Friday, 9 February 2018

Save the Cat!

When the screenwriting manual Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need was released in 2005 it became an immediate success, and has been reprinted multiple times. It has two sequels and there is a Twitter account and a website carrying on the ideas of the original book. There have been conferences, works shops and lectures around it. Blake Snyder, who wrote it, clearly managed to fill a need out there for a quick read on how to write a screenplay.

The book has of course also been criticised many times, primarily from people who see it as having ruined Hollywood, and from people who believe that there is more to film than just Hollywood mainstream cinema even though Save the Cat! might pretend otherwise. Snyder is only interested in profit, and his book is about writing the most commercially successful script possible. If it does not satisfy an impatient teenager, it is of no use to Snyder. But he is upfront with this and there is no need to disparage a book just for wanting to teach how to write a successful teen movie. Such films also have a place in the world.

At long last I have now finally read Save the Cat! myself. The book has eight chapters which go through the steps Snyder thinks a writer should take. Some of these are useful, such as having a good logline (a sentence or two which captures what the film is about) and having a board on which you can see your whole script and the structure of it, so you can easily arrange scenes and plot points, and move them around. But other than these basic suggestions, which are pretty standard advice from such books and not unique to Save the Cat!, nothing else in it makes sense, even for the kinds of films Snyder wants his readers to write. Snyder has put so little thought into it, and has such peculiar ideas about films, audiences and, well, screenwriting, that it is hard to understand why it was even published in the first place.

Let's consider the logline. According to Snyder a great logline should be ironic, "create a compelling mental picture", tell the production company what the potential "audience and cost" will be, and suggest "a killer title". Fair enough. Then he provides this as an example of a great logline: "A just-hired employee goes on a company weekend and soon discovers someone's trying to kill him - The Retreat". (p. 5) I do not see how this satisfies any of the key ingredients Snyder just said a logline must have. There is no irony. It gives no idea what kind of a film it is, as it could be a comedy, a thriller, an action film or a drama. Hence it tells us nothing about either audience or costs. By his own favourite example he has negated his own argument. And, surely, The Retreat is not a killer title. It is a rather lame and generic title. Snyder is confusing about titles elsewhere too since he mentions these four Hitchcock films as examples of what he thinks are great titles: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). These he claims are titles that sell, and clearly tell what genre and style the films are of. "All of them, across the board, certainly say what it is and they do so in a way that's not on the nose or stupid" (p. 15). But, with the possible exception of Psycho, they certainly do not. Nobody would be able to guess what kind of film North by Northwest or Rear Window is if all they had to go by was the title. So what does Snyder mean?


One chapter is called "The Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics" and Snyder gives eight examples of such laws which he calls:
Save the Cat
Pope in the Pool
Double Mumbo Jumbo
Laying Pipe
Black Vet
Watch Out for That Glacier!
The Covenant of the Arc
Keep the Press Out

These rules Snyder says are always true for all good films. But they are not. Not at all. He knows this too because he mentions very successful films that break them so even by his own examples they are not in fact "immutable laws" and it is unclear why he claims that they are.

It is not just that the "laws" are not immutable, they are also weird to begin with. I will just briefly discuss three of them, "Pope in the Pool", "Double Mumbo Jumbo" and "Laying Pipe". The first one is about what to do in scenes with boring exposition so as not to lose the interest of the audience. His example, from which the name comes, is to present the exposition while the pope is going for a swim in a pool in the Vatican. But what is left unclear is why, if the exposition is boring for the audience, included it at all? Why have a scene in which things are said which the audience will not bother about? If the scene is constructed to keep the audience distracted from the dialogue it is likely that they will not pay any attention at all to said dialogue, which is even more reason to delete the whole scene to begin with.

"Double Mumbo Jumbo" refers to Snyder's belief that the audience will accept one piece of weird, unrealistic thing in a film but not more than one. As an example he mentions that in Spider-Man (Sam Raimi 2002), first Peter Parker develops superpowers and then Norman Osborn also develops superpowers and becomes the villain The Green Goblin. This, according to Snyder, is a bad thing and an example of double mumbo jumbo which is supposedly off-putting to the audience. But is not the opposite true here? A key aspect of the whole superhero concept is the idea of one hero and one villain who both have developed superpowers and often are in same way mirror images of each other, and audiences since at least the 1930s have loved this concept. Why Snyder would consider this a major flaw, and something to avoid, is a mystery.

"Laying Pipe" is what Snyder calls it when there is too much exposition and too much information in the beginning of a film, before we get to the important stuff. Here he mentions Minority Report (Steven Spielberg 2002) as an example as it is 40 minutes into the film that John Anderton becomes hunted by his own team. Since Snyder sees the film's hook to be "a detective discovers he is the criminal" (p. 129) it is according to him way too late to have this moment occur after 40 minutes. The audience will be bored by then. This is another example of a Snyder argument that makes no sense. There have been plenty of action and drama before this moment, and if an audience member is bored it will not be because of this moment happening after 40 minutes. And is that really the hook of the film? Is it not more of a twist? (Not to nitpick too much but Anderton does not discover that he is a criminal, he discovers that the system says he is one, which is not the same thing.) Snyder's complaint is similar to arguing that The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan 1999) is a failure because it is not until the very end that we are told that Malcolm Crowe is dead.

So much for the immutable laws. Another argument Snyder makes in the book is that all buddy films, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill 1969) or Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott 1991), begin with the buddies disliking each other. This is not true at all. It is not even true for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Thelma & Louise. In a film like 48 Hrs. (Walter Hill 1981) the two leads dislike being together at first and then their relationship deepens during the course of the story but that is just one kind of buddy film, not a rule for all of them.

Snyder also says that nobody wants to see a film about a man who is "a little world-weary and yet bravely wise" (p. 53) even though that description applies to a large number of exceptionally successful male movie stars, then and now. He also talks about the importance of the first image of a film, how it must immediately grab the audience and tell them what the film is about and what it will be like. The audience he says, is supposed to think "This is gonna be good!" (p. 73) As an example he uses Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean 1962). This is the first image of Lawrence of Arabia:


Snyder says a couple of times that by following his advice success is assured. About his immutable laws he says "they always work." (p. 38) and later he says about his rules that "The point I'm trying to get across here is - it works. And it works for a reason." (p. 42) But works in what way? Success comes not just from a script; acting, directing and marketing also matters for example. Most films are not particularly successful even though many of them since 2005 have been written following Snyder's guidance, such as it is. I suppose this is one reason why his book is so successful. He makes the claim that if you buy the book and follow the rules in it you will not fail. For an aspiring writer that might be just what you want to hear, I can understand that, and Save the Cat! is a very quick read too. But this book is not the answer to their needs. There are many other books written by people who actually know what they are doing, understand their own arguments and have good advice to give.

I have singled out a few things about the book but there is a lot more that I could have brought up. But for now, just one more thing. Snyder measure things according to box office returns. He scoffs at people who think Memento (Christopher Nolan 2000) is worth talking about. "But be ready for one hell of an argument from me!! I know how much Memento made." (p. 96) I am sure he does. But if box office is what matters why is he criticising Spider-Man and Minority Report? According to Snyder's logic they cannot have any flaws considering how successful they were. In the part where he waves away Memento he uses Miss Congeniality (Donald Petrie 2000) as an example of a film with a perfect script, yet it made a lot less money than the other two. Memento, while not making as much money as Miss Congeniality, did pretty good for a cheap indie production and in terms of return on investment it was the more successful of the two.

***

Before he wrote the book Blake Snyder was a screenwriter himself, and he seems to be proud of his career and his accomplishments, which he uses as examples to emulate. I do not begrudge him that. (He co-wrote Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (Roger Spottiswoode 1992) and Blank Check aka Blank Cheque (Rupert Wainwright 1994).) But he is also referred to as "one of Hollywood’s most successful spec screenwriters" and sometimes just "Hollywood's most successful spec writer." Yet I have failed to figure out who it was that made that claim. The closest I got was that some trade journal allegedly said it, but not which one or in what context. (If some trade journal did say it, it cannot have been an important one because if it was its name would obviously be mentioned by Snyder.) It is one of those cases where a quote gets a life of its own, and there is never a source but only circular references. It is quite possible that nobody ever made that claim.

"I had this great premise, which was: 'Dirty Harry gets a new partner - his mother." (p. 81)

Friday, 26 January 2018

Anthony Mann

There is a fight scene in a saloon in Devil's Doorway (Anthony Mann 1950) between a Shoshone Indian and a white racist. The staging of the fight, the camera work (the images are brutal and uncomfortable yet there is also a peculiar beauty in the composition of each shot, a beauty that only enhances the power of the scene) and the choreography, together with the force of the punches and the righteousness of the Shoshone man's fight (he is not just fighting for himself but for all other Native Americans), makes it one of the best fight scenes in cinema history. The fist fight between Link and Coaley in Man of the West (Anthony Mann 1958) is another contender. It is slightly different in that it is more about humiliating the other, than standing up for a historic injustice, but the power and force of it is on the same uncomfortable level. This is the essence of Anthony Mann, these complicatedly staged and emotionally electric fight scenes between men in a state of frenzy. They reach some primordial level, and are expressions of each combatants true being, as well as Mann's. These are fights as existentialist statements.

Mann's films are not just about these fights but the fights are what the rest revolves around because such is the world as Mann sees it. A cruel, pitiless place where you fight or you die, or more often you fight, you win and then you die anyway. Man is hostile to man, and neither family nor nature will protect you. Rather the opposite. It might sound like his films are unbearably bleak and to some extent they are, but not altogether. There is also love, laughter, companionship and community, but it is always a struggle to get that, or to keep it, and you will often lose it. And it does not matter whether a film is set in ancient Rome, Texas in the late 19th century or New York in the late 1940s. We humans are the same, always, and there is no place and no time to hide. Mann also drew from old sources when making his films, such as the Bible, Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, emphasising the timelessness of human violence and suffering. But there is hope, and redemption is possible.

This world of Anthony Mann is depicted in images shot and designed with remarkable intelligence, coherence, symbolism and, again, beauty. Not the beauty of a John Ford or a Terrence Malick, well, sometimes such as in Winchester '73 (1950), but the beauty that comes from a perfect composition. A composition with a balance that brings everything together and where the theme of the film can be expressed in a single image. Through framing and blocking he often manages to make the images feel claustrophobic (sometimes becoming like pressure cookers), even if it is outdoors in the wilderness. That is one stylistic consistency through his career. Another recurrent trait of Mann is to have something threatening appearing in the lower corners of the frame, either suddenly rising in a shot, or being there from the beginning, right after a cut. It can be the face of a person, but more often it is an object, like a knife or a gun. But it is not always a threat, sometimes it is there the victim is placed.

A typical Mann composition, this from The Tall Target (1951).

Another, this from Winchester '73.

Early films such as The Great Flamarion (1945), Railroaded (1947) and in particular T-Men (1947) have great moments and incredible shots but Mann's first unequivocally great work is Raw Deal (1948), an astonishing film of genuine anguish. A raw deal is also pretty much what all Mann's characters have been given, sometimes just by having been born, or, to sound Heideggerian, thrown into this world. After Raw Deal Mann would make films for another 20 years and now, when evaluating his oeuvre as a whole, it is appropriate to say that he is one of the very best American filmmakers. He should be mentioned alongside Hawks, Ford, Welles and Hitchcock, and also alongside Fritz Lang, Kurosawa, Bergman and Visconti. Up there is where he belongs. The ghost town sequence in Man of the West is in itself enough to put him in the pantheon.


***

Mann reached his peak with Men in War (1957). It is based on a book called Day Without End (aka Combat) and written by Van Van Praag, a soldier and platoon leader. The film script, with the setting changed from the Second World War to the Korean War, was written by Philip Yordan, although his name is possibly a front for Ben Maddow. It tells of one day in 1950 with a handful of soldiers drifting through enemy territory towards a hill. They are tired, afraid and confused but push forward while getting killed off, one after another. It is a tense, minimalist and almost abstract film, brilliant and disturbing.


The cinematography in Men in War is a peculiar blend of lyricism and harshness (Ernest Haller was the DoP) and everything has almost the same colour, there is very little contrast. Calling it a black and white film almost seems wrong, it is just different shades of grey. One effect this has is that the actors and the environment are sometimes hard to tell apart, they all blend into each other, making the characters one with nature. While the camera sometimes moves back and gives a bigger picture it mostly stays on the ground, tracking back and forth among the men. (To quote Manny Farber from his essay "Underground Films": "the terrain is special in that it is used, kicked, grappled, worried, sweated up, burrowed into, stomped on.") Then there is the music by Elmer Bernstein, which is spare and distinct. Sometimes a bit eerie, sometimes more lyrical, and never a traditional war movie score but more experimental. Sometimes only a single note will be heard, sometimes a longer sequence. Music and images are in complete sync.

All of these stylistic elements work together to enhance the point of the story, which is that war is brutish and nasty, but not short, and that in order to win you need to be ruthless and inhuman. When this realisation hits the platoon leader, Lieutenant Benson (played by Robert Ryan), he says through gritted teeth: "If fighting like this is what is needed to win this war then I'm not sure I want to win." It is also about how war becomes like a decease, contaminating everything. It does have a certain nihilistic quality, perhaps best expressed by Benson: "Battalion doesn't exist. regiment doesn't exist. Command HQ doesn't exist. The USA doesn't exist. We're the only ones left to fight this war."


***

So Men in War is the best. But there are so many other films, ranging from good to exceptional, that I have not even mentioned yet. Side Street (1950) and The Naked Spur (1953). The Man from Laramie (1955) and The Tin Star (1957). God's Little Acre (1958) and El Cid (1961). The Last Frontier (1955) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The companion pieces Bend of the River aka Where the River Bends (1952) and The Far Country (1954), both scripted by Borden Chase. Then there is Border Incident (1949) which is so special it deserves its own post. Reign of Terror aka The Black Book (1949) has its weaknesses but is such a visual marvel that it defies belief. That is also true for He Walked by Night (1948). Those are three of his six films made with cinematographer John Alton, one of three well-known collaborations Mann had, the other two being of course those with James Stewart (eight films) and Philip Yordan (seven films, perhaps). Writer John C. Higgins (five films) and cinematographer William H. Daniels (five films, including the uncommonly beautiful Winchester '73) should also be mentioned.

There is much that has not been discussed here (such as politics and race) but the bottom line is that there is real pain in Mann's films, and there is real beauty. That is the source of their power.

The Fall of the Roman Empire


--------------------------------
For those who want to read more there is Jeanine Basinger's book Anthony Mann. The second and expanded edition from 2007 is the one I recommend.

An associate of Mann was Irving Lerner, so you might also want to read my earlier post about him.

Philip Yordan wrote for Lerner as well as for Mann, so perhaps you would be interested in Nick Pinkerton's article about Yordan.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Fin-de-semestre

Last week the autumn semester ended and this is the first week of the spring semester. This period of transition is very busy so I decided to postpone the new post until next Friday. Please check in again a week from today.

L'avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni 1960)

Friday, 5 January 2018

Ingmar Bergman stories

A couple of years ago at the Swedish Film Institute the switchboard forwarded a phone call to me from a man at a Swedish company. The following week a group of Chinese entrepreneurs and businessmen would be visiting Sweden and the man calling was involved with that. The reason he called the Swedish Film Institute was that the Chinese were fans of Ingmar Bergman and would like to have some kind of Bergman event while they were visiting and he wondered if I had any suggestions. (He himself was clearly not interested in Bergman and somewhat bewildered by the Chinese request.) I was unable to help the poor man but it is an excellent example of Bergman's unusual position in the world; how he is not just a famous filmmaker but a global touchstone, comparable to Shakespeare or Dickens. Very few filmmakers after all are worshipped as much by Chinese businessmen as teenage cinephiles in Uruguay.

Bergman's fame and global appeal has long been profitable for me too. For four years I worked exclusively with his legacy, as archivist at the Ingmar Bergman Archives and then as Bergman festival coordinator at the Swedish Institute, and this has led to many free lunches. Once I was doing some work in Athens with the Swedish embassy there and its secretary asked me if there was anyone in Greece I would like to meet. The first name I thought of was Theo Angelopoulos so I suggested him, half joking. The next day the secretary told me she had invited Angelopoulos for drinks. He had been reluctant, obviously, but when she had told him I had worked at the Bergman archives he immediately re-arranged his schedule so he could see me. (I believe he was disappointed with me though. "You're very young." was his first words. I got along much better with his wife.)

Hasse Ekman and Harriet Andersson in Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)

This year is the centenary of Bergman's birth and there will be plenty of celebrations and manifestations around the world. Festivals, retrospectives, conferences, theatre productions, books and whatnot. This blog will also engage with it, but more with his work then with personal anecdotes like today, even though I have quite a few of those.

My years in the world of Bergman was followed by several years immersed in the world of Hasse Ekman, which is fitting because they are uniquely connected. This connection is the big gap in the extensive writing of Bergman; almost all aspects of Bergman's life and work has been covered and discussed in excruciating detail, except the Ekman connection. My own writing, including my book and a few articles, has tried to close this gap but there is more to be done. Here and elsewhere.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Metropolitan (1990)

Tom and Audrey discussing Jane Austen and Lionel Trilling.

This film has always been special for me, somehow even before I had seen it. I saw the trailer during the Christmas break of 1990 at the cinema Sergelteatern in Stockholm. I was there with my mother and after the trailer I turn to her and said "I want to see that one. It looks really good." I do not remember which film it was we were there to watch, and it is the only memory I have of seeing a trailer for the first time. For unknown reasons the trailer for Metropolitan (Whit Stillman 1990) made an unforgettable impression.

When the film did come out in Sweden in early 1991 I saw it but I have no memory of that, or of where I saw it and with whom. The trailer had had a more powerful impact. Maybe it was just timing.

Now, after having watched the film so many times over the years, it has become a part of me, frequently on my mind. The acting is a bit stiff, or awkward, at times but the dialogue is wonderful and so is the film's general sense of melancholia. There is a quiet sadness to the film, and to several of its characters, sprung from a desperate belief that there must have been better times then these, because what kind of life is this? If this is all we have got then finding pleasure in thinking about an imagined past might be what keeps depression at bay.

But maybe all is not lost. The last scene, of three friends lost by the beach at Southampton, is both wistful and hopeful. One era is definitely over but maybe their friendship will survive. At least it is pretty to think so.