Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Monday, July 27, 2009

Indiana Jones

no need to worry
as long as I've got my hat
it'll be okay

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Lessons Learned: Roman Holiday

Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and John Dighton; Story by Dalton Trumbo; Directed by William Wyler; Cinematography by Henri Alekan and Franz Planer; Edited by Robert Swink; Complete Credits. 118 min. 1953.

Last week I talked about Persuasion and the relationship between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth – the love affair that almost wasn’t. This week it’s Roman Holiday and the relationship between a princess and a journalist - the love affair that almost was. But wait! First I must grumble.

As charming as it is and much as I’ve tried to figure out which scenes might have been left on the cutting room floor to shorten it, I still can’t get past the idea that the story takes much too long to get started. Basically this is boy meets girl, or to be more exact – boy meets girl after about 45 minutes of screen time out of a total 118 minutes. Look at all the scenes leading up to their meeting very carefully and yes, each one has a point worth making. Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) is suffocating in her unending role of highly decorative diplomat. Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) is a talented journalist and all-around decent guy (albeit not the poster boy for chivalry), who would like to go out on his own but hasn’t even five dollars in his pocket. All of this and more is carefully established.

And yet – 45 minutes is a long time, too long in most cases. I’ve tried to think why Roman Holiday manages to get away with it and other than being able to provide a credible reason for including each scene leading up to Joe’s first sustained conversation with a lucid Ann, the only other explanation I can come up with is that the characters are played by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. That might seem like a useless conclusion, especially if you’re writing prose fiction rather than a screenplay, but it shows that a likeable and/or interesting character can make you forget about plot – or at least forget about it long enough to set something up.

The story’s timeframe is limited – about 48 hours – and a rollicking good time it is, in its own quiet way. They eat, drink, sightsee, nearly get into a car accident (which is funnier than it sounds), into a brawl with the local authorities (again, it’s funnier than it sounds), and somewhere along the way fall in love with each other. All the while each is lying to the other for a different reason: he’s pretending he doesn’t know who she is or that she’s escaped her royal entourage so he can write a nice little exposé, and she’s pretending she’s just an ordinary girl from some kind of nearby college. Technically, Ann is less dishonest because she’s at least not trying to get anything out of Joe, but she does manage to get him in a lot of trouble within 12 hours, so you could argue that they’re more or less even.

Because of the mutual deception, most of the interaction between Ann and Joe has to do with what they’re not saying. They say trivial things, they tell anecdotes, but when it gets down to it, they don’t have painfully obvious exchanges. When it finally becomes time for Joe to drop Ann off at the fortress where the members of her entourage have been sitting biting their nails up to their elbows wondering where the hell she is, the general feeling between the two is “You know that I know that you know so let’s just not say anything.” Ironically, when Joe shows up at the press conference and the dime finally drops for Ann how he makes a living and what his original intentions were, is when they decide to be honest. But then they can’t actually say anything in front of the press corps.

In Notting Hill, mild-mannered bookstore owner William can tell super-famous movie star Anna Scott that he was a daft so-and-so before and would she please stay with him in front of all those recorders and flashbulbs. But not Joe Bradley and Princess Ann – they can only say goodbye in a way that only they understand. It’s a romance where the phrase “I love you” is never said aloud and it’s not entirely clear-cut that they reached the “I love you” stage either. What was there was an opportunity – an opportunity they have to pass up. Given that this is a romance with some comic moments, the fact that Ann and Joe don’t end up together doesn’t spoil the film. How can a princess and a journalist get married and live happily ever after – without sacrificing the story’s credibility? You could do it in a romantic comedy like It Happened One Night, but as sweet and adorable as Roman Holiday is, they don’t go totally overboard. Joe walks out of the frame alone – who knows what will happen to him? At least there’s some feeling that whatever happened between him and Ann was resolved in a way that they both can live with.

Next week… The Quiet Man, taking this romantic train of thought to the Emerald Isle.

Monday, July 20, 2009

This is Spinal Tap

so true I can't laugh
... yeah, I can, actually
Tap forever YEAH!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lessons Learned: Persuasion

Written by Jane Austen; first published in 1818; approximately 254 pages.

I know you expected me to do Pride and Prejudice if I was going to do something by Jane Austen – but ha! Just when you think I’m getting predictable, I mix it up.

At 27, Anne Elliot is pretty much past her expiration date. Worse than that, she's not as pretty as she was – as opposed to her 29-year-old sister, who is still very attractive despite being waaay past her expiration date. If we want to translate this to our own time, we have to add about 10, maybe 12 years to their ages to get the general idea. Anne is pushing 40 and it's not like she can have a career. We have a mature heroine – not a swooning girl who's bowled over by every handsome face she sees, but a smart woman with good judgment who has very little to look forward to.

As opposed to a "worldly" widow or a married woman about to enter into some illicit affair – she's your typical good girl, who's played by the rules all her life and isn't about to become rebellious to compensate. If we wrote this story now, she'd have to get a makeover, then go out and have some meaningless sex. Naturally the meaningless sex bit is impossible for Anne – but she doesn't have to go to the beauty salon or the mall to reenergize her self-esteem. (Though in the episode at Lime the sea air does her some good, but we can hardly compare that to a modern makeover.)

Just as Anne is a mature woman, we have Captain Wentworth, a mature man who still behaves a little petulantly. While this might make you think of Mr. Darcy, Wentworth is actually very different – and not merely in terms of his socio-economic status. He’s a self-made man, easy-going, and charming. He wins Anne back not by any self-sacrifice but by being honest. Seriously – how many romantic/comic/romantic-comic/dramatic/romantic-dramatic/romantic-dramatic-comic stories have you read or watched and wanted the relevant couple to cut it out already and just be honest? That’s pretty much what happens in Persuasion: the hero says, “Honey, I love you. Can we get married now?” And then she says, “What took you so long?” So he says, “What can I say, darling? I’ve been a damn fool.”

Or they would if Frank Capra was doing the adaptation.

But Austen doesn’t only break the mold of the typical hero and heroine – take note of the plot: rather than having them meet and fall in love, Austen is actually operating in reverse – Anne and Wentworth are post-breakup when the narrative begins. Contrast this with current conventions: rather than going through halted conversations where they reminisce or end up in bed without having actually reconciled, they spend most of the novel avoiding each other. Granted, what else are you going to do in the Regency period? But if you think of it in film terms, Anne and Wentworth may be in the same scene interacting with the same people, but they're on opposite sides of the screen – both obviously aware of each other and both trying to act as if they're not.

Next week… Roman Holiday, getting more romantic.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Monday, July 13, 2009

Zen Passive-Aggression

if a friend's not seen
do her tears cried in the dark
still make any sound?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Big Country

Screenplay by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, and Robert Wilder; Adapted by Jessamyn West and Robert Wyler from Donald Hamilton's novel; Directed by William Wyler; Cinematography by Franz Planer; Edited by Robert Belcher and John Faure; Complete Credits. 165 min. 1958.

First, let’s be honest – this movie is about forty minutes too long. It’s a shame because rather than feeling like a slam-bang two-hour western extravaganza, in some places it feels stretched and in others like a hammer repeatedly smashing a nail already firmly fixed in a wooden plank. That having been said… The Big Country crams in pretty much every Western trope and theme that existed up until 1958, aside from cowboys vs. Indians, though the Native Americans still hover in the background in the form of the local Spanish-speaking tribe. Let’s make a list:

Sprawling countryside? Check. Man from the east with his civilized eastern values coming up against the harsher values of the west? Check. Wild, assertive cowgirl, who knows how to handle a rifle? Check. Super-masculine farmhand with an eye for aforementioned cowgirl? Check. Lovely schoolmarm? Check. Barely-big-enough-to-be-called-a-town in the middle of the frontier? Check. Ruthless rancher who poses as the natural leader of men? Check. Seemingly “backwoods” villain who really talks a lot of sense? Check. Evil cowboy who’s filthy and doesn’t respect a woman’s personal space? Check. Big showdown? Check. Contest of wills between powerful men? Check. Pointless feud set to right by the hero? Check. The hero gets the girl? Check. And – though it’s something I won’t go into – using the Western genre as a political allegory? Check.

The only thing missing is the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa, but they were only invented in 1959. Besides, James McKay (Gregory Peck) anticipates Ben Cartwright: a sea-captain who did well and moves out west, falls in love with the territory, and decides to become a rancher. Our sailor is a natural-born leader, who navigates the wide open spaces of the west as easily as he navigated ships in the ocean. Forward-thinking, courteous, resolute but mild-mannered – he’s never looking for a fight or an opportunity to prove himself.

Sadly, however, when we open the film, he’s happily engaged to Patricia Terrill (Caroll Baker), the rifle-toting, hard-riding cowgirl he met when she was visiting back east. Having come out west to get married, Jim starts to get a better look at his fiancée and he’s not entirely happy with what he sees. It’s not because she can ride a horse or fire a shotgun with ease, it’s how willing she is to shoot down the local riffraff in the form of Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors) and his cousins. Now, in her defense, Buck is the abovementioned filthy cowboy utterly lacking in respect for a woman’s personal space. But what really unnerves Jim is that this is all part of an absurd feud that’s been going on forever between Pat’s father, Maj. Henry Terill (Charles Bickford) and Buck’s father, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives).

In the middle of all this is Pat’s friend, sweet schoolmarm Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who owns “the Big Muddy” – some land with very important water resources to these rival ranchers. So far, she’s let both men take what they need for their cattle, but each is still relentlessly pressing her to sell the place. Noble Jim, seeing an opportunity to uphold the peace, offers to buy the Big Muddy, promising Julie that he’ll give water to both sides and he’ll turn the Big Muddy into a cattle ranch in its own right. Can he do that even though he’s marrying Pat? She asks. He swears he will and it’s impossible not believe him. But wait! We’re only an hour and a half in - further complications have yet to ensue. And ensue. (And ensue.)

I forgot to mention Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) – Maj. Terrill’s foreman – the super-masculine cowboy always ready to leap to his fists and with an eye for feisty Pat Terrill. He does not like Jim McKay – not one bit – and he loses no opportunity to show it. On top of all this, Pat is close with papa, very close. Soon it becomes obvious that even though she has no taste for Steve, Jim will have a hard time being married to daddy Terrill’s little girl. But don’t cry too hard, ten minutes into the film we already know she’s not the woman for Jim McKay and that Julie Maragon will be an upgrade in every way.

As a final note – we have two charismatic bad guys in Rufus Hannassey and Maj. Terrill – from the get-go we understand why they have so much authority and also why they misuse it. Maybe Rufus has a slight advantage over Terrill on moral grounds since he's usually not the aggressor in the fight, but the bottom line is each man is more concerned with his own pride than settling an absurd squabble which is upsetting the entire territory. Naturally, it's a character like Jim – full of the right kind of pride - who has to call them on it.

Next week… Persuasion by Jane Austen, because this is a good opportunity to get (somewhat) romantic and besides, I haven’t been doing books like I promised.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Collaborative Writing

no no don't help me
I'm good honestly I am
(don't say anything!)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Lessons Learned: High Noon

Screenplay by Carl Foreman; from the story "The Tin Star" by John W. Cunningham; Directed by Fred Zinnemann; Cinematography by Floyd Crosby; Edited by Elmo Williams; Complete Credits. 85 min. 1952.

Last week I looked at Stagecoach, noting, among other things, its use of stock characters. High Noon follows suit: Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the stalwart hero; his new wife Amy (Grace Kelly), the virtuous maiden; and former flame Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), the Mexican spitfire. This here town of Hadleyville is teeming with self-righteous, selfish, and cowardly folks. To name a few: Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), the young and jealous deputy; Mayor Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell) the silver-tongued politician; Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger), the cynical lawman. It's simple, effective characterization. One by one, these people betray Will, leaving him to face his enemies alone.

The plot is totally linear – nary a flashback in sight – and the timeframe is very limited, practically real time. We watch Will going around the town, trying to raise a posse to take care of Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) and his gang when they come back to town take revenge on Will for sending Frank to prison. Frank is due on the noon train and Will spends an excruciating, demoralizing hour trying to prepare for it. He had just resigned from being marshal and married Amy, all ready to get a fresh start in a new town running a store. But his life falls apart in a matter of minutes – Amy leaves him for risking his neck (she also has her own personal reasons for being a pacifist), all of his friends desert him, and his enemies lick their lips in anticipation of Frank’s return.

This is a western made up mainly of interiors, give or take a few wide shots of the train depot and the train tracks, overhead shots of Will wandering through the seemingly empty little town, and the final showdown sequence. With spare dialogue that is, in a way, unavoidably riddled with clichés:

Amy, to Will: Don’t try to be a hero! You don’t have to be a hero, not for me!

Helen, to Harvey: You are a good-looking boy. You have big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.

The use of close-ups is extensive – for all the stock characters, familiar plot, and spouted truisms – this film is very up close and personal. You see everyone sweating in the heat of the day – the black and white photography intensifying the glare of the sun, and Frank Miller’s buddies look as grimy and mangy as their souls. Like the Apaches in Stagecoach, Frank Miller is kept off-screen until the very end. He has five lines. The first actual shot of his face captures his expression as he recognizes Helen Ramirez boarding the train he just got off of. “Friends” before Will got rid of him, the look Frank and Helen exchange says volumes. Dialogue would have been redundant. If the script gets by on clichés, it also knows when to keep the characters quiet.

The script also sports two love triangles – almost, that is. One is Amy-Will-Helen, which isn’t really a triangle because there’s no question of Will being torn between the two women. And, ironically, Amy and Helen come to such a perfect understanding that they ride off together leaving Will behind – until Amy realizes that Helen was right, her place is by Will’s side, no matter what she has against gun fighting. The other triangle is Will-Helen-Harvey, but that isn’t really a triangle either because Helen is about as serious about Harvey as you can be about a sulky immature show-off. Besides, Helen knows better than to hang around mooning over Will. Not having spoken to each other for a year – the script doesn’t specify the reason – Helen knows Will is probably the best man she’ll ever meet, but for whatever reason in the story (the obvious “real life” one being the studio couldn’t release a film with a white man living happily ever after with a Mexican woman), now that Will is married, the relationship is permanently over.

Next week… The Big Country, another western, another showdown.