Fan Mail: As I suspected, my comments on Uncle Boonmee pissed off some people. Both the ever-vigilant David Ehrenstein and “JF” felt I was not appreciating the complexity of the film. The problem I had was that it was not complex enough. I was ready, willing and able to deal with those elements. As I made clear in my opening comments, I was greatly looking forward to seeing the film precisely because of the elements critics have liked. What bothered me is that “Joe,” as Apichatpong Weerasethakul likes to be called in the West, had not done enough of that sort of thing. As for David’s comments on many people finding Imitation of Life (1959) emotionally overwhelming, I know that they do, and for a great variety of reasons. The script problems I pointed out make it difficult for the film to work that way for me.
JF makes a very compelling point when he says that while I deal with mainstream film and television well, I don’t deal with the arthouse cinema with the same skill. That has been rattling around in my head since I read it. He may well have a point. Admittedly, American narrative film is my native language. On the other hand, I have been going beyond that since I was a kid. I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, in the ’40s and ’50s. Being a college town, it had an arthouse theater, the Von Lee. That’s where I was first exposed to Italian neorealist films, French films, and the first two films of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. I went east to college (Yale, if you don’t remember) in 1959, just in time to catch the French New Wave, as well as Felllini, Antonioni, and that crowd. I was immediately taken with Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), one of the first films to break down the traditional narrative style. When I first saw Fellini’s 8 ½ in 1963, it became one of my favorite films, which it remains to this day. It is hardly in the American narrative tradition. So if I major in American narrative film, I also have a strong minor in arthouse cinema.
There are I think two issues here. One is the degree of interest I have in films of other cultures. David was suggesting in his comments that I was not getting the Thai cultural elements of Uncle Boonmee. That may be true, but one of the reasons I like films from other countries is that they educate us about the culture of those countries. If you will go down the list of films I have dealt with in this column over the last three years, you will find a lot of foreign films that I have liked, and liked specifically because of those cultural elements. Look at my comments on, just to name a few, Departures (US#29), The Secret in Their Eyes (US#46) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (US#47).
The second issue is one of what might perhaps be called tone. I have always thought that if I had a motto to go on a family crest, it would be “Serious, but not Solemn.” I love movies and I take them seriously, but I try my damnedest to avoid the kind of pontificating that a lot of people get into. Just to take another whack at the East Coast Intellectual Establishment, I suspect that solemnity in dealing with foreign films comes from that disdain the Establishment had for years toward Hollywood. The reviews of Hollywood films could be frivolous because the films were frivolous, but one had to take foreign films seriously because they were Art. Well, now we know that Hollywood films can be serious as well, but we have not yet come to recognize that sometimes the foreign emperors have very little clothes, if any at all. I tend to take the same tone for both American and foreign films, and I can see why that bothers devotees of the arthouse circuit.
“Samm” raised the old question of me just reviewing films and not promoting “understanding” of screenwriting. As I have mentioned before, I am not a great believer in grand theories of screenwriting. You can get those anywhere. What I try to do in this column is help you understand screenwriting by looking at how it works—or doesn’t—in actual practice. It is only one of many ways one can “understand” screenwriting, but I think it is a valuable one. Samm then added that “from the screenwriting perspective, all these movies are more or less the same,” which sounds suspiciously like the fellow a few months ago who kept insisting that all movies are the Hero’s Journey. From the screenwriting perspective, movies are not all alike, and if you really want to understand screenwriting, you will be looking for the ways they are different, rather than the same.
Having said all of that, on to this column’s haul of goodies, in which you will find many of the issues I just discussed coming to play.
Certified Copy (2010. Written by Abbas Kiarostami. 106 minutes.)
A shaggy dog story. Really. Really?: We think we know right where we are when the movie starts. We are in a copy of Before Sunset (2004). We are in a European country, an English-speaking author is about to talk about his book, a beautiful woman comes in to hear him, and eventually they go off together to walk about the countryside. Except we quickly realize it’s not Before Sunset. It’s not a sequel. We don’t know whether the woman knows the man, as we do in Sunset. She seems to be paying more attention to the teenage boy she brought with her, and she eventually leaves before the man stops talking. And he’s not filling us in on what happened in the first movie, because there is no first movie here. Instead he is talking about the subject of his book, how copies of art works can be just as moving and provide as great an experience as the original. Well, how well did you like Before Sunset, which was, after all, a sequel?
Before she leaves, “Elle,” which is how she is identified in the credits, gives her number to the moderator, and James, the author, shows up at her shop. She sells art, some of it real, some of it copies, which explains her interest in his book. And just like the writers of Before Sunset, Kiarostami is smart not to have them just sit around and chat. She takes him around Tuscany and they talk about art, people, etc. So far, so Before Sunset. One of the reasons I liked Before Sunset better than Before Sunrise (1995) is that Jesse and Celine are ten years older in the sequel and have more experience in life. Elle and James are well into their forties at least, definitely adults who talk like adults.
They stop at a small restaurant and while James steps out to take a cellphone call, the owner talks to Elle. The owner assumes Elle and James are married. Elle, who has had her ditzy moments (Juliette Binoche, running on all twelve cylinders), plays along. James (William Shimell, an opera singer in his first straight acting role, and holding his own against Binoche, no small feat) plays along too, when he finds out. So we have a copy of a relationship. But the deeper we get into the film, the more we suspect that maybe they are married, or were once, or at least met in Vienna, no, sorry, that last was Jesse and Celine. Or was it in Marienbad? Gosh, they argue like a real married couple. They seem like they have known each other, but then they seem like they haven’t.
Obviously the ending is going to be us finding out whether they are/were a real couple. But we don’t. See what I mean about it being a shaggy dog story?
Oh, speaking of screenwriting, the man of the couple they meet in a piazza in the best scene in the film is played by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. He wrote screenplays for, among others, Luis Buñuel. No wonder he seems right at home here.
Win Win (2011. Screenplay by Tom McCarthy, story by Tom McCarthy & Joe Tiboni. 106 minutes.)
“Shit” as a structural element: In the mid-’90s I once suggested to the editor of Creative Screenwriting that someone should do an article on the opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and discuss how the word “fuck” is used as the organizing principle of the scene. Nobody rose to that bait, but you could do the same thing with the use of “shit” in the opening scene of Win Win. Look at the characters who say it and in what circumstances. McCarthy, whose previous credits as a writer-director include The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007), very nicely lays out the main characters. Mike is a lawyer who is not making a lot of money these days (who is?), Jackie is his acerbic but loving wife, and he has a couple of kids, one of whom gets to start the “shit” parade. They are all fresh characters we haven’t seen before. Mike deals with a few clients and a boiler in the basement of his office that is about to die. One of his clients is Leo, a nice old guy falling into dementia. We know Mike is a nice guy when he agrees to act as guardian for Leon. But we also know he is doing it for the $1500 the state pays him to do it. So Mike slips Leon into a very nice retirement home, using Leo’s money and pocking the $1500. Leo has a daughter, but nobody can find her. Who will ever know?
Guess who shows up on Mike’s doorstep? Nope, not the daughter, but Kyle, Leo’s grandson. He’s got no place else to stay, so Jackie insists he stay with them. Mike also is an amateur coach for the high school wrestling team. Guess who used to be a wrestler back in Ohio? Who nearly won the state championship. Mike enrolls him in the high school, puts him on the team. Happy ending all around. Not so fast. The shit hasn’t stopped flying yet.
Guess who shows up on Mike’s doorstep? Right this time: Leo’s daughter Cindy, fresh off her last stint in rehab. She would be happy to take over Leo’s guardianship because she would love to have his money, even just the $1500 guardianship fee. She seems to care for her dad, but she is a druggie after all. And she really gets pissed when she learns that Leo had not included her in his will. She brings along a lawyer, Eleanor, and the lawyer discovers that Mike is taking the guardianship fee illegally. I thought Mike was really in deep stuff here, especially since Eleanor is played by Margo Martindale, the spectacularly evil Mags Bennett on Justified. But she has no poison moonshine for Mike. He proposes a deal that would let Cindy take Leo back to Ohio but with only the guardianship fee and without Kyle. Cindy says no dice.
Cindy shows up for the regional wrestling match. Obviously there is going to be a tearful reunion between Kyle and Cindy, the end, fade out. Guess again. Kyle is so distracted by Cindy, he loses the match big time. So a final showdown between them all is set up in court. Except Cindy tells Mike in the hallway she’ll take his original deal offer, which we have almost forgotten by now. The deal scene seemed like just a step towards the big showdown, and we don’t get it. It’s like Star Wars ending without the Death Star blowing up. Don’t promise the audience what you are not going to deliver.
I think that McCarthy probably liked his main characters a little too much and didn’t want too much bad shit to happen to them, but he should have taken his cue from Billy Wilder. Wilder was a master of “what’s the worst that can happen to these characters?” Two straight guys dress up as women to join an all-girls band. What’s the worst that can happen? One guy falls in love with a girl in the band, the other guy has a rich old geezer fall in love with him. Here McCarthy lets everybody off the hook, which leads to a sappy coda that feels like it was imposed by Louis B. Mayer on a really bad day. Mike and Jackie and the kids are all happy. Kyle is staying with them and is buddies with one of the guys from the wrestling team. Mike still has his law firm, but does have to make a little extra as a bartender at night. Oh, the suffering humanity of it.
My recommendation is you see the movie for the great scenes with the great actors (Paul Giamatti as Mike, Amy Reynolds as Jackie, Melanie Lynskey in a wonderfully edgy turn as Cindy, Martindale, and Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale as two of Mike’s friends), then leave when Cindy accepts the deal. Don’t blame me if you stay and the final sequence puts you in a diabetic coma.
Potiche (2010. Screenplay adaptation by François Ozon from a play by Pierre Barillet & Jean-Pierre Grédy. 103 minutes.)
Pop quiz: Who are Barillet & Grédy?: Well, if you were paying close attention in the item on Just Go With It in US#71, you would remember they are the French guys who wrote the play that that film was based on. Loosely based on at best. This film is based on a play they wrote in 1980, and Ozon, working with Barillet, has kept it very much in the period in which the play was set. Barillet plays a small part in the film; between this and Carrière in Certified Copy maybe putting screenwriters in small parts is a new trend in French cinema: making up for all the years of the auteur theory by showcasing screenwriters. Well, a boy can dream, can’t he?
It is 1977 and Suzanne Pujol, another of B&G’s women of a certain age, is the potiche or “trophy wife” of Robert Pujol. Remember how I mentioned in the item on Just Go With It that Jennifer Aniston is in her forties and looks like she’s in her twenties? Well, the French don’t fool around with children like that. Suzanne is at least in her fifties and looks it. Or rather she looks like Catherine Deneuve, who is actually 67 and looks like, well, Catherine Deneuve. Robert runs the umbrella factor that Suzanne’s father established. He’s a right-wing stuffed shirt, played by the French master of stuffed shirts, Fabrice Luchini. After establishing that Suzanne, in her beautiful sweatsuit, communes with nature, the film takes off with Robert having a heart attack just as the workers go on strike. My gosh, are the B&G, the masters of boulevard farce, turning political? Yes they are, and bringing the same comedic craft to the issue of women’s liberation. Suzanne takes over the factory, runs it better than Robert does, and re-connects with an old-left wing politician, Maurice Babin, she once had a fling with. He helps her run the plant and takes her to the Badaboom Club where her husband used to sneak off to see the hookers. Which naturally leads us to Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu (well, who else would you get for Babin?) doing a great disco number. Which fits beautifully into the story. The level of craft of the writing and acting by a first team of French actors is impeccable.
Needless to say, Robert is upset when he realizes what has happened, and with the help of his right wing daughter, kicks Suzanne out of the company. Suzanne seriously considers divorcing Robert. End of story. Not alas, the end of the movie. We are about 80 minutes into the film and it drags on another 23 minutes. Everything that was fast and funny sags. The jokes about male chauvinism become obvious as Suzanne runs for political office, which pits her more against Babin than with him, which does not make sense in story terms. The scenes here are not sharply drawn, as if everybody gave up and said let’s let Deneuve save it all with her charm. It does not work, and when she wins the election, the big musical number, unlike the earlier disco scene, seems tacked on. I can’t help but wondering if the original play stopped at the stage equivalent of the 80-minute mark.
The Lincoln Lawyer (2011. Screenplay by John Roman, based on the novel by Michael Connelly. 118 minutes.)
I Confess done right: My wife is a big fan of Michael Connelly’s crime novels, and liked the novel of this film. Connelly is trying out a new character, a hustling lawyer named Mick Haller who does business out of his car. Yes, we have seen a lot of hustling lawyers, especially in David E. Kelley’s shows, but Mick is fun to watch. In the opening scenes we get a quick succession of cases which we assume are just exposition to tell us about Mick, but all of them come back to play in the main storyline. Mick is called upon to defend a rich young man, Louis Roulet, who is accused of beating up a woman. Roulet swears he is innocent, but the evidence piles up against him. Then the plot twists begin an hour into the film and Mick is faced with a problem: he knows Roulet is guilty. How does he know? Because Roulet tells him. And Mick has a legal obligation to his client not to tell anyone. Even worse, there is growing evidence that Roulet also committed a similar crime that one of Mick’s other clients was convicted of.
I liked the film, although I am not sure it is a great legal thriller. But the day after I saw it, I realized Connelly and Romano have done something I have been waiting 50 years for somebody to do: remake I Confess (1953) and do it right. I Confess has always been my exhibit A of the idea of remaking a flop instead of a hit and getting it right. The plot is that a man confesses he has murdered someone to a Catholic priest. The priest of course is bound by the rules of the confessional and cannot tell. Even when he later becomes the chief suspect. It’s a great idea for a film, but I would guess the 1902 play it is based on (Nos Deux Consciences by Paul Bourde, writing as “Paul Anthelme”) as well as the screenplay by George Tabori and William Archibald (and other uncredited writers) have the same problem: the priest does not do anything. He sits around looking longsuffering, like the Christian martyr he is supposed to be. That may be religiously right, but it is dramatically dull. Mick Haller does stuff. He (and Connelly and Romano) are very inventive as to how Mick skirts the legal niceties and makes it all work out in the end. I’ll let you see for yourself how they do that.
White Savage (1943. Screenplay by Richard Brooks, story by Peter Milne. 75 minutes.)
Richard Brooks?!!: Yes, the writer-director of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), and In Cold Blood (1967) had to start somewhere. He had worked as a journalist and done radio dramas when he got into screenwriting in the early ’40s. White Savage was his first job, although it was released after a couple of other movies he worked on. Brooks told Pat McGilligan in Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s that he worked on it for eight days. I can believe it.
Universal had been making movies in black and white and decided to try color, so the idea was to be as flashy as possible. The story is about Kaloe, a shark hunter who wants to get permission from Princess Tahia of Temple Island to fish in the island waters. They fall in love, of course, and deal with Miller, the crooked businessman on the main island. Miller wants to steal the gold inlays from the Princess’s swimming pool. Needless to say, the sea God Taroaro (I can’t vouch for the spelling of his name) sends an earthquake to kill Miller. All of this in eye-popping color, I mean seriously EYE-POPPING TECHNICOLOR. Universal put together a cast of most of the “exotic” actors in Hollywood. Kaloe is Jon Hall, of the 1937 version of The Hurricane. The daughter of a Tahitian woman, Hall jumped back and forth between white and ethnic parts. It’s hard to tell what he is supposed to be here. The Princess is Maria Montez, the daughter of a Spanish diplomat born in the Dominican Republic. Her brother is Turhan Bey, an Austrian who played almost everything but an Austrian in his film career. Kaloe’s friend is Robert Flaherty’s Indian discovery Sabu. And Mr. Wong is played by the white actor Sidney Toler, but here in the same makeup and accent he used as Charlie Chan.
Are you beginning to get an idea of how frivolous this movie is? So is there anything in the script that would give us a hint as to where Richard Brooks was headed? Surprisingly, yes. The opening sequence has a fisherman run through the port village on the Universal backlot to talk to Miller. The fisherman wants to make a deal for the gold. Miller listens, then kills him. Miller already knows about the gold and is just waiting for the right time to take it. He also has hopes to take the Princess as well. Later on there is a very Brooksian poker game between Miller, the brother and Kaloe. Miller has his cook prepare a double-decker sandwich with several spare aces on the second deck. Does Kaloe realize it? Maybe. At the end of the game, just before Miller is going to slip the aces into his hand, Kaloe stabs his knife into the sandwich, divides it in half, and takes a half before leaving. A cohort of Miller’s then says to him, “There was something poison in the sandwich, Sam.” That’s the Brooks we know and love. The rest of the film is beyond camp, and in the middle of World War II its escapism made it a huge hit. Brooks wrote another Montez film, Cobra Woman (1944), but by then he was fed up with the all the geographical, cultural and logical inaccuracies. Temple Island is somewhere in the Pacific (the map in the opening credits is one of the most ridiculous things in the movie), and it has lions on it. Brooks gave up and joined the Marines to fight in the Pacific.
Key Largo (1948. Screenplay by Richard Brooks and John Huston, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson. 100 minutes.)
Now that’s better: Brooks came back to Hollywood after the war and got back into screenwriting. He and Huston met and worked together on this script. Brooks did most of the writing, with Huston pushing him to dig deeper into the characters. The script is nominally based on a 1939 play by Anderson that only ran 104 performances. Anderson, who had an interest in grand historical subjects (see the item on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex  in US#19), tried to write this modern play in blank verse. None of that survives in the film. In the play, the main character is a deserter from the Spanish Civil War, who protects a family of a true war hero in the Florida Keys. Huston hated the story (and Anderson), so he and Brooks went off to the Keys. Huston went out fishing every day while Brooks wrote. The main character, now called Frank McCloud, is a World War II veteran, and he was at the battle of San Pietro, which was the subject for Huston’s great war documentary. He also seems to be suffering a little bit emotionally, which may come from Huston’s other documentary about the treatment of soldiers with combat fatigue, Let There be Light (1946). The characters are all tougher than I suspect they were in Anderson’s original play, and this being a Huston movie, we watch them sweat, both literally and figuratively. Sam Miller in White Savage is played by Thomas Gomez. He is the most Brooksian character in that film, and Gomez shows up here as one of the gangster’s henchman. He is much more in his element in this film than in the earlier one, as is Brooks. Huston not only let Brooks take top billing on the script, but insisted he stick around during production so he could learn how movies actually get made. Huston was preparing Brooks to be a director, which he became two years later with Crisis.
The reason I happened to see these two Brooks films is that the UCLA Film Archives is running a retrospective of Brooks’s films in April and May. I take it as a good sign that they are not only showing the ones he directed, but the ones he “just” wrote. The film series is also being done in connection with a new book about Brooks. It is called Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks, and the author is Douglass K. Daniel. I won’t have time to read it until this summer, but I will let you know more about it when I do.
The Starter Screenplay (2010. Book by Adam Levenberg. 236 pages.)
The voice of experience: This entertaining and informative little book, currently published by Capable Media, came to my attention last fall and I have been meaning to mention it in a column. Levenberg worked for years as an executive in the development system in Hollywood, and his book is a compilation of the wisdom, if you want to call it that, which he built up reading bad screenplay after bad screenplay. There is absolutely nothing theoretical about this book. It is very, very practical. That is, if you want to write screenplays Hollywood readers will tell their bosses they ought to look at. Readers are, after all, the system’s first line of defense you have to break through. I am still amazed that young male writers still write the character of the Girl as a stripper or hooker or both, not realizing that at least half if not more of the readers in Hollywood are women. If all you want to do is write low-budget art films, you still might want to look at this and see why even more art-house indies than Hollywood films fail.
Levenberg’s idea of a Starter Screenplay is a simple script that will call attention to the writer by giving what he calls “moments of value”: something flashy, like Bruce Willis throwing a dead body out the window in Die Hard (1989). But he also warns about what not to write. His list of no-nos include: no biopics, no musicals, no Hollywood satires, no struggling writers or actors as heroes, and the list goes on. He says to limit yourself to one hero. I am not sure I agree with him when he says your hero should be an extrovert, but he makes a reasonable case. I would put it a different way: your hero had better do something, not just sit around sucking his thumb, or being a martyr like the priest in I Confess. See Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer for one example of how to do it.
You can email Levenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to buy a copy if you feel so inclined. If you buy a copy, he’ll autograph it for you.
The Escort (2011. Stage Play by Jane Anderson. 150 minutes.)
Sex on stage: When I write about a stage play in this column, it is usually because there is a specific film connection. See my comments on 9 to 5 in US#8 and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps in US#47. This play, premiering at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, has no direct connection with film. The indirect connection is the playwright, Jane Anderson. Like many playwrights these days, she goes back and forth between theater and television. That’s not as precedent-setting as you might think. During the ’30s through the ’60s, the attitude in the East Coast Intellectual Establishment was that whenever a writer of plays or novels or short stories went west to work in the fleshpots of Hollywood, he or she was lost to civilization, i.e., the New York theater, forever. What is becoming more apparent as the careers of classic screenwriters are written about is that this was never truly the case. One of the best recent (2001) screenwriter biographies is The Real Nick and Nora by David L. Goodrich. He is the nephew of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and the book shows how Goodrich and Hackett moved very easily between New York and Hollywood. They wrote The Thin Man movies, the 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life (which they hated, by the way), and then returned to New York to write the stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Jane Anderson’s stage credits include The Quality of Life, The Baby Dance and Looking for Normal. She adapted the latter in the HBO film Normal, which she also directed. My favorite of her scripts is HBO’s The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom. So she thinks in both theater and film terms, and she decided to do The Escort as a stage play. You can see why. The play follows the relationship between Rhona, a middle-aged gynocologist, and Charlotte, a very high-end call girl. Rhona is intrigued by Charlotte’s life, and even lets Charlotte set her up with Matthew, a male escort friend of hers. That does not go as well as it might. Rhona also has an ex-husband, a urologist she sends Charlotte to, and a teenage son who is not only doing his homework on his computer. What makes it work as a stage play is that we are constantly getting the attitudes of these characters and how they change. Anderson is not afraid of long dialogue scenes, longer than you might want to let run on film. What she nails beautifully is how everybody’s attitudes about sex, including Charlotte’s, are constantly changing. As a result, our attitudes about the characters keep changing as well, especially in the longer scenes, such as Charlotte and Rhona at lunch in a museum, or Rhona and Matthew.
A couple of nights before we saw The Escort my wife and I saw God of Carnage, which is now playing in Los Angeles with its great original cast (Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden). The play is more a theater piece than a play, but wonderfully funny, especially with that cast. We did not laugh as much at The Escort, but I think it is a better play. It gets deeper into character and attitudes than Carnage does, and provides equally great roles of the four actors: Polly Draper as Rhona (although she was a bit too soft-spoken the night we saw her), James Eckhouse as her ex, Gabriel Sunday as both her son and the escort, and especially Maggie Siff (Rachel Menken on Mad Men) as Charlotte.
I would guess the play will eventually get to New York and I recommend it. Would it ever be a movie, even for HBO? I thought not as I was watching it. One of the great theatrical touches is that there is no actual nudity (Charlotte has a great opening monologue explaining why) but nude body stockings. That would look silly on film. But on film you could frame the shots so you would not need to do that. The longer scenes might work as well.
Another thing. Writers are not the only ones who move easily between theater, television, and film. Look at that list of actors in both The Escort and God of Carnage. My guess is you can reel off more of their TV credits than their film or theater credits.
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.