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Brief Encounter (#110 of 5)

Understanding Screenwriting #108: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, & Smash

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Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>
Understanding Screenwriting #108: <em>Side Effects</em>, <em>Like Someone in Love</em>, <em>Point Blank</em>, <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Parade’s End</em>, & <em>Smash</em>

Coming Up In This Column: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, Smash, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein, reacting to my comments on Cat Ballou, thought that all the things I liked about the writing and acting came together “thanks to efforts of that controversial new-fangled invention known as the Director.” I didn’t get around to mentioning the director, Elliot Silverstein, because this is one of those films, like M*A*S*H (1970), Chariots of Fire (1981), and Thelma & Louise (1991), that succeeds in spite of its director rather than because of him. Silverstein is very sloppy about where he puts the camera and the acting is all over the place. This was his only truly successful film, and he soon went back to television, where he started.

Side Effects (2013. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 106 minutes.)

Better than Hitchcock. Both Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick were interested in psychiatry. In the mid-’40s, Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to buy a novel that was, according to Hitchcock’s biographer, Donald Spoto, “a bizarre tale of witchcraft, satanic cults, psychopathology, murder, and mistaken identities.” (The background material here is from Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.) Hitchcock presented some ideas on how a movie could be made out of the material to Ben Hecht, who wrote the screenplay for Spellbound (1945). Hecht’s version deals with an amnesiac who replaces a man scheduled to become the head of a mental hospital. The amnesiac is accused of murder and with a helpful female psychiatrist works out his problems. Since she’s played in the film by Ingrid Bergman, he falls in love with her as well. The film was a commercial success, but it’s rather clunky, like many ’40s films about psychiatry. And like many Hitchcock films, it’s less about character than about giving the director a chance to show off. As befits Selznick, the film is a slick production with stars (Gregory Peck as the amnesiac) in a romantic mode.

What’s Happened to Us? Jeanine Basinger’s I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies

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What’s Happened to Us?: Jeanine Basinger’s I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies
What’s Happened to Us?: Jeanine Basinger’s I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies

The cover of Jeanine Basinger’s I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies features Carole Lombard and Jimmy Stewart in a still from Made for Each Other (1939) and, boy, is it gorgeous. Each star with their ambiguous facial expressions, sensual proximity, and debonair dress, the image speaks to an embodiment of classical Hollywood and its underlying ethos of subtle subversion masquerading as affirmation. In fact, much of Basinger’s new book consistently functions in this manner, as one cannot help but be enveloped by the 139 stills and illustrations that so vividly render the period, almost to the extent that Basinger’s prose becomes secondary. Although Basinger claims that her aim—defining historical parameters for explicating depictions of marriage in the cinema—must necessarily revolve around content, the physiological qualities of this particular period of Hollywood cinema holds more resonance than the narratives proper. Discounting a romanticized view of the period runs the risk of stripping away its seductive nature and its ability to transform the domestic; after all, isn’t this a primary motivation for watching a film about two human beings in love? To have the resonance of daily human contact and interaction transcended through cinematic time and space?

If this initially seems a roundabout way to discuss Basinger’s book, it’s because her treatment of the subject is too straightforward for more provocative taste. Rather than historicizing with a revisionist eye, Basinger takes a more traditional historical approach, placing film after film within different or overlapping taxonomies. Much like fellow film historian David Bordwell, her writing is strong, the vision clear, but the parade through periods and themes of filmmaking is more soporific than enlivening, since the categorizations read as matter of fact, instead of being motivated by reaching audacious ends.

A Lover’s Discourse: Terence Davies’s Films

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A Lover’s Discourse: Terence Davies’s Films
A Lover’s Discourse: Terence Davies’s Films

In a dark room, two women regard each other, the older one cloaked in shadow, the younger one better lit but turned away. The older is caring for her sick husband, wrapped up in bed sheets, while the younger thinks of killing herself due to the pangs of lost, despised love. “Sometimes it’s tough to judge when you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” she says, a little bent over, to which her staunch, stiff counterpart snaps back: “A lot of rubbish is talked about love. You know what real love is? It’s wiping someone’s ass, or changing the sheets when they’ve wet themselves, and letting ’em keep their dignity so you can both go on. Suicide? No one’s worth it.”

The moment comes late in Terence Davies’s new film, The Deep Blue Sea, which opens theatrically tomorrow, and a sneak preview of which began the BAMcinématek’s retrospective of the British director’s nine-film career (next week, Film Forum will screen a new 35mm print of 1992’s gently gliding The Long Day Closes). This Deep Blue Sea scene, coming late into the story of a London woman struggling to move on post-WWII and post-love, in some ways sets the tone for all of Davies’s work.

British Invasion: Brief Encounter and The Pitmen Painters

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British Invasion: <em>Brief Encounter</em> and <em>The Pitmen Painters</em>
British Invasion: <em>Brief Encounter</em> and <em>The Pitmen Painters</em>

Another season, another round of Brit transfers, and the newest Broadway offerings from across the pond will truly test your theater taste buds; this fall has a messy but delectable sticky bun (Brief Encounter) and a minutely satisfying yet rote cucumber sandwich (The Pitmen Painters). Some may crave the tidy, bite-sized appeal of the latter, but it’s the hearty naught of having the former that results in the more edifying choice.

Actually, you can witness both foodstuffs at Brief Encounter (they even feed you the cucumber treats post-curtain call), and nibbles or not, the production more than justifies the gimmicks. Kneehigh Theatre’s acclaimed multimedia version of David Lean’s 1946 heartbreaker has its share of nagging winks to the audience, and perhaps there’s a tangential ditty too many. But director Emma Rice, working with an excellent cast of hardworking troupers, has enveloped the evening with that inimitable let’s-throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks theatricality seemingly deep-rooted in scrappy U.K. upstart theater companies, and occasionally said tactic results in a shrug, but at least it’s always an honest-to-God, fervent embrace of the theatrical for theater’s sake.

A Movie a Day, Day Three: Mademoiselle Chambon

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A Movie a Day, Day Three: <em>Mademoiselle Chambon</em>
A Movie a Day, Day Three: <em>Mademoiselle Chambon</em>

Yesterday’s movie was a press screening of 12th & Delaware, a quietly horrifying HBO movie about the campaign to end abortion, but I can’t tell you about that now; because the film opens the Human Rights Watch Film Festival next month, you’ll get my take on it in a few weeks. So I thought I’d tell you about another movie I caught at a recent press screening, which will probably be available on DVD in a few months after a very limited release in theaters.

A high-class soap opera about longing and missed chances strictly for and about grownups, Mademoiselle Chambon is kin to Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County, Ulu Grosbard’s Falling In Love, and the granddaddy of them all, David Lean’s Brief Encounter. It starts with a picnicking family of three as the attractive middle-aged parents help their kid do his grammar homework by puzzling out a circular definition in his textbook. It’s a sweet, funny scene, and an economical introduction to the family we’re about to spend time with—and maybe lose.

As it turns out, this is mostly the father’s story. Jean (Vincent Lindon), a macho yet sensitive guy whose blue-jeaned butt the camera keeps ogling, is a Gallic version of the romance-novel ideal Eastwood played in Bridges. He builds houses, takes tender care of his aging father (Jean-Marc Thibault, whose beautiful, craggy face is used to good effect in a couple of scenes), and comes home to a lovely and loving wife (Aure Atika, whose warmth and emotional intelligence gives heft and dignity to an underwritten role). It’s a good life—or so he thinks, until he meets his son’s teacher, Mlle Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain).