While it should come as news to absolutely no one that Sony is readying Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (IMDb) for the big screen (Would it surprise anyone if Dan Brown’s grocery list fetched an eight figure deal?), what might come as a shock is the price paid to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. That price, $4,000,000, is a new record for a “for hire” project, and ties the payday Shane Black received for “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (IMDb) for most money ever paid to a screenwriter for a single writer credit. Goldsman secured this filthy lucre despite tepid (read hostile) reviews of his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code (IMDb). With this record-setting paycheck, and kudos from the ever-fawning LA Times column “Scriptland,” does this signal a new golden age of screenwriting? Not according to this LA Weekly article “Screenwriters in the Shit“. It’s articles like this that make me want to move to the sticks and take up animal husbandry.
In which the author spits into the ocean of hype over the new season of AMC’s Mad Men and emerges with a wholly original conclusion: the show is darn good.
It’s all around us; it’s everywhere we go; it’s everything we do. It’s Mad Men. At the coffee shop: “I’ll have a grande iced Mad Men with whole Mad Men please.” “You want that Mad Men?” “No thanks, I’ll add my own Mad Men.”
On the phone with the wife: “Can you take Mad Men to Mad Men practice at half past Mad Men this afternoon, honey?” “Well, I’ve got a Mad Men with the boss but it shouldn’t take more than a few Mad Men.” “Oh good, Mad Men will be so pleased.”
At the track: “I’ll take Mad Men to win in the fifth.” “Geez, buddy, that’s 50-1. You got some brass Mad Men, I’ll give you that.”
I Mad Men, er, watched the season premiere of Mad Men Sunday night. Had to travel to Brooklyn to do it. I invited myself over to my friend’s place and commandeered his cable TV. While I watched the premiere, he put on headphones and cozied up to a dvd on his computer – Mad Men. He’s still working his way through the season two dvd set, which is quite possibly (and on a meta level quite appropriately) the single most flogged product in the history of consumer culture going back at least to Slinky.
So much has been written about Mad Men that it’s hard to contribute anything really insightful to the raft of commentary. The show experienced a tipping point moment this summer in the run-up to the new season, resulting in a bumper crop of features and roundups that choked the pages of most if not all of the publications that I read regularly.
For the uninitiated, those who summer in relative isolation – on the international space station perhaps, or in Siberia – Mad Men is about the goings on at an advertising firm in Manhattan in the early 60s. John Hamm plays dapper Don Draper, head of the creative department and the maddest Mad Man on planet Mad Men. Well, he’s not mad exactly, rarely angry and definitely not insane, but he suffers from a certain existential ennui. Draper’s consummate insight into the psychology of the American consumer makes him something like the man behind the curtain (duh, drapes) which is an apt metaphor since the life of this successful family man is steeped in secrets and mystery.
An episode of Mad Men contains requisite amounts of Draper being Draper: drinking, smoking, womanizing, looking good, and wowing his cohorts and clients with invariably spot-on ad ideas. Draper is big when the toadies at the firm act small, and if he doesn’t always do right by his wife, Betty (January Jones), his sins seem to be motivated more by a search for meaning in experience than by appetites alone. Draper without a double life just wouldn’t be Draper. After all, so we love the sinner. When he says “I don’t know, I, uh, go to a lot of places and I keep ending up someplace I’ve already been” to an attractive blond airline stewardess before she strips for him in his hotel room, we shiver with pleasure since we alone have a window into his inner life.
Secrets are at the heart of Mad Men. All of the principle characters harbor them. Sometimes they come out, and sometimes not. In keeping with this air of obfuscation, the writers have crafted a style of dialogue that is suitably obtuse, and occasionally impenetrable. I think part of the show’s popularity has to do with the fact that it demands such scrutiny if the viewer is going to pick up on all the nuances.
Another key ingredient was touched on in the Wall Street Journal’s profile of the mostly female writing team that crafts these nuanced story lines. The tug of war between the male and female characters gives the show its core conflict. The show’s architects have a keen command of symmetry in their approach to the interplay of sex and gender. Just when you’re used to the back-slapping old boy’s atmosphere at the Sterling Cooper offices, the writers flip the script, and the boys are upstaged by the industrious high-climbing copywriter, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), or the irrepressible bombshell office manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks).
Which brings me to my final point about Mad Men. Its early 60s setting proves to be incredibly fertile ground for these conflicts to be played out. Bees in the Sterling Cooper beehive don’t always recognize the changes that are taking place around them, though these are the forces that they are constantly trying to harness in their quest to sell things to people. I loved in season two when Draper and co. pitch an idea to a seller of ladies’ undergarments. The essence of the idea is that there are two kinds of women: you’re either a Marilyn or a Jackie O. The execs at the company are impressed, but they pass on the idea. Then Marilyn dies and, while the secretaries weep over the tragedy, the Mad Men quietly breathe a sigh of relief that the campaign died, too. Something tells me the other shoe will have to drop as the calendar turns over and season three gets going.
The one person who can usually parse the cultural forces and discern which way the wind is blowing without the help of a weatherman is Don Draper. One reason I believe Draper is so conflicted himself is that he recognizes how topsy-turvy American life is becoming. Values are evolving. Kids are growing up. There are major changes in the air, changes he can smell like ozone at the leading edge of a fast-moving front that promises to drop a deluge on the American cultural landscape. It’s easy for us to imagine that deluge, to see ourselves frolicking in the mud of Woodstock, say. But every deluge is predicated by that moment where the barometer drops, the wind picks up, lightening flashes, and purple clouds descend. Something big is coming.
In April of last year, Patrick noted that Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s 1977 classic film about life in the Watts section of Los Angeles, was finally getting a theatrical release after decades of red tape related to clearing the rights of the music in the film.Though declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress, the film had been rarely seen over the years. Now, Killer of Sheep is likely to reach an even wider audience. On Monday at 8pm, the film will make its television debut on Turner Classic Movies.More, from Patrick:The story, in so far as there is one, is simple. Stan, an employee of a South Central slaughterhouse (hence the title of the film), is depressed and retreating from his wife. Interspersed with scenes of Stan at home and at work (the footage of the sheep is both fascinating in its gore and haunting, like watching a lake before a storm) are snippets of kids playing, women gossiping, and men scheming to make a few dollars more. What makes Killer of Sheep so memorable is the depth and reality of the characters and the incredibly complex humor the film employs. Indeed, for a movie that says so much about poverty, it’s surprisingly funny.The movie has also recently become available on DVD.
“The drop is a small ocean.”
“When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.”
Describing, let alone reviewing, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is almost forbiddingly daunting. Probably for this reason, critical reaction has been decidedly garrulous. A vast majority of reviewers have invoked some kind of “higher” culture to signify the elusive mood or feeling it evokes. Just skimming down the list, one picks up earnest references to Emily Dickinson, Tristram Shandy, Picasso, 2001: A Space Odyssey, W.B. Yeats, The Passion Of The Christ, the Sistine Chapel, and The Museum of Natural History. It’s been referred to as “beautiful“, “baffling“, “magisterial”, “unbearably pretentious” and putting the viewer at risk of emerging from the theatre “with a pretzel for a brain.” All of this is fair game, I think. Oscar Wilde‘s droll dismissal of controversy wraps it all up nicely and points the way forward: “When the critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.”
In some postmodern milieux it’s common to judge a work of art sight unseen and only by the reactions of others (you’ve done it before, admit it). The Tree of Life lends itself to this vulnerability, for sure. It was alternately booed and cheered by the discriminating cineastes of Cannes, ultimately winning the historic Palme d’Or. Robert De Niro, the head of the prize panel, explained in a very Robert DeNiro way that the film had “the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.” Roger Ebert wrote a lovely and moving piece about it, the first sentence of which calls it “a form of prayer.” This would be pretty decent praise from anyone but considering Ebert himself has been struggling with his own mortality for several years now, and doing so with grace and dignity, the accolade is especially poignant.
I don’t usually mind getting spoilers before I see a movie for the first time, which probably has more to do with my tendency to be easily confused than a need for surprise. Not to worry – it’s almost impossible to give anything away. Part of the wonder of this film is that the visual style and narrative undulation (the term “arc” just doesn’t do it justice) not only allow for but encourage emotional and intellectual responses which are ultimately the viewer’s own. Certain moments in the film were vivid enough to sting me with recognition and tears came to my eyes. It felt like moments of my childhood reappeared, unbidden, and not the most obvious ones. Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Several people I know well admitted to a similar reaction. There is comfort in that. One of the things which is often asked of art, if not cinema itself, is that it move us, give us grandeur, something of the ineffable. This can be done with either massive, panoramic vistas or with detailed, minute shifts of insight. The Tree Of Life, to Malick’s abiding credit, offers us both.
The narrative centers around a small lower middle class family in east Texas. There are three brothers, one of whom is revealed to have died in unexplained circumstances. Brad Pitt sinks so deeply into his role as the stern, frustrated, ultimately helpless father that you can see what Freud termed “the family romance” flickering behind his thick glasses and masculine scowl. Jessica Chastain’s mother is ethereal, loving, one of nature’s forgiving creatures. This dialectical conflict is subtly set up early on: one side of the parental wall is earthly, ambitious, occasionally brutal in word or gesture, brittle and seething with balked ambition. The other floats in midair in her children’s daydreams, enveloping all the struggle of life with a luminous, beneficent glow. Blessings are all, she suggests, by her mere presence. The boys are boys, pointy of ear and baby fat faces, reflecting the confusion and energy that comes with the humid rush of pre-adolescence. Sean Penn isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the middle aged son mourning his long deceased brother amid the modern-day glaze of skyscrapers in New York but he makes something happen nevertheless. The rest is, well, the rest is the world – a glimpse at the totality of creation itself. The editing is timed to the rhythm of memory – moments simply occur, evolve, glimmer, fade, and disappear. Trying to describe this film’s visual range is like describing a waterfall or a rainbow or the sparkling light cast for a moment on the wall: it can be done, but why not see it for yourself, and on the big screen while you’re at it?
Terrence Malick has often been considered a spiritual director. This is not say he has a particular creed, or even necessarily a belief system, at least none that comes readily to mind. He has a degree in Philosophy from Harvard, taught it at M.I.T, and translated the notoriously dense and mystical Heidegger before going into film. The influence must have stuck with him. There really is something Heideggerian going on in his work. One could sum up the two major themes of his films with just the title of Heidegger’s magnum opus: Being and Time. Malick’s characters inhabit a landscape more than a frame. Their presences register over the looming, incandescent indifference of the world they inhabit. They build, they dwell, they think, in Heideggerian vocabulary. Language is a scattered thing in his films, a groping towards meaning. This aesthetic comes out memorably in Days of Heaven and Badlands, his still- astonishing debut. Accounts of the making of these films reveal years of the director’s prosaic research as well as on-set instructions to spontaneously just drop everything and follow a stream of rippling birds suddenly taking flight.
There’s something mysterious about having been a filmmaker for over thirty years with only a handful of films to your name. Actors beg to be involved and sign up by the dozen for ever-expanding bit parts. Producers are sometimes driven crazy by his relentless perfectionism and visionary drive. His movies can be an experience unto themselves. You walk out with that strange, sober buzz a good film gives you, and inhabit the world of the film’s perception for a little while. Light is more like light, the earth below more compact, and the sky above the buildings is vaster than you ever quite noticed. Every reader is bound to come to any work of art with her own set of tastes, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions. Naturally, she leaves with them as well. Hopefully something has happened in between which causes (at least) a subtle, insistent, almost insubstantial change in the consciousness of the audience. All movies are in some way about seeing, of course, but no one making them or attending them ever sees them in quite the same way. It’s very rare that anything is seen in the way Terrence Malick sees it, which says more about Malick than it does about anyone else.
In the end, watching “The Tree of Life” is best done in a spirit of generosity, curiosity, care, and a healthy dose of plain reverence and awe. Not a bad way to go through life.
You probably know about Eric Schlosser’s iconic book Fast Food Nation. In it Schlosser revealed the fatty, processed underbelly of the fast food industry, and it seems likely that all of the millions of people who read the wildly successful book thought twice before their next trip to the drive thru. What you may not know is that a movie based on the book and directed by Richard Linklater is set to come out later this year. (I first wrote about this on the blog way back in 2003, but had forgotten about it until recently.) According to IMDb, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, and Avril Lavigne are all part of an ensemble cast. There’s no official release date as yet.In the meantime, and perhaps in anticipation of the movie, a new version of Fast Food Nation has come out that’s aimed at 6th through 9th graders. Chew on This is basically a rewrite of Schlosser’s bestseller, but the idea here is that as big consumers of fast food, kids should hear Schlosser’s message too.
Rick writes in wanting to know how he can lay the groundwork for a big-screen version of a bestselling novel.Does anybody know if (or how to find out if) someone has the motion picture rights to Leon Uris’ novel Trinity? Any help would be appreciated. ThanksI can’t tell you all how pleased I was to see this question in my inbox. I was beginning to worry that the year I spent getting coffee and wearing a jaunty headset at a Hollywood agency had gone to waste. Luckily in between my important duties as a glorified (and grossly under-compensated) secretary, I was able to glean some actual knowledge about the entertainment industry. Even more luckily, I will most likely never work in said industry again. As I was saying, though, there are ways to find out if anyone owns the film rights to a particular book, and if so, who. It basically involves persistent phone calls in which each person you talk to tells you to call another person, who tells you to call another person, and so on. And while I am not, at the moment, inclined to do the leg work, (although Trinity would make a great movie), I can at least tell you who to call first. Begin with the Writers Guild, also known as the WGA. Typically you can call them with the name of a writer, and they can tell you which agent represents that writer (bear in mind, however, that if you give them more than one name they are liable to get very snotty very quickly.) You can then call the agent and begin fishing for the pertinent names and numbers, though it may take a week or two to get past his or her assistant. They are, as I once was, tenacious buggers. If this route fails, try calling the publisher, in this case Bantam or whichever conglomerate currently owns that imprint. Once you get someone on the phone who sounds helpful (and they will typically be more helpful than the Hollywood types), try to get the digits of whichever literary agent or lawyer handles Mr. Uris’ estate. Which brings me to another point, since Mr. Uris passed away last year, you will be dealing with his estate, which may make things more complicated. Finally, be aware that figuring out who owns which rights to which book at what price can often be a laborious and Byzantine process, especially in the case of a book like Trinity, the rights to which, as a decades old bestseller, have probably changed hands a number of times. It’s because of these complexities that many of the bigger Hollywood agencies have a full-time employee whose responsibility is sorting out these rights issues. Still, if you have a dream, a vision, and a little bit of dough, none of these impediments should hinder you. Good luck, and feel free to let us know how things turn out.