categories: Cocktail Hour
I like Oscars night. Is that okay to say? I like the whole thing, from the Barbara Walters special to the runway rubbish to the ridiculous dancing acts to the dresses to the actual awards and speeches. I loved the year Pavarotti was ill and so Aretha Franklin got up and sang “Nessun Dorma” in his place and just smashed it, smashed it, gorgeous, who know she was an opera person along with everything else? The Oscars come during school-vacation week, so I’ve often seen them in hotels—in Texas, in Rome, in Florida, in California. One year I was invited to an Oscars party in Los Angeles, bunch of writers and directors, a few actors, with a betting pool to rival any Super Bowl, catered dinner, inside information, hilarious byplay, a great night, though I knew I didn’t really fit in (“What does a novelist do?”). The woman on my left was an actress everyone knew who’d played in, I think, “Battlestar Gallactica,” but aside from her dazzling beauty and the steel-encased breasts, I wasn’t nervous: I’d never seen the show and hadn’t actually heard of it. She loved this, adored this, told me about her cats. Our very kind hostess, Melissa Rosenberg, was complaining about the difficulties of making a script out of a series of vampire romance novels, wishing comically that she’d never taken the project on. The first of the movies came out a year and a half later: “Twilight.”
This year there are some pretty good movies out there to think about, but my Oscars party is going to be at home. I’ve been trying to see some of the nominated performances I’ve missed. Last night over at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, a hour from here, I saw “Blue Valentine” and “Rabbit Hole,” dinner in between. Like, BLEAK NIGHT AT THE MOVIES, but. I guess I was in the mood for bleak, because I liked them both. Best was definitely “Rabbit Hole”—a stage play adapted to film by its playwright. And it felt like a play, that kind of point of view, that wonderful way you can be present with every character in private moments but can’t really be in their heads, can know what’s going on separately for two characters when they meet—the stuff that they don’t know but that you do is about to explode. And, at least in this play, no character is really the main character, since the focal point keeps changing. The coolest thing with stage narrative is that the script can withhold whatever information it wants. You can’t do that in third person subjective fiction—if it’s subjective, then the reader needs to know what the character knows if the reader is not to feel cheated and manipulated when it finally comes out. (Oh—he murdered his mother last night, he just didn’t fucking tell us!) “Rabbit Hole” reveals information very gradually. You see a hand in the act of drawing and don’t know whose hand, but make assumptions that turn out to be wrong, yet deep. You meet a teen boy and don’t know who he is until you know who he is, many scenes later, again having made bad assumptions that in fact illuminate character. A writer can do some of that in fiction if he’s using the big Jane Austen voice, that arch and overarching narrator voice. Most new writers start out trying to do just that. It’s very hard, though, because contemporary readers have come to hear third person narration as the voice of the point-of-view character. For that good old-fashioned omniscient third person, the writer has to come out first paragraph with a voice and a kind of background identity that can’t be mistaken for any of her character’s identities. Nicole Kidman, up for an Oscar, was really great, pure prickly neurosis and grief and neck tendons, taut skin over rangy middle-aged muscles, way over the top in a plot that really rewards over the top. She’s demented, but not in the Scientology way she used to be. Despite the horrors of her, you come to like her and get her.
“Blue Valentine” had a kind of ensemble feel, the sense that the story was developed by the actors inside a loose script, and that like a bad custard, it never quite jells. Does custard even jell? Note to new writers: Google your similes to see if the referents make any sense. I think custard is an egg emulsion fixed by heat, so. Anyway, Michelle Williams is really great. The guy, too, Ryan Gosling, though I got the sense that he was trying too hard at times—a very difficult role, someone who’s really smart and capable but unwilling. I kept remembering that Gosling was an actor, that he was creating this character. I also kept remembering that he and Michelle Williams were the producers of the movie. You seldom get to see movie producers naked—so here’s your chance. Ms. Williams is up for best female performance in a leading role, deservedly so. She slips into her tormented character’s skin and doesn’t come out, even when the clothes come off.
But the lighting in “Blue Valentine” sucks—like having one of those cars with the blue headlights coming at you on a rainy night. Or maybe that’s just light-talk for “bleak.” The story’s all beginning and end with no real middle, kind of cool. But the script, or the ensemble pastiche, whatever it really is, just makes us watch the actors in their search for a thread too long and too often. You ask what I would do differently: Okay, I would have the Michelle Williams character meet the young Bill Roorbach, who would support her quest to become a physician, and then move them both to Maine where she’d enjoy skiing and skating in the winter, swimming in the summer, and work at the local hospital. Bill would never tire of gazing at her. Now that’s drama.
I have the habit of rewriting movies while I’m watching them. It’s a writerly exercise, trying to articulate what has gone wrong with a given movie, and then trying to fix it, I guess developing my story skills. I’m always trying to get better at plot, a former weakness of my fiction, and always a threat. “True Grit” was the latest victim of my little game. It’s a really fun movie, nothing like the 1969 John Wayne vehicle (which I refused to see at the time because I eschewed violence and machismo, and hated John Wayne for saying bad things about the protesters of the Vietnam debacle). I never read the Charles Portis novel, either, thought of him as a hack (I hear I’m wrong), so I’m free to dream, though I hear the Coen Brothers stuck close to it.
Okay, in “True Grit” the remarkable Hailee Steinfeld, 14 (and up for an oscar), plays Mattie Ross, a 14 year old whose father has been murdered back in frontier days. The character is wonderful, sparring with everyone, superior intelligence, superior moral rectitude, superior argumentation skills, great script. She hires Rooster Cogburn despite himself to go get Tom Chaney, the killer of her father. Rooster is played by Jeff Bridges, whom I love abjectly (and who is up once again for best actor. He beat out Colin Firth last year, so I’m rooting for Mr. Firth this year, nominated for his great work in “The King’s Speech,” a movie in which I found nothing to rewrite, not one syl-syllable). She also makes the acquaintance of LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon, a Texas Ranger who will also join the chase.
Cut to rewrite: at the opening of Act III (yes, I’ve been infected with movie structure talk), Mattie Ross is left in Tom Chaney’s hands by his bad-guy brethren. They tell him to leave her alone or he won’t get his money, a powerful incentive. Fending him off, she falls in a mine shaft, awakening a knot of snakes. The special effects are straight out of Indiana Jones, and really clash with the naked winter landscape of the rest of the movie. Rooster returns, kills Chaney, and then the action is all about rescuing a snakebit girl. And the movie ends in the future, a novelistic explanation of where the narrative voice has been coming from–the damaged Matty–pretty disappointing here.
I wanted more of the very powerful young woman in charge of her own destiny, to give Mattie Ross another turn or two with her guile, none of this damsel-in-distress stuff that doesn’t fit her. So, instead of having her fall into the mine, I want complicate things a little. Chaney’s a bad guy. She’s an attractive girl. He can always lie about what’s happened to her and still get his money.
Many people I’ve tried this on have hated it, said that it’s great how the movie refuses to sexualize Mattie (like 14-year-olds aren’t sexual?). Not really true—I mean, LaBoeuf comes into her room when she’s sleeping near the beginning of the movie, and the camera shows his sense of how desirable she is. He’s a perfect gentleman, though, and that’s the point of the shot: not everyone would be. Rooster is a man of duty, a gentleman in his own way. Even the bad guys—they might be surprised to see a girl in their mean world, but they have a code of ethics: you don’t bother women, and you don’t bother kids.
But Chaney—he’s more than just a bad guy, he’s a snake, maybe even the snake—you could see him getting ideas, armed and all alone with the girl. If he’s the snake, you just simply don’t need any animatronic snakes. Let’s put the film in Mattie’s hands, I say! She gets that Chaney’s got an eye for her. She gets that not even his dream of money will keep her safe. She knows where the mineshaft is. She asks, say, if she can get a little privacy, meaning demurely that she has to pee (the old-fashioned language in the movie is great, comic-formal, pure Coen brothers), demurely, yes, but also a tiny bit coquettishly, to encourage Chaney’s worst inclinations. We viewers think she’s going to simply run off, but no, here she comes sashaying back, her clothing maybe ever-so-slightly disarranged. She beckons. We’re horrified. But it’s a plan: Chaney falls in the mine; she traps him in there.
Now Rooster can turn up. He fishes Chaney out, and Rooster and Mattie take the bad guy triumphantly back to town for a legal trial rather than shoot him right there, and rather than make us watch Mattie’s horse go down, which is at present takes up a lot of space at the end of the film, transferring the heroism to Rooster rather than letting Mattie keep it. So let them together take Chaney back to town. And show a quick, colorful trial. At the end of which the judge, no doubt on the take, sets Chaney free. A nice final twist. Now, Rooster and Mattie and LaBoeuf can follow him down toward Texas as previously planned, denouement, and kill him on the road, or LaBoeuf can turn him in for crimes down there, his original plan. But whatever happens, it happens because of Mattie and her smarts, happens because she has the wisdom and the power to keep Rooster from his dissipation, and LaBoeuf from his vanity.