Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Gray Swan

This is not a review of “Black Swan”, it is a response to it. It’s been awhile since a film affected me so strongly. Sure, on one level, the film is about ballet but that is just on the surface, what drives the plot.

The film is about so much more.

The film is about film, painting, writing, acting, singing, music and on and on. Anyone who wants to create, to engage in art, doesn’t do it passively, they give of themselves, they throw themselves into the creative process.

“Black Swan” really struck a chord with me because, even though it is about ballet on the surface, it is really about all art and anyone who struggles to create something. At one point the creative director of the ballet criticizes his star dancer for being too perfect, too precise, mechanical, cold and distant and, to me, it came off as Darren Aronofsky, the director of the movie, making a statement about big-budget Hollywood movies --- this film is relatively low-budget, shot with really grainy film and herky-jerky hand-held camera movement.

I remember watching “It’s Complicated” not long ago and being so distracted by how obsessively good the lighting was in one particular scene. It was ridiculous, I could tell that, in this kitchen location, a light or lights had been set up “just so” in order to make a bowl of fruit stand out, not even a bowl of fruit that was an important prop, a plot device. It was like this throughout the whole movie and not just this one film, most “big” films. It didn’t have anything to do with art per se -- all due respect to the DP and the gaffer who are obviously master craftsmen -- it was about technical precision.

Artists don’t just wake up one day and suddenly decide that they want to be artists, it is not intellectual at first, it is instinctual, we are drawn to create, to perform. I teach screenwriting at an art school. My students want to be filmmakers. I don’t think that any one of them had a meeting with their high school guidance counselor, had to come up with something to say and spat out “I want to go to film school.” Okay, maybe one or two of them once said “Well, um, I like movies, can I go to college for that?” No, I like to think that, like me, they had a long-standing burning desire to create, to express themselves, their worldview, to tell stories and to connect with others, to make work that resonates.

Still, even if we are “good at art”, it is often not enough, we want to be great at it, we want to be perfect.

While I was into acting, theater and film from a very early age, by the time I became a teenager, I think I wanted to become a stand-up comedian, I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live. I inhaled comedy, studied it, practiced it, listened to Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin over and over again.

I saw Cosby at the York Pennsylvania State Fair when I was 15 and it was breath-taking, life-changing. I am pretty sure that I had never experienced that level of stage craft before but I know that I have never witnessed anything quite like it since. The show was so coherent and cohesive, like an intricate puzzle with many, many pieces that all fit together. Cosby came out on-stage, did one joke that served as something like a thesis statement from which every other joke evolved, even developed into a seemingly unrelated tangent but always came back, always had something to do with the original joke, which he would touch on for a bit and then go off in another direction and so on.

I think I knew, at that moment, deep down, that I could probably never attain that level of perfection, the thing that Nina, Natalie Portman’s character in “Black Swan” is obsessively after.

Also, in a really lucky moment of self-realization, while I was slitting the throat of my comedy career, I admitted to myself that I probably didn’t have what it takes to become an actor. Sure, I had talent but I didn’t have the looks, the body and, most importantly, the drive or the thick skin to make it in the world of making it as an actor.

A friend of mine who was a year ahead of me in high school was nearing graduation and, when I asked her what she was doing about college, she said that she was going to film school and, of course, my reaction was “Well, um, I like movies, can I go to college for that?”

Who knows? Maybe we seek attention and crave adulation. I always tell my students about the role of art in society, that artists are vessels for the human experience, that they cannot help it but take in the world at large, the things around us and then re-present or represent everything from their perspective, hopefully in a way that resonate with those who look at whatever it is that we do. Whatever the reason, we can’t do anything else, our art consumes us.

I can even see the beginnings of it, to a degree in my kids. Three weeks ago, my 16 year old daughter got up on a stage and with grace, poise and passion performed a long, intricate, complicated Beethoven piece in a recital. That one performance was the result of hours and hours of practice during which I can tell you, she sometimes resembled not Vladimir Horowitz but Keith Moon. Sure, practice makes perfect but if can drive you mad sometimes.

My 13 year old daughter has had a number of poems, short stories, book reviews and articles published in very high end literary magazines for young writers. Last year she entered two novel excerpts into a competition for homeschoolers. Both of her entries were among the five finalists and, in the end, she wound up in first and second place. Still, there is little that I can do when I see her in the agony of writer’s block or suffering the self-doubt and second-guesses about our talent that all artists go through.

Choosing an artistic path can be a painful, scary thing. Art succeeds when others respond to it. In order to get a response from an audience we have to put it, ourselves out there, be it as a ballerina, a singer-songwriter, a poet, a painter. Somewhere down the line, we say to ourselves “I think I am pretty good at this” and, in a best case scenario, we work up the confidence to create something, to show something, to play something and people agree with us and encourage us --- often to pursue often at the expense of learning how to do anything practical or developing marketable skills.

I wanted to be a perfect stand-up comedian and I could have driven myself crazy in pursuit of this goal. There is a scene in the wonderful Jerry Seinfeld documentary “Comedian” where, in an effort to rebuild and reinvent his comedy career from the ground up, he pays a visit to Bill Cosby who comes off as uncharacteristically laid back and humble, almost like a holy man of comedy. Seinfeld leaves the meeting speechless, his breath taken away. He is inspired. Maybe if I could have met Cosby when I was 15...

I don’t strive for perfection. I feel like I can never be perfect, that maybe, if I am lucky, I will be good enough. I am not perfect and I never will be. Most of the time, I think I am a pretty good screenwriter. Sometimes I wonder if I am fooling myself or anyone else when I say that this is what I “do.” I learn something new every time that I sit down to write and I know that I can never learn it all, that there isn’t even an “all” to learn, that it is infinite, that it keeps going, that I will never be the black swan or the white swan but somewhere in between, the gray swan.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The horror, the horror?

There is very little new under the sun, it is often what you do with familiar elements, how you employ them in unconventional ways that is most impressive. Often, for many writers, the first instinct is to go with the obvious plot element, the idea that pops into your mind first, which is usually something that you have seen in another movie, probably more than once. So, it can be a really good discipline to recognize that first instinct and then look for something else.

A few nights ago, I delivered the screenplay for what I call a non-scary horror movie. I like horror movies and I like slasher films but I feel that it has all been done before, we all know what is going to happen: much of the time, a group of kids is going to find themselves in a situation where they are getting killed off one by one, end of story.

For me, the "horror" elements, the stalking and killing scenes have been so over-done that it's become monotonous, not very scary and, too much of the time, just an excuse for the f//x guys to go wild with gore -- who cares about the killing anymore?

Let me digress and talk about sex for awhile. Sex, yes, that got your attention. I usually fast forward through sex scenes. Why? Because I know what happens when people have sex. No matter how many variations we can come up with, it usually comes down to some version of Insert “Flap A into Slot B.” Yes, characters having sex is often an important plot element but actually seeing them have sex is usually superfluous and, when you get right down to it, gratuitous. Put it this way, I haven’t seen many sex scenes that further my understanding of the characters. They had sex, fine. They did it this way and that way --- probably unimportant.

I do not watch porn. I really have no need to watch people doing it. Bill Cosby once said “When I am hungry, I don’t watch a film of two people eating.” However, when I worked in a video store, one of my responsibilities was fixing broken VHS tapes. I would cut out the damaged section of the movie, splice the tape back together and test it out to see if it would play.

Sometimes I had to work on porn tapes and I would have to watch them in order to gauge the success of my repair work. So, here I was, for the first time, with a pile of porn tapes that I had to look at and what did I do? I fast-forwarded through the sex scenes and watched the “dramatic” material in between the sex, looking for acting and good dialogue. Needless to say, I found very little of either -- acting or good dialogue.

So, it is sort of the same thing with me and horror films. What I like to see in horror films are the non-horror moments, character development, who these people are and how they are dealing with the situation ---- something that I rarely see. So that is sort of what I set out to do in this horror screenplay.

Bear with me: It is about a group of bitchy, popular high school girls who bully an outcast, a lonely, awkward, artsy "weird" girl and who commits suicide.

The story zips ahead four or five years and the girls are now "adults", not really friends with each other anymore, largely out of touch until one of them dies mysteriously. They all reunite at the funeral and hang out for awhile afterward.

Old feelings are stirred when they discover that there might be a connection to the their friends murder and the suicide of the girl in high school or that it could just be a coincidence. They all start becoming acutely aware of this event from their past --- stories about teen suicide, internet bullying etc. everywhere they go. One of them even stumbles upon a tribute video to the girl on You Tube.

Then another girl dies. Then another. One girl really believes that there is a connection and that, if they go to the police they might be able to figure out who the killer is and get protection but the other girl(s) don't want anyone to know their story etc., etc.

Eventually, it comes down to the "good" girl, the one who wants to come clean about their involvement in the girl's suicide, and the "bad" girl, who is now an up-and-coming actress who doesn't want to jeopardize her career. They argue, the bad girl is really mean to the good girl, who storms off, distraught.

SPOILER ALERT -- If you really think that you might actually watch this film and you do not want the end to be ruined, skip the next paragraph.

The killer shows up, the bad girl runs to get the good girl only to find that she has committed suicide just like the first girl. The killer gets the bad girl, The End.

I left out big chunks and important details of the story but my point is that this is almost an anti-horror horror film, there are some scary moments but, mostly, it is about the girls sitting around, talking about feeling guilty or denying their guilt about what they did. Definitely not been-there-done-that --- whether or not it will translate into a successful film is another question.

Years ago, when I was writing film reviews for a national magazine, I got a “fan” letter from the director of a horror film that I liked and wrote a good review of. The director thanked me profusely and expressed appreciation for me because I really “got” what he was trying to do with the film. We stayed in touch, became really friendly, when this project emerged, he asked me to take a crack at the screenplay and I jumped at the chance. He is under no obligation to me to use my screenplay, he just asked if I wanted to do something with his premise and I took the challenge. With great trepidation, I sent the screenplay to the director, knowing that he wanted to make a horror film but that, what I wrote was more of a talky, indie art film with sporadic horror elements. He wrote to me halfway through reading the screenplay and told me that he plans to shoot it. I believe “shadow.man” will be produced in Houston early next year. Be afraid? Be very afraid?