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Understanding Screenwriting #81 Iris, Sarah’s Key, Bobby, Summer Cable TV, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #81: Sarah’s Key, Bobby, Summer Cable TV, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Iris (stage production), Sarah’s Key, Bobby, Shakespeare Wallah, End of the Summer 2011 Cable TV Season, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein commented that the collaboration between Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, which I discussed a bit in US#80, was worthy of further examination. It definitely is, as are the collaborations of not only the other writers I have written about, but many more. The historiography of screenwriting is not an area where a lot of film historians, especially academic ones, work. It’s not a smart career move for opportunistic academics, given the old guys on their dissertation committees who still believe that directors make their movies as they go along. I have been promoting the idea that screenwriters should be examined in more detail for decades now. Being the Midwestern optimist I am, I see the glass as half full. Well, maybe a quarter full. There have been biographies of screenwriters, and in US#82 I will be writing about Pat McGilligan’s Backstory 5, the latest in the gold standard of screenwriter interview books. On the other hand, I recently saw a list of the Ph.D. dissertations done since 1975 at UCLA on film subjects. There were more than you can shake a stick at on film noir and feminist theory, but not a lot on screenwriting.

Iris (2011. Stage production written by Philippe Decoufle. 135 minutes)

Half a disaster: My wife and I have been huge fans of the Canadian Cirque du Soleil since it first played in Los Angeles at an Arts Festival in 1986. If you have never seen a Cirque production, you should. It is a circus without animals, but usually with incredible athletic performers (gymnasts, contortionists, aerialists, and other people who do things there are no names for) and incredibly funny clowns. The atmosphere is more European than American, and some of the acts, especially the clowns, are existentialism in motion. The organization started in 1984 with a collection of street performers in Montreal and now runs 21 shows around the world, some touring, and some (several in Las Vegas) in permanent residence. Iris is the new Cirque production settling down for what they hope will be a long run at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. That’s where the Oscars are held, so it will not surprise you to learn that the theme of Iris is Cinema. Previous Cirque shows have subtly referenced film before. Their 2007 show Corteo was very much late-period Fellini, with elaborate surrealism and special effects. The 2009 show Kooza was early Fellini, without the special effects, and a bit of an Ingmar Bergman aura as well.

So you can imagine how disappointed I am that Iris is, if not a total disaster, at least half a disaster. Even though this is a column on screenwriting, I have in the past written about stage productions that connect with films in a variety of ways. Iris raises all kinds of questions about the relationship between theater, circus and film, and the differences of writing for them. Let’s start with the issue of structure. What, you fans of Cirque say, these shows do not have a structure? Oh yes they do. It is usually in the simple form of a sometimes innocent, sometimes not-so-innocent, character who gets involved with the circus, or whatever the circus in a given production represents. He reacts to the acts, becomes part of them, and comes out either a better person or else dead. The structure is minimal, but it makes the shows hold together in a way that most circuses don’t. Here the structure seems to focus on two characters. One is Buster, the young man. He is described in the free program (just get the free program; it is the only one that tells you anything about the show. The $15 souvenir program is all pictures and no information, part of the longstanding if irritating Cirque tradition) as “a lonely young man yearning for romance.”

Well, that sounds like typical Cirque, but as written and performed, we get no feeling that a) he is lonely, or b) he is yearning for romance. Now you would think that with a name like Buster, he remind us of Keaton, but he doesn’t. In the program photographs, but not in the show, he wears horn-rimmed glasses. The program says he resembles “such humble heroes of the silent screen as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd,” but he doesn’t. He looks and acts more like Donald O’Conner in the early numbers in Singin’ in the Rain, especially when he does the walk up the wall and backflip O’Conner does in the “Make ’em Laugh” number. If one got the sense that the show was playing around with a variety of icons, it might make sense, but here it just feels haphazard.

The other major character is Scarlett, the girl. Well, the only Scarlett we know is O’Hara, and the girl here is nothing like her. This one is a generic innocent girl who ends up becoming a movie star (although a photo spread in the September 18th Los Angeles Times makes it clearer than onstage that she is played by several different performers. If you are going to call Buster Buster and if you are going to call Scarlett Scarlett, we had better see the connection with their forebears, or else make it a non sequitur so we see there is no connection. In a film it would need to be more specific, but in a Cirque show you could get away with them being more abstract. An ongoing problem is that for all the money Cirque spent on the show and refurbishing the Kodak Theatre, they couldn’t be bothered to get the rights to portray real actors or use real film clips. The movies are a very concrete medium: Charlie Chaplin turns a corner in a different way than Keaton or Lloyd do. Cirque shows are often wonderfully abstract and movies are not (with the exception of certain art films). If you are going to do a show about Cinema, you may need to be more specific. On the other hand, they may just have had their “abstract” caps on and figured they could be more general. But then they shouldn’t call them Buster and Scarlett.

Even if you make Buster and Scarlett more specific, the next problem with Act One is that they very seldom show up. Traditionally the “access characters” relate to the performing acts, but that does not happen here. That would not be a problem if the acts themselves were better. I have always judged Cirque shows by how early in the show I think “A human body cannot do what I just saw a human body do.” Often it’s in the first ten or fifteen minutes. Here it never happened. Not in Act One, not in Act Two. It may be that with 21 shows running around the world, plus all the imitation Cirques floating around, that the world has run out of astonishing acts. If that’s true, the world is a much sadder place than I want to live in. The aerialists and the contortionists here are good, but they are never dazzling. It may also be that since Iris is in a big, 2,500-seat theater rather that in a tent, the audience (we were in the mezzanine) is perhaps a little too far away to be overwhelmed.

The best number in Act One is a “Filmstrip,” where there are seven panels, each representing a frame of film, with people in each one performing the same motions one after the other, so it looks like a Zoetrope strip. The supertitle over the set reads “In Motion We Trust,” which is a great motto for both Cirque in general and this production, but the show only fitfully lives up to it. Act One focuses on motion, and the show seems obsessed with the early motion films of the Zoetropes and Muybridge film series. One of the characters is a woman dressed in a device that appears to be sort of a hulahoop with a what the Times piece calls a Praxinoscope strip inside, so when she twirls we see two boxers fighting. At least that’s what I think it is. The characters work the main floor, but did not come up to the mezzanine. And even though the characters are oddly dressed, especially the clowns, they don’t look all that different from people you see every day outside the theater on Hollywood Boulevard. In the “pre-game” period before the show proper begins, it was hard to tell the “characters” from some members of the audience.

Fortunately Act Two gets better. Buster and Scarlett are a little more involved in the action, and the opening number should have been the opening number of the show. We are on a soundstage/location where all kinds of characters are running in and out, bouncing up and down, and swinging through the multiple levels of the set. It is an imaginative recreation of all those scenes you have seen in films set in movie studios where suddenly somebody in a weird costume walks by. Here everybody is in a weird costume, and they walk, swing, bounce and fly. That is matched by a later number called “Noir,” which is exactly what you think it is: There is a slinky dame, although it’s not clear if it’s supposed to be Scarlett. She is blonde like Scarlett, but played by a gymnast rather than the women playing her elsewhere. There is also a lot of bouncing around on trampolines that are the roofs of the buildings. Who knew somebody who was shot could bounce so high when they hit a “roof”? The show might be better off if it had more numbers like “Noir” that reference other genres like westerns, musicals, fantasy films, and especially for the Cirque tradition, sci-fi. The Chinese girl contortionists would fit nicely in the latter, and the two guys on ropes could be a twin Tarzan act in an Indiana Jones adventure ripoff.

I mentioned earlier that one of the glories of Cirque shows were the clowns. The clowns here are just not funny. That’s not helped by them being given some truly stale jokes about Hollywood and the Oscars. And the jokes are not even true enough to be funny. In the Act Two opener, somebody asks the “writer,” one of the clowns, what his name is. He replies “Alan Smithee.” Now in Los Angeles, even four-year olds know that “Alan Smithee” is the pseudonym directors use when they don’t want their name on the credits. What could he reply? How about “Joe Gillis”? Or “Robert Rich”? OK, “Rich” is a little too obscure for the masses (it was Dalton Trumbo’s pseudonym on the story he won an Oscar for when he was blacklisted), but “Gillis” would get at least as much a laugh as “Smithee” did, and a more comfortable laugh at that. Or. Given that the clown runs around, try “Aaron Sorkin.” One gets the feeling that this show was put together by people who have never seen a movie. I am not asking for everything to be historically correct, since in a Cirque show what we want is an imaginative view. With the few exceptions mentioned, we don’t get that. In an audience participation number mimicking the Oscars, they include a film clip that is a parody of the shower scene in Psycho (1960), but it is very amateurishly done. I have had first semester students who have done more imaginative rip-offs, including one who showed a murder in a lawn sprinkler.

Iris was still officially in previews when we saw it. Traditionally one does not review shows in previews, although the Broadway production of Spiderman having seven years of previews has pretty much killed off that tradition. Iris has been running since July and its opening date is September 24th, so by the time you read this it will have officially opened. Cirque du Soleil does have a long history of continuing to work on their shows after they open as acts come and go. The one thing they definitely ought to keep is Danny Elfman’s music, which I liked a lot better than most Cirque scores. It might be worth it to check in a couple of years from now, assuming it runs that long, to see what the Cirque kids have done. One bad show should not be enough for any of us to give up on Cirque forever.

Sarah’s Key (2010. Screenplay by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour, based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay. 111 minutes)

Doing what The Debt does, but not as well: We are time-traveling with the Jews again, this time between 1942 and 2009, but with one exception we do not have to worry about multiple castings of the same character. We start in Paris in July 1942 as Jews are being rounded up to be sent to concentration camps. Sarah, a young girl, locks her brother in the closet of their apartment to keep him from being taken by the police. She then spends the first hour of the film escaping from the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where the Jews are being temporarily held, so she can rescue the brother. She does get back to the apartment, but it is too late. He’s dead. Meanwhile, we are intercutting with Julia, a journalist who in 2009 is writing a piece on the roundup of the Jews. It is she, in the second scene of the film, who tells some younger journalists that it was not the Germans who ran the roundup, but the French. The youngsters are shocked, but if you are familiar with history, it may not be that much of a surprise to you. The 1942 sequences are very dramatic, but in very obvious ways. There is a lot of yelling and crying, as you would expect, but it is all too much on the nose. There is no subtlety in the presentation of any of the characters. The filmmakers (Paquet-Brenner also directed) should have gone back and looked at the great Marcel Ophuls documentaries The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Hotel Terminus (1988) for richly detailed looks at the attitudes of the French toward the Jews. We have often talked here about how documentaries are often better at showing us characters than fiction films are, and that is true of these two. For a documentary that shows the attitudes of the Vichy government they should have looked at Claude Chabrol’s The Eye of Vichy (1993), a documentary made up entirely of excerpts of Vichy newsreel and propaganda films. It is a bizarre alternate look at the reality of German-occupied France, which, since it was put together by Cabrol, shouldn’t surprise you.

While we are following Sarah, we are also following Julia as she comes to realize that the apartment she and her husband have just rented, which is the apartment he grew up in, was where Sarah and her family lived. The husband’s family moved in in August of 1942, and Julia upsets the elders of the family by digging into the history. Her husband’s father admits he was there the day little Sarah showed up and they discovered what the smell in the place really was. That’s at the one-hour mark, and you could finish the film at that point. But Julia becomes determined to track down what happened to Sarah. Two problems here. The first is that the role of Sarah, who as a child has been played in a stunningly feral performance by Mélusine Mayance, is now taken over by an attractive but totally unexpressive actress in her twenties. Worse, the older version of Sarah is not given anything to do. And Julia discovers Sarah committed suicide in the mid-’60s. Well, the movie could end there. But Julia keeps searching and eventually finds her son, William. It is awfully late in the film to introduce a new major character. She tells him Sarah’s backstory, which he did not know, and he is upset to learn he is Jewish. Now that, like so many other reactions in the film, is standard issue. What if he loves the idea? Or at least it means certain things in his life make sense, like his love of gefilte fish? A constant problem throughout the film is that the writers and director are settling on the most obvious reactions, rather than digging deeper into the characters and their attitudes. I don’t know how much of that problem is from the novel, but the filmmakers should have fixed it.

As the film goes on, the action becomes one damned thing after another, and the writers are missing wonderful opportunities to examine attitudes not only of the French in 1942, but of the French in more recent times as well as Americans. Granted this is something the novel may well have done better, but if you are telling the story on film, you ought to get the most out of it that you can.

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