Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

Blade Runner

I'm sure there's a point
in the neon lights and rain
but I'm not sure where

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Prestige

Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; based on the novel by Christopher Priest; Directed by Christopher Nolan; Cinematography by Wally Pfister; Edited by Lee Smith; Complete Credits. 130 min. 2006.

The first and most obvious thing to talk about in a discussion of The Prestige is structure. My head hurts from trying to map it out, so here’s just a little taste: We open with an intriguing shot of dozens of top hats lying on the ground in the woods, then cut to a middle-aged man performing a small magic trick for a little girl. While he explains in voice-over how a magic trick is structured (pledge, turn, prestige), his trick is inter-cut with a much grander one - a magician performing in front of packed audience. The grand trick apparently goes wrong, and a man stands by and watches the magician drown in a water tank. No names, no facts, no motives – necessary exposition for understanding basic illusion principles blended with what appears to be the story’s climax.

Then we cut to a London courtroom – we get names, facts, and motives all in short order. We cut to the prison where Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is being held for the murder of rival magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). He’s given Angier’s diary as a pledge of good faith for the sale of his illusions. Borden starts reading the diary and we get a new sequence of events from Angier’s point of view. Complicated enough? Yes, but we’re not stopping here. Angier is recording in his own diary his thoughts about reading the diary he stole from Borden, which chronicles a different timeline. And all this is combined with Cutter (Michael Caine)’s current timeline. So we have flashbacks within flashbacks – layers within layers. Like any sophisticated magic trick, we are disoriented and misdirected pretty much at every step. As far as I can tell, every detail matches up. (I hope the editor didn’t have a nervous breakdown keeping everything straight.)

Cutter’s opening monologue returns at the end and frames the film, “Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.” What better explains the terrible feeling of disappointment which builds throughout the film’s final act? Angier actually cloned himself? What…? While I suspected that Fallon was acting as Borden’s double, I didn’t expect the film to have a sci-fi twist, but that’s exactly what makes it work – the absurdity. The film makes us want an explanation as simple as Borden using a double, but then it completely ruins the magic trick. Angier getting a cloning machine seems like such a dismal cop out, because it is a dismal cop out – no magic in it at all.

The shot the filmmakers end with is not of Borden being reunited with his daughter, but of the warehouse filled with Angier’s drowned clones going up in flames. So rather than ending on an uplifting image, the film ends in what looks like hell. Right from the start – from that opening shot of black top hats among fallen leaves - the tone of the film is dark and oppressive. Even in day time, it always seems to be cloudy, which adds to the cold, brooding atmosphere. The only colorful things in the film are the female assistants’ costumes. Everything else tends to be monochromatic – brown, black, gray, or dark blue.

Another thing worth noting is that a lot of the camerawork is handheld, unsteady, and up-close – which goes against what we've been conditioned to expect from costume dramas/period pieces – the steady camera, the slow movement, as if we’re seeing a portrait or tableau come to life. In The Prestige, however, much of the production design is cracked, shabby, and dirty. We’re not in an immaculate drawing room drinking tea, trying to figure out which of the characters will be married by the end. We’re used to thinking of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century as a simpler, slower, and more gracious period, but The Prestige reverses this primarily by the non-linear editing and the main characters’ sheer ruthlessness.

Next week… Citizen Kane, because… it's Saturday.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009


sparks found in places
domestic and exotic
now I need a pen

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Lessons Learned: Rear Window

Screenplay by John Michael Hayes; from the story "It Had to be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich; Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Cinematography by Robert Burks; Edited by George Tomasini; Complete Credits. 112 min. 1954.

I had a lot of trouble trying to write something about Rear Window. It’s not because there isn’t anything to say – creating the claustrophobic feeling in the apartment, the mini-stories running in all the different neighboring apartments, the narrow timeframe, the linear plot, etc. – but I’ve pointed out similar things in previous posts. Honestly, the thing that struck me most when I was reviewing my notes was how strange Rear Window would be as a book. It’s something I haven’t talked about really, and it’s especially odd in this case since the film is based on a short story. A short story which I – admittedly - haven’t read. So even though I haven’t read the source and don’t know how much it was altered for the screen, we’ll look at the advantages of Rear Window as a film as opposed to a written text.

Immediacy. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a single shot can establish a good deal. You don’t lose time describing objects, people, or settings in words – the images can convey them at a much faster rate. Think of all the little characters and little details in Rear Window; consider how fast you take everything in. Now imagine having to describe all of it in writing – and not just like a grocery list.

Simultaneity. A lot of stories are going on at the same time - visually and aurally. Consider how difficult it would be to convey that the dancer in the apartment right across is bothering the older woman who lives downstairs, while the neighbors’ dog from the third floor sniffs around the flowerbeds that belong to the creepy costume jewelry salesman from the second floor. His wife is sick – and quite the nag. They fight every day. The sound of children playing mingles with their bickering, while the music from a composer’s piano booms out over the backyard.

Coherence. Potentially, having a hero stuck in a wheelchair in a one-room apartment could have been a disaster on film – the point of view is limited and the setting doesn’t vary. Even though we get Jeff’s point of view, we’re never inside his head. Obviously, a written story has the advantage of going through Jeff’s thoughts, interweaving scenes from other locations/times. But then – that would defeat the whole purpose, wouldn’t it? The idea is to keep the character stuck in that tiny apartment. The only outlet is watching his neighbors’ lives. When you think about it, the written story gives you greater temptation to stray from your basic concept.

Speaking of which, I’d say that today there’s a lot of temptation to write for both screen and page. (Look who’s talking, right?) But remember that they’re not interchangeable formats. Again, I’m not saying Rear Window couldn’t work as a book/short story, but that it’s a perfect candidate for film. It’s all about looking and eavesdropping. It’s not really about how people feel or what they think – which is usually the core of a written narrative. The secondary plot concerning the love affair between Jeff (James Stewart) and Lisa (Grace Kelly) could easily be told in written form. If properly developed, it could be expanded into an entire novel, and so it serves as a solid anchor for the murder plot where Jeff basically spends most of his time looking out the window.

And now, off to find a copy of “It Had to Be Murder”…

Next week… The Prestige, a less straightforward suspense story. Much, much less straightforward.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Monday, September 14, 2009

On Writing a Haiku Whose Title is Longer than Itself by a Bit

it's a cheap gimmick
but I couldn't help myself
(what? there could be worse)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lessons Learned: Casablanca

Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch (Casey Robinson, uncredited); adapted from the play "Everyone Comes to Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison; Directed by Michael Curtiz; Cinematography by Arthur Edeson; Edited by Owen Marks; Complete Credits. 102 min. 1942.

Casablanca was already mentioned in the post about foils and the post about endings. A lot of the dialogue is so “cult” at this point that we'll just skip it.

So given that this is one of the most entertaining movies ever, what can we learn?

Evil, and also suave. One of the reasons Maj. Strasser (Conrad Veidt) is so unsettling a villain is because – let's face it - he's one dashing guy. Soft-spoken and sophisticated, he's everything you don't want to believe a Nazi could be, and it's very important in conveying that the Nazis cannot be written off as buffoons. Being the villain does not make a character dumber or uglier than the hero.

Coming and going. Casablanca is a great movie for entrances and exits: the camera introducing Rick (Humphrey Bogart) via his signature on a check and then panning up to reveal him studying a chessboard; Ugarte (Peter Lorre) squeezing through the door past Rick while the German banker throws a fit; the close-up of Sam (Dooley Wilson) at the piano; Renault (Claude Rains) entering with a wisecrack; Victor (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) casually strolling into the cafe after all the anticipation has been built up. As for the exits – who hasn't heard Rick's "beautiful friendship" line by now? Then he and Louis amble off into the silvery mist. Who knows what will happen next? It's vague and yet exactly what you want to see. Which brings us to the next point:

The hybrid ending. I've already mentioned how Casablanca is chock full of closure even though everything remains open. Despite the lovers not being reunited (*sigh*), Rick ends up with a friend (Louis), Victor and Ilsa will make it to America and continue the good fight, so one adventure has ended and a new one is beginning. When Rick talks Ilsa into getting on the plane, he's also talking us into it. Essential to that is our liking Victor enough to want it to happen. Can you imagine the story with Ilsa staying with Rick? I can't. Can you imagine Rick walking off alone? Again, I can't. Yes, of course something else could have happened, but because the filmmakers kept track of all the loose ends, they managed to tie everything up nicely.

Starting in the middle. The film uses the in medias res principle on two levels – driving conflict regarding the letters of transit in the middle of the war, and on the romantic level with Rick and Ilsa’s prior relationship. Rick and Ilsa could have just met in Casablanca for the first time and been drawn to each other, but having them be former lovers adds another layer to the story, and of course makes the conflict around the letters of transit more complicated. In general, when you’re reading or watching something, it’s always useful to consider what other possible directions they could have taken the story – either to make it more or less complicated – and consider how it would’ve changed the way the story plays out.

As a final note, like Notorious, Casablanca is a thriller based on a solid story with solid characters. It’s composed mainly of interior scenes with characters talking. There aren’t car chases or sex scenes. There isn’t profanity or anatomically correct dialogue. So think about it: what’s essential, what’s just fireworks, and how much you need of both in a given situation.

Next week… Rear Window, another classic you knew was going to turn up sooner or later.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Monday, September 7, 2009

Lemon, a Question of Location

good in the kitchen
bad in a production line
useless in a rhyme

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Lessons Learned: Children of Men

Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby; from the novel by P.D. James; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón; Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki; Edited by Alfonso Cuarón and Alex Rodríguez; Complete Credits. 109 min. 2006.

The Matrix is a stylish video game, complete with perfectly choreographed violence and floating bullets. Children of Men is a grungy dystopia via low-budget, low-tech documentary, complete with shaky handheld angles and unflattering lighting. The one seems highly self-conscious of every camera angle and the other seems blissfully unaware of its existence. Well, not blissful – because everything is one joyless nightmare – but still. It's not that one is better than the other, they're simply different types of the same genre: the slick and the scruffy. I don't care how many times I've said it before, I'm saying it again: genre is a very broad category for a story to fit into. You can reject certain elements and accept others. A story is formulaic when you turn off your brain and let the genre decide everything for you in advance.

Some other things worth noting:

Killing people off. When I first saw Children of Men, I used simple logic based on previous films in order to figure out who was likely to survive: Theo (Clive Owen), the hero, has to make it to all the way through, but he can still die in the last scene. Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), though not exactly the heroine, is pregnant with the possible salvation of mankind, so you have to figure that she'll make it all the way through as part of the film's uplifting finale, or die in a tragic twist. But if she did, the baby would still probably make it – unless the story wants you to feel utterly miserable. Not probable, but then again not impossible. Miriam (Pam Ferris), as a sympathetic supporting character, will be probably be gone half-way or two-thirds in, to increase the drama. Ditto for Jasper (Michael Caine), although his death will be more poignant because he's closer to the hero. Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the bad guy – on the immediate scale (on the closer one, the government is the enemy) – will end up dead, and probably most of his crew, and not by Theo's hands, but by the government, their common enemy. (I'll get back to Theo in a minute.)

Last, there's Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo's ex, who has dragged him back into her life so she can get Kee to safety. If she and Theo survive, they will be reunited, but in the mean time – the odds are, she'll survive most of the movie. That was a pretty stupid assumption, however, and the filmmakers deftly exploited my stupidity. Julian was the first to go and I didn't see it coming. It's also a testament to the pace – it slows down in places to let you (and the characters) breathe, but usually it moves too fast for you to do much thinking. Perfect for a thriller.

Speak the speech. Or don't. In The Matrix, characters like Morpheus and Agent Smith can philosophize all day, but the characters in Children of Men simply don't. I think Miriam has the longest speech, telling Theo when she first noticed that women weren't giving birth anymore, or maybe Jasper telling Miriam about faith and chance, but their dialogue stays in a more realistic register. Not that The Matrix is Shakespearean grandstanding, but again there's the issue of style. Since we're talking about characters in a screenplay, both films are obviously scripted, but in Children of Men the dialogue seems like conversation you might stumble into in real life.

No action hero. The Matrix has a good excuse for Neo becoming a superhero, but notice that Theo stays perfectly average: he bleeds, he feels pain. He can't do kung fu – and there's nothing written into his character to justify it, like, "Well, yes, I used to be the world champion until I accidentally killed this guy." Or, "Of course I can just beat people up all the live long day – I grew up in the toughest neighborhood in London." And he's no natural born killer either. (I can't remember now, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't so much as hold let alone fire a gun throughout the film.) Is he brave enough to get Kee to safety? Yes. Does he have any idea how to do this? No. He just keeps moving, improvising when things go wrong. He doesn't suddenly remember that chemistry class in college where he and his buddies used to play around with chemical explosives. The script figures out other more plausible ways to help him – whether through friends, or the fact that in this future where children have all but disappeared, a baby crying is enough to cause a ceasefire. But they don't keep playing that card. Once is enough.

No romantic subplot. Aside from the tension between Theo and Julian, there's no romantic relationship in the film. And that's a good thing – characters don't just have to fall in love because you throw them together. It's also a wise decision given that the story's premise could have made for a wildly sentimental film – throwing in that Kee and Theo live happily ever after with the baby would have a been a bizarre fairy tale ending. They might have gotten away with Theo and Julian being reconciled (something similar worked well in Minority Report), but it's more effective dramatically to get rid of Julian early on.

Finally, one of the things that strikes me most about Children of Men is all the stories that aren't being told. Theo's rich and powerful cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) is a good example. Technically, the story only needs him as a credible way for getting Kee and Theo the necessary bureaucratic authorization, but the script makes him more than a plot device, adding a few intriguing details – his art collection, his semi-bionic teenage son. Nigel has only one scene, but he's memorable. Apparently there's a television show in the works and I'm not surprised.

Next week… Casablanca. Well, you had to know it would turn up sometime.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009