UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: The Times We Are Living In - Script Magazine

UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: The Times We Are Living In

Tom Stempel talks about time, Romanian-style, in "The Whistlers," and other kinds in "On Chesil Beach," and the times we are living in.
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The Coming of the Settlers.

The Whistlers (2019. Written by Corneliu Porumboiu. 97 minutes)

The Whistler

The Whistler

Porumboiu made his reputation a decade and a half ago with two highly acclaimed films of the Romanian New Wave. First was 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and the second was Police, Adjective (2009). You can read my review of the latter here, which also includes a discussion of the former. The discussion of the films also includes information about the style of Slow Cinema of the Romanian New Wave.

In the Romanian films of the period, the pace was very slow so the filmmakers could get in a lot of details. In Bucharest the final scene is a long, almost one-take scene of a television news talk show in which the characters discuss who among them could really be accepted as true members of the revolution that ousted strongman Nicolae Ceauşescu and who were just hangers-on. In Police, Adjective the equivalent scene is a discussion between two cops and their captain. The captain gets an assistant to bring in a dictionary, and has Cristi, one of the cops, read the definitions of police, the law, and moral conscience. By the end of the scene, the captain has convinced Cristi to do the immoral thing.

Cristi shows up again in The Whistlers, this time played by a different actor from the one who played the character of the same name in the earlier film. Cristi is still (or is this just another character all together; we never learn) corrupt, but then nearly everybody is in this movie.

So, O.K., this is going to be a tough movie about corrupt cops. Well, yes and no. Porumboi, who also directs, begins with Cristi going to the Canary Islands. To learn how to whistle. Huh? The gang of crooks he is dealing with is from the islands, and they communicate in the traditional way by whistling over long distances in a code. So we get Cristi learning how to whistle. He is accompanied by Gilda, his, wait a minute, Gilda, as in the Rita Hayworth character in the movie of the same name? Yes, so obviously Gilda is a femme fatale. Yes, but not in the way you think.

[Script Extra: An Interview with Kim Krizan on Writing, Creativity and Channeling Your Inner Femme Fatale]

I will not get into the plot in any more detail here, simply because I am not sure I can. I am not alone in that. Anthony Lane, in his review in the March 9 issue of The New Yorker, also gives up on trying to explain it. (Lane also uses a description of a motel clerk similar to the one that I was going to use, although his version is funnier than mine; great minds think sort-of alike.)

The whistling is not just a plot gimmick, although it works in multiple ways in the plotting. It also brings us to a wonderfully moving ending. In Singapore, of course. How about that for Eastern European humor?

The film’s style is different than the earlier Romanian Slow Cinema Style. There are no long dialogue scenes like the ends of Porumboi’s two earlier films; in fact the final Singapore scene is virtually wordless. I suspect that Porumboi has realized that he took that style about as far as he could go and has shifted slightly to a more conventional style. To paraphrase what the late Ron Haver, of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said about two other films (King Kong [1933] and Mighty Joe Young [1949]), Porumboi’s earlier films were the opening of the west and The Whistlers is the coming of the settlers.

NOTE: The Whistlers was the last film I saw in a theatre before the movie theatres in Los Angeles were closed because of the coronavirus. Needless to say, the closure means that I won’t be reviewing any new theatrical releases until, well, until there are new theatrical releases. Let’s hope that is as soon as we can safely do it. I miss movie theatre popcorn.

I am handling my self-isolation by catching up on my reading and watching movies, recent and not-so-recent, on television and DVDs. I will be reviewing some of what I have been watching, like the following item about On Chesil Beach, a 2017 movie I missed in theatres. I will be reviewing some of the older movies I get on DVD from Netflix, and some recent ones I may see streaming on Amazon Prime. You can see an item about some I have been viewing following the one about On Chesil Beach.

I have a whole stack of books on my to-be-read shelf. Several of them have nothing to do with film, but I have started off with Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s The Mankiewicz Brothers: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics, a dual biography of Herman and Joe. I will be reviewing that in the next column.

[Script Extra: What's the difference between a hook and a gimmick?]

Time, Ian McEwan Style.

On Chesil Beach (2017. Screenplay by Ian McEwan, based on his novel.110 minutes)

Ian McEwan writes novels, screenplays based on his novels, novels others have written screenplays for, and original screenplays. The best film based on a novel of his is Atonement (2007), which was adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton. McEwan’s best original screenplay is the 1983 The Ploughman’s Lunch, a sharp-edged look at British politics of the time.

On Chesil Beach probably works better as a novel than a film. I suspect that in the novel he gets into the characters’ minds in the way he cannot in the film. Or it may just be that the characters would still strike us as idiots in either medium.

It is 1962, and Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting have just gotten married. As in, today. They arrive at a hotel near Chesil Beach for their honeymoon. I have to say the real Chesil Beach we see in the movie is nothing compared to some of the great movie beaches we have seen before, as in, Ryan’s Daughter (1970), The Longest Day (1962), and From Here to Eternity (1953).

Even though they are young and in love, they do not just jump into the sack. They talk in ways that lead us to flashbacks. Lots of flashbacks. As a rule you should not go into flashbacks until the audience is dying to know what happened in the past. The next time you watch Casablanca (1942), keep a timer next to you and find out how long it is before we get the Paris flashback. By then we know something happened with Rick and Ilsa in Paris and, boy, do we really want to know what it was. Here we are much more interested in going forward than backward.

So they talk and we get flashbacks. Eddie is a little more insistent on getting on with what they are there for, but that just makes him a typical guy. We begin to figure out from the flashbacks that something is bothering Florence, and quite frankly, we can pretty much guess what it is from the very brief flashbacks of her younger self and her obnoxious father on their sailboat. It is not obvious in the scenes, but it does not need to be. We can add up two and two and get the five the film is getting at.

[Script Extra: Flashbacks - Storytelling Friend or Foe?]

I can’t think of another McEwan film that stretches out the time it takes to tell the story as much as this one does. The others generally move along a lot quicker.

Finally we get to the kids trying to do the nasty, but surprise, surprise, Florence does not want to do it. She runs out of the room and goes to sit on the beach. Eddie follows her, and they talk. But they do not really talk about what is bothering her. I know, it’s 1962 and she’s upper class English, but I was about the kids’ age then and knew some upper class English girls who were not as priggish as Florence is. She and Eddie never really deal with their issue.

So they get an annulment. We jump ahead to 1975. Eddie is running a used record store (no, the writer is Ian McEwan, not Nick [High Fidelilty] Hornby) and a girl of about ten or eleven comes in and asks if he has any Chuck Berry records. Yes, Florence had liked Chuck Berry. The girl says her mum plays classical violin. Yes, Florence did that. Yes, Eddie realizes the girl is Florence’s daughter, but what can he say? Well, what would you write for him? McEwan does not come up with much.

So we jump ahead to 2007. Eddie sees a poster for Florence’s quintet and goes to see her concert, managing to get exactly the seat he told her 40 years before he would sit in. He watches her play. Tears come to his eyes. She sees him. One, two at the most, tears come to her eyes. That’s about it.

Now go back to my previous column and read what I wrote about the final scene of Portrait of a Woman on Fire. That’s how you get a lot out of that kind of scene.

Oh, yeah, Portrait of a Woman on Fire has some great beach scenes as well.

Spending Time With the Telly.

With the theatres closed down, it is time to watch stuff on television. In this item I will be dealing with the films I have been watching for the last couple of months, and how they are affecting how I am surviving the lockdown.

Before the coronavirus got serious in the country, I had a period of stress in my personal life. When it got cleared up, I felt I really needed an escape. Well, what could be more of an escape than one of my all-time favorites, The Great Escape (1963). As my Irish friend Elaine Lennon put it, what’s better than a men-on-a-mission movie? She’s fond of many different ones. The script, as I mentioned in the brief item I did years ago in the column, was created in a chaotic manner by a collection of writers, some of them credited, several of them not. Fortunately the picture holds together and pulls us into the story right away. We become part of the team. That sense of teamwork is a hallmark of many of the World War II movies, and the sense of community is just what we need to be reminded of and connected to in the days we are living in now.

When the coronavirus started showing up in Los Angeles, I returned to the men-on-a-mission movies with The Guns of Navarone (1961), written by Carl Foreman, who had done the first drafts of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). The New York Times review complained that Foreman did not develop the characters as well in Navarone as he did in Kwai. I can’t disagree, but the characters are well drawn and the casting is superb. We again feel part of the team.

The Were Expendable 

The Were Expendable 

The next World War II movie I caught was They Were Expendable (1945), John Ford’s beautiful, moving film about PT boats in the South Pacific. Since it was made in the last year of the war, it has a seriousness that the later films like Escape and Navarone don’t, especially about the cost of the war. I was talking to Philip Dunne about They Were Expendable once and he said the script was a mess, since instead of ending with the boats taking General MacArthur to catch a plane to Australia, it went on to show other adventures, which seem anti-climatic. Phil said he told Ford this after he saw the film and said they could still recut the picture. Ford just grumbled.

I have not just been watching the standard classics, but for another form of escape and sheer enjoyment I have been watching a pile of Hopalong Cassidy B-westerns on the Encore Westerns Channel. Cassidy, or Hoppy, as he is called in the movies, was the creation of the pulp western fiction writer Clarence E. Mulford. Starting in 1904 Mulford wrote short stories and novels about Hoppy, who, in Mulford’s work was a rude, tough, rather unpleasant character with a wooden leg. When producer Harry Sherman decided to do a series of movies about Hoppy in the 30s, he cast William Boyd, a silent screen star whose career had faded in the early talkie days. Boyd was smart enough to convince Sherman to let him change Hoppy into a nice guy, a gentleman but still tough, and a man who never drank anything stronger than sarsaparilla. Mulford was not happy, but cashed the checks anyway.

The scripts for the Hoppies are pretty-much standard issue. Hoppy is officially the foreman of the Bar 20 ranch, although he spends most of his movies out helping other people dealing with bad guys The bad guys were usually played by Victory Jory or Morris Ankrum (before he dropped his stage name of Steven Morris). In the 1941 Border Vigilantes, Jory and Ankrum appear together, but with Ankrum actually playing a good guy. That takes a while for the viewer of the series to get accustomed to.

The screenwriters for the series were the writers who wrote for other western series as well. The most interesting writer who shows up in the credits is Michael Wilson, who wrote three Hoppies in the early forties. He was later blacklisted, and wrote, among others Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The most interesting of his Hoppy films is Border Patrol (1943). Hoppy is a Texas Ranger in this one. After he and his partners talk to the Commandante of the Federal Police in Mexico, they come back into the United States to find out what happened to several Mexicans who have been kidnapped to work in the mines of Silver Bullet. They deal with the corrupt sheriff and his henchman, and rescue Don Enrique Perez. The script has some hints of Wilson’s left-leaning attitudes, but the most interesting aspect of the film is the casting. The Commandante is played by Duncan Reynaldo, who ten years later would play The Cisco Kid on television. Don Enrique Perez is George Reeves, later to be Superman on television. One of the henchmen is played by Bob (later Robert) Mitchum early in his career. The corrupt sheriff is Russell Simpson. Yes, Pa Joad from The Grapes of Wrath his ownself, having a wonderful time getting to show off his nasty side. Name me another film where you can see these five together.

More articles by Tom Stempel

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