22 December 2011


A dead body in a pool. Intrigue immediately.
-- compare this with SOME LIKE IT HOT, which starts off with a car chase, or DOUBLE INDEMNITY, which begins with a gutshot Fred MacMurray announcing "I killed Dietrichson." Wilder's quote was "Grab the audience by the throat and never let them go," and he practiced what he preached.

A young writer who can't sell his stories. Repo men come to get his car. He's in dire straits, broke. He needs $300.

He goes to a producer he knows, tries to pitch a script to Paramount. He gets denied, is still out of money.

Gets on the phone, calls around to friends for the cash. Meets with his agent, who also refuses to lend him the money. Drives around, contemplates going back to (Dayton) Ohio, returning to the newspaper business (this comes from real life, I'd assume, since Wilder started out as a newspaper man before getting into the movies).

He sees the repo men while he's driving around, they give chase. Ends up in a random rich person's garage.

12 minutes in. He's somewhere new, at a huge white mansion. He gets called into the house -- they treat him like he's expected, even though he's obviously not.

Already we have a main character in a SERIOUS bind (he's broke), we have him taking actions to alleviate his problem, and we have scenes that end on intrigue, making us always wonder: what will happen next?

What happens next is that he meets a movie star: "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be big." "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." She's eccentric, theatrical, a has-been. She lives alone, only a butler with her, in this mansion.

He tells her he's a writer; she laments sound, tells him to read her script. Again, here's where we can discuss motivation: normally, a guy like this would get out of the creepy old mansion with the has-been actress, but two things are making him stick around: he's being chased, and he thinks she might able in a position to give him money. So he stays.

He finishes the script, has some thoughts on how to make it better. She hires him to do a touch-up/rewrite, so he stays the night. As he does so, he looks around the grounds: "It was all very queer, but queerer things were yet to come."

This is how Act 1 ends! With the writer basically telling us directly that we should wonder what's next.

So: Act 2. He moves in, begins working, she breathes down his neck. He tries to cut a big scene with her, she resists. "The public wants to see me!" She is narcissistic, has an inflated ego, is unreasonable. They watch silent movies occasionally, always ones where she was the star.

30 minutes in -- the repo men find him, tow his car away. Now they use her car. He is getting in deeper and deeper -- she buys him clothes, he moves into the main house from the garage due to a leaky roof in his room.

New Year's Eve party -- set piece -- she's trying to seduce him, he resists, she slaps him. He leaves, goes to a young person's party with other struggling entertainment world folks: his peers. He's made his decision: he will move back in with a friend, leave Norma's world, the dusty, ancient, dying world she inhabits, the lonely world. That's contrasted by the liveliness of the party and his reemerged libido, with which he tries to kiss his friend's lady, who likes his script.

He calls Norma's to get his stuff packed, finds out from the butler that Norma tried to kill herself, and thus he returns and is sucked back in to her world, a world he doesn't belong to and almost escaped. "Happy New Year, Norma," she says, and kisses her. He's locked in.

That's the midpoint. The girl calls, tries to find him, the butler denies her.

They all go to Paramount to see DeMille unannounced. She thinks this is her big break, but DeMille doesn't want to see her, even though the public flocks to her on the soundstage. She thinks they've been calling her about a role, but instead they've been calling her to use her old car for a period piece. "How did it go?" "It couldn't have gone better!" But DeMille never wants to see her again.

Act 3, it becomes almost all plot. She undergoes a montage of beauty treatments. Gilles sneaks out every night to work on script with the girl. The butler, Max, reveals that he directed her and was her first husband.

She finds his other script. Betty kisses him, is in love with him, wants to leave her boyfriend. Norma calls Betty, tries to tell her off. Betty comes over, he resists her, doesn't steal her, unlike what we thought he would do. She leaves.

He packs, prepares to go back to Dayton. He reveals the truth to her: There were no fan letters, DeMille doesn't want her, she's old and over-the-hill.

She cracks. She has built up an entire world where she was special, where she was relevant. That's gone now. She shoots the messenger.

Back to the opening scene, the cops come to see her and arrest her. She's completely insane now, no longer in the real world, completely consumed by fantasy. They get her to come downstairs and be arrested by telling her that she's wanted on set.

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille."

21 December 2011


This is not a great movie, nor is it a great screenplay. This was a cash grab.

It's not a bad movie, per se. How could it be? You have Coppola in his prime, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, even Lee Strasburg! You have a large budget, which allows a variety of top-notch technicians and department heads.

What you don't have is a compelling story, or one that comes remotely close to the brilliance of the first film. But it exists to give backstory to a character who doesn't need it and to further another character's story in a way that we don't require.

We follow two storylines, intercutting between them: Michael Corleone, who has taken over his father's mafia business and moved it to Nevada; and his father, Don Vito Corleone, as he immigrates to America and beings his rise to power in New York in the early 1900's.

The parallels between those two storylines are tenuous at best, the time frames don't match up (Vito's story takes place over many years, Michael's is shorter), and character arcs happen out of the blue.

On that last point, the arc of Vito from poor, hard-working immigrant to low-level gangster to killer to kingpin is too fast, unexplained, and unbelievable. We never see a lightbulb moment where he makes his choice. We never see him starving, or in peril himself. We never get a sense of his motivation, other than that we already know he becomes a mobster later. He becomes a killer because it's convienent to the plot.

Contrast this with the superior first film, where Michael's motivation to kill for the first time, thus changing the course of his life, are shown to us clearly, and are both primal and twofold: he's protecting his father; he's exacting revenge.

The final act, after a perfunctory Don Vito return to Sicily to kill the man that killed his mother, we get an intercut killing of all of Michael's foes, including Hyman Roth at the Miami Airport, as well as Michael's brother Fredo. This is an echo of the first film's intercut killing, contrasted with a baptism. Again, the first film is superior in this regard, because that contrast between good and evil, light and dark, works in the context of the film, and the character's motivations made that scene make sense: Michael was using the baptism as an alibi so that he couldn't be implicated in the slaughter.

Here, he's just being cruel, and in a way that doesn't make sense: he could have had Fredo killed in Cuba and been much less culpable, we're honestly expected to believe he's more eager to have Hyman killed in America, at a busy airport, rather than abroad, and he somehow has the power to have Tom convince someone to kill himself in prison?

And then we get Michael alone, with nothing but his memories of the time his father was to come home, the time he enlisted in the Army. I, for one, felt nothing for him. I watched the credits, dumbfounded about how this could be considered great cinema. A few weeks later, I was vindicated: Francis Ford Coppola: There Should've Only Been ONE 'Godfather' Movie.

Here are a few posts that echo my disappointment:

* Movie Rapture
* dfuse.in
* Roger Ebert

20 December 2011


Here are my notes:

-- Credits - setting the locale, the main concern (trains, robbery).
-- Butch scene: we see who he is. Sundance, he's a quick draw.
-- They're silly, dopey, funny, not great at stealing.
-- Hole In the Wall Gang: more setup -- Bolivia/gold -- "I got vision and the rest of the has bifocals."
-- Gang trying to defect from Butch's leadership, must fight the gang's bully (he's a huge dude) to regain control.
-- Inciting Incident: Rob the Union/Pacific railroad -- E.H. Harriman -- they dynamite it -- they watch as sheriff unsuccessfully tries to form a posse to find them.
-- Sundance with woman -- switcheroo -- we think he's about to rape her, instead we realize they're together -- SUBPLOT
-- Butch takes her on a bike ride ("Raindrops" scene) -- payoff to bike setup -- huckster selling bikes to the crowd formed about starting a posse -- fill in the blanks -- he bought one, braving the posse that was trying to get him.
-- They rob a train again, use too much TNT -- posse chases them as they pick up the money.
-- They hide out but are found out, must steal horses to escape -- LIFE/DEATH -- all stories that last are about characters in life or death situations. There has to be that element of death for the audience to truly care about the characters.
-- Travel around trying to evade posse -- slow 2nd act shit. They do this for a long time, longer than you might think, longer than you would in a contemporary movie.
-- They jump off a cliff to avoid capture/certain death.
-- Discover they are still being chased by railroad guy, so they decide to go to Bolivia with their lady. "I won't watch you die," she says.
-- MIDPOINT: so, of course, there is a montage. There is so often a montage after the midpoint. And the midpoint is often a location change, a reset, a further lock-in after the lock-in at the first act break.
-- They go to a bank but can't rob it because they don't speak Spanish!
-- Montage of the salad days -- lots of clever robberies, learning Spanish, being chased.
-- Act 3 (25 minutes left): The old marshal (we recognize his hat) has tracked them down, so they decide to go straight, get jobs as payroll guards at a mine. We get another demo of Sundance's amazing shooting.
-- Ambushed with their boss -- he's killed -- first real violence we've seen -- IT'S SERIOUS -- we get a sense that they are in over their heads now -- they kill the banditos, a rare thing for these robbers.
-- Their lady leaves, goes back to the U.S. They rob dudes in the jungle who recognize them ("Banditos gringos").
-- They go back to town, a horse they stole is recognized, they get shot at.
-- BIG gunfight against the police -- they eventually get tagged.
-- Reinforcements arrive during a lull -- they're outnumbered by an absurd amount. Go out shooting with a freeze frame.
-- It shares a theme with THE WILD BUNCH (the death of the wild west way of life), but the particulars and the tone (much more light-hearted) set it apart. THE WILD BUNCH is better.

19 December 2011


Let's forgo the political issues and the fact that it's satire, because I know other people and writers could do a better job of covering that (here are a few examples: http://www.filmsite.org/drst.html, Lindley, Roger Ebert.)
Instead, let's discuss the way this film is crafted.

We have three connected stories, each with life and death stakes, each taking place over a short period of time (with a "ticking clock") and in few locations.

In other words, it could easily be a Roger Corman film.

This movie was designed like a low-budget exploitation film. And there's a practical reason for this: movies on war and politics don't usually do very at the box office. Sure, a movie that glorifies war does, and a movie that has surface-level politics but is actually a thriller does, but movies that actually condemn the madness that is our geopolitics (in this case, the utter insanity of the Cold War) have not and do not.

Story one: General Jack D. Ripper gives an attack order to one of his base's aircraft.
Story two: the code is received and carried out.
Story three: another General briefs the President in The War Room about the unauthorized attack, and the fact that they are unable to stop it.

We cut back and forth as these stories escalate: an underling trying to retrieve the recall code, a suicide, the reveal of a "Doomsday Device", an attempt to restore the damaged bomb bays before the bomb goes off. In each scenario, we are dealing with life or death situations, primal urges.

So, if you want to make a movie about war (that doesn't glorify combat) or politics, make sure you can do it on a low budget. And if it's funny, even better.

18 December 2011


Anytime a movie captures the zeitgeist, it's a miracle. The movie business is a slow one, full of long shoots, overdone periods of development, edit jobs that last months. That any movie can capture a cultural moments seems impossible, and yet, some do. This movie, THE GRADUATE, exists so surely in the late 60's, in tone, technique, and theme, that it gives the viewer these 45 years later a window into those times.

We have a hero, Benjamin Braddock, just back in LA from college on the east coast. He defines two archetypes: the prodigal son returning, and the stranger comes to town (even though he's from there, college has clearly changed him enough that he's a stranger to his parents and to his environment). His desire is to get away from his parents, to be left alone to avoid worrying about the future, to "tune in, turn on, and drop out."

But he can't. And at minute 15, we find out why: the mother of a girl he fancies, Mrs. Robinson, seduces him. He resists, but only barely. She tells him to contact her if he changes his mind.

Here we have established the tone of the piece, which is comic and even manic sometimes, but has a heavy sense of seriousness to it. We will drift between those two tones throughout, mostly slowly, but sometimes quickly.

And here we go into the debate section, where we see him drifting: his birthday party, his absent-minded parents, scuba-diving in a backyard pool.

At minute 25, he goes to a hotel and calls Mrs. Robinson. She arrives, and he is fumbling, nervous, unsure; contrast that with her jaded and cool persona. They go to their room and he changes his mind, but she uses reverse psychology to get him into bed, accusing him of being inadequate with women, a virgin. He will not be emasculated, so he fucks her.

This is what's known as the point of no return.

And so now we have the theme: the idea that the younger generation sees the older generation as corrupt, without answers; they will seek their own way, no matter how much fumbling this will take. In other words, this film explores what we now think of as "The Generation Gap".

And now we have the fulfillment of the premise: instantly he's cool, wearing sunglasses, driving a sports car fast around town, smoking, drinking, laying in the pool. He has truly become an aimless member of his generation, he is malaise personified.

Watch how this idea of the Generation Gap is explored in the next section, where we finally see Benjamin interacting not with adults, but with a peer. The various parents insist that he take Elaine Robinson, his lover's daughter, out on a date. She's home from Berkeley and could use the company. He does so, and tanks the date on purpose, taking her to a burlesque show, making her cry. But Benjamin is a nice boy and feels badly, so he makes it up to her by taking her out for real, resetting the date. They have a great time -- and why wouldn't they, they are two similar kids in the prime of their lives -- and Benjamin makes a vow to break it off with Mrs. Robinson.

Before he can, Elaine finds out. She kicks him out of her house, and immediately begins seeing someone new.

Benjamin won't have it. At minute 1:12, Act 3 begins. He goes to Berkeley, stalks her. He discovers that Mrs. Robinson claims that Benjamin raped her, and Elaine is livid. He gets kicked out of his apartment due to her screaming at him, which makes her feel sorry for him, and they make up. He proposes, but she can't make the decision right away.

Finally, he discovers that she's getting married to her proper boyfriend, and he must find out where and stop it. This is the famous ending where he indeed does break up the wedding after speeding around and runs off with Elaine. This ending works so well because it acts as its own separate short film, with a proper beginning, middle and end, but also because it encompasses the film's tone so well (shifting between comedy and drama, and doing it by little more than looks on the actors faces) and gives us one last glimpse at the theme: sure, you have rebelled and called into question the status quo, but to what end? And what's next?

They get on a bus and laugh at what they just went through, until the laughter ends and their real future begins, one that's entirely uncertain.

17 December 2011


It plays like an old studio film from the 30's or 40's, in that there is a high-concept premise ("Out of work actor acts like a woman to get a role"), an economical set-up (he's teaching acting because he can't get any roles, dresses up as a woman to audition for a role his female friend wasn't right for), and it consists of a series of set-ups and pay-offs, many of which confirm with the 4-act structure. finally, there's a "moral", a thematic throughline that pervades.

Dustin Hoffman is a struggling actor in New York, who can't seem to land any roles. We watch him audition, but he doesn't get called back. To pay the bills, he teaches acting, but it isn't fulfilling. And then comes his surprise birthday party, which messes with his head, because now he's acutely aware that he's getting older and his chances of "making it" are getting worse and worse. On top of that, his roommate, Bill Murray, is trying to put on a play. It will cost $8,000, so money is pressing, too.

He talks to his agent. Nothing. He helps his friend, Teri Garr, audition for a part, but they are looking for a different type. Here's the most interesting choice of the movie: abruptly, with almost no fanfare, we see Dustin in drag, auditioning for the role that Teri Garr was not right for. Unlike the setting up and laying pipe that SOME LIKE IT HOT did to make us aware that Curtis and Lemmon had NO choice (they were completely broke and on the run from the mob), we get almost no insight into Hoffman's thought process, and we certainly know he's not doing this just to survive.

But that's how act 2 begins, with a flowering of the premise: the out of work male actor is knowing at work acting as a woman, and it's on a soap opera TV show.

The remainder is a series of set-ups and pay-offs: Hoffman is supposed to kiss a man on the show, improvises his way out of it -- the twist is that the actor kisses him anyway after they yell "Cut!". He has girl talk with Jessica Lange, his co-star on the show, who tells him what she would love a man to use on her as a pickup line; he meets her out of drag at a party and uses that line -- the twist is that she rejects him anyway. Jessica Lange's dad wants to fuck him, he is coy -- the twist is that he proposes to Hoffman anyway. And finally, the improvisations that he begins on the first day come to a head when they do a live taping of the show (in itself a set-up that is paid off here) and he improvises taking off his wig and make-up, coming out as a man, both to the cast and crew of the show and to the audience of the show.

It's about honesty. The whole movie is about acting like someone you are not, and how that is going to get you in trouble no matter how big or how small. Every character grapples with it to some degree: the show's director is a philanderer, Lange lies about what she wants a man to say to her as a pickup line, Hoffman has to have sex with Teri Garr to cover up that he was admiring her dress, not checking her out.

It makes sense that a film about honesty revolves around an actor. The very idea of inhabiting a fictional character is lying using your entire body. But he has to give that up, give a piece of himself away, to learn about how to live correctly, to become whole again. To wit: he only gets the girl at the very end when he comes clean about who he is and insists he'll never lie to her again. He has to stop acting.

16 December 2011


It's about a fall from grace, and a redemption. It's about the common man as Christ figure. A story that's been told time and time again, but not with these particulars.

Terry Malloy is a nobody. He works at the docks now, but he used to be a boxer. His world is a corrupt one, with mobsters, crooked union reps, longshoremen fighting each other over job chips, just so they can work for the day.

He unwittingly sets up a neighbor to get killed, a neighbor who talked to investigators about graft at the docks. When the investigators ask him about it, he refuses. For one thing, he doesn't want to get killed himself. But beyond survival, Terry is so beaten down by his own life that he just doesn't want to rock the boat, to make waves, to go out on a limb.

Father Barry doesn't have that problem. He knows the mob wouldn't touch a man of the cloth, so he is the modern-day court jester: only he can tell the truth. Through Barry, we as the audience learn how the longshore union works, how it is now controlled by the mob.

Here's where things change. Malloy meets a woman, Edie, who brings his own life into focus. He realizes he's treading water, that he's not living up to his potential, that he's "a bum." He wants to be better for her. And Father Barry continues to be a thorn in the side of the mob, so much so that they set up Duggan, he who was to be his right-hand man, who was to testify against the mob, to get a shipment full of booze dropped on his head at the docks.

So Barry gives a speech over the dead man's body. Watch:

This is where the film's themes come fully into view. It's fighting against greed. It's about the glory of the working man. It's about standing up against corruption. It's about making the unpopular choice. It's about redemption.

And this is when Terry Malloy realizes he has been wrong, and decides to change his ways. He does so first by coming clean: he tells the woman he loves that he unwittingly set her brother up to be murdered (watch how this scene is down without dialogue, the only sound those of foghorns).

And then he meets with his brother Charlie, who plays the part of the devil, who makes him a Faustian bargain: he offers him a job with the mob in exchange for not testifying. Terry is too far along to go for that, so Charlie pulls a gun on his brother. Terry still won't have it: he's a fallen man, and testifying, telling the truth, setting the record straight, coming clean, all those things are his only chance at redeeming himself.

Terry testifies against the mob boss, Johnny Friendly, and then returns to work. Everyone at the docks gets a job chip but him. He and Friendly get in a fight, Terry gets beaten senselessly. But eventually he is spared from death and, to the cheers of his fellow dockworkers and over Friendly's protests, he returns to work. He is changed, a better man, a new man, he is risen and reborn, and now there is honor and glory in that work, and he is a nobody no more.