Sunday, 19 January 2014

Unlikely Detectives: Le Passe (spoilers), Part 1

I suspect Le Passe is a film that would play well whether you knew its secrets in advance or not. But don't take the risk that it might not be. Farhadi's screenplay handles its chain of reveals beautifully, and shouldn't be spoiled. If you haven't seen it, don't read this.

To require the services of a detective, there must be a crime, or at least a mystery that points to the likelihood of one. Something has usually happened, the story starting in media res, and only a detective can discern the truth of it. Many films are haunted by backstory, but few are as enslaved by the past as detective stories. And so it is appropriate that one of the most elegantly-written detective stories in some time is Asghar Farhadi's Le Passe.

Early on in the film, two key characters back out of a parking spot and run into something. In this story, the characters can hardly make a move without running into the past. They ignore it at their peril. Towards the end of the story, when one character declares 'I don't want to go back to the past' after all that has come to light, it's hard to see how such an attitude is possible.

Farhadi's A Separation won deserved acclaim for its layered presentation of a civil dispute. Others talk about making films where there are no villains, but in that film Farhadi showed what that really meant, allowing the audience to empathise with all sides of a conflict to such an extent that the desire for a resolution went away. If there are winners, then there are losers, and when you see where everyone is coming from, there's little appetite to see anyone lose.

If A Separation was a courtroom drama without a courtroom, Le Passe is a detective story without a badge or a chalk outline. This piece will step through some of the key aspects of detective stories in terms how they appear in this film: the detective, the investigation, the crime, the criminal, and the ghost. The film fuses the procedural form with a family drama to the benefit of both forms, so its variations on these genre motifs are worth contemplating.

The Detective

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), the Iranian husband of Parisian Marie (Berenice Bejo), is the detective. At film opening, he has returned to Paris at her prompting to formalise their separation. The wordless opening shows the two communicating - muted to audience ears - through an airport's soundproof glass as Ahmad struggles to locate his baggage. The image of a man and a woman struggling to communicate would set a nice tone on its own for this film. But like many sequences where we're deprived the easy idea-train of textual speech, when we're kept at a distance like this, a curious thing often happens. We lean in, we look closer. It's a good way to train the audience's attention for a story where the small details matter.*

So if Ahmad is a detective, what is he investigating? The details of his arrival - the lack of a hotel booking, the absence of a clear reason for the divorce at this time - stoke his curiosity. The house he finds himself staying in has more children than the one he left, and those children are struggling to get over something. It's not long before he's asking questions. There's even a client: Marie. She asks him to find out what's bothering Lucie (Pauline Burlet), the eldest daughter of her disastrous first marriage.

Farhadi's chosen well in Ahmad as the surrogate for the audience's inquisitiveness. Of all the characters involved in this house, he has the most to learn about the cause of its present mood. He's also good in his role - he gets answers easily, yet believably, from all involved. His ability to interact with children not his own separates him from the remainder of the adult cast. Lucie, so closed off to her mother, opens up easily to him.

Ahmad is also no saint. His darker days seem to be behind him, but his own confessional baggage weighs on him. And his reason for being in the same space as his ex-wife's new family is a source of tension in and of itself, particularly once her new partner makes an appearance.

Investigation

Unfolding via investigation is a clever plotting choice. Potentially dry family exposition about the missing years is turned into a chain of reveals of escalating significance. There is another man in the house, Samir (Tahar Rahim), a younger man of foreign origin. His paint half covers the walls, and it is his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) that Ahmad is bunking with.

As for Lucie, Ahmad learns that she can't stand to be with either her mother, or her mother's lover. Is it fatigue with her mother's succession of husbands? Is it the discomfort of a teenager on the edge of sexuality being around a younger man? Is it seeing her mother need a younger man? All seem credible, but her true concern is darker than any of these. It takes a reveal from Marie to draw it out of her. Marie is pregnant with Samir's child, so marriage to him is inevitable.

This loosens Lucie's tongue. She holds her mother's new relationship to blame for the attempted suicide of Samir's wife Celine, an act that left the woman in a coma. Marie rejects this interpretation, insisting Celine's depression got the better of her. Lucie disappears. The tense equilibrium between the three adults - Ahmad, Marie and Samir - breaks out into verbal battles of Marie and Samir on Ahmad.

The Crime

By now the ghost behind the household's disquiet has become clear: Celine's attempted suicide. Suicide is a crime whose suspect may seem obvious at first. The crime here is in what caused it. Did she attempt suicide out of pre-existing depression, or was her depression fuelled by knowledge of Samir's infidelity? Marie and Samir arrange for Lucie and Ahmad to meet Samir's shop assistant Naima (Sabrina Ouazani), who establishes that the circumstances of Celine's suicide attempt - which occurred in front of her - point more to depression stemming from her work than knowledge of infidelity.

Then comes the bombshell. Lucie confesses to Ahmad that she knows the relationship caused the suicide attempt, because she sent Celine the love emails of Marie and Samir the day prior to the attempt. She blames herself for the attempted suicide. (This is not the last time a character will outwardly deal with their guilt by blaming others in this story.) Lucie's confession becomes the new crime, as her gesture throws the guilt for Celine's act back on Marie and Samir. Marie explodes at her daughter with an aggression we haven't seen until now and throws her out of the house. The girl is soon re-admitted, but the confession changes the landscape of oppositions. Marie and Samir have worked as a block so far. The new information shifts the primary opposition in the film away from being Marie vs Ahmad to a new axis.

A New Detective

With the investigation pointing back to the client, the detective is taken off the case. The divorce complete, and the ice between Lucie and Marie comprehensively shattered, Marie wants Ahmad out. Ahmad could dig deeper, stay on for the sake of the children. An old friend advises him to end his involvement now, while he still can. In many a detective story - The Conversation, Chinatown, Vertigo - such a warning is the prelude to calamity, as the detective ignores all warnings and insists on his ability to get to the heart of the matter. But Ahmad is a rational person, not a dramatic device, and Farhadi flips this idea on its head. At the two-thirds mark, having served as our surrogate for the story to date, Ahmad effectively exits the story.**

It is not the end of the detective story. The detective impulse remains, and migrates over to Samir. The late-film switch in detectives is risky: Zodiac comes to mind, Margin Call to a lesser extent, as well as aspects of the three protagonist LA Confidential. Farhadi's screenplay has layered in enough alternative perspectives throughout to make the switch from Ahmad to Samir relatively seamless.

Samir is an interesting choice to take on the detective mantle. For obvious reasons, he was the character least comfortable with Ahmad's presence.*** He doesn't take on the role out of admiration, or a conscious desire to complete Ahmad's work. Ahmad has brought new information to light. Samir's one of the implicated. He wants to establish that he has done nothing wrong.

He has a lead that Ahmad would not have. A discrepancy between Lucie's account and Celine's movements prior to the suicide puts his shop assistant Naima in the crosshairs. And it seems even the servant has a reveal in store for the master. Naima passed on Celine's email address to Lucie the day before the suicide attempt, knowing the implications. Samir fires her, but she does not go quietly. Naima puts her action in context: Celine hated her, believing Naima was having an affair with Samir. She sabotaged Naima's work, and was going to compromise Naima's immigration status. Naima wanted to establish that she was not the focus of Samir's affections, and didn't intend harm to Celine. Naima doesn't even believe Celine read the emails, reminding Samir that Celine attempted suicide  before her eyes, not Marie or him. Naima exits the drama, another scalp claimed by the investigation.

Like Lucie's reveal, Naima's reveal folds back on Samir and Marie's affair. Does it matter that Celine was wrong about which affair Samir was having, if it still led to her desperate act? This subtlety does not save Naima, who exits the drama, the first scapegoat for the suicide who actually can be sent away. (Lucie couldn't really be sent away, despite Marie's kneejerk reaction to her reveal, and Ahmad can be sent away but can't be blamed for more than bringing the situation to light.)

The second part of this article will look at the two other key aspects of the detective form that show up in Le Passe: the criminal, and the ghost, as well as rounding out on some of the general filmmaking choices.


* The motif of seeing a conversation without hearing it is repeated twice in the film. 
** Guy Ritchie's Snatch is a very different film, but I couldn't help but think of Dennis Farina's exit from that story. (Perhaps on the cutting room floor Ahmad re-enters Iranian customs with only one thing to declare: "Paris, je ne t'aime.")
*** The awkwardness between the two men is beautifully realised in a tense frame where the two sit on opposite sides of a table for a lengthy beat. They attempt to ignore eachother. Finally Samir leaves the frame, unable to stay in the same shot as his predecessor in Marie's affections.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Unlikely Detectives: Z (spoilers)

This article is the first of a series on recent cinematic incarnations of a powerful form: the detective story. Of all genres, detective stories most successfully align an audience's desire with the search for truth, and all of the complications of that search. For this reason, perhaps, they're a personal favourite of mine. Most of the films discussed will be recent releases. The subject of this article is the biggest exception to that rule. A recent viewing brought it to mind, so it seemed foolish to quibble on the film's release date.

Overview

There's so many aspects to Costa-Gavras' 1969 political thriller that shine, both large and small. The fusion of verite techniques with the political-thriller is a winning combination, to date one of the more inspired uses of realist style in genre filmmaking. The film also marks one of the strongest examples of protest cinema using a popular form as the pill to deliver a political argument. With the political left under attack from a strong, unlikeable, opponent at the outset, our sympathy shifts towards them in the way it so often does towards the hero of a thriller. On top of the thriller element, when Z (Yves Montand) becomes the victim of an injustice that appears to go unpunished, the film uses a clever twist on the detective story to engage our desire that the truth come out. (More on this below.)

Among the smaller details, two stood out to these ears. Firstly, Z's speech prior to his death marks a brief appearance by Chion's acousmetre. He's no Wizard of Oz, but it is precisely those moments when Z's voice travels beyond his immediate audience, echoing in the streets over the heads of battle-ready demonstrators, that the conflict of ideologies is most clearly felt. This is a man whose life will be sustained more through symbolism than physical presence as the film progresses - and even before the assassination attempt, that physical presence already has powerful cinematic properties. Secondly, during the energising montage towards the film's close where military figures of increasing seniority are called before The Judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), Theodorakis' music steps forward in a commanding way we don't normally associate with realist style. As each military leader passes the media gauntlet, Theodorakis's bouzouki-led march gathers confidence, the snare drums surging. The powerful rat-a-tat of the snares lines up beautifully with the strokes of the typewriter documenting the damning testimonies. It's as metaphorical a use of synchresis as you'll find, and declares the colours of the filmmakers: a true Greek nationalism would see these men led to the wall rather than calling the shots.

Lawyer as Detective

Z provides a few twists on the detective form. Before the detective appears in the stern form of Jean-Louis Trintignant's Judge, the crime must occur, and it comes relatively late in the film. Here comes an added twist - even before the crime occurs, we know who is behind it. Many a detective story relies on a concealed opponent, but here we're given access to that information relatively early (arguably the opening scene), before the crime occurs. It's not a given the crime will occur, or how, so the first act is not lost time. It's firstly a tense depiction of political life as an opposition in an unsympathetic regime, the tension raised by our knowing that Z's opponents are the apparent keepers of the peace. Additionally the time allows the filmmakers to acquaint us the man who will be the target of the crime (and like Mr Wu, he will be talked about before he appears), impress his character upon an audience, depict something of his inner life, so that his loss is meaningful when it comes. We will never wonder in Z if all of what ensues is unnecessary: this man was worth the fuss.

So when the crime occurs and an investigation begins, we are in the privileged position of knowing more than the detective. We see through the convincing alibis that disguise guilty faces. The dramatic question is not the identity of the the opponent, but how our detective will uncover it given the forces of obfuscation marshalling against him. Those forces of obfuscation are plausible enough to satisfy most of the investigators. Added to this concern: we don't really know whether our detective wants to find the truth. Disguised by his glasses, his unemotional commitment to proper process seems more of the bureaucratic professionalism that we've already seen too much of in this film's civil service.* And even if he does want to uncover the truth, we've already seen that a genuine man can be killed if the powers-that-be will it.**

But an interesting pattern forms. For every potential channel of guilt that the Judge misses, he finds others. New clues satisfy our curiosity. While we know where the chain should lead, our point of view on the assassination disguised many of the processes that came to a head that night. The workings of the opponent are mysterious, hard to discern, and compelling to discover. In the process, the Judge deflects every gesture from above to minimise the implications his findings. We begin to see the advantages of this particular detective. One of the last pieces of character backstory to emerge is his family's connection to the political right. Well before then, we've observed a conscious strategy on his part to establish an apolitical line of evidence. His disregard for politically-motivated testimony greets witnesses left, right and centre.

We begin to wonder: perhaps this is the way a crime can be punished when a power structure shields the guilty? Z may have seemed like the man Greece needed, but perhaps it's really this man?*** A man with an impartial eye, uncompromised by passion. A detective who does more than uncover guilt, he does so in a way that the guilty can be punished on their own terms. He engages the prosecutor in all of us: it's not enough to know the guilty parties, a more practical chain of evidence must be assembled. Evidence mounts, achieving a momentum in the typewriter montage that is all the more exhilarating because of windy path the investigation has taken to build to it. The investigation feels unstoppable at this point.

So when the investigation is stopped, and most of the links in the chain of evidence - including the detective - are declared the likely victims of assassination in a postscript, the tragedy is all the more palpable. The writer's strategy in making us aware of the opponent from the outset becomes clear. Our desire has been that the truth behind Z's death be uncovered, and justice be served. Like watching twins separated at birth come close to reunion in a melodrama, the closer they get to each other, the more we want it. We've been worked up to the point where we really feel the drop. To have seen the investigation come so close, and still fail, is a bitter revelation. Two models of resistance have failed - one political (Z), one apolitical (the detective). Z is a rare detective story that transcends the usual hunt for a villain, touching the political epic and the epic tragedy in the process.


* Gary Oldman's Smiley in the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy harkens back to this figure.
** The title character of Michael Clayton is another recent detective who searches for an opponent the audience is already aware of.
*** The Judge is the third model man in this film. Z is the first. A hospitalised Everyman character is the second.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Return to the Cutting Room: American (R)ustle (spoilers)

Overview

It feels like it should be wrapping up. A watch check reveals forty-five minutes remain. The laughter is getting quieter with each hair joke. Thirty minutes later, at the film's apparent climax, a nearby viewer - engaged at the outset - has fallen asleep. Something isn't right. Everything we need is here: performances, prestige, period details, star power, humour, rampant stupidity, twists and turns aplenty - how did it get boring?

It looks great, it's funny, it showcases a fleet of impressive performers, the true story underneath (the ABSCAM scheme) is compelling, and the themes it brings to light are - as they say - ever relevant. (In particular this: that bullish ambition bordering on criminality equally fuels law enforcement and  criminal trajectories.) The film does service to its fictionalised versions of the characters: conmen - whether enforcers, politicians, mobsters, lovers, husbands, wives or even actual conmen - have never been so vulnerable, nor so pathetic, as they are here. In aid of that, the film has the best hair narrative since Natalie Portman's arc in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. It's almost a epic poem of wardrobe contradictions. A mid-film phonecall intercutting close-ups of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) with Richie Dimasso (Bradley Cooper) is the apogee of that arc.

The hair narrative doesn't quite resolve. In answer to the opening indignity Dimasso inflicts on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), it feels as if the ending should have done more than ruin Dimasso's career, and gone the extra step to ruin his hair. (Possibly the mid-film visit to Dimasso's house deflated his image as far as it could go.)

There are more substantial rhythmic issues. A mid-film encounter with mob figure Victor Tellegio (Robert DeNiro) provides the greatest 'drawn breath' moment, when Tellegio makes an impromptu shift to Arabic language. The stakes never feel as high again as they do at that table, and Tellegio's proxy in the narrative from that point, Pete, is no substitute. Whatever the true pattern of events behind this film, and changes appear to have been considerable, the Tellegio encounter in its present form possibly should not have been as far from the end of the tale as it is. (If this was a script edit: condense the plot after the Tellegio encounter. Have Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) hurl her grenade about Irving and the IRS to Pete not in a subsequent rendezvous, but during her bar binge while the Tellegio encounter takes place. The fake sheik makes it past Tellegio, but Irving is picked up by Peter the very next morning.)

This raises a question: what is the tale? The Goodfellas-style storytelling frame makes it the story of a love made in heaven (Irving and Sydney's). They have chemistry, and share the ambition and aptitude to fleece the unwitting. Their love is rooted in a tension, as one of the lovers (Irving) is in a relationship (with Rosalyn). The love is challenged by the entrapment of the FBI (led by Dimassi), caught out doing the very thing they do well together. The dramatic question ultimately: what will it cost them to get out of this? Their relationship? Irving's relationship with his stepson? Since Irving will ultimately end up having to sacrifice neither of these, the screenplay sets up stakes around a third idea - the reputation of Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) so that Irving's success comes at a price. Leaving aside the issue of whether the real-life basis for Carmine Polito was as innocent as the film makes out, and whether it might not have been better to have Irving being hoodwinked in his own way by a politician (society's most legitimate confidence men), it's questionable whether the love was the right thing to dramatise here. It certainly adds pathos towards Prosser, Irving and Polito that seems at odds with the satirical tone the film hits at its strongest moments.

It could be the screenplay as Truby suggests, the consequence of a focus on character over plot, an incongruous genre fusion (love, memoir and black comedy), and an awkward use of storytellers (three of them), flashing back from the wrong beat. The focus on character over plot seems telling. It accounts for the amount of 'acting porn' in the film -- scenes that feature strong performances but essentially don't take the story forward. Films that pitch their tent around schemes of deception are among the most plot-heavy there are (Mamet's Heist or The Spanish Prisoner, Nolan's The Prestige). This film tilts its hand on a few key reveals - some macro, some micro - undercutting the surprise each has. It does this to dramatise the point of view of several characters in a given scene, giving the audience a bit of all sides of the equation. But omniscience makes for a clumsier dance between states of concealment and revelation than was necessary, and not enough of the developments in the film's last stretch are unanticipated when they come. There's the old suspense vs surprise debate (revisited recently by David Bordwell), to which there is no definitive answer. Sometimes it's better to foreshadow and engage the audience imagination. Other times it's better to blindside them. For me, and I suspect for others I saw the film with, the absence of surprise is part of the reason the film drags. (See particulars below in the list of suggested edits.)

I think the style of the film may be partly to blame as well. The film is often up close to its key players, close enough to see nuances on faces, pivoting around them in fluid movements, with a graininess of image -- a style that would be familiar to viewers of the director's previous films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. It would be interesting to see a lot of the film's scenes filmed from a locked-off point of view, wide angle, deep focus, slightly above or below character eye level. The suitcase camera motif feels underused, and in part because there'd be something embarrassing about seeing all this with a more unflinching gaze. The people would be less relatable, the satire stronger. It's a different direction than the one O Russell has chosen, but I suspect such a style choice would have better enabled him to shift the balance in favour of character over plot.

Some of these problems are not as easily approached in the editing room as they would have been in the screenplay and production phases. Had this story been filmed, or written, a different way, some of the below thoughts wouldn't be relevant, as the film would be a different beast. Nonetheless, given the chance to take American Hustle back to the editing room, what would we try?

Return to the Cutting Room (Note: Heavy Spoilers)
  1. Introduce the film in the present tense.  Unimaginable as it might be to unpick the Goodfellas knot, the potential of the tale trumps the homage. Start the film in a real moment, one that gets to the heart of genuineness vs deception, rather than making the first Polito sting the framing device. The meeting between Rosenfeld and Prosser at the party is one possible entry point. (It would be nice to have Bale apply his hairpiece at the outset, but clothing continuity forbids it, and it will be a humorous reveal when the film gets to the Polito sting for those who haven't already spotted it.)
  2. Potentially keep the voiceover, but try to do without it.  Quite what role voiceover would have in this version would be felt out on a case-by-case basis - if it worked, it's worth trying out the hairpiece line from Prosser. (But then consider the effect further down the film of the moment when Dimassi rips off Rosenfeld's hairpiece if her attitude to it hasn't been flagged.) If the voiceover was essential for exposition, and there was no way around it, then retain it. (My current resistance to it comes from it mostly filling in historical detail and a source of distance from the absurdities unfolding before camera rather than a source of levity.) 
  3. Continue in the present tense.  From the meeting of Prosser and Rosenfeld, cut to the first scene of Rosenfeld with Rosalyn as a point of contrast, introducing both Rosalyn and the idea of the son. Then show Rosenfeld and Prosser meeting in his office, and the invention of Lady Edith Greensley. Follow with an intercutting of the affair between them and the hooking of victims with their London loan scheme. Then Dimasso enters the picture, catching out Rosenfeld and Prosser. Proceed from there. Eventually we'll get to the scene that currently opens the film.
  4. Introduce Polito and Tellegio as entities in the film universe before they appear in the plot.  Since Polito will now not be established at the film's opening, the film will approach him as the subject of an investigation. To help him appear significant, and a natural target for the investigation to drift to when it does, hear him on the radio in Rosenfeld's car early on, or have him on the TV in the background of Rosenfeld's house. Make his public side part of the film texture before seeing the man in person. Tellegio is trickier, since he's not a public figure. It does feel as though he (or the mob) needs at least one reference in the film's first half, given the significance he take on in the second. The power of the "Mister Wu device" (Orson Welles) should not be overlooked.
  5. Avoid having Prosser clearly spell out her intention to seduce Dimassi. The film tries to create drama for Prosser and Rosenfeld by having Prosser give an early indication of her intention to seduce Dimassi. I'd be interested to see what happens when the audience doesn't know that Prosser might be seducing Dimassi purely to entrap him. Rosenfeld will still get jealous, except his jealousy will raise fewer questions. Prosser will still seem torn, but we'll be wondering whether it's an act as opposed to knowing that it probably is. Dimassi will still get hooked, but now when he raises the question of her sincerity, we'll wonder along with him. Sacrifice a bit of omniscience for a bit of plot. It will all come out in the 'we got to get over on these guys' conversation anyway. A smart audience will see the reveal coming that Sydney is conning Dimassi, and they'll appreciate the fact that the film gave greater room for their imagination. 
  6. Save the Polito sting for its chronological position within the plot.  One of my issues with the film is that the first major conning experienced after we've got up to speed with the story is the evening with Tellegio, from whence the stakes diminish. I think the experience curve might rise a bit more naturally to the Tellegio encounter if they've had another sting along the way. This is a nice double experiment that emerges from starting in 'the present'.
  7. Delay Rosenfeld's guilt over Polito's involvement.  If Rosenfeld is to face a moral challenge about the scheme, then Polito is the natural focal point for those feelings given the material in the film. But as with a couple of other arcs, the idea sprouts too early. From memory, foundations are laid down around the time the dinner between the Polito and Rosenfeld couples. Better to let the guilt about Polito creep in over the film's second half, making it even more of a by-product of Rosenfeld's self-preservation. All those shots of Rosenfeld viewing Polito's apparent sincerity feed the idea. When the reckoning comes - Rosenfeld's last conversation with Polito - the audience will have had less than an hour of concrete anticipation. (Again, save ideas for the freshness they'll bring later.)
  8. Don't announce Rosalyn as the weak point before she becomes it.  Immediately prior to Rosalyn's lunch with Pete (Tellegio's enforcer), Sydney and Irving effectively mark her as their Achilles heel. (The film then cuts to her, and while you'd think there'd be a laugh on that cut, there wasn't in my screening.) This primes us to expect a slip from Rosalyn in the following scene, and she fulfils the expectation. There's no real surprise to it or suspense about it. We're told something will happen. It happens. Cut out the remark from Sydney/Irving in the previous scene, and Rosalyn's slip will have the quality of surprise. (She'll also be a more active agent if her action isn't predicted by others.)
  9. A bit more of a macro-change.  The suggested script edit above, of having Rosalyn give the game away due to her drunkenness during the Tellegio encounter, can't be achieved on the basis of current footage. But one could find the pairing of shots of Rosalyn and Pete in that bar that plant the seeds of Pete's suspicion. The next day, a car pulls up and Rosenfeld is forced into it. This loses some good material, but it is the part of the film where it feels the stakes should be accelerating, and that is one way to achieve it. (I'd have to see the film a second time to make another suggestion, but another thought is pretty much going straight to the Rosalyn-Pete lunch after the Tellegio encounter.)
  10. Don't let the cat out of the bag that Sydney and Irving are going to outwit the mob and the FBI.  If there's a common thread to the suggestions here, it's that the film hints at its destinations too early. I personally knew that Dimassi was being played when he visited the offices of Tellegio's lawyer, because the film had told me that Sydney and Irving were going to try something, and their strategy in the scene was clear. I would have rather been in Dimassi's shoes for that scene, falling for the con. (Maybe a good deal of the audience is, but if so they'll miss nothing but accommodating the audience who got ahead of things.) How do we achieve that point of view shift? Look again at the conversation between Sydney and Irving from which Adams' best line comes: "We got to get over on these guys. That is what we have to do." That was the bit that told me they were about to pull something.
  11. Delay the final Rosenfeld-Polito encounter until after the humiliation of Dimassi in front of Amado.  Here we're looking for the right way to leave the story. Rosenfeld has taken care of himself, now he will try to take care of his conscience and take the news of the reduced sentence to Polito. This saves the gravest consequence for the end, which could be tonally too heavy, but worth a try. If it was too heavy, give a bit of distance to those consequences through a potential pickup. Stay in the car with Prosser as Rosenfeld goes into Polito's house. (Maybe she can even hear Polito being interviewed on the radio about an unrelated matter.) She sees Irving angrily ejected some time later, with Polito's yelling overheard.  
  12. Don't have Rosenfeld make Polito's reduced sentence a condition for returning the money.  This could undercut what we're trying to achieve with the above point, but it could add to the guilt Rosenfeld feels about Polito if he can't do anything to protect him. He is ultimately trying to save himself.
  13. End in the present. Mirroring the adjusted start, this version of the film may need to end with the right beat between Prosser and Rosenfeld, rather than the happily-ever-after montage set to voiceover. (This doesn't rule out Rosalyn's final appearance with Pete, a scene that's necessary to say what's happening to the son.)
These are all experiments in shifting dramatic pressure, changing the way the audience experiences the story. Assuming successful execution, each would have ripple effects through the film. Some elements will work better, others will probably cease to work in their present form. However given the quality of the elements that work in American Hustle, I'd be surprised if a little restructuring didn't result in a film that could connect with all of its audiences: those that already seem to love it, and those who fell asleep by the climactic reel.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Return to the Cutting Room: The Not-So Secret Walter Mitty (spoilers)

Overview

Although his fame derives from comedy, I don't laugh easily at Ben Stiller. His face plays the fool, but an intelligent mind ticks away inside that head, and his eyes show the tension. Normally it would be a compliment to say someone wasn't convincingly dumb, but context is everything. That intelligence proves to be an asset for his character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where the titular hero misses one opportunity after another to show off his value to the world. Partly because of the way Stiller comes across, we know Walter's worth and share his frustration at what the world is missing.

The relationship to the source material - James Thurbon's short story - makes up most of the film's first hour: Walter Mitty daydreams while Rome burns. The dreams reimagine Walter as a man of action and romance, and like a lot of high concept comic setpieces, most stop the story dead in its tracks. You quickly know you're in one of those moments and that nothing of consequence will happen until the dream is over. (Even the first clearly announces itself.) While the film raises intensity and varies the genres parodied by each to maintain interest, the fact that is the same beat over and over means they start to feel like commercial breaks within the more interesting story the film is building.

And there's a lot to be said for the story Steve Conrad has built around Thurbon's concept. The mechanics are familiar: a worthy nobody with confidence issues is forced out of his comfort zone into an adventurous quest, becoming a more confident man in the process. The specifics: Walter pines for Cheryl Melhof (Kristen Wiig), the 'girl-from-accounts' (a workplace version of the 'girl-next-door') whom he stalks online. A corporate acquisition brings forces of rationalisation to Life magazine. The next printed issue is announced as the last, and staff put on notice. When the moustache-twirling transition manager demands to know Walter's function, his answer - 'negative asset manager' - suggests the first of the long knives will fall on him. A missing photo, intended for the cover of the final issue by star photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), ultimately kicks Walter into action, following the trail of the missing photograph round the globe.

Walter's choice of occupation and the plot that emerges from it marks the film's nostalgia. His workspace is dominated by paper archives, hand calculators, an ally character that reveres those who shoot on film, and an internet that only seems accessible on the smartphones of others. While the film plays some of these markers of datedness for laughs, the halo around the 'Old School' - in particular the photography of Sean O'Connell and the contents of the photo at the heart of the plot - is about as earnest as it gets.

The fondness for passing media extends to Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), to which a few gratuitous references are made. The production design borrows a few details from the older film's office set. While elevator girls are no longer credible love interests, one key scene between Walter and Cheryl around an elevator echoes one from The Apartment, and Wilder's elevator girl shows up the role of Walter's mother (Shirley Maclaine). Some less superficial links can also be found. Walter's daydreams are not as gaping a weakness as Jack Lemmon's domestic bordello, but they are the life choice that allows others to walk all over him. The platonic foundations of Walter and Cheryl's relationship feels like another point of kinship. As in the earlier film, the central couple's final moments together avoid a climactic kiss, and take place in a two shot where each, now jobless, has equal weight in the frame.

Comparisons to Wilder can't help but show up a weak heel of Stiller's film - Kristen Wiig's love interest might have a richer eHarmony profile than any other character, but she remains an accessory in a fantasy about male action, without an independent point of view. To be fair, this can be said of pretty much everyone else too. A collection of props, including a piano, an action figure, a skateboard, a slice of cake, a wallet and a photo, have more presence than much of the human cast.

Clever choices about the destination leaven the film with more nuance than all this suggests. Most of the film's reveals are true to the idea that Walter's mind is elsewhere when plot-saving exposition is spoken. When Penn - in the manner of Orson Welles' Mister Wu - walks into the halo the other characters have arranged for him, there's a unexpected dash of the clumsy but well-meaning surfer about him.  (No fool, but not exactly an all knowing mystic either.) Probably the greatest irony of all is that Walter's quest was unnecessary - the product of the same jumping to conclusions that fuels his daydreams. Truth to myth form, the quest was not for nothing, since Walter's journey from inner to outer was the real goal, but the sleight of hand around the accidental 'trail of clues' helps balance the potential earnestness of the final wisdom. Finally, there's a lightness to the way the film's Rosebud - the missing photograph - is unveiled, the lack of fanfare allowing greater room for the revelation it contains.

Visual direction is strongest around the flourishes. The shift from locked-off angles of Walter in schematic New York settings to the dynamic camera that glides over mountains and skateboards down highways with him is not a new way to express a shift from inaction to action, but it's well executed.

I didn't expect to enjoy this film, but there's a lot to like here. So, given the proverbial day in the editing room, what would we tinker with here?

Return to the Cutting Room (Note: Heavy Spoilers)

  1. Vary the daydream beat. Cut at least a couple of the visual fantasies, probably the ones that most clearly reference other films (Spiderman, Benjamin Button). The film takes a long time to get going, and rather than each digression from reality getting longer, there's a case for increasing the economy of the beat with repetition (or not repeating it at all). One alternative: in place of the last couple of daydreams, don't venture into the fantasy with Walter, but stay outside, seeing what the world sees. We've been given enough info to imagine what's going on inside Walter by that point -- who knows, it might even give room for our investment to increase. One could even shoot it in such a way that sets up Sean Penn's pivotal photo better. Another variation worth trying - when we do daydream with him, lose more 'real time'. Rather than coming back to the conversation Walter tuned out of prior to the fantasy, come back after the other conversant has left. (This would add the effect of him missing out on more and more of life.)
  2. Jettison the fantasy setpieces. An extreme: never go with him into the fantasy sequences. Stay watching Stiller, and perhaps venture into his head with sound. Make the first fantasy take place not at the train station but in the location where the pivotal photo is taken. Why lose all this production value? Because there's a problem in this film, which is that when the quest does start, its easy to think that it's all an extension of his daydreaming habits. The skateboard antics similarly suffer from this doubt at first because everything outlandish up to that point has been a daydream. A second issue. The trip begins with its most extroverted music cue (Jose Gonzalez's 'Step Out'), and is as visually dynamic as Walter's fantasies up to that point. And that's the rub. Does the quest actually feel more exciting than all his daydreams? The more involved they are, the less like an entry into a new way of living the quest feels by comparison. So I'd try an extreme where Walter has fewer fantasies, and we don't join him for his ride when he does. This film would have to change its title, as the key tether to the short story will have been cut.
  3. Less front-loading the backstory. Clip back the early conversation with the mother about Papadinos - don't go into the mention of the father here. The film presses too hard on the father issues. It can come out later after he's been to the restaurant in the phone call from Iceland, and in fact, it does.
  4. Detective story rules. That post-modern cleverness about explaining how to construct a detective story probably wasn't necessary. But Cheryl doesn't have a lot of moments, so it's probably not the best idea to cut one of them, even if she does instruct the audience to spot the the way film's gears are turning.
  5. Shift the 'point of no return'. Shift the starting point of the adventure from New York (the race past Life magazine covers) to the appearance of 'Major Tom' in Greenland. Try a simple cut from him in his office with his co-worker, intuiting the Greenland connection, to being in a plane, then being in Greenland, choosing a car. Play it down rather than depict it as a film-changing moment. Save the sense of a pivotal moment for jumping on the helicopter, where his daydreams come to the aid of his real adventure. (I still wish the vision of Cheryl came later in the film, after a more significant obstacle than a drunk helicopter pilot -- such as after the dead-end in Iceland.)
  6. No going back (micro). In that phone call from Iceland to Cheryl, stay on Walter's side of the phone call. Make him wonder what's happening back home. This means Cheryl's physical appearances on the road are limited to her 'Major Tom' performance - which might have stronger presence if the real Cheryl was not just one cut away.
  7. No going back (macro). Don't go back to New York from Iceland. Keep going on to Afghanistan. Probably this is the one area where some minor pickups would have to be done. I can see why they've gone back. The journey/meander form of a solo traveller means the story can be episodic, with little continuity in anything other than the lead character.  (Had someone travelled with him, it might have been different.) Going back gives a chance to reiterate the stakes at home, touch base with all the characters, advance the romantic subplot, and collect some more clues that would have been cumbersome to lay out prior to his initial departure. But I don't think it really does much - if any - of that. Firstly the reason to go back doesn't seem that strong at that point. Why is Sean Penn suddenly impossible to locate? (But then the film has a pattern of Mitty folding when faced with weak opposition.) Most of the scenes seem to reiterate stakes. Worse, it robs the ending of some of its power, since the newly-adventurous Walter is seen, mid-transformation, by witnesses, and his change partly validated. The valley of the journey around the world is that it means no one sees Walter until he's a new person. (Nor for that matter should he have seen New York, and discovered his job was lost, until his transformation was complete.) The skateboard could have been sent by post, an update on office affairs could've been relayed via the phone call to Cheryl (including her firing), the 'warlords' detail and the visit of Sean could have come out in a call to mum, and the third encounter with the transition manager would have been saved until Walter actually had the photo (making that a stronger beat). The return principally achieves the following: (i) the wallet ends up in the mother's bin and (ii) Walter recognises the piano. Not impossible things to manage from Iceland. Perhaps have him throw the wallet out in Papadinos in Iceland... it would make it even more remarkable when it somehow finds it way back to New York (because it had the address of Walter's mother in it, tacked to an invoice for the piano).
  8. Add a beat. Make it about Walter getting accustomed to the life of adventure. It feels like there needs to be a datapoint between mountainous Iceland and mountainous Afghanistan, particularly when both were shot in the same place. (Yemen is mentioned in passing - nice bit of contrary flavour, if still a bit rugged.)
  9. Linger on that pivotal photo a bit more. Or see the preceding 24 from Sean's roll over the credits. (As good as the credits are.) 

Who knows, perhaps at the end of the day we would have hit command+Z nine times in the hope of getting back to the film we started with. Many a day in the editing room ends that way. But I can't help but feel there's an even better film hiding in a fairly solid one here.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Daisy Chains & Catenanes

The train of thought runs endlessly. For now this can serve as a destination. Many of the stations involve intersections of film and music, but tangents may be many and the endpoints will hopefully never cease to be a surprise.