Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Casino Royale

“Where all other disguises fell away…”

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"Where all other disguises fell away..."

Note: This post is the forty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 45. You can read the previous installments here.

Occasionally, a piece of technology appears in the real world that fits the needs of fiction so admirably that authors rush to adopt it in droves. My favorite example is the stun gun. The ability to immobilize characters without killing or permanently incapacitating them is one that most genre writers eventually require. It allows the hero to dispatch a henchman or two while removing the need to murder them in cold blood, which is essential if your protagonist is going to remain likable, and it also lets the villain temporarily disable the hero while still keeping him alive for future plot purposes. Hence the ubiquitous blow to the back of the head that causes unconsciousness, which was a cliché long before movies like Conspiracy Theory ostentatiously drew attention to it. The beauty of the stun gun is that it produces all of the necessary effects—instantaneous paralysis with no lasting consequences—that the convention requires, while remaining comfortably within the bounds of plausibility. In my case, it was the moment when Mathis is conveniently dispatched toward the end of Casino Royale that woke me up to its possibilities, and I didn’t hesitate to use it repeatedly in The Icon Thief. By now, though, it’s become so overused that writers are already seeking alternatives, and even so meticulous an entertainment as the David Fincher version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo falls back on the even hoarier device of knockout gas. But the stun gun is here to stay.

Much the same principle applies to the two most epochal technological developments of our time, which have affected fiction as much as they’ve transformed everyday life: the cell phone and the Internet. Even the simple flip phone was a game changer, instantly rendering obsolete all stories that depend on characters being unable to contact one another or the police—which is why service outages and spotty coverage seem so common in horror movies. It’s hard not to watch movies or television from earlier in this century without reflecting on how so many problems could be solved by a simple phone call. (I’m catching up on The People v. O.J. Simpson, and I find myself thinking about the phones they’re using, or the lack thereof, as much as the story itself.) And the smartphone, with the instant access it provides to all the world’s information, generates just as many new problems and solutions, particularly for stories that hinge on the interpretation of obscure facts. Anyone writing conspiracy fiction these days has felt this keenly: there isn’t much call for professional symbologists when ordinary bystanders can solve the mystery by entering a couple of search terms. In City of Exiles, there’s a dramatic moment when Wolfe asks Ilya: “What is the Dyatlov Pass?” On reading it, my editor noted, not unreasonably: “Doesn’t anybody there have a cell phone?” In the end, I kept the line, and I justified it to myself by compressing the timeline: Wolfe has just been too busy to look it up herself. But I’m not sure if it works.

"It was a search engine request..."

Search engines are a particularly potent weapon of storytelling, to the point where they’ve almost become dangerous. At their best, they can provide a neat way of getting the story from one plot point to the next: hence the innumerable movie scenes in which someone like Jason Bourne stops in an Internet café and conducts a few searches, cut into an exciting montage, that propel him to the next stage of his journey. Sometimes, it seems too easy, but as screenwriter Tony Gilroy has said on more than one occasion, for a complicated action movie, you want to get from one sequence to the next with the minimum number of intermediate steps—and the search engine was all but designed to provide such shortcuts. More subtly, a series of queries can be used to provide a glimpse into a character’s state of mind, while advancing the plot at the same time. (My favorite example is when Bella looks up vampires in the first Twilight movie.) Google itself was ahead of the curve in understanding that a search can provide a stealth narrative, in brilliant commercials like “Parisian Love.” We’re basically being given access to the character’s interior monologue, which is a narrative tool of staggering usefulness. Overhearing someone’s thoughts is easy enough in prose fiction, but not in drama or film, and conventions like the soliloquy and the voiceover have been developed to address the problem, not always with complete success.  Showing us a series of search queries is about as nifty a solution as exists, to the point where it starts to seem lazy.

And an additional wrinkle is that our search histories don’t dissipate as our thoughts do: they linger, which means that other characters, as well as the viewer or reader, have potential access to them as well. (This isn’t just a convention of fiction, either: search histories have become an increasingly important form of evidence in criminal prosecutions. This worries me a bit, since anyone looking without the proper context at my own searches, which are often determined by whatever story I’m writing at the time, might conclude that I’m a total psychopath.) I made good use of this in Chapter 45 of Eternal Empire, in which Wolfe manages to access Asthana’s search history on her home computer and deduces that she was looking into Maddy Blume. It’s a crucial moment in the narrative, which instantly unites two widely separated plotlines, and this was the most efficient way I could devise of making the necessary connection. In fact, it might be a little too efficient: it verges on unbelievable that Asthana, who is so careful in all other respects, would fail to erase her search history. I tried to make it more acceptable by adding an extra step with a minimum of technical gobbledegook—Asthana has cleared her browser history, so Wolfe checks the contents of the disk and memory caches, which are saved separately to her hard drive—but it still feels like something of a cheat. But as long as search histories exist, authors will use them as a kind of trace evidence, like the flecks of cigarette ash that Sherlock Holmes uses to identify a suspect. And unlike most clues, they’re written for all to see…

“A terrible possibility began to gather in her mind…”

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"As she brooded over this..."

Note: This post is the twentieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 21. You can read the previous installments here.

Casino Royale is my favorite Bond film, and one of the most entertaining movies I’ve ever seen: it’s the one installment in the franchise that I never tire of watching, and it’s fun just to think about. But there’s a single moment toward the end that always struck me as a headscratcher. After Bond wins the big poker tournament, defeating the villainous Le Chiffre, he and Vesper celebrate with a late dinner and cocktails in the restaurant at the titular casino. Vesper gets a text message, checks it, and says that Mathis—their local contact, played by the indispensable Giancarlo Giannini—needs to see her. She leaves. Bond sits there for a minute alone, then mutters to himself, reflectively: “Mathis…” A second later, he’s on his feet, and he dashes outside just in time to see Vesper being herded into a car by a couple of thugs. He sets off in pursuit, and we’re quickly plunged into a crazy chase, a surprise reversal, a crash, and the most memorable torture scene in the entire series. It isn’t for another twenty breathless minutes, in fact, that Bond, recovering afterward in the hospital, explains how he realized that Mathis was a traitor: he was the only one who could have told Le Chiffre that Bond had discovered his poker tell. Mathis is dispatched with a stun gun to the solar plexus, and that’s that.

But it all raises a few questions, to the point where it actively distracted me on my first couple of viewings. We’ll leave aside the fact that Mathis actually isn’t the mole: in fact, as Bond realizes too late, Vesper was the one who tipped off Le Chiffre. Mathis is ultimately exonerated, although this point is revealed so casually, in a line of throwaway dialogue, that most viewers could be forgiven for missing it. More to the point, we’re never given any indication of Bond’s thought process before he jumps to the conclusion that Mathis betrayed them. Usually, this kind of “Oh, crap” moment is triggered by a clue, or a bunch of them, that the audience and the character in question put together at the same time, as we see most memorably in The Usual Suspects. Here, the reasoning is left deliberately opaque, and the gap between Bond’s sudden brainstorm and its explanation is so long—and so crowded with action—that any connective thread is lost. This isn’t a fatal flaw, and it doesn’t impair our enjoyment of what follows. But it’s striking that the blue-chip screenwriting team of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis evidently decided that all we needed was the dawning realization in Bond’s eyes, without giving us any indication of what caused it. (It wasn’t a choice made in the editing room, either: the original script follows exactly the same sequence of beats.)

"A terrible possibility began to gather in her mind..."

This interests me because it reflects the kind of shorthand that such stories often use when covering familiar territory. We’ve all seen movies that move from A to B to C, where A is a clue, B is the hero’s eureka moment, and C is the explanation. Casino Royale omits A altogether and relegates C to the status of a footnote, so the middle factor—the light that goes off in Bond’s head—is all we have left. It all but advertises the fact that A and C are basically irrelevant, or could be replaced by any number of arbitrary components: all that matters is the effect they have on Bond. Which only works if you assume that the audience is sophisticated enough to recognize the trope and fill in the blanks on its own. (It reminds me a little of an observation that Pauline Kael made about Raging Bull, in which Scorsese uses a single vivid scene to represent would have been an entire montage in another movie: “Probably for him it stands for the series.”) It’s revealing, too, that it appears here, in a movie that is otherwise more than happy to spin long chains of plot points. An “Oh, crap” moment depends on the film being ever so slightly ahead of the audience, and Casino Royale neatly circumvents the challenge by giving viewers no information whatsoever that might allow them to anticipate the next move.

And while I’m probably reading too much into it, or making conscious what really would have been an intuitive choice by the writers, it also feels like an acknowledgment of how artificial such moments of insight can be. It all depends on the hero seeing a pattern that had been there all along, and to keep the solution from being too obvious, we often see our protagonist making an enormous inductive leap based on the flimsiest possible evidence. There’s a moment much like this in Chapter 21 of Eternal Empire. Wolfe has just been told that Ilya, who has been held without talking for months at Belmarsh Prison, has suddenly agreed to cooperate with the authorities, and that he’s due for a hearing that day at the Central Criminal Court in London. Meanwhile, Vasylenko, his former mentor, is slated to attend a separate appeal that morning. The coincidence of the two court appearances being scheduled at the same time, along with the fact that Ilya and Vasylenko will be transported on the same prison van, allows Wolfe to conclude that they’re planning to escape. That single germ of suspicion is enough to send her racing out of the office, sending her chair rolling backward—the procedural equivalent of the cloud of dust that the Road Runner leaves in his wake. Is this moment plausible? No more or less than Bond’s. Which is another way of saying that it’s exactly as plausible as it needs to be…

Written by nevalalee

June 4, 2015 at 9:15 am

Three lessons from 007

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Yep, Skyfall is pretty great. It doesn’t quite rise to the same level as Casino Royale, which combines grittiness with sheer escapism in a way that few movies, before or since, have ever managed. (I loved the first Daniel Craig installment when I first saw it, but it’s gradually risen even further in my estimation, thanks largely to the greatest Blu-ray ever, until it’s become one of my five or six favorite movies of the last ten years.) Yet the new film, which finally completes what must be the most protracted reboot in cinematic history, is by a long ways the handsomest Bond movie ever made, and Sam Mendes, a very intelligent director whose projects haven’t always lived up to his craftsmanship, has clearly put a great deal of thought into how a film like this should look, move, and feel. From the opening credits, with their subtle nods to Vertigo—the camera zooms into Bond’s eye, and later moves directly into his open grave—we can tell that we’re in good hands. And the difference between Skyfall and the wretched Quantum of Solace only highlights some of the lessons that Bond, and his best interpreters, have to teach the rest of us.

1. Skip the backstory. Yes, we’ve been over this ground before. But Skyfall provides a fascinating test case, in that it comes right to the edge of revealing too much about Bond’s background, only to dance nimbly away. We learn more here about Bond’s past, especially his childhood, than we’ve ever discovered before, but the movie wisely couches it in vague—and predominantly visual—terms. When M asks Bond how old he was when his parents died, he replies: “You know the answer. You know the whole story.” Which is the only answer he could possibly give. Like Hannibal Lecter, Bond becomes less plausible, and less interesting, the more we learn about him, and it’s nice to see a movie that understands this. (It isn’t quite as graceful when it comes to its primary antagonist, played by Javier Bardem: he’s a fine, sinister presence, but he’s also allowed to talk for about thirty seconds too long about his past grievances, when this information would best have been put into the mouth of another character. True villains never complain and never explain.)

2. Keep it simple. The Bond movies aren’t generally known for their restraint, but some of their most unforgettable effects have arisen from the simplest possible means, like Ken Adam’s brilliant set for the tarantula room in Dr. No: it was cobbled together at the last minute from a table, a chair, and a grille in the ceiling, but it’s far more memorable than the massive volcano lair in You Only Live Twice. The most grueling scene in Casino Royale centers on its utter simplicity, as the villain helpfully explains: “You know, I never understood all these elaborate tortures. It’s the simplest thing to cause more pain than a man can possibly endure.” And it’s no accident that the most suspenseful sequence in Skyfall involves nothing more than a pair of dueling pistols and a glass of scotch. (That said, it’s possible that the villain’s plan, when finally revealed, is a little too simple: it involves a complicated scheme to infiltrate MI6, but in the end, it’s nothing he couldn’t done merely by visiting a costume shop and taking a cab to the Ministry of Defence.)

3. Clarity is key. It’s a rare movie that causes you to breathe a sigh of relief in its first few minutes, but after the awful opening chase in Quantum of Solace, in which every shot was sliced up into tiny fragments that made the action impossible to follow, it’s a pleasure to watch a set piece like the one that opens Skyfall, which is intricate, breathtaking, and totally absurd, but never anything less than spatially and geographically grounded. Much of this is due to the return of genius editor Stuart Baird, who follows up his fine work on Casino Royale with another master class in the art of editing. Mendes and Baird even indulge in what must be the single longest static shot in all of the Bond movies, Bardem’s delicious opening monologue, in which he advances from a tiny figure in the background to a tight closeup, like a sinister Omar Sharif. And the plot, too, follows a nice, clear line, focusing entirely on the threat to M, which is a narrative masterstroke: we know our hero will survive, but it’s quite possible that he might lose someone he loves. The result is a movie that generates a surprising amount of tension for a series with an invulnerable leading man. Because Bond, as Skyfall makes abundantly clear, will never die.

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2012 at 9:56 am

The man who knows

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“I don’t want to be the man who learns—I want to be the man who knows.” This is author William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade, quoting an unnamed movie star whom I’ve always pictured as Steve McQueen, although it probably wasn’t. Goldman is making a slightly cynical point about how a screenwriter needs to give every good moment in the script to the star, and especially can’t show the hero asking questions or carrying the burden of exposition. On a deeper level, however, this quote gets close to the heart of what we, in the audience, want from our heroes. Everyone has a different sense of the qualities of the ideal movie hero, but at the top of my own list is competence. When I’m looking for escapism, I like movies and books about men and women who are good at their jobs, who are smart and resourceful, and who embody the kind of confidence, or at least conviction, that I’d like to see in myself. As Emerson said of Napoleon, heroes are like the rest of us, except quicker, more decisive, and always sure about what to do next. Which only means that a hero is someone who sees at a glance what it took the screenwriter weeks to figure out.

I’ve been thinking about this recently while reflecting, once again, on the appeal of The Silence of the Lambs, which was inexplicably left out of the A.V. Club’s recent rundown of the fifty best movies of the ’90s. (Honestly, I’m not the kind of person who usually complains when a list like this omits one of his favorite films, but really, this is beyond comprehension.) Hannibal Lecter is one of our great villains—he’s at the top of the AFI list—but he’s also, weirdly, one of the most compelling heroes of the past several decades, and a lot of this is due to the reasons that I mention above. He isn’t just brilliant, but hugely resourceful. His escape from the security facility in Tennessee consists of one audacious move after another, and even if we can’t buy every detail, it’s hard not to be swept up by the result. And his ingenuity is really just a distillation and acceleration of the craft of Thomas Harris. That’s the beauty of fiction: a plan that took Harris months, if not years, to work out on paper occurs to Lecter in real time, over the course of twenty dense pages. And that kind of unnatural clarity of action is what fictional heroism is all about.

Of course, Lecter has since degenerated as a character, and although I’ve talked about this far too many times before, it hints at an important truth. In his book Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card draws a useful distinction between cleverness and intelligence:

[I]n our society with its egalitarian ideals, any obvious display of intelligence or erudition suggests elitism, snobbery, arrogance…Yet we love a character who is clever enough to think of solutions to knotty problems. Does this seem contradictory? It is contradictory…The audience loves a character who solves problems and knows exactly the right facts when he needs them—but they don’t like a character who flaunts his superior knowledge or acts as if he knows how clever he is.

As an example, Card cites the case of Indiana Jones, who is intellectually brilliant by definition, but slightly bumbling whenever we see him in the classroom—and endlessly inventive and resourceful when pressed into action. And Lecter is a cautionary counterexample. We don’t like Lecter because he can quote Renaissance poetry and appreciate fine wine, but because he outsmarts his enemies and deals ingeniously with problems presented by the story. The trouble with Hannibal and its sequel is that in the end, we’re left with nothing but Lecter the cultured epicure, to the point where his taste for the finer things in life becomes actively annoying, while his acts of violence grow increasingly baroque and grotesque. This, more than anything else, is where Harris faltered.

Which just means that a hero is only as good as the plot in which he finds himself. If you’ve constructed a surprising story in which the protagonist reacts in engaging ways, you’ve already solved most of the problems of writing a convincing hero, including the issue of making him seem too competent. You can always build flaws into your protagonist—Smiley’s miserable domestic life, Lawrence’s inner torment, Indy’s tendency to get in over his head—but really, if your plot is a match for the hero you’ve constructed, those qualities will take care of themselves. This is why James Bond, even in the best of the early films, is both a seductive icon and a narrative void: the plots are just too arbitrary and absurd to present him with any real challenge. It also explains why Casino Royale is, by a large measure, the best of all the Bond films, not because it goes out of its way to present us with a flawed Bond, but because the story around him, for once, is worthy of the character’s inner resources. Bond is still the man who knows, but in this case, the filmmakers knew just a little bit more. And that’s exactly how it should be.

My fifty essential movies

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Yesterday I posted a list of my fifty essential books—that is, the fifty books that I would keep if I were deprived of all others. When I tried to do the same for movies, I found that the task was slightly easier, if only because I had fewer titles to choose from. (In both cases, I’ve tried to limit myself to books and movies that I actually own.) The result, as before, is a portrait of myself as expressed in other people’s works of art—which, in the end, may be the most accurate kind of self-portrait there is.

As usual, there are a few caveats. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible. This means omitting some of the very best movies of all time—The Rules of the Game and Tokyo Story, for instance—that I admire enormously but encountered too late for them to burrow into my subconscious. There’s an obvious preference for entertainment over art, as is generally the case in a home video library. And many of the movies named below might be ranked differently, or left out altogether, on another day (or hour). As of today, January 5, 2011, here’s how the canon looks to me:

1. The Red Shoes (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
2. Chungking Express (d. Wong Kar-Wai)
3. Blue Velvet (d. David Lynch)
4. Casablanca (d. Michael Curtiz)
5. The Third Man (d. Carol Reed)
6. Eyes Wide Shut (d. Stanley Kubrick)
7. L.A. Confidential (d. Curtis Hanson)
8. Seven Samurai (d. Akira Kurosawa)
9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (d. Nicholas Meyer)
10. Citizen Kane (d. Orson Welles)

11. Vertigo (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
12. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (d. Steven Spielberg)
13. Lawrence of Arabia (d. David Lean)
14. The Shining (d. Stanley Kubrick)
15. A Canterbury Tale (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
16. The Empire Strikes Back (d. Irwin Kershner)
17. The Last Temptation of Christ (d. Martin Scorsese)
18. Inception (d. Christopher Nolan)
19. The Silence of the Lambs (d. Jonathan Demme)
20. Spellbound (d. Jeffrey Blitz)

21. Mary Poppins (d. Robert Stevenson)
22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (d. Stanley Kubrick)
23. The Godfather (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
24. Spirited Away (d. Hayao Miyazaki)
25. Casino Royale (d. Martin Campbell)
26. Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (d. Errol Morris)
27. JFK (d. Oliver Stone)
28. Barry Lyndon (d. Stanley Kubrick)
29. Miller’s Crossing (d. Joel and Ethan Coen)
30. Sleeping Beauty (d. Clyde Geronimi)

31. Psycho (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
32. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (d. Quentin Tarantino)
33. The Untouchables (d. Brian DePalma)
34. Raiders of the Lost Ark (d. Steven Spielberg)
35. The Dark Knight (d. Christopher Nolan)
36. Last Tango in Paris (d. Bernardo Bertolucci)
37. Children of Men (d. Alfonso Cuarón)
38. The Departed (d. Martin Scorsese)
39. The Godfather Part II (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
40. Crumb (d. Terry Zwigoff)

41. The Searchers (d. John Ford)
42. The Usual Suspects (d. Bryan Singer)
43. The Long Goodbye (d. Robert Altman)
44. Zodiac (d. David Fincher)
45. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
46. Boogie Nights (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
47. Taxi Driver (d. Martin Scorsese)
48. The Limey (d. Steven Soderbergh)
49. Dancer in the Dark (d. Lars von Trier)
50. Pink Floyd The Wall (d. Alan Parker)

Random observations: I had to look up the names of two of the directors (for Spellbound and Sleeping Beauty). Up until a few minutes ago, the last place on this list was occupied by The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which I had to drop after realizing that I’d left out Last Tango in Paris. I allowed myself more than one movie per director, with the largest number of slots occupied by Kubrick (four), Powell and Pressburger (three) and Scorsese (three). And I’m slightly surprised to find that my three favorite movies of the last decade are evidently Spellbound, Spirited Away, and Casino Royale.

Sharp observers might be able to guess which film occupies the top spot in the list of my favorite movies of the past year, which I’m hoping to post later this week. And in any case, if you have a Netflix account that you aren’t using, well, hopefully this will give you a few ideas.

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