Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Shop Around the Corner

Written by Samson Raphaelson (and Ben Hecht, uncredited) ; from a play by Miklós László; Directed by Ernst Lubitsch; Cinematography by William H. Daniels; Edited by Gene Ruggiero; Complete Credits. 99 min. 1940.

You'll have to excuse me if I gush over how adorable this film is. You couldn't make it today – we're not that naïve anymore – but let's make a little inventory anyway:

Completely linear plot in three acts – no flashbacks.
Limited time-frame – about six months.
No fancy editing effects (not even an itty bitty montage).
Small cast – regular middle-class people.
One hero.
One best friend in a supporting part.
One love-interest doubling as an antagonist.
Two additional antagonists – one sympathetic, the other unsympathetic.

As plain and simple as that list is, the film itself is not "simple" as in brainless or completely predictable. That is, being a romantic comedy, we know that all the obstacles in the world can't stop our hero and his love-interest from being united, the point is how they're united – not only on the level of plot, but on the level of character as well.

Since Shop Around the Corner is one of THE romantic comedies, the plot will seem familiar: Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is top salesman at the leather goods store owned by the high-strung Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Among his coworkers are his friend, Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) the kindly family man and Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), the two-faced ladies' man. On a bright summer morning in Hungary, Kralik tells Pirovitch that he's started to correspond with an interesting woman whose ad he found in the paper – just for intellectual purposes, mind you. Five minutes later, Kralik and Mr. Matuschek get into an argument over selling a cigarette box that plays Ochi Chernya whenever you open it. Kralik thinks it's a lousy idea and Mr. Matuschek bristles over Kralik's stubbornness. He's the oldest employee after all, he was just invited to a fancy dinner party at Mr. Matuschek's house and was introduced to Mrs. Matuschek – is this how Kralik shows his gratitude? But Kralik doesn't want to be a yes-man.

Meanwhile, into the shop walks Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) looking for a job. Unemployment is high at the moment and everyone is tense about making money. (On second thought, I take it back, you could probably make this movie right now.) Kralik says there aren't any openings. Klara goes over his head and tries to talk Mr. Matuschek into it, but he won't hear of it. Only she manages to sell one of those silly cigarette boxes… Fade out. Fade in. It's winter now. Kralik is getting ready to meet his mystery girl that night. Nervous as hell, he's thinking of matrimony, but for that he'll need a raise – and Mr. Matuschek hasn't been in a good mood for months. No one knows why. He's not even nice to Kralik anymore. And, of course, there's that pesky Miss Novak who he can't seem to get along with. Gosh, isn't it wonderful that his lovely mystery girl is nothing like her? I'll stop here because the rest is obvious.

It’s a good lesson in probability vs. possibility: What are the odds that Klara should be the woman with whom Kralik has been corresponding? Not great, but far stranger things have happened. Rather than register as a plot contrivance, it registers as a coincidence. And, if you notice, it’s the only coincidence of its kind in the film. I think it’s safe to say that one of the weaknesses of romantic-comedy is a tendency to disregard probability all together on the premise that since real life can’t be as romantic and comic, there’s no point trying to be realistic. Admittedly, romantic-comedy is usually a cleaned-up, sugar-coated rendition of life, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that plausibility has to be jettisoned altogether to make it work.

Once Kralik finds out Klara is his mystery girl, he does not accept it blithely – on the contrary, it’s another disappointment on a day already saturated with frustration. (He’s just lost his job at the store.) There is no “eureka” montage where we recap previous events to illustrate how Kralik must have really been in love with Klara all along. Instead, he tries to reconcile the woman he knows from the page and the woman he knows from real life, with Klara scratching and biting him most of the time. In the movie’s final scene, he helps Klara go through the same reconciliation process, only faster. Gradually deconstructing the glowing self-image he presented in his letters, he transforms Klara’s mystery man into himself. (By the way, I’m not disparaging the “eureka” moment, I just think that in this case, it’s more believable to have Kralik slowly come to the realization that he’s in love with Klara. And I’m certainly not disparaging fantasy or fluffiness – any genre can contain varying “flavors.”)

At the end of the day, Shop Around the Corner is a perfectly ordinary story with perfectly ordinary people, but we get to know them and care about them – which is why it works so well. The plot has one or two surprises, but the film doesn’t rely on suspense to keep things going.

Next week… Annie Hall, the anti-romantic-comedy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Monday, January 26, 2009

Flash Gordon

I'd write a haiku
but I just can't stop laughing
utterly priceless


Bonus: The Wedding March performed by Queen.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lessons Learned: Groundhog Day

Written by Danny Rubin; Story by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis; Directed by Harold Ramis; Cinematography by John Bailey; Edited by Pembroke J. Herring; Complete Credits. 101 min. 1993.

In The Truman Show, Truman Burbank was unknowingly trapped inside a television studio virtually living the same day over and over according to the manipulation of the show’s creator. In Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) somehow gets literally trapped reliving the day he spent in Punxsutawney covering the Groundhog Day celebrations. He doesn’t know how it happened or how stop it. All he knows is that no matter what he does during those twenty-four hours, he’ll wake up at 6 AM in his room at the bed and breakfast his lovely producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) booked for him. (I’ll get back to her in a moment.)

The timeframe is unique: it begins with typical linear progression, and then shifts into a circular structure. We start with Phil at his job in Pittsburgh. We follow him to Punxsutawney. He goes to sleep and wakes up on Groundhog Day, which he spends being perfectly obnoxious. A blizzard prevents him from leaving the town. He goes to sleep, but when he wakes up Groundhog Day starts all over again – and again and again (and again…). Here the typical linear progression stops and loops back on itself, but only chronologically. Plot-wise, Phil’s story still progresses. No matter what he does differently and how it affects those around him, the variations are only temporary.

Slowly, Phil changes from a selfish jerk to a generous human being. First he’s bewildered by being trapped in Groundhog Day, and then he exploits the lack of consequences to his actions by doing whatever he pleases. When this fails to get him Rita’s love, he despairs and goes through a suicidal phase. Finally, he uses his trapped state to study and do good deeds, and eventually breaks out of the cycle. We watch his realistic transformation from anti-hero to hero, albeit through an unrealistic device. Usually, in a romantic comedy (or just a comedy), we see a very abridged version of this: hero wants girl, decides to change for girl, we get a three-minute montage of hero working on himself, after which he emerges shiny and new though not completely flawless, then he’s given one last test to prove himself, and bingo! He lives happily ever after.

The process is less important than the end result, which is why it’s gone through so quickly. In Groundhog Day, however, the process is the whole point. Granted, Phil’s apparently living thousands of days through an artificial device that prevents him from aging, but it fully conveys how far he has to go to transform himself. A three-minute montage is not enough. They exploit the process from every angle – except for some very bleak aspects of pain and death. They come close to it in one or two places, but they always return to the film’s comic tone before things get too dramatic. Characters and locations keep coming back in different ways – practically every detail is used, down to the tray of dishes crashing to the floor in the diner. Aside from this shrewd economy of detail, no explanation is ever provided for Phil’s entrapment. Not science, not religion, and not witchcraft. It’s beside the point anyway. Phil needs to be taught a lesson and he learns it.

Like many romantic comedies, his motivation is a woman. It would have been easy to make Rita impossibly perfect, but they went a more realistic route and simply had her be a sweet, likeable person. The same goes for Phil after he undergoes his transformation: he doesn’t become superhuman, he becomes a good man. He doesn’t lose his sense of humor or become unbearably righteous. His old self is still recognizable within his new character, which is another reason his transformation doesn’t feel superficial. It’s like being able to trace a person’s resemblance in a childhood photo. You can see what they grew out of no matter how much they’ve changed over the years.

Next week… The Shop Around the Corner, since we've taken a turn into romantic comedy we might as well look at a classic example.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

Lasagna, or Writing on an Empty Stomach

wond'rous miracle
I stand amazed before you
can I have seconds?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Truman Show

Written by Andrew Niccol; Directed by Peter Weir; Cinematography by Peter Biziou; Edited by William M. Anderson and Lee Smith; Complete Credits. 103 min. 1998.

I suppose I should begin this with some yammering about how prophetic The Truman Show was in predicting the reality television phenomenon, but let’s not do that. I’ll just get right to it. If you haven’t seen the film yet, here’s a brief recap:

Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) was born on television and has been the star of his own TV show for thirty years. He has never known this. But he’s about to figure it all out - unless the show’s creator Christof (Ed Harris) manages to manipulate Truman back into his naïve state. Aside from being able to control the natural elements of the insanely large TV studio, he has a cast of actors, skilled at improvising, but who can also repeat the lines he feeds them through their earpieces when necessary. These include: Truman’s annoyingly perky wife Meryl (Laura Linney), desperately trying to get pregnant with his baby while obviously disliking him; his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich), the underachiever to Truman’s mild-mannered businessman, always around the corner with a six pack of beers; Truman’s passive-aggressive mother (Holland Taylor), expert at guilt-tripping Truman over the “death” of his father; and speaking of dearly departed Dad (Brian Delate), who unexpectedly returns from the grave. And last but not least there’s Sylvia (Natascha McElhone), one of the few people - in the entire world apparently - who thinks the show is a crime, and almost managed to give the game away once.

“You never had a camera inside my head.” Truman says at one point and it’s literally true. Though we get Truman’s point of view, we are never actually inside his head. We never hear his thoughts; we are always viewers. The flashbacks are all edited segments strategically inserted by the directors in the control room. The film begins with Truman looking us straight in the eye, making a direct connection, and though we like to feel we know what’s going on in his head, the final barrier is never broken.

Quick characterization. Just as we know to like Truman from the first moment we see him, we know to dislike Meryl right from the start by the pretentious way she talks about her acting and the fake pensive pause she takes before describing it as “a truly blessed life.” (You know, when she’s not busy doing product placements at inappropriate moments.) It takes seven or eight seconds – count ‘em. We know Christof is pretentious because he has no last name in his “created by” credit at the start of the film – and that’s before we even meet him. That takes two seconds. Later we’ll see that from his beret to his deadly serious demeanor, this guy is an Artist and don’t you dare think any differently.

Lot’s of nifty little parts. Between Truman, Christof, Meryl, Marlon, Sylvia (Lauren), and Truman’s parents, there are more than enough relationships with which the story could have been occupied. The dynamic between Christof and Truman alone probably could have consumed most of the screen time, but there’s a large group of supporting players without more than a handful of lines each that add ingenious little touches: the two control room directors cackling affectionately over Truman’s antics; Mike Michaelson, the host of “Tru Talk,” filling in most of the logistic details and the history of the Truman Show; the two waitresses and the bartender at the Truman Bar, trading theories about Truman with the patrons – when they can tear their eyes away from the screen; the man in the bathtub who clings to the shower curtain in sympathy with Truman clinging to the mast; and the two garage attendants who end up with the punchline. (Respectively: Paul Giamatti, Adam Tomei, Harry Shearer, O-Lan Jones, Krista Lynn Landolfi, Joe Minjares, Terry Camilleri, Joel McKinnon Miller, and Tom Simmons.)

No specific genre. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show is another doesn’t-quite-fit-into-any-genre movie. It’s most often described as a satire, and though it has satirical elements, I think it has a serious, dramatic tone in certain places which disqualifies it from being straight satire. It’s a mixture of comedy, drama, and sci-fi – neither strain being dominant. It just goes to show you: you can blend your own genre.

Natural dialogue. Notice how real everything sounds without being repetitive, circular, or pointless like everyday speech. Whenever anyone gets too poetic, it’s usually Christof feeding them dialogue, which establishes Christof’s natural rhetorical abilities. Sylvia, caught trying to explain things to Truman, totally panics and fails to be comprehensible – much like a real person would.

Over in moments. The denouement (after the climactic boat capsizing, etc.) lasts about six or seven minutes. It’s a speedy wrap-up of all the loose ends, but the “real” ending – what happens to Truman once he leaves the studio - is left to the imagination, otherwise it would contradict the whole point of the film. We watch Sylvia hurrying down the steps, giving us the idea she’ll find Truman as fast as she can, but we don’t know that for sure. Maybe she and Truman will have their happy ending, maybe they won’t. At any rate it looks like Christof’s career is over. Let there never be a sequel like The Truman Show II: Christof’s Revenge. Eek.

And yes, I know I said wasn’t going to yammer about reality TV, but I can’t help saying this. Among some terrific lines in The Truman Show are two that sum up the whole concept of reality television. Toward the end, when Truman reaches the walls of the gigantic movie studio, Christof attempts to stop him from leaving. Having explained to Truman that he is the star of the show, Truman asks calmly, “Was nothing real?” And Christof answers, “You were real. That’s what made you so good to watch.” (You can watch the whole scene here.)

Next week… Groundhog Day, because it’s a nice continuation of the theme of a man trapped inside an alternative world, but from a different angle.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

Jeeves and Wooster

"Well dash it all, Jeeves!"
"Indeed, sir. Precisely phrased."
"That is to say, blast!"


Teedee heedee hee, sir.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lessons Learned: Gattacca

Written and Directed by Andrew Niccol; Cinematography by Slawomir Idziak; Edited by Lisa Zeno Churgin; Complete Credits. 106 min. 1997.

In a previous post about beginnings, I mentioned how important it is to consider the exact words - the precise image and sound with which you start your story, and the opening sequence which comes after it. You have to draw the viewers/readers in, set the tone for everything to come, and give enough expository material for them to follow what’s about to happen. It’s one of the hardest elements to deal with – and of course there’s no precise formula to help you. All you know is you can’t take too long to do it, maybe 20 minutes or 50 pages at the most.

Gattacca begins with a verse from Ecclesiastes 7:13, "Consider God's handiwork: who can straighten what He hath made crooked?" It fades in and fades out. After half a beat another quote by Willard Gaylin fades in and out: "I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to." The screen becomes suffused with the color blue and a large semitransparent object shaped like a half-moon drops into the frame, giving a thump as it bounces and finally settles at the bottom. Then another and another of these half-moons – thump, thump. A thick cord-like section comes into focus and then another cord flops down beside it. Who knew that fingernail clippings and stray hairs could seem aesthetic or substantial? They appear massive in weight and size. Falling dandruff looks like a snow shower; falling stubble looks and sounds like hail stones. Slowly they reveal the source: a man scrubbing himself energetically.

Then we get six or seven minutes to get the hang of everything – swift juxtaposition of small shots and snippets of conversation. We're not quite sure what's going on, but we do get the general idea: futuristic setting, an elitist society based on genetics, a protagonist named Jerome who is not what he seems, and a possible love-interest. Then the voice-over kicks in and we have a compact flashback sequence which tells us what we need to know. Not bad for the first 8 minutes of a movie. Excellent, in fact: we get the major theme, two of the major players, two pivotal supporting ones, the somber tone, and the not-too-distant setting – in a smooth, coherent way, which manages to be intriguing rather than confusing or outright mystifying. As the flashback sequence plays out, we understand why they made Jerome’s fingernails and stray hairs look like as powerful as a meteorological event – the genetic information they contain is as dangerous as a snowstorm.

In short order we learn that Jerome is really Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) who, unlike most of the people in his society, was not genetically engineered to perfection. Now that they can read your entire genetic sequence from a fingerprint or eyelash and supposedly know all there is to know (when you’ll die, what diseases you’ll get, etc.), you’ll find yourself barred from every good thing in life. With a 99% chance of heart failure by age 30, Vincent can look forward to cleaning toilets until his 30 years are up. But Vincent dreams of going into space by getting into the ultra-elite space institution Gattacca. How can he do it if all they need is a fingerprint to keep him out? By taking the identity of the genetically perfect Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law). Eugene was crippled in an accident and needs someone to support him “in the style to which he was accustomed.”

I won’t recount the whole plot, but because one of the Gattacca mission directors is murdered, the place is soon crawling with law enforcement and their trusty vacuum cleaners. A stray eyelash of Vincent’s is discovered and naturally, as a lowly in-valid, he becomes the obvious suspect in the murder investigation. Will his cover as “Jerome” be blown or will he outwit the authorities? Will he put himself at risk by getting involved with Irene (Uma Thurman) who suspects he’s not what he seems? And who really did murder the mission director?

Fast-forward to the ending – the last sounds and images with which you leave the viewer/reader – and which is every bit as difficult as the beginning… Vincent’s dream of going into space is about to be realized. He has done the impossible. He’s in the Gattacca spaceship, taking off. He holds an envelope with Eugene’s hair while shadows pass over his face. Voice-over kicks in again: "For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess, I'm suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Of course they say every atom in our bodies was once a part of a star. Maybe I'm not leaving." We get closer and closer to the launch port. "Maybe I'm going home." We go out through the port and into space. Fade out. We began with the unwanted clippings of an anonymous body and we end with the mind-boggling vastness of the universe – from a microscopic view of hairs and fingernails to a panoramic shot of the starry sky.

A few other thoughts…

Making conflict more personal. Vincent’s brother Anton (Loren Dean) isn’t merely part of the back-story meant to enlighten us as to why Vincent was so motivated to get into Gattacca. When the detectives show up to investigate the murder, it could have been enough to have only Det. Hugo (Alan Arkin) looking for Vincent. After all, we already have two interesting relationships to follow: Vincent and Eugene, and Vincent and Irene, plus we’re keen to see if Vincent will be caught. Bringing back Anton gives the story another dimension and it’s also the final conflict to be resolved. Will Anton blow Vincent’s cover out of jealousy or spite? Instead of a conceivable showdown with Hugo which could have been interesting in its own right, they chose a tenser emotional confrontation between the brothers.

Spare visuals. Futuristic without being surreal or fantastic, the scenes are as clean and uncluttered as the story’s well-groomed characters. Except for the geneticist in the flashback, none of the men have facial hair. The guys on the police force look like they’re about to do a spread for GQ.

Little characterization touches. Pay attention to the difference in Vincent's body language when he’s himself and when he’s Jerome: he’s twitchy and slouchy when he’s himself, but relaxed and confident when he’s Jerome. Also, notice the pointed casting of the older Alan Arkin deferring to the younger Loren Dean – the sheer absurdity of Arkin calling him “sir” emphasizes that superior genes will catapult you farther than someone with more experience. And watch for the subtle snobbery Irene and Director Josef (Gore Vidal) display toward Anton. He’s good, but not good enough for a place like Gattacca – just a few more grains of salt in his wound as he realizes that the supposedly inferior Vincent has infiltrated the elitist of institutions.

Covering all the angles. I’m not a scientific person, so if there’s a flaw in all the medical stuff, I certainly can’t see it, but in the way the story plays out, you can tell that a lot of thought was put into envisioning how a world governed by genetic discrimination would work, whether it’s a woman using the “kiss specimen” on her lips to discover the genetic sequence of a potential partner or the mandatory drop of blood Gattacca personnel must submit every time they go into the building. But just as important as the scientifics is the story itself. For example, Anton obviously recognizes Vincent when his “in-valid” card comes up on the screen. A little later, when Det. Hugo says he wants to run a check, Anton quickly informs him that he already did so and that Vincent has no living relatives – otherwise, of course, the other detectives would know that they’re brothers. It’s seems like a little thing, but if Anton hadn’t said it – we’d be forced to ask afterward, “Why were they all too stupid to realize it?” On top of which, it also keeps us from guessing that they’re brothers – at least for a little while. And then there’s Dr. Lamar (Xander Berkeley), whose continual praise of Jerome raises a question mark – until the very end.

As a final note, one of my favorite moments in the film: Irene and Vincent watching the sunrise (starts at 7:35). Not only is the sunrise beautiful, but it illustrates the film’s concern with ethical use of science by showing technology being harnessed for a good cause; the solar panels serve as a clean energy source, as opposed to the way technology is misused for genetic discrimination.

Next week… The Truman Show, which was also written by Andrew Niccol and is also sci-fi but not in the ultra-futuristic-aliens-and-droids way.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Pygmalion

Why ca(h)n't the English
teach their children how to speak?
You squashed cabbage leaf!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Lessons Learned: Frankenstein

Written by Mary Shelley; first edition published anonymously in 1818; third edition revised and published under Shelley's name in 1831; approximately 220 pages. For my (perhaps a tad too sarcastic) synopsis: click here.

The first time I read Frankenstein I was more familiar with Mel Brooks' parody Young Frankenstein than I was with the Gothic genre, the Romantic Movement, and Mary Shelley. So when I read the words "classic," "gothic," "romantic," and "masterpiece" in the blurb on the back of the book, I expected a heavy-handed, quaintly gruesome piece of Literature-with-a-capital-L. In other words, a book you’re supposed to love because you’ve been told you should. Why? Because it’s part of the Canon of Literature! But why is it part of the Canon? Because it is. Now go recite Kubla Khan.

I admit that was silly of me. (Mrs. Shelley, I apologize.)

First, I expected there would be pages and pages of descriptions of scientific experiments and that the climax of the book would be the creation of the monster. Wrong. Not only is the creature already alive and kicking after about fifty pages, but Shelley glosses over the construction details. Granted, she probably didn’t know how to bring a corpse to life – the main thing is that she doesn’t get bogged down with inventing the details. Who cares how Victor made the creature? The point is that he did.

Next, I expected that Victor was going to be some dashing hero tempting his fate. Wrong again. What an unsympathetic evil genius he is – the bodies pile up and he does absolutely nothing about it until it’s much, much too late. So after he makes the fatal mistake of meddling with nature, the plot progresses due to his inactivity. Meanwhile, I expected some gooey romantic subplot with a swooning lady and flowery protestations of love and devotion. Although Victor’s apathy to his prospective wife Elizabeth is supposed to emphasize his inability to love, I also think it works on a thematic level. Meaning, this story isn’t about love, truth, beauty, and freedom. Throwing in romance would be like having a picnic in a graveyard.

I also kept expecting the comic relief to show up in some unamusing form. In other Gothic novels they usually bring in a bumbling servant who’s supposed to be hilarious, and I’m thankful Shelley didn’t give in to the temptation. This is probably one of the few books I’ve ever liked that didn’t have so much as a wisecrack. I know that in the previous post I said that I was starting to think that a film’s sense of humor was one of its most important assets – and I’m not taking that back – but I wanted to add that the humor needs to fit in. I’ve wracked my brain and I can’t think of a single place in Frankenstein where humor would have been welcome. If adding romance would be like having a picnic in a graveyard, then adding humor would be like clowns having a picnic in a graveyard.

Given all the “grr argh” Frankenstein caricatures running around in pop culture, I expected the monster to be mute and stupid. Though you’ll excuse me if I chuckle over his managing to learn French by eavesdropping on the de Lacey family’s conversations, it was interesting to get the monster’s point of view. He’s still violent and dangerous, but walking about fifty pages in his shoes changes him from a flat character to a round one. More than that – it highlights that neither Victor nor the creature is the good guy in this story. It’s also a refreshing break from Victor’s narration; note that the creature’s story comes smack dab in the middle of the novel.

Having been disappointed in all previous expectations (in a good way), my final expectation was of an ending positively soaked with redemption and moralizing. Wrong, so very wrong. Even though Walton supposedly heeds Victor’s warning against trying to overreach the forces of nature, the ending is pretty bleak – and freezing cold too. The monster disappears into the arctic fog and that’s it. The last image in our minds is that icy uninhabitable landscape. We don’t return with Walton to England. We don’t find out what he does with the rest of his life – we don’t need to either. Cold oblivion is a fine note to end on.

Next week… Gattacca, since we've practically taken a turn into science-fiction and the theme of one-upping nature is a central feature.