Thursday, December 27, 2007

'tis the season to be plotting

Christmas was pleasant. I made a necklace for my grandma. The SP made a jewelry box for my sister. To each other we gave personal protection devices and insulated clothing.

Since we were both working on handmade gifts, we begged/borrowed/stole several movies. While stringing beads I watched the Disney pic Ratatouille, which was witty, effective and fun. It also prompted me to look up James Beard's recipe for ratatouille, which is a sort of vegetable casserole from Provence. I'm not a frequent eater of eggplant or zucchini, but anything layered with olive oil and basil is a candidate for my kitchen.

We watched Lonely Hearts, a neo-noir piece based on a true crime story. I'd seen a trailer for this a while back, but must've missed it in the theatres. Do NOT miss it on DVD. It's both intense and underplayed, textured, twisted and mercifully subtle. I was particularly fascinated by Salma Hayek's "damaged goods" femme fatale. She's not just vamping and slinking around, she's clever and resourceful, viciously passive-aggressive, and successfully demonstrates the self-centeredness at the core of every sociopathic personality. From the editorial description on Amazon: "Director Todd Robinson is the grandson of the real-life Elmer [Travota's character], and did the film as an homage to the case that consumed his grandfather." I highly recommend it to those with a taste for noir.

Movie number three was "Waitress," which could be considered a comedy if you are a thinking person. It was funny in the way that real life is often funny, but at the same time it was frustrating, heart-breaking and occasionally sickening. Jeremy Sisko plays Keri Russel's "bad husband" in this movie, serving up even more sociopathic neediness. He's not quite the murdering kind, but he's a soul-sucking cretin who careens from whining to threatening to belittling in the space of as many minutes. Still, Russel's character hasn't been completely broken down, which is what allows us to like her. She hides money and makes plans to escape, and when she finds brief happiness in an affair with her (married) obstetrician, she uses his strength and affection to remind herself of her own worth, but tells him point-blank she doesn't want him to "rescue" her. The climax of this movie is merely three lines long, but it's vastly satisfying. The only part that felt a bit contrived was the denouement, because a predictable benefactor made everything better (a little *too* much better, in my opinion), but on the whole it worked for me.

Now, the last flick was the one that's been, erm, haunting me the most. I found a little indy production called Sugar Creek at our local Hastings. It was a low-budget thing, debuted at the Little Rock film festival in May of this year. Direct to DVD after that. I knew none of this when I picked it up: it was described on the back as a "supernatural western," the first one I've seen that wasn't a zombie spoof. For an ultra-low-budget pic, the look is rather well-done. The colors are washed-out and bleak. I'd guess that the writer/director is either into Civil War reenacting or knows people who are. Someone has obviously tried to make the clothes look period; the basic cut and fabrics are right, but the details are lacking (colors, trimmings, hair, lack of hats) and nothing is worn-in or distressed properly. That was the first thing that caught my eye.

The second was, this director has no idea how to do transitions or establishing shots. You spend the first third of the movie grasping for context. It's pretty obvious from the lighting and the tight angles that they had limited space in which to film; for three days and nights the characters chase each other through the same field and a patch of scrub forest. You get a couple shots of a creek, a brief dark scene in a saloon, a shopkeeper breaking up glass bottles in a sack (what shopkeeper and where are left to your imagination--the 90-second intro to Deadwood had more sense of setting than this movie), and a sleazy megalomaniac landowner in a big white house.

The landowner was one of three bad guys in this movie, which was at least one too many. They were all intent on proving how bad they were by striking poses, cussing, saying smarmy things to innocent bystanders, waving their dicks at each other, and delivering speeches on the nature of good and evil--usually culminating with a statement about how they were the biggest baddest evil around.

This is the mark of a mediocre writer, one who hasn't caught on to the show-don't-tell rule. If you want to demonstrate that someone is a Bad Guy, have him walk around doing his daily bad-guy routine. We don't need to hear him talk about it, we need to SEE it. Course I guess when you've only got a half-dozen characters and they're all marked for death, it limits your options as far as sacrificial extras go.

Before I go any further I want to state why I am spending so much time thinking about this movie. The main plot thread worked. At the end, it all came together (mostly) and there was even a little "aha!" with some moral ambiguity that I found pleasing. But the director had no freakin' idea how to string his story together.

Lynette, in my writer's group, once said I was being too coy with the reader-- alluding to information that wouldn't be revealed until later. It was probably the best single piece of advice I ever got from her. Novice writers think that alluding to a mystery or lettre caché creates tension, but all it does is irritate and bore. When you put up flags that say, "Hey, there's a big tortured mystery here!" this reader goes, "aw hell, not the tortured-past again, will you just GET to it already?!" and I throw the book down and go read something that's not so manipulative.

Well, this director had the same problem. And what with his ineptness at showing changes in setting and POV, not to mention the interspersing of at least three flashbacks among the primary thread, it was virtually impossible to make any connection between the scenes. Even if I went back and re-watched the beginning, I don't think I could follow it now. The only reason anyone knows what's happening is because of the throwaway characters who sit around delivering expository speeches to one another.

What's really sad is, I can look back on each scene and say, "that scene was meant to show that the sheriff is a tough badass who doesn't believe in ghosts...." or "that scene was supposed to show us St. Clair had a death wish (or was crazy, maybe)and not really such a bad guy because his wife died and he set his slave free ..." but in the end they were either ineffective or downright digressionary. There were too many main characters and the secondary characters were little better than props to deliver enabling lines, but what this all comes down to is ineffective time-management. You've got less than two hours to tell your story. Which means, in every scene you have to be doing two things simultaneously: developing ALL the characters while moving the plot forward.

Now that I think about it, there are acutally two stories going on here, and the writer/director didn't seem to know which he was telling. The theme throughout is one of redemption and repentance, with mysterious Grim-reaper-like character stalking the Sorta-Bad, Sorta-Sad Man (and incidentally cutting down the Bad Men who get in his way). The implication is that one of the Revelation horsemen has come to collect the souls of the wicked. However at the end we find that the horseman is an old man out for revenge--who then takes pity on the last of his would-be victims because the Sorta Bad/Sad Man (the POV character, ostensibly) was only guilty of non-involvement and apologized for it in the end--after 95 minutes of more non-involvement. The guy wanders around waiting to die, all the while denying that he did anything wrong. He doesn't try to run, or fight, or reason--or at least not beyond a token resistance. How sympathetic can that be?

For me, the movie would've worked better as an allegory of the power of superstition, since the townspeople were all convinced that the horseman would kill them if they interfered. The St. Clair character should've been beefed up and made more ambiguous, the villain of the piece--perhaps even combined with the sheriff character, which would have cut the "I've got the biggest dick" speeches in half. The POV character, the Bad/Sad man brought there for atonement.... well, I'm not sure what could've been done with him. He was a sort of Christ symbol, down to the wounds in his side and the bloody rag around his head, but since he never sacrificed anything nor saved anyone (not really) the point was wasted.

Bottom line, the current-day story and the flashback story don't fit together except in the most incidental and plot-enabling ways. There is no similarity of theme and very little bearing on character construction, since the focus of the flashbacks is on a character that never appears in or influences the present-day action (except via that incidental plot-enabling murder). And since our POV character, the Bad/Sad Man, never speaks or acts in these flashbacks, we're not interested in him, either.

I know, it's an awful lot of attention to divert to a lost cause, and the author will probably find his way here and write long diabtribes defending his vision, but oh well. It's diverting to break the pieces apart and play script-doctor. Keeps the apparatus in shape. My next writer's meeting is January 5 and I ought to knock out the rest of Death by Feng Shui before then; plus another writer-friend gave me a manuscript to read and since Christmas is over I guess I can't put it off anymore.


Anonymous said...

I hadn't heard of "Sugar Creek" until seeing mention of it here. I checked out the link you provided. Nope, nobody I know involved in it; a friend of mine does act in Indy pictures. Since you've ripped it seventeen ways from Sunday, I've no intention of hunting for it. Viewing it is quite low on my list of priorities, along with reading the Book of Mormon, off the bottom of the page. I'm still on the lookout for DVD's of the 1957 "3:10 to Yuma" and the 1955 "Man without a Star," the Kirk Douglas vehicle with the same title as a book I recently read.

I have wondered what your take on "The Assassination of Jesse James" is. We haven't seen it yet.

What are the chances of us humble, lowly commenters seeing copies of "Death by Feng Shui?"

Holly said...

I did what you did, Scott, checked out Sugar Creek's cast and crew to see if I knew anyone in it. Didn't recognize any names, though it does seem to have been made around here.

Haven't seen Jesse James yet. It came out at a time when we were too busy to get to the theater, so we'll probably rent it. Best to see a three-hour movie at home, anyway.

*Sigh* I guess I'll have to work on Feng Shui this weekend. It's a very short story, I guess I should be able to finish it.