Archive for June, 2017

Moment #14: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

25 June 2017

I’ve puzzled about the bicycle sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ever since I first watched it. The bicycles seemed like an anomaly. Maybe it should have been more obvious to me. Anyway I stumbled across the film on television on a recent holiday weekend, which sent me back to the chapter that its screenwriter, William Goldman, wrote about the film in Adventures in the Screen Trade. Suddenly it became clearer.

Butch Cassidy is set in the last days of the Old West, a short period that lasted from the postbellum to the turn of the 19th century. As E.J. Hobsbawm reminds us, it wasn’t particularly violent, either. The film has some of the trappings of a Western, but it is a buddy movie about two men who find themselves out of time, because their skills as bank and train robbers are no longer useful. It is set right at the end of the period.

So Butch Cassidy and Sundance spend the film trying to escape towards the past, first literally, during the long sequence in the middle of the film as they are chased by the Superposse, sent by Pacific Railroad owner E.W.Harriman to track them down and kill them. The second time, metaphorically, as they head for a new life in Bolivia.

The bicycle was a huge American craze in the 1890s, and this is a captured in the film quite early on by a bicycle salesman.

SALESMAN: Soon the eye will see nothing but silk-ribboned bicycle paths stretching to infinity.

The bike becomes a motif of this new world they are running from, first innocently, then more ominously as they leave for Bolivia. 

The moment is not the bicycle scene above, but the way in which the film prefigures its ending. The first time is when the two men are on the run from the Superposse and try to get Bledsoe,  a magistrate they know, to enrol them in the army. He spells out the limited choices they face:

Screenshot 2017-06-09 21.56.23

The second time is a few pages later, when Butch and Sundance decide to go to Bolivia. Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place, agrees to go with them, but on one condition:

ETTA: I’ll go with you, and I won’t whine, and I’ll sew your socks and I’ll stitch you when you’re wounded, and anything you ask of me I’ll do, except for one thing; I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind.

And as they leave the house for good, on the next page, Butch hurls the bicycle outside, shouting:

BUTCH: **The future’s all yours, ya lousy bicycles.**

Script extracts courtesy of Dailyscript.com.

Moment #13: Mr. Holmes (2015)

11 June 2017

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It is always interesting watching films about the very old, not least because there are relatively few of them. Mr Holmes, made in 2015, has Ian McKellen playing the 93-year old detective in post-World War II England. He is long retired to a house on the south coast, looked after by a housekeeper, Mrs Munro, and her son, Roger, wrestling with the details of his last case, some thirty years previously. He is trying to work out why the case, “The Adventure of the Dove Grey Glove”, made him retire.

Through some makeup magic by Dave Elsey, the film tells two parallel stories. The ageing and forgetful Holmes looks after his bees, obsesses with things (like Japanese prickly ash) that might postpone his death, while trying to write his own story of the case of the dove grey glove. In flashback, his 60-something self investigates the case, or perhaps reinterprets it. John Watson’s version of the story makes him appear a hero, but he can’t ask him, for Watson is long dead.

As he tells Roger:

SHERLOCK HOLMES; I’ve decided to write the story down; as it was, not as John made it. Get it right, before I die.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, of course, were stories inside stories, apparently written by Watson, and as with the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock, on the BBC, the film plays off Watson’s invention of the character of Holmes. In Japan, while he is collecting the prickly ash, Mr Umezaki asks him:

MR UMEZAKI: My mother, she wonders if you have brought your famous hat.
HOLMES: Oh, the deer stalker. That was an embellishment of the illustrator. I’ve never worn one.
MR UMEZAKI: And the pipe?
HOLMES: I prefer a cigar. I told Watson, if I ever write a story myself, it will be to correct the million misconceptions created by his imaginative licence.

In similarly recursive mode, the McKellen character goes to see a Sherlock Holmes film in Mr Holmes. It seems to be a film based on the “Dove Grey Glove”, which before you ask is an invention of the novel the film is based on.

The moment. The film is built around a triangle; Holmes, the young Roger, whom he’s taken under his wing, and his mother, the housekeeper, who is worried about what will happen to her and her son when Holmes dies. She’s heard about a position in a hotel in Portsmouth. Her son doesn’t want to go. Unknown to the viewer, she’s been to visit the hotel owner that day. After she returns her son asks Holmes to “do his thing… where he tells people who they are and where they’ve been, just from looking.” The ageing detective demurs, then summons up his powers and does his thing.

HOLMES: I’m sure your mother doesn’t need to be told where she’s been.
MRS MUNRO: Let’s not bother Mr Holmes with any foolishness.
ROGER: It’s not foolishness. Here. You come and stand in front of Mr Holmes. Just like that. And he will tell you where you’ve been. Do it.
[to HOLMES] You want her to turn in a circle?
HOLMES: No, that won’t be necessary.
ROGER (to mother): Turn in a circle.
HOLMES: You’ve been away most of the day. The soot on your dress attests that you went by train to Portsmouth, as all other nearby rail lines which might accommodate a return trip of this length are under repair or beyond it. In Portsmouth, you met the couple who run the hotel. Your hair and nails are evidence that you wished to make a favourable impression. They made you an offer, you accepted. You declined tea, and did not see the sister for whom you have no particular fondness, using my indisposition as an excuse to hurry back.
MRS MUNRO: It wasn’t an excuse.
ROGER: You accepted?
MRS MUNRO: Start a week Monday.
ROGER: Both of us?
MRS MUNRO: We’re both going.
ROGER: She wants me to be a bootblack!

One of the things that scriptwriters are taught is to “make your exposition argument”. But this revelation seems, to me, to be done far more cleverly.

The script extracts are from Springfield! Springfield!

Moment #12: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

4 June 2017

 

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Knowing nothing much about Saving Mr Banks, the film of how Walt Disney persuaded P.L.Travers to make a film of her Mary Poppins novels, I’d expected it to be more sentimental than it was. She had agreed because she was running out of money; book sales had dried up. But she was suspicious of everything that Disney had in mind: the songs, the animation, the casting of Dick van Dyke. (Indeed, she thought she had an agreement that there would be no animation in Mary Poppins).

Saving Mr Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock, is largely set in the two weeks that Travers spends in Los Angeles with the writers and composer team on the studio lot, as Walt Disney cajoles her into allowing the film to be made, but with flashbacks to her difficult childhood in Australia, a childhood largely effaced by her very English public persona. Emma Thompson is outstanding as Travers, the best I have seen her; Tom Hanks is a credible Disney.

The character of Mr Banks, the father in the novels, is partly based on Travers’ own father, an alcoholic who died young; Mary Poppins on her mother’s aunt, who came to look after her and her siblings after his death.

At its heart, this is a film about film-making, maybe never more so when Disney flies to London after Travers, believing that she has been deceived, has suddenly gone home. The scene has one of those speeches that actors die for. Here’s an extract:

WALT DISNEY: Mrs. Travers, trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you. I swear, every time a person walks into a movie house, from Leicester Square to Kansas City, they will see George Banks being saved. They will love him and his kids. They will weep for his cares. They will wring their hands when he loses his job. And when he flies that kite… Oh, Mrs. Travers, they will rejoice. They will sing. In movie houses all over the world, in the eyes and heads of my kids and other kids, and mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Now, maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.

My moment from the film is slightly earlier, when Travers finally lets go in the rehearsal room as the composing team (the Sherman brothers) play ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ to her. At one level, this is a nod to the whole tradition of ‘Let’s do the show right here’ of the MGM musicals of the ’50s, such as The Bandwagon. But it’s also another reminder that film does redemption better than any other medium.

Travers was never reconciled with Hollywood after her experience with Mary Poppins, although it solved her financial crisis. When Cameron Mackintosh approached her in the 1990s about a stage version, she agreed, on condition that only English-born writers be involved—and no-one involved in the making of the film.

The dangers of snap elections

2 June 2017

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Stewart Wood worked with Gordon Brown in late 2007, when as a new Labour party leaders, and therefore a new but unelected Prime Minister, he dithered about calling a General Election, and then decided against. The financial crisis evaporated his poll lead, and he never recovered politically from that.

Wood posted a series of tweets reflecting on that moment through the lens of the difficulties Theresa May is having with her equivalent election, which are worth sharing so they don’t get lost in the Twitter firehose.

Five years on from Brown’s decision not to call with an election, Brown’s spin doctor Damian McBride wrote up the day-by-day inside story (in the Telegraph) of how an apparently inevitable decision to go to the polls became a decision not to.

On the other hand, we all should be grateful that Brown was Prime Minister in 2008; he held his nerve, and used his knowledge of economics and history, to make sure that the British banking system didn’t collapse, and helped stiffen the resolve of the  world’s leaders at the height of the crisis. People forget that we were hours away from a collapse of the banking system.

As Aditya Chakrabortty wrote:

What sticks out about that period is how Brown and Alistair Darling were not only acting without a roadmap, they were driving with Cameron and Osborne right on their bumper telling them to do a U-turn. The diagnosis that British banks were dangerously low on capital was correct – but it was the opposite of what most bankers were saying.

Had Brown called an election, and not won, the thought of Cameron trying to make those decisions is frankly terrifying.

The image at the top of the post shows Brown arriving at No. 10 as new Prime Minister in 2007.