Friday, October 28, 2011

‘Writing the Romantic Comedy’

Here is a review that I wrote for back in 2004:

I’m a sucker for romantic comedies. Watching stories about cuddly, charismatic couples falling in love can turn this hard-bitten cynic into a mushy puddle of Jell-O in no time.  They’re this writer’s Achilles’ heel. You could show me the worst romantic comedy ever made, and I’d still probably find something good to say about it.  So, I was delighted to come across Billy Mernit’s Writing the Romantic Comedy. 

Although I’ve done some screenwriting in my time, my head isn’t exactly bursting with ideas for romantic comedies.  But since I’m an admirer of the genre, Mernit’s book felt like a guided tour through a favorite building when you don’t have any plans to construct a building of your own. 

Hollywood producers notoriously hate to read, so if you’re a Hollywood writer, you need to pick up a few tricks to make reading as easy for them (or their surrogates) as possible.  As a writer for the entertainment industry, Mernit has obviously picked up a few tricks of his own, making his book a brisk and enjoyable read.  The historical overview is appreciated almost as much as Mernit’s disassemblies of some of the rom-com’s stand-outs to show how the genre ticks. 

Although the book is sprinkled with a few factual errors (for example, on page 177, he refers to author Milan Kundera as “Polish” instead of Czech), these aren’t enough to upset the taco stand.  Mernit’s explanations of the genre’s components are straightforward, artful, but clearly presented.  And his dubbing of the Mr. Wrong character (a convention in many rom-coms) as the “Bellamy,” after actor Ralph Bellamy who specialized in such roles, had me laughing out loud.  My only criticism of the book is a mild one: There ought to have been at least a handful of movie stills illustrating some of the films that Mernit talks about at length — this would have heightened the book’s visual interest. I highly recommend Writing the Romantic Comedy even if you’re not a screenwriter. Understanding how the genre works may make you appreciate it even more. 

I do have one word of advice for aspiring screenwriters: If you’re just starting out in the craft, you won’t want this to be the first book on the subject that you read. Start off with something that teaches you the nuts and bolts of scribing for the movies, like Screenplay by Syd Field or one of its clones.  Next, I would recommend Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay by Andrew Horton, which talks a little more in depth about the vital components of character and structure.  For good measure, you might also want to check out Making a Good Script Great by Linda Segar for advice about how to tighten a screenplay.  Only then will you want to give Mernit’s book a thorough going-over.  If you’re an old hand at screenwriting, you’re probably already familiar with these books. 

Once you’ve got all of them under your belt, you’ll be inspired to sit down at the keyboard and write and write.  It may only be your name over and over, but you’ll still be inspired to write.

A few months later, I came back and typed: I take it back.  I’ve seen the worst romantic comedy ever made.  It's called Soap Girl.  I can’t think of a good thing to say about it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

‘DWTS’: Broadway Week?

Last Monday, the series Dancing with the Stars had each of its seven remaining star-contestants dance with their professional ballroom partners to a song from Broadway.  But what struck me about that evening’s show was that a number of the songs danced to weren’t written directly for the Broadway stage.

The first couple to take the dance floor that night (because I’m not interested in the horse race, I won’t mention the performers’ names) cut the rug with a cha-cha to the song “Walk Like a Man.” The tune is from Jersey Boys (2005), a jukebox musical (a musical scored to pre-existing songs, rather than having numbers written especially for it), but the ditty was released as a pop song in 1963.

The next dance was a fox trot to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Spamalot (2005).  But the song was originally written for the British film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979).

The third song — at last — was actually from a Broadway musical: “We Go Together” from the teenage-musical spoof Grease (1971).  Yes, the first number of the evening specifically written for Broadway was from a spoof.

Next up was a quickstep to a second song written for the Broadway stage: “Luck Be a Lady” from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls (1950).  However, the song was obviously sung in the style of Frank Sinatra, not in a way reminiscent of how it was performed onstage.  

The fifth dance was a tango set to the song “Phantom of the Opera” from the eponymous 1986 musical, a musical originally written for London’s West End and which migrated to America’s Great White Way two years later.

The two remaining individual dances that night were — for a nice change of pace — actually from Broadway shows: Rent (1996) and Chicago (1975).  The much-anticipated group dance, where all the celebrities and their partners take part, was to a medley of two tunes: “Hey, Big Spender” and “Money Makes the World Go Around.”  The first song is from the 1966 Broadway musical Sweet Charity.  The second number was said to be from Cabaret.  However, the tune wasn’t from the 1966 Broadway show, but was written specifically for its 1972 film adaptation, written specifically to have two of its characters, Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) and the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), perform a duet together, which they did not on the stage.  I think Dancing with the Stars could have done a better job representing Broadway.

I’ve probably been sounding very snooty and pedantic just now.  (Okay, we can leave the “probably” out of that last sentence.)  You may think that I am once again insisting on a firm, restrictive definition for what is and is not the term defined — in this case, “Broadway show tune” — but I don’t mean to.  “Broadway” has always been a rather fluid word, from its origins in vaudeville (with its eclectic series of unintegrated acts) to the recent phenomenon of the jukebox musical (a reflection of the stage’s reliance on familiar material in the face of spiraling production costs).  So, “Broadway” has always had an elusive definition, and I don’t intend to capture it with a restrictive meaning that would only become obsolete tomorrow.

However, Broadway also has a rich songwriting tradition that has boasted world-class tunesmiths like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein.  These writers of music and lyrics have given a melodic voice to the shaping of an American sensibility in the 20th century, and the primary vehicle for their songs was the Broadway stage.  It would have been nice to see at least one of these composers represented in Dancing with the Stars’s Broadway tribute Monday night.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sticking Up for Shakespeare

I was waiting to write this post sometime later, but now seems like as good a time as any.  As many readers know, a new film is coming out later this month called Anonymous, dramatizing the idea that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England, did not write the literary works attributed to him.  Recently, the publicity arm of Sony Pictures, the movie’s distributor, released a short video of the director, Roland Emmerich, citing ten reasons why he believes Shakespeare is a fraud.  I want to respond to Emmerich’s reasons point by point, but first, I would like to say a few words about the Shakespeare authorship question in general. 

First of all, William Shakespeare of Stratford (1564-1616) is the overwhelming consensus among scholars and historians as the author of the plays and poems bearing his name.  Disputing this consensus is a fringe position largely undertaken by those who are not professional historians with academic credentials.  Armchair historians contesting Shakespeare’s authorship are akin to armchair scientists contesting Darwin’s theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Secondly, Shakespeare wasn’t proclaimed the greatest writer in the English language during his own lifetime or in the century that followed: only by the late-18th century did his significance become a majority opinion.  The notion that William of Stratford did not write the works of Shakespeare is a relatively recent phenomenon that began in the mid-19th century, about the time that “Shakespeare” became a monument worth toppling.  Before then, there is no evidence that anyone doubted Shakespeare’s authorship.  The writer was successful and well-known during his lifetime, which presumably led to some public scrutiny, so if any contemporary skepticism existed, there should have been evidence for it back then.

To me, this entire authorship question is impelled by elitism.  The anti-Stratfordians (as Shakespeare doubters are collectively known) seem motivated by a refusal to believe that someone of such humble origins wrote the English language’s greatest works.  One anti-Stratfordian website addresses the snob factor this way: “The authorship question asks not who could have written the plays but who did.”  But why bother asking who did in the first place — and going against the enormous historical consensus — unless Shakespeare didn’t fit some pre-conceived notions about who could have? 

I am not a Shakespeare expert.  For all I know, William of Stratford did not write any of the works bearing his name.  But to say that the historians’ common-view author did not write them — and moreover, that their true author’s identity was suppressed because of a vast conspiracy — is an extraordinary claim.  It’s difficult to believe that a scheme surrounding such an important matter could have begun some 400 years ago and not unraveled well before the 19th century.  As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  And the evidence that the anti-Stratfordians point to is not extraordinary. 

The anti-Stratfordians’ first assumption is that records for those who lived in Elizabethan and Jacobean England should be as complete as today’s documentation.  For the era, record keeping in Elizabethan England was relatively extensive, and documents regarding William of Stratford, while not great, are as plentiful as those for the average middle-class Londoner of the time.  What gaps there are in the historical record can be explained by Shakespeare being a closet Catholic in an England where Protestantism was compulsory and where variation on this religious norm was seen as a sign of treason, which could be punished by death.  (For example, Jews were banished from Britain during this time.)  Many scholars believe that Shakespeare came from a Catholic household and had reasons to be secretive about his spiritual beliefs — in effect, about anything personal that couldn’t be veiled in a sonnet — for fear of his life.  To the extent there is a “Shakespeare mystery,” his clandestine Catholicism explains most of it. 

Now, I’d like to focus on Emmerich’s specific reasons for disbelieving Shakespeare’s authorship.

1. No documents — plays, letters, etc. — exist in Shakespeare’s hand.

A successful entrepreneur in the Elizabethan theatre, Shakespeare owned stock in his acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men), and the building where they performed, the Globe Theatre (later other performing spaces as well).  In all likelihood, Shakespeare would not have written out full copies of his plays, only rough drafts (the so-called “foul papers”) that would then be copied out by other hands.  Once duplicated, these manuscripts became the property of his company, not himself.  Why didn’t Shakespeare write letters to his wife?  Because she couldn’t read, and evidence suggests that the writer didn’t really love her.  Why didn’t he write any surviving letters to anyone else?  Well, why put your innermost thoughts down on paper if they could be used against you by a state that regarded your family’s religion as treasonous? 

2. Shakespeare’s daughters were illiterate.

By and large, women were second-class citizens in England (as well as elsewhere) in this era, despite the monarch’s gender.  Literacy for females was not a great priority (only boys attended grammar school).  Shakespeare — who might have spent most of his life in London, away from his Stratford family — would have needed to go to great lengths in order to make sure his daughters were literate.  The hypothesis of their illiteracy tells us nothing about the authorship of the plays.

3. Why would a common-born writer be so obsessed with the aristocracy and so intimate with the workings of upper-class politics?

First, politics were not unknown to Shakespeare’s family.  The writer’s father, John Shakespeare, held various offices in Stratford, including High Bailiff, the de facto mayor.  Second, once Shakespeare became a successful playwright early in his career, he evidently associated with members of the nobility, especially Henry Wriothesley (rhymes with “grisly”), the Third Earl of Southampton, to whom the writer dedicated his epic poems (Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece) and with whom he was apparently intimate.  This could have very well given him an insider’s glimpse into the workings of the aristocracy and their politics.  As for the plebeian playwright always “mocking his peers” and identifying more with those higher on the social scale, one Shakespeare play that upends this characterization is The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which members of the middle class humiliate a knight.

4. His six known signatures — none of them on literary works — are “shaky and inconsistent.”

This isn’t a very compelling argument.  Any number of factors could have prevented Shakespeare from having exemplary penmanship.

5. Why doesn’t Shakespeare mention the death of his eleven-year-old son in his very emotional and heartfelt sonnets?

The mission of the sonnet in Shakespeare’s time was for the writer to say just enough to express himself without blatantly spelling things out.  However, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 33 has been interpreted to be on this very subject, his young son’s death: “[M]y sun one early morn did shine/With all triumphant splendor on my brow;/But out, alack! He was but one hour mine;/The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now./Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;/Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.”  In this interpretation, the word “sun” is a melancholy pun on “son.”

6. Why doesn’t the writer with the largest English vocabulary in history show greater evidence for his education?

Listening to the anti-Stratfordians, one would think that reams of documentation existed for all students in 16th-century Stratford except William Shakespeare.  To the contrary, very few school records survive for any of Shakespeare’s Stratfordian contemporaries.  Also, there are anecdotes, with some possible supporting evidence, that young Shakespeare worked as a schoolmaster in Lancashire during his so-called “lost years.”  If true, this would suggest that by then, young William had acquired enough knowledge to pass on to others. 

7. Why didn’t Shakespeare write plays and poems after retiring?

First, only three years elapsed between Shakespeare’s retirement in 1613 and his death in 1616.  In 1613, during a performance of one of his last plays, Henry VIII (co-written with John Fletcher), the Globe caught fire and was badly burned.  Afterwards, Shakespeare sold his shares in the company and retired to Stratford.  The burning of the Globe and his divestment from his theatre company may have given him a different outlook on playwrighting for the next three years.  Second, if he had written works in retirement, with whom would he have shared them?  With his conjecturally illiterate family?  And what is the likelihood that such works would have survived outside the city?  Also, after his retirement, Shakespeare continued to be involved in real estate in both London and Stratford, so that may have been where he put his energies. 

8. None of Shakespeare’s plays are set in contemporary England, yet he never traveled outside the country’s borders, and his plays demonstrate a great knowledge of foreign lands.

The theatre was a suspect undertaking in Elizabethan London as a possible breeding ground for sedition.  In fact, in the years before, the theatre was illegal, and it was only legalized by Queen Elizabeth shortly before Shakespeare’s birth.  Because of this, authors had to be careful to avoid any appearances of inciting treason.  One way for a writer to achieve this was to set his plays in the distant past or in foreign lands.  As a result, none of Shakespeare’s plays are set in contemporary England (and the one that arguably may be, The Merry Wives of Windsor, has a lead character from the 14th century, Sir John Falstaff).  While there is no evidence that Shakespeare had ever been outside Britain, books with information about foreign lands existed at the time, books that the writer could have read. 

9. An early image of Shakespeare’s monument in Stratford shows the man holding a sack and not a pen.

The image that Emmerich shows is from a 1656 book, The Antiquities of Warwickshire by Sir William Dugdale, but to quote Wikipedia, “the engraving was done from a sketch made in 1634 and, like other portrayals of monuments in [Dugdale’s book], is not accurate.”

10. Shakespeare’s will does not include any literary property, whether his own or by others.

Again, presumably all of Shakespeare’s literary output was the property of his theatrical company or the Earl of Southampton, not himself. 

When all is said and done, I’ll probably see Anonymous when it is released.  As far as I’m concerned, anything that casts William Shakespeare in a prominent light is a net positive.  I only hope that audiences approach the film with skepticism and regard it as historically accurate as Shakespeare in Love.  But given America’s fondness for conspiracy theories — from the identity of J.F.K.’s assassin to 9/11 being an inside job — that may be too much to ask.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Black & White, Part Three

In my last post, I talked about some color films that I wish had been made in black & white.  For this one, I’d like to talk about some films that I’m glad are already in black & white.  These movies might have been made in color with relative ease, but the fates, to my eternal gratitude, deemed otherwise. 

Although three-color Technicolor had been available since 1932 — with the first three-color feature film, Becky Sharpe, released in 1935 — the process was quite expensive, tripling a production’s cost.  Requiring four (after 1941, three) different rolls of film for each take, Technicolor movies in those early years were usually short subjects, animated cartoons, or highly prestigious features like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Gone with the Wind (1939).  But in 1951, with the introduction of Eastmancolor, a color process needing only one roll of film, polychrome features became more affordable and, because of the movies’ rivalry with the new medium of television, more common. 

However, by the mid-1950s, Hollywood saw a film’s sale for TV broadcast as its most lucrative aspect, and since most television was still in black & white, the number of polychrome feature films actually declined.  With the arrival of color TV a decade later, virtually all Hollywood features were shot in color by 1967. 

The five monochrome movies mentioned below — each, as it happens, from a different genre — were made during the years of color’s ascension.  So, had events worked out differently, a polychrome film may very well have been made instead.  But had these films been made in color, I don’t think that I would appreciate them quite as much as I do. 

High Noon (1952)

Technicolor westerns had started as early as Henry King’s Jesse James in 1939.  While many westerns by the early 1950s were still shot in black & white, the trend was towards color.  The year 1952 saw the release of color westerns like Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, Budd Boetticher’s Horizons West, and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious; the next year would see Shane, The Naked Spur, and others.  So, it’s easy to imagine the producers of High Noon wanting their western in polychrome as well.  Instead, Fred Zinnemann’s chamber drama of a horse opera was made in black & white (more for economic reasons, I understand, than for any other).  In color, westerns could revel in the majesty of their wide-open-spaces settings, as well as hint at the glory of Manifest Destiny, as good people settled the American West.  But High Noon portrays its western denizens  in a more ambivalent light. 

With an old enemy coming to town and promising to gun him down at “high noon,” a small-town sheriff (Gary Cooper) hopes to deputize a posse and prevent any gunplay — but he can’t find any townspeople to volunteer and has to face his enemy’s gang on his own.  High Noon’s black & white cinematography drains the town of any high-minded qualities and robs its story of any sense of moral triumph in the settling of the Wild West.  In other words, the film casts a rather cynical eye on figures usually eulogized by popular culture, which, given the mythologizing splendor associated with the western genre, would have been harder to achieve in color.  It also seems that director Zinnemann was something of a fan of black & white: when Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn hired Zinnemann to direct the film adaptation of the novel From Here to Eternity (1953), the mogul envisioned a movie in color, but the director talked him into making it in monochrome. 

Seven Samurai (1954)

Japan’s first color feature, Carmen Comes Home (カルメン故郷に帰る), was released in 1951, with notable color films like Gate of Hell (地獄門, 1953) following in the subsequent years.  Akira Kurosawa might have shot his epic Seven Samurai (七人の侍) in color, but he didn’t.  And we know the reason: the director was dissatisfied with the color processes of the time; in fact, Kurosawa wouldn’t make a color feature until 1970.  I’m glad that Seven Samurai is in black & white.  Like the Hollywood western in the context of the U.S., Japan’s samurai genre has a tendency to glorify the bygone years.  This effect is redoubled when the films are in color: the scenery and landscapes of a historical past shown in full hue sanctify the olden days as heroic, aiding a sense of majesty and epic sweep.  Such a rarefied setting suits the samurai genre’s stories of skilled swordsman besting their foes with impossibly impeccable dances of the blade. 

But Seven Samurai isn’t a generic samurai movie.  For one thing, its title characters are not, in fact, samurai; they are rōnin, warriors without a master.  In fact, to call them samurai is slightly subversive.  A samurai, strictly speaking, is an underling to the aristocracy, not to the lower orders, and class divisions throughout Japanese history were extremely strict.  By calling these rōnin “samurai,” the film implies that the peasant villagers who employ these masterless warriors have impudently assumed the place of those higher on the social scale.  Also, the swordfights in the film are not the perfectly choreographed duels typical of the samurai genre but the kind of flailing swordplay more common in the world outside the theatre.  In color, Seven Samurai would have had a monumental grandeur, and this, in turn, would have glorified the on-screen actions that Kurosawa wants to deglamorize; it would have been one more mythologization of a past in need of greater humanization.  In color and widescreen, the film’s Hollywood western adaptation, The Magnificent Seven (1960), comes across as just another (though quite well-done) epic hagiography of the Wild West’s settling.  But in a standard-aspect-ratio black & white, Seven Samurai strips its story of a heightened sense of derring-do, showing battles not for glory, but for sheer survival.  In color, the film would be received as just another samurai movie.  In black & white, it’s clearly something more than that. 

The Apartment (1960)

Romantic comedies tend to be cute and overly optimistic.  The idea of two people falling in love while talking in zingers warms the cockles of our hearts by assuring us that true human tenderness does indeed exist, appealing to the romantic in all of us.  And color cinematography in romantic comedies is often used to highlight the hopefulness and idealism that we associate with boy meeting girl.  But some romantic comedies — some sterling examples of the genre, in fact — are not based on candy-coated optimism but more on the disenchanting aspects of human existence and sustenance.  One case in point is Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.  The film begins with an amusing but cynical situation: a low-level employee at a large New York insurance firm (Jack Lemmon) lets some of his superiors use his apartment for their extramarital affairs; he does this both in hopes of a promotion and to keep his job.  When the company head (Fred MacMurray, in his best role) finds out, he monopolizes the apartment for his own illicit liaison.  The worker is crushed when he learns that the unmarried elevator operator he’s taken a shine to (Shirley MacLaine) is the boss’s mistress.  However, her suicide attempt at his apartment throws the two together. 

This set-up, to put it mildly, does not exactly have “romantic comedy” stamped all over it.  Adultery, attempted suicide, cravenly clinging to one’s workaday job — these aren’t topics that rouse our most idealistic selves.  Yet, Wilder manages to wring a witty and romantic story with a happily-ever-after ending out of such unpromising material.  The Apartment’s black & white cinematography conveys Wilder’s jaded view of his protagonist’s dilemma and the general dearth of human warmth in the big, cavernous city.  But monochrome is still versatile enough to brighten the screen when the boy finally gets the girl.  I can’t envision The Apartment being as effective in color.  In the flatly lit, eye-lulling polychrome of early-1960’s Hollywood, the Lemmon character’s ultimate renunciation of his superiors and their world wouldn’t have resounded quite so triumphantly. 

In the black & white of A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles scamper and romp with an abandon that recalls the silent comedies of cinema’s earliest years.  The downscale associations that many viewers have with monochrome recalls rock & roll’s humble, unprestigious, underdog origins.  Also, director Richard Lester’s use of hand-held photography and location shooting — as well as the story’s picaresque structure — recalls the European New Wave films that had become so influential at the time.  But where so many of these New Wave features focused on stories of social discontent with downbeat endings, A Hard Day’s Night is a musical comedy (sans love story) fueled by rock & roll: as though the disruptive film grammar of the New Wave had finally found a musical and cultural companion to give an optimistic voice to the camera’s critical eye. 

But while A Hard Day’s Night is, to me and many others, unimaginable in color, the film might have been shot that way if its producers had realized just how popular the Beatles were at the time, and how long they would last.  According to the making-of documentary on the film’s DVD, Lester says that shooting A Hard Day’s Night in black & white wasn’t a major artistic decision: he had only a short time to make and release the movie, and monochrome was Britain’s default film stock at the time.  Of course, once the Beatles’ first film had cleaned up at the box office, their second, Help!, a send-up of James Bond-style thrillers (also directed by Lester), was given a bigger budget and shot in polychrome.  That A Hard Day’s Night has proven the more enduring of the two affirms the power of its black & white images.


Sometimes, I think that Orson Welles was physically incapable of making a bad film.  And of his 13 completed features, all but three of them are in a shadow-etched black & white.  Welles’s employment of the monochrome image is nothing short of extraordinary.  Even when using cinematographers whose work for other directors is unexceptional, Welles creates visuals with a depth and dynamism unlike any others.  One of cinema’s great ironic tragedies is that one of its greatest directors labored in the film industry for over four decades but finished only a baker’s dozen of titles.  And one of cinema’s great joys is that all of them range from good to superlative, including perhaps the best film ever made, Citizen Kane (1941).  Another Welles gem is one of his three Shakespeare adaptations, Chimes at Midnight, the actor-director’s condensation of the four plays featuring the character of Sir John Falstaff

Co-produced by one of the men behind the James Bond films, Harry Saltzman, and made at the same time as a number of Hollywood historical epics, it’s something of a miracle that Chimes at Midnight wasn’t shot in color.  If it had been, I think that Wells’s more intimate take on Shakespeare’s stories would have been overwhelmed by the pageantry.  Color would have needlessly gilded and distracted from Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue, instead of complementing the words, as the film does, with more elemental visual forms.  And color might have unwittingly glorified the gut-wrenching sequence of the Battle of Shrewsbury, which, in monochrome, distills the soldiers’ grisly combat into the quintessence of war’s brutality and barrenness.  My favorite Shakespeare film, Chimes at Midnight is a wistful eulogy to “Merrie England” and, fittingly, Welles’s final finished feature in black & white, a tool he used so masterfully.