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Understanding Screenwriting #74: The Princess of Montpensier, Source Code, Meek’s Cutoff, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #74: <em>The Princess of Montpensier</em>, <em>Source Code</em>, <em>Meek’s Cutoff</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Princess of Montpensier, Source Code, Meek’s Cutoff, Devil’s Doorway, Hangman’s Knot, Mildred Pierce (2011), Cinema Verite, but first…

Fan Mail: I am so sad that the discussion of my incompetence to deal with Uncle Boonmee and its ilk did not continue. But you may be able to take another shot at it on my comments on Meek’s Cutoff below.

On the other hand, I am so happy that I get a chance to correct David Ehrenstein, a rare occasion. He mentioned I did not include the most famous line of dialogue in White Savage, “How are you today, Tamara?” The reason I did not is because it’s not in the film. It showed up in a review of the film, and everybody has always assumed it was in the film. That character’s name is Tahia, not Tamara. “How are you today, Tahia?” is pretty silly, but just not as silly as the frequently quoted line.

The Princess of Montpensier (2010. Screenplay by Jean Cosmos, François-Olivier Rousseau and Bertrand Tavernier, based on a story by Madame de La Fayette. 139 minutes.)

The Son of Intolerance: There are just not a lot of movies that deal with the civil war in 16th-century France between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots. You can see why: you’d piss off the Catholics or the Protestants in the audience or both. There is the 1994 French film Queen Margot, about Marguerite de Valois, but most cinephiles know about the period from the French story in Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance. What, you forgot there was a French story in Intolerance? Not surprising, since it is not nearly as compelling as the Babylon story and the Modern story. It also suffered the most in the cutting of the film, probably because Griffith realized it just did not stand up to the other two.

The Princess of Montpensier does a lot of things better than Griffith, partly because the filmmakers (Tavernier is also the director) have more time. But they also seem more interested in bringing the time period alive. The film begins in the middle of a battle, and we see the Comte de Chabannes in the thick of it. But he kills a pregnant woman and decides to quit. Just as well, because he has at various times fought for both sides, and both have banished him. So a protégé of his, Philip of Montpensier, takes him in. We get a wonderful scene of Philip’s father hustling Marie’s father out of her marrying the younger brother of Henri du Guise and marrying Philip. Marie would be glad to be rid of the brother, because it’s Henri she’s in love with. But women are traded like chattel in those days. Philip is sort of clueless about Marie and women in general, undoubtedly not helped by a wedding night in which there are witnesses to the, uhm, consummation of the marriage. OK, the witnesses stand outside the fourposter with the curtains closed, but still. And the whole scene is treated like the everyday occurrence that it was.

Philip goes off to war, and leaves Chabannes to teach Marie so she won’t be such a ninnie when he takes her to the royal court in Paris. But Philip is really the ninnie here. In these scenes with Chabannes, Marie at least seems to have some kind of intelligence. The two seem to get along well, and we learn what she has to learn, as well as such others things as gathering herb for medical reasons. And Chabannes, an older man, admits to Marie that he loves her. Then never mentions it again. Marie doesn’t press the point, since she still has the hots for Henri. These scenes have not only a nice feel for the period (look at Marie trying to dismantle a dead boar), but also the French landscape. We know that Tavernier is a big fan of American westerns, and there is more horseback riding in this film than any 20 other French films you could name.

About an hour and twenty minutes into the film, Marie goes to court with Philip and the script begins to fall apart. We have been waiting for her to get there to strut her stuff, but very little of what Chabannes has taught her shows up. There has been much talk of her meeting the queen, and she does. But the scene does not live up to the buildup, and is not a patch on the scenes with Josephine Crowell and Virna Lisa as Queen Catherine in Intolerance and Queen Margot, respectively. We are not only inside a lot after all those previous gorgeous views of the countryside, but we begin to lose the period detail. The story threatens to become French bedroom farce, complete with people hiding in closets and slamming doors. Henri is at court, and Marie takes up with him, and there is the Duc d’Anjou, who has fallen for Marie as well. Marie, who seemed to have some intelligence in the first half of the film, has taken leave of her senses in the second half. Yes, she’s in love, and love fries the brain, but still. We get what I take to be the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, but Griffith made it clearer and more connected to his story. Lots of people die in both films.

Source Code (2011. Written by Ben Ripley. 93 minutes.)

Source Code

A sci-fi movie Stempel likes? Alert the media: So there’s this guy who suddenly wakes up on a train. Christina Warren, the woman sitting across from him, is obviously his friend, but he doesn’t recognize the name she calls him. He’s trying to figure out what’s going on and—BOOM—an explosion wrecks the train, killing all on board. But in that opening scene, Ripley has raised a lot of questions, always a good way to start a film (if you are going to answer them), but more importantly, he has given the two actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan, characters to play and stuff to do. Even in a sci-fi movie, never underestimate the importance of interesting characters.

Then Colter Stevens, as the guy thinks of himself, is in what looks to be a damaged cockpit of some kind. More questions. A TV screen shows us Colleen Goodwin, who appears to be Stevens’s guide? Handler? We don’t know. She gives him some information on his mission: there is a bomb on the train and he is “going back in” to try to find out who planted it. How can that be? Another question. It’s forty minutes into the picture before we get a techno-babble explanation of what the “source code” is and how Stevens can keep returning to the train before the bomb. And the crucial line in the explanation is not techno-babble at all. Dr. Rutledge, the head of the project, compares it to the slight glow of a light bulb after it’s been turned off. That reminds me of the dialogue John Sayles was hired to write for Apollo 13 (1995) to make the scientific language clear to audiences, e.g. “That’s not enough electricity to run a vacuum cleaner.” Writers of sci-fi always assume they have to give us a lot of techno-babble. They don’t. How is time travel possible? Easy. In Back to the Future (1985) it was the Flux Capacitor. Here it’s the Source Code. That’s all we need to know.

So Stevens ends up “going back in” several times, trying to figure out who set the bomb on the train, since the bomber has sent a message that he has also placed a nuclear bomb that will destroy Chicago. These scenes ought to be repetitive, but they are not, because both Stevens and we know more each time, including who is not the bomber. So each 8 minute sequence has its own dynamic. One of the problems I always had with the similar Groundhog Day (1993) was the repetition. Ripley obviously figured out how to avoid that problem. About an hour into the film, Stevens figures out who the bomber is and lets the controllers know. So now we’re going to have a big chase and shootout, right? Nope. We get the bomber’s arrest, but only in a long shot from the TV coverage. I have no idea how they got that past the “creative executives,” but Ripley and the gang were right to do it. If you have a big action scene now, anything else will seem anti-climactic. Because Ripley has involved us with the characters (both Gyllenhaal and Monaghan are given a lot of different stuff to do in each “insertion”—you can see why Gyllenhaal attached himself to the script very early in the process), we want to know what happens to them. Stevens is officially dead, but he convinces Goodwin to send him back, which shouldn’t work, either in the rules of the Source Code or for the audience. But the audience wants to know what happens to these characters. And Stevens discovers something about the Source Code that Rutledge and Goodwin don’t know…

Oh, for would-be actors: study Vera Farmiga’s performance as Goodwin until your head hurts. Almost her entire role consists of sitting at a console looking directly into the camera, talking and reacting. And you can’t take your eyes off her.

And for would-be directors: Look how smart the director Duncan Jones was not to tart up Farmiga’s role or performance. Less is more.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010. Written by Jonathan Raymond. 100 minutes by my count, 104 minutes on the IMDb.)

Meek's Cutoff

Cutoff indeed: Let’s see. This is a western, and you know I love westerns. This is about women in the old west and as you may have guessed, I love women. And in theory I should have been primed for this film. A few weeks before I saw it, I ran the 1960 NBC program The Real West in my LACC History of Documentary class. Gary Cooper is the narrator and he reads from diaries and journals of women during their journeys west. Then two days before I saw Meek’s Cutoff, I ran the 1961 National Film Board of Canada’s documentary Days of Whisky Gap. It has interviews with people who were around in the Canadian equivalent of the wild west, which naturally was not all that wild in Canada. The final interview in the film is with 90-year-old Sarah Card, and she talks about her trip by wagon train from Utah to western Canada. She is warm and funny and observant.

You can guess where this is going. Meek’s Cutoff begins with a shot of a covered wagon crossing a river, pulled by oxen. The shot goes on and on. Oh, crap, is this the feminist western equivalent of Uncle Boonmee? Thank goodness no, but the picture is slow, which makes sense because journeying by covered wagon was slow. We are with three wagons, being led by Stephen Meek, a guide with more hair than Bigfoot. The group has apparently decided to take Meek’s advice and go to Oregon a slightly different way. The travelers begin to grumble that he may have misled them. Then they discover/capture an Indian, who may or may not be able to find some water for them. Meanwhile, we get a lot of detail about the daily life on a wagon train, even a small one. What we do not get is a lot of characterization. The three women do their daily chores, but we don’t get as much about their characters as we got from The Real West and Sarah Card. And we get even less about the men. The men do argue, usually almost out of our and the women’s hearing. There is disagreement about what to do with the Indian, and one of the wives, Emily, actually speaks up for him. This surprises everyone, including possibly Emily herself. That’s pretty much it for her character. Meek is given more characterization, but he is the cliched desert coot. He is played by Bruce Greenwood, who is often wonderful in other roles, but he does not have the wildness the part requires. Imagine Jeff Bridges in his Rooster Cogburn mode and you can see what’s missing. When the director, Kelly Reichardt, does bother to give us one of her rare clear, well-lighted closeups of Greenwood, there is no madness is in his eyes.

So we do not have much of a plot, more like what I have referred to as a Plot-Like Substance. Will the Indian lead them to water before they kill him? They eventually go over a hill and into a shallow valley, where they find a tree. The settlers point out that where this is a tree, there has to be water, but nobody can see any water. The Indian walks off. Credits roll. And I heard a sound from the audience I can’t recall ever having heard before. They laughed, and they seemed to be laughing at themselves for having been taken in for 100 minutes by a movie that is not even going to bother finish telling the story it started out to tell.

Devil’s Doorway (1950. Written by Guy Trosper. 84 minutes.)

Devil's DoorwayDore Schary’s west: You may remember from US#22 that Dore Schary, who was the head of production at MGM in the late ’40s and early ’50s, loved his message pictures. This is one of them. Lance Poole, an Indian who won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, returns home after the Civil War. All he wants to do is work his ranch in a beautiful valley in Wyoming (the film was actually shot in Colorado, near Aspen and Grand Junction). But lawyers and land sharks are promoting opening up those lands for white settlers, because, gasp, Indians are not allowed to own land. Poole tries to work with a, gasp, woman lawyer, but the evil white male lawyer, Verne Coolan, stirs up the white would-be settlers and Poole is eventually killed. I am not making the plot description any more heavy-handed than the movie is. Guy Trosper’s scripts, such as Pride of St. Louis (1952) or Darby’s Rangers (1958) were usually not this heavy-handed, which makes me think it’s Schary’s influence.

The same year this film came out Broken Arrow was released. It was written by blacklisted writer Albert Maltz and his friend and front Michael Blankfort had the onscreen credit. The film is also pro-Indian, as scout Tom Jeffords comes to know Cochise and appreciate the Indian way of life. Broken Arrow is a much better film, a bigger commercial hit and launched the pro-Indian films of the ’50s. It was also in Technicolor and gorgeous to look at. Devil’s Doorway was shot (beautifully, by John Alton) in black and white. Now why, if they were sending the production all the way to Colorado, would they shoot it in black-and-white? Because in those days, it was assumed by filmmakers and critics alike that if you were making a “serious,” i.e., message, picture, it had to be in black-and-white. Black-and-white was considered more “realistic.” I am not joking. Color was for lightweight films, like musicals, comedies, and “non-serious” westerns, an attitude that existed well into the ’60s. Obviously Fox did not think of Broken Arrow as a message picture, and it is all the better for its lack of pretension.

Hangman’s Knot (1952. Written by Roy Huggins. 81 minutes.)

Hangman's Knot

Not exactly a Ranown film: In US#17 and #18, I spent some time writing about the classic Ranown westerns of the late ’50s and early ’60s. They were produced by Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott and starred Scott. They were written by either Burt Kennedy or Charles Lang, and directed by Budd Boetticher. They are rather minimalist, with rarely a wasted word or a shot, and the plots are very tightly wound.

This is a much earlier film, but you can see what’s coming. Scott stars, it is shot in the Alabama Hills where several of the Ranown films were made, and Lee Marvin is on hand as a not very nice person. Scott is a Confederate officer whose unit robs a wagonload of Union gold in the west, only to discover the war ended three weeks before. All sorts of folks are after them and a group of deputies get them trapped in a stagecoach stop. The deputies are not really deputies, but just out for the gold. The plot element of a gang holed up at a stagecoach stop may well have been borrowed from Dudley Nichols’ screenplay for Rawhide the year before. Nichols’s bad guys are bad, but Scott and his crew are a little more ambiguous, as well as prone to fighting among themselves.

The plotting is more complex than the minimalist Ranown films, with Huggins throwing in more twists and turns than Kennedy and Lang. The humor is also different. In the Ranown films, the humor is sardonic and dry and mostly given to the Scott characters. In Hangman’s Knot, the humor is slyer and given to a variety of characters. Both the trickiness of the plotting and the humor would serve Huggins better in his later career. After a few years writing B pictures (Hangman’s Knot is the only feature he directed), he moved into early studio filmed television, writing for the most of the series that Warner Brothers did in the early ’50s. Like a lot of TV writers of the period he had a very quick mind, which combined with his ability to come up with plot twists led him to write a voluminous amount of material. When he got into producing, he often wrote the stories for his shows and passed them off to the writers. Early in his TV career he got tired of doing the same old westerns. He had been thinking of a slyer look at westerns and after seeing a young actor in one of the shows he wrote, he created a series for him. The actor was James Garner, the show was Maverick and it made the careers of both men. You can see the beginnings of both the Ranown westerns and Maverick in Hangman’s Knot.

Mildred Pierce (2011. Screenplay by Todd Haynes and Jon Raymond, based on the novel by James M. Cain. 330 minutes.)

Mildred Pierce

I wish I liked it better: I have never been all that much of a fan of the 1945 film version of the Cain novel, since producer Jerry Wald’s turning it into a film noir made it a lot more melodramatic than it needed to be. The idea of a longer version that can deal in a less flamboyant way with the story Cain told was appealing, especially since it had Kate Winslet as Mildred. I would much rather watch Winslet than Joan Crawford any day.

I had a hard time getting into the first hour. If the 1945 film moves too fast, this version moves too slow, especially in the first episode. We get a lot of detail about Mildred and her life, and as you know I really get on scripts that do not give us enough detail. See my comments above on Meek’s Cutoff (by the way, the Jonathan Raymond who wrote that is the Jon Raymond who co-wrote this; he can be a good writer and someday he will get the balance right). But here the story bogs down as we get scene after scene of Mildred trying to find a job in the middle of the Depression after she kicks her husband out. The scenes do show a lot about Mildred’s character, but almost too much. Winslet runs with what they give her, giving us all the detail the script has, but I am not sure we need to see so much here, since I for one am ready to get into the story.

Things pick up in the second episode. Mildred takes a job as a waitress, after saying she wouldn’t. She also starts bringing in the pies we have seen her baking since episode one, and begins to develop a side business in them. Then she gets the idea of having a restaurant. We see she is not just moping around the way she was in the first episode. She has some ambition, both for herself and her daughters. She also lets herself be seduced by a rich playboy, Monty Beregon. It turns out our Mildred has a sensual side we had not seen before (there is a nice scene in the first episode where she agrees to have sex with Wally, a former colleague of her ex-husband; it is not a pleasurable experience for her). Unfortunately while she is out canoodling with Monty, her youngest daughter Ray falls sick and eventually dies.

In the third episode Mildred opens her restaurant and it’s a hit. She is now having to deal with the little monster of her surviving daughter, Veda. Veda has always been a handful and by now Mildred undoubtedly feels guilty over the death of Ray. Mildred is determined that Veda will have the best and Veda certainly feels entitled that she should. One of the problems I have always had with Mildred in her many forms is why the hell doesn’t she just slap some sense into Veda? I know, I know, a mother’s love, but in the 1945 film Crawford could have taken out Ann Blyth in a New York minute. Here, because of the running time Veda gets more and more insufferable as the film continues. Here is a case where longer is not necessarily better. In this episode, Mildred and Monty break up and Mildred is determined to get a piano for Veda, who may or may not have musical talent.

In the fourth episode, Veda’s misbehavior gets more repetitive. She tries to blackmail the family of a film director by claiming she is pregnant with their son’s baby. She uses the money to leave Mildred, which is good riddance I would say, but she also begins to develop a singing career. At the beginning of episode five, Mildred is still in there pitching, telling a conductor who has worked with Veda that she will pay for Veda’s singing lessons, but the conductor says that she is “a grand talent, but a terrible girl.” We all know that, why can’t Mildred accept it? Mildred has been using money from her restaurant business to try to buy Veda’s love by sponsoring a concert. The concert is a success and Veda and Mildred seem reconciled. Veda feels she has what she’s entitled to, while Mildred feels her sacrifices have not been in vain. Some sacrifices, too. The restaurants have been taken away from her by Wally, her partner, and Ida, a waitress she brought into her business. They suggest Mildred go talk to Veda to see if she will kick in money. Like that will happen. And what does Mildred find? Veda in bed with Monty. Mildred strangles Veda, but not alas enough to kill her.

Then, after having dragged the script out as a long as they have, the writers try to wrap everything up too quickly. Mildred and her ex, Bert are together again, and she and Ida are buddies again. How and when did all those things happen? Veda shows up, but only to tell them she is going to New York. Monty is already there. Mildred finally yells at Veda to never come back, and Mildred and Bert agree to try to forget Veda. Good luck on that.

Having pointed out the problems in the script, let me say there are also some very good things in it. This version captures the whole issue of class in America much better than the 1945 version, and we see it worked out in Mildred and Veda’s attitudes toward, well, everything. The script also provides the opportunity for a lot of great actors to do some very good work. I particularly like Guy Pearce as Monty. Zachary Scott in the 1945 film was slimy from the word go; here Pearce gives us Monty’s charm as well. James LeGros is much more well-rounded at Wally than Jack Carson was. Morgan Turner is great as the young Veda, but Evan Rachel Wood lets down the side as the adult Veda. She is a little arch and one-note. When she is found in bed with Monty, her only reaction is a sullen stare. More could be done with that.

All in all, I think the solution is to do a version of Mildred Pierce that runs somewhere between the 111 minutes of the 1945 version and the 330 minutes of this one.

Cinema Verite (2011. Written by David Seltzer. 91 minutes.)

Cinema Verite

The title’s not necessarily as wrong as you think: In my History of Documentary Film class I make the distinction between Direct Cinema (the technique of using the lightweight cameras and sound equipment developed in the early ’60s) and Cinema Verite (using the equipment to follow people around as they do what they do). It helps the students understand the difference and more importantly makes for great final exam questions. Now I will grant you that most people use the term Cinema Verite as a catch-all description for any documentary shot using hand-held cameras and sound equipment (and those even less in the know use it as a term for documentary in general). Cinema Verite is set in the early ’70s when those distinctions were not as well established, so I suppose you can justify the title. But still…

The film is about the making of the now-legendary 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family. It is a semi-fictionalized account, the most notable howler being the suggestion that Craig Gilbert, the producer who came up with the idea for the series, and Pat Loud, the wife of the family, had a fling. Both Gilbert and Loud have denied it several times, and I am willing to take their word for it. This film does deal with the always interesting question of the relationship between fiction and reality, as well as the relationship between reality and documentary film. It starts with clips from the original series with the actual family, shifting to shots recreated with the actors for this film. We get the first meeting of Gilbert and Pat Loud, which obviously was not part of the original series, and then Pat talking it over with her husband, Bill. He turns out to like the idea, a surprise to Pat. One question that comes up in my class is how do documentary filmmakers convince people to appear in their films. Well, it’s easy. Like Bill here, people assume they will be more appealing and charming on-camera than they are in real life. And they are often quite happy when they see the results, until the critics and public weigh in on them. An American Family was a classic case of that.

Since Seltzer is focusing on Gilbert and Pat, we spend more time with them and see more of their character than we get of the other members of the family. Seltzer has given nice scenes, no matter what you think of their “truth,” to James Gandolfini as Gilbert and Diane Lane as Pat. Bill is sort of written as a one-note character, and Tim Robbins does not take him much beyond that. Near the end, there is a clip from the real Bill on the Dick Cavett show and he is a much more interesting personality than he is in this film. We have often talked in this column about how characters in documentary film are much more interesting than those in fiction films. The Direct Cinema/Cinema Verite approaches give us a much more intimate view of characters than traditional documentaries did. That was especially true of An American Family. Part of that was the filmmakers (Alan Raymond shot the series, and Susan Raymond did the sound). The Raymonds were less willing than Gilbert to invade the privacy of the Louds, but Gilbert pushed them into it. This may seem silly and outdated to you, but in the early days of CV/DC, filmmakers were actually concerned about issues like that. See my appreciation of Richard Leacock for the House for one of the earliest examples of that concern.

The series also got into the characters more deeply because it was twelve hours long, so we had side trips with other members of the family. The one we get most in Cinema Verite is the gay son, Lance Loud. Lance Loud was the first gay character on American television that viewers of the time spent more than a minute-and-a-half with. Seltzer also ends the script after the Raymonds shoot the scene where Pat asks Bill to move out. Unless you have seen the series, you may not know that it went on for several more hour-long episodes. The aftermath was in many ways the most fascinating part of the series, because there had really been nothing like it before. Unfortunately, because of time limitations, Seltzer can’t get into that. We only get a quick montage at the end of the reactions of the critics, cultural commentators, et al, about the show. There could be a whole 91 minute movie about the uproar the series caused. That’s the solution HBO, cut an hour or two out of Mildred Pierce and give it to Cinema Verite.

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.