Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lessons Learned: Ninotchka

Screenplay by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch; Story by Melchior Lengyel; Directed by Ernst Lubitsch; Cinematography by William H. Daniels; Edited by Gene Ruggiero; Complete Credits. 110 min. 1939.

I don’t know how communists feel about Ninotchka - or how Russians in general feel about it for that matter. The film is obviously not in favor of communism, it's not in favor of the czar either, nor is it a love letter to capitalism. But, as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Paris, 1930s (they're a little vague on the precise date). Comrades Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), Iranoff (Sig Ruman), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) of the Russian Board of Trade are in town to sell the jewels of the Grand Duchess Swana – former Grand Duchess, that is. Russia has no more aristocrats or private property – only a strong working class, which is in danger of starving given the failure of this year's crops. If the jewel sale falls through, there won't be any money to buy food. While our three comrades are negotiating with the jeweler, a Russian waiter named Rakonin (Gregory Gaye) - formerly Count Rakonin - overhears and races to tell the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). Overjoyed, Swana immediately telephones her lawyer, only to find out that there's a teeny tiny diplomatic problem: the French government has recognized Soviet Russia so they can't exactly seize her jewels when, according to Russian law, they aren't her jewels at all.

Fortunately, Swana's dashing boyfriend Léon, Comte d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), is around to handle the situation. A smooth-talking dandy, he has our three comrades in the palm of his capitalist hand within five minutes. They telegram the Kremlin: "We suggest a fifty-fifty settlement." The Kremlin's answer: “You're in big trouble. We’re sending someone to take over.” Subtext: “Prepare to summer in Siberia.” Enter envoy extraordinary Nina Ivanova Yakushova (Greta Garbo), affectionately nicknamed Ninotchka – once you can break through that glacial exterior. A staunch communist and tireless workhorse, when she’s not zipping through the French civil code, she’s zipping up the steps of the Eiffel Tower. Guess who she meets on her way there. Her first meeting with the irrepressibly flirtatious male product of capitalist society is priceless.

Not knowing that each is gunning for the other side, Ninotchka and Léon fall for each other in a matter of hours – proving that opposites attract, politics be damned. Notice that despite the antagonism created by the capitalist-communist dynamic, there isn’t a nasty edge to their conversation. For example, after Ninotchka finds out that Léon is an idle playboy, she says, “You are something we do not have in Russia.” Beaming, he starts to thank her for the supposed compliment, but she goes on, “That is why I believe in the future of my people.” Rather than get angry or wisecrack about communism, Léon responds with obvious amusement, “I’m beginning to believe it too.”

Ninotchka is full of great lines, like when she first arrives in Paris and the comrades say they would have brought her flowers if they had known she would be a woman. “Don’t make an issue of my womanhood.” She answers dryly. Or back in Moscow, when her friend Anna (Tamara Shayne) tells her that the silk slip she brought back from Paris caused a commotion in the laundry yard, Ninotchka replies ruefully, “I would hate to have my country endangered by my underwear.” But rather than quote the whole film – which would take a considerable amount of time – let’s get back to Ninotchka.

On the surface, Ninotchka’s “mellowing” might seem artificial, but it’s not as though she goes from being an unfeeling hunk of metal to a piece of cotton candy. The humor is there from the beginning when she spars with Léon and the steeliness remains even after she falls for him, only now she actually lets herself laugh and smile more. Lest this seem like some kind of chauvinist revenge on a proverbial ice queen – Léon himself undergoes a transformation under Ninotchka’s influence. From being flip and insincere about basically everything, Léon becomes passionate and earnest for more than riches and physical comfort. (And herein we find the jab at the hedonist mentality, as created by capitalism.)

Also notice that Swana, the main antagonist, is allowed to be sympathetic. In her showdown with Ninotchka over the jewels, the script lets her get in a few shots. What’s more, Swana is a pretty formidable character despite her very limited screen time. After her first scene with Léon and Rakonin, Swana disappears for a good long stretch, so she has to make quite an impression on the viewer. And, note that though she loses the war with Ninotchka, she at least wins the battle. It’s an important distinction because sometimes the protagonist’s “victory” is too sweeping to be believable. Love doesn’t necessarily conquer all and it doesn’t immediately come into effect either.

Even though it’s a romantic comedy, which makes it obvious that Léon and Ninotchka have to be united despite whatever obstacles, the denouement still leaves you wondering how exactly they’re going to accomplish that without pulling a major deus ex machina. Which, as it happens, they don’t need, since they use Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski to solve the problem.

Since we’re speaking of writing economy (my beloved subject), note that Rakonin functions as a catalyst to the plot not once, but twice. First he tells Swana about the jewels, setting up the first conflict, and then he sets up the final confrontation between Ninotchka and Swana by handing the jewels over to Swana. It’s a neat job, proving once again that you can keep stock of the elements you use and keep using them rather than bring in new things. There’s no law that says you have to use something more than once, but often it makes for tighter writing.

Next week… The Third Man, taking a sharp turn away from all this comedy and romance.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pride and Prejudice Marathon

Pride and Prejudice 1940
We're bright! And bubbly!
And fluffy! And glossy too!
Who needs that old book?

Pride and Prejudice 2005
We are chic! And hip!
And broody! And romantic!
Who needs that old book?

Pride and Prejudice 1995
they used that old book
(excuse me if I don't care
for a drenched Darcy)

Bride and Prejudice
they sang and they danced
they even used that old book
color me impressed

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lessons Learned: Some Like It Hot

Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; Story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan; Directed by Billy Wilder; Cinematography by Charles Lang; Edited by Arthur P. Schmidt; Complete Credits. 120 min. 1959.

Since Some Like It Hot is on most of the Best Lists in existence, I don’t have to waste any time raving about it. I’ll just say: the film really deserves it. Really really.

The plot alone would have made Shakespeare’s mouth water: Chicago, 1929. Prohibition is in full swing; so are all the speak-easies and bootleggers. Two broke musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) have the misfortune to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre committed by “Spats” Colombo (George Raft) and his thugs. Don’t let the gangster stuff fool you. Here’s where the comedy kicks in: Joe, the sharper of the dynamic duo, decides he and Jerry won’t be found if they masquerade as female musicians. One dissolve later, they’re in full makeup, wigs, dresses, and high-heels, getting ready to board a train for Miami with Sweet Sue (Joan Shawlee) and her Society Syncopaters, and Beinstock (Dave Barry), their bespectacled and befuddled manager. (The setup is actually a lot more complex than that, but I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity.)

“Josephine” and “Daphne” (he never did like the name “Geraldine”) just have to keep as low a profile as they can among a dozen or so attractive 25-year-old blondes until they get to Miami and can blow the scene. But wait! Look out kids, here comes the love-interest: enter Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the singer in this female jazz outfit, and probably the sweetest dumb blonde you’ll ever meet. She’s dressed like a bombshell, but she’s really cotton candy. (Notice, by the way, that they only introduce Sugar about 25 minutes into the film. That’s pretty risky, but there’s so much content in those 25 minutes that you never feel like you’re waiting for something to happen.)

Pretty soon Josephine and Sugar are practically best friends. Josephine gets the inside scoop on Sugar’s unhappy love-life and hatches a plan to disguise himself as her dream man – once they reach Miami. As if that wasn’t enough to complicate things, in Miami Daphne catches the eye of Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), a middle-aged playboy millionaire – and that’s all I’m going to say about that. You have to see it for yourself.

There’s so much to say that I’m forcing myself to stick to two main points: the complexity of the characters and the disguise device. Tony Curtis plays three characters – Joe, Josephine, and Junior (Sugar’s dream man), while Jack Lemon plays two characters – Jerry and Daphne. Josephine, Junior, and Daphne begin as superficial disguises, but they gradually take on their own identities. Now, I’m going to be really annoying and say that Josephine, Junior, and Daphne aren’t only separate characters but Joe-playing-Josephine, Joe-playing-Junior, etc. Why am I getting so pedantic? At first, when Joe and Jerry are only using the female disguises to get away from the mob, they’re just two guys impersonating women. Later, when they get more into character, we see them morphing into these alternate personas until finally the line becomes totally blurred. With Joe, it has a serious transforming effect; with Jerry it’s pure comedy.

Joe, as Josephine, realizes what a heel he’s been to women all these years. As Junior, the gentlemanly millionaire, he becomes the best version of himself. (Not surprisingly, he adopts a Cary Grant accent – but I’m a wee bit prejudiced here…) When Jerry chides him for wasting time saying goodbye to Sugar – wouldn’t you know it? Spats and his thugs turn up in Miami and recognize them – claiming that he never left women with anything but a kick in the teeth, Joe corrects him, “That’s when I was a saxophone player. Now I’m a millionaire.”

The story plays the disguises to the hilt – Junior forgets to take off his earrings before his date with Sugar, the mobsters don’t recognize Josephine and Daphne in the elevator. Later, when Joe and Jerry make a quick switch to male clothing, Jerry gives them away because he forgot to take off his high-heels. By the end, Joe and Jerry don’t even have make-up on. Joe is at his most stripped-down version of Josephine when he kisses a tearful Sugar for the last time (at least he thinks it’s for the last time). After which he utters a crucial line: “None of that, Sugar. No guy is worth it.” The line is crucial because it neutralizes Sugar’s likely anger at “another one of those no good saxophone players” she’s been running away from. In a moment, she realizes what’s been going, and can go after Joe without a moment’s hesitation.

And one other thing – since I can’t help myself: I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big lover of economy – as in never letting a single thing go to waste – and Some Like It Hot is brilliantly economical. Not a character or reference is thrown away: the blood type O, Cape Hatteras, the joke about the one-legged jockey, Rigoletto, the bullet holes in Jerry’s bull-fiddle, and so many more. There are also repeated visuals like Colombo’s spats and repeated dialogue like “Never heard of him,” “Goodbye Charlie,” and Sweet Sue shrieking “Beinstock!” Also notice the way they keep using Beinstock’s glasses and the diamond bracelet Osgood gives Daphne.

Next week… Ninotchka, yet another romantic comedy, and the last in this extended rom-com festival.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Plot of Practically Every Novel and Short Story by Henry James

(s)he goes to Europe
is somehow disillusioned
(s)he contemplates this

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lessons Learned: It Happened One Night

Screenplay by Robert Riskin; from the story "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams; Directed by Frank Capra; Cinematography by Joseph Walker; Edited by Gene Havlick; Complete Credits. 105 min. 1934.

I recently had the opportunity to watch this film on a big screen and boy does it hold up. It’s also a great film to talk about – not to mention see – on Valentine’s Day.

The set-up: Ellie Andrews, spoiled daughter of the stupendously wealthy banker Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly) has just married King Westley (Jameson Thomas), a good-for-nothing society man without a penny to his name. Naturally, Daddy is not happy about this and threatens to keep Ellie locked in her room on their yacht until she consents to an annulment. Ellie dives off the yacht – which is floating near the Miami shore – and plans to catch the night bus to New York where she can be reunited with her beloved King. She’s proving a point, you see. Daddy has a lot of connections and everything is being watched. She can’t even call King since Daddy will hear about it in two seconds. But get to New York she will, don’t you doubt it.

Meanwhile, in a phone booth at the very same bus station, Peter Warne (Clark Gable), journalist and wise-guy, is telling off his editor in New York, Joe Gordon (Charles C. Wilson). To be honest, he’s had a couple of drinks and his pals are egging him on, but he’s not so drunk as to be undisturbed by his editor firing him. He plays it cool though. Heading off to the night bus – with little more than ten bucks in his pocket – he strides like an aristocrat on the way to his carriage. Guess who he sits next to on the bus.

Soon Ellie’s picture is in all the papers and Peter recognizes her in two seconds. Never slow to seeing an opportunity, he offers to help her get to New York in exchange for the exclusive story, which will be a big seller, and which will put him square with his (former) boss. Ellie doesn’t like it a bit, especially since they have to pretend to be husband and wife, but she’s not exactly a survival expert, and Peter threatens to turn her in to her father. Besides, if he doesn’t, someone else probably will. And then we’re off to the races. Or, to be more accurate, our romantic comedy takes a nice road trip. But there won’t be much sight-seeing – just a couple of dingy motel rooms, the interior of the bus, and some of the rural landscape. Nothing particularly exciting. Just good country people – and one or two louses.

Essentially, this is a battle of wills between the alpha male and the spoiled heiress. There is no typical “best friend” character on either side to act as a foil – this is strictly a one-on-one wisecrack-to-wisecrack fight. By reducing them to archetypes I don’t mean to imply that they’re flat. On the contrary, Peter and Ellie, despite those convenient labels, are well-rounded characters. He’s a bit of a bully and sexist to boot, but he’s also thoughtful and passionate. She’s pampered and high-maintenance, but she’s also kind and generous. While the script establishes their dominant traits almost instantly, it gives them enough scenes of various kinds to display other traits as well, so we feel we’re watching actual people with actual emotions.

A few other things worth nothing:

Despite the numerous scenes played in motel bedrooms (and the one played in a haystack), there’s no sex. There isn’t even a kiss at the end, which is surprising considering that in a romantic comedy you usually need to have at least one. Which shows you that it can be dispensed with altogether. Probably today it would be more of a challenge, but it’s still worth trying. It would shake up the current rom-com pattern.

I’ve mentioned before that a character’s entrance is an important characterization technique, and an exit is just as useful. It Happened One Night gives Ellie a great exit, and Peter’s is a close second. She bolts on her dear groom, her long satin train dragging behind her. He departs with a sarcastic jab. We never see either character after that. We also don’t see their reconciliation scene – we’re left to imagine the fireworks.

Also note the doubling of the father’s function – first he’s a blocking figure to Ellie’s relationship with King, but afterward he becomes enabler for her relationship with Peter. Not only is it economical, it’s logical as well: the doting albeit tyrannical father doesn’t want her to marry a fortune-hunter, but he does want her to marry a good guy like Peter, even if he isn’t rich. This is also the triumph of the average Joe (we’ll pretend for a moment that Clark Gable is average) over the society phonies like King Westley. He gets the rich girl with Daddy’s blessing.

And, obviously, since I’ve already mentioned the abundance of wisecracks, It Happened One Night is a good film to study them, not to mention plain comic timing. A few examples:

Ellie: Your ego is absolutely colossal.
Peter: Yeah, yeah, not bad. How's yours?

Chalk up one for his side.

[After Ellie raises her skirt to expose her shapely leg, which gets a car to stop and pick them up]
Peter: Why didn't you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars.
Ellie: Oooh! I'll remember that when we need forty cars.

Chalk up one for her side.

Finally, dialogue from one of my favorite scenes - Ellie has just revealed to her father that she’s in love with Peter.
"I don't know very much about him, except that I love him."
"Well, if it's as serious as all that, we'll move Heaven and Earth to..."
"No, it's no use! He despises me."
"Oh, come now."
"Yes, he does! He despises everything about me. He says that I'm spoiled and selfish and pampered and thoroughly insincere."
"Oh, ho, ridiculous!"
"He doesn't think so much of you, either."
"Well, I... "
"And he blames you for everything that's wrong with me. He says you, you raised me stupidly."
"[sarcastically] Well now, that's a fine man to fall in love with."
"Oh, he's marvelous!"

I’ll stop here before I quote the whole film. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. I wish you candy hearts and fluffy teddy-bears.

Next week… Some Like It Hot, though I'm reluctant to call it a romantic comedy (for various reasons), it's a good film for continuing the discussion.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Previously on Stellascript...

Chantal finally revealed her deep dark secret to Glade, her fiancé: she used to work as a stripper. Also, her real name is Joan. Though initially stunned, Glade reaffirmed his love for Joan and proposed to prove it by having the wedding next week. Joan accepted with joyful tears, and then dashed off to make arrangements with Saffron, their wedding-planner. Basking in the glow of their love, Glade is surprised by a mysterious stranger looking for Joan. Did Joan really tell him everything or is this only the beginning?

Meanwhile, in a blog across the metropolis, Stella began a series of posts in which she examined different films (and one book) in order to glean valuable creative lessons. First, she set some ground rules in her introduction, then covered the following titles: Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Notorious, Charade, Edward Scissorhands, Frankenstein, Gattacca, The Truman Show, Groundhog Day, The Shop Around the Corner, and Annie Hall. More posts of this kind are in store.

But that’s not all Stella has been up to. For reasons defying logic, last season she started a web comic named Musings, and this season she continued the trend with: Preparation, Introductions, Film Noir, Ego, Weirdness, Exchanging Gifts, New Year, Obscure References, Tardiness, Inner-turmoil, Honesty, Unknown Origins, and Taking Credit. She is unsure what will become of this.

Between gleaning and musing (and haikuing), Stella has continued to write for the excellent online magazine The View from Here, which is rapidly growing in staff and content (and subscribers!). With book reviews, writing advice, interviews with publishing insiders and authors (firmly established and on the rise), short pieces of original fiction, and news from the literary world, The View provides a fun mix of wit and wisdom. Where Stella’s contributions fall among those two categories she could not say, but they include An Ode to Soap Operas, a supplication for the New Year, and a contemplation of the tension between character and story.

Next time on Stellascript… Stella may perhaps cease speaking of herself in the third person, but this largely depends on the outcome of Clarissa’s face-off with Isabel, her former friend and colleague, now her bitter enemy since Clarissa was promoted to the head of their design company. Has their friendship been destroyed for good by the all the vicious hostility? Or can they find the way back to harmony and affection…?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Monday, February 9, 2009

Forbidden Fruit

who chose the apple?
mango seems much more likely
or pomegranate

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lessons Learned: Annie Hall

Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman; Directed by Woody Allen; Cinematography by Gordon Willis; Edited by Wendy Greene Bricmont and Ralph Rosenblum; Complete Credits. 93 min. 1977.

Looking through my archives, I see I brought up Annie Hall on a previous occasion to discuss POV, specifically, the interesting way the movie continually breaks the fourth wall. Whether he’s directly addressing the viewers as the audience of his stand-up comedy routine or just shooting the camera a conspiratorial look, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), neurotic narcissist par excellence, expects us to be on his side. When his girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton) makes an obvious Freudian slip and then emphatically denies it, Alvy turns to us and says, “I know you heard it.”

Now, this is a very tricky device to pull off. It’s ultra-self-conscious and extremely artificial since it disrupts the realistic illusion. Yet there are several reasons why it’s not only appropriate to the context, but gives the film a decided advantage: a) it suits Alvy’s egocentricism - the whole world revolves around him, so acting as though an audience is always watching him is perfectly in character; b) strictly on the level of plot, Alvy is a stand-up comic, so the ever-present audience establishes the movie as a kind of extended monologue; c) it adds dimension to a straightforward, completely familiar story: the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.

Breaking the fourth wall in addition to other fantastic devices – the animation skit, the split-screen scenes, characters literally walking into memories and interacting with the people - suits Alvy’s “over-active imagination.” These devices are a creative way of underlining various points Alvy tries to make. For example, when he eats dinner with Annie’s super-WASP family in all its restrained glory, he does more than mentally compare it with his own noisy Jewish tribe – the screen splits and we see them side-by side. Taking the device even further, Annie’s mother addresses Alvy’s parents from the other side of the screen.

On top of all this, the film’s structure is non-linear, almost random. We go back and forth according to Alvy’s impulses, without much regard to the importance of natural sequence of events. This puts the film in stark opposition to romantic comedies, where the sequence of events is almost always paramount. We see Alvy and Annie hook-up, break-up, get back together, declare their love and their frustration, but in a jumbled order. Annie Hall is not concerned with whether Alvy and Annie will live happily ever after, but with the various moments – good and bad – that made up their relationship.

In that respect, however, the movie is perfectly realistic. It’s mostly scenes of people sitting around talking, arguing, joking – like in real life. There aren’t elaborate plot devices or set pieces. Moreover, Allen and Brickman’s naturalistic dialogue keeps the movie from falling into the necessity of sit-com-style punning in order to keep the momentum going. What’s more, we don’t watch the characters “learn and grow” and then become “worthy of love.” What they’re worthy of is almost beside the point: they live, they love, they screw up – it’s a fact of life. Finally, given that they avoid most of the hallmarks of romantic-comedy throughout the film, they are not obligated to provide the typical “happy” ending. I don’t even think it can be considered bittersweet since it essentially ends with a joke – a poignant one, it’s true - but a joke nonetheless. The joke isn’t a moral on how to live or love, but a probable explanation as to why we bother to begin with. It’s not presented as a revelation, but as a logical conclusion.

Next week… It Happened One Night, continuing the romantic-comedy discussion.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Monday, February 2, 2009

Woody Allen Marathon

Annie Hall
love drives you crazy
I, I'd like to give it up
but I need the eggs

Dear Mr. Bergman,
I just love you to pieces.
Will you marry me?

God I love New York!
God I love George Gershwin too!
I run through the streets!