David Lean was known to say this about the film making process: “I love making motion pictures . . . I love getting behind a camera and trying to get images on the screen. I love cutting and editing. I love putting all the parts together at the end: The sounds, the music, the dialogue. Making a movie is the greatest excitement of my life . . . I love life and I don’t want to die. I want to go on making movies.”
I’m no filmmaker myself, but Mr. Lean’s words give me a sense of what it must feel like to be one. A good quotation can do that. Here are several more small gems of wisdom from famous filmmakers, beginning with that genius Ingmar Bergman, who tells us what he thinks film isn’t: “Film has nothing to do with literature; the character and form of the two art forms are usually in conflict. This probably has something to do with the receptive process of the mind. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act of the will in alliance with the intellect; little by little it affects the imagination and the emotions. The process is different with a motion picture. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings.”
Meanwhile, movie director Robert Penn put’s his attraction to film this way: “In the theater, the reliance is on the verbal. Film is how one looks, as against what one says. On the stage, you can’t document that. You’re too far back. So what one says is what one is . . . You don’t have to say it in a film. A look, a simple look, will do it.”
Milos Forman, points out the difference, in terms of reality and unreality, between theater and film: “ . . . you know, in the theater you don’t pretend that what you see on the stage is reality. But in films. . . . automatically the photography enables you to pretend what you see on the screen is reality. So I am disturbed when in that reality I see theater.”
Bernardo Bertolucci seconds that: “My primary choice is one against the theater. I believe it is easier and better for me to shoot from reality, to take a position in the geography and environment of real space.”
Director and former standup comic, Elaine May, also compared film to life, and found life wanting: “Yes, there is truth in movies. No, movies are not like life. They are constructed in advance. They have a beginning that has probably been rewritten several times, a middle that has been cut and reshaped, and an end that often has music over it. Most movies . . . have a confrontation scene that provides some kind of insight that affects the characters or the audience, or both. In life we have hundreds of such scenes, scenes in which we say the worst thing we can say, in which each person tells what he thinks is the whole truth. Two hours later we have the same scene again. Nothing has really changed. You can’t get any insights. You usually just get mad. Movies or plays can sound natural, or seem real, or have truth, but they can never be like life. After all, they’re not supposed to run over two hours. “
For some, film offers a unique opportunity to explore the unconscious mind. “I think that the nature of movies is images that are more concerned with our desires than any other part of reality. The nature of movies is to connect with our unreal selves. Freud said that every unexplained dream is a letter from the unconscious which is not opened. Dreams can put us in touch with deep realities, and films are very good nightmares.” Dusan Makavejev, Yugoslav director, offered that pithy opinion in Ciné-tracts, the Spring, 1977 issue.
That master of cinema surrealism and automatism, Luis Buñuel, agrees: “The screen is the superior way of expressing the world of dreams . . . . The cinema seems to have been invented for the expression of the subconscious.” But he thinks films often fail to do this: “My aspiration as a film viewer is to have the movie uncover something for me and this happens rarely.”
Director Arthur Penn, says: “Film offers the opportunity for constant contradiction between what is said and what is done. It’s closer to how we really experience life. I’m saying that, but I’m really feeling this. And these two things are going on at once. Ambivalence is closer to the human feeling than the simple Eugene O’Neil statement: ‘My father was a bastard.’ That sort of statement that says everything and nothing. Well, film is the exquisite medium for expressing ambivalence. A man says one thing, but his eyes are saying another thing.”
The great film director and former cartoonist—and therefore, beginning with the walls of caves, one of the original image makers—Frederico Fellini, adds this: “Indeed, what is it to make a film? It is naturally, a question of trying to bring order to certain fantasies and of narrating them with a certain exactness.”
Up to this point, our film directors have been dealing, mostly, with abstraction. Now giving his view on the story—the creative “spine” of the film as some might call it—here is actor-director Dennis Hopper: “I believe that you start a movie very slow, very slowly drag people in up to a certain point. Then, just as they get a little restless, you start socking it to them. This makes me favor the episodic structure, like music—something that moves along with short breaks in it: you keep giving people something new, keep building pressure. The you cut off, relax, go for a ride.”
Robert Bresson claims he drags people into his movies: “As Dostoevsky frequently does, I present the effect before the cause. I think this is a good idea, because it increases the mystery; to witness events without knowing why they are occurring makes you want to find out the reason.”
And finally, directly addressing our original question, former standup comic (with Elaine May) and award-winning film director, Mike Nichols, defined film most simply and perhaps best: “Movies are mood . . . . The thing about something that’s made right—whether it’s a novel, or an opera, or a film—has to do with being hung on a spine . . . The more solid it is, maybe the truer it is.”
Two Scenes from a Classic Film
By Jim Sizemore
If I had to pick one perfect movie, I’d quickly name From Here to Eternity, starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. The 1953 drama was adapted from the best selling novel by James Jones, screenplay by Daniel Taradash, directed by Fred Zinnemann. I consider the film cinema gold from start to finish, but I’ll briefly focus on the relationship between the Lancaster and Kerr characters. Sergeant Warden and Karen Holmes’ love affair is the spine of the story and is introduced and developed by screenwriter Taradash in two scenes, both of which come in the first twenty minutes of the film. Neither of them involve sand, sea or sex—at least not graphic sex. (Click images for larger versions.)
Anyone who knows anything about vintage movies is familiar with the erotic scene of Sergeant Warden and Karen kissing on the beach, the one with the wave breaking over their bodies. It’s an iconic film image known even to people who have never seen the movie. Unlike couples in most movies, this wet duo enmeshed in a torrid embrace did not meet “cute.” You might even say they met “ugly.” For me, their first scene together, which comes about ten minutes after the opening credits, is sexier than the beach scene by at least a factor of ten. No blatant fireworks, but there are sparks, a subtle display of sexual tension, mixed with an interesting undercurrent of dislike, even distrust. In that short scene there is strong attraction but also implicit conflict between the characters —and conflict, as we know, is the lifeblood of drama. For me, at least in dramatic terms, conflict can be sexy. The smoldering and sarcastic banter between Karen and Warden in that scene foreshadows adultery to come. Karen, we quickly learn, is married to Warden’s commanding officer.
I’ve transcribed the two scenes using a combination of Daniel Taradash’s second draft script, which I found on the Internet, and the finished movie. Both scenes as shot differ somewhat from the script, and I’ll point out how the first one has been changed after we read it. In that scene we discover Sergeant Warden in front of the company supply room talking to Leva, the supply clerk. They watch as Karen arrives in the area looking for her husband.
LONG SHOT KAREN HOLMES FROM WARDEN AND LEVA’S ANGLE as she walks toward them. She is at a considerable distance. Karen is about thirty. She wears a sweater and skirt. She is aware the men are studying her.
MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT WARDEN AND LEVA watching Karen.
LEVA: Shooish! — her and them sweaters.
LONG SHOT KAREN FROM WARDEN AND LEVA’S POV as she continues toward them. Warden’s and Lava’s voices, loud at first, get softer and softer the nearer Karen gets to camera. At end of the shot, as she is only a few yards away, they are practically whispering.
WARDEN’S VOICE: I’ll bet she’s colder than an iceberg . . .
LEVA’S VOICE: Not her, Top, she knows the score like I been tellin you.
WARDEN’S VOICE: (sarcastic) Is that right?
LEVA’S VOICE: Listen, not around here, but I was back at Fort Bliss with Holmes. I heard plenty about this lady then. Plenty.
WARDEN’S VOICE: You did, huh?
LEVA’S VOICE: Okay, not me — but I know some of them she played ‘round with, so don’t tell me.
WARDEN’S VOICE: I ain’t tellin you. You’re tellin me.
Karen stops a few paces from camera.
KAREN: Good morning, Sergeant.
WARDEN: Morning, ma’am.
MEDIUM SHOT. Leva watches, listens avidly but discreetly in background. During the dialogue, Karen seems irritated by Warden, who looks at her coolly, appraisingly, physically.
KAREN: I’m looking for my husband.
WARDEN: Captain Holmes just went in town, ma’am. On business.
KAREN: Oh. He was to have left some things for me; do you know anything about them?
WARDEN: No I don’t, ma’am. Anything I can do for you?
KAREN: No, thanks.
WARDEN: I’d be glad to help. Ma’am.
She makes a slight move to go, then pauses.
KAREN: My husband’s been telling me a lot about you, Sergeant. He says you’re very efficient.
WARDEN: Yes, ma’am.
KAREN: What is it that makes you so efficient, Sergeant?
WARDEN: I was born smart, ma’am.
Karen laughs suddenly, quietly.
KAREN: I love that. Well goodbye, Sergeant.
Karen turns and walks back toward her car. Warden and Leva watch her. When she is out of earshot Leva speaks.
LEVA: Man, she sure is one, ain’t she?
WARDEN: One what?
LEVA: One woman.
WARDEN: (unconvincingly): I’ve seen better.
As performed, this scene differs only slightly from the Daniel Taradash second draft script. Most of the tweaks involve a word change here and there which sharpen and clarify the dialogue between the two characters. The scene is an excellent example of what experts agree are the three things an effective dramatic encounter should do: Advance the story, develop (deepen) character, and establish (and/or deepen) conflict. I would add a fourth: a good scene should also entertain. That aspect may be the result of the quality of the writing or the performances or, as in this case, a combination of both. In From Here To Eternity I believe we’ve given all four elements in just about every scene throughout the movie—and that, in my opinion, is what makes it a great film.
Scene two between Sergeant Warden and Karen also has several departures from the draft script. These changes are more extensive. In fact, several lines of dialogue are cut from the end of the second draft version. I’ll talk a bit more about that after we’ve read the scene as filmed, which comes at about twenty minutes into the movie:
EXT. BACK PORCH OF HOLMES’ HOUSE. DAY. MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT WARDEN standing outside in the rain. He wears a GI rain hat and coat. He pauses, then knocks briskly on the door of the screened porch. Karen opens the kitchen door onto the porch. She is in shorts and a blouse.
KAREN: Well, if it isn’t Sergeant Warden. You better step inside or you’ll get wet.
INT. PORCH OFF KITCHEN – DAY MEDIUM SHOT She opens the screen door and he steps onto the porch. He removes his rain hat, shaking off the raindrops.
WARDEN: I am wet.
KAREN: If you’re looking for the captain, he isn’t here.
WARDEN: (taking the long chance) And if I’m not looking for him?
KAREN: (unsmiling) He still isn’t here.
WARDEN: (quickly) Well, I’m looking for him. Do you know where he is?
KAREN: I haven’t the slightest idea. Perhaps he’s in town on business. That’s the way you put it the other day, isn’t it?
WARDEN: (fishes in his pocket, brings out papers) I got some papers it’s important for him to sign.
KAREN: (turns) I’ll try phoning him at the Club. Maybe he’s there.
WARDEN: Don’t do that. I never like to disturb a man when he’s drinking. I could use a drink my self. Aren’t you going to ask me in?
Karen finally smiles, faintly. She goes into the kitchen, leaving the door open. Warden follows her.
INT. KITCHEN HOLMES HOUSE – DAY MEDIUM SHOT The kitchen is small and undistinguished.
KAREN: (gestures): The liquor’s there, Sergeant — in the cabinet.
Warden takes a whisky bottle from the cabinet and pours a straight, stiff drink, puts the bottle on the table. He puts the papers down and drinks. Karen leans against the sink counter.
KAREN: You’re taking an awful chance, you know. My maid is liable to be home any time.
WARDEN: No she won’t. Thursday’s her day off.
KAREN: You think of everything, don’t you, Sergeant?
WARDEN: I try. In my position you have to.
KAREN: (goes to table and picks up the papers) Are these really important?
WARDEN: Yes. But not important they get signed today. Tomorrow’s okay.
Karen suddenly, deliberately, rips the papers in half, then crumbles and throws them into the wastebasket.
WARDEN: I got copies at the office, so it won’t be much work to fix them up.
Warden’s control has begun to affect Karen’s now. She is losing her poise.
KAREN: That’s what I like about you, Sergeant. You have confidence. It’s also what I dislike about you.
WARDEN: It’s not confidence, ma’am. It’s honesty. I just hate to see a beautiful woman goin all to waste.
He moves close to Karen, is on the verge of embracing her. Greatly tempted but greatly disturbed, she turns away. During her monologue she pours herself a drink. Her tone is no longer brittle. It is bitter.
KAREN: Waste, did you say, Sergeant? Now that’s a subject I might tell you something about. I know several kinds of waste, Sergeant. You’re probably not even remotely aware of some of them. Would you like to hear? For instance — what about the house without a child? There’s one sort for you. Then there’s another. (Karen takes a drink) You’re doing fine, Sergeant. My husband’s off somewhere, it’s raining outside, and we’re both drinking now. But you’ve probably got one thing wrong. The lady herself. The lady’s not what she seems. She’s a washout, if you know what I mean. And I’m sure you know what I mean.
WARDEN: You gonna cry?
KAREN: (turning away): Not if I can help it.
Warden takes a drink and puts the glass down on the table, hard enough for her to hear.
KAREN (turning back to him): What are you doing?
WARDEN I’m leaving. Isn’t that what you want?
KAREN (slowly) I don’t know, Sergeant. I don’t know.
They stare squarely at each other, both puzzled and a little afraid of their emotions. This is something neither had counted on. He goes to her and they kiss. Music up. The camera pulls back and out the window, into the rain.
Now that’s one sexy scene—the sexiest in the movie, in my opinion. It’s much more erotic than that sea-soaked episode on the beach, the scene from the movie that everyone remembers. Toggling back and forth between the second draft script and my tape of the movie was a revelation. I came to appreciate even more the writing skills involved, but also the contributions to the project that Kerr and Lancaster make—how subtly the nuance of facial expression, gesture, and body language communicate and reinforce emotions only hinted at on the page.
And remember that section of dialogue I mentioned that was cut from the second scene—removed by the screenwriter or the director as he shot the movie? In the Daniel Taradash second draft there was no kiss. In its place there is the following exchange, which comes after Karen says, “I don’t know, Sergeant. I don’t know.”
WARDEN: I know a beach near Diamond Head. Nobody ever goes there. The cars on the highway pass above and they never know it’s there. You feel like you used to feel when you were a kid, hiding by yourself in a cave, watching the others hunting you.
Karen turns, goes to the sink, puts the whisky bottle back in the cabinet.
KAREN: Maybe . . . why not?
WARDEN: How about Payday?
KAREN: You don’t have to spend money on me, Sergeant.
WARDEN: I just like to have some on me when I take out a woman. Can you get away?
Warden grins. He goes to the door to the porch, pauses there.
WARDEN: I’ll be in Kuhio Park. Say, nine o’clock. Payday.
Karen leans back against the sink, watches him go out to the porch. A moment later the sound of the door is heard as he leaves. She turns on the faucet, starts to rinse the glasses they have used. Suddenly she turns the faucet on full force, watches it pound into the sink.
What is wrong with this second draft version of the scene? A more apt question is, What’s right with it? Take the blatant symbolism of the faucet water pounding into the sink, that’s downright corny. And the dialogue is too explicit, from Warden’s crude planning of their first “date” and it’s useless (to the audience) details. It’s all pure exposition that lacks even a suggestion of emotional nuance. Nothing is left for us to think about. Worse still, we feel nothing. We have been talked down to, led by the hand (nose) so that every thing is made perfectly (awfully) clear. Basically we are disrespected, our intelligence demeaned. We are insulted by being given TOO MUCH DIRECT INFORMATION.
You don’t have to be a professional screenwriter to figure out which of the two versions of that scene between Karen and Sergeant Warden is best. It’s simple; as filmed, the cuts and word changes made by the screenwriter and/or the director lets us connect to the story in a personal way. The same is true for the complete film. Throughout we are shown, not just told—we are allowed to feel our way into figuring it out for ourselves. The filmmakers permit us to collaborate in the creative process, and that’s what makes these two scenes—and the rest of the movie, all of which is treated with the same artful craft—so powerful. As I said, it’s a perfect film.