Friday, January 6, 2012

Everything I know I learned from the Movies

Writing is a tough, challenging job, that's for sure. And one of the many instructive resources I still use is a good screenplay, or more precisely, a good movie. I can't tell you how much I've learned from great directors, like Vincente Minnelli, and the ineffable, unparallelled Billy Wilder whose acerbic, incisive wit sends chills up my spine. I think Wilder spoke greater truths than almost anyone I have ever read.

As for Minnelli, I can't get enough of his set decorations, his impeccable knowledge of whatever time period he works in. He has no equal.

Plays, books and films form a handy compendium -- you want good pacing, watch the work of great directors like Wilder, Hitchcock, Wyler, Paddy Cheyefsky, Mike Nichols.
You want great dialogue, go for Wilder, Woody Allen, Ernst Lubitsch, Nora Ephron.
Epics that daunt you, haunt you -- David Lean, for one.

And then there's the subject of identification. I can watch cold films and talk about them objectively like pictures in a gallery of post modern art; I can also talk about movies that grabbed me and never let me go. There are different kinds of "grabbers."  The violent ones (pick your fave), the inventive ones (like The Hudsucker Proxy), the indelible horrors -- for me, Rosemary's Baby is supremely well done; and then there are those films that cut the heart, sear themselves into your being for eternity.
Doctor Zhivago is one such film. So are Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Parts One and Two -- but quiet films also achieve the same effect.
Brilliant in writing, brilliant in every way is Brief Encounter. It's about the things said, and those unspoken -- the kind of miraculous blend of heart and soul every writer aspires to.

Anyhow, because I love films, I try to see good ones, try to check out the zeitgeist that is our current culture.

Since 9/11, films have become very dark. Good films are solemn. George Clooney makes them even more so. Films have been very depressing, people floundering, the world teetering on a nervous breakdown. The comedies have either simplistic, ridiculous nothingness to them, or cynical edges and gross points of view. You have to keep digging and rooting like a pig sniffing truffles to find the gems.

I just saw Contagion and I didn't like it at all, even though it was well reviewed.

It was totally bloodless, literally. There was no one you could really hook into for long, nothing that brought you into the reality of a pandemic. It was so cut and dried, so utterly devoid of sentiment, so very faithful to scientific possibility.

In the end, I thought "big deal" and deliberately touched my face with one zillion deadly microbes. Anything -- even SARS at that point --  would have provided comic relief.

And so, another reinforcing lesson about writing. If you don't make your characters real, if you alienate your audience with what you think is artful understatement when really it's just dull, robotic and painfully'll fail miserably.

Oh--and if you are looking for a good movie that deals with possible pandemics and conspiracies, try Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr. They make you care--and worry.


  1. Ah, movies! I'll add a new one to your list. Have you seen HUGO yet? Scorsese creates a universe in 3D as it should be done. The screen is like looking at reality, smooth and with depth. Then the story! Oh, my! That's a layered story of depth and feeling. I wanted to turn right around and see it again...and again... ; )

  2. HUGO looks so wonderful-- I think it would really appeal to me. Thing is, however, I'll only see it in digital. I just can't handle 3-D.
    I think the magic of the work should translate pretty well even without the 3D. Hope so!

  3. Thanks for the recommendations Carol and Zan Marie!