The Christmas of Star Wars

Lucky for me, there’s a still a crumbling half o’ panettone on top of my fridge. Now that our birdbath is frozen, it finally feels like Christmas.

Winter finally hits...our birdbath. 1/11/16.

Winter finally hits…our birdbath. 1/11/15

Star Wars? Didn’t see it. I know, it’s basic film and pop culture literacy I’m ignoring – I had to have several of my nieces’ and nephews’ jokes explained to me at Christmas.

I saw the first Star Wars at the Directors Chair Cinema in Hamilton Square, New Jersey, one of the few times I ever went out to the movies with my father and brothers. We were dazzled, though I distinctly remember my mother, afterwards, asking how it was, and my father saying, “It was just like every cowboy movie I’ve ever seen.”

Maybe this is what made me skeptical, but I definitely regarded the kids who fell hard for the trivia and collectible action figures as dupes of commercialism, before I could tell you what commercialism is. After The Empire Strikes Back, I was done with it all. Ewoks, I only know about through the collective unconscious. The ’90s prequels, I never bothered with, even when friends pleaded with me that one or the other was “not that bad,” or that they were worthwhile on TV.

I woke up Christmas morning, looked up some showtimes for The Hateful Eight, and opted to watch The Sound of Music at home. It was my first time ever, though it’s undoubtedly something I would have seen back in my Star Wars days if I had one single sister. The Sound of Music (screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the stage musical book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, based on Die Trapp-Familie, written by George Hurdalek.) was for a while the highest-grossing film of all time. The puppet scene in that movie is about all the special effects I ever want to see:

Christmas Eve, 2015.

Christmas Eve, 2015.


Still, the milestone of another year passing does make natural born procrastinators like me want to hunker down. This past month I got through a first draft of a business plan for a venture I want to start in 2017. Aside from that, all the writing I got done was this couplet:

“Christmas Eve, Two Zip Fifteen.

You seem to me like Halloween.”






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.

The Organizer

Italian director Mario Monicelli is getting a full retrospect at Film Forum right now, and I for one have signed up for a crash course. Last night was The Organizer (I Compagni, 1963). Written by Monicelli with the screenwriting team of Age & Scarpelli, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – a real head-scratcher, but I digress.

"Marcello! Marcello!" La dolce vita, this ain't.

“Marcello! Marcello!” La dolce vita, this ain’t.

Such an easy-to-like film, and yet it kept getting deeper the more I thought about it afterward. Italian viewers around this time had already seen strike films and were familiar with the hagiography of the socialist movement, so setting a bittersweet comedy inside a textile strike in Turin in the 1890s was presumably a little subversive, tweaking the Marxist orthodoxy, and yet you sympathize with the strikers the entire time.

Working 14 hour days, the workers decide to walk off an hour early one day, but botch the signal, and afterwards a finger-pointing match ends in a snowball fight into which a professor-labor organizer on the run from the law arrives. The fact that the nerdy martyr-for-the-movement Professor Sinigaglia is played by none other than Marcello Mastroianni, otherwise the embodiment of mid-century cool, is just the first delicious thing about this film.

Going back to the Neorealists, the Italians were always scrupulous about giving their working-class characters serious flaws. Even when they were sentimentalizing them, you never get the message that there is anything inherently superior about proletarians, and a part of your heart sinks with sympathy whenever a character opts to collaborate with the reactionaries. The Organizer continues that tradition but goes a step further: Professor Sinigaglia, with a face like Trotsky and Lenin, is touchingly unable to say for sure that he’s doing any good, or at least he has gone native in the working class enough that he knows he has no common vocabulary to express it. “Why do I do it? Because I have a head full of foolish ideas,” he says, while sharing a bed with a worker in true 19th Century style. He even steals from his hosts.

I’m a quick study for screenplay structure – who’s the protagonist, and what his or her arc is – but I’m still chewing on this one. Is it the strikers as a group? That elusive, socialist notion of a mass protagonist? I haven’t seen Matewan in fifteen years, but I’d much rather go see The Organizer again tomorrow than try it over again.

(World With)In a World…

2013’s In A World… (written by Lake Bell) is one of the best American comedy scripts of the past few years, in its tightness and elegance, if not in the number of knee-slapping moments.

It’s a story of a family going through a crisis – or crises, since the Solomons, like many families, have their freakouts in clusters. It’s a feminist call to action that also has something profound to say about Jewish-American family life. And it’s among the most accurate portraits of life in L.A. in “the biz” that we’ll ever see – among the people who aren’t celebrities and won’t ever be, but who are quietly climbing their professional rungs. But mostly I keep coming back to her script.

She does it in the first ten minutes. First the heroine, Carol, gets a gig as a vocal coach. Then during the titles we learn all about the “world of the story”: the voiceover profession has just been thrown into a free-for-all, since its star Don LaFontaine – who in real life was the Wayne Gretzky of voiceover artists, and really did die in 2008, no doubt prompting something like this plot in some households – has died.

Then Carol’s father comes home in the morning, presumably, we soon learn, from his girlfriend Jamie’s house, and rousts his adult daughter Carol out of bed. One short scene, and we already have the whole conflict: She’s trying to get ahead in the voiceover world herself, but settling for jobs as a vocal coach – on top of which, she really just wants her father’s love. Her father Sam, who’s established in the profession, thinks she doesn’t have the chops, and is suddenly a lot more inclined to withhold his love, since Carol’s being snarky about dad’s new girlfriend, who’s just a year older than Carol.

We’re barely into the plot, but the conflict is all there already. Not to mention “the world.” That’s what a good story does, it creates its own reality. Its own mini-world: the voice profession. And then a mini-mini-world within that: the Solomon family. That’s why stories about crime families and rock bands and police departments all work so nicely. Their miniature hierarchies lend themselves to contested power dynamics.

Lake Bell (Carol) with the sexiest man in America Fred Melamed (Sam).

Lake Bell (Carol) with the sexiest man in America Fred Melamed (Sam).

So, by around Minute 12, Don LaFontaine’s trademark line “In a world…” has been tactfully avoided since his death, but now the studios are ready to start using it again, and every voiceover artist in town wants to be the one who gets the gigs that say it. So what does Sam do in the very next scene? He promises to throw his professional support behind another voice, a handsome prick named Gustav.

A purist would say that Bell’s script needs to make up its mind whether it’s farce or romantic comedy, since she has elements of both in the plot. You could even argue that the message-heavy climax is undermined by this lack of focus, but I never minded that for a bit. The setups and payoffs are so delicious up to that point, I was ready to let her have it, and say whatever the hell she wants. I especially liked the farcical side:

While Carol is riding high, she is booking the most coveted gigs and has been sleeping with Gustav besides, and has a good reason not to tell her father about it. Her father hears from Gustav, in explicit terms, that he had sex with their rival; her father, not realizing he’s talking about his own daughter, urges Gustav to “give her one for me.” Great writing!