Today’s Quote

March 9, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard

From My Saga, Part 1, NYT Magazine, March 1, 2015

Translated by Ingvild Burkey from the Norwegian
Photo: Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Rex Features

Karl-Ove1“When we drove out of Cleveland a few hours later, I was worried. I hadn’t seen anything yet that I could write about. To be able to describe something, you have to feel some kind of emotional attachment to it, however faint. The external has to awaken something within; nothing means anything in itself, it is the resonance it produces, in the soul and in the language, that gives meaning to the thing described. Cleveland meant nothing to me.”


Today’s Quote

August 26, 2014

Bertolt Brecht

BrechtExil“The stage began to tell a story. The narrator was no longer missing, along with the fourth wall . . . the actors too refrained from going over wholly into their role, remaining detached from the character they were playing and clearly inviting criticism of him . . . The spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically, by means of simple empathy with the characters in a play. The production took the subject matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding.”

—Brecht on Theatre

The Development of an Aesthetic

Edited and translated by John Willett, 1964


Neil Simon On Playwriting V

August 1, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

I learned from watching Chaplin films that what’s most funny isn’t a single moment of laughter but the moments that come on top of it and on top of those. I learned it from the Laurel and Hardy films too. One of the funniest things I ever saw Laurel and Hardy do was try to undress in the upper berth of a train—together. It took ten minutes, getting the arms in the wrong sleeves and their feet caught in the net, one terrible moment leading to another. I thought, there could be no greater satisfaction for me than to do that to an audience.

You don’t know where the laughs are until you get in front of an audience. Most of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had I never knew were big laughs. Mike Nichols used to say to me, Take out all the little laughs because they hurt the big ones. Sometimes the little laughs aren’t even meant to be laughs. I mean them to further the play, the plot, the character, the story. They’re written unwittingly . . . strange word to pick. I cut them and the laugh pops up somewhere else.

It started very early in my life—eight, nine, ten years old—being funny around the other kids. You single out one kid on your block or in the school who understands what you’re saying. He’s the only one who laughs. The other kids only laugh when someone tells them a joke—two guys got on a truck . . . I’ve never done that in my life. I don’t like telling jokes. I don’t like to hear someone say to me, Tell him that funny thing you said the other day . . . . Once it’s said, for me it’s over. The same is true once it’s written—I have no more interest in it. I’ve expelled whatever it is I needed to exorcise, whether it’s humorous or painful. Generally, painful. Maybe the humor is to cover the pain up or maybe it’s a way to share the experience with someone.

Generally I’ve gone into analysis when my life was in turmoil. But I found after a while I was going when it wasn’t in turmoil. I was going to get a college education in human behavior. I was talking not only about myself; I was trying to understand my wife, my brother, my children, my family, anybody—including the analyst. I can’t put everything in the plays down to pure chance. I want them to reveal what makes people tick. I tend to analyze almost everything. I don’t think it started because I went through analysis. I’m just naturally that curious. The good mechanic knows how to take a car apart; I love to take the human mind apart and see how it works. Behavior is absolutely the most interesting thing I can write about. You put that behavior in conflict and you’re in business.

If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part VI of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Arthur Miller On Playwriting II

January 11, 2012

Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

All experience is looked at now from a schematic point of view. These playwrights won’t let the characters escape for a moment from their preconceived scheme of how dreadful the world is.

I always assumed that underlying any story is the question of who should wield power. See, in Death of a Salesman you have two viewpoints. They show what would happen if we all took Willy’s viewpoint toward the world, or if we all took Biff’s. And took it seriously, as almost a political fact. I’m debating really which way the world ought to be run; I’m speaking of psychology and the spirit, too. For example, a play that isn’t usually linked with this kind of problem is Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It struck me sharply that what is at stake there is the father’s great power. He’s the owner, literally, of an empire of land and farms. And he wants to immortalize that power, he wants to hand it on, because he’s dying. The son has a much finer appreciation of justice and human relations than the father. The father is rougher, more Philistine; he’s cruder; and when we speak of the fineness of emotions, we would probably say the son has them and the father lacks them. When I saw the play I thought, This is going to be simply marvelous because the person with the sensitivity will be presented with power and what is he going to do about it? But it never gets to that. It gets deflected onto a question of personal neurosis. It comes to a dead end. If we’re talking about tragedy, the Greeks would have done something miraculous with that idea. They would have stuck the son with the power, and faced him with the racking conflicts of the sensitive man having to rule. And then you would throw light on what the tragedy of power is.

I still believe that when a play questions, even threatens, our social arrangement, that is when it really shakes us profoundly and dangerously, and that is when you’ve got to be great; good isn’t enough.

You need a certain amount of confidence to watch tragedy. If you yourself are about to die, you’re not going to see that play (Death of a Salesman). I’ve always thought that the Americans had, almost inborn, a primordial fear of falling, being declassed—you get it with your driver’s license, if not earlier.

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more of what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (Arthur Miller On Playwriting part III will post next Wednesday.)


Sam Shepard On Playwriting V

June 1, 2011

Adapted from: Sam Shepard, Story Teller

By Ben Brantley, The New York Times, Arts & Leisure, November 13, 1994

All good writing comes out of aloneness. And you’re not too likely to be interrupted driving along an Interstate. You have to do it on an open highway. You wouldn’t want to do it in New York City. But on Highway 40 West or some of those big open highways, you can hold the wheel with one hand and write with the other. It’s good discipline, because sometimes you can only write two or three words at a time before you have to look back at the road, so those three words have to count. The problem is whether you can read the damn thing by the time you reach your destination.

I think most writers, in a sense, have a desire to disappear, to be absolutely anonymous, to be removed in some way: that comes out of the need to be a writer.

For one thing, (theater) allows you to explore language, which film doesn’t. Film is anti-language . . . Theater combines everything for me, anyway . . . It’s like you pick up a saxophone and you play a saxophone and that’s it. It’s a partnership. I feel at home with it . . . All the unspoken structures of playwriting are very close to music.

It’s a funny thing about freedom with actors. You invite them into certain scary territory; then it becomes a question of how far you let them go into that territory before you start shaping it. I’m a firm believer that so-called blocking doesn’t come out of the director. If the actor has any kind of chops at all, he’s going to find his way around the stage and find the impulses. To order actors around the stage like a general is not my idea of a director.

One of the things that’s become apparent to me over a long time is that no matter how you cut it, plays are about storytelling. You know, in the 60’s everybody was down on it. It became an old-fashioned, archaic structure. There was a huge breakaway with those European writers like Beckett and Ionesco and Arabel . . . I think you need to include all these notions that at one time you rejected as being part of the established order of things. There’s no reason, uh, to shoot yourself in the foot.

The odd thing to me is I think all of those relationships are inside other relationships. Two friends can have a father-son relationship or a brother relationship. Those things aren’t necessarily expressed by external character. There are these territories inside all of us, like a child or a father or the whole man, and that’s what interests me more than anything: where those territories lie. I mean, you have these assumptions about somebody and all of a sudden this other thing appears. Where is that coming from? That’s the mystery. That’s what’s so fascinating.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Dialogue Doodle

August 11, 2010

Dr. Phil Sez . . .

There’s a guy I see just about every day on my morning walk. I like to think of him as “Dr. Phil.” Phil usually says “good morning” and then lunches into an extended monologue about what ails him. Today, his spiel began thus:

Dr. Phil: Felt so bad this morning I almost didn’t come.

Me: But here you are, Phil.

Dr. Phil (ignoring my cheerful comment): Then I took a huge crap and felt better—easy two days worth. (Pause.) So that must have been what it was, that buildup of crap.

On another occasion Phil greeted me and then proceeded to relate a vivid story about his feet:

Dr. Phil: So I wake this morning and stand up and my feet are all swole up and blood-red. (Pause.) Then I touch ’em and they turn green.

This colorful anecdote was delivered without a trace of irony—Phil has no idea how funny he is—so all I could think to say was: “Damn, Phil.” Then I smiled and kept walking. I knew that if I asked him to explain he’d have my ear for at least ten minutes, and I was pretty sure he couldn’t top his opening lines.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

From Here To Eternity

September 28, 2009

Classic Scenes from Classic Films

Kerr-Lancaster-Kiss

If I were asked to pick a 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, and directed by Fred Zinnemann. I consider this film cinema gold from start to finish, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus only 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 perfect 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.

Of course, 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, and the video is very popular on YouTube, even with 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,” or at least not very “pretty.” 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 is sexy. The smoldering and somewhat sarcastic banter between Karen and Warden in the scene foreshadows adultery to come. Karen, we quickly learn, is married to Warden’s commanding officer.

I’ve transcribed the two scenes by using a combination of Daniel Taradash’s second draft script, which I found on the Internet, and the movie. Both scenes as shot differ somewhat from the script, and I’ll point out how the first one is changed after we read it. In that first scene we discover Sergeant Warden in front of the company supply room talking to Leva, the supply clerk (as played by Mickey Shaughnessy in a great character rendering). 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. Lava 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, the first scene in the movie between Karen and Warden differs only slightly from the Daniel Taradash second draft script. Most of the tweaks involve a word change here and there, changes that perfectly sharpen and clarify the dialogue between the characters. The first scene is an excellent example of what experts agree are the three things an effective dramatic scene should do: Advance the story, develop (deepen) character, and establish (and/or deepen) conflict. I would add a fourth thing. A good scene should also “entertain.” The entertaining 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.

SceneKerr-Lancaster 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 the twenty minute point in 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.

FADE OUT

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 one 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 KerrLancaster2I mentioned that was cut from the second scene — removed either by the screenwriter in a later draft, or perhaps by 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?

KAREN: Maybe.

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.

FADE OUT.

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 and our intelligence is 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 second scene between Karen and Sergeant Warden is best. It’s simple. The cuts and word changes made by the screenwriter and/or the director, enables us to 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 say, it’s a perfect film.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

If you have a classic scene from a classic movie that you’d like to share with the world, write it up (500-1,000 words) and send it along to jimscartoons@aol.com. I’d like to consider it for publication on the blog. Failing that, I’d at least like to know what you think of my choice in this case, pro or con.