Two Popes: The Epidemic of Bad Screenwriting

Two old guys sitting in dresses talking about God. This is, word for word, how Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of last year’s Oscar-nominated Two Popes, described his film that retells in a fictionalized way the relationship between Pope Benedict and future Pope Francis. And perhaps the problem starts here. At this very shallow and nauseatingly vague and hip (because, let’s face it, how can you otherwise sell this movie to younger audiences?) premise. Amidst the on-going Coronavirus, there is another epidemic that is currently working its way into Hollywood. Its symptoms can be found in Two Popes. Bad screenwriting is nothing new. Like in any other art form there are those who are better at it and those who still have some catching up to do. However, we live in a time where bad screenwriting is being actively rewarded, both critically and financially. And Fernando Meirelles’ Two Popes, written by Anthony McCarten, is the prime example of a product that is being sold to masses, neatly wrapped in gift wrap by the likes of Netflix and Amazon, despite some serious flaws that should not go unnoticed.

On the surface, Two Popes is just that: a fictionalized retelling of conversations held between Pope Benedict, here labelled as the conservative, and future Pope Francis, here labelled as the progressive of the two. The film follows the two men of God as they clash with their beliefs. One argues that God never changes. The other one says the opposite. One fails to see the point in watching a football game. The other one is a fanatic of the sport. And so on, and so on. Rinse and repeat. There is nothing wrong with what I just described and the movie does a fairly good job of establishing the two clashing personalities in the opening half hour.
Pope Francis, here still called by his last name, Bergoglio, is the man of the people. A humble preacher who dresses like the villagers he blesses on a casual Sunday morning in some God-forsaken little Argentinian town. Pope Benedict, on the other hand, values comfort and fashion, and spends most of his time in his holiday mansion by the lake. This rather obvious distinction between the two is what screenwriter Anthony McCarten wants us to recognize before we dive into their relationship once they meet to discuss their differences and the eventual resignation on the part of Pope Benedict. And here is where the problems start.

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The two popes sharing a pizza.

McCarten has a history of screenwriting ”indifference” with a resume that includes The Theory of EverythingThe Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. All of his films are based on real people, all of his films have granted each leading man an Oscar (Eddie Redmayne for playing Stephen Hawking, Gary Oldman for Winston Churchill and Rami Malek for Freddie Mercury) and all of his films assume the same attitude in the face of clashing personalities, beliefs and agendas – indifference.
Here is the man who turned Hawking’s life of struggle and adversity into a romantic dramedy without any real understanding of his relationship with his wife, Jane Hawking. Here is the man who failed to add any clarity or complexity to Churchill’s decision-making in the so-called darkest hour. Here is the man who instead of capturing the vitality and creativity of one of history’s greatest rockstars went for the most obvious, formulaic rise-and-fall scenario. Having said this, Two Popes had a real chance of being made into something fresh and unique. The supposed meetings between the two clergymen never really took place. Pope Benedict and Francis met only briefly on three occasions and their conversations had not been recorded or transcribed in any form.
This uncharted territory presented many interesting opportunities for a capable screenwriter. After all, the Catholic Church has been at the heart of most modern discussion panels; its existence, its benefits and threats. And under Pope Benedict, the Catholic Church suffered greatly in terms of image: sex scandals, investigations, tabloid headlines, you name it. This had potential. If handled well enough, a movie like Two Popes could have sparked these debates even further and put more question marks to an already muddled landscape of current affairs.
Instead, Two Popes comes off as an innocent, feel-good comedy with flashes of drama (mostly revolving around Bergoglio’s past during Argentina’s dark years of dictatorship), something you’d watch with your parents in-between binge-watching sessions of Sex Education and Narcos.

Saved by two miraculous performances in Hopkins and Pryce as Benedict and Francis, respectively, Two Popes drives toward an inevitably predictable conclusion in cruise control. As previously mentioned, the opening conversations revolving around the differences in appearance between the two men (one loves to dance tango and sing Abba songs, the other prefers to play piano and watch German cop shows, and so on, and so on, ad nauseam…) are fine and pose an interesting premise. Where will it lead to? How will these differences impact their beliefs? And more importantly, when will it all culminate? When will they talk about real important matters?
McCarten’s screenplay seems to navigate from present day to flashbacks of Argentina in the 70s in order to escape these pressing questions. When there is a difficult dilemma at hand, McCarten chooses to by-pass it with a smart remark or a joke. Keep the tone light. Make it cheerful. The flashbacks relating to questionable decisions made by a young Bergoglio who, when pressured by the authorities and accused of siding with Communists during Argentina’s Dirty War, became subject of allegations regarding the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests, fail to explore the moral ambiguity and religious identity of Francis. Thus, the flashbacks start and end without a sense of purpose or urgency. Their implications and consequences are not meant to be studied and explored, but used as mere exposition.
And that’s my main issue with bad screenwriting in general. Exposition is too often used to mask a lack of imagination. The more you tell directly to your audience, the more you hope they will feel engaged by the material presented to them. In Hollywood, this is happening more and more often, especially when dealing with real life characters. Think of The Post, Hidden Figures, or even the glorified snooze-fest, also known as Lincoln. Screenwriters seem to be afraid to play around with history, and McCarten in particular seems to be terrified of provoking the audience through his own beliefs as a writer. The result is a work that is deprived of any belief at all. What we get is a trite confrontation between conservative and progressive and we, as an audience, are stuck in the middle. We are the so-called centrists, afraid to join one side over the other, indifferent to the decisions being made right in front of us.

There is an alarming lack of symbolism in Two Popes, which is quite surprising considering most films dealing with the theme of religion are often entirely grounded in symbolism, and yet this is another screenwriting path that McCarten is afraid to take. Perhaps because symbolism, again, relates to assuming a specific attitude toward a subject matter. As a writer you use symbols, metaphors and the like to voice unspoken truths on paper. To avoid addressing directly the issue at hand. Symbolism is like making a puzzle: the end result can be enormously satisfying but the process demands great attention and focus, something that McCarten has not been willing to utilize in his movies.
Similarly to The Darkest Hour, where Churchill walks through his most pressing moment as a world leader as if it was a walk in the park, calling upon the same old tired motifs of patriotism, masculinity and sacrifice in the face of adversity, Two Popes deal with the subject of religion and the Church as if they were discussing their favorite movies or books. There is hardly any room for controversy and real, hard debate.

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The Darkest Hour, also written by McCarten, limits itself to a safe and cartoonish depiction of Churchill.

In writing this post, I do not wish to discredit McCarten as a screenwriter. My intent is to direct some criticism toward a system that actively rewards indifference when it comes to issues of fairly great importance. Movies like Two Popes should not be something you walk out of smiling and saying to yourself ”Those two are some funny popes,” just like like The Darkest Hour should not be something you digest the same way you digest an episode of Friends. History is to be honored, yes. But that does not mean it cannot be turned into something thought provoking and engaging. Through this epidemic of indifferent screenwriting, we have seen countless films that move the same way. Talk the same way. And preach about the same things. The Theory of Everything is not all that different from Bohemian Rhapsody. The same way Imitation Game is not all that different from The Danish Girl. Or The Post and Lincoln. Trumbo and Hidden Figures. And thus, these stories become mere products that end up on your Netflix watchlist, never to be seen again. Is that what cinema is about? More importantly, is that what history is really about? Turning the page and moving on? If it all starts from pen and paper, then screenwriters like McCarten should be held to a higher standard.

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Should we really cheer for them?

Humphrey Bogart: Act Like Yourself

Acting without acting sounds like something out of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm  and yet, if we look back upon some Hollywood’s greatest hits from the 40s and early 50s, a period that is often labelled as the industry’s golden era, we will see that the prevalent norm of the time was to blur the lines between acting and not acting. Before the likes of Brando, Clift and Dean revolutionized the art form by guiding it into a whole new dimension, Hollywood’s greatest actors were those who knew how to successfully blend their true personality with the personality of the character they played. Think of Gregory Peck’s calm and sensitive protagonist in court room dramas and war movies, Katharine Hepburn’s erratic and quirky characters in her numerous outings in slapstick comedy, or James Stewart’s wise and tender family man, most notably in It’s a Wonderful Life. These actors made a living out of blurring those lines and eventually got awarded with Oscars galore. We love them because of it and their influence on the generations that followed is undeniable. Along the way, however, I feel like the contribution of one particular star of that time has gone under the radar, a man who could effortlessly skip from movie to movie and never miss a beat in the way he went about being himself on set.

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Bogart and cigarettes: a match made in heaven.

Humphrey Bogart, also known as Bogie, is nowadays most famous for his timeless appearance in what many consider the greatest cinematic love story of all time in 1942’s Casablanca, where, as Rick, the nightclub owner, he got to pronounce the essential ending words to a movie, ”Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,”  after waving goodbye to the love of his life. Casablanca proved to be Bogart’s biggest hit, and he went on to star in more iconic noir films such as The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and The Big Sleep, where he would share the screen with his wife, Lauren Bacall, for the second time in a row. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart would for the first time sink his teeth into a more demanding role, that of a greedy gold prospector whose greed would ultimately result in his downfall. But it would take Bogart another two long years before he would find the role of Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. This was one of Bogart’s arguably best and most daring performances before his health began to deteriorate due to his chain smoking and heavy drinking, and one that, in my opinion, cemented his legacy as one of the greatest actors of his generation.

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Dixon meeting Laurel for the first time.

In this psychological thriller from 1950, Bogart plays a boozy screenwriter whose reputation around Hollywood is that of a cynical loner and one that doesn’t take shit from anybody, not even the hottest producer or actor on the block. He’s weary of the world he’s living in, but ironically, he can’t get away from it. He’s become a part of this cruel reality called show business. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, Dix finds himself in the middle of a murder accusation. A girl he was last seen with was found murdered and he’s the primary suspect. What follows is a hardboiled, grim love affair between Dix and Laurel (Gloria Grahame), the woman who happens to be the sole witness to prove his innocence.  I say grim, because soon enough Dix begins to show signs of unease, and his initial charisma turns into strange, borderline sociopathic behavior. All of a sudden, the thing that drew Dix to Laurel, and Bogart to his fans, namely his charisma and, as described by critic Peter Bradshaw, his ”what-the-hell” attitude, is seen through a completely different lens. Suddenly, we begin to question the true reason behind this attitude, what is Dix, or rather, Bogart, hiding? Is he not who we thought he is?

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Dixon’s violent eruptions give Bogart’s acting a new dimension.

Jazz Age icon and close friend of Bogart’s, Louise Brooks, argued that Dixon Steele was the role that came closest to who Bogie really was in his private life. In the film, Bogart channels his dark side as if it was a matter of life and death. In almost every scene he manages to go from charming and romantic to weary and frustrated. Was all of this an act? Often described as destructive and with a particular disdain for pretension and phoniness, Bogart embraced the part of Dixon Steele as if it was his only meaningful opportunity to openly articulate his feelings toward the world that he had spent most of his life in. Steele in fact insults his life-long manager/agent, gets into a fistfight with a cocky actor and pushes off the advances of countless Hollywood starlets. He does all of this for the sake of his art, that of writing. It is only while writing that Steele is truly able to find clarity and distance himself from his demons. Initially, his affair with Laurel gets him back to the typing machine, but eventually, it is this very same affair that exposes Steele’s deepest hidden secrets and obsessions, as he violently beats a stranger within an inch of his life right in front of Laurel and then pretends to have feelings of remorse and guilt just like the characters in his screenplays. He’s his own worst enemy, and we, just like Laurel, are terrified by this revelation.

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How well does Laurel actually know him?

In a paper-thin world like the movie industry, Dixon Steele is a reminder of what bubbles beneath the surface. Was this Bogart’s grim farewell to a world he once loved and helped build? Was the character of Steele his long-awaited chance to critique his fiercest enemies and phony allies? We will never know the answer to these questions, but it is worth noting that after In a Lonely Place came out, Bogart spent his remaining years playing more conventional roles in Sabrina and The Cain Mutiny, and winning an Oscar for The African Queen before his premature death in 1957. By blending into the crowd of similar characters he used to play in the early 40s, he was able to hide Dixon Steele so that for many years few people were actually aware of this brilliant, unorthodox performance. Thanks to a number of restorations the film underwent quite recently, we are now finally able to get a glimpse of who Bogart really was, and how well he masked his true self by, ironically enough, acting like himself. Because, at the end of the day, Bogie will always be Bogie, but it is important to remember that, whether we like it or not, there was more to him than charm and cigarettes.

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”I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Pain and Glory: How to Tell a Love Story in 5 Minutes

In today’s day and age, speed is what matters most. You don’t want to bore the viewer. You want to deliver him the most vital information in the shortest amount of time. You want him to experience feelings within a short time span. You want him to get the juice of the story before he decides to switch channels or fast-forward, which, let’s admit it, we all do.  One could say that the main challenge for a filmmaker is to give the viewer what he wants when he wants it. Not an easy thing to do considering how simple it is then to mess up the crucial part of the story or worse yet, mess up the whole movie. Fortunately, Pedro Almodovar, the legendary Spanish film director of the modern melodrama, embraces this challenge in his latest Oscar-nominated film, Pain and Glory.

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Salvador is in a world of pain.

Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a chronically ill film director who is at a point in his life where pain is overshadowing his creativity, to the point that an old friend of his turns him onto heroin. The film jumps back and forth between Salvador’s past as a young boy in rural Spain, travelling with his mom to a new house in the countryside (which turns out to be a cave) and attending high school at a seminary for priests, to his pain-filled present, with him lying around his house, struggling to get up from bed and refusing to get back to work on a new project. However, halfway through the film, Salvador’s old friend and actor Alberto Crespo, with whom Salvador had a falling out on his most acclaimed movie thirty years prior, digs up a monologue that Salvador had stored away in his computer. The monologue turns out to be, in Alberto’s opinion, the director’s greatest, most personal piece of work, and the actor insists on putting it up at a local theater. What follows, is the movie’s best five minutes of runtime.

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The staged monologue.

The premise to Salvador’s love story is in the scenes where Alberto recites the monologue to an audience. The monologue recounts the film director’s early days in Madrid in the 80s, where he had to put his career on hold in order to take care of his boyfriend, who at the time was struggling with a heroin addiction. This premise is painful. As painful as Salvador’s present day illness. What Alberto does not know, however, is that Salvador’s real-life former lover is in the audience watching his performance. Tears streaming down his face. A broken smile. A slight twitch to his eyes. Turns out he’s in Madrid for work and decides to pay Salvador a visit after the show.

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Federico in the audience.

With this in mind, we enter the best five minutes of the entire film. Five minutes which will serve to tell the love story of a lifetime. The two lovers meet in Salvador’s apartment. They’ve both aged. They’re both worn down. They’ve both moved on. And yet, the moment they see each other, it’s like time stopped in their days of youth. Almodovar’s simple and effective staging of this scene allows us to savor every moment of this  long-awaited reunion because we already know the backstory thanks to the preceding monologue, where through Alberto’s performance we learned of our protagonist’s most painful secrets and memories.
The tears have already been shed. We know what both Salvador and his former lover, Federico, have gone through together. Thus, in the five-minute-long reunion there is no need to go back down memory lane. Salvador and Federico can remain in the present moment. As an audience we are aware of how incredibly important the moment they are about to share is and thus Almodovar can play this scene without directly addressing us. We are already in it.

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Sharing a glass of Tequila.

Their conversation is bare. Simple. Federico tells Salvador about his current life in distant Buenos Aires. His restaurant. His kids. His parents. But from time to time, there is a spark between the two in the form of brief moments that allude to a shared past, when Salvador says, ”I needed Madrid. I also needed you. But not in that state.” And Federico replies, ”Love is not enough to save the person you love. You say it in your monologue.” 
Almodovar proceeds to unravel the love story through the acknowledgment of the audience’s intelligence. Like any good filmmaker, he believes the viewer is up to the challenge of putting the pieces from the monologue together without having the characters explicitly have to re-tell their backstory. The weight of how much this scene means is entirely up to you to figure out for yourself. When Salvador says, ”You didn’t interrupt anything, Federico. On the contrary, you filled my life like nothing and nobody has filled it until now,” it hits particularly strong, because by now we’ve witnessed how empty and trivial Salvador’s current life seems on the surface. Like a sudden plot twist, we are unexpectedly met with this rich, absorbing love story that has already taken place. We are only allowed to witness the remains of it. Almodovar achieves this without the use of flashbacks perhaps because the past Salvador and Federico have shared is better to be re-lived in the present as it is. Live the moment, not the memory (which, ironically enough is something that Salvador does throughout the entire film, except for this scene.)

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Some feelings…

The two smile looking at each other, maintaining a distance while sitting in Salvador’s living room and sipping on a glass of Tequila. But their eyes are watery. And their smiles are just like Federico’s broken smile when he was listening to the staged monologue. There is a long, rocky story behind them. And only they have access to the full version. And that is how you tell a love story in five minutes. You give the viewer an idea, a suggestion, but you trust him enough to expand on it by himself. You don’t give him cues. You don’t push him toward a clear answer. You keep him in the dark. You give him a flashlight and tell him, ”Go ahead.” And you’ll see for yourself, the pay-off to such a scene is devastatingly moving.

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…never fade away.

The 5 Best Movies of the Decade

2020 is almost here as we are nearing the end of a fantastic decade for cinema. The 2010s have featured a steady rise in the variety of material produced by the world of filmmakers and have offered to audiences some of the greatest cinematic moments we could ever experience. The growth of this medium is undeniable: from world class film directors such as Scorsese and the Coen Brothers getting their work green lit by Netflix (The Irishman, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and having their films made accessible to younger, more diverse audiences through the worldwide streaming platform to indie films such as Moonlight and The Shape of Water claiming Oscar gold, to female auteurs making  themselves be heard with Lady BirdAmerican Honey and We Need to Talk About Kevin, just to name a few, getting the recognition they deserve. Foreign cinema reinforced itself with audiences with the likes of A Separation, Ida, Roma and this year’s record-breaking Parasite. Technology is on the rise and its application in movies has revealed to us new horizons (War of the Planet of the ApesThe Irishman, Life of Pi). Blockbusters and superhero movies are now family events (Avengers: Endgame), just as biopics have become a consistent source of knowledge for most audiences (The King’s Speech, 12 Years a Slave). Cinema has no intention of slowing down. No, sir.

Here are  5 movies from this decade that prove it.

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5. KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012)

On paper, Andrew Dominik’s third feature film looks like your typical crime TV movie – a grim story about a couple of junkies robbing the wrong people and getting punished by a stone cold killer (Brad Pitt). On screen, Killing Them Softly is a brutal, blunt confrontation with America and the corrupt system behind it following the financial crisis. The words to Obama’s victory speech after his election in 2008 are blasted across the screen as we see the nastiest corners of drug infested, poverty-stricken modern day America and the people that populate it. We hear words of promise, hope, but see none of it actually taking place. The Cannes jury hated it, the studios cut it to pieces and the few people that saw it upon its release did not know what to make of it, but looking back, Killing Them Softly is as fresh and engrossing as it was back when we all thought everything was fine and dandy.

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4. BURNING (2018)

No other film has left me as shaken and puzzled as last year’s Korean masterpiece. Loosely based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-dong’s film is a punch to the senses. With its simple premise about two childhood friends catching up after many years and eventually being joined by an unexpected guest (Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) who proceeds to tell them about his favorite hobby, Burning keeps us in the dark and makes us question every step it takes without fully realizing what we are getting into. Impossible to categorize, not being a thriller nor a full-blown horror, this Korean gem is the most tense experience I’ve had in a film theater and is an essential viewing for those who enjoy guessing more than finding answers.

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3. SICARIO (2015)

Recently named filmmaker of the decade by the Hollywood Critics Association, Denis Villeneuve is a force to be reckoned with. After getting his big breakthrough in Hollywood with his 2013 hit, Prisoners, Villeneuve solidified his position as one of the leading figures of today’s cinematic landscape by giving us a once-in-a-lifetime dive into the blood-soaked narco world of the US-Mexico border. Blurring the lines between good and evil, Sicario is the work of a poet with the eye of a hardened journalist reporting from the front lines. It’s a film that I keep coming back to and rediscovering all over again. With its cold, calculated attitude it is one of the greatest commentaries on the ambiguity and controversial nature of the war on drugs and a heartbreaking tribute to the victims of this bloody conflict.

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2. THE MASTER (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s poignant character study of a WWII veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) suffering from PTSD and seeking solace in the teachings of a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) might sound like the beginning of a bad joke. Fortunately, it is one of the greatest works to come out of this century. It is also a masterclass in acting, with Phoenix and the late Hoffman giving two of the very best performances you will ever see, the former playing the puppet and the latter playing the puppeteer. The Master is a big question mark that refuses to be stripped of its quirks, off-beat moments and complex features. It is a work that is not meant to be categorized or labelled. It simply is.

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1. THE GREAT BEAUTY (2013)

The first thing you will notice about Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar winner is the energy. The energy of the colors and music, for a film about an aging writer wandering around the streets of Rome, is like none other. Following the footsteps of Fellini, Sorrentino paints a portrait that is both beautiful and ugly of a society that goes through ups and downs, that lies to itself, that suffers and whose downfall stems from its own limitless pride. Like the greatest Italian films, The Great Beauty moves to its own tune and is impossible to tame. Who knew that a man’s quest for meaning (whatever that meaning may be; love, death, anything) in the jungle that is Rome could be so thrilling to watch.

Wasted Talent

”You did a good thing for a bad man,” is one of the first things that Lorenzo, De Niro’s character in A Bronx Tale, tells his son, Calogero. This is also one of the first moral dilemmas we are presented with as we witness the coming of age of an Italian-American boy in the 1960s Bronx in De Niro’s directorial debut from 1993. What is most remarkable about this personal favorite of mine is how we get to experience, similarly to what I wrote here for Boyz n the Hood, the moral ambiguity of actions that certain characters must take in order to survive in a tough environment. A Bronx Tale is a perfect example of how cinema can be a source of life lessons and how as a medium it can challenge and test the audience through the journey of its characters.

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De Niro’s Lorenzo, the local bus driver.

Based on Chazz Palminteri’s one-man play of the same title, A Bronx Tale tells the story of a young boy who must makes sense of his environment through the teachings of two very different men. One being his father, Lorenzo, and the other being the local gangster, Sonny (played by Palminteri himself). The latter takes Calogero under his wing after the boy refuses to testify against him in a murder case as the only witness. That’s when the boy proudly tells his father ”I didn’t rat, Dad. I did good, Dad. I did a good thing. Right, Dad?” and to his surprise Lorenzo gives him an answer that confuses him even more. ”You did a good thing for a bad man.” That seems to be the code on the streets of the Bronx.

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Whether you say yes or no can make a difference.

De Niro’s character is one of his most fascinating ones and one that I feel doesn’t get talked about enough. In a tribute to his late father, Robert De Niro Sr. who passed away the year this film was released, De Niro delivers one of his most nuanced performances. This is certainly no Raging Bull, Taxi Driver nor Cape Fear, as the actor puts on the clothes of a regular bus driver working minimum-wage, with the sole interest of keeping his family safe and sound and his son away from trouble. But trouble in this part of New York is inevitable for a young boy like Calogero. And De Niro’s Lorenzo knows this. His vision of the world may be limited, he may be old-fashioned and prejudiced (in Lorenzo’s mind Italians should only marry among themselves), but he’s seen his fair share of pain and suffering around him and the movie does a brilliant job of communicating this to us. In a neighborhood of crooks, yes-men and gangsters, Lorenzo is one of the few to go against the tide and follow his own path. When Sonny, as a sign of gratitude for his son’s silence, offers Lorenzo some extra money under the table, Lorenzo does not hesitate in refusing the offer despite that his own wife admits afterwards, ”We could have used some extra money around here.” De Niro’s character is one that we don’t see very often nowadays. Perhaps it’s because he’s not contemporary in his attitude. Or maybe it’s because he’s just not cool enough. And that is also why as the years go by, Calogero finds himself drifting more and more towards Sonny, the king of the streets and as Calogero himself puts it ”My God down here.”

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Sonny and the lucky kid.

Sonny is indeed the God of the Bronx. Even the local priest does not dare speak against him during confession. Unlike Lorenzo, Sonny oozes coolness and danger. His word is the Bible, and yet despite the prestige and respect that comes with being a boss, he is not the traditional boss we are used to seeing in films. He’s no Vito Corleone. He’s not a stone cold calculating machine. The fear he generates is not through actions but his words and the way he carries himself. His treatment of others is fair. He’s no bully nor psycho. And as we get to know him along with Calogero, his apprentice, we realize we are looking at him through a different lens. Throughout the run-time of the movie it becomes evident that both Lorenzo and Sonny are looked at from the same perspective – that of a father figure. They are put on the same pedestal. Working man and gangster. The lessons they teach Calogero come from different settings – one being the family home, the other being the streets – but they’re just as valuable. When asked whether it is better to be loved or feared, Sonny tells Calogero ”It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult. I would rather be feared. Fear lasts longer than love.” Meanwhile, Lorenzo earlier on in the movie points out, ”People don’t love him. They fear him. There is a difference.” 

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”It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger, but try and get up every morning to work for a living!”

In his directorial debut, De Niro skillfully paints a vivid picture of racial tension, peer pressure and the de facto interlinked paths of fear and love. The world around Calogero is one filled with borders between blacks and whites and where one false move can lead to drastic consequences. Being loved out here is a privilege that not many can afford. But so is being feared. And Calogero can’t seem to find a compromise between the two. The world in A Bronx Tale is a separate world on its own, where rules are different and you best learn them fast. Yet, what is most admirable about the film is how the two characters, Lorenzo and Sonny, work towards the same goal: to keep Calogero away from danger, to keep him mindful of his surroundings. Sonny does it by disrupting the kid’s illusions and telling him that his baseball idol, Mickey Mantle, doesn’t give a shit whether Calogero can afford to pay his rent or not, so why should Calogero care about his batting average? Meanwhile, Lorenzo emphasizes the opposite, namely belief in ideals. His whole mantra revolves around believing in what is right, what is good and what is inspiring to us, as he keeps repeating to his son, ”The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

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”You ever heard of Machiavelli?”

The two father figures in A Bronx Tale are at first sight polar opposites. The way they think, the way they act and the way they go about life couldn’t be more different. Yet their teachings compliment each other and help Calogero fill in the gaps. That is remarkable. Nowadays movies tend to stick to one train of thought because it is less risky and offers easier answers for the audience to grasp. A Bronx Tale, however, refuses to do so. The movie purposefully confronts Lorenzo and Sonny’s worldviews and makes us reflect on our own convictions and beliefs. The whole secret is finding the balance between the two teachings. Love and fear. Black and white. Working man and gangster.

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”I don’t understand, Dad.”

Black on Black

When the late John Singleton, who passed away a week ago after battling a series of strokes, directed his first feature film, Boyz n the Hood, thus becoming the first African-American director to be nominated for an Oscar and the youngest nominee (24 years old – 22 at the time the film was shot!) in that category in the history of the prestigious awards ceremony, the public was caught off guard. It was 1991. Los Angeles was soon to become a dystopian war-zone following the 1992 Rodney King riots. LA was in the spotlight, for the wrong reasons, and here he was, a young, black film director from the streets, making a voice for himself and giving voice to those that had not had the right to have one up to that point.
It is important to keep in mind, that almost 3000 miles away, in the far away city of New York, there already was a young, black film student turned director shaking things up. His name was Spike Lee, but Spike, unlike Singleton, was interested in many things simultaneously, and often his work was filled with rage, stereotypes, regret, and most importantly, thematically it was all over the place, thus making it difficult for most everyday audiences to really grasp the world Spike was presenting to them. Do the Right Thing was Spike’s major hit, but its ferociousness, its in-your-face attitude made it somewhat inaccessible for its time. On the other hand, Boyz n the Hood, Singleton’s entry ticket to Hollywood, was easier to digest, like a personal diary made available to everyone. And that is what I want to focus on: how John Singleton made the black experience of growing up in South Central Los Angeles accessible to audiences.

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Young black men out to change the world. From left to right: John Singleton, Cuba Gooding Jr, Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut.

The black experience in the East Coast had been covered in great detail in crime dramas often disguised as blaxploitation films going all the way back to the 70s, when all of a sudden films that would normally be told from a white perspective were taken apart and reconstructed from the angle of a minority. Films like Coffy or Shaft introduced to worldwide audiences proud members of the black film community such as Pam Grier, Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree that went on to become cult figures in the genre. But, unfortunately, that’s all it was – a genre. And as fun and enjoyable as they were, such films, neatly wrapped in style and action, often failed to convey a larger message about the actual circumstances these characters found themselves in.
Thus, by the end of the 80s, when producers started to take more chances on cheaper, independent films over blockbusters, younger talent emerged – film students from a minority, a marginalized community, like John Singleton that had stories to tell, who insisted on these stories to be told truthfully, were finally offered a chance. This meant only John Singleton could direct Boyz n the Hood, a hood film about a group of young men growing up in South Central LA, a territory infested with drugs, violence, police brutality and street gangs. It was time to shine a light on the black experience in the West Coast, where slowly but surely, black culture was starting to emerge from the ashes mostly through rap music with artists such as NWA and Tupac leading the way.
In one of the first scenes of the movie, Singleton makes the perfect introduction as a black filmmaker; Tre Styles, our protagonist, at this point an 11-year-old boy, after showing boredom and making unnecessary remarks in class, is challenged by his teacher, a pretty white redhead, to stand up in front of the classroom and conduct his own lecture. Young Tre without a second thought rises to his feet and proceeds to walk up to a big world map. He points to the African continent and says ”This is where y’all are from. Where everybody’s from.” The class is in shock. What is this kid talking about? We’re not from Africa, we’re from South Central. Singleton immediately turns the tables around and proves to be in the driver’s seat. This scene is his announcement that the movie that you’re watching is not meant to be watched while munching on popcorn – it is meant to be seen with an understanding, because you might learn something new, something challenging that you, just like the teacher and the rest of the classroom, did not see coming.

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Kids confronted with a bloody reality.

Another aspect that makes Boyz n the Hood accessible is its simplicity in storytelling and the way Singleton uses as a clear reference point Rob Reiner’s hit movie from 1986, Stand by Me, only this time, the director turns the story of four socially-marginalized kids from white-washed Oregon into the story of four black boys from South Central. In Stand by Me the turning point takes place when one of the boys asks, ”You guys wanna go see a dead body?” and the frightened gang follows the friend to the where the body is hidden. In this case, the dead body represents a secret, and a deadly one too, as it is not supposed to be revealed to anyone because then the killer might come out of hiding.
In Boyz, however, when one of the boys, Dooky, asks ”Y’all wanna see a dead body?” the others casually reply ”Yeah. Okay.” When the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked body is revealed to them, they impassively look at it, with the only remark being that it stinks. Here, a victim of a gang shooting is a trivial object, like a souvenir taken from the local context of South Central. The sight of it, even for boys aged 11 or 12, is nothing remarkable. It doesn’t evoke any feelings besides physical disgust. A dead body, unlike in Stand by Me, is no mystery, and this is the first sign of Singleton taking matters into his own hands; he introduces a brand new way of seeing things, as if to say, ”I’m supposed to feel sorry for a bullet-riddled corpse? I’ve seen worse.”

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Out to conquer the world.

After its opening act where the characters are introduced at a young age, the film skips to seven years later, when the boys are in their late teens, and by that time, in South Central you’re expected to be a man, have a family, put bread on the table and act like a grown up. And while a director like Spike Lee is more interested in the flavor and oddity of each character, Singleton’s priority as a director is to tell a story. Most of the characters that are in Boyz resemble each other in many ways; they all have similar backgrounds, fears, regrets, but above all, they all have one goal in common – to get out of there.
Because while Spike’s Brooklyn is a place where the characters feel at home despite many threatening factors such as neighboring gangs and ”nigger-hating” police officers roaming the streets, Singleton’s LA (ranging from South Central to Compton) is a hellhole that everyone wants to run away from. Even the most basic, primitive characters such as Doughboy (wonderfully played by a young Ice Cube) have as their dream neither gangbanging, nor drinking ’till late, nor screwing the most beautiful girls in the area; their dream is to be better, to the point that they can fly out of a place where, as the opening line to the movie states ONE OUT OF EVERY TWENTY-ONE BLACK AMERICAN MALES WILL BE MURDERED IN THEIR LIFETIME. MOST WILL DIE AT HE HANDS OF ANOTHER BLACK MALE. Singleton’s characters are simple and easy to understand, driven by the same thirst to elevate themselves above life-threatening mediocrity.

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Danger around the corner.

Finally, Singleton’s real secret in telling this personal journey of growing up in a tough environment is his understanding of what a general audience wants in a way that will allow him to keep their attention all the way through. In other words, Singleton, unlike Spike Lee (who, lets be honest, loved to light firecrackers in people’s faces with his thought-provoking, twisted and controversial films) at the age of 22, knew exactly how to make a conventional movie, one that despite its difficult subject matter would not stir controversy but welcome viewers with open arms, broadening their vision of what it meant to really struggle in marginalized working class America.
Singleton many times argued that to him Boyz was structured like a Western, meaning it was structured like the oldest tale in the book – a tale filled with moral dilemmas, life lessons and dramatic turns that will lead to an inevitable end. Boyz does just that, with the bandits being the gangbangers that go looking for trouble as they cruise down the street and police officers making death threats to common citizens, the cowboys being the young protagonists desperately trying to take care of their loved ones and protect them from the bandits, and the wise sheriff, who in this case is represented by Tre’s father, Furious (a fantastic Laurence Fishburne), a man who watches over the neighborhood and has come to accept one absolute truth: that African-Americans need to stick together and be aware of their strength as a unit, rather than their strength as individuals.

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Under a father’s supervision.

In most Westerns, the cowboys eventually have to accept their darker survival instincts if they want to defeat the bandits, yet in Boyz Singleton desperately fights this convention, ultimately making his characters suffer and choose different approaches in dealing with the same nagging problem, which is the burden of life in the neighborhood. The question whether a cowboy will become a bandit depends on many factors, and Singleton makes sure to highlight each one of them: love and supervision from relatives, education, a balanced sense of justice, one’s own values and priorities. Like any good director, or artist for that matter, Singleton does not try to put all of his eggs in one basket; instead he makes sure to truthfully depict the many faces of South Central and the many ways one can go about living one’s life in such awful circumstances. This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but numerous movies that thematically tackle street life, street crime and the margins of any society prefer to take the easy way out and put the blame on the system, on a higher power, on the evil eye that watches over us. In Boyz, the 22-year-old film director doesn’t follow suit: he furiously rows up against the stream because the story deserves to be told the right way.
After the movie’s incredible financial and critical success, Singleton’s career did not take off the way everyone imagined. The films he went on to make, from the likes of street melodramas like Poetic Justice to mindless blockbusters like 2 Fast 2 Furious, did not reflect his incredible skill as a director and storyteller, but that is even more of a reason to celebrate the nature of Boyz n the Hood, a hood film that allowed audiences from all over the world to truly grasp a (small) part of the black experience in modern-day America.

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At the end of the day, we’re all looking for the same thing.

Where are the Kids?

Let’s talk about women. Women on screen. Most of the time when we think of women in movies we have a clear image, a predefined vision of what a cinematic woman should be like, look like and act like. And when the tables are turned, and we finally get a performance that does not reflect a woman that way, think of Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer as the quiet, docile yet ruthless wife that asks for child custody, or Charlize Theron in Monster as a prostitute that goes on a killing spree after having been molested one too many times, the general public’s response is to reward them. Usually with an Oscar. But that is a rough sketch of the overall picture. But what if I told you that once upon a time there was a director whose entire filmography revolved around unconventional, in a way uncinematic women? What if I told you that he was a director who revolutionized the image of a woman on screen? I am talking about a filmmaker who understood women in all their complexity and embraced everything about them when making a movie. Often times he’d paint the female protagonist as the hero and simultaneously as the antagonist, too. I am talking about John Cassavetes and I want to dedicate this post to the character of Mabel Longhetti in his 1974 effort, A Woman Under the Influence.

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Mabel and Nick: a couple to remember.

Initially conceived as a play, A Woman Under the Influence quickly became a screenplay for a movie with the same title, as Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes’ wife and lifetime collaborator (appearing in 11 of his movies), felt that playing the character of Mabel would become too excruciating in the long run, as most plays are on five to eight times a week. Because yes, Mabel Longhetti is a mentally disturbed woman, but the mental illness is never made too explicit in the film. In fact, Cassavetes never, in all of his interviews, guest appearances and lectures, never referred to Mabel as a mentally unstable woman. To Cassavetes, Mabel was a woman who suffered many things, just like most people, and to him, that was what made her a character worthy of a movie of her own; Mabel to Cassavetes was a person that lived life with everything she had. To Mabel, every emotion is amplified, and that is also perhaps why A Woman Under the Influence is one of the most disturbing portrayals of family life ever put on screen, and perhaps why Richard Dreyfuss, in an interview following his hit movie Jaws in 1975, when asked what movie had scared him the most in the past decade or so, pointed to Cassavetes’ film, admitting that the emotional intensity of the film, the relentless focus on Mabel and her psychological journey as a mother and wife, was enough to make him vomit in exhaustion upon his return home from the movies.

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Mabel’s suffering.

So what is it that makes A Woman Under the Influence one of, if not, the greatest portrayal of a woman in the history of cinema? For starters there is Gena Rowlands, giving a career-defining performance (more about Gena in a post from 2016) as Mabel Longhetti, devoted mother of three, loyal wife of a construction worker (played by an equally powerful Peter Falk), and above all, a woman tormented by her inability to express her overwhelming love. It is in fact Cassavetes primary goal as a filmmaker to talk about love, as he often stated in some of the interviews prior to his premature death in 1989;

I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in – love. And the lack of it. When it stops. And the pain that’s caused by loss of things that are taken away from us that we really need.

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Mabel’s primary source of joy: her kids.

And it’s true. I remember watching A Woman Under the Influence for the very first time and being highly disturbed by the display of mental illness in the movie. I couldn’t take it, and similarly to Richard Dreyfuss, I felt sick and had to pause the movie a few times just to distance myself from what was taking place in Mabel’s world. However, upon revisiting it a couple of days ago, I watched it with Cassavetes’ idea that it is a film that revolves around the weight of love and what happens when someone is sensitive, vulnerable and in love to the point that even the smallest of things will make that person go crazy and lose balance in life. Because Mabel Longhetti is exactly like that. The first scene we see her appear in, is the scene where she is getting her kids ready to go off with grandma for the weekend. Mabel runs around the driveway making sure her three children have all they need for a weekend away; she tucks in their shirts, she runs back into the house to find an extra pair of shoes, and she keeps repeating to her little joys as they get into grandma’s car ”Get your fingers in! Watch your fingers!” And when finally grandma drives off with the kids, Mabel shuts herself inside the house and starts pacing up and down the hallway, biting on her fingernails, murmuring to herself that she shouldn’t have let them go. The instances when her illness takes over are the instances where her overwhelming love does not know where to go. After a short while, Mabel asks herself in panic ”Where are the kids? Kids? Where are you?

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A happy household… at times.

Mabel is most vulnerable on her own. It is then that her condition turns her into a threat, a threat mostly to herself, as she goes off into the night in search of an adventure and ends up inviting a stranger into her home (it is never made if it is a one-time thing or a repeating occurrence). Meanwhile, her husband Nick is her only life saver, her only certainty in a world that otherwise could be considered her greatest danger, as the immense metropolis that is Los Angeles is bound to push her off-balance into free-fall. When Nick is not home, and that is quite often as his work demands a full 24-hour availability, Mabel is on her own, squaring off with her demons. She indulges in weird moments of self-harm, punching herself in the head, making faces in front of the mirror, drinking hard liquor, smoking packs of cigarettes, running up and down the house in search of something she could her pour love into, but as Cassavetes himself said about how he tackles the theme of love in his movies; ”To have a philosophy is to know how to love, and to know where to put it. […] What everybody needs is a way to say where and how can I love? Can I be in love so I can live with some degree of peace?” Most of the time Cassavetes movies do not deliver an answer to this question. Yet, in A Woman Under the Influence, this very quest to achieve a degree of peace through love is the main focal point of Mabel’s condition.

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Mabel’s greatest fear: to be alone.

When Nick comes home from work with a group of hungry co-workers, we see Mabel spring to her feet in excitement: it is time for to express her love for her husband by preparing a wonderful meal for the numerous guests that Nick considers friends. As Mabel sits in silence, looking at the hungry and tired men devouring home-cooked spaghetti with sauce, we can see glimmers of utter happiness. These are the moments that Mabel lives for, these are the instances when she is at her best, and yet… and yet the condition kicks in. The love that Mabel has for people, for her husband, her family, the family’s friends and relatives, is too strong and is bound to go off any minute. In this scene, for example, Mabel becomes friendly with some of Nick’s co-workers, too friendly, to the point that she embarrasses her husband and makes the guests uncomfortable. When they leave, everything dies down, including Mabel.

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Mabel at her happiest.

If Mabel could have one wish from a genie, that wish would be to be able to put her arms around all the people she loves and keep them there, as close to herself as possible. But that is not how the world works in a Cassavetes film as Mabel is soon deemed to be dangerous for her loved ones (she is eventually put in a mental institution for six months); the danger she poses lies in the affectionate way she plays with her children and her children’s friends, in the way she wants to satisfy everybody that enters her home, the way she maniacally runs up and down Hollywood Boulevard asking strangers for the time as she waits for the school bus to arrive and return her kids safely. It’s as if the most ordinary things make her seem crazy in the eyes of others. But to Cassavetes, the film’s writer and director, this is the essence of a woman; forget the beauty and sex-appeal, the essence of a female protagonist lies in her quirks, her flaws, her habits, her dreams, ambitions and regrets. Mabel is full of them. Cassavetes criticism of women’s depiction in movies is key in analyzing A Woman Under the Influence;

I’m very worried about the depiction of women on the screen. It’s gotten worse than ever and it’s related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, with whom, and how many. There’s nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her.

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”When a man loves a woman…”

In Cassavetes’ brilliant psychological domestic drama we experience a woman. An ordinary woman who is not successful, who doesn’t have a job, who doesn’t go out shopping, who doesn’t do things for pleasure or out of interest. Her world, and her experience comes from inside, because Mabel is crazy in the eyes of others, but when she looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see a crazy person; she sees an emotionally rich person, who through a vast range of emotions that can quickly turn happiness into fear, fear into anger, anger into pure joy, confusion into bliss, is desperately trying to find a way to fit into the environment she is forced to be part of. Her body is tied to the physical world, but her mind isn’t. Mabel wants to live for others, through others; in numerous scenes she simulates the behavior of her children because it is her understanding that a mother raising children should feel the same things as her children. And so she dances, she whistles, she races down the street, she makes faces and puts on costumes because her children deserve to be at the center of her attention. And when her husband brings around his friends she finds fitting to emulate his attitude, that of a tough, working man, a macho figure, a bread winner and the head of the household. What comes off as ridicule to Nick is Mabel’s way of telling him, Look how much I love you. Look how much I care about you. Look how much I admire you.

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Nick battling with his own demons.

To end this piece, Bo Harwood, the film’s music composer said that to him the score to A Woman Under the Influence is ”basically about love […] about loving somebody, loving your family, loving them no matter what,” which is a fitting conclusion, considering that Mabel is full of imperfections but so are the people around her, above all Nick, her husband, who at times reveals himself to be just as crazy as his wife. Then you might say, well if this is about love and loving somebody, what does the concept of a cinematic woman have to do with this post? To which I’ll reply, everything. To me, and famed critics like Roger Ebert, Mabel represents Cassavetes himself, and his experience with dealing with love, family, betrayal and hardship, and that is why, the portrayal of this particular woman is the most accurate, complete and telling I have ever seen; Mabel represents everything that we might want her to represent. Her condition is the accumulation of values, emotions, stories, incidents and thoughts that we all have, that we all share. That’s what makes her so multidimensional, so unconventional, so beautifully unique, and that is also why cinema would never be the same after the film’s release. Cassavetes and Rowlands, in other words, together revolutionized what a woman can do in a film, what she can stand for and what she can bring to the art form that is cinema.

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It’s about loving somebody, loving them no matter what.