I Could Make A Better Movie, Not

For the past year, I’ve been trying to produce a web-series.  It’s been slow going.  For awhile, I thought my “day job” was getting in the way.  Later, I struggled with getting actors to show up. As I got closer to lining up all the necessary technology, scripts and people, things began to stall.

Recently, we went to visit NYC.  My friend L___, who is almost 69, said her slightly younger brother, Max (coincidentally we share the same name), had finally produced his movie, “Addiction: A 60s Love Story”.  I had never met her brother Max, though L___ had frequently mentioned him.  I rented the movie on Amazon and Marilyn and I began to watch it. She went to bed after ten minutes; I quit soon after.  I sent a text to L___ telling her I had only made fifteen minutes, and hoped she would understand.  But she questioned how I could judge a film that quickly. The next day I made it through another forty-five minutes.  The third day I viewed the rest.

I wrote L___ telling her I had watched the whole movie, and, hoping to avoid trouble, reminded her that “no one wants to hear my opinion”.  She wrote back “He wrote a screenplay about his life and it got made. And that in itself is something.”  I understood what she was saying and certainly admired her brother for getting it done.  Yet,  I didn’t know what to reply. Was it something to me?

If there’s one lecture my kids will remember me by, it is my ‘always be productive’ mantra, not because productivity changes the World, but the alternative, lying in bed all day, is worse in my experience.  Now in my 50s, I wonder if that ethos holds.  Would L___’s brother been better off never having produced his movie?  Will I be better off if I don’t?

If I had watched Max’s movie at the age of 24 it would have motivated me.  I’d say to myself ‘if he can do one, I can do one (and better!)’  It’s ironic to me that his achievement now has the opposite effect.

After college, I wanted to become a screenwriter; later, a TV writer.  I spent some time in Hollywood. Then I got married, had kids, and had to focus on computer programming to pay the bills.  In the back of my head, I always felt that if I had gotten the right breaks (which I probably did), I could have written and sold some screenplays.

My experience in Hollywood told a different story. I noticed that even the most popular filmmakers have trouble getting their projects made, the ones important to them.  The main ingredient of most movies–what pays–is violence and pornography. I was at Orion when they let Kevin Costner make “Dances With Wolves”.  It was an open-secret that Orion was only funding it to keep Costner around for the main attractions. 

Addiction opens with the main character, Max, sitting in a van, saying that some people fear God, but he feels “untouchable”  Max doesn’t look tough.  He’s very good looking, more pretty-boy than street-tough handsome.

Credits begin.  We watch him and his friends trying to get into a college dance to meet girls.  Max talks his way past a priest to get into the dance while his friends wait around their car.  From the door, Max makes eye contact with a girl.  When the priest lets him in, the first word she says to him is “You’re not a Catholic, are you?”  

Next, they’re kissing under a tree, near the dance.  Max’s friends get in a fight with the locals (I assume).  Max leaves the girl to join them and immediately punches the first guy he approaches.  Although I have seen these group brawls in countless movies, I’ve never seen them in real life.  I understand it’s a movie,  but already things aren’t adding up.

In the next scene, a caption reads “1967”.  Max’s Mother greets him at the door.  At the kitchen table, Max explains why he’s dropping out of school, “These guys are Ivy League rich guys from the South and I can barely understand them half the time with their glee club bullshit.”

Immediately, I’m confused by Max’s dialogue.  I haven’t seen him in college, yet it seems to be a big deal to his Mother that he’s dropping out.  And though I’ve heard of Ivy League rich guys in the North, I’ve never heard about them in the South, since the Ivy League is practically a synonym for Northern elites.  He argues with his mother and leaves.  Cut to Max in bed making love to a girl.  Is it a dream, the future?  Not it’s in his parent’s home!  She goes out the window!  The Mother yells upstairs.  Next, the Mother, Father and Max are having dinner.  Max says, “I’ve decided I’m not cut out for college.” The Father yells at him that two generations of his family came to America and didn’t work hard so Max could ‘sink their good name for nothing.’

It seems a strange choice of words, ‘not cut out’ for college instead of ‘college isn’t right for me.’  And for immigrant Jews to be worried about their “name” in the 1960s, like some Mayflower ancestors, is just plain bizarre because we haven’t met any classmates or relatives. 

The Father storms upstairs and Max’s next narration throws the final bucket of cold water on my continued effort to get into the movie, “Dad wasn’t real good at the heart-to-hearts, but he was right, nothing is no kind of direction. Surround myself with movers and shakers, yeah, okay. Wonder what the boys are up to!”  the movie then cuts to a woman’s rear-end in bed.

I’m a bit taken aback. How can Max, narrating this story from the future, so glibly recount his decision at the time to drop out of college, which leads to his becoming a heroin addict, almost going to prison, and losing his family?  How can I relate to his dropping out of school?  What is special about his relationship to the Catholic girl?  I don’t know what it means for him to be Jewish, or his family, though his Jewishness is explicitly mentioned a few times in the movie.  

Further inhibiting my effort to get into the movie are technical glitches, starting with the audio.  Often, I can’t hear what a character is saying. 

Click to see larger image and detail of phone.

Remembering those phones

addiction_clip

One of the visual distractions is a 1960s era phone in Max’s porn dealer friend’s apartment.  It seems the filmmakers only had one phone-wire to use. In the first scene, the coiled wire goes from the wall into the base of the phone which is strange because the coiled wire always went from the base to the phone. Indeed, the phone company even made one of the coiled wire-connectors smaller so you didn’t get confused! A straight wire connects the base to the wall.

A few scenes later, the porn dealer answers the phone and we can see the coiled wire connects the handset to the wall, which would never work because it is the base of the phone that connects to the wall. I can understand a young filmmaker making this mistake, but L__’s brother, having lived in the 60s, should have immediately noticed the goof.  Or put another way, if one had entered that scene in real life, back in 1967, they would have immediately concluded that the guy on the phone was completely high! (In the movie he doesn’t act it).

Having a life-long interest in film, I can articulate all the mistakes L___’s brother made. They are errors discussed in every filmmaking book. We must either identify with the main character or become engrossed in the goal they’re trying to reach.  Max may have been a lovable college dropout in real life, and he may be nice to look at, but in the movie he’s boorish from start to finish. There’s no reason to root for him. Surrounding him is a cast of go-nowhere stereotypes. The dialogue is neither witty nor realistic.  I know that reads harshly, but wait…

All that said, for all the mistakes I’ve cataloged, for all my film-making knowledge, if someone gave me a million dollars tomorrow, to make my film, I would make similar mistakes.  I want to say this again, so it is clear I am not here to sling mud at this film.  L___’s brother made as good a film as I could ever hope to make myself.  

There’s a difference between knowing what doesn’t work and being able to do what does.  In the past 30 years I’ve learned this the hard way. Max probably read all the same film-making books I’ve read.  He’s probably viewed as many films as I have (otherwise, why make a screenplay L___ told me he had been working on for decades?)  Because I don’t know Max’s writing process I can only speculate with my own.  The following is why I have not been able to make a movie and why, if I was able to, it would probably turn out as flat as Addiction.

Like Max, I dropped out of school.  I didn’t become a heroine addict, but I certainly lived foolishly.  Why did I drop out of school?  Why, after I went back to school, did I take two incompletes during my last quarter?  (I eventually graduated only because my mother bought me a plane ticket back to Denver, 4 years later, to finish them.)  Was I, like Max, just looking for freedom and to hang out with girls?  Was I serious about being a writer?

What I do know is that all narrative work must greatly simplify the lives it portrays. That’s a problem because I cannot simplify my life, or the reasons I dropped out of school.  I think in complexities. I cannot pick that single thread.  Max, the writer of Addiction, could not pick a single narrative thread either.  He could not pick one driving motivation behind his dropping out of school and build on it.  Instead, he wrote a collection of scenes, many, I assume, based on his life, hoping the story would emerge from them, in our heads, the way they do in his.  That’s what I would end up doing too.  It wouldn’t work for me either.

When I was younger I believed screenplay writing was either good or bad.  Like so many others, I thought I would write well and others poorly, because I took writing seriously.  My only goal wasn’t fame, so I told myself.  I respected the skill, etc.  I read a lot of screenplays.  Now, after decades of watching movies I see that writers are separated not so much by their talent, but by the subject matter that engages them (and their audience).  What’s good for one audience, isn’t for another.  Most movies attract their audiences by subject matter.  You have Wes Anderson movies, super-hero adventures, chick-flicks, horror, etc.  No matter how many positive reviews a Wes Anderson movie might get, a superhero movie-goer is not going to go see the Wes Anderson movie if their Batman movie is sold out.

Why did I want to make films in the first place?  If there isn’t one story I’ll keep working on then what relation does my artistic goals have with the people I want to watch it; that is, if I’m going to write what others want to see (because I don’t have a definite idea of my own) , then shouldn’t I know why I’m the best person to serve them?  Who are those people?  I’m not sure.  The same people I want to avoid at large parties or events or even the movie-making set?  I want to be recognized, but I don’t know by whom, and even when, on some occasions when people have applauded me, I have felt very uncomfortable.  It did not make me happy.

I add everything up and I don’t see why I keep wanting to make movies or a web-series.  I’m not suited to it; I don’t naturally think in focused narratives.  I have many scripts and ideas for my web-series.  I can never get them right because when push comes to shove, I’d rather understand (re-write them) than entertain.  Having the intelligence to understand how movies are made isn’t the same as the skill needed to make them effectively.  

L___’s brother made his movie and I’m happy for him.  Perhaps he has freed me of my old ambition. His movie has brought down a curtain on mine.

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