Movies That Most Influenced My Life (So Far)

Shortly before the 90th Annual Academy Awards aired this past weekend, I took an online quiz asking how many of the 89 previous Best Pictures I had seen. Somewhat to my shock, the answer was 70. While many of these were late-night film society screenings during college when I was a projectionist, that’s still a lot of wasted youth.

Or was it?

With this year’s Oscars behind us, I thought it an apt time to confess the 10 (actually 20) most significant commercial motion pictures that have impacted my thinking and creative process. You probably know I read a lot of books, but I wanted to share with you some of the filmed stories that have most shaped me as a writer.

Although a few of those 70 Best Pictures are noted below, many of my choices are further off the ranch. Should you agree or disagree, I hope you might share your own favorites with me privately or publicly, particularly as they have influenced your creative thinking.

These are not in specific order, although they are directionally stacked. They all matter to me, and while my reasons are kept deliberately brief, I hope some of the influences come through in my own writing as you may experience it. No apologies, this aesthetic is a bit of who I am!

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

It’s based on Joseph Conrad’s forever-haunting Heart of Darkness. It was supposed to be Marlon Brando’s crown achievement, but that honor went to Martin Sheen. This Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece breathes the existential and freezes in time the horror of the Vietnam War with natural metaphor and nuance. “The End” by The Doors is the glue in its arc, and Robert Duvall demonstrates in a few brief lines that insanity is a product of subjectivity. The movie poster has been in my home office for over 30 years. It means that much to me.

2. All That Jazz (1979)

Bob Fosse’s unforgettably dark self-portrait took his kinetic style of dance and nonlinear storytelling from stage to screen. When I first saw Roy Scheider smoking in the shower it strangely gave me solace to know I wasn’t the only person who did that. I gave up smoking long ago, but not the image of this wildly imperfect creative force. Curious it was released the same year as Apocalypse Now. It is just as creepy, just as thought-provoking, and just as hard to imagine ever being replicated in rhythm or texture.

3. Amadeus (1984)

The stage version of Amadeus changed my life by forcing me to look into the eyes of gift and mediocrity, so the film version should have been doomed by physical separation of the ephemeral. Joyously it made it through the system unblemished and leapt off the screen with passion, suffering, orchestral grandeur, and tragic demise. Milos Forman’s adaptation to the screen has everything going for it except Tim Curry, and if you don’t know he’s supposed to be there, the rest is superb. As the Emperor Joseph II repeatedly concludes, “Well, there it is.”

4. Casablanca (1942)

If there were ever a need for proof that a movie could simultaneously be a romantic love triangle, a piercing polemic, an adventure story with life-and-death stakes, and a slice of life that looks at war caustically through the lives of individuals, this is the perfect brew. Toss in the eternal Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and you barely notice the Nazis surrounding them. Well, you do notice them, you’re supposed to know they’re there. That’s what ups the stakes and allows the endless deflection of one-liners to be etched into memory.

5. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

It’s a perfect movie, from a perfect book, with perfect music and a perfect cast. It’s a living time capsule, and if anyone is delusional enough to think they’ll ever prove the American musical is not a serious form of art, make them watch this once a year for the rest of their lives. You’re probably starting to see from this list that I have a leaning toward musicals, but only when they have an edge, and only when they become a part of the soundtrack of our lives. That obsession begins with Dorothy and her rainbow.

6. The Right Stuff (1983)

Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s lyrical New Journalism account of America’s entry into the space race—if there is anything that can be put on-screen better, I’ll be first in line and watch a day’s worth of repeat showings. We can never forget this seminal chain of events in American history, because in so many ways the Mercury astronauts bridged the Second World War to the scientific present. Sam, Chuck, Tom, all heroes of mine, and director Philip Kaufman stitched together the launch plan and fired it into orbit.

7. Lenny (1974)

Before Dustin Hoffman gave into being the movie star version of himself, he played Lenny Bruce in a remarkable character study also brilliantly directed by Bob Fosse. I have been a student of Lenny Bruce all my life, and while there have been many renditions of who he was and why he mattered, Fosse pulled off the definitive portrait by pulling Hoffman’s strings and using editing as an interpreter to punctuate the sting of language in a world that needed to listen.

8. Stand by Me (1986)

I was never much of a Stephen King fan. His short story upon which this film is based, “The Body,” changed that forever. This grounded tale is presented as a simple coming-of-age story that is wildly not simple, but instead a real-life parable of the naive courage and joy of childhood that becomes the fear and challenges of our adult lives. Once in my life I hope to write a line of dialogue as solid and well placed as “Suck my fat, one you cheap dime-store hood.”

9. Patton (1970)

With Francis Ford Coppola behind the typewriter and George C. Scott owning the wide-screen, this “blood and guts” gem proved to me it was possible to make a highly political film that confirmed the biases of every side of the aisle. It’s pro-war if you want it to be, anti-war if you want it to be, and proof that a literary interpretation of history is a compelling way to get people talking with each other about decisions and consequences that matter.

10. Yellow Submarine (1969)

Please don’t laugh milk through your nose on this one, but if you know me, you know Pepperland is forever part of me. Okay, so I attempted to write a sequel when I was 17 because I loved The Beatles that much and knew I always would, but why is the toy sub on my desk, the iconic blanket on  my sofa, and the logo clock on the wall? I will never shake those Blue Meanies.

To be fully confessional, here are my 10 runners-up with even more restricted commentary, begging your imagination to extend my expository:

11. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Meryl Streep arrives in an epic yarn where the horror of Vietnam is actually fictionally manipulated to make the idea of war even more horrible than the reality. The creative license pushes credibility to the wall, but with reason and deliberate intention to make change happen.

12. Field of Dreams (1989)

Fathers, sons, loss, regret, unanswered voices, spiritual rebirth, Iowa cool, and baseball. If you never played the game it still makes you feel its gravitational essence.

13.  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Kubrick and Clarke saw a future spectrum the rest of us wouldn’t inhabit for decades. Scoring it with Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss was even more mind-blowing.

14. Network (1976)

Paddy Chayevsky sculpted the words and Peter Finch enshrined them: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” Now we live this.

15. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Love, sensuality, and fleeting artistry exploded by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Author Milan Kundera distanced himself from the film, but director Philip Kaufman never lets your eyes leave the characters on-screen.

16. Hair (1979)

Another Milos Forman interpretation of culture and generations run amok, proving that stage-to-screen musicals can last forever when they hit every note. The Age of Aquarius lives embedded in Central Park.

17. Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)

Director Alan Parker puts his blustery visual stamp on one of the most enduring rock concept albums and alienation conceits of all time. Fascism is revealed for skeptics in connect-the-dots human unraveling.

18. Dead Poets Society (1989)

Behold the living argument against cynical compromise that makes poetry relevant and teachers the vital yet imperfect heroes to our younger selves.

19. Midnight Express (1978)

This nerve bender could be the case study for “Just Say No.” If this Alan Parker film written by Oliver Stone didn’t scare you off from crossing borders with the wrong stuff, your bravado was misplaced.

20. Young Frankenstein (1974)

It’s a slapstick comedy with literary roots that never stops being funny. Mel Brooks is a national treasure.

Well, that’s a wrap. I told you it was an eclectic and eccentric list, but some of each of these is in the stories I tell, the characters I share, and the images I try to illustrate. I hope this sheds some light on my world and opens a dialogue between us.

Dialogue, yeah. I do like dialogue!

_______________

Photo: Pexels

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The Big Short: A Remarkable Winner

The Big Short

The Big Short won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. That’s tremendously cool, and a well-earned honor for screenwriters Adam McKay and Charles Randolph. This film almost deserves a special Oscar for the studio executives who green-lit the production. Imagine the pitch:

“Okay, we’ve got a 300-page ultra-detailed nonfiction book that explains number for number what caused the Great Recession brought on by the real estate mortgage crisis that temporarily wiped out about half the value of equity in American homes and half the value of global stock trading in practically every segment of the market.

“Wait, wait, now it gets good! The protagoniststhe guys who winare quirky, real-life speculators who make an outrageous fortune betting against the economy of their own nation, and when they are proven right and the market collapses, they make an unconscionable amount of money when 99.5% of the population gets financially wiped out!

“Wait, waitand they’re heroes because they saw it coming and no one would listen to them when they tried to tell a few important people that the collapse was inevitable, but since none of the important people would listen to them, after the crash they all go on to be celebrities who receive honorary degrees and big consulting fees from anyone who can get them to answer their phones.

“No, no, waitand because this movie is an absolute downer and cannot possibly be construed as commercial in any mainstream way, let’s double down on the budget and get the biggest movie stars we can to play the quirky few who saw it coming and their equally surreal foils, I mean, really, really, really big names like Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Margot Robbie, and Selena Gomez. And I’m not saying get one of them or a few of themGET ALL OF THEM! Hell, if we’re going out in style, let’s go crazy nuts wild freaky insanethis can be a way bigger disaster than Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, The Lone Ranger, or John Carter. If it fails it’ll be a legendary bomb!”

And you know what? The darn thing worked. It worked on every level. Gutsy, imaginative, informative, authentic, honest, funny, creepy, haunting, accusatory, indictinga perfect motion picture for our time for the movie lovers who maybe have had enough Marvel superheroes for a while yet can’t quite push themselves to go to the theater and read translated subtitles.

The Big Short is a mainstream movie of immense intelligence, integrity, and craftsmanship. It’s the kind of movie like All The President’s Men and Silkwood that we just don’t see anymore. How about that? They put something thought-provoking with movie stars on the screen and we paid the price of admission! Maybe we were desperate for good dialogue, maybe we were desperate for an explanation of what happened, or maybe there still is a market for smart flicks that educate while they entertain without being preachy, polemic, or polarizing.

Credit the immense genius of Michael Lewis, forever one of my literary heroes, who wrote the brilliant book upon which the screenplay is based. Lewis has been knocking out spectacular investigative nonfiction in the style of narrative fiction since his debut almost three decades ago with Liar’s Poker. I don’t think Lewis is capable of writing a bad book. He’s that good! Maybe the studio execs rolled the dice because of the monster success of Lewis’s Moneyball and The Blind Side, two more incredibly unlikely adaptations for the screen that brought big ideas into the hearts and minds of popcorn lovers everywhere. We like to say all great drama begins on the page. Lewis proves it empirically, one platform removed, again and again and again.

Lewis teaches, Lewis engages, Lewis forces us to think while never threatening us, embarrassing us, or chastising us. He sees real-life people as characters whose stories are on par with fiction because of the layering in their motivations. We see arcs in the lives of people we come to know for their strengths, weaknesses, curiosities, and aspirations. We grow as they grow. We fail as they fail. We are redeemed as they are redeemed. That is great storytelling in any form of media. In The Big Short, we celebrate the art of illuminationseeing what we all should have seen but only a few of us actually did. Now in hindsight we see it together, and with any luck we bond together to prevent the evil from returning.

The very act of successfully adapting this literary work to a visual medium is worthy of celebrationbut wait, there’s more! We are also fond of saying “the eyes are the window to the soul.” When you watch The Big Short on the big screen for two or so hours, you see an unending array of eyes but almost no souls of any kind. That is very, very hard to do. We watch our speculators conniving in complex equations that will expose our undoing, and yet no matter how many times the camera grabs a close-up, all we see are lust, greed, ego, and hubris. How are actors capable of pulling off that detachment in shot after abstract shot, initially unedited, created out-of-order, and only theoretically connected by singular motivation to be correct? They are human, but beyond the bounds of humanity, except in knowing they haven’t done anything badthey’ve simply take the spoils of opportunism, milking something bad. That’s unique to film, seeing the eyes over and over again but not penetrating what isn’t there, until the ultimate redemption, when reality unlocks public pain in one full swing of the broadsword. Gasp.

Are we strong enough and knowledgable enough to take action from a cautionary tale? Lewis thinks we are. I think so too. I’m guessing a lot of moviegoers would agree, transformed as they were from the dark to the light, from confusion to enlightenment when the house lights came up and the real world welcomed their demand for reform.

Bravo, Mr. Lewis. Bravo, studio executives. Encore! Please, encore!

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo: Paramount Pictures.

Funniest Screenplays of All Time

Drama MasksBack in 2012, the Writers Guild of America surveyed its membership to identify the Best Written TV Series of All Time and I used the occasion to share my own list. This year the WGA is doing the same for the 101 Funniest Screenplays, asking members to submit fifteen titles to collect the 101 most mentioned. Again, I am not only happy to oblige, I am happy to share my picks with all of you even before the definitive list is published!

Of course funny means different things to different people. Is it slapstick funny, quirky funny, shock value funny, social critique funny, outrageous, embarrassing, or simply impossible to describe? How can you compare so many different kinds of funny, and is the contest even worthwhile other than as a recommendation list? Many wonder if it’s the writing that’s funny, or the performances, or the directing and editing. For me, you have to give credit to the writer if the movie ranks as one of the funniest, no more who contributes. Of course as someone who types a lot of words to share with others, I’m clearly biased toward recognizing writers for their contributions no matter the collaboration. Call me old-fashioned about the important of the written word, but my sense remains that if it’s not on the page ready to be made funny, no one can come to work to make it more funny!

I reached out to my Facebook friends to see what they thought, and what you see below, not in any specific order, are my fifteen, followed by all others that were mentioned frequently or emphatically. Mel Brooks is a clear and recurring winner here, along with the mockumentary Christopher Guest ensemble, a healthy dose of Monty Python, and a rousing run by the Coen Brothers. There were definitely generational trends in the responses I collected, with any number of people on this or that side of political correctness and golden age vs. modern age vs. contemporary leanings. Like music and literature, comedy is very personal, and taste is an individual expression of who we are what makes us tick. There’s a wide net here, and it will always be open to argument, rebuttal, reform, and addition.

I somewhat arbitrarily capped the list below at sixty titles because, well, I guess I didn’t want it to go on forever. Some of the motion pictures named by my friends were less familiar, so I tried to stay with more mainstream and recognizable fare. That should leave plenty of room for surprises when the WGA list is published next winter, and also for any others might want to add. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed many of these:

1) Young Frankenstein

2) Blazing Saddles

3) Monty Python and the Holy Grail

4) Animal House

5) Airplane

6) This Is Spinal Tap

7) When Harry Met Sally

8) Arthur

9) A Fish Called Wanda

10) There’s Something About Mary

11) Trading Places

12) Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

13) Stripes

14) Dr. Strangelove

15) MASH

And then from my social media community…

16) Waiting for Guffman

17) Best in Show

18) Some Like It Hot

19) What’s Up Doc?

20) Duck Soup

21) A Night at the Opera

22) Flirting with Disaster

23) Raising Arizona

24) The Producers

25) Caddy Shack

26) Bridesmaids

27) Wedding Crashers

28) Fast Times at Ridgemont High

29) The Princess Bride

30) Shakespeare in Love

31) Caddy Shack

32) Monty Python’s Life of Brian

33) Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

34) The Jerk

35) O Brother, Where Art Thou?

36) The Big Lebowski

37) Rushmore

38) Napoleon Dynamite

39) Being John Malkovich

40) Annie Hall

41) Harold and Maude

42) My Cousin Vinny

43) My Favorite Year

44) Groundhog Day

45) Ghostbusters

46) Tootsie

47) The Hangover

48) National Lampoon’s Vacation

49) His Girl Friday

50) Office Space

51) The Naked Gun

52) The Forty Year Old Virgin

53) Dumb and Dumber

54) Tommy Boy

55) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

56) The Blues Brothers Movie

57) The Graduate

58) The Pink Panther

59) The Party

60) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

That’s a more than decent start, plenty of chuckles, guffaws, and belly laughs to go around. Remember, it all starts with the written word, or as many writers like to say: “You know that joke? Somebody wrote that!”

Please feel free to add any of your favorites in the comments below!

Your Gun, Your Badge, Your Honor

Last week I attended a panel discussion at the LA Film Festival called Your Gun and Your Badge whose participants included:

Robert Crais (Writer, Cagney & Lacey, Baretta; author of the Elvis Cole mysteries)
David Milch (Writer, Hill Street Blues; creator NYPD Blue)
José Padilha (Director, Elite Squad, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within)
Gerald Petievich (ex-Secret Service agent and author, To Live and Die in L.A.)
Moderated by Los Angeles Times contributor Mark Olsen

Full disclosure, I worked for David Milch more than 20 years ago and consider him not only one of the finest working writers today, but an immensely impactful teacher.  I hadn’t heard him speak on the writing craft since I worked for him so long ago and arranged a series of lectures he gave, which carried forward the ethos he previously established when he taught creative writing at the university level.

Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times set the tone for the panel by noting our location downtown, the heart of so many noir tales and a reality base for police activity that defines many episodes from which fiction is derived.  All of the writers shared varying perspectives from successful careers as storytellers, but what struck me most about the discussion was its common theme focusing on authenticity.  This notion of establishing the set of norms that constitute a world view and then remaining true to them transcended police work in my mind, it even transcended the procedural staging of those norms in the form of entertainment.  In approaching their craft, the writers universally noted the mandate for extensive research as a requirement of their approach, and a bottom line almost moral responsibility to understand the details of the world they would portray before they could begin interpreting it.

Gerald Petievich, a 20 year Secret Service agent turned novelist and later screenwriter, repeatedly used the term “verisimilitude” to describe the requirements of his characters.  Jose Padilha, who was sued in Brazil for his portrayal of violence as commonality in the Elite Squad, referenced the suit as evidence he had achieved the authenticity he sought.  Robert Crais, attempting to define process in his approach to character development, quoted the renowned author Joseph Wambaugh who wondered, “Does the cop work the case, or does the case work the cop?”  David Milch talked in detail of how we watch characters struggle to overcome their failings, summing up his reflection with the powerful descriptor: “If there is a God he wants us to be honest; if there isn’t, it’s even more important.”

As I kept hearing these words become almost the foundations of a chorus — authenticity, verisimilitude, honesty — it occurred to me that so much of what we consume as popular showmanship is experienced in the form of escapism.  Our hunger for Super Hero movies seems insatiable, and with occasional exceptions, the documentary film as a form of commercial entertainment has seen better days.  Yet authenticity is a broader construct than a simple portrayal of reality — as was noted by the panel, Ziegfield was as committed to getting every stitch in every costume right, not because the audience could necessarily see it, but because whoever was wearing the costume had to know it was correct to convey the same notion of authenticity under that banner.

The consistency of this message of the artist’s commitment to authenticity was inspiring and thought-provoking.  Anyone can pay lip service to the notion of honesty, but an audience can feel the writer’s dedication in the work when presented.  But what about in the workplace, is our commitment to verisimilitude as profound as that of the author?  Is it as pronounced as it should be?  Is there a relevancy in this ethos to how we approach day to day business, the seriousness of our research, the authenticity of our value propositions and commitments to colleagues and customers?

It occurred to me that I had never heard a panel discussion at any business conference I ever attended even remotely like this one, certainly not with top dogs of equivalent stature in their respective fields who have earned the permission to delve in such expression.  Thinking about the headlines of late — of homes with mortgages underwater, of securities backed by worthless collateral, of for profit schools leaving students in debt without marketable skills, of a once trusted giant of personal financial management now behind bars — I wonder where is the verisimilitude in all that.  Surely a scam is born every few minutes, without them there would be much less to write about, but the creators of products and services might do well to see intrinsic value in the pride of authenticity, the self-knowledge and reflection that it is expected of us no differently from the creators of books, television shows, and movies.  Just as we can abandon any form of media if the hard work of noble construction is not present, so can a brand be abandoned by customers in a world of choice.

The applicability of authentic commitment seems less metaphorical than an actual model of success, where the judge is first oneself, followed then by making the offer available to others.  A scene depicted without requisite deliberation is a skit.  A brand evangelized without a consistent promise is a logo.  It’s not hard to see the distance, but it takes more than words to close the gap.

We all crave authenticity. We all crave verisimilitude. We all crave honesty.  Imagine the power of unlocking the value in that inspiration in everything we do.  The storyteller may lead, but we all can have a great deal of skin in this game if we hold ourselves accountable for the same level of commitment to detail, rigorous study, ongoing iteration, and a set of beliefs that reflects equal parts respect for the subject and the audience.  That to me is a story worth telling, experiencing, and sharing.

It’s not just about police work, it’s about all work.