Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘House of Cards

The limits of money

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Olga Kurylenko in Empires of the Deep

Over the last week, I’ve read two stories that shed an unexpected light on the role of money in the artistic process. The first was the excellent Vulture article about the business of peak television, which I’ve already discussed here in detail. It notes that unprecedented amounts of cash are being thrown at prestige television series, with the top one percent of stars benefiting disproportionately, while actors who once might have played leading roles in network procedurals are struggling to get the same parts. After a decade in which pundits constantly predicted the demise of scripted television under an onslaught of cheap reality shows, the industry has expanded to make room for more writers than ever before—which has led to a corresponding shortage of qualified line producers. But a spike in financial resources doesn’t always translate into good storytelling. The difference between the first and second seasons of True Detective is a reminder, if we needed one, that the exact same factors on paper can yield very different results in practice, if that vital spark is missing. And what we’re really seeing is less a golden age than a codification of a new set of conventions. “Prestige television,” like “literary fiction,” is a genre, not a measure of quality, and its usual characteristics include ten episodes per season, a streaming or cable platform, outstanding production values, and a white male antihero. It may not always be great television, but as long as it satisfies the executives investing in new programming, it doesn’t have to be.

The other article that caught my eye was “Sunk,” Mitch Moxley’s memorable account in The Atavist of the Chinese billionaire Jon Jiang’s doomed attempt to bring his dream movie project, Empires of the Deep, to fruition. It defies easy summary, but the short version is that Jiang wrote an original screenplay, originally called Mermaid Island, and enlisted a bewildering array of collaborators—including the French filmmaker Pitof and the starlet Olga Kurylenko—to make it happen, only to blow more than $100 million on a production that chewed up a revolving door of screenwriters and directors and has yet to produce any usable footage. (Of the many strange stories that the article relates, perhaps the weirdest involves Irene Violette, the actress cast as a mermaid who had to slip out a window in the dead of night to get out of her contract.) Many of the cast and crew seem to have consoled themselves with the idea that great movies can emerge from troubled shoots, and it’s heartbreaking to hear how director Jonathan Lawrence hoped to make this unholy mess into something like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the entire debacle hinges on what seems, at first, like a baffling paradox. Jiang had enormous financial resources to throw at the production, but he also cut corners, used cheap costumes and special effects, and never paid anyone on time. In spite of appearances, it’s possible that he invested very little of his own money in the film: a former production executive told Moxley that he believes that the billionaire relied mostly on outside investors, all of whom lost almost everything.

Colin Farrell on True Detective

But I think the real explanation is more nuanced than this, and it ties back to the uneasy relationship between money, media, and creative freedom. The case of Empires of the Deep is only an exaggerated version of the dilemma that arises whenever the writer of the script is also the head of the studio, or at least the man who holds the pursestrings: without a higher authority to keep his worst tendencies in check, you end up with a movie that films the first draft of the script and has no incentive to make it any better. The situation becomes even more dire when the mogul in question seems to have no idea of how the medium works. You’d think that Jiang, a real estate tycoon, would at least have some notion of how to turn a blueprint into something real, but he appears to have taken a very different set of lessons from his business ventures. On visiting one of Jiang’s properties in Beijing, Moxley writes: “Although it’s only a decade old, up close the brick homes look cheap and worn, like so many properties hastily erected during China’s boom.” A movie made using the same principles would look pretty much like what we see here. Moxley also notes that the issue of guanxi, or relationships and connections, may have posed problems on the set. He observes:

One’s loyalty depends on who it is one has the strongest relationship with. That might be the director or a cinematographer or a producer—but it’s rarely the audience or the movie’s bottom line, which are generally the two highest priorities for American movies.

This is a remarkably shrewd point, and not just because it implies that what the production lacked, like many television shows, was a good line producer, whose job is to navigate those very networks. It might make us smile, but the plain fact is that such misaligned incentives are at the root of many artistic failures, and China doesn’t have a monopoly on this. A version of guanxi exists, in a less obvious form, at every Hollywood studio: each decision, from the lowest level to the highest, ultimately hinges on an individual executive’s desire not to get fired, which makes otherwise inexplicable choices easier to understand. Office politics, lines of succession, changes of regime, or the desire to maintain a relationship with a star can have a far greater impact on what gets made than “the audience or the movie’s bottom line.” This can be true of television, too: the need for streaming services like Hulu or Amazon to enhance their profiles, in the absence of concrete ratings, can lead to shows being produced that are less about real quality than its simulation, which for many viewers is more than enough. (Witness the success of House of Cards, which started the whole streaming revolution in the first place, despite a consistent lack of good writing.) Money isn’t the root of all evil in art: more worthwhile stories have died because of a lack of money than because of its overabundance. But without the constraints that a real audience provides, making a good movie can be harder than squeezing a mermaid through the eye of a needle.

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May 30, 2016 at 9:02 am

Alas, “Babylon”

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David Duchovny on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for The X-Files episode “Babylon.”

By now, I’ve more or less resigned myself to the realization that the tenth season of The X-Files will consist of five forgettable episodes and one minor masterpiece. Since the latter is the first true Darin Morgan casefile in close to twenty years, the whole thing still shakes out as a pretty good deal, even if the ratio of good, bad, and mediocre is a little worse than I’d expected. But an installment like this week’s “Babylon” is particularly infuriating because its premise and early moments are so promising, but get systematically squandered by a writer—in this case Chris Carter himself—who seems to have no idea what to do with the opportunities that the revival presented. The first image we see is that of a Muslim man in his twenties on a prayer rug, framed at floor level, and it instantly got my hopes up: this is territory that the original run of the series rarely, if ever, explored, and it’s a rich trove of potential ideas. Even when the young man promptly blows himself up with a friend in a suicide bombing in Texas, I allowed myself to think that the show had something else up its sleeve. It does, but not in a good way: the rest of the episode is a mess, with a mishmash of tones, goofy music cues, dialogue that alternates between frenetic and painfully obvious, an extended hallucination scene, and a weird supporting turn from the gifted Lauren Ambrose, all of which plays even worse than it should because of the pall cast by the opening scene. (Although seeing Mulder in a cowboy hat allowed me to recognize how David Duchovny turned into Fred Ward so gradually that I didn’t even notice.)

In short, it’s not much worth discussing, except for the general observation that if you’re going to use an act of domestic terrorism as a plot device, you’d better be prepared to justify it with some great television. (Even Quantico did a better job of moving rapidly in its own ridiculous direction after an opening terror attack. And the fact that I’m getting nostalgic for Quantico, of all shows, only highlights how disappointing much of this season has been.) But it raises the related issue, which seems worth exploring, of the degree to which The X-Files benefited from the accident of its impeccable historical timing. The series ran for most of the nineties, a decade that wasn’t devoid of partisan politics, but of a kind that tended to focus more on a little blue dress than on Islamic extremism. It had its share of dislocating moments—including the Oklahoma City bombing, which was uncomfortably evoked, with characteristic clumsiness, in The X-Files: Fight the Future—but none that recentered the entire culture in the way that September 11 did. For the most part, The X-Files was free to operate on a separate playing field without much reference to current events, a situation which might not have been the case if its premiere date had been shifted even five years forward or backward. It came after the Cold War and before the war on terror, leaving it with the narrative equivalent of a blank canvas to fill with a cast of imaginary monsters.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Not surprisingly, Chris Carter has stated elsewhere that the show benefited from occurring before the fall of the World Trade Center, which inaugurated a period, however temporary it turned out to be, in which people wanted to believe in their government. Carter implies that this is antithetical to what The X-Files represented, and while that seems plausible at first glance, it doesn’t really hold water. In many ways, the conspiracy thread was one of its weakest elements of the original series: it quickly became too convoluted for words, and it was often used as a kind of reset button, with shadowy government agents moving in to erase any evidence of that week’s revelations. Aside from one occasion, the tag at the end of the opening credits wasn’t “Trust No One,” but “The Truth is Out There.” Paranoia was a useful narrative device, but it wasn’t central to the show’s appeal, and I’d like to think that the series would have evolved into a different but equally satisfying shape if the politics of the time had demanded it—although the damp squib of the reboot, which was explicitly designed to bring Mulder and Scully into the modern world, doesn’t exactly help to make that case. (The clear parallel here is 24, which was transformed by uncontrollable events into something very unlike what it was once intended to be. One of my favorite pieces of show business trivia is that its producers briefly considered optioning The Da Vinci Code as the plot for the show’s second season, which hints at what that series might have been in some other universe.)

In the end, an episode like “Babylon” makes me almost grateful that the show concluded when it did, given its inability to do anything worthwhile with what might have been a decent premise. And it’s an ineptitude that emerges, not from the fog of cranking out a weekly television series, but after Carter had close to fifteen years to think about the kind of story he could tell, which makes it even harder to forgive. The episode’s central gimmick—which involves communicating with a clinically dead suicide bomber to prevent a future attack—is pretty good, or it might have been, if the script didn’t insist on constantly tap-dancing away from it. (A plot revolving around getting into an unconscious killer’s head didn’t even need to be about terrorism at all: a rehash of The Cell would have been preferable to what we actually got.) It’s hard not to conclude that the best thing that ever happened to The X-Files was a run of nine seasons that uniquely positioned it to ignore contemporary politics and pick its source material from anywhere convenient, with time and forgetfulness allowing it to exploit the nightmares of the past in a typically cavalier fashion. But just as recent political developments have rendered House of Cards all but obsolete, I have a feeling that The X-Files, which always depended on such a fragile suspension of disbelief, couldn’t have endured conditions that forced it to honestly confront its own era—which suggests that this reboot may have been doomed from the beginning. Because the incursion of the real world into fantasy is one invasion that this show wouldn’t be able to survive.

Written by nevalalee

February 17, 2016 at 9:49 am

The double awareness

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Laurence Olivier

Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.

—William Blake

Earlier this week, I picked up a copy of Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio, a collection of transcribed lessons from the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who is best known to viewers today for his role as Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II. (I was watching it again recently, and I was newly amazed at how great Strasberg is—you can’t take your eyes off him whenever he’s onscreen.) The book is loaded with insights from one of method acting’s foremost theorists and practitioners, but the part that caught my eye was what Strasberg says about Laurence Olivier:

When we see certain performances of Olivier we sometimes tend to say, “Well, it’s a little superficial.” Why are they superficial? There is great imagination in them, more imagination than in a lot of performances which are more organic because Olivier is giving of himself more completely at each moment. Is it that his idea of the part and the play is not clear? On the contrary, it is marvelously clear. You know exactly why he is doing each little detail. In his performance you watch an actor’s mind, fantastic in its scope and greatness, working and understanding the needs of the scene. He understands the character better than I ever will. I don’t even want to understand the character as much as he does, because I think it is his understanding that almost stops him from the completeness of the response.

Strasberg goes on to conclude: “If we criticize Larry Olivier’s performance, it is only because it seems to us the outline of a performance. It is not a performance. Olivier has a fine talent, but you get from him all of the actor’s thought and a lot of his skill and none of the actual talent that he has.” And while I don’t intend to wade into a comparison of the method and classical approaches to acting, which I don’t have the technical background to properly discuss, Strasberg’s comments strike me as intuitively correct. We’ve all had the experience of watching an artist and becoming more preoccupied by his or her thought process than in the organic meaning of the work itself. I’ve said that David Mamet’s movies play like fantastic first drafts in which we’re a little too aware of the logic behind each decision, and it’s almost impossible for me to watch Kevin Spacey, for instance, without being aware of the cleverness of his choices, rather than losing myself in the story he’s telling. Sometimes that sheer meretriciousness can be delightful in itself, and it’s just about the only thing that kept me watching the third season of House of Cards. As David Thomson said: “[Spacey] can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.”

Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

But there’s a deeper truth here, which is that under ideal conditions, our consciousness of an artist’s choices can lead to a kind of double awareness: it activates our experience of both the technique and the story, and it culminates in something more compelling than either could be on its own. And Olivier himself might agree. He once said of his own approach to acting:

I’ve frequently observed things, and thank God, if I haven’t got a very good memory for anything else, I’ve got a memory for little details. I’ve had things in the back of my mind for as long as eighteen years before I’ve used them. And it works sometimes that, out of one little thing that you’ve seen somebody do, something causes you to store it up. In the years that follow you wonder what it was that made them do it, and, ultimately, you find in that the illuminating key to a whole bit of characterization…And so, with one or two extraneous externals, I [begin] to build up a character, a characterization. I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.

When we watch the resulting performance, we’re both caught up in the moment and aware of the massive reserves of intelligence and craft that the actor has brought to bear on it over an extended period of time—which, paradoxically, can heighten the emotional truth of the scene, as we view it with some of the same intensity of thought that Olivier himself did.

And one of the most profound things that any actor can do is to move us while simultaneously making us aware of the tools he’s using. There’s no greater example than Marlon Brando, who, at his best, was both the ultimate master of the method technique and a genius at this kind of trickery who transcended even Olivier. When he puts on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront or cradles the cat in his arms in The Godfather, we’re both struck by the irrational rightness of the image and conscious of the train of thought behind it. (Olivier himself was once up for the role of Don Corleone, which feels like a hinge moment in the history of movies, even if I suspect that both he and Brando would have fallen back on many of the same tactics.) And Brando’s work in Last Tango in Paris is both agonizingly intimate and exposed—it ruined him for serious work for the rest of his career—and an anthology of good tricks derived from a lifetime of acting. I think it’s the greatest male performance in the history of movies, and it works precisely because of the double awareness that it creates, in which we’re watching both Brando himself and the character of Paul, who is a kind of failed Brando. This superimposition of actor over character couldn’t exist if some of those choices weren’t obvious or transparent, and it changes the way it lives in our imagination. As Pauline Kael said in the most famous movie review ever written: “We are watching Brando throughout this movie, with all the feedback that that implies…If Brando knows this hell, why should we pretend we don’t?”

Forget about your House of Cards

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Kevin Spacey on House of Cards

Forget about your house of cards
And I’ll do mine
And fall under the table, get swept under
Denial, denial…

—Radiohead, “House of Cards”

Note: Major spoilers follow for the third season of House of Cards.

Watching the season finale of House of Cards, I found myself reflecting on the curious career of director James Foley, who has helmed many of the show’s most memorable episodes. Foley is the quintessential journeyman, a filmmaker responsible for one movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, that I’ll probably revisit at least once a decade for the rest of my life, and a lot of weird, inexplicable filler, from The Corruptor to Perfect Stranger. It’s a messy body of work that still earned him a coveted entry in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which David Thomson writes: “You could put together a montage of scenes by Foley that might convince anyone that he was—and is—a very hot director.” And that’s equally true of House of Cards, which would allow you to cut together enough striking scenes and images to convince you that it was the hottest show on television. I’ve noted before that I’ve never seen a series in which every technical element was brought to such a consistent pitch of intensity: the cinematography, art direction, sound design, editing, and music are among the best I’ve ever seen. Foley’s handling of the finale is masterful. And yet it’s only a sad coda to a deeply disappointing, often outright frustrating show, which in its most recent season pulled off the neat trick of being both totally implausible and grindingly boring.

And it didn’t have to be this way. As infuriating as House of Cards often was, there was an undeniable charge, in the very last shot of the second season, when Underwood walked into the Oval Office and rapped his hand against the desk. We seemed primed to embark on a spectacular run of stories, with a scheming, murderous, Machiavellian psychopath positioned to move onto a grander stage. What we got, instead, was an Underwood who seemed oddly hapless and neutered. He’s still a hypocrite, but with no coherent plans for domination, and hardly any sense of what he wants to accomplish with the power he sought for so long. If the show were actively working to subvert our expectations, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case: for most of the season, it seemed as adrift as its protagonist, who starts off with poor approval ratings, a nonexistent mandate, and no ability to advance his agenda, whatever the hell it might be. In the abstract, I can understand the narrative reasoning: you want to open with your hero at a low point to give him somewhere to go. But if you can imagine, instead, a scenario in which Underwood starts out as popular and powerful, only to fight ruthlessly in secret against a scandal, old or new, that threatens to undermine it all, you start to glimpse the kind of drama that might have been possible.

House of Cards

And what’s really dispiriting is that all the right pieces were there, only to be systematically squandered. In Petrov, a thinly veiled surrogate for Putin, the show gave Underwood his first truly formidable antagonist, but instead of a global game of chess being played between two superb manipulators, we’re treated to the sight of Underwood rolling over time and time again. The one really shrewd plot point—in which Petrov extorts Underwood into forcing Claire to resign as UN ambassador—would have been much more effective if Claire had been any good at her job, which she manifestly isn’t. The interminable subplot about the America Works bill would have been fine if it had all been a blind for Underwood to consolidate his power, but it’s not: he just wants to give people jobs, and his attempts at extraconstitutional maneuvering seem like a means to an end, when they should have been the end in themselves. We keep waiting for Underwood, our ultimate villain, to do something evil, inspired, or even interesting, but he never does. And the show’s one great act of evil, in the form of Rachel’s fate, feels like a cynical cheat, because the show hasn’t done the hard work, as Breaking Bad repeatedly did, of earning the right to coldly dispose of one of its few sympathetic characters. (As it stands, there’s a touch of misogyny here, in which an appealing female player is reintroduced and killed simply to further the journey of a white male antihero in a supporting role.)

Yet House of Cards remains fascinating to think about, if not to watch, because so many talented people—David Fincher, Eric Roth, Tony Gilroy—have allowed it to drift off the rails. I’ve spoken at length before, most notably in Salon, about the dangers inherent in delivering a television series a full season at a time: without the intense scrutiny and feedback that comes from airing week to week, a show is likely to grow complacent, or to push deeper into a narrative dead end. In Vox, Todd VanDerWerff argues that this season can best be understood as a reaction to the show’s critics, a failed attempt to make a hard turn into a character drama, which only proves that it isn’t enough to plot a course correction once per season. And there’s a larger blindness here, perhaps one enabled by the show’s superficial gorgeousness. Is what Frank Underwood does interesting because he’s Underwood, or is he interesting because he does interesting things? I’d argue that it’s the latter, and that the echo chamber the Netflix model creates has lulled the show into thinking that we’ll follow its protagonist anywhere, when it has yet to honestly earn that level of trust. (In a way, it feels like a reflection of its leading man: Kevin Spacey may be the most intelligent actor alive when it comes to the small decisions he makes from moment to moment, but he’s been frequently misguided in his choice of star parts.) House of Cards is still a fun show to dissect; if I were teaching a course on television, it’s the first case study I’d assign. But that doesn’t mean I need to give it any more of my time.

The Achilles heel

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

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 fictional character embodies your masculine ideal?

AMC used to stand for American Movie Classics, but over the last few years, it’s felt more like an acronym for “antiheroic male character.” You’ve met this man before. He’s a direct descendent of Tony Soprano, who owed a great deal in turn to Michael Corleone: a deeply flawed white male who screws up the lives of just about everyone around him, whether out of uncontrollable compulsion, like Don Draper, or icy calculation, like Walter White. Yet he’s also enormously attractive. He’s great at his job, he knows what he wants and how to get it, and he doesn’t play by the rules. It’s a reliable formula for an interesting protagonist, except that his underlying motivations are selfish, and everyone else in his life is a means to an end. And the more ruthless he is, the more we respond to him. I’m only four episodes into the current season of House of Cards, but I’ve already found myself flitting with boredom, because Frank Underwood has lost so much of his evil spark. As much as I enjoy Kevin Spacey’s performance, I’ve never found Frank to be an especially compelling or even coherent character, and without that core of hate and ambition, I’m no longer sure why I’m supposed to be watching him at all.

Ever since Mad Men and Breaking Bad brought the figure of the male antihero to its current heights, we’ve seen a lot of shows, from Low Winter Sun to Ray Donovan, attempting to replicate that recipe without the same critical success. In itself, this isn’t surprising: television has always been about trying to take apart the shows that worked and put the pieces together in a new way. But by fixating on the obvious traits of their antiheroic leads, rather than on deeper qualities of storytelling, the latest round of imitators runs the risk of embodying all the genre’s shortcomings and few of its strengths. There’s the fact, for instance, that even the best of these shows have problems with their female characters. Mad Men foundered with Betty Draper for much of its middle stretch, to the point where it seemed tempted to write her out entirely, and I never much cared for Skylar on Breaking Bad—not, as some would have it, because I resented her for getting in Walt’s way, but because she was shrill and uninteresting. Even True Detective, a minor masterpiece of the form with two unforgettable male leads, couldn’t figure out what to do with its women. (The great exception here is Fargo, which offered us a fantastic heroine, even if she felt a little sidelined toward the end.)

Achilles and Ajax

Of course, the figure of the antihero is as old as literature itself. It’s only a small step from Hamlet to Edmund or Iago, and the Iliad, which inaugurates nothing less than the entire western tradition, opens by invoking the wrath of Achilles. In many ways, Achilles is the prototype for all protagonists of this kind: he’s a figure of superhuman ability on the battlefield, with a single mythic vulnerability, and he’s willing to let others die as he sulks in his tent out of wounded pride, over a woman who is treated as a spoil in a conflict between men. Achilles stands alone, and he’s defined more by his own fate than by any of his human relationships. (To the extent that other characters are important in our understanding of him, it’s as a series of counterexamples: Achilles is opposed at one point or another to Hector, Odysseus, and Agamemnon, and the fact that he’s contrasted against three such different men only points to how complicated he is.) It’s no wonder that readers tend to feel more sympathy for Hector, who is allowed moments of recognizable tenderness: when he tries to embrace his son Astyanax, who bursts into tears at the sight of his father’s armor and plumed helmet, the result is my favorite passage in all of classical poetry, because it feels so much like an instant captured out of real life and transmitted across the centuries.

Yet Achilles is the hero of the Iliad for a reason; Hector, for all his appeal, isn’t cut out for sustaining an entire poem. An antihero, properly written, can be the engine that drives the whole machine, and in epic poetry, or television, you need one heck of a motor. But a motor isn’t a man, or at least it’s a highly incomplete version of what a man can be. And there’s a very real risk that the choices writers make for the sake of the narrative can shape the way the rest of us think and behave. As Joseph Meeker points out, we tend to glamorize the tragic hero, who causes nothing but suffering to those around him, over the comic hero, who simply muddles through. Fortunately, we have a model both for vivid storytelling and meaningful connection in Achilles’ opposite number. Odysseus isn’t perfect: he engages in dalliances of his own while his wife remains faithful, and his bright ideas lead to the deaths of most of his shipmates. But he’s much closer to a comic than a tragic hero, relying on wit and good timing as much as strength to get home, and his story is like a guided tour of all the things a man can be: king, beggar, father, son, husband, lover, and nobody. We’d live in a happier world if our fictional heroes were more like Odysseus. Or, failing that, I’ll settle for Achilles, as long as he’s more than just a heel.

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March 6, 2015 at 9:12 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.

The white piece of paper

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Rob Lowe on The West Wing

“Why is this so hard?”
“‘Cause it’s a white piece of paper.”
“How high are the stakes?”
“How high can you count?”
“So what do you do?”
“Whatever it takes to get started. And we read new memos, and we try new themes, and we hear new slogans, and we test new lines, and after a few weeks of that…we’ve still got a white piece of paper.”

The West Wing, “100,000 Airplanes”

The first three seasons of The West Wing have a lot of virtues—along with some equally obvious flaws—but what I like about it the most is that it’s fundamentally a show about writing. When you’re an author entering an unfamiliar world or profession, even one that you’ve meticulously researched and explored, you naturally look for a hook that allows you to relate it to your own experience. A show called The West Wing could have focused on any element of the executive branch, but it’s no accident that Aaron Sorkin ended up centering so much of it on a speechwriter, a communications director, and a press secretary, all of whom spend most of their time dealing with words.

I’ve been hard on Sorkin in the past, mostly due to my disappointment in the first season of The Newsroom, but there’s no denying that he’s as adept as anyone alive at filling that blank piece of paper. Sometimes, his facility can be a problem in itself: he has a way of falling back on old tricks, bombast, straw men, and a lovingly crafted simulation of the way intelligent people talk. Yet even the worst of his vices go hand in hand with tremendous strengths, and we only need to compare Sorkin to other writers who have tried and failed to write smart characters—as in every line of dialogue in Dan Brown’s novels—to remember how talented he really is. It’s impossible to watch an extended run of The West Wing, as my wife and I have been doing over the last few weeks, and not emerge wanting to sound smarter and more capable. And when I feel the need to punch up the dialogue in my own work, I’ll often go back to reread a few old West Wing transcripts in hopes of picking up some of that magic.

Rob Lowe on The West Wing

Of course, The West Wing works because it takes place in a world that can sustain a heightened conversational register. Everyone is blindingly smart, as well as on the right side of history, and you can sometimes sense Sorkin straining when called upon to write characters of different backgrounds or opinions. If the show has one glaring weakness, it’s that enormous chunks of dialogue could easily be transposed from one player to another without much in the way of revision: everyone shares the same values, and if the characters stay distinct in our minds, it’s thanks more to performance and delivery than writing. Compare it to a show like The Wire, which adeptly handles so many different voices, and The West Wing can start to seem limited. In some ways, it’s an expression of the different ways in which Sorkin and David Simon—a veteran reporter for the Baltimore Sun—came to television: instead of will and craft rising to create a simulation of experience, it’s experience straining to bend craft to accommodate all the things it needs to say.

And what fascinates me the most about The West Wing, when viewed from a distance of so many years, is how fully its politics are an expression of a shrewd narrative strategy. Many of us catch ourselves wishing that our real policymakers were as articulate and principled as the ones here, but it’s a fantasy created less by a coherent vision of politics than by a writing style. The show’s idealism, which everyone agrees was its most striking characteristic, isn’t a political or philosophical stance, but a set of tactics that allowed Sorkin to maneuver so gracefully within a narrow range. (You can say much the same thing about the cynicism of House of Cards: it’s easier to write a television show when everyone breathes the same air, whether it’s tainted or pure.) The West Wing came to mean so much to so many people because it happened to be written by a man whose talents were best exercised within a show that gave us our best versions of ourselves. It’s as happy a marriage between talent and subject as television has ever provided. But it all emerged from those small daily choices and compromises demanded by a white piece of paper.

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2014 at 10:09 am

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