Saturday, April 28, 2012

SPRING FLINGS AT BUDDIES and the reason I won't write your film for you for free

Like many people in creative or entrepreneurial businesses, I often work on spec.  I write grant proposals that may or may not get funded and plays that, when produced, may or may not make enough money to pay the bills I've run up mounting them.  I have written and rewritten feature scripts that may never get made. I have had producers sit across from me at $100 lunches and ask me if they could pay me a dollar for a script I'd worked on for over a year.  A portion of my current income is tithed to retiring tour debt to people who loaned me money or worked for me on spec who I owe big time not just for their talent and money but for their faith and support. I do plenty of writing, including this blog, for free.  All the artists I know do contra deals, that is work trades.  I just traded modelling to a photographer friend in exchange for pictures.

This week, a person who is not an artist, approached me and asked me to co-write a feature film script from an idea he has, based on a family member's self-published memoir.  He was convinced it would take me little time and effort to turn the book his family member's writing into a coherent and exciting film script someone will want to spend millions of dollars making. We'll share the writing credit because of course, it is his brilliant idea. I will of course write this thing, with him, while teaching him to write screenplays. Of course I'll be willing, no excited, to do this for free.

I get one of these offers at least once a year. Sometimes the person has a notebook of hand-written ideas, sometimes a vanity book, sometimes just "a great idea" they want me to write while they tell it to me. Not one of these people has ever, once, offered to pay me.

Nor I am never offered a work trade by these people.  The well-paid professionals who ask me to do this wouldn't dream of giving me thousands of dollars worth of their services for free but have no compunctions about asking me to give them thousands of dollars worth of my services and many hours of my time, for free.

I am currently working on an interdisciplinary theatre/dance piece that requires I read about ten thousand pages of research.  It needs to be some kind of a script by December, a script for which I will be paid in due course. The grant application I am currently writing in support of this project has easily taken 40-60 hours of work.

I also have a 2/3 day job I really enjoy. I have family and friends who need time and attention.  I like to get to a yoga class on occasion. I need to see plays and films to stay current on work by my peers and to have something to write about here.  My garden needs some serious weeding and I owe my mom and my aunt a call.  I am my own cook and my own cleaning lady. I am woefully behind with my knitting. The kitchen needs painting and so does my bedroom. I constantly pitch scripts of my own and go for auditions. Prepping for those meetings takes time and effort.

I have plenty of ideas of my own for my next few plays, I have a couple of feature ideas, there's a television series pitch I'm knocking around with a few friends and then there's the play I want to rewrite and the feature I've already written that I've decided really needs to be a book.

In short, I'm plenty busy and I haven't run out of ideas.

I  always tell these wanna-be movie honchos the same thing:  "I can't write your script.  It's your story and you have to tell it." I then offer to give them private writing tutorials for pay, or story notes once they've written the thing themselves, also for pay. I tell them I  am not reading the book or their notes. I tell them I expect them to start by telling me, on one computer-printed page, not in a scribbler full of hand-written notes, what the story is about in one sentence, who the protagonist is and what happens at the start, what happens in the middle and what happens at the end.  When they realize I'm not dying to write their movie for free and that they have hard work and hard thinking ahead of them, as well as an outlay of cash if they want me to help them, they go away.

Sorry this is my blog entry for this week. As soon as that grant app is done, and I am over a wicked head cold, I plan to go see Pamela Sinha's CRASH at the FACTORY BACKSPACE.  If you're free and in Toronto this weekend, I suggest checking out DANCING QUEEN  and Paul Hutcheson's SPRING FLING  cabaret both on tonight at Buddies in Bad Times. Paul and his cohort are wickedly funny and very naughty. DORA-award winning actor Ryan Kelly stars in DANCING QUEEN, the Sky Gilbert-Keith Cole collaboration that is a musical about a gay love triangle.  Their press has been mixed, but neither Cole not Gilbert strive to be everyone's cup of tea. If you're in Winnipeg, EDEN by Hope McIntyre opened this week and the CAROL SHIELDS Festival is on at PTE.  Have fun for those of us who are trying to raise money and avoid spreading contagion in our wake.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Real World of Michel Trembley and the delights of the House of Elliot

I saw THE REAL WORLD in preview at the Tarragon Theatre Sunday night. Twenty-five years after its premiere in English, Michel Tremblay's play remains a powerful and deeply affecting exploration of the intersections between life and art and an excruciating window into the life of his family.

When you turn your life into art can you ever be fair to the people you are writing about?  Who decides what was real, and who is telling the truth about events long past?  Whose memory do you trust: your own, or the memories of the people you loved ,or despised?  Can we ever let go of the residual pain of childhood abuse or neglect?  How do you write silence? What does silence allow:  good and bad, in life and in art?

As is often the case with Tremblay, the play is also an excoriating exploration of straight white male privilege, the abuses that so frequently attend it, and the affect of those abuses, physical, sexual, and emotional on the lives of the people who are dependent on those men. Few have ever better depicted domestic hell than Tremblay. I walked out of that theatre last night shaking with rage, remembering men I grew up it who were that dad.

I've always felt Tremblay and Tennessee Williams wrote most realistically and truthfully about the lives of women. The young friend I was with said; "He's a feminist writer."  Hell, yeah!

Tremblay asks tough questions and offers no easy answers.

As the show is in previews, I'm not going to review the mostly fine cast here.  I can say I really enjoyed last night's preview and I will tell you that if you decide to go, you are in for a fine, if challenging night at the theatre.

For the rest of the week, I've been ensconced at home, enjoying the adventures of the Elliot sisters as they struggle to become self-sufficient proprietors of a fashion house in London between the wars. THE HOUSE OF ELLIOT is a 12- part mini-series from the BBC from a few years back.  It has all the usual features of the BBC's best work: characters that hook you in, a fine cast, good writing, directing that doesn't get in the way and fabulous art direction.  Deco design, blue-stockings, a good history lesson about life in London during that period, and a coterie of love interests of the chiseled jaw, dark haired, blue-eyed, worldly, witty, devil-may-care romantic type I have always found tough to resist have made me look forward to coming home from work this week. If you love this sort of thing as much as I do, put on your silk dressing gown, make yourself a cocktail, and settle in for a trip back to the Jazz Age. As guilty pleasures go, this is pure, harmless fun. That good video store near you will certainly be able to get it for you.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Complex Bereavements: The Descendants

I am in middle-age and people are dying around me at a rather alarming rate.  I've reached the stage in life where I'm invited to more funerals than weddings.  At least once a month, someone I know loses a parent. It's the circle of life.

Losing a spouse in middle age is another story and it has happened to a few people I know through death as well as those awful, mid-life crisis divorces.  We expect to lose our parents around now, not our partners. The shock and grief can feel catastrophic.

This is the situation George Clooney's character Matt King finds himself thrown into in Alexander Payne's fine film, "The Descendants".

King's wife Elizabeth is one of those spoiled Daddy's girls you meet in clubhouses around the world.  Forty-five going on fifteen, she's a life-time addict to that preferred cocktail of certain members of the privileged classes: a mix of booze, money, too much free time, ennui and its attendant addiction to cheap thrills and attention-seeking behaviour.  The combination has finally led to the inevitable disaster:  a water-skiing accident that has put her in a coma. 

Clooney plays a kind of person I see often in life, though seldom in a film: the man whose sense of self is defined by holding it together while everyone around him is falling apart.  Sadly, this containment is usually achieved at the expense of holding his own emotions and the emotions of everyone dear to him at a considerable remove. When all else fails, he goes jogging or gets on a plane.

Payne, who has written, among other scripts, "Sideways" has made a wonderfully nuanced film about a middle-aged man bruised by love's caprices and suddenly subsumed by emotions he's long held at bay with work, work-outs and duty.

The scion of a family of wealthy, hereditary landowners, the appropriately named Matt King is the only member of  his large, upper-crust clan who is not a ne'er do well subsisting on the remnants of unearned privilege and squandered trust funds.  Instead, he has a real estate law practice and manages what's left of the family land in Hawaii.

His reasons are sound:  someone has to go to work and someone has to be able to think straight but his family's emotional needs have been badly neglected.  He's so out of touch with what's going on in his own home he hasn't noticed his wife is having an affair.  It falls to Alexandra, his teen-aged daughter to tell him.

Every woman in King's life is having a melt-down:  his eleven-year old Scottie is throwing lawn chairs into the pool, his spoiled wife is in love with a ponce of a real-estate agent and his eldest daughter is drinking hard and sleeping with stoners.

Shailene Woodly as Alexandra gives a terrific performance as a bottle-rocket of rage, grief and neglect. Her mother has been too busy drinking and screwing around at the clubhouse to pay her much attention and her dad is always at the office.  She's been shipped off to boarding school but nothing is going to keep her away from the kind of flamboyant trouble kids get into when they're starved for attention and only get it by being self-destructive.

The accident with its ensuing revelations about what has actually been going on with his family has finally turned the emotional tables on King.  For the first time in his life, he finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to figure out what is going on inside the head of his suddenly unavailable partner.  He's the centre of a hurricane of his own overwhelming feelings and he's at a dead loss.

In the end, King realizes what he must do in order to attend to all he has been entrusted with. He must truly give of himself:  to live a life aligned with his real values, offer his protection not to the cabal of leeches in his extended family but to the land that has made them all wealthy and to his daughters who need his love, his affection, his time, his true feelings and his open and unguarded presence.

This is a film well worth watching.  If you missed it in theatres this past winter, rent it at a video store near you.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tainted Love and Painters' Muses at the local video store near you

I am currently living in a house with a giant television set and not much else.  I decided not to hook up to cable and instead, to rent movies until a good part of that giant list of "films I'd been meaning to get around to seeing but hadn't"  was worked down.  I figure it will take most of the summer.  An 11: 00 PM late show and a glass of wine is a great way to end the day.

Yes, I know about NetFlicks and yes, it would be cheaper to download.  Polyester is easier to look after than silk, you can have a starter marriage and trade up in five years, the furniture at the Brick would be cheaper than shipping the stuff I have in storage, driving is faster and more expedient than a bike and President's Choice has all kinds of bag salad and frozen entrees that are fine in a pinch.  However I am committed to small, local video stores the way I'm committed to local booksellers, small, private retail, home cooking, rickety antique furniture, bicycling or walking instead of driving, disintegrating vintage clothing of natural fibres and true, lasting, faithful, mutually committed love, the kind that never dies: built on trust, respect, shared interests, value, goals, affections, passion and a proper courtship.  I am committed in a hopeless romantic, impractical, quality of life, Holy Grail kind of way. Sometimes the thing that is a a little hard to find or have is the one worth having. I am not a "settling" kind of girl.

The video store in my neighbourhood is a Rogers outlet.  Very clean, very large, lots of snacks and recent films, nice young staff and hardly any back catalog of old films.  It's fine for the recent Oscar nominees you missed, but its the rental equivalent of that guy your well-meaning friend from university sets you up with:  beige pants, a job, a car, a degree and nothing to talk about.

This week, in a compare and contrast consumer move, I headed back down to my old 'hood and into Queen Video. They have at least two locations:  one near Bloor and Bathurst and one near Queen and Spadina. The store is small.  They don't sell food.  The directors they carry are listed on the window.  The inside is painted black:  like a theatre.  It's the video equivalent of the guy who will never be rich and never be boring. Toronto has a few good, private video rental outlets. In Winnipeg, there was a great place called Village Video which I understand is going to be demolished for a bigger Shoppers' Drug Mart. It's too bad.

The 7 day rental rate for three films at Queen Video is $4.00 less than the 7 day rental rate for three films at Rogers, but that is not the main reason to shop there. Queen Video gave me a membership back when I first moved to Toronto 25 years ago.  A new university grad, I had no bank credit card, which many places required back then to rent a movie.  Not Queen Video:  I lived around the corner in the apartment over the bank at Queen and Spadina and that was good enough for them.

Queen Video has nearly everything somewhere and a staff that knows where to find it. There's a woman working at Bloor and Bathurst who has been there since I was living on Spadina all those years ago.  I think she has a PhD in film from the U of T.  Films based on books by Proust:  "we'll dig them up." That obscure South Asian film that won at Cannes a few years back:  "yes of course."

This week, I finally got around to seeing "Love is the Devil",  a BBC production from 1997 featuring Derek Jacobi as the famous English  painter Francis Bacon and a young Daniel Craig as Bacon's much younger, booze-addled, drug-addicted, petty criminal lover George Dyer. The film manages to convey Bacon's own disturbing yet beautiful visual aesthetic as an overriding cinematic motif while showing a truly awful relationship between two men who love and abuse each other both in and out of the bedroom. Bacon is portrayed here as a sub in the bedroom who publicly tortures and humiliates his Dom, a younger man of lower social status and far less education who is financially and emotionally dependent on him. As Dyer, Craig manages to leak emotional damage from every pore. The performance is a brilliant evocation of a man in so much pain it hurts to watch him.

The other film I saw this week was equally disturbing but for entirely different reasons.  Rogers had "Midnight In Paris", Woody Allan's latest offering, which was highly praised for its romantic view of Paris in the 1920s and the salon of painters and writers resident there in the period.  Allan's evocation of the past was truly charming.  On the other hand, he's filming in Paris, a city that is beautiful at nearly every turn. The costumes and sets were lovely and he has a great cast in a series of cameos of famous artists and writers. Really who wouldn't want to go for drinks at Gertrude Stein's ( Kathy Bates as the only woman of any intellectual substance in the entire film other than a museum guide at Versailles) or with Fitzgerald or Hemingway?

As is so often the case with Allan, the couple at the centre of the story is comprised of  two people who  are equally distasteful characters and so poorly matched that anyplace other than a Woody Allan movie they would never have gotten past a second date.

We are supposed to believe the solipsistic and neurotic screenwriter has fallen in love with a bubbly and bubble-headed bourgeois girl who lives to shop. The dialogue between them is mostly so stilted and brittle I scarcely believed they ever got into the sack never mind into an engagement. No one over the age of 12 could lack the insight required to see these two are equally awful and woefully ill-suited.

The frustrated novelist wanders the streets of Paris late at night until he meets and falls in love with an imaginary Frenchwoman, the muse (and mistress) to a few painters. It is a great credit to Cotillard that she makes a meal of an insubstantial character.

Even the considerable charms of Owen Wilson couldn't sell me on the putz at the core of this story.  When he steals his fiance's jewellery to give it to another woman I wanted him to get the great romance of a night in a Paris prison.  I'm sure a French judge could have explained why it's wrong on every level to steal your girlfriend's jewellery to give to your mistress.

Allegedly MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is a film about the folly of nostalgia, of wanting to live in the past. Allan's last few outings have made me wonder what world he's living in. Woody Allan is now old:  very, very old and his views of women are so mired in some kind of 1950's misogyny, I now find it impossible to swallow my distaste when I watch them.

Then there's the rich middle-aged guy thinking he prostituted his art without any real look at what choosing art for a living means for most of us who do. Hemingway and Modigliani were starving in Paris during the period Allan depicts here.  They were in cafes because those Montmartre garrets were unheated. I wanted Hemingway to talk about what his decision to write cost him, what he gave up to earn his career that eventually became lucrative. At that point, Porter, Stein and Fitzgerald would have been buying him dinner.

Rent it for the scenery and the subplot but don't expect a great film or any great insights into male-female relationships, the economics of choosing art for a living or human nature.

Next up for me  is TIME REGAINED, a film of the last volume of Proust's famous novel "In Search of Lost Time".  I'll see Paris again and this time through the eyes of the French, which I am truly looking forward to.  I will also check out one of the shows currently on offer at CanStage on Monday.

Happy Easter or Passover,  gentle readers.  I'll speak with you again next week.