Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Doctor Zhivago

Shoot the piano player

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In his flawed but occasionally fascinating book Bambi vs. Godzilla, the playwright and director David Mamet spends a chapter discussing the concept of aesthetic distance, which is violated whenever viewers remember that they’re simply watching a movie. Mamet provides a memorable example:

An actor portrays a pianist. The actor sits down to play, and the camera moves, without a cut, to his hands, to assure us, the audience, that he is actually playing. The filmmakers, we see, have taken pains to show the viewers that no trickery has occurred, but in so doing, they have taught us only that the actor portraying the part can actually play the piano. This addresses a concern that we did not have. We never wondered if the actor could actually play the piano. We accepted the storyteller’s assurances that the character could play the piano, as we found such acceptance naturally essential to our understanding of the story.

Mamet imagines a hypothetical dialogue between the director and the audience: “I’m going to tell you a story about a pianist.” “Oh, good: I wonder what happens to her!” “But first, before I do, I will take pains to reassure you that the actor you see portraying the hero can actually play the piano.” And he concludes:

We didn’t care till the filmmaker brought it up, at which point we realized that, rather than being told a story, we were being shown a demonstration. We took off our “audience” hat and put on our “judge” hat. We judged the demonstration conclusive but, in so doing, got yanked right out of the drama. The aesthetic distance had been violated.

Let’s table this for now, and turn to a recent article in The Atlantic titled “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen.” To prosecute the case laid out in the headline, the film critic Christopher Orr draws on Eric Lax’s new book Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking, which describes the making of Irrational Man—a movie that nobody saw, which doesn’t make the book sound any less interesting. For Orr, however, it’s “an indictment framed as an encomium,” and he lists what he evidently sees as devastating charges:

Allen’s editor sometimes has to live with technical imperfections in the footage because he hasn’t shot enough takes for her to choose from…As for the shoot itself, Allen has confessed, “I don’t do any preparation. I don’t do any rehearsals. Most of the times I don’t even know what we’re going to shoot.” Indeed, Allen rarely has any conversations whatsoever with his actors before they show up on set…In addition to limiting the number of takes on any given shot, he strongly prefers “master shots”—those that capture an entire scene from one angle—over multiple shots that would subsequently need to be edited together.

For another filmmaker, all of these qualities might be seen as strengths, but that’s beside the point. Here’s the relevant passage:

The minimal commitment that appearing in an Allen film entails is a highly relevant consideration for a time-strapped actor. Lax himself notes the contrast with Mike Leigh—another director of small, art-house films—who rehearses his actors for weeks before shooting even starts. For Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Stone and her co-star, Ryan Gosling, rehearsed for four months before the cameras rolled. Among other chores, they practiced singing, dancing, and, in Gosling’s case, piano. The fact that Stone’s Irrational Man character plays piano is less central to that movie’s plot, but Allen didn’t expect her even to fake it. He simply shot her recital with the piano blocking her hands.

So do we shoot the piano player’s hands or not? The boring answer, unfortunately, is that it depends—but perhaps we can dig a little deeper. It seems safe to say that it would be impossible to make The Pianist with Adrian Brody’s hands conveniently blocked from view for the whole movie. But I’m equally confident that it doesn’t matter the slightest bit in Irrational Man, which I haven’t seen, whether or not Emma Stone is really playing the piano. La La Land is a slightly trickier case. It would be hard to envision it without at least a few shots of Ryan Gosling playing the piano, and Damien Chazelle isn’t above indulging in exactly the camera move that Mamet decries, in which it tilts down to reassure us that it’s really Gosling playing. Yet the fact that we’re even talking about this gets down to a fundamental problem with the movie, which I mostly like and admire. Its characters are archetypes who draw much of their energy from the auras of the actors who play them, and in the case of Stone, who is luminous and moving as an aspiring actress suffering through an endless series of auditions, the film gets a lot of mileage from our knowledge that she’s been in the same situation. Gosling, to put it mildly, has never been an aspiring jazz pianist. This shouldn’t even matter, but every time we see him playing the piano, he briefly ceases to be a struggling artist and becomes a handsome movie star who has spent three months learning to fake it. And I suspect that the movie would have been elevated immensely by casting a real musician. (This ties into another issue with La La Land, which is that it resorts to telling us that its characters deserve to be stars, rather than showing it to us in overwhelming terms through Gosling and Stone’s singing and dancing, which is merely passable. It’s in sharp contrast to Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, one of its clear spiritual predecessors, in which it’s impossible to watch Liza Minnelli without becoming convinced that she ought to be the biggest star in the world. And when you think of how quirky, repellent, and individual Minnelli and Robert De Niro are allowed to be in that film, La La Land starts to look a little schematic.)

And I don’t think I’m overstating it when I argue that the seemingly minor dilemma of whether to show the piano player’s hands shades into the larger problem of how much we expect our actors to really be what they pretend that they are. I don’t think any less of Bill Murray because he had to employ Terry Fryer as a “hand double” for his piano solo in Groundhog Day, and I don’t mind that the most famous movie piano player of them all—Dooley Wilson in Casablanca—was faking it. And there’s no question that you’re taken out of the movie a little when you see Richard Chamberlain playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in The Music Lovers, however impressive it might be. (I’m willing to forgive De Niro learning to mime the saxophone for New York, New York, if only because it’s hard to imagine how it would look otherwise. The piano is just about the only instrument in which it can plausibly be left at the director’s discretion. And in his article, revealingly, Orr fails to mention that none other than Woody Allen was insistent that Sean Penn learn the guitar for Sweet and Lowdown. As Allen himself might say, it depends.) On some level, we respond to an actor playing the piano much like the fans of Doctor Zhivago, whom Pauline Kael devastatingly called “the same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.” But it can serve the story as much as it can detract from it, and the hard part is knowing how and when. As one director notes:

Anybody can learn how to play the piano. For some people it will be very, very difficult—but they can learn it. There’s almost no one who can’t learn to play the piano. There’s a wide range in the middle, of people who can play the piano with various degrees of skill; a very, very narrow band at the top, of people who can play brilliantly and build upon a technical skill to create great art. The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills. Directing is just a technical skill.

This is Mamet writing in On Directing Film, which is possibly the single best work on storytelling I know. You might not believe him when he says that directing is “just a technical skill,” but if you do, there’s a simple way to test if you have it. Do you show the piano player’s hands? If you know the right answer for every scene, you just might be a director.

Quote of the Day

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Boris Pasternak

Everything had changed suddenly—the tone, the moral climate; you didn’t know what to think, whom to listen to. As if all your life you had been led by the hand like a small child and suddenly you were on your own, you had to learn to walk by yourself. There was no one around, neither family nor people whose judgment you respected. At such a time you felt the need of committing yourself to something absolute—life or truth or beauty—of being ruled by it in place of the man-made rules that had been discarded. You needed to surrender to some such ultimate purpose more fully, more unreservedly than you had ever done in the old familiar, peaceful days, in the old life that was now abolished and gone for good.

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2016 at 7:30 am

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 holy grail of props

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Grail diary from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What movie prop would you love to own?”

Twenty years ago, when I first saw Jurassic Park, the moment that stuck with me the most wasn’t the raptor attack or even Jeff Goldblum’s creepy laugh: it was the park brochure that appears briefly onscreen before Laura Dern tramples it into the mud. We see it for little more than a second, but the brevity of its role is exactly what struck me. A prop artist—or, more likely, a whole team of them—had painstakingly written, typeset, and printed a tangible piece of ephemera for the sake of that fleeting gag. In a way, it seemed to stand in for the unseen efforts that lie behind every frame of film, those invisible touches of craft and meticulous labor that add up to make the story a little more real. Looking back, I recognize how showy that shot really is: it wasn’t captured by accident, even if it’s staged like a throwaway, and it calls attention to itself in a degree that most good props probably shouldn’t. And my reaction makes me feel uncomfortably like the hypothetical moviegoers that Pauline Kael imagined being impressed by Doctor Zhivago: “The same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.”

But it’s still delightful. I’ve always been fascinated by movie props, perhaps because they feel like the purest expression of the glorious waste of filmmaking: an object is lovingly crafted and aged by hand simply to be photographed, or to sit out of focus in the background of a single shot. My appreciation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy went up another notch after I watched hours of production featurettes last winter, many of which focused on the prop department. I learned, for instance, that the artisans who made the hundreds of sets of chain mail wore down their own fingerprints in the process, and that Theoden’s armor included a golden sun stamped on the inside of the breastplate, where no one but Bernard Hill would ever see it. Each touch is imperceptible, but in the aggregate, they add up to a vision of a world that remains totally convincing: even if we quibble over Peter Jackson’s narrative choices, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his determination to build up so much detail before an audience even existed to see it—if they ever noticed it at all. Props are designed to serve the story, not to dominate it, and I’d be inclined to call it a thankless task if I weren’t so profoundly grateful for the result.

Brochure from Jurassic Park

Maybe because I’m an author, I’ve always been especially taken by props that involve written text, whether they’re John Doe’s notebooks from Seven or the obsessively detailed newspapers of the future that we glimpse in Children of Men. I think I find such props so fascinating because they feel like a reversal of the way words and filmed images naturally relate: if a screenplay serves as the engine or blueprint of the movie as a whole, these words exist only for their visual properties, which can only be convincing if someone has taken the time to treat them as if they were meant to be read in their own right. When a movie falls short here, it can pull you out of the story even more drastically than most comparable mistakes: my favorite example is from The Godfather Part III, which prominently displays a headline from The Wall Street Journal with text that seems to have been copied and pasted from a computer instruction manual. (These days, movies seem aware of how much every shot is likely to be scrutinized, so they’re more likely to take the time to write something up for the sake of viewers and their pause buttons, like Captain America’s to-do list.)

As far as I’m concerned, the greatest prop of them all has to be the grail diary in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We see it clearly for maybe a total of thirty seconds, but those few glimpses were enough to fuel a lifetime’s worth of daydreams: I sometimes think I owe half of my inner life to Henry Jones’s battered little notebook. As it happens, you can read the whole thing online, or some simulacrum of it, thanks to the efforts of such prop replica masters as Indy Magnoli, whose work goes on eBay for nine hundred dollars or more—and I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted, years ago, to pick up one for myself. Recently, the original prop went up for auction at Christie’s, and while I’ve love to be able to tell you that I was the one who shelled out $30,000 for it, sadly, it wasn’t me. Still, I’m probably better off. Up close, a prop rarely has the same magic that it had in the scant seconds you saw it onscreen; an object that seemed unbearably precious can turn out to be made of pasteboard and hot glue. If we believed in it for the brief interval of time in which it appeared on camera, it succeeded. Which is true of everything about the movies. And if we dreamed about it afterward, well, then it belongs to us all the more.

The map and the territory

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Jules Feiffer's map of The Lands Beyond

The other day, I posted a quote from Mark Monmonier’s How to Lie With Maps, a fascinating little book that offers a surprising amount of insight into storytelling. A map, after all, is a kind of narrative: unless it’s the hypothetical 1:1 map of the territory that authors from Lewis Carroll to Jorges Luis Borges have imagined, a map always involves selection, emphasis, and abstraction, much of which is left to the mapmaker’s discretion. As with any story, it’s not a perfect reflection of the world, but a projection of it, and its apparent accuracy is often the result of carefully managed artifice. The cartographer Arthur H. Robinson has said that when he designed his famous projection of the globe, he worked backwards, coming up with the approximate shape he wanted for the continents, then figuring out the mathematical formula that would produce the appropriate effect. A novel often works in much the same way: the author will begin with a set of scenes or moments he wants to include, then retroactively refine the characters and their motivations to get them from one point to the next. And if he’s done his job properly, the manipulation will be invisible.

A little artifice is fine in fiction—we’ve all found ways of faking it—but it’s possible to take it too far. One of the most interesting sections of Monmonier’s book involves development maps, which are used by real estate developers to gain municipal approval for new buildings or projects. Here, the element of persuasion, which in most maps is deeply buried, is right there at the surface, and Monmonier includes a clever list of the tricks that an unscrupulous developer can use to present a more attractive picture to the town zoning board. These tricks include shrewd selection of detail (“Don’t show what you’d rather they not see”); strategic framing (“If a neighboring site is unattractive or likely to be unfavorably affected, leave it out”); pleasing but meaningless detail (“Details are useful distractions”); and icons of superficial elegance, like the developer’s best friend, the tree stamp (“After all, it takes much less time and effort to stamp or paste treelike symbols onto the map than to plant the real thing”). And if there’s a single common thread uniting most of these cartographic strategies, it’s an emphasis on the decorative or merely aesthetic, combined with the omission of inconvenient facts.

Map from The Plan of St. Gall

When we turn from maps to the forms of storytelling we encounter every day, we can see these strategies operating in full force. Monmonier notes that aerial photographs or historical maps can be used to provide reassuring moments of familiarity (“Hey, there’s my house!”), which reminds me of how so many comedies fall back on easy cultural references to gain audience goodwill; if we recognize the object of the homage, we smile and congratulate ourselves on our knowingness, even if there isn’t really a joke there. The abundance of camouflaging detail evokes the use of expensive art direction and production values in a big-budget movie to cover up an empty story. (I’ve always enjoyed Pauline Kael’s takedown of Doctor Zhivago—a movie I like—in which she observes that the film’s reliance on elaborate sets and locations is “basically primitive, admired by the same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.”) And even the best stories often frame the narrative in a way that omits anything the author finds irrelevant, whether it’s ending a romance on a note of transitory happiness or focusing relentlessly on the negative and grim.

If a development map is designed to elicit a certain response from the zoning board, a story is meant to get an analogous reaction from the reader. Instead of committing money and land to an idea, we’re investing our time and emotions, and the world is full of stories that are glad to give us a simulacrum of a payoff instead of the real thing. I keep thinking about that tree stamp, which is used to fill space on the map with an optimistic idea of the beautiful shade trees that would grow there in a perfect world, instead of the “anemic saplings” that the developer will plant there instead. In writing, the equivalent is a cliché, which serves as a kind of stand-in for real thinking or creation. (In fact, a tree stamp is literally a cliché, a term that originally referred to the printing plate used to repeatedly reproduce the same word or image.) There’s a reason why a smart developer will use all these tricks, and even talented writers will occasionally fall back on similar tactics to create a map that a reader will want to explore. But if readers follow the map to the end—or construct an edifice of emotion using its outlines as a guide—only to find that they’ve ended up nowhere, they aren’t likely to trust it again.

Written by nevalalee

June 18, 2014 at 9:32 am

“He drew air into his lungs one last time…”

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"Karvonen had observed the chase..."

Note: This post is the twenty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 22. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of my recurring obsessions as a writer is how narrative elements that once served a purely pragmatic purpose can be appropriated by artists to convey meaning or emotion. Take the convention of opening and closing credits. Originally, movie credits consisted of a simple card at the beginning of a reel to indicate the film’s title, mostly as a matter of convenience for the distributor. Gradually, they expanded to include more information, and as they grew longer, they became a means of creative expression in themselves: Saul Bass’s great credit sequences for Hitchcock and other directors are only the flowering of a tradition that began with those first shaky titles at the start of a silent film. These days, elaborate opening titles have sadly fallen out of fashion, except in the James Bond movies, but even ordinary credits can still serve a narrative function. The first appearance of a film’s title can be a statement of intention, coming as a kind of punctuation mark after a dramatic cold open, and the decision to dispense with an opening title at all—which is becoming more and more common—is a choice in itself. And many directors use their own credit as a punchline. Tarantino does this all the time, and the ending of A Clockwork Orange wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the cut to the stark “Produced and Directed by Stanley Kubrick,” as Gene Kelly sings us out of the theater.

In fiction, authors have access to similar tools, in the form of white space, chapter breaks, and the transitions between sections. Much of the formatting of a book is out of a writer’s hands, of course, and I suspect that if more authors had control over the layout of their novels, we’d also see page breaks used as dramatic devices. (Screenwriters, for instance, will often edit the script so that a joke or surprise appears at a good place on the physical page.) As it stands, it’s generally only in the larger divisions of a story that a writer can exercise control. Most readers know how it feels, for instance, to see out of the corner of one eye that a chapter is about to end, which subtly guides the way we read the rest of the text. As a writer, I always like it when the reader needs to turn the page to see that the chapter is ending, ideally with only a few lines left, so that the full impact of the break is retained. The same is true, to an even greater extent, when the end of a larger section becomes visible on the horizon. And our tactile awareness of how many pages remain in the book as a whole shapes our attitude toward what we’re reading now. Douglas Hofstadter, for one, wondered whether it would be possible to pad a novel with additional pages to mislead readers about how close they were to the end, and by accident, I ended up with something like this with my own books, each of which concludes with a sample of the next installment in the series, hiding the real ending.

"He drew air into his lungs one last time..."

Even in other kinds of writing, these sorts of physical, structural breaks carry syntactic meaning. The gaps between sections in a long magazine article, for example, were originally incorporated for typographical reasons: for the sake of the reader’s eyes, you want to break up the wall of text with illustrations or blank lines whenever possible. When you read an article in The New Yorker, though, you quickly find that that writer—or editor—has turned those patches of white space into an expressive tool in themselves. They often occur at a pivotal point in the argument or narrative, and they naturally emphasize the text that comes immediately before and after. The sentence leading up to the break, in particular, is effectively put into invisible italics, so we’re encouraged to look at it more closely. Position, along with content, informs the reader’s response, and if the article were reformatted so that each paragraph flowed smoothly into the next, there would be a real loss of meaning. A visual break in the text looks both forward and backward: if there’s one sentence that a reader is likely to read more than once, it’s the last line before a major structural division, which is the novelistic equivalent of a curtain line in theater. We may not be sure why the author put those words there, but we know that it’s probably important.

Which brings us to the end of Part I of City of Exiles. The fact that Chapter 22 concludes this larger section probably doesn’t come as a surprise to a reader. Internally, it feels like the end of a big chunk of narrative, since it represents the end of one major plot thread: Karvonen fulfills the assignment that he received in the first chapter, killing Morley and his bodyguard, and he escapes with the MacGuffin safely in hand. The fact that the chapter lingers more than usual on the violence, which I generally show only sparingly, is another clue that we’re nearing the climax. And if that weren’t enough, the layout of the print version of the novel itself, which puts the epigraph to Part II on the facing page, gives away the game a few paragraphs before the reader reaches the end of Part I. For all that, though, I think the result works just fine, even if it doesn’t have quite the slap to the face that I would have liked. (Whenever I think of a perfect act break, the first thing that comes to mind is end of the first half of Doctor Zhivago, with the big reveal of Strelnikov on the train followed by a crashing Maurice Jarre chord and the title card reading Intermission.) Here, Morley lies dying on the floor, and Wolfe arrives just in time to hear his last words: “Dyatlov Pass.” With that, the section ends. And we’re going to spend the rest of the novel trying to figure out what he meant…

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