Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Casablanca

Shoot the piano player

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In his flawed but occasionally fascinating book Bambi vs. Godzilla, the playwright and director David Mamet spends a chapter discussing the concept of aesthetic distance, which is violated whenever viewers remember that they’re simply watching a movie. Mamet provides a memorable example:

An actor portrays a pianist. The actor sits down to play, and the camera moves, without a cut, to his hands, to assure us, the audience, that he is actually playing. The filmmakers, we see, have taken pains to show the viewers that no trickery has occurred, but in so doing, they have taught us only that the actor portraying the part can actually play the piano. This addresses a concern that we did not have. We never wondered if the actor could actually play the piano. We accepted the storyteller’s assurances that the character could play the piano, as we found such acceptance naturally essential to our understanding of the story.

Mamet imagines a hypothetical dialogue between the director and the audience: “I’m going to tell you a story about a pianist.” “Oh, good: I wonder what happens to her!” “But first, before I do, I will take pains to reassure you that the actor you see portraying the hero can actually play the piano.” And he concludes:

We didn’t care till the filmmaker brought it up, at which point we realized that, rather than being told a story, we were being shown a demonstration. We took off our “audience” hat and put on our “judge” hat. We judged the demonstration conclusive but, in so doing, got yanked right out of the drama. The aesthetic distance had been violated.

Let’s table this for now, and turn to a recent article in The Atlantic titled “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen.” To prosecute the case laid out in the headline, the film critic Christopher Orr draws on Eric Lax’s new book Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking, which describes the making of Irrational Man—a movie that nobody saw, which doesn’t make the book sound any less interesting. For Orr, however, it’s “an indictment framed as an encomium,” and he lists what he evidently sees as devastating charges:

Allen’s editor sometimes has to live with technical imperfections in the footage because he hasn’t shot enough takes for her to choose from…As for the shoot itself, Allen has confessed, “I don’t do any preparation. I don’t do any rehearsals. Most of the times I don’t even know what we’re going to shoot.” Indeed, Allen rarely has any conversations whatsoever with his actors before they show up on set…In addition to limiting the number of takes on any given shot, he strongly prefers “master shots”—those that capture an entire scene from one angle—over multiple shots that would subsequently need to be edited together.

For another filmmaker, all of these qualities might be seen as strengths, but that’s beside the point. Here’s the relevant passage:

The minimal commitment that appearing in an Allen film entails is a highly relevant consideration for a time-strapped actor. Lax himself notes the contrast with Mike Leigh—another director of small, art-house films—who rehearses his actors for weeks before shooting even starts. For Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Stone and her co-star, Ryan Gosling, rehearsed for four months before the cameras rolled. Among other chores, they practiced singing, dancing, and, in Gosling’s case, piano. The fact that Stone’s Irrational Man character plays piano is less central to that movie’s plot, but Allen didn’t expect her even to fake it. He simply shot her recital with the piano blocking her hands.

So do we shoot the piano player’s hands or not? The boring answer, unfortunately, is that it depends—but perhaps we can dig a little deeper. It seems safe to say that it would be impossible to make The Pianist with Adrian Brody’s hands conveniently blocked from view for the whole movie. But I’m equally confident that it doesn’t matter the slightest bit in Irrational Man, which I haven’t seen, whether or not Emma Stone is really playing the piano. La La Land is a slightly trickier case. It would be hard to envision it without at least a few shots of Ryan Gosling playing the piano, and Damien Chazelle isn’t above indulging in exactly the camera move that Mamet decries, in which it tilts down to reassure us that it’s really Gosling playing. Yet the fact that we’re even talking about this gets down to a fundamental problem with the movie, which I mostly like and admire. Its characters are archetypes who draw much of their energy from the auras of the actors who play them, and in the case of Stone, who is luminous and moving as an aspiring actress suffering through an endless series of auditions, the film gets a lot of mileage from our knowledge that she’s been in the same situation. Gosling, to put it mildly, has never been an aspiring jazz pianist. This shouldn’t even matter, but every time we see him playing the piano, he briefly ceases to be a struggling artist and becomes a handsome movie star who has spent three months learning to fake it. And I suspect that the movie would have been elevated immensely by casting a real musician. (This ties into another issue with La La Land, which is that it resorts to telling us that its characters deserve to be stars, rather than showing it to us in overwhelming terms through Gosling and Stone’s singing and dancing, which is merely passable. It’s in sharp contrast to Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, one of its clear spiritual predecessors, in which it’s impossible to watch Liza Minnelli without becoming convinced that she ought to be the biggest star in the world. And when you think of how quirky, repellent, and individual Minnelli and Robert De Niro are allowed to be in that film, La La Land starts to look a little schematic.)

And I don’t think I’m overstating it when I argue that the seemingly minor dilemma of whether to show the piano player’s hands shades into the larger problem of how much we expect our actors to really be what they pretend that they are. I don’t think any less of Bill Murray because he had to employ Terry Fryer as a “hand double” for his piano solo in Groundhog Day, and I don’t mind that the most famous movie piano player of them all—Dooley Wilson in Casablanca—was faking it. And there’s no question that you’re taken out of the movie a little when you see Richard Chamberlain playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in The Music Lovers, however impressive it might be. (I’m willing to forgive De Niro learning to mime the saxophone for New York, New York, if only because it’s hard to imagine how it would look otherwise. The piano is just about the only instrument in which it can plausibly be left at the director’s discretion. And in his article, revealingly, Orr fails to mention that none other than Woody Allen was insistent that Sean Penn learn the guitar for Sweet and Lowdown. As Allen himself might say, it depends.) On some level, we respond to an actor playing the piano much like the fans of Doctor Zhivago, whom Pauline Kael devastatingly called “the same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.” But it can serve the story as much as it can detract from it, and the hard part is knowing how and when. As one director notes:

Anybody can learn how to play the piano. For some people it will be very, very difficult—but they can learn it. There’s almost no one who can’t learn to play the piano. There’s a wide range in the middle, of people who can play the piano with various degrees of skill; a very, very narrow band at the top, of people who can play brilliantly and build upon a technical skill to create great art. The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills. Directing is just a technical skill.

This is Mamet writing in On Directing Film, which is possibly the single best work on storytelling I know. You might not believe him when he says that directing is “just a technical skill,” but if you do, there’s a simple way to test if you have it. Do you show the piano player’s hands? If you know the right answer for every scene, you just might be a director.

Rogue One and the logic of the story reel

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Gareth Edwards and Felicity Jones on the set of Rogue One

Last week, I came across a conversation on Yahoo Movies UK with John Gilroy and Colin Goudie, two of the editors who worked on Rogue One. I’ve never read an interview with a movie editor that wasn’t loaded with insights into storytelling, and this one is no exception. Here’s my favorite tidbit, in which Goudie describes cutting together a story reel early in the production process:

There was no screenplay, there was just a story breakdown at that point, scene by scene. [Director Gareth Edwards] got me to rip hundreds of movies and basically make Rogue One using other films so that they could work out how much dialogue they actually needed in the film.

It’s very simple to have a line [in the script] that reads “Krennic’s shuttle descends to the planet.” Now that takes maybe two to three seconds in other films, but if you look at any other Star Wars film you realize that takes forty-five seconds or a minute of screen time. So by making the whole film that way—I used a lot of the Star Wars films—but also hundreds of other films, too, it gave us a good idea of the timing.

This is a striking observation in itself. If Rogue One does an excellent job of recreating the feel of its source material, and I think it does, it’s because it honors its rhythms—which differ in subtle respects from those of other films—to an extent that the recent Star Trek movies mostly don’t. Goudie continues:

For example, the sequence of them breaking into the vault, I was ripping the big door closing in WarGames to work out how long does a vault door take to close.

So that’s what I did, and that was three months work to do that, and that had captions at the bottom which explained the action that was going to be taking place, and two thirds of the screen was filled with the concept art that had already been done and one quarter, the bottom corner, was the little movie clip to give you how long that scene would actually take.

Then I used dialogue from other movies to give you a sense of how long it would take in other films for someone to be interrogated. So for instance, when Jyn gets interrogated at the beginning of the film by the Rebel council, I used the scene where Ripley gets interrogated in Aliens.

Rogue One

This might seem like little more than interesting trivia, but there’s actually a lot to unpack. You could argue that the ability to construct an entire Star Wars movie out of analogous scenes from other films only points to how derivative the series has always been: it’s hard to imagine doing this for, say, Manchester By the Sea, or even Inception. But that’s also a big part of the franchise’s appeal. Umberto Eco famously said that Casablanca was made up of the memories of other movies, and he suggested that a cult movie—which we can revisit in our imagination from different angles, rather than recalling it as a seamless whole—is necessarily “unhinged”:

Only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.

After reminding us of the uncertain circumstances under which Casablanca was written and filmed, Eco then suggests: “When you don’t know how to deal with a story, you put stereotyped situations in it because you know that they, at least, have already worked elsewhere…My guess is that…[director Michael Curtiz] was simply quoting, unconsciously, similar situations in other movies and trying to provide a reasonably complete repetition of them.”

What interests me the most is Eco’s conclusion: “What Casablanca does unconsciously, other movies will do with extreme intertextual awareness, assuming also that the addressee is equally aware of their purposes.” He cites Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. as two examples, and he easily could have named Star Wars as well, which is explicitly made up of such references. (In fact, George Lucas was putting together story reels before there was even a word for it: “Every time there was a war movie on television, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri, I would watch it—and if there was a dogfight sequence, I would videotape it. Then we would transfer that to 16mm film, and I’d just edit it according to my story of Star Wars. It was really my way of getting a sense of the movement of the spaceships.”) What Eco doesn’t mention—perhaps because he was writing a generation ago—is how such films can pass through intertextuality and end up on the other side. They create memories for viewers who aren’t familiar with the originals, and they end up being quoted in turn by filmmakers who only know Star Wars. They become texts in themselves. In assembling a story reel from hundreds of other movies, Edwards and Goudie were only doing in a literal fashion what most storytellers do in their heads. They figure out how a story should “look” at its highest level, in a rough sketch of the whole, and fill in the details later. The difference here is that Rogue One had the budget and resources to pay someone to do it for real, in a form that could be timed down to the second and reviewed by others, on the assumption that it would save money and effort down the line. Did it work? I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

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January 12, 2017 at 9:13 am

The alphabet method

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Your Key to Creative Thinking

It might seem like quite a leap to get from The Gulag Archipelago to The Complete Scarsdale Medial Diet, but creativity makes for strange bedfellows. I got to thinking yesterday about Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which he used to compose and memorize poetry in prison, after picking up a book by Samm Sinclair Baker, who cowrote the aforementioned diet manual with the unfortunate Dr. Herman Tarnower. Baker, of whom I hadn’t heard until recently, was an intriguing figure in his own right. He was a former gag cartoonist who became an advertising copywriter and executive at two agencies during the Mad Men era, and then quit to write a series of self-help books on subjects ranging from gardening to skin problems to sex. Among them was a slim volume called Your Key to Creative Thinking, which I picked up at a yard sale last weekend for less than a dollar. It’s a breezy read, full of useful advice, much of which I’ve covered on this blog before. Baker advises the reader to seek out as many facts as possible; to adapt ideas from different fields or categories; to use words or pictures as a source of random associations; to invert your criteria or assumptions; to take good notes; and to let the ideas simmer by relaxing or going for a walk. They’re all valuable tips, of the kind that nearly every creative professional figures out eventually, and Baker presents them in a fluffy but engaging way. Used copies of his book currently sell for a penny on Amazon, and it’s worth checking out if, like me, you’re addicted to this sort of thing.

But what really caught my eye—and for reasons that may not have occurred to the author himself—was a section titled “Alphabet Creative-Spur System.” Baker writes:

Here’s a little creative-spur system that I’ve always kept as a helpful, small “secret method” for myself. It’s a quick aid in sparking creative thinking and rapid results.

This system is simply a matter of running down the alphabet with the key word of your problem and developing ideas in rhyming variations of the word…On quick, simple problems run the key word through your mind, varying it letter by letter, from A to Z, in rhyming fashion.

In respect to more complicated, weightier problems, work with pencil and paper, or typewriter, setting down letter by letter and filling out accordingly.

As an example, Baker uses the word “detergent.” He runs through the alphabet, looking for rhymes and near-rhymes like “emergent” (“You can see how greater cleanliness ‘emerges’ from using this detergent”), “he-detergent” (“Consider featuring this one as the ‘he-man’ detergent that has extra muscle”), and “pre-tergent” (“This suggests a preparatory phase built into the product, so that it produces double cleaning action”).

Casablanca

At first glance, the method seems cute but not particularly revelatory. What struck me when I tried it, though, is how conveniently it can be done in your head, and how easy it is to remember the results. That’s a more powerful combination than it sounds. I’ve developed a lot of creative hacks over the years, from mind maps to the use of random quotations to spark a train of thought, but most require a fair amount of preparation, or at least that I sit down for half an hour or so with pen and paper. This isn’t always possible, and one of the key problems in any creative artist’s life is how to fill in those precious scraps of time—on the bus, in line at the grocery store, in the shower—that seem like prime real estate for thinking. The nifty thing about the alphabet method is its simplicity, its instantaneous accessibility, and its ease of retention. It doesn’t require any tools at all. The underlying mechanism is automatic, almost mindless. You can do it for thirty seconds or five minutes while keeping half of your attention somewhere else. And best of all, the ideas that it generates can be called back without any effort, assuming that the connection between the rhyming key word and the associated concept is solid enough. That’s a nice benefit in itself. Writers are advised to keep a notebook on hand at all times, but that isn’t always possible. With the alphabet method, you don’t need to worry about writing down what it generates, because you can always recreate your train of thought with a minimum of trouble.

And I have a hunch that it could provide the basis for other creative strategies. The idea of using the alphabet as a mnemonic device isn’t a new one, and there are even theories that the alphabet itself arose as a way to memorize information encoded in the order and names of the letters. (Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, offers up a particularly ingenious interpretation along these lines.) But it isn’t hard to envision a system in which the beats of a story, say, could be retained in the head by associating each section with an alphabetic keyword. Here, for instance, is how I’d memorize the first few story points of Casablanca:

A) “African music,” followed by the Marseillaise, plays over the opening credits. As Umberto Eco notes: “Two different genres are evoked: adventure movie and patriotic movie.”
B) “But not everyone could get to Lisbon directly.” The narrator describes the refugee trail from Paris.
C) “Casablanca to Lisbon to America.” Refugees wait for visas to make the trip to the promised land.
D) “Deutschland über Alles.” The arrival of Major Strasser. His conversation with Captain Renault.
E) “Everybody comes to Rick’s…”

And so on. The human brain isn’t particularly good at keeping track of more than a few pieces of information at a time, but the great thing about the alphabet method is that you aren’t really memorizing anything: you’re just preserving the initial seed of a process that can be used to generate the same idea when necessary. I may not remember exactly what Baker had in mind with the word “pre-tergent,” but I can reconstruct it easily, and that’s doubly true when it comes to my own ideas. All it requires is that you know the alphabet, that you can run through it letter by letter, and that you’re more or less the same person you were when you came up with the idea in the first place. You don’t need a rosary. All you need is the alphabet, and yourself.

Elsa and the two Ilsas

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Frozen

Last weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Disney on Ice, about a third of which was devoted to a Cliffs Notes version of Frozen. Hearing those familiar songs again in an arena with a raucous family audience, I was struck once more by how that film’s spectacular success emerged from the intersection of two peerless bags of tricks: the musical and the animated cartoon. Disney has taken cues from Broadway for a long time, of course, but in Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, they found a creative duo that understood those stage conventions inside and out, and the movie runs off their knowledge like a battery. Lopez, in particular, emerged as such a fluent ventriloquist of the Sesame Street style in Avenue Q that I remember talking to an acquaintance of his—a member of the same musical theater circles—who assumed that he could do nothing else. In fact, as it soon became clear, he can do just about anything. He reminds me at times of a less cynical version of Stephin Merritt, a master of formulas who has imbibed the grammar and, yes, the clichés of his medium so completely that he can deploy them almost without thinking. And what sets Lopez apart is that he’s both totally aware of how manipulative that framework can be and willing to use it in the service of what feels like genuine, unfaked emotion.

When you watch Frozen through that lens, you start to notice how many of its most memorable effects are achieved by an ingenious rearrangement of those basic components. In “For the First Time in Forever,” for instance, when the movie cuts away from Anna—who takes the song up a half-step with every verse—to Elsa singing the emotional counterpoint of “Let it Go,” and then begins to cut between them, it amounts to a fantastic structural trick that moves us before we even know why. During the reprise at the ice palace, Anna sings in major key, Elsa in minor, and it culminates in a miniature quodlibet that somehow evokes all of Les Misérables in less than a minute. Most famous of all, of course, is “Let It Go” itself, which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, seems to have recentered the entire movie as soon as it was written. And the really revealing point is that the Lopezes began with certain stock elements without worrying too much about where they fit into the script. “For the First Time in Forever” is a classic “I want” number, which is often ironically reprised later in the story, and “Let It Go” was known as “Elsa’s badass song” in the outline before it became something closer to “Defying Gravity.” (Idina Menzel was cast before any of the music had been written, so they were clearly writing with her strengths in mind.) And once the song was in place, the whole movie was reshaped around it, like the tail wagging the dog. As Lopez-Anderson has said: “If it weren’t framed by the right story, [the song] wouldn’t connect with people.”

Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

And musicals aren’t the only genre in which a compelling character can result from the spaces left by the manipulation of big blocks of narrative. In an interview about the writing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie said:

The…question for me was figuring out the structure of the movie, and we decided to just start with the action—we thought about what kinds of action set pieces we always wanted to do, and then we put them into some semblance of an order to try and figure out what journey that would put our characters on…I rearranged two sequences and changed one specific detail. I took the underwater sequence and the motorcycle chase and put them back to back, creating one monster action set piece in the middle of the movie. When I did that, it created a great relentless set piece, but I blew up the movie—suddenly, characters’ motives that made sense in the previous draft didn’t work anymore. If Ilsa is running from both Ethan and Lane, where is she running to? Figuring that out necessitated the creation of act one and the introduction of British intelligence into the movie, and that in turn led us to all the consequences in the third act. So action really drove story.

Critics have long noted that the action and musical genres have a lot in common, but I’m not sure if anyone has ever noticed how both can recombine stock elements to generate information about a character. In this case, it resulted in Ilsa Faust, who—with apologies to Imperator Furiosa, with whom she shares her initials—is the most interesting woman in an action movie in years.

And it applies to other genres as well. At the risk of stretching the argument, I’d argue that the most famous fictional Ilsa of all—as played by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca—benefits from the same kind of narrative recombination. Casablanca is a kind of musical already, both because of its memorable songs and in the way its great set pieces play like solos or duets of unforgettable dialogue. And if much of Bergman’s appeal comes from her real confusion on the set about which man she was supposed to love the most, with her scenes being constantly rewritten on the fly, that embodies a kind of musical logic, too: director Michael Curtiz and his team of screenwriters seem to have chosen sequences based on how well they played in the moment, with Ilsa’s motivations evolving based on the emotional logic that the scenes imposed, rather than the other way around. If the result works so well, that’s a tribute to Bergman’s performance, which provides a connective thread between inconsistent conceptions of Ilsa’s character: the scene in which she pulls a gun on Rick to get the letters of transit doesn’t have much to do with anything else, but because of Bergman, we buy it, at least for as long as it takes to get us to the next moment. Umberto Eco famously said that Casablanca is made up of memories of other movies, but the intersection of all those incompatible elements resulted in a character that no one can ever forget. Ilsa and her two namesakes have that much in common: they emerge, as if by icy magic, when you set the right pieces side by side.

My ten great movies #7: Casablanca

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Casablanca

Casablanca is often called an accidental masterpiece, a movie where the necessary elements came together almost by chance, which is reasonably true, to a point. If anything, though, it’s the ultimate illustration of the maxim that luck is just another word for preparation. For Casablanca to occur, you needed a journeyman director of consummate technical skill; a team of screenwriters whose craft had been honed under some of the most demanding conditions possible; and a set of extraordinarily capable actors gathered over time on the Warner Bros lot. As Thomas Schatz convincingly documents in The Genius of the System, the Hollywood studios of the thirties and forties were exactly the sort of machine that would produce a masterpiece like Casablanca sooner or later, although the shape of the resulting movie itself couldn’t have been predicted.

And the details are what make this movie so special. Now that Casablanca has become a canonical work like Hamlet, in which every line sounds like a cliché, it’s hard to appreciate how beautifully it transforms a story full of stock types and incidents into something specific, atmospheric, and emotional. One can profitably explore almost any element of the film’s production, but I’d like to concentrate on just one: Claude Rains’s performance as Captain Renault, which may be my favorite supporting performance in any movie. Rains never won an Oscar, although he was nominated four times, but his work here is Hollywood acting at its best: mannered in some ways, but with a professional delight in great dialogue ravishingly delivered—Casablanca has more laughs than most comedies, and Rains is good for at least half. His performance, like the rest of Casablanca, isn’t a matter of luck at all, but professionalism ready to seize the moment when it came. Sixty years later, there’s never been a better example.

Tomorrow: The cinema of obsession.

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May 14, 2015 at 9:00 am

The Two Jacks

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Chris Pine in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Over the weekend, my wife and I finally saw one of our most anticipated movies of 2014: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. And I’m only slightly joking. Shadow Recruit is the kind of film that seems designed to be seen exactly the way we watched it—streaming on Netflix, in our living room, shortly after the baby had gone to bed. It’s an agreeably modest thriller with correspondingly modest ambitions, and even if it doesn’t end up being particularly good, it’s hard to hate a movie that takes place in some nifty locations, offers up fun supporting roles for the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Costner, and a slew of veteran character actors, including an unbilled Mikhail Baryshnikov, and clocks in at well under two hours. The story is a trifle that falls apart as you watch it; it opens with the villains trying and failing to kill the title character, who has turned up to investigate some financial improprieties in Moscow, when they could have achieved most of their goals by sticking him in a nice office and stalling him for two days. And I spent most of the movie wrongly convinced that the love interest played by Keira Knightley was really a British undercover agent, which seemed like the only way to justify her inexplicable American accent.

Yet for all its mediocrity, it’s the kind of movie I’d like to see more often: one that falls squarely in the middle of the pack in terms of spectacle, budget, and even basic competence. Hollywood these days has gravitated toward two opposing extremes, with massive summer tentpoles giving way in the winter to smaller prestige films, which often feel like the cinematic equivalent of taking your medicine before bedtime. In between, you have the usual slew of bad comedies, cheap horror movies, and Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but what’s missing, aside from the occasional Liam Neeson vehicle, is slick, capable junk for grownups. I don’t need every film directed at viewers thirty and older to be The King’s Speech; sometimes I just want to put myself in the hands of a clever director and screenwriter who can do exciting things for ninety minutes with a couple of attractive movie stars, and without prolonged fistfights between robots. Unfortunately, movies like this don’t lend themselves well to multiple installments, and recent attempts to launch franchises on a more manageable scale have mostly sputtered out. We don’t seem likely to see Chris Pine as Jack Ryan again, and the world isn’t exactly clamoring for a sequel to Jack Reacher, a movie I liked a lot.

Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher

All these decisions make good economic sense, at least to the extent that the studios are capable of behaving rationally. A few big bets, balanced out by Oscar contenders that can play throughout awards season, offer a better return on investment than a bunch of movies in the $50 million range. And I can’t fault them for giving up on a big swath of the population that doesn’t go to the movies anymore: these days, with my regular moviegoing a distant memory, I’m a member of the last demographic they should be taking into account. But it still feels like a loss. Many of the movies we remember most fondly emerged from a system that knew how to crank out decent escapist entertainment for adults; when a studio makes fifty films a year with talented directors and stars, eventually, you’ll get Casablanca. And while the gap between Casablanca and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit might seem laughably large, it’s hard to imagine the former emerging from a world that wasn’t interested in producing the latter. Art, at least of the kind that Hollywood has traditionally been most skilled at making, is a kind of numbers game, with great work emerging when the variables line up just right. And an industry that only releases either heavily marketed franchise fare or equally calculated awards bait seems unlikely to generate many accidental masterpieces.

This isn’t to say that excellent movies can’t arise where you least expect them. Edge of Tomorrow, for one, was fantastic, mostly because everyone involved seemed to care just a little bit more about the result than might have been strictly required. And the kind of storytelling I’m mourning here has migrated, with great success, to television, which does seem capable of yielding surprising triumphs of the form, like Hannibal. (You could even take the difference in quality between Hannibal and everything the movies have tried to do with Thomas Harris over the last fifteen years as a sign of how one medium is overtaking the other.) But just as publishers need a healthy midlist to sustain new voices and support good genre novels, the movies need a place where the contemporary equivalents of Michael Curtiz and Jacques Tourneur can thrive. I can’t help but think of Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar two decades ago for The Usual Suspects, made The Way of the Gun—half superb, half totally ridiculous—and then bounced around endlessly from one unproduced project to another. He was rescued by Tom Cruise, who had done much the same years earlier for Robert Towne, directed Jack Reacher, and now he’s helming Mission: Impossible 5. I’m looking forward to it, but I also miss the dozen movies McQuarrie might have made in the meantime, if he had been lucky enough to work in an industry that had any idea what to do with him.

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2015 at 9:05 am

Oscar heaven, Oscar hell

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Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter

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’s your least favorite Best Picture winner?”

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about awards. The other day, the nominees for the Nebulas were announced, and although my name wasn’t among them, I wasn’t particularly surprised: I only published one story last year, “The Whale God,” and although Analog has the highest circulation of any surviving science fiction magazine, it tends to be overlooked when awards season rolls around—unless I missed it, it didn’t have any nominations at all this year. Still, I always look forward to the Nebulas and the Hugos with more than usual interest, since these are the only awards in existence in which I have anything like a shot at scoring a nod. In theory, there’s nothing keeping me from getting nominated one of these days: I’ve been very lucky when it comes to publication and placement, and these stories are reaching all the right eyeballs. The only obstacle, which is a considerable one, is writing an excellent story that a lot of people think is worth honoring. At this point, I’ve done well enough as a short story writer that the only thing standing in my way is me, and although I won’t claim that I’m thinking about a story’s awards potential when I write it up and send it off, I’d be lying if I said it had never crossed my mind.

There’s a category of Hollywood players that probably feels much the same way about the Academy Awards. Once you’ve reached a certain level of success in a field that is recognized by the Oscars, whether it’s acting or screenwriting or sound effects editing, you presumably start to think, well, why not me? The difference, of course, is that there are so many other intangibles. For the big ticket awards, you’ve got massive advertising campaigns and more subtle kinds of pressure operating on behalf of the different contenders, and even in the technical categories, excellent work has a way of being overlooked when it isn’t attached to a box office hit or a Best Picture juggernaut, which is really just a convenient way of sifting through the vast universe of potential candidates. Hovering somewhere above all this is the Academy’s indefinable sense of what makes for a worthy nominee: there’s no real point in complaining that the Oscars have no correlation with the best movies of any given year, since we’re dealing with a hive mind that has evolved its own set of preferences over time. (You could even make a good case that the last time the Best Picture winner conceded with the consensus choice for the year’s true best movie was with Casablanca in 1942.)

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in Crash

When it comes to making a list of undeserving Best Picture winners, then, we’re really talking about three different things. There are the winners that were simply bad films in their own right, although there are fewer of these than you might expect. I thought Crash, for instance, which tends to be the first movie anyone brings up in this context, was perfectly fine—although it labored under the delusion that it was about race when it was really about class—and we all know that I like Titanic one hell of a lot. Titanic, it happens, is a classic example of the second category, which covers movies that beat out more worthy contenders. Of course, this happens every time, so I’m not going to complain that James Cameron triumphed over L.A. Confidential, even if it’s my favorite American movie of the last twenty years, or that The King’s Speech won over Inception. Last, and perhaps most subtly, are otherwise decent movies that led nowhere. Even a mediocre winner has the benefit of handing a blank check to the director and the other principals for at least one passion project, so it’s always a little sad to see that opportunity go to waste. Shakespeare in Love is a nice enough movie, but it’s hard not to see it now as something of a dead end for everyone involved, except perhaps for the marketing prowess of the Weinsteins.

So if I had to pick my least favorite Best Picture winner, I’d have to go with something like The Deer Hunter. It isn’t an easy or obvious choice, because it’s a movie of undeniable technical merits, and there are some extraordinary moments. Yet it’s also a hysterical, sentimental, and borderline racist work that turns Vietnam into what William Goldman aptly calls a comic book movie, with Christopher Walken somehow surviving months of professional Russian roulette only to die in De Niro’s arms. In theory, it was honored over many other deserving movies, although it’s hard to imagine many of my own favorite films from that year—Gates of Heaven, Days of Heaven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Halloween—scoring a nomination, which they didn’t. Most of all, it directly led to the greatest debacle in Hollywood history, Heaven’s Gate, a movie that never would have been made if Michael Cimino hadn’t won the Oscar, and which resulted in the fall of one great studio, United Artists, and the end of the auteur system of the seventies. Looking back at what I’ve just written, I can’t help see some significance in how many times I’ve typed the word “heaven,” and in fact one of the four nominees that The Deer Hunter beat out that year was Heaven Can Wait. Winning an Oscar might seem heavenly, but occasionally, it turns out to be hell.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2014 at 9:36 am

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