Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Even Shakespeare Failed

After my last project, I needed to renew my mind and soul. So I’m reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of The Human. I’m now 300 pages into this 700-page book, and my cup already runneth over. It’s deep analysis of characters, some of the greatest in all of literature, and the genius of Shakespeare unfolding before me play by play. I’ve added Bloom’s book to my sidebar, and I daresay, this should be required reading for every writer. His book will forever alter your perspective, and perhaps even approach to, characters.

In a recent article on Kurosawa, I suggested that no other filmmaker has created more masterpieces. So out of 30 films he made, how many would you say are masterpieces? 10? 15, perhaps? Consider that Shakespeare wrote 39 plays and critics agree that about two dozen or so are masterpieces. So the answer to the question, “Why are you reading about Shakespeare?” can only be, “Who else is there?”

I’m no expert on Shakespeare. The book was enlightening for me in many ways - like how Shakespeare was for so long under the shadow, influence, and popularity of Christopher Marlowe; how so many early plays were imitation Marlowe; and how Shakespeare struggled to get out from under that influence to find a fresh approach and his own unique voice, which took time. Genius never happens overnight.

His were characters of depth, both good and bad, very little of this “sympathetic protagonist with a goal” crap (and he luckily didn’t have gurus who would’ve limited his genius with narrow-thinking ideas about stories). Shakespeare is storytelling unlimited, unhindered, and undiluted. It's bottomless depth. It’s characters, story, and lots of poetry. Fascinating, too, that Shakespeare was pointedly ambiguous about many subjects and had so many characters with so many differing points of view, that it’s difficult to nail down who the scribe really was and what he truly thought. It’s staggering not just the sheer volume of characters but how his greatest characters like Rosalind, Falstaff, and Hamlet, differ so distinctly from one another.

But Shakespeare failed. Oh, how he failed. He failed because he hadn’t mastered his craft yet in his youth. He failed because he experimented. He failed because he took short cuts. He failed because he was lazy at times. He failed because… that happens to every writer. On The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Bloom wrote:

Never popular, whether in Shakespeare’s time or our own, the Two Gentlemen might merit dismissal were it not partly rescued by the clown Launce, who leaps into life, and Launce’s dog, Crab, who has more personality than anyone else in the play except Launce himself.

Toward the end of the play, one of the two “Gentlemen” tries to rape a girl named Silvia, just as the other “Gentleman” interrupts and the two reconcile from a previous conflict. Bloom writes: …poor Silvia never utters another word in the play after she cries out ‘O Heaven!’ when the lustful Proteus seizes her to commence his intended rape. What is the actress playing Silvia to do with herself during the final hundred lines of The Two Gentlemen of Verona? She ought to whack Valentine with the nearest loose chunk of wood, but that would not knock any sense into the lummox or into anyone else in this madness…

Of Richard III, Bloom says:

…this Richard has no inwardness, and when Shakespeare attempts to imbue him with an anxious inner self, on the eve of his fatal battle, the result is poetic bathos and dramatic disaster. Starting up out of bad dreams, Richard suddenly does not seem to be Richard, and Shakespeare scarcely knows how to represent the change:

Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!
Have mercy, Jesu! – Soft, I did but dream.
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue; it is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by;
Richard love Richard, that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am!
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why,
Lest I revenge? What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain – yet I lie, I am not!
Fool, of thyself speak well! Fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain:
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all us’d in each degree,
Thron to the bar, crying all ‘Guilty, guilty!’
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
And if I die, no soul will pity me –
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murder’d
Came to my tent, and every one did threat
Tomorrow’s vengeance on the head of Richard.

I cannot think of another passage, even in the tedious clamor of much of the Henry VI plays, in which Shakespeare is so inept. Soon enough, the playwright of Richard III would transcend Marlowe, but here the urge to modify from speaking cartoon to psychic inwardness finds no art to accommodate the passage…

On Julius Caesar, Bloom questions why Shakespeare didn't exploit the father-son relationship between Julius Caesar and Brutus:

Brutus is an unfinished character because Shakespeare exploits the ambiguity of the Caesar-Brutus relationship without in any way citing what may be its most crucial strand. Julius Caesar has an implicit interest as a study in what shades upon patricide, but Shakespeare declines to dramatize this implicit burden in the consciousness of Brutus.

On Titus Andronicus:

…I can concede no intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus. It matters only because Shakespeare, alas, undoubtedly wrote it, and by doing so largely purged Marlowe and Kyd from his imagination… Titus Andronicus performed an essential function for Shakespeare, but cannot do very much for the rest of us.

All of this tough criticism for the greatest writer who ever lived. The weak plays were necessary stepping stones to achieve the masterpieces. And baby, Bloom’s enthusiasm for the masterpieces is so infectious. I love all the great moments Bloom shares from the plays, like this portion from The Taming of the Shrew:

From this moment on, Kate firmly rules while endlessly protesting her obedience to the delighted Petruchio, a marvelous Shakespearean reversal of Petruchio’s earlier strategy of proclaiming Kate’s mildness even as she raged on. There is no more charming a scene of married love in all Shakespeare than this little vignette on a street in Padua:

Kath: Husband, let’s follow, to see the end of this ado.
Pet: First kiss me, Kate, and we will.
Kath: What, in the midst of the street?
Pet: What, art thou ashamed of me?
Kath: No, sir, God forbid; but ashamed to kiss.
Pet: Why, then, let’s home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.
Kath: Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.
Pet: Is not this well? Come, my sweet Kate. Better once than never, for never too late.

One would have to be tone deaf (or ideologically crazed) not to hear in this subtly exquisite music of marriage at its happiest. I myself always begin teaching the Shrew with this passage, because it is a powerful antidote to all received nonsense, old and new, concerning this play...

I loved what he said about Mercutio’s death in Romeo and Juliet. This passage follows Mercutio’s “a plague on both your houses” speech:

That indeed is what in his death Mercutio becomes, a plague upon both Romeo of the Montagues and Juliet of the Capulets, since henceforward the tragedy speeds on to its final double catastrophe. Shakespeare is already Shakespeare in his subtle patterning, although rather overlyrical still in his style. The two fatal figures in the play are its two liveliest comics, Mercutio and the Nurse. Mercutio’s aggressivity has prepared the destruction of love, though there is no negative impulse in Mercutio, who dies by the tragic irony that Romeo’s intervention in the duel with Tybalt is prompted by love for Juliet, a relationship of which Mercutio is totally unaware. Mercutio is victimized by what is most central to the play, and yet he dies without knowing what Romeo and Juliet is all about: the tragedy of authentic romantic love. For Mercutio, that is nonsense: love is an open arse and a poperin pear. To die as love’s martyr, as it were, when you do not believe in the religion of love, and do not even know what you are dying for, is a grotesque irony that foreshadows the dreadful ironies that will destroy Juliet and Romeo alike as the play concludes.

And when Bloom gets going on his favorite characters, like Rosalind in As You Like It, get ready for a feast of insights.

…Rosalind, least ideological of all dramatic characters, surpasses every other woman in literature in what we could call “intelligibility.” You never get far by terming her a “pastoral heroine” or a “Romantic comedian”: her mind is too large, her spirit too free, to so confine her. She is as immensely superior to everyone else in her play as are Falstaff and Hamlet in theirs... To be in love, and yet to see and feel the absurdity of it, one needs to go to school with Rosalind. She instructs us in the miracle of being a harmonious consciousness that is also able to accommodate the reality of another self. Shelley heroically thought that the secret of love was a complete going-out from our own nature into the nature of another; Rosalind sensibly regards that as madness. She is neither High Romantic nor a Platonist: love’s illusions, for her are quite distinct from the reality of maids knowing that “the sky changes when they are wives.” One might venture that Rosalind as an analyst of “love” is akin to Falstaff as an analyst of “honor” – that is to say, of the whole baggage of state power, political intrigue, mock chivalry, and open warfare. The difference is that Rosalind herself is joyously in love and criticizes love from within its realm; Falstaff devastates the pretensions of power, but always from its periphery, and knowing throughout that he will lose Hal to the realities of power. Rosalind’s wit is triumphant yet always measured to its object, while Falstaff’s irreverent mockery is victorious but pragmatically unable to save him from rejection. Both are educational geniuses, and yet Rosalind is Jane Austen to Falstaff’s Samuel Johnson; Rosalind is the apotheosis of persuasion, while Falstaff ultimately conveys the vanity of human wishes.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Script Review – “The Beaver”


Mel Gibson, at this very moment, may be standing in front of a mirror with a puppet in his hand desperately trying to make the concept of The Beaver work. Mel Gibson. Mad Max. In front of a mirror. With a puppet. Trying to make it work. Now that, my friends, is the first and perhaps only humorous thought to be had in relation to The Beaver. Gibson has, as you have probably heard,
signed on to star in this film with Jodie Foster directing (who will also play his wife).

I thought now might be the time for a script review, MM style.

What-oh-what is one to think about Kyle Killen’s Beaver?

The script, which rose above all others on
The Black List, is available here. Parallels between Walter Black, the main character, and Mel Gibson, the flawed human being, can be found here.

New York Magazine
called it “one of the more elegantly fucked-up stories we've read in a long, long time.” Billy Mernit commented, “As a story analyst who's been reading for the studios (and indies) for 17 years, I'll just cite one reason the script clicked with readers: energy.” Our good friend, Scotty Myers, praised the script for its killer opening: “Just over 1 page -- and I guarantee you that any professional script reader would not only be engaged by the script, but also know this crucial fact: ‘I am in the hands of a quality writer.’” He also praised the script for its transitions - “…Killen effectively employs different narrative devices to stitch together scenes in a seamless fashion.”

ScriptShadow, who also offers a fairly comprehensive overview of the story,
wrote: “It's not the best script I read on The Black List, but it's definitely the most memorable. And I think there's a lesson here. 9 out of 10 writers would've explored this concept as a broad comedy. The fact that we're essentially watching a drama about a guy who talks through a British beaver puppet distinguishes this script from every other script out there.”

And then there were
Bill Martel’s thoughtful comments: “…here’s the thing - a movie and a screenplay can be saved by their ending... and as a story continues, we tend to become invested in the characters... so by the time I reached the end of THE BEAVER I wasn’t thinking about all of the problems as much as I was thinking about all of the things it did well... and that end (which oddly uses the narration I disliked from the beginning) had me liking the script despite its flaws. The narration in the opening is a set up for the narration at the ending... so it ended up being kinda cool. And the characters grew on me. A great heartwarming end made all of the problems seem to disappear. I can see why it got a bunch of votes - but still can’t see how it will work on screen without some heavy rewrites.”

All well and good.

I'd like to do something different and start with the ending (only minor spoilers). Did anyone notice how the (what some called “satisfactory”) ending was not the resolution of the main plot but, in fact, the subplot of Porter and Norah? And all the while we are watching the final images of this particular resolution between Porter and Norah play out, we hear The Beaver talk in voice over about… Walter Black.

That’s a bit strange, don’t you think?

It’s not only the final images of Porter and Norah that I’m referring to but also the sequence leading up to those final images, which were also filled with massive voice over by Porter in what would have been a certain speech he would have made. If you felt good about the ending, you felt good because of Porter’s story, not Walter’s.

It’s telling to me that the writer should lean so heavily on the subplot to end a story on a high note as opposed to the main plot.

Why is this?

I would suggest that this is the heart of the problem with The Beaver, that is, Walter Black and his puppet show is too thin of a concept for a feature film. He is at best a secondary character whose existence can only help to exacerbate the feelings of what should be the main character, in this case, Porter Black. This is really Porter’s story, as evidenced by the ending. There isn’t enough substance to Walter’s story to have a satisfactory resolution, and I’ll tell you why:

1) He’s not really a sympathetic character. Some might assume that because the story opens with his depression and suicide attempts that he’s automatically sympathetic, but that’s a con. We do not feel sympathy just because the movie opens with a character who is depressed. We feel sympathy in the act of watching how he addresses this issue, how he interacts with other characters, and how he pursues his goal of inner peace. What does Walter Black do? He creates this psychological crutch of interacting with the world through a puppet (just as Killen uses the Beaver as a crutch to explain everything through voice overs). It’s all too strange to support and too tragic to want to laugh. It’s the kind of situation that, if you are going to laugh, it’ll be at the expense of Walter Black, which you don’t really want to do because you just saw how suicidal he is. There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy, which Killen has not yet mastered, because this script dips too heavily into the tragic. My emotions as I read the script ranged from uncomfortable to very uncomfortable. I never once laughed. The puppet concept is just a one-joke affair rooted in the reactions of the people who encounter this Beaver-talking phenomenon, and that gets old quick. You need to have more to offer to make this worthwhile. If this was a case where the Beaver gave him the freedom to say whatever the hell he wanted to say to people, things that never get said, a la Liar Liar or Lester Burnham from American Beauty, you might have some opportunities for humor. As it is, this script is a curiously absurd concept taken to its most absurd heights, which audiences would be willing to embrace IF it was funny. But no laughs are to be found here. Any marketing campaign proclaiming this to be “a comedy” would be guilty of false advertising.

2) There was an absence of conflict and tension in Walter’s story. Once he makes his conversion to deal with the world through a puppet, everything goes right for him. Thus, we have no conflict, no drama, and no tension. A wife who at first kicked him out and said the only words left to say, “goodbye,” reluctantly accepts his change. (If you buy that plotline, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.) His son, Henry, immediately (and most conveniently) embraces wood working to spend time with the Beaver. (If you buy that plotline, too, I’ve also got an island to sell you.) Yes, one could argue that people would keep on reading because things shouldn’t be going right and they’ll wonder how this will go wrong. But there weren’t even hints that problems were on the horizon for Walter. Things keep going right for him until he becomes a national star, which is so absurd. Absurdity on this scale should be in a comedy or satire and this is neither. The biggest gaffe for me was the total lack of conflict at Walter’s toy company. We have a once-great organization spiraling downward due to Walter’s ineptitude as CEO, and in the real world, when the boss fails and becomes vulnerable, the vultures start circling, and the ambitious make moves to take him out. They would be even more determined if the crazy boss returned to work to talk to the entire company through a puppet and promised eight months of severance pay to anyone who isn’t satisfied in two weeks with all the organizational changes the puppet wants to make. Yes, that’s eight months of severance pay from a company teetering on bankruptcy. Bridge, anyone?

3) Another problem for me is the way Walter’s story reaches its climax. “And then one day,” says the narrating Beaver, “Walter starts to tire of himself all over again.” He merely falls into his pattern of depression and over-sleeping only because the script called for it, not because something happened in the story to make Walter fall back into that old pattern of behavior. This should have come out through the drama and conflict that was so lacking in Walter’s story. Perhaps he gets fired from the toy company, and he falls back into depression. That would make more sense to me. We were also denied an emotional payoff to his problems with Meredith.


Check out these page numbers from my notes: pg 26, pg 31-32, pg 37-39, pg 51, pg 70-71, pg 75, pg 83-84, and pg 100-106.

What do all of these pages have in common? RIDICULOUS HEAPING BLOCKS OF DIALOGUE. Did you see the big paragraphs I wrote for points 1) and 2) above? See all those words in a single paragraph? That’s what the mountainous blocks of dialogue look like in the script. It’s one thing to speed read the dialogue, but it’s quite another to experience those huge monologues in a film. I’m not sure if anyone else noticed, but Killen manipulated the margins of the dialogue so that it’s as wide as acceptable (3.5 inches, although some writers stick with the preferred 3 inches) and then he squeezed the lines together so that the tops of some letters are touching the bottoms of other letters, such as the bottom of a “y” touching the top of an “h.”

“So what,” you say. Letters in a script should not touch each other, and margins should not be manipulated. If you find that you’re having to manipulate margins to make the dialogue look smaller, the problem is you, not the format. You see, one page of a script should equal one minute of screen-time. Lines that have been squeezed together give a wrong impression about how long a scene will play out. Thus, the huge blocks of dialogue in Killen’s script will take longer to endure on screen than what is presented on the page.

And that puts a whole new light on the huge blocks of (mostly expositional) dialogue when you think about how much it’s going to test the patience of audiences enduring those long speeches.

Consider the Beaver’s monologue on page 84 as he’s talking to Matt Lauer. I’ll bet you that speech, if it’s not edited down, will take up a minute and half or longer than the nearly one whole page it fills up in the script. This is the endlessly… talking… Beaver… puppet.

There’s a reason Miss Piggy never gave big speeches.


- Jared was a wasted character. What’s the point of having a character that’s only going to be in one scene? Why couldn’t that scene have been about Porter and Hector?

- Did anyone buy that this cheerleader is also a brilliant valedictorian while also being a brilliant artist? I guess if you buy into the absurdity of Walter’s ascent into stardom with his puppet then you’re also inclined to buy into all of the other minor absurdities in the script like the bankrupt company offering eight months of severance or the cheerleader who is also the brilliant intellectual and genius artist.

- All of the WE SEE’s and camera angles were nauseating. Particularly irrelevant were the CUT TO’s. You should never write a CUT TO. Readers always assume it’s a cut unless they’re told otherwise.


I dare say, there is not an actor alive who can make the role of Walter Black work in its current form. Not Jim Carrey. Not Steve Carell. And most certainly not Mel Gibson whose recent fall from grace makes this whole project feel even more uncomfortable, as if Mel had to do this because he himself may be depressed and feels that he must humiliate himself with a beaver puppet to pay for his sins.

It’s not just his shaky public image that makes this project such a risk. The financing has yet to be finalized, which will be around $20 million dollars. There’s no studio backing, which means they may have to go the indie route. If you’ve read the trades, this was the worst year ever at film festivals in terms of getting sales and picking up distribution, because nobody will touch an indie film that’s hard to market. In this economy, if you can’t sell something as a straight horror or comedy or something that already has a built-in audience from a pre-existing source material, buyers will be reluctant. And The Beaver falls into that hard-to-market category because it’s not a comedy.

“Yeah, but it’s got Mel Gibson,” you say. Mel has had two other films that failed to pick-up distribution:
The Million Dollar Hotel (even with a soundtrack by U2) and The Singing Detective. Those films were long before his now tarred and shaky public image.

Ya know, Peter Sellers might have made this concept work but not as it’s written in the script. A genius like Sellers would have to take this concept home, make it all his own, and bring his genius to every scene to make us laugh and care about the suicidal puppet man. He’s the only actor dead or alive who had a chance of pulling this off.

But even his film would’ve lost money.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kurosawa on Screenwriting

The photo above is from Ran. Isn’t that a fabulous image?

Of all the directors in the history of cinema, I’d rank
Akira Kurosawa somewhere at the top of my list. One could argue persuasively that no filmmaker has created more masterpieces than Kurosawa.

Patrick Garson wrote, “Analysing any film by Akira Kurosawa is a joy. The sense of care, placement and thought lying behind every shot is an unspoken guarantee that nothing on screen is accidental.” I couldn’t agree more, as I had once analyzed Ikiru, which broke my heart.

We are also reminded by
Dan Harper that, “Despite his unarguable success, Kurosawa was, in fact, one of the greatest risk-taking filmmakers in the history of international film (many of those risks, I might add, didn’t pay off). Every one of his world-renowned films was either preceded or followed by a film more experimental in form or more difficult. You can even argue that some of his greatest successes (Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai) were enormous risks for Kurosawa’s career – the ones that did pay off…”

Of course, Kurosawa was heavily involved in the screenwriting of his films with a handful of writers he used throughout his career. So this begs the question: what did the renowned risk-taker, ground-breaker, and masterpiece-maker, have to say about screenwriting?

These quotes come to us from Akira Kurosawa’s book,
Something Like an Autobiography. Hope you enjoy them.

With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this.’

In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things. You must also see the great films. You must read the great screenplays and study the film theories of the great directors. If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.’

A good structure for a screenplay is that of the symphony, with its three or four movements and differing tempos. Or one can use the Noh play
with its three-part structure: jo (introduction), ha (destruction) and kyu (haste). If you devote yourself fully to Noh and gain something good from this, it will emerge naturally in your films. The Noh is a truly unique art form that exists nowhere else in the world. I think the Kabuki, which imitates it, is a sterile flower. But in a screenplay, I think the symphonic structure is the easiest for the people of today to understand.’

Something that you should take particular notice of is the fact that the best scripts have very few explanatory passages. Adding explanation to the descriptive passages of a screenplay is the most dangerous trap you can fall into. It’s easy to explain the psychological state of a character at a particular moment, but it’s very difficult to describe it through the delicate nuances of action and dialogue. Yet it is not impossible. A great deal about this can be learned from the study of the great plays, and I believe the “hard-boiled” detective novels can also be very instructive.’

I began writing scripts with two other people around 1940. Up until then I wrote alone, and found that I had no difficulties. But in writing alone there is a danger that your interpretation of another human being will suffer from one-sidedness. If you write with two other people about that human being, you get at least three different viewpoints on him, and you can discuss the points on which you disagree. Also, the director has a natural tendency to nudge the hero and the plot along into a pattern that is the easiest one for him to direct. By writing with about two other people, you can avoid this danger also.’

I‘ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory. My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing. For this reason, since the time I was a young man I have always kept a notebook handy when I read a book. I write down my reactions and what particularly moves me. I have stacks and stacks of these college notebooks, and when I go off to write a script, these are what I read. Somewhere they always provide me with a point of breakthourgh. Even for single lines of dialogue I have taken hints from these notebooks. So what I want to say is, don’t read books while lying down in bed.’

A novel and a screenplay are entirely different things. The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay without using narration.’

Characters in a film have their own existence. The filmmaker has no freedom. If he insists on his authority and is allowed to manipulate his characters like puppets, the film loses its vitality.’

At some point in the writing of every script I feel like giving the whole thing up. From my many experiences of writing screenplays, however, I have learned something: If I hold fast in the face of this blankness and despair, adopting the tactic of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect, who glared at the wall that stood in his way until his legs became useless, a path will open up.’

Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. Perhaps you can write only one page a day, but if you do it every day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages of script. I began in this spirit, with a target of one page a day. There was nothing I could do about the nights I had to work till dawn, but when I had time to sleep, even after crawling into bed I would turn out two or three pages. Oddly enough, when I put my mind to writing, it came more easily than I had thought it would, and I wrote quite a few scripts.’

Thursday, July 09, 2009

New Script Mag (& Bleu)

Hey guys,

I’m in the new July/August issue of Script magazine with an article called “How to Show Don’t Tell,” a favorite subject of mine. It’s hard to condense the topic down to 3,000 words, but I covered trusting the face, actions defining characters, locations, Jennifer van Sijll’s Cinematic Storytelling, and so much more. I also offered some insights about a film called Bleu and thought I might repost an old article on the film so you can see the complete analysis.

For more articles on “How to Show Don’t Tell,” feel free to visit my section on
the Art of Visual Storytelling.

I also really love this video.



Hey guys!

I’m the only screenwriting blogger who is CRAZY enough to follow-up a popular
article about The Dark Knight with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Bleu, the first in his Three Colors Trilogy. Only 6 people will give a shit, I’m sure, but if you’re one of the six, baby, this article’s for you.

Even if you’re not familiar with Bleu (or Blue), you’ll love the stirring tribute to the film in the vid above. Much of what I’m about to write can be seen in the video. Here’s the thing. Kieslowski truly was a genius. And one of the great annoyances about screenwriting gurus today is how they say endlessly to “show, don’t tell,” but they never tell you HOW. Hence my series on the
Art of Visual Storytelling. Hence my article on Cinematic Storytelling and my praise of Jennifer van Sijll’s brilliant book of the same title. And hence the need to talk about Kieslowski, because he was THE MASTER of “show, don’t tell!”

Revisiting Bleu again last weekend, I was so blown away by the visuals that when I watched the film yet again with Anne Insdorf’s commentary, I had to pull out my phone and start taking notes. When I first saw the film, I thought, “wow, that was kind of weird.” But now I think that the film wasn’t weird at all but that the problem was me because I had for so many years a weak visual vocabulary, thanks to Hollywood spoon feeding me most of my life with dumbed-down shit.

There’s a great article about Kieslowski
in Salon. They wrote, “In 1995, the Los Angeles Times asked Krzysztof Kieslowski how movies should participate in culture, and this was his reply: ‘Film is often just business -- I understand that and it's not something I concern myself with. But if film aspires to be part of culture, it should do the things great literature, music and art do: elevate the spirit, help us understand ourselves and the world around us and give people the feeling they are not alone…’” I love it! They went on to write, “The richly textured trilogy capped Kieslowski's extraordinary career, taking on the deepest and most complex moral subjects with grace and panache, but always at ground level. Ostensibly it was derived from the French Revolution themes of liberty, equality and fraternity, and their corresponding colors in the French flag. But the films are deeply personal and in many ways Polish; they restore those lofty concepts, without diminishing them, to humble human proportions.”

Blue is the story of a woman, Julie (Juliette Binoche), whose husband and daughter die in a car accident. Her reaction is to escape - to run away from her past, from her friends, from her life, and from her pain. Did you see the moment in the video where she scraped her knuckles along a rock wall? She really was scraping her hand across that wall. In any case, in one scene, Julie sees one of her servants in the kitchen and asks her why she’s crying. “Because you’re not,” is the reply. Then she sells everything. “I don't want any belongings, any memories,” she says. “No friends, no love. Those are all traps.” She moves away and lives in a quiet apartment. Interesting that you sympathize with her situation but you can’t connect with her because she’s made herself so emotionally closed off to everyone around her. She’s a character in a sympathetic situation but she’s not a sympathetic character. So you find yourself rooting for her to change, to face her pain and reconnect with the world again, because you know that her story is really about the rehabilitation of a human spirit after a painful tragedy.

Simple story, right?

With Kieslowski, every aspect of the film was used to support the telling of the story. I recall the commentator saying repeatedly that Kieslowski would pare down the dialogue, pare down the dialogue, and pare down the dialogue, until only the most essential words are spoken and everything else is communicated through visuals. This brings to mind what Ebert
said of the film: “Binoche has a face that is well-suited to this kind of role. Because she can convince you that she is thinking and feeling, she doesn't need to ‘do’ things in an obvious way… Here, too, her feelings are a mystery that her face will help us to solve. The film has been directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, born in Poland, now working in France, and, in the opinion of some, the best active European filmmaker (he made "The Double Life of Veronique" two years ago). He trusts the human face, and watching his film, I remembered a conversation I had with Ingmar Bergman many years ago, in which he said there were many moments in films that could only be dealt with by a closeup of a face - the right face - and that too many directors tried instead to use dialogue or action.”

He trusts the human face to convey feelings and information!

And how does one write that?

Very carefully.


Consider how Kieslowski uses music to help tell the story. He doesn’t just have the brilliant composer, Zbigniew Preisner, design a soundtrack to play alongside the story to force the audience to feel a certain way during a scene. Instead, Kieslowski makes Julie’s former husband a famous composer who was working on his final assignment, the theme to the reunification of Europe, which can be heard in the vid above. This music is what brings Julie back to life. She first denies the music exists, rejects what bits he had composed because it was a source of pain in her life. Later, she works with a man to finish the music, which paralleled her own reunification with the people in her life. There are times when she hears the music and it haunts her. She can’t deny it or escape it. She has to face it, just as she has to face her own pain. Julie went from passive escapist to active contributor.

You might notice in the picture above, which is taken from the film that most of the music sheet is blurry. This isn’t without meaning. Many shots in the film were from her point of view and her left eye was damaged in the car accident. You may recall in the video the shot of the feather swaying with Julie’s breath and the blurry hand behind it reaching out to her. That’s what she saw. Did you see the closeup of the doctor’s reflection in Julie’s eye? That was no special effects. That was a real reflection using a very special camera. We could see the doctor better in the reflection in Julie’s eye than Julie could see him. Later, in the end, we’ll see a reflection of Julie’s naked back in the eye of her lover. He finally SEES her in a moment of emotional honestly.

There were a number of moments where you’d also see extreme closeups of specific objects, like the shadows over Julie’s coffee cup on a table in a coffee shop. Wonderful! It’s very European in the sense that they create visual poetry out of everyday banalities. On the one hand, it’s beautiful to see and on the other hand, it makes audiences appreciate everyday experiences that much more. It enriches their lives. Kieslowski does that, but here, it’s a crucial element of the story. You may have noticed beginning at 2:56 in the video a shot of a sugar cube above a cup of coffee soaking in the coffee before it gets plopped into the cup. I believe it’s followed by another moment where we’re shown Julie's reflection on an upside-down spoon dangling in the neck of a water bottle. Beautiful, right? It’s also crucial to the story.

The spoon and sugar cube represented her own self-obsorption. It was her focusing on something obscure to shut out the world, to escape from it. She’s trying to put a lid on her world and her immediate environment. She’s shutting out all the things she doesn’t accept. And in that scene in the coffee shop, she’s rejected the man who loved her, and she’s trying to ignore the music the flute player outside is playing because it’s similar to her husband’s last piece of music, which she denies and avoids. But then she finally drops the cube into the coffee and goes out to address the issue of music with the musician.


At times, like right in the middle of a conversation, the film would suddenly go black and all we’d hear is music. Then we’d return to Julie’s face. You might think, “What the hell was that all about?” It was Julie’s blackouts, her being lost in her own memories.

Throughout the film, you’d see blue lights reflected on her face, particularly the glass crystals she carried with her, which she ripped from the blue chandelier that hung in her daughter’s bedroom. That was the only thing from her past she could not let go. The light on her face signified the ghosts of her past, the presence of memory.

Twice you’d see what might first seem to be inexplicable shots of bungee jumpers. But if you think about it, it’s not without meaning. It shows how far we can fall and come back up again.

The opening shot, pictured above, and the closeup of a car’s tire just sucks you into the tragedy that is to about to befall the protagonist.

The motif with windows - when Julie visits her mother, we see them talk through a window filled with other reflections that illustrated visually the dislocation of their relationship. Glass that separates us also connects us as when the nurse looks in on Julie when she tried and failed to commit suicide. Yet, glass invites us in but keeps us out as when Julie visits her mother a second time and decides not to go in.

The mice represented her first dealings with the pains in her life. Her getting the cat was one of the first transitions in her character arc.

Interesting that when Julie visits Lucille, who works in a sex shop, and has a conversation with her, Kieslowski chooses to not use the old school shot / reverse-shot technique. Instead, he chooses to have his camera pan back and forth to reveal the flesh on display in the background between them because the flesh has come between them in their relationship. However, when they both lean forward, Kieslowski illustrates that they both have moved past what’s come between them. Later, when Julie talks to her husband’s mistress, it’s a shot / reverse-shot because the characters are not as close.

The pool was a place of escape, yet incomplete mourning.

Other reading: the
Krzysztof Kieslowski blog-a-thon and Roger Ebert’s How To Read a Movie.


Sunday, July 05, 2009

“Morality,” Exposition, & Adverbs

Not long ago, I read through the July, 2009, issue of Esquire. In it, there is a new short story called “Morality” by Stephen King, which is available in its entirety here. This story evoked a few thoughts about exposition and adverbs. Plus, this gives me the chance to post pictures of Bar Refaeli, because the words of King’s story were painted on her not-so-terribly-unpleasant body for the cover.

I don’t know why Script Mag doesn’t do covers like this. I’ve offered to pose nude, too, but Shelly seems reluctant. Hehehe


First, I’m going to praise King and then rip him a new one.

The story is very simple. You have a financially struggling young couple. The husband is an aspiring writer working part-time as a substitute teacher. The wife is a nurse to a retired and wealthy priest, who decides that he wants to do something really really bad before he dies. He propositions the nurse to do this on his behalf for $200,000.


Here's a classic example of good exposition. King never tells you what the proposition is. We know it’s really bad. We know it involves blood. We know it has to be filmed so the priest can watch this dirty deed later in his mansion. And we know this moral question of “should we or shouldn’t we do this really bad thing” is tearing apart the young couple. So you’re hooked. You keep reading because you want to find out A) what the proposition is and B) if they’ll do it. But you will not learn any of these details until the time has come to carry out the dirty deed.

This is good exposition in a nutshell: it’s putting a question in the minds your readers and making them want to keep on reading to get the answer. A lot of amateurs, I suspect, would’ve given the game away early. They would've explained in full detail what the proposition is when it’s proposed, which not only makes the story less intriguing but it’s also risky because if the proposition’s not interesting or juicy enough, people will stop reading your story right then and there.

Essentially, just show instead of tell then show.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes you have to explain a plan beforehand, so that people know what’s supposed to happen and feel tension when that plan goes terribly wrong in the midst of its execution like in a
Jean-Pierre Melville film. Or, as in the case with Titanic, James Cameron wisely explains how the ship sinks before we see the ship sink so that we will understand what’s going on as the ship is sinking and can stay focused on the story.

But putting questions in the minds of the readers to make them want to keep reading even from scene-to-scene is an art form. I loved a point that Carol Phiniotis made in her column, “The Art of the Rewrite,” in the brand new
July/August issue of Script Magazine:

Scene transitions are often overlooked. A simple line of dialogue at a scene’s conclusion can greatly affect the flow of your story. In an early draft of American Beauty, a scene transition between Jane and her soon-to-be boyfriend Ricky played out as follows:

Come on, let’s go to my room.

By the shooting script, Ball revised the line:

You want to see the most
beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed?

While the first transition is functional, it falls flat. However, the second transition not only engages Jane, it also engages the audience. We’re invited to participate in the mini-mystery Ricky has woven.

I whole-heartedly agree.

Although I’d stack this Bar Refaeli vid up against Ricky's fluttering plastic bag any day of the week. Hehehe


I place the blame for everyone’s hysteria about adverbs squarely on the shoulders of Stephen King. Remember what he wrote in
On Writing? “The adverb is not your friend.” “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” King was and is horrifically wrong about adverbs.

Of course, he backs up his opinion with Strunk & White’s
The Elements of Style, a book SO pre-digital age and revised only 4 times since 1918. About 50 years later, E.B. White wrote in The New Yorker, “I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.” Even Strunk, the English professor, said, “the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the readers will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation.”

WHAT? You can break the rules?

But King told us to follow the rules. You do not use adverbs, period. And every time I read an adverb in one of his stories, I want to stand on the rooftops and scream “HYPOCRITE!” The man is incapable of abiding by his own rules. This short story alone has over 100 adverbs. (Yes, we counted.) Consider these doozies:

With the hiring freeze currently in effect in the city's schools…


…but it would be a very small contract, likely a good deal less than you currently make as a teacher…

Would anyone argue that “currently” is essential in either sentence?

…the stroke had left him partially paralyzed on the right side…

Wouldn’t a hater of adverbs change that to “semi-paralyzed?”

She was also a masseuse and occasionally

Wouldn’t a hater of adverbs change that to “on occasion?”

…although Chad had had a relatively good few months teaching...

Couldn’t that sentence be rewritten to describe exactly how those months were good without having to resort to “relatively?”

It was the first time she had really thought of him in connection with money.

“Really?” Isn’t that the mother of all bad adverbs?

Deliberately planned and executed.

Aren’t most plans “deliberate?”

…she wrote simply: Savings.

Can’t we see for ourselves that what she wrote was simple?

And so on. Here’s the deal about adverbs. No one will complain about your adverb so long as it’s a good adverb. There is nothing wrong with an adverb so long as you’re not being redundant, like glitters brightly. Why say ran speedily when you can just say raced? Most people think of adverbs in terms of a word that reinforces the adjective: extremely gorgeous, really sensual, etc. Shoot me now, right?

But a good adverb can inject an air of freshness to those stale words: bitingly gorgeous, witheringly sensual.

In fact, I prefer adverbs that are almost contradictory to the words they’re supporting: delightfully hypocritical, engagingly demented, sporadically authoritative, and charmingly brutish.

Not long ago, I read a fabulous book,
Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik, a spirited argument against Strunk & White’s principles. He writes:

Arts reviewers (and blurbists) everywhere seem enamored of [adverbs], and little wonder; it offers an alternative to shopworn critical adjectives like brilliant, gripping, or plodding. It can also tweak such adjectives toward fresh meanings, as in yawningly brilliant.

These examples feature what grammarians call “adverbs of manner.” They reveal the way in which a thing or quality is distinguished. According to yet another New York Times critic, Allesandra Stanley, a new television show was “deliciously horrifying,” distinguishing it from other modes of horrifyingness. Writers also toy with so-called adverbs of degree, which answer the question “how much”? Performances are routinely described as “hugely boring” or “minutely entertaining.”

When a term and its modifier seem paradoxical, like horrifying and deliciously, they form the rhetorical device known as the oxymoron. Oxymorons can produce any number of effects: sarcasm, incisiveness, archness (i.e., roguishness, sauciness). But not all adverbial zingers employ the incongruity of terms in contrast. Many reach for metaphor, as in lashingly funny, or hyperbole (exaggeration), as in woundingly beautiful. In addition, critics often find –ly forms suited to the put-down. Slate’s Gary Lutz called the grammar chapter of the fifteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style “perversely unhelpful” – though I deviantly disagree.

Plotnik had other examples I enjoyed like dormantly Mormon. (Why write 20 words to avoid an adverb when dormantly Mormon will work just fine?) Other examples: gloriously uproarious, scarily fervent, militantly prosaic, incongruously ordinary, juicily ridiculous, resolutely unclever, wittily intricate, inflammatorily hostile, and metaphysically naïve. Consider, too, all the adverbs in
15,000 Useful Phrases.

So now we’ve come full circle back to Bar Refaeli. I couldn’t help but smile at the use of adverbs in
Ross McCammon’s article on the Israeli model. As he’s observing the words of King’s short story getting applied to her body by an “application professional,” he writes:

She is wearing white bikini bottoms and a red bikini top, which is pulled up, revealing the bottom third of her breasts. The skin there is white. She reads a novel in Hebrew. She doesn't talk. She doesn't move. Without her clothes on, she looks 10 percent larger. She is thin, of course, and her stomach is impossibly taut. But she has grown somehow. Maybe it's the clivvage.

She's become inaccessibly exquisite.



Thursday, July 02, 2009

I love that.

This will be quite the strange post, I’m sure, but here’s a collection of fabulous quotes about characters I’ve read recently in other articles.

First, The Hurt Locker, which has been on my radar for some time.

I loved
A.O. Scott’s review of the film and in particular, his character descriptions. That he gets the characters so well and feels compelled to articulate excitedly the distinctive differences in the personalities of the characters already tells me that the writer has done a good job:

“The Hurt Locker” focuses on three men whose contrasting temperaments knit this episodic exploration of peril and bravery into a coherent and satisfying story. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is a bundle of nerves and confused impulses, eager to please, ashamed of his own fear and almost dismayingly vulnerable. Sgt. J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is a careful, uncomplaining professional who sticks to protocols and procedures in the hope that his prudence will get him home alive, away from an assignment he has come to loathe.

The wild card is Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who joins Delta after its leader is killed and who approaches his work more like a jazz musician or an abstract expressionist painter than like a sober technician. A smoker and a heavy metal fan with an irreverent, profane sense of humor and a relaxed sense of military discipline, he approaches each new bomb or skirmish not with dread but with a kind of inspired, improvisational zeal.

Scott also delved a bit into the
depth of William James:

And Mr. Renner’s performance — feverish, witty, headlong and precise — is as thrilling as anything else in the movie. In each scene a different facet of James’s personality emerges. He can be callous, even mean at times, but there is a fundamental tenderness to him as well, manifest in his affection for an Iraqi boy who sells pirated DVDs and his patient solicitude when Eldridge, under fire and surrounded by dead bodies, has an understandable bout of panic.

I love that. [I should also mention that
Mark Boal, the screenwriter, wrote an article about his experience writing The Hurt Locker in the new July/August issue of my beloved Script Magazine. I loved his opening sentence: Embarking on an embed with the troops seemed like a good idea at the time, but I’m seriously reconsidering now that I’m on an Army C-130 cargo plane that is plummeting to the earth. Hehehe... That’s fabulous. Good job, Mark.]

I read not too long ago about the
two-year first look deal between Focus Features and Sam Mendes that may have Mendes directing Andrew Davies's adaptation of George Eliot's book, “Middlemarch,” a project that, as Arifa Akbar reminded us in the Independent, Martin Scorsese had hoped to get around to himself. In any case, I was reading about “Middlemarch” on Wikipedia to refresh my mind about the story, and I loved what was written about self-delusion, which may be one of my favorite aspects about characters:

Most of the central characters of this novel have a habit of building castles in the air and then attempting to live in them. Because they are idealistic, self-absorbed, or otherwise out of touch with reality, they make serious mistakes. These mistakes cause them great unhappiness, and eventually their illusions are shattered. Some characters learn from this process, and others do not. Those who learn not to build castles in the air generally end up happy, while those who persist in ignoring pragmatism are miserable.

Dorothea, who wants nothing more in life than to do good, rejects a young man who would have been a reasonably good match for her in order to marry the aged scholar Mr. Casaubon. She does this because she likes the idea of being an assistant to him and helping him with his great intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, she is so much in love with her image of Mr. Casaubon that she fails to notice he isn't actually writing anything. He is supposedly working on a great work that, when completed, will link together and explain all world mythologies. However he is so obsessed with creating a perfect work of scholarship, and so afraid of criticism from his peers, that he never publishes anything. He is not interested in contributing to the discipline for its own sake; rather he uses scholarship to enhance his ego and improve his image. Dorothea, in her youth and enthusiasm, does not recognize this. Later, when she meets people who genuinely do love knowledge for its own sake (Ladislaw and Lydgate come to mind) she cannot help but notice the discrepancy between what she wanted and what she actually chose. Yet this discrepancy does not keep her from marrying foolishly a second time, to Ladislaw whom she hardly knows. Based on a few days' acquaintance developed during her honeymoon and a handful of occasional conversations, Dorothea is attracted to Ladislaw but does not have an opportunity to get to know him. Their mutual love is developed apart from one another.

Lydgate, the other tragic character in this novel, chooses his wife based more on physical attraction than on a knowledge of her character. He marries the materialistic, self-absorbed Rosamond Vincy who, unbeknownst to Lydgate, has been harboring her own delusions and misconceptions about who Lydgate is. Once safely married, they each find out exactly how poorly they suit one another. He cannot free himself of Rosamond, yet he is unwilling to set aside his (and her) upper-class pretensions to buy himself the time and resources to conduct the medical research he wants to do. He ignores the basic financial reality of life in Middlemarch, does not dispense prescriptions, and alienates patients by not filling what they believe to be his proper role as a doctor. Eventually he succumbs to Rosamond's desire to leave Middlemarch, and turns into the kind of doctor he never really wanted to be, his research permanently abandoned. He becomes financially successful, which appeases Rosamond. After Lydgate dies, Rosamond marries someone better suited to her tastes, who can indulge her materialism and who never asks her to do anything difficult…

Rosamond Vincy Lydgate never abandons her delusions about herself, and persists in viewing herself as a perpetually wronged princess even though she's scheming and manipulative. Yet she does eventually realize that being married to an idealistic doctor is not easy, and that marrying into a wealthy family does not guarantee that she and her husband will be rich. She also realizes that Lydgate, whom she decided she loved because of his upper-class background and distant origins, is not the meal ticket to which she felt entitled. At the end of the book, after Lydgate's death, Rosamond correctly identifies the attributes most desirable to her in a husband: a fat wallet and an indulgent nature. She obtains such a husband and lives happily ever after.

I love that. Plus, I once dated a girl just like Rosamund Vincy. Hehehe… “Middlemarch” is in the public domain and available
for free at Project Gutenberg. (See my other post on adaptations.)

Above is a vid of Disney characters who have imbibed some tobacco. There's another vid here about smoking in the top ten films of 2008.

I was at my new favorite cigar hangout smoking a Partagas 160 (I save the 150s for special occasions), and I was flipping through various cigar magazines. In the
Winter 2008/2009 (volume 14, no. 1) issue of Smoke magazine, with a cover image of libertarian Tucker Carlson (bow-tie free, thankfully), there’s an article about smoking characters in comic books, called “Smoke & Ink,” by Max Gartman.

Pretty interesting read. Gartman covered The Comics Code, which was similar to cinema’s old Hays Production Code and had set standards for both editorial and advertising content in comics to protect children from “corrupting influences.” Just as Sidney Lumet’s film, The Pawnbroker, paved the way for change to the Hays Production Code, Stan Lee also did battle with The Comics Code in 1971 when he was approached by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to do a story on drug abuse. Here’s Gartman:

Lee agreed, and wrote a Spider-Man story where drug abuse was portrayed as unglamorous and dangerous – and the Comics Code Authority had a fit. Despite the fact that the story was written with the intent to act as a cautionary moral tale, the Code was against it: “no drugs” meant no drugs. Lee published the comics anyway, without the Code’s stamp on the book, and upon the success of this story, the Code backed down, paving the way for change...

Here’s a sampling of comic book characters who smoke cigars.

First, the GOOD GUYS:

Hellboy: Red demon who fights for the U.S. government (and MM has it on good authority that the cigars were Nicaraguans).
Wolverine: (Logan) The hard and wise one from the X-Men.
Puck: The little guy in the black onesie of Alpha Flight.
Sgt. Nick Fury of the Howling Commandoes and later of the clandestine S.H.I.E.L.D.
Grey Hulk: (Joe Fix-it) One of the many Hulk incarnations.
Cable: The fire-arm-hauling-leader, for a time, of X-Force.
The Thing: (Ben “Clobberin’-Time” Grimm) of the Fantastic Four.
Howard the Duck: Yes, he really was a duck – and a cab driver, too.

Second, the BADDIES:

Kingpin: (Wilson Fisk) The master manipulator who ran the New York City crime scene.
J. Jonah Jameson: (JJ) Peter Parker’s boss at the Daily Bugle.
Gen. Thunderbolt Ross: Hulk’s antagonist.

Here’s the bigger point: what’s the significance of a character who smokes? What does that convey about the character?

Here’s what Gartman had to say:

Smoking, first a luxury, then the demon-spawn of society, has now become a marker of those who operate outside of the norm. These are people who partake of a substance that can damage health – and knowingly accept that risk, like the adults that they are.

Cigars and cigarettes still carry meaning as symbols… The cigars that our characters smoke mark them as not-one-of-the-herd, as one who is capable of making decisions solo, without Big Brother to look over each and every step. They’re still markers of class, of elegance, and of power. Nobody who knows what they’re doing will treat a good cigar like trash, because there’s an implicit knowledge of everything that goes along with the cigar – the history, the culture, the weight of the world against each smoker. And still, they shoulder the burden, and march on, smoke in hand.

Interesting. I love that.