Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Rosenblum

Keeping it short

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Elie Weisel

Yesterday, I noted that Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic film about the Holocaust, uses its own enormous length as a narrative strategy: its nine-hour runtime is a way of dramatizing, assimilating, and ultimately transforming the incomprehensible vastness of its subject. But there are other valid approaches as well, even to similar material. Here’s Elie Wiesel talking to The Paris Review:

I reduce nine hundred pages [the original length of Night] to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Instead of expanding his work to encompass the enormity of the events involved, Wiesel cuts it down to its core. It’s just one of millions of such stories that could have been told, and its power is only increased by the sense that it’s a single volume in an invisible library of libraries.

A big book is immediately impressive, even newsworthy, but if anything, the author’s hand is more visible in shorter works. The implicit premise of a long book is that it’s giving us an entire world, and in many of the great social epics—from War and Peace to A Suitable Boy—the writer himself is invisible by design. A short work, by contrast, is more about selection, and it foregrounds the author’s choices: the boundaries of the narrative are set within a narrow window, and the result is just as evocative for what it omits as includes. Every painter knows that one of the hardest decisions in making a new composition is knowing where to put the frame. If a big novel is the literary equivalent of a huge pane of plate glass, a short book is more like what the great architect Christopher Alexander has called a Zen view, a tiny opening in a wall that only exposes a fraction of the landscape. When we see a spectacular panorama all at once, it becomes dead to us after a day or two, as if it were part of the wallpaper; if we view it through a tiny opening, or glimpse it only as we pass from one room to the next, it remains vital forever, even if we live with it for fifty years. A short work of narrative sets up some of the same vibrations, with a sense that there’s more taking place beyond the edge of the pane, if only we could see it.

Woody Allen

A shorter length is also more suited for stories that hinge on the reader’s suspension of belief, or on the momentary alignment of a few extraordinary factors. This includes both comedy and its darker cousin noir. Great comic works, whether in fiction, film, or drama, tend to be relatively short, both because it’s hard to sustain the necessary pitch for long and because the story often hinges on elements that can’t be spun out forever: coincidence, misunderstanding, an elaborate series of mistakes. Another turn of the screw and you’ve got a thriller, which tends to be similarly concise. Some of the best suspense novels in the language were written to fit in a pocket: The Postman Always Rings Twice is maybe 120 pages long, Double Indemnity even shorter, the Travis McGee books a reliable 150 or so. Like comedy, noir and suspense are built on premises that would fall apart, either narratively or logically, if spun out to six hundred pages: characters are presented to us at their lowest point, or at a moment of maximum intensity, and it doesn’t particularly matter what they were doing before or after the story began. That kind of concentration and selectiveness is what separates great writers from the rest: the secret of both comedy and suspense is knowing what to leave out.

And that’s equally true of the movies, even if it’s something that a filmmaker discovers only after hard experience. Cutting a novel can be agonizing, but it’s all the more painful to excise scenes from a movie, when the footage you’re removing represents hundreds or thousands of hours of collective effort—which is why an editor like Walter Murch never visits the set, allowing him to remain objective. There’s no better contemporary model of cinematic brevity than Woody Allen, whose movies rarely run more than ninety minutes, partly because his own attention starts to wander: “For me, if I make a film which is one hour forty minutes, it’s long. I just run out of story impetus after a certain time.” And although he’s never said so in public, it’s clear that he arrived at this artistic philosophy in the late seventies, after laboring hard with the screenwriter Marshall Brickman on a three-hour monster of a comedy. Its working title was Anhedonia, and it was going to cover every aspect of its protagonist’s life—childhood, career, romance—with countless surreal sketches and fantasy sequences. The result was an unwatchable mess, so it was only with the help of editor Ralph Rosenblum that Allen was able to find its heart: a quirky, focused love story, with only two major characters, that ran a clean 93 minutes. It was Annie Hall.

Writing is cutting

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Movies are made in the editing room. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: you can shoot the best raw footage in the world, but if it doesn’t cut together, the movie isn’t going to work. Beyond their basic responsibilities of maintaining continuity and spacial coherence, the editor is largely responsible for shaping a film’s narrative momentum, streamlining and clarifying the story, and making sure it runs the proper length. And sometimes the editor’s role goes even further. As Charles Koppelman writes in Behind the Seen:

[Walter] Murch says it’s common in editing, and normally easy, to steer scenes five or ten degrees in either direction from their intended course. Shading intensity, favoring a character, softening a moment—that’s “the bread and butter of film editing,” as he calls it. “It also seems that flipping the polarity of a scene—going completely the opposite way from where things were originally intended—is something relatively easy to do in film editing.”

And although there are countless famous cases of movies being radically rewritten in the editing room, like Ralph Rosenblum’s brilliant reshaping of Annie Hall, a casual comparison between the published screenplays and the finished versions of most great movies reveals that crucial changes are being made all the time. To pick just one example: the closing montage of words and images at the end of The Usual Suspects, which gives the entire movie much of its power, is totally absent in the script, and a lot of the credit here needs to be given to editor John Ottman. And smaller, less flashy examples are visible everywhere you look.

At first glance, it might seem as if a novelist is in a somewhat different position. A film editor is constrained by the material at hand, and although in certain cases he may have some input when it comes to expensive reshoots, for the most part, he has no choice but to make do with the footage that results from principal photography, which can be massaged and reconceived, but only to some extent, with the help of clever cutting, wild lines, and lucky discoveries in the slate piece. (The slate piece, as I’ve mentioned before, is the second or two of stray film left at the beginning of a take, before the actors have even begun to speak. Mamet likes to talk about finding important bits of footage in this “accidental, extra, hidden piece of information,” and he isn’t lying—the evocative, ominous shots of empty corridors in the hospital scene in The Godfather, for instance, were salvaged from just such a source.) A novelist, by contrast, can always write new material to fill in the gaps or save an otherwise unworkable scene, and it doesn’t cost anything except time and sanity. In reality, however, it isn’t quite that easy. The mental state required for writing a first draft is very different from that of revision, and while writers, in theory, benefit from an unlimited range of possibilities, in practice, they often find themselves spending most of their time trying to rework the material that they already have.

This is why I’ve become increasingly convinced that writing is revision, and in particular, it’s about cutting and restructuring, especially with regard to reducing length. Fortunately, this is one area, and possibly the only area, in which writers have it easier now than ever before. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White writes:

Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.

There’s something appealing about the image of a writer literally cutting his work using scissors and tape, and it’s possible that there’s something tactile in the process that would lead to happy accidents—which makes me want to try it sometime. These days, however, it’s so easy to cut and restructure files in Word that it seems insane for a writer not to take full advantage of the opportunity. Like editing a movie in Final Cut Pro, it’s nondestructive: you can try anything out and reverse it with a keyboard shortcut. You can cut as much as you like and restore it with ease, as long as you’ve taken the precaution of saving a new version with every round of revision. And I’ve learned that if it occurs to you that something could be cut, it should be. Nine times out of ten, once that initial change has been made, you won’t even remember what was there before—and if, five or ten rereadings later, you find that you still miss it, it’s a simple matter to restore what used to be there.

And almost invariably, the shorter and more focused the story becomes, the better it gets. Not only is cutting a story as much as possible the best trick I know, in some ways, it’s the only trick I know. When I look back at my own published work, I naturally divide it into several categories, based on how happy I am with the finished result. At the top are the stories—The Icon Thief, “The Boneless One,” and a handful of others—that I don’t think I’d change much at all, followed by a bunch that I’d like to revise, and a couple that I wish hadn’t seen print in their current form. Without exception, my regrets are always the same: I wish I’d cut it further. The conception is sound, the writing is fine, but there are a few scenes that go on too long. And although it’s impossible to know how you’ll feel about one of your stories a year or two down the line, I almost always wish I’d made additional cuts. That’s why, as I begin the final push on Eternal Empire, I’m cutting even more savagely than my critical eye might prefer, trying to think in terms of how I’ll feel ten months from now, when the novel is published. (The divergence between my present and future selves reminds me a little of the gap between Nate Silver’s “now-cast” and his election day forecast, which will finally converge on November 6.) I don’t know what my future self will think of this novel. But I can almost guarantee that he’ll wish that I’d cut a little more.

“Louis Barlow, the assistant special agent in charge…”

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(Note: This post is the sixteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 15. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Nearly every filmmaker can tell you stories about a great performance that was cut, for various reasons, from the final version of a movie. William Goldman gives a nice account in Which Lie Did I Tell? of Linda Hunt’s lost supporting turn in Maverick; the editor Ralph Rosenblum has a heartbreaking anecdote in When The Shooting Stops about actor Monroe Arnold, whose brilliant performance was cut entirely from Goodbye Columbus; and you can hear similar stories from half the cast of The Thin Red Line. (The A.V. Club has an nice list of other examples.) And if this happens frequently in movies, it’s even more common in novels, where it’s much easier to cut, condense, or even scrap characters entirely. A handful of writers have spoken about this, and at least one—Stephen King in the uncut edition of The Stand—has even restored a missing character. But I’d guess that nearly every novel of any length probably includes characters whose original roles were considerably more extensive than what eventually ended up in print.

In The Icon Thief, the greatest casualty was the character of Louis Barlow, the FBI assistant special agent in charge. Barlow originated as a convenient foil for Powell, my British investigator, and when I conceived the character, I didn’t have much more in mind than a cross between Landsman from The Wire and Alec Baldwin in The Departed. In writing the first draft, however, I got to like Barlow a lot—he was an amusing character, outwardly crude but much smarter than he seemed, who injected some welcome humor into an essentially serious novel. Unfortunately, a lot of it didn’t survive. As I’ve mentioned before, when I restructured the novel, I was forced to condense much of Powell’s material, and the real casualty here was Barlow—in the original draft, he first appears in a big scene in the fifth chapter, and in the final version, he doesn’t show up until we’re past the first hundred pages. As a result, he’s the one character in this book whose image, in my own mind, is much different than what the reader sees.

Chapter 15 is my attempt to salvage as much of Barlow’s material from the first draft as I could, while also conveying a lot of essential information as efficiently as possible. The result is almost comically condensed. Over the course of a single chapter, Powell needs to hear about a mysterious language on a wiretap; convince Barlow to give him an audio sample; bring in a graduate student to translate, and get him security clearance; explain to Wolfe how he figured out that the language was Assyrian, and how bringing in the translator has given him a source inside the wire team; and use the resulting translation to determine that the men under surveillance are planning to attend a party in Southampton. We’re introduced to a handful of new characters and given additional background material on several more. This is a lot of material, and it’s all essentially designed to get us to a single plot point: Powell and Wolfe are going to stake out the house in the Hamptons. And I’ve only got five pages to cover it.

The challenge was to get through all this material in a way that was light on its feet without feeling overly rushed, and I think it sort of works, although I had to use a lot of tricks to get there. For instance, there were originally two agents listening to the wire, but I combined them into one character to save room—a nice novelistic illustration of Occam’s Razor, which says that you never want more moving parts than you need. I made good use of First Blood author David Morrell’s tip to cut the first and last paragraphs of a scene that isn’t working, which gets me into and out of the heart of the chapter without any delay. And the result, I think, is a nice example of an expository chapter that reads well in its own right—and I doubt I would have zipped through this information quite as efficiently if I hadn’t been forced to do so by structural constraints. When you have ten pages worth of material to convey in half the space, you find ways of doing it in less time. And that’s the moral here: I miss Barlow and the scenes that he lost, but in the end, I didn’t really need him.

Tree of Codes and the slate piece

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Yesterday’s post about Ralph Rosenblum’s excavation of Annie Hall from the brilliant mess of Anhedonia reminds me, not quite randomly, of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Twee of Codes. (Excuse me, I mean Tree of Codes—and I can’t believe that I’m the first to make that particular joke.) It certainly has an astonishing premise: Foer has literally carved a new story out of a larger novel, Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, by selectively removing most of the text, leaving only a few scattered words on each page. The result, which uses elaborate die cuts to remove the deleted passages, looks amazing, even if Foer sounds oddly dissatisfied by the outcome. (“French flaps would have been nice.”) If nothing else, it’s a reminder of how important a book’s physical body can be.

I haven’t read Tree of Codes yet—among other things, I don’t have forty bucks to spend on it—and while I don’t think it absolves Foer from his obligation, as a major novelist, to write more conventional fiction, I’m impressed by its ambition. It’s worth noting, though, that this particular experiment isn’t so different from what every film editor is called upon to do: extracting a useful narrative out of an existing mass of intractable material. Annie Hall is only the most extreme example. Nearly every movie, for the sake of pacing and coherence, especially if it can’t afford reshoots, is forced to combine scenes that originally appeared in different parts of the film, say, or use a reaction shot from one scene to bridge an unrelated gap. David Mamet, in his otherwise disappointing Bambi vs. Godzilla, has a terrific passage about this, which is worth quoting in its entirety:

Stuck in a scene, in the editing room, sometimes the roof falls in: an actor has not picked up his cue, and the scene stops dead—there is no cutaway (no other actor to cut to, to “pace up” the sequence), and the movie grinds to a halt.

“If only,” the director or editor says, “if only the actor sitting there like a sphinx had looked to his left: if he’d looked to his left, instead of his right, I could intercut his close-up with a shot of the other actor and pace up the scene.”

But no, the actor never looked to his left, and the scene is doomed to death. But perhaps there is one hope.

The director says, “Check the slate piece.”

What is the slate piece?

Here’s how it goes: When the shot is set up, the actors are called in and placed. The sound guy calls “rolling,” the camera is turned on, the operator tells the camera assistant to “mark it,” the assistant puts the slate board (the once actual slate with chalk markings, now electronic) in front of the lens to record on film the shot’s number and take. The shot is thus “slated,” the director calls “action,” and the take begins.

But, we may note, there was a moment, when the camera was filming, before the shot was slated, when the actor was waiting for action to be called. In this moment he may have looked to his left, his right, up or down, frowned, or smiled or yawned or done any number of things that just might magically come to the aid of a stalled or otherwise doomed shot.

This accidental, extra, hidden piece of information is called the slate piece. And most of moviemaking, as a writer, a director, a designer, is the attempt not to invent but to discover that hidden information—the slate piece—that is already lurking in the film.

Which strikes me as very similar to what Foer has done here. His task was hugely complicated, of course, by the fact that not just the words themselves but their order was fixed and immovable. To create a workable narrative from this material, his ingenuity must have been pushed to its limits—which, in itself, is admirable, especially in a writer whose work can otherwise seem, er, a little undisciplined.

It’s unclear how useful his example is to the rest of us (I can’t imagine Tree of Codes as anything but an interesting experiment) but it does raise the question of how writers can selectively use constraints as a spur to creativity. I’ll be writing more about this later today.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2010 at 11:19 am

Lessons from Woody Allen

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So today is Woody Allen’s 75th birthday, which gives me an excuse to talk about two of my favorite books on film: When the Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins, by Allen’s frequent editor, the late Ralph Rosenblum, and Conversations With Woody Allen, by Eric Lax.

Ralph Rosenblum was a legendary editor best known for extracting what became Annie Hall out of three hours of brilliant but shapeless footage. It’s hard to believe, but Annie Hall, which seems so focused and inevitable now, was originally a steam-of-consciousness comedy called Anhedonia, in which Diane Keaton’s character appeared only in passing. Rosenblum and Allen, faced with what looked like an unsalvageable movie, carved out its core love story by making massive cuts, juxtaposing previously unrelated scenes, adding music, and incorporating a few strategic voiceovers. If revision is the heart of creation, then Rosenblum’s work here ranks among the most creative acts in the history of movies.

As for Conversations With Woody Allen, it consists of thematically arranged interviews between Allen and Eric Lax over the past forty years, from Bananas to Whatever Works. (It also has a very nice Chip Kidd cover.) Opening it at random, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the density of insights per page. Here, for example, is Allen on finding time to develop ideas:

If I’m sitting somewhere for ten minutes unoccupied, my mind just clicks into it. I can’t help it. I come home and I’m thinking about it. It just works that way. I even try to think about it when I get into bed to go to sleep.

I never like to let any time go unused. When I walk somewhere in the morning, I still plan what I’m going to think about, which problem I’m going to tackle. I may say, This morning I’m going to think of titles. When I get in the shower in the morning, I try to use that time. So much of my time is spent thinking because that’s the only way to attack these writing problems.

(Aside: You may have noticed that I like using examples from film to talk about fiction. The reason for this, besides the fact that I love movies, is that I believe that most good fiction arises from action and structure, which result, if done correctly, in what we think of as character and theme. And the nice thing about action and structure is that they can be taught by example, while such matters as style and voice can only come from long practice.

Many, perhaps most, books on writing concentrate on style and voice, which means that they focus, unhelpfully, on what is largely unteachable. Books on film and screenwriting, by contrast, have no problem discussing issues of action and structure, which makes them especially useful for writers who are still working on the fundamentals of craft. So if I tend to cite Woody Allen or David Mamet as often as John Gardner, you’ll know the reason why.)

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2010 at 7:35 pm

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