Monday, August 23, 2010

Day 137: “What the fuck is going on?”

The quote that heads this piece is from Hotel Chevalier, a short film that has probably been seen by more people that most shorts.

When I went to see Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007) in the cinema, Hotel Chevalier played before the feature, as it does on the DVD. Written and directed by Anderson (Rushmore,The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox), the thirteen minute piece stars Jason Schwartzman, Natalie Portman and Paris’s elegant Hôtel Raphael (near the Arc de Triomphe).

As a film, Hotel Chevalier works on two levels: one, as a stand-alone short piece that can be watched in it’s own right and two, as a prologue to the feature film of The Darjeeling Limited, in which Jason Schwartzman is one of the three protagonists, the three Whitman brothers. It’s an interesting idea to make a short film and use it this way.

Wes Anderson’s original intention was that it would be a stand-alone piece but then saw similarities between the character he was writing for Jason Schwartzman in The Darjeeling Limited and the lead male character in Hotel Chevalier; the two characters then became the one - Jack Whitman - and so, as The Tempest reminds us “what’s past is prologue”.

It’s kind of hard to get my head around this one, in that I could see Hotel Chevalier as a discarded thirteen minute piece of exposition that didn’t fit neatly or nicely into the structure of the feature The Darjeeling Limited, but that never seemed like the intention and the feature is in no way dependent on the short having been seen.

Hotel Chevalier attracted all sorts of attention for many reasons: (1) it got seen at the cinema, coupled with the feature (premiering at the Venice Film Festival in this very same way) (2) it was then made avaible for free from iTunes stores for one month (downloaded more than half a million times) (3) critics and audiences praised this rich, sumptuous and poetic piece offilmmaking and (4) much “attention” was drawn to Natalie Portman’s nude scenes, of which the actress said “It really depresses me that half of every review was about the nudity.” Apparently, the response provoked Natalie Portman to reconsider her choices in this film and has sworn off nude roles ever since.

Hotel Chevalier tells the Parisian picture-postcard story of Jack Whitman (Schwartzman), holed up in this hotel in the sixteenth arrondissement, seemingly doing not much. His ex-girlfriend (Portman), calls, unexpectedly to tell him that she’s on her way from the airport - having tracked him down - and will be there in half an hour. When she arrives, Jack cues Peter Sartstedt’s 1960’s hit ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ on his docked iPod, a song that is the film’s soundtrack, playing throughout, and let’s her in. What’s apparent (and I’ll come back to this) is that Jack has taken flight from her and their relationship, for over a month, whilst trying to work out what to do about whatever it is about them that he’s running from. Jack wants to know how she found him, she wants to know “what the fuck is going on?” They kiss, she undresses, we see that her body is bruised, they make love, little is said (yet enough to whet my appetite and pique my curiosity to know more). Post love-making they go out onto the room’s balcony to take in their Parisian environs and then return back inside the room.

For me, one of the ironies of Hotel Chevalier, is that the short film is a huge chunk of backstory that is alluded to and often referred to in it’s ‘parent‘ film The Darjeeling Limited and yet in it’s own right, is enormously fulfilling because of the subtext and what’s not spoken about in the thirteen minutes of it’s own duration. Is that irony, I’m not sure? But, it makes me wonder if Hotel Chevalier has it’s own prologue short film out there somewhere??!!

Hotel Chevalier is succesful because of everything that isn’t said between the two characters and everything that doesn’t take place between them (the "what's apparent" that I mentioned earlier. This is skillful filmmaking in a feature let alone in then tight confines of a short, and it takes courage to write like this and great performace skills to deliver such a script. The writing relies on trust, “trust” that the audience will get what might have taken place between these two and that we (the audience) will identify with what is going on between the lines, the words and the actions of these lovers. The filmmakers here are allowing and asking something of the audience, they’re not spoon-feeding, they’re not insulting my/your intelligence, understanding and empathy.

Those writers who craft their stories well, employing subtext, allow me to ask and answer the question “what the fuck is going on?”

Day #137 Tip: Subtext - “nothing is what it seems”
I’ll quote Robert McKee now, himself drawing on an old Hollywood expression: “If the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in deep shit.” In other words, this is writing that is often referred to as “on the nose”.

David Mamet said the following, about Mike Hodges’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, words that could equally apply to Hotel Chevalier: “This film is notable for its almost complete abscence of narration - a writer’s dream and a moviegoer’s delight. For the abscence of narration leaves only the ‘narrative’. We watch in order to discover who the folk are, what might be their relationship, what they want, and how they are going to go about getting it.”

It’s funny to be talking about subtext on day one hundred and thirty-seven (the fifth month of writing a screenplay) because subtext is really the province of month six, when writing the script proper. In month five, I’m writing the treatment, yet, what lies under the surface of what we see and hear, plays a fundementally important part of the treatment writing process.

Let me just go back to McKee again, from his book 'Story', on treatments: “....the forty to sixty scenes of a typical screenplay, treated to a moment by moment description of all action, underlaid with a full subtext of the conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings of all characters.....”

If a treatment exists for Hotel Chevalier, maybe in the film moment, when the Parisian hotel telephone rings and Jack Whitman answers it, only to hear his girlfriend - who he thought was thousands of miles away in America - say “I’m on my way from the airport, I’ll be there in half an hour”, maybe, the treatment tells us (amongst many other thigs) that Jack thought “what the fuck is going on?”

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