Saturday, February 25, 2012

Clooney in Hawaii, German Cops in Venice

Shailene Woodley and . . . well, you know . . . . (from Fox Searchlight Pictures)

When Elizabeth and I attended a showing of The Descendants at the Piedmont Theater triplex the other night, we found the theatre it was playing in thanks to the mini-marquee by the door, signed with eloquent simplicity:


Well hell, who needs a title when we live in a George Clooney world? From here on, all new George Clooney movies need only be titled Clooney and we'll be lining the block!  

Joking aside, The Descendants (a Best Picture contender for this year’s Oscars, which I’ve sworn not to watch) is a pretty good movie--but not a great one, a surprise considering it’s from director Alexander Payne.

I’ve loved every single one of Payne’s movies, starting with the uproarious and transgressive Citizen Ruth, the classic Election, the heartbreaking Bergmanesque comedy About Schmidt, and the runaway cockeyed wine-country romance Sideways. Alexander Payne seemed incapable of writing a bad line or shooting a bad frame.

But of course, we all trip sooner or later. With this genuine auteur (a label I don’t toss around freely), the misstep came a little later, and it’s a perfectly forgivable one for a movie still worth seeing.

The Descendants  is about the troubles in paradise faced by Matt King (Clooney), lawyer and sole trustee to his family’s huge fortune, including a parcel of 25,000 pristine acres of Hawaiian wonderland held by Matt’s family for over a hundred years. The trust is now legally bound to sell off the land. You can hear the saliva running as developers circle about, threatening to flood the landscape with another dozen golf courses. What, we wonder, will Matt do?

Matt has other problems, serious ones. Just before the story begins, his wife Elizabeth is plunged into a permanent coma following a boating accident. As a result, Matt is forced to switch abruptly from “backup parent” to actual father to his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie and 17-year-old Alex, each one an armful. Matt’s totally at sea where parenting is concerned, and becomes further unhinged when Alex tells him Elizabeth was having an affair and planning to divorce him.

The Descendants stumbles at the outset with a long voice-over narration by Matt that threatens to walk us through the film’s themes and how we’re supposed to feel. It’s as though Payne as both co-writer and director, lost confidence in his filmmaking skills. (I sometimes wonder if voice-overs are added as an anxious final touch; they rarely seem a good idea; see Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona.)

Eventually though, the story finds its groove and for the rest of the way, The Descendants is an entertaining, absorbing domestic comedy-drama. Sometimes it stumbles into credibility problems as Matt perilously maneuvers the minefields of love and death, family and legacy. Many scenes sting with real emotion and bitter humor while others stray into sitcom territory.

Like other Payne’s films it’s peopled with colorful oddballs, including Elizabeth’s brusque but deluded and worshipful father (Robert Forster), and the wife (Judy Greer) of Elizabeth’s lover whose flailing attempt at  face-to-face forgiveness to Elizabeth only uncovers her own rage in a sequence both funny and sad.

The oddest ball in this Hawaii is Sid (Nick Krause), Alex’s numb-nuts, tag-along slacker friend. Sid’s only skill is saying the worst possible thing at the worst possible moment; he’s a paragon of surfer-dude cluelessness. For much of the way, Sid is uproarious comic relief until near the end when this magnificent doofus suddenly makes one of those Hollywood character arcs to become a wise sage from whom Matt seeks advice one lonely dawn. Ridiculous.

Clooney is, almost needless to say, wonderful, as his handsome and now-craggy face captures all the subtle edges and shades of this confused, troubled man and he’s pulled from love to rage and back again. He is truly one the best actors we have and gets better as he gets older.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with him is Shailene Woodley who portrays Alex’s welter of conflicting emotions toward both her parents: one minute their devoted daughter, the next minute their resentful opponent and hitting her mark every time.

Scored throughout with Hawaiian music, this film’s central point is that paradise is not always a paradise to those who live in it day to day, even for its most privileged citizens. Life, with its disappointments, corruption, betrayals, and accidents, keeps happening, even in paradise. People are still people and life is still life. And, in a particular sense, Hawaii is just another place in the world.

I sense this idea is the reason for the muted colors of the cinematography (in the print I saw), as though The Descendants were trying to keep us from watching it like a Travel Channel show. Stay long enough and the bloom will fade, if only slightly

It’s a proof of Alexander Payne’s artistry that he ends the movie with Matt and his daughters not sitting on a golden beach watching the sun set over a turquoise ocean (a Lifetime movie cliché), but indoors, sprawled together on the living room couch watching March of the Penguins. They could as well be a family living in director Payne’s native Nebraska.


Actor Uwe Kockische as Commissario Brunetti

“Ach du lieber!” I muttered the first time I watched Donna Leon/Commissario Brunetti on MHZ’s criminally addictive International Mystery series. “The Germans are at it again!”

This time a small army of them has infiltrated Venice, Italy, taken over the city’s police department and now are investigating crimes and arresting the perps, all right under the noses of the Venetians, without their awareness, assistance, approval, or even disapproval. And they all speak perfect hoch Deutsch (though they’ve picked up a few Italian words, such as “basta” and “commissario”).

OK, I'm kidding! Now I’ll try to explain: The “Donna Leon” of the title is the author of a well-regarded series of police procedural novels set in Venice featuring police detective (“Commissario”) Guido Brunetti. For reasons I’m unable to determine, Ms. Leon does not allow her books to be translated into Italian.

Further, when it came around to producing films based on the novels, a German production company stepped in and stocked the series entirely with Germans from lead actor Uwe Kockische, as Brunetti, down to the grips and prop guys. Not even an Italian around to man the honey wagon, from what I can see.

If you can wrestle past the cognitive dissonance of supposedly native Italian characters speaking eloquent German, Commissario Brunetti is a good show, as are most of MHZ’s mystery series. Each film is well written, directed and eloquently photographed, with excellent performances by an appealing cast, including the attractively scruffy Kockische; Michael Degan as Panetta, Brunetti’s vain, lazy, and incompetent superior; and Karl Fischer as his frumpy sidekick Sergeant Vianello.

Of course, the best performance of all is given by the city of Venice, the mystery lurking in its canals and endless, shadowy mazes a perfect complement to the mysteries its characters struggle with. From whatever angle you view Venice, it never seems the same.

Brunetti shares the best qualities of other MHZ mystery series: deliberate pacing, attention to detail of both characters and their environments, a willingness to linger and savor the worlds they live in.

Still, even after decades of tolerating WWII Nazi movies cast with non-German actors barking “Ve haf vays of making you talk!”, I can’t quite get my poor head around German actors, no matter how good, playing everyday Italians. A similar problem arose last year with the PBS Mystery series Zen, this one featuring an entirely British cast playing Italian cops in Rome. It feels like the 19th century all over, as though Italy were being carved up by European powers once again.

Commissario Brunetti (like Zen) never rings true, never rings Italian. It lacks the homegrown spice of the other International Mystery series, all of which draw their cast and crew from the nations they’re set in, including another good German series Scene of the Crime and the captivating Inspector Montalbano¸ which is set in sunny Sicily and feels Sicilian to its core.

Commissario Brunetti, for all its professionalism and good intentions, is just too darned  . . . German.

(re-edited 2/27/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

My Third Annual Promise to Not Watch the Oscars!

Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood: My Favorite Oscar Memory

This February 26, instead of watching the Oscar telecast on ABC, do something different.

Watch a movie instead!

You’ll be glad you did! I sure am!


I restarted my not-watching-the-Oscars habit on February 25, 2007, after composer Ennio Morricone strolled offstage to his well-earned standing ovation, toting that gold-plated hat stand. I took a minute to smugly feast and gloat on how a tone-deaf world at last had caught up with me.

Then I switched to a PBS Nature documentary on the Andes, no Morricone music, just sets and lighting by God.

I haven’t—well,almost haven’t--watched the Oscars since.


The Year: 1974 (David Niven and the male streaker “parading his shortcomings”).

The place: a theatre party in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

I watch with amazed anguish as The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, takes home nine statuettes.

What, my tender soul swoons, was that about? An ex-movie reviewer and high-minded young actor, I’d been patient for years as the Academy passed over much better films by Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and others. What is this Sting, this well-upholstered, but forgettable lark, doing floating away in glory as though it were Ben Hur (which, even fifty years later, still rolls and storms with genuine oomph and artistry?)

For sixteen years thereafter, I avert my delicate eyes on Oscar night. I watch Ingmar Bergman films and weep at the cold, cruel world.


CUT TO: Late 1980s: I start a major push into the screenwriting profession, aware that whatever profession I choose, I must educate myself about it, explore its most arcane corners.

So, I start watching the Oscar telecast again. Every single year. But not out of pleasure.

I also subscribe to Daily Variety, Premiere and screenwriter-related publications. I become a screenwriting pedant, spinning the tale of the screenwriter who claimed to direct the final scene of Casablanca while pontificating on how the world would someday recognize the screenplay as a form of epic poetry. (And where’s m' damned Pulitzer anyway?)

I attend screenwriting conferences from Hollywood to Austin, Texas, where I pitch and grovel to agents and producers. When I get home, friends greet me with a long cool stare:

“Don’t you wash your nose once in awhile?”

I probably never display such intense neediness and greed as I do in those years; nor will I ever encounter again such fruitless encouragement. (Most of the people I met were nice and meant well.).

And my screenplays did get better and better until—

CUT TO: September 11, 2001. I realize that no one, including me, will be in the mood for my terrorist-plot screenplay.

And by the time that cloud has passed, I’ll be too old, by industry standards, to be acknowledged as a functioning life form. (“People over forty?” a Hollywood saying goes. “Aren’t those the ones with hair in their ears?” Yeah, I made that up, but pass it on, anyway.)

I’m already souring on the biz anyway. A fellow screenwriter who ripped up her roots to move to Hollywood with her children told me a story of being shown around her son’s new private school and seeing the following sign:

“Please be aware that many pupils of this school may be parented by employees of the film and television industry, so please use caution in expressing your opinion about any production or program.”

Joseph Stalin would have loved Hollywood.

But even as this latest dream swirls down the sink, I keep watching the Oscars ev-ery, sing-le year until 2007. And, right now, I’d share with you some fond memories . . . um . . . let’s see: old lion Jack Palance comparing his bodily extrusions to host Billy Crystal, followed by Jack’s set of one-armed push-ups; something about Stanley Donen dancing with Oscar; Clint Eastwood getting his statue for Unforgiven. There was Letterman, Oprah, and Uma . . . .

Actually, I have more fun calling up those nightmares where I’m standing naked in a White House reception line.


The Oscars were, once upon a time about Things Going Wrong: Sacheen Littlefeather, Mr. Niven, or Clint gamely covering for a traffic-delayed Charlton Heston. Now, the Academy has fixed it so accidents and miscues hardly ever happen. Nothing messy, nothing entertaining. The schadenfreude has gone out of it.

During my last era of Oscar-watching, I would shrug as other mouths foamed about the Crime against Humanity that awarded Silence of the Lambs (1990) Best Picture instead of JFK. In those days, I never felt particularly partisan about the Oscars. I’ve always been more likely to shout: “You’ve got to see this movie!” then “This movie has to win an Oscar . . .or . . . else!”

Remember: Citizen Kane: no Oscars; Hitchcock: never won an Oscar. Even with the new voting rules expanding the number of Best Picture nominees, a film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2012) only squeezes through the door in other categories, while a farrago like Inception (2011) gets a Best Picture nod. The raft of excellent to great movies that never won any awards at all is nearly endless and will remain so; as will the list of mediocre (Oliver, 1968) and good but not great movies (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989) that do win awards and then dissolve to mist.

I’m not mad about any of this. I believe that all awards are contingent; there are so many factors in the zeitgeist—for instance, Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin--leading to these outcomes, that longer-lasting considerations, like Art, never will have much of a chance.

A conversation about the Oscars isn’t necessarily a conversation about what’s a good movie.

After I quit screenwriting in the early 2000s, I came to recognize I had no dog in the hunt. My boredom deepened. I kept watching, simply out of habit. I would tune away from those horrible Best Song productions, then forget to tune back. The only sequence I liked was the “In Memoriam” portion, but Turner Classics now does a much better presentation.


For a moment, let’s pretend that I’m not writing about Hollywood, but about the American Association of Widget Makers (AAWM). Every year, the AAWM holds it annual convention in ohhhhhh . . . Turlock, California. Widget executives from all over attend. They show off last year’s widget models. After waves of drunken hoo-hahing, there’s an awards ceremony: Best Widget for a Navien Tankless Water Heater, Best Widget Used on the Titanic, and so on.

Sure, there are major differences between the AAWM and the Academy and their parties, but allow me to mention two major similarities and one major difference:

First, a similarity: Both the AAWM and the Oscars are private industry affairs, held for the benefit of manufacturers and their employees.

Now, for that single overarching difference: You and I cannot watch the AAWM party on our viewing machines. We can’t even get in the door.

The other major similarity: Both the AAWM and the Academy really don’t give a tinker’s damn what we think.

Nor should they. At all.

In fact, if Hollywood really wanted, they could dial the Wayback Machine to 1928, when the first Oscar ceremony took place behind closed doors. They could cut the red carpet up for cat scratching posts and lock the doors as they flip us all the bird: “We’ll give Best Picture to The Human Centipede: Full Sequence if we want to, you stinking proles. Deal with it!”

Whether you’re Roger Ebert or Ain’t It Cool News, your opinion doesn’t count. You’re attending a boring party where you’re not really all that welcome.

Of course, nowadays there’s too much hype and money involved for the Academy to dial the public back to private, even while audiences dwindle. The Oscars are now an arm of the studio marketing departments, who appear to be the ones running the show. The telecast is now too fused with Worldwide Cultural Consciousness for the Academy to follow best practices of the AAWM.

After all, what if we stopped going to the movies?


Or, what if you stopped going to the movies, eh? Because, I still love the movies and I don’t need no stinking award show to keep me watching them. To me, the movies are the appetizer, main course, dessert, and after-dinner single malt. The chefs can pat themselves on the back and drink until they pass out, face down in the gravy boat, without me.
Every year reviewers write boring articles about how boring the Oscar telecast is, like one of those boring Michelangelo Antonioni movies about how boring life is (or even this article). I only give 'em a glance to see if James Franco and Anne Hathaway returned for a rousing encore; or if George Clooney gave a full-throated endorsement for Rick Santorum; or if Barack Obama popped in to tell the crowd he likes “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. Then I watch the clip on YouTube. If I feel like it.

So, on Oscar night, instead of expending your finer feelings—and you do have them--on pressing your nose to a tinsel window, try watching a movie instead, at home or elsewhere.

I’ll be watching another episode of Luck (which is starting to quicken my heart at last). There’s plenty on the DVR to watch too, including Olivier’s Othello. I think that won an Oscar . . . but honestly, I’m not sure.

And I don't care, really. Just so long as it's good.

(Re-edited 2/20/12; 2/23/12).

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Slowly, Over Time


[The following was written in response to a recent Red Room Creative Challenge that asked members to describe the moment when they realized they were writers.]

I encountered no flash on the road to Damascus in becoming a writer, no falling on my face, crying “I hear you, Lord!”

(I don’t trust conversion experiences; it’s too easy to flip back, or flip on to another empty extreme; fanatics are much like vampires, draining the juicy life out of the flower they feed on and everyone around; their certainty makes them faithless.)

I started writing when I was maybe five or six, copying a story out of The World of Pooh. I quickly became bored with that. I still remember the tedium rising.

Shortly after, I attempted to “re-write” House of Dracula, one of the old Universal horror films. Then I made the mistake of showing it to a no-fused older brother.

“YOU’RE STEALING ANOTHER MAN’S STORY!” he bellowed with an outrage usually reserved for murderers, first-degree. I still recall the shame—Me, the grubby little thief, furtive, sneaking along the wall, returning to his hidden coffin at dawn.

Lesson learned: Don’t show your work to anyone. They’ll just get mad.

Of course, I eventually had to write book reports in school and the like and the teachers began commenting positively. Meanwhile, I was subsisting on a diet of Mad magazine, horror tales and desperate leaps to read the same books the grownups in my house were reading: Andersonville, Doctor Zhivago; much too young for these books. I should have been reading more Hardy Boys adventures, maybe also taken a break from Winnie-der-Pooh.

Soon, I was simply writing a lot and I still am fifty years later, with not much to show for it. But I keep going on, because I cannot not go on.

The drive, the urge, the habit, sunk in that slowly, that deeply, until it fused with my atoms. What else would I do if I didn’t sit here every day? Where would the wonder I sometimes feel at the blue sky out my window, at the butterfly flashing by go? What’s the point in keeping that a secret?

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Good "Artist" and Good "Luck."

Of course, you didn’t hear it here first, but The Artist will likely win this year’s Oscar for Best Picture. Several recent events predict this: The film just won best Picture at the UK BAFTA Awards; Best Picture at the Critic’s Choice Awards; Best Picture (musical or comedy) at the Golden Globes.

The dog even won a Golden Collar Award for its acting, making him the most important canine star since Benji.

When the dog wins, it pulls everyone else along on its leash.

As usual, these awards and nominations do not predict The Artist’s future status as cinematic art. My snark aside, I liked the film, which I finally saw the other night, and came away with the same feeling I had for last year’s winner The King’s Speech: Good stuff. No Citizen Kane.

The Artist floats like a silver bubble as it cleverly evokes silent movies. Light and graceful, it bursts quickly, its French airiness and silver atmosphere its most memorable qualities.

Jean Dujardin is excellent as the silent film star unable to adapt to the coming of sound. I liked especially winsome, wide-smiling Bérénice Bujo as the young starlet who supplants Dujardin in Hollywood’s fickle affections. She reminded me much of another favorite actor of mine, Barbara Hershey.

I also appreciated the nod toward Fred Astaire at the end and the long quotation from Bernard Hermann’s most poignant score, Vertigo.

I could say that the nicest thing about The Artist is that it took a French filmmaker, Michel Hazanavicius, to remind modern Hollywood and its young fans of the wonderful, vibrant past they’ve so ruthlessly forgotten.

Except that it wouldn’t be quite accurate. This is because of some interesting cross-fertilization: It took an American, Martin Scorsese, to remind the very same audience of the depth and richness of cinematic history—as it started in France a hundred years ago--with his wholehearted, passionate Hugo, another Best Picture nominee.

That one that may go down as one of Scorsese’s masterpieces when history’s dust settles a little. Hugo reaches further and delves deeper, with greater feeling, in ways that the light-footed The Artist doesn’t. Watching Hugo, I saw the history of movies unfold before me in deep and astounding ways. 

One critic complained that Hugo is greatly overstuffed, but doesn't that describe the history of the movies? Stuffed full of wonder.

I greatly hope that both films will increase mainstream moviegoer interest in silent films. But I’ll keep breathing normally in the meantime.

Will I be sore when The Artist wins and Hugo doesn’t? No, I’ll just say “told you so” while mildly marveling at how the new Oscar voting rules give spectacular farragoes like Inception and widely disdained movies like Extremely Loud . . . a shot at Best Picture. When a film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy doesn’t get in that chorus line, then something might not be working.

While many of you are watching next Sunday’s Oscar telecast, I’ll be watching the fifth episode of the mini-series Luck on HBO.

Luck is a drama set in the world of 21st century horse racing, once the Sport of Kings, now a footnote that gets our eyes only around Kentucky Derby time.

Too bad, because horse racing is one thrilling sport and its world a great setting for storytelling. Luck is quite a series and promises much, at least so far. Created by David Milch, creator of the truncated masterpiece Deadwood, it’s pungent, exotic, and colorful as it intertwines its many stories into a unique skein of drama and intrigue as bright as the sunlight on a jockey’s silks. The racing sequences are breathtaking and powerful, conveying the thrill and danger to both horse and rider. You feel like you’re in a saddle beside them as they pound along the track.

Does it reach the Shakespearean heights of Deadwood? No, at least not yet, for several reasons. Despite the looming legends of Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, very few of the characters have yet to seize my attention and fascination the way say, Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen or Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock did.

I’m not yet absorbed by the schemes and plots of Abe Bernstein (Hoffman) and Walter Smith (Nolte). Bernstein, an ex-con and gambling executive, is seeking revenge against his former associates, for good reasons, but why I should be compelled, I’m not sure. His project comes off pretty dry and passionless. I also spend too much time wondering if Smith (Nolte) will sink into Alzheimer’s, not about his plans for revenge through a triumph on the race track.

More intriguing to me is Escalante (John Ortiz), an enigmatic, callous and crooked trainer whose wide eyes well conceal his inner life, and the team of four hapless scuzz-ball bettors who wind up big-time winners (among them Ian Hart); they’re closest echo to the wonderful world of Deadwood and are worth following even as the other story lines bump about in the stables and boardrooms.

Also Milch’s approach to dialogue and his actors is problematic. As several critics have said, the actors deliver their lines in such low-key ultra-naturalistic fashion that it’s like listening to someone chew caramel.

This is especially bothersome, in part because horse racing, especially the betting, is fairly complicated with rituals, rules and a complex betting scheme that can baffle outsiders, even someone who enjoys the sport on occasion, as I do. (After every episode, I wish I had $300 to fritter away on a Sunday at nearby Golden Gate Fields.

But I’ll be there February 26 instead of tuned to the Oscars (about which I’ll explain shortly). Luck’s world is so exotic when compared with what’s offered most of the time elsewhere, I cannot resist. Sooner or later, I hope, it’ll come thundering out of the gates and gallop into greatness.

Anyway, the cable mini-series is where it’s happening, as far as film artistry goes, these days.

At least I think so. What about you?

(re-edited 2/17/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Uglies: The Story of an Unproduced Screenplay

The pitch for my original script The Uglies (Ambler House Publishing) went like this:

“A down-on-their luck blue collar couple’s fortunes take a sharp turn when they’re kidnapped by a fractious gang of high-spirited bank robbers and taken on a cross-country crime spree.”

I wrote this screenplay in the early 1990s, when the United States was mired in a recession. Now, with unemployment up again and the middle class disappearing—maybe for a long time—it seems to be relevant again: You might call it a crime/suspense picture about the “99 percent.”

Still, I had reasons of my own for writing it.


The Uglies is the most “realistic” of my six screenplays, but it didn’t start out that way.

It was sparked by my great affection for the army of character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. During that halcyon era, each of the seven biggest studios employed in their factories a stable of supporting players they employed in film after film. Many of them, such as Walter Brennan, Edna May Oliver, Frank Morgan, Una O’Connor, and Peter Lorre, worked practically year-round. A tiny handful, like Brennan and Morgan, brushed real stardom, scoring Oscars and the like.

They were not the glamorous Crawfords and Gables, the buoyant Flynns and the glowing Lombards. They ran the beauty gamut from homely to ugly. They served many purposes, as they brightly colored the background of films, providing friendship to the heroes, comic relief, menace, or just carrying strands of plot and story.

Some of them, like Basil Rathbone, portrayed formidable indelible villains who created a genuine palpable threat that sometimes tricked you into thinking that Errol Flynn might be in real danger and made you cheer when Errol finally ventilated him with a sword. Few genre movies can do without a great villain.

These actors were always a pleasure to watch, like your favorite uncles and cousins. They saved countless movies from fatal dreariness, even if only for the few moments they were on. More interestingly, the European emigrants among them—many of them Nazi refugees, such as S.Z.Sakall—had been major stars in their own countries . . . but not here.

Right now, I can only think of one of these stalwarts who finally stepped to true stardom—his name was Humphrey Bogart.

Character actors were an often especially pungent presence in crime films and westerns. I’m particularly fond of the crew of rattlesnakes, alley rats, and dirt bags who populated the films and TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s: Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam,  Leo Gordon, Warren Oates, Strother Martin and many others who I’m sure many of you old-movie fans could name. (Among them, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Van Cleef managed to reach stardom; Borgnine, Marvin, and Ben Johnson won Oscars.)


As the studio system disappeared in the 1960s, so did reliable employment for this colorful gnarly bunch. Some of them, like Van Cleef, luckily found work in Europe and even did well for themselves.

Otherwise, they grew old, left the business, passed away. As time went on, the new actors failed to fill that gap. Starting in the 1960s, most of the new supporting actors were dough-faced, Caucasian bland, with the looks of dry clay and the personalities of gel implants. The character actor as distinct personality seemed to be disappearing. The movies—especially genre movies—lost a little of their color. Once in a while someone like Robert Shaw would pop up in Jaws, but otherwise . . . .

It was in tribute to that vanishing species that I started writing The Uglies, a movie with no blond bombshells or muscle-bound granite-jawed studs; no six-pack abs or buns of steel. Instead I populated it with homely people with old craggy faces, big noses, sagging boobs, beer bellies, no hair, and bad skin. I thought they deserved a movie all to themselves, so I wrote one.

Happy to say, though, I needn't have worried: the old tradition of the character actor is alive again, thanks to cable television, starting with such series as The Sopranos, The Wire, Justified, and Deadwood whose entire cast would fit nicely into the world of The Uglies.


I also wrote The Uglies as an ersatz Sam Peckinpah film. And it was ersatz in its early drafts. One afternoon, I had a couple of actors, Claudia Rosa and Michael Anduz, act out a scene or two for me. They giggled as they struggled through my faux existential, tough-guy twaddle. I still recall the sting as they doubled over laughing.

So, I rolled it back through the typewriter. I stopped thinking of it as a character-actor homage. I flushed out the pompous, cornball Peckinpah-isms and other Po-mo movie references (yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Quentin Tarantino) and thought hard, like Sam would. (It had to be its own movie, not his):

Who were these people, these hard-luck souls in dead-end lives of poverty and crime? What kind of world did they move through with such feverish desperation? What’s the difference between real criminals and those forced to take up crime to survive? How far might someone go to stay alive? How might the urge to survive both pull us together and drive us apart? No matter how extreme the moment, does all armed confrontation end in bloodshed . . . ?

No movie can, or should, answer those questions, but it can bring them up in old-fashioned, entertaining way, and I think The Uglies succeeds in that sense.

Preparing it for publication, I found I still enjoyed its rousing action, its color, its coarse, crude, and boisterous humor, and the human vulnerability of its characters. Also, in part, it turned from an homage to Peckinpah to an argument with him.


Of the six screenplays I completed, it received the most praise, repeatedly called “entertaining” and a “good read” by numerous agents and readers.

But, as happened throughout my ten-year fishing trip off the Hollywood pier, many a fish nibbled, but not a one bit and they all swam away.

The Uglies also received the most criticism: One agent actually called, saying that while my writing was excellent, “everyone in it is ugly!” Then she lay down the condition that she would represent it only if I completely rewrote it to her specifications. Such a promise, I already knew, would never be kept and the discussion ended.

I also submitted the script to numerous workshops and contests. I received a few comments, the most memorable of which was from a reader who was bothered that Frank, the gang’s leader, wasn’t portrayed as a murderously evil figure, simply a criminal with gruff charm and delusions of folk-hero grandeur. Maybe he was right, but, with this script, I didn’t feel like turning loose one of my dazzling Dracula-like sociopaths. I wanted a sense of a group of people against the world.

The Uglies isn’t perfectly “realistic”—its climax is perhaps too hero-mantic—but I did wish to capture the reality of criminals, the grubby limitations and dead-ends of their lives, without taking away their humanity and even charm. All sociopaths may be criminals, but by no means are all criminals sociopaths. Based in part on my  observations during my brief employment in law enforcement, most of them are limited people, born into closed worlds and knowing nothing else. Some are smart, many are stupid, even downright hapless. “Short-sighted” doesn’t begin to describe them. All of them are dealing with life as they found it to be, which is, to say, not much.

In the late 1990s, I had the pleasure of meeting Stuart Whitman, an excellent actor and 1960s star. Then in his seventies, he would have been excellent as the bandit leader and loved the script . . .  but he too swam away.


Some caveats: The Uglies is about the criminal underworld and some working class and middle-class professionals who sink down into its mire. Therefore, there are many un-P.C. factors to offend both Left and Right. To many on the Right, to empathize with criminals is to glorify them. Also, everyone cusses a lot and almost no one believes in God, the Flag, or American exceptionalism. Ideological capitalism gets slapped as law enforcement is portrayed as subsidiary of big business.

As for the Left, well, criminals are not sensitive, pacifist, vegan liberals from Minnesota who carry ACLU cards in their holsters tucked next to the Glock. They lie and cheat, steal and sometimes kill; the threat of violence is never far away; they smoke, eat poorly, drink too much, are often drug-addicted, and laugh at concepts like “healthy lifestyle.” They are mostly male, sexist, thuggish, sometimes racist, always bigoted toward some group or other and while I wanted to avoid blunt messaging, I didn’t want to be egregiously dishonest either.

The sensibilities here may be generally liberal, but I don’t regard The Uglies as a specifically ideological work. If that’s important to you, well, there it is.


As for real-life sources for The Uglies, I’m vague on them 20 years later, but from my own life I drew the colorful Carlos, one of Frank’s partners in crime. I based him very closely on the first friend I made when I arrived in San Francisco in 1982. He’d been a criminal himself once—and had the knife scars to prove it, dug deep across his stomach. He was, in his way, an extraordinary man, uneducated but fiercely intelligent, lovable one minute, infuriating the next. He roared and danced with a love for life and was tremendously kind to this young naïve man trying to get his feet down on the hard streets of a big city. I used him not only in The Uglies, but also in an earlier script, The Devil’s Due, which will come out later this year.

Carlos and I drifted apart after a time and lost touch. In the late 1990s, I learned he had died of cancer. The Uglies in its small way is a remembrance of my friend Carlos. I pray he knows it.

(Re-edited 2/16/12; 2/23/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author; cover design by M.S. Corley.

Thomas Burchfield is the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, and the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed and now at the Red Room bookstore. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter and reads at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Original Screenplay THE UGLIES Now Available Exclusively in E-Book Editions

The place: America. The time: closer than we may realize.

Unemployment is in high double-digits. The stench of violent discontent smokes the air. The 1930s Great Depression all over . . .

. . . but yesterday is now today, the 21st Century . . .

Arch and Tess Uglias are blue-collar residents of the desolate Rust Belt city of Gary, Indiana. Arch, an unemployed auto-plant worker and ex-race car driver, and Tess, an unemployed nurse, are both staring homelessness and starvation in face.

Meanwhile, Frank Regis, an aging disciple of the legendary bank robber Willie Sutton, is masterminding a string of bank robberies throughout Indiana. The Regis gang is a fractious collage of professional criminals, like Frank, and formerly law-abiding folks who have turned to crime out of desperation.

After one of their drivers is killed during a getaway, the Regis gang goes in search of a replacement, a road that leads them to Arch Uglias. Though a law-abiding citizen and square guy his whole life, Arch, like some of the other gang members, feels compelled to take the wheel. Tess meanwhile, becomes an outspoken, unwilling, uncooperative part of the package.

From there, it’s a boisterous, bawdy, and dangerous drive through a desperate world for the Regis mob, from the ruins of the Midwest to the ruins of the West Coast with ruthless law enforcement in pursuit and mistrust and murder stirring among them. In the end, the war that has been raging around the edges suddenly draws them into its bloody vortex, leading to a fierce climax of double cross and desperate escape.

The Uglies an original screenplay by Thomas Burchfield (Dragon’s Ark, Whackers), takes the same wild roads as such classics as Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway. It is a wild and wooly saga about crime and pursuit, friendship and survival. It’s also the story of people who realize the need to stick together as the world around them crumbles to pieces.

Available exclusively in e-book editions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Apple Store, the Sony Reader Store, and Scrib'd.

Copyright 2012 by Ambler House Publishing

Cover Design by M.S. Corley.

Oakland, CA