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.

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