Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Ed Harris and Annette Bening

I’m signed up for the weekly mailings from Shawn Coyne who is a story theorist who has developed something called the Storygrid.  (  It’s very sensible and effective either for the reader who wants to reflect on stories or the writer who wants to turn out a good one.  which come as both sound files and a print transcript.  Here are some quotes from this week’s “talk.”

“Best bet genre for commercial success is the love story.”

“So the thing that moves us from being alone into relationships, with not only romantic partners but in general society at large, is love right? Love stories are so important to us because, I always say this, stories are metaphors that help us learn how to behave. So we got to stories and we attach the stories and we fall in love with stories because we use those stories in our own personal lives to form our own philosophies and behavioral modifications and tactics and all those things to learn how to behave in a proper way.”

“Okay, so the first part of romantic love concerns desire, that’s just physical attraction to another person, it’s a biological thing, you see somebody, you go, “Wow, really, A1, A plus person there. Really wanted me then.” That’s a physical thing, desire’s number one and then the second thing is commitment, right? So once you desire somebody and you start talking to them then if you grow attached to them, you want to make a commitment with them.”

“So you have desire and then you have commitment and then you have the deepest part of love, which is intimacy. Intimacy is the only part of love that is truly truthful.”

“Then ultimately the most truthful part of love concerns intimacy. Intimacy is that moment when you feel the other person understands who you are at bottom.” 

“Usually the obsession story, 99.99% of the time, ends in tragedy. The tragedy is in usually a death. The obsession goes to so far off the negation of the negation as Robert McKee says, it goes so off the rails that one of the lovers ends up dead.”

Robin Williams and Annette Bening

As it happens, my movie last night was “Face of Love,” (2013) full of ambiguity.  Films, unlike books, are group enterprises and even commissioned for specific actors.  I’d love to have been at the table when this script was being developed.  It seems transparently to have evolved from the desire to create a story that showcases three beloved and aging actors.

Robin Williams plays a neighbor, stoic and yearning.  Few lines, little action.  The actor was fated to die a year later of Lowy body disease, a kind of prion dementia.  Five movies he was in were released later than this one, but I suspect they were shot earlier.  There is no mugging, there are no jokes in this one.  This story is about Sex and Death.

The other four main characters are Annette Bening and Ed Harris, who become lovers.  Jess Weisler plays Bening’s daughter, Summer, and Amy Brenneman plays Ed’s former wife, Ann.  Summer is a typical self-centered millennial prone to over-reacting, and Ann is generously loving, non-judgmental.  Most of the reviewers of this film reacted as though they were Summer.  They hated it, found it improper, in violation of their idea of the universe.  They see fetishes and treachery.

I loved it.  The basic gizmo is simply that Bening’s husband was drowned, she was devastated, along comes Ed Harris again — this time as a different man — and she slips easily into the illusion that he is a reincarnation.    As you can imagine, this baffles the Second Ed, who is facing the short time he has left because of a bad heart.  Ironically, he’s the best-hearted person in the story.  (We never find out what the husband was really like.)  The real point is that loving is unreasonable, chancy, a kind of madness, and necessarily so because everyone must die.  But it can be so intense and renewing.

One reviewer was indignant over the elegant house and beautiful things, as though the characters didn’t deserve them.  The writers had pulled in a reference to Harris’ performance as Jackson Pollock.  He clearly loved the paintbrush all over again.  The point of the film was NOT to create some perfect bit of sentimental valentine, but rather to pack the tale with ironies.  Bening’s character is so full of love, but can’t see the man in front of her.  Harris’ character seems so tough but is so very vulnerable.  He depends on his former wife, goes back to her for energy and clarity.  She is willing and able — one wonders what died to cause their divorce?

But the point is just to soak up these familiar, lovely, heart-breakingly aging people who clearly are close friends in real life and put on roles as though they were flattering garments.  Bening still has a Valentine face but her neck is a little, well, “frilled” so there are often scarves wound around it.  Harris’ face is pleated by the sun, but that’s the way we like him.  Both are thin, almost frail; Williams is a little swollen by meds.

The end is ambiguous — both life and death mixed as artists address them— not quite consoling, symbolic.  Commercialized.  In fact, that’s the way the whole film is.  No amount of glamour could interfere with the bone hard reality of loss and they do “face” it — at least the men do.  

Swimming, the sea, drowning, holding one’s breath, floating — they weave in and out the way film writers use them: metaphorically.  In fact, so fluently and even conventionally that the script narrowly escapes being advertising.  Maybe that’s what the critics were reacting to.  They seem to think that some penalties were dodged, that it was all too pretty, that there was too much forgiveness for obsession, for not being SANE and TRUTHful.  They don't see the pain that's honestly portrayed.  Ironic in a hook-up culture: going home with people we just met in a bar, and demanding that movie relationships be pure!  

Behind every story is another story, a story of making, sometimes using art to hang onto an obsession.  Other times only creating a cherishment of people we’ve loved for a long time.  Why shouldn’t it be beautiful and expensive, an architectural gem, with panels of fine painting, romantic vacations in Mexico?  Love has many faces — some of them are skulls.

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