Special Edition: What I Learned at the Movies About Designing for the Future

This blog post is a part of Design Blogger Competition organized by CG Trader.  You can learn more about it at this link:  https://www.cgtrader.com/blogging-contest


In a philosophy of film class that I took years ago at Louisiana State University, we discussed the difference between watching a movie on television versus on the big screen. Television is added to one’s environment whereas a film on the big screen becomes one’s environment. I realized how true this is a few years later when I watched a whole summer’s season of films at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, California. The Stanford is a grand movie theatre originally built in the 1920’s that shows films from the “golden age of Hollywood,” so I watched many classic and iconic films there, in a beautifully restored space that is comfortable, accessible, and classic in the tradition of the movie palace. Watching films as they were truly meant to be seen awakened my love of the cinema in ways I would never have realized otherwise. What I learned from this experience is something we need to consider in designing for the future.

Innovation in sustainable materials and technology plays an unprecedented role in future interior and exterior design, but spaces conducive to human interaction are necessary to bring out the best in society. There in the heart of Silicon Valley people line up on the sidewalk outside the Stanford Theatre to see “old” movies along with other people. Streaming is fine, and there are myriad ways to consume all forms of media, but folks still crave the communal experience of going to an old fashioned movie theatre. There’s so much now that people can do without leaving the comfort of their own homes that it’s important to design and create appealing and inviting spaces to get them to leave the comfort of their own homes! Though some may say that the town square has gone electronic with the advent of social media, drawing people out into the world to take part in it and all it has to offer is important for human development and for democracy.

Even within the comfort of one’s own home, communal space takes greater precedence now than in the past. In the American south where I grew up, most homes used to have a front room formerly known as a “parlor” or living room that was used only for dressier occasions and a den for informal lounging or family time. Now there’s rarely a parlor or formal living room anymore and the family spends time in a more comfortable multipurpose open space wired for all forms of electronics and furnished for quality down time. The kitchen has now become a type of family room as well and in many cases everyday appliances that used to be sequestered away in a laundry room or basement now proudly take center stage. Remember the original designer jeans circa 1980’s such as those by Calvin Klein (famously modeled by Brooke Shields), Gloria Vanderbilt and Jordache? The teens and pre-teens that once bought those items with such fervor now put equal emphasis on designer washers and driers, refrigerators, dishwashers and stoves—even water faucets. Whatever it was about the aforementioned designer brands that made those young consumers willing to spend more to get just one pair of Calvins as opposed to several pairs of non-designer jeans is applied to everyday items that will make life more pleasant, efficient and stylish for themselves and their families. It isn’t just functionality that counts but style as well, and designing for the future means offering the best of both.

Today, DJ’s sample music from various artists to put together a whole new sound, and designing fashion  for the future involves sampling from the best of the past. A Chanel jacket worn to a tea party in a Parisian garden is still recognizable as a Chanel jacket worn to a hip-hop concert in Atlanta. The design makes it classic; the change in venue and unique style and taste of the person wearing it makes it thoroughly modern, and that ensures its timelessness. Sometimes a clean break with the past is warranted but the best of design remains and the best designers will be those who sample from that reservoir of vision and artistry and make it into something new for the next generation. To abandon the past completely is like leaving fantastic footage on the cutting room floor, and in the fashion world, even when some claim a style is over, that usually turns out not to be the case. How many times have I read that the 1970’s/ boho/ hippie look was dead forever only to see it come roaring back the next season? There’s a reason why certain looks and styles return again and again, remixed, and welcomed as the latest thing—it’s worth remixing and updating, and in the new form it is the latest thing. How many magazine articles have I seen about Faye Dunaway’s iconic “career bitch” look from Network, or the gangster chic style of Bonnie & Clyde? There’s a reason why fashion magazines keep coming back to the landmark Maysles Brothers documentary Grey Gardens for inspiration: Little Edie is a genius at fashion sampling! She knows how to wear a sweater as a turban or a skirt, accessorize with a fabulous brooch from her debutante days, tights and pumps and voila--“the best costume for today!”

Even in this ultra-modern age those from millennials to Gen-Xers are seeking out reboots and throwbacks in fashion, music, film and television, whether from the ‘70’s, ‘80’s, or 90’s. Vinyl is making a comeback (I’m thinking of record albums here rather than clothing but if you’re into the punk look, take your pick). As people move into the future they want the new but they also want that connection to the best of the past, for both inspiration and for raw material.

Back to where I started at the Stanford Theatre in the heart of Silicon Valley, where film fans young and old come together at a fabulous old-time movie palace. The kids might’ve been watching Star Wars at the multiplex last night, but they’re here to watch the silent Harold Lloyd film Safety Last tonight, as the lights dim and the mighty Wurlitzer organ plays down front. Somewhere nearby someone’s just launched a new app that might change the world, and a couple of train stops away Google is testing its latest robot. And the beat goes on and on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Writers can Learn from Watching . . . Florence Foster Jenkins

This post is a bit different from the others seen here. It first appeared at Writer's Fun Zone, where I discuss what creative folks, including me, can learn from the story of Florence Foster Jenkins and even from those around her. If writers write always, no matter what, then singers also sing, painters paint, dancers dance, and the list goes on and on!

http://www.writersfunzone.com/blog/2016/09/08/sing-kind-music-always-nevada-mcpherson/

 

 

 

What I Learned from Watching . . . Ghost World

Ghost World (2004, dir. Terry Zwigoff), a dark comedy based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, is about many things, not the least of which is the pain of growing up.  Enid (played superbly by Thora Birch) and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) have just graduated high school and made the conscious decision not to attend college. One of the last teen-age pranks they pull is on nerdy loner, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), when Enid calls him pretending to answer a personal ad he’d put in the paper.  The joke’s on Enid, though, when she finds herself drawn to Seymour, much to Rebecca’s chagrin.  As the summer wears on and the demands of adulthood immediately begin to close in, Enid and Rebecca find themselves drifting apart. While Rebecca readily adjusts to finding a job and getting an apartment, Enid, caught in the gap between teen freedom and adult responsibility, just can’t.

(* I discuss a few outcomes in this post, but not in detail, so if you haven’t seen this and want to have no idea what happens, better see the movie first!:-)

Here are the three things I’ve learned from watching Ghost World:

1.       Sometimes a wicked sense of humor masks a very sensitive soul.

Enid is a world-class wise-cracker and oftentimes an outright smart-ass, but she owns it. She can both dish it out and take it, as evidenced by her handling of the obnoxious, anti-semitic guy who runs the comic book shop her and Rebecca frequent. But at times, even she is amazed at her own acute awareness of beauty in the oddest places, and it seems to break her heart.

At hers and Rebecca’s graduation party she spies one of their male class-mates, eating cake alone and watching the crowd, looking somewhat like dweeb. “Just think,” she says to Rebecca, “We’ll never see him again.” Rebecca expresses relief at that idea and turns away, but Enid continues watching him as the band plays “Where Is the Love?” Closer on Enid as she watches the guy, as if truly seeing him for the first time now that she knows chances are she really won’t see him again. High school is over. “It’s really sad if you think about it,” she says, to no one in particular.

Before she gets to know Seymour, she goes to a garage sale to see him again for the first time after hers and Rebecca’s joke where Enid, pretending to be the woman he was reaching out to in the ad, told him to meet her at a ‘50’s style diner, then watched him leave after he thought he’d been stood up. She knows who he is but he has no idea who she is when she buys a Blues record from him at the sale. He offers to put it in a bag for her to carry it home and she’s extremely touched by his kindness in spite of herself.

What Enid discovers over the summer (she does have to take a summer art class to actually get her hands on her high school diploma) is that she is an artist at heart, and that she’s a young woman with deeper feelings than she could ever admit to herself or anyone else.

 

2.       Sometimes friendships just run their course; it’s no one’s fault.

The fraying of Enid’s and Rebecca’s longtime friendship accelerates as Enid spends more time with Seymour but the signs that they’re starting to have less and less in common begin early on. At a coffee shop a young musician gives them fliers for his upcoming concert and Rebecca, thinking he’s cute, is looking forward to it. Enid makes some snide remarks about him and Rebecca clearly is getting frustrated with Enid’s apparent attitude toward anything Rebecca considers fun, like going out to meet guys, hear live music, go shopping for the upcoming apartment, picking out an apartment. . .  

Since there’s no college on the horizon for either of them, Rebecca gets a job at a coffee shop. Enid resists getting the kinds of jobs available to her (such as at Computer Depot) where her dad’s girlfriend has offered to help her find employment. Enid holds a yard sale to make a little money, putting all her old stuff from troll dolls to dresses out in the front yard. “I can’t believe you’re selling this,” Rebecca tells her. “Everything must go,” Enid insists. When people come up to buy some of the stuff, however, Enid finds reasons they shouldn’t buy it, from telling one woman that a dress is two hundred dollars because Enid lost her virginity in it, to simply telling one hipster that she’s decided the troll doll’s not for sale after all—it’s on the table by mistake. “I thought ‘everything must go,’” Rebecca quips.

Clearly Enid has changed her mind. She not ready to move on, nor give up these artifacts of her childhood and teen-hood. Rebecca wants to know if she’ll be ready to go shopping later but Enid says she doesn’t know—she has to bake a cake for Seymour’s birthday; she’ll call Rebecca later. Rebecca is clearly ticked off and Enid clearly has no interest in pursuing their plans; they’re heading in different directions as Rebecca knows what she wants and what she needs to do to get it, and Enid has no idea what she wants yet, just that she doesn’t want to be stuck in a routine job and bland apartment complex. She can’t yet articulate what she does want, and this further complicates things with Rebecca.

Even with this drifting apart, however, Rebecca is there for Enid near the end, and Enid understands and appreciates her concern. Enid’s no closer to being able to explain what it is she really wants next, and things will never be the same for her and Rebecca, but each accepts it and moves on.

 

3.       Loners will always be loners, unless they stick together. 

Seymour, a self-described “eccentric old crank” is fairly content with his life as it is, collecting old Blues records and obscure memorabilia. When we get to know him we realize that his reaching out to a woman he saw briefly one day by placing a personal ad to try and find her again was a very big step toward connecting with someone. He and Enid “get” each other but Enid still insists on trying to find a woman for Seymour even as she develops romantic feelings for him. He holds Enid at arm’s length because he doesn’t see what a young, hip girl would see in him and she does the same because acknowledging how she feels about Seymour would mean opening her heart to the kind of pain that could come from falling in love.

The woman Seymour was looking for when he placed the ad in the personals does finally find him and they go on a date, but while she’s nice enough, she and Seymour have nothing in common. After a romantic encounter with Enid, at long last, Seymour decides to take a chance on that becoming a real relationship, but frustratingly, Enid suddenly won’t talk to him, even though that in itself causes her the very pain she’s trying so hard to avoid. When she decides to pursue an opportunity for what she now realizes is her dream of going to art school, she finds that door closed and doesn’t know where to turn. Instead of turning back to Rebecca or Seymour, she remains a loner.  Seymour, confused, retreats into therapy, thrown for a loop by recent events, but ready to get back to his old life as soon as he can.

Every time I see this film, and I’ve seen it numerous times, I’m always let down by how two people who seem to understand and appreciate each other so much somehow end up apart. Maybe they’ll find their way back to each other, and maybe it’s just not meant to be. I like Enid and Seymour as separate characters, and I love the scenes when they’re together. But alas . . .

Ghost World is a rich and complex film. It’s a dark comedy, a thought-provoking character study, and conundrum dealing with human nature. I expect I’ll return to it in a future post!

What I Learned from Watching . . . Baadassssss!

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Mario van Peebles directs Baadasssss! (2003) and stars as his father, Melvin van Peebles, in this docu-drama about Melvin’s efforts at creating the groundbreaking independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song! (1971), which knocked down barriers for black actors and filmmakers and had a mostly minority crew.

No matter what your race, creed or national origin, if you’ve ever tried to carry out a difficult project that few but yourself and a hardcore group of friends believed in, you’ll relate to Mario’s film and Melvin’s story, and if you’re planning a difficult project that you’re committed to but others seek to curb your enthusiasm in various ways, you must see this film for inspiration. It’s a combination of African-American cinema history, a loving tribute from a son to his father, a cautionary tale and a story of what can happen when one person has a dream and simply refuses to give up.

Here are three things I’ve learned from watching Baadasssss!:

1.       If you don’t believe in your project whole-heartedly, no one else will.

In Baadasssss!, Melvin (Mario) has the backing of a major studio as long as he’s making comedies that make money, but when he decides to make a film with a bad-ass black hero fighting racism and police violence in America using any means necessary the studio drops him and he’s on his own to raise the money independently. After several misadventures with would-be backers, Melvin decides to make the film with his own money, against everyone’s advice, including his agent, Howie (Saul Rubinek), and his hippie best friend, Bill (Rainn Wilson), who then gets on board if he can be a producer. Melvin goes full-tilt, creates a lean shooting schedule, gathers his crew, scouts locations and even has to battle the voices in his own head warning him that he’s risking everything by putting all his money on the line.

Even his film’s main character, Sweetback himself, appears to Melvin throughout Baadasssss!, chiding him for his recklessness. When he describes the plot to his son, Mario (Khleo Thomas), Mario’s response is: “Who’d wanna see that?” Melvin presses through the doubts of others, and even with his unswerving belief in the project and what it stands for, it’s a Herculean effort that takes all his money, energy and nearly even his health. However, even when Melvin faces all the resistance the world seems to offer, he doesn’t back down. Win or lose, he’s all-in, to the bitter (or will it be sweet?) end.

Some efforts just demand all that you have, and if you’re willing to give that much to it, others will eventually believe in it, too.

 

2.       Make sure your team is fully committed.

At the start of production, Melvin gathers his team: a mostly non-union group made up of blacks, Latinos, some women, and a few white folks, including a married couple who usually work in porno doing make-up and camera and a union sound man who’s risking his career to help out. The boom man and security guy, Big T (Terry Crews) announces that he doesn’t want to take orders from the white sound man, Tommy David (Ralph P. Martin) and Melvin reminds him that his “big ass has been taking orders from Whitey for over two hundred years,” so a few more weeks won’t hurt. At the time, unions were all-white, so Melvin takes pains to make it look like he’s making a black pornographic film so union bosses won’t bother to examine his project too closely.

Melvin has to mediate a certain amount of discord between the white and minority members of the crew at different points throughout the story, a reminder that race is a huge factor not only in the film he’s making but in the making of the film itself. He announces at the first meeting that this group isn’t supposed to get along at all, let alone work together, but that’s what they’ll have to do to make this happen. If anyone isn’t up for it and wants to leave, they’re perfectly free to do so and no hard feelings. One young white woman leaves but everyone else stays. If it weren’t for his hard-core team, willing to put aside their individual differences to work for a common goal, the film would never happen.

Late in the film, when one young white guy who’s been hired to help Melvin edit, walks out for a higher paying gig, Melvin loses it. He’s spent all of his money, and is in danger of losing everything, including sight in one of his eyes because of the long hours and grueling race to complete the film. This young man was brought in late in the game, hadn’t gone through all the trials and tribulations the others had gone through with Melvin, and thus just wasn’t as invested in the outcome.

As Melvin says near the end: “Trial by fire will singe your ass, but it also bonds.” The bond with the others on the team endures, and Melvin overcomes being left in the lurch to fight another day. And fight he must, but it’s worth it.

 

3.       If others are looking to you to be the boss, you must BE THE BOSS!

As the writer, director, producer and star of the film (he only plays the lead in Sweet Sweetback because other actors he auditions insists on more lines), Melvin has to be fully in charge and when disasters occur, he has to be the one to make the difficult decisions. When the script supervisor, Clyde (David Alan Grier) makes a decision to spend money hiring a stuntman for something that Melvin himself could do, jeopardizing Melvin’s ability to purchase more film stock, Melvin fires him right then and there, on the spot. Clyde overstepped his bounds and made a very bad call, so he’s out of there.

One of the more controversial calls Melvin makes is letting Mario play young Sweetback losing his virginity to a prostitute. Mario’s mother, Sandra (Nia Long), is appalled not only by that but also that Melvin wants Mario to cut his afro so it will look like he has ringworm, instead of investing in a “skin wig” that the make–up artist could create. “He wants to be an actor; he’s an actor,” Melvin insists. He says he’s not going to coddle Mario and that Mario should learn what it takes to make it in the business and even more, in life. Mario ends up playing young Sweetback, but Melvin relents and lets him use the skin wig, one of few concessions Melvin makes in his drive to bring his vision to life.

Another controversial decision Melvin makes is to allow most of the crew, including Big T, Tommy and Jose (Paul Rodriguez) to stay in jail one weekend when they’ve been arrested for having expensive film equipment on their truck, which the police don’t believe is theirs. They’ll have to wait until Monday to straighten things out. Bill is livid and wants to go get them out immediately, but Melvin knows that if a black hipster like himself and long-haired hippie Bill go make a big fuss, it’ll only drag things out further. Melvin decrees they’ll wait until Monday, when Bill will put on a suit and calmly go and sort it out, in order to get the production back on track.

Melvin certainly isn’t looking to make enemies but he’s not looking to make friends, either. His over-riding mission is to bring the radical message of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song! to the big screen, to black audiences, to an America where “separate but equal” is a very recent memory or still current reality in parts of the South. He succeeds, but not without first staring into the abyss at possible failure.

Win or lose, if it’s your project you have to be fearless and make the hard decisions. If you’re in charge, be large and in charge!

In the end, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song! was a hit: the film made real money; the Black Panthers made it compulsory viewing for all members; films such as Shaft, which was originally going to star a white detective, went with a black male lead instead. Sweet Sweetback was the first film to use its soundtrack as a marketing tool, featuring a then-unknown band called Earth, Wind & Fire that subsequently became world famous.

Mario’s film, Baadasssss!, is a true hero’s journey about his father’s experience. Mario had a front row seat and shares what it was like to see Melvin’s dream become reality. If you’re facing obstacles in making your dream become real, watching this film will provide you with inspiration and some ideas about what it might take to get things done. Keep the faith.

 

What I Learned from Watching . . . Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles and written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, has long been considered one of the greatest films ever made, and with good reason. It’s easy to get caught up in looking for the real life parallels between newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles, in his first screen role) and the man on whom the character is based, William Randolph Hearst. After watching the film many times there are certain hard truths to be learned from Kane’s triumphs and missteps and those are the focus here.

 

1.       Aim high.

He wasn’t born into money but acquired it in spades when a boarder at Mrs. Kane’s Boarding House left her stock in what turned out to be the Colorado Lode, a gold mine that enabled her to send Charles east to be raised as a man of privilege and distinction, far from the reach of his grasping and abusive father. As a young adult, Charles becomes an ambitious risk-taker, his money a safety cushion that allows him to follow his bliss.

 

He decides to purchase a newspaper and to run it however he sees fit. He sets his sights on getting the best newspaper staff in the world and in an amazing match cut that shifts from Charles and his two best friends Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton) and Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) peering through the window at a group photograph of the writers for the New York Chronicle, the same men in the same poses are transported seamlessly to a celebration of Charles’s achievement of his goal: all those men now work for him at the Inquirer.  The camera snaps an identical group photo Charles plans to send to the Chronicle and the party begins. This is just one instance of Charles focusing on a goal and setting out to make it happen, no holds barred. Later, when his newspaper empire starts to shrink, Charles shows no regrets about how he’s run it. He takes his chances and, win or lose in the long run, owns it. He lives his life according to the standard nothing ventured, nothing gained, and when he gets burned, though often he’s the one that struck the match himself, he goes forward.

 

The lesson:  Set goals and make them happen. Don’t let fear hold you back.  At the same time, if you take a high-risk gamble, be prepared to face the consequences. Good or bad, and regardless of what people will think.

 

By the way, in another scene where Kane’s wife Emily (Ruth Warrick) begins a sentence with “People will think –“ Charles finishes the sentence for her, saying “People will think what I tell them to think.” Spoken like a true tycoon. Megolomanaical? Perhaps. You don’t have to go to the lengths Kane went to get his way; it does cause him problems later. Still, for most of us, living on purpose, large and in charge beats the hell out of playing small.

 

2.       Stick to your principles.

After buying the New York Inquirer Charles writes up a declaration of principles that he will adhere to as its publisher. He wants to have them printed on the front page the very next day. Mr. Bernstein sounds a note of caution. “Mr. Kane,” he says, “you don’t want to make too many promise you don’t want to keep.” “These will be kept,” Charles assures him. Jed Leland requests a copy of the principles when the printer is done with it because he expects it’ll be something that should be preserved for posterity.

Years later, when inflated ego, tragedy, thwarted desire and ambition take hold, the boundless enthusiasm of the newspaper’s early days has dissipated and Leland’s and Kane’s friendship disintegrated, Charles receives the principles from Leland one day by messenger, in an envelope along with a severance check for a high amount that Charles had sent to Leland as a final goodwill gesture. The check is torn to pieces and the list of principles is intact to remind Charles of the wide gulf between what he had aspired to be and what he has become. While Susan, Charles’s former mistress, now his wife, rails about her failing opera career in the background, Charles shreds the list of principles. He could be vaguely hoping that such an action will absolve him of the responsibility he had to maintain them, but it’s clear from the rare distracted and disturbed look on his face that the forgotten principles and lost friendship have changed him from the man he wanted to be. Though still a force to be reckoned with, he is growing more isolated and distant from the world he’d once wanted to influence in a positive way. His principles were a road map he chose not to follow, and now, though still a rich man, it turns out he can’t have everything he wants.

The Lesson: If you make a list of principles and find you’re drifting away from them, course-correct from time to time to make sure you’re still being true to yourself and what you stand for. You don’t want to end up all alone in Xanadu.

 

3.       Sometimes it’s really not all about you.

I get the nagging feeling Kane wouldn’t have ended up all alone at Xanadu, his palatial Gulf Coast estate, if he’d refrained from saying one last thing to Susan after they argue near the end of the picture. Susan has already made up her mind to leave him but he is trying to persuade her to stay. She listens, still with suitcase in hand as he makes his final plea. It seems she might stay; she appears to sense some remorse, as much as he would ever be willing to show. As she stands there, prepared to leave but receptive to the idea that he might somehow apologize, Kane casts the final straw. “Please, Susan,” he says, in a very reasonable voice. “You can’t do this to me.”

Whoa. That tears it.

“I see,” she says, “It’s you who this is being done to. I can’t do this to you? Oh, Yes I can.” And so she does, walking out the door and out of his life forever.

The Lesson: Kane forgot that sometimes to win you have to lose. To gain you have to give, and not just stuff either. You have to give of yourself, realize that other people have feelings, too, and that they need for you to see them and show them some consideration.

Still, years later when Susan, now a night club singer, is talking with Mr. Thompson, the reporter dispatched to interview those closest to Kane to try and discover the meaning of his dying word, “Rosebud,” she acknowledges a certain amount of sympathy for Kane.

As much as the story of Charles Foster Kane is a cautionary tale of the corrupting influence of power and money, it’s also about a man trying to reclaim the only happiness he ever knew before power and money entered his life. Nothing can take the place of what he lost, but he never stops seeking it anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I Learned from Watching . . . Run Lola Run

 

What I Learned from Watching . . . 

Run Lola Run

Dir. Tom Tykwer

1998

Run Lola Run is one of my all-time favorite films though I resisted seeing it at first. Something I’d read clued me in to the fact that it would be one of those stories that has repeating elements of which I’m not particularly a fan. However, my husband was teaching at a debate camp at Stanford that summer, there was no T.V. in the dorm and this was the film we hadn’t seen yet at the Aquarius Theatre in downtown Palo Alto, so reluctantly I went to see it. And loved it.

I’ve watched it countless times since then, discovering something new each time. As one of the more enigmatic characters, the bank security guard, Herr Schuster (Armin Rohde) announces at the beginning: “The ball is round, the game is ninety minutes. Let’s go!” The film starts with a bang: techno music, artsy animation, rapid-fire editing, and it’s on from there.

Briefly, a young woman, Lola (Franka Potente) has twenty minutes to help her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), raise 100,000 Deutsche marks he was to deliver to a gangster, Ronni (Heino Ferch). He’s carried out his part of a shady deal, collected the money, and, rattled, leaves it on a train when police come into the compartment to look around. A homeless man, Norbert (Joachim Krol), takes the bag with the money and is now wandering the streets of Berlin. Manni, desperate and in fear for his life, blames all of this on Lola who wasn’t at the appointed meeting place in time to pick him up because her Moped had been stolen, and that’s why Manni was on the train in the first place. Lola promises to help Manni get the money, somehow.

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As always, there are many things I could examine in detail that fascinate me about this film, but these are the top three things I’ve learned from repeated viewings:

 

1.       Violence is not the answer.

In act one Lola  receives Manni’s frantic call on the red phone in her bedroom and all action stems from there. Variations in the time it takes for her to get out of her bedroom, her parents’ apartment, past the smart-aleck kid with the mean dog in the stairwell, will influence what happens next, then next and on and on. The only place she knows to go to in the first two acts is the bank where her father (Herbert Knaup)  works in a position of authority and when she’s unsuccessful at persuading him to give her the money to save Manni (“Manni? Who’s Manni?” he asks, regarding Lola’s boyfriend of more than a year). As Lola rushes to give Manni the bad news and to try and prevent him from robbing the grocery store on the corner she realizes she’s too late when she sees him from a distance walking into the store, drawing a pistol from the waistband of his jeans.

He’s well into the robbery by the time Lola arrives and she ends up joining him in his efforts. When it looks like mission accomplished they make their escape to the soothing notes of Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes.” It’s a lovely scene, even in the wake of their crime, a romantic getaway fantasy a la Bonnie & Clyde on a really good day until reality intrudes in the form of an annoying, insistent siren that pierces the moment. It ends horribly with an accidental death and all involved realizing too late that it wasn’t worth it and nothing could be as easy as all that and –

Stop. Do over.

Between each act there’s a heartfelt conversation between Lola and Manni in bed discussing alternately what each would do if the other died. After this one where Lola discusses her death, we begin again, with the aftermath of the frantic phone call: the run to the bank where clues and missed connections are left in Lola’s wake as she runs to see her father. Again. Again an argument ensues when she interrupts an awkward scene between her father and his mistress, Jutta (Nina Petri), and after a particularly ugly confrontation where her father denies she’s even his daughter, inspiration and anger conspire to make her steal Herr Schuster's gun and rob the bank. She gets past the Polizei surrounding the building (because who would believe this this young female hipster with impossibly red hair would be capable of such an act) and is on her way to meet Manni in triumph, when tragedy strikes again.

Each time Lola or Manni try to force events to their advantage using violent means, they lose. Regret and misery are all that are left even after getting the money each time. Whatever freedom and relief they get from acquiring the money is forfeited when they face the consequences of their actions and all anyone in such a position could ever want is one more chance. Two of these are granted, two squandered. Violence committed in the name of fear and desperation doesn’t work. Remember that the next time you bat around the idea of robbing that liquor store to get the rent money/ diaper money/ money to make your movie/ save your ass, etc. Not that you’d ever think of it, mind you, but if you do it and it goes terribly wrong, you might not get your do-over.

 

2.       Some things are just outside your control, and that’s a good thing.

Lola learned something in each preceding act, such as how a gun safety latch works, how to avoid the mean dog on the steps in the apartment house, and to leave room on the sidewalk so as not to run into the Lady with the Baby Carriage around the first corner. In the third act, she learns the fine art of surrender, that all she knows is that she doesn’t have the answer, and that she won’t be able to solve this problem all by herself.

She runs through the streets of Berlin, yet again heading to the bank, since her father is always the only person she can think of who would ever be able to get his hands on the amount of money needed to save Manni from the wrath of the gangster, Ronni. As she arrives outside the bank, she sees her father driving off with a colleague, oblivious as she calls out to him. She starts running again, partly to meet Manni, partly because she doesn’t know what else to do, as if salvation can be found in pure kineticism rather than in stasis. We hear her voice as she runs, vowing to continue running while she awaits an answer, to listen, to trust that an answer will come. Is she praying? She very well could be, releasing all control to God.

She stops running abruptly, directly in the path of a large truck whose driver berates her for her carelessness. When she looks up, a casino is straight ahead. She runs inside without hesitation, gets her chips, procedes to the tables, in spite of not being in accordance with the dress code, and bets what money she has on the roulette wheel, winning again and again, drawing the attention of the casino officials who discretely invite her to leave. She looks the toughest security guard in the eye and says: “One more game.” She bets, the wheel spins.

Lola has a habit of screaming when the desperation, warnings, chatter and stress get the best of her. Ironically it seems to quiet her mind and restore her calm. In the casino, as the number Lola wants on the roulette wheel goes round and round, the wheel begins to slow, everything riding on twenty, black, Lola’s scream comes from deep in her soul, shattering champagne glasses and turning every single head in the room. Silence. The final turn of the wheel: a quiet whoosh as the ball lands on twenty. Black.

Was Lola attempting to take control of the wheel with her final primal scream? Was the scream a manifestation of sheer force of will to stop the wheel there? Or was it instead a great “letting go” as Fate stepped in and stopped the wheel. Would any of this even have been possible without her relinquishing control as she ran? She loves Manni and this is all to save him. She listened; she followed the signs; she bet it all. She believed.

Most of us would do anything we could to save someone we love. When we’re at a total loss as to what to do, perhaps the best thing to do is to let go. Listen. Keep running and wait, so we can hear what God says to do when He speaks. Lola’s scream drowned out all doubt, disapproving looks, murmurs, the disdain of the pit bosses and security at the casino, the ones who were telling her to leave even as she stood on the brink of reaching her goal. That’s what the scream silenced. That’s when the ball landed on the number twenty. That’s when she got what she needed.

 

3.       Give and you will receive.

What was Manni doing to help his own situation while Lola was at the casino? This film is full of Hitchcockian intersections and connections, instances where timing is everything and a missed connection makes all the difference in that moment. The do-overs between the second and third acts provide enough elasticity for learning, and gaining greater understanding and compassion, even among some of the secondary characters, especially the bank guard, Herr Schuster. There are also flashes of insight into the lives of the Young Man on the Stolen Bicycle, the Bank Teller, and Lady at the Copy Machine.

In Manni’s case, his willingness to stop and listen, much like Lola’s, makes all the difference in the world. He leaves the phone booth, where he’s been desperately calling everyone he can think of who might help him get the money he needs. Lola’s already on her way, and he doesn’t much believe she can really help anyway, though she’s promised she’ll find a way somehow. A Blind Woman stands outside the phone booth. We’ve seen her in the two preceding acts, sometimes in odd places that made Lola or Manni do a split-second double-take.

Manni hands her the phone card he’s borrowed to make his calls, thanks her. She grabs him by the wrist. Wait, she says. Puzzled, Manni waits. As he waits, he sees the homeless man, Norbert,  from the train going past on a bicycle (a stolen bicycle bought from a Young Man Lola encountered earlier).  Norbert has the plastic bag containing the money that Manni left behind on the train. Manni runs after Norbert, and finally catches up with him, telling him the plastic bag in the bicycle basket is his, and Norbert acknowledges that it is. Manni takes it and Norbert says, “What about me? At least give me that,” indicating the gun Manni just held on him to get him to stop. Manni hesitates, looks at him sideways. He then haltingly gives Norbert the gun.

A pause here to acknowledge that for a long time I thought this was irrefutable proof that Manni had no sense whatsoever, and, like Clyde from Bonnie and Clyde, would never change. Now, though, upon further reflection, is this Manni’s own way of relinquishing control? An act of faith? He wanted the money back; he has it. The gun caused him and Lola nothing but grief, and whether it brings Norbert, or someone else grief as well, or maybe some money at the local pawn shop, is not Manni’s to decide. Manni leaves the guy with something, has the temerity to believe Norbert won’t shoot him and take the money back. This is Manni’s last bet on the roulette wheel. Unlike before, he doesn’t try to control the overall outcome, he just trusts that regaining possession of the money will ensure somehow that order is restored and he will get away with his life, because, after all, this was never his own money to begin with. He delivers it to Ronni.

As Lola rushes headlong to reunite with Manni and give him the money she’s won, her path intercepts with that of a red ambulance she’s encountered already in the previous two acts. She gets in, asking for a ride and is shocked to see Herr Schuster as he appears to be having or about to have a heart attack. The Medic tries to stabilize him. Lola has had a complicated relationship with Schuster from the beginning. At first he seems to enjoy teasing her, maybe even flirting with her, but as he walks outside to smoke a cigarette at the beginning of the third act while Lola calls to her father who’s driving off, he greets her with the cryptic remark, “So, my dear, you’ve come at last.” She looks at him hard without comment (is he her father?), then is on the run again. Now, in the ambulance, she takes his hand with utmost compassion. He eventually becomes stable, his breathing steady, much to the amazement of the Medic. Is Lola, having gone through all her trials, tribulations, and finally a triumph to save someone else now imbued her with special powers? Enlightened? She may have never reached out to this man before but now in doing so seems to bring calmness and healing to them both.

 

Manni and Lola, both having been transformed by their experiences, reunite, richer, literally and figuratively by having become more giving, less controlling. Manni, unaware of all that Lola has been through, asks: “Did you run here?” In all the myriad mystical connections made and missed in the world of this High Noon/ tyranny-of-time/ pressure cooker of a film, three things prevail: Love, faith, and compassion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I Learned from Watching . . . Sunset Boulevard

Dir. Billy Wilder    1950

One of my favorite films of all time is Sunset Boulevard, a true Hollywood noir in every sense of those words, with many motifs and archetypes associated with the mood of noir in general, but Billy Wilder holds the mirror up to Hollywood so specifically and precisely that it withers at its own reflection, like Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) does occasionally when she passes the mirror in the hallway outside her bedroom and realizes that Joe Gillis (William Holden), her live-in lover, might have seen her not looking her best. It’s said that Louis B. Mayer rebuked Billy Wilder outside the theatre after watching Sunset Boulevard because Mayer saw it as a scathing indictment of the very town that had been so good to Wilder. Wilder’s attempt to show the backstage/ back-lot heartbreak, raging ego and youthful ambition corrupted hit so close to home that fact and fiction met and passed each other, placing this film at the crossroads of myth and reality.

When I see this film I become transfixed by so many things in it that, taken as a whole, fill the screen with their Baroque grandeur, but here are three things I’ve learned from watching it.

1.       Get it in writing.

At the beginning, Joe Gillis’s ambition has carried him pretty far for a young man who one day up and left his newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio and took off for Hollywood. He has an agent and “a few B-pictures to his credit,” but real success, the kind that consistently pays the rent and keeps the repo men at bay has eluded him. When he lands at Norma Desmond’s mansion because of a blown tire he thinks his charm and cleverness are enough to dig him out of his situation when he agrees to rewrite Norma’s mess of a script for what he expects will be a lucrative fee. Norma chafes at any mention of money however and as Joe works on the script, thinking the money will come if he keeps up his feigned interest in it and Norma long enough, he becomes entangled in Norma’s scheme instead, having to depend on her for cigarette money. He watches his car get towed away because somehow that big check he thought he’d get is never coming. He lives well, but only at Norma’s largesse and with little to no independence. Norma’s mansion at 10086 Sunset Boulevard becomes Joe’s own Hotel California, where there’s always pink champagne on ice and “you can check out but you can never leave.” There’s no contract, no rules, and as Joe discovers when he reveals his truth and tries to leave, no way out.

 

2.       Truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction produces its own truth.

One of the most mind-blowing things about Sunset Boulevard is how closely it mirrors the real-life associations of two of its stars, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim, who plays Max, Norma’s butler. Erich von Stroheim started his career in Hollywood playing a chauffeur, and later became famous as “the man you love to hate” portraying ruthless German soldiers in several World War I propaganda films. He then went on to direct and act in the first million dollar blockbuster, Foolish Wives, for Universal. It was then that someone from the publicity department began spelling his name “von $troheim” when the film went far over budget, giving him a reputation for profligate spending that would follow him long after. Even von Stroheim’s nemesis, Irving Thalberg, who would later fire him from Universal acknowledged his genius as a director. Von Stroheim proceeded to be fired by every major studio in the ensuing years for his uncompromising commitment to detail and for frequent run-ins with studio executives. The final time he was fired was by none other than Gloria Swanson herself, from Gloria Productions, hers and Joseph P. Kennedy’s production company, during an early morning shoot for a film Von Stroheim had written for Swanson, Queen Kelly. There had been tension on the set but the final straw was reportedly when Von Stroheim wanted her to let co-star Tully Marshall drool tobacco juice onto her hand when he kissed it in a scene. The hour was early, Swanson wasn’t feeling well, and, disgusted, she fired von Stroheim and then Kennedy fired him over the phone as well. “Von,” as he was often called, was just as disgusted at the idea of returning to Hollywood years later to work with Swanson on Sunset Boulevard, playing the woman’s butler, of all things, but his mistress, Denise Vernac, persuaded him that this would be an important picture and that he should be a part of it. In the film, the scene in the garage where von Stroheim as Max, Norma’s butler, reveals the truth about his past relationship with Norma is as shocking as it is heartbreaking, all the more because of the history the real life players share.

Still, Max gets the last word when he directs Norma, who is in a very deluded and vulnerable state, down “the staircase of the palace” near the end. His pose between the two cameras is vintage Von Stroheim, powerful and in control, a glimpse of what he really wanted to be remembered for, his directing. In this scene, Max, creator and guardian of Norma’s myth, is in charge, shedding the role of butler for that once again of auteur.

3.       Tell it like it is—if you can handle the consequences.

As many times as I’ve seen this film, I never cease to wish the ending could be different, though in the high noir tradition, there can’t be a happy ending. Joe followed his heart to come to Hollywood to pursue his dream and became entangled with Norma too soon after he’d met Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen) who could have been his soul mate. Betty had become involved with Artie (Jack Webb), her assistant director boyfriend (and friend of Joe’s) before she met Joe, and she and Artie become engaged during the course of the story. It’s clear however, that if Betty were to truly follow her heart she’d leave Artie for Joe, and that Joe falls in love with Betty but is torn by the loyalty he feels toward Artie. It’s because of Joe’s sense of decency that he runs Betty out of Norma’s mansion that last night, and turns to meet his fate. He seeks to atone for his actions that have brought him to where he is, sacrifices his dream of success and even happiness so that Betty and Artie can go forward untainted by his choices. He tells Betty to go with Artie and be happy, but Betty truly loves Joe, not Artie, not anymore. She denies having heard a word Joe has said, denies even being in that house to hear his confession, letting him know that she’s willing to walk away from all this if he’ll just leave it behind and come with her. He sends her away anyway.

Is Joe’s chivalrous attempt to shield Betty from his earlier choices the right thing to do when Betty has already acknowledged that she knows what’s going on and loves Joe anyway, that Joe does deserve a second chance? Does he? I believe he does. It’s too bad for Artie but Betty says she’ll always love Artie, she’s just not in love with him anymore, which doesn’t bode well for that marriage. As for Norma, Joe refuses to shield Norma from harsh reality any longer and forces her to face the truth that sends her over the edge. He may have been guilty of trying to manipulate Norma at first, but since then Norma has twisted the genuine concern Joe came to feel for her into something quite warped, and for that she no longer deserves to be shielded; those around her have done it for too long and it has not served her well.

Joe’s attempt to right things at the end of Sunset Boulevard goes wrong in many ways but he cared about all involved enough to try and set things straight before catching the bus back to Dayton. Joe made mistakes but if it was his sense of decency that in the end caused his death (which starts the movie, by the way—no spoiler here!), Joe wanted to end by telling everyone the truth, for as we all know, the truth will set you free. It can also get you shot, fired, burned at the stake, crucified, exiled, and shunned. Joe knew this, too and did it anyway. Perhaps that’s why in his voiceover that both begins and ends the film, there’s not a hint of regret or irony in his voice, only continuing sympathy for Norma, former child star and beloved ingénue transformed and not for the better by the factory that is Hollywood, a sentiment echoed by none other than Cecil B. DeMille earlier in the film: “. . . a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”

Joe may not have achieved his goal in Hollywood but he took a shot at it, came so close, and could have made it big – if only.

No matter, to me he will always be the screenwriter’s patron saint.

 

 

 

 

What I Learned from Watching . . . Bonnie and Clyde

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Welcome to the first post of my new series, “What I Learned From Watching . . . “ I’ll be posting a different entry for the next few weeks about movies I’ve watched over and over again and what I’ve learned from each one. Several of these films I’ve seen more times than I can count through more than fifteen years of teaching screenwriting and film studies. I’ve also spent many hours discussing them with my classes, and reading about them.

These posts aren’t meant to be pieces of film criticism (though I do enjoy reading honest-to-gosh film criticism!), but very personal observations based on my own experience of these films and how certain things about them or ideas they contain have engaged/ empowered/ inspired/ affected me over time.

Feel free to comment! And now without any further ado—

What I Learned From Watching Bonnie and Clyde

Dir. Arthur Penn, 1967

1.      Don’t park the getaway car.

After making C.W. Moss a member of their gang as go-to mechanic and wheel man, Bonnie and Clyde get out to rob a small town bank. C.W. makes the mistake of parallel parking the car while he waits for them to come out and when they do they can’t find him or the car and are caught out in the middle of a busy street with bank alarms going off and people are pointing, yelling and running after them as they scan the area for C.W..  As he struggles to get out of the tight parking space, knocking into other parked cars and further drawing attention to the situation, things escalate, and by the time Bonnie and Clyde finally do get into the car, one of the bank workers is hanging onto the side of the car, threatening to get them. Clyde, cornered, shoots the man in the face. Blood spatters in one of the more shockingly violent scenes for its time, and Clyde goes from bank robber to murderer in one split second. He’s devastated at the turn of events and berates C.W. in the next scene as they hide out in a movie theatre during the “We’re in the Money” number from Gold Diggers of 1933 while Bonnie momentarily escapes into the fantasy of the Busby Berkeley number and C. W. weeps quietly in shame.

C.W. turns out to be a valued member of the Barrow gang, but his inexperience upped their value as wanted criminals considerably and led to an innocent man’s death.

In today’s world, if you’re not a bank robber, the lesson here can be that lack of experience doesn’t mean a person isn’t qualified but they can’t read your mind either and will need some direction to function properly in your organization, especially in potentially touchy situations, until they learn the ropes.

 

2.      Learn to stay focused in the midst of chaos.

In spite of his penchant for stealing, Clyde’s general affability makes him a likable character in the film, though not the brightest. If he hadn’t turned to a life of crime he’d be just another good ole boy. Earlier in the film, he gets nervous right before robbing banks but as he becomes more hardened he acquires nerves of steel which seem to serve him well in his profession.

After one of the most harrowing scenes wherein Bonnie, C.W., Clyde’s brother Buck and sister-in-law Blanche are ambushed by “the Laws” in an armored car and Buck is badly injured, Clyde is at the wheel, driving with a laser-like focus even as the screaming, crying and confusion ebb and flow all around him. Not as susceptible to panic as he might have been earlier, he stares straight ahead, unemotional. A rock.

During times of confusion and imminent melt-down, I often think of Clyde’s unswerving focus during this scene, his ability to shut it all out, hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, going forward—only going forward. Sometimes that kind of concentration is the only thing standing between you and total disaster.

 

3.      People can change in big ways, but that doesn’t mean they will.

Near the end of the film, as Bonnie and Clyde are lying in bed, Bonnie asks Clyde what he would do if they could start fresh, clean, in a brand new place. At first one could interpret his expression as one of joy at the thought that it could ever be possible: the idea of a clean slate. Bonnie awaits his answer, a smile on her face. Clyde says that first of all, they wouldn’t pull their bank jobs in the same state where they live, but would go to other states before returning home to live their normal lives. Bonnie closes her eyes in resignation, without a word.

Bonnie and Clyde do love each other, but with Clyde’s answer Bonnie realizes that he is who he is and that’s who he’ll always be.

Their fate is sealed, and the words that conclude her own poem about them will come true: “Someday they’ll go down together; they’ll bury them side by side. For some it’ll be grief, for the Law a relief, but it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”