Movies

The Virtue of Ignorance

A 1960 interview with Orson Welles about “Citizen Kane.”

Q: What I’d like to know is where did you get the confidence from to make the film with such —

A: Ignorance. Ignorance. Sheer ignorance. You know, there’s no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession, I think, that you’re timid, or careful or —

Q: How does this ignorance show itself?

A: I thought you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do or the imagination could do. And if you come up from the bottom in the film business, you’re taught all the things that the cameraman doesn’t want to attempt for fear he will be criticized for having failed. And in this case I had a cameraman who didn’t care if he was criticized if he failed, and I didn’t know that there were things you couldn’t do, so anything I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.

Q: You got away with enormous technical advances, didn’t you?

A: Simply by not knowing that they were impossible. Or theoretically impossible. And of course, again, I had a great advantage, not only in the real genius of my cameraman, but in the fact that he, like all great men, I think, who are masters of a craft, told me right at the outset that there was nothing about camerawork that I couldn’t learn in half a day, that any intelligent person couldn’t learn in half a day. And he was right.

Q: It’s true of an awful lot of things, isn’t it?

A: Of all things.

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Aaron Sorkin: Now all I have to do…

At the moment I’m at roughly the same place I was when I decided to write ‘The Social Network’ — which is to say I don’t know what the movie’s about yet. I know it won’t be a biography as it’s very hard to shake the cradle-to-grave structure of a biopic. I know that Jobs was a very complicated and dynamic genius who fought a number of dramatic battles. I know that like Edison, Marconi (and Philo Farnsworth), he invented something we love. I think that has a lot to do with our love affair with him. We’re told every day that America’s future is basically in service but our history is in building things — railroads and cars and cities — but Steve Jobs, in building something that’s taking us to our future, has also taken us to one of the best parts of our past. Now all I have to do is turn that into three acts with an intention, obstacle, exposition, inciting action, reversal, climax and denouement and make it funny and emotional and I’ll be in business.

Aaron Sorkin on the forthcoming film version of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs

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Marilyn

Cannes Festival poster

The official poster for the 65th Cannes Film Festival.

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“And then I saw her…”

When I’m stuck — as I have been for some time now, trying to crack the plot of my next book, to “break” the story, as screenwriters say — I always look for older stories to use as templates. The writer David Lodge has a great term for this sort of literary model: “precursor texts” (which I’ve mentioned here before). Books, movies, whatever — the form of the story doesn’t matter, only the quality of the storytelling. In fact, movies often make the best precursor texts, since their plots are compressed, highly structured, and easy to see. Screenwriting is storytelling stripped bare. Maybe that is why movies, if they’re the right movies, often get my imagination unstuck.

In this case I have been analyzing stories that touch on my book’s premise: a man vanishes into thin air, leaving his wife to cope with daily life in his absence and to solve the mystery of his disappearance. How have other, better storytellers handled that scenario?

So the other day I found myself watching “Out of the Past,” the classic 1947 noir directed by Jacques Tourneur, with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer as the woman who’s gone missing. The movie is one of my absolute favorites. So much has been written about “Out of the Past,” I will refrain from gushing about it here. Suffice it to say: if you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in a while, go watch it this weekend. You won’t be sorry.

Here is a taste, with Greer and a 30-year-old Mitchum, in his first leading role. They’re both great, but Mitchum just jumps off the screen. If they remade “Out of the Past” today, Greer’s black widow role could be played capably by Angelina Jolie, say. But what young actor today could fill Mitchum’s shoes?

 

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Laziness will not do

So avoid using the word very because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys: to woo women. And in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.

Dead Poet’s Society

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Making Eddie Coyle

Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum signs an autograph while on location in Boston filming The Friends of Eddie Coyle, autumn 1972. (via)

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In the wry

A note from J.D. Salinger to aspiring movie director Hubert Cornfield declining an offer to turn The Catcher in the Rye into a movie. (Source. Via.) Salinger consistently refused to permit film adaptations of his novel, but in this case the dashed-off note is actually too kind: in 1953, Cornfield was 24 years old and had never directed a film. There is a hint of disdain in Salinger’s use of “ardor” to describe the young man’s persistence. (Cornfield would go on to a middling career directing B-movies and a few long-forgotten features.) The letter is also interesting in that Salinger, despite his insistence that “I see my novel as a novel and only as a novel,” apparently was toying with the idea of casting and directing a film version himself. Comforting that, at age 34, even Salinger was not above temptation.

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Five Fingers of Death

5 Fingers of Death

Five Fingers of Death (1972). This poster hung in Jacob Barber’s bedroom.

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Happy St. Crispin’s Day

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Thrilling, though I’ve seen it a thousand times. (Unabridged text here.) Today is St. Crispin’s Day, October 25, the day that “shall ne’er go by, / From this day to the ending of the world, / But we in it shall be remember’d.”

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The origin of “I coulda been a contender”

A note from screenwriter Budd Schulberg to a fan, jotted on the back of an index card, explains the origin of the famous line from “On the Waterfront.” The note reads:

12/7/89

For Bobby Cotton —

From an old fight fan who actually heard a friend of his (an ex-pug) say, “I coulda been a contender…” A lot of writing is simply careful listening.

Sincerely,

Budd Schulberg

Now, about that one-way ticket to Palookaville…

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The High-Low Problem

The problem [Pauline] Kael undertook to address when she began writing for The New Yorker was the problem of making popular entertainment respectable to people whose education told them that popular entertainment is not art. This is usually thought of as the high-low problem — the problem that arises when a critic equipped with a highbrow technique bends his or her attention to an object that is too low, when the professor writes about Superman comics. In fact, this rarely is a problem: if anything profits from (say) a semiotic analysis, it’s the comics. The professor may go on to compare Superman comics favorably with Homer, but that is simply a failure of judgment. It has nothing to do with the difference in brows. You can make a fool of yourself over anything.

The real high-low problem doesn’t arise when the object is too low. It arises when the object isn’t low enough. Meet the Beatles doesn’t pose a high-low problem; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does. Tom Clancy and Wheel of Fortune don’t; John le Carré and Masterpiece Theater do. A product like Sgt. Pepper isn’t low enough to be discussed as a mere cultural artifact; but it’s not high enough to be discussed as though it were Four Quartets, either. It’s exactly what it pretends to be: it’s entertainment, but for educated people. And this is what makes it so hard for educated people to talk about without sounding pretentious — as though they had to justify their pleasure by some gesture toward the ‘deeper’ significance of the product.

— Louis Menand, “Finding It at the Movies,” New York Review of Books, 3/23/95

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Vita Brevis, Ars Brevior

 

Last night I watched The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the 1965 film version of le Carré’s novel. The movie is very good — not quite great, but very good. It does a lot of things well. It is beautifully shot, with an elegant gray palette and wonderfully dingy sets. It is well written. Even at 112 minutes long, the plotting is tight and the dialogue is generally rich and credible. (Le Carré himself added some polish to the screenplay.) The acting is terrific. Richard Burton and Claire Bloom shine in the lead roles, of course, but the cast is filled out with obscure actors in supporting roles who are just as good, especially Cyril Cusack as the spymaster “Control” in London, and Oskar Werner as an East German intelligence officer named Fiedler. The whole thing plays like a watered-down version of The Third Man — which I mean as high praise, actually. You could do a lot worse than The Third Man Lite. I came away thinking that TSWCIFTC sits somewhere in that range of movies that are much better than average yet not good enough (or lucky enough) to last. I have no doubt it was one of the best movies of 1965; now it is almost completely forgotten.

To an artist, that is a queasy thought. Ars longa, vita brevis, we like to think. Life is short, art endures.* But the truth is, the vast majority of the art that gets churned up every year — movies, music, literature, pictures, dance, all of it — is about as brevis as you can get. It perishes almost immediately. Even very, very good work like this movie is quickly buried in the endless avalanche of newer creations.

This is no great insight. Every writer knows that ars longa, vita brevis is a vanity. You have only to walk through the endless dusty, abandoned stacks of a library to realize how quickly books are forgotten, even very good books. (Dr. Johnson pointed this out long ago.) Only an infinitesimal percentage of books remain current for any length of time. The rest die by the millions. Ars longa, my ass.

The good news is that, from the audience’s perspective, the reservoir of good art is vastly deeper than we tend to think, especially now, when the long-tail economy of the digiverse makes even the most recherché obscurities quite easy to obtain. If you scratch below the surface even a little bit, there are lots of forgotten jewels like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. That is a fact I will do my best to ignore when I sit down to work.

* Yes, I know that is not a completely accurate translation of ars longa, vita brevis, but it is how the phrase is generally understood today.

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As if they had been around all along

The best new movies carry intimations of permanence along with their novelty and very quickly start to seem as if they had been around all along.

— A. O. Scott, “Screen Memories” in last week’s Times Magazine

That odd feeling you get when you first run into great artworks — they “very quickly start to seem as if they have been around all along” — strikes me as a pretty good definition of success in any art form, not just movies but novels, pop songs, or any other. Once you have met them, it immediately becomes hard to imagine the world without them. There ought to be a word for this feeling, some German train-wreck of a word like schadenfreude.

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How to Make a Movie About a Writer

Yesterday I saw Jane Campion’s movie “Bright Star,” about the doomed romance between the poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, and I liked it very much. How could I not like it? The romantic hero is a writer. You don’t see that very often.

Writers make bad film protagonists because the real work of writing is unfilmable. A writer at work is doing nothing more picturesque than scribbling on a pad or, worse, staring into space. The “action,” such as it is, takes place in his mind. So the struggle to create has to be extroverted, acted out: the writer balls up a piece of paper and flings it across the room in frustration. Personally, I have never balled up a manuscript page and flung it across the room. I work on a computer. Most writers do now, which should spell doom for this particular film cliché, a blessing for which we should all be thankful.

There are good movies about writers, of course, but they are generally not about the work itself. Successful writer movies — “Capote,” for example — include virtually none of their subjects’ actual prose. They are not about what’s inside the books; they are about the struggle to make the books.

This is why “Bright Star” is such an exceptional writer movie. Keats’s poetry is a constant presence in the film. It is read aloud by characters within scenes and in voice-over. The end credits alone, in which the actor Ben Whishaw reads the “Ode to a Nightingale” in its entirety, is worth the price of the ticket. Keats’s letters, too, are woven into the dialogue. The film is about a mood, and it is the same mood that Keats’s poetry captures so well — gloom, melancholy, languor, longing. The movie and the poems are written in the same key, so the poetry actually enhances the film just as the usual movie devices do, cinematography, music, and so on.

It is surprising that there are so few movies about poets. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single one. But poetry and film work well together. E. L. Doctorow has written,

Film de-literates thought; it relies primarily on an association of visual impressions or understandings. Moviegoing is an act of inference. You receive what you see as a broad band of sensual effects that evoke your intuitive nonverbal intelligence. You understand what you see without having to think it through with words.

Yes, all right, it is a visual medium. But poetry does something similar. It “literates” emotion, it evokes moods without ever quite naming them. Sometimes it describes states of mind that have no name, that never coalesce into definite thoughts, and therefore can’t be thought through, only felt. You can understand a poem without quite being able to put its meaning into words.

At several points “Bright Star” seems about to tip over into preciousness, as so many period costume dramas do. Ben Whishaw, as Keats, is delicate looking. He stares dreamily at flowers or coughs with tuberculosis. (It is really Fanny’s movie. If there is any justice, the role will make a star out of Abbie Cornish.) What makes him affecting is the poems. No wonder Fanny fell for him — he’s John Keats. Whatever flaws the movie may have, I can’t think of any other that incorporates a writer’s actual words so much and so well.

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Best Boston Movie Ever: “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

Recently I wrote a short appreciation for the Rap Sheet of George V. Higgins’s definitive Boston crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The piece will run soon as part of the Rap Sheet’s terrific Friday series, Books You Have to Read, which celebrates forgotten (or never properly appreciated) crime novels. [Update: My article on the novel is now up. You can find it here.]

Fortuitously, Criterion just released a pristine new restoration of the 1973 film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and it is not to be missed. The Criterion DVD brings back a forgotten classic and the best movie about Boston ever.

Let’s be honest: there aren’t that many great movies about Boston, particularly crime stories, though the city has bred more than its share of crime novelists. There are some good movies set in Boston that could as easily take place elsewhere without losing much; The Verdict comes to mind. But movies that aim to capture this city’s unique personality — as, say, L.A. Confidential and Chinatown do for Los Angeles? Or Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America are unmistakably New York stories? Those are rare.

The serious competition is all recent. Good Will Hunting is fun but overrated. (Watch it again.) The Departed is just not a serious movie, and anyone who believes Jack Nicholson or Leonardo DiCaprio would last five minutes in Whitey Bulger’s world really ought to turn off the DVD player and come out into the world for a while.

The only real challenger for the title of best Boston movie is Mystic River. But put the two films side by side and Mystic River looks like Eddie Coyle lite — Boston as Californians might imagine it. Mystic River is just too much of everything: a melodrama, pretty to look at, with gorgeous swooping helicopter-cam shots of the city skyline and a platoon of glamorous stars, all of them strenuously, visibly acting. These are the sort of big, emotive performances we now recognize as Oscar bait, Sean Penn’s in particular.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the real thing. Quiet and dingy, a series of terse conversations in dim bars and gray, leafless parks. It is an ensemble piece, despite having a big-ticket star in Robert Mitchum. Voices are rarely raised. Only two fatal shots are fired. This is the reality of small-time crime life: not high drama, but a wary, exhausting series of risky transactions dimly understood even by the thick-headed hoods on the inside.

With any Boston movie, we have to consider how the difficult Boston accent is handled, too, and here Mystic River flops badly. I saw it in Boston in a theater full of Bostonians, and the audience seemed to require subtitles to understand what the hell these people were saying. Eddie Coyle has a few wobbly moments but mostly gets it right. Alex Rocco, now remembered mostly as Moe Greene in The Godfather, plays a convincing Boston hoodlum. He should: as a pudgy kid named Bobo Petricone he hung around on the periphery of the fearsome Winter Hill Gang.

Eddie Coyle is not perfect by any means. A lot of the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel (that Higgins did not get a screenwriter credit is a travesty), and some of those lines don’t work as well in the actors’ mouths as they do on the page. And the seventies tics — the wah-wah soundtrack, the groovy idioms, “man” and “lover” and so on — can be a bit much, though you might go in for that sort of thing.

It may be, too, that the film appeals to me as a time capsule of a city I remember. To a kid who grew up in Boston, it is a kick to see Barbo’s furniture store. (Any New Englander of a certain age can sing the Barbo’s jingle, which played on car radios incessantly.) And to revisit the old Boston Garden, where Eddie watches the sports god of my childhood, “number four, Bobby Orr — what a future he has.” Just seeing Boston in late fall — completely drained of color, the trees all bare, the grayed-out sunless sky, the people dressed in drab — is enough to make me feel poignant and murderous.

But the main thing The Friends of Eddie Coyle has going for it is Mitchum, speaking the incomparable lines of George Higgins. Mitchum is not the Eddie Coyle of the book. Even in his brokedown fifties, Mitchum is too big and handsome for that. He can’t smother his leading-man charisma enough to quite become a small-time loser like Eddie. So this Eddie Coyle is Mitchum’s own creation. The booklet that accompanies the new Criterion DVD — which alone is worth the price of the disk — says that Mitchum was first offered the part of Dillon, the two-faced bartender. That part instead went to a then-unknown Peter Boyle. Good thing. Mitchum gives the the best performance of his life. He is as quiet and understated as Sean Penn is actorly. There is not a hint of the preening movie star anywhere in his performance. Watch this clip and notice how little Mitchum moves his body or alters his expression, how he communicates a lot while “signaling” very little. The effect is completely convincing. That voice, that smirking wised-up manner — true Boston.

 

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“The Commitments”

It is always dangerous to watch a movie you liked as a kid, but I watched “The Commitments” last night for the first time in years and thought it held up remarkably well. Alan Parker’s 1991 film, based on Roddy Doyle’s debut novel, tells the story of a Dublin hustler named Jimmy Rabbitte who puts together a soul band composed mostly of working-class kids who know nothing about soul or even, in some cases, about music.

The core of the cast are all non-actors recruited from various Dublin bands. Still, “The Commitments” is loaded with great performances. Glen Hansard, who would appear fifteen years later in another great Dublin music film, “Once,” plays the lead guitarist. Maria Doyle, of the band Hothouse Flowers, is one of the backup singers, the Commitment-ettes. And Andrew Strong, an unknown who was 16 years old when “The Commitments” was filmed, blows the roof off with performances that owe as much to Joe Cocker as to Wilson Pickett.

After “The Commitments,” most of the cast returned to careers in music or, frankly, in obscurity. Among the band members, only Doyle and Angeline Ball, who played the blond-bombshell backup singer, have had substantial acting careers since “The Commitments.” So the film feels like lightning in a bottle — an unrepeatable one-off caught on film. It feels alive.

What makes the film live, also, is the sense of music as a pure expression of hope and joy for young people in a gritty down-and-out place. In these down-and-out times, that’s an uplifting thing to watch.

Here is just a taste:

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