Posts Tagged ‘Mike Leigh’

Bill and Ted Arrive

Monday, May 15th, 2017

129things

129 Things photo diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Four score and…seven minutes ago, we, your forefathers, were brought forth upon a most excellent adventure, conceived by our new friends: Bill and Ted. These two great gentlemen are dedicated to a proposition, which was true in my time, just as it’s true today. Be excellent to each other and Party On, Dudes!” Abraham Lincoln in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

We recently watched the movie Arrival directed by Denis Villeneuve. Arrival is a well-meaning and humorless look at the arrival on earth of beings from another solar system, and how contemporary humans might react to such an arrival. Denis Villeneuve is also the director of the soon-to-be-released Blade Runner sequel, and he has recently been signed to direct yet another movie-version of Dune. Based on how Denis did with Arrival, I’m not optimistic his Dune will be much better than the previous Dune disasters.

In any case, we enjoyed Arrival, though the sound was problematic and the transitions from one scene to the next were often jumpy and confusing. Much of what the characters said to each other was partially or completely drowned out by competing noises. Thus we could not depend on the dialogue to let us know what was going on. I think this was the director’s attempt to simulate what he believed to be sonic realism, but I found the muted dialogue annoying.

When Arrival ended—as I was trying to make sense of the more confusing parts of the movie—I had the following epiphany: the underlying idea propelling the plot of Arrival is identical to the underlying idea propelling the plot of the super great 1989 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. To wit: time is not linear and future events influence the present as profoundly and immediately as do events from the past. Once I had this epiphany, the puzzle pieces composing Arrival fell into place and I ceased to be annoyed and bewildered.

Amy Adams is the star of Arrival. Her character not only saves the world in the movie, her performance saves the movie. She plays the part of a brilliant linguist surrounded by a mob of not-very-bright men trying to figure out what the aliens are doing here. Thus I found her easy to identify with. Hers was also the only character in the movie appropriately awed by, and respectful of, the big octopus-like aliens. And her character was also the only human believably afraid and troubled by the challenge confronting her. Everyone else in the movie seemed void of emotion, one-dimensional, and superfluous. I suppose it could be argued that the entire film was Amy’s character’s dream, but that would be silly.

Nevertheless, I really liked what the movie gave me, which is the message that to overcome our fears we must move toward them with open arms. Trying to run from our fears or kill them or deny them won’t do the trick. We must embrace them and transmute them as we allow them to transmute us.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, on the other hand, has excellent audio and is filled with humor. Keanu Reeves is stupendous as Ted and will never again be so good in a movie. Alex Winter as Bill is also great, and never again has done much of anything in the movies. And the late great George Carlin is supremely excellent as Rufus, Bill and Ted’s mentor and guardian from the future.

Disclaimer: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of several movies I love that many of my friends and age-peers do not like. For this reason, I will not recommend the movie except to say that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure works wonderfully well if you need help making sense of Arrival.

Speaking of movies, we also recently saw and enjoyed the 2013 Chilean-Spanish movie Gloria, written and directed by Sebastien Lelio and starring Paulina Garcia. I first saw and admired Paulina Garcia in the marvelous American movie Little Men, written and directed by Ira Sachs, and so I was eager to see more of her work. Gloria is both comic and tragic, and felt ultra-real to me. Paulina Garcia’s portrayal of a lonely middle-aged woman riding the ups and downs of a difficult relationship with a narcissistic sociopath is so moving and believable, this otherwise depressing story becomes a luminescent homage to the resiliency of an inherently good person.

I was reminded by Paulina Garcia’s performance in Gloria of Sally Hawkins’ stellar performance in Mike Leigh’s extraordinary film Happy Go Lucky.

Thank goodness for foreign movies and foreign directors (and American directors who might as well be foreigners), else what would the likes of me have to watch?

Meanwhile, I have recently completed work on two stupendous screenplays—The Magic Pen and Larry Story—and eagerly await inquiries from imaginative movie producers, brilliant directors, and superb actors interested in making fabulous cinematic art with excellent audio and unforgettable dialogue.

Loyalty

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

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Molly photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2013)

My brother, a software systems analyst and project manager, sent me the following quote from the book Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies by Stephen Barley and Gideon Kunda that my brother says sums up his world as an IT (Internet Technology) contractor for the past 25 years. “The old social contract was, give loyalty, get security. But that old contract has been repealed, and free agents quickly realized that in the traditional world they were silently accepting an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. From infighting and office politics to bosses pitting employees against one another to colleagues who don’t pull their weight, most workplaces are in dysfunction. Most people do want to work; they don’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions.”

The quote confused me because I wasn’t sure whether Barley and Kunda were saying that loyalty in the era of Internet Technology is obsolete and the cause of dysfunction, or if they were saying that the repeal of loyalty ushered in the era of dysfunction. When I read the quote to Marcia, she immediately replied, “Well, loyalty is a vertical phenomenon that ideally connects top to bottom within a system and gives everyone in the system a sense of the whole process they’re involved in. But if everyone is fighting for themselves, then the awareness of the purpose of the process is lost and everyone’s energy goes to self-preservation instead of doing necessary work and creating a healthy and functional working situation.”

Marcia’s response struck me as a good explanation for the ongoing dysfunction of our government, top to bottom. The abandonment of loyalty to anything or anyone other than the greedy self describes the motivation and behavior of John Boehner and his sociopathic colleagues, as well as Obama’s loyalty to the banksters and earth-gobbling corporate executives who would rather ruin everything in the world than help anyone other than themselves, which means they lack the ability to sympathize with others, which means they are incapable of love or rational thought, which means they are severely emotionally disturbed and should be locked away in high security mental institutions where they can pose no further danger to themselves or others.

We would rather be ruined than changed;


We would rather die in our dread


Than climb the cross of the moment


And let our illusions die. W.H. Auden

We recently watched Mike Leigh’s movie Life Is Sweet, a fascinating and painful and strangely delightful look at a working class English family. Perhaps because I was writing this article about loyalty when we saw the film, I saw Life Is Sweet as a study of loyalty, of parents being loyal to their children, of husband and wife being loyal to each other, of siblings being loyal to each other, and of friends being loyal to friends, and how loyalty can be a wonderful force for healthy growth and healing, but also a key ingredient in a recipe for debilitating dysfunction.

 “Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realize that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.” Andre Gide

The more I think about loyalty, the more the word loyalty seems rather useless on its own—lacking specificity and having too many different meanings depending on context. Therefore I am going to be disloyal to the initial inspiration for this article and change the subject entirely, though in changing the subject I may inadvertently illuminate the original topic through this juxtaposition of elements in tension.

Huh? Let me explain. My senior year of high school, 1967, I was in an Advanced Placement English class, which was supposed to prepare us for taking the AP English essay test. If we got a score of 3 or better (out of 5) on that test, our chances of getting into a good college would be much improved and we would be given ten units of college credit and allowed to skip the basic English courses most incoming college freshman were required to take. I was a contrarian and disdainful of obedient regurgitation, which made me an enemy of most of my teachers. When we took the practice AP exam and my score was the lowest in our class, my English teacher gleefully trumpeted my failure as proof of the error of my contrary ways.

Only one person in my class, Candy, scored a 5 on the practice exam. Candy was the perennial teacher’s pet and the queen, nay, the empress of slavering regurgitation. Throughout my four years of incarceration at Woodside High, Candy’s essays were routinely read aloud to us by a series of intoxicated teachers as examples of what proper student essays should be. I still remember our Eleventh Grade English teacher reading Candy’s slavering essay on the recurrence of synonyms for the color red in The Scarlet Letter, and Candy’s conclusion that “The Scarlet Letter is, unquestionably, the most perfect novel yet written in the English language.” This was a regurgitation of that very teacher stating, “The Scarlet Letter is, without a doubt, the most perfect novel ever written,” a proclamation that elicited from me a loud guffaw and “You’ve got to be kidding,” which resulted in my having to come in after school every day for a week (and miss basketball practice) and sit at a desk without speaking for an hour, while Candy and her fellow sycophants fluttered around the teacher and kissed her hems, so to speak.

Nevertheless, when Candy’s top-scoring practice AP essay was read aloud to us and ballyhooed as the Rosetta Stone for how to score high on the AP English exam, I and several of my fellow inmates noted that in Candy’s barfacious essay she thrice used the expression this juxtaposition of elements in tension, and every time our teacher uttered those words she would gaze at Candy as if recalling a recent simultaneous orgasm.

After class that day, inspired by contempt and curiosity, three of my classmates and I cornered Candy and asked her, “What’s up with this juxtaposition of elements in tension?”

And though she was loathe to admit she had not invented the expression, Candy confessed she had been tutored by “an expert on the AP exam” who impressed upon her that the judicious use of this juxtaposition of elements in tension and a few other expressions we wheedled out of Candy would virtually guarantee a score of 3 or better—those expressions catnip to academics.

When the great day of the AP English exam came, we were sequestered in a windowless room and watched over by a trio of humorless teachers charged with making sure we didn’t cheat; not that one could cheat while writing a speculative essay on misogyny and superstition in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, or whatever it was they asked us to write about. With Candy’s tricks of the trade in mind, I generously peppered my essay with the expression this juxtaposition of elements in tension and the author’s predilection for subtle symbolic forays and such diverse yet mutually accommodating points of view, and lo the judges gave me a 3, much to the chagrin of my English teacher. Candy, of course, scored a 5, went to Stanford for two years, transferred to UC Berkeley, and beyond that I know not where her juxtapositions and predilections and subtle forays took her.

“Ours is the age of substitutes; instead of language, we have jargon; instead of principles, slogans; and, instead of genuine idea, bright ideas.” Eric Bentley

I see now that the opening quote from Barley and Kunda contains an apt description of my (and probably your) educational experience. I came to realize that in the traditional world (of academia) we were being forced to accept an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work; I simply didn’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions. And so I became a free agent, otherwise known as a freelance human being, and stumbled along for many years under the weight of my neuroses and through myriad juxtapositions of elements in tension until I came to a most wonderful turning point in middle-age when I bequeathed my loyalty to the notion elucidated by Mr. Laskin in my novel Under the Table Books. To wit: Don’t ever listen to anyone who says you aren’t a perfectly wonderful soul.

Another Year

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

(photo of Mike Leigh)

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

According to the on-screen credits that introduce Mike Leigh’s latest movie Another Year (available on DVD), the backers included agencies of the British government, including the national lottery. So…not only do the Brits have excellent and free healthcare, but their government provides money for cutting edge artists (be still my heart) to make major motion pictures about people so real that Marcia and I have been talking about Another Year for days on end, as if the characters in the movie actually came here and spent several days with us, getting drunk and driving us batty with all their imperfections and beauties and sorrows and strengths and frailties attendant to being human, as opposed to being cartoon characters.

The Sunday following our viewing of Another Year, I leafed through the Pink section (movies, music, theater, dance) and Insight section (books) of the San Francisco Chronicle and felt painfully embarrassed, as I often do, by our so-called culture. Books so badly written (my teeth ache thinking about them) fill the bestseller lists and garner slobbering reviews of such transparent falsity there can be no question this nonsense was planted by the publishers, those New York-based mouths of multinational corporations that would never knowingly publish a controversial sentence, let alone a truly original work of fiction. And this is the mediocre gunk that fills our bookstores; these are the made-for-dumbed-down-adolescents inanities that fill our movie theaters; these are the live sit-coms passing for plays that clutter our stages.

Which only makes Mike Leigh’s Another Year even more astonishing, not only because his movie is a great original work of art, but because it was made at all (without interference from the backers), and, miracle of miracles, made available in America to anyone emotionally capable of sitting through a movie that isn’t predictable, has an extremely subtle plot, features brilliant actors who are not particularly handsome or beautiful, has no overt violence, and causes us to examine our own lives in light of how this movie makes us feel. Escapist fun, no. Great art, yes.

Here is a Mike Leigh quote that gives a bit of insight into his way of making movies, an insight that applies to any art employing improvisation as a means of creating the first draft, as it were.

“The whole thing about making films in an organic film on location is that it’s not all about characters, relationships and themes, it’s also about place and the poetry of place. It’s about the spirit of what you find, the accidents of what you stumble across.”

In my experience as a writer and artist, and as a teacher of writers and artists, “the accidents of what you stumble across” turn out to be the primary catalysts of the creative process. And what I learned was that a terrible fear of stumbling and accidents and saying/writing “the wrong thing” was endemic among Americans longing to exercise their creative muscles; and if I wanted to make any headway with my students, I had to devise processes for overcoming this enormous blockade to free flowing creativity.

Ultimately, I invented hundreds of non-analytical writing exercises that circumvent our inner judges, critics, goblins, parents, and teachers who continue to shout so loudly in our brains that we can’t hear the muses trying to speak and sing and create through us. Many of these exercises are collected in a volume entitled The Writer’s Path (published in 2000 by 10-Speed Press and now out-of-print) which you can find copies of for pennies on the interweb, and from which I do not make a dime. I recommend the book to you and anyone wishing to establish a writing practice that takes full advantage of “the accidents of what you stumble across.”

Working first with teenagers and then with adults, I found that nearly everyone, even professional writers, suffers from what I diagnosed as plotitis, the primary symptom of which is the bizarre and ridiculous notion that a writer must have all the story elements (plot, characters, locations, etc.) figured out before he or she begins to write. In my quest for an antidote to the obvious cause of plotitis, an operating system error lodged in the left (analytical) brain, I stumbled on a process that not only cures the disease, it empowers everyone to write wonderful stories, a process I dubbed Arbitrary Story Structures. Here is a brief excerpt from The Writer’s Path introducing the process and two of the story structures.

*Arbitrary Story Structures

To help writers overcome one of the fundamental obstacles to successful story writing, we devised a simple and effective story-generating technique that frees the writer from having to invent the structure of a story before she begins to write it. When a writer is relieved of the need to invent a plot, her intuitive talents are free to emerge.

Arbitrary Story Structures are not detailed plots, but rather bare skeletons on which to hang an original tale. Following the brief instructions, we present eight structures of varying complexity. Each of them is written in a particular person and tense, but feel free to use any tense or person you prefer. Some of the structures provide slightly more specific suggestions than others. Use the ones you find most appealing.

Basic Exercise.

1. Read Part 1 of the Arbitrary Story Structure and write the first paragraph of your story.

2. Read Part 2 and write the second paragraph of your story.

3. Continue this process until you’ve written a paragraph for each part of the structure.

4. Read your story aloud.

5. If you like your story, refine or expand it.

Arbitrary Story Structure 1: The Journey

Part 1. You are on your way somewhere.

Part 2. You see something that strikes you as extraordinary.

Part 3. You think about what you’ve seen.

Part 4. You encounter another person.

Part 5. You have a brief conversation with this person.

Part 6. You fall asleep and dream. Tell the dream.

Arbitrary Story Structure 2: The Turning Point

Part 1. Someone is somewhere.

Part 2. He thinks about something and decides to go somewhere.

Part 3. He reaches the destination.

Part 4. He experiences a strong emotion.

Part 5. He has a vivid memory.

Part 6. He does something uncharacteristic.*

Now you might think that if eight people were to write stories based on the same story structure that eight similar stories would result. Yet that never happens. Indeed, the abstract nature of the suggestions ignites something unique in everyone, and no two stories will be alike.

“‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last,

‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’

‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’

‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.” A.A. Milne

Mike Leigh’s Another Year is divided into four sections of roughly the same length, the sections corresponding to the progression of the four seasons. In The Writer’s Path we call this a Natural Story Structure. To quote from the book again:

*The human life cycle—birth, life, death—is a grand story structure to which many of the world’s most famous novels adhere. Within this most familiar structure, countless story lines wait to support your unique visions. And beyond the human life cycle, in the patterns of all things, myriad story structures await you.

What, for instance, is the abstract story structure of a day? Here is a seven-part abstract structure based on one of many possible interpretations.

Part 1. Darkness

Part 2. Dawn

Part 3. Morning

Part 4. Noon

Part 5. Afternoon

Part 6. Evening

Part 7. Night*

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” C.S. Lewis

I think it is truthfulness suffused with empathy expressed through Mike Leigh’s mastery of the cinematic art that makes Another Year so memorable and challenging and original.