Saturday, August 09, 2003

Having to Kill Your Darlings and (eventually) a review of Secretary

One of my favorite pastimes whilst floating in the great sea of the unemployed is reading cook books. "Cook books" is a term a good writer friend of mine uses for books on how to write.

TLD: The best ones are On Writing by Stephen King, The Art of Fiction by John Gardener, and William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? , though the prior is the better one for those on a budget. I have read a couple cook books by women writers, but they've been the "literary" type of writer, so there's not much useful advice on writing, and a whole lot of greasing the pole on *hack* literary theory. We need Anne Rice or someone who charts regularly to give as an "how to" opus, methinks. I recommend both that Dean Koontz has written because he provides strait-ahead, no bullshit practical advice on plotting, characters, tone, and particularly succinct style - getting across the most info in the least amount of time. (I sometimes still struggle with that, clearly.)

The screenwriting cook books, and a lot of director's commentaries on DVDs, have a common theme: Eventually, you have to kill your darlings. This means that you might write something you like very much, but when you are constructing the final version of the work, it just doesn't fit somehow, and you have to take it out - kill your darlings. Shalyman waxes poetic on this quandary on the commentary to Signs, which you should see anyway, if you haven't.

So, I recently wrote a review on the movie Secretary, and I attempted a tone piece on another experience that gave me the same sensation as the movie, leading into the review itself. I liked it very much, but it was the kind of material you have to deliver in person, perfectly inflected, to a small audience, preferably over beers, to not come off as a complete pervo slime that can't be trusted alone with the sheep (with apologies to Gene Wilder).

TLD: It's fun to watch Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask with someone who's only and fondest memory of Gene Wilder is his portrayal of Willie Wonka. First, their eyes open wide, then the face falls, then the mouth drops open, then there's usually some disgust-laced babble around the subject of sheep in garters. 'Tis wicked fun.

Well, the outgassing stops here. Let's get to the mostly salvaged review of Secretary:

Secretary is a sweet love story. A sweet love story about two people who like self-abuse and BDSM (Bondage Discipline Sado Masochism) who discover one another in this big, bad world.

Watching two supremely fucked-up people fall into each other's orbit and then realize they've discovered a kindred spirit was sometimes repellent, yet always compelling. While I often wished they weren't so damaged, I also reveled and marveled at the fact that two people so inherently doomed could possibly be on the way to a happy ending.

TLD:Unlike many films snobs, I have nothing against happy endings. Or even endings that bring some sort of resolution to the events. On the director's commentary to the abysmal Laurel Canyon (the only highlight thereof being a sometimes-nekkid Francis McDormand) the clueless director says she didn't tack on an ending because she believes that real life doesn't have endings. Just goes to show you how young she is, for one. Also shows how little she's paying attention, for another. Life is full of endings and beginnings, and most things it your life have some sort of resolution, don't they? Of course! So, so much for that theory, eh?


James Spader is supremely creepy yet still alluring in the way that perhaps only he can be. I can't think of another actor who consistently pulls off that particular vibe, kinda like you can always feel the arrogance behind any character Val Kilmer plays. You always loathe a James Spader character on some level, but still mourn for him when he is crushed like a bug. (He, unfortunately, is one of those people whose looks changed considerably as the got older. If you put pictures of him in this movie next to those of his younger roles, you would pick him out as the same actor eventually. However, folks who don't follow movies avidly would not associate this guy with the guy in Pretty in Pink.) Spader has become for me one of those actors whose films I'll see solely on the basis that he's in it.

Maggie Gyllenhaal had perhaps one of the more interesting challenges for an actress I've seen in a while - an even bigger challenge than Angela Bettis in the recent horror flick May. You've got to like, admire, deeply pity, and want to fuck this girl (assuming that's your preference, natch) all at once. Fortunately, she's one of those most blessed actresses I'm aware of in terms of her looks - not to take away from her chops as an actress of course. She has the very unique distinction in that she can look as homely as it gets, but then she can transform into an utter beauty. Model-pretty actresses can rarely get hideous enough for you to buy the ugly duckling phase of their character arc, such as Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, or the actress in The Princess Diaries. When we first see Gyllenhaal, she's stunning in her business attire and handcuffs, and in the very next scene set six months earlier, it takes a moment to register that this potato-faced wreck is the same girl.

Suffice to say the acting is superb, which always astounds me on small films. For instance, Dazed and Confused has some of the best acting you'll see on a small production, most of it nearly flawless. It also launched the careers of at least five well-known actors.

The tender surprise overall though is the love story, because after you boil it down and take away all the spanking, blood, scars and control freak behavior, it is essentially just a story of two people finding each other in the static of their own maladjustments which typically run counter to themselves, intimacy, and romance. Which is a feat something like finding an edible Hershey's kiss at the bottom of a freshly unearthed kimchee jar.

One of my favorite guilty pleasures in films is great love stories in the center of larger, weirder events. Movies like Starman, Brainstorm, and Altered States are all really just love stories wrapped in funky, electrically-charged tinfoil wrappers that shock you a little before you get to the gooey center.

Secretary joins my list of twisted, but fun, love stories.

The director's commentary is as much of a squirm-fest as the movie itself, by the way. The two creators of the film are so into their film school affectations that it's more than a little embarrassing to listen to. You feel like more of a voyeur during the commentary than you do during the movie proper. And, to top that off, their comments on how tender and loving these two BDSM folks are in the midst of their abuse of one another are surreal. ("You can tell he's really connecting with her." Yeah! With every stroke! "Each scar is like a window to her soul" Um, ewwww!) You get the distinct impression this movie might be an accidental autobiography, and they both have on handcuffs and nipple clamps whilst commenting. Some day when I have the time I'm going to go back and see if I can detect the subtle sounds of a lit cigarette being pressed onto skin, or a lash slapping a bruised buttock between comments. You can tell they were at least in the dark when they recorded the commentary (in the same way you can actually hear Kurt Russell and John Carpenter popping open beers during the commentary to The Thing).

I suggest this movie for anyone who likes out-of-the-way, odd films that are still legitimately engrossing (as opposed to lumps of waste like Laurel Canyon), but I do not recommend it to anyone whose tastes runs along the lines of Bad Boys II or Legally Blonde, not that there's anything wrong with that.

No comments: