Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Spielberg

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.

Quote of the Day

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People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.

Steven Spielberg

Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day

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War Horse and the future of Spielberg

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It’s Oscar week, and in anticipation of writing up my list of the ten best movies of the year, which I’m hoping to post in two parts tomorrow and Friday, I’ve been catching up on some of the notable movies I’ve missed, although not all of them. In fact, this will be the first year in a while in which I won’t see all of the Best Picture nominees, not so much out of a lack of time than because there are two I have no interest in watching—and you’re free to guess which ones. But of the remaining films, War Horse is one that I really wanted to see: as a director, Steven Spielberg, who for all his shortcomings remains the major Hollywood filmmaker of the past forty years, has been rather less prolific over the past decade, as his attention has shifted increasingly to producing, so his latest movie is always something of an event. And War Horse is undoubtedly worth seeing, as much for its final limitations as for its considerable strengths.

First, the good news. Spielberg’s eye, which I’ve written about at length before, is on full display, and it does marvelous things: the cinematography is gorgeous but only occasionally showy, and Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski offers up small wonders of subtle reveals in the visual play between foreground and background. A cavalry charge through a wheatfield is one of the most beautiful things Spielberg has ever done, and throughout the movie, we’re treated to the work of a director equally at home with intimate detail and epic scope. The occasional nods to David Lean and John Ford aren’t merely homage, but a nod from one legendary filmmaker to his peers. And for most of its first hour, aided by fluent editing from the great Michael Kahn, the film convinces us that we’re about to see something truly special.

Around the halfway point, however, doubts start to creep in, and by the end, although War Horse is never anything less than watchable, it starts to seem sentimental, contrived, and—most unforgivably—confused about its own intentions. Is this movie about a brave, beautiful horse, or is the horse simply a narrative device to introduce us to a series of human vignettes? If it’s the former, it just doesn’t work: the horse never emerges as a real personality, and it even disappears from the action for long stretches at a time. The clincher is the movie’s decision to have all characters, regardless of nationality, speak in accented English: I can understand the reasoning—otherwise, nearly half of the movie would be in subtitles—but it still strikes me as misguided. If the movie is really about this horse, it doesn’t matter if we can understand what the humans are saying, and perhaps even better if we can’t.

Instead, we’re implicitly told that our attention belongs on the human characters, even though none of them ever really repays our interest: for the most part, they’re symbolic figures, although a few—notably a French farmer played by Niels Arestrup—are given sporadic life by the actors involved. Spielberg remains our great visual storyteller, but here, as elsewhere, he displays an odd streak of timidity when it comes to constructing focused narratives. On his greatest achievement, the Indiana Jones trilogy, he evidently deferred to George Lucas, and many of his recent films, even ones I admire—Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Munich—suffer from a kind of ambivalence in the second half, as if he can’t decide what they’re about, even as individual scenes remain ravishing. Spielberg’s future depends, more than ever, on his choice of material and the quality of his scripts. And War Horse, for all its flaws, is only a reminder of how much is at stake.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2012 at 9:54 am

Tintin and the secret of the MacGuffin

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For the second time this week, I find myself reviewing a movie based on a beloved work of art about which I know practically nothing. Yesterday, it was the novels of John le Carré; today, it’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. And while I’ve always found le Carré dauntingly formidable, if anything, Hergé has the opposite problem—there’s almost too much good stuff here, and it’s all very enticing. (The A.V. Club has a nice Gateways to Geekery on the subject that seems like a good place to start.) Steven Spielberg’s earnest adaptation, while far from perfect, is enough to make me want to take the leap into the comics at last: as a character, Tintin is paper-thin, but winning, and I probably would have been obsessed by the movie that surrounds him if I’d seen it at the age of eight. As it stands, for all its energy, wit, and visual invention, it never takes hold in the way it constantly seems on the point of doing, and the problem, I think, lies in the secret of the Unicorn itself. In short, it lies in the MacGuffin.

A MacGuffin, of course, is the object or plot element that drives a work of fiction. The term was coined by Hitchcock, but Spielberg knows it as well as anyone, having structured the Indiana Jones series around three unforgettable objects: the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara stones, and the Holy Grail. (We’ll just pretend that the crystal skull never happened, as Spielberg himself seems increasingly inclined to do.) Tintin takes its cues from Indy in more ways than one—although this may simply be a case of inspiration returning at last to its original source—so obviously the story is structured around a similar quest: three parchments, hidden within three model ships, leading to a legendary treasure. And what is the treasure, you ask? Well, it’s…treasure. Four hundredweight of pirate gold, as we’re repeatedly reminded, sunk at the bottom of the sea. That’s a lot of gold. Yet even as the movie worked its sometimes exhausting magic, I felt a bit of a sinking feeling myself, once I realized that the object of Tintin’s quest was going to be nothing but a convenient haul of pirate booty.

Conventional wisdom holds that the MacGuffin itself doesn’t matter; the important thing, we’re told, is the desire and conflict it arouses in the characters. Every few years, then, someone has the fashionable idea to construct a MacGuffin around nothing at all: the “government secrets” of North by Northwest, the mysterious briefcases of Ronin and Pulp Fiction, the Rabbit’s Foot of Mission: Impossible III. To a point, the conventional wisdom is right: we aren’t going to care about any object, no matter how shrouded in importance, if we don’t care about the characters, too. Yet part of me insists that a storyteller should at least pretend to find the MacGuffin interesting, and worth taking seriously, especially if the characters will be wholly defined by their quest. It would be one thing if Tintin had an emotional stake in the chase, or even, like Indy, an inner life, but he’s characterized solely by his pluck in pursuit of that pirate treasure. And I’m past the point where I’m intrigued by pirate treasure for its own sake.

And that’s the real problem. An interesting MacGuffin doesn’t guarantee interesting characters, but a boring one will make the characters boring, too, if the MacGuffin is all they want. A director with great stars and superb confidence in his craft, like Hitchcock or the John Huston of The Maltese Falcon, can get away with a MacGuffin spun out of thin air, but for most works of art, it’s probably safer to go with something less arbitrary. This lesson is lost, unfortunately, on writers and directors who have been told that MacGuffins don’t matter, but still haven’t figured out why. Tintin is the third movie in less than two months built around a MacGuffin that the movie barely bothers to develop, after the nuclear codes of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and the unspoken secrets of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Both films get away with it because of the level of skill involved, as does Tintin, to a point. But then I think of Indy at the Well of Souls, and I’m reminded that a MacGuffin can be far more. It can be something that gets in your dreams.

Written by nevalalee

January 10, 2012 at 10:00 am

Frank Darabont and the screenplay of doom

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Writers are hired and fired from movies all the time, but few departures were more widely reported than Frank Darabont’s exit from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Darabont himself has expressed amazement that the media cared so much: “Where were you guys when that other script four years ago went in the shitter? You weren’t paying attention because it wasn’t Spielberg, and it wasn’t Lucas, and it wasn’t Indiana Jones.” But it was hard not to care, especially when the movie itself turned out to be such a disappointment. For all its other problems, the story was especially weak, and it was common knowledge that Darabont had written a draft that Spielberg loved, but Lucas rejected. (As I’ve said before, Hollywood is the kind of place where the man who wrote The Shawshank Redemption is getting script notes from the guy who wrote Attack of the Clones.)

So it became almost an article of faith that the Darabont version would have resulted in a much better movie. And yet Darabont’s Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, which I finally read over the weekend, isn’t all that great either. It’s incrementally more interesting than the final version, with some nice action scenes and a much better understanding of the relationship between Indy and Marion. There’s a pleasant air of intrigue and a few inspired double-crosses (which makes the insipid “triple agent” of the final version all the more infuriating). But the machinery of the plot takes a long time to get going, the central adventure never quite takes hold, and I missed Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, if not Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt. If I had been Lucas, I probably would have asked for a rewrite as well. But the real takeaway is that no rewrite could have made up for the shakiness of the underlying conception.

The trouble is that in any version, the crystal skull simply isn’t an interesting artifact. Darabont himself seems slightly bored by it, and doesn’t bother explaining what it does or why it matters until the script is halfway over. Even in the last act, when we finally enter the City of the Gods, we aren’t quite sure what the big deal is. Compared to a movie like Last Crusade, which had a wonderful screenplay by Jeffrey Boam that made the emotional stakes exceptionally clear, it’s hard to forgive this kind of narrative confusion, especially when the payoff is so underwhelming. (Its treatment in the final version of the script, as written by David Koepp, is even less satisfying: instead of searching for the skull, most of the movie is devoted to putting it back where it came from, which isn’t the best way to build narrative momentum.)

Of course, you could argue that the artifact is less important than the man pursuing it: Temple of Doom, after all, is essentially about the recovery of some sacred rocks. But City of the Gods is an uncomfortable reminder that we aren’t interested in the things Indy does because we like Indiana Jones; we like Indiana Jones because he does interesting things. Without a decent plot, he becomes the Harrison Ford of the past decade, the man David Thomson accurately saw as a “limited, anxious actor” with little interest in charming the audience. Given the right material, Ford can be wonderful, but he was never an actor who could elevate a film simply with his own presence. He needed Indy as much as Indy needed him. And neither Darabont nor his successors, alas, could ever quite figure out how to bring Indy back.

Super 8 and the problem of secrecy

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A few years ago, Robert Zemeckis created a bit of a stir when he defended the trailers of Cast Away and What Lies Beneath, both of which revealed crucial plot points, by saying that audiences really want to be told everything that happens in a movie. Moviegoers, he said, don’t like to be surprised; before they buy a ticket, they want to know exactly what to expect. And as depressing as it sounds, he was probably right. The fact is that trailers have always given away too much information—like the classic trailer for Casablanca, for instance, which shows Bogart shooting Major Strasser. It’s refreshing, then, when a director like J.J. Abrams refuses to disclose basic information about a movie like Super 8, out of a desire to protect its secrets. But it’s also a little disappointing to see Super 8 at last, only to discover that Abrams really had no secrets to protect.

I should preface all this by acknowledging that Super 8 is a film of considerable merits. It’s beautifully directed and photographed. The score by Michael Giacchino, who is rapidly becoming the most versatile composer in Hollywood, hits all the right notes. The cast, especially of younger kids, is uniformly appealing, and the script deserves a lot of credit for grounding the story in a detailed suburban canvas, even if most of the characters are affable stereotypes. For most of the movie, Abrams is emulating Spielberg in all the right ways—not simply his visual style and tone, but his interest in children and the lives of small towns. It isn’t clear how much of this reflects Abrams’s own sensibility and how much is just a skilled pastiche, but either way, it results in a movie that feels a lot more textured and humane than your average summer blockbuster. As a result, for most of its length, it’s a pleasure to watch, and it’s obviously the product of a lot of thoughtfulness and care.

Which is why it’s all the more underwhelming, at the end, to realize that all that atmosphere and ingenuity and mastery of tone was in service of a story that, frankly, could have been predicted in detail by anyone who had seen the marketing materials. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this—there can be something quite satisfying about seeing a familiar story cleverly told—but it makes the hype about the movie’s “secrets” seem more than a little silly. And after Cloverfield, which was infinitely more interesting as a trailer than as a movie, and Lost, which essentially abdicated its responsibility to resolve most of its mysteries, it raises serious questions about Abrams’s seriousness as a storyteller. Abrams has emerged as one of the most likable popular directors in a long time, but it’s hard to shake the sense, as I’ve said before, that his approach remains that of a gifted television writer and producer—and, I hate to say it, a shrewd marketer.

It might seem shortsighted to judge Super 8 by the standards of its marketing campaign. Ten years from now, I expect that it will still be watched and enjoyed—especially by kids—long after its teaser trailer has been forgotten. But the emphasis on secrecy has implications for Abrams’s future as a director that can’t be easily dismissed. Much as some researchers have recently argued that reason evolved, not as a means to the truth, but as a way to win arguments, it’s become increasingly clear that Abrams regards mystery, not as a means of protecting genuine secrets, but as a marketing strategy—which implies that he doesn’t understand how powerful a movie’s real secrets can be. A great director, like Spielberg, can tell us very clearly, before we’ve even entered the theater, what kind of movie we’re about to see, and then proceed to surprise us with revelations of plot and character. Abrams, for all his talents, hasn’t managed to do that yet. One day, perhaps, he will. But only if he gets past secrecy for its own sake.

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2011 at 9:23 am

Steven Spielberg and the child’s eye

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Because I left for London halfway through the Super Bowl, and was away from my desk for the rest of the week, I’ve only just now seen the latest trailer for Super 8, in which J.J. Abrams clearly stakes his claim to be the next Steven Spielberg. Whether Abrams can pull it off remains unknown: he’s tremendously gifted, but his talents, even on the big screen, are those of a brilliant writer and television producer, while Spielberg—who is credited as a producer on Super 8—has nothing less than the greatest eye in movies. Still, this trailer, which includes more references to Spielberg’s early work than I thought were possible in less than thirty seconds, gives me an excuse to talk about one of the most unexpectedly fascinating careers in American film. And there’s no better place to start than with the trailer’s final shot, that of a child staring at something unimaginable offscreen, which remains the central image in all of Spielberg’s work.

The first thing to realize about Spielberg, whose work is thematically richer than many of his critics like to admit, is that his films fall into two categories: that of real life shading imperceptibly into the unknown, and that in which the unknown—which includes the historical, the futuristic, and the fantastic—takes center stage. The first category, with its elements of the director’s own autobiography, is the dominant mode in Spielberg’s early work, most notably in Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and the producer’s sidelights of Poltergeist, Gremlins, and The Goonies. Those early films display an interest in the lives of small towns, and of children, that Spielberg seems to have lost in recent years, perhaps as an inevitable result of fame and incredible wealth. Even his most impressive later work, from Schindler’s List to Munich, lacks the urgency of those suburban stories, which may be why the evocation of that period in the Super 8 trailer fills me with such fierce nostalgia.

Of course, this raises the question of where to put the Indiana Jones series, still a trilogy in my own heart, which is both Spielberg’s least personal work and his greatest achievement. Watching those films now, they seem increasingly outside the main line of Spielberg’s development, and much more the work of George Lucas, which goes a long way toward explaining why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was so disappointing. And the almost complete absence of children is especially striking. As much as I love Short Round, he’s more of a tiny adult than a real boy, and none of Temple of Doom takes place through his eyes, much less those of the child slaves in the background. In Spielberg’s early work, by contrast, many of the greatest moments of awe and terror are filtered through a child’s perspective: the abducted boy in Close Encounters, the girl who vanishes in Poltergeist, even the little boy devoured in Jaws.

And yet the Indiana Jones trilogy remains a child’s dream of what it means to be a man—whether an archaeologist, a professor, or even a writer of thrilling stories. Despite the lack of children, the child’s point of view isn’t gone: it disappears from the movie, but embeds itself in the audience. With a nod to the impeccable taste of Carey Mulligan, who calls it her favorite film, no work of art takes me back to my boyhood like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which remains the movie that cuts closest to the reasons why I want to tell stories for a living. Of Hitchcock, David Thomson says, “His great films are only partly his; they also belong to the minds that interpret them.” The same is true, in a way, of Indy, but it has nothing to do with interpretation. Pull back from the screen, and the missing children are there, in the audience, relishing a boy wonder’s vision of what it means to be a grownup. If Super 8 can generate even a fraction of that wonder, Abrams can begin to set himself against Spielberg. Until then, he can only get in line.

In praise of David Thomson

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The publication of the fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the best book ever written on the movies, is cause for celebration, and an excuse for me to talk about one of the weirdest books in all of literature. Thomson is a controversial figure, and for good reason: his film writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of Thomson’s earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies.

First, a word about the book’s shortcomings. As in previous editions, instead of revising the entries for living subjects in their entirety, Thomson simply adds another paragraph or two to the existing filmographies, so that the book seems to grow by accretion, like a coral reef. This leads to inconsistencies in tone within individual articles, and also to factual mistakes when the entry hasn’t been updated recently enough—like the article on George Lucas, for instance, in which the latter two Star Wars prequels still evidently lie in the future. And the book is full of the kind of errors that occur when one tries to keep up, in print, with the vagaries of movie production—as when it credits David O. Russell with the nonexistent Nailed and omits The Fighter. (Now that this information is readily available online, Thomson should really just delete all of the detailed filmographies in the next edition, which would cut the book’s size by a quarter or more.)

And then, of course, there are Thomson’s own opinions, which are contrarian in a way that can often seem perverse. He’s lukewarm on Kurosawa, very hard on Kubrick (The Shining is the only movie he admires), and thinks that Christopher Nolan’s work “has already become progressively less interesting.” He thinks that The Wrestler is “a wretched, interminable film,” but he loves Nine. He displays next to no interest in animation or international cinema. There’s something to be outraged about on nearly every page, which is probably why the Dictionary averages barely more than three stars from reviewers on Amazon. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a critic whose opinions differ from your own must be corrupt, crazy, or incompetent—as many of Roger Ebert’s correspondents apparently do—then you should stay far, far away from Thomson, who goes out of his way to infuriate even his most passionate defenders.

Yet Thomson’s perversity is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing the same thing. And it’s impossible not to be challenged and stirred by his opinions. There is a way, after all, in which Kurosawa is a more limited director than Ozu—although I know which one I ultimately prefer. Kubrick’s alienation from humanity would have crippled any director who was not Kubrick. Until The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan’s movies were, indeed, something of a retreat from the promise of Memento. And for each moment of temporary insanity on Thomson’s part, you get something equally transcendent. Here he is on Orson Welles, for example, in a paragraph that has forever changed how I watch Citizen Kane:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself…As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

On Spielberg and Schindler’s List:

Schindler’s List is the most moving film I have ever seen. This does not mean it is faultless. To take just one point: the reddening of one little girl’s coat in a black-and-white film strikes me as a mistake, and a sign of how calculating a director Spielberg is. For the calculations reveal themselves in these few errors that escape. I don’t really believe in Spielberg as an artist…But Schindler’s List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens. And it helps persuade this viewer that cinema—or American film—is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.

And, wonderfully, on what is perhaps my own favorite bad movie of all time:

Yet in truth, I think Kevin [Spacey] himself is the biggest experiment, and to substantiate that one has only to call to the stand Beyond the Sea, written, produced and directed by Kev and with himself as Bobby Darin. The result is intoxicating, one of the really great dreadful films ever made, worthy of an annual Beyond the Sea award (why not give it on Oscar night?), as well as clinching evidence that this man is mad. Anything could happen.

The result, as I note above, is a massive Proustian novel in which nearly every major figure in the history of film plays a role. (Thomson has already written a novel, Suspects, that does this more explicitly, and his book-length study of Nicole Kidman is manifestly a novel in disguise.) Reading the Dictionary, which is as addictive as Wikipedia or TV Tropes, is like diving headfirst into a vast ocean, and trying to see how deep you can go before coming up for air. Although if it really is a novel, it’s less like Proust than like Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. (In that light, even the book’s mistakes seem to carry a larger meaning. What does it mean, for instance, that Thomson’s brilliant article on Heath Ledger, in which he muses on “the brief purchasing power” of fame, was “inadvertently dropped” from the fifth edition?)

And what monstrous truth does the Dictionary conceal? It’s the same truth, which applies as much to Thomson himself as it does to you and me, as the one that he spells out, unforgettably, at the end of Rosebud, his study of Orson Welles:

So film perhaps had made a wasted life?
One has to do something.

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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