Posts Tagged ‘The Maltese Falcon’

The Movie Biz

Monday, May 27th, 2019

firewood wall

My fourteen-year-old daughter Alexandra has launched a movie company, Windsor Montoya Productions, and I have agreed to work for her as an idea person, writer, actor, and caterer’s assistant. Elisha, Alexandra’s mother, has also joined the company as an idea person, actor, continuity maven, and caterer. Conor, Alexandra’s older brother, will be an idea person, writer, actor, art director, cinematographer, sound tech, and editor. Sylvia Espinosa, Alexandra’s best friend, who is fifteen, will be an idea person, actor, writer, and co-director of the movies. Alexandra will be the producer, co-director, and head of operations.

I thought interviewing Delia Krantz, who is ninety-six with lots of show biz experience, would be a fun way to help launch the new movie company. To that end, Alexandra and Conor and Sylvia and I meet with Delia at Mona’s—the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek. Elisha is working the counter during the interview and is able to hear most of what Delia says. Conor is also recording the interview with a brand new super duper Balzini microphone plugged into his laptop so we can access the interview in the future.

Delia was born in Chicago in the 1920s and worked as the personal assistant to seven different movie producers in Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s before moving to Carmeline Creek twenty-eight years ago. She lives in a cottage a block from the beach at the north end of town with her dachshunds Greta and Harpo.

Alexandra: Did you know Marilyn Monroe?

Delia: I did not know her, but I met her a few times when I was working for Mel Katz. Mel wanted Marilyn for the femme fatale in a cowboy remake of The Three Musketeers. If she’d said Yes the movie would have gotten made, but because the original part for Marilyn wasn’t big enough for her, Mel had his writers expand her role, and when they did, the script fell apart.

Alexandra: What’s a femme fatale?

Delia: A dangerously attractive woman.

Sylvia: What did you do for your job when you were assisting those movie producers?

Delia: I made all their appointments, attended most of their meetings, took notes during the meetings, typed up the notes, called people and gave them good news and bad news and no news. Things like that. I was on the phone constantly, juggling appointments and dealing with a thousand details. As Jerome Purcell said, I was his adjunct brain. I took dictation, wrote letters, made lunch and dinner reservations, arranged for transportation, and a million other things.

Conor: Who was Jerome Purcell?

Delia: He was one of the biggest movie producers in the world in the early seventies. He made Totally Goofing Around, Crazy Insane Killers, and You Gotta Be Kidding, to name a few.

Alexandra: I’ve never heard of those movies. Should we watch them to get ideas?

Delia: No. Watch Frank Capra movies. Watch Kate Hepburn. Watch Neil Simon. Watch Truffaut and Alec Guinness and Jimmy Stewart and the Marx Brothers.

Sylvia: Do you ever watch YouTube videos?

Delia: Sometimes. People send me links to videos of dogs and cats, but why would I watch videos of dogs when I have dogs? I mostly watch detective shows and old movies and British game shows. I’m addicted to Would I Lie To You, and truth be told, I’m still in love with Humphrey Bogart.

Alexandra: We watched The Maltese Falcon a few weeks ago.

Delia: Did you like it?

Alexandra: Kind of, but I didn’t really understand what was happening and it was kind of scary, though it wasn’t violent or anything, just creepy, especially that one guy.

Delia: Peter Lorre. It’s a confusing story. Verges on Kafka by today’s standards. You’d like the movies Bogie made with Lauren Bacall. Talk about chemistry.

Alexandra: Would you like to hear the idea for our first movie?

Delia: Love to. And by the way, Alexandra, I think it’s marvelous you’re getting into the movie business. You remind me so much of Mary Martin.

Conor: Who was she?

Delia: Who was Mary Martin? She was Peter Pan on television. In the 50s. Live. Every year. With Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. Rogers and Hammerstein wrote The Sound of Music for her. She was the original Maria. A genius.

Alexandra: And I remind you of her?

Delia: In so many ways. Now tell me about your movie.

Alexandra: Okay. So… it’s about a man who goes on a walk, and he’s just walking along. Maybe he has a little dog on a leash. We’re not sure about the dog yet. Anyway, he keeps going by weird things and the things keep getting weirder and weirder, only he doesn’t seem to notice them. He’s just going along and maybe whistling.

Delia: Like what kind of weird things?

Alexandra: Well… we haven’t thought of them all yet, but the first thing will be a person holding a little balloon and hovering a few feet off the ground.

Sylvia: The second thing will be a cat sitting at the bottom of a tree and there will be dog up in the tree. You know, like a reversal of the usual dog on the ground, cat in the tree scenario.

Delia: And the man doesn’t notice these things?

Alexandra: No, he’s just walking along whistling.

Delia: Speaking of Kafka.

Alexandra: Who was Kafka?

Delia: He wrote a story about a man who turns into a cockroach. Dark depressing unsolvable emotional conundrums.

Alexandra: Oh. Well our movie won’t be dark and depressing. It will be funny because the man never notices these strange things no matter how weird they are.

Delia: Why do we care about this man?

Alexandra: What do you mean?

Delia: As Boris Zverev used to say, if we don’t care about the main characters, why should anybody care about the movie? And so he always tried to give us reasons to care about a person? To like them.

Conor: To identify with them.

Delia: (touches her nose) Exactly.

Conor: So maybe if we saw this man for a minute or two before he goes on his walk, and he talks to his cat or sings along to the radio while he makes breakfast or…

Delia: Yes. Humanize him, as Boris used to say.

Sylvia: Who was Boris?

Delia: Boris Zverev was the go-to script doctor in the 1960s. He saved a hundred movies from certain failure.

Alexandra: Do you have any other advice to help us with our movies?

Delia: You need a good story, to quote Frank Capra.

Conor: What makes a story good?

Delia: As Bernard Fuchs used to say… Bernard was a brilliant writer way back when… a good story involves interesting people trying to overcome an external challenge or challenges that also represent inner dilemmas. The only way the character or characters can successfully solve the mystery or win the battle or transcend the challenge is to go through some sort of internal transformation that can then be expressed on the outside. People love stories of transformation.

Alexandra: So once you have a good story, then what?

Delia: Then you have to write a good script, which means you have to have interesting, believable characters saying and doing interesting and endearing things, overcoming difficulties, falling in love, and keeping the audience wondering what’s going to happen next, all the way to the surprising and satisfying ending.

Alexandra: Do people always have to fall in love for a script to be good?’

Delia: In one way or another. The falling in love doesn’t have to be romantic, but who doesn’t like a good romance? It all goes back to creating a story and characters the audience can identify with, so we root for them to succeed. They, in a sense, are versions of us.

Conor: I think movies have changed since you were in the business. Not that what you’re telling us isn’t helpful, but movies now are more about imagery and sound and action. The story isn’t so important anymore.

Delia: (shrugs) If that’s what you like, but people will always love a good story. That will never change. It’s in our genes to love stories. (muses) May I give you a little history lesson about movies?

Conor: Yes. Please.

Alexandra: (excited) You know what we could do? We could make a movie about Delia teaching us how to make movies.

Sylvia: Yeah, and we would try to do what she tells us and fail hilariously.

Conor: A tragic comedy.

Delia: Who would play me? Don’t tell me. Me?

Alexandra: Of course! Who else?

Conor: So… the history lesson.

Delia: Okay, so in the beginning there was no sound in movies. Everything had to be conveyed with the setting and very obvious situations in which characters, archetypal characters, acted with their bodies and their faces and the occasional dialogue card. So just from looking at them you knew who was the villain, who was the victim, who was nice, who was bad. Their actions and facial expressions told the story. Then in the 1930s when sound arrived and actors could talk, most of the first screenwriters were recruited from among playwrights, people writing for the stage. And so most of the first movies were, by and large, plays or vaudeville acts turned into movies. Hence the term screenplay. A play for the screen. Now the thing about a play is, you’re limited to action taking place on a stage with one or two sets. That’s it. So those writers were very good at writing interesting dialogue because that’s what made for a good play. Movies don’t depend so much on dialogue, but dialogue is still extremely important. As is good acting. But there is a fundamental truth about plays and movies that has never changed. Which is… we learn the most about the people in the movie or the play by what they do, not by what they say. If a person walks by a person floating in the air and doesn’t notice them, we learn that the person walking by is not very observant and this influences how we think about him. In other words, actions speak louder than words. So I would say when you write your scripts, be aware of the non-verbal messages being conveyed by what people do.

Conor: Maybe the guy doesn’t notice anything because he’s lost in his own thoughts and he’s trained himself not to notice things because everything in his world is so weird.

Alexandra: Or maybe he does notice the person floating and the dog and cat reversal, but he doesn’t think it’s weird because everything in his reality is weird.

Delia: What happens at the end?

Conor: He goes by one last weird thing and we fade out.

Delia: No transformation?

Conor: We don’t know.

Delia: I don’t see the point.

Alexandra: It’s about how weirdness is normal now. What used to seem crazy is just how things are now and the man just accepts it.

Delia: Oh. So there’s no story. It’s what we used to call an experimental film. You’re trying out ideas to learn how to use the medium.

Conor: No, there’s a story. It’s about how life is now. People being oblivious to how weird everything is.

Delia: I guess that’s kind of a story. In an abstract way. Speaking of Kafka.

Alexandra: You’ve given us a lot to think about, Delia. Thank you so much.

Delia: You’re welcome, sweetheart. I’m very happy you asked me. I enjoyed remembering some of the people I knew so long ago, hearing their voices again.

fin

Graphic Novels

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

The Search

The Search painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2015)

“I’m a comic book artist. So I think to myself, what do I like to draw? I like to draw hot chicks, fast cars and cool guys in trench coats. So that’s what I write about.” Frank Miller

Last night we watched a DVD of the new movie People, Places, Things. The film did not have a theatrical release, which is the fate of most movies made in America these days unless they are massively expensive blockbusters. People, Places, Things is not a blockbuster and probably didn’t cost much to make, and Marcia and I both very much enjoyed the movie.

The male lead is played by Jemain Clement who has a strong New Zealand accent, so should you rent the film, turn up the volume. Also be sure to watch the opening credits; they are a graphic novella about the five years preceding the beginning of the movie.

Clement plays the part of a graphic novelist who teaches graphic novel writing and drawing at a college in New York, Stephanie Allynne plays his stressed out wife, and Aundrea and Gia Gadsby play their six-year-old twin daughters.

A few hours after seeing the movie, I realized the blocking of the scenes in the film mimics the static nature of scenes in graphic novels, otherwise known as comic books printed and bound as if they are novels. The writer/director of the movie James C. Strouse refers to graphic novels as comic books throughout the film, which I found refreshingly honest. American publishers have been striving for decades now to convince readers that graphic novels are not comic books, but they are. Calling a cow a bovine does not mean that particular bovine is not a cow.

My favorite scenes in the movie were those in which Clement is speaking to his class of aspiring comic book artists. These scenes took me back to the early 1990s when I oversaw the Creative Writing department at the California State Summer School for the Arts and many of my teenaged students were disinterested in novels and poetry, but keenly interested in comic books.

These bright young writers were in the first wave of humans to have their brains programmed since childhood by watching thousands of hours of music videos—messages conveyed by streams of swiftly changing images underscored by walls of sound and rhythm that cause viewers to hunger for more such streams of images and sound. My students were also among the first wave of humans to grow up with personal computers, thus many of them were incapable of writing longhand or speaking in complete sentences.

As a consequence of my collision with this demographic, I was given several comic books to read, each comic book touted by the giver as his or her favorite. I had not read comic books since I was a kid, and even as a kid didn’t so much read them as flip through the pages in search of arresting images. These comic books given to me by my students were essentially storyboards for shallow unoriginal movies. What, I wondered, did intelligent teenagers find so compelling about these comic books?

So I asked my students to enlighten me, and the gist of what they said was that these comic books provided them with armatures on which to hang their fantasies. Indeed, each comic book starred a lead character superficially similar to the person who gave me the comic book. What were these comic books about? Young, lonely, alienated outcasts doing battle with the dark forces of a cruel world, the line between good and evil blurry, hope a flickering candle in a tempest.

“You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.” George Burns

I screened a number of movies for my teenaged writers, movies I was fairly certain they had not yet seen and would appreciate. Alas, The Maltese Falcon bored them to tears and they hated Stardust Memories. As one erudite student said of Woody Allen’s magnum opus, “That is one fucked up dude.”

However, they loved Diva, despite the subtitles, and no wonder. Diva is about a lonely, alienated young man doing battle with the dark forces of a cruel world, the line between good and evil blurry, hope a flickering candle in a tempest, with great music and fabulous cinematography. As much as I love Diva, there is no denying it is a comic book brought to life.

“To me, it’s a matter of first understanding that which may not be put to words.” William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams likened a poem to a nude, a novel to a strip tease. Williams was born in 1883 and died in 1963 and was claimed as a major influence by the San Francisco poets I most admired in the 1960s and 70s—Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. My favorite collection of William Carlos Williams poems is Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems.

As a young writer inspired by Williams’ poems about the stuff of every day life, I practiced writing detailed descriptions of simple objects, a practice I found challenging and valuable. However, many years later when I asked my teenaged students to write descriptions of simple objects: a pen, a bowl, a piece of paper, I was startled by the dismay this exercise aroused in many of them.

“What does this have to do with writing?” asked one angry young woman.

“It’s just a stupid pen,” opined an outraged young man.

“This has everything to do with writing,” I replied. “And the pen will only be stupid if you make it so with your words. In order to write stories or poems that someone else can read and relate to, we must be able to clearly describe things with our words. And the way to get good at that is to practice. With your pen. On a piece of paper.”