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Understanding Screenwriting #95: The Avengers, Think Like a Man, Desperate Housewives, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #95: <em>The Avengers</em>, <em>Think Like a Man</em>, <em>Desperate Housewives</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #95: <em>The Avengers</em>, <em>Think Like a Man</em>, <em>Desperate Housewives</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Avengers, Think Like a Man, The Pirates! Band of Misfits!, Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer (book), Forever Amber, The King’s Thief, In Plain Sight, Desperate Housewives, but first…

Fan Mail: I agree with “Snarpo” (is he a lost Marx Brother?) that Eugene Levy should work more, and one advantage to appearing in a hit movie/series is that it gives you more work. And I agree with David Ehrenstein (it happens!) that in Damsels in Distress Stillman has no interest in the male characters. On the other hand, I disagree with David (now that’s more like it) that Stillman makes the girls “loveable.” More like fingernails on a blackboard.

The Avengers (2012. Screenplay by Joss Whedon, story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, based on the comic book by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby. 143 minutes.)

Summer—Swoosh! Bang! Crash! Pow! Smush! Whump!—is here: Those of you who have read this column from the beginning in 2008 may remember that early on I pissed off the fanboy crowd by dumping on graphic novels and the problems they presented for potential filmmakers (Look at columns #2 through #4 and the comments on them). The lack of serious characterization is one problem. The relentlessly excessive visual dazzle is another. So you may have noticed that I have not discussed several of the recent adaptations of graphic novels in this column. So what prompted me to see The Avengers?

Desperate Endings

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<em>Desperate</em> Endings
<em>Desperate</em> Endings

Over the course of Desperate Housewives’s eight-year run, the behind-the-scenes drama has often threatened to overshadow the series itself. I’m not referring to Nicolette Sheridan’s pending lawsuit, or the rumored rivalries among the show’s co-stars. Rather, it often seemed that the writers’ room was where the real theatrics took place. Each time a new, convoluted cliffhanger was introduced, the question I was compelled to ask had less to do with the fate of the characters and more to do with how the writers could possibly dig themselves out of their own mess. For eight years, they’ve been digging. And the results, while not always neat, have been perversely fascinating.

Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #92: <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Smash</em>, <em>Luck</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #92: <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Smash</em>, <em>Luck</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, CSI, Some Short Takes on Late Winter-Early Spring 2010 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein pointed out that Preston Struges as a writer “organizes chaos,” but isn’t that what all screenwriters do? Unless you have seen writers’ treatments and first draft screenplays, you have no idea how chaotic a lot of movies that seem so perfect started out. With Sturges of course, he is writing about chaos as well. I agree with David that Wiseman’s Model (1980) is a much better film than Crazy Horse. Model brilliantly raises the question of why we should think of the models as “models” for us to follow. And it suggests that—gasp—the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

Both David and Victor Schwartzman take up the issue of race in regard to Red Tails. I certainly agree with David that Intruder in the Dust (1949) is one of the great American films on the subject. I was not quite as taken with Shadows (1960), and I am assuming David is at least partially joking about Mandingo (1975), but it does show you how race can drive everybody crazy, including Hollywood filmmakers. I happen to have a fondness for Pinky (1949). Yes, yes, I know that Pinky, the light-skinned Negro girl, is played by a white girl, but look at the scene in the store where the attitude of the shopkeeper changes as soon as he is told she is black. That’s one of the best examples I know on film of showing everyday racism.

Victor raises the issue of the portrayal of black characters in older films. Yes, there is a lot of cringe-worthy stuff in those films. I remember when I was in the Navy in the early ’60s. One of my fellow officers and my best friend in the Navy was one of the few black officers at the time. I remember we would get old ’40s movies to show on board ship, and the wardroom would all be embarrassed when we would see some of the stuff with Willie Best and others in Vance’s presence. Time makes you rethink things.

Downton Abbey (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. Season 2, 7 episodes, approximately 540 minutes.)

Ahh, it came back and nearly all was right with the world: You may remember that when the first season of Downton Abbey came along, I got so hooked into it so quickly I wasn’t able to take the usual kinds of notes I do when I am watching something on television. See US#70 for details. Well, this time I took a lot of notes. Don’t worry, I am not going to give you a complete summary of this season, tempting though it might be. What I am going to do, just because I like to be perverse from time to time, is start with the last twenty minutes or so of the 7th and last episode. What happened was that my wife and I were away in Palm Springs the night it was on. Since I had no idea if the hotel we stayed at got the new PBS station in Southern California, I set up my DVR to record it. As it turns out, the hotel did get the station and we did watch it there. But I was a little sloppy on taking notes, and when we got back to Los Angeles, I wanted to look at the last twenty minutes to make sure I had got stuff right. What struck me in looking at those twenty minutes for a second time is how well Fellowes does everything in this series.

Understanding Screenwriting #84: Moneyball, Blackthorn, CSI, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #84: <em>Moneyball</em>, <em>Blackthorn</em>, <em>CSI</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #84: <em>Moneyball</em>, <em>Blackthorn</em>, <em>CSI</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Moneyball, Blackthorn, Toast, Edna Ferber’s Hollywood (book), Arizona, Texas, CSI, Harry’s Law, Desperate Housewives, Suburgatory, but first…

Fan Mail: I pretty much knew when I was writing it that David Ehrenstein would take exception to my pan of A Single Man, and he did. What was interesting about his comments was that he spent so much time talking about Christopher Isherwood’s book. I am perfectly willing to believe everything David says about it and its importance in Isherwood’s life and career, but Ford and Scearce have not written a good script from it. I suspect the problem is that the novel is very interior (what is going on in George’s head during that day) and the screenwriters have not found a way to make that clear to the audience. As for Ford being a good director, I am not convinced, but I will give him one more film to persuade me.

Steven Maras, who wrote the terrific book Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice that I reviewed in US#38, sent me a couple of interesting items. You may not know that there is a Screenwriting Research Network that puts on a Screenwriting Research Conference every year or so. This year one of their guests was David Bordwell, one of the leading American film studies scholars. Bordwell wrote a blog item about the conference, which Steven sent me a link to. I found it, especially his opening comments, rather interesting coming from him. For years, he resolutely ignored screenwriting and screenwriters. His and his partner Kristin Tompson’s Film History: An Introduction, which is, as the title suggests, supposed to be an introductory text, hardly mentions screenwriters at all. It is only within the last ten years that he has begun to pay attention. He discusses in general terms in the blog why that’s so, without completely admitting he’s writing about himself. Then he gives you a nice view of some of the issues that come up in studying screenwriting. Bordwell and the Network and Conference are making the studying of screenwriting almost academically respectable. You can read the blog here.

Steven’s second item was sadder. He mentioned that Edward Azlant had passed away. That name may not mean much to you, but for those of us in business of studying the history of screenwriting, his unpublished 1980 dissertation, The Theory, History and Practice of Screenwriting 1897-1920 was essential. When I started work on my book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, his dissertation was one of the first things I looked at. After Steven wrote, I skimmed over the footnotes in the silent section of FrameWork, and I was surprised that there were so few citations, since it was an enormous help to me, and certainly pointed me to a lot of other sources that do show up in the footnotes. I met Eddie only once, in the summer of 1983. I had finished my sabbatical year in which I did a lot of research, particularly on the silent screenwriting. In the spring I had been at the Library of Congress comparing the Thomas Ince films to the Ince scripts. My wife and I were up in the Bay Area for the wedding of my cousin’s son, and we arranged to stop off in Los Gatos. Eddie was at the time the landlord of an apartment building his uncle had left him. He was delighted to get away from landlord problems for an hour or two and talk screenwriting. We talked about Ince, and the section on page 44 of FrameWork on the use of “O.K.” in the Ince scripts could almost been a verbatim transcript of our discussion. We were cackling like fiends trying to come up with all the possibilities of what the “O.K.’s” meant. We couldn’t stay long, since we had to get down to King’s Canyon National Park by nightfall, so his wife Joan, who was pregnant with their second child, made us some sandwiches to eat on the trip. That was the kind of people they were. Eddie read the silent screenplay section of my book and of course gave useful comments. A few years later I sent him a copy of the complete first draft, but it was sent back to me as undeliverable. I guess they had moved, and I never heard from him again. The obituary Steven sent a link to shows he had a very interesting life beyond film.

Moneyball (2011. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin, based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. 133 minutes.)

And you thought baseball was a slo-o-o-ow game: You can see why people wanted to make this movie. A lot of people. It’s been in development for years. It’s the true story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, who comes across a statistics whiz kid who shows him different ways to evaluate baseball players. That means that Beane, whose spending on buying players is severely limited by his owner, can get players who can help the team for small amounts of money. Nobody in the game immediately understands it, but eventually Beane puts together a winning season. And still doesn’t get any further in the playoffs than he did the year before.

Understanding Screenwriting #60: Boardwalk Empire, How I Met Your Mother, Castle, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #60: <em>Boardwalk Empire</em>, <em>How I Met Your Mother</em>, <em>Castle</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #60: <em>Boardwalk Empire</em>, <em>How I Met Your Mother</em>, <em>Castle</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Boardwalk Empire, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly, Castle, Hawaii Five-0, Undercovers, The Defenders, The Whole Truth, 30 Rock, CSI, Blue Bloods, Desperate Housewives, but first…

Fan Mail: I figured David E. would provide his usual insight and perspective on Lord Love a Duck (1966) and he did. And, sorry David, but Black Narcissus is way over the top. And don’t call me Shirley.

Diego Sulic hopes that Nikita will stick around, but is afraid it will go the way of other shows such as Bionic Woman and Dollhouse. This is always a problem fans have with television. We may love a show, but if it does not get high enough ratings on the over-the-air networks or cause enough talk or win enough Emmys on cable, it goes away. I did not watch any of the new Bionic Woman and only one episode of Dollhouse, so I can’t say much on either one except that Dollhouse just didn’t grab me. See if any of the shows I cover in this all-TV column float your boat.

Boardwalk Empire (2010. “Pilot” written by Terrence Winter, based on the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City. 75 minutes.)

Mommy, do I have to watch this?: Yes, son, it’s not tv, it’s HBO. But mommy, we’re watching it on our— Son, it’s directed by America’s Greatest Living Filmmaker. Aw, Mom, after Gangs of New York (2002) not even Harvey Weinstein is still saying that about Marty. Well, son, it’s created by one of the Emmy-award winning writers of The Sopranos. Come on, mom, you know I could only get through one episode of The Sopranos. I just don’t care about gangsters any more. But son, it’s about America. No mom, it’s a regional— Son, I am going to wash your mouth out with soap if you EVER use the term “regional” about anything connected with the East Coast of the United States. You know that is the term we use only for the South, the Midwest, the West, and in the case of George A. Romero, Pittsburgh.

Understanding Screenwriting #26: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Angels & Demons, In Plain Sight, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #26: <em>Ghosts of Girlfriends Past</em>, <em>Angels & Demons</em>, <em>In Plain Sight</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #26: <em>Ghosts of Girlfriends Past</em>, <em>Angels & Demons</em>, <em>In Plain Sight</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Angels & Demons, The Dam Busters, In Plain Sight, Glee, The End of the Television Season, but first…

Fan Mail: First of all, thanks to those who mentioned in their comments on US#25 that they liked the column even if they disagreed with it. As I said near the beginning of the run of the column, I like to start discussions.

A couple of readers took me to task for not understanding Sugar. “Wrongshore” listed a number of reasons he felt Sugar had left the farm team, so it was clear to him as it was not to me. I agreed with him that every one of the reasons he mentioned might be the reasons, but I just did not think the film did the work that Wrongshore did in figuring out what the reasons were. “Anonymous” mentioned that a Chinese woman and a Thai woman at a Q&A in San Francisco both felt the film was their lives. I’m glad they did, but there are a number of films that cover the immigrant experience better. I have mentioned El Norte in writing about a couple of films and it is still one of the best. A more obscure one that I just love (and showed again a couple of weeks ago in my History of Documentary Film class at LACC) is Mai’s America, about a teenaged Vietnamese girl who comes to the U.S. as an exchange student. My foreign students feel that film is their life. I think it’s available on DVD, or you could just come and take my class the next time I show it.

I agree with “Max Winter” that State of Play is not as rushed as we were all afraid it might have been, what with condensing a mini-series into a feature. Credit the three screenwriters with knowing what they needed to have. “Anonymous” thought the miniseries was great, which means I will have to check it out some time. Meanwhile, here’s some stuff I have checked out lately.

Understanding Screenwriting #24: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #24: <em>Monsters vs. Aliens</em>, <em>Grey Gardens</em>, <em>Parks and Recreation</em>, <em>Southland</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #24: <em>Monsters vs. Aliens</em>, <em>Grey Gardens</em>, <em>Parks and Recreation</em>, <em>Southland</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Monsters vs. Aliens, Grey Gardens, Parks and Recreation, Southland, 30 Rock, Saving Grace, Desperate Housewives, but first…

Fan Mail: In response to Matt Maul’s question about The Dirty Dozen, Franko does try to kill Reisman in the book, which Nunnally took over into the script. It would have made the ending a whole lot less conventional, but that’s true of Nunnally’s script as a whole.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009. Screenplay by Maya Forbes & Wallace Woldarsky and Rob Letterman and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, story by Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon. 94 minutes): List-making, not screenwriting.

In the opening scene, a computer geek at an Antarctica tracking station knocks a paddle-ball out into the faces of the audience. Since this is one of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s hopes to dominate the world with 3-D movies, I thought it was kind of cutely nostalgic that the opening scene imitated one of the most famous in-your-face moments from House of Wax, one of the best of the 1950s 3-D movies. But then the other references began to pile up: The Day the Earth Stood Still, George Lucas (the movie starts in his home town of Modesto), Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, War of the Worlds, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Mulan, Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Blob, The Three Stooges, Star Wars Episodes II and III, and on and on and on. It was as if the writers felt it was enough just to make the connections, a technique that has thoroughly been discredited by such disastrous move parodies like Date Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Disaster Movie. Just referencing other films without doing anything more simply gets exhausting. Although I should mention that my wife, who has not seen as many science fiction movies as I have—she is a scientist and always objects to the science parts—enjoyed the film more than I did, as did the audience we saw it with.

Understanding Screenwriting #16: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, 30 Rock, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #16: <em>The Curious Case of Benjamin Button</em>, <em>Frost/Nixon</em>, <em>30 Rock</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #16: <em>The Curious Case of Benjamin Button</em>, <em>Frost/Nixon</em>, <em>30 Rock</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Seven Days to Noon, Desperate Housewives, NCIS, Privileged, 30 Rock, and Damages, but first…

Fan Mail: Matt Maul raises the question of Robert Wise’s complicity in the gutting of The Magnificent Ambersons, so let me shock you with this: I think the film is better for Wise’s cutting. And worse than that, I think the final scene as it appears in the film is better than the one in the script.

I had an opportunity years ago to read Welles’ screenplay for the film. I liked the script, but it is very wordy. There are a number of long dialogue scenes that were blessedly cut from the final film. In the end of the script, Eugene goes to the hospital, but no scene is played there. Instead he goes home and writes a letter to Isabel, describing being with Lucy at George’s bedside in the hospital. We hear it in voiceover. Putting the scene in as a scene works better in the film, I think.

And both the script and the film have a major problem: we don’t see George’s accident. We only see a newspaper clipping of it, and get some narration. I’m sorry, but the movie has been promising us George’s “comeuppance” since the opening montage. Not showing it to us is like not blowing up the Death Star at the end of Star Wars. If you are going to promise the audience something, you had better deliver it.

Understanding Screenwriting #12: John Michael Hayes, Quantum of Solace, Boomerang!, Boston Legal, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #12: John Michael Hayes, <em>Quantum of Solace</em>, <em>Boomerang!</em>, <em>Boston Legal</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #12: John Michael Hayes, <em>Quantum of Solace</em>, <em>Boomerang!</em>, <em>Boston Legal</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: John Michael Hayes, Quantum of Solace, Boomerang!, Boston Legal, Law & Order, Two and a Half Men, Desperate Housewives, The Twilight premiere and opening.

John Michael Hayes (1919 - 2008): An appreciation.

Screenwriter John Michael Hayes died November 19th at the age of 89. It took The New York Times six days and the Los Angeles Times eight days to get around to doing an obituary on him. Score one for the East Coast.

Hayes was one of the best screenwriters of the fifties and sixties, moving into films after being a successful radio writer in the forties and early fifties. His most commercially successful film in the fifties was Peyton Place (1957). You might think that would be an easy one: adapt a hugely successful novel. But for the fifties it was virtually unfilmable because it told in lurid detail the secrets, mostly sexual, of nearly everyone in a small New England town. Hayes got the job because he had let his agent know he wanted to do a small town story since he had grown up in one. At first he could not get a handle on the book. Finally he talked to the producer Jerry Wald “because he was like Knute Rockne at halftime,” as Hayes put it. Wald encouraged him not to give up. Finally the solution occurred to Hayes: tell the story from the point of view of Allison McKenzie, the teenage girl who was more or less the author’s surrogate. The script humanized the story and, yes, certainly softened it, but as critics noted, it also made the film much fuller and richer than the novel.