Monday, January 13, 2014

The Only Thing That Matters Is the Ending: A Review of "Secret Window" (2004)

I would answer the question "What is the most underrated Stephen King movie?" with one of several titles, including Dolores Claiborne and Storm of the Century, depending on what sort of mood I was in that day.  Today, I'm in a contemplative mood, and so the answer I would give would be Secret Window.

For whatever reason, this movie just doesn't get much love.  IMDb's user ratings currently sit at 6.6/10; Rotten Tomatoes has it at a 46%, and Metacritic has it at an identical 46.  All three may as well have assigned it a score of MEH.

What does this prove?  It proves nothing, except maybe that my appreciation for the film is substantially outside the realm of conventional wisdom.

Which means, I suppose, that this post will consist of me swimming against the tide.  Well, so be it.  Strap on you floatation devices and follow me; the shore is in yonder direction, and we'd better get to movin' before that oil slick notices us.

The movie was adapted and directed by David Koepp, who has made several movies that are worth checking out.  Most notable among them is Stir of Echoes, the Kevin Bacon ghost movie based on a Richard Matheson novel.  That flick got totally overshadowed by the similarly-themed The Sixth Sense, which released the same year; but in the years since, it has built a sturdy reputation for itself.

As a screenwriter, Koepp's name is attached to huge hits like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, War of the Worlds, and Spider-Man.  He also wrote Carlito's Way (my favorite Brian DePalma movie), Panic Room, and Death Becomes Her, to name just a few.  He is, without doubt, a notable screenwriter.

His work on Secret Window reveals a writer/director who is thoughtful, focused, and deliberate in something akin to the way Alfred Hitchcock also represented those qualities.  Or, if you prefer, Brian DePalma.  On his entertaining commentary track for the film (which can be found on the DVD and Blu-ray editions alike), Koepp makes it clear that he was and is a fan of King's writing, and that he enjoyed "Secret Window, Secret Garden."  In tackling the adaptation, he has done what so many adapters of King's work fail to do: he has made allowances for the differences between prose and cinema.

Odds are good that this is a subject you have heard me discuss before.  And if you keep reading my blog -- please do! -- you will almost certainly hear it again in the future.  We'll all have jetpacks and our television screens will be implants that beam the signals directly into our brains; because, you know, the future . . . but some things won't change at all, and on that list of set-in-stone verities will be the idea that what works in a book may not work in a movie.

The writer and/or director who fails to take that into consideration -- or who fails to actually implement solutions based on the idea -- is almost certain to make a poor adaptation.  I'm not going to name any names here; suffice it to say that it is a problem which has plagued a great many adaptations of King's work.

My stance tends to be this: I just want to see a good movie.  I don't need it to be a word-for-word recreation of the story or novel.  In some cases, that would be nice; but I don't need it.  What I need is a movie that makes sense, is true to itself, and engages me emotionally. Secret Window does all of those things.  In getting to that point, it deviates somewhat from the novella King wrote, but that's okay by me, because the changes make sense.

A few years ago, I wrote a review -- in the form of a self-interview -- of the television adaptation of Bag of Bones.  In it, I complained quite a lot about certain changes that the screenwriter made to King's story.  In that case, however, many of the changes were poorly-thought-out and ineffective.  I made a comparison that struck me then (and still strikes me now) as being rather apt: altering a novel for the screen is like operating on cancer, in that if you don't get it all, it's ultimately rather pointless and is likely to lead nowhere good for the patient.

David Koepp would probably agree with me in that regard.  He has made numerous changes to King's story, but in each case, he has carefully considered the impact the change would have on the rest of the story, and has, in essence, made sure to remove all of the cancerous tissue.  Here is one example: in the novella, Mort chooses not to involve the police or any other type of authorities.  His reasons for this make sense (especially once you realize that he and Shooter and one and the same), and King -- who writes the vast majority of the story from Mort's perspective -- gives us enough information that we do not stop to question whether we think Mort is making a good decision or not.  In his commentary track, Koepp mentions this and says that while it works extremely well in the novella, it would not work in the movie because it would be too clunky to try and impart all of the same justifications to the audience.  Cinema is a medium of movement; explaining things is the bane of movement, and so whenever possible, the filmmaker is well-served to structure things so that they simply make immediate sense, without the need to explain everything.  And so it is that in the movie version, Mort goes to the local sheriff, and also to a private investigator.

Koepp has made another, much more significant, change: he has allowed Mort/Shooter to get away with it.  He does not specifically address this change in the commentary, not in terms of its intent; but my guess is that he found the novella's ending -- in which Mort is shot and killed by a detective while trying to murder Amy, and, further, is shown to have been the victim of some manner of genuine haunting/possession (either by the specter of John Kintner or by the "real" Shooter, who became actualized in some way through Mort's willpower) -- to have been overly complicated, too vague, and insufficiently cinematic.  Works -- more or less -- on the page; would fall flat as hell on a sixty-foot screen.

So, what to do?  The obvious answer: add some punch, dial up the impact.  The solution: alter the very motivation for Shooter's existence.  If in the novella, he is a creation of Mort's guilty subconscious -- or, alternatively, a phantom preying on Mort's guilty subconscious -- and if that is rewritten, then what are Shooter's goals?

You could, theoretically, answer that question any number of ways.  What is important is that once you have answered it, you make sure the rest of the story reflects that answer.  Koepp's answer was to say that Mort creates John Shooter to provide himself an impetus toward action.  Mort has broken into the motel room to confront his adulterous wife and her lover; he has carried a gun with him, apparently intent on killing the both of them.  He fails to carry through on the threat, and his inaction in that moment is a seed of psychosis that grows into a full-fledged tree of madness: haunted by his failure to kill these two people, his subconscious invents a more powerful and decisive personality who will do the job.

From there, Koepp makes another wise decision: he permits Mort/Shooter to not only follow through on the murders, but to get away with them.  The intent of his movie is not to offer up a villain whom we wish to see caught and punished; it is to put us inside the mind of a madman, and show us what it might be like to walk around in those shoes for a while.  We don't want Mort to get caught any more than we would want ourselves to get caught; that we should want such things is irrelevant, because when and if we ever reach that stage in our lives, concepts like "should" become pointless.  It is a disturbing and haunting ending, and that is entirely appropriate; such idea should disturb and haunt us.

Nevertheless, it IS a major difference from the novella, and I suppose that some people must be bothered by that.  Not this blogger, though; I think Koepp's changes were almost entirely beneficial, and I'd love to see him adapt something else by King at some point.  I offer "1922" as a potential Koepp/King vehicle.

I've got plenty more to say about Koepp, but before we do that segment of tonight's program, let's talk about Johnny Depp.

In recent years, Depp has become a somewhat divisive figure among moviegoers.  In truth, he's always been that way; it's just that for a couple of years there, everyone fell in love with the guy, and then XX% of people fell out of love with him again, and now XX% of that XX% want to sell the notion that he has somehow lost his way as an actor.  This is rubbish.  Depp has, practically since the dawn of his career, been an oddball of a performer, both in terms of the performances themselves and in terms of the projects he chooses to associate himself with.  You're either onboard with that or you aren't, and if you're spending time talking about how he has "lost his way," then you weren't paying much attention to begin with, or, worse, you are a dilettante.

That said, I kind of do feel as if Depp has lost his way a bit recently.  That whole thing with The Lone Ranger was just a bad idea, and so was Alice in Wonderland, no matter HOW much money it made worldwide.  And it made a billion dollars worldwide, y'all; a billion.

But otherwise, I've continued to enjoy what he's doing.  I thought The Rum Diary was quite good; I loved his work in Dark Shadows (even if the movie itself did fall utterly apart in the third act); he was flat-out awesome in Sweeny Todd; Rango was terrific.  Neither The Tourist nor Public Enemies worked particularly well, but it wasn't because Depp wasn't giving those movies his all.

In short, I'm a fan.  Looking over his filmography, I count a minimum of twenty movies that I've enjoyed.  That's a significant number for any actor, and it means that when Depp shows up in a movie, I pay attention.  Of those twenty-ish movies, I's have to say that my favorite Depp performance is probably still Edward Scissorhands, or perhaps Ed WoodDonnie Brasco is a dark-horse contender, though, and Secret Window is right behind it.

Depp's work in Secret Window is both subtle and showy; he's making big choices here, but some of them may not seem like big choices initially.  For example, his tendency to have a serious case of nap-head and to look like a slovenly mess.  We all know that Depp prefers to look like a weirdo in his movie: from the leather-clad albinism of Edward Scissorhands to the glam-rock pirate of Jack Sparrow to the less-definable weirdnesses of Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter, Depp has chosen a lot of very strange visual looks.  On the face of things, his Dorito-chompin', soda-swillin', bathrobe-clad More Rainey might appear to simply be another character look in the vein of those others.

And it is that.  But it's also more than that: it's a reflection of who Mort is at that point in his life.  Mort has succumbed to sloth and laziness and inaction: he naps constantly; he writes so infrequently that we only see him do it once in the whole movie; he is prone to walk around with his hair unbrushed; he wears a bathrobe that is so tattered one of the arms is on the verge of falling off; his diet is, obviously, abysmal.  Perhaps more significantly, he has been putting off signing his divorce papers for months; sleeping all day is one form of lethargy, but keeping your spouse from moving on with her life is another altogether.  But all are one at the bottom of things, and all of this speaks to Mort's psychotic need to create a John Shooter, who will show up and -- through unusual means, granted -- help him get his life back in order.  (As indeed he does; at the end of the movie, we see that Mort has cleaned himself up considerably.)

All of Depp's choices reflect these ideas.  He also carries on a running theme of communicating with himself at the expense of communicating with others: he has numerous nonverbal gestures, such as miming firing a gun at his housekeeper or strangling the phone when he is ostensibly talking to Amy.  He talks to his dog pretty frequently, and that, too, reflects the movie's central concerns.  Who doesn't talk to their dog?  I hold entire conversations with my cats, and I have to say, they typically seem a bit unconvinced.  Does this make me crazy?  Well, I don't think so . . . but even if it did, how would I know?  Which is one of the points the movie is making, of course.

It is a great performance from Depp.  He is thoroughly sympathetic, but weird enough that once the big reveal has taken place, it makes complete sense.  He peppers in plenty of business like the clenching and unclenching of his jaw, and the wack-a-doodle moment in which he is talking to himself and starts shouting "Ra!  Ra!  Ra!" (which, according to Koepp, is an imitation of something Depp's pre-verbal child was doing a lot at the time of filming, and which therefore represents Mort on the verge of regressing almost to the point of ceasing to exist in some essential way).

If you hate Depp, I suppose you might hate what he's doing in this movie.  That, I think, would be a shame.

As threatened, let us now return to the subject of David Koepp, and talk about some of the technical aspects of this film.

Some of the technical aspects of Secret Window are impressive and cool.  However, I have to admit that both in the commentary track and on the hour-long making-of documentary which can be found on the DVD/Blu-ray, Koepp is a bit too quick to point out his tricks, and to spell out what they represent within the story.  He doesn't come off like he's full of himself, exactly; and in any case, I think he's right to be proud of his work.  He's also self-effacing when it comes to pointing out mistakes, and places where he could have done something more effectively.  It's just that I kind of get a little leery of directors when they sound like they are tooting their own horn.

Ah, but Hitchcock was also prone to do such things, and it certainly doesn't keep me from loving his work.  Koepp, in fact, has a bit of Hitchcock in his style, insomuch as he uses his camera and its movements to further the story and characters from a psychological point of view.

The movie opens with this shot:

The camera is locked down onto the hood of the car Mort is driving.  We don't know where he is or what he's doing; we only know that he's obviously trying to make up his mind about something; he is heard via voiceover telling himself to turn around and get the hell out of there.  So he puts his glasses on and begins to drive angrily away.  But he soon comes to a screeching halt, having decided to ignore his voiceover's recommendation;  "Don't go back," that other-Mort says; "do not go back there."  But he does; he puts the car in reverse, looks over his shoulder, and begins backing up.  As he does, the camera stays in place, and we see that he is outside a motel.

This is a terrific shot, and if not for Koepp's commentary I would have no clue how it had been achieved; I had visions of some dude creeping up on the car and unlocking the camera, then holding it in place while the car backed up.  It isn't that.  Instead, it is two different shots put together; one shot by a camera locked down onto the car, the other shot by a camera that was free of the car but positioned in almost exactly the same place.  The two shots were then joined on one of the wipes created by the windshield wiper-blades.


Ah, but technical proficiency is one thing, and that thing is only interesting if it somehow reflects the story.  Here, it does.  The camera staying in place corresponds to the revelation of the setting, and that revelation -- combined with Mort's obvious anger -- gives us a pretty good idea of what is going on in that motel.  But it gets even better: the camera can be seen as representing that inner voice of Mort's, the one cautioning him not to do what he is about to do . . .and that voice can be seen further as a representation of his sanity.  That camera staying in place, then, represents the moment in which Mort loses his sanity; we actually see it happen, and see Mort pulling away from it (and us).  So not only is it a terrific piece of technical filmmaking, it is also accomplishing multiple things for the movie's psychology, all at once.

We get a simlarly-revelatory shot in the next sequence, beginning in the opening credits and lasting for about two minutes.  It is a crane shot outside the house at Tashmore Lake; the shot circles around the side of Mort's house, swooping up to reveal the titular window; it goes through the window and into the house, passing Mort's open laptop, which has the poor beginnings of a story that is obviously not going too well; then hops over the railing and goes from the second story down to the first, right up to a mirror that shows Mort napping on the couch . . . and then goes though that mirror, right up to Mort's sleeping back.  Just in time for him to be awakened by a knock at the door...

According to Koepp, this is about five different shots put together, but that fact doesn't make the final product less impressive, and there is one simple reason for that: it is, again, all about story and psychology.  Anybody could design a shot that swoops around and shows you a much of things.  However, doing so in a way that advances the movie's story and themes is another matter altogether.  Here, what makes all the difference is that move the camera takes through the mirror.  According to Koepp, this represents the act of the movie entering Mort's point-of-view; from here on out, we will see things as Mort sees them.  We will only know what he knows; or, rather, what he consciously knows.  Later, during the scene in which Shooter tells Mort the truth about himself, the camera goes back into the mirror again, and when it emerges on the other side, we are once again in an objective reality; we are seeing things not from Mort's point of view, but from the "real" point of view.  Hence, we can see Johnny Depp playing Shooter.

That Koepp put that much thought into expressing the ideas inherent in King's story is impressive; that he actually pulled it off is even more impressive.

Another, simpler moment comes when Mort meets Shooter for the second time.  He is outside, walking along a nearby path; the camera is behind him, following, and he stops suddenly, looking up a small hill.  We do not immediately see what he is looking at, but after a moment, the camera moves to the left and reveals John Shooter standing there, waiting for Mort.

The positioning and movement of the camera creates the effect of Shooter appearing (figuratively) out of Mort's head.  Nice!

I'd like to think that is the sort of thing I would notice, but I can't swear to it.  In any case, I cannot take credit for noticing it, because Koepp pointed it out in the commentary.  Same goes for the big two-minute crane shot that takes us into Mort's point of view.  Would I have picked up on those ideas with Koepp spelling them out?  Maybe.  I myself came up with the theory about the camera's fixedness representing Mort's break fro sanity in the opening scene; Koepp spilled the beans about how the shot was accomplished, but said nothing about what the camera staying in place means to the story, so clearly I can come up with some ideas without being prompted.  
Still . . . I wonder if I would have correctly interpreted these other two moments.  In any case, it is now irrelevant.  Doubly so, because regardless of where the knowledge came from -- my own brain or someone else's prodding -- I have it now, and it enhances my enjoyment of the movie considerably no matter its provenance.


So, for me, what we have in Secret Window is a well-written, well-acted, technically proficient piece of cinema.  I find very little to dislike.  So how come so few people seem to be with me on this one?   Perhaps there is some serious problem with the film that I've overlooked?

If so, let me know about it.  That's what comments sections are for.

Ah, but we're not done yet!  I've got a few leftover observations to toss out, so here they come:

I've said nary a word about John Turturro thus far, but clearly, his performance is vitally important to the film.  And if I'm being honest with myself, I guess I have to admit that he isn't quite up to Depp's level.  This is not to say that he's bad; he isn't even close to bad.  He's quite good, in fact.  But he is maybe a touch on the campy side, what with his bad Southern accent and his hick wardrobe.

There's an argument that goes like this: those things work for the movie, rather than against it.  The accent is a little weak?  Makes sense; Shooter is a creation of Mort's psyche, and Mort himself -- like so many non-Southerners -- has only a cartoonish notion of what a Southerner sounds like.  I can't be sure that is the intent of the film, but when considered in a certain way, it is the impact of the movie regardless of intent.  Considered in another way, it is an actor doing an iffy job with an accent that is very different to his own.

I'd also add that Turturro is not particularly threatening as Shooter, who ostensibly should be a figure that frightens us and causes us to dread his reappearance.  But, again, does this work against the movie?  Arguably, yes; but just as arguably, no.  Shooter presents himself as an antagonist for Mort, but in reality he IS Mort, and he is doing Mort's bidding.  Therefore, does the fact that he isn't really all that intimidating or scary reveal something about the character(s)?  I'd say that it does.

But it's just as possible that that is the sound of me rationalizing something to try and smooth over one of the movie's bumpy patches.  Every viewer will make up his or her own mind on that subject.

Two of the movie's other key roles -- Amy and Ted -- are filled in by Maria Bello and Timothy Hutton.  Both are very good, and both have more difficult roles to play than you might suspect.  Bello as Amy is required to be both sympathetic AND unlikeable; Koepp needs her to be someone we like, so that we understand why losing her has had such an adverse impact on Mort, but he also needs her to have enough of an edge of iciness that when the worm turns and Mort/Shooter begins trying to kill her, we retain at least a little sympathy with him.

As for Ted, Koepp has taken an element of the novella -- the red herring of Ted being from "Shooter's Bay" (Shooter's Knob, originally) serving as a clue that Ted might somehow be pulling Shooter's strings -- and expanded upon it.  In the case of Ted, we have to hate him immediately on his appearance; we have to then retain that hate throughout the movie, all the way to his bitter end.  When that shovel smacks him in the face, we are supposed to inwardly -- or outwardly, perhaps -- cheer a bit.  We're not supposed to feel good about doing it; but we are supposed to do it nevertheless.  And yet, Ted also needs to be likeable and charming enough that you can just barely see why Amy might have gone over to him.  Timothy Hutton walks that line admirably, and I would argue that if his role hadn't worked, the movie itself might not have worked.

I neglected to get a decent screencap of Charles S. Dutton, who plays private investigator Ken Karsch; I thought I had, but I see now that I was mistaken, and frankly, I'm too lazy to go back and get one.  So the following will have to do:

This character is not in the novella; he fits in pretty well, though.

And now, we turn to Chico the dog.  In the novella, Mort had a pet cat instead; Bump, by name.  That name cracks me up, for some reason.  Having a dog named Chico is also pretty funny, but I'll be damned if I could tell you why.  In any case, this is a change that was probably as much about logistics as anything (it's apparently MUCH easier to get a dog to do something specific on camera than it is to accomplish same with a cat), but I think it works okay from a story standpoint as well.  The idea seems to be that Chico is Amy's dog, who has somehow ended up with Mort; this makes Chico's later murder a bit more plausible.

The actor dog (real name: Chico) was apparently blind as a bat, and prone to run into furniture while on-set.  Which is sad, but also kind of funny.   Ole Chico was a cute doggie, though, and we celebrate his existence via these screencaps:

For the remainder of my leftover observations, we resort to bulletpoints:

  • Another of my favorite pieces of Johnny Depp business in the film: after picking up Shooter's manuscript, Mort washes his hands in the kitchen.  As he walks back to the couch to resume his nap, he "dires" his hands by flapping them about in the air and simply flinging all the water away.  Again, on the face of things this might seem to be merely a piece of weirdness from Depp, but it actually deepens Mort's laziness -- and his madness -- ever so slightly.  Plus, it makes me laugh.  A great deal of Depp/Mort's eccentricity in the film is designed to make viewers laugh, and that is a quick, effective way to keeping us on his side; we sympathize with him, because really, who among us hasn't dried his hands by the flinging method at some point?  It works because we recognize ourselves in it.
  • In the movie, Mort tells Amy about Shooter's accusation, and Amy says something to the effect of Mort having sworn to her that it had only happened the one time.  Later, Mort refers to this incident being known only by the two of them and by the lawyers.  So clearly, this is a big change from the novella.  Its impact, I suppose, is to make Shooter's claims seem more plausible, and that has the effect of making Shooter himself seem more plausible.  Does it work?  Yeah, I think so.  It also makes Mort seems less trustworthy, which in retrospect is a good thing.
  • Koepp talks at length on the commentary about the scene in which Mort thinks he sees Shooter in his bathroom and attacks with a poker.  Koepp says he was very concerned about the sequence not "cheating" the audience here.  That is, he didn't want to show anything that was false, even though he could reasonably have done so by virtue of being inside Mort's point of view at the time.  But Koepp felt that tricking the audience by doing something like showing a hint of Shooter's hat would be playing false with the audience, and he wanted to not go down that road.  I suspect that a lot of less-talented directors would have made exactly the opposite choice; they would have cheated up a storm in this sequence and, probably, others.  Koepp is to be commended for making this decision as he did.
  • When Mort drives to the house he and Amy used to share, and sits outside watching Amy and Ted, we hear him think via voiceover, "This is not my beautiful house.  This is not my beautiful wife."  These are lines from the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime," which remains one of my all-time favorites.  And while the movie itself does nothing to suggest this next thing, I can't help but mention that the mere connection with Talking Heads brings up two additional songs in my mind.  Those, of course, are "Burning Down the House" and "Psycho Killer."  Fa-fa-fa-fa, fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa....

And with that, the review has come to a close.  I've got some leftover screencaps, though, so I'll sling 'em atcha . . . NOW!

I failed to mention the score, which was by two composers: Philip Glass composed some cues (such as the one that played beneath the opening credits) and Geoff Zanelli did others.  It hangs together pretty well, and hopefully it'll get a CD release one of these days.

Does that author photo look at all like Johnny Depp?  Not to me.  Looks a bit like Henry Thomas.

Koepp mentions being amused by some of the fake story titles in Mort's collection.  His favorite is the same as mine: "You Gonna Eat That?"  Which is indeed a fine title for a fake story.

Even if he's not real, doesn't Shooter seem like too fussy a writer to put an uncapitalized personal pronoun on a note such as this one?  I think so.

Fail, fail, fail.  I also failed to mention how the casting of Timothy Hutton -- the star of The Dark Half -- adds an extra layer of meaning to the movie.  The Dark Half and "Secret Window, Secret Garden" share a great deal of thematic similarity, and so having Hutton in both films is a nice bonus.

This shot suggests that Mort might have reached the point of having to make some sort of decision.

Creepy shot.  It reminds me of a similar shot of 2013's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  That scene gets a big chuckle out of the way Martin Freeman plays the moment; here, though, it is purely creepy.

Boy oh boy, y'all; I've got the blogger equivalent of constipation right now.  I'm weeks behind in my blogging schedule; the holidays were madness at work, schedule-wise, and it has had a massive impact on my leisure time.  Hopefully, that will be clearing up son, though, and I can work my way through some of these backed-up posts.  Which include the following: an incredibly long-overdue Bryant Has Issues (which will, among other things, tackle the final issue of Joe Hill's Locke & Key); a review of the anthology Turn Down the Lights, or, at the very least, a review of King's short story "Summer Thunder" from said anthology; reviews of the final three episodes of Haven's fourth season; a review of Joe Hill's novella "Wraith" (which appeared in the limited edition of NOS4A2), plus his short story "Wolverton Station," PLUS the Owen King/Kelly Braffet short story "The Status of Myth" (if not the entire anthology in which it appeared); and a review of the season one Blu-rays of Under the Dome.  I might also write a review of the soundtrack CD for Room 237, plus I've got a post I want to do about a mess of old issues of Cinefantastique I recently obtained (almost all of which have great King or King-related content).

Meanwhile, I'm also due for another of my vintage-King-short-story pieces, this time on "Night Surf."

So pass me the blogger equivalent of Ex-Lax, somebody; I've got to get this shit out of my system!


  1. This is one of those entries that really gives a lot of food for thought. As such, it's hard to know where to begin for all the places one could start, or all the ideas this entry calls up.

    One potential is the criteria of what makes a film work, another is the difference between book and film, however this blog entry has given me other ideas. One thing to note, I'm thinking aloud by writing as I go along so if what follows sounds coherent but seems like it's going nowhere, bear with me.

    Before I get to that, the movie itself:

    I don't think it's a bad movie, I'm not even ultimately bothered by changes in the script, however my final reactions seem somehow lackluster (and to be fair, I never guessed what Koepp was up to with that opening shot).

    I liked Turturro and Depp, though on the whole, out of all the versions of the story I've heard, both the radio adapt, and the novella are tied as my favorites. I guess the reason why has to do with my penchant for valuing story and dialogue over imagery. I've seen well written movies that have worked even if the cinematography was nothing special. Yet the fact that many complain over the imagery is something I've found interesting.

    While I've seen some pretty good cinematography in my time, I've never found any valid reason for making a hierarchy out of what shots work best for a film, or anything like that. For me, it's all pretty much equal, and ultimately beholden to the script.

    The fact that people complain if the imagery or movement in a story doesn't seem to work is something I'm still trying to wrap my head around, as I don't think a film can work on imagery alone, unless you are using well chosen images to tell a story, like Fantasia. The thing about a film like that is, if you take away the images, a story can still be told about, say a brief history of the dinosaurs, or the legend of a supposedly haunted mountain top, or of a bumbling wizard's assistant.

    Before any of these stories were images, they had their existence in words, and which words a writer would choose for any of these stories from the to achieve their effect is an open question

    To be continued.


    1. Continued from above.

      Like I said, I'm still thinking out loud, not really trying to make any point (I don't think), but just musing in response to the article.

      As a result of the first part of this comment, I've sort of wondered about the relation that words can conjure in the mind of an audience, and what relation those mental images have in relation to pictures on a screen.

      I'm not sure I have answers to that, but I do know I have something that can perhaps suggest the phenomenon i'm talking about.

      I've said before that Don Bluth's Secret of Nimh is a good, if flawed, work based on the story petering out at the third act. Well, the irony is, is did pen a bit of a fan script of where things could have gone based on ideas suggested by the movie itself.

      I thought it might be interesting to see just what kind of imagery a few samples of that fan script (unfinished by me) would conjure up, and what expectations an audience might get from them.

      Who knows, this is just thinking out loud:

      int. underneath Fitzgibbons house. open pipe - night

      MRS. BRISBY climbs down into pipe, casting nervous glances back the way she came. She finds her red cloak draped and waiting for her, along with three matches, along with a note.

      MRS. BRISBY begins to tie on cloak, picks up, reads note.

      int. note - Mrs. Brisby's POV

      On the note is a few lines: For a little help (not that you'll need it). J.

      int. focus on MRS. BRISBY

      Despite her anxiety, she smiles, casts glance at matches, finishes fastening cloak.


      She takes a pair of matches and disappears into the dark tunnel of the pipe.

      To be continued


    2. Continued from above:

      int. Sewers. PIPE Tunnel - night

      Blackness at first, then a gleam of yellow light rounds a corner. Getting closer, light is revealed as MRS. BRISBY making her way through pipe tunnel, using match as light (the other one is gone, discarded after faithful service).


      MRS. BRISBY continues on home through pipe, making steady progress (the walls of the pipe are outlined by the match in vivid, yet dark browns, yellows and golds).


      There is a low, rumbling sound behind her and the match flickers.


      She throws a nervous glance behind her.

      INT. FOCUS ON tunnel - Mrs. Brisby's pov

      Nothing but blackness and the faint traces of the match.


      She hesitates, then continues onward, picking up the pace a little.


      As she hurries, another rumble is heard, this one closer as-


      Her match flickers once more, almost going out.


      Her quick walk is now a brisk trot that turns into a full out run as a third rumble blows out her match (leaving her a dark outline in a gray background) and she tosses it aside, pelting up the tunnel.


      As she runs, a fourth rumble is heard, this one growing louder as a blackness begins engulf the whole tunnel. The rumble turns into an all out roar as the blackness engulfs MRS. BRISBY and she's carried along by the current of water in the sewer pipe.

      To be Continued


    3. Continued from above


      WE follow the twisting course of water through a veritable roller coaster of pipes until we wind up in:

      int. sewers. Drainage system - night

      The water exits the tunnels and pounds into a drainage area. Slowly, the torrent slackens, the area empties around a small circular drain. The water drains to reveal:

      int. focus on Drain

      MRS. BRISBY is slumped over a sewer drain.

      int. inside sewer drain - focus up on BRISBY

      She's silhouetted against the storm drain, who's openings are big enough to allow water through, but not her. She drips into the drain, a water clogged church mural.


      As the water slackens she tentatively opens her eyes, strained.

      int. Drainage system - focus on Mrs. Brisby

      Slowly, she pushes herself up and looks around, clueless. Another rumble is heard growing steadily. Follow MRS. BRISBY'S gaze toward source.

      INT. DRAINAGE SYSTEM - FOCUS ON pipe opening

      Another strong torrent of water comes gushing out of the tunnel from where she came.


      She flattens herself once more on sewer drain as:


      The torrent pile drives her back into drain grate.


      She grits teeth, tries to push up against current, is rammed back into grate by water pressure.


      She tries to rise once more, is pile drived down again.


      For a moment she remains quivering on grate. Then the whole weird week starts gang up on her.


      At last she decides to get all things out in the open as she ruminates on the current turns her life has taken.




      She writhes and twists as water crushes her against grate, her screams rising in pitch until they mingle with the shrieks and squeals of a trapped animal.


      At last the torrent begins to subside. MRS. BRISBY turns over so that she's facing up, giving herself a clear view of the above light source.

      int. focus on ceiling grate - MRS. BRISBY'S POV

      The light is revealed to come through a grate set in the ceiling above her. Dripping water echoes through drainage system.

      INT. FOCUS ON MRS. BRISBY through ceiling grate.

      She remains lying, staring up at and through grate. The angle should show that she could easily fit through it if she can reach it.

      To be summed up (I think).


    4. What did all of that have to do with anything?

      Again I'm just thinking out loud without asserting anything. While I focus more on story than imagery, I am curious as to how words, whether on page or screen effect an audience, and whether or not there's a difference between them.

      For instance, I do wonder what kind of images the above fan script sample might have conjured, or how they might translate onto a screen.

      My own thoughts, well, I'm not really sure. Right now I'm just hoping all the above wasn't a waste.


    5. We've had a version of this conversation before, which is fine by me, as it is always worth rehashing.

      On the one hand, I sympathize with your assertion that story is everything. But on the other hand, I refute what you're saying, because I don't think you actually mean what you're saying. The idea that shot composition is unrelated to story in cinema is a good example. I just don't buy that. I don't buy it in the same way that I wouldn't buy the idea that vocabulary selection in prose is somehow separate from story. It isn't; it's one of the many tools a writer or prose uses in the process of crafting story.

      Similarly, shot selection is simply a tool for storytelling. So are any number of other elements of a film (such as acting, editing, musical score, set design, costuming, cinematography, visual effects, and so forth). Even the opening and/or closing credits can be a part of this.

      So to answer one of your concerns, I would personally say that while there IS a difference between words on the page and (as translated) on the screen . . . but that the differences are only the necessary byproduct of moving back and forth between one medium and the next. I would add that this is not unique to the prose/film divide, either; that there exists a similar sort of bridgeable gap between every medium and any other.

      Ultimately, all art is about communication, and all communication is the telling of a story to one person by another person. Or by groups of people to other groups of people. So when I consider whether a movie is "good" or "bad," or somewhere in between, what I'm typically assessing is whether I think the communication was effective. And also whether what is being communicated is interesting, informative, or engaging emotionally.

      When I assess whether or not I feel a novel is good or bad, I'm making the same set of mental/emotional evaluations. But I'm going about it in a different way, because it is a different medium. Despite that, it is basically the same series of concerns I am addressing. Does this move me? Does this interest me? Did this storyteller (author, director, singer, illustrator, etc.) successfully communicate that which I perceive to have been the intended communication?

      That's how I look at it. It's really the only way that makes any sense to me.

    6. Now, on the subject of your NIMH scenario: you've obviously got a sense that what you're writing would need to be visual. With that in mind, I have to ask: are you SURE you don't understand why people sometimes complain about a movie's visuals not working? It's really very simple. For example, when I complain that -- for one example -- an angle Mick Garris chooses to use in framing a character's face in, say, "Desperation" is an unsuccessful image, what I probably mean is that it is communicating something that either contradicts or fails to properly reinforce some idea.

      I can give you a better example. This is not a matter of visuals, but instead a matter of an instance of poor acting. It appears in a first-season episode of "The X-Files" titled "Squeeze." Mulder has discovered the place where Tooms has built his home, and it is -- if I remember correctly -- a bunch of newspaper with bile covering it. Mulder gets the bile on his fingers, and then quips, "Is there any way I can get it off my fingers quickly without betraying my cool exterior?”

      It's a great line, but the way David Duchovny delivers it is just . . . off. He says the entire line in one go, in a flat tone that fails to actually emphasize any of the individual words. As a result, the line just dies on-screen. The point still gets across. Sort of. But not as capably as it ought to; it's a moment in which the communication has failed slightly.

      Of course, there is still the fact of this all being based on opinion. My lousy line reading might be your great line reading. We all develop our own sense of aesthetics over time, especially if we do more than dabble within a given medium. I watch a lot of movies, and so my sense of cinematic aesthetics is well-developed and fairly complex. I'm going to spot things that others aren't, just as someone who visits a great many art galleries is likely to spot things in an abstract painting to which I would be blind.

      I'm rambling now, so I think it's time to go read a bit of this Ian Fleming biography before bed.

    7. When I was writing the Nimh fan script, ideas like what angle am I seeing the scene from didn't come up all that much. In fact, going back and looking at it, while there are POV shots, the description of them is very generic. It really amounts to little more than an up-down-up-down pattern and that's about it, I honestly didn't stop to think about the angles of what I was seeing. Unfortunately, I'm not sure I could tell you what exact angle belongs on certain scenes.

      As to the words chosen to describe the scenes, these also are very sparse, and many of them are just me dredging up memories of the Bluth "look" for lack of a better word. How this looks in my mind, seems alright, though the problem with the image as described is it's open-endedness.

      Again, I'm not sure of what angle I was seeing, but I do know that the way I saw it can't, by it's nature be the way anyone else sees it when they read a line.

      What this has to do with chosen words for a story is that these vague ideas, not even pictures properly understood, occurred to me. I was therefore left with having to choose which words best fit the scene. In this sense, like you said, I was stuck having to find the right way to communicate the ideas in my head. the problem for me at that point was, within the limits of what I had, the choice of words was also open-ended open-ended. True, I could only use any and all words that would describe how Mrs. Brisby gets from point A (tunnel entrance) to B (sewer grate) and that basic situation would put a necessary limit on what words I could use. However, within those limits, the problem is all the different ways the scene could be described. The ideas in my head show actions, but they are actions that don't describe themselves out loud, at least.

      I suppose I approach cinematography from that angle as well. One of the things I admit is a crappy choice of words if I gave the idea that words and images aren't the tools used in film and book respectively, I never meant to deny that, and sorry if I wasn't clearer.


    8. One final thing to note about the scene is the bit of characterization tossed in. The phrases I used were "Then the whole weird starts to gang up on her...At last she decides to get all things out in the open as she ruminates on the current turns her life has taken."

      That's rather flippant for the scene being described (and not really respectful, actually) however it does lend at least a bit insight into what the character is going through at that moment; an insight that isn't as readily apparent if we just leave it at her being pounded by the water, because then we're left with the question of why she screams.

      Also, there are further things that aren't conveyed in the descriptions themselves that were nonetheless on my mind as I wrote it. One of the influences on that scene with the grate was Daryl Hannah's death scene from Blade Runner, and I admit that at least in part, I might have heard the sound effects for that scene as I composed the Nimh sequence, however it's not conveyed by what's written.

      Another thing that was in my mind at the time was the Jungian idea of water as an ignition symbol, as a sign that a border has been crossed. This was also in my mind, yet I don't know how much of the image (idea really) conveys any of that, as I didn't write it down.

      There are a lot of distinctions here, and to be fair I can understand if it seems like too much trouble, however I was just caught up in trying to find the proper words for what, within the logic of the story at least, was a very existential moment (if that's even the right word); the main characters fundamental expression of frustration at her predicament and her seeming inability to do anything about it (those words are accurate, yet still don't do the scene justice). In other words, the choice was finding the proper words for the main characters rage at the unfairness of her situation.

      In all this, i wasn't approaching it from a cinematic point of view, but more that of a book point of view, and I pretty much approach film from the same angle. I've taken film classes, yet I'm not sure I remember the list of camera angles we were told to memorize, and I'm also unsure of how well one shot would work better than another for any given scene.

      I don't if that's any explanation, but it's two cents worth.


    9. "I've taken film classes, yet I'm not sure I remember the list of camera angles we were told to memorize, and I'm also unsure of how well one shot would work better than another for any given scene."

      It depends on what you're trying to convey. If you wanted to emphasize the claustrophobia of the situation (i.e., panic), you'd probably want an angle that was relatively close-up. If you instead wanted to convey the idea of hopelessness that wasn't tinged with panic but instead with dread, you might want an angle from behind her that somehow emphasized how far she still had to go.

      I don't have the answer for you. But I can tell you this much: whether you want to acknowledge it or not, there are a great many angles that any individual moment from your scenario could be filmed from. Each and every one of them means something. What does it mean? Beats me. It's your story, not mine. But if you put no thought behind your selections, you end up with a thoughtlessly-told story. It's just that simple.

      Now, with all that said, do you have any interest in anything that I wrote about "Secret Window"? Because it sounds to me like you want to talk about basically anything other than what I actually wrote, and to be honest, that's a little insulting.

    10. Sorry, I didn't mean to be insulting. All the above was just thoughts that reading your review called up for me, and I just thought it was interesting to think it over. That was really all were I came from in all that, never meant anything else really.

      In terms of Secret Garden, one thing you wrote is about the differences between the stories the novella and film tell.

      While the film and the movie both tell the story of a writer going crazy, the novella seemed more of an exploration of the nature of writing. The film on the other hand seems to ask a different, yet interesting question about how creativity can be used in the service of madness.

      I'm not sure if that's on target or not, however it does seem to be something that the film does well.

    11. For me, the key idea in the story and movie alike is the idea that if a person is crazy, they probably don't know they're crazy. What must THAT be like? I think both explore the idea compellingly. So does the radio drama, for that matter.

      I've definitely enjoyed this multi-part revisit with "Secret Window, Secret Garden." I always liked the novella/movie, but both have risen in my estimation these past few weeks. I always love it when that happens!

  2. On first viewing, I saw the addition of the private eye character to be inspired by Misery, sort of "well, this worked for that, so let's try it here." Not that I feel strongly about that being why it was done, was just my first impression. It definitely helps smooth the transition, either way.

    Nice screencappin', Tex. (Love that "Shoot Her" with Depp looking all psycho - nice!)

    I got a few sentences into the above comments re: screen-to-text and confess my eyes went Tex-Avery-googly, so I have no idea which way is up or down... But I think it's fair to say that a) there is no one-ring-to-rule-them-all-way to make a film out of a book, b) there are many textbooks, documentaries, articles, and commentaries that elucidate the fine art of cinematography without my having to enter into that one. Actually, ditto for adaptations, as well.

    A literal adaptation of prose into another language is probably the example I'd use. A word for word translation leaves sentences jumbled, etc. So you have to allow for some re-arrangement. Sometimes, the idiom must be changed. Other times, once you do those things, you realize, well, shoot, now maybe I should re-name this chapter or re-order this sentence... etc. So much the more with camera angles/ character compartmentalization, etc.

    Anyway, the skill and artistic sensibility and comprehension of the translator is probably the deciding factor in most cases. Some stories are easier to translate.

    Good job detailing Koepp's subtle approach. He may have out-subtled himself, a little; I'm not sure if I'd have picked up on his shots the way he describes them. But: I like that that's what he was thinking. (Particularly with that crane shot.)

    1. "Anyway, the skill and artistic sensibility and comprehension of the translator is probably the deciding factor in most cases."


      "Nice screencappin', Tex" -- got a good chuckle out of that one. Read it in a Bill Murray voice (or is that a Peter Venkman voice?), which seemed appropriate.

      Koepp out-subtling himself is probably accurate. He talks on the commentary about being inspired by the opening shot of Psycho, and mentions how simple a shot it is forty years-plus later . . . but also how it remains effective because it is clean and efficient and just plains WORKS. You get the sense that he's almost asking himself if he's overcomplicating things in his (Koepp's) own work.