Films and The Memory Gap

Years ago I sat down in a cinema to watch Mean Streets. I brought a woman who said she’d never seen it before, and I had that anxious feeling you get when you’ve told someone you have a particular fondness for a film, and they’ve agreed to jump in. Will it be too violent? Too macho? Too sad sack? Too melodramatic? In a sense, you are staking your character on its quality.

Minutes into the titles she leaned over and said, “Wait, this is the one about the woman with epilepsy, right?” Right! I’d never have described it that way, but that’s how Mean Streets resonated for her.

Watching some “new classics” all over again this month, it strikes me how different stories can be in our memories. In mine they’re apparently much more spare and concise than the actual films were.

Co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri (right) kills it as the nouveau riche just starting to develop a sense of taste.

Co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri (right) kills it as the nouveau riche just starting to develop a sense of taste.

For one, I saw the 2000 French drama The Taste of Others (script by Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri) again. To me, it’s about a wealthy industrialist who gets a crush on his English tutor, an actress, which inspires an aesthetic awakening in him. It starts with the deliciously crass company owner Castella knowing nothing about art, and the actress’ artsy friends making fun of him. Then Castella goes on a spending spree, which causes a rift between the actress and her friends.

Well, what a surprise to see so much screen time devoted to Castella’s bodyguards. They discuss love and ethics and, of course, soccer. One of them, a former cop, falls for the hash-dealing barmaid at the restaurant the artists frequent. Meanwhile, Castella’s also trying to bankroll his wife’s floundering, and very tacky, interior design career. Someone else might have told you this is that sad film about the bodyguard-amateur flute player.

Secondly, getting excited for Leviathan,* I watched The Return (script by Andrey Zvyagintsev) again. The 2003 Russian film about the father who takes his two sons on a camping trip by boat, with some sketchy intentions, was quite different in my memory. I thought it was a super-tight thriller about a boy endangered by his father. I was surprised it took so long for the father to arrive, and the three of them to get to the boat at all. In fact, it’s a lot more about character: The younger son who scarcely remembers his father resists his authority from the get-go, while the older son identifies with dad more. It is about a stubborn child, whose intuition about his dad turns out to be absolutely prophetic.

As a rule we should mind this memory gap! It says lots about each of our own peculiar tastes. If a film moves us, we hold onto its memory, sure, but often as not we start ascribing qualities to it that we think great films ought to have: Because we like it, it therefore must have these things, because we like films that have these things. And reality doesn’t always cooperate, so we learn by going back and re-watching.

I’d previously thought I was a “plot smith,” or something like that. I cared about the mechanics and harmony of plot, about everything feeling like it’s in the right place, but character was of secondary importance. I could learn to like anyone for an hour and forty-five minutes, I figured. Well, maybe so, but the things that make plots stick to my heart are the characters, not to mention the secondary characters who provided the contrast I may have needed to fully appreciate that main character.

People fall for films with “just okay” scripts all the time – me probably less than most – but I may not be as impervious as I like to believe.

*And speaking of Leviathan, it’s been written about a lot. Suffice it to say, any time someone starts billing a film as a definitive comment on a nation’s situation, he’s probably doing that film a disservice. Its trailer made it seem more like the thriller I mis-remembered The Return as, and in reality it was even further away.

Dichotomous Pairs

Long story short, Kevin Hart is hilarious, but first let me tell you a true story: I was on a train last week to go see Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia in the West Village. A must-see, last day of a week-long run, rarely on the big screen, etc., and I was late. As the train crossed the bridge I could see I wasn’t just going to miss the previews – which are mercifully only about five minutes at Film Forum – I was going to miss the first five minutes or more of the film.

Michael Ealy and Kevin Hart.

Michael Ealy and Kevin Hart.

I have a Plan B for this situation, because I’ve been late to films longer than I’ve had a smart phone.  I get off at Houston Street, and walk past the Angelika, the Sunshine and then the Village East and beyond till I find a film I haven’t seen yet that’s starting reasonably soon. I ended up at About Last Night, the new comedy from the director of Hot Tub Time Machine.

What a turn my day took!

About Last Night is a remake of a 1986 comedy (written by Tim  Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue) based on Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. This time the rewriting credit goes to Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) and somewhere between her and star Kevin Hart, the comedy pops, one joke after another. Myself and three other people were at this matinée, 75% of us rolling in our seats.

Now don’t laugh, but this was on my mind a few days later when I went to BAM for a screening of Mean Streets (screenplay by Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin). The raunchy office camaraderie in About last Night is one of the few things left from Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and it occurred to me how many films of all genres have two friends as their narrative backbone. More so in the early 70s, probably – when Mean Streets and Sexual Perversity were both written – when writers were still working under the long shadow of Lajos Egri and the whole notion that the way to start writing a story was to craft two characters and make them dichotomous opposites in as many of their characteristics as possible.

Both About Last Night and Mean Streets are about pairs of young guys in which the straight man is the protagonist and his wild friend presents complications and unexpected opportunities. From this starting point, if you’re writing a drama, you think of all the ways your antagonist tries solving his problem, and how they go wrong. If you’re writing a comedy, just…well, just cast Kevin Hart.

Mean Streets, for all its sprawling narrative flaws, is still my north star: