Tag Archives: film

Hooray for Hollywood Narrative

You want a crescendo, don’t you? That splashy finish? An ending to end all endings?

You’ve seen it more times than you can count. Think about classic Hollywood and you’ll recall a string of examples.

  • The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
  • After all, tomorrow is another day.
  • He used to be a big shot.
  • Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  • Oh, Auntie Em—there’s no place like home.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Sure. Whether you’re rolling your eyes or not, those are classic examples of ending on a high point. And the same idea works throughout the rest of those features, scene after scene after scene.

Somewhere along the line, especially with the influence of European new wave filmmakers, scenes became flatter. Narrative language and traditions changed. And that’s swell. More is more. More artistic language, more options, more devices, more techniques, more etcetera. There’s no right or wrong in story telling. The bottom line is making it play.

But I miss the old Hollywood construction. The approach was basic, solid, classic. In it’s time, it established an approach that served melodramas and comedies alike. The form can be applied to any art form, including my indulgences with the written word.

Creating top-drawer quality is never easy—a look at most flicks, books or TV shows is proof of that. But the idea behind this old-style story telling is simple enough. It’s plenty obvious, too, but we don’t always think about it. Plenty of authors go on about editing. They talk about cutting out the extraneous, creating dialogue, giving voice. There’s lots of attention given to creating characters and their arcs, how the protagonist has to go through personal change.

That’s a bunch of moving parts to contend with. Continually. Nonstop. They feed each other, affect each other, overlap like crazy. And they can all fit into one, repeated pattern until you reach your boffo crescendo.

That big bang ending still holds true today, most of the time. Once upon a time in Tinsel Town, however, they worked it scene by scene, beat by beat. The accepted standard was that a scene should rise in pitch until its high point, then cut! If you can’t contrive that climax, toss in a comedic character actor, set up a good joke, and go out on that high point.

You wind up with a series of scenes that start quiet or slow, catch fire, and ignite in a flash. One after the other, over and over.  If you do it right, the overall story line, it’s drama or conflict, spirals at the same time until you reach that biggest daddy high point of them all.

Simple, isn’t it? To put it another way, every chapter or section is a mini-version of the whole work. You’ve got a beginning, middle and an end. From A to B to C. From once upon a time to they lived happily after ever. Or not so happily if you’re writing noir. Scene by scene by scene.

The approach is a tough nut in the short story form. And maybe it’s not foremost in my thoughts while I’m working. But I’m pre-wired that way. I like that rise and bang! I want that. I dig that. Pulling it off is like creating a beautiful friendship. Sure.

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The Mega-nificent Seven

You know what to do with that extra jack, those few hundred million you’ve got just lying around earning squat. Sure, you could snag some dirt cheap real estate. Or you could probably buy out some public service from the city of Chicago. There’s plenty of ways to abuse the commercial enterprise system, especially when you don’t need the dough. But the idea’s to get a kick while doing it. The idea’s to get a smile from all that scratch.

I say it’s time you produce a new version of “The Magnificent Seven.” And I gotta say it’s a brilliant stroke that fits right in with the premier secret to successful Hollywood producing. It’s all so simple, all so obvious, but so many people miss it completely. The key in Tinseltown is all about being vey fresh, very new, very now, and at the same time as wholly unoriginal as possible. In order to fulfill that formula, what could be better than a remake of a remake?

Don’t get me wrong. I ain’t saying your new “Magnificent Seven” ain’t going to be tricky, especially when it comes to the cast. You gotta make it boffo, blockbuster, dream-team like. You’re talking the stuff of “The Longest Day” and “The Towering Inferno.” In order to pull this off you’ll have to assemble the best goddam cast there’s even been. That means you need the very best talent—but don’t confuse “talent” with “ability.” The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but they’re not necessarily the same thing, either. In Hollywood, talent is a commodity, talent is a hired gun—and ain’t that apropos for this flick? So when I say you need the best talent, I mean the most expensive. Take a page from Dino de Laurentiis and Francis Ford Coppola: the most expensive always means the best, right?

Lucky for us we’ve got that roadmap to good, clean capitalist living, Forbes magazine. The little dears over at Forbes have already compiled our cast for us based on Hollywood’s top money makers from May 2011 to May 2012. Here’s your mega-million, all-star ensemble. The listing includes their last yearly earnings with notes, the character they’ll play, and the actor from the original cast. (“Original” refers to the American original which was a remake of the Japanse original. Got that?)

Tom Cruise
$75 million
Chris Adams / Yul Brynner
Mr. Hollywood himself struck it big with “Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol,” and “Jack Reacher” looks promising. Cruise is a funny guy. He’s taken smaller parts in the past, but you know in an all-star affair he’ll settle for nothing less than the lead. But will he shave his head?

Leonardo DiCaprio
$37 million
Vin / Steve McQueen
“J. Edgar” was a box office let down, but “Django Unchained” should turn things around. It could take some fancy schmoozing to get Leo into another western, not to mention another remake after “The Great Gatsby.”

Adam Sandler
Harry Luck / Brad Dexter
Here’s a twosome that could only be made in Hollywood: Sandler tied with DiCaprio for the number two spot (and a paltry sum it is compared to Tom “Cash Cow” Cruise). Sandler’s ready for a winner after the break-even, “Jack and Jill” and the box office flop, “That’s My Boy.” Maybe he can bring a little more panache to the role than Dexter did—it would be awful difficult not to.

Dwayne Johnson
$36 million
Bernardo O’Reilly / Charles Bronson
Is Dwayne the hardest working man in Tinsel Town? He appeared in no less than five flicks in 2012. Remake negotiations could be tricky: with Cruise already doing the cue ball thing for the Yul Brynner role, you’ll have to convince Dwayne to wear a rug.

Ben Stiller
$33 million
Lee / Robert Vaughn
Despite the weak showing of “The Watch,” Stiller’s one of Hollywood’s best respected, and best paid, funnymen. We’ll see how straight he can play it in black leather gloves. He can’t possibly look anymore out of place than Vaughn did.

Sacha Baron Cohen
Chico / Horst Buchholz
$30 million
It’s a dead heat for the last three cast members. Sacha should be itching to do a western after dropping out of “Django Unchained” for his role In “Les Miserables.”

Will Smith
$30 million
Britt / James Coburn
It’s hard to beat the $600 million box office for “Men In Black 3.” Will’s sci-fi “After Earth” should prove interesting—he shares screenwriting credit with M. Night Shyamalan. Can’t you just see Smith displaying a little knife-play razzle-dazzle?

Johnny Depp
$30 million
Calvera / Eli Wallach
Forget “Dark Shadows.” Just forget it. Depp’s the one and only star in the movie universe with three flicks earning more than $1 billion each. You know he’ll never go for conventional casting, so Depp earns the role of the Mexican villain. The question is whether or not he’ll choose to adopt Wallach’s completely miscast Brooklyn accent.

The total payday for this Hollywood elite? $308 million. For that amount you could consider a remake of “Titanic,” but the all-star western sounds like a lot more fun. Now it’s time to attach a director—let’s ride!



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Art & The Hard-Boiled Universe


You ever get an unsettling feeling at the end of a picture? It could be a literary work or a canvas or a 45. Sure. Maybe because you were counting on the boy getting the girl and instead he craps out? Or maybe because everything resolves into the easiest of happy endings contrary to your every expectation?

Figure 1.

Let’s suppose, just suppose, you’re nearing the end of “The Big Sleep.” Chandler’s got you all on edge as P.I. Marlowe eavesdrops on Jones and Canino. You just know something’s going to pop–it could bust wide open or implode real quiet-like, but either way you’re counting on it. And suddenly, without warning, Marlowe finds himself distracted by a vase of flowers. He stops listening to the boys next door and gets to arranging the blooms while going into a two-page dissertation on how to get baby’s breath to fall just ever so. Nuts!

Figure 2.

Or picture this one. The scene is spare, bleak.  A section of a house slants before you, the paint peeling from its wooden slats. Dotted and slashed with smears of crimson. A handful of squashed fern struggle out from between crushed floorboards and the earth. And, of course, those immobile legs, covered in starkly striped hose and capped off in wedges of lurid red. This ain’t no setting in no Prairie School of architecture.

Dorothy, a 16-1/2 year-old Judy Garland trying to pass for 12 in pigtails and rouge, stands transfixed in horror by the sight as one of the Singer Midgets steals up behind her. The overboard make-up can’t conceal his oily tan. He’s wearing an oversized fedora. He grasps Dorothy’s hand between his minuscule mitts and attempts to comfort the disturbed dame:

“Forget it, Dorothy,” he intones smooth and hard at the same time. “It’s Munchkinland.”

You know what’s wrong with these reinvented pictures, I know what’s wrong. Even my Aunt Fanny knows what’s wrong, but she probably couldn’t spell it out in so many words. So allow me.

The Universe is Out of Sync

It just doesn’t play. It’s too graphic or too silly or too violent. It’s too real or not real enough.  Too hard-boiled or too sugar-coated. Doesn’t fit, doesn’t mesh, doesn’t jive. It’s just plain wrong. It’s out of sync with the little world we’re experiencing.

Every work of art captures a universe through creation, re-creation, invention or clever combination thereof. It’s like laying down a complete set of natural laws–maybe unnatural in the case of Quentin Tarantino. But every element needs to fit and every action needs to ring true within this universe.

F’rinstance, in the noir setting of the hard-boiled detective universe, light is dark–that is to say that there ain’t a whole lot of light in the first place. No one is pure, no one is all good, no one is flawless–some are just more flawed than others. Justice doesn’t always win which means that sometimes crime pays. Everyone and their sister is born with original sin and man, how they’ll pay for it.

The hard-boiled author’s got plenty of ammo when it comes to expressing this cosmos of hard-knocks. Urban settings. Night settings. A hero constantly behind the eight ball. Murders at the drop of a hat. More subtle elements can also support the laws of this hard-nosed nature: a gumshoe who never gets paid or keeps having his gun boosted, a villain who’s presence is made known only by anecdote and reputation. The variations are only limited by the imagination and a created set of laws. As long as it fits, as long as it plays.

Creating a whole universe. Inventing a true world. It’s easier said than done and can leave you with your jaw dropping when it’s pulled off. There’s one heck of a beautiful thing to discover in the symmetry or asymmetry of artwork, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.


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