Archive for George Axelrod

Script Creepers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m addicted to screenwriting books — searching for the ultimate secret! — and to books of interviews with film practitioners, so I should have liked Declan McGrath and Felim MacDermott’s book more than I did. It’s either called Screencraft Screenwriting, which is what it says on the front, or Screenwriting Screencraft, which is what the spine says. And that’s a clue to the central problem. (In fact, it’s an entry in a series called Screencraft, with this being the volume devoted to the script. But you wouldn’t know that.)

A book about writing should be readable, but this one is hampered by a weird format. George Axelrod is just saying “As you write the script, you know Audrey couldn’t possibly say something so ~” and you turn the page, and instead of the end of the sentence you have four pages of stills of Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra, with lengthy captions and a letter about censorship problems. Should I read this now, before I find out what Audrey couldn’t possibly say?

But there’s worse. William Goldman is saying “You are seeing the city at night, you are seeing this kid in terrible pain, you are seeing the bad guys coming after ~” and then we get four pages of stills and script pages (printed very small so you need a jeweller’s eyeglass to read) with accompanying commentary by Goldman on the pages. It’s a whole essay embedded within the essay.

This makes the book kind of a nuisance, even though most of what’s said in it is interesting. It’s probably more the publisher’s fault than the authors’.

Goldman probably needed nudging to say something he hasn’t already said in his various books, and it’s a shame to have Jim Sheridan, one of the maddest, most brilliant raconteurs I’ve ever heard, simply explaining the basics of three-act structure. He does come up with some good suggestions as to WHY the structure is useful — a script needs to have a strong point of view, but unless you’re careful, “It is like being stuck in the pub with someone who is telling you a very personal story and you begin to feel that this person is compelled to tell you that story whether you want to hear it or not. You start to feel uncomfortable. Structure can help the writer avoid creating that uncomfortable feeling in the audience. It works as a necessary impediment to that potential torrent of emotion.”

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It’s also great that the book has contributions from Kaneto Shindo and Suso D’Amico and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, people who don’t usually get asked questions about screenwriting in this kind of study. One screenwriting book uses THE KARATE KID as its example of a perfect screenplay. It’s very nice to have a broader and, let’s face it, better range of references. Unfortunately, while the Americans (Schrader, Towne, Zaillian, Andrew Stanton) love to talk about the nuts and bolts of craft, writers outside Hollywood seem reluctant to get into specifics. There are some stories about directors (Vittorio De Sica was very superstitious), some generalities about working hard and using your own psychology, but nothing you can take to the bank, as Robert Blake would say. The exceptions are Ruth Prawer Jhabvalla, who is very explicit about her technique, and the great Jean-Claude Carriere, who has a very practical mind as well as a poetic one — some of which he seems to have learned from Tati. Writing is problem solving — or problem creation, perhaps.

Here’s a good bit ~

In DANTON, an important part of the script was that the two main characters, Danton and Robespierre, should meet only once. Before shooting we rehearsed the scene where they met, in Wajda’s apartment. The dialogue worked but there was some spark missing. I said to Depardieu (who played Danton), “I think there needs to be a physical contact between the two of you. Consider that it is easy for a judge to sentence someone to death but much more difficult to kill someone with his own hands. Now, what will you say to Robespierre?” Depardieu understood immediately. He took Robespierre’s hand and put it round his neck saying, “You feel this flesh, this neck, if you keep going your way you will be obliged to cut it.” This became one of the best moments in the film and it came from the collaboration with a great actor who gives more than he is asked for.

Wrath of Kwan

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2014 by dcairns

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THE WILD AFFAIR is based on a novel by William Sansom — he wrote some good spook stories collected in some of the paperback anthologies I own — and is a pre-Swinging London sex comedy starring Nancy Kwan. Interestingly, Miss Kwan’s parents are played by a couple of white folks, including the Personality Kid herself, Bessie Love (by 1963 a British resident, accounting for her rather psychotronic credits) with no explanation for her racial difference, which is kind of nice. Of course, Kwan was a bit of a catch at that time. The only thing that would have been even nicer would be if they had found a couple of Anglo-Chinese actors — I’m certain they did exist.

Coming right before director John Krish made the micro-budget misogynist sci-fi UNEARTHLY STRANGER, this movie has gratifyingly more complex and less icky sexual politics, though we’re not quite out of the danger zone. Kwan, as Marjory,  is leaving her secretarial job at a perfume company to marry, but her alter-ego in the mirror, Sandra, thinks she should lose her virginity first, and the office Christmas party seems an ideal opportunity.

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The scenario seems to pose questions about whether monogamy and chastity are important for the modern young woman, but the movie slants things towards a conservative answer by making Marjory engaged, so that she’d be cheating, and by surrounding her with male clowns, so that the mere idea of sex is kind of icky. Jimmy Logan, the comedy Scotsman, is about the most seductive fellow on offer (he does downplay his trademark gurning but he’s hardly Sean Connery), Victor Spinetti is just impossible, and Terry-Thomas as Kwan’s lecherous boss is quite unappealing when he’s trying to worm his fingertips under her Mary Quant collar. The whole British sex comedy genre was based around desperate, craven, sex-starved men not getting any, an amusing conceit which started to disintegrate with the permissive age, when the possibility of actual screen intercourse rose into view.

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The film has several interesting women characters (including Kwan’s Miss Hyde in the mirror), but they do exist to drive home the lesson — the lonely spinster, the jealous, bitter mistress. And by making sex a practical impossibility, the movie unwisely creates for itself the problem George Axelrod diagnosed in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH: “The play was about a married man who cheats and feels guilty about it, whereas the film was about a married man who doesn’t cheat and feels guilty about it, so the film became rather trivial.” At the end of THE WILD AFFAIR — which is pretty entertaining  while it’s on — the main character has contemplated pre-marital sex and then decided against it — the wrong message for its era, and a heart-breaking waste of its adorable, sexy, smart and stylish star.

In It For the Money

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2013 by dcairns

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Came back from Dublin with a rampaging Irish lurgi in my system and collapsed into bed with a fitful cough that made my head explode each time it went off. Comedies were out. I chose to watch the worst thing I could lay my hands on.

That meant the 1980s. That meant Michael Caine. Add Robert Ludlum and John Frankenheimer, during his years of alcoholic haze, and you should have a perfect storm of awfulness perfect for a state of feverish narcolepsy. But actually THE HOLCROFT COVENANT displays dim glimpses of another, better film, as if two movies were projected on overlapping scrims and the wrong scrim was to the fore.

Ludlum: “the man who ruined titles,” as a friend puts it. I have a mental image of his literature — fat volumes of inept prose — but have never read any of it so apart from the fat part I don’t know how accurate/fair that is. He does seem to have yielded very little of cinematic value, and I suspect this may be partly due to weak characterisation — the one real hit in movie terms was the Bourne series, in which the hero is a literal blank. For much of THE HOLCROFT COVENANT, Caine’s character is similarly ill-defined, though that may be partly due to his inability to suggest a New York architect called Noel Holcroft (doesn’t he play something similar in the even-more-awful BLAME IT ON RIO? And with a similar name, Hollis…) and in THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, characterisation is largely replaced by casting.

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So much for the HOLCROFT part of the dreadful title. The COVENANT is a vast bank account of pilfered Nazi funds set up supposedly to redress the Third Reich’s crimes. We’re asked to believe that it was judged wise to keep this money hidden away for forty years (Why?), that the funds shouldn’t have simply been handed over when the Reich fell, and that Swiss banks administer Nazi funds for benevolent reasons. Obligatory Euro-thriller star Michael Lonsdale plays the Swiss banker, with Lilli Palmer adding class and Mario Adorf adding sweaty ebullience.

But why do I suggest that the film is anything more than sheer rot, with an offensively inane premise? Well, the screenplay is the work of three hands — John Hopkins, who did a lot of spy stuff including THUNDRBALL and Smiley’s People, Edward Anhalt, who did classy stuff like THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH but also fun like THE SATAN BUG (which I watched the same day by sheer coincidence, mainly because I was convinced I had the titular bug) and George Axelrod, a reminder of Frankenheimer’s glory days via THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

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Axelrod tends to smuggle in humour, sometimes in so black a form it’s hard to receive it as such, and it’s his voice that predominates, or would if the film were in tune with its own best intentions. Lines about Adorf’s character having found the perfect way to conceal his Nazi parentage by becoming world famous seem to leeringly point out the absurdity of the whole story. The NORTH BY NORTHWEST device of a regular joe plunged into the mad world of espionage is entertainingly resuscitated, at least on paper.

Caine is actually very funny in his incredulity at the secret codes and meetings in public places, but his being so evidently himself (complete with blazer) wrecks all the humour the script tries to ring from him being an American fish out of water. Co-stars Victoria Tennant, Anthony Andrews and Bernard Hepton (“Mustn’t grumble”) are forced to try to be even more British than they already are in order to try to make him seem American. Or maybe it’s just that Axelrod has written them as stiff-upper-lip parodies.

(Caine’s career seemed to stagger through innumerable fatal misfires like this one, but like a zombie from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, not even repeated bullets to the head could stop it.)

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Highlights of fatuity — a chase through a Berlin Carnival of Prostitution (because not only do sex workers have lots of disposable income to throw at street festivities, but the city council is keen to promote the red light district as a tourist attraction); a highly public assassination attempt on seventy-one-year-old Lilli Palmer that kills four innocent bystanders and one assassin while wiping out Palmer’s bookshop (“My shop!” she cries, oblivious to the loss of life) but misses its target; Caine constantly meeting representatives of governments and businesses away from their places of business, with no guarantee that he’s talking to the real deal (he almost never is); an eleventh-hour twist about a character’s identity which makes no difference to anything.

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The movie looks glossy and Frankenheimer seems, depressingly, committed — some of his Dutch tilts and one crash zoom on Adorf’s huge cave-in of a face are actually witty. Obviously the money ran out — the score is a pathetic synth dribble, and a series of voicemail messages early on seem to be recorded by the film’s supporting cast, doubling up as offscreen characters. One of them is Frankenheimer himself. Inspiration must have run out too — the climax reprises shots from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (much as RONIN and REINDEER GAMES would reprise the coda of THE TRAIN) and the story, finally unmasked as the great chain of piffle it is, seems beyond even Axelrod’s powers to parody.

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