Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Argo

Awake in the Dark

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Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

A movie, or any work of art, isn’t complete until someone sees it. Even the most modest studio film these days represents about two hundred years of collective work from the cast and crew, and when the result of their labor is projected on a screen in a darkened room, where it can shape and channel the emotions of a theater full of strangers, surprising things can happen. In Behind the Seen, Walter Murch compares this phenomenon to that of an old-fashioned radio tube, which takes a powerful but simple electrical current and combines it with a weak but coherent signal to transform it, say, into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A similar thing happens to an audience in a theater:

The power—the energy—isn’t coming from the film. It’s coming from the collective lives and emotional world of the audience. Say it’s a big theater—you have a thousand people there, and the average age of that audience is 25. You have 25,000 years, three times recorded history, sitting in the audience. That’s a tremendously powerful but unorganized force that is looking for coherence.

And the mark of a great movie is one that takes up an unexpected life, for better or worse, once it meets the undirected power of a large popular audience.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since finally seeing Zero Dark Thirty, which I think is unquestionably the movie of the year. (If I were to repost my list of the year’s best films, it would occupy the top slot, just ahead of The Dark Knight Rises and Life of Pi.) It’s an incredible work, focused, complex but always clear, and directed with remarkable assurance by Kathryn Bigelow, who tells an often convoluted story, but never allows the eye to wander. Yet it’s a film that seems likely to be defined by the controversy over its depiction of torture. This isn’t the place to respond to such concerns in detail, except to note that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have already argued their own case better than anyone else. But it seems to me that many of the commentators who see the movie as an implicit endorsement of torture—”No waterboarding, no Bin Laden,” as Frank Bruni writes—are reading something into it that ignores the subtleties of the film’s own structure, which begins with enhanced interrogation and then moves beyond it.

Power and Coherence

But it’s a testament to the skill and intelligence of Bigelow, Boal, and their collaborators that they’ve given us a movie that serves as a blank slate, on which viewers can project their own fears and concerns. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t tell us what to think, and although some, like Andrew Sullivan, have taken this as an abdication of artistic responsibility, it’s really an example of the art of film at its height. It’s a movie for adults. So, in very different ways, are Lincoln and Django Unchained, which is why I’m not surprised by the slew of opinion pieces about the lack of “agency” in the black characters in Lincoln, or whether Django is really a story about a slave being saved by a white man. Such responses tell us more about the viewers than the movies themselves, and that’s fine—but we also need to recognize that movies that can evoke and sustain such questions are ultimately more interesting than films like Argo or Les Misérables, which reassure us at every turn about what we’re supposed to be feeling.

Needless to say, the Oscars have rarely rewarded this kind of ambiguity, which may be why Zero Dark Thirty had to content itself with a shared award for Best Sound Editing. And both Argo and Les Misérables are very good movies. But it takes remarkable skill and commitment to tell stories like this—and in particular, to give us all the satisfactions we crave from more conventional entertainment while also pushing forward into something darker. (That’s why many of our greatest, most problematic works of fiction tend to come from artists who have proven equally adept at constructing beautiful toys: Bigelow could never have made Zero Dark Thirty if she hadn’t already made Point Break.) When we’re sitting in the dark, looking for coherence, we’re at our must vulnerable, and when we’re faced with a movie that pushes our buttons while leaving us unsettled by its larger implications, it’s tempting to reduce it to something we can easily grasp. But in a medium that depends so much on the resonance between a work and its viewers, such films demand courage not just in the artist, but from the audience as well.

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

“When the door of the guest room opened…”

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"When the door of the guest room opened..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 27. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Stories are about convergence. At least, they are these days. The very oldest stories we know—fairy tales, folklore, biblical narratives—tend to follow a single protagonist from one event to another, as do the earliest stories we write as children. It didn’t take long, however, for storytellers to discover the power of converging action. We see this kind of structure as early as The Odyssey, which opens with Telemachus, Penelope, and the suitors at Ithaca before cutting away to our hero, with the implicit promise that the two threads of the narrative will converge before the poem is done. Ever since, writers have understood that two or more stories, properly arranged, can add up to more than the sum of their parts: given a pair of characters in initially separate storylines, the reader naturally wonders what the two parts of the plot have to do with each other, and looks ahead to their ultimate collision. This kind of anticipation is central to suspense, which is really just another word for any narrative in which we’re curious about what happens next, and the techniques of intercutting, parallel action, and intersection are among the most powerful weapons in a writer’s arsenal.

And the true potential of convergence wasn’t fully realized until the coming of film. Every cut in a movie is a form of narrative juxtaposition, with edits that marry segments of footage that might have been filmed days or weeks apart, and filmmakers quickly realized how useful a tool this could be. We see this at the climax of a movie like Argo, for instance, which manipulates the audience beautifully as it cuts between pursuer and pursued, and also at higher, more sophisticated narrative levels. I’ve spoken many times about how deeply influenced I’ve been by the structure of L.A. Confidential, which follows its three very different cops on separate investigations that converge ever more insidiously as the plot unfolds. Even more lovely is the structure of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, which follows Julian and Vicky as they enter the world of ballet, allowing them to cross paths occasionally, only to reveal, deliciously, that they’ve fallen in love while our attention has been elsewhere. And it’s for reasons like this that all of my published novels have been conceived with such a tripartite structure in mind.

"I don't want to go back to the share house..."

That said, the trouble with this sort of plot is that a lot of moving parts need to be set in motion, and given room to develop, before their convergence can have any meaning. This is one reason why The Icon Thief and City of Exiles can seem, at least to some readers, to take their sweet time in revealing what they’re really about: unlike a novel that follows a single character all the way through, these books need to establish three distinct storylines, with their attendant backstory and exposition, before finally bringing them together. Extend the process too long, and the reader becomes tired and confused; cover the ground too quickly, and you lose some of the frisson that comes when the pieces finally entwine. Finding a balance that will allow these storylines to gather the necessary momentum, while also giving the reader a satisfying experience in the meantime, has been one of the most challenging aspects of writing these books, and I’m not always sure I pull it off. There are times, for instance, when I wish that The Icon Thief were a little bit faster out of the gate. But when the threads do converge, I’d like to think that the effect is worth the wait, as in Chapter 27, when Maddy and Powell properly meet at last.

Although I haven’t checked in a while, I’m pretty sure that this is one of the longest chapters in the novel, and for good reason. I’ve spent close to half of the book establishing these two characters, and now, after the heist that Maddy witnessed and which Powell failed to prevent, they have a lot to talk about. Ilya, my third protagonist, isn’t present, but he’s certainly there in spirit—and it’s here, as Powell questions Maddy about what she saw, that all the pieces of the narrative finally become one. In some ways, this is the hinge moment of the entire novel, and the rest of the book will be devoted to working out the implications of the components I’ve laid out so far. Of course, it isn’t enough to simply bring the pieces together without some additional complication. In this case, it comes after Powell is gone, when Maddy and Ethan leave the mansion and, somewhat to their surprise, end up spending the night together. This is the second big convergence in this chapter, and one that will have significant consequences for the rest of the story, as it starts to subtly shift in tone from intrigue to paranoia. In some ways, this is where the story really begins. But the pieces have been waiting to come together for a long time…

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2012 at 9:50 am

Argo and the textures of the past

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The most interesting moment in Ben Affleck’s Argo comes at the very end, during the closing credits, which juxtapose still photographs of the real people and events depicted in the film with their fictional equivalents. It’s a nice reminder of the story’s historical origins, but it’s also an excuse to show off, as the movie indulges in some well-deserved self-congratulation about its meticulous reconstruction of the recent past. The most likable thing about Argo is its attention to texture and cultural detail, from the vintage Warner Bros. logo that opens the movie to its abundance of bad haircuts and floppy mustaches. And although the movie has been gently criticized for its departures from the facts—its version of the final flight to safety of the six hostages in Iran is almost entirely invented—there’s no doubt that this is a movie that takes genuine pleasure in certain kinds of authenticity, even if it’s only skin deep. (A film like The Master, by contrast, is authentic all the way to the bone.)

And part of me almost wishes that Affleck and his collaborators had invented just a little more. Argo is a nice, entertaining movie based on an inherently fascinating historical event, but it rarely tries to create anything like real human drama. The six hostages in Iran never emerge as anything more than background characters, and this is a big problem: we’re concerned for their safety, but more as a matter of principle than because we’ve come to know and like them as individuals. Affleck’s character, based on the real CIA operative Tony Mendez, is a stock, somewhat colorless type, and I smiled at his introduction, which shows him collapsed in bed, still wearing his clothes from the night before, before being awakened by a phone call alerting him to a new assignment—a situation familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Bruce Willis movie. The most interesting character by far is John Chambers, the legendary makeup artist, played by John Goodman, who helps Mendez construct a fake movie production as part of an elaborate escape plan, and Argo might have been an even better movie with him as the lead—the real Chambers deserves it.

Watching Argo, I was consistently interested by what was on the screen, but I couldn’t help feeling that the real story was taking place elsewhere, with resonances that the movie teases out only occasionally. Movies like this deserve to be judged based on the best of their genre, and the real comparison here is to Michael Mann’s The Insider, a movie that I loved when it first came out and which has only grown in my estimation since. It’s forty minutes longer than Argo, but it uses that time to develop unforgettable supporting characters and evoke times and places beyond mere surface detail, and it still manages to move like a shot—it’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that seems substantially shorter than its actual runtime. It also involves us in a multitude of worlds—journalism, law, the tobacco business—with their own sets of rules, and by the end, we feel as if we know them intimately. Argo would have benefited from more of this kind of specificity: it gets the clothes, the hair, the typefaces exactly right, but we’re still left with less than we’d like to know about Iran, Hollywood, or the CIA.

And there’s another world here that I wish had been explored more deeply: the universe of the fictional Argo itself. Affleck dismisses the fake movie at the story’s heart as a bad rip-off of Star Wars, but in fact, it was an ambitious project based on a novel by Roger Zelazny, with Jack Kirby contributing some of the designs. The contrast between the promises of science fiction and the messy, complicated reality of the Iran hostage crisis is one that the movie only superficially develops, to its own loss: the idea of a little boy with Star Wars bedsheets watching footage from Tehran is an astonishing one, and it reminds us that there was a larger world beyond the line outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Argo’s closing shots, as text describing the aftermath of the crisis is set over figurines of C-3PO and Luke Skywalker, are brilliant, and hint at a vein of material that the film seems only intermittently interested in investigating. The way movies interact with the world around them is endlessly mysterious, but here, we only glimpse it at intervals, through the cracks in the story’s more conventional suspense. And perhaps it only testifies to the richness of the film’s underlying material that it leaves us wanting more.

Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2012 at 9:52 am

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