Monday, May 28, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Altered States (1980) - When Emotional Change Takes a Back Seat

[Quick Summary: A Harvard physician experiments with an isolation tank and a little known drug that regresses him into a primitive state.]

If The Hospital was a crazy script in a good way, Altered States was crazy in a bad way for me.

Dr. Jessup has a deep need to ferret out the science behind altered states of consciousness. [Fair enough.]

He seeks out a Mexican drug that regresses him into an ape, and even into goo. [Ok, I can buy that.]

I could stomach the extreme, far out psychological visions.

I managed the bizarre physical transformations

However, no amount of flash, sparkle,  SFX, & violence in the script could make up for the fact that Jessup has little emotional change until the end.

I soon got tired of the spectacle because I felt very far from Jessup.

He does not regret eliminating everything in his life - wife, daughters, friendships.  

He is so focused on his experiments that there is less and less story.

As the experiments got wilder and weirder, I cared less and less.  Yikes.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  The difference between The Hospital (great) vs. Altered States (so-so) was emotional change vs. less emotional change.

Altered States (1980)
by Paddy Chayefsky

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Hospital (1971) - Order Only in Hindsight

[Quick Summary:  One night at the hospital, a chief of staff on his last straw faces several crises, including  intertwining staff deaths, and an odd young woman.]

This is a crazy-assed script.

I honestly had no idea where the story was going.

First, I worried about Dr. Herbert Bock, the crotchety doctor with every reason to be suicidal. 
Then I got upset when the deaths of various hospital staffers interrupted Dr. Bock's story.

(It was like commercials interrupting your favorite soap opera.)

I didn't care as much that the hospital had run amok.

I just wanted to know if Dr. Bock was going to make it.

Here's kicker #1: I didn't even like Dr. Bock.  But I still worried.

Here's kicker #2: The various staff deaths are important in the end to Dr. Bock's final decision.

Chayefsky did it again:

1) He made me care about a character I did not like.
2) He brought order out of what looked like chaos on the page.
3) It was a surprising journey.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This is a technically difficult script.

To keep the chaos going while leaving clues and also not lose the audience? Very thin line.

The Hospital (1971)
by Paddy Chayefsky

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: House of Games (1987)

[Quick Summary: Margaret Ford, a female psychiatrist, falls for a Mike's con, and becomes entrapped in his elaborate crime web.]

Mike tells Margaret that the "confidence game" works because the mark doesn't give the confidence.

The con man gives his confidence to the mark, usually by bringing the mark in on the scheme.

Mike does it again and again to Margaret.

ex. At their first meeting, he asks her to help him, and she loses her bank account.

ex. Mark develops Margaret's trust by showing her how the game works on a young man at the Western Union office.

ex. His cronies show her how the Tap con works.

The script ups the ante with each demonstration. Margaret feels "in", accepted, and somewhat invulnerable.

The last thing on her mind is that these nice guys were setting her up...and BOOM! That's when it happens.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The stakes rise beautifully as Mike confides more and more in Margaret.

Also, the false sense of security is a great setup for a great third act payoff

House of Games (1989)
Written & directed by David Mamet

Thursday, May 10, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Things Change (1988) -

[Quick Summary: After an old Chicago Italian-American shoeshine man agrees to take the rap for a mob guy, he is assigned a keeper, who takes them on one last adventure in Lake Tahoe.]

Holy crap, this is unbelievably good writing.

Roger Ebert states it best: This film "confirms Mamet's gift for leading us through truly bewildering plots."

The plot seems simple. 

In two days, the old shoeshine man Gino (Don Amache) will admit to a murder he didn't commit. In exchange, the mob boss will give him a boat when Gino gets out of jail.

Jerry (Joe Mantegna), a lower mob guy, babysits Gino for these two days.

Jerry feels sorry for the old man and decides to take Gino to Lake Tahoe for one last hurrah.

Now the plot really shines when impossible things happen.  Gino's innocent curiosity and unbelievable timing keeps Jerry hopping.

Why do we believe it at all?  Because it all stems from Gino's character.

ex. Jerry takes Gino to the roulette table. Jerry has rigged it with the house that Gino will continue to win, but not take any of the winnings.

Soon Gino turns a few bucks into $35k, and followers flock to the table.

Jerry pulls them away and makes up a reason that the money has to be given back.

Gino agrees, and we think that's the end of the situation.

But it's not.

When Jerry is busy, Gino wanders away to a Wheel of Fortune. He bets the entire $35k on a turn to see if his streak would continue.

That's what was great about the script.

We believe this unbelievable moment because this is something curious Gino would do.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If the character believes it, I'll believe it too.

Things Change (1988)
by David Mamet & Shel Silverstein

Thursday, May 3, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Americanization of Emily (1964) - Blow & Pop of Satire

[Quick Summary: A cowardly American Naval officer & "dog robber" falls for a patriotic, female British chauffeur but their opposing views on the war is problematic.]

Paddy Chayefsky came up with the idea of writing this as a black satirical comedy on a plane to NYC.

What is satire? Glad you asked.

Satire (n.): A literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.
Easy enough, but how do you actually write satire?

Chayefsky did it by juxtaposing ridiculousness with reality.

Let's see how he ridicules the hype of war:


MRS. BARHAM: Emily, well, I must warn you. Charlie's picture is in all the papers, and they're going to build a monument on his grave.

[Reality: Charlie, the coward, is being celebrated as a hero.]

EMILY (studying the Globe): What on earth for? All he did was die. Dear me, we shall be celebrating cancer and automobile smash-ups next.

[Ridiculousness: This is stupid.]

CUMMINGS: He didn't just die, Emily! He sacrificed his life!

[Reality: Charlie is the war's next poster boy.]

MRS. BARHAM: Well, that was very pagan of him.

[Ridiculousness:  Who does that help? Warmongers?]

CUMMINGS: He was the first American to die on Omaha Beach.

[Reality: This is a PR dream!]

EMILY: Was there a contest?

[Ridiculousness: What kind of contest are you running?]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: One recipe for satire is to blow up a balloon with human vices, then pop it with ridicule.

The Americanization of Emily (1964)
by Paddy Chayefsky
Adapted from the novel by William Bradford Huie
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