Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 5th, 2014

The confidence game

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Mastery comes in all shapes and sizes, but we’re often most impressed by the kind that announces itself to us from the start. Take Beethoven’s Emperor concerto. From that first, massive orchestral chord, followed by the piano’s cascading response, we know that we’re in the hands of a composer who is perfectly aware that he’s unlike any other man who ever lived. (Whenever I hear it, I think of a slightly restructured version of that famous quote from Douglas Adams: “Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe, Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human, and Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven.”) The same is true of the opening of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, with its threefold declaration of purpose that manages, even after endless listenings, to seem both inevitable and like nothing else you’ve heard before. And in both cases, it’s the expression of the composer’s confidence that grabs the listener, an intuitive sense that only a lifetime of thought and exploration could have resulted in such monumental simplicity.

In film, the same impulse sometimes lies behind the opening shot, which serves as a statement of intention. Kubrick—a meticulously intelligent craftsman who also loved showy, obvious effects—always strove to seize the audience from the first frame, and each of his films from 2001 onward begins with an unforgettable image. As in most other ways, Kubrick was ahead of his time: movies these days seem increasingly obsessed with their first five minutes, to the point where they dispense with opening credits altogether in their rush to deliver that first big moment. This is largely a response to the fact that we’re just as likely to catch movies at home than to see them in a theater. Once we’ve paid for our tickets and are seated in the dark with a row of strangers between ourselves and the exit, we’re likely to give a movie the benefit of the doubt for at least the length of the first act. If we’re watching it streaming on Netflix, we’re more liable to treat it like a television show, which has only a few minutes to grab our attention. And if it fails, we turn to our phones.

Stanley Kubrick

As a result, movies and television shows have become more front-loaded than ever, and the same trends—the omission of main titles, the emphasis on an early narrative hook, the need to blow us away with action and violence in the opening scene—can be observed in both. It’s even started to affect the novels we read, which, as Jonathan Franzen once noted, are no longer competing just with other books for the reader’s attention. Even literary fiction is increasingly expected to read like a mainstream bestseller; the opening of a book like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is all but indistinguishable from that of a paperback thriller. Yet this can also be a narrative miscalculation. Playwrights have known for a long time that it’s a mistake to start the play on a moment of high drama: you can afford to spend a few minutes introducing the viewer to your world before disrupting it, and a dramatic development holds more weight if you’ve established a baseline of normality. Start off too fast, and you’ve got nowhere to go, and the rest of the play can feel weighted down by the depressing realization that it’s never going to top its opening moments.

In his indispensable guidebook Adventures of the Screen Trade, William Goldman offers a long sample of a misconceived opening for a screenplay—a beautiful girl running for her life through a forest to escape a disfigured giant—and sums up his analysis of its faults by saying: “Well, among other things, it’s television.” But it’s even worse than that. Listen to the Emperor concerto again, and you know that it opens the way it does because Beethoven is superbly confident in his own gifts. The first twenty minutes of your average action movie speaks to the opposite, a kind of desperation, concealed by gunshots and relentless cuts, that the audience’s attention will stray for even a minute. It’s the difference between real confidence and, well, a confidence game. An aggressive beginning can be fine in its place, but it isn’t speed or even technical proficiency to which viewers respond: it’s that confidence. And they can sense its absence even through a flurry of activity, even as they sense its presence in openings as leisurely as those of Tokyo Story or The Magic Mountain or The Goldberg Variations. Show them confidence, and they’ll follow you anywhere, but without it, not even the loudest opening chord in the world can convince them to listen.

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Written by nevalalee

August 5, 2014 at 7:30 am

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