Tag Archives: coming of age

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017), is the “hip” ticket this holiday season. Like Wonder Woman (2017) in the spring, Lady Bird suits the zeitgeist; though in many respects this clouds rather than illuminates a lot of the serious discussions I have heard about the film. Still, as far as debut films go, Lady Bird is effectively entertaining and will, no doubt, touch upon the specific cultural references and experiences of most millennials.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird’s two main achievements are its narrative and its defying of convention. Most films, directed by men or women, that deal with a woman’s “coming-of-age” center around two conventions that are subverted in Gerwig’s film. First, the notion that the primary objective of any teenage girl is to get a cool teenage boy to like her. Second, that the only way to attract a suitor is by “fitting-in” with the popular clique. Lady Bird does address certain maneuverings to be popular as much as it addresses the maneuverings of it’s title character to get a boy, but with a focus not on the end goal, but rather on the subtle ramifications of these endeavors. In fact, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) herself doesn’t calculate or even manipulate those around her all that consciously, and certainly does so with a blind eye as to how her actions affect the people closest to her. Gerwig’s prioritizing of these two processes within the narrative focus negates what often seems like obsessive and borderline violent behavior in the protagonists of other films centered on the experiences of teenage girls (consider the teen films of John Hughes and that ilk).

The focus on process also enables Gerwig to sustain the narrative thread concerning the titular character and her mother (Laurie Metcalf), along with several other characters and subplots. It could be said that Lady Bird, as much as it is a character study, is a film that actually allows the players to develop characters, yielding some effective and surprising performances to the point that it sometimes appears to be an ensemble film. The issue then is that Gerwig, though an actor herself, does not frame or cut Lady Bird based upon the strengths of these performances.

Gerwig’s camera placement favors a medium to wide two-shot, locking characters together in one frame. This would not seem as theatrical as it does if the blocking or the depth of focus were at all interested in the spaces inhabited by these characters. When Gerwig does use close-ups it is almost always after a conflict when the stakes are settled and we feel secure in the knowledge of where we should be investing our sympathies as spectators. Similarly, Gerwig’s approach to editing is to cut to the action of a scene or sequence. We the audience are never given the chance to stay in a scene after the narrative action has occurred and are never allowed to witness or share in the tension of the characters within a moment.

Lady Bird

These issues of technique culminate to the effect that Lady Bird forgoes much of its potential for dramatic urgency. Lady Bird is a “safe” film, a commercial film, that refuses to take any real substantial risks.

-Robert Curry

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It

When I was growing up our family doctor had something of an obsession with clowns. All over his office were little oil paintings of clowns, dolls of clowns, decorative plates of clowns, etc. I found all of this to be unnerving as a kid. But when did I become scared of clowns? I don’t know for certain if It scared me because I already feared clowns or if I was frieghtened of clowns because I had seen It.

Stephen King's It (2017)

Andy Muschietti’s film of Stephen King’s novel It (2017) is reportedly the highest grossing horror film of all time. The likely reason for this is that It, since its first publication in 1986, has become not only a legitimate cult item, but a major referencing point in our popular culture. The Tommy Lee Wallace television adaptation of 1990, which I saw as a boy, helped solidify the novel’s status in our popular imagination, perpetuating a number of signifiers tied with the horror genre for three generations. Though Kubrick’s film of The Shining (1980) may be more infamous now than the novel on which it is based, It’s infamy has stayed tied closely to the original novel; at least till now.

Muschietti’s film differs from King’s text in two pivotal ways. The first is that Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman have re-structured King’s non-linear narrative for two separate films. The film currently in release represents the “childhood” narrative of the novel while the sequel film, no doubt, will focus upon the “adult” narrative. This prevents the film from drawing on parallels, both visually and conceptually, between the timelines while also depriving the spectator of truly coming to grips with the relay of cause and effect. That is to say that the novel It functioned as a kind of narrative circuit whose complex has been disassembled for the film.

There has also been an updating of the timeline by thirty years. In the novel, the chapters concerned with the character’s childhood are set in 1958, while in the film these events are set in 1988. This removes a tremendous amount of allegory from the narrative pertaining to Cold War paranoia as well as some of the historical urgency of the Mike Hanlon narrative (though it remains particularly relevant in the 1980s as it does today). 

By dispensing with these two narrative strategies the film of It becomes transformed into a rather standard horror film with a “coming-of-age” story thrown in for good measures. As such, its weaknesses as a film are relatively standard. The special effects are poor, the scares come cheap, and the suspense is ill earned. Yet Muschietti’s sense of shot design and strong empathy for the irrationality of childhood fear yield some effective moments. For the most part these moments come in anticipation of Pennywise the clown. It is enough to suggest a character’s fear, to see the horrific imaginings on their face. Hence it is in the “fake-out” moments that It finds emotional truth in its material.

-Robert Curry

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How I Wrote Julie Lovely

by Thomas Lampion

Origins

I don’t remember where the name Julie Lovely came from, let alone how the project even came about but both the screenplay and pre-production for the film have taken over three years of my life. My collaborator Robert Curry certainly remembers, though he couldn’t tell you where the title came from either. It was apparently conceived in the balmy summer of 2010, a series of hazy conversations in a suburb outside of Philadelphia in some stranger’s swimming pool at a party we’d likely crashed. It entailed my favorite novel Alice in Wonderland, silent film, mysticism, witchcraft and cults, all colliding into the dream-film we’d want to make together one day.

Fast forward to the end of 2012 when I left an abusive relationship in Chicago, returning to Philadelphia unsure of what to do with my life in nearly every capacity, I fled a job, an apartment and an entire way of life that I thought would never change. Robert called to have a meeting. He proposed that we work on a project together, and that I write a screenplay for a full length feature called Julie Lovely.

‘Julie who’?  I asked after Robert excitedly pitched what would be Zimbo Films latest and most ambitious undertaking.

‘You really don’t remember do you’? Robert asked, disappointed.

A lot had happened since 2010. I could remember every dreary Chicago winter and dead end apartment of my life from then on but could barely remember what I had for breakfast, let alone a conversation from way back when. I shook my head sadly.

‘Well, why don’t you just write it anyway’?

And so I did, and over the years Julie Lovely has grown to mean a lot of things and has changed drastically from that long summer night. A lesbian myth, a love story, a Coming of Age story, a love letter to silent film, a work of horror, a depiction of the gradual death of the 1920’s giving way to the Great Depression to the 1960’s of racial and cultural strife.

portrait of Julie Lovely by Thomas Lampion

The Story

Julie is an American girl in 1969, the year Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education passed through the Supreme Court, ordering the complete Racial Integration of the Public School System in the South. Like many White parents of the time, Julie’s mother and father decide to enroll her elsewhere, going so far as to take her to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. Somewhere down the line, Julie’s father crashes the car killing both parents. Julie is left alive, but physically altered by head trauma; she wanders away from the scene, and into the forest where she encounters a boarding school. Is this where she was going? Clearly not, Our Lady of Our Forest Academy for Young Girls has been abandoned over 40 years because of a notorious series of murders.

Julie has found herself back in time, at an institution embroiled in the madness of religious hysteria. Spearheaded by the monstrous Headmistress Professor Mädchen, the school is going broke at the head of the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Parents can’t pay tuition; some students are even virtually abandoned. Discord and chaos abound among a school where all of the instructors have fled and several students are missing. It doesn’t take long for Julie to figure out where they went; to Mädchen’s basement or the bottom of the courtyard. Words of an uprising begin to circulate amongst the girls- who are tired of watching their friends vanish, in a setting where punishment and execution is now commonplace.

Julie enters the school secretly, tip-toeing down halls and peering through doorways as the semester continues all those years ago. Almost no one can see or hear her, except a girl named Juliette, along with a few other girls, Juliette grows to believe that Julie is their savior, an obscure Saint by the name of Juliana. Quickly, those who see or believe in her have deified the seemingly unfazed Julie, becomes more invested in the fate of Juliette, who has unfortunately caught the attention of a blood hungry Professor Mädchen for her revolutionary activities and professed love for the Spectre Julie. Is this all a ghost story, or is it all the product of Julie’s now injured brain?

Influences and the Schoolyard Melodrama

Certainly no screenplay ever just dropped out of the sky and onto a writers head. To write an effective script it is necessary, no, mandatory  that a screenwriter pore over countless films  both good and bad to be able to understand the plot, structure and order of a screenplay. You could write an earth-shattering novel or a passionate poem from the bottom of your heart but no one writes a screenplay like Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights. The form of writing one is entirely too technical and stifling, the script is merely an interpretation of a story that is often different than the one hopefully shot and edited on screen. Julie Lovely is a film heavily influenced not only by genres but other eras of film altogether, including the 1920’s and 60’s. Perhaps the kernel to not only the story, but the aesthetic of Julie Lovely is a film my colleague Alicia Eler alerted me to once I started writing about film- Mädchen in Uniform, is a German film made in 1930, set in a Prussian boarding school. It tells the story of a girl who falls madly in love with her female teacher and all of the troubles that arise. What so excited me about Mädchen was the fact that it was such an early sound film that used the technical conventions of silent film, beating its Hollywood contemporaries with a sophistication and flair. Not only that, it was a film that so brazenly addressed lesbianism and sexual anxiety so soon before the Nazi’s rise to power.

More important yet was the marijuana-induced viewing of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock in High School, which takes the same conventions as Mädchen such as lesbian yearning and repressive rules and places it in a world of beauty and existential dread, centering on the mysterious disappearances and deaths at an Australian Boarding School for girls in the early 1900’s.

Julie Lovely is unabashedly a genre film in one of the strangest genres of them all, the Schoolyard Melodrama. Often lumped into the category of a “coming of age” story, the conventions of the Schoolyard Melodrama are both aesthetically and metaphorically different. While a coming of age story will tell you what it means to grow from a child to an adult, films in this genre use the Boarding School as a metaphor for the conformity and rigid rules adults impose on children and how impossible, even cruel they are once they are set loose into the adult world.

Films such as Mädchen in Uniform and Picnic at Hanging Rock address this vicious cycle and what happens in the wake of any transgression or move against the grain.

 Personal Connections

In my initial drafts of Julie Lovely, I felt not only unsatisfied with its hodgepodge of symbolism and allusions to the Horror genre; I felt I had no real emotional connection to the material. If there is no real way for you to establish some emotional bearing on a story and its characters, a script will do virtually no work for you. Find whatever you can, no matter what minute detail to help you find something visceral and real about the world you’re trying to establish. My trouble was in the beginning, I found Julie and her parents had nothing important to talk about besides going to a new school. What connected them, and what was now tearing them apart? Furthermore, why were Julie’s parents taking her away in the first place? I had no real timeline of when and where all of this was taking place. I thought about my own family, my own mother in particular who grew up in the turbulent 60s and was in fact, about to start High School when Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education passed in 1969. My mother gave me the history lessons they weren’t going to give at school, ones that abounded in race riots, armed brutality and even stuffing one of her best friends in the back of my grandmother’s car trunk to avoid the police. I also thought of my Grandmother who in 1931, was born to back-breaking poverty in the height of the Great Depression in the backwoods of Madison County, North Carolina. Having grown up under her dotage from infanthood to age nine, I understood she was the product of another generation, whose ethics and morals were entirely different from those of my mother, merely because they both experienced the same things but at completely different times and perspectives. I learned that in reality, I wanted to make a film about the broken dialogue and tension between two generations of people, a generation of survival against a generation of change. Through this film, I channeled not only my mother, but a family of people some alive, some dead that helped me go in deeper as a writer.

Julie Lovely character sketch by Thomas Lampion

Establishing Symbols and Images

Julie Lovely is a film whose aesthetic and imagery are synonymous with production and was created through dozens upon dozens of sketches and drawings before a script was ever written. Julie is a film whose aesthetic and symbols are just as important as any scene. Religious hysteria is the undercurrent of horror within the film; the schoolgirls love cult created around the mysterious Julie whom they believe to be Saint Juliana is inspired by the occult iconography prevalent in films by Kenneth Anger and the burgeoning counter-cultures of the 60’s. Catholicism, its mystical cousin Rosicrucianism and European Witchcraft intermingle as a battle between Christian and Pagan rituals ideals and stands in as a metaphor between Adult and Child. Often, drawings were able to help me decipher plot points and characters that wouldn’t appear by just merely sitting at a computer. The more one fleshes out a character from everything to their hair down to their clothes, the rest of the work does itself, it was always my top concern that a story can only go so far without bold and memorable characters, their complications and subtleties can be worked on later, and can only exist with an actor.

Constructing a Screenplay and the Silent Method

It’s difficult navigating the absurdism of writing about writing a screenplay. The script is the cradle in which all of a films ideas and values are laid. But it’s also just that, a series of ideas on pieces of paper, which may or may not ever get made depending on well over a thousand reasons. What makes Julie Lovely’s screenplay different from others and furthermore difficult to write is the fact that there are only ten minutes of the film with dialogue sound, the beginning of the film before her parent’s fatal car crash. Just as Dorothy leaves a Black and White Kansas for a Technicolor Oz, Julie leaves her parents bodies for a silent film world. It is timely that the film reverts from 1969 to 1929. By then, Hollywood was already scattering to arrange their films for sound, leaving the conventions and technological advancements of silent film in its wake. By completely altering the sound-scape of the film, we are able to fully explore and decipher the symbolism and imagery presented to us.

What the script of Julie Lovely offers to do is tell an effective story in the most unconventional way possible and do it in a way that’s never quite been done before. What the script will provide will be an entirely organic experience between directors, crew and actors in how to effectively evoke the conventions of the silent film method as though it were brand new. The actor’s experiences and reactions will be based entirely around the surroundings and aesthetic, leaving little way to being confounded by the usual and often literal technicalities of a standard spec script with hit the mark dialogue and the anxiety of foley sound, dubbing and post dubbing. Sound will generally be important as foley that will contribute to the film score. By doing so, we will be able to give the camera an infinite freedom as seen through classic silent film, allowing us to pay more attention to the visual iconography as depicted by its actors and its sets. This process, lending to the fact that the script often only gives a general idea to how each scene will go, also gives way to potential improvisation and allow even more input from cast and crew as to how each scene can be effectively depicting each scene.

Hopefully, I’ve been able to effectively explain not only the screenwriting process but exactly what kind of screenplay Julie Lovely is and how it will be depicted on screen. It’s been a long time, and nothing excites me more than to be able to illuminate our readers and fans about how much work goes into the creation of a film, its writing, its influences and maybe we can provide  advice to anyone out there who is also trying to write and get a film project off the ground.

 

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I Don’t Kiss

J’embrasse pas (1991) is the culmination, in many respects, to a long meditation on the psychological turmoil of youth, a meditation that has undergone a number of revisions from film to film before finally expressing a definitive subjective perspective on “the rite of passage” which has obsessed cinema artists since the early twentieth century.  Written by Andre Téchiné (who also directs), Isabelle Coudrier-Kleist, Michel Grisolia, and Jacques Nolot, J’embrasse pas works as a kind of exorcism for the film’s director, who, since Rendez-vous (1985), has obsessively revisited the same motifs time and again, enabling Téchiné to construct a new narrative pattern to probe more deeply and succinctly into his thematic concerns with the masterful and humanistic Wild Reeds (1994).  These three coming of age films each represent a dynamic advancement in Téchiné’s directorial style and a further refinement in the articulation of themes that bind these three films together.

Juliette Binoche as Nina in Téchiné's Rendez-vous (1985).

Juliette Binoche as Nina in Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (1985).

Rendez-vous concerns a would-be actress, Nina (Juliette Binoche), who migrates to Paris from rural France.  In Paris, she encounters a career minded man bound to society’s expectations named Paulot (Wadeck Stanczack), and his roommate, the free-spirited actor Quentin (Lambert Wilson).  Nina quickly falls for Quentin, but when he dies suddenly and her life seems directionless, Quentin’s former mentor and director Scrutzler (Jean-Louis Trintignant) takes her in and gives her a legitimate acting career.  This rather simplistic account of the plot to Rendez-vous already reveals motifs that recur in J’embrasse pas, albeit with a more refined understanding of character.

Just in terms of plot points, both of the central characters in Rendez-vous (Nina) and J’embrasse pas (Pierre, played by Manuel Blanc) are native to the more rural French countryside and have migrated to metropolitan Paris to pursue careers as actors.  Both also adopt the former mentor of a close companion, whose part is played by a veteran of the French cinema (Jean-Louis Trintignant in Rendez-vous and Philippe Noiret in J’embrasse pas).  These two narrative devices are expressive not only of traditional motifs of the coming of age story, but also of the succession of one generation to another and the differences between them.  In this respect one can sense the direct influence of Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Spring (1956) and Tokyo Twilight (1957).  Though not just in how Téchiné handles his juxtaposition of generational morality clashes, but in his employment of ellipses in time.  In terms of narrative duration, J’embrasse Pas demonstrates a more masterful approach to the Ozu aesthetic, particularly with the film’s brief epilogue.  Rendez-vous is more subtle, moving ahead in time out of necessity to perpetuate Nina’s narrative from her grief over Quentin and to the tutelage of Scrutzler.  However, Téchiné would master this approach to narrative time in Wild Reeds, employing a number of ellipses throughout the film.

Narrative structure is not the only similarity between Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas.  Both films make use of similar character types, excluding the archetypal mentor figures.  These types are manifested in each film in very different ways that speak to Téchiné’s approach to both sexual awakening and sexual identity, two themes that define and unify his entire body of work.  First, there is Nina.  Nina begins Rendez-vous as a naive yet flirtatious young woman on the verge of her sexual awakening.  That “awakening” coincides with the deterioration of her naivety when she is seduced by Quentin.  Interestingly, she stays the course, she becomes an actor and follows the guidance of her mentor figure.  Pierre in J’embrasse pas varies slightly.  His sexual awakening occurs in opposition to homosexuals and homosexuality; specifically the homosexuality of his mentor figure Romain.  Pierre does not meet his love interest until forty minutes into the film, and they do not unite as lovers until the film’s final act.  Largely this is due to Téchiné’s revision of how he perceived these character types.  Pierre embodies the traits of both Nina and Quentitn in Rendez-vous.  Thusly, the external conflict of Nina and Quentin becomes Pierre’s internal conflict.  So it is not so much a matter of an outside influence affecting or directing Pierre, but an internal force.  Time and again Pierre will reject one thing only to be spun off into a collision course with something else that he will later reject.

Pierre & Ingrid

Pierre & Ingrid

The supporting characters in each film also undergo a transformation of archetypes as Téchiné progressed from Rendez-vous to J’embrasse pas.  Paulot, by the time he encounters Nina at the conclusion of Rendez-vous, is a bitter man, gone are all of his traditional Romantic inclinations, replaced by a base carnal urge.  In J’embrasse pas, Pierre’s love-interest Ingrid (Emmanuele Beart) undergoes Paulot’s transformation in reverse.  Though first it’s important to note Pierre’s psychological trajectory.  His rejection of Romain is indicative of his rejection of his own homosexuality from which the film gets it’s title, J’embrasse pas (English title: I Don’t Kiss).  Pierre, determining that he is too “stupid”, gives up on acting and becomes a male prostitute who will only masturbate in front of clients for 1,000 francs.  It is as a prostitute that he meets and forms a bond with Ingrid.  At this point Ingrid, also a prostitute, is jaded and cold.  She warms to Pierre after his demonstration of compassion, having intercourse with a man for the first time without money changing hands.  Her awakening, therefore, is a Romantic one.  In contrast, Pierre seeks only to posses Ingrid, just as her pimp does, mistaking ownership for love.  It is this behavior by both parties that prompts Ingrid’s pimp to intervene violently.

These incidents in J’embrasse pas indicate Téchiné’s own perspective of Pierre as a young man without a clear sense of self who strives, via ownership of other people, to come to a sort of “self-definition”.  Nina’s journey to self is the inverse, born out of an acceptance of those around her she slowly grows, existing more symbiotically than parasitical.  In the climax of Rendez-vous Nina sleeps with Paulot, prompting his own re-evaluation of self much in the same way Pierre effected Ingrid, stirring the romantic within.  This self-martyrdom is absent in J’embrasse pas.  After Ingrid’s pimp intervene’s, beating and raping Pierre, Pierre joins the army, like his brother, turning his quest for self into an obsessively cyclical vendetta.

The main theses of both films deals entirely with the relationship one has with the acceptance of one’s self as a means to define that self.  It isn’t mere coincidence that the protagonists of Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas are aspiring actors.  Téchiné uses the profession as an allegory, particularly in Rendez-vous, for the emersion of one’s identity in the identity another chooses for one’s self.  It is this submissive requirement of Western Society that Téchiné is rallying against; it is why Nina outgrows Scrutzler and why Pierre surrenders unto it.  Over time, between 1985 and 1991, Téchiné’s view had clearly grown more pessimistic.

J'embrasse pas (dir. Téchiné, 1991)

By the time Téchiné made Wild Reeds his entire approach to the subject had changed though his main sociopolitical message and its accompanying motive had not.  For unlike Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas, Wild Reeds is an ensemble film where ellipses in time are as common as the narrative’s shift in focus from one character to another.  There is also the very different approach to plot.  Where Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas follow a single character’s emotional and physical journey, Wild Reeds never changes locations and uses the journeys of the films characters as stepping-stones, a cause and effect if you will, from one character to another as one journey begins and another ends.  The visuals are also strikingly different.  The heavily saturated colors of the Paris nightlife are replaced by cool earth-tones, evoking Wild Reeds‘ pastoral location in rural France.  Wild Reeds also uses the camera movements, dramatic pans and tracking shots, to evoke the budding sensuality and sexuality of the film’s characters much like in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1929).  These aesthetic developments evidenced in Wild Reeds show Téchiné as a more mature and calculated filmmaker, able to move beyond the narrative tropes and character types that he had employed for so long.

-Robert Curry

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