Tag Archives: Tom Mankiewicz

Star Trek, Superman, “coolness,” and truth

Cool.
Cool.

My friend George sent me a link to a really long (but interesting nonetheless) rant about Star Trek Into Darkness the other day.  The author of said rant was not in any way a fan of Damon Lindelof, the Hollywood screenwriter who co-created Lost and contributed to the scripts of both Ridley Scott’s misfired Alien prequel Prometheus and the most recent reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.  To paraphrase, it’s perhaps enough to say that the author’s main gripe with Lindelof is that his writing forgoes logic, rules and consistent characterization in favor of “gee whiz,” “cool” and giggling at boobies instead.  Even as someone who enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness for what it was, I found it hard to dispute this point.  One of the biggest of my own gripes about it was the ending, cribbed almost note for note from the superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to the point where it came off as something like a cinematic exercise in karaoke.  Movies in this genre nowadays rarely, if ever, make you feel anything.  And the reason, plainly, is that they are being made by a generation of filmmakers who have not felt, but rather have experienced life only by watching other movies.

I don’t know Damon Lindelof and I can’t pretend to know what he’s gone through in his life.  Certainly his drive and his skill at achieving the career he has is to be admired and envied.  But he seems to be one of a breed of young writers and directors from the mold of Quentin Tarantino, who spent their formative years working in video stores, absorbing thousands upon thousands of famous and obscure movies into malleable brains, uploading raw data Matrix-style to that place where the memories of life would normally be stored.  The work they produce now as the chief drivers of the Hollywood machine is endless pastiche; pieces of other works recombined and reimagined for modern consumption.  I had a discussion with my uncle recently about the decline in quality of movie scripts and I told him it’s because foreign markets make up the majority of a movie’s profit potential, and vehicles driven by visual effects and explosions and “cool!” will do better overseas than more literate works filled with idioms and ideas and cultural mores that don’t translate into Mandarin or Hindi.  Studio executives hire filmmakers who can deliver dollars, not philosophy.  (If they can do both at the same time, fine, that usually means Oscars, but the former is always preferable).  This is where folks like Damon Lindelof find their wheelhouse.  (In fairness to him, Star Trek Into Darkness was co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, and certainly director J.J. Abrams had major story input as well).  They can deliver the popcorn with consistency and efficiency.  But that’s all.

There is a semi-famous story (to Trekkers, anyhow) around the writing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  When Nicholas Meyer was hired as its director, he was told there were at least five different scripts for it floating around, none of which were suitable to shoot.  Meyer suggested a meeting whereby the creative team made a note of everything they liked from any of the drafts – a character, a scene, even something as minor as a line of dialogue.  Meyer took these notes away and wrote a draft of what would become the movie we saw in only twelve days, forsaking a writing credit simply to get the movie in shape to shoot.  In any other hands such a cut-and-paste job might have resulted in a hackneyed, disjointed mess, but Meyer’s literary background enabled him to infuse a theatrical quality into what was otherwise a straightforward story of revenge and sacrifice.  What was most remarkable about the screenplay was that it dared to present its hero as old, tired and washed-up – traits actors loathe playing because they think the audience will project them onto their real-life selves.  Meyer was young when he wrote the screenplay, but as a struggling artist he could empathize with those things.  Hotshot screenwriters who’ve bounced effortlessly from pre-sold blockbuster to pre-sold blockbuster as the new Star Trek team have done are incapable of this.  They don’t know what it’s like to fail, to come up against your own limitations and find yourself wanting.  They simply can’t dramatize what they have never felt.  And so they reach toward the only place they’ve ever found traces of those feelings – other, better movies.

When I picture Nicholas Meyer writing Star Trek II, I see an angsty face hunched over a typewriter, sucking down his twentieth cigarette, plumbing the depths of his soul as he agonizes over le mot juste, fighting to find the emotional truth of the story.  When I picture the story break sessions for Star Trek Into Darkness, I see a room full of young guys in baseball caps scarfing down pizza and Red Bull and trying to one-up each other with statements like “You know what would be totally awesome?  A shot of the Enterprise rising out of the ocean.”  “How about they come across this ship which is twice their size and totally painted black?”  “COOL!”  “Hey, guys, check this out.  What if the bad guy… is Khan?  And the end is exactly like Wrath of Khan only we switch Kirk and Spock’s places?”  “Yeah!  I love it!”  “It’s pretty good, but we need some hot alien chicks with tails.  And more Beastie Boys songs, that went over so well last time.”

I had the same problem with Superman Returns, which I watched again recently, and I chalk it up once more to a screenplay written by capable but very young scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (they have cameos in the movie as high school students) who were great at dreaming up “Cool!” trailer-worthy moments like a bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye but not so skilled at crafting emotions or believable characters.  Superman is a difficult character to write even if you’re a seasoned pro, but the main reason that movie didn’t connect with audiences was because Superman really has no story in it.  He’s just… there, as lifeless as the dated-looking CGI used to render him in some of the flying scenes.  He talks about having been gone for a while but doesn’t seem to have been changed by his experience, or have any compelling reason to have come back (apart from using his powers to stalk Lois Lane in several unnerving sequences).  The movie is more interested in the “whiz-bang” spectacle of Lex Luthor’s overly complicated plot to create a new continent in the Atlantic Ocean using stolen Kryptonian crystals and kryptonite, which in the end Superman just ignores as he lifts the entire landmass into outer space (a point not lost on my young son who remarked “isn’t kryptonite supposed to make him weak?”)  And for a movie that directly raises the question of whether or not the world needs Superman, it never gets around to debating this point in a satisfactory way.  Compare the wafer-thin Superman Returns to the profundity in the Richard Donner original that it is paying homage to, and it comes up extremely short – because the young writers of the former simply don’t have the chops of the great veteran Tom Mankiewicz (whom they crib lines from in the movie’s only memorable scenes, just as Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman quoted Meyer’s famous dialogue verbatim in Star Trek Into Darkness).  Instead, we get dumb gags about dogs eating each other.

Someone once decimated Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace by pointing out that the plot was a series of scenes of characters going from meeting to meeting to meeting, a reflection of the life of George Lucas at the time.  I’m all for encouraging young screenwriters to get their shot at the big time, but as a lover of stories that matter I prefer the visceral resonance you’ll see in works by writers who’ve lived long enough to have had their asses kicked around the block a few times.  If you’ve never been the underdog, you can’t know what it’s like to be looking up at the mountain and be paralyzed with the fear of taking the first step.  In the absence of those memories you reach for what others have done in older, better movies, and cough up pale copies that rely on flash and swagger to cover the absence of substance.  “Yeah, it doesn’t matter that none of these characters say or do anything memorable or touching, ’cause… cool badass aliens with frickin’ laser beams!  Like in that other movie that people enjoyed!”  The abiding irony in all of this is that as it concerns Star Trek, some of the most memorable dialogue in The Wrath of Khan was itself lifted from other sources, namely Moby Dick et al.  But in that movie, it didn’t feel so obviously recycled, because Meyer’s informed writing and directing (and terrific performances, by the by) sold the emotional truth of each word.

I’m not saying there should be some rule that you can’t write a movie unless you’re at least 40, have been divorced once and be suffering a deep psychological resentment of your parents for taking your favorite blankie away when you were four.  I’m saying that some of these young guys pulling in six and seven figures for rewrite jobs should perhaps look away from a screen once in a while, get out and live a bit of their lives.  Read some classic literature.  Rediscover what it means to feel something that isn’t necessarily just the high of sleeping with models after a gala premiere.  Worry less about what’s cool and more about what connects.  Recognize that what touches us about movies and stays with us long after we’ve left the theater isn’t the awesome shot of the ship tumbling end over end into the atmosphere, it’s the quiet dignity of man in his darkest hour and the deep bonds we forge to fight against our intrinsic loneliness.  It’s the humanity.  And if you can’t feel that in your own life, you’ll never successfully translate it to the page, let alone to the screen.

Skyfall Countdown Day 16: Live and Let Die

“Do not raise your eyebrow… do not raise your eyebrow…”

At the close of the 1960’s, as the bloated big budget studio production of the past gave way to the grittier, more hard-edged and personal films of the 1970’s, gone was the glamour and fakery of the soundstage in favour of the grime of impoverished city streets, with small-scale stories that keyed in on the struggles of everyday life.  The escapist fare that was the James Bond series had to find a way to survive in this new era as well, and with the permanent departure of Sean Connery, they had, in essence, carte blanche to start over.  One cinematic trend that intrigued returning screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz was the rise of the blaxploitation film, with movies like Shaft, Super Fly, Blacula and Across 110th Street proving the box office potential of this genre.  Coincidentally, Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die, had been set in Harlem and featured a black villain.  Mankiewicz decided to contemporize Fleming’s somewhat dated tale by changing the bad guy’s M.O. from smuggling pirate’s treasure to distributing heroin, and, in keeping with Bond’s penchant for a wide array of exotic locations, expanded the scope of the story beyond Harlem to include a jazz funeral on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, a high-speed boat chase through the Louisiana bayou and a final showdown on a fictional Caribbean island.

After three British agents are killed within 24 hours of each other, Bond is sent in to investigate whether there is a connection linking the deaths.  Following a blundering escapade in Harlem and a timely escape from the thugs of local gangster “Mr. Big,” Bond travels to the island of San Monique, where he discovers that its Prime Minister, Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto of Across 110th Street) is concealing vast fields of poppies to produce mass quantities of heroin.  Looking into the final death in New Orleans, Bond discovers the key to the entire mystery:  Dr. Kananga and Mr. Big are one and the same, and Kananga intends to conquer the world in a much different way than good old Blofeld – he wants to corner the American heroin market by giving away two tons of it for free, through the soul food restaurants in the United States owned by his “Mr. Big” persona.

After some questionable casting suggestions that included Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and even Batman‘s Adam West, Albert R. Broccoli put his foot down and insisted that Bond be played by an Englishman.  Roger Moore had made a name for himself on television as The Saint, and was keen to both distance himself from that image and distinguish his portrayal of Bond from that of Sean Connery (he once cracked that he had to learn how to say “My name is Bond, James Bond” instead of “My name ish Bond, Jamesh Bond.”)  Screenwriter Mankiewicz was also acutely aware that even though the movie would be showcasing black actors, the majority of them would be playing villains who would ultimately meet their ends at the hands of a white guy.  With that in mind he decided to craft scenes that would see Bond for the first time totally out of his element, bested frequently by his adversaries’ ingenuity and outclassed by their coolness.  That approach would not have worked with Connery – his Bond was always in command wherever he went – but Moore’s ability to survive sticky situations with his wits instead of his fists lent itself perfectly to this artistic choice.  Consequently, Live and Let Die becomes mainly a social conflict between the hero and the villain, with the favours of the beautiful leading lady the linchpin of their showdown.

That leading lady, a then-22-year-old Jane Seymour as Solitaire, is arguably the most unique Bond girl of the entire series, for two reasons:  she’s a virgin (at first), and she possesses supernatural powers.  Solitaire can see the future with her tarot deck, and her abilities help keep Kananga one step ahead of his enemies, Bond included.  However, it seems that even Solitaire must submit to the will of her cards, and when they foretell that she and Bond will become lovers, her visions vanish forever between the sheets.  (Interestingly her period of mourning for her lost powers is extremely brief, as Solitaire comes to enjoy sex with Bond, and Seymour characterizes this subtly by adding a degree of maturity to her delivery of her lines once the forbidden fruit has been sampled.)  Seymour is utterly ravishing in this part, whether in glamour make-up in high priestess mode, or in more casual clothes with her goddess’ mane of hair flowing out around her.  And it’s refreshing to see a Bond girl role that has its own complete character arc – even if that arc does lead to more familiar damsel-in-distress territory towards the end of the film.  Considering the majority of the Bond girls that follow are either fellow spies or other forms of government agent (inevitably referred to by hack entertainment journalists as “Bond’s equal”) Solitaire remains memorable – just because she is so wholly different, and because such a departure from the Bond girl norm has, somewhat regrettably, never been even tried since.

Sean Connery was a bruiser, and Roger Moore is incredibly not, so the action set pieces lean more towards extrication by gadget and/or sheer inventiveness rather than bare knuckles. (It would not have been unexpected, had Connery starred in this film, to see him jump into the crocodile pool to wrestle each one in turn, rather than leap across their backs to safety as Moore’s Bond does.)  Moore is the “gentleman spy,” who is more apt to disarm his enemies with a cutting remark or a handy wristwatch magnet rather than a headlock or a knee to the stomach.  But it works here, mainly because Moore is still young, and the style is trying to adhere in the realism of the 1970’s while keeping one foot in the 60’s Bond largesse that had proven so popular.  The major misstep is the inclusion, in the massive boat chase that occupies the latter half of the second act, of the hapless redneck Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) who finds himself flummoxed over and over again by Bond’s antics.  It was an ill omen to include this kind of observer character, and he and his ilk would reappear frequently (as I will describe with great chagrin in later posts) as the series wore on.

One area where Live and Let Die knocks it out of the park, however, is in its music.  There’s an interesting story, and perhaps a testament to the eclectic nature of producer Harry Saltzman’s tastes, that when he first heard Paul McCartney & Wings’ rocking theme song, he thought it was a good demo but that Thelma Houston should sing the final version.  Luckily Saltzman lost that battle – and any Bond fan should put hearing McCartney do this song live on their bucket list.  (B.J. Arnau provides a rendition of the theme midway through the film that is perhaps more towards Saltzman’s liking.)  McCartney’s long time Beatles producer George Martin takes over for John Barry and supplies a funky accompaniment to the proceedings that incorporates jazz, Dixieland, Caribbean rhythms and of course the iconic Bond theme into a fusion that is both signature 70’s and unmistakably James Bond.

Live and Let Die is not highly regarded by critics, who are both predisposed to prefer Sean Connery over Roger Moore, and unhappy with the movie’s racial undertones.  True, despite Mankiewicz’s intention to make the black villains formidable characters, they do all receive cartoonish sendoffs, the worst fate saved for Kotto’s Dr. Kananga, who explodes after being inflated into a balloon by a shark gun.  And the scene of the very white Moore pointing a gun directly into the face of a black woman (Rosie Carver, played by Gloria Hendry) after just having had sex with her is uncomfortable no matter what era you’re watching the movie in.  For long time Bond aficionados, it’s a bit strange watching 007 wander through burned-out urban ghettos after seeing him stroll through Ken Adam’s fantastic sets in the previous films.  But there remains a style and verve here, helped along greatly by Martin’s music, Moore’s breezy introductory performance and the stunning Seymour, that leads you to forgive a great number of its sins, and just enjoy it for what it is – a tribute to the trends of its time, and a unique page in the history of James Bond.

Tomorrow:  For Roger Moore, things get worse before they get better.

Skyfall Countdown Day 17: Diamonds are Forever

“Don’t move, or I’ll decapitate you with this dead raccoon on my head.”

Or, the movie that almost starred Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico.  After George Lazenby quit or was fired, depending on who you believe, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman settled on American actor/future diplomat John Gavin, whose most noteworthy part had been as Vera Miles’ boyfriend in Psycho, to become the third big screen James Bond.  United Artists’ studio president at the time David Picker greeted this news with what one would presume was the diplomatic equivalent of a WTF??? and insisted to the contrary that no expense be spared to get Sean Connery back onboard.  And no expense was spared – Connery was offered a record-setting 1.25 million pounds, plus a deal to develop two additional non-Bond movies at UA, one of which he could direct, and one day off per week during shooting where he would be flown by helicopter to a golf course of his choosing (Gavin was paid off and made a discreet exit before a frame of film was shot).  Eager to use the money to seed his Scottish International Education Trust, Connery agreed to one last go as his signature character, a movie that would not only step far away from the direction of the previous six films but provide a springboard to the Roger Moore era that was to follow.

From the very beginning, the intent on the part of the producers was to leave the more serious Lazenby Bond behind and return to the spirit of the far more popular Goldfinger (in fact, one uninspired idea in early development involved casting Gert Frobe again as Goldfinger’s twin brother back for revenge).  Instead, 28-year-old American screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz was hired to craft a snappy, wisecracking screenplay that again jettisoned most of the Ian Fleming story to incorporate a dream that Broccoli had about his friend Howard Hughes, where he went to see Hughes but was surprised to discover it was an impostor.  At the time, Hughes was deep in his exile from the world at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, and the concept of a billionaire recluse who has been missing so long no one notices when he’s kidnapped – in this case, by Ernst Stavro Blofeld – inspired the character of Willard Whyte (country singer and future sausage magnate Jimmy Dean).  Posing as Whyte, Blofeld (now a refined English version of the character played by Charles Gray) uses Whyte’s vast organization to smuggle diamonds from South Africa so he can create a satellite laser weapon that he will use to decimate the nuclear arsenal of every country that does not pay his ransom.  Following the smugglers’ pipeline to the casinos of Las Vegas, Bond encounters the weirdest assortment of characters he’s yet come across – cranky comedian Shady Tree (Leonard Barr), obsequious funeral director Morton Slumber (David Bauer) and the notorious pair of killers with a fondness for holding hands, Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover, father of Crispin, proving that weird runs in that family) and Mr. Kidd (jazz musician Putter Smith, who looks a bit like a friendly walrus).  Feminine companionship is offered in the form of the busty Plenty O’Toole (Lana Wood) and the sassy and wanton Tiffany Case (Jill St. John).

Gone from the script are any notions of the exploration of Bond’s deeper emotional state, replaced with enough bon mots for ten films.  Mankiewicz and Broccoli clashed frequently over Mankiewicz’s penchant for obscure references; when Bond quips “Alimentary, Dr. Leiter,” letting Felix know he’s shoved a load of smuggled diamonds up a corpse’s rear end, Broccoli was unconvinced that anyone would get the joke.  (In a test screening, two people in the front row burst out laughing, and Broccoli shrugged that it was probably a couple of doctors.)  Broccoli also did not like Blofeld’s quoting of French philosopher La Rochefoucauld, and only because director Guy Hamilton deliberately shot the scene in a manner that made the line impossible to cut out did it remain.  With the lighter, wittier tone, Sean Connery seems liberated to just be himself this time around, bad toupee and 70’s suits and all, enjoying getting to act a bit silly and with the confidence that this is his definitive swan song.  Jill St. John bounces back and forth a bit unevenly between femme fatale and outright ditz, but for once the Bond girl seems resigned, even happily so, to the idea that she and 007 will not be forever.  And Charles Gray is a strange choice for a bad guy.  The actor who you’ve heard a million times on the radio announcing “It’s just a jump to the left” in “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror Picture Show has elegant diction, particularly when required to wax philosophical, but he’s not very intimidating, coming off more like “Noel Coward, Supervillain” – and any hint of menace vanishes completely when he’s seen dressing in drag to escape the Whyte House towards the end of the film.  We’re also not quite sure what happens to him; it’s suggested that he is killed when Bond uses his escape sub as a battering ram, but we never get to witness a true comeuppance – perhaps because he’s so charming and inoffensive he doesn’t really deserve one.

John Barry’s swinging score balances the glamour and kitsch of Las Vegas perfectly, and Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (who admittedly will never win any awards from GLAAD in how they are depicted) become the first henchmen in the series to receive their own theme music.  Shirley Bassey returns to provide her usual gusto to the memorable title song.  Ken Adam creates some striking designs for Willard Whyte’s penthouse apartment and underground research facility, and a glitzy hotel room featuring an unusual transparent bed full of fish for Bond and Tiffany to cavort upon (the only time in the series female fans get a glimpse of Big Tam’s tush).

Diamonds are Forever is a sugary concoction served with every bit of excess one can expect from a caper picture set in Sin City – all that’s missing is Frank and the Rat Pack (originally Sammy Davis Jr. appeared in an awkward cameo that wound up on the cutting room floor).  It’s as if Broccoli and Saltzman told everyone on the creative team this time to forget about adherence to realism and let their imaginations run wild, because after all, everyone knows the old line about what happens in Vegas.  The result is a movie that never takes itself seriously, to the point where the tone totally undermines the stakes – but everyone is having such a good time you don’t really care.  Most of the acting is poor (excepting Connery and Gray), a few of the action scenes are sloppily executed (including the two-wheeled car chase that inexplicably switches wheels halfway through an alley) and the visual effects could desperately use a CGI makeover.  But the sheer fun of it all outweighs any nitpicking, especially when Connery is commanding the screen again.  The warm reception that greeted this light-hearted adventure following the downbeat On Her Majesty’s Secret Service assured that even in Connery’s absence, the future of James Bond lay on a much airier path.

Tomorrow:  Enter Roger Moore with a nod to Shaft.