Tuesday, October 06, 2009

London 6: Day 4 - Class & Movies

Saturday... no fire alarm this morning, but not great sleep, either. I dash off to Starbucks to get some coffee and post some blog entries. The employees recognize me, which I find strange - how many customers do they serve a day? Is it because I joke with them about not wanting milk in my coffee? I don’t really have too much time to check e-mail and post because I have one of those 5 (FIVE!) Free classes today at the Raindance CafĂ© - Guerrilla Marketing. This will be an easy one because I have done it so many times before, though I always add something new.

Elliot gives me a hard sell introduction that makes me a little uncomfortable, but then I launch into my class and it goes well. Afterwards many people come up to talk to me, and I warn them that I have movies to see and may have to leave abruptly. My friends Robert and Paul have taken the class and I talk to them for a while - they will be pitching at the Live Ammunition pitchfest thing on Monday night... where I will be on the other side of the desk. Other people talk to me about my website or blog, and some just want to chat...

But here’s the thing - screenwriting is *communication* - and I am always amazed by the handful of people who seem to have no ability to communicate. I’m not talking about nervous people, I’m talking about people who say odd things or have trouble forming a sentence... yet want to write screenplays. There are a couple in every class. Oh, and there is also at least one stalker in every class. Some person who will not leave me alone and will follow me around the room. These are never attractive women, they are almost always strangely dressed men. And often there is someone who fits both - that “fan” who thinks that instead of saying, “Hello, Bill, my name is Carter and I read your website every day, nice to meet you in person, I’m working on a romantic comedy script, can I ask you a question?” they find some obscure thing I once said on my blog, and thinking they will win points with me for knowing some strange trivia about me will open with, “Do you need your hotel key to keep the lights on?” And I think they are crazy or maybe I’ve stumbled into the middle of a conversation... and they keep going on about blades that cut toilet paper and things that make no sense to me at all... because *I* have not read the entry on my blog about the hotel room in Denmark where I stayed in 2006 since 2006. They think I’ll be amazed at how well they know me, but I am confused because this isn’t the way you begin a conversation with someone you have never met in person... to me it sounds like a madman’s ravings. When you meet me, talk to me like a normal person - I *am* a normal person.

So I tell the crazy person I must go - I have a movie to see in a few minutes and must walk through the construction zone at Piccadilly to get to the cinema... and they follow me out the door saying more strange things that I don’t understand.

MOVIE - Vacation - A Japanese film about a death row prison guard in his 40s who is preparing to marry a widow with a young son, and in order to get two weeks off for his honeymoon volunteers to assist in an execution. Guards who do normal execution duty get the weekend off, guards who handle the executed prisoner once they are dead get two weeks off - because it scars you for life. So the day of the wedding and the day of the execution approaches, and our quiet guard must prepare for both events.

This film moved slow but was very well written - the guards all had distinctive personalities and after one or two scenes you knew each of them as if they were *your* co-workers. Not easy (to my Western eyes) when you consider that all of the guards wear identical uniforms and all are Japanese and speak Japanese. Every guard had their own perspective on the execution, from the old guard close to retirement who has been part of many executions to the new guard who will be experiencing his first execution and doesn’t know what to expect. Our protagonist has been through this before, and gets sick thinking about it.

The death row inmate is one of the major characters, and we never know what he has done to deserve this, but his appeals have not been granted. One of the fascinating things is that they do not tell him when he will be executed - this is kept secret from the inmate and the world outside so as not to cause problems. The press doesn’t know, the public doesn’t know, and because the inmate doesn’t know he will not freak out. The guards know - and must balance keeping the secret with wanting to make sure the inmates final days are pleasant ones.

Of course, no one can keep this secret, and it creates complications when the inmate wonders why the guards are being so kind to him.

Along with the planning of the wedding and the various pre-wedding events, our quiet guard’s biggest problem is his fiance’s young son. He wants to create a relationship with the boy, but neither is outgoing. The boy sits alone and draws pictures... and this creates and interesting parallel between the wedding an the execution, because the inmate also draws pictures. The boy draws fire engines and typical little boy things, the inmate draws scenic pictures of the outside world... and world he will never see again. Eventually the inmate draws a picture of our quiet guard and a generic woman getting married, and the boy draws a picture of his new family holding hands together.

There is a great scene - really well written - where our guard and his fiance are meeting the wedding planner, and the son wanders away and is lost. The fiance goes into a panic, and they search the grounds for him. The guard thinks like a child and finds the boy sleeping with his drawings in a hiding place, calls his finace on his mobile phone. He picks up the sleeping boy and carries him back, and the fiance asks if the boy is too heavy for him to carry. That line is *not* about the weight of the boy, but about whether our quiet guard is really ready to be a father. A good example of subtext in dialogue.

And then the two events occur, one right after the other... and each is very emotional. This is a quiet little film that still has me thinking about life and death. I suspect it was made as an anti-death penalty film - you witness the inmate’s execution and it is not pretty - but it is also a great character story about a quiet man who makes a major sacrifice to have a family and no longer be alone.

MEALS? What should have been my dinner break between movies is not very long, so I grab a coffee at the Costa Coffee next door to stay awake and do a little work on a late article for MovieScope Magazine... but after typing a couple of sentences it’s time for the next movie to start...

MOVIE: No One’s Son - from Croatia. This is another of those films where the actor is so strong someone in Hollywood should consider casting him. This guy was just amazing. The film is political in ways I did not fully understand. Our lead Ivan (amazing Alen Liveric) is a hero of the civil war who lost his legs when Serbian soldiers used him to find mines... they took all of the POWs and had them walk in front of the Serbian soldiers through a mine field (or get shot). Now he’s confined to a wheelchair, remember the time before the war when he was the famous front man for the rock band Refinery. He watches video of himself singing and doing dance moves that he can never do in his wheel chair. His father is a politician running for office... and the movie opens with his father and mother cleaning up after a murder in their living room. There is a dead man on the floor! Shot! They wrap his body up in sheets, take it out to the car (making sure the nosey next door neighbor isn’t watching), drive it into the country and bury it... then father and mother return and prepare for another day of campaigning. Who this dead guy is, who killed him, and why, is the meat of the story - and create a nice mystery that drives the film. Was it the father? The war hero son? The father’s right hand man who would do anything to win the election? Though not a traditional mystery with clues, the dead guy in the living room makes this more than a character study of a man who has lost his legs and his future in the war.

Iavn is an angry drunk, who has a suicidal urge to singe pro-Serbian songs in Croatian bars. This makes no sense, as he is Croatian and the Serbs are responsible for blowing off his legs. And *this* ties in with the dead guy in the living room (eventually). He also has an ex-wife and young son... and there’s a restraining order against him. His ex plans on moving to New Zealand with his son, and this causes him to violate the restraining order again and again as he fights to keep his son. He is a man at war with himself - and I believe the entire film is symbolic of the problems in Croatia today... and that’s the part that was lost on me...

But even without that extra layer of story, this is one powerful performance in an interesting film. As Ivan’s drunken exploits become an embarrassment to his politician father, who is trying to cover up the murder in his living room, a police detective begins to piece together the story and wonder why the politician and his wife would not be home in the middle of the night...

As election day approaches, and the day Ivan’s wife and son leave for New Zealand approaches, and the police detective assembles his evidence; all of these connected plot threads come together in a series of scenes that impact all of the characters... and we find out who killed the man on the living room floor and who he was... and how everything we thought we knew about these characters was wrong.

Liveric gives an amazing performance, and the special effects to remove his legs are seamless and invisible - reminding you of Gary Sinese’s character in FOREST GUMP. Another good film, and especially a great actor’s showcase.

MEALS? Between films I grab a soda and popcorn - this will be my meal for the day.

MOVIE: Redlands - 35mm mumblecore? Shot with all natural light in sepia tones with dozens of filters and film stock pushed until it grains out, this is the story of a family who lives deep in the woods in the 1800s, and a hunting trip to provide food for a starving family. Movie opens with the teenaged daughter self-aborting a baby by slamming a rock against her belly... and father discovers her and wants to know who got her knocked up, but she won’t tell. Of course, none of this is overt - you must figure it out. Much of the “story” is from her point of view with her narration. She was in love with a boy who moved down the mountain to town... and there are constant flashbacks of them making love in blurry grainy underlit extreme close ups that make you wonder what you are seeing. Much of the film is like this - BARRY LYNDON was also lit by candles, but that is a beautiful film where we can see the images clearly. That film used candle light to give the movie a warm natural glow that made you feel as if you were in the room, watching Marisa Berenson bathe. Here - not enough candles (two), so the film is pushed to grain, and even when it is not a close up, it is so grainy and dark that you often do not know what you are seeing. The film does have a distinctive look - I’m just not sure it works to get the story to the audience.

The daughter seems to be crazy, and has set the chickens free (have you ever tried to do that? Chickens are not intelligent, and always return to the place where they were last fed - they come back to the roost) and the family is starving. So dad and older brother send word (how?) to town to get a friend who is a good hunter... and just happens to the boy who knocked up the daughter. Which means the daughter and her lover are reunited for a few days before the men go off to hunt... and father begins to suspect this is the guy who knocked her up. As the three man hunting party crosses the woods and fords rivers and walks for more than half the film, we cross-cut to daughter and mother and younger brother slowly starving...

Except, I could not understand *why* they are starving. They do not have meat, but they live in the woods surrounded by vegetation. The film was shot in Northern California - and as a kid we went camping in that area... there are wild berries all over the place and no shortage of edible plants (many shown on screen in the film). There are scenes at a pond near their cabin... and why didn’t they consider fishing in the pond? In fact, when the hunters ford the river, I wondered why they didn’t just stop and fish. As a kid, camping near the Gualala River, we often caught fish *with our hands* - there were that many fish! That was only a few decades ago, when lots of people fished the river... in the 1800s? The situation seemed completely contrived and unrealistic.

The film is one of those “visual poems” that are all image and not much in the way of story - the men hunt, the women starve, the daughter remembers having blurry close up underlit grainy sex with the boy.... and that’s 85% of the movie! Eventually mom starves to death and dad “accidentally” kills the boy who knocked up his daughter in a hunting accident and they also kill a moose, and then they return home with the meat and they bury mom and the daughter decides to sleep with her father and gets knocked up again... the end.

At the Q&A afterwards that incest element was the center of questions, and there seemed to be no answers to any story questions other than it began with an image. The film does have a look, but it seems to have only enough story for 20 minutes stretched to 2 hours... and the story is simple and doesn’t really explore any of the characters. We never understand the daughter at all (filmmakers say on purpose) and she is our main character. None of the characters end up more than sketches - surface material. The film is all surface - external - images of men walking in the woods. We never get inside the characters. We never understand the characters. The film seems to treat a giant dead tree a hunter walks across and the hunter walking across it as equals - both just *things*. Dead things. This is the thing I hate about Michael Bay’s direction - it’s external and unemotional and treats everything like a product being sold in an advert. There is no difference if the “product” is a tree - it is still external and unemotional and divorced from being human. The numerous filters and grainy images and sepia tones work to *distance* the audience from the story - to turn the images into images instead of *people* on screen. It’s as if a *robot* is directing. Michael Bay’s images are cold. He does not tell a story visually, he has pretty product shots. And we get something similar here - characters seen at a distance walking through the woods... and the one character that we get close to (in focal distance) - the daughter who narrates every once in a while - is impossible to understand. She does things without reason, sleeping with the boy and sleeping with her father are equal acts... and as much as her narration may say she loves the boy, the *film* does not contain love... it is as cold and dead as the tree the hunter walks across. No effort is made to bring us into her character - instead we are kept at a distance. This is a cold, dead film with beautiful scenery. All externals.

Why are so many filmmakers afraid of human experiences? Why create all of these walls technically to push the viewer away from the people in their film? Why make cold and unemotional films and hold the characters at a distance? And why *contrive* a story, making it all seem unnatural and false and machine created? Movies are about *people*... and people are the ones who see movies. Just as a car chase does not buy a ticket to see a movie, neither does a *shot* or an *image*. If those shots and images distance us from the humans on screen and distance from *humanity* they are sabotaging the film... and making something that will appeal to Michael bay and robots.

Hmm, I guess there is now little chance that guy is going to buy a script from me, huh?

SCRIPT SECRETS: LONDON - October 10 & 11, 2009 - BIG IDEA class, using GHOST as our primary example and it includes the new Thematic element!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: It's who you know
Yesterday's Dinner: Popcorn. Sweet, not savory... does that make it unsavory popcorn?


Martin_B said...

Kubrick needed very special lenses to shoot "Barry Lyndon" by candlelight. From wikipedia:

the production got hold of three "super-fast 50mm" F/0.70 lenses "developed by Zeiss for use by NASA in the Apollo moon landings," which Kubrick had discovered in his search for low-light solutions.

LindaM said...

Vacation and No One's Son sound amazing. Thanks for sharing them...

wcmartell said...

This film *literally* had two candles, as opposed to all of those candles Marisa Berenson in the tub... but if they could not get the lenses to shoot with candles, they should have used some lights but made it look like candle light. An image that is too dark to see is hardly an image.

Amazing that Kubrick discovered those lenses and used them. He had a look he wanted, and found the way to get it.

- Bill

Anonymous said...

Not up on my terminology. Thought Mumblecore meant they were using characters from an off Broadway production of Lord Of The Rings or something heh... but I am informed now

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