Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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The first assembly

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In film editing, there’s a concept known as the first assembly, which the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman—one of my favorite works on creativity of any kind—defines as “all the scenes, as shot, put together in order, as written.” In many cases, the editor starts putting it together using the available footage even as the movie is shooting, and, in a perfect world, he or she would be done with it the week after the production wrapped. It usually takes a lot longer in practice. But the key takeaway is that nobody involved expects it to be any good. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a source of insight into how long the movie will ultimately be and how long it will take to wrestle it into its final form. This information is so valuable that the editor will often make an effort to forecast it during the shoot itself. In describing the process by which Walter Murch edited Cold Mountain, Koppelman writes:

As Murch later explains, “It’s in my job description. I should be able to tell a director—Anthony [Minghella] in this case—that at this pace of shooting the assembly will be over five hours long.” The length of the assembly matters because it may determine whether the director, who is responsible for delivering a film on time and on budget, fulfills his or her contractual obligations. Other crew members and production executives can keep track of production costs and scheduling issues, but only the editor can predict with any certainty if the schedule for editing is accurate, given the amount of work and footage to come. Moreover, the amount of time it takes to edit a motion picture relates, in large part, to the length of the first assembly. The more footage an editor and his or her crew have to begin with, the longer it will take them to assemble it all, and then the longer it will take to pare it all back down to a releasable length.

Film editors are used to thinking in these terms, but it doesn’t always come naturally to writers, although maybe it should—which is one reason why I reread Behind the Seen whenever I start to revise a manuscript. I doubt that many authors think of their rough drafts as first assemblies, but it’s a useful approach. For one thing, it emphasizes the provisional nature of any draft. When you’ve finished your initial pass on an extended writing project, the result is less meaningful in itself than as a source of data about the stage to come. What finished length should you target? How long will it take to get there? These are questions that you should be asking throughout the process, but it isn’t until you have a first assembly that you can get at meaningful answers. (Like Murch, I often find myself uneasily predicting how long the draft will be while I’m still writing, based on how big each section ends up being in relation to the outline, and, like him, I usually find that I’ve underestimated it.) Just as important is the emphasis that it places on reducing the overall length. Writing is cutting, as I’ve said many times before, and thinking of your manuscript as a first assembly reminds you that your primary responsibility is to extract the core of the story out of the deadwood of the draft. As Koppelman vividly puts it:

The orientation over the last six months has been one of accumulation, a building-up of material. Now the engines are suddenly thrown into full reverse. The enterprise will head in the opposite direction, shedding material as expeditiously as possible.

And even if you don’t have a contracted length, it helps to impose one on yourself, simply as a reminder to scrutinize every sentence as critically as possible.

In Murch’s hands, the notion of a first assembly leads to two related concepts that are worth bearing in mind for any kind of narrative work. One is the crush ratio, which refers to the relationship between the footage that comes out of the shoot—which can amount to hundreds of hours—to the length of the first assembly:

[Murch] refers to this volume reduction—compelling the first assembly from all the raw footage—as “the crush ratio,” a term in winemaking that measures the first pressing against the original volume of picked grapes. A second pressing will get the first assembly down to a release print. Much already looks beyond the first crush to the second pressing: getting a five-hour-plus assembly to a releasable length…

From here on out, editing is, for the most part, all about story, structure, character, and length. There were hints, clues, and portents about these big issues as the dailies flew by over the last six months. But now the material has been “crushed” (first assembly), so the process of revision and reordering can begin in earnest. In film editing, however, unlike the winemaker process, none of the raw material is ever really discarded.

In writing, particularly in nonfiction, the equivalent is the proportion between the amount of raw material that you’ve gathered, in the form of primary sources, and the wordage that ends up on the page. A sense of this ratio can be helpful in the dusty middle innings of a project, when you’re trying to figure out how long the work will be, based on the volume of the subject matter. And it can clue you into the organic length that the story wants to take, which you can embrace or resist to various degrees.

Nearly every literary work, like every movie, ought to be as short as you can make it, and Murch’s other major concept has important implications for the second pressing:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

I’ve used the thirty percent factor as a guide for everything I’ve written, along with the admonition—endorsed by Stephen King and Calvin Trillin—that every rough draft should be cut by ten percent. Ideally, the amount that I cut from first draft to the last will fall somewhere between those two extremes, although I often find myself engaging in the sort of open-heart surgery that Murch describes. The numbers are slightly arbitrary, but not entirely. They match well with my experience of practical revision. And when you’re staring at that first assembly and wondering how you’re ever going to cut it down, you’ll take all the help that you can get.

Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2017 at 9:30 am

The faults in our stars

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In his wonderful conversational autobiography Cavett, Dick Cavett is asked about his relationship with Johnny Carson, for whom he served as a writer on The Tonight Show. Cavett replies:

I did work for Carson. We didn’t go fishing together on weekends, and I never slept over at his house, the two of us lying awake in our jammies eating the fudge we had made together, talking of our dreams and hopes and fears. But I found him to be cordial and businesslike, and to have himself well in hand as far as the show as concerned…He is not a man who seems to seek close buddies, and, if he were, the staff of his own television show would not be the ideal place to seek them.

It’s a memorable passage, especially the last line, which seems particularly relevant at a time when our talk show hosts seem eager to seem accessible to everybody, and to depict their writing staffs as one big happy family. When asked to comment on the widespread notion that Carson was “cold,” Cavett responds:

I know very little about Johnny’s personal relationships. I have heard that he has been manipulated and screwed more than once by trusted associates, to the point where he is defensively wary to what some find an excessive degree. I see this as a perfectly reasonable response. It is, I suppose, the sort of thing that happens to a person in show business that makes his former friends say, with heavy disapprobation, “Boy, has he changed.”

Cavett could easily let the subject rest there, but something in the question seems to stick in his mind, and he continues:

While I’m at it, I’ll do a short cadenza on the subject of changing. If you are going to survive in show business, the chances are you are going to change or be changed. Whatever your reasons for going into the business, it is safe to admit they form a mixture of talent, ambition, and neurosis. If you are going to succeed and remain successful, you are going to do it at the expense of a number of people who are clamoring to climb the same rope you are climbing. When you suddenly acquire money, hangers-on, well-wishers, and ill-wishers; when you need to make baffling decisions quickly, to do too much in too little time, to try to lead a personal and a professional life when you can’t seem to find the time for either; when you have to kick some people’s fannies and kiss others’ to get to the point where you won’t need to do either any more; when you have to sort out conflicting advice, distinguish between the treacherous and the faithful or the competent and the merely aggressive, suffer fools when time is short and incompetents when you are in a pinch; and when you add to this the one thing that you don’t get in other professions—the need to be constantly fresh and presentable and at your best just at the times when you are bone-weary, snappish, and depressed; when all these things apply, it is possible that you are going to be altered, changed, and sometimes for the worse.

This is one of the best things I’ve ever read about show business, and if anything, it feels even more insightful today, when we collectively have so much invested in the idea that stars have inner lives that are more or less like our own.

It’s often been said that the reason that television actors have trouble crossing over to the movies is that we expect different things from our stars in either medium. One requires a personality that is larger than life, which allows it to survive being projected onto an enormous screen in a darkened theater; the other is a person whom we’d feel comfortable inviting on a regular basis into our living rooms. If that’s true of scripted television that airs once a week, it’s even more true of the talk shows that we’re expected to watch every night. And now that the online content created by such series has become so central to their success, we’re rapidly approaching this trend’s logical culmination: a talk show host has to be someone whose face we’d be comfortable seeing anywhere, at any time. This doesn’t just apply to television, either. As social media is increasingly called upon to supplement the marketing budgets of big movies, actors are obliged to make themselves accessible—on Twitter, on Instagram, as good sports on Saturday Night Live and in viral videos—to an extent that a star of the old studio system of the forties would have found utterly baffling. Deadline’s writeup of Alien: Covenant is typical:

RelishMix…assessed that Alien: Covenant has a strong social media universe…spread across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube views and Instagram followers…The company also adds that Covenant was challenged by a generally inactive cast, with Empire’s Jussie Smollett being the most popular activated star. Danny McBride across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook counts over 250,000. Michael Fassbender is not socially active.

I love the implication that stars these days need to be “activated,” like cell phones, to be fully functional, as well as the tone of disapproval at the fact that Michael Fassbender isn’t socially active. It’s hard to imagine how that would even look: Fassbender’s appeal as an actor emerges largely from his slight sense of reserve, even in showy parts. But in today’s climate, you could also argue that this has hampered his rise as a star.

And Cavett’s cadenza on change gets at an inherent tension in the way we see our stars, which may not be entirely sustainable. In The Way of the Gun, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who knows more than anyone about survival in Hollywood, the character played by James Caan says: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” Similarly, the only thing you can assume about a movie star, talk show host, or any other figure in show business whose face you recognize is that he or she possesses superhuman levels of ambition. Luck obviously plays a large role in success, as does talent, but both require a preternatural drive, which is the matrix in which giftedness and good fortune have a chance to do their work. Ambition may not be sufficient, but it’s certainly necessary. Yet we persist in believing that stars are accessible and ordinary, when, by definition, they can hardly be other than extraordinary. It’s a myth that emerges from the structural assumptions of social media, a potent advertising tool that demands a kind of perceptual leveling to be effective. I was recently delighted to learn that the notorious feature “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” originated when the editors at Us Magazine had to figure out how to use the cheap paparazzi shots that they could afford to buy on their tiny budget, like a picture of Drew Barrymore picking up a penny. Social media works in much the same way. It creates an illusion of intimacy that is as false as the airbrushed images of the movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age, and it deprives us of some of the distance required for dreams. Whether or not they want to admit it, stars, unlike the rich, truly are different. And I’ll let Cavett have the last word:

Unless you are one of these serene, saintly individuals about whom it can be truly said, “He or she hasn’t changed one bit from the day I knew them in the old house at Elm Street.” This is true mostly of those who have found others to do their dirty work for them. All I’m saying is that your demands and needs change, and if you don’t change with them you don’t survive.

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2017 at 9:53 am

Hollywood in Limbo

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In his essay on the fourth canto of Dante’s Inferno, which describes the circle of Limbo populated by the souls of virtuous pagans, Jorge Luis Borges discusses the notion of the uncanny, which has proven elusively hard to define:

Toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, or the end of the eighteenth, certain adjectives of Saxon or Scottish origin (eerie, uncanny, weird) came into circulation in the English language, serving to define those places or things that vaguely inspire horror…In German, they are perfectly translated by the word unheimlich; in Spanish, the best word may be siniestro.

I was reminded of this passage while reading, of all things, Benjamin Wallace’s recent article in Vanity Fair on the decline of National Lampoon. It’s a great piece, and it captures the sense of uncanniness that I’ve always associated with a certain part of Hollywood. Writing of the former Lampoon head Dan Laikin, Wallace says:

Poor choice of partners proved a recurring problem. Unable to get traction with the Hollywood establishment, Laikin appeared ready to work with just about anyone. “There were those of us who’d been in the business a long time,” [development executive Randi] Siegel says, “who told him not to do business with certain people. Dan had a tendency to trust people that were probably not the best people to trust. I think he wanted to see the good in it and change things.” He didn’t necessarily have much choice. If you’re not playing in Hollywood’s big leagues, you’re playing in its minors, which teem with marginal characters…“Everyone Danny hung out with was sketchy,” says someone who did business with Laikin. Laikin, for his part, blames the milieu: “I’m telling you, I don’t surround myself with these people. I don’t search them out. They’re all over this town.”

Years ago, I attended a talk by David Mamet in which he said something that I’ve never forgotten. Everybody gets a break in Hollywood after twenty-five years, but some get it at the beginning and others at the end, and the important thing is to be the one who stays after everyone else has gone home. Wallace’s article perfectly encapsulates that quality, which I’ve always found fascinating, perhaps because I’ve never had to live with it. It results in a stratum of players in the movie and television industry who haven’t quite broken through, but also haven’t reached the point where they drop out entirely. They end up, in short, in a kind of limbo, which Borges vividly describes in the same essay:

There is is something of the oppressive wax museum about this still enclosure: Caesar, armed and idle; Lavinia, eternally seated next to her father…A much later passage of the Purgatorio adds that the shades of the poets, who are barred from writing, since they are in the Inferno, seek to distract their eternity with literary discussions.

You could say that the inhabitants of Hollywood’s fourth circle of hell, who are barred from actually making movies, seek to distract their eternity by talking about the movies that they wish they could make. It’s easy to mock them, but there’s also something weirdly ennobling about their sheer persistence. They’re survivors in a profession where few of us would have lasted, if we even had the courage to go out there in the first place, and at a time when such people seem more likely to end up at something like the Fyre Festival, it’s nice to see that they still exist in Hollywood.

So what is it about the movie industry that draws and retains such personalities? One of its most emblematic figures is Robert Towne, who, despite his Oscar for Chinatown and his reputation as the dean of American screenwriters, has spent his entire career looking like a man on the verge of his big break. If Hollywood is Limbo, Towne is its Caesar, “armed and idle,” and he’s been there for five decades. Not surprisingly, he has a lot of insight into the nature of that hell. In his interview with John Brady in The Craft of the Screenwriter, Towne says:

You are often involved with a producer who is more interested in making money on the making of the movie than he is on the releasing of the movie. There is a lot of money to be made on the production of a movie, not just in salary, but all sorts of ways that are just not altogether honest. So he’s going to make his money on the making, which is really reprehensible.

“Movies are so difficult that you should really make movies that you feel you absolutely have to make,” Towne continues—and the fact that this happens so rarely implies that the studio ecosystem is set up for something totally different. Towne adds:

It’s easier for a director and an actor to be mediocre and get away with it than it is for a writer. Even a writer who happens to be mediocre has to work pretty hard to get through a script, whereas a cameraman will say to the director, “Where do you think you want to put the camera? You want it here? All right, I’m going to put it here.” In other words, a director can be carried along by the production if he’s mediocre, to some extent; and that’s true of an actor, too.

Towne tosses off these observations without dwelling on them, knowing that there’s plenty more where they came from, but if you put them together, you end up with a pretty good explanation of why Hollywood is the way it is. It’s built to profit from the making of movies, rather than from the movies themselves, which is only logical: if it depended on success at the box office, everybody would be out of a job. The industry also has structures in place that allow people to skate by for years without any particular skills, if they manage to stick to the margins. (In any field where past success is no guarantee of future performance, it’s the tall poppies that get their heads chopped off.) Under such conditions, survival isn’t a matter of talent, but of something much less definable. A brand like National Lampoon, which has been leveled by time but retains some of its old allure, draws such people like a bright light draws fish in the abyss, and it provides a place where they can be studied. The fact that Kato Kaelin makes an appearance in these circles shouldn’t be surprising—he’s the patron saint of those who hang on for decades for no particular reason. And it’s hard not to relate to the hope that sustains them:

“What everyone always does at the company is feel like something big is about to happen, and I want to be here for it,” [creative director] Marty Dundics says. “We’re one hit movie away from, or one big thing away from, being back on top. It’s always this underdog you’re rooting for. And you don’t want to miss it. That big thing that’s about to happen. That was always the mood.”

Extend that mood across a quarter of a century, and you have Hollywood, which also struggles against the realization that Borges perceives in Limbo: “The certainty that tomorrow will be like today, which was like yesterday, which was like every day.”

On a wing and a prayer

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“It was the greatest career move in the history of entertainment,” David Thomson writes in an entry in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. He’s speaking, of course, of Ronald Reagan:

He was a hugely successful and evasive president, as blind to disaster, inquiry, and humiliation as he was to the Constitution. And he was as lucky as he had been a loser in pictures…To paraphrase Gore Vidal, the wisdom and integrity of someone told where to stand and what to say for twenty years were made manifest. The fraudulence of the presidency was revealed so that the office could never quite be honored again.

When I look at these lines now, especially that last sentence, they can start to seem rather quaint. But Reagan has a lot to tell us about Trump, and not simply because he looks so much better by comparison. “An actor is playing the president,” Paul Slansky lamented in The Clothes Have No Emperor, a book—with its painstaking chronology of the unlikely events of the Reagan Administration—that looks increasingly funny, resonant, and frightening these days. Yet the presidency has always been something of a performance. As Malcolm Gladwell recently noted to The Undefeated, most presidents have been white men of a certain age and height:

Viewed statistically it’s absurd. Why would you limit your search for the most important job in the land to this tiny group of people? But it’s an incredibly common thing. We do a category selection before we do individual analysis.

In other words, we cast men who look the part, and then we judge them by how well they fulfill our idea of the role.

Reagan, like Trump, was unusually prone to improvising, or, in Thomson’s words, “deftly feeding the lines and situations of Warner Brothers in the 1940s back into world affairs.” Occasionally, he would tell a story to put himself in a favorable light, as when he made the peculiar claim—to Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal, no less—that he had personally shot documentary film of the concentration camps after World War II. (In reality, Reagan spent the war in Hollywood, where he assisted in processing footage taken by others in Europe.) But sometimes his reasons were harder to pin down. On December 12, 1983, Reagan told a story in a speech to the annual convention of the Congressional Medal Honor Society:

A B‑17 was coming back across the channel from a raid over Europe, badly shot up by anti‑aircraft; the ball turret that hung underneath the belly of the plane had taken a hit. The young ball‑turret gunner was wounded, and they couldn’t get him out of the turret there while flying. But over the channel, the plane began to lose altitude, and the commander had to order, “Bail out.” And as the men started to leave the plane, the last one to leave—the boy, understandably, knowing he was being left behind to go down with the plane, cried out in terror—the last man to leave the plane saw the commander sit down on the floor. He took the boy’s hand and said, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” Congressional Medal of honor posthumously awarded.

Reagan recounted this story on numerous other occasions. But as Lars-Erik Nelson, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News, subsequently determined, after checking hundreds of Medal of Honor citations from World War II: “It didn’t happen. It’s a Reagan story…The president of the United States went before an audience of three hundred real Congressional Medal of Honor winners and told them about a make‑believe Medal of Honor winner.”

There’s no doubt that Reagan, who often grew visibly moved as he recounted this story, believed that it was true, and it has even been used as a case study in the creation of false memories. Nelson traced it back to a scene in the 1944 movie Wing and a Prayer, as well as to a similar apocryphal item that appeared that year in Reader’s Digest. (The same story, incidentally, later became the basis for an episode of Amazing Stories, “The Mission,” starring Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland and directed by Steven Spielberg. Tony Kushner once claimed that Spielberg’s movies “are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism,” and this is the most compelling point I’ve seen in that argument’s favor.) But the most Trumpian aspect of the entire incident was the response of Reagan’s staff. As the Washington Post reported a few days later:

A determined White House is searching the records of American servicemen awarded the Medal of Honor in an effort to authenticate a disputed World War II story President Reagan told last week at a ceremony honoring recipients of the medal…The White House then began checking records to document the episode. Reagan is said by aides to be certain that he saw the citation exactly as he recounted it. The citations are summarized in a book published by Congress, but none of these summaries seem to fit precisely the episode Reagan described, although some are similar…The White House is now attempting to look beyond the summaries to more detailed accounts to see if one of the episodes may be the one Reagan mentioned. “We will find it,” said Misty Church, a researcher for the White House.

They never did. And the image of White House staffers frantically trying to justify something that the president said off the cuff certainly seems familiar today.

But what strikes me the most about this story is that Reagan himself had nothing to gain from it. Most of Trump’s fabrications are designed to make him look better, more successful, or more impressive than he actually is, while Reagan’s fable is rooted in a sentimental ideal of heroism itself. (It’s hard to even imagine a version of this story that Trump might have told, since the most admirable figure in it winds up dead. As Trump might say, he likes pilots who weren’t shot down.) Which isn’t to say that Reagan’s mythologizing isn’t problematic in itself, as Nelson pointed out:

[It’s] the difference between a make-believe pilot, dying nobly and needlessly to comfort a wounded boy, and the real-life pilots, bombardiers and navigators who struggled to save their planes, their crews and themselves and died trying. It’s the difference between war and a war story.

And while this might seem preferable to Trump’s approach, which avoids any talk of sacrifice in favor of scenarios in which everybody wins, or we stick other people with the cost of our actions, it still closes off higher levels of thought in favor of an appeal to emotion. Reagan was an infinitely more capable actor than Trump, and he was much easier to love, which shouldn’t blind us to what they have in common. They were both winging it. And the most characteristic remark to come out of the whole affair is how Larry Speakes, the White House spokesman under Reagan, responded when asked if the account was accurate: “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.”

Lunch with Roger Corman

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The obligatory first-director’s lunch [with producer Roger Corman] before Caged Heat was the most extraordinary hour, just amazing. Not because Roger picked up the tab—although it was a free lunch at Cyrano’s—but for the way he just machine-gunned the rules of directing at me. Like: Find legitimate, motivated excuses for moving the camera but always look for ways to move it. The eyeball, he said, was the organ most utilized in moviegoing. If you don’t keep the eyeball entertained, no way you’ll get the brain involved. Use as many interesting angles as you can. Don’t repeat composition in closeups. Don’t remind the eye it’s already seen the same thing. Make your villain as fascinating as your hero. A one-dimensional villain won’t be as scary as a complicated, interesting one. It was amazing.

Jonathan Demme, quoted in How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime

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April 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

The sound and the furry

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Last week, the podcast 99% Invisible devoted an episode to the editing and sound design tricks used by the makers of nature documentaries. For obvious reasons, most footage in the wild is captured from a distance using zoom lenses, and there’s no equivalent for sound, which means that unless David Attenborough himself is standing in the shot, the noises that you’re hearing were all added later. Foley artists will recreate hoofbeats or the footsteps of lions by running their hands over pits filled with gravel, while animal vocalizations can be taken from sound catalogs or captured by recordists working nowhere near the original shoot. This kind of artifice strikes me as forgivable, but there are times when the manipulation of reality crosses a line. In the fifties Disney documentary White Wilderness, lemmings were shown hurling themselves into the ocean, which required a helping hand: “The producers took the lemmings to a cliff in Alberta and, in some scenes, used a turntable device to throw them off the edge. Not only was it staged, but lemmings don’t even do this on their own. Scientists now know that the idea of a mass lemming suicide ritual is entirely apocryphal.” And then there’s the movie Wolves, which rented wolves from a game farm and filmed them in an artificial den. When Chris Palmer, the director, was asked about the scene at a screening, it didn’t go well:

Palmer’s heart sank, but he decided to come clean, and when he did, he could feel the excitement leave the room. Up to this moment, he had assumed people wouldn’t care. “But they do care,” he realized. “They are assuming they are seeing the truth…things that are authentic and genuine.”

When viewers realize that elements of nature documentaries utilize the same techniques as other genres of filmmaking, they tend to feel betrayed. When you think about the conditions under which such movies are produced, however, it shouldn’t be surprising. If every cut is a lie, as Godard famously said, that’s even more true when you’re dealing with animals in the wild. As David Mamet writes in On Directing Film:

Documentaries take basically unrelated footage and juxtapose it in order to give the viewer the idea the filmmaker wants to convey. They take footage of birds snapping a twig. They take footage of a fawn raising its head. The two shots have nothing to do with each other. They were shot days or years, and miles, apart. And the filmmaker juxtaposes the images to give the viewer the idea of great alertness. The shots have nothing to do with each other. They are not a record of what the protagonist did. They are not a record of how the deer reacted to the bird. They’re basically uninflected images. But they give the viewer the idea of alertness to danger when they are juxtaposed. That’s good filmmaking.

Mamet is trying to make a point about how isolated images—which have little choice but to be “uninflected” when the actors are some birds and a deer—can be combined to create meaning, and he chose this example precisely because the narrative emerges from nothing but that juxtaposition. But it also gets at something fundamental about the grammar of the wildlife documentary itself, which trains us to think about nature in terms of stories. And that’s a fiction in itself.

You could argue that a movie that purports to be educational or “scientific” has no business engaging in artifice of any kind, but in fact, it’s exactly in that context that this sort of manipulation is most justified. Scientific illustration is often used when a subject can’t be photographed directly—as in Ken Marschall’s wonderful paintings for Dr. Robert D. Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic—or when more information can conveyed through an idealized situation. In Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s detailed drawings: “In the case of the vertebrate species, her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can plausibly be included in one scene.” Landry’s compositions of a troop of baboons or a herd of elephants could never have been captured in a photograph, but they get at a truth that is deeper than reality, or at least more useful. As the nature illustrator Jonathan Kingdon writes in Field Notes on Science and Nature:

Even an outline sketch that bears little relationship to the so-called objectivity of a photograph might actually transmit information to another human being more selectively, sometimes even more usefully, than a photograph. For example, a few quick sketches of a hippopotamus allow the difference between sexes, the peculiar architecture of amphibious existence in a giant quadruped, and the combination of biting and antlerlike clashing of enlarged lower jaws to be appreciated at a glance…”Outline drawings”…can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent.

On some level, nature documentaries fall into much the same category, providing us with idealized situations and narratives in order to facilitate understanding. (You could even say that the impulse to find a story in nature is a convenient tool in itself. It’s no more “true” than the stories that we tell about human history, but those narratives, as Walter Pater observes of philosophical theories, “may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.”) If anything, our discomfort with more extreme kinds of artifice has more to do with an implicit violation of the contract between the filmmaker and the audience. We expect that the documentarian will go into the field and shoot hundreds of hours of footage in search of the few minutes—or seconds—that will amaze us. As Jesse David Fox of Vulture wrote of the stunning iguana and snake chase from the new Planet Earth series: “This incredible footage is the result of the kind of extreme luck that only comes with hard work. A camera crew worked from dusk to dawn for weeks filming the exact spot, hoping something would happen, and if it did, that the camera would be in focus.” After shooting the hatchlings for weeks, they finally ended up with their “hero” iguana, and this combination of luck and preparation is what deserves to be rewarded. Renting wolves or throwing lemmings off a cliff seems like a form of cheating, an attempt to fit the story to the script, rather than working with what nature provided. But the boundary isn’t always clear. Every documentary depends on a sort of artificial selection, with the best clips making it into the finished result in a kind of survival of the fittest. But there’s also a lot of intelligent design.

The vision thing

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A few days ago, I was struck by the fact that a mere thirty-one years separated The Thing From Another World from John Carpenter’s The Thing. The former was released on April 21, 1951, the latter on June 25, 1982, and another remake, which I haven’t yet seen, arrived right on schedule in 2011. Three decades might have once seemed like a long time to me, but now, it feels like the blink of an eye. It’s the equivalent of the upcoming remake of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which was itself a reimagining of a movie that had been around for about the same amount of time. I picked these examples at random, and while there isn’t anything magical about a thirty-year cycle, it isn’t hard to understand. It’s enough time for a new generation of viewers to come of age, but not quite long enough for the memory of the earlier movie to fade entirely. (From my perspective, the films of the eighties seem psychologically far closer than those of the seventies, and not just for reasons of style.) It’s also long enough for the original reaction to a movie to be largely forgotten, so that it settles at what feels like its natural level. When The Thing From Another World first premiered, Isaac Asimov thought that it was one of the worst movies ever made. John W. Campbell, on whose original story it was based, was more generous, writing of the filmmakers: “I think they may be right in feeling that the proposition in ‘Who Goes There?’ is a little strong if presented literally in the screen.” Elsewhere, he noted:

I have an impression that the original version directed and acted with equal restraint would have sent some ten percent of the average movie audience into genuine, no-kidding, semi-permanent hysterical screaming meemies…You think that [story] wouldn’t tip an insipid paranoid psychotic right off the edge if it were presented skillfully?

For once, Campbell, whose predictions were only rarely on the mark, was entirely prescient. By the time John Carpenter’s The Thing came out, The Thing From Another World was seen as classic, and the remake, which tracked the original novella much more closely, struck many viewers as an assault on its legacy. One of its most vocal detractors, curiously, was Harlan Ellison, who certainly couldn’t be accused of squeamishness. In a column for L.A. Weekly, Ellison wrote that Carpenter “showed some stuff with Halloween,” but dismissed his later movies as “a swan dive into the potty.” He continued:

The Thing…[is a] depredation [Carpenter] attempts to validate by saying he wanted to pull out of the original John W. Campbell story those treasures undiscovered by the original creators…One should not eat before seeing it…and one cannot eat after having seen it.

If the treasures Carpenter sought to unearth are contained in the special effects lunacy of mannequins made to look like men, splitting open to disgorge sentient lasagna that slaughters for no conceivable reason, then John Carpenter is a raider of the lost ark of Art who ought to be sentenced to a lifetime of watching Neil Simon plays and films.

The Thing did not need to be remade, if the best this fearfully limited director could bring forth was a ripoff of Alien in the frozen tundra, this pointless, dehumanized freeway smashup of grisly special effects dreck, flensed of all characterization, philosophy, subtext, or rationality.

Thirty years later, the cycle of pop culture has come full circle, and it’s fair to say that Carpenter’s movie has eclipsed not just Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby, but even Campbell himself. (Having spent the last year trying to explain what I’m doing to people who aren’t science fiction fans, I can testify that if Campbell’s name resonates with them at all, it’s thanks solely to the 1982 version of The Thing.) Yet the two movies also share surprising affinities, and not simply because Carpenter idolized Hawks. Both seem interested in Campbell’s premise mostly for the visual possibilities that it suggests. In the late forties, the rights to “Who Goes There?” were purchased by RKO at the urging of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, the latter of whom wrote the script, with uncredited contributions from Hecht and Hawks. The direction was credited to Nyby, Hawks’s protégé, but Hawks was always on the set and later claimed most of the director’s fee, leading to much disagreement over who was responsible for the result. In the end, it threw out nearly all of Campbell’s story, keeping only the basic premise of an alien spacecraft discovered by researchers in an icy environment, while shifting the setting from Antarctica to Alaska. The filmmakers were clearly more drawn to the idea of a group of men facing danger in isolation, one of Hawks’s favorite themes, and they lavished greater attention on the stock types that they understood—the pilot, the journalist, the girl—than on the scientists, who were reduced to thankless foils. David Thomson has noted that the central principle of Hawks’s work is that “men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world,” and the contrast has never been more evident than it is here.

And while Hawks isn’t usually remembered as a visual director, The Thing From Another World exists almost entirely as a series of images: the opening titles burning through the screen, the crew standing in a circle on the ice to reveal the shape of the flying saucer underneath, the shock reveal of the alien itself in the doorway. When you account for the passage of time, Carpenter’s version rests on similar foundations. His characters and dialogue are less distinct than Hawks’s, but he also seems to have regarded Campbell’s story primarily as a source of visual problems and solutions. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the images that are burned into my brain from The Thing probably add up to a total of about five minutes: the limits of its technology mean that we only see it in action for a few seconds at a time. But those images, most of which were the work of the special effects prodigy Rob Bottin, are still the best practical effects I’ve ever seen. (It also includes the single best jump scare in the movies, which is taken all but intact from Campbell.) Even after thirty years, its shock moments are so unforgettable that they have a way of overpowering the rest, as they did for Ellison, and neither version ever really approximates the clean narrative momentum of “Who Goes There?” But maybe that’s how it should be. Campbell, for all his gifts, wasn’t primarily a visual writer, and the movies are a visual medium, particularly in horror and science fiction. Both of the classic versions of The Thing are translations from one kind of storytelling to another, and they stick in the imagination precisely to the extent that they depart from the original. They’re works for the eye, not the mind, which may be why the only memorable line in either movie is the final warning in Hawks’s version, broadcast over the airwaves to the world, telling us to watch the skies.

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