Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"It's Not The Same"

This post was inspired by a post I read yesterday on Ken Levine’s always-rewarding blog, bykenlevine.com. One of the things I appreciate about Ken’s blog – perhaps the thing I appreciate most – is that Ken mentions my blog in a list of blogs he recommends as worth checking out, and people come here because of that. Maybe some of them are you. Hello.

Yesterday, Ken offered his opinion on Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, which he liked but didn’t love. Our assessments are close on this movie, which I liked a lot, but didn’t love. Though I did love it in certain spots. But I also didn’t like it in certain spots. Add them together and divide them by the total number of spots, and it comes out “really liked but didn’t love.”

The part I liked the best was the structural conceit of, you’re walking down some quaint little side street in Paris, and an old car shows up and drives you to the 1920’s. This exercise in fantasy was masterfully executed. The Owen Wilson character, who was chauffeured to an earlier era, displayed precisely the right amount of incredulity at this unexpected turn of events. Woody Allen did not belabor the unlikelihood, nor did he did blithely shrug the situation off, consigning it conveniently to the category, “Stuff happens in movies.”

Either alternative would have compromised the moment. But like in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Woody Allen did it “just right.”

Ken’s less than rave response to Midnight in Paris was not what caught my attention, and – not exactly raised my hackles, but definitely stirred them around a little. My adrenalin perked up when Ken zeroed in on a particularly weak scene in the movie.

Needing a last-minute present to give somebody from the past, the Owen Wilson character appropriates his fiancee’s diamond earrings. The particularly weak scene involves his fiancee’s frantically searching for her earrings, while Owen stammeringly, and less than persuasively, tries to cover up.

I agree with Ken that this scene exhibited “lazy writing.” If this were a film school project, I, as Woody’s teacher, would have scrawled, “Upgrade!” across the scene’s indifferently written pages.

Having accurately identified the slackly written scene, Ken then, in my view, proceeds a bridge too far, by saying,

“On FRASIER we would do this type of scene every other week. And it would be packed with funny lines, whopper lies, great reactions.”

To which I say,

Ken. Anyone who wrote on Frasier can be indisputably proud of their accomplishments. But – and not meaning to be glib about it – there’s a reason there was no Frazier – The Movie.

Television comedy – and here, I am not referring to mini-movie sitcoms, like The Office and Parks and Recreation, but to comedies filmed in front of a studio audience, like Frasier – is an entirely different animal than feature film comedy. To criticize a movie scene for not measuring up to its sitcom equivalent, is like criticizing a rhinoceros for not having a trunk.

Not since the Bob Hope era were movies required, or expected to, fling rapid-fire one-liners at its audience. Movies proceed at an entirely different pace. There are considerably more scenes in movies, so a dependence on one “block comedy” scene – standard in the almost invariable six-scene sitcom – is not as essential. Movies also display a more naturalistic reality level, both in the situation, the thought processes of the characters, as well as the dialogue.

The fact is – and it’s what I resisted most vigorously when I was writing for television – the sitcom format itself is fundamentally artificial. (And way more than it needs to be.)

There are legitimate reasons for this. When you are required to turn out twenty-two episodes a year, you inevitably surrender to, let’s not say a formula, because it sounds “hacky”, but at least a template, so you are not re-inventing the wheel every single week.

Also, there is only so much space on a studio soundstage, limiting the number available sets to two “standing sets” – sets that were used on every episode, and one “swing” set – a restaurant, a doctor’s office, etc, a location needed to tell that particular story.

In addition, earlier on at least, as yet unavailable technology meant there were no monitors for the audience to view scenes that were not being shot directly in front of them, again limited the locational opportunities, which, in turn, constricted the storytelling options.

These logistical considerations generated a straightjacketing sitcom format comparable to a crossword puzzle, where structural maneuverability was at an, often frustrating, minimum, thus leading to a greater reliance on the jokes – virtually the only avenue for creative flexibility.

Two finishing points, possibly three. Throughout my career, I was continually berated for my inability to write jokes, despite the fact that my two most successful pilots, Best of the West and Major Dad, though conspicuously joke-lite, garnered enormous laughs from the audience, and, on occasion, applause.

You can definitely be funny without jokes. As proven, considerably more successfully, by Seinfeld, whose series concept is premised on natural-sounding, everyday conversation (between funny and hyper-observant people.)

Seinfeld also shattered the sitcom mold by multiplying the number of scenes in their episodes. Plus, the show regularly went outside, shooting “New York Street” locations on the studio backlot, in both cases serving the story rather than the Kabuki-like requirements of the situation comedy format.

“A character trying furiously to keep another character else from finding something out.” This is “Hide in the closet!” comedy, a staple in farces of all nations for centuries. Plays would do the scene one way. Sitcoms would handle it similarly, but faster, due to time constraints. And movies would execute the scene their own way, for want of a better word, and I’m getting tired ‘cause we’re nearing the end, cinematically.

Compare a lackluster Midnight In Paris “keeping them from finding out” scene with the brilliance of similarly motived scenes in Some Like It Hot, and I’d say, “Now you’re talkin’!”

But ya duzzn’t hasta compare it with sitcoms. Unless you’re arguing that, generally speaking, television comedies, judged in their own contexts, are better written than comedy movies.

In which case, I wholeheartedly agree.

10 comments:

Earl Pomerantz said...

Sorry. I messed up, and forgot to schedule this at the usual time. I hope you got to see it anyway. I'm thinking of letting it stay for another day, so everyone will get a chance to read it. What do you think?

Mac said...

Yes, leave it up. People (like me) usually check to see if we've missed any posts anyway. So readers will find it.
Interesting topic. I often try to figure out what it is that makes the comedy differ between film and sitcom. i did a film rewrite once where I came up with some jokes I know would have flown in a sitcom, but they stank in the film.
I suppose some of the old screwball movies could have been said to have had scenes which had the gag-rate of sitcoms, but there still has to be a different sensibility in the way a film's humor is rendered.
I'm not even sure what that last sentence means and I wrote it. You see how complicated it is? Or is it? I suppose "cinematically" is the word, which is a whole other load of descriptive stuff and this post's getting too long as it is.
Anyway cheers, thought-provoking stuff.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; you are right and Mr. Levine is wrong. If they were the same no one would pay to see a movie, they'd just stay home and watch TV. Yes, movie attendance has fallen as TV and other pursuits have come along, but given that movies still do quite well they must i/ have something people want, and ii/ there are not as satisfactory substitutes for that something.

Yeah, I have circular logic in there. I am trying to elaborate on the Earl is right Ken is wrong thing to appear clever.

-z

p.s. no need to apologize about the time, this one was worth the page refreshes.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr.Pomerantz; apologizing after doing a fine job - Wednesday's update posted on Wednesday - is very Canadian, eh?

-z

Shawn Green-Envy said...

I think I'll need some vodka, is there any left? I don't think Ken was comparing Frasier to any movie. I think he was using a somewhat polite way of saying "we" could write that scene in many ways and in fact, "we" have. He's written movies as well as television so he certainly knows the difference. That was my interpretation, anyway.

Don't your posts stay up indefinitely? Or did you mean you won't post something tomorrow, so this one is at the top of the list? My answer a resounding, "absolutely!"

Ken Levine said...

Thanks, Earl for a launching a fascinating discussion. Shawn Green-Envy stole my thunder. My point wasn't to compare film comedy with situation comedy; it was to point out that when scenes like that are constructed, whether they be for the big screen, little screen, or stage,there is the obligation of the writer to get the most bang for his buck. It doesn't have to be "jokes" per se. Often reactions or the rise in desperation as the lies grow in size produce laughs.

I used FRASIER merely because we did scenes very similar to the one in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. And regardless of the medium -- it's a hotel room set with a farcical situation in place.

But let's put FRASIER aside for the moment, especially if it muddies the waters. For an example of farcical situations where the dialogue just crackles and there isn't a wasted word I submit (and it's a movie), LOVE & DEATH written by Woody Allen.

Gnasche said...

Maybe Woody has the George Lucas syndrome - no one working for him is willing to question his decisions.

Particularly in his early, funny movies Woody would often have a writing partner. I have a feeling this was mostly because he was not yet comfortable with structuring a movie. However, it most likely led to him polishing scenes more than he does now.

PG said...

I agree with both you and Ken about that scene!
I just felt so uncomfortable with Rachel 'fumphing' around, looking, not only for earrings, but for actual dialogue as she happily reclined on his actors' now standard fall-back position of doing an impression of Woody (see Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Scarlett, Tea, Kenneth, Christina....and on and on).
You guys are focussed on the content of the dialogue, as writers should be. But there's more to it. As a member of the audience (and a long-time Woody fan, except since Mighty Aphrodite) I find my ears are constantly irritated with the singsongy inflections and stumbling pauses that intrude in many scenes like this one and sometimes in entire movies in which the actors seem to be abandoned by the script.
Since when should ALL the characters in a film sound exactly alike? Why is ok if they sound like they're talking AT each other rather than to each other in a real conversation?
Do you think this is a result of his rumoured tendency to allow actors to 'improvise' rather than actually create full characters with dialogue that SOUNDS like it comes from them?
Maybe that's why they all think he wants them to sound just like him.
Meanwhile, with all the comparisons to his other films, nobody ever mentions one of his absolutely best films which stands up to repeated viewing, with a huge cast of well-rounded characters, none of whom sound like each other or like him......Radio Days.
Of course, he is the narrator, so you get his direct, authentic voice....without the cliched 'fumphings', by the way.
But I did love the Paris in the past scenes....even though a person in front of me turned to her friend and asked who Ernest Hemingway was!

Zaraya said...

Dr Messrs Pomerantz and Levine; I should have read Mr. Levine's work first. Clearly he was saying that the writing in "Midnight in Paris" was lazy in one scene. A scene similar to many that Mr. Levine had written for Frazier. A scene with lots more potential for comedy. But he doesn't come out and say that it should be done better as in a sitcom, just that this sort of scene is well worn in many genre and Mr. Allen should have 1/ known the history of such scenes, and 2/ written a better one for his movie.

Mr Levine you're not wrong (I regret the accusation); and Mr. Pomerantz you're not wrong either, a sitcom treatment wouldn't work in a movie, but I don't think your friend said quite that.

-z

Earl Pomerantz said...

It goes without saying that everybody should do the best they can in the genre they're working in, though I just said something that went without saying, suggesting I need to do better in the genre of comment writing.

I appreciate all the thoughtful responses, and I'm especially grateful for Ken taking time out from calling balls and strikes to write in.

My only point, and looking back, it is hardly an earthshaking one, is that it is not useful to compare genres, even in the context of the writing of a similar-type scene.

I have written elsewhere (in my blog, not in another comment) about the greatest sitcom directors having surprising difficulty with the transition to movies. I feel similarly about writers. Not that it can't be done - pretty much anything can be done with the appropriate motivation and mental application - but few of the greatest sitcom writers have made a successful jump into features. Larry David, who you know I revere, wrote a terrible movie. Though it might well have made a terrific episode of "Seinfeld."

Next time, when critiquing something, I will try and focus on the "big picture." And avoid the niggling.

Nobody likes a niggler. And I agree that this antipathy is fully justified.