A word cloud constructed entirely from the testimony of a Guantanamo Bay prison camp detainee…
A word cloud constructed entirely from the testimony of a Guantanamo Bay prison camp detainee…
Movies have always been my Great Refuge. I went to the best film school in the world, for years I was employed by a center for motion picture study actually called the The Center for Motion Picture Study, and I continue to bash my head against the walls of the asylum of The Industry. Still, I harbor a secret shame. A secret shame of unwatched films. There are dozens of classics – beloved must sees – global cinematic touchstones – that I have never seen.
So here it is. My shame. My confession. Twenty universally beloved movies that I haven’t seen (yet):
What’s your shame?
If you could see the face behind the phone each time you placed a call,
you might decide to invite your slave in,
I’ve been re-reading The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri.
My dad brought the book over from the States when he and Mum came over to visit in 2007. The copy is a brown-paged paperback, now with a torn cover and shot binding, the pages no longer hanging together.
It’s one of the best books to and for artists I’ve read. For example:
“If you have the idea that an artist is not a decidedly practical person, get over it.”
Robert Henri (pronounced HEN-RYE) was a prominent voice in New York’s “Ashcan” School of realist painting in the 1920’s and a teacher at the legendary Art Students League of New York. He died in 1929, leaving a legacy of dedication to craft and honesty that saturated American painting in the 20th century. You can view the complete collection of his paintings here.
The Art Spirit addresses itself primarily to painters. Painters have much to teach writers. Just as writers have much to teach dancers. And dancers much to teach cartoonists. And cartoonists gardeners. And gardeners mathematicians, etc.
Artists, no matter what their gang affiliation, are all in the same classroom. The separation of disciplines is just window dressing. The essentials of making art – the underlying spiritual principles – whether in a bonsai or a ballet, are universal and mature artists borrow methods from other disciplines as easily as enlightened masters borrow from each other’s spiritual practices. It’s only fundamentalists who see a division between music and filmmaking, writing and painting, fencing and calligraphy. I’m not against fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are great for copywriting and branding – and some fundamentalists get rich, you know. But the artist is the one who, when he hears Robert Feynman talk about physics, suddenly understands how to solve that problem with his protagonist in the second act.
I’ve tended to be a screenwriter. I’m stained to the bone in movie-thinking. When Henri talks about “pictures”, I think “moving pictures” and I find his words apply effortlessly well to movies as to canvas. But they are also pointers toward the artistic life, an artist-way of thinking and working with the world. The canvas becomes the world, the world becomes the canvas.
If you’re a painter, illustrator, draftsman, sculptress, The Art Spirit will be of obvious help.
But if you’re an actor, a singer, an editor, a therapist, a matador, it may speak to your process just as directly. If it does, then maybe you and I are friends.
If you’re the Amazon type, you can buy the book here.
“When a drawing is tiresome. It may be that the motive is not worth the effort.”
“Art is certainly not a pursuit for anyone who wants to make money. There are ever so many other better ways.”
“It is not easy to know what you like. Most people fool themselves their entire lives through about this.”
“Don’t worry about your originality. You couldn’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.”
“Technique must be solid, positive, but elastic, must not fall into formula, must adapt itself to the idea. And for each new idea there must be new invention special to the expression of that idea and no other.”
“You can’t know too much about composition. That is; the areas you have to fill, their possibilities. But you must, above all, preserve your intense interest in life.”
“When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are still more pages possible.”
The London Screenwriters Festival may well be the biggest and best conference for screenwriters on Earth right now. There used to be a plethora of L.A.-based writerfests – I’ve been to a lot of them – with William Goldman and Syd Field dropping in for a chat, with pitch fests and panels, with lawyers and agents trying to get you damn kids to wise up and patchoulied practitioners of The Artists Way imploring you not to quit five minutes before the miracle. Last month’s Story Expo in Los Angeles is one of the remainders of that legacy and had some great guests (like Syd Field). But the 21st century home of the screenwriter convocations seems to be London.
Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I?
And not just because I’m a screenwriter living in London.
Or because I’m going to be speaking at the London Screenwriters Festival.
“Oh, Neal, are really you going to be speaking at the London Screenwriters Festival?”
“I am. As you well know.”
I’ll be doing a talk called “8 Sequence Structure: The Screenwriter’s Ultimate Weapon”. I know, I know. It’s a bit flashy, but people are always more likely to attend a talk if they feel like they’re going to get a weapon out of it. You just can’t have too many weapons nowadays.
I’ll be going over the importance of the sequence is story structure – and the 8 sequence paradigm specifically – as taught by Frank Daniel, one of the great screenwriting teachers of the 20th century. Using sequences in screenwriting will get you a lot farther then trying to put together a story with 3 Acts. Relying on a 3 Act Structure to get you through writing a movie is a bit like relying on your knowledge of the alphabet to get you through the writing a novel, or relying on your knowledge of swimming to get you safely back to shore when your boat has capsized in a hurricane, or relying on your knowledge of the Force to hit an exhaust port only two meters wide with your dad trying to kill you. I guess “inadequate” is the word I’m looking for.
I’ll be going into depth – or as much depth as one hour allows – into what a sequence is, how it functions in the story, and the competing theories on why feature films have eight of them. And I’ll try to pass on some of Frank Daniel’s nuggets of wisdom too, as well as some of my own experience using sequence structure to in the Hollywood trenches.
It happens Sunday, 27 October, 2pm in Tuke Hall, Regent’s School of Drama, Film & Media. See you there!
Walking home from dropping my daughter off at school today, I was treated to the sight and sound of a driver shrieking obscenities at another man as he crossed the street carrying his two year old. I missed what sparked the driver’s outrage. I suppose it was something having to do with the father’s not stepping into or across the road according to the driver’s master plan. I’d like to imagine the driver was still drunk from the night before – nursing a crippling hangover – or maybe he was feeling hopeless and broken-hearted about the implosion of capitalist civilization and the destruction of the ecosystem, both of which will result in the deaths of many millions over the next few decades. Whichever, it was a verbal outburst seething with violence and the driver didn’t give a flying fuck how many school kids were within earshot.
But the interesting bit was when the dad, two year old cradled in his arm, charged back to the car, chased it out into the street as it pulled away, and punched it. Maybe he was still drunk from the night before too, or perhaps his honor and dignity – and that of his child – had been irreparably damaged. Or maybe he was too out of sorts about that whole end of civilization routine.
I really wondered if the two men were going to go for it there in front of the school, the driver leaping out, letting his car coast off down the hill into someone’s front yard, and the father swinging his two year old like a mace, clubbing in the driver’s head, with the boy’s blinky-light shoes flashing. And I found my own anger boiling up with theirs, spontaneously, sympathetically. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later Rage is real and very contagious. I wondered what I would do if/when they started going at it. Would I jump in and try to stop a fight? Would I thrill to kicking in the head of the bad guy? Would I take the two year old in the midst of his being wielded to inflict the fatal blow and pull him aside and tutor him the way of all righteousness?
No. I would start shooting.
I would start shooting. I would pull out my phone and start recording it. That seems to be what I do. I would want a record of it, something that the cops could be shown maybe, should the event precipitate arrests. I would want a record of it anyway.
If you’re a writer, a thing doesn’t really seem to exist until you write it. If you’re a filmmaker, a thing doesn’t really seem to exist until you shoot it. I know that sounds pretentious, but it seems to be true for so many of us. Maybe because we’re so saturated in a world of electronic illusion and fantasy that intimate moments, moments of real human interaction, positive or negative, have to be passed through our chosen medium before we’re able to perceive them as being real. I know this happens on a large scale with news and media and that dreadful succubus The TV. In our world, nothing is real until the screens say it is real. A thing can be half real, mostly real, but it will never be a real boy until the screens say it is.
Yes, I would start shooting.
I visited the Occupy London camp in front of St. Paul’s last year. One time when I was there, a young German man – perhaps a bright, up & coming intern at Barclays or RBS – burst into the Encampment’s Welcome Tent, iPhone camera blazing, trying to get the Occupiers at the desk to admit that because they accepted anonymous donations, they might be laundering money. I felt a bit sorry for the German. He was deep in enemy territory and was just a corporatist footsoldier following orders. But he was there to make mischief. And this is war.
As I watched him doing his level best to generate anti-populist propaganda, I felt that anger rising – The Rage.
So I started shooting back. We faced off in an iPhone triangle, a social media intoxicated Quentin Tarentino tableau, each capturing the photons bouncing of the other, each accusing the other of villainy and more villainy, with the cameras confirming the reality of it all.
Is the pen/camera really mightier than the sword? History still can’t make up its mind on that one. But bullets and fists and guns are inevitably vectors for The Rage, the pen and the camera vectors for truth. Maybe. But we do have a choice.
I wanted to put down a few thoughts on this week’s shooting spree in Colorado at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises. I’ll try to put them down freely, without my usual self-obsessed care. But I’ll fail at that. I’m a self-obsessed man from a self-obsessed culture.
In the wake of this tragedy – ha, we know the drill, don’t we? We reflexively use the requisite sound bites: “in the wake of this tragedy”. The cliches come pouring out. Even the accounts of the victims become cliches: “I heard a popping sound”, “He just started shooting”, “I tried to get behind — “, “I saw someone lying on the ground”. It all paints the same spine-tingling picture, a kind of sentimental poetry of violence. But in the wake of this tragedy, the search for answers begins, the national debate begins, and we’ve heard it all before and done it all before. It’s as if the entire country is on autopilot, moving step by step by step through a predetermined media pseudo-grief drill. Attractive people on television will moderate discussions on gun control, on media violence. They will be moving through the same hypnotized routine, repeating scripts, emphasizing talking points. And each player in this mass, nationwide psychodrama will be using the mass murder to further his or her own agenda. There will be talk of “Why?”, “How did it happen?” But that will all be secondary to the pushing of agendas. Silence would be most appropriate, I guess – not a minute of silence, but days of it, a month of silence – a month of contemplation and grief.
We do this, we Americans. We go on sprees. We go on shopping sprees. We go on dieting sprees. We go on exercise sprees. One of the great inaugural American sprees was the mass murder by Charles Whitman, a student at University Of Texas at Austin, not terribly far from my birthplace. In 1966, Whitman killed 16 and wounded 32 more, with a rifle from the top of the university’s bell tower. “Ladybird” Johnson, wife of Lyndon Johnson, President at the time, graduated from the university, as did former First Lady Laura Bush and Mostafa Chamran, a Defense Minister of Iran.
I like violent stories. I write violent stories. I like Macbeth and Clive Barker and the history of medieval torture. I like Lawrence Of Arabia and The Wild Bunch and Dawn Of The Dead and Tom And Jerry. Being immersed in the violent action, then somehow surviving it, surmounting it, analyzing it, seems to give my animal brain a sense of power. And power, or the illusion of power, is what that animal brain craves most of all. To the animal brain, power means all the food, all the sex, and all the years that ever were or could be. The animal brain doesn’t know that these things are impossible to have. The animal brain believes it’s possible to have everything and an infinite supply of everything. The animal brain has faith.
America was founded on this idea that there was an infinite amount of everything and it could all be yours. European settlers arrived in a completely uninhabited land – not a human soul on the whole continent – no, not a single one. The only thing that stood in your way was Mother Nature. And through the power of your own will, vision, courage, faith, you could have anything and everything you wanted. It was all there in front of you in raw form. If you had the talent to shape it, there was nothing that you couldn’t have.
“I can make the world in my own image” is the American Dream. This is the American Tragedy too – the certainty that I am separate from the world. This belief is the prime motivator behind all American civilization. It’s the thing that got Charles Whitman to kill his wife and mother, then head up to the top of the belltower.
This separation of self from the world – the separation of me from nature, separation of me from the spirit, separation of me from my fellow human, separation of me from my self – is what has made America great. You can’t have a world empire without believing that you are separate from the world – superior, or worse maybe, than others. Or that your God is different from other Gods. The American success story is built on two ideas: Glorification of self and objectification of the other.
If I can objectify you, then I can conquer you, I can buy and sell you, I can blow second hand smoke in your face or believe that Likeing your Facebook status is meaningful contact, I can kill, I can ignore science and reason, I can disbelieve my eyes, I can destroy the future of my children, and more with no sense of any consequences. I can believe there is an infinite amount of what I want and that I can have all of it. Any crime becomes possible. And history has shown over and over that objectification of the other goes hand in hand with atrocity whether you’re shooting American Bison from a train, drawing up plans for gas ovens, drone warfare and human enslavemet. Or firing bullets into human-shaped targets in a movie theater.
Japan has for years had a far more violent media culture than the US. Japan brought us “Battle Royale”. In “Battle Royale”, school kids fight to the death on a remote island while the world watches, yet there have been no “Battle Royale” copycat killings. We know that violence in media is not the cause of random acts of senseless violence. We know it’s not the availability of guns either. Truye, Americans own more guns per capita than any other country, but Switzerland and Finland also have a high gun ownership. What Japan, Switzerland and Finland lack is a 300 year old culture celebrating the triumph of the self over its environment. Although this culture, the culture of narcissism, is America’s biggest export and it has begun to deform other cultures, reshaping them in its image.
I do not own a gun and do not ever plan to. But it just doesn’t stack up that the source of American violence is the number of firearms available. I think it’s rather the other way around. The obsession with the inviolable “Me” and dread of “The Other” stokes the desire for guns – and for money, for food, for entertainment, for guarantees of absolute safety, for immortality, for super-heroes who will kill and die in your name – and the more you cling to security and protection, the more insecure and vulnerable you feel.
Already, various special interests are using this latest Colorado shooting to promote their own agendas – as I am probably doing here. It’s unnerving – the stampede to again find enemies, to again and again point to a problem outside the self, the elimination of which will solve everything. As Einstein famously said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.”
But there is no desire to solve the problem. The media conversation that will judder on over the coming weeks will resemble that of a confronted narcissist – heavy on self-justification and blame and really slick sounding. Seeking personal humility and self-honesty and striving for the unity of ourselves with our fellow creatures, our world, our own futures would mean an assault on the fabric of American Civilization – of Western Civilization. And this civilization is well-armed and obsessed and will not be stopped.
Orwell, as usual, describes our situation with pinpoint accuracy. From 1984:
In 2001, I wrote the below piece, “X-Women and Hollow Men”, for The Hollywood Reporter, about the explosion of female action heroes at the turn of the 21st century. I post it again here because it’s not available elsewhere online and to add to the discussion of the future of the female action hero. See Social Creature’s post, for example: The Next 21st Centry Superhero Will Be A Chick.
When the article was written, I was convinced we were on the verge of seeing a new generation of female heroes. The first decade of the 21st century, of course, marked a radical shift to a revolutionary conservatism that embraced hierarchy, violence, and a dismantling of law that has always shoved women into the background as property or, at best, as a type of technology for keeping the social structure intact.
I write female heroes, so this issue is important to me. And I have a four year old girl. I want to write a hero for my daughter to be inspired by that’s not just a boy put into a girl’s body. We can be deceived into thinking we’re seeing female heroes – onscreen and in print – and in real life too – when in fact we’re just seeing women playing the parts of men, and receiving great rewards for it. Kathryn Bigelow winning the Best Director Academy Award for “The Hurt Locker”, a movie just as easily made by Ridley Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer, is as clear an indicator of where we are as anything. Jane Campion or Julie Taymor are just not going to win Best Director. Not in this decade anyway. It is a man’s world. The game of success, whether in the entertainment industry or international poltics, is played according to masculine rules and there doesn’t seem to be too much getting around that for the time being. That global cultural truth affects then what stories we will hear. And it seems now to be resulting in that old chestnut of the female action hero who when you get to the heart of it, really is teenage boy’s transgender fantasy.
So here’s the Reporter piece, in full. Have things changed since 2001?
“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” So said John Wayne, epitome of the tough, indomitable Hollywood hero, over fifty years ago. It might have been the rallying cry of the action hero of this past year. The difference being that the new icons of unapologetic toughness are not cowboys or cavalry captains, they are women.
Past decades have given us female action stars, but only sporadically, and when women in movies have had physical prowess equal to a man’s, they have always had to sacrifice something for it. The Bond films have for 35 years featured dangerous female characters–Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), May Day (Grace Jones), all the way back to spike-toed Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). Each one gave the tuxedoed spy a run for his money, and each one was required to die before fade out–usually while suffering a wry Bond quip. Bond kept the power, the women were only borrowing it. Likewise, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Linda Hunt’s Sarah Connor were icons of level-headedness and determination, but at the price of being outcasts, the only sane figures in disintegrating worlds. Female actors have always been prepared and equipped to bring the formidable roles to the screen, but either the audience or the industry–or both–have not.
But in 1999, a leather-clad Carrie Ann Moss, as Trinity, leapt into the air and defied gravity in the opening sequence of “The Matrix”. When she finally landed, kicking the asses of several men in the process, there was nothing in the movies that a guy could do that a girl could not. Trinity was a character equal in all respects to the male hero. More importantly, the film felt no need to explain why she was so or to apologize for it. Neither did the audience. The floodgates opened and the year 2000 has brought a plethora of films featuring physically powerful and unapologetically dangerous women.
One of the first, and most unlikely, films to bring us a new breed of female action star was “Chicken Run” with a cast that was virtually all-female–as well as all-chicken and all-clay. The stop-motion action-adventure of barnyard hens trying to escape becoming chicken pot pies was a feminist remake of that most masculine of WWII classics, “The Great Escape”. Julia Sawahla, Jane Horrocks, and Miranda Richardson, who lent their voices to the film’s principle characters, are all alumnae of the British comedy hit “Absolutely Fabulous”, which set its own feminist standard by celebrating female disfunction as enthusiastically as “Chicken Run” did female adroitness.
Unlike “The Great Escape”, “Chicken Run” allowed some sexual equity by providing three male characters–Mrs. Tweedy’s ineffectual husband, subservient to her that we assume he’s Mrs. Tweedy’s farm hand for the first half of the movie. The second is an old war hero Rooster, lost in memories–or delusions–of past glory. The third–token male romantic lead and token American–is Rocky Rhodes who is a coward and scam artist, played by Mel Gibson at his irresponsible, mercurial best. With feminine support, these men are dragged kicking and screaming into mature action and manage not to disgrace themselves too thoroughly.
“Charlie’s Angels”, an action film about women, by women, and for everybody, has a knockout opening tracking shot that sums up the new place of women in the movies. Moving through a crowded airliner, we are shown the gamut of female roles–a mother, a nun, a little girl, a woman leading a boyfriend into the lavoratory for an encounter, etc. We finally come to rest on a bad-ass L.L. Cool J, who, we learn, is also a woman–the Angel Dylan (Drew Barrymore) in disguise. “Charlie’s Angels” says 1. “A woman can be anything she wants,” and 2. “If you aren’t a girl, you can’t play this game.”
One of the masterstrokes of “Charlie’s Angels” is the casting of its men, which further underscores the power of the three female leads. The male leads are devoid of any macho mythology. Tim Curry is, after all, the world’s most famous transvestite, and Bill Murray played gay performer Bunny Breckinridge in “Ed Wood”. Crispin Glover gave the world Marty McFly’s ineffectual pop in “Back to the Future” and Andy Warhol in “The Doors”. Tom Green is irrepressible in his determination to look like an idiot at all costs. It was precisely this type of casting that let audiences be a part of the game of “Charlie’s Angels”, making it one of the highest grossers of the year. Men enjoyed the joke as much as women. The audience is not just willing to see a world where women take power, they will not settle for less.
In “X-Men”, the dark sister-film of “Charlie’s Angels”, women match the men super-power for super-power and then some. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the terrifying embodiment of masculine rage is presented with a partner in Rogue (Anna Paquin) who, though a mere girl, is equally, perhaps even more dangerous. As in “Charlie’s Angels”, the men are crippled, their power unstable. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) may be the mastermind, but he is also bound to a wheelchair, and his nemesis Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) is brilliant, but twisted by hate. Cyclops (James Marsden), in ruby-quartz glasses day or night, gives the impression of a blind man, and Wolverine is an alcoholic, and bad guy Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) is a pre-verbal barbarian. The X-Women have no such handicaps. Jane Gray (Famke Janssen) has intelligence and the power to move matter, Storm (Halle Berry) is the power of nature, and Rogue steals power from those who would lay a hand on her–which in terms of the story, are men. Shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijin-Stamos) not only refuses to behave like a nice girl, she can, literally, be whoever she wants to be. With it’s most powerful male in a wheelchair, and it’s most powerful female still a teen, the “X-Men” paints a world of men on the way down, while their female counterparts are just getting started.
While the woman-warrior is new to Hollywood movies, in Asia she has been a staple for decades. Since the 1960s Chinese martial arts films have allowed women to retain grace and beauty and while giving them the ability to vanquish scores of foes, male or female, single-handedly. Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” reveals a new world of female action characters by revisiting something very old. “Crouching Tiger” is an entirely female action movie, an epic adventure about a brilliant young woman fighter who seeks greater power by stealing a magical sword. This young genius, Jen (Ziyi Zhang), is caught between the friendship of master swordswoman Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and the evil influence of the witch Jade Fox (played by Chinese action diva Pei-pei Cheng). The two males in the story are essentially supporting characters. One is the love interest, a young warrior who falls for Jen because of her martial prowess. The other is the martial arts master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) whose new dedication to a spiritual life keeps him remote from the central action. The women in “Crouching Tiger” are center the story, and the battles they fight are among the most thrilling ever filmed.
Even a year ago, the prevaling wisdom was that it was difficult for women to carry an entire picture. This year, they seem to have carried most of them single-handedly. In Rod Lurie’s political drama, “The Contender”, Senator Laine (Joan Allen) will not dignify with a response the accusations of the men trying to destroy her reputation. She refuses to play by any rules but her own. Women may not yet feel so empowered in the real world, but perhaps the new brand of movie hero will give them a start.
Occupy Wall Street is almost certainly the most important democratic movement of the 21st century. It has inspired everyone across the political spectrum (Oh, come on. Yes, it has. Don’t be shy, you conservatives. Come on out. You can hate corporate corruption too).
Movies entertain, sure – and entertainment is very important, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – but movies also encourage, spark debate, instruct, inform, and invite us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. You might not have know this. It’s a carefully guarded secret.
Here’s a proposed film festival for Occupy Wall Street protestors around the world and for those inspired by them and even for those not sure yet what side of the fence they’re on – maybe especially for them. Just a few suggestions for your rental queue or your local indy cinema from my list of favorites.
What films would you add? What films help you to envision the world you want to live in? Or warn you away from the one you don’t?
A Man For All Seasons (1966)
Copyright © 2017 Neal Romanek – words/worlds - All Rights Reserved
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