Monday, August 31, 2009

Monty Python Yard Sale

Lumberjack
condition: okay
sleeps all night and works all day
has high heels, will shop

Model of Castle Camelot
w/ knights, round table
cats; Grail sold separately
(It's a silly place.)

Ex-Parrot
condition: stone dead
lovely plumage; nailed to perch
pining for the fjords

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Matrix

Written and Directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski; Cinematography by Bill Pope; Edited by Zach Staenberg; Complete Credits. 136 min. 1999.

I just realized that The Matrix came out over a decade ago. Hm.

Also, I’m liking the no-synopsis approach, so here’s a series of items for you to ponder:

Villain par excellence. Ya gotta love Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). He’s evil in such an impersonal, machine-like way. Until he starts to crack, that is (some day someone will explain to me why it is that emotionless machines suddenly wake up chock full of emotions). His speeches to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) are spine-chilling; whether he’s saying humanity is like a virus or explaining how the first matrix was a disaster because it was designed where everyone was happy and human beings can only define themselves through suffering. Take that, righteous rebel leader. Although, you might retort with why don’t these super-sophisticated machines just find a way to keep the plugged-in human beings comatose/unconscious/sedated without the necessity of running a highly complex matrix world which they have to monitor so closely. But I suspect that’s not Agent Smith’s fault.

Not everyone has a story. We have little or no background for any character except Neo, and even that isn’t much. Who the heck is Morpheus anyway? And Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss)? And Cypher (Joe Pantoliano)? All we know is they got “freed” one day and here they are. Neo (Keanu Reeves) never bothers to ask and it’s not necessary either. The film has more than enough material to cram into its running time and the script makes judicious choices about what to include and what to exclude. It also shows you how little back story you need when other characterization tools (dialogue, action/inaction, foils) are used efficiently.

Preacher Man. Morpheus tends to get speechy and preachy so it’s important that Cypher and the Oracle (Gloria Foster) are there to deflate the mood and be more down-to-earth. The guy means well, but you can also see why someone might roll their eyes and say, “Come on, man, give it a rest.” Which brings me to the next point:

Sympathy for the hero. Note that Cypher is motivated by a hatred of Morpheus, not a hatred of Neo. He actually seems to have some sympathy for him given that he has to bear the pressure of being Morpheus’ messiah. Even though he’s jealous of Neo because Trinity is hung up on him, Cypher’s dislike really seems to have nothing to do with Neo on a personal level. It’s part of what makes his character complex – and thoroughly human. We can’t all be heroes, and Cypher asks the most natural rhetorical question given the harsh conditions of “the real world”: Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?

Free will; fried noodles. Do I buy Trinity being in love with Neo? Maybe. Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy or fate? The Oracle says it herself when Neo breaks the vase after she tells him not to worry about it – “What’s really going to bake your noodle later on is would you still have broken it if I hadn’t told you?” The classic question of destiny vs. free will drives the film. Is it the Oracle pulling the strings, telling people what they need to hear so they end up doing it? Or is it really destiny? Personally, my noodle is fried. The writers control the story, so naturally they control its outcome – no free will there – but it’s worth noting that you could make a case for both sides of the argument based on the film.

In medias res. The battle in the background is epic – the fight for survival between man and machine. Neo’s personal battle, though not little, is small enough to focus on without your head exploding. For all its special effects and somewhat complicated back story, the movie itself is linear and relatively simple to follow. As far as I’ve noticed, all of the elements are neatly interwoven and if you tried to remove something, you’d damage the movie in some way – which is a sign that the whole thing is logical, coherent, and well-constructed.

Late explanations. Also, notice that the background material – what the matrix is, etc. - arrives relatively late in the film. What we know at the beginning has to be inferred, which is great for keeping up the suspense, but we also glean just enough information to follow the story without being confused. Knowing what to reveal and what to keep secret is usually a difficult issue to tackle, and in the first part the story relies on our wanting to know what the matrix is, meanwhile setting up more questions: is Neo really the One? Is Trinity in love with Neo? And the natural question in any battle – who’s going to make it? In sci-fi, the hero can actually die without wrecking the story and the film plays on this right until the very end.

Open ending? Technically, the film has an open ending. After all, they won the battle, but not the war. Neo and his whole “Not going to tell you how this is going to end, I’m going to tell you how this is going to begin” speech – which is good. And yet… there’s so much damn closure all over the place that it’s not really much of an open ending after all. Neo turns out to be the One, gets Trinity, Morpheus is safe, there’s concrete hope for Zion. Neo soars into (fake) space while cool rock music blasts – it’s literally uplifting (in a noir-high-tech-grunge-geeky way). Which is why I’m astonished they bothered with sequels. They weren’t necessary, especially since a lot of the mystery about the matrix itself was either revealed by Morpheus’ explanations or neutralized by Neo’s victory over Agent Smith. Logically, for the sequels they needed a bigger villain, but they gave us the Architect. Granted, the Merovingian was funny, but he was also a pointless plot contrivance.

Next week… Children of Men, continuing the sci-fi thread.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pile of Books

like a pancake stack
only not as fattening
Where do I begin?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Day the Earth Stood Still

Screenplay by Edmund H. North; Story by Harry Bates; Directed by Robert Wise; Cinematography by Leo Tover; Edited by William Reynolds; Complete Credits. 92 min. 1951.

So far, the closest I've gotten to sci-fi in this series is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gattacca, The Truman Show, and Star Wars. Sunshine and Truman, besides sharing Jim Carrey, don't really qualify as science-fiction, though they have a strong technological element. Gattacca is dead-serious sci-fi and Star Wars is an action-adventure film set in a galaxy far far away. While Gattacca makes the "not too distant future" look like a slick, streamlined version of contemporary life, and Star Wars, despite supposedly occurring "a long time ago" is light years ahead of reality in terms of technology, The Day the Earth Stood Still takes place in the present – or at least the present in 1951.

What would happen if a flying saucer landed in the middle of a baseball field in Washington, D.C.? What would happen if the alien that emerged from the craft was humanoid, bearing a message of peace and wisdom for the overwrought earthlings of the Cold War era? Well first of all he’d get shot in the arm by a soldier and then his 8-foot-tall robot would start vaporizing all of the nearby weapons. (Although, it is kind of the alien’s fault. Why bring a present for the President of the United States that looks so much like a gun?)

But before that chain of events – the news would be all over the place. Real-life radio and TV personalities report the landing of the saucer much as they would if it actually happened. This increases the film’s realistic context. They don’t want you to feel like this is some theoretical, alternate universe – they want you to feel that this could be happening right now. It’s a healthy counterbalance to the improbability of a spaceship landing on Earth in broad daylight and in full view of the gaping public.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is about as subtle as a loudspeaker announcement: Cold War hostility is stupid and childish; the very fear of nuclear war is destroying the planet; there are forces in the universe significantly more powerful than us tiny humans; we have to come to our sense before it’s too late. Got it. Well, if you want to sell an idea, storytelling is a good way to do it, and the built-in “What if?” nature of sci-fi is tailor-made for the job. (Either that or a Western, or a Western set in space. But now we’re genre-blending, and that’s a whole other issue.)

Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is an alien, but not quite. He’s what human beings could be if they could move beyond greed, aggression, and prejudice. The British accent is a little strange, but there’s a long tradition of having sophisticated and/or fantastic characters use a British accent to neutralize nationality – or at least neutralize it as much as possible, especially to the ears of non-Brits. Call it the heritage of colonialism if you will, but Klaatu’s accent differentiates him from the American characters. (Compare this with Rick vs. pretty much everyone else in Casablanca – only in reverse, since it’s his American-ness which is highlighted against the European accents.) Also, you have to think practically about these things – a different European accent would have been too conspicuous, especially an Eastern-European one given the time and place. British is different, but non-threatening.

Also, it’s nice that Klaatu does not fall for Helen Benson (Patricia Neal). There’s some tension between them, but it never goes beyond that. The tension adds to the story, particularly when the two are trapped in an elevator while the earth is standing still for an hour. By the way – showing that you always have to try to think of everything – Klaatu makes sure that hospitals, planes in flight, etc., are not hurt by his little trick to paralyze the planet. Imagine if he hadn’t – he’d go from benevolent being on a critical intervention to ruthless bastard with no concern for innocent lives as soon as you’d have a moment to think about it. Which would pretty much undermine the whole initial concept.

And just a reminder that working moms over thirty can be heroines too - without connection to their being working mothers – Helen bravely tries to help Klaatu and get to Gort (Lock Martin) before he can destroy the Earth. And she ditches her would-be fiancé, Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe) when he acts like a jerk. And she doesn’t throw herself at Klaatu instead. And they don’t have some tacky conversation about the relations between men and women on Klaatu’s planet.

In closing, klaatu barada nikto.

Next week… The Matrix. Only the first movie. I don't really have anything good to say about the sequels.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Content

well it must be here
thought I put it down right there
*whistle* here Content...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Princess Bride

Screenplay by William Goldman; adapted from the book by William Goldman; Directed by Rob Reiner; Cinematography by Adrian Biddle; Edited by Robert Leighton; Complete Credits. 98 min. 1987.

Fairy tale love… Excuse me while I heave a sigh.




Okay then. I'm not bothering with a plot synopsis.

Let’s talk structure. We have a nicely fleshed-out fairy tale embedded in a frame story of a grandfather telling the tale to his sick – and cynical – grandkid. What good does this do us? First, and most obviously, it’s a very convenient narrative device. Second, the modern frame story is an interesting contrast to the pseudo-renaissance fairy tale: an incredulous young boy (Fred Savage) gets some schooling from his Grandpa (Peter Falk) – “When I was your age, television was called books.” Third, it sets the romantic yet amused tone of the entire film. Which brings me to my next point:

There’s a lot of comedy in The Princess Bride. Puns, one-liners, comebacks, some general silliness, and even some slapstick – the film has it all. Note that it never gets in the way of romance – it actually enhances it. When Westley (Cary Elwes) asks Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) why she didn’t wait for him like she promised, she answers, “Well… you were dead.” That’s a potential howler right there, but not only is the line uttered with a mixture of innocence and vulnerability, Westley’s response is in perfect harmony, “Death cannot stop true love. It can only delay it a little.” If you leave that first line by itself, you have a tacky greeting card, but add Westley’s second line, and you have a sweet display of sentiment.

The comedy is also, I think, what keeps the film believable. Yes, yes, I know – it’s a fairy tale, it’s not meant to be “believable,” but think about it for a minute: for the thing to work, you need to believe the characters. To believe the characters, they need to be human, and their humor is often what brings that across. Without it, everyone is stereotypical/fantastic. Inigo (Mandy Patinkin) would just be a swordfighter, Fezzik would just be a giant (André the Giant), Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) would just be a creep. Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and Count Rugen (Christopher Guest) would just be evil. Even Westley would just be a copy of Captain Blood.

Note what’s most memorable: (aside from his repeated “My name is…” line) Inigo being too impatient to let Westley climb up the rock so he can kill him – he has to throw him a rope to speed things up; Fezzik’s love of rhyming; Vizzini’s ever more hysterical cry of “Inconceivable!”, not to mention the fact that he dies laughing triumphantly; Humperdinck and Rugen’s dry quipping – they might as well be in the drawing room sipping sherry after dinner. Westley has some of the most priceless lines in the film, “You mean you’ll put down your rock and I’ll put down my sword and we’ll try to kill each other like civilized people?” The only “straight man” is, ironically enough, Buttercup. But someone has to be completely earnest. Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and his wife Valerie (Carol Kane) are totally over the top, but then I always think of Valerie vehemently shouting “Liar!” at Max, and I remember how rude it is to complain.

Or how about in the frame story? Really – could we be more generic? The kid and his grandpa don’t even have names, but it’s the humor that makes them come alive. Like the grandpa interrupting the story to assure the kid that Buttercup does not get killed by the shrieking eel – you know, because the kid looked nervous. Actually, between all the romance and the comedy, the grandpa gets the most serious (“realistic”) line in the whole thing: “Who says life is fair, where is that written?”

I planned on doing more than gushing about the humor and the characters, but never mind. Go watch the film. Before that, a word about the original book: basically, it’s like the “Writer’s Cut” of the film. Everything is there and more, except it doesn’t read like an embellished screenplay. Goldman could have adapted it differently. For example, in the book, Buttercup is ditzy. Adorable, yes, but in a ditzy way. In the film they upped her IQ – one of the reasons for which (I’m assuming) is that they thought it would photograph better.

Second, in the book, the jumping off point is that Buttercup turns into the most beautiful woman in the world. She had a lot of potential to begin with, but what really pushed her ahead was her sadness over supposedly losing Westley to pirates. It’s an interesting opening, but they probably skipped all that in the film because it’s too complicated. Third, there is no grandpa and kid frame story in the book – there’s an elaborate (and fictional) back story involving Goldman abridging the work of the (equally fictional) S. Morgenstern, which is a time-honored tradition in fiction. Both frames are good – the kid and his grandpa are easier to film.

Theoretically, decades from now, someone could take another crack at adapting the book. And hey – I’m all for creativity and giving people room for their own interpretation – but some things you have to hope people will have the sense to stay away from.

Next week… The Day the Earth Stood Still. Going sci-fi.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Previously on Stellascript…

Mirabella made the astonishing discovery that Kent is her long lost father after her mother Lillianna revealed that he didn't die on a research trip in the Amazon. Lillianna simply told her that to spare her feelings since Mirabella was born out of an illicit affair she and Kent conducted while he was temporarily estranged from his wife Clarice. At the time, Clarice was suffering from a severe bout of depression due to the death of her childhood friend Constance from a long battle with a rare disease she contracted while healing sick children in the Sahara. Now happily reconciled with Clarice, Kent won't let anything upset his family life. Mirabella is grief-stricken over losing her father yet again, and finally understands why Kent always seemed concerned with her welfare since she was a child, as well why she simply can't stand his daughter – her half-sister – Anemone.

Meanwhile, in a blog not too far away, between haiku sessions, Stella continued to use her thinking cap to analyze All About Eve, The Lion in Winter, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Stagecoach, High Noon, The Big Country, Persuasion, Roman Holiday, The Quiet Man, and The Apartment.

As always, musings were plentiful: Surrealism, Nightmare, Be Kind to Your Brain, Melodrama, Dimension – Part I and Part II, Reconciliation, Lack of Inspiration, Gossip, The Creative Process, The Shape of Things, Extreme Inspiration, and Vacation.

All was not frivolous, however. At The View from Here, whose crew and subscribers continued to grow at dizzying rates... Stella contemplated what it would be like to invite the authors and filmmakers who must influenced her over for brunch (it's exactly what it sounds like), suggested a creative writing exercise, and got sentimental over the future disappearance of actual books made of paper.

Next time on Stellascript… Things heat up at Contessa Ivanovna's chateau nestled deep in the enchanting forests of France. Will Lynx discover that his fiancée Piper is chained in a dungeon several levels beneath the dining room where he cheerfully dines in the Contessa's company? Will Piper's calls for help reach him before he drinks the wine Ivanovna has laced with a sleeping narcotic? Or will they both end up chained side-by-side as Ivanovna gleefully recounts her plans to destroy their families and everyone else’s over some mysterious wrong done to her family centuries ago?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Monday, August 10, 2009

Woody Allen Marathon, Part II

Love and Death
if Tolstoy isn't
spinning in his grave, then he's
howling with laughter

Bananas
Quiero la noche-
(Yes, we have no dictators!)
Quiero ah ah ah-

The Purple Rose of Cairo
don't cry, Cecilia
Fred and Ginger will help you
carry on living

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Apartment

Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; Directed by Billy Wilder; Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle; Edited by Daniel Mandell; Complete Credits. 125 min. 1960.

November 1st, 1959. New York City. We open with a shot of the city from a helicopter. A man's voice plays over the image of the buildings: an average voice, he could be anyone. His monologue lasts for two minutes and in that brief space of time, he sets up the whole story. That’s right: in only a hundred and twenty seconds we get the time, the place, the protagonist’s name, job, address, and the initial predicament he finds himself in. It’s quick, efficient, and good-humored – the kind of executive material that the protagonist is trying to be.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is just another clerk among the thousands working at an insurance company, trying to work his way up the corporate ladder in the only effective way he has – letting various company executives use his apartment for their various trysts with secretaries, switchboard operators, and any other women they pick up. (It’s a sanitized view of the business world you see in Mad Men – which even mentions The Apartment in the tenth episode of season one – “The Long Weekend.”) Executives like Joe Doebisch (Ray Walston) and Al Kirkeby (David Lewis) have no problem getting Baxter out of bed to vacate the place for whatever willing female they find, keep him waiting outside in the cold, or forget to pay him for the vodka and crackers he keeps stocked for them and their guests. Baxter’s neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) is surprised that such a nebbish could get a different woman every night, let alone two. How long can Baxter keep it up?

His apartment, though comfortable, is far from lush, there’s usually never anything on TV to keep him company during dinner, and he doesn’t have any friends or family. But Baxter is cheerful for the most part. One of the few rays of light in his gray life is the adorable Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) who operates an elevator at the insurance company, and who Baxter gets to see every morning. Not only is he the sole guy at the company who hasn’t made inappropriate advances toward Fran, he’s also the only guy who takes off his hat in the elevator out of courtesy. Fran has her own troubles – she’s mixed up with a married man.

Meanwhile, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), a top executive, and an intimidating one, figures out the apartment-sharing racket going on and calls Baxter up to his office for explanations. But just when you think he’s taking the moral high ground and making sure his employees take it too, there’s a little switch: Sheldrake wants to use the apartment himself. The other executives can find a new solution. Baxter, of course, will get the promotion he’s been working his brains out for. So everything seems fine and dandy. On a high from the surprise promotion, Baxter even has the nerve to ask out Fran. Sweet little Fran already has plans, but she’ll try to meet Baxter later. Her plans? To meet the married man she got involved with for lack of better judgment. The man? Mr. Sheldrake, naturally.

Things get complicated. Baxter is in love with the woman who’s seeing his boss. Worse than that – he’s facilitating their illicit meetings. Even worse than that – one false move and he’s out of a job. Topping that, Fran tries to commit suicide after Sheldrake treats her badly, and not only does Baxter have to nurse her physically, he has to help her believe something he doesn’t believe himself – that Sheldrake loves her and will eventually leave his wife for her. So aside from being in love with a girl he can’t have and thinks he’ll never have a shot with, he has to deal with growing to dislike the guy who’s made his career aspirations come true much faster than he ever dreamed they could.

Fran, for her part, is in love with a man who’s a flat out jerk, charming and confident. Next to smooth Jeff Sheldrake, Baxter, as likeable and affectionate as he is, doesn’t stand a chance. Fortunately, Fran wises up in time and manages to catch Baxter before he leaves town. How does she wise up? Sheldrake reveals, in annoyance, that he had to fire Baxter because he wouldn’t let him use the apartment anymore, especially not to bring Fran there. Note the reversal: first Sheldrake was a major obstacle between Baxter and Fran, but in the end he becomes the catalyst. Another neat reversal: at first Baxter couldn’t compete with Sheldrake even though Fran found him perfectly appealing in a platonic way, but in the end Fran loves him precisely because he’s everything Sheldrake isn’t.

Also, it’s interesting that Baxter wins Fran not by going after her, but by stepping aside. But note the difference – Fran doesn’t throw herself at Baxter once she thinks he doesn’t want her anymore. This isn’t a conquest, power struggle, or battle of the sexes. Fran doesn’t flirt with Baxter at any point or lead him on – she’s just too emotionally invested in Sheldrake to let go, until good old Jeff says exactly what she needed to hear.

Next week… The Princess Bride. Yeah, like I need a reason. But actually, it's continuing the romance thing.

Monday, August 3, 2009

College Wisdom

cafeteria -
don't you even go near it
unless you have to

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Quiet Man

Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent; Story by Maurice Walsh; Directed by John Ford; Cinematography by Winton C. Hoch; Edited by Jack Murray; Complete Credits. 129 min. 1952.

A short recap of the previous two posts: Persuasion was about a couple getting a second chance at happiness; Roman Holiday was about a couple giving up their chance. The Quiet Man is about a couple losing their chance, getting it back, almost losing it again, but then keeping it after all.

Ireland, 1950s. Sean Thornton (John Wayne), a native Irishman raised in America has come home to Innisfree to forget his troubles. He doesn’t do too badly either. Five minutes in and “The Yank” is already liked by most of the locals, from Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) – town bookie and matchmaker (what a coincidence) to Father Lonergan (Ward Bond). And he happens to see a beautiful redheaded woman tending her flock in the picturesque surroundings. They lock eyes and though they don’t exchange a word, it’s obviously love. We’ll get back to her in a moment.

Meanwhile, with Cupid’s arrow firmly embedded in his heart, Sean buys the humble cottage he was born in from the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick), the richest woman in the county. This does not sit well with cantankerous Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who owns the neighboring land and doesn’t like any strangers muscling in. He’s been chasing the Widow for about ten years and takes it as a personal affront. Naturally, it’s the Yank he’s mad at, and said Yank will “regret it to his dying day. If ever he lives that long.” Guess which redheaded woman happens to be his sister. That’s right, she’s Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara), and she has a temper to match her brother’s. But Mary Kate is as taken with Sean as he is with her, and Michaleen sets about on his official matchmaking duties.

The problem? In 1950s Ireland, a woman can’t get married without her brother’s consent. Other than that, there’s an issue with her dowry, which Will of course refuses to give her. Sean scoffs at both the consent and the dowry, but it’s important for Mary Kate, and so their love is thwarted – for a time. Through a conspiracy between Michaleen, Father Lonergan, and the kindly Rev. Playfair (Arthur Shields), they manipulate Will into giving his consent to the marriage. I won’t go into it, but Sean and Kate’s marriage is only a continuation of their problem. Everyone expects Sean and Will to just duke out the problem like two men, but Sean has a very good reason not to get into a boxing match – one which only Rev. Playfair knows about.

Anyway. It’s a neat little story with a well-deserved happy ending. Love at first sight is not an easy thing to pull off, but they do – probably because it takes a good half of the film until Sean and Mary Kate get to live happily ever after. They’re not Romeo and Juliet running around being melodramatic and getting other people killed – they’re two adults who fall in love and try to make it come out right. It looks bad for a while – she has that fiery temper and he’s too stubborn to tell her why he won’t fight her brother.

All of the supporting players in this film are entertaining, so I’ll just focus on Will Danaher, the bad guy. To me, what’s most interesting is that he’s a bad guy who gets converted by the film’s end. He’s certainly an ornery son of a gun, but the story and characterization not only leave him room enough to be comical, but room enough to turn into a positive character by the end. If Sean has to destroy or kill him to bring about the resolution – there can’t really be a happy end. Personally, I’m not giddy over the fact that the story implies that the only way Sean and Will can get along is by trying to beat the daylights out of each other, nor that it’s the only way Mary Kate will have any respect for Sean. But I’m also not an alpha male over six feet tall itching for a fight. It’s logical at any rate – Will Danaher is literally the biggest man in Innisfree and the only guy who can possibly teach him a lesson is Sean Thornton.

All’s well that end’s well and The Quiet Man ends very well with a beautiful shot of Sean and Mary Kate waving to Will and the Widow (who have finally begun the official courting process) as they drive by the cottage. Then Mary Kate and Sean trot up to their own doorstep, bagpipes blaring triumphantly in the background. A suitably romantic finish to a romantic tale.

Next week… The Apartment, the romance takes a brief depressing detour.