Monday, November 28, 2005

The three

Since love seems to be in the air around the scribosphere (Warren Leonard at The Screenwriting Life weighs in on the future of the romantic comedy), I'll wrap up my postings on flimic affairs of the heart with three romances that I think anyone ignores at their peril. And not for ladies only, in my estimation.

Although Annie Hall remains the gold standard for romantic comedies (except, arguably, for Shakespeare in Love, it is the only one since 1934's It Happened One Night to win an Oscar for Best Picture), my favorite rom-com of late is Brad Anderson's 1998 offering, Next Stop Wonderland.

The always fab Hope Davis stars as Erin Castleton, nurse by night and newly-dumped SWF by day. The film traces Erin's wayward journey from breakup with her social activist granola boy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) into, literally, the arms of a thoughtful plumber (Alan Gelfant) in a crowded car on Boston's T.

Because our couple does not actually meet MEET until the movie's last scenes, the pleasure comes in going along for the ride: watching the orbits of their spheres draw closer and closer to the point of collision that we sense must ultimately occur. Erin enduring a meddlesome mother (Holland Taylor) who takes out a personal ad for her in the local paper, and the inevitable line of losers who desperately respond. Alan suffering through advances from a hot-to-trot marine biology classmate and attempting to move from the blue-collar world he grew up in to a different life working at the New England Aquarium. All set to a cool Jobim-infused bossa nova soundtrack.

In addition to breaking from the "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" convention that too many of the genre fall into, I think what makes "Wonderland" refreshing is that it is told mostly from Erin's point of view. Instead of the typical pursued object-of-affection role that women in these films often play, Erin is content not only to do the pursuing herself but also, when the suitor pickings look slim, revel in her solitude. She is alone but is not lonely. And, as it occasionally happens in real life, when Erin is least expecting to find love, there it is as if it had been merely waiting for her to catch the right train at the right time on the right day. Well-written and acted, Next Stop Wonderland is one you might have missed when it made the art-house rounds but makes for a good night in on DVD (either by yourself or shared with another).

Another Best Picture winner, 1996's The English Patient, gets much grief it seems. Allow me to offer a word or two in its defense.

The conventional wisdom, fueled more by the Seinfeld episode I think than actual movie-watching experiences, is that it is an insufferable snoozefest. Although no doubt long, clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes, I have yet to tire of the smoldering slow burn of its tragic love story, told across the African and Italian theatres of World War II. I understand the criticisms to some extent - too long, nothing happens, "chick flick" - but disagree with them.

Just as the ideal rom-com is somewhere in the 90-minute range and keeps the plot and dialogue popping, there is (or should) still be a place for the BIG romance that takes its time in telling the story. The ideas and circumstances relating to star-crossed love rarely lend themselves to easy exploration or tidy resolution. A soliloquy around the campfire about Gyges and the consequences of looking on that which he should have not is necessary to foretell the fate that will befall Almasy and Katharine when they act on what is forbidden.

And their fall, when it happens, is truly heartbreaking. The film speaks, swimming in the joy of language, to the sad experience of falling for the one you can't have, which I have to think is a fairly universal one. Don't believe the anti-hype if you haven't actually seen it yet. The reputation is fairly undeserved.

Finally, somewhere between the comedy and the epic, is the just plain old love story. For this, I keep coming back to Henry Jaglom's 1997 Deja Vu. Renowned for his improvisational style and a working friendship with Orson Welles in the later years of Welles' life, Jaglom here concots a both funny and touching tale of love that does manage to transcend the initial barriers that exist between the couple when they first meet.

Dana (Jaglom's real-life wife, Victoria Foyt) is overseas on business, first in Tel Aviv and then to Paris and London. Events - or is it something more? - conspire to bring her to the White Cliffs of Dover, where Sean (Stephen Dillane) paints a landscape that catches Dana's eye. Their worlds intersect further when they return to London together: she to meet up with her fiance at a house of old family friends; he to his wife in the city. To give more of the plot away would ruin it, and even I admit that the final twist strains credulity, but the ending is ultimately satisfying with a bit of the magic and wonder that more conventional romances play for cheap sentiment.

Jaglom's cinema verite bent is what sets apart Deja Vu for me. Although well-plotted, the story retains a natural and unpolished feel. It is more like eavesdropping on a love-in-progress than being spoon-fed the same old formula Hollywood romance. The scene where Dana's hosts (Noel Harrison and Anna Massey) riff in their bed on the childhood delights of chocolates and candy in wartime England distills the essence of their lifetime together and the comfort of their relationship into a moment. Dana and Sean's struggle to love against their existing commitments is as raw as it would be if it actually happened.

As opposed to the tragic love of The English Patient, however, these two are destined for a happier fate. Another indie film that if you blinked you likely missed it, I always find it a good tonic when my faith in Cupid needs a bit of restoration.

And a shout (ahaha) out to Shawna over at Shouting Into the Wind for adding me to the roll. I shall endeavor to live up to the trust that has been placed in me.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does

Billy Mernit at Living the Romantic Comedy notes the inevitable passing of the phrase "chick flick" into the official lexicon via Merriam Webster. Billy argues for fighting semantic fire with fire by applying the "dick flick" moniker to those films designed to appeal to those of us with the Y chromosome. I tend to come out on the side of Carina Chocano, who wrote the LA Times article that gives rise to the discussion, although for slightly different reasons.

I agree with Billy that there are some movies that are objectively "chick" and that men, as a gender, have no business subjecting themselves to. Foremost anything with the word "Sisterhood" in the title. See also, as we say in the law. My family continues to threaten to tie me down to force me to watch Steel Magnolias though, to date, I have successfully resisted. The only way that one will pass my eyes is A Clockwork Orange style.

But beyond that relatively narrow class of films, Ms. Chocano's points regarding the marginalization of many worthy movies that come either primarily or even only tangentially from a female perspective are well taken. I would go even further, however, and say that they ultimately come from a human perspective and applying the "chick flick" label to them serves only to perpetuate a false divide between the genders. If men are able to avoid works that remind them that they do, in fact, have emotions and are as desirous of fulfilling relationships as women, on the grounds that they are for "chicks" only, their guyhood remains unchallenged and intact.

I don't think it has always been thus. Sure, even old Bill Shakespeare had his fair share of blood and gore in the canon, but he is also arguably the source of our modern notion of romantic love and the author of The Sonnets. Which is not to say that today's man should aspire to the swooning, poofy-shirt poet archetype of Lord Byron or Percy Bysshe Shelley. But I think some restoration of balance to the male psyche is in order.

Rather than dismiss the "chick flick" out of hand, simply recognize that the rom-com is merely a subset of the greater class of romances that have always been the staple of men's cultural diet until only a few years ago. Romantic comedies, epic romances, or just old-fashioned love stories. There is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about romances and it seems rather insulting to men to imply that they are the exclusive province of women. Returning to P&P for a moment, Jane Austen, to my knowledge, didn't write her works solely for a female audience. One need not be a woman to enjoy her satire or be moved by the downs and ups of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Great romance is great romance.

I'll conclude my thoughts presently with a post on three of my favorite celluloid romances, comedy and otherwise.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Austen powers

It is a truth universally acknowledged - well mostly acknowledged - that the 1995 BBC miniseries of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is the definitive filmed version of the classic novel. The extended format allows for a full presentation of Austen's story of repressed love set against the repressive class system of post-Georgian England. And Colin Firth so owns his role as Mr. Darcy that he both inspired the character and played the part of Mark Darcy in the book and film of Bridget Jones' Diary. Owning a copy of the Beeb DVDs myself, I was doubtful that there was either a need or a capacity to top the miniseries.

Seeing the just-released version of P&P on the big screen, however, I must admit that there may be a new Sheriff of Herefordshire (or Derbyshire) in town. With perhaps the exception of the casting, I'm tempted to say that it surpasses the BBC's effort in all respects.

Although never having lived in England at the end of the 18th century, to my eyes the film nails the period spot on. Where the miniseries' sets, locales, and costumes were reasonable facsimiles of the manors, estates, and dress of the time, the film's really bring that England to life. The balls that the Bennet sisters attend are not stuffy and sterile affairs but vibrant and raucous and sweaty. The estates more accurately reflect the social standing of their inhabitants: the Bennets' is a bit run down, dirty, and lived-in; Rosings Hall is now indeed as grand as Mr. Collins would have anyone that cared to listen believe.

Additionally, in the 2.35:1 "scope" aspect ratio, the new film gives us a grander vision of the book than was literally possible with the television series. Director Joe Wright uses the widescreen to create a big-R Romantic adaptation. Lizzie perched on a cliff overlooking the vast valleys near Darcy's estate of Pemberley. Her aunt and uncle picnicking at the stump of a gargantuan tree. Journeys by foot and hoof over expanses of the English countryside. This is love that fills and rivals the natural backdrop against which it is set.

And yet, Wright manages to squeeze into two hours what the BBC did in four and a half. I would have to go back with the book and the discs to compare what specifically got cut, but it didn't feel like much and certainly not anything essential. Mr. Wickham's presence is reduced but he is, of course, a bit of an ass and barely missed. The miniseries is the completist version to be sure, but the film is by no means a Cliffs Notes or Classics Illustrated cut job. If anything, it tacks on a coda not found in the book that is as unnecessary as it is clumsily written and played.

Where I think the Beeb's miniseries remains superior, however, is in the acting. Firth's haughty Darcy is still the pitch-perfect paragon of pride. Matthew Macfadyen plays it cooler, seeming more oblivious to those beneath him than openly disdainful. Kiera Knightley's Lizzie is all giggles and dimply grins but not as fully possessed of the sense of otherness as Jennifer Ehle's. Instead of being above and beyond the social climbing completely, Elizabeth now seems in the same game as her sisters, albeit a better and more cagey player. The supporting cast in both versions is fairly a wash though and excellent in all respects. Dame Judi Dench brings the same scenery-chewing to Lady Catherine de Bourgh as she did to Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, when she won the Oscar for about three minutes of total screentime.

All of which dovetails to my real point, following up on Billy Mernit's post last week on so-called "chick flicks" and why I think the term, if not some of the actual films, needs to die. More to come.

P.S. Just out is Kate Bush's first album in twelve years, Aerial, and it is fantastic. A two-disc set, the first is a somewhat disparate collection of songs while the second is a more cohesive conceptual work. Along with Saint Etienne's Tales From Turnpike House (still import only at the moment, but also worth the wonga) it's a good year for concept albums about a day in the life in the Mother Country.

Friday, November 18, 2005

It's away!

Whew, so my round two submission for Writer's Arc is in an envelope and out the door. As with legal writing, everything took three times as long as I anticipated. And after nitting it all day, it's just mush in my brain. I think it's as good, given where it was ten days ago, as it was going to get in a weekish of rewriting. The page limit was a great impetus to cut out a good deal of non-essential stuff. Even at a litte bit over the 120-pages they asked contestants to aspire to, it's a lot leaner already. But who knows about these things. It's out of my hands now at least.

Which means back to some blogging after a little decompression.

P.S. to Warren. The Fifth Element is sooo supergreen. I love Besson's mix of straight up action and the off-kilter sense of humor. It takes itself just serious enough to be good sci-fi, but tounge-in-cheek enough to also be very funny when it wants to be. Leeloo Dallas Multipass!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Did the agent eat your baby?

Nothing substantial to post. Just saw a couple t-shirts that seemed appropriate for the aspiring screenwriter types at the Gawker Shop. In addition to some political and fashion-related tees, there is the always stylish "An Agent Ate My Baby" and "Hollywood Kicked My Ass", which proclaims your defeat for all the world to see. Only to be worn ironically, of course.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Welcome to the suck

The movie Jarhead opened this past weekend to a healthy $27.7 million take and mixed reviews. One person that caught the flick was Joel Turnipseed (actual name!) of Minneapolis. Mr. Turnipseed is a former Marine himself and was more than a little surprised to see portions of his Gulf War memoir, Baghdad Express, brought to life on the screen. Suprised because Jarhead is based on Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir, not Joel's. Complications, as they say, are ensuing. The operative phrase being "suing," although no action has yet been filed. The New York Times has the story to this point.

I guess Joel doesn't appreciate how much an aspiring screenwriter would love to see anything he/she has written brought to life on the big screen. You're living the dream, Mr. Turnipseed.

I have not seen Jarhead. I have not read the book, or Baghdad Express for that matter. I have no idea whether his claims have merit or not. As an attorney who has handled intellectual property matters and worked on an actual copyright infringement case against a film company, however, I was surprised to see this quote from the screenwriter, William Broyles, Jr., in the Times article:

"I feel bad that he feels bad," Mr. Broyles said, adding that he had read and admired "Baghdad Express." "Maybe some of it stuck in my mind or maybe it was already there," he said.

This is the kind of statement that causes defense lawyers to utter an excited "WHAT?!" and start reading the client the riot act. Without getting into the subject matter too deeply, the two main elements of proof of copyright infringement are: (1) access; and (2) substantial similarity. A plaintiff must show that the defendant first had access to the copyrighted work and that the alleged-infringing work is substantially similar. The plaintiff does not have to prove actual copying. This is why, ostensibly, nobody in the industry will even open up an unsolicited work that is sent to them. No one wants there to be even a question of whether they had access to a work that is later said to form the basis for an infringement action. Of course, I doubt any executives are losing sleep over not having to read all of the spec scripts that get trashed as a result of this policy.

It seems to me, unfortunately for the well-rested executives at Universal, that Mr. Broyles has given some clear evidence of access for Mr. Turnipseed and his counsel. The question then becomes just how substantially similar are the alleged infringing passages. But if you're at that point in the analysis, you've already lost at least half the battle. There is also the question of damages, e.g., how much did the alleged infringement contribute to the value of the work, which is a whole other can of worms requiring (expensive) expert testimony. The lesson I think any screenwriter, aspiring or not, can take away from this is don't go talking to the New York Times about your creative process if a question about the source of your ideas arises. A terse "no comment" will suffice. Your attorney will likely thank you for it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fellowship of the . . . fellowship

A quick and likely inaccurate head count says that fellow bloggers Warren, Shawna, and writergurl are also on to the next round in The Writer's Arc. West Side represent! Congratulations and good luck all around. Now get back to polishing.

Thanks also to Warren for adding me to his blog roll at The Screenwriting Life.

The first cut won't hurt at all . . .

So because I don't currently live in the Los Angeles area, my potential as an aspiring screenwriter is obviously limited. Inexorably, the time approaches when I will have to pull up stakes and send the wagon train westward. Ho!

Enter The Writer's Arc, a fellowship program in L.A. for persons in such situations as myself. The brainchild of two Hollywood execs, Ami Vitori and Amy Kane, the gist is if you're selected, the program will give you a $7,500 stipend to actually move out there and spend 16 weeks writing a script and learning some of the ins and outs of the industry. Just the thing to jump start a budding scribe's career, no?

But they're not going to hand that kind of opportunity out willy-nilly, you say. Of course not. Round One of the competition was to take a setting, two characters, and a prop of their choosing and whip up five to ten pages of a screenplay using those elements. If you pass that test, then Round Two consists of submitting a completed, original screenplay (of your own, smartypants!) for further consideration. If they still like your chops after all this, you get a phone interview to pitch five script ideas to Ami and Amy. In the end, five to ten fellowships will ultimately be awarded.

I kept my initial entry pretty simple: guy and gal meet for the first time in London's Victoria rail station. They flirt, he almost misses the last train of the night out of the city, she saves his bacon nonetheless. Nothing too complicated, but with some snappy dialogue I thought. Luckily, the powers-that-be at Writer's Arc apparently saw enough in it to let me show them some more. Yay me. A small victory, perhaps, but in a vocation riddled with self-doubt and the feeling that you are flying blind much of the time, any positive feedback or measure of validation is nice.

Now it's ten days of crunch time: the full monty is due on November 18. Thankfully, I have not just been twiddling my thumbs for the past few years and do have an original work to submit. And the deadline has the added benefit of forcing me to finally finish the first rewrite and put it behind me for the time being. Only about 30 to 40 pages - the third act - and it's out the door. Hopefully it will be good enough to take me to the next level in the process. We shall see.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Even Rocky had a montage

One screenwriting/directing technique that seems to have fallen out of favor lately is the good old montage. Not to be confused with its fraternal twin, the series of shots, a montage allows the writer to (as the Trey Parker/Matt Stone ditty goes):

"Show a lot of things happening at once, remind everyone of what’s going on. And with every shot you show a little improvement. To show it all would take too long."

Where the montage could contain shots in different locations and at various points in time, the series of shots (as I understand it) is limited to one location and a single course of action. The author of Elements of Style for Screenwriters, Paul Argentini, further limits the series of shots to include only the main characters of the story.

A staple of seemingly every movie made in the 80's, montage was so overused and run into the ground that now it usually surfaces self-referentially and ironically, as in Team America: World Police (although the Montage track was first used in an earlier South Park episode). But if you're feeling nostalgiac for the montages of films past, I encourage you to check out, a fun site that has cataloged and rated many of the well-worn sequences. Broken down into helpful categories, such as Training, Dating, and Shopping, there's plenty here to remind you just why it is we don't see too many montages around anymore, although there are a few of more recent vintage in there.

I do have to take slight issue, however, with some of the ratings on the site. To only give the training scenes from Rocky III and IV a four out of five stars is a travesty. I don't know any red-blooded American male that can watch them and not want to jump in the ring himself with Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago when they're over. Sly may have not distinguished himself with later roles, but the man sure knew how to cut a montage of The Italian Stallion getting ready for the big one. Oh, and a great catch by the staff about the homoerotic subtext in Rocky III. Makes you wonder why Talia Shire was even hanging around the gym, full of sweaty oiled-up guys spending all day with each other getting ripped and cut.

Personally, I think it would be difficult to use the montage now without irony because it has been so done to death. On the other hand, great screenwriting to me is much about taking ideas, storylines, techniques, etc. that have become stale and putting a fresh twist on them. Everything has been done already and probably many times over, so it then just becomes a question of how you, the writer, are going to take the old and make it new again. [Cue montage of ASPIRING SCREENWRITER honing his craft over months of writing and rewriting to "Gonna Fly Now"]

Friday, November 04, 2005


Thanks to the herculean efforts of my friend and fellow HSX'er, Karen, you should now see a snazzy new banner for this blog instead of the ho-hum default that Blogger supplied. Even better, it randomly rotates between images of a peaceful Woo and an angry Woo. Neat, huh? Because my web-design paradigm is "learned helplessness," I have virtually no idea how she did it. But whether by magic or actual mad HTML skillz, the new look is great and sends the unmistakeable message to the net-surfing world that "Hey world, this blog has a randomly-rotating image in the header!"

P.S. This update also provides a shameless opportunity to post a pic of Karen's adorable golden retriever, Angelyne. She (Angel) enjoys long walks on the beach and tearing the stuffing out of squeaking Eeyore dolls. But then, he's Eeyore and who doesn't? It's his lot in life really.

P.P.S. Now that the changes are made, I can get back to real blogging and not just self-indulgent posts like this one.