Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Bryan Fuller

Choose life

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Inside Out

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 topic: “What show did you stop watching after a character was killed off?”

Inside Out is an extraordinary film on many levels, but what I appreciated about it the most was the reminder it provides of how to tell compelling stories on the smallest possible scale. The entire movie turns on nothing more—or less—than a twelve-year-old girl’s happiness. Riley is never in real physical danger; it’s all about how she feels. These stakes might seem relatively low, but as I watched it, I felt that the stakes were infinite, and not just because Riley reminded me so much of my own daughter. By the last scene, I was wrung out with emotion. And I think it stands as the strongest possible rebuke to the idea, so prevalent at the major studios, that mainstream audiences will only be moved or excited by stories in which the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance. As I’ve noted here before, “Raise the stakes” is probably the note that writers in Hollywood get the most frequently, right up there with “Make the hero more likable,” and its overuse has destroyed their ability to make such stories meaningful. When every superhero movie revolves around the fate of the entire planet, the death of six billion people can start to seem trivial. (The Star Trek reboot went there first, but even The Force Awakens falls into that trap: it kills off everyone on the Hosnian System for the sake of a throwaway plot point, and it moves on so quickly that it casts a pall over everything that follows.)

The more I think about this mindless emphasis on raising the stakes, the more it strikes me as a version of a phenomenon I’ve discussed a lot on this blog recently, in which big corporations tasked with making creative choices end up focusing on quantifiable but irrelevant metrics, at the expense of qualitative thinking about what users or audiences really need. For Apple, those proxy metrics are thinness and weight; for longform journalism, it’s length. And while “raising the stakes” isn’t quite as quantitative, it sort of feels that way, and it has the advantage of being the kind of rule that any midlevel studio employee can apply with minimal fear of being wrong. (It’s only when you aggregate all those decisions across the entire industry that you end up with movies that raise the stakes so high that they turn into weightless abstractions.) Saying that a script needs higher stakes is the equivalent of saying that a phone needs to be thinner: it’s a way to involve the maximum number of executives in the creative process who have no business being there in the first place. But that’s how corporations work. And the fact that Pixar has managed to avoid that trap, if not always, then at least consistently enough for the result to be more than accidental, is the most impressive thing about its legacy.

Kiefer Sutherland in 24

A television series, unlike a studio franchise, can’t blow up the world on a regular basis, but it can do much the same thing to its primary actors, who are the core building blocks of the show’s universe. As a result, the unmotivated killing of a main character has become television’s favorite way of raising the stakes—although by now, it feels just as lazy. As far as I can recall, I’ve never stopped watching a show solely because it killed off a character I liked, but I’ve often given up on a series, as I did with 24 and Game of Thrones and even The Vampire Diaries, when it became increasingly clear that it was incapable of doing anything else. Multiple shock killings emerge from a mindset that is no longer able to think itself into the lives of its characters: if you aren’t feeling your own story, you have no choice but to fall back on strategies for goosing the audience that seem to work on paper. But almost without exception, the seasons that followed would have been more interesting if those characters had been allowed to survive and develop in honest ways. Every removal of a productive cast member means a reduction of the stories that can be told, and the temporary increase in interest it generates doesn’t come close to compensating for that loss. A show that kills characters with abandon is squandering narrative capital and mortgaging its own future, so it’s no surprise if it eventually goes bankrupt.

A while back, Bryan Fuller told Entertainment Weekly that he had made an informal pledge to shun sexual violence on Hannibal, and when you replace “rape” with “murder,” you get a compelling case for avoiding gratuitous character deaths as well:   

There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience…“A character gets raped” is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation…And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in forty-two minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape…All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.

And I’d love to see more shows make a similar commitment to preserving their primary cast members. I’m not talking about character shields, but about finding ways of increasing the tension without taking the easy way out, as Breaking Bad did so well for so long. Death closes the door on storytelling, and the best shows are the ones that seem eager to keep that door open for as long as possible.

The monster in the writers room

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Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

Note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of Hannibal.

When it comes to making predictions about television shows, my track record is decidedly mixed. I was long convinced, for instance, that Game of Thrones would figure out a way to keep Oberyn Martell around, just because he was such fun to watch, and to say I was wrong about this is something of an understatement. Let the record show, however, that I said here months ago that the third season of Hannibal would end with Will Graham getting a knife through his face:

In The Silence of the Lambs, Crawford says that Graham’s face “looks like damned Picasso drew it.” None of the prior cinematic versions of this story have dared to follow through on this climax, but I have a feeling, given the evidence, that Fuller would embrace it. Taking Hugh Dancy’s face away, or making it hard for it look at, would be the ultimate rupture between the series and its viewers. Given the show’s cancellation, it may well end up being the very last thing we see. It would be a grim note on which to end. But it’s nothing that this series hasn’t taught us to expect.

This wasn’t the hardest prediction in the world to make. One of the most distinctive aspects of Bryan Fuller’s take on the Lecter saga is his willingness to pursue elements of the original novels that other adaptations have avoided, and the denouement of Red Dragon—with Will lying alone, disfigured, and mute in the hospital—is a downer ending that no other version of this story has been willing to touch.

Of course, that wasn’t what we got here, either. Instead of Will in his hospital bed, brooding silently on the indifference of the natural world to murder, we got a hysterical ballet of death, with Will and Hannibal teaming up to dispatch Dolarhyde like the water buffalo at the end of Apocalypse Now, followed by an operatic plunge over the edge of a cliff, with our two star-crossed lovers locked literally in each other’s arms. And it was a worthy finale for a series that has seemed increasingly indifferent to anything but that unholy love story. The details of Lecter’s escape from prison are wildly implausible, and whatever plan they reflect is hilariously undercooked, even for someone like Jack Crawford, who increasingly seems like the world’s worst FBI agent in charge. Hannibal has never been particularly interested its procedural elements, and its final season took that contempt to its final, ludicrous extreme. In the novel Red Dragon, Will, despite his demons, is a competent, inspired investigator, and he’s on the verge of apprehending Dolaryhyde through his own smarts when his quarry turns the tables. In Fuller’s version, unless I missed something along the way, Will doesn’t make a single useful deduction or take any meaningful action that isn’t the result of being manipulated by Hannibal or Jack. He’s a puppet, and dangerously close to what TV Tropes has called a Woobie: a character whom we enjoy seeing tortured so we can wish the pain away.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

None of this should be taken as a criticism of the show itself, in which any narrative shortcomings can hardly be separated from Fuller’s conscious decisions. But as enjoyable as the series has always been—and I’ve enjoyed it more than any network drama I’ve seen in at least a decade—it’s something less than an honest reckoning with its material. As a rule of thumb, the stories about Lecter, including Harris’s own novels, have been the most successful when they stick most closely to their roots as police procedurals. Harris started his career as a crime reporter, and his first three books, including Black Sunday, are masterpieces of the slow accumulation of convincing detail, spiced and enriched by a layer of gothic violence. When you remove that foundation of realistic suspense, you end up with a character who is dangerously uncontrollable: it’s Lecter, not Harris, who becomes the author of his own novel. In The Annotated Dracula, Leslie S. Klinger proposes a joke theory that the real author of that book is Dracula himself, who tracked down Bram Stoker and forced him to make certain changes to conceal the fact that he was alive and well and living in Transylvania. It’s an “explanation” that rings equally true of the novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, which read suspiciously as if Lecter were dictating elements of his own idealized autobiography to Harris. (As far as I know, nobody has seen or heard from Harris since Hannibal Rising came out almost a decade ago. Are we sure he’s all right?)

And there are times when Hannibal, the show, plays as if Lecter had gotten an executive producer credit sometime between the second and third seasons. If anything, this is a testament to his vividness: when properly acted and written, he dominates his stories to a greater extent than any fictional character since Sherlock Holmes. (In fact, the literary agent hypothesis—in which the credited writer of a series is alleged to be simply serving as a front—originated among fans of Conan Doyle, who often seemed bewildered by the secondary lives his characters assumed.) But there’s something unsettling about how Lecter inevitably takes on the role of a hero. My favorite stretch of Hannibal was the back half of the second season, which looked unflinchingly at Lecter’s true nature as a villain, cannibal, and destroyer of lives. When he left the entire supporting cast to bleed slowly to death at the end of “Mizumono,” it seemed impossible to regard him as an appealing figure ever again. And yet here we are, with an ending that came across as the ultimate act of fan service in a show that has never been shy about appealing to its dwindling circle of devotees. I can’t exactly blame it for this, especially because the slow dance of seduction between Will and Hannibal has always been a source of sick, irresistible fascination. But we’re as far ever from an adaptation that would force us to honestly confront why we’re so attached to a man who eats other people, or why we root for him to triumph over lesser monsters who make the mistake of not being so rich, cultured, or amusing. Lecter came into this season like a lion, but he went out, as always, like a lamb.

Eyes without a face

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Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

By now, Hannibal seems to be nearing its final stretch—its promised lifelines from Amazon or Netflix have failed to materialize—but it still retains its full ability to shock and amuse. The funniest thing about last night’s episode came at the very beginning: unlike every other installment of the show this season, it aired without a viewer discretion advisory warning us of the violent imagery to come. And if anyone really thought that this meant the show was going to soften its content for its move to Saturdays, it took about ten seconds for it to disabuse us of that notion. (If the commercials that aired with it are any indication, the network evidently assumes that most of its viewers now are well over the age of sixty, and have probably seen it all.) “Digestivo,” which marks the end of the Mason Verger arc, as remixed from the novel Hannibal, may be the most violent episode of broadcast television I’ve ever witnessed. My wife watched much of it from between her fingers, and while I had a good idea of what was coming, it was both bracing and horrifying to see Bryan Fuller go further than Ridley Scott or Thomas Harris himself ever dared. I was pretty sure, based on the source material, that I was going to see a moray eel going down Mason’s throat; what I didn’t anticipate was the prospect of him eating Lecter, piece by piece, using Will Graham’s transplanted face. It isn’t an image that I relished, exactly, but it deserves a slow clap from anyone who thought Fuller might lose his nerve toward the end.

Ultimately, of course, both Lecter and Will were spared, at least for now. Mason wakes up from surgery wearing someone else’s face, but it turns out to belong to Cordell, the world’s most sadistic nurse and transplant surgeon, and it quickly slides off to the floor. It’s an unbelievably gruesome sight, and it reminds us of how willing Hannibal has always been to capitalize on our deepest fears about disfigurement. Decades ago, Pauline Kael made a similar point while discussing the polarized critical and audience reaction to Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars:

The danger is to the eyes. If the killer had gone for the throat, probably the movie wouldn’t be so frightening and wouldn’t be considered immoral…Laura Mars violates our guardedness about our eyes. The most dreaded thing that can happen to what many regard as their most sensitive organs happens in this picture; like Un Chien Andalou, it attacks what we’re watching the movie with.

Hearing Kael refer to the eyes as our “most sensitive” organs reminds me a little of what Woody Allen said about the brain: “It’s my second-favorite organ.” And Hannibal isn’t above making us fear for what might happen below Lecter’s waist. (The most disturbing moment in the episode, at least for me, was Mason’s speech about the actual cannibal Armin Meiwes, which reminds us that real life can produce monsters as horrible as anything fiction could devise.) But the face, like the eyes, has a special status in our nightmares, and by targeting it, as Kael cannily notes, it’s as if the show is attacking us at the very place at which we’re joined to the narrative.

Caroline Dhavernas and Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

And so much of the power of visual storytelling is derived from the filmed human face that destroying it feels like an assault on the idea of emotional connection itself. I noted years ago that the later films of Tom Cruise, who is in many respects our most interesting movie star, play like a series of variations on the theme of masks and facial disfigurement. He wears a mask in Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky, the latter of which, along with Minority Report, all but erases his features, and even a franchise as escapist as the Mission: Impossible films is built on masks and their removal: the most delicious mislead in the entire series comes at the start of M:I-2, when Cruise peels away his face to reveal Dougray Scott beneath. Cruise returns to these images of masks and disfigurement so obsessively in his best films that it’s hard not to see it as a reflection of his ambivalence toward his own good looks. That’s what makes him so fascinating as a star: no actor, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner noted in The New York Times Magazine, has ever worked harder for our pleasure, but it’s all built around a core of secrecy and withholding. And the destruction of the most famous male face in the world, even in fantasy, seems designed to force us to think about the nature of our feelings about it. (Cruise, for what it’s worth, seems to have moved on: he allegedly turned down the lead in Iron Man because it would have required him to wear a mask for much of the movie.)

It’s a theme that Hannibal has mined from the beginning, and it’s right there in its sources. Mason Verger is defined by his lack of facial features, and it feels intuitively right that Lecter makes his improbable escape in The Silence of the Lambs by peeling off another man’s face and wearing it like a mask. Much of Hannibal, the show, has been devoted to the systematic removal of the masks that Lecter wears, or what multiple characters have called his “person suit”—a veiled nod to the literal person suit that Buffalo Bill will later construct. And there’s a strong possibility that the show, if it had been renewed, would have taken it even further. At the end of Red Dragon, which Hannibal is about to retell in loving detail, Will Graham all but loses his face:

[Dolarhyde] pinned Graham with his knees, raised the knife high and grunted as he brought it down. The blade missed Graham’s eye and crunched deep into his cheek.

And the damage was permanent: in The Silence of the Lambs, Crawford says that Graham’s face “looks like damned Picasso drew it.” None of the prior cinematic versions of this story have dared to follow through on this climax, but I have a feeling, given the evidence, that Fuller would embrace it. Taking Hugh Dancy’s face away, or making it hard for it look at, would be the ultimate rupture between the series and its viewers. Given the show’s cancellation, it may well end up being the very last thing we see. It would be a grim note on which to end. But it’s nothing that this series hasn’t taught us to expect.

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2015 at 9:14 am

Typhoid and swans

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Hugh Dancy in Hannibal

Last year, when Community was abruptly served its walking papers by NBC, I wrote the following on this blog:

Community has been canceled. It was a move that took a lot of us, including me, by surprise, and it was announced just as I’d absorbed the happy news that Hannibal was coming back for at least one more season…At a moment when the show seemed so confident of renewal that it ended the season with an episode that all but took it for granted, it’s gone.

Later in the same post, I noted: “Of course, the peculiar thing about watching a cult series these days is that you just never know what might happen.” Still, my overall tone was pessimistic, if not outright dismissive, about the hopes for its revival in some other form. Which just shows how much difference a year makes. Within minutes of yesterday’s announcement that Hannibal had indeed been canceled, speculation was already turning to which online or cable outlet would be picking it up for a fourth season. It made the cancellation seem less like a death sentence than like a suspenseful interlude as we wait to see the conditions under which the characters will survive—or pretty much what Hannibal itself does on a regular basis.

Of course, there’s no guarantee. Bryan Fuller, who never had a series run for even two years until now, seems to have had few illusions about the show’s prospects: the current season is burning through material so quickly, not just from Red Dragon but from Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, that it feels like Fuller is trying to cram as much as possible into his available window. Still, even the tangible possibility of the show getting picked up elsewhere represents a curious mental adjustment for viewers. In the old days, attempts to save threatened shows were the province of grassroots campaigns, with fans bombarding networks with letters, muffins, or bottles of tabasco sauce. Sometimes it worked; usually it didn’t. Now revivals that would have once seemed utterly out of the question are on the table, thanks not to fan enthusiasm but to a shifting media landscape, with players both new and old eager to produce quality content for an existing audience. Next year alone, we’re going to see continuations of both The X-Files and Twin Peaks with their casts and creative crews intact, including a new episode of the former by Darin Morgan, which is basically the full realization of all my fanboy dreams. And it means that just about anything seems possible. (The glaring exception, somewhat hilariously, remains Firefly, which has nothing going for it except a rabid fanbase and the patronage of the most powerful director in Hollywood.)

Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks

And as Lecter himself once said: “Typhoid and swans—it all comes from the same place.” In a way, this is all the bright side of the aversion to risk that characterizes so much entertainment these days. Hollywood is obsessed with sequels, reboots, and remakes for movies that were perfectly fine on their own, but television has enough shows that were canceled before their time to make a return to an old idea seem less like a sign of creative bankruptcy than a gift from the gods. It’s probably too much to ask a company with obligations to its shareholders—and executives praying not to get fired—to make much of a stand for great content for its own sake: we can only wait for those moments when their interests happen to align with what we care about, even if it’s by accident. That’s the funny thing about the entertainment industry. The same corporate mindset that thought people wanted to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is also responsible for bringing David Lynch back to the Black Lodge. On an individual level, it’s possible that development executives can differentiate between the two, but it all runs together on a balance sheet. And the primary difference between Twin Peaks and Spider-Man, aside from their cost, is their gestation period. It takes only a couple of years for a comic book franchise to start to look attractive again; with a cult television show, it’s probably closer to twenty. But even that timeline is starting to accelerate.

So how would a fourth season of Hannibal look? Fuller doesn’t have the rights to The Silence of the Lambs, which would be the logical next step in the series, but he’s hinted that he’s not particularly worried about this. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he says: “There is a pocket in one of the novels of some really rich interesting character material that I’m inverting and twisting around.” He goes on to explain what he means, off the record, and the reporter tells us, in a coy parenthesis, “It is is indeed radical.” There’s no telling what he has in mind, but my own hunch is that it involves a throwaway line about Will’s fate after the events of Red Dragon:

Will Graham, the keenest hound ever to run in Crawford’s pack, was a legend at the Academy; he was also a drunk in Florida now with a face that was hard to look at, they said.

I’d love to see this version of the show, as much as I’d love to see Fuller’s take on Clarice Starling. Yet even if we never get it, there’s reason to be content. The Silence of the Lambs is already a great movie. Thanks to Fuller and his collaborators, we also have a more satisfying filmed version of the rest of the Lecter saga than we’ve ever had before. Taken together, it’s a body of work more than worthy of the novels that inspired it. That’s a tremendous achievement. And it happened despite, not because of, what fans loved about this show in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2015 at 10:26 am

The Monster of Florence

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The cast of Hannibal

Like most great acts of trickery, narrative and otherwise, the television series Hannibal hinges on a feat of sleight of hand. At first glance, its source material could hardly seem more clear, since it’s there each week in the opening credits: “Based on the characters from the book Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.” Yet the more I watch it—and this is my favorite network drama in years—the more I’m convinced that its real influences lie elsewhere. Once you get past its florid title and grotesque gallery of murderers, the novel Red Dragon is essentially a realistic thriller, with some of the most detailed and convincing procedural elements that the genre ever produced. (I’ve seen books on writing that recommend studying it as a sourcebook on forensic technique.) It’s no wonder that Michael Mann, our most obsessive cinematic chronicler of men at work, was drawn to it: Manhunter, which puts its director’s name directly in the title, remains the most faithful filmed version of this story that we have. Bryan Fuller’s interests, to put it mildly, are somewhat different. There’s hardly a credible moment of forensic analysis or laboratory procedure anywhere to be found on this show: the investigative team is there primarily to provide subtle comic relief, and most of the crimes are solved, literally, by an act of Will.

Because the title of this show, after all, isn’t Red Dragon, but Hannibal. And as the series has unfolded, it has become manifestly clear that its real thematic touchstone is the novel of the same name, along with its notorious adaptation by Ridley Scott. In itself, this is a daring choice: neither the novel nor the movie Hannibal ranks high among anyone’s favorites, unless you’re Stephen King or David Thomson, and even if you like aspects of both, as I do, it’s hard not to see it as the point when Harris’s tendency toward the overwrought and gruesome overwhelmed his keen instincts as a crime reporter. Yet it’s those very excesses that seem to fascinate Fuller. The show’s lineup of serial killers of the week has grown increasingly baroque, to the point where Francis Dolarhyde, who merely slaughtered two families in their homes, might find it hard to make an impression. Characters from the novel Hannibal, like Mason Verger and his sister Margot, are given big roles, and the show’s visual aesthetic—all dripping blood and dark, candied surfaces—has more in common with the later Harris than the stark, clean lines of the early books. And the fact that the new season draws liberally on Lecter’s adventures in Florence signals that it intends to dive even deeper into those gothic trenches.

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

Yet Hannibal, the show, pulls it off, when the book and movie mostly didn’t. And this is thanks largely to its clarity of purpose regarding the character of Lecter himself. Harris’s last two books suffer from his growing identification with Lecter, along with a curious misreading of his appeal. As Martin Amis was among the first to point out, Hannibal frees Lecter only to turn him into an arch consumer with a taste for expensive brand names, rather than the severe, poised monster he was at his best. Here’s his airline meal on the plane ride home:

An elegant yellow box trimmed with brown from Fauchon, the Paris caterer. It is tied with two ribbons of silk gauze in complementary colors. Dr. Lecter has provisioned himself with wonderfully aromatic truffled pâté de foie gras, and Anatolian figs still weeping from their severed stems. He has a half-bottle of a St. Estephe he favors. The silk bow yields with a whisper…

This kind of thing can go on and on—and it does. In his cell, Lecter seems like a being of infinite possibility; in Florence, he’s a fop and snob whose choices are designed to tickle the most superficial of bourgeois instincts, a primate of the Ponte Vecchio.

And while the series doesn’t shy away from showing us Lecter’s decadent lifestyle, it benefits from a more reasoned understanding of his evil. Lecter, for once, is the villain here: we’ve seen him destroy lives and inflict pain to an extent that the books themselves never acknowledged. By ridding itself of Harris’s ambivalence toward his own creation, the show is better equipped to walk its fine line between real dread and campy decadence. One of the pleasures of Hannibal is how close it always seems to crossing over into parody, and it’s deliciously aware of this. The dialogue is so mannered that you feel you could put together an algorithm to generate it on demand: “Morality doesn’t exist. Only morale.” But by keeping itself at arm’s length from its title character, which it regards like a beautiful but deadly wasp in a jar, it allows us to delight in Lecter’s extravagances while not asking us to buy into his values. The result is one of the weirdest, perversely singular shows around: for a series that seems perpetually on the cusp of cancellation, last night’s season premiere was almost willfully uninviting to new viewers. Whether the show can maintain that balance for much longer remains to be seen, and even as it stands, it’s doubtful if it would work at all for an audience that hadn’t been taught how to watch it. For now, though, it’s great, gut-wrenching fun, even if it only pulls it off by the skin of its teeth.

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2015 at 9:05 am

The monster in the mirror

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Psycho

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: “If you were a horror movie villain, what would be your hook?”

In horror movies, we’re supposed to relate to the victims, but some of the genre’s most enduring works implicate us into an uneasy identification with the monster. I’m not talking about the films that invite the audience to cheer as another mad slasher takes out a platoon of teenagers, or even more sophisticated examples like the original Halloween, which locks us into the killer’s eyes with its opening tracking shot. What I have in mind is something more like Norman Bates. Norman is “nutty as a fruitcake,” to use Roger Ebert’s memorable words, but he’s also immensely appealing and sympathetic in the middle sequence of Psycho, much more so than John Gavin’s square, conventional hero. The connection Norman has with Marion as she eats her sandwich in the parlor is real, or at least real enough to convince her to return the stolen money, and it fools us temporarily into thinking that this movie will be an adventure involving these two shy souls. Because what defines Norman isn’t his insanity, or even his mother issues, but his loneliness. As he says wistfully to Marion: “Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies. They moved away the highway.”

Which is only to say that in Norman, we’re confronted with a weird, distorted image of our own introversion, with his teenager’s room and Beethoven’s Eroica on the record player. Other memorable villains force us to confront other aspects of ourselves by taking these tendencies to their murderous conclusion. Hannibal Lecter is a strange case, since he’s so superficially seductive, and he was ultimately transformed into the hero of his own series. What he really represents, though, is aestheticism run amok. We’d all love to have his tastes in books, music, and food—well, maybe not entirely the latter—but they come at the price of his complete estrangement from all human connection, or an inability to regard other people as anything other than items on a menu. Sometimes, it’s literal; at others, it’s figurative, as he takes an interest in Will Graham or Clarice Starling only to the extent that they can relieve his boredom. Lecter, we’re told, eats only the rude, but “rude” can have two meanings, and for the most part, it ends up referring to those too lowly or rough to meet his own high standards. (Bryan Fuller, to his credit, has given us multiple reminders of how psychotic Lecter’s behavior really is.)

Kevin Spacey in Seven

And if Lecter cautions us against the perversion of our most refined impulses, Jack Torrance represents the opposite: “The susceptible imagination,” as David Thomson notes, “of a man who lacks the skills to be a writer.” Along with so much else, The Shining is the best portrait of a writer we have on film, because we can all relate to Jack’s isolation and frustration. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill: you’re surrounded by gorgeous empty spaces, as well as the ghosts of your own ambitions, and all you can manage to do is bounce a tennis ball against the wall, again and again and again. There isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy, and whenever I tell people what I’m working on at the moment, I can’t help but hear a whisper of Jack’s cheerful statement to Ullman: “I’m outlining a new writing project, and five months of peace is just what I want.”

There’s another monster who gets at an even darker aspect of the writer’s craft: John Doe in Seven. I don’t think there’s another horror movie that binds the process of its own making so intimately to the villain’s pathology: Seven is so beautifully constructed and so ingenious that it takes us a while to realize that John Doe is essentially writing the screenplay. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script was sensational enough to get him out of a job at Tower Records, but despite the moral center that Morgan Freeman’s character provides, it’s hard to escape the sense that the film delights more in its killer’s cleverness, which can’t be separated from the writer’s. Unlike Jack Torrance, John Doe is superbly good at what he does, and he’s frightening primarily as an example of genius and facility without heart. The impulse that pushes him to use human lives as pieces in his masterpiece of murder is only the absurdist conclusion of the tendency in so many writers, including me, to treat violence as a narrative tool, a series of marks that the plot needs to hit to keep the story moving. I’m not saying that the two are morally equivalent. But Seven—even in its final limitations, which Fincher later went on to explode in Zodiac—is still a scary film for any writer who ever catches himself treating life and death as a game.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2014 at 9:01 am

The Long Game

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Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

Note: Spoilers follow for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

Last week, while writing about the season finale of Hannibal, I laid out a pet theory about television shows that have a tendency to kill off their lead characters:

When it comes to predicting who lives and who dies, I’d like to think that [Bryan] Fuller will follow Lecter’s own rule: “The world is more interesting with you in it.” I feel the same way about Game of Thrones, which isn’t shy about killing off its leads, but only if the dramatic weight gained by one bloody incident offsets the loss from the character’s absence. If you’re fun to watch, you’re more likely to make it.

In other words, when someone dies, there’s always a tradeoff involved, and a smart show will only eliminate a protagonist if the short-term benefit outweighs the long-term cost of no longer having that character around. This rule doesn’t really work for a show like The Vampire Diaries, which finds myriad ways of resurrecting its key players, but until recently, it did a decent job of explaining events on Game of Thrones. The characters who died tended to be either figureheads who were more interesting in what they represented than in their actions within the story; initially compelling players who had been increasingly sidelined; or ostensible leads who weren’t all that engaging in the first place. And I felt confident that if a character—or actor—was actively enriching the show by his or her presence, the series wouldn’t lightly throw it away.

Well, so much for that theory. (In financial terms, the model worked fine when tested against past data, but fell apart outside my historical sample.) If last night’s episode was especially shocking, even for a show that seems designed to regularly break its viewers’ hearts, it’s partially because of the ways in which the series has diverged unexpectedly from the books. To hear readers tell it, Oberyn doesn’t seem to have been a particularly memorable character on the page, but Pedro Pascal’s performance has been one of the small delights of an often meandering season, and his departure feels like a real loss in a way that previous fatalities have not. Another series, after seeing what it had on the screen, might have revised the storyline accordingly—it wouldn’t be the first time that a character was granted a stay of execution because of the charisma a performer brought to the part—but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been cruelly faithful to Martin’s overall vision. There really wasn’t any way to keep Oberyn around, and it’s in the collision between what the show was slowly discovering on its own and the brutal necessities of its source material that makes the outcome so painful.

Pedro Pascal on Game of Thrones

I’m not really complaining here: it’s that very tension between the unpredictable nature of television and the demands of the text that makes this show special. Still, Oberyn’s death bothered me beyond any reasonable measure, and I don’t think it’s entirely because I’d grown so attached to the character—or because his demise was so graphic. (You know when a show has set a new standard for violence when I start to long nostalgically for Hannibal‘s more aestheticized form of bloodshed.) Game of Thrones is a good show that I’m glad to have the chance to watch, but there’s also a sense in which it uses its virtuoso moments of gore and reversal to cover up the lack of momentum elsewhere. A lot of the fourth season has felt like it was stalling for time: events at Castle Black and across the Narrow Sea have been stuck in a holding pattern, with much talk and declamation leaving the characters more or less exactly where they were before, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that they’re playing for time. For all her power, Daenerys can’t go anywhere or do much of anything yet because we still have four more books of material to cover, and the result has turned one of my favorite characters from the early days of the series into something dangerously resembling a bore.

In retrospect, I think it may have been a mistake to divide the third novel across two seasons: it buys Martin more time to finish the books, but it leads to a lot of thumbs twiddling between the squishing of heads. To its credit, Game of Thrones has always nailed the big moments, and I’m eagerly looking forward to next week’s episode, which, if the pattern from previous seasons is any indication, should be a real barnburner. Over the long term, though, the show needs to find a more sustainable rhythm if episodes like “The Mountain and the Viper” are going to play like the dramatic culminations they are, rather than another instance of Martin and company jerking the audience around. This may require even more radical departures from the structure the books have imposed, and even a willingness to drop certain plot threads altogether—while building up the rest—until the time comes to integrate them again into the main story. This isn’t a radical notion; serialized television drops and picks up characters all the time, and the space it gains allows the show to develop its heart more fully. Game of Thrones spends an inordinate amount of time, even now, reminding us that certain characters exist, when that space might have been better spent showing characters like Oberyn simply existing, if only until they depart from the stage for good.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2014 at 9:38 am

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