Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark

The greatest opening shots in movies

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Blue Velvet

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 20, 2011.

When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same yesterday with closing shots—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click for the titles:

Solving the second act problem

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Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

David Mamet, in Three Uses of the Knife, tells what he claims is an old joke from the Algonquin Round Table: “A couple of guys are sitting around talking. One says, ‘How’s the play going?’ The other says, ‘I’m having second act problems.’ Everybody laughs. ‘Of course you’re having second act problems!'” And no wonder. Beginnings and endings are tricky, too, but we can approach them with a couple of proven rules: get into the action as late as possible, leave it as early as you can. Middles, by contrast, tend to turn into an unstructured mess of complications, with the beginning a distant memory and the end nowhere in sight. This is especially true of the start of the second act, when the main problem of the first act gives way to an even more serious obstacle, and it’s no accident that in everything I’ve written, it’s invariably this part of the story that goes through the greatest number of tightenings and revisions. Whenever it comes up, it feels like I’m confronting the problem for the first time, but I’ve slowly managed to figure out a few guidelines that might be helpful:

1. Cut transitional material as much as possible. Second acts are difficult because they’re all about transitions. You’re departing from the first major movement of the narrative into something larger, which usually means that there are a lot of pieces to slide into place. Unfortunately, this is also the moment when the attention of the reader or audience is likely to drag, so you need to be even more ruthless about cutting here than usual. If a story is two hundred pages long, and you’ve already cut as much as you can from the beginning and the end, it isn’t a bad idea to turn to page 100 and see if there’s anything you can excise from the twenty pages to either side. Any architectural structure has its points of weakness or stress, and in long works of fiction, it’s likely to be right here. And the best solution is to cut directly from the end of one action to the center of the next, as in the wonderful act break in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which moves without pause from Marion clutching the medallion in snowy Nepal to the rooftops of Cairo.

Seven Samurai

2. Put the pieces together in a different order. The opening of a novel generally presents a clear sequence of events, and even if you’ve restructured the story elsewhere, you’ll often find that the order of the initial chapters remains more or less the same. In a story with a three-act structure, this isn’t true of the beginning of the second act, in which the characters have been introduced, the machinery of the plot has been set in motion along various parameters, and the resulting material can be presented in a number of ways. If the second act of a novel begins with five or six chapters that move between characters, it’s often useful to rearrange them to find the order that flows most naturally. It’s even better if you can cut or combine scenes. I’ve also learned that if you’re writing a number of different plot threads that have been left in a state of suspense, it’s best to avoid resolving the immediate problem in at least one of them until the others have gotten further along: the reader will be more interested in following Susan on a plane to Samarkand if he’s still wondering how Jack will get out of prison in Jeddah.

3. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Second acts can feel like a chore, but when properly done, they can be immensely satisfying. Since you’ve already established your characters and central conflict, this is the chance for them to really come into their own. The second act of a movie like Seven Samurai enriches the situation presented in the first act and looks ahead to the action of the third, but is also fascinating in its own right—but only because the director and writers have done the necessary work. A second act lacks the obvious payoffs of the story’s beginning and end, but the fact that the author needs to work all the harder to maintain our interest often results in surprising, unpredictable storytelling. This is a big part of the reason why the second installments in movie trilogies, like The Empire Strikes Back, are often the best: deprived of easy dramatic solutions, the story has no choice but to explore its own world, go off in ingenious directions, and give the characters room to play. Whether or not there are second acts in our own lives remains an open question, but they certainly exist in fiction. So there’s no excuse for not handling them well.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2012 at 10:16 am

“Inside, there were five racks of paintings…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 23. You can read the earlier installments here.)

The painting at the center of The Icon Thief is basically a MacGuffin. There, I said it. At this point, I hope there isn’t any doubt about the sincerity of my respect for and fascination with Marcel Duchamp and the ways in which his example and influence are deeply entwined with the themes of this novel, to the point where the decision to structure the plot around the mystery of Étant Donnés seems all but inevitable. But it wasn’t. If I’d been ordered to change the premise to involve the theft and recovery of a different work of art entirely, I could have done so with minimal disruption to much of the surrounding story. I would have had to construct a new conspiracy theory around a different artist and write a new ending to accommodate the shift in emphasis, but perhaps seventy percent of the novel—everything involving Powell’s investigation, the Russian mob, and much of the art world material as well—would have survived intact. Would it have required major surgery? Of course. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad as the grueling rewrites that I’ve been asked to do for other projects.

That’s the nature of the MacGuffin: an object that exists to drive the plot and characters, but which could easily be replaced by something else, if necessary. And this is true even of objects that seem inextricably connected to the stories in which they appear. You could replace the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the Rod of Aaron or the Urim and Thummim or any number of other equivalent artifacts without changing an iota of the plot, aside from a few lines of dialogue. I’ve argued elsewhere that a good MacGuffin can immeasurably enrich the story in which it appears, or at least give the writer ideas for scenes or images that never would have occurred to him otherwise, and this is certainly true of The Icon Thief. But it says something about the nature of suspense fiction, and perhaps its limitations, that its components are so interchangeable. I knew from the beginning that this novel, as a conspiracy thriller set in the art world, would need to be structured around a particular work of art, and Étant Donnés was by far the best I found—and, if I’m going to be totally honest here, one of the best that anyone has ever found. But that doesn’t mean that something else wouldn’t have worked more or less as well.

You could even make the argument that other works of art would have been more appropriate, given the factual background of the novel itself. In Chapter 23 of The Icon Thief, Ilya finally penetrates to the art vault in which the painting is kept, after using a number of the clever tricks so dear to the heist story. Inside, he finds a rack of paintings, of which I write: “He did not give them a second glance, although one was a Braque and the other was a Bonnard.” These paintings are mentioned only in passing, but they’re really a nod to the other directions that the plot might have taken. Braque and Bonnard were two of the artists in the collection of Paul Rosenberg, an art collector who plays a crucial role in the true story that secretly lurks in the background of the novel, and if I were a real stickler for accuracy, I would have chosen one of these artists, or Picasso or Matisse, instead. If I chose Duchamp, it was only because he was the artist I wanted to write about. In fact, Rosenberg, at least to my knowledge, never collected Duchamp, although he certainly could have, and so I felt justified in awarding him this fictional painting.

Which brings us to another important point about MacGuffins. Study for Étant Donnés doesn’t actually exist, although I was careful to find a place it could have occupied in Duchamp’s catalog and to explain how it might have remained unknown to the larger art world. And the primary reason I went with a fictional painting, along with the various revelations about its provenance and history that I wanted to make, was that I needed a painting that would work as a MacGuffin. In particular, it needed to be relatively small, so that it could be smuggled unobtrusively out of Russia and so that Ilya could carry it out of the mansion under one arm—and, later in the novel, roll it up and conceal it beneath his clothes. In retrospect, this strikes me as a bit of a cheat, which is why, in Eternal Empire, I structure an important plot point around a real work of art, the Peter the Great egg made by the House of Fabergé, and take pains to characterize its appearance and provenance as accurately as possible. Here, though, the invented painting falls under the anthropic principle of this particular novel: without it, the rest of the story couldn’t exist in its current form. And this painting still has a long way to go…

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2012 at 10:06 am

Indy movies

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On Saturday, my wife and I spent seven hours at the River East theater in Chicago, watching a marathon of the Indiana Jones movies, which I still insist on calling a trilogy, in advance of their release tomorrow on Blu-ray. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen all three films on the big screen—I spent a wonderful day watching them all at the sadly departed UC Theater in Berkeley over a decade ago—but it had been a long time since I’d seen them from start to finish. The experience, I’m happy to say, was close to perfect: the digital prints were gorgeous, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, and the movies were as satisfying as ever. And the fact that we left before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t diminish my appreciation for what the original trilogy achieved. Like everyone else, I’m critical of George Lucas: he remains, as David Thomson notes, the saddest of moguls, and his career over the last twenty years has consisted of one long retreat. And yet with these three films, he shaped and enriched my inner life more than any other filmmaker, and for that, I’m forever grateful.

Of the three, Raiders is by far the most cinematically exciting: it was made when Steven Spielberg was still only thirty-four, with the greatest natural eye in movie history, and the result is dazzlingly assembled—it may be his most technically thrilling film of any kind. A great deal of this can be credited to the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, which pulls off the difficult job of moving between set pieces conceived by the director and producer while lavishing every scene with ingenious and delightful beats. (Even so modest a sequence as the “bad dates” scene is a small masterpiece of acting, writing, editing, and direction.) The script for Temple of Doom, by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, is far more problematic, and the connective material is considerably less graceful, but the big set pieces—the opening sequence in Shanghai, the spike room, the mine car chase—reach dizzying heights. By comparison, the action in Last Crusade is competent, inventive, but less divinely inspired, and there isn’t an action sequence here that really holds up with the best of the first two movies.

Yet Last Crusade has always been my favorite of the three, and one of my favorite movies of any kind, which gets at a very important point: these films aren’t about action or special effects, as fine as they may be, but about a certain spirit, a promise about the kinds of experiences and adventures that the movies can offer us, and Last Crusade captures that spirit perfectly. It’s both endearingly innocent and highly sophisticated, and it expresses, as Truffaut would have said, both an idea of life and an idea of cinema—and the fact that the ideas are straight out of a boy’s book of adventures doesn’t make them any less moving or less true. Looking back, I’ve begun to realize that it’s as responsible as any movie for the direction my own life has taken: I saw it when I was about ten years old, and it was arguably the first in a sequence of books, movies, and television shows that convinced me that I wanted to tell stories for a living. Other movies have since become more important to me, and I fully see its limitations, but few works of art have ever seized my imagination in quite the same way.

And its spirit is one that I’ve been trying to recapture in my own work ever since. One night after college, I was watching Temple of Doom with my family when I dozed off near the end and awoke as the closing credits began to roll. Somehow, in that moment between sleep and waking, I heard something in the score by John Williams—it’s the unbearably beautiful theme that appears in “Slave Children’s Crusade”—that I’d never heard before: it seemed to crystallize, in a few bars of music, everything that I hoped to accomplish as a storyteller. My first novel, a long adventure story set in India, may have been my subconscious effort to work out that one moment of dreamlike inspiration. And while that novel remains unpublished, one of the great challenges I now face as a writer is gradually nudging my work back to that theme, which has been reduced to a subtle, almost imperceptible note in my published novels and stories. I’m still trying to figure out what shape it will take. But it’s there. And I have a hunch that Indy will be the one to show me the way.

The greatest opening shots in movies

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When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same with closing shots last week—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click or mouse over for the titles:

George Lucas: Writer of a Lost Art

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As long as we’re on the subject of beloved artists who experienced a marked decline in quality, let’s talk about…George Lucas. (Because, obviously, no one has ever discussed this before.) I’m not going to go into all the ways that Lucas’s recent work has been disappointing—you have the entire Internet for that—but I do think it’s important to highlight the ways in which Lucas was, at his best, a remarkable writer.

Exhibit A is the famous transcript, which appeared online last year, of an early story conference for Raiders of the Lost Ark. (You can find a nice clean copy here.) Seated around a table with Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan, Lucas spins out one idea after another, laying the groundwork not only for Raiders but for the entire Indiana Jones series. The whole transcript is worth a look, but there are a few particular moments that are especially valuable. Here’s Lucas on the importance of a structured plan, and the usefulness of making lists:

In the end I want to end up with a list of scenes. And the way I work generally is I figure a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes depending on which scale you want to work on. A thirty scene thing means that each scene is going to be around four pages long. A sixty one means that every scene is going to run twenty pages long…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out. Especially a thing like this.

(The process might sound mechanical, but in my own experience, nearly all complex narratives begin in a similar way: you start with ideas for a certain number of scenes, and know you’ll need a certain number of chapters, so you do your best to make the two numbers fit.)

On plausibility:

The trouble with cliff hangers is, you get somebody into something, you sort have to get them out in a plausible way. A believable way, anyway. That’s another important concept of the movie—that it be totally believable.

On the proper use of backstory:

We’ve established that he’s a college professor. It doesn’t have to be done in a strong way. It starts out in a museum. They just call him doctor this and doctor that. We can very easily make that transition, and very quickly establish that whole side of his character. [Italics mine.]

Finally, this wonderful moment:

Spielberg: One thing you should do—He’s on this airplane. There are about four or five passengers around him. He’s asleep and these passengers are looking at him. We don’t know why. They they all get up and put on parachutes, and they jump out the door. He wakes up when he hears the door open, and realizes he’s all alone. The door to the cockpit is locked. The airplane begins to go into a spin. He’s trapped in this airplane and it’s going down. The whole thing was a set up. That’s a great cliffhanger, to see how he gets out.

Lucas: That’s great. Then what happens? One sentence further and it’s a great idea. [Italics mine, of course.]

So what happened between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? The simplest answer: for Raiders, Lucas was working for a studio. For Crystal Skull, he was the studio. Raiders was made under a surprising number of limitations—Spielberg had just come off the notorious flop 1941, and was anxious to prove that he could deliver a movie on time and under budget—while Crystal Skull had no limitations at all. And without limitations, as I’ve pointed out before, an artist is free to indulge in all of his worst impulses, until the small moments of ingenuity that made him so special are gone.

Remember, above all else: a good artist needs to be criticized. Every writer needs a handful of early readers whose feedback he or she trusts. At first, it will probably be one or two close friends; later, hopefully, it will be an editor. But Lucas is the richest man in Hollywood; he produces and owns the Star Wars franchise outright; he doesn’t need to listen to critics. And he might reasonably argue that he doesn’t have to. But no matter what your level of success, you need someone to tell you when you’ve lost your way. And Lucas, sad to say, hasn’t had this for a long time.

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