Friday, July 23, 2010

Day 106: The Pledge

The Pledge (2001) is a film, directed by Sean Penn, starring Jack Nicholson, based on a book written by the novelist and playwright, Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt; a film I have watched many times, a favourite detective movie.

Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a detective, working out of Reno, Nevada, who is about to retire. In fact, we attend his farewell party from the police force, along with him (a reluctant retiree, if ever there was one), but when a call comes through that a body has been found up in the snow fields of the Nevada high country, a locale where we know Jerry fishes, it’s just the excuse the seasoned veteran wants to absent himself from his own send-off.

The body turns out to be that of a child, a little girl and it’s left to Jerry to go and break the news to her parents, local turkey farmers, unaware of the maelstrom that’s about to sweep into their lives. The child’s mother makes Jerry take a pledge to find her daughter’s killer and so we have our story. How does a man retire, when he’s taken a sworn oath to carry on? How can he go on his fishing vacation in Maui when a child’s killer is still at large?

The Pledge is an overlooked film in many ways, a film that people often forget. I don’t know why, when first of all, you consider the cast of actors that Sean Penn managed to assemble to ably support Jack: Robin Wright-Penn, Sam Shephard, Aaron Eckhart, Micky Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton, Benicio Del Torro, Patricia Clarkson and Helen Mirren. All perfectly cast, some on screen for no more than one powerful scene; like Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the dead child’s grandmother, visited by the investigating and still obsessed Black. In her palpable grief, she asks the detective if he’s familiar with the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Jerry is not intimately accquainted with the Danish childrens’ author, so she quotes a few lines for him:

“Whenever a good child dies, an angel of God comes down from heaven, takes the dead child in his arms, spreads out his great white wings, and flies with her over all the places which the child had loved during her life. Then she gathers a large handful of flowers, which she carries up to the Almighty, that they may bloom more brightly in heaven than they do on earth.”

Andersen wrote that passage in his fairy tale called ‘The Angel’ in 1844. D├╝rrenmatt wrote his novel, ‘The Pledge’ ('Das Versprechen: Requiem auf den Kriminalroman' ['The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel']) in 1958, refining his own screenplay, 'It Happened In Broad Daylight’. Jerzy and Mary Olson Kromolowski penned their screenplay sometime before the film’s release in 2001.

Screenplay to novel to screenplay, writer to writer, working and reworking, into the hands of wonderful actors, guided by a director with a singular vision for this exquisite film. A film that, despite critical acclaim, never made back it’s budget?

There is a resolution moment in this film that defies all that I hold dear in script structure and and sits so unevenly in the story, yet I find myself able to pass it by, because of everything else that I love about the film. Oh contraire, maybe the critic in me doth protest too much, too often?

I also wonder how they stumbled across this long-forgotten gem of a publication and brought it to life, set nearly fifty years on?

It’s an unusual detective movie, yet archetypal in so many ways. There is a theory that all detective stories can trace their genealogy back to Oedipus, the king who set out find who brought the plague and pestilence to his land, only to discover that it was.......I’ll leave you to do your own investigative work by reading Oedipus Rex. Michael Eaton fleshes out this hypothesis in his BFI publication ‘Chinatown’, a fantastic dissemination of the Roman Polanski directed, Robert Towne written, neo-noir, featuring a much young Jack.

Perhaps The Pledge is a better sequel to JJ Gittes’s life than The Two Jakes (the actual sequel to Chinatown), Gittes, twenty-five years on, a man obsessed?

Day #106 Tip: Begin the Treatment
Now that I’ve done the rounds with the 10 minute verbal version of my Story Outline and taken any notes on board, I’m under way on the two month journey of turning that outline into a treatment. Essentially, what I’ll be doing is turning each of the 40-60 one line film moments/scenes that I have, into a fully fleshed out paragraph or more that details that particular event in the film. Written in the third person with no dialogue, describing the text and subtext of what’s going on, this treatment usually turns out to be about 50-60 pages.

There’s also the comments from the outline to be addressed and that has to be factored into my working day as well. I’ve come across many in the industry who find this process unwieldy and too thorough, but then I’ve also come across many films where it would have been eminently more sensibe and less wasteful of everyone’s time and money to have solved the problems of the script on the A4 pages rather than on the 30’x 60’ cinema screen.

I can’t give up on a quest to write the best screenplay that I can, just like Jerry Black and Oedipus couldn’t give up on there missions. Perhaps I too, am obsessed?

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