Sunday, May 30, 2010

Day 52: Is the past a foreign country?

"For me, it is also somehow a last chance to glance briefly over my shoulder at the quickly receding past.”

Them’s the words of writer/director Mike Leigh from his Venice Film Festival Notes of 1999, speaking about his film Topsy-Turvy.

Topsy-Turvy is his love letter to Gilbert & Sullivan: “...a film about all of us who suffer and strain to make other people laugh”. Based on facts and anecdotal material, from 1884, it’s about how WS Gilbert (librettist) and Arthur Sullivan (composer) nearly walked away from their partnership over creative differences; differences that melded and then welded them back together to create The Mikado.

G&S are not everyone’s cup of Early Grey, but I love this much-overlooked film. Stories about the making of films, plays, music and entertainment win me over every time, perhaps it’s because I identify with the quest. Rich in it’s sumptuous imagery of Victorian London and eloquent in the depiction of the ephemeral nature of theatre, it surely is Mike Leigh’s bon mot to a delicious time, now long gone.

Life in the arts and entertainment is not all beer and skittles; what was it Nietzsche said about chaos giving rise to dancing stars?

Radio Days, on the other hand, is Woody Allen’s hymn to the golden age of radio, a time when announcers wore black tie and ball gowns to broadcast. Like the Mike Leigh Film just mentioned, this movie is one that’s also overlooked. in Woody’s canon, perhaps because he’s not in it, who knows? But it’s another of my favourites. Maybe it’s because I grew up just at the end of the radio era in the 1960’s. I too have memories of favourite radio shows that the family would listen to. I remember The Goons and I recall hearing of the death of Winston Churchill in 1965 via the BBC's Home Service on "the wireless".

A favourite play of mine is David Mamet’s Prairie Du Chien, a short piece, a radio play that he wrote as his homage to drama that he and his family would gather around the radiogram to listen to when he was a boy. It’s an evocative piece set in a 1910 railroad parlour, speeding west through the Wisconsin night at three a.m . The sleeve notes of the play describe it as “...a violent story of obsessive jealousy, murder and suicide, told within shooting distance of a card hustler and his victim.”

I wanted to make a short film of it once, setting the whole piece in a car as a family travelled home on a Sunday night having visited relatives, just as my family used to do. Prairie Du Chien would be the play on the car’s radio and a boy in the back, alongside his sleeping brother, would be the protagonist who we share thelistening with as he stared out through the window, at the passing blackness and occasional lamplit home.

Mamet’s “people” wouldn’t let me have the rights.

A third movie in this trilogy of films, is Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, the Italian director’s fond postcard to movie romance and the cinema of his childhood. I may have quoted Signor Tornatore here before when he said “Cinema Paradiso is a bittersweet lament for the love that eludes us in real life, but is there to comfort us in the dark embrace of the cinema.” I don’t mind repeating myself or him on this occasion.

Three films and a play that touch, move and evoke in me a world of theatre, radio and film that is gone. As Woody Allen’s voice-over in Radio Days said:

“I never forgot that New Year’s Eve when Aunt Bea awakened me to watch 1944 come in. I’ve never forgotten any of those people or any of the voices we would hear on the radio. Though the truth is, with the passing of each New Year’s Eve those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer.”

Day #52 Tip: Use your two hours truthfully
I can’t remember if it was William Goldman or Robert Mckee who said it, but one of them posits the question of what am I (the screenwriter) going to do with my two hours of screen time? Both of these two men inspire me to be the best writer that I can be, Both talk about love of craft, love of actors, love of other writers and love of film.

McKee quotes Stanislavski asking his actors: “Are you in love with the art in yourself or yourself in the art?” McKee goes on to tell me that I must examine my motives for wanting to write the way I write, that each tale that I create must say this to the audience: “I believe life is like this.”

The films and play that I’ve already mentioned are not (with the exception of Cinema Paradso) the pieces that those writer/directors are most remembered for, nor are they their most critically acclaimed or successful works. But even though I never lived in Rockaway NJ, rural Italy, Wisconsin or London of the late 1800’s, there is a truth in those stories that I know. For circumtances may change, but human nature always stays the same.

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