A Trip To the Moon

What if I proposed a short film like this?

“An astronomer-wizard presides over a committee of astronomers, who meet in a formal session like a medieval guild, but with chorus girl pages delivering phallic trophy-telescopes that the astronomers merely carry like scepters…until they hold them high and they magically turn into stools to sit on.

“The wizard proposes that they take a trip to the moon via a rocket – not a rocket strictly speaking, but a giant projectile bullet of sorts. The committee objects to this so strongly an altercation breaks out, resulting in the wizard brow-beating them into listening, and commanding them all to take off their jackets, put on protective undergarments, then put the jackets back on. He takes them on a tour of his rocket workshop (They had been a committee of six scientific poobahs, but suddenly they are five, and decidedly more clown-like.) He then shows them his launching capability, and soon they all climb aboard the steel-riveted capsule, and a sailor launches them using a gunpowder fuse, again with female attendants to wish them bon voyage, now in swimsuits.

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lune_1902

George Melies’ “A Trip To the Moon.”

“They fly to the moon, hitting old man moon in the eye – the moon like all celestial bodies having a human face –  before disembarking and having the marvelous experience of watching earth rise over the horizon the way the moon or sun rises in ours. Soon a tongue of flame distracts them, and they go to sleep with stars and planets looking over them. They wake up after the planets conjure snow to fall on them – it being colder on the moon when the earth sets than it is here.

“They climb underground, to a lush tropical land full of mushrooms of many shapes – one clearly a morel. An acrobatic, trouble-making demon starts harassing the astronomers till the leader smites the being with a stick, causing him to explode into flames, but then reappear completely alive. This goes on a few times till dozens of underground birdmen capture them, and put them on a showtrial of sorts, till they all six of them escape and race back to the capsule, which they’re able to launch themselves by pulling it off a cliff.

“They land back on earth – in the sea, among picturesque sea creatures, before getting tugged ashore, and the public erupts in a pageantry-filled celebration, chorus girls in swimsuits and all, and they dance around a statue that reads, ‘Labor omnia vincit’: Work conquers everything.”

That’s George Melies’ “A Trip To the Moon” (“Le Voyage dans La Lune”), from 1902. It’s also on Youtube, the same 2011 restoration featuring the soundtrack by Air and a panel of text explaining how the colorized version was re-discovered in Spain in the 1990s and digitally restored from the original hand-painted print. A color film from 1902!

 

Its not surprising, I guess, that there are attractive women showing plenty of thigh cheering the astronomers on  every step of the way, like the showgirls carrying signs saying what round it is in a boxing match.

It’s curious, though, that they took a trip to the moon at all. This would have been 40 years after Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” the book it’s said to be based on, but 60 years before President Kennedy. Some say that the Russian rocket scientists Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the first to seriously propose a rocket trip to the moon, and that was in (guess when?) 1903, a year after Melies’ film. Was it artists who led the way to one of the great scientific achievements of last century?

Le voyage dans la lune couleurs 5

“Were going to the moon, girls!”

Elon Musk got a lot of people excited this year by demonstrating a rocket landing on dry land. I guess it’s no coincidence that the  first moon landing crew landed in the ocean – that’s where our imaginations had gone. Tsiolkovsky spent lots of his career trying to develop a collapsible metal dirigible – while Melies was doing theater – and that’s the best they came up with.

It’s also curious that Netflix knew it should suggest this film to me. I often wonder what the algorithms that choose music or media for us are thinking. I was ready to give it lots of credit till I saw what it saw as a good next move. “More Like This…”

The king fu film Big Boss, Cosmos, or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Imagination is hard work, but work conquers everything.

 

The Shortiest Short

The Academy Awards were six weeks ago, and already it’s like six years ago. Truth is, I tuned them out this year more than I have in decades, with the exception of one category, for “Best Live Action Short.”

“Six Women,” the short I wrote, was in editing then, and coming in at a frustrating (to me) 20 minutes long. It has since been “picture locked” at exactly that length, after my pleas to speed sequences here, and to trim my own bits of dialogue there, which had long been yielding diminishing returns, started giving the story less feeling. We had a few discussions about the ideal length for a short film, which I was insisting was nine to 12 minutes – inconveniently, since I’d written an 18 page script, and we all knew that a page roughly equals a minute.

I’d settled on that short length from what I knew of film festival programming. The shorter a short is, the more places it can fit into a program: You can always stick an extra six minute film, if it’s at all decent, into a two-hour showcase of shorts. And the best way to see a short is before a feature: A day after seeing a program of, say, ten 10-minute films, they’re mostly a blur in your memory, but if you can see one substantial short before an 80 to 100-minute feature, then it’s probably made an impression, but programmers understandably prefer 10-minute films for coveted slots like these.

The key word, substantial. Short films tend to have narratives like jokes, a short to medium-length preparation for one single punch line. At six minutes that’s literally all you have time for. If you want a character with more than one quality, and to take him or her plausibly to an unexpected place, then you’d better double that time. Much longer than that, and you’re in uncharted territory. The determinant must be the substance.

As with any venture, a maker of a short film must ask, “What are we doing this for?” Is it a widget for a short film program? A piece of art? Or a showpiece to persuade someone to make a full-length feature? I’ve made a case in the past for why some films can’t be made cheaply, but are still worth making, and some stories can’t be told in eight minutes but are still worth telling.

Watching the Oscar-nominated shorts back in February as we were refining ours, I got that strange burst of confidence you get when you see the top-of-the-line material and realize, “This isn’t all that great.” I also found it very reassuring that three of the five Oscar nominees were longer than ours, including the American favorite “Day One,” written and directed by Henry Hughes. That persuaded me to let go and let God, or maybe let go and let Ted (Teddy Schenck, who was directing, and saw the light about the length of “Six Women” weeks before I did).

Shok-inside

From “Shok,” by Jamie Donoughue.

The two other nominees were the Palestinian-European production “Ave Maria” (written by Basil Khalil and Daniel Yáñez Khalil) at 15 minutes and “Stutterer,” a 12-minute short written and directed by the Irishman Benjamin Cleary. My favorite, hands down, was “Shok,” a Kosovar-British production written by Jamie Donoughue, about two boys who were friends during the Balkan war in the ’90s. It was the all around best-realized story, and you simply didn’t want it to end. My friend and fellow cinephile and I left the IFC theater after watching them all and agreed on this, but immediately started speculating that the American film, which had just as grand aspirations but showed no restraint whatsoever in the scope or subtlety of its themes, was probably going to win.

Which brings me to a brief digression, the reason I like to tune out the Oscars. Like American politics, they too quickly become a discussion of why something will win, rather than why something is worthy. You can speculate for months (and we do) about why The Academy or The Electorate or the primary voters of New Hampshire will feel one way or another, but what do you think?

The Academy disagreed with us, it turned out. I liked “Stutterer,” which prevailed. Far from a one-gag joke, in just 12 minutes it shows three very touching scenes: A type-setter, who’s most loquacious in his own head, is having an online romantic relationship via witty instant messages, hiding his stutter. We can tell by one delightful scene with his father, in which he stammers in painfully long real time through a deeply poetic thought, that knowing him would be very rewarding to anyone who has the patience to listen. Then comes the scene in which he overhears a man at a bus stop verbally abusing a woman, but isn’t able to intervene because he can’t get the words – this is where the average short would place the finale. But Cleary brings us to a new place, a meeting with the on-line love interest. The payoff, slightly cheeseball, lands satisfyingly because Cleary has already accomplished what a good story should: Taken you to the place you thought you’d end up, and then gone one step further.

Still, you can’t compare it to “Shok”! That’s just so much better. Ah well. It won’t be the first time The Academy gave preference to an English-language film over a foreign one. Neither was it the first nor last time, I’m assuming, that some members of a film jury took the time to actually watch a 12-minute movie and skimmed the 20+ minute movies any time they lost patience.

That’s the reality I’ll be living with the rest of this year as Teddy and I figure out where to premiere “Six Women,” and where to screen it after that.

Movie Season

Now that films get watched at home instead of cinemas, and a theatrical release is essentially a publicity stunt that a film must go through to get reviewed by critics and talked about by people like us, it only makes sense that “serious cinema” season is getting shorter and shorter. Like baseball in the post-wild card era, a film just has to get hot at the end of the year, pick up some awards and live a successful life on streaming and cable.

Not that it’s a completely bleak situation. While we’re waiting for this year’s crop of films that will jockey for the Oscar brand, the cinemas need to show something, so a little indie gem such as Blue Ruin, which had no big names and therefore wasn’t really going to be a contender anyway, can get a spring release without the established independent film names to crowd it out.

Starting this month, however, it is fully on. Between now and the end of the year, there will be new films from P.T.Anderson, Mike Leigh (doing period again, no less),  and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turk who made Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, among others.

More than any of these, though, I am looking forward to the new film from Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan. Can’t wait!

ANDREI ZVYAGINTSEV’S “ELENA”

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film Elena is going to be in theaters for the next few weeks, at Film Forum in New York till at least the 29th. Anyone who remembers The Return (2003) is excited to check it out – and anyone who’s worked with me knows I talk about The Return a lot.

Critics are seeing Elena as a fable about the money-obsessed Hobbesianism of contemporary Russia, and it certainly works as that. I caught opening night, however, when Zvyagintsev was there in person, and he said it wasn’t originally set in Russia! He had a deal to make a film in English, and he and writer Oleg Negin wrote it to be shot in the UK. The deal fell apart, and they reset the story in Moscow, changing practically nothing.

The story is about a retired nurse whose second marriage to an older, wealthy man has become stressed by her financial needs. Her son from her first marriage lives in a Soviet-era housing project near a nuclear plant, and can’t seem to stop drinking or having babies. Her husband never hesitates to indulge his own daughter, who acts like a Russian you’d meet at a shoe store in Soho, but is fed up with his step-son and refuses to give him any more money. When the husband suffers a heart attack, and vows to make his wishes explicit in a will, Elena makes a rash decision on her son’s family’s behalf.

It’s a story in which bad deeds can go unpunished, and in which the viewer is paid enough respect to see the villain given a fair hearing. Elena’s husband sensitively apologizes for the times when he is too harsh about it, but he appears to have his step-son figured out. Elena, for her part, is a nurturing mama turned criminal who shows equivocation before acting, and later regret for what she has done.

You never doubt when you watch one of Zvyagintsev’s films that you are in the hands of a story-teller who knows exactly why he is taking as long as he is at showing any one narrative step. Kitchen appliances, morning shaving routines, and the sliding doors in Elena’s ultra-mod Moscow apartment get shown in all-consuming detail, with lots of attention to audio, and each set up has at least a modest payoff later on. Zvyagintsev has been called the inheritor of the Tarkovsky mantle, but his films are tighter and therefore easier to watch than Tarkovsky’s. Compared to his Turkish contemporary Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates, Distant) who uses similar pacing to create similar philosophical atmospheres, he is downright snappy…

…to a point! The dullest part of this film is Philip Glass’ soundtrack. (In his defense, he didn’t compose specifically for it; the film used his Third Symphony.) You get the sense that Zvyagintsev or his producers feared that we’d get bored by the naturalism throughout Elena, particularly in the long sequences when characters travel from one location to another, and compromised by covering them with some Philip Glass to make it seem a little more like every other international film. Maybe I’d have been bored to tears had I seen it without the soundtrack, so I can’t say for sure, but this seems unnecessary. That spatial distance between luxury condos in central Moscow and the rust belt on the perimeter, is after all what’s at stake in the film. I was on the edge of my seat while an automatic espresso machine spat out a double shot, I wasn’t about to object to an extra minute of the heroine’s preparation while riding the train.

The Return is still probably the film to see to get to know Zvyagintsev, but this one is sticking with me too.

Charlie

Zvyagintsev (R) with a translator in NYC, May 16.

EARLIEST SCREENWRITING MEMORIES

I am not from a movie family. Not only did no one I knew growing up ever work on a movie, no one I knew particularly liked movies, until my brother’s high school girlfriend started showing up with VHS copies of Bogart and Cary Grant films. What stoked my imagination were books about history, visits to the local historic sites, and my other brother’s copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.

The cinema, when I was able to go to one, usually meant a kids’ matinee such as The Apple Dumpling Gang or Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. None of the films were quite as thrilling as a visit to Washington’s Crossing – except for Beneath the Planet of the Apes, of course. The only times I remember attending a film with my entire family were the day we saw a matinee of The Pink Panther Strikes Again at the New Jersey State Museum, a night we went to a drive-in to see The Jungle Book and I promptly passed out before it began, and the night we drove up to Princeton for a revival screening of The Producers. Watching my father laugh convulsively at Dick Shawn auditioning to play Hitler was my first clue that cinema was a bodily experience, something I didn’t experience till college.

There, I thought the programmer at the Rutgers Film Co-op, Al Nigrin, was some kind of wizard with extraordinary taste. Years later I realized his choices were really a part of an already established repertory – or perhaps were becoming repertory because of pioneers such as Nigrin – but I loved Princess Tam Tam, Persona, and I Walked With a Zombie. I still believe that the first time you see a great film, you don’t know why you love it. Cinema can be so overwhelming that, if the writer and director do their jobs properly, the seams don’t show.

It’s at home, on the underwhelming small screen, where you first notice the internal logic. Even before computers started replacing TVs, before DVR, long before I fell into the habit of interrupting Mad Men to check IMDB on my phone, when TV was still just TV, it was still easier to see the hand, or the typing hands, behind the story than it was on the big screen. The lights were on. Commercial breaks came. Taking a breather and filling one another in on the story was permissible. You didn’t simply feel a movie in your body and then get your head around it on your way home from the cinema; you felt it, if to a lesser extent, and figured it out as it went along.

So, it’s no surprise that by the time I loved a movie I’d already had my first two screenwriting memories from the small screen. One night I was left alone to watch the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers. The network was billing it as a Faye Dunaway vehicle, but it was full of stars, directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, etc.) and adapted by the writer George MacDonald Fraser, who would go on to write Octopussy. In the first minutes, D’Artagnan prepares to leave his village to go to Paris, and his father, with some fanfare, takes his grandfather’s sword out of a chest, and as he wishes his son good luck implies that his best hope for safety is to use the sword wisely. Within minutes of arriving in the capital, D’Artagnan gets into a fight, and the first time his sword clanks against another it breaks cleanly in half.

I could see that I’d been played! D’Artagnan was screwed, sure, but I’d been played, and I fell for it. All that effort building the importance of that sword, it occurred to me, was someone’s idea to show me how desperate this guy would become.

A good story starts when things go wrong, when what the hero thought was his best asset is proven completely inadequate, and his only hope is to become a better kind of hero.

The other memory was watching WKRP in Cincinnati with my father. In this particular episode a committee of picketing seniors was occupying the radio station. One had lost her cat and spent the middle third of the show coming on and off frame looking for it. I was still quite young, and by this time I’d forgotten all about the cat. When the hub-bub receded, Mister Carlson had returned to his office, and it seemed like God was in heaven and the station owner was about to put his feet up at his desk. My father said, “Watch, he’ll sit on the cat.” Sure enough: Meow. Cut to the credits.

“How is my father so clairvoyant?” I marveled, but he wasn’t. He’d seen hundreds of half-hour comedies by then, and listened to hundreds before that on the radio. I could see for the first time that there was a logic to story-telling. A right way to introduce an element (a “plant,” we’d call it) and then a proper amount of time to let it sit while the viewer forgets about it, before the pay-off. The auteur of a story, it seemed to me, was the alchemist who made something out of nothing by inventing things like that and putting them on a page. The rest was just execution.

These were just the earliest, BC memories: Before Cinema. After I started loving films, the moments started piling up, but even before I loved them I knew that a writer was at the heart of every good one.

Charlie

WHY “MORE HAS TO HAPPEN”

Call this blog, More Has To Happen – or if you must, call it Charlie Bowe’s blog, since I’ll be writing many of the posts. It is about screenwriting, cinema, media, related arts in the New York area, and a little about history and politics.

It’s for people who find movie ticket stubs in their jacket pockets with their coins and their lint, and their expired metro cards.

It arose from my years of providing coverage for other people’s screenplays, and reading my friends’ stories just for the hell of it. I can sling the jargon or lay down an opinion in plain English as need be, but the essence of my advice is almost always the same: More has to happen.

It’s not just that the sample of writers I know personally are skewed toward an “independent film” sensibility that sometimes results in deadly slow stories – although it probably is. And it’s not just that I find it tedious when asked to enjoy a “character study” in which I learn about a protagonist, or what happened in his or her past, while he or she does close to zilch in the present – although I do!

It’s that the eye of a camera, or the words of a capable narrator, can tell us a rapturous story about almost anything, as long as something is at stake for someone we care about, and as long as the right details are selected for the telling…if we get the details right, and use them to tell the story.

But why have I laid out such a hopelessly broad swath of content on the path before us? (I mean, come on, “history”?) Why not reduce it to a more reasonable scope by focussing on one thing such as, say, screenwriting, or feature films? Because the context of cinema has always been essential to understanding it, and that context today is one of diminished expectations, if not survival in the face of oblivion.

To write about cinema is necessarily an act of nostalgia. Cinematic conventions were all established during its highly commercialized formative years, but cinema can’t shake those conventions even though it’s well into its late period as narrative art form, one that stays afloat on the tenuous business model of online streaming, or on plain old rich people’s largesse, while catering to a niche market the way theater and modern dance do.

I often say that writing a screenplay is more like writing a Baroque cantata than a Romantic symphony. Old Germans such as Bach and Telemann wrote staggering amounts of work that to my untrained ear often sound more or less the same. They were writing for an audience, like a cinema audience, that expected things to arrive in a certain order, and to arrive on time. A few hundred years later, the kids such as Beethoven and Brahms wrote fewer works, but much more adventurous and self-expressive ones, writing for an audience that was willing to follow the writer to higher and stranger mountaintops, and that demanded to be surprised or gratified for doing so.

Without question, some filmmakers have aimed high, like the Romantics, and made superb films that surprise at every turn, and turn us on to new experiences. This kind of story-telling can be sublime but is more often maddening, or just a bore. Cinema is at its best when it follows the Baroques, when it assumes that its audience has arrived with specific expectations and then gives ’em what they want.

Of course, we can’t keep re-writing Chinatown or Sex, Lies, and Videotape, so we dress it up – we make people think that one thing is coming, then deliver another – but that is what’s called writing. To practice screenwriting as a craft is to weight cinema toward this kind of film. Ultimately a good screenwriter gives the audience what he or she prepared it to want, even when it didn’t realize it was being played all along. Which is not to say we hold the viewers in contempt. On the contrary, that is what they asked for when they clicked “Download Now,” or pressed “Play,” or in the best of worlds, as an act of selfless love of cinema, when they bought a movie ticket and sat down.

So, let’s talk about films, and how to tell good stories, and when necessary, which is much of the time, let’s remember that we’re at a unique time in the history of this sensational art form. The heroic story of cinema itself may well be in its third act, but I’m not ready for it to end yet. More has to happen.