Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy Brooding. Happy New Year.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve comes very easily to some people. For others, it’s somewhat problematic. Earlier today I eavesdropped on conversations at a coffee shop. A couple was planning on going to a club and getting drunk out of their minds. Another had plans to order pizza and stay home with the baby. Easy. Some people don’t even know what they’re going to do until a few hours before and wind up scrambling to get reservations for dinner at the last minute. Problematic.

A week ago, I had plans to go out but I got lazy and planned to get out of it. I decided to stay home writing and watching movies and enjoying three days of retrospective “me time.” Then, I got word friends wanted to come down for the weekend. Change of plans. No big deal.

For me, going out on New Year’s has mostly been a let down. There’s plenty of evidence in this blog that reveals my hopelessly romantic nature, but in case you didn’t know, well now you know. I think New Year’s Eve is the day for lovers, not Valentine’s Day. Sure, it’s fun to party with your friends, but if you’re single against your wishes, the twang of loneliness is with you throughout the celebration and reaches its height after the countdown is over. You kiss your sister and/or best friend if you’re a female. If you’re drunk and male, you kiss whoever happens to cross your path at that moment. Yet, you smile. And pretend you’re having a great time.

My parents were party animals and naturally they loved New Year’s Eve; always flying off to either Las Vegas or Mexico City. (The old Las Vegas; before it was an amusement park.) They did the whole fancy dinner-show-dancing production. That was because of my mom. I think my dad would have been very happy just doing dinner but my mom was a dancer. He is not, but he was whipped and hopelessly in love and that’s the way they rolled. Before taking of, they would arrange for us to have a lovely evening. Us, as in my grandmother, the maid, my siblings, cousins and a couple of our friends. They would have dinner catered and provide plenty of Martinelli’s sparkling cider. I think it was the only time our fancy dining room table was ever set with the good china and crystal. My grandma loved setting that table, and so did I. It was fun to pretend to be grown up.

Years later, when I was old enough to go out, I still preferred spending that night with my grandmother. I’d rent a bunch of “my crazy foreign movies” as she called them, and watched them after we ate the duck and bunuelos. She’d get bored pretty fast and go to bed early. I stayed up until two or three watching romantic French movies. (Now that I think about it, now wonder I’m so screwed up. It’s the movies.)

But make no mistake. New Year’s Eve is about You and the Night and the Music. It doesn’t matter how great your plans are, if you’re single, December 31 sucks. I finally realized that 5 years ago when a girlfriend and I jetted off to Paris to ring in the New Year. What can be better than that, right? Because my friend took forever to get ready, we only had two hours to get to Les Champs Elysees for dinner. We couldn’t get a cab so we had to take the Metro. Clusterfuck doesn’t even begin to describe it. We managed to squeeze in the subway car and rode like horrified sardines. We emerged from the underground five minutes before midnight. We ran and joined a sea of people from all over the world at the boulevard just in time for the countdown. We hugged and kissed strangers and I pretended I was having a great time. After all, I was smack in the middle of my favorite place in the world. The most romantic city on earth. Suddenly, an Algerian in a bright yellow leather motorcycle suit tried to kiss me and my knee jerk reaction was to push him away. He got angry, got hold of me and gropped me while his friends laughed and the gendarmes watched. It was terrifying. I tried to get myself loose but couldn’t. The Algerian finally released me by giving me a forceful push. My evening was pretty much ruined.

My fantasies about New Year’s Eve and romance are very much influenced by music and the movies. I can’t help it. Reality is somewhat elusive when you’re a storyteller. Even more when you’re a hopeless romantic and all it takes is Frank Sinatra to get you on my feet dancing and singing. I just wish it wasn’t followed by a lump in the throat and a desire to weep at the hearing words “you’re nobody til someone loves you.”

Maybe some day I’ll get to celebrate New Year’s the way I’ve written it and visualized it in my mind. Maybe not. But until then, I’m staying home with my dog watching movies. Tonight it’s probably going to be some Kieslowski and Wong Kar Wai. Sigh.

Below you’ll find a sampling of songs I’ve been listening while writing this post. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Year in Film Watching

I decided I might as well make some sort of year-end list.

I have to confess that I lost a bit of passion for film this year. Mediocrity on screen had something to do with it, but being around desperate screenwriters in search of high concept premises and trying to make it big in the business really got me down. It’s not who I am. Seems like the movie business thinks it needs more cowbell but they don’t know where to get more cowbell. This desperation is quite prominent and visible all over mainstream theater screens. Luckily, after seeing Claire Denis’ White Material, my passion was renewed. That’s all it takes. One film.

I live in Los Angeles. That means that as a cinephile, my big screen choices are not limited to mainstream studio crap. (My apologies to crap.) Because I skip that shit for the most part, every year the list of films I see on the big screen gets smaller. I can’t really make a Best Films of 2010 list since I didn’t see it all and I became even pickier, so what follows is a recap of the best films I saw in 2010.

White Material is my favorite new film of 2010, but the No. 1 spot (for the second year in a row) goes to Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm. Before 2008 I had only seen it on a television, but when I finally got the opportunity to see it in all its glory, I felt I was seeing it for the first time. And this year was no exception. I will continue to see it every year to remind me of what movies can and should be.

The highlight of my film going experience this year–life actually—was seeing all of my favorite director’s films, for the first time, in a movie theater. LACMA put on a full Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective and nothing was going to keep me away. Nothing. Again, even though I own all the films, they were a revelation. If you are familiar with this blog you know Tarkovsky is my religion. I was, however, bummed that the Nostalghia print was shitty.

Imagine my excitement when it was announced that Anna Karina would be in town for the screening of Pierrot Le Fou for the COLCOA (City of Lights City of Angels) French film festival. Now, imagine my utter disappointment when, before the screening, they announced she was stuck in France because of the volcano ash brouhaha. She was replaced by Monte Hellman and Howard A. Rodman. They were great, often making me feel like a philistine with their knowledge about everything. However, they were not as pretty as Anna. Maybe next year.

Along with The Hollywood Bowl and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery screenings, the AMPAS exhibits and screenings are Los Angeles cultural treasures. This year the Academy presented the world premiere of Ingmar Bergman: Truth and Lies, which delved into the central themes and motifs of the genius’ body of work. (Blog post and photos forthcoming.) In conjunction, LACMA screened several of Bergman’s films and I saw The Seventh Seal and The Silence back to back. It was too intense and I doubt I will ever watch more than one Ingmar film at a time. Each deserves its own time and space in my head.

As part of the Academy’s summer Oscar Noir: 1940s Writing Nominees from Hollywood’s Dark Side film series, I saw Double Indemnity and Shadow of a Doubt. And earlier in the year a special presentation of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. I love going to Academy screenings because the audience is always so respectful and passionate about what’s up on the screen. And they always have great special guests at the screenings. For film lovers, you can’t top the Academy’s events.

A huge treat was seeing Another Year and hearing Mike Leigh speak afterwards. He’s an outspoken curmudgeon that is not deterred by politeness when addressing dumb and pretentious questions. One of his applause-and-cheer-inducing answers was: “You’re interpretation of my film is complete misinformed and wrong.” The interviewer, a local film critic, became paralyzed with disbelief and embarrassment and was able to utter only “OK. Moving on.”

Another Year is another utterly confident and unhurried ensemble picture from Leigh. It is deceptively upbeat; with the distant sob or throb of sadness always lurking as the film's power creeps into your consciousness by stealth. Leslie Manville’s portrayal of a lost and damaged soul is plaintive, tragic and dissonant and, along with Isabelle Huppert’s in White Material, the best performance of the year.

Mike Leigh and the critic dude (forgot his name)

White Material is hardly a conventional “social problem” picture or even a linear narrative. Instead, it’s yet another emotionally complex study in character identification from Denis. White Material is all motion. Friday Night, L’Intrus —they all focus on movement and bodies, and personality is strictly defined by what people do and how they do it. In this case it's even more pronounced since the bodies in question are caught up in harrowing life and death situations. It’s really an action movie. The narrative and visual landscape, so expertly embodied by Huppert, is a marvel, largely because of its naturalism; there’s no sense that these characters have been suddenly manufactured before our eyes so that the filmmakers could make a point. We’re a far ways off from stupid white man’s burden movies like Blood Diamond. Instead, this is a portrait of Africa that’s enormously lived-in, despite and also, shockingly because of, its focus on white people.

Since one of my special talents is finding the dark side to everything, Toy Story 3 made me cry because it drove home the sadness of growing up and families breaking apart. The Social Network showed, and I hope the people with greenlighting power were paying attention, that a protagonist with a formulaic character arc is not necessary for Box Office success.

Let Me In is probably the only remake of a great film (Let the Right One In) that I have liked or will ever like. The American version was injected with style and testosterone and the result was a thrill-filled and entertaining horror film which was criminally ignored by audiences. I guess they were busy watching Saw XXI.

I almost drove myself bonkers trying to analyze Black Swan. (I had a similar experience with Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears.) I reached the conclusion that this silly movie is not to be taken seriously but to be enjoyed and that’s it. It’s okay to laugh. Really. Analysis only diminishes its entertainment value and who wants to do that?

I saw a few documentaries, including Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child: an homage to an artistic wunderkind, constructed around a rare question-and-answer interview with Basquiat. It is a rather romanticized portrait; however, the depiction of the madness and the greed of Manhattan in the 1980s kept me fascinated until the end. Inside Job fueled my anger to such extent I filled a bucket full of bile afterwards and Waiting for Superman only reaffirmed that my choice not to have children was the right one.

I stayed true to my quest not to pay to see shitty movies, so all the films I saw I liked except for one, which is on my list for Worst of What I Saw in 2010 But I Didn't Pay (below):

127 Hours

I haven’t seen True Grit because I heard some scenes on the radio and it make me not want to see it. The dialogue sounded forced. Sort of like Deadwood gone wrong. I plan on seeing Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right, but not until I get my Independent Spirit Award voting screeners/screenings.

I hope this next year is much better, don’t you? There is certainly much room for improvement.

Best wishes and Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's not a wonderful life.

It amuses me to no end that when I suggest to people that perennial Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is not really an uplifting feel-good movie but Frank Capra's most relentlessly depressing work, they look at me as if I just said Jesus fucks chickens.

Like Douglas Sirk, Capra was a smuggler. He hid his themes and ideas under the façade of overly-sentimental tales and it’s easy to see why these directors’ films are often misunderstood. It really is genius when you can hide deeper and darker themes about humanity in a story that large audiences will respond to emotionally. Wonderful continues to be trotted out to demonstrate Capra’s life-affirming, joyous love of people. Yet reading Wonderful as wholesome heart-warming tale advances the notion that it celebrates the triumph of small-town sweetness over impersonal modernity while dismissing any further critical analysis and probing of its deeper meanings and themes.

Capra considered it his greatest achievement and it was his (and James Stewart’s) favorite. However, it was actually a box-office disappointment at the time of its release and only became a Holiday classic in the 1970s due to repeated television showings at Christmas-time when its copyright protection slipped and fell into the public domain in 1974 and TV stations could air it for free. (Republic Pictures restored its copyright claim to the film in 1993, with exclusive video rights to it. Currently, it can be shown only on NBC, and its distribution rights belong to Paramount Pictures.) Talk about irony with a capital I. General Electric, one of the largest multinational conglomerates now owns America’s most beloved populist holiday movie.

The screenplay (credited as being written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra himself, with additional scenes by Jo Swerling) was based on "The Greatest Gift," an original short story first written on a Christmas card by Philip Van Doren Stern. Uncredited for their work on the script were Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets.

Wonderful’s framing story draws on the backward-looking myth of the small town favored by Hollywood's not-notably rural filmmakers. But what's inside the frame is what really counts--a timeless corner of populist paradise is juxtaposed with a far more realistic and striking view of contemporary America in flux. Pottersville represents a place where the people are as nasty as their oppressors and the individual is unimportant.

This picture of the corruption and the death of small-town society is rivaled in film only by Orson Welles The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Pottersville is as atmospheric a film noir as any of the period's movies, and unlike the wholesome story, it’s not an inversion of reality at all. It's a realistic, if appalling, view of how things looked to be playing out in the society off the screen.

Some things did not turn out as badly as Capra seemed to fear. Post-war prosperity and the federal deposit insurance programs made bank failures a relative rarity, at least for a few decades (yikes), and thrift institutions like George Bailey's building and loan in fact did help underwrite the rise of suburbia, and thus the fulfillment of some Capra-era dreams In that period the country's cities did come more and more to resemble Pottersville, although with the additional woe of racism. And suburbia itself represented a turning-away from the spiritual strength and communal ties of places like Bedford Falls in favor of materialism and the security of the Company Man. I wonder what kind of movie Capra would make today and what he would think of manipulative crap like Slumdog Millionaire. How would Mr. Smith Goes to Wall Street play out? Some of us want to write that movie. Unfortunately, no one really wants to see it unless Mr. Smith is blue and has to battle a meteor in his dreams.

Was Bedford Falls really that wonderful? Even in his purportedly wonderful life, George Bailey lives in a town mostly owned by Old-Man Potter. He is burdened with a loser uncle and he’s forced to give up his dreams of traveling the world and succeeding in a career of his choice. One of the movie's most visually moving sequences is when George, informed that his brother won't be taking over the building and loan, turns away from his chosen destiny to live up to his familial obligations. Stewart’s face says it all. He knows Bedford Falls is a trap and it ultimately drives him to suicide. Should we really be cheering for dutiful martyrdom over the pursuit of personal dreams? No (fucking) way, says Capra.  Yet this romantic notion of self-sacrifice and angels getting their wings is cheered by teary-eyed American audiences every year.

In the context of Capra's earlier features, Wonderful looks even grimmer. In It Happened One Night (1934), evil turns up as cynicism and mistrust and in the status barriers that always divide people. Capra returns to these themes through all the films that follow. Whatever other adversaries they face, his heroes must always cope with these universal weaknesses, in themselves and in the people around them.

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) Gary Cooper is the antithesis of cynicism, mistrust and snobbery; he is small-town virtue personified. The lies and entrenched interests of the city have yet to infect his Bedford Fallsish society, where they’re written off as aberrant. Deeds falls prey when he goes to town, but he is more of a threat to the corruptions of a disorganized and internally divided system than it is to him. Its immorality is localized and in the end little more than traditional American venality, which gives way before Deed's enormous personal virtue.

Venality also motivates the evil in You Can't Take it With You (1938), but here it’s more focused, spreading death and destruction as it accumulates power and money. Romantic love is again a victim of cynicism, mistrust and status, while the Vanderhoff's unpretentious virtue (the most precious commodity in Capra's world) just barely survives. This was 1938, after all. The Depression seemed interminable; war had begun in Asia and was imminent in Europe. Still, the robber-baron villain comes around in the end when faced with the overwhelming argument presented by simple human goodness just being itself. Even Edward Arnold, combining the two most loathsome occupations of the Depression (banker/munitions mogul), has a conscience and can be cleansed of his sins and his social baggage and returned to an earlier innocence.

Arnold's evil expands in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), where he’s defeated in the end but, unlike in You Can't Take it With You, is left unredeemed. The hero goes up against classic political bossism, but here the evil has become well-organized and wields the extra oomph of modern communications. Despair at first outruns victory, as in most Capra films. (The Vanderhoffs prepare to move out, even if it means betraying the neighborhood. Deeds stands silent in court. Smith collapses in the Senate.) It takes the people, usually assisted by a guilt-ridden retainer of the villain, to clear the way for good to prevail, or at least survive.

In Meet John Doe (1941), even the people turn on the hero, who again surrenders to despair. Only at the very end do the fundamentally good-hearted citizens admit their wrongheadedness and proclaim their fealty to the virtues Doe represents (ignoring the fact that he himself is compromised by participation in a massive deception). It's a good thing, because the stakes have become higher. The traditional evils of Wall Street manipulators and political bosses have given way to totalitarianism, with Edward Arnold now the leader of a fascist movement.

Politically, this is as bad as it gets. Morally, there was worse to come.

To be Old Man Potter in Wonderful, Lionel Barrymore inverted his own Vanderhoff character in You Can't Take it With You. Where old Mr. Vanderhoff is good and gracious for the joy of it, Old-Man Potter is nasty for its own sake. Prior Capra villains had purpose, whether money, power or a new order. Potter is evil with no goal or reason for being that way. Political and financial empire-building are subsumed into greed, ill will and blind destructiveness.

There is no idealism here to give the villain an arc. This evil is so complete that the villain's conversion isn't contemplated. Significantly, the only conceivable response to Pottersville — which is in fact the real world — is to escape it. Even the intervention of the people is insufficient to save the hero, whose despair puts him beyond help from human agency. Yes, George's friends and beneficiaries come together to make good the building and loan's shortfall, but that only addresses his superficial and immediate problem. We know what really saves him, what keeps him alive so the community can band together to help: divine intervention.

Capra's group of socially conscious films of the 1930s reflected a reasonably coherent fear of the intensifying class conflict, fascism and militarism that seemed then to be overtaking the world. Wonderful reveals near panic over the catastrophes and depersonalization that actually did. It’s all too familiar. Except I don’t believe that the people of the 1930s and 40s were as optimistic and naïve as Americans today. Blind optimism a la The Secret or any self-help doctrine you care to mention, and that the U.S.A. is Number One just because we say so, has had a lot to do with America’s downfall. Collective pessimism, European style, creates certain protections for society as a whole. Here, Socialism is equated with Negativism. And we can’t have that.

In Wonderful, things had become so bad that only God could save the day. And if we truly believe that God will save the day, then we are so, so screwed. Life may be wonderful, but to be able to live it wonderfully is another matter entirely.

Merry Christmas.


P.S. No angels were harmed in the writing of this essay.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Art is my Muse

Whenever I'm feeling shitty, uninspired, and worthless, I know it's time to go to the museum.  All it takes is one look at a work that triggers a party in my mind to remind me of where I come from, who I am and what I want to do.

Yesterday I went to the William Eggleston exhibit at LACMA.  Nothing can ever replace the experience of seeing the real deal; in this case, beautiful, bright, dye-transfer prints.  It was a pretty complete retrospective and my favorite prints were from William Eggleston's Guide and The Democratic Forest series.  Below are the ones that stayed in my mind and that I keep going back to:

Like Eggleston, I too strive to be a poet of the mundane. I feel re-energized and ready for 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Santa Schmanta

I guess Santa is very important to us because we all remember how we found out he didn’t exist.  For me, it was really early on.  I can’t remember what I did last week, but the memory of that night is quite vivid.  Also, my family never let me forget it.  Just like the Christmas I got drunk and apologized to the maid.

First, let me disclose that I had a wonderful childhood. I feel I need to because you couldn’t really deduct that from my cynical online persona.  If you’re reading this, you probably have been exposed to my Tweets or Facebook posts, so you know how it is with me.

My maternal grandparents doted on me, my siblings and my cousins, indulging us to no end.  I can’t think of a single thing I ever wanted that I didn’t get.  I think this is why I refuse to settle for anything mediocre as an adult.  It’s good but it’s also bad to grow up happy and privileged like that because it’s hard to take when you don’t get what you want. 

Anyway, Holidays were huge in our family, especially Christmas.  The adults worked very hard to make sure they would be special and memorable.

I was around four and we still lived in Mexicali.  My mother was still married to my biological father (I call him The Biological Man) and there were only three grandchildren then.  My sister was two and my cousin Aaron was three.  In Mexico, Christmas Eve is the day when families get together for tamales and champurrado and open presents.  The adults delighted into making a big production out of Santa’s arrival and even scaring us a little bit.  And believe me, it was very exciting.  We’d hang out in the living room, on the edge of our seats, while the grown ups worked us up.  Then, my grandpa would say “Do you hear that? He’s here!”  My cousin Aaron used to get very nervous. He’d jump from leg to leg the way you do when you’re trying not to pee on yourself.  He was so skinny his pants would fall off.  Then they’d usher us into a bed room for the excruciating wait.

My grandma would get us even more excited with anticipation. We’d hear bells ringing and then we were let out to find dozens of presents under the tree and Santa standing and HO HO HOing right in our living room.  I usually went up to Santa to shake his hand.  But that night something went terribly wrong.  I looked at his shoes.  Something clicked and disappointment set in.  I watched as my sister bawled from fright and my cousin handed Santa a tamale with one tiny, trembling hand as the other hand held his pants up.  Santa took the tamale, HO HO HO’d again and left.  I didn’t say a thing. I had the good sense, at four, not to say a thing.

Days later my mom asked me if I was happy with what Santa brought me.  I said yes, but there is no Santa.  Her eyes widened.  She was about to say something, but changed her mind and pretended I hadn’t said a thing.  I didn’t let it go.  I told her I knew Cuagua (her teenage sister, auntie Claudia) was Santa.  I remember the shocked looked on my mom’s face.  She then tried to deny it and asked me how I knew.  I told her I recognized her shoes.  Cuagua used to wear black Doc Marten type of shoes then and obviously she never took them off.  I then told my mom not to worry.  That I wasn’t going to say anything to my sister and cousin.  She laughed and thanked me for being so considerate.  I kept my word and let them find out on their own years later.

I guess here is where I have to explain I wasn’t a typical four-year old with average intelligence.  I said my first words at six months, walked and refused to drink from a bottle at nine months, and spoke in complete sentences by the time I was one.  There was just no way I was going to believe in the Santa charade for a long time.  Maybe this is why every year I tell my nephews and niece there is no Santa.  They don’t believe me of course. And the oldest one is 13.  I believe they call it reverse psychology.  Besides, I have a bad rep.  You can’t take anything I say seriously, right?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Bitchin' and complaining

I continue to struggle with Photoshop, but I'm beginning to understand it more.  The photo above is a concept for the Welcome page of my website.  I'm trying to do something like this:

Problem is I don't understand website dimensions. Designs look different on different screens and sometimes they're cut off.  Even though it's fun at times, I'd rather be paying someone to do this. But I don't have the money right now.  Oh well, must soldier on.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Two or Three Things I Know...

or don't know... about Photoshop.  This is my new Twitter background and homage to Godard. I am determined.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A great sense of accomplishment.

You see that header above? I made that. Yup. With Photoshop. How? Don’t know. I just launched the program, opened a canvas and started to mess around. After two minutes, I was in tears.  So I called a friend who’s a graphic designer.  He talked me through it and I did as he said but I had no idea what he was saying to me. Of course I did it wrong. So I just pulled out a chunk of hair and tried to work it out. The result is far from perfect but it’s good enough for now.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tokyo Sonata

In Japan, the sudden loss of position and income carries with it a degree of shame and embarrassment far beyond what we might expect to feel in the west under similar circumstances. In Tokyo Sonata, unemployment and the effects of a changing economic environment are crucial story catalysts that indirectly trigger a breakdown of the common façade of familial contented unity.

During the opening minutes of Tokyo Sonata, Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job when he's unable to answer the question: "what can you offer this company?" Crippled with shame, he decides not to tell his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), and dutifully leaves the house each morning, looking for another job, lining up for free soup with the homeless and hanging out all day. He runs into old pal Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda) who also has been downsized and has already mastered the art of looking employed. Similarly, dislocated unemployed workers populate the parks of the city, suggesting that their affliction extends to all of Japanese society. With great wit, Kiyoshi Kurosawa shows how Ryuhei and Kurosu find that, for a while, their bogus lives are rather pleasant: they’re still the wage-earning lords of their domestic kingdoms but don’t actually have to bother to work. In a bizarre way, pretending to have a job is actually not that different from having a job since the rituals of leaving for work, coming home from work and generally imposing your family authority can easily be maintained, and for longer than you think.

Initially, there's little evidence of disharmony present in the family's earliest interactions, with only the oldest son's, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), repeated absence from the meal table prompting a hint of irritation on his father's part. The dutiful family meals are little performances of the absurd, full of hypocrisy and the discord only grows stronger as the film continues. Ryuhei's unemployment serves as a trigger for the development and exposure of secrets harbored by all four family members. In a very funny scene, younger son Kenji (Kai Inowaki) gets caught passing a manga book in the classroom, stages a minor rebellion and exposes the teacher's own penchant for reading erotic manga on the train. Subsequently, he starts taking secret piano lessons against his father's wishes. Takashi, meanwhile, wants to take advantage of a new ruling that allows Japanese citizens to join the American military. Most long-standing is Megumi's buried unhappiness, feeling invisible in her own household and sharing her family's latent feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.

Although not a genre piece in the vein Kurosawa's earlier superb urban horror thrillers (Cure and Pulse), Tokyo Sonata recaptures the sense of dislocation and loneliness that were key to their unsettling effectiveness. The Japanese society it portrays is not one of harmonious unity, but of individuals who feel isolated even in the company of others and who appear to have lost the ability to communicate effectively on a personal level.

Kurosawa's economy of storytelling and attention to detail ensure that not a single scene passes without expanding our understanding of the characters and their situation. The underlying anxieties that fester throughout the first half of Tokyo Sonata manifest themselves in the second, through a series of subtly exaggerated encounters that see the family placed in one improbable scenario after another, challenging and mocking their continued decorum. Kurosawa's past as a director of horror movies pays the greatest dividends as their lives threaten to unravel. He creates a pervasive sense of unease even as he sets up the film's frequent comic moments, which often come at the expense of the hapless protagonists.

Because this is a Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie and the only thing you can expect is that nothing will turn out the way you expect, the film takes a brief but unexpected detour into black comedy when Megumi is kidnapped by a manic-depressive burglar (played with exaggerated agitation by Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho). Intriguing and character-relevant in itself, this clashes a little with the sober observational drama that precedes it, the style shift emphasized by a break with the previously linear storytelling. It's a turning point for the narrative in which the crisis factor is increased considerably for both Megumi and Ryuhei. The air of anxiety that floats throughout Tokyo Sonata ensures that when the film's redemptive but ambivalent ending finally arrives, it feels like a genuinely cathartic sidestepping of the nuclear family's inevitable extinction.

Tokyo Sonata is a humorous and incisive modernist chronicle a family who, like the families in Yasujiro Ozu's cinema, is on the verge of disintegration. However, while both directors reflect the inevitability of this dissolution, Kurosawa paradoxically sees the rupture as a necessary trauma towards rebuilding. A sense of renewal is inherent in the final image of the family leaving the stage, figuratively stepping away from the performance to forge their own path in the uncertain future. A hair-raising and emotionally bracing account of a family's disintegration and tentative reconstitution, Tokyo Sonata explores the shifting nature of society and family with a rare and compelling blend of humanity, honesty and cinematic understatement.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nothing beats a house full of people you love, right?

My Italian friend Liz (a real Italian who lives in Italy and speaks Italian) emailed me asking me what is this “something day” everyone is talking about.  And by “talking about” she means Twitter and Facebook updates.  I thought about it for a while, trying to come up with an answer that would do the day justice so that she would be wowed by the richness of American culture.  Since there’s a Michelangelo in most Italian churches, I wanted to come up with something really good, but this is the best I could do:

“Thanksgiving Day. It's the most important holiday in the U.S.  Basically, it's the Thursday where you are forced to spend time with your family and you make it tolerable by pigging out and watching football.”

Liz might think I’m being cynical; after all, she has no reason to think otherwise since she knows me.  However, I am not being cynical.  And most of you can attest that I am, indeed, painting an accurate picture.  Yes, of course, there are those lovey-dovey families who are really close, but they’re very rare and very annoying in their particular kind of dys-functionality.  (You’re not fooling anyone.)

First, so that you foreigners can understand the true historical perspective and not what you might read in history books, I suggest you watch the second Addams Family movie; particularly the Camp Chippewa scenes.  Howard Zinn could not have come up with a better illustration of the Pilgrim/Native American alleged schmooze-fest. (See photo above.)

For most Americans, going home for Thanksgiving feels like a million dentist appointments crammed inside Jehovah’s Witness sales pitch.  But it’s something they feel they must do. And so that Liz understands what this day really means, most dinners end with one or more family members saying to each other:


I’m sure the Italians have their own special day where they tell family members to go fuck themselves.  In my family, that could have been any occasion we spent together.  You see, up until recently, before my mom and grandma died, we insisted on being close and united.  (We were raised to believe that family is what matters most no matter what. That an ounce of blood is worth more than a pound of friendship.)  Toward that end, my parents threw elaborate, booze-filled Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners where the cliché drunk uncle picked a fight with one of his kids, wife, and/or sibling and the evening ended with artichokes flying across the room, granny as referee and everyone in tears.  Of course, the next morning, it was as if nothing had happened and the next year we were back on the edge of our seats waiting to see what would set off our uncle again.  Then, somehow, people grew up, moved away, or died and the parties got smaller.

Except for the one time my sister’s ex-husband brought his insecure, Goth Olyve Oyl look-alike girlfriend and she got offended because someone put a dish on top of her made-from-a-pumpkin-from her-backyard pumpkin pie, we had a pretty peaceful and uneventful holiday celebration run.  That is, until last year when my dad got drunk, my sister told him off, he told her off in return, I asked him to leave, and then my brother kicked us all out on the street right before we sat down to eat.  (A dear friend took us and our dogs in otherwise we would have ended up at Denny’s.)  It took us months to speak to my brother and sister-in-law again and the wounds from that night are still a little sore.  It’s pretty hard to get over your brother kicking you out on Thanksgiving and then pretending like it didn’t happen.

This year I wasn’t even invited to my brother’s house.  I was supposed to go to my sister’s but that plan fell apart when my pup Pepa got Kennel Cough.  My sister has dogs and Pepa is going to be contagious for another week. Nothing can be done.  I’m not upset that tomorrow is going to be like any other Thursday of the year and I don’t really mind bad holidays anymore.  As bad as getting kicked on the street with no turkey dinner is, nothing can be worse than spending it sitting next to a hospital bed.

During her illness, my mom was in and out of the hospital many times.  One year she happened to be hospitalized on Thanksgiving Day.  I forgot why I was the only one in town that year.  My dad didn’t want to do anything for dinner.  He just wanted to go home and rest.  (He spent all of his days by her side during that time, so it was understandable.)  On my way to the hospital, I stopped at Denny’s to buy two slices of pie.  While I waited, I scrutinized the diners. I felt sad for them, but then I felt even worse for myself. I was one of them. I was at Denny’s buying pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day.

I pulled into the hospital parking lot, turned off the ignition, put my hands on the steering wheel and broke down.  I thought it only happened in the movies, but it was happening to me.  People actually do that. They break down at the wheel of their car. I composed myself pretty quickly because I didn’t want my mom to know I had been crying.  Then I went up to her room and we had our Thanksgiving dinner together.

As I write this, I’m trying to compose myself.  People don’t break down in front of their computers at work, do they?  At least I haven’t seen that movie.  I guess I wish there was someone left in my family that would be grown-up and stubborn enough to keep the tradition going.  Where do you mine that stubbornness that keeps families coming together even though it’s more than likely it will end in melodrama?  I’d like to believe that this paradoxical behavior still means something to my family.  Sadly, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and I’m not a grown-up.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Goodbye $$$

This morning I found this tweet from John August on my Twitter feed:

I can’t say I’m a loyal reader because frankly he bores me most of the time, but the following really hit me hard, even though I already knew it deep down.

“Looking at successful filmmakers — in particular, writer-directors — it’s pretty clear who is doing this. Tarantino makes movies to fill a special shelf at his fantasy video store. Wes Anderson makes movies his own characters would dissect over canapés.

If you have more mainstream taste, great. Embrace that. Scratch your own itch. But forget about “commercial” or “high concept.” If you’re writing a movie you yourself wouldn’t buy a ticket to see, you’re wasting everyone’s time.”

I’ve said many times that I don’t write for the market and that I write what I want. That is not to say that I’m not trying to come up with high concept premises that a wide audience might wan to see and that I want to write. Do I stress over it? No, but I still think about it. That is, until this morning after I read the gem above. That’s the nut, the nutshell and the squirrel right there.

If you’re writing a movie you yourself wouldn’t buy a ticket to see, you’re wasting everyone’s time. If you’re writing a movie you yourself wouldn’t buy a ticket to see, you’re wasting everyone’s time. If you’re writing a movie you yourself wouldn’t buy a ticket to see, you’re wasting everyone’s time….

So, allow me to take this time to say good bye to all that imaginary money I thought I was going to earn from a spec sale. Au revoir imaginary money! I feel so liberated now.

And now, excuse me, I have to go tell Pepa (below) that she’s not getting the house on the lake I promised her.

Monday, November 15, 2010

“Cher Academy, Va te faire foutre. Jean Luc”.

The hilarious farce of AMPAS attempting to present Jean Luc Godard with an honorary Oscar has been a source of great amusement for me.  First, AMPAS reps insisted that Godard was appreciative and would be traveling to Los Angeles to accept his award in person.  Then, Godard’s friends denied it.  Eventually, AMPAS admitted defeat.  When I saw this photograph taken at the award dinner this weekend on my Facebook feed I busted up laughing. 
Photo courtesy of Howard Rodman
I knew Godard would never show up. I was really surprised when Godard sent a polite note (after hiding from them for days) to the Academy saying he would try to make it. I suppose he decided that would be the only way to get them off his back.

Imagine the guffaw I let out when I saw this letter from Ingmar Bergman at the AMPAS “Truth and Lies” exhibit last month. (Blog post forthcoming.)

I told my friend James that Godard should have written a letter just like it and that I was surprised he was being so nice. James bet me Godard would pick up his award. Hey James, you owe me…what did we bet? I forgot.

Academy president Tom Sherak said of Godard at this weekend's Governors Awards, "I want you to know that this award is meaningful to him." Oh really? Check again. This is what Godard recently had to say to German ezine NZZ about the whole affair, which isn’t so polite, but very funny:

Q: Monsieur Godard, next Saturday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will award you an Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. What does this mean to you?

JLG: Nothing. If the Academy likes to do it, let them do it. But I think it’s strange. I asked myself: Which of my films have they seen? Do they actually know my films? The award is called The Governor’s Award. Does this mean that Schwarzenegger gives me the award?

Q: Why don’t you attend the award ceremony?

JLC: I don’t have a visa for the US and I don’t want to apply for one. And I don’t want to fly for that long.


Well, that makes sense.

And here’s an excerpt from Anne Thomson’s Indiewire column:

“At the start of the evening, the Academy governors who lauded Jean-Luc Godard clearly felt defensive doing so—reminding that the famously ornery Godard was not winning the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. While Godard’s purported anti-Semitism was not mentioned, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, documentary filmmaker Lynn Littman, editor Mark Goldblatt, composer Charles Box, producer Mark Johnson and writer Phil Alden Robinson sang Godard’s praises. “This irreverent provocateur never used art to promote bigotry, a key distinction I had to understand so I could honor him tonight,” said Littman. “He dared us to misbehave as grown-ups and artists. He’s still misbehaving.”

But as clear as it was to me that they were right to honor Godard, the room felt cold as Black Swan‘s Vincent Cassel introed the Godard tribute, which included praise from Oliver Stone (“he gave us the gift of freedom in film; nothing was the same again”), D.A. Pennebaker, William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, Mike Figgis and Steven Soderbergh, who added that Godard’s films were “funny.” Academy president Tom Sherak was forced to accept the award on Godard’s behalf, and kept insisting they had enjoyed a cordial correspondence. In fact, Godard’s longtime Swiss friend and producer Ruth Waldburger was asked and declined to come from Switzerland to pick up the prize. Which is why Sherak will be traveling to Switzerland to present it. After the high point of the evening, the Wallach tribute, it was all downhill.”

More on the night at:

Not even his friend showed up. Anyway, hopefully after Sherak flies to Switzerland and presents the award, they will leave Godard alone. And damn right his films are funny. And so is he. Very.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

To contest or not to coverage...

that is the question that keeps aspiring screenwriters up at night.

I've already written a post about this subject, but I've decided to get a bit more specific in order to illustrate the disadvantages of submitting to contests vs. paying for coverage. If only to confuse you more.

This year I had a deadline, a GOAL if I may, to complete a screenplay for submittal to Film Independent's Screenwriters Lab in March. I literally finished the first-words-on-paper draft hours before the deadline. Don't do that. Never do that. Why would you throw away an average of $50 per contest submitting something you have not re-written at least once or twice? Anyway, so the great thing about FIND is that they provide coverage at no additional cost. They are not a "contest" so they're not making any money. They’re a non-profit genuinely trying to develop and mentor talent and independent projects.

While I was waiting to hear from FIND, I kept on re-writing and trying to improve the script. I submitted to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab (huge mistake), Nicholl, Austin and a couple of other high profile contests. (I probably spent $500 on entry fees. A month of doggie daycare.) I also submitted to a comedy contest, which I won for the second year in a row. Apologies, but I’m tooting my horn right here because after this triumph the story takes a dark turn. I didn’t make the quarterfinals of any of the other contests I submitted to. So after winning in June, my summer was preetee, preetee, preetee shittee. One day you feel you can actually write, the next a pile of rejection slips paralyze you to the core.

FIND was running behind so they didn’t notify applicants until two weeks after the Los Angeles Film Festival. They sent me a rejection e-mail along with this link to the coverage—the very confusing coverage. (Below)


2010 Screenwriters Lab Script Coverage

Script Title:Genre:
Application ID:Period:
558present day
Coverage Date:Locale:
2010-03-15unnamed American city
A gifted teenager employs his Mexican cooking heritage and a band of misfit ex-con line cooks to compete for much-needed prize money against a team of French chefs.
Diego is a gentle teenager who has inherited his Nana’s talent for cooking. The two illegally sell their delicious wares wherever and whenever possible, but Diego wants to get a job cooking for the summer. His mother, who struggles to make ends meet, argues that he’s too young. Diego secretly gets a job at Pancho Plotnik’s a restaurant where everyone is comically abused, including the customers. Pancho wants to be fixed up with Nana, but Diego’s not so sure. At the restaurant, Diego is harassed by the tough ex-con cooks, but takes a place in the line when one chops his finger off. They name Diego “Ratacholo” and he storms out. While he’s cooking at home, Diego’s little brothers accidentally start a grease fire and burn their sister Caro’s violin, with which she’s gifted and about to audition for a conservatory scholarship. The family’s house is in default. Susana, Diego’s mother, finds out that he’s been working and demands he quit, but she gets him a job at Chez Racine, the restaurant where she works. Secretly, Nana helps him to keep both jobs and teaches him the ropes; it turns out the cooks at Pancho’s used to work for her. Diego’s skills sharpen. Nana develops complications from diabetes. The family’s finances plummet and Diego sets his sights on a team cooking competition with a $50,000 third place prize. Diego recruits the line cooks from Pancho’s to be a team, with Nana as their coach. Because he’s got a crush on Nana, Pancho sponsors them. But Diego is so successful at Chez Racine that he’s offered a spot on their team as blind taste tester; he turns them down, but when his family learn they’re losing their house and his mother discovers he’s secretly competing with his own team, she pressures him. He quits, joins the French team, then leaves them with his mother’s encouragement after Chef Racine confirms his talent. Diego competes with team Ratacholo and they take the grand prize, $150,000 to start a new restaurant.
Comments Overview:
Ratacholo is a charming family story about a young man with an undeniable gift who finds that he’s ready to pursue his dreams at a young age. He’s too old to be a child who sits by and does nothing while his family suffers, but not old enough to walk into a restaurant kitchen with authority. The film might well appeal to family audiences on a number of levels, not least because it presents a heroic young protagonist whose passion for cooking sets him on a path to wild achievements—it’s a positive message to send to young audiences and it’s particularly refreshing to see Mexican cooking culture represented with so much respect and affection. There’s a definite indie vibe to the film; some of the language and humor might not play with a mainstream family audience. The plot could be tightened somewhat to increase the tension, as the first act seems to meander a bit and we don’t get to the heart of the story—the cooking competition—until we’re well into the second act. It would be nice to see a little more of Diego’s life outside of cooking and his family; is he giving something up to devote himself to cooking? Aside from a single friend introduced at the beginning of the story, we don’t know much about the rest of his universe. Susana stands out as being less fully developed than the rest of the characters, and perhaps her emotional journey could be taken at a more even pace, allowing room for her final reversal to happen more slowly. There’s a lot here, but the script seems already to have found solid footing; it doesn’t necessarily seem to be in need of the sort of development the Screenwriters Lab offers, and therefore seems suitable for consideration rather than a recommendation.
Concept and Theme:
The script is thematically rich. Diego’s yearning to follow his dreams and nurture his own gifts raises questions about how best to encourage young talent, particularly as we watch Susana and Lucia facing off with opposing views. There’s a subtle commentary about the food world and the way that French cuisine frequently dominates, while less expensive but equally complex and rich cooking traditions, particularly Mexican, take a back seat. And without hitting the audience over the head, the writer opens a discussion about the inheritance of family traditions both positive and negative: Diego inherits his flair for cooking from his father and grandmother and even his mother, but with this good fortune comes constant worries about diabetes. The thematic threads are nicely woven throughout the story, clear without ever feeling conspicuous.
Plot and Structure:
The cooking competition is a great device to move the story along, and it might make sense here to introduce it in the first act rather than the second. The plot feels slightly muddy as the setup is revealed, when what we really need to understand is that this gifted young man is going to use his talents to compete for prize money to save his family. In the interest of clarification, it might make sense to start Diego with a job as a dishwasher when the story begins, in order to save the real estate taken up by the long negotiation regarding which restaurant he’ll work in and in what capacity. The storyline involving Caro’s violin is a nice counterpoint, but it seems to get dropped without much resolution, and perhaps there’s a missing moment of detente between brother and sister to round out the family story.
Diego is a charming protagonist, with all the awkwardness one would expect from a boy of his age, plus the guts and talent no one sees coming. Nana, and Diego’s relationship with her, leap off the page; it’s refreshing to see such a strong and colorful older female character, and further exploring her particular emotional journey could only add more to the story. Susana feels a bit thinly treated at present. Clearly she’s burdened by financial circumstances, but her relationships with Diego and Nana seem to remain at a surface level in the current draft. It would be great to know more about her relationship with food and her history with Diego’s father, since she shows so much apprehension about watching her son follow in his footsteps.
The dialogue is fresh and funny. Pancho’s colorful rants stand out particularly, as do the majority of Nana’s scenes. Not only are we given an opportunity to enjoy an older female character with an unexpectedly dirty way with words, we’re able to watch the reactions of those around her as well. The contrast between the French and Mexican kitchens could be broadened here, as there’s more similarity in the actual language than one might expect, and it may detract somewhat from the comedic potential. The conversation among the kitchen staff at Pancho’s is also outstanding; the writer manages to paint these ex-cons as being tremendously likable, even as they’re engaged in almost constant verbal warfare.
Overall Quality of Writing:
There’s a confident voice behind this well-researched story, which is written not only with a strong cultural perspective, but a healthy sense of humor as well. The general feel of the film is family-friendly, and it seems likely that it would find its broadest audience within this market, though some of the more mature language and jokes might need toning down. It might be best to avoid referring to the French kitchen staff as “froggies,” which could be read as the writer, rather than the characters, editorializing in a way that some might find offensive. With a little more time given to character transitions and some tightening of the plot, the script will be in very promising shape.


Wait, are they saying my shitty first draft was too good to make it into the Lab? You tell me because I can’t still figure it out. (See "Comments Overview") Anyway, by the time I got this coverage and to my credit, I had already fixed it because I instinctively knew what needed to be done.

Confusion does not begin to express how I felt. Yes, I know. Contests are very subjective, if a reader doesn’t like or get your story you are done for, blah blah blah. The thing is, that may be true, but I had no indication of where I fell short. I decided I needed to know if this screenplay was worth more time and effort so I got it covered again by someone who said he prided himself in providing brutal honesty. I certainly did not have the time and stomach for more sugar-coating.


I actually thought I wrote a high concept script, but obviously I was wrong. It was hard to face that a subject I loved since I saw Babette’s Feast for the first time is a no-can-sell. At least in the minds of the people that are “in the know.” Am I still confused? Yes. Will I submit to contests again? Maybe. If I have money to throw away. Do I still feel like shit? No. I learned a lot as I saw my delusions fade away this summer. That’s a good thing. And it only cost me a few hundred dollars.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Stop thinking. Get out of your way. You will never be satisfied.

Notes on Craft: Characters
October 27, 2010
Guests: Howard Rodman, Richard Walter (dueling heads of USC and UCLA screenwriting programs) and an MIA Jennifer Salt (she never showed up)

So I’m two weeks late. The cold weather has made me a little lazy. And these things take forever to write.

Dan Petrie began by mentioning that John August believes that, most of the time, the hero, the protagonist and the main character are the same person. If they aren’t, the hero is the character the audience roots for, the main character is the one the audience is mostly with, and the protagonist is the one that changes. He asked the guests if they agreed.

Walter said he mostly agreed, but that you have to root for all the characters, even the villains. Think of Judas. If Judas hadn’t done what he did, then there would have been no crucifixion and we would have no salvation. The audience must connect with the villain. All of the characters’ humanity must come across during the story. From now on, I’m going to start saying “Thank you Judas!” instead of “Thank you Jesus!”

Rodman disagrees with August. He said there's a misunderstanding in Hollywood as to what the audience needs. The insistence on heroes is bad for the movies. All the characters that made him want to write films were schmucks, not characters who change. Change is only sometimes useful. It’s a huge Hollywood hoax that the hero must change. Patton didn’t change, but he was a fascinating, flawed character and the audience is interested in seeing what he’s going to do next. Walter added that Steve McQueen usually turned down parts with arcs. He said: “I don’t want to be the guy who learns, I wan to be the guy who knows.”

Petrie then asked if we should start with character.

Rodman’s starting point is fear of the blank page, maybe also an image or a person but rarely premise and NEVER plot. He goes from poignant, to melancholy to regret to deep disappointment. But then again, the movies he writes are hard to write, hard to make and even harder to watch. He writes for himself and added that “Spec” is a horrible word. Do painters call their oeuvre “spec paintings” or “spec poems?” Petrie tried to comfort him by saying that it’s not that his films are hard to watch, they are hard to market.

Walter said it’s a big mistake for writers to break up premise, structure, character, theme, tone all the things that are involved in screenwriting separately. It’s less about construction than it is about discovery; the discovery of character. Hamlet is the richest character in drama and he is only described in three words: Prince of Denmark. The rest comes from what he says and does in the course of the play. Just you try to find a parenthetical in any of Shakespeare’s plays.

He recommended the book “Plots and Characters.” In it, Millard Kaufman explains that action defines character, not the other way around. Walter suggested we simply have the character act and figure out who he is. It’s a huge mistake to try to build a protagonist around the needs of a plot.

Rodman said screenplays that are not character-driven are not screenplays, but “charts.” You’re not really writing a screenplay until the character surprises you, when she does something you wish she hadn’t done and when the character is dictating to you. He admitted that when he’s writing on assignment he can’t see life beyond the page. The difference is that now he’s experienced enough to know he's writing dead crap.

Petrie, Walter, Rodman

Petrie then asked them if they could share some trouble shooting techniques.

Walter lamented that the screen is littered with stereotypes because they are efficient and it’s easy to play it safe. But this is the death of originality. Resist the urge to write stereotypes. Instead, turn the stereotype on its head. Have the character do what the audience would never expect and you’ll surprise them. Audiences are very well acquainted with movie formulas and structure; they know what’s going to happen on minute 30. Change it up and don’t give them what they expect.

Rodman had a great suggestion I intend to use. (I still can’t believe it never occurred to me.) When a scene is not coming alive and you’re afraid to damage what’s already been written, take your characters to another document and let them play there. It takes the pressure off. The characters are no longer in the screenplay; they are “over there.” You won’t be worried about outcome and instead will focus on process. Remember, bad writing begets bad writing begets good writing. Eventually.

Walter said changing venue is very effective in extracting interesting and unexpected behavior from your characters. Lazy writers give business to actors, not actions. You want characters to act, not talk, so take them out of the cars, bars, restaurants and put them in places where the scene will be driven in an unexpected direction.

Rodman likes it when characters surprise and seduce the audience, so he tries to have the characters make a big entrance; he has them do something indelible to let the audience know really early why they should follow the character in the story. Take for example, Once Upon a Time in the West. Even though the opening sequence at the train station is beyond brilliant, Frank’s entrance is definitely my favorite scene in the movie. I can see Fonda's blue eyes and I remember the line. (I won’t describe the scene since I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it.)

Both Rodman and Walter agreed that we have to stop over thinking characters. If you know too much about the character when you sit down to write, she becomes an illustration. Be intuitive and don’t try to understand. Instead, feel and work it out as you discover through the writing. I bet those of you who hate writing backstories for your characters love this advice. I do too but that’s because I’m too lazy. It’s weird. I use to write elaborate histories and psychological profiles. Now, I write a few stream of consciousness pages from the character’s point of view to figure out how this person sees the world.

Rodman said the first draft is hardly ever more than the discovery of one or two things about your story. (Yes, that’s right. You’re going to write 120 pages to discover just a couple of things and throw the rest away.) I identified with Rodman’s process, which is pretty much banging head on the wall until it bleeds because he can’t approach characters from a psychological and/or philosophical point of view. It took him 12 drafts to discover Joe Gould was not the protagonist of Joe Gould’s Secret. You have to leave room for those realizations that are going to hit you suddenly. It might take three drafts, it might take 12. And isn’t this true when it comes to real people too? You can never really know the truth about someone.

Stop trying to be satisfied. You will never be satisfied. Walter illustrated this by telling a couple of stories. A while back he ran into Julius Epstein at a writers conference in Hawaii. Walter brought up Casablanca and Epstein interrupted him with a “Don’t even. They ruined my script.” Casablanca. Ruined. Ruined by Michael Curtiz, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains and Ingrid Bergman.

At another writer event, Walter ran into Ron Bass and Bass told him about a visit he paid Snow Falling on Cedars author David Guterson (Bass adapted the novel). Bass spotted a copy of the published novel on Guterson’s desk. He thumbed through it and saw that Guterson had written all over it. Bass asked him about it and Guterson said he thought it needed some rewriting. Bass asked him if it was for a next edition and Guterson responded that it wasn’t; it was just for him.

You will never be satisfied.

I was very happy to hear that it’s perfectly all right to get lost in uncertainty. For Rodman, it’s a good day when he deviates from his intentions. What you start out with is never the end result. They talked about Dr. Strangelove and its evolution. It was supposed to be a drama, but Kubrick saw it as a comedy. Also, the fact that the drama Fail Safe had just come out, sealed its fate. Flexibility is a good thing.

I completely agree with Rodman who thinks a story is about relationships. Characters (and most people) cannot exist independently. Writers have to learn to stay out of their way and let the characters interact and create conflict.

Every time Rodman sits down to write he thinks “This is it. This time, this is it.” (Don't we all?) But it never works out. That’s why it’s so hard to sit down to write. It’s that Impostor Complex again. Writers feeling guilty for being paid to daydream. You have to get over “getting it right.” It will never happen. And if you’re enjoying yourself at the computer too much, something is terribly wrong.

There’s no such thing as a minor character, only those with less screen time. Remember, for each character, that story is her story. For instance, there’s this story where paramedics take a crazy woman to an insane asylum. It’s called A Streetcar Named Desire.  Think The Sopranos, think Kurosawa. Great characters result in fantastic found moments in film that are memorable. Drama should play in the mind of the audience.

Forget about likeability; the best characters are dreadful people. The Greeks knew it. When Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex, he was thinking about the cringe factor and making audiences feel uncomfortable, not lessons in philosophy. The end result was a play about a man who made two trips up and down the birth canal. Eww.

Someone asked about Larry David and his improvisational method. Petrie answered that David’s screenplays are the most requested comedy scripts from the WGA. If you look at them, they are screenplays, they are just lacking dialogue. Only the dialogue is improvised. The least of what we do as writers is write dialogue. Dialogue is just an inevitable result from everything else in the screenplay. Petrie acted out a funny story to explain exactly why writers need to put dialogue in a screenplay.

Petrie was invited to a wedding that Oscar winner Jeff Bridges was also attending. Bridges (as played by Petrie) got up to give a toast and hesitated. He turned away from the guests and bit his lip. He got lost in thought. He started to utter a word, but stopped. He pondered some more. This went on for a few minutes. Then, he said: “I wish you a happy life.” And that was it.

Petrie then added that a lot of actors ad lib because they can’t memorize their lines since they smoke too much weed. He also said that he laughs when he hears actors say “We improvised the whole thing.” Yes, in most shoots, crew and actors get in the equipment trucks and drive around until they find a location they like. Then they stop and unload the equipment. Then the camera crew improvises the lighting and the camera position. Then they improvise where and when they will have lunch…and so forth. It was pretty funny.

Walter said that he was sick of writers saying “they ruined my movie.” That’s usually not the case. Writers should be happy to be invisible; that the writing is invisible. That’s when you know you’ve done a great job.

An audience member brought up something that Robert McKee said about characters. I didn’t write down the question because I’ve never cared what McKee has to say and I can’t remember what it was. Anyway, Petrie interjected by saying that the Notes on Craft series had a secret agenda. It was to demystify screenwriting. They felt there was a need because there’s this whole industry of screenwriting gurus and consultants who make their living out of mystifying screenwriting. Rodman told us to think about the person/character first, not what McKee says the character should be or do. Gurus look backwards by analyzing a screenplay that has already been produced. Writers have to look forward when they are writing.

As you can see, a lot of this advice is quite contrary to what managers and gurus tell us. I suppose it’s up to you to see where your process fits in. If you should worry about arc, likeability, and all that bullshit. Walter and Rodman (and some of the other writers at this series) pretty much reinforced my process and beliefs. For me, it’s okay not to consider the bullshit.

Off to the next installment, Dialogue and Scene.  G'nite.

P.S. I think I fixed typos. One of them was calling McKee McGee. That's how much I care about his thoughts on screenwriting.