28 May 2007

57. crimes and misdemeanors

"he sees the righetous and the wicked...the wicked will be punished for eternity."
the movie states that we are always sinning, and that god is always watching us. sometimes are sins are big: we have committed adultery, we have committed murder. sometimes the sins are small: we are slothful and out of work, we covet what we can't have. but god is keeping tabs on us no matter what kinds of sins we are committing. so what does it say about god that those who are the most wicked, those who commit the worst sins, end up prospering?

'i remember my father telling me, "the eyes of god are on us always."'
the motif of eyes in the movie is not a small one. it is multi-faceted: god is watching us, overseeing all we do. dolores' eyes are shown open, looking up at judah after he's had her killed. "the eyes are the window to the soul." judah is an ophthalmologist, who helps people with their eyes. in this case, he helps others to see that the "right" path may not be the one that is most successful. after all, months after the murder, he has "prospered" and largely forgotten about his old lover; meanwhile, clifford has languished and is a wreck. and what does it say that the most holy man in the movie, sam waterson's rabbi, slowly goes blind?

"we've gone from a small infidelity to the meaning of the universe."
technically the writing is magnificent. the set-up is economical and stacked with so much information: judah's social standing, his infidelity, the religious and moral questions he addresses, the "sight" motif, the tone of the piece -- drama with some good comedy to make the drama go down smoother.

the flashback structure is elegant, with characters looking off into the distance for a moment, then going right into the flashback with little fanfare.

i also like how woody allen ends lots of scenes with laughs. i do this myself a lot in my writing, and i think it is a good technique to keep the audience watching and waiting for each new scene, and ends a scene with a cherry on top.

and it is a tragedy that ends with a wedding (in which the two storylines beautifully come together), like comedies are classically shown to do. what is allen trying to say with that trick?

"a strange man defecated on my sister."
the movie's main point is that the world is chaotic, that god may be watching us, but he doesn't care about the results, and life makes no sense and we can't count on justice, morality or our sense of what is right to prevail.

"god have mercy on us."

23 May 2007

brand upon the brain!

probably the most unique movie experience i've ever had. if you haven't heard about it, guy maddin made a silent film on 8mm, writing it and shooting it in a ridiculously compressed amount of time.

but most people these days would never go to a theatre to see a silent film, so they decided to do something special: they took the show on the road, and made it LIVE. we showed up to a packed house at the music box (by far the best theatre in the city), and here was the line-up: an 11-piece orchestra, a trio of foley artists doing all the sound and sound effects live, an (alleged) castrato, and crispin fucking glover narrating the whole thing.

the movie itself is pretty weird. a middle-aged man named guy maddin comes back home in a boat to see his dying mother and fulfill her last wish: that he paint their old light house with a couple of coats so she can see it shiny before she dies. in doing so, he has flashbacks to his childhood there, which include getting involved with some teen detectives, an invention called the aerophone, and his father dying and being re-animated.

so the movie is weird and fine and a little bit what you might expect from maddin, but the whole live aspect of the performance was what made it amazing. to see sound effects being created in front of you is almost magical: the curtain is drawn and you can see how they use an old rattling film projector to do the sound of a lighthouse light moving; or how they bite into celery to simulate someone getting feasted on.

this was once-in-a-lifetime, for sure, so i'm glad i caught it.

15 May 2007

34. sweet smell of success

its weird to see a noir that's not about a detective. other than that, this movie is film noir in almost every sense. it is filmed in shadowed black and white, it has a cynical hard heart, there is an anti-hero as the protagonist. i love to see this kind of genre inversion, taking a genre and turning it inside out (like what eastwood did with "unforgiven"), which this movie does well.

it also does some other things well: it is economical. this is a trait you'll see in a lot of old studio movies. the movies are lean, they waste no time, they are blue-collar. this movie starts with no fanfare, we jump right into the story, and then the plot moves in its three-acts like clockwork. there is no michner-esque backstory. there are no surplusages. the movie plugs along to a little past ninety minutes, and then we are finished. "don't hang around" said billy wilder.

here's something i learned that's important to do well: give the big star a big introduction. one of the immediate examples that comes to mind is tom cruise's frank tj mackey in "magnolia". we technically first see him on a tv screen (subliminally linking him to his tv producer dad), but when we REALLY first see him, he gets a spotlight shown on him while a crowd cheers and the curtains (aka his biceps) raise to the 2001: a space odyssey theme. doesn't get much sweeter than that.

but burt lancaster gets a hell of an introduction, too. everyone buzzes about him for the first ten minutes or so, then when we finally see him he goes off on a screed, ending with "match me". then he proceeds to tell off a senator. THAT'S how you treat a movie star.

and finally, there are few more quotable movies. sure, no one talks like these characters, and even back in the day, probably no one did. but there are some serious gems here, hardboiled and delicious:

* the aforementioned "match me".
* "come back here, sidney. i want to chastise you!"
* "how do you spell Picasso, the french painter? ...i hear he goes out with three-eyed girls."
* "watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off!"
* "he's got integrity -- acute, like indigestion!"
* "you're dead, son. get yourself buried. "
* "my right hand hasn't seen my left hand in thirty years."
* "the cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river."
* "i'd hate to take a bite outta you. you're a cookie full of arsenic."

11 May 2007

86. harold and maude

now is the time to talk about risk. this is an intangible in writing, but it can be important in drawing the audience in. for example, the risk in starting a movie off with a close-up tracking shot of a teenager killing himself, then having his mother react as if he's simply being an obedient child. yes, it is funny when we see the final product, but that outcome was not always certain -- if the filmmakers hadn't found just the right tone, it would have turned the audience off from the get-go and the movie would have been dead in the water.

similarly, to start with such a shot, then continually have harold fake his suicides, ever more gruesome, was a ballsy call. the threat of the audience saying "enough!" was likely always hanging over the filmmaker's heads. when does self-immolation become a joke? and yet, they pulled it off.

equally risky is such an extreme example of the may-december romance, and the inversion in making the woman the older in the relationship. again, we see the movie (and now, with its reputation so strong) and all this seems a foregone conclusion: the interactions between harold and maude are charming, whimsical. but it could have easily -- if not played correctly -- come across as creepy, as gross, as off-putting.

these are risks, and they ended up making a memorable movie. but it easy could have gone off the rails.

one thing i'm noticing in watching these films in this "greatest screenplays" list is that they all are certainly (with few exceptions) remarkably well-written, but they also excel in at least one other way, and are memorable for more than just the writing. for example, "forrest gump" had those great, groundbreaking visual effects; "the verdict" featured one of paul newman's best performances (as well as the always reliable james mason); this movie had a stand-out cat stevens soundtrack. this reinforces the notion that a screenplay is a blueprint for a movie -- if you don't execute it well, making more than just the writing remarkable, the movie might perform, but it won't be a star.