Archive for Jean-Claude Carriere

Thinking like a screenwriter

Posted in FILM with tags , , on March 16, 2019 by dcairns

I found the following text in a file on my work computer. I must have written it for a class but I don’t remember.

Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere says, “My job is to help the director figure out why he wanted to make the film.”

In fact, we could say that the preparation of a script – and the making of a film – is a process of finding out what attracted us to the idea in the first place. The theme is revealed (we hope) as the film slowly becomes the best possible version of itself (we hope). This will only happen if we’re curious.

We have to be alert to possibilities. In a good film or story, every element is working very hard. If you have a scene in a pool hall, you have to use the tables, the cues, the balls, the lights, otherwise the setting isn’t working hard for you. You probably have to use ideas of competition, of games, of skill, of cause and effect. These elements are automatically present and cannot be ignored. Some of them are objects but some of them are more abstract and thematic. They are all offering you clues about the ideal form of the scene, and the film.

We have to ask, “Why is this story happening here, and why now?”

We have to ask, “What is the universal significance of this story?”

Nothing is purely about one thing. The pool hall isn’t just a pool hall.

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It is a dimension as vast as space…

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by dcairns

And When the Sky Was Opened is one of The Twilight Zone’s great Air Force Angst stories. Other include the supreme The Last Flight with Kenneth Haigh (making a surprise jaunt stateside) and the similar but inferior King Nine Will Not Return with Bob Cummings (AKA the Butcher of Strasbourg). I was initially unsure what caused this harping on the aerial theme, other than the appeal of pitting a rational, manly, courageous authority figure against irrational forces he’s not remotely equipped to comprehend. It’s a good writing tip and I offer it to you for nothing: if you come up with an interesting dramatic situation, go looking for the worst person to put in it. But not the obvious worst person — something subtler.

But this episode hints at the spark that may have ignited Rod Serling’s fascination with this motif, for Leonard Rosenman’s score practically quotes Allan Gray’s sinister arpeggio from A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, another movie in which an airman must face off against mysterious and all-powerful universal forces, a story which similarly can be viewed as an account of supernatural interference or mental derangement.

Tip-top Zone helmer Douglas Heyes directs deftly, and his star is Rod Taylor, who enters his buddy’s hospital room at the start with an all-of-a-sudden move, as if hoping to catch the universe out. Then he hunts around while talking to his buddy, as if looking for clues. (Many dramatic scenes could be improved if at least one of the actors would prowl around in search of evidence.) What he’s looking for his confirmation of the existence of his best friend, who was on an experimental space flight (X20!) that crashed, was recovered safely along with Rod and his other pal, but has since disappeared. And he hasn’t just disappeared from the present tense, but from the past too. Like he was never there. Rod Taylor, it transpires, is the only one who can remember him existing at all.

What’s particularly frightening about this one, a Richard Matheson story adapted by Rod Serling, asides from Taylor and the other mens’ powerful performances, which make the whole situation credible and even moving, is the weakness of any explanation offered. In a flashback, Carrington (Charles Aidman), feeling that he’s vanishing (sort of like Michael J. Fox fading away in BACK TO THE FUTURE, but using no special effects, only acting) speculates that the plane shouldn’t have made it, that the fliers ought to be dead, and the universe is correcting its mistake. But that doesn’t fit the facts: the fliers are not being rewritten as dead, they’re being rewritten out of the timeline altogether. It seems like some kind of punishment for trespassing beyond the outer atmosphere, but nobody hints at this. The story sits there, smugly, staring at us and giving away nothing.

Part of what makes this superior to King Nine is that the focus is more on what will happen next rather than the meaning behind what’s just happened. Viewers experienced in the uncanny tale may quickly suspect that this one is never going to be explained — and it’ll be all the scarier for that. There just hasn’t been any set-up which could be repurposed to make an answer to the puzzle. Outer space is really a red herring. Instead of unravelling a mystery, Rod gets ravelled in one — it becomes clear that the universe IS correcting a mistake, sort of, and Rod is part of it. The episode begins with a shot of the space-plane under a tarp, but ends, after all three astronauts have been vanished, with a shot of the tarp lying flat on the ground, like the aftermath of a magician’s trick.

This covers similar terrain to Jean-Claude Carriere’s magnificent short film THE NAIL CLIPPERS — where a man checks into a hotel, unpacks, and loses his nail clippers. Then the overnight bag they were in. Then his suitcase. Then his wife. Then himself. The logic of a nightmare — also, a magic trick familiar to writers, who often erase unwanted characters, not only from the present tense, but from the past. “He’s been yanked off,” mourns Rod, using an actorly image instead — the vaudevillian tugged from the stage by a slyly approaching shepherd’s crook. The comic never does notice the crook until it’s around his neck.

Neither will any of us.

“Once upon a time there was a man named Harrington. A man named Forbes. A man named Gart. They used to exist, but don’t any longer. Someone, or something, took them somewhere. At least, they are no longer a part of the memory of man. And as to the X-20, supposed to be housed here in this hangar, this too does not exist. And if any of you have any questions concerning an aircraft and three men who flew her, speak softly of them, and only in… the twilight zone.”

 

Untaken

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2016 by dcairns

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I can recall my New york chum Jaime Christley, years and years ago before I’d actually met him, expressing dissatisfaction with Bunuel’s penultimate opus, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, arguing that with its endless parade of French stars, it resembles a gallic TOWERING INFERNO. I suggested instead that THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is the Bunuel film closer to the Irwin Allen-John Guillermin group jeopardy nonsense — a bunch of rich people in evening dress attend a swank party and are mysteriously unable to leave.

At any rate, I rather like PHANTOM, preferring it to the follow-up, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, which I really think would be pretty desultory had not Bunuel fired poor Maria Schneider and happened upon the bold idea of replacing her with two unalike actors, who alternate throughout at random. It’s a terrific trick: you know he’s doing it, but it’s really hard to concentrate on the constant substitution, since the continuity of narrative and mise-en-scene keeps telling our subconscious that it’s positively the same dame.

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While OBJECT has a great story idea and a great casting gimmick, PHANTOM, like DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE before it, has a ton of ideas and a ton of gimmicks, many of them brilliant. It lacks the unifying conceit of its predecessor, it’s true (friends try to have dinner; fail) but the way it weaves its fragmented sketches together, and the way some of them return for encores, I find dazzling. Another skeptical friend dismisses it as “slow Monty Python,” but the leisurely pace for me is part of the charm, contributing to the deadpan effect. Skits unfold pedantically, as if nothing odd were happening at all.

The missing child scenario is probably the best — every parents’ nightmare gets played out perfectly straight, save for one rogue element — the missing child is right there all the time. Characters can see and talk to her, and she talks right back. But they still believe she#s missing. Bunuel and his co-scenarist. Jean-Claude Carriere, play this stuff out as naturally as possible, with just the one alteration to the norm which makes the whole ritual of questioning teachers and putting out an All Points Bulletin completely nonsensical.

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Best of all is the unexpected pay-off several sequences later when the detective attempts to explain how the child has been recovered. “This ought to be good,” we think, awaiting the impossible explanation. But some loud extraneous noise drowns the guy out as he reaches the crucial portion (after an incongruous opening about the inhabitants of a small town being awoken by a deafening blast). It reminds me of Leo G. Carroll’s spy plot exposition in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which Hitchcock wisely smothered in aircraft sound to save the audience having to listen to some boring information. Information is not drama.

In Bunuel’s version, we really want to hear the explanation, which seems set to be very dramatic indeed, so it’s hilarious when he frustrates us. Like the hot-and-cold temptress of THAT OBSCURE OBJECT, the film keeps teasing us with narrative resolutions, then crosses its legs tightly when we get close to satisfaction.