Monday, April 16, 2012

Whose film is it anyway!?

A friend of mine wrote on his blog recently about essential films every cinema fanatic should see. See the link above. Although his list is excellent, it isn’t comprehensive in my opinion. For one thing, where’s the category for Screen WRITING? This vital foundation of any good film is usually overlooked, but one thing is certain: without a good script you can never make a good film. It is written.

To correct the imbalance a little, I thought I'd add my favourite films from a scriptwriter’s point of view. The films I will mention will obviously deal with the writing aspect of film, especially the uber-meta aspirations of Charlie Kaufman’s Adapatation, which deals a distortion or two of Writers dealing with Writing itself.

Charlie Kaufman takes this same theme a step too far in my opinion in his directorial debut, Syndechdoche, New York, which I enjoyed to some extent. It should be watched by serious film writers just as an experience of how to almost lose the plot. However Adaptation is a much stronger film in my opinion, dealing as it does with a single episode of writing to meet a deadline.

Short Cuts, the Robert Altman early 90s film, deals with a multiple-protagonist script. It was one of the first films to attempt a multiple-protagonist story in quite such a self-conscious way. It doesn't quite pull it off as it takes far too long to reach its conclusion. But it's a fascinating experiment into the multiple-protagonist genre. Crash, the Paul Haggis film a decade or so later, succeeds far more in maintaining the inner dynamics of a self-contained plot with a multiple-protagonist masterpiece dealing with a single theme: racism. Crash may be accused of being a bit obvious at times, but hey, you can't have everything.

The Player is another piece of Robert Altman magic, and in this one he doesn't overindulge in endless takes with celebrities. Okay, he does a bit, but his strong storyline about a writer who is ditched by a studio exec is brilliant. There are all sorts of in-jokes, starting with the opening 8 minute shot which is a homage to Orson Welles' 3 minute plus super-obvious set-up opening shot of A Touch of Evil. Film buffs will love it, as will writers who will enjoy seeing that sometimes even a callous movie exec can be outsmarted by a clever scriptwriter.

Speaking of Orson Welles, one has to mention Citizen Kane. So I've done that now. Let's move on.

Now for more modern films in which the scriptwriting is quite simply sublime. Little Miss Sunshine is a joy from the first frame to the last. It’s also a superb example of the multiple-protagonist genre without beating the viewer over the head with it. This script was written by Michael Arndt. Who, I hear you cry? That's what I'm talking about! Scriptwriters seldom get the credit they deserve.

Then there is Alan Ball's equally sublime American Beauty. Seldom have so many depths been plumbed in so short a time. No pun intended. This film consists of absolutely brilliant writing, creating characters which stay with the viewer forever. A modern classic if ever there was one.

Lastly, I'm going to end with two biopics which explode the genre of biographical film making. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is a work of sheer genius. Based on the book by Roger Lewis, screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely create a surreal, yet terrifyingly real, portrait of a man without a character of his own. It is quite exceptional and the film is a masterfully written one.

Another biopic I think is superbly well-written is La Vie En Rose. Written by Olivier Dahan (the director - oh and I can bet, from my experience with a “hands-on” director, thereby definitely hangs a tale) and screenwriter Isabelle Sobelman, this film recreates the world of a human being's psyche in an extraordinary way. The flashbacks and flashforwards are done so unobtrusively that one feels as if one is living the life of La Mome's herself. It is simply another modern classic.

Finally I'll end with a screenwriter's director. David Mamet's name is synonymous with films such as Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna but for me, his take on being a writer in Hollywood reaches comic proportions in the film State and Main. See it to know what it's really like to be a scriptwriter on a big Hollywood blockbuster. Brilliantly funny and extremely well written.

There are a few older classics that deserve mention. Forgot to say that Casablanca is one of those beautifully scripted films which endures and doesn't date. Thanks to scriptwriting brothers Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, from a script by Howard Koch and Casey Robinson who remained uncredited.

And we can't leave out North, by Northwest, written by Ernest Lehman. Actually, this opens the door for all the Hitchcock films, such as Psycho and others. That makes me think of more perfectly written films from that era and I might go on forever. But I'll stop here and just say that it's such a pity that the names of the writers of most of these films, unless they are directed by the writers themselves, remain unknown to the majority of movie-goers.