Writers’ Strike

WGA strike logo

It’s been five weeks since the Writers Guild of America West and East went on strike against the TV networks and the movie studios. The walkout has been hitting much of film and TV community pretty hard, though it has not affected animation that much. (Most animation writers, including those working on feature films, are represented by The Animation Guild, which is not on strike; those TAG members working on TV shows which have WGA contracts , like The Simpsons, are being affected in various ways; for more details on this aspect of the strike, check out the The Animation Guild Blog.)

The issues involved center around residuals for the so-called new media outlets, such as the Internet; the WGA wants a share of the pie for its members, while the studios (mostly owned by multinational media conglomerates) are resisting. The producers are now hoping to accelerate their negotiations with the Directors Guild of America, whose contract expires in June, in hopes of playing one against the other; the DGA, for its part, has already made a tentative deal with TV networks on “news, sports and operations.” (For the producers’ side of things, check out the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers website.)

How this will all end is not clear. But, with the American presidential primary race in full bloom, it strikes me that film and TV workers in Los Angeles and New York are fairly lucky. Going through such a prolonged strike is no fun, especially for strikers and other film and TV workers who have been put out of work for the duration. However, the film and TV industries are at least represented by unions with some degree of clout. This is not always the case with other unionized sectors of American industry, which, e.g., airlines, seem to negotiate from weakness rather than strength. (The real problem is the small percentage of unionized private sector workers.)

One wonders if next year’s elections will change things that much. The Democratic Party and its candidates rely heavily on the labor movement to get them elected, but recent history does not bode well for union-friendly legislation if the Democrats get back in power. I hope I’m wrong, as the American worker deserves better.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead 1Sidney Lumet has not been a director whose films I usually rush out to see, though this is something that I need to correct. For it is films like his Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead that serve to remind me of how good movies can be. And here, as with Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet knows when he has a great story and how to run with it.

The story tells of how two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, see above) attempt to rob their parents’ suburban jewelry store goes tragically wrong, seems almost too good not to be true. It’s not. In fact, it’s the creation of first-time scriptwriter and playwright Kelly Masterson.

The film unwinds in a series of flashbacks for each of the three main characters, the brothers and their distraught father (Albert Finney), while it also goes forward to its almost inevitable denouement. This structure enables Lumet and Masterson to constantly unveil new twists and turns about both plot and character. It also helps hold the viewer’s attention to almost the very end; it briefly gets a bit tedious towards the end, but this does not really hurt what is a very satisfying film.

Lumet seems one of those directors who tries to let his scripts speak for themselves (or appear to speak for themselves), which early in his career was considered by some as a liability. For instance, I recall Andrew Sarris. speaking at the 1964 New York Film Festival, when he was the Grand Poobah of the auteur theory in America, claiming Lumet was a not a true auteur, since he simply shot the original script for The Pawnbroker without alteration. I don’t know how much Lumet changed Masterson’s script of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, but its energy and assured sense of style marks it is a film made by a consummate professional.

Lumet, who is 83, is perhaps the greatest of the directors whose talents were nurtured in live dramas during the Golden Age of Television. The mechanics of live TV production in the 50s and early 60s, which had some resemblance to live theater, certainly gave writers and actors considerably more leeway than their movie counterparts. Partly because of this, live TV dramas were was often seen as a writer’s medium; indeed, it saw the emergence of such star writers as Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Tad Mosel, Rod Serling and Gore Vidal. This, along with his background as an actor on Broadway, helped him hone his skill in working with both writers and actors. But in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead Lumet shows his skills to be considerably broader.

Beowulf

Beowulf_3Seeing Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, I was reminded of the time when director John Frankenheimer came down to the University of Southern California in 1962 to show All Fall Down. During the Q&A session which followed, a student asked why he had used an elaborate tracking shot in the opening sequence. Frankenheimer replied simply that he did it because he could; after all, he pointed out that as a director in live television dramas, such shots would have been extremely difficult or impossible. I suspect that if the same question were asked of Zemeckis about the wild zoom and traveling shots in Beowulf, his answer might be much the same, except he would substitute live-action films for live TV.

And if I had to focus on Beowulf’s greatest failing, it would certainly be its self-conscious use of not only dizzying camera moves, but also its ridiculously exaggerated camera angles and perspectives. I must assume Zemeckis is a fundamentalist who believes that you should only do in animation what you absolutely cannot do in live action, whether it makes sense of not. (Orson Welles seemed to take a similar approach viz-à-viz the theater and radio when he made Citizen Kane.) This sort of thing is further aggravated by the film’s in-your-face use of stereoscopic 3D.

This is unfortunate since Zemeckis has shown, in films like Forest Gump, that he is more than just a competent filmmaker and the script for Beowulf is not as bad as his direction makes it seem. The tale, nominally based on the classic Early English poem, of how Geatsman Beowulf rescues Denmark by slaying the monster Grendel (above) and eventually becomes king, does not really need to hide behind all the film’s cinematic pyrotechnics. And in terms of subject matter, it deals with topics many in animation have long been hoping Hollywood would tackle in animated movies.

The motion capture animation, a technique that causes much of the animation blogosphere to foam at the mouth, is generally acceptable, despite the vacuous nature of some of the characters’ expressions. It is no secret that one of the attractions of motion capture to directors like Zemeckis is that they see it as a less threatening way to do animation; performance capture animation, which is is their preferred terminology, has enough similarities to live-action to make it comfortable. However, in the process he seems to have forgotten how to make a decent film; in comparison, Happy Feet, another motion capture effort from a live-action director (George Miller of Mad Max and Babe fame), is a masterpiece.

Now I’m more curious than ever to see Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, Alexander Stitt’s 1981 Australian animated version of John Gardner’s novel, which tells the story from the monster’s point of view.