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Understanding Screenwriting #94: American Reunion, Mirror, Mirror, Damsels in Distress, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #94: American Reunion, Mirror, Mirror, Damsels in Distress, & More

Coming Up In This Column: American Reunion; Salmon Fishing in the Yemen; Mirror, Mirror; Damsels in Distress; Act of Valor; Titanic; A Bad Spring for American Television 2012, but first…

Fan Mail: A short note before we get into the mail. A day or so after I sent US#93 off to Keith, I read in the paper that Ernest Callenbach, whom I mentioned in the review of the Pauline Kael biography, had passed away. He was the long-time editor of Film Quarterly, starting in the early days when there were not a thousand film journals around. He ran my first published piece, a 1977 book review of two biographies of screenwriters. He was supportive of many young critics, including the redoubtable Stephan Farber.

David Ehrenstein has his usual entertaining comments, especially about Pauline Kael. He thought her essay on Kane made it sound as though Welles had “scarcely anything to do with it at all” with Kane. Like David, I had read her earlier reviews, especially of Chimes at Midnight (1966), and I thought in “Kane” she was not trying to tear Welles down, just promoting what Mank had done.

“IA” took me to task for thinking Kael was a coward for not writing more on screenwriters. He may be right, but given the dealings Howard Suber and I had with her, I’ll stick to my opinion. IA did point out that Kael never wrote anything, about screenwriters or otherwise, on the scale of “Raising Kane” again, which is what I tried to suggest in my comments about her not have the capabilities to do a much longer piece. As to how serious Kael was on doing a Johnson biography, I would assume that if she and her agent were trying to get my research and spreading the word that she was doing a bio of him, then she was pretty serious, at least for a time. Kellow’s book is already long, and I am sure that if he came across the Johnson business he probably felt it was not that important in the full scope of her life. As to her writing about screenwriters in her later reviews, she may well have, but not with the enthusiasm she showed earlier.

American Reunion (2012. Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, based on characters created by Adam Herz. 113 minutes.)

Not as good as #1, better than #2, and way better than #3: In my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays, I had a chapter on the first three American Pie movies, since I wanted to discuss writing raunchy comedies. I put the chapter in the Not-Quite-So-Good section of the book, since that would have been my average grade for the three. The first was a very good script, the second not-quite-so good, and the third one was truly awful, with only one laugh in the entire film. I have not seen the four direct-to-DVD sequels and even a gun to my head would not make me. But since I had invested so much time in thinking and writing about the first three, I thought I would give the new theatrical film a shot. It turns out to be pretty good, and corrects several of the mistakes #2 and #3 made.

The first film, American Pie (1999), was written by Adam Herz, based on his teen years in the ‘80s in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, which becomes East Great Falls in the films. What Herz managed was a nice mixture of the sentimentality of the John Hughes films of the period and the raunch of the 1982 classic Porky’s. We follow four high school seniors, Jim, Kevin, Paul, and Oz as they go on a quest to lose their virginity by the time they graduate. So we have a solid, if overused, structure. What makes it work are the characters. Jim’s an Everyguy who gets caught masturbating by his parents in the first minute-and-a-half of the film. He’s bad at sex, but hopes he has a chance with Nadia, a sexy foreign exchange student. When the chance comes, he comes too, but too quickly and too often. Then he is left going to the prom with the geeky band-camp nerd Michelle, who in perhaps the greatest payoff line in American cinema history, turns out to be a highly sexualized lover of musical instruments, especially the flute. Kevin is hooked on Vicky, a cute blonde girl who doesn’t quite know if she wants to have sex with him or not. Vicky gets sexual advice from Jessica, “a very knowing but not completely cynical friend,” as I described her in the book. Jessica is potentially a more interesting character than the other girls, but Herz never quite figured out what to do with her, and by the third film she disappears completely. Paul has been encouraging rumors about his sexual prowess, all to no avail. Oz, on the advice of a college girl he fails to score with, pretends to be sensitive to get Heather, yet another cute blonde. A hanger-on of the group is Stifler, whose continuing gross-out antics make our four nicer than they might otherwise seem. In the end Jim gets Michelle, or rather she gets him; Kevin finally has sex with Vicky, but it’s a goodbye fuck rather than “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” fuck, since she is going away to college; and Paul ends up with the oversexed Stifler’s Mom. I cannot remember what happens with Oz and Heather.

American Pie 2 (2001), with a story by Herz and David H. Steinberg amd screenplay by Herz, picks up one year later. We get less of Paul, Kevin, and Oz, and alas more of Stifler. He gets invited to spend the summer with the boys as they try to score at the beach. Stifler is a very one-note character, better in small doses than large ones. I am sure he is great fun to talk about in the story meetings, and probably great fun to write and act, but the more we see of him, the more obnoxious he becomes. This is even worse in the third film, American Wedding (2003).

For most of #2, Jim is trying to improve his sexual skills, since Nadia is coming back to town and he wants to do her right this time. After the premature ejaculation sequence, which was broadcast to the whole school, she was sent back to the Czech Republic, at least partially because Herz did not really want to deal with the difference in sexual sophistication between her and Jim. Doing it as a one-joke scene with Michelle was good enough for the first film, but it was not until #2 that Herz begins to deal with the issue. Jim contacts Michelle, who is at band camp, and gets her to give him lessons. But Michelle was a one-joke character in #1, and we now know what Michelle is really like. In the writing Herz goes back and forth with Michelle, sometimes the goofy nerd and sometimes the sexy girl, and it gives Alyson Hannigan whiplash trying to butt together the two. Hannigan’s performance in #1 was pitch perfect, but only for #1. On the DVD of #2, they have Hannigan’s screentest for #1, and her performance there would have been much better as a leadup to #2, but the focus on her goofiness in #1 makes #2 a mess in terms of her character. The “teaching scenes” between Michelle and Jim in #2 are great (you will never think of preheating an oven in the same way), and there are more of them in the deleted scenes. At the end of #2 Nadia returns, but realizes Jim loves Michelle. Paul ends up yet again with Stifler’s Mom, whom he appears not to have seen in the years since the first one.

American Wedding (2003), with a screenplay by Herz, is a mess. Instead of being about sex, it’s about a wedding, and Herz brings nothing fresh to the material. People behave totally out of character. We are introduced to Michelle’s parents, who have no character at all. A party with two women who may just be dancers or may be hookers (that’s sloppy writing) should have been a great scene, but is just never jells. Oz does not show up, nor does Jessica, nor Nadia, for that matter. Paul and Kevin are reduced to sidekick roles. Michelle is as divided a character as before. You can see why Universal went to straight-to-DVD for the next four.

When Universal decided to go back to the original cast for the fifth Fast and Furious sequel, Fast Five (2011), they found it grossed more than the sequels without the original stars. So they gave American Reunion a shot. This time the writers are the writers of the Harold and Kumar movies, but they pick up on what the Pie movies are all about, and improve on at least #2 and #3. First of all, Michelle is now a consistent character. She and Jim are married and having recently had a baby, they are not getting as much sex as they would like. That allows Hannigan to be both sexy and to show her us her goofy “band-camp nerd” faces. It also makes the movie again about sex, which is what most high school reunions are really about. Ralph Keyes, in his 1976 book Is There Life After High School?, wrote that he had never seen as much cleavage as he had at the various high school reunions he went to for research.

Oz, Kevin, and Paul are back, and given substantial storylines. Oz shows up with his gorgeous girl friend, but meets Heather again and sparks fly. Kevin and Vicky meet, but their relationship is still one of the weakest among the group. Paul seems at first to have become a man of the world, which is an interesting idea that the writers undercut later, although he does end up with Selena, a bartender who was very fat in high school but now, well, she’s not fat any more. We also get what amount to cameos from some of the other characters, including the flute. Jessica shows up way too briefly. I was so irritated that Herz did not give Jessica anybody to pair up in the first two that I wrote that maybe she could get together with the two girls in #2 that Stifler thought were lesbians. They weren’t and she didn’t. Well, she is now.

There is understandably a slightly more rueful tone to this entry in the series, which is also true about high school reunions. And they use that tone beautifully with Stifler. Yes, we are encouraged to laugh when he poops in an ice chest of some obnoxious kids, but the other guys are constantly calling him on his behavior, and as he realizes that finally high school may really be over, he is actually chastened. The writers then give him a great payoff scene, and Sean William Scott’s reaction when Stifler realizes what may happen is great. And we are actually rooting for him, something I never imagined I would even think, let alone write.

And now let us sing the praises of Eugene Levy. In all of the American Pie films and DVDs, he has appeared as Jim’s Dad. Well-meaning, trying to be helpful (clearing up the cable reception in #1), and often clueless. Jim’s Dad admitted in #1 he too has masturbated, but “Of course, I never did it with baked goods,” one of Herz’s many great lines. In Reunion, the writers know what they have with Levy and his character. They have written several funny scenes between Jim and his dad. Levy and Jason Biggs as Jim really get their mojo going and they are a joy to watch. We also get a bit of a rueful tone is some of these scenes, since Jim’s Mom died three years ago. So Jim and Michelle are encouraging Dad to date. Which leads to a couple of scenes with, well, whom would you pair off Jim’s Dad with? I can hardly wait to see the deleted scenes and outtakes of these two masters of the Christopher Guest School of Comedy.

Which raises the question of how much of those scenes, and the Jim and Dad scenes, may be improvised. It would not surprise me to learn that there was a fair amount of improvisation, but keep in mind they are all improvising off what they know of their own characters from the previous films, as well as whatever Hurwitz & Schlossberg have written.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Paul Torday. 107 minutes.)

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

A river runs through Yemen: Torday’s novel is apparently the modern equivalent of what is called an “epistolary novel,” a novel told in the form of letters, as for example Chodelos de Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses. Since nobody writes letters anymore, the novel for this one has emails, post-it notes, and assorted electronic conversations. That presents a problem for an adapter: how much reading do you want your audience to have to do? Beaufoy, whose credits include The Full Monty (1997) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), does a nice job of using the written word only when he needs it. And/or if there is a comic bit to be had, as with the character of Patricia Maxwell, the press secretary for the Prime Minister. Make sure you stick around for her last “conversation” with the PM.

Mostly Beaufoy focuses on his two romantic leads. The guy is Dr. Alfred Jones, an ichthyologist for the British government, who gets trapped into helping a Yemeni sheikh set up a breeding ground for salmon. Jones is sort of nerd, but charming in his own quiet way. He is brought into this by Harriet, a public relations specialist working for the Sheik. She is a lot more worldly than Jones is. Think Cary Grant vs. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), but without the slapstick. Salmon Fishing is more a conventional rom-com, but Beaufoy, and presumably the novel, sets up two hurdles for the couple. He is married, and the marriage is not going well. We don’t like his wife much, but she’s not awful. Harriet has just gotten involved with Robert, an army officer who has been sent off to Afghanistan shortly after they started their romance. So we have legitimate reasons why these two don’t fall into each other’s arms. And Beaufoy writes nice “friendship” scenes for them that keep us interested until the inevitable happens. Jones is willing to break up with his wife, although in one of Beaufoy’s nice touches, she’s not sure she does want to break up. Robert goes missing in Afghanistan and is presumed dead. He’s not, but when he gets back together with Harriet, he is extraordinarily gallant about giving her up. Jones is Ewan McGregor at his most charming. Harriet is Emily Blunt working at her usual high standard. The real find here is Tom Mison, who not only catches Robert’s gallantry, but is a hunk and a half as well.

As much as I love the romantic story, Beaufoy’s script doesn’t handle the political satire as well as it might. What we do get, particularly in Kristin Scott Thomas’s scene-stealing performance as Patricia, is wonderful, but just enough that you want more. A lot more. And Scott Thomas is so great that we laugh at her instant messages because we can imagine how funny they would be coming out of her mouth. To paraphrase one of my usual comments, that’s great writing for non-performance. Beaufoy also shortchanges the serious elements in the story. A little over half way through, the Sheik is the target of an assassination attempt. We only get a vague idea of why (religious fundamentalists are opposed to the Sheik’s plan), which undercuts the fundamentalists final attempt to screw up the whole project. I can see why, in both the writing and the editing, the film sticks with Jones and Harriet, but it would have had a little more substance if we had a little more of the politics. After all, His Girl Friday (1940) managed it, so how hard could it be? Yeah, right.

Mirror, Mirror (2012. Screenplay by Jason Keller and Melissa Wallack, story by Melissa Wallack, based on the story by Jacob Grimm and Wilheilm Grimm. 106 minutes.)

Mirror, Mirror

Butcher? Grub? Halfpint? Napoleon? Wolf?: With names like that for the seven dwarfs, we are definitely not in the Disney version of Snow White. But in spite of those names, this version is not as dark as Disney’s. The attempt here was to do a light comedy, family friendly version of Snow White. But Snow White is one hell of a scary story, and the tone does not sit quite right. The structure is functional and had potential. Snow White is a grownup whom we meet early in the film, held captive in the castle by the wicked queen. Snow sneaks out of the castle and meets the Prince, although she does not know he’s a prince until she meets him again at the ball. The Queen has her eyes on the Prince as a potential husband, and so arranges for Snow to be taken to the woods and killed. Needless to say, she’s not, and she falls in with the dwarfs, a band of thieves who hide their size by wearing stilts when they rob people. The dwarves do not have the richness of character Disney’s did. Christopher Finch’s 1973 book The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom includes transcripts from the story and character conferences for the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and you can tell from them the time Disney and his people put in on character development. Keller and Wallack’s are short in character as well as height.

Snow does do some cooking for the little guys, but mostly she is there to become a warrior princess. I’m all for warrior princesses, but they are getting to be a cliché, and the training montage is uninventive. That is also true of the dialogue. When even Nathan Lane, as the Queen’s henchman, cannot get laughs, there is something seriously wrong with the script. The same thing happens with Julia Roberts’ Queen. Roberts can do evil, but she’s trying for diva here as well, and it’s not in her wheelhouse. Armie Hammer as the Prince is the only one who nails the tone, and that’s because he spends a lot of screen time pretending to be a dog. Hammer gives good dog.
Part of the problem with the film is that the director is miscast. He is Tarsem Singh. Tarsem was a student at LACC, although I don’t think I ever had him in class. I have followed his career and like some of his earlier films, especially The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2006). He has a great eye for exotic locations and sets, but the visuals here are not up to his usual standard. He also doesn’t seem to handle the workaday comedy scenes as well as he could. Hey, not everybody can be Lubitsch. And Keller and Wallack aren’t Samson Raphaelson yet either.

Damsels in Distress (2011. Written by Whit Stillman. 99 minutes.)

Damsels in Distress

Hermetically sealed: In Stillman’s first three films (Metropolitan [1990], Barcelona [1994], and The Last Days of Disco [1998]), he was dealing with subcultures, often within subcultures. But there was always an awareness within the film that they were subcultures. In Metropolitan, we are with East Coast, upper class kids during the debutante season, but Stillman introduces to this crowd Tom, who is not part of the culture. Tom serves as a critical observer of the upper class and their attitudes, which gives the film a dramatic tension. In Barcelona, Ted, an American working for an American company in Spain, and his cousin Fred, an American naval officer, are outsiders in the Spanish culture.

In Damsels we are in a fictional East Coast college, and the outsider of sorts is Lily, who is entering the college as a sophomore. She is “adopted” by Violet, the leader of a trio of girls. Violet has a lot of strange ideas, but Lily only challenges them in a half-hearted way, so we don’t get that kind of tension in this film. Violet runs a suicide prevention clinic, where she mostly prescribes tap dancing as a way to overcome your troubles. The girls get involved with various men, but the guys are so skimpily drawn that it is hard to tell them apart. There is very little forward momentum in the film, just a collection of scenes with Violet and the girls that do not really go anywhere. They all live in a hermetically sealed universe with very little connection to the real world. That may be part of Stillman’s point, but it’s not very compelling on the screen.

Act of Valor (2012. Written by Kurt Johnstad. 110 minutes.)

Act of Valor

Action yes, characterization no: A friend of mine, the son of a Navy admiral and a retired worker with the former job classification of “I can tell you what I do but I’d have to kill you,” is going through a tough patch at the moment. His wife is in the hospital and he’s not supposed to drive, so I took him out for brunch and then we saw this movie. We’d been talking about his World War II childhood in San Diego over brunch, and the opening scene has the Navy SEALS doing a parachute drop over San Diego. He was in hog heaven.
You may have read some of the backstory of this movie. The incidents are taken from true SEAL missions, put together in one film, and made with real Navy SEALS playing the SEALS. The downside is that the “personal” scenes are flatly written, and the dialogue is as simple as you can get for the same reason that dialogue in porno films is simple: the “actors” can’t handle dialogue that goes beyond declarative sentences. The emotions are also as simple as you can get; do not look for any nuance or irony here. Kurt Johnstad, a former grip, is also the screenwriter of 300 (2006), so you know the dominant tone is going to be macho squared. The good guys are very good, and the bad guys, all of whom seem to have the same scar, are very bad. And our guys never make mistakes. When they attack a small village, not a single woman or child gets hurt. And their equipment always works.

The action scene writing is terrific. We get several major set pieces, starting with the rescue of an attractive woman doctor the baddies are holding in a jungle hideout. The suspense is unnerving as our guys go through the jungle. My friend noticed that the maneuvering of the rescue boats was smart, always moving to distract the baddies. The attack on the village and the attack on a factory/fortress are also exciting, and different enough so that the action does not seem repetitive. What my friend and I loved about the film is that there is almost no CGI. We are in the jungle, on the ocean, in the village, and we get the physical sense of the place and the action, which I often don’t in CGI fests. One of the reasons I always liked David Lean’s movies is you feel the jungle, the desert, the winter of Russia. Act of Valor is not a patch on those, but if this is the sort of movie you like, you’ll like this one.

Titanic (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. 240 minutes.)


No, not that one: And not that one. And certainly not THAT one. This is one of those projects that sounded great in the pitch meeting. It is, in case you missed it, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. So why not do a television miniseries on it? Special effects are getting less expensive, so we can at least match in small screen terms the King of the World. Surely, there are more stories to tell that were not covered in the many earlier films. Maybe, maybe not. But let’s get Julian Fellowes to write it. After all, he started the first series of Downton Abbey with news of the sinking, using it as a way to get into the characters and their attitudes (see US#70).

In writing about the second season of Downton Abbey (US#92) I mentioned that Fellowes writes at an American pace, with shorter, faster scenes than most English writers. That was wonderful in Downton Abbey, but it gets things off to a very bad start here. We get very, and I mean very, shorts scenes with a lot of characters. We have no idea who these people are, and there are not enough questions raised about them to make us want to come back to them. I suspect that this was shown in four one-hour episodes in England, but here ABC put the first three hours together on the first night, with the last hour the following night. In each of the four episodes, Fellowes follows one or more families and/or characters from before they get on the ship to the ship beginning to sink. Then in the next episode he follows the same path with another group. And another group in the third. I do have to admit, by the way, that I have not seen the 4th hour, since there was a power glitch in our neighborhood and it did not get recorded, but the pattern is clear in the first three hours. What that means is that just when an episode gets interesting, we stop and go back to the beginning. It is bigboatsinkus interruptus, to use the old Latin phrase for it.

Fellowes overstuffs the film with issues as well as characters. Yes, we get some discussion of the administrative glitches that led to the sinking, but we also get discussions of the British Empire, the Troubles in Ireland, possible war in Europe. Thematically the film is just as unfocused as it is in terms of character.

Ah, well, there is always Season Three of Downton Abbey on the far horizon.


A Bad Spring for American Television, 2012: In terms of new shows premiering on both cable and broadcast channels this spring, it has been a miserable season. And that seems to have affected some ongoing shows as well.

Girls is a new, heavily hyped HBO show (does HBO have any other kind?) created by Lena Dunham. I missed her indie film Tiny Furniture (2010) because it sounded a little too precious by half. I think I was right, because Girls is a little too precious by three-quarters. It’s about four twenty-something girls from good backgrounds who can’t seem to get their shit together and whine about it a lot. Over the years I have known and even been related to some women who behave like that. These reminded me of them, and I turned to my wife and mentioned one of them, as in “This show is like a roomful of ’Jennys.’” (No, I am not using real names here, for obvious reasons; and I should note that most of them have grown out of it.) One reason I loved teaching at LACC is that there I did not have to deal with a lot of people with overdrawn senses of entitlement, although we had a few. The women in this show assume that their parents should finance any harebrained scheme they come up with while they “find themselves.” Finding themselves in this case seems to involve having bad sex with men they don’t like. Well, if you don’t know how you can enjoy that, you certainly haven’t found yourself yet.

Veep is another new, heavily hyped, yes, HBO show. This one is created by Armando Iannucci, who has a great track record of political satire in England. We saw his skill in the 2009 film In the Loop (see US#31), where he widened his view to cover a bunch of American political and military people. And he got it right. Which is probably where the idea for Veep began. The new show is about the American vice-president, Selina Meyer, and there is the same kind of fumbling around we saw in In the Loop, but without the wit. The pilot episode, “Fundraiser” (story by Iannucci, teleplay by Iannucci & Simon Blackwell), has Selina making a number of verbal faux pas and trying unsuccessfully trying to fix them. The wit simply is not there, and the relentless use of the word “shit” makes it seem even less funny. There are more “shits” in an episode of this show than there are “vaginas” in 2 Broke Girls. In the Loop had its share of foul language, but it had more of a point than it does here.

Don’t Trust the B… in Apt. 23 has a familiar premise: semi-uptight June, a young woman from the Midwest, ends up sharing an apartment with Chloe, who we are informed gets new roommates then drives them out by her odd behavior, keeping their rent money. Square versus kooky. Hey, it worked for Laverne and Shirley and it’s working for 2 Broke Girls. But the “Pilot,” created and written by Nahnatchka Khan, is overstuffed trying to get the situation established and the characters introduced, not an uncommon failing of pilots. There was enough potential there for me to watch the second episode, “Daddy’s Girl,” also written by Khan. It was a lot cleaner (only in one sense) and sharper. June has decided not to date, but Chloe thinks she has the perfect guy for June. June says no, so Chloe sets them up to meet at a party. June is taken with Scott. And then learns he is Chloe’s dad. Freak out time. But he comes to the coffee shop where she has managed to find a job, they talk and end up in bed. And the next day Chloe’s mom shows up at the apartment. She and Scott only separated a week ago, and she is in a wheelchair. And she is played by Marin Hinkle (Alan’s ex in Two and a Half Men), so the scenes get lively. There are a lot of twists and turns and surprises. Alas, the last surprise is that June tells Chloe, who admits to having Daddy issues, that she (June) and Scott never had sex, but just “dry rubbed” for hours. Talk about the writers chickening out. The third episode, “The Parent Trap,” written by Sally Bradford McKenna, falls apart completely. Chloe gets an “assistant” by taking in a foster child and putting her to work answering the phone. Later we see a social worker drop in, and she has to be the most obtuse s.w. to not realize what’s going on. Chloe is flitting off to exotic places, leaving June to take care of the kid. Most of the episode is June yelling at Chloe for his lack of responsibility. The dialogue is very on-the-nose and not funny. Chloe is supposed to be a free spirit, but she is a little too far over the line for us to like her.

The L.A. Complex is a Canadian series on the CW network set in…Hollywood. Which leads to a lot of aerial shots of L.A. and one or two scenes shot on the streets in L.A. The rest is done on soundstages in Canada. It’s about a bunch of show biz wannabes who come to L.A. to Make It Big. And most of them end up in an apartment complex hanging around the swimming pool and humping each other’s brains out. Wait a minute, didn’t this used to be called Melrose Place? Indeed it did, and this is no particular improvement on the original. The actors are mostly people you have not seen much of before, but they are not incompetent, just not that compelling. And given the demographic that advertisers love, the oldest character, Raquel, is supposedly over the hill since she is pushing thirty, although I don’t know which side she is pushing from. There are no old people on this show, and there are no fat people. There were a couple of nice touches in the pilot, “Down in L.A.,” written by the show’s creator Martin Gero. Connor, a former resident, has just gotten the starring role in an upcoming series and has moved out. He is back for a party and hooks up with a newbie, Abby. The morning after she asks if he wore a condom. He says no, but then gallantly volunteers to take her to buy a morning after pill. And he’ll treat her to breakfast as well. Chivalry is not dead, just mutating. After she takes the pill, which can cause side effects, she gets word that she has scored an audition. She goes, but has not prepared a song, so she sings one of her own. Which in the world of this series impresses the hell out of the director. Until the nausea from the pill catches up with her and she vomits on the piano. Which leads to the director’s great line, “There is an old show business expression: when there is vomit on the piano, the audition is over.” I had not heard that expression before, but maybe it is just Canadian.

In US#92 I spoke too soon about the quality of the new season of Fairly Legal. For reasons known only to the showrunners and USA, they have introduced a new regular character. He is a very obnoxious lawyer named Ben Grogan. He’s only interested in taking cases to trial, winning at trial, and taking home lots of money. I suppose he is set up as a counterpoint to Kate’s more humane mediator, but mostly he is just irritating both to her and to us. And to make matters worse, in “What They Seem,” written by Tom Donaghy, there is a scene that suggests Kate may be falling for him. Then in “Ripple of Hope,” written by Robert Nathan, he kisses her. Ugh. And she kisses him back. Eewww. I know the ads make her look like a childish idiot, but up until now she has not been in the show.

30 Rock improved a bit in the spring, but then they tried another live show. In October 2010 they performed an episode live, and I pointed out the reasons it did not work in US#62. The scenes were longer than those in the filmed episodes, throwing the rhythm of the show off. The live audience response threw the actors off. The sets looked smaller and cheaper than those in the filmed version. Well, they tried it again in April with “Live From Studio 6H,” written by Jack Burditt & Tina Fey. They tried to shorten the scenes, which helped a bit, but it made it seem more like they were showing off that the actors could run around between scenes very quickly. They kept to just a few sets, and several of those were supposedly from television back in the ‘50s, so it didn’t matter than those looked cheap. The plot line was that Kabletown decided that TGS would no longer be live. Kenneth locked everybody up in a room to try to convince them to fight to keep the show live. This led to a series of parodies of shows supposedly done live in this studio. One was The Lovebirds, an obvious takeoff of The Honeymooners, with Alec Baldwin as Jackie Gleason and Tina Fey as Audrey Meadows. Another was a parody of The Dean Martin Show with Baldwin as an inebriated singer and Jane Krakowski doing a good Dusty Springfield impression. The problem was that these sketches all seemed like something from Saturday Night Live. Adding to that feeling was that from the beginning of the entire episode, everybody was reading off cue cards, with not a single actor looking at any other actor in the eye. Granted the script was not that great, but would it have killed the actors to memorize their lines? There is a great tradition in theater, film, and television of actors actually remembering what they have to say. Of course, it also helps if you stick with professional actors. Kim Kardashian did a cameo in the West Coast version, replacing Sir Paul McCartney, who did the East Coast version. Kardashian, whose performance skills do not include line reading, swallowed her last punch line and I couldn’t understand what she said.

In the same column in which I wrote about the previous live 30 Rock, I also covered the ending of that season of Mad Men. I said at that point, “I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the next season.” We had to wait eighteen months, but it is finally back, and I will deal with it in the next column. Or the one after that.

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.



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

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



That Was Something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

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



First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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