The Bridges Of Madison County Film Study

The Bridges of Madison County is a 1995 American one-true-love romance. The film is based on a 1992 best-selling, terribly written novel by Robert James Waller.

Stephen King gives the novel a roasting in his well-known book On Writing. Almost everyone who wants to be a writer seems to have read King’s writing book, part autobiography, part how-to guide. In the appendix, King includes a list of excellent novels and a list of terrible ones. He says writers must read bad writing before fully comprehending what makes good novels good. I feel Stephen King is too powerful to be so callous about others. But here’s what I’ve also noticed: Most powerful people came from nothing, and forever see themselves as ‘outside the establishment’. For them, there’s no epiphany in which they realise, “I’m big cheese now. I’d better be careful who I roast.”

Then again, Bridges of Madison County did sell 60 million copies. Maybe if you sell that many books, you’re a peer of Stephen King.

Is ‘Bad Writing’ Simply ‘Screenplay Writing’?

I have nothing like Stephen King’s clout. So I’ll tell you this. I picked up Robert James Waller’s novel Bridges of Madison County at a second-hand store for fifty cents. I took it home and sat down to read it. If Stephen King made it all the way through that novel he did better than me. I couldn’t make it past the first five pages. I’m inclined to absorb the style of whatever I’ve been reading lately, and the prose was so cringe I was worried it would infect my own prose. The guy wrote the novel in 11 days and it shows.

The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that it’s easier to make a good movie from a bad book than from a great one. That’s probably true. No one has ever gotten The Great Gatsby right. A Confederacy of Dunces has allegedly driven some who’ve tried to adapt it mad. Did you hear that James Franco made a film version of As I Lay Dying? Exactly.

Phillip Martin, Arkansas Online

The book is written as badly as a screenplay. Ergo, it makes for a great screenplay. (Screenplays are work documents, never intended to be enjoyed for their line-level beauty.)

Who Gets To Be A ‘Good Writer’?

Stephenie Meyer is another romance writer whose best-selling vampire novel Twilight is frequently held up as an example of poor writing. Readers who love her work (mostly teenage girls and adult women) are assumed incapable of seeing bad prose for what it is. This isn’t true. Many of Twilight’s biggest fans write sophisticated think-pieces about the series’ problems, ideological and stylistic. Many will likewise point out that the prose becomes better as the series progresses.

There are clearly gender issues affecting pop criticism of pop books. There are also publishing industry issues at play. Why wasn’t the first Twilight book better edited? Why aren’t publishers spending more on editors in general? Well. Why aren’t readers spending more on books?

Genre Blend of Bridges of Madison County

The editors at Story Grid did an episode of The Bridges of Madison County. They consider this story an example of a Courtship Love story.

What Makes A Good Story?

There are many aspects to a great story. All aspects interrelate, but beautiful prose is just one thing, and maybe not even the most important thing to people who read one or two books a year.

Plotting and characterisation are separate from a novel’s line-level beauty. When ugly prose is adapted for film, the prose is no longer an issue. Now other aspects are allowed to shine (or fall flat). At least, this is the case when adept actors are cast in major roles. Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood do a marvellous job of elevating cheesy dialogue of The Bridges of Madison County. They also share superb onscreen chemistry.

Clint Eastwood clearly saw the adaptive potential of this story. He produced it, directed it and starred in it. The movie is a particular type of satisfying. But because the line-level cringe has all but gone in the film, other issues reveal themselves.

On Setting and Authenticity

While audiences will accept films made with CGI or filmed against backdrops inside Hollywood studios, there’s a special appreciation reserved for movies filmed on site in off-the-beaten-track locations.

The Bridges of Madison County is authentic to its setting. True Grit is also set partly in Iowa, but The Bridges of Madison County looks a lot more like the actual place, being filmed there and all.

I’m giving this old story some fresh attention because three decades later audiences continue to enjoy the film, and theatres around the world continue to adapt the story for stage.

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Films That Centre Characters Over 40

Are you weary of films about people younger than yourself? You may be over 40. Here are some suggestions.

Most films about people over forty are men, so the list below is woman heavy.

Some of these stories are really about young people, but told with the framing story of an older person looking back, so I’m not sure they really count as stories about older people.

These are in no order, except I will list my own favourites first. In my experience, if seeking out stories about characters over forty, your best bet on screen is TV rather than film. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Big Love, Greenleaf, Succession and Chernobyl are all prestige shows starring people over forty. Older British TV series also sometimes feature characters in their mid-years and beyond: Fawlty Towers, To The Manor Born and House of Cards.

Then there are TV shows like Six Feet Under and Friday Night Lights which give their older characters developed stories of their own. Nashville is specifically about a younger star rising up to replace the established middle age country music veteran. There’s an increasing number of TV detectives who are over the age of 40. One recent example is Mare of Easttown. These detectives balance their work lives with complicated family situations.

The idea that the glut of bad blockbusters is the result of “audience preference” is neoliberal nonsense. One of the main mechanisms of capitalism is eliminating competition and then figuring out exactly how crappy you can make something before people stop buying it.

@mechanicalkurt, 7:46am · 26 Jul 2021

MY OWN FAVOURITES

Olive Kitteridge (2014)

Olive Kittridge isn’t a movie. It’s a four part miniseries based on the best-selling novels by Elizabeth Strout. However, if you binge watch it all at once, it works like a super long movie. Olive Kitteridge is a bristly character but highly relatable if you’ve hit middle age and find you have less patience for bullshit and pointless ceremony these days. Frances McDormand is perfectly cast, as is everyone else. Olive Kitteridge follows Olive into her old age, where she must face the particular challenges that come with looking your own mortality down the barrel of a gun.

Lonesome Dove (1989)

I’m a big fan of the novel series. Although Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel Lonesome Dove was adapted for screen in the late 1980s, it’s still great. The old cowboys have come to their end of their lives and are craving another adventure, this time driving cattle from Texas up to Montana, where they believe they will make a fortune and live out the rest of their lives in comfort.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Terms of Endearment is also based on a Larry McMurtry novel, this one from his Houston series. This story is definitely the best of that series, and focuses as much on the mother as her adult daughter.

The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)

Starring Anthony Hopkins. I have a soft spot for this film, being a Kiwi myself. Anthony Hopkins gets the accent absolutely right. Few New Zealanders themselves could manage an authentic Southland accent.

This is a 2005 New Zealand biographical sports drama based on the Invercargill, New Zealand, speed bike racer Burt Munro.

Munro rode a highly modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle. Munro set numerous land speed records for motorcycles with engines less than 1,000 cc at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. This film follows his trip to America, where he is a fish out of water.

Away From Her (2006)

Based on “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro. The snowy landscape really sticks in my mind after watching this. Few films show what it’s really like to live with snow that settles. (That isn’t even what the film is about.)

Because it comes from Alice Munro, you can trust the story will be expansive and nuanced.

August: Osage County (2013)

There is nothing cheerful about this story, nor cosy. The setting is somewhat similar to that in Terms of Endearment, but this is a harrowing story about a family. The plot will sound familiar to everyone: Adults who’ve made their own lives in the cities return to their small hometown to deal with a family crisis.

The masterful thing about this story, clearly originally written for stage, is how the reveals are done. The first reveal is only a reveal for the characters because the audience has been let in on it first. The second reveal will surprise the audience. Then, when you think there can be no more reveals, there’s one more right at the end.

Doubt (2008)

This is my favourite film starring Meryl Streep. The audience is right there alongside Meryl Streep’s nun as she deals with a terrible moral dilemma: Does she trust her gut instinct about the new priest, even though she has no firm evidence against him?

All Is Lost (2013)

Robert Redford. out on a sinking yacht/lifeboat by himself in the middle of the ocean, next to zero dialogue. I’ve seen a few ‘man stuck alone on a sinking boat’ films and this one has the pacing and tension just right. However, you won’t get me on a boat.

Secrets and Lies (1996)

I’m a fan of Mike Leigh, and more so the older I get. I did enjoy Secrets and Lies when it was fairly new (I was in my late teens) and it’s still good. It felt new to watch a film about working class people. I’d previously only really seen working class people in soaps such as Coronation Street, which is not realistic.

All Or Nothing (2002)

Another by Mike Leigh. The story of a marriage, again starring working class middle-aged people.

Vera Drake (2004)

Also by Mike Leigh. A shocking reminder of what society looks like when abortion is illegal. The cheerful disposition of the main character juxtaposes terribly against the setting, and the predicament she ends up in.

The Wife (2017)

Starring Glenn Close, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer. The less you know about this story going in, the better.

The Wrestler (2008)

Starring Mickey Rourke, this is one of the few films which Australia’s Margaret and David both gave five out of five stars to.

Anyone who is getting old enough to find their body isn’t working as well as it used to will relate to this film, though it is very sad.

Can you imagine a universe where one flew over the cuckoo’s nest was the second highest grossing film of the year?? I Have to Believe we can go back as a culture to people making and watching Grown Up Media on that scale.

@xtinatucker, 12:12am · 26 Jul 2021

RECOMMENDATIONS FROM OTHERS

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Donnie Darko Film Study

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko is a 2001 film set in 1988, in a fictional Virginia town called Middlesex. This genre blend of drama, mystery and science fiction is precisely ambiguous enough to generate much discussion about what is meant to have happened. This is ideal ‘cult-following’ material. Note that Donnie Darko didn’t make much of a splash when first released, but achieved its cult following subsequently.

Today I offer my own take on What Happens in Donnie Darko — nothing that hasn’t been said before — but I’ll also come at it from a storytelling point of view. What makes Donnie Darko a satisfying story? Why do viewers who love this film really really love it?

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How are the characters on Mare of Easttown related?

If you’re struggling a bit to decipher the web of characters on crime drama Mare of Easttown, rest assured you’re not the only one. In line with more mimetic stories such as The Wire, the writers are making us work for basic info, including how characters interweave.

This post avoids major reveals. However, some relationships themselves are held back as mini-reveals. So if you don’t want to have anything at all spoiled for you, not even how people relate to each other, don’t read on.

(This isn’t an exhaustive list of the cast, by the way. Some relationships are easy to work out.)

DETECTIVE SERGEANT MARE (MARIANNE) SHEEHAN

MARE SHEEHAN is the main character, played by Kate Winslet. MARE is a veteran on the local women’s basketball team, “Miss Ladyhawk Herself”.

She has a teenaged daughter called SIOBHAN, and a son called KEVIN who died two years earlier.

It is soon revealed that Mare’s five-year-old grandson DREW (who Mare cares for, alongside her own mother HELEN) is the son of her son KEVIN, who died by suicide.

Mare with her four-year-old grandson Drew Mare of Easttown
Mare with her four-year-old grandson Drew

Mare no longer lives with her husband, but because this is a small town, it just so happens he’s bought the house over the back fence.

Mare’s mother lives with Mare. They have a comically combative relationship. Only Helen, the mother, ever calls Mare ‘Marianne’, and only a couple of times, when they’re enjoying softer moments.

For the last twenty-five years, Mare has been a local hero of Easttown. She made the winning shot at a high school basketball tournament. This is still the town’s claim to fame. She also has a lot of prestige as a member of the police force, but she doesn’t take that role home with her.

Mare: Doin’ something great is overrated because then people expect that from you all the time. What they don’t realize is that you’re just as screwed up as they are.

Mare Sheehan
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Fish Tank Film Study

Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold

When it comes to storytelling, certain themes are easy to get wrong. Attempts at subversion can end up reinforcing a culturally dominant message. Specifically, attempts to show the sexual vulnerability of teenage girls can tip into objectification in the wrong hands, or sometimes mostly by the people in charge of the marketing materials.

When Netflix advertised the film Cuties, they were widely panned for using the image on the left, below. Notice how the French theatrical poster emphasises girlhood and friendship while the Netflix poster sexually objectifies pubescent girls.

Director Maïmouna Doucouré received death threats over the Netflix Cuties poster. Unfortunately for the director, the marketing team messed up. The film is actually a “nuanced, sensitive tale of a pre-teen girl who gets caught between two cultures – her conservative, religious upbringing and the pull of her liberal French school friends who are influenced by the internet and social media.”

The thing is, marketing materials (a story’s epitext) are a work of art in their own right, and still images pulled in isolation from of a subversive story require the rest of the text to make sense, and are therefore misleading.

Marketing materials aside, others argue that the story of Cuties itself is exploitative:

To avoid abusing children in the production of the story, Doucouré could have chosen to tell the story without creating such sexually explicit material as was shown on screen, or she could have hired actors over the age of 18, but that’s not what happened.

“The audience does not need to see the very long scenes with close-up shots of the girls’ bodies; this does nothing to educate the audience on the harms of sexualization,” Lina Nealon, director of corporate and strategic initiatives at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said in an NCOSE statement. “Netflix could and should insist that the particularly sexually-exploitative scenes are cut from the film, or stop hosting this film at all.”

Netflix’s ‘Cuties’ Didn’t Have to Participate in Exploitation to Expose It:
That the film made it this far shows our culture is already desensitized to the hypersexualization of minors. MARY ROSE SOMARRIBA

Stories about adults can come under the same criticism. Mad Men was also criticised for seeming on the one hand to critique the misogyny of the 1950s and 60s advertising world while at the same time objectifying women.

Now to Fish Tank. This is one film which does an excellent job of depicting the vulnerability of teenage girls is Fish Tank (2009) written and directed by Andrea Arnold.

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Films To Watch With A Twelve Year Old

The ‘parents guide’ section of any given movie on IMDb tells you what to look out for in these films. My kid saw these but not all can.

Boy (a New Zealand film)

Sci-Fi

Gattaca

Artificial Intelligence

I, Robot

Horror

A Quiet Place

The Ritual

Carrie

The Others

Anime to watch while you’re still a kid

Princess Mononoke

The Cat Returns

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

A Letter To Momo

Wolf Children

Wolf Children and Grave of the Fireflies are also great but the latter in particular is very sad. Wolf Children is probably more sad for adults than for kids.

Kickass older teenage girls

Whip It!

Juno

From The Edge Of Seventeen

Dumplin

We Are The Best! (Swedish, and hard to find)

Lady Bird

Films for adults which a 12-year-old would probably understand

About A Boy

True Grit (either the old or the new one, but the dialogue in the old one is easier to understand)

Talullah

Kings of Summer

What Maisie Knew

Boyhood (it’s long, needs an intermission)

Mud

Panic Room

Flightplan

Gritty but good for discussion:

Thirteen

Into The Wild

Samson and Delilah

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Silicon Valley and Comedy Character Ensembles

GROUPS OF FIVE TECH GUYS

The creators of Silicon Valley reveal to their audience early in the show the thinking behind their ensemble of “five guys”. This may or may not have some realworld application — I don’t know the real Silicon Valley. But even if it doesn’t ring one bit true, every time we do see this particular ensemble in real life tech teams, fans will now think of Silicon Valley, the fictional comedy show. This ensemble will seem more common than it ever was before. (Such are cognitive biases.)

Gavin Belson: It’s weird. They always travel in groups of five. These programmers, there’s always a tall, skinny white guy; short, skinny Asian guy; fat guy with a ponytail; some guy with crazy facial hair; and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.

Season One

The audience is encouraged in this scene to map the main cast of Silicon Valley onto these tech archetypes as observed by tech baddie/opponent Gavin Belson. The writers make us use our brains a little bit:

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Jane Campion’s The Piano Film Study

The Piano Film Landscape

The Piano (1993) is a lyrical, fairytale film written and directed by Jane Campion, set and filmed in New Zealand near the beginning of white colonisation.

SETTING OF THE PIANO

Like many creative New Zealanders, Campion comes from Wellington. I don’t know why so much creativity comes out of the Wellington region, but I suspect it has something to do with the dramatic landscape and its harsh climate. I don’t dismissively mean that the weather is so terrible that people have nothing else to do but stay inside and make their own fun. I mean, when you immerse yourself in New Zealand’s most outdoors settings, you can occasionally be struck by a sense of awe, and that awe carries over into your work.

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Dead Calm Film Study

Dead Calm movie poster landscape

Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?

Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).

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The US Office Character Studies

The Office poster

The Office started out in 2001 as a UK mockumentary devised by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I can’t enjoy the level of cringe executed by the UK cast, especially the Ricky Gervais boss, who make me want to curl into a ball due to transferred humiliation. But like many, many other viewers I love the concept. I soon turned to the American spin-off starring Steve Carell as boss Michael Scott. The American Office ran for nine seasons (2005-2013), which makes it one of the most successful comedy series in history. Mockumentaries enjoyed a new lease of life, leading to another favourite of mine, This Country.

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