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Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Gatherings, Part 1 (originally published 7/01)

If you're looking to stage a play on a limited budget while still telling an engaging story, here's an ideal formula. Pull together a group of old friends, interspersed perhaps with a few who don't share their common history, at some sort of social gathering. It might be a party or a funeral or a vacation trip; anything that brings people together. Then allow them to interact with one another during the course of an evening (or a weekend, or a summer). If the characters are interesting enough, all sorts of fascinating social dynamics will begin to emerge. Secrets will be told, confidences will be betrayed, old jealousies and resentments will reassert themselves, old romances will reawaken and new ones will be kindled. And it can all be staged, if necessary, on a single set.

On the other hand, movies, unlike plays, thrive on spectacle. The more locations and the faster the pace of the action, the better. That, at least, is the traditional wisdom about the difference between stage and screen. Like a lot of traditional wisdom, however, it is, at best, oversimplified. Filmmakers may respond to spectacle, but they respond even more to a good story. As it happens, lots of good films have been made based on the premise outlined above, the most recent being "The Anniversary Party," written and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. If you find this type of film at least as rewarding as movies about car chases and explosions, look for these titles on home video.

"Rules of the Game" (1939). French filmmaker Jean Renoir, one of the giants of cinema, took the idea of exploring the narrative potential of a social gathering and fashioned it into one of the screen's crown jewels. By showing us a gathering of the French upper crust for a weekend of partying at a country estate, Renoir sharply satirizes the society that existed in Europe between the world wars. The multilayered story centers around parallel love triangles, one among the aristocrats and one among the household servants. In a 1992 poll of international critics, this brilliant and entertaining classic was ranked as the second greatest film of all time, right behind "Citizen Kane" (1941).

"Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955). When we think of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, we usually think of grim, dark dramas about dour Swedes brooding about the silence of God. It may surprise you, therefore, to learn that this early Bergman film was in fact a romantic comedy of manners, patterned after French farce. The fun and games are initiated by an actress who is newly interested in her former lover, whose wife is in love with her stepson, who in turn is in love with the maid. The actress invites all of them, along with various other romantic rivals, to a weekend at her mother's country estate. This witty period piece, set in the late 19th Century, inspired a Stephen Sondheim musical called "A Little Night Music," originally produced in 1973, which was adapted for film in 1978.

"Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980). This was the low-budget film that put John Sayles on the map as a screenwriter and director. He shows us the reunion of a group of former college classmates whose claim to fame is that they were arrested in Secaucus, New Jersey, while on their way to a 1960s protest rally in Washington. Instead of showing us their earlier days through flashbacks, Sayles allows everything to come out in the dialogue as the friends reminisce. It may sound like a talky and static approach, but Sayles has a playwright's sure-footed knack for dialogue. Scenes that might have become tedious in the hands of a lesser screenwriter are invested with energy and interest by Sayles's craftsmanship. The tremendous promise shown by Sayles in this debut effort has since been fulfilled many times over. Over the last twenty years his work has set the benchmark for high quality independent filmmaking, demonstrating that it is possible to turn out a body of consistently excellent work without suffering the indignity of becoming a field hand on the Hollywood plantation.

Next week, we'll look at a few more examples of ensemble filmmaking about group dynamics, including the 1980s hit that shows what "Return of the Secaucus Seven" might have looked like with a full-scale Hollywood budget.

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