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Understanding Screenwriting #91: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #91: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Artist, War Horse, Red Tails, Crazy Horse, Miss Bala, Safe House, Some Print Items, The Power and the Glory, Hail the Conquering Hero, but first…

Fan Mail: “mindbodylightsound” took me to task for some errors about Tinker Tailor. He has obviously seen the miniseries more recently than I have and/or he has a better memory than I do. I have been meaning to look at it again for several years and now I have to. I also love “mindbodylightsound’s” subtle reading of LeCarré’s themes of “malleable identity,” and the idea that “the service was full of people who lie for a living because their own lives were lies.” That’s the best one-line take on that aspect of LeCarré I’ve read.

Now for some comments on David Ehrenstein’s comments. Tinker Tailor is about MI6 rather than MI5. For those of you who don’t follow British Intelligence, MI6 is sort of the equivalent of the C.I.A., and MI5 is sort of the equivalent of the F.B.I.. MI5 and MI6 collaborate a least a little bit better than the C.I.A. and F.B.I..

An Englishman Abroad, a 1983 made-for-television movie, stars actress Coral Browne as herself, meeting Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five, in Moscow where Burgess was not so happily living after his defection. As David says, it is enormously entertaining.
David says, “On the Sturges front it seems obvious to me that separating the great man’s writing from his directing is well-nigh impossible.” Difficult yes, but not impossible. Yes, when the writer is directing it is particularly difficult, unless you have access to the writer-director’s mind 24/7. It is a little easier when the writer and director are two different people, as we have been demonstrating in this column for nearly four years now. One of the reasons I took on the Sturges Project was to deal with that combination of writer-director in one person. If you look over the Sturges items, you will see I am trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to nail down his contributions in both crafts. But in any film, especially good ones like the ones we have talked about, the writing and direction flow together, as David says in his discussion of Sturges’s use of Bracken and Hutton.
As for David’s friend Ignatz Ratskiwatscki, I lost track of him after he and his longtime companion George Kaplan moved to the country of Slavatania and set up their gynecology clinic.

The Artist (2011. Scenario and dialogue by Michel Hazanavicius. 100 minutes.)

I enjoyed it, but less and less as it went along: This is one of those films, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), that was on my radar for a long time before I saw it. It first got my attention when it played at Cannes last spring, and it has been collecting awards and nominations and great reviews ever since. It has even produced a backlash, as most highly acclaimed films do sooner or later. Fortunately, unlike Uncle Boonmee (see US#72 for my comments on that one), The Artist is a much better script and picture. It starts out great but, alas, eventually slows down.

Hazanavicius is attempting to make a silent film that will play to a talkies audience, not just silent film history buffs. So his first writing problem is: how do you bring a modern audience into a silent film? His solutions are ingenious. First he begins with an actual (within the context of the film) silent movie. So we know we are in a silent movie world. Then in the film-within-a-film the character played by George, our main character, is being tortured and says, in titles, that he will not talk. We see people backstage at this premiere screening, and there is a big sign on the wall that says “Silence backstage.” You would think all that would do the job, and for most audiences it did, but there are reports that some audience members in Liverpool, England, wanted their money back because there were “no words” in the movie. Who would have thought Liverpool was a hotbed of pro-screenwriter, pro-dialogue sentiment?

Hazanavicius then continues the light touch. Poppy Miller, a would-be actress, bumps into George outside the theater, and he is charming to her. We know for sure now that we are in a romantic comedy. Eventually Poppy gets a part in one of George’s films, and there is a beautifully written and directed scene in which we watch the two of them go through several takes of a shot, each time ruining it either by laughing or by realizing they are attracted to each other. Then Hazanavicius takes a big chance that goes wrong: he turns the film into a silent drama. Folks, there are reasons silent comedies play better now than silent dramas do. Comedy is unreal (unless your life is full of people who are naturally funny), which fits the unreality of silent film better. Drama is more real and seems more artificial in silence. Drama usually needs more titles to explain what’s going, which disrupt the flow of the film. If you watch as many silent films as I have, you will notice that the later ones are pushing at the restraints of silent film. By 1927-28, both audiences and filmmakers were ready for sound films, which is why the transition happened then and not years before.

So we begin to lose the charm of the first half of the film, and the drama goes on and on and on. Do we really need two suicide attempts by George as his career crashes with the introduction of sound? You could wrap up this story a lot quicker, and in much more entertaining ways.

As a film historian I loved the recreation of silent Hollywood, but I kept having quibbles. A title announces it is now 1929; I suspect we are in 1929 so they can drag in the Wall Street Crash to hurt George’s career. We see (but don’t hear) a sound test of George’s one-time co-star Constance, nicely played, especially in this scene, by Missi Pyle. But that’s awfully late for sound tests. There is no discussion of possible part silent/part sound films, which were common in the first year or two of sound. George simply refuses to make a sound film, and the silent film he produces flops. We can see, although it is not discussed in the film, that the film probably bombed because it was the same old melodrama. We don’t get the discussion because one of the limitations of silent film is that it cannot deal with complex issues and ideas. Silent drama can deal with spectacle (Intolerance [1916]), fantasy (The Thief of Bagdad [1924]), and emotional intensity (The Last Laugh [1924]), but ideas require dialogue. Try to imagine Dr. Strangelove (1964) as a silent film. The studio head tells George that the audiences want new faces, but the studio is promoting Polly, who if the montage is to be believed, is already a rising star. There was some thinking in Hollywood about getting stage actors, but very quickly the studios learned that audiences wanted to hear their old favorites talk. The legend that every, or even most, silent film stars had their careers destroyed is nonsense. Ronald Colman, W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Laurel & Hardy, and Garbo all made the transition very nicely, as did the silent directors and screenwriters. The particular studio head seems determined to get rid of George, although we do not really see why.

Quibbles aside, there are wonderful things in the film, starting with the lead performance by Jean Dujardin, whom I have been a fan of since his and Hazanavicius’s 2006 OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a great spoof of the Bond films. Dujardin’s co-star in that is Bérénice Bejo, who is even better here. I also admire the way Hazanavicius as a director has had the cast act in a real silent film style. That’s not the flamboyant, hammy way people think they acted in silent films, but with great subtlety and precision. It’s a detail that Mel Brooks missed completely in his 1976 Silent Movie. For an excellent discussion of acting in silent film in relation to The Artist, read David Denby’s “Critic at Large” essay in the February 27th issue of The New Yorker.

War Horse (2011. Screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo. 146 minutes.)

War Horse

I’m not positive, but I don’t think the horses are intended to be gay: Lee Hall’s previous credits include Billy Elliot (2000) and Toast (2010, which I showed a certain fondness for in US#84). Curtis’s credits include Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Love Actually (2003). In other words, both writers know how to write characters. So I am at a loss to explain why the characterization in this film is so bland and standard issue. Albert, a young Englishman, falls in love with a horse, Joey, whom his father, your standard rural drunken lout, buys for him. Albert is a real block of wood as written and played by Jeremy Irvine. His Mum is a little livelier, but she is mostly nagging the dad for being a standard rural, etc. World War I comes along and the horse is bought for the Army, although the rather bland officer to whom he goes promises Albert he is only “renting” Joey for the duration.

At the front Joey, who is a beautifully brown horse, meets a beautiful black horse, and they nuzzle a lot. No particular point is made as to whether the black horse is male or female, but given the lack of characterizations among the humans, I couldn’t but begin to wonder about the horses’ relationship. Then the horses escape and they spend time with a Dutch grandfather and his granddaughter and then with the German army. We are still getting nothing more than standard issue characters. Yes, it’s supposed to be an episodic story, but the episodes are not that interesting because we are just not that emotionally involved in either the horse or the humans. Until the film finally gives us one good scene: Joey is caught in barbed wire between the trenches. Both sides see him and call a truce so they can go out to rescue him. One British soldier comes out, and one German one. And they talk like real, interesting human beings. When they realize they need wire cutters, the German calls back to his lines, and a whole herd of wire cutters are tossed at them from the German side, in the best single shot in the film. Needless to say, Joey and Albert get back together, but it is not as stirring as it is meant to be.

Ordinarily Steven Spielberg is a good director of actors, but just as in Jurassic Park (1993), where he was more involved with the dinos than the characters, here he is more involved with the horse. And the horse is as much a block of wood as many of the other actors. The casting on the film was done by Jina Jay, and with the exception of Emily Watson as the Mum, she has not filled the film with actors who can make something out of very little.

On a much more positive note, I was delighted to see that Spielberg has finally given up on that de-saturated color crap he and others have been peddling since Saving Private Ryan (1998). Good riddance. Yes, the trenches look muddy, but the English countryside looks gorgeous.

Red Tails (2012. Screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, story by John Ridley, based on the book Red Tails, Black Wings: The Men of America’s Black Air Force by John B. Holway. 125 minutes.)

Red Tails

Hollywood liberals will hate this one: I’d been looking forward to this film about the Tuskegee Airmen with some trepidation. In the ‘80s I had a student in my screenwriting class at LACC whose father-in-law had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a unit of black pilots which did remarkable work in World War II. She was working on a feature screenplay on the subject, but she could never get it finished. So I have been thinking since then of all the different ways you could tell the story. The 1995 TV movie The Tuskegee Airmen was a fairly straightforward telling of the story, but with a limited budget. There have been a number of documentaries on the subject. I was not particular delighted to hear that George Lucas was going to produce this film, since serious history is not his strong suit. On the other hand, John Ridley, who developed the story and worked on the script, has a wide range of credits. He did the story for the 1999 film Three Kings and wrote and produced for television shows such as Platinum and The Wanda Sykes Show. Aaron McGruder is the creator of the comic strip Boondocks and all the controversy surrounding it. McGruder rags on everybody. What could this strange three-way collaboration come up with?

Lucas has been quoted that what he wanted to make was the kind of gung ho propaganda movie he grew up watching as a kid. But, but, this is about a Serious Issue, Race in America. The standard Hollywood approach would be to make it solemn. Ridley and McGruder are having none of that. This is a World War II action movie. They start the film in 1944, avoiding having to show us all the controversy and politicking that led up to the Tuskegee Airmen. The film begins with them already in the air over Italy. Instead of speeches, we get a truck blown up by the pilots. OK, then the speeches? Nope, then they blow up a train. All in the first ten minutes. My grandson and I were hooked. Yes, the plotting when they get on the ground is a little formulaic, which is the bane of most flying movies, but Ridley and McGruder make the characters and dialogue lively. The black characters are not stiff and noble, but as written and directed loose, funny, and lively. The pilots particularly are like military pilots everywhere and in every time: hot shot flyboys in it for the adventure. Ridley and McGruder have ignored the message approach and simply written an entertaining movie. We get the issue of race in several scenes, but that’s not the focus of the movie, simply one issue these guys have to deal with. The writers assume, and rightly so, that we do not need to be lectured.

I have slapped George Lucas about the head and shoulders in stuff I have written about him and his films, but here’s the bottom line: He put up $58 million of his own money to make this film when nobody else in Hollywood would. And I mean nobody: no Hollywood types who slit peoples’ throats during the week, contribute to charities, and collect Humanitarian of the Year awards every weekend. It’s almost enough for me to forgive the man for Jar Jar Binks. Well, almost.

Crazy Horse (2011. Directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman. 134 minutes.)

Crazy Horse

Frederick Wiseman and bare naked French ladies: what more could you want?: No, this is not a sequel to War Horse, nor is it a cowboys-and-Native Americans movie. The institution Wiseman is looking at in this documentary is the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris. The cabaret has several acts of women topless and bottomless, and we sort of follow the development of a couple of new numbers. I say sort of, because as is typical of Wiseman, we do not move in a straight line. For example, near the beginning we see a woman recording what they call in the porno business “groan-overs.” It is only much later in the film do we hear, if we are paying attention, how they are used in an act. Wiseman is using, as he often does, a circular structure. We see the work the women and others put in and we see some of the results. It is typical of Wiseman that we see the auditions of a number of woman only near the end of the film, when we know the kind of work they will be doing.

We get a lot of footage of the acts, but the character that is most interesting is the director of the new numbers, Philippe Decouflé, who is frazzled by the lack of time and what appears to be, quite frankly, a lack of organization at the club. He wants at one point to shut down the club for two nights to improve the equipment (clean the lights, etc), but Andrée, the manager of the club, says the “stockholders” will not allow it to go dark, even for just a couple of days. Decouflé is also hampered by Ali, the “artistic director,” (Decouflé is just the regular director), whom Wiseman doesn’t introduce us to until halfway through the film. Whereas Decouflé is trying to do stuff, all Ali does is talk, talk, and talk. Late in the film Wiseman films a television interview Andrée, Ali, and Decouflé are giving. Wiseman’s cameraman, the great John Davey, frames the shot so that, unlike the TV interview, we see Decouflé’s reactions to Ali’s bullshit.

We do not get to know the women in the show as well, but Wiseman has spaced three scenes of them off-stage over the course of the film. In the first, the dancers are laughing at a video of ballet bloopers. This scene makes the dancers seem human. In the second, a group of the dancers, makeup off, talk to Decouflé about the problems backstage. The dancers are obviously professional. And in the third scene, some of the dancers are backstage watching a new number on closed circuit TV. One of the dancers is critiquing the show in ways that make her one of the sharpest people in the film.

Ali talks at great length about how the show is about eroticism, which it is. But it is a very French eroticism. The women are all thin, with small breasts and very round, perky bottoms. A lot of very round, perky bottoms. The one woman who auditions near the end who is a little shorter and rounder is described, accurately or not, as a transexual. I walked from my house up to the theater where Crazy Horse was playing, and what struck me in the 45 minute walk home was the enormous range of women’s bodies you see on the streets of LA. As a populist about many things, I found the variety, well, enjoyable. That’s Wiseman, always making you think.

Oh, one other thing. Not a single review I saw in Los Angeles happened to mention that Decouflé is the same guy who conceived and directed the Cirque de Soleil show Iris. You can see US#81 for my comments on Iris.

Miss Bala (2011. Written by Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz. 113 minutes.)

Miss Bala

Squalid, not that there’s anything wrong with that: This one is inspired by a true story of a Mexican beauty contest winner who got involved with a drug cartel. You can imagine the Hollywood version of this: flashy costumes for not only the beautiful woman, but also for the druggies. Big houses, lots of bling, lots of ammunition being fired off. Well, we do get some shootout moments, but not as many as you might expect.

We start with Laura, who goes along with a friend to the contest tryout. They then go to a club, where Laura witnesses a gang shooting. She is in shock and doesn’t know what to do. The next day she approaches a cop car. He says she needs to go to the police station, but he takes her instead to the drug boss. Not in a big house, but in a garage in a rundown neighborhood. And Lino is not young, handsome, and dashing. He is middle-aged and dressed like a day laborer you could find on any number of street corners in Los Angeles. He sees he can use Laura in all kinds of ways, such as going across the border to the U.S. to pick up a truck with a supply of ammunition. What we are seeing here is how squalid the real business of the drug trade is. And how it corrupts the rest of Mexican society. Lino can fix the pageant so Laura wins, and can get her into see a high-ranking police officer, whom Lino is, we think, trying to assassinate.

The problem with the film is Laura. We see in the early scenes that she is a rather lively woman, but once the killing starts, she is in a state of shock. Which she stays in during the rest of the film. Stephanie Sigman in the early scenes can be expressive as Laura, but she is not after those scenes. I suppose that is true to life, but it makes her a very uninteresting character for the rest of the film, which seeps the energy out.

Safe House (2012. Written by David Guggenheim. 115 minutes.)

Safe House

The Spook’s Dream: Matt Weston is a young C.I.A. agent (no relation to Michael Westen; different spelling of the last name) whose job is to keep the Company’s safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, in working order in case needed. As we see early on, it’s a boring job: checking the equipment, bringing in supplies, begging his superiors to be sent to somewhere interesting like Paris. Now if this were a low-budget, existential art house film, we would have 115 minutes of Matt sitting around questioning his life. But it’s a big budget thriller, so very quickly he gets dumped in his lap Tobin Frost. Yes, that Tobin Frost. The renegade C.I.A. agent who has been selling everybody’s secrets to everybody else for a decade. And what’s Matt’s reaction when the agents bring Frost in? Like Laura in Miss Bala, he’s gobsmacked. Now if I were in Matt’s position, I would for one see this as a great opportunity to learn from one of the evil legends in his field, but it never occurs to this Matt. By the time something like it occurs to the screenwriter, it is way late in the picture and Matt and Frost are in another safe house, and the agent there asks Matt what he has learned from Frost. And Matt is at a loss for an answer.

Again, this is not a low-budget, existential art house film, so we don’t stay in the house long. It’s invaded by a lot of guys with guns, the other agents are killed and Matt and Frost escape. Like the people of the IMF (see US#89), everybody drives recklessly. Matt loses track of Frost, finds him again, more chasing, etc. Meanwhile their tracks are followed at Langley by Matt’s bosses, played by Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendon Gleeson, as opposed to Peter Gallagher, Kari Matchett, and Christopher Gorman, whose writers on Covert Affairs give them more interesting scenes to play than those Guggenheim gives his higher priced actors here. One of Matt’s bosses will betray him, of course, and you will not only not get extra credit for guessing who it is, if you don’t guess early on, you will have points deducted.

Tobin Frost is a sociopath, and a great character for Denzel Washington, who is always more fun to watch in his bad guy roles than in his “a credit to his race” parts. The problem with a sociopath as a main character is that you can’t really go anywhere with him as a character. He is fun to watch outwitting nearly everybody in the first half of the film, but in a scene with a forger Guggenheim tries to humanize him, which makes him less interesting in this film. Once introduced to Frost, we want him to be more inventive as the film goes along. Matt grows up a bit in the film, but that’s not a good tradeoff for making Frost human.

You may remember from US#53 that I have some contacts with people who work with the intelligence community. One of them told me an ex-spook he knows said that the scene of Frost going down a hallway, shooting into rooms on both sides without looking, is a spook’s dream of what being an agent is all about. When asked if he himself had done that during his career, the ex-spook sniffed as if to say, sadly, no.

SOME PRINT ITEMS: Several interesting pieces about screenwriting showed up in the print media recently. The first is a real good news/bad news situation. The Anthology Film Archives in New York City is running some retrospectives on screenwriters. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the “Goings on About Town” notice in the February 17th issue of The New Yorker announced it this way: “To inaugurate a series of retrospectives devoted to screenwriters, Anthology Film Archives presents films written by [John] Sayles, including Joe Dante’s Piranha, Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae, and two by Michael Ritchie, The Candidate and Smile.” OK, here are the problems. First, if the retrospective is about the writer, why are they identifying the films by their directors? Second, and worse, Sayles did not write Norma Rae, The Candidate, or Smile. They were written by Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr., Jeremy Larner, and Jerry Belson, respectively. I have not seen the press release from the Archives, but their website has a line hidden in the small print that the retrospective will include some films Sayles admires for their screenwriting. Both The New Yorker and the Archives geeked this one. I trust both will do better on upcoming series.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday February 12th, playwright Jason Grote repeats the cliches that “Hollywood did burn the likes of Bertolt Brecht and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the martyred writer is part of film iconography: the floating corpse of William Holden in Sunset Boulevard and John Turturro shambling through a flaming hotel in Barton Fink.” That’s not quite true. Brecht gave as good as he got in Hollywood, and Fitzgerald not only survived on the money he made, but wrote The Last Tycoon, not a bad tradeoff. On the up side, what Grote spends most of the article on is his finding that writing for television, specifically Smash, is rewarding creatively as well as financially. Something a lot of writers before him, both in television and feature films, discovered.

In an interview (which apparently is not on their website) in the Sunday, February 19th Los Angeles Times, Emily Kapnek, the creator of Suburgatory, talks about the creation of the show, which was based partially on her life in the suburbs. The networks would not allow her to write a mom who made mistakes, since the networks only wanted moms who were perfect. So Kapnek turned the mom into George, since men are allowed to get things wrong. There’s at least a Master’s thesis there waiting to be written.

The Power and the Glory (1933. Original screenplay by Preston Sturges. 76 minutes.)

The Power and the Glory

The Sturges Project: A Bonus Take: James Curtis, who wrote the biography of Sturges that I have been using throughout the Sturges Project, has a new book out. It is a biography of Spencer Tracy. In connection with it, the UCLA Film Archives is having a retrospective of Tracy films, one of which happens to be this one. So I couldn’t not see it, could I?

This is not a distinctively Preston Sturges script. He was at the beginning of his screenwriting career and trying out all kinds of ideas. In this case it is the story of a railroad tycoon and his rise and fall, but told in a non-chronological way. His inspiration was the millionaire C.W. Post (Post cereals and all that) who had killed himself. Sturges had heard tales about him from his then-wife, Post’s granddaughter. He decided that since he had heard the stories in piece-meal ways, he would tell it that way in the script. So we start with Tom Garner’s funeral, but his friend Henry quickly discovers that not only the building’s janitor but also Henry’s wife are perfectly happy Garner is dead. The competing views of the dead man is the forerunner of the News on the March sequence in Citizen Kane (1941). Sturges knew Welles and happened to mention Power once, to which Welles replied, “Don’t you know it’s in bad taste to mention that film around me?” The scene is even more a forerunner of the discussion of Lawrence on the steps of St. Paul’s at the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). We quickly get into flashbacks of different time periods, but Sturges is very sharp in providing lines that connect the scenes. Over a scene of Sally, Tom’s wife, walking the rails in midwinter, Henry mentions that when she was older her hands were still red. Cut to an older Sally.

The picture was critically acclaimed, but not a hit. It is generally assumed that was because of Sturges’s time jumps, but I think it is more from the sophistication that Sturges shows in his characterizations. They are subtle in a way that was probably beyond the general audiences of 1933. You also do not have the humor that we came to know and love and think of as distinctively Sturges. Which bring us up to…

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944. Written by Preston Sturges. 101 minutes.)

Hail the Conquering Hero

The Sturges Project: Take Eight: So Sturges had both The Great Moment and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek in the can by late spring 1943 (they were both not released until 1944). Buddy De Sylva, the head of production was unhappy with Moment, and the studio was negotiating with the War Department on Miracle. Paramount had a backlog of films waiting release, so De Sylva had no hesitation on holding up the Sturges films. What else could Sturges do but write and direct another film? Which he did.

The earliest notes Brian Henderson (in his Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges) could find were in May, but by July 12th Sturges had a complete screenplay. Shooting started on the 14th and continued through September. One reason Sturges may have been able to write the script so quickly is that Hail has the simplest plot of any of the Sturges films. Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, the son of World War I Marine Medal of Honor winner Hinky Dinky Truesmith, joined the Marines in World War II, but was thrown out for chronic hay fever. Ashamed to go home, he works in a shipyard until he runs into six Marines who dress him up as Marine to deliver him back to his mother. What could go wrong with that? Nearly everything, as Struges piles on complication after complication, but all connected to the basic situation. The six Marines are the Ale and Quail Club of this film, but they drive the action all the way through the film.

Sturges wrote Woodrow specifically for Eddie Bracken, imagining the character as a variation of Norval Jones from Miracle. Sgt. Heppelfinger, the header of the Marines, had to be William Demarest. Most of the rest of the cast are our old friends from the previous Sturges films. Al Bridge is the Political Boss, rather different from Tamiroff’s Boss in McGinty and Miracle. Struges writes a great, almost-serious role for Jimmie Conlin as Judge Dennis, since Sturges knew from Sullivan’s Travels that Conlin could carry it.

As Sturges developed the script from the 13-page “original story” he first turned into Paramount, two more characters were expanded. Bugsy is the Marine who, on hearing Woodrow’s story, calls Woodrow’s mother and tells her he is coming home. Bugsy is an orphan with mother issues, and probably suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although Sturges handles this in a very subtle way. Even more developed is Woodrow’s girlfriend back home, Libby. In the earlier versions of the story, she is just the girl he left behind. By the final script and film, Woodrow had written a letter dumping her when he was kicked out of the Marines. She is now engaged to Forrest Noble, the son of the current mayor. When news of Woodrow’s return gets out, she asks nearly everybody else to tell Woodrow she’s engaged. They refuse, and her attempts to tell him keep getting interrupted. It is 61 minutes into the film before she tells him. Given all the problems he sees himself in, he declares, “But that’s marvelous! That’s the first good news I’ve had all day.” That was not the reaction she was looking for. This in turns leads to one of Sturges’s great scenes. Henderson notes that it is Woodrow and Libby’s only scene together and “Everything must be packed into it—the present, the past, and the future of their relationship; and it also must fit precisely, and advance, the dramatic situation in which it occurs. The scene in fact realizes these requirements superbly.” And Henderson says that it does it without being in any way a conventional romantic scene.

Henderson also makes the point that Sturges in this film is writing fewer and fewer complete scenes, but more scenes that seem parts of continuing discussions. That is only partially true. There are several long, emotionally complicated sequences, many of them done in single takes. (The cinematographer is John Seitz again, as if you couldn’t tell from the fog outside the bar in the opening scene.) A large chunk of the scene in the bar, in which Woodrow and the Marines meet, is done in a take running five minutes and eleven seconds. The scene includes Marine comedy and Woodrow’s emotional description of his admiration for the Marine Corps. Sturges and Seitz start with a medium shot, dolly into Woodrow’s closeup and then dolly out to medium shot. Just as in Miracle there are several long traveling shots around the town (the same Paramount ranch set that was Morgan’s Creek). The Libby-Woodrow scene is one of those. Libby is played by Ella Raines, whom Sturges borrowed from Universal, and she is not a particularly expressive actor. The script and Bracken carry her. There is also a long walking scene between Libby and Forrest, played by ex-rodeo rider Bill Edwards, who is just as inexpressive as Raines. The script carries them both, and is so great you aren’t bothered that they are not that good. I have always said that if you write good scripts, you get good actors. This is sort of the reverse of that: a good script can carry bad actors.

Like the first Woodrow-Marines scene, the entire film has a striking equilibrium between comedy and drama. You don’t immediately think of the word “equilibrium” when you think of Preston Sturges, but this is the most evenly balanced of all his films. And because of that, it keeps the audience off-balance. We never know when a serious moment if going to turn comic, and vice versa. For all the action and yelling—it is a Sturges picture after all—this is a much less frenetic film than Miracle. Sturges manages a lot of satire (of hero worship, politics, and mother love, among other things), but some touching moments as well. Woodrow’s admission to the town is more than a little heartrending, and would not be out of place in a Capra film. Sturges’s view of small towns and their citizens is closer to that of Ben Hecht in Nothing Sacred (1937), but not without its emotional moments. Sturges’s direction here is, I think, better overall than in his previous films. In the sequence of the town preparing for Woodrow’s arrival, Sturges the writer has, as Henderson noted, given us ongoing conversations more than scenes, and Sturges the director has given them the flow they need to play. The same is true of his direction of his stock company. Bracken, not trying to upstage Betty Hutton this time, gives an amazingly varied performance. I had not realized he was that good an actor. Heppelfinger is not as good a part as Officer Kockenlocker, but Demarest is great as always. (Shortly after this film Sturges and Demarest had a falling out and never spoke to each other again. You can read Curtis for the details.) Raymond Walburn is at his best as Mayor Noble. And so on. In some ways this may be Sturges’s best film. And after a first sneak preview, De Sylva took it away from him and recut it. And, as often happens, the studio recut played worse than the original. In a deal I talked about in writing about The Great Moment in US#89, Sturges recut this one, and shot a new ending that condensed the final sequence by eliminating the campaign and election of Woodrow as Mayor. Henderson thinks Sturges did more cutting after the script was in production on this one, but when writing about this in the first of his two books, he had not yet looked at Miracle, where there is a lot more cutting.

Sturges was officially let go from Paramount in December 1943. Miracle opened in January 1944 and became the highest grossing film of the year. Hail opened in August 1944 and while it got critical raves, it was only a modest financial success. The Great Moment, released a month later, was a total disaster. Sturges went to work with Howard Hughes, and that did not end well. Sturges then moved on to Fox (you may remember he still owed Zanuck a picture) and that generally did not work out well. Then things got even worse. But I am now at the end of the Sturges Project, and I am not sure I could bear to write about some of his later films. Although I do have his 1949 Fox film The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend stashed on my DVR just in case.

Ah, well, two more items. When I was preparing to do this, I read over Andrew Sarris’s section on Sturges in his 1968 book The American Cinema. The book is the beginning of the reign of the auteur theory in America. But like so much auteur writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sarris spends more time writing about Sturges’s screenwriting (character, dialogue, structure, etc.) than about his directing. What does that tell you?
The more mathematically inclined of you may have noticed that Brian Henderson (and a hearty, very hearty, thank-you to all the work he did) in his two books of screenplays researched and wrote on nine films and I have only written on eight. The other one Henderson deals with is his 1948 Fox film Unfaithfully Yours. It is the best of the later Sturges films. And it shows up occasionally on the Fox Movie Channel. So…

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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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning, but not exactly to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that feels like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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