You cannot adjust your set. If you went to the movies in the past decade and gave your time to a film with any quantity of spandex, you might have left feeling witness to a regurgitation. Perhaps it left you queasy. Perhaps it left you bored. More and more, Hollywood is telling the same story, moving around the same perfect faces to the same tax-efficient setting for the same swollen third act, good word of mouth, buy the toy, don't forget the prequel.
Have sympathy for the studio exec. William Goldman's successes earned him enough freedom — and courage — to risk saying that 'nobody knows anything' in Hollywood; the junior executive in a greenlight committee can't stoop to the level of honesty while remembering the full horror of his kid’s orthodontic needs and his own student loans . Remakes and sequels give everyone — audiences too — the appearance of risklessness and they make a nice scapegoat when things cockup. "If The Dark Knight did well, is it really our fault that Suicide Squad was vomitous?" (A case could be made.)
Each of us needs comfort when confronting the unknown. And in the stuffed prop closet of Hollywood horrors, no being is so unknown and so frightening as the blank space that is story. It is an unquantifiable, a felt thing that is immune to spreadsheets and the oracle of idiot testing. It is invoked as a mantra by charlatans. Worst of all, it is important. In some form or another, it is why the lights are on at night in L.A.
Comfort comes in the form of the story guru. They promise a formula; unlike many of L.A.’s other gurus, you can have at their wisdom for the price or a paperback or, if you feel particularly unwashed, for the price of a 3-day seminar at the airport Bonvoy. Fine. While they’ve been around for ages (the ideas for even longer), the want seems stronger and their advice has shifted from the descriptive (McKee’s Story) to the prescriptive (Save the Cat). They promise to be the last thought on screenwriting you’ll need and, if you’re the kind of person who wants to put an end to thinking, it might serve you well.
It would feel great to pile on (I think Slate has it covered), to blame the formula for all the formulaic visions of heroism you have seen since 2009, but that would leave us with precisely the kind of one-dimensional villain that’s part of the problem. There are some good jumping off points there. And note this on the absence of structure: we’re at paragraph five here and I’ve yet to get to the films I'd like to talk about.
What you lose with these rigid structures is surprise and rhythm. Comfort and Joy and Life is Sweet are incalculably rich in their feeling for life and in their looseness. Their amorousness says a lot about Bill Forsyth and Mike Leigh as people and is present in Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, Happy Go Lucky, Another Year, and pretty much every film these directors have worked on, comedic or tragic, bungled by the studios or not. Any attempt at finding a source — childhood, a particularly good day, paying attention right — would just leave us with a series of adjectives and speculations. It's not their own voice so much as their own character.
Their looseness, on the other hand, is something we can tighten down on. It mainly takes place in the space between scenes, but take this example from the beginning of Comfort and Joy anyway. It's third in the playlist.
Maddie leaves about 10 minutes into a film that spends the first 10 minutes carefully, lovingly setting up a film that seems every bit this couple’s story. So, if the goal is to fall in love fast and then be blindsided by an exit, can you think of a better way to do this than to take our time with three scenes that fade into the next with no agenda except to cosy us up? Decisions like this (there are many) broaden this film out from the simple story of a sad bachelor and ice-cream van turf wars. They are affectionate.
I’ve said it before: we don’t know enough about the future to be comfortable. But we can have faith. Forsyth was a documentarian, and Leigh works about as closely as one can with actors. Their faith is placed in people — that people fascinate people. Forsyth’s camera hangs long and invites strangers into the frame, friendly-like, even if just for a second. A whole world is suggested. Leigh, similarly, knows that actors can feel a scene the same way you’ll feel frissons when you meet the person you love. If it works for them, it will work for the couple at the box office. You can’t make a formula of this so much as be open to it.
Unlike his later film Another Year, we don’t know how long we have in Life is Sweet. It feels like a summer but that also feels unimportant beyond being a moment in time for a family. You (certainly I) happily go with it as it moves between comedy and small tragedy. There is some menace, threatening to spoil things like rain, but it too passes. As much as the film states its purpose — and this holds for Forsyth’s films too — then it is in a well-known later scene with mum Wendy (Alison Steadman) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks).
I can’t be certain you’ve seen the film, so I’ll just describe the scene in the loosest terms (conscience clear, link here if you prefer). Story gurus drone on about conflict and I think a largeness is incorrectly inferred when they do so. Leigh et al. have everyone avoiding rows as it’s kindest to do so — it’s in character, it's the number one way people deal with unpleasantness. This is the only shouting match and Wendy only raises the volume out of love. And she says — butchering this in the worst way possible — not to give up, that live is hard but life is also sweet and it endures.
“It says to me here’s a man who hasn’t given up.”
There’s a nice gesture that breaks up the rhythm two-thirds of the way in. After a series of minor catastrophes befall her — and, while she meets them full on, they are beginning to seem unbearable — Wendy’s husband gives her her tea in bed. It is a quiet apology. It takes just an extra five seconds for her to sip her tea and to rest but it feels like that bit in the inflight where they tell you to put on your mask before you help others. It is modest but it is enough. It's not a grace note but essential and as much the start of things as the end of a sequence, the exhale before our mood shifts. It’s the kind of specific structure that a filmmaker can discover when working with his story rather than some formula. It does what it asks: to pay attention to life.
I hate to have glossed over these films as a statement of purpose. I return constantly to these directors, and hopefully on this site too. Forsyth does a great job of working with ensembles. He constructs personalities for characters who appear only briefly without resorting to the gross caricatures we see in Fellini. Leigh has these scenes that turn and turn and turn in amazing and envious ways. Both are masters of trickier tones, the wistful, slight, the small mood. Doesn’t that seem real?
Scattered thoughts: finally, films about Scotland and middle-class England that aren’t bleak, pessimistic, or about heroin; what a primary colour scheme can do to stylise our surroundings; how vanity is the greatest source of comedy and comeuppance; how to laugh at someone and care for him at the same time; between sympathy and empathy; nice, lost scores; and the great, drawn out meet-cute, meet-Mr. Bunny in Comfort and Joy.
 This might be is the purest expression of Fitzgerald’s axiom on a first-rate intelligence, or how loathsome it feels to be forced into dishonesty.
 Do we not see this in the world too? This high contrast, simplifying of things? Give me an enemy, give me a quick fix, preferably in bullet points, power points, pictures, or an original-length tweet. Even the top of this piece takes the tone of a rant, tho I should say that I don't intend anything ad hominem and really do sympathise with those who have to press SPEND on $100mm entirely the service of entertaining people.