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.

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January 12, 2015 at 9:40 am

The Sony Network

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David Fincher

Like a lot of other people, I’ve spent the last few days reading articles about the leaked documents from the massive hack at Sony Pictures. I don’t necessarily feel good about this—regardless of who was responsible for it, the leak amounts to a massive invasion of privacy that will affect the lives of the company’s employees for years to come—but it’s hard to turn away. For an industry that shapes the dreamlife of much of the planet, the daily work of film production, especially on the corporate side, remains largely unseen and misunderstood. In recent years, special features on home video have turned into a major selling point, ironically as a kind of defense against piracy, so we’ve been given detailed looks at every aspect of filmmaking from casting to catering to the editing room. Yet we aren’t likely to see a featurette about the development process. It’s a running joke that nobody outside of Hollywood seems to know what a producer, let alone a studio executive, really does, but that isn’t an accident. There’s an enormous incentive to keep it as opaque as possible, and when we see a producer claim the Best Picture award on Oscar night, it’s no surprise that it’s generally a face that we’ve never seen before or since.

If the Sony leak is any indication, some of those faces are about to become a lot more familiar. In the past, detailed journalistic accounts of studio politics have focused on infamous trainwrecks: Final Cut on Heaven’s Gate, The Devil’s Candy on The Bonfire of the Vanities, and the very best of them all, David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure, on the David Begelman scandal at Columbia. Occasionally, a producer himself will pen a memoir—as Art Linson did with What Just Happened?—but they’re often more interesting for what they omit than what they reveal. What sets the hack at Sony apart is the volume and sheer mundanity of the information released. Media coverage has focused on the juiciest tidbits, like the heated exchange of emails between Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal over the troubled biopic of Steve Jobs, but as fascinating as that material can be, it’s ultimately less interesting than the glimpses we get of the tedious grind of the studio’s operations from week to week: the PowerPoint slides, the spreadsheets, the internal surveys of employee grievances. It’s like any other company, except that the widgets it makes have the power, at their best, to permanently change the inner lives of millions.

William Goldman

Except, of course, they rarely do. If there’s one theme running through the emails and ephemera that have been released so far, it’s a persistent frustration with a system that compels the studio to make movies in which it doesn’t really believe. On the one hand, this manifests as a palpable desire that Adam Sandler would just go away; on the other, a kind of obsession—visible on multiple occasions—with David Fincher, who stands as one of the few living filmmakers capable of making ambitious, critically acclaimed movies that are also commercial hits. (After The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sony seems to have thought of Fincher as their guy, as Warner Bros. must feel about Chris Nolan, so it must have stung when he went to Fox to make Gone Girl.) Throughout it all, there’s a paralyzing effort to reconcile the vagaries of talent and craft with the need to hit financial targets for quarter after quarter. It’s a combination that can pit a personality, or a studio, permanently against itself, and while that kind of tension can occasionally result in spectacular work, the real challenge lies in keeping the machine going for long enough to yield the outliers, the exceptions, the movies that we remember.

“Studio executives,” writes William Goldman, “share one thing in common with baseball managers; they wake up every morning with the knowledge that sooner or later they’re going to be fired.” They’re also working in a field that is explicitly predicated on taking big risks in which the results of a single decision may not be obvious for years—at which point the reckoning can come with blinding speed. Given this unavoidable fact, it’s understandable if executives try to manage that risk in large ways, by focusing on proven franchises and supposed sure things, and small, by thinking in terms of safe corporate clichés and internal maneuvering. You can’t control how audiences will react to Men in Black 3, but you can sort of control how your contribution is perceived by your coworkers. Execs get a bad rap as business school graduates who think they can all give notes to David Mamet, but they’re really talking about something they care about in the only language they know, or in ways they think will allow them to survive. And all of us who try to create things for a living do the same. It’s easy to fall into the trap of worrying more about how we’re seen by editors or agents than about the ruthless demands of the work itself. We’re all just trying to make it to tomorrow, and we’ve all compromised ourselves along the way. Sony just happens to have been unlucky enough to show it.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2014 at 9:54 am

Cutting the Dragon

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The editing room of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Last week, I picked up a copy of the Blu-ray of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which is only the second or third movie I’ve bought for myself all year. Readers with long memories might be slightly surprised by this, since I’ve gone on the record as saying that I’m not a fan of the original book and only guardedly positive on the adaption. My initial thoughts on it remain more or less the same: “As the credits roll, we know we’ve been treated to a slick, professional studio product, with isolated flashes of beauty and cruelty, but we aren’t sure why. And I don’t think Fincher knows, either.” Yet I’ve thought about the movie repeatedly over the last two years, thanks partly to my fascination with David Fincher himself and partly to David Thomson’s enthusiastic reappraisal. More to the point, I also had a feeling that the special features on the video release would be spectacular: Fincher is a director whose process is always interesting, regardless of the outcome, and I’m at a point in my life—when it can be hard to find time to sit down for two hours with a movie I’ve seen before—when I’m just as likely to buy a movie based on its production featurettes. (Among other things, this explains why I own a copy of The Lovely Bones.)

And I was right. Dragon Tattoo makes for an intriguing case study, since it represents a first-class director and creative team doing their best to wrestle with some inherently intractable material. The novel provides a superficially complicated narrative with a lot of suspects, not much action, and two leads who never meet until the halfway point, so nearly every scene consists of a solution to problems that the audience, ideally, will never notice. Editor Angus Wall notes that the final cut of The Social Network was essentially the same as the screenplay, minus a few words, while Dragon Tattoo had to be largely reinvented in the editing room. And the featurette “In the Cutting Room,” which follows Wall and Kirk Baxter—who won their second consecutive Oscar for their work here—as they try to figure out a shape for the story they’ve been given, is worth spending ten dollars on the disc set alone. It’s full of the little aperçus of wisdom that all great film editors seem to have at their fingertips, like the fact that they’ve learned to go faster, not slower, if the audience seems confused. And as is often the case, a movie that presents issues that might never be solved to anyone’s satisfaction ends up being more instructive than a tidier project: it’s no accident that the best book ever written on film editing is about Walter Murch and Cold Mountain.

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

What struck me the most about seeing Wall and Baxter at work is how technology has both increased their range of options and guaranteed that their contributions will remain all the more invisible. Numerous scenes in Dragon Tattoo made use of split screens to combine an actor’s performance in one take with that of a second actor in another, a kind of magic that only works, by definition, when it goes unseen, even if it has the potential to shape the audience’s experience more profoundly than any number of flashier techniques. The large frame granted by the RED digital camera—which provides a margin of unused image on all sides—allowed Fincher and his editors to quietly crop, stabilize, and recenter shots, change the timing of pans and tilts, and even create movement out of nothing in the editing room. It all represents a set of tools, when combined with reshoots and additional dialogue recording, that bring the process of editing a movie ever closer to that of revising a novel, in which the author isn’t strictly limited by the footage that already exists. Traditional film editing is a kind of amalgam between subtractive sculpture, collage, and musical composition; now it feels more like an extension of the act of directing or screenwriting itself.

And this fascinates me, because I’ve always thought of film editing as possibly the closest parallel in all the arts to what a writer does for a living, or at least the richest source of potential metaphors and analogies. Writers soon discover that their artistic freedom, if not exactly an illusion, has to be carefully qualified: you spend about half of every project inventing new material and the other half living with what you’ve already made, and while each day theoretically represents a fresh start, in practice, life is short enough that you find yourself making do with what you have. The editor, in his quiet room far from the chaos of the set, represents the purest expression I know of that confrontation between the possible and the actual. (David Mamet speaks in On Directing Film of the collaboration between the Apollonian side of the writer that plans the structure and the Dionysian side that writes the dialogue, and it’s possible that I’m drawn to the figure of the editor as the detached Apollonian craftsman versus the Dionysian confusion of moviemaking itself.) It’s in the nature of art to blur such boundaries, and ingenious, obsessive directors like Fincher will always seek ways of pushing the region in which meaningful choices can be made as far into the process as possible. And despite—or because of—the fact that writers can take these possibilities for granted, we can learn a lot from the fields in which they’re being realized for the first time, as if the history of storytelling were being played out again before our very eyes.

The monster in the mirror

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Psycho

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “If you were a horror movie villain, what would be your hook?”

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

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

Kevin Spacey in Seven

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

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

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2014 at 9:01 am

“Well, that’s just your opinion, man…”

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Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski

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: “Is there any work by an artist you love that is highly regarded and you know you should at least like, but you just can’t?”

I’ve spoken here before about the completist’s dilemma, or the sense that with so much content available at the click of a button—especially on television—it’s no longer enough to be a casual fan. It’s impossible to say that you like Community based on having seen a handful of episodes: you’re expected to have worked your way through all five seasons, even the gas-leak year, and have strong opinions about the relative worth of both installments of “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” There’s a similar process at work when it comes to the artists you admire. I’ve always had qualms about saying that I’m a fan of an author, director, or musician if I haven’t delved deep into his or her entire catalog, and I’m quietly racked by guilt over any omissions. Am I really a David Bowie fan if I’ve never listened to Low? How can I say anything interesting at all about Thomas Pynchon if I’ve never been able to get through anything beyond Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49? And if most of the songs I’ve internalized by The Smiths, or even New Order, come from their greatest hits collections, do I have any business ranking them among my favorite bands of all time?

At the very least, when it comes to the major works of someone you like, it’s assumed that you’ll adore all the established masterpieces. It’s hard to imagine a Radiohead fan who didn’t care for OK Computer or The Bends—although I’m sure they exist—or a Kubrick enthusiast who can’t sit through Dr. Strangelove. Still, there are glaring exceptions here, too. I don’t know of any directors better than the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever rewatch The Tales of Hoffmann, which filmmakers as different as Martin Scorsese and George Romero have ranked among their favorites—it just strikes me as a collection of the Archers’ worst indulgences, with only occasional flashes of the greatness of their best movies. David Lynch is about as central to my own inner life as any artist can be, but I can’t stand Wild at Heart. And while I think of David Fincher as one of the four or five most gifted directors currently at work, of all the movies I’ve ever seen, Fight Club might be the one I like least, partly because of how it squanders so much undeniable talent. (To be fair, I haven’t revisited it in ten years or so, but I don’t expect that my opinion has changed.)

David Mamet

But perhaps that’s the mark of an interesting artist. An author or filmmaker whose works you love without qualification may be a genius, but it’s also possible that he or she sticks too consistently to what has worked in the past. I like just about everything I’ve seen by David Mamet, for example—yes, even Redbelt—but there’s a sense in which he tends to rely on the same handful of brilliant tricks, with punchy dialogue, pointedly flat performances, and an evenness of tone and conception that can make even his best movies seem like filmed exercises. Compared to a director like Lars von Trier, who takes insane chances with every picture, or even Curtis Hanson, whose search for new material often leads him into unpromising places, Mamet can seem a little staid. Over time, I’d rather hitch my wagon to a storyteller whose choices can’t be predicted in advance, even if the result is a dead end as often as it becomes a revelation. I don’t necessarily know what the hell Steven Soderbergh is thinking with half the movies he makes, but there’s no denying that the result has been one of the most interesting careers of the last half century.

And even when an artist you respect is operating within his or her comfort zone, it’s possible to be left cold by the result. I love Joel and Ethan Coen: Inside Llewyn Davis was one of my favorite movies from last year, and just last night I rewatched all of Fargo, intending to just leave it on in the background while I did a few things around the house, only to end up sucked in by the story yet again. Yet I’ve never quite been able to get into The Big Lebowski, despite years of trying. It literally works fine on paper: the screenplay is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever read. In execution, though, it all strikes me as mannered and overdetermined, the furthest thing imaginable from the spirit of the Dude. (Watching it alongside The Long Goodbye, one of its obvious inspirations, only underlines the difference between real spontaneity and its obsessively crafted simulation.) Aside from The Hudsucker Proxy, which I’m happy to watch again any night, I’m not sure the Coens are really made for pure comedy: their funniest moments emerge from the bleak clockwork of noir, a genre in which the helplessness of the characters within the plot is part of the joke. The Big Lebowski is fine, on its own terms, but I know they can do a lot better—and that’s what makes me a fan.

Quote of the Day

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David Fincher

It’s four-dimensional chess, it’s strategy, and it’s being painfully honest, and unbelievably deceitful, and everything in between.

David Fincher, on filmmaking

Written by nevalalee

November 13, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day

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Swimming with sharks on House of Cards

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Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

I’ve always been fascinated by Kevin Spacey. This is an actor with less genetic charisma than any other leading man I can name—he’s neither handsome enough for conventional star parts or physically distinctive enough to be a striking supporting player—but his intelligence and craft have resulted in some of the most indelible performances of the latter half of the nineties, and beyond. I don’t think any other living actor can claim a run as good as SevenThe Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and American Beauty, not to mention Beyond the Sea, which I’m convinced is one of the great bad movies of all time, deserving, as David Thomson has noted, of an award given annually in its name. There’s a preening, endearing vanity behind Spacey’s nondescript looks that emerges whenever he’s asked to sing, which he does very well, or do one of his uncanny impersonations. He’s a showoff trapped in an everyman’s body, and although I don’t think he’s ever given a truly uncalculated or uninhibited performance, he’s also provided me with more pleasure as a moviegoer over the years than most actors with more conventional endowments.

And he’s the perfect lead for House of Cards, the weirdly compelling political drama that premiered over the weekend on Netflix. Spacey always seems to be in a kind of conspiratorial huddle with the audience, even if he’s only conning us in the end, and as the scheming majority whip Frank Underwood, he isn’t above giving the lens itself a wink, and occasionally an extended monologue to comment on the action. If the show were more realistically plotted, this would be distracting, but a realistic look at power politics isn’t quite what this series has in mind. Underwood is a master manipulator, but everyone around him is so gullible, including the supposed Washington operators with whom he interacts, that it’s as if he’s read the script notes for the next thirteen episodes. The fetching Kate Mara does what she can in the role of an ambitious metro reporter, but her rapid rise, once Underwood starts feeding her information, is more Brenda Starr than Bob Woodward. It should play worse than it does, but if there’s anyone who can carry this sort of thing, it’s Spacey, who clearly relishes the chance to have the camera to himself, and knows how to sell arch lines like “I love her like sharks love blood.”

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards

And I kind of love it, too. House of Cards is remarkably unsubtle in its writing, but benefits from considerable subtlety in its art direction, photography, and sound design. Every frame glows with the burnished yet chilly digital look that David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes, has long since perfected, and the compositions are both clinical and playful: instead of the long tracking shots of The West Wing, we’re treated to a vision of power as one glossy tableau after another. The sets and locations are lovingly detailed—even if my wife observed that no real newsroom kitchen has that much free bread—and we’re given plenty of time to drink them in, with a pace that some viewers have criticized as being too slow, but which suits the balance and polish of the images on the screen. The result is a television series that looks and feels more like a movie than any I’ve ever seen, and its elegance goes a long way toward addressing its narrative shortcomings. (It’s also presented in an unusual aspect ratio, slightly narrower than the standard 16:9 size, which I suspect represents a compromise between the anamorphic format that Fincher prefers and the demands of a show destined to be viewed primarily on widescreen televisions.)

And for all the hype over the fact that the series is being released in one big chunk, rather than parceled out in weekly installments, I have a hunch that its real influence will be in its look and tone, rather than its delivery system. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, and although I intend to watch the rest soon, it doesn’t strike me as the kind of densely plotted show that demands to be devoured in a few epic viewing sessions: all the conventions of serialized storytelling are here, but mostly for the sake of appearances. I’ve written before about the challenges of constructing shapely long-form narratives in television, in which a show can be canceled after two episodes or run for years, and although the Netflix model presents one possible solution to the problem, my initial impression is that it leads to a sort of complacency: subplots are introduced without any particular urgency, with the implication of a payoff somewhere down the line, where a series produced under greater ratings pressure might feel more of a need to justify itself moment to moment. House of Cards is secure, even occasionally a little smug, in the fact of its own survival. I’m enjoying it tremendously, but I can’t help but feel that it might have been a stronger show, if less lovingly crafted, if, to borrow the title from another Kevin Spacey movie, it had been forced to swim with the sharks.

Written by nevalalee

February 4, 2013 at 9:50 am

The treacherous craft of Aaron Sorkin

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When I consider Aaron Sorkin and the weirdly watchable train wreck that is The Newsroom, I’m reminded of something that Norman Mailer once said about craft: “I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.” Craft, in other words, becomes a kind of intellectual sleight of hand, a way of disguising bad thinking or more fundamental narrative problems, when a writer of lesser facility might have been forced to deal more honestly with the true implications of his material. Mailer cites Robert Penn Warren as an example:

Robert Penn Warren might have written a major novel if he hadn’t just that little extra bit of craft to get him out of all the trouble in All the King’s Men…And his plot degenerated into a slam-bang mix of exits and entrances, confrontations, tragedies, quick wits and woe. But he was really forcing an escape from the problem.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a lot like the The Newsroom, which so often confuses manic action and the rapid-fire exchange of factoids with drama and witty repartee. It’s a frustrating, often outright terrible show, and yet I find myself watching it with increasing fascination, because it achieves the level of badness that can only be attained with the aid of remarkable craft. Sorkin is a man of enormous talent, but in his best work, he’s been aided and restrained by other strong creative voices. The Newsroom gives us Sorkin uncut, without the guiding hand he needs to hold him back from his worst impulses, and the result tells us a lot not just about Sorkin, but about the nature and limitations of a certain kind of drama. Because watching this show forces us to confront what David Thomson, speaking about David Mamet, has called “the time-killing aridness in brilliant situations, crackling talk, and magnificent acting.”

That sort of “crackling talk” is a skill that can be learned over time, and Sorkin, who has written hundreds of hours of television, theater, and film, has had more practice doing it than just about anyone else. As a recent supercut made clear, he also tends to return repeatedly to the same verbal tics and phrases (“Well, that was predictable”). Yet this only reflects how good he really is. Sorkin is a machine for creating great dialogue, and like all insanely productive creative professionals, he likes to fall back on the same tricks, which he generates almost unconsciously. If he’d slaved over a line to make it work, he wouldn’t have used it again, but the fact that these lines reappear so often implies that they came easily. As Nicholson Baker says in U and I of John Updike’s reuse of certain images in his novels: “He liked it enough to consent to it when it appeared in a street scene the first time, and yet he didn’t like it well enough for his memory to warn him off a second placement.” And that’s the mark of a writer of almost supernatural felicity.

Yet it also conceals deeper problems of substance, as well as a disturbing lack of real ideas. As Sorkin recently said to Terry Gross: “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other.” And what The Newsroom demonstrates is that Sorkin’s blessed ability with dialogue has left him underdeveloped along other parameters, a shortcoming that seems especially visible now. If you write wonderful words for actors to say, this can conceal any number of other limitations, sometimes for years, but eventually the mask starts to slip. Sorkin is a verbal genius, with the Oscar and Emmys to show for it, but without good collaborators, his gift tends to ripen and rot. What Sorkin needs, clearly, is a strong creative force to push against, which David Fincher provided with The Social Network and Thomas Schlamme and John Wells did on The West Wing—although his recent purge of many members of his writing staff makes it doubtful if this will happen soon. But I hope it does. Because otherwise, the show will continue to waste its great potential, and a legion of viewers can only say: “Well, that was predictable.”

Reflections on a Dragon Tattoo

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My feelings about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are a matter of record. No other cultural sensation of recent years has left me so cold: where others see a masterpiece, I see a book that is amateurishly plotted, lurid but airless, overlong, and, worst of all, often grindingly dull. I’m not passing judgment on the novel’s many fans; only trying, unsuccessfully, to figure out what they find so compelling. I’m on the outside, looking in. Which made me all the more interested, paradoxically, in seeing David Fincher’s film of the book. As I’ve said before, with Zodiac and The Social Network, Fincher has gone from a filmmaker toward whom I’ve always felt considerable ambivalence to one of my four or five favorite contemporary directors. He’s an impeccable craftsman with a nice, chilly style, and to my eyes, he seemed like just the man to pare away the worst of the book’s shortcomings to reveal the germ of a decent story at its heart.

The good news is that the movie is much better than the book. Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian skillfully foreshorten the novel’s interminable opening and closing sections, cut down on the number of meaningless suspects, and make the logic of the investigation, if not exactly plausible, at least visually comprehensible. In many ways, this is a more impressive display of Fincher’s craft than a more engaging story might have afforded: for a movie with little conventional suspense and even less real action, it’s surprisingly absorbing, and seems much shorter than its actual length of nearly three hours. Like all of Fincher’s movies, it looks and sounds great. And the cast is excellent, especially Rooney Mara as Lisbeth: it’s a performance based as much on makeup and costume design as any real conception of the character—much of her acting is done by the back of her head, and those amazing earrings—but Mara commits fearlessly to the part, and whenever she’s onscreen, the movie gains an additional charge.

Unfortunately, while the film does a nice job of addressing the story’s tedium, it doesn’t do much for its essential pointlessness. What, exactly, is this movie about? Like the book, the film ruminates endlessly on the complexities of the Vanger company and its tangled family tree, only to give us a killer at the end whose identity and motivations are completely arbitrary. The characters make wildly implausible deductions and even more inexplicable decisions, as when Blomkvist, effectively portrayed by Daniel Craig, figures out who the killer is, then rushes over immediately to the suspect’s isolated house, alone and unarmed. Perhaps most unforgivably, while the movie, like the book, is superficially concerned with violence against women, it has nothing interesting to say on the subject—aside from endorsing some astonishing forms of revenge—and often seems content to simply titillate the audience. From Fincher, who is capable of much better things, this is a particular disappointment.

Despite its obvious technical merits, then, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo feels like a step backward for one of our most interesting directors. If Fincher had only made Seven, The Game, and Panic Room, I might have felt differently: in that case, this film would have seemed like the best he was capable of delivering. But after The Social Network, and in particular after Zodiac, Fincher has emerged as a director who can follow through masterfully on genre conventions while also teasing out deeper possibilities. He’s still a master of mise-en-scène, and, like Hitchcock, he’s fond of nice sick touches—his use of “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” is especially inspired—but Dragon Tattoo finds him oddly unengaged. As the credits roll, we know we’ve been treated to a sleek, professional studio product, with isolated flashes of beauty and cruelty, but we aren’t sure why. And I don’t think Fincher knows, either.

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

The singular destiny of David Fincher

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The most extraordinary thing about last night’s Academy Awards, which were otherwise inexplicably awkward, was the idea that in today’s Hollywood, five men like David Fincher, David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, and Joel and Ethan Coen could be competing for Best Director, with only the unstoppable force of Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech excluding Christopher Nolan from the final slot on that list. It was perhaps inevitable that Hooper would end up playing the spoiler, but despite the outcome, the sight of so many unpredictable, talented, and relatively young directors in one room was enough to make me feel lucky for the chance to watch their careers unfold—and that includes Hooper, as long as last night’s coronation doesn’t lull him into premature complacency. (His next big project, an adaptation of Les Misérables, doesn’t bode especially well.)

That said, David Fincher deserved to win. And one day he will. Of all the directors on that list, he’s the one who seems most capable of making a major movie that can stand with the greatest American films, which is something that I never would have guessed even five years ago. For a long time, Fincher struck me as the most erratic of technical perfectionists, at least as far as my own tastes were concerned: before The Social Network, he had made one of my favorite movies (Zodiac); one of my least favorite (Fight Club); one that was good, but limited (Seven); and several that I can barely remember (The Game, Panic Room, and the rest). But as of last night, he seems capable of anything—aside from the ambitious dead end of Benjamin Button, which only proves that Fincher needs to stay away from conventional prestige projects.

Because the crucial thing about Fincher is that his technical proficiency is the least interesting or distinctive thing about him. The world is full of directors who can do marvelous things with digital video, who know how to choreograph physical and verbal violence, and who display a fanatic’s obsession with art direction, sound, and special effects. What sets Fincher apart is his willingness, which even Nolan lacks, to lavish these considerable resources on small, surprising stories. Many of my favorite movies, from Ikiru to The Insider, are the result of a great director training his gifts on subjects that might seem better suited for television. The Social Network, which grows deeper and sadder the more often I watch it, belongs proudly to that tradition. And I have a feeling that an Oscar would have made it much harder for Fincher to continue along that path.

A win last night might also have calcified Fincher’s perfectionist habits into mere self-indulgence, which is a risk that will never entirely go away. Fincher has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to elicit fine performances from his actors, but his approach to filmmaking, with its countless takes, has more often been an emotional dead end for directors. In On Directing Film, David Mamet sums up the traditional case against multiple takes:

I’ve seen directors do as many as sixty takes of a shot. Now, any director who’s watched dailies knows that after the third or fourth take he can’t remember the first; and on the set, when shooting the tenth take, you can’t remember the purpose of the scene. And after shooting the twelfth, you can’t remember why you were born. Why do directors, then, shoot this many takes? Because they don’t know what they want to take a picture of. And they’re frightened.

Fincher, of course, is more likely to ask for a hundred takes of a shot, let alone sixty. So far, the results speak for themselves: The Social Network and Zodiac are two of the most beautifully acted ensemble movies of the last decade. They’re so good, in fact, that they’ve singlehandedly forced me to rethink my own feelings about multiple takes in the digital era. In the old days, when  film stock was too expensive to be kept running for long, the need to stop and restart the camera after every take quickly sucked all the energy out of a set. Now that videotape is essentially free, multiple takes become more of a chance to play and explore, and can result in acting of impressive nuance and subtlety. (In a recent post, David Bordwell does a nice job of highlighting how good Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in The Social Network really is.) But they’re only useful if the director remains hungry enough to channel these takes into unforgettable stories. An Oscar, I suspect, would have taken much of that hunger away.

My gut feeling, after last night, is that if Fincher continues to grow, his potential is limitless. Over the past few years, he has already matured from a director who, early on, seemed interested in design above all else to an artist whose technique is constantly in the service of story, as well as an authentic interest in his characters and the worlds they inhabit. This mixture of humanism (but not sentimentality) and technical virtuosity is precious and rare, and it’s enough to put Fincher at the head of his generation of filmmakers, as long as he continues to follow his gift into surprising places. At first glance, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seems like a step back, but at least it affords the range of tones and locations that he needs. And if last night’s loss forces him to search all the more urgently for great material, then perhaps we’re all better off in the end.

The best movies of the year

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First, the bad news. This was a terrible year for movies. Some combination of recessionary cutbacks, the delayed effects of the writer’s strike, and a determination to convert every imaginable movie to muddy 3D resulted in stretches of up to two or three months when multiplexes were basically a wasteland. And even if this cinematic dead zone turns out to be temporary, it’s hard not to see it as karmic comeuppance for the Academy’s recent decision to bump the number of Best Picture nominees to ten, an act of desperation that is looking more misguided with every passing day. Still, there were some very good movies released this year, including one that ranks among the best I’ve ever seen. It’s almost enough to make me think that this year was better than it actually was:

1. Inception. After a decade of extraordinary productivity, Christopher Nolan is beginning to look like nothing so much as two great directors working as one: the first is obsessed with pushing the bounds of filmic complexity on the narrative level, while the other has devoted himself to mastering every aspect of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Inception is the ultimate result of this paradoxical partnership: it’s one of those rare movies in which every aspect of the production—acting, story, visual effects, art direction, stunts, music, editing, even costume design—is both immediately exhilarating and endless to meditation. I only wish there were more of it.

2. Toy Story 3. I was hard on this movie yesterday, so let’s set the record straight: this is the best Pixar film since Finding Nemo, and one of the finest animated movies ever made. It’s touching, exciting, thematically rich, and very funny, with an enormous cast of characters—both existing and new—who are so engaging that I’m sad we won’t have a chance to see them in other stories. (Fanfic, as usual, is ready to come to the rescue.) It’s enough to make me wish that I were ten years younger, just so I could have grown up with these toys—and movies—on my playroom shelves.

3. The Social Network. Over the past few years, David Fincher has gone from being a stylish but chilly visual perfectionist to a director who can seemingly do anything. Zodiac was the best movie ever made about serial killers and journalism, as well as the best Bay Area picture since Vertigo; The Social Network, in turn, is the best Harvard movie of all time, as well as a layered, trashy story of money and friendship, with an Aaron Sorkin script that manages to evoke both John Hughes and Citizen Kane. It’s almost enough to make me excited about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

4. Exit Through the Gift Shop. Even more than Inception, this was the best film of the year for inspiring endless heated debate. Months later, I’m still not sure what to think about the strange case of Banksy and Mr. Brainwash, which is some combination of cautionary tale, Horatio Alger story, fascinating reportage, and practical joke. I do know that it’s impossible to watch it without questioning your deepest assumptions about art, commerce, and the nature of documentary filmmaking. And even if it’s something of a put-on, which I think at least part of it is, it’s still the best movie of its kind since F for Fake.

5. The Ghost Writer. Roman Polanski’s modest but wickedly sophisticated thriller is a reminder that a movie doesn’t need to be big to be memorable. The ingredients couldn’t be simpler: a tight story, an impeccable cast (aside from Kim Cattrall’s distractingly plummy British accent), and an isolated house on the beach. The result is one of the great places in the movies, as real as Hannibal Lecter’s cell or the detective’s office in The Usual Suspects. By the end, we feel as if we could find our way around this house on our own, and the people inside it—especially the devastating Olivia Williams—have taken up residence in our dreams.

6. Fair Game. Aside from a pair of appealingly nuanced performances by Naomi Watts (as Valerie Plame) and Sean Penn (as Joseph Wilson), Fair Game doesn’t even try to be balanced: it’s a story of complex good against incredible, mustache-twirling evil, which would be objectionable from a narrative perspective if it weren’t so close to the truth. At its best, it’s reminiscent of The Insider, both in its sense of outrage and in the massive technical skill that it lavishes on intimate spaces. It’s impossible to watch it without being swept up again by renewed indignation.

7. The Town. True, it’s slightly confused about its main character, who comes off as more of a sociopath than the film wants to admit, and I have problems with the last ten minutes, in which Ben Affleck, as both director and star, slips from an admirable objectivity into a strange sort of self-regard. Still, for most of its length, this is a terrific movie, with one of the best supporting casts in years—notably Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, and the late Pete Postlethwaite. The result is a genre piece that is both surprisingly layered and hugely entertaining, with a fine sense of Boston atmosphere.

8. The Secret in Their Eyes. Technically, this Argentine movie—which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film—came out last year, but I’d feel irresponsible if I didn’t include it here. Like The Lives of Others, which it superficially resembles, it’s one of those foreign films, aware of but unimpressed by the conventions of Hollywood, that seems so rich and full of life that it passes beyond genre: it’s funny, romantic, and unbearably tense, and contains one of the most virtuoso action sequences this side of Children of Men. I don’t know what to call it, but I love it.

9. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. A week doesn’t go by in which I don’t think fondly of Knives Chau, Scott Pilgrim’s hapless but unexpectedly resourceful Chinese-Canadian love interest. The film in which Knives finds herself is equally adorable: it has enough wit and invention for three ordinary movies, and it’s one of the few comedies of recent years that knows what to do with Michael Cera. It’s something of a mess, and its eagerness to please can be exhausting, but it still contains more delights per reel than any number of tidier films.

10. The American. Despite opening at the top of the box office over Labor Day weekend, this odd, nearly perfect little movie was mostly hated or dismissed by audiences soon after its release. The crucial thing is to adjust your expectations: despite what the commercials say, this isn’t a thriller so much as a loving portrait of a craftsman—in this case, an assassin—at work, as well as a visual essay on such important subjects as the Italian countryside, a woman’s naked body, and George Clooney’s face. It’s perilously close to ridiculous, but until its ludicrous final shot, it casts its own kind of peculiar spell.

Honorable mention goes to Winter’s Bone, A Prophet, Tangled, and How to Train Your Dragon, as well as to parts of The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, and even Black Swan, which really deserves a category of its own. (As for Tron: Legacy, well, the less said about that, the better.)

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