Monday, October 26, 2009

Facebook, a Lament

must it be friendship?
can't we be acquaintances
for the time-being?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lessons Learned: Good Night and Good Luck

Screenplay by George Clooney and Grant Heslov; Directed by George Clooney; Cinematography by Robert Elswit; Edited by Stephen Mirrione; Complete Credits. 93 min. 2005.

Wrapping up this biopic thread…

Good Night and Good Luck portrays Edward R. Murrow’s battle with Senator Joe McCarthy over the communist witch hunts. While Murrow is the central character in the film, the focus is on larger issues concerning journalism, politics, ethics, and so on (all of which I won’t go into), rather than his life story. So. What should we take note of?

First, the film doesn’t depict Murrow “becoming Murrow.” Though I wouldn’t argue that he doesn’t undergo any character development during the film, there isn’t a prominent arc that you usually see in a biopic. Conclusion: a traditional character arc is not a mandatory component.

Second, though characters reference his wife and son, Murrow’s personal life remains off-screen. Theoretically, the wife and son could have been included in some scene. Mrs. Murrow expressing her concern over the dangerous position her husband has placed himself in – something like that. But considering that the thematic focus is on Murrow’s professional life rather than his private life, it’s not surprising that no such scene exists in the film. As the scene doesn't feel like it's "missing," it's safe to conclude that a character is necessary according to context.

Third, the timeframe is only a matter of weeks. Biopics are usually in the saga/epic timeframe of several decades, but consider a month in the life of Elvis or Marilyn Monroe. You’d probably have more than enough material for a feature film. Frankly, you could do that with anyone provided you chose the sequence of events wisely. Two conclusions here: 1) a person's life supplies you with very flexible framework – from macro to micro; 2) selecting a highly specific sequence of events can help you avoid the danger of trying to cram in absolutely everything.

Fourth, the film’s straightforward, uncluttered structure and visual style correspond with Murrow’s character as well as his own reporting style. Conclusion: You should always be thinking about the relation between form and content, regardless of the type of material you're using. Writing about a real person or historical events doesn't necessarily mean you have to adopt a linear ("birth to death") strategy by default. On the other hand, it doesn't mean you have to slice and dice the sequence of events just for the hell of it. Good Night and Good Luck could have been structured with multiple timelines and/or overlapping/contradictory perspectives, but that would have undermined the content.

Fifth, most of the scenes take place in various CBS studios and offices. Not only that, but a lot of the shots are of people speaking or reacting. The atmosphere is personal – you feel as if you're watching things pretty much from the closest vantage point. The overall effect is dramatic enough in itself that you don't need to add pyrotechnics like sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll in order to sell the story. (And considering Edward R. Murrow, it would have been a bizarre addition.) I have said it before and I am (damn well) saying it again: don't push people into templates. You don't want someone to finish your story/screenplay and say, "Well that was just like [whoever]."

Next week… as the second to last post of this series - one of my favorite books - To Kill a Mockingbird.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Tiger, a Question of Location

good in a jungle
bad in anyone's back yard
useless in a zoo

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lessons Learned: Walk the Line

Screenplay by Gill Dennis and James Mangold; Directed by James Mangold; Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael; Edited by Michael McCusker; Complete Credits. 136 min. 2005.

Like with Amadeus’ representation of Mozart, I’m not interested in whether Walk the Line is an accurate portrayal of Johnny Cash. Let’s ignore for a moment what is "true" and "not true."

Biopics often fall right into the trap of literary adaptations: they assume that everyone watching already knows what is going to happen. When I first saw Walk the Line my knowledge of Cash's life was non-existent. I knew some of the music, but nothing about the man. They could have written pretty much anything and I wouldn’t have been able to gauge whether it actually happened. As far as I was concerned, I was watching fiction. So for starters, a good question to ask when dealing with biography is whether the story makes sense on its own. Taking liberties with the source material is a separate issue. Theoretically, if you changed the names and pretended all of these characters were pure fiction, would the story still hold up? Watching Walk the Line is like watching any other movie – as the story plays out, we get to know Johnny and June, and we root for them to get together much like we would with a fictional pair.

Since people’s lives don’t conform to standard narrative structure, you have two options when constructing a biopic: a) select a significant sequence of events in the person's life and organize them so they conform to standard narrative structure; or b) don't. (The second option is more impressionistic and thus has a greater danger of being utterly mystifying, but that's a different subject.) Walk the Line goes with option a. Cash's career spanned a much longer period than the one portrayed in the film. Instead, the film's main plot centers on his relationship with June Carter.

Notice the way the beginning is constructed: we open in Folsom Prison at Cash's landmark performance – a climactic point - but Johnny is missing. The band is exchanging glances – where the heck is John? He's in the prison woodshop gazing at a wicked looking saw. We flashback to his childhood. A few key scenes of his home life – his relationship with his sweet brother Jack (killed by a horrific accident with the kind of saw we saw a moment ago), his abusive alcoholic father, his quietly suffering mother who sings rather than cries – the poverty, the misery, the love of music, and the fact that he is already well aware of June Carter's existence. As exposition goes, all the elements of Cash's character are there and four key figures that shaped his life.

Another good idea to keep in mind when you’re handling biography is that just because a character is based on a real person doesn’t mean that his or her life story has to read like an entry in the encyclopedia – all facts and no narrative. Johnny Cash: b. February 26, 1932 in small town in Arkansas. d. September 12, 2003. (check) Grew up to become legendary singer and songwriter. (check) Also known as "The Man in Black." (check) Twice Married. Four children with first wife. (check) One child with second wife, June Carter, with whom he often collaborated and performed. (check) Best-known works: Get Rhythm, I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, Jackson. (check). Walk the Line doesn't present these facts like items in a list, but creates a story around them – how Cash's childhood influenced his identity and drove him toward performing; what made him a unique performer; why he wore black; the dynamics of his first marriage; the dynamics of his relationship with Carter, and so on. All of these issues are interwoven – not separate, neatly organized into subheadings – Musical Endeavors, Personal Life, etc.

To recap: non-fiction has a story; that story should not only make sense but be dealt with like any other fictional narrative (structure, characterization, themes, etc.).

Next week… Good Night and Good Luck, another biopic (of sorts).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Rebel without a Cause

damn society!
I am full of angst and pain!
Must. Pull. Reckless. Stunts.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lessons Learned: Amadeus

(A little late, I know, but still.)

Screenplay by Peter Shaffer (adapted from his play); Directed by Milos Forman; Cinematography by Miroslav OndrĂ­cek; Edited by Michael Chandler and Nena Danevic; Complete Credits. 160 min. 1984.

Last week I suggested Citizen Kane as a potential model for dealing with biopic/biography. Amadeus presents another potential model, but from a reversed perspective. While Citizen Kane takes a fictional character and treats him like a real man, Amadeus takes two real men and turns them into fictional characters. Why? To examine a larger being: the nature of genius. Instead of dwelling on who, what, where, when, and how Mozart became “Mozart,” the film focuses on the way his musical genius is both a blessing and a curse – and not only for him.

Though Amadeus is founded upon a basic historical-biographical narrative of Mozart’s life, it refrains from serving as a traditional biopic. The film blissfully forgets, for example, Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna, who was also considered a musical prodigy. Judging by Amadeus, Mozart was an only child. The film also neglects the fact that his wife Constanze bore him six children (only two of which survived into adulthood) rather than one. Likewise, in Salieri’s case, the film ignores his wife and eight children (again, only two of which survived into adulthood). The Salieri in Amadeus is wifeless and childless (and according to the director’s cut, practices abstinence as a gesture of faith to god). Obviously, this isn’t a matter of poor research. Rather, the film plays on the rumors that Salieri murdered Mozart out of rivalry. The supposedly “true story” roots the film in reality much as the opening newsreel in Citizen Kane makes Charles Foster Kane seem like an actual person.

As opposed to the multiple perspectives of Citizen Kane, Amadeus is focalized through Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) who confesses to Father Vogler (Richard Frank) his plot to destroy Mozart (Tom Hulce). The story doesn’t begin with Salieri’s antagonism, however, but with his adoration of Mozart. Mozart certainly was a genius – and not just on the musical front – he had an absolute genius for alienating people with his obnoxious behavior. Just give the guy five minutes and most of the people in the room will think he’s a “vulgar little man” with an “obscene giggle.” Salieri, on the other hand, despite his feelings of inferiority as a composer, has an absolute genius for making people like him. Whether dealing with aristocrats or commoners, he always knows what to say. This is evident not only in the embedded story, but in the frame as well. The markedly younger Father Vogler begins patronizingly – confess to me, my son, and god will forgive you, etc. – but Salieri quickly takes control of the situation by establishing his superior knowledge. Vogler sits there spellbound all night as Salieri makes his “confession.”

While ordinarily there’d be reason to suspect the authority of what Salieri recounts, the images which accompany his voice-over do not contradict what he describes as in what literally happened vs. what he says happened. Rather, it’s Salieri’s interpretation of the events – imagining that god has sent Mozart as an extensive endurance test for his humility and faith. Again and again, though the scenes show us that what plays out has nothing to do with divine intervention, Salieri nevertheless sees them as god’s will. Even when he receives the highest honor he could possibly receive from his patron Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones), it’s a meaningless prize since Mozart – god’s own instrument in Salieri’s eyes – scorns him. Ironically, though Mozart asks for Salieri’s forgiveness when he’s on his deathbed – friendless and mired in debt to boot – the dime still doesn’t drop. To Salieri, this only proves how spiteful god is, preferring to destroy Mozart rather than give Salieri the divine inspiration he craves. Note the way the film simultaneously constructs Salieri and Mozart as victims and antagonists. Both antagonize each other and themselves, yet both manage to be sympathetic, and without resorting to drastic reversal of perspective. Mozart’s partying his way to an early grave is his own doing, but as he lies there, exhausted from trying to finish his famous Requiem Mass – in a scene entirely lacking any of his typically obnoxious mannerisms - asking for Salieri’s forgiveness, brings home the sheer waste of his life. Salieri, likewise, as he languishes in an insane asylum confessing to the priest, after having us up to think he really murdered Mozart, is in the end a victim of his own madness. Like with Charlie Kane, the film doesn’t sum up the men as good or bad, heroic or tragic, but shows what genius – or fixation with it – can do to you no matter who you think you are.

As Salieri concludes his confession, Father Vogler sits there broken, without an answer to give to Salieri, plainly gloating that no wise words, no platitudes can come to the priest in defense of his god. Throughout the film, Vogler sits in our place – he never shares the frame with Salieri, just as we the viewers do not. (Not to be lame, but I’m almost sure he doesn’t. To be fair, I may have missed something.) I think the sole exception is at the end when Salieri is being led out by an asylum attendant and he places a “comforting” hand on Vogler’s shoulder, but even then they’re not quite onscreen together. As opposed to the case with Mr. Thompson in Citizen Kane, we don’t know more than Vogler at the end. We’re left at the same vantage point and it’s not a consoling one. Salieri is convinced more than ever that god is conducting a personal campaign against him and there’s no way to talk him out of it. Is he the “real” Salieri? No. Should we care that he isn’t? No.

Next week… Walk the Line, continuing the biopic thing.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Book, a Question of Location

perfect on a shelf
bad in a police station
useless in a fight

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Lessons Learned: Citizen Kane

Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles; Directed by Orson Welles; Cinematography by Gregg Toland; Edited by Robert Wise; Complete Credits. 119 min. 1941.

Think of Citizen Kane as a biopic. True, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is a fictional character, but the approach to telling his life story is one that would serve a real person just as well. An excellent biopic (or biography) gives you a unique glimpse at the person in question – not necessarily definitive or all-encompassing – but at least a sense of how this person differs from everyone else. The average biopic, however, is usually so preoccupied with perfectly recreating documented events that you wonder why they didn’t just do an actual documentary instead. A bad biopic is a tabloid in 3-d. Naturally, there's too much material to squeeze into one film (or book), so the average or bad biopic will probably give you a kind of compilation or “greatest hits” version of the person's life. Either they'll ignore uglier aspects or give you every dirty detail (that you probably didn't want to know) as part of a unified presentation in keeping with a certain preconceived notion about the protagonist – as a “good” or “bad” person. And in any case, probably glamorous, misunderstood, or both.

But actually, when you think about it, most people (especially the famous ones) are not so easily categorized into “good” or “bad.” It really depends on who you ask, and that’s precisely one of the most important things that Citizen Kane conveys. To the group of reporters putting together a piece about the late great Charles Foster Kane, he’s a legendary figure whose life was full of excitement, scandal, and tragedy – his dizzying rise to power, two divorces, political disgrace, financial collapse, and the death of his son. All of which is neatly squeezed into a newsreel at the beginning of the film. The facts are there, but not the man. So Jerry Thompson (William Alland) goes out to find him. Yes, yes, he technically goes out to find “Rosebud,” but that’s just a device to keep the story going. Depending on your interpretation, “Rosebud” can mean everything or nothing.

Thompson interviews five people Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s ex-guardian and banker – albeit through his memoirs and not in person; Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s long-time business manager; Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), Kane’s schoolmate and closest friend until they had a falling out; Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), Kane’s second wife; and Raymond (Paul Stewart), the manager of Kane’s mammoth estate “Xanadu.” Some of the events in their stories overlap and some are missing altogether (such as Kane’s reaction to the death of his on). And while the testimonies present a coherent picture of Kane altogether – they all touch upon his dominant qualities – self-destructive, controlling, rebellious, generous, extravagant, brilliant, and unhappy – each person responds to these qualities differently. Thatcher continually laments Kane’s need to make trouble, his stubborn refusal to be a respectable business tycoon. Bernstein’s memories are the most positive – Kane was a great guy. Sure, he had his problems, but don’t we all? Jed’s memories have the bitterest tone and maybe the keenest sense of Kane’s public and personal misfortunes. Susan is also bitter, but she seems to have some feeling of triumph in being the one who left Kane – in being the one to break away from his tyrannical hold. Raymond is the most impersonal – all he wants is money for his information. To Raymond, Kane is merely a sad figure, and thus his brief flashback gives us one of the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes wherein Kane trashes Susan’s room after she leaves him.

Nevertheless, you could make the case for the film giving more than several subjective perspectives about Kane. Throughout the film there also seems to be a silent omniscient viewpoint which seems to fill in additional details to the stories being told, details which the people telling the stories wouldn’t necessarily give. For example, though scenes from Kane’s childhood are provided by Thatcher’s diary, they display a sensitivity and insight which Thatcher completely lacks. As Bernstein tells Thompson, “Thatcher never could figure him out.” The scene’s attention to the emotional state of Kane’s mother Mary (Agnes Moorehead) and her bond with him is seemingly dwelt on, not by Thatcher’s cold eye, but by another observer, registering the information as a context for Kane’s later behavior. There are other scenes as well - Jim Gettys (Ray Collins) staring down at Kane as he makes a rousing political speech in his bid for governor, which doesn’t seem to belong to any particular point of view.

The ultimate example is of course the burning of Kane’s sled Rosebud at the very end, revealing to us what none of the characters knew. Not counting this final shot, you could argue that Thompson, who is listening to everyone’s stories, is essentially filling in the blanks with his advanced knowledge – knowing that Jim Gettys was just biding his time before snatching victory. This might also explain why in Susan’s flashback sequence, Kane appears so broken, sympathetic, and worn out by Susan’s complaints. She’s right to leave him, but it comes out like kicking the man when he’s down – really down. At the end of her story – almost his last interview, after he has built up his own impression of the man - Thompson tells her, “You know I kind of feel sorry for Mr. Kane.”

In the end, it all comes down to Thompson and it seems he doesn’t quite know what to make of everything he’s heard. As he stands in the magnificent hall of Xanadu littered with Kane’s belongings – worthless junk and priceless works of art jumbled together – he gazes meditatively at a jigsaw puzzle and his fellow reporters tease him about Rosebud. Soooo… what or who is Rosebud? Did he ever find out? But Thompson’s been moved by all he’s heard about Kane and can’t sum him up as easily as he did in the newsreel put together at the beginning of the film. Essentially, rather than mold Charles Foster Kane into a preconceived type – disgraced politician, legendary tycoon, etc. – Thompson has to face the individual. Rather than reinforcing the superficial iconic figure that everyone is supposed to be familiar with, Kane is portrayed in complex human dimensions.

Next week… Amadeus, continuing this biopic train of thought.