Wednesday, June 6, 2007

My favorite learning tool - movies

I admit it, I’m a movie addict. I LOVE movies. My friends go to movies and they’re much more discriminating than I am. I love ‘em all (with a few minor exceptions, mostly teenage boy movies). But other than those movies? I love being in the theatre in the dark, the sound everywhere, the big screen, the atmosphere – with or without popcorn.

Every movie I’ve ever seen has taught me something about writing –

I just saw MRS. PALFREY AT THE CLAREMONT and thought as I watched it that the spare writing style of Elizabeth Taylor (who if you haven’t read, you should) translated beautifully onto the screen. Not too many characters, no big special effects, just a lovely and intimate personal story. I wish I’d written not just the movie but the book. Check it out when you get a chance and see how to write an unusual, simple, relatively straightforward story in a way that makes you laugh, makes you cry and tugs at your heartstrings.

Then there’s my favorite Hitchcock movie – NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Oh, there’s Cary Grant for a bonus, but this movie is all about humor and sex. Really. The thrills and chills are just a way to get Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant together. Goal. Conflict. Motivation. Perfect.

This movie – we never see anything overt because even in the sexiest of scenes they're wearing pajamas – but the dialogue between the two of them is some of the sexiest movie dialogue ever. This is how you write about sex. This is how you create sexual tension.

The humor starts with the typical mistaken identity which is funny, but even the most suspenseful scenes have humor in them.

THE PIANO – those of you who’ve read my May book LAST NIGHT AT THE HALFMOON will already know just how much I love this movie. Another subtle movie – the setting is incredibly sensual, wet, tropical, steamy. The characters are complex but they’re not beautiful, not in the way we see them so often in Hollywood movies. They feel, at least to me, like real people, people with complicated lives who are doing the best they can. So this movie taught me not only that the smallest touch can be incredibly sensual but that setting has power to bump up the heat.

And then there’s THE ENGLISH PATIENT – I’m not a giant fan of tragic love stories. I want a happy ending – but I can’t resist this movie.

What I love the most is the way it moves seamlessly from the past to the present, from Tuscany to the desert, from one story to another. I love the way it uses images to do this. My favorite example is the way the ridges on the bedsheet turn into desert sand dunes.

I love the way people aren’t perfect – they do what they need to do but they’re not black and white, not always confident in what they’re doing, so they make mistakes. And even with those mistakes, they are still loved.

I love the high stakes in this movie. War, death, love. All those things that we, as writers, want to write about and want our readers to understand how difficult it is to live in those complicated times and how, sometimes, we just put one foot in front of another and do what we have to do – never being quite sure whether it’s right or wrong.

And then there’s my favorite movie ever – WINGS OF DESIRE, Wim Wender’s great German movie about Berlin, about love, about desire. (City of Angels – a very bad remake was made a few years ago, don’t see it, see the original).

So what is it about this movie? There are many things that work in this movie but here are a few to start with.

Angels in trenchcoats watch over post-war Berlin and its shaken inhabitants. But Daniel (the wonderful Bruno Ganz) believes that maybe being an angel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe, he thinks, human beings have something, know something, that angels don’t. And he’s right.

He falls in love with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and she (along with Peter Falk playing himself) teach him that he needs to take the bad with the good. Yes, human beings have the pain of reality but they also have the joys of being human – like the combination of coffee and cigarettes and love – and Daniel finally decides that he’s going to choose the pain so that he can have the joy.

He takes a huge risk - giving up angelhood to become human - without knowing whether that risk is going to pay off. He jumps off the cliff and right into the midst of the human world. Whether he gets what he wants or not, the movie is about taking the risk, taking the leap. It's about hope in a situation that doesn't seem to have any, about courage, about love and desire and pain.

This movie is about everything.



Peg said...

Wow, North by Northwest. That's the first movie I ever saw! I think I was around 4 or 5. My mother took me to see it at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. She wanted me to see the Rockettes, and that happened to be the featured movie. I loved the Rockettes, but the movie was so scary! I had never seen anything on such a HUGE screen before. And it really wasn't a movie for a 5 year old! But having seen it many times hence, I agree, it's totally wonderful!
Peg C.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes--I so agree. Wings of Desire is astonishing. I often think about the tall, grey-coated angels--invisible to all, but changing peoples' lives. There's a scene in a library, where a frustrated and confused student is poring over a book. The angel is behind him--we, the movie-goers, see him, the student does not.

The angel gently points with an elegant finger to a place on the page...and you see the student suddenly comprehend something. Whatever he's trying to learn. It's heartbreaking. I always imagine my angel, standing silently behind me..and when I get a good idea, I sometimes smile and think: thanks.

It was also made into a wonderful play which we saw last season at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. I cried through the whole thing.

xox Hank

Carol said...

I saw Fracture with Anthony Hopkins. Before that it had been years since I had gone to a movie. I just watch them on tv.

tam said...

I haven't been to the movies in years, I can't even remember the last movie I went to see.

sharon said...

I rarely go to movies but the movie that I saw recently and just loved was Beatrix Potter. Excellent acting and super locale and photography.

anne said...

I am particular about what movies I choose. But I thoroughly enjoyed Amazing Grace. Well done and so emotionally beautiful.