Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 2011

The singular destiny of David Fincher

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The most extraordinary thing about last night’s Academy Awards, which were otherwise inexplicably awkward, was the idea that in today’s Hollywood, five men like David Fincher, David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, and Joel and Ethan Coen could be competing for Best Director, with only the unstoppable force of Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech excluding Christopher Nolan from the final slot on that list. It was perhaps inevitable that Hooper would end up playing the spoiler, but despite the outcome, the sight of so many unpredictable, talented, and relatively young directors in one room was enough to make me feel lucky for the chance to watch their careers unfold—and that includes Hooper, as long as last night’s coronation doesn’t lull him into premature complacency. (His next big project, an adaptation of Les Misérables, doesn’t bode especially well.)

That said, David Fincher deserved to win. And one day he will. Of all the directors on that list, he’s the one who seems most capable of making a major movie that can stand with the greatest American films, which is something that I never would have guessed even five years ago. For a long time, Fincher struck me as the most erratic of technical perfectionists, at least as far as my own tastes were concerned: before The Social Network, he had made one of my favorite movies (Zodiac); one of my least favorite (Fight Club); one that was good, but limited (Seven); and several that I can barely remember (The Game, Panic Room, and the rest). But as of last night, he seems capable of anything—aside from the ambitious dead end of Benjamin Button, which only proves that Fincher needs to stay away from conventional prestige projects.

Because the crucial thing about Fincher is that his technical proficiency is the least interesting or distinctive thing about him. The world is full of directors who can do marvelous things with digital video, who know how to choreograph physical and verbal violence, and who display a fanatic’s obsession with art direction, sound, and special effects. What sets Fincher apart is his willingness, which even Nolan lacks, to lavish these considerable resources on small, surprising stories. Many of my favorite movies, from Ikiru to The Insider, are the result of a great director training his gifts on subjects that might seem better suited for television. The Social Network, which grows deeper and sadder the more often I watch it, belongs proudly to that tradition. And I have a feeling that an Oscar would have made it much harder for Fincher to continue along that path.

A win last night might also have calcified Fincher’s perfectionist habits into mere self-indulgence, which is a risk that will never entirely go away. Fincher has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to elicit fine performances from his actors, but his approach to filmmaking, with its countless takes, has more often been an emotional dead end for directors. In On Directing Film, David Mamet sums up the traditional case against multiple takes:

I’ve seen directors do as many as sixty takes of a shot. Now, any director who’s watched dailies knows that after the third or fourth take he can’t remember the first; and on the set, when shooting the tenth take, you can’t remember the purpose of the scene. And after shooting the twelfth, you can’t remember why you were born. Why do directors, then, shoot this many takes? Because they don’t know what they want to take a picture of. And they’re frightened.

Fincher, of course, is more likely to ask for a hundred takes of a shot, let alone sixty. So far, the results speak for themselves: The Social Network and Zodiac are two of the most beautifully acted ensemble movies of the last decade. They’re so good, in fact, that they’ve singlehandedly forced me to rethink my own feelings about multiple takes in the digital era. In the old days, when  film stock was too expensive to be kept running for long, the need to stop and restart the camera after every take quickly sucked all the energy out of a set. Now that videotape is essentially free, multiple takes become more of a chance to play and explore, and can result in acting of impressive nuance and subtlety. (In a recent post, David Bordwell does a nice job of highlighting how good Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in The Social Network really is.) But they’re only useful if the director remains hungry enough to channel these takes into unforgettable stories. An Oscar, I suspect, would have taken much of that hunger away.

My gut feeling, after last night, is that if Fincher continues to grow, his potential is limitless. Over the past few years, he has already matured from a director who, early on, seemed interested in design above all else to an artist whose technique is constantly in the service of story, as well as an authentic interest in his characters and the worlds they inhabit. This mixture of humanism (but not sentimentality) and technical virtuosity is precious and rare, and it’s enough to put Fincher at the head of his generation of filmmakers, as long as he continues to follow his gift into surprising places. At first glance, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seems like a step back, but at least it affords the range of tones and locations that he needs. And if last night’s loss forces him to search all the more urgently for great material, then perhaps we’re all better off in the end.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2011 at 7:47 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

Tagged with

The Soda Network

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Yes, I’ve got a novel to write, and a lot of other things on my plate at the moment, but somehow it seemed much more important to spend the weekend making clever name cards for my Oscar snacks:


And as a special bonus for readers of this blog, here’s the original artwork for The Soda Network, in case you want to make the drinks table at your Oscar party especially classy:

Happy Oscar night!

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2011 at 9:41 am

Posted in Movies

Tagged with , ,

Jonathan Franzen on transparency

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When I was younger, the main struggle was to be a “good writer.” Now I more or less take my writing abilities for granted, although this doesn’t mean I always write well. And, by a wide margin, I’ve never felt less self-consciously preoccupied with language than I did when I was writing Freedom. Over and over again, as I was producing chapters, I said to myself, “This feels nothing like the writing I did for twenty years—this just feels transparent.”…I was admittedly somewhat conscious that this was a good sign—that it might mean that I was doing something different, pressing language more completely into the service of providing transparent access to the stories I was telling and to the characters in those stories. But it still felt like a leap into the void.

Jonathan Franzen, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2011 at 10:36 am

Roger Ebert: An Appreciation (Part 2)

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As I mentioned yesterday, no other writer has influenced the way I watch the movies as much as Roger Ebert. When I write about film, or indeed about much of anything, I’m really channeling three distinct voices: Ebert, Pauline Kael, and David Thomson. Kael is the voice of enthusiasm, a reckless love of being alone in the dark; Thomson, of irony, perversity, and a sense of how strange the experience of moviegoing really is; but Ebert provides the indispensable foundation, a kind of practical common sense about how movies really work. Unlike Kael, who could afford to be selective, and Thomson, who is more of a curmudgeon than a regular critic, Ebert is a real journalist, perhaps the last of the greats. Aside from breaks for health reasons, he’s written about essentially every movie to come out in Chicago over the past five decades, and many others besides—and on deadline. It’s no surprise, then, that his body of work is both so rich and so gloriously makeshift, with an underlying pragmatism embodied in Ebert’s Law:

A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.

In other words, no genre or subject can be dismissed out of hand. A film deserves to be judged according to its own intentions, which is why Major Payne and The Godfather Part II both get three stars, and why a critic who sees ten or more movies a week needs to keep an open mind. Yet too much objectivity is also a mistake. All decent criticism is written in the first person—it’s the closest most of us can get to honest autobiography—and at its best, Ebert’s body of work is like a lunchtime conversation with a man I’ve come to think of as a friend. Perhaps because of his television shows and public appearances, I feel that know Ebert in a way that I don’t know Kael or Thomson, much less Manohla Dargis. Ebert flourished at a time when a critic could still be a colossus, as well as a companion. (I still remember where I was when I learned that Gene Siskel had died.)

In the end, though, Ebert deserves to speak for himself. My own favorite Ebert review is probably that of the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, a nominally positive three-star review which, when combined with second thoughts and a trip to Cannes, resulted in an unusual amount of introspection. I also like the snapshot of his life that we get in his review of Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy—and can there be any greater proof of how these reviews keep otherwise forgotten movies alive? A few more favorites, plucked essentially at random, include Infra-Man, The Life Aquatic, and, moving down the list, Big Foot and Basic Instinct 2. And there are thousands more, on movies good, bad, and consigned to oblivion. It’s as rich a body of work as any living writer can claim. And it changed my life.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2011 at 7:44 am

Roger Ebert: An Appreciation (Part 1)

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Tomorrow night, my wife and I will be attending the Chicago Symphony’s Tribute to Roger Ebert, where orchestral selections will be played from many of Ebert’s favorite movies, including Casablanca, The Third Man, and 2001. This would be an exceptional evening in any case, but it’s especially meaningful to me, because Ebert, who is scheduled to be there in person, has had more influence on how I think about the movies than any other film critic, and more impact on my life than most writers of any kind. Which isn’t to say that we don’t often strongly disagree—you could start with his one-star review for Blue Velvet and work your way back from there. But a critic who always agrees with you isn’t much of a critic, and Ebert’s opinions, whether I share them or not, have been a central part of my life for as long as I’ve been able to read.

When I was seven years old, I stole Ebert’s Movie Home Companion from my parents’ bookshelf, and haven’t given it back since. Over time, my first copy, which would have been of this edition, grew so tattered that both the front and back covers fell off. (Judging from the discussion on this article on the AV Club, this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.) I absorbed Ebert’s thoughts on Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and hundreds of other films years before I had the chance to see them myself, to the point where I’m often able to recognize a movie on television solely because I’ve memorized his review. His discussion of the Sight & Sound poll was my first exposure to the idea of an artistic canon, an idea that has guided much of my life ever since, for better or worse. And I certainly learned a lot from his reviews of such films as Emmanuelle and Caligula, even if I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

The result was that—much the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress did for George Bernard Shaw—Ebert’s reviews formed a sort of cultural bedrock in my brain, teaching me how to write and think, as well as how to watch movies. And it was through his work that I began to realize that the life of a critic is nothing less than the best possible excuse for an extended conversation with the world. When you consider the length of Ebert’s career—which runs from Bonnie and Clyde through The Social Network and beyond—it becomes obvious that no other writer of the past five decades has engaged with so many artists and cultural issues for such a large audience. And it’s no wonder that Ebert’s other published work, which ranges from walks in London to the Phantom of the Opera to the joys of the rice cooker, is so beguilingly diverse: after a lifetime spent on the front lines of the culture, he’s emerged as complete a human being as they come.

But his greatest legacy, of course, is what he’s taught us about the movies. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking more closely at Ebert’s reviews, which have profoundly influenced the way I think about all works of art. (In the meantime, here’s a classic article about his wonderful house.)

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