Tuesday, January 31

Visceral, yes, but...

"Sometimes you're so beautiful it just gags me."

- Tony Kirby to Alice Sycamore in You Can't Take it With You (1938)

Sunday, January 29

And another thing to blame on the brain

Like everyone who has an inferiority complex about comprehending the science of our times, I'm fascinated by the drumbeat of insights - of varying significance - about what happens in the brain. Two recent articles in the New York Times have me reflecting on what to pay attention to when writing stories.

Recently, a study showed that we don't want to know, and that we fight against knowing, facts that contradict our closely held opinions. A Shocker: Partisan Thought is Unconscious tells how political partisan thinking "is often predominantly emotional." The rational brain was quiet - dark on the MRI - when confronted with facts the listeners didn't like. It reminds me of a friend who couldn't remember that Miles (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways was pathetically flawed. There was, if nothing else, his stealing money from his mother. "Oh, I forgot about that," she said. Once he's redeemed himself and reached out for love, he's transformed from pathetic creep. Which is another way of saying that my friend had forgiven him, forgetting the facts that no longer apply.

In other words, it doesn't matter much what they say. It matters what they do. Once we fall for a character, we're going to sort what we don't want to believe and follow our emotions.

Yes, they're telling you how you feel

Mirror neurons, that is. These are a relatively new function of particular neurons and related complex structures that may explain why movies have the power to move us as few other art forms do. Empathy, it turns out, is not just an unconscious emotional capacity, it's built into our cells and molecules.

In a story in the New York Times, Sandra Blakeslee reports that recent research shows mirror neurons may account for such things as recognizing behavior and anticipating what happens next, and social emotions - shame, rejection, loss - which register directly in viewers who see others suffer such emotions.

And get this:
"The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others, but their intentions, the social meaning of the behavior and their emotions."
"Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the mind of others through...direct simulation, by feeling...."

We feel what others feel, apparently, for the long-term survival and growth of the species. So folks, what we're handling when we write stories is the power to touch the spark and tinder of the thing we have in common, beneath all our differences. It's why we hate the feeling of being manipulated by stories, but cry anyway. It's why we back movies that come at us like an emotional tracheotomy going for the throat. And it's why we love the success of a great movie that's true. Not just the correct facts, but true feelings, telling us exactly our mirror neurons tell us with the power to keeping us alive and thriving.

Saturday, January 21

The Constant Gardener

I thought it had its heart in the right place, this movie. But where it should have a heart, it had a camera. Now, the editing, color, and overpowering framing of a bright, blank Kenya in early scenes offer so much promise. I’ll leave it to others to identify what went wrong in the choices of the DP and director. But the story cheated viewers out of nearly every moment of identification with human feeling.

First, expectations. The Constant Gardener could have been a thriller, a who-dunnit, a tragedy, a David v. Goliath crusade. Director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine could have woven together exciting combinations of these. The look and feel gives the impression that was their aim. But they repeatedly show and then steal questions we want answered: Is Justin’s wife really the dead woman found on the road? Answered. How is her death connected with her investigation into Three Bees corporation and its clinical trails? Answered. Did the British government play in a role? Answered. The Kenyan government? Answered. My friends? Liars and betrayers. By the midpoint when Justin is convinced that Tessa is a casualty of big pharma geopolitical profiteering, the viewer no longer knows what question matters. Justin gets on a train to Amsterdam without a plan, and so does the movie.

Why do Tessa, Justin, Arnold, and Sandy do, well, what they do? Love. But we do not see this, we hear it. It comes by conversation and incidental action. In a scene rife with possibility, Tessa lays in a hospital bed nursing a black newborn. The movie toys with us – is this the crusading Kenyan doctor’s child after all? – and then points us to the baby’s teen mother, who is dying nearby. Tessa is moved with compassion and outrage for the woman. But sharing the feeling demands knee-jerk sentimentalizing from the audience. We know nothing about the teenager or others like her. The filmmakers treat her death as an emblem not a person, much they way Tessa accuses the drug corporations of treating Africans as statistics. We do not feel because the moment is not particular.

Justin’s surrender to his own murder is the moment when I wanted to start throwing Milk Duds. Even if we had watching him face his assassins and drop the clip from his pistol, we could have called him oddly courageous because we saw his choice. It remains unclear why he felt so trapped that he should volunteer to be killed.

To cap the disappointments, at Justin’s funeral we learn that the late-appearing hero is – ta da! – Tessa’s cousin and lawyer, Ham. Justin made sure that Ham held the crucial evidence to would bring down the British senior diplomat Sir Bernard Pellegrin. While it was Justin’s unseen hand at work, the dramatic action belongs to a secondary character. And if this outing had been the first in a series of stylish third act revelations prepared and planned by the dead Justin, we would have cheered him as the avenging martyr. As it played, he wasn't clever, impassioned, good, or wise. And his company makes for a long two hours.

John’s critique rubric: Darkness Visible's critiques are for educational purposes only. It's hard to make a good movie. Respek, bro!

Tuesday, January 17

Biting and quoting, from 'Some Came Running'

"A little talent to a writer means as much as a little talent to a brain surgeon."

- Dave Hirsh. Hard drinking, passionate misanthrope. Sometime writer.

Monday, January 16

Inflation, Two Much, and Just Because They Are That Way

The New Yorker's Anthony Lane (January 16, 2006) barnstorms the 2005 cinematic year and as you might expect, found it de trop and le moins. But he left me second-guessing my hard earned instincts, one about length, the other about character motivation. I think he may be right.

I've gotten used to two-hour movies. And I've given up my knee-jerk complaint that two is too much. I only complain about the dull parts. Recent two-plussers gain fresh wind despite the doldrums: Syriana, Munich, Brokeback Mountain, King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia spring to mind. But that means more Montana, more crashing dinosaurs, more characters and subplots, more incrementally revealing scenes, more Christian myth. If you trimmed the dull parts, all except Kong would be less than two hours. Two is too much.

But instead of ruthlessly disciplined story and film editing, Lane complains that what we get from greater length is more explaining. "...This want of resolution - of the will to believe that a movie, like a poem, can deliver a person or a predicament straight into our hands - ... leads to a bummer like 'Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.'" And he goes on to complain about Willy's backstory of malicious parenting. Watching A Fistful of Dollars recently, I noticed that more than two thirds of the movie pass before Clint Eastwood's character offers a single sentence about why: "Saw this once before and wasn't able to help." Whatever. He just does it. Wedding Crashers, the same. They make love and commitment a game until... They are what they do.

As screenwriters, it's our job to bear the burden of characters' psychological profiles, and shut the hell up. (The most superfluous line in Kong is the theater manager's speech to tell Anne Darrow - okay, us - that people leave her when she trusts them. There's ten seconds Jackson could have put back on our lifetime clock.) We're all inexplicable, especially to ourselves. I'm resolved to believe again that a movie can deliver a person or predicament straight into other's hands. Resolved do that this year.

Saturday, January 14

Brokeback Mountain

As I settled into my gay cowboy movie seat trying I was trying to smooth my hackles. They always stand on end when a vocal majority noisily loves a movie or is afraid to criticize it. Hackles down, I found Brokeback Mountain is a great, well-made movie. I even forgave it it's two-hour topping length.

But as I meditated on unbristling, a question replaced my hackles: How will screenwriters Larry McMurtry, Diane Ossana, and director Ang Lee make the love affair of Jack and Ennis recognizable to all of us. How will they convince us all to identify with these two?

Many of the scenes that were added to the movie reveal who Ennis and Jack are with their families. I read Annie Proulx’s New Yorker short story before seeing the movie. It’s trimmed to the bone. In scenes added to the movie, we watch them make hard tough choices, and respect many of them.

At a fourth of July fireworks display, Ennis beats up a biker who’s intruding his family’s good time. At a Thanksgiving dinner, Jack challenges his father in law for control over his home. His outburst earns our respect, but his wife’s sly admiration shows us the man of house. Jack guides his son behind the wheel of a big tractor, genuinely delighted. Even Jack’s affair with another man, though nothing like his love for Ennis, shows us Jack’s desperation. These scenes bridge the gap between what's different about these two and what they have in common with any breathing human being: loyalty, love, family feeling, dedication, passion.

And at the end, after all their suffering, Ennis still believes in love and wishes it for his oldest daughter. Each of these scenes shows us men who live up to the choices they’ve made, and hard boundaries implied. They transform the cowboy code from stoic nobility, to stoic noble loyalty, commitment, endurance even in the closet. And because we all suffer silently with limits, we sympathize with their hard decisions, even though we’ll never be beaten to death because of who we are.

Saturday, January 7

The Machinist

I loved the way this movie takes us to the land of Memento, but I felt disappointed by the revelation that Trevor Reznik (the sepulchral Christian Bale) worked so hard to uncover. The plotting is clever and the storytelling that reveals Trevor's madness, paranoia, and murderousness is deftly handled. Much of the movie is starkly beautiful. And they must have saved $$ on craft services.

The Machinist (Brad Anderson, director; Scott Kosar, screenwriter) follows Trevor as he pursues and is pursued by a man who may or may not be a ghost. As Trevor's madness blooms, I gave the movie the benefit of the doubt. We're headed into a metaphysical territory. Soon it will be clear that the man's identity has been stripped away by existential isolation. He's modern man in a cell of his own making. He's the figure of terminal narcissism. Whatever was coming, it would leave him, and us, feeling the emptiness of a philosophical void, or the kind of moral chasm that's revealed at Memento's final coda. When was the last time you saw a movie like that? Bring it on.

When the horrible revelation finally comes, it is particular and concrete in a way that is disappointing. Trevor's personality is split apart by the horror of his actions and he exiles the man he was. But the Terrible Thing that precipitated it was an accident. While his self-revulsion might be real, viewers (this one for sure) do not feel that he should literally disintegrate over an accident. Would we? Probably not. Even if he was speeding toward a despicable goal. Even if Trevor is identified with the innocent Nicholas, making the accident a figurative self-murder. I'm talking about stakes here. The feeling of unforgivability, of abject moral emptiness that he has lived with is not paid off in the final scenes.

New for the new year: Darkness Visible's critiques are for educational purposes only. It's hard to make a good movie. Respek, bro!

Wednesday, January 4

Walk the Line

This Johnny Cash story gives us its two stars working at the top of their form, channeling the celebrities they're playing. So many reviews and coverage of the film focus on this, but few people have said the obvious: the story runs in historical sequence in the most conventional way.

Walk the Line is a great success. But Capote comes to mind. It was the best movie I saw last year. More important, Capote's moviemakers perfectly chose the period that could entail his story, from reading about the multiple-murder to the execution of Perry Smith. That choice provides the focus, the theme, and our identification with his story goal.

The Johnny Cash story in Walk the Line is his public and private passion for June Carter. Imagine how the movie would have gained focus by starting the story with their meeting. After all, it ends with their wedding. The middle, like all good romances, sees them separated by various forces. While Cash's father's alcoholic meanness is an obvious influence on the man in black, all of his adult decisions move him toward playing music and June Carter. Nearly everything else is reaction. As portrayed in Walk, the turnaround concert at Folsom Prison is motivated by a desire to do good and redeem himself in June's eyes.

I'm not taking pot shots. But what's clear is that Cash really leans into the wind and trudges forward against internal and external storms after meeting June. Once they've met, viewers want what he wants. Despite his marriage, philandering, drunkenness, and addictions, we feel for him once it's clear how bad they've got it for the other.

Every character's life is encapsulated by any slice of time. But while life has a beginning, middle, and an end, that doesn't it make a good story. The selection of a slice of the subject's life that is that man or the woman reflects the screenwriter's skill and intelligence.

Tuesday, January 3

That's why they call him Fun

Fun Joel proposes trying really hard - without resolving anything - tracking the movies you see in a year. A good idea, since some sear the memory and some are lime Jell-o.

I'm going to try to keep my list in the sidebar in reverse chronological order, just for the sake of experiment. Darkness Visible reviews will keep coming, but you'll also see the movies I didn't review. I'm finding that some movies yield nothing after shaking and banging them to see how they work.

Monday, January 2

Neanderthal TV: Kick Ass, Take Names, and Suffer

In a New York Times article, Warren St. John scratches the surface of a trend toward "Neanderthal TV" and finds that what men want is models of moral certainty who live toward good ends by any means. Murder, revenge? As Stewart Smalley used to say, "“That's... Okay!" My first reaction: Oh, hell yeah! I knew that.

But when my brother in law Jack (not his real name) said, "I love this guy," while watching House during a cozy Christmas en famille, I heard the other note St. John avoided in the story: that people look for the release of entertainment in their real lives. Jack's a good guy. Don't get me wrong. But the guy lives under constraint: a big family, a challenging business in a low-demand market, and wishes, which sharpen limits and more solid. He's a committed Becker viewer; he wants to be House; he tries to be both, with some John McClane thrown in for spice.

In the Times article, president of Fox Entertainment and creator of FX's The Shield and Over There Peter Ligouri reports that TV producers look at strong male protagonists as aspirational characters. So what do we aspire to?
- Super-competence
- Unconditional respect regardless our behavior
- To be ninety-nine percent right one hundred percent of the time
- Openly antagonistic to authority, convention, and manners

My other brother in law - call him Norm - loves to tell stories about how he's reclaimed a plasma television or computer from a rental client who hasn't paid in two months. He'’s a terrible story-teller and a compulsive exaggerator. But he live the desires of TV characters. They want to dominate their enviornment. They aren't thinking about the cause or the cost of their motivations, the wound that festers with defensiveness, fear, and self-loathing.

At the Screenwriting Expo I heard Lawrence Kaplow, a House producer, discuss the development and structure of episodes. I was struck by his description of the show as a procedural that turns on the character moments, adding that Hugh Laurie's range made it possible for them to deepen the character opportunities. Recently a smoldering, frustrated love is complicating House's life. Who knew anyone could get close enough? And when Stacy Warner (Sela Ward) does get close, House is going to suffer. Really suffer. That's not what men aspire to. But it's pretty damned true if we are aspiring to that list above.

If men want Neanderthal TV, then they're seeing and not seeing the shows I'm watching. If not this week, then next week, the emotional slapdown is a'comin'. Because we're not Neanderthals. Some of the biggest missing links were bagged in the Enrons/Adelphias/MCIs of the past ten years. And nobody wants to be them. Not anymore.

...more to come on this.