Saturday, August 28, 2010

Day 142: War of words

In This Happy Breed (dir by David Lean, written and adapted by Noël Coward from his own play) we spend the twenty-one years between the two Great Wars, experiencing the joys and battles of everyday life with the Gibbons family in their Clapham home in South London.

A good distance into the film, there is a scene where the character of Vi has to break the news to the middle aged mother and father of the household, that their son Reg has died in a motor accident. Here’s the setup: we know what has happened before the news is told to Frank (Robert Newton) and Ethel (Celia Johnson), both out in the garden, off-camera, where we can’t see them. Vi enters the room and goes out through the open French windows, to break the news, leaving us and our POV of the sitting room looking out on the summer garden with just the radio playing in the background. After what seems like an age (but is in fact only seconds later), “Frank and Ethel walk back slowly into the room in stunned silence. There is no sound except for the radio. In the play, you heard it softly, but David (Lean) keeps it playing bright dance music throughout the scene, adding a poignant counterpoint. Neither Frank nor Ethel bother to turn it off since they are not aware of it. The camera retreats and the scene fades out.”

I’m quoting Kevin Brownlow there, David Lean’s biographer, as he explained it so well. Brownlow goes on to quote critic of the time Gerald Pratley: “A literal depiction of such a terrible moment could not possibly be more moving or believable than this little gem of content by implication.”

I can’t recall how long this scene lasts in this film that ranks in my Top 20 favourite films, but the paradox is that it doesn’t last long at all yet feels like an age. No words are spoken, no rhetoric or sentimentality necessary, we’re talking about people here who lost many many loved ones in the First World War and will go through it all again, in the years to come. I think my high-ranking of this film is not purely based on craft of filmmaking but also because this story is my mother and her family’s story, who come from that part of the world and lived that sort of life, in and between the Wars.

Films do that, they become touchtones for us; not so much yardsticks or barometers to measure by, but maybe exemplars, models of how life is or was. I know those French windows, I’ve played in that garden as a child, I know every stick of furniture in that room, I know the chintz curtains and upholstery and I know those people; I know their foibles and their failings and whilst the names, faces and places may be different on the screen, the Gibbons family are my family.

Day #142 Tip: Talk is cheap
Most screenwriters I know, hate writing synopses & treatments. Why? I’ll offer this: because it forces us to write down the story of our film and if we ever wanted to be shown where our story is flawed, lacking, wanting or doesn’t hang together (with work to be done), then the telling of the story WITHOUT DIALOGUE will find us out and show us.

In the description of the scene from This Happy Breed - not too far off how it would be written in a treatment - there is no dialogue; maybe I’m cheating with this example because the scene doesn’t warrant speech, but the point is that in synopses and treatments we don’t write dialogue unless what’s being said is fundamental to our understanding of the plot.

Let me just quote from Screen Australia’s document ‘What is a Synopsis? An Outline? A Treatment? (available for download from their website)’: “So, detail within scenes and dialogue are to be avoided. The latter can be avoided fairly easily; what’s wanted in the treatment is the intent of what the characters say, or what their dialogue will achieve.”

As the saying goes “don’t show me characters talking about attacking the castle, show me them attacking the castle.”

My experience has taught me that the best way to ameliorate my concerns, fears and reticence to writing treatments and synopses, is to write more and more and more of them. Don’t go around, go through. You’ll be happier.

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