Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Day 55: Me & Bob Towne (Part #1)

If three years ago, you’d have given me a sheet of paper and asked me to write down the name of one person I’d wish to work with, it wouldn’t have taken me too long to scribble down the name, fold the sheet up and hand it back to you. This is Part #1 of how I came to hang out and spend time with the name I would have written down.

A question I’m always asked, again and again, over and over: “What’s your favourite film?”. My response, naturally, is always the same “Chinatown”. Invariable I get a “what?” and I have to repeat myself. Then I’m asked “why?”

“Before any image, the music: ‘eerie, haunting, mysterious...a lonely horn...a solo trumpet played against strings”. That’s Michael Eaton I’m quoting from his BFI Film Classics book devoted entirely to the film. For me, Chinatown brings together every facet of the filmmaking craft to play, at the top of it’s game: acting (Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston), directing (Roman Polanski), Score (Jerry Goldsmith) Producer (Robert Evans), cinematography, costume, design, casting editing and of course.....the screenplay by Robert Towne, for which he won the Academy Award in 1974.

The screenplay for Chinatown is a screenwriter’s screenplay; it’s considered to be the best screenplay written since the Second World War. Why the screenwriter’s choice? Let me qualify that: it’s the choice screenplay of the screenwriter who knows his or her craft.

Any screenwriter who is REALLY doing their work - by that I mean putting their script under the magnifying lens of scrutiny, draft after draft, act after act, scene after scene, beat by beat - knows the hard labour that's required; maybe not physical, but mental, cerebral and emotional, day after day, week-in, week-out, month after month and year after year. You know what you’ve got to do to get the script right, not necessarily great, but at least “right”.....then maybe that’ll pave the way to "great", if the film Gods are in favourable moods. To even describe the work that’s required would take too many pages here and I’m struggling for a metaphor. Perhaps it’s like one of those Chinese plate spinning acts that I use to see at the circus or on ‘end-of-the-pier’ variety shows, only the screenwriter doing his work has got about 357 plates spinning on 357 poles?

Believe me, in the limited time that I’ve been serving out my apprenticeship (which I date from late 1999, maybe earlier) I can watch one isolated incident in a film and know the complexed work that must have gone into so many facets of the script to make that one moment work. In the screenplay of Chinatown that happens again and again, from beginning to end, with no let-up. To the naked, untrained, unprofessional eye, Chinatown can be an almost impenetrable film (although there’s still a great detective movie to be had).

Australian Film critic, David Stratton, watches his favourite film - Singin’ In The Rain - at least once or twice a year (not because he's forgotten what happens in the end), so it is for me with Chinatown. Each and every time I watch it (always on my own) I pick up some detail, nuance, setup, payoff, line of dialogue or character insight that I hadn’t spotted before and so it becomes an even richer experience.

These are the writer’s reasons that I love the film. Then there’s the other reasons: it’s well documented here that I’m a sucker for a detective movie, then there’s Jack Nicholson, who’s great in just about everything that he does. It’s a ‘romantic’ film in the broadest sense of the term - LA looked a wonderful place back then.

Finally, there’s the Freudian or Jungian (not sure which) reasons. I have a pet theory, that everyone’s favourite film reveals something deep and possibly sub-conscious about them. The only way I can figure this out is if I know the person fairly well, then I think, that I see into their heart and soul and see what it is about that film that speaks to them even if they can’t. Don’t believe me? If I know you, let me know your favourite film and I’ll tell you why I think it is you love it so much (just email me, leave a comment here, phone, text or Facebook me). But I can’t do this lay-analysing number on myself; it’s up to others to tell me why it is that I love Chinatown.

Day #55 Tip: Know You’re Favourite Film
I’ve talked versions of this one before when speaking of touchstones - musical and otherwise - that I go straight to when I need to be inspired. Well, the day or long dark night of the soul also comes when I need to be reminded of why I love film.

It’s the days when I’m broke, the days when peers are getting their films up and I’m not, days when my script is getting knocked back for more development/writing money, days when I get reader’s reports that threaten to take my pens and pencils away. It’s nights when I go to the cinema and watch the laziest piece of screenwriting I’ve ever seen in my life and nights when the same script starts to rack up international awards and critical acclaim. It’s the mornings when the daily paper gives five stars to a film that defies everything I think I know and cherish about film, it’s mornings when the latest novellist/comedian/actor/model/tv presenter/advertising copywriter is on breakfast TV talking about how they’ve “knocked up” a film script in three weeks and are going into production.

I really must stop taking the blue tablets and start taking the red ones (sounds like a gag that Dean Martin would have said). Believe me, if you know any screenwriters, then you’ll know that I am not alone in my tortured and twisted thinking. Hang on a it tortured and twisted? Hell no!

See, it’s times like these that I must close this laptop, run straight to the DVD store (please, they’re not VIDEO stores anymore), grab Chinatown from the “arthouse”(??) shelf, run back home, slot it into the DVD player, turn off the lights and lose myself in “...the music: ‘eerie, haunting, mysterious...a lonely horn...a solo trumpet....”

Better already.

Part #2 of ‘Me and Bob Towne’ tomorrow.

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