This advice often meets resistance: “But I want to present what these people do in a positive light! I don’t want to bring negativity into it.” But the only way to show an activity as a positive thing is to show that your subjects are willing to overcome opposition in order to do it. If you just show people doing their thing and having a great time, there’s no story. If you show them doing it despite opposition, only then will we really start to appreciate them.
In my last two editions of The Meddler, on Julie and Julia and Walk the Line, I ran into similar problems. Both movies spent a lot of time on the heroes’ internal conflict, but lacked enough interpersonal conflict. This is inherently uncinematic. Not that internal conflict can’t be the topic of a movie--I’ve praised before on this blog those rare movies that find compelling ways to dramatize internal conflicts, like The Secret Lives of Dentists or Funny Ha Ha. But those were small indie movies. If you want to make a big, satisfying Hollywood movie, you’re need to show your hero overcoming actual opposition.
To re-imagine my Meddler picks, I had to ask myself: Who wouldn’t want Julie to blog? Who didn’t want Johnny to sing his kind of music? It wasn’t too hard to identify genuine sources of opposition in both cases. Once I added those elements into the mix, I was able to imagine versions of those movies that would be far more appealing to me.
Of course there’s a potential downside to this. There was an old Onion headline that said something like: “Area Man Fixes His Thomas Edison Screenplay By Adding A Character Who Insists: ‘How Dare You Invent the Lightbulb! Man Was Meant to Live in the Dark!’” When I read that, I laughed and then I winced. After all, I had just written a bio-pic about another inventor and I had amped up the conflict by highlighting anti-technology sentiments that sound silly today.
The trick, as always, is to do it well. If it seems too silly to your audience to imagine anyone being opposed to some innovation, then you have to delve deeper into that world and immerse the audience in an older way of thinking, one in which that opposition would actually make sense. Everybody who achieves anything faces some opposition, no matter how weird that may seem in retrospect. Your job is to dramatize that opposition.
Scottish director Bill Forsyth is best known in the U.S. for his 1983 feature Local Hero, a quirky, bittersweet portrait of an isolated Scottish community and the Americans who come into contact with them. His follow-up film Comfort and Joy is unfortunately less known here, possibly because it is purely Scottish, meaning there are no American actors in it.
And this is a shame. Forsythe’s movies are great. He’s a gentle filmmaker; his films are touching, simple, and create odd, unadorned portraits of “real” people. They are quiet little films but are always charming, quite often with a healthy dose of bitterness. The deadpan performances only heighten the quality of the humor and pathos.
Comfort and Joy follows Glaswegian DJ Alan ‘Dickie’ Bird as he undergoes the trauma of losing his fabulous girlfriend and becomes caught up in the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars. The Glasgow Ice Cream Wars were a real event in the early ‘80s in which rival drug gangs using cream vans as fronts fought over territory, but the ever-innocent Forsyth took the wars at their face value and presents them here as a rivalry among ice cream salesman. This violent war between purveyors of ice cream provides a wonderfully convoluted foil for Dickie Bird’s life as he tries to find meaning and happiness as a middle-aged man who has lost the love of his life.
There are so many interesting characters in the forefront and periphery of this movie–ice cream gangsters Mr. McCool and Mr. Bunny, the dentist who looks like George C. Scott, the psychiatrist and the station manager who both claim the same story from their navy days–and every throwaway moment is worth paying attention to. This movie also boasts the funniest collection of lame radio jingles you’re liable to ever come across. But be warned–the “jiffy pops” theme will stay in your head for days!
In our post Judd Apatow world, when was the last time you saw a gentle comedy with heart that completely avoids lapsing into sentimentality? We all need more Bill Forsyth in our lives, and Comfort and Joy is as satisfying and unique as an ice cream fritter.
Woody Allen’s first British film Match Point left me disappointed and angry. His follow-up movie, however, also starring London and Scarlett Johansson, restored what I love about Woody Allen to the formula.
I won’t argue that Scoop is a great movie. I will, however, argue that it is underrated and certainly the most enjoyable movie of the latest stage of Allen’s career. Some perks to this movie:
Scoop isn’t one of Woody Allen’s greatest, but it’s a fun, pleasing diversion in the realm of Alice, another underappreciated movie of his. But more on that another time.
“Let us all hope that we are preceded into this world by a love story.” So begins Sweet Land, one of the sweetest movies you’ll ever see, but grounded by a stark, simple Pioneer aesthetic. It’s like Appalachian Spring made into a movie. Or how Terrence Malick would have made Days of Heaven if he cared more about people and storytelling than he does about landscapes.
Set just after WWI among a Norwegian community in rural Minnesota, Sweet Land tells the story of Inga, an orphaned immigrant who has been brought over specifically to marry a local farmer, Olaf. The two haven’t met, and the Minnesota locals are shocked to learn that Inga is not Norwegian but German. The town refuses to accept Inga, and she and Olaf are ostracized when they end up sharing a house together. Forced to harvest their crop alone, the cheery outsider Inga and the grumpy and awkwardly silent Olaf learn to respect and then love each other. And after Olaf performs a reckless and self-destructive act of kindness, they are welcomed back into the community.
Director Ali Selim keeps it simple, letting the images and acting tell the story and never lapses into sentimentality or pity for his characters. Performances are grounded and utterly believable, even when “name” actors such as Alan Cumming and Ned Beatty show up. A double framing device in the present day about Inga and Olaf’s grandson deciding whether or not to sell their house and then recalling the elderly Inga telling him stories about her past, serves as a nice entryway to this place and time that is so underrepresented in movies. There is beautiful period detail of common life in rural America in the early 20th century but the film doesn’t wallow in it or glorify it.
Sweet Land is not only an underrated movie, it just may be one of the best movies from the past 10 years that you’ve never heard of.
In addition to co-hosting Iron Mule, Jay Stern is a writer and director in his own rite, for both stage and screen. He is currently working on his third feature film, the romantic comedy musical adventure The Adventures of Paul and Marian. Go check out the trailer and maybe even sign up to be a co-producer.
Ideally, heroes should be required to run into their love interests, even if they definitely don’t want to see them, so that you can have a lot more variety in your love scenes. If heroes just go home to their sweethearts at the end of the day and tell them what’s going on (Like the girlfriends in so many cop movies, such as Bullitt), then those scenes are going to be totally limp.It’s great if the love interest has vital information that the hero needs, or can otherwise be a potential obstacle, as well as an attractor. “Hill Street Blues” had a perfect set-up: It featured a relationship (and eventual marriage) between a police chief and a public defender, which constantly put them at odds. When they argued about the case at work, it could also be a metaphor for their love life. When they talked about their love life at home, it could be a metaphor for the case. Every scene had instant subtext.But Ross and Rachel on “Friends” were a much harder couple to write well. Part of the tension in their relationship was that they didn’t care to hear about each other’s jobs (paleontology and fashion, respectively), but that’s the sort of tension that kills stories rather than launching them. Ultimately, It gave them nothing to talk about except their relationship, in scenes that lacked subtext. In the end, the only way to wring interest out of the relationship was to watch them break up and get back together, over and over and over.
Take heed: there’s a reason why everybody gets worried when they hear the phrase, “Let’s talk about our relationship.”
The Story: A smiling war hero has come home, married a beautiful girl and become a civic hero by building good houses. Then a shadowy figure arrives in town seeking righteous revenge, ready to reveal the horrible things that really went down in the war.
How it Came to be Underrated: For some reason, this was never on VHS and has only just now appeared on DVD. It’s hard not to imagine that this has something do with the harshly subversive vision of the postwar era that the movie presents.
Why It’s Great:
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Leigh and Ryan reteamed for the equally-subversive western The Naked Spur, Zinnemann showed us another killer relentlessly pursuing quite a different war hero in Day of the Jackal.
How Available Is It?: It’s finally on DVD, and even though it has to share a disk with another movie (Mystery Street), they both get commentaries and documentaries.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Hang This Medal On Your Friends!
So tomorrow, I’ll tackle my biggest Meddling project yet: a beatsheet for a substantial re-write of the whole movie, exploring my version of a better Johnny Cash bio-pic.