November 26, 2009

Chinatown ***

*** Chinatown, Robert Towne, 1973

Chinatown is a classic, but, like many other classic things, I missed it the first time around. It's used for examples in dozens of screenwriting books, and the nefarious Mr. Polanski was in the news, so I figured it was time to see/read it.

There were some interesting differences between Draft 3 and what made it on the screen, like the scene where Nicholson and Dunaway escape the nursing home, and especially the ending, which was quite different. Towne and Polanski had significant differences on the ending and it wasn't until 20 years later that Towne came around to agreeing with Polanski's take on the ending.

The script reads a lot more gumshoe than the film looks. And Nicholson and Houston bring some menacing power to the breakfast scene that goes beyond the page. But it's clear why this was an instant classic. Towne went on to write the screenplay for a lot of exciting movies, including The Firm, MI-1 and MI-2.

Worth the read.

November 19, 2009

Grosse Point Blank ***

*** Grosse Point Blank, Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. deVincentis , S.K. Boatman , John Cusack

I'm currently reading several giant books:

  • Songwriters on Songwriting - 752 pages
  • Wodehouse: A Life - 530 pages
  • Alphabet Juice - 384 pages
  • Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings - only 270 pages, but small type and slow going

Which explains why I'm not ready to offer a review this week. However, I realized that the other reason is that I've been reading screenplays, which I have not reviewed. I can fix that.

My current project has a character that could be unsympathetic (a nurse who helps in assisted suicides) and I wanted some pointers in how to make a potentially unsympathetic character more sympathetic. To that end, I found a copy of the Grosse Point Blank screenplay online and rented the movie to watch it again as I read.

I read 30 pages or so, watched until I caught up to that point, paused to read more, watched more, etc. until I got through both the movie and the screenplay in one sitting.

In case you don't know, the movie is about a professional hit man who is having a career and identity crisis. One thing I learned right away is, if you want the character to be more sympathetic, cast John Cusak in the role.

As I read the dialog on the page of Martin Blank talking to his assistant while doing a hit, I had a much more hard-nosed tone in mind. But can you imagine Cusak delivering anything hard-nosed? Exactly.

The other thing they did was make the character more accessible by making him less foreign. What do you have in common with a professional killer? Not much, I hope. But how about a guy who is conflicted about attending his 10-year high school reunion? A lot more.

I applied this knowledge to my project by showing the emotional connection between the nurse and those she assists. Before, she was a little more business-like. I think the change is an improvement. We'll see what the critique group says next year when my time slot comes up.

The other interesting thing was to note the differences between the draft I read and what was on the screen. New material, deleted material, conversations moved to other scenes. Good stuff for evaluation.

November 11, 2009

The Bookman's Promise ***

*** The Bookman's Promise, John Dunning, 2004

This is vintage Dunning and worth the read. One caveat: There's a 50-page section that is the journal of a guy in the 1860s. Historical fiction is not what I'm looking for when I pick up a Cliff Janeway novel, but it worked out OK. Good stuff.

November 9, 2009

Quotes From Stuff I Like - Mason

The Gospel According to Job, Mike Mason

I read this book while writing Escape From Fred, because matters of faith and dealing with what sometimes seems like a precarious or absent diety. A little more serious than others in the quotes series, but some good stuff, as Mason consistently delivers. If you haven't read it, you must stop what you're doing right now and read The Mystery of Marriage, even if you're not married.

p. xi. Mercy is the permission to be human.

p. xi. Sometimes laying hold of the cross can be comforting; but other times it’s like picking up a snake.

p. 36. Real worship has less to do with offering sacrifices than with being a sacrifice ourselves.

It is wonderful to be filled with mystical rapture at the thought of Calvary. But more wonderful still, because more worshipful, is the moment when the rough wood touches our flesh and the nail bites.

p. 126. Love is the humility in which self becomes subservient to relationship.

p. 174. [on dying to self] For the truth is we do not die all at once but little by little, and every time a little part of us is nailed to the cross and dies immediately, the grace of the Lord Jesus flows into that dead part and renews it. This is how we live by grace. The power of grace is activated through the cross.

Too many Christians are looking for graceless fix-it solutions to their problems, and to the problems of others as well. We forget that one of the great mysteries of the gospel is that God did not fix us when He saved us. By grace He simply saved us, warts and all.

p. 176. Anger at God can be a sign of spiritual growth. It can mean we are outgrowing a concept of God that is no longer adequate for us. It could even be said that our anger is not directed at the living God Himself but at our own idolatrous concept of Him. While we ourselves may not understand this, nevertheless our anger functions to move us closer to God as He really is.

p. 273. Faith is the ability to tolerate the intolerable paradox of God’s clear and undisputed title as Lord of the universe in spite of His apparent absence.

p. 279. A clean conscience is not one that is without guilt, but one that is without blame. In an honest and healthy conscience, there is always a sense of guilt, but blame is continually being washed away by the blood of Christ.

p. 306. What we need to realize is that only as sinners can we be disciples of Jesus. A saint cannot pick up the cross; only a sinner can pick up a cross. This is a profound mystery; but with our saintly selves, with that part of ourselves that has been sanctified and devoted to God, we cannot touch the cross. Only a sinful nature can touch the cross. It has to be flesh against bare wood. Mere spirit will not hold a nail.

November 5, 2009

Save The Cat! ***

*** Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, Blake Snyder, 2005

This has been on my shelf for a while, but having read two screenwriting books back-to-back, I decided to let this one age for a while. Then, while discussing my latest project with a guy in L.A., I received a stern admonission to not write another word until I read this book. Being a compliant sort, I complied.

This is a good book on screenwriting with a lot of good ideas. It didn't bring everything together in a grand Unified Field Theory for me the way Hague did, but it is as valuable a read.

Four stars for screenwriters.

November 2, 2009

Jack Williams

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

In 1996 I was living in Aiken, South Carolina. I heard that there was live acoustic music on Sunday night at a place called The Whiskey Junction on Whiskey Road. I got there early. It was a dive in the back of a convenience store / gas station. The kind of place where the floor, walls, and ceiling are painted black and you read about in the police report every Monday for the devilment that happens in the parking lot on Friday and Saturday night.

The crowd looked pretty rough. Tough looking guys in jeans and flannel shirts at the bar. Ropers playing pool. I ordered a Guiness, nodded to the guys at the bar, and retreated to the brightest spot in the room, a back corner table under a Bud Light sign, to read my book. I think it was PJ O'Rourke's Parliment of Whores.

They eyeballed me occasionally, the guy sitting by himself, smoking a pipe, wearing a tweed jacket, drinking a strange black beer and reading. I'm surprised I didn't get my butt kicked that night. [I became a regular and even played a gig there several months later, but that's another story.]

A few minutes before showtime, a long tall drink of water came in with a guitar and amp and set up. After a quick sound check, he started playing and it didn't take but a few measures to convince me to close my book and give him my full attention. Great guitar playing, great songwriting, nice voice. I was in the right place.

As the set wore on, one detail puzzled me. He would switch from using a pick to fingerpicking without setting the pick down anywhere. It would just disappear and then suddenly reappear, sometimes several times within a song. I was too far back to see what was really going on.

After his first break I met him as he left the stage and asked him 3 questions:

  1. Do you have any CDs? [Answer, yes, but he didn't bring them in because the Junction isn't the type of place where people typically crowd around to get CDs. I got a copy of Highway from Back Home, which is no longer available, and Dreams of the Song Dog.]
  2. What gauge strings do you use. [Answer, if I remember correctly, is ultra light and a good amp setup to give it body.]
  3. What the heck are you doing with that pick? [Answer, "Feel my finger." I was skeptical at first. It sounded like some joke. But he held his finger out and I felt it. There big callouses at the joints. He demostrated how he sliped it into the crook of a finger and held it there while fingerpicking. It took me several months, but I eventually learned that little trick.]

During the second break he came back to my table and we hung out for a while, chatting. Nice guy, in case you were wondering.

Here are a few selections to give you the feel of his style, one I wish I had the time and dedication to emulate.

Morning Sun

Natural Man