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March 2009
Arthur Penn: Interviews Online
by Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin (Editors)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

From the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 to that of Four Friends in 1981, director Arthur Penn spoke to contemporary America’s contradictions and obsessions as profoundly as any other filmmaker. He was John Ford stripped of sentiment, a brilliant and unblinking chronicler of his times whose vision of the 1960s and that decade’s legacy deepened and evolved throughout the era that followed. 
The Art of Storytelling for Dramatic Screenplays Online
by Jack W. McAdam
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Jack W. McAdam’s The Art of Storytelling for Dramatic Screenplays is a screenwriting manual with a unique but sound approach — teaching screenwriting by presenting a script in its entirety and making notations throughout to comment upon what the writer did and why. 
Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master Online
by Michael Sragow
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Michael Sragow has been a dependable critic for decades at publications including The New Yorker, The Baltimore Sun and Rolling Stone, and he is also the editor of the superb anthology Produced and Abandoned, a book dedicated to unearthing overlooked films. The common thread that runs throughout his work as both writer and editor is an impulse to sing the praises of the underrated through passionate but judicious argument — a mission on full display in his new biography, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master

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Arthur Penn: Interviews
by Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin (Editors)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

From the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 to that of Four Friends in 1981, director Arthur Penn spoke to contemporary America’s contradictions and obsessions as profoundly as any other filmmaker. He was John Ford stripped of sentiment, a brilliant and unblinking chronicler of his times whose vision of the 1960s and that decade’s legacy deepened and evolved throughout the era that followed.

The vibrant energy tempered by pessimism in Bonnie and Clyde gave way to the affectionate counterculture politics of Alice’s Restaurant (1969), which in turn led to the sweeping allegory of Little Big Man (1970). Like Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man was a period piece really about the time in which it was made: its epic tale of America’s subjugation of the Indians was at once a historical document and a pointed attack on the then-raging Vietnam War.

For all its depth, Little Big Man was also whimsical and entertaining — two words that could hardly be applied to Penn’s follow-up, the bleak and brilliant 1975 noir Night Moves. This convoluted mystery stars Gene Hackman as a detective so ignorant of human nature — his own and that of everyone around him — that his investigation becomes one of obfuscation rather than clarification. In his increasing disillusionment and alienation, Hackman’s antihero becomes Penn’s stand-in for America itself in the wake of multiple assassinations and Watergate — a metaphor that would reach its apotheosis in Four Friends, an immigrant saga that moves from idealism to devastating violence, then ultimately to bittersweet resignation and reconciliation, mirroring baby boomers’ relationship with their country from the Kennedy presidency to the period following Vietnam.  

The preceding summary does not even address Penn’s powerful early work (The Left Handed Gun, The Miracle Worker, etc.) or the gloriously eccentric Western The Missouri Breaks. So why is a creator of such a vital and relevant body of work so consistently overlooked? Even his admittedly less complex later pictures (Target, Dead of Winter, Penn and Teller Get Killed) are filled with inspiration in their best moments and, at worst, are extremely professional pieces of Hollywood storytelling. Yet there has not been a book-length critical study of Penn since Robin Wood’s slim 1969 volume. This neglect makes Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin’s new collection, Arthur Penn: Interviews, a major event in film scholarship, for the breadth of the pieces it contains goes a long way toward reminding the reader just how valuable Penn’s contribution to American cinema has been. The book compiles 24 conversations with the director from throughout his career, beginning with a1963 Cahiers du cinema piece and concluding with a 2007 interview conducted by Chaiken and Cronin specifically for this publication.  The vast majority of the dialogues have never been published in English until now, and the result is a treasure trove of insights from one of film’s most candid and accomplished artists.

Many of the interviews come from French journals like Cahiers and Positif, since European critics were quicker than their American counterparts to recognize the quality of Penn’s work. Right from the start, Penn is an eloquent commentator on his own output, whether he is responding to a journalist or speaking to students (In addition to the print interviews, the book includes transcriptions of lectures and seminars.). The quantity and variety of Chaiken and Cronin’s selections ensure Penn’s talks cover a wide range of filmmaking topics, from the conceptual and thematic to the technical. Penn is particularly good at verbalizing visual strategies, giving detailed explanations of why he chose to shoot certain scenes in certain ways, as well as offering plenty of insider tips (as in his description of the manner in which he shot Brando’s beating in The Chase to make it more realistic). His discussions of technique are enlightening but never dry and often make the reader want to view (or revisit) the films under discussion immediately to examine Penn’s approaches in action.

Penn is equally articulate about the social and political subtexts of his movies, as well as his own motives and impulses in making them. Just as his filmography follows America’s spiritual and moral journey throughout the 1960s and 1970s, these interviews track his development from an angry observer of the McCarthy era, to an idealistic believer in the youth movement of the Vietnam period, to a disillusioned realist in the years that follow.  The direct connection between his political passions and his films is impressive, as is his prescience — many of his predictions, both about his country and the motion picture industry, have come to pass. In the end, it is Penn’s constant ability to rethink his positions and respond to his environment that makes Arthur Penn: Interviews such a satisfying read; unlike some interview compilations, it is not very repetitive because the subject’s opinions and insights are so fluid.  His attitudes not only toward America and art but also about his own films are constantly in flux; some fans may be surprised and amused, for example, to hear him denigrating Night Moves and Missouri Breaks in one chapter before defending them in another.

Chaiken and Cronin finish the book by asking Penn about the previous interviews in the volume, giving him the chance to provide yet another layer of commentary. The director’s reactions to his own earlier words and interviewers are quite amusing, providing the perfect conclusion to a book that belongs on every filmmaker’s shelf.  

University Press of Mississippi
Hardcover $50, Paperback $22

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The Art of Storytelling for Dramatic Screenplays
by Jack W. McAdam
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Jack W. McAdam’s The Art of Storytelling for Dramatic Screenplays is a screenwriting manual with a unique but sound approach — teaching screenwriting by presenting a script in its entirety and making notations throughout to comment upon what the writer did and why. Unfortunately, the novelty of the concept is not entirely sustained by the execution in a volume that owes a lot to other, more conventional screenwriting manuals — manuals to which it suffers by comparison. Film students and beginning writers might learn some valuable lessons about structure and suspense from McAdam’s notes, but they are lessons that can be gleaned from other, better books.
     
The book’s construction is clear and straightforward, one of its strengths as an educational tool. McAdam begins with a brief explanation of the three-act structure dramatists have used since Aristotle and then breaks down six stories by legendary storytellers (including Jack London and Stephen Crane) into those acts so one can see the principle in action. In the next chapter, McAdam further illustrates the application of the three-act structure by presenting a synopsis and outline of his own script The Prince of Russia, a seafaring adventure story revolving around sunken treasure and salvage divers. This is a set-up for the bulk of the book, which consists of the Prince of Russia script accompanied by italicized comments in which McAdam explains how the story follows the template he has laid out in previous chapters. As an epilogue, McAdam supplies a copy of a reader’s report his script received while circulating through the industry.
    
McAdam has worked in a wide array of film-industry positions over the years; he started out in the design department at a Canadian television network and went on to produce, teach and location-manage, as well as write. Yet the breadth of his background is not reflected in the philosophy of The Art of Storytelling, a book that adheres to the most conventional and archaic (Admittedly, some might substitute the word “timeless” for “archaic.”) principles of dramaturgy. His book is almost entirely devoted to structure, though the atmospheric nature of The Prince of Russia does allow him to make occasional points about setting and dialogue. The problem is not that McAdam is slavishly devoted to the three-act structure (Most writers are.), but that he practices such a rigid form of it: he gives the reader very specific ideas about not only where certain developments are supposed to occur in a script, but also how many index cards a writer should use when outlining scenes. (For the record, it is 12, which might seem awfully constricting to writers who want to shuffle scenes around to see how they play. Could Chinatown or Magnolia being adequately plotted out on a dozen note cards?)
    
It is hard to see McAdam’s schematic approach work for any writer who wants to move beyond pre-established genre formulas; it might be effective for creating conventional romantic comedies or buddy-cop movies, but anything more adventurous is a problem. To be fair, McAdam is more or less restating the same paradigms made famous by screenwriting guru Syd Field, whose books (most notably Screenplay and The Screenwriter’s Workbook) have been used in beginning screenwriting classes for decades — and this is where The Art of Storytelling runs into its biggest problem. Field makes the same points as McAdam throughout his body of work, but he does so with a bit more flair; he generally uses established classics or contemporary hits to make his case, and the references make his books livelier than McAdam’s somewhat dry read. McAdam’s first-hand comments on his own work do not yield any greater insights than those of Field in analyzing Thelma and Louise or Silence of the Lambs; in theory the notion of a writer providing the inside scoop should provide a fresh perspective, but in practice The Art of Storytelling only rehashes old observations.

The one advantage McAdam has over Field is brevity: before delving into The Prince of Russia, he lays out the three-act paradigm in just a few pages, and he does so with a clarity helpful to beginning writers. Ultimately, however, the same thing that characterizes most disappointing screenplays — a lack of originality — does in the book.              

Edition Filmwerkstatt
Paperback $24.95
 
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Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master
by Michael Sragow
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Michael Sragow has been a dependable critic for decades at publications including The New Yorker, The Baltimore Sun and Rolling Stone, and he is also the editor of the superb anthology Produced and Abandoned, a book dedicated to unearthing overlooked films. The common thread that runs throughout his work as both writer and editor is an impulse to sing the praises of the underrated through passionate but judicious argument — a mission on full display in his new biography, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master. To call Fleming overlooked or underrated may seem perverse, given he is the sole credited director on two of the most famous films in history: The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, both released in 1939. Yet while Fleming was respected in his own time by critics, audiences and studio heads, his reputation did not endure in the way those of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks did. The conventional wisdom has it Oz and Gone With the Wind are producers’ films, with minimal personal expression or directorial sensibility.

Sragow makes a number of powerful arguments against this prevailing view, arguments that rest both on the individual films and on Fleming’s career as a whole. His biography follows Fleming’s life and creative output from his early days in the silent era (a period in which he helped shape Douglas Fairbanks’s onscreen persona) to early sound landmarks like The Virginian (which established Gary Cooper as a star) and later treasures such as Red Dust and Bombshell. For each film Sragow provides detailed production history and incisive critical analysis, charting Fleming’s growth and conveying his impact on the industry at large. He makes a convincing case for Fleming as one of the most versatile of all studio directors, as he explores the ways Fleming mastered virtually every genre of his era — musical, adventure, horror film, comedy, etc. — with more range than his contemporary Hawks, who basically shoehorned every genre he worked in into his own preexisting template. Although Fleming displayed certain continuities in terms of his attitudes about heroism and romance, he was less repetitive and rigid than Hawks — and his adaptability is, ironically, one of the things that caused him to be undervalued in later years by proponents of the auteur theory.

Fleming directed a number of films that stand today as classics of their idiom: Bombshell remains one of the best of all Hollywood-on-Hollywood satires; the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the finest screen adaptation of that particular story, and Red Dust and Test Pilot are knockout romantic triangles as smart as they are fun.

As Sragow’s story progresses, however, it becomes clear Fleming’s filmography is more than the sum of its parts; as great as the individual films are, there is a larger, more cumulative effect on the industry at large. First, there is the director’s uncanny ability to shape and develop star personas: Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and other major performers found their voices under Fleming’s tutelage, permanently altering the landscape of American cinema. Second, there is the lasting impact of specific movies, most obviously Gone With the Wind, the picture that established the template (in terms of both filmmaking and publicity) that all awards-hungry epics would follow in decades to come. As Sragow notes, every time a movie like Lord of the Rings or Titanic sweeps up audiences and prizes, it does so in Gone With the Wind’s shadow.
     
Fleming’s innovations consisted not only of the broad influence exerted by Gone With the Wind, but also of smaller, more precise matters of technique. In the 1919 Fairbanks vehicle When the Clouds Roll By, for example, the director broke new ground in slow-motion effects and used the kind of rotating set that would become famous decades later in Royal Wedding and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sragow documents these and other achievements with erudition and passion, making his case for Fleming one film at a time. 

Yet for all his admiration, the author is unafraid to point out where Fleming went wrong — particularly in the painful chapter on the director’s final, flawed film Joan of Arc.  Sragow brilliantly dissects where Joan of Arc went wrong by describing the complex conjunction of business, technology, aesthetics and personal life (a great deal of Joan’s artistic failings are directly connected to Fleming’s affair with star-producer Ingrid Bergman) that generates a film. 
    
A similar attention to the intersection between biography and art characterizes the entirety of Sragow’s book, which ultimately presents Fleming as a major director by exploring his life and finding expressions of that life in his work. It is hard to buy the old argument The Wizard of Oz was merely a triumph of the MGM assembly line after reading about Fleming’s rural upbringing, and Sragow articulates a clear progression in the director’s presentation of masculinity and romance that culminates in the crackling sexual tension of Gone With the Wind.

So why have the old stories about Fleming just being an anonymous hired hand continued to persist? Part of the problem is Fleming died considerably earlier than men like Hawks and Hitchcock, who were able to define and promote their own legends in collaboration with young acolytes like Peter Bogdanovich and FrançoisTruffaut. Fleming, who passed away in 1949 at the age of 59, was unable to participate in his own legacy in this way, and he probably would not have been interested anyway — he was terrible about keeping his own papers and records, another reason his role in Gone With the Wind’s triumph has often been diminished (The historical record has relied largely on the writings of the correspondence-crazy David O. Selznick.).  Luckily, the director has finally found his partisan in the form of Sragow, who brings the same sense of intelligent, no-nonsense professionalism to his work Fleming brought to his.            

Pantheon Books
Hardcover $40
 
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