Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Chungking Express

The conveyor belt

leave a comment »

For all the endless discussion of various aspects of Twin Peaks, one quality that sometimes feels neglected is the incongruous fact that it had one of the most attractive casts in television history. In that respect—and maybe in that one alone—it was like just about every other series that ever existed. From prestige dramas to reality shows to local newscasts, the story of television has inescapably been that of beautiful men and women on camera. A show like The Hills, which was one of my guilty pleasures, seemed to be consciously trying to see how long it could coast on surface beauty alone, and nearly every series, ambitious or otherwise, has used the attractiveness of its actors as a commercial or artistic strategy. (In one of the commentary tracks on The Simpsons, a producer describes how a network executive might ask indirectly about the looks of the cast of a sitcom: “So how are we doing aesthetically?”) If this seemed even more pronounced on Twin Peaks, it was partially because, like Mad Men, it took its conventionally glamorous actors into dark, unpredictable places, and also because David Lynch had an eye for a certain kind of beauty, both male and female, that was more distinctive than that of the usual soap opera star. He’s continued this trend in the third season, which has been populated so far by such striking presences as Chrysta Bell, Ben Rosenfield, and Madeline Zima, and last night’s episode features an extended, very funny scene between a delighted Gordon Cole and a character played by Bérénice Marlohe, who, with her red lipstick and “très chic” spike heels, might be the platonic ideal of his type.

Lynch isn’t the first director to display a preference for actors, particularly women, with a very specific look—although he’s thankfully never taken it as far as his precursor Alfred Hitchcock did. And the notion that a film or television series can consist of little more than following around two beautiful people with a camera has a long and honorable history. My two favorite movies of my lifetime, Blue Velvet and Chungking Express, both understand this implicitly. It’s fair to say that the second half of the latter film would be far less watchable if it didn’t involve Tony Leung and Faye Wong, two of the most attractive people in the world, and Wong Kar-Wai, like so many filmmakers before him, uses it as a psychological hook to take us into strange, funny, romantic places. Blue Velvet is a much darker work, but it employs a similar lure, with the actors made up to look like illustrations of themselves. In a Time cover story on Lynch from the early nineties, Richard Corliss writes of Kyle MacLachlan’s face: “It is a startling visage, as pure of line as an art deco vase, with soft, all-American features and a comic-book hero’s jutting chin—you could park a Packard on it.” It echoes what Pauline Kael says of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet: “She even has the kind of nostrils that cover artists can represent accurately with two dots.” MacLachlan’s chin and Rossellini’s nose would have caught our attention in any case, but it’s also a matter of lighting and makeup, and Lynch shoots them to emphasize their roots in the pulp tradition, or, more accurately, in the subconscious store of images that we take from those sources. And the casting gets him halfway there.

This leaves us in a peculiar position when it comes to the third season of Twin Peaks, which, both by nature and by design, is about aging. Mark Frost said in an interview: “It’s an exercise in engaging with one of the most powerful themes in all of art, which is the ruthless passage of time…We’re all trapped in time and we’re all going to die. We’re all traveling along this conveyor belt that is relentlessly moving us toward this very certain outcome.” One of the first, unforgettable images from the show’s promotional materials was Kyle MacLachlan’s face, a quarter of a century older, emerging from the darkness into light, and our feelings toward these characters when they were younger inevitably shape the way we regard them now. I felt this strongly in two contrasting scenes from last night’s episode. It offers us our first extended look at Sarah Palmer, played by Grace Zabriskie, who delivers a freakout in a grocery store that reminds us of how much we’ve missed and needed her—it’s one of the most electrifying moments of the season. And we also finally see Audrey Horne again, in a brutally frustrating sequence that feels to me like the first time that the show’s alienating style comes off as a miscalculation, rather than as a considered choice. Audrey isn’t just in a bad place, which we might have expected, but a sad, unpleasant one, with a sham marriage and a monster of a son, and she doesn’t even know the worst of it yet. It would be a hard scene to watch with anyone, but it’s particularly painful when we set it against our first glimpse of Audrey in the original series, when we might have said, along with the Norwegian businessman at the Great Northern Hotel: “Excuse me, is there something wrong, young pretty girl?”

Yet the two scenes aren’t all that dissimilar. Both Sarah and Audrey are deeply damaged characters who could fairly say: “Things can happen. Something happened to me.” And I can only explain away the difference by confessing that I was a little in love in my early teens with Audrey. Using those feelings against us—much as the show resists giving us Dale Cooper again, even as it extravagantly develops everything around him—must have been what Lynch and Frost had in mind. And it isn’t the first time that this series has toyed with our emotions about beauty and death. The original dream girl of Twin Peaks, after all, was Laura Palmer herself, as captured in two of its most indelible images: Laura’s prom photo, and her body wrapped in plastic. (Sheryl Lee, like January Jones in Mad Men, was originally cast for her look, and only later did anyone try to find out whether or not she could act.) The contrast between Laura’s lovely features and her horrifying fate, in death and in the afterlife, was practically the motor on which the show ran. Her face still opens every episode of the revival, dimly visible in the title sequence, but it also ended each installment of the original run, gazing out from behind the prison bars of the closing credits to the strains of “Laura Palmer’s Theme.” In the new season, the episodes generally conclude with whatever dream pop band Lynch feels like showcasing, usually with a few cool women, and I wouldn’t want to give that up. But I also wonder whether we’re missing something when we take away Laura at the end. This season began with Cooper being asked to find her, but she often seems like the last thing on anyone’s mind. Twin Peaks never allowed us to forget her before, because it left us staring at her photograph each week, which was the only time that one of its beautiful faces seemed to be looking back at us.

Red shoe diaries

leave a comment »

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

Earlier this week, my daughter, who is three years old, watched her first live-action movie. It was The Red Shoes. And although it might seem like I planned it this way—The Red Shoes, as I’ve said here on multiple occasions, is my favorite movie of all time—I can only protest, unconvincingly, that it was a total accident. Beatrix has been watching animated features for a while now, including a record number of viewings of My Neighbor Totoro, but she had never seen a live-action film from start to finish, and I’d already been thinking about which one to try to show her first. If you’d asked me, I’d have guessed that it would probably be Mary Poppins. But over the weekend, Beatrix started asking me about my own favorite films, and The Red Shoes naturally came up, along with a few others. (The first movie we discussed, for some reason, was The Shining, which led to an awkward plot summary: “Well, it’s about a family, sort of like ours, and the daddy is a writer, like me…”) I said that it was about dance, which piqued her interest, and I suggested that she might like to see the self-contained ballet sequence from the middle of the movie. She did, so we watched together it that night. When it was over, she turned to me and said: “I want to watch the rest.” I agreed, expecting that she would tune out and lose interest within the first twenty minutes. But she didn’t, and we ended up watching the whole thing over two evenings.

At first, I was understandably thrilled, but the overnight intermission gave me time to start worrying. The Red Shoes is a great movie, but its climax is undeniably bleak, and I spent a restless night wondering how Beatrix would handle the scene in which the ballerina Victoria Page falls to her death before an oncoming train. (It didn’t help that during the first half, Beatrix had said cheerfully to me: “I’m Vicky!”) The next morning, when she asked to watch the rest, I sat her down on my knee and explained what happened at the end. She told me that she would be okay with it, and that if it bothered her, she wouldn’t look at the screen, as long as I warned her in time. That’s more or less how it went: when we got to the ending, I told her what was coming, and she turned her head toward the back of the couch until I said the coast was clear. When the movie was over, I asked her what she thought. She said that she liked it a lot—but I also noticed that her eyes were glistening. It’s the first film of any kind she’s ever seen, in fact, that didn’t have a happy ending, and when she’s asked me why grownups enjoy watching sad movies, I’ve struggled with the response. I say that sometimes it’s good to feel emotions that you don’t experience in your everyday life, or that a sad movie can make you appreciate your own happiness, or that you can take pleasure in how well a sad story is told. But she didn’t seem all that convinced, and to be honest, neither am I.

The Red Shoes

It was especially enlightening to watch The Red Shoes through her eyes. It’s a movie with a strikingly fatalistic view of life and art: Lermontov tells Vicky that she can’t be married to Julian and be a great dancer at the same time, and the film implicitly confirms his judgment. “You cannot have it both ways,” Lermontov says grimly. “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.” It doesn’t seem to leave Vicky with much in the way of a middle ground. Yet although I’ve watched this movie endlessly over the last twenty years, I realized, seeing it again with my daughter, that I’m not sure if this reflects Powell and Pressburger’s true opinion or if it’s simply a narrative convention that they needed to enable the story’s tragic ending. For that matter, it doesn’t need to be one or the other: it feels a lot like a conclusion into which they were forced by the material, which is as valid a way as any for an artist to discover what he or she really thinks. And you don’t need to accept the movie’s bleaker aspects—I mostly don’t—to appreciate its merits as entertainment. Still, this isn’t a distinction that you’re likely to understand at the age of three, so I found myself telling Beatrix that the movie’s apparent message wasn’t necessarily true. It’s possible, I think, to have a satisfying creative career and a happy personal life: it’s certainly hard, but less than an order of magnitude harder than succeeding as an artist in the first place.

I don’t know how much of this Beatrix understood, but then again, I’m never entirely sure about what’s going on in her head. (On the night before we finished The Red Shoes, I passed by her bedroom and noticed that she was lying in bed with her eyes open. Looking straight at me, she said: “I’m thinking about the movie.”) And I wouldn’t be surprised if we quickly moved on to the next thing: Beatrix still says that her favorite movie is Ponyo, which makes me very happy. But hey, you never know. The Red Shoes has been responsible for more careers in dance than any other movie, and I know from firsthand experience how much impact a passing encounter with a piece of pop culture can have on your inner life. I’m not sure I want Beatrix to be a ballerina, which, if anything, is the one career that offers even less of a prospect of success than the one I’ve chosen for myself. But I want her to care about art, and to appreciate, as Lermontov tells Vicky, that a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit. On a more modest level, I want her to understand that we watch sad movies for a reason, even if it’s hard to explain, and that it’s both normal and good for the emotions they evoke to be as intense as the ones we feel in real life. Of course, she’ll probably come to that conclusion on her own. The other day, Beatrix looked at me and said: “I want to watch the movie about the girl at the restaurant.” It took me a while to realize that she was talking about Chungking Express. I replied: “You will soon.” And I meant it.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2016 at 8:32 am

The prop master

with 2 comments

Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal

When we break down the stories we love into their constituent parts, we’re likely to remember the characters first. Yet the inanimate objects—or what a theater professional would call the props—are what feather that imaginary nest, providing a backdrop for the narrative and necessary focal points for the action. A prop can be so striking that it practically deserves costar status, like the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, or a modest but unforgettable grace note, like the cake of soap that Leopold Bloom carries in his pocket for much of Ulysses. It can be the MacGuffin that drives the entire plot or the lever that enables a single crucial moment, like the necklace that tips off Scotty at the end of Vertigo. Thrillers and other genre novels often use props to help us tell flat characters apart, so that an eyepatch or a pocket square is all that distinguishes a minor player, but this kind of cheap shorthand can also shade into the highest level of all, in which accessories like Sherlock Holmes’s pipe or summon up an entire world of romance and emotion. And even if the props merely serve utilitarian ends, they’re still an aspect of fiction that writers could do well to study, since they can provide a path into a story or a solution to a problem that resists all other approaches.

They can also be useful at multiple stages. I’ve known for a long time that a list of props, like lists of any kind, can be an invaluable starting point for planning a story. The most eloquent expression of this I’ve ever found appears, unexpectedly, in Shamus Culhane’s nifty book Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

A list of props can be particularly useful when a story takes place within a closed universe with a finite number of possible combinations. Any good bottle episode invests much of its energy into figuring out surprising ways to utilize the set of props at hand, and I used an existing catalog of props—in the form of the items available for purchase from the commissary at Belmarsh Prison—to figure out a tricky plot point in Eternal Empire.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

What I’ve discovered more recently is that a list of props also has its uses toward the end of the creative process, when a short story or novel is nearly complete. If I have a decent draft that somehow lacks overall cohesiveness, I’ll go through and systematically make a list of all the props or objects that appear over the course of the story. Whenever I find a place where a prop that appears in one chapter can be reused down the line, it binds events together that much more tightly. When we’re writing a first draft, we have so much else on our minds that we tend to forget about object permanence: a prop is introduced when necessary and discarded at once. Giving some thought to how those objects can persist makes the physical space of the narrative more credible, and there’s often something almost musically satisfying when a prop unexpectedly reappears. (One of my favorite examples occurs in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. During the sequence in which Faye Wong breaks into Tony Leung’s apartment to surreptitiously rearrange and replace some of his possessions, she gives him a new pair of sandals, throwing the old pair behind the couch. Much later, after she floods his living room by mistake, one of the old sandals comes floating out from its hiding place. It only appears onscreen for a moment, and nobody even mentions it, but it’s an image I’ve always treasured.)

And in many cases, the props themselves aren’t even the point. I’ve said before that one of the hardest things in writing isn’t inventing new material but fully utilizing what you already have. Nine times out of ten, when you’re stuck on a story problem, you’ll find that the solution is already there, buried between the lines on a page you wrote months before. The hard part is seeing past your memories of it. A list of props, assembled as drily as if you were a claims adjuster examining a property, can provide a lens through which the overfamiliar can become new. (This may be why histories of the world in a hundred objects, or whatever, are so popular: they give us a fresh angle on old events by presenting them through props, not personalities.) When you look at it more closely, a list of props is really a list of actions, or moments in which a character expresses himself by performing a specific physical activity. Unless you’re just giving us an inventory of a room’s contents, as Donna Tartt loves to do, a prop usually appears only when it’s being used for something. Props thus represent the point in space where intention becomes action, expressed in visual or tactile terms—which is exactly what a writer should always be striving to accomplish. And a list of props is nothing less than a list of the times which the story is working more or less as it should.

My ten great movies #3: Chungking Express

leave a comment »

According to legend, it took Wong Kar-Wai six weeks to make Chungking Express, from initial conception to final cut, during a break in the editing of his troubled martial arts epic Ashes of Time. If true, it’s the strongest possible example I can imagine of the role of luck and spontaneity in the creation of great works of cinema: nothing Wong has done since has been as insightful, beautiful, or moving, even as his films have disappeared down the rabbit hole of Kubrickian perfectionism. My Blueberry Nights, while minor, represented a step in the right direction: this is a man who needs to make a quick, stylish, unassuming movie at least once a year. Because while it might not rank at the top of my list, of all the movies I’ve ever seen, Chungking Express is the one I love the most, a vision of life that I want to believe, even if it only exists in the head of one of our most interesting directors.

A few years ago, on a trip to Hong Kong, I made a point of seeking out some of this movie’s emotional landmarks, especially a certain outdoor escalator. But in a sense, I already spent most of my twenties trying to recreate these moments, in another great city. The two stories in Chungking Express are a portrait of lonely lives, struggling to connect in tentative ways, mostly at night: a subject that might have seemed grim in the hands of a different director, but here becomes delightfully, irresistibly romantic. The discovery of beauty in everyday spaces—lunch counters, trains, cramped apartments—is one of cinema’s greatest strengths, and Wong is its most seductive recent practitioner. His other films, especially Fallen Angels, are invariably fascinating, but this is the one where all the stars aligned. It may never happen again, but thank God, it happened here.

Tomorrow: A thriller that outdid Hitchcock by way of Duchamp.

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2015 at 9:00 am

The best worst year

leave a comment »

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

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 1994 pop culture would you want to experience again for the first time?”

Just up the street from our house in Oak Park stands the middle school that my daughter will attend in about ten years. Whenever I push her past it in her stroller, I whisper: “Honey, I apologize in advance.” I’m kidding, but not entirely. Middle school is hell for just about everyone, and although this fact is widely recognized, it’s unclear what can be done. When you throw kids from ages twelve to fourteen together in one crowded arena, you’re going to get conflict: everyone seems stranded at a different stage of maturity or development—physical, emotional, and intellectual—and along with these changes comes the impulse to take the first tentative steps at defining one’s personality. You find yourself worrying for the first time about whether you’re wearing the right clothes or listening to the right kind of music, and you receive urgent messages to conform even as you start to figure out who you really are. The result is a nightmare for most kids with anything resembling an individual point of view, and in some ways, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over it, even though my life since has been exceptionally happy.

Yet I don’t think I’d be the person I am now without what I went through in the years 1993-1994, which have started to seem like a weird hinge moment of my life. I’ve spoken before about what happened to me around the age of thirteen: I discovered Borges, Eco, and Douglas Hofstadter in quick succession, dove deep into David Lynch and The X-Files, and that summer, I wrote my first novel. But if 1993 was my headlong plunge into peculiarity, 1994 was a kind of course correction. I started to notice that I wasn’t much like anyone else around me—I still remember a classmate’s incredulity when I told him that my favorite band was The Art of Noise—so I decided to do something about it. Other factors conspired to push me in that direction. For a while, we had both MTV and Spin at home, and I studied both closely. I walked past a record store on the way home from school every day, and I bought a copy of The Downward Spiral from the same cashier from whom I’d earlier purchased Very by the Pet Shop Boys. And once I was able to take the train to Berkeley on my own, I saw a lot of movies, many of which have stayed with me ever since.

Quentin Tarantino

As a result, I feel an intense range of emotions when I think back on the pop culture of 1994. It’s possible that any year would seem similarly charged if you were thirteen or fourteen at the time—it’s an age when you’re particularly susceptible to being permanently shaped by whatever you encounter—but it also happens to have been a shared moment in which the culture as a whole was working through similar issues. By now, it’s a cliché to talk about the alternate visions offered by Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, and also a little misleading: Forrest Gump was an eccentric, ambitious, technically exquisite kind of entertainment that we don’t seem likely to see again. But the movies and music produced that year do seem to engage in a tricky triangulation between indie crediblity and popular success, or, if you prefer, between alternative and mainstream. The acts of appropriation extended in both directions, and its breakthrough figure was Quentin Tarantino, whose style was based on his ability to give a unifying form to a dizzying collage of influences. (As David Thomson wrote much later: “Anyone as blessed with a sense of movie shape might get away with knowing nothing else.”)

And it’s no accident that I owe Tarantino thanks for championing my favorite work of art from 1994, although I didn’t encounter it until the following year: Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. I first saw it on another foraging expedition: I’d found that my local Chinese channel showed subtitled movies every Friday night, and they were invariably more inventive and energetic than anything else on the air. Chungking Express was even more special. Today, it feels very much like the product of its time, and I fell in love with it the moment I heard Faye Wong’s cover of “Dreams” by the Cranberries. But there was something particularly lovely, and personal, about its refusal to shoehorn its two stories into a conventional shape, whether by adding a third installment or by connecting them again at the end. (I remember being deeply concerned by the possibly that Brigitte Lin might reappear to shoot Tony Leung.) As I’ve noted elsewhere, a movie with three stories feels like a closed triptych, while two stories feels as open as life. And it taught me something I’ve tried to remember ever since. It’s possible to have it both ways, to be true to yourself and to the world you occupy, as long as you have sufficient energy, imagination, and love.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2014 at 9:47 am

Food for plot

with 4 comments

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

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 fictional restaurant would you most like to patronize?”

Movies are founded on sight and sound—to the extent that the best magazine ever devoted to the field took that as its name—and they can’t effectively draw on the senses of touch, smell, or taste. At first glance, then, it’s surprising that films have so often turned to food as a subject. Looking at the fabulous meals in movies like Big Night or Babette’s Feast, you feel a little like you’re watching an extended episode of Top Chef: as attractive as those dishes might be, when it comes to the actual dining experience, you have to take the word of the people onscreen. Of course, it helps that the look of food is a large part of its appeal. Given how easily food wilts under studio lights, it’s fair to say that in reality, whatever is being shown on camera isn’t nearly as appetizing as it looks, and any familiarity with the tricks of food photographers is enough to diminish one’s appetite. Still, it’s a beautiful illusion, and it’s only a convenient illustration of the ways in which movies enhance and counterfeit reality. A castle wall is made of polystyrene and cardboard, and an actress’s lovely face is the work of an army of stylists, so there’s no reason to complain that the food on the table has been treated with hairspray and baby oil.

In addition to its sensual appeal, food is often used to dramatize larger themes within the story. Among other things, it’s perhaps the best way around of depicting the creative process on film. You can’t convincingly show a character writing a novel or composing a symphony without falling back into the standard clichés about artistic inspiration, but preparing a meal is another matter. It’s no accident that the most luminous movie made about creativity in the last decade is Ratatouille: if there’s one thing animators know, it’s how to combine different ingredients and processes into a satisfying whole. On a narrative level, food also furnishes a metaphor for the characters’ emotional lives in movies as different as Tom Jones and Mildred Pierce. And it provides actors with excellent bits of business. One of my favorite introductions to a character in recent television history is the first appearance on Game of Thrones of Tywin Lannister, whom we first see casually butchering a stag while dressing down his son. (But I’ll admit that I was slightly distracted by the thought of how many different takes the scene must have required, and whether Charles Dance had to take any lessons in butchery—which probably informed his character in other ways.)

Charles Dance on Game of Thrones

A restaurant is also a perfect setting for a movie or television show. You have your staff, your regulars, and a constantly renewed stream of new faces, not to mention all the possibilities for drama inherent in running a small business. Even for stories that aren’t explicitly set around food, a restaurant provides a convenient location for a meeting or conversation, even if one of the two parties involved inevitably gets up just as the food arrives. It’s also a good place for disconnected characters to bump into one another—after all, regardless of age, occupation, or social standing, we all have to eat sometime—which is why so many shows have a restaurant as one of their only standing sets. (In some cases, as with the Mystic Grill on The Vampire Diaries, half the town’s social life seems to take place in the same dive.) But while a television series set in a restaurant can build up a large supporting cast of familiar faces, in a movie, there’s something a little melancholy about eating out. A restaurant is a kind of temporary home, a place where you rent a couple of chairs for an hour or two, and when you’re done, you pack up and leave. Which only makes it an allegory for the act of going to the movies itself.

That’s why, if I could eat at any fictional restaurant, I’d go with the lunch stand in Chungking Express. The food there looks pretty good, and we’re given a chance to see much of the menu, if only by implication: Tony Leung’s cop orders a chef salad every day for his girlfriend, and it’s only after the owner suggests that he give her a choice of salad or pizza that he realizes that she never liked chef salad at all. Shortly thereafter, she leaves him, causing him to observe wistfully: “If you have a choice in food, why not in men?” Leung spends so much time at the lunch stand, in fact, that his girlfriend leaves a Dear John letter there, along with the keys to his apartment, which sets the rest of the movie’s delicate plot in motion. In the end, Leung realizes that the happiness he needs has been in plain sight all along, in the form of Faye Wong, and he even goes so far as to buy the lunch stand from Faye’s uncle: “He’s a good businessman. First he sells me chef salad, then the entire restaurant.” It’s a modest place, but it’s also a point of stability in a city that never seems to slow down, and the men and women who cross paths there influence one another’s lives in surprising ways. And I’d like to drop by, just for a minute, if only for a chance to see Leung and Wong together at last behind the counter.

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2014 at 9:41 am

The Layla effect

with 3 comments

Derek and the Dominos

I don’t think there’s a more powerful moment in all of rock music than the transition between the two halves of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. For three minutes, we’ve been living near the heart of a man’s romantic and sexual agony: the critic Dave Marsh calls it one of those rare songs in which “a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or a suicide.” Then there’s a trailing off, a pause, and we’re launched into Jim Gordon’s transcendent piano coda, which takes over the rest of the track and leads us triumphantly to the end. It’s unclear how the two halves are meant to relate, or whether the coda is the sound of love fulfilled or abandoned, but the juxtaposition of the two movements creates an effect that is far more profound than either of them taken separately. The result is a song that has obsessed me—and so many others—from the moment I first heard it, to the point where I’ve written much of my current novel with “Layla” playing in the background.

This sort of synergy, in which two seemingly unrelated components are set side by side to create a larger whole, is such a powerful artistic tool that it deserves special consideration. Some of the most memorable pop songs ever written, from “Hey Jude” to “Dry the Rain,” consist of two contrasting halves joined together in a way that only seems more mysterious with time. In many cases, the pieces weren’t originally meant to go together at all: the piano coda to “Layla” was composed as a separate piece, and was joined to the first half—which had already been written and recorded—when Clapton happened to hear Gordon playing it in the studio one day. These sorts of decisions may seem like serendipity, but they’re really an expression of craft on a deeper level: I suspect that Clapton intuitively sensed that the song was incomplete without some form of resolution, and that he seized on the coda as the missing piece he needed, precisely because it seemed like a dispatch from a different world entirely.

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

We see this effect in other forms of art as well. I mentioned recently that many of Shakespeare’s most resonant plots—from The Merchant of Venice to King Lear—arise from the combination or juxtaposition of two previously unrelated storylines. There’s no better example of this than The Winter’s Tale, the most beautiful and mysterious of the late romances, which moves from a tragedy of sexual jealousy in Sicily to the gentlest of pastoral comedies in Bohemia. (It’s a transition that may work better on the page than in performance: the production I saw several years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Sam Mendes, did a fine job with the tormented first half, but turned the second half into an aimless hootenanny. As usual, comedy is harder to stage than tragedy, and this is never more clear than when one follows right after the other.) On a more calculated level, we find a similar transition halfway through Psycho: I’ve seen this movie countless times, and I still get a chill when I first glimpse the sign of the Bates Motel through the rain, which reminds me of which movie I’m really watching.

On one level, the impact of such juxtapositions is easy to explain: creativity, as Arthur Koestler points out in The Act of Creation, is about combinations, and when two contrasting pieces are set side by side, it’s no surprise that elements of the first half can bring out unsuspected qualities of the other. (You often see this in visual art, which has long been familiar with the power of the diptych.) But that doesn’t tell us why the pieces can vibrate so memorably in certain cases, while in others they just tend to lie there—or why two unrelated pieces are so much more effective than three, even as the rule of three works so powerfully in other contexts. A work of three parts, with its tidy tripod of effects, can come across as a piece of artistic calculation, or like the three stages of an argument, while two implies something deeper. There’s no better example than Chungking Express, with its two parallel stories of policemen in love: Wong Kar-Wai originally planned to tell three, but only had time for two, an accident for which we can all be profoundly grateful. Three stories would have come across as a narrative device, while two seem like life itself, and like the coda for “Layla,” it feels as if it could go on and on.

%d bloggers like this: