Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Francis Ford Coppola

“Are you still willing to play your part?”

leave a comment »

"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

with 8 comments

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

with 4 comments

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

with 2 comments

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

with one comment

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

with one comment

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

leave a comment »

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.

%d bloggers like this: