Sunday, February 26

'As Good As It Gets': The Second Act Stall *

Thanks to Karl Igelsias (See Our Craft, here), I took on a close reading of this script to look at characterization. The first forty pages demonstrate great characterization of complex and nearly impossible people. Melvin Udall first among them. So, thanks Karl. I think your Creative Screenwriting story is as good as self-instruction gets.

The movie left me disappointed, but I couldn't remember why. There's a nagging suspicion that the reluctant romance between Carol (Helen Hunt) and Melvin (Jack Nicholson) repelled me. So why bother with this exercise? Because the script is not the movie.

Reading it, I was damned impressed with comedy writing that avoids slam-bang of the kind of movies that make huge money fast. Incidentally, this James J. Brooks and Mark Andrus script is the seventh top grossing rom-com since 1978 (Box Office Mojo). Instead, I found clever, situational, and low-decibel stories about the timeless question: what is true love?

The opening scene is a perfect example of character exposition demonstrating the protagonist's flaws and strengths, and announcing Melvin Udall's need: this romance writer doesn't know what love is. His desire is to control his environment, and the more he stumbles into comically anarchic relationships with his neighbor and waitress, the more his world comes apart, letting real love in. (Sigh)

But the story stalled when Melvin engineers a trip to Baltimore with Carol and Simon, his neighbor. You'll remember that Simon was beaten by thieves in his own home. His treatment bankrupts him. He capitulates to his friend Frank's plan to ask his parents for money. Since Melvin made arrangements to get a good doctor on the case, Carol finally feels a bit of ease about her very sick son Spencer. Melvin volunteers to drive Simon to Baltimore so that he can give Carol a day off and try to impress her as a love interest.

During the drive to Baltimore, the script slows down. No, it pulls onto the shoulder and turns off the radio. Melvin and Carol temporarily move to the background, Simon moves to the fore with a long explanation of why his father threw him out, why he has no relationship with his mother, and why they cannot speak. It's exposition and it's late and it's all reported by Simon. Weirdly, Carol pulls over - stops the forward motion of the story - to hear Simon pull the painful threads of his life-story sweater.

It was a deliberate choice. I concede that the writers needed the information and the moment to contrast with Simon's decision not to beg for cash and instead turn for home. But Simon's confessional doesn't reveal enough about any of the main characters to have spun down the story momentum. While it puts pressure on Melvin to get Carol to pay attention to him, not Simon, Melvin doesn't reveal new traits or resources to do so. And the script doesn't regain its stride until the three return to New York.

As a side note, "things happen" to Simon, but it is Melvin's story. Simon's dog incites Melvin to dump it down the trash chute. Simon is beaten nearly to death, but Melvin calls 911. Simon is driven to financial ruin, but Melvin drives him to Baltimore. Simon loses his friends. Simon travels to Baltimore. Melvin responds, or is trapped into responding, to each of these. Dramatically, they are dependent. There's no story without Simon. There's no inner conflict without Melvin. It turns out that the movie left me cold because these two characters together make one man, but they don't form the kind of bond that shows us they recognize it.

I'm going to subject myself to the movie again, but in the meantime, fans of the script or movie should get out your flensing knives. Agree or disagree?

* John's Critique Rubric: For educational purposes only. It's hard to make a great movie: Respek, bro! Or as my friend the yogi says it, Namaste.

Wednesday, February 22

When Software Works, You Just Want to Kiss Someone

Can I kiss someone at Sage? Okay, frankly, not just anyone, but maybe a cute developer who looks something like Diablo Cody, more or less?

I used to use Pluck, the newsreader plug in, in Internet Explorer. It was light, clean, versatile, and gave me lots of control over how I displayed, read, and deleted new feed entries. Then I discovered Firefox. Totally turned my life around. Well, things were slow just then.

Pluck for Firefox is a different animal. You may like it. Good. Feh. I gave up the control I so love and have been bereft until last week. Enter Sage, which is everything I loved about Pluck, but made for Firefox. Easy to use, lots of control, easier than ever feed detection. Me likey!

And it's great with shallots and white wine as a marinade for chicken.

Taking it Outdoors

The Banff Mountain Film Festival annually brings two nights of adventure movies to nearly 185 locations around the US. It's a crunchy, boho pair of nights that allow you to see, for example, a guy ski off nutty vertical drops and land in deep snow, more or less on his tale. Last year a pair of German climbers scaled Eiger using equipment identical to that of the first successful climber to reach the summit. And before that, extreme trampers, who filmed themselves hopping fences and doing stunts on backyard trampolines.

The stories often stink. Which is liberating, really. The movies focus on, say, experts doing their near-death-defying thing, or carving vertical powder where no ski as ever broken the surface. Last night an eighty-year-old Pole paraglided into the valleys outside Grappa in Italy. Is he mad or is he mugging? The footage just isn't there to show us . And since their feats can't be our feats, the story could answer the question, "Why?" But few do.

A long "mountain culture" documentary, The Magic Mountain, fails to show us, after 50 minutes, who the sacrificing subject of the movie is. She started an NGO in the Lahdak province of India after seeing the poverty during a mountaineering trip. And you know, it's up to the audience to decide. I thought she was running from family, from Western society, from any conception of competition and success. And if the footage is any indication, for all the good she plainly does, she has no clue who she is either. I'm grateful this saintly promo showed us that she may also be nuts.

Tuesday, February 14

Happy Valentine's Day in Production

Love is like this: You do it for free, but it costs you plenty. You lose your innocence and learn things you will be glad of, but first you feel creepy and you feel glad much much later. You think you'll never be good enough. Then you accept that you're not good enough. Then it's not you, it's her (or whatever). You're right. But you can't help yourself because it's good and getting better, better than anything so far. So you show up one more time, feeling tenative but hoping to feel that bouyant, this-could-be-perfect, "we could see the clouds separate" again and actually touch the ineffable. Yeah, love is like that.

Turns out, so is having an internship at a small production company, which I've recently landed. Folks asked me not to say much about what goes on there, so I won't. I'm reading and commenting on scripts, though this falls short of coverage - very informal place.

I'm encouraged. Because now that I see other scripts in development, I think that my work doesn't suck. Is good ever good enough? Now I know the answer: No. And I understand how important, crucial it is to love and champion your work. I haven't sat in full gale of a screenwriter on a mission. But I can see how "good" can be transformed into "potentially great" with a big ration of love and umph behind it. But great should still be great on the page. I don't think I've seen it yet. Deep, fresh, and bubbly; I'm looking forward to seeing that. Okay, so I haven't lost my innocence entirely, have I?

Thursday, February 9

Mysterious Skin

The answer to the question, "Why make this movie?" is, I think, because you're not coming from or going to the places these boys know. Thank god. The movie is the stories of Neal, a charismatic and desperate boy prostitute and Brian, a desperately certain believer that he was visited by aliens. Each follows a path that leads them to each other, and the truth of what happened when they last knew each other as Little League teammates.

This movie was hell to watch. It begins with cinematic flourishes that disappear too early, exposing the audience to Neal's descent into increasingly threatening, ultimately brutal, encounters with johns. The audience's anxiety comes from a real fear of brutality they'll see in Neal's next scene. Sadly, a distant second fear arises over what might happen to Neal. Flip the importance of these fears and we'd have had a much better movie.

Decisions reveal the character and story in a moment, so when they're squandered, cripes but your heart sinks. At a crucial turning point in the second act, Neal, who is looking forward to going home for Christmas (it's not clear why), does one last john on his way to the airport. This rough trade nearly kills him. Then he appears at his mother's house, claiming he was mugged. Neal had already taken a stand-up job and seemed to stick with it. His whole conception of sex and affection was blown open through an evening with an HIV-positive john who simply wanted him to rub his back. Neal was just turning into a human being. Why this last trick? Habit, self destructiveness? This decision should have told us everything about Neal. It only shows us that his best friend Wendy was right all along. And that's too little.

When Neal and Brian finally meet, they return to the scene of the transforming moment of their lives. Neal narrates as Brian loses his alien abduction alibi and acknowledges that he was sexually molested. But the emotional payoff falls short: Neal's return is vaguely motivated; Brian's immediate trust in Neal seems impossible to believe; Wendy Peterson is the voice of concern, but a character who doesn't act on that concern, a Cassandra with too much mascara; Eric, and friend and the intermediary, appears not to have a point of view despite of his affection for Brian and his love for Neal. After the brutality of the story, the story owed us tragedy. Or comedy. Or philosophy. The two boys collapsed in grief in the dark from a high POV is too little of any of these.

Monday, February 6

Reducing Well-Intentioned Mistakes by One

Thanks to all of you have gave me online and offline advice about whether to try acting in a community theater play. I wish you could have seen the auditions. When I announced that I'd do a few minutes from the second act monologue of Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild, the director said, "Oh good!"” He laughed and said "Excellent," at the end. That'’s good, right?

Here's a lesson from the audition. A giant blind woman (I mean, 5' 11", 200 lbs) declaimed the Dolly Levy speech from Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker in which she asks her dead husband permission to wed Mr. Vandergelder. It's a long monologue. Oh, long! At one point she chopped the air with both hands like the robot on Lost in Space (Warning! Warning!).

I don't know the speech well, but it calls for landing on the word "shattered," which through her very slight speech impediment came out as "sshhlattered." We forgave her, looking away. The second time around I was "“sshhlaken." But the third time, I thought I'd "sshhlatter" with laughter.

I was sure there was a role for this Venus of Willendorf, maybe as an armoire or hat tree. But the director tried her in the role of the countess. She was as broad and blousy an aristocrat as one could ever want. I hope she gets the role. She'’ll be sshhlplectacular.

Two or three people who've appeared in earlier productions by this company auditioned that night. They are good: bright and uniform on stage. I'm not sure I can even offer that. But I was looking for a way to learn about funny, not just by delivery but by revealing the desperation underneath. Because that's hard to write. So I'll wait for another production and another cast to learn what I'm looking for.

Thursday, February 2

The Soundtrack, or Tell Me How I Should Feel When Writing Checks

Click on the title of the post to find a new discovery of mine: I suppose I have to thank iTunes for loading this link in the latest release (See Radio/Eclectic).

I started listening to this donation- and community-supported shuffle service the other day while writing. I was completely distracted by the changes in mood and tone and the nagging question, "What the heck movie was that from?"

If, to be reductive, film music tells us how to feel about what we see, I've found the perfect streaming music for bill paying, lurching as it does from pathos to elation, from comedy to horror.

Should Screenwriters Act? I mean, try to, for educational purposes

Because I have my doubts. I tried out for a play yesterday. Namely You Can't Take It With You (Kaufman and Hart). And having seen this company's previous productions, I know that the right combination of material and amateurs comes off. Note my dubiousness.

A year or so ago a film guy said to me that acting was good for screenwriters. And actors I talk to tell me something similar. They want complex, shifting emotion and range within a role. They want admirable action. Of course, they want screen time, short of anything else.

So the logic runs that a screenwriter playing a high-strung IRS agent or an exiled Czarist Russian dance master (and professional remorrah) gets to see and feel what it takes to serve up characters who are as interesting to play as they are interesting to watch. Of course, this spec monkey wants to be the romantic lead. And that's because I'm not an actor. Daffy Ed, bombastic Boris, sense-itself Grandpa are the best parts. If I were an actor, I'd know that as well as I know when it's time to go in for a tanning tune-up.

So, how many of you have performed in shows or film?

Did you learn something valuable?

Or did you just find yourself drinking beer after rehearsals with the stunning (and impossible) actresses (...hoping and trying not too hard - maybe, definitely tonight, no, no, definitely only a maybe still...)?


In a clever double-meaning, Transamerica is a picaresque in which Bree, the transgender woman in process, crosses the nation in a beat-up station wagon. She turns the American family trip upside down. This is no vacation, but a trial that tests her desire to become the woman she knows she was meant to be.

Spoilers follow! Just one week from the transforming surgery that will complete the process to make her a woman, Bree learns that she'd fathered a son years ago when she was Stanley and married. She gets a call from a NYC juvenile lockup where a kid named Toby is being held for prostitution.

Bree believes it's a scam. But haunted nevertheless, she reports the strange call to her supportive therapist, Margaret. Bree's adjustment to becoming a woman must have been rocky over the three years of therapy and cosmetic surgery. Margaret insists that Bree see the boy before she approves Bree's final operation, "So you're not sorry about leaving anything behind." (Or a similar sentiment; the quote is an approximation.)

With the clock ticking on her surgery date, she flies out to meet the boy, Toby, and bail him out. She tries to drop him, giving him 100 bucks, and then when she takes pity on him, drives him to his stepfather's house. A bitter history emerges, violence breaks out, and she agrees to take Toby to L.A.

What's great about this movie is it's second half. From the point she meets the Indian who develops a discrete crush on her to the moment Alex runs away from Bree's parents' Phoenix house to the very end. The metaphor and sometimes shifting tone of the movie drop away and we see the new woman, flirting and adored. The story stays aloft throughout the visit (or siege) with her parents, not because of the evident comedy and tragedy of the sequence, but because all but one of her emotions is laid bare. That last one - the pain of loss shot through the moment she's achieved her goal - she saves her return home.

Other reasons to admire Transamerica:

  • Kick-ass performance by Felicity Huffman, not to mention that Bree is well-hung.

  • The overhanging suspense of what will happen if and when people around her discover she is, for now, a hermaphrodite.

  • Periodic wittiness of the script: In response to Bree's sister offering her mother's feathered pink wrap to wear, Bree says, "I'm a transexual, not a transvestite."

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