Sunday, November 10, 2013

The European co-production industry boards a Night Train to Lisbon (2011)

Sometimes, watching films is bloody hard. Does it ever happen to you, as well? Do you sometimes get the feeling that certain films don't make any sense -from the point of view of the industry insider or film studies professional at least? Have you never wondered why a film got made (or, to elaborate, why such an amount of money had to be spent for a disastrous, tasteless result), why the star-cast ever got involved and so on so forth? What I get as an intuitive answer to my questions is rather ludicrous set of two things: there is a certain budget to be spent on film production -I'm mainly talking about (largely) subsidised European film production here- and an inability to spot/dig out/scout  new talents.

Sick and tired of the European co-production industry -mostly deviating from its target I'd like to propose something radical: we should get over with productions based-on-flimsy-scripts-based-on historical-events  once and for all. Now, really, we've seen enough Napoleons, and Tsars and Dukes and Duchesses. We ought to engage a bit with now-ness, the current affairs, the pressing socio-political issues, create fictional brave new heroes; and to do that efficiently we should look for good writers. Ah, let me not forget: we ought to stop entirely the sloppy process of re-writing a best-seller into a script, and then off to the screen. Why? Because, while writing a certain type of book is not such a hard thing for gifted individuals (as the only official species of the elaborate spoken language, we are, after all, acquainted to the rules of story-telling more than anything), drafting any written version to be translated into visual material is not half as easy as it seems.

Right, but the bottom line is, who the hell knows how to write a good screenplay (whatever that is supposed to mean)? Not too many people on their own, but quite a few, if they team up. Big teams of writers are employed by Hollywood studios to efficiently use the golden rules with which Syd Field and others educated generations of scriptwriters since the seventies: one of them being an expert on dialogue, the second on tightening things up, the third writing gleaming voice-over and so on, so forth;  there's also the script doctor and some other roles, and, yes, that's how screenplays are written over there (in order to be securely pleasurable by big audiences).

With regards to adaptations, as unfortunate as it may sound, we haven't identified yet any efficient recipe to master this genre. Adaptations are risky business, even for the most talented, because cinema is no literature; with different rules and prerequisites, one has to be creative and trust his gut feeling to put on paper characters and images full of life and poise, ready to connect with their audience and rejuvenate them (isn't this one of the reasons we're watching films?).

The story vs The industry

It goes without saying that a good story makes a good film in most cases. This can be reversed, and we've seen stunning visual quality in films with fluid storyline -but these type of audiovisual products  belong more to an art gallery set up in my opinion. Great acting alone, or a blooming bouquet of photogenic thespians amidst equally pleasant urban or natural landscape cannot produce a good film. A seemingly interesting story needs months of development to become worthwhile for audiences to spare their two hours of immersion. 

Having said that, I do acknowledge the existence of numerous cinema crews all around Europe, and their need to work in their field of expertise. This is what the Article 8 of the European Convention on Cinematographic Co-production secures, when it cites that "the technical and craft team involved in filming the work must be made up of nationals of the States which are partners in the co-production, and post-production shall normally be carried out in those States". Then, how does a good deed turns sour? European producers see co-production business as a "snatch", I'd say. They reckon "we have cinema crews available, we can secure funding (European Union and state money involved), we have perfect locations, big stars and well-equipped studios, so let's get this industry going". They don't take time to develop the script, to re-write, to adjust, to perfect. Can this attitude create the next masterpiece?  No, it cannot (and it doesn't, but prizes are there and they have to be handed to one of the contestants). This practical, rather throughput approach fails to give interesting stories to a European audience struggling with uninspired local audiovisual products -personally, I forgot which was the last European  co-production that shook my world.

That's exactly the case of Nigh Train to Lisbon, a film that could be good enough if more attention was given to the script, but it ended up being slightly laughable, due to the slow pace of the storyline and additional shortcomings. David Rooney at Hollywood Reporter cannot help but slightly make fun of this verbose piece studded with stars, just like a Byzantine crown; they similarly treat the film at Indiewire, and how could they not. Both reviews condemn the Night Train as an outdated Europudding, which is, as you might get, a derogatory term for "an uninspiring film, song etc. produced through European cooperation". Which is a good thing in essence -cooperation, I mean. But, why should clauses and conditions of the European Convention on Cinematographic Co-production be so numerous and concentrate solely on financial, tax and logistics matters and not highlight the artistic merit? But, can one determine the artistic merit beforehand? Definitely not, but, with a close look at the script we can have an idea on the result. Yes, we can.

And the solution would be...

1. The European co-production system could use an external body of script-doctors, evaluators, writers'  scouts etc. 2. Different versions should be created when it comes to editing of the filmed material, if the first one is not creating a positive effect to the testing audience. 3. MEDIA people can create some new clauses to the Convention, that will not only highlight the rights of the producers and local crews to make films, but also bind in a way the quality of the film-to-be-made to its right to get made, it sounds weird, I know, and not so doable, but when there's a will, there's a way. These stuff are commons sense in the other side of the ocean, where a lot of money is at stake with regards to film-making. Why not in Europe, too? Don't we like being competitive? Shouldn't we explore new ways of making money, especially now that we dearly need it? Doesn't European Cinema deserve a break?

* Well, having dug a grave for Night Train to Lisbon, let me give you a European co-production that actually moved me: Mr. Morgan's Last Love (2013) with my Get Carter crash Michael Cane being very old, but still loveable and Clémence Poésy. The film is in fact the product of a novel adaptation -yes, sometimes things do work out with adaptations- and it's directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, whom I've never heard before I see this film. But it was a well-made film, sad and uplifting at the same time. All that in a totally charming way.

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