Saturday, October 31, 2009

Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009) - Whatever Doesn't

After his European sojourns, Woody Allen returns to New York and to his earlier favourite topics: misanthropic Jewish liberal intellectuals and the beautiful, young, pliant girls who fall for them. It's been done in Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah And Her Sisters, heck, even in Bananas - so this should be a return to greatness, right?


And for very basic reasons which have everything to do with screenwriting (though the casting may also be somewhat responsible).

A short synopsis: Boris Yelnikov (Larry David), a misanthropic physicist reduced to teaching kids chess for a living (whilst bullying his charges mercilessly) encounters a Southern waif one evening and allows himself to be convinced to take her in. She's sweet but stupid, and he teaches her his views on life, love, the universe and everything. After a while they get married, and everything is swell, until her mother shows up, having been deserted by her husband. The mother is a Christian fundamentalist who hates Boris, but she quickly becomes seduced by New York when she finds fame as a photographer, and ends up living with two men.
Then the husband shows up, similarly fundamentalist and anti-Boris, but when he discovers how his ex-wife has changed, he ends up bemoaning his fate in a bar where he meets a gay man and admits he's been gay all along too.
Boris' wife, in the meantime, meets an attractive actor who is interested in her, goes to bed with him, and divorces Boris, who tries to commit suicide but lands on a woman who turns out to be his ideal mate, even though she's a psychic (something he as a rational scientist has great aversion to). Bottom line: life is short, so do whatever works to make you happy and find love.

Let's take the flaws of the movie in ascending order of severity.

First, there's expositional, explicitly on the nose dialog. And not a little, either. People are extremely literal and literate in analyzing themselves and each other, and it comes across as fake. To be fair, this has been the case in earlier Woody Allen films as well, but there he was able to sell it better, somehow. If only by using more hesitations and stammering in the delivery of the lines.

Secondly, several characters go through huge arcs - but at an incredible speed. While the mother has some screen time to go from fundamentalist to hedonist, it's still far from convincing. And the father literally changes his entire belief system and sexual orientation in the course of one scene! It's impossible to take this even remotely seriously. Similarly, Boris' wife immediately sleeps with the actor after meeting him, and this one encounter is enough for her to immediately ditch Boris (to be fair, he immediately throws her out upon learning of her infidelity, but she doesn't to anything to change his mind - even though she's been the one who's initiated the entire romance). Because so many characters change so unconvincingly during the film (especially its second act), the audience is no longer engaged with the proceedings. And the plot suffers too, as there is no driving conflict, no extra complications added to the situation - just vignettes to prove the theory 'whatever works'.

But most importantly of all, Whatever Works is sabotaged by its protagonist. Boris Yelnikov has a lot in common with earlier Allen characters - he's neurotic with a morbid fear of death, he's bitingly sarcastic (whatever the film's flaws, it does have a couple of very good one-liners), his marriage has been a disaster, he likes old jazz, classical music, Fred Astaire, and he finds himself involved with a beautiful, loving young woman who eventually deserts him.

However, Boris is different from previous Allen characters (both played by him and other actors) in that he is invulnerable. He's a loud bully, proclaiming his distaste of anyone and everything around him - and he's right. Not only in his own mind, but the story constantly proves him to be right too. In the end, he even proves to the audience (which he addresses throughout the film, and only he can see) that he's a genius because he sees the whole picture (i.e. that he's part of a movie).

In the past, Allen has been quite aggressive too in his comedies, especially towards the objects of his affection, but his own neurotic, cowardly persona softened the blow and made it look like the defense mechanism of a character suffering from an inferiority complex. Now, Boris towers above all those around him, spewing his hate and never being corrected, whether by other characters or fate. He doesn't really change (even when he's in love he's still the same miserable curmudgeon), and he isn't really a character you like to spend much time with. In casting Larry David, whose style of comedy is abrasive and confrontational, Allen has compounded the problem. The part fits David very well - but it amplifies his most obnoxious tendencies. Even in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is often in the wrong (though he never thinks so, obviously).

In this movie, we get to see just how irritating a protagonist can be who is invulnerable. Sure, Boris gets so depressed he attempts suicide after the break-up but once again, that's handled in just one scene - and as a surprise, without any build-up towards that act. He finally comes across as an obnoxious, bossy bully who needs to be taken down a peg or two. And if that's the character who is your window into the story, it's no wonder the film really doesn't work as a whole.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Simon Beaufoy secret

Simon Beaufoy is one of the most interesting screenwriters active today.

His work has been both massively succesful, turning uncommercial concepts into award-winning megahits (which, because of the lower budget, turn out to be extremely lucrative), and he's also written very personal scripts which didn't attract a huge audience. And the films made from his scripts are wildly different in tone.

So what's his secret ingredient?

Looking at The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire, and comparing them to a recent in-production script, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, we find there is a common ingredient.

Simon Beaufoy manages to turn his underdog lead characters into Heroes.

Heroes in the literal sense of the word: characters who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a commendable goal.

The unemployed men are willing to sacrifice their sense of dignity and power in order to get out of the disastrous situations they find themselves in at the beginning of the story. And they are rewarded by the adoration of an audience of women who appreciate their bravery in displaying themselves as sexual objects. THey rediscover a sense of self-worth and selfrespect by risking all.

In Slumdog Millionaire, a young man without any formal education or social status gambles all by appearing on the quiz show which can make dreams come true. His dream is to escape with the love of his life, Latika, and he is determined not to let anything or anyone stand in his way. From a textbook underdog character, he is transformed into a Hero for the ages. And his goal - true, eternal love - is the highest to which human beings can aspire. Interestingly, the huge love story which drives the narrative is not really present in the original novel (which is more of a collection of short stories rather than one strong plot). And in the screenplay, the mythological nature of the love story is made even more clear than in the movie. In a deleted sequence, Jamal gets to watch an open-air performance of the opera Orfeo e Eurydice at the Taj Mahal, and he finds himself spellbound by the story of the hero who travels to the Underworld to bring back the woman he loves. Which just happens to be the task which Jamal will undertake too.

In Salmon Fishing, another adaptation of a novel, everything turns around the apparently mad desire of a Yemenite sheik to introduce salmon fishing to the Middle East. The lead character is a repressed government scientist trapped in a loveless marriage with a very careerist wife, who is ordered to assist the sheik in developing his scheme. The scientist refuses at first, is forced into complying, and meets with the sheik who turns out not to be a mad tyrant but a visionary who hopes to bring peace to the region. The scientist, who is all about facts and figures, starts to learn the value of faith from the sheik, and also falls in love with the exceptionally beautiful young woman who is the liaison between the sheik's British real estate developers and the government.

Once again, Beaufoy adds the power of Myth to his writing to transcend its origins and give it far greater resonance. The science vs. faith dichotomy is present in the original novel, but more as a philosophical debate - the finale is also far more ironic in its impact, even though the event which takes place in book and film is basically the same. And the romance element also ends on a totally different note: realistically in the novel, and in the script - well, I won't spoil it for you but when you look at Beaufoy's track record it's pretty easy to guess in what direction he takes it.

Now, what is interesting is that Salmon Fishing In The Yemen becomes a note-perfect example of the Hero's Journey structural paradigm - whereas the book is told in a number of letters, e-mails, reports and the like. It's a fractured way of telling the story, forcing the reader to puzzle everything together.

So the secret of Simon Beaufoy's success, apart from his skill at crafting likeable characters and being a very efficient and smart storyteller, is the ability
to imbue his underdog characters and their everyday struggle with a sense of Mythical Grandeur. He manages to inject this larger-than-life quality in stories which are essentially small, intimate and realistic in nature. And even though the sense of reality may be diminished at times, the power of mythological archetypes and fairy tales ensures the scripts (and the resulting movies) resonate very deeply with their often massive audiences.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Storytelling and Entre Les Murs (Laurent Cantet)

Entre Les Murs, which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes in 2008, is a very interesting film which breaks most of the screenwriting rules and yet is riveting from the first minute to the last.

The screenplay, written by the director Laurent Cantet and the main actor, François Bégaudeau, is based on Bégaudeau's autobiographical book chronicling his experiences as a teacher in Paris.

Bégaudeau plays François Marin, a French teacher in a Parisian school with an ethincally very diverse population.
The film never leaves the school: we know nothing about the characters except for what we see of them within the scholarly environment. We have no idea about Marin's personal life, his relationships, his troubles outside of the workplace.

Though the film covers an entire school year, there is no major plotline which develops as its driving force, and we don't really get much of a sense of time passing. There's no structural model with clearly discernible turning points or story pattern with

And character arcs are conspicuous by their complete absence. Marin doesn't change his approach to teaching, even though it's only intermittently succesful. Nor does he get to understand his pupils better, no matter how hard he tries, or does he effect a miraculous change in one or more of them. And there's certainly no uplifting moral victory anywhere in sight at the end of the film.

So what does this film have that makes it so compelling?

Two things. The first is realism: the script was workshopped and improvised over a period of about a year with teenagers who basically play themselves (all but two use their own names in the film) and who attend the sort of school portrayed in the film. Bégaudeau naturally is totally convincing as a real teacher. The class sequences are so true to life they seem to be part of a documentary. By contrast, the scenes of the teachers among themselves feel (slightly) more staged.

The second thing? Conflict.

The film is filled to the brim with it. The class sequences are a never-ending confrontation between the well-meaning teacher who tries to interest his pupils in the topics he teaches them, and looks for ways to link it to their own experiences; and the pupils who for the most part seem to resist learning anything at all to the best of their ability, and who freely vent their disrespect of their teacher and their racist feelings towards each other. Though there is no sensationalism whatsoever (no headline-worthy excesses of violence), these sequences are unsettling by their intensity and their truthfulness.

But even the scenes outside of the classroom nearly all have some sort of conflict (teachers vs. parents, teachers vs. the principal, teachers squabbling amongst themselves...). Though these scenes are far less intense than the classroom scenes, they certainly aren't flat or harmonious.

I don't want to imply there is absolutely no plot in Entre Les Murs - the strongest narrative thread concerns a rebellious African pupil, Souleyman, whose seething anger and resentment boil over near the end of the film when Marin gets mad at the girls who, as class represetatives, have leaked end-of-term results to their classmates. There's an altercation in class, Souleyman faces the disciplinary board and is expelled from school, possible to be sent back to his homeland, Mali, by his dad.

But this is told more as an incident, a sequence of events which follow each other chronologically rather than as the strongly causal narrative we find in, say, Dead Poets' Society. In the climactic hearing, Marin is silent the entire time and Souleyman only translates his mother's heartfelt but misguided plea in favour of her son. So there is no ultimate effort by the parties involved in the conflict to triumph.

Of course the conditions in which this script was created are fairly unique, and will rarely if ever be available to other writers. But the film serves as an object lesson to the power of conflict to carry a film, even in the face of the absense of a strong conflict or traditional story patterns.