Archive for July 29, 2019

A suspiciously symmetrical face…

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

Also known as things quickly extirpated once in film development and in some cases earlier…at the hands of the cover artist.

A ruined face replaced by a Hero Scar…

From this distance of more than twenty years, may I assume we’ve all seen Robert Altman’s The Player by now?

Richard E. Grant played a British film director bound and determined to storm America and Hollywood with a pet project, essentially rubbing our noses in his smug opposition to capital punishment. A DA decides he’s sick of convicting minorities and goes hell for leather to convict a white woman, just for the principle of equal treatment under the law.

The proposed plot. The DA gets his conviction. Tragically falls in love with the convict. Discovers late in the third act she was framed and rushes at the eleventh hour to stop the execution…

This fictional Brit starts the process piously asserting, “no stars, no happy ending because that’s reality!” We all saw the representative clip at the end of The Player. Bruce Willis uses a shotgun to rescue Julia Roberts while smugging for camera – “traffic was a bitch!” A character gets fired in the screening room for blasting the sellout Brit for “caving.”

But, did Mr. Grant’s character actually cave that much in the context of storytelling as we know it? A question to include the context of writing specifically for North America (Hollywood’s home break despite the rise of China and the rest of the world) and the larger context of the artsy-fartsy Hero’s Journey model long asserted as universal? Did he cave? Or just acknowledge the inevitable that shouldn’t have taken the venal suits at the studio to tell him?

Obviously, the first “cave” was stars. The venal bastard suits controlling the purse strings simply refused to write checks based on the line of credit proffered by the studio’s institutional lenders until Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, or their hypothetical equivalents signed their agreements. Depending on how we use the word “star,” perhaps now we should note that the concept exists throughout the arts, sports and most of life. Has always existed. And serves several related purposes.

When Sir Lawrence Olivier went balls out playing the title part in The Scottish Play people in the crowd remembered this performance eagerly awaiting when Sir Larry would pull off The Scottish Movie. A star in this case represents doing something so well that we remember to use the work as either something to copy or something to do the exact opposite…sometimes both. Rewarding preternatural skill.

Marcus Tullis Cicero the Elder has more stardom as a writer being 2,000 years dead. He famously lost out to Marc Anthony, hands cut off and nailed to the Senate door. But, because the words he wrote, letters, speech transcriptions and a couple attempts at pseudo-Stoic philosophy have survived into the Modern Era, he defined European prose for quite a few centuries. He even wrote text we use as placeholders – lorem ipsum.

When we use star in this context that can also include champion as a synonym, you just want to slap Mr. Grant’s character around. Greatness is where we get inspiration. In my own work, I like to say, “I don’t compete with living writers. They don’t do me and I don’t do them. Besides, I’m too busy chasing Shakespeare.” And on the music side, where at the moment my mouth just wrote checks my ear can’t cash, it’s a nice fantasy to imagine my music at Disney Hall led by Gustavo Dudamel.

Is it any wonder that my favorite two episodes of The Twilight Zone are both titled ‘A Game of Pool?’ The deceased star offers a game to the determined up and comer. Winning comes with the responsibilities to take over from the old champion. Losing means being the guy who lost. Both versions served as a vehicle to remind the audience that while it is good to strive, it means nothing if you don’t take time out to live…even just to sneak out to Disneyland or something.

I like to think that Mr. Grant’s character realized that stardom isn’t all bad for a movie and just went with it trying to get the best stars possible for the movie. Yes, there is a tawdry side to stardom that the suits in the movie wouldn’t care about the “right” stars, just any stars large enough to open a capital punishment movie. They had armed themselves with box office numbers and exit polls from other movies.

They knew the movie die would without stars and the happy ending. They also declared that a movie with dudes in prisons would need a hetero sex scene. And they adroitly let this upstart director shoot his ending betting that the test audience in Pacoima would chasten him and he would agree to fix it with reshoots that were always in the budget.

When I saw this moment in the screening room, I imagined dialogue that wasn’t in the movie. Either Michael Tolkin (the writer) or Mr. Altman had these words and cut them because of Too Many Words on the Screenplay Page, or they had a simple failure of imagination. Imagine this, Bonnie (Laurie Metcalf) goes off about the “sellout” and Mr. Grant’s character still drops in the line about the “old ending didn’t test well in Pacoima” with his face generally signaling relief. What if he also says…

“I realized I might not have needed the old ending.”

“What do you mean?” Bonnie asks.

“I’m bashing capital punishment in America, the home of the barbaric practice with the intent of convincing more Americans to shift their values. When faced with the well-stated objections from the people in this room, I asked myself if doing it their way still does that. Do I get the same mileage out of this happy ending that still trades as much on the finality of death and human fallibility as the old ending but lets the audience off the hook emotionally?”


“How the fuck should I know? It’s a risk either way. Either I guessed right and just became Preston Sturges with the Common Touch or I won’t be back, except to take the offspring to Disneyland. Ask me when it opens.”

Speaking personally this character’s initial resistance to the Hollywood method makes more sense if he shifts the question from No Stars to “Dear God, can we get the right stars!” He is right to ask for stars better fitted to the movie. Would Robert DeNiro and Julianne Moore have been better for The Player’s movie within a movie?

And we like to believe the question can also be, “can we use this part to create a new star, while bulking up the other roles with established stars?” Often Hollywood’s casting decisions cause the audience to shout at the screen – “Really, you gave that role to Ryan Gosling? He doesn’t do movies like this well!” Well, the audience segment trained by incessant film coverage in the media to think they know these things, at least.

As for the happy ending part of the discussion, Mr. Tolkin, who also wrote the novel, has a point about Hollywood ceding sad endings to…Europe. Sad endings are a part of our collective narrative tradition and yet, if it were up to Hollywood no movie not labeled Shakespeare or Star Wars would have a sad ending. George Lucas got away with the tragic ending to Revenge of the Sith by reminding people that Return of the Jedi that they’ve already seen finishes the story. And having enough power over Star Wars-land to avoid reading studio notes also can help.

I suppose we should play for the middle ground where Hollywood busts out a tragedy once in a while and the rest of the world doesn’t always have to reach for “they all get cholera and die” as is the stereotype. These things seem cyclical; Marvel tossed two popular female characters off the same ledge to get at the Soul Stone. Ask me every six months or so to see how we did.

Scars. This part of the essay is an outgrowth of the stars question. You hire a star to play X part described in the book as severely damaged about the face. How long do you think this lasts? Sometimes this gets wiped out long before movie development by the cover artist.

Two examples (see pictures). The female characters pictured were both described as having survived similar variations of getting jacked up by shitty father figures (I’ll feed that one to a more overtly feminist writer). Nether description made it to any kind of promotional art. One at the hands of the cover artist and the other slaughtered by the whole filmmaking process.

Parrish Plessis (Nylon Angel) leaps off the page described as exceedingly tall, dark haired but with a slightly flattened face and badly set nose to go with her black leather. The last two didn’t make the cover. No filmmakers involved.

Similarly, Hester Shaw in Mortal Engines is described as having a face to frighten children. A destroyed eye. A sliced up ear. Massive facial scars. To be replaced in the movie by a single beauty scar hidden behind the red scarf. Many filmmakers involved reaching the same decision as a single cover artist.

There are reasons. The hero scar is cheaper in both time and money to apply to an actress and future star cloned from the pretty end of the human gene pool. And I’m sure Peter Jackson might’ve heard his version of the Venal Suit – “what is the fucking point of hiring a star if we put so much latex on her that we might not know she’s in the movie?”

Yet, the novelists in question persisted, at least for the book, continuing as planned with messed up female characters. Brave? Dumb? I guess that depends on how loaded I get on any particular day.