Monday, May 25, 2009

A Long Time Ago..

Hey guys,

32 years ago today a little film called Star Wars was released in only 32 theaters. To celebrate, I thought I’d repost a favorite article from a couple of years ago for Ed Copeland’s
Star Wars Blog-A-Thon.

Two great lessons about SW that I hold dear to this day:

* The early drafts were so stunningly awful and so unlike the finished film, it’s such a great reminder that any bad script has the potential to reach great heights like Star Wars.

* Lucas had the amazing ability to scrap a script he just wrote and approach the story again from a completely different perspective, which he did repeatedly before settling on Luke and the hero’s arc. We all need this quality. Too many of us get too stuck on what we write and we lack the discipline to start from scratch or even approach our stories from a different perspective just to see how it plays.

Hope you enjoy it.



Exactly 30 years ago today, Star Wars was released in only 32 theaters.

And subsequently
changed the world.

In celebration of not only the 30th anniversary of Star Wars but also the
Star Wars Blog-A-Thon, which is being hosted by our very good friend Edward Copeland, I thought I’d have a little fun and talk about the early drafts of Star Wars.

Thus, I tried my very best to read all six drafts -
May 1974, July 1974, January 1975, August 1975, January 1976, and February 1977. Yeah, that was a bit much. Each one of those suckers is filled with about 30,000 words.

So I’d like to concentrate on the very first draft, which was titled simply The Star Wars. (Lucas would go on to title later drafts Star Wars: Adventures of the Starkiller, God help us all, but thankfully, he came to his senses and in the end stuck with Star Wars: A New Hope.)

Let it be said, my friends, that the early drafts of Star Wars should be a rich source of encouragement to every aspiring screenwriter the world over - because they royally sucked. They are of the same low, amateurish quality that may be found in many first screenplays written by newbies on
TriggerStreet. (Thus, many scripts and new writers have the potential to reach Star Wars heights.) Had Star Wars never happened, had Lucas uploaded his first draft onto TriggerStreet, and had he theoretically asked me to review his script for him, I’m not sure I could’ve even finished reading the darn thing.

His first version only vaguely resembles the final film that we all know and love. There is an Empire. There is a rebellion. There’s a princess. There are themes of tyranny verses democracy, which are mostly verbalized through somewhat preachy dialogue. There are characters who are called Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, etc, but the similarities end there. It is one thing to create from scratch a magnificent fictional universe, and it is quite another to create an effective story that sucks an audience into that world and makes them care about those characters and the conflict.

Let’s compare the opening scenes of the 1974 draft vs. the 1977 draft.

The 1974 draft opens with a shot of space and “the vast blue surface of the planet, Utapau. Five small moons slowly drift into view from the far side of the planet.”

The main titles roll-up:

“Until the recent Great Rebellion, the Jedi Bendu were the most feared warriors in the universe. For one hundred thousand years, generations of Jedi perfected their art as the personal bodyguards of the emperor. They were the chief architects of the invincible Imperial Space Force which expanded the Empire across the galaxy, from the celestial equator to the farthest reaches of the Great Rift.

Now these legendary warriors are all but extinct. One by one they have been hunted down and destroyed as enemies of the New Empire by a ferocious and sinister rival warrior sect, the Knights of Sith.”

And then:

A small silver spacecraft emerges from behind one of the Utapau moons. The deadly little fightercraft speeds past several of the moons, until it finally goes into orbit around the fourth moon.

Now consider the 1977 version:

First, the roll-up:

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy...”

And then the action:

The awesome yellow planet of Tatooine emerges from a total eclipse, her two moons glowing against the darkness. A tiny silver spacecraft, a Rebel Blockade Runner firing lasers from the back of the ship, races through space. It is pursed by a giant Imperial Stardestroyer. Hundreds of deadly laserbolts streak from the Imperial Stardestroyer, causing the main solar fin of the Rebel craft to disintegrate.

The first is just setting and backstory. And it’s boring. The second is setting, backstory, establishes the conflict, and then we’re thrown right into action with this little spacecraft being chased down by a giant Imperial Stardestroyer. It also sets up better the expectation of the thrills to come and makes a very clear visual statement.

Of this statement, I loved what Barry Toffoli said at

“Star Wars" opens with a shot of space and the soft sound of John Williams score, then the shot shifts to a planet. So right away we know we’re in for adventure on foreign soil, in outer space no less. Then a small vessel comes from the top of the screen. This is quickly followed by a series of blasts as the score turns into that famous booming on sound, akin to Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ [from "The Planets"]. This is all quickly followed by the enormously famous and copied shot of a behemoth star cruiser coming in from the top of the screen and going on forever. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this story is a tale of good versus evil, the little guy getting bullied by the big guy. Even the planet in the shot plays into the theme, representing a new undiscovered world a new hope for freedom and life. But we know the journey will be hard as the star cruiser looms over everything from the rebel ship to the planet below to the audience watching it in the theatre.

Following the opening sequence (in the first draft), we find ourselves on the wastelands of the fourth moon called Utapau with an 18-year-old Annikin Starkiller (who would eventually become Luke Skywalker). He’s wearing a “breath mask” and “goggles.” He’s surveying something with his “electrobinoculars.” He runs home. We’re introduced to his younger brother, Deak, and his father, Kane Starkiller, who is a master Jedi. The three go out into the wasteland together to investigate a Sith spacecraft that had landed nearby. His father leaves the boys to get a closer look. While he’s gone a “sinister Sith warrior” attacks Annikin and Deak. “Laserswords” are drawn. The Sith kills Deak. And just when Annikin is about to die, he is saved by his father. (All of this business about Jedis and Siths and laserswords was just too much too soon.)

Darth Vader is just a “tall, grim-looking general.” We see the Emperor tell his troops about a forthcoming battle and the Empire’s intent to conquer the Aquilaean System, “the last of the independent systems, and the last refuge of the outlawed, vile sect of the Jedi.” It is a system that will bring them “more scientific wealth than that of any other House in the Tribunal.” They will easily “gain control of the directorship.” Oh. Nice.

The armies of Aquilae are led by an old Jedi – General Luke Skywalker. “He is a large man, apparently in his early sixties, but actually much older. Everyone senses the aura of power that radiates from this great warrior. Here is a leader: a Jedi general. He looks weary, but is still a magnificent-looking warrior. His face, cracked and weathered by exotic climates, is set off by a close silver beard, and dark, penetrating eyes.”

Kane and his son just sort of... show up. Kane’s old friends with Skywalker. He begs Skywalker to take Annikin as his Padawan Learner in order to be a complete Jedi, because he is too old to complete his training. Annikin’s already reached “the fifth stage.” Skywalker reluctantly accepts him. And then Kane takes off for “the spaceport at Gordon to visit an old friend, Han Solo, the Ureallian.”

And from here, the story descends into the seventh circle of screenwriting hell.

There’s this business about Skywalker desperately trying to get a “war code” in order to “start the war computers” and send his troops into space to be ready for an imminent attack by the Empire, but he can’t get it until there’s a vote about an alliance treaty. And then they say, “May the force of others be with you all.”

Skywalker learns about a death star, which we never see, but we see “a space fortress.” Maybe they were the same thing. I'm not sure. In any case, they’ll be attacking at sunrise. He sends Starkiller to get Princess Leia to bring her to safety.

And here’s the basic arc of their sordid relationship.

First encounter:

Forget the cases - we've no time.

These are my things. They must...

I said forget them, and hurry...

Just who do you think you are?

Starkiller grabs the princess by the arm, and hauls her to the speeder. Mina and the old women run after them.

I will not be treated like this! You bring my things.... My father will have your head... (etc.)

Leia struggles to break away from the young warrior's grasp as he opens the door of the speeder.

Settle down!

When the door to the speeder is opened, Mina starts in, and Starkiller stops her.

You must stay. Here, take the Crest.

Starkiller rips the royal crest from the princess' neck, and hands it to the startled handmaiden. The old women gasp in horror. The princess starts hitting Starkiller with little result.

Mina's not staying...I'm not leaving her. You can't....

Starkiller punches her square on the jaw and knocks her cold. Mina is panic stricken, one of the old women faints, and another starts for Starkiller with a large staff.

She'll be all right. I'm taking her to ordered. You will wear the crest and continue as before.

Later as they are flying along in a landspeeder:

You are such a barbarian. I'll have my father cut you into little pieces when we get back...and I'll take pleasure in feeding you to the Gonthas....a little bit each day. I may save your eyes though. I'll have them petrified and made into a necklace.

Your sweetness is only surpassed by your beauty. Just try to remember, I'm only following orders.

... to beat me and abuse me?

I'm afraid I've only learned one way to treat wild animals.

And then, somehow, they fall in love:

Will we make it? Is there any hope? Stay with me... I love you.

Starkiller is slightly shocked at this outburst. The princess starts to cry and clings to him for support.

No-one is going to stop acting like a child, and start behaving like a queen. What is this silly talk of love? You belong to the people of Aquilae, and my job is to return you to them, nothing more. Now straighten up and get into a lifepod.

She's deeply hurt by his callousness. She breaks away from him and runs down a hallway into a lifepod. He is tired, and angry at the whole incident.

And in the very next scene:

What's going on with you two?

We're in love. She loves me, and I just realized... I love her.

Pardon me while I heave.

There were two androids. They were annoying. "Artwo" could speak.

This is madness; we're going to be destroyed. I'm still not accustomed to space travel.

The external bombardment does appear to be concentrated in this area. The structure has exceeded the normal stress quotient by point four, although there appears to be no immediate danger.

No immediate danger! You're faulty. This is madness!

Because they’re losing the battle to the Empire, they decide to take the Princess and 33 of the greatest scientific minds to the Ophuchi system to be safe. But they don’t actually take the scientists.

The doctor moves over to a safe-like cabinet guarded by two attendants. The doctor gingerly picks up a small clear vial filled with grey fluid. It has a label which reads: Faubun, Astro-dynamics...In the background the scholar on the operating table is undergoing a form of mechanized brain surgery.

"Bloodory's distillation?"

Yes. It has been greatly perfected. The brain is condensed into five ounces of fluid. Cloning cell samples are included so that a structural duplicate of the scientist can be reproduced. When the duplicate child reaches the age of six, he or she begins a series of injections of the brain fluid. By the age of ten years, they have received all the knowledge and memory of an experienced scientist: an old mind in a young body. We have prepared a special shock-belt to carry the vials.

I’ll bet that was fashionable.

Here’s the rest of the story, which was woefully inadequate:

- Skywalker, Starkiller and company try to flee with the princess (and scientists floating inside their special shock-belts).

- The escape attempt fails and they crash land on the planet Yavin.

- They lose the princess.

- They’re taken in by “Wookees,” whose colony is run by Chewbacca.

- The Empire captures the princess and takes her to the “space fortress.”

- Skywalker and company teach the “Wookees” how to fly a spacecraft.

- And then the “Wookees” fly the spacecrafts into outer space and attack the “space fortress.” Vader tells Leia, “I'm afraid I have no more time to deal with you. A senseless and futile attack by your friends has forced me to take a rather unpleasant course of action. Your execution will have to be expedited.”

- Skywalker and Starkiller board the “space fortress,” rescue the princess, take her to a spacecraft, and float away with the garbage, while the “Wookees” continue the attack and eventually blow up the “space fortress.”

- There is much celebrating in the end.

Okay, I should make at least one serious point here. Let me ask a question: why should we care about this kid, Annikin Starkiller, who gets pushed off onto General Skywalker? Here, I think we find some of the great lessons in the transformation of Star Wars as a story. It’s not just about special effects and being entertaining and being halfway intelligent (please!) about the relationships between these characters. This is about having a protagonist who
has a goal. In this first draft (and second), Annikin is just a young adult who has almost completed his training and seems likely to do so. And then we just watch him in action. Yawn. So what? He’s all set!

But consider the final version in which we’re given a young Luke Skywalker who not only has an inner goal to be a hero
Joseph Campbell style, but he’s also disadvantaged because of his circumstances, and they're holding him back from being what he really wants to be. Who couldn’t sympathize with that? When Luke stared at that horizon on Tatooine and those two setting suns and longed for something better, we longed with him and rooted for him to get it. When his parents were murdered we knew he was on a trajectory for a great adventure that we were very ready to go on with him. And so we were introduced to this great universe through Luke and his inner needs, which made all the difference in the world.

By the way, George, I am interested to know what the hell happened to those scientists floating around in those little bottles on Skywalker's shock-belt. I guess they're okay now.

May the force of others be with you all.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sex in Screenwriting

Hey guys,

Today, I’m breaking one of my own rules and I’m posting my two-part series on Sex in Screenwriting, as a shameless plug for my beloved
Script Magazine. This kind of no-holds-barred-blazing-new-ground analysis is what you’re missing by not having a subscription! And I will not post my magazine articles on my blog... except this once.

This is not about who showed what when. And this is not about writing a sex scene for the sake of prurient interests. This is about rising above those oh-so-clichéd scenes of two characters meeting and having mind-blowing sex. This is about how a sex scene can have so much more depth than that, a crucial dramatic element to your story.

I wrote this nearly a year ago, my first article for the magazine, which appeared in the November/December 2008 issue. I walked away from that whole experience with one key writing principle:

A sex scene is only as good as its characters.

So let’s get it on! Hehehe



Sex, Part 1
“It’s like what bad boy writer, George Bernard Shaw, once wrote, ‘A pornographic novelist is one who exploits the sexual instinct as a prostitute does. A legitimate sex novel elucidates it or brings out its poetry, tragedy, or comedy.’”

Sex, Part 2
“Horizontal vs. Vertical... Sex is also an opportunity for vertical writing in your screenplay. Maya Deren once made a distinction between drama that’s ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical,’ and by that she means that the narrative is ‘horizontal’ and the lyric is ‘vertical.’”

Sex, Part 1

Hello, Script readers.

Let’s skip the introductions and go straight to the sex, shall we?

Because I have a few questions for all you virgin screenwriters out there. As we look forward to 2009 and beyond, how should we view sex in our specs? Can sex be crucial to a story?

It seems to me that in films, as in life, sex complicates things. People get all confused and distracted when breasts, butts, and bushes flash across the screen. So let’s see if we can unveil a few secrets about sex in screenwriting. To do that, we first look to the past.

Starting in the 1920s until the mid-60’s, the rather prudish Hays Production Code overshadowed every creative writing decision in every production of every film. If your film didn’t get a Seal of Approval from the Production Code, you were in trouble. Some tried to distribute their films without a Seal, just as Otto Preminger and United Artists did with their 1953 film, The Moon is Blue. The Code denied the Seal because the script contained the words seduce, pregnant, and virgin. Not only that, a film distributed without a Seal into the heartland of America ran the risk of prosecution for breaking local obscenity laws. Otto’s film was banned in Kansas, which got challenged, and went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court who reversed the decision.

During World War I, Americans were concerned about something called “social hygiene,” umm, you know, venereal diseases, and filmmakers like Ivan Abramson put together little movies, like Enlighten Thy Daughter from 1917, which explained the “facts of life.” This, if you can believe it, evolved into underground sexploitation films of the ‘30s - ‘60s, which were showcased in tents or run-down theaters called grind houses. Even then, the celluloid gypsies of the ‘30s and ‘40s had to come up with reasons to include all of that envelope-pushing sexuality in their films in case they got hit with a lawsuit. Their reasoning? “Education.” Or it was a “morality tale.”

They’d have lurid titles like Sins of Love (1932), Road to Ruin (1934), Slaves in Bondage (1937), Mad Youth (1939), Secrets of a Model (1940), and Confessions of a Vice Baron (1943). The posters would scream “Open Your Eyes! Protect Your Daughters!” “Girls Enslaved Into Lives of Shame!” “A Throbbing Drama of Shackled Youth!” The stories, of course, always ended badly for those who, uhh, misbehaved so that there would be an acceptable “balance” of moral condemnation. The narrative might be a policeman investigating a seedy party that went wrong or we’d have a man sitting in jail telling a story with regret about the things he’d done. By the 60’s, they’d have voice overs literally condemning what you were seeing on screen or they’d speak passages from great works of literature or play the music of Bach to make it more difficult for prosecutors to convince jurors that a particular film had no redeeming value.

Fascinating to me, however, was a haunting film from 1965 by Sidney Lumet called The Pawnbroker, which helped bring some change and revision of the Production Code. The film, following many heated confrontations, was released with a Seal and with nudity because the fleeting shots of breasts were actually crucial to the story. In one scene, a prostitute visits Sol Nazerman, a pawnbroker and Holocaust survivor. She says, “I’m good pawnbroker. I’m real good. I’ve done things you haven’t even dreamed about before. Just twenty dollars more. I’ll make you happy, like you never know.” She takes off her top. “I gotta get me some money. Look… Look… Look…” And her breasts trigger Nazerman’s memory of the tragic fate of his wife at the hands of Nazi rapists. We’re given flashbacks via French New Wave quick cuts of his wife (topless) in a cell, men looking in, a Nazi guard entering, and then back to Nazerman throwing his hands onto his face. There’s also a lengthy flashback in the concentration camp. A German soldier asks, “Willst du was sehen?” meaning, “Do you want to see?” He’s cruelly forced to witness heinous acts, and the soldier’s “want to see” question parallels the prostitute’s “look” commands. For Nazerman, sex has become a source of trauma. Nazerman snaps back, covers the girl with a raincoat, and gives her twenty dollars.

Of course, not every sex scene (or in this case, an almost sex scene) has to be tragic to be crucial to a story, but I believe this helps to point us in the right direction to learn a deeper truth about sex in screenwriting today and that is:


It’s like what bad boy writer, George Bernard Shaw, once wrote, “A pornographic novelist is one who exploits the sexual instinct as a prostitute does. A legitimate sex novel elucidates it or brings out its poetry, tragedy, or comedy.” Exactly! And how do you do that? Through characters. When I read a sex scene in a script, I’m not usually moved by the mechanics of the act itself. I’m drawn to the emphasis on the characters in the scene and if the writer is doing something interesting beyond the clichéd emotion of euphoria. That’s the difference between exploiting sexual instincts and elucidating the poetry, tragedy, or comedy of sex.

So let’s explore some of the ways sex can be crucial to a story. It can, first of all, be a way to get to a truth about a character. Chinatown was all about obtaining truth through knowledge of sexual behavior. It opened with Jake revealing to a man photos of his wife having an affair. The story moved on to what may be Mulwray’s affair with a young girl and ends with a devastating revelation. I’m sure you know the story. If you don’t, you’re not much of a screenwriter. Hehehe… In any case, there is a scene in a bathroom with Jake and Evelyn, which precedes the sex, where Jake removes the bandage off his face. She’s shocked by his deep physical scar, just as Jake will later be shocked by her emotional scars.

Then, he allows her to dabble peroxide on his nose in a moment of trust. Jake notices a black mark on the green part of her eye. She tries to shrug it off as “a flaw in the iris,” “a birthmark of sorts.” Uh huh. Interesting that we have two characters both avoiding talking about the past (Evelyn and her father, Jake and Chinatown) while both have deep scars to share. Then, we cut to Jake and Evelyn lying in bed having obviously had sex, and we’re given more subtle clues to the murder mystery. The phone rings. She answers. She tells Jake she has to leave. Jake mentions that he recently met with her father, which gets a subtle, yet important reaction. Evelyn is visibly shaken, has to cover her breasts with her arms, and she quickly goes to the bathroom. Some scars can only be seen when we’re naked emotionally and physically.

Sex can be a way to chart a character’s arc, too. A character’s attitude toward sex is one way in the beginning of a film and completely different by the end. Masturbation was the vehicle to showcase Lester Burnham’s character arc in American Beauty. You may recall the opening sequence where Lester tells us in voice over that he’ll be dead in a year and that he’s already dead spiritually. We’re given a scene where we’re to look pitifully at Lester “jerking off in the shower,” which will be, as he says, “the high point of my day.” Later, when Caroline catches Lester masturbating in bed, she becomes furious. Lester tells her, “I’ve changed. And the new me whacks off when he feels horny!” In the beginning, masturbation illustrated how desolate he was, but later, it signified the new, assertive, independent Lester Burnham.

A sex scene can also be a way to reveal different sides of your characters. It can, on the one hand, illuminate a character’s hypocrisy, as an individual says one thing in public and does something quite different in private. On the other hand, you can have a character that simply behaves one way out in the world (timid) only to be completely different in the bedroom (tiger). I love the scene with Faye Dunaway and William Holden in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. This woman was so passionate and so sexy in the office that a guy can only wonder how fantastic her love life must be. However, when you finally get her into the bedroom, you are revealed just how totally cut off she is from her emotional and sexual roots. She will not stop talking about the ratings and the network and the TV shows. But she will pause briefly for an orgasm:

She busily removes her shoes, unbuttons her blouse, whisks out of her slacks down to her bikini panties. She scours the walls for a thermostat.

...Christ, it’s cold in here...
(turns up the heat)
You see we’re paying these nuts
from the Ecumenical Liberation Army
ten thousand bucks a week to bring
in authentic film footage on their
revolutionary activities, and that
constitutes inducement to commit a
crime. And Walter says we’ll all
wind up in federal prison...

Nubile and nearly naked, she entwines herself around Max, who by now has stripped down to his trousers. The two hungering bodies slide down onto the bed where they commence an affable moment of amative foreplay.

(efficiently unbuckling
and unzipping Max’s
...I said, “Walter, let the
government sue us! We’ll be front
page for months! The Washington
Post and The New York Times will be
doing two editorials a week about
us! We’ll have more press than

Groping, grasping, gasping, and fondling, they contrive to denude each other, and in a fever of sexual hunger, Diana mounts Max. The screen is filled with the voluptuous writhings of love. Diana cries out with increasing exultancy...

(in the throes of passion)
All I need... is six weeks of
federal litigation... and “The Mao
Tse Tung Hour”... can start
carrying its own time slot!

She screams in consummation, sighs a long, deliciously shuddering sigh, and sinks softly down into Max’s embrace. For a moment, she rests her head on Max’s chest, eyes closed in feline contentment.

(after a moment, begins purring)
What’s really bugging me now is my
daytime programming…


This brings us to one of the most obvious points about a sex scene and that is, sex can be a way of gauging the health and stability of a relationship. The great Peter Ustinov, Mr. Hercule Poirot himself, once said, “Sex is a conversation carried out by other means. If you get on well out of bed, half the problems in bed are solved.” Exactly. When there are problems in the bedroom, when there’s passionless, perfunctory sex on display, we know something’s wrong.

Annie Hall gave us scenes filled with problems in the bedroom (usually bad timing, mood-killing mishaps, or lowered romantic interests) all of which satirized the idea that sex was the foundation upon which all contemporary relationships were built. Here, if the sex was dead, so was the relationship. You may recall the sequence where Annie and Alvy are seeing their respective therapists and revealing their differing perceptions about the same question of “How often do you have sex?” Alvy: “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.” Annie: “Constantly! I’d say three times a week.” Hehehe… Those two seemed fated to always be searching for a love that lasts but never find it, which was punctuated by Allen’s non-linear structure.

Shampoo boldly proclaimed that those who concealed conflicting desires were hypocrites, not that those conflicting desires did the characters any good. Robert Towne incorporated a motif of interruptions during sex, which implied unsatisfied desires. The interruptions always happened to the lustful rake by the name of George played by a young Warren Beatty. His affair with Felicia in the opening sequence was interrupted by a phone call from another woman named Jackie. George’s affair with Jackie was twice interrupted by a man named Lester from whom George was trying to secure money and who was also married to Felicia while having Jackie as a mistress. Is your head spinning yet? George is so self-obsessed that when his wife, Jill, tries to communicate with him and achieve greater intimacy, George ignores her or interrupts her.

I have to mention 9 Songs, which was written and directed by Micheal Winterbottom. This is the only film to be on the Independent Film Channel’s online lists of both the 50 Greatest and 50 Worst Sex Scenes in Cinema History. While not a masterpiece, I think it had some interesting ideas, which were explained best by Mr. Roger Ebert: “What Winterbottom is charting is the progress of sex in the absence of fascination; if two people are not excited by who they are outside of sex, there's a law of diminishing returns in bed. Yes, they try to inspire themselves with blindfolds and bondage, but the more you're playing games, the less you're playing with each other. Their first few sexual encounters have the intricacy and mystery of great tabletop magic; by the end, they're making elephants disappear but they know it's just a trick.


A sex scene can also be about manipulation, a means to an end. In James Bond films, it’s usually a way of coaxing information out of a female spy. In Film Noirs, femme fatales are notorious for using sex to convince men to do things that are not very nice, like murder. Film Noir is the only genre where it’s essential to have a weak, passive, male protagonist.

Body Heat took place in a small town in Florida that had no air conditioning and seemed to be stuck in limbo, like its protagonist Ned Racine (William Hurt). Here’s a guy who is grown up, hit with the reality that adulthood isn’t as wonderful as he thought it would be, and he lacked the will to better himself or move away. Thus, he became susceptible to the charms of Matty (Kathleen Turner), who used sex to convince him that life with her would fulfill all his fantasies and restore his self esteem, if only he would do this one little thing for her. In fact, she first got him to break the law by encouraging him to break into her house to have sex with her:


…He pushes at [the windows] as his eyes lock with Matty, who watches from the hall. The windows won't move. Racine spins and picks up the nearest object, a wooden rocking chair. He lifts it, turns and smashes the big window. Glass showers into the dining room.

Matty watches. She hasn't moved.

Racine pushes the broken window out of his way. He comes in, like a violent gust of wind.


Racine crosses the dark living room fast. As he reaches Matty, she lifts her arms to match his embrace. They come together hard and tight. They kiss. And kiss again. Her hands travel over his body, as though she's wanted them there for a long time…

In other erotic thrillers, like Sea of Love or Basic Instinct, the sex scene is the moment of reckoning for some characters. Will she or won’t she stab him with an ice pick? Thus, a sex scene can also be an important turning point in the plot.


“You make me crazy. You’re so damn sure I’ll keep coming back here. What do you think? That an American on the floor in an empty apartment eating cheese and drinking water is interesting?”

Well, apparently it is, because I can’t get around the topic of Last Tango in Paris in an article about sex in films. Frankly, when I first saw this movie a couple of years ago, I hated it. I thought it was boring, un-erotic, tonally inconsistent, and I was particularly incensed by Paul’s sexist, narcissistic, degrading treatment of Jeanne. I mean, he practically raped her twice! In preparation for this article (and after reading 12 critical essays on Tango), I’m more comfortable with the film than I used to be. When they first meet in the apartment, I no longer think it’s a case of rape. He picks her up, carries her to the wall, and at any time, she could’ve screamed, fought, or tried to resist him. But no, she doesn’t. I think we’re given a visual illustration that she was literally swept away by Brando’s pain, hunger, and need for her. The butter scene still angers me, though, and it’s inexplicable to me that Jeanne doesn’t storm out of that apartment. Her behavior in the third act is also inexplicable to me. If anything, Tango fails to be a masterpiece because Jeanne behaved the way the filmmakers wanted her to behave, not because her character was fully developed and we could see that it was in her nature to be that way.

Sex was not the point of the film, of course. Sex was used as a means to escape the loneliness of the relationships that left those two characters so unfulfilled. Julian Ebb wrote that it was “sex as an instrument of power divorced from tenderness or curiosity [that] results in chaos and despair.” That could be. The bigger point is that sex, in and of itself, never should be the point of a scene when it comes to quality screenwriting. The emphasis should be on the characters.

For Part Two, click here.

Sex, Part 2

“Hey, don’t knock masturbation! It’s sex with someone I love.”
- Woody Allen in Annie Hall.

I recently read screenwriter David Freeman’s great book,
The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. David worked with Hitch on what would’ve been his final film, called The Short Night. It was an adaptation of a book by Ronald Kirkbride of the same title. It’s about an American agent chasing after a very bad British double agent who escaped from jail. While the American waits for this bad Brit to arrive in Finland to meet up with his family, he has an affair with his wife. The project was always on the brink of being shut down due to Hitch’s failing health, but it was the passion of his characters and their love affair that kept him going. Here’s David:

“The talk of love was a tonic for him. ‘Yes, yes. That will work. Very exciting.’ It was as elaborate as praise ever got: He was saying, ‘I will put that in my movie.’ He was off and running.

“‘The lovers are seated across the room from each other,’ he began in his deliberate tones. ‘Their robes open as they look at one another.’ He stopped, savoring the scene, repeating that the robes were open. He was starting to sound suspiciously like a schoolboy with a copy of Penthouse. ‘Outside, on the bay, a tiny boat is approaching, coming over the horizon’ (the scene takes place in a cabin on an island off of Finland). ‘The lovers know the husband is approaching. They can hear the sound of his boat’s motor, growing louder as it comes over the horizon. They stare at each other and begin to masturbate, each of them. The camera moves closer to their eyes. The sound of the motor grows louder as their eyes fill the screen.’ He’s grinning now and actually stretching his legs, his cane has fallen away with the lovers’ robes. ‘Then, after orgasm, the man must take an ivory comb and comb her pubic hair.’ Now he didn’t actually intend to put this in the film. It was a private vision, playful and from the heart, a true home movie.”

I love that scene. I love the aching desire between those two characters combined with the fact that they can’t touch each other in those few moments they have together. Plus, you have the noise of the approaching boat’s motor that brings a sense of rising tension into the scene with the arrival of her evil husband and by extension, the moment where he must be executed. Fabulous! It’s different from all the usual sex scenes we see in films. It’s rooted in the story, and it capitalizes on the high emotions of the moment. (A good friend reminded me of a film called Bent that had two men in love who couldn’t touch each other, and in one scene, they “have sex” by imagining it while standing side-by-side.)


Let me get on a soapbox. Sex is also an opportunity for vertical writing in your screenplay. Maya Deren once made a distinction between drama that’s “horizontal” and “vertical,” and by that she means that the narrative is “horizontal” and the lyric is “vertical.” To quote her:

“In Shakespeare, you have the drama moving forward on a ‘horizontal’ plane of development, of one circumstance—action—leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every once in a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he wants to illuminate the meaning to this moment of drama, and, at that moment, he builds a pyramid or investigates it ‘vertically,’ if you will, so that you have a ‘horizontal’ development with periodic ‘vertical’ investigations, which are the poems, which are the monologues… You can have operas where the ‘horizontal’ development is virtually unimportant—the plots are very silly, but they serve as an excuse for stringing together a number of arias that are essentially lyric statements.”

In one of my favorite screenplays, Kubrick’s Napoleon, you can really see the distinction between that which is “horizontal” and “vertical,” because in order to cover all of the important events in Napoleon’s life, you have to fly down that horizontal plane at lightning speed in order to squeeze it all in before you reach page 150. And thus, you cannot help but notice those moments when Stanley shifts gears in the narrative and chooses to slow down to be “vertical,” to spend just a few pages to highlight the meaning of a dramatic moment.

And the first “vertical” moment that comes to mind has to be the sequence involving Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine. We’ve been flying through pages about his quick rise to power and his preparations for the Italian campaign, which we know will send him into worldwide fame and headlong to becoming the next Emperor of France. But we stop for this very important love affair. We hear Napoleon’s many poetic love letters to Josephine. “Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what is this bizarre effect you have upon my heart?” “By what magic have you captivated all my faculties, concentrated in yourself all my existence? It is a kind of death, my darling, since there is no survival for me except in you.”

And while we hear Napoleon pour his heart out, we watch Josephine have a torrid sexual affair with Captain Hippolyte Charles.

This sequence is not just about establishing their marriage and her betrayal and how much Napoleon loved Josephine. It was also about how much he overwhelmed her with the kind of love that suffocates a human being, which in this case drove Josephine into the arms of another man. (Of course, she was indifferent to him since the beginning, but his behavior certainly didn't help matters either.) It also showed a believable contradiction in the main protagonist, which gave him depth - that is, the arrogant, powerful, confident Napoleon was also the insecure, needy, emotionally reckless Napoleon who naively wanted to be loved as overwhelmingly as he loved Josephine. We see that he completely gave himself over to her with an almost childlike honesty without realizing the consequences of his behavior, a stark contrast to the genius who meticulously calculated (and won) every battle. And by making us hear his voluminous words of love while at the same time showing us Josephine’s sexual betrayal, we are practically forced to feel the sting of her infidelity just as Napoleon felt it, and we sympathize with him.


Okay, a couple of thoughts about Eyes Wide Shut.

We know that with Kubrick, his movies aren’t always about the lead character’s journey. He doesn’t write stories like we do. He’s usually thinking in broader terms and he’s making statements about mankind, history, civilization, power, etc. A Kubrick story should not be judged solely by its psychology but by it sociology, too. For example, due to Bill’s (Tom Cruise) interest in becoming a member of the ultra-elite, he grows uninvolved and disconnected from his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), which in turn made her nothing more than an object to be used whenever he wanted her. And her resentment of his attitude surfaced only in her dreams and when she’s stoned. From that first opening shot of her slipping out of her clothes, she is presented to us as an object of desire. Everyone from the babysitter to Ziegler to Szavost praises Alice only for her looks. Her daily regimen is pretty much devoted to rigorously maintaining her looks. She's constantly looking at herself in the mirror. Of course, these kinds of details don’t exactly make for exciting dialogue and cinema (unless you know to look for these things), but it’s Kubrick non-verbal way of making statements about Alice, the objectified wife.

Kubrick also likes to make visual connections between characters in order to make statements about them. That typically requires more than one viewing to notice. (Or, thank God, you could look them up on the internet.) What’s interesting to me is that you have to look past the nudity and sumptuous visuals of Eyes Wide Shut to see the details to understand the connections Kubrick’s trying to make. If you notice, Kubrick visually associates Alice with all of the other women in the movie, and therefore, he’s also making statements about Alice as the prostitute wife. For instance, she’s identified with Mandy. They are both first presented to us in bathrooms. They both have a penchant for drugs. Mandy’s final night of her life in which “she got her brains fucked out” by many men is echoed disturbingly in Alice’s dream. Alice is also associated with Domino by the purple bed sheets and the similar dressing-table mirrors, essential for any true courtesan. It could be argued that there was only one woman in that film. All the women Bill encounters are various incarnations of the one he is truly seeking – his wife.

And then there is Helena, their daughter, named after the most beautiful woman in history. The subtext of all of their interaction with her is really about her being groomed to be the same kind of high-class object as her mother. During the day, she is always with her, observing her, learning from her. She wants to stay up to watch “The Nutcracker,” which is, of course, about a little girl whose toy comes to life and turns into a handsome prince. The fact that this story takes place during Christmas-time is no coincidence. This is when consumerism is at its height. Later, when Helena reads the bedtime story, she recites, “before me when I jump into my bed.” Alice mouths it along with her. In the dining room, Alice helps Helena with a little math problem - how to calculate which boy has more money. There’s a photo of Helena in a purple dress in Bill’s office, eerily reminiscent of the one worn by Domino the night before.

In the final scene in the toy store, Helena’s carefully observed actions speak volumes. Alice said she was “expecting” them to take her “Christmas Shopping” (even though they already have piles of presents under the tree). Perhaps the trip was so Helena could shop for her friends, which is telling, because she only thinks about herself in the store. She wants everything in sight. She wants the blue baby carriage (similar to the blue stroller we saw twice outside Domino's door). Then she grabs an oversized teddy bear. Then she shows them a Barbie doll dressed as an angel, which was no coincidence, because Helena herself wore an angel costume in the opening sequence when she asked if she could watch “The Nutcracker.” Helena runs down an aisle full of stuffed tigers that look suspiciously similar to the one on Domino's bed...

By the way, I think it was all a dream in Bill’s head.


One of the books I read as research for this article was Jody Pennington’s fabulous
History of Sex in American Film. Those who like to use their minds, as I do, will be delighted to learn that this book is all words and ideas and hardly any pictures. In any case, an over-obsession about sex can make characters blind about bigger, encroaching evils. Pennington articulated these kinds of ideas that ran through Cabaret far better than I could:

Cabaret obliquely portrays the strange coexistence between the Weimar Republic’s sexual decadence and the rise of an intolerant totalitarian regime. The film does not establish a causal relationship between the two; instead, it underscores the futility of decadent entertainment in the face of brutal repression. The Kit Kat Klub’s patrons, symbolizing a populace diverted from political reality by sexual diversions, were not blinded by political ignorance but an indifference fomented by sexual excess.”

By the way, the growing, extreme sexual obsessions of two lovers led to a rather inconvenient third act climax for a man named Kichizo in a movie called In the Realm of the Senses. Ouch! In her essay, “A Theory on Female Sexuality” (1966), American psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey noted that “the strength of the [sex] drive determines the force required to suppress it.”


In Boys Don’t Cry, you may recall the moment when Teena is arrested and while she’s in jail, Candace discovers her secret. Then Candace tells Lana who quickly sees Teena in prison. Teena tells her she’s a hermaphrodite but it “sounds a lot more complicated than it is.” Lana tells her she doesn’t care if she’s “half monkey or half ape” and gets Teena out of jail. They make love in the front seat of a car. Thus, sex can be the payoff to a giant setup, the deep inner goal of a character, that is, the long-awaited moment of acceptance.

Of course, sex here was not the goal. Love was the goal. And this concept sometimes gets lost because there’s an over-emphasis by some in the industry on the sexual part of “sexual orientation.” Why does there have to be an emphasis on sex just because a character has a different orientation? Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters can have, like any other great character in literature or cinema history, depth, contradictions, goals, inner conflicts, and arcs. I’ve read quite a few scripts by aspiring gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers, and some have shared with me their feelings of anxiety about sex scenes. I say don’t worry about the sex and focus on the depth of your characters. In that context, the sex will find its natural place in the script. Don’t force it. Write that scene when you know it’s crucial to your story. Because the point of a sex scene is not the act itself, it’s the characters. What does the scene reveal?


It seems fitting that I’m contributing to a magazine that showcases Dave Trottier, because I’m a huge supporter of his book, The Screenwriter’s Bible. A sex scene is like any other scene in a script. Use action lines. Make them lean and mean. Write active verbs. Keep the action paragraphs down to four lines or fewer. Emphasize the characters. Avoid incidental actions.

I must commend Bob Verini who also wrote a great article about sex in Script Magazine’s 2005 January / February issue. He talked about the mechanics of writing a sex scene and pointed out how Joe Eszterhas loved using the ellipsis in Basic Instinct:

She moves higher atop him ... she reaches to the side of the bed ... a white silk scarf is in her hand ... her hips above his face now, moving ... slightly, oh-so slightly ... his face strains towards her.

I’m okay with that so long as it’s in small doses. You can also write a MONTAGE, which Trottier explains in detail in his book. Verini had some good montage examples as well. I would only add Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Nichols’ The Graduate.

The only film I’ve watched that had a sex scene that actually moved me to tears was a 2003 film called Lilya 4-Ever. Abandoned by her mother and living in poverty in the former Soviet Union, 16-year-old Lilya resorts to prostitution to survive. Without revealing too much of the plot, there is a montage toward the end of the film in which we (looking up) view from Lilya’s perspective all of these older, disgusting men having sex with her. I was so saddened by what was being done to her. I wanted to get on a plane to Sweden and save that little girl. It was such an effective tragedy in the way it condemned those horrible, underground, sex slave organizations.


There’s so much more territory we could’ve penetrated. There’s the art of seduction. There’s sexual abuses, disorders, and addictions. There’s rape, infidelity, and incest. There’s symbolism, sex for the elderly, and teen sex comedies, which I believe happens only once every generation. There’s orgies, although I really don’t know what I’d say about that. I like what Mason Cooley wrote, “Orgies are an early form of what will someday become sex by committee.” Hehehe… Say, how many prominent asexuals can you list in films? Depp’s Willy Wonka? Pee Wee Herman? How about Hercule Poirot? Can you think of a film in which a character’s asexuality became the source of a conflict? I cannot.


There was an interesting article by Dylan van Rijsbergen in Sign and Sight called Sexing the Handbag. He wrote: “Time has come to start a new movement inventing new images of sexuality and pornography. Time has come for a new Jan Wolkers, male or female, someone who can write powerful stories of authentic sexuality. Time has come for all kinds of individuals in the media, art and literature to invigorate the tired imagery of commercial porn. Time has come for a slow sex movement, which stretches sexuality beyond the single moment of the male orgasm. Time has come to return sexuality to what it has always been: elusive, exciting, intense, playful, authentic, dynamic and sublime.”

Okay, I’m spent. Was it good for you?




I’d like to thank Jennifer van Sijll, Eric, Joel, Kelly, Randy, Rebekah, Joseph, Jeff, Erin, as well as the readers of my blog: Emily Blake, Joshua James, David Alan, James Patrick Joyce, Laura Deerfield, Purpletrex, Miriam Paschal, Pat (Gimmebreak), Christina, Matt, Nestori, DougJ, terraling, Lisa, Christian M. Howell, Seeing_I, deepstructure, Gabbagoo, James, Scott, Kevin Broom, Bob Thielke, Spanish Prisoner, Cody, Ben, Trevor, rdas7, hwee, Unknown Screenwriter, and the Anonymous Production Assistant. Their raging debates about sex in film last July on my blog provided much needed food for thought. Thanks so much, guys.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Air Doll

Have you guys heard of the film playing at Cannes called Air Doll? I have a friend at the festival who was texting me about it.

Get this. From Dan Fainaru in Screen: "Based on manga comic
The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl, about a lifesize blow-up doll that stops being 'a cheap substitute for sexual satisfaction' and becomes a real person, Air Doll is a philosophical and poetic essay on such weighty matters as innocence, solitude, women as sex objects, the proximity of life and death and the uniqueness of human beings. It wants to be light, airy, smiling and sad at the same time - just like real life. Although the bill may be too ambitious and [Hirokazu] Kore-eda's approach too diffused, Air Doll does offer food for thought, poetical imagination galore, a touching performance by Korean actress Bae Doo-na in the lead part and superb, crystal-clear images provided by Hong Kong cameraman Mark Lee Ping-bing (In the Mood for Love)."

That’s just hilarious.

A few reviews have posted around the web:

Here’s Boston Globe’s
Wesley Morris:

After Spring Fever and Fish Tank, Air Doll, from the newly prolific Hirokazu Kore-eda, rounded out a remarkable 12-hour binge of sex and suffering. The movie is the least expected film of the three, a kind of comedy about a Japanese loner (Itao Itsuji) whose plastic sex doll comes to terrific life in the form of Bae Doo-na. Dressed for a while in a French chambermaid's uniform (the epitome of fetishistic "sexee"-ness), the doll gets a job at a video store and falls in love with a meek co-worker.

The task of keeping her inflated creates obvious sexual metaphors, but as a comic disquisition on man's backhanded use for woman, the movie entertains. There is something here, and I liked it. There's a
bit of Nagisa Oshima's sensual sex-tragedies and evident evocations of the Pinocchio tale. The movie has charm, yet -- despite the sad dénouement -- feels slight (apropos of that title, it's airy and hot, though I mean the "hot" part only erotically).

David Phelps at Auteurs’ Notebook:

Pinocchio: a sex doll comes to life, discovers she’s got a "heart." Amelie: But life, a heart, means a set tic, or routine (one character’s bulimic, another eats eggs every morning), ersatz characterization. Lolita: the thesis excuses lazy screenwriting—everyone’s hollow; such is the modern world. Garden State: Anyway, love’s better than personality. Still Walking: full-bodied and empty-headed, poses the preciousness to be tapped. There, a mother chased around a butterfly in the night believing it’s her dead son. Here, a guy’s ex-girlfriend is reincarnated instead as an erotic air toy. Life is Beautiful: life is beautiful.

And here’s
Maggie Lee at The Hollywood Reporter:

Just a whiff of a story, Air Doll is aesthetically so exquisitely packaged, and so tenderly directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda that the urban fairytale about an inflatable sex doll come to life gradually unfurls as an achingly beautiful meditation on loneliness and longing in the city, and a reflective look on a consumerist culture that encourages easy substitutes and disposability, even of humans and feelings… That the air doll personifies the human yearning for fulfillment through companionship is spelled out a little too bluntly when she is accidentally deflated, and Junichi resuscitates her by blowing into her belly button. But their affair has a sensuality that floats above the artificiality of the plot.

Here’s the
official website.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

John Ford – Man, Myth, & Legend

Hey guys,

I was thrilled to discover recently a massive free online special section in the new issue of
Undercurrent, which is "FIPRESCI's magazine of film criticism," that’s devoted entirely to director John Ford. It’s 18 of some of the finest writers on film discussing 18 films by John Ford!

I loved it! I felt inspired and also creatively and intellectually fed by that whole experience. In fact, I reshaped a few scenes in my current writing project as a result. Here’s the
Table of Contents, which lists the films discussed in chronological order. I loved what editor Chris Fujiwara wrote in his intro called The Ways of Love and Politics:

There are many ways of loving films. But the love of John Ford's films frequently crystallizes around some choice themes. One is a certain pastoral image, sometimes (as in the Will Rogers trilogy [1933-1935], Young Mr. Lincoln [1939], and My Darling Clementine [1946]) labeled "America," and sometimes (as in The Quiet Man [1952]) labeled "Ireland." Another is the image of American cinema as an ideal of clarity and complexity in its address to a mass audience. But it's another theme that grips me most, and it also engages most of the writers here: Ford the man — the one who creates and falls in love with these images that inspire love in viewers, the man who embodies what have come to be thought of as the virtues of American cinema at their zenith, and also the "man" as certain ways of relating to the things he shows, thus as a very modern subject, as modern as any of us, and not some idealized abstraction of what we love in his films.

And this:

It is not Ford's wholeness that interests these writers so much as his dividedness.

Or this:

For all the contradictions in Ford's films, there is rarely any sense of dilution or compromise in them.

He closes by talking about fictional characters in Ford’s films facing “the real” through examples he gives in 3 endings. I’ll share one:

At the end of They Were Expendable (1945), a U.S. military plane is about to evacuate personnel from the Philippines, which MacArthur has abandoned. The plane, which we are given to understand will be the last one out before the islands are overrun by the advancing Japanese, can carry only thirty passengers. Two ensigns who are numbers 29 and 30 on the list of those hoping to board the plane fail to show up, so the next men on the list, Morton and Carter, are assigned the ensigns' seats. At the last possible moment, as the plane is about to start down the runway, the ensigns finally arrive, and so Morton and Carter must get out and remain at the airstrip. Everyone knows (except the panting, oblivious, fresh-faced ensigns), though no one says it, that this means that Morton and Carter are probably soon to die. In part this scene functions according to a familiar rhetoric of the impassiveness of soldiers facing disaster. The doomed men's failure even to acknowledge the reality of what is happening, much less express disappointment or sorrow, is the key to the scene. The viewer may respond to it emotionally or not (I find it deeply moving). The point is the confrontation with the real: with the accident, something that's no one's fault or responsibility but that just happens because it happens.

Ya know, in a moment like that, it’s not the setup or the situation itself that matters so much as how the characters react to that situation that defines them, the director, and the film itself. How they respond is also what inspires us or breaks our hearts.

So I read all 18 articles. Here are highlights of a few I enjoyed:

Fernando Martín Peña on Straight Shooting (1917):

What makes a man to wander? Where does Ethan Edwards come from in The Searchers (1956)? Probably from Straight Shooting (1917), as many have already noticed. Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey) is a carefree outlaw hired by a cattleman to kill a farmer who does not want to leave his land. When he is about to do it, he's moved by the sight of the old man, mourning the death of his son, and decides to reform. The ending of the film is confusing — there are parts obviously missing or misplaced — and the titles are not reliable, because the print was found in Czechoslovakia and they had to be reconstructed from the Czech titles. However, it seems clear that Cheyenne Harry sets things right, feels unworthy of the farmer's offer to stay with him and replace his son (by becoming his son-in-law) and goes away. Fade out and some decades later we have Ethan Edwards.

Shigehiko Hasumi on Kentucky Pride (1925):

The shot at the beginning of this sequence is wonderful. The horse and the two men are placed in such a way as to stand out from the surrounding bustle of the street scene. Donovan picks an argument with the cart driver at the congested cross-roads. Beaumont, who happens to be also at the scene, rests his hand idly on the side of the cart horse. Virginia's Future remembers the sensation of that same hand on her side at the moment of her birth and responds by patting her front right hoof on the ground. However, this gesture is unrecognized by Beaumont, and the two just pass as if nothing had happened. In this extremely short sequence, a drama far removed from the excitement of the race track is played out. Nevertheless, the significant actions — the unconscious movement of Beaumont's right hand, the professional behavior of Donovan in his long raincoat managing the traffic jam, and Virginia's Future's desperate but resigned gesture — all stand out clearly from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding outdoor scene. The viewer cannot fail to be moved by what can justifiably be called one of the most beautiful scenes in the entire history of film. It is surely a miraculous moment that could only have been created by John Ford after his real encounter with the filly who had a crush on him.

Jean-Pierre Coursodon on Judge Priest (1934):

To the near-hysterical patriotism that suffuses the last third of Judge Priest, one may prefer the laid-back atmosphere of the earlier sequences, in which Priest is revealed to be not only a most unconventional judge and a cleverly folksy politician ("The first thing I learned in politics is when to say 'ain't'") but also a sensitive soul. His musings and reflections betray a sensitiveness that literally embraces all the senses, from the smell of honeysuckle to the sad sound of the whippoorwill's call to the taste of his beloved mint juleps (he cultivates a patch of mint for their preparation), to the beauty of the flowers in early spring, or of an old tintype of his long-deceased wife and their young children (he even comments on the quality of the enlargement). Priest is also a very lonely man who misses his wife and talks to her photograph, then visits her grave in the churchyard to continue the conversation — a scene Ford loved so much that he recycled it for John Wayne's Captain Brittles fifteen years later in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

I really loved this one.
Blake Lucas on The Informer (1935):

…But it seems wrong to reject a work on principle because it doesn't have humor, and looking to Ford himself as an authority on the point is a real mistake: haven't we learned by now to trust very little in what he said at any given time? Ford is to be understood through his work; everything is there if we are patient enough in coming to understand it, and it is the only sure way to understand him. As for humor, always a virtue in Ford or anyone else, it is not essential in all works of art; think of paintings or pieces of music that beautifully create a single mood or feeling and sustain it. There is no reason why a film cannot be like this, too; the films of Robert Bresson have precious little humor that I've ever discovered, yet few critics regard them negatively for that reason. It seems fair that Ford too should be allowed a film of narrower mood if it has compensating virtues.

Much the same argument applies to the nature of Ford's art more generally. It is again a question of whether there is one "true" Ford style against which all his films should be measured. The idea of "calculated artistry" could easily be interchangeable (even if it's not intended to be) with "conscious artistry." Isn't all art conscious and shouldn't it be, even in encouraging the unconscious to play its own part? Part of an artist's achievement can be to create simplicity, and Ford is now much praised for his gift for doing this, but that doesn't mean the apparent spontaneity and ease of effect really just happen. At the same time, it is difficult to think of a Ford film that does not also show a conscious, purposeful and deliberative artist at work…

A. S. Hamrah on The Grapes of Wrath (1940):

People are crowded into small spaces in the vast landscape of the West in The Grapes of Wrath, and this is uncharacteristic of Ford, as is the way the camera is mounted to the Joads' truck as they pull into a Hooverville. We see out-of-work migrants moving aside as we travel through the crowd in this striking shot that shows how Ford and Toland knew the West they were depicting was not the West of Stagecoach (1939), and had figured out how to show it, how to expose it in every sense of the word. The scene ends in a kind of urban violence removed to the West. A deputy — not a deputy in the western sense, he's just a cop — accidentally shoots a woman in crossfire and she falls to the ground. Another cop gets dialogue straight from Steinbeck: "Boy, what a mess them .45s make." In the book, the fingers were blown off her hand, like in Taxi Driver (1976), which reverses the Ford-Toland process by reimagining the Fordian West in New York City.

Adrian Martin on How Green Was My Valley (1941):

Although I had already seen it several times in my life, How Green Was My Valley hit me like a ton of bricks when I re-viewed it in recent years. It is, of course, among the most somber, the bleakest, the most despairing of his works: family and community there may be, but none of these families, and certainly not the overarching community that contains and defines them, remain in one piece by the film's end. The supposed nostalgia of the tale — which viewers sometimes lazily detach or hallucinate from the free-floating poetry of its title, doubtless repressing the memory of what actually goes on in the movie — is tearing, bitter, even ironic: as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the march of industrial civilization is inexorable, and killing; all that's left, finally, is this memory, this stranded voice or thought which calls back to a better yesterday, "how green was my valley then …"