Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 2011

My ten great movies #8: Citizen Kane

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“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” writes Charles Foster Kane to his guardian, Mr. Thatcher, only to confess in the following scene: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper—I just try everything I can think of.” In those two lines, Citizen Kane captures the romance of what it means to be young, gifted, and boundless of ambition, and in particular, what it meant to be Orson Welles, twenty-five, already famous, and given the keys to the greatest train set a boy ever had. This honeymoon wouldn’t last forever, of course, and Welles barely survived two more years in Hollywood. But the memory of those days lives on, in Kane and in much of The Magnificent Ambersons, with Kane in particular serving as both the most lasting movie ever made in America and a bittersweet emblem of what might have been.

Kane is famously the film that inspired the careers of more directors than any other, and even for those of us who express ourselves in other ways, it’s a shining example of what can be accomplished when respect for the lessons of craft is combined with a reckless disregard of the rules. Most of the great innovations in the arts and sciences come when an individual of genius changes fields, and with Welles, with his unsurpassed training in theater and radio, Hollywood not only got a genuine boy wonder, but gave him the freedom and resources he needed to do great work—a lucky combination that would never happen again. Welles came to RKO with a willingness to try everything once and, more importantly, to listen to the likes of Gregg Toland and benefit from their skill and experience. Without this bedrock of craft, Kane would be a mess of inspirations; without inspiration, it would be pointless technique. But for once, blessedly, a Hollywood film had both. And the movies would never be the same.

Tomorrow: The best of all recent Hollywood movies.

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November 30, 2011 at 10:00 am

My ten great movies #9: Seven Samurai

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As I’ve mentioned before, this is my favorite screenplay of all time, a story so organic, simple, and rich with possibility that it’s astonishing that it took half a century of cinema for a great director to discover. At well over three hours, this is a long movie, yet it never seems padded or excessive: every scene flows naturally from the premise, until it becomes a film that feels like it could go on forever, like life itself. And yet the ending, with its miraculous montages of men, mud, horses, and rain, remains one of the most satisfying ever shot. Like many great works of art, from the plays of Shakespeare on down, Seven Samurai has it both ways: we’re both exhilarated by its vision of the samurai code and keenly aware, in the end, of the emptiness of the ensuing victory. “Again we’ve survived,” Shimura says to his companion, only to add, in the very last scene: “And again we’ve lost.”

It also boasts one of the deepest supporting casts in all of movies. Figures glimpsed only for a moment—like the merchant who tries to sell buns to the farmers, then ends up grimly eating them himself—are vividly sketched with an almost Shakespearean depth and economy, and the major characters manage to be both archetypal and endearingly human. Mifune, deservedly, receives most of the attention, but when I think of this film, my thoughts turn first to Takashi Shimura’s Kambei, wise enough to know that this is nothing but a fool’s errand, yet still strangely drawn to the joy of war and combat. Only a year separates his performance here from Ikiru, a range great enough that it makes you wish for a study that would do for Kurosawa and Shimura what The Emperor and the Wolf did for Mifune—although the core of their collaboration is already visible onscreen, unforgettably, whenever Shimura runs a hand across his newly shaved head.

Tomorrow: The most enduring of all Hollywood films, and a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2011 at 10:00 am

My ten great movies #10: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

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As someone who is deeply fascinated by the lives of artists under pressure, it’s hard for me to separate Star Trek II from the legend behind its creation, which is one of the most interesting of all Hollywood stories. The first Star Trek film had been a financial success, but also grossly expensive, and hardly beloved, prompting producer Harve Bennett to turn over the reins to the least likely man imaginable: Nicholas Meyer, the prickly author of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and the furthest thing in the world from a Trekkie. Yet Meyer’s skepticism about the project allowed him to slash the budget, swiftly assemble a fine script from the bones of several unusable drafts, and reinvigorate the entire franchise with some badly missed humor and a nautical sense of adventure—a classic example of how detachment can be more valuable to an artist than passionate involvement.

Of course, none of this would matter if the movie itself weren’t so extraordinary—”wonderful dumb fun,” as Pauline Kael said in the New Yorker, and so much more. This is, in fact, pop entertainment of the highest order, a movie of great goofiness and excitement whose occasional lapses into camp make it all the more endearing. It feels big, but its roots in television and classic Hollywood—as embodied by star Ricardo Montalban—lend it an appealing modesty, a determination to give the audience a good time that smacks less of space opera than relaxed operetta. Like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it’s a studio film that ends up saying more than it ever intended about the reasons we love the movies in the first place. And it still lights up my imagination. As I’ve probably said before, Star Trek: The Motion Picture makes me want to be a special effects designer, but Wrath of Khan makes me want to join Starfleet.

Tomorrow: The most perfect story in the movies.

Jonathan Franzen on playing with chronology

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Once I’d finally figured out that a large novel could be constructed out of multiple short novels, each of them building to a crisis in which the main character can no longer escape reality, I had an opportunity to play with time management—how far back into the past to plunge after the opening section, how to parcel out the gradual return toward the present, where to situate the meeting of the backstory with the present story. I sketched out in pencil how the chronology would work in each of the five novellas, and I was pleased to have a different structure for each of them. I also liked the way the graphs looked: A horizontal line, representing the present action, was interrupted by chunks of backstory which would rise at various slopes like something surfacing. Like a missile rising up out of the past to intersect with a plane flying horizontally in the present.

Jonathan Franzen, to the Paris Review

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November 27, 2011 at 8:00 am

Maurice Sendak on the gods of art

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Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain—I don’t need to. I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart. Or if I walk in the woods and I see an animal, the purpose of my life was to see that animal. I can recollect it, I can notice it. I’m here to take note of. And that is beyond my ego, beyond anything that belongs to me, an observer, an observer.

Maurice Sendak, to NOW

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November 26, 2011 at 8:00 am

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My ten great movies: An introduction

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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.

Written by nevalalee

November 25, 2011 at 10:00 am

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 25, 2011 at 8:00 am

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