Sunday 2 October 2011

"The script will write itself."

I finally got to see the classic Tod Browning movie, Freaks (1932) the other night. It's an amazing film, and well worth the effort needed to track it down. Sadly, it pretty much ended Browning's career, but that's often the way with art. The better your work, the less it's appreciated. Until you're dead, of course. Just ask Vincent Van Gogh.

The Player
Having seen Freaks, I immediately followed up by rewatching the movie which first piqued my interest, Robert Altman's The Player (1992). Lyle Lovett gives a memorable rendering of, "One of us, one of us..." [Few things irritate my wife as much as the sound of me imitating Lovett around the house. I should probably stop doing that...]  If you haven't seen The Player, it's a Hollywood insider movie, like All About Eve, Celebrity, For Your Consideration, Get Shorty, The Muse, State and Main, The Stunt Man, Sunset Blvd., The Last Shot, Tropic Thunder, or What Just Happened?  And probably the best of those.

I first saw The Player at the movies in 1992, and have watched it lots of times since on VHS and DVD. It has three scenes which stand out for me. First is the opening a continuous tracking shot, just under ten minutes long. Yes, a single shot sets up the entire movie, shows us all the key studio characters in their native habitat, and introduces the problems in Tim Robbins life. 

Russian Ark
Ten minutes isn't the record for a tracking shot. Russian Ark (2002), set in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, is a single shot, 99 minute, guided tour of Russian history and art, possibly wrapped in a mystery. Hard to be sure when you don't speak Russian. Anyway, it took over 4,000 people to put this film together. The Winter Palace was closed for one day only, and they had to get it all in that time. Three ruined takes, then a successful fourth attempt, and now we have an extraordinary movie. Lush, magnificent, unique, gorgeous. Well worth seeing.  

A scene from Russian Ark - Catherine the Great takes morning tea in the small parlour
The second scene in The Player which stands out for me is the one where the newly-arrived, young, hotshot, studio executive is explaining his scheme to save the studio money – he'd stop paying writers and take stories direct from newspaper headlines (a technique pioneered by Warner Bros. in the 1920s). There's a brief interchange between Larry, the hotshot, and Marty, a studio accountant, who has to pluck a headline from the paper.

       How about, “Mudslide Kills 60 in 
       Slums of Chile”?

       That’s good. Triumph Over Tragedy. 
       Sounds like a John Boorman picture. 
       You slap a happy ending on it, the 
       script will write itself.
I'd pay a lot of money to watch a script "write itself." Yet the glib attitude behind that line can be encountered today in many places outside Hollywood.

The third memorable scene, one which greatly surprised me this time round, is one of the moments in the opening reel where Tim Robbins is dealing with yet another threatening postcard. This time he shoves the Humphrey Bogart card in his desk drawer, which is left open long enough for us to see a stack of other threatening postcards and... wait for it... a screenwriting advice book!  I must have blinked and missed it all those other times.

And what was the well-dressed studio executive supposedly reading twenty years ago?  Look closely.

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