Jan 31, 2003

The Hours

The cross cut story structure of The Hours sets a high standard for the film. By doing a "day in the life" of three women from three different decades, the film inevitably 1) compares and contrasts the three, 2) highlights the importance of the cut from one scene to another, and 3) relies on subtle reveals to carry the plot. Unfortunately, The Hours does not pay off these three elements as well as it should.

David Hare's script of Michael Cunningham's novel compares the women in superficial ways - how they turn in bed, wash their faces, enjoy flowers, etc. - but not with a depth that could help each illuminate the others. We could say that each is paralyzed by her traditional role as care giver. But that is a pretty broad generalization with limited payoff, and one that, in the case of Virginia Woolf, is a bit of a stretch. Her husband is the care-giver, and she is trapped as much by her own mental illness as by his efforts to protect her.

The cross cut structure brings our attention to the juxtaposition of scenes, and in The Hours not much comes of that. The "day in the life" technique leads to certain obvious insights about these women, since they each do similar things at each moment of the day. But it struck me that the scene sequence could have been changed to a number of different orders without much difference in audience understanding.

The one moment where the juxtaposition of scenes is more than superficial is when the film goes from Julianne Moore driving to Richard, who is dying of AIDS, and we realize that he is Julianne Moore's little boy. This gives the film a much-needed jolt. But it also highlights what is largely missing from the script, the subtle reveals necessary to build a story of daily life.

The cross cut is a very powerful structural tool in film. You can compare at the speed of light. But if you are also adhering to the rule that a feature film must come in around two hours, you run the grave risk of being superficial. The more lines you cross cut within that two-hour frame, the less depth you achieve.

With The Hours we have three short stories that are playing simultaneously. One or more of these stories may be interesting, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

Jan 26, 2003


The key story device of the film adaptation of Chicago is the decision to do the musical numbers as fantasies from the mind of the lead character, Roxie, who dreams of being a star.

This device has two advantages. First, it gives the audience an excuse for why "real" characters are singing and dancing. This is the first problem that must be solved in any movie musical. Putting the numbers in Roxie's head not only lets the audience enjoy the pleasure of song and dance, it makes the music come from character.

Second, the device lets the filmmakers avoid the other great problem with movie musicals, their length. Movie musicals have to tell a complete story and also do ten or so songs. Typically, the story comes to a grinding halt while a song is performed. And while the songs may be lovely, the leapfrog of story and song can seem interminable.

But using the fantasy device in Chicago, the filmmakers are able to cross-cut story material with the musical number, thus making the overall film considerably tighter.

Catherine Zeta-Jones does an excellent job pretending to be a dancer. But no amount of trick editing and skirted costumes can hide the fact that she is too heavy for the part. And when the "women behind bars" dance number comes on, the sight of women who can dance makes it clear just how much we lose aesthetically by having to use a star instead of a professional dancer.

Jan 16, 2003


I'm sitting here struggling with how to write a critique of this highly-praised yet flawed screenplay. Besides my usual feeling of not being good enough - in spite of being highly-successful in Hollywood - what I really want to do right now is have a muffin, and I might as well have coffee too, although it might be better to exercise first.

Kaufman - the writer not the character - has been applauded for his very post-modern technique of including his own struggle to write an adaptation of "The Orchid Lover" as part of the story. If we're comparing to mainstream Hollywood genre films, yes, I will go along with that. But it's also a technique many of us used in high school when we had to write a paper for which we had no subject.

What matters is the technique's effectiveness. Does it give Kaufman a structure that allows him to tell a great story?

Like Kaufman's earlier script, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation has some funny scenes in the opening, and then structurally falls apart. In fact, this script is really a long opening and a long ending stuck together, with little in the middle.

I'm not arguing for a three-act structure script, or for the dreaded genre story that Kaufman considers so beneath him. But I am arguing for a story, an organic unit that builds steadily and expresses a set of themes.

Kaufman's character, Charlie, gives us the key clue to why this organic story never happens. To make this script work, he says he must connect the screenwriter's story with that of the author and the botanist. He never comes close.

Charlie, the character, clearly has needs. He is down on himself, paralyzed, way too self-conscious and is unable to show a woman how he feels about her. Susan, the author, is apparently unhappy in her marriage and wants to feel passionately about something. The botanist, though quirky, does feel passionately about orchids. But his need - to overcome the loss of his wife - has nothing to do with the hero.

The problem comes from the fact that Charlie's desire, to adapt Susan's book, doesn't connect these characters in any but the most superficial way. Whatever weaknesses Charlie may have, he is certainly passionate about good writing. His only connection to Susan and her problems occurs in the ridiculous final scenes when she tries to kill him, an action that is totally out of character and thus has no emotional meaning or payoff.

For most of the film, Charlie's only connection is with his twin brother. This character provides lots of laughs, especially for any writer who has spent any time in Hollywood. And I was certainly grateful for that.

But even here Kaufman's set-up doesn't allow an organic story to develop. The brother represents the writer's urge to go commercial, to hit the simple formula of the hack and make a lot of money. But this is set in opposition to a character who has become highly successful within Hollywood by being original. Sure, he's having some problems adapting this particular book, but that's because the book shouldn't be a movie in the first place. And if Charlie fails, it certainly won't mean the end of his lucrative Hollywood career, or even give it much of a dent.

Playing out this conflict between brothers, then, has nowhere to go. Charlie's brother is at most an inconvenience, and his success at selling his formulaic thriller should cause Charlie, the golden boy, little more than a bemused, "That's Hollywood."

The conflict between the brothers also has nothing to do with the author or the botanist. Neither is dealing with the issue of selling out. The botanist is an obsessed scientist who loves his work; the author is writing an article and book about an orchid man, and trying to match his passion.

All this explains why the story doesn't develop, and why the ending is from another movie. I'm sure that Kaufman the writer justifies the ending by figuring that when Charlie hooks up with his hack, thriller-writing brother, the story they are playing out turns into a thriller as well.

It's a gag idea, too clever by half, and only highlights Kaufman's inability to connect these characters and tell a full story. These characters do have an emotional reality that has been established for most of the film. That is immediately tossed in the toilet. Charlie, no matter how desperate, would never have asked his brother for help with this script, never have gone to see a writing teacher (I like to think he would have called me eventually), never have followed Susan to Florida, etc. etc. etc. Susan would never have tried to kill Charlie, nor would the botanist.

It's all absurd. Unfortunately it's not played absurd. It's played straight. So when the tragedy hits, it's fake tragedy, death ex machina, with the emotions painfully hollow.

As this movie played out, I started smelling the overwhelming odor of disdain that Kaufman seems to have for his audience. He figures he can do a fancy cross cut between three unrelated characters, toss in some inside Hollywood jokes, include himself as a character, staple on a big Hollywood genre ending and everyone will call him a genius.

Given the response of the critics, I guess he's right. I need a muffin. Or maybe coffee. Or maybe I'll call mom...