The most common movie structure relies on plot: something significant happens to our protagonist which sets them on a course toward resolution. To take E. M. Forster’s famous example of plot: The King died, the Queen died of grief. But what if you don’t want to tell a single story? One solution is to give a series of vignettes. Although challenging, the vignette structure can work particularly well when it comes to capturing memories of a time and place. Two masterful examples are Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and Woody Allen’s Radio Days. Both movies are warmly nostalgic looks at the filmmakers’ formative years: Fellini’s as a teenager growing up in a seaside Italian town in the 30s; and Allen’s as a 12 year-old in a working-class Queens neighborhood during WWII. I’m going to focus on Radio Days in this post because it’s fresh in my mind.Continue reading The Vignette as Narrative Structure
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
— Pablo Picasso
Jazz musicians “quote”, rappers “sample”, and filmmakers pay homage. They take snippets of other works and incorporate them into their own stuff. It might seem like stealing. I see it more as tipping the hat to the masters. Imitation is the best kind of flattery, right? In that vein, I’m kicking off the “homage sequence” series in which I compare and contrast the original inspiration sequence and the homage version. Sometimes the inspiration is clearcut and other times not so much…
But I’ll start with an obvious example: Spike Lee paying homage to Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. Laughton’s only movie as a director is a classic, a mashup of a fairy tale and a film noir, in which Robert Mitchum plays one of the best villains in film history, the psychopathic Rev. Harry Powell.
In the state penitentiary for car theft, Rev. Powell’s cellmate is a bank robber and murderer named Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Before the police arrested him, Ben stashed the cash inside his little girl Pearl’s rag doll. Then he swore her and his ten year-old son, John, to secrecy. Before he’s executed for murder, Ben tells Powell he hid the loot — but doesn’t tell him the exact location. Fooled by Powell’s gentle demeanor, Ben begs him to look after his wife and kids when Powell gets out. Rev. Powell readily agrees, secretly salivating over the cash. I’m not going to spoil the rest of the movie. Suffice it to say that it’s a must-see for any film buff.
Anyway, on to the sequence in question: Rev. Powell’s first meeting with Ben’s wife Willa (Shelley Winters), in which he charms everyone with a memorable take on the Cain and Abel story. Everyone that is, except for young John (Billy Chapin).
And here is Spike Lee’s updated take, from his own classic movie, Do The Right Thing, featuring Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem and Lee as Mookie:
Both sequences make a larger, ironic point about each movie’s message and it’s achieved in an entertaining, visually arresting manner.
Do you know any other homage sequences in movies?
1939 was such a bumper year for movies that Midnight got lost in the shuffle. It’s one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, a fizzy, glamorous escape full of sparkling dialogue, memorable characters, and doses of true romance. The script, by the legendary team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, is a master class on elegant exposition and character building. The movie’s not on any streaming outlet, so if you happen to come across it on EBay, snap it up! You won’t be disappointed.
Claudette Colbert is winsome as Eve Peabody, a street-smart New York chorus girl who’s lost everything in a casino in Monte Carlo — except for her gold lamé gown, and the pawn ticket in her bag. She ends up in a Paris train station during a downpour. Broke, she meets Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), a taxi-driver and makes a deal with him: If he helps her find a job as a cabaret-singer, she’ll give him double the tip. She doesn’t snag a gig — “I guess mine is strictly a bathtub voice,” she shrugs. And while sparks fly between them, she’s looking for a rich man, so she douses the flame of their attraction and flees… Only to find herself crashing a very boring recital full of filthy rich patricians. And that’s where she runs into Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), a wealthy nobleman whose wife Helene (Mary Astor) is having an affair with a cad named Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer). Luckily for Eve, Jacques is immediately taken with her, which gives Georges the idea of playing along with her lie that she’s a Hungarian countess just so she can win Jacques away from Helene and restore the Flammarion’s marriage. It sounds like a convoluted plot, but Wilder and Brackett unfold it so elegantly that you’re never lost and you’re always laughing.
One of the things I admire about what Wilder and Brackett pull off in Midnight is the elegant way they dole out information through the use of witty, seemingly throwaway lines. (Thankfully, all the actors are old hands at delivering them with the necessary dose of insouciance so that you never feel you’re being hit over the head with facts.) For instance, here’s how we learn that Eve has lost everything in a Monte Carlo casino, barely two minutes into the movie:
Train porter: Can I get your luggage?
Eve: I wish you would!
Train porter: (Looking around) Where is it?
Eve: Municipal pawn shop, Monte Carlo!
The biggest obstacle in this particular romantic comedy is Eve’s reluctance to marry someone poor, like handsome, working-class Tibor, despite their obvious rapport. An internal hurdle like this can be difficult to establish onscreen. Again, Wilder and Brackett resort to dialogue to get over this hitch. Over a cheap dinner at a cabbies’ bistro, Eve outright tells Tibor the reason she doesn’t think they’re right for each other:
Tibor: Listen if you want peace of mind, get yourself a taxicab.
Eve: No one ever found peace in a taxi, I’m looking for a limousine.
Tibor: They don’t ride any better.
Eve: They ride better than the subway. I spent most of my life in a Bronx local. Squeezed, trampled, stepped on! One day I said to myself, “That’s enough. You’re going to get somewhere!” That’s why I came abroad. I shipped to London in a can of imported chorines. You know, most of those gals ended up with a lord or something.
Tibor: Is that what you call getting somewhere?
Eve: It’s a step in the right direction.
The writers pull off what may seem like “on the nose” dialogue because the exchange works on several levels. First, just a few minutes earlier we see Eve and Tabor’s growing attraction when they dance together. Second, this information about their philosophies is new for us as the audience and for each of the characters involved — given their attraction, it’s not an unlikely conversation on a first date. The fact that this is an impromptu first date amps up the romantic element to the scene, giving the audience a reason to hear them out. Lastly, it serves to build up the characters. Eve’s use of dialogue, for instance saying she was shipped abroad in “a can of imported chorines” instead of sardines, shows she’s smart and has a sense of humor — softening the edge of what could come off as harshly materialistic. This has the added advantage of rounding out Eve’s character — she wants to be ruthlessly hard-nosed, but keeps running up against her own better instincts and internal ethics. She’s not just a good, pure girl, in other words.
It wasn’t uncommon for female characters in 30s movies to be this hard-nosed. In the middle of a world-wide depression, audiences were more sympathetic to women wanting to marry for money and many of the plots that Hollywood churned out in those days were frank about depicting women willing to do anything to get rich. However, Eve is a bit different from the typical gold digger. The whole point of the movie is that she’s actually a romantic at heart, she just has to find it out for herself.
I hope you give Midnight a chance. Asides from being a comedy classic and a genuinely romantic movie, it’s a great example of topnotch screenwriting on multiple levels and well worth watching over and over again.
We’ve heard of film noir and we’ve heard of melodrama, but recently I heard of a genre that combines the two: melodrama noir. In film noir, the protagonist is a man who’s done in by his passion for the femme fatale. Sex, then becomes the source of his undoing. The protagonist in melodrama noir, in contrast, is female and as such, the genre explores the darker side of female preoccupations such as motherhood, femininity, female sexuality, and family relations.
Mildred Pierce is a prime example of the genre. The movie version differs substantially from the book, but both center around the eponymous character, a smart, enterprising and ambitious woman who finds great material success but who can never earn the love of her monstrously selfish eldest, Veda. Mildred Pierce is a great film and in many ways it is still ahead of its time, as it dares to explore the possibility that sometimes children cannibalize their mothers. Mildred is a fully realized character, even if she’s deluded when it comes to her own daughter’s selfishness. She’s not a perfect mother, but she’s bought into the idea that mothers must sacrifice everything for their children to the extent that her own daughter manipulates her for her own ends. This idea remains relevant to this day, when the pressure to be a perfect mother has been dialed up to eleven.
Another lesser known example of the genre is from the golden age of Mexican cinema: Roberto Gavaldón’s La Otra (The Other One). Dolores del Río plays the dual roles of Magdalena and María, twin sisters who have chosen completely different paths in life. Magdalena has used her feminine wiles and sexuality to snag a rich husband and live the good life, while her sister Maria works as a manicurist. Maria quits her job when she realizes her boss is trying to pimp her out to a client. Her financial woes lead her to envy her sister’s life of luxury, to the point that Maria kills her and takes her place. And although that may seem like a huge spoiler, the movie’s plot hinges on one twist after the other and an ironic ending that makes for a cinematic wild ride. Like in Mildred Pierce, the danger’s close to home.
Few of us have been exposed to the world we see in film noir and detective fiction; most of us, however, have family and, as such, melodrama noir packs a disturbing punch.