Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Emeric Pressburger

The screenwriter paradox

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A few weeks ago, I had occasion to discuss “Time Risk,” a huge blog post—it’s the length of a short book—by the screenwriter Terry Rossio. It’s endlessly quotable, and I encourage you to skim it yourself, although you might come away with the impression that the greatest form of time risk is trying to write movies at all. Rossio spends much of the piece encouraging you to write a novel or make an animated short instead, and his most convincing argument is basically unanswerable:

Let’s examine the careers of several brand-name feature screenwriters, to see how they did it. In the same way we can speak of a Stephen King novel, or a Neil Simon play, we can talk about the unique qualities of a Woody Allen screenplay—Whoops, wait. Allen is best known as a director. Okay, how about a Lawrence Kasdan script—Whoops, same thing. Kasdan gained fame, even for his screenwriting, through directing his own work. Let’s see, James Cameron, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Nora Ephron, Coen Brothers, John Milius, Cameron Crowe, hmn—

Wait! A Charlie Kaufman screenplay. Thank goodness for Charlie Kaufman, or I wouldn’t be able to think of a single brand-name screenwriter working today, who didn’t make their name primarily through directing. Okay, perhaps Aaron Sorkin, but he made his main fame in plays and television. Why so few? Because—screenwriters do the bulk of their work prior to the green light. Cameras not rolling. Trying to get films made. They toil at the wrong end of the time risk curve, taking on time risk in a myriad of forms.

As Rossio memorably explains a little later on: “It’s only when cameras are rolling that power accumulates, and brands are established.” I found myself thinking about this while reading Vulture’s recent list of the hundred best screenwriters of all time, as determined by forty of their fellow writers, including Diablo Cody, Zak Penn, Wesley Strick, Terence Winter, and a bunch of others who have achieved critical acclaim and name recognition without being known predominantly for directing. And who did they pick? The top ten are Billy Wilder, Joel and Ethan Coen, Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, William Goldman, Charlie Kaufman, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, and Ernest Lehman. Of the ten, only Goldman has never directed a movie, and of the others, only Kaufman, Towne, and Lehman are primarily known for their screenwriting. That’s forty percent. And the rest of the list consists mostly of directors who write. Glancing over it, I find the following who are renowned mostly as writers: Aaron Sorkin, Paddy Chayefsky, Frances Marion, Buck Henry, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Bo Goldman, Eric Roth, Steven Zaillian, Callie Khouri, Richard Curtis, Dalton Trumbo, Frank Pierson, Cesare Zavattini, Norman Wexler, Waldo Salt, Melissa Mathison, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Alvin Sargent, Ben Hecht, Scott Frank, Jay Presson Allen, John Logan, Guillermo Arriaga, Horton Foote, Leigh Brackett, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, David Webb Peoples, Burt Kennedy, Charles Lederer, John Ridley, Diablo Cody, and Mike White. Borderline cases include Paul Schrader, David Mamet, Elaine May, Robert Benton, Christopher McQuarrie, and Shane Black. Even when you throw these names back into the hopper, the “pure” screenwriters number maybe four in ten. And this is a list compiled from the votes of writers who have every reason to highlight the work of their underappreciated colleagues.

So why do directors dominate? I can think of three possible reasons. The first, and perhaps the most likely, is that in a poll like this, a voter’s mind is more likely to turn to a more famous name at the expense of equally deserving candidates. Hence the otherwise inexplicable presence on the list of Steven Spielberg, whose only two credits as a screenwriter, Close Encounters and A.I., owe a lot more, respectively, to Paul Schrader and Stanley Kubrick. Another possibility is that Hollywood is structured to reward writers by turning them into directors, which implies that many of the names here are just screenwriters who ascended. This would be a tempting theory, if it weren’t for the presence of so many auteurs—Welles, Tarantino, the Coens—who started out directing their own screenplays and never looked back. And the third explanation is the one that Rossio offers: “[Screenwriters] toil at the wrong end of the time risk curve.” Invisibility, fungibility, and the ability to do competent work while keeping one’s head down are qualities that the system encourages, and it’s only in exceptional cases, after a screenwriter directs a movie or wins an Oscar, that he or she is given permission to be noticed. (Which doesn’t mean that there weren’t simply some glaring omissions. I’m a little stunned by the absence of Emeric Pressburger, who I think can be plausibly set forth as the finest screenwriter of all time. It’s possible that his contributions have been obscured by the fact that he and Michael Powell were credited as writer, producer, and director of the movies that they made as the Archers, but the division of labor seems fairly clear. And I don’t think any other writer on this list has three scripts as good as those for The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and A Canterbury Tale, along with your choice of A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Small Back Room, and I Know Where I’m Going!)

The one glaring exception is Joe Eszterhas, who became a household name, along with his rival Shane Black, as the two men traded records throughout the nineties for the highest price ever paid for a script. As he tells it in his weirdly riveting book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood:

I read about Shane’s sale [for The Last Boy Scout]—and my record being broken—on the front page of the Los Angeles Times while I was vacationing at the Kahala Hilton in Hawaii. Shane’s sale pissed me off. I wanted my record back. I wanted to see an article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about me setting a new record. I flew home from Hawaii and sat down immediately and stated writing the most commercial script I could think of. Twelve days later, I had my record back. I had the article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about my new record. And I had my $3 million.

The script was Basic Instinct. Would it have been enough to make Eszterhas famous if he hadn’t been paid so much for it? I don’t know—although it’s worth noting that he had previously held the record for City Hall, which was never made, and Big Shots, which nobody remembers, and he sold millions of dollars’ worth of other screenplays that never got produced. And the moment that made it all possible has passed. Eszterhas didn’t make the Vulture list; studios are no longer throwing money at untested properties; and even a monster sale doesn’t guarantee anything. The current record is still held by the script for Déjà Vu, which sold for $3 million against $5 million over a decade ago, and it serves as a sort of A/B test to remind us how much of success in Hollywood is out of anyone’s hands. There were two writers on Déjà Vu. One was Bill Marsilii, who hasn’t been credited on a movie since. The other was Terry Rossio.

My alternative canon #1: A Canterbury Tale

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Sheila Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different.

I’ve frequently said that The Red Shoes is my favorite movie of all time, but it isn’t even the most remarkable film directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Red Shoes succeeds in large part by following through on its promises: it takes place in a fascinating world and tells a story of high melodrama, with an obvious determination to deliver as much color and atmosphere to the audience as possible, and its brilliance emerges from how consistently it lives up to its own impossible standards. A Canterbury Tale, which came out five years earlier, is in many respects more astonishing, because it doesn’t seem to have any conventional ambitions at all. It’s a deliberately modest film with a story so inconsequential that it verges on a commentary on the arbitrariness of all narrative: three young travelers, stranded at a small village near Canterbury during World War II, attempt to solve the mystery of “the glue man,” an unseen figure who throws glue at the hair of local women to discourage them from going out at night—and that, incredibly, is it. When the glue man’s identity is revealed, it’s handled so casually that the moment is easy to miss, and not even the protagonists themselves seem all that interested in the plot, which occupies about ten minutes of a film that runs over two hours in its original cut. And the fact that the movie itself was openly conceived as a light propaganda picture doesn’t seem to work in its favor.

Yet this is one of the most beautiful movies ever made, a languid series of funny, moving, and evocative set pieces that reminded me, when I first saw it, of Wong Kar-Wai magically set loose in wartime Britain. There are the usual flourishes of cinematic playfulness from Powell and Pressburger—including a cut from a medieval falcon to a modern warplane that anticipates Kubrick in 2001—but the tone is atypically relaxed and gentle, with even less plot than in its spiritual sequel I Know Where I’m Going! Despite the title, it doesn’t have much to do with Chaucer, except that the lead characters are all pilgrims who have been damaged in different ways and are healed by a journey to Canterbury. (Years later, I stayed at a tiny hotel within sight of the cathedral, where I verified that the movie was on sale at its gift shop.) It’s nostalgic and vaguely conservative, but it also looks ahead to the New Wave with its visual zest, greediness for location detail, and willingness to take happy digressions. The cast includes the lovely ingenue Sheila Sim, who later married Richard Attenborough, and Eric Portman as Colpeper, the local magistrate, who, in a typically perverse touch from the Archers, is both their virtuous embodiment of high Tory ideals and kind of a creepy weirdo. Sim died earlier this year, but when she looks up at the clouds in the tall grass with Portman, she lives forever in my heart—along with the film itself, which keeps one foot in the past while somehow managing to seem one step ahead of every movie that came after it.

Red shoe diaries

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Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

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

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

The Red Shoes

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

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

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2016 at 8:32 am

My ten great movies #1: The Red Shoes

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Like all great films, but much more so, The Red Shoes—which I think is the greatest movie ever made—works on two levels, as both a story of life and a story of film. As the latter, it’s simply the most inventive movie ever made in Technicolor, second only to Citizen Kane in its abundance of tricks and flourishes. These range from small cinematic jokes (like its use of the scrolling title Forty-five minutes later, subsequently borrowed by Scorsese in The Aviator, to indicate the passage of time within a single shot) to effects of unforgettable emotional power (like the empty spotlight on the stage in the final scene). It’s the definitive work by a pair of filmmakers who had spent the previous decade on an unparalleled streak, making more great films in ten years than five ordinary directors could produce in an entire career. And The Red Shoes was the movie they had been building toward all along, because along with everything else, it’s the best film we have about the artistic process itself.

And even here, it works on multiple levels. As a depiction of life at a ballet company, it may not be as realistic as it seems—Moira Shearer, among others, has dismissed it as pure fantasy—but it feels real, and it remains the most romantic depiction of creative collaboration yet captured on film. (It inspired countless careers in dance, and certainly inspired me to care deeply about ballet, an art form toward which I’d been completely indifferent before seeing this movie.) And as an allegory, it’s unsurpassed: Lermontov’s cruelty toward Vicky is really a dramatization of the dialogue between art and practicality that takes place inside every artist’s head. This may be why The Red Shoes is so important to me now: from the moment I first saw it, it’s been one of my ten favorite films, but over the years, and especially after I decided to become a writer, my love for it has increased beyond what I feel toward almost any other work of art. Yet Vicky’s final words still haunt me, as does Lermontov’s offhand remark, which stands as a permanent warning, and enticement, to artists of all kinds: “The red shoes are never tired.”

Written by nevalalee

May 22, 2015 at 9:00 am

Mary Poppins and the rise of the blockbuster

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Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins

Fifty years ago, Disney’s Mary Poppins had been firmly established as the highest-grossing movie of 1964, with a degree of cultural omnipresence that now seems all but unrecognizable—adjusted for inflation, its box office take works out to an astonishing $600 million. Ever since, it’s been so ubiquitous that it’s hard to regard it as an ordinary movie, much less as a work of art. Yet it’s wonderful in ways that have nothing to do with nostalgia, a witty, inventive blockbuster that feels almost like a more innocent extension of the work of Powell and Pressburger: it has the same technical ambition, depth of cast, and richness of design. For much of the last few weeks, its soundtrack has resided on my record player, and it delights me almost as much as it does our daughter. There isn’t a clunker in the entire score, and at least six of the songs by the Sherman Brothers are outright classics. (If the movie’s look and atmosphere were secretly shaped by the Archers, the music draws openly on Lerner and Lowe, and in retrospect, it feels like a natural bridge between My Fair Lady and its even more commercially spectacular successor, The Sound of Music.)

Yet its full legacy wouldn’t be felt for another four decades. In a sense, it’s the first unmistakable example of the business model that currently dominates Hollywood: the adaptation of an established children’s property, aimed squarely at all four quadrants of the public, with every resource of a major studio lavished on casting, art direction, music, and visual effects. For all its undeniable charm, it marks the beginning of a lineage that runs from Harry Potter through the Marvel Universe to The Hunger Games, with movie companies investing everything in tentpole franchises that stake much of the available money and talent on a single roll of the dice. Lionsgate is The Hunger Games, much as MGM is James Bond and the Hobbit franchise, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Disney was Mary Poppins for the years in which the movie was in production. The artistic legacy of Walt Disney, the man, is a mixed one, but there’s no question of his perfectionism or the demands he made on his creative team, and it shows. Mary Poppins cuts no corners, and it looks so good, with such attention to detail and so much money visible on the screen, that it makes most children’s movies seem cheap by comparison.

Conceptual art for Mary Poppins

In other words, Mary Poppins was the original big bet, albeit one driven less by market calculation than by the obsessiveness of Walt Disney himself. (There’s a strong case to be made that its real impact has been even greater than that of Star Wars, which was a comparatively ragged production made in the face of active corporate interference.) And it stands as the culmination of everything the studio represented, in craft if not in content. It’s a repository of nifty tricks, both old and new: the gag with Mary Poppins rescuing her carpet bag from sinking into the cloudbank is lifted almost intact from the stork in Dumbo, as if an old hand on the Burbank lot, possibly Disney himself, had simply pitched a joke that he knew had worked well in the past. Mary Poppins is made up of a thousand little touches like this, and part of its magic is how seamlessly it synthesizes the work of so many craftsmen and disparate influences into something that seems so inevitable. The director, Robert Stevenson, was a capable journeyman who had worked with Disney for years—although not, confusingly, on Treasure Island—and if the result doesn’t bear much trace of his personality, there’s no doubt that he deserves much of the credit for keeping it so superbly organized.

And audiences obviously responded to it, even if some critics were skeptical both of its departures from its source material and of the apparent reassurances it provided. Even at the time, many cultural observers felt that it offered nothing but a form of Edwardian escapism from current events, and a glance at the headlines from the year in which it was released—this was the summer of the Civil Rights Act, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the dawn of Beatlemania, with race riots erupting in Philadelphia the day after its premiere—creates an undeniable dissonance. Yet the same could be said of nearly every big movie in nearly every decade, and few have managed to carve out their own perfect worlds so beautifully. Mary Poppins is a little like the snow globe of St. Paul’s Cathedral that its title character holds as she sings “Feed the Birds”: closed, gorgeously rendered, and complete in itself. It’s the kind of movie that the major studios ought to be able to do best; it certainly couldn’t have been produced in any other way. And if few comparable films since have matched its grace and imagination, it still stands as an example of Hollywood’s potential, even for an industry that has always been run by the likes of Mr. Banks.

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2014 at 9:45 am

Making it simple, keeping it complex

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Ward Cunningham

Simplicity is the shortest path to a solution.

Ward Cunningham

The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.

Sol LeWitt

When I begin, I usually improvise a melody and sing words—and often those words are just clichés. If it is an old songwriting cliché, most of the time I throw it away, but sometimes I keep it, because they’re nice to have. They’re familiar. They’re like a breather for the listener. You can stop wondering or thinking for a little while and just float along with the music.

Paul Simon

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The solution for me, surely, is neither in total renunciation of the world, nor in total acceptance of it. I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes; a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

It is important to emphasize the value of simplicity and elegance, for complexity has a way of compounding difficulties and as we have seen, creating mistakes. My definition of elegance is the achievement of a given functionality with a minimum of mechanism and a maximum of clarity.

Fernando J. Corbató

Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.

Alan Perlis

David Mamet

The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of a nail, it has to look like a nail.

David Mamet

Complexity must be grown from simple systems that already work.

Kevin Kelly

While it might seem that richness suggests excess and maximal inclusion, we actually need to be selective about the elements we include, or the novel will not be rich so much as an incomprehensible blur, a smear of language. Think about the very real limitations of Pynchon as a novelist: many complain about his flat characters and slapstick humor, but without those elements to manage the text and simplify it, his already dangerously complex fiction would become unreadable.

Mike Meginnis

Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and complex. The better way is to go deeper with simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.

Jonathan Ive

A great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity. But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

—Attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The challenge of honest optimism

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Sheila Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale

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’s your favorite entertainment based on people making the world a better place?”

When I was in my twenties, I had a theory that most novelists my age—including myself—were more or less faking it. Until you turned thirty, I thought, even a spectacular literary debut was usually just a pastiche of similar works the author had read and internalized, rather than a reflection of real experience. You had to have lived a little longer, and done something besides spend all your time writing, to express something meaningful about the world; until then, you were left with technically clever imitations, some admittedly more graceful or ingenious than others, of the books you’d loved yourself. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’ve modified my opinion: I suspect that we’re all faking it. (This isn’t confined to writing either: it’s a terrifying realization about being a grownup in general. As the father says in Calvin and Hobbes, “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”) In their first drafts, at least, most writers don’t really know what the story is about, so they end up writing a kind of extended simulation of the novel they want to see, a patchwork of good guesses and impersonations that they hope to revise into the real thing.

And it strikes me that a lot of what we call “insight” in fiction is really a verbal strategy, a reflection of a basically neutral ability with words, just as an invalid argument seems more convincing if the author knows how to write. A strong prose style is no guarantee of truth, and at its worst, it can hide weaknesses and gaps in logic that would be more obvious if less artfully concealed—which may be why serious philosophy is such a chore to read. And while we’d all like to hope that we’ll come up with real insights in the process of putting together our thoughts, in the meantime, we have to find new ways of faking it. That’s why so many young writers can seem so cynical. Cynicism feels more mature, at first glance, than idealism; a dark, pessimistic perspective presents itself as a hard realization at which the writer has arrived after passing through many intermediate stages. Of course, that doesn’t need to be the case at all. Reflexive cynicism is as much of an intellectual retreat as unthinking optimism, but it hides itself a little better, which may be why it’s so attractive to writers who want to seem more worldly than they really are. As Zapp Brannigan says on Futurama, when trying to convince Kiff to smoke for the first time: “Teenagers all smoke, and they seem pretty on the ball.”

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

That’s why I’ve come to treasure works of art, regardless of their ethical or philosophical point of view, that seem like the product of earned experience. I’m aware, obviously, that I may just be responding to a particularly convincing act of sleight of hand, but it doesn’t feel that way: there’s something in really great works of art or literature that takes us by the hand to show us that we’re in the presence of a genuinely alert intelligence. That’s true of books as different as The Magic Mountain and Catch-22, or movies with as little in common as Last Tango in Paris and My Neighbor Totoro. Sometimes a really honest exploration of the world can end up in a place of despair, but it’s easy to tell the difference between a work of art that ends up in the darkness because it has no other choice, like Caché, and one that takes it as a fashionable starting point, like Fight Club. And I’ll take wisdom wherever I can find it, even if it ends up staking out the position, which may not be wrong, that existence is fundamentally meaningless. But such works are all the more precious, at least when it comes to getting through this life in one piece, when they express a basically optimistic view of the world.

Take, for instance, A Canterbury Tale. The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are wonderful for a lot of reasons—their wit, their inventiveness, their curiosity, their enormous visual energy—but what I’ve come to value in them most is their air of a wisdom that isn’t confined to the movie studio. Powell and Pressburger lived crowded, eventful lives, and their films are crammed with tiny moments of anecdote and observation, side by side with spectacular artifice, that speak to deep experience. When necessary, they don’t shy away from darkness or tragedy: The Red Shoes ends the way it does for a reason. Throughout it all, though, they remain sympathetic, humane, and attuned to a vision of what makes life worth living. A Canterbury Tale is both their gentlest and most radical work, a leisurely, nearly plotless slice of life that remains endlessly watchable because it’s so intensely observed. It was shot during World War II, which affects the lives of all the characters involved, and although it was clearly designed as a boost to morale, it winds up being much more. It’s propaganda, if you like, for the values of humor, simplicity, and forgiveness, and it ends so happily that I can’t help hoping that it’s true. But I wouldn’t believe in it at all if Powell and Pressburger hadn’t given me good reason to trust them in the first place.

“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.

The Pi paradox

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Life of Pi

Any consideration of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi needs to begin with the point that, objectively speaking, this may be the most visually astonishing movie ever made. Yet it’s likely that many, if not most, viewers will come away with a limited sense of the film’s accomplishments. This is a movie that, for a solid hour or more, consists of a single sustained visual effect, in which every shot has been created for us out of almost nothing, but at first glance, it doesn’t feel that way. Indeed, it sometimes seems more like a small, intimate chamber piece, a two-hander that just happens to be about a boy and his tiger. Except for a limited number of shots, however, that tiger isn’t real, a point that seems to have eluded more than a few reviewers. It is, in fact, the most lifelike special effect I’ve ever seen in a movie, and the result is both totally miraculous and strangely invisible: this isn’t a tiger constantly showing off how tigerish it can be, but a living, breathing animal that we simply accept as part of the fabric of the story. (I suspect that Borges, who was obsessed by tigers of his imagination, would have found this movie both fascinating and problematic.)

As a result, I have a hunch that Life of Pi may lose the Oscar for Best Visual Effects to a showier but less accomplished movie, like Prometheus, much as 2001 didn’t win the award for makeup in the year of Planet of the Apes, allegedly because, as Arthur C. Clarke has claimed, the voters failed to realize that the monkeys weren’t real. And I can’t entirely blame them. As I watched Life of Pi, I had to constantly remind myself that I was witnessing a bravura display of visual effects, even as Lee and his collaborators seemed determined to conceal their wizardry as much as possible. I’ve noted more than once that in movies like Jurassic Park or Terminator 2, the special effects still hold up magnificently, because those few precious minutes of footage were the result of years of thought and care. These days, computer effects have become so routine that even the most spectacular examples of digital mayhem, as in The Avengers, start to look like cartoons, so it’s heartening to find a movie, and a director, willing to lavish that kind of old-fashioned attention on more than an hour’s worth of visual magic.

Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

But when trick effects become so seamless that artifice can no longer be distinguished from reality, it’s also something of a loss. Artifice for its own sake, when pursued with the same kind of love as perfect realism, can be a joy, as in Joe Wright’s recent adaptation of Anna Karenina. The movie has its problems, but I think that if I’d seen it twenty years ago, it would have instantly become one of my favorites. I went through a phase in my early teens when I was fascinated by movies that gloried in their artifice, either to pay homage to the films of an earlier era, like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, or to push forward into a stylized world of their own, like Coppola’s One From the Heart. With its stage sets and images of model trains moving through tabletop snowscapes, Anna Karenina is a movie that embraces its artificiality, like Coppola’s Dracula or the late movies of Powell and Pressburger. In fact, it’s arguably the most ambitious recent attempt to make what Michael Powell has called “the composed film,” in which every element has been planned by the director in advance.

Of course, this can lead to its own set of pitfalls, and if Anna Karenina has one major flaw, it’s that its actors are rarely allowed to find lives for their characters apart from the production design. (Indeed, Keira Knightley’s performance depends entirely on costuming and makeup to dramatize Anna’s descent: as David Thomson has observed elsewhere, Knightley “is still more credible as a faintly animated photographer’s model than as an actress.”) Finding the right balance between artifice and realism, as Powell and Pressburger did in their best films—along with Welles, Kubrick, and Hitchcock—is the province of our greatest directors, and such moments are the ones, as a moviegoer, that I treasure above all others. Hence my love for the sequence in Life of Pi in which the screen briefly elongates to Cinemascope proportions, allowing a swarm of flying fish not just to come right out at the audience, but spill over the edges of the frame. It goes by in a blink of an eye, and Lee notes that most viewers don’t even notice it, but it’s a thrilling example of what a great director does best: giving us something that not only reproduces reality, but advances on it—at least if we’re willing to watch carefully.

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December 10, 2012 at 10:19 am

More sights, more sounds

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“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” John Cusack’s character notes in High Fidelity, and this sentiment goes a long way toward explaining why we find lists of all kinds so fascinating. As I’ve argued before, a list of one’s favorite books or movies is as close to an honest self-portrait as any of us will ever come, and this isn’t a recent convention: as far back as the Iliad, we encounter the ascending scale of affection, in which a hero defines himself by ranking what matters to him most. (Quick story: Back in college, soon after High Fidelity came out, I pointed out this similarity to one of my classics professors. Later that week, I went to see the movie a second time—and saw my professor sitting three rows in front of me. The following day, he entered the classroom and said: “Alec, you’re my pop culture hero.” And that was the high point of my career as a classical scholar.)

This is what makes the Sight & Sound poll so irresistible. Most of the coverage has revolved, understandably enough, around the displacement of Citizen Kane by Vertigo at the top of the list, but the real story lies further down, in the lists of individual critics, which were posted on the site this morning after a short delay. Reading a critic’s list gives us as accurate a thumbnail sketch as we can possibly have of a stranger’s personality, tastes, and idiosyncrasies: I don’t think there’s any way to learn more about a person in thirty words or less. When I look at the list of author Kim Newman, for instance, the fact that he named both A Canterbury Tale and Duck Amuck tells me more about him in five seconds than I’d probably learn from reading one of his books. The same goes with critic Mark Kermode, whose list includes Brazil, Don’t Look Now, and Mary Poppins.

Looking at the top 250 offers even more food for thought. If I’d been surprised earlier by the absence of Powell and Pressburger from the top fifty, the explanation is readily at hand: every single one of their great movies made the long list—The Red Shoes, yes, but also A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus, and I Know Where I’m Going!—which suggests that without a consensus choice, all these classic films simply split the vote. (When we see the list of directors ranked by number of total votes, I expect that they’ll be in the top ten.) I was delighted to see that the second-highest Kubrick movie on the list, after 2001, is Barry Lyndon, and that Miyazaki is represented by both Totoro and Spirited Away. And the short list of movies from the past few years to make the list is a fascinating one: The Tree of Life, There Will Be Blood, WALL-E, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Melancholia.

As always, the list provides ample occasion for reflection, argument, and education. It tells me that the director whose work I need to seek out most urgently, along with Tarkovsky, is Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a reminder that critical tastes can change radically over time, as we see in the critical ascent of such movies, overlooked at their first release, as Vertigo, Rio Bravo, Imitation of Life, and Singin’ in the Rain, not to mention The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It tells me that I wasn’t entirely wrong, seven years ago, about the enduring reputation of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, which got votes from three critics. And it tells me that my own tastes lie more or less within the mainstream, with a few outliers: of my own recent top ten, the only two not to make the cut were L.A. Confidential and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, neither of which received a single vote—which only confirms that in some respects, I’m still ahead of the curve.

My ten great movies #1: The Red Shoes

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Like all great films, but much more so, The Red Shoes—which I think is the greatest movie ever made—works on two levels, as both a story of life and a story of film. As the latter, it’s simply the most inventive movie ever made in Technicolor, second only to Citizen Kane in its abundance of tricks and flourishes. These range from small cinematic jokes (like its use of the scrolling title Forty-five minutes later, subsequently borrowed by Scorsese in The Aviator, to indicate the passage of time within a single shot) to effects of unforgettable emotional power (like the empty spotlight on the stage in the final scene). It’s the definitive work by a pair of filmmakers who had spent the previous decade on an unparalleled streak, making more great films in ten years than five ordinary directors could produce in an entire career. And The Red Shoes was the movie they had been building toward all along, because along with everything else, it’s the best film ever made about the artistic process itself.

And even here, it works on multiple levels. As a depiction of life at a ballet company, it may not be as realistic as it seems—Moira Shearer, among others, has dismissed it as pure fantasy—but it feels real, and it remains the most romantic depiction of creative collaboration yet captured on film. (It inspired countless careers in dance, and certainly inspired me to care deeply about ballet, an art form toward which I’d been completely indifferent before seeing this movie.) And as an allegory, it’s unsurpassed: Lermontov’s cruelty toward Vicky is really a dramatization of the dialogue between art and practicality that takes place inside every artist’s head. This may be why The Red Shoes is so important to me now: from the moment I first saw it, it’s been one of my ten favorite films, but over the years, and especially after I decided to become a writer, my love for it has increased beyond what I feel toward almost any other work of art. Yet Vicky’s final words still haunt me, as does Lermontov’s offhand remark, which stands as a permanent warning, and enticement, to artists of all kinds: “The red shoes are never tired.”

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

With great power comes great incomprehensibility

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So I’m deep into the first volume of Stephen Sondheim’s spellbinding memoir Finishing the Hat, which reprints the collected lyrics from the first half of his career, along with “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.” I’m not even that well up on my Sondheim—my exposure to his work consists of West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and a handful of songs from other shows—but as a writer, albeit of a very different kind, I find his candor and insight irresistible. (For a sample, see my recent post here.)

As is often the case when writers talk about their craft (William Goldman comes to mind), Sondheim is rather more interesting when discussing his failures than his successes. At the moment, I’m working my way through the chapter on Anyone Can Whistle, the ill-fated musical satire that Sondheim created in collaboration with Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book and directed. Especially intriguing is the revelation that David Merrick, the most famous theatrical impresario of his time, passed on producing the show because he didn’t want Laurents to serve as both writer and director. Sondheim writes:

[Merrick] claimed, astutely, that authors, especially authors of musicals, shouldn’t direct the initial productions of their own works. Without a director to argue with, egoistic self-ingulgence might color everything, he claimed…The blessing of a writer serving as his own director is that one vision emerges, there being no outsider to contradict him. The curse, inevitably, is that the vision may turn out to be myopic, there being no outsider to contradict him.

Now, I defy anyone who has been following the latest news from Broadway to read these lines and not think at once of Julie Taymor. The most recent of the many New York Times articles on the ongoing train wreck of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark expresses the theater world’s reservations about Taymor, who was given what amounted to a blank check as the musical’s director and co-writer, in strikingly similar terms:

Julie Taymor signed on as director and co-writer of the script, a dual role that many on Broadway consider risky. Rather than take a strong hand in managing the production, as producers usually do, Mr. [Michael] Cohl [the lead producer of the show] saw his job as aiding and abetting her vision.

The result has been making headlines for months: a visually spellbinding but narratively incoherent show that is already the most expensive musical in the history of Broadway. (In all fairness, I haven’t seen the show yet, and won’t anytime soon, unless I happen to be in New York on a week that TKTS seats are on sale.) And it seems fairly clear, especially after Taymor’s unceremonious departure from the show, that if the director had been subjected to a stronger controlling hand—as she was with The Lion King—the outcome might have been very different.

The lesson here, obviously, is that all artists, even the most creative and idiosyncratic, need someone around to keep them in line. It’s why there are surprisingly few truly great writer-directors in film, and the ones who do exist usually produce their best work with a forceful collaborator pushing back at every step of the way—witness Powell and Pressburger. And it’s why every writer needs strong readers and editors. Without such constraints, you occasionally get a Kubrick, yes, but more often, you wind up with the recent career of George Lucas. Or, it seems, a Julie Taymor. So it’s best to let Sondheim have the last word: “In today’s musical theater, there are two kinds of directors: those who are writers and those who want to be, or, more ominously, think they are.”

London and the voodoo of location

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Yesterday I got back from my trip to London, where I spent a week looking at locations for Midrash, the sequel to Kamera. For just over six days, I lurked around neighborhoods like Shoreditch, Holland Park, Stoke Newington, and Golders Green; studied landmarks like the Olympia Exhibition Centre and the Old Bailey; and even indulged in a six-hour side trip to Brussels. I kept good notes, took a lot of pictures, and seriously destroyed my feet—next time, I’m bringing better shoes. And I came away not only with a substantial trove of information for my novel, but also some reflections on the role of location research in the writing process itself.

At first glance, it might seem that direct experience of a novel’s setting is essential, especially for a story supposedly based on careful research. A location contains crucial information—sights, sounds, smells, and human interactions—that can’t be acquired in any other way: I know from experience that an hour in Bombay will teach you things about India that you’d never learn from a lifetime of reading. And there’s little doubt that a novel would benefit from what Werner Herzog, according to Roger Ebert, calls “the voodoo of location” in movies—the idea that locations “seep into performances and photography and give a special texture to the film.”

Yet the issue isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. Atmosphere is no substitute for story, and excessive use of location research can burden a novel with inessential detail, as we sometimes see in late Michener. And many good or great books have been written without the benefit of actual travel. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King without going to Africa, at least as far as I know, and more recently, Scott Smith produced the very good horror novel The Ruins without setting foot in Mexico, although it couldn’t have been hard to make the trip. And the number of classic films not shot on location is impossible to count—after all, nobody on Casablanca got anywhere close to Morocco. (Although it’s hard to imagine The Third Man being shot anywhere but Vienna itself.)

For both movies and novels, the “truth” of a location lies between reality and illusion. No matter how heavily researched a novel’s setting may be, there will always be rooms, houses, and streets constructed entirely from the author’s imagination. The same is all the more true for film, where even the most convincing locations often turn out to be made of spit and cardboard. Some of my favorite cinematic locations are from Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, which makes extraordinary use of the Inner Hebrides. Yet the movie’s male lead, Roger Livesey, never came close to Scotland: he filmed all of his scenes in the studio, with a double for long shots, and the movie often cuts between set and location from one angle to the next.

What matters, in the end, is the work itself. As I’ve noted elsewhere about other kinds of research, location work isn’t about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the imagination. The author’s inner eye can play quite profitably in the locations where the novel itself will take place—for Kamera, I spent many happy days haunting the boardwalks of Brighton Beach—but there’s also ample material for dreams in the pages of an atlas, especially when it’s out of date. Sooner or later, at some point in the process, real locations fall away, leaving only what remains on the page. And as much as I loved my trip to London, I’m also aware that it’s only now, back at my desk, that the real location work can begin.

Great Directors: Alfred Hitchcock

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Essential films: Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window.

Although it’s fashionable, in certain critical circles, to prefer Hitchcock’s British period to the later American films, I find the earlier movies to be much less interesting—narratively simplistic, schematic in both camerawork and suspense, and with a lack of atmosphere that becomes all the more obvious when you compare them to, say, the films of Michael Curtiz, or Powell and Pressburger’s Contraband. Hitchcock needed Hollywood as much as Hollywood needed him, and it was only with the advent of color, widescreen, and American movie stars—and starlets—that our greatest director of suspense found himself in his true element. One needs only to compare Psycho to The Lady Vanishes to see how much Hitchcock had learned in the intervening twenty years.

His masterpiece is Vertigo, which is still the purest example of a film whose formal design—in visuals, writing, and above all in music—is inseparable from its overwhelming emotional impact. The final scene, in which James Stewart is abruptly confronted with the consequences of his own folly, is cruel, capricious, and perfect. And that was only the beginning: the run of Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho in three successive years is the most astonishing hat trick by any director in film, moving seamlessly from psychological depth to perfect escapism to unforgettable terror. It’s a reminder of Hitchcock’s true range, and the fact that a director who knows how to generate suspense with images can get away with almost anything. If every novel, at its heart, is a mystery story, then every movie is fundamentally a work of suspense—which is why the Master of Suspense is also the most influential director of all time.

Great Directors: Powell and Pressburger

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Essential films: The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!

Over the course of a single decade, from 1940 to 1949, the writing, producing, and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced ten masterpieces, beginning with Contraband and ending with The Small Back Room. This amazing run, conducted in the face of World War II and the difficult years that followed, is unparalleled in the history of movies, and deserves a great book on the subject. (Powell’s own autobiography, A Life in Movies, goes only part of the way toward filling that need.) Even more impressive is the dazzling range of stories on display. Some are naturalistic, while others are outrageously weird; there’s comedy, suspense, history, war, romance, melodrama, even excursions into science fiction and fantasy. One of their greatest films, A Canterbury Tale, doesn’t seem to be about anything at all, until we realize that it’s actually about everything in life that matters.

And yet every one of these movies is recognizably the work of the Archers. A film by Powell and Pressburger doesn’t look or feel like anything else: it’s the result of a very British mixture of humor, common sense, visual and narrative ingenuity, superstition, and a genuine curiosity about how the world works. If The Red Shoes had nothing to offer but dancing, music, and art direction, it would still be a classic, even an object of religious devotion. The fact that it also has a richly detailed story, fine performances, gorgeous locations, and cinematic inventiveness to rival Citizen Kane—and in color!—makes it seem almost inhumanly generous. Add this to the fact that it’s the best movie ever made on the creative process, and you have the work of art, after a lifetime of moviegoing, that has inspired and consoled me more than any other film.

Tomorrow: the dangerous example of Stanley Kubrick.

Great Directors: An introduction

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At the risk of stating the obvious, the life of a movie director is vastly different from that of a novelist. While a writer is free to invent a world at his or her own leisure, in relative privacy, a director soon finds that even the simplest story requires a collective effort only slightly less complicated than that of going to war, as well as the need to cajole and compromise with a thousand interested parties, and in public. It’s no surprise, then, that so many of our best directors—from Welles to Von Trier—have something of the con artist about them, or that the movies that create the greatest popular impact—from Gone With the Wind to Avatar—seem less like acts of the creative will than like massive feats of organization.

Still, for a novelist, there’s something to be said for looking to the example of great directors. Like filmmaking, the bulk of the writing process is less about creativity than persistence, and much of an artist’s time is spent on rote work, heavy lifting, or simply waiting around for something to happen. Both fiction and film draw on an untidy range of skills and disciplines. For the director, it’s screenwriting, performance, art direction, camerawork, music, and editing; for the writer, it’s plot, character, research, theme, style, and revision. The director, unlike the writer, has the luxury of outsourcing much of the work to others, but the hard task of making decisions remains. And a director, like all artists, is defined by the choices he or she makes.

This week, then, I’ll be looking at five—or actually six—directors, all now gone, whose lives have shaped my own life and work. Tomorrow, I begin with the very best: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

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February 6, 2011 at 8:49 am

My fifty essential movies

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Yesterday I posted a list of my fifty essential books—that is, the fifty books that I would keep if I were deprived of all others. When I tried to do the same for movies, I found that the task was slightly easier, if only because I had fewer titles to choose from. (In both cases, I’ve tried to limit myself to books and movies that I actually own.) The result, as before, is a portrait of myself as expressed in other people’s works of art—which, in the end, may be the most accurate kind of self-portrait there is.

As usual, there are a few caveats. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible. This means omitting some of the very best movies of all time—The Rules of the Game and Tokyo Story, for instance—that I admire enormously but encountered too late for them to burrow into my subconscious. There’s an obvious preference for entertainment over art, as is generally the case in a home video library. And many of the movies named below might be ranked differently, or left out altogether, on another day (or hour). As of today, January 5, 2011, here’s how the canon looks to me:

1. The Red Shoes (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
2. Chungking Express (d. Wong Kar-Wai)
3. Blue Velvet (d. David Lynch)
4. Casablanca (d. Michael Curtiz)
5. The Third Man (d. Carol Reed)
6. Eyes Wide Shut (d. Stanley Kubrick)
7. L.A. Confidential (d. Curtis Hanson)
8. Seven Samurai (d. Akira Kurosawa)
9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (d. Nicholas Meyer)
10. Citizen Kane (d. Orson Welles)

11. Vertigo (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
12. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (d. Steven Spielberg)
13. Lawrence of Arabia (d. David Lean)
14. The Shining (d. Stanley Kubrick)
15. A Canterbury Tale (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
16. The Empire Strikes Back (d. Irwin Kershner)
17. The Last Temptation of Christ (d. Martin Scorsese)
18. Inception (d. Christopher Nolan)
19. The Silence of the Lambs (d. Jonathan Demme)
20. Spellbound (d. Jeffrey Blitz)

21. Mary Poppins (d. Robert Stevenson)
22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (d. Stanley Kubrick)
23. The Godfather (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
24. Spirited Away (d. Hayao Miyazaki)
25. Casino Royale (d. Martin Campbell)
26. Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (d. Errol Morris)
27. JFK (d. Oliver Stone)
28. Barry Lyndon (d. Stanley Kubrick)
29. Miller’s Crossing (d. Joel and Ethan Coen)
30. Sleeping Beauty (d. Clyde Geronimi)

31. Psycho (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
32. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (d. Quentin Tarantino)
33. The Untouchables (d. Brian DePalma)
34. Raiders of the Lost Ark (d. Steven Spielberg)
35. The Dark Knight (d. Christopher Nolan)
36. Last Tango in Paris (d. Bernardo Bertolucci)
37. Children of Men (d. Alfonso Cuarón)
38. The Departed (d. Martin Scorsese)
39. The Godfather Part II (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
40. Crumb (d. Terry Zwigoff)

41. The Searchers (d. John Ford)
42. The Usual Suspects (d. Bryan Singer)
43. The Long Goodbye (d. Robert Altman)
44. Zodiac (d. David Fincher)
45. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
46. Boogie Nights (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
47. Taxi Driver (d. Martin Scorsese)
48. The Limey (d. Steven Soderbergh)
49. Dancer in the Dark (d. Lars von Trier)
50. Pink Floyd The Wall (d. Alan Parker)

Random observations: I had to look up the names of two of the directors (for Spellbound and Sleeping Beauty). Up until a few minutes ago, the last place on this list was occupied by The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which I had to drop after realizing that I’d left out Last Tango in Paris. I allowed myself more than one movie per director, with the largest number of slots occupied by Kubrick (four), Powell and Pressburger (three) and Scorsese (three). And I’m slightly surprised to find that my three favorite movies of the last decade are evidently Spellbound, Spirited Away, and Casino Royale.

Sharp observers might be able to guess which film occupies the top spot in the list of my favorite movies of the past year, which I’m hoping to post later this week. And in any case, if you have a Netflix account that you aren’t using, well, hopefully this will give you a few ideas.

Nolan’s Run

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To continue my recent run of stating the obvious: I know I’m not alone in considering Christopher Nolan to be the most interesting director of the past ten years. In just over a decade, he’s gone from Memento to Inception, with The Dark Knight as one big step along the way, which ranks with Powell and Pressburger’s golden period as one of the most impressive runs in the history of movies. And his excellent interview with Wired last week, timed to coincide with Inception’s release on DVD, serves as a reminder that Nolan’s example is valuable for reasons that go far beyond his intelligence, skill, and massive popular success.

Nolan’s artistic trajectory has been a fascinating one. While most artists start with passion and gradually work their way toward craft, Nolan has always been a consummate craftsman, and is just now starting to piece together the emotional side of the equation. He’s been accused of being overly cold and cerebral, a criticism that has some basis in fact. But his careful, deliberate efforts to invest his work with greater emotion—and humor—have been equally instructive. As he says to Wired:

The problem was that I started [Inception] with a heist film structure. At the time, that seemed the best way of getting all the exposition into the beginning of the movie—heist is the one genre where exposition is very much part of the entertainment. But I eventually realized that heist films are usually unemotional. They tend to be glamorous and deliberately superficial. I wanted to deal with the world of dreams, and I realized that I really had to offer the audience a more emotional narrative, something that represents the emotional world of somebody’s mind. So both the hero’s story and the heist itself had to be based on emotional concepts. That took years to figure out. [Italics mine.]

Nolan’s masterstroke, of course, was to make the ghost that haunts Inception—originally that of a dead business partner—the main character’s wife. He also made strategic choices about where to keep things simple, in order to pump up the complexity elsewhere: the supporting cast is clearly and simply drawn, as is the movie’s look, which gives necessary breathing room to the story’s multiple layers. For a writer, the lesson is obvious: if you’re going to tell a complicated story, keep an eye out for ways to ease up on the reader in other respects.

In the case of Inception, the result is a film that is both intellectually dense and emotionally involving, and which famously rewards multiple viewings. In that light, this exchange is especially interesting:

Wired: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Wired: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated. I think the only way to make ambiguity satisfying is to base it on a very solid point of view of what you think is going on, and then allow the ambiguity to come from the inability of the character to know, and the alignment of the audience with that character.

Wired: Oh. That’s a terrible tease.

Well, yes. But it’ll be interesting to see where Nolan goes from here. After Inception and The Dark Knight, he has as much power as any director in Hollywood. (Worldwide, Inception is the fourth highest-grossing movie in history based on an original screenplay, behind only Avatar, Titanic, and Finding Nemo.) He continues to grow in ambition and skill with every film. He seems determined to test the limits of narrative complexity in movies intended for a mass audience.

And he’s still only forty years old.

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2010 at 7:39 am

Black Swan: Take off The Red Shoes

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The only person standing in your way is you.

—Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), in Black Swan

It’s safe to say that no other movie this year, aside perhaps from Inception, filled me with so much unnatural anticipation as Black Swan. Ever since my first encounter with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, which I think is the best movie ever made, I’ve had an uninformed but highly emotional interest in ballet, especially ballet on film. Darren Aronofsky, coming off The Wrestler, is easily one of the ten most interesting directors in America. And while Natalie Portman has been making a career, as Pauline Kael once said of Meryl Streep, of seeming to overcome being miscast, she’s still an actress for whom I have a lot of affection and respect (even if she seems determined to squander it).

The result, unfortunately, comes precariously close to being a bad movie. It’s chilly and lurid at the same time; the story is both overcooked and underconceived; and it descends so rapidly into overwrought melodrama that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. (At its worst, it’s nothing but one long mirror scare.) And yet it’s a work of undeniable skill and commitment, with extraordinary images and moments, and even at its worst, it’s still more interesting to think about than many conventionally good movies. On our way home, my wife asked me if I thought it would become a midnight movie classic. I think it will become something even better: it’s the kind of movie where, if it had come out before I was born, I might have skipped school to see it in revival on the big screen. (I did that only once in high school, and that was to see Last Tango in Paris.)

But Black Swan is still a deeply problematic movie, in ways that I don’t think Aronofsky intended. The story, without giving too much away, is that of a young ballet dancer’s descent into madness. And it plunges you into that madness so quickly, almost from the very first shot, that there’s no sense of loss as her sanity slips away. From the beginning, Portman’s character, Nina, comes off as hopelessly fragile and neurotic, and she’s never given the kind of emotional grounding—a scene with friends, say, or even a moment of ordinary human behavior—that might have made her story genuinely tragic, rather than a chilling exercise. What Black Swan needs, above all else, is a first act, set in the real world, before Aronofsky releases all of his lovingly conceived visual and aural shocks.

As it stands, it’s tempting to see Nina as a surrogate for the director himself (though it should be noted that Aronofsky did not write Black Swan, which is based on a screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, and John J. McLaughlin). Nina is repeatedly told that she has perfect technique, but needs to lose herself in the moment, a criticism that can be leveled, not without reason, at Aronofsky. Even more than Christopher Nolan, Aronofsky is the most left-brained of all directors with access to stars and large budgets, and he might well argue that, objectively speaking, Black Swan is perfect. Which is probably true. But subjectively, in ordinary human terms, it’s dangerously close to ridiculous.

Aronofsky has obviously seen The Red Shoes, and includes one scene—an audition filmed from the point of view of a pirouetting ballerina—that is clearly intended as homage. And both movies are about dancers whose leading roles become tragically literal, and ultimately destroy their lives. The difference, though, is that The Red Shoes implicitly contains all of Black Swan, and embeds it in a much larger story about art, love, and the wider world that Aronofsky only shows us in fragments. Vicky, in The Red Shoes, is destroyed by the conflict between art and life. For Nina, there is no life, only art, and thus no conflict: she’s a creature of art in a movie that cares about nothing else. And by the end, it’s unclear why she, and nobody else, has gone crazy.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2010 at 8:05 am

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