Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David O. Selznick

The uranium in the wine bottle

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In the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, readers were treated to the story “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill, which was set on an alien planet consumed by a war between two factions known as the “Sixa” and the “Seilla.” Its hero was a spy, complete with a prehensile tail, whose mission was to fly into enemy territory and destroy the ultimate weapon before it could be detonated. The story itself was undeniably mediocre, and it would be utterly forgotten today if it weren’t for its description of the weapon in question, an atomic bomb, which Cartmill based almost verbatim on letters from the editor John W. Campbell, who had pitched the idea in the first place. According to the physicist Edward Teller, it was plausible enough to cause “astonishment” at the Manhattan Project, which counted many readers of the magazine among its scientists, and after it was brought to the attention of the Counterintelligence Corps, both Campbell and Cartmill were interviewed to investigate the possibility of a leak. In reality, “Deadline” wasn’t even much of a prediction—Campbell, who was feeling frustrated about his lack of involvement in war research, had a hunch that an atomic bomb was in the works, and he packed the story with technical information that was already in the public domain. He evidently hoped that it would draw official interest that might lead to a real defense role, which failed to materialize. After the war, however, it paid off immensely, and Campbell found himself hailed as a prophet. Cartmill, the credited author, neatly fell out of the picture, and the fact that the story hadn’t predicted much of anything was lost on most readers. Campbell had essentially orchestrated the most famous anecdote of his career, planting “Deadline” in the magazine expressly so that he could point to it later, and across multiple retellings, the details of the ensuing investigation were exaggerated beyond recognition. As the historian Donald Spoto aptly puts it: “[His] calculated image of himself as a prophet does not coincide with the truth; inspired by his sense of publicity, he told a better story than the facts reveal.”

But Spoto isn’t writing about Campbell, but about Alfred Hitchcock, in his classic biography The Dark Side of Genius, and the story here isn’t “Deadline,” but the great romantic thriller Notorious. As legend has it, when Hitchcock had to come up with the MacGuffin, or the plot point that would drive the rest of the movie, he proposed a sample of uranium hidden in a wine bottle by a group of Nazis in Brazil. As he said to François Truffaut in their famous book-length interview:

The producer said, “What in the name of good­ness is that?” I said, “This is uranium; it’s the thing they’re going to make an atom bomb with.” And he asked, “What atom bomb?” This, you must remember, was in 1944, a year before Hiroshima. I had only one clue. A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project someplace in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium Mac­Guffin. The producer was skeptical, and he felt it was absurd to use the idea of an atom bomb as the basis for our story. I told him that it wasn’t the basis for the story, but only the MacGuffin, and I explained that there was no need to attach too much importance to it.

In the end, the idea was approved, and Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht allegedly went to Pasadena to get background information from the physicist Robert A. Millikan. According to Hitchcock, Millikan responded: “You want to have yourselves arrested and have me arrested as well?” After this outburst, Milkian informed them—in something of a non sequitur—that the idea was impossible anyway, although others evidently felt that they had come too close for comfort. As Hitchcock confided in Truffaut: “I learned later that after­ward the FBI had me under surveillance for three months.”

Like many movie buffs, I accepted this story without question for years, but when you encounter it after the “Deadline” incident, it starts to seem too good to be true, which it was. As Spoto writes in The Dark Side of Genius: “The business of the uranium remained a considerable source of publicity for Hitchcock  to the end of his life. To François Truffaut, to this writer, and to many others, he always insisted that he had chosen the device of uranium ore in Nazi experiments quite coincidentally, far in advance of the detonation of the atomic bomb in Japan in August 1945…He always emphasized, in every discussion of Notorious, that he was virtually a prophet.” The truth, Spoto continues, was very different:

By the time Notorious actually began filming, in October 1945, Hitchcock had made yet another trip to London…and he had returned to Los Angeles for final script work in September—after the bombings of Japan, and after he had spent several weeks in New York testing actors, among whom were several famous German refugees he finally cast in the film. On the basis of news from these German contacts, and from the accounts that flooded the world press…Hitchcock and Hecht refined the last addenda to their script just before the first day of production…All the evidence suggests that in truth the uranium was included after the fact.

As for the allegation of government surveillance, it was evidently based on a general directive from the FBI that the producer David O. Selznick received in May, which cautioned that any movie that featured American intelligence would have to be cleared by the State Department. Like Campbell, Hitchcock liked to make people think that he had been given special attention, and over the years, in both cases, the stories only grew.

There are obvious similarities between these two incidents, as well as equally noteworthy differences. With “Deadline,” the description of the bomb is the story’s sole reason for existing, while Notorious would still be a masterpiece even if the MacGuffin had been something else entirely. (As Hitchcock allegedly told his producer: “Look, if you don’t like uranium, let’s make it industrial diamonds, which the Germans need to cut their tools with.” He claimed to have later told a movie executive who had objected to the screenplay on grounds of its implausibility: “You were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story.” And even if he invented the conversation, his point still stands.) The other difference is the use to which each anecdote was put. For Hitchcock, the uranium incident, and the reputation that it gave him as a “prophet,” was just another way of burnishing his image, and although he enjoyed dining out on it, it was a minor part of his legend. Campbell, by contrast, used it as the basis for his entire postwar career. Just two weeks after Hiroshima, The New Yorker profiled him in a Talk of the Town piece titled “1945 Cassandra,” in which it credulously wrote:

If you want to keep up with, or possibly stay ahead of, the development of secret weapons in time of war, you had better…go to the pulps, preferably Astounding. One reason is that Astounding, which has for the past ten years or so been predicting atomic bombs and using them to liven up its stories, has been permitted to duck some of the security rules that made high-echelon government officials such halting conversationalists in recent months.

And that reputation hinged largely on the myth of “Deadline” and its creation. It bought Campbell tremendous credibility after the war, earned or otherwise, and it played a significant role in science fiction’s big push into the mainstream. Eventually, the editor would stake—and lose—all of that goodwill on dianetics. But for a few years, Campbell, like Hitchcock, got to play his audience like a piano, and both men liked to pretend that they had once been notorious.

The intermission song

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Tom Courtenay in Doctor Zhivago

A few weeks ago, a user on Reddit posted a copy of the original projectionist’s instructions for Gone With the Wind. They make for a fascinating read, both because they reflect a level of care in a film’s presentation that you’re unlikely to find today at your average multiplex, and because they remind us of what it meant to treat a movie as a genuine event. Each screening opened with an overture, during which it was urged “that the house lights be gradually dimmed,” followed by a drum roll that signaled the parting of the curtains. And there was an intermission with four minutes of orchestral music, which in practice was often extended by theater owners by delaying the start of the next reel. Every aspect is a tribute to David O. Selznick’s obsessive attention to detail, and while its efforts to mimic the feel of a theatrical performance might seem artificial—in the way the earliest automobiles took their design cues from the horse and buggy—the impact on the audience is a real one. It extends the narrative from the screen into the space of the theater itself, and in the end, the physical experience of viewing the movie can’t be separated from the shape of the overall story.

Lately, intermissions have gone out of style. As far as I can remember, the last film I saw with an intermission on its original run was Titanic, and even that seems to have been on the exhibitor’s initiative—the movie simply stopped, unceremoniously, between two reels. At first, it isn’t hard to see why theater owners would prefer to show a movie straight through: they’re anxious to pack as many screenings into a single day as possible, and once a film approaches three hours, it can be hard to schedule more than one showing during the crucial evening hours. Yet as blockbusters continue to test that limit anyway, and as the majority of a theater’s profit is increasingly derived from concessions, you’d think that they’d welcome any additional excuse to sell soda and popcorn. In Look, I Made a Hat, Stephen Sondheim notes that theater owners on Broadway have taken the opposite stance:

It will probably not come as a surprise that theater owners abhor one-act shows. Without intermissions, what happens to the concession stands and bars, of which they have a significant percentage?

Projectionist's instructions for Gone With the Wind

Clearly, then, there comes a point when an intermission makes economic as well as aesthetic sense. But a real intermission is more than just a matter of arbitrarily pausing the movie halfway through: it calls for a thoughtful reconsideration of the structure of the story itself. Martin Sherman, author of Bent, refers to the intermission as “one of the great weapons that a playwright can use,” since it allows the tone of the play to change radically between the first and second acts. (Even when the tone remains pointedly the same, as in Waiting for Godot, the intermission—and its lack of forward motion in the meantime—creates its own set of expectations for the author to push against.) Similarly, an intermission in a movie can serve as a source of tension or narrative punctuation, creating a sense of two contrasting movements. David Lean, the master of the cinematic epic, understood this completely: Lawrence of Arabia goes from fun and games in the desert to a narrative of growing ambiguity and disillusionment, and I don’t think there’s ever been a greater act break in movies than the one we find in Doctor Zhivago, which follows the revelation of Strelnikov’s identity with a smash cut to the intermission title card.

None of this happens by accident, and a movie that earns the right to an intermission, aside from reasons of mere bladder capacity, has to be conceived as such from the beginning. Which is why there’s one place where intermissions seem likely to come back into style: in IMAX. With movies like Interstellar already reaching the limit of what a single platter of celluloid can hold, it isn’t farfetched to think that we’ll eventually see an epic of three hours or more that requires a break for a reel change. In this digital age, IMAX already feels like the last refuge of the dialogue between a movie and its physical medium, and it’s ripe for a rediscovery of the intermission as a tool for storytelling. (If nothing else, the kind of moviegoer willing to spend twenty dollars to see a blockbuster on the largest possible screen is probably more open to the idea of a movie as an event, rather than just as a way to kill a couple of hours.) A movie like The Fellowship of the Ring is dying for an intermission, and in practice, it has one: the extended Blu-ray—which is the way in which most viewers will experience it in the future—divides it across two discs, restoring it almost by accident to its ideal form. Which is just another case of the medium reminding us of something that we should have remembered all along.

Written by nevalalee

March 9, 2015 at 9:57 am

The weather men

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Elmore Leonard

“Never open a book with the weather,” Elmore Leonard said, and he was absolutely right. Still, the fact that he felt compelled to put this admonition at the top of his ten rules of writing testifies to the fact that there’s something about weather—and, more generally, the description of the environment in which a story takes place—that novice authors find irresistible. The weather, as we all know, is a classic topic for small talk because it affects all of us equally, and we can all be expected to take at least a passing interest in what kind of day it looks to be. Much the same impulse applies to describing the weather in fiction: it comes easily to mind when we’re sketching the outlines of a scene, it allows us to ease into the day’s work without much effort, and it feels, based on our memories of the other stories we’ve read, like the sort of thing that belongs somewhere at the beginning. But while it’s fine to use the weather or the landscape as an entry point into the story when you’re working on a first draft, in the rewrite, nearly all of it can be cut, especially when it occurs in a story or chapter’s crucial opening lines.

A description of the weather is a bad choice for the opening of a story for the same reason it comes so easily: it’s fundamentally impersonal. Unless the story is explicitly about man versus nature—and even then, you’re usually better off starting with the man—most good narratives center on human problems, and particularly on the choices made by the protagonist to meet a series of objectives. There’s nothing in the weather that applies specifically to any one individual: the rain falls on the just and the unjust, so you’re wasting valuable space with lines that convey no information to the reader. There’s a place, obviously, for atmosphere and scenic description, but it generally fits best at a point where the conflict and personalities have already been established. Like a television show that returns from a commercial break on a tight closeup of the lead, reserving the wide shot until after the scene is in motion, a good scenic description sets the stage only once the players have been introduced. As the beginning, it’s the literary equivalent of small talk; it may be superficially painless, and it gets you safely to the other side of the first paragraph, but it’s hard to expect any reader to really care.

Gone With the Wind

Of course, there are times when the weather can be an active player in the narrative, and not just when the characters are set against it like King Lear in the storm. If you’re a writer, like Updike or Nabokov, given to what James Wood calls “propaganda on behalf of good noticing,” the weather can be just another subject on which you can exercise your gifts for description, although you’d better be sure before you begin that the result will reward this test on the reader’s patience. More subtly, the description of a character’s surroundings can be used to evoke an inner state or mood. Sometimes this skirts dangerously to the pathetic fallacy, or the urge to attribute human emotion to impersonal forces of nature, but when embedded within a conventional first-person or limited third-person viewpoint, it makes perfect sense. When we’re absorbed in what we’re doing, we may not notice the weather at all; when we’re worried, nervous, or depressed, we naturally pick out aspects of our surroundings that remind us of our own feelings. When every detail is channeled through one character’s point of view, the sky can be a mirror of the self—although, again, this assumes that we’ve already been given a particular pair of eyes though which to see.

Even in narratives that are written more objectively, there’s room for description that grounds characters in environments that are secretly expressions of personality. The fantasy author Steve Rasnic Tem calls this dream characterization:

A particular theory of gestalt dream interpretation suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer. A chair, a table, a car, another human being—each would represent some aspect of the dreamer…We might say that all other objects in the story—the landscape, the other characters, the supernatural presence, even the individual events—represent some aspect of the protagonist…Each piece suggests or tells us something about our main character. Far more, I suspect, than a delineation of traits and opinions ever could.

And there’s no question that the environment of a scene can influence our impressions. There’s a famous story about David Selznick trying to decide what the weather should be in the final scene of Gone With the Wind, after Rhett delivers his last line to Scarlett. If Rhett had left on a pleasant evening, the audience might assume that he would return one day; or, if he walked off into the rain, that he would never come back. In the final version, he disappears into a dense fog, which neatly splits the difference. Even the weather, then, has its uses. But it needs to flow from character and situation, rather than being imposed from above, if the reader is going to give a damn.

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2014 at 9:46 am

“Why didn’t you put a red dress on her?”

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Gone With the Wind

I once ran into a very funny situation when Selznick, with great pride, showed me the big scene from Gone With the Wind. It was the scene with all the soldiers lying in the station yard and there was this high pull-back showing Vivien Leigh looking for her man. She was wearing a pale violet dress and you could hardly see her. I said, “David, why didn’t you put a red dress on her? When the camera finally reached the high point, all you would have seen was this little red dot.” That shook him. He had never thought of it. Ridiculous not to think of a thing like that. He missed the whole point of the scene entirely. And wouldn’t that have made some retake?

Alfred Hitchcock, in Murder Ink

Written by nevalalee

January 11, 2014 at 9:00 am

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