Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Casanova": Who Writes Your Screenplays?

I spent Thanksgiving with my aunt, uncle, and cousin in the East Bay. After dinner (the basics like turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, plus a dish of creamed peas and pearl onions--a tres Midwestern contribution from my Minnesotan uncle) we watched the Casanova film that came out a few years ago, starring Heath Ledger. My aunt is very proud of our Italian heritage and loves any kind of costume drama with Venetian vistas; plus, knowing that we won't get any more Heath Ledger movies makes his whole filmography seem precious.

But I wasn't really crazy about Casanova. I guess I wanted Casanova to be like Don Giovanni--an unrepentant rake and lady-killer--but this film version removes his edginess and complexity. He is always likable, as chivalrous as a seducer can possibly be, and despite his reputation, we don't see him juggle many lovers. Instead, the movie says that Casanova just needed to find the one woman that was meant for him, and then he'd instantly go monogamous. Meanwhile, the woman (Francesca, played by Sienna Miller) is supposed to appeal to a modern-day audience because she pretends to be a dutiful daughter, but secretly she's feisty and fights in duels and writes proto-feminist pamphlets and disguises herself as a man. But all of this feels so calculated to appeal to us, and so anachronistic considering that the movie takes place in 1750, that it annoys me. Just because I'm a feminist doesn't mean that I want every movie to contain a spunky feminist role model. Instead, I want female characters to be believable according to the setting of the film, and Francesca is not.

When I got home, I looked up the original New York Times review of Casanova. A.O. Scott liked it lots more than I did--but he also revealed something interesting: Tom Stoppard evidently did an uncredited rewrite of the Casanova script!

It's funny what learning something like that can do. I had thought that Casanova was a mediocre romp with nice costumes, suitable for watching in a Thanksgiving haze of triptophan and wine, but not deserving of any futher consideration. But now, knowing that one of my favorite playwrights had a hand in the script, I wished I'd paid it more attention. Could I have detected a "Stoppard touch" in any of the scenes? None of the dialogue struck me as that great on first hearing, but rereading it on the IMDB quotes page, could I hear a hint of Stoppard in some of the sillier jokes? And was Stoppard's contribution more about giving the dialogue a witty sheen, or did it extend to fixing problems of plot and character? Because despite his script-doctoring, Casanova still has one-dimensional characters and a contrived, mechanistic plot. The film even contains elementary screenwriting mistakes like naming one character "Victoria" and a completely unrelated character "Vittorio"--couldn't someone have changed one of those names?

There is a moment at the end of Casanova that I'd like to think is a Stoppard contribution--or maybe it's from Jeffrey Hatcher, another playwright who worked on the screenplay. Casanova and Francesca are rescued from the Inquisition's clutches by a troupe of traveling players, who express hope that the young lovers will join the acting company. Francesca gives the head of the troupe an appraising look and says "Who writes your plays?"

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