Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George Stevens

Cat got your tongue

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The Diary of Anne Frank

On Friday, I spent most of the morning trying to remember a cat. I wanted to write a blog post about animals in film, and I vaguely recalled an anecdote about a movie scene involving a cat that got its head caught in something. A box? A can? A mailing tube? I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that the sequence involved a single uninterrupted shot of a cat squeezing its head into and out of a tight space, and given the notorious difficulty of training cats to do anything on camera, it was all but impossible to figure out how it was done. But I couldn’t remember anything else. It couldn’t have been just a cute scene; it had to be tied into the plot, so there had to be an element of danger or suspense. Maybe there was a bomb in the box? Or it took place during a heist where the smallest sound would give the thief away? I tried searching for every combination I could imagine of the words “cat,” “head,” and “stuck,” and I even ended up studying a list of famous movie cats. No dice. And although I knew that the story, whatever it was, would only end up being a tiny part of the post I was writing, it seemed crucial to track it down, or it would bug me forever.

Yet there was something about that prolonged inventory of my mental archives that was oddly satisfying. These days, we’re used to having instant access to all human knowledge, as long as we know the right search terms, to the point where we’re likely to forget how profoundly strange it all is. As recently as a decade ago, when I wrote my senior thesis, the idea of being able to search the text of printed books to track down every last mention of a subject was unthinkable. Scholars had to either absorb a huge body of material or trust to indexes and luck. I spent hours browsing at random in the stacks at the Smyth Classical Library, and I vividly remember my advisor’s response when I came up with an obscure passage in Statius that gave me the exact bit of evidence my argument needed: “How did you find this?” I wasn’t entirely sure then, and I certainly don’t remember now. These days, it wouldn’t be impressive at all: it’s just a matter of typing in the right keywords. But there’s a loss here, too, and it has less to do with the moment of discovery than with the long process of preparation, consolidation, and patience that made it possible.

The Diary of Anne Frank

When it came to my cat story, I ended up reliving a condensed version of what like was like before Google, complete with a few false breakthroughs. (At one point, I exclaimed aloud: “Rififi!” But nope, that wasn’t it.) Ultimately, I finally remembered where I’d read the anecdote, and it came to me, appropriately enough, as I was doing the dishes: it was in David Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla, a book I read years ago and no longer own. In case you didn’t click through last week, here’s Mamet’s account of the scene, which occurs in George Stevens’s film of The Diary of Anne Frank:

[Otto] Frank retreats to the attic and all wait breathlessly, while the Nazis scout the house below. Now comes the cat. She pads along a kitchen ledge in the hidden attic, she puts her head into a funnel resting on the ledge, she pushes the funnel toward the edge. Now everyone in the world holds his or her breath. Now the funnel goes over the ledge. But wait, the cat’s head is still stuck in the funnel.

Should the funnel drop off, the Nazis will hear, and discover the hidden attic and kill all the inhabitants. But continue to wait—the cat now pulls its head, the funnel still on it, back onto the ledge, and now draws its head off. What a great sequence. But how did they do it?

Mamet goes through a bunch of possibilities—they filled the funnel with tuna fish and some glue, or used monofilament line, or magnets, or shot the scene backwards—only to conclude that none of his solutions make any sense. At last, he calls up George Stevens, Jr., who gives him the answer: the director “just turned on the cameras and shot an unbelievable amount of film, waiting for some cat to do something ‘uncatlike.'” It’s a great story. But it’s only interesting after you’ve followed Mamet through all his wrong turns: it wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if he had called up the director’s son at the start. And I feel the same way about my own little search. I misremembered almost everything. I certainly wasn’t thinking of a funnel, or Anne Frank, and when I finally got it, it was based on a hunch that the source was probably Mamet, to whom I owe many of my favorite stories about the movies. But the search was worth it in itself. It reminded me of Marlon Brando’s cat in The Godfather, and of the cat in Alien, and many others, and it gave me an excuse to stare at my library shelves and rack my brain for a while. And I liked it. Because as nice as it can be to have access to a universe of information, it’s good to be reminded that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Written by nevalalee

February 4, 2015 at 9:34 am

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.

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