Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Hero Project #12: Hitchcock's Ill-Equipped Heroes

So I’ll pick right up from yesterday: Why was Hitchcock able to tell compelling stories about heroes without skills, even though that’s usually a bad idea? I reconsidered nine different movies he made about worst possible picks: 

First of all, I realized that, in four of these movies, my thesis held up: the heroes weren’t interesting enough. These include both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (’34 and ’56) and The Birds. I think these movies would have been improved by having the heroes bring a little more of themselves towards solving their problems. I would also reluctantly include Saboteur in this category, even though I identified it as an underrated movie. In retrospect, the lack of unique qualities in the main character was probably a big reason that Hitchcock couldn’t get Gary Cooper and had to settle for Robert Cummings.
And there were other Hitchcock movies that conformed to my expectations in a different way: I had said before that the only way to make a successful worst possible pick movie was to have the hero suffer endlessly and get saved by someone else. That would certainly describe The Wrong Man and Frenzy. I realized to my surprise that it would also describe Rebecca. Rebecca’s heroine is not able to adapt any of her skills as a paid companion to her new job as mistress of a secret-filled gothic mansion, and ultimately has to pretty much have the mystery spelled out for her at the end. 

Nevertheless, all three of these movies are intensely watchable and very appealing (at least to me). We always hear that heroes are supposed to be proactive and good at their jobs. This is because, otherwise, we won’t believe it when they become clever and successful at the end. But if they remain fate’s pawns throughout, then it’s actually not as much of a problem that they’re totally ineffective. Such movies can still be quite compelling, although they’re bound to be a bit harrowing, as those three are.

So most of Hitchcock’s WPP heroes didn’t disprove my new rules after all, but that still leaves two of his most successful movies: The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. I had to re-watch these two to figure out why they seemed to defy the rules.
The 39 Steps was the first wildly successful thriller worldwide and it provides the prototype for the whole genre. Vacationing Canadian Robert Donat attends a London vaudeville show that turns out to be a nest of spies. A mata-hari type pretends to seduce him so that she can go home with him and get away from the men chasing her. When she dies during the night, he realizes that he’ll be next unless he can re-trace her path and expose the spy ring. 

According to my rules, Donat should be a totally unappealing hero. He is a total blank. We never even find out what his job is. He shows no skills and no personality traits before the trouble begins. As soon as the trouble starts, though, he turns out to be rather quick-witted, and gets out of most problems through clever bits of play-acting, but we never find out where he might have gotten those skills from.

North by Northwest was a different story, I was at first surprised when I re-watched it to discover that it starts out like a classic adapter movie: unlike Donat, we first see Cary Grant in his natural habitat: he’s basically Don Draper, a Madison Avenue ad man who’s good at lying and seducing women. Then he becomes an accidental spy, and spies have to lie and seduce women all the time, so he should have all the skills he needs, established very efficiently in the first five minutes.

But then a funny thing happens, his lying and seduction skills turn out to be weaknesses, not strengths. Unlike Donat, Grant gets exposed quickly every time he lies, and his overestimation of his powers of seduction puts him right into the enemy’s trap. When it actually comes to getting out of trouble, Grant usually has to rely on blind luck: in the drunk driving trap, getting out of the UN, being chased by a plane in a cornfield, etc. The only time that he actually does something clever is at the auction, and that doesn’t really have anything to do with his ad-man skills. By the end, the villains are killed primarily by the handy intervention of Mt. Rushmore.

And yet Grant, like Donat, is not unappealing. In fact, I once described North by Northwest as a “perfect” movie. One could make the case that this is merely because Hitchcock’s every individual choice (shots, editing, mis en scene) was so appealing that he was simply allowed to break the rules: he could make us interested in people we shouldn’t find interesting. But I think that there was more to it that that. Perhaps Hitchcock was able to make movies about hollow men because he had something to say about blankness. This is where our old friend Mr. Jung comes back into play. But I’ll have to pick up there tomorrow...

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Hero Project #11: But What About Hitchcock?

I got a nice response to the first go-round, so let’s try at least another week of The Hero Project. (By the way, in our time off, the project made a guest appearance over at my wife’s far-more-widely-read blog, where she applied it to kids’ books. I show up in the comments to kibitz.)

So I’ve had a few weeks to think about my bumbling attempts to define heroism, and I’ve been wondering where I ever got this impression that the a protagonist should go from “zero to hero” instead of starting the movie with special skills. The more I thought about it the more I realized that there was a simple answer: Hitchcock. When I made my list of the Nine Types of heroes (plus two), I tried to chart some Hitchcock movies, but in retrospect I think I got some of them wrong. Thinking back through them, and rewatching some of them, I realized that most of Hitchcock’s heroes lack skills, and could be described as the “worst possible pick” for solving their problem.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. He also featured examples of the Pro at Work (Foreign Correspondent, Notorious), Adapters (Rope, Rear Window), a Flounderer (Vertigo), and even a Book Taught Amateur (Shadow of a Doubt). (Yes, I’ve moved some since the original post) But his clear favorite was that riskiest of all categories, the Worst Possible Pick.

My earlier conclusion was that “WPP” heroes only worked in cases like The Terminator and Safety Last where the hero suffered greatly and had some professional help to get them through, while movies like The Spanish Prisoner, where an unskilled everyman hero triumphs simply by working a little harder, were inherently unsatisfying. But Hitchcock frequently made that kind of hero work. In fact, Hitchcock’s first international hit, and the one that formed the archetype for so many others, The 39 Steps, has an unskilled hero with no professional help who is somehow both convincing and appealing.

This is a big part of where I got my habits from. Like a lot of people, Hitchcock is my biggest influence as a thriller writer (he never actually got a writing credit, but most people familiar with his process would say that he ghost-co-wrote all of his movies) And, come to think of it, I’ve been on the phone receiving notes and found myself defending my script in conversations that sounded something like this: Them: “You can’t do that in a movie” Me: “What do you mean? Hitchcock did it all the time.” Now it’s finally sunk in: It’s not so easy to play by Hitchcock’s rules. But why not? Tomorrow I’ll look at several of his movies and figure out why many of his unskilled heroes were so appealing (and why some others weren’t).

Friday, August 27, 2010

Underrated TV (Not) on DVD #14: The Century of the Self

And this wraps up another TV Week-- Next week: more Hero Project!

Series: The Century of the Self
Year: 2002
Creator: Adam Curtis
The Concept: Curtis explores the hidden history of the 20th century, showing how first consumers and then voters were taught by the public relations industry to listen to their hearts and ignore their minds.
How it Came to be Underrated: This got great reviews when it came out, but it never showed up on DVD in America.
Sample Episode: Episode 1: Happiness Machines
Writer: Adam Curtis
The Story: In Part 1, we meet Edward Bernays, the American cousin of Sigmund Freud himself, who used his “Uncle Siggy’s” ideas for crass commercial purposes, creating ideas of mass consumer persuasion that redefined American culture. Bernays recalls how, after advising Wilson during the WWI peace talks, “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, then you could certainly use it for peace.” He opens the first public relations firm and starts by convincing women to smoke. His success makes him very wealthy and highly influential...

Why It’s Great:
  1. This is more of an essay-film than a documentary: Curtis illustrating his daring thesis with a fascinating rapid-fire montage ranging freely back and forth across the 20th century, creating an experience that just as fun to watch as it is bracing to hear.
  2. But he doesn’t just ask us to take his word for it. He has uncovered an amazing treasure trove of quotes which amply demonstrate his thesis. Here’s one of Bernays’s clients: ”We must shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires’ culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
  3. Curtis shows how the powers-that-be, once they realized what Freud was saying, quietly decided that democracy was no longer a tenable idea: If mankind was essentially irrational and animalistic, then the unwashed masses couldn’t be trusted with power. But there was no need to openly do away with the system, because the new techniques could be used to manipulate the crowds into neutralizing their own power. Part four talks to the engineers of the campaigns of Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton and Blair. Given what we’ve heard, what they have to say about how they sold their candidates is genuinely chilling.
  4. This one isn’t on DVD, but it led to a follow-up about post-9/11 propaganda called “The Power of Nightmares”, and that one’s finally out on DVD. You can get it through Netflix.
How Available Is It?: All four hours are watchable at Google Video and well worth your time. The video quality isn’t very high, but it’s perfectly watchable. I literally sat down one day to watch the first five minutes of the first one and got up four hours later.
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #42: People Only Want What They Want

Here’s another “a-ha” moment gleaned from a TV-DVD extra-- Each episode of “Mad Men” has at least one commentary, usually featuring Matt Weiner and another creator, and they’re all worth listening to. At one point, Pete the weasel is stewing in his office, as usual, and Peggy comes in to discuss a project. In his commentary, Weiner points out (paraphrasing here:) “This is the point on most shows where they would ask ‘what’s wrong?’ as if people go around trying to solve each other’s problems all the time.”

But Peggy doesn’t notice what’s bothering Pete, even though she’s probably the most sympathetic character on the show (and occasionally in love with him). People only want what they want, and that doesn’t make them bad people. Unless your character is an exceptionally caring parent or spouse, they shouldn’t become selflessly concerned with the emotional state of another character, unless they have to act that way to get what they want. That may sound terrible, but it’s how life works and it’s probably for the best...

You, as the writer, know what every character’s problem is, and so you want them to know it too. The easiest way to do that is to have someone come into the room, size up the situation, and say, “Do you know what your problem is? It’s…” But in real life, such conversations are uncommon and unwelcome. On those rare occasions that I do get armchair diagnoses from friends, they tend to be benign but unhelpful, because their friendship keeps them from perceiving my faults. The few times that someone has told me what my problem was and actually hit the nail on the head, they were people who hated my guts and never wanted to see me again. In each case, I wasn’t happy to hear it, and I tended to let them know it. Only later did I sheepishly realize that they had actually told me something I needed to hear.

Weiner’s comment has ruined a lot of movies and TV shows for me. Every time someone walks into a room and helps the hero get to the heart of a problem, it now sets my teeth on edge. The ghostly voice of Matthew Weiner wafts up from the ether, providing a running commentary to everything I watch, always reminding me: “People only want what they want!”

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Underrated TV (Not) on DVD #13: Lou Grant

TV week, day 3:

Series: Lou Grant
Years: 1977-1982, five seasons, 114 hour-long episodes
Creators: James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, Gene Reynolds, Leon Tokatyan
Stars: Edward Asner, Robert Walden, Mason Adams, Nancy Marchand

The Concept: After getting unceremoniously fired by on the last episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, Lou Grant realizes that he’s “a 50 year old man with $280 in his bank account”. He moves to LA and goes back to the newpaper biz , managing the city desk at the Los Angeles Tribune.
How it Came to be Underrated: This was a hit at the time, but it’s largely forgotten today. It was followed up and overshadowed by two even-better MTM shows about crumbling city institutions, “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere”.
Sample Episode: 1.1 Cophouse
Writer: Leon Tokatyan
The Story: Lou lands in hot water right away—a hotshot young reporter accuses the paper’s longtime cophouse reporter of thinking like a cop, covering up scandals instead of exposing them. Lou finds himself caught uncomfortably between the crusty old guard and surly Watergate-inspired rookies.

Why It’s Great:
  1. This first season had my favorite opening sequence of any TV show ever. It’s a beautiful little short film about the futility of all human endeavors. I’m sure it got a big laugh, but then the creators had the mighty task of getting people to care about birdcage lining, week after week.

    (double-click to watch it bigger on YouTube)
  2. This was part of a bizarre ‘70s trend of hour-long dramas that got spun-off from half-hour comedies. In this case, it made sense. When you’ve got a great actor like Asner, why not give him some real meat to chew on?
  3. Lou reluctantly hands the cophouse beat over to an aggressive young reporter named Rossi but soon tears him a new one for over-editorializing. Their battles became the central conflict of the show. Like any writer, the reporters are forced to see that the only way to win anybody over to their point of view is to be scrupulously fair. Even after all those years, Lou still hated spunk.
  4. After Lou gives his reporters hell, he has to turn around and fight bitterly to actually get their stories into the paper, which is never certain. The editorial meetings are always a fascinating look into the competing agendas that try to drag important news down the memory hole.
  5. An quick glance at the episode titles will tell you what the danger zone was for this show: it was addicted to “issues”. When it was smartly done, as it usually was, it was brave and daring and smart, but the weaker episodes play like afterschool specials. As Lou himself realizes, advocacy writing is the hardest kind to do well.

How Available Is It?: This is probably the best TV show left that’s still not on DVD in any way, shape or form. It is on Hulu though…
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #41: Drama Is How It Is, Genre Is How It Feels

One more thought on “The Sopranos”… I never had HBO, so I finally got to see what all the fuss was about when the first season was released on DVD (which was still a big deal for a TV show at the time, but you kids wouldn’t remember that). I watched the pilot and I had to admit that it was pretty great, but I still had a doubting voice in the back of my head: ‘Who needs to see another show about killing? This show takes itself seriously, but this level of violence and stylization is actually pretty phony, isn’t it?’

Then I listened to David Chase’s commentary track and I had one of those rare “moments of clarity”. He was talking about where the idea for the show came from. He was a successful screenwriter, but he was putting his own mean-mouthed mother in a home and she was heavily guilt-tripping him. He thought to himself “I’m such a monster.” He decided to do a show about what it felt like to be a rich guy putting his mother in a home. Except, in the TV version, instead of the meek TV writer he was, he would portray himself as the monster (aka mobster) he felt like.

Suddenly, I understood the justification for all genre writing. Realism is a fine goal, but it’s not the only way to be truthful. When you make a genre show (and “The Sopranos” was a genre show) you’re telling the truth about how it feels, in a way that realism never can. He was coming clean: this is who I really am— I’m a monster.

Nowhere was this more true than on the other all-time-great show of the late 90s/early 00s, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. That show appealed to lots of non-vampire-lovers because it was such a perfect metaphor for adolescence. In reality, high school problems only felt like the end of the world, but here they really were the end of the world. If it felt like a guy was ripping your heart out, here he really would try, and on and on. These things made the show a lot more fun than 90210, but they also made it more truthful. This may not be how it happened, but it sure is how we remember it-- and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Underrated TV on DVD #12: Better Off Ted

Series: Better Off Ted
Years: 2009-2010, 26 half-hour episodes
Creators: Victor Fresco
Stars: Jay Harrington, Portia DiRossi, Andrea Anders, Malcolm Barrett, Jonathan Slavin

The Concept: Relatively nice people work in the research and development department of a soulless biotech corporation, trying to keep themselves from being compromised by the evil of their bosses.
How it Came to be Underrated: After saddling it with a terrible, meaningless name, ABC dumped it in midseason with very little fanfare. If they had run the second season after “Modern Family”, I’m convinced that it would have found its audience, but instead they burned off the entire season in one marathon month and gave that coveted spot to “Cougar Town”. Damn you, “Cougar Town”!

Sample Episode: 1.4 Racial Insensitivity
Writer: Michael Glouberman
The Story: To save money, Veridian Dynamics installs new motion sensors on every lightswitch, door and water fountain, but they work by reflected light and they aren’t sensitive enough to detect black people’s skintone. When the black employees complain, the company tries to make them happy by giving them separate, manual drinking fountains. For some reason, that just causes a bigger mess.

Why It’s Great:
  1. That plot synopsis should indicate that this was the most shocking and sharp satire on TV since “Arrested Development”. That show also struggled with ratings, but at least it became famous for not being famous enough. This show didn’t even get that level of notoriety. It inherited the wonderful Portia DiRossi and it should also inherit that show’s cult status.
  2. We generally want to see TV shows about good people doing good things, and it’s very hard to generate satire every week without curdling into bitterness, but this show’s likable-yet-culpable characters struck just the right balance: we knew they weren’t ever going to do much good, but we trusted them to try. The actors could move nimbly from broadly-sketched extremes to real human beings and back again as the comedy demanded.
  3. The whole cast is great but the real breakthrough talent here for me was the beautiful, funny, and very likable Andrea Anders. I expect her to become a huge star but it hasn’t happened yet. She’s getting a second chance this fall with “Mr. Sunshine”. Unfortunately, it’s a Matthew Perry vehicle. Here’s how much I’ve fallen for her: I’m willing to give it a shot.
  4. Lots of shows are now trying to find ways to trick you into watching the commercials without selling their soul, but this show did it best, each show would have a Veridian commercial in the breaks, wickedly parodying the corporate double-speak that surrounded it.
How Available Is It?: I’m anxiously awaiting the second season on DVDs, especially since it will debut the final two never-aired episodes, but that set hasn’t even been announced yet! In the meantime the first season is available to watch instantly on Netflix
But Don’t Take My Word For It: Unfortunately, unembeddable Netflix is the only way you can watch this episode online. It’s one of the few episodes ABC.com no longer has posted. Maybe it was a bit too edgy.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Underrated Movie #90: Salesman

Title: Salesman
Year: 1968
Writer-Directors: Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
Stars: Paul “The Badger” Brennan, Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt, James “The Rabbit” Baker, Raymond “The Bull” Martos

The Story: Four increasingly desperate door-to-door bible salesmen bluff their way into working-class homes, trying to get wary housewives to buy a deluxe $50 bible on the installment plan.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is one of the most influential documentaries ever made, but most DVD renters wouldn’t know anything about that. You can still get people to watch 60s verite classics like Don’t Look Back or Monterey Pop today, but the non-musical verites don’t get watched enough.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This was an amazing new way to make documentaries, not based around a subject but around characters, just like a real movie. Though the “verite” movement stressed reality, eschewing voiceover or interviews, the Maysles and Zwerin unashamedly shape their footage into a traditional narrative, with winners and losers and villains and narrative arcs.
  2. Former TV news cinematographer Albert built his own camera and had a genius for getting heartbreaking Hopper-esque compositions on the fly.
  3. We aren’t sure that we approve of these guys, but they become very sympathetic in comparison to their cold-blooded, glad-handing boss, who rides them hard and doesn’t want to hear any excuses. In my favorite scene, the boss blithely leads them through a role-play to show how easy it is. As soon as the salesmen get to role-play the reluctant customer, they revel in the chance to humiliate their boss with every baffling refusal they’ve ever heard. He doesn’t appreciate it.
  4. What makes this such an amazing document is the chance to hear the lost language of sales. The trick of the sale is to create verbal traps where every question demands a positive answer: “Can you see where this would help the family?” “Can you see where this would be a gain to you?” It’s both painful and lyrical to hear.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The Maysles’ next two docs are justifiably famous: Gimme Shelter documented the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont and Grey Gardens showcased Jackie O’s crazy relatives, but if you get a chance, you should also track down their incisive early profiles: Showman, A Visit with Truman Capote, and Meet Marlon Brando.

How Available Is It?: Excellent Criterion DVD with commentary and featurettes

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Stand back! I’ve got a gun!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #40: Objects Needs Affection Too

The veteran indie producer Ted Hope runs a great blog called Truly Free Film which has good advice for the harsh business of independent filmmaking. Ted once ran Good Machine with James Schamus, and he recently reprinted their house list of No-Budget Commandments.

All of these are good ideas, even you’re not going the indie route. I want to focus on one that you don’t hear that often, which is hidden as the second half of number four: “Invest meaning in everyday commonplace things – make an orange a totemic object John Ford would be proud of.” I’ve only recently become of how important this is. In my entry on Tension I noticed how each character had a totemic object that they were associated with, and now I see it everywhere.

You can’t rely on character interactions to reveal all the emotions you need to reveal. When actors talk with each other, they have three different factors influencing their performance:

  1. The current mood of their character.
  2. What their character wants the other character to do.
  3. How their character feels about the other character deep down.

But when you establish their relationship to an object, they can express their true emotions, unfiltered by other baggage.

I just rewatched The Color of Money, which has aged beautifully, especially the streetwise script by Richard Price. Paul Newman, earning his only competitive Oscar, reprises the role of Fast Eddie Felson, 25 years after the events of The Hustler. Newman schools a naïve young pool phenomenon played by Tom Cruise (turning in a brilliant performance of his own). Together with Cruise’s shady girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) they tool around the Northeast, hustling in dingy joints, on their way to a big tournament in Atlantic City.

Each character has their own totem object. First Newman gives Cruise a fancy pool cue, on the condition that he never use it, because that would ruin the hustle. It becomes the object of all Cruise’s frustrations as he tries to learn the business. Mastrantonio wears a necklace that she stole from Cruise’s mother. She chuckles as she explains to Newman: “He says his mom had one just like it”. As they compete to see who will get to exploit Cruise’s talent, Newman keeps an eye on the necklace to remind himself who he’s dealing with. Newman doesn’t get his object until the end of the second act: it’s the special weapon he finds in the cave. Newman finally admits that he needs prescription glasses, and uses them to compete with his former protégé. Count how many glances and comments each one of these objects earns, and how they change meaning over the course of the movie—when they get taken out, or put away, or change hands. The characters can’t say what they feel, but their interaction with these objects reveals all.

As Ted Hope points out, this is the sort of thing that creates easy value for a movie. Too many independent films can be summed up as “people stand around in rooms and talk,” but the world of a movie starts comes alive when the audience knows that certain objects are fraught with meaning for certain characters.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #6

Hey everybody, remember Special Guest Picks? Well here’s a straggler. A mere six months after I solicited some special people for recommendations, I got this reply from the estimable Luke O’Brien, who occasionally comments here under the name Ithadeo. Luke and I helped run the film society in college. I called him Luko. He called me Coco. I never knew why. Here's Luke:

I like how Matt not only looks at undiscovered or overlooked films, but also at why we might have missed these films. In this brief guest shot, I want to look at movies that I think have each been pushed into the periphery by a specific film:

1) Dead Reckoning
Long Dark Shadow It Can't Escape: The Big Sleep

The movie opens with a man cast in shadows to make his identity “mysterious” confessing the details of his lurid misadventure to a priest. (It’s the entertaining ridiculousness of Old Hollywood that one of the most distinct voices in Hollywood is giving the monologue.) He recounts his tale of trouble with the hard-broiled dialog you’d expect in radio play, taking us back to a classic set of 1940s tropes: the reluctant war hero, the club dame who can’t quite be trusted, multiple acts of violence by unseen assailants and a delicious unraveling at the end. Falling so closely on the heels of his classic turn as Marlowe (and smoldering chemistry with Bacall), Bogart’s more paternal, less hip role is a perfect fit for John Cromwell’s melodramatic sensibilities. Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage and Lord Fauntleroy are classic dramas and he likes to squeeze all he can out of the moments of anguish on screen – and these moments of anguish are what cements the dark elements of a noir like this.

2) Truly, Madly, Deeply
Long Dark Shadow It Can't Escape: Ghost

In 1990, two movies came out with a woman being revisited by her dearly departed husband but the wrong one became really famous. I’ll be careful here not to slam Zucker’s movie which manages to comically wed FX, 1940s ghost romance clichés and a very simple suspense film thrills. You feel good at the end of Ghost - wrongs are righted, you see the bright lights of heaven, and bask in the glow of after-life sex. But it’s all voyeurism – enjoying some other person’s crazy ride. Minghella’s film asks us for more – it asks us for empathy. Nina doesn’t cry pretty tears – she has a breakdown. She cries a lot. Her job is harder. Her house is still falling apart except now there’s no one to share the problems with. Even when Jamie returns it only makes it harder for her to understand how she’s supposed to live her life with a ghost (especially the boring ghosts who have invaded her life). And when a possible new romance comes along we understand how conflicted Nina is and we follow her as she genuinely comes to grips with her grief.

3) Italian for Beginners
Long Dark Shadow It Can't Escape: Every other Dogme 95 movie (The Celebration, Idiots…)

Some Danish filmmakers in the 1990s led a very interesting film movement directed at making movies that stripped away a lot of the ways directors created reality on-screen. The people who were led to embrace this style felt that it was a more honest way of creating movies, so it’s no surprise that many of the stories involved taboo subjects like family secrets (Celebration, Mifune) and dysfunctional behavior (The Idiots, Julien Donkey-Boy). The movies are often great, but not usually pleasant. So a movie like Italian for Beginners gets easily lost in its associations with this austere school of cinema, which is a shame, because it’s a movie that Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers should be forced to watch on a loop. The plot is simple enough: The progressive new priest in a small Danish village joins the lovelorn singles in town taking an Italian class to add some adventure to their mundane lives. All of the small elements that define the romantic comedy are in place, but the Dogme style (and maybe Danish sensibilities) kill the cliché with realistic and deeply muted performances.

4) Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Long Dark Shadow It Can't Escape: Oldboy

Most people who discover Park Chan-Wook become fans of Oldboy. It makes sense that people fall in love with that movie – the ending is so jaw-dropping and the build up to the revelations is so intimate that the shocking acts of violence at the end aren’t the porn-violence you find in a lot of Korean horror films (or any Eli Roth movie). Revisiting the director, people long to repeat the mind-bending way that film unravels. The first film in his trilogy, however, presents a very different meditation on vengeance, one where the motivations of the people is never unclear. A deaf-mute factory worker searches for a way to provide his sister with a kidney transplant. When he’s laid off, he tries to use a black market kidney exchange. When that goes horribly awry, his leftist girlfriend convinces him that he should kidnap a different factory owner’s son to raise the money he needs. You know from every terrible idea’s outset that things aren’t going to end well. All of the movies take us to a point where we see vengeance as pointless. But here all of the characters have selfless motivations. This movie makes us interested in what can drive people to feel so wronged that they try to exact vengeance and sad to see the toll it takes on all of them.

Luke O'Brien works for a privately held movie database . His day job just supports his avocation: answering people's questions about what to put next in their Netflix queue. If you need help pairing a bad movie with a good bourbon, he's happy to help.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #39: Prospectors and Alchemists

One of the assignments I’m working on now is about hedge-fund guys, so I’ve been reading a lot of books about that world. I’ve noticed that they go through a very similar initiation ritual to writers (and probably similar to everybody else whose job requires that they seem clever).

Some stock picker will have a good year and so they’ll start a hedge fund with much fanfare. For about two seconds they’re the new golden boy. Then a few trades go south and they very quickly go from golden boy to toxic waste before they even know what hit them. What do they do now? They face a perilous choice. They got to where they are through intuition. They had a sixth sense for good ideas. They didn’t know where the ideas came from and neither did anyone else, so people began to suspect that maybe they were had magical powers, and invested some capital in them.

But the magic was an illusion. Nobody starts a hedge fund after a bad year, so when a good year finally hits, the preceding years of misses get wiped off your record and the myth of the instant success is created. But, statistically speaking, it’s likely that the next year will take you right back to misses, except now you’re putting real money at risk.

This is the situation George Soros faced in 1985. He had trusted his intuition and convinced some big money to follow him, but then he made a few bad bets and he couldn’t figure out what went wrong. Wasn’t he a genius? No, he realized, he wasn’t. He had been a good guesser, but guesses aren’t a reliable commodity that you can sell. He came to a horrible realization: he had to ignore his own intuition and rebuild his ideas from scratch. He had to take his good guesses apart and figure out why they had worked, in order to figure out why his bad guesses had flopped. He started keeping a diary of every idea that came into his head as a “real-time thought experiment” and picking apart every assumption.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been doing the same thing recently. In writing, as in finance, you can get in the door based on early promise, but then you’re expected to perform every time, and to do so you have to learn totally different habits, ignoring the instincts that got you there and replacing them with a repeatable structure. 

In film school, they teach you to ignore all doubts and listen to your inner wellspring of inspiration, where you go panning for flecks of gold.
When you build up enough flecks, you enter the marketplace. But you quickly discover that flecks of gold don’t come quickly enough to make a living. You’re no longer a prospector. You’re now an alchemist. You’re not looking for gold wherever you find it, you’re expected to produce it on cue, and when you’re asked to re-write somebody else’s abandoned script, you frequently have to start with a hunk of lead.

Soros’s diary had a happy ending: his new process led him to make a huge bet against the dollar that yielded a profit of $230 million overnight, securing his fortune and his fame. He published the diary as a book called The Alchemy of Finance. He never went back to prospecting.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Underrated Movie #89: Below

Title: Below
Year: 2002
Director: David Twohy
Writers: Lucas Sussman & Darren Aronofsky and David Twohy
Stars: Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams, Matthew Davis, Holt McCallany, Zach Galifianakis 
The Story: During World War II, a stir-crazy American submarine crew rescues the survivors of a British medical ship, but before they can get to shore, they come to fear that they are haunted by an malevolent spirt—a spirit that won’t be satisfied until it reveals a horrible secret held by certain members of the crew.
How it Came to be Underrated: The Weinsteins can do a great job distributing a movie, when they feel like it, but they’re more often happy to consign it to the briny deep. After Aronofsky decided he wasn’t going to direct this one himself, Harvey and Bob never regained interest and dumped the final product quietly, which is a shame since it’s an effective little thriller.

Why It’s Fun:
  1. This was the first time I noticed a forceful young actor named Holt McCallany, and he’s shown up occasionally since, but he hasn’t achieved the stardom he deserves. In the fall he’ll star in a well-pedigreed boxing show on FX, so hopefully that will finally be his big break.
  2. Unfortunately, though most of the ensemble cast is great, what hurt the movie the most was that the actual hero is played by a bland Cary Elwes lookalike named Matthew Davis. Of course, the script does him no favors—the character has no special skills!
  3. I’ve tried to write “ghost who wants to expose an injustice” movies before and been stymied by a problematic question: are we rooting for the ghost or not? After all, the ghost is also endangering our heroes, who didn’t know about the injustice, but we want the truth to come out. This movie sidesteps those issues neatly, keeping the focus on the interpersonal and naval conflicts, relegating the supernatural to an elemental, unpersonified force.
  4. The conspiracy is handled well. The trick with conspiracy movies is that it has to be something that can come undone slowly. The heroes should only see a little problem at first, unraveling a string of little lies, one by one. The conspirators are the able to admit bits along the way, adjusting their story to stay out in front of the ultimate truth. The danger is that you wind up with one big “everything you know is wrong” reveal and the rest of the movie just lies there. Inevitably, you’ll have to reveal that big twist in the trailer, and then you’re left with nothing.
  5. And one more tricky area that’s handled well: one problem with a setting like a submarine is that you have to explain everything that could go wrong before it happens, which kills the surprise. This movie does a good job casually mentioning potential dangers-- just enough so that we’ll see recognize the big problems as soon as they actually come up.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: I’ve had an appreciation for the perpetually underused Bruce Greenwood ever since he spiced up the last two seasons of “St. Elsewhere” as a sociopathic intern. Around this time he was also great as President Kennedy in Thirteen Days.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly. I discovered this on DVD just after it came out and then listened to the lively commentary, which has everybody joking around in one room. I found it odd at the time that they let a guy with a pretty small part talk so much but he was very funny, so I started paying attention to Zach Galifianakis. That man is now America’s sweetheart.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Temptress of the Deep!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Hero Project #10: First, You Have to Not Want to Change

So what’s it all about, Alfie?

Two long weeks ago, I started with Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. This checklist greatly influenced Syd Field, the first guru to codify three-act screenwriting structure. Like all screenwriters, I have my own tweaked version of Field’s model. Generally speaking, this structure should apply to any kind of movie, from romantic comedy to horror and beyond. Here’s the blueprint I’ve used for years:

  1. Act 1 (First 25 min): Hero discovers problem (The Call to Adventure)
  2. About 25 min in: Hero commits to solving the problem. (The Crossing of the Threshold)
  3. Act 2, Part 1 (Next 25 min): Hero tries to solve it the easy way.(Tests and Allies)
  4. About 50 min in: Big disaster. Low point. Admits that the easy way doesn’t work. (The Ordeal)
  5. Act 2, Part 2 (Next 25 min): Tries to do it honestly. Fails again twice more, but because he admits that he’s his own worst enemy, he slowly acquires the tools he really needs, both external and internal. (In the Cave Finding the Special Weapon)
  6. About 75 min in: Time’s up. Realizes how to win just as the final crisis begins. (Sacrifice)
  7. Act 3 (Final 25 min): Epic confrontation. Hard-won victory or hard-fought loss. (Return with the Elixir)

And that’s done me just fine over the years. But over the course of the Hero Project, I’ve charted my growing doubts. I realized that my model usually starts with an everyman, without the skills he needs, who transforms himself into a hero in order to solve a problem. But people kept telling me that my heroes weren’t sympathetic enough. They seemed like losers in the first act, and their transformation by Act 3 was too big to be believable.

I realized that most movie heroes don’t start as an everyman. Most types of heroes start with skills and rely on those skills throughout the movie. This was a somewhat depressing realization for me. I liked the idea that a story was a generic blueprint for improvement that anyone could follow. This, I now see, is a very Freudian idea (though Campbell considered himself equally indebted to Freud and Jung). My model is about fixing yourself. You have to want to change.

Could it be that there was a different model? Could it be that most journeys are not generic checklists that would improve anyone, but specific journeys that fit the skills of one hero? I’ve been developing a new structure based on a more Jungian model. I call this one: “Wanting to change is the whole problem”:

  1. First 25 min: Hero discovers new goal
  2. About 25 min in: commits to achieving it.
  3. Next 50 min: Tries to achieve it by changing himself
  4. About 75 min in: Big disaster. Low point. Admit that changing himself doesn’t work.
  5. Final 25 min: Learns to rely on the skills he started the movie with.

Of course, as with most structures, these two aren’t either/or. They can be two different ways of looking at the same thing. The movie most associated with Campbell is Star Wars. Lucas famously based Luke’s journey very precisely on Cambell’s steps, then flew Campbell and Bill Moyers out to his ranch to film a series of PBS specials about heroes, lavishly illustrated with clips from Star Wars that Lucas provided free of charge.

But this new model seems to be equally relevant to Luke’s journey. Luke doesn’t really win by gaining new skills. (As James Kennedy pointed out in the comments here, his major new skill, using a lightsaber, never gets tested in the first movie) Instead, he learns to revalue the skills he already had.

Luke didn’t get to go off to rebel flight school with his friends because he was held back on the farm. Still, he has taught himself to fly anything and shoot at tiny targets, in his own way, long before the movie begins. Up until halfway through the final crisis, Luke still thinks that his life experience makes him deficient to the other pilots. He doesn’t even have much experience with a targeting computer, after all. But it turns out that the targeting computer isn’t helping anyway. He has to learn to be a farm boy again, not a computerized pilot. Only by trusting his pre-journey skills can he hit his goal.

So am I going to throw away my old structure? No, but I’ll keep developing this new structure to remind myself that there’s more than one type of heroic journey, and they’re not all universal.

So that’s the Hero Project, for now. I’m sure I’ll return to it as new ideas hit me. Unlike the Storyteller’s Rulebook, where I try to stick to proven advice, this has been an attempt to think about a new idea in real time. I didn’t know that I was going to end up here two weeks ago, but I think it’s been a productive trip. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if I’ve actually returned with any sort of elixir. Next week: some underrated movies, like it says in the logo!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Hero Project #9: Freud and Jung and Tony and Don

In March of 2006, I got a chance to attend an early screening of the first episodes of the sixth season of “The Sopranos”, presented by one of the writers on the show. I had some trepidation, since I hadn’t enjoyed the fifth season at all. Like so many recent near-masterpieces on TV (“Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” would follow similar patterns), “The Sopranos” had burst out of the gate with two amazing seasons, followed by an ambitious but not-entirely successful third season, then a sharply diminished fourth season. It was in the fifth season, however, that this show had gone seriously off the rails.

In the early days, it had seemed clear that this was a show about the unraveling of the Soprano family, and the mob in general. In real life, the FBI was breaking the back of the Sicilian mafia in America and the sense of that impending doom gave the show its weight and heft. But as the show went on, the chance of an arrest seemed to recede away into the fog, along with many of Tony’s other problems. As I pointed out before, a show that had promised change kept reverting back to immutability. Tony proved to be unable to adapt or fail. Perhaps that was the point, but the show had begun with his visit to a therapist, and returned over and over again to that setting. If you don’t want your hero to change, that’s an odd place to set your show, it seemed to me.

The fifth season had exacerbated all these problems. It started out with promise: Carmela had finally left Tony, and he took on a bunch of new lieutenants (like Steve Buscemi and Robert Loggia) who were clearly going to wreck things. Would Tony finally face a real crisis? No, Tony spent a lot of the season asleep, literally, as we indulged more and more of his dream sequences. The 11th episode was usually when the season-long plots kicked into high gear, so I was anxiously awaiting some plot movement when that episode arrived. Instead, Tony fell asleep five minutes in, and we got our first all-dream episode. The season soon limped to a finish. The lieutenants all killed each other off and Carmela reluctantly accepted Tony back, resetting the show to zero. Why did Carmela take him back? Because she realized that he was not unlike the bear who had been foraging in her back yard all season, and one must learn to accept bears, or something like that.

When I went to the preview screening of the first three episodes of season six, I was disappointed to see that the show was burrowing further down that rabbit hole. Tony spent most of those three episodes in bed, and the third was another all-dream episode: literally a snoozefest.
As for our host, I had been disappointed to hear that it would not be David Chase, the creator and showrunner, but rather another member of the writing staff. I had never heard of this guy, but I asked around and heard rumors that Chase had basically handed him the reins of the show. This writer had brought HBO a brilliant but unproduceable pilot script of his own. Rather than make it, they put him on “The Sopranos” and his vision had transformed the show. Uh-oh. Was this guy the problem?
Sure enough, the writer quickly confirmed that he had come on board in season four and pushed the show in a new direction. The show, like Tony’s old-fashioned Freudian therapist, had been trying to fix Tony. But this new writer had never liked Freudian therapy. He preferred the Jungian model. Jung thought that we shouldn’t go to therapy to fix ourselves, because we aren’t really sick. The purpose of therapy should be to get to know ourselves better. Like Freud, he loved the interpretation of dreams, but rather than use them to identify neuroses, he believed we should use them to embrace our animal self. This new writer was claiming responsibility for everything I disliked about the fifth season, and he had gotten even more control over the sixth. I gave up.
But… as much as I disagreed with his take on “The Sopranos”, I had to admit that he was one of the smartest writers I had ever heard speak. It was actually an amazing evening and I learned a lot.
A year later, after “The Sopranos” ended, another network, out of desperation, decided that take a chance and greenlight the writer’s famously unproduceable pilot script. Naturally, no matter how much I liked the guy in person, I assumed that I would hate his new show. I liked Freud. I liked fixing people. I didn’t want to watch some navel-gazing Jungian idyll in which the characters reconfirmed their sense of self every week. Well, as you may have guessed, the writer was Matthew Weiner, and the new show was “Mad Men”. I gave it a shot and quickly decided that this was the best show American TV had ever produced.
“The Sopranos” had promised change and then yanked it away when Weiner highjacked the Freudian journey and parked it on a Jungian treadmill. “Mad Men” was a different beast entirely. Once Weiner was playing in his own sandbox, he was able to create a world in which no big payoff was necessary. Tony Soprano’s world seemed destined to unravel, and when he stitched it back together every year, it felt more and more like a cop out each time. His attempts to change should have led him to either triumph or tragedy, but instead he just drifted away. Don Draper, on the other hand, is trying not to change, and he’s on the wrong side of history. His outlook and his world are inherently doomed. For Don, just getting to know himself is tragedy enough.
So what does this have to do with the Hero Project? Tomorrow we’ll bring this unit to its epic conclusion as I ask the question, what sort of journey is Luke Skywalker really on?