Archive for William Goldman

True to Type

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 20, 2018 by dcairns

We watched Steven Spielberg’s THE POST and then moved on to its sequel, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN which, unusually for a sequel, was made forty years earlier. And it turned out to be the week screenwriter William Goldman died. ATPM is one of his best pieces, though he complained that writing it was very tough. It got him an Oscar, though, so that seems reasonable.

Comparing the two films was interesting. THE POST is solid stuff, as conventional as you’d expect from the Spielberg-Hanks-Streep teaming: “entertaining” is a very good word here. It has a certain forward impetus and there are nice bits of visual storytelling amid the gab and Spielberg’s skill at moving actors around as he moves his camera around is apparent. Hanks is fine, but no Jason Robards. Streep is great value. Alison Brie and Sarah Paulson are wasted but Bob Odenkirk gets some good business.

Kaminski shoots it in shades of gun-metal blue (not an obvious seventies look — more like DIE HARD) with the usual Spielberg God-light blasting over everyone’s shoulders but with crunchier blacks to point up all that clandestine power and subterfuge.

As a political response to the current times, it’s perhaps too polite, and you notice that when previous filmmakers like Pakula and company wanted to address the current situation, they addressed the current (or very recent) situation. They didn’t look back forty years for an peudo-analagous moment.

The great thing about a lot of seventies cinema is, it doesn’t seem to care if you’re watching. A friend said that about THE EXORCIST. Even THE EXORCIST, which wants to scare you, doesn’t really care if you’re watching or not. Your choice, it shrugs.

WHAM!

In THE POST, you can see the wheels go round: literally, with the fetishistic hot press shots of newspapers rolling out into the world. In ATPM, the source of dramatic tension is harder to place: in this one, typewriter keys descend from nowhere in abrupt, slamming ECU. The mechanism is concealed, off over there somewheres. Unlike Spielberg, Alan Pakula doesn’t seem to be trying to create tension, but there is nevertheless some crackling energy force underneath it all, created invisibly by the actors, the frame, the lighting.

I’m curious to look at Pakula’s later work for the Late Show Blogathon: I’m worried that he’ll have felt compelled to amp up the dramatics in his later thrillers, and I’m certain the scripts won’t be as good.

The secret wonder ingredient here is cinematographer Gordon Willis, who bonded with Pakula even more than with Coppola on THE GODFATHER — he seems to have shot nearly everything Pakula made (plus a bunch of key Woody Allens). He was a kind of Prince of Darkness, happy to let expensive sets and actors drop off into Stygian gloom if it served his sense of the scene. When he filmed car interiors, he let other cars serve as the light source, which meant the characters could cease to be visible even as outlines for long stretches or movie and road.

He doesn’t go looking for beauty: the Washington Post interior is as flat as it ought to be. But then he seizes passing opportunities for visual grace, and creates surprise with unexpected splashes of light, colour.

The tamped-down performances and low-key lighting are enhanced by David Shire’s muted score, so that nobody seems to be trying to make this a thriller, but everybody seems to be succeeding.

Poor old Goldman had to try to please the original authors, who were also the main characters, a star who was also the producer, another star who was Dustin Hoffman, and Pakula, who couldn’t make up his mind. It must have been a huge relief to him to realise he could cut the story off half way through, before it got to the part everybody watched unravel in the news. His script unfolds in a rash of names, names leading to more names, with ellipses used so boldly we fear we may not keep up. Maybe THAT’S the source of tension: our fear that we’re not equal to grasping Watergate. Thankfully, we have Deep Throat to keep us straight: “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

This felt like a good film to be watching right now.

THE POST stars Forrest Gump, Florence Foster Jenkins, Bunny Yeager, Jimmy McGill, Gerald Burlingame and Unikitty.

ATPM stars Jeremiah Johnson, Ratso Rizzo, Max Corkle, Det. Milton Arbogast, Henry Northrup, Cable Hogue, Georgia O’Keeffe and Tector Crites, or do I mean Hoover Shoates?

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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.

A Bridge Too Soon?

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by dcairns

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1946 — 250 British soldiers are brought back to Arnhem to reenact the battle they fought just two years earlier, under the direction of filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst. The result, THEIRS IS THE GLORY, is in some ways the most realistic war film I’ve ever seen, and at the same time a weirdly unreal or surreal experience.

By virtue of being filmed in the real locations, with the wreckage intact, and with real soldiers, tanks and planes, Hurst’s material can be integrated absolutely seamlessly with archive material from the real campaign. I’m assuming that the burning and crashing planes are genuine war footage, but other than that I simply couldn’t differentiate. I know the vast majority of the action is faked up after the fact, but I can’t really tell where that ends and the real war begins.

During the war, documentarists like Humphrey Jennings were making feature films which used non-actors in speaking roles. In keeping with norms for the period, staged reconstructions played a major role in the action presented. Hurst incorporates real veterans and requires some of them to stage their comrades’ deaths.

Fiona: “Wouldn’t this be incredibly traumatic for them?”

Me; “For anyone with PTSD, I imagine so. For the rest, it’s just doing what you’re used to only without the fear of imminent death. Be like a holiday.”

Fiona: “How could they get them all together to take part?”

Me: “I imagine they hadn’t been demobbed yet, so they were ordered to take part.”

Fiona: “That’s terrible!”

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The real soldiers bring a variety of accents previously unheard in British cinema. Actors spoke in two kinds of voice, stage posh and mockney. It’s rare indeed to get somebody like Eric Portman in WE DIVE AT DAWN speaking with his own Yorkshire accent.

Hurst was working class, Northern Irish, and a veteran of Gallipoli, all of which feeds into his approach. (‘I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland.’ Why for England? ‘Because an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners.’ Why not against Ireland? ‘Because an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen.’) Hurst brings the grittiness — little blood, but a lot of dirt — the authentic accents, some of which are particularly thick and obscure dialects — the sense of confidence that this is what these things are like. Not only do you get Ayeshire and Belfast, you get levels of poshness among the officers that simply wouldn’t be allowed into a film. We may think Trevor Howard and Basil Rathbone talk very far back in the throat, but they have nothing on these chinless saviours of democracy, tough toffs who calmly struggled through conditions that would have had me bawling within minutes.

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What makes the film a bit surreal is the very fact that none of these people are actors. While the officers seem to have some basic grasp of amateur dramatics, the other ranks have seemingly never been asked to speak lines in their lives. It’s not that they sound like bad actors, they sound unlike actors and more like Bresson’s “models” — they say the words without inflection, a little like policemen reading from their notebooks in court, and the dialogue has the slightly stilted quality of reported speech — for some reason, when people recount something they said from memory, they always make it a little bit more formal and awkward.

Hurst’s other personality trait I’m aware of his homosexuality — known in later years as “the Empress of Ireland,” and “a terrible old queen.” It’s possible this is somewhat in play when we see a dozen or so British soldiers stripping naked to swim to safety as the attack fails. I’m certain this is historically accurate and fully justified, but the sight of all those bare buttocks would I’m sure have been just as startling to 1946 audiences as the sound of an Ayreshire accent. I suspect Hurst enjoyed himself that day.

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Before he’s even out the water, someone hands him a cigarette. That’s nice.

The Arnhem footage seemed very familiar to me, not because of Richard Attenborough’s super-epic A BRIDGE TOO FAR, but because of Richard Lester’s small-scale recreation in HOW I WON THE WAR, which has the same surreal quality of combat enacted on streets and living rooms in leafy suburbs that look like they could easily be in England. And when I saw the man from the BBC sitting in a slit trench recording broadcasts on a gramophone, I became certain Lester had looked at this amid his considerable archive researches.

The Attenborough film is quite impressive as a logistical achievement — William Goldman writes impressively about it in his Adventures in the Screen Trade. It does fudge a bit of the history and the end line where Dirk Bogarde says the title comes out of left field. Goldman resolved afterwards never to adapt a true story again, because nobody believes the true bits, and the people involved are never happy. After more than half the British advance force have been wiped out (“The troops’ morale is very high,” says an officer in THEIRS IS THE GLORY, astonishingly), the Germans come to negotiate a surrender. “You wish to surrender to us? Very well, I accept,” says a stalwart Brit played by Tony Hopkins. And Goldman had to deal with a real aging British war hero who was in absolute torment about having this line put in his mouth which was said by someone else. Goldman eventually gave the line to Cary Elwes in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

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What neither version made clear to me is whether Field Marshall Montgomery’s plan was actually a good plan. Most of the Allied command apparently favoured a broad front, slowly sweeping across Europe, but Arnhem was based on the idea of creating a narrow corridor through Holland and across the Rhine, dropping paratroopers in at various points and getting them to hold bridges until reinforced. The flaw seems to me that if one point of the plan fails, then the corridor ceases to be a corridor and becomes a scattering of soldiers cut off in clusters from their own lines. With luck, the advancing army might steamroller through such obstacles and unite them all again, but what happened was that they made very poor headway and the poor paratroopers were left without support. Richard Lester called it the plan a blunder, and I yield to his superior tactical knowledge.

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Given that both the major screen versions of Arnhem are in questionable taste — one an all-star super-entertainment, the other a reenactment shot while the graves were still fresh — I nevertheless think THEIRS IS THE GLORY is the more interesting and rewarding, for reasons of its weird combination of visual authenticity and school play acting.