Friday, March 30, 2007

Onegin (1999)

Oh man. This is embarrassing. I’m Netflix-stalking Toby Stephens. Such are the depths of my fannish depravity. And first in my queue was Onegin, also known as the Fiennes Family Spectacular – starring (and executive produced by) Ralph, directed by Martha, with music composed by Magnus. Apparently they wanted to save on a reunion that year, so they made a gloomy Russian lit pic instead. You don’t have to splurge on action sequences or big explosions because NOTHING EVER HAPPENS, and just when you think things are getting boring…nothing happens again.

Okay, let’s backpedal a bit. It wasn’t all bad. In fact, a lot of it was very good – or rather, was very close to being very good – which just made it painful when things fell short of the mark. Ralph’s acting as the title character was superb, and the photography was frequently mind-blowingly beautiful. The music definitely had me at hello, too – from the first wild, untuned gypsy violin riff that said “this is a Russian lit pic in which everyone has British accents.”

But the standards set by Onegin’s sullen but mesmerizing voice-over, the lush design and languorous camera movement, and the passionately harsh music, are like a row of dominoes trembling to be knocked down by the first attempt at story development or character interaction. In an introductory scene of privileged and dissipated St. Petersburg, intercut with Onegin’s subsequent departure for the country, it is already evident that there’s only one fully fledged character in this movie. Onegin is pictured lounging with his dandy friends, whose painfully affected speech and gravity-defying hair make them quite literally unreal. Like these nameless dandies, most other characters are props for Ralph, who seems to be the only thesp allowed to act unfettered by awkward writing or paltry screen time.

I didn’t know it was possible for a film that exists largely without voice-over to nonetheless rely more on telling than showing, but this one has pulled it off. There are a wealth of promising characters – romantic and naïve Tanya, pragmatic but faithless Olga, idealistic and un-self-conscious Vladimir. (Incidentally, these are the only given names that exist in Russian literature.) However, because all scenes of interaction are burned through to get to the sweeping landscape shots or solitary close-ups, most important conversations are spent by characters talking about who they are, instead of acting the part.

Vladimir (Toby Stephens) makes a striking first impression – Onegin comes upon him singing Schumann off-key in a forest – but there are only very few brief moments in which that initial character shines out, cushioned by several awkward conversations in which he describes his own nature and history to Onegin. These conversations are awkward because it is evident that this kind of discourse isn’t really in Vladimir’s character – wouldn’t he rather be talking about poetry, or the tragic lives of composers, or even taking more of those innocently humorous jabs at Onegin’s posh lifestyle?

So, Toby – like most of the other actors in the film, including Ralph Fiennes – shines most when he doesn’t have to talk at all. This is partially because of his excellent instincts for non-verbal acting, and partially because most of the movie’s dialogue forces him into an unnatural characterization. Now, I know there’s a whole rest of the cast to address, but I’m going to stick with Toby’s scenes because, alright, he’s the reason I watched the movie – and also because he’s the best example of the movie’s various faults and successes.

Let’s look at the duel. Of course there’s a duel. Duels are awesome, man.

But not for Vladimir, who challenges Onegin for the sake of his fiancée’s honor, and then quite realistically freaks out. Not the screaming, crying, wringing-hands freaking out that’s predictable and possibly even romanticized (check out Horatio Hornblower) – no, this is sheer terror, not simply of death but of the entire situation, the fact of shooting at a friend, of being shot at, at being required by obviously imaginary codes of “honor” and “courage” not to run away, and not to rescind the challenge and accept an apology. Toby manages this with stunning control – he’s not over the top, but his emotions are clear and powerful enough to send shivers down your spine. And all of this is wrapped up in a matter of seconds, with only two lines – “No reconciliation” uttered twice.

Here’s where the first huge mistake of the scene occurs. Onegin – with remarkable cool – commits to the duel and turns away. In a fraction of a second, Vladimir’s expression eases into something truly remarkable – partially relief, partially despair, partially - dammit. The camera cuts away. Cutting away from a look like that is like trimming the sound when a character is in the middle of a sentence – it just doesn’t make sense. And this is just one instance of a recurring mistake – the camera is always cutting before actions or expressions are complete, often when the changes are minute or slow, as if the editor didn’t have the patience to let it play out. The end result, however, is actually even more boring, because without those emotionally resonant moments, the viewer has no reason to care about the rest of the footage that she does get to see.

The remainder of the scene conveniently collects samples of the other major flaws of the film. There’s a jerky montage of independently meaningless close-ups that would be brilliant in a different film, but feels out of place wedged between the stunning, lingering long shots and crystalline facial close-ups that compose most of this one. Then there are long shots when you just want a good look at someone’s face, and wheezy incidental music when diegetic sound alone would have heightened tension. There are camera tricks like slo-mo or a starkly shallow depth of field when all you want is to see what’s going on clearly and in real time, and enough spinny shots to give me a dizzy flashback to 32 Short Films About Glen Gould. Finally, there are precious minutes of redundant filler that stand in for suspense. And the worst part is that many of these elements are exquisitely executed – they’re just all horribly misplaced.

I’d probably watch Onegin again, with only moderate use of the fast forward, simply to absorb the photography – but in order to satisfy my craving for character and coherence, I’ll have to track down the original poem by Pushkin to see what all the fuss is about. And for those who are motivated purely by Toby Stephens, you’re in luck – someone’s posted bits of most of his major scenes on YouTube, including his musical introduction and the first half of the duel scene. So, knock yourselves out, and then head back to Jane Eyre - he has better hair in that one, anyway.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Charlotte Bronte - The Professor

Here’s proof if there ever was any that I can’t turn my film head off, even when I’m studying liht-ra-chure. I just finished reading Charlotte Bronte’s first “adult” work, The Professor, on my computer – oh, Project Gutenberg! how you expand my brain, and incinerate my retinas – and suddenly I was wondering what a Hollywood producer would do to the story. Okay, most people cringe and scream about how destructive Hollywood is to classic, subtle stories – but I think an industry attitude toward plot development would improve this work a lot.

See, the problem with The Professor is the same problem that so many of us in screenwriting seminar share when we make our first pitches to the class – a lot of new writers have creative, interesting, compelling ideas, but most of them are situations and not stories. There’s absolutely no way for a beginner and an unknown to move an “idea” in Hollywood – you move stories, or you move out of town. Most reasonable writers, by a certain point, are able to capture a sum of feeling and tension in their pitches…but the hardest part of learning to write is turning those feelings and tension into very physical plot development.

I was disappointed with The Professor because the situation promised so much; after all, look at her tales of Angria before, and Jane Eyre after – she knows how to write juicy. Here’s her log line:

Disowned and broke, William Crimsworth flies to Brussels and scrapes together a living by teaching English – until his romantic entanglements with the headmistress and an enchanting student threaten to destroy his livelihood and his heart.

Okay, so the producer says, “Corner – that’s your name, right? Currer. Whatever. Tell me more.”

Crimsworth severs the last tie he has to family when he resigns his position as a clerk in his tyrannical brother’s factory mill. Impoverished and aided only by the sardonic socialist Yorke Hunsden, Crimsworth finds work as a professor of English in a privileged boys’ day school in Brussels. Events seem to have taken a fortuitous turn when Crimsworth is offered the chance to augment his salary by giving additional lessons at a neighboring ladies’ school. However, the outlook becomes grim when Crimsworth is trapped by the seductive manipulation of the ladies’ headmistress, who is engaged to Crimsworth’s employer at the boys’ school. Crimsworth overcomes her influence and finds love and fulfillment with his most promising and imaginative student, Frances.

Here’s the producer: “So, who does he bang to get the job at the ladies’ school?”

And our Charlotte: “He’s offered it because he has worked hard and proved himself trustworthy and morally upright.”

“So he gets the job because he won’t bang anyone? What about the seductive headmistress?”

“He resists all her advances after he learns she’s engaged to his employer.”

“Right. And this socialist guy. What’s he doing?”

“He’s absent for most of the story.”

“And Crimswart gets kicked out of the ladies’ school for having an affair with a student?”

“Actually, he waits until they’ve both escaped the restrictive influence of the school before they become engaged.”

“But they have a fiery, tear-streaked make-out in a classroom, right?”

“He corrects her papers. Er, suggestively.”

“Listen, Carson…”


“Curry. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

And you can learn the rest of the story from Woody Allen: “Hollywood is worse than dog eat dog – it’s dog doesn’t return other dog’s phone calls.”

So, what actually happens in The Professor? Like a damp bottle rocket with a long fuse, it’s a lot of build-up and no bang. Crimsworth arrives at his situation and spends a couple hundred pages resolutely resisting any development into a story. And don’t forget that even in liht-ra-chure, physical activity is important – reading about someone sitting on a log slowly rearranging his worldview is not quite as exciting as reading about that person changing his worldview while stroking the lips of the student he shouldn’t be in love with.

It doesn’t even have to be sex. The important thing to remember is that the endless internal monologue only really means something if it’s attached to action – otherwise, the reader isn’t necessarily believing the narrator, she’s simply accepting what she’s being told. You need something a little stronger than that to inspire sympathetic passion, longing, and despair, on the level that a work like Jane Eyre does: “He made me love him without looking at me” vibrates with intensity because Rochester’s very glance is super-magnified into a physically commanding motion – whether he awards it or withholds it, his body isn’t far from following with passion or violence. Crimsworth, on the other hand, seems to do nothing but look - and what he’s looking at isn’t doing much, either.

So, let’s assume the Fates farted and the Hollywood producer calls Charlotte back.

“Right, Curby, we’re going to buy that Professor property.”

“I’d like to maintain script approval –”

“Ohnoyoudon’t. Here’s $50k, go buy yourself a nice cup of coffee.”

So the producer hires Script Doctor Bob to fix it up a little. Script Doctor Bob comes back with this pitch:

Young, friendless and broke, William Crimsworth settles for a teacher’s life to make ends meet. Things are not all calm and propriety when he unwittingly becomes ensnared in a love triangle between his seductive, manipulative headmistress at a ladies’ school and her fiancée, his headmaster and landlord at a neighboring boys’ school. Just when Crimsworth thinks he’s free from the destructive influence of his employers’ affairs, jealousy and convention threaten to destroy his forbidden chance at happiness with a lonely and enchanting student.

So the producer asks Bob, “Does Crimstwat do anything he’ll regret with this headmistress before – or after – he discovers she’s already engaged?”

And Bob goes, “Hell yes.”

“And how does the happy couple get tossed out of the school?”

Bob gets excited because this is his favorite part. “They share one stolen kiss, which the headmistress spies. Headmistress frames the student in a rendezvous with another man, making it appear to Crimsworth that she’s double-timing him, and to all else that she’s dissolute. Headmistress then takes Crimsworth down with jealousy and disappointment, and nearly seduces him once more until he learns that the “other man” was in fact a relative of the student’s visiting platonically, and the headmistress’ plot is revealed. Finally, Crimsworth defies scandal and poverty to reunite with the woman he loves, and gets in a duel (why not?) with the drunken headmaster, who was just dumped by the headmistress. The student gets gravely injured by a misfired bullet during the ordeal, and is saved only by the charity of a parent whose child Crimsworth had saved from drowning once – the wealthy family orders a skilled doctor after Crimsworth’s urgent and blood-stained appeal, and the student recovers. Just as poverty threatens them again, their friend Hunsden offers them teaching positions in his school across the channel, and they live happily ever after in Jolly Olde.”

And that – as cheesy and overblown as it is – is something I’d pay money to see.