Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Francis Ford Coppola

The tip of the spear

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Over the last couple of days, mostly by coincidence, I’ve been thinking about two sidelong portraits of great directors. One is Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, the diary by Eleanor Coppola that was later adapted into the unforgettable movie Hearts of Darkness. The other is Filmworker, a documentary about Leon Vitali, who served for decades as the assistant to Stanley Kubrick. By approaching their more famous subjects from an angle, they end up telling us more about Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick than a more direct engagement ever could, just as we arguably learn more about Sylvia Plath from Janet Malcolm’s oblique The Silent Woman than by reading volumes of the poet’s books and letters. Major artists, especially movie directors, can be overwhelming to contemplate, and they’re hard to view objectively, as Eleanor Coppola notes in her journal:

[Francis] started talking about how lonely he was. How essentially there are only two positions for most everybody to take with him. One is to kiss his ass, tell him he is great, and be paralyzed with admiration. The other is to resist him. That is, show him that no matter how rich and successful and talented he is, they are not impressed. Hardly anyone can just accept him, say, “That’s great, and so what?”

That’s equally true of biographers and critics, which is why it can be so valuable to listen to the memories of family members and associates who were close enough to see their subjects from all sides, if never quite to take them for granted.

Between Eleanor Coppola and Vitali, it’s hard to say who had the more difficult time of it. In Notes, Coppola hints at what it was like to be married to a director whose fame in the seventies exceeded that of any of his contemporaries: “When I am cashing a check or using a credit card, people often ask me if I am related to Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes I say I am married to him. People change before my eyes. They start smiling nervously and forget to give me my package or change. I think I look fairly normal. I wear sweaters and skirts and boots. Maybe they are expecting a Playboy bunny.” But that level of recognition can also cause problems of its own. Coppola has a revealing passage about the aftermath of her husband’s birthday:

His gifts were unloaded onto the table in the hall. This morning I was straightening up. I couldn’t help reading some of the cards. “Thanks for letting me participate in your greatness. Love…” Some days I am tried and just want out. It seems hopeless. There will always be a fresh crop of adoring young protégées waiting in the wings. This current situation stated during Godfather II. I was on location with Francis, away from San Francisco, my friends and the things that stimulated and interested me at the time. I was so angry with myself, angry that I couldn’t just get totally happy focusing on Francis and the making of his film. Someone else did.

That last line is left hanging, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of so much outside adoration.

In Kubrick’s case, much of this tension seems to have been unloaded onto Vitali, who was the director’s right arm for the last quarter century of his life. Vitali was a promising young actor who made a strong impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but he became fascinated by Kubrick, whom he approached with the offer to work for him in any capacity whatsoever. Kubrick took him up on it, and Vitali found himself testing five thousand children for the role of Danny in The Shining. For the next twenty years, they were inseparable, as Vitali saw after everything from casting and coaching actors to checking the foreign dubs and transfers for every film in the director’s back catalog. He was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and he was the perpetual object both of Kubrick’s unexpected tenderness and his sudden wrath. (Vitali also appeared on camera one last time, his face unseen, as the figure in the red cloak who asks Tom Cruise for the password for the house in Eyes Wide Shut.) Serving as a director’s personal assistant can be a hellish job in any case, and it was apparently even worse in the service of such a notorious perfectionist. Vitali lasted in that role for longer than seems humanly possible, and Kubrick had no compunction about using him for such unenviable tasks as informing the actor Tim Colceri, who had been cast eight months earlier as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, that he had lost the role to R. Lee Ermey. And the work continued even after Kubrick’s death. Before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali personally checked one out of every five prints, or over five hundred in all, by screening them nonstop for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, he had to ask someone else to watch the screen for a few minutes so he could leave the room to throw up. Speaking of this period in the documentary, Vitali, who is otherwise so candid, says after a moment: “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

But you also see why he stayed with Kubrick so long. As another interview subject in Filmworker notes, Vitali wasn’t just a spear carrier, but “the tip of the spear” in one of the most complex operations in the history of filmmaking, and that position can be very addictive. (You could compare it, perhaps, to the role of the White House chief of staff, an awful job that usually has people lining up for it, at least under most presidents.) Kubrick and Coppola were very different in their directorial styles, as well as in their personal lives, but few other filmmakers have ever managed the hat trick of being simultaneously brilliant, independent, and the beneficiary of massive studio resources. Coppola only managed to stay in that position for a few years—he was personally on the line for millions of dollars if Apocalypse Now was a failure, and after he miraculously pulled it off, he threw it all away on One From the Heart. Kubrick hung in there for decades, and he depended enormously on the presence of Vitali, who served as his intermediary to Warner Bros. According to the documentary, Kubrick would often sign his assistant’s name to scathing letters to the studio, and after his death, Vitali bore much of the repressed rage from people who had felt slighted or mistreated by the director during his lifetime. Eleanor Coppola’s position was obviously very different, and she shared in its material rewards in ways that Vitali, who was left in borderline poverty, never did. But if they ever meet, they might have a lot to say to each other. Coppola closes her book with an account of reading the journals of American pioneers during the westward expansion, of which she writes:

I particularly identified with one account in which a family in their journey reached the landmark Independence Rock. The husband described scaling the sides and the remarkable view from the top. The woman wrote about trying to find a patch of shade at the base where she could nurse the baby and cook lunch for the family.

The art of preemptive ingenuity

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Yesterday, my wife drew my attention to the latest episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, which irresistibly combines two of my favorite topics—film and graphic design. Its subject is Annie Atkins, who has designed props and visual materials for such works as The Tudors and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Her account of how a misspelled word nearly made it onto a crucial prop in the latter film is both hilarious and horrifying.) But my favorite story that she shares is about a movie that isn’t exactly known for its flashy art direction:

The next job I went onto—it would have been Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was a true story. We made a lot of newspapers for that film, and I remember us beginning to check the dates against the days, because I wanted to get it right. And then eventually the prop master said to me, “Do you know what, I think we’re just going to leave the dates off.” Because it wasn’t clear [what] sequence…these things were going to be shown in. And he said, you know, if you leave the dates off altogether, nobody will look for it. But if you put something there that’s wrong, then it might jump out. So we went with no dates in the end for those newspapers.

As far as filmmaking advice is concerned, this is cold, hard cash, even if I’ll never have the chance to put it into practice for myself. And I especially like the fact that it comes out of Bridge of Spies, a writerly movie with a screenplay by none other than the Coen Brothers, but which was still subject to decisions about its structure as late in the process as the editing stage.

Every movie, I expect, requires some degree of editorial reshuffling, and experienced directors will prepare for this during the production itself. The absence of dates on newspapers is one good example, and there’s an even better one in the book The Conversations, which the editor Walter Murch relates to the novelist Michael Ondaatje:

One thing that made it possible to [rearrange the order of scenes] in The Conversation was Francis [Coppola]’s belief that people should wear the same clothes most of the time. Harry is almost always wearing that transparent raincoat and his funny little crepe-soled shoes. This method of using costumes is something Francis had developed on other films, quite an accurate observation. He recognized that, first of all, people don’t change clothes in real life as often as they do in film. In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do—which is only natural—so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

Murch observes: “There’s a delicate balance between the timeline of a film’s story—which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months—and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed clothes.”

The editor concludes: “It’s amazing how consistent you can make somebody’s costume and have it not stand out.” (Occasionally, a change of clothes will draw attention to editorial manipulation, as one scene is lifted out from its original place and slotted in elsewhere. One nice example is in Bullitt, where we see Steve McQueen in one scene at a grocery store in his iconic tweed coat and blue turtleneck, just before he goes home, showers, and changes into those clothes, which he wears for the rest of the movie.) The director Judd Apatow achieves the same result in another way, as his longtime editor Brent White notes: “[He’ll] have something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know exactly where it goes in the movie. Does it service the end? Does it go early? So he’ll shoot the same exact scene, the same exchange, with the actors in different wardrobes, so that I can slot it in at different points.” Like the newspapers in Bridge of Spies, this all assumes that changes to the plan will be necessary later on, and it prepares for them in advance. Presumably, you always hope to keep the order of scenes from the script when you cut the movie together, but the odds are that something won’t quite work when you sit down to watch the first assembly, so you build in safeguards to allow you to fix these issues when the time comes. If your budget is high enough, you can include reshoots in your shooting schedule, as Peter Jackson does, while the recent films of David Fincher indicate the range of problems that can be solved with digital tools in postproduction. But when you lack the resources for such expensive solutions, your only recourse is to be preemptively ingenious on the set, which forces you to think in terms of what you’ll want to see when you sit down to edit the footage many months from now.

This is the principle behind one of my favorite pieces of directorial advice ever, which David Mamet provides in the otherwise flawed Bambi vs. Godzilla:

Always get an exit and an entrance. More wisdom for the director in the cutting room. The scene involves the hero sitting in a café. Dialogue scene, blah blah blah. Well and good, but when you shoot it, shoot the hero coming in and sitting down. And then, at the end, shoot him getting up and leaving. Why? Because the film is going to tell you various things about itself, and many of your most cherished preconceptions will prove false. The scene that works great on paper will prove a disaster. An interchange of twenty perfect lines will be found to require only two, the scene will go too long, you will discover another scene is needed, and you can’t get the hero there if he doesn’t get up from the table, et cetera. Shoot an entrance and an exit. It’s free.

I learned a corollary from John Sayles: at the end of the take, in a close-up or one-shot, have the speaker look left, right, up, and down. Why? Because you might just find you can get out of the scene if you can have the speaker throw the focus. To what? To an actor or insert to be shot later, or to be found in (stolen from) another scene. It’s free. Shoot it, ’cause you just might need it.

This kind of preemptive ingenuity, in matters both large and small, is what really separates professionals from amateurs. Something always goes wrong, and the plan that we had in mind never quite matches what we have in the end. Professionals don’t always get it right the first time, either—but they know this, and they’re ready for it.

The fifteen missing pages

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In 1972, after the massive success of The Godfather, the director Francis Ford Coppola announced that his next project would be an original screenplay that he had been trying to make for years. It was a curious blend of paranoid thriller and character study—Coppola would later describe it as a cross between Blow-Up and Steppenwolf—about a surveillance expert named Harry Caul. Paramount was anxious for him to get to work on the sequel to his first big hit, but Coppola optimistically hoped to squeeze in this more personal project between the two Godfather films. As the editor Walter Murch told the novelist Michael Ondaatje in their great book The Conversations, that isn’t quite how it worked out:

A good ten days of material [on The Conversation] was never filmed—Francis and the production team just ran out of time and money to shoot the entire script, and he had to go off to do preproduction on Godfather II. His advice to me at that point was, Well, let’s just cut what we have together and see if we can find a way to compensate for that missing footage. So from the beginning we couldn’t structure it the way the screenplay called for. I’d say there were about fifteen pages of script material that were not shot.

To make matters even more fraught, with Coppola effectively gone, the film was left in the hands of Murch and his assistant editor Richard Chew, neither of whom had ever edited a movie before. In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman describes their unlikely plan: “Coppola would show up every month or so…The three of them would screen [the film], spend a couple of days together going over ideas and making lists of things to try out. Then Coppola would disappear for another month.” It went on like this for an entire year.

More recently, another movie found itself in much the same situation, complete with a protagonist with a trademark raincoat and an oddly similar name. This time, it was the adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s thriller The Snowman, about the Oslo police detective Harry Hole. On paper, it looked great: the leads were Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson, Martin Scorsese was the executive producer, and Tomas Alfredson of the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was directing. Even before its release, however, there were rumors of trouble, capped off by a remarkable interview that Alfredson gave to Norwegian public broadcasting, which was quickly picked up by the Independent. For a film that has been in development for most of the decade—Scorsese was announced as the director way back in 2011, only to be replaced by Alfredson three years later—its actual production seems to have been untidy and rushed. As Alfredson revealed:

Our shoot time in Norway was way too short. We didn’t get the whole story with us and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing…It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture…[The reshoots] happened very abruptly. Suddenly we got notice that we had the money and could start the shoot in London.

Alfredson estimated that “ten to fifteen percent” of the script was never shot. And while it isn’t clear how this happened, if we’re talking about a screenplay of average length, the unshot material amounted to more or less what it was for The Conversation. Postproduction is always an exhausting, stressful stage, and both films went into it with fifteen missing pages.

Faced with this sort of situation, an editor has no choice but to be a genius, creating structure, connections, and entirely new scenes from the footage that he or she has available. As Murch says drily to Ondaatje, with considerable understatement: “We had to be pretty inventive.” He provides one example:

For instance, in one scene Harry pursues Ann—the young woman who was his surveillance “target”—to a park, where he reveals to her who he is and what her concerns for her are. Francis shot the park material, but the material leading up to it, including a chase on electric buses, was never shot…Since we had no fabric with which to knit it into the reality of the film, it floated for a while, like a wild card, until we got the idea of making it a dream of Harry’s, which seemed to be the way to preserve it within the film…When you have restricted material you’re going to have to restructure things from the original intent, with sometimes felicitous juxtapositions.

Much and Chew were novices, working independently, by trial and error, which was extraordinary even in the early seventies and would be utterly unthinkable today. With The Snowman, Universal did the obvious thing and brought in a ringer—they already had editor Claire Simpson, a veteran of such films as Platoon and The Constant Gardener, and to supplement her work, they hired none other than Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s longtime collaborator and arguably the most acclaimed editor of her generation. (Murch himself was recruited to do similar duty for the remake of The Wolf Man, which implies that this sort of repair work is a good side gig for legendary editors in their twilight years.) The result, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have been as inspired as it was for its predecessor. As Den of Geek writes of the opening of The Snowman: “The scene’s editing is full of jolts and strange elisions. Was the sequence originally much longer, but later cut down? Why does it all feel so disjointed?”

In the end, after seven years in development, The Snowman was dumped into theaters over the weekend to negative reviews and poor box office, and it seems likely to endure as one of those fascinating case studies that never get told in the full detail that they deserve. You could argue that it came down to the underlying material—The Conversation emerged from the creative peak of the most important American director since Orson Welles, while The Snowman, despite its elegant veneer of Nordic noir, was ultimately just another serial killer movie. But I think that the more accurate takeaway is that you never can tell. I’ve argued before that it doesn’t make sense to talk about a movie as being saved in the editing room, because every movie is saved in the editing room, but the conditions under which The Conversation and The Snowman were made certainly tested their editors’ ingenuity to the limit. It’s a situation that can produce great inventiveness and brilliant technical solutions, but a lot of it depends on luck, and we naturally remember the successes and forget the failures. At one point, Coppola considered halting work on The Conversation entirely, which prompted Murch to recall to Koppelman: “If we had postponed, The Conversation would have probably come out in late 1975, but with a cloud over it which would have been blamed on me—a rerecording mixer who had never edited a feature before.” Murch might well have never edited a movie again, and the history of film would be subtly different. Everyone involved with The Snowman seems likely to emerge unscathed, while the movie itself will live on as a cautionary tale of how all the skill in the world might not be enough to turn Harry Hole into Harry Caul. As Boris Lermontov says in my favorite movie by Michael Powell, Schoonmaker’s late husband and the idol of both Scorsese and Coppola: “Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”

Musings of a cigarette smoking man

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After the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton died earlier this week, Deadspin reprinted a profile by Steve Oney from the early eighties that offers a glimpse of a man whom many of us recognized but few of us knew. It captured Stanton at a moment when he was edging into a kind of stardom, but he was still open about his doubts and struggles: “It was Eastern mysticism that began to help me. Alan Watts’s books on Zen Buddhism were a very strong influence. Taoism and Lao-tse, I read much of, along with the works of Krishnamurti. And I studied tai chi, the martial art, which is all about centering oneself.” Oney continues:

But it was the I Ching (The Book of Changes) in which Stanton found most of his strength. By his bedside he keeps a bundle of sticks wrapped in blue ribbon. Several times every week, he throws them (or a handful of coins) and then turns to the book to search out the meaning of the pattern they made. “I throw them whenever I need input,” he said. “It’s an addendum to my subconscious.” He now does this before almost everything he undertakes—interviews, films, meetings. “It has sustained and nourished me,” he said. “But I’m not qualified to expound on it.”

I was oddly moved by these lines. The I Ching doesn’t tell you what the future will be, but it offers advice on how to behave, which makes it the perfect oracle for a character actor, whose career is inextricably tied up with luck, timing, persistence, and synchronicity.

Stanton, for reasons that even he might have found hard to grasp, became its patron saint. “What he wants is that one magic part, the one they’ll mention in film dictionaries, that will finally make up for all the awful parts from early in his career,” Oney writes. That was thirty years ago, and it never really happened. Most of the entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is devoted to listing Stanton’s gigantic filmography, and its one paragraph of analysis is full of admiration for his surface, not his depths:

He is among the last of the great supporting actors, as unfailing and visually eloquent as Anthony Mann’s trees or “Mexico” in a Peckinpah film. Long ago, a French enthusiastic said that Charlton Heston was “axiomatic.” He might want that pensée back now. But Stanton is at least emblematic of sad films of action and travel. His face is like the road in the West.

This isn’t incorrect, but it’s still incomplete. In Oney’s profile, the young Sean Penn, who adopted Stanton as his mentor, offers the same sort of faint praise: “Behind that rugged old cowboy face, he’s simultaneously a man, a child, a woman—he just has this full range of emotions I really like. He’s a very impressive soul more than he is a mind, and I find that attractive.” I don’t want to discount the love there. But it’s also possible that Stanton never landed the parts that he deserved because his friends never got past that sad, wonderful face, which was a blessing that also obscured his subtle, indefinable talent.

Stanton’s great trick was to seem to sidle almost sideways into the frame, never quite taking over a film but immeasurably enriching it, and he’s been a figure on the edges of my moviegoing life for literally as long as I can remember. He appeared in what I’m pretty sure was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater, Philip Borsos’s One Magic Christmas, which prompted Roger Ebert to write: “I am not sure exactly what I think about Harry Dean Stanton’s archangel. He is sad-faced and tender, all right, but he looks just like the kind of guy that our parents told us never to talk to.” Stanton got on my radar thanks largely to Ebert, who went so far as to define a general rule: “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” And my memory is seasoned with stray lines and moments delivered in his voice. As the crooked, genial preacher in Uforia: “Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” Or the father in Pretty in Pink, after Molly Ringwald wakes him up at home one morning: “Where am I?” Or Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ, speaking to the aged Jesus: “You know, I’m glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you.” One movie that I haven’t seen mentioned in most retrospectives of his career is Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart, in which Stanton unobtrusively holds his own in the corner of the film that killed Zoetrope Studios. Thomson describes his work as “funny, casual, and quietly disintegrating,” and when the camera dollies to the left near the beginning of the film as he asks Frederick Forrest’s character why he keeps buying so much junk, it’s as if he’s talking to Coppola himself.

Most of all, I’ve always loved Stanton’s brief turn as Carl, the owner of the Fat Trout trailer park in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which he offered the FBI agents “a cup of Good Morning America.” And one of the great pleasures of the revival of Twin Peaks was the last look it gave us of Carl, who informed a younger friend: “I’ve been smoking for seventy-five years—every fuckin’ day.” Cigarettes were curiously central to his mystique, as surely as they shaped his face and voice. Oney writes: “In other words, Stanton is sixty going on twenty-two, a seeker who also likes to drive fast cars, dance all night, and chain-smoke cigarettes with the defiant air of a hood hanging out in the high school boy’s room.” In his last starring role, the upcoming Lucky, he’s described as having “outlived and out-smoked” his contemporaries. And, more poignantly, he said to Esquire a decade ago: “I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive.” Smoking, like casting a hexagam, feels like the quintessential pastime of the character actor—it’s the vice of those who sit and wait. In an interview that he gave a few years ago, Stanton effortlessly linked all of these themes together:

We’re not in charge of our lives and there are no answers to anything. It’s a divine mystery. Buddhism, Taoism, the Jewish Kabbalah—it’s all the same thing, but once it gets organized it’s over. You have to just accept everything. I’m still smoking a pack a day.

If you didn’t believe in the I Ching, there was always smoking, and if you couldn’t believe in either one, you could believe in Stanton. Because everybody’s got to believe in something.

The greatest trick

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In the essay collection Candor and Perversion, the late critic Roger Shattuck writes: “The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks.” He never explains what he means by “trick,” but toward the end of the book, in a chapter on Marcel Duchamp, he quotes a few lines from the poet Charles Baudelaire from the unpublished preface to Flowers of Evil:

Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all the revision and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation?

Baudelaire is indulging here in an analogy from the theater—he speaks elsewhere of “the dresser’s and the decorator’s studio,” “the actor’s box,” and “the wrecks, makeup, pulleys, chains.” A trick, in this sense, is a device that the artist uses to convey an idea that also draws attention to itself, in the same way that we can simultaneously notice and accept certain conventions when we’re watching a play. In a theatrical performance, the action and its presentation are so intermingled that we can’t always say where one leaves off and the other begins, and we’re always aware, on some level, that we’re looking at actors on a stage behaving in a fashion that is necessarily stylized and artificial. In other art forms, we’re conscious of these tricks to a greater or lesser extent, and while artists are usually advised that such technical elements should be subordinated to the story, in practice, we often delight in them for their own sake.

For an illustration of the kind of trick that I mean, I can’t think of any better example than the climax of The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone attends the baptism of his godson—played by the infant Sofia Coppola—as his enemies are executed on his orders. This sequence seems as inevitable now as any scene in the history of cinema, but it came about almost by accident. The director Francis Ford Coppola had the idea to combine the christening with the killings after all of the constituent parts had already been shot, which left him with the problem of assembling footage that hadn’t been designed to fit together. As Michael Sragow recounts in The New Yorker:

[Editor Peter] Zinner, too, made a signal contribution. In a climactic sequence, Coppola had the stroke of genius (confirmed by Puzo) to intercut Michael’s serving as godfather at the christening of Connie’s baby with his minions’ savagely executing the Corleone family’s enemies. But, Zinner says, Coppola left him with thousands of feet of the baptism, shot from four or five angles as the priest delivered his litany, and relatively few shots of the assassins doing their dirty work. Zinner’s solution was to run the litany in its entirety on the soundtrack along with escalating organ music, allowing different angles of the service to dominate the first minutes, and then to build to an audiovisual crescendo with the wave of killings, the blaring organ, the priest asking Michael if he renounces Satan and all his works—and Michael’s response that he does renounce them. The effect sealed the movie’s inspired depiction of the Corleones’ simultaneous, duelling rituals—the sacraments of church and family, and the murders in the street.

Coppola has since described Zinner’s contribution as “the inspiration to add the organ music,” but as this account makes clear, the editor seems to have figured out the structure and rhythm of the entire sequence, building unforgettably on the director’s initial brainstorm.

The result speaks for itself. It’s hard to think of a more powerful instance in movies of the form of a scene, created by cuts and juxtaposition, merging with the power of its storytelling. As we watch it, consciously or otherwise, we respond both to its formal audacity and to the ideas and emotions that it expresses. It’s the ultimate trick, as Baudelaire defines it, and it also inspired one of my favorite passages of criticism, in David Thomson’s entry on Coppola in The Biographical Dictionary of Film:

When The Godfather measured its grand finale of murder against the liturgy of baptism, Coppola seemed mesmerized by the trick, and its nihilism. A Buñuel, by contrast, might have made that sequence ironic and hilarious. But Coppola is not long on those qualities, and he could not extricate himself from the engineering of scenes. The identification with Michael was complete and stricken.

Before reading these lines, I had never considered the possibility that the baptism scene could be “ironic and hilarious,” or indeed anything other than how it so overwhelmingly presents itself, although it might easily have played that way without the music. And I’ve never forgotten Thomson’s assertion that Coppola was mesmerized by his own trick, as if it had arisen from somewhere outside of himself. (It might be even more accurate to say that coming up with the notion that the sequences ought to be cut together is something altogether different from actually witnessing the result, after Zinner assembled all the pieces and added Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor—which, notably, entwines three different themes.) Coppola was so taken by the effect that he reused it, years later, for a similar sequence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, admitting cheerfully on the commentary track that he was stealing from himself.

It was a turning point both for Coppola and for the industry as a whole. Before The Godfather, Coppola had been a novelistic director of small, quirky stories, and afterward, like Michael coming into his true inheritance, he became the engineer of vast projects, following up on the clues that he had planted here for himself. (It’s typical of the contradictions of his career that he placed his own baby daughter at the heart of this sequence, which means that he could hardly keep from viewing the most technically nihilistic scene in all his work as something like a home movie.) And while this wasn’t the earliest movie to invite the audience to revel in its structural devices—half of Citizen Kane consists of moments like this—it may have been the first since The Birth of a Nation to do so while also becoming the most commercially successful film of all time. Along the way, it subtly changed us. In our movies, as in our politics, we’ve become used to thinking as much about how our stories are presented as about what they say in themselves. We can even come to prefer trickery, as Shattuck warns us, to true ideas. This doesn’t meant that we should renounce genuine artistic facility of the kind that we see here, as opposed to its imitation or its absence, any more than Michael can renounce Satan. But the consequences of this confusion can be profound. Coppola, the orchestrator of scenes, came to identify with the mafioso who executed his enemies with ruthless efficiency, and the beauty of Michael’s moment of damnation went a long way toward turning him into an attractive, even heroic figure, an impression that Coppola spent most of The Godfather Parts II and III trying in vain to correct. Pacino’s career was shaped by this moment as well. And we have to learn to distinguish between tricks and the truth, especially when they take pains to conceal themselves. As Baudelaire says somewhere else: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The second system effect

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Note: This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 14, 2015.

Why are second novels or movies so consistently underwhelming? Even if you account for such variables as heightened pressure, compressed turnaround time, and unrealistic expectations, the track record for works of art from The Postman to the second season of True Detective suggests that the sophomore slump, whatever it reflects, is real. For the economist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s a case of regression to the mean: any artistic breakthrough is by definition an outlier, since only exceptional efforts survive to come to light at all, and later attempts revert back to the artist’s natural level of ability. There’s also a sense in which a massive success removes many of the constraints that allowed for good work to happen in the first place. By now, it’s a cliché to note that the late installments in a popular series, from Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire, feel like they haven’t been edited. It’s certainly true that authors who have sold a million copies have greater leverage when it comes to disregarding editorial notes, if they even receive them at all. Editors are as human as anyone else, and since commercial outcomes are such a crapshoot, you can’t blame them for not wanting to get in the way of a good thing. It didn’t hurt Rowling or Martin, but in the case of, say, the later novels of Thomas Harris, you could make a case that a little more editorial control might have been nice. And I’ve noted elsewhere that this may have more to do with the need to schedule blockbuster novels for a release date long in advance, whether they’re ready or not.

Yet there’s also a third, even more plausible explanation, which I first encountered in The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., a seminal work on software engineering. Writing about what he calls “the second system effect,” Brooks notes:

An architect’s first work is apt to be spare and clean. He knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he does it carefully and with great restraint.

As he designs the first work, frill after frill and embellishment after embellishment occur to him. These get stored away to be used “next time.” Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.

The second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs. When he does his third and later ones, his prior experiences will confirm each other as to the general characteristics of such systems, and their differences will identify those parts of his experience that are particular are not generalizable.

Francis Ford Coppola

Brooks concludes: “The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one.” And it’s startling how well this statement describes so many sophomore efforts in film and literature. It’s the difference between Easy Rider and The Last Movie, Sex Lies and Videotape and Kafka, Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, in which a spare, disciplined freshman work is succeeded by a movie that contains everything up to and including the kitchen sink. When you first try your hand at any kind of storytelling, you discover that the natural arc of the project tends toward removal and subtraction: you cut, pare back, and streamline, either because of your natural caution or because you don’t have the resources you need. Every edit is necessary, but it also carries a charge of regret. If your constraints are removed for your second project, this only adds fuel to an artist’s natural tendency to overindulge. And while the result may be a likable mess—a lot of us prefer Mallrats to Clerks—it rarely exhibits the qualities that first drew us to an artist’s work. (Even in movies made by committee, there’s an assumption that viewers want a bigger, louder, and busier version of what worked the first time around, which leads to so much of the narrative inflation that we see in blockbuster sequels.)

So what’s an artist to do? Brooks has some advice that everyone trying to follow up his or her first effort should keep in mind:

How does the architect avoid the second-system effect? Well, obviously he can’t skip his second system. But he can be conscious of the peculiar hazards of that system, and exert extra self-discipline to avoid functional ornamentation and to avoid extrapolation of functions that are obviated by changes in assumptions and purposes.

Translated into artistic terms, this means nothing more or less than treating a second attempt as exactly as hazardous as it really is. If anything, the track record of sophomore efforts should make writers even more aware of those risks, and even more relentless about asking the hard questions after a big success has made it possible to stop. When Francis Ford Coppola followed The Godfather with The Conversation, it was both a regathering and an act of discipline—in a movie largely about craft and constraints—that enabled the grand gestures to come. Coppola certainly wasn’t beyond insane acts of overreaching, but in this case, his instincts were sound. And I have a feeling that a lot of writers and filmmakers, in hindsight, wish that they could have skipped their second system and gone straight to their third.

Written by nevalalee

November 25, 2016 at 9:00 am

My alternative canon #4: One From the Heart

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Nastassja Kinski and Frederic Forrest in One From the Heart

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 week and a half, 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. You can read the previous installments here

Your feelings toward a movie can evolve over time, as in any other kind of romance. Occasionally, you can be persuaded to fall halfway in love with a film before you’ve even watched it, with a critic or an enthusiastic friend serving as the equivalent of a matchmaker, and that initial glow can blind you to even the most glaring of faults. Sooner or later, though, you start to see it more clearly, and you realize that it wasn’t meant to be—even if you’ll never forget how it once made you feel. One From the Heart, which in itself is a story about the ups and downs of a longtime relationship, is that kind of movie for me. I doubt if many viewers still seek it out these days, but for a few years in the early eighties, it was one of the biggest stories in Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola, coming off the hell and unlikely vindication of Apocalypse Now, had envisioned a new kind of movie studio, in which artists of all backgrounds could come together in a process of ongoing collaboration: it would be part theater troupe, part circus, part laboratory for audacious experiments. The test case would be a modest screenplay by Armyan Bernstein about a bored couple, Hank and Frannie, who take other lovers for a single night, then drift back together again. It’s a trifle of a story even by the standards of romantic comedy, but something in it seized Coppola’s imagination: he decided to set it in Las Vegas, which would give him an excuse to build gigantic sets at the Zoetrope Studios, and to test his new technology for computer-assisted review and editing. (Or, as an industry wisecrack quoted by Roger Ebert put it: “[Coppola] took an $8 million project and used the latest advances in video to bring it in for $23 million.”)

In other words, it was just the kind of doomed, lunatic project that excites me as a moviegoer, and it was even a musical, too. Not surprisingly, after my first viewing, I was convinced that I loved it. Over time, the flush of enthusiasm faded: the plot is so inconsequential that it seems to evaporate as you watch it, and most of the visual and aural delights on display never quite land as intended. (The one exception is the soundtrack by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, which I still think is one of the greatest ever recorded. It deserves to be part of everyone’s musical life.) But I can’t quite forget it, either. I was first turned onto it by a pair of reviews by Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times, the first of which was a rave, the second—written a decade later—a mediation on her own disillusionment. In retrospect, they anticipate my own experience with One From the Heart with eerie accuracy. When Benson first saw it, she thought it was “enchanting,” but a return visit brought her to her senses: “But ah, my foes, and oh my friends, the stuff that sticks the marvelous bits together now seems, frankly, strained beyond the most passionate loyalty.” That’s pretty much how I feel about it today, too, even if its immaculate opening credits and gorgeous title song still fill me with a wistful sense of what might have been. Few other movies have left such an incongruous dual legacy: it’s both a lightweight, frothy confection and the film that derailed the career of the most promising American director since Orson Welles. But it’s still worth seeking out. As Benson concludes: “Who knows, it may become the love of your life.”

“Are you still willing to play your part?”

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"Where were we?"

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 44. You can read the previous installments here.

When you conceive of a story as a kind of puzzle box, one of the most satisfying tricks you can play is to write a scene that can be read in two different ways. At first, it suggests one obvious interpretation—if you’ve done it right, it shouldn’t even raise any questions—but on a second encounter, it says something else, based solely on the fresh perspective that the reader or audience brings to it. The canonical example here is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. It opens with the paranoid sound expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, eavesdropping on an illicit meeting in the park between a young couple, Mark and Ann, who are having an affair. Harry has been hired to follow them by Ann’s husband, but later, as he cleans up and edits the tape recording, he hears a line spoken by Mark for the first time: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” Before long, Harry, who obsessively replays that part of the conversation, becomes convinced that his client is planning to have Mark and Ann killed. Of course, that isn’t what happens, and it turns out in the end that Mark and Ann were planning to murder Ann’s husband. Harry’s interpretation of the recording was wrong: it wasn’t “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” but “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” meaning that they have to kill him first. And it’s only when the audience, along with Harry, glimpses the full picture that the line reveals its real meaning at last.

Which is an amazing feat of storytelling—except that it cheats. Walter Murch, who was left to edit the film by himself after Coppola ran off to film The Godfather Part II, was never able to make the audience understand the true meaning of that critical line of dialogue, and he ultimately hit upon a solution that broke the movie’s own rules. During one take, Frederic Forrest, who played Mark, had flubbed his line reading, inadvertently placing the emphasis on the wrong word: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” As Murch recounts in Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen:

I noted that reading at the time…and filed it away as being inappropriate. But a year later during the mixing of the film I suddenly thought, let’s see what happens if we substitute that “inappropriate” reading with its different inflection into the final reel. It might help tip audiences into understanding what had happened: that the “victims” were really the “plotters.” So I mixed it into the soundtrack in place of the original reading and took the finished film to [Coppola]…I prepared him for the change and wondered what his reaction would be when he heard it. It was a risky idea because it challenged one of the fundamental premises of the film, which is that the conversation itself remains the same, but your interpretation of it changes. I was prepared to go back to the original version. But he liked it, and that’s the way it remains in the finished film.

"Are you still willing to play your part?"

And it was the right call, even if it was a bit of a cheat. When we look at the books or movies that execute the priceless gag of having a scene appear to mean one thing but turn out to mean another, some degree of trickery is almost always involved. No film has ever pulled it off as beautifully as The Sixth Sense, with its closing montage of moments that we suddenly see in a new light, but on a second viewing, we’re acutely aware of how the script walks right up to the edge of deceiving us unfairly. (My favorite example is Lynn’s line “You got an hour,” which works when we think she’s talking to Malcolm, but not if she’s just telling her son that she’s making some triangle pancakes.) The Usual Suspects cheats even more blatantly by giving us a fake flashback—a gimmick that can be justified by the presence of an unreliable narrator, but which still feels like a lapse in an otherwise elegant movie. It’s also common for a story to omit necessary information, so that the dialogue, while not actively misleading, only gives us part of the picture. You frequently see this in movies like Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, which involve us in the planning of a heist but withhold a few details so that we don’t know what the protagonists really have in mind. In small does, this can be delightful, but it verges on being a cliché in itself, and when taken too far, it violates the implicit contract between the story and the audience, which is that we’ll be allowed to see what the main character does and draw our own conclusions.

Chapter 44 of Eternal Empire represents my own effort in that line, and I’m reasonably happy with how it turned out. The chapter opens at the tail end of what seems like a routine conversation between Maddy and Tarkovsky, then follows Maddy as she goes down to the yacht’s tender bay to meet Ilya, who is evidently preparing for Tarkovsky’s assassination. That isn’t really the case, of course, and I had a good time drawing on the standard bag of tricks for this sort of misdirection. Maddy acts as if she’s scoping out Tarkovsky’s office for the kill, when in fact she’s there to warn him, and her ensuing conversation with Ilya is filled with lines of the “He’d kill us if he had the chance” variety. (“Are we safe?” “If you’re asking if the pieces are in place, then yes, we’re ready.” “And are you still willing to play your part?” “I don’t think I have a choice.”) Looking at it objectively, I’d say that the result does its job with a minimum of jiggery-pokery, although there’s always a touch of cheating—which some readers will hate no matter what—when you don’t reveal everything that your point of view character might be thinking. Fortunately, my usual narrative mode is fairly clinical and detached: I don’t use interior monologue, and I prefer to convey emotion through action, which dovetails nicely with the requirements of a scene like this. The chapter works because it isn’t so far removed from what I normally do as a writer, which allows the characters to keep their secrets. And I’d do it again if I had the chance…

Forever and ever

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The cover of David Bowie's Hours

I knew this day would come, but I allowed myself to hope that it never would. When I first became aware of David Bowie, it happened to be at a point in his career when it seemed as if he had been around forever, and he was everywhere you looked. My dad, a longtime fan, had bought Let’s Dance just like everyone else—he and my mom even saw Bowie perform on the Serious Moonlight tour—and my parents still talk about watching me sing along as a toddler to “Modern Love.” Later, of course, there was Labyrinth, along with so much else that is so deeply embedded in my subconscious that I can’t imagine a world without it. But it took me a long time to realize that I was encountering Bowie at a moment that was a clear outlier in the larger story of his life. The massive success of Let’s Dance, which had originally been intended as a one-off detour, transformed him into a mainstream pop superstar for the first time, and he followed it with a string of commercially minded albums that most critics, along with Bowie himself, rank low in his body of work. But I still love what Sasha Frere-Jones has called “the blocky drums and sports-bar guitars” of this period. It’s richer, weirder stuff than it initially seems, and it’s the first version that comes to mind whenever I think about David Bowie. Which is an awful lot. In fact, as the years pass, I find that I’ve spent most of my life thinking about Bowie pretty much all the time.

When an artist has such a long, productive career and you tune in halfway through, you tend to see his or her music in two parallel chronologies. There’s the true chronology, which you start to piece together as you work backward and forward through the discography and listen to the songs in the order in which they were written and recorded. And there’s the autobiographical chronology, in which the albums assume positions in your memory based on when you listened to them the most. This doesn’t have much to do with their proper release dates: the songs situate themselves in your life wherever they can fit, like enzymes locking onto substrates, and they end up spelling out a new message. If the Bowie of the eighties takes me back to my childhood, I can’t listen to Scary Monsters without being plunged right away into my senior year of high school, in which I listened to it endlessly on a Discman and headphones while riding the train up to Berkeley. My arrival in New York after college was scored to Hours, an album often seen as forgettable, but which contains a handful of Bowie’s loveliest songs, especially “Thursday’s Child” and “Survive.” “Modern Love” played at my wedding. And it’s hard to think of a chapter in my life when he wasn’t important. He was such a given, in fact, that it took me a long time to get a sense of the shape of his career as a whole, in the same way that there are enormous swaths in the lives of your parents that you’ve never bothered to ask about because they’ve always been there.

David Bowie

I saw Bowie perform live twice. The first was the Outside tour with Nine Inch Nails as his opening act, and it was my first rock concert ever: Bowie came onstage to the sound of “Subterraneans” and intoned the lyrics to “Scary Monsters” as a spoken-word piece, an unforgettable moment that I was recently delighted to find online. Much later, I saw him in New York with my brother, with whom I’d also caught a retrospective at the Museum of Television and Radio—this was in the years before YouTube—that collected many of his old videos and performance clips, playing continuously on a screen in a tiny darkened room. By then, Bowie was an institution. He was so established that he had issued bonds secured by royalties from his back catalog, and going back over pictures and footage from his early days was like looking at snapshots of your father and marveling at how long his hair used to be. And occasionally it occurred to me that Bowie would have to die one day, much as I still think the same about Francis Coppola or Werner Herzog. It seemed inconceivable, although hints of mortality are woven throughout his catalog. (As I wrote on this blog once: “And the skull grins through even his most unabashedly mainstream moments. If you listen carefully to ‘Let’s Dance,’ you can hear something rattling in the background, alongside the slick horns and synthetic percussion. It’s the sound of Bowie’s false teeth.”) If David Bowie can die, it means that none of us are safe.

After reading the news, the first song I played was “Starman.” I don’t think I’m alone. But the way that song came back into my life is revealing in itself. I’d always been vaguely aware of it, from The Life Aquatic if nothing else—which links Bowie indelibly in my mind with Bill Murray, another celebrity whose departure I anticipate with dread. But I didn’t listen to it closely until I got a copy of his recent greatest hits album Nothing Has Changed. (It was a Christmas present from my brother, which is just another reminder of how entwined Bowie has been in the story of my family.) It’s an eclectic collection of songs on two chunky vinyl discs, with different track listings depending on the format, and it both reminded me of some old favorites and reintroduced me to songs that, for whatever reason, had never been integrated into my internal playlist. The best part was playing it for my two-year-old daughter, who has since been known to ask for Bowie by name. She can sing along to “Changes,” as she did unprompted when I pulled out the album this morning, and to “Heroes,” with her little voice sounding strong and clear: “We can beat dem / Forevah and evah…” It makes me feel like I’m maintaining some kind of continuity. And the phrase “forever and ever” has become a regular part of her vocabulary. She’ll ask: “Am I going to be three forever and ever?” And when it’s time to turn off the lights, and I sit on the edge of her bed, she asks: “Will you stay with me forever and ever?” I want to say yes, but of course I can’t. And neither could David Bowie.

Sex and the single shark

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Jaws by Peter Benchley

A few weeks ago, I picked up a used copy of the original hardcover edition of Peter Benchley’s Jaws. It caught my eye in part because of the iconic cover art, designed by the legendary Paul Bacon, who passed away earlier this summer. Although the painting was redrawn for the paperback, which later became the basis for one of the great movie posters, it’s still a work of graphic genius, second only to Chip Kidd’s dust jacket design for Jurassic Park in the unexpected way it came to define an entire franchise. And upon leafing through the novel itself—I’m still only halfway through—I was struck by how much it differs, not just from its film adaptation, but from what we’ve come to expect from a modern thriller. There’s a lot of background material on the town of Amity, some engaging, some not, including an entire subplot about the mayor’s mob connections. Most stupefying of all is the huge amount of space devoted to a plot thread, which the movie omits entirely, about an affair between Chief Brody’s wife and Hooper, the oceanographer played in the film by Richard Dreyfuss. It takes up something like sixty uninterrupted pages right in the middle of the novel, and frankly, it’s terrible, complete with passages of awful, clinical, mid-seventies lovemaking as bad as anything from Irving Wallace, who wrote about sex, as one critic put it, as if he’d never had it himself. (A tip to writers: any passage that unblushingly includes the phrase “her genitals” probably doesn’t need to exist.)

Reading the section again today, it’s hard to shake a sense that it must have struck many readers at the time as about as pointless as it seems now. Benchley can be a fine writer elsewhere, but I’d like to think that a modern editor would have taken him firmly by the hand and advised him to cut the whole thing. In fact, the man who edited Jaws was Thomas Congdon, an editor at Doubleday whose clients would later include David Halberstam and Russell Baker, and his collaboration with Benchley has been documented in exceptional detail, thanks to a fascinating story that the journalist Ted Morgan wrote for The New York Times Magazine around the time of the book’s publication. Congdon commissioned the novel from Benchley before a single word of it had been written, and he worked closely with the author, starting at the outline phase, which is unusual in itself. And Congdon, unbelievably, is the one we have to thank for what I have no choice but to call, ahem, the Dreyfuss affair. As Morgan writes:

When Benchley wrote a sex scene between the police chief and his wife, Congdon’s sense of propriety was offended: “I don’t think there’s any place for wholesome married sex in this kind of book,” he wrote. Benchley obediently turned the wife into an adulteress, who has an affair with a young marine scientist. [Italics mine.]

The poster for Jaws

Still, for all I know, Congdon may have been right. It certainly didn’t hurt the novel: half of Morgan’s article is devoted to cataloging its massive sales figures and proceeds from subsidiary rights, and this is all before the movie came out. (The name “Steven Spielberg” never appears, and the only person mentioned from the film side is producer Richard Zanuck.) And while Jaws might seem like a genre unto itself, it has to be read in the context of seventies bestsellerdom, which was dominated by the likes of Wallace, Jacqueline Susann, and Harold Robbins, who spiced up every story with generous helpings of smut. You might even say that the movie version of Jaws, which spawned the modern blockbuster, marks a transitional moment in more ways than one: the only remotely erotic moment in the film is Susan Backlinie’s nude swim at the very beginning, followed by the unavoidable sexual overtones of the ensuing shark attack. Mass culture was moving into an era in which the adult obsessions of the seventies would give way to a fascination with hardware and special effects, calculated to appeal to a teenage male audience that would have found Ellen Brody’s midlife sexual awakening even less interesting than I did. The real love affair in the movie is between the audience and the shark, or, more precisely, between Spielberg’s camera and the shark’s elusive silhouette. Anything else would be superfluous.

As it happens, Jaws wasn’t the first major motion picture of that decade to shy away from sexual elements in the source material. Mario Puzo’s original novel of The Godfather goes on for page after page about Lucy Mancini, Sonny’s girlfriend, and in particular about an odd feature of her anatomy and its subsequent surgical correction. Francis Coppola found it about as weird as many readers undoubtedly did:

I started to read the book. I got only fifty pages into it. I thought, it’s a popular, sensational novel, pretty cheap stuff. I got to the part about the singer supposedly modeled on Frank Sinatra and the girl Sonny Corleone liked so much because her vagina was enormous—remember that stuff in the book? It never showed up in the movie. Anyway, I said, “My God, what is this—The Carpetbaggers? So I stopped reading and said, “Forget it.”

Not every movie from that era shied away from the sexual elements—The Exorcist sure as hell didn’t—but it’s hard not to see the pattern here. As audiences changed, books that were written in part with an eye to the movie rights began to tone down the sex, then cut it altogether, knowing that it was unlikely to survive the adaptation anyway. Readers didn’t seem to miss it, either. And while I’d say that it was no great loss, I also wish that we had books and movies large enough to accommodate good sex in fiction, when necessary, along with more innocent thrills. Pop culture is a ship in which we’re all traveling together, and to get the range of stories we deserve, we’re going to need a bigger boat.

The second system effect

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Why are second novels or movies so consistently underwhelming? Even if you account for sticky variables like heightened pressure, compressed turnaround time, and unrealistic expectations, the track record for works of art from Thirteen Moons to The Postman suggests that the sophomore slump is real. For the economist Daniel Kahneman, writing in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s a case of regression to the mean: any artistic breakthrough is by definition an outlier, since only exceptional efforts survive to come to light at all, and the next attempt reverts back to the artist’s natural level of ability. There’s also a sense in which a massive triumph removes many of the constraints that allowed for good work in the first place. By now, it’s a cliché to note that the late installments in a popular series, from Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire, feel like they haven’t been edited. And it’s certainly true that authors who have sold a million copies have greater leverage when it comes to pushing against—or outright ignoring—editorial notes, if they even receive them at all. Editors are as human as anyone else, and since commercial success is such a crapshoot, you can’t blame them for not wanting to get in the way of a good thing. It didn’t hurt Rowling or Martin, but in the case of, say, the later novels of Thomas Harris, you could make a case that a little more editorial control might have been nice for everyone involved.

Yet there’s also a third, even more plausible explanation, which I recently encountered in The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., the seminal work on software engineering that provided my quote of the day. Writing about what he calls “the second system effect,” Brooks notes:

An architect’s first work is apt to be spare and clean. He knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he does it carefully and with great restraint.

As he designs the first work, frill after frill and embellishment after embellishment occur to him. These get stored away to be used “next time.” Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.

The second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs. When he does his third and later ones, his prior experiences will confirm each other as to the general characteristics of such systems, and their differences will identify those parts of his experience that are particular are not generalizable.

Francis Ford Coppola

Brooks concludes: “The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one.” And it’s startling how well this statement describes so many sophomore efforts in film and literature. It’s the difference between Easy Rider and The Last Movie, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Kafka, Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, in which a spare, disciplined first work is succeeded by a movie that contains everything up to and including the kitchen sink. In your initial attempt at any kind of storytelling, you find that the natural arc of the project tends toward removal and subtraction: you cut, pare back, and streamline, either because of your natural caution or because you don’t have the resources you need, and although each edit is necessary, it carries a charge of regret. A decrease in constraints in the second project only add fuel to an artist’s natural tendency to overindulge. And while the result may be a likable mess—a lot of us prefer Mallrats to Clerks—it rarely exhibits the qualities that first drew us to an artist’s work. (Even in movies made by committee, there’s an assumption that viewers want a bigger, louder, and busier version of what worked the first time around, which leads to so much of the bloat that we find in blockbuster sequels.)

So what’s an artist to do? Brooks has some advice that everyone trying to follow up an initial effort should keep in mind:

How does the architect avoid the second-system effect? Well, obviously he can’t skip his second system. But he can be conscious of the peculiar hazards of that system, and exert extra self-discipline to avoid functional ornamentation and to avoid extrapolation of functions that are obviated by changes in assumptions and purposes.

Translated into artistic terms, this means nothing more or less than treating a second attempt as exactly as hazardous as it really is. If anything, the track record of sophomore efforts should make writers even more aware of those risks, and even more relentless about asking the hard questions after a big success has made it possible to ignore them. When Francis Ford Coppola followed The Godfather with The Conversation, it was both a regathering and an act of discipline—in a movie largely about craft and constraints—that enabled the grand gestures to come. Coppola certainly wasn’t beyond insane acts of overreaching, but in this case, his instincts were sound. And I have a feeling that a lot of writers and filmmakers, in retrospect, wish that they could have skipped their second system and gone straight to their third.

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2015 at 10:25 am

The second time around

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Lolita

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 topic: “What’s something you wish could be remade or redone but is maybe too iconic or otherwise singular for anyone to actually take on the risk?”

When you look at a chronological list of any artist’s works, the first item can be both less and more than meets the eye. A first novel or movie—to take just two art forms—is always biographically interesting, but it’s also subject to particular pressures that can limit how well it expresses the creator’s personality. It’s the product of comparative youth, so it often suffers from rawness and inexperience, and it enters the world under unfavorable circumstances. For an unproven quantity from an unknown name, the tension between personal expression and the realities of the marketplace can seem especially stark. An aspiring novelist may write a book he hopes he can sell; a filmmaker usually starts with a small project that has a chance at being financed; and both may be drawn to genres that have traditionally been open to new talent. Hence the many directors who got their start in horror, exploitation, and even borderline porn. Francis Ford Coppola’s apprenticeship is a case in point. Before Dementia 13, which he made under the auspices of Roger Corman, he’d directed skin flicks like Tonight for Sure and The Bellboy and the Playgirls, and it took years of kicking around before he landed on The Godfather, which I’m sure he, and the rest of us, would prefer to see as his real debut.

Any early work, then, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. (This doesn’t even account for the fact that what looks like a debut may turn out that way almost by accident. The Icon Thief wasn’t the first novel I attempted or even finished, but it was the first one published, and it set a pattern for my career that I didn’t entirely anticipate.) But there’s also a real sense that an artist’s freshman efforts may be the most characteristic works he or she will ever produce. When you’re writing a novel or making a movie for the first time, you aren’t necessarily thinking in terms of a filmography that will stretch over fifty years: it seems like enough of a miracle to get this one story out into the world. As a result, if you’re at all rational, you’ll invest that effort into something that matters to you. This could be your only shot, so you may as well spend it on an idea that counts. Later, as you grow older, you often move past those early interests and obsessions, but they’ll always carry an emotional charge that isn’t there in the works you tackled in your maturity, or after you had all the resources you needed. And when you look back, you may find yourself haunted by the divide between your ambitions and the means—internal and otherwise—available to you at the time.

The Fury

That’s why I’m always a little surprised that more artists don’t go back to revisit their own early work with an eye to doing a better job. Sometimes, of course, the last thing you want is to return to an old project: doing it even once can be enough to drain you of all enthusiasm. But it happens. In fiction, the revised versions of novels like The Magus, The Sot-Weed Factor, and The Stand represent a writer’s attempt to get it right the second time. You could see the television version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Joss Whedon’s remake of his own original screenplay in the form that it deserved. In film, directors as different as Ozu, DeMille, Hitchcock, and Haneke have gone back to redo their earlier work with bigger stars, larger budgets, or simply a more sophisticated sense of what the story could be. (My own favorite example is probably Evil Dead 2, which is less a sequel than a remake in a style closer to Sam Raimi’s intentions.) And of course, the director’s cut, which has turned into a gimmick to sell movies on video or to restore deleted scenes that should have remained unseen, began as a way for filmmakers to make another pass on the same material. Close Encounters, Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, and Ashes of Time have all been revised, and even if you prefer the older versions, it’s always fascinating to see a director rethink the choices he initially made.

That said, this impulse has its dark side: George Lucas has every right to tinker with the Star Wars movies, but not to withdraw the originals from circulation. But it’s an idea that deserves to happen more often. Hollywood loves remakes, but they’d be infinitely more interesting if they represented the original director’s renewed engagement with his own material. I’d love to have seen Kubrick—rather than Adrian Lyne—revisit Lolita in a more permissive decade, for instance, and to take a modern example almost at random, I’d much rather see Brian DePalma go back to one of his earlier flawed movies, like The Fury or even Dressed to Kill, rather than try to recapture the same magic with diminishing returns. And the prospect of David Fincher doing an Alien movie now would be considerably more enticing than what he actually managed to do with it twenty years ago. (On a somewhat different level, I’ve always thought that The X-Files, which strained repeatedly to find new stories in its later years, should have gone back to remake some of its more forgettable episodes from the first season with better visual effects and a fresh approach.) Most artists, obviously, prefer to strike out in new directions, and such projects would carry the implication that they were only repeating themselves. But if the movies are going to repeat old ideas anyway, they might as well let their creators take another shot.

A local habitation and a name

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A page from the author's notebook

If there’s one piece of advice that every writer receives, it’s that he or she should keep a notebook. Yet like all useful admonitions, from “Write what you know” to “Less is more,” this one has a way of being fetishized to a point where we lose sight of its true rationale. Notebooks, of course, can be attractive objects in themselves: I love browsing through collections of people’s journals, whether they belong to scientists (Field Notes in Science in Nature) or visual artists (An Illustrated Life). But they’re primarily a tool. And their value goes far beyond the basic premise that we’re likely to forget our ideas if we don’t write them down. If we’re worried about not remembering something, there are all kinds of ways to jot down a moment of inspiration: we can send an email to ourselves, or make a voice recording, or use one of the many convenient apps for taking notes on our phones. These are all excellent solutions to the problem of retaining a single flash of insight. But they can’t replace a journal on paper, which is less about preserving a specific idea than about affording it a physical location over time where it can sit, grow, and evolve.

I got to thinking about journals as locations—or as places where ideas can take up residence for the long term—while reading the poet Stephen Spender’s reflections on the subject. In his essay “The Making of a Poem,” he writes:

My mind is not clear, my will is weak, I suffer from an excess of ideas and a weak sense of form. For every poem that I begin to write, I think of at least ten which I do not write down at all. For every poem which I do write down, there are seven or eight which I never complete.

The method which I adopt therefore is to write down as many ideas as possible, in however rough a form, in notebooks (I have at least twenty of these, on a shelf beside my desk, going back over fifteen years). I then make use of some of the sketches and discard others…Each idea, when it first occurs, is given a number. Sometimes the ideas do not get beyond one line.

Two things strike me about Spender’s approach: 1) He numbers each idea—that is, he’s deliberate about keeping them organized. 2) The journal gives each line the space and time it needs to develop. As he puts it: “The work on a line of poetry may take the form of putting a version aside for a few days, weeks, or years, and then taking it up again, when it may be found that the line has, in the interval of time, almost rewritten itself.”

Notebook page for "The Voices"

And if we acknowledge that this kind of growth over time is important, we see how essential it is to give it a specific place in the world to occupy, on the written page, as well as to develop some method for keeping those pages straight. (Even if you don’t number them, as Spender does, you should at least put the date at the top of each page before you start to write, as Francis Coppola advises.) That’s the real function of a journal: not just to lock down that initial brainstorm, which could be done in any number of ways, but to provide it with a permanent residence, a kind of forwarding address to which later insights can be sent. In addition to the countless index cards and scraps of paper that collect around any writing project, I’ve learned to devote one full page to each story idea in a hardbound notebook. That way, whenever I get a new idea that builds on the first, I have somewhere to put it. In theory, I could do this in some digital format, but pen and paper remain unsurpassed. If nothing else, they provide a lasting record of the steps along the way, which can be a source of information in itself: you can figure out where you’re going by going back to see where you’ve been. And a journal keeps everything in one place.

In The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander notes that placing even a single dot on a piece of paper charges the surface with meaning:

The space changes throughout the sheet of paper (and not only where the dot is), vectors are created, differentiations reaching far beyond the dot itself occur within the space. As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

That’s true of words as much as dots, and as soon as you’ve written down a sentence, a journal page becomes a concrete process in time. We see a hint of this in the most famous evocation of the poetic act in literature, the speech of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Reading these lines over again, I’m struck in particular by how Shakespeare emphasizes the poet’s pen as an indispensable next step in giving shape to that “airy nothing.” Shakespeare was a seer and an artist, but he worked on paper. And whenever possible, so should we.

Like cats and dogs

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George Lucas and Indiana

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 fictional pet would you most like to own?”

If there’s a universal rule among screenwriters, it’s that if you kill a dog, you lose the audience. I’m not talking about stories that hinge on the death of a beloved pet: Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows may break our hearts, but we’ll accept it if it’s the event around which the entire narrative turns, and we’ll probably remember it forever. But you need to be careful when it comes to treating the death of a dog as just another plot point. Filmmakers from Michael Bay to Beau Willimon—who famously offed a dog in the first scene of House of Cards—have noted that viewers who can absorb the deaths of countless human characters without blinking will turn against the story the instant a dog is killed. In his commentary track with Christopher McQuarrie on The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer notes that you see a dog for roughly three seconds on the ship that explodes at the movie’s climax, and after the preview screenings, someone invariably asked: “Did the dog die?” And Barbet Schroeder observes: “You know, if a filmmaker has a dog killed in a film, it will be felt ten times more by the audience than if you kill a human being…I had to kill a dog in Single White Female and I had so many problems.”

And it isn’t just dogs, either. Animals of all kinds evoke a curious kind of sympathy in the audience, and it’s especially hard to turn one into a villain. (This applies, at least, to mammals: we seem to have no trouble accepting a cold-blooded creature as a remorseless killing machine.) In his commentary for The Return of the King, Peter Jackson says that he had endless trouble with the mumakil, the massive elephantine creatures that attack Minas Tirith. Viewers, he found, were more likely to feel sorry for them, so he cut most of the shots of mumakil being pierced by arrows, keeping only the one that Legolas takes down singlehanded. I’d also bet that a lot of moviegoers remember the dog that gets killed—and not without reason—in No Country for Old Men more vividly than most of that film’s other victims. And its inverse, in which a character shows exceptional kindness to animals, is sometimes a strategy of its own. Will Graham on Hannibal can be a glum, inaccessible hero, but he’s redeemed to large extent by the love he shows to his dogs, and lazier movies and television shows often use the protagonist’s pets as a narrative shorthand for his likability. It’s no accident that the most influential book on screenwriting ever written is called Save the Cat!

Marlon Brando in The Godfather

Dogs have played a surprisingly large role in the history of cinema. These days, Lassie may have been reduced to little more than a corporate spokesdog, but Rin Tin Tin, as Susan Orlean reminds us, was once the most popular star in Hollywood—there’s a longstanding rumor that he won the first Oscar vote for Best Actor, only to have the award overruled. And we all owe a great deal to a dog named Indiana: George Lucas’s Alaskan malamute is responsible for no fewer than two iconic movie characters, since the image of Chewbacca as copilot on the Millennium Falcon was inspired by his memories of driving around with his dog in the front seat. Occasionally, dogs will be treated to cameos, like Michael Powell’s two cocker spaniels, Erik and Spangle, who pop up in Contraband, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going!, and A Matter of Life and Death. And screenwriters, in particular, love their dogs, perhaps because life has taught them to bitterly distrust everybody else. When Robert Towne was fired from Greystoke, he gave the writing credit to his sheepdog, P.H. Vazak, who subsequently became the first dog to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

If dogs are a more common sight in movies than cats, it’s because they’re a director’s idea of the perfect actor: they hit their marks, act on command, and can be relied upon to listen to instructions. Cats refuse to be trained, and the only real strategy the movies have ever developed, short of tossing a cat into the frame for the sake of a jump scare, has been to film the cat for hours in hopes that it does something interesting, as George Stevens did in The Diary of Anne Frank. The most iconic cat in movies is probably the one Don Corleone cradles in The Godfather, and even that was something of an accident—Coppola simply saw the cat wandering around the studio that day and thrust it impulsively into Brando’s hands. And my favorite cinematic cat, the one that appears in Saul Bass’s incredible opening titles for Walk on the Wild Side, gives a nuanced performance that was essentially created in the editing room. (Digital effects, of course, have made the whole business somewhat easier, and the news that Kevin Spacey has just been cast as a talking cat in an upcoming movie fills me with an odd kind of delight.) Dogs simply exist to love and be loved, while cats, like audiences, are more fickle in their affections. And if filmmakers generally avoid them, it’s probably because making a movie is enough like herding cats already.

Francis Ford Coppola on keeping good notes

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Francis Ford Coppola

The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes.

Francis Ford Coppola, in an interview with The 99 Percent

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2014 at 9:00 am

“The greatest and most terrible sight…”

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"Feeling the ground shake..."

Note: This post is the forty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 45. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the dangers of writing any kind of fiction, literary or mainstream, is how quickly the story can start to exist within a closed circle of assumptions. The rules of a genre aren’t a bad thing: as I’ve noted elsewhere, they’re essentially a collection of best practices, tricks and techniques that have accumulated over time through the efforts of countless writers. A trick that survives is one that has repeatedly proven itself, and much of the pleasure of reading comes from watching as the author honors, subverts, or pushes against the constraints that the narrative imposes. The trouble is when a story moves so far from the real world that its characters cease to exhibit recognizable human behavior, as its internal rules become ever more strict and artificial. A show like The Vampire Diaries, for instance, takes a surprisingly casual approach to murder, with the average episode boasting a body count in the high single digits, and the reaction to each additional death amounts to a shrug and a search for a shovel. Within the confines of the show, it works, but the second we start to measure it against any kind of reality, it comes precariously close to collapsing.

That’s true of literary fiction as well. Even great authors operate within limits when it comes to the kinds of situations and characters they can comfortably depict. In Genius and Lust, Norman Mailer draws a memorable comparison between the tonal ranges of Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller:

The cruelest criticism ever delivered of Henry James is that he had a style so hermetic his pen would have been paralyzed if one of his characters had ever entered a town house, removed his hat, and found crap on his head (a matter, parenthetically, of small moment to Tolstoy let us say, or Dostoyevsky or Stendhal). Hemingway would have been bothered more than he liked. Miller would have loved it.

The more closely we read certain writers or genres, the more we see how much they stick to their particular circles. Sometimes that circle is determined by what the author can talk about through firsthand experience; sometimes it’s the result of a genre enforcing an unstated decorum, a set of rules about what can and can’t be said.

"The greatest and most terrible sight..."

When it comes to suspense and mystery fiction, these rules can lead to a suspension of emotion, at least of certain kinds. A murder mystery never shows much regret over the fate of the departed; it’s too busy moving on to a trail of clues to waste any time in mourning. Suspense works along similar lines. Sometimes a pivotal death will serve to motivate an ensuing course of action, but along the way, the bodies tend to pile up without much in the way of consequence. I wouldn’t say that my own novels take this as far as The Vampire Diaries, but when I look back on The Icon Thief and its sequels, there are times when I get a little uneasy with the way in which the plot advances on moments of casual violence. (On a much higher level, you can hear some of the same ambivalence in Francis Coppola’s voice when he talks about The Godfather, and by the time he gets to The Godfather Part III, he seems outright weary at having to supply the hits and kills that the audience has come to expect.) There’s a mechanical pleasure to be had in seeing a story run fluently through those conventions, but when you step briefly outside, you start to see how limited a picture of the world it really presents.

That’s why I’m particularly proud of Chapter 45 of City of Exiles. It’s a short chapter, as short, in fact, as I could make it, and my agent even suggested that it be cut. I’m glad I kept it, though, because it represents one of the few points in the entire series when we pull away from the primary characters and depict an event from an outside perspective. In it, I introduce a character named Ivan, fishing on the ice with his dog, who happens to witness the crash of Chigorin’s private plane. In some ways, my decision to cut away here was a pragmatic one: none of the passengers is in any condition to directly experience what happens, and there’s a world of difference, in any case, between describing a plane crash from the inside and showing how it appears on the ground. On a more subtle level, I wanted to depart from the closed circle of the novel to reinforce the horror of the moment, even if it’s described as clinically as everything else. Objectively speaking, City of Exiles is a violent book, and there are times when the faces of the victims start to blur together. Here, for once, I wanted to suggest how it would feel to a man who didn’t know he was part of the story. Ivan won’t be coming back again, but it was important, if only for a moment, to see through his eyes…

Birds of a feather

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Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage

A while back, for the book Inventory by The A.V. Club, the director Paul Thomas Anderson shared his list of “Two movies that without fail or question will make me stop dead in my tracks and watch them all the way to the very end, no matter what else is happening or needs to get done.” The films were The Birdcage and The Shining. His second choice probably won’t raise many eyebrows—The Shining‘s fingerprints are all over his work, particularly There Will Be Blood—but the first one might give us pause. Yet when I watched it over the weekend, I had no trouble seeing why Anderson finds it so appealing. There’s the astonishing opening shot, for instance, which zooms across the waters of South Beach and continues in an unbroken movement into the club where Robin Williams is greeting patrons and overseeing his floor show of drag queens. Among other things, it’s impossible not to see it as an influence on the opening tracking shot of Boogie Nights, which would come out the following year. (The cinematographer here, incidentally, was Emmanuel Lubezki, who would go on to do spectacular work for the likes of Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón and win an Oscar for his indispensable contributions to Gravity.)

After almost twenty years, it’s fair to say that The Birdcage holds up as an unexpectedly rich, sophisticated slice of filmmaking. Like many of Anderson’s own films, it has a deep bench of supporting players anchored by a generous lead performance: I felt like watching it primarily as a reminder of how good Robin Williams could be with the right direction and material, and what stands out the most is his willingness to dial down his natural showiness to highlight the more flamboyant performances taking place on all sides. He’s essentially playing the straight man—well, sort of—to Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria, but his restrained energy and intelligence give all the actors around him an additional kick. Not surprisingly, for a movie directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Elaine May, it’s often subversively clever, like a Woody Allen film disguised as a studio crowdpleaser. Lane’s very first line is a reference to The Red Shoes, and the film is packed with nods to gay culture, like the way Lane’s show begins with the opening notes of “The Man Who Got Away,” a la Judy at Carnegie Hall, that probably went over the heads of much of its audience. But I don’t think even I would have watched it nearly as attentively or affectionately without the clue from Anderson.

Paul Thomas Anderson

And Anderson clearly knew what he was doing. Whenever you’re asked to provide a list of your favorite movies or other works of art, there are several competing impulses at play: you’re torn between providing a list of major milestones, the films that speak to you personally, or simply the ones that you enjoy the most. There’s also an awareness that a surprising choice can be notable in its own right. After composing his final list for the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies of all time, Roger Ebert wrote:

Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose [The Tree of Life] is my propaganda title.

Whether or not Anderson was thinking explicitly in these terms, there’s no question in my mind that he listed The Birdcage so prominently as a way of highlighting it in the reader’s mind. This is a great movie, he seems to be saying, that you may not have sufficiently appreciated, and listing it here without comment does more to lock it in the memory than any number of words of critical analysis.

That’s the real pleasure—and value—of lists like this, which otherwise can start to seem like pointless parlor games. We don’t learn much from the debates over whether Vertigo really deserves to be ranked above Citizen Kane, but it can be enlightening to discover that Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films include titles like “The Bad News Bears,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Rolling Thunder,” and “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” (Going through the Sight and Sound lists of great directors is like a miniature education in itself: after seeing that both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola named Andrej Wadja’s Ashes and Diamonds in their top ten, there’s no way that I can’t not see this movie.) Once we’ve worked our way through the established canon, as determined by a sober critical consensus, the next step ought to be seeking out the movies that people we admire have singled out for love, especially when they take us down unexplored byways. After watching one movie through Anderson’s eyes, I wish he’d tossed out a few more titles, but maybe it’s best that he left us with those two. And the next time The Birdcage comes up on television, it’ll stop me dead in my tracks.

The inheritance of loss

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

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 celebrity death will make you cry?”

A few days ago, writing about the late pianist Glenn Gould, I expressed sadness that we won’t be able to listen to his third, hypothetical version of The Goldberg Variations, and wrote: “Although we’ll never hear it for yourselves, we can dream about it.” Of course, there’s no guarantee that Gould would have revisited his most famous work again, even if he were still alive, while the real tragedy of a death like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman is that we know exactly what we’ve lost. Hoffman was a productive actor at the top of his game, a year younger than Brando was when he made Last Tango in Paris, and there’s no question that we’ve been deprived of another thirty years of great performances. One of the sad wonders of cinema is how it forces us to confront how we all age, and Hoffman, who was utterly without vanity as a performer, might have left us a lasting essay on what it means for an actor of limitless resourcefulness to grow old on camera. As it is, we’ll never know, although we can glimpse it in the accelerated lifetime he lives in Synedoche, New York, a great movie that I’m not sure I can ever watch again.

When an artist we love and admire dies, we tend to experience one of two responses. In some cases, as with Hoffman or Heath Ledger, it’s a sense of loss at the realization of all we’re going to miss. At other times, when death arrives at the end of a long, productive career, it feels more like losing a friend or mentor we thought we’d have around forever. That’s why our strongest emotional responses tend to come with the death of someone whose work has quietly become part of the fabric of our lives, measured out in small regular increments, as in television or in a daily newspaper, rather than one who produced a handful of towering works. When I was growing up, I once found myself deeply sad in advance at the thought that Chuck Jones would die, more than fifteen years before he actually passed away, and the short list of public personalities whose deaths have affected me the most includes Charles Schulz and Roger Ebert. These may not have been the individuals who influenced my life the most—although my debts to Schulz and Ebert are incalculable—but over time, their faces and their work became part of who I was.

Francis Ford Coppola

Then there’s someone like Stanley Kubrick, who seems to unite all of the above. He was seventy when he died, and given the long stretches that elapsed between his later movies, it’s doubtful whether we would have gotten much more after Eyes Wide Shut, even if he had lived another decade. Yet it’s still shocking to see the prospect of additional masterpieces closed off by something as mundane as death. Directors can produce great work well into their seventies and beyond—just look at Altman and Kurosawa—so the loss of any major filmmaker feels premature. It’s sobering to realize that the number of new Scorsese or Spielberg films we’ll have a chance to see isn’t just finite, but can probably be counted on one hand, and that there will come a time when the ones we have are all we’re going to get. We’re lucky, at least, in the fact that the movies themselves will survive, which isn’t the case with other forms of art: I often wonder whether some of the thrill we get from live music or theater comes from the hint of mortality it carries, as we witness something that is happening right now and will never recur in quite the same way again.

But if individual movies can last forever, life itself can’t, and it’s in the passing away of an artist’s personality and possibility that we lose the most. So although there are many other worthy candidates—and I almost went with David Lynch—the person whose absence I suspect will hit me the hardest is one that takes even me by surprise: Francis Ford Coppola. It isn’t a matter of wanting him to direct another great film, since I haven’t even seen Youth Without Youth, Tetro, or Twixt, and there’s no question that his best years are behind him. Yet when Coppola is gone, it’s going to feel like the end of an era, with the departure of the one man who, more than anyone since Orson Welles, exemplifies the triumph and tragedy of a life in film. When he’s gone, I’ll remember him less for any one movie than for his commentary tracks, which are among the best I know, with the intimate, candid, generous fireside chats they afford with our Uncle Francis. It’s a voice filled with wisdom and regret, and it hints at the happiness that might still be found in wine, family, and good food after the fever of Hollywood has been left behind. And part of me hopes that he’ll live forever, like Tom Bombadil in Napa, ready to gently remind us of things we might prefer to forget.

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2014 at 9:19 am

Crashing the great movie parties

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Casablanca

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 party do you wish you’d been invited to?”

Watching a good movie for the first time is a little like walking into a party where you don’t know any of the guests: you’re hoping to enjoy yourself, but you’re also on the lookout, keeping an eye open for hints of behavior or bits of conversation that will tell you who exactly these people are. Films are frequently about first meetings, but equally often, you’re dropped into a story that has been going on long before your arrival, with its own dynamics, history, and unspoken assumptions. Mediocre films spend a lot of time on laborious introductions, while the best movies just burn the first reel, drop us into the action, and trust us to figure things out on the fly. Perhaps that’s why so many movies begin with memorable party scenes: it’s a situation that we recognize at a glance, loaded with opportunities for interactions and small moments of character revelation, and we’ve been trained in real life to regard a scene like this with a certain kind of attention. And a party in a movie has the great advantage that we can go anywhere, invisibly, and pick up information as needed. (It’s also rarely necessary for us to shout above the music, even in the loudest bars or clubs.)

I’ve written elsewhere about how the opening wedding scene of The Godfather strikes me as the perfect illustration of how character is best revealed through a series of clear, immediate objectives. We’re introduced in the course of half an hour or so to a dozen important players, and nearly all of them have something that they want, ranging from Bonasera’s desire for vengeance to Luca Brasi’s need to make a good impression on the Don. Without those clear snapshots of motivation—not to mention the ravishing editing and Coppola’s great eye for distinctive faces—the characters would quickly blur together, stranding us during the crucial opening act of the movie. The idea of starting at a wedding, which follows Puzo’s novel, is a masterstroke in itself: it gives characters of all generations and backgrounds an excuse to be in the same place, while setting up themes of family and loyalty that will pay off later on. Yet we’re never conscious of the fact that we’re being fed information; we’re simply immersed in the scene, which seems to unfold as organically as life. (Coppola clearly liked this trick, which he repeated in the next two Godfather films, although never with quite the same naturalness and grace.)

Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The Godfather

A movie is like a party in another way, too: after a few minutes, we generally have a good idea of whether or not we want to spend more time in the company of these characters. Like a real party, we’re usually willing to give it the benefit of the doubt at first, but there occasionally comes a time when it seems easier to leave than to stick around. (As the legendary theater owner Oscar Brotman put it: “If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.”) And some of the best movies are those in which we’d be happy to hang out with the characters regardless of the plot, which is how I feel about films as different as The Red Shoes, Chungking Express, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In some cases, entire franchises, like the Ocean’s series, are spun out of an audience’s perceived desire to pick up on the vibes given off by a handful of cool characters, but it’s even more powerful when it happens by accident. And the best case of all is when a film moves smoothly from one plot point to the next, keeping the story in motion, while also tantalizing you with enough life and color to make you wonder what might be happening beyond the edge of the frame.

That’s why, if I had to pick one cinematic party to crash, it would be a night at Rick’s Place in Casablanca. (I know this isn’t technically a party, but it’s more than close enough, especially when the audience sings along with Sam to “Knock on Wood.”) I don’t think any movie comes close to the first thirty minutes of Casablanca at immersing us at once in its world, really nothing more than a series of sets on the Warner Bros. backlot, with every table containing its own miniature scene of negotiation, deception, or intrigue. It’s so masterful an exercise in exposition that by the time Henreid and Bergman—or two of three of the movie’s ostensible leads—make an entrance, it feels like a bonus: between Bogart, Rains, Lorre, Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, we’re already at a party in which we feel we could happily spend the rest of our lives. Not everyone agrees, of course, as the man at the bar would be quick to remind us: “Waiting, waiting, waiting. I’ll never get out of here. I’ll die in Casablanca.” That’s one of the great hidden ironies of the richest of all Hollywood movies: a city that most of the characters desperately want to leave has become a place, or a party, that we only want to revisit.

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2014 at 9:38 am

Luca Brasi flubs his lines, or the joy of happy accidents

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Marlon Brando and Lenny Montana in The Godfather

During the troubled filming of The Godfather, Lenny Montana, the actor who played the enforcer Luca Brasi, kept blowing his lines. During his big speech with Don Corleone at the wedding—”And may their first child be a masculine child”—Montana, anxious about working with Brando for the first time, began to speak, hesitated, then started over again. It was a blown take, but Coppola liked the effect, which seemed to capture some of the character’s own nervousness. Instead of throwing the shot away, he kept it, and he simply inserted a new scene showing Brasi rehearsing his words just before the meeting. It was a happy accident of the sort that you’ll often find in the work of a director like Coppola, who is more open than most, almost to a fault, to the discoveries that can be made on the set. (A more dramatic example is the moment early in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen punches and breaks the mirror in his hotel room, which wasn’t scripted—Sheen cut up his hand pretty badly. And for more instances of how mischance can be incorporated into a film, please see this recent article by Mike D’Angelo of The A.V. Club, as well as the excellent comments, which inspired this post.)

You sometimes see these kinds of happy accidents in print as well, but they’re much less common. One example is this famous story of James Joyce, as told by Richard Ellimann:

Once or twice he dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in?’” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.”

Similarly, a chance misprint inspired W.H. Auden to change his line “The poets have names for the sea” to “The ports have names for the sea.” And it’s widely believed that one of the most famous lines in all of English poetry, “Brightness falls from the air,” was also the result of a typo: Nashe may have really written “Brightness falls from the hair,” which makes more sense in context, but is much less evocative.

Lenny Montana in The Godfather

Still, it isn’t hard to see why such accidents are more common in film than in print. A novelist or poet can always cross out a line or delete a mistyped word, but filmmaker is uniquely forced to live with every flubbed take or reading: once you’ve started shooting, there’s no going back, and particularly in the days before digital video, a permanent record exists of each mistake. As a result, you’re more inclined to think hard about whether or not you can use what you have, or if the error will require another costly camera setup. In some ways, all of film amounts to this kind of compromise. You never get quite the footage you want: no matter how carefully you’ve planned the shoot, when the time comes to edit, you’ll find that the actors are standing in the wrong place for one shot to cut cleanly to the next, or that you’re missing a crucial closeup that would clarify the meaning of the scene. It’s part of the craft of good directors—and editors—to cobble together something resembling their original intentions from material that always falls short. Every shot in a movie, in a sense, is a happy accident, and the examples I’ve mentioned above are only the most striking examples of a principle that governs the entire filmmaking process.

And it’s worth thinking about the ways in which artists in other media can learn to expose themselves to such forced serendipity. (I haven’t even mentioned the role it plays in such arts as painting, in which each decision starts to feel similarly irrevocable, at least once you’ve started to apply paint to canvas.) One approach, which I’ve tried in the planning stages of my own work, is to work in as permanent a form as possible: pen on paper, rather than pencil or computer, which means that every wrong turn or mistaken impulse lingers on after you’ve written it. A typewriter, I suspect, might play the same role, and I have a feeling that writers of a previous generation occasionally shaped their sentences to match a mistyped word, rather than going through the trouble of typing the page all over again. Writers are lucky: we have a set of tools of unmatched portability, flexibility, and privacy, and it means that we can deal with any errors at our leisure, at least until they see print. But with every gain, there’s also a loss: in particular, of the kind of intensity and focus that actors describe when real, expensive film is running through the camera. When so much is on the line, you’re more willing to find ways of working with what you’ve been given by chance. And that’s an attitude that every artist could use.

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2013 at 8:12 am

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