Cannes vs. Oscar*

The Tree of Life‘, Terrence Malick’s first film in six years, has won the Palme d’Or. Good. You’ve got to be happy for the Malick. I’m not sure how enthusiastic I will be about the film, however. It sounds irksomely profound. Then again, from what I’d read, I wasn’t too sure about last year’s winner, ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,’ but was utterly enchanted by that film when I saw it, and when I came to consider it in writing, I found I loved it all the more (if you haven’t already read the article, you’ll find it here).

I had ‘Uncle Boonmee’ in mind when I started to prepare this blog. The build-up to the Academy Awards was also reaching a crescendo and the web was brimming with representations for and against ‘The King’s Speech’, ‘The Social Network’, ‘Black Swan’, et al. I was tempted to wade in, but resisted. The discussion seemed to assume the Academy’s decision was of some critical consequence and I didn’t want to buy in to that. Not any more. It’s not that the Academy makes mistakes on occasion: it’s that it rarely even permits itself to consider the best films, that’s without mentioning the campaigning now required to make an impact.

No, if there’s any award in the film world that comes consistently close to picking the film of the year, it’s the Palme d’Or. Unfortunately, we can’t get so involved in that pageant because so few of us will have seen the films. One thing’s for sure though: Cannes beats the Academy every time. Or does it?

I’ve knocked up a little pub game for us to play.

The last twenty Best Pictures versus the last twenty Palme d’Or winners. Pick your favourite each year and see who comes out on top. (If you haven’t seen both – why not?! – you can strike that year, and if you can’t decide, well, declare it a tie.) I’ll publish my scores, next Sunday.

Returning to ‘The Tree of Life‘, could this be the year that Cannes and Oscar* agree?

Cannes versus Oscar*

2010: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives ~ The King’s Speech

2009: The White Ribbon ~  The Hurt Locker

2008: The Class ~  Slumdog Millionaire

2007: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days ~  No Country For Old Men

2006: The Wind That Shakes The Barley  ~  The Departed

2005: L’enfant ~  Crash

2004: Fahrenheit 9/11 ~  Million Dollar Baby

2003: Elephant ~  Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Ring

2002: The Pianist ~  Chicago

2001: The Son’s Room ~  A Beautiful Mind

2000: Dancer In The Dark  ~  Gladiator

1999: Rosetta ~  American Beauty

1998: Eternity and a Day ~  Shakespeare In Love

1997: Taste of Cherry / The Eel  ~  Titanic

1996: Secrets & Lies ~  The English Patient

1995: Underground ~  Braveheart

1994: Pulp Fiction ~  Forrest Gump

1993: The Piano / Farewell My Concubine  ~  Schindler’s List

1992: The Best Intentions ~  Unforgiven

1991: Barton Fink  ~  The Silence of the Lambs


If you haven’t already, please leave your scores/selection as a comment. I’m very interested to see which comes out on top. There’s an additional challenge now, as suggested by a reader: how many of these titles couldn’t be sat through again, or to put it another way, which of these titles would you never want to see again?


Not Necessarily Natural?

I read this statement in the details for a notable script development course:

“Development cannot and does not aspire to replace writing talent, however screenwriting has very specific craft techniques that can be learnt and that aren’t necessarily natural to the writing process.”

Odd. Very odd. On so many levels.

I had to read it again. “Development cannot and does not aspire to replace writing talent” – this is a startlingly defensive remark, answering an imagined or half-recalled accusation. It seems whoever put this course together sensed that what they were about to propose might be construed as antagonistic to writing talent.

What are they proposing? Well, techniques (“craft techniques,” to be exact, although the only reason for compounding the noun that I can see is to invoke the art/craft distinction.) Nothing that hasn’t already been presented in a screenwriting manual in some form, somewhere. These techniques, like all techniques, can be learnt.

What’s wrong with that? What’s the problem? What – to use a development phrase – is at stake here?

The last clause gives us a clue: these craft techniques “aren’t necessarily natural to the writing process”. In other words, the writer won’t necessarily, or naturally, apply these techniques, and as screenwriting requires these “very specific” techniques, they must be supplied by a third party: that’s to say, the script developer.

Script developers are marking out a territory here and this territory, in other disciplines, typically belongs to the author. It’s a land grab, if you like. They claim there are techniques essential to the craft of screenwriting that can be learnt, and mastered, without having to suffer the agonies, and ecstasies, of the creative process. In fact, they’re implying you might go through all that and not acquire these techniques at all. Fortunately, the script developers are here to help. At a price.

Damn, that is antagonistic. I can see why they were being defensive.

But this isn’t what bothers me. (Script developers can often give insightful feedback, particularly on a one-to-one face-to-face basis. You can keep your pro-forma reports, thanks.)

No, it’s this concept of the writing process as somehow detached from the end product – as if you could write without knowing what kind of thing (film, novel, poem) you were writing – and this idea that the cinematic form is somehow peculiar, as if the novel or the play or the poem didn’t each have their own conventions and grammars which might not “necessarily” be natural to the writing process, as they put it.

Isn’t it axiomatic that any form requires specific ‘techniques’? So why would screenwriting require ‘techniques’ any more than, say, drama? And how could these techniques be external to the writing process? (One of the ironies of here is that so many of these so-called ‘techniques’ of screenwriting are derived not from cinema but from Aristotle’s Poetics, a scientific study of Ancient Greek drama, with an emphasis on the tragedies.)

Sounds like nonsense to me.

Either their concept of the writing process, or their concept of cinematic form, or both, are inadequate, that’s to say, limited, or too “specific,” which wouldn’t surprise me as these are the same people who concocted the ‘Anglo-American Tradition‘ of screenwriting and chopped the world of cinema in half. Nice one.

The Last Movie, or How to bite the hand that feeds

The Last Movie‘, Dennis Hopper’s legendary 1971 debacle, made with the cash and kudos earned by the success of ‘Easy Rider‘, is not a movie at all: it’s a transgressive, politically-charged art film. I couldn’t say if it was any good or not, but take it in that spirit and I guarantee it will be a more rewarding experience.

On first viewing, I provided additional dialogue along the lines of ‘huh?’ and ‘What the f**k!’ I couldn’t help it. The editing is deranged, incoherent, random – as if the reels had cross-fertilized in the back of the delivery truck. Was it pieced together from the editor’s posthumous illegible notes? Later, the screen goes blank and ‘scene missing’ is scribbled across the frame and my wild guess seemed to be confirmed. I started to imagine the young Hopper bouncing off the walls of the editing room, high on creative possibilities, or cocaine, expatiating at 120bpm like that manic photojournalist of his in ‘Apocalypse Now‘. Losing his head.

In fact, I had to begun to draft an article pronouncing this another ‘missed opportunity’. There was – and is – a better film to be conjured from the same juicy scenario. (I say ‘better film’, but I mean ‘better story’. It’s not axiomatic that a story about the movie business belongs on the screen.) The scenario would run something like this:

After shooting a violent western in Peru, cowboy stuntman, ‘Kansas’, hooks up with a local beauty and plans to make his fortune renting out the sets to other Hollywood productions, but Hollywood doesn’t come back. ‘Kansas’ casts around for other money-making ventures – the hare-brained gold prospector pal who learned all he needs to know about the business from ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre‘. Meanwhile, the brutalized locals imitate Hollywood’s carnival of violence with a warped religious pageant of their own, the stuntman made the sacrificial victim, forced to re-enact the western’s death scene, literally.

The rich, dark flavours of this ironic climax appeal to me. I’d love to make something out of that.

Apparently, Hopper first had the idea while shooting the western ‘The Sons of Katie Elder’ in Durango, Mexico. He saw the locals moving into the abandoned sets and wondered: what happens when the moviemakers go home? What’s left? His conclusion seems to have been: a legacy of violence. This is both colonial guilt, which compensates for its condescension with a merciless portrait of the arrogant ex-patriots, and ambivalence to the ‘movies’ – a sense of disgust which would be detectable throughout the remainder of Hopper’s long career. He must have delighted in taking the studios money and delivering a deconstruction of the exotic, violent western they thought they had ordered. Not so much biting the hand that feeds, as ripping it off and dropping bleeding at its master’s feet.

The wicker models of a camera (see below), microphone boom and other movie equipment are genius.