The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Meek’s Cutoff

As a filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt is obviously on a roll. Following the critical successes of Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), expectations were enormously high for her latest film Meek’s Cutoff (2010), a period piece shot on 35mm with a budget much larger than usual. The film played at Venice, Toronto and twice at the New York Film Festival this past weekend. I’m glad I bought tickets to attend both of the NYC screenings because Meek’s Cutoff, which has been picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope Laboratories, turns out to be the best American indie film I’ve seen so far this year.

Meek’s Cutoff represents both a continuation and a departure for Reichardt. Jon Raymond, the gifted writer with whom she collaborated on her two previous efforts, came up with the idea and wrote the screenplay for Meek’s Cutoff, a “covered-wagon western” set in 1845. Despite Reichardt’s reluctance to discuss the new film in terms of genre, it’s impossible not to see the film as a revisionist western of sorts. In place of the hypermasculinity that characterizes the typical western, women play a crucial role in Raymond and Reichardt’s story. Whereas Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy tackle smaller themes – a relationship between old friends headed on different paths and a down-and-out young woman forced to decide what to do about her dog – Meek’s Cutoff is a pioneer tale about the settling of America.

Meek’s Cutoff tells the story of three families who have hired a mountain man named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to lead them through the Cascade Mountains to the Willamette Valley on the other side. His shortcut – the “cutoff” of the film’s title – causes them to get lost in the vast desert area of Oregon. Whether it’s deliberate or the result of sheer incompetence we’re never quite sure, but the settlers express misgivings that Meek might be leading them astray for political reasons having to doing with immigration into the new territory. We learn this information early on as Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and her older husband Solomon (Will Patton) walk through the dark night carrying lanterns.

Meek not only turns out to be an unreliable guide, but an insufferable blowhard, full of tall tales that make him instantly unlikeable. Meek has the strange habit of asserting one thing, but also suggesting that the opposite might be equally probable, which is to say that his judgments amount to useless double talk. The only blatantly clear aspect of Meek is his unbridled racism, especially regarding the indigenous American Indian tribes. This will come into bold play when a Cayuse Indian on horseback begins to shadow the settlers, as they traverse the harsh terrain alongside three covered wagons hitched to oxen.

After the settlers manage to capture the Cayuse, Meek assaults him and wants to kill him on the spot, but the rest decide the Indian could be useful in finding the water they so desperately need. In confronting the “Other,” the settlers attempt to communicate with the Indian (played by stuntman Rod Rondeaux), but, of course, language proves to be an obstacle and neither party can understand each other. As the settlers’ situation worsens, they begin to rely on the Indian to help them gain their bearings, but he proves to be an enigmatic figure. Emily tries to befriend the prisoner, but he spits out the food she gives him. After she mends his moccasin, he takes to carrying her sewing basket with him as they journey on. The Cayuse marks symbols on the rocks they pass. Is he sending messages to his tribe, or is it merely part of his religion? Thomas Gately (Paul Dano), whose wife Millie (Zoe Kazan) is starting to lose it, becomes convinced the former is the case, but Solomon persuades the group otherwise.

Raymond’s spare script actually contains very little dialogue. The film’s emphasis is on the daily labor of the characters, especially the women. With domestic chores to do, there’s little time for small talk or camaraderie. There is wood to collect, fires to make, dishes to scrub, clothes to knit, garments to wash and hang out to dry in the blazing sun. What’s striking about Meek’s Cutoff is the complete lack of sex involving any of the characters, but then again Reichardt’s major features River of Grass (1995), Old Joy, and Wendy and Lucy are among the chastest films in recent American indie cinema. Facing scorching heat and a scarcity of water, it’s understandable why survival rather than sex should be the main preoccupation of these settlers. Shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Meek’s Cutoff is full of wide shots of the barren landscape, which serves to reinforce the formal space or distance between the characters. Chris Blauvelt’s extraordinary cinematography shifts from intense blue hues at the film’s opening to a warmer and washed out palette as the settlers and earth become parched from lack of water.

Characterization in Meek’s Cutoff is minimal. William White (Neal Huff), for instance, is devoutly religious. When he collapses from illness, the Cayuse stares at his shaking body and begins a medicine chant. Neither religion provides a cure. William’s wife, Glory (Shirley Henderson), is a bit on the ditsy side. She provides some of the only humor in the film, and even manages to get the other women to laugh at one point. If Solomon proves to be the most level-headed person of the bunch, Emily is the most compassionate and doesn’t hide her dislike of Meek from the very start. When he claims she must be flirting with him, Emily gives him a cold stare and insists he must not know anything about women. Meek proceeds to describe the female sex as “chaos” and the male sex as “destruction.” But when Meek gets out of line, it is Emily who stops him in his tracks.

Meek’s Cutoff unfolds at its own slow temporal pace, with shots lasting long enough for viewers to scrutinize what’s occurring within the frame. Reichardt’s film employs the type of narration we find in art cinema. Reichardt remarked after the Friday screening that until the film’s premiere screening at Venice she considered Meek’s Cutoff to be a “desert poem” rather than a western. And indeed, her work is profoundly poetic rather than narrative in its attention to small details and in its richly evocative qualities. Reichardt once again shows a mastery of visual storytelling. With the exception of Greenwood, her actors tend to be absorbed in physical actions, facial reactions, and communicating through body movements rather than dialogue. Michelle Williams and Will Patton, in particular, excel in giving restrained, naturalistic performances.

At least so far, Reichardt has proven to be the real deal as an indie filmmaker by not making films that can be read as industry calling cards. Even the release of Meek’s Cutoff was apparently delayed because Reichardt was teaching at Bard College and insisted on editing the film herself. In this tough economic climate, I try not to judge anyone because most indie filmmakers are struggling to survive these days. But Kelly Reichardt, as both Dennis Lim and Scott Foundas acknowledged in introducing her film at the festival, has somehow remained true to the vision of an independent cinema. Even though her budgets keep growing, she has not compromised her artistic integrity one bit.

Rather than wrapping up the minimal narrative with a sense of closure, Meek’s Cutoff ends with a question. Yet I found it amazing that audience members afterward really wanted Reichardt to interpret the film for them. They didn’t seem to understand that the film deals with the experience of being lost and living with uncertainty. Maybe the Cayuse knows where there’s water, but he makes no effort to communicate with the settlers. As a captive, why should he? Throughout the film, he speaks a language we can’t decipher, which somehow seems a key element in Reichardt’s new film. In the Q & A session at Toronto, according to Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times, the director commented: “We all know what happens, how it ends, there’s a golf course on the other side. You know, the bigger ending.”

Posted 13 October, 2010

Life During Wartime

Since Todd Solondz’s breakout second feature Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) grossed nearly $4.8 million, the trajectory of his career has been decidedly downward, with each new film grossing half of the previous box office, culminating in Palindromes (2004), which promptly put his once promising career in limbo. As a result, the script for Life During Wartime floated around for a number of years, while Solondz struggled to obtain financing. Life During Wartime, his latest comeback effort, screened at a number of prestigious showcases, such as the New York Film Festival, Telluride, and Toronto, and won Best Screenplay prize at Venice. The film is being distributed by IFC, showing on VOD, and recently played locally at Sundance Cinemas for a week.

At the end of Happiness (1998), Helen, a tortured writer, offers to set up her sister Joy, the family scapegoat, with Allen, a sexual pervert, who makes obscene phone calls and happens to be her neighbor. Life During Wartime begins with a teary-eyed, sepia-toned restaurant scene between Joy (Shirley Henderson) and Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) on their anniversary – one that’s nearly identical to the scene that began Happiness. Allen, rather than Andy, now gives her a reproduction Gainsevoort ashtray. The scene introduces what becomes a mantra in the film, namely whether it’s possible for its characters to “forgive and forget.” But when the waitress recognizes Allen from his voice, she refuses to forget and promptly spits in his face.

Virtually every scene in Life During Wartime verges on hysteria, mixed with delusion and denial. The above scene cuts to Trish Maplewood (Allison Janney), the ex-wife of a convicted pedophile, Bill Maplewood (Ciaran Hinds), who’s now serving time in prison for molesting a couple of his oldest son’s friends. Trish is on a blind date with Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner), Dawn’s father from Welcome to the Dollhouse. Short, pudgy, older, and recently divorced after thirty-five years, Harvey is hardly a catch. He’s moved from New Jersey to Miami to be with his son Mark (Rich Pecci), whom he calls “paranoid with a good heart.” Harvey doesn’t want Mark to be “misinterpreted,” but anyone who has seen Palindromes knows that Mark has been suspected of molesting a young girl. Mark, a systems analyst, peaked in graduate school and now has become even more robotic in his demeanor.

Solondz claims that viewers don’t have to know the references to appreciate Life During Wartime. I can tell you from watching it with people unfamiliar with Happiness, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Palindromes that viewers will miss many of the film’s nuances and in-jokes. Like an episodic television series, the film resonates in an entirely different way when you actually know the back story of the various characters. Trish is clearly desperate. Despite recognizing that Harvey is “so not her type,” except for the fact that he’s a big booster of Israel, she immediately falls in love with him. And when she returns home from the date in a swoon, she speaks as inappropriately to her twelve-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) about her sexuality, as her ex-husband Bill did to her older son Billy in Happiness.

Through Trish and Harvey, Life During Wartime connects the two dysfunctional families, the Jordans and the Wieners, creating a mashup between the characters from Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. We thus meet all three Jordan sisters: Joy, Trish, and eventually Helen (Ally Sheedy), who has severed ties with the rest of the family. She now lives in California, where she given up poetry for the “purity” of screenwriting, and taken up with “Keanu” [Reeves] even though “Salman” [Rushdie] remains a close friend. Their mother, Mona (Renee Taylor), is bitter about being dumped by their father. She cries at the airport when she picks up Joy, who has temporarily separated from Allen because of his assorted misdeeds.

Andy (now played by Paul Reubens), who committed suicide in Happiness, returns several times as a ghost to haunt Joy in her dreams and actual life. If this doesn’t begin to feel like a hall of mirrors, all of the actors have been recast, with Allen (originally played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) now played by a black actor from the television series The Wire. We also know from Palindromes that Harvey’s daughter Dawn also committed suicide, and learn via Trish that Harvey’s ex-wife Marge is “horrible,” which hardly comes as a surprise.

Like Happiness, Life During Wartime has a multiple-plot structure. Timmy Maplewood, who is about to have his bar mitzvah, is preparing his speech “on becoming a man.” In this film about deception, Trish has told Timmy his father is dead, but he learns the truth from a school friend, who has discovered on the Internet that his dad is actually a child molester. Timmy laments to his Mom, “I could have helped him.” Like so many of Solondz’s characters, Timmy suddenly turns on Trish with a vengeance, as he screams, “I hate you” and “Fuck you, bitch” – just as Andy shouts at Joy, “Eat shit, you fucking cunt,” once she again denies him.

When Timmy later comes into her bedroom for a sex talk, Trish gives him the worst possible advice that will have major implications later on. Dressed in a dark suit, Bill seems like a refugee from film noir as he incongruously navigates the Miami sunlight upon his release from prison. He later tracks down Billy at college in Oregon, demanding to know whether he’s gay. Their heart-to-heart talk is as painful as the one they had in Happiness, where Bill admitted that the real object of his desire was Billy, who refuses to forgive his dad, even though, on the basis of his research interests, he’s obviously headed down a similar path. Solondz’s world view is an overdetermined one, where characters seem destined to repeat past mistakes.

Trish and her family are coping with the aid of anti-anxiety medications. Like Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone or Mary Sweeney’s Baraboo, the war abroad impacts the one at home. It’s Timmy’s classmate who first connects pedophiles with terrorists, which proves to be a skewed but interesting analogy. In an interview, Solondz responds to the question of his obsession with pedophilia: “The whole thing about pedophilia is that I don’t have any inherent interest in it but rather in how it functions as a metaphor for that which is most demonized, most ostracized, most feared and loathed.”

One of the most intriguing scenes occurs when Bill gets picked up by an older woman named Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling) in a Miami bar. In need of a lay, she claims to be a monster and insists, “Only losers expect to get forgiveness.” Bill counters that people can’t help it if they’re monsters, and suggests – continuing Solondz’s wartime theme – that the real enemy lies within. In their exchange, she comments, “What are you, a shrink?” Yes, but a terribly messed up one, as is evident in the way (typical of Solondz’s heterosexual sex scenes) that Bill mechanically and dispassionately pounds away during sex. When she catches him rifling through her purse afterwards, he asks for forgiveness. Jacqueline responds tersely, “Fuck off, prick.”

Like Andy, Allen will later haunt Joy’s dreams as well. He tells her, “War’s evil, but what you did was worse.” By the end, even Timmy has had it with the abstract principles of freedom and democracy, as these maladjusted characters create their own personal hells. Masterfully shot with a RED camera by veteran cinematographer Ed Lachman, Life During Wartime strikes me as Solondz’s most stylized film, with its discordant colors, inventive mise-en-scène, and clever use of music, such as a collaboration between Devendra Banhart and Beck. Bill’s recurring dream involves several repeated pans over a park landscape with a pond to an out-of-focus figure, whose identity is only revealed the final time.

Todd Solondz loves to provoke viewers. Yet Life During Wartime might be one of the best films to register the effects of 9/11 on the American psyche, even if the fire power of his self-loathing characters indiscriminately turns all of them into casualties of their own private demons.

Posted 17 September, 2010

Winter’s Bone

It’s not been a particularly great summer for movies, but it’s reassuring that there have been three exceptionally strong films by women directors: Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, and Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, which has been playing at the Sundance Cinemas here for the past three weeks. Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury Prize as well as The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival last January. Adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, the screenplay was written by Granik and her producer, Anne Rosellini.

Set in poverty-stricken region of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, Winter’s Bone explores how rural areas have been impacted by hardcore drugs, especially the spread of meth labs. Seventeen-year-old, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) lives with her debilitated mother and two siblings, twelve-year-old Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and six-year-old Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson). The family is so poor that Ree can’t afford hay for her horse, and has to give it away to a neighbor cousin, Sonya (Shelley Waggener). When there’s no food for them to eat, Sonny suggests asking Sonya for some deer meat, but Ree instructs him, “Never ask for what ought to be offered.”

Ree is informed by the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) that her father, Jessup, who cooks methamphetamine, has put up their property as bond collateral and disappeared. If he turns out to be a no-show in a week – one of two ticking clocks in the plot – the family will lose their shack and surrounding timber land. This provides the catalyst for Ree to try to find her dad, setting her on a terrifying journey into the clandestine underworld of drugs that permeates her extended clan and local culture as thoroughly as the Comorra has infiltrated every facet of urban Naples, as we saw so vividly in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008). Although virtually each event that happens in the film somehow becomes grist for local rumors, there’s a strict code of silence that can’t be violated.

In such a milieu, what can’t be verbalized (lest there be “witnesses,” as one character explains) imbues the film with a palpable sense of dread. Ree’s attempt to locate her dad leads her to assorted remote kinfolk – each one creepier than the last – who all try to dissuade her from probing any further. Yet, given her lack of choices and what’s at stake, Ree is fiercely determined to pursue her goal, no matter what the consequences. As she tries to uncover the mystery behind Jessup’s disappearance, his quest starts to feel like a slow descent into hell. Central to the story is the reluctant relationship that develops between Ree and her meth addicted uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), who chokes her early on and insists, “Choice is up to the one going to jail, not you!”

Winter’s Bone has been compared to another previous Sundance hit, Frozen River (2008), but Granik, unlike Courtney Hunt, is far more concerned with character than the contrivances of plot. Granik manages to sustain the bleak tone and atmosphere of the film throughout, while mixing together elements from multiple genres in ways that never feels forced or obvious. The performances, which include a mixture of professionals and locals, are decidedly understated and uniformly excellent. Jennifer Lawrence’s face embodies a grim sense of pain that is haunting. John Hawkes (the sad-sack shoe salesman from Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone You Know) suggests a human time bomb about to go off. When he wields an ax to the front windshield of someone’s pickup truck and engages in an armed standoff with the sheriff, it’s clear that he’s no one to mess with. His final revelation to Ree suggests that the major explosion will occur beyond where the film actually ends.

What’s so striking about Winter’s Bone is how successfully the film manages to capture the almost tactile feel or texture of rural poverty. Shot with a RED camera, the film has reduced the color palette to a frosted bluish cast. Granik embeds her characters in a world of animals, both live and inanimate. There’s even a black-and-white dream sequence in which Ree imagines squirrels fleeing their nests as trees are cut down. Granik and Michael McDonough, her cinematographer, have an eye for detail and composition that references the great photographers of the Depression, such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Although the film is unrelentingly somber, it’s hard not to marvel at the Granik’s commitment to portray this backwoods environment accurately and her obvious attraction to such a strong female protagonist.

Other than drugs, Ree’s choices are limited, as evidenced by her visit to the local school, where we watch students practicing how to hold babies – the plight of her best friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser) – and a group of ROTC cadets marching in formation around the gym with rifles. Ree actually has plans to join the army, but her father’s disappearance becomes an obstacle. One of the key scenes occurs in the military recruiter’s office. Ree is torn between staying or joining the army in order to obtain the signing bonus she desperately needs to sustain the “weight” of her two siblings on her young back. The sergeant behind the desk  proves to be a reality check.

The hopelessness and despair that pervade recessionary America – the lack of meaningful jobs and opportunities – have turned rural areas into drug havens to numb the pain. Winter’s Bone deftly conveys the sad state of the country at the present moment, making it apparent that it’s these downtrodden places that provide fodder for the war machine. The strength of Winter’s Bone lies in insisting on the connection between the wars abroad and the one being waged at home. Especially in the scene in the boat, Granik’s film manages to capture a sense of its true visceral horror.

Posted 15 August, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

It seems an accepted truism that family secrets need to be explored, especially if it involves children tracking down biological or estranged parents. No one ever considers that there might be negative consequences – a proverbial monster lurking in the closet, so to speak. In Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, fifteen-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) talks his eighteen-year-old half-sister, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), into contacting the sperm donor for their lesbian parents. Joni is about to go off to college and expresses reluctance, but all it takes to change her mind is for Laser to tell her, “I never ask you for anything.” Joni makes the phone call and the two secretly meet their sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a handsome restaurant owner and organic gardener. The initial verdict: Joni thinks he’s pretty cool, while Laser has some reservations, especially because Paul seems to be “a little into himself.”

The film’s hook is not only the quest to meet the sperm donor, but its exploration of a family with lesbian parents. Nic (Annette Bening), a successful doctor, is married to Jules (Julianne Moore), an airhead underachiever, who has decided to start a landscape design business. She’s already bought the truck, even though she doesn’t have any clients, which immediately becomes a source of friction. The bread winner/ piggy-backer dynamic will fuel their long-simmering conflict throughout the film. When they speak, the two often ask each other, “What do you mean?” It’s an odd question for a long-time couple to ask, but they clearly have issues to work out, as evidenced by Jules’s spotty employment record and Nic’s growing problems with alcohol.

Both Nic and Jules worry about their kids, and want them to be perfect, lest it reflect upon their lifestyle. Nic, for instance, insists that Joni write “Thank you” cards and Laser write a “Get well” card to a relative, reflecting her middle-class values. They’re concerned about Laser, however, who is hanging out with a psycho skateboarder named Clay (Eddie Hassell) and (unbeknownst to them) also snorting coke. Jules asks Laser, “What do you get from that relationship?” Male companionship might be one answer, but when Laser enviously watches Clay wrestle with his dad, we understand that there’s even more to it.

Nic and Jules actually think that Laser might be gay. And when they catch him and Clay viewing one of their own male porn videos one day, they interrogate him. Laser wants to know why they are into male rather than lesbian porn, but Jules insists, “It’s counter-intuitive.” Laser inadvertently spills the beans about the fact that he and Joni have met their sperm donor. The revelation sends his moms reeling. After Joni expresses the desire to see Paul again, Nic insists that she and Jules need to meet him first. At the arranged family meeting, Paul drives up on a motorcycle – shades of Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

Nic grills Paul about being in the “food services industry,” especially because his current interests – he turns out to be a college dropout – don’t appear to match the essay about himself he wrote years earlier. Nic wants to get rid of him pronto, but Paul hires Jules to do some landscape design work at his house. Once Jules starts working there, she can’t help but notice, “I see my kids’ expression in your face.” We suddenly know where this is heading. Paul has become smitten by the two kids for the very same reason. He spends time with Laser, who asks him why he donated sperm, which Joni earlier acknowledges is “pretty weird.” Paul answers that it was “more fun than donating blood,” then gives a more altruistic reason, and finally hedges. Laser asks him how much he got paid – a pittance – but Paul, staring at the results, insists that he’s glad he did it.

Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) wrote the script for The Kids Are All Right with Stuart Blumberg over a five-year period. For her, it was an attempt to write something more mainstream than her previous indie films. Blumberg’s influence is in making the film more blatantly funny and having a more conventional structure. Indeed, the film initially feels like a comedy – not a broad comedy like the Duplass bothers’ Cyrus – but a comedy nonetheless. Much of The Kids Are All Right is indeed hilarious, especially Nic’s drunken anti-New Age rant about “heirloom tomatoes” and “composting” at a restaurant with friends, as she says things like “I like my wine! Okay! So fucking sue me!”

What I find most intriguing about The Kids Are All Right, however, is the undercurrent of melancholy that permeates the first two acts. The key scene occurs at a dinner at Paul’s house, where Nic, after some detective work in the bathroom and bedroom, figures out what’s been going on between Jules and Paul. The camera focuses on Nic’s face as she drinks a glass of wine, while the dinner conversation recedes and turns into a grating sound. The subsequent fight between the parents causes the kids to learn about the affair as well. The third act switches from comedy into melodrama, largely because it focuses on the effect that the revelation has on Joni and Laser.

Given its controversial sexual politics, The Kids Are All Right doesn’t take the easy way out. If the film sets out to answer the right-wing criticism of the effects of gay marriages on children, then the answer is the kids are fine. It’s the parents who aren’t. Like all long-term relationships, they are plagued by problems. Jules, in fact, gives an apologetic speech about marriage, in which, consciously or not, Moore seems to be channeling Carol White at Wrenwood in Safe, only she’s more articulate in this instance, as she tells the rest of them, “Marriage is fucking hard!”

The two screenwriters attempt to depict lesbian couples as being no different than straight ones, so The Kids Are All Right ends up being a defense of the nuclear family, warts and all. The parents might not love each other every minute, but they love their kids. But the kids might not love the parents nearly as much. When Nic and Jules demand hugs from Laser, he suggests they hug each other instead. At college, Joni, who still seems very sad and crushed by events, embraces Laser and remarks, “I’m sorry to leave you with them.” The moms then smother her and cry like babies, as we watch Joni’s bewildered and embarrassed response.

For Cholodenko, who is openly gay and raising a young child with her partner, and Blumberg, who had the experience of being a sperm donor while in college, there’s an autobiographical element to the film. The genesis of the script stemmed from Cholodenko’s fears that the biological father of her child might some day turn up unexpectedly. The Kids Are All Right, ends up casting Paul in the role of the repressed monster, who wreaks havoc of the family. Whether he deserves to be or not, he must nevertheless be villainized and expunged.

The Kids Are All Right is a well-made film pitched to the mainstream. I don’t have a problem with that, especially because, at least in the interviews I’ve read, Cholodenko hasn’t tried to suggest that the film is really “indie at heart” or any of those other disingenuous deceptions indie filmmakers use when they deliberately make something more commercial. The Kids Are All Right has a terrific cast: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Mark Ruffalo. But, for me, Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska often steal the focus away from the stars through their subtle reactions and more understated and naturalistic style of acting.

Posted 25 July, 2010

Journal of Screenwriting #2

In the most recent issue of The Journal of Screenwriting (which unfortunately isn’t available online), Kathryn Millard has written a really terrific review of Paul Wells’s screenwriting book Basic Animation: Scripting. In her review, she also cites my book Me and You and Memento and Fargo. Kathryn Millard is a noted filmmaker, writer, scholar, and screen theorist based in Sydney, Australia. She writes:

“[Paul Wells’s] Basic Animation: Scriptwriting was designed to assist writers to initiate, develop and refine screen animation ideas. It does that admirably. More than that, though, together with J.J. Murphy’s insightful look at American independent screenwriting Me and You and ‘Memento’ and ‘Fargo’: How Independent Screenplays Work (Murphy 2007), this is one of the best books about screenwriting to have been published in recent years. Yet the two books could not be more different in style and approach. Murphy focuses on independent cinema in clear, engaging prose, tracking how a series of seminal independent features were developed and written and his case studies include scripts and films by Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Allison Anders, Miranda July, David Lynch and Gus Van Sant. Wells focuses on animation and a wide range of scripts and films. What the two books share is a depth of research and scholarship, an attention to the creative process of screenwriters and film-makers that goes far beyond the tired old clichés about beginnings, middles and ends and ‘Story’ being hardwired into humans trotted out in manual after manual, and at self-help and infotainment seminars around the globe. Both Murphy’s and Wells’s books suggest a rich vein of work on the art of writing for the screen that has barely begun to be mined.”

– Kathryn Millard, Journal of Screenwriting 1, 2 (May 2010).

In the same issue of The Journal of Screenwriting, Steven Price has an article about last year’s “Rethinking the Screenplay” conference in Helsinki, which drew 120 scholars from five continents, and was a very enriching event. I gave a paper on the collaboration between the writer Jon Raymond and filmmaker Kelly Reichardt in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Price writes:

“What was particularly impressive was the degree to which participants from such differing backgrounds could consistently engage in productive and friendly debate about the validity and parameters of the field. Torban Grodal of the University of Copenhagen, as the opening keynote speaker, shared his work on the appeal of certain film genres and film narrative s due to a common ‘cognitive DNA’ of audiences due to generations of experiences and teachings. David Howard of the University of Southern California provided another keynote address concentrating on classic story structure. From Gary Lyons’s inside account of dramatized television documentaries and J. J. Murphy’s similarly detailed discussion of collaboration in contemporary feature film to Paul Wells’s entertaining exposition of the role of the screenplay in animation and Bridget Conor’s critique of screenwriting manuals, this was a conference in which connections between widely differing disciplines could be posited, interrogated and explored in the kind of cooperative and supportive environment that has until now been lacking in a field that rarely receives the institutional recognition it deserves.”

I expanded my paper into a book chapter that will appear in Jill Nelmes’s upcoming anthology, Analysing the Screenplay (Routledge, 2010).

Analysing the Screenplay is scheduled to be unveiled at this year’s Screenwriting Research: History, Theory and Practice conference, September 9–11 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference is sponsored by the University of Copenhagen.

I will be giving a paper entitled “Less is More: In Praise of the Underwritten Screenplay” on a panel with Ian Macdonald of the University of Leeds and screenwriter Howard Rodman (Savage Grace) who teaches at USC. I’m also chairing a panel on “creative collaboration” with papers by Bridget Conor, Mats Björkin, Eva Novrup Redvall (one of the conference organizers), and Miranda Banks. There will be keynote addresses by Mette Hjort, Steven Maras, and Janet Staiger.

In other personal news, Mike Everleth over at Bad Lit: The Journal of Underground Film also happened to write a lengthy and very thoughtful review of Me and You and Memento and Fargo last week. It is always a good feeling when someone connects with what you’re doing.

If you don’t know Bad Lit or his Underground Film Guide, you’re really missing out. I check out Bad Lit all the time. Since Mike restarted his weekly “Underground Film Links” again, it’s the first thing I look at every Sunday morning. What I love about Bad Lit is Mike’s total passion for alternative cinema. Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the site, I highly recommend this informative blog.

Posted 21 July, 2010

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