Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Apocalypse Now

The tip of the spear

with one comment

Over the last couple of days, mostly by coincidence, I’ve been thinking about two sidelong portraits of great directors. One is Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, the diary by Eleanor Coppola that was later adapted into the unforgettable movie Hearts of Darkness. The other is Filmworker, a documentary about Leon Vitali, who served for decades as the assistant to Stanley Kubrick. By approaching their more famous subjects from an angle, they end up telling us more about Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick than a more direct engagement ever could, just as we arguably learn more about Sylvia Plath from Janet Malcolm’s oblique The Silent Woman than by reading volumes of the poet’s books and letters. Major artists, especially movie directors, can be overwhelming to contemplate, and they’re hard to view objectively, as Eleanor Coppola notes in her journal:

[Francis] started talking about how lonely he was. How essentially there are only two positions for most everybody to take with him. One is to kiss his ass, tell him he is great, and be paralyzed with admiration. The other is to resist him. That is, show him that no matter how rich and successful and talented he is, they are not impressed. Hardly anyone can just accept him, say, “That’s great, and so what?”

That’s equally true of biographers and critics, which is why it can be so valuable to listen to the memories of family members and associates who were close enough to see their subjects from all sides, if never quite to take them for granted.

Between Eleanor Coppola and Vitali, it’s hard to say who had the more difficult time of it. In Notes, Coppola hints at what it was like to be married to a director whose fame in the seventies exceeded that of any of his contemporaries: “When I am cashing a check or using a credit card, people often ask me if I am related to Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes I say I am married to him. People change before my eyes. They start smiling nervously and forget to give me my package or change. I think I look fairly normal. I wear sweaters and skirts and boots. Maybe they are expecting a Playboy bunny.” But that level of recognition can also cause problems of its own. Coppola has a revealing passage about the aftermath of her husband’s birthday:

His gifts were unloaded onto the table in the hall. This morning I was straightening up. I couldn’t help reading some of the cards. “Thanks for letting me participate in your greatness. Love…” Some days I am tried and just want out. It seems hopeless. There will always be a fresh crop of adoring young protégées waiting in the wings. This current situation stated during Godfather II. I was on location with Francis, away from San Francisco, my friends and the things that stimulated and interested me at the time. I was so angry with myself, angry that I couldn’t just get totally happy focusing on Francis and the making of his film. Someone else did.

That last line is left hanging, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of so much outside adoration.

In Kubrick’s case, much of this tension seems to have been unloaded onto Vitali, who was the director’s right arm for the last quarter century of his life. Vitali was a promising young actor who made a strong impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but he became fascinated by Kubrick, whom he approached with the offer to work for him in any capacity whatsoever. Kubrick took him up on it, and Vitali found himself testing five thousand children for the role of Danny in The Shining. For the next twenty years, they were inseparable, as Vitali saw after everything from casting and coaching actors to checking the foreign dubs and transfers for every film in the director’s back catalog. He was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and he was the perpetual object both of Kubrick’s unexpected tenderness and his sudden wrath. (Vitali also appeared on camera one last time, his face unseen, as the figure in the red cloak who asks Tom Cruise for the password for the house in Eyes Wide Shut.) Serving as a director’s personal assistant can be a hellish job in any case, and it was apparently even worse in the service of such a notorious perfectionist. Vitali lasted in that role for longer than seems humanly possible, and Kubrick had no compunction about using him for such unenviable tasks as informing the actor Tim Colceri, who had been cast eight months earlier as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, that he had lost the role to R. Lee Ermey. And the work continued even after Kubrick’s death. Before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali personally checked one out of every five prints, or over five hundred in all, by screening them nonstop for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, he had to ask someone else to watch the screen for a few minutes so he could leave the room to throw up. Speaking of this period in the documentary, Vitali, who is otherwise so candid, says after a moment: “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

But you also see why he stayed with Kubrick so long. As another interview subject in Filmworker notes, Vitali wasn’t just a spear carrier, but “the tip of the spear” in one of the most complex operations in the history of filmmaking, and that position can be very addictive. (You could compare it, perhaps, to the role of the White House chief of staff, an awful job that usually has people lining up for it, at least under most presidents.) Kubrick and Coppola were very different in their directorial styles, as well as in their personal lives, but few other filmmakers have ever managed the hat trick of being simultaneously brilliant, independent, and the beneficiary of massive studio resources. Coppola only managed to stay in that position for a few years—he was personally on the line for millions of dollars if Apocalypse Now was a failure, and after he miraculously pulled it off, he threw it all away on One From the Heart. Kubrick hung in there for decades, and he depended enormously on the presence of Vitali, who served as his intermediary to Warner Bros. According to the documentary, Kubrick would often sign his assistant’s name to scathing letters to the studio, and after his death, Vitali bore much of the repressed rage from people who had felt slighted or mistreated by the director during his lifetime. Eleanor Coppola’s position was obviously very different, and she shared in its material rewards in ways that Vitali, who was left in borderline poverty, never did. But if they ever meet, they might have a lot to say to each other. Coppola closes her book with an account of reading the journals of American pioneers during the westward expansion, of which she writes:

I particularly identified with one account in which a family in their journey reached the landmark Independence Rock. The husband described scaling the sides and the remarkable view from the top. The woman wrote about trying to find a patch of shade at the base where she could nurse the baby and cook lunch for the family.

The logic of tears

with one comment

Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture made you cry at an inopportune time?”

I’ve never been much of a crier. There have been plenty of novels that left me emotionally devastated, but none, as far as I can remember, that caused tears to flow, although The High King in fifth grade and The Magus in high school probably came the closest. Part of me sees this as a personal failing: I tend to read books with an eye toward craft, and I’m often too conscious of how the author is achieving the effects to be moved in the kind of raw, unmediated way that leads to real sobs. And it strikes me as a loss. Around the time he turned thirty, Charles Darwin found that he could no longer enjoy poetry—Shakespeare bored him “to the point of physical nausea”—and he memorably described what he saw as the human cost:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

But the movies have always been a little different. Maybe it’s in the way they present themselves to us in a form that requires little, if any, intellectual intermediation, or the fact that we often watch them in a darkened room surrounded by strangers, but I’ve teared up at movies as dissimilar as Apocalypse Now, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the documentary Ballets Russes. (This last film probably holds the world record for speed: I’m pretty sure I choked up within the first thirty seconds.) As I’ve noted before, the films that get to me are the ones that make me reflect on my own mortality, and particularly on the passage of time. Many of them center on the image of a young man’s face juxtaposed with that of the same character in old age, which may be why the only movie that has destroyed me to the point of embarrassment in the theater is Saving Private Ryan. Subsequent viewings haven’t had quite the same impact, but after the closing scene, I stayed in my seat throughout most of the end credits, trying to get it together, which hasn’t happened before or since.

Harrison Young in Saving Private Ryan

What’s funny is that many critics I respect, from Roger Ebert to David Thomson, have argued that the last scene isn’t necessary, and the movie as a whole might be stronger without it. (Although it’s only in rereading Thomson’s review now that I realize that Ryan’s wife is played by Kathleen Byron, who I later came to love through her performances in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and The Small Back Room.) On the whole, I agree with them. But there’s a wide gap between what you can objectively know as a critic and your subjective experience as a moviegoer. Pauline Kael puts this in somewhat defensive terms in her famously negative review of The Sound of Music:

Whom could this operetta offend? Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and readymade are the responses we are made to feel. We may become even more aware of the way we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.

I wouldn’t go so far with Saving Private Ryan, which, whatever its faults, can’t be described as cheap or readymade. But it’s worth remembering that it’s possible to regard movies on two levels at once, even if it seems hard to argue against the logic of your emotions. I can admit that the ending of Ryan is powerful as a necessary moment of audience catharsis, while also suspecting that denying that catharsis, which dissolves our higher faculties in tears, might have been the braver choice. As Ebert writes:

Saving Private Ryan is a powerful experience. I’m sure a lot of people will weep during it. Spielberg knows how to make audiences weep better than any director since Chaplin in City Lights. But weeping is an incomplete response, letting the audience off the hook. This film embodies ideas. After the immediate experience begins to fade, the implications remain and grow.

Which may be why I distrust tears a little. When we cry, it’s hard to think. Yet sometimes we can do both, and when we do, it’s worth asking what would have been left—or what we might have thought—if the tears had refused to come.

In sickness and in health

with one comment

David Mamet

As I write this blog post, I’m running on fumes. Last week, I delivered a novel to my agent for notes and promptly got sick, pretty much as I predicted I would. It was the climax of a fairly intense process that involved churning out most of a 75,000-word manuscript in something like six months, on top of child care and what felt like a summer of nonstop social commitments, and in the end, my body just gave out. (If I haven’t talked about it much here, it’s because I still hold onto the superstition about avoiding any mention of work in progress, and I’m only bringing it up now because I’m done with the first draft.) As it happens, my daughter got sick at around the same time, and although I can’t be sure who came down with what first, I have the feeling that I just no longer had any energy to fend off those baby germs. It’s also possible that I’ve been on the verge of coming down with something anyway, and I managed to push it away for long enough to lock down that last page.

And I’m not alone. Anecdotally, there’s a lot of evidence that writers and creative types tend to come down with something shortly after finishing a project. David Mamet tells this story about the filming of House of Games:

We finished shooting the movie on time and under budget in mid-August. I went home happy as a clam and immediately got as sick as I’ve ever been in my life. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks, didn’t eat a thing, and sweated the whole time. Sidney Lumet called to welcome us back. “How did the film go?” he asked my wife. She told him. “How’s David,” he said, “is he sick yet?”

Which shouldn’t be surprising. One of the underappreciated challenges of directing a movie is how physically demanding it is: you’re up at all hours, overseeing night shoots or camping out in the editing bay after the day’s filming is done, while constantly being asked to make decisions about what kind of coffee cup a character holds in a particular scene. Occasionally, you’ll hear reports of a director suffering a breakdown halfway through production, but the really surprising thing is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Walter Murch

Then again, successful movie directors make up a select group, and if you didn’t already have the aptitude for the job’s mental and physical requirements, you’d have been weeded out long before. Walter Murch likes to say that a film editor needs a strong back and arms: if a minute of celluloid weighs a pound, the footage for a movie like Apocalypse Now amounts to something like seven tons. With modern digital tools, that’s no longer the case, but the reserves of patience, discipline, and attentiveness it requires are no different. It’s a little like playing chess, which requires exceptional levels of physical fitness in order to compete on the highest levels. Writing a novel or editing a movie sometimes feel like playing chess against an opponent of infinite stamina and perversity, and you’re figuring out the rules of the game as you go along. It’s no wonder, then, that it leaves us exhausted. (For what it’s worth, this doesn’t seem to be a purely physiological reaction: the brain sucks up a lot of energy at all times, and when we’re engaged in sustained intellectual activity, it uses a little more, but not a lot.)

But it’s also possible that the body is simply enforcing a break. Prolonged brainwork may not burn as many calories as we’d like to think, but it consumes something less tangible. We’ve all been blessed with finite amounts of ingenuity, imagination, and meticulousness, and with any project, we eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, when we can barely even see the words on the page, much less revise them in useful ways. When we hit a wall, it may be less of a sign that our limits have been reached than a precautionary measure that forces us, even to the point of physical incapacitation, into a temporary surrender. Professional writers like to think that they can will themselves through anything, but sometimes the material demands a pause, and if the mind isn’t willing to stop on its own, the body steps in to settle the issue. I don’t think I’ll be able to get much work done today, but maybe I shouldn’t be working anyway. Every writer knows how it feels for a story to reach out and give you what you need at that exact moment, and sometimes it only wants you to take a step back. So you’ve got no choice but to take your DayQuil, and when you’re ready for it, the work will still be there, pleased to welcome you back in your right mind.

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2014 at 9:37 am

Luca Brasi flubs his lines, or the joy of happy accidents

leave a comment »

Marlon Brando and Lenny Montana in The Godfather

During the troubled filming of The Godfather, Lenny Montana, the actor who played the enforcer Luca Brasi, kept blowing his lines. During his big speech with Don Corleone at the wedding—”And may their first child be a masculine child”—Montana, anxious about working with Brando for the first time, began to speak, hesitated, then started over again. It was a blown take, but Coppola liked the effect, which seemed to capture some of the character’s own nervousness. Instead of throwing the shot away, he kept it, and he simply inserted a new scene showing Brasi rehearsing his words just before the meeting. It was a happy accident of the sort that you’ll often find in the work of a director like Coppola, who is more open than most, almost to a fault, to the discoveries that can be made on the set. (A more dramatic example is the moment early in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen punches and breaks the mirror in his hotel room, which wasn’t scripted—Sheen cut up his hand pretty badly. And for more instances of how mischance can be incorporated into a film, please see this recent article by Mike D’Angelo of The A.V. Club, as well as the excellent comments, which inspired this post.)

You sometimes see these kinds of happy accidents in print as well, but they’re much less common. One example is this famous story of James Joyce, as told by Richard Ellimann:

Once or twice he dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in?’” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.”

Similarly, a chance misprint inspired W.H. Auden to change his line “The poets have names for the sea” to “The ports have names for the sea.” And it’s widely believed that one of the most famous lines in all of English poetry, “Brightness falls from the air,” was also the result of a typo: Nashe may have really written “Brightness falls from the hair,” which makes more sense in context, but is much less evocative.

Lenny Montana in The Godfather

Still, it isn’t hard to see why such accidents are more common in film than in print. A novelist or poet can always cross out a line or delete a mistyped word, but filmmaker is uniquely forced to live with every flubbed take or reading: once you’ve started shooting, there’s no going back, and particularly in the days before digital video, a permanent record exists of each mistake. As a result, you’re more inclined to think hard about whether or not you can use what you have, or if the error will require another costly camera setup. In some ways, all of film amounts to this kind of compromise. You never get quite the footage you want: no matter how carefully you’ve planned the shoot, when the time comes to edit, you’ll find that the actors are standing in the wrong place for one shot to cut cleanly to the next, or that you’re missing a crucial closeup that would clarify the meaning of the scene. It’s part of the craft of good directors—and editors—to cobble together something resembling their original intentions from material that always falls short. Every shot in a movie, in a sense, is a happy accident, and the examples I’ve mentioned above are only the most striking examples of a principle that governs the entire filmmaking process.

And it’s worth thinking about the ways in which artists in other media can learn to expose themselves to such forced serendipity. (I haven’t even mentioned the role it plays in such arts as painting, in which each decision starts to feel similarly irrevocable, at least once you’ve started to apply paint to canvas.) One approach, which I’ve tried in the planning stages of my own work, is to work in as permanent a form as possible: pen on paper, rather than pencil or computer, which means that every wrong turn or mistaken impulse lingers on after you’ve written it. A typewriter, I suspect, might play the same role, and I have a feeling that writers of a previous generation occasionally shaped their sentences to match a mistyped word, rather than going through the trouble of typing the page all over again. Writers are lucky: we have a set of tools of unmatched portability, flexibility, and privacy, and it means that we can deal with any errors at our leisure, at least until they see print. But with every gain, there’s also a loss: in particular, of the kind of intensity and focus that actors describe when real, expensive film is running through the camera. When so much is on the line, you’re more willing to find ways of working with what you’ve been given by chance. And that’s an attitude that every artist could use.

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2013 at 8:12 am

Walter Murch and the analog/digital divide

with 2 comments

Walter Murch is the smartest person in America.

Lawrence Weschler

If anything, this understates the case. Yesterday I attended a talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival given by Murch, the legendary editor and sound designer of such films as The English Patient and Apocalypse Now. Regular readers of this blog know how much Murch means to me: he’s a longtime friend and colleague of such directors as George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, and while he never quite ascended to their levels of wealth and power, he’s their equal, or better, when it comes to intelligence, artistry, and innovation. Murch is a polymath whose work expresses both a universal curiosity and a meticulous level of craft, as amply chronicled in his own book, In the Blink of an Eye, and such fascinating portraits as Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations and Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen. And while he may not be as famous as some of his collaborators, he’s an esteemed figure within the world of film, as demonstrated by the crowd of groupies who pressed in afterward for an autograph. Confession: I was one of them.

In addition to everything else, Murch is a wonderful public speaker, an inexhaustible source of anecdote and insight delivered in perfectly formed paragraphs. (Not least, he’s the first speaker I’ve ever seen who actually knew how to use his own laptop to give a presentation—not surprising, since Murch is one of the great users of Apple products.) Inevitably, our hour with Murch flew by much too quickly; his interlocutor, critic Lawrence Weschler, spoke of another incident in which a presenter was booed for ushering Murch off the stage after he’d held the audience enthralled for six hours. But the conversation we did get ranged from discussions of Chinese calligraphy to the recent financial crisis, and from THX-1138 to The Conversation to The Clone Wars, an episode of which Murch recently directed. I wish I could quote it all here. Instead, I’ll just touch on a subject central to the talk: the transition from analog to digital.

For most of the history of cinema, editing film was both intellectually difficult and physically taxing. The sheer bulk of the materials involved was daunting enough: Murch points out that for combined sound and picture in 35 mm, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. For a movie like Apocalypse Now, this comes out to something like seven tons of raw footage. And when an editor working on film is seeking a particular frame, weighing only a few thousands of an ounce, he needs to keep good records—and, Murch adds, to have “a strong back and arms.” Today, of course, the situation has changed dramatically: with an editing platform like Final Cut Pro, which Murch famously used to edit Cold Mountain, instead digging through a bin for the right piece of film, you can call up the necessary frame at once. This makes the process much more efficient, but it also leads to certain losses. Here’s Charles Koppelman in Behind the Seen:

As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him the chance to see footage in other context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.

I’ve spoken before about the paradoxes involved in increased efficiency, and how to compensate for it, in my post on Blinn’s Law. And one of the most fascinating aspects of Murch’s work is his effort to deliberately introduce randomness and chance into the creative process. One of my few regrets about yesterday’s talk was that he was unable to discuss this in detail, since it’s one the most valuable lessons he has to share. Murch sometimes reminds me of Steve Jobs, with whom he corresponded at times, both in his fondness for black turtlenecks and in his efforts to bridge the worlds of the humanities and the sciences—and, even more crucially, the worlds of analog and digital creativity. As we pass ever further into the random-access age, it’s all the more important to listen to Murch, who tirelessly explores the future even as he unsentimentally points out the usefulness of the past. A computer, he notes, always gives you what you want; an older system, with its inherent unpredictability, often gives you what you need. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how artists of all kinds can deal with this dilemma.

Fiction into film: The English Patient

with 4 comments

A few months ago, after greatly enjoying The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje’s delightful book-length interview with Walter Murch, I decided to read Ondaatje’s The English Patient for the first time. I went through it very slowly, only a handful of pages each day, in parallel with my own work on the sequel to The Icon Thief. Upon finishing it last week, I was deeply impressed, not just by the writing, which had drawn me to the book in the first place, but also by the novel’s structural ingenuity—derived, Ondaatje says, from a long process of rewriting and revision—and the richness of its research. This is one of the few novels where detailed historical background has been integrated seamlessly into the poetry of the story itself, and it reflects a real, uniquely novelistic curiosity about other times and places. It’s a great book.

Reading The English Patient also made me want to check out the movie, which I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, when I watched it as part of a special screening for a college course. I recalled admiring it, although in a rather detached way, and found that I didn’t remember much about the story, aside from a few moments and images (and the phrase “suprasternal notch”). But I sensed it would be worth revisiting, both because I’d just finished the book and because I’ve become deeply interested, over the past few years, in the career of editor Walter Murch. Murch is one of film’s last true polymaths, an enormously intelligent man who just happened to settle into editing and sound design, and The English Patient, for which he won two Oscars (including the first ever awarded for a digitally edited movie), is a landmark in his career. It was with a great deal of interest, then, that I watched the film again last night.

First, the good news. The adaptation, by director Anthony Minghella, is very intelligently done. It was probably impossible to film Ondaatje’s full story, with its impressionistic collage of lives and memories, in any kind of commercially viable way, so the decision was wisely made to focus on the central romantic episode, the doomed love affair between Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). Doing so involved inventing a lot of new, explicitly cinematic material, some satisfying (the car crash and sandstorm in the desert), some less so (Almásy’s melodramatic escape from the prison train). The film also makes the stakes more personal: the mission of Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) is less about simple fact-finding, as it was in the book, than about revenge. And the new ending, with Almásy silently asking Hana (Juliette Binoche) to end his life, gives the film a sense of resolution that the book deliberately lacks.

These changes, while extensive, are smartly done, and they respect the book while acknowledging its limitations as source material. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of Apocalypse Now, another milestone in Murch’s career, movies aren’t very good at conveying abstract ideas, but they’re great for showing us “the look of a battle, the expression on a face, the mood of a country.” On this level, The English Patient sustains comparison with the works of David Lean, with a greater interest in women, and remains, as David Thomson says, “one of the most deeply textured of films.” Murch’s work, in particular, is astonishing, and the level of craft on display here is very impressive.

Yet the pieces don’t quite come together. The novel’s tentative, intellectual nature, which the adaptation doesn’t try to match, infects the movie as well. It feels like an art film that has willed itself into being an epic romance, when in fact the great epic romances need to be a little vulgar—just look at Gone With the Wind. Doomed romances may obsess their participants in real life, but in fiction, seen from the outside, they can seem silly or absurd. The English Patient understands a great deal about the craft of the romantic epic, the genre in which it has chosen to plant itself, but nothing of its absurdity. In the end, it’s just too intelligent, too beautifully made, to move us on more than an abstract level. It’s a heroic effort; I just wish it were something a little more, or a lot less.

Source Code and the state of modern science fiction

leave a comment »

On Saturday, my wife and I finally saw Source Code, the new science fiction thriller directed by Moon‘s Duncan Jones. I liked Moon a lot, but wasn’t sure what to expect from his latest film, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be the best new movie I’ve seen this year. Admittedly, this is rather faint praise—by any measure, this has been a slow three months for moviegoers. And Source Code has its share of problems. It unfolds almost perfectly for more than an hour, then gets mired in an ending that tries, not entirely successfully, to be emotionally resonant and tie up all its loose ends, testing the audience’s patience at the worst possible time. Still, I really enjoyed it. The story draws you in viscerally and is logically consistent, at least up to a point, and amounts to a rare example of real science fiction in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

By “real” science fiction, of course, I don’t mean that the science is plausible. The science in Source Code is cheerfully absurd, explained with a bit of handwaving about quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus, but the movie is unusual in having the courage to follow a tantalizing premise—what if you could repeatedly inhabit the mind of a dead man eight minutes before he died?—through most of its possible variations. This is what the best science fiction does: it starts with an outlandish idea and follows it relentlessly through all its implications, while never violating the rules that the story has established. And one of the subtlest pleasures of Ben Ripley’s screenplay for Source Code lies in its gradual reveal of what the rules actually are. (If anything, I wish I’d known less about the story before entering the theater.)

This may sound like a modest accomplishment, but it’s actually extraordinarily rare. Most of what we call science fiction in film is thinly veiled fantasy with a technological sheen. A movie like Avatar could be set almost anywhere—the futuristic trappings are incidental to a story that could have been lifted from any western or war movie. (Walter Murch even suggests that George Lucas based the plot of Star Wars on the work he did developing Apocalypse Now.) Star Trek was often a show about ideas, but its big-screen incarnation is much more about action and spectacle: Wrath of Khan, which I think is the best science fiction film ever made, has been aptly described as Horatio Hornblower in space. And many of the greatest sci-fi movies—Children of Men, Blade Runner, Brazil—are more about creating the look and feel of a speculative future than any sense of how it might actually work.

And this is exactly how it should be. Movies, after all, aren’t especially good at conveying ideas; a short story, or even an episode of a television show, is a much better vehicle for working out a clever premise than a feature film. Because movies are primarily about action, character, and image, it isn’t surprising that Hollywood has appropriated certain elements of science fiction and left the rest behind. What’s heartening about Source Code, especially so soon after the breakthrough of Inception, is how it harnesses its fairly ingenious premise to a story that works as pure entertainment. There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing the high and low aspects of the genre joined so seamlessly, and it requires a peculiar set of skills on the part of the director, who needs to be both fluent with action and committed to ideas. Chris Nolan is one; Duncan Jones, I’m excited to say, looks very much like another.

%d bloggers like this: