In continuing on my Netflix viewing, I came across a recent French film Look at Me about a writer/publisher and his relationship with his insecure overweight daughter whom he constantly demeans in a subtle yet ruthless manner. The excellent screenplay is by the writing team of Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui who also wrote The Taste of Others. The two also starred in both films and Jaoui also directed both.
What struck me about the movie though is that it is about the writing world, a story about a writer and his daughter and his dealings with another writer and that writer’s wife. It’s intelligent and engrossing. And unlike any film in the U.S. on the subject of writers.
What I would like to know is why, when Europe makes movies about writers, we get this and movies like Reprise and Late August, Early April, among others, and in the U.S. we get The Shining and other movies about horror novelists with writer’s block?
I once read, I believe in the New Yorker, though it was so long ago I can’t be sure I’m right, that when a book in France wins one of their writing awards, it instantly becomes a best selle; one can’t find the book stocked in bookstores; and everyone starts talking about it. I have never read the same about a book that wins the Pullitzer Prize or National Book Award. So is this why the Europeans can take writers in movies so much more seriously? Because they take writers so much more seriously in every day life?
I read and do coverage for a production company and contests (where many screenplays, especially the good ones, are not written with commerciality in mind or whether there is an audience for their subject matter) and in thinking about it, I can’t really remember anybody even writing a screenplay about this subject much, if at all. Why is that? Could it be because screenwriters don’t know very much about the writing world outside screenwriting? Are we that insular? How many screenwriters in the U.S. even have novelists and short story writers, much less poets, as friends? How many screenwriters have even had a novel published or even written one (unless it’s to try and get their screenplay purchased)? Could it be that in the U.S., there is such a complete lack of interaction between these two worlds that it would never even occur to screenwriters to write about this subjec matter? After all, if one doesn’t even know a novelist, how can one write about them?
Of course, I’m not any better. I’ve never written a screenplay about a novelist or the literary world. I don’t really have any novelist friends. I am that insular, perhaps. And I don’t live in Europe, so the reality could be totally different than what I’m describing here. But I do think America has developed an attitue toward novelists and poets in which we don’t really consider them that important to society.
It’s not that we don’t read in the U.S. Book sales are up and though the economy has affected publishing like all other businesses, people can still be seen looking at novels in coffee shops and on busses (except that I’m writing this in L.A. and according to Joan Didion no one takes the bus here).
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is entertaining enough, though the most entertaining aspects of it are the characters showing they have more problems controlling their hormones than controlling their wands (I would say pun intended, but this is a family movie and the hormones never go below the neck). The three heroes who do little but fight off the evil Voldomor must now fight off puberty; they find both a losing battle. The Harry Potter franchise has never been that exciting to me, so my views are probably irrelevant. But I always felt the plots were sort of clunky, almost as if the author J.K. Rowling was kind of winging it, making it all up as she went along and hoping nobody would notice (and based on ticket receipts, most people haven’t, so what does that say about me). It doesn’t have the controlled and well thought out mythology of The Lord of the Rings, say. There is a wonderful performance (almost a redundant statement) by Jim Broadbent as a quirky professor straight out of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Tom Brown’s School Days. He first appears as an overstuffed armchair and even when he becomes human again, he still seems like an overstuffed armchair. His appearance is accompanied by a wonderful sequence in which a destroyed house gets put back together again, with one little bobble from a chandelier trying desperately to get out from under Harry Potter’s iconic tennis shoe to rejoin his mates. And two fun scenes: one in a shop where Ron Weasley’s twin brothers have become wizard capitalists (in both senses of the word) and still won’t show their brother any respect (I guess, it’s not always who you know after all) and a kind of soccer game played on broomsticks (though they become unfortunately phallic at the worse times—but this is puberty after all, so it may be appropriate). The music by Nicholas Hooper is exciting and moving, especially over the end credits.
I mean does she really creep me out, or what?
That’s all. I just had to get it off my chest.
Surveillance was written by Keith Harper and co-written by director Jennifer Chambers Lynch (who is David Lynch’s daughter—there, I said it, now we don’t have to refer to it again, because it really should be irrelevant). It’s about two FBI agents called to a small town that is the victim of a serial killer. It’s a first script by Harper, who also plays a policeman in the movie. The movie has one incredible sequence when two sadistic cops, who tend to stop miscellaneous out of town drivers and psychologically fuck with them, target two cars, one with a family and one with two hopped up druggies, and then everyone is attacked by two serial killers. This sequence shows what the movie could have been, but wasn’t. Bill Pullman, one of the agents, has his partner Julia Ormond set up three rooms with three video cameras so three witnesses can be interrogated at once. One would think that such a set up would cut the time in telling the story by a third—one would be wrong. Everything slows to a crawl and it takes forever to get the full plot. The big twist, though it makes enough acceptable sense, is silly. The climax isn’t helped by a poor performance by Bill Pullman and an evil lesbian straight out of the 1970’s (note to Harper and Lynch, even Woody Allen isn’t this stuck in the past and his script is 40 years old).
What I find frustrating in watching films like this, is that I don’t usually see the same sort of films being made in the U.S. or if I do, they just don’t seem to be anywhere near as good or insightful (of course, there are exceptions and the French also make their fair share of bad movies, so I am talking in generalities and personal feelings that could be seen as prejudiced). Woody Allen is probably our foremost practitioner here, God bless him.
All Late August… is about is a man who is struggling with three relationships, actually four if you can’t the character himself. He’s someone involved in the writing biz, but doesn’t really write himself, but does odd jobs connected to writing (like encyclopedia articles on living writers or ghost writing a politician’s biography). The three relationships he caroms among is his ex-wife who still loves him, his new lover who he doesn’t love enough, and a writer who has never written a successful book and is considered a difficult read who can’t connect with the audience. The writer is especially someone who causes the hero consternation because the hero feels that that is the life he should have lead, but didn’t. But in the end, that’s all the story is about.
Why don’t we make such stories in the U.S.? Or if we do, why aren’t they as good or ambitious as the French?
Some theories, which will have to remain theories because I don’t know for sure, and these are just coming off the top of my head, improvisationally without a lot of forethought:
There must be an audience for them in France.
Perhaps the way French movies are financed, maybe not all of them have to deliver a considerable profit. There may be a part of the French film industry in which huge profits are not the primary motivator.
This may also mean they don’t have to be pitched the same way here. After all, the way movies are made and sold here, it seems to be easier to get a movie based on the pitch line “a man is bitten by a radioactive spider and turns into a superhero” over a pitch line of “a man struggles with his relationships with an ex-wife, a new girlfriend and a failed writer the man is jealous of”.
French morality may allow for a more open expression of sex and relationships and allows the writers/directors to take more chances (I’m sometimes amazed in writing groups and in talking with people who do coverage how prudish Americans still are).
There could be plenty of other reasons, but when I want adult drama, I rarely look for it in the U.S.
I also saw Blindness, which didn’t get very good reviews and it’s one of those movies where one can tell exactly where it stops working and that is when Danny Glover has to explain a lot of the plot via exposition. The characters, which were not that interesting in the first place (with the exception of a thief played by Don McKellar–who also wrote, go figure), never quite recover after this.
The project is the odd combination of the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (who did the wonderful City of Men and The Constant Gardener) and the Canadian Don McKellar, who I remember from the incredible Last Night (which he also wrote and directed) and the incredible series Slings and Arrows.
The idea is brilliant. People, one by one, start going blind. But as interesting as I found the first part, I never bought it. I had no problem with the idea of the government panicking enough to round up people and put them in quarantine–what I couldn’t buy is the way the quarantine prison was run–it made regular prisons seem like gardens of Eden. But this is not what happened during the flu epidemic of 1917, during the AIDS epidemic, during Legionnaire’s Disease. People may have been quarantined, but except in a few cases, they were not treated like animals. None of this made a lot of sense or was believable, which meant that a lot that happened afterwards was quite believable.
However, the idea was so strong, it does sort of carry one through to the end.