Talking Movies

April 25, 2016

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that the Feds give you make you Sherlock Holmes for twelve hours

elementary

 

INT.HILL OF BEANS PRODUCTION OFFICE, BROOKLYN-DAY

 

CRAIG SWEENY, writer/producer, clenches and unclenches his fists as he walks along a corridor. He slows as he approaches the office at the end of the corridor from which we hear two loud voices. He gulps. Sweat trickles off his unclenched fist.

 

TITLE: 18 MONTHS AGO.

 

Sweeny slowly pushes open the door, and hovers in the doorway while ROBERT DOHERTY jumps to his feet to bellow at a phone on speaker emitting a dial tone.

 

DOHERTY: AND GOOD DAY TO YOU TOO, ‘SIR’!

 

Doherty picks up the phone and throws it off the desk. The receiver lands on the hard wooden chair on the supplicant side of the desk, while the body dangles in mid-air as the cord is attached on the other side of the desk.

 

DOHERTY: (looks up at Sweeny) Telemarketer.

SWEENY: Oh. Uh, hey, uh, Robert, do, uh, do you have, uh, a minute? Maybe?

DOHERTY: What? A minute? Oh, yes, certainly. Take a seat. In fact, it’s great that you’re here, Craig, I want to explain to someone a fantastic wheeze I just concocted.

SWEENY: Well, actually I-

DOHERTY: I said sit down sir!

 

Sweeny dives into the supplicant chair, and ends up sitting on the receiver. He tries to subtly move it out from under him while Doherty relaxes back into a leather armchair.

 

SWEENY: SO… I got this offer-

DOHERTY: If we get cancelled I have come up with a golden parachute to beat the bank. Have you read any of the Game of Thrones books?

SWEENY: No.

DOHERTY: Ah! Neither have I, and one of us needs to, so that means you. Read them all in the next week and report back to me then. Also make some character notes. And some notes on the house style employed.

SWEENY: I-

DOHERTY: Don’t interrupt! Now, George RR Martin is a decrepit old man. We all know this. What we all know but are too hidebound by bourgeois niceties to say is that, like Robert Jordan, he is going to die before he finishes writing the novels. Indeed he may well die before he even finishes the next book as he clearly has no interest in actually writing it. But, and how many times have I tried to impress this on you Sweeny, never present just a problem, always present the solution too. So! The solution – we pull a Patterson.

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: Would you stop interrupting me?! Now, if James Patterson can come over all medieval craftsman and give anonymous people 50 page treatments which they then flesh out and he later okays before putting it out under his own name, then why can’t we do the same for decrepitly old George RR?

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: He tells us, verbally, so that he doesn’t have to strain himself with the idea of committing something to paper, his ideas on what happens next, be they e’er so vague. We secretly record it, as the whole occasion will happen in front of a roaring fireplace as we get him roaring drunk. You transcribe it, I read it, work up a treatment, give it you, and you write it all up with the help of whoever we can keep on from the writers’ room.

SWEENY: Alright…

DOHERTY: And everyone’s happy. A new novel appears, it seems RRish enough to be going on with, and it’s been done fast, so nobody’s dead, and nobody’s left millions of fans howling at him for wasting a good chunk of their lives.

SWEENY: Right…

DOHERTY: Now we just need to pitch it to his publishers. If only I had the requisite confidence you need in these situations… (gazes abstractedly at the roof)

SWEENY: Um, Robert?

DOHERTY: Oh, I thought you’d gone. Why haven’t you gone?
SWEENY: I’ve been offered another gig.

DOHERTY: What? You traitor! Where??
SWEENY: CBS.

DOHERTY: You double-dealing traitor! I have nursed a viper in my bosom! (He goes to throw the phone at Sweeny, realises he’s already thrown it, makes a few attempts to lean over his desk and grab it, but grabs only air, and slumps back in his chair)

SWEENY: They want me to develop Limitless.

DOHERTY: … The Bradley Cooper film?

SWEENY: Yes.

DOHERTY: I don’t see it as a TV show.

SWEENY: Well. I thought it might make for a good procedural.

DOHERTY: How so?

SWEENY: Well, suppose that we have Cooper appear in the pilot as a Senator. Suppose he wants NZT kept on the down-low, but suppose the Feds know about it, and then suppose that he cultivates a guy inside the Feds to keep them guessing.

DOHERTY: A healthy amount of supposition! So, set-up. What’s the week by week?

SWEENY: Why would the FBI keep a guy around? NZT makes you smarter. So he can see patterns nobody else can, the drug makes him the best analyst they have!

DOHERTY: (lilts) One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that the Feds give you make you Sherlock Holmes for twelve hours. (mutters) Haha, said the title.

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: Some day, Sweeny, you may join myself and Deadpool in an elite club. Yes, I think I can see this working qua show.

SWEENY: So, are you okay with me working on it?

DOHERTY: Yes! I see great possibilities. I was talking to a network lawyer and he said that he’s fairly sure that with a bit more screen-time he can get Clyde the turtle a SAG card, and then we can all share the health benefits with a nod and a wink to a tame doctor. Do you think you can give your hero a pet turtle that he uses for expository purposes?

 

Before Sweeny can answer BORIS sticks his head in the door.

 

DOHERTY: NO! THAT LINE REMAINS! DAMN TASTE AND DECENCY! YES! WATSON CAN DIRECT ANOTHER EPISODE IF SHE REALLY MUST! AND IT HAS TO BE PURPLE! PURPLE! PURPLE! PURPLE! IF HE CAN’T DISTINGUISH BETWEEN PURPLE AND MAUVE HE SHOULDN’T BE A PRODUCTION DESIGNER!

 

Boris nods at the answers to the three questions he didn’t get to ask, and sidles away. No matter how many times Sweeny sees Doherty do this, he is always amazed.

 

SWEENY: How did you?

DOHERTY: Do you need to ask? Honestly, Craig, this is the level you need to be at to ascend to show-runner. Incidentally I have an idea for a Ferris Bueller episode.

SWEENY: That sounds more like a season six conceit.

DOHERTY: AHA! I’m so proud, I knew you had it in you. My tutelage is second to none. Well of course it’s a season six conceit, but I have no confidence in getting that far so let’s put it in your show.

SWEENY: WHAT?! I haven’t written a final draft pilot script! I can’t start putting nonsense conceits in the show from the get-go.

DOHERTY: Nobody’s saying make the pilot bonkers, or the first regular episode barmy, wait till about episode 7. Also, I’ll be coming aboard your ship if mine sinks.

SWEENY: (suspiciously) As what?

DOHERTY: It’s nearly Thanksgiving, I might come as a turkey. (beat) (beat) (Doherty waits for raillery from Sweeny) (beat) (realises it’s not coming) Sorry, my mistake I thought we were doing something there that we weren’t actually doing. Creative Consultant.

SWEENY: Will you actually just be a creative consultant? Or will you try and be a backseat show-runner.

DOHERTY: Creative Consultant. Advise and Consent. A hopeless yes-man. I am a shy and retiring individual, as you know.

 

Boris sticks his head in the door again.

 

DOHERTY: F****** LILAC?!!! IS THIS SOME ILL-CONCEIVED APRIL FOOLS’ DAY PRANK?!!

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December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

Drive has inspired this provisional attempt at asking what different types of movie violence exist, how they can be categorised, and what meanings each might have.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” – Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s defence of the Aesthetes is never far behind any justification of excessive violence in cinema. As a defence it has only one drawback, it’s not remotely true. Art can be deeply immoral. I direct you to Triumph of the Will. Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director Leni Riefenstahl, and then snap back into their conscious minds, realise just how far down a  particularly crooked garden path they’ve gone, and hastily backtrack with a “BUT of course it’s a terribly evil film….” Films do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of our lived experience, and if we have any sense of right and wrong surely films are implicated in it in more than a three-act Hollywood good defeats evil structural sense.

I reviewed Paranoid Park for InDublin and was appalled at the bisection of an innocent security guard by its unlikeable hero that was the pivot of the film. But I was stunned to see one American critic summon the courage to dub that moment deeply immoral. We’ve been inured to think about screen violence only in terms of effect, technique, structure, but there are different types of violence and morality cannot always be parked at the door as Wilde would wish. A man getting his head stomped on by Ryan Gosling till bone-dust floats in front of the lens inhabits a different universe than a lengthy sword-fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn ending with Rathbone’s death. Cinematic violence can be divided into a number of types, and the most obvious type is spectacle. A swordfight is violent, a cowboy duel is violent, a shoot-out is violent, a suspenseful Spielberg action sequence is violent, the lobby scene in The Matrix is violent – but it is the violence of spectacle. Hugh Jackman said that his musical theatre training was helpful in preparing for boxing in Real Steel because fight choreography is just choreography. When action is spectacle, what you’re really watching and enjoying is the choreography.

“Art is art because it is not nature” – Oscar Wilde

Can violence that is not seeking to appeal to the audience’s admiration for good choreography ever truly be aesthetic? Drive depicts a woman’s head exploding from a shotgun blast in anatomically accurate detail. Scorsese realistically depicts the explosion of a body dropped from a roof when it hits the ground, spraying Leonardo DiCaprio with blood, in The Departed. Why do film-makers engaged in depicting violence which is not spectacle usually go for such extreme verisimilitude? For every Kill Bill touch of blood spurting 30 feet there’s multiple instances of something like a gangster being bashed in the head by a shovel in Miller’s Crossing or a gangster being bashed in the head by a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Wilde’s dictum, if taken seriously, implies that 1950s cowboys keeling over dead without any blood being spilled after being shot is more artistic than R rated violence, because it is so obviously not nature but rather an artistic convention. Spielberg at least acknowledged that he was going for extreme authenticity in Saving Private Ryan to traumatise the audience rather than for his usual purpose of using violence – scaring/entertaining them, we’ll label all such uses of violence as catharsis to make life easier. Violent film-makers though seem to enjoy rendering violence in extreme detail not for reasons of catharsis but because they just like depicting bloody violence.

Can violence detached from the spectacle of choreography ever be aesthetic and nothing else? I doubt it, given that we seemed to have reached a point in cinema history where violence must be very realistic (whether fully depicted or screened from view) or it defeats the verisimilitude of its context. A more important question is just why is violence so important to cinema? Raymond Chandler quipped that whenever he got stuck he simply wrote a guy with a gun walking into the room. I’ve hammered LOST before for exactly this sort of laziness in which violence is used as a cheat, a jump-leads to make a scene tense and raise the dramatic stakes without bothering to write escalating conflict, character based tension, or biting dialogue. But this idea allows us to provisionally divide violence into four categories: spectacle, catharsis, function, sadism – suffering is the key to noting the last as well as a certain monolithic quality of the film as violent film and nothing else. It is also the only one that raises moral qualms, as opposed to seething dissatisfaction at lazy writing and distaste at a high water-mark of violence becoming the norm for ignoble reasons of sheer functionality. The fight in the subway at the end of The Matrix is all about the spectacle of dazzling wire-assisted choreography. By contrast the fights in Batman Begins are a total blur in which Batman wins, because Nolan very deliberately shoots too close to the action so as to shift the focus away from the spectacle; it doesn’t matter how Batman beats people up, what matters is that he can beat people up – it’s a question of function and character, not of aesthetics and spectacle. Functional violence is now the grease on the wheels of the three-act structure in many instances. At the climaxes of films, as villains get their desserts, it often overlaps with catharsis.

Catharsis is obviously an ancient legitimisation for extreme violence, and indeed Incendies will probably be my film of the year because it used shocking violence to purge the emotions of its audience with pity and fear to such powerful effect that the entire cinema sat in a stunned Aristotelian silence for some minutes at the end of my screening before shuffling out feeling somewhat mind-blown. But there is a fine line between catharsis and sadism, even in the greatest works. Oedipus gouging out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of his actions is not the same as Titus Andronicus informing his enemy exactly what was in the pie she just ate. ‘Shakespeare was really violent too’ is therefore not a carte blanche excuse for grotesque violence, though it’s often used in defence of extreme screen violence. Yes, Shakespeare was a bloody nihilist in King Lear and Titus Andronicus; in performance everything in Lear can seem mere build up to Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, while Titus is simply a catalogue of grand guignol horror from start to finish. But Shakespeare also wrote the frothy feather-light follies Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing where you’ll look in vain for any eye-gouging or cannibalism. Shakespeare had range with a capital R. The problem with Tarantino’s spawn is that they specialise in violence to a worryingly monolithic extent, and their violence often veers towards the Titus approach rather than Lear – audiences do not cry with pity and fear for what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally purged, they moan in revulsion and disgust at what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally contaminated.

“Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie” – Last House on the Left tagline

Sadism – the true differentiator. Violence as spectacle, function or catharsis doesn’t provoke the same shudder. Incendies was deeply shocking in its depiction of violence, but, crucially, it wasn’t shocking because of graphic depictions of that violence, but because of the connections between who was committing the acts and who they were victimising, on both an individual and societal basis. Sadism does not have that concern which elevates catharsis. It is concerned with depicting suffering for its own sake. Hostel auteur Eli Roth wants you to see a man lose two fingers on both hands as he breaks his bonds and then keep going in his quest to escape the deadly hostel, leaving his fingers behind him. I’ve written about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, noting that the theatrical cut showcased all the most obnoxious moments of his director’s cut: Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer. Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off – ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him to die in agony when Alan Moore’s script slashes his throat for an instant death? I said previously that Snyder was adding sadism to an already nasty story, but now I note he’s changing the category of violence – from function to sadism. He wants you to see people suffering, and that is a sensibility I find deeply troubling, not least because it seems to be shared at certain times by celebrated directors like Refn, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, Burton, Haneke and Miike. I won’t say that what these film-makers do with violence at their worst moments is immoral, but it is deeply troubling, and it’s time to stop meekly accepting their cod-Wildean ersatz-Shakesperean defences and ask just why it is that they apparently get off so much on depicting violence in gory detail with an emphasis on suffering.

Drive didn’t perturb me because it was a film purely of sadistic violence; the first outbreaks of bloodletting are all about function and catharsis, while the ominous killing on the beach is violence as both spectacle and catharsis. No, it’s taken me a long time to fathom what lies behind my feeling that Drive really was a film of two parts; the first of which I loved, the second of which I despised. And this is it. A film makes a contract with the audience, and for me Drive broke that contract – I didn’t expect that sort of violence to develop from the first part of the movie, and I don’t appreciate being told I’ve seen equally graphic violence in films that signed a different contract and delivered the goods as agreed. Spielberg and Hitchcock are pranksters, asking you where the line is repeatedly, to establish it in their minds, and then crossing that line for fun. Robert Rodriguez, in Machete or Planet Terror, establishes his ground rules for schlocky violence in the opening minutes. Saying I shouldn’t attack Drive because I enjoyed Wanted ignores the different contracts that they proffered regarding the nature of the screen violence to expect, and is akin to this:

BORIS: A 0-0 draw. Great. What a riveting football match…
JOHNSON: What are you complaining about? Have you forgotten that 0-0 draw last week that had you enthralled?
BORIS: What, the one with the 2 disallowed goals, 3 sendings off, 4 shots off the crossbar, 5 off the post and 60 shots saved?
GODUNOV: The very one.
BORIS: (beat) I think that was a bit different. How many shots were there tonight?
JOHNSON: What, on target?
BORIS: No, at all.
GODUNOV: Um… None. It was 90 minutes of 22 men on their own goal-lines.
BORIS: Yeah, it was 0-0 and so was last week’s match, but this one was excruciating.

As Enda Kenny used to bellow (but not at Nicolas Winding Refn, though he’d stand hearing it) “Sign the Contract!”

December 3, 2011

The Movies Aren’t Dead, they just smell funny: Part III

Mark Harris’ GQ article ‘The Day the Movies Died’ rightly notes that the standard which journeymen film-makers operate at has collapsed, but I want to add studio tactics, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself as elements working against cinema, in addition to his recurring and important culprit – marketers.

Harris quotes a studio executive as lamenting, “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is (as noted in a previous piece) all the screenwriting is apparently done by deeply jaded supercomputers which have been programmed with all the right story structure software but just can’t find it in their diodes to generate any surprises. The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this really could go anywhere. Could the Joker really blow up two boats full of people? Yes, after what he’d done up to that point, sitting in the cinema you were sick with suspense that Nolan would go that far in letting this supervillain off the leash. I praised Win Win for the same quality, that you couldn’t easily predict what was going to happen next and therefore got nervous for the characters’ fates in a way you usually don’t, and indeed noted that the delightfully ramshackle Troll Hunter also had a surprisingly clear three-act structure, in retrospect. The point with all of these films is that they’re so successful in dazzling the audience with their content that no one is looking at the structure while they’re watching it. Which is at it should be, Billy Wilder after all having said plot points were more effective the better a job you made of hiding them. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The problem is that mediocre films can’t cloak their structure with content, and so you notice just how clichéd they are. Harris brilliantly isolates The Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia as ‘the new okay’, the film that is just about worth the ticket price but won’t linger in your memory.

Harris is very funny in noting just how disastrous a decline a system has to be in for films like those two flops to become the new benchmark of competence. He blames marketers who thought from the poster, and the existing brand, backwards to making the film, rather than from a good story forwards. But I think his characterisation of such mid-range movies as the greatest victim of Hollywood’s “collective inattention/indifference to the basic virtues of story development” is unjust. Prince of Persia is a good brand for a computer game, but offers nothing new for cinema audiences. The Bounty Hunter’s poster and tagline might have presaged a good movie, if someone had written it. There is a trend in Hollywood of pleasing the top brass by writing ‘stories’ that hit every mark they’re supposed to, but the craft has overtaken the art, these aren’t stories that need to be told, the writer is merely assembling a product, not channelling inspiration. Joel Schumacher for me represents the height from which journeymen have fallen. Movies like Flatliners or The Client set the bar far higher than any workaday studio production today. They don’t dazzle with content in the way I’ve discussed, but the structure doesn’t obtrude because they’re tremendously entertaining films. We need journeymen today to aspire to that level of basic competency in entertaining with a nice but not spectacular concept neatly done. I know that Joel Schumacher is not of beloved of most people as he is of me (I actually feel bad at not trying to pass him off as an auteur), but the man who made solid entertainments like Lost Boys and Phone Booth seems to be exactly the sort of person we’re lacking right now, stuck as we are with Brett Ratner as this generation’s equivalent.

I think the decline in the aims of screenwriting and journeymen directing is part of a deep malaise of ‘it’ll do’ that has fallen over Hollywood. We now have CGI being as obnoxiously fake as 1950s back-projection, but for worse reasons. There were actual technical difficulties, as well as laziness, involved with avoiding location shooting back then. Now, every time a TV show uses an obvious CGI backdrop for an outdoor dialogue scene (Bones) or an hysterically fake moving background for car scenes (24) it’s because they can’t be bothered going outside when they can just shoot it in a green room and expect the audience to put up with it. The laziness of omnipresent CGI can be demonstrated by some great practical magic in The Adjustment Bureau.

BORIS: So, we need to move from a bathroom in a building to the field of Yankee Stadium in one continuous tracking shot thru a door.
JOHNSON: Well, we’ll just CGI it right?
BORIS: Move from a bathroom into a green screen room and then pan around, and add in the Stadium later? I like it.
GODUNOV: Or, we could just build a bathroom set on the field of Yankee Stadium and shoot it without any CGI at all.
BORIS: Oh. (beat) How very… practical…

People don’t think about options anymore, they just use CGI. I’ve noted this before when wondering why the Hulk can’t be played by an actor anymore using Lord of the Rings-style perspective tricks to make someone like The Rock truly loom over people. CGI always has to be used, because that’s what’s done. Scripts have to be written according to a flow chart, because that’s what’s done. And, I think one of the biggest problems we’re faced with because of the rise of the marketer’s love of brand, and the concomitant franchise movie, is the Hollywood hype machine which now fundamentally distorts the way in which writers pen, and audiences view, sequels. Every sequel now has to be bigger and better and feature higher stakes, because that’s what’s done. The result is bloated messes like Pirates 2. In the Golden Age of Hollywood people might just make a sequel if they had a good idea and wanted to have fun with the same characters again, or if they didn’t have any good ideas they might instead just round up the same guys for another original movie. I interpret Fast Five as pretty much a return to that older approach. Fast Five’s trailer has clearly given up on the idea that these films are getting bigger and better. Vin Diesel promises us that they’ll get caught or killed one day, but not today, situating the film as just another chapter in the continuing adventures of some petrol-head loveable rogues. If it can return us to a slightly less hysterical and creatively self-defeating approach to franchises then the successful but utterly inconsequential Fast Five may well prove to be the saviour of modern cinema. I may be embellishing that…

In conclusion (at long last) The Movies Aren’t Dead. Shame arrives in January. I’ve seen it and Steve McQueen’s second film as director, again with Talking Movies’ favourite Michael Fassbender as his leading man, is a devastating piece of work that shows what’s possible aesthetically and emotionally if you can free yourself from the self-defeating commercial strictures currently strangling cinema.

June 29, 2011

Michael Caine cock(ney)s up shakespeare

INT.HOLLYWOOD DIOGENES CLUB-DAY
MICHAEL CAINE is sharing a brandy in the sedate library of this fabled haven of civility in an oftentimes torrid city with his agent, the celebrated MONTGOMERY MONCRIEFF MICAWBER-MYCROFT. Micawber-Mycroft though is wary. He knows only too well the fixed eye of the man with a grievance…

CAINE: You’ve been there ’aven’t you?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: What, the rebuilt Globe? Yes, of course I’ve been there. I saw Macbeth there a few years ago, they had posters everywhere proclaiming ‘This is a bloody production of an extremely brutal play’; I had to stop myself from cackling with delight. That should draw in the crowds in Sarf London I thought to myself.
CAINE: And you’ve been around the exhibition part of it as well, yeah?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes, of course I have.
CAINE: So you know the booths where you can listen to all the old geezers speaking Shakespeare?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Um, yes I tried out the sound booths where you can listen to choice speeches, scenes and sonnets being performed by RADA’s finest graduates.
CAINE: And?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: And what?
CAINE: Wha’ did you notice?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Well, I was rather surprised that the earliest recordings, of Edwardian era actors doing Henry V’s big speeches, made Larry Olivier sound like he was being restrained by contrast when he popped up later. In fact he sounded positively subdued, and, whisper it, naturalistic, when we both know he was an enormous ham.
CAINE: No, Mycroft, you’re missing my point. Wha’ did you notice, did you ’ear a lot of regional accents in them booths?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Eh, no.
CAINE: Yeah, Eh, No. And why is tha’, eh? Do all the people in England sound like Laurence bloody Olivier when they open their mouth? Not bloody likely. So why can’t someone who sounds like me be featured in the recordings in them booths?
(Mycroft quickly puzzles out in his head what this meeting is really all about…)
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Do you want me to try and get your voice into those booths?!
CAINE: Yeah!
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: But, you’ve never really done Shakespeare…
CAINE: How bloody ’ard it can be? I’m not going to record a whole bloody play, I’ll just replace the one track they’ve go’ with Olivier doing Othello. Daft bastard shouldn’t be there doing that anyway, it’s an insult. Putting on blackface at age 58, in 1965 for Christ’s sake, what was he thinking? Until Chiwetel Eijofor remembers to record his bloody vocals for that fantastic exit scene he did with Ewan McGregor a few years ago I’ll ’ave a go.
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Oh! That speech? The final soliloquy?
CAINE: Yeah, tha’ one.
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I’m not sure that’s a very good idea, Michael.
CAINE: Why? Wha’? Do you think I can’t measure up to Larry?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: No, we both know you can, it’s just I have grave fears that that particular speech might sort of, well, send you looping off in another direction, almost against your will, as it were.
CAINE: Nonsense, it’s easy. (not really listening to Micawber-Mycroft anymore….)
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: (shuddering) And then I might have to deal with an angry Nolan again. And I don’t like dealing with Nolan when he’s angry, especially not now when he’s already simmering at mildly furious with me for telling Delaney I fed him a pivotal line of dialogue for Batman Begins.
CAINE: I’ll go in, knock it ou’, and be back in time to film a cameo in a remake of Jaws IV.

INT.ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS, LONDON-DAY
MICHAEL CAINE and BORIS, a sound engineer, stand on either side of the glass in a recording studio. Boris gives Caine the thumbs up thru the glass, and Caine picks up a battered old Penguin Popular Classic copy of Othello from the studio floor, bent open at the right page with a huge amount of annotation of the speech in question. He then proceeds to deliver a performance and a half; he invests the text with sub-text, pathos, nobility, nuance, and even that thing where his voice breaks when he gets very emotional – very emotional, indeed…

CAINE: Soft you; a word or two before you go:
I have done the Sta’e some service, and they know’t:
No more of tha’. I pray you in your le’’ers,
When you shall these unlucky deeds rela’e,
Speak of me, as Oi am. Nuffin’ extenua’e,
Nor se’ down augh’ in malice.
Then you must speak,
Of one that lov’d no’ wisely, but too well:
Of one, no’ easily jealous, but being wrough’,
Perplex’d in the extreme: Of one, ’ose ’and,
Like the base Judean threw a pearl away
(Twitches; self-restraining, then forlornly) The size, of a tangerine…
BORIS: CUT!
(Boris shakes his head, walks to the door, and opens it. Looks pityingly at Michael Caine and quietly says–)
BORIS: Get out.
CAINE: Yeah, alrigh’.

June 15, 2011

Micawber-Mycroft explains nervous action directing

INT.HOLLYWOOD DIOGENES CLUB-DAY

DELANEY, an agent to the stars, uneasily walks into the library of the well-appointed Diogenes Club. Yes, this may be a haven of civility in an oftentimes torrid city, but it is also entirely lacking in potted plants; which he likes to water to put his mind at ease. Thankfully he spots his friend and fellow agent MONTGOMERY MONCRIEFF MICAWBER-MYCROFT across the room and wanders over to where he is seated, only to be shushed into silence as he sits down.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Look at that agent over there! It’s hysterical. He’s been reading the Inception screenplay just like that for the past week and he still hasn’t grasped what it’s all about.

DELANEY: (hurt) Mycroft! You know that I don’t understand what it’s all about either!

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Pshaw my good man! Pshaw! You don’t understand the philosophical ramifications and the apparent inner inconsistencies. He doesn’t understand how two levels of reality being depicted simultaneously can work on film. Someone tried to explain The Matrix to him yesterday and he had to lie down for the entire afternoon to recover…

DELANEY: Oh, wow.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Quite. (beat) Why are you here anyway?

DELANEY: You asked me to meet you here.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Well of course I did dear boy. I couldn’t possibly come to meet you in your office, my only vice is indolence and I’m loathe to move from my regular armchair here. Let me to try to remember which among the many brightly-coloured balls that I must keep juggling in the air in my capacity as an over-worked agent I wanted to warn you about. Ah yes! Bond.

DELANEY: James Bond?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes. The studio has sorted out nightmarish licensing and financial difficulties, the understanding of which defeated even my vast legal expertise, and so is ready to make another Bond movie with Peter Morgan making the gibberish action script legible to thinking humans and Sam Mendes at the helm.

DELANEY: At the helm?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Lensing it, as they say.

DELANEY: As who says? What’s he doing?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: He’s directing it you twit! Really, you must try and keep up with the synonyms this business throws out, no wonder McAvoy and Pellegrino keep moaning…

DELANEY: How did you know about that?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I quite often breach the fourth wall not once but twice before breakfast. Anyway, that’s not important. What matters is that you must at all costs prevent all your stable of actors from taking over-prominent parts in this production.

DELANEY: What?! Why?? Mendes is a good director isn’t he? I thought that people won awards, or at least got nominated for awards when they appeared in his stuff.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes, that’s true.

DELANEY: So wouldn’t my guys win awards or get nominated if they did his new movie?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Not a chance, Bond movies don’t get awards no matter how Casino Royale they are.

DELANEY: Oh, but still, wouldn’t it be a good career move? Mendes directing Bond? He’s a name director after all.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes, but, is he an action director? No sir, he is not, he is an actors’ director, and whenever an actors’ director gets thrown onto an action movie their soul frets in the shadow of spectacle.

DELANEY: You mean they don’t know what to do with the CGI?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Pshaw sir! CGI is the least of their worries. Let me conjure up a scene for you…

INT.HOLLYWOOD BACKLOT-DAY

RODRIGO DELL’ARTE, an imaginary art-house director, arrives in thru the studio gate and is immediately pounced on by A GAGGLE of production heads bellowing questions and demands.

BORIS: Where are we going to shoot the car-chase?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT (O/S): Car-what? The man’s barely aware of what a car is, he gets public transport everywhere as a matter of principle. As for car-chases they hold no interest for him whatsoever, what can a car-chase say about the human condition?

(Dell’Arte shrugs his shoulders expressively to Boris)

JOHNSON: Are we going to do all the explosions for real or will we try and skimp by with CGI for some of them to free up their budget for the wire-work in the night-time museum sequence?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT (O/S): He’s heard the letters CGI, but has never had to have an actual conversation about them before. As for wire-work, that sounds more practical but still it scares the life out of him.

(Dell’Arte nods approvingly to Johnson)

GODUNOV: Have you made a final decision on which location you want to film the base-jumping sequence from, Hong Kong or Dubai?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT (O/S): What is this? A movie or a round the world cruise? Previously he’s only ever been offered choices between tiny sound-stages and cramped apartments…

(Dell’Arte throws his hands up in despair, and defers to his SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR)

INT.HOLLYWOOD DIOGENES CLUB-DAY

Micawber-Mycroft leans back in his chair.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: In summary, this is a world they’ll never understand, and you’ll always fear what you don’t understand.

DELANEY: That sounds oddly familiar.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I may have said it rather loudly when a struggling director was dining here some years back.

DELANEY: So an art-house director on an action movie simply defers to the second unit?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Indeed he does! They have the experience and expertise he does not, he is simply terrorised by their smooth efficiency. He’s made to feel an interloper on his own production. He leaves so much to the blasted second unit that the first time he sees the cast is two months into a six month shoot and they don’t know who he is. This does not gel an ensemble…

DELANEY: So, well then at least the action is perfect, even if he stood back from it?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: No, the action is perfectly fine because it’s being done by professionals without someone standing over them whipping them onwards. Martin Campbell gets all the action in Casino Royale perfectly perfect because he’s an action director merrily urging his second unit on to great heights, but then he also manages to get the actors to reach the same heights in the first unit stuff. Which may have been sheer luck, the great script, or, as I suspect, the ease they felt in knowing that this man was indeed on top of everything in the film.

DELANEY: And you think that a less commercial director will just get into a blind panic over the action, and sit back from it, thinking he can focus on getting the acting scenes top notch, but then the acting doesn’t compensate?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Of course the acting doesn’t compensate! No one goes to an action film to see people acting! Acting is merely what they do in between explosions, fights, and car-chases to keep the action from getting monotonous.

DELANEY: So you think the next Bond film will be a bit of a mess?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I don’t know what to expect. Mendes has a flair for comedy which is oft forgotten because he makes such downbeat films, so you can expect the next Bond film to be quite funny. And you can guarantee he’ll draw out top-notch performances. But, you cannot put money down on it being a great film without reservations…

DELANEY: How are you such an expert on this?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I’m British.

April 26, 2011

Revue: Attempts on Her Life: Review

A postmodern play is what we mean when we point at something and say, ‘This is what we mean by a postmodern play’…

A review of a play should be impartial and objective. It’s never a good idea to review a play when you know people acting in it. Having said which I’ve already done so to an extent when reviewing Death of A Salesman last summer. But of course I never knew Rory Nolan half as well back in 2001 when he was my Dramsoc committee liaison as I do some of the people in this play. Can we get around this? Perhaps..

SCENE 7. ARGUMENTS.

BORIS, GODUNOV, and JOHNSON are onstage. They can be any age and either sex. They are panellists on a TV show, or maybe politicians at a debate, you decide.

BORIS: It’s weird beyond belief. I approve.

GODUNOV: But is it good-weird or bad-weird?

BORIS: Can one apply such banal terms to post-modern theatre? It exists, it breathes; one cannot pigeonhole it into such bourgeois categories as good or bad.

JOHNSON: But surely a play has to achieve something other than simply being?

BORIS: You would like a tidy linear plot and developed characters progressing along a satisfying and predictable emotional arc, would you? Anything else we can do for you while we’re rolling back theatrical history? Bring back the Lord Chamberlain? Maybe we could ban women from acting again…

GODUNOV: I think that what Johnson meant was that a post-modern play whose sole content is reiterations of how impeccably post-modernist it is becomes as self-defeating as a woman Irish poet whose sole subject for poetry is the trials of being a woman Irish poet, to the point where you must ask if it’s such a chore trying to fit into the patriarchal tradition of Yeats why not just chuck it for something more congenial like novel-writing. Seems to work out nicely for Emma Donoghue…

BORIS: There you go again. You have an obsession with every work of art being pre-digested for your facile consumption, rather than struggling against patriarchy.

JOHNSON: I fear Boris that we are getting away from the play.

BORIS: Yes. We are. I thought a triumphant scene was the superbly combative Aisling Flynn talking down Ian Toner in the panel discussion tentatively chaired by Sam McGovern.

GODUNOV: Yes, he did catch rather well the host awkwardly caught between both trying to start fights and defuse excess tension at the same time.

BORIS: Shut up, Godunov. Yes, it was a pitch-perfect parody of the sort of spats over modern art once catches on Newsnight Review of a Friday. I also admired the deranged quality of Fiachra MacNamara’s monologue while blindfolded and being whipped by a girl wearing a pig-mask and shouting thru a microphone.

JOHNSON: The blunt satire of the second scene with the children’s entertainment turning into a discussion of atrocities bothered me by its tremendous lack of subtlety. Does one need really need to jackhammer at obvious truths like that? But I must ask you one question Boris. Did it not bother you that for large chunks of the play you had absolutely no idea what was going on? I’m thinking of that amusing but baffling Pinter homage where Toner and McGovern seemed to be either ad-men or hit-men, writing a personal ad or an obituary, with a mysterious suitcase bothering their efforts.

BORIS: I understood everything that happened.

GODUNOV: I beg to differ. You turned to me during the scene with the six actresses doing the satirical car adverts in different languages to ask in a terrified whisper if that man was meant to be on stage or had he just wandered in off the street?

BORIS: I was merely adding to your confusion to amplify the intended artistic effect…

JOHNSON: The scene deconstructing pornography I thought was another highlight.

BORIS: It appealed to your low taste for moralism in art did it?

GODUNOV: Why must you constantly sneer at any attempts to find meaning in life?

BORIS: Because one cannot find meaning in life! Crimp’s entire gestalt is that no play can represent accurately even one person, so how on earth could a play seek not only to create multiple ‘realistic’ characters but then have the audacity to claim that they represent the universe in some sort of microcosm, and that the play can thus make ‘important’ points about society? The only point it can make is the inadequacy of its ability to make points.

JOHNSON: You ascribe a Beckettian impulse to Crimp then, the compulsion to speak, mixed with the awareness of the inability to say anything worth speaking of?

BORIS: Don’t bring your philosophical poppycock into this, Crimp is operating on a purely aesthetic level. I have no idea what I mean by that. Or do I? …

GODUNOV: Are you attempting to say that we must not look for any deeper meaning? That Attempts on Her Life represents merely post-modern theatre’s abdication of the urge to create versions of reality in favour of merely stringing together disparate scenes containing blunt anti-capitalist satire? Didn’t 9/11 make that sort of posturing an embarrassment? If western civilisation is not inviolable what is the point of deconstructing it?

BORIS: Well, one could say the same about resisting the Nazis after the tide turned in Africa or in Russia. The battle against patriarchal structures is never futile. Vive La Resistance. You will notice the ‘La’…

JOHNSON: I think Boris that you have lost your mind.

BORIS: I’m in the good company of Nietzsche in that case.

GODUNOV: And I keenly resent the implication that I am a Nazi.

It’s hard not to feel that Enron shows the influence of Attempts on Her Life while simultaneously abjuring it. They’re both Royal Court productions but separated by a traumatic decade. There are a number of inexplicable musical numbers in both plays although neither is a musical, in both actors double up and a huge cast run thru many different cipher characters, and multi-media is also a commonality with large screens bombarding the audience with subliminally fast images of modern life; but the differences are huge. The blunt satire of capitalism remains, but the generalised anxiety of Martin Crimp is replaced by a sharp focus on the fall of one company by Lucy Prebble, who also develops four stable characters amid the slapstick in order to give us an emotional anchor, and has a solid plot in the downfall of Enron’s insane accounting system to drive things forward in a semi-linear fashion. In other words Attempts on Her Life is an important play but it’s not a trailblazer, nothing can follow it, other writers can only plunder from it what they like best and incorporate it into their own more traditional work – after all if one actually wants to say something about society it’s not really that satisfying only having a dramatic framework that deconstructs the validity of any and all attempts to say anything about society.

3/5

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