Posts Tagged ‘Vertigo’
Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.
As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.
Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.
And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.
Ideally, all stories should consist of a series of events that arise organically from the characters and their decisions, based on a rigorous understanding of how the world really works. In practice, and especially in genre fiction, it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes a writer just has a plot development that he really wants to write, and isn’t entirely sure how to get there from here. Frequently he’ll construct a story out of a number of unrelated ideas, and needs to cobble them together in a way that will seem inevitable after the fact. And sometimes he’ll simply paint himself into a corner, or realize that he’s overlooked a monstrous plot hole, and wants to extricate himself in a way that leaves his dignity—and most of the earlier material—intact. A purist might say that the author should throw the story out and start again, proceeding more honestly from first principles, but a working writer doesn’t always have that luxury. Better, I think, to find a way of keeping the parts that work and smoothing over the connective bits that seem implausible or unconvincing, while keeping the reader immersed in the fictional dream. And in the spirt of faking it until you make it, I offer the following suggestions:
1. Make it a fait accompli. As I’ve mentioned before, a reader is much more likely to accept a farfetched narrative development if the characters take it for granted. Usually, this means putting the weakest link in your story offstage. My favorite example is from Some Like It Hot, an incredibly contrived movie that shrewdly refuses to show the most crucial moment in the entire plot: instead of giving us a scene in which the main characters decide to go on the run in drag, it just cuts to the two of them already in skirts, rushing across the platform to catch a train to Florida. The lesson, clearly, is that if something in your story is obviously impossible, it’s better to pretend that it’s already happened. And the best strategy of all is to push the most implausible element of your story outside the boundaries of the plot itself, so it’s already in place before the story begins, which is what I’ve previously called the anthropic principle of fiction. If the viewer doesn’t see something happen, it requires an additional mental effort to rewind the story to object to it, and by then, the plot and characters have already moved on. It’s best to make like Jack Lemmon in heels, and just run with it.
2. Tell, don’t show. Normally, we’re trained to depict a turning point in the action as vividly as possible, and are taught that it’s bad form to describe an important moment indirectly or leave it offstage. When it comes to a weak point in the plot, however, that sort of scrutiny can only raise questions. It’s smarter, instead, to break a cardinal rule of fiction and get it out of the way as unobtrusively as possible. An implausible conversation, for instance, might best be rendered as indirect dialogue, leaving readers to fill in a more convincing version themselves. And if you can’t dramatize something in a credible fashion, it might be best to summarize it, in the way dramatists use the arrival of a messenger to convey developments that would be impossible to stage, although it’s best to keep this sort of thing as short as you can. There’s a particularly gorgeous example in the novel The Silence of the Lambs. Thomas Harris shows us Hannibal Lecter’s escape from federal security in loving detail, but when it comes to the most astonishing element of his getaway—the fact that he peels off another man’s face and wears it like a mask—he lets Jack Crawford describe it after the fact in a few terse sentences. It’s still hard to buy, but it’s more acceptable than if he’d allowed us to question the action as it unfolded.
3. Use misdirection. The secret of sleight of hand is that the audience’s eye is naturally drawn to action, humor, and color, allowing the performer to conduct outrageous manipulations in plain sight. Similarly, when a story is engaging enough from moment to moment, the reader is less likely to object to inconsistencies and plot holes. A film like Inception, for instance—which is probably my favorite movie of the last fifteen years—is riddled with logical problems, and even the basic workings of its premise aren’t entirely consistent, but we’re having too much fun to care. In some ways, this is the most important point of all: when a work of art is entertaining, involving, and emotionally true, we’re more likely to forgive the moments when the plot creaks. Some of our greatest books and movies, like Vertigo, are dazzling precisely because they expend a huge amount of effort to convince us of premises that, if the artist proceeded with uncompromising logic, would never make it past a rough draft. Just remember, as Aristotle pointed out, that a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility, and take it from there.
Exactly seven years ago, on August 6, 2005, on the blog that I used to maintain with several of my college friends, I wrote the following:
In about seven years, the British magazine Sight and Sound will conduct its next critics’ poll of the greatest movies ever made, which has been held every decade since 1952. It’s always hard to handicap these things, but I have two predictions: 1) Vertigo will finally unseat Citizen Kane from the top of the list. 2) More than one critic, maybe a bunch of them, will name 2046 as one of the best movies of all time.
I’ll need to wait until next week, when Sight & Sound publishes the full results of its critics’ poll, to verify my second prediction—although at this stage In the Mood for Love is clearly the Wong Kar-Wai film to beat. And while my prediction about Vertigo, which did indeed top the latest list, may seem impressive, it isn’t quite as smart as it seems: last time, Vertigo came in second to Kane by only five votes. All the same, I’m almost never right about this sort of thing, so you’ll excuse me if I take some satisfaction in this rare display of prescience.
Still, in some ways, it’s a shame, because Vertigo deserves better than the crushing weight of expectation that such an honor inevitably confers. It’s undeniably a great movie, certainly one of the best of all time, but it’s also a film that gradually imbeds itself in your subconscious, growing in your imagination over the course of many years, with levels of meaning that can’t be fully appreciated after an initial viewing. I have the sinking feeling that a lot of people are going to watch Vertigo for the first time because of this poll and come away wondering what the big deal is about. It took me years to sort through my own feelings about Kane, a cheeky, flashy, shallow masterpiece that has been unfairly suffocated by its own reputation. Eventually, perhaps, we’ll be able to watch Vertigo again in the way it deserves. But probably not for a while.
I’ve written about Vertigo numerous times on this site, so for my full thoughts on this extraordinary movie, please see here and here. It missed my recent rundown of my own top ten films, but only by the narrowest of margins, and while it may not be my favorite film overall, its greatest moments soar higher than those of any other movie I can name. In particular, as I’ve said before, the hotel room scene culminates in the greatest shot in the history of cinema, and its third act is among the most emotionally overwhelming. For the moment, then, let’s give the obligatory nod to Hitchcock while also acknowledging the film’s other makers, especially the screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, who adapted the novel D’entre les morts and added the crucial shift in point of view that lends the movie much of its impact, and the composer Bernard Herrmann, who delivered a score that contributes, more than any other I know, to the movie’s hypnotic spell.
As for the rest of the poll, it’s exactly what it should be: an endless source of surprise, argument, and inspiration. Everyone will have their own list of omissions—mine is that there’s nothing by Powell and Pressburger and no sign of Casablanca—but overall, these are fascinating movies that provide enough imaginative fuel for a lifetime. For me, it’s a reminder that I need to watch more Tarkovsky (I hadn’t even heard of Mirror, which made the top ten on the directors’ list) and finally finish Metropolis, which has remained paused halfway through in my Netflix queue for years. But more than anything else, the list is a reminder of how inexhaustible the world of great movies really is, even for those of us who care about it deeply. As I’ve written before, when I discovered the 1982 edition of the Sight & Sound poll sometime in the third grade, it changed my life forever. Thirty years down the line, it hasn’t lost any of its power.
The next time you’re talking to a writer and get stuck for topics of conversation, here’s a tip: ask him where he gets the names of his characters. Not every name has an interesting meaning, of course, aside from the fact that it sounded good to the author at the time. But in my experience, most writers tend to invest a lot of thought and energy into coming up with character names, to the point where the names of even minor players have a long story behind them. In some ways, it’s not unlike choosing a name for a baby: you need to think of every possible scenario in which the name might backfire, whether because it calls up unwanted associations or lends itself too easily to a playground taunt. If it’s the name of a character in a novel, much less a series, you need to be particularly careful, because you’re going to be living with it for a long time. As a result, I generally spend a full day, maybe two, at the beginning of any novel project just coming up with names for ten or twelve important characters, which is much less fun than it sounds.
So what are the rules, if any? The critic James Wood has noted, quite fairly, that characters in a novel usually have different names, which is inherently unrealistic: “Whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?” Wood is perfectly right, of course, but even he would probably be the first to admit that this is an acceptable break from reality—like the fact that a character in a movie can always find a parking space when he needs one—that allows us to save time and confusion. Unless there’s a good reason why we should be uncertain as to which John or Elizabeth we’re reading about, it’s always wise to keep your characters’ names different and distinctive. In my own work, I try to avoid giving important characters names that start with the same letter, a rule that many other writers also seem to follow. (Now that I’m on my third novel with a shared cast of characters, this rule has become a real pain, but I still stick with it when I can.)
In the case of The Icon Thief, the names of the characters came about in all kinds of ways. Maddy and Ethan were a pair of characters who had been kicking around in my head for at least ten years, ever since I had the idea, way back in college, of writing a novel or screenplay that combined elements of two of the greatest of all American movies, Vertigo and The Searchers. The project was ridiculously ambitious, even for me, and I finally scrapped it, although not without emerging with two characters whose first names were taken from the leads of those films: Madeline Elster and Ethan Edwards. Alan Powell, as I’ve mentioned before, was named for Michael Powell, although his first name was Dennis for many drafts before I changed it to something that suited him better. And Ilya Severin was originally Ilya Kaverin, which I discarded, after spending more than two years living with that name, upon deciding that it was just too similar to that of a certain iconic character from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The rest of my characters have names that were chosen more or less at random. Rachel Wolfe, for instance, is just a name I like, combining the name of a close friend and an acquaintance in a way that strikes me as just right. John Reynard is a fun one: his first name is the most boring one imaginable, but his last name is that of a famously foxy trickster, which serves as a clue to some of his contradictions. Anzor Archvadze was one of the few plausibly Georgian names I could come up with that didn’t make my eyes cross, while Sharkovsky and Vasylenko were chosen for the sound, and Louis Barlow just looks like the name of an FBI assistant special agent in charge. And then we have the mysterious Alexey Lermontov, named, of course, for Anton Walbrook’s character in The Red Shoes. In my mind, he’s always been played by Walbrook, and I’d like to think that he gained something from the association, even if it’s just the slightest whisper of resonance from the character who, unforgettably, summed up the fate of the heroine in his ballet: “Oh, in the end, she dies.”
Over the weekend, my wife and I finally saw Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, the loving homage to silent film that has unexpectedly become the movie to beat at the Oscars. It isn’t hard to see why: this is one of those cinematic stunts, like Memento, that has to be done exceptionally well in order to be done at all, and from its opening scene, with the hero of a silent melodrama insisting to his captors that he’ll never talk, you know that this is a movie blessed with an abundance of ideas. Nearly every scene contains some kind of inspired visual or structural gag, from loving recreations of classic silent comedy routines to nods to Citizen Kane and Singin’ In the Rain, as well as the predictably clever, but still amusing, use of surprise sound effects. It’s so blissfully inventive, in fact, that while I was watching it, I did something I haven’t done in a long time, at least for a movie not made by Pixar: I settled in happily to see what it would do next.
It’s a little surprising, then, to realize that while the movie lavishes so much care on its individual scenes, the overall story is cheerfully formulaic. With a few small exceptions, the story unfolds precisely as we expect, tracing the rise of one star and the fall of another with a literalness that makes A Star is Born seem like the height of sophistication. Unlike the silent films to which it pays tribute, which often had a loose, anarchic sense of story, The Artist follows the Syd Field structure to the point where it’s almost anachronistic. With its neat division into three acts, complete with false crisis, real crisis, and all the other obligatory beats, this is a film that will be studied in screenwriting courses until the end of time, but perhaps not for the right reasons. The execution is seamless, and not without its pleasures, but it still left me wishing for more in the way of real suspense or surprise.
Later, however, I began to wonder if this apparent simplicity is more complex than it seems. For one thing, it was probably impossible for a film like The Artist, which asks so much of a modern audience, to tell anything but the simplest, most classic story. As I’ve said before, when a movie pushes complexity in one direction, it often has to give way in another, which is why the characters in a film like Inception, for instance, can seem so schematic: push complexity in every direction, and you risk of losing the audience entirely. In some respects, then, the classic structure of the plot of The Artist is as much of a stunt as its obvious technical feats. The movie is a clockwork device that has been cut away to show us its inner workings: even as its story plays on our emotions, it invites us to see how it does it. In that respect, it does what the third act of Adaptation tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to do, which is to comment on the nature of formula while working as a story as well.
Or perhaps I’m giving Hazanavicius too much credit. There’s one revealing moment, in fact, where The Artist is too clever for its own good, which is in its use of five minutes of the Bernard Herrmann score from Vertigo. While I don’t feel as strongly about this as Kim Novak apparently does, I agree with Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter: “It yanks you out of one film and places you in the mindset of another.” It isn’t quite a fatal misstep, but it’s a questionable one, especially when The Artist doesn’t engage the music in any interesting way: as an homage, it’s on the level of one of those novelty reels, with the music from Psycho spliced over a romantic interlude, that the Oscars uses every few years to demonstrate the power of music. Although Hazanavicius quickly recovers, with an inspired title card gag, it makes us wonder for a moment if he’s as smart as he seems. Which is too bad, because the rest of The Artist is the work of a director who is manifestly as smart as they come.
If you’re a regular visitor here, you know that I’ve had a busy few months, but this week probably takes the cake: having just hosted my parents for Thanksgiving, I’m delivering the final draft of City of Exiles to my publisher today, then getting on a plane with my wife tomorrow for a trip to Hong Kong and China. With all this activity, you’d think that this blog would quickly fall by the wayside, but you’d be wrong: as I noted yesterday, I’ve gone one full year without missing a day, and I’m not about to stop now. As a result, for the next two weeks, along with any dispatches I manage to file from overseas, I’ll be indulging in an activity dear to my heart: counting down my ten favorite movies.
Needless to say, many of these films have been discussed on this blog before, and if you’re curious as to what to expect, this list is a pretty good indication—although there may be a few surprises as well. (And not every movie I love made the cut, although luckily I’ve already covered Vertigo.) Still, just compiling a list like this, and finding new things to say about the films in question, is a revealing exercise in itself. I’ve said before that assembling a personal canon is the closest to an honest self-portrait that most of us will ever get, and even more than my favorite books, the films in my life are the clearest illustration of where I’ve been and where I’m going. So you can think of this, if you like, as your chance to find out who I really am.
Coming up on Monday: The greatest of all space operettas.
No other work of art is so central to my love of movies as the last forty minutes of Vertigo. There are movies I admire more, but none I find as emotionally devastating, or as endless in its implications. It’s full of classic moments and images, some of which take several viewings to fully understand, but I may as well start with the most famous: the scene at the Hotel Empire, which you can watch here if you must, culminates in what is simply the greatest shot in the history of cinema. As the camera pans around Stewart and Novak, with Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score swelling in the background, we’re as close as we’ll ever get to the reasons we watch movies in the first place, in a sort of gorgeous rhapsody on love, art, and death. As Roger Ebert writes: “This shot, in its psychological, artistic and technical complexity, may be the one time in his entire career that Alfred Hitchcock completely revealed himself, in all of his passion and sadness.”
Not surprisingly, I’ve been obsessed with this movie for a long time. After hearing about it for years, I finally saw it in college, in a study carrel at Lamont Library, watching it on videocassette with headphones on a tiny television set. Later that evening, I came down with some kind of fever, and spent most of the night tossing and turning, convinced that the events of the movie had somehow been part of my own life. The second time I saw it was on the big screen, at the late lamented UC Theater in Berkeley, and the experience there was equally wrenching. And I’m not the only one who responds to it this way: when I showed it to one of my college roommates, he ended up in a fetal position. Vertigo tells us things about art and life, and how we’re driven to transform ourselves and others, that few other works have managed to express. As David Thomson notes, it’s a movie that grabs and haunts the viewer, especially for certain sensibilities:
It’s a test case. If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema. But if you are alarmed by its implausibility, its hysteria, its cruelty—well, there are novels.
Watching it again with my wife last night, the implausibility, the hysteria, and the cruelty were all on clear display. It isn’t a perfect movie, although it has long stretches of icy perfection: the plot sometimes creaks, especially in the first half, and the dialogue scenes often feel like part of a lesser film. But all these concerns are swept away by the extraordinary third act, which may be my favorite in any work of art. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps the big revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any movie adaptation has had a greater impact—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful, and painful. The more I watch it, the more I’m convinced that no other American film is so staggeringly complex in its final emotional resonance.
It’s no accident, then, that I’ve been revising and rewriting Vertigo in my head for much of my life. After seeing it in college, I spent the better part of that summer working on a story that would fuse Vertigo with another great American film of startling depths: John Ford’s The Searchers. The project, to put it mildly, was more than I could handle, and I never came close to finishing it, but the vestiges can still be seen in the names of two important characters in The Icon Thief: Maddy and Ethan. Since then, Vertigo has remained a personal and professional touchstone, a movie that I’m constantly revisiting and engaging, for reasons that I can’t always explain. All I know is no matter how many times I see it, ninety minutes into this remarkable movie, when Novak turns to the camera and the screen goes red, I’m sucked in and can’t escape—not any more than she can.
In the classic study Hitchcock/Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock offers up a moment of insight so profound that it’s been quoted endlessly ever since, which won’t stop me from quoting it once again:
Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it…In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the secret.
Hitchcock concludes: “In the first case, we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”
This advice, as simple as it sounds, should tattooed behind the eyeballs of all serious writers of horror and suspense, but today it’s strangely neglected. These days, thrillers seem obsessed by surprise, seeking out increasingly ludicrous twist endings, even if they make nonsense of everything that came before. For every movie like The Sixth Sense or The Others that retrospectively enriches the story with a closing revelation, we have a movie like Perfect Stranger, in which the audience’s only response is an incredulous “Really?” When something like this works, there’s an undeniable frisson of excitement, but usually, all it does is sacrifice fifteen minutes of suspense—or more—for fifteen seconds of surprise, which is mathematically unsound.
But it isn’t just about the numbers. Suspense is preferable to surprise, as Hitchcock notes, because it actively involves the audience in the telling of a story, until they aren’t just spectators, but participants. In a perfectly constructed work of suspense, like The Wages of Fear or A History of Violence, we aren’t watching passively, but caught up in both plot and artistic technique, and constantly telling stories to ourselves about what might happen next. This kind of anticipation is the best kind of interactivity that fiction affords. As I’ve noted before, transferring the twist in Vertigo from the end of the film to the start of the third act contributes enormously to that movie’s power. And one of the most potent discoveries in all of literature, dating back to Greek tragedy, is that there’s no better way of identifying with a protagonist, paradoxically, than by knowing something that he doesn’t.
The sweetest thing of all, of course, is to combine both suspense and surprise: to allow the audience to anticipate, suspensefully, what will happen next, before surprising them with an unexpected outcome. In comedy, this can be something like what writers on The Simpsons call a “screw the audience” joke, as when Homer, on the run from the police, ducks into a costume shop—in order to hide in the bathroom. In a thriller or horror movie, this reversal of expectations can be almost indecently satisfying. Psycho does this beautifully, as does The Silence of the Lambs, but even a lesser film can occasionally pull it off: the quiet scene between Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz in Unknown is a small masterpiece of reversed expectations in an otherwise shoddy movie. But even a stopped ticking clock is right twice a day.
Most of us, from the moment we start writing seriously, are told that all good writing comes from character. Whether we’re writing a literary novel or a hard-boiled mystery, it seems obvious that the protagonist should drive the story through his own objectives and behavior, that he should succeed or fail based on the choices he makes, and that the resolution of the plot should come about as a direct consequence of his own actions. This is good, sound advice. I’ve given it here before. And yet as we continue to write and experience other works of art, it becomes increasingly clear that character isn’t the whole answer. Because when we consider the absolute heights of literature, from Oedipus Rex to King Lear, or even the best of genre fiction, like the novels of James M. Cain, it’s hard to shake the feeling that what we’re being shown is somehow more than character, while also derived from it, and closer to a true representation of how the world really works.
Years ago, after seeing Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, I reflected that one reason I admire but don’t love Leigh’s movies is that they’re character-driven in the purest way: the stories are derived from a long process of improvisation with a team of actors, and as a result, there’s nearly nothing in his films that doesn’t emerge from character. This is obviously admirable—and Leigh is one of the most consistently engaging directors around—but it also means that his movies are curiously limited. Events in real life, after all, doesn’t always come directly from character: we’re often asked to deal with things that are out of our control, or the control of those around us. Life can be uncanny, shocking, or arbitrary—but often in ways that seem strangely appropriate. And that’s why works of fiction that resolve their themes on an allegorical level, rather than a purely rational one, tend to shake us far more deeply than works that scrupulously follow through on the implications of character alone.
As a result, many of my favorite works of art, ranging from Vertigo and The Red Shoes to The Magus and Disgrace, are almost cosmically unfair. What happens to the the characters in these stories, while superficially the consequence of their own actions, is also the result of a playful, dangerous, or unfathomable universe, which takes their actions and magnifies them to the scale of tragedy. And sometimes genre fiction—horror, in particular—understands this better than anything else. I respond to the terribly unfair fates of characters in Stephen King, for instance, because they justify my suspicion that in real life, what happens to us is not always the result of our own character, but of some higher capriciousness or malevolence. And this sort of narrative perversion is inherently factored out of works of pure character, like Leigh’s films, while remaining accessible to artists like Brian De Palma, the master of the unfair conclusion.
In all honesty, though, I’m not sure what my advice is here. Character is still hugely important. And the strategy of cosmic unfairness, if pursued too closely, can only result in a victim story. (One unfair act of fate is generally enough.) As a general rule, the protagonist’s actions and objectives are what drive the plot moment by moment—this is one of the first things that any good novelist needs to internalize. But it’s more a question of craft than of philosophy. And once this rule has been fully absorbed, the novelist can move past it, or undermine it, just as life itself often undermines our best intentions. Best of all, as in Vertigo, an artist can begin with pure character, then fulfill it with a twist of fate that seems inevitable, but in ways that can’t be rationally explained. But such stories are only possible when the writer already knows the importance of character itself—and when to move beyond it.
Last night, as part of Redbox’s free movie promotion, my wife and I rented Unknown, a Liam Neeson thriller that is slightly more polished than Taken, but features significantly less throat-punching. If there was ever a movie meant to be rented for free on a random Thursday night, it’s this one: director Jaume Collet-Serra has a nice, slick visual style that keeps the story clocking along, and there’s one short scene between Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella that is a quiet masterpiece of suspense, but in the end, the movie founders on a script that squanders a clever premise for a series of generic action beats. As the implausibilities mount, it becomes impossible to take any of it seriously: it’s the kind of film where you walk out of the theater humming the plot holes.
Of course, nobody expects thrillers to be airtight. For a movie to mislead audiences, it’s usually obliged to reach some kind of accommodation with plausibility, working in the moment without necessarily standing up to extended scrutiny. Hence the phenomenon of fridge logic: a detail in a movie that seems fine at the time, but later strikes the viewer as ridiculous. Ted Tally, the screenwriter of The Silence of the Lambs, instructively quotes Jonathan Demme on this point:
“That’s a refrigerator question.” A refrigerator question? “You know. You’ve just come home from a movie, you had a great time, you go to the refrigerator to get a beer, you open the door, and you say ‘Wait a minute…’”
Tally concludes by saying that Demme doesn’t worry much about refrigerator questions. And for good reason. Because even the best thrillers tend to fall apart on closer examination, but if we’re emotionally engaged, we don’t care.
Take Vertigo, for instance. This is easily the greatest of all thrillers, and one without which a movie like Unknown might not even exist, but it contains so many implausibilities—among other things, how Madeline managed to disappear from her hotel room, and how anyone could be sure that Scotty wouldn’t make it to the top of the bell tower—that we can thank it for the term “fridge logic” itself: Hitchcock referred to such moments as “icebox” scenes, since they start to bother you “after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.” And the greater the thriller, the more likely we are to discover such problems, if only because we’re drawn to revisit it more than once. If there are numerous elements of The Usual Suspects that I no longer believe, it’s only because I’ve seen it over thirty times. By any measure, then, the movie succeeded.
So why can’t I forgive the plot problems in Unknown? The issue is one of delay: if Unknown had managed to postpone my objections until even five minutes after the closing credits, I would have enjoyed it more. As it stands, I found myself annoyed by its implausibilities long before the end of the movie, at which point fridge logic becomes a simple plot hole. That delay of five minutes may seem like a small thing, but it’s no different than any act of sleight of hand, in which a few seconds of misdirection can make all the difference. A movie like Unknown is a reminder that ordinary professionalism can take a movie ninety percent of the way, but the last ten percent requires something more. And that last bit of effort, as Hitchcock and Demme know, is what pushes a plot hole out of the movie and safely into the fridge.
Oh, I get it, it’s very clever. How’s that working out for you?
Earlier this week, I finally finished London Fields by Martin Amis, a novel that I grudgingly respected and intensely disliked. Amis is undoubtedly a genius, and the level of craft on display here is often stunning, but the deliberate flatness of its lovingly caricatured characters and its endless hammering away at a handful of themes makes it feel like reading the same smug, acerbic, glitteringly intelligent page five hundred times in a row. By the end, I was almost physically exhausted by the relentless progression of setup, punchline, setup, punchline, and the result, like Amis’s The Information, strikes me as a work of great misdirected talent. For all its ambition, it ultimately exemplifies, more than anything else, what Amis’s father Kingsley once called the “terrible compulsive vividness in his style…that constant demonstrating of his command of English.” And, I might add, of his cleverness.
Cleverness for its own sake, I’ve become increasingly convinced, is a pitfall for all gifted artists, especially novelists and filmmakers. It’s hard to say what cleverness means, at least in its negative sense, but I’d describe it as any artistic decision or flourish that doesn’t serve to advance the story, but only to be admired in isolation. Its defining characteristic is that it can be easily detached from the underlying narrative and inserted elsewhere in the story—or another story altogether—with minimal changes. At its worst, it feels less like ingenuity in service of narrative than a laundry list of interchangeable ideas. Watching a movie like Fight Club or reading a book like London Fields, I have the same feeling that the music critic Anthony Tommasini recently described in his review of Francesca Zambello’s San Francisco production of Das Rheingold: “I wish she had made a complete list of her ideas and eliminated a third of them.”
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for an occasional isolated flourish, like the moment in Citizen Kane when the photograph of the Inquirer staff comes to life. And there are some great films, like Casino, that aspire to be nothing but those flourishes. But the best sort of cleverness, like every other aspect of craft, is for the sake of story, which means that it’s almost invisible. Hitchcock is a fine example of both extremes. We remember the obvious effects of his style, like the distorting optical process in Vertigo, but far more clever is the structure of Vertigo itself, which takes place entirely from the perspective of the lead character until the last half hour, when it breaks from his point of view at a decisive moment. (This is a departure, incidentally, from the original novel, which, with its surprise ending, is clever in a more conventional way.)
The real trouble with cleverness is that it can easily be mistaken for the deeper qualities it can only superficially imitate: narrative ingenuity, humor, and organic inventiveness. In literature, it leads to novels that imitate the postmodern tools of Barth or Borges without ever having really engaged the earlier works on which they were founded. In film, you get a style like that of Tony Scott at his worst, in which every shot is tilted or saturated for no particular reason. And in comedy, it results in a mode of humor in which pop cultural references and winks to the audience have replaced real comedic situations. For this last manifestation, which is probably the saddest of all, I can do no better than quote George Meyer, the legendary writer and producer for the best years of The Simpsons: “Clever,” Meyer notes, “is the eunuch version of funny.”
Today, inspired by an unusually compelling AVQ&A, I’ll be talking about the books that I’ve read more than any other. First up is Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those novels that I probably would have loved anyway, but which left an indelible mark on my life simply because of when I first encountered it—when I was thirteen years old and hungering deeply for books that, like the conspiracy theory at the heart of Eco’s novel, had “something to do with everything.” Looking back, I can see its limitations more clearly, and as I’ve said before, I’m afraid it’s been something of a dead end for me as a writer. Yet for better or worse, it’s influenced just about everything I’ve done since, most notably The Icon Thief, and it remains a work of exquisite wit and ingenuity. Aside from my own drafts, it’s the novel I’ve read the most—perhaps twenty times, mostly before my eighteenth birthday—although that record will probably be broken one day, possibly by The Silence of the Lambs.
The next book on the list is Labyrinths, at least the section devoted to short fiction. (Sad to say, but as much as I love many of Borges’s other essays, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”) Borges, like Eco, is primarily a writer of ideas, but he’s distinguished by greater precision and originality, and by a style that can seem curiously digressive on the paragraph level but intensely focused as a whole. If this is a paradox, it’s only the first of many that Borges inspires, and I suspect that he’s still rewiring my brain, years after I first read “The Library of Babel.” These days, the stories that I revisit the most include “The Immortal,” “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” and of course “Death and the Compass,” which is one of those works of art, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that I seem fated to constantly rewrite in one way or another. (Interestingly, I realize only now that I got into both Eco and Borges, back in my early teens, because of the entries devoted to their work in Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s great Dictionary of Imaginary Places. I should dig up a copy of that sometime.)
My last book is probably the third edition of The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher. This might seem like a strange choice, since I’ve always been a creature of the city, and it wasn’t until my recent trip to Peru and Bolivia that I did any backpacking at all. Yet Fletcher’s book seized my imagination when I discovered it at the age of ten, and I still love it more than almost any other, partly because of Fletcher’s wonderfully amusing and intelligent style, but also because of his vision of life. The world of The Complete Walker is one of remarkable order and simplicity, in which the pack becomes a self-contained house on your back, its weight pared, its pockets organized, its every item meticulously accounted for. Read as a straight guidebook for backpacking, it’s the best there is; read as an allegory for rigorous self-sufficiency, pursued with equal amounts of poetry and common sense, it’s the equal of Walden, and its solutions to our culture’s current predicament are even more accessible than Thoreau’s.
The runners up on my list would include many books that you’ve heard me talk about before: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Art of Fiction, The Biographical Dictionary of Film, and Roger Ebert’s collected reviews, circa 1987, among others. And the remarkable thing about these books is how much remains to be read. I suspect that there are still a few Sherlock Holmes stories I haven’t read yet (maybe “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place?”), and while Labyrinths is a slim volume, there are still a few essays I haven’t touched, or at least don’t remember. Whole sections of Foucault’s Pendulum have long since fallen out of memory, and I can’t say for sure that I’ve explored every last nook of The Complete Walker. And I could spend a lifetime finding new things in Proust alone. In the end, it gives me a strange sort of comfort to know that there’s more out there, even in my most beloved books, waiting to be discovered. What about you?
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.
Warning: Visual spoilers follow. Cover your eyes!
As I’ve noted before, the last line of a novel is almost always of interest, but the last line of a movie generally isn’t. It isn’t hard to understand why: movies are primarily a visual medium, after all, and there’s a sense in which even the most brilliant dialogue can often seem beside the point. And as much the writer in me wants to believe otherwise, audiences don’t go to the movies to listen to words: they go to look at pictures.
Perhaps inevitably, then, there are significantly more great closing shots in film than there are great curtain lines. Indeed, the last shot of nearly every great film is memorable, so the list of finalists can easily expand into the dozens. Here, though, in no particular order, are twelve of my favorites. Click or mouse over for the titles:
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.