The Bag Means Your Mind

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

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Secret Life of the Cattle Baron

At the top of the grand staircase at the Driskill Hotel there is a door. Hung over this door is a plaque that reads: "Cattle Baron's Suite". I've seen it each of the four years I've attended the Austin Film Festival, and for each of the four that door has remained sealed. Two years ago I remember seeing a newspaper folded up in front of the threshhold suggesting that the Baron himself was present. Did he attend panels? Did he knock back shots of whiskey at the Driskill Bar not caring if he was sitting next to someone important, because HE was the man? Did he ever complain about the frigid temperature in the main ballroom? Of course he didn't, because if he had the temperature would have been raised to a degree of his liking. The Cattle Baron gets what the Cattle Baron wants.

Sometimes I imagine the door opening. The Baron comes out for his morning newspaper. He's wearing a ten gallon hat, clenching a lit cigar in the corner of his mouth, cloaked in a frilly robe of the pretty young thing he banged the night before. The Baron looks my way and shoots me a Texas wink that says: "I own all the cattle and you don't." And then he moseys back into his palatial suite and shuts the door, never to be seen by me again.

There is a lot we can learn from the Cattle Baron, me in particular. Every year I attend the Austin Film Festival I see hundreds of faces. Some of them familiar, all of them sharing the same desperate dream. They're hoping for a break, sizing up the competition, fighting that negative voice that says they aren't good enough, that they are wasting their time, that they should give up. For some the voice is strong and requires willful suppression. For others the voice is a whisper that comes and goes at inopportune times. But the voice is there. If you don't hear it, I salute you and bid you good luck at fighting the demons that reside elsewhere in your life.

For the rest of us, the festival exists somewhere between cavorting with friends and handling unstable and highly volatile chemicals while walking a tight rope above a tankful of piranha dotted with infectious lesions. We must walk around calmly, talk, joke, and be merry while always being aware, always being "on", and always asking yourself why you aren't at a point where Lawrence Kasdan is taking you out to dinner to pick your brain about screenwriting technique.

The answer is a fundamental truth that starts out as a bold-faced lie. You've got to know you belong. You've got to believe you are on equal footing with all of the professionals you come across. The minute you identify yourself as trying to win the favor of someone better than you, you become one of the beggars scrounging for morsels of food cast off by the Elite. And if you are not arrogant enough to truly believe it, you fake it. And the more you fake it, the more you begin to realize that maybe you're not faking at all. You realize that you had the ability to go back to Kansas all along. Has the lie become the truth or have you merely uncovered the truth by investing in what you thought was a lie?

Does it really matter? Each year the festival gives me something different. Sometimes it gives me a sense of community. Sometimes it gives me inspiration. It always reminds me why I'm putting myself through this process. This time it made me realize that I have to own this thing. I have to truly believe I belong, know that I have the talent required to succeed and the wherewithal to see it all through. What I don't want is to find that I'm attending the festival each year to meet up with friends and tell myself that I'm doing something when all I'm really doing is spending $1000 for $100 in beer.

So I guess I have to be the Cattle Baron, even if I have no idea what a Cattle Baron does.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Transparent Talent

Last night I was lamenting that I wouldn't be around to see Synecdoche, New York as I'll be leaving Austin two days before it screens. Damn. As far as I'm concerned Charlie Kaufman is the king of screenwriters. After seeing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind I proclaimed to all that would listen that I would light myself on fire if he did not win an Oscar for the screenplay. Today I am thankfully unburned. Eternal Sunshine is as subtle as it is jarring. I simply love the questions he asks in this film. I'm even more impressed that he doesn't even attempt to answer all of them. Some people are meant to be together, but sometimes some of those irresistibly drawn to one another are also destined to fly apart after only a few orbits. Charlie illustrates this beautifully by making his story a kind of quasi-sci-fi fantasy. To me the movie is fantastic right up until the end, right up until the point where, SPOILER ALERT, Clementine and Joel find out not only that they've been together before, but actually hear all the bad things they said about one another. At this point the movie kicks into its final triumphant gear rocketing up to the area of true greatness. Armed with the knowledge of their possible, maybe probable, demise as a couple, what will they do?


Now where was I before detouring onto Eternal Sunshine? Ah, Kaufmnan. It dawned on me in the late hour just what attracts me to Charlie*. He writes on a level that I only hope I can achieve someday, and he does it without pretense. He does it without hanging a sign up above him saying "Look at me! I'm a screenwriter! Don't you wish you could be this good?" There are fantastic writers out there who seem to enjoy drawing attention to themselves. They craft exellent movies that somehow single themselves out as movies and beg for you to know that they were written. The first names to come to mind are the Cohens. Now before you storm my home wielding torches understand that I love almost all of their work. I find their films to be both entertaining and thought provoking, but I can't deny that there is also the idea that they are flailing their arms wildly trying to get people to notice them. The same can probably be said of Shane Black, another immensely talented writer whose work I always look forward to. And the list goes on from there.

This is not a criticism or an indictment of their work, but an acknowledgment on my part on what appeals to me. I certainly enjoy the flash and the pomp and the showboating, but in the end it isn't me.

What really draws me to Kaufman and what sets him apart is his transparency. He doesn't make me aware that I am watching a movie. He sucks me in with the story and grabs my attention. He doesn't try to force over the top characters on me, or try to wow me with a turn of phrase or a wonderfully intricate plot. There is a humbleness about him. Perhaps that is the result of a deep seated crisis of self confidence or maybe its just Charlie being Charlie. Whatever the answer may be, at the end of his movies I'm still thinking "wow" and wondering if I'm going to have to reach for a can of gas and a match.

* Yes, you can now start singing about me and Charlie in a tree.

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