Friday, February 24, 2017

Movies with Great Screenplays You May Not Know

I’m devoting this blog to movies you may not have seen, movies with great screenplays. Some of the movies were suggested by friends or family members.

The Clouds of Sils Maria was chosen by the poet and naturalist Elizabeth Bradfield. This is an amazing movie about a middle-aged actress, beautifully played by the great Juliette Binoche, who is returning to the stage to appear in a play that she acted in when she was an ingĂ©nue, only now she’s playing the part of the older woman. A beautiful and brilliant screenplay by Olivier Assayas, who also directed. Great ensemble acting. Highly recommended. If you like Assayas, who also writes and directs French films, Summer Hours is also quite good and also stars Juliette Binoche.

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in The Clouds of Sils Maria
The Way Way Back is a surprising movie about a teenage boy caught in a world where grownups act like kids, and kids have to find their way without parental guidance. This film was recommended by the playwright Tamar Shai. Strong screenplay by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The movie is lifted above the usual coming-of-age story by the character of Trent (played by Steve Carrell), the ne’er-do-well owner and denizen of a water park. Trent becomes the guru and unlikely father figure for the teenage boy. 

The poet Patricia Spears Jones suggested a couple of movies, including The Kids Are All Right, screenplay by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, a complex story about two lesbian mothers who have kids by the same sperm donor. When the man appears on the scene, the plot thickens. Great cast with Annette Beining, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo. Pat also recommends Do the Right Thing, written and directed by Spike Lee, who also appears in the film as a character named Mookie—I love it! Probably Spike Lee’s best film, a nuanced treatment of race, set in Brooklyn.

Poet and fiction writer Robert Thomas picked an oldie but a goodie, the film noir Out of the Past, screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring. This movie has everything you want in a suspense drama: a decent tough guy pursued by scary villains, a femme fatale, and settings all over the West Coast, including vintage footage of San Francisco. Kirk Douglas plays against type as the bad guy—it’s one of his stronger roles.

Fiction and nonfiction author Richard Chiappone, who also writes screenplays, mentioned the movie Slap Shot. Great setting—minor league hockey in a rust belt town. One of Paul Newman’s best roles, scripted by Nancy Dowd. Great one-liners, engaging love story, political resonances.

Poet Lisa Houlihan Stice chose Paris, Texas, screenplay by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson. This is a haunting film about amnesia and broken family ties set in the Southwest. Memorable.

My friend Ava Torre-Bueno reminded me of the film The Best Years of Our Lives, a classic about the difficulties soldiers face returning from war. Still a current topic, with resonant messages about disabilities. Robert E. Sherwood wrote the screenplay.

My daughter Lena Rogow mentioned a movie with a great screenplay that she loves, Mostly Martha. It’s an exquisite German movie about a gourmet chef who winds up raising her orphaned niece, a girl in deep mourning who refuses to eat.

I don’t think I could write a blog about screenplays without mentioning John Sayles, who is also a fine fiction writer (check out his books The Anarchists Convention and Union Dues). Sayles has the ability to dive into a region or topic and find the truth below the surface. My favorites are Baby It’s You (class differences in high school), Eight Men Out (one of the best baseball movies ever!), and Passion Fish (stellar performance by Alfre Woodard).

Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish
A few other films where I’ve enjoyed the screenplays, randomly selected:

A Voyage Round My Father, an autobiographical film written by John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame. This could actually be Laurence Olivier’s best screen performance. He plays a cranky old lawyer who is a loving father to Alan Bates, almost in spite of every single thing the dad says and does.

I love the movie Va Savoir (Who Knows?), the masterpiece of director Jacques Rivette, who passed away in 2016. The screenplay was a collaboration of Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, and Christine Laurent, based partly on a play by Luigi Pirandello. It’s a play-within-a-move device, with a moving story and great ensemble acting.


I can’t finish a blog about great screenplays without mentioning the films of the French director Patrice Leconte. His movies are all incredibly provocative, intelligent, and haunting. My faves are The Hairdresser’s Husband (written by Leconte and Claude Klotz), and The Girl on the Bridge (about a knife-thrower performer who finds his assistants by rescuing would-be suicides from jumping off bridges—screenplay by Serge Frydman).

And one last one, a favorite flick: Norma Rae, Sally Fields’ best role, and the script is also beautifully written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. Funny, emotional, politically powerful, about unionizing workers in a Southern factory town.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Importance of Persistence for a Writer

Sometimes a writer becomes so popular, so suddenly, that you wonder how it happened. In the late 1980s, the fiction writer Ann Beattie was on fire. All her stories were appearing in The New Yorker. A novel was in the works, there were rumors of a movie contract.

Ann Beattie
I was a fan of Ann Beattie’s—I still am. Her short story “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” in Secrets and Surprises is still among my favorites. But I have to admit that I was furiously jealous of Ann Beattie. She’s only five years older than I am, and she was the most popular young writer in the United States at the time.

In 1978 I went to hear Ann Beattie read at the Sheridan Square Bookstore in New York. The room was packed—I had to sit on the floor because there were no more chairs. Ann Beattie gave an terrific reading, but a part of me was holding back from really appreciating it, because I couldn’t stop envying her.

After the reading there was a Q&A, and someone blurted out the question we all had in mind: “How did you first get published in The New Yorker?” I probably wasn’t the only person in the audience who was thinking She probably slept with an editor or had a friend who edited stories there.

Ann Beattie took a deep breath. Maybe she had heard this question many times before and she was controlling her temper. If she was, she was doing a good job. “Well, the first nineteen stories I sent to The New Yorker, they rejected. I went back and worked on my writing. The twentieth story, they accepted.”

All right, I thought, if that’s how Ann Beattie got published in The New Yorker, more power to her. 

How many of us have that persistence? Not just to keep sending our work out when most of the responses are rejections, but to keep refining and correcting our work. Sometimes, it takes the kind of persistence involved in sending your work twenty times to the same magazine, improving it each time.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration