Archive for the 'Film technique: Screenwriting' Category
Courtesy John McElwee and his gorgeous, informative site Greenbriar Picture Shows.
The inner monologue, as a report of a character’s immediate thoughts, seems to have been rare in 1930s films; it became more prominent in the 1940s. But the second big MGM narrative innovation of 1932 was almost instantly influential, redone and nearly done to death in the decades that followed. Even before the film was released, the idea of a “Grand Hotel plot” had gripped both the public and professional storytellers. And it never went away.
In the Strange Interlude entry, I mentioned that what’s usually of interest to us when we try to track the history of film forms is not the first time something is done but the moment when it becomes recognized as an active option. It stands forth as a strategy that can be copied, standardized, and revised. The Grand Hotel idea itself wasn’t utterly new, but the novel, play, and film of that title crystallized it as a distinct choice on the filmmaking menu.
The book: Only approximations
Vicki Baum, an emerging German novelist, launched Grand Hotel as a magazine serial. It was published in book form in 1929 as Menschen im Hotel and became a huge seller. The following year saw Baum’s international breakthrough. In January a stage version opened in Berlin. It migrated to Broadway in November and enjoyed huge success. Meanwhile, a British publisher brought out an English translation. In February of 1931, Doubleday published an American edition. That month Baum arrived in Hollywood to work on the screenplay for what she called her “star-studded wedding cake.”
The central story remains constant in all the media versions. Three men converge in Berlin’s Grand Hotel, each with his own aims. Baron von Gaigern is a penniless aristocrat who has taken to theft. The provincial bookeeper Kringelein has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, so he has vowed to enjoy the good life before he dies. He demands a costly room and plans to wine, dine, and gamble his savings away. The business mogul Preysing is there to meet with potential partners in a big business deal. Preysing, it turns out, is the owner of the company employing Kringelein.
The men’s plans pull two women into their orbit. There is the glamorous but fading dancer Grusinskaya. She meets the Baron when he slips into her room to steal her pearls; during that night of sexytime they fall in love. Then there is the stenographer Flaemmchen, who takes a liking to the Baron but who is dominated by Preysing. He has hired her to record his deal-making, and he soon invites her to be his mistress. Add in secondary characters like the porter Senf, who at the start is waiting for news of his wife’s delivery of their baby, and Dr. Otternschlag, a disfigured war veteran who drifts around the lobby mournfully observing life.
The novel’s action consumes three days and nights, with an epilogue on the morning of the fourth day. Each major character undergoes a crisis triggered by meeting others in the hotel. Preysing catches the Baron in his apartment, bent on robbery. In beating the Baron to death, Preysing ruins his life; he is arrested and his family leaves him. Flaemmchen, about to go off with Preysing, attaches herself to Kringelein and vows to help him recover his health. Grusinskaya, who has left Berlin for her tour date in Prague, calls the Baron’s room in vain, unaware that she will never see him again.
The book offers several attitudes toward the interwoven destinies. There is that of the grim Dr. Otternschlag, who sees in the lobby’s revolving door a ceaseless cycle of mundane suffering. “Always the same. Nothing happens. . . . And so it goes on. In—out, in—out.”
The bellboy looks at the same door and sees endless variety: “Marvelous the life you see in a big hotel like this. . . . Always something going on. One man goes to prison, another gets killed. . . .Such is Life!”
The omniscient narration provides another attitude, seeing in the door an image of life’s ephemeral, fragmentary quality.
The revolving door twirls around and what passes between arrival and departure is nothing complete in itself. Perhaps there is no such thing as a completed destiny in the world, but only approximations, beginnings that come to no conclusion or conclusions that have no beginnings.
All three musings represent, we might say, alternative ways of reading the novel: as an eternal return, a varied pageant of human drama, or scattered glimpses of incomplete lives.
Play and film: Call waiting
National Theatre production, New York 1930.
The novel spreads the action to the theatre, a casino, and an airplane flight, but the stage version confines itself wholly to the hotel. The play begins with a coup de théâtre for which Baum claimed the credit. Preysing, Kringelein, the Baron, Flaemmchen, and Grusinskaya’s maid Suzanne are introduced in a line of telephone booths, each making a quick phone call. The light in each booth flashes on and off as each one speaks. The pace builds until each speaker is “intercut” rapidly with another. Baum claimed that this pulsating sequence drove the opening-night audience to a frenzy of applause. Snazzy as it is, the prologue serves as crisp exposition, literally spotlighting nearly every major character, with Suzanne acting as a proxy for the dancer Grusinskaya. Then the revolving stage whisks us to a broad view of the lobby teeming with guests and staff.
The novel can proceed in a fragmentary way, shifting from one character to another, but the play contrives a more fluid rhythm of encounters. At the start, several characters assemble at the front desk, and after a “cutaway” to Grusinskaya’s room, we’re back in the lobby with Flaemmchen, the Baron, and Kringelein chatting while Preysing and his colleagues head off to their conference. Later all the major characters except Grusinskaya, who’s often marked as separate from the others, meet in the hotel bar and grill. At the conclusion, as characters depart, overlapping encounters carry Flaemmchen out the door with Kringelein, and Grusinskaya leaves for Prague wondering why the Baron has failed to meet her. The spatial concentration of the play squeezes the characters’ trajectories together more tightly than the novel does.
The film does much the same thing. When head of production Irving Thalberg bought the rights to Baum’s novel, he had to buy the stage rights as well, and so MGM funded the Broadway production. It garnered over a million dollars in its first year.
Claus Tieber points out that having seen the play, Thalberg insisted that the bits that pleased the Broadway audience had to stay in the film. No wonder that the film sticks close to the stage version. Although sequences are added, they seem in the spirit of the play’s swift pace. An American critic had described the book’s rapid changes of scene as like a film: “interlocking adventures, a little too easily linked perhaps, flit from screen to screen [shot to shot?].” Baum agreed:
I realized what had made my Grand Hotel, the novel and the play, a world success: it was probably the first of its kind to be written in a sort of moving picture technique. By now  that’s the oldest of old hats, but in those days the kaleidoscopic effects, brief ever-changing scenes, flashes, staccato dialogue, were new, surprising, and exciting…on the stage. On the screen, I felt, this technique was the usual old stale shopworn thing.
In a crucial expansion of both book and stage show, the film emphasizes the telephone switchboard, marking the hotel as the crossing point of many destinies. After Preysing has beaten the Baron to death with a phone receiver, the switchboard is ominously stilled at the climax.
The prologue shows other protagonists making calls, but Grusinskaya, because of her isolation from the others, works the phone in the bulk of the film. Her final call for the Baron goes unanswered, heard only by his dog.
The play had enhanced the women’s roles, and the film goes farther by casting two top stars, Greta Garbo as Grusinskaya and Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen. With three strong male leads—Wallace Beery as Preysing, Lionel Barrymore as Kringelein, and John Barrymore as the Baron—the film became an ensemble drama that gave more or less equal weight to five characters. Accordingly it became known as the first “all-star picture.” On its tenth anniversary Variety proclaimed that it “disproved the contention that no picture could support a huge all-star cast.”
Even putting the cast aside, Grand Hotel crystallized a narrative option that had been emerging, more or less explicitly in the years before.
Networks and cross-sections
We can think of the Grand Hotel format as one variant of what I’ve called network narratives. Putting it generally, these are films that shift our attention across several somewhat linked characters and their projects.
Most films we encounter have a single protagonist, accompanied by helpers and facing some number of antagonists. Other plots have dual protagonists, perhaps cops who are buddies, or a man and a woman in a romantic relationship. A few films may have three protagonists, like Letter to Three Wives.
Another variation is the film with several protagonists, each given roughly equal weight. Usually the multiple protagonists share a goal, as in combat films, where they are united in a common mission. But when we have multiple protagonists pursuing different, largely unrelated goals, we have what I’m calling a network narrative.
What makes all these characters part of the same network? Any social relation. They might be relatives, friends, co-workers, classmates, neighbors, ex-lovers, or whatever. Also, mere proximity can connect characters; maybe they’re in the same hospital room or conference meeting or just in the same town.
As the film unfolds, we come to understand the array of characters and their connections. We follow one, then another, and we watch new relationships form. Sometimes hidden relationships are revealed to create a surprise. Some connections are distant, of the n-degrees-of-separation variety. The characters’ various purposes may run parallel, or they may intersect and clash—all more or less accidentally. Most plots of any sort are connected by causality, but network narratives are once tight (because of the pressure of the characters’ goals) and loose (because social ties can flow in many directions).
The advantage of the network approach is to yield a cross-section of life denied to more traditional linear narrative. Such plots can present, as Joseph Warren Beach puts it, a “comprehensiveness of view” that becomes “a composite picture of many distinct lives.” But the strategy raises problems too. The idea of a network narrative invites a dizzying expansion. X meets Y, who’s married to Z, the friend of A, who works with B, and pretty soon your story world is growing out of control. You need to constrain it somehow.
One way, as in Slacker, is just to sample one string of the network, moving from node to node. This generates a sort of “slice of life” plot, in the manner of Naturalist theatre. That snatches a few episodes from central characters’ lives without the customary setups and resolution. Bernard Shaw noted that “The moment the dramatist gives up accidents and catastrophes, and takes ‘slices of life’ as his material, he finds himself committed to plays that have no endings.” In film, we might think of one prototype of Neorealist cinema, The Bicycle Thieves. Baum’s framing narration of Grand Hotel, with its musing on stories without clear-cut beginnings or resolutions, tries for the same sense of what Zola called “a fragment of existence.”
Some of the literary models, such as The Lower Depths, accept a slice-of-life approach, without traditional climaxes and resolutions. Modernist writers pushed this possibility further, very open-textured networks. Dos Passos’ USA trilogy (1930-1936) is one example. Evelyn Scott’s The Wave (1929) presents seventy episodes from the Civil War, each concentrating on a different individual, although some characters reappear in sections devoted to others. A comparable strategy rules William March’s Company K (1933), with its 131 vignettes of World War I, with each soldier’s scene narrated in first person. Again, some characters reappear, but the network is largely a dispersed one.
Novels with well-defined protagonists occasionally strayed into a more lateral, open-textured approach. One example is the Wandering Rocks section of Ulysses, which fleetingly probes the minds and actions of about a hundred Dubliners moving through mid-afternoon. In Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), a sudden noise from a car stuck in traffic, followed by an airplane swooping above, causes various members of a crowd to think stray thoughts. Like Joyce, Woolf momentarily broadens the frame to register the reactions of characters unconnected with the protagonists, except by being present outside Buckingham Palace at the same moment. Only space and time create this network, and it’s ephemeral.
Bring us together
Given our appetite for linear narrative, some storytellers are bound to seek ways to tighten things up. Can we graft normal plot development—goals, conflicts, rising tension, climaxes, and resolutions—onto the network idea?
Yes. One way is to create the network through a circulating object, as in Tales of Manhattan, Au hasard Balthasar, American Gun, Twenty Bucks, or The Earrings of Madam de…. Sometimes the result will be episodic, but other times there will be a rising tension and a conclusion to at least some lines of action.
The most common way to constrain the network is to multiply the connections within the group. That is, don’t make the network loosely woven. So X meets Y, who’s married to Z, the friend of A; but A works with X, who is the cousin of B, who has been having an affair with Y, and so on. In other words, you create a “small world” defined by several connections among all the participants.
This small-word model is common in novels that create network narratives. Dickens, Balzac, and other writers have created complex degrees-of-separation plots. It’s likewise the pattern for most network narratives on film: several connections link many of the nodes. Here’s a diagram for Love Actually.
This chart is oversimplified because it doesn’t account for other relationships. Colin, for example, as the sandwich delivery boy, interacts with several of Harry’s employees. Still, at a glance you can see a fairly tight network.
Another way to constrain the network is to set limits of space and time. Slacker, like Mrs. Dalloway, explores a network established by spatial proximity; when we leave one character we pick up another nearby. The circulating-object option often presumes that the characters share a locale. Love Actually limits its intertwined stories to London, and still further to the Christmas season there. Louis Bromfield’s 1932 novel Twenty-Four Hours follows its Manhattan ensemble through one full day. (Compare that unlamented recent release, Valentine’s Day.) A 1938 British film, Bank Holiday traces several people across a weekend at a seaside resort.
The space can be more radically limited, as in Waldo Frank’s book of interconnected short stories City Block (1922). Perhaps influenced by Frank’s book, Elmer Rice wrote and staged Street Scene, a 1929 play that weaves together the lives of people living in a tenement. Their relationships are played out on the building stoop and the street in front. The play was filmed in 1931, and perhaps if it had been more successful, or had featured many big stars, we’d be talking about “Street Scene plots” rather than Grand Hotel ones.
Buildings are ideal for tying story lines together. Zola’s novel Pot-Bouille (1882) confines its action largely to an apartment house and the people who live there. Gorky’s play The Lower Depths brings together several characters in a flophouse. Inns, taverns, and hotels are natural points of convergence, and travelers naturally bring story action along with them. This is the narrative convention of l’auberge espagnole, based on the idea that in a Spanish inn you bring your own food.
When we have mostly strangers interacting in a constrained time and space, and when those interactions lead to traditional conflicts and resolutions (avoiding the slice-of-life pattern), we can speak of “converging-fates” narratives. Grand Hotel became the great prototype of converging-fates plotting.
Baum modernized the auberge espagnole idea by concentrating the action in a luxury hotel. She understood that these surroundings could motivate the chance meetings that propel the plot. She wasn’t alone. At the time her book was published, there were other “hotel” novels, notably Arnold Bennett’s Imperial Palace (1930). Whereas Bennett emphasizes the hotel staff and its routines, Baum concentrates on the guests. She motivates her comparisons across classes by making Kringelein a poor man having a final fling and making the Baron a penniless aristocrat keeping up appearances.
Baum showed how filmmakers who wanted an ensemble plot could bypass the sort of fragmentary, open-textured network seen in Dos Passos, The Wave, or Company K. She showed how to build more tightly integrated situations, with intersecting characters, each pursuing his or her goals and unexpectedly affecting other characters. The whole dynamic would take place in a rigorously confined setting and a sharply bounded period of time. The disparate story lines, knotting in certain scenes, would build to a climax. In Grand Hotel, all the characters’ fates come together when Preysing kills the Baron. Flaemmchen, terrified, rouses Kringelein and brings him into the crisis.
In such ways, a network narrative could become a variant of classical plotting, complete with exposition, conflict, crisis, and climax. Now Baum’s claim that the book traces mere fragments of life seems to be camouflage. Each protagonist’s fate has a linear logic; it’s just that the lines intersect.
If you’re a modernist, you find this a dilution of strong brew. You deplore the way fiction writers and moviemakers adapt avant-garde techniques to middlebrow taste. Yet if you’re a mainstream filmmaker, you can see that absorbing these techniques freshens up the norms. The crisscrossing destinies create an urgent pace, a new openness to chance and accident, and an invitation to imagine a patterning beyond that of straightforward single- or dual-protagonist plotting. Hollywood may feed on more “advanced” storytelling, but it doesn’t simply iron out the difficulties; in absorbing the techniques, it enriches its own traditions.
Thalberg predicted this change when the film was in production.
I don’t mean that the exact theme of “Grand Hotel” will be copied, though this may happen, but the form and mood will be followed. For instance, we may have such settings as a train, where all the action happens in a journey from one city to another; or action that takes place during the time a boat sails from one harbor and culminates with the end of the trip. The general idea will be that of a drama induced by the chance meeting of a group of conflicting and interesting personalities.
The last sentence isn’t a bad encapsulation of the converging-fates schema.
Thalberg was right, of course. Grand Hotel, in all its incarnations, encapsulated a narrative option that was irresistible. By 1955 Kenneth Tynan paid tribute to the fertility of the idea.
No literary device in this century has earned so much for so many people. Unite a group of people in artificial surroundings—a hotel, a life-boat, an airliner—and, almost automatically, you have a success on your hands.
Baum compared herself to the sorceror’s apprentice, who couldn’t stop her creature from splitting and rushing off in all directions. Critics detected traces of the novel and play in Translatlantic (1931), Union Depot (1932), and Hotel Continental (1932), all released before the MGM vehicle. These films do confine most of their action to a single setting, but they don’t multiply protagonists to the same extent as the original. A 1932 play, Life Begins, is closer to Baum’s model, finding converging destinies in a maternity ward. Some suspected that the 1932 film, released in May, was Warners’ effort to compete with Grand Hotel, premiering in April but not going wide until summer and fall.
MGM imitated itself in another 1932 release, Skyscraper Souls, which applied the formula to an office building. Faith Baldwin’s original novel Skyscraper focused on a working-girl romance, but the screenplay expanded the plot. A great many characters working in the skyscraper get involved in love affairs, a stock swindle, and an aborted jewelry theft. As with Grand Hotel, all the action transpires in one building.
Like Strange Interlude, Grand Hotel inspired parody. In Paramount’s International House (1933) various personalities converge on a hotel in Wu-Hu, China, to buy the rights to Dr. Wong’s “radioscope” (aka TV). W. C. Fields, Stuart Erwin, Bela Lugosi, Franklin Pangborn, Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, George and Gracie, and the notoriously torrid Peggy Hopkins Joyce enliven the proceedings. There’s an allusion to the hotel switchboard in the original film when Fields gets tangled up in phone cables. He’s also flummoxed by Gracie Allen.
After one of Gracie’s non sequiturs Fields asks: “What’s the penalty for murder in China?”
A curious parallel surfaced in Die Wunder-bar, a German play premiered in February 1930, just a month after the opening of Grand Hotel’s stage version. Transposed to film, it became an Al Jolson vehicle, Wonder Bar (Warners, 1934). It has a fairly coherent threads-of-destiny plot. Flirtations, suicides, and musical numbers (including one with Al in blackface, of course) fill out action occurring in a single day. There was also Die Uberfahrt, a 1932 novel by Gina Kaus, translated as Luxury Liner and filmed under that title by Paramount in 1933. Variety called Wonder Bar “a ‘Grand Hotel’ of a Paris boite-de-nuit,” and Motion Picture Herald called Luxury Liner “Grand Hotel on a steamboat.”
The Grand-Hotel-on-an-X formula became a catchphrase, like Die-Hard-on-an-X of years later. We associate the phrase “Grand Hotel on wheels” with Stagecoach (1939) because that was used in its publicity. But reviewers had applied that phrase earlier, to Streamline Express (1935) and Time Out for Romance (1937)—the former involving a train, the latter an automobile convoy. The British import Rome Express (1933) was “Grand Hotel on a train” and Mitchell Leisen’s fine Four Hours to Kill (1935), set in a theatre lobby and lounge, became “Grand Hotel in miniature.” Fifty-four Ames Street, a screenplay apparently never filmed, was said to be “a sort of Grand Hotel in a New York apartment house.” Producers interested in Saroyan’s play The Time of Your Life saw in its tavern locale and migrating flocks of characters “an all-star vehicle somewhat along the lines of ‘Grand Hotel.’”
One critic worried that Winter Carnival (1940) was tantamount to “Grand Hotel on skis,” but F. Scott Fitzgerald, sweating over the script, had worried that it couldn’t be “a group picture in the sense that Stagecoach was, or Grand Hotel.” It had, he noted, “no sense of destiny.” That sense was much stronger in One Crowded Night (1940), an RKO B that I’m fond of. It might be called “Grand Motel,” as it brings together a preposterous number of plotlines at a desert auto court.
The Grand Hotel paradigm did not rest. The original film was remade, in more complicated form, as Week-End at the Waldorf (1945). There were other variants of the template—famously Lifeboat (1943) and Hotel Berlin (1945), less notably Ulmer’s Club Havana (1945) and the PRC cheapie The Black Raven (1943). Life Begins was redone as A Child Is Born (1940), and at the end of the decade Harry Cohn expressed interest in remaking it again. The play Flight to the West (1940), set on an airplane, showed Elmer Rice contributing to the trend.
By 1943, a Variety columnist was admitting that there was a tradition behind it all. “Ever since Boccaccio rounded up a herd of characters in his Decameron, dramatists have been utilizing the restricted space idea to make their stories more compact.” What he did not say was that most of Grand Hotel knockoff movies had been B-pictures.
Baum bitterly resented what had happened to her most famous work. “Countless cheap imitations and adaptations gave it a bad name. . . It all quickly became a mechanical toy. A formula, to be bought and sold on the supermarket.” That didn’t stop her from ringing changes on her model. Her play Pariser Platz 13 (1930), set in a beauty parlor, and her novel Martin’s Summer (1931), tracing a drama among strangers at a vacation resort, inevitably recalled her breakthrough work. She mined the vein again with Hotel Shanghai ‘37 (1939) and Hotel Berlin ’43 (1944). Things became risible when Variety announced that she was preparing a (never-filmed) screenplay called Grand Central Market, based on an idea by a busboy in the MGM commissary. But perhaps she wouldn’t have minded the jeers that she was milking her most marketable idea. “I know what I’m worth: I am a first-rate second-rate author.”
Catch them coming or going
The Grand Hotel converging-fates format got recycled for decades, in movies from The V.I.P.s and Hotel to Four Rooms and Auberge Espagnole. Network narrative as a general trend came back in a big way in the 1990s. In an essay for Poetics of Cinema, I counted some 148 examples just from the period between 1994 (Pulp Fiction, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Ready-to-Wear, Chungking Express, Exotica) and 2006 (Bobby, Colossal Youth, Selon Charlie), by way of Do The Right Thing, Magnolia, Sunshine State, Wonderland, and Happiness. Filmmakers, mostly non-Hollywood ones, revived and reformatted the old template. They could cunningly resolve some story lines, and so satisfying our fondness for closure, while also leaving some unresolved, and so satisfying our belief in realistic “slices of life.”
Although I should be fed up with such plots, I still find them intriguing. They can yield mystery, as we’re teased about the possible connections among the characters; their network pattern can be revealed or obscured by flashbacks, subjective sequences, frame stories, forking-path patterns, and other devices, as in Go and Once Upon a Time in Triad Society 2. The format can really test the ingenuity of a screenwriter.
Still, network plots pose unique problems. One is figuring out all the interactions in situ. How do you weave everything together? Apart from kinship and friendship, the easy links are chance encounters, merely passing in the street, watching somebody on TV, or, most desperate of all, the traffic accident. (Crash is only the most egregious instance.) Finding fresh ways to hook up your nodes is quite a challenge, as is devising a satisfying payoff for at least some of them.
Another problem is more specific to the converging-fates option: the choice of “point of attack.” Taken just as geometry, the plot can be seen as having three phases. Here’s an infographic courtesy of our web tsarina Meg Hamel. On the left, the characters are independent. In the center–a closed environment like a hotel, or a more porous one like a holiday season–they are drawn together. They circulate and interact. On the right, we see them dispersing, all changed in one way or another.
The question is: Where do you cut into this process to start and end your plot? Some films, like In Which We Serve, try to trace the whole process more fully. We see it in a more spacious form in The Great Race and Cannonball Run. Perhaps The Rules of the Game would be another instance.
But most films of this ilk concentrate on the convergence, the central circle of interaction we see in Grand Hotel. That’s what we find in Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame, The Uchoten Hotel, Drive-In, Health, The Yacoubian Building, Monsoon Wedding, et al. Often there’s a time pressure too, as the clocks in the graphic indicate.
Or you the screenwriter could shift a step back and base your plot on the action before the characters commingle. My red block indicates a plot concentrating on this early phase. The dotted line indicates our seeing a little bit of the convergence.
The prototype is probably Dinner at Eight, a 1932 play made into a 1933 film (yes, also by MGM). The comic plot traces several couples invited to a dinner party. Some of them have one-off encounters before the big night, but the plot depends on the eventual convergence of everyone. The film stops just as the assembled guests step into the dining room. A modern parallel is 200 Cigarettes, which intercuts several guests on their way to a party. Again, we don’t see the party directly, but in an epilogue a montage of snapshots gives us some glimpses.
Probably the most famous example of pre-convergence plotting is the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Thornton Wilder uses a flashback construction to trace the lives of the characters. At the start we learn that the bridge collapsed, killing them all, and then via an inquisitive priest we are taken back to the events that brought them to the same fate. By contrast, Claude Lelouche’s Il y a des jours…et des nuits saves the moment of convergence for a traffic tieup at the very end of the film.
Alternatively, you could build your plot at the other end, as indicated by my green box. Your story action begins with the dispersal of the characters who have already converged, though perhaps you show something of their encounters before they split up.
This is the rarest option, I think. One example is Benedict Fliegauf’s The Forest, which shows several people leaving a train station and proceeding on to their parallel, and fairly mysterious, lives. A more heavily motivated example is Sylvia Chang’s film 20 30 40, which initially brings three women together as passengers on an airplane flight before sending each off to her own pursuits. Although they live in the same neighborhood and their activities are intercut, the women never meet. Two films I haven’t seen seem to follow this parallel-dispersal pattern. In Urlaub auf Ehrenwart (Leave on Word of Honor, 1938), a commander gives his men leave for a day on their way to the front, and the plot follows each one’s experiences. It was adapted into a Japanese film, The Last Visit Home (Saigo no kikyo, 1945).
As with any plot scheme, the closer you look, the more variations and extensions you see. Sometimes it’s useful to see any one plot as a reconfiguration of other plots. The network principle–itself a threading of goal orientation, conflict, and other narrative devices–can be a beautiful meeting point of story possibilities. One reason I think filmmakers like these plots is that, somewhat like mystery stories, they are narrative to the nth degree. How many situations, characters, and unexpected connections and analogues can you squeeze into a single movie? It’s a challenge.
What crystallized in an MGM prestige production of 1932 seemed a fresh approach to film narrative. Even in the opportunistic ripoffs of the following decades, we can sense an excitement in tinkering with a new storytelling pattern. And of course some variants still seize us today. Just ask the audience making its way to The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or the young hipsters immersed in the mini-library that is Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Lately we haven’t seen many network movies, but I expect another wave. Like it or not, some story ideas never die.
My information about Vicki Baum’s career comes from Lynda J. King’s Best-Sellers by Design: Vicki Baum and the House of Ullstein (Wayne State University Press, 1988). I drew my Baum quotations from two curiously different editions of her memoirs, I Know What I’m Worth (Joseph, 1964) and It Was All Quite Different: The Memoirs of Vicki Baum (Funk and Wagnalls, 1964). The reviewer who called Baum’s novel cinematic was Herman Ould in “Experiments in Technique: Vicki Baum and Arnold Zweig,” The Bookman 79 (November 1930), 132.
Claus Tieber analyzes the Grand Hotel story conferences in “‘A story is not a story but a conference': Story conferences and the classical studio system,” Journal of Screenwriting 5, 2 (2014), 225-237. In correspondence Patrick Keating has shared with me a story conference concerning Skyscraper Souls (MGM, 1932), in which the participants discuss transitions between scenes. Should the film cut from one plotline to another, or use camera movements, or have the characters link to one another? The filmmakers discuss Grand Hotel as a model for handling the problem. Thanks to Patrick for the information.
Joseph Warren Beach provides a helpful survey of experiments in mainstream fiction of this period in The Twentieth Century Novel (Appleton Century Crofts, 1932). I’ve drawn upon his chapter “The Breadthwise Cutting.” Shaw’s remarks on the slice-of-life plot are in his Preface to Three Plays by Brieux (Brentano’s, 1913), xv-xvi. In The Writing of Fiction (Scribners, 1924) Edith Wharton comments that English novelists of the early nineteenth century favored the “double plot,” a form that presented “two parallel series of adventures, in which two separate groups of people were concerned, sometimes with hardly a link between the two” (81). She considers this a “senseless convention,” but it seems to me another means of creating a network narrative. Sometimes the nodes connecting the groups become clear only gradually. There may be even a dose of mystery, as in Our Mutual Friend; the reader is encouraged to wonder how the two ensembles might be hooked up.
The diagram of the network in Love Actually comes from Peter Curtis, Love Actually (St. Martin’s, 2003), 6-7. Although at least one story line in the film doesn’t get fully resolved, Curtis is committed to a classical model: “I thought I’d like to have a go at writing that kind of film–to see if it was possible to write a film with nine beginnings, nine snappy middles and nine ends.” He declared himself inspired by Nashville, which I’d argue has a much looser texture and treats its story lines largely as slices of life.
Kenneth Tynan’s remark comes from his 1955 essay “Thornton Wilder,” reprinted in Profiles, selected and edited by Kathleen Tynan and Ernie Eban (Random House, 1995), 106. My citations of critical commentary on various films comes from the Hollywood trade press, as indexed in Lantern. Thalberg’s remark on Grand Hotel‘s likely influence is quoted from “Producer Discusses Pictures,” New York Times (3 May 1931), X6. Peter B. High discusses The Last Visit Home in his The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 485-487.
My fullest treatment of network narratives is in Poetics of Cinema, in the essay “Mutual Friends and Chronologies of Chance.” To the same subject Peter Parshall devoted an insightful book, Altman and After: Multiple Narratives in Film, which I plug here. A search of our site with “network narrative” as the key phrase will turn up several remarks on the format.
P.S. 23 March 2015: Thanks to Antti Alanen for a correction: I had accidentally written that Pot-Bouille was by Balzac, not Zola.
P.P.S. 31 March 2015: Rewatching Skyscraper Souls, I added a paragraph about it, which better sets up Patrick Keating’s information in the codicil. It’s a pretty good movie, in some ways more complex than Grand Hotel.
Francisco Ibáñez, 13, rue Percebe. With thanks to Vicente J. Benet.
By now everybody is used to allusionism in our movies—moments that cite, more or less explicitly, other films. But we tend to forget that movies have been referencing other movies for a long while. One classic form is parody, as when Keaton’s The Three Ages (1923) makes fun of Intolerance (1916). Another example occurs in Me and My Gal (1932). Spencer Tracy tells Joan Bennett that he just saw a movie called “Strange Innertube,” and then Raoul Walsh gives us a comic version of the inner monologues used in Strange Interlude (1932).
Some allusions are in-jokes that sail by most viewers. Almost everybody notices when Walter Burns (Cary Grant) in His Girl Friday mentions that a character played by Ralph Bellamy looks like “that fella in the movies—you know, Ralph Bellamy.” Probably fewer people catch the later line, Walter’s threat to the authorities: “The last man who said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.” Grant’s real name, of course, was Archibald Leach.
Week-End at the Waldorf (1945) is a sort of updating of Grand Hotel, so when one character remarks that a plot twist “is straight out of the picture Grand Hotel,” we probably catch the self-reference. But the other character piles on the allusions by replying: “That’s right. I’m the baron, you’re the ballerina, and we’re off to see the wizard.” Did people notice MGM congratulating itself twice? And you wonder how many viewers catch the spoiler in Hellzapoppin’ (1941), released only four months after Citizen Kane. Chic Johnson spots a Rosebud sled hanging outside an igloo and remarks, “I thought they burnt that.”
At the beginning of the 1940s, two novice directors seemed to be bringing fresh air to Hollywood cinema. Preston Sturges and Orson Welles were identified with innovative approaches to genre and storytelling. So we might expect them to inject something new into this practice of alluding to other movies. I think they did.
Consider a particular strategy that Sturges and Welles toyed with. Today, we enjoy it when a director treats characters in non-sequel films as sharing a fictional world. Tarantino imagines shifting his characters or brand names (e.g., Red Apple cigarettes) from movie to movie.
When I sell my movies, I retain the rights to characters so I can follow them. I can follow Pumpkin and Honey Bunny or anybody and it’s not Pulp Fiction II.
Jackie Brown (1997) features Michael Keaton as FBI agent Ray Nicolet, who also appears, played by Keaton, in Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998). The tactic fitted these directors’ adaptations of novels by Elmore Leonard, who tends to carry over characters from book to book.
It’s a bit surprising to see this impulse in Sturges and Welles too. The governor and the political boss in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) are McGinty and the Boss in The Great McGinty (1940), and they’re played (uncredited) by the same actors. A newspaper glimpsed in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) contains a column, “Stage Views,” by drama critic Jed Leland, a major character in Citizen Kane (1941).
Today fans are used to spotting things that most viewers might not get, but in the early 1940s, it was rarer. I’ve proposed earlier that sometimes Hollywood’s creative community is addressing not the broad audience but its own members, perhaps letting dedicated outsiders “overhear” the conversation. One example would be the nearly-hidden jokes that can be wedged into the background or on the edges of the action. In an entry about a year ago, I considered how sequences around the small-town movie theatre in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek carry barely-noticeable jabs at current films, mostly those by Sturges’ home studio Paramount. And Luke Holmaas has pointed out to me that Hail the Conquering Hero contains a billboard advertising Morgan’s Creek—a sort of joking product-placement. Today, I want to suggest that Welles moved onto the same terrain but followed even more circuitous paths.
The past, not recaptured
Make pictures to make us forget, not remember.
Comment card from first preview of The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942.
The Magnificent Ambersons is, everybody knows, a film about the past. Its story action begins around 1885 and concludes just before World War I. Most of the plot concentrates on the decline of the Amberson family, due partly to financial mismanagement and the willful pride of Isabel Amberson’s son, George Minafer. Parallel to that decline is the development of the town into a city and the rise of the automobile company founded by Eugene Morgan, a failed suitor for Isabel’s hand. A major turning point comes when, after Wilbur Minafer’s death, Isabel is left a widow. She’d like to marry Eugene, but she declines because George is opposed. At the same time, George tries to win Eugene’s daughter Lucy. After the death of Isabel and her father Major Amberson, the family is destitute and George must find a way to support his aunt Fanny. Struck by a car, George is hospitalized, and only then does he reconcile with Eugene and Lucy.
After weak previews, the film was drastically recut, and some new scenes were shot. The original version has not yet been found, so we’re left with a ruined masterpiece. Still, there’s enough there to let us appreciate Welles’s effort to make sense of a crucial period of American history. Old money was giving way to modern, technology-driven fortunes; Eugene’s auto company is the Dell Computers of its day. The film also evokes changes in urban life, with shifting property values and rising pollution shown as consequences of progress. It’s the most downbeat of the “nostalgia” cycle of the 1940s, which includes Strawberry Blonde (1941), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and Centennial Summer (1946).
Many other films have sought to present the past, recreating the settings and costumes and props of an era. But Ambersons is about pastness. It conveys a melancholy recognition that things are always changing, that we struggle to make sense of events only after it’s too late to affect them. It’s a film centered on missed opportunities and what might have been. Eugene might have married Isabel when they were young, but his drunken serenade turns her against him. If George weren’t such a prig, he might have reconciled himself to Isabel’s remarriage; only at the end, kneeling in prayer, does he seem to realize how his stubbornness cheated many people of happiness. The original ending would have shown Eugene visiting Fanny in a boarding house, with her long and unspoken love for him counterpointing his suggestion that he’s been true to Isabel.
Ambersons carries its sense of an unrecoverable past into the very texture of its telling. At first, the aura of things gone by is given by Welles’ voice-over narration. In affectionate comedy he introduces us to habits and routines of an era of streetcars and changing men’s fashions. After Eugene’s botched serenade, the townsfolk add their voices to the chorus with comments on the scandal. More backstory is given when George is shown growing from a spoiled boy to an arrogant young man. Our narrator recalls “the last of the great Amberson balls.” Eugene arrives, a widower, bringing his daughter Lucy, and George begins to court her that night.
Now the narrator’s past-tense explanation withdraws for some time. Instead, characters take up the burden of narrating the past. “Eighteen years have passed,” says Isabel’s brother Jack at the ball. “Or have they?” Before Eugene dances with Isabel, he remarks that the past is dead. Unfortunately, it won’t stay buried. The old romance between Isabel and Eugene will be rekindled, and bad business decisions and George’s spendthrift ways catch up with the family.
Welles’s plot construction relies on ellipsis. The scenes skip over major story events—Wilbur’s death, the decline of the family fortune, Gene’s second courtship of Isabel, and Isabel’s death. So much occurs offscreen that we are left to play catch-up. We must listen to characters report on what has just happened, or reflect on the more distant past. The film is built on recollection and reaction. We don’t see Fanny at Isabel’s deathbed; she simply flies out of the room to embrace her nephew: “She loved you, George.” We don’t see George and Isabel on their European trip; we learn of it from the doleful Uncle Jack, who thinks that Isabel is falling sick. This refracted narration allows Jack to voice his concern—he’s probably the one Amberson whose judgments we trust—and Gene to display helpless, rigid sorrow at the news.
One of Ambersons’ most famous scenes, the long take of George and Fanny in the kitchen, is characteristic. Under her questioning, he explains that Gene and Isabel were starting to reunite at his college graduation. A peppy nostalgia movie would have shown us that cheerful moment on the campus, but Welles channels the information through George’s insensitive report and Fanny’s uneasy questions—and the scene climaxes with her breaking down in tears. As ever, melancholy wins out. As a result of George’s telling, Fanny will plant the suspicion that gossip about Isabel has been destroying the family’s good name.
Similarly, another film’s finale would show the reconciliation of the young lovers, George and Lucy, in the hospital. Instead Welles’ original script presents that moment through Eugene’s somber report of it to Fanny in her boarding house. (In the version we have, we get the report in the hospital corridor.)
Sometimes, the gaps in time and action are abetted by the studio’s reediting. In the present version, we learn about Aunt Fanny’s failed investments later than in the original version. But even then the information would have been presented after the fact. On the whole, the sense of the sadly unalterable past is built into Welles’ screenplay. As each scene unfolds, we get news about what has happened in the gap since the last scene, or what has happened years before. At the railroad station, Uncle Jack, about to depart, recalls a woman he left here long ago. “Don’t know where she lives now–or if she is living.” Here the pastness he evokes is familiar to us from earlier in the film: “She probably imagines I’m still dancing in the ballroom of the Amberson mansion.” At the limit, Major Amberson’s garbled fireside reverie takes us back to the origins of life: “The earth came out of the sun, and we came out of the earth . . . so–whatever we are must have been in the earth.” Now the past is primeval.
Retro as remembrance
Welles enhances the aura of pastness through specific film techniques. Critics have rightly been alert to creative choices that carry over from Citizen Kane: looming sets, drastic deep-focus cinematography, low angles, chiaroscuro, and long takes, often employing splendid camera movements. But the film displays some unique choices that are, historically, anachronistic.
The most noticeable old-time technique concludes the idyll in the snow. Jack, Fanny, Lucy, and George are riding in Eugene’s horseless carriage. This, one of the few scenes that doesn’t replay the past in its conversation, is given special treatment as a moment out of time. The iris out that concludes the scene is something of a visual equivalent to the old song the riders sing, “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.”
Similar is the vignetting that softens the edges of the opening sequences, starting with the first shot showing the streetcar stopping for the lady of the house.
Welles’ visual techniques aren’t faithful to the period when the story action takes place. Assuming that the snow idyll occurs around 1904, the iris wouldn’t have appeared in films of that time. And the earlier period of the streetcar shot and changing men’s fashions probably predates the invention of cinema. But by 1942, these techniques were associated with silent film generally and give a cinematic tinge of “oldness” to the action.
I say “by 1942” because recent years had made intellectuals especially conscious of film history. Several books, notably the 1938 translation of Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach’s Histoire du cinéma (translated as The History of the Motion Picture) and Lewis Jacobs’ sweeping The Rise of the American Film (1939) had concentrated on the stylistic innovations of Porter, Griffith, and other pioneers. With some theatres reviving silent classics like Caligari and The Birth of a Nation, cinephiles in urban centers had some opportunities to see silent movies. Most notably, the Museum of Modern Art Film Library was founded in 1935 and under the curatorship of Iris Barry, began building a permanent archive and screening retrospectives.
MoMA also assembled many films into traveling 16mm programs that could be rented by schools, museums, libraries, and other institutions. Silent films also circulated in 8mm and 16mm prints from private companies like Kodascope and Castle Films. Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, silent comedies were the most popular; Chaplin reissued The Gold Rush in a sound version in 1942. Welles’s interest in silent slapstick is shown in the recently discovered pastiche, Too Much Johnson (1938), which evidently owes a good deal to Entr’acte (1924), a MoMA-canonized classic.
Ambersons offers other, less obvious allusions to old cinema. One cluster of them comes during George and Lucy’s stroll along the sidewalk. George, somewhat petulantly, is insisting that his trip abroad with his mother may last a long time. “It’s goodbye, Lucy.” Angling for a declaration of devotion from her, he gets brittle, agreeable indifference. When he has stalked off, we learn that she is actually quite shaken by the prospect of separation. Watching the dramatic interplay in this long traveling shot, we are probably not likely to pay attention to the posters the couple pass outside the Bijou theatre.
The advertisements announce movies that could have played the Bijou in 1912. The ones in the rear of the lobby are impossible to make out, and there’s one outside I can’t be sure of. (See the codicil.) Raking the frames on DVD and on a good 35mm print, I’ve been able to discern The Bugler of Battery B (1912), Her Husband’s Wife (aka, How She Became Her Husband’s Wife, 1912), Ten Days with a Fleet of U.S. Battleships (1912; in the foyer), and The Mis-Sent Letter (1912). There were several Jesse James films circulating in 1911-1912, but one two-reeler named for the bandit (at the bottom of the second frame here) seems a likely candidate.
These casual background details betray extraordinary fussiness on the part of Welles and his colleagues. Few viewers would pay attention to all the posters, and very few viewers would realize that they’re all from the same year. It’s one thing to include authentic automobiles from the era, as car fanciers would be sure to spot mistakes. But 1912 two-reelers? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the filmmakers put the posters in to satisfy themselves. (If you’re skeptical, I’d ask: If you’d thought of it, wouldn’t you do it?)
There’s more. The most prominent hoarding advertises a Western, The Ghost at Circle X Camp (1912), from Gaston Méliès. Surely the name also evokes Gaston’s brother Georges, by then an established pioneer of film history and a figure doubtless known to Welles. Is this a sideswiping tribute from one magician-cineaste to another?
There’s also a deliberate anachronism. Tim Holt, who plays George, was the son of action star Jack Holt. A lobby card over the box office announces “Jack Holt in Explosion.”
I can find no trace that such a film existed. Moreover, films of that era seldom identified the main actors in advertising, and in any case Holt was not a featured player in 1912. In order to create an in-joke/homage, Welles seems to have prepared a poster for a fictitious film—as Sturges did with Chaos over Taos and Maggie of the Marines in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.
Perhaps the most sneaky allusion comes at the very end. After the florid voice-over credits for technical contributions, Welles intones: “Here’s the cast.” Medium-shots of the actors dissolve into one another as the voice-over identifies them. The images recall photographic portraits from the nineteenth century. They also seem to be a variant of those 1930s opening credits that catch the players in shots extracted from the movie to come. Still, there’s something peculiar about these.
Some of the actors look straightforwardly out at us, as we’d expect.
But others turn their heads slightly or shift their gaze, toward or away from us.
Sometimes the shift is tiny, as with the Joseph Cotten cameo. But the tactic is made into a joke when Tim Holt, staying in character, snaps his glance furtively to the camera.
Why these fillips? Here’s my conjecture. Some 1910s films, from both America and Europe, introduced their casts with shots of the actors standing as if on a theatre stage. The actors then looked to left, then right, pretending to take in all sides of a live audience. Here’s an example from Reginald Barker’s The Wrath of the Gods (1914), featuring actor Thomas Kurihara.
None of the 1910s examples I know was framed as closely as Welles’s shots are. But I surmise that Welles offered a modernized variant of a minor silent-film convention. If this is right, it has to be an allusion more far-fetched than even the ones Sturges supplied.
Maybe I’ve gone too far. Once filmmakers start playing these games, overreach is a constant temptation. In any case, I think there’s enough evidence that Welles, like Sturges, was invoking early film history as a way of reinforcing the overall pastness-strategy of his film.
I’d go further and speculate that Welles’s obsessively pinpointed allusions may have stirred a competitive spirit in Sturges. Now we can see the Miracle of Morgan’s Creek tracking shot past the movie house posters as a variant, two years later, of the angle Welles chose for his long take.
And perhaps the audacious inclusion of footage from The Freshman (1925) at the start of The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) was sparked by Welles’ virtuosically faked newsreel in Citizen Kane. As the two boy wonders from the East took advantage of the biggest train set a kid could play with, they may have egged each other on.
For more on the practice of allusionism and world-building see The Way Hollywood Tells It. Thanks to Ben Brewster for information on Jack Holt’s career. My quotation of the Ambersons preview card comes from Simon Callow’s Orson Welles vol. 2: Hello Americans (Viking, 2006), 87.
The Holt and Méliès posters are mentioned in the cutting continuity in Robert L. Carringer’s The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction (University of California Press, 1993), 214. Alas, the other posters aren’t specified.
The poster’s illustration, which we can glimpse more fully in a later phase of the shot, shows a man thrashing an American Indian while a woman stretches out her arms in the cabin in the background. At first I thought the first words are The Car, but I can find no film from the period that begins with that phrase. (It would fit more closely with Ambersons thematically than most of the other titles, but in fact “car” wasn’t then a common term for automobile.) Then I thought it was The Coin Box Girl, but again no such film seems to have existed, and that title is hardly in keeping with the illustration. Any ideas?
Yes, I know. Welles would have had a good big belly laugh at these efforts.
P.S. 10 June: I’ve been pursuing some readers’ leads about the still-mysterious poster. In the meantime, Joseph McBride has has corresponded with me with more ideas and information about Ambersons. Joe is the author of many books, including What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career, Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless, and Into the Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J. D. Tippit, a meticulous study of those two murders. He is one of the world’s top Welles scholars, so naturally I’m happy to pass along his thoughts.
AMBERSONS is my favorite film, as you probably know, even in its partly ruined state. I think all your analysis is acute, and I like your focus on the self-conscious awareness of pastness that Welles conveys and dissects in the film. The film is redolent of Welles’s youth and even more so of the period before he was born (the period for which I find most of us are most nostalgic). Nostalgia was considered a neurosis in the pre-modern era, a sign of inability to adjust to reality rather than the warm-and-fuzzy state it’s thought of being today. There’s a deep melancholy throughout the film, even if Welles, good magician that he is, distracts us with misdirection via comedy in the beginning while simultaneously laying the seeds of destruction and foreshadowing George’s “comeuppance,” etc.
Last month I was at the Welles conference in Woodstock, Illinois, which has preserved much of its nineteenth-century flavor, including the Opera House where Welles put on TRILBY (but most of the Todd School for Boys he attended is gone). That town and its main square, with bandstand and Civil War monument, seems very Ambersonian as well. I have always seen AMBERSONS as Welles’s most deeply personal film, and his claim that Eugene Morgan is partly based on his father (and that Booth Tarkington knew his father) is noteworthy, as is George Amberson Minafer’s evil-twin resemblance to the young George Orson Welles.
I would only add to your insights that there was much more about the loss of the Amberson fortune in the full version of the film (you allude to that a bit), even though, as you intriguingly note, Welles employs an elliptical style throughout. Welles’s use of ellipsis is Lubitschean (he considered Lubitsch a “giant”), although used for somewhat different reasons, Welles doing so mostly to condense the story in witty ways (and, as you observed to me, focus on characters’ emotional reactions to offscreen events, in the manner of Henry James) and Lubitsch to evade censorship while providing subtle rather than blunt treatments of sex. And some of Lubitsch’s German films, as you know, start with specially posed head shots of him and his main actors, somewhat similar to what Welles does at the end (though he teasingly keeps himself out of frame, partly to stress the voice aspect and also to keep the identification of himself with George stronger). Tim Holt gazing accusingly at us in the end credits is startling — maybe it’s not only to keep him in character but also to say, “I’m you.”
Welles is terrible (archy, corny, and putting on a phony kid voice) as George in the radio version, which, however, is much like the film in some ways. During the night devoted to radio in the 1978-79 “Working with Welles” seminar I co-hosted for the AFI at the DGA Theater, Welles’s longtime associate Richard Wilson and I ran the first ten minutes of the radio show as the soundtrack for the film imagery, and it worked amazingly well. Welles’s use of ellipsis in the film recalls his radio work, in which he and his writers would condense a large novel into one hour, etc. The vignettes at the opening of AMBERSONS are very much drawn from radio. He sold the project to RKO’s George Schaefer by playing the radio show, though the fact that Schaefer fell asleep before the end might have given them pause.
Welles said he included the “Jack Holt in EXPLOSION” gag did to please Jack when he visited the set. Jack was an action star for Capra before AMBERSONS and turns up in THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, in the scene in which John Ford pays homage to his high school teacher Lucien P. Libby by naming a boat after him. Another of those in-jokes that permeate even classic Hollywood, as you say. Mr. Libby influenced Ford’s portraits of Lincoln and other folksy politicians as humorous storytellers.
Welles’s early films show a keen awareness of film history and culture, more than he would let on later he knew at that young age. He described THE HEARTS OF AGE to me as a spoof of THE BLOOD OF A POET and LA CHIEN ANDALOU. TOO MUCH JOHNSON is full of film influences and allusions (I think I sent you my essay on the film from Bright Lights. And KANE has its share of in-jokes, such as Gregg Toland interviewing Kane on board a ship and Kane responding with his first words in the film after “Rosebud” — “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.”
Thanks to Joe for corresponding.
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).
Phil earns his groundhog halo.
Back in 1999, my book Storytelling in the New Hollywood (Harvard University Press) was about to be published. It was an attempt to suggest that, contrary to the talk of “post-classical” or “post-Hollywood” norms having taken over American filmmaking, the most important classical principles that had been at work since the 1910s were still going strong.
I outlined those principles in the opening chapter, discussing character goals, deadlines, dialogue hooks, unity, and the like. I also argued that, based on my analysis of many films from the 1910s to the 1990s, the vast majority of features followed a structure involving four large-scale parts, or acts–not three, as the popular Syd Field model would have it.
To do that, I analyzed the techniques of ten films usually considered to be models of unified, sophisticated narrative structure: Tootsie, Back to the Future, The Silence of the Lambs, Groundhog Day, Desperately Seeking Susan, Amadeus, The Hunt for Red October, Parenthood, Alien, and Hannah and Her Sisters.
The book was not intended to be a screenplay manual as such, though I know it has been used in some classes and by some aspiring screenwriters.
Ordinarily the press would have asked me to name some prominent film scholars who could be asked to write blurbs for the cover. It occurred to me, though, that it might be better in this case to take each chapter and send it to its director and to its main screenwriter and ask them for blurbs instead.
That turned out to work pretty well. Several didn’t answer, and other answered too late to be included. I ended up with three blurbs of which I am very proud, from Ted Tally for The Silence of the Lambs, Susan Seidelman for Desperately Seeking Susan, and from Harold Ramis for Groundhog Day.
Ramis’ recent death prompted me to dig out that old file. He had written back to my editor not with a sentence or two to use as a blurb, but with a page-and-a-half letter on the subject; it included a blurb down toward the bottom. It’s a letter that reflects how kind and smart Ramis was, and how much he had thought about writing and narrative–even though the process of writing screenplays was probably largely an intuitive one. It shows that he knew something about academic film studies, even if he had some “quibbles” with them. I certainly never meant to suggest that everything I pointed out in the films I analyzed was intended by the director and/or screenwriter. I would say that everything I pointed out was a result of their skill and experience. Even when something happens by accident during filming, someone has to decide whether or not to keep it in.
Rather than just sticking the letter back in the file, I thought I would share it with you. Having a little more of Ramis available can’t be a bad thing.
Thanks for sending the chapters of Kristin Thompson’s book Storytelling in the New Hollywood and please convey my thanks to Ms. Thompson for including Groundhog Day among the “modern classics.” My only quibble with scholarly film analysis is the occasional tendency to read more significance into certain details than was actually intended, or to think that certain accidents of production, on-set discoveries, or improvisational dialogues were planned and scripted. I realize, from a Deconstructionist point of view, it hardly matters what I think anyway, so let me set aside my minor quibbles and congratulate Ms. Thompson on her new book. If you would, please pass this letter along to her.
I am not a student of screenwriting so I’m afraid I can’t comment intelligently on Ms. Thompson’s theoretical model. Certainly, the fact that most movies are about two hours long will determine to a large extent the length of the set-up, the placement of the crisis, the climax, and the denouement, but rather than look at films in terms of “acts,” I prefer to think in terms of “actions,” as if the narrative line were a string of pearls, dramatically linked, each taking the audience forward to the next point. If any particular action doesn’t advance the plot or contain some new information, it doesn’t belong in the narrative. As a writer I generally proceed more intuitively than structurally. As Ms. Thompson suggests, I suspect that most of us have simply absorbed the classical film structure during our formative years as members of the audience.
When I was hired to write my first Hollywood screenplay, Animal House, the producer handed my collaborators and I paperback copies of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and said, “This is what a good screenplay looks like. Just do that.” More than twenty years later, my only useful conclusion about structure is that nothing will work if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell. One can argue for or against the three-action structure, but, whether or not there are consistent rules about the :well-made” screenplay, it’s already true that there are more well-constructed, formulaic screenplays than there are good ones. Also, one must always keep in mind that Hollywood films are almost invariably rewritten by additional (though not always credits) writers. One writer may be thought of as strong on structure, good for a solid first draft, another may be known for his dialogue, others for punching up action or comedy. Also , the Hollywood writer is always responding to script notes from studio executives, story departments, his producers, the director, and from his principal actors. In this convoluted and often tortured process, it’s sometimes impossible to attribute the final screenplay to the calculated intentions of one writer or team, and it’s often left up to a panel of Writers Guild arbiters to determine screen credit.
I didn’t intend to write such an inflated letter but there’s a lot to say on the subject and I have a considerable amount of experience.
If it’s useful to you, you may quote me as saying that Ms. Thompson’s insightful analysis of Groundhog Day and of the screenwriting process in general should be fascinating to both writers and audience alike. More thoughtful writing and more discerning audiences can’t help but lead to better movies, and this informative and provocative book is a step in that direction.
Best of luck on the publication of Storytelling in the New Hollywood and please feel free to contact me if you need any further comments.
Harold Ramis as Allan “Crazy Legs” Hirschman (SCTV, “Indecent Exposure,” 1982).
Even while tempting us with many, many films, the Vancouver International Film Festival runs an event that could all too easily lure us away from viewing and into the world of film-industry gurus: the Film and Television Forum. Its website describes it as “four days of professional development for senior and emerging professionals, from financing to production, to marketing and distribution, to storytelling and engagement.”
In an ideal world, we would attend all of the sessions, but they run concurrently with as many as eight films showing elsewhere. Two talks were particularly appealing, though, given our interest in the practice of making films within the mainstream American industry. I slipped away to hear master-classes by Terry Rossio (screenwriter for all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films) and Walter Murch (editor of Particle Fever, shown at the festival, and sound designer on many films, including Apocalypse Now).
Rossio’s modest title was “Revisions,” though his discussion ranged far beyond advice on how to rewrite a script. He immediately won over the audience, clearly many of them professional or aspiring screenwriters, by passing around a flash-drive and inviting anyone with a script-in-progress on their laptop to put some pages on it. He would end the session by making some impromptu revisions of those pages.
I’m not secretly working on a screenplay or even aspiring to write one, but if I were, I think I would have gleaned some valuable tips from Rossio’s talk.
Most panels and seminars tend to be too general, he said. They “focus on the business side, tell personal anecdotes,” and so on. He feels that it is probably impossible to teach screenwriting: “No, the better question is, can writing be learned?” Yes, but people must teach themselves.
Writing and revising
To Rossio, one crucial thing to learn is that finishing a story is not the end. One should have both doubt and faith: doubt that a story or scene is good enough, and faith that it can be better.
Revision, according to Rossi, is “talent reapplied.” One may have a limited amount of talent for writing, but it can be stretched by reapplying it over and over during the revision process.
Rossio is a big advocate of succinctly creating a strong visual sense in each scene. Even on Rossio’s desktop he comes up with a distinctive icon for each folder (see top): a Rubik’s cube for “Screenwriting,” a little gramophone for “Music,” and so on.
For Rossio, each scene should consist of:
- Opening image
- Key moment (character revelations, reversals, etc.)
- Throw (i.e., the setup for the next scene)
Apart from visual imagery, writing should be situation-based: “Every scene you write must be an obvious situation.” A screenplay is a string of situations, which creates a compelling interest in the scene. His example was two people discussing an important deal in a car on the way to a meeting. The dialogue might become boring because of the static setting, but the writer could make them experience car trouble and have their discussion outside the car while worrying whether they will make it to the meeting: “The easiest way to create interest is through some sort of dilemma.”
One important technique of revision is what Rossio calls “performance dialogue.” Writers tend to compose speeches in full, grammatical sentences, but that doesn’t sound natural in spoken dialogue. Rossio takes these complete sentences and starts to eliminate words: “Less words allows for performance the actor will be performing in between the syllables.” He adds, “If you give an actor a very long line, they can’t manipulate that into an emotion. But a shorter line allows them to express the subtext or nuance of what’s going on.”
This advice led to a question from the audience about how a writer can convey to the director and actors what he or she intended the nuances of a scene to be. Rossio suggested three possibilities:
- Become a director. The director is the one who puts things on the screen. The writer makes suggestions about what to put on the screen.
- Negotiate having the power to be on set during shooting.
- Annotate the screenplay.
The third point caused quite a bit of interest and is an unusual approach that Rossio himself has recently adopted. He writes a normal script, fairly compact and easy to read. But he includes endnote numbers that refer to a separate document, a list of annotations. These might be something like an indication that a certain moment in the film is a reference to the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark or suggestions about special camera angles. Rossio has not used this tactic often enough to gauge whether directors in general would appreciate it, but he did have a good response to the first annotated script he provided.
Rossio dislikes all the screenwriting software on the market, but he showed off a system that he devised himself. The screen below shows the list of scenes for his current project, Masters of the Universe. Each scene is identified by a single word, such as “Vengeance” or “Snake.” The ones that are finished are highlighted in color. (I don’t believe Rossio mentioned the difference between the purple and the yellow highlighting.) The scenes can be switched in order with their labels automatically re-numbered.
One advantage of this system is that the author opens only one scene rather than the whole script. Dealing with something that may be about four pages long is less overwhelming. Rossio also finds that his system facilitates sharing drafts of scenes with a collaborator.
Tips for pitching
In keeping with his emphasis on the visual aspects of a screenplay, Rossio recommends that writers make up a brief pre-viz that captures the essence of the script’s premise. Increasingly, software is becoming available that would allow technically adept writers to create demo clips on their own. For writers unable to do this, Rossio suggests that in a highly competitive market, they should get an effects house to do the job for them. These days even some directors are using this approach in trying to get a job.
Rossio was asked a question about pitching to get a job revising an existing script. He had four suggestions.
First, read the script that is to be revised. Surprisingly, not all writers do that. If it’s based on a literary property, read that, too. A lot of writers just wing such pitch meetings.
Second, take along a presentation board. It can be used for breaking down the script or drawing images.
Third, write a recap of the script as it exists and be ready to discuss specific possible changes.
Fourth, go to the trouble of having two or three specific images ready to show. If the VIPs like the images, they can get access to them only by hiring the writer.
I think if I were a scriptwriter, aspiring or otherwise, I would consider that Rossio packed a lot of useful information into his 75-minute presentation. He also chose two of the script excerpts submitted by audience members and gave their authors some quick and helpful suggestions for revisions.
As far as I could tell, Murch’s talk had no title, but the concept he threw out early on was “fungibility,” one meaning of which is being capable of changing easily. The example he gave was a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. Murch was referring to the digital revolution in film editing. This was not so much a how-to talk as an attempt to demonstrate the dramatic changes that have come about as a result of rapidly changing technologies.
Murch showed a photo of himself struggling with 35mm film strips in editing Apocalypse Now in the 1970s (above). Now, of course, there would be no such physical sorting and splicing. He then pointed out the sheer weight of film, which has been entirely eliminated:
As the graphic shows, a single 1000-foot reel of 35mm film weighs 11 pounds. The strips of Apocalypse Now in the photo above were part of workprint material totaling 7 tons. If Murch’s latest film, Particle Fever, had been edited on 35mm, he would have had to deal with far more, 16 tons of film. It simply would have been impossible to edit such a quantity of footage. (Would a hard-drive with a complete feature film on it weight measurably more than a blank one? he wondered.)
For Particle Fever, Murch used Final Cut Pro 7–an announcement that led to scattered applause from the audience. Like Murch, users of that program are loyal to it, but as he pointed out, a 32-bit program simply can’t keep up with modern demands for memory. While editing, he kept running into situations where there was no memory left, and he had to use elaborate and time-consuming methods to free up storage space. (The film ended up with 18 terabytes of material stored.) On his current project, Tomorrowland, he is using a 64-bit Avid program and has had no problem running out of memory.
(Tomorrowland is being made here in Vancouver, which is presumably why we had the privilege of Murch’s participation in the forum.)
Murch showed a timeline graphic for Particle Fever, with multiple image track, dialogue tracks, effects tracks, musical tracks, and so on. Each small horizontal line represents a separate track:
Even while working on this level of complex technology, however, Murch sticks to simple methods for some of his planning. He creates a “scene board” using cards coded with colors, sizes, and shapes . The little green triangles create a chronology, giving the years covered by each set of scenes:
As with Rossio’s system of storing his scenes in a way that allows him to change their order, Murch can move the cards around if the structure of the film changes. Murch put it this way: “I would suggest reversion to kindergarten.”
He also showed some photos of his workspaces for various projects. One was intriguing for indicating how important perspective is for editing. One workroom contained a 50-inch monitor for playing back scenes as he edits them. (See bottom.) Note the little white figures of a man and a woman at the bottom corners of the screen. Murch wanted to keep scale in mind, and the figures represent normal-sized people at the proportionate size they would appear if the monitor were a forty-foot theatrical screen.
This photo inspired someone during the question session to ask whether the increasing tendency for people to watch movies on very small digital screens has influenced Murch’s editing decisions. He replied that it has to some extent, though from the beginning of his career at the end of the 1960s he has had to keep the smaller television screen in mind. Yet he does not edit primarily for the tiny images on mobile devices: “If you cut for the big screen, it will work for the small screen. If you cut for the small screen, it won’t work as well for the big screen.” The Master speaks. So far, the theatrical experience remains the basis for moviemaking.
The Guardian has a video interview with Walter Murch discussing Particle Fever.
A monitor in Walter Murch’s workspace, with two white human figures at the lower corners to indicate scale.