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Understanding Screenwriting #10: Synecdoche, New York, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #10: <em>Synecdoche, New York</em>, <em>Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Synecdoche, New York; Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist; The Rape of Europa; Elizabeth:The Golden Age; Till the End of Time; 30 Rock; ER; Desperate Housewives; Mad Men, but first…

Fan Mail: Maura had the same problem with the character of Sidney in Rachel Getting Married that I did. Here are some of the reasons why. After I wrote the item on the film, I came across an interview with the director Jonathan Demme in which he talked about how the actors were allowed to improvise. Generally one should discount by 10% any claim by directors or actors that they improvised, and also realize that usually the worst scenes in a movie are those that actors are improvising in. Demme mentioned that he originally wanted Paul Thomas Anderson to play Sidney, but Anderson was busy directing There Will Be Blood. The character and his family were not originally written as black and while it might be considered a very liberal thing not to mention it at all in the film, it is also not particularly realistic and, as in this case, robs the characters of texture and depth.

Theoldboy took me to task for not mentioning Dennis Hopper’s long monologue at the opening of the Crash pilot. As I said in my first column, I am going wide, not deep, so there will be aspects of the scripts that will be left out. But I figure part of what I am doing here is trying to get you thinking about the writing of films and televisions shows, which I obviously did in theoldboy’s case. Yeah for me.

Synecdoche, New York (2008. Written by Charlie Kaufman. 124 minutes): You would think that since 8 ½ is one of my two all-time favorite movies and that since I like (but not love as much as some other people do) Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays, I would love or at least like Synecdoche, New York. You would be wrong.

The film’s story is simple. Yes it really is. Small-time stage director Caden Cotard’s wife leaves him and with the help of a McArthur “genius” grant he tries to stage a representation of his life. 8 ½ is even simpler: Guido Anselmi is trying to get over a creative block and direct a movie. Whereas 8 ½ is fast, funny, and light on its feet, Synecdoche, New York is none of those things. Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Brunello Rondi have created a wonderful gallery of characters for their story. Kaufman has not. Caden mopes around before his wife leaves, and he mopes around after she leaves, and Kaufman has not given Philip Seymour Hoffman any other notes to play. Caden’s wife Adele is also a one-note character, and Catherine Keener cannot do anything more with her than whine. Kaufman has given Samantha Morton maybe two notes to play as Hazel, which makes her stand out a bit from the others. It just gets to be a pain hanging out with these characters. Think of the lively characters in previous Kaufman films and you will see what I mean about this group.

The storytelling is very lethargic. It takes almost half an hour before Adele leaves, and almost as long again for Caden to come up with his idea for a show. Then the mechanics of putting on Caden’s “show” bog down the film even further. Yes, this is supposed to be slightly surreal (and it is not surreal enough), but the “genius” grants do not carry enough money to mount the kind of production Caden is doing. Not only does Synecdoche, New York suffer in comparison to 8 ½, but also in comparison with Bob Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthur’s 8 ½ ripoff, All That Jazz, where we get a lot of details, artistic, personal, and financial, about putting on a show. What both the earlier films do and what Synecdoche, New York fails to do is to give you a sense of the joys as well as the agonies of creation. If creative work was as dreary as Kaufman makes it out to be, nobody would be doing it.

It probably would not make a lot of difference if the film had a different director, but Kaufman certainly does not help his own script. He makes the basic rookie mistake most people do when they direct their first feature: he lets the actors talk too slowly. It may look realistic on the set, but it seems slow on film. It also kills the comic rhythm, as in the scene with the doctor who keeps saying “No.” I think if the playing were goosed up a little bit, it might be funny. Kaufman the director does not have as much of an interesting visual style as the directors who have shot his previous scripts, which drags down the film even more. The script is not good enough for the repetitive two-shots and close-ups Kaufman uses. Sometimes writers should not be allowed to direct. Hopefully, since Kaufman is a smart as well as talented fellow, he will do better in the future both as writer and director. I, for one, hope so.

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008. Screenplay by Lorene Scafaria, based on the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. 91 minutes): In my last column (US#9), I wrote about how we decide to go to see a particular film. That is an issue with this film as well.

My wife and I saw the trailer for this and thought it looked cute. We are great fans of Michael Cera, who plays Nick, from Arrested Development and Juno. On the other hand, it was hardly aimed at our demographic, and how much contemporary music could we listen to without going deaf? The reviews were reasonably good, but still. Then one review caught my eye, since it mentioned something none of the trailers, ads, or other reviews had bothered to mention. While Nick is straight, the two other members of his band are gay. And apparently no big deal was made of it in the film. So how does the film handle that? Very well, thank you, mainly by not making a big deal out of it. It is just a given that everybody in the film accepts, and it appears the audiences are accepting it as well.

There is more to the film than that. It is only 90 minutes long and does not overstay its welcome. But beyond the question of length, it is a beautifully proportioned movie. Scafaria has balanced the characters so that this is not just Nick’s story, but also Norah’s story. Both are given full development as characters, within the limitations of the romantic dramedy structure. The supporting characters are nicely drawn, both gay and straight. No scene runs longer than it needs to, and Scafaria balances the Nick and Norah dialogue scenes with virtually silent scenes of Norah’s drunk friend Caroline staggering around New York.

The script is also good at giving the actors scenes to play. It would have been easy, and lazy, just to set up Nick as another of Michael Cera’s baffled adolescents. In films like Juno and Superbad he is the straight man to the other wacky characters. Here Scafaria has given him more to do, and Cera responds with his best and most varied performance. He is still using his deadpan look, but using it as effectively as Buster Keaton used his. And it turns out Cera has a killer smile when he needs it; not a Julia-Roberts-twenty-million-dollars-a-picture dazzler, but one that is right for the character. Scafaria’s Caroline is a wonderful opportunity for the fearless Ari Gaynor, especially in her toilet scene, which I will not spoil for you. And Scafaria realizes that Nick’s yellow Yugo is a major character in the film, so it gets its own star entrance scene.

Scafaria also balances the script with details that we only learn slowly over the course of the film. Norah, unlike Nick and his Yugo, is introduced slowly. When Norah brushes past a doorman at a club, I assumed it was just efficiency on the part of the filmmakers. But when she keeps doing it, we suspect there may be more to it. Look at how long into the picture it takes before we find out about her background. Scafaria also can be delightfully misleading. Late in the picture, a recording system is left on and we assume it means somebody will hear what is being recorded. Guess again. The bit’s payoff is funny and charming, as well as something that I am sure helped the film keep a PG-13 rating.

And kudos also to the sound mixers: the music was not too loud.

The Rape of Europa (2006. Written by Richard Berge and Bonnie Cohen and Nichole Newnham, based on the book The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas. 117 minutes): This documentary played brief theatrical runs earlier this year and is now out on DVD. It is also scheduled to be shown on PBS in November, so you have no excuse for missing it.

As the subtitle of Nicholas’s book pretty much tells you, this is about the efforts of the Allies to protect the art treasures of Europe during the Second World War. From a writing point it is particularly interesting because of its main line of development. In order to break through the German lines at Cassino in Italy in early 1944, the Allies bombed the monastery on Monte Cassino. There was an outcry over this, and the Allies became determined to do what they could to protect the treasures of Europe. Several months later, for example, the bombing of the German rail lines in Florence became a precision bombing raid that destroyed the rail lines without hurting anything else. As the film progresses, the steps by the Allies to protect what they can get more and more complex. And the issue becomes even more difficult as they discover how much art the Nazis have looted and hidden. Some documentaries just dribble off after they have made their main points. This is a film that gets more interesting and compelling the longer it goes on. It is one of the few films, either fiction or documentary, that I wanted to be longer. What happened then? What did we do next? I suppose they had to stop somewhere, but as the film makes clear, the story is still going on.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007. Written by William Nicholson and Michael Hirst. 114 minutes): This is another one I missed in theatres and picked up on HBO.

Officially this is the sequel to the good 1998 film Elizabeth, but it is more an unofficial remake of the 1955 costumer The Virgin Queen. In that potboiler, the Queen is enchanted by Sir Walter Raleigh, who falls in love with one of her ladies-in-waiting. Much yelling ensues, since Elizabeth is played by Bette Davis.

I get the feeling that Elizabeth: The Golden Age may have started out as something different. The 1998 Elizabeth was about her coming to power, and the current film focuses to a large degree on her dealing with the threat of Mary of Scotland and the Spanish Armada. The most interesting plot elements involve her and her Chief of Homeland Security, Sir Francis Walsingham, trying to outwit Mary and her Spanish supporters. The potentially best scene in the script, which is unfortunately rushed over, is Walsingham realizing he has played right into the hands of the Spanish. Which means the Big Finish of the film is the Brits beating the Spanish Armada.

So what does all that have to do with Sir Walter Raleigh and his girlfriend? Not a damned thing. But the film spends more time than it should on the love “triangle,” which means that when we get down to dealing with Armada, the film implies that Raleigh was deeply involved in the battle. Sir Francis Drake, the real genius behind the battle, is reduced to not a lot more than a walk-on. I suppose people with no knowledge of the actual events won’t care, but for some of us…

It’s just like the old days in Hollywood. Darryl F. Zanuck was producing the 1935 biopic Cardinal Richelieu. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had Zanuck hire Cameron Rogers as an historical advisor. When Rogers objected to something as historically wrong, Zanuck thought for a minute and said, “Aw, the hell with you. Nine out of ten people are going to think he’s Rasputin anyway.”

Till the End of Time (1946. Screenplay by Allen Rivkin, based on the novel They Dream of Home by Niven Busch. 105 minutes): And this rarity was one I picked up on Turner Classic Movies.

This 1946 movie is about three GIs returning home after the end of the war, and one of them is dealing with artificial limbs he acquired after being wounded in combat. No, it is not The Best Years of Our Lives, which came out a few months later and won critical praise and a pile of Academy Awards.

Till the End of Time is the working class version of Lives, a little grittier and less sentimental. Cliff Harper ends up with a job in a factory, and William Tabeshaw loses the money he was saving to buy a ranch to some gamblers. The big finish is not a wedding as in Lives, but a brawl in a bar that would have felt right at home in a B western. Rivkin’s script has some nice characterization and some lovely moments, such as Cliff’s homecoming. He had hoped to surprise his parents, but they are out when he arrives. So he simply walks around the house, looking at everything he obviously remembers from growing up there. That’s a lovely idea for a scene, but it does not work here. Edward Dmytryk was not the director William Wyler was, but then who was? Dmytryk’s problem is that Cliff, the lead in the film, is played by Guy Madison, at the beginning of his career. He had been spotted by David O. Selznick and put into a small part in Since You Went Away. He was a great looking guy and effective in that part, but he has neither the emotional or vocal expressiveness to carry a lead in his second film. He is rather blank-faced and we don’t really get what he is feeling about the house. Look at Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath sorting through her family heirlooms to see what this scene should have been.

Madison later improved a bit and went on to star in westerns on television and in the movies, where his limited acting talent was obscured by horses, guns, cowboys, and Indians. Here he has scenes with Dorothy McGuire and Robert Mitchum, both early in their careers, and they blow him off the screen. Bill Williams, who also later went on to star in westerns, plays the vet with the artificial legs and he brings a real edginess to the part. Even more that Oscar-winner Harold Russell, a real wounded vet, did to his similar role in Lives.

Till the End of Time was produced by Dore Schary, who mentions it only in passing in his memoir. Schary was a nice guy. Samuel Goldwyn produced Lives. Sometimes you need a real son of a bitch as producer to protect the script.

30 Rock (2008. Episode “Do-over” written by Tina Fey. 30 minutes): A Sweeps episode. And also the season opener.

I am writing this on the morning of November 4th, but by the time you read this, you will probably know if Tina Fey is going to have to continue her brilliant Sarah Palin impression for another four years or not. As much as I love the impression—I think Fey does Palin better than Palin does—on the basis of this season opening episode of 30 Rock, I really want her back doing serious work on 30 Rock.

One brief digression on Fey as Palin before I get into the episode. Did anyone else find the opening sketch of the November 1st Saturday Night Live as extraordinary as I did? Here was John McCain making fun of himself and his campaign, which he was good at, having had a lot of practice with Leno and Letterman. But here also was Fey’s devastating parody of his running mate, which, along with Palin’s own ineptitude, has done a lot to hurt McCain’s campaign. Had McCain given up on the campaign by then, or did he really think he was going to pull it out, which may happen? Or was he so irritated at being saddled by the conservatives with a running mate who was losing him votes that he was perfectly willing to be a part of satirizing her “going rogue”? Can you imagine any other presidential candidate in your lifetime going on television to satirize his own running mate three days before the election? Well, as everybody said, this was an historic election.

Ah yes, 30 Rock. You remember how they used to say that Seinfeld was a show “about nothing”? It was not. Each episode was incredibly densely packed. Watch an episode and then try to explain the plot of it to somebody. It ain’t easy. 30 Rock has finally hit that peak with this episode. It brings back Jack from his job in Washington and gets him his old job back. In other words, another of those “We have to clean up last season’s cliffhanger and get things back to normal” plotlines. Here it goes by so quickly you don’t have time to think about it. The main plot of the episode is Liz dealing with Bev, a woman from an adoption agency. Liz wants to adopt, which will be a running storyline throughout the season. Bev inspects Liz’s work environment and gets knocked out by nunchucks. Where did they come from? That’s a whole other plotline. Bev loses her memory and Liz gets a do-over at the office. The gags here come from what we know by the beginning of the third season about these characters. So does the do-over work? Not a chance.

The show is touting its upcoming guest stars, but they could tout the writing.

ER (2008. Episode “Haunted” written by Karen Maser. 60 minutes): A Sweeps episode.

Time to bring back another character and get rid of him. In this case it is Dr. Ray Barnett, a doctor who had an affair with Neela that did not end well, to put it politely. He walked out into the street and lost his legs in an accident. He now shows up, having been off for a year doing rehabilitation medicine in Baton Rouge, mostly dealing with veterans. (Make up your own connection to Till the End of Time). What we get are some nice scenes with Ray and Neela, although Maser is going more for the soap opera elements than she really needs to. At least Ray and Neela part as friends. He does not get blown up or have a helicopter dropped on him. We have a lot of people to say goodbye to and a little restraint is appreciated.

Desperate Housewives (2008. Episode “There’s Always a Woman” written by John Paul Bullock. 60 minutes): A Sweeps episode.

Desperate Housewives is finally getting back into the groove in this episode. Mrs. McCluskey decides to hide out with her sister, Roberta, giving them a great scene in the hospital where Mrs. McCluskey makes the proposition. Roberta is even more of a loose cannon than Mrs. McCluskey is, which promises to be fun, especially since Roberta is played by Lily Tomlin, who has great chemistry with Kathryn Joosten.

Susan and Jackson make an attempt to start from scratch in a lovely little scene in which they talk on cellphones with him outside her window.

Carlos inadvertently gives one of the women at the club an orgasm while he massages her. She asks him to accompany her on a trip to Europe, apparently not aware he knows what he has done. Gabby objects until the woman, Mrs. Hildebrand, suggests taking Gabby along too, since they will be looking at fashion shows. It sounds relatively innocent, until a look on Mrs. Hildebrand’s face suggests otherwise. She is played, after all, by Frances Conroy, Ruth Fisher from Six Feet Under, and you do not bring in somebody that high powered just to waste them in a nice little old lady part.

And best of all is Lynette’s assumption that Tom is having an affair with Anne Schilling, a real estate woman who is also the mother of one of her kid’s classmates. We think he is too, or else that Dave is setting him up. What we and Tom discover that Lynette does not is that it is their son Porter having the affair. MILF, indeed. And is Lynette eventually going to find out? Probably. But will she feel guilty because Porter is the one she was flirting with on-line in a previous episode…

So, nice scenes and great setups for future episodes. Can’t beat that.

Mad Men (2008. Episode “Meditations on an Emergency” written by Matthew Weiner & Kater Gordon. 50 minutes): This was the season finale, and I wish I’d liked it more.

It is October 1962 and we get the Cuban Missile Crisis, complete with one of Kennedy’s television speeches. Everyone is worried about the possibility of nuclear war, and the episode captures the feeling of fear of the time. I was on the East Coast then, and it seemed like old times. But putting that against the possible sale and/or disintegration of SC seemed rather obvious, especially in the scenes with the “guys” in the office trying to find out what was going on. The “guys” did not seem as well-defined as they usually are.

Don finally returned to SC, but he and everybody there seemed remarkably casual about his absence. And he did not seem in any particular hurry to catch up on his work. And he seemed, at least a first, to have almost no response to the news of the sale. One would have expected, given the level of writing and acting on this show, that we would see something that would tell us that he was at least thinking about it.

Betty learns that she is pregnant, and deliberating disobeying the doctor’s orders, goes horseback riding. We know why she is doing it: she doesn’t want the baby. A little, but not enough, is made of her considering an abortion. Keep in mind that abortion was illegal then, Roe v. Wade eleven years in the future. More could have been done with this.

Peggy finally tells Pete that she had his baby. He is of course shocked. It is a good scene, but not a great one. Matthew Weiner, in an interview in the Los Angeles Times the morning the episode ran, said of the scene and Elizabeth Moss’s performance, “We’ve given her the best scene of her career.” It was not. It never gets under the surface of the scene the way the best of the Mad Men scenes do.

When Weiner and the writers are on the money, they make it look easy. It’s not, especially on a show like this that depends on nuance and detail. As an example of how difficult it is, look at the Mad Men parody on Saturday Night Live the night before the episode ran. Even though they had Jon Hamm, John Slattery, and Elizabeth Moss, the parody still did not work. To do Mad Men or even a parody of it right, the writers have to bring their best game.

Well, there is always next season.

I did not find out, by the way, until well after I had written this, that Andrew Johnston, who did the wonderfully detailed episode recaps of Mad Men for The House Next Door, had died. Unlike many of the people who commented on Matt Zoller Seitz’s season wrap, I did not know Johnston, but I followed his pieces on this show religiously. Like one of those commenting, I found myself asking why there suddenly were not any pieces from him. Now I know. But in keeping with Matt’s suggestion that we should talk about the show rather than Andrew, let me point out that it is one of the few shows on television that can stand up to the kind of extraordinary intellectual analysis that Andrew gave it. Yes, you can talk about the mythology of Lost and Heroes, but Mad Men demands the kind of thinking about that Andrew gave it. He and his insights will be missed.

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.