21 December 2009

"Yield this, Senator Paine."

When Mr. Smith Goes to Washington appears on television programs about Great Inspirational Movies, people tend to focus on its starry-eyed idealism, its commitment to classic American values, its belief in the idea that, no matter the odds, one man can truly make a difference. They don't usually mention how absolutely fucking bananas the movie is. And I don't mean that in a cynical, The-System-Keeps-Us-Dumb! way. I mean that in a Holy-Shit,-This-Movie-Forgot-to-Take-Its-Medication way.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is about Jefferson Smith, er...going to Washington. He's an unexpected appointee to a recently vacated Senate seat, and though he's a political neophyte, he believes in this grand nation so much that he's going to do the best darn job a freshman Senator has ever done. The other Senator from his unnamed state, Paine, is in league with a machine boss to push an unnecessary dam project through Congress, and they're hoping Smith remains clueless so they can cash in on the graft. To make a long story short and spoil an ending you already know, Smith finds out about it because the dam will destroy the grounds on which he hopes to organize an annual boys' camp (he's got a thing about boys...I'll get to that later). When he tries to speak out, Paine and his cronies attempt to have him expelled from the Senate on phony charges, so Smith initiates a filibuster as a last ditch effort to save his ass.

The movie is a marriage between screwball comedy and "Gee, ain't this country swell?" that works together like peanut butter and chocolate and beer. Smith's idealism is reflected in a Welcome to Washington montage that has him admiring all the pretty monuments, but most especially the Lincoln Memorial, which he returns to repeatedly when he's in need of inspiration or solace. Rippling through this is the jadedness of every other character, most especially his secretary and love interest, Saunders, and her alcoholic reporter friend, Diz, and they get in some pretty great lines, at least one of which I feel the need to incorporate into my daily sayings: "I gotta go out and drink this over."

It's Classic Hollywood done by the best. Yes, there are certain aspects that haven't aged well, most notably Smith's awkward predilection for boys. He leads a pseudo-Boy Scouts ("Boy Rangers") as well as a newspaper geared toward the little lads. The Governor, upon arriving at Smith's house to deliver the news of his appointment, is startled by the presence of a boy band, and enters to find the whole place littered with boys. When the "Youth Leader" gets to Washington, he seems quite interested in the Congressional page boys, giving each one a Boy Ranger button they proudly wear. And, as mentioned above, his biggest dream is to organize an annual boys camp so he can initiate the nation's children into manhood. It's all innocent, of course, but in this suspicious day and age (never even mind the Mark Foley scandal), one that makes us...wonder...a bit about Mr. Smith and his lack of a wife.

But then there are those "Whuzzuh?" moments, where we start to get the idea that Capra and his writers are just fucking with us. The first one comes along when the newspapers portray Smith in a demeaning fashion. That gets him good and steamed, so he goes around punching people in the face. Granted, it's not a sudden outbreak of mass face-punching; he targets those reading the articles about him and laughing. And also the reporters. His madness is finally brought to an end when he chases a reporter into the National Press Club (a bar, natch) and they manage to bring him down. Controversy raised over Mr. Smith's rampage: None. It's all in good fun, folks!

"I'm gonna light you up like the mooovie hooouuuse!"

Some other light-hearted violence comes along during Smith's filibuster. The machine boss shuts down all opposition newspapers, so the citizens in the state only receive a spun, "Smith is a Disgrace!" message from the media. To combat it, Smith's mother and the boy reporters at his paper put out their own pro-Smith articles. When the boss hears about it, he orders his men to take drastic measures. This results in a montage of thugs stealing children's newspapers, storming into their offices and slapping them around, and running over their wagons with roaring trucks. The coup de grace comes when a carload of boys taunts the drivers of a truck loaded with anti-Smith newspapers, so the truck drivers do what comes naturally and run them off the road. The high-pitched screams of the children are horrifically and hilariously cut off by the transition to the next scene.

Let us also not discount Smith's ability to inspire his fellow man, a catalyst that acts quicker than Popeye's spinach. First he puts his Smithiness into Saunders during a late night bill-writing session. She wants to get the job done and go home because she knows the bill is doomed by the dam anyway. But he talks about the beauty of nature in his home state, and his words have quite the effect on the big city gal. As she listens, the film shoots her in Smith-o-Vision, soft lighting close ups where her eyes water with hope and optimism. Those types of shots were common enough back then (I think of them as Old Hollywood's money shots), but their combination with Smith's stirring speech breezes past cheesy and places them firmly in the absurdly cornball category. I can picture Capra saying around the tongue in his cheek, "Yeah, choke on all that glorious America, you fuckers." She falls in love with Smith, of course, and they go on to finish the bill with her perversely never mentioning the dam.

I was even more weirded out by a similar turn at the end. During his epic filibuster, Smith addresses Senator Paine about lost causes. Paine knew his father, you see, and Smith appeals to the veteran politico's dead sense of hope and idealism. Up until this point, Paine has been doing all he can to put Smith out to pasture while privately ruing his actions, and now Smith's words clearly touch him. Smith faints, and Paine quietly leaves the Senate chamber. He's a calm person, cool-as-a-cucumber (and played by the dashing - and English - Claude Rains), so presumably he's leaving for a bit of soul searching before revealing the truth. But that assumption turns out to be wrong when he tries to shoot himself in the head. Two men pull away his gun before he can do the job, then he runs back in ranting and raving at the top of his voice, confessing his guilt. The crowd cheers.

Another scene that struck me: Smith is nervous speaking with Paine's beautiful daughter, and as they talk we only see Smith's hands fiddling with and dropping his hat in a continuous shot. It's a daring choice, even today, one I very much enjoyed. Other small touches feel like screwball's influence trumping the starry-eyed view: the Governor is beset at work by two different groups telling him who appoint to the new office, then arrives home to find his kids doing the same thing (they want Smith). He flips a coin to decide, and when it lands on its side, he goes for Smith. Later on, when he prepares for his filibuster, Smith pulls a comically large thermos out of his suit coat. It reminded me of another movie...

If you have not seen this movie, you have not lived...

Capra's movies usually get classified as schmaltz, but quite often they showcased a zany attitude firmly beside the can-doism. And that, I think, is why they remain so heralded and influential. The civics lessons are what get brought up, but they wouldn't go down so easy without the ballsy bonkersness and the genuinely stinging one-liners.

15 December 2009

Masterpiece in Miniature: The Opening Credits of Les Bronzes

A friend of mine once suggested that in the future, historians and critics will study Tyler Perry's movies the same way they now study Oscar Micheaux's, as they both cater to audiences that are typically neglected by the big studios. I said we should then perhaps reconsider how we evaluate Tyler Perry, or maybe Oscar Micheaux. Nevertheless, it's one of those stunningly obvious conclusions I don't typically think of until someone points it out to me: Dismissed Art + Time = Something Wonderful.

A film shrugged off back in the day will, given its survival into the future, emerge as a time capsule of an era. The older it is, the more likely it is to be studied and analyzed for clues about its makers, its audience, its stars. Think of all that old timey footage of city streets that crops up in history shows. Once the novelty of film wore off, I'm sure people then weren't too impressed with the shots. They could merely step outside and see the real thing. But now we're amazed by the preservation of a few scant moments of long-buried streets and citizens.

This is what I tell myself when I feel somewhat abashed by my surprise love for the opening credits of the 1978 French farce Les Bronzés, released in the English-speaking world with the regrettable title French Fried Vacation. I discovered it entirely by accident; while reading about Club Med on one of those random tumbles through the Wikiverse, I saw that the vacation resorts had been parodied in a film of this title. A few days later, I was watching movies on Hulu and saw they had the entirety of Les Bronzés. I clicked on it in curiosity. The opening credits entranced me, though I could only sit through about five minutes of the rest of the film. I might go back to it one day, as it wasn't aggressively terrible or anything. But comedy, especially the crowd-pleasing mediocre variety, rarely translates well, and outside of an amusing bit of awkwardness that could have come from a Ricky Gervais show, nothing was all that inspired.

If I were a random French person in the late '70s, I could imagine myself hating this film with all the ferocity I reserve for today's crap. "How can people like this rubbish?" I'd ask as I light up a cigarette at the local cafe. "It just caters to their basest instincts. It speaks not to the mind. Oh, if only Godard would release something new. Now where are my cheese and wine?" Today, given the distance of time and culture, it's safe for me to love it for those exact same reasons - it captures the mood of a nation at one particular moment. Imagine a Romanian person watching Wild Hogs in thirty years: "My God, it's like an entire era wrapped up in a movie! God bless America! Now where are my mămăligă and ţuică?"

That, essentially, is the sole reason why I love the film's opening credits. Lionsgate, which presumably owns its American rights, has put it online at YouTube and Hulu. Here's a link to the YouTube version, which has fewer advertisements if you're interested in watching the whole thing. At the least, please watch the approximately one minute long credits for further reading.

Done? They're stupidly simple, aren't they? Also incredibly cheap, with a rushed quality and produced with little to no imagination. It's just a slow zoom out from a still photograph of a beach and a few huts on a jungle-filled stretch of land while garishly orange credits flash in the corner. Really, were it not for a talent as famous (in France) as Serge Gainsbourg leering on the soundtrack, the credits might be mistaken for a porno's. It's as if the filmmakers are saying upfront "We made this movie fast and cheap, and if you don't like it, it's too late to get a refund."

But in that same sense, they seem to be the epitome of the '70's style, or at least what we think of now as "Hey! Remember the '70s?!" Back then, according to popular culture and VH1, everyone was snorting blow, sexing it up at Studio 54, and leaving their pubic areas dangerously ungroomed. And that's what this movie promises: hot babes singing "Sea, sex, and sun" over a beach panorama means we're about to watch some light-hearted yet scintillating shenanigans replete with thick mustaches and plaid swimwear. Even the palm tree in the logo is a sexual metaphor. I feel like I've caught the greatest VD of my life just by watching those credits.

The poster seen in dorm rooms across the nation

For all I know, there's nary a shot of full frontal nudity in the entire film. But even if it could be rated PG, it's still a sex farce featuring characters played by actors who look like real people and not models fresh from the silicone factory. Yes, that's right, back in the '70s actors could appear in stupid sex comedies (aimed at adults, not adolescents) and not have to unduly worry about the effect on their persona or career. We don't have those anymore today, unless they're staffed by 30-year-olds playing 18-year-olds desperate to end their virginity, or get with the hottest chick in school, or infiltrate the School of Hard Knockers. The closest we come (heh) are the works of Judd Apatow, but they don't have quite the same spirit. Really, when was the last true mainstream adult sex comedy? Exit to Eden with Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O'Donnell?


Alright, so maybe we do need some standards as to who appears in our liberated adult sex romps. But still, it'd be nice to have a little bit of the spirit of the '70s with us today, the spirit that worried less and wasn't all up into other people's businesses. What it comes down to, I think, is that we were less likely to judge others back then - at least, that was how it was for a very narrow slice of humanity as remembered and mythicized by pop culture - and that resulted in a bit more freedom.

Freedom and AIDS. Still, I would hope that we never entirely lose the joy of an era capable of making Ennio Morricone create this song.

09 December 2009

I Watched It So You Don't Have To: The Caine Mutiny

Buried somewhere within The Caine Mutiny is a tight, effective drama about men's egos clashing during wartime. While much of that manages to shine through in the finished film, it's bogged down by a hopelessly boring main character who remains a blank sheet unmarked by a rote back story no one asked for or cares about. The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk which I have not read. I did read two of Wouk's later works back in high school, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and consider it telling that, despite a combined length of nearly 2000 pages, I only recall two particular characters and scenes.

The film opens with the graduation of Ensign Keith from naval school during World War II. Ensign Keith, unfortunately, serves as our entry character, a fresh-faced young'un who has a lot to learn about this man's navy. Before he does, we find out that he is seeing a beautiful songstress he won't introduce to his mother, who is apparently a smothering figure. This subplot about Ensign Keith and his lady folk takes up perhaps thirty minutes of the final film, and those minutes fucking DRRRRRAAAAAAGGG.

Why does he allow his mother to have such an influence on who he sees and engagement cockteases? We don't know and Keith doesn't explain. We only see his mother a few times, briefly, and she seems like a perfectly nice woman. Perhaps her high-society nature would dislike the idea of her son marrying a common entertainer. Then why doesn't Keith just man up and tell her to shove it? Again, the movie doesn't get into it, so we're stuck with a melodrama of "Marry me!" "Oh, jeez, I don't know, Mother wouldn't approve" when we'd much rather be elsewhere.

The director, Edward Dmytryk, was aware of these problems and wished the film could have been longer than the two-hour cut dictated by the studio, which would have given him time to more fully flesh out the characters. I shudder at the thought, because I imagine much of that time would be devoted to mama-boy Keith's bland emoting. Unless the answer for the terror he suffers under his mother is "She killed my father and stole my pee-pee Freud-style" or something equally grisly or bizarre, I say take the opposite tack.

After the introduction, Ensign Keith makes it onto the U.S.S. Caine to see service in the Pacific, and we finally get to meet the characters we'd prefer to spend the movie with. As each one appears, you think, "Hey! It's Lee Marvin as minor, colorful character! Fred MacMurray as a smartass! Van Johnson as a no-nonsense, scarred XO! Why didn't we just start off with these guys?" We then meet the lovable captain, an easy-going sort who overlooks the tiny rules to run an efficient ship with a happy crew. A by-the-book stick-in-the-mud, Keith does not approve of the captain, and we want to tell him to shove it up his ass, but alas, he cannot hear our entreaties.

Eventually, the cool captain is replaced by Queeg, a nervous paranoid played by Humphrey Bogart. Here the real drama starts, as Queeg turns out to be so obsessed with the details, and so wracked with post-traumatic stress disorder from combat in the Atlantic, that he is a monumentally shitty captain. At first Keith thinks Queeg's the commander of his dreams, but soon realizes that the man in charge is off his rocker, and teams up with the other officers to shun and, eventually, oust the old bastard.

Here is where the film is at its best: the conflict between Van Johnson's XO, Fred MacMurray's communications officer, and Queeg. When they take center stage and Keith is a mute or otherwise minimized witness, the great acting by all three (and later José Ferrer's jag-off JAG) trumps Dmytryk's pedestrian direction (the ur-Brett Ratner?) to provide a pretty entertaining drama well worth watching by any old time movie fan. Bogie's monologue at the end of the movie is a piece of real beauty, the highlight of one of his greatest performances. And Ferrer has a speech that provides a final twist; he pulls it off so well it makes me want to write a similar scene where a person enters a crowded room and proceeds to eloquently tear everyone a new asshole.

It's just too bad we have to keep putting up with that Keith guy. I don't know if Robert Francis would have developed into a good actor (he died in an airplane accident the year after The Caine Mutiny was released), or if he was hemmed in by stodgy writing and direction, but he does not do anything with the part. He just comes off as a Hollywood pretty-boy making his bones and biding his time. At one point, the Caine returns to port and the officers get a brief leave. We spend all of it with Ensign Keith and his dame touring Yosemite, and I wanted to scream "NO! Any other fucking character, please! I like all the rest! But not him! Not him!" But once again, the characters could not hear my cries.

Even the horses look bored.
If anyone out there wants to attempt a Phantom Menace-style fan edit on this thing, we might be looking at a real classic instead of a disappointment.

03 December 2009


This fine evening, I find myself in a mood of gradually increasing irritation. The holiday season tends to do that to me. The forced jollity, the insipid specials, the ridiculous Christ-in-Christmas made-up controversy, the endless airings of the same five songs over and over, the labeling of "Scrooge" to anyone who wants to avoid the now-meaningless rituals held year in and year out. Frankly, I'm ready to put the "mas" back in "Christmas," as in "mas booze," "mas candy," and "mas selfish gift purchases."

Which means I'm in the perfect mood to examine a subject I've been meaning to write about for quite a while. It's one that any screenwriter, and really, any filmmaker will probably already be familiar with, given its inescapable nature to anyone even casually involved in the industry. I speak, of course, about screenwriting contests, lectures, and similar enterprises designed to pry the hard earned dollars out of your wallet.

Everyday, my e-mail box is lambasted with notices about competition deadlines, festivals I must enter, conferences where I will learn the closely guarded secrets to writing that perfect screenplay. They come from organizations I never recall signing up with, but I'm hesitant to yank myself from their mailing lists - "Maybe one day something worthwhile will show up," I think as I delete the oncoming waves of junk. Today it was an invitation to a FREE teleconference where I will hear the Top 10 Insights Learned from 437 Hollywood Producer Interviews, which are the KEYS TO YOUR SUCCESS as a writer.

Only 437? If it was 438, I might be inclined to participate...

I'm not going to say that these are scams set up as mere profit generating machines (not all of them, anyway). And I'm not going to say that you won't learn anything worthwhile from them. Hell, if you had the time and the money, then it certainly couldn't hurt to attend with an open (yet always keen) mind willing to test out the latest suggestions and insights. Different things work for different people, and it's up to you to explore what fits your style and personality.

But I, for one, don't have the money to fly to L.A., book a room, and spend cash money to go to week long events where I'll get to pitch my ideas to LIVE! NUDE! PRODUCERS! Nor do I want to look at a credit card statement littered with dozens of entry fees for competitions that only give me a polite but firm "No, we did not choose to honor your screenplay" (and that's if they're extra nice).

Years ago, in the before time, I was more inclined to enter competitions. I figured it was an opportunity to get my work read by fresh eyes, make connections, and maybe even win some recognition and acclaim. What's thirty to fifty bucks every now and again if it leads to something bigger? Well, I'm just going to say it: It's not going to lead to something bigger. It's not going to lead to anything but you losing thirty to fifty bucks.

"But what about the winners?" you may be asking. "Surely they win something, and if I'm a good enough writer, I could be one of them." Yes, the competitions have winners, but so does the lottery, and in both cases the crowning of the winners depends just as much on luck as on skill.

See, the people who judge these things tend to get inundated with entries and so, naturally enough, they need to find a way to parse through the load and make the job faster and easier. Major typos and improper formatting are obvious things they can use as guidelines - "They dropped the 'O' out of that character's name. Into the garbage it goes!" - as are common and tired tropes that beginning and/or lazy writers tend to over rely on (I hope to never read or see another asshole boyfriend character as long as I live). This might lead to an accidental toss-out of a masterpiece, but hey, some wheat always ends up with the chaff. The process gets a bit harder when the writer has cannily taken care to avoid such errors. And so the judges rely on the ol' classic rules of screenwriting - Does the script follow the mathematically derived formulas for screenplay success?

In the end, these competitions tend not to reward ingenuity or insight, but safety and blandness. How often do you read about a competition winning screenplay being produced? It happens every once in a while, yes, but if the scripts being churned out of these things had any life or vitality, there would be many more announcements of their getting optioned and delivered to theaters. As it is, the best a writer can hope for is a contact with an agent or producer and a couple of dollars to pay the electric bill.

"But there are more factors at play than whether a script is good or not!" I'm already protesting for you. "There's marketing, and budget, and casting, and etc. etc. etc. Really, these competitions are about finding unique and original talent!" Yes, yes, yes, all true. But also threatening to derail the thread of my original point: Participating in these contests is still stupid. And not because they don't offer a chance of getting somewhere (slim though it is), but because your efforts at getting discovered could be put to better use elsewhere. Again, you could win the lottery, too, or you could save that dollar a day and use it to buy sweet, sweet bourbon.

It's the same thing with the forums and the conferences - they'll give you the REAL way to make your script attractive to REAL producers (call now! only $1.99 for the first minute!) - but a lot of this is stuff you can easily find examined and debated online and in books at the library. The only reason to participate in any of it is to meet other people who can help you in your career (and vice versa), which is something you can do in other places where you don't have to spend two hours listening to an unproduced hack drone on about the three types of stories and how to make them work for you.

I say the hell with all that. I say just keep writing and reading, watch movies, do your own research, talk about it endlessly with fellow scribes and anyone who will tolerate you, and - that's right - start producing your own stuff. Because as everyone has begun pointing out more and more these days, the industry is changing, paradigms are evolving, and while it's scary that you may no longer be able to sell your comedy screenplay about a man who becomes trapped in the fictional world of a children's program to a major studio for seven figures, take heart in knowing that more opportunities and more venues are opening for people with the guts to say "Ah, fuck it, I'll do it myself." The wallet may suffer, but the life of the mind is about to undergo a revolution.

For now, though, we're stuck in the doldrums. Everyone, not just Hollywood, is falling back on the same tired formulas. This is the first holiday movie season I can recall where I don't give a rat fuck about seeing any of the new movies coming out. They all feel like I've watched them already. Last year I wasn't particularly rooting for anyone in the Oscar race, but I still followed it closely. This is the first year where I've felt utterly indifferent. Up in the Air? Precious? Middling Piece of Shit? Who cares? With all this mediocrity, something has to eventually give way. Some batshit genius will come out of left field and release a completely new movie, or at least repackage the same crap in a new suit, and movies may finally be good again.

It seems like those of us attempting to carve a life out for ourselves in this business have a choice. You can be one of the many followers who enter competition after competition, taking the advice of any broke motherfucker with a formula to peddle, and continue to try to be one of the fewer and fewer go-to writers for Hollywood studios and producers. Or you can be a goddamn maverick and start producing your own scripts, and take on writing assignments outside of movies in an attempt to seek new inspiration and creativity for this thing we call a screenplay, and do whatever you can to create and distribute the art you love wherever you happen to be, whether it's Southern California or Nuuk, Greenland.

But then, I'm just a bitter asshole who hates Christmas. What do I know about anything?