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Understanding Screenwriting #108: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, & Smash

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Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>

Coming Up In This Column: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, Smash, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein, reacting to my comments on Cat Ballou, thought that all the things I liked about the writing and acting came together “thanks to efforts of that controversial new-fangled invention known as the Director.” I didn’t get around to mentioning the director, Elliot Silverstein, because this is one of those films, like M*A*S*H (1970), Chariots of Fire (1981), and Thelma & Louise (1991), that succeeds in spite of its director rather than because of him. Silverstein is very sloppy about where he puts the camera and the acting is all over the place. This was his only truly successful film, and he soon went back to television, where he started.

Side Effects (2013. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 106 minutes.)

Better than Hitchcock. Both Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick were interested in psychiatry. In the mid-’40s, Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to buy a novel that was, according to Hitchcock’s biographer, Donald Spoto, “a bizarre tale of witchcraft, satanic cults, psychopathology, murder, and mistaken identities.” (The background material here is from Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.) Hitchcock presented some ideas on how a movie could be made out of the material to Ben Hecht, who wrote the screenplay for Spellbound (1945). Hecht’s version deals with an amnesiac who replaces a man scheduled to become the head of a mental hospital. The amnesiac is accused of murder and with a helpful female psychiatrist works out his problems. Since she’s played in the film by Ingrid Bergman, he falls in love with her as well. The film was a commercial success, but it’s rather clunky, like many ’40s films about psychiatry. And like many Hitchcock films, it’s less about character than about giving the director a chance to show off. As befits Selznick, the film is a slick production with stars (Gregory Peck as the amnesiac) in a romantic mode.

Side Effects is also a thriller about a mentally disturbed person and includes murder, and as much as I love and admire Hecht, Burns’s script is infinitely better than Hecht’s. Burns gets into the story and the characters quickly, and he doesn’t have to lay out the characters, especially the disturbed young woman, Emily Taylor, to fit the psychobabble of the trade. Burns starts with a shot of an apartment house that I suspect is sort of a tribute to the opening shot in Psycho (1960), and then we go inside to find a lot of blood. Burns flashes back three months to the return of Emily’s husband from prison for insider trading. His release seems to disturb her, to the point where she drives her car into a cement wall. At the E.R., she’s treated by Dr. Jonathan Banks, who in a nice twist doesn’t fall in love with her. He does suspect that at least some of her problems come from the drugs she’s been taking. The doctor is possibly not the only one suspicious. Audience members may be too, since they know the film is directed by Steven Soderberg, who already showed in Erin Brockovich (2000) that he doesn’t believe in better living through chemistry. And Emily kills…well, I know it’s only 25 minutes into the film, but I’m going to avoid as many spoilers as I can. What’s shocking about the death is that it happens only 25 minutes in. After all, Hitch set the standard with Psycho that you can kill off a big star, but only at 40 minutes in. So we’re unnerved, and rightly so.

Whereas Hitch and Hecht were making a big, glossy Hollywood film of its period, Burns is focused more on character. Emily is more than just a case study, although we may not think so right away. Burns and Rooney Mara, undoubtedly with help from that “new-fangled invention the Director,” do a brilliant job of showing the effects of the different drugs she takes on Emily. The peril of prescription drug use is only one red herring that Burns throws out. Burns and Mara’s detailing gets even more spectacular, so much so that you may want to go back and see the film a second time to see how well they’ve set it all up. Burns’s plotting is a lot better than Hecht’s, and Soderbergh’s direction is a whole lot better than Hitch’s, since, as we’ve seen in many of his films, he’s very interested in character and knows how to get great performances out of the actors. Several reviews have called Side Effects a “Hitchcockian” thriller. It is, but it’s better than the Master.

Like Someone in Love (2012. Written by Abbas Kiarostami, based on his play. 109 minutes.)

Like Someone in Love

Not another shaggy dog story…oh…wait a minute. You may remember from US #73 that I loved Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) in part because it was a wonderful shaggy-dog story: Juliette Binoche’s Elle and William Shimell’s James meet, we assume for the first time, but then an innkeeper assumes they’re married, so they play along. And it seems more and more like they have had some relationship in the past…and we never find out.

I assumed from the beginning of Like Someone In Love that Kiarostami wasn’t doing that this time around. He starts with a long scene in a Tokyo club where we listen to a young girl, Akiko, talk on the phone and to her friends. She’s a college student and works nights as an escort. We know she’s a liar from her conversation with her boyfriend about where she is at present. She says she has a test tomorrow, but we’re not convinced. She says her grandmother is in town, and we’re not convinced about that either until we hear from grandma on the phone. Her pimp, who seems like an ordinary businessman (certainly not your typical pimp, either in clothing or attitude), wants her to take tonight’s job, since it’s a man he respects greatly. By the end of this sequence we feel grounded in Akiko’s world.

So she goes to the apartment of a retired professor, Takashi. Kiarostami again takes his time. We get a lot of detail about Takashi’s life and his apartment, the kind of detail I found missing in Amour (2012). And we watch the nuances between Akiko and Takashi. They don’t sleep together, and we suspect he just wants the companionship. She’s perfectly willing to just get a good night’s sleep in his bed.

The next morning he takes her to the college, where he used to teach. He sees her talking with her boyfriend, who seems to be manhandling her. After she goes into the college, the boyfriend comes over to Takashi, assuming the older man is Akiko’s grandfather, and like Elle in Certified Copy, Takashi lets him believe the lie. That should have made me suspicious, but the connection didn’t occur to me until just now when I was writing this: Takashi thinks he boyfriend is really in love with her. The threesome spends some time driving about Tokyo. We are not in the car quite as much as we were in Kiarostami’s hyper-realistic 2002 film Ten, but almost.

The realistic detail of this film makes us feel that this isn’t the shaggy-dog story of Certified Copy.) And then the film just stops. The relationships aren’t given closure, and Kiarostami leaves what will happen to these people literally up in the air. And I thought, damn, he’s done it again. I should complain that this trip doesn’t take us to a destination, but the trip and its passengers were so interesting I didn’t mind. Well, not too much.


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