Cache: What's Hidden Here?

If you are looking for an example of subtext, Cache (Hidden) is a must-see. Not only do each of the scenes speak volumes by what is not said, but there is a subtext underlying the film as a whole.

In all honesty, I rarely like minimalist filmmaking. Usually it comes off as pretentious and boring. It communicates too little, does a poor job of engaging the viewer. And while there are many viewers who no doubt think the same of Cache - Haneke's tale of guilt managed to keep me mesmerized.

It starts off so quietly, I was about to stop the disc and see if something was wrong. There is almost no sound as the opening credits roll. No music (either here or elsewhere in the film,) no dialogue, and just the barest hint of ambient sounds. The camera is still, watching a house from the street. A car passes, a person leaves.

And then staticy lines appear on the screen, and we realize we're watching a video tape. The characters begin talking about it. It's been left on their doorstep.

Through the course of the movie, we realize that the protagonist hides more than he shows. He may interview intellectuals on his TV show, but he does a poor job of communicating in real life. The vague threat posed by the tapes they receive serves to throw a light on the problems that existed already between the two - and at the same time point to an almost-forgotten incident from his childhood.

He feels such guilt (despite denying it) over this incident, he won't talk about it. Won't even put words to it. It's hidden, buried. Not such a horrible thing, a simple childish act of selfishness - but with horrible consequences.

In once scene, his wife comes into the room - and they argue. He says almost nothing. She's frustrated with him. Behind them is a wall of books and videotapes with a television in the center. On the television is news footage. Photos of faces, presumably missing or dead men. Tanks, fighting - as they argue, a war goes on between them.

In another, when the mother confronts her son - he indirectly accuses her of adultery. All he says is, "ask Pierre, he knows everything" - but the pouting, and her reaction, say it all. She insists Pierre is only a friend, and the audience is left with their doubts. Perhaps she complains to her husband so much about the tapes to distract from her own hidden guilt. It's never resolved, one more tense string played through the story.

At the end, nothing is resolved - and this feels utterly right. Because the story was not about the tapes, but about guilt. About long-hidden actions and their repercussions.

Ultimately, its about national guilt for a long-repressed act. In 1961, in Paris, the French police killed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unarmed Algerian protesters. It was not until 1998 that the police chief was convicted, and 2001 before a plaque honoring the dead was put up. According to the director, it's a piece of French history that is rarely spoken of, hidden - much like the protagonist's past.

It is precisely by approaching the subject so indirectly that Cache succeeds.

On the Edge of Blade Runner

I have mixed feelings about the news that Ridley Scott is re-shooting scenes for Blade Runner. Tinkering with something so long after the fact, well, it seems like it would be hard to retain the original vision - much less match scenes to the older movie.

But I'm also intrigued. Blade Runner is easily one of my favorite films of all time. In fact, I've watched it more times than any other single movie. (Though Buckaroo Banzai comes close.)

There is a good British documentary about Blade Runner, called On the Edge of Blade Runner. It runs about an hour total. Enjoy.

Communicating with Color

I am among the minority who figured out the "twist" in Sixth Sense well before it was revealed. Now, to be fair, I did go into it looking for clues - because I knew there was a surprise - but people had done a remarkable job of keeping silent about the nature if that surprise and I had not been given the slightest hint.

I believe I figured it out because I'm very attuned to color. I tend to link my memories to the color someone was wearing, or the color of a room. I noticed all those little bits of red Shyamalan placed at key moments.

Now, red does not inherently have a meaning that would associate it with the dead, but by using it consistently, the filmmaker imbued it with his own meaning. He does the same again in other films: red and yellow in The Village (where it was explained explicitly - and thus became too heavy-handed), in Unbreakable it was green and purple (which really gave me the sense of the comic-book world of the movie.)

Shyamalan uses it almost like a blog tag. Every time we see X we see color A.

I'm wishing I had sat down to re-watch Kurosawa's Ran before writing this blog. People comment all the time on how visually striking the color is, how it made the battle scenes so powerful, with the movements of the armies swirling against one another. But I would be interested to see whether the colors assigned to each son were purposeful. For instance, the faithful son was blue. (I have no idea whether there is a similar Japanese association as in the west - "true blue.")

Many directors use is to help set a mood.

American Beauty is an excellent example. Using the emotional associations we already have with red, the color is used to accent passion and sensuality. The red rose posy that is so tightly arranged is like Carolyn's restrained and controlled sexuality. Lester fantasizes about those red rose petals falling, coming loose, slipping wetly from a mouth...

David Lynch uses color in heightened ways to create his exaggerated moods and often a sense of uneasiness or surrealism...

But the director who comes to my mind most when I think of the intentional use of color as a storytelling element is Peter Greenaway.

Greenaway is a former painter, and his films show a strong visual sense, shots carefully framed. He exemplifies film as a visual storytelling medium better than any director I can think of - using the images themselves to convey meaning as much as any character or plot element. Nearly all of his movies use color in interesting ways. The film that most exemplifies this is probably The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.

The Cook, The Thief is a rich and intense film of social and political criticism. (Among other things.) Each of the four characters represents a strata of society, and their relationships are how these strata interact with one another.

The Thief, who bullies them all, is consumerist capitalism - Thatcherist England. He's crass and abusive and greedy. His wife is society - kept tightly bound and dependent, mostly inured to the awful things he says and does to her. She seems icy, and yet yearns for something rich in all the ways her wealthy husband is not. The object of desire between two men. (But don't ever confuse one of Greenaway's women for a victim. They are vicious in their own way.) The cook is the working class and/or the artist - he's French, an immigrant, humiliated by his employer and yet he needs him in order to have a place to both earn his bread and practice his art... and the lover represents the intellectuals, carefully skirting consumerist society, trying to taste the good things without being destroyed by the greed. It's no accident that he reads about the French Revolution, and the chef whose art inspires him, who ultimately defies the Thief, is French.

(Greenaway himself likes to leave his work open to interpretation and comments little on meaning. The most he's said about this film is that it is about a "claustrophobic European situation" and that he compares to the baroque through visual cues. He wants to force the viewer to be an active participant in the art.)

Color is a major structural element, as much a part of creating the meaning as framing or editing.

The domains of these individuals are each color-coded. The ladies' room is white. All purity. The heavenly escape. The dining room is red and pruple, lurid and oppresively ostentatious (red: the "power color") - hell itself, where the devil reigns. The kitchen, which is the creative and fertile center of the film, is lush greens. The parking lot is in blues, not calm here but dark and otherworldly, almost menacing. This is a borderland between the restaurant and the ordinary world. The book depository (the lover's realm - away from the restaurant) in modest browns, leather and wood - things of true wealth and lasting value as opposed to the flashier and more temporal riches of the dining room.

There is also a brief use of yellow in the hospital, where it is used as a symbol of fertility and healing - as the yolk of an egg.

As the characters pass from one room, one realm to another - their clothing changes color to match. A dress that was red in the dining room is white in the bathroom. They are a product of their environments, changing easily. One exception is that the lover retains his brown clothing while in the restaurant - he is not effected by the lavish surroundings, does not belong to this realm - is only a visitor in hell.

Interestingly, the wife - who is the protagonist of the film, the one who undergoes a transformation in the ladies' room, is the only one who ever changes here. Though her lover meets her here, he is unaffected - and no one else enters. The room is so bright, it's almost a transformative fire.

The other character who retains his own color throughout, though he does not often leave his realm, is the cook (white, though his realm is green.) Despite his circumstances, the artist retains his identity. Perhaps he is already transformed.

I could go on a great deal longer about this movie - but the copy I ordered last week turns out to have been the wrong format, so I can't pop in the DVD and make notes and am relying mostly on my memory and a little research. (Couldn't recall what location was yellow, and whether the parking lot was blues or greys.)

But Greenaway's use of color makes clear that this element can be used not simply to make something pop on screen, or to make dramatic images - but to create meaning and structure in cinema.

(crossposted here)

the First 4 Pages

Watching the extras on a DVD can be so enlightening. On "Stranger Than Fiction," Emma Thompson said she read the first 4 pages of the script and knew she wanted to do it.

I've heard other actors (and directors) make similar comments... that they read the first 5 or 10 pages and knew they wanted to do it.

This just emphasizes the need to make the first few pages absolutely shine. To make them clean and clever. To introduce the main characters quickly. To have a strong hook... and, I think, a voice of your own.

Go back and look at your first 4 or 5 pages. Are they good enough to get your A-list choices to jump at the chance to do this movie? (I've re-written the first ten pages of both of mine several times now.)

Horror with a Light Touch - Cat People 1942

I just finished watching the original Cat People, made in 1942 by Val Lewton. I didn't know anything about it, or about Mr. Lewton beforehand, only that I love the 1982 version for it's eroticism, intriguiging story, and the reluctant (and oh-so-sexy) monster that is the protagonist.

I was expecting something campy, full of melodrama and bad makeup but with a good story at the core. I've seen plenty of early horror films, and I didn't know that Cat People was different.

Cat People used classic noir cinematography to give a basic love story plot with conflicted and interesting characters a dark edge. Much of it could have gone over wrong and ended up being comical and amusing, but the scenes were just restrained enough to remain compelling.

It's a seductive film. It draws you in with a simple story, elegantly told, and plays with you - like the kittenish lead actress.

One of the things in it's favor, of course, is that lovely old black and white film stock. The "silver screen" that simply feels like you've walked into another world.

The cinematography is careful: lighting, contrast, framing, positioning of the actors, the architecture of the sets. There is a marvelous moment when the "other woman," Alice, is working late in the drafting office. Two large square tables are lit, but the overhead lights are off. The only other light comes from the street, through the window across the room, centered in the picture. Light streams upward, emphasizing the vertical elements in the room, and the line of the ceiling. The effect is to create boxes within boxes. Alice sits at the closest table, in the lower right corner.

The cat woman, beginning to be suspicious and jealous, calls the office. Alice stands up, turning off the light on the table as she does, and walks around it as the phone rings. She walks around the second table, and crosses the window to reach the phone. This makes her appear to move into those boxes, framed tighter and tighter, trapped - but not yet aware of it.

And then there's the pool scene - much like the one in the re-make. Alice sees a shadow on the steps - very briefly. Blink and you'd miss it. She dives into the pool. A tiny box of a room barely bigger than the pool, the light reflecting on the walls, echoing like the voice of the woman in the pool echoes when she screams... an eerie confusion which might make her doubt the shadow she saw moments before.

Items on the sets help reinforce the story. As Irena (the cat woman) tells the story of the evil cat people of her village in Serbia, a large painting looms over her, the corner just visible over her shoulder - featuring, of course, cats - their glowing eyes watchful. A beautiful art deco screen with a panther dominates the room. In one scene, as Irena stalks Alice and her husband - she passes the window of a florist's, which is filled with a display of tiger lilies.

Costuming is no less intentional - and sometimes witty. Irena has a black fur coat which she wears more and more often as the story progresses. It shimmers much like the panther's coat in the zoo. In the final scene, before her death, she has it draped over one shoulder - emphasizing her dual nature.

The costuming element I most enjoyed was Alice's hats. Irena has a pet bird, given to her by her husband. She accidentally frightens it to death, and then takes it to the zoo and feeds it to the panther. When she returns to the apartment, Alice is there - wearing a hat with a great feather. It's later that evening, in the same hat, that Irena stalks her for the first time. On that night, Irena kills some sheep. The next time Irena follows Alice, Alice has a pillbox had made from lambswool (the curly texture of the fur is distinctive.) Then, in the final stalking and confrontation scene, Alice has on another feathered hat.

All of this attention to detail is impressive, considering the film had a limited budget and was shot in 18 days. Val Lewton had been put in charge of RKO's new horror division, and was expected to crank out B-grade commercial schlock that would bring in cash to make up for that disaster from the previous year - Citizen Kane. The studio was angry when they saw the film, fearing it was too subtle and intelligent and would be a flop - but it was a huge success, with audiences sometimes so frightened that there was near-hysteria.

Now I'm going to have to watch some more Val Lewton films. Good thing the Curse of the Cat People is also on the same DVD.

Painting Pictures with Light and Words

Originally posted here

When you are writing the script, what is driving it? Is it character? Plot? Structure? Do you see the words in your head, hear the dialogue, know the characters as if you remember them like old friends (or enemies)?

Or do you see the movie, and set about describing it?

I was surprised in a recent thread on Triggerstreet, that I seem to be among the minority in being a visually driven screenwriter. People were talking about their technique, about what they begin with, how they develop the story - and among all of the comments, I was the only one who said I began with an image.

I'm sure there are others, but what I mean is this:

I start with an image. Every idea for a poem, or a screenplay, or novel, or anything I've attempted - starts with an image. Sometimes static, sometimes moving. I can describe every nuance of that image: the textures, the focus, the light.

From that image, I figure out what is happening, and to whom. The story and the characters come from the image.

As I outline, and write my scenes, I have an image of them in my head. Usually, from the original image, I get a series of other images.

For example:

one script (which is now taking a very different direction) began with the image of a large white cat with a red collar, sitting on the chest of a dead man in a snow-blanketed forest, looking him in the face. The man was asian, and had a moustache, which had frosted over from his breath - so I knew he had been alive recently, and yet he was quite pale and frozen.

other images that came up while outlining: a man with golden skin and a pretty (yes, pretty) face, dressed as a warrior, barechested - the sun shines behind him as he rides a large horse with a golden mantle, beside him is a rough-looking bearded man, and just behind - a boy on a pony with a banner, also in gold. Several yards behind are more mounted men.

A pale asian woman in white, with a red collar around her neck, walking around a battlefield among the dead - she bends to one man who is gasping for breath. He smiles slightly as she caresses his cheek, but then, as she brings her her lips close to his - panic flits across his face for a brief moment. She breathes in, and his eyes glaze over.

The golden man, sleeps in a sumptuous tent on the battlefield, on furs laid across a divan. Beside him is a morrocan-style table, sexagonal and elegantly carved. On the table rests a silver bowl filled with oranges. The pale woman stands a few feet from him, looking down on him. She reaches a hand cautiously toward his face, as though warming it at a fire, and holds it there. She edges closer, and grasps one of the oranges. As her hand closes on it, his hand closes on her wrist. He turns his head and opens his eyes to see who the orange thief is, and blinks in wonder. She pulls away and in three steps, disappears from sight - without disturbing the door to the tent or the guards posted outside.

When you have the film in your head, and write from that - describing what you see, then it's rare to write "unfilmables." And yet, with these purely visual scenes, I was able to learn about my characters, and see the potential story between them.

By seeing the scenes clearly, you also can find ways to hint at camera direction without spelling it out. For instance, the last scene might be scripted something like this (note, this is NOT from the actual script, I'm just winging it)

Rei sleeps in a sumptuous tent on the battlefield, on furs laid across a divan. Beside him is a morrocan-style table, sexagonal and elegantly carved. On the table rests a silver bowl filled with oranges.

Itsura stands a few feet from him, looking down on him. She reaches a hand cautiously toward his face, as though warming it at a fire, and holds it there.

She edges closer, and grasps one of the oranges.

As her hand closes on it, his hand closes on her wrist.

He turns his head and opens his eyes to see who the orange thief is, and blinks in wonder.

She pulls away and in three steps, disappears from sight - without disturbing the door to the tent or the guards posted outside.


I threw some names on the characters, his derived from him being the king - and of the sun, hers similar to the Japanese word for frozen... but other than that, just broke up the paragraph of description in a way that suggests the shots as I see them in the film. It suggests that the camera is focused on him, lying on the divan, pulls back to show her nearby

Then the focus is on her, as she moves forward, and then a close shot on her hand and the oranges - and then his hand.

Then it pulls back to show his face, and back again to encompass both of them, closing with a shot of the tent doors, and the silhouettes of the guard.

Now, I'm certainly not saying this is the right way to write a screenplay... I'm still a novice, so I can't even say that it's a good way... but I read so many screenplays that have unfilmable scenes, or scenes where the action doesn't quite make sense - or where opportunities for visual themes are missed - and I wonder if the writer was seeing the movie.

Do you see the movie when you write? At what point do the images coalesce for you?

2001 - Thoughts

Originally posted here

Mystery Man recently posted a video and link to an article about 2001, and I decided my response there merited repeating in my own blog.

My discussion of films tends not be be analytical so much as experiential, and this is no exception.

I remember the first time I watched 2001 so clearly.

I was about 14, it was at a slumber party. The other girls were all out at the pool, going into the daylight after telling scary stories in the dark of a walk-in closet.

The parents put it on (and, in retrospect, I suspect had just dropped acid.) I stood behind the couch and watched the opening - silent and yet so *big* and *important*... I asked what it was, and if I could watch. They told me I wouldn't enjoy it, it was for grown-ups. Well, I wasn't the kind of kid who ever appreciated being left out because of my age - so I sat down on the floor and watched.

I was baffled and completely entranced - and knew I'd have to watch it again in a few years... and yet, despite not quite getting everything, I had grasped the essence of it. It speaks in such grand gestures and on a mythical level that a grasp of the narrative details is not needed, and the willingness to accept not understanding is part of the experience of the film (while at the same time, letting the presence of that enigma drive one, the great mysteries that spark creativity.)

And yet... I can't even imagine a film like this being made today. The pacing, and most especially the abstract ending would be difficult for any director to push through.

Where I'm At

Right now, you can find my posts mostly at myspace:

I may start cross-posting them here also, but I prefer to keep things simple, and I do most of my writing about screenwriting, filmmaking, movies I've seen and so forth at the myspace blog.