March 28, 2015

#6: Lost in the Maze

In this ten-part series I study the screenplay of ‘Casablanca’ by breaking it down to its several aspects. Click here and read from down upward for the entire series.

“He is a difficult customer, that Rick. One never knows what he’ll do or why.”

Story Covered in Part 6: Next morning, Laszlo and Ilsa reach Renault’s office. Strasser asserts that he will not let Laszlo escape, unless he rats on some of the resistance leaders. Laszlo passionately declines. He is then informed that Ugarte is dead. Desperate to find a way out, Laszlo and Ilsa meet Ferrari, who monopolizes the black market. He is scared to help Laszlo but offers to get a visa for Ilsa. She refuses to leave Laszlo alone despite his insistence. Ferrari then informs them about the letters of transit that Ugarte must have left with Rick. Earlier, Ferrari has offered Rick to partner and benefit from those letters but Rick does not acknowledge possessing those. He meets Ilsa at the bazaar and tries to resume last night’s conversation, but she is very hurt and reveals to him that Laszlo is her husband and even was when Rick and Ilsa had met in Paris. Also, the Bulgarian couple is trying their best to get their visas and it seems accepting Renault’s terms is the only option for them.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 61-66: Laszlo and Ilsa meet Renault and Strasser. The Bulgarian couple’s visa problem comes to Renault.
  • Pg 66: At the black market, a native suggests a Frenchman to visit Ferrari to get his job done.
  • Pg 67-69: At the Blue Parrot, Ferrari persuades the Bulgarian couple to talk to Renault. Rick has come to collect his shipment while his café is being ransacked. Chats with Ferrari.
  • Pg 70-72: At the black market, Rick meets Ilsa.
  • Pg 72-75: Laszlo and Ilsa meet Ferrari.
Structure: After spending close to half of the movie at Rick’s Café, the Second Act has not only thickening of action, but complication of structure. There are as many as four long and important scenes in this part covering the second day of the story. The order of the scenes, characters criss-crossing each other, especially the use of the Bulgarian couple, is unsettling and adds a physical component to the emotion of being trapped and lost that our characters are going through.

The Character arc:
  • Rick: Hugely popular, even among small vendors, Rick is too much of a man to apologize to Ilsa without defending himself or hurting her even further. But when she attacks him with a secret she had always hid, he is left stunned more than ever.
  • Ilsa: She is in no mood give themselves another chance at explaining things and hopes that by avoiding each other she will be able to preserve the beautiful memory of Paris. But when Rick gets increasingly insulting, and repeatedly taunts at her character, she shatters his perception of their romance forever. Perhaps the most shocking revelation of the film: “Victor Laszlo is my husband… and was, even when I knew you in Paris” although true, is not the complete truth. She only wants to hurt him badly. She now feels closer to Laszlo than to Rick. No doubt, she refuses to leave him alone and get visa for herself, showing her loyalty and devotion to him.
  • Victor Laszlo: Our admiration for him keeps growing. He is fearless and loyal to his cause. When proposed with the idea of ratting on his colleagues, he not only refuses, but he challenges and threatens the Nazi Major. He truly loves and cares for Ilsa and wants her to leave him and escape. As Ferrari observes, in this respect Laszlo is “a very fortunate man”. We start to root for their relationship around this time in the film.
  • Major Strasser: He is ruthless and mean. He is the true antagonist, unlike Renault who is funny and corrupt. He talks sharp and threatens out of habit.
  • Captain Renault: His admiration for Rick is getting more and more visible. Also, we get to see how excitedly he volunteers to ‘help’ pretty, young girls. Unapologetically immoral, and very funny – he is one unforgettable character.
  • Ferrari: The “leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca”, he starts drinking early in the day. He is corrupt and openly so. He is also “a fat hypocrite” who lives only to make money. He is influential and pretends that he is “respected”.
Sub-plots:
  • The Bulgarian couple appears before us twice in these fifteen pages. This clearly suggests that their sub-plot is going to be of some use soon.
  • Ugarte is dead. So his sub-plot is officially over.
Tools Employed:
  • Rising Tension and thickening of action in the Second Act: Plot-wise, so much has been covered in the sixty per cent of the script that we know the delayed set-up did not eventually harm in any way. And this is because everything is getting more and more complicated – the affairs of Laszlo, Rick, Ilsa, the Bulgarian couple, as well as the antagonists because despite their control over the situation they are not getting what they want – the letters of transit and information about Laszlo’s colleagues.
  • Shocking revelation: The revelation that Laszlo is Ilsa’s husband for a very long time is a shock, more so to Rick, but also to us. And since it is timed so well, and comes out of character motivation rather than convenience, it works marvelously.
  • An additional but insignificant character may add more conflict and meanings to a scene: The Arab vendor trying to sell linen to Ilsa has no role in the plot. But his presence makes things more conflicted. In fact, when he starts lowering the price in the presence of Rick, we know he is trying to literally “sell” Rick to her. How hurt she is gets accentuated by this insignificant character supporting Rick. And before the conversation gets more intimate, he goes off to get more linen for Ilsa.
  • Transitions to smoothen out the edges of scenes when, spatially and chronologically, they are not very seamlessly connected: The first scene ends with Renault mentioning the black market and readying himself to meet the Bulgarian couple. We cut to the black market where there is a short transition scene to introduce ‘The Blue Parrot’ before we go there. Once inside, we see the Bulgarian couple in conversation with Ferrari before Rick starts his chat with him. This shows that some time has passed since the 10am scene at Renault’s office.
  • Cover a character or plot hole by voicing it through a character: There can be no explanation to why the greedy and cunning Ferrari shares with Laszlo the information about Rick having the letters of transit. But it is essential for the plot. Hence, instead of leaving the audience to spot this character inconsistency and writer’s convenience, Ferrari wonders aloud – “I am moved to make one more suggestion. Why, I do not know, because it cannot possibly profit me”.
  • MacGuffin: The letters of transit were driving the film even before it began (murder of the German couriers), and they will be driving the film until the very end. So yes, it is that tangible object the film is chasing, but the film is so much more than that. Hence, this is a perfect example of what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin.
Conventions Broken:
  • Every scene should be vital to the plot or at least for character exploration: The short transition scene of a native talking to a Frenchman about Ferrari is not important plot-wise. But it is very important film-wise. One, it builds Ferrari as the uncrowned king of the black market and hence the scenes that follow can be more powerful dramatically without bothering to share this information. Two, showing more insignificant characters and the world of Casablanca is a visual relief. But most importantly, this short scene is like a breathing space – it is there only to help us relax for a bit, before the story involves us again. This final purpose of this scene is something even good writers fail to consider. In most Hindi films, songs provide that breathing space. At times there is too much of that at the cost of plot. In great scripts, it is just apt.
Themes: The theme of virtues, of value system, against the harsh realities of life is perhaps the most universal and timeless theme of ‘Casablanca’. After mid-point, when we know a lot about the characters and their back-stories, we can look beyond the plot into their value systems. This segment, apart from being vital to the plot, is a great insight into that – from Laszlo’s fearless patriotism, to Ilsa’s devotion to him, from the Bulgarian couple’s vulnerability to Renault’s shameless tendency to exploit them, and from Ferrari’s corrupt, but still inexplicably tender, self to Rick’s influential, powerful but bitter and petty state at the moment. In this segment, in fact, Rick has almost lost Ilsa to Laszlo, thanks to his heartless approach toward healing the wounds of the past. Even we feel like rooting for Ilsa and Laszlo, looking at their selfless love. Virtues against harshness of life – we are participating in this battle.

Standout scene: For reasons mentioned above, the scene between Rick and Ilsa at the Arab vendor’s shop has to be one of the most powerful scenes in cinema.

What is the audience expecting: The film has beautifully made the personal life of Rick the biggest conflict to the political journey of Laszlo and Ilsa. At the end of this part as they get to know about Rick possessing the letters, we know it will boil down to Rick’s willingness to save Laszlo, Rick who “sticks out his neck for nobody.”

March 23, 2015

Modern Masters #1: Michael Haneke

TSPDT's latest list of the 1000 most-acclaimed films of this century is out. Based on that, I have selected filmmakers with the most impressive filmographies since 2000. Their ranking considers two aspects - how many of their films feature in Top 1000, and what is the respective rank of each of these films on that list.

"I give the spectator the possibility of participating. The audience completes the film by thinking about it"

MICHAEL HANEKE

Austrian filmmaker who turns 73 today, the senior-most on this list

Has directed seven films since 2000, six of which feature in Top 1000. But his movies are ranked so high that his total score surpasses film-makers with seven or more movies. Cache (2005) is highest ranked at #10, followed by The White Ribbon (#48), The Piano Teacher (#50), Code Unknown (#66) and Amour (#69). Time of the Wolf is ranked #460.

Trivia: Shares his birthday with Akira Kurosawa! Haneke has made films in French, German, as well as English.

So the final list of "Filmmakers with the Most Impressive Filmographies since 2000" (as on March 2015):

1. Michael Haneke
2. Richard Linklater
3. Joel and Ethan Coen
4. Jia Zhangke
5. Wes Anderson
6. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
7. Steven Spielberg
8. Martin Scorsese
9. Claire Denis
10. Christopher Nolan

March 22, 2015

Modern Masters: Recap

It has been an exciting exercise, to go through this list of 1000 most acclaimed films of the 21st century and score the directors to determine those with the most impressive filmography in last fifteen years. Before revealing the top ranked director, I thought of writing a brief post to recapitulate.

Let me also share with you how I created this list. Each film featured in the list got scores on the basis of its rank. So the highest rated movie 'In the Mood for Love' got a thousand points, while the movie ranked 1000, '8 Women' got one point. Every director got a total score of all his/her movies featuring in the list. So Wong Kar-wai got 1000 points for 'In the Mood for Love', 940 points for '2046' (ranked 61) and 426 points for 'The Grandmaster' (ranked 575). Thus, his total score was 2366. Despite one of his movies holding the top rank, he could not feature in the top ten because there are directors with six or seven movies in the list, and their total score beats Wong Kar-Wai's. Also remarkable is the fact that Steven Soderbergh who has as many as nine movies in the list could not make it to top ten as his total score was low, because of four movies outside top 750. By using this method, this scoring favors directors with most high-ranked movies over those with few high-ranked or those with several low-ranked ones. Thus, my top 10 is actually "the directors with most impressive filmography in 21st century".

I was glad to see Christopher Nolan's name in the list. He definitely deserves to be there. But then, I was happy that there were nine directors who scored more than him. This meant this list is beyond box-office and popular appeal. This was proved further when I saw Caire Denis at the ninth position. I have watched only one of her films and did not know that she has several very acclaimed films. She is the highest rated French director and the top woman director as well.

To see Scorsese (#8) feature in this list was very reassuring. It meant the master has been relevant even in this century, although one may argue that most of his great films were made before 2000. I had a similar feeling with Spielberg (#7), although I would wish him to rank below Scorsese.

The presence of Apichatpong Weerasethakul at #6 shows what an impressive reputation this Thai auteur has created for himself. I have not seen much of his work and I'm sure this series will inspire me to do that. The presence of Jia Zhangke at #4 is also very fulfilling. I have seen a couple of his films and would love to watch all. The presence of two Asian film-makers in top six also illustrates this region's rise in world cinema over the last twenty-five years.

I was also happy to see that although this list is, as expected, dominated by American film-makers, the top ranked ones are not from mainstream, but those who have created a voice of their own. Wes Anderson (#5), the Coens (#3), and Richard Linklater (#2) are among those American film-makers whom the entire world respects for their contribution to cinema. Finding the Coens at a rank as high as #3 was a delight. They are among my very favourite filmmakers and I have watched all their sixteen films. And of course, finding Linklater at #2 was a very special and emotional moment for me. I think he is my most favourite film-maker today. I'm not that sure because there are several others who could not feature in top ten, but perhaps he is right at the top of my personal favourite list.

So, who is the top director? Well, I most humbly accept that it was OK to see Linklater and the Coen Brothers lose to this master. I'll give you a hint. Tomorrow is when I reveal the name of the winner. Tomorrow also is his birthday!

There are 29 movies from 2014 on this list. I'm sure 2015 will bring some great movies that will replace others when a new list is compiled by the website next spring. I'll then create a new list of top 10 directors, and I truly hope a serious re-ordering and some new entries!

March 21, 2015

Modern Masters #2: Richard Linklater

TSPDT's latest list of the 1000 most-acclaimed films of this century is out. Based on that, I have selected filmmakers with the most impressive filmographies since 2000. Their ranking considers two aspects - how many of their films feature in Top 1000, and what is the respective rank of each of these films on that list.

"You have to keep your faith in the fact that there are a lot of intelligent people who are actively looking for something interesting, people who have been disappointed so many times." 

RICHARD LINKLATER

54-year old American filmmaker

Has directed eleven films since 2000, seven of which feature in Top 1000: Before Sunset (2004) is highest ranked at #38, followed by BoyhoodWaking LifeBefore MidnightSchool of RockA Scanner Darkly, and Bernie.

Trivia: While his latest film has earned fame for being shot and telling a story over twelve years, as many as six of his films are set over less than twenty-four hours, making him among the most audacious film-makers with respect to their experiment with time.

March 20, 2015

Modern Masters #3: Joel and Ethan Coen

TSPDT's latest list of the 1000 most-acclaimed films of this century is out. Based on that, I have selected filmmakers with the most impressive filmographies since 2000. Their ranking considers two aspects - how many of their films feature in Top 1000, and what is the respective rank of each of these films on that list.


"Where would it get you if something that's a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn't get you anywhere."

JOEL AND ETHAN COEN

American filmmaker-duo, respectively 60 and 57 years in age.

Have directed nine films since 2000, seven of which feature in Top 1000: No Country for Old Men (2007) is highest ranked at #23, followed by A Serious ManInside Llewyn DavisO Brother, Where Art Thou?True GritThe Man Who Wasn't There, and Burn After Reading.

Trivia: The Coen Brothers have always had the right to final cut on all their films. However, they reportedly never watch their films once completed.

March 19, 2015

Modern Masters #4: Jia Zhangke

TSPDT's latest list of the 1000 most-acclaimed films of this century is out. Based on that, I have selected filmmakers with the most impressive filmographies since 2000. Their ranking considers two aspects - how many of their films feature in Top 1000, and what is the respective rank of each of these films on that list.

"People have advised me to shoot a film that ends with the world getting better. It's such a strange suggestion. I like to shoot the rain. Why do you want me to shoot the sun coming up?"

JIA ZHANGKE

44-year old Chinese filmmaker

Has directed six films since 2000, ALL of which feature in Top 1000: Platform (2000) is highest rated at #17, followed by Still LifeThe WorldUnknown PleasuresA Touch of Sin, and 24 City.

Trivia: Apart from these six features, he has made as many as 13 shorts and documentaries since 2000.

March 18, 2015

Modern Masters #5: Wes Anderson

TSPDT's latest list of the 1000 most-acclaimed films of this century is out. Based on that, I have selected filmmakers with the most impressive filmographies since 2000. Their ranking considers two aspects - how many of their films feature in Top 1000, and what is the respective rank of each of these films on that list.

"Anytime I make a movie, I really have absolutely no idea how it's going to go over."

WES ANDERSON

45-year old American filmmaker

Has directed six films since 2000, ALL of which feature in Top 1000: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is highest rated at #39, followed by Moonrise KingdomFantastic Mr. FoxThe Grand Budapest Hotel, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeing Limited.

Trivia: Different of Anderson's films have been nominated at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, as well as the Oscars, but have never won the top prize.

March 17, 2015

Modern Masters #6: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

TSPDT's latest list of the 1000 most-acclaimed films of this century is out. Based on that, I have selected filmmakers with the most impressive filmographies since 2000. Their ranking considers two aspects - how many of their films feature in Top 1000, and what is the respective rank of each of these films on that list.

"Film is like a drug. It is a shelter when you cannot deal with reality."

APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL

44-year old Thai filmmaker

Has directed six feature films in his career, all since 2000, five of which feature in Top 1000. More remarkable is the fact that four of his movies are among the top 52: Tropical Malady (2004) is highest rated at #13, followed by Blissfully YoursUncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesSyndromes and a Century, and Mysterious Object at Noon.

Trivia: Since he made his first short film at the age of 23, he has made almost twenty-five short films and documentaries. Even in his feature films, he often blurs the line between fact and fiction.