Archive for Jaws

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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Ragnarok

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2015 by dcairns

Belatedly caught up with MILIUS, an entertaining (snappily cut) and affectionate (as far as would be possible without straying into straight hagiography) portrait of the auteur of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, RED DAWN, THE WIND AND THE LION and the exceptional DILLINGER, which is the one I would point to as demonstration that Milius has genuine talent and isn’t just a loudmouthed cartoon character — sort of a monstrous crossbreed of Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn. In fact, the fondness with his contemporaries speak of him, and the sympathetic way they try to parse his failings and outright insanities, speaks very well for him. And you can quite see, give Milius’s health troubles and the bravery he’s shown dealing with them, why you wouldn’t in any way want to make the movie a hatchet job.

Leave that to me.

The bad things I know about John Milius —

The published screenplay of APOCALYPSE NOW is a terrible piece of work. Windy, incoherent, preposterous and pretentious. All those qualities can be found in the finished film, for sure, but it’s delivered with such gusto by Coppola and his team — a film made by a bipolar personality in the extreme end of his manic cycle — and the additions to the script made by Brando, Hopper, and particularly Michael Herr, partially rescue it from its excesses. Milius did write some good stuff, including a striking opening in which a jungle slowly comes alive with hidden Viet Cong. I don’t know if that was ever filmed. But try reading the thing. Your brain will get indigestion.

“I still can’t get a room at the Ritz in Madrid because of what John Milius did,” complained the venerable filmmaker to me. Basically According to this account, Milius got drunk and shot up his expensive hotel room with his expensive gun collection, I guess during THE WIND AND THE LION or maybe more likely CONAN. The room was decorated with original painting and Milius put a bullet through each of them. Let’s think about that, as an action by a creative artist.

(But see below for comments from someone who strongly doubts the veracity of the above.)

“A bully,” was the verdict of the venerable film editor, of legendary standing, who walked off a Milius film in mid-post-production, something she had never done before.

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Milius has claimed credit for DIRTY HARRY and Robert Shaw’s big speech in JAWS. Don Siegel describes basically pasting together a bunch of different writers’ drafts on the former film, so I don’t know how much Milius really contributed — not enough to get a credit. He did more on MAGNUM FORCE, and look how that turned out. Carl Gottlieb, one of the writers on JAWS, gives more credit for the sinking of the Indianapolis speech to Robert Shaw himself. Various writers had tackled it, and Milius was one, literally phoning in his version, but Shaw — the best writer involved in that film, including the original novelist, turned up as Spielberg was finishing dinner one evening and delivered a sunset recitation that floored Spielberg and ended up in the film word for word. As Gottlieb has said, “Who are you going to believe, the guy who wasn’t there who says he did it, or the guy who was there who says he didn’t do it?” (In the movie, Spielberg sensitively gets around this by crediting Milius with the key writing and Shaw with the edit which took the monologue down from ten minutes to just a few.)

RED DAWN is a really, really bad movie.

Milius is not only what we’d now call a libertarian (Oliver Stone calls him out on that, critically but not unkindly), he has flirted with Nazism not just in the imagery of CONAN but in his promotion of it “This is a film that would have done very well in the Third Reich.”

I can forgive Milius, I guess, for dishing all the dirt on his friends to Peter Biskind for Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, because (1) it’s very entertaining dirt and I love gossip, as the above makes clear and (2) Milius loves telling stories and so how could he possibly help himself, when he knows all this hilarious/disgusting/embarrassing stuff?

And at the end of the doc, and looking back on the best bits of Milius’s work, I still have to like him a little. Even bullies can be often entertaining when they’re not in attack mode. Milius’ friends clearly like him and can see past the bluster, the cigars, the firearms and the contrarian-libertarian “politics” — in recounting the terrible circumstances that have robbed his friend of the power of speech, Spielberg is moved almost to tears — something we have never seen. We realize how glib Spielberg usually is, how he often can’t even be bothered to make sense. Here. he’s incredibly sharp and articulate. So is Lucas, for God’s sake. Anyone who can inspire those guys to choose their words more carefully deserves some respect.

After missing Vietnam due to his asthma (don’t smoke, kids), Milius finally has a campaign of his own to wage as he struggles to reacquire language. I want him to succeed. He was always a good storyteller when he got out of the way of the story, and now he’s going to have new and interesting things to say.

And then there’s this ~

Hats off to the big bastard, in a way.

The Frankenheimer Monster

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2013 by dcairns

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Had heard great things about how bad John Frankenheimer’s PROPHECY was, but we still couldn’t believe our eyes. Actually, it’s a movie that gets magically worse as it goes on, starting kind of OK and actually starting to get interesting until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

Like GODZILLA VERSUS THE SMOG MONSTER, this is a film with something to say about pollution. How it’s bad, and stuff. But the technical details are kind of plausible, and the human cost evoked with some conviction, until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

Frankenheimer always delivers technical competence and guts at least — this movie compares favourably with his delirious, delightful, godawful ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, in that the technical competence and guts are stretched awful thin at times — you now have an unpleasant mental image of intestines being stretched to snapping point, I know, and I wouldn’t have handed that to you for anything in the world except that it’s kind of an appropriate image to carry in your mind when considering PROPHECY. Until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

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Sadly, this isn’t the monster.

Makeup effects by the Burman brothers — Thomas and Ellis Jnr, who also worked on THE MANITOU, making them masters of late seventies Amerindian prosthetics movies (what, no NIGHTWING?). They have some good credits, and some really bad ones, though I’m disinclined to blame them for HOWARD THE DUCK — life is so much simpler if you just blame George Lucas for every awful thing involving George Lucas. I don’t want to blame them for PROPHECY either, and the script (by OMEN guy David Seltzer) is certainly guilty of multiple compound stupidities. Frankenheimer seems to be doing everything a profoundly drunk, talented man can do to disguise the bad moments and capitalise on the good ones, until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

When it does, replacing the tentative feeling of “this movie might actually be OK” with one of “this movie just became awesomely terrible,” it’s tempting to wonder what could have been done to salvage the bad bear suit. Can a movie about a giant mutant grizzly bear get by without a convincing giant mutant grizzly bear? Well, of course it can — look at JAWS. Of course, the giant mutant grizzly bear in that movie was a shark, and it swam underwater, and you could keep it offscreen. When it did appear, it looked fake as hell, though, and yet the movie survived.

The problem with the bear suit is that it moves like Godzilla, ie like a man in a costume wobbling about. Slow-motion might have helped, and keeping the goofy thing in silhouette for maybe 95% of the action might have helped. POV shots might have helped. God knows, Frankenheimer doesn’t linger on the beastie, anymore than he lingers on the Goodyear blimp nosediving the football stadium in BLACK SUNDAY, but even allowing the fucker to take a single step exposes it outright as the laborious make-believe of a sweaty man in a hot costume. He might as well be dressed as Minnie Mouse.

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The best monster shot because it’s eerie, and the monster is too far away to make out.

And then the movie ends, and we’re waiting for some horrible pay-off to the fact that leading lady Talia Shire is pregnant, and she ate the fish from the polluted river, and the mutagens are raging within her. And instead, as she and her hubby are airlifted out, another giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

My good friend screenwriter Colin McLaren refers to the “closeup of a bee” ending, that staple of 70s horror movies that says “the Whole Thing is going to Start All Over Again…” and reflects the fact that 70s filmmakers and their audiences expected to be unsettled, rather than reassured, by horror movie endings and movie endings in general. Of course it quickly became a cliché and wouldn’t unsettle anyone anymore by the time of PROPHECY. But while ending Q THE WINGED SERPENT with a shot of a giant egg may be knee-achingly predictable, ending a giant mutant grizzly bear with a close-up of ANOTHER giant mutant grizzly bear is just hysterically pathetic. And this one looks like a glove puppet. It’s not even uglier than the first one.

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I think my search to find the most stinking John Frankenheimer movie is over. Back to the good ones, if I can identify them.