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Understanding Screenwriting #57: The Concert, Cairo Time, A Film Unfinished, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #57: <em>The Concert</em>, <em>Cairo Time</em>, <em>A Film Unfinished</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Concert, Cairo Time, A Film Unfinished, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Dunkirk, I Was Monty’s Double, Rizzoli & Isles, Burn Notice but first…

Fan Mail: I think that it is only fair that since David Ehrenstein caught me misspelling Charles Walters’s last name as Waters some time ago I mention that in his comments on US#56 he misspelled Robert Rossen’s last name as Rosson. It is an honest mistake, since there was a family of Rossons connected with the business, the most notable being Harold, who was a great cinematographer from 1915 to 1967. I am not as crazy about Rossen’s Lillith (1964) as David is, but I agree that They Came to Cordura (1959) is a very interesting film, and I had thought about mentioning it in the item on Edge of Darkness, since it deals with the issues of heroism and cowardness. As for Rossen’s Alexander the Great (1956), it is not without its interest, but Rossen runs into the same problem Oliver Stone did in his 2004 film Alexander: Alexander had an epic life, but not a very dramatic one: He conquered the world and then he died.

The Concert (2009. Screenplay by Radu Mihaileanu and Alain-Michel Blanc in collaboration with Matthew Robbins, adaptation and dialogue by Radu Mihaileanu, based on a story by Héctor Cabello Reyes and Thierry Degrandi. 119 minutes.)

Worth the wait: This was the film that my wife and I intended to see when we ended up at Get Low (see US#55), and it is certainly more lighthearted than that film. This is one of the most purely entertaining movies of the year, and it’s also more than that in some rather sneaky ways. Before we get into all of that, I do need to warn you about the plot. As Michael Brooke so elegantly put it in his review in the August 2010 Sight & Sound, the “premise alone generates enough plot holes to accommodate an entire fleet of articulated lorries doing three-point turns.” A former conductor of the Bolshoi orchestra, now working as a janitor, intercepts a fax to the company director requesting the orchestra play a concert in a theater in Paris. Alexi, the conductor, rounds up a collection of his old musician friends, goes to Paris and gives a triumphant concert, with no rehearsal and with a young French violinist, Anne-Marie, playing a Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto she has never played before. Watch out for those articulated lorries!

Why does it work? It’s funny. As I tell my screenwriting students, you can get away with almost anything if you make us laugh. The writers are great at nailing down in the shortest possible time the peculiarities of the many characters, both Russian and French. They are perhaps even better at getting humor out of the cultural differences between the Russians and the French. Yes, sometimes those are cliches, but as Crash Davis reminds us, cliches are our friends. There is a running gag of two Jewish musicians trying to sell everything from caviar to Chinese cellphones to the French. It could be offensive, but by then we love the characters and want them to score big time. It is not just the cultural details the writers get right. Alexi was a top conductor thirty years ago, as was the man who fired him, Gavrilov. The musicians get Gavrilov to be their “manager” for the trip, but he is thirty years out of the loop as well. His demands alternately baffle the French (the restaurant where he wants to hold a dinner for the orchestra has gone out of business) and delight them (the theater owner, when he hears the fees the orchestra wants, notes to his assistant that those are “pre-Perestroika rates”). The film is very reminiscent of some of the late-’60s Eastern European classics such as The Fireman’s Ball (1967), but with a definite post-communist slant. There is a great scene, a wedding given by a Russian mobster, that defines how Russia has changed in twenty years.

Another reason it all works is that the writers move the story along like the proverbial bat out of hell. The mechanics of setting up the concern and assembling the orchestra (this is a “mission” picture, just like The Guns of Navarone [1961] and The Dirty Dozen [1967]) start the picture off quickly, so by 45 minutes in the orchestra is lining up to go to the airport. And the details set up in the first half pay off in the second half. That wedding scene? It gives the orchestra its “sponsor,” a Russian mobster who thinks he is a cellist and assumes he is going to play in the orchestra. I thought the writers had forgotten about him until we see his situation during the concert. The Russian Gypsy violinist who arranges a lot of the “paperwork” turns out to make a musical connection with Anne-Marie that helps persuade her to do the concert. And when we get to Paris, yes, we are in Ninotchka (1939)-land, since Gavrilov is not as much an ex-communist as he wants people to believe. That gives us a simple but very effective contrast between the Party meeting he sets up in Paris, which is not well attended, and the concert, which is. Art triumphing over politics.

I mentioned earlier that it was more than just funny. We love these characters because they make us laugh, and when they are on-screen, stuff happens. So we will end up following them into a more serious storyline. Alexi asks for Anne-Marie as a soloist because he has her CDs, and we suspect there is some kind of connection. We begin to know for sure what it is when we meet her and her agent-manager. And then the writers pull the rug out from under us completely, taking us into darker areas than we have been. The connections are not what you think, and I will not spoil it for you by telling you any more than that.

The writers also pull of a great bit of sleight-of-hand in the concert. We will of course want to know what happens to all these people after the concert, and the writers give us a series of both verbal (Alexi telling Anne-Marie the rest of the story in voiceover) and visual (scenes of post-concert activities) montages. But they give them to us during the concert. If we had to watch the entire concert it might get visually monotonous, and giving us that information during the concert, we are then free to get the full emotional impact of the end of the concert.

My wife, who is a musician, often complains about actors pretending to play musical instruments. She thought Mélanie Laurent, who plays Anne-Marie, did the fingering brilliantly. Laurent was the one who blew up Hitler in Inglourious Basterds last year and I was too busy looking at her gorgeous and gorgeously expressive face to notice her hands, so we will just have to take my wife’s word for it.

Cairo Time (2009. Written by Ruba Nadda. 90 minutes.)

Cairo Time

Not as bad as Mademoiselle Chabon: You may remember from US#55 that as bad as Mademoiselle Chabon (2009), the French update of Brief Encounter (1945), was, I wondered if it was even possible in our time to do a story about people in love who split up because of duty and honor. With Cairo Time, the jury is still out on the question.

Juliette, a married magazine editor in her fifties, comes to Cairo to visit her husband, who works for the U.N. When she arrives, he is still in Gaza dealing with the situation there. He has asked his retired translator, Tarek, to pick up Juliette at the airport and take her to her hotel. She assumes he is going to be old and fat, and, boy, is he neither one. As Mark, the husband, continues to be stuck in Gaza, Tarek offers to show her around. He runs a café, but seems to have all the time in the world. So he and Juliette walk around Cairo. A lot. We see many pretty post-card shots of Cairo, but they are not very expressive. Look at the choices the writers made in Before Sunset (2004) as to where Jesse and Celine will walk in Paris, or to take an earlier example, how the Spanish Steps and the Mouth of Truth work in Roman Holiday (1953).

Juliette and Tarek talk a lot, but it is not very dramatic talk. We get very little of either person’s character. See the other films mentioned above on how to do it. Nadda also geeks one of the script’s more interesting ideas. At the airport, Tarek and Juliette run into Yasmeen and her daughter, who is getting married. Tarek and Yasmeen obviously know each other, but it takes forever for Nadda to get around to letting us know that Yasmeen was the love of Tarek’s life. She dumped him and married another guy, but is now a widow. Juliette and Tarek go to the wedding late in the picture. By that time we know they are attracted to each other, so it would make sense for Juliette, feeling guilty but wanting the best for Tarek, to push him to rekindle the flame with Yasmeen. Juliette suggests this, but Tarek says it wouldn’t proper. Maybe not in Egyptian culture, but wouldn’t that make it more dramatic? And then we could get a great scene of Tarek and Juliette sending each other off to their other loves. My tear ducts are swelling up just thinking about that scene. Instead, Tarek just passes her back to Mark when he shows up. Yes, that is a “happy” ending, except for the fact that Mark appears to have no character either.

A Film Unfinished (2010. Written by Yael Hersonski. 88 minutes.)

A Film Unfinished

Structuring the documentary, take one: The students taking my Screenwriting class at Los Angeles City College are required to have taken the History of Documentary Film class as a prerequisite. Nearly all of them take it with me at LACC, but sometimes there are people who had what was in theory the equivalent course elsewhere. One time there was a student in that situation in the class. We were discussing an idea another student had pitched for a documentary and the “elsewhere” student said, “Documentaries aren’t structured. You just go out and film real life.” Everybody else in the class, who had taken the documentary class with me, turned in unison and looked at him with a “What planet are you from?” look. We straightened the fellow out fairly quickly and painlessly.

Sometimes the structure comes from writing the script in advance, as in Night Mail (1936). Sometimes the situation pretty much dictates the structure, as in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963). And in Frederick Wiseman films, the complex structures (yes, plural) are worked out in the editing room. No matter how it is done, any good documentary has a structure.

The problem facing Yael Hersonski was this. She had a rough cut, without a soundtrack, of a Nazi documentary called The Ghetto. It had been filmed in the spring of 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, but not completed, apparently because the Nazis started shipping Jews out of the Ghetto into the camps. For years, various shots from the film had been used as historical clips in other documentaries. Then a reel of outtakes was found, which very clearly showed that many of the shots were staged by the German camera crews. So how do you organize all of that into a film, and what else do you want or need to make it into a complete film?

Hersonski’s solution is not as simple as it may seem. She generally runs the rough cut in what we assume—she never out and out claims it—is the order of scenes in that cut. For all we know, she may have changed the order. But what do you do for a sound track? Hersonski and her researchers have found several useful items. One is the diary of the head of the Jewish community in the Ghetto, which includes several references to the film being shot. Another is a series of reports by the German officer in command, also including material about the making of the film. The first part of Hersonski’s film primarily uses those two sources. But well into the film, she begins to show us survivors of the Ghetto that she has tracked down. She has them watch, as much as they can, the German rough cut and comment on it. One woman comments on a scene in what looks to be a nice apartment that it would never have had flowers, as we see in the shot, because somebody would have eaten them. Still later in the film Hersonski begins to introduce the outtakes. What appears to be the reason for the making of the Nazi film was to show that while some Jews were starving, more well-to-do Jews were living a normal life. The outtakes are mostly setting up those “well-to-do” scenes. The final shots of the rough cut show one well-off Jew standing next to a not-so-well off one, then another double shot of two different people, and another. Finally, we get all the “doubles” in one shot. One woman among the “well-to-do” has one of the most haunting looks on her face I have ever seen. She may not have “known” what was going on, but she knew.

Finally, Hersonski introduces the most problematical element in her film. She learned that one of the cameramen on the film, Willy Wist, was interrogated about his experience. She has the transcript, but handles it as a reconstruction, with an actor “playing” Wist. Given the “reality” of the rest of the film, the reconstruction seems artificial, although it is so well done that many people will “believe” it. It is never specifically mentioned in the narration or the titles that it is a reconstruction. On the other hand, that may have been the only way to include the material. And how different is it really from the other actors who read the diaries and reports that make up the rest of the sound track? Still, in a film that is showing us the difference between truth and fiction on film, I find myself a little queasy about it. Only a little queasy, though, since Wist’s statements add a lot to the film. See the moral quandaries dealing with the truth can get you into?

A Film Unfinished, by the way, is part of a tradition of the last thirty years of using older documentaries to call into question the “truths” those films showed us. Look at Radio Bikini (1987), which compares the footage shot by the U.S. Government about the atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Islands with the comments shot more recently from those who were there. Or look at One Nation Under God (1993), which uses the way old documentaries dealt with homosexuality to undercut the ideas of the past. And that’s not even mentioning the documentaries of the last ten years that undercut the mainstream media coverage of… oh, sorry, school’s starting and I got into my “teaching the history of documentary” mode there for a minute.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010. Written by Tamra Davis. 88 minutes.)

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Structuring the documentary, take two: What do singer Britney Spears, actor Adam Sandler and the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat have in common? Other than that they were all once virgins, or at least purported to be? All of them starred in films directed by Tamra Davis. Davis directed Spears in Crossroads (2002), which is not nearly as bad as you might think. The writer on that one, by the way, was Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy. Davis also directed Sandler in Billy Madison (1995), and she now turns to Basquiat. Or technically speaking, turns back to Basquiat. In the mid-’80s, Davis was working in art galleries in Los Angeles and met Basquiat. Tamra was a film student of mine at LACC earlier in the ’80s, and in 1986 she and friend got a camera and recorded about twenty minutes of interviews with Baquiat. After he died in 1988, she shelved the material until a few years ago when she put it together as an adjunct for a showing of his work. That led to the current film.

The structural problem she had to solve was this: the interview was not enough material for a film by itself. The IMDb lists her A Conversation with Basquiat (2006), which was the short version done for the showing, as running 99 minutes, at least in France, but that’s why you should not believe everything you read on the Internet. So what do you do to turn it into a feature? The interview material is simply one structural element of the current film, and quite frankly it is not as compelling as the footage Hersonski has for A Film Unfinished. Basquiat is cute, but guarded in his responses, and not as articulate as one would hope. So Davis has structured the film as more a conventional biography, although she does not begin in his childhood, but when he first came to New York City at the age of 17. We get a certain amount of stock shots from the late ’70s and early ’80s, plus home movies by Basquiat’s friends. We also get a lot of his artwork, starting with the graffiti and on into his later paintings. What is even more useful, although in ways Davis may not even appreciate, are the interviews with gallery owners, friends, lovers, agents and others. They put Basquiat into the context of his time and place, but they also put the Basquiat interview into context. Several people talk about his ambition and determination to be famous, and we can see him in the 1986 interview using what he takes to be his charm to make himself into a star. The interviews with the others also give us a vivid sense of his development as an artist.

As fascinating as the movie is, and as good as the descriptions of his art are, I still am not that much of a fan of his work. I don’t mind that it looks like graffiti, but it’s uninteresting graffiti. Maybe I am just more in tune with West Coast, Mexican-mural-influenced graffiti art. In any case, I remained a little dubious about the gushing that goes on by his friends and colleagues. I particularly got a sense of how inbred the New York City art world can be, an echo chamber in which the trendy artist flavor of the month can seem more important than he may be. There are hints that Basquiat understood that the fame he was working for was rather empty. The Los Angeles people who talk about him sort of fall into that trap as well, although one person suggests that if Basquiat had stayed in Los Angeles (he lived here for a brief period), he might have survived. Now that’s a shift in cultural attitudes we will all have to think about for a while.

Dunkirk (1958. Screenplay by David Divine and W.P. Lipscomb, based on the book Dunkirk by Ewen Butler and J.S. Bradford and the novel The Big Pickup by Elleston Trevor. 130 or 134 minutes, depending on your source.)

Dunkirk

John Mills, action star, take one: We tend to think about the late, great British film actor John Mills for his dramatic roles, even when he was playing military figures, as in Tunes of Glory (1959). But in 1958 he made a couple of films in which he was almost an action star. Dunkirk is the bad one, and I Was Monty’s Double, which is discussed below, is the good one.

Dunkirk is one of the last films made by Ealing Studios, which was much better known for its comedies. Charles Barr, the author of the great studio biography Ealing Studios, calls it “very dull indeed.” Far be it from me to disagree with Barr. The intent I expect was to do a big tribute to the efforts of the Navy and small boat owners to rescue several hundred thousand British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. As I wrote about in US#48, Darryl Zanuck did a much better job covering D-Day in The Longest Day (1962). The producer here was Michael Balcon, who simply did not have Zanuck’s flare. Notice the script is based on both a non-fiction book and a novel. It is very easy to guess which scenes come from which source. The scenes with the senior military are very flat and on the nose, and Balcon has not helped by casting virtually unknown British actors. Zanuck knew you needed stars to make the audience remember the characters in a picture of that size. The script is also rather clunky. We follow a group of six surviving British soldiers, led by Corporal Binns (John Mills), as they make their way to the beach and eventually get picked up. Those scenes are intercut with not only the senior officers, but with several civilians who end up bringing their boats to help the rescue. Zanuck insisted on short, to-the-point scenes, very much in the American manner, but Balcon let the scenes in this script go on much longer than they should have. We keep losing the thread of the different stories. Binns and his soldiers do see action, and Mills is certainly convincing as an enlisted man forced into a leadership position. The director, Leslie Norman, whom Barr calls “the most stolid of all the Ealing directors,” slows the pace down, and the film editor does not help by leaving in parts of the takes before and after the action. Undoubtedly they were trying to make it as long as they could to make it seem big and important. Longer is not better.

I Was Monty’s Double (1958. Screenplay by Bryan Forbes, based on the book I Was Monty’s Double by M.E. Clifton-James. 101 minutes.)

I Was Monty's Double

John Mills, action star, take two: The storyline of this one is preposterous. The British are trying in 1944 to convince the Germans that the D-Day invasion is going to land anywhere other than Normandy. British Intelligence comes up with a hare-brained scheme to get an actor who is the spitting image of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to pretend to be Monty on a tour of North Africa. The real Monty is in England preparing for the invasion, but the hope is the Germans will think that perhaps Monty will invade the south of France from North Africa. The Brits succeed well enough so that Hitler holds units in reserve in the south of France when D-Day finally comes. And the story, if not the film, is completely true. The actor involved, M.E. Clifton-James, wrote a best-selling book about it in the ’50s and stars in the movie as himself, and as Montgomery.

One big advantage this film has is that the screenplay is by Bryan Forbes. Forbes was an actor in British films since the late ’40s (he plays the young officer who helps stop the kidnapping at the end of this film) who started writing in the mid-’50s. He later turned to directing with such films as King Rat (1965) and The Stepford Wives (1975). So he knows how to write terrific scenes for the actors to play. Turner Classic Movies ran these two John Mills films on a day devoted to Mills in late August. I watched them in the order I am writing about them, and the change from the lethargic Dunkirk to this one was immediately apparent. Mills is Major Harvey and in the first few minutes he arrives in a boat on the coast of England, gets off a train in London, eludes a man following him, and shows up at what we have to guess (because no one says it outright) is an office in British Intelligence. Whereupon he has a wonderful scene with his boss, Colonel Logan, about what they can get up to next. Forbes not only knows how to write for actors, but to make it amusing. We get a lot of the wit that Mills showed as Pip in Great Expectations (1946). It also helps that the director is John Guillermin, who knows how to keep things moving.

Harvey sees Clifton-James do a music hall cameo (look at how Forbes gets him to the music hall in the first place) and comes up with the idea of doubling Monty. Clifton-James the character is wonderfully self-effacing, as is Clifton-James the actor, which lends a whole down-to-earth quality to the film. Clifton-James the character observes the real Monty and then trains to be him. But he tells Harvey he cannot do it. Harvey insists, and finally has to take Clifton-James to see the real Monty, who will persuade him to do it. Ah, a central scene in the picture. Except we do not see it; we just see Clifton-James go into Monty’s trailer and later come out. Was the scene never in the script? Was it in the script and they decided they did not need it? Did they shoot it and find it did not work? We don’t know.

So then it is off to Gibraltar for the first leg of the tour. Forbes gives us a great scene with the Governor of Gibraltar, who invites to dinner with Monty a German businessman whom he knows will tell the Germans. Great idea, until they are walking into the room and the German happens to mention he has met Monty before. Forbes sets this up to give the great British character actor Michael Hordern (none of those unknowns as in Dunkirk) as the Governor a terrific reaction shot, and then builds the scene from there.

In real life “Monty” made the North African tour without incident and was then brought back to England and held in seclusion. Not very dramatic, so the last 15 minutes or so are a kidnapping attempt that John Mills in his action star mode foils. The movie, with its wit and suspense, has built up enough good will that we won’t get too angry with it.

This film is not yet on DVD, but TCM may run it again. However, don’t look for it under its original title. Even though the print shown had this title, it was listed in the schedule by its godawful American title, Hell, Heaven, or Hoboken. I am not going to waste your time or mine trying to explain that.

Rizzoli & Isles (2010. “Born to Run” episode written by David Gould. 60 minutes.)

Rizzoli & Isles

Finally, a good one: This is their best episode yet, and oddly enough, it is because it is less like the others. There is very little banter between R&I, and most of that is at the beginning as they get ready to run in the “Massachusetts” Marathon. It’s obviously the Boston Marathon, but given the plot I can see why everybody wanted to change the name.

So they start to run, and at the three-mile mark they discover a dead body in the street. What do you do? Well, they pretend the body is still alive and get it in an ambulance, but the crowd is so big they can’t get out. So they take it to a medical tent. Rizzoli calls it in and then the question becomes, do you stop the marathon? The script handles the cops and politicians dealing with that very well. They agree not to stop the race because a) it will cause panic and probably a riot, and b) this is a TV episode and they cannot afford a riot. Isles has to do a primitive autopsy and they discover the victim had been shot. At close range. The police eventually identify him as a guy who has had several lawsuits filed against him. And then Rizzoli’s brother, also a cop, finds another body, shot in the same way, at mile twelve. Now do you close down the race? Nope, and needless to say, Rizzoli and the cops figure out who is killing the runners and why and stop the last one.

So, it’s a plot we have not seen before, nicely developed, and with minimal mediocre banter. But can you build a show on that?

Burn Notice (2010. “Blind Spot” episode written by Michael Horowitz, “Guilty as Charged” episode written by Matt Nix. Each episode 60 minutes)

Burn Notice

Jesse knows: I mentioned in my comments on this show in US#56 that Jesse had not yet discovered that it was Michael who burned him. So guess what happens in these two episodes and look at how much it ups the tension. At the end of “Blind Spot,” Jesse tells Fi that he has found a security tape from across the street from his building that clearly shows Michael leaving the building at the time Jesse was burned. Jesse pulls a gun on Fi, but just leaves when she closes her eyes, expecting to be shot.

In “Guilty as Charged” Michael is trying to work out a deal with John Barrett, the technology mogul, to return the Bible that has the code, in return for which Barrett is supposed to tell him what the code unlocks. Maddie and Fi get a nice scene as they try to talk Jesse into persuading him to work with Michael. Jesse is reluctant, but at a meeting at a diner, also a good tense scene, he agrees not to kill Michael until after Michael has gotten the information from Barrett. Needless to say, the handover does not go well, with all kinds of unwanted people showing up. Jesse shoots Michael, but Sam and Fi realize he was shooting “through” Michael to kill the hood behind him. Michael and Barrett escape in a van with the metal briefcase that now has the Bible and the material it decodes. Barrett has told Michael it includes the names and addresses of the people who not only burned Jesse, but Michael and Simon as well. Michael, bleeding, grabs the wheel and crashes the van. It looks as though Barrett is dead, and Michael is bleeding out when he sees someone pick up the metal suitcase. Needless to say, this is the half-season finale, and we will have to wait until November to get the outcome.

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.