât do it. But who wants a soprano Mary Astor?
Mission: ImpossibleâGhost Protocol (2011. Screenplay by Josh Appelbaum & AndrĂ© Nemec, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller. 133 minutes.)
Harold Lloyd in Burn Notice meets Covert Affairs: I always liked the way the M:I television series managed to squeeze two hours of story material into one hour, which really made you run to keep up. On the other hand, the theatrical films have been a very mixed bag. Mission: Impossible (1996; screenplay by David Koepp and Robert Towne, story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian) was a mess. They had a great IMF team at the beginning, which they killed off, and the film became focused on Ethan Hunt rather than a team. There was supposed to be a romance between Hunt and Claire Phelps, but all those scenes got cut so when Jim Phelps accuses Hunt of having the affair we are totally lost. Mission: Impossible II (2000; screenplay by Robert Towne, story by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga) had the amusing idea of rewriting Notorious (1946; written by Ben Hecht), with Hunt pimping out Nyah Nordoff-Hall to Sean Ambrose to get whatever the Maguffin was in that film. As much as I love Robert Towne, Hecht is the winner in that contest. Also, M:I II introduced and proceeded to beat to death the business of everybody wearing facemasks to hide their identities. Mission:Impossible III (2006; written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams) was the best one so far. Hunt is retired and married but he gets âpulled back inâ to try to protect one of his protĂ©gĂ©s while trying to hide from his wife what he really does. He also has to deal with the seriesâs best villain, an arms dealer played to the hilt by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hunt is working with a team this time, and the mixture of action and character probably come from J.J. Abramsâ work in television. (See US#77 for my comments on Abrams in the item on his Super 8.)
M:I IV (for brevityâs sake) may even be better than III, although I think I prefer III. Here Huntâs in a maximum security Russian prison and an IMF team is trying to break him out. One of the team is killed before they start; another, Jane Carter, is a woman Hunt has never met; and the only one Hunt knows is Benji Dunn, a computer geek we met in III. The team gets him out, even though he insists on bringing out another prisoner with him, which turns out to be useful so much later on we may have forgotten about him. OK, so Hunt is out and thrown right away into a new mission, getting stuff out of the Kremlin. The stuff is not only not there, but the Kremlin blows up as the team just escapes. So we know we are not in the land of low budgets. Because of the political damage, the Secretary (of what? Defense? State? Housing and Urban Development?) has to shut down the IMF. So Hunt, sort of like Michael Westen, is burned. What the television series Burn Notice does is make up for a television budget (although they do blow up a number of cars on that show) by having Michael being very inventive on how to operate on no budget. Not quite the case here, as the team, on its own, has to make do with stuff in what I suppose you could call a Safe Boxcar as opposed to a Safe House. Like the toys Q provides Bond, the contents of the boxcar, or at least all they can carry, are exactly what they need.
Like Covert Affairs, we now get into some globe hopping, which has always been part of the appeal of the Bond movies as well; the M:I TV series shot mostly on backlots and Southern California locations. So we are off to Dubai, which can only mean one thing: Ethan Hunt is going to scramble around the outside of the upper floors of the worldâs tallest building. Itâs Harold Lloydâs Safety Last (1923) in IMAX. It is as spectacular a sequence as it is supposed to be; director Brad Birdâs previous life in animation serves him well, but the writers deserve some credit too. Hunt is not doing this just to show off, but to get into a room he cannot get into any other way. Like Lloyd in Safety Last, and unlike Lloyd in Feet First (1930; see US#85), Hunt has a goal. And donât make it easy for your characters to reach that goal. In this case Hunt has gloves that can attach to the side of the building. Whatâs the worst that can happen (without killing off Hunt, that is)? The battery dies on one of the gloves. It is a beautifully directed scene, but it is also beautifully written. And it happens surprisingly early in the film. So how do you top it?
The next sequence has the team setting up a double scam on the person selling the launch codes and the person buying them. Carter pretends to be the seller and works the buyers over in one room while Hunt pretends to be the buyer in another room with the seller. I mentioned Notorious earlier and if you look at it in comparison to todayâs action films, there is in fact very little action, but incredible suspense. The writers here have followed the great action scene with a great suspense scene, with attention to detail in both. Look at how they use the same goggles in the two scenes.
And then we are off to Mumbai to get another set of codes that will stop the bad guy (not quite up to Hoffmanâs arms dealer in III) from using his codes to set off a nuclear launch. (This film has a bit of You Only Live Twice  as well.) Like he did with Nyah in II, Hunt pimps out Carter to seduce a media mogul. We are surprised at her appearance. Up until now Paula Patton has played Carter as a straight-ahead kick-ass IMF agent. Now she shows up in a very slinky dress, complete with push-up bra to give her cleavage out to here, and a good half-ton of eye shadow. Needless to say, she gets what she wants, and then has what I suspect in the writing and shooting was a funnier scene than it ended up. Carter is in a car being recklessly driven (do the IMF people drive any other way?) by Hunt. She is trying to change out of her seductress outfit into her âwork clothes.â Have you ever tried to get out of a slinky dress and a push-up bra in a speeding car? For the scene to work, we would have to see Huntâs reactions to this. We donât exactly, since Tom Cruise is playing Hunt very one-note, jaw clenched all the way through. His athletics are impressive, but emotionally he is a block of cement. Thatâs not true of the other members of the team: Patton as Carter, Simon Pegg as Benji, and Jeremy Renner as William Brandt. Often the best of the quiet scenes are between those three, so much so you may cringe when Hunt shows up. This is a particular problem in the final scene, after they have saved the world (and the film begins to drag in the last half hour as the chases and fights go on forever). We see Huntâs wife from M:I III, who is supposed to be dead. She and Hunt exchange pleasant smiles. If we had been more emotionally involved with Hunt in this film, we might have found it more moving. Still, Tom Cruise swinging around the worldâs tallest building is not chopped liver.
The Descendants (2011. Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. 115 minutes.)
A major disappointment: Iâm a big fan of Alexander Payneâs Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), and Sideways (2004). At his best he has a dry, off-beat freshness about his characters. So I was greatly anticipating this one, especially since it has been 7 years since he last wrote and directed a feature. He has been producing a lot, and the script by Faxon and Rash came to him as a possible project for him to produce. He eventually decided to direct it and did a pass on the script himself. Iâd hate to think what it was like before he got his hands on it.
This script has one of the worst opening ten minutes I have heard in years. Over some shots of Matt King looking sad, we get a voiceover narration that goes on and on and on, explaining his situation: his wife is in a coma from a boating accident, he has no idea how to parent his two daughters, and as the head of the King family trust, he must decide within a week or so whether to sell off 25,000 acres of gorgeous Hawaiian land to developers. Guys, there are a whole lot of much more interesting ways to get that information across. Or if you are going to do this way, include at least some of the dry humor that Hemmings gives Matt in the book. On the first page he is thinking that the upcoming meeting with his wifeâs doctor is like a romantic first date: what do you wear, what lines do you practice saying?
In the first half hour or more, everything that happens to Matt is bad, which makes the film very one-note. The wife is in the hospital. Scottie, his youngest daughter, has started acting out in school. Mattâs cousins are divided as whether he should sell the family land or not, and are putting pressure on him both ways. He goes to the Big Island to pick up Alexandra, his 17 year old daughter, from the school she is in. Sheâs generally obnoxious and we learn sheâs had a drinking problem and has been going out with older guys. I would have thought that Payne, of all writers, could have picked up the novelâs dry counterpoint to all that misery. Itâs a long way into the opening of the film before they bring on someone who might help. Alexandra insists on bringing her friend Sid to stay with them. She tells Matt she will be less of a bitch with him there. Sid is a typical teenage guy: insensitive, tactless, and we donât get enough of him to help the film.
And then to make matters worse for Matt, Alexandra tells him that his wife was being unfaithful to him. In football terms this is known as piling on, and you get penalized some yardage for that. At least here, it gives Matt something to do: he wants to track down the guy she was sleeping with. No, not to beat the crap out of him, but to tell him that the wife does not have too much longer to live, and he had better see her if he wants to say goodbye to her. Heâs serious about that. I think we are supposed to laugh at this the way we laugh at some of the characters in About Schmidt and Sideways, but the humor is not there in the script. Matt is still looking longsuffering, and we get a lot more closeups of George Clooney than we need, the way we did the closeups of Brad Pitt in Moneyball. Payne as writer and director is not taking advantage of Clooneyâs slyness for rhythmical balance.
They discover that the wifeâs lover has gone off to Kauai and they follow him there. In a nice scene in a hotel between Matt and Sid, we learn that Sid has only recently lost his father. If we had learned that sooner, the writers could have used it a lot better. The foursome discovers the house he and his wife are staying in is owned by one of the King cousins, and worse, Brian, the lover, is in league with the developers who want to buy the land. And still Matt does not just punch him out. We do get a few interesting scenes. Matt and Alexandra show up on Brianâs front porch and Alexandra distracts Julie, Brianâs wife, while Matt talks to Brian. The Matt-Brian scene comes close to what we expect from Payne.
Matt also gets a scene with Cousin Hugh, the only one of the family who is at all well defined as a character. We could have done with him earlier and in more scenes, but the one we have with him is nice. As is the scene a few days later at the hospital. Julie, not Brian, shows up with flowers for the wife. Brian had confessed the affair to her after Matt left, and she felt they owed it to the wife. Julie may also have felt she owed it to Matt. He baffled her when he left her house by kissing her full on the lips. The Matt-Julie scene in the hospital is the best scene in the film, at least partially because here is someone who understands and is sympathetic with Matt. And the writers are restrained enough so the two donât fall into the nearest empty hospital bed.
Matt does the right thing and does not sell the land. He begins to think about ways to save it in its natural state, although why this had not occurred to him before is not clear. The film is very good at showing the way the real Hawaii looks (suburbs, narrow roads), so that when we do get to see the land, we are impressed with its natural beauty.
In the final scene Matt and his two kids sit on the couch together and watch television. I think we are supposed to feel he is a better father now, but it is more that the kids have come to appreciate him. I suppose at this point Matt will take what he can get.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011. Written by Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 129 minutes.)
Unbalanced: You may remember that both my grandson and I liked the first film of what may be a new franchise, 2009âs Sherlock Holmes. The re-imagining of Holmes as an action hero did not do too much damage to the character, since as one of the writers pointed out, Conan Doyle frequently mentions but does not show Holmesâs physical skills. So naturally my grandson and I went off to see the new one, along with my granddaughter, who had also liked the first one. When we came out of this one, we all agreed that this one was not quite up to Sherlock Holmes. First, we all thought that it is not as funny. That can kill you in this kind of picture.
We also all agreed that this one is not as fresh as the first one. The idea of rethinking Holmes was a new way of telling the stories, but we know that going into this one. The writers are a new team; the only one of the several writers on the original involved here is Lionel Wigram, but only as a producer. They have not developed that view of Holmes beyond what was established the first time around. There are some good action sequences (I particularly liked the one in the munitions factory), but none of them are as inventive as the previous filmâs. In the first film, they thought about having Holmes chase that filmâs villain all over Europe, but decided to stick to Victorian England. Here we do go zipping around the Continent, but the writers donât do as much with it as they could. There is a nice castle on a mountain, but they have not used it very inventively. The writers of the first film struck a nice balance between the action scenes and Holmes thinking through the clues. Here there is more emphasis on the action, so much so that the thinking scenes seem tacked on.
The writers also spend a lot of time on the bromance elements of Holmes and Watson, so much so it gets rather heavy going in places. We get it, now move on. Rachel McAdams is back briefly, very briefly, as Irene Adler, and she is better here than in the first one, possibly because she has less to do. Kelly Reilly is back as Watsonâs wife, and now they are just using makeup to cover up her freckles, but she does turn out to be a crack codebreaker just when they need one. I suppose that is a fair trade. Holmes and Watson are also involved with a gypsy fortuneteller, Madame Simza. She generally just tags along, and it is a real waste of Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander. Howâs about they throw the real Salander in to deal with Holmes? Iâd pay to see that.
The arch-villain here is Professor James Moriarty, the predecessor to every arch-villain who came after Conan Doyle. As good as Jared Harris is in the role, he is not given very much to do. Harris gives good attitude, but a little of that goes a long way. Maybe they should have made Moriarity an action villain like they made Holmes an action hero.
My Week with Marilyn (2011. Screenplay by Adrian Hodges, based on the diaries of Colin Clark. 99 minutes.)
Lord Larryâs revenge: Thatâs the way the credits read: based on Clarkâs diaries. Elsewhere itâs been said that the script is based on his two books, My Week with Marilyn and The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me. I suspect the credits read the way they do because several people have called into question the accuracy of Clarkâs books. If you are saying something is from a personâs diaries, we are more likely to take it at face value. In this case, you shouldnât. The film, the books, and the diaries deal with a young Colin Clark working as a third assistant director on the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Laurence Olivier directed himself and Marilyn Monroe. As Clark tells it, he was not only Marilynâs caretaker, but also her sort-of lover. This creates a problem I always have with movies based on first person accounts. For example, Out of Africa (1985) is based on Karen Blixenâs version of her romance with Denys Finch Hatton (although the IMDb lists two books by others as source material for the film). I for one would really love to have heard Denysâs version of this crazy Danish woman he was schtupping between flying and hunting big game.
The film is clearly set up as a showcase for the actress playing Marilyn, but the script does not go deep enough or sharply enough into her. Michelle Williams has received critical acclaim for her performance. I was not so taken with her. Technically she gets a lot right: the look, the body movement, etc. Check out the credits for the long list of technical advisers Williams had. Unfortunately, Williams does not pop off the screen as Marilyn does. Given the way the film is structured, thatâs lethal. But here is the irony: Marilyn stole The Prince and the Showgirl from Olivier, and Kenneth Branaghâs performance as Olivier steals this picture. He gets all the good lines and good reactions. The other supporting actors are also wonderful, except for Eddie Redmayne, who plays Colin Clark. He just stands around looking goofy in the presence of Marilyn. I suspect this is historically accurate, and he is hardly the first man to have that reaction to Marilyn Monroe, but it makes for a dull character.
Love & Other Drugs (2010. Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy. 112 minutes.)
What is this movie about?: I missed this one when it was in theaters. It popped up recently on HBO and I gave it a shot. Itâs a classic example of a movie being âdevelopedâ in all the wrong ways. The book itâs based on is a memoir by Reidy of his time as a Viagra salesman in its early days. In the book, he has a large number of quickie affairs. The rights were picked up by Charles Randolph, a writer and producer who is best known as one of the writers for the 2005 film The Interpreter, which also suffered in the development process. Randolph did a loose adaptation called Pharma and one of the big changes he made in the story was to give Jamie, the main character, a real love interest. Well, I suppose it does give a structure to the material, but it makes it more conventional. Why would we want to watch conventional love scenes when you can show us the process by which Big Pharma peddles its wares? And Jamie having a variety of sexual encounters really would have more to do with the impact of Viagra than a single affair.
(The background on the script development is from Peter Clines article in the November/December 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting. A couple of sad notes here. Creative Screenwriting has, they hope temporarily, stopped publishing as a magazine. Given all the useful stuff I and others have found in it, we all wish the publisher Bill Donovan can get it up and running again. The second sad note is that its chief competitor Script Magazine has been sold off by Final Draft to F&W Media. F&W has also stopped publication of Script, but at least for now is continuing it as a website. You can check it out at www.scriptmag.com. I suspect the economy in general played a big part in closing down the published editions of the two magazines, and Iâm sorry to see them both go. Itâs not as if more general publications have taken up the slack with stories on screenwriters and screenwriting.)
The Pharma script eventually got to Zwick and Herskovitz, best known for their thirtysomething television series, but who have also done at a lot of good work since, both in films and television. They were interested in the love affair and began to develop that. They also began developing supporting characters, including a younger brother for Jamie named Josh. Josh dropped out of school, but became a multimillionaire by creating a medical software company. His girlfriend has dumped him and he moves in with Jamie, which leads, supposedly, to hilarity as he is constantly interrupting Jamie and Maggie when they are about to have sex.
So what we end up with is a script that spends way too much time on the romance, especially in the first hour of the film. We get some of the sales efforts of Jamie, but Viagra is not introduced until well into the picture. Maggie has Parkinsonâs, so we get an anti-medical convention that is sort of a self-help group for sufferers of Parkinsonâs. Late in the picture, we get a doctor who has been a secondary character giving a long speech on the difficulties of running his practice and dealing with Big Pharma and insurance companies. Sturges might have brought that off, but these guys donât. In other words, the final film does not seem to know what it is about.
So it is not surprising that when it came time to sell the film to the public, the emphasis was on the fact that the two major stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, actually did some of their scenesâŠgaspâŠnude. The article on the film in the November 26th, 2010 Entertainment Weekly was only about the nude scenes. As attractive as both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are, the love scenes get rather boring, especially when nothing else is happening. Better they kept their clothes on and see how sexy they could be that way. But that would have required that Zwick, who also directed, have a better feel for how to make sensuality work on-screen. Heâs not alone. There are not a lot of male American directors who can do that.
The Great Moment (1944. Screenplay by Preston Sturges, based on the book Triumph Over Pain by RenĂ© FĂŒlĂ¶p-Miller. 83 minutes.)
The Sturges Project, Take Six: The Great Moment is the black sheep of the Sturges family. You may have vaguely heard of it, but you most likely have not seen it. And for good reason. It is a mess. And that is not all Buddy DeSilvaâs fault.
FĂŒlĂ¶p-Millerâs book was published in English in 1938. It tells the full, complicated story of the development of the use of anesthesia in medicine in the 19th Century. Now thatâs a barrel of laughs. The book was controversial, and one of the controversies was over FĂŒlĂ¶p-Millerâs claim that the use of ether as an anesthetic was really the discovery of a non-descript Boston dentist named William Morton in the 1840s. Europeans had long accepted Mortonâs claim, but in America it was widely disputed at the time, with all kinds of medical hustlers coming out of the woodwork and claiming it was their idea. Paramount bought the film rights to the book, seeing it as a possible project for director Henry Hathaway and Gary Cooper. The studio was undoubtedly thinking of it as a typical â30s Great Man biography. See US#52 for my discussion of two of the best known films of the genre, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Since Morton was a more down-to-earth figure, one could see Paramount thinking of Cooper. Unfortunately Hathaway and Cooper left the studio. Nobody else at the studio had any interest in the project. Until Preston Sturges picked it up. (The background here is, as before, from James Curtisâs biography Between Flops and Brian Hendersonâs Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges.)
Nobody quite knows why Sturges took a liking to the material in 1939. He certainly saw the connections to his 1933 screenplay The Power and the Glory, with right turning out wrong, and Curtis suspects he liked the idea of the ingratitude shown Morton by his peers. Never underestimate the appeal of a martyred character to a screenwriter who has not yet had his chance to direct. Sturges worked on the screenplay off and on during 1939, even as he was preparing to direct The Great McGinty. He may have been hoping it would be his second film as a director. Early on in the writing, Sturges decided on a rather odd structure. Most biographical films start with the heroâs humble beginnings, follow him through his trials with all the stupid people who resist his ideas, and then end with his moment of triumph and fame. Sturges starts just after Mortonâs death when Eben Frost, Mortonâs assistant, comes to visit Mortonâs widow. The two take us into flashbacks, but not of the early days. The flashbacks start with Mortonâs triumph suggesting that ether, which he uses as a dentist, can be used in regular surgery. Then the flashbacks tell of all the problems he had afterwards: people claiming to have discovered it first, his inability to get a patent on it, and finally his death. At this point we are half-way through the script, and the flashbacks now take up his early days as he stumbles into his discovery, ending the film when he agrees to tell the medical establishment what his secret ingredient is, since they will not use it without knowing.
What was Sturges thinking? We know he saw a thematic connection with The Power and the Glory, and that may have led him to think of a structural connection, using the same kind of multiple flashbacks. Because Sturges was interested in the story of how badly Morton was treated later, he might have wanted to get that message out first so we would feel more sympathy with Morton. Or it may have been that he knew that material was the most serious in the film, which he might have hoped would put the audience in the proper mood, helping them get through some of the comedy sequences as Morton stumbles toward his discovery. By the end of December 1939, he put away the three drafts of the script he had written and did not come back to them until early 1942. We know he had been thinking he would alternate between flat-out comedy and slightly more serious films, so he may have resurrected the script as one of the serious ones. But things had changed at Paramount.
His films had been critical successes, but with the exception of The Lady Eve (1941) they had not been huge successes at the box office. There was no one at the studio who remembered buying the book, and no one but Sturges to root for it. And Buddy DeSylva thought it was repulsive. I mentioned in writing about Sullivanâs Travels (1942) that âthe new executivesâ at Paramount liked it when they first saw it. William LeBaron, Sturgesâs protector at Paramount, left the studio in February 1941, and he was replaced as head of production by songwriter, writer and producer B.G. âBuddyâ DeSylva. I put in the link to DeSylvaâs IMDb page so you can see he was not a slacker. You would have thought he and Sturges would get along, and they appeared to, at least for a while. But Triumph Over Pain drove them apart. DeSylva hated the project, and Sturges did not help matters. Sturges kept insisting the written foreword (all biographical pictures have to have a written foreword; itâs the law) include a zinger against statues of generals on horseback. In 1942? In the middle of the war? Sturges also kept fighting to keep the title Triumph Over Pain, which nobody else wanted.
The production went reasonably well, but when the film was completed and shown at a sneak preview, the results were mixed, to say the least. DeSylva took the film away from Sturges and recut it. It did not help. The film was a flop.
Thanks to Brian Henderson, we have a pretty good idea what was cut from the film: most of the first half hour or more. Sturgesâs script and film started out with a sequence of a young boy being taken into surgery in the present day, and we learn it will not hurt because of anesthesia. This was cut completely. We do get Eben Frost getting one of Mortonâs medals out of hock and bringing it to Mrs. Morton, but their scene is condensed. A long flashback of Morton and his wife preparing for bed is cut completely. In it Morton says he decided to tell the doctors that his treatment was simply ether, but DeSylva felt that that gave away the ending of the film and was cut. A sly scene in which Morton approaches a military colonel about his invention was cut, so we donât get the colonel looking over his drawer of other inventions, mostly deadly. The flashbacks begin in the film with Morton getting a letter to come to Washington, but a very Sturges scene of Morton meeting President Pierce has been condensed to the point of all plot and no texture. The opening twenty minutes of the film goes so fast we can hardly figure out what is going on.
Once we get into the flashbacks leading up to the discovery, the film follows the script more closely, and naturally flows better. But Sturges undercuts himself. He wrote to a friend after the film was finished that âalthough I put in as much fun as I could, the story of Morton is still serious, thrilling, and a little sad.â Some of the comedy scenes, such as the President Pierce scene, or an early one with Jackson, a sort of mentor/rival of Mortonâs, are good character comedy, but many of the scenes are out-and-out slapstick (Eben Frostâs first visit to Morton, where he jumps out the window) and work against the seriousness of the material rather than as a counterpoint. Sturges had written some nice dialogue humor into his script for the 1938 historical film If I Were King, which works better in connection with the story than the slapstick does in The Great Moment.
Even Strugesâs friends had trouble with the film. When he completed his cut, he showed it to cinematographer John Seitz, who had not photographed the film. Seitzâs reaction was, âWhy did you end the picture on the second act?â I donât think Seitz was simply objecting to the putting the serious section first, but that the ending seems rather abrupt. Morton has his âgreat moment,â giving his idea to all mankind, the end. The script and the film both need another scene or two, including at least one to indicate how Morton was finally, years after his death, got his proper due for his work.
If we had Sturgesâs cut, would it work? Probably not, although it certainly would have played better than DeSylvaâs cut. But the seriousness and comedy never jell in the version we have, especially since Sturges as director pushes the slapstick to a higher level than he should for this picture. I am not sure audiences in 1942, given that they had been used to the typical Hollywood historical biographies, would have accepted the particular mixture Struges gives us. And Sturges may have known that. After The Great Moment, he wrote The Miracle of Morganâs Creek, which was shot in 1942 but held for release because of censorship problems until 1944. Sturges then wrote Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) which DeSylva also recut. Eventually when DeSylva essentially gave Sturges a choice of recutting either Great Moment or Hero, Sturges picked, wisely, Hero. He may have accepted that Great Moment was a lost cause. In spite of what film editors tell you, a film cannot be âsavedâ in the editing room if there is no there there to be saved.
Susan Slept Here (1954. Screenplay by Alex Gottlieb, based on the play by Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb. 98 minutes.)
Let me save you from this one: Elaine Lennon, an Irish friend of mine, suggested I take a look at this one, since it is about a screenwriter, and we donât get a lot of those. Since it takes place at Christmas, TCM ran it in December and I watched it. I am still speaking to Elaine.
Mark Christopher is indeed a screenwriter. He even won an Oscar, and it is his Oscar that narrates the movie. A lot could be done with that, but nothing is, probably because the script is based on a stage play and everything is explained by all the characters in more detail than we need. Since Billy Wilder had Sunset Boulevard narrated by aâspoiler alertâdead man, you can imagine what he could have done with a talking Oscar. We do see Mark watching one of his bad old movies on television and he lip-syncs to the dialogue, but thatâs about it. The story gets going when two police detectives bring him a juvenile delinquent for Christmas. He had told them he was thinking about doing a script about a delinquent and would like to talk to one. They thought of him when they picked up this kid, since if they donât palm the kid off on Mark, the kid will have to go to detention over Christmas. Shades of Preston Sturgesâs script for Remember the Night (1940; see US#38). And the 17-year-old delinquent is a girl. My mouth waters at what Diablo Cody could do with that. But Gottlieb was well into middle age, and had not a clue what a teenage delinquent girl was like. Keep in mind this was made the year before The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. And it gets worse. The girl is played by Debbie Reynolds, the least delinquent girl in movies ever.
Unlike Christopher Hampton on A Dangerous Method (see US#88), Gottlieb did not open up the play. We spent most of the 98 minutes in Markâs apartment; one reason Elaine likes the movie in a guilty pleasure sort of way is that she loves what she calls his âPalm Springs moderneâ â50s apartment. The few times we go outside, it is for nothing that is not discussed in the film.
By the middle of the film everybody has pretty much forgotten that Susan is a delinquent. Mark never talks to her about her life in any sort of way that suggests he is thinking about writing about it. The film simply turns into a romance between her and the 35 year old writer, played by the 49-year-old Dick Powell. Cre-e-e-e-py.
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.
Through the Years: Madonnaâs “Like a Prayer” at 30
To celebrate this sacred anniversary, weâre taking a look back at the singleâs evolution over the last three decades.
This week Madonnaâs iconic hit âLike a Prayerâ 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 singerâs most ardent critics canât help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from â80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, weâre taking a look back at the singleâs evolution over the last three decades.
Editorâs Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.
Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered âLike a Prayerâ 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 âMake a Wish,â was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the singleâs forthcoming 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 singerâs response was coyly defiant.
Blond Ambition Tour
Madonnaâs first live incarnation of âLike a Prayerâ was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (âLife is a misstaree, eveâone mus stan alone,â she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that sheâs never been able to recapture.
Dutch Eurotrash group MadâHouseâs claim to fame is their blasphemous take on âLike a Prayerâ from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover bandâs version is stripped of the originalâs nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version youâre most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Gleeâs 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 âLike a Prayerâ in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonnaâs comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldnât diminish its enduring magic.
Sticky & Sweet Tour
After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of âLike a Prayerâ 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 Mackâs âFeels Like Homeâ for an amped-up techno mash-up.
Super Bowl XLVI
Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with âLike a Prayer,â and though she wasnât singing live, it was the closest sheâs 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 songâs transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performanceâs final message of âWorld Peaceâ 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 magazineâs annual Met Gala. The eventâs theme was âFashion and the Catholic Imagination,â which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and âLike a Prayer.â Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York Cityâs 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, âBeautiful Game,â and a cover of Leonard Cohenâs âHallelujah.â
Oscars 2019: Complete Winners List
The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we donât already know about AMPAS.
The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we donât already know about AMPAS. Which isnât to say that the ceremony wasnât without its surprises. For one, whoever decided to capture Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooperâs performance of âShallowâ 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 Bookâs victory for best picture came as surprise. As our own Eric Henderson put it in his prediction: âThose 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 theyâre leaving is better than the one they found? Thatâs, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.â
In the end, the awards went down more or less as expected, with the only real shock of the evening being Oliva Colmanâs 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.
Green Book (WINNER)
A Star Is Born
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso CuarĂłn, Roma (WINNER)
Adam McKay, Vice
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternityâs Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (WINNER)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
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?
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
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
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
The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly (WINNER)
Roma, Alfonso CuarĂłn
Vice, Adam McKay
Foreign Language Film
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
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
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)
Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso CuarĂłn (WINNER)
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin
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 BĂĄrbara EnrÄ±Ìquez
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
All The Stars from Black Panther by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
Iâll 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
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
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
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. MontaĂ±o, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
Roma, Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and JosĂ© Antonio GarcĂa
A Star Is Born, Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow
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, GĂ¶ran LundstrĂ¶m 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)
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
Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynchâs Obsessions
Lynch’s paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.
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 thatâs 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 âcelebrity painterâ 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 doesnât mean that the art itself isnât extraordinary, and thereâs a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynchâs 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 thereâs David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynchâs painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.
Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynchâs ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that itâs 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 Lynchâs work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynchâs grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynchâs work thatâs divided by medium, starting with âWorks on Paperâ and continuing with âPainting/Mixed Media,â âPhotography,â âLamps,â and âFilm and Video Stills.â
Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynchâs 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 Lynchâs exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynchâs art mightâve 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 Lynchâs 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 thatâs understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness thereâs 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.
In Lynchâs art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and peopleâs faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynchâs 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 itâs 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 bookâs 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. Lynchâs multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artistâs 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 Lynchâs oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)
Lynchâs 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 faceâa 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 Iâve read about Lynchâs paintings: âThey have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.â Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonicâat once assertive and self-effacingâstyle has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.
However, Lynchâs primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy thatâs been shatteredâa 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 Lynchâs characters, but theyâre hollow orâin the case of Lynchâs lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmenâclosed 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 Lynchâs artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isnât entirely resistible. Lynchâs 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 ânarrativeââthat is to say, our lives.
Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynchâs mind in the art thatâs 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 MacLachlanâs 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 Lynchâs paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, âLife happens through us, not because of us.â 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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