Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Q. Didja notice "Bummy's Diner" in "Changeling" (where the kid to be exploited as Jolie's "son" is first seen with the drifter in DeKalb)? I just about cried when I saw that most appropriate of tributes -- and better yet, it's vintage 1920s signage on an exterior set that is itself a tribute to Bummy's school of authentic design. All of which makes this moment (see photo) one of the happiest encounters of my lifetime. Just under eight months later, Henry was gone. Jeff Shannon, Seattle
A. Henry Bumstead, who died in 2006 at 91, was a great Hollywood art director since 1946 and scenic designer since 1969. He worked on Clint Eastwood's last 10 films. He won Oscars for "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Sting." So much did Eastwood value him that he built a studio for Bummie next to the sound stage set of the boxing gym in "Million Dollar Baby." He was active to the end, taking on the formidable challenges of "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" (both 2006), where he re-created battles fought in 1945.
Q. Going to college in Movieland can't be very difficult. Class lectures last only about one minute to three minutes. The professor always picks up on "what we were talking about last week," offers an important plot point or piece of foreshadowing, and/or allows our hero the opportunity to answer a question in a unique or genius-revealing way. When the bell rings, mid-lecture or mid-meaningful closeup, professor reminds the students, "your papers are due this Thursday." Thursday nights must be very busy for movie TAs. Nick Renkoski, Los Angeles, CA
Q. In Ted Turner's new autobiography, he defends his decision to colorize classics like "Casablanca" by claiming that it makes them more accessible to young people. Could someone tell the guy that the kind of young person who would require a film to be in color before viewing it is the same kind of young person who wouldn't watch a film made before the year of their birth, regardless of its palette? Peter Fawthrop, Albuquerque, N.M.
A. Ha! He is making them available by defacing the experience. Children who refuse to watch B&W movies should be sent to bed without their supper until they change their minds. I remember years ago Ted Turner was speaking at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colo. Orson Welles had just warned him, "Keep your hands off of 'Citizen Kane.'" Luckily, Welles had a contract that protected the film from Turner's vandalism. Jane Fonda was in the audience. I stood up and asked Turner, "What are your plans for 'The Grapes of Wrath'?" There is a film whose very soul is B&W. Henry Fonda was nominated for his performance. Turner looked vaguely in the direction of his wife and replied, "We don't have any plans for it at the present time."
Q. I had inner unease when reading your review of "Quantum of Solace." I sensed a sarcastic tone when you mentioned that the "tragedy" Bond was trying to prevent was the overtake of Bolivia's water supply. More minor one than the domination of the world indeed, but also a true and painful memory for me and my fellow Bolivians. We actually had a "water war," ridiculously simplified in the film. Perhaps the film that better, not well but better, conveys the nature of our own "minor" Third World problems is "Our Brand Is Crisis," where liberal darling James Carville comes to aid one of our most corrupt and senseless right-wing politicians to get elected again, as our president, and bow down to the wisdom and kindness of our American and European brethren, thus prompting the protest and demise of more people tired of the ravage and insult that such "First World Love" has brought to our land. And now our "tragedy" is a source of their entertainment. A minor one, of course. Fred Arinez, La Paz, Bolivia
A. I had no idea the scheme was in any way based on fact, or I wouldn't have made light of it. Scary thought: I wonder if they didn't know? Or care? Which would reinforce your view of we Northerners. I wonder how the film will play in Bolivia. They'll probably dub in the name of another country. Hollow laugh.
Q. Read your review of "Song Sung Blue," about two of our favorite entertainers up here who do Neil Diamond covers. Has it ever occurred to you that "Holly Holy" and "The Godfather Theme" open with exactly the same melody? Lightning & Thunder Fan, Milwaukee, WI
A. "Godfather Theme" by Nino Rota, released 1972. "Holly Holy," by Neil Diamond, 30 years old, performing it live on the BBC in 1971: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQwqQwD6OOw. The two openings of the melodies sound very similar to me, but then the compositions head off in different directions. Neither to be confused with "Louie Louie."
A. I saw "Synecdoche, New York" at the Austin (Texas) Film Festival, and I of course loved it. But little did I know that Charlie Kaufman would be answering questions. So of course I had to ask one, but I messed up my wording. And he said, gasp, "I don't understand what you mean." I had such a weird feeling of regret because I think maybe someone who had a good, sensible question didn't get the chance to ask it. Should I be proud that I confused the writer of "SNY"? The question I wanted to ask him is whether his writing is carefully planned, or if he lets the writing take him wherever it wants. Stefan Gillson, Hungerford, Texas
A. As a serious writer, he would no doubt refuse to answer that question. So I will helpfully answer for him: He starts with the need to work. About "SNY," he has revealed, "Originally Spike Jonze and I were approached to do a horror movie." He stares into space. He solves a Rubik's cube with one hand behind his back. That inspires a plot. He visualizes some characters swooping in circles around that plot, wearing Jet Packs. They all look like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Catherine Keener.
Then Kaufman starts writing hard as hell with no idea about where he is going, like an American who won't use a map in Hyderabad. He arrives somewhere. He parks his computer and strolls around a little to see where he is. He discovers some intriguing curiosities. He takes a taxi back to where he started from. He drives his wife, Denise, and their kids crazy by complaining he is a failure, he is almost 50, his hair isn't as curly as it used to be, he doesn't know what the hell he's doing and he thinks he should barbecue a chilled shrimp with his screenplay. Denise says, "Charlie, if you don't know what you're doing, I certainly don't know what you're doing. Why don't you go bother your twin brother, Donald? You're good at that."
Charlie flies off to a film festival. This festival could be in hell and it would be an improvement. When he returns home he loads up his computer and tries to retrace his steps knowing what he knows now. He starts writing like hell again, arranging and changing, placing carefully there a strange thing and a known thing here. He crashes into a wall. When he regains consciousness, he is amazed to find there have been no injuries and during the blackout he has discovered a miraculous somewhere he has never traveled, gladly beyond any experience, "where your eyes," he tells Denise, "have their silence." Then he sends the screenplay in to Harold Ramis' agent.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...