Coming up in this column: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Please Give, Date Night, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (play), Poets, Screenwriters and Classical Musicians, Johnny Eager, The Sound Barrier, Finishing the 2009/2010 TV Season, but first…
Fan mail: “Agor” took me to task for not appreciating David Simon and Treme, and he makes a very good defense of what Simon is up to, comparing it to an intricately structured novel. My problem was that I did not find the characters and the situations compelling enough to put in the time the show was going to require, just as I have occasionally started a novel that I just cannot get into. Many viewers will stick with Treme and I hope they enjoy the show.
Agor also points out that I am not really writing about Simon as much as HBO in the item on Treme. He’s right. I have liked some of Simon’s stuff before, especially Homicide: Life on the Street and the second season of The Wire. However, what I was getting at in the piece was the overall tone of HBO insisting it is superior to anything else on television. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. But as you may have noticed in this column I deal not only with the screenwriters and their work, but many other aspects of screenwriting. I have discussed on several occasions the screenwriting styles of major studios like MGM and Warner Brothers in their heyday. Simon is working for HBO because its approach fits his. In the column below, I spend some time on a stage adaptation of a film and a collaboration involving a screenwriter and a lot of other artists. After all, screenwriters do not work in a vacuum.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, based on the novel by Steig Larsson. 152 minutes.)
It’s not The Secret in Their Eyes, but it’s still pretty good: As occasionally happens, I will see a great film like The Secret in Their Eyes, and it is so good it colors the next similar film I see. Both The Secret in Their Eyes and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are long, complicated mystery-thrillers in which investigators track down information and people involved in crimes that happened years before. I went into detail about The Secret in Their Eyes in US#46, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the next film I saw. I have not been out to a lot of movies lately. My wife has been in and out of the hospital a couple of times in the last month, most recently for what was finally diagnosed as a fractured femur. She is now in rehab for it. It limited her mobility even before it was diagnosed, so we have not seen several films we both wanted to see, and dealing with her care has cut down my moviegoing, but care must be given. As the movie saying goes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the one film she insisted on hobbling out to see before the fracture was diagnosed. She is a huge fan of mystery novels and television shows. It is rumored that the reason she has never read any of my books is that I have never murdered anyone in them. She had just finished reading the novel of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and wanted to see how they handled it in the film. She was very happy with the results. The novel is a huge thing, between 600 and 700 pages long. According to her, it goes into much more detail about virtually everything in the film. The novel takes much longer for its semi-disgraced journalist hero Mikael Blomkvist to find the details of the past crimes that are connected to the disappearance of Harriet Vanger nearly forty years before. In the film, Blomkvist and his partner Lisbeth Salander, a professional computer hacker with more oddities that just that tattoo, seem to zip through the cases so fast we can hardly keep up. As I have stated before, I always like a movie that makes me run to catch up. The primary reason I think this one is not quite up to The Secret in Their Eyes is that there is SO much plot that we don’t get into the characters as deeply as we do in the previous film.
The novel also takes longer at the end to track down where Harriet went, but the screenwriters were correct to jump right to it. We are at the end of a long movie and do not really want to wait around. By then we know Blomkvist and Lisbeth can find out anything. The film has dropped Blomkist’s ex-wife and kids, although there is a great, quick reference to his divorce and what it has meant to his mobility. One of the smartest moves the screenwriters made was to eliminate Blomkvist’s mentioning that he thinks Lisbeth has Asperger’s. She may well have, but if you mention it in a movie, then we will be looking at her behavior in terms of symptoms. By not mentioning it, we have to deal with Lisbeth in all her strangeness as written and as dazzlingly performed by Noomi Rapace. The novelist and the screenwriters have created a wonderful gallery of characters to surround her, especially the members of the Vanger family. One of Harriet’s aunts is given at the most three minutes on the screen, and the character and the performance are so compelling that I did not even realize until the end credits that she was played by Gunnel Lindblom, one of Ingmar Bergman’s great stars from the late ’50s and early ’60s.
In my very first column, I had an item about the French film Tell No One (2006) and I made the point that although it was an American novel, it was good that it fell into French hands. There is all kinds of gossip that there is going to be an American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I hope not. Yes, the title sounds like an Angelina Jolie film waiting to happen, and I am sure she would be good as Lisbeth, but it is similar to what we have seen her do. A lot. And the story is so embedded in Swedish history and culture that I cannot for the life of me see how it can easily be translated to America. So while some studio may pay some screenwriters several hundred thousand dollars-plus (and I am always in favor of screenwriters making a buck), I would be happier just to let this film be the single and singular adaptation of the novel.
Please Give (2010. Written by Nicole Holofcener. 90 minutes.)
A little more tightly wound than usual: I have enjoyed Holofcener’s previous films, such as Walking and Talking (1996), Lovely and Amazing (2001), and Friends with Money (2006). Part of their charm and part of what can make them so irritating at the same time is that they are very, VERY loosely constructed: a variety of people, mostly women, talk about their lives, and every once in a while actually do something. Please Give starts off in the same way. Holofcener quickly introduces the main characters. Look at how much we learn in the first scene about Rebecca (that is, if you can tear your eyes away from the mammograms she takes). The same in a following scene with Kate and her teen daughter Abby. It is almost half an hour before we get a plot point of any kind. But nearly all of the casual conversation pays off in a variety of ways, unlike Holofcener’s previous films. Rebecca in the opening scene turns down an opportunity to go see “the leaves” out in the country and puts down the whole idea of a trip. Then she makes a later trip with her 90-year-old grandmother, a patient of Rebecca’s and the patient’s grandson whom everybody is trying to pair off with Rebecca. Likewise, the discussion between Kate and Abby over a pair of jeans pays off beautifully at the end. Rebecca’s sister Mary, the bitchy one, constantly complains about a girl she sees in a shop. I took that as just showing Mary’s character, which it does, but in a totally new way at the end of the film.
While they are all walking and talking in the streets of New York, I would not have been surprised to see Alvy and Rob or Lee and Elliott or Hannah and Holly pop into the picture. Holofcener worked as an editorial assistant on Hannah and Her Sisters and it’s rubbed off. But not in a bad way. Holfcener has Allen’s ability to create a great gallery of characters, which appeal to actors, especially women actors. Catherine Keener has been in all four of Holofcener’s films and, boy, are they on the same wavelength. Holofcener the writer knows that Keener can give us several conflicting emotions at the same time (irritation, guilt, love, empathy—the list goes on and on) and simultaneously keep the character from being unwatchable. Rebecca Hall turns Rebecca into a very Woody Allen-ish heroine. She obviously picked up the rhythm when she worked with him on Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Holofcener as director lets her work it a little harder than she needed to. On the other hand, she has written a great role for Amanda Peet as Mary, who gives what is easily her best performance. Ever. Holofcener the writer has also provided two great parts for two actors of way beyond a certain age, Ann Guilbert and Lois Smith. Guilbert was Millie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Smith has been giving great performances since her film debut opposite James Dean in East of Eden in 1955. Both Guilbert and Smith do some of their best work here, especially in a scene in the back of a car going to see the leaves. Geezer power at work!
Date Night (2010. Written by Josh Klausner. 88 minutes.)
Seeing it later: My wife and I were going to try to get to this one together, but the medical problems prevented that. As I mentioned, she loves mysteries, so hobbling out to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was OK, but as much as she loves Tina Fey…
So I did not get to see this until the end of its run. That’s after the mediocre reviews and the surprisingly persistent box office grosses. Yes, the writing in not as sharp as 30 Rock, but what is? What I think threw some reviewers off is that they assumed the script should be as good as 30 Rock. Yes, if we lived in a perfect world, but we don’t. Klausner (his other credits are on the Shrek movies) is not writing 30 Rock, he is writing a more conventional romantic comedy. And, more to the point, he is writing a star vehicle. Both Steve Carell’s show The Office and 30 Rock are ensemble shows. Here the focus is on Phil and Claire Foster, a nice married couple from New Jersey who simply try to have a nice dinner in New York City. It’s their movie. We spend more time with them than we do with anybody else. And Klausner has written great star parts for both Carell and Fey. Carell has already shown he can carry a picture (The 40-Year-Old Virgin  and, in a character closer to this one, Dan in Real Life ), and he is equally good here. Fey is the real surprise. One of the knocks against her when 30 Rock started was that she was a better writer than an actress. But she was always a better actress than she was given credit for, especially on 30 Rock. People assume that with Liz Lemon she is just playing herself. Yes and no. Her Claire here is not Liz, which probably upset critics more than it did general audiences. Klausner gives Fey a lot more to do than Fey gives herself as Liz, and Fey the actress delivers a real movie star performance here. 30 Rock episodes often seem rushed to me, and here she uses the additional time to give us several colors to the character.
Klausner has also written some nice supporting roles. They are not ensemble parts: they provide support for the stars. He has written a wonderful scene for James Franco and Mila Kunis as two sort-of blackmailers who are torn between screwing on the spot and escaping through a window. Klausner only gives them a couple of minutes of screen time, but they make the most of it.
Klausner has also written some good physical comedy, including a car chase. Yes, a car chase. In Manhattan. But it’s funny. As I tell my screenwriting students, you can get away with almost anything if you make the audience laugh. And if you make them laugh and enjoy it as well, you can get away with anything.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (Stage play. 2006. Adapted by Patrick Barlow, based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, based on the book by John Buchan. 115 minutes.)
Charles Bennett’s fat little English director strikes again: This play started in London in 2006, where it ran for 1,000 performances, then played Broadway a couple of years ago where it got nominated for a couple of Tonys. It has also played in seven other countries including Korea, Israel, and Italy. So why has it taken so long to get to L.A.? Maybe they knew some son of a bitch like me was waiting for it.
If you missed it in New York, the play is a very silly and very entertaining rehash of the 1935 movie, done in a wonderfully theatrical way, with only four actors (and the hand of an understudy) and limited props. As someone less interested in over-produced shows (although I have to admit I did like the production of Mary Poppins that flew into L.A. a few months ago), I always admire theatrical ingenuity used in place of money. I can see why the play has been a hit all over the world. But this is L.A., home of the movie business and film historians like me.
You may remember that when I wrote about the new film version in US#44, I kept referring to the 1935 film as Charles Bennett’s version. Look at the title of the play, and then look at the official credits. See Bennett’s name anywhere in there? OK, well, the play is adapted from the book, and in the 2008 film Lizzie Mickery went back to the book, but the title of the play announces that it is a stage version of the film. Maria Aitken, the play’s director, says in the program notes that “We almost do the film frame by frame…” The play follows the structure of Bennett’s script precisely. And Aitken goes on to say that “Patrick Barlow’s dialogue is at least 60 percent from the film.” OK, so why not credit both Bennett and Ian Hay who did the dialogue in the film? (I was in error in #44 when I said there was more than one writer of the dialogue.) Bennett, unlike his fat little English director, was perfectly willing to give his co-writer credit. In an interview with John Belton in the first of Patrick McGilligan’s classic series of Backstory books, Bennett says, “We brought in Ian Hay, who wrote some lovely dialogue.” Charles Barr, in his essential book, English Hitchock, identifies Hay as a screenwriter, light novelist and playwright.
So why not credit Bennett and Hay? I searched high and low in the program and there is no mention of them. The reason of course is that Hitchcock is, after nearly sixty years of the auteur theory, much better known to the public. So much so that several of the added gags refer to other Hitchcock movies, as in the farm wife telling Hannay not to go out the front window but the—pause—rear window. Some of these are funny, but a lot of them end up trivializing Hitchcock and the film.
So, again, why not credit Bennett and Hay? The day after I saw this production I happened to be talking to Charles Bennett’s son, John, and mentioned the lack of credit for his dad. He accepted that given the contracts of the times, the producers of the play (and there are a lot of them) were legally justified in not giving credit. On the other hand, his first reaction when I told him was simply, “Thieves.”
Screenwriters, Poets, and Classical Musicians
Can’t we all just get along?: If you keep up to date on classical music you may have heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic has a hot new music director, Gustavo Dudamel, aka The Dude. Believe the hype. And if you caught him recently with the L.A. Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, you know what I mean. One of the issues facing him, as it faced his predecessor, Esa Pekka Salonen, was how to deal with the fact that Los Angeles is the film capital of the world. What does a classical orchestra do with the long tradition of film music? One of Salonen’s solutions was to have the Phil record a terrific CD of Bernard Herrmann’s music. Another, which did not work out as well, was to commission short films to go along with commissioned music. It did not work out at all. In my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, I describe one of the attempts:
“The stupidest audience I ever saw a movie with was a presumably middle-to- upper-class subscription audience at a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert. In October 1998, the Philharmonic conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and arts wunderkind Peter Sellars adapted some music by Jean Sibelius for the orchestra to play as a live accompaniment to the 1928 silent film The Wind. [Sellars could not be bothered to make a new film for the project, which died shortly thereafter.] The music sort of fit, but the audience began giggling at the beginning of the film, as sometimes happens at silent movie screenings. But the giggling continued, with the audience seemingly determined not only not to get into the film, but to trivialize it as much as they could. Mostly I think this was an example of the cultural divide in Los Angeles. The Philharmonic subscription audience is made up of people from Hancock Park east out through Pasadena, the type of people who have always looked down on movies as inferior to the other arts. If the same film had played on the west side of Los Angeles, at say UCLA or LACMA, the audience there would have very easily gotten into it, as I’ve seen them do with other silent films.”
One of the Dude’s big series of concerts this spring is called Americas and Americans, in which he brings together music from not only his native Venezuela, but from other South American countries. In the program for April 29 through May 2, we had a too-brief excerpt from Copland’s The Tender Land and a very lively (the Dude is nothing if not lively) reading of Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia dances. The major work was Antonio Estévez’s Cantata Criolla. It is based on Alberto Arvelo Torrealba’s poem Florentino and the Devil, which tells the story of Florentino, a traveling singer, who rides the plains of Venezuela and gets into a singing duel with the devil. The story sounds like the Venezuelan version of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads. Rather than just let the music (orchestra, two choirs, and two soloists singing Florentino and the Devil) carry it, Dudamel and his collaborators decided to juice it up. First they got Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros , Babel ) to write what turned out to be a poem. It does not fit with the film prepared to play along with the Cantata Criolla, so it was read by three actors off and on during the evening. It is not particularly compelling. Disney Hall, which has great acoustics for music, is not so good for the spoken word, but even reading it in the program did not help. Better they should have had Arriaga develop a script for the film. The film’s director, Alberto Arvelo, the grandson of the author of Florentino and the Devil, ended up with a sort of Venezuelan Once Upon a Time in the West without that film’s speedy pace. He says in his Director’s Statement in the program, “From the point of view of the film, recreating the image of the South American plains has to do with something that goes beyond a horizontal world, where anything vertical, a tree or a streak of lightning, acquires an almost sacred connotation: recreating the plains has to do with the diminutive size of man in an immensity that can be both beautiful and suffocating, both deeply moving and horrific.” Doesn’t he just talk like a director? What we saw up on the screen was the figure of Florentino on his horse, riding slowly across the plains. Very slowly. And riding some more.
Essentially the balance of image and music was off. As often happens if filmmakers try to match their film to existing music, they don’t have enough story to cover the music. Film scoring is an art, and a lot of film music does not work particularly well in concert settings. Film music that does, whether in its original orchestrations or revised into a suite, usually has a speed and inventiveness that sets it apart from much classical music. On the other hand, there are many short classical pieces, such as overtures, that work in the same way as good film music.
Johnny Eager (1941. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin and James Edward Grant, story by James Edward Grant. 107 minutes.)
It just doesn’t sound right: The plotting is fine. We think Johnny Eager is an ex-con who is turning his life around, but then we discover he is an even bigger crime kingpin than he was when he went up the river. Later on, a guy we think has been killed turns up alive. And Johnny gets involved with the daughter of the judge who first sent him up. The production is MGM glossy, which I suppose is OK, since Johnny is supposed to be a rich crook. The casting is adequate, although Robert Taylor and Lana Turner do not have the kind of on-screen chemistry they apparently had off-screen. He’s a little two sedate for her. She was much better with Clark Gable.
The major problem is the dialogue. This is just far enough along after the early ’30s gangster films that the kind of slangy dialogue would not work, and it is not yet up to the heyday of film noir. If you look at James Edward Grant’s filmography, you will see he was much better at writing action pictures for John Wayne, especially westerns. John Lee Mahin wrote star vehicles at MGM. It probably did not bother audiences in 1941, but watching this today, after nearly seventy years of films noir, you really miss the great dialogue the genre is noted for. Where are Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity ), Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep ), or Robert Towne (Chinatown ) when you need them?
The Sound Barrier (1952. Written by Terence Rattigan. 118 minutes in Britain and on Turner Classic Movies, 109 minutes in original American release.)
Slightly dated: I saw this film when I was about 10 or 11 and loved it. I hadn’t seen again until it showed up recently on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t love it as much this time…
The film’s director, David Lean, wanted to do a film about civilian aviation. His producer, Alexander Korda, was reluctant, having had a flop on the subject a few years before the war. But he encouraged Lean to do some research on the subject. Lean came back with a notebook full of material, including ideas for several scenes. Korda suggested they get Terence Rattigan to do the script because, “I think he would be wonderful at this because he knows about airplanes [he had been a flyer during the war], he’s very inventive, and he does not despise the cinema.” Korda was wrong about that last one, but right about the other two. Rattigan took Lean’s notebooks and came up with a script that included several of the ideas but as Lean said, “Much better than mine.” But nobody was happy with the first draft. The story was based on the death of two sons of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, one of the leading aircraft builders in Britain. Rattigan had written it as the conflict between the father and the sons. It was Korda, ever the creative producer, who threw out the idea that one of the sons should be a daughter. Rattigan realized a father-daughter conflict was better and made the whole thing work.
So Susan, the daughter of the de Havilland surrogate, Ridgefield, marries a former RAF pilot who goes to work as a test pilot for her father. This is after Ridgefield’s younger son, who is not all that keen on flying, is killed in a crash. So Tony, the son-in-law, is going to test jets and break the sound barrier. Of course, because he is the hero. Except Rattigan kills him off an hour and a half into the film, and it is his old flying partner Philip who succeeds. Well, it was the early ’50s, and Rossellini and his writers had already shown us in Open City in 1945 that you could kill off a major character in a film well before the end. Tony’s death adds to the suspense of Philip’s successful try. If they killed off Tony, they could easily kill off Philip. (Yes, we all know now that it was an American, Chuck Yeager, who actually broke the sound barrier. When the film was being made, Yeager’s work was still classified and not known to the public. Lean and Korda panicked when it became known during the production of the film, but moved on with the production anyway. There are still people today who saw the film then who are convinced the Brits did it first.)
Rattigan’s script is good at characterization, but it does give us a little more exposition than we need now about what the sound barrier is. What dates the movie even more are the attitudes toward jet planes, which is worshipful in the extreme. At one point Tony flies Susan to Cairo for lunch. They watch a jet airliner take off, and the film treats it like, well, maybe like the taking off of a jet airline from Heathrow today, what with all the volcanic ash around. Hmm, maybe the picture is not as dated as I thought.
Finishing the 2009/2010 TV Season
More or less: Here are some quick takes on some of the last shows of the seasons, and some that are not.
Modern Family sent the families off to Hawaii in “Airport 2010” (written by Dan O’Shannon & Bill Wrubel) and “Hawaii” (written by Paul Corrigan & Brad Walsh). Wait a minute! The show is only in its first season. Traditionally the “trip to Hawaii” episodes don’t come until the 3rd or 4th season after the writers have run out of ideas on what to do with the characters. Fortunately, the writers here had some interesting ideas. “Airport 2010” was set entirely in LAX before they ever got airborne. Sensible Claire hates to fly and gets drunk at the bar. Of all the members of the family, who would you put on the no-fly list? Their choice is Manny, who according to government records, went to Japan on business when he was four. “Hawaii” was a more conventional episode, but as usual, the writers are good about having storylines for everybody in the family that play off each other the same way multiple storylines did on Seinfeld.
30 Rock came up with three good episodes to finish off the season. My favorite was “The Moms” (written by Kay Cannon & Robert Carlock). TGS is celebrating Mother’s Day (have you forgotten the show started as being a comedy show for and about women?), and we get a plethora of mothers. Some of whom we have met, such as Elaine Stritch as Jack’s mom and Patti Lu Pone as Frank’s mom, and Jan Hooks as Jenna’s mom. Those three actresses alone could take over any show in town, but the writers have given each of them specific, concrete bits, just as Klausner gave his supporting actors in Date Night. You might think it overkill to bring in Patti Lu Pone for at the most five lines, but Lu Pone gives them everything she can. The same with Stritch and Hooks. And Anita Gillette, making a second appearance as Liz’s mom, sets Liz off to track down Buzz Aldrin, whom mom had a fling with. This leads to a great scene with Liz and Aldrin talking about what might have been and ending with the two of them howling at the moon. I take notes during these shows, but I can’t do it fast enough to have caught all the corners that scene went around.
In “Emanuelle in Dinosaur Land” (written by Matt Hubbard) Nancy, whom I had thought was off the show, arrives in New York and Jack is caught between her and Avery. More fun with Alec and Julianne, although their best scenes were in the next episode, “I do, I do,” (written by Tina Fey), where Jack has to decide between Nancy and Avery. Nancy meets Avery in the bathroom, and Fey is smart enough to give us only the opening part of the scene, so when Nancy goes back to Jack we don’t know what is going to happen. It isn’t pretty, but it is pretty fun. Nancy leaves, for good this time, but not before telling Jack that what she did last night to him was only 50% of what she could do. In “Dinosaur Land” Liz revisits and reviews her previous boyfriends, and in “I do, I do,” she meets a guy she thinks may be “the one.” He is a pilot who loves TGS, is delighted to learn Liz writes the Dr. Fart sketches, and thinks Sully Sullenberg should have just flown around the birds. Needless to say, Liz tells everybody he may be the one. He overhears her and leaves, but then comes back. OK, he is played by Matt Damon, who probably cannot stick around much longer than Julianne Moore, but a girl can hope.
In Plain Sight has not brought back Allison Pearson, which is too bad. Allison Janney has been hired for the new Matthew Perry show, so we probably won’t be seeing her again. A couple of episodes focused a little more on Marshall, which was as nice change of pace.
Castle, following up the two episodes with Jordan Shaw I mentioned in US#45, got both Castle and Beckett involved with others, just at the time when both were beginning to realize there might really be something between them.
The Good Wife ended up letting Alicia have the junior associate position at Lockhart Gardner in “Unplugged” (written by Karen Hall). The following week in “Hybristophilia” (written by Frank Pierson) Cary, who was upset at being let go, was hired by Peter’s enemy Childs, so we have not seen the last of him. If you want to understand why this is one of the best shows on television, go out to the Internet Movie Database and check the credits on those two writers.
Two and a Half Men came up with a surprisingly mediocre episode, “Gumby with a Pokey” (teleplay by Don Foster, Eddie Gorodetsky, & Mark Roberts, story by Chuck Lorre, Lee Aronshon, Dave Richardson & Cuck Lorre). The log line was that Alan and Jake go on a road trip while Charlie is visited by ghosts of former girlfriends. OK, so we are in Christmas Carol/Ghosts of Girlfriends Past territory. Except we are not. Way too much time is spent with Alan and Jake, and the gathering of the “ghosts” suggests more the harem scene in Fellini’s 8 ½ than Dickens or McConaughey. There are jokes, but it never really goes anywhere, or gets as much out of the situation as Fellini and his writers do. I am all in favor of stealing from the best, but if you do, at least try to live up to your source.
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.