100 movies in (well, a little more than) 100 days. The last four months has been great. I’ve really enjoyed posting these and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them. See you some time in the new year when I will make good on requests for People Will Talk and Gummo and will probably continue to post reviews in a more sporadic and relaxed fashion. Happy Holidays, and if you don’t feel happy, just watch this…
The Master is a contentious beast of a film. It’s a long, highbrow, art film. It’s a portrait and therefore an actor’s movie. A throwback, psychological drama shot in 65 mm and therefore a critic’s movie. It’s a complex, cinematic keyhole into of a very specific post WW2 American moment and so it’s a writer’s movie. It’s oscar bait. And it’s probably too much of all these things for you to watch in your lounge room. I loved it in the immersive world of the cinema, at home i’d be too distracted to give it its dues.
The craft of the thing is what sits in the foreground. We should note from the get-go: Paul Thomas Anderson’s bravely economic screenplay and minutely focussed direction. Beautifully composed images in washed out fifties pastels rise straight from the seafoam and into the mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Pheonix but also Amy Adams as cult-wife give the kinds of performances that make cinema a thing to truly believe in.
The story follows WW2 veteran Freddie Kwell who comes back from the front ‘strange’ like so many boys and struggles to adjust to the life he finds there. The Navy councillor suggests that these ex soldiers could raise chickens and start families but Freddie would rather drink moonshine mixed from photographic chemicals, and swear, and fuck, and fight when the alcohol turns acrid and the mood takes him.
After loosing a job in a booze cloud, Freddie wakes up to find himself on board a ship belonging to Lancaster Dodds, AKA The Master. “A nuclear physicist, a scientist, a writer and above all a man.”
Dodds takes a shine to Freddie, and perhaps even more of a shine to Freddie’s ‘shine and so he let’s the poor stray stay. Freddie becomes immersed in The Master’s psychoanalysis/religious cult and stays as a feral attack dog and display model for The Process, a dionetics style therapeutic method for tapping in to past lives and traumas.
The rest of the film tracks the relationship between these two men minutely. It’s beautiful to watch. Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodds as an assured, charismatic gentleman, straight posture and steady gaze, where as Pheonix’s Freddie Kwell is a mess, few words and a few more broken chairs and bruises. Kwell is dark and creased where as Dodds is pink and soft edged. Kwell lopes around the edges of the world in his delirium while Dodd stands firmly in the middle brandishing his own like a mark of genius.
An abiding respect develops between the two. They hold a compulsion for each other in the friction between the enigmatic and the charismatic, the controlled and the passionate. Dodds is sure they have met in a past life, but perhaps what he recognises is Freddie’s turmoil – a familiar foaming brink that is contained just below The Master’s polished surfaces.
“We do not have to be animals,” The Master teaches. “We do not have to be ruled by our emotions.”
But if you step on his tail he’ll bite just like any domesticated pit-bull.
For me, The Master is most interesting when it is read as a film about repression. The psychic repression that one adopts from the wider social repression. The ways we repress (or fail to) our socially unacceptable parts in order to ‘make something’ of ourselves. And of course the repression of trauma, the more straight up, pin pointed parts of our lives when things went awry and all our processes tipped off kilter.
“Have you ever had sex with a member of your family?” asks Lancaster Dodds. “Are you lying?”
At the beginning of the film we see Freddie’s repression simply. He is a veteran. A PTSD sufferer who sees a cunt in every rorschach spill. But as the film progresses we begin to suspect something further back. A psychotic mother. A dead Father. An Aunt who looked good when Freddie was drunk.
For Dodd, Freddie’s trauma runs deeper even than this sad childhood, into other lives where the essence of Freddie Kwell endured untold hardships in the bodies of other soldiers, lonely women and even carrier pigeons.
All this elaborate play with the past brings us to wonder what precisely it is the Dodd wishes so strongly to transcend. Not in his fabulous previous lives but in this one. A life in which his young wife gives cryptic orders as she masturbates The Master into the kitchen sink. He’s too close to Freddie. He needs to stop drinking with him even though she claims she doesn’t care what her husband does so long as no one else ever finds out.
“Come for me,” she says, mixes shame and desire in the palm of her hand and wipes it off, all business like on a towel. Leaves her husband read faced and panting in front of the mirror.
Sometimes it’s not memories we repress but the inconvenient truth of ourselves. The Master teaches that we can transcend emotion and perhaps this is how he knows it’s true.
Repression lives close by control.
We learn nothing about The Master’s past, other than that he has enemies, detractors and previous wives.
Anderson has noted how the wake of war becomes a site for bourgeoning political and religious movements. It’s cult territory. In WW2, asserting a continuity of personal traumas reaching back through the centuries may well have helped The Master’s followers to overlook the contemporary trauma of the holocaust. But the trend is true of all periods of social uncertainty right back to the middle ages where people’s crusades and apocalyptic cults sprang up all over Europe in response to strict city ordinances, rising poverty and religious war.
People need something to pin their faith on. Some healing promise.
Interestingly, the attitude toward madness in the middle ages was one of mysticism. The mad knew something cosmic that the common man could only see in nightmares. The mad man was a harbinger of death and prophet of apocalypse.
The Master claims his Process will circumvent a nuclear apocalypse. He believes he is a messiah.
There is an argument that says that pathologising madness leads only to social alienation and the medicalization of conformity and productivity. Psychiatry by this logic is a development that reduces the affects of living immersed in the social into an elaborate symbolic system which is reified in the structure of the family. Psychiatry claims to know something about the mad at the level of their brains. But mad folk know some stuff you don’t – that’s a truism no matter whether you agree with what came before.
And perhaps this is what The Master suspects when he takes a sip of moonshine and looks in Freddie’s eyes: I spy a kind of demented insight. A deep spiritual bondage to pain and tragedy. And there, the seed that launched his own elaborations of madness. From pain and tragedy and their unbearable manifestations comes a whole cosmology of difference and control.
Repression as science and religion. Repression as New Jerusalem. Repression as a product you can sell to people so they can fix their own lives.
To ‘cure’ Freddie then is to prove that such a cure can and should exist. That living as a cult bound pure spirit is the right way to live, even when everything inside you wants to break the bookshelves and besmirch the bed sheets.
Ultimately, Freddie does what feels good. There’s insight in this alone. To be an animal is sometimes preferable than to live in someone else’s all too human dream.
But then, Freddie’s not that sophisticated. More likely he just needs to fuck a woman. To move by passion and find a cunt as open as a rorschach test and sink his trauma in it.
I can’t tell you what this looks like doctor but I’ll tell you what it is.
It’s a process like anything else. Behaviour can put an end to questions. I am BECAUSE I am.
And if Freddie knows this, is he then cured?
While I have all of your attention of the back of the freshly pressed phenomenon, I would like to take the opportunity to solicit ideas for the continuity of the site. On the weekend I will hit 100 films written up on Girl and Gun. The premise of this blog was a movie a day, written about in an hour updated daily. I managed this pretty successfully for the first 50 days, then it started to get tough. I amended the plan to give myself the weekends off and set a goal of 100.
Once I hit that magic number I am gonna seriously relax on the posts, take a holiday or stop all together and go back to my old blog which I update monthly with a much more in depth essay on pop culture.
What do y’all think? Do you like reading the brief essays or do you prefer something meatier, less often? Or perhaps some combination of the two… Do let me know. Silence begets silence of course. Though, knowing me, not for long.
Still on the black comedy tip, After Hours is a buried and forgotten Scorsese movie. We unearthed it from a list of classic ‘New York Movies’. Olof often craves New York movies after the Knicks win the basketball.
After Hours stars Griffin Dunne (otherwise known as the undead bestie from American Werewolf in London)as a kind of neurotic, misogynistic whinger who pursues Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), a girl he met in a cafe, across town to Soho. Once there he loses his money, finds that he doesn’t like the girl, and is stranded in Soho were a series of seemingly atomised mishaps draw together into something resembling conspiracy.
Each time Paul meets a new Soho personality the action becomes isolated. We enter into a beautifully framed and totally complete world, the loft, the bedsit, the diner all production designed to Almodovar standards. Here interactions contain their own conflict and climax and are linked to the next only technically, and by the city, which is (as in most New York movies) a character in it’s own right.
The screenplay was written by Joseph Minion while he was still studying screenwriting in college. And it certainly has that college, hyper-referential absurdist thing going on. A little bit Ionesco, a little bit Beckett and sometimes a little bit too smart for it’s own good. For instance I was not surprised to read that some of the dialogue was adapted from Kafka, and only mildly amused to find that Minion was actually successfully sued by playwright Joe Frank for plagiarism.
Hell, it’s hard to be original while you are still in college.
Actually for much of the film I was reminded of Woody Allen’s Death! A Play which was adapted from Eugene Ionesco’s The Killer and later adapted in turn to become Allen’s 1992 film Shadows and Fog. The two scripts share the sense of isolation and paranoia as a man travels around the city meeting various freaks and fiends whose motivations are complex and often psychotic. Even their climaxes are the same – with protagonists hunted down by neighbourhood vigilantes.
What After Hours has that I don’t remember from Death! (Woody is a romantic) is a distinct misogynistic attitude made palatable only by the stylised beauty of the scenes and the obviously flawed asshole-ism of the protagonist.
Soho after hours, for protagonist Paul, is populated by undesirable women (too old, too weird, too crazy, too drunk) who seek to pray on him, take advantage of him and generally fuck with his mood. It’s strange that a man who has travelled across town on the smell of sex spends much of the rest of the night avoiding having it and this fact, along with the constant and obvious homophobic caricaturing makes it tempting to read After Hours as a closet movie.
Paul’s worldview is paranoid to say the least. But also there is something about his up-town jerk persona that sits uncomfortably. He continues to pursue that which frightens him. This pursuit takes him to punk clubs and dive bars and leads him to steal and cheat and philander, however the consequences are always someone else’s fault.
“I’m just a word-processor,” says Paul in his own defence. But it is clear to us in the audience that Paul doesn’t really hold this humble opinion of himself and that the threat is generated by his paranoia which is generated by an ego that asserts it’s unique value over everything else. When Paul needs people, he has licence to do what he wants. When people need Paul it’s a pain in the arse and even repulsive.
Actually, it’s a fairly common affliction for young men I believe, so in terms of the black comedy check list lets tick box a: scathing social comedy.
For my part I always find these kinds of characters hard to deal with. While I think that Seinfeld is funny, I find it’s existence and popularity pretty depressing. And as for Curb Your Enthusiasm… well, it’s tempting to go on my own decline of the roman empire, signs of the end rant about that one. I mean really, these men are just appalling in every respect. My question in these narratives is always – why on earth are all the other characters in the text putting up with them? And then by extension – why am I?
Having said this I really enjoyed After Hours. Partly for it’s absurdist theatricality, partly for its artful directorial flourishes and great camera work. I have spoken before about my love of blue neon and subway steam. I could probably sit through a film consisting of nothing more than that, some jazz and a monologue and come out singing the news. In fact, that does sound familiar…
As a kid, whenever I asked my mother what kind of movie she felt like watching, she always said ‘a black comedy’. It’s a desire we can probably all relate to. What you want when you are tired from work and feel like a laugh, but don’t want to be insulted or patronised or just plain bored.
For my mother, ‘black comedy’ meant something with a social critique, a pithy, witty, scathing comment on modern life. It would need to use at least one of these words on the back of the VHS case, or better yet, someone should have said it in The Guardian. A snob first and foremost my mother maintains that she can’t understand what American actors are saying. So naturally, a good black comedy had to be British.
She also deplores gratuitous violence. After she watched Pulp Fiction (a film I would certainly classify as a black comedy), she cried for an hour. She began to rant about lead poisoning and its desensitising effects and how it lead to the demise of the roman empire and was now leading us to watch way to violent films.
You have probably already guessed that her request became pretty tiresome. It got so I would just switch the TV over to the ABC for another episode of Pie in The Sky and go to my room to listen to Nirvana on repeat. To this day, when I see a ‘black comedy’, I spend a lot of the film quietly measuring it up against her idiosyncratic standards.
Case in point: I will not be taking my mother to see Seven Psychopaths. Even though it is very funny. Even though it contains a pithy social commentary. Even though it is British.
Set in L.A Seven Psychopaths is the story of Marty (Collin Farell), an alcoholic, Irish writer trying to write a screenplay called, wait for it, Seven Psychopaths. He is assisted in his efforts by his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Billy’s partner in a dog theft enterprise, Hans (Christopher Walken). The plot follows both Billy and Hans’ strife as a result of stealing a shitzu belonging to a local mafia king pin, as well as documenting Marty’s attempt to collect psychopath anecdotes for his film.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the corresponding titles of the film and the-film-in-a-film these two plots connect in an orgy meta-narrativity just in time for the final shoot out.
But Marty, much like my Mum, resists the violence of his plot all the way through. He wants to make a movie about relationships. He doesn’t want any gore. He wants something real, man.
Make the first half the perfect set up for a revenge flick and the second half just about a bunch of people sitting in the dessert talking.
“Yeah great,” says Billy. “Why not change the title of the screenplay to the Seven Lesbians, who get over all their all their spazzy shit in order to become better people.”
Well, one reason not to bite on this one is because Marty can’t write women. Hans notes how weak and dead the female characters are when reading over a draft of the script. ‘Well, it’s a hard world for women,’ is Marty’s defence. But Hans knows that even so, most of those he’s met can in fact string a sentence together. Why not make the hooker a Harvard graduate?
In these moments Seven Psychopaths becomes a film about writer’s block. About the pressures to address politics in a Hollywood screenplay, pressures that are perhaps all the more pertinent given the rise of the Internet critic. Marty’s cultural cringe (he’s not a real American) against the devices and formulas of the Hollywood movie mean he’s fighting the obvious right to the end. His desire to have a non-violent film about psychopaths is a lot like Kaufman’s paralysis of desire in Adaptations (a black comedy my mother could watch, maybe); ‘I want to make a film about flowers.’
However unlike Adaptations, Marty (and so supposedly writer/director Martin McDonagh) can’t resolve his dilemma. Maybe no one offered him a copy of Story, maybe he just doesn’t have the imaginative scope of Kaufman, or maybe the Irish writer was just too glamoured with famous new buddies that he can’t even see the story any more.
And fair enough, the cast includes not only Rockwell and Walken but Woody Harrelson and Tom Waits too. And Marty has taken the task of getting everyone to do ‘that thing they do’ really seriously. So Rockwell is a deranged clown, Walken has lots of dry, straight-faced monologues, Harrelson is a smiling psychopath and Tom Waits a lovelorn murderer carrying a snow white bunny.
Tom Waits doesn’t accept a role unless it’s a part he was born to do. Tom Waits was born to tell gruesome stories while stroking a snow-white bunny.
I’ll admit that in the audience, I was glamored too. It didn’t matter that the plot dipped and wheeled around a bit. Nor that the female characters really were a joke. Nor that the film could have had an hour trimmed off its arse without incurring any problems standing up. And, while I wouldn’t use any words like scathing or pithy I will use ‘fukn hilarious’, especially with no guardian editors to answer to.
The quarrel between Marty and Billy in the film is actually kind of like the one between my mother and I. One asking the Hollywood black comedy to be ‘better’ and the other loving it precisely because it is not.
So, while in the end Marty is unsure about what he has produced. I have no conflict. Seven Psychopaths is funny, and stylish, and violent too damnit. Gratuitously violent. It’s exactly what a black comedy should be, provided of course, that you are leaving mother at home.
If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that I, unashamedly, love high school movies. Particularly American high school movies of the social-microcosm variety. Drama, comedy or dance-off, subgenre is unimportant as long as every scene is interconnected by a shot of 30-year-old children, chuck-sheathed tippy-toeing on ultra-shined hallways, placing archaic symbols of knowledge into metal closets, the doors of which reveal their true identities: brain, sport-o, bimbo, geek, slut, fag.
Ah, the simple life. The simple film.
The only real problem with the high school genre is expressed in two simple words: College Years.
Where as high school is a great setting for untangling the pressures of modern society in a safe, confined, rule governed arena, or parodying the mores of the modern milieu, it’s horizon, college, is an avenging angel. Here, shit gets real. We can no longer cutely avoid the fact that these characters are becoming adults in full access of their invariably rich white privilege. Yes, the son will repeat the sins of the father. That’s the system, Boy.
Matriculate and die.
Attempting to transplant the formula and tropes of the high school genre into the college setting just highlights the simulated, false nature of the on screen high school (witness Beverly Hills 90210. Also, Buffy).
So too, high school movies that insist on annihilating their horizon and providing a post script in which the protagonist goes to college and comes back violate the conditions by which they have set the tension in the script i.e. who fuckn knows what the future holds…
In the mind of the high school movie character, college is a New Jerusalem after the catastrophic upheaval of graduation. You can’t come back from that shit. Just ask Enid or Ducky. Nothing will ever be the same again – knowing that is what makes the stuff that happens in high school (i.e. the movie) matter.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower commits just this genre crime. And, if we leave aside the predictable voiceover, the sappy protagonist, the obvious inclusion of the manic pixie dream girl and the baffling reason why none of the hip kids in the story can recognise David Bowie’s anthem ‘Heroes’, (yes, I know the internet wasn’t prevalent in 1998 but still, it’s David Bowie ferchristsakes) it is for this reason that the film completely failed to move me.
In Perks, Charlie is a friendless junior, who suffers acute mental illness as a result of child hood trauma. Check out his locker door and see a certified nerd who does homework for fun. Case closed. Nah not really man, he’s more than meets the eye. Like he wants to be a Writer (OMG). Plus he’s got a lot of sappy, puppy dog love to give and is totally thrilled when he is accepted into a hip clique of seniors so he can lay it at their feet.
For pretty much the rest of the film Charlie makes mix-tapes not decisions. Well, in a sense he just remixes the mix tapes that his sister’s boyfriend gives her, but we won’t labour that one. He also buys thoughtful gifts and helps the manic pixie (Emma Watson) with her SAT test study so that she can get in to college, specifically, Penn State.
If I were American this stuff would really shit me. From what I understand of the American college system, the opportunity to read for, and the ability to afford an ivy league degree enforces the class system and a massive opportunity gap before kids are even old enough to whinge about it at a bar.
Because of this seeing a bunch of white, middle class kids angst out over getting in to college so they can transcend the oppressive tyranny of high school is both trite and offensive. I mean it would be okay if we never know if they go to college, but if the success of the characters, their “survival” is predicated on institutional acceptance then we are in the presence of a deeply conservative text, no matter how many misfits songs and Rocky Horror quotes they can cram into the mise en scene.
These kinds of narratives sell an idea to the kids that go see the movies – one that says it’s college or bust if you want to have a good life. While the book the film is based on touts itself as a kind of positive antidote to teen suicide I wonder who the fuck considers all the depressed and dissolutioned adults. Plus it’s a spurious, weighted positivity: If you want to be able to move past the sexual abuse you suffered at the hands of your peers or family members or the discrimination and violence you attracted in response to your sexuality, go to college. While it may constitute a positive message to assert that these things can be coped with, it’s pretty damaging and dull to conclude that there is only one way of doing so.
Besides, everyone knows that college in the USA is no educational Woodstock (strike that – probably exactly what it is!). One in four female North American co-eds have reported at least one instance of on campus sexual assault. So the notion that college is where we can begin a fresh without encountering the brutalities of life is totally juvenile. Which is precisely the point. A high school movie needs to end with an ellipsis, in which the teen characters pin their hopes on some future that we all know is tentative at best.
So when in Perks, Emma Watson comes back from college to visit the sappy Charlie, all the ‘gritty realism’ (read: they took some acid plus someone is gay) seems like a joke with a flat punch line. Fantasy endings deaden realistic plots. Just ask Tarantino. Not that Tarantino would get tangled up with an adaptation of a book published by MTV.
On the up side Watson proves the excellent value of tertiary education by her having identified the mystery David Bowie song. That Ivy is paying for itself, especially in the plot, cause now we can have that inevitable Bowie anthem fade out accompanied by face-your-fears imagery and a bunch of banal aphorisms.
Beyond this, the brightest MTV future but I’m already loading my gun.
I don’t know when romantic comedy became such a ubiquitously glib genre. When did the women of romcom lose their moxie and their smarts? When did tripping over and eating cupcakes become sufficient characterisation of a heroine? And when did realising that you might be better off fucking the guy who doesn’t resemble your dreams become a reasonable epiphany to drive a script?
In a reactionary position (often hard to maintain from the couch) romcoms are to be appreciated strictly as trash, taken with a grain of salt and only intellectually engaged with on a dangerous, subconscious level – i.e. repression and conformity.
It wasn’t always like this. The romcom of the 1940s was fast paced, well scripted. A caper movie the territory of which was no less than the emotional lives of women and the men they loved and didn’t love. Sure, there were still misogynistic flourishes and unhelpful gendered portraits, however for the most part the characters were fully realised, complex humans within a context, which included not only gender but class and religion (though notable never, ever race. In the 1940s romcom not only the sheets had to be white). They still related to the theatrical genre, comedy of manors. Genre was a vehicle for sailing stormy seas not a tank to drown in.
Perhaps the most interesting of these old movies were a smattering that the philosopher of film Stanley Cavell called ‘comedy of remarriage’. Responding to the Hays Code which explicitly ruled against the filmic depiction of immoral acts – cardinal amongst them adultery – this genre concentrated women’s emotional conflict about love from their position between marriage and divorce.
Typically they featured a primary couple whose connection remains enigmatic to the audience. They were married. And deeply in love. Though it didn’t work out. Now, separated, the female seeks to remarry and the dilemma over her choice in partners occurs from this decision.
My favourite romcom His Girl Friday is of this genre. Also, It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby. Cavell argues that the comedy of remarriage is one of the most important achievements of the Hollywood ‘talkie’ in that it was an attempt to reconstruct marriage as an institution which centred around love first and foremost.
Usually, in these films, the woman goes back to her husband because she realises, despite any other aspirations she may hold, she still loves the cad, gosh damn it. The male for his part spends his time hang dogging and scheming and looking out for his gal. I love to see Cary Grant hangdogging and scheming and looking out for a gal. What a catch of a cad he is.
Philadelphia Story is one of the most famous examples of the genre. It was written as a Broadway play for Katherine Hepburn. In it she plays a wealthy Philadelphia heiress, separated from an upper class cad who enjoys boozing and boating and who failed to live up to her high expectations.
She never understood his pain, or his ‘deep and gorgeous thirst’ (!). And he, for his part, did her wrong. Now she seeks to marry a meeker, more conservative and obviously totally boring man. The story takes place in the lead up to the wedding during which time various men around her deliver their summations on her character, that she is like a goddess (not in a good way) placing herself above everyone else and with no tolerance for human frailty. And she’s a ‘prig’, a ‘perennial spinster’ no matter how many husbands she has. Somewhat patronisingly the men around her (perhaps because, unlike Hepburn they are used to power and authority and have the correct equipment to deal with it), urge her to cultivate a forgiving heart in order to be ‘a first class woman or a first class human being’.
In the film, Cary Grant plays her ex husband, and James Stewart a reporter for a local tabloid, who, against his better judgment ends up covering Hepburn’s impending nuptials as part of a fairly elaborate web of blackmail and protection.
The story runs along at a cracking pace, and though it is obvious that Hepburn can’t marry her poor sap of a fiancé, the intrigue doesn’t flounder. As a heroine she is robust, exciting, intelligent and headstrong. We love her, as do all the men around who seek to take her down a peg.
Understandably, the insults and sermons bring on something of a personal crisis, though its nothing that a couple of bottles of champagne and night in the pool with James Stewart can’t sort out. The message is that she needs to let down her hair, lose control so that she can forgive those around her their faults. In this way, it’s Hepburn who seems to be enforcing the paternal order.
As I’m describing this I’m conscious that it sounds like a more complex version of the same line we are fed in today’s romcoms. I.e. bitch, get over yourself and marry that loser cause he loves you.
But it feels different in The Philadelphia Story. Because nobody actually teaches the heroine a lesson. And because she isn’t another ‘silly woman who doesn’t know her mind’, rather she is choosing between love and a more stable social security. And because you can’t separate these narratives from their context, in which a woman caught between marriages was committing crimes of morality. The kind of crimes that could not even be represented, which had to remain out of sight. In bringing these crimes out of the shadows, the film seems to imply that the morality is false, should be shed. Why aren’t women allowed to participate in the same developmental sluttery as men?
“What wives fail to realise is that their husbands’ philandering has nothing to do with them,” Hepburn’s father tells her. It’s a remark that mirrors itself, becoming – what husband’s fail to understand is that their wives’ fidelity has nothing to do with them either.
The world is unfair and unequal. Men and women take on the unforgiving standards of conformity and make a big ol’ mess of their lives as result.
In such a world, isn’t it best to pair up with someone who understands you? Well, that’s the romcom line all over.
As Hepburn, predictably, makes a morally sound choice, she promises her new husband that she will be a good wife. ‘Be whatever you want to be,’ he tells her. It’s a message that spreads its arms across the script with warm generosity.
There is an association in the film of marriage as a yacht. A craft like the True Love, which Hepburn and Grant took their honeymoon on, bright and true and fast -‘yar’, in the yachtsman drawl. But even a yar craft gets dry rot and has to be taken to dock and rebuilt from keel to hull.
It’s a metaphor that can easily be extended to the genre of the rom com, which though finding its routes in something progressive, which leans toward emotional depth and complex interactions with dominant social modes, ends up running back into something worse than death: mindless formula. The dry rot of screenwriting.
Perhaps it’s time to haul the whole genre outta the drink and do some rebuilding so that we can make a true passage once more. Today’s rom coms feel like riding the man-made lake on a jetski. Films like a The Philadelphia Story may have been flawed, but my oh my, they were yar.
I have already talked a little here about a film class I went to earlier this year in which Daniel Fairfax developed a radical theory of montage. The thrust of his thinking ran something like this – the politics and philosophy of cinema is what happens between the cuts, in the intersection of images. The chaining of separate frames to one another to create meaning. Following this, rapid fire editing is apolitical, seeking even to obscure the place where politics occurs. It provides a fake continuity in which we do not regard the image but rather simply coast along with the action. Montage, on the other hand, encourages a philosophical approach to image association.
If this theory stands, it does so by leaning on Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jette. La Jette is a featurette composed entirely of still images in montage. Set partially in a post apocalyptic, lightless, underground world, it tells the story of a man sent back in time to the scene of his childhood. A time before the catastrophe. He is chosen for these experiments because of his enduring memory from that time.
Memory makes time travel easier. But once you have the hang of it you can go wherever. After conquering the past, the man is sent into the future to discuss saving his ruined society with the posthuman beings that dwell there. But this is almost beside the point. What matters is that woman from the past and what happened on the pier.
The plot was later fleshed out in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys but what remains entirely Marker’s is the technical aspects and aesthetic of the film. With no moving action the viewer dwells in each image.
In the images of ruined Paris for instance we are reminded that we have seen the end many times. That the Second World War was apocalyptic in its devastation, or at least, it was when you add the narrative context.
Apocalypse is above all a narrative gesture i.e. a way to tell a story by driving a cut into its bones: before/after.
Skeletons of buildings, aerial shots conjure Hiroshima. I remember plumes of smoke even if there were none.
The experiments too conjure up our collective memory of Nazi Germany, the black and white film stills that have emerged to horribly elucidate the technical manifestations (medical, scientific, mechanical) of ‘the final solution’.
In the images that compose the man’s experience of the past we are invited into a nostalgic space for viewing our own every day. Real children. Real birds. Real cats. Real graves. This is the space of memory but also of advertising. Nostalgia is always in some sense a seduction. We are invited into a lusty lament. The man’s memory is ‘a museum’. He meets the woman in ‘a museum’. Everything is doubled by desire and nostalgia. Even the man himself. A child fixating on a beautiful woman, and a man come back to the memory from trauma and horror. We are reminded of the letters of soldiers ‘it was your face that kept me going’.
The chaining of images in wartime. A collapsing village and a photo of a bride.
The woman, for her part accepts his visits ‘like a natural thing, like the ageless animal’. The image associates a great Triassic skeleton. But then we hear she calls him her ghost. Are the dinosaurs ghosts among us? Or can we only reduce them to code, a genetic legacy? Ghost in machine.
If the man is above all nostalgic, she is prescient, a future facing woman, unafraid of the inexplicable. A calm arm reached out to what comes suddenly from the horizon. And she is the fetish of the lens. Her face meant to contain all of humanity and it’s unfulfilled or at least unsustained promise. Does our warning lie here?
I’m not sure there is one. A warning is too unilateral a thing. Rather, meaning is for you to read between the images, and of course, in their intersection with your world, beyond the screen. A blink is a cut if you consider it.
In a talk in Melbourne in 2011, one of my favourite screenwriters, Alan Ball, described the way that most television, and many film narratives all culminate in a “moment of shit”. The example he used was from the second TV show he ever wrote for Cybill, a ‘PR exercise-cum-sitcom’ for actress Cybill Shepard. In each episode, the main character a Cybill from the paralellashphere would struggle comically to get along in her twice-divorced, single-mommy, struggling-actress life.
There would be gags and obstacle and dilemma and crisis and catharsis (of the mildest kind) and then the corny music would come up and Cybill would be sitting on the sofa with her daughters and they will have gotten over there teen tantrums and understand their mother in a new light and everyone will hug and THAT, is the moment of shit.
The moment of shit made Alan Ball so bitter and angry that in the version of American Beauty that was originally shot, the misfit kids, the last hope for suburban truth and love get sent to jail for a crime they didn’t commit. Sam Mendes had to wrestle Ball to the cutting room floor to get him see that sweetness and hope did not necessarily equate to a moment of shit.
But that kind of writing, that shit-arc was still the dominant mode of resolution for screen and teleplays through the eighties and nineties. A case might even be made that Ball, with American Beauty and Six Feet Under was a key intervener in the moment of shit trajectory. Alan Ball is known for sweetness without the shit. After him, everyone wanted grit in the grenache.
Broadcast News is a strictly pre-Ball affair. We found it when trawling the internet for lists of the best screenplays. We wanted good writing. We wanted a satisfying, meaty slice of text. Originally, we were heading toward the crime thriller genre but got waylaid in a conversation about The Usual Suspects in terms of screenplay. My argument: I loved that movie but now when I think of it I shudder cause after that every screenplay was about the twist and the double blind and it got so as the actual plot didn’t even matter, it was all just a cunning rouse to distract you from that final twist that you don’t even care about you are so disconnected.
‘Do you like newsroom movies?’ Olof asked out of the blue.
In fact I do. His Girl Friday is one of my favourite comedies.
Olof read the blurb for Broadcast News, a 1987 newsroom comedy starring Holly Hunter from a list of marvellous screenplays.
It sounded comforting. I spend quite a large percentage of my childhood in newsrooms when my single Father took me in to work. I remember them as exciting places for the most part. Reporters took me out on stories. I sat up the back of council meetings with a bag of chips. I hung out in the darkroom. I got to open all the press packs filled with balloons and mini makeup samples and other marketing gimmicks. Around about 1987 I was probably sleeping underneath someone’s desk until deadline.
But despite Holly Hunter, and William Hurt and Joan Cusack and the exciting setting of the newsroom, Broadcast News was a pretty annoying movie. Precisely because of its Screenplay.
In a nut shell the story follows Holly Hunter, a stop at nothing news producer and William Hurt an uneducated but charismatic anchorman as they fail to hook up. Plus there is another dude, a cynical but smart reporter who is Holly’s best friend. Naturally they both love her but she only kinda loves the handsome one. In fact, it’s sort of like grown up Pretty in Pink, in a newsroom.
Because it’s grown up though, and because its a Screenplay, there are all these irritating additions to the story and the characters which are supposed to create depth but just stuck in my craw. Like Holly, despite being successful at the thing she loves doing and having good friends and respect and love on the horizon, cries every morning. There’s no real explanation other than the sexist assumptions we are supposed to make. That a woman that successful is giving up something (children? sex slavery? Macramé?) and will never be happy. Or that a woman that controlling ad decisive is missing the crucial prescription for happiness i.e. the relaxing sensation of letting a man tell her what to do.
Also, I was never sure which of her suitors to route for. The reporter guy was really a brat, and not in a good way like Ducky. He has a tantrum when Holly won’t fuck him and says all kinds of nasty shit. Plus he gets all macho and competitive with the anchor. It’s annoying. And the anchor for his part is not hot enough for the kind of fuss everyone is making over him. Nor is he dumb enough for the ridicule he’s copping from the Holly and the reporter.
In the end it comes down to integrity and Holly proves to have the most, though we already knew that, like, since the first scene.
And then it’s seven years later and we are eating the biggest shit sandwich ever.
Olof, who had been happily taking the ride until this moment of shit articulated it perfectly, ‘Oh no, this is really depressing.’
The end of the film is just some bragging party where everyone has their good things and their not so good things and a whole bunch of jealousy and unresolved sexual tension that they just ignore cause they are grown-ups. Time is water under the bridge and la la la la la queue violins.
Despite the well realised conceit of following the changing nature of the media machine in the late eighties, and the well-realised depiction of the newsroom, Broadcast News is the cinematic equivalent of adult contemporary music. Technically well made, balanced, resolved and totally fucked.
Alan Ball would have had the lot of them blown to smithereens while covering a crisis in Kosovo. It’s almost the nineties people. Read the headlines. It’s time to clean that moment of shit out of your screenplay.
Paper Moon has to be the best grifter movie ever. In fact, it’s pretty close to the perfect movie. In sweeping black and white, it tells the story of little Addie Pray, an incorrigible depression-era orphan who ends up travelling to St Joe Missouri with Moze, a young stranger who turned up at her mothers funeral and swears hands down he’s not her pa, even though they share a jawline and other less square characteristics.
Moze takes Addie on as a windfall, managing to con two hundred cash out of those responsible for her Mother’s death. But Addie won’t be taken along for two rides. She grits her teeth and narrows her eyes.
‘Give me my two hundred dollars,’ she says.
In order to repay her, Moze has to get back to work and so, Addie is initiated to his short con business, selling personalised bibles to the recently bereaved. Turns out she’s got a real knack for the grift and the two begin working together. It’s heart warming. A deadbeat dad-in-denial and his canny daughter on the road, working towns all the way to Missouri.
The actors, Ryan and Tatum ONeil, are a real life father daughter team who got all embroiled in the long-con of Hollywood and have plenty of real misadventures to recall. Though perhaps not the tender sad stories of Paper Moon – in her biography Tatum remembers her Dad taking her and her teen bestie Melanie Griffith to Europe and then fucking Griffith in a hotel room. Plus he turned lil Tatum on to hash and orgies. No boundaries, these Hollywood dead-beats.
Maybe it’s this confusion of authority and corruption that laid the foundations for Tatum’s performance. If so, almost worth it. She is phenomenal. Every moment heartbreakingly real. Addie Pray is no victim. A tiny orphan determined to do the best she can for herself. And have a life. A purpose. Thrills. The open road. Tatum became the youngest ever actor to receive an academy award. A no brainer.
Aesthetically the film, which is set in the depression era mid-west, is similar to Peter Bogdonavich’s earlier acclaimed film The Last Picture Show. Its desolate but beautiful. So much sky. Such flattened horizons. Bright crisp images in sparse frames.
He has a knack for directed young people, it seems, and for picking out the poetry in the sparse, open country. While watching the film I noticed how much I love to see an actor deliver their lines from the centre of the frame, with no fuss and the background. Just the words and the face and the voice. Long cuts. All the action in the emotion. There are heaps of these kind of scenes in Paper Moon. My favourite being Moze’ short term girlfriend Trixie Delight’s plea to Addie to let her and ‘her big tits’ ride up front with Moze.
But really, because this is a con-man movie. The delight lies in the lived philosophy of the grift. The days and dollars, wits and schemes and adventure.
Each morning is bright and open. Each day a story to write for yourself with the ending, if all goes to plan, being a pile of cash in your pocket and a tickling notion of how to grow it up the next day. There’s no depression in this game, it’s an all-market trade. But it take a special little girl to see a con-man for what he’s really worth.