UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Time Passes, Things Change

In Tom Stempel's monthly column on Understanding Screenwriting, he analyzes On the Basis of Sex, Cold War, Madam Secretary, and If Beale Street Could Talk.
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In Tom Stempel's monthly column on Understanding Screenwriting, he analyzes On the Basis of Sex, Cold War, Madam Secretary, and If Beale Street Could Talk.

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Write What You Know. Or Not.

On the Basis of Sex (2018. Written by Daniel Stiepleman. 120 minutes)

In Tom Stempel's monthly column on Understanding Screenwriting, he analyzes On the Basis of Sex, Cold War, Madam Secretary, and If Beale Street Could Talk.

You may remember that in the last column, I wrote about two films in which the writers brilliantly adapted events from their, or their relatives’, real lives. Both Green Book (script by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly) and Roma (script by Alfonso Cuarón) were examples of the idea that If you are writing about true events you cannot just lay them out and assume they will be interesting to an audience. You have to shape the material.

Vallelonga, Currie, Farrelly, and Cuarón had a lot of experience before they came to those two films. The writer of On the Basis of Sex had no experience as a screenwriter, and it shows. Daniel Stiepleman is the nephew of the subject of the film, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

What attracted him to the idea of making a movie about Ginsberg was not her legal career as much as her marriage to Marty Ginsberg. O.K., movies about good marriages are rare but could be interesting. But if the film is about Ginsberg, we want to see her in action. Stiepleman’s idea on how to handle those two elements is not bad: show Ginsberg going through law school, starting out in the legal profession, and then working with Marty, a tax lawyer, on an important case fighting sex discrimination in the seventies.

The problem with the script is that Stiepleman is not that good at writing scenes and dialogue. Nearly everybody in the film is supposed to be smart (even if, in the case of a lot of the male lawyers, wrong-headed), but they do not sound like it. The director here is a former student of mine, Mimi Leder, who got her start as a director in television on L.A. Law, so she knows how to direct actors playing lawyers if they are given smart dialogue. What this film needed was a rewrite by David Kelley of L.A. Law.

Stiepelman does give us one good scene. Ginsberg has written a brief about the case, and the secretary who has typed it up tells her that the constant use of the word “sex” bothered her and makes it seem like something in “a dark alley.” The secretary is not seriously offended, but thinks people reading it might be. Ginsberg sees her point, and the secretary, not Ginsberg, suggests the word “gender.” That’s nice screenwriting, more well-rounded than any other scene in the film.

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More Relatives.

Cold War (2018. Screenplay by Pawel Pawlikowski & Janusz Glowacki, with screenplay collaboration by Piotr Borkowski, story by Pawel Pawlikowski. 88 minutes)

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Huh? A movie about the whole of the Cold War in 88 minutes? Well, not exactly. What Pawlikowski (who directed) and his co-writers are doing is telling a version of the story of Pawlikowski’s mother and father set against the Cold War. But still, in 88 minutes? Yes, it does mean that some of it is rushed, but the writers give us some good scenes. And they are very skimpy on the exposition, so you really have to pay attention to figure out what’s going on.

Wiktor meets Zula in 1949 in their native Poland. He is the piano accompanist for a folk music group that is auditioning singers. Wiktor falls in love with Zula, but a Communist functionary pressures the group to include some modern songs about contemporary subjects, i.e., political propaganda. We can see Wiktor is not happy and he leaves Poland. Zula had agreed to go along with him, but does not show up at their assigned meeting.

He ends up in Paris, has an affair with another woman, runs into Zula again in Paris and Yugoslavia. Some scenes are sharper and better than others. Many, you want to be a lot longer. A lot of the critical acclaim for the film has been for the performance of Joanna Kulig, but I was not as taken with her performance as I was with that of Yalitza Aparicio in Roma.  Tomasz Kot as Wiktor is also not as compelling as he needed to be.

*Spoilers ahead*

I also had two big problems with the ending. Wiktor returns to Poland in 1964, and takes up with Zula, who is now married to Kaczmarek. He is the manager of the folk music troop and he and Zula have a young son. Kaczmarek mentions how much the son looks like him. The son doesn’t, but he does not look like either Zula or Wiktor. Now, wait a minute. We know from the publicity that the film is supposed to be the story of Pawlikowski’s parents, which we assume means Zula and Wiktor. Well, we might buy it if Zuyla and Wiktor run off and have a child of their own. But they don’t.

Here they get together and go out to the place where they first met. Zula lays out a whole string of pills for her and Wiktor. They take them and then wait for a bus. The end. Are we to take that scene as them committing suicide? Pawlikowski’s parents actually lived until 1989 (the background on the film and Pawlikowski are from an interview and review in the September 2018 Sight & Sound). Or are the pills just Dramamine for the bus ride? And is the kid we have been told is Kaczmarek and Zula’s Pawlikowski? I don’t mind subtle endings, but this one is just confusing.

Pawlikowski could have avoided this confusion if he had made it clearer in interviews that this is a highly fictionalized version of his parents. I think he wanted to have it both ways and that is what leaves the audience confused.

If, on the other hand, you have not seen the film yet, forget everything I told or sit through the film reminding yourself the film is fiction.

Not the Golden Age of Television.

Madam Secretary ( 2019. Episode “Strategic Ambiguity.” Written by Matt Ward. 45 minutes)

In Tom Stempel's monthly column on Understanding Screenwriting, he analyzes On the Basis of Sex, Cold War, Madam Secretary, and If Beale Street Could Talk.

I couldn’t resist writing about this recent (January 13th) episode of Madam Secretary.

Oh no, you are going to say. Why would you write about some show that no critic has ever claimed is part of THE NEW GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION? You are right, it is not considered one of the wonders of this NEW GOLDEN AGE. It has no zombies, major characters are not killed off willy-nilly at the whim of the showrunners, it does not require a 500 page book to explain the Universe of the show, etc. In other words, it shows no influence of The Sopranos, which as everybody knows CHANGED TELEVISION, NOW AND FOREVER.

(For my official take on all that crap about The Sopranos, read my article “Revolution and Sex: the Revolution in TV.”)

Madam Secretary is just good, old-fashioned television, beautifully written. And more than most of the shows of THE NEW, etc, it has a connection to reality, in an interesting fantasy sort of way.

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If you have been busy watching “It’s not television, it’s HBO” on Sunday nights, you may have missed Madam Secretary on CBS. It’s about a woman Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord. It started in the fall of 2014, so we can guess that Hillary Clinton was partly the inspiration for it, and that seemed to be the pattern for the first couple of years. Then came the 2016 election, which you may remember. The first two years were reasonably realistic. Then something interesting happened. As the new administration took over and brought in all its different forms of chaos, Madam Secretary provides what you might want to think of as a fantasy counterpoint to what is going on in Washington, D.C. The show is a view of how we would like the federal government to behave.

“Strategic Ambiguity” is an example of that. We start off with Henry, Elizabeth’s husband, a professor of religion and ethics who is an assistant to the president. Henry is a former fighter pilot and has had a chance to take a new plane up for a spin. Afterwards, he is talking to Congressman Jeff Pearson, also a former fighter pilot. Henry tells him he does not think much of the plane. The congressman points out that bits and pieces of it are built in forty different congressional districts, which means the plane won’t be cancelled. You may think of several military toys that ran into the same situation, most recently Lockheed’s F-35.

So what does this have to do with the Secretary of the State? Well, the government wants to fob off twenty of the planes to Taiwan to help them protect themselves from China. Except that Taiwan doesn’t want the planes. And China, through a spy in the aircraft company, gets word about the deal and within 24 hours Chinese Foreign Minister Chen is Skyping with Elizabeth and threatening to pull out of a trade deal.

Now, here’s where the government on the show is different from the current federal circus. None of the government workers is under indictment or investigation by a special counsel. They are all trying to figure out how to work out the problem. President Dalton is listening to his advisors and thinking over the various options. He does not tweet. He does not change his mind every five minutes. He is concerned about doing what is best for the country, not just himself. Wonderful.

See, I told you there was a lot of fantasy to it.

Almost the Best Film of 1975.

If Beale Street Could Talk(2108. Written for the screen by Barry Jenkins, based on the novel by James Baldwin. 119 minutes)

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James Baldwin’s novel was published in 1974. If Hollywood had been interested, which it wasn’t, the movie might have come out in 1975. This was not the kind of story about black people the industry was making at the time. True, that year there was a nice little love story Aaron Loves Angela about a black boy who falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl, while Beale Street has a black man and a black woman who fall in love. She gets pregnant, which really irritates the guy Fonny’s hyper-religious mother, but he sticks by her.

The couple in Aaron Loves Angela does have to deal with drug dealers and other bad people in the ghetto. But Fonny and Tish have to deal with the legal establishment, i.e. white society. Fonny is arrested by a white cop and accused of raping a white woman. And he has no Atticus Finch to get him out of it. So by the end of the film he is still in jail, and Tish and their kid come to visit him.

Aaron Loves Angela was pretty much one of a kind of Hollywood films that year. Other black films in 1975 included Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, Dolemite, Sheba Baby and Mandingo. The titles pretty much tell you all you need to know about them.

What Baldwin was doing was combining a love story, a family drama, and a serious critique of white society. I never read the book, so I don’t know how Baldwin balanced those elements. Jenkins does not quite get the balance right in his script.

There are individual scenes that work beautifully. When Fonny parents come to talk to Tish’s parents about her pregnancy, Tish’s mom’s religious excess enlivens the scene for us, as much as it dismays everybody else in the scene.

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Late in the picture Sharon, Tish’s mother, learns that the victim of the rape has returned to her native Puerto Rico. Sharon manages to go there. First she talks to Victoria’s boyfriend, who is a sleazy type who does not want to have anything to do with Sharon. The dynamics of the scene, each pushing for their own point of view, are better than anything else in the picture.

Almost as good is the scene between Sharon and Victoria. Victoria is clearly suffering from PTSD and while she tells Sharon that the cops told her to pick Fonny out of the lineup, she refuses to go back to New York to testify. As in the scene with the boyfriend the dialogue is sharp and provides emotional subtexts for the actors to play.

The dialogue in a lot of the rest of the script is rather flat and sounds like it might be directly from the novel in that it lays everything out in a literal way. In prose the dialogue has to carry all the weight, but in film you can rely on the actors to reveal the emotional subtexts.

If this film, with all its flaws, had come out in 1975, it would have had more impact than it does coming out in 2018. We have had a lot of stories like this in film and especially on television. I probably was not the only person watching this who knew Benson and Tutuola would have gotten Fonny out of jail by the end of the hour. Coming in a year that gave us Black Panther, BlacKk Klansman, Sorry to Bother You, and The Hate U Give, Jenkins’s version of Baldwin’s story seems dated.

More articles by Tom Stempel

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