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IMAGE VIA THE PARIS REVIEW ARCHIVES. PHOTOGRAPHS BELOW BY HILTON ALS.
“With a picture that doesn’t work, no matter how stupid and how bad, they’re still going to try to squeeze every single penny out of it,” the legendary director Billy Wilder remarked in 1996, in the Review’s first-ever Art of Screenwriting interview. “You go home one night and turn on the TV and suddenly, there on television, staring back at you, on prime time, that lousy picture, that thing, is back!” How many filmmakers might have been quietly struggling with similar emotions on Sunday night? We wouldn’t want to speculate, but we certainly did tune in to the Oscars. This week, why not revel in the kind of old-school glamour that’s beyond good or bad? Deborah Eisenberg’s story “Taj Mahal” dissects a cast of Hollywood actors, directors, and other eccentrics; the poet Chase Twichell conjures the anarchic spirit of a darkened theater in the afternoon; and in words and a series of ravishing photographs, Hilton Als allows himself “to dream the kind of movie [he] would make” about James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and his late sister. And don’t miss Wilder’s account of what Claudette Colbert said to her director, Frank Capra, when they wrapped the film that won her the Academy Award …
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The Art of Screenwriting No. 1
I remember those days in New York when one writer would say to the other, I’m broke. I’m going to go to Hollywood and steal another fifty thousand. Moreover, they didn’t know what movie writing entailed. You have to know the rules before you break them, and they simply didn’t school themselves. I’m not just talking about essayists or newspapermen; it was even the novelists. None of them took it seriously …
Pictures are something like plays. They share an architecture and a spirit. A good picture writer is a kind of poet, but a poet who plans his structure like a craftsman and is able to tell what’s wrong with the third act. What a veteran screenwriter produces might not be good, but it would be technically correct; if he has a problem in the third act he certainly knows to look for the seed of the problem in the first act.
From issue no. 138 (Spring 1996)
Grainy rather than glossy, melancholy sepia lighting, the lighting of loss—the movies Anton ended up making in Europe weren’t too different from the ones he had made in America. There were the misleading clues, the tightening spirals of danger, approaching footsteps, neighbors inexplicably appearing, reflections in mirrors or puddles or windows, obstructed views …
The European movies were as misinterpreted as the American ones had been, and briefly they were as popular. Then audiences in both Europe and America moved on to simpler, noisier, and less troubling movies.
From issue no. 214 (Fall 2015)
Bad Movie, Bad Audience
Matinées are the best time
for bad movies—squad cars
spewing orange flame, the telephone
dead in the babysitter’s hand.
Glinting with knives and missiles,
men stalk through the double
wilderness of sex and war
all through the eerie
fictions of the afternoon.
The audience is restless,
a wicked ocean roughing up its boats.
It makes a noise I seem to need.
From issue no. 124 (Fall 1992)
One book I think about a great deal when I consider all this—movies as escape, stories as reality, race as just one of life’s interesting impossibilities, my sister and her understanding of aesthetics as a trick and a truth—is James Baldwin’s book-length essay The Devil Finds Work. There Baldwin describes his relationship to movies, both as a spectator and as a writer of film scripts. (Spike Lee incorporated some of Baldwin’s original adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X into his scenario for Malcolm X, released in 1992.) I’ve long thought The Devil Finds Work would make a great American movie in the old Columbia Pictures style: Jeffrey Wright or a young Morgan Freeman, say, dressed as Baldwin in a white shirt and tie walking through a museum of pictures and commenting on some of the stills and the stars that mattered to his young gay self: Bette Davis, Sylvia Sidney, and the like.
From issue no. 223 (Winter 2017)
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