Sunday, July 10, 2011

How I Would Have Done It: Cigarette Burns

(What I'd like to do in my How I Would Have Done It posts is examine a movie that I think didn't live up to its potential and, well, talk about how I would have done it if I'd been the writer or director. Mostly because just leaving it at "that was dumb" or "that sucked" is kind of unsatisfying, especially when there was something really good buried in there somewhere. I'll be discussing story elements in detail, so all kinds of spoilers await.)

I am a huge fan of stories that operate on the model of "person hired to search for an elusive object finds himself in a world of weird, weird shit as a result." This basic story encompasses thrillers like 8mm, supernatural horror movies like The Ninth Gate, and to an extent, even Apocalypse Now. For me, it's that sense that some secret world lies just underneath the world we know, that behind the most innocuous doors are things that would make us question our sanity. There is mystery and wonder in our world, if we just pay careful attention.

Cigarette Burns is the story of down-on-his-luck theater owner Kirby Sweetman. Kirby owes a lot of money and if he can't pay it off soon, his arthouse movie theater will be closed down. Enter Mr. Bellinger, a film collector who would like Mr. Sweetman to use his extensive knowledge of obscure film to obtain a very rare artifact - a film called Le Fin Absolue Du Monde (The Absolute End of the World). Acquisition of this film is worth 200 grand to Bellinger, because…

…it was only screened once, and everyone at that screening ended up dead or irretrievably insane.

The film itself is practically urban legend at this point - the one known print was thought to be destroyed after the screening, and everyone involved with the creation of the film either vanished or killed themselves. Bellinger seems quite sure that the film did indeed exist, and that there is an intact print somewhere out there.

So what went wrong with the movie?

Well, all kinds of shit. First off, the basic "secret" of the mythical movie is given away in the first act, pretty much before Sweetman even starts his search for the film. Second, a subplot concerning Sweetman's father-in-law and deceased wife complicates what should be a very clear, simple story line. Third, there's a distracting, fourth-wall-violating plot device (from which Cigarette Burns gets its name) that muddies what story we do have after the most important part has already been given away.

Keep Us In The Dark

As I see it, for a movie like this to work, the mysterious object (be it book, movie, whatever) needs to remain mysterious as long as possible, or at least some aspect of the search needs to remain mysterious. In 8mm, the mystery wasn't whether or not the movie existed (it did), but rather its provenance. In The Ninth Gate, the existence of the book wasn't mysterious, but its nature and function was. In Cigarette Burns, we have a movie that isn't supposed to exist any more, and when it did it was connected to terrible things.

So here the trick is keeping the protagonist (and the viewer) as much in the dark about the object as long as we can. Why did it drive people insane? What were the circumstances around its creation? What is it a film of? These are the questions put to us by the premise, with the promise that hoo boy, this is one fucked-up film. So when one of the first things we see related to the movie is a pair of feathered wings that appear to have been cut off of some man-sized creature., it gets us thinking - it doesn't give too much away, but it gets us thinking. That's good - one of the best ways to build up tension and dread in a movie like this is to have the protagonist come into contact with things and people on the periphery of the object without spelling out exactly how they're related.

So far, so good. And then in pretty much the next fucking scene, we see exactly what kind of creature had those wings, and a large chunk of the mystery surrounding the film is gone, just like that. Not that it makes what we're dealing with any less fucked up, but it goes from being a movie about discovering what this terrible artifact actually is to being a movie about how this guy is going to find this terrible artifact, which isn't quite as scary. As the movie progresses, all of the interactions the protagonist has with people connected to the movie get increasingly weirder and darker, but knowing why that is takes the experience of the viewer from "holy shit, what is this thing?" to "well, yeah, what else would you expect?"

So the first thing I would have done would have been to keep as much about the film as secret as possible. Nobody knows what it's about, or why the entire audience went insane. The audience should be discovering the films' history and nature along with the protagonist, in small bits gleaned from old libraries and the private collections of some very disturbed people. Make it a puzzle with many unconnected details that will, at the right moment, cohere into a terrible whole. Give the audience the terror of discovery paired with fear for the protagonist's well-being. 

Focus On The Protagonist

Next, we have the problem of the subplot concerning Sweetman's wife - dead from suicide - and his estranged father-in-law (who conveniently holds the debt on Sweetman's move theater).  In my opinion, this bit of story distracts from the movie's central conceit - man journeying into some heart of darkness in search of some terrible artifact. You don't need the father-in-law to provide impetus for Sweetman to take the job, there are all kinds of reasons an arthouse movie theater would need money. The only reason the wife seems to be there is to provide fodder for the hallucinations Sweetman begins to suffer and to give him some reason to be in conflict with his father-in-law. This conflict ends up defining the terms of the film's end, so the whole search for the film becomes sort of moot, because then it isn't about the film, it's about two men coming to grips with the death of someone they love, and I didn't sign on for that - I signed on for a noir about a mysterious film and crawling insanity, dammit.

If nothing else, it takes away from narrative clarity, and from the sense that the protagonist's search is a lonely, isolating one. This sort of film thrives on the idea that the protagonist is taking a pretty solitary journey - maybe he has a companion or assistant or two at first, but as the film goes on and the protagonist finds himself getting into weirder and scarier territory, they start to fall away. Soon it's just him in lonely motel rooms and warehouses and film archives, alone in a pool of light, drifting further from home and closer to where the sharks wait. What he's doing begins to claim more and more of his time and sanity. Under these conditions, it's hard to know what's real, making the most bizarre encounters that much harder to shrug off. To the extent we should care about the protagonist's relationships, it should be as an anchor to something resembling normalcy, or at least life as he knew it before becoming burdened with the terrible knowledge he now carries.

So the next thing I would have done would have been to strip back any external relationships the protagonist might have had to a couple of friends and/or employees. Maybe see them once or twice at the beginning of the film and then increasingly distant after that - phone, email, etc. Use their relative absence to heighten feelings of isolation for the protagonist. He's all alone in this, and the rules of normal life start to soften and blur after enough time spent on the trail of this film.

Pick A Story And Tell It

In the film as it is now, the longer Sweetman looks for the movie, the more his perceptions of reality start to change - at a few different junctures he hallucinates the appearance of a film's reel change cue (the titular "cigarette burn"). He hallucinates a cigarette burn, and suddenly things have changed - the person who had him tied up and was about to kill him now lies dead on the floor, for example. The conceit, as I understand it, is that the film is somehow overlaying itself onto Sweetman's life, or that the evil of the film is somehow infecting the minds of the people who get close to it - it's never made very clear. It's very self-conscious, though - it's a movie about a man trying to find a movie, and the man's reality changes along with the reels of a film. That this whole use of a film convention to tell a narrative ends with the cigarette burn widening into some sort of hellish portal makes it feel trite, somehow, calling too much attention to what could have been used subtly to indicate periods of disconnect.

That is, if it were used at all. The use of a fourth-wall-breaking device suggests this isn't a movie about a man looking for a mythical evil film as much as a movie about the thin divide between image and reality - his reality is just a movie to us, and it's becoming a movie to him as well. This could be a good story on its own, but it clashes with the more straightforward man-in-search-of-mythical-object storyline, especially since there isn't really a clear relationship between the two. The hallucinations begin pretty soon after he starts looking for the movie, but there's nothing to suggest that it's a result of the film itself. So we have a story about a man who goes looking for a very dangerous film…and this search sort of becomes a film of its own…and in the end, he realizes he has to make peace with the death of his wife. So, um, yeah. It ends up more confusing than scary, with varyingly gruesome setpieces interspersed without much in the way of structure - it's hard to tell why I should care about any of what is happening because I'm still not clear myself.

So Here's What I Would Have Done

Keep the focus on the protagonist's search, from the most respectable venues (film archives, libraries, film scholars) to the least (collectors with borderline-to-fully-illegal tastes, people broken and destroyed by their connection to the film, from viewers to people involved). The further he investigates, the more concrete the evidence he finds of the movie itself, culminating where the film itself was shot, its ghosts and echoes still awful after years and years. We never see the movie in its entirety - just glimpses. They should be awful but nonspecific glimpses. Maybe ending with some understanding of the films' ultimate content, but never actually shown. By the time the protagonist does secure the movie, the fee (and the collector, for that matter), are practically beside the point. He is the bearer of unbearable knowledge, and has to live in this world knowing what lurks just out of sight. No metafilmic devices, no subplots, no giving everything away in the first act, just a film noir writ large and misshapen.


  1. I absolutely agree. This episode had the potential to be a masterpiece, if only things were done differently.

  2. This is effing good writing.

    I'm a big fan of movies that do just one thing and do it well. That means they're confident they have the goods, and also that they deliver. They don't need to muck up their strength with weaknesses.

    David Lynch's The Straight Story, ironically, comes to mind.