The Bag Means Your Mind

A delightful mix of insightful comments and ignorant assumptions about screenwriting... and such.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Pure Warrior

I recently purchased and viewed the Blu-ray version of Patton. First of all, the cover (pictured) is just awesome. It embodies the movie in one image. It's so much better than the picture of Patton against the American Flag. This cover makes me want to put the disc in and take in the character and marvel at how well George C. Scott transforms himself into the controversial General.

Like other discs I've viewed in recent months I put it in to see what high definition had to offer this film and couldn't bring myself to hit the stop button. 172 minutes later, the credits are rolling and I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that Patton is the best war movie of all time. For the longest time, I felt that Saving Private Ryan was the quintessential war movie. It was so gritty and seemed to really take you into the soldier's story. By comparison Patton is not in-your-face gritty and is certainly more sanitary given the time it was made, but in several ways it does hit home and uses clear, brutal words to nail down its points. In the paragraphs to come I'd like to explore what I find so intriguing about this movie.

You can't talk about the movie without talking about the man. He was surly and stern and loved the act of war. He believed firmly in its application to resolve global conflict. This is not a man you can easily like. Francis Ford Coppola masterfully took this man whom many considered a monster and humanized him. He did it in different ways, but I think the main point of Patton is that he was a man of passion. He was principled and had a drive to do what he loved. We tell ourselves and our kids: Do what you love. Do what makes you happy. Early in the movie Patton looks at himself in the mirror and says: "All my life I've wanted to lead a group of men in a desperate battle. I'm going to do it."

Later on, Patton surveys a battlefield. Tanks and vehicles are still smoldering in the distance. He has a very reverent look about him. He says, "I love it. God help me I do love it so. I love it more than my life." This admission could galvanize a viewer, but moments before Patton walks up to the soldier leading the battle. The soldier sits by his tank staring at the ground, a broken man. He tells Patton in a shell-shocked voice that the fighting went all night and finished in hand-to-hand combat. Patton leans over and kisses him on the top of the head in probably the tenderest moment of the movie. Coppola uses these incongruous moments to really show a complex man.

In the famous soldier slapping scene, again we see Patton's deep reverence for those soldiers who have paid the price juxtaposed for his intolerance to what he perceived to be cowardice. We might not agree with his actions, but in the course of a few moments, we can certainly understand them.

The other component of Patton's character was his spirituality. He believed he was a warrior reincarnated throughout history to do battle. This higher purpose combined with his straight-shooting mentality combines to portray someone who isn't some power hungry leader exploiting the lives of men to his own ends. While he certainly wanted glory, we got the sense that he wanted to be on the side of righteousness, that he wanted to change the world, to lead an army into history. That he did. The key scene depicting Patton's belief in reincarnation shows him surveying an ancient battlefield and reciting his poetry. It has no direct impact on the plot. If you remove it, the movie is intact, but as far as I'm concerned it's a critical scene as it gets you a little closer to the man.

Patton the man is obviously the key component of the movie, but it's the addition of other elements that really elevate this film to greatness. While Patton is not a very graphic film, it shocks with words. "We're not going to just shoot the bastards. We're going to tear out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We're going to murder those lousy hun bastards by the bushel." While much of that is the hyperbole you'd expect to find in a speach, the use of "murder" intrigues me. It's the first of some very clear and naked words to describe what war is. At another point in the movie Patton says: "Give me the supplies and I'll kill Germans." At a rally in England he professes to a crowd of women that he is eager to get to the Pacific so he can kill Japanese. The audience applauds, smiles all around. When Patton talks to a wounded soldier he remarks that the last German he saw didn't have any chest or head. The soldier smiles. These examples illustrate in the most matter of fact way the reality of war. It's not that we are waging war and a side effect of that is loss of life. It is that we are waging war and we aim to kill people. And it is interesting to note that there is no racism involved in the above scenes, just some sort of stark "if it's us or them, I vote them" admonition.

The last facet of Patton I'd like to talk about is the imagery that rippled throughout the film that stemmed from one line. Patton says: "Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink into insignificance." The first scene is the aftermath of a battle. The Arabs are stripping the dead for clothing. The Americans come and scare them away. Then they shoot some vultures who were feeding on the dead. There is a malnourished dog tied to a tank, barking it's head off. The soldiers survey the area and leave. The dog remains tied up and is barking as they leave. Helping the dog isn't even a thought. In town, some German planes begin strafing the ground troops. Tanks are mobilized. There is a beautiful fountain in the town square. The tank runs it over without a second thought. It was simply in the way. Stubborn mules attached to a cart block a bridge and stall a convoy causing a lot of destruction as it is strafed by German planes. When Patton finds out what the hold up is, he's furious. Without hesitation he pulls out his pistol and executes the mules. The owner of the mules stares in disbelief as the animals are discarded over the bridge. Later in the film, tanks advance over the German countryside destroying a nice stonewalled fence. Again, no hesitation. If there is an obstacle, you go through it and don't waste time going around it.

Finally, there is no mentioning Patton without mentioning its masterful and iconic score. The echoing and fading trumpets capture Patton's historical context and also a hint of his believe in reincarnation. Just perfect. All these things combine to make Patton an intriguing and fascinating film.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

The Six Month Plan

A year and a half.

That's how long I've been talking about starting a new project.


This delay resulted from a mixture of not feeling like writing, being intimidated by "the next project" and being unable to shape an idea into a loose story. Oh, and good ol' fashioned procrastination.

The other day I sat down and thought about my idea, and I kept thinking until my entire mind was chewing it like cud. At that point I went out for a walk. Twenty minutes into the walk, the tumblers felt into place and suddenly I had the "What if" question I needed to launch my next movie. The original "What if" begot even more "What ifs" and pretty soon the logical nature of story telling within a consistent universe unfurled a loose story. I'm guessing that the story can, will, and should change in the months to come, but at least I have a launching point.

That's where the 6 months come in. Truth be told, I'm happy with Win. As it exists now in my mind's eye, it's the best football movie ever. That's not to say that it is perfect. It's not, but considering that I believe that Remember the Titans is far and away the best football movie out there, the bar is not incredibly high (although I really, really like that one). When I read Win, I can picture the image flickering at 24 frames per second, I can feel the emotion and the action and it all seems right. Now whether or not the movie I have in my head is the one on the page I do not know. What I do know is that it is the best thing I've written. It has been recognized in some form by multiple contests. And it took over a year to write.

Now I need to write a movie that is just as sound (hopefully better in terms of craft), but in a tighter time frame. My goal is to churn out a script in 6 months when starting with a loose idea of the story in my head. 3 months to manufacture a detailed scene-by-scene outline. One month to write a 1st draft. One month to retool the outline, and One month to write a 2nd draft. I think two drafts is enough to produce a full realization of the story. We'll see.

Of course all of this is subject to change and the story takes as long as it needs to be good. At the same time, I think it is important to establish a goal and create deadlines in my mind. If I miss it, I miss it, but I think that establishing one mentally kind of gears the mind to produce something in that amount of time. I liken it (sort of) to filling out a form. There is a line where you write your name. If the line is small, your mind automatically adjusts the "font size" so your name fits in the allotted space. It's kind of amazing how that all happens*. I'm hoping that establishing my intention ahead of time will help me produce something in a reasonable time frame.

So I'm publicly calling myself out. Six months from today I'll have 2 drafts of a new script.

*It doesn't take a lot to amaze me.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

"Tell Graham"

The movie Signs is anything but subtle. From frame one Shyamalan busts out the ol' Theme Hammer (tm) and bashes the viewer into a fine paste. Now if you are like me, not only do you not mind this drubbing, you welcome it with open arms. It occurred to me that Shyamalan is largely preaching to the choir in this movie. It either speaks to you and you repeatedly throw your hands up and offer a hearty "hallelujah" or you don't buy into it at all and wonder why all these people are so happily bludgeoned by an Indian from Philadelphia.

It's a valid question. I can only say that when a film does something very right, you tend to be forgiving. Signs pushes my buttons in all the right ways. I am Shyamalan's bitch for 106 minutes. And that's how I want to be with every movie I see. I want someone to rope me in with a story and make me clamor to see the next scene. It's why I love movies and why people like those "book" things I hear so much about.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Oh, and spoilers ahead, so beware. Nestled in all the blatant symbolism and heavy-handed dialog is a subtle line. "Tell Graham..." I love this line because it suggests a lot. It moves from Graham's wife merely having a psychic experience close to the grave to perhaps maybe Graham getting a message directly from God. I find the notion intriguing.

Turns out I'd much rather contemplate "Tell Graham" or the possibility that there are no coincidences than why a race of aliens would come to a planet comprised mostly of stuff that will kill them, or why they need crop circles to communicate, or why they can come a zillion miles through space and get locked in a simple pantry, or any number of logical problems that cause people to construct elaborate M. Night voodoo dolls.

But that's just me.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

The Long Winter

I'm back in more ways than one. I just returned home from a vacation that had me dodging tornados, evading flash floods, and running from bursting dams in between riding roller coasters. I'm also finally in a good mental place to start writing (and life) again. I've been in a funk ever since my divorce and finally bottomed out a few weeks ago. It's a maddening process for me. You can't reason your way out of it. You can't apply the latest in mathematical theory*. There are a million self-help books out there, but what good are words anyhow ... err.

You need time plus experience. Of course you could bottle up your torment and release it spontaneously on the first person who reaches out to you in a thoughtful way. That's always a popular one. But I'm not one to do something just because all the cool kids are doing it with the exception of jumping off of a bridge. I'd certainly give that a try with a group of cooler peers.

So one weekend I melted down, desperately clinging to an idea of a happy future with someone who was desperately clinging to an idea of a happy future without me (not my ex for those wondering). At that point I realized that something had to change, and I am thankful that there was minimal collateral damage when the Tom-bomb went off. Very thankful. I can credit those close to me for helping me when I was in need (you know who you are).

Now I feel like I can resume writing. I've got to brush up on my nouns and verbs, and see what the story fairy has for me.

* Stephen Hawking was no help at all.