Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gone With the Wind

The last tango

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Bernardo Bertoclucci, Marlon Brando, and Maria Schneider on the set of Last Tango in Paris

When I look back at many of my favorite movies, I’m troubled by a common thread that they share. It’s the theme of the control of a vulnerable woman by a man in a position of power. The Red Shoes, my favorite film of all time, is about artistic control, while Blue Velvet, my second favorite, is about sexual domination. Even Citizen Kane has that curious subplot about Kane’s attempt to turn Susan into an opera star, which may have originated as an unkind reference to William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, but which survives in the final version as an emblem of Kane’s need to collect human beings like playthings. It’s also hard to avoid the feeling that some of these stories secretly mirror the relationship between the director and his actresses on the set. Vertigo, of course, can be read as an allegory for Hitchcock’s own obsession with his leading ladies, whom he groomed and remade as meticulously as Scotty attempts to do with Madeline. In The Shining, Jack’s abuse of Wendy feels only slightly more extreme than what we know Kubrick—who even resembles Jack a bit in the archival footage that survives—imposed on Shelley Duvall. (Duvall’s mental health issues have cast a new pall on those accounts, and the involvement of Kubrick’s daughter Vivian has done nothing to clarify the situation.) And Roger Ebert famously hated Blue Velvet because he felt that David Lynch’s treatment of Isabella Rossellini had crossed an invisible moral line.

The movie that has been subjected to this kind of scrutiny most recently is Last Tango in Paris, after interview footage resurfaced of Bernardo Bertolucci discussing its already infamous rape scene. (Bertolucci originally made these comments three years ago, and the fact that they’ve drawn attention only now is revealing in itself—it was hiding in plain sight, but it had to wait until we were collectively prepared to talk about it.) Since the story first broke, there has been some disagreement over what Maria Schneider knew on the day of the shoot. You can read all about it here. But it seems undeniable that Bertolucci and Brando deliberately withheld crucial information about the scene from Schneider until the cameras were rolling. Even the least offensive version makes me sick to my stomach, all the more so because Last Tango in Paris has been an important movie to me for most of my life. In online discussions of the controversy, I’ve seen commenters dismissing the film as an overrated relic, a vanity project for Brando, or one of Pauline Kael’s misguided causes célèbres. If anything, though, this attitude lets us off the hook too easily. It’s much harder to admit that a film that genuinely moved audiences and changed lives might have been made under conditions that taint the result beyond retrieval. It’s a movie that has meant a lot to me, as it did to many other viewers, including some I knew personally. And I don’t think I can ever watch it again.

Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

But let’s not pretend that it ends there. It reflects a dynamic that has existed between directors and actresses since the beginning, and all too often, we’ve forgiven it, as long as it results in great movies. We write critical treatments of how Vertigo and Psycho masterfully explore Hitchcock’s ambivalence toward women, and we overlook the fact that he sexually assaulted Tippi Hedren. When we think of the chummy partnerships that existed between men like Cary Grant and Howard Hawks, or John Wayne and John Ford, and then compare them with how directors have regarded their female collaborators, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. (The great example here is Gone With the Wind: George Cukor, the original director, was fired because he made Clark Gable uncomfortable, and he was replaced by Gable’s buddy Victor Fleming. Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were forced to consult with Cukor in secret.) And there’s an unsettling assumption on the part of male directors that this is the only way to get a good performance from a woman. Bertolucci says that he and Brando were hoping to get Schneider’s raw reaction “as a girl, instead of as an actress.” You can see much the same impulse in Kubrick’s treatment of Duvall. Even Michael Powell, one of my idols, writes of how he and the other actors frightened Moira Shearer to the point of tears for the climactic scene of The Red Shoes—“This was no longer acting”—and says elsewhere: “I never let love interfere with business, or I would have made love to her. It would have improved her performance.”

So what’s a film buff to do? We can start by acknowledging that the problem exists, and that it continues to affect women in the movies, whether in the process of filmmaking itself or in the realities of survival in an industry that is still dominated by men. Sometimes it leads to abuse or worse. We can also honor the work of those directors, from Ozu to Almodóvar to Wong Kar-Wai, who have treated their actresses as partners in craft. Above all else, we can come to terms with the fact that sometimes even a masterpiece fails to make up for the choices that went into it. Thinking of Last Tango in Paris, I was reminded of Norman Mailer, who wrote one famous review of the movie and was linked to it in another. (Kael wrote: “On the screen, Brando is our genius as Mailer is our genius in literature.”) Years later, Mailer supported the release from prison of a man named Jack Henry Abbott, a gifted writer with whom he had corresponded at length. Six weeks later, Abbott stabbed a stranger to death. Afterward, Mailer infamously remarked:

I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.

But it isn’t—at least not like this. Last Tango in Paris is a masterpiece. It contains the single greatest male performance I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t worth it.

The intermission song

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Tom Courtenay in Doctor Zhivago

A few weeks ago, a user on Reddit posted a copy of the original projectionist’s instructions for Gone With the Wind. They make for a fascinating read, both because they reflect a level of care in a film’s presentation that you’re unlikely to find today at your average multiplex, and because they remind us of what it meant to treat a movie as a genuine event. Each screening opened with an overture, during which it was urged “that the house lights be gradually dimmed,” followed by a drum roll that signaled the parting of the curtains. And there was an intermission with four minutes of orchestral music, which in practice was often extended by theater owners by delaying the start of the next reel. Every aspect is a tribute to David O. Selznick’s obsessive attention to detail, and while its efforts to mimic the feel of a theatrical performance might seem artificial—in the way the earliest automobiles took their design cues from the horse and buggy—the impact on the audience is a real one. It extends the narrative from the screen into the space of the theater itself, and in the end, the physical experience of viewing the movie can’t be separated from the shape of the overall story.

Lately, intermissions have gone out of style. As far as I can remember, the last film I saw with an intermission on its original run was Titanic, and even that seems to have been on the exhibitor’s initiative—the movie simply stopped, unceremoniously, between two reels. At first, it isn’t hard to see why theater owners would prefer to show a movie straight through: they’re anxious to pack as many screenings into a single day as possible, and once a film approaches three hours, it can be hard to schedule more than one showing during the crucial evening hours. Yet as blockbusters continue to test that limit anyway, and as the majority of a theater’s profit is increasingly derived from concessions, you’d think that they’d welcome any additional excuse to sell soda and popcorn. In Look, I Made a Hat, Stephen Sondheim notes that theater owners on Broadway have taken the opposite stance:

It will probably not come as a surprise that theater owners abhor one-act shows. Without intermissions, what happens to the concession stands and bars, of which they have a significant percentage?

Projectionist's instructions for Gone With the Wind

Clearly, then, there comes a point when an intermission makes economic as well as aesthetic sense. But a real intermission is more than just a matter of arbitrarily pausing the movie halfway through: it calls for a thoughtful reconsideration of the structure of the story itself. Martin Sherman, author of Bent, refers to the intermission as “one of the great weapons that a playwright can use,” since it allows the tone of the play to change radically between the first and second acts. (Even when the tone remains pointedly the same, as in Waiting for Godot, the intermission—and its lack of forward motion in the meantime—creates its own set of expectations for the author to push against.) Similarly, an intermission in a movie can serve as a source of tension or narrative punctuation, creating a sense of two contrasting movements. David Lean, the master of the cinematic epic, understood this completely: Lawrence of Arabia goes from fun and games in the desert to a narrative of growing ambiguity and disillusionment, and I don’t think there’s ever been a greater act break in movies than the one we find in Doctor Zhivago, which follows the revelation of Strelnikov’s identity with a smash cut to the intermission title card.

None of this happens by accident, and a movie that earns the right to an intermission, aside from reasons of mere bladder capacity, has to be conceived as such from the beginning. Which is why there’s one place where intermissions seem likely to come back into style: in IMAX. With movies like Interstellar already reaching the limit of what a single platter of celluloid can hold, it isn’t farfetched to think that we’ll eventually see an epic of three hours or more that requires a break for a reel change. In this digital age, IMAX already feels like the last refuge of the dialogue between a movie and its physical medium, and it’s ripe for a rediscovery of the intermission as a tool for storytelling. (If nothing else, the kind of moviegoer willing to spend twenty dollars to see a blockbuster on the largest possible screen is probably more open to the idea of a movie as an event, rather than just as a way to kill a couple of hours.) A movie like The Fellowship of the Ring is dying for an intermission, and in practice, it has one: the extended Blu-ray—which is the way in which most viewers will experience it in the future—divides it across two discs, restoring it almost by accident to its ideal form. Which is just another case of the medium reminding us of something that we should have remembered all along.

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March 9, 2015 at 9:57 am

The weather men

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Elmore Leonard

“Never open a book with the weather,” Elmore Leonard said, and he was absolutely right. Still, the fact that he felt compelled to put this admonition at the top of his ten rules of writing testifies to the fact that there’s something about weather—and, more generally, the description of the environment in which a story takes place—that novice authors find irresistible. The weather, as we all know, is a classic topic for small talk because it affects all of us equally, and we can all be expected to take at least a passing interest in what kind of day it looks to be. Much the same impulse applies to describing the weather in fiction: it comes easily to mind when we’re sketching the outlines of a scene, it allows us to ease into the day’s work without much effort, and it feels, based on our memories of the other stories we’ve read, like the sort of thing that belongs somewhere at the beginning. But while it’s fine to use the weather or the landscape as an entry point into the story when you’re working on a first draft, in the rewrite, nearly all of it can be cut, especially when it occurs in a story or chapter’s crucial opening lines.

A description of the weather is a bad choice for the opening of a story for the same reason it comes so easily: it’s fundamentally impersonal. Unless the story is explicitly about man versus nature—and even then, you’re usually better off starting with the man—most good narratives center on human problems, and particularly on the choices made by the protagonist to meet a series of objectives. There’s nothing in the weather that applies specifically to any one individual: the rain falls on the just and the unjust, so you’re wasting valuable space with lines that convey no information to the reader. There’s a place, obviously, for atmosphere and scenic description, but it generally fits best at a point where the conflict and personalities have already been established. Like a television show that returns from a commercial break on a tight closeup of the lead, reserving the wide shot until after the scene is in motion, a good scenic description sets the stage only once the players have been introduced. As the beginning, it’s the literary equivalent of small talk; it may be superficially painless, and it gets you safely to the other side of the first paragraph, but it’s hard to expect any reader to really care.

Gone With the Wind

Of course, there are times when the weather can be an active player in the narrative, and not just when the characters are set against it like King Lear in the storm. If you’re a writer, like Updike or Nabokov, given to what James Wood calls “propaganda on behalf of good noticing,” the weather can be just another subject on which you can exercise your gifts for description, although you’d better be sure before you begin that the result will reward this test on the reader’s patience. More subtly, the description of a character’s surroundings can be used to evoke an inner state or mood. Sometimes this skirts dangerously to the pathetic fallacy, or the urge to attribute human emotion to impersonal forces of nature, but when embedded within a conventional first-person or limited third-person viewpoint, it makes perfect sense. When we’re absorbed in what we’re doing, we may not notice the weather at all; when we’re worried, nervous, or depressed, we naturally pick out aspects of our surroundings that remind us of our own feelings. When every detail is channeled through one character’s point of view, the sky can be a mirror of the self—although, again, this assumes that we’ve already been given a particular pair of eyes though which to see.

Even in narratives that are written more objectively, there’s room for description that grounds characters in environments that are secretly expressions of personality. The fantasy author Steve Rasnic Tem calls this dream characterization:

A particular theory of gestalt dream interpretation suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer. A chair, a table, a car, another human being—each would represent some aspect of the dreamer…We might say that all other objects in the story—the landscape, the other characters, the supernatural presence, even the individual events—represent some aspect of the protagonist…Each piece suggests or tells us something about our main character. Far more, I suspect, than a delineation of traits and opinions ever could.

And there’s no question that the environment of a scene can influence our impressions. There’s a famous story about David Selznick trying to decide what the weather should be in the final scene of Gone With the Wind, after Rhett delivers his last line to Scarlett. If Rhett had left on a pleasant evening, the audience might assume that he would return one day; or, if he walked off into the rain, that he would never come back. In the final version, he disappears into a dense fog, which neatly splits the difference. Even the weather, then, has its uses. But it needs to flow from character and situation, rather than being imposed from above, if the reader is going to give a damn.

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2014 at 9:46 am

“Why didn’t you put a red dress on her?”

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Gone With the Wind

I once ran into a very funny situation when Selznick, with great pride, showed me the big scene from Gone With the Wind. It was the scene with all the soldiers lying in the station yard and there was this high pull-back showing Vivien Leigh looking for her man. She was wearing a pale violet dress and you could hardly see her. I said, “David, why didn’t you put a red dress on her? When the camera finally reached the high point, all you would have seen was this little red dot.” That shook him. He had never thought of it. Ridiculous not to think of a thing like that. He missed the whole point of the scene entirely. And wouldn’t that have made some retake?

Alfred Hitchcock, in Murder Ink

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January 11, 2014 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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November 14, 2011 at 8:08 am

Fiction into film: The English Patient

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A few months ago, after greatly enjoying The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje’s delightful book-length interview with Walter Murch, I decided to read Ondaatje’s The English Patient for the first time. I went through it very slowly, only a handful of pages each day, in parallel with my own work on the sequel to The Icon Thief. Upon finishing it last week, I was deeply impressed, not just by the writing, which had drawn me to the book in the first place, but also by the novel’s structural ingenuity—derived, Ondaatje says, from a long process of rewriting and revision—and the richness of its research. This is one of the few novels where detailed historical background has been integrated seamlessly into the poetry of the story itself, and it reflects a real, uniquely novelistic curiosity about other times and places. It’s a great book.

Reading The English Patient also made me want to check out the movie, which I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, when I watched it as part of a special screening for a college course. I recalled admiring it, although in a rather detached way, and found that I didn’t remember much about the story, aside from a few moments and images (and the phrase “suprasternal notch”). But I sensed it would be worth revisiting, both because I’d just finished the book and because I’ve become deeply interested, over the past few years, in the career of editor Walter Murch. Murch is one of film’s last true polymaths, an enormously intelligent man who just happened to settle into editing and sound design, and The English Patient, for which he won two Oscars (including the first ever awarded for a digitally edited movie), is a landmark in his career. It was with a great deal of interest, then, that I watched the film again last night.

First, the good news. The adaptation, by director Anthony Minghella, is very intelligently done. It was probably impossible to film Ondaatje’s full story, with its impressionistic collage of lives and memories, in any kind of commercially viable way, so the decision was wisely made to focus on the central romantic episode, the doomed love affair between Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). Doing so involved inventing a lot of new, explicitly cinematic material, some satisfying (the car crash and sandstorm in the desert), some less so (Almásy’s melodramatic escape from the prison train). The film also makes the stakes more personal: the mission of Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) is less about simple fact-finding, as it was in the book, than about revenge. And the new ending, with Almásy silently asking Hana (Juliette Binoche) to end his life, gives the film a sense of resolution that the book deliberately lacks.

These changes, while extensive, are smartly done, and they respect the book while acknowledging its limitations as source material. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of Apocalypse Now, another milestone in Murch’s career, movies aren’t very good at conveying abstract ideas, but they’re great for showing us “the look of a battle, the expression on a face, the mood of a country.” On this level, The English Patient sustains comparison with the works of David Lean, with a greater interest in women, and remains, as David Thomson says, “one of the most deeply textured of films.” Murch’s work, in particular, is astonishing, and the level of craft on display here is very impressive.

Yet the pieces don’t quite come together. The novel’s tentative, intellectual nature, which the adaptation doesn’t try to match, infects the movie as well. It feels like an art film that has willed itself into being an epic romance, when in fact the great epic romances need to be a little vulgar—just look at Gone With the Wind. Doomed romances may obsess their participants in real life, but in fiction, seen from the outside, they can seem silly or absurd. The English Patient understands a great deal about the craft of the romantic epic, the genre in which it has chosen to plant itself, but nothing of its absurdity. In the end, it’s just too intelligent, too beautifully made, to move us on more than an abstract level. It’s a heroic effort; I just wish it were something a little more, or a lot less.

24 and art’s dubious morality

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Today the AV Club tackles an issue that is very close to my own heart: to what extent can we enjoy art that contradicts our own moral beliefs? The ensuing discussion spans a wide range of works, from Gone With the Wind to the films of Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson, but I’m most intrigued by an unspoken implication: that morally problematic works of art are often more interesting, and powerful, than those that merely confirm our existing points of view. When our moral convictions are challenged, it seems, it can yield the same sort of pleasurable dissonance that we get from works that subvert our aesthetic assumptions. The result can be great art, or at least great entertainment.

For me, the quintessential example is 24, a show that I loved for a long time, until it declined precipitously after the end of the fifth season. Before then, it was the best dramatic series on television, and its reactionary politics were inseparable from its appeal. Granted, the show’s politics were more about process than result—nearly every season ended with the exposure of a vast right-wing conspiracy, even if it was inevitably uncovered through massive violations of due process and civil rights—and it seems that the majority of the show’s writers and producers, aside from its creator, were politically liberal to moderate. Still, the question remains: how did they end up writing eight seasons’ worth of stories that routinely endorsed the use of torture?

The answer, I think, is that the writers were remaining true to the rules that the show had established: in a series where the American public is constantly in danger, and where the real-time structure of the show itself rules out the possibility of extended investigations—or even interrogations that last more than five minutes—it’s easier and more efficient to show your characters using torture to uncover information. The logic of torture on 24 wasn’t political, but dramatic. And while we might well debate the consequences of this portrayal on behavior in the real world, there’s no denying that it resulted in compelling television, at least for the first five seasons.

The lesson here, as problematic as it might seem, is that art needs to follow its own premises to their logical conclusion, even if the result takes us into dangerous places. (As Harold Bloom likes to point out, reading Shakespeare will not turn us into better citizens.) And this is merely the flip side of another crucial point, which is that works of art knowingly designed to endorse a particular philosophy are usually awful, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. At worst, such works are nothing but propaganda; and even at their best, they seem calculated and artificial, rather than honestly derived, however unwillingly, from the author’s own experience. As usual, John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, says it better than I can:

The question, to pose it one last way, is this: Can an argument manipulated from the start by the writer have the same emotional and intellectual power as an argument to which the writer is forced by his intuition of how life works? Comparisons are odious but instructive: Can a Gulliver’s Travels, however brilliantly executed, ever touch the hem of the garment of a play like King Lear? Or: Why is the Aeneid so markedly inferior to the Iliad?

In my own work, I’ve found that it’s often more productive to deliberately construct a story that contradicts my own beliefs and see where it leads me from there. My novelette “The Last Resort” (Analog, September 2009) is designed to imply sympathy, or even complicity, with ecoterrorism, which certainly goes against my own inclinations. And I’m in the middle of outlining a novel in which the main character is a doubting Mormon whose experiences, at least as I currently conceive the story, actually lead her to become more devout. This sort of thing is harder than writing stories that justify what I already believe, but that’s part of the point. In writing, if not in life, it’s often more useful to do things the hard way.

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