The story of getting a film made ........again!

Christmas, Ireland and the IMF

It's a Wonderful Life.“It was the worst of times, it was the best of times”. So began one of Charles Dickens’s greatest novels – “A Tale of Two Cities”. Depending on your point of view, the arrival of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) into our country this week most likely provokes one of the two sentiments expressed in the title of the 1859 novel. Personally speaking, it engenders both seemingly contradictory judgements, but I spout enough about that on Twitter. Story wise, I began thinking about the whole concept of intervention and how it’s reflected in the saga’s we tell on screen. Like everything else, there are many forms of intervention, good, bad and indifferent, from marauding aliens invading our planet to spiritual beings taking a hand in our lives to avert disaster. In ancient Greek drama, when a play became too convoluted to tie up neatly at the end, a concept known as “Deus Ex Machina” was employed to speedily resolve everything. Essentially, a God or emissary of God would descend, make pronouncements as to who was right and wrong, good triumphed over evil and everyone went home happy. Today this weapon in the arsenal of storytelling is roundly dismissed and unless employed correctly from the beginning of a story, rightly so. But there’s something about that idea of a superior being arriving on the scene to fix everything that is universally comforting. The apparitions in Knock Co. Mayo a century ago, is a prime Irish example of that – a poverty stricken, hungry and ignorant people were perfect candidates for such an intervention, giving if not real sustenance, at least hope in the bleakest of landscapes.

Christmas is a time of the year when we all become children in many ways, but in one way in particular which is often overlooked. Every year we do the same things, listen to the same songs and Carols and to a large extent, watch the same movies. Two of which movies are prime examples of interventionist stories – “Scrooge” or “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” How many festive seasons have we spent fighting back a lump in our throats as George Bailey stands in his living room surrounded by family and friends as we all are brought to realise the truly important things in life have no monetary cost, yet are priceless, or when Ebenezer Scrooge pays an unexpected visit to Bob Cratchit’s poverty stricken humble abode on Christmas Day, laden down with presents for all. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an epic tale of a man not realising how happy or how lucky he was. His guardian angel Clarence sets out to rectify this in a wonderfully absorbing story. “A Chrsitmas Carol” on the other hand tells the story of a man consumed by money at the expense of all human warmth. Again it is supernatural beings who set about putting Scrooge straight on a few things. And Dickens was one of the first novelists to point out in his work, that the well off and privileged in our society had a duty of care to those less fortunate.

Perhaps that other dimension does stand ready to help us in dark times but, like the IMF, they can only do so by invitation. What a pity it is that at a time when numbers have never been as low in our churches as they are today, when fear and hopelessness stalk thousands of family homes across this island, when apparent prosperity convinced us all that money and credit could solve all problems, when very intelligent minds were telling us that the awesomeness and spectacular grandeur of the universe could be explained without the concept of a God, that it is now that we could do with all the intervention we can get. Some wonder why the Irish people haven’t taken to the streets en masse. My theory is this. We are used to betrayal, is there anyone left who hasn’t betrayed us, the church, the state, the banks, the institutions, the politicians, it goes on. We should expect better for ourselves, we should demand better for our children. We should take control of our destiny as a nation. I would like to quote Charles Parnell here: “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country: thus far shall thou go and no further”. So many have betrayed the march of this nation, it is up to us to decide whether that continues, or not.

People need hope and maybe that’s why the greatest interventionist story of them all, the story Hollywood called “The Greatest Story Ever Told”  the story of what Christmas is all about will offer renewed hope and vision to a betrayed people.

So I offer an early Happy Christmas to all.

I Wanna Go Home!

I’ve taken to watching films I’ve seen before, I know we all do that, but it’s interesting to see if they stand up many years after release. So last night I watched Martin Scorcese’s 1985 film “After Hours” with Griffin Dunn, Teri Garr, John Heard, Rosanna Arquette and Linda Fiorentino. In the script writing manuals, they all agree on one thing, give your protagonist a compelling goal, otherwise your audience will have little interest. In this wonderful movie, which incidentally stands up very well after 25 years, the central character Paul Hackett’s (Griffin Dunn) only goal is to get back home.

Early on a conversation takes place in a diner where Paul and his date Marcy (Arquette) discuss their favourite movie “The Wizard of Oz” and it’s plain to see how this movie was inspired by it. So obviously a compelling goal doesn’t have to be “stopping the maniac who is about to destroy all of mankind”, getting home to your bed works just fine. Films from “The Wizard of Oz” to “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” to “Apollo 13” to “Gladiator” all share this simple yet powerful premise – “I want to get home” . What’s also interesting about this film is that there is no plot, not in the traditional sense. Sure a lot of things happen to the central character all working against his mission to get home, but they are merely isolated incidents, not a continuous, progressive narrative (more than once the incongruous events loop back on themselves) where if you pulled out one scene, the whole thing would collapse, not so and in that sense, very much akin to life.

The events in “After Hours” are contrived and unbelievable at times, but then that’s OK because if Paul’s experiences in the Upper East side of Manhattan in the wee hours of the morning, were any less than nightmarish, we wouldn’t share his hunger for home. Paul works in a large office, not only carrying out mundane repetitive computer input work, but also training a new employee Lloyd (Bronson Pinchot). Lloyd shares his dream of publishing his own magazine with Paul, who distractedly observes the office drones around him. We know what he’s thinking – “There’s got to be something better than this. But he knows and we know that Lloyd will never become a publisher, because he will never do anything about it. That night, bored in his apartment, Paul sits reading a book in a local diner and is engaged in conversation by Marcy (Arquette). On leaving, she gives Paul the phone number of her friend, who’s loft she is now leaving for. Back in his apartment, Paul has had enough of taking no action, calls the number and unexpectedly finds himself once again talking to Marcy. She invites him to the loft and Paul sets out on his surreal odyssey. Hailing a Yellow Cab, he climbs in and finds himself battling the forces of physics as the cab speeds and swerves it’s way across town. His only 20 dollar bill flies out the window and he’s forced to welch on the fare to the consternation of the cabbie.

Paul finds the loft where Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) is working on a paper-maché sculpture in her black bra and leather mini-skirt. Marcy arrives back from the drug store having purchased (Paul surreptitiously learns) a tube of ointment for 2nd degree burns. They go out for coffee where the proprietor tells them it’s on the house adding “Different rules apply when it’s after hours”, setting the tone for what’s to follow. I won’t go into detail about the rest of the plot, besides you’ll find all that and more on IMDb, enough to say that Paul has a very eventful night ahead of him.

After Hours is a wonderful little 97 minute diversion that Scorcese took on to direct after his initial attempts to bring “The Last Temptation of Christ” to the screen floundered and he sought something small and quick to do. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorcese’s editor from film school, tells us on the extras that working on this film was just like the days of being a film student, shooting fast and tight with a small crew. Perhaps that’s why this film is still so fresh 25 years on.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Having bought a DVD a couple of weeks back on a recommendation, I finally got a chance to watch it. It’s a French film called “The Beat that my Heart Skipped” directed by Jacques Audiard and released in 2005 (so this is not a review). It tells the story of a young man Tom (Romain Duris), who involves himself in the dark end of the property business, wrecking apartments so that homeless people wont find refuge for free and releasing a bag of rats on a family to force them to quit, not to mention employing extreme violence when neccessary. His own father Robert (Niels Arestrup) is a veteran of this shady business and calls on his son as enforcer. But Tom has a love of music and it turns out was quite a good pianist, or at least that’s the opinion of his late mother’s friend who was manager to her concert pianist career. Upon a chance encounter, the manager tells Tom to schedule an audition as he believes Tom possess’ real potential. Tom seeks out a tutor in the form of Miao-Lin (Linh Dan Pham), who painstakingly polishes Tom’s innate abilities. Finally reaching a point at which they are both happy, Tom auditions and fluffs the opportunity because the darker side of his life encroached on his rest the previous night. Tom’s inner conflict increases when he begins an affair with Aline (Aure Atika), his friend Fabrice’s wife, who has discovered that Tom covers for her husband when he meets other women for sex. At the same time Tom’s father becomes entangled with a sinister Russian Minskov (Anton Yakovlev) and is murdered in his apartment. We jump forward two years and find that Tom is now Miao-Lin’s manager and quite possibly her lover. On his way to her concert, he encounters Minskov and attacks him in a stairwell, stopping short at blowing his brains out with his own gun. Tom cleans himself up as best he can in the toilets and takes his seat in the auditorium to listen to Miao-Lin play the piano.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film and it brought to mind the age old debate of character driven stories versus plot driven. Two Irish films which excelled in this area were “Garage” and further back “Adam and Paul” both directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Mark O’Halloran. I’ve often heard it said “why does a good film have to be exclusive of one or the other”, and I suppose the answer is they don’t have to be. It’s a big risk to dispense with plot, but very often a risk worth taking because when you do, you are afforded the opportunity to lay bare the honest minutia of life, that is very often missed in the need to advance the plot. Although character driven stories are for the most part associated with European film, Hollywood is quite accomplished in this area as well. Two recent examples are “The Wrestler” with Mickey Rourke and “Crazy Heart” with Jeff Bridges.

These stories depend heavily on two things, a visceral honesty not only in the script but also the portrayal of the characters and a top class performance. Get these two wrong and you have nothing to fall back on in your film. Get them right and you have a film which will stand the test of time.

Although it’s legitimate to express a personal preference when it comes to character as opposed to plot driven films (and personally I enjoy both) it’s equally important to accept that both forms of film are valid and simply form part of the vast variety of film types around the world. Very often one encounters an elitist, high brow dismissive attitude to plot driven stories. This serves no one – producers or audience and quiet honestly, is more damaging to the form they believe they hold in esteem. It’s a little bit like, I would be more Green if it weren’t for the Greens.