Monday, August 29, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Blue Dahlia (1946) - A Character With Honor

[Quick Summary: A Navy lieutenant returns home, only to become a suspect in the death of his estranged wife.]

This is a good, but not great, script.

However, I think it's worth a read because:
1) Chandler wrote this script under unique strained circumstances and timeline;*
2) The protagonist has a code of honor, a frequent theme of Chandler heroes.

Johnny is our honorable hero and prime suspect here.

Since he's a suspect, wouldn't we expect him to pursue the murderer? Yes, but clearing his name is not the sole reason.

His honorable streak is seen in a variety of situations:

- When a friend is about to take the rap for Johnny, he flies into action.
- He does not spill secrets on Mrs. Harwood, even though it could've benefited him.
- In the scene below, he takes the responsibility of confronting his wife's lover.

ex. "INT. HARWOOD'S BEDROOM

As Harwood comes up to the bureau, Johnny following. Johnny leans in the doorway. Harwood goes to work on his tie again.

HARWOOD: If you had good sense, you'd be five hundred miles away. Half the cops in L.A. are looking for you.

JOHNNY: Only half?

HARWOOD: All I have to do is pick up the telephone - and you'd go out of here in handcuffs.

JOHNNY: Why don't you?

Harwood finishes tying his tie and turns.

HARWOOD: I guess I'm not that kind of rat.

JOHNNY: What kind of rat are you?

HARWOOD: Not a police informer anyway.

JOHNNY: Neither am I - so far.

HARWOOD: Whatever that means.

Harwood doesn't answer.

HARWOOD: You rate yourself a pretty tough boy, don't you?

JOHNNY: Tough enough to find out who killed my wife.

Harwood picks up his dinner jacket, starts to put it on.

HARWOOD: Everybody seems to think you killed her.

JOHNNY: Not quite everybody. I think you killed her.

HARWOOD: Don't be a dope. Just because I took Helen out a few times - and you put on that injured husband act...

JOHNNY: What would be a dope in your book?

HARWOOD (impatiently): A guy without sense enough to get out while he can - and hole up in some quiet place where they don't know you -

JOHNNY (cutting in on him): They don't know me here.

HARWOOD: They soon will.

JOHNNY: Go ahead. It's only a nickel call.

Harwood looks at him, puzzled. The doorbell rings in the living room. Neither man pays any attention to it."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: An honorable man isn't a goody-two shoes, but one who abides by his unwritten code. (Note to self: Define the code first.)

Also, I know morally ambiguous characters are popular these days, but an honorable character in a morally ambiguous situation is quite refreshing.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)
by Raymond Chandler

*Do not miss producer John Houseman's fascinating account (a star leaving for the war; a half done script; Chandler's heroic intoxication): Lost Fortnight, A Memoir

**For more: Afterword: Raymond Chandler and Hollywood, by Matthew J. Buccoli

Monday, August 22, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Blow Out (1966) - Challenging Script = Thinking Outside the Box

[Quick Summary: A swingin' 1960s London photographer thinks he may have photographed a murder in progress.]

I hate stale, lazy writing.

To stay fresh and sharp, I will occasionally pick a thought provoking, challenging, often thorny, script to read.*

This script meets all those criteria.

It was a game changer in 1966 (mostly for the graphic nudity), and captured the feel of 1960s London.  I think its themes of youth and ennui are still relevant.

So why is this script challenging?  Well, it has a thriller feel, but no firm solution. You can't read this for the format (paragraphs of action). People move around, but not much happens on the outside.

"Wait! We aren't supposed to do that!" you say.

Yes, and this is where the script requires you to work a little harder.

You have to suspend every thought of "What's the point?" and just go on the ride.

For example, I learned that the writers are not all that interest in plot (setups and payoffs).  They are interested in realism and a character wakening to an internal life.

They don't care about answers. They do want you to walk away feeling deeply.

ex.  "GIRL: I... I've come... I've come for the photographs.

Thomas eyes her curiously.

THOMAS: Well, how did you manage to find me?

The girl avoids his eyes.

GIRL: Do you live here?

THOMAS: Mmm....

Thomas switches on a few scattered lights, motions her to sit down, and switches on the record player. The music is a very slow guitar.

THOMAS: Drink?

She wanders about as if looking for something.

Without waiting for her to answer he pours two whiskeys, and turns in her direction with the glasses.

THOMAS: What's so important about my bloody pictures?

Camera follows Thomas as he goes up to her, now settled on the couch, to give her the glass. She holds him with her eyes.... Doesn't take the glass.

GIRL: That's my business.

Thomas puts her glass down. She gets up and stands stiffly opposite him. Both are obscured by an overhead beam. Close-up of Thomas, drinking and saying as if recollecting a pleasant memory:

THOMAS: The light was very beautiful in the park this morning. Those shots should be very good. Anyway, I need them.

Close-up of the girl, leaning against a cross-beam. She is tense, insisting...

GIRL: My private life's already in a mess. It would be a disaster if...

She moves away."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This script taught me that it's possible to move an audience, without things I expect (3 act format, answers neatly tied up, etc.) 

A new tools to use now!

Blow Out (1966)
by Michelangelo Antonioni & Tonino Guerra

* I like the superb blog Cinephilia and Beyond, which often points me to films and directors that I have not heard of before, and probably would not ordinarily find.


Monday, August 15, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Strip Search (2004) - Hypocrisy; Visual Irony

[Quick Summary: Several stories, in 2 parts.  After 9/11, the same line of questioning is used for 2 interrogations in 2 countries.  One is "acceptable," the other is not.]

This script made me uncomfortable, and it should.

If I had to summarize the theme, it would be "Hypocrisy: You can dish it out, but you can't take it."

In one story, the writer uses parallel situations in the US and in China: 

- When the US gov't questions and humiliates a character born in another country, it seems acceptable.

- But when China questions and humiliates a US character - with the exact same questions, tone, actions, etc. - it is unacceptable.

This is not a "feel good" or (apparently) popular film. But it is thought provoking.

(I wonder if it would have been different if it was a satire?)

I found that mere juxtaposition of the same dialogue for the US scenes and then the China scenes allows the audience to put 2+2 = Hypocrisy.

Also, the writer then added this scene as a summary of our attitude today. Note the visual irony of the last line:

ex. "EXT. BATTERY PARK/MANHATTAN - DAY

MCGRATH buys hot dog from VENDOR, as JOHN SCANLON, newspaper reporter, calls to him.

SCANLON: Yo, Ned --

MCGRATH turns, sees SCANLON, groans.

SCANLON (cont.): I hear you fellows made a bust today, arrested some terrorist.

MCGRATH: Who told you that?

SCANLON: I never reveal my sources. This terrorist --

MCGRATH (bites into hot dog): I don't know what you're talking about

SCANLON: Ned, come on --

MCGRATH: We haven't arrested anyone, that's the truth.

SCANLON: Are you holding anyone? Questioning anyone? Sticking a hot poker up some poor towel-head's ass?

MCGRATH (eats): No comment.

SCANLON: At least give me the schmuck's name --

MCGRATH: No comment. (eats) You know the way these "schmucks" manipulate the judicial system -- and the media -- to their advantage.

SCANLON: My editor's been biting off my dick. Tell me something --

MCGRATH: You give me your source, I'll see what I can do.

SCANLON shakes his head, frustrated.

SCANLON: Ned, come on, this is me. We've always helped each other out. I spin for you, you spin for me. Remember in Kazakhstan --

MCGRATH (finishes hot dog): Ancient history, pal, back before the flood.

MCGRATH tosses napkin into trash can, goes. On SCANLON, looking up at where the World Trade Center used to be...

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I need to be more aware of how the juxtaposition of scenes (A, B, C) build on one another (A+B+C) to equal (= D) what I want the audience to conclude.

Strip Search (2004)(final draft; dated April 24, 2003)*
by Tom Fontana

*This was a tv movie on HBO, directed by Sidney Lumet.

Monday, August 8, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Night Falls on Manhattan (1996) - Dealing With Moral Grey Areas

[Quick Summary: A new assistant D.A. is about to win a big case in which his father, a narcotics cop, is wounded while apprehending a dope dealer, but it all falls apart.]

Recently, I saw a comment on Twitter that the increased online outrage over films was because audiences today do not know how to deal with negative emotions.

This thought intrigued me.

How do we write stories that deal with negative emotions? Grey areas?

Can't we just have happy, happy stories? (NO. It's unrealistic, and worse, it's boring.)

For me, Sidney Lumet was a master of delving into moral grey areas. 

He didn't shy away from taking you through the fire and seeing the bleakest of human behavior, yet his films always ended on a hopeful note.

This script is exceptionally grey, complicated, and human.

I think there are two keys to this script:

1) Everyone is shown with BOTH heroic and selfish traits.
2) No one can escape the tough decision(s).  Good men do the wrong thing for the right reasons.

ex. "MORGENSTERN: Sean, when we capture Jordan, and we will, he's going to be tried. It's the easiest case this office will ever have. He left one empty gun behind. His prints are on it. And I'll bet you whatever you want ballistics to find bullets in one of those four cops that came from that gun. He's the worst dope dealer in Harlem, a murderer of his own people, a monster. As I said: easiest case to ever come in this office. I hope they get him alive. Because I want him put on trial by this office. And you know who the prosecutor is gonna be?

Elihu smiles.

MORGENSTERN (cont): You, Sean. You're gonna try him.

Elihu's smile freezes on his face. Sean looks pole-axed.

MORGENSTERN (cont): That's right. You Sean. (to Elihu) You're looking at me like I'm crazy.

ELIHU: Well - Morgy - with apologies to you, Sean - Morgy, it's a giant case. Sean has never tried anything this close to this, in size, in importance.

SEAN: Mr. Morgenstern -

Morgy starts to cut in.

SEAN (cont): Morgy - Mr. Harrison's right. I'm too inexperienced - A mistake could -

MORGENSTERN: There's no problem here. My son would win this case and he's not out of high school. And he's stupid. This case is not complicated....

He eases Sean out of the room, crosses to his desk, pops a pill. Elihu is sitting in stoney silence.

ELIHU: Why are you doing this?

MORGENSTERN: He's at the top of the class. It's a simple case. I got a feeling about him.

ELIHU (after a pause): You mean it?

MORGENSTERN: You bet your goy ass I do.

ELIHU: You realize I'll have to resign.

MORGENSTERN: So, resign.

ELIHU: Morgy, I'm senior trial counsel. Turning this over to anybody but me is an insult that's incredibly damaging to me.  To my career. But to turn it over to an ADA with eight months experience is more than insulting. It's shocking, humiliating. It's unacceptable.

MORGENSTERN: Listen to me, you prick. You think I don't know what's going on? The walls have ears, my friend. Those planted stories in the papers? Morgenstern is old, Morgenstern's got heart problems, Morgenstern's lost his touch. That's your work, Eli. You and that goddamn PR firm you hired. You though I didn't know? I got lots of friends, Eli. People owe me."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: 

Night Falls on Manhattan (1996)
Based on the book by Robert Daley, "Tainted Evidence"

Monday, August 1, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Running on Empty (1988) - Specificity: Helping Others Read Between the Lines

[Quick Summary: After years on the run with his parents, Danny, a talented pianist, applies to Julliard, which starts a chain of painful and freeing events.]

How do you get an audience to "read between the lines"?

How do you explain things to readers without TELLING them?

Perhaps one clue comes from Rogert Ebert, who gave this film four stars, wrote:
Lumet is one of the best directors at work today, and his skill here is in the way he takes a melodramatic plot and makes it real by making it specific.
Hmmm...specific? What does that mean?

This script is very specific, and I think that is why it's such a great read.

I noticed that the scenes have a specific intention, a specific purpose to accomplish.

Each character also has a specific intention, which often conflicts with others.

The more specific the movement or words, the more unspoken implications are understood.

EXAMPLE #1:
- The scene intention: To show the family moves often.
- Character intentions: The boys express sadness. Mom comforts, yet is realistic.

"INT. CHEAP MOTEL ROOM

The two boys from the earlier scene are lying on the motel bed watching the news. The woman is seated next to them on the bed. She's taking pins out of her hair.

HARRY (seeing the dog): There's Jomo.

WOMAN: You two get out of your jeans and into bed.

No one makes a move.

HARRY (still talking about the dog): What's gonna happen to her?

WOMAN: Someone will take her home.

Harry doesn't appear convinced.

HARRY: We never had to leave her before.

WOMAN: I'm sorry, kid."

EXAMPLE #2:
- The scene intention: To show Annie/Mom has past feelings for visitor Gus.
- Character intentions: Annie tries to maintain normalcy. Gus drags up romantic feelings.

"INT. POPE LIVING ROOM - NIGHT

Gus and Annie sit on the floor with coffee mugs. Annie leans against the foot of the couch. Gus rolls a joint.

GUS: You haven't changed a bit, Annie.

ANNIE: We better keep to discipline. It's Cynthia. (she's silent a moment) I've changed. (but she's not going to tell him about it) Under this Miss Clairol is a grey bush.

GUS (he's not to be so easily deflected): I look at you and I see you standing on the corner of Michigan Avenue in a Mexican blouse and big silver earrings.

ANNIE: That was a long time ago.

GUS: How's Artie?

This question has many levels. She knows it and answers ambiguously.

ANNIE: He's okay. He did some work in Florida on a toxic waste dump. Here he organized a food co-op. And he's trying to get his restaurant to unionize.

He didn't mean this.

GUS: How are you and Artie?

She answers this the same way.

ANNIE: We're okay. It's hard.

GUS: I think about you.

ANNIE: I think about you. (now she qualifies it) I hope you're safe.

GUS (looking around): How do you manage this? Kids. A house. A regular life.

ANNIE: I'm a good liar.

She puts down her cup and stretches out on the floor. He watches her.

ANNIE: God, I'm tired.

GUS: Here. Give me your feet."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I've never really considered how to show the character's specific intent through action.  It makes sense that More Specificity = More Clarity.

Running on Empty (1988)(3rd draft, dated 1/20/87)
by Naomi Foner