Archive for Kurt Vonnegut

Hi Ho

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2015 by dcairns

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When I first visited Richard Lester to try to talk him into giving an interview, we exchanged a few words about the generally regrettable state of Hollywood cinema and recent flops. “But THE LONE RANGER is coming!” he added, with gleeful irony.

It came, it flopped, and now as with JOHN CARTER people are starting to say, Hey, that wasn’t so bad. A little different.

(I strongly recommend Scout Tafoya’s video essay on LONE RANGER, comparing it to HEAVEN’S GATE. Really! It makes sense.)

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JOHN CARTER had some unwearable costumes and bland characters, but was also fun, spectacular and had a really good ending. LONE RANGER is beautifully designed and shot, and the characters certainly aren’t bland, but tonally it must be admitted there’s something haywire. I think someone felt that some humour was needed to make it commercial, but the goofy humour and broad slapstick selected are a little too far from the darker stuff, the genocide and cannibalism. It’s hard to conceive of a film that could contain that breadth of material and attitude without rupturing itself. I guess the rabid rabbits are an attempt at finding something that’s as goofy as slapstick and as creepy as cannibalism, but they don’t work.

How else to describe the film’s problem? Well, on the one hand it borrows from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST almost as extravagantly as the same director’s RANGO swiped from CHINATOWN, and also from LITTLE BIG MAN, THE GENERAL, THE WILD BUNCH and THE PRINCESS BRIDE. But it also seems to reference NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (see above), PLANET TERROR (one-legged woman with a gun for a prosthesis) and there’s a bit of DEAD MAN thrown in. That indicates either a very ambitious film, one whose scope might not fit within the requirements of a summer blockbuster, or else someone has been drinking loco water.

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I think tonal uncertainty is a key thing that makes audiences reject something. I mean, when we don’t know how to react to moments in David Lynch’s work, it’s clear enough that he’s put in a lot of work to make us feel that our conflicted response is OK. To give one example in LONE RANGER, the hero is mercilessly dumped on by the writers, and his Dudley Doright stuffiness allows quite a bit of fun to be poked. But when they try to make us laugh at his concern for his dead brother’s kidnapped wife, it’s rather awkward — because the last time we saw her, it looked as if she’d been shot in the head. Too soon?

Then there’s the film’s approach to race, which I think is well-intentioned but still troublesome. The casual shooting of innocent black and Chinese characters seems intended to make a point about the evils of the times, and a valid one, but in a feel-good action film shouldn’t there be something positive for the non-white audience to take away? Otherwise it feels like an unintended point is being made about the evils of modern Hollywood blockbusters, where the minorities can be laid waste but it’s still a happy ending because the important white folks were saved. (Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s point, expressed in Breakfast of Champions, that stories where there are important versus unimportant characters are a part of our major social problem.) And it’s true that the film’s ending is quite a bit less heartening than is usual in these things — his arc is one of gradual disillusionment with all of western civilisation, and he doesn’t even get the girl. But they’re still trying to make us laugh…

But it’s quite possible to enjoy most of the film on one level or another, if you treat it as a series of scenes rather than as a coherent whole — it’s only the tone that fragments it. The plot, on the other hand (by PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN scribes Elliott & Rossio, plus Justin Haythe whose big credit is, weirdly, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD), is perfectly serviceable, with enough reverses and surprises and logic and motivation to scrape by.. In particular, Tonto’s back story is cleverly prepared for, and quite moving when delivered. And fans of beautiful imagery certainly wouldn’t be able to watch this and then claim that they hadn’t seen a great deal of beautiful imagery. Some of it original. Verbinski can do shots which are epic, shots which are poetic, and shots that are funny, actual comic compositions which do support the film’s ambition to bow down to Buster Keaton.

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George Melly’s Trip to the Moon

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Vicious-but-fair title art by actor-writer-cartoonist Willie Rushton — not that those actresses look like that, you understand, but they both make those faces in this film.

For reasons to be divulged later, I felt like seeing some sixties nonsense, and Fiona suggested SMASHING TIME — she’d seen it first as a teenager, on TV one afternoon, and had been seduced by the whole idea of the 1960s. I’d seen bits of it and been sceptical — I like the ’60s and I like nonsense but there are certain combinations of the two that can be nausea-inducing (cf JOANNA, HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH, GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE) — but I was game and so we tried it.

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It’s not the best-directed film in the world, former cameraman Desmond Davis can be oddly maladroit at framing a shot, even when there’s a heap of mod clobber and pop design on display, and he’s equally gauche at staging slapstick, which is a shame because the script does set up some good gags. Said script is by the late George Melly, an bulbous jazz eccentric who saw THE KNACK, loved it, and set out to up the ante with cartoonishness, character names out of Lewis Carroll (Bobby Mome-Rath, Charlotte Brillig, Tom Wabe), a gaudy palette and bawdy slapstick that’s nearly bodily — a joke involving Ian Carmichael being fed laxatives and forced to defecate in a bathroom in which every cubic inch is packed with foaming bubbles hints at the hidden meaning behind the pie fights, paint fights, food fights and general muck-throwing elsewhere in the film. A bit of a surrealist, Melly had obviously glommed onto the Freudian underpinnings of all that goop, and wanted to snort about it.

NEVER MIND, I say, because there’s more to enjoy. Rita Tushingham plays a hyperbolic caricature of her KNACK role, northern rube in the big smoke, dragged into the action by best mate Lynn Redgrave, who’s inanely set on becoming a star by going to Carnaby Street and waiting to be discovered. Of course that takes less than half an hour.

The song is listed as “I’m So Young” but Lynn/Yvonne refers to it elsewhere by its brilliant alternative title, “I Can’t Sing.” Fiona and I can’t get the damn thing out of our heads now.

Fiona pointed out that female picaresques are very rare, do not, in fact exist outside of this movie and I suppose things like CANDY — has there even BEEN a picaresque movie in the last thirty years? Female clowns are likewise rare, but maybe producer Carlo Ponti saw GEORGY GIRL and THE KNACK, considered NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, couldn’t get Richard Lester, and concocted this concept? The Italians do love clowns. Lynn R. is a natural at it, to the point of maybe indulging in it a tiny bit in films where it didn’t belong, but she leads here and The Tushingham gamely follows, proving able at mugging — those beautiful eyes go ping-pong at a moment’s notice.

Kurt Vonnegut called slapstick “grotesque situational poetry,” and that’s a good description of these antics — occasionally a little too grotesque, as with an ECU of a bare foot stepping on a drawing pin — an involuntary hiss of pain from the audience isn’t really the emotion you want, is it? — and as with the paint fight where Rita is turned an unfashionable streaky brown and looks, with her screwed-up expression, like some kind of filthy witch. I like it better when it’s just on the cusp of awful — later, lovely Rita takes a cream pie to the side of the head and a great mass hangs in her hair… horrible, but hilarious. Kudos to Melly for actually coming up with sixties-specific fresh gags for a pie fight — most big custard battles just vary a few basic tropes (and are none the worse for it) but this one is seriously inventive.

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If Davis is visually a touch uneven, he does assemble a veritable Who’s-Bloomin’-Who of fab gear talent, with Bruce Lacey and his kinetic sculpture assemblage automatons (one kissing machine threatens to go full DEMON SEED on poor Rita but settles for pounding Michael York with a giant boxing glove); Anna Quayle and Jeremy Lloyd and David Lodge (all from Lester’s films) and more comedy homosexuals than you can waggle a stick at (oops, careful, you’ll have someone’s eye out with that!)

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It shouldn’t really hang together at all, but it does because Melly has put together a genuinely nice comic dynamic, with Tushingham trying vainly to keep her idiot friend out of trouble, and Redgrave oblivious to all this and clodhoppingly insensitive and unappreciative of her best mate. It’s a different dynamic from Laurel & Hardy altogether, but equally touching because you feel these two lady-schmucks really need each other, and that their friendship is worth more than anything Swinging London or Michael York with his Action Man hair and moustache can offer.

The Ten Commandos

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2008 by dcairns

My Ten Commandos of Screenwriting (a couple of people said they would be interested in a list of screenwriting “rules” — well, I don’t believe in rules, but the reality of commandos is there for all to see).

A Sonar Commando of the 32nd Century.

In order to populate this list at all, it’s necessary to point out that even the most amorphous of commandos apply only to traditional dramatic narratives (including, to large extent, comedies) — I should probably spend the next 10,000 words defining what those are, but I’m not going to.

Re-reading this, I still find it over-prescriptive, but if people want guidelines / thoughts, these are some that I’ve found sort of useful. None of them will actually GET YOU STARTED though.

Commando One: Battalion Leader Brewte Masterson.

Write something you would genuinely like to see. But not something you have already seen and enjoyed.

Commando Two: Major Dirk “Honey” Sharples.

Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise. There must be some uncomfortable material that the audience has to work through to get to the joy. This will accentuate the pleasure when it comes. Maybe this should be an end result rather than a goal from the outset, I don’t know. But I do think that pure fun tends to be uninteresting. Even Laurel and Hardy have those strange cartoony bits where Ollie’s neck gets stretched, or whatever, which always freaked me out as a kid.

Commando Three: Corporal Steve Punishment.

Dramatic tension = something is at stake and the audience is concerned about the outcome. That’s it. Conflict is not necessary for this. A man struggling to get a door open is a dramatic situation, and there is no antagonist involved. To say that the door is the antagonist is just being silly. And commandos are never EVER silly.

Commando Four: Private Burke “Silly” Beggar.

Question marks are shaped like hooks because questions are the hooks that snare us and drag us along with a story. The audience must want the answers to questions. They must also believe that some of these questions are GOING to be answered. So you can’t just accumulate mysteries as the story goes on, you have to clear some of them up as you go, while creating new ones. The TV show Lost is actually very successful at this — sometimes it might have seemed, especially early on, that nothing would ever be explained in a satisfactory way, but the creators have so far reassured their audience by providing satisfactory solutions to SOME of the big mysteries.

Commando Five: Private Baragon.

Surprising that Baragon hasn’t risen in rank, despite his obvious leadership qualities.

Character arcs are not always necessary in comedy. Typically, comic characters are funny because of flaws and intractable behaviour. A certain predictability is necessary to make their silly behaviour logical. For instance, Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm has a tendency to fight for a principle even when the reasonable course would be to give in. His intransigence is a recognisable character trait which we grow to expect him to display, so while his behaviour is inappropriate and absurd, it is also grounded in character. This may be why the show improves as you watch more of it — we get to know the character, and his behaviour, while never less quixotic, is more credible.

But if Larry suddenly learned from his mistakes, he would cease to be funny.

An interesting example is GROUNDHOG DAY, a very successful comedy that’s so good, it gets away with turning into a drama partway through. As soon as Bill Murray resolves to use his situation to become a better person, the laughs start to dry up. There’s nothing intrinsically funny about watching somebody improve (I’m not sure disimproving would be funny either: could Macbeth, a play about the slow decay of the moral sense, translate into comedy?). But the film has hooked us in with its premise and its characters rather than purely with comedy, and so few even notice that they’ve stopped laughing. They’re still smiling very loudly.

But Buster Keaton made several great features where his character did not change (half of his films are about unworldly but hard-working fellows who succeed through perseverance or ingenuity, without changing who they are at all; the other half, which DO have character arcs, are about immature rich kids who have to acquire those traits) and Chaplin never changed. W.C. Fields and Mae West don’t change, and we love them for it. My God it would be AWFUL if they changed. Perhaps the ineffable unalterability of Laurel & Hardy made them better suited to shorts than features, but they did nevertheless make several terrific long-form films.

Comedy characters CAN change, and “learn important lessons,” it’s just that they needn’t ALWAYS.

Commando Six: Private Rocky Hemingway.

Films can do many things. Starting with a limited idea of what’s possible is not helpful. Expand your horizons beyond just a few types of commercial cinema before beginning. I want screenwriters to broaden the possibilities, at least a bit, with everything they write.

And: each element in a script should be multi-purpose. A scene does not justify its existence just by “Introducing a character,” or “showing that the bad guy has a human side.” Each scene should probably do several things: (1) move the action forward (2) create new questions (3) answer old questions (4) develop the characters (5) increase the tension (6) get a laugh — AT LEAST three of these. And every line of dialogue should justify its presence by (a) characterising the speaker (b) characterising the listener (c) advancing the plot (d) getting a laugh — AT LEAST two of these.

Commando Seven: Private Ernst “Gnasher” Mandibles.

Format and prose: learn how scripts are formatted and follow that. Nothing is gained by weird formatting. But the rules are simple, and need not be agonized over.

Develop good prose that evokes what you’re writing. If the scene is supposed to be exciting, use exciting, active language. If funny, be funny. But only while describing, as simply as possible, what the eventual audience will see and hear (while avoiding all constructions such as “we see” and “we hear”). Avoid technical descriptions of camerawork, but suggest the stylistic approach by language: a sentence equals a shot; “the hand turns the key” suggests a close-up. Rewriting: Remove excess words. Replace dull words with evocative ones.

Commando Eight: Private Gavin “Brick” Shithouse.

People obsess over structure without understanding it. Here’s what you need to know: introduce a narrative hook as soon as possible so that the audience is concerned about what happens next. If your first act gives us a character we like and a narrative problem for them to face, it can be five minutes long and that’s fine.

Don’t feed the audience a lot of exposition until they actually care. This is why people don’t really absorb the historical information in those crawls that go up the screen telling you who the Jacobites were.

In act two, things should get more complicated, with at least one major turning point. Usually the first half of act two builds up complications and the second half just keeps them in play. And often there’s a simplifying of issues so that the climax can be resolved in a straightforward dramatic way (often the dreaded “fight in a warehouse”).

At the end of act two, one aims for a moment when the conflict, or dramatic issue, becomes “locked”. The antagonistic characters are no longer able to back down, and must resolve their conflict. Or, the dramatic tension reaches a crisis point where it must be finally resolved. Often a countdown is introduced, so that we know this situation must be resolved WITHIN A GIVEN TIME-FRAME. It’s all about bringing the tension to maximum level.

Act three brings things to some kind of resolution: plot problems are resolved, character problems are worked through (important lessons can, if you really want, be learned) and the theme is brought into focus if it isn’t already.

Often the protagonist is going about things the wrong way until act three. Often there are three climactic problems to solve: an intellectual one, to give us the satisfaction of seeing something figured out, an emotional one (this is often very badly handled: moving conversations between people hanging from cliffs) to deliver the all-important character arc, and a physical one (the protagonist had better DO something).

Commando Nine: Private Bob Crunch.

The happiness graph: Kurt Vonnegut suggested you could plot the hero’s happiness on a graph. A popular form illustrates a character who is reasonably happy at the story’s beginning, becomes very unhappy due to testing circumstances, and emerges at the end very much happier than before. We could also plot the audience’s happiness, which might follow a similarly course in such a story. But part of the author’s task in a conventional drama is to create peaks and troughs on the graph, moments when the hero is very happy and very unhappy, or the audience is very happy or very unhappy.

“Oh good!” they cry, as the hero throws dust in his enemy’s eyes. “Oh no!” they cry, as the enemy calls in his three heavily-armed henchmen. In an exciting drama, the peaks get higher and the troughs get deeper as the story progresses, and they also get closer together, so that the graph of a third act should look like somebody having a heart attack. And it really applies to the audience more than the character. Observe how the darkest moment of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION comes right before the most pleasing. And the darkest moment is one of audience perception: we THINK something terrible has happened, and a moment later we learn that really, something wonderful has happened, instead. I actually like that movie best for how it illustrates this principle.

Commando Ten: Mascot Archie G. Marauder.

Audience sympathy is a very complex thing and it’s generally talked about as if it were a very simple thing. There’s a screenwriting book called Save the Cat! which suggests that you should have your hero do something lovely early in act one (i.e. save a cat) so the audience will like him. I don’t despise that book or that idea, but I do think it’s better to have the character make a choice that makes us respect him/her, rather than just do an arbitrary good deed.

And OF COURSE there are fascinating and successful UNsympathetic lead characters. The “heroes” of SCARFACE and THE PUBLIC ENEMY aren’t “sympathetic” at all, but they are fascinating. I think this gets overlooked because, while it’s easy to see why a likeable character would draw the audience in, get them rooting for their success, it’s much harder to say why these films work. Muni and Cagney are remarkable in them. Does the Irish gangster film RESURRECTION MAN fail because Stuart Townsend isn’t as good (he’s certainly not bad) or because of some more complicated question of the way the films work? Where does SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS fit in? The “lethal innocence” of the nice characters makes them ultimately dangerous, like Tweetie Pie, and the protagonist is a ratfink from the get-go, but maybe we’re on his side because he’s trying not to be destroyed by an even bigger bastard. Like I say, it’s complicated, and we should remember that.