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.

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