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Understanding Screenwriting #33: Amreeka, My One and Only, Ghost Town, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #33: <em>Amreeka</em>, <em>My One and Only</em>, <em>Ghost Town</em>, <em>Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Amreeka, My One and Only, Larry Gelbart, Ghost Town, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, Walt & El Grupo, The September Issue, Sense & Sensibility (different version), but first…

Fan Mail: I am writing this the morning after #32 was published, since I had everything else in the column done and wanted to get it off to Keith as soon as possible, so at the time there was only one comment to respond to. Andrew was clarifying some of the nuances of the Mad Men episodes I wrote about, and I thank him for that. Much as I love the nuances of the show, sometimes it gets a little TOO nuanced. Either that or I am just slowing down. The other thing was that I wrote that item before I had had a chance to read Todd VanDerWerff’s wonderful recaps. I really love Todd’s recaps and look forward to them every time they show up. I think we can all agree he is a worthy successor to the late Andrew Johnston in that department.

Amreeka (2009. Written by Cherien Dabis. 96 minutes): Not as good as it should have been.

The film starts out well. We are on the West Bank following a woman named Muna, a mother of a teenager. We see she sees a slimmer woman in a store, and we get a quick shot of the other woman with a man. From Muna’s reaction, we can pretty much get that this is her ex-husband and his new wife. Then Muna gets a letter saying her request to travel to America, which she submitted before she and her husband divorced, has been approved. Now she does not want to go, but her son Fhadi thinks it would be a great idea. So they go. So far, so good.

But we are now in the immigrants-come-to-America-and-find-out-it’s-not perfect genre. While the West Bank material is new and fresh, the American material is flat and obvious. You can guess what is going to happen with Muna and Fadhi when they go to live with her sister outside Chicago in the days immediately following the invasion of Iraq. Yes, there are kids who give Fadhi a hard time at school. Yes, Muna, who worked in a bank back home, can only get a job at White Castle. The one minor surprise is that the school administrator, Mr. Novatski, who seems to like Muna is, well, maybe you will see that one coming too.

As with any genre picture, you have to bring us something that we either have not seen before (and this picture does a little of that, although six years after the start of the war it seems a little dated) or turn it in an interesting way. The great, underrated American Rhapsody (2001) does exactly that. When the heroine’s daughter, whom she had to leave behind in Hungary when she escaped, comes to live with the heroine, she hates America and wants to go home. Her parents let her when she is older, and on the trip she discovers exactly why her mother had to leave her. It changes everything. There is nothing that compelling in Amreeka.

Dabis’s plotting is also incredibly sloppy. Muna’s brother-in-law’s medical practice is losing patients for the first half of the film and then it is never mentioned again. A possible visit to America by the sisters’ mother is brought up and dropped. The sister and brother-in-law are behind in their mortgage payments, but Muna contributes, which apparently clears everything up, although we know she gets next to nothing at White Castle. There is a scene where Muna is given a credit card, but nothing more is made of it. (If she is paying off the mortgage with it, then the whole family was financially wiped out last year.) And the film does not end, but just stops with the family and Mr. Navotski having dinner at an Arab-American restaurant. Dabis does not even give us a Grapes-of-Wrath-“We’ll go on forever, Pa, because we’re the people” speech to end with.

Part of the script problem may be that Dabis went through a lot of development at places like the Sundance Institute and Film Independent, and the script may have been developed to death. We hear about that all the time at the studios, but it happens in the indie world as well. Sundance in particular has a way of rounding off the rough edges of scripts. Developing a script is very, very difficult, because it is very easy to end up losing what made the script fresh in the first place. I have seen it happen with my students (and yes, sometimes it is my fault), and I know it happens out in the real world of making movies. As a writer, you have to learn how to deal with the development process: how to take the notes you need that will be useful to the script you want to write, and how to deflect those that are somebody else’s idea of what the film should be. It ain’t easy.

My One and Only (2009. Written by Charlie Peters. 108 minutes): Where is Matthew Weiner when you need him?

This is based on the early teen years of actor George Hamilton, although in spite of the occasional joke late in the picture about California sun and tans, we do not learn that in the film until the very end. Hamilton was encouraged by the late talk show host Merv Griffin to have his stories about life with his mother turned into a film. You can see why it would appeal to a talk-show host. The mother is a flake of the first rank who takes off with her two sons when she discovers her husband in bed with another woman. Hi-jinks ensue, and I am sure they made for wonderful anecdotes to fill in eight-minute segments on a talk show. Making a feature about her is another issue all together.

Ever since little Normie’s mom Mrs. Bates killed off the sentimentalized view of mothers in American films in 1960, we have had a boatload of ditzy moms. Just look at the careers of Angela Lansbury and Shirley MacLaine. So if you are going to do a flaky mom in 2009, you had better bring something fresh to the table. That’s not the case here with Anne Deveraux. She is a southern belle who assumes all she has to do is find another man to take care of her. According to an interview with Hamilton in the New Yorker, she was deliberately tracking down former boyfriends, but that is never stated in the film. According to the same interview, the itinerary they took is very different than it is in the film. And according to what Charlie Peters told the WGA, “there really wasn’t a lot in George’s story that I used, and what I did use actually got taken out of the movie.” Peters has also grown up with a single mom, so some of that material made it into the film. So some of the men Anne meets she already knows, some of whom are new, and all turn out not to be The One. So the movie is not only not fresh, but very repetitive. For it to work, the men would have to have been more sharply focused than they are in the script. The actors playing them, especially Chris Noth, Steven Weber and David Koechner, do what they can, but the script does not go deep enough. The same is true of Anne, who is a very one-note character. Renée Zellweger would seem to be perfect casting for her, but Zellweger’s misjudged performance re-enforces the character’s sameness.

The film is set in the fifties, and you haven’t seen this many fifties cars on-screen since the chickie run in Rebel Without a Cause. But cars and set decoration can only do so much. One of the elements of Mad Men that I and others love is that, in addition to the sets and costumes, the scripts get the attitudes of the early sixties right. There is nothing in the script for My One and Only that makes it feel essentially fifties. The story calls out for a sharp look at male and female attitudes of the fifties, but the script keeps missing those opportunities. At the end, George’s voiceover tells us Anne and the boys learned how to survive on their own, but we have not seen that. If we had, My One and Only would have been a better film.

See, I have been saying for years that there is more good writing on American television than in American films and this movie, alas, proves it. And Derek Luke’s comment in the September 18th issue of Entertainment Weekly pretty much tells you why. Talking about working on the pilot for his new TV show Trauma, Luke says, “Ninety percent of the time, none of what we have scripted is what we do. It feels very much like a movie.” The writing on television is often better than in film because the directors and actors do not have the time to “be creative,” i.e., mess up the script. Speaking of which…

Larry Gelbart (1928 - 2009): An appreciation.

Larry Gelbart had “a mind like quicksilver. Larry is like a supernatural being. His mind is so brilliant, and he raises you up to his level.” Who wouldn’t like to have that said about them after they die? How about when they are still alive? The late Everett Greenbaum, a writer who worked with Gelbart on the great TV series M*A*S*H, said that to me nearly twenty years ago in an interview for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing.

Gelbart got his first joke-writing jobs from a friend of his barber father. Gelbart started in radio, wrote for Bob Hope, and then wrote for Caesar’s Hour. That was the Sid Caesar follow-up to Your Show of Shows, where Gelbart spoke up for the shyer writers in the room like Neil Simon and Woody Allen. Gelbart co-wrote the stage musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Burt Shevelove. He won a Tony for that and another for City of Angels. His movies include The Notorious Landlady, The Wrong Box, Oh God! and Tootsie. The latter is his best known film, but does not hold up as well as several others, probably because of all the other writers who worked on it. I think Gelbart’s best Tootsie line is not in the film, but about the film: “We were going to have a reunion of all the writers who worked on Tootsie, but the Los Angeles Coliseum was booked that day.”

M*A*S*H was his masterpiece, a vast improvement on the film, which suffered from Robert Altman’s misdirection of Ring Lardner Jr.’s great script. If you don’t believe me, read the chapter on M*A*S*H in Storytellers. His work on the series, as well as his teleplays for Mastergate and Barbarians at the Gate mark him very much as a public writer. He was dealing with the social issues of the times. Even though M*A*S*H was officially about the Korean War, Gelbart and everybody else, including the audiences, knew it was about Vietnam. We tend to think of writers hiding away in their offices, but playwrights, screenwriters and television writers are, at their best, public writers, informing and enlightening us about the world in which we live. And with Larry Gelbart, making us laugh our asses off about it all as well.

Ghost Town (2008. Written by David Koepp & John Kamps. 102 minutes): The Dentist Has a Wonderful Sixth Sense.

This is one of those movies I did not get around to seeing last year. It currently runs 73 times a day on the various HBO channels, so I caught up with it. David Koepp is better known as a writer of big blockbusters like two of the Jurassic Park movies, the first Mission: Impossible movie, and the first Spider-Man movie, and his only comedy before this was the 1992 Death Becomes Her. From that you can see why he did not get offered a lot of comedies. Well, it turns out he has a flair for a certain kind of comedy. Ghost Town turns out to be one of his best scripts.

Yes, it is recombinant. Bertram Pincus is a dentist very much in the tradition of W.C. Fields in his classic 1932 short The Dentist, a curmudgeon of the first rank. He likes being a dentist because he doesn’t have to listen to his patients, since their mouths are stuffed with equipment. One day he goes in for a routine colonoscopy and he dies for seven minutes during the operation. When he comes out of it, he can, like Cole Sear, see dead people. Except they all want him to do favors for them among the living. Chief among those is Frank, who wants him to keep his widow, Gwen, from marrying a human rights lawyer. You can see where this is going. Bertram falls for Gwen and becomes a better man. But getting there is half of the fun, because Koepp and Kamps (weren’t they a dance act in vaudeville?) don’t make it just a comedy. Ricky Gervais plays Bertram, and what the writers do is not just make him a typical Gervais grouch. We see his, I am not sure I want to call this, but his sensitive side. They have written in some great reactions for him to have, and those counterbalance his nastiness.

The writers have also written the best part Téa Leoni has had in years. She is a grownup adult who has exactly the kind of reactions to Bertram you would expect a grownup to have. The writers have developed a very nice relationship arc for them, using their respective careers as the basis for it. Give them good material, and, not surprisingly, Leoni and Gervais are in top form. The writers have also written some very good secondary parts as well. If the pops up on your HBO channels, you could do a lot worse.

Yoo-Hoo,  Mrs. Goldberg (2009. Written by Aviva Kempner. 92 minutes): And not a foot of film from Triumph of the Will.

The first few weeks in September seemed to be documentary weeks in Los Angeles. This is one that opened several weeks ago and I caught it just before it went off.

The structure is apparently very simple. This is a biography of Gertrude Berg, who started in radio in the thirties and moved into television in the late forties. Her great creation was Molly Goldberg, a Jewish wife and mother who talked to her neighbors out of the family apartment window. Goldberg created the character first for radio, not only writing all the scripts, but playing the part herself. She originally thought they would get an actress, but she played the part for a few weeks, and then when she was out sick, the letters piled up at the network wanting her back. The show was canceled in the mid-forties, but Berg talked her way into early television, and the show ran for three years on CBS, two on NBC, one on Dumont and one in syndication.

I said the structure was apparently simple, but if you look closely you can see that it is not strictly chronological. The early television shows were live and only survive on kinescopes, so visually they are rather fuzzy. Eventually the show was filmed, and scenes from those years are visually sharper. So you can tell where the filmmakers are using clips from later episodes to make a point about earlier ones. The film also seems to drop actor Philip Loeb when he was let go from the show for his “left-wing” views, but then comes back later to him to tell you what happened after that. That decision makes structural sense when you see the film.

And stick around during the end credits. The filmmakers have interviewed not only members of Berg’s family and her co-workers, but some notable people who are fans. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was one of those fans, and her final anecdote about her, Thurgood Marshall and her first appearance before the Supreme Court is worth the price of admission.

Oh, yes. In the brief montage about the rise of Nazism, the filmmakers become the first documentarians I know NOT to use a single clip from Triumph of the Will.

Walt & El Grupo (2008. Written by Theodore Thomas. 106 minutes): Well, only one clip from Triumph of the Will.

Theodore Thomas is the son of the great Disney animator Frank Thomas. In 1995 he made the charming documentary Frank and Ollie about his dad and Ollie Johnston, another Disney great. Given that this current film is presented by the Disney Foundation and released by the Disney Company, you may guess that it is not going to be a scathing, dig-out-the-dirt look at Uncle Walt. Don’t let that throw you. It is a fascinating look at the creative process at the studio, and like The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (see US#27), it’s about the collaboration process as much as about Walt.

In the years leading up to World War II (hence the one clip of Hitler from Triumph), the American government was concerned that countries in South America were leaning a little too much toward the Nazi side. So the government came up with the idea of sending Americans on good-will visits and even making films. Orson Welles’s fans will remember his adventures in South America at the time. Disney was asked to go and he said yes, only after getting approval that the trip could be the basis for a film or two when he got back. He took with him several of his artists: not only animators, but writers, musicians and others. They became collectively known as El Grupo (The Group) and Thomas spends a lot of time on them. We see the home movies Disney’s team shot, still photographs and the drawings his people made. One of the artists on the trip was Mary Blair, and Thomas shows her pre-trip paintings (dark watercolors) and her sketches and post-trip work (bright and colorful). Looking at some of her trip sketches, it will not surprise you to learn near the end of the film that she was one of the designers of It’s a Small World. We see some of what the artists came up with for the 1942 Disney film Saludos Amigos, and then Thomas is shrewd enough to interview several South Americans who were involved in the trip. Surprise, there is no agreement whatsoever on whether the film was good, condescending, brilliant or trivializing.

Some of the narration comes from recorded interviews with Disney himself, obviously done years ago. In addition to Disney’s comments on the trip, we get his account of the animators’ strike that was tearing the studio apart at the time. Historians may disagree with his viewpoint. Thomas shows us what the cities they visited (Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro especially) looked like then and now. Between those shots, the interviews with the people in those countries and the bits of narration made from the letters the artists sent to their families back home, we end up with a nostalgic look at Disney, his artists and the countries themselves.

The September Issue (2009. A film by R.J. Cutler. 90 minutes): No Hitler, but Anna Wintour.

One of the issues we have discussed from time to time in this column and in the comments on it is how the characters in documentary films are often so much more interesting than their fictional equivalents. This is an exception to that. It is a doc about Vogue magazine’s uber-editor, Anna Wintour, as she prepares to get out the September 2007 issue. Wintour was the model for the Amanda Priestly character in the book and film of The Devil Wears Prada. Amanda is a much more interesting character on film than Anna is. Anna is cold and concealing, and we never see any of Amanda’s rants. Late in the picture, in answer to a question from the crew, Anna says her best quality is her decisiveness. She’s right, and that is what makes her not very interesting on-screen. We see her go past row after row after row of pictures as she decides which ones to use or not use in the magazine. Very repetitive. Since she never opens up to the camera, we and the filmmakers spend a lot more time with Grace Coddington, who is the creative director of Vogue. Coddington started at the American Vogue the same day Wintour did. She is open to the camera, funny and observant. Unlike Wintour, she wears her heart on her sleeve, and you can’t not watch her. Coddington is one of the only people on the magazine who stands up to Wintour, and she has more creativity than Wintour or anybody else at the magazine. The photo shoots she produces are gorgeous. Her shoot set in the twenties is one that Wintour keeps cutting pictures from as the issue progresses. When we see the final lineup and realize that most of what was cut has now been put back, at least one person in the audience I saw the film with applauded.

Back in the sixties, when Robert Drew was developing Direct Cinema, he tried to pick what others have called a Crisis Structure. He prefers the term “turning point,” situations like the presidential primary in Primary (1960) or the integration of the University of Alabama in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963). For all the running around in The September Issue, we do not get any sense that there is much of a crisis or that it is a turning point in the magazine’s history. Nor is the film particularly interesting as a demonstration of process, like the 1935 film Night Mail. The lack of either of these two elements comes from the basic subject matter. I am sure that for millions of people, high fashion of the kind Vogue indulges in is of some concern, but the process of putting out this issue of the magazine is not automatically dramatic.

I have talked before about films and television shows that were begun in the Bush era and now seem dated. Something similar happens with this film. The particular issue shown in the film came in at 840 pages, the largest issue ever. The current September issue is only 584 pages. The recession has had a dramatic impact on the clothing industry. People who spent lots of money on the clothes Wintour and Vogue pushed on them are watching what pennies they have left. As a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times on September 13th pointed out, both the recession and the Internet have changed the industry. Back in 2007, the designers had their runway shows, Vogue and other magazines reported on them in future issues and six months later customers could find the clothes in stores. Now the runway shows are showing up immediately on the Internet and customers want the clothes NOW. They can buy them NOW on the Internet, and Internet stores are personalizing the information for individual customers. And there are several Internet bloggers on fashion who are undercutting the previously accepted authority of an editor like Wintour. As someone who has always thought high fashion was a con (there is not a single outfit anywhere in The September Issue I can imagine a human being wearing in real life), I think the collapse of the high fashion racket is overdue. The September Issue shows you the beginning of its last gasps. It is too bad that Cutler did not do his film on this year’s September issue. Sometimes as a documentary filmmaker you get lucky, and sometimes you don’t.

Sense & Sensibility (2008. Screenplay by Andrew Davies, based on the novel by Jane Austen. 180 minutes): Take two.

Since I was on a Sense & Sensibility kick (See US#32), I figured why not look at this British made-for-television version. The writer here was Andrew Davies, who has made a long and successful career of literary adaptations for television. Some of his television films include Vanity Fair (1998), Doctor Zhivago (2002), and Bleak House (2005). He has adapted three other Austen novels, Pride and Prejudice (1995), Emma (1996) and Northanger Abbey (2007). His script for this version of Sense & Sensibility is adequate, but pales in comparison to Emma Thompson’s version. He has to construct his version of some of the scenes that Thompson created, but they are less interesting than hers.

In Davies’s version, Edward rides up to Norland, then catches Elinor beating a carpet outside, something Fanny had asked the maid to do. It is a conventional cute meet without the texture of the Edward-Margaret scene in Thompson. When Edward gets ready to leave Norland, he does not seem to be about to tell Elinor anything. That may be more natural than Thompson’s scene, but it’s not as dramatic.

Davies throws in a sword duel later in the film between Brandon and Willoughby, although neither Austen nor Thompson had it. Yes, it gives a little action scene, but who goes to Austen adaptations for action scenes? And it is never referred to again in the film.

One character Thompson dropped was Mrs. Ferrars, Edward and Robert’s mother, but Davies gives us a couple of nice scenes from the book with her. He also does a good job on the scene with Lucy and Elinor, with Edward arriving in the middle. Davies’s version of the Marianne-Elinor discussion of Elinor not having told Marianne about Lucy’s engagement is closer to Austen’s version, although it does end with Elinor breaking down in tears—not in Austen. I think Thompson’s version is better, since Elinor’s outburst at Marianne gives us an emotional release for our feelings for Elinor that neither Austen nor Davies do.

Davies does include a version of Austin’s scene of Willoughby coming to Cleveland to seek forgiveness from Elinor, which Thompson did not. Davies has flattened out the subtlety of Austen’s scene. Here we just have him asking forgiveness and Elinor giving him a hard time. Davies does not have Marianne overhear the scene, which Austen also does not. That saves some dialogue a little later.

When Edward arrives at Barton Cottage and lets them know he is not married, Davies has turned his monologue into a very conventional “I love you” scene, without the subtlety and power of Thompson’s version. She understands the emotions of the scene better than he does. Davies does not end with a wedding like Thompson does, but with Brandon carrying Marianne across the threshold of his house, and Elinor and Edward outside their small house.

Since Davies’s version was intended to run as either three one-hour episodes, or two ninety-minute episodes (it was shown in the latter form in the U.S.), there is a certain amount of padding that Thompson’s version did not have. In Davies’s version, and this may be less him than the director, editor or producer, there are more establishing shots of the English countryside than they really need. The also have several shots of a group of shells hanging from a rope. We see Margaret putting it together early in the film, but then we got a lot of shots of it later. We don’t NEED them.

Another problem with the Davies version is that the casting is not as good as in Thompson’s version. Janet McTeer is the biggest name in the cast, but she is Mrs. Dashwood, and McTeer is simply too strong a screen presence to play such a quiet character. None of the others are inadequate, but they suffer in comparison with Thompson, Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and that crowd. Well, who wouldn’t? That crowd would have made the film from Davies’s script better, but they were much more elegantly served by Thompson’s script.

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.