Writer’s Desk: Billy Wilder’s Rules

After Cameron Crowe failed to convince director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Blvd., too many other classics to mention) to play a small role in Jerry Maguire, the two struck up a friendship. That turned into a series of conversations. That turned into a book.

That book contained Wilder’s rules for writing. They mostly involve getting attention, not letting up, and then grabbing people’s attention again. He specifies it’s for screenwriting specifically, but many if not all apply to most any kind of fiction:

  • 1: The audience is fickle.
  • 2: Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
  • 3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  • 4: Know where you’re going.
  • 5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  • 6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
  • 7: A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  • 8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
  • 9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  • 10: The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

TV Room: ‘Who Killed Vincent Chin?’

The documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, even though it was Oscar-nominated, is close to impossible to find right now. Fortunately, you can see it next Monday on most PBS stations.

My review is at PopMatters:

Recently restored and added to the National Film Registry, Who Killed Vincent Chin? was originally aired on PBS in 1989 and is being re-broadcast on 20 June to mark the 40th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin. Rarely shown, it is a crucial example of an earlier style of American documentary filmmaking, shorn of leading narration and compiled like a found-footage document whose atmospheric montages say more about the anxieties of the time than any talking head could. An eerie dispatch from the past, its violent riptides feel both distant (being a time when American industrial hegemony still felt like a birthright) and near to home (managing a crisis by scapegoating minorities)…

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘THX 1138’

If you are not familiar with George Lucas’ first feature movie, THX 1138, then now is the time to seek it out.

My article about THX 1138 ran at Eyes Wide Open:

George Lucas’s most grown-up piece of work is, oddly enough, his first feature. He premiered his instant classic of dystopic angst, THX 1138, in 1971. It set off a downbeat decade in science fiction, crafting a template of futurism that saw technology as more threat than promise. But Lucas did not follow up on the movie’s promise with increasingly complex and innovative storytelling. Instead, six years later the first Star Wars began his steady decline of artistic maturity into increasingly cartoonish sequels. Though, to be fair, maybe that is where he wanted to end up all along…

Here is the trailer for the 2004 director’s cut:

Screening Room: Fellini’s ‘La Strada’

In Federico Fellini’s breakthrough classic La Strada, a girl from a poverty-stricken family is sold to a traveling circus performer who does not realize just what a miserable life he has consigned both of them to.

My review of the new Criterion Blu-ray DVD is at PopMatters:

La Strada became a quiet sensation upon its American release in 1956. Critic Christina Newland, in an essay that accompanies the recent Criterion Blu-ray, refers to its “paradigm-shifting effect” for the widespread of its influence. It quickly earned a prominent place in the arthouse canon that placed a small cadre of foreign directors—Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut—as standing for everything sharp, insightful, and humanistic that bloated, materialistic, and subliterate Hollywood apparently did not. In that respect, La Strada certainly fits the bill…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Ratcatcher’

The debut movie from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) is a bracing combination of unflinching poverty and expressionist imagery.

My review of the new Criterion Blu-ray edition of 1999’s Ratcatcher is at PopMatters:

Living in tumbledown council housing blocks, many of the families pine for the day their number comes up on the list of people being moved across town to brand-new houses with yards. But even though this is a dream that seems destined to fall apart, Ramsay is more engaged by the nit and grit of these people’s lives – the actual sensation of cramped apartments with flickering TVs (a surreal mix of Tom Jones and news reports on rat infestation) and lurking rent collectors – than any desire to rub viewers’ noses in the pornographic poverty of it all…

Here’s the trailer:

Dept. of Self-Promotion: ‘What Would Keanu Do?’

Yep, it’s that time of year. Getting close to Christmas shopping season (well, for stores at least it is, actually shoppers won’t be paying attention for another couple months). What, oh what, to get that Keanu Reeves fan in or tangentially connected to your life?

May I suggest my latest book What Would Keanu Do? Personal Philosophy and Awe-Inspiring Advice from the Patron Saint of Whoa?

It was conjured up by the good people at MediaLab Books, who then very kindly asked me to produce some verbiage about the life lessons that one can take from the cinematic oeuvre of one Keanu Reeves. This entailed looking very very closely at everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Dangerous Liaisons and Toy Story 4 to derive the deeper wisdom of our most curiously Zen movie performer.

Many gems were uncovered. I was given license to re-explore the greatness of A Scanner Darkly, for instance. On the other hand, I also underwent the unspeakable experience of rewatching the second and third Matrix movies.

What Would Keanu Do? goes on sale today. Check it out.

Screening Room: ‘Kiss Me Deadly’

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My article on Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) was published at Eyes Wide Open:

For sheer brazen strange, it’s hard to top Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir adaptation of the skull-busting Mickey Spillane novel. It’s a mystery that never gets solved and a thriller that creeps more than excites. The closest that it gets to an explanation is a cynical, tired reference by the hero’s gal Friday to “nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit.” All this confusion very likely derives from Aldrich clearly holding Spillane’s book in some contempt (as he did most things). But then it’s hard to say that a greater fidelity to the source material would have cleared matters up much…

Here’s the trailer for the Criterion release:

Screening Room: ‘Empire of the Sun’

My article on Steven Spielberg’s 1987 epic adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun was published at Eyes Wide Open:

Spielberg chose a story with few chases, a rouge’s gallery of foul characters, no uplift, and a healthy dash of surrealism. British speculative fiction novelist J.G. Ballard’s grim autobiographical novel detailed in stark terms the childhood years he spent in a Japanese prison camp in China during World War II. As adapted by cerebral playwright Tom Stoppard, the story is a chilly one, particularly for a filmmaker who had so shamelessly (and skillfully) plucked heartstrings in the likes of E.T...

Screening Room: 20 Years of IFC Films

Given the extra time that so many of us have on our hands right now to catch up on movies, the issue tends to be narrowing down our choices.

IFC Films just had their 20th anniversary and wouldn’t you know, there’s a 30-day free trial of their streaming service. My survey article at Slant runs through a quick history of the distributor’s varied output (Linklater to Soderbergh to Herzog to…) and then rounds up 20 of their movies worth seeking out:

IFC Films has spent the last two decades championing some of the world’s most innovative cinema in a no-fuss, under-the-radar manner. Less attention-grabbing than distribution houses like A24, IFC also cast a wider net of aesthetic styles than distributors such as Grasshopper and Oscilloscope. Across its 20 years, the company has continued to release a fairly eclectic grab-bag of movies—from mumblecore to earnest kitchen-sink drama to more unclassifiable what-the-fuckery—that other labels would likely have passed on…

In Memorium: Terry Jones

To honor the passing of the great Terry Jones, a comedic troubadour of some renown, let us take a moment to consider the glory that he brought to the character of one Sir Belvedere:

For something completely different, look for Jones’ highly underrated documentary Boom Bust Boom, a fantastic study of the history of economic catastrophe and irrational exuberance. Paul Krugman plus puppets. My review is here, and you should be able to find it streaming.

 

Scene of the Day: ‘Woodshock’ (1985)

Richard Linklater’s first movie, Woodshock, was a 7-minute documentary short from 1985 about the Texas indie music festival. A couple minutes in, you can see a very shy Daniel Johnston getting ready to perform (“I work at McDonalds. This is my new album.”). Later diagnosed with schizophrenia, Johnston recorded some of the greatest, oddest, most heartbreakingly sweet music of the last few decades. He died this week at the age of 58.

Here’s Woodshock:

(h/t: Morning News)

Screening Room: ‘Is Gone with the Wind a Classic?’

My article ‘Is Gone with the Wind a Classic? Or How Things Change’ went up yesterday over at Eyes Wide Open:

A couple years back, a Memphis theater decided that, because of complaints, they were not going to show Gone with the Wind again. One would imagine conservatives would appreciate a small business not wanting to anger its customers. But by definition, conservatives tend not to like change. It’s in the name…

Screening Room: ‘Babylon’

Asward’s Brinsley Forde in ‘Babylon’ (Kino Lorber)

Back in 1980, a movie about West Indian youths in London scrapping for a piece of something to call their own premiered in Cannes and promptly disappeared from sight over concerns about its controversial treatment of racism and violence.

Babylon is just now getting its American release. My review is at PopMatters:

It’s in many ways clumsy and ham-fisted. And yet, somewhere in between the densely layered dub and reggae soundtrack, Chris Menges’ evocative cinematography, and the sharp spark of political agitation, there’s something to the movie that cannot be so easily dismissed…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Jackie Chan’s ‘Police Story’

Jackie Chan cemented his hold on the Asian box office with the launch of his high-kicking cop movie series in 1985. Starting today, Police Story and Police Story 2 are getting a limited theatrical re-release in advance of the launch of their remastered editions in the Criterion Collection.

My review is at PopMatters:

Sporting the same shaggy mop of hair and the slightly bemused look of a sleepy John Cusack, Jackie Chan rolls into 1985’s Police Story like some kid fresh out of the Peking Opera School and not a pro who had already been working in the Hong Kong film industry for over 20 years. It’s part of the reason why attempts in the previous decade to turn him into the new Bruce Lee never quite worked…

Screening Room: ‘Monsters’

My essay “Monsters Built the Mexico Wall Trump Never Will” was published at Eyes Wide Open:

What kind of movie will best describe the Trump presidency for future generations? Will it be high-minded drama replete with sarcastic asides, soaring speeches, and a grand view of the arc of history ala Aaron Sorkin? Maybe trashy overkill gutter-punk in the vein of John Waters or Bobcat Goldthwait would be more appropriate. How about a monster movie? Better yet, one with an extremely obvious yet potent visual metaphor that predated the current catastrophe? If the latter, then 2010’s Monsters might be a good place to start…