Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘In Bruges

The test of tone

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Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In Bruges

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 22, 2014.

Tone, as I’ve mentioned before, can be a tricky thing. On the subject of plot, David Mamet writes: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” And if you can radically shift tones within a single story and still keep the audience on board, you can end up with even more. If you look at the short list of the most exciting directors around—Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, the Coen Brothers—you find that what most of them have in common is the ability to alter tones drastically from scene to scene, with comedy giving way unexpectedly to violence or pathos. (A big exception here is Christopher Nolan, who seems happiest when operating within a fundamentally serious tonal range. It’s a limitation, but one we’re willing to accept because Nolan is so good at so many other things. Take away those gifts, and you end up with Transcendence.) Tonal variation may be the last thing a director masters, and it often only happens after a few films that keep a consistent tone most of the way through, however idiosyncratic it may be. The Coens started with Blood Simple, then Raising Arizona, and once they made Miller’s Crossing, they never had to look back.

The trouble with tone is that it imposes tremendous switching costs on the audience. As Tony Gilroy points out, during the first ten minutes of a movie, a viewer is making a lot of decisions about how seriously to take the material. Each time the level of seriousness changes gears, whether upward or downward, it demands a corresponding moment of consolidation, which can be exhausting. For a story that runs two hours or so, more than a few shifts in tone can alienate viewers to no end. You never really know where you stand, or whether you’ll be watching the same movie ten minutes from now, so your reaction is often how Roger Ebert felt upon watching Pulp Fiction for the first time: “Seeing this movie last May at the Cannes Film Festival, I knew it was either one of the year’s best films, or one of the worst.” (The outcome is also extremely subjective. I happen to think that Vanilla Sky is one of the most criminally underrated movies of the last two decades—few other mainstream films have accommodated so many tones and moods—but I’m not surprised that so many people hate it.) It also annoys marketing departments, who can’t easily explain what the movie is about; it’s no accident that one of the worst trailers I can recall was for In Bruges, which plays with tone as dexterously as any movie in recent memory.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

As a result, tone is another element in which television has considerable advantages. Instead of two hours, a show ideally has at least one season, maybe more, to play around with tone, and the number of potential switching points is accordingly increased. A television series is already more loosely organized than a movie, which allows it to digress and go off on promising tangents, and we’re used to being asked to stop and start from week to week, so we’re more forgiving of departures. That said, this rarely happens all at once; like a director’s filmography, a show often needs a season or two to establish its strengths before it can go exploring. When we think back to a show’s pivotal episodes—the ones in which the future of the series seemed to lock into place—they’re often installments that discovered a new tone that worked within the rules that the show had laid down. Community was never the same after “Modern Warfare,” followed by “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” demonstrated how much it could push its own reality while still remaining true to its characters, and The X-Files was altered forever by Darin Morgan’s “Humbug,” which taught the show how far it could kid itself while probing into ever darker places.

At its best, this isn’t just a matter of having a “funny” episode of a dramatic series, or a very special episode of a sitcom, but of building a body of narrative that can accommodate surprise. One of the great pleasures of watching Hannibal lay in how it learned to acknowledge its own absurdity while drawing the noose ever tighter, which only happens after a show has enough history for it to engage in a dialogue with itself. Much the same happened to Breaking Bad, which had the broadest tonal range imaginable: it was able to move between borderline slapstick and the blackest of narrative developments because it could look back and reassure itself that it had already done a good job with both. (Occasionally, a show will emerge with that kind of tone in mind from the beginning. Fargo remains the most fascinating drama on television in large part because it draws its inspiration from one of the most virtuoso experiments with tone in movie history.) If it works, the result starts to feel like life itself, which can’t be confined easily within any one genre. Maybe that’s because learning to master tone is like putting together the pieces of one’s own life: first you try one thing, then something else, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find that they work well side by side.

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

“Karvonen kept an eye on them…”

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"Karvonen kept an eye on them..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 34. You can read the earlier installments here

“You’ve got to stick to your principles,” as Ray Fiennes says at the end of In Bruges, and that’s as true of characters as of authors. I’ve spoken endlessly here about the importance of constraints, which serve as an aid to creativity by focusing the writer’s thoughts within a restricted range, and this applies equally to the actions of the players within the story. We all have codes, stated or unstated, by which we live our lives, and our decisions have meaning only in the way that they navigate between the needs of the moment and the larger values in which we believe. Without that tension, life would be less interesting, and so would fiction. Characters emerge most fully when they’re given something to react against, and while the external conflicts of the plot provide a convenient source of pressure, it can be even more powerful when the protagonist’s dilemma emerges from within. And at best, the two kinds of pressure fuse into one: events in the world push against the internal struggle, and it can be hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins.

This is particularly true, perhaps counterintuitively, of villains. With heroes, we can generally make a few assumptions about their behavior if they’re going to remain sympathetic: a hero never kills without cause, and if he breaks the law or violates what we think of as a reasonable standard of morality, he usually has a good excuse. Villains, in theory, aren’t nearly so bounded—they can do whatever they like, provided that they remain fun to watch. In practice, though, an antagonist who is a pure psychopath, as in so many dreary horror movies or thrillers, rarely holds our attention for long. As countless writers have observed, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and it’s less compelling to invent a character who wakes up in the morning deciding what evil acts to perform than to create someone who does terrible things for what he sees as a valid reason. This doesn’t prevent us from writing big, operatic villains: think of Khan, whose every action is motivated by what he thinks is justifiable revenge, or Hannibal Lecter, who prefers when possible to eat only the rude.

"The man crumpled to the floor..."

And a villain’s fate is correspondingly more interesting if it emerges from where his code collides with the events of the narrative. Khan, again, is a great example: he’s got superhuman intellect and strength, but ultimately, his drive for vengeance leads him to make a number of crucial tactical errors. In City of Exiles, Lasse Karvonen—and it’s interesting to note how the consonants K and N recur in these villainous characters’ names, perhaps as a nod to Cain—is as close to a pure force of evil as any I’ve written, but he, too, has values of his own. Karvonen’s case is an unusual one because of his background: he’s Finnish, but he’s working for Russia, his country’s historical enemy, because he sees it as a larger stage for his talents. That contradiction fuels many of his decisions throughout the novel, and his actions can best be understood as an attempt to prove that he can play this ruthless game more capably than a Russian ever could. At the heart of it all, however, is a fundamental assumption. He’ll do whatever it takes to keep his employers happy, but he draws the line at hurting another Finn.

Inevitably, he’ll be asked to break this rule, and the choice he makes when the time comes will turn out to determine his fate. For that moment to have any meaning, though, his code needs to be clearly established. I allude to it first in Chapter 26, perhaps a little too neatly—”He had never spilled a drop of Finnish blood, and he never would”—but it’s Chapter 34 that locks it into the reader’s memory. It’s a self-contained scene with little connection to the rest of the story, and I arrived at it mostly just to give Karvonen something to do at this stage in his journey. (He’s on a cruise ferry bound from Stockholm to Helsinki, and many of the details of the chapter come from my research on these cruises, which offer clubs, shopping, and other entertainment options for passengers.) When Karvonen sees a Russian man abusing his Finnish girlfriend, he takes quick, effective revenge, and it’s a satisfying moment mostly because it does triple duty. It’s perfectly in character for Karvonen; it reminds us of the tensions beneath his unruffled surface; and it sets us up for the turning point, more than a hundred pages later, when his principles will be tested for real…

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2014 at 9:48 am

The test of tone

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Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In Bruges

Tone, as I’ve mentioned before, can be a tricky thing. On the subject of plot, David Mamet writes: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” And if you can radically shift tones within a single story and still keep the audience on board, you can end up with even more. If you look at the short list of the most exciting directors around—Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, the Coen Brothers—you find that what most of them have in common is the ability to alter tones drastically from scene to scene, with comedy giving way unexpectedly to violence or pathos. (A big exception here is Christopher Nolan, who seems happiest when operating within a fundamentally serious tonal range. It’s a limitation, but one we’re willing to accept because Nolan is so good at so many other things. Take away those gifts, and you end up with Transcendence.) Tonal variation may be the last thing a director masters, and it often only happens after a few films that keep a consistent tone most of the way through, however idiosyncratic it may be. The Coens started with Blood Simple, then Raising Arizona, and once they made Miller’s Crossing, they never had to look back.

The trouble with tone is that it imposes tremendous switching costs on the audience. As Tony Gilroy points out, during the first ten minutes of a movie, a viewer is making a lot of decisions about how seriously to take the material. Each time the level of seriousness changes gears, whether upward or downward, it demands a corresponding moment of consolidation, which can be exhausting. For a story that runs two hours or so, more than a few shifts in tone can alienate viewers to no end. You never really know where you stand, or whether you’ll be watching the same movie ten minutes from now, so your reaction is often how Roger Ebert felt upon watching Pulp Fiction for the first time: “Seeing this movie last May at the Cannes Film Festival, I knew it was either one of the year’s best films, or one of the worst.” (The outcome is also extremely subjective. I happen to think that Vanilla Sky is one of the most criminally underrated movies of the last two decades—few other mainstream films have accommodated so many tones and moods—but I’m not surprised that so many people hate it.) It also annoys marketing departments, who can’t easily explain what the movie is about; it’s no accident that one of the worst trailers I can recall was for In Bruges, which plays with tone as dexterously as any movie in recent memory.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

As a result, tone is another element in which television has considerable advantages. Instead of two hours, a show ideally has at least one season, maybe more, to play around with tone, and the number of potential switching points is accordingly increased. A television series is already more loosely organized than a movie, which allows it to digress and go off on promising tangents, and we’re used to being asked to stop and start from week to week, so we’re more forgiving of departures. That said, this rarely happens all at once; like a director’s filmography, a show often needs a season or two to establish its strengths before it can go exploring. When we think back to a show’s pivotal episodes—the ones in which the future of the series seemed to lock into place—they’re often installments that discovered a new tone that worked within the rules that the show had laid down. Community was never the same after “Modern Warfare,” followed by “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” demonstrated how much it could push its own reality while still remaining true to its characters, and The X-Files was altered forever by Darin Morgan’s “Humbug,” which taught the show how far it could kid itself while probing into ever darker places.

At its best, this isn’t just a matter of having a “funny” episode of a dramatic series, or a very special episode of a sitcom, but of building a body of narrative that can accommodate surprise. One of the pleasures of following Hannibal this season has been watching the show acknowledge its own absurdity while drawing the noose ever tighter, which only happens after a show has enough history for it to engage in a dialogue with itself. Much the same happened to Breaking Bad, which had the broadest tonal range imaginable: it was able to move between borderline slapstick and the blackest of narrative developments because it could look back and reassure itself that it had already done a good job with both. (Occasionally, a show will emerge with that kind of tone in mind from the beginning. I haven’t had a chance to catch Fargo on FX, but I’m curious about it, because it draws its inspiration from one of the most virtuoso experiments with tone in movie history.) If it works, the result starts to feel like life itself, which can’t be confined easily within any one genre. Maybe that’s because learning to master tone is like putting together the pieces of one’s own life: first you try one thing, then something else, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find that they work well side by side.

Written by nevalalee

April 22, 2014 at 9:22 am

One director, seven psychopaths

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A lot of good movies have been betrayed by awful marketing campaigns, but I don’t think a trailer has ever misrepresented its underlying movie as badly as the one for In Bruges. When I first saw the painfully unfunny preview in the theater, my friend leaned over and whispered: “Poor Ralph Fiennes. What happened to him?” Like nearly everyone else in the world, I had the same reaction, and didn’t rethink it until much later, when I caught the movie on video, spurred in no small part by what seemed at the time like a surprising Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. And what I discovered, like so many others, is that this is one of the best movies of the decade, and certainly the most quotable: it’s clever, funny, sad, and unexpectedly involving in ways that can’t be described without seeing it. (A glance at its quotes page gives you some sense of the riches in store, but it’s nothing compared to watching the movie itself.) In Bruges casts a peculiar spell that depends entirely on the witty, inventive decisions made moment to moment by its writer and director, Martin McDonagh, and it’s distinguished less by its plot or content than by how lovingly crafted it all is. And this isn’t something that can be adequately conveyed in a trailer.

This seems to be a problem that McDonagh will face for the rest of his career, if the trailer and ads for Seven Psychopaths are any indication. The previews and poster make it look like an awful crime caper, with a cast of actors—Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken—who can be excellent in the right roles, but whose presence is certainly no indication of a movie’s quality. In reality, this is a consistently hilarious if somewhat facile deconstruction of its own genre, sort of like a Charlie Kaufman movie with extreme ultraviolence. It nominally centers on Farrell’s character, an Irish screenwriter (named Martin, of course) working on a screenplay called Seven Psychopaths that he insists will contain no violence or shootouts, only to find himself in the center of a ludicrously bloodsoaked crime melodrama, both in real life and in his own imagination. The result is a lot of fun, largely due to the cast that McDonagh has thrown together here, as if by fancy: Farrell, in particular, gives a wonderfully put-upon, hangdog performance that reminds us that this is a really fine actor who has managed to be horribly misused by Hollywood. Rockwell and Walken are great as well, and Woody Harrelson, as a murderously violent crime boss who just wants his kidnapped dog back, makes a convincing case for David Thomson’s argument that he’s nothing less than the new Dennis Hopper.

All the same, it isn’t nearly as good as In Bruges, and I don’t necessarily feel the need to see it again—although I expect I’ll regularly revisit its quotes page once it’s been more fully furnished. It’s clever, but in a way that often reminds us of the perils of cleverness, and lacks the purity and ease of McDonagh’s first movie. McDonagh can be an inventive plotter, and the way the movie shifts between the imaginary and real is often amusing, but it’s the kind of narrative trickery that other writers have done before, and better. McDonagh is matchless, however, when it comes to writing dialogue that seems both lunatic and inevitable, and he’s at his best when he just lets his characters talk. There’s nothing quite as memorable as the best of In Bruges (“One gay beer for my gay friend, one normal beer for me because I am normal”) but there are some great lines, as when Farrell says indignantly: “You’ve called a psycho killer to come and psycho kill us!” And McDonagh indulges happily in some good, cheap gags, as when Rockwell, reading aloud his own screenplay for the big shootout at the end of the movie, makes an endless machine gun noise with his mouth, turns the page, and continues the noise from the page before.

More of this sort of thing, and fewer metafictional games, might have resulted in a movie that was really special, instead of an entertaining trifle. I’m being hard on McDonagh, but I think he deserves it. This is a man of captivating talents and originality who ought to be making a movie every couple of years, and I fully intend to see all of them. Like David Mamet, however, whom I admire enormously, McDonagh often falls into the playwright’s trap of trusting structure and material more than a movie’s intangibles. In an interview with The A.V. Club, when asked if there were any happy accidents that occurred during filming, McDonagh says: “Not really.” But he’d benefit from letting his movie breathe a little more. My favorite moment in the entire film has nothing to do with the script: it’s Christopher Walken’s pronunciation of the word “hallucinogens,” which, by giving the word a previously undiscovered syllable or two, both makes it embody its own meaning and serves a perfect expression of pure Walkenness. It doesn’t arise from McDonagh’s games, but from the weirdness that emerges where the machinery ends. McDonagh clearly understands this. And Seven Psychopaths, for all its pleasures, is the kind of movie that makes you want to see what the director does next, once he’s gotten a few things out of his system.

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2012 at 10:21 am

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