Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Critical thinking

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When you’re a technology reporter, as my wife was for many years, you quickly find that your subjects have certain expectations about the coverage that you’re supposed to be providing. As Benjamin Wallace wrote a while back in New York magazine:

“A smart young person in the Valley thinks being a reporter is basically being a PR person,” says one tech journalist. “Like, We have news to share, we’d like to come and tell you about it.” Reporters who write favorably about companies receive invitations to things; critics don’t. “They’re very thin-skinned,” says another reporter. “On Wall Street, if you call them a douchebag, they’ve already heard seventeen worse things in the last hour. Here, if you criticize a company, you’re criticizing the spirit of innovation.”

Mike Isaac of the New York Times recently made a similar observation in an interview with Recode: “One of the perceptions [of tech entrepreneurs] is A) Well, the press is slanted against us in some way [and] B) Why aren’t they appreciating how awesome we are? And like all these other things…I think a number of companies, including and especially Uber, get really upset when you don’t recognize the gravitas of their genius and the scope of how much they have changed.” Along the same lines, you also sometimes hear that reporters should be “supporting” local startups—which essentially means any company not based in Silicon Valley or New York—or businesses run by members of traditionally underrepresented groups.

As a result, critical coverage of any kind can be seen as a betrayal. But it isn’t a reporter’s job to “support” anything, whether it’s a city, the interests of particular stakeholders, or the concept of innovation itself—and this applies to much more than just financial journalism. In a perceptive piece for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson notes that similar pressures apply to movie critics. She begins with the example of Ocean’s 8, which Cate Blanchett, one of the film’s stars, complained had been reviewed through a “prism of misunderstanding” by film critics, who are mostly white and male. And Wilkinson responds with what I think is a very important point:

They’re not wrong about the makeup of the pool of critics. And this discussion about the demographic makeup of film critics is laudable and necessary. But the way it’s being framed has less helpful implications: that the people whose opinions really count are those whom the movie is “for.” Not only does that ignore how most movies actually make their money, but it says a lot about Hollywood’s attitude toward criticism, best revealed in Blanchett’s statement. She compared studio’s “support” of a film—which means, essentially, a big marketing budget—with critics’ roles in a film’s success, which she says are a “really big part of the equation.” In that view, critics are mainly useful in how they “support” movies the industry thinks they should like because of the demographic group and audience segment into which they fall.

This has obvious affinities to the attitude that we often see among tech startups, perhaps because they’re operating under similar conditions as Hollywood. They’re both risky, volatile fields that depend largely on perception, which is shaped by coverage by a relatively small pool of influencers. It’s true of books as well. And it’s easy for all of them to fall into the trap of assuming that critics who aren’t being supportive somehow aren’t doing their jobs.

But that isn’t true, either. And it’s important to distinguish between the feelings of creators, who can hardly be expected to be objective, and those of outside players with an interest in an enterprise’s success or failure, which can be emotional as much as financial. There are certain movies or startups that many of us want to succeed because of what they say about an entire industry or culture. Black Panther was one, and it earned a reception that exceeded the hopes of even the most fervent fan. A Wrinkle in Time was another, and it didn’t, although I liked that movie a lot. But it isn’t a critic’s responsibility to support a work of art for such reasons. As Wilkinson writes:

Diversifying that pool [of critics] won’t automatically lead to the results the industry might like. Critics who belong to the same demographic group shouldn’t feel as if they need to move in lockstep with a movie simply because someone like them is represented in it, or because the film’s marketing is aimed at them. Women critics shouldn’t feel as if they need to ‘support’ a film telling a woman’s story, any more than men who want to appear to be feminists should. Black and Latinx and Asian critics shouldn’t be expected to love movies about black and Latinx and Asian people as a matter of course.

Wilkinson concludes: “The best reason to diversify criticism is so that when Hollywood puts out movies for women, or movies for people of color, it doesn’t get lazy.” I agree—and I’d add that a more diverse pool of critics would also discourage Hollywood from being lazy when it makes movies for anyone.

Diversity, in criticism as in anything else, is good for the groups directly affected, but it’s equally good for everybody. Writing of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko, the author Eve L. Ewing recently said on Twitter: “Hire Asian-American writers/Korean-American writers/Korean folks with different diasporic experiences to write about Pachinko, be on panels about it, own reviews of it, host online roundtables…And then hire them to write about other books too!” That last sentence is the key. I want to know what Korean-American writers have to say about Pachinko, but I’d be just as interested in their thoughts on, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. And the first step is acknowledging what critics are actually doing, which isn’t supporting particular works of art, advancing a cause, or providing recommendations. It’s writing reviews. When most critics write anything, they thinking primarily about the response it will get from readers and how it fits into their career as a whole. You may not like it, but it’s pointless to ignore it, or to argue that critics should be held to a standard that differs from anyone else trying to produce decent work. (I suppose that one requirement might be a basic respect or affection for the medium that one is criticizing, but that isn’t true of every critic, either.) Turning to the question of diversity, you find that expanding the range of critical voices is worthwhile in itself, just as it is for any other art form, and regardless of its impact on other works. When a piece of criticism or journalism is judged for its effects beyond its own boundaries, we’re edging closer to propaganda. Making this distinction is harder than it looks, as we’ve recently seen with Elon Musk, who, like Trump, seems to think that negative coverage must be the result of deliberate bias or dishonesty. Even on a more modest level, a call for “support” may seem harmless, but it can easily turn into a belief that you’re either with us or against us. And that would be a critical mistake.

Inside the sweatbox

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Yesterday, I watched a remarkable documentary called The Sweatbox, which belongs on the short list of films—along with Hearts of Darkness and the special features for The Lord of the Rings—that I would recommend to anyone who ever thought that it might be fun to work in the movies. It was never officially released, but a copy occasionally surfaces on YouTube, and I strongly suggest watching the version available now before it disappears yet again. For the first thirty minutes or so, it plays like a standard featurette of the sort that you might have found on the second disc of a home video release from two decades ago, which is exactly what it was supposed to be. Its protagonist, improbably, is Sting, who was approached by Disney in the late nineties to compose six songs for a movie titled Kingdom of the Sun. (One of the two directors of the documentary is Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, a producer whose other credits include Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Moon.) The feature was conceived by animator Roger Allers, who was just coming off the enormous success of The Lion King, as a mixture of Peruvian mythology, drama, mysticism, and comedy, with a central plot lifted from The Prince and the Pauper. After two years of production, the work in progress was screened for the first time for studio executives. As always, the atmosphere was tense, but no more than usual, and it inspired the standard amount of black humor from the creative team. As one artist jokes nervously before the screening: “You don’t want them to come in and go, ‘Oh, you know what, we don’t like that idea of the one guy looking like the other guy. Let’s get rid of the basis of the movie.’ This would be a good time for them to tell us.”

Of course, that’s exactly what happened. The top brass at Disney hated the movie, production was halted, and Allers left the project that was ultimately retooled into The Emperor’s New Groove, which reused much of the design work and finished animation while tossing out entire characters—along with most of Sting’s songs—and introducing new ones. It’s a story that has fascinated me ever since I first heard about it, around the time of the movie’s initial release, and I’m excited beyond words that The Sweatbox even exists. (The title of the documentary, which was later edited down to an innocuous special feature for the DVD, refers to the room at the studio in Burbank in which rough work is screened.) And while the events that it depicts are extraordinary, they represent only an extreme case of the customary process at Disney and Pixar, at least if you believe the ways in which that the studio likes to talk about itself. In a profile that ran a while back in The New Yorker, the director Andrew Stanton expressed it in terms that I’ve never forgotten:

“We spent two years with Eve getting shot in her heart battery, and Wall-E giving her his battery, and it never worked. Finally—finally—we realized he should lose his memory instead, and thus his personality…We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.

This statement appeared in print six months before the release of Stanton’s live action debut John Carter, which implies that this method is far from infallible. And the drama behind The Emperor’s New Groove was unprecedented even by the studio’s relentless standards. As executive Thomas Schumacher says at one point: “We always say, Oh, this is normal. [But] we’ve never been through this before.”

As it happens, I watched The Sweatbox shortly after reading an autobiographical essay by the artist Cassandra Smolcic about her experiences in the “weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid” environment of Pixar. It’s a long read, but riveting throughout, and it makes it clear that the issues at the studio went far beyond the actions of John Lasseter. And while I could focus on any number of details or anecdotes, I’d like to highlight one section, about the firing of director Brenda Chapman halfway through the production of Brave:

Curious about the downfall of such an accomplished, groundbreaking woman, I began taking the company pulse soon after Brenda’s firing had been announced. To the general population of the studio — many of whom had never worked on Brave because it was not yet in full-steam production — it seemed as though Brenda’s firing was considered justifiable. Rumor had it that she had been indecisive, unconfident and ineffective as a director. But for me and others who worked closely with the second-time director, there was a palpable sense of outrage, disbelief and mourning after Brenda was removed from the film. One artist, who’d been on the Brave story team for years, passionately told me how she didn’t find Brenda to be indecisive at all. Brenda knew exactly what film she was making and was very clear in communicating her vision, the story artist said, and the film she was making was powerful and compelling. “From where I was sitting, the only problem with Brenda and her version of Brave was that it was a story told about a mother and a daughter from a distinctly female lens,” she explained.

Smolcic adds: “During the summer of 2009, I personally worked on Brave while Brenda was still in charge. I likewise never felt that she was uncertain about the kind of film she was making, or how to go about making it.”

There are obvious parallels between what happened to Allers and to Chapman, which might seem to undercut the notion that the latter’s firing had anything to do with the fact that she was a woman. But there are a few other points worth raising. One is that no one seems to have applied the words “indecisive, unconfident, and ineffective” to Allers, who voluntarily left the production after his request to push back the release date was denied. And if The Sweatbox is any indication, the situation of women and other historically underrepresented groups at Disney during this period was just as bad as it was at Pixar—I counted exactly one woman who speaks onscreen, for less than fifteen seconds, and all the other faces that we see are white and male. (After Sting expresses concern about the original ending of The Emperor’s New Groove, in which the rain forest is cut down to build an amusement park, an avuncular Roy Disney confides to the camera: “We’re gonna offend somebody sooner or later. I mean, it’s impossible to do anything in the world these days without offending somebody.” Which betrays a certain nostalgia for a time when no one, apparently, was offended by anything that the studio might do.) One of the major players in the documentary is Thomas Schumacher, the head of Disney Animation, who has since been accused of “explicit sexual language and harassment in the workplace,” according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. In the footage that we see, Schumacher and fellow executive Peter Schneider don’t come off particularly well, which may just be a consequence of the perspective from which the story is told. But it’s equally clear that the mythical process that allows such movies to “suck” for three out of four years is only practicable for filmmakers who look and sound like their counterparts on the other side of the sweatbox, which grants them the necessary creative freedom to try and fail repeatedly—a luxury that women are rarely granted. What happened to Allers on Kingdom of the Sun is still astounding. But it might be even more noteworthy that he survived for as long as he did.

The master of time

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I saw Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah for the first time seven years ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Those ten hours amounted to one of the most memorable moviegoing experiences of my life, and Lanzmann, who died yesterday, was among the most intriguing figures in film. “We see him in the corners of some of his shots, a tall, lanky man, informally dressed, chain-smoking,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review, and it’s in that role—the dogged investigator of the Holocaust, returning years afterward to the scene of the crime—that he’ll inevitably be remembered. He willed Shoah into existence at a period when no comparable models for such a project existed, and the undertaking was so massive that it took over the rest of his career, much of which was spent organizing material that had been cut, which produced several huge documentaries in itself. And the result goes beyond genre. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody observes that Lanzmann’s film is “a late flowering of his intellectual and cultural milieu—existentialism and the French New Wave,” and he even compares it to Breathless. He also memorably describes the methods that Lanzmann used to interview former Nazis:

The story of the making of Shoah is as exciting as a spy novel…Lanzmann hid [the camera] in a bag with a tiny hole for the lens, and had one of his cameramen point it at an unsuspecting interview subject. He hid a small microphone behind his tie. A van was rigged with video and radio equipment that rendered the stealthy images and sounds on a television set. “What qualms should I have had about misleading Nazis, murderers?” Lanzmann recently told Der Spiegel. “Weren’t the Nazis themselves masters of deception?” He believed that his ruses served the higher good of revealing the truth—and perhaps accomplished symbolic acts of resistance after the fact. As he explained in 1985, “I’m killing them with the camera.”

The result speaks for itself, and it would be overwhelming even if one didn’t know the story of how it was made. (If the world were on fire and I could only save a few reels from the entire history of cinema, one of them would be Lanzmann’s devastating interview of the barber Abraham Bomba.) But it’s worth stressing the contrast between the film’s monumental quality and the subterfuge, tenacity, and cleverness that had to go into making it, which hint at Lanzmann’s secret affinities with someone like Werner Herzog. Brody writes:

The most audacious thing Lanzmann did to complete Shoah was, very simply, to take his time. His initial backers expected him to deliver a two-hour film in eighteen months; his response was to lie—to promise that it would be done as specified, and then to continue working as he saw fit. Lanzmann borrowed money (including from [Simone de] Beauvoir) to keep shooting, and then spent five years obsessively editing his three hundred and fifty hours of footage. He writes that he became the “master of time,” which he considered to be not only an aspect of creative control but also one of aesthetic morality. He sensed that there was just “one right path” to follow, and he set a rule for himself: “I refused to carry on until I had found it, which could take hours or days, on one occasion I am not likely to forget it took three weeks.”

Shoah is like no other movie ever made, but it had to be made just like every other movie, except even more so—which is a fact that all documentarians and aspiring muckrakers should remember. After one interview, Brody writes, “Lanzmann and his assistant were unmasked, attacked, and bloodied by the subject’s son and three young toughs.” Lanzmann spent a month in the hospital and went back to work.

When it finally came out in 1985, the film caused a sensation, but its reach might have been even greater three decades later, if only because the way in which we watch documentaries has changed. Lanzmann rightly conceived it as a theatrical release, but today, it would be more likely to play on television or online. Many of us don’t think twice about watching a nonfiction series that lasts for nine hours—The Vietnam War was nearly double that length—and Shoah would have become a cultural event. Yet there’s also something to be said for the experience of seeing it in a darkened auditorium over the course of a single day. As Ebert put it:

[Lanzmann] uses a…poetic, mosaic approach, moving according to rhythms only he understands among the only three kinds of faces we see in this film: survivors, murderers and bystanders. As their testimony is intercut with the scenes of train tracks, steam engines, abandoned buildings and empty fields, we are left with enough time to think our own thoughts, to meditate, to wonder…After nine hours of Shoah, the Holocaust is no longer a subject, a chapter of history, a phenomenon. It is an environment. It is around us.

That said, I’d encourage viewers to experience it in any form that they can, and there’s no denying that a single marathon session makes unusual demands. At the screening that I attended in Chicago, at least two audience members, after a valiant struggle, had fallen asleep by the end of the movie, which got out after midnight, and as the lights went up, the man in front of me said, “That last segment was too long.” He was probably just tired.

In fact, the final section—on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—is essential, and I often think of its central subject, the resistance fighter Simcha Rotem. In May 1943, Rotem attempted a rescue operation to save any survivors who might still be in the ghetto, making his way underground through the sewers, but when he reached the surface, he found no one:

I had to go on through the ghetto. I suddenly heard a woman calling from the ruins. It was darkest night, no lights, you saw nothing. All the houses were in ruins, and I heard only one voice. I thought some evil spell had been cast on me, a woman’s voice talking from the rubble. I circled the ruins. I didn’t look at my watch, but I must have spent half an hour exploring, trying to find the woman whose voice guided me, but unfortunately I didn’t find her.

Rotem, who is still alive today, moved from one bunker to another, shouting his password, and Lanzmann gives him the last words in a film that might seem to resist any ending:

There was still smoke, and that awful smell of charred flesh of people who had surely been burned alive. I continued on my way, going to other bunkers in search of fighting units, but it was the same everywhere…I went from bunker to bunker, and after walking for hours in the ghetto, I went back toward the sewers…I was alone all the time. Except for that woman’s voice, and a man I met as I came out of the sewers, I was alone throughout my tour of the ghetto. I didn’t meet a living soul. At one point I recall feeling a kind of peace, of serenity. I said to myself: “I’m the last Jew. I’ll wait for morning, and for the Germans.”

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2018 at 8:41 am

The last quarter mile

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Once you commit yourself to moving forward, you can’t stop. It goes back to the metaphor of the miler going back to rerun the last quarter mile because he didn’t do his best job. You can’t do it! To understand the rhythm of writing a hundred pages you have to write it right through. Feel the pages under you the same way a runner feels the gravel under his feet. He can tell how fast that gravel is moving under his feet as he’s going a mile, the same way you can tell how fast the pages are, how fast the scenes are moving…You have to feel space. If the run is a mile and the script is a hundred and five, a hundred and ten pages, you have to feel that space is tangible. Understand that space. Feel comfortable in that space. Page twenty, page forty, sixty, seventy-five, eighty. My favorite pages are eighty-five to ninety-five. I love those pages. If I don’t feel good from eighty-five to ninety-five, there’s something wrong. If I don’t feel good after page ninety, ninety to ninety-five, the script was a mistake.

Paul Schrader, to John Brady in The Craft of the Screenwriter

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July 2, 2018 at 7:30 am

Exile in Dinoville

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Earlier this month, a writer named Nick White released Sweet & Low, his debut collection of short fiction. Most of the stories are set in the present day, but one of them, “Break,” includes a paragraph that evokes the early nineties so vividly that I feel obliged to transcribe it here:

For the next few weeks, the three of us spent much of our free time together. We would ride around town listening to Regan’s CDs—she forbid us to play country music in her presence—and we usually ended the night with Forney and me sitting on the hood of his car watching her dance to Liz Phair’s “Never Said”: “All I know is that I’m clean as a whistle, baby,” she sang to us, her voice husky. We went to a lot of movies, and most of the time, I sat between them in a dark theater, our breathing taking the same pattern after a while. We saw Jurassic Park twice at the dollar theater, and I can still remember Forney’s astonishment when the computer-generated brachiosaur filled up the giant screen. “Amazing,” he whispered. “Just amazing.”

And while it may seem like the obvious move to conjure up a period by referring to the popular culture of the time, the juxtaposition of Liz Phair and a brachiosaur sets off its own chain of associations, at least in my own head. Jurassic Park was released on June 11, 1993, and Exile in Guyville came out just eleven days later, and for many young Americans, in the back half of that year, they might as well have been playing simultaneously.

At first, they might not seem to have much to do with each other, apart from their chronological proximity—which can be meaningful in itself. Once enough time has passed, two works of art released back to back can start to seem like siblings, close in age, from the same family. In certain important ways, they’ll have more in common with each other than they ever will with anyone else, and the passage of more than two decades can level even blatant differences in surprising ways. Jurassic Park was a major event long before its release, a big movie from the most successful director of his generation, based on a novel that had already altered the culture. What still feels most vivid about Exile in Guyville, by contrast, is the sense that it was recorded on cassette in total solitude, and that Phair had willed it into existence out of nothing. She was just twenty-six years old, or about the same age as Spielberg when he directed Duel, and the way that their potential was perceived and channeled along divergent lines is illuminating in itself. But now that both the album and the movie feel like our common property, it’s easy to see that both were set apart by a degree of technical facility that was obscured by their extremes of scale. Jurassic Park was so huge that it was hard to appreciate how expertly crafted it was in its details, while Phair’s apparent rawness and the unfinished quality of her tracks distracted from the fact that she was writing pop songs so memorable that I still know all the lyrics after a quarter of a century.

Both also feel like artifacts of a culture that is still coming to terms with its feelings about sex—one by placing it front and center, the other by pushing it so far into the background that a significant plot twist hinges on dinosaurs secretly having babies. But their most meaningful similarity may be that they were followed by a string of what are regarded as underwhelming sequels, although neither one made it easy on their successors. In the case of Jurassic Park, it can be hard to remember the creative breakthrough that it represented. Before its release, I studied the advance images in Entertainment Weekly and reminded myself that the effects couldn’t be that good. When they turned out to be better than I could have imagined, my reaction was much the same as Forney’s in Nick White’s story: “Amazing. Just amazing.” When the movie became a franchise, however, something was lost, including the sense that it was possible for the technology of storytelling to take us by surprise ever again. It wasn’t a story any longer, but a brand. A recent profile by Tyler Coates in Esquire captures much the same moment in Phair’s life:

Looking back, at least for Phair, means recognizing a young woman before she earned indie rock notoriety. “I think what’s most evocative is that lack of self-consciousness,” she said. “It’s the first and last time that I have on record before I had a public awareness of what I represented to other people. There’s me, and then there’s Liz Phair.”

And her subsequent career testifies to the impossible position in which she found herself. A review on All Music describes her sophomore effort, Whip-Smart, as “good enough to retain her critical stature, not good enough to enhance it,” which in itself captures something of the inhuman expectations that critics collectively impose on the artists they claim to love. (The same review observes that “a full five years” separated Exile in Guyville from Whitechocolatespaceegg, as if that were an eternity, even though this seems like a perfectly reasonable span in which to release three ambitious albums.) After two decades, it seems impossible to see Whip-Smart as anything but a really good album that was doomed to be undervalued, and it was about to get even worse. I saw Phair perform live just once, and it wasn’t in the best of surroundings—it was at Field Day in 2003, an event that had been changed at the last minute from an outdoor music festival to a series of opening acts for Radiohead at Giants Stadium. Alone on a huge stage with a guitar, her face projected on a JumboTron, Phair seemed lost, but as game as usual. The tenth anniversary of Exile in Guyville was just around the corner, and a few weeks later, Phair released a self-titled album that was excoriated almost anywhere. Pitchfork gave it zero stars, and it was perceived as a blatant bid for commercial success that called all of her previous work into question. Fifteen years later, it’s very hard to care, and time has done exactly what Phair’s critics never managed to pull off. It confirmed what we should have known all along. Phair broke free, expanded to new territories and crashed through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, and, well, there it is. She found a way.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2018 at 8:41 am

The magic window

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Last week, the magazine Nautilus published a conversation on “the science and art of time” between the composer Philip Glass and the painter Fredericka Foster. The entire article is worth a look, but my favorite detail is one that Glass shares at the very beginning:

There are many strange things about music and time. When I’m on a tour with the dance company we work in a different-sized theater every night. The first thing the dance company does when we arrive is to measure the stage. They have to reset the dance to fit that stage. So you also have to reset the time of the music: in a larger theater, you must play slower. In a smaller theater, you have to play faster. The relation of time and space in music is dynamic. I have a range of speed in mind. If the players don’t pay attention to that, it will look really funny. You can see the stage fill up with dancers because they are playing at the wrong speed.

And a few lines afterward, in a more contemplative mood, Glass continues: “I was reflecting on the universe expanding. We know that it is and can measure it, by the way time is operating, or by the way we see a star exploding far away. For various reasons, when a physicist tells me that the universe is expanding, I say ‘Okay, let’s go back to the dance floor.’ The dance floor is getting bigger, what does that mean? It means that time has to slow down.”

The relationship between the pacing of a work of art and the physical space in which it occurs is an intriguing one, and it reminds me of a trick employed by one of my heroes, the film editor Walter Murch. In his excellent book Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman describes the “little people,” a pair of tiny paper silhouettes—one male, one female—that Murch attaches to the screening monitor in his editing room. Koppelman explains:

They are his way of dealing with the problem of scale…As an editor, Murch must remember that images in the edit room are only 1/240 the square footage of what the audience will eventually see on a thirty-foot-wide screen…It’s still easy to forget the size of a projected film, which can trick an editor into pacing a film too quickly, or using too many close-ups—styles more akin to television. The eye rapidly apprehends the relatively small, low-detail images on a TV. Large-scale faces help hold the attention of the audience sitting in a living room with lots of distractions or ambient light. But in movies, images are larger than life and more detailed, so the opposite is true. The eye needs time to peruse the movie screen and take it all in…The solution for Murch is to have these two human cutouts stand sentry on his monitor, reminding him of the film’s eventual huge proportions.

And Murch writes in his book In the Blink of an Eye: “Why don’t we just edit in large rooms with big screens? Well, with digital editing and video projection, we could, very easily, be editing with a thirty-foot screen. The real estate for the room would be expensive, however.”

And while the problems presented by a live performance and a projected image on film might seem rather different, the underlying issue, in both cases, is the audience’s ability to receive and process information. On a purely practical level, a big stage may require the tempo of the choreography to subtly change, because the dancers are moving in a larger physical space, and the music has to be adjusted accordingly. But the viewer’s relationship to the work is also affected—the eye is more likely to take in the action in pieces, rather than as a whole, and the pacing may need to be modified. A similar phenomenon occurs in the movies, as Murch writes:

I have heard directors say that they were were disappointed when they finally saw their digitally edited films projected on a big screen. They felt that the editing now seemed “choppy,” though it had seemed fine on the television monitor…With a small screen, your eye can easily take in everything at once, whereas on a big screen it can only take in sections at a time. You tend to look at a small screen, but into a big screen. If you are looking at an image, taking it all in at once, your tendency will be to cut away to the next shot sooner. With a theatrical film, particularly one in which the audience is fully engaged, the screen is not a surface, it is a magic window, sort of a looking glass through which your whole body passes and becomes engaged in the action with the characters on the screen.

Murch notes that the lack of detail on a small screen—or a compressed video file—can mislead the editor as well: “There may be so little detail that the eye can absorb all of it very quickly, leading the careless editor to cut sooner than if he had been looking at the fully detailed film image…Image detail and pace are intimately related.

And the risk of editing on a smaller screen isn’t anything new. Over thirty years ago, the director and editor Edward Dmytryk wrote in On Film Editing:

Many editors shape their editing concepts on the Moviola, a technique I consider decidedly inferior. One does not see the same things on a small Moviola screen, or even on the somewhat larger, though fuzzier, flatbed screen, that one sees in a theater. The audience sees its films only on the “big screen,” and since every cut should be made with the audience in mind, the cutter must try to see each bit of film as the viewer in the theater will eventually see it. (Even a moderate-sized television screen offers far more scope than a Moviola; therefore, it too presents a somewhat different “picture” for the viewer’s inspection.)

Today, of course, viewers can experience stories on a range of screen sizes that Dmytryk might never have anticipated, and which no editor can possibly control. And it’s unclear how editors—who, unlike Philip Glass, don’t have the luxury of measuring the space in which the film will unfold—are supposed to deal with this problem. Taken as a whole, it seems likely that the trend of editorial pacing reflects the smallest screen on which the results can be viewed, which is part of the reason why the average number of cuts per minute has steadily increased for years. And it’s not unreasonable for editors to prioritize the format in which movies will be seen for most of their lifetimes. Yet we also give up something when we no longer consider the largest possible stage. After the editor Anne V. Coates passed away last month, many obituaries paid tribute to the moment in Lawrence of Arabia that has justifiably been called the greatest cut in movie history. But it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact if it weren’t for the fact that the next shot is held for an astonishing thirty-five seconds, which might never have occurred to someone who was cutting it for a smaller screen. Even viewed on YouTube, it’s unforgettable. But in a theater, it’s a magic window.

Designing the future

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Over the last half century or so, our culture has increasingly turned to film and television, rather than to the written word, as its primary reference point when we talk about the future. This is partially because more people are likely to have seen a blockbuster movie than to have read even the most successful novel, but the visual arts might also be more useful when it comes to certain kinds of speculation. As I browsed recently through the book Speculative Everything, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that dealing with physical materials can lead to insights that can’t be reached through words alone. In his classic New Yorker profile of Stanley Kubrick, the science writer Jeremy Bernstein provided a portrait of one such master at work:

In the film [2001], the astronauts will wear space suits when they are working outside their ships, and Kubrick was very anxious that they should look like the space suits of thirty-five years from now…They were studying a vast array of samples of cloth to find one that would look right and photograph well. While this was going on, people were constantly dropping into the office with drawings, models, letters, cables, and various props, such as a model of a lens for one of the telescopes in a spaceship. (Kubrick rejected it because it looked too crude.) At the end of the day, when my head was beginning to spin, someone came by with a wristwatch that the astronauts were going to use on their Jupiter voyage (which Kubrick rejected) and a plastic drinking glass for the moon hotel (which Kubrick thought looked fine).

This is a level of detail that most writers would lack the patience or ability to develop, and even if it were possible, there’s a huge difference between describing such objects at length on the page, which is rightly discouraged, and showing it to the viewer without comment. It can also lead to new ideas or discoveries that can feed into the story itself. I never tire of quoting a piece of advice from Shamus Culhane’s Animation: From Script to Screen, in which he recommends using a list of props to generate plot points and bits of business for a short cartoon:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

In animation—or in a medium like comics or the graphic novel—this kind of brainstorming requires nothing more than a pencil and piece of paper. Kubrick’s great achievement in 2001 was to spend the same amount of time and attention, as well as considerably more money, on solving design problems in tangible form, and in the process, he set a standard for this kind of speculation that both filmmakers and other artists have done their best to meet ever since.

In Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby suggest that the function of a prop in a movie might limit the range of possibilities that it can explore, since it has “to be legible and support plot development.” But this might also be a hidden strength. I don’t think it’s an accident that Minority Report is both the most influential piece of futurology in recent memory and one of the few science fiction films that manages to construct a truly ingenious mystery. And in another masterpiece from the same period, Children of Men, you can clearly see the prop maker’s pragmatism at work. Dunne and Raby quote the director Alfonso Cuarón, who says in one of the special features on the DVD:

Rule number one in the film was recognizability. We didn’t want to do Blade Runner. Actually, we thought about being the anti-Blade Runner in the sense of how we were approaching reality, and that was kind of difficult for the art department, because I would say, “I don’t want inventiveness. I want reference. Don’t show me the great idea, show me the reference in real life. And more importantly, I would like—as much as possible—references of contemporary iconography that is already engraved in human consciousness.”

Consciously or otherwise, Cuarón is echoing one of my favorite pieces of writing advice from David Mamet, who had exactly one rule when it came to designing props: You’ve got to be able to recognize it.” And the need to emphasize clarity and readability in unfamiliar contexts can push production designers in directions that they never would have taken otherwise.

Yet there’s also a case to be made for engaging in visual or sculptural thinking for its own sake, which is what makes speculative design such an interesting avenue of exploration. Dunne and Raby focus on more recent examples, but there’s a surprisingly long history of futurology in pictures. (For instance, a series of French postcards dating from the late nineteenth century imagined life a hundred years in the future, which Isaac Asimov discusses in his book Futuredays, and the book and exhibition Yesterday’s Tomorrows collects many other vintage examples of artwork about the future of America.) Some of these efforts lack the discipline that a narrative imposes, but the physical constraints of the materials can lead to a similar kind of ingenuity, and the result is a distinct tradition that draws on a different set of skills than the ones that writers tend to use. But the best solution might be one that combines both words and images at a reasonable cost. The science fiction of the golden age can sometimes seem curiously lacking in visual description—it can be hard to figure out how anything is supposed to look in Asimov’s stories—and such magazines as Astounding leaned hard on its artists to fill in the blanks. And this might have been a reasonable division of labor. The fans don’t seem to have made any distinction between the stories and their illustrations, and both played a crucial role in defining the genre. Movies and television may be our current touchstones for the future, but the literary and visual arts have been conspiring to imagine the world of tomorrow for longer than we tend to remember. As Speculative Everything demonstrates, each medium can come up with remarkable things when allowed to work on its own. But they have even more power when they join forces.

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