Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Fincher

The act of killing

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Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the first two episodes of Mindhunter, the new Netflix series created by Joe Penhall and produced by David Fincher. We took in the installments over successive nights, but if you can, I’d recommend viewing them back to back—they really add up to a single pilot episode, arbitrarily divided in half, and they amount to a new movie from one of the five most interesting American directors under sixty. After the first episode, I was a little mixed, but I felt better after the next one, and although I still have some reservations, I expect that I’ll keep going. The writing tends to spell things out a little too clearly; it doesn’t always avoid clichés; and there are times when it feels like a first draft of a stronger show to come. Fincher, characteristically, sometimes seems less interested in the big picture than in small, finicky details, like the huge titles used to identify the locations onscreen, or the fussily perfect sound that the springs of the chair make whenever the bulky serial killer Ed Kemper sits down. (He also gives us two virtuoso sequences of the kind that he does better than just about anyone else—a scene in a noisy club with subtitled dialogue, which I’ve been waiting to see for years, and a long, very funny montage of two FBI agents on the road.) For long stretches, the show is about little else than the capabilities of the Red Xenomorph digital camera. Yet it also feels like a skeleton key for approaching the work of a man who, in fits and starts, has come to seem like the crucial director of our time, in large part because of his own ambivalence toward his fantasies of control.

Mindhunter is based on a book of the same name by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker about the development of behavioral science at the FBI. I read it over twenty years ago, at the peak of my morbid interest in serial killers, which is a phase that a lot of us pass through and that Fincher, revealingly, has never outgrown. Apart from Alien 3, which was project that he barely understood and couldn’t control, his real debut was Seven, in which he benefited from a mechanical but undeniably compelling script by Andrew Kevin Walker and a central figure who has obsessed him ever since. John Doe, the killer, is still the greatest example of the villain who seems to be writing the screenplay for the movie in which he appears. (As David Thomson says of Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK: “[He’s] so omniscient he must be the scriptwriter.”) Doe’s notebooks, rendered in comically lavish detail, are like a nightmare version of the notes, plans, and storyboards that every film generates, and he alternately assumes the role of writer, art director, prop master, and producer. By the end, with the hero detectives reduced to acting out their assigned parts in his play, the distinction between Doe and the director—a technical perfectionist who would later become notorious for asking his performers for hundreds of takes—seems to disappear completely. It seems to have simultaneously exhilarated and troubled Fincher, much as it did Christopher Nolan as he teased out his affinities with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and both men have spent much of their subsequent careers working through the implications of that discovery.

Fincher hasn’t always been comfortable with his association with serial killers, to the extent that he made a point of having the characters in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo refer to “a serial murderer,” as if we’d be fooled by the change in terminology. Yet the main line of his filmography is an attempt by a surprisingly smart, thoughtful director to come to terms with his own history of violence. There were glimpses of it as early as The Game, and Zodiac, his masterpiece, is a deconstruction of the formula that turned out to be so lucrative in Seven—the killer, wearing a mask, appears onscreen for just five minutes, and some of the scariest scenes don’t have anything to do with him at all, even as his actions reverberate outward to affect the lives of everyone they touch. Dragon Tattoo, which is a movie that looks a lot better with time, identifies its murder investigation with the work of the director and his editors, who seemed to be asking us to appreciate their ingenuity in turning the elements of the book, with its five acts and endless procession of interchangeable suspects, into a coherent film. And while Gone Girl wasn’t technically a serial killer movie, it gave us his most fully realized version to date of the antagonist as the movie’s secret writer, even if she let us down with the ending that she wrote for herself. In each case, Fincher was processing his identity as a director who was drawn to big technical challenges, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network, without losing track of the human thread. And he seems to have sensed how easily he could become a kind of John Doe, a master technician who toys sadistically with the lives of others.

And although Mindhunter takes a little while to reveal its strengths, it looks like it will be worth watching as Fincher’s most extended attempt to literally interrogate his assumptions. (Fincher only directed the first two episodes, but this doesn’t detract from what might have attracted him to this particular project, or the role that he played in shaping it as a producer.) The show follows two FBI agents as they interview serial killers in search of insights into their madness, with the tone set by a chilling monologue by Ed Kemper:

People who hunt other people for a vocation—all we want to talk about is what it’s like. The shit that went down. The entire fucked-upness of it. It’s not easy butchering people. It’s hard work. Physically and mentally, I don’t think people realize. You need to vent…Look at the consequences. The stakes are very high.

Take out the references to murder, and it might be the director talking. Kemper later casually refers to his “oeuvre,” leading one of the two agents to crack: “Is he Stanley Kubrick?” It’s a little out of character, but also enormously revealing. Fincher, like Nolan, has spent his career in dialogue with Kubrick, who, fairly or not, still sets the standard for obsessive, meticulous, controlling directors. Kubrick never made a movie about a serial killer, but he took the equation between the creative urge and violence—particularly in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining—as far as anyone ever has. And Mindhunter will only become the great show that it has the potential to be if it asks why these directors, and their fans, are so drawn to these stories in the first place.

The blood on the table

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Rob Morrow on American Crime Story

In American Tragedy, his exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—account of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Lawrence Schiller relates a story that would seem unbelievable even on a network crime procedural. Barry Scheck, the defense lawyer in charge of examining the DNA evidence, is trying to establish the possibility of contamination at the lab that tested the blood from the Bundy and Rockingham scenes. He ends up focusing on lab technician Collin Yamauchi, who handled many of the samples, and after painstakingly reconstructing the criminalist’s notes, he uncovers a bombshell:

Yamauchi had worked with O.J.’s reference sample [of blood] immediately before he handled the Rockingham glove. If Yamauchi got blood on himself, or if he got some on the table when he opened O.J.’s vial—a real possibility, considering the bloodstains on the vial—he could have transferred O.J.’s blood to the glove.

Then Scheck worked out from the lab notes the order in which Yamauchi handled the Bundy blood swatches. Scheck compared that order to the amount of Simpson’s DNA found on each sample.

Paydirt. For the first time Scheck and his team could see that the Bundy swatch with the largest quantity of O.J.’s DNA, swatch number 51, was the first one that Yamauchi touched after he handled the Rockingham glove. The swatch containing the second-highest quantity was the second one he touched. And so forth.

Scheck instantly recognizes the importance of this discovery. If the handling of the samples at the lab itself can be brought into question, the fact that DNA testing put Simpson’s blood at the scene can be thrown out the window: any test, no matter how accurate, is only as good as the evidence it analyzes. As Schiller puts it:

Common sense indicated that Yamauchi had to have gotten some of Simpson’s blood on his own glove, or on the table, or both. It was like stepping into a mud puddle, then continuing onto dry ground. Your first footprint leaves a lot of mud; the next one leaves a bit less; the third leaves still less. Scheck could see Yamauchi’s “footprint” on the glove and Bundy blood swatches.

The sequence was clear: Yamauchi gets O.J.’s reference blood on his gloved hands. Maybe on his worktable. Then he transfers O.J.’s blood to the Rockingham glove. Next he handles the Bundy swatches and contaminates them with O.J.’s blood.

And under questioning in court by Scheck, Yamauchi confirms that he got blood on his gloves while handling the tube with the reference sample, immediately before moving on to the Rockingham glove and the Bundy swatches. Yamauchi claims that he threw the contaminated gloves away, but it’s more than enough to raise legitimate concerns about the accuracy of the results that were obtained.

Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown on American Crime Story

I’m telling this story in detail for several reasons. First, because I hadn’t heard it before reading Schiller’s book earlier this year, and I think it’s fascinating. Second, because it serves as a reminder that the Simpson defense raised damaging questions about the prosecution’s case that had nothing to do with race or the accuracy of DNA testing itself. Third, because we didn’t hear a word about it in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. I should say right now that I loved the miniseries, which covers an enormous amount of ground in ten hours—but it can’t include everything. And the fact that Scheck’s breakthrough doesn’t even merit a mention, when it might have served as the centerpiece of another story, reminds us of how challenging this narrative really is. Despite the show’s texture and surprising subtlety, I have a feeling that most viewers will still come away with a sense that the defense’s case was based solely on allegations of police conspiracy and a pair of ill-fitting gloves, when in fact Scheck’s systematic dismantling of much of the physical evidence was so persuasive that I’m not entirely sure how I would have voted. (That said, I don’t think there’s any real doubt about Simpson’s guilt. Everyone will have a different opinion about which details can or can’t be explained away, but for me, it’s those Bruno Magli shoes, which we know the killer wore—it would have been all but impossible to fake—and which Simpson denied having owned, only to have dozens of photographs surface after the trial showing him wearing those very shoes, fewer than three hundred pairs of which were ever sold.)

Still, the miniseries represents a real achievement. It’s almost tempting to underestimate how good a job it really does, given what the writers had to work with: it offers roles of a lifetime to Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, to Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, and especially to Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, and its climactic scene is the best proof imaginable of the writing rule, which I’ve discussed here before, that a jury delivering its verdict is always suspenseful, even if we know exactly what the outcome will be. And the result is so satisfying that it’s probably a trifle unfair to point out that the series doesn’t give the scientific side of the defense’s case the attention it deserves. (Doing it justice would have required a different approach altogether, closer to the obsessive procedurals that David Fincher does so well in films like Zodiac or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and while I’d love to see that version of this story, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll get it.) Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have done a spectacular job of clarifying and organizing a vast amount of information, much as they did with Ed Wood and Man on the Moon, which are still two of the best biopics I’ve ever seen. And they’re ruthless about cutting back repeatedly to the social and emotional core of the story, even if it means leaving a lot of great material on the table. It doesn’t provide a lot of room for Rob Morrow as Barry Scheck, who gets about a dozen lines of dialogue altogether, along with a tantalizing final caption that reminds us that he went on to found the Innocence Project. That’s a miniseries in itself. But it’s one we’ll just have to imagine.

“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…

The lure of true crime

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American Tragedy by Lawrence Schiller

A few months ago, I wrote a short blog post about Lawrence Schiller, the photographer, packager, and all-around hustler who famously collaborated with Norman Mailer on such books as The Executioner’s Song. I’d started thinking about Schiller again thanks to the birthday video he directed decades ago for Kris Jenner as a favor to her husband Robert Kardashian, which resurfaced recently online. And I was intrigued enough by the connection to dig a little further into Schiller and his work, which includes a massive tome called American Tragedy, billed as “the uncensored story of the O.J. Simpson defense.” I had a plane trip and a few quiet weeks coming up, so I snared a copy. And I devoured it. I liked it so much, in fact, that I moved on to Schiller’s Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, another “uncensored story,” this one about the JonBenét Ramsey case, which I never thought I’d want to read about again. After just a couple of days, I’ve already burned halfway through it. (American Tragedy sheds additional light, incidentally, on Schiller’s relationship with Kardashian, which I mischaracterized slightly in my initial post. I’d thought that Schiller and Kardashian simply moved in the same circles, but it turns out that they met each other through their ex-wives. And Stephanie Schiller even ended up working with Kris Jenner on the “little team of elves” that revived her husband Bruce’s career in the early nineties—which is just another example of the tangled connections that you find everywhere in Schiller’s life.)

It isn’t hard to figure out what makes Schiller’s books so compelling. Both American Tragedy and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town exist almost entirely in the present tense, with any backstory minimized in favor of a methodical, understated accumulation of detail and incident that Schiller seems to have learned from Mailer: they read like The Executioner’s Song with all the poetry removed. They aren’t great works of art, but there’s something undeniably seductive about the smooth way in which they feed information to the reader about such insanely complicated stories. Schiller also has genuine talents as a reporter, even if his methods and his relationships with his subjects raise questions of their own. (He got to know the O.J. Simpson team, for instance, while ghostwriting Simpson’s book I Want to Tell You, and he even helped to clean up, edit, and assemble the audio recordings of Mark Furhman’s racist statements that were played in court—a degree of involvement that would be unthinkable for most conventional journalists.) American Tragedy is loaded with stories and insights that I’d either forgotten or never known, particularly about the crucial role played by Barry Scheck, the founder of the Innocence Project, in raising reasonable doubt about the blood evidence. And it leaves me in a peculiar position as Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson premieres tomorrow: I’ve relived every aspect of this case so recently that I don’t think I have the capacity to take any more. Except, of course, that I probably do.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

As a culture, we’ve developed a newfound fixation on a certain kind of true crime story, embodied first of all by Serial, then by The Jinx, and these days by Making a Murderer, of which I’ve watched five out of ten episodes so far. (The fact that the second season of Serial, which abandons the crime angle, has received a fraction of the attention of the first indicates that listeners were drawn more to the story of Adnan and Hae than to anything about Sarah Koenig’s methods.) Like Schiller’s books, which run to close to a thousand pages in paperback, the podcast and miniseries formats allow cases to be examined at extravagant length, until we feel as if we’re being injected with a slow drip of names, dates, and circumstantial evidence. I’ve noted before that a filmmaker like Errol Morris could have covered the same ground as Serial—and Making a Murderer—in less than two hours, but I’ve since come to realize that the expansive runtime is part of the point. Such stories, like the conspiracy theories into which they often imperceptibly shade, satisfy a fundamental craving we have for information, at a time when processing and making sense of the facts at our disposal has begun to feel like a central challenge of modern life. We’re drawn to detective stories for much the same reason, but a true crime provides us with more details than a fictional one would ever dare, along with the tantalizing prospect of a hidden order visible if we just look at the clues from the right angle. And it’s only when the case is developed on an epic scale that it offers us the illusion that we can make sense of it ourselves.

Because it is an illusion, and it’s one to which a murder mystery lends itself particularly well. We can absorb thousands of details about an unsolved homicide to an extent that we generally can’t about, say, foreign policy or climate change, because the vivid nature of the crime generates a kind of electrical field in which all the pieces can align. (It’s why David Fincher, whose films, as I noted last week, are often about their own complexity, has been drawn to no fewer than three different stories about serial killers, to the point where, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he insisted on using the term “serial murderer” instead, as if no one would notice that he was revisiting the same territory.) And it’s the futility of the search itself that we find so compelling. My return last year to the true crime genre came courtesy of Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision, a book so compulsively disturbing and fascinating that I almost wish I hadn’t read it. Those familiar with the Jeffrey MacDonald case know that it’s a bottomless pit that has swallowed up investigators like McGinniss, Janet Malcolm, and even Errol Morris himself. But it’s the messy, exasperating, unsolvable cases that obsess us the most. It’s only when the evidence refuses to come together into a coherent picture, extending the search indefinitely, that we can turn it into an obsession—a fact I find more intriguing than any of the mediations on the nature of truth that Koening provided at the end of Serial. Facts multiply, interpretations collide, patterns emerge and disappear, but only after a critical mass of information has been achieved. And the rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader.

The Uncanny Birdman

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Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

Frankly, I don’t think anyone needs to read an entire blog post on how I felt about the Oscars. You can’t throw a stone—or an Emma Stone—today without hitting a handful of think pieces, of which the one by Dan Kois on Slate is typical: he hyperbolically, though not inaccurately, describes the win of Birdman over Boyhood as the ceremony’s greatest travesty in twenty years. So I’m not alone when I say that after an afternoon of doing my taxes, the four hours I spent watching last night’s telecast were only marginally more engaging. It wasn’t a debacle of Seth MacFarlane proportions, but it left me increasingly depressed, and not even the sight of Julie Andrews embracing Lady Gaga, which otherwise ought to feel like the apotheosis of our culture, could pull me out of my funk. It all felt like a long slog toward the sight of a movie I loved getting trounced by one I like less with every passing day. Yet I’m less interested in unpacking the reasons behind the snub than in trying to figure out why this loss stings more than usual, especially because indignation over the Best Picture winner is all but an annual tradition. The most deserving nominee rarely, if ever, wins; it’s much more surprising when it happens than when it doesn’t. So why did this year’s outcome leave me so unhappy?

I keep coming back to the idea of the uncanny valley. You probably know that Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, was the first to point out that as the appearance of an artificial creature grows more lifelike, our feelings toward it become steadily more positive—but when it becomes almost but not quite human, small differences and discrepancies start to outweigh any points of similarity, and our empathy for it falls off a cliff. It’s why we can easily anthropomorphize and love the Muppets, but we’re turned off by the dead eyes of the characters in The Polar Express, and find zombies the most loathsome of all. (Zombies, at least, are meant to be terrifying; cognitively, it’s more troubling when we’re asked to react warmly to a digital Frankenstein that just wants to give us a hug.) And there’s an analogous principle at work when it comes to art. A bad movie, or one that falls comfortably outside our preferences, can be ignored or even enjoyed on its own terms, but if it feels like a zombified version of something we should love, it repels us. If a movie like The King’s Speech wins Best Picture, I’m not entirely bothered by this: it looks more or less like the kind of film the Oscars like to honor, and I can regard it as a clunky but harmless machine, even if it wasn’t made for me. But Birdman is exactly the kind of movie I ought to love, but don’t, so its win feels strangely creepy, even as it represents a refreshingly unconventional choice.

Edward Norton in Fight Club

The uncanny valley troubles us because it’s a parody of ourselves: we’re forced to see the human face as it might appear to another species, which makes us wonder if our own standards of beauty might be equally alienating if our perspectives were shifted a degree to one side. That’s true of movies, too; a film that hits all the right marks but leaves us cold forces us to question why, exactly, we like what we do. For me, the classic example has always been Fight Club. Like Birdman, it’s a movie of enormous technical facility—ingenious, great to look at, and stuffed with fine performances. To its credit, it has more real ideas in any ten minutes, however misguided, than Birdman has in its entirety. Yet I’ve always disliked it, precisely because it devotes so much craft to a story with a void at its center. It’s the ultimate instance of cleverness as an end in itself, estranging us from its characters, its material, and its muddled message with a thousand acts of meaningless virtuosity. And I push back against it with particular force because it’s exactly the kind of movie that someone like me, who wasn’t me, might call a masterpiece. (It may not be an accident that both Birdman and Fight Club benefit from the presence of Edward Norton, who, like Kevin Spacey, starts as a blank but fills out each role with countless fiendishly clever decisions. If you’re going to make a movie like this at all, he’s the actor you want in your corner.)

As a result, the Oscars turned into a contest, real or perceived, between Boyhood, which reflected the most moving and meaningful memories of my own life despite having little in common with it, and Birdman, which confronted me with a doppelgänger of my feelings as a moviegoer. It’s no wonder I reacted so strongly. Yet perhaps it isn’t all bad. Birdman at least represents the return of Michael Keaton, an actor we didn’t know how much we’d missed until he came roaring back into our lives. And if David Fincher could rebound from Fight Club to become one of the two or three best directors of his generation, the same might be true of Iñárritu—although it isn’t encouraging that he’s been so richly rewarded for indulging in all his worst tendencies. Still, as Iñárritu himself said in his acceptance speech, time is the real judge. The inevitable backlash to Birdman, which is already growing, should have the effect of gently restoring it to its proper place, while Boyhood’s stature will only increase. As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, Birdman is an audacious experiment that never needs to be repeated, while we need so many more movies like Boyhood, not so much because of its production schedule as because of its genuine curiosity, warmth, and generosity towards real human beings. As Mark Harris puts it, so rightly, on Grantland: “Birdman, after all, is a movie about someone who hopes to create something as good as Boyhood.”

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2015 at 10:00 am

A cut above the rest

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Saul Bass in the editing room

The other day, my wife pointed me to a recent poll by the Motion Picture Editors Guild of the best-edited movies of all time. Most of the usual suspects are here, although not, curiously, The Usual Suspects: Raging Bull and Citizen Kane top the list, followed by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Psycho, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as a few enticing surprises. (I’ve never seen All That Jazz, which sits at number four, although the fact that a subplot revolves around the protagonist’s attempts to edit a movie of his own makes me wonder if there’s a touch of sentiment involved.) What struck me the most about the ranking is its fundamental oddity: it seems natural that a list like this would exist for movies, but it’s hard to imagine a similar one for books or albums, which are as intensely edited as any motion picture. So, for that matter, are plays, songs, magazine articles, and podcasts. Nearly any work of art, in fact, has undergone an editing process, if we take this to mean only the systematic arrangement of its component parts. To take a slightly offbeat example: Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” might seem like a trifle, but it’s ruthlessly organized, with a lot of ideas—some, admittedly, lifted from Chuck Berry—flowing seamlessly together. The editing, if we’re willing to grant that a pop song can be as consciously constructed as a film by Martin Scorsese, is brilliant. So why are we so used to talking about it in movies and nowhere else?

A few possible explanations come to mind, starting with the fact that the roles of movie editor and director usually, although not always, reside in two different people. Choices about editing can be hard to separate from earlier choices about structure, and the division of labor in movie production—with structural decisions shared among the screenwriter, editor, director, and others—make film editing feel like a pursuit in itself, which is less obvious in a novel or album. (Literary editors and music producers play a crucial role in the arrangement of the pieces in their respective fields, but their contribution is harder to define.) It doesn’t hurt that movie editors are probably the only ones we’ve ever seen accepting an award on television, or that books on film editing considerably outnumber those of any other kind. Perhaps most relevant of all is the very nature of editing a movie, which differs from other types of editorial work in that the amount of raw material is fixed. When you’re writing a book, it’s possible to write new chapters to fill in the gaps in the story; a recording artist can always lay down a fresh version of a track; but a movie editor is stuck with the dailies that the director delivers. These days, this isn’t necessarily true: directors like Peter Jackson plan for reshoots even before principal photography begins, and modern software allows for considerable freedom in creating new shots in post. But the image still persists of the editor exercising his or her will on a resistant mass of footage, solving narrative problems under enormous constraints. Which is what makes it so fascinating.

The editing room of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

So what do we mean when we say that a movie had great editing? There’s an old chestnut, which isn’t any less true for being so familiar, that if you’ve noticed the editing in a movie, the editor has done a poor job. That’s right as far as it goes, and it’s equally correct that the showier moments in a smartly edited movie have a way of obscuring more meaningful work. The multiple film stocks in JFK might grab the eye, but they’re much less impressive than the massive amount of information that the movie allows the viewer to absorb. Famous cuts, like the one from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia or the time jump in 2001, are the ones we recall, but we’re less prone to take notice of how expertly those films keep us oriented in two of the most confusing environments imaginable—the desert and outer space. And we’re often barely aware of how much of a movie has been constructed in postproduction. When you compare the script of The Usual Suspects with the final result, it’s hard not to conclude that the movie’s secret hero, its true Keyser Soze, is editor John Ottman: the whole closing montage of sounds, images, and dialogue, which is the first thing many of us remember, isn’t even hinted at in the screenplay. But we aren’t meant to see any of this. We’re left with the stubborn, redundant axiom that if a movie is great, its editing was great as well. That’s why the Editors Guild poll is foremost a list of terrific movies, and one of the first such lists that I’d recommend to anyone who was interested in learning more about film.

That said, as I’ve suggested above, there are times when we can’t help but be grateful for the problems that a movie’s editor has solved. Managing the delivery of complicated information, as we often see in the movies of David Fincher, poses tremendous challenges, and Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo play like thrillers in which most of the drama is unfolding in the editing room. Casino, which I recently watched again just for my own pleasure, does this kind of thing so beautifully that it makes The Wolf of Wall Street seem a little lame by comparison. When it comes to keeping the audience grounded during complex action, we’re likely to think first of the films of Paul Greengrass, who has ruined much of modern action filmmaking by chopping up the footage so fluently that he encourages less talented filmmakers to do the same—hence the vast divide between The Bourne Supremacy and Quantum of Solace. (Although if I had to name one movie that still fills me with awe at how expertly it choreographs and assembles action on a large scale, it would have to be Titanic.) And editors have often been called upon to pull shape and logic out of seemingly unworkable footage. Annie Hall wasn’t even a love story before Ralph Rosenblum, by his own account, saw what its three hours of raw material were really about, and the result is a film that seems perfect, even if it was anything but preordained. Elsewhere, I’ve described creativity as the conversion of the arbitrary into the inevitable. And that, really, is what editors do.

The broken circle of Gone Girl

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Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl

Note: A few oblique spoilers follow for Gone Girl.

Gone Girl, which finally arrives on home video this week, was predictably shut out at last night’s Golden Globe Awards. But while that particular ceremony may be something of a farce—as this article hilariously reminds us, honorees are determined by the votes of eighty-seven “total randos”—it feels like an indicator of the film’s position as we enter the back end of awards season. The Golden Globes didn’t even give it a Best Picture nomination, and it has largely fallen out of the Oscar conversation: it’s a likely nominee that tops no one’s list of potential winners. And it isn’t hard to see why. Gone Girl may be a commercial hit with universal critical acclaim, but it also falls into a genre of chilly, manipulative puzzle boxes that rarely earn major awards. It took decades for Vertigo to claim its true status as the central American movie of the fifties, in part because it looks so much at first glance like an implausible toy. Gone Girl isn’t as good as Vertigo, which is admittedly the highest possible standard to which a movie like this can be held, but it’s revealing that I even feel like discussing them in the same sentence.

That said, I was halfway expecting Gillian Flynn to walk away with a win for her sharp, canny screenplay, which is a category in which similarly tricky movies, like The Usual Suspects, have sometimes eked out a consolation prize. Flynn’s original novel hinges on a conceit—a diary that only gradually reveals that it has been written by an unreliable narrator—that should be all but impossible to make work on film, and the fact that it gets even ninety percent of the way there is a considerable achievement. (I’m deducting only a few points for one scene, a fictionalized flashback, that really should have occurred later on in the movie, after the diary itself had been discovered and read. Still, the movie as a whole is so tightly constructed that I’m willing to let it pass: it’s the kind of objection that only occurs to the viewer after the fact, and it probably works better in the moment to have the scene come where it does.) David Fincher’s direction pulls off a parallel feat; he’s a filmmaker whose attention to detail and technical obsessiveness have a way of calling attention to themselves, but here, as in The Social Network, he makes it all look easy, when it really represents a solution to almost insurmountable narrative challenges.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

Gone Girl jerks us around so expertly, in fact, that I’m still a bit surprised that it falters near the end, when it suddenly stops and asks us to take it all very seriously. Again, the comparison with Hitchcock is an instructive one. Hitchcock would have loved this story, almost as much as he would have loved Rosamund Pike, but he wouldn’t have made the mistake of ruining the fun with an agonized denouement. He might have given us an ironic closing image, a last little shock, or even a gag—which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been emotionally satisfying. The final shot of Psycho, with Anthony Perkins’s face dissolving into a few subliminal frames of his mother’s skull as he looks into the camera, is the kind of closing fillip that gets a laugh even as it burrows into our unconscious. Hitchcock films as different as Notorious and Frenzy end on a similar punchline, and The Birds came close to doing the same. At the highest level of all, you have the ending of Vertigo, a sick joke that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in all of movies, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair. (The alternate ending, which was apparently shot purely to appease European censors, only reminds us of how perfect it is to leave Stewart alone on that ledge.)

If Vertigo works so well, it’s because it exists within its own sealed world, until every element seems to stand for something else in our waking life. It isn’t an allegory, exactly; it’s more like a literalization, within the conventions of the thriller, of the way in which we impose new faces on ourselves and others, or try in our doomed way to recapture the past. Gone Girl covers much of the same territory, and if it’s interesting on a level beyond that of a clinical game, it’s as a heightened vision of what any marriage threatens to be—not just Affleck and Pike’s, but everybody’s. Oddly, it’s in stepping out of that closed circle that it becomes less convincing: when it returns us to reality, the prior ordeal starts to seem less real, or like a freak outlier, when the movie would have been better off keeping us immersed in the paranoid dream it creates. (The other great comparison here is Otto Preminger’s Laura, which hints explicitly that its second half is taking place within the hero’s head, but denies us a scene when he wakes up again.) The tradition of noir, to which Gone Girl is an honorable extension, works because it presents a mirror universe of our own, with a different set of rules but equally inexorable logic. Gone Girl comes to the point of implying that the same is true of any marriage, but it ends by being about theirs, not ours.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2015 at 9:40 am

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