First Festival Screening for “Street Language”

Green Bay Film Festival Logo

We’re pleased to begin our film festival run with Street Language screening at the upcoming Green Bay Film Festival, March 23-25. More news coming. If you’re in the area, check out this great festival. [Better attitudes, and you won’t get smashed by paparazzi like that other fest in Utah!]

 

The Tree of Life’s Invitation To Grace

Now out on DVD, Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, is an ambitious and evocative film that challenges viewers with a wide-ranging narrative that touches on deeply personal moments between family members and the biggest of all questions, the creation of the cosmos.

Now out on DVD, Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, is an ambitious and evocative film that challenges viewers with a wide-ranging narrative that touches on deeply personal moments between family members and the biggest of all questions, the creation of the cosmos. While some people find Malick’s work to be tedious, and inscrutable, I find The Tree of Life to be a compelling, if imperfect, examination of the deepest questions of life and relationships.

Malick introduces his thematic conflict of Grace vs. Nature in the persons of Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. They are parents to three boys, growing up in the 1950s in small-town Texas. The film closely follows the life of the oldest, Jack, played beautifully by newcomer Hunter McCracken and, in middle age, by Sean Penn.

“There are two ways through life; the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” With these words, Jack’s mother introduces her invitation to live in grace. She is a playful, warm, loving presence in the boys’ life. Contrasting this is Jack’s father’s point-of-view, that of Nature; “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” He is a man consumed by frustration and disappointment. He is driven to fight for every scrap of ground, every rung on the ladder of success. And his mission is to instill his values in the lives of his boys, dismissing the way of grace espoused by their mother.

The unexpected death of R.L., the middle son, at age 19 sets the conflict in motion. This moment in time is explored briefly in the beginning of the film but the majority of the film is told in flashback to the sometimes idyllic, sometimes tempestuous childhood of Jack and his brothers. Older Jack (Sean Penn) is introduced as he attempts, now in middle age, to deal with the conflict and unresolved guilt from his childhood. Jack’s journey as a boy and as an adult is explained by Jack himself, “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

Malick’s brings this world to life in his typically lyric, evocative storytelling style. He makes liberal use of jump-cuts and repetition, and a floating, fluid camera. Long periods pass without dialogue, allowing the actors and their subtle expressions to convey what is happening. This style has its detractors and certainly demands more from an audience. However, I never found myself lost to the story, even when Malick inserts a lengthy montage, ambitiously taking us all the way back to the Big Bang (flashback-of-all-flashbacks!) Malick’s use of recurring images and sounds, the ocean, doorways, trees and light, contrasting modern steel architecture, create a beautiful visual and aural tapestry that invites multiple viewings.

Of course, a film that risks much and challenges its audience is bound to fall short at moments and have its detractors. The Creation Montage is one major aside that seems a bit long for its intended story purpose. I also questioned the passivity of the Protagonist, Jack. As a youth he is very active in boyish ways but seems compelled to act in ways that escalate into actual cruelty to his younger brother–the way of nature. Interestingly, he paraphrases St. Paul’s observation from the 7th chapter of Romans about doing the very thing he doesn’t want to do. As the adult Jack, Sean Penn spends most of the film looking tired and pensive. He never makes a decisive step to address the conflict.

On more reflection, I am oddly comforted that Jack is never forced to act, as an adult, in order to find forgiveness and grace. He is drawn to it by his mother and brother. They open a door and invite him to step through. Isn’t this really what grace is all about? Normally we say that a Protagonist must act, must choose, must risk. Malick seems to be saying, “No, grace can come to us in other ways.” This is truly Grace – unmerited favor rather than self-saving action. It’s not typical Hollywood, and it is a compelling message for us.

Screenwriters Slogans For The Wall

42 ways to improve your screenplay – from Chris Jones blog

From screenwriter and instructor Alexander MacKendrick – a great set of 42 aphorisms he had on his walls as he wrote and taught screenwriting. Good writing is not about learning everyone’s rules and ‘can’t miss’ methods. But learning from those who have gone before is part of task.

Read the complete list at: ChrisJonesBlog.com- Screenwriters Slogans For The Wall… by Alexander MacKendrick.

A few of my favorites that I haven’t read in every screenwriting book:

Self pity in a character does not evoke sympathy.

Coincidence may mean exposition is in the wrong place, i.e. if you establish the too-convenient circumstances before they become dramatically necessary, then we feel no sense of coincidence. Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.

Ambiguity does not mean lack of clarity. Ambiguity may be intriguing when it consists of alternative meanings, each of them clear.

The role of the ANTAGONIST may have more to do with the structure of the plot than the character of the PROTAGONIST. When you are stuck for a third act, think through your situations from the point of view of whichever characters OPPOSE the protagonist’s will.

If you’ve got a Beginning, but you don’t yet have an end, then you’re mistaken. You don’t have the right Beginning.

DRAMA IS EXPECTATION MINGLED WITH UNCERTAINTY.

Write Lots, Write Shorts

All the arguments aside about whether or not shorts can help you make it in Hollywood, I believe writing short film scripts can serve your craft in much the same way writing lots of bad (and a few good) songs helps a songwriter.

I just completed a short film script for a contest, one of these speed-writing deals where you get seven days to write a script no more than 12 pages long. I did it for fun and I’m not anxious whether or not my script gets picked as a finalist or anything like that. I did take it seriously, but it was more for my own benefit than any big dreams. I have made movies and I’m working on more, so it’s not my ‘ticket outta here’ win or lose.

[AND, I do really like my final script; that also makes it fun.]

What struck me today as I was e-mailing my entry off to the powers-that-be is that short film scripts could be more of a core creative outlet and emphasis for me. I have always envied people in other arts like songwriters, painters, sculptors, and poets. I have dabbled in some of these creative forms so I know the same discipline, drudgery, and pain are present in the creative process. However, in each of these you have at least two things going for you: typically a more compact end product, and you can usually complete something on your own. [I know there are epics in any medium, but I’m talking about more usual forms.] When I write a song or a poem I know that it will fit in perhaps a few pages at most. If I could paint, I could create full expressions in a corner of my room if I chose. I will certainly work and re-work the song but it is usually in a whole different category than a feature screenplay – which is more like an opera or symphony.

I recently found and shared a short video clip featuring some words of wisdom from Ira Glass, host of “This American Life” on NPR. He was speaking somewhere about storytelling.

Ira’s main point is that storytellers need to tell lots of stories, tell them often, make mistakes, and hopefully get better. I’m sure I’m not alone if I admit that I get bogged down and intimidated at the thought of cranking out many feature-length screenplays.

Obviously, there are things you can only learn by writing a feature. You can’t really master the many beats in a feature, full act structures, sub-plots, and many other things you must eventually master. However, writing a short film script can help you to master characters, scene construction, dialogue, economy in your writing, transformations, and many other principles that are essential to good writing. I had a lot of fun working within the arbitrary constraints of a 12-page screenplay. It’s like doing a tv commercial. People complain about the storytelling constraints until they learn that they can pack their seconds and frames with story, creativity, and characters; it just takes a different kind of discipline.

So, all the arguments aside about whether or not shorts can help you make it in Hollywood, I believe writing short film scripts can serve your craft in much the same way writing lots of bad (and a few good) songs helps a songwriter. Even better if you want to direct and produce as well because you can benefit in the same ways because you are actually working in your craft rather than bogged down in the epic. That will come with time.

Storytelling: a Dying Art? Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi

I continue to hammer into my students’ minds the idea that the story is the most important thing, even in a visual/technological artform like cinema.

I continue to hammer into my students’ minds the idea that the story is the most important thing, even in a visual/technological artform like cinema. I have always appreciated Barbara Nicolosi’s thoughts about screenwriting (didn’t know she was Catholic.)

In a very real sense, we need stories to teach us how to live. We enjoy the lessons because stories delight us with their artistry.

From Patheos.com — Storytelling: a Dying Art? Talking with Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi.