Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Bonnie and Clyde

A writer’s reflections on violence

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Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino was right to be mad. Last week, in an interview with the journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News, Tarantino reacted testily when asked for his thoughts on the cultural impact of violence in the movies: “Don’t ask me a question like that. I’m not biting. I refuse your question…You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey.” And although Tarantino ultimately comes off, as he often does in his press appearances, as a bit of a dick, it’s hard to blame him. For most of his career, he’s found himself at the center of the debate over cinematic violence, despite the fact that most of his films, Kill Bill notwithstanding, aren’t nearly as violent as their reputations would imply. A movie like Pulp Fiction contains only a few seconds of actual violence, as opposed to the nonstop killing we see in many mainstream action films, so Tarantino’s irritation at being asked such questions again isn’t hard to understand. Yet while I don’t much feel like entering that particular discussion either, I think it’s worth asking why the same handful of works and artists are repeatedly invoked as illustrations of violence in the media, even as countless other, even more violent movies are quickly forgotten.

The statement by Wayne La Pierre of the NRA in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre was stupefying on many levels, but especially with regard to the movies he mentioned, which were limited to “blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers.” Setting aside the fact that neither is a slasher film, or even particularly graphic in its onscreen violence, it’s a little odd that the most recent of the two movies he decries is more than a decade old, when dozens of objectively more violent films have been released in the meantime. Clearly, these movies, both of which I admire with reservations, aren’t disposable or forgettable: they’re ambitious, stylish, problematic films that implicate us as much as the characters, and many viewers still haven’t gotten over it. Most audiences, it seems, handle cinematic bloodshed in much the same way as I’ve noted they deal with surprises. They don’t mind being surprised, or shown graphic violence, in the context of a genre they understand, but when their assumptions about a work of art are called into question—or if it makes them uncomfortable—they feel what Pauline Kael, Tarantino’s favorite movie critic, observed all these years ago about Bonnie and Clyde:

Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde

Of course, the kind of violence that really shakes and infuriates an audience is very rare, which is why LaPierre had to reach so far back in time for his examples. For most works of art, violence functions for the artist much as smoking does for actors. The reason why there’s so much smoking in movies isn’t because Hollywood is determined to glamorize tobacco use, or is somehow in the pocket of the cigarette companies, but because smoking is a tremendously useful tool for performers, who are always looking for something to do with their hands: it gives them a wide range of ways to emphasize lines or emotional beats, and no comparable bit of business has managed to take its place. Similarly, violence is a proven, replicable way of provoking a reaction from the audience, and it doesn’t require much skill to pull off. Suspense in itself is tremendously hard to achieve, but putting a pistol in a character’s hand is easy, and in an art form starved for reliable tricks, it isn’t surprising that filmmakers often turn to violence for dramatic effects. Movies don’t glorify violence; they glorify the narrative jolts that violence can provide. When a movie resorts to periodic bursts of violence to keep the audience awake, it’s simply following Raymond Chandler’s dictum: “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”

And I’m no exception. I’ve noted before how I inserted a violent scene into the first part of The Icon Thief because I felt that the story was lacking a necessary action beat, and I’ve often found myself parceling out moments of violence throughout my novels—which tend to have a pretty high body count—as if laying in dance numbers in a musical. I feel justified in doing this because this is one of the conventions of suspense fiction, and I’d like to believe that the violence in my novels is at least inventive, powerful, and integral to the plot. But I have misgivings about it as well, if only because I see all too clearly how violence can become a crutch, a way of artificially propping up a story that lacks organic excitement. Here, as in everything else, it all comes to down to craft. When I think about the works of art that will be experienced by my daughter Beatrix—who, after all, was named after a character in a Tarantino movie—I find that I’m less worried about her seeing violent films than in settling for movies that use violence as a substitute for craftsmanship. The problem isn’t violent movies; the problem is bad movies of any kind. And the only way to discourage mindless violence is to honor those artists who use it mindfully and well.

My ten great movies #7: L.A. Confidential

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It’s a measure of how much Curtis Hanson’s movie has grown in my imagination that when it first came out, while writing for my high school newspaper, I ranked it fifth among the best films of 1997. (The movies that beat it out, if you’re curious, were Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Lost Highway, Kundun, and Boogie Nights). Ever since, however, I’ve rewatched this film on at least an annual basis, to the point where it stands as a personal touchstone for me, both as a movie lover and as a writer. Looking back, I suspect that I underrated it at the time because it makes its own accomplishments—the juggling of three important narrative threads, the stylish but unobtrusive use of period detail, the narrative density, the amount of information conveyed with such style—seem so easy. But with the passage of time, and my own realization of how rare and difficult this sort of thing really is, L.A. Confidential starts to look like the best of all recent Hollywood movies.

Roger Ebert has called Bonnie and Clyde a “total movie,” a film capable of being appreciated by critics and audiences on every possible level, and L.A. Confidential is the closest thing to a total film released in my lifetime. On a surface level, of course, it’s hugely entertaining—I can’t think of another movie with so many classic sequences—and it’s a master class on adaptation and the filmmaker’s craft. The cast is as rich as that of The Godfather, but the character who lingers most in my memory is James Cromwell’s Dudley Smith, lanky, warm to his men, but with an underlying coldness to his eyes. His last, unforgettable exchange with Kevin Spacey is one of those moments, like the turning point ninety minutes into Vertigo, that I seem fated to revisit and rethink forever in my own work, but no other version of this scene can ever equal the power that it has here, which ends, perfectly, with the smile on a man’s face.

Tomorrow: The freshest, most timeless masterpiece of the forties.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2011 at 10:00 am

Roger Ebert: An Appreciation (Part 1)

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Tomorrow night, my wife and I will be attending the Chicago Symphony’s Tribute to Roger Ebert, where orchestral selections will be played from many of Ebert’s favorite movies, including Casablanca, The Third Man, and 2001. This would be an exceptional evening in any case, but it’s especially meaningful to me, because Ebert, who is scheduled to be there in person, has had more influence on how I think about the movies than any other film critic, and more impact on my life than most writers of any kind. Which isn’t to say that we don’t often strongly disagree—you could start with his one-star review for Blue Velvet and work your way back from there. But a critic who always agrees with you isn’t much of a critic, and Ebert’s opinions, whether I share them or not, have been a central part of my life for as long as I’ve been able to read.

When I was seven years old, I stole Ebert’s Movie Home Companion from my parents’ bookshelf, and haven’t given it back since. Over time, my first copy, which would have been of this edition, grew so tattered that both the front and back covers fell off. (Judging from the discussion on this article on the AV Club, this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.) I absorbed Ebert’s thoughts on Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and hundreds of other films years before I had the chance to see them myself, to the point where I’m often able to recognize a movie on television solely because I’ve memorized his review. His discussion of the Sight & Sound poll was my first exposure to the idea of an artistic canon, an idea that has guided much of my life ever since, for better or worse. And I certainly learned a lot from his reviews of such films as Emmanuelle and Caligula, even if I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

The result was that—much the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress did for George Bernard Shaw—Ebert’s reviews formed a sort of cultural bedrock in my brain, teaching me how to write and think, as well as how to watch movies. And it was through his work that I began to realize that the life of a critic is nothing less than the best possible excuse for an extended conversation with the world. When you consider the length of Ebert’s career—which runs from Bonnie and Clyde through The Social Network and beyond—it becomes obvious that no other writer of the past five decades has engaged with so many artists and cultural issues for such a large audience. And it’s no wonder that Ebert’s other published work, which ranges from walks in London to the Phantom of the Opera to the joys of the rice cooker, is so beguilingly diverse: after a lifetime spent on the front lines of the culture, he’s emerged as complete a human being as they come.

But his greatest legacy, of course, is what he’s taught us about the movies. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking more closely at Ebert’s reviews, which have profoundly influenced the way I think about all works of art. (In the meantime, here’s a classic article about his wonderful house.)

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