6/27/12

London transport


Today a dune buggy caught fire on Pankhurst Road in Nag's Head, approximately 65 kilometers away from any dunes. Peoples stopped to film it on their smartphones. A man in an electric wheelchair parked on the edge of the pavement to watch. A young woman standing next to me asked for help: she did not know how to operate the zoom function. 'You pinch the screen, like this,' I said, but her iPhone did not respond. 'No mate, you can't zoom while you're filming,' said a man next to her. He suggested she switch to still mode. She thanked us both. Remaining vehicles that were not on fire continued to maneuver around the vehicle that was. The dune buggy's front tyres exploded. Later as smoke filled the road there came the sound of sirens and the cars that were still moving / not on fire stopped, blocking the one-way street completely. There was a long pause. The flames were now twice the height of the car. 'I hope there's nobody in it,' said a man. I said a dune buggy has no doors or roof. He looked doubtful. After several minutes an ambulance broke through the traffic and drove past the burning dune buggy to the intersection further down the road. 'A woman at the lights had a panic attack,' another woman explained. The fire engine was still stuck several cars back. Some firemen had got out and were shouting at motorists to move. By now the dune buggy was a black wire frame in an orange sheet of flame half the height of the lamp posts and the smoke was so thick it was difficult to take a decent photograph. The cars pulled over and the fire engine began to move forward until an Audi pulled out and stopped at an angle across the lane, blocking it again. The firemen moved the Audi by shouting.  The dune buggy was beginning to die down, now. The tender pulled up and two firemen ran out a hose. People filmed them putting out the fire. 'You'd better watch out, the fuel tank could explode,' said a third woman. Wouldn't that have happened by now? I said. The man in the wheelchair shook his head, reversed, and drove away.

6/26/12

Sunlight on a broken column



The Newsroom. Fucking A.

I believe I'm an Aaron Sorkin fan. Loved Sports Night, hated The West Wing, sneakily attached to Studio 60 (disclosure: dolphin girl), openly admired The Social Network -- greatly; kinda liked Moneyball... Liked The Newsroom. A lot.

Smart move (i): setting it in a newsroom. We expect bored media-savvy types to talk in a media-savvy, bored way about the media. Smart move (ii): setting it all just a little bit in the past. Unlike The West Wing (AKA The Waltons), The Newsroom invites us to examine its narrative churn with the benefit of hindsight. Not a lot of hindsight, because that would be history and require us to work: The Newsroom skates on mid-term memory, perfectly. For example the Gulf oil spill was about BP and Halliburton but, yes, long term, we would all better remember the new iPhone. We are the hollow men, and so forth. You know the drill.

6/25/12

The beautiful victim


Watching A Perfect Murder (1998) again reminded me how much I like it. Written by Patrick Smith Kelly for director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), the story is based on Frederick Knott's play Dial M For Murder, which Knott adapted for Alfred Hitchcock's film version in 1954. There are a few nods to its heritage, such as the camera in the opening credits spiralling upwards to a loft window with a touch of Vertigo, but the story is its own movie.

A Perfect Murder works because it focusses almost entirely on the triangle of Steven, Emily and David: there's no relief from the mental lock they have on each other, and no rationalisation offered by other characters. And the casting is perfect. Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow are believable as wealthy, successful people (because they are) and Viggo Mortensen is just on the right side of smart. He lives in what is now an unbelievable loft, but his boho life is as intrinsic to the plot as the Taylors' wealth: if they didn't live like that, there wouldn't be a story. New York is presented as a village in three parts: the two apartments and Emily's home -- again, mirroring the characters -- and there is no escape either by car, boat or train. No friends, no-one you can trust. Most of all what I like about it is its economy. No set ups, no back story, information rolled out when it serves the story and not before. The technology has dated -- landline telephones, slow trading screens -- but it's credible. This is one of the last pre-smartphone thrillers: once everyone had a handset, killing would change.

6/19/12

What sort of bird are you?




Moonrise Kingdom and Prometheus have a lot in common. Both are made by Kubrick fans: Wes Anderson quotes the camera moves from Full Metal Jacket; Ridley Scott quotes the plot of 2001 and Keir Dullea's old-man makeup. Both movies are set in artificial landscapes and populated by name actors: on first viewing, it's a little hard to work out who the story is really about. And both stories turn on the importance of maps and geographic locations. In Prometheus the key action is laid out in a spooky digital graphic of the alien interior; in Moonrise Kingdom the local geography is described by Bob Balaban.

The ubiquitous Bob Balaban talked to the Onion AV Club about working with Wes:
AVC: There's a succession of shots in the film where you're positioned along the bottom edge of the frame, a technique that only works if you're framed exactly the same in every shot.

BB: Wes planned all that and showed me his various visual experiments before we began. It was a great way of him telling me, without ever saying, "Do what I'm doing, because I'm playing the narrator now." All I could think was, "Oh, I see. I'm not supposed to act very much. I'm just supposed to say what's going on." He never had to tell me that; he just showed it to me. I don't think he did it with any grand plan in mind, other than it's nice for an actor to know where he is in the frame, because it informs you to know those things. But I learned a whole lot more from him.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Anderson discussed the influence of Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma:
"Brian De Palma is one of my favorite directors ever, and has such the most sophisticated visual style of anybody," he observes. "But Brian De Palma is somebody who can take a giant complicated action sequence and say, I know precisely how to execute this. I'm a completely different kind of moviemaker -- and the basic crucial talents of that are precisely what I lack, probably."
I saw Prometheus in 2D but dear God, if there is one living director I would like to see make a movie in 3D, it's Wes Anderson. It would be like a two and a half-hour Viewmaster reel, or one of those craft dioramas you used to make in a shoebox on a rainy day. Please, Hollywood: make it happen.

6/16/12

Crisscross



Philip Matthews has collected images and texts on my favourite David Lynch film, Lost Highway in an effort to trace its origins:
The beautiful-sounding phrase "psychogenic fugue" became the official explanation for the Fred Madison/Pete Dayton switch in Lost Highway but there is another source, one I'd never considered, one which seems obvious now given the timing (a mid-90s production, a 1997 release). The endless road, the car chase and police sirens, the homicidal jealousy, the murdered girl and her shady friends ... this was a rare instance of Lynch topicality, of stories ripped from headlines.
OJ Simpson? I think he's right.

Lost Highway is written by the great, great Barry Gifford who wrote The Sinaloa Story and Perdita Durango. He's also B-movie / noir movie buff and to understand where Lost Highway was coming from it might also help give a sideways glance to his collection of essays on the genre, The Devil Thumbs A Ride. As a fan and a critic Gifford is well aware of the effects of practical limitations on film making -- e.g. censorship, budgeting problems, arguments with studios, problem actors. To me Lost Highway always felt like a compendium of such "mistakes": two films mashed into one; the same role played by two different actors; one actor playing two roles, etc.

Later Lynch would double-down on the one-actor-playing-two-roles trope for Mulholland Drive, to great effect.

Maybe everyone else already knows this... I haven't read around.

Also: Patricia Arquette. Twice.

Gifford was published in the UK by Rebel Inc, an imprint of Canongate Books, so I was introduced to the full range of his work when Canongate were publishing Shirker. After I read The Sinaloa Story and The Wild Life Of Sailor and Lula, my writing changed.

6/15/12

Golden


The scene in The Paperboy in which Nicole Kidman pisses on Zac Efron divided Cannes critics. But in this case even bad reviews are good because a movie getting made means Pete Dexter is getting paid for it: pound for pound, he's my favourite living author. A Michigan-born novelist, newspaper columnist and now screenwriter, Dexter wrote God's Pocket, Deadwood, Paris Trout (which won the the National Book Award for Fiction), Brotherly Love, The Paperboy (won the PEN Literary Award), Train and most recently Spooner, which Chicago Sun-Times critic Mark Athitakis described as "sprawling, funny, deeply frustrating." (Like I said: my favourite.)

Here's Dexter on how he got started:
BB: So, did you want to be a writer when you were growing up?

PD: No, never. I took two writing classes at the University of South Dakota but it was just because I found out that I didn't want to be a mathematician. I started looking through the student book there and saw Creative Writing and figured if I can't bullshit my way through that then I don't deserve to graduate, even from the University of South Dakota. But I never took it even semi-seriously. I mean I didn't read anything until... it's a true story than when I wrote Deadwood, my brother Tom called me up and said, "You've now written a book longer than any book you've ever read."
Dexter started off as a reporter:
BB: Did you sense yourself building towards a novel while you were writing the column?

PD: No. Nothing like that. I don't have any long-range plans even now. I just always assumed what was going to happen. I'm not a fatalist or anything, but I just assumed things would go some interesting way. And they did. But there was no plan or anything.

BB: So you never felt a desire to be a novelist?

PD: No, not really. I'm sure it went through my head. Like everyone is always saying they want to do that, they sit around bars talking about it, "I'd like to write a novel." I didn't even do too much of that.
I've quoted this on this blog before somewhere, but it bears repeating: Dexter in an interview with NPR's Scott Simon, on story telling:
SIMON: Now that you've had a chance to look back at your work 20 years ago, and more, what makes a good column and a good columnist?

Mr. DEXTER: I think your instinct has to be to confront. If you're the kind of guy that comes to a peaceful lake and you know there's birds floating around on it and it's early morning or something and you're happy just standing there looking at that beautiful sight, then maybe you're a photographer. But you know, if your instinct is to toss a rock in the pond and watch the birds come up and watch what it does to the surface of the water, to me it's that interruption of quiet, which is not just about what column writing is about, but it's about what writing itself is kind of about, when you think about it, you know.
Dexter on screenwriting:
Essentially, a script is 120 pages, most of it white space, and the writing doesn't really matter except the dialogue. That's the opposite of writing a novel. I knew writing the script wasn't going to take as long as writing a book or be as much work.
Again with the Bronx Banter, Dexter -- he doesn't do many interviews -- goes into his writing process:
BB: In the afterward of Spooner you write about how much time you spent cutting stuff out. Was it really hard to you to make those choices and cut it down or was that actually enjoyable?

PD: I didn't dislike the process. Two hundred and fifty pages were cut and most of it was culling sections, cutting them down. There's probably 50 pages I cut from the high school section, and 50 pages out of the Philadelphia section. I guess I did sort of enjoy it because as I was doing it I could see I was making it better, and that's not always the case. There are times I'll spend a whole night re-writing and cutting stuff and the next day I'll go in and look at it and could see I've uh... I might as well of just died a day earlier because this is worthless.
Because writing is a verb, and so is reading. Dexter speaking to the Muholland Times:
I always think about it as meeting the book halfway... You’ve got to be willing to commit yourself to not sitting back and having it happen to you. Reading’s not just a passive act. You gotta bring something to it.

6/14/12

Except when soft rains fall, and drip from leaves


"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

"That terrible mood of depression of whether it's any good or not is what is known as The Artist's Reward."
– Ernest Hemingway

"I hate writing, I love having written."
– Dorothy Parker

6/7/12

He could have married Anne with the blue silk blouse


Charles Q. Choi on the science of déjà vu:
The researchers found déjà vu most often occurred when new scenes were very similar to previously experienced scenes in terms of their spatial layout but not similar enough that people consciously recognized the resemblance.

"One reason for the jarring sense that accompanies déjà vu may be the contrast between the sense of newness and the simultaneous sense of oldness — something unfamiliar should not also feel familiar... A situation that resembles one in memory may be a particularly good candidate for producing that simultaneous recognition of newness alongside a sense of familiarity."
Chris Lee on how David Bowie is not here and yet still is:
"He has consciously dropped out of sight," says Paul Trynka, author of David Bowie: Starman, considered the definitive biography of the singer. "For someone so consistently vain and self-obsessed, the heart attack—the realization of his mortality—came as a massive psychological blow. But he's someone who has always had a real understanding of how to manipulate the media and saw the dramatic potential of a disappearance in a very Hollywood way. It became a kind of Houdini disappearing act. The fact that it's gone unstated makes it even more mysterious."
Also from Scientific American; why paper won't go away either:
"Your iPad will go blank on you," Barrett said. "But 'Huckleberry Finn' will never go blank on you. Even if you store it in a wet basement and it gets really badly molded, you can dry it out and it'll still be there."
(Pic: Lana Del Ray in Cannes; John Sargent's Madame X)

Dreams of typing





I have finished revising and have things to type up, but I can't – I need a rest first. So in the meantime I have dreams of typists. In these dreams I hand the scrawled manuscript to someone and he/she types it up and gives it back to me and I mark up corrections and he/she types it up again on double carbons. Let's be honest, I'm not visualising Hoffman. He only types with two fingers.

(Pics: All The President's Men, The Big Store, Mad Men, Secretary.)

6/5/12

Intolerable cruelty: Mad Men's Henry Blake moment


[Spoilers] When the writers of M*A*S*H* killed off Henry Blake in 1975 the series was never the same again: the tone became too dark for what had started as a half-hour comedy; McLean Stevenson's replacement was never as good, and viewers stopped trusting the series for pulling the rug out and murdering a blameless and loveable character. I wonder if Mad Men has just made a similar mistake. Jared Harris's Lane Pryce has been one of the stars of the season, the straight man to Don's moral windmilling. When Brian Clemens spoke at the BFI he was emphatic about his distaste for killing off characters in a TV series: "It leaves a bad taste in the mouth [and] it ruins the re-runs for the viewer."

On a more academic note it interests me to observe the writers' challenge of spinning a story out over the length of several seasons while still getting things to add up. TV shows are not novels or even narratives in sequence: they're dramas designed to entertain week by week. Actors come and go, as do the creative staff, and moods and tastes change -- the blips are part of the form. But in this golden age of American cable series such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, and at a time when binge-viewing has become the norm, viewers might reasonably expect more narrative cogency. Mad Men has a tradition of losing characters in the last one or two episodes but up until now those departures have been tragi-comic (the lawnmower) or poignant (Freddy getting fired) rather than depressing. I still miss my favourite blonde. I hope Matthew Weiner has a plan.

UPDATE: He does! Matt Zoller and Deborah Lipp present a reel of scenes and images that preceded Lane's demise. I'd noticed some but not all: Pete and Ken standing over Pete's casket-like stereogram, and, oddly, Joan's reverse scarf. But this only comes together in the last episode: you need to watch the series in sequence to understand it. So there you have it: Mad Men is indeed designed for binge-viewing, like a 14-hour movie. In the last episode all the characters have been reborn, not to the tune of 'Tomorrow Never Knows' ('relax and float downstream') but to the cold war fantasy of 'You Only Live Twice': 'This dream is for you, so pay the price.' As in Price, Lane Pryce.