Archive for Dan O’Bannon

Dynamic Conflict

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2018 by dcairns

I got Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure for Christmas, and it’s quite good — one of the best of these damn screenwriting books. I can’t bear Syd Field’s books, the man thinks “sets up” is one word, spelled “setsup” like “catsup.” True, he has slightly more screen credits than Robert McKee, but no feature film ones, and his TV writing credits are for a show he produced: in other words, he gave himself the job.

O’Bannon actually wrote movies, and had the debilating health problems to prove it. This is from Michael Wiese Productions, who do good film books by actual filmmakers, and it shares a melancholic quality with editor Sam O’Steen’s Cut to the Chase: it’s been published post-mortem, with much work from other hands to make a book of it. O’Steen had his wife, a fellow editor, to interview him and prompt his memories, O’Bannon has co-author Matt R. Lohr. I’m going to go ahead and blame him for getting the plot of King Lear wrong.

But the selling point here is O’Bannon’s unique take on the three-act structure. I’m with actual writer Ed Solomon on this one — reading screenwriting books before you start writing will just do your head in. If you write something decent, the books can sometimes be useful to help tighten it and make it work better. I’d encountered O’Bannon’s theories before in an interview he gave to a screenwriting magazine. There’s not much new here, certainly not enough to fill a book, but NONE of these manuals have enough in them to fill their page count. All you can hope for is that the good stuff will actually be good.

O’Bannon’s chief innovation is to better define the Act Two Curtain — in his formulation, at this point, “the doors close” — before this approximate three-quarter mark, leading into the climax, the protagonist and antagonist could theoretically have walked away from their conflict (yes, as always, the assumption is that this will be a conflict-based narrative: see Mackendrick’s On Film-Making for a bracing alternative). After this curtain, the characters are locked in to their struggle. Sometimes one has committed an act so awful towards the other than vengeance is now imperative; sometimes, one has been revealed to pose an existential threat to the other. I guess in JAWS, when the boat starts to sink, Sheriff Brody is committed to seeing the thing through.

In that same old screenwriting mag I read another movie hack claim that DIE HARD was all third act from about fifteen minutes in, but O’Bannon’s theory disproves this nicely. It may seem to be all climax, but just where a Second Act Curtain should be, our hero is told he can relax and leave it to the FBI now, and then discovers the terrorists are going to blow everyone up and ONLY HE CAN STOP THEM. Classic O’Bannon, though written by three other guys.

One always finds oneself talking about really commercial, manly stuff when attempting to prove screenwriting theories. One successful guide uses THE KARATE KID as its paragon. This alone should make us skeptical. But if you’re interested in screenwriting, test O’Bannon’s theory against movies you love. I might try this in a follow-up post.

O’Bannon’s other best point is where he blasphemously trounces the idea that Acts One, Two and Three should end or begin on a specific page, or a specific minute of screen time. He points out that the audience doesn’t know what time it is. He’s right. I think we DO get a sense, when we’re watching a film, that This has been going on a long time and we still don’t know what it’s about, when the first act is a long time in reaching its curtain. But we can get that feeling in fifteen minutes, if the first act is really boring, as I just did with a screener I was viewing for Edinburgh Film Festival, a would-be horror movie that began with half an hour of conversations. And sometimes we can get to the end of a film without once having that feeling, and STILL not know what the film was about, as I did with another movie, a thoroughly convincing and beautiful art-house job.

The surest ways to avoid activating the audience’s internal clock is to tell an engaging story or unfold a tapestry of cinematic beauty. And let the curtains fall where they will.

Dan O’Bannon co-wrote DARK STAR, ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL.

 

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A DD-Notice Situation

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2017 by dcairns

We watched LIFEFORCE recently, to get me in the mood for my trip to London. With Fiona protesting that she’d rather watch THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or any of the, you know, GOOD Tobe Hooper films. Because the man had just died, and was this really the way he’d want to be remembered? But then, I bet he’d want to be remembered as more than JUST the director of TTCM.

I also read some good defences of the (arguably indefensible) film and that, coupled with the fact that, you know, the man had just died, made me sort of afraid to write about it, because I couldn’t really bring myself to say that the film is “good” — but at the same time, we had a hell of a good time watching it, so there’s that.

How do we parse this distinction between “good” and “a good time”? Are movies like women in ‘forties films? At any rate, much of what is hilarious and delightful in LIFEFORCE *could* be deliberate, which should lift the movie clean out of the “so bad it’s good” category. What makes my head go all Linda Blair is a feeling that even IF the ridiculous choices ARE purely intentional, they still seem crazy and impossible to defend on any normal grounds.What do I mean? Well, the story, adapted from Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby (INVADERS FROM MARS) deals with a naked space lady (Mathilda May) sucking the energy out of London’s masculine population. I think the idea of a monster movie where the monster is a naked girlie is kind of hilarious — as if they asked the question, What are teenage boys REALLY scared of? I think they could even have gotten away with the nude, but not a really busty nude. The film looks glorious — Alan Hume’s lovely lurid colours in anamorphic widescreen — but the shot of the menacing shadow of tits on the wall should arguably have been vetoed. Except no, because it’s perfectly in tune with the film’s demented tone. Hell, it exemplifies it.

(Colin Wilson was England’s top existentialist angry young man for a fortnight in the fifties — I don’t know what led him to write a Quatermass knock-off. I first encountered him during research for a Jack the Ripper project — he was a prominent ripperologist — but, as I discovered in my reading — he really didn’t know very much about the case, and much of what he claimed to know was wrong.)

Hard to explain the odd effect of the dialogue: apart from Steve Railsback, it’s a lovely cast of Brits, speaking in a pastiche of Britishness that seems at least ten years out of date. V FOR VENDETTA has a similarly timewarped quality, highly gigglesome. I don’t imagine it sounds so comical to Americans, because it’s not THAT off. It’s a good pastiche of Hammer horror dialogue, or maybe a tough crime drama with Stanley Baker.That cast — Frank Finlay is playing it quiet, well aware how close to looking ridiculous he is. He only loses it when he has to shout over a radio link, and his Shakespearean enunciation makes the whole thing rather Toast of London. Peter Firth is superb — full-on restrained camp. That thing when restraint becomes in itself a form of ham. And then there’s good old Michael Gothard, yielding sweatily to the temptations of the flesh just as he did in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS and THE DEVILS and…And Patrick Stewart! As if the second question they asked was What else will freak out teenage boys? and their answer was Homosexual Panic. Possessed by the naked space babe, Patrick turns on his sexual magnetism, and Railsback just can’t resist leaning in for a kiss. Hilarious to watch Firth and Aubrey “PR Deltoid” Morris dashing in to manfully prevent this same-sex violation of the norm, and then the room going poltergeistically haywire as the thwarted sex drive runs amok. (“CAN YOU IMAGINE how much fun Patrick Stewart would be having with a scene like that?” asked my host in London when I described it.)There’s more, so much more. The film is much less interested in its male vampires, but one of them does get to say to Firth, “It’ll be much less terrifying if you just come to me.” Whoops and cheers.

There’s lots of impressive animatronic zombie-work, all cut SLIGHTLY too loose, spoiling the illusion, and lots of fun QUATERMASS AND THE PIT panic on the streets, and as I say, the film looks great. In fact, my host in London was taught at the NFTS by Alan Hume. “He called everyone darling, regardless of sex.” He was clearly the man for LIFEFORCE.And Frank Finlay’s finale is terrific — the film’s one genuinely great scene for which you don’t have to make apologies or suspend disbelief or try to wedge yourself into a previously unimagined tone encompassing camp and B-movie thickear, the knowing and the unknowing. A scene that would hold its own in a real Nigel Kneale script. And FFinlay, having held back so long, makes a perfectly judged decision to have fun with it, as he expires in a welter of bladder effects. Stirring stuff.

(This is arguably as inappropriate an homage to the late Mr. Finlay as it is to Hooper, but I watched him in Dennis Potter’s Casanova too so I’m covered on that score.)

So why can’t I give the film total respect? It does seem to know what it’s doing. I feel like a humourless critic at a Ken Russell film, recognising that he’s displaying a comedic attitude but unable to grant him permission because the precise timbre of his wit seems unacceptable. I love Ken Russell, I *can* accept his bizarre tonal combinations and jokes that seem designed not to get laughs but just to buffet the sensibilities. Maybe LIFEFORCE isn’t serious enough to get away with it? Maybe I should just bloody well RELAX? “It’ll be much less terrifying if you just come to me.”

Men from Mars are from Mars

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Tobe Hooper’s INVADERS FROM MARS — part of a set of actually quite interesting semi-bad movies he made for bigtime schlockmeisters Cannon (I would never have believe the daywould come when I might feel nostalgic for Cannon, but here we are). LIFEFORCE is a sort of laughable Quatermass-for-and-by-teenage-boys (the monster is the scariest thing ever, a naked girl) and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II is genuinely fucked-up and harrowing, if somewhat incoherent. See it — you’ll be punch-drunk afterwards.

In the 50s, designer-director William Cameron Menzies (name-checked in the high school in the 80s version) made an uncategorizable B-movie sub-classic, which tried its damnest to use a juvenile it-was-all-a-dream structure in an interesting way. I never felt it quite worked but always felt it was interesting, and Menzies’ expressionist child’s-eye sets are terrific.

One surprise with Tobe’s remake is how it doubles down on precisely the elements of the original that seemed dangerously hokey thirty years earlier and were least likely to find favour, one would have thought, with an 80s audience. Though there had been a spate of fantasy films with kid protagonists, IFM was never going to be another ET, was it?

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The central conceit is that of the genuine psychological condition Capgras Syndrome, in which one imagines intimates have been replaced with impostors. Or, in this case, taken over with NECK IMPLANTS. Neck implants appeared in Menzies film before they became part of the mythos of true life alien encounters, which maybe tells you something about true life alien encounters — but maybe only some of them? The cast essay a wide range of approaches to alien possession: Louise Fletcher does her patented ice bitch act, but more manic, but the best players at this are mom Laraine Newman and especially dad Timothy Bottoms, who is helped by Dan O’Bannon & Don Jakoby’s script, which gives him lots of quirky schtick like gulping scalding coffee supersaturated with undissolved sugar. But his stilted line readings and spooky demeanour are a constant joy. When he unexpectedly appears from behind a bush with a man from the telephone company (everyone hates the telephone company) the scenario seems redolent of cottaging, and Bottoms does great work with his explanation: “He’s from the switching department,” delivered as if this goofy remote-control meatpuppet WANTS the ordinary humans to pick up some Hidden Meaning.

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The other best bit of business for the mandroids is when Fletcher, for no discernible reason, starts reciting “A-E-I-O-U” repeatedly and then launches into a bit of Magwitch’s dialogue from Great Expectations (“get me a file and some wittles”). Interestingly, this is the bit right before Magwitch describes his friend who can crawl through tight spaces and eat your liver — a character who became serial killer Eugene Tooms in The X-Files. Magwitch never mentions that his friends sleeps in a newspaper nest like a hamster, but we can still agree that Great Expectations has had more influence on science-fiction than any other Dickens novel. Apart from Rod Serling’s Carol for Another Christmas, and at least until someone makes a post-apocalyptic version of Little Dorrit. Fletcher’s incongruous recital is wonderful precisely because nothing whatsoever can account for it — she’s a science teacher, not an English teacher, and anyway, WTF?

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Great-beyond-great Stan Winston aliens — he obviously got the same note about this being a pastiche that Bottoms got.

Hooper seems to be riding the Louma crane for the whole flick, serving up sinewy, twisting moves that may not add tension but certainly impart elegance.

I recently interviewed the film’s production designer, Les Dilley, but failed to ask him about this one. Tough brief — the film doesn’t replicate Menzies’ distorted perspectives designed to make the child hero extra-diminutive and overwhelmed, but it still embraces a form of theatrical stylisation unfashionable at the time (same year as BLUE VELVET, though, interestingly). And then there’s a Geiger-ish sensibility to the aliens’ underground lair. The difficulty is, the first INVADERS was replicating the non-cinematic media influences a child of the era would have, from pulp magazines to comic books, bubble-gum cards, radio shows and maybe TV. In all of which, space and space invaders were a definite thing, with set generic qualities (Menzies dutifully includes Bug Eyed Monsters and a Little Green Man). That world of influences has irreversibly split in a thousand directions by the 80s, so the film struggles to create a unified sensibility that feels like it could be a small boy’s dream, though there are some nice details like a NASA security device that beeps like a digital alarm clock. This is all happening in a suburban bedroom…

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And then there’s Bud Cort, who is just insanely wonderful for about five minutes before he gets disintegrated. Most untimely disintegration in sci-fi history, unless you count the guy in ANGRY RED PLANET who waits until the third act before getting dissolved, when he should have taken a Captain Oates long walk as soon as possible and spared us our misery.

There’s a thing: in ANGRY RED P, the Martians warn us to get off their dusty red lawn, but in INVADERS FROM MARS they’ve come here uninvited and dug ruddy great holes. It’s a bit rich, that.

Oh, Karen Black. Nurse. I hope I get sick.

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