Baltimore-based screenplays make good reading




Barry Levinson.

Atlantic Monthly.

373 pages. $12.95 (paperback). The three Baltimore-themed movies by director Barry Levinson have such natural conversational give-and-take that they seem more improvised than scripted. His characters define themselves through their bull sessions, and boy, do they talk a lot. Reading the collected screenplays for "Avalon," "Tin Men" and "Diner," you can practically hear the dialogue spoken as you read it on the page.

But you also realize, as Jesse Kornbluth points out in his introductory essay, that most of what seems improvised is tightly scripted. Mr. Levinson simply has a knack for coming up with the fractured syntax, the madly overlapping conversations as speakers rush to get their two cents in, and the leaps in logic that we all recognize from the family dinner table.

What also comes across in reading what once was heard in the movie theater is how Mr. Levinson's construction of comic exchanges grew out of the time when he cut his comic teeth with Mel Brooks. If conversations seem to ramble, they have set-ups and punch lines as finely timed as in comic skits and stand-up comedy. There are many instances of a character launching into a speech, then pausing for a beat before delivering the punch line.

Revisiting these three movies on the page has its recollective rewards:remembering how the collage of short scenes in "Diner" gives such a vivid feel for the rich ensemble of characters; how violently funny the exchanges are between two competing aluminum siding salesmen in "Tin Men"; and how the family saga "Avalon" deals with near-breakdowns in communication through such scenes as an adult trying to explain to younger relations the difference between an aunt and a great-aunt (never mind trying to explain a first cousin twice removed).

Although Mr. Levinson's distinctive style is writ large in these screenplays, the volume is marred by not having cast and production credit information to acknowledge his creative team and to help readers zero in on their favorite character actors.

Mr. Giuliano is Baltimore correspondent for Variety.

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