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Paul Haggis (#110 of 10)

Understanding Screenwriting #104: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #104: <em>Lincoln</em>, <em>Skyfall</em>, <em>Flight</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #104: <em>Lincoln</em>, <em>Skyfall</em>, <em>Flight</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, Silver Linings Playbook, Middle of Nowhere, Covert Affairs but first…

Fan Mail: First an addition to US#103. I mentioned in the credits for Argo that there was another source listed in the credits of the film, but I could not find it. Shortly after I sent off the column, the new issue of the British magazine Sight & Sound arrived. It identifies the other source as “based on a selection from The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez.” I’m guessing that’s the Tony Mendez.

David Ehrenstein liked my Sharon and Roman story so much he has added it to his one-man show, currently at finer bookstores near you.

“Erbear423” understandably took me to task for appearing to dump Paul Dano and Jesse Eisenberg into the same category as Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg. I can see how you can read my comments that way, but what I was trying to get at was more the kinds of roles they often play rather than the actors themselves. I like Dano and Eisenberg very much and they have been terrific in some very good movies, but even then they are often playing the sensitive young man finding his way in the world. My point was that there were no characters like that in Argo, for which I was grateful. As for Adam and Andy, they’re on their own.

Lincoln (2012. Written by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. 150 minutes.)

The public figure: I have always liked Tony Kushner, and not just the concept of Tony Kushner the public writer. The latter would be the playwright and activist who writes about public issues like AIDS, race, violence and politics. What I like about Kushner is that he is a hell of an interesting writer. OK, I will admit that when I first saw the stage play Angels in America in 1995, the writing instructor in me mentally got out my red grading pen. I imagined waving it in the air, saying, “You can cut this;” “You’ve said that three times, twice is probably enough;” “We don’t need all that.” Even though the TV film of Angels (2004) was shorter than the play, I brought out the mental red pen again. And his 2001 play Homebody/Kabul was probably talkier than it needed to be. But his book for the 2002 musical Caroline, or Change was a model of precision. And his screenplay, co-written by Eric Roth, of the 2005 film Munich was one of the smartest scripts of the last decade.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Kenji Fujishima’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Kenji Fujishima’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Kenji Fujishima’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Editor’s Note: In light of Sight & Sound’s film poll, which, every decade, queries critics and directors the world over before arriving at a communal Top 10 list, we polled our own writers, who didn’t partake in the project, but have bold, discerning, and provocative lists to share.

In trying to whip up a Top 10 for this alternative Sight & Sound poll, I decided from the beginning to try to forgo any extra-cinematic considerations and simply go with 10 films that mean a great deal to me personally. There’s an implicit canon-building aspect to this particular exercise, and surely some would feel a need to take into account not only previous Sight & Sound poll-toppers (Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, , etc.), but also such things as historical importance in coming up with a list for posterity. But where’s the fun in that? Besides, screw posterity: I’m totally willing to admit, at the outset, the possibility that any of my favorite 10 below may decline in estimation over time, to be replaced by another film entirely that I may begin to appreciate more as I grow older. For now, though, these are 10 films that I could not part with in my life.

T.V. on TV: The Black Donnellys, Raines, & The Winner

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T.V. on TV: <em>The Black Donnellys</em>, <em>Raines</em>, & <em>The Winner</em>
T.V. on TV: <em>The Black Donnellys</em>, <em>Raines</em>, & <em>The Winner</em>

It’s tempting to write off The Black Donnellys (premiering Monday night at 10 p.m. EST on NBC) as The Sopranos Lite. And, to be fair, in many ways it is.

It’s got the same greasy thrill of the underworld aesthetic that the superior HBO series has. Its one differing trait—that it traces how a gang of mobsters got to the top instead of starting that chronicle when the mobsters were already at the top—isn’t sufficiently different enough to set it far enough apart from Tony and his crew. Even the larger themes (the importance of family, the gradual corrupting influence of crime) are major Sopranos themes (not to mention major themes of those other two modern documents of the mob—The Godfather movies and Goodfellas). Add in the fact that the series comes from the much-vilified Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco (the Oscar-winning screenwriters of Best Picture winner Crash; Haggis, in addition, was responsible for the script for the previous Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby, too), and you have what seems like a recipe for a hubristic failure.

Navel Gazing with Burns & Dignan: Flags of Our Fathers, The Queen, & The Prestige

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Navel Gazing with Burns & Dignan: Flags of Our Fathers, The Queen, & The Prestige
Navel Gazing with Burns & Dignan: Flags of Our Fathers, The Queen, & The Prestige

Editors’ note: This is the debut appearance of a new Monday feature, the appropriately titled “Navel Gazing,” wherein House contributors Sean Burns and Andrew Dignan kick around a few recent releases. Feel free to join them in the comments section.

Andrew Dignan: I finally got a chance to see Flags of Our Fathers this weekend, after spending much of the past two weeks dreading it. Somewhere along the way, the film developed the reputation of a dull non-starter that, in a development I know both you and I despise, was deemed “out of the Oscar race” and thus somehow not worthy of serious discussion. So it was with some amount of surprise that I enjoyed the film quite a bit, with special note to the film’s structure which telescopes the timeline of the battle of Iwo Jima with the war bonds drive that found the film’s reluctant heroes rehashing and often trivializing the trauma of what they’d been through in order to package and sell a palatable version of war to the American public. And Clint Eastwood, that sly dog, seems to be grudgingly receptive towards the idea that such things are a necessary evil.

The film would seem to be mining the same bedrock of demystifying our heroes—and with the depiction of Ira Hayes, the way real violence eats at a man’s soul—that Eastwood’s been exploring as an artist for nearly 50 years. Acknowledging that the film is far from perfect (the last 20 minutes gave me something of a protracted, Lord of the Rings-type unease), why is it you think so many people have railed against it, and seem to so pleased to be perpetrating the belief that the film is both a financial and critical failure? Is this a Munich-type situation, where a handful of net-journalists with an agenda are trying to write history—a Paul Haggis backlash as a result of his last two films cleaning up at the Academy Awards? Or have some people simply grown tired of the themes and rhythms that Eastwood chooses to put onscreen? And more importantly, where do you see the film being ranked in his canon?

Laying It on Thick: Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers

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Laying It on Thick: Clint Eastwood’s <em>Flags of Our Fathers</em>
Laying It on Thick: Clint Eastwood’s <em>Flags of Our Fathers</em>

The stink of Crash hovers over Flags of Our Fathers. A dramatization of James Bradley and Ron Powers’s bestseller about the truth behind the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the film is confirmation of Paul Haggis’s predilection for exploitation and easy sentimentality. Million Dollar Baby, a good film, suffered from Haggis’s unmistakable lower-class condescension (fans of the film stumble when trying to rationalize the Fitzgerald Family Traveling Circus), and Flags of Our Fathers, adapted for the screen by Haggis and William Broyles Jr., uses a very real, largely unknown controversy as a jumping off point for a trite homily on how wars are sold to the American public. (Some will look for parallels to current events, except that would be giving the film the benefit of the doubt.) If Clint Eastwood’s personality barely shines through it’s because Haggis’s cartoon politics strongarm the director’s vision.

5 for the Day: Summer

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5 for the Day: Summer
5 for the Day: Summer

Summer’s here, and the time is right for a summary of all things cinematically summery. The living is easy, and our 5 for the day talks movies with central events occurring during the hottest, most nostalgic season of the year. So go out and find a beautiful someone, dance all night (come on, come on) and when you’re done, chime in with your own choices.

1. Meatballs (1979). Summer camp is a rite of passage for some of us, even if mine was just a day camp where I won a prize singing a song about reefer. Ivan Reitman’s Genie-winning (that’s the Canadian Oscar) comedy presented unspoiled pangs of nostalgia mere months before Mrs. Voorhees hacked her way through Camp Crystal Lake. Before his quotable comic brilliance got Lost in Translation, Bill Murray could be counted on to bring a caustic wit and a merry prankster’s glee whenever he appeared onscreen. Though Caddyshack and Ghostbusters linger in more memories, Murray’s debut as Tripper Harrison carries more weight with me because his shtick had the luxury of being fresh. Who knew back then that practically every line Murray spouts from the camp loudspeaker (shades of Altman’s M*A*S*H) would be quotable?

Murray’s performance seemed bused in from another movie, but it keeps Meatballs from becoming too saccharine. His friendship with camper Chris Makepeace is sweet without being gooey, and I can’t help think of this movie whenever someone says “It just doesn’t matter.” In addition to giving Val Kilmer a model to craft his brilliant turn in Real Genius, Meatballs also gave Dr. Pepper jingle singer (and American Werewolf in London star) David Naughton a hideous hit disco song called “Makin’ It.” (Naughton’s “I’m a Pepper” jingle, coincidentally, was the musical basis for my aforementioned award-winning Mary Jane song. “I smoke marijuana dontcha know,” sang 12-year old me, who had no idea what he was singing about. “Wouldn’t you like to be a pothead too?” Snoop Dogg owes me his career.)

Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One

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Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One
Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One

In 1999, film critic Godfrey Cheshire [left] wrote a compelling two-part essay for New York Press entitled “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema.” The article considered the transition from celluloid to digital technology within movie theaters, and the repercussions that would have on cinema as an art form. Predicated on the belief that the viewer responds differently to televised or digital images than film images, Cheshire expressed ambivalence and curiosity about that changeover.

To frame his argument, Cheshire provided definitions for terms normally considered interchangeable: “Film refers to the old, celluloid-based technology; movies refer to motion pictures as entertainment; and cinema refers to motion pictures as art.” Film and cinema, to Cheshire, are vitally linked, and that once film is removed, what is left may vaguely look the same for a short time, but that essentially video leads to the “overthrow of film by television—which is what this [shift] amounts to—will be related to a dissolution of cinema esthetics…The latter, which has implications beyond the realm of arts and entertainment, is my ultimate subject here. But let’s take one thing at a time.” The article has been reprinted all over the world, and was made the subject of a special colloquium at the Museum of Modern Art. It remains a valuable reference point for filmmakers, journalists and cinephiles.

But Cheshire himself admitted, “When the millennial clock ticks over, we will all be strangers in a strange land.” The technological and cultural landscape has changed rapidly since the publication of his article in ways Cheshire did not anticipate. Digital technology has accelerated the DVD revolution and the resurgence of documentaries. The Internet has affected how film criticism is digested by the public, and has fostered reactionary grassroots support among bloggers. Amidst these and other changes emerge new questions about film, movies and entertainment—as well as a few ironic surprises. Since leaving New York Press, Cheshire has continued writing film reviews for the North Carolina alternative weekly The Independent. But this self-professed “videophobe” is wrapping up production on a first-person documentary—shot on digital. It focuses on his family and their Southern plantation, which has been their homestead since 1739. In addition to his directorial debut, Cheshire has written two narrative screenplays and recently taught a course on the history of film at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cheshire was open to discussing how the changing times broadened his interests in film and filmmaking, as well as looking back on his landmark essay. The death of film and the decay of cinema led to the rise of video and new technologies. Amidst these transitions, Cheshire has managed to keep himself on the front lines—in more ways than one.

Anything But This

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Anything But This
Anything But This

There are whispers that Paul Haggis’ Crash might take Best Picture from Ang Lee’s gentle-spirited presumptive frontrunner Brokeback Mountain. I really hope it doesn’t, because if it does, I’ll be so angry that I’ll have to retire my long-term posture of benign condescension towards the Oscars and start hating them on general principle.

I realize the Academy has been making lot of wafer-bland Best Picture choices since the ’90s (American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago), honoring films that are slick and entertaining and perfunctorily “smart” but not the least bit resonant, films that don’t hold a candle to at least 10 or 15 English language films from that same year that didn’t win, and that certainly cannot stand proudly alongside such previous Best Picture winners as The Deer Hunter, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Gone with the Wind, The Last Emperor, Amadeus, the first two Godfather movies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and even The Silence of the Lambs and on and on and on. But compared to Crash, the recent batch of Best Picture winners looks positively brilliant. If Haggis’ movie wins, it won’t just take home a statuette, it’ll claim a new title: the most indefensible Best Picture winner since 1956’s tax shelter spectacle Around the World in 80 Days.