“You maniacs! You blew it up! God, damn you, god damn you all to hell!”
shouts Charlton Heston’s George Taylor as he pounds the sand at the end of ‘Planet of the Apes’. After spending two hours trying to convince the apes that man is an intelligent species, Taylor comes across the Statue of Liberty half buried in a beach and he realises the horrifying truth: after drifting through space for hundreds of years he’d crash landed back on Earth.
There is a profound power to this sequence: I’ve seen the film tens of times, for years the picture on the front of the DVD was of Heston slumped on the beach with the Statue of Liberty towering over him and all the way through the film there are clues that Taylor is on Earth – yet when we see Taylor and Nova on horseback travelling along the beach and the camera pulls back to reveal those long spikes on Lady Liberty’s crown, I still feel a shiver. What must it have felt like to be an innocent audience member back in 1968 – someone who’d managed to miss all the teasers and spoilers – to be confronted with that final image?
Stories with a truly satisfying twist are few and far between (the twist at the end of Tim Burton’s 2001 ‘Planet of the Apes’ remake was just baffling and the current Apes sequence starts from the very beginning with Caesar as a child). But occasionally it does happen: I must confess I was completely clueless when I went in to see ‘The Matrix’ for the first time and I was as shocked as Neo to discover that the entire world was not what it seemed; I really had no idea what ‘The Usual Suspects’ was about nor any inclining as to who Keyser Soze was when I first saw Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s film; and I sat through the whole of Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ wondering where the hell Franklin was.
But for me the film that really gave me a sense of what those audience members must have felt back in 1968 is the Joe Eszterhas penned ‘Jagged Edge’. In it Glenn Close plays Teddy Barnes, a lawyer who hasn’t handled a criminal case for years, but is thrust into the limelight when she has to defend Jeff Bridges’ Jack Forrester who is accused of murdering his beautiful heiress wife. The brilliant and under-appreciated Peter Coyote is Thomas Krasny, the prosecutor who is convinced of Jack’s guilt. If you’re as obsessed with crime stories as I am the film has no real surprises: Jack and Teddy inevitably end up in bed together; Thomas doggedly pursues his version of the truth; and all the evidence seems to point to Jack as the culprit.
What you’re waiting for is that crucial piece of evidence that will turn the whole case on its head: the telephone records that show Jack was somewhere else; the surprise witness who saw Jack at such-and-such a place; the secret lover no one knew about.
That’s what you’re waiting for - even after Jack is found not guilty in a court of law you still want that piece of evidence that will put his innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt. And you wait. And you wait.
Until you get to the final sequence where Teddy is in bed with a gun in her hand and a masked intruder enters the room. He stands in front of her, calmly preparing to murder her. She shoots. The intruder collapses. Robert Loggia’s Sam Ransom runs into the room, takes in the scene and pulls off the intruder’s mask.
The script is so brilliantly constructed that I thought it could be anyone under that mask - even Peter Coyote.
But it isn’t. It’s exactly who it should be. And I sat there speechless, not quite knowing what to think.
“-a lot of these problems could be forgiven if Gravity didn’t commit the worst sin of all: being intensely boring.”
wrote Alan Evans in his Nov 2014 blog on The Guardian film site. It was a sentiment echoed by my son as we stepped out into the early October evening having just watched Alfonso Cuaron's ‘Gravity’ at the Gaumont Cinema in France. And it was an opinion shared by my colleagues at the BBC’s Writersroom who went to see the film on my recommendation.
I was flabbergasted – ‘Gravity’, boring?
When I stepped out into that October evening my brain was numb – I literally couldn’t think I was so overwhelmed. This sense of awe wasn’t because I had been sitting in the Gaumont’s largest screen marvelling at the technical wizardry (I try to avoid ‘making of’ documentaries before I see the film), nor because of the pared down narrative structure that takes Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and condenses it to its absolute essential beats and not because the film had a female lead in what would normally have been a man’s role.
I was completely and utterly overwhelmed because for the first time in my cinema-going life I shared a kinship with those nascent cinephiles who turned up to watch ‘L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat’ by the Lumiere Brothers in January 1896. The myth is that when the audience saw the train bearing down on them many screamed and ran to the back of the cinema. Completely silent and in one continuous take the train moves from long shot, to mid-shot to close up. In 1896 it was thrilling, enthralling and inexplicable: it was a piece of cinema.
And that is why I was so stunned by ‘Gravity’: it is an entity that couldn’t exist in any other medium – not as a novel, nor as a play, or as a television drama. ‘Gravity’ was a piece of entertainment that had to be seen on the biggest screen possible in a dark room with a crowd of people all grabbing onto their seats as Dr. Ryan Stone struggled to survive in space. From the opening 13mins single shot that weaves in and out of the astronauts and the shuttle, to the camera sliding into Sandra Bullock’s helmet so we get her POV and then sliding back out again, to the wide shots of the space capsule framed by the aurora in the bg, to the pull focus onto a single tear so we can see Bullock refracted in it, to the final low angle shot looking up at Bullock as she gets to her feet on dry land, a titan who has survived, everything about ‘Gravity’ screams cinema.
Of course it doesn’t have the weighty subtext of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, nor the popcorn operatics of Lucas’ ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ and not the feminist agenda of Ursula S. Guin - but it doesn’t set out to do any of these things.
‘Gravity’ sets out to be a piece of pure cinema and in that it succeeds.
“Well – nobody’s perfect.”
says Joe E. Brown’s Osgood Fielding III to Jack Lemmon’s Jerry at the end of ‘Some Like It Hot’ just after Jerry has whipped off his wig and confessed that he is a man and not the voluptuous hunk of female wonderfulness Osgood had fallen in love with.
I was reminded of this line recently in a meeting with a company exec. When asked what my big plan was, I answered, as I invariably do, to write a good romantic comedy. The exec harrumphed and dismissed this ambition because he was no fan of the rom-com. Well, I thought, nobody’s perfect.
The rom-com is synonymous with chic-lit, both of which are marketing constructs aimed at appealing to a certain section of the audience and, by implication, to exclude everyone else. But if your passion is for a good story well told, then you don’t really care about marketing constructs. And if you believe, as I do, that at the heart of every great story there is a love story, and that the primary purpose of entertainment is to entertain, then there is no greater form of narrative entertainment than a good romantic comedy.
And yet there is no feverish anticipation for the arrival of the next rom-com; no talk of creating a romantic comedy cinematic universe; no appetite at all for a ‘Some Like It Hot Again’ and a ‘When Harry Met Sally 2’.
We all know why rom-coms are derided, largely dismissed and treated with a profound lack of respect. Why, if they arrive at all, they are scheduled as counter-programming to the main event which is an effects laden behemoth aimed at teenage boys (films I quite enjoy having been a teenage boy myself once and now having a teenage boy of my own). And because of this profound lack of respect it is assumed that it is easy to make a rom-com when, of course, it isn’t.
You see this same lack of respect with entertainment produced for children. Stick a few aliens running around over there, a couple of sparkly explosions going off inexplicably over here and a few dim-witted adults falling over each other every so often and you have the perfect children’s story.
But then people like J.K. Rowling will come along, and John Lasseter and Ed Catmull at Pixar or Hayao Mayazaki at Studio Ghibli. People who know that great children’s stories aren’t childish.
Occasionally the same happens with the rom-com: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond knew that a good romantic comedy has the same requirements as any good story: interesting characters facing an intriguing dilemma with a satisfactory conclusion. Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner knew it, so did Ron Howard and Brian Glazer, and Tom Stoppard and John Madden and even Richard Curtis.
But the golden age of the romantic comedy has yet to come: the time when the rom-com isn’t counter-programming but is the main event; the time when we scour the entertainment pages to see when the next one will be out and who will be in it. The time when we treat stories that make us love and laugh with respect.
So the next time I’m in a meeting and an exec asks me what the big plan is, I’ll say what I always say: to write a good romantic comedy. Because someday I’ll meet someone who’ll say a good romantic comedy is the most perfect form of narrative entertainment. And we’ll start to talk about two characters who are so obviously right for each other from the moment they first meet and we’ll come up with intrinsic ways to keep them apart until the very last scene at which point they’ll fall into each other’s arms. And the audience will be with them all the way and will feel the joy when they finally get together.
Because all great stories are love stories - and a love story that also makes us laugh is like the brightest star in the night sky.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!"
Shouts Peter Sellers as President Muffley in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb”. He is addressing George C. Scott’s warmongering General Turgidson who has just grabbed Peter Bull’s Russian Ambassador.
Kubrick’s contribution to cinematic iconography is legendary: virtually every shot in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, his long tracking shots through the trenches in “Paths of Glory”, the oysters and snails scene in 'Spartacus', his slow-motion acts of violence set to classical music in “A Clockwork Orange”, the lifts opening to disgorge an ocean of blood in “The Shining”, the candlelit mannerisms of “Barry Lyndon” and the long, brutal takes of “Full Metal Jacket”.
But in that single line of dialogue he and his scriptwriters Terry Southern and Peter George did what we writers are constantly striving to achieve: in the fewest words possible they summed it all up.
True, the line doesn’t have the easy pop culture pleasing qualities of “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates”, “I’ll have what she’s having.” and “You had me at hello.” nor the genre transcending qualities of “May the force be with you” and “Live long and prosper” and certainly not the generation defining qualities of “As if!” and “The first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.” It will never top the tables of the most quoted film lines ever like “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
But “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” does what “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” did: it takes a complex issue and simplifies it without losing any of the complexity.
The line speaks to us of the unpleasant brutishness of fighting but the gentlemanly pursuit of waging war; of the disconnect between those who suffer and those who cause the suffering; of the difference between a perceived ignorance and those who assume a high-mindedness.
It was a line written at the height of the Cold War at a time of the Bay of Pigs and nuclear proliferation and yet it reminds us of Tony Blair’s and George W. Bush’s bromance and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.
It is a line that resonates with that other great oxymoron of conflict: The bigger the lie the more people who will believe it. A concept attributed to the English by Goebbels, refined by Hitler, and used to great effect in the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign.
In all its beautiful absurdness “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” is as relevant now as it was half a century ago and will be as relevant half a century hence.
It is, quite simply, a line that sums it all up.