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The Sound Barrier (#110 of 3)

Understanding Screenwriting #47: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Please Give, Date Night, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #47: <em>The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo</em>, <em>Please Give</em>, <em>Date Night</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #47: <em>The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo</em>, <em>Please Give</em>, <em>Date Night</em>, & More

Coming up in this column: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Please Give, Date Night, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (play), Poets, Screenwriters and Classical Musicians, Johnny Eager, The Sound Barrier, Finishing the 2009/2010 TV Season, but first…

Fan mail: “Agor” took me to task for not appreciating David Simon and Treme, and he makes a very good defense of what Simon is up to, comparing it to an intricately structured novel. My problem was that I did not find the characters and the situations compelling enough to put in the time the show was going to require, just as I have occasionally started a novel that I just cannot get into. Many viewers will stick with Treme and I hope they enjoy the show.

Agor also points out that I am not really writing about Simon as much as HBO in the item on Treme. He’s right. I have liked some of Simon’s stuff before, especially Homicide: Life on the Street and the second season of The Wire. However, what I was getting at in the piece was the overall tone of HBO insisting it is superior to anything else on television. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. But as you may have noticed in this column I deal not only with the screenwriters and their work, but many other aspects of screenwriting. I have discussed on several occasions the screenwriting styles of major studios like MGM and Warner Brothers in their heyday. Simon is working for HBO because its approach fits his. In the column below, I spend some time on a stage adaptation of a film and a collaboration involving a screenwriter and a lot of other artists. After all, screenwriters do not work in a vacuum.

David Lean x 4: This Happy Breed, Great Expectations, Madeleine, & The Sound Barrier

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David Lean x 4: <em>This Happy Breed</em>, <em>Great Expectations</em>, <em>Madeleine</em>, & <em>The Sound Barrier</em>
David Lean x 4: <em>This Happy Breed</em>, <em>Great Expectations</em>, <em>Madeleine</em>, & <em>The Sound Barrier</em>

If it weren’t for Lawrence Of Arabia, I might well not be typing this out: probably some other movie would’ve sparked nascent cinematic consciousness when I was 10, taking me over the hump from ingesting every G- and PG- rated piece of garbage I was allowed to see (getting out of the house was very important in the post-divorce days) to actually thinking about what I was watching as something other than the easiest time-killer around, but who knows. Lawrence Of Arabia is a moment-of-truth moment for a lot of kids, because it’s famous, fairly popular in revival (would I have been the rep-going freak I am without it? It’s a one-movie argument for the importance of big-screen viewings), and the kind of widescreen spectacle you don’t need actual human experience and interaction to respond to. Of course, Lawrence is a great epic not just for its dunes—though I like to think my taste for the most static-framed kind of arthouse formalism gestated here as well—but for its acute psychological understanding of a man who surely ranks among the least explicable mass of contradictions ever to serve the British empire, something that took more years to appreciate.

Film Forum’s David Lean retro is the series I’ve been most excited about since their Don Siegel fest two years ago. It looks like NYFF press screenings won’t let me make it to every single damn film (poor me etc.), but I’m pleased to have filled in more of the gaps before the killer one-two of Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence (and, uh, Doctor Zhivago, har har). This isn’t an overview—turn to Dan Callahan for that—just notes on four films that all deserve your time, one way or another.

Brief Summertime: David Lean at Film Forum

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Brief Summertime: David Lean at Film Forum
Brief Summertime: David Lean at Film Forum

To most people, the name David Lean means Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Many still remember its famous re-issue in 1989 on the big screen, and few question that film’s supposed greatness now, even though Andrew Sarris originally condemned it as “dull, overlong and coldly impersonal.” That’s not quite fair; Lawrence often seems to be about some kind of deep-dyed English dread of inadequacy, and whenever Lean gets sun-struck with his endless desert vistas, Peter O’Toole pulls the film back into the far-out agony of one very strange, sadomasochistic man. Before that, Lean had won acclaim and awards for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), his first real epic, and an even vaguer movie than Lawrence. Despite fine acting from Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa, Kwai raises issues of duty and madness only to scuttle them in one of the most confusing endings in film history. In Kevin Brownlow’s massive, definitive biography of Lean, it is revealed that the director and his collaborators didn’t know how to end Kwai, so they shot the climax in such a muddled way that it’s impossible to know how the bridge is destroyed. By accident? Deliberately?