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.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Why, Why, Why?

This past weekend I had the following Twitter exchange:

Me: I need to read more screenplays, so I'm replacing the magazines & catalogues in the toilet with a stack of scripts. Rt now, I'm reading Alien.

Response: Alien's great. But keep in mind it's not the style you want for a spec sale :)

Me: Thankfully, I'm not desperate to sell and I don't write for the market. That's an instant kiss of death.

Response: Why do you write?

Me:  Screenplays? Because I’m fucking crazy. Other stuff, because I need it as much as I need a big bowl of gelato.

Why do we write? All writers have their own reasons. A list of reasons.  A long list of reasons. We have to have that list because the question always comes up when we sit down to write.  We could be doing something else that isn’t so difficult and painful.  Anything really would be better.  So we need to answer to ourselves.

Marlon Brando appeared in the Dick Cavett show in 1973.  He talked mostly about Native Americans, but in the end, he wound up talking about acting, a profession he always made fun of.  I think he said it best:

"We couldn't survive a second if we weren't able to act.  Acting is a survival mechanism. It's a social unguent and it's a lubricant. We act to save our lives, actually, every day. People lie constantly every day by not saying something that they think, or by saying something that they didn't think.”

If you consider Brando’s view, writing is the antidote to acting I suppose.  As human beings, we lie all day long.  As writers, we sit down to finally tell the truth.  I do write to survive and to get away from the “acting;” to say what I think and to express my truth. 

I’ve always thought it would be horrible not to be a creative person.  How do these people cope with life?  By taking their kids to Chuck E. Cheese on the weekend?  I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have the urge to write, make films, and take photographs.  What would I do with myself?

Then again, I could have done something useful with my life.  If I had known how terrible the world was going to become, I’d have suppressed my artistic tendencies, gone to medical school and joined Doctors Without Frontiers.  It’s too late to look back, so I do the best I can as I try to figure out why I’m here, other than just being plain lucky.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Moving to Los Angeles: Pandemonium in Parking Structure No. 3

I know some native Angelenos are going to be pissed off at me, but this needs to be said: If being around nice people is really important to you, then DO NOT move to Los Angeles. Plain and simple.

About five years ago, my roommate had an audition in Santa Monica and she asked me to go with her. She begged me, actually. We decided to make a field trip out of it: lunch, a little shopping, and a long walk on the beach to work off the cream puffs that mysteriously made it into our stomachs the night before. Alert the meter maids, here we come.

We had lunch at a mediocre restaurant on 3rd Street Promenade (how very LA of us) and then we headed to the beach via The Pier. I must admit it was fun. The sun was shining and while most people were stuck inside in front of their computer screens pretending to work, we were out at the beach dodging bikers and rollerbladers. During our walk we concluded that after six months in Los Angeles we had come to like it more than that friggin' parochial Navy town aka San Diego. After an hour at the beach we made our merry way back to Parking Structure No. 3 which was adjacent to a mall.

When my roommate tried to turn on the ignition, the wheel locked and her car wouldn't start. She told me the car had been acting up lately. She tried several tricks to no avail. I heard a loud horn, looked back and spotted a car waiting to take our place. They got tired of waiting and took off, but not without giving us the obligatory LA Finger. She tried and tried and tried. She told me she would have to roll back a few yards and then try it again. That trick usually worked. The cars kept on coming and we waited for a window of opportunity to roll back. Finally, the traffic stopped and I told her to go. As soon as she did, a car came around the corner and she was unable to roll far back enough to make the car work. So now we were stuck blocking traffic. People started to blow their horns and we started to sweat. A middle-aged, blond woman in a BMW was directly in back of us. She continued making noise and my roommate lost it.

My roommate turned into the Jerry Springer guest that she is and had worked so hard to suppress. She stuck her finger out the window and yelled "fuck you!" repeatedly. Meanwhile, the cars started to pile up, one after the other. I got out of the car and told the woman our car was dead. "Oh," she said. She sat in her car and watched me try to push the car back into the parking space. It was hard because we were in an upward slope. I was able to push the car far in enough to let the cars squeeze around us. One by one, the cars went around, most of them throwing birds our way.

I left to find help. I searched all over the parking structure and found no one that worked there. I went back and to my horror, my roommate had rolled back again and was blocking traffic. The line of cars wrapped around the parking structure all the way to the street. People were just sitting in their cars, pissed off, honking. To my surprise, yet another BMW was right behind our car. This time it was an older man. He sat in his car, grinding his teeth. I told him we couldn't move our car. He said "well, just tell her to move it out of the way so I can pass by!" I wrote the dialogue in my mind: SIR, ARE YOU RETARDED? THE CAR WON'T START." But I didn't use it. Finally, two young girly girls in Juicy Couture and Jimmy Choo pumps got out of a car. "What's the matter? How can we help you?" they asked as they ran up the ramp. They helped me push the car while the man in the BMW cursed us. We made room for the cars to go around. Again, the cars drove by and we heard someone yell "stupid bitches!"

We were going to need someone from the parking administration to manage the traffic. I left again and finally found the parking office. I explained our predicament in detail and in Spanish to the young attendant. He told me he couldn't help me and that I had to go to the security office. I had just spent 20 minutes walking around trying to find someone and I was not happy. I asked him if he could call them for me. He looked at me as if I were speaking English. He answered my question by giving me directions to the security office. I reached my limit. He was about to become the recipient of my wrath when my phone rang. It was my roommate.

When I got in the car she told me that a Mexican man from Mexico (not from LA) helped her turn her car on. I sat back, exhausted from all the stress and unreleased emotion. At first, all I could think about was the nastiness of LA people. If we had been in Mexico or Italy, the car would have been surrounded by people trying to help. If we had been in Cuba or Puerto Rico, there would have been a party and a drum circle. We were in a jam and we were abused for it. Just because we were making them late for their shopping.

I couldn't stop thinking about the incident. I couldn't shake the feeling of complete sadness and I didn't know why. Worse things have happened to me but there was something about this incident that was very telling and I couldn't figure it out. Finally, I realized why it got to me. I had to live among these people for a long time. And it’s not that being around “nice” people was ever an issue for me. I guess I took it for granted, since I’d always lived in places where people were nice but I never gave it any thought since I didn’t have a reference point. Until now. Now that I live in LA I notice how much nicer people are everywhere else, even New York and Paris. And you know what’s worse? I realized I was a nice person. Barf. Please don’t tell anyone. It really bothers me when I’m in my car and I give the right of way because I know they don’t deserve it. I just can’t help it. I don’t want to be like the rest of people here.


Mark your calendars!

Antichrist Criterion on November 9th kiddies!  Check out the Disc Features:

High-definition digital master, approved by director Lars von Trier and supervised by director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle (with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)

Audio commentary featuring von Trier and film scholar Murray Smith

Video interviews with von Trier and actors Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg

Collection of seven video pieces delving into the production of Antichrist through interviews with von Trier and key members of his filmmaking team, as well as behind-the-scenes footage

Chaos Reigns at the Cannes Film Festival, a documentary on the film’s world premiere, along with press interviews with Dafoe and Gainsbourg

Theatrical trailers

PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Ian Christie

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Moving to Los Angeles: Letter from the Valley (A Slow Act Two).

Two of my favorite Twitter screenwriting buddies have been going back and forth talking about their plans to move to Los Angeles and I decided I was overdue to write about my experience. If anything, to help them (or anyone who reads this blog and is planning on doing the same) cope with the uncertainty.

Truth is, I never really planned to move to Los Angeles. I lived in San Diego, and I was doing pretty good making my little, idiosyncratic art films with my small circle of filmmaker friends. I was kinda’ on my way of being the medium filmmaker fish in a pond of small filmmaker fish. One day, fed up with my job, I woke up and decided to sell all my belongings and move to Los Angeles. Just like that. I do that. Whenever I get comfortable, I become unhappy and I must uproot myself.

I gave four weeks notice at my job and proceeded to sell and give away all my shit. I only kept DVDs, books and personal belongings. The rest went. Then, my artist aunt who is very well-supported by her husband, decided she was going to go to Florence for the summer to take some art courses. She invited me to go with her and I accepted even though I would have to spend a good chunk of the money I had saved up. I know what you’re thinking you responsible adults, but that’s what I do. That’s why I don’t understand when people just can’t move to LA; why they have to save money and make plans and talk so much about it before just doing it.

Anyway, I was living my own modern day A Room With a View until a panic attack took over me while I was visiting the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. I was sitting near an AC vent cooling my ass, agape at the enormous evidence of genius that are David’s nuts, and hoping I was only getting it slightly wrong, not disastrously wrong, as it had been my specialty most of my life. I was worried about losing my wits and bursting into tears in some sleazy Hollywood corner while my grandiose, yet sometimes abominable, fantasies about Los Angeles came true. David didn’t seem to care about my crisis and he was making it worse. He stood there buck naked, Goliath’s head at his feet, and looking very much the hot stud that he is. With three weeks still to go on my trip, I was exhausted and I felt like going home. Then, I remembered I was homeless since I vacated my apartment in San Diego a week before I left for Italy. I almost burst into tears when a middle-aged, American woman in Bermuda shorts said “It really puts a lump in your throat, doesn’t it?” Thanks lady. Thanks a lot for interrupting my mini-nervous breakdown. “Yes, his head is really big, isn’t it?” I replied. I left in a huff, trying to recover that special mix of self-pity and vaguely sinister throbbing fear. I wasn’t able to, so I settled for gelato instead. While I ate it on the steps of Santa Croce under the 85 degree afternoon sun, I wondered what the fuck I was going to do when I got back to California and if there was any gelato left in Italy that I had not yet sampled.

My first time in Santa Monica, five years, 2 months and 21 days ago after my return from Europe, I felt utterly rejected by Los Angeles. After driving four excruciatingly maddening hours, most of them on the 405 at 5 mph, I picked up my roommate and we drove to the bank to purchase a cashier’s check to pay for the new apartment I had not seen yet. I didn’t know what to feel. I had just returned from London and planned on hiding out at my sister’s house for a while. I didn’t expect to move to LA so soon. In a couple of hours, thanks to my roommate’s diligence in finding us a place to live, I wouldn’t be homeless anymore. I circled around the bank and was lucky to find parking on a side street. I parked and looked at the signs. They looked like doctorate dissertations in red, green and black lettering. “We’re going to need a Rosetta stone,” I told my roommate. Fuck it. I decided not to bother trying to decipher the signs. I found parking and I was not moving the car.

On our way to North Hollywood to sign the lease, my roommate noticed something flapping on the windshield. Uh-oh. What’s that? “You got a parking ticket!” she screamed as we passed the Sherman Oaks Galleria. “Hey, look, that was in Valley Girl!” I said, excited to recognize a landmark. If it was a ticket, we didn’t know what the infraction was for because it was only an envelope. The actual ticket had flown away. I had never gotten a parking ticket and pondered about its existence. If I didn’t physically have the ticket, did it really exist? “It’s probably for $47 bucks. I got one the first day I was here,” my roommate shared. Shit. That meant I would have to go back to Santa Monica to find out what the ticket was for.

A couple of days after moving in and after finding out the original Sherman Oaks Galleria was demolished and replaced with a fancy new building complete with a Cheesecake Factory, the excitement of living in the setting of one of my favorite 80s teenage movies wore off. My roommate, a first generation Mexican, complained we were living among the immigrants. I made a sincere effort to be enthusiastic and literary about our new home. I tried to find similarities between Florence and North Hollywood, between Paris and Valley Village. Somehow, it was much easier to feel literary gazing into the Seine than into Burbank Boulevard, but I tried. Really hard. “Doesn’t this apartment building look like the ones in the movies? You know, the ones with the struggling artists, writers, actors? They are forced into a journey on page 30, then encounter insurmountable obstacles and fight for what they want and believe in Act Two, they go through the character arc and learn how to be better human beings, and after confronting the evil antagonist and surviving the climax on page 90, get it all in the end. Have you seen Sideways? It kind of looks like the apartment building where Paul Giamatti lived. Look, we have a pool...” My roommate was impermeable by my optimism and didn’t give a shit we were on page 30 of the script of our lives. I was okay with an indie/foreign film screenplay, but I got the impression she would rather be in a formulaic Hollywood script.

Okay, so I wasn’t exactly Simone de Beauvoir in Paris. I was just Teri Carson in the Valley and despite my best efforts I was not able to make myself believe the Starbucks on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Riverside was just as romantic as Cafè de Flore on Boulevard St. Germain. But, the guy (wearing the $200 Diesel jeans and fake Gucci sunglasses) ordering the venti iced caramel macchiato just may be the Valley’s answer to Sartre or Hemingway. In L.A., you never know what you’ll walk into.

A sign of good fortune appeared in the form of Don Zarape: the corner Mexican restaurant our loopy building manager with 20 shades of red hair recommended. “You see? There are advantages to living with immigrants. Besides, we can’t escape them in LA. Univision just reported they make up for more than 50% of the population in Los Angeles,” I said pointing to the television screen. We bit into our freshly-made corn tortillas and we smiled. Things can’t be so bad when the food is this good. A week later, we found out we had a slumlord and our big, clean apartment started falling apart. Bliss never lasts.

Six months later as I was speeding on the I-5 coming back from San Diego, I didn’t feel like I was driving away from home. I felt I was going home. I spotted the Scientology Celebrity Center and asked myself: “How and when did this city stop intimidating me and how and when did I begin to like it?” I don’t know how it happened. Perhaps discovering Langer's, LACMA, the New Beverly Cinema, great boutiques and sushi on Ventura Boulevard and the awesome shoe department at Macy’s Sherman Oaks helped a lot.

I did go back to Santa Monica and found out those fascist Santa Monica City officials have no interest in metaphysics. I could not convince them the ticket did not exist. I paid the imaginary ticket and vowed to stay away from Santa Monica and to keep to my side of Los Angeles with the struggling artists, writers, actors and the immigrants, and away from the anorexics, the metrosexuals and the wheatgrass-chugging spirituals of the West Side. Fer sure, like, this must be the place. Well, at least until our lease expired and I was able to afford to move to Silverlake.


127 Hours

Lately, I’m really apprehensive about writing about mainstream movies because I’m sick of being accused of not liking anything. Well, okay who am I kidding, I hardly ever watch mainstream movies. But when I do, it’s for a very good reason.

A few weeks ago I decided to go to a preview screening of 127 Hours only because 1) the hoopla surrounding the trailer (yes, the trailer); and 2) wanted to see for myself if Danny Boyle would redeem himself. I understand that he wanted an Oscar and that’s why he made the over-baked and lobotomized fantasy Slumdog Millionaire. He got his Oscar and I expected he would go back to his unsentimental, stylish and entertaining self. Back to his Shallow Grave self.

You’ve probably heard about it. 127 Hours is the movie about Aron Ralston, the guy who cut his own arm off. Unfortunately, it's also about courage and adventure, about taking stock and embracing life. It's about a personal journey and coming face to face: with your worst fears, your greatest strength, yourself in all your flawed reality. (I guess fantasy is Boyle’s new genre of choice.) I just wanted to see a gory, entertaining movie.

Blatantly noncommercial elements aside, Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy have managed to craft quite an accessible film, opening up the action with a sexy prologue featuring two lost hikers. And that’s the problem. It’s a mostly-boring, corny Hollywood movie for an optimistic American audience. It also makes a good case for staying indoors. That .00001% desire I had to go camping is completely gone now.

Boyle injects his hip, techno, eye-popping style into a story that should have been slow and quiet. I kept on thinking it should have been directed by an artist along the lines of Werner Herzog or Gus van Sant. The first act is just like the trailer; a music video that is meant to wake us up and get us interested because then it’s basically one guy trapped under a boulder for over one hour having hallucinations in the form of flashbacks. A whole lot of mediocre foreplay to get to the good part, which wasn’t that gory after all. (Miike’s Audition has set the gore standard for me.) Marketing “rumors” have it that people have fainted during the arm removal sequence. Is it a spoiler if I tell you it’s just hype? Yes? Too late.

There was a Q & A after the screening that was a lot more interesting than the movie itself. Beaufoy said that they didn’t want to make just a survival story. That 127 Hours was ultimately about regrets, second thoughts, layers of the past that everyone could relate to. A Man vs. Himself rather than Man vs. Nature. (Yawn.) It was a difficult script to write because, as writers, they had very few tools. Boyle added that they had to come up with many different ways of keeping the momentum going forward. Yes, that’s explains the frantic editing, bright colored triptychs and catchy song that make no sense whatsoever.

They approached Ralston in 2006. It took them almost four years to convince him to give them rights to the story because Ralston was adamant his story should be a documentary like Touching the Void. He was afraid that the studios would give a note like “Does he really have to cut off his arm?” Because of Slumdog’s success, the studio cut Boyle a lot of slack and basically let him do 127 Hours instead of Slumdog Billionaire. Boyle joked that he put in a dance sequence to appease the executives. (James Franco does a little jig on top a rock.) Beaufoy could not fathom how they could pull it off, but Boyle knew how from the very beginning.

The best and most compelling sequences in the film recreate the videos Ralston shot for his family since he was convinced he was going to die. He had a video camera and he recorded himself throughout his ordeal. Ralston shared the videos with Boyle even though he had promised his mother he’d never show them to anyone outside the family and allowed him to include them in the narrative. Boyle said that with the exception of one particular sequence, he kept the video footage the same. In case you’re wondering, Boyle said the crowd triptychs are an effort to convey, not what separates us, but what connects us. They represent the people Ralston ran away from. That’s such bull shit. Boyle just loves the split screen.

That’s enough of this. I’ve been trying to write about 127 Hours for weeks but I kept on boring myself with the subject matter. I’ll say this though: Boyle seems pretty addicted to having a wide audience. I seriously doubt he’ll go back to making good films. Unless he makes up with John Hodges.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Pessimism, Melancholy and Sadness Are Good (Part I)

When I was a little girl, I secretly liked to scrape my arms and knees.  I loved the sting from the rubbing alcohol on my skin and the relief from my mom’s breath as she blew on it to reduce the discomfort.  But what I loved the most was seeing the blood form into a thick scab.  When it was just right, I’d start working on it; slowly peeling it away from my skin. I loved that pain.  Feeling bad has always felt so good to me.

I haven’t felt this bad since the 2004 Presidential Election.  I cried for a week after that Black Tuesday.  My hope for a better world rested on the potential goodness of people and on the belief that common sense would eventually triumph over Reality-TV induced apathy.  That hope was gone for those seven days, when it was clear that there was something seriously wrong with this country and it wasn't going to be easily fixed by one election.  The only thing that was left was the knowledge that there were others like me, feeling the same, and not entirely alone or blameless.  Nine days later and bombs falling on Fallujah, I found myself in the back of a limousine suffering from a cold and downing Dayquil gel caps with cheap Shiraz and fruity “champagne.” 

That particular outing to Pala was a result of a failed expedition, two to be exact, to see the Chippendale's dancers while at a bachelorette party in Las Vegas.  We stuffed ourselves into an SUV and sang Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” during the whole drive to Las Vegas from San Diego.  By the time we arrived, I was so exhausted from going crazy and forcing myself to have a great time, that all I wanted to do was take a nap.  When we woke up, we realized we only had 45 minutes to get ready and to get to the Chippendale’s show on time.  We decided not to scramble and catch the show on the following night.  We headed for the buffet instead.  The next evening, cleavage and left-over craziness on hand, we climbed into a taxi and proceeded to make the pilgrimage along the strip to the show.  Everything was going great, until something went terribly wrong. The cab broke down smack in the middle of the strip. 

This time we were determined and finally on our way, four hours ahead of time, to see oily, “hot” men in thongs.  Anyone knows that heightened expectations only lead to disappointment, but we were having a grand time with just enough craziness as to not run out of it before the evening was over.  We packed plenty of booze and snacks, even a cheese platter, but no music CDs.  I was annoyed that I was forced to listen to top 40 pop stations and I had to remind myself not to be such a fucking snob and to have a good time and to put on a good face, even though I felt like shit and was on the verge of car sickness.  But, gawd, how many times can they play that same Beyonce song?

The drive was not that long even with 5:00 p.m. traffic, so we really had no time to get drunk or even a tiny bit buzzed.  We ate plenty of cheese though.  The limo pulled in the driveway of the casino as we gulped our last glass of “champagne.”  The Pala casino was no Vegas.  The decor wasn’t even tacky enough to be ironic and amusing.  It felt corporate and drab even with orange as the dominating color.  The carpets, upholstery, and the patron’s outfits created a suffocating atmosphere and I choked on its 70s polyester effect.  I felt like an alien in Planet Tacky populated with Filipino senior citizens at the slot machines.

Three girls left to stand in line to secure seats with a good view of bulge, and the rest of us headed to the bar.  The large main bar was crowded with wide-eyed Marines in their dress blue uniforms and their dates in formal evening dresses.  Two girls took charge and ordered drinks for everybody, passing them back and above the bar patrons’ heads and to their respective owners.  I reached for my Salty Dog and wondered what the Marines were celebrating.  I looked around and examined the faces of the young soldiers.  Not one looked older than 21.  Some barely looked 18.  My friend Susana, who was only 27, leaned over to me and said, “Oh my God, I feel like an old hag!”  I scrutinized the faces of the Marines and felt extreme sadness overcome me.  The guys looked so proud wearing their uniforms and their dates in bright colored synthetic taffeta dresses as arm candy.

“How much do you think the dresses cost?” my sister asked me.  “Twenty-five bucks, full price.  Probably from Wet Seal or Charlotte Russe,” I replied.  My sister cracked up and passed on my comment to the rest of the group.  My response was typical of me; normal for a born snob.  It came naturally to me and I seldom felt bad about my blatant snobbery.  It was my nature and I never gave it any thought.  However, at that moment, I became self-aware and regretted my remark as soon as I finished saying the words.  It was a sensation I was not used to.  Tomorrow, these boys would be leaving for Iraq to get killed and I was making fun of their dates’ cheap dresses. 

The group split up; some went gambling and the others went to check up on the girls waiting in line.  The line was not very long and our group was second: behind us, two leather-faced 50-year old women in revealing tops and Spandex pants; in front, four chunky, young Latina girls in two-sizes-too-small skimpy outfits.  I became self-conscious and wondered how I came to be trapped between wrinkled cleavage on one side, and bulging fat on the other; between pathetic self-delusion or just plain blindness.  I looked at my sister and we exchanged an all-knowing, contemptuous gaze.  I went to the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror and scrutinized myself, trying to find any resemblance or similarity to the women standing in line.  I was a clothes horse, but not a fashion victim.  I had learned my fashion lessons in my twenties after succumbing to blue eye shadow and the trends of the day and I had developed a style all my own.  The fashion magazines called it “boho chic.”  I was still somewhat vulnerable to trends, but knew what was best for me and my shape.  I concluded that I had nothing in common with those women, except that we were there to see semi-naked Australian men dance around on stage.

I’m not sure if they were really Australian, but you’ve seen one Thunder from Down Under or Chippendales, you’ve seen them all.  All the women went crazy, except for our group.  We looked at each other, disappointed, and frowned.  It was as if we suddenly realized it was stupid to see hot men in blue collar worker costumes slinging their dingles in front of screaming women and embarrassed to be among that crowd.

After the show, I went back to the bar where the Marines and their dates were hanging out.  I just sat there and watched them, feeling miserable.  I scribbled an idea for the screenplay on a cocktail napkin.  I directed the scenes in my head.  They were going to die for nothing and the people of this country didn’t really care.  Those screaming women standing in line to get photos taken with the naked Australians didn’t care.  The Thunder from Down Under surely didn’t care. 

Those young Marines were my scab for a very long time.  And as we now know, things turned out to be worse than expected.  Potential goodness and common sense did not prevail.