Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Polar bears have drowned.

Five years ago, on my first Halloween in the Big City (I didn’t know I was a small town girl until I moved to Los Angeles), my nightmare materialized.  You never think it can happen to you, but it always does.  I calmed myself, as I always do, by telling myself:  “Remember, Interesting and Strange things happening to you are a good thing because you will be able to use them in a screenplay later.”  I sat there trying to figure out what to do next, when a cop knocked on my window.  I suddenly found myself on the side of a Los Angeles freeway during rush hour (in LA “rush hour” means going 15 mph, backwards) in the dark.  “Are you okay ma’am?” he asked just like they do in the movies.  “Yes, my car just…died.”  I noticed the traffic slowing down…to…look…at me, on the side of the road.  I was in a position to make a long time fantasy come true.  To yell at them: “Idiots!  You’re making traffic worse!  Move along, move along, there is nothing to look at here!”  But I didn’t.

I could not believe the tow truck guy didn’t offer me a ride home after he asked me if I was going to be okay and I said, “I don’t know because I have only been in LA for two months and I don’t know where I am and I don’t have many friends in LA and look at my face don’t I look freaked out?”  How uncivilized of him.  I left my car at the closest Pep Boys and started to walk.  More like wander aimlessly with a freaked out expression.  Where in the hell was I?  I called my roommate to see if she would pick me up.  “Where are you?” she asked.  I stopped to survey my surroundings.  I took a big whiff and recognized the stench which permeated the air: pozole, menudo and tortillas.  There were no white people around.  All the signs were in Spanish.  “I think I’m in Tijuana,” I told her.  “This place makes North Hollywood look like Beverly Hills.”  I looked over to the horizon and I saw bright, tall, shiny buildings.  “Never mind.  I’ll figure out how to get home.  I see downtown LA from here and I can take the underground from there.”

“Remember, Interesting and Strange things happen to you when you are forced to ride public transportation,” I kept on saying to myself as I walked to the bus stop.  After 30 minutes, the bus finally arrived.  I got on and asked the driver if he was going anywhere near the Metro station.  He gave me an angry nod and I got on.

I tripped on Jesus and his disciples having their last supper when I got on.  The owner of the very large plastic shopping bag gave me a very angry look.  “Perdon, Señora” I said as I fought against the forward momentum of the speeding bus.  I managed to hang on to a metal pole and swung around with stripper-worthy bravado, my ass serendipitously falling into a seat at the front.  I tried to regain my dignity by pretending to check my voice-mail messages and turning up my snooty façade to the max, avoiding eye-contact with the other passengers, which I knew were gawking at me.  I again asked the bus driver if he was going downtown.  He mumbled a syllable that I chose to interpret optimistically as a yes because we seemed to be moving toward the bright lights.  The woman kept staring at me.  Then she would look down at her bag.  Then up at me.  Then at her bag.  What did she want me to say?  “Sorry I kicked Judas in the gut.  Helloooo?  You know he deserved it!”  I looked at Jesus.  He seemed to be looking back at me.  I’m thinking I am hungry and that neon colored last supper is looking pretty good to me right now.  I’m thinking I want that bag.  Just as I was about to ask the woman where she bought it, the bus stopped and she got off, but not without shooting me one last death glare.  Vaya con Dios to you too.  I again asked the bus driver if he was going to the subway station.  I heard a faint mumble.  I asked again while trying to read his lips.  I decided his response was a yes since things were going so well for me so far.

Sitting in the subway thinking about my dead car and looking at all the miserable, tired faces around me, I wondered when I had lost the ability to feel sorry for myself.  I examined their expressions, trying to decipher the details.  I felt curious about their lives, but was thankful I wasn’t them.  Then, a crowd of black kids got on, followed by a wave of kids in Halloween costumes.  Nigger this, nigger that.  Nigger this, nigger that.  No you ain’t Dorothy, you look like a maid.  You lyin’ girl.  No, I ain’t, I’m a slutty Dorothy.  Aight.

I felt ashamed when I caught myself cringing at their colorful verbal expression of individuality and my unconscious elitism brought to the surface the snobbery I worked so hard to suppress.  Why are coherent, well constructed sentences necessarily better than the fascinating lexicon of the oppressed masses?  I wondered what neighborhood in Los Angeles produced such charming youngsters.  I looked up at the Metro map.  Yellow to Pasadena.  Unlikely.  Green to Norwalk.  Haven’t even heard of that place.  Red to Downtown, Hollywood and North Hollywood.  That was where they were going.  Orange to the Valley.  That was where I was going.  Dotted yellow to East L.A.  Under construction.  Blue to Central L.A. and Long Beach.  Most likely.  I wondered what chance these kids had at a decent life.  I wondered if they were going to grow up to be bitter bus drivers who don’t like to answer questions.  I wondered when Bob Dylan songs started depressing me instead of inspiring me. 

A vast white area of the Metro map popped out like a hot spot in a cheap video monitor.  The West Side.  Not even a faint dotted line indicating a future Metro line.  The multi-colored metro diagram illustrated exclusion with the clarity of a shroom trip.  The subway system in LA is designed to keep out.  I felt smug an oh-so-clever at my realization.  Could this be the sign I was waiting for?  My call to arms?  An apparition not in the form of a saint, but a diagram?  It wasn’t at all like my fantasy of Che materializing out of a burning bush and telling me I was the next one, but it was good enough.  I pictured myself leader of the revolution.  The leader of a guerilla made up of Beverly Hills Mexican maids, brown, short men who wash other people’s BMWs and agent-less screenwriters who’d rather live in a spacious Valley apartment than in a closet in Venice or Santa Monica.

First, we would demand a Pink Line to Boys Town.  Everyone should be able to travel to Melrose on an expeditious manner.  After all, the pretty people shopping need to be gawked at while they purchase yet another pair of $200 jeans or drink organic tea at Urth Cafe.  When the Revolution gathered momentum and my guerilla was fully-trained, we would move on to Santa Monica.  La Resistance would require the tactics of an insurgent group and we had to be prepared for a tough fight.  Santa Monica meter maids are worthy adversaries and they will not give up their commissions without some ass whooping.  “Take your parking tickets and shove them down your fascist ass!” would be our call to arms.  Then, Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive.  We would build a wall around it to keep those silly, stupid rich people in.  They would be able to keep their shit, but not allowed to go anywhere else.

I pictured Los Angeles as a Southern California Paris, but without the cool cafes, the pain chocolat and the culture.  Subway lines connecting everyone.  And all thanks to me.  I would be known as The Ter.  Berkeley students would walk around campus wearing t-shirts with my face on them.  I saw murals of me painted in all the new Metro stations.  Then I realized my motives were purely selfish.  Most of the art-house cinemas were in the West Side and I wasn’t sure when I’d have money to buy a reliable car.

By any means necessary, right?  Well, not really.  The Revolution didn’t go past the planning stages.  I recovered financially and bought a new car as soon as I could.  Also, I never ride public transportation.  It’s not that I don’t want to.  I can’t because I take my dog to doggy daycare on my way to work every day.  Someone else will have to lead the revolution.  It’s a Wall Street government, the teacher unions have ruined public education and the Polar Bears have drowned. I’m busy being disillusioned and pessimistic. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I faked my suicide.

I was the first-born, the most talented, the best behaved and, more importantly, the smartest kid in the household and I thought I deserved everything I got and more.  My siblings, however, did not deserve a goddam thing.  I could not understand why I was not my parents’ favorite and why they didn’t love me more. 

My brother didn’t have to do anything to get attention.  He got it whether he liked it or not because he was a cute little bastard who was always causing trouble.  He had, and still has, the ability to make you feel awful for yelling at him for something terrible he did.  “Oh no!  You pistol whipped your sister you infantile sociopath?!”  He would look up at you so sadly you’d choke up for hurting his feelings.  “Oh don’t worry sweetheart, it’s not really that much blood.  She’ll be fine once the ambulance gets here.  Do you want a piece of cake sweetie?  Anyone know how to make a tourniquet?”  (The last time the grown-up equivalent of this happened was last year when he kicked my sister and I out of his house right before we sat down to eat Thanksgiving dinner.)

My sister would simply ask the question and she would get the answer.  I was above asking, like my sister did almost every day, “Mami, what do you love more?  Me or your Fiji perfume?  Me or your Chanel No. 5?”  She would bat her eyelashes and my mother would hug her and respond “Well, of course you, you silly Hen!”  I wanted to ask her who she loved more.  Me or that silly, attention-starved, air-headed social butterfly with bad taste in clothes.  I didn’t and opted for behaving well, studying hard and winning prizes, thinking, quite foolishly, that was the way to my parents’ heart. 

I asked a question once and only once.  I was almost five and a few weeks into the first grade (skipped kindergarten naturally), when I came home and I informed my mother they were having a spelling and grammar contest at school.  I asked her if she wanted me to win the trophy for her.  She responded “of course sweetheart.”  Two weeks later I came home and presented her with the award for first place.  She was agape with surprise.  She had forgotten all about it.  After that, it didn’t matter whether she wanted me to win or not.  I simply won because I couldn’t stand to lose, so asking her was inconsequential.  I dedicated the next 30 years of my life to being the best so that my mother loved me more for my incredible gifts and not just because she gave birth to me.  Nope, that wasn’t reason enough for me and I wasn’t willing to share the prize that was her love and admiration.  It had to be me.  I had to be on top.

As my sister got older, she got more sophisticated with her attention-grabbing antics.  She started faking fainting spells, especially when she presented her report card.  I could not understand why Cs and Ds got more attention than all As and I was determined to make a point and teach my parents a lesson.  In tenth grade, I enlisted the help of a classmate who was an expert at tampering with report cards.  For $5 bucks per letter, he would effortlessly turn a B in to an A, but turning an A into a C or a D presented a new challenge for him.  “This is going to cost you.  I don’t usually do this type of work.  It is difficult, “ he said shaking his head, flabbergasted at my request.  He acted as if I was asking him to forge a Soviet passport.  He wanted ten bucks a letter.  We settled on six, and he didn’t have to make the letters perfect.  After all, I was just going for shock value, not verisimilitude or long term deception.  God forbid.  I would present my report card, my parents would gasp in disbelief, and then I would tell them the truth.  They would see their damn foolishness and finally be thankful they had a daughter like me.  They would announce that I was their favorite all along but they couldn’t reveal it for fear of hurting my siblings’ feelings.  They would then apologize for putting me through that agony, but they knew, because I was such a good and smart girl, I could handle it.  In tears, they would ask for my forgiveness.  Then we would hug and kiss and they would take me, and only me, to a great dinner and shopping, while my sister and brother waited at home with the maids.

My parents were enjoying an afternoon cocktail in the living room when I walked in, forgery in my pocket.  My heart was racing.  I still hadn’t made up my mind and I wasn’t sure if I could pull off my plan with a straight face.  “Hi sweetheart, how was school?”  I kissed each on the cheek, gathering resolve.  I put my hand in my pocket and felt my report card.  The curtains were drawn and I could see my brother, cousin and another kid in the yard playing soccer.  Since my parents had their back to the window, they hadn’t noticed them.  I handed my report card to my dad.  He unfolded it and just as he was about to look at it, we heard a scream.  My brother had jumped on top of his friend.  The soccer match had turned into a World Wrestling Federation match.  “Goddamit, that kid!” my dad said and handed my report card to my mother.  She took it, glanced at it, then turned her attention to the spectacle outside.  “That’s very nice honey, 4.0 as always,” she said to me, handing me back my report card.  She turned to my dad.  “Teddy Bear, do something!  He’s going to hurt him.”  “Jesus, fuck, goddamit, son-of-a bitch!” my dad yelled and banged on the glass.  My brother didn’t care and my parents ran outside to rescue the poor kid who was getting his ass kicked.

I locked myself in my walk-in closet.  Surrounded by pictures of Don Johnson, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend, I sobbed quietly, rivers of tears running down my cheeks.  I was, without a doubt, the most miserable being on earth.  What was the purpose of living when your parents didn’t love you?  None at all.  I needed to show them.  Yea, I would show them.

It was the first time I had run away to a place other than my best friend’s house.  I was serious this time.  My mother would call my best friend’s mother and, for the fist time, I wouldn’t be there.  Ha! The UCSD campus was a few blocks away from our house and it was as good a place as any to run away.  They had a cafeteria in case I got hungry and the coolest record store where I could kill some time if I got bored.  I found a big rock and waited.  Sobbing and shivering, I wrote and directed the scene in my mind a dozen times.  What would I say and do when they came running, relieved that I wasn’t found under a bridge, dead from a heroin overdose?  I re-wrote the lines in my head until they were perfect.  It was almost dark and I had been waiting on that damn, cold rock for over two hours.  I was tired of crying and I was dying of boredom.  I realized no one was coming, tucked the English Beat import I had bought under my arm, and walked back home.  No one even noticed I was gone.

I did entertain the thought of actually going through with it.  I weighed the consequences.  It would kill my grandmother and if I failed, I’d be in so much trouble.  And, more importantly, what if it was true that you went to limbo if you killed yourself?  I couldn’t fathom the idea of going through with it and not being allowed to see my own funeral.  That was the whole point!  Seeing everyone cry hysterically over this major loss to human kind and all because of my parents!  Also, I couldn’t do that to my mom, could I?  And what if I was right and my parents didn’t love me?  I would have killed myself for nothing. 

I took my place next to the tub.  I tried several poses, but they all seemed awkward.  I just didn’t know what a corpse should look like.  I kept on shifting, changing positions ever two minutes, moving the position of the disposable razor.  I thought about using ketchup for blood, but I didn’t want to make a mess.  This was good enough, I thought.  After half an hour, I got bored.  No one ever came in my room.  It must have been that I forgot to take down the sign on the door that said “Enter and Die.”  Finally, my grandmother came in and I sat up quickly.  “Do you want a quesadilla?” she asked.  Hell yea, I was so hungry.

I faked my suicide several times after that, and to this day, I don’t know what I was thinking.  These days, I reserve all the drama for my screenplays and I don’t care if I get attention or not.  Despite the recurring nightmare where my mom and sister gang up against me and mock me, I know my mom loved us all the same and that she thought we were the most special children in the world because all she ever wanted was to have us.  I wasn’t the best.  She was.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I can pretty much live wherever I want in Los Angeles. Each neighborhood has its own unique vibe and personality and it didn't take me long to figure out where I wanted to live when I first moved here. The cold cleanliness and whiteness of the West Side has never appealed to me.  Beverly Hills is the silliest and most obscene place on earth. I lived in The Valley and the infernal heat just wasn’t for me. And I’m way too old for the noise and craziness of Hollywood. I live in Silverlake, an artsy, hip area that’s pretty gentrified, but not entirely.  I love it here because it’s diverse;  hilarious hipsters share space with immigrants and minorities (if there is such a thing in Los Angeles).  I can turn one corner and get a perfect cup of expensive coffee made by a fanatic barista and then turn another and buy cheap produce at a Mexican grocery store.

Tonight it occurred to me that I would like to make a film on the street I run on.  Technically it’s two streets; Virgil turns into Hillhurst as soon as you pass the Vista movie theater on Sunset Junction, but to me it’s just a straight run up and down the hill.  When I leave my house, if I run to the right, I immediately pass a born again Christian sect I loathe and then street gradually becomes cleaner and cleaner.  When I get to Los Feliz the streets become lined with trees, boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops and beautiful people.  On my way down back towards my house, once I pass Santa Monica Boulevard, it gets dirtier and dirtier with each block. Suddenly, the people are browner and I feel I'm in Mexico.

I ran past a lady cooking meat for tacos on a grill right on the sidewalk.  This sight always cracks me up. In Mexico, we have taquerias and, much to my dismay, I have yet still to see a taqueria in LA. It baffles me that (I think) there is no such thing in a city filled with Mexicans. They do have the taco trucks, but it's not the same thing.  Anyway, the lady making and selling tacos at this make-shift taqueria looked exactly like someone I knew when I was a kid.

My snootiness reached its highest level when I turned 15.  On my 16th Christmas, my mother invited one of our maids, the one I disliked the most because, as I thought then, she was dumpy and dumb, to share in the family’s Christmas Eve celebration. I was livid my mom was making me spend Christmas with a maid and I drowned my anger on fine Napa Chardonnay. My parents allowed me to have a drink on special occasions with the family. They thought it was cute to see me sloshed. And it cracked them up. On that night, I was able to drink more than two glasses of wine without the grown-ups noticing.

Her name was Gela, short for Angela. I glared at her across the living room and she tried not to make eye-contact with me. She sat quietly, her small hands grasping a glass of red wine, observing gift after gift being opened by its respective brat. I focused my eyes and made my way over to her. I sat down next to her and she slid over to the edge, trying to widen the distance between us. She must have thought my behavior was pretty weird, since us kids subjected her to daily humiliation.  Every afternoon, she'd come down to the family room to find us all spread out on the sectional watching HBO.  As soon as we saw her, we'd stretch and stretch until there was no room for her to sit.  She'd just stand there looking at us. Then my grandma would notice and yell at us to move and let her sit with us. I always wondered why she put herself through that every day.  After all, there was a television in her room. She could have watched her telenovelas upstairs.  Instead, she opted to watch programs in a language she did not understand surrounded by spoiled brats with smelly feet. Maybe it was the naked people of HBO. The "acostados" (people in bed having sex) as my grandma called them, which we weren't supposed to be watching anyway.

Miraculously, the next morning I only had a headache. I went down to the kitchen and the family was already eating Christmas Day tamales and menudo. My mom raised her mimosa and greeted me with “Hi sweetheart!” There was something strange about the way she said it. I looked around and everyone seemed to be in on the joke, including Gela. Later that day, my sister asked me “Don’t you remember what you did last night?” I told her of course I did. “Are you sure?” She giggled, loving every minute of my agony. I finally gave in. “What did I do?”

According to several accounts, I hugged and apologized to Gela. We embraced and cried together in front of the whole family. I thought I would never live that one down, but I did. I went back to my evil ways immediately and pretended it never happened. The poor woman fell for it. She had been had by a drunk 16-year old snob.

I don't know why my parents let me get away with such reprehensible and inhuman behavior. They weren't that way so I didn't learn to behave like that from them.  To this day, I am ashamed of it and I remind myself every day that I am not better than anyone else, just luckier.  But, to be honest, there remain some traces of the haughty bitch I used to be.  After all, a born snob can never truly be suppressed.  My mother swore that the first thing I did when I came out of her vagina was turn up my nose at the doctor and the nurses.  I have been doing so ever since and it is particularly ironic that I got kicked in the face by a horse, breaking my weapon of choice and leaving it forever crooked. I do try to have empathy but sometimes it's hard. Especially at the Laundromat. But that's another story. Let's just say that being down to earth has always been a personal challenge.

Motherfucking Nancy Man!

People keep asking me what I'm going to be for Halloween and when I tell them, they get a blank expression and ask "Who's Nancy Spungen?" I thought I knew people who were cooler than that. I guess NOT.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Blast of Silence

From the studio’s point of view, it’s easy to see why Blast of Silence was not a priority at the time of its release.  It was a cheap distribution pick-up that must have seemed downright perverse to studio executives given that its protagonist wasn't played by anyone well-known from either film or television, but by its writer-director, a 26 year old non-actor. But Blast of Silence was a fast, cheap thriller with enough violence and gunplay--elements that could always make a couple of bucks for a studio if the budget was right.  In my perfect movie world, Allen Baron’s prodigious directorial debut should have put him on the auteur map. Instead, he went on to direct episodes of Dukes of Hazard, Charlie’s Angels and The Love Boat.  Blast of Silence was dumped into a handful of theaters in April 1961, quickly vanished into obscurity, and was almost impossible to see for years, known only by reputation until a small revival in the nineties.

Blast of Silence is a model thriller and character study that takes us step by step through a killer’s process in setting up his prey for the eventual kill. At every turn, Baron’s direction remains assured and proficient, with few if any missteps.  The framing and editing have an experimental edge and Baron comes up with some incredibly brutal set pieces pushing the boundaries of noir to grim extremes. It's difficult to think of another film from that era that's so stark, sleek and antisocial since that type of attitude didn't become fashionable until the late 1960s.

The production, shot on the streets of New York in black and white with a minimal crew, embraces its limitations, forgoing realism for an alienated atmosphere.  Blast of Silence goes further than any previous noir in eschewing a lumbering chiaroscuro in favor of a naturalism closer to a down-and-dirty, semi-documentary aesthetic (more Cassavetes than Alton) which showcases studiously gray and unglamorous views of 1961 Manhattan. It’s a great New York film and Baron strikes gold in the many locations around the city, from the Staten Island Ferry and Harlem, to various rooftops and vintage storefronts and nightclubs. The locations feel authentic and unaltered: one look at the realistic rathole apartments tells you that these filmmakers are all-too-familiar with their territory.   It's impressive how artfully Baron presents these shots, given the shoot-and-run-without-permits circumstances of the production.

Baron stars as Frankie Bono, a hitman loner who visits Manhattan over the Christmas holiday to kill "a second string syndicate boss with too much ambition...and a mustache to hide the fact he has lips like a woman."  This high-pulp voice-over is provided by a gravelly-voiced, blacklisted and uncredited Lionel Stander.  He speaks in tones that are sneering, condescending, cruel, and mean-spirited, but somehow very wise and even a little sympathetic.  The voice-over provides a brutally poetic touch to the entire film, frequently turning up to address the audience and the film's often silent protagonist.  After buying a hot .38 from a crazy slob named Fat Ralphie, the tightlipped Bono has 24 hours to chill out and, as Stander tells him, "lose yourself in the Christmas spirit with the rest of the suckers." He runs into an old associate from the orphanage where he grew up, meets the guy's sister, and lowers his guard enough to go to a party with them. Still, Bono only knows how to treat this nice girl like a piece of meat, with the ever-sociable Stander advising, "If you want a woman, buy one. In the dark, so she won't remember your face." 

Some cite Baron’s performance as the film’s one weakness, but since Bono is such a expressionless, humorless cipher, it's difficult to tell if Baron can act.  His stiffness and unease in front of the camera actually serves the character, who seems to be struggling valiantly to hide his weaknesses. As played by Baron, the expected noir antihero without a sense of humor becomes a sympathetic tragic figure.

This film is a twilit, deathward emanation of everything that had underlain the noir form from its beginnings. Baron ignored the rules and brought forth a dissociated, ugly vision of his fellow man that, unlike its closest spiritual predecessors in noir, never resorts to either grotesquerie or easy symbology. The loneliness, doom and spiritual unease that operated at noir’s core which became more pronounced as the form slowly began shedding its visual trappings in the 1950s, here become its dominant emotional surface, infecting everything, consuming every character in the film rather than simply its protagonist. No American film before it, made in Hollywood or anywhere else, had trafficked so promiscuously in unadulterated nihilism, or so used the condition of constant, irritated Hate as its emotional motif. As far as this film is concerned, chronic nihilism and despair aren’t debilitating conditions at all. They’re so conducive to success that they become positively therapeutic.  Try selling that to the Friday Night at the Movies crowd.

David Lynch's Inspiration

AFI FEST 2010 announced today the five feature films selected by its first-ever Guest Artistic Director, David Lynch, for his special sidebar program at the festival. As part of the program, the festival will screen Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead, which was made while Lynch was a Fellow at AFI’s Center For Advanced Film Studies, now known as the AFI Conservatory. Lynch graduated from AFI in 1970.

Lynch’s selections are: Hour of the Wolf (DIR Ingmar Bergman), Lolita (DIR Stanley Kubrick), Mon Oncle (DIR Jacques Tati), Rear Window (DIR Alfred Hitchcock) and Sunset Boulevard (DIR Billy Wilder).

“I picked these particular films because they are the ones that have inspired me most. I think each is a masterpiece,” said Lynch. “If people have already seen them, they are certainly worth being seen again. And if people haven’t seen them, here is an opportunity to see what I consider cinema at its best.”

Interesting choices. Now he’s got me thinking about those movies and how he has mined them for inspiration. Wolf, Lolita and Sunset are definitely as weird as Lynch’s movies. If I were invited to be Guest Artistic Director at a film festival, what five films would I program? I have to think about that one. Definitely Festen (The Celebration) and Rosetta. So hard to narrow down.

By the way, on October 28, AFI Fest will release free tickets to the public. Get in line, online.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Four, very patient years in the making, Tulpan is Kazakh documentary filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy's first fiction feature. The in-the-moment stylistic approach of his previous work here presents an astoundingly singular view of rural life in Kazakhstan. Tulpan is a unique experience, dropping us into a thoroughly envisioned small world which is balanced between the impossible scope of the harsh, barren setting and the remarkable intimacy that the camera and narrative allow us to have with the film's fascinating characters, human and animal alike. Dvortsevoy patiently portrays this environment and sensitively mines its protagonists' inner lives, commanding our attention and sympathy. By film’s end, we feel that we have lived with these characters for a long time, and that the demands and aspirations of their lives are not so very far from our own.

Tulpan tells the story of Asa, a young sailor returning from a stint with the Russian Navy, whose only wish is to find a wife and live the simple life of a herdsman on the desolate (in the most extreme sense of the word) Betpak Dala desert steppe. Asa is being set up by his brother-in-law, Ondas, with the only other family within miles. Asa continually attempts to impress the family in order to gain their daughter Tulpan’s affection; he boastfully spins tales of courage in the face of exotic sea creatures and offers the family a laughable dowry and a tacky plastic chandelier. Asa’s efforts are stymied by her parents, who find him unsuitable, and by Tulpan, who is turned off by his big ears. Asa is also not an experienced herdsman, which causes conflict between him and Ondas, who treats him little better than his children. What follows sees Asa furthering his quest for love and balancing the harsh demands of the steppe with those of his dreams, while routinely contemplating moving to the city.

Unlike most ethnographic cinema, Tulpan devises a formal strategy that makes the film about aesthetic concerns in addition to its sociological ones. Dvortsevoy's tendency to let the camera roll with the hopes of capturing some unexpected sliver of reality pays off on many occasions. His cinema vérité approach frequently yields un-choreographed scenes that unfold as uninterrupted takes; a quality that only adds to the impression that we’re  getting an unfiltered glimpse at a foreign culture and an immediate and vivid picture of the unforgiving life of nomadic shepherds on the steppe. Dvortsevoy’s camera captures the human comedy intrinsic in the characters' defiance of their fates, finding quotidian grace in the simple act of survival and natural community.

Although Tulpan portrays an unfamiliar world, Dvortsevoy taps into the universality of his story by imbuing it with gentle humor and populating the narrative with distinctive, memorable characters, from Asa’s breast-obssessed best friend, to the steppe veterinarian who hauls a bandaged baby camel in a motorcycle ambulance while being followed everywhere by the camel’s mother. A fantastic 10-minute set piece in which a baby lamb is born, nearly dies, and is revived-is one of the great cinematic moments of recent years, capturing life at its most vital.  Despite a seeming lack of artifice, Dvortsevoy skillfully shapes this material and as Tulpan unfolds, it reveals itself to be both more controlled and more structured than it does at first glance.

Tulpan’s incredible sights and sounds could not have been created by conventional fiction filmmaking means. Cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska's camera encompasses most scenes in full, with minimal interference by cutting. This is not an attempt at static stylistic minimalism-the camera instead moves freely through each scene, darting back and forth and moving inward and outward to give focus to or detract focus from certain details. This choice allows for full immersion into Tulpan's authentic yet singular world, forcing the camera to move about as if we were observing everything in the moment with these characters.

Tulpan has plenty of spectacular sequences—either the product of masterful blocking and animal-wrangling or of miraculous serendipity—but mostly it's a small story about family and of bending your dreams to fit with what you actually have. We admire these characters for living a life most of us are not strong enough to bear, and for supporting their family and community no matter the hardships, confronting their daily tribulations without complaint. {Tulpan} shows us an area seldom seen on movie screens, and because it manages to remain entertaining and, in many instances, thrilling, it stands as a noteworthy achievement and a unique cinematic experience that has no equivalent in any other film.

Who's the most underrated musician?

Gossip. Beth is amazing. Who cares she's chunky? Okay, she's chunkier than chunky but so what?

Ask me anything

What music are you listening to today?

Gang of Four

Ask me anything

Do you believe there's intelligent life on other planets?

Dunno. Is the Chupacabra smart?

Ask me anything

Have you ever been fired? If so, why?

No and that's very surprising.

Ask me anything

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Does the blank page terrify you or excite you?

I’ve been feeling quite despondent about my screenwriting lately.  Mainly because, although I’ve been thinking about 10+ ideas, I haven’t finished a first draft since March.  After years of trial and error, I thought I had my process down.  However, as of late, that process hasn’t been working for me.  So I moseyed on down to the WGA last night looking for some hope.  Or something.

Again, the panel was moderated by Daniel Petrie, Jr. The guests were Jane Anderson, Nicholas Kazan and David N. Weiss; three writers with different approaches to structure.

Anderson explained that everyone’s brain works differently and that your process will be peculiar to your own odd mind. She’s visual, and therefore is terrified of the blank page; she finds it very, very daunting. She takes a long piece of paper, draws a long line, and starts to fill in the act breaks. She offered architect Frank Gehry’s process as inspiration. He crumples a piece of paper and sketches with it very liberally, then he starts to fill in more detail with charcoal, and so forth. That’s what she does with that long line. She feels that’s a good beginning so you don’t freak out. The main purpose of this is to get over you have a blank page in front of you; “It takes the kibosh of nothingness.” She added that she loves Syd Field.

Kazan never thinks in terms of acts. In fact, he gets very nervous when people start talking about acts. He just doesn’t get it. People break down his scripts for him all the time to show him the structure and he just thanks them. In contrast to Anderson, he loves the blank page; he finds it exciting, even if it’s terrifying at times. If he has a good sense of what the ending is going to be, he doesn’t want to know what happens before he writes it. He stars with what he calls a “stew.” A document where he writes down ideas for characters, dialogue, situations, etc.” (I do the same, but I called it the “dump.” I like stew better.) He’s written outlines, but very few times. He rarely knows what is going to happen in each section of the story, and, if he has an outline, he often throws it away. The organic process always forces you to throw away your plans.

Weiss, who writes with a partner, started out by declaring himself a studio “hack.” He said he didn’t have the freedom to be an artist like Kazan. He learned his structure from McGee, when he was Bob and not Robert. (He remembers his assistant peddling his seminars on campus.) His approach to story is very Aristotelian. He also draws a line, but his is curved. And his acts are not the same size like Andersons because “that’s crazy.” He spends about two weeks thinking about the premise and what the movie is really about, constantly asking himself, “What are we building to?” That goal has to be an emotional goal.

Jane Anderson, Nicholas Kazan, David N. Weiss
Anderson, who likes to talk in metaphors, said that even though all houses are different, they all need plumbing, electrical, etc. to function properly. That’s structure. You make the story your own with characters and tone. Anderson suggested we try titling sections of our story like they do for DVD chapters. She pretends her movie is already on DVD and titles each section in that manner.

Anderson likes to watch movies that are like the story she’s writing and she’s never been accused of stealing. Weiss talked about a preface to an Oscar Wilde anthology, where the editor mentioned that Wilde was often accused of stealing. The editor said that everyone stole because there was really nothing original. The question was really “Do you improve upon your theft and do you give thanks?” Those who call themselves original are the fakes. Weiss said that he was there to tell us to “Steal. Steal liberally.”

Petrie then asked when they start thinking about the low point. Anderson answered, that because she’s an optimist, she doesn’t like to think about it until she’s finished beating out the first act. Weiss said he thinks about immediately because that’s the emotional goal you’re building to. Petrie said Stephen Cannell called the low point (end of act II) “the destruction of the protagonist’s plan.”

Anderson then offered another metaphor: structure is like setting up buoys on the blank page. (Hmmm, no wonder I often feel like I’m drowning as I write. I neglected the buoys.) Kazan said that like him, some of us have an innate sense of what a story should be. He has a metabolic nervousness about boring people and he believes it’s also possible to discover structure as you go along. If he starts going too straight, the story becomes claustrophobic for him. He then brings in a character to shake things up and tries new things. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. He needs to feel the emotion in the movie.

Anderson and Kazan stressed that all writers have to find their own approach through trial and error. Our job as dramatists is not to worry about hitting a paradigm but to make something exciting happen on the page. Anderson said that structure and an outline freed her up to be creative; she “needs a tightrope to dance on.” Weiss said that he had no choice but to be addicted to structure because he was a studio dog with deadlines and people to answer to. He doesn’t have the luxury of discovery. Anderson tried to comfort him by telling him he was being unfair to himself by calling himself a hack. Weiss laughed and said “I’m okay. I’m a well paid hack.”

Petrie asked them how much they throw away. Anderson and Weiss said not that much. Kazan said that because he doesn’t write as fast as he used to, he no longer ignore that distant bell that goes off that lets you know something is wrong. He has a “kitchen sink” problem; he throws things in and often it’s something he doesn’t need. A Brit producer told Petrie “Don’t over egg the custard.” You have to keep it simple, but don’t become a slave to structure because you have too much of it. Take a deep breath and explore your characters.

Weiss said a lot of times he has to be honest with execs and tells them “I don’t know but I’ll figure it out.” He needs to go back to his room and find out. Don’t try to fake answers. If you look inside you, the answer will come. Anderson added that every scene must be about what the character wants. As she writes, she asks it in the first person (What do I want?) and then the emotions inevitably bubble up and then the writing becomes more fun.

Petrie said that when he invited Kazan to be on the structure panel Kazan told him he should ask his wife (Robin Swicord). She’s even more fanatical about structure than Anderson and Weiss. She writes down what happens on every page before she sits down to write the screenplay. He hates it when she reads his scripts because she’s always saying “this is great, but it should be 7 pages earlier.” He replies, “Says who?” He’s not after perfection as no one should be. The movies he loves the most are flawed. We want to be surprised when we expect a reversal at minute 25 and then we don’t get it.

Bottom line: Each writer must device their own method to help her write. There’s the plan and then there’s the execution of the plan.

Weiss then shared the questions he asks himself in order to find his structure.

1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What do they want?
3. What do they need?
4. What is in their way?
5. What’s at stake? If they don’t get it, what happens?

It must always be “life or death” for your genre, i.e. in a romantic comedy it’s getting the girl. We need to find the “caveman visceral want” for our protagonist.

One thing that Weiss does that I intend to start doing is writing down questions when I’m stuck or have writer’s block. Kazan joked that was a Talmudic approach. (Weiss is an Orthodox Jew and he wears a yarmulke.)

Anderson reiterated that we all need to figure out what process works best for our brain; what will keep our motors running. Sometimes it’s a nap. (I might try this one too.)

Someone asked about the midpoint. They all replied they are not mid-pointers so Petrie said for him something fundamentally different had to happen at the midpoint, and it was usually more than one mid point. Petrie the joked about some new structural approach they’re teaching at USC (something about dividing the screenplay into sequences). He said one time he accidentally hit that paradigm. Weiss said that there was a reason why Aristotle’s approach had lasted 4,000 years. We would have to wait if USC’s would measure up.

The last good question of the night was about passive protagonists. What do you do when you have a passive protagonist? Kazan said “You make him active.” If you don’t have an active protagonist, you don’t have a movie.

(Side note for those of you writing Mad Men scripts.

Jane Anderson writes for Mad Men and she revealed how they break the story in the room. Weiner comes in and tells them what characters he wants to focus on that week. Of course, since Don is the main character, they beat out his story line first. Then they move on to the next character, and then the next, etc. The assistant types up the beats and then cuts them into strips. Then they arrange and rearrange. I actually think is helpful for any one figuring out the structure of all the story lines of most one-hour specs.)

I must say going to these panels is helping me get over my current paralysis. I know what they’re saying. I’ve been through it. I just have to do it.

Okay, I’m done. Off to watch 127 Hours. Have a good evening.

P.S. I hope some of you are getting something out of all of this because this is a lot of work!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: Lorna's Silence

The deeply influential Belgian brother filmmaking team, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, are frequently named as heirs to a long lineage of European realist cinema, with their celebrated quartet of recent films - La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) and The Child (2005) - triggering, for example, automatic citations of British kitchen sink drama and Italian neorealism. Yet a far more instructive and insightful understanding of the Dardennes' films is obtained by reexamining the longer trajectory of their collaborative careers as a writer-director team. Indeed, the signature handheld camera immediacy, the use of available light, the absence of musical scores or soundtracks, subdued acting and cinematography, and radically minimal narratives shared by the aforementioned films—and a major source of their raw power—draw specifically and more importantly from the brothers’ earlier roots in documentary filmmaking and experimental theater. In recent years, many have made considerable claims for them—for example, that they are “reinventing realism”—and the Dardennes have developed a substantial following which is understandable and well-deserved. When trivial and self-involved work has taken our movie screens hostage, the brothers continue to make relatively low-budget films in working class areas, with non-professionals or, at any rate, without glamorous performers. Each of their films, including Lorna’s Silence, has treated working class life or particular details of that life—the impact of work or lack of work, relationships between generations—with undoubted seriousness and concern.  Their work hovers on the margins of mainstream society, in the world of the have-nots. But, far from looking dreary and somber, their cinema is exciting and full of suspense; an urgent, fast-moving camera races after the characters, stalking them through their complicated lives and sweeping the viewer along in a process of total immersion. One often gets the feeling that the Dardennes consider themselves explorers, probing their films with the same combination of observation, speculation, and inquiry they inspire in their viewers.

Lorna is the Dardennes’ most heavily plotted film to date and their first not set in their hometown of Seraing, but rather in the more densely populated city of Liège -- a logical backdrop for a tale of hardscrabble immigrants trying to secure their livelihoods through less-than-honest means. As always, equally attuned to their protagonists' inner and outer lives, the story unfolds on two levels. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is a young Albanian woman caught up in a cold-blooded immigration scheme that involves her marriage to a pathetic Belgian drug addict (an emaciated Jérémie Rénier) whom her employers will make sure he overdoses soon so that she can marry a Russian mobster. At first, Lorna sees the scheme as her only hope for success in post-industrial Liège, and the Dardennes are adept at suggesting the ways in which modern relationships are governed by money. Like Bresson’s L’Argent, which features an ATM machine behind its opening credits, the first image in Lorna is bills being counted, a recurring sight which later takes an almost totemic quality.

As much as Lorna’s steely resolve attempts to deny the human costs at stake, her silence masks a tangle of emotions slowly growing within her and she gradually but sturdily revolts. While the trafficking plot dominates most of the film, Lorna’s suppressed conscience gestates in spite of herself, and as the Dardennes’ visual focus builds intensity, the viewer is brought deeper into the mystery of Lorna’s inner life, identified by her increasing attempts to physically and psychological free herself from a plot of her own making . The narrative doesn’t seize up or spin out of control, it simply becomes secondary to Lorna’s nascent and all-consuming perceptions and convictions. How Lorna's silence implicates her in what happens next, despite her better intentions, affirms the Dardennes' offhand skill at orchestrating momentous drama, their recognition of the abrupt, unexpected ways in which an individual's life and expectations can be swiftly upended. Lorna exhibits the kind of filmmaking you'd expect from the Dardennes, except perhaps the removal of a hand-held camera from the mix, though the camera is still always moving. As in their other movies, the plot trickles to the surface and becomes apparent about halfway-in, though some of the best scenes come early and are between Dobroshi and Rénier. Mislabeled as a thriller because of, say, ten minutes of suspense, the film ends on a surprisingly quiet note and is ultimately a little bit disappointing in its lack of poignancy that came at the end of both Rosetta and L'Enfant. However, Lorna builds up enormous tension through the simplest means and then bursts into a flight of lyricism. 

Already well-established among today’s most influential working filmmakers, the Dardennes are also role models. Their approaches to filmmaking and storytelling are as responsible as they are creative, and their originality goes hand-in-hand with their allegiance to reality—economic, social, psychological, and spiritual. Few film artists have ever been as true to the inner and outer lives of their characters: Once you’ve seen Rénier’s Igor in La Promesse or his Bruno in L’Enfant, Olivier Gourmet’s grief-stricken father in The Son, or Emilie Duquenne’s indomitably iron-willed Rosetta, or Dobroshi's determined and resolute Lorna, you’ll know these troubled souls down to the most intimate gestures and the impoverished worlds they inhabit will leave an indelible mark. Perhaps it's pretentious to mention it, but there's always a moment when artists must ask themselves what it is they choose to say. The Dardennes remain fascinated by and committed to the specificities of the class struggle seen through the lens of the every day. The Dardennes reinvent the notion of character so we are not with stereotypes of the down-trodden, we are with fumbling human beings who are making decisions--albeit faulty ones for sure--to survive as best as they can. They fall into chasms where only the most powerful exercise of will can save them from moral disaster. Rather than notions of good and evil, we have a sense of lost and found. And the film, while taking place amidst a certain sector of society, is not about them, it is a story of them. Their films offer a type of transcendental materialism, grounding their clearly spiritual dimensions in a mode of existential parable about awakening political consciousness and the struggle to live, to survive and forgive.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Where's the movie?

Yesterday, I had the following e-mail exchange:

Manager: Teri, you're brilliant, when are you going to write something commercial so I can represent you and finally make enough to put in a swimming pool.

Me: I have no idea what gave you that impression. Seriously. Anyway, I’m working on it. I think. I don’t know. What’s commercial?

*ulcer flares up*

But yes, I do need a lake (a pool will do too) for my Labrador. (Note: later I got that he was talking about HIS pool, not mine.)

Manager: I've read your blog, you're very smart. But you need to write a movie, not a "script," IMO.

There it was again. That word. Movie.

By great coincidence, the WGA Foundation’s Notes on Craft started last night. The topic was Premise & Concept, and as tradition dictates, even though I attending in person, I asked my friend James who was streaming the event, to ask what the difference was between a script and a movie. He asked me if maybe it would be better to ask a concept related question. Fine. I told him to ask what the “test” was for determining whether or not you had a high concept idea.

Last night’s program was moderated by Daniel Petrie, Jr. and the panelists were Allan Loeb, Anne Peacock and Daniel Pyne. (pic)

Luckily for me, James didn’t have to ask. Petrie asked it right away: “How do you know you have a great idea for a movie?”

People are always approaching screenwriters and telling them their great idea for a movie. Most of the time, they are good ideas for something else but not a movie. So how do you know?

Pine answered he didn’t know. For him it was more of an organic process. He mostly knew when he didn’t have a good idea for a movie. For him, great ideas stay with him and linger. It’s usually a simple one expressed in a few words and it has to be a concept that can be carried for many pages. He starts with a character and a tiny conflict and builds from there.

Loeb said that in order for him to move that idea into a movie he had to picture in three acts. Petrie then referenced Terry Rossio’s blog Wordplay and what Rossio calls the “strange attractor.” You begin with something that’s already in the collective consciousness (the familiar) and then you add something different, which is the “strange attractor.”

The same but different, get it?

Peacock agreed, adding that you have to be passionate and excited about the subject in order for it to go a long way. She asks herself if the idea passes the sustainability test. That is, can it be carried out in three acts? Loeb added that he also asks himself “why should this story be told now?" He needs the zeitgeist to grab on to.

Obviously, given the studios’ preference for IP, most of the work these screenwriters do is adaptation. But they stressed that it didn’t matter that they weren’t working with original ideas. Even with adaptation, you need a unique approach and everyone’s is going to be different. While they read the source material they constantly ask themselves WHAT’S THE MOVIE? And sometimes, it’s not the story in the book. Sometimes they hate the book, but there is something in there that captures their imagination. You must eliminate what’s not relevant to the movie.

Petrie revealed that Pyne is adapting a beloved sci-fi novel called The Stars My Destination.  Apparently, it has been in development for 50 years and 40 writers have tried to adapt it. Pyne said it took him a long time to find the right approach after many false starts, but that he’s finally cracked it. He said it was very difficult because the protagonist is the bad guy version of the Count of Montecristo and it’s a story about primal revenge.

Peacock’s latest film, The Fist Grader, is based on an LA Times article. The story takes place in Kenya at the time when legislation made education a right for its citizens. The article was about an 84 year-old man who showed up on the first day of school and his struggle to be allowed to get an education in spite of his age. Because she’s South African, the story spoke to her but it was still too tiny to be a movie. As she researched this man’s life, a word resonated with her: Mau Mau. It turns out that the old man had been a liberation fighter in the Mau Mau Uprising against the British and which set the stage for Kenyan independence. This element added muscle to the little, lovely story and then it became a movie. She said you have to grab the audience in a visceral way.

So again, when do you know you have a movie? The writers shook their heads and Loeb said “You know it when you hear it.” Petrie brought up his former redheaded protégés, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore.  They told him that they come up with dozens of shitty ideas every day, but if they come up with one great one a year, they felt they were doing pretty good.

I hate to break it to you guys, but they said a great concept is very, very rare. I actually feel better now and less anxious about my inability to tell if any of my ideas would make a good movie. Instead of over-thinking it, I’m just going to wait until I know.

Oh, but wait. We’re not supposed to just sit there waiting for that idea to strike. The panelists said that’s not really what happens. You have to start somewhere and it’s usually with a character or a situation. The idea emerges through the process writers go through working with those elements that move them. It’s usually a character. Pyne said a writing teacher told him to work in reverse and to try to surprise himself. You work back into the concept. That was his process for White Sands. He kept on imagining a desert and the character, a disillusioned sheriff. Then, after developing the situation, he found his concept: A man pretends to be dead to solve a murder. Ok, so again: we’re supposed to be writing, with or without a high concept.

A writer’s point of entry should always be what she’s passionate about. Find a profound idea that captures your imagination and go with it. Specificity is very important in developing the concept. A good exercise that forces you to rethink your story is to switch your protagonist’s gender, age, etc. and the location.

They went on to discuss television concepts versus film, but I won’t get into it here because I don’t feel like it right now (I’m trying to finish this post before I eat lunch). To make a long story short: the concept should be strong enough to be sustained in 100 episodes and opportunities for writers abound in cable television. Then they opened the floor for questions and most of them were not very good and did not pertain to the subject of premise and concept.

                              Petrie, Loeb, Peacock, Pyne

I love to go to these WGA events not just because of the wealth of information, but because I feel better afterwards. I feel I’m not alone in my insecurities and anxieties and that comforts me and motivates me.

Petrie, as he does in every single panel he moderates, told a story about his screenwriters’ poker game. One time someone asked, “When does your script turn to shit?” He said page 85. Other writers gave numbers in the late 70s and early 80s. Josh Friedman said page 147. That Josh! He’s so incorrigible.

Anyway, the panelists laughed and Peacock said for her it was in the 70s. I thought, that’s so true. She also added that when you hit the shit wall (my term, not hers) you have to grab on to something to finish. She starts to hate herself and almost panics that she won’t be able to deliver what she’s getting paid for. That she’s a talentless hack and impostor. So she has to think of John McEnroe digging himself out of a two-set deficit and eventually winning. She refuses to give up and forces herself to follow her beatsheet, outline or treatment to dig herself out and finish. Loeb calls it getting the bad 110 out. I thought, wow, I’m not the only one. There’s no magic or secret. It takes drafts to fully understand what you are really writing about. You just have to do the work.

Petrie said that the Impostor Syndrome never goes away. You never feel you are worthy. (Great.)

The questions then turned to the sad state of affairs, as they always do. Why aren’t the studios buying original specs? Why are they obsessed with IP? Why do the studios continue to make formulaic crap? Blah blah blah.

And the answer is always the same:

Once you start worrying about and writing for the market, you are doomed as a writer. Write what you are passionate about.

Petrie talked about the seismic shift in the creation of content and its delivery to audiences. Yes, studios are almost completely inaccessible, but at the same time, the rest of the world is open to creators and distributors. He said his dad got into directing television at a time when it was new and no one wanted to do it because everyone who was anyone was doing radio. He said that they, meaning the panelists and film industry insiders, were radio. We are the future.

So to recap:

1. A great concept marries the familiar with the strange.
2. You’ll know when you have a great concept when you have it.
3. You can’t just sit on your ass and wait, you have to write.
4. Write for the market and be doomed.
5. Write what you are passionate about, but make sure it’s a movie, not just a script.

And now, off to my tuna Panini. Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Accountability and Shame: The Divided Self

“Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.” –Otto von Bismarck

Word on Success Street is that setting and reaching goals is important. Everyone is talking about it, especially writers, who seem to be notorious procrastinators. If you don’t set goals, you never get anywhere. It makes sense.

Earlier this year a screenwriter friend of mine (let’s call him James) and I decided to help each other set and reach goals. We’d email each other our goals for the month and then report on progress every week. I couldn’t even remember where I had written down the damn goals, but somehow he always remembered them and emailed them back to me verbatim. I couldn’t do the same for him. Yes, we were major failures in this endeavor. I certainly didn’t accomplish much other than generating countless screenplay ideas and making goal lists every week.

James sent me this article from the New Yorker on procrastination and concluded that our problem was setting goals that were too big. That we were delusional and did not have a very realistic idea of how much and how fast we could accomplish things (“the planning fallacy”). So we decided to try the small, concrete goal: X amount of pages at the end of the week. We decided to send each other 5 screenplay pages every Monday morning. We thought it was very doable and reasonable since we both have several projects in the works. We also decided that we did not have to read the pages, unless we requested it. I noted that it would be pathetic, on many levels, if we just kept sending each other the same five pages every week. Heh. Not. Our first goal was to be met this past Monday.

Once I have a beatsheet it doesn’t take me long to produce pages so I just waited for Saturday. After taking a look at my beatsheet and not being able to make some important decisions regarding a few characters (indecision is another problem of mine), I decided to wait for Sunday morning. On Sunday morning I decided it was justifiable to go see Let Me In since it’s a vampire movie and it can be construed as research since the screenplay I’m set on finishing by the end of the year is a vampire movie. When I got back from the movie I got on Facebook and saw that James was posting about the Charger game. I chimed in as well. Then, he emailed me asking me if we should move the deadline. I responded “Yes because I’m busy rewriting a screenplay I might send to an upcoming contest.” Yesterday he emailed me asking if we could move the deadline to Wednesday. I said let’s just turn in 10 pages next Monday then.


You see our conundrum. Fine accountability buddies we are. That’s why I’m posting this. To shame us publicly. We wear the red “P” with great shame and we deserve to be stoned.

The article I linked to above says procrastination is a basic human impulse and anxiety about it can be a serious problem. I’m beginning to suspect it’s taking its toll on me. I can hardly stand the internet these days and I feel strange and fatigued lately. I know it’s anxiety over not finishing anything. And to make matters worse I keep neglecting to schedule my yearly pap smear and mammogram. Not that I’m worried about my health. AFLAC pays me $200 a year for the screenings. Money should be a strong motivator but…

If indeed Thomas Schelling was right about the “divided self,” who is the Teri who makes plans and the Teri who fails to carry them out? He also proposes we “think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control.” That sounds about right and I’m exhausted from the jostling. Yes, yes, yes, I admit that my YOUs have a big problem.

Every Monday I will post an account of our failure/success in connection with our weekly goal. I guess this is my version of Ulysses being bound to the mast of his ship. My hope is that with each post each confession of failure with turn into an account of accomplishment, not just for me but for James as well. I am determined to come out of it with a stronger, better will.

Monday, October 11, 2010

New Argentine Cinema: The Headless Woman

I admire many filmmakers, but I envy just a few; among them, Mike Leigh, the Dardenne Brothers, Carlos Reygandas and Lucrecia Martel. If you are familiar with their work, then you can probably guess why. Their process and methods are diverse, however, these directors do away with cinematic artifice and achieve unparalleled truthfulness on the screen. One day I hope to do the same.

After only three features Martel has firmly established herself as one of the most prodigiously talented, critically adulated, and most distinctive visionaries of contemporary cinema. Her hypnotic, mysterious, and deeply immersive films are wonderfully anti-classical, ignore the rules of cinema, confound audience expectations, fulfill personalized visions, and continually attempt to alter the visual language of cinema. Martel’s subtle, climatic, virtuous, profound and nonconventional cinema is neither made for superficial viewing nor conceived with the usual demagogy of many films trying to achieve, at any cost, immediate liking, simple direct emotion or easy applause.

Following up on her subliminally atmospheric La Ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl  (2004), Martel delves even deeper into cinematic obliqueness with The Headless Woman and further hones the visual economy and organic (yet meticulously structured), fractal narrative of her earlier films. She builds her picture entirely around female lead Vero’s (María Onetto) distressed psychology after an automobile accident of her own making. On her way to a rendezvous with her lover Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) in another town, a distracted Vero reaches for her mobile phone, then collides with something on the road—the outline of a dog’s carcass visible on the far edge of the frame—and continues on for a few yards before stopping to compose herself and driving away. Vero returns to the familiar rituals of her daily life—a busy dental practice, a never-ending landscaping project, a supportive, but equally distracted husband (César Bordón)—but the cracks in her empty, privileged existence of cultivated gardens and choreographed lies begin to surface, manifesting in her increasing apprehension that she has accidentally killed somebody on that desolate road. As the days wear on, she has trouble recalling even the most basic details of her life, to the point where she appears to have amnesia. All signs point to her being in the clear, yet just when she begins to feel all right another mysterious coincidence arises that makes her doubt herself again.

Martel, an astute observer of social class, is exceptionally sensitive to class differences and experiences. In Woman, Argentina ’s class bifurcation runs far deeper and is much older than the canal that runs through the town, race is inextricably tied to class, and Martel certainly displays these concerns visually. However, much of her innovation as a filmmaker lies equally in her use of sound. Woman begins in the dark, with white titles against a black background and the sound of crickets chirping and boys' feet running across gravel; from there, Martel’s world emerges through sound: rain falling on car windows, rumbling motorcycle engines, ringing cell phones, distant, repetitive thunder, the gears of a VCR fast-forwarding a video tape, metal key chains clanging against one another.

Martel achieves essential ambiguity with detailed composition in each frame where information is plentiful but also ambiguous, enigmatic and fragmented. Her camera stares at one fixed place and simply watches the characters’ movements, sometimes switching to another person, then another, with the sequence building in that manner. The narrative lines occur in different layers within the same scene, with a character in the foreground, and others in the background entering and exciting the frame, moving towards and away from the camera, resulting in a rich juxtaposition and superimposition of themes.

Martel’s decision to maintain excessively shallow depth of field in her wide screen compositions, many of which present only Vero in focus, serves to emphasize the spatial unmooring of Vero’s psychology to the film’s narrative. In other words, it is purely Onetto's registration of the various shades of her character's anguish and discomposure that comprise the sharply-focused vectors of the mise-en-scène. More importantly, the visual compression mirrors Vero's wavering distance from other social classes, the ingrained, prevailing split between lighter-skinned, middle class citizens (like her), and the darker-skinned, lower-class citizens who work for them. Vero seems contained, detached from them, yet their blurred contours in the sides of the frames are a constant reminder that there are others on the periphery. The boy she might have killed is a poor day laborer and Vero's social isolation has been compromised while her mental anxiety escalates. Moreover, her addled psychological state finds a corollary in the film's elliptical narration, which jumps ahead with protagonist and spectator alike uncertain as to where we find ourselves and how we got there.

If Martel's cinema provokes rejection or confusion in some, it does so because the audience prefers its pre-established and perceptive system. Oblivious to any commercial strategy, here form is content and nothing has been put in the film to impress. Martel tries to detect social climates and states of mind and in an indirect and subtle way she transmits them as feelings, being certain of the eloquence of details and randomly trapped words or gestures, and relying on the sensibility of the audience more than on their mental quickness. She does not ask for our intellectual liveliness but our honest participation and sensory perception.

Each frame of Woman is a work of art in itself; a visual pleasure, a meditation full of meaning on the expressive possibilities of cinema, a virtuoso interaction among multiple textures of images and level of sounds that create palpable tension making Woman feel like a most unlikely thriller. Martel is also driven by a desire to expose the ugly divides in Argentina ’s class system and the psychological and moral costs of silence, denial, and cover-up, rendering the film as much a work of social commentary as a fine example of thought-provoking entertainment. Martel executes her film with surgical precision and deals with the mystery lying at the edge of the frame; those strange almost furtive gestures we have to interpret always according to our most intimate convictions—that absence of certainties, so uncomfortable and nevertheless exciting. Woman  is a swooning, haunted enigma that demands multiple viewings and interpretations to break through its mysterious facade.