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Understanding Screenwriting #96: Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Mad Men, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #96: Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Mad Men, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Girl in Progress, Where Do We Go Now?, My Life as a Mankiewicz (book), Hemingway & Gellhorn, Mad Men, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein wondered if I have written about Ring Lardner Jr. at any length before. I haven’t in the column, but you might want to take a look at Chapter 13 in my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. There I do a case history of M*A*S*H starting with the first movie about a MASH unit—the terrible Battle Circus (1955)—the Robert Altman film, and then the TV series. I point out how Lardner’s script for the film was brilliant and nearly destroyed by Altman’s direction.

“Snarpo” says his nickname comes from mis-typing “Sopranos.” If he says so, but I still think he should claim to be a lost Marx Brother.

“outsidedog” is upset because he thought I was implying Joss Whedon could not write the one-liners for Iron Man. I was not intending to say that, just that the tone of them is just enough different from the rest of the script that I had my suspicions. Yes, understanding the difference in tone in dialogue is part of understanding screenwriting. A script-doctor, by the way, is different from a writer a director or star keeps on the payroll. A script-doctor works on the script overall, while the “pocket writer,” as they are called, usually focus on one or two aspects of the script. If you read the Tom Mankiewicz book I review in this column, you’ll begin to see the difference.

Battleship (2012. Written by Erich Hoeber & Jon Hoeber. 131 minutes.)

The Monster that Challenged the World on steroids: Welcome to another episode of “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” film critics division. How many times have I beaten movies about the head and shoulders for not focusing on characters? And how many times have I made the point that perhaps the best way to get us into your story is get us involved with the characters? The answer to both questions is “lots.” So here comes Battleship just to prove I can be wrong. You know with that title there is going to be a lot of things being blown up real good, but the film starts out slowly. Alex Hooper, a ne’er do well young guy, gets arrested for breaking into a store to get Samantha, a girl he just met in a bar, a burrito. Stone, his brother, is a Naval officer, and insists that Alex go into the Navy rather than go to jail (in real life the judge in the case would make that call, but reality is not a strong suit of a film inspired by a board game). And in no time flat Alex has gone through Officer Candidate School and has risen to the rank of Lieutenant. Which would normally take three or four years, but reality is not, etc. So we know Alex is going to be a maverick, in the Tom Cruise not Sarah Palin sense. But that is about all we know of him. The writers don’t give him much more than that. Taylor Kitsch plays Alex. There are those who liked him as part of the ensemble cast on Friday Night Lights but he did not make a good impression as a leading man in John Carter a few months ago. So he is not a character we will necessarily want to follow. Stone is a block of wood. Samantha turns out to be the daughter of Admiral Shane, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, but she is not given much texture, and the Admiral is just a tough guy. If this were a 1943 movie, Samantha would be a nurse, but here she is a physical therapist who spends most of the movie doing a physical therapy hike with Lt. Colonel Canales, who has lost both his legs. His lost legs are not CGI like Lt. Dan’s were in Forrest Gump (1994), but belong to vet Gregory D. Gadson, who is indeed a double amputee and is the most real person on-screen.

We finally put out to sea for the RIMPAC war games, in which navies from the Pacific Rim work together. Well, they have their job cut out for them. Scientists have been sending out messages to planets that may be like ours, which has led to the arrival of a bunch of Transformer-like vessels in the waters off Hawaii. The message transmitters are on the Big Island in Hawaii. The aliens put a protective shield around their vessels, trapping the Guided Missile Cruiser John Paul Jones within the shield. Alex leads the charge, his brother having conveniently been killed, along with enlisted personnel including Fire Control Petty Officer Raikes, who also has no character, but is played by singer Rihanna. We don’t know if she can act yet, but the camera loves her. The first battle between the ship and the aliens goes on forever. I mean forever. In 1957 the Navy dealt with a beast in the Salton Sea in The Monster That Challenged the World (story by David Duncan, screenplay by Pat Fielder), which according to the IMDb cost $254,000. Battleship cost close to 1,000 times that and is only a little more entertaining.

The John Paul Jones does some damage to the aliens, but the JPJ is a cruiser and not a battleship. And the title of the film is Battleship. Fine, except the Navy no longer has any active battleships. The USS Iowa has recently been towed from the ship graveyard in Suisun Bay east of San Francisco to Los Angeles, where it will be a floating museum. Ah, but remember I said this movie was set in Hawaii. And at Pearl Harbor we have the most famous American battleship, the USS Missouri. So Alex and the gang get it underway in what appears to be a matter of minutes. In real life it would take about six months to de-mothball it. And what do you do for a crew for a seventy-year-old ship? And here’s where the picture finally began to work for me. All I will tell you is that I saw this one on Memorial Day with my friend, the son of an admiral, whom you may remember from US#94 (his wife is out of the hospital and recuperating, thank you for asking) and we laughed more at that moment than anybody else in the theater.

And to add to the fun, the other crew that helps Alex is…Japanese. And nobody makes any references to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor or the Japanese signing their surrender in 1945 on the Missouri. I can’t help but think there may have been a couple of references in the script, but if there were, there are none in the film, and I think it works better without them. It makes you think.

Battleship opened overseas a month before it opened in the United States. It played fairly well there, but did not take off here at home. Part of the problem is that it opened shortly after The Avengers, which sucked all the air out of the box office. In addition to the bland characterizations, most of the characters seem like cliches from World War II movies. In the book Understanding Screenwriting, I put the 2001 Pearl Harbor (written by Randall Wallace) in the “Not-Quite-So Good” category, because it seemed to me to use all the World War II cliches. I wrote, “Pearl Harbor is one-stop shopping for all you World War II film needs.” In spite of that, there was enough of what Wallace intended in the script to make it interesting. There is nothing similar here.

Oh, one other thing. I mentioned in writing about The Avengers in US#95 that you should stick around for the scene after the end of the credits. There is a similar post-credit scene here, but do yourself a favor and get out of the theatre before it comes on.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011. Screenplay by Ol Parker, based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach. 124 minutes.)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

All the good jokes are in the trailer: Now I bet that was something you never thought you would hear about a movie starring the two Great Dames, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.

In addition to being a novelist, Deborah Moggach is also a screenwriter, most notably of the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice. So why did she tell this story as a novel? The obvious answer is that it’s about a group of elderly English people who come to live at the Indian hotel of the title, and who wants a movie about geezers? Lots of people apparently; it just crossed over the $100 million mark at the worldwide box office. But I suspect she also did it as a novel since she could get inside the heads of the characters in a way that’s difficult to do on film. Which may be one of the reasons she did not do the script (or it may have just been studio politics). Ol Parker, who did write the script, has not found any way to get into the characters’ internal emotions other than have them say exactly what they are thinking and feeling. So the scenes are very flat, even with Her Majesty’s First Team of actors, including Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson. Parker does give them jokes, but a lot of those are older than the actors. Maggie Smith’s Muriel says at one point that she is so old she does not even buy green bananas. That’s quite a ways from the line Julian Fellowes gives her in the second season of Downton Abbey, “Do you promise?” “Green bananas” is just a generic joke; “Do you promise?” is a great character line.

I don’t know if Parker is just following the book on this, but he does not seem to get very deeply into the characters. Near the end of the film a faithful servant to the family that owns the hotel reminds the mother of Sonny, who runs the hotel, that her husband’s parents objected to her as she is currently objecting to the woman Sonny loves. She immediately softens, happy ending, end of story. But it would not take more than an additional line or two for her to make a case that she wants Sonny and the girl to avoid the fights she had to go through. What’s missing in any texture to nearly all the characters, Tom Wilkinson’s gay judge being the exception. The other actors try hard, but the material is just not there. They do the jokes well, of course, which is why those are in the trailer.

I also felt the story misses the texture of India. There are a lot of postcard shots, but the script skims over other details, such as the workers at a phone answering center that Evelyn teaches English customs to. She and the kids have a nice scene where she teaches them how to talk on the telephone, but it is pretty much a stand-alone scene. On the other hand, after I wrote the first part of this paragraph I had brunch one day with my son-in-law and his business partner. They have offices around the world, including one in India, and they thought Sonny was exactly like the guy they had running the Indian office (“Right away, right away, right away in three months”). The partner’s wife saw the film twice and then went again with him. So I have to bow to their experience, but it still did not seem to me to get the texture of the country as well as it could have. The partner suggested it may have been because you don’t hear any car horns in the movie, and you hear nothing but in India. But if we heard them, then maybe we would have missed the jokes. As in…

Girl in Progress (2012. Written by Hiram Martinez. 93 minutes.)

Girl in Progress

What did she say?: Ansiedad, aka Ann, a 15-year-old girl, is giving a report in school on someone she admires. It’s about her mom, Grace, who got knocked up when she was 18, lives as a single mom, and has a married boyfriend. At least I think that’s part of what she said. The sound track on this film is so badly recorded and/or mixed, as are those in way too many contemporary films and television shows, that I don’t know exactly what Ann said. (I tried all four different settings on my hearing aids and none of them made it any better.) Whatever she says, it’s enough for the teacher to send her to the principal, who calls in the mother. Grace is indeed rather flighty and unfocused, but warm and loving, a little too much so with the married doctor whose house she cleans. She also works at a clam restaurant, or more like a shack.

The film is Ann’s story. Inspired by the coming-of-age stories her teacher has her reading, she decides to consciously live her life as if it is a coming-of-age story. She puts up a chart on her wall of the steps she has to take (dumping her dorky friend, losing her virginity, etc) and starts to follow them. She does get in with the in-crowd at school, and after deciding not to dump her friend Tavita (played by Raini Rodriquez, the sister of Rico Rodriquez, who plays Manny on Modern Family; the family has a deep talent bench), she does, which leads Tavita to attempt suicide. The film is trying to be both funny and serious and manages it reasonably well. The satire of in this case the “heroine’s journey” is a great idea, but not as thoroughly developed as it might. Martinez does not give it as much time as he could, since he is juggling so many other subplots.

Patricia Riggen directed the wonderful Under the Same Moon (2007), but the script here is not up to the one for the earlier film. Same Moon was written by Ligiah Villalobos, whose TV movie earlier this year, Firelight, was not up to her earlier script. Hey, it happens. Riggen does some good work here with the actors, which help make it watchable. Ann is played by Cierra Ramirez, who has done mostly TV work, but captures a girl on the cusp of growing up. The delight is Eva Mendes as Grace. Mendes is usually cast for her gorgeousness, but she is deglamorized here and gives a much richer and more detailed performance here than I have seen before. I would have thought mothers and/or daughters would have turned out for this one, but the day I saw it there was only one other person in the theater and like me he was a man of a certain age. Make of that what you will.

Where Do We Go Now? (2011. Rodney Al Haddad, Jihad Hojeily, Nadeen Labaki, and Sam Munier, with the collaboration of Thomas Bidegain. 110 minutes.)

Where Do We Go Now?

A Lebanese Amarcord: Nadeen Labaki, who not only co-wrote this film but also directs it, made the wonderful 2007 Caramel (also co-written with Al Haddad and Hojeily). Caramel is about four women who work at a beauty salon in Beirut and their adventures, romantic and otherwise. It was an art house hit when it played in the U.S., eventually grossing over a million dollars. This one is not doing quite as well, having made only a quarter of that by early June. It is not as much of a crowd-pleaser as Caramel, but it is a little more cinematically adventurous.

Instead of Beirut, we are in a small village in the hills, isolated by active mines from leftover wars. The film opens with a group of the village women all dressed in black moving and chanting in unison. Is this simply a village funeral ritual, or is it a musical number? We can’t tell, and I suspect that threw audiences off a bit. It turns out it may be a bit of both, since there are occasional musical numbers, some done just as voiceovers, some sung and danced. My favorite is a number the women of the village do while they are cooking up hash brownies.

The village connects to the outside by a couple of guys who have found a way through the mine fields and go out to civilization on their motorcycle to get supplies. Today they are bringing back a big screen TV and a satellite dish. The setting up of the TV reminds me very much of Amarcord (1973; story and screenplay by Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra) as we watch the assorted characters in the village react to the events. Fellini would feel right at home in this village, and we get the sense that this is going to be an ensemble piece, as was Caramel, but with more characters. Labaki not only co-wrote and directed the film, but she also plays one of the villagers. And neither as writer nor director does she privilege her character over the others. There are not a lot of actor-directors who do that.

The plot gets going when the television brings news that Muslims and Christians are fighting in other parts of Lebanon. People of both religions have gotten along fine in the village for years, but neighbors begin to look at each other suspiciously. And the women in the village are worried. They don’t want fighting to break out among their fathers, husbands, or sons. So the women try to distract the men. First up in a false miracle in the Christian church, and when that does not work, the women get the two guys with the motorcycle to arrange to have a troupe of Russian showgirls stranded in the village. That only works for a while, so the women whip up the hash brownies to put the men to sleep while the women hide their guns. Finally the Christian women dress as Muslims while the Muslim women dress as Christians. As everywhere in the movie, look at the reactions the writers have given all the characters to everything that is going on.

So what we have here is a movie that’s part Neo-realism, part musical, part political comment. You see what I mean about it being cinematically adventurous. The film gets more serious as it progresses, without getting heavy-handed, and ends with the question of the title in a very interesting context. If you missed this in theaters, that’s why both the Christian and Muslim gods made Netflix.

My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey Through Hollywood (2012. Book by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane. 370 pages)

My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider's Journey Through HollywoodFull disclaimer: You may remember that a couple of years ago in US#54 I wrote an appreciation of the late Tom Mankiewicz, who had just passed away. I had known him at Yale and later. For the last several years of his life he was talking to Robert Crane about his life and career. Crane put it all together in this book, and Patrick McGilligan (the Backstory books), the editor of the Screen Classics series of books for the University Press of Kentucky, asked me to review the manuscript for them. I did and recommended they publish it, assuming they corrected the errors I found. They did correct them and the book has just been published, with a line from my comments as a blurb on the back. Here is a slightly revised version of some of what I said in my comments:

The reason I thought they ought to publish it is that it is one of the few books about the American movie industry that shows, not tells, what is meant by the idea that the business is one of relationships. In Mankiewicz’s case I don’t just mean that he was the son of Joe and the nephew of Herman. As he points out, you don’t succeed as a screenwriter unless you can deliver the goods. Yes, his dad’s connections got him is assistant’s gig on The Comancheros (1962), but the writing he did on his own. His family relationships may have opened doors, but he went through them. What’s more important about the book, though, is that it confirms what the industry advisory committee we have at LACC always tells us to teach our students: learn how to play well with others. If Mankiewicz was not the writer his dad was (who is?), the book makes clear he had a knack for friendship that is crucial to succeed in the business. If you are working with people 27 hours a day, 8 days a week on multi-million dollar films like the Bond or Superman films, they had better want to have you around. The book gives you a real sense of the way the Bond and Superman films were written and created. It is clear from the book that Mankiewicz’s collaborators liked his company as well as his writing ability. The downside of that is that when he left CAA, then under control of the Mike Ovitz, his former friends there caused his career harm. Mankiewicz does not go into that as deeply as he could have, I suspect because it may have been too painful for him.

Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012. Written by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner. 155 minutes.)

Hemingway & Gellhorn

Not the Hatfields and McCoys: While the entire known world was watching the History Channel’s first (officially) scripted miniseries, Hatfields and McCoys, I ended up watching HBO’s film on Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. Well, it had good bloodlines. Barbara Turner (interviewed in Backstory 5, where she mentions working on this for some years) has credits that include Petulia (1968), Georgia (1995) and Pollock (2000). Jerry Stahl’s TV credits include everything from Alf through thirtysomething to CSI. The director is Philip Kaufman, best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, which he co-wrote with Jean-Claude Carrière). And the editor is the great Walter Murch of The Conversation (1974). Great bloodlines don’t always win races.

There are a lot of good things in the movie. Hemingway and Gellhorn had fabulous lives, with Gellhorn’s maybe the most interesting, as you can see from the Wikipedia entry on her. They had an affair in the late ‘30s while running around covering the Spanish Civil War, then were married during World War II. If anything, there may be too much material on the two of them for a single film. I have no idea if a longer film was considered. In this film we get some lively scenes between Hemingway and Gellhorn, nicely played by Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, respectively. Kidman is easily the best thing in the picture, for some reasons we will discuss later. Murch, who was one of the editors on Unbearable Lightness of Being, is back to cutting between staged material and documentary material, in this case scenes from Joris Ivens’s 1937 documentary about the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway was involved in the production of The Spanish Earth and eventually did the narration for it, and we cut from staged scenes of Ivens and Hemingway shooting the film to clips from the film.

The fact that the film spends the first hour on the Spanish Civil War becomes part of the problem. Americans in general always had mixed feelings about the Spanish Civil War. Frank Capra, in his 1942 documentary Prelude to War, makes no mention of it in his coverage of the events leading up to World War II. Americans on the Left supported the Loyalist cause, those on the Right supported Franco, and most Americans were perfectly satisfied to see the Communists and Fascists kill each other. Hemingway, Gellhorn and Ivens were of the Left and the script is sympathetic to that point of view, so much so that the film never really deals with the reality of the politics. In our day and age, the Leftists seem incredibly naïve for supporting the Communist position.

With the decline of the influence of Marxist theories since the fall of the Soviet Empire, we are less sympathetic with those true believers. The script does not deal with that, except for the minor presence of a Soviet agent who pulls Paco, an anti-fascist, from the front lines and eventually—we are told, but do not see it for ourselves—has him killed. That Hemingway and Gellhorn never seem to twig to the limits of the Left makes them seem rather stupid. The script could have been sharper about this, but then it might have lost our sympathy for the characters.

An even bigger problem that dates the film is Hemingway. His brand of excess machismo seems very old fashioned now. In the film he is in the process of becoming the pompous blowhard of his later years. I can see why Stahl and Turner portray him that way, since their sympathy is much more with Gellhorn. She is by far the most interesting character in the script, and Kidman captures her completely as we see her deal with Hemingway’s excesses. The writers may have been afraid that if you make Hemingway more sensitive (yes, there was a sensitive side to Hemingway; read A Farewell to Arms), then you possibly take away from her character. I suspect they could have balanced the two out better and the picture would have worked better.

The writers also make a rookie mistake in the opening minutes. We are with an older Gellhorn and she tells us that she was bad at sex. I suppose the idea was that we will then want to find out what she was good at, but I think it takes away some of our interest in her, especially in a film that is going to be about the great romance between her and Hemingway.

Mad Men (2012. Various Writers. Various lengths.)

Mad Men

A season of great scenes: “A Little Kiss” (written by Matthew Weiner), the two-hour opener of the 5th season, seemed to me to be less of a typical season opener than something you might see in midseason: a continuation of the many characters and storylines we have been following. The rest of the season has been like that as well, but Weiner and his writers have thrown us an interesting change-up this season. Much to our, and possible his, surprise, Don seems reasonably happy. Who would have guessed, A) that he would actually have married Megan, and B) they would be happy? Yes, there have been ups and downs, but they sure get along a hell of a lot better than Don and Betty did. So the overall tension of the entire season has been: can this happiness last? Everything we have seen in the first four seasons suggests it won’t; but it does. Much to everybody’s surprise. (Especially the Brits. Several British critics think this season jumped the shark.)

One thing that struck me about this season, and it is apparent in “A Little Kiss,” is that we have had a season of great scenes. Weiner starts the episode with a group of white guys dumping bags of water on civil rights marchers on the streets below. They aren’t “our” white guys, so why are we watching this? Because it leads to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hiring a black woman receptionist. Who is immediately ignored by Weiner and the other writers for the rest of the season. We suspect she will play a bigger role next season, but I still think it’s a bit sloppy of the show not to do more with her now.

The most talked about scene in “A Little Kiss” was Megan singing the French song “Zou Bisou Bisou.” Who knew that Megan had that in her? Or that she would do it in front of everybody? At a 40th birthday party for Don that Don did not want? So we get a scene that’s very sexy (Megan singing and dancing), funny (the reactions of the other guests), and dramatic (we know that Don’s not pleased).

Dream scenes are always tricky to do, like surrealism in general. They are either too obvious, or too obscure. The one Victor Levin and Weiner cook up for “Mystery Date” is one that works. Early in the episode Don and Megan meet Andrea, someone Don has known intimately before. Andrea flirts with Don until he mentions Megan is his wife. Later Don has gone home sick, but Andrea arrives at his front door. He rushes her out the backdoor. Well, yes, we could believe that would happen in real life. Then we have some scenes with others, then Don wakes up and finds Andrea in his bedroom, and they start to make out. Well, yes, we’ll believe that as well, knowing Don. More scenes with others, then Don wakes up again as Andrea is leaving. She says they will do it again…and he strangles her and pushes her body under the bed. Well, no, we don’t necessarily think Don would do that, but we have seen all these “real” scenes of them before this, so maybe he did. And then he wakes up again and it’s morning. Andrea’s body is not there and Megan has been there all night. What the writers are doing is what Fellini does with great skill in 8 ½ (1963): make you think you know where you are, and then pulling the rug out from under you. Fred would be proud.

In “Far Away Places,” written by Semi Chellas and Weiner, there are two striking scenes. The first is Don and Megan on a “fact-finding mission” to a Howard Johnson’s, not their normal habitat. This leads to a confrontation between then, since Megan doesn’t know when she is a co-worker, and when she is a wife. He leaves her in the parking lot and then cannot find her. The scene is a nice use of a location to add to the unease we feel. The second striking sequence is Roger and Jane, his younger wife, taking LSD at a party. Unlike so many LSD movies of the ‘60s, the writers handle this with great restraint. There are unnerving elements like there were in “Mystery Date,” but they focus on the details of what Roger thinks he sees rather than any flashy psychedelic special effects. Restraint is something Mad Men has always been good at.

In “At the Codfish Ball” by Jonathan Igla, the writer builds the entire episode towards the scene at the end at the dinner. Megan’s parents, Dr. Emile and Marie Calvet, have come to town, partly to meet Don and partly to be there when he gets an award from the American Cancer Society for his infamous letter about tobacco. Emile is a French intellectual who believes in Marx and learns his book has not been picked up for publication. Marie’s a little more down to earth. Sally, Don’s daughter, is going to the dinner, and trying to dress above her age, which Don vetoes. At the dinner Don is told privately that even though he is getting an award, no big companies will hire SCDP because of his letter. Emile asks what Don does all day, and Peggy starts to talk to him about his work, saying that it should be better known. When she gets him hooked, Don tells him, “That’s what I do all day.” Emile is not as smart as they are. Roger flirts with Marie, and they end up in another room, with Marie going down on him. Sally happens to open the door and sees them. Eventually everybody is back at the table, looking glum. Later Sally talks to Glen, her creepy friend from back home. He asks how the big city is. She replies, “Dirty.”

“The Other Woman,” written by Chellas and Weiner, starts a build to its best scene by having Pete tell Joan that Herb, the head of the Jaguar dealers, would guarantee SCDP would get the Jaguar account if she would sleep with him. We see it discussed, and Joan shoots Pete down the first time he mentions it. Don rejects the idea, but the other partners figure out what it will cost in terms of money AND in terms of making Joan a partner. The great scene is Don going to Joan’s house to try to talk her out of doing it. He does have morals after all. She is non-committal and we discover later that she has already slept with Herb by the time Don talks to her. So when she comes into the partners meeting the next day, he knows what’s happened and there is a nice exchange of reaction shots between Don and Joan. This episode also gives us a scene we have been waiting years for: Peggy telling Don she is quitting. When she leaves the company, smiling to herself, she gets into the elevator. Given that several episodes before we have seen Don staring into an empty elevator shaft, we half expect her to fall to her death, but this is not L.A. Law and she is not Rosalind Shays.

“Commissions and Fees,” written by André Jacquemetton & Maria Jacquemetton, gives us two great Lane Pryce scenes. He has embezzled money from SCDP and finally been caught. He and Don have a showdown as Lane begs not to be fired. The scene is a perfect example of my mantra of writing for performance. The other scene pays off a bit that has been running through the attempt to get the Jaguar account. Everybody has pointed out that the car is unreliable. Lane has a Jaguar and tries to kill himself by putting a hose from the exhaust pipe into the car. But the car won’t start. Always steal from the best; see Walter Neff and the car in Double Indemnity (1944; screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder) for the forerunner of this scene.

In “The Phantom,” written by Igla and Weiner, we get a nice scene where Don and Peggy run into each other at a movie. They still have the same respect for each they have always had, but they are more relaxed with each other now they are not working together. This episode has one of the best final scenes of any episode. Megan has left the ad business and has tried to go back to acting. Don has been resistant. When a friend of hers asks Megan to help her get a gig in a commercial Don is doing based on Beauty and the Beast, Megan pitches herself. Don turns her down, but then looks at a screen test she had made. His reaction tells us he is falling in love again, and we cut to the set with Megan in the part. As they get ready to shoot Don walks away into the dark and into a bar with a Japanese décor. Well, of course; the music has been the lead-in to the title song from You Only Live Twice, which was set in Japan, and the lyrics come up as he comes into the bar. What better song for this season, as Don is into his second, or maybe third, or fourth life? We get quick clips of Pete at home with headphones on and Peggy in what I took to be her apartment, but which Weiner said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times was hotel room. She watches a couple of dogs screwing outside the window. And we get Roger. Standing naked in front of a hotel room window, looking as though he might jump, although the look on his face tells us he’s tried the LSD again. We come back to the bar, and a woman asks Don if he is alone. His reaction tells us he really does not know how to answer that these days. He’s been “alone” all his life, but now he’s not so much anymore.

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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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.

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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 welcoming 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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Blog

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.

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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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Awards

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.

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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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