Posts Tagged ‘Michael Powell’
Any consideration of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi needs to begin with the point that, objectively speaking, this may be the most visually astonishing movie ever made. Yet it’s likely that many, if not most, viewers will come away with a limited sense of the film’s accomplishments. This is a movie that, for a solid hour or more, consists of a single sustained visual effect, in which every shot has been created for us out of almost nothing, but at first glance, it doesn’t feel that way. Indeed, it sometimes seems more like a small, intimate chamber piece, a two-hander that just happens to be about a boy and his tiger. Except for a limited number of shots, however, that tiger isn’t real, a point that seems to have eluded more than a few reviewers. It is, in fact, the most lifelike special effect I’ve ever seen in a movie, and the result is both totally miraculous and strangely invisible: this isn’t a tiger constantly showing off how tigerish it can be, but a living, breathing animal that we simply accept as part of the fabric of the story. (I suspect that Borges, who was obsessed by tigers of his imagination, would have found this movie both fascinating and problematic.)
As a result, I have a hunch that Life of Pi may lose the Oscar for Best Visual Effects to a showier but less accomplished movie, like Prometheus, much as 2001 didn’t win the award for makeup in the year of Planet of the Apes, allegedly because, as Arthur C. Clarke has claimed, the voters failed to realize that the monkeys weren’t real. And I can’t entirely blame them. As I watched Life of Pi, I had to constantly remind myself that I was witnessing a bravura display of visual effects, even as Lee and his collaborators seemed determined to conceal their wizardry as much as possible. I’ve noted more than once that in movies like Jurassic Park or Terminator 2, the special effects still hold up magnificently, because those few precious minutes of footage were the result of years of thought and care. These days, computer effects have become so routine that even the most spectacular examples of digital mayhem, as in The Avengers, start to look like cartoons, so it’s heartening to find a movie, and a director, willing to lavish that kind of old-fashioned attention on more than an hour’s worth of visual magic.
But when trick effects become so seamless that artifice can no longer be distinguished from reality, it’s also something of a loss. Artifice for its own sake, when pursued with the same kind of love as perfect realism, can be a joy, as in Joe Wright’s recent adaptation of Anna Karenina. The movie has its problems, but I think that if I’d seen it twenty years ago, it would have instantly become one of my favorites. I went through a phase in my early teens when I was fascinated by movies that gloried in their artifice, either to pay homage to the films of an earlier era, like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, or to push forward into a stylized world of their own, like Coppola’s One From the Heart. With its stage sets and images of model trains moving through tabletop snowscapes, Anna Karenina is a movie that embraces its artificiality, like Coppola’s Dracula or the late movies of Powell and Pressburger. In fact, it’s arguably the most ambitious recent attempt to make what Michael Powell has called “the composed film,” in which every element has been planned by the director in advance.
Of course, this can lead to its own set of pitfalls, and if Anna Karenina has one major flaw, it’s that its actors are rarely allowed to find lives for their characters apart from the production design. (Indeed, Keira Knightley’s performance depends entirely on costuming and makeup to dramatize Anna’s descent: as David Thomson has observed elsewhere, Knightley “is still more credible as a faintly animated photographer’s model than as an actress.”) Finding the right balance between artifice and realism, as Powell and Pressburger did in their best films—along with Welles, Kubrick, and Hitchcock—is the province of our greatest directors, and such moments are the ones, as a moviegoer, that I treasure above all others. Hence my love for the sequence in Life of Pi in which the screen briefly elongates to Cinemascope proportions, allowing a swarm of flying fish not just to come right out at the audience, but spill over the edges of the frame. It goes by in a blink of an eye, and Lee notes that most viewers don’t even notice it, but it’s a thrilling example of what a great director does best: giving us something that not only reproduces reality, but advances on it—at least if we’re willing to watch carefully.
“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” John Cusack’s character notes in High Fidelity, and this sentiment goes a long way toward explaining why we find lists of all kinds so fascinating. As I’ve argued before, a list of one’s favorite books or movies is as close to an honest self-portrait as any of us will ever come, and this isn’t a recent convention: as far back as the Iliad, we encounter the ascending scale of affection, in which a hero defines himself by ranking what matters to him most. (Quick story: Back in college, soon after High Fidelity came out, I pointed out this similarity to one of my classics professors. Later that week, I went to see the movie a second time—and saw my professor sitting three rows in front of me. The following day, he entered the classroom and said: “Alec, you’re my pop culture hero.” And that was the high point of my career as a classical scholar.)
This is what makes the Sight & Sound poll so irresistible. Most of the coverage has revolved, understandably enough, around the displacement of Citizen Kane by Vertigo at the top of the list, but the real story lies further down, in the lists of individual critics, which were posted on the site this morning after a short delay. Reading a critic’s list gives us as accurate a thumbnail sketch as we can possibly have of a stranger’s personality, tastes, and idiosyncrasies: I don’t think there’s any way to learn more about a person in thirty words or less. When I look at the list of author Kim Newman, for instance, the fact that he named both A Canterbury Tale and Duck Amuck tells me more about him in five seconds than I’d probably learn from reading one of his books. The same goes with critic Mark Kermode, whose list includes Brazil, Don’t Look Now, and Mary Poppins.
Looking at the top 250 offers even more food for thought. If I’d been surprised earlier by the absence of Powell and Pressburger from the top fifty, the explanation is readily at hand: every single one of their great movies made the long list—The Red Shoes, yes, but also A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus, and I Know Where I’m Going!—which suggests that without a consensus choice, all these classic films simply split the vote. (When we see the list of directors ranked by number of total votes, I expect that they’ll be in the top ten.) I was delighted to see that the second-highest Kubrick movie on the list, after 2001, is Barry Lyndon, and that Miyazaki is represented by both Totoro and Spirited Away. And the short list of movies from the past few years to make the list is a fascinating one: The Tree of Life, There Will Be Blood, WALL-E, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Melancholia.
As always, the list provides ample occasion for reflection, argument, and education. It tells me that the director whose work I need to seek out most urgently, along with Tarkovsky, is Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a reminder that critical tastes can change radically over time, as we see in the critical ascent of such movies, overlooked at their first release, as Vertigo, Rio Bravo, Imitation of Life, and Singin’ in the Rain, not to mention The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It tells me that I wasn’t entirely wrong, seven years ago, about the enduring reputation of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, which got votes from three critics. And it tells me that my own tastes lie more or less within the mainstream, with a few outliers: of my own recent top ten, the only two not to make the cut were L.A. Confidential and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, neither of which received a single vote—which only confirms that in some respects, I’m still ahead of the curve.
Art is merciless observation, sympathy, imagination, and a sense of detachment that is almost cruelty.
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo opens with an image that has long been central to this director’s work: a boy looking through a window at the world outside. As most fans know, this image is autobiographical—Scorsese’s asthma kept him indoors for much of his childhood, forcing him to view the world from afar—and although this isn’t the young Henry Hill, staring longingly at the gangsters across the street, but Hugo Cabret and a CGI wonderland of Paris in the 1930s, it shouldn’t blind us to the fact that this is Scorsese’s most personal film since Goodfellas. It’s a curious movie: far from his best work, yet ultimately entrancing, for reasons that have less to do with its considerable technical merits than with its romantic notion of what the arts, especially cinema, can mean to one person over the course of his or her life. In particular, it’s about what movies mean to Scorsese, and to convey this, he employs no fewer than three fictional surrogates, often where you least expect them.
At first glance, of course, it’s the technological aspects that command our attention. Scorsese is clearly tickled to be working with a large budget and in three dimensions, and Hugo is one of the best arguments I’ve yet seen for 3D as something more than just a fad. Unlike Avatar, which largely unfolds in an airless, if gorgeous, universe of special effects, Hugo takes particular pleasure in small touches of reality: steam, ash, the particles of dust on a real set. Its 3D is less a gimmick than a way of immersing us in a new world, aided immeasurably by Robert Richardson’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design, and the result is captivating from the very first frame. And while the same isn’t quite true of the plot—Scorsese seems rather indifferent to some of the beats of the children’s book he’s adapting, and the first half hour is especially lumpy—the story eventually becomes absorbing as well, thanks largely to the invisible figure at its heart: the English filmmaker Michael Powell.
The action of Hugo, and this is a minor spoiler, revolves in great part around the director Georges Méliès, whom Hugo discovers, now neglected and depressed, operating a toy shop at Montparnasse Station. Later, Hugo introduces him to a film scholar, an enthusiastic student of Méliès’s work, who goes on to unearth and restore many of his lost films. And while the plot closely parallels that of Brian Selznick’s original novel, it isn’t hard to see what drew Scorsese to the story: it’s basically a fabulous recasting of his own relationship with Michael Powell, whose films he loved as a child, and whose life he finally entered after establishing himself as a director and student of film in his own right. Like Méliès, Powell, once hugely popular, was overlooked for decades, during what should have been the most productive years of his career—in Powell’s case, after the disastrous release of the controversial Peeping Tom. And Scorsese played a major role in his rediscovery, leading the way in recent years in the restoration of his major works, beginning with The Red Shoes. (It’s even possible to see a hint of Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor and Powell’s wife, in Méliès’s wife Jeanne d’Alcy, played here by Helen McCrory.)
As a result, Powell’s ghost hovers like a protective spirit above much of Hugo. (Among the many small references to the work of the Archers: in the film’s closing scene, Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, wears the same white tie and tails as Lermontov at the end of The Red Shoes.) And Scorsese himself appears in three guises: as the young Hugo; as the movie scholar and Méliès fan René Tabard (nicely played by Michael Stuhlbarg); and, most interestingly, as Méliès himself. Scorsese is obviously far more interested in Méliès than in much of the surrounding story, and it’s hard not to read the final scene, as Méliès receives the Legion of Honor, in light of Scorsese’s string of late career awards. And while Scorsese has been far from neglected, he knows how it feels: he once feared that Raging Bull would be his last movie, and spent much of the 1980s in a relative wilderness. Like all artists, Scorsese has had moments, at one point or another, when he feared that his work had been in vain. If a film like Hugo is any indication, his legacy is secure.
Like all great films, but much more so, The Red Shoes—which I think is the greatest movie ever made—works on two levels, as both a story of life and a story of film. As the latter, it’s simply the most inventive movie ever made in Technicolor, second only to Citizen Kane in its abundance of tricks and flourishes. These range from small cinematic jokes (like its use of the scrolling title Forty-five minutes later, subsequently borrowed by Scorsese in The Aviator, to indicate the passage of time within a single shot) to effects of unforgettable emotional power (like the empty spotlight on the stage in the final scene). It’s the definitive work by a pair of filmmakers who had spent the previous decade on an unparalleled streak, making more great films in ten years than five ordinary directors could produce in an entire career. And The Red Shoes was the movie they had been building toward all along, because along with everything else, it’s the best film ever made about the artistic process itself.
And even here, it works on multiple levels. As a depiction of life at a ballet company, it may not be as realistic as it seems—Moira Shearer, among others, has dismissed it as pure fantasy—but it feels real, and it remains the most romantic depiction of creative collaboration yet captured on film. (It inspired countless careers in dance, and certainly inspired me to care deeply about ballet, an art form toward which I’d been completely indifferent before seeing this movie.) And as an allegory, it’s unsurpassed: Lermontov’s cruelty toward Vicky is really a dramatization of the dialogue between art and practicality that takes place inside every artist’s head. This may be why The Red Shoes is so important to me now: from the moment I first saw it, it’s been one of my ten favorite films, but over the years, and especially after I decided to become a writer, my love for it has increased beyond what I feel toward almost any other work of art. Yet Vicky’s final words still haunt me, as does Lermontov’s offhand remark, which stands as a permanent warning, and enticement, to artists of all kinds: “The red shoes are never tired.”
So I’m deep into the first volume of Stephen Sondheim’s spellbinding memoir Finishing the Hat, which reprints the collected lyrics from the first half of his career, along with “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.” I’m not even that well up on my Sondheim—my exposure to his work consists of West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and a handful of songs from other shows—but as a writer, albeit of a very different kind, I find his candor and insight irresistible. (For a sample, see my recent post here.)
As is often the case when writers talk about their craft (William Goldman comes to mind), Sondheim is rather more interesting when discussing his failures than his successes. At the moment, I’m working my way through the chapter on Anyone Can Whistle, the ill-fated musical satire that Sondheim created in collaboration with Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book and directed. Especially intriguing is the revelation that David Merrick, the most famous theatrical impresario of his time, passed on producing the show because he didn’t want Laurents to serve as both writer and director. Sondheim writes:
[Merrick] claimed, astutely, that authors, especially authors of musicals, shouldn’t direct the initial productions of their own works. Without a director to argue with, egoistic self-ingulgence might color everything, he claimed…The blessing of a writer serving as his own director is that one vision emerges, there being no outsider to contradict him. The curse, inevitably, is that the vision may turn out to be myopic, there being no outsider to contradict him.
Now, I defy anyone who has been following the latest news from Broadway to read these lines and not think at once of Julie Taymor. The most recent of the many New York Times articles on the ongoing train wreck of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark expresses the theater world’s reservations about Taymor, who was given what amounted to a blank check as the musical’s director and co-writer, in strikingly similar terms:
Julie Taymor signed on as director and co-writer of the script, a dual role that many on Broadway consider risky. Rather than take a strong hand in managing the production, as producers usually do, Mr. [Michael] Cohl [the lead producer of the show] saw his job as aiding and abetting her vision.
The result has been making headlines for months: a visually spellbinding but narratively incoherent show that is already the most expensive musical in the history of Broadway. (In all fairness, I haven’t seen the show yet, and won’t anytime soon, unless I happen to be in New York on a week that TKTS seats are on sale.) And it seems fairly clear, especially after Taymor’s unceremonious departure from the show, that if the director had been subjected to a stronger controlling hand—as she was with The Lion King—the outcome might have been very different.
The lesson here, obviously, is that all artists, even the most creative and idiosyncratic, need someone around to keep them in line. It’s why there are surprisingly few truly great writer-directors in film, and the ones who do exist usually produce their best work with a forceful collaborator pushing back at every step of the way—witness Powell and Pressburger. And it’s why every writer needs strong readers and editors. Without such constraints, you occasionally get a Kubrick, yes, but more often, you wind up with the recent career of George Lucas. Or, it seems, a Julie Taymor. So it’s best to let Sondheim have the last word: “In today’s musical theater, there are two kinds of directors: those who are writers and those who want to be, or, more ominously, think they are.”
Yesterday I got back from my trip to London, where I spent a week looking at locations for Midrash, the sequel to Kamera. For just over six days, I lurked around neighborhoods like Shoreditch, Holland Park, Stoke Newington, and Golders Green; studied landmarks like the Olympia Exhibition Centre and the Old Bailey; and even indulged in a six-hour side trip to Brussels. I kept good notes, took a lot of pictures, and seriously destroyed my feet—next time, I’m bringing better shoes. And I came away not only with a substantial trove of information for my novel, but also some reflections on the role of location research in the writing process itself.
At first glance, it might seem that direct experience of a novel’s setting is essential, especially for a story supposedly based on careful research. A location contains crucial information—sights, sounds, smells, and human interactions—that can’t be acquired in any other way: I know from experience that an hour in Bombay will teach you things about India that you’d never learn from a lifetime of reading. And there’s little doubt that a novel would benefit from what Werner Herzog, according to Roger Ebert, calls “the voodoo of location” in movies—the idea that locations “seep into performances and photography and give a special texture to the film.”
Yet the issue isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. Atmosphere is no substitute for story, and excessive use of location research can burden a novel with inessential detail, as we sometimes see in late Michener. And many good or great books have been written without the benefit of actual travel. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King without going to Africa, at least as far as I know, and more recently, Scott Smith produced the very good horror novel The Ruins without setting foot in Mexico, although it couldn’t have been hard to make the trip. And the number of classic films not shot on location is impossible to count—after all, nobody on Casablanca got anywhere close to Morocco. (Although it’s hard to imagine The Third Man being shot anywhere but Vienna itself.)
For both movies and novels, the “truth” of a location lies between reality and illusion. No matter how heavily researched a novel’s setting may be, there will always be rooms, houses, and streets constructed entirely from the author’s imagination. The same is all the more true for film, where even the most convincing locations often turn out to be made of spit and cardboard. Some of my favorite cinematic locations are from Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, which makes extraordinary use of the Inner Hebrides. Yet the movie’s male lead, Roger Livesey, never came close to Scotland: he filmed all of his scenes in the studio, with a double for long shots, and the movie often cuts between set and location from one angle to the next.
What matters, in the end, is the work itself. As I’ve noted elsewhere about other kinds of research, location work isn’t about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the imagination. The author’s inner eye can play quite profitably in the locations where the novel itself will take place—for Kamera, I spent many happy days haunting the boardwalks of Brighton Beach—but there’s also ample material for dreams in the pages of an atlas, especially when it’s out of date. Sooner or later, at some point in the process, real locations fall away, leaving only what remains on the page. And as much as I loved my trip to London, I’m also aware that it’s only now, back at my desk, that the real location work can begin.
Essential films: Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window.
Although it’s fashionable, in certain critical circles, to prefer Hitchcock’s British period to the later American films, I find the earlier movies to be much less interesting—narratively simplistic, schematic in both camerawork and suspense, and with a lack of atmosphere that becomes all the more obvious when you compare them to, say, the films of Michael Curtiz, or Powell and Pressburger’s Contraband. Hitchcock needed Hollywood as much as Hollywood needed him, and it was only with the advent of color, widescreen, and American movie stars—and starlets—that our greatest director of suspense found himself in his true element. One needs only to compare Psycho to The Lady Vanishes to see how much Hitchcock had learned in the intervening twenty years.
His masterpiece is Vertigo, which is still the purest example of a film whose formal design—in visuals, writing, and above all in music—is inseparable from its overwhelming emotional impact. The final scene, in which James Stewart is abruptly confronted with the consequences of his own folly, is cruel, capricious, and perfect. And that was only the beginning: the run of Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho in three successive years is the most astonishing hat trick by any director in film, moving seamlessly from psychological depth to perfect escapism to unforgettable terror. It’s a reminder of Hitchcock’s true range, and the fact that a director who knows how to generate suspense with images can get away with almost anything. If every novel, at its heart, is a mystery story, then every movie is fundamentally a work of suspense—which is why the Master of Suspense is also the most influential director of all time.
Essential films: The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!
Over the course of a single decade, from 1940 to 1949, the writing, producing, and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced ten masterpieces, beginning with Contraband and ending with The Small Back Room. This amazing run, conducted in the face of World War II and the difficult years that followed, is unparalleled in the history of movies, and deserves a great book on the subject. (Powell’s own autobiography, A Life in Movies, goes only part of the way toward filling that need.) Even more impressive is the dazzling range of stories on display. Some are naturalistic, while others are outrageously weird; there’s comedy, suspense, history, war, romance, melodrama, even excursions into science fiction and fantasy. One of their greatest films, A Canterbury Tale, doesn’t seem to be about anything at all, until we realize that it’s actually about everything in life that matters.
And yet every one of these movies is recognizably the work of the Archers. A film by Powell and Pressburger doesn’t look or feel like anything else: it’s the result of a very British mixture of humor, common sense, visual and narrative ingenuity, superstition, and a genuine curiosity about how the world works. If The Red Shoes had nothing to offer but dancing, music, and art direction, it would still be a classic, even an object of religious devotion. The fact that it also has a richly detailed story, fine performances, gorgeous locations, and cinematic inventiveness to rival Citizen Kane—and in color!—makes it seem almost inhumanly generous. Add this to the fact that it’s the best movie ever made on the creative process, and you have the work of art, after a lifetime of moviegoing, that has inspired and consoled me more than any other film.
Tomorrow: the dangerous example of Stanley Kubrick.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the life of a movie director is vastly different from that of a novelist. While a writer is free to invent a world at his or her own leisure, in relative privacy, a director soon finds that even the simplest story requires a collective effort only slightly less complicated than that of going to war, as well as the need to cajole and compromise with a thousand interested parties, and in public. It’s no surprise, then, that so many of our best directors—from Welles to Von Trier—have something of the con artist about them, or that the movies that create the greatest popular impact—from Gone With the Wind to Avatar—seem less like acts of the creative will than like massive feats of organization.
Still, for a novelist, there’s something to be said for looking to the example of great directors. Like filmmaking, the bulk of the writing process is less about creativity than persistence, and much of an artist’s time is spent on rote work, heavy lifting, or simply waiting around for something to happen. Both fiction and film draw on an untidy range of skills and disciplines. For the director, it’s screenwriting, performance, art direction, camerawork, music, and editing; for the writer, it’s plot, character, research, theme, style, and revision. The director, unlike the writer, has the luxury of outsourcing much of the work to others, but the hard task of making decisions remains. And a director, like all artists, is defined by the choices he or she makes.
This week, then, I’ll be looking at five—or actually six—directors, all now gone, whose lives have shaped my own life and work. Tomorrow, I begin with the very best: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Yesterday I posted a list of my fifty essential books—that is, the fifty books that I would keep if I were deprived of all others. When I tried to do the same for movies, I found that the task was slightly easier, if only because I had fewer titles to choose from. (In both cases, I’ve tried to limit myself to books and movies that I actually own.) The result, as before, is a portrait of myself as expressed in other people’s works of art—which, in the end, may be the most accurate kind of self-portrait there is.
As usual, there are a few caveats. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible. This means omitting some of the very best movies of all time—The Rules of the Game and Tokyo Story, for instance—that I admire enormously but encountered too late for them to burrow into my subconscious. There’s an obvious preference for entertainment over art, as is generally the case in a home video library. And many of the movies named below might be ranked differently, or left out altogether, on another day (or hour). As of today, January 5, 2011, here’s how the canon looks to me:
1. The Red Shoes (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
2. Chungking Express (d. Wong Kar-Wai)
3. Blue Velvet (d. David Lynch)
4. Casablanca (d. Michael Curtiz)
5. The Third Man (d. Carol Reed)
6. Eyes Wide Shut (d. Stanley Kubrick)
7. L.A. Confidential (d. Curtis Hanson)
8. Seven Samurai (d. Akira Kurosawa)
9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (d. Nicholas Meyer)
10. Citizen Kane (d. Orson Welles)
11. Vertigo (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
12. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (d. Steven Spielberg)
13. Lawrence of Arabia (d. David Lean)
14. The Shining (d. Stanley Kubrick)
15. A Canterbury Tale (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
16. The Empire Strikes Back (d. Irwin Kershner)
17. The Last Temptation of Christ (d. Martin Scorsese)
18. Inception (d. Christopher Nolan)
19. The Silence of the Lambs (d. Jonathan Demme)
20. Spellbound (d. Jeffrey Blitz)
21. Mary Poppins (d. Robert Stevenson)
22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (d. Stanley Kubrick)
23. The Godfather (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
24. Spirited Away (d. Hayao Miyazaki)
25. Casino Royale (d. Martin Campbell)
26. Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (d. Errol Morris)
27. JFK (d. Oliver Stone)
28. Barry Lyndon (d. Stanley Kubrick)
29. Miller’s Crossing (d. Joel and Ethan Coen)
30. Sleeping Beauty (d. Clyde Geronimi)
31. Psycho (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
32. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (d. Quentin Tarantino)
33. The Untouchables (d. Brian DePalma)
34. Raiders of the Lost Ark (d. Steven Spielberg)
35. The Dark Knight (d. Christopher Nolan)
36. Last Tango in Paris (d. Bernardo Bertolucci)
37. Children of Men (d. Alfonso Cuarón)
38. The Departed (d. Martin Scorsese)
39. The Godfather Part II (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
40. Crumb (d. Terry Zwigoff)
41. The Searchers (d. John Ford)
42. The Usual Suspects (d. Bryan Singer)
43. The Long Goodbye (d. Robert Altman)
44. Zodiac (d. David Fincher)
45. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
46. Boogie Nights (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
47. Taxi Driver (d. Martin Scorsese)
48. The Limey (d. Steven Soderbergh)
49. Dancer in the Dark (d. Lars von Trier)
50. Pink Floyd The Wall (d. Alan Parker)
Random observations: I had to look up the names of two of the directors (for Spellbound and Sleeping Beauty). Up until a few minutes ago, the last place on this list was occupied by The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which I had to drop after realizing that I’d left out Last Tango in Paris. I allowed myself more than one movie per director, with the largest number of slots occupied by Kubrick (four), Powell and Pressburger (three) and Scorsese (three). And I’m slightly surprised to find that my three favorite movies of the last decade are evidently Spellbound, Spirited Away, and Casino Royale.
Sharp observers might be able to guess which film occupies the top spot in the list of my favorite movies of the past year, which I’m hoping to post later this week. And in any case, if you have a Netflix account that you aren’t using, well, hopefully this will give you a few ideas.
To continue my recent run of stating the obvious: I know I’m not alone in considering Christopher Nolan to be the most interesting director of the past ten years. In just over a decade, he’s gone from Memento to Inception, with The Dark Knight as one big step along the way, which ranks with Powell and Pressburger’s golden period as one of the most impressive runs in the history of movies. And his excellent interview with Wired last week, timed to coincide with Inception’s release on DVD, serves as a reminder that Nolan’s example is valuable for reasons that go far beyond his intelligence, skill, and massive popular success.
Nolan’s artistic trajectory has been a fascinating one. While most artists start with passion and gradually work their way toward craft, Nolan has always been a consummate craftsman, and is just now starting to piece together the emotional side of the equation. He’s been accused of being overly cold and cerebral, a criticism that has some basis in fact. But his careful, deliberate efforts to invest his work with greater emotion—and humor—have been equally instructive. As he says to Wired:
The problem was that I started [Inception] with a heist film structure. At the time, that seemed the best way of getting all the exposition into the beginning of the movie—heist is the one genre where exposition is very much part of the entertainment. But I eventually realized that heist films are usually unemotional. They tend to be glamorous and deliberately superficial. I wanted to deal with the world of dreams, and I realized that I really had to offer the audience a more emotional narrative, something that represents the emotional world of somebody’s mind. So both the hero’s story and the heist itself had to be based on emotional concepts. That took years to figure out. [Italics mine.]
Nolan’s masterstroke, of course, was to make the ghost that haunts Inception—originally that of a dead business partner—the main character’s wife. He also made strategic choices about where to keep things simple, in order to pump up the complexity elsewhere: the supporting cast is clearly and simply drawn, as is the movie’s look, which gives necessary breathing room to the story’s multiple layers. For a writer, the lesson is obvious: if you’re going to tell a complicated story, keep an eye out for ways to ease up on the reader in other respects.
In the case of Inception, the result is a film that is both intellectually dense and emotionally involving, and which famously rewards multiple viewings. In that light, this exchange is especially interesting:
Wired: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”
Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.
Wired: You do?!
Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated. I think the only way to make ambiguity satisfying is to base it on a very solid point of view of what you think is going on, and then allow the ambiguity to come from the inability of the character to know, and the alignment of the audience with that character.
Wired: Oh. That’s a terrible tease.
Well, yes. But it’ll be interesting to see where Nolan goes from here. After Inception and The Dark Knight, he has as much power as any director in Hollywood. (Worldwide, Inception is the fourth highest-grossing movie in history based on an original screenplay, behind only Avatar, Titanic, and Finding Nemo.) He continues to grow in ambition and skill with every film. He seems determined to test the limits of narrative complexity in movies intended for a mass audience.
And he’s still only forty years old.
The only person standing in your way is you.
—Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), in Black Swan
It’s safe to say that no other movie this year, aside perhaps from Inception, filled me with so much unnatural anticipation as Black Swan. Ever since my first encounter with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, which I think is the best movie ever made, I’ve had an uninformed but highly emotional interest in ballet, especially ballet on film. Darren Aronofsky, coming off The Wrestler, is easily one of the ten most interesting directors in America. And while Natalie Portman has been making a career, as Pauline Kael once said of Meryl Streep, of seeming to overcome being miscast, she’s still an actress for whom I have a lot of affection and respect (even if she seems determined to squander it).
The result, unfortunately, comes precariously close to being a bad movie. It’s chilly and lurid at the same time; the story is both overcooked and underconceived; and it descends so rapidly into overwrought melodrama that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. (At its worst, it’s nothing but one long mirror scare.) And yet it’s a work of undeniable skill and commitment, with extraordinary images and moments, and even at its worst, it’s still more interesting to think about than many conventionally good movies. On our way home, my wife asked me if I thought it would become a midnight movie classic. I think it will become something even better: it’s the kind of movie where, if it had come out before I was born, I might have skipped school to see it in revival on the big screen. (I did that only once in high school, and that was to see Last Tango in Paris.)
But Black Swan is still a deeply problematic movie, in ways that I don’t think Aronofsky intended. The story, without giving too much away, is that of a young ballet dancer’s descent into madness. And it plunges you into that madness so quickly, almost from the very first shot, that there’s no sense of loss as her sanity slips away. From the beginning, Portman’s character, Nina, comes off as hopelessly fragile and neurotic, and she’s never given the kind of emotional grounding—a scene with friends, say, or even a moment of ordinary human behavior—that might have made her story genuinely tragic, rather than a chilling exercise. What Black Swan needs, above all else, is a first act, set in the real world, before Aronofsky releases all of his lovingly conceived visual and aural shocks.
As it stands, it’s tempting to see Nina as a surrogate for the director himself (though it should be noted that Aronofsky did not write Black Swan, which is based on a screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, and John J. McLaughlin). Nina is repeatedly told that she has perfect technique, but needs to lose herself in the moment, a criticism that can be leveled, not without reason, at Aronofsky. Even more than Christopher Nolan, Aronofsky is the most left-brained of all directors with access to stars and large budgets, and he might well argue that, objectively speaking, Black Swan is perfect. Which is probably true. But subjectively, in ordinary human terms, it’s dangerously close to ridiculous.
Aronofsky has obviously seen The Red Shoes, and includes one scene—an audition filmed from the point of view of a pirouetting ballerina—that is clearly intended as homage. And both movies are about dancers whose leading roles become tragically literal, and ultimately destroy their lives. The difference, though, is that The Red Shoes implicitly contains all of Black Swan, and embeds it in a much larger story about art, love, and the wider world that Aronofsky only shows us in fragments. Vicky, in The Red Shoes, is destroyed by the conflict between art and life. For Nina, there is no life, only art, and thus no conflict: she’s a creature of art in a movie that cares about nothing else. And by the end, it’s unclear why she, and nobody else, has gone crazy.
Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.
—Boris Lermontov, in The Red Shoes
The big news in pop culture this week, of course, is the unexpected resurgence, in the form of Tangled, of the classic Walt Disney brand. As many critics have noted, Tangled is the closest thing to the full Disney package—fairy tale setting, beautiful princess, dashing hero, amusing animal sidekicks, Alan Menken—that we’ve had in at least fifteen years. The result, while sentimental, undeniably works. Watching Tangled, I felt something like what Pauline Kael described when reviewing a very different movie: “The pieces of the story fit together so beautifully that eventually the director has you wrapped up in the foolishness. By the end, all the large, sappy, satisfying emotions get to you.”
So what are the lessons for writers? It’s easy, and definitely accurate, to credit John Lasseter, the Pixar genius who shepherded Tangled throughout its entire production, with much of the movie’s success. But it’s also worth spotlighting the contribution of animator Glen Keane, who would have directed Tangled had he not suffered a heart attack midway through production. Den of Geek has a really fine interview with Keane, which is worth reading in its entirety, but especially for this story, which describes something to which any writer can relate:
The amazing thing was that in May, this year, we were only at 40% finished in our animation. We had to have 60% of the movie by the middle of July. And it was impossible. And it was all of the most subtle, difficult, stuff.
I remember telling [the animators], “look, we have an impossible amount of work to do, none of you will be the animators you are now by the end of the film, you will have grown. You will have animated scenes that you can’t even imagine that you did. And I can’t tell you how you will do them. But you will do them, and there’s just something that is happening right now, and I call it collective learning.”
The history of animation, in general, is something that every writer should study, because it’s by far the best documented of any of the narrative arts. Because every stage in the animation process—initial sketches, concept art, storyboards, backgrounds—is fun to look at in itself (which isn’t true, for example, of most novelists’ first drafts), the creative process is exceptionally well chronicled. A book like Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards is an inspiring read for any writer who needs a reminder of how tentative and exploratory the artistic process can be, especially in its earliest stages.
Animation is also worth studying because it tells stories simply and cleanly, as most writers should strive to do. It’s especially good at breaking stories down into their basic units, which, as I’ve noted already, is the first and most important rule of writing. Any writer, for example, would benefit from the sort of advice that Shamus Culhane gives in Animation: From Script to Screen:
One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.
Disney can be accused of tastelessness and commercialism, to put it mildly, but it’s also better than anyone I know (except, perhaps, the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, about whom I’ll have much more to say later) at creating works of art that exemplify the most fundamental reasons we go to the movies, or seek out any kind of art at all. The success of Tangled is only the most recent reminder of how powerful those elements can be.