Whether it's the critic leaving the screening room, flabbergasted at another mess ... the producer baffled at how much time and treasure and good intentions got squandered into an immense dog's egg ... or the actor who had some sort of a hunch that a film could be work, only to find out that there wasn't enough of him to fight the dozens working against him ... all can console themselves with screenwriter William Goldman's rule: 'Nobody knows anything." This is the consolation when sure fire things go wrong. If nobody knows anything, there's still 7 things you ought to know if you're making movies ...
1. Always make sure all the actors are fighting their own weight.
This afternoon, I just got out of a film adaptation about the slow death of a passive aggressive father. The dad was played by a noble character actor with a roster as long as your arm. The son was played by a likable middleweight actor who is mellowing like an old cheese into middle age. (The press notes were just as effusive about this guy's work for charity as they were about his acting credits.) Unfortunately, since the father was played by an expert, and the son is played by a middling former leading man, we in the audience were completely on the side of the dad. Meanwhile, the script kept insisting we were meant to feel more for the sensitive son who was embarrassed, intruded-upon and humiliated. Nope, the younger man came off like a whiner because the actors were not fighting their own weight. There are exceptions to this rule; in Strangers on a Train (above) no one would consider Farley Granger as mesmerizing to watch as Robert Walker's lovely roll around in rich, choclatey evil. All movies about great villains and cornered desperate men are the exceptions that prove the rule.
2. If you don't have an ear for music, find someone who does.
The Fall has a fine scene at the end, and it's not a spoiler to describe it. Essentially, it's a montage of famous silent comedy, scored to Beethoven's 7th Symphony. That's the ultimate tragic music, music that you can't top with other slit-my-wrists classical, not even Mozart's Requiem. (I guess my previous favorite use of Beethoven's Seventh is in Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat, to underscore a narration by Boris Karloff, describing the carnage on a World War One battlefield.) The music overwhelms the images of Buster Keaton's multiple near-death experiences, or Harold Lloyd's various maniac car rides. It makes tragedy out of these clearly antic images; it insists that life is a series of barely-avoided catastrophes topped by one final, certain catastrophe. This is but one example of how important music is to a movie, and yet most cinema music is pure wallpaper: boring hits, little progressions on strings, music that goes in one ear and out the other. It's rare to hear a soundtrack with personality. Take Tomandandy's soundtrack for The Strangers for instance, with its intelligent use of Joanna Newsom "The Sprout and the Bean" as a spine chiller. I always try to mention the music, and I'm startled when other critics don't seem to be "listening to what they watch", as the musical soundtrack aficionado Robert Emmet of KFJC radio puts it.
3. Fans can tell the difference between people who love cartoons, and people who are using them as a career stepping stone.
The story you hear about the 1989 Punisher movie is that Dolph Lundgren didn't wear a costume because "it'll make him look too much like a cartoon character." Similarly, there's a story of Paul Dini fighting a torrent of notes and a squad of executives when he was making his still-sensational The Batman Adventures at Fox TV, and blurting out: "What's the matter with you people, don't you like cartoons?" Cartoons are lucrative and yet you see so much work done, in both TV and the cinema, by people without an affinity for the medium. It's not a matter of geekiness, or knowing every detail of the origin story. For some reason, and I'm not sure why it is, a love of cartoons as cartoons seems to make the difference between a successful film or show...and something that just lays their like a dead mackerel. The love of cartoons must be something especially hard to fake, harder than the love of comedy even.
4. Don't read Syd Field, read Shakespeare.
The ancients believed mankind was in a constant state of decline. A golden age had been followed by an age of silver, then an age of brass, and so forth down the ladder. In cinema, we see an era when people based films on the whole of human experience, followed by an industrious studio-system looting of every possible media. Then, in the 1970s, came a group of American talents who tried to redo classic studio era films, only with dark endings and more explicitness. And now the nation's film schools are full of students who try to redo the 1970s, only on skateboards. This is a gross oversimplification, but the reason I'm making it is that I'm astonished how few people go back to the master to figure out ways of framing their tragedies and comedies. From Shakespeare, one can learn the importance of scale (how, as Lytton Strachey put it, a fall from a cliff is more interesting than a fall from a cushion); there in the plays is the proper way of interspersing comedy, often the violent kind; the right way to indicate in a few words the crushing of a soul, the rising up of a spirit. And it just sounds so good when you quote him ... remember Sean Connery about to head off to certain death in From Russia With Love, and murmuring to Moneypenny as he glides by: "Once more into the breach, dear friends" (from Henry V, of course).
5. Kill the Narrator
Kill him. Exceptions are first person stories of fancy murderers, like Humbert Humbert in Lolita or Louis D'Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets or Philip Marlowe figuring out a case to himself. In most cases, the narrator is clear evidence of a patch job, put in by faint of heart filmmakers who weren't certain the average person can follow what the hell is going on. Just as many writers don't know what they're trying to say until they see it written down, many directors don't understand the ambiguities of a story until they see it finished. And movies could always use more ambiguities.
6. The female lead should not be an afterthought.
There must be an unwritten rule somewhere that it's more proactive to give your heroine a boy's name. (How many female leads in films have been named "Alex," for instance?) Since the rise of the girl next door type, it happens frequently in films: it must be a way to convince the viewer that they're watching a film for guys even if there's women in it. Moreover, sufficiently fat guys are considered androgynes (thus there's no romantic subplot in Kung Fu Panda). Filmmaking is a male profession, and there's the simple answer for why it's simple-minded. The women's roles are less interesting than ever, and thus something as essentially minor as Sex and the City becomes an supposed event. If movies are going to be more than just downloadable content, something has to be done about the female character being the last part of the film to be figured out. It always shows when this happens, and it happens too often.
7. See it on the big screen
Cinephiliacs are an endangered species. While the occasional IMAX event shows the wow-factor of size, even smaller Academy ratio films are bigger deals in revival than the Netflix arrival demonstrates. But films are often now composed on AVIS, edited on home systems and pre-screened on disk. Why is it a surprise, then, when so many major motion pictures look exactly like cream cheese...especially the ones loaded with CGI and glowing with a sick white light like an office florescent lamp. (I was glad to see the New York Times' Manhola Dargis going after the notably visually ugly What Happens in Vegas on these grounds.) While you can get the gist of a film and praise a few performances from watching it at home, the movie is a different beast on a screen. As Mark Twain put it, it's like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug, and as the experience becomes more rarified, movies are going to keep looking smaller, shabbier and more immaterial.