Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Inception

The man with the plan

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This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Reservoir Dogs, a film that I loved as much as just about every other budding cinephile who came of age in the nineties. Tom Shone has a nice writeup on its legacy in The New Yorker, and while I don’t agree with every point that he makes—he dismisses Kill Bill, which is a movie that means so much to me that I named my own daughter after Beatrix Kiddo—he has insights that can’t be ignored: “Quentin [Tarantino] became his worst reviews, rather in the manner of a boy who, falsely accused of something, decides that he might as well do the thing for which he has already been punished.” And there’s one paragraph that strikes me as wonderfully perceptive:

So many great filmmakers have made their debuts with heist films—from Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run to Michael Mann’s Thief to Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects—that it’s tempting to see the genre almost as an allegory for the filmmaking process. The model it offers first-time filmmakers is thus as much economic as aesthetic—a reaffirmation of the tenant that Jean-Luc Godard attributed to D. W. Griffith: “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” A man assembles a gang for the implementation of a plan that is months in the rehearsal and whose execution rests on a cunning facsimile of midmorning reality going undetected. But the plan meets bumpy reality, requiring feats of improvisation and quick thinking if the gang is to make off with its loot—and the filmmaker is to avoid going to movie jail.

And while you could nitpick the details of this argument—Singer’s debut was actually Public Access, a movie that nobody, including me, has seen—it gets at something fundamental about the art of film, which lies at the intersection of an industrial process and a crime. I’ve spoken elsewhere about how Inception, my favorite movie of the last decade, maps the members of its mind heist neatly onto the crew of a motion picture: Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the set designer, Eames the actor, and Arthur is, I don’t know, the line producer, while Fischer, the mark, is a surrogate for the audience itself. (For what it’s worth, Christopher Nolan has stated that any such allegory was unconscious, although he seems to have embraced it after the fact.) Most of the directors whom Shone names are what we’d call auteur figures, and aside from Singer, all of them wear a writer’s hat, which can obscure the extent to which they depend on collaboration. Yet in their best work, it’s hard to imagine Singer without Christopher McQuarrie, Tarantino without editor Sally Menke, or Wes Anderson without Owen Wilson, not to mention the art directors, cinematographers, and other skilled craftsmen required to finish even the most idiosyncratic and personal movie. Just as every novel is secretly about the process of its own creation, every movie is inevitably about making movies, which is the life that its creators know most intimately. One of the most exhilarating things that a movie can do is give us a sense of the huddle between artists, which is central to the appeal of The Red Shoes, but also Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, in which Tom Cruise told McQuarrie that he wanted to make a film about what it was like for the two of them to make a film.

But there’s also an element of criminality, which might be even more crucial. I’m not the first person to point out that there’s something illicit in the act of watching images of other people’s lives projected onto a screen in a darkened theater—David Thomson, our greatest film critic, has built his career on variations on that one central insight. And it shouldn’t surprise us if the filmmaking process itself takes on aspects of something done in the shadows, in defiance of permits, labor regulations, and the orderly progression of traffic. (Werner Herzog famously advised aspiring directors to carry bolt cutters everywhere: “If you want to do a film, steal a camera, steal raw stock, sneak into a lab and do it!”) If your goal is to tell a story about putting together a team for a complicated project, it could be about the Ballet Lermontov or the defense of a Japanese village, and the result might be even greater. But it would lack the air of illegality on which the medium thrives, both in its dreamlife and in its practical reality. From the beginning, Tarantino seems to have sensed this. He’s become so famous for reviving the careers of neglected figures for the sake of the auras that they provide—John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Keith Carradine—that it’s practically become his trademark, and we often forget that he did it for the first time in Reservoir Dogs. Lawrence Tierney, the star of Dillinger and Born to Kill, had been such a menacing presence both onscreen and off that that he was effectively banned from Hollywood after the forties, and he remained a terrifying presence even in old age. He terrorized the cast of Seinfield during his guest appearance as Elaine’s father, and one of my favorite commentary tracks from The Simpsons consists of the staff reminiscing nervously about how much he scared them during the recording of “Marge Be Not Proud.”

Yet Tarantino still cast him as Joe Cabot, the man who sets up the heist, and Tierney rewarded him with a brilliant performance. Behind the scenes, it went more or less as you might expect, as Tarantino recalled much later:

Tierney was a complete lunatic by that time—he just needed to be sedated. We had decided to shoot his scenes first, so my first week of directing was talking with this fucking lunatic. He was personally challenging to every aspect of filmmaking. By the end of the week everybody on set hated Tierney—it wasn’t just me. And in the last twenty minutes of the first week we had a blowout and got into a fist fight. I fired him, and the whole crew burst into applause.

But the most revealing thing about the whole incident is that an untested director like Tarantino felt capable of taking on Tierney at all. You could argue that he already had an inkling of what he might become, but I’d prefer to think that he both needed and wanted someone like this to symbolize the last piece of the picture. Joe Cabot is the man with the plan, and he’s also the man with the money. (In the original script, Joe says into the phone: “Sid, stop, you’re embarrassing me. I don’t need to be told what I already know. When you have bad months, you do what every businessman in the world does, I don’t care if he’s Donald Trump or Irving the tailor. Ya ride it out.”) It’s tempting to associate him with the producer, but he’s more like a studio head, a position that has often drawn men whose bullying and manipulation is tolerated as long as they can make movies. When he wrote the screenplay, Tarantino had probably never met such a creature in person, but he must have had some sense of what was in store, and Reservoir Dogs was picked up for distribution by a man who fit the profile perfectly—and who never left Tarantino’s side ever again. His name was Harvey Weinstein.

Gatsby’s fortune and the art of ambiguity

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 17, 2015. 

In November 1924, the editor Maxwell Perkins received the manuscript of a novel tentatively titled Trimalchio in West Egg. He loved the book—he called it “extraordinary” and “magnificent”—but he also had a perceptive set of notes for its author. Here are a few of them:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport”—not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps…

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course…Now almost all readers numerically are going to feel puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me, thought, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

The novel, of course, ultimately appeared under the title The Great Gatsby, and before it was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald took many of the notes from Perkins to heart, adding more descriptive material on Gatsby himself—along with several repetitions of the phrase “old sport”—and the sources of his mysterious fortune. Like Tay Hohoff, whose work on To Kill a Mockingbird has received greater recognition in recent years, or even John W. Campbell, Perkins was the exemplar of the editor as shaper, providing valued insight and active intervention for many of the major writers of his generation: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. But my favorite part of this story lies in Fitzgerald’s response, which I think is one of the most extraordinary glimpses into craft we have from any novelist:

I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.

Which is only to say that there’s a big difference between what an author deliberately withholds and what he doesn’t know himself. And an intelligent reader, like Perkins, will sense it.

On Growth and Form

And it has important implications for the way we create our characters. I’ve never been a fan of the school that advocates working out every detail of a character’s background, from her hobbies to her childhood pets: the questionnaires and worksheets that spring up around this impulse can all too easily turn into an excuse for procrastination. My own sense of character is closer to what D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson describes in On Growth and Form, in which an animal’s physical shape is determined largely by the outside pressures to which it is subjected. Plot emerges from character, yes, but there’s also a sense in which character emerges from plot: these men and women are distinguished primarily by the fact that they’re the only people in the world to whom these particular events could happen. When I combine this with my natural distrust of backstory, I’ll frequently find that there are important things about my characters I don’t know myself, even after I’ve lived with them for years. There can even be something a little false about keeping the past constantly present in a character’s mind, as we often see in “realistic” fiction: even if we’re all the sum of our childhood experiences, in practice, we reveal more about ourselves in how we react to the pattern of forces in our lives at any given moment, and the resulting actions have a logic that can be worked out independently, as long as the situation is honestly developed.

But that doesn’t apply to issues, like the sources of Gatsby’s fortune, in which the reader’s curiosity might be reasonably aroused. If you’re going to hint at something, you’d better have a good idea of the answer, even if you don’t plan on sharing it. This applies especially to stories that generate a deliberate ambiguity, as Chris Nolan says of the ending of Inception:

Interviewer: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Interviewer: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated.

Ambiguity, as I’ve said elsewhere, is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. That specificity requires a great deal of knowledge on the author’s part, perhaps more here than anywhere else. And as Fitzgerald notes, if you do it properly, they’ll be too impressed by your knowledge to protest—or they’ll protest in all the right ways.

Strange currencies

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Doctor Strange

Last Monday, I took a break. I don’t normally take much time off, but I wanted to tune out of election coverage on what I feared, implausibly but correctly, might be the last entirely happy day I’d have for the next four years. My book project was in good shape, I’d finished a decent draft of a short story, and I had nothing else pressing to hold my attention. So I lit out. I treated myself to a Lyft ride into Chicago, where I dropped into two of my favorite used bookstores—Bookman’s Corner and Booklegger’s—and spent about twenty bucks. Then I took a train to the River East Theater on Illinois Street, where I met up with my wife to catch Doctor Strange, which was the first movie we’d seen together on the big screen since The Force Awakens. Afterward, we headed home just in time to put our daughter, who had spent the day with her grandparents, to bed. And if I lay out the context in such detail, it’s because I have a feeling that this is how most people in this country go to the movies. After a young adulthood in which I turned up at my local cineplex or art house theater at least once a week to see whatever blockbuster or critical darling was currently in the reviews, along with countless revivals, I’ve settled down into a routine in which I’m more likely to see two or three movies each year with my daughter and a couple of others for myself. This places me squarely in the mainstream of most moviegoers: according to a recent survey, the average American sees five movies a year, and I seem likely to hit that number exactly.

Which is both remarkable and kind of unsurprising. Hollywood releases about six hundred movies every year, a significant percentage of which are trying to appeal to as many demographic quadrants as possible. Yet even The Force Awakens, which sold over a hundred million tickets domestically, was seen by something less than a third of all Americans, even before you take multiple viewings into account. To convince the average adult to go to the movies five times in a single calendar year, you need a wide range of product, only a fraction of which is likely to entice any given individual to buy a ticket. Inevitably, however, the people who write professionally about the movies from both the artistic and business angles are inclined to try to make sense of the slate as a whole. Film critics may review two or three movies every week and go to even more—and they have to see everything, not just what appeals to their own tastes. As I learned during my own stint as a working critic, it’s a situation that has a way of altering your expectations: you realize how many movies are simply mediocre and forgettable, and you start to relish anything out of the ordinary, however misguided it might be. Needless to say, this isn’t how your typical moviegoer sees it. Someone who watches a hundred and fifty movies every year for free might as well belong to a different species as someone who pays to see fewer than five, but they have no choice but to try to understand each other, at least if we’re going to take criticism seriously from either side.

Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

So what does this have to do with Doctor Strange? Quite a lot, I think. I had originally hoped to write about it here last week, before the election made it hard to think about anything else, and there was a time when I wasn’t even sure whether I’d devote a post to it at all. Yet I’ve become intrigued precisely by the way it has faded in my imagination. In the moment, I liked it a lot. It stars five actors whom I’m happy to see in anything, and it actually gives two or three of them something interesting to do. When I broke it down in my head, its scenes fell into three categories. About of a third were watchable in the usual Marvel way, which takes pride in being pretty good, but not great; another third achieved something like high camp; and the last third were genuinely visionary, with some of the most striking visual effects I’ve ever seen. There are scenes in Doctor Strange that get as close as a movie possibly can to the look and feel of a dream, with elaborate geometric patterns and cityscapes that break down and reform themselves before our eyes. It left me wondering how they did it. But it didn’t stick in my head in the way that Inception, its obvious inspiration, still does. In part, it’s because it uses digital rather than practical effects: an homage to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s famous hallway fight scene only reminds us of how much more effective—and respectful of gravity—it was to stage it right in the camera. And even the most amazing sequences are chases or showdowns that amount to interchangeable components. The story halts for them, and they could be inserted at any point into any version of the script.

As a result, it left me with a highlight reel of memories that is basically identical to the trailer. But a movie that was wholly as weird and as distinctive as the best scenes in Doctor Strange would never have made it into theaters. It would be fundamentally out of keeping with the basic premise of the Marvel Universe, which is that no one movie can stick out from the rest, and nothing can occur that is so meaningful that it interferes with the smooth production of films being shot simultaneously by other directors. The story, ideally, should be about as little as possible, while still creating the illusion that the stakes are infinite—which leads inexorably to diminishing returns. (When you read the early space opera stories of writers like John W. Campbell, you realize that once the heroes can casually span entire galaxies, it means that nothing matters whatsoever. And the same thing happens in the Marvel films.) Doctor Strange works because it keeps its weirdness hermetically sealed off from the rest: as long as we’re watching those scenes, we’re transported into a freakier, more exhilarating film, only to be returned to the safe beats of the formula as quickly and antiseptically as possible. There’s nothing wrong with the screenplay, except to the extent that there’s something wrong with every script written according to the usual specifications. The result has flashes of something extraordinary, but it’s scaled back for the audience members who see only five movies a year. It’s big and distinctive enough to assure you that you’ve gotten your money’s worth, but not so unusual that it makes you question what you bought with it. It’s Benedict Cumberbatch with an American accent. And it’s exactly as good as that sounds.

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2016 at 8:27 am

The strange loop of Westworld

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The maze in Westworld

In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, the critic Emily Nussbaum delivers one of the most useful takes I’ve seen so far on Westworld. She opens with many of the same points that I made after the premiere—that this is really a series about storytelling, and, in particular, about the challenges of mounting an expensive prestige drama on a premium network during the golden age of television. Nussbaum describes her own ambivalence toward the show’s treatment of women and minorities, and she concludes:

This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way—like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld…The American Old West is a logical fantasy only if you’re the cowboy—or if your fantasy is to be exploited or enslaved, a desire left unexplored…So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that Westworld? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.

I agree with many of her reservations, especially when it comes to race, but I think that she overlooks or omits one important point: conscious or otherwise, it’s a brilliant narrative strategy to make a work of art partially about the process of its own creation, which can add a layer of depth even to its compromises and mistakes. I’ve drawn a comparison already to Mad Men, which was a show about advertising that ended up subliminally criticizing its own tactics—how it drew viewers into complex, often bleak stories using the surface allure of its sets, costumes, and attractive cast. If you want to stick with the Nolan family, half of Chris’s movies can be read as commentaries on themselves, whether it’s his stricken identification with the Joker as the master of ceremonies in The Dark Knight or his analysis of his own tricks in The Prestige. Inception is less about the construction of dreams than it is about making movies, with characters who stand in for the director, the producer, the set designer, and the audience. And perhaps the greatest cinematic example of them all is Vertigo, in which Scotty’s treatment of Madeline is inseparable from the use that Hitchcock makes of Kim Novak, as he did with so many other blonde leading ladies. In each case, we can enjoy the story on its own merits, but it gains added resonance when we think of it as a dramatization of what happened behind the scenes. It’s an approach that is uniquely forgiving of flawed masterpieces, which comment on themselves better than any critic can, until we wonder about the extent to which they’re aware of their own limitations.

Inception

And this kind of thing works best when it isn’t too literal. Movies about filmmaking are often disappointing, either because they’re too close to their subject for the allegory to resonate or because the movie within the movie seems clumsy compared to the subtlety of the larger film. It’s why Being John Malkovich is so much more beguiling a statement than the more obvious Adaptation. In television, the most unfortunate recent example is UnREAL. You’d expect that a show that was so smart about the making of a reality series would begin to refer intriguingly to itself, and it did, but not in a good way. Its second season was a disappointment, evidently because of the same factors that beset its fictional show Everlasting: interference from the network, conceptual confusion, tensions between producers on the set. It seemed strange that UnREAL, of all shows, could display such a lack of insight into its own problems, but maybe it isn’t so surprising. A good analogy needs to hold us at arm’s length, both to grant some perspective and to allow for surprising discoveries in the gaps. The ballet company in The Red Shoes and the New York Inquirer in Citizen Kane are surrogates for the movie studio, and both films become even more interesting when you realize how much the lead character is a portrait of the director. Sometimes it’s unclear how much of this is intentional, but this doesn’t hurt. So much of any work of art is out of your control that you need to find an approach that automatically converts your liabilities into assets, and you can start by conceiving a premise that encourages the viewer or reader to play along at home.

Which brings us back to Westworld. In her critique, Nussbaum writes: “Westworld [is] a come-hither drama that introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She implies that this is a bug, but it’s really a feature. Westworld wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it weren’t being produced with this cast, on this network, and on this scale. We’re supposed to be impressed by the time and money that have gone into the park—they’ve spared no expense, as John Hammond might say—but it isn’t all that different from the resources that go into a big-budget drama like this. In the most recent episode, “Dissonance Theory,” the show invokes the image of the maze, as we might expect from a series by a Nolan brother: get to the center to the labyrinth, it says, and you’ve won. But it’s more like what Douglas R. Hofstadter describes in I Am a Strange Loop:

What I mean by “strange loop” is—here goes a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out.

This neatly describes both the park and the series. And it’s only through such strange loops, as Hofstadter has long argued, that any complex system—whether it’s the human brain, a robot, or a television show—can hope to achieve full consciousness.

I can dream, can’t I?

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Inception

For years, I’ve been daydreaming about a piece of fan fiction that I’d love to write, although I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to do it. Let’s call it The Carousel. It’s a midquel to Inception, which means that it takes place during the events of the original movie—in this case, after Cobb has assembled his team for the mind heist, but before they’ve actually gone into Fischer’s head. (There’s nothing in the film itself to rule this out: it’s unclear how much time passes after Saito approaches them with the assignment.) Cobb is concerned about Ariadne’s lack of experience, so he proposes that they practice first with a quick, straightforward job. It’s a commission from a striking, mysterious woman in her fifties who wants them to enter her aging father’s dreams to discover the secrets of his past. She is, of course, Sally Draper from Mad Men. The rest of the story follows the team as they invade Don’s mind, burrowing into his memories of his life at Sterling Cooper and the women he loved and lost, and probing ever deeper toward the dark heart of the man who was once known as Dick Whitman. We’d see Arthur and Ariadne trying to blend in at the office holiday party, or maybe Eames going undercover in Korea. And when they emerge from Don’s brain at last, with or without the answers that Sally wants, they’ve all been subtly changed, and they’re ready to go after Fischer. If nothing else, it explains why they’re still wearing those suits.

Alas, I don’t think I’ll ever write this story, mostly because I know I can’t give it the energy and attention it deserves. After I got the idea for the crossover, I decided to put it off until Mad Men finished its run, which would allow me to draw on Don’s full backstory, but the longer I waited, the more obvious it became that I couldn’t justify the investment of time it required. For one thing, I’d want to write it up as a full novel, and to do it justice, I’d have to go back and watch all seven seasons of the series, looking for places in which I could insert Cobb’s team into the background, à la Back to the Future Part II. I’d also want to revisit Inception itself to see if there were any plot holes or contradictions I could explain in the process. In short, it would be a lot of work for a story that I’m not sure anybody else would read, or particularly want to see. But I seem to have incepted myself with it, because I can’t get it out of my head. As with most fanfic, there’s an element of wish fulfillment involved: it allows me to spend a little more time with characters I probably won’t see ever again. Mad Men ended so beautifully that any continuation—like the Sally Draper spinoff series that was pitched in all seriousness at AMC—would only undermine its legacy. And Inception is one of the few recent blockbusters that deliberately makes a sequel impossible, despite the occasional rumblings that we hear along those lines. It won’t happen. But this is why fanfic exists.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

In the meantime, I’ll sometimes try to scratch that itch by reading a novel or short story and mentally casting all the characters with faces from Mad Men. It’s a habit that I picked up years ago, when I first read Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, and I’ve done it since with Airport and a few of John D. MacDonald’s novels. (I still think that Jon Hamm would make a perfect Travis McGee.) And the show maps onto George O. Smith’s stories about the space station Venus Equilateral almost too well. I’ll often do it when reading a story that is best approached as a period piece, thanks either to the author’s intentions or to the passage of time. Picturing Don, Joan, and the rest at least allows me to keep the clothes and hairstyles straight, which is a more significant factor than it might first appear: a book like John Updike’s Couples reads altogether differently when you realize that all of the women would have been dressed like Betty Draper. In other cases, it amounts to a hybrid form of fanfic, enabling the kind of dream casting that still makes me wish, say, for a miniseries version of The Corrections starring the cast of Arrested Development—which just makes me want to read that novel again with those actors in mind, just as I recently went back to Red Dragon while picturing Hugh Dancy as Will. It’s a harmless game, and it can bring out elements of a story that I might have overlooked, just as the casting of a particular movie star in a film can clarify a character in ways that a screenwriter can’t.

And this is just a variation on what happens inside all our heads when we read a novel. Only half of the work is done by the writer on the page; the other half occurs in the reader’s brain, which populates the novel with faces, settings, and images that the author might never have envisioned. What I see when I read a story is drastically different from what appears in your mind’s eye, and we have no way of comparing them directly. (That said, an adaptation can lock certain elements into place for many readers, so that their imaginations run more or less in parallel. Ten years ago, no two fans saw the characters from A Song of Ice and Fire in quite the same way, but thanks to Game of Thrones, I suspect that a lot of readers now just picture Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke, as if a wave function had collapsed into exactly one eigenstate.) The fact that fanfic bridges that gap instantaneously, so that we can immediately see all of our favorite characters, is a large part of its appeal—and the main reason why it’s a flawed school for writers who are still learning their craft. Creating believable characters from scratch is the single hardest aspect of writing, and fanfic allows you to skip that crucial step. Aspiring writers should be wary of it for the same reason that the playwright Willy Russell avoids listening to music or drinking wine while he works: “I think both those things seduce you into thinking that the feelings engendered by the wine or music are present in your work.” That’s true of fanfic, too, and it’s why I’ll probably never end up writing The Carousel. But I can dream, can’t I?

“He had played his part admirably…”

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"Laszlo, the bosun of the megayacht..."

Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 40. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, I briefly discussed the notorious scene in The Dark Knight Rises in which Bruce Wayne reappears—without any explanation whatsoever—in Gotham City. Bane’s henchmen, you might recall, have blown up all the bridges and sealed off the area to the military and law enforcement, and the entire plot hinges on the city’s absolute isolation. Bruce, in turn, has just escaped from a foreign prison, and although its location is left deliberately unspecified, it sure seems like it was in a different hemisphere. Yet what must have been a journey of thousands of miles and a daring incursion is handled in the space of a single cut: Bruce simply shows up, and there isn’t even a line of dialogue acknowledging how he got there. Not surprisingly, this hiatus has inspired a lot of discussion online, with most explanations boiling down to “He’s Batman.” If asked, Christopher Nolan might reply that the specifics don’t really matter, and that the viewer’s attention is properly focused elsewhere, a point that the writer John Gardner once made with reference to Hamlet:

We naturally ask how it is that, when shipped off to what is meant to be his death, the usually indecisive prince manages to hoist his enemies with their own petard—an event that takes place off stage and, at least in the surviving text, gets no real explanation. If pressed, Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to…

Gardner concludes: “The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.” And while this might seem to apply equally well to The Dark Knight Rises, it doesn’t really hold water. The absence of an explanation did yank many of us out of the movie, however briefly, and it took us a minute to settle back in. Any explanation at all would have been better than this, and it could have been conveyed in less than a sentence. It isn’t an issue of plausibility, but of narrative flow. You could say that Bruce’s return to the city ought to be omitted, in the same way a director like Kurosawa mercilessly cuts all transitional moments: when you just need to get a character from Point A to Point B, it’s best to trim the journey as much as you can. In this instance, however, Nolan erred too much on one side, at least in the eyes of many viewers. And it’s a reminder that the rules of storytelling are all about context. You’ve got to judge each problem on its own terms and figure out the solution that makes the most sense in each case.

"He had played his part admirably..."

What’s really fascinating is how frequently Nolan himself seems to struggle with this issue. In terms of sheer technical proficiency, I’d rank him near the top of the list of all working directors, but if he has one flaw as a filmmaker, aside from his lack of humor, it’s his persistent difficulty in finding the right balance between action and exposition. Much of Inception, which is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, consists of the characters breathlessly explaining the plot to one another, and it more or less works. But he also spends much of Interstellar trying with mixed success to figure out how much to tell us about the science involved, leading to scenes like the one in which Dr. Romilly explains the wormhole to Cooper seemingly moments before they enter it. And Nolan is oddly prone to neglecting obligatory beats that the audience needs to assemble the story in their heads, as when Batman appears to abandon a room of innocent party guests to the Joker in The Dark Knight. You could say that such lapses simply reflect the complexity of the stories that Nolan wants to tell, and you might be right. But David Fincher, who is Nolan’s only peer among active directors, tells stories of comparable or greater complexity—indeed, they’re often about their own complexity—and we’re rarely lost or confused. And if I’m hard on Nolan about this, it’s only a reflection of how difficult such issues can be, when even the best mainstream director of his generation has trouble working out how much information the audience needs.

It all boils down to Thomas Pynchon’s arch aside in Gravity’s Rainbow: “You will want cause and effect. All right.” And knowing how much cause will yield the effect you need is a problem that every storyteller has to confront on a regular basis. Chapter 40 of Eternal Empire provides a good example. For the last hundred pages, the novel has been building toward the moment when Ilya sneaks onto the heavily guarded yacht at Yalta. There’s no question that he’s going to do it; otherwise, everything leading up to it would seem like a ridiculous tease. The mechanics of how he gets aboard don’t really matter, but I also couldn’t avoid the issue, or else readers would rightly object. All I needed was a solution that was reasonably plausible and that could be covered in a few pages. As it happens, the previous scene ends with this exchange between Maddy and Ilya: “But you can’t just expect to walk on board.” “That’s exactly what I intend to do.” When I typed those lines, I didn’t know what Ilya had in mind, but I knew at once that they pointed at the kind of simplicity that the story needed, at least at this point in the novel. (If it came later in the plot, as part of the climax, it might have been more elaborate.) So I came up with a short sequence in which Ilya impersonates a dockwalker looking for work on the yacht, cleverly ingratiates himself with the bosun, and slips below when Maddy provides a convenient distraction. It’s a cute scene—maybe a little too cute, in fact, for this particular novel. But it works exactly as well as it should. Ilya is on board. We get just enough cause and effect. And now we can move on to the really good stuff to come…

Gatsby’s fortune and the art of ambiguity

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

In November 1924, the editor Maxwell Perkins received the manuscript of a novel tentatively titled Trimalchio in West Egg. He loved the book—he called it “extraordinary” and “magnificent”—but he also had a perceptive set of notes for its author. Here are a few of them:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport”—not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps…

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course…Now almost all readers numerically are going to feel puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me, thought, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

The novel, of course, ultimately appeared under the title The Great Gatsby, and before it was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald took many of the notes from Perkins to heart, adding more descriptive material on Gatsby himself—along with several repetitions of the phrase “old sport”—and the sources of his mysterious fortune. Like Tay Hohoff, whose work on To Kill a Mockingbird has recently come back into the spotlight, Perkins was the exemplar of the editor as shaper, providing valued insight and active intervention for many of the major writers of his generation: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. But my favorite part of this story lies in Fitzgerald’s response, which I think is one of the most extraordinary glimpses into craft we have from any novelist:

I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.

Which is only to say that there’s a big difference between what an author deliberately withholds and what he doesn’t know himself. And an intelligent reader, like Perkins, will sense it.

On Growth and Form

And it has important implications for the way we create our characters. I’ve never been a fan of the school that advocates working out every detail of a character’s background, from her hobbies to her childhood pets: the questionnaires and worksheets that spring up around this impulse always seem like an excuse for procrastination. My own sense of character is closer to what D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson describes in On Growth and Form, in which an animal’s physical shape is determined largely by the outside pressures to which it is subjected. Plot emerges from character, yes, but there’s also a sense in which character emerges from plot: these men and women are distinguished primarily by the fact that they’re the only people in the world to whom these particular events could happen. When I combine this with my natural distrust of backstory, even if I’m retreating from this a bit, I’ll often find that there are important things about my characters I don’t know myself, even after I’ve lived with them for years. There can even be something a little false about keeping the past constantly present in a character’s mind, as we see in so much “realistic” fiction: even if we’re all the sum of our childhood experiences, in practice, we reveal more about ourselves in how we react to the pattern of forces in our lives at the moment, and our actions have a logic that can be worked out independently, as long as the situation is honestly developed.

But that doesn’t apply to issues, like the sources of Gatsby’s fortune, in which the reader’s curiosity might be reasonably aroused. If you’re going to hint at something, you’d better have a good idea of the answer, even if you don’t plan on sharing it. This applies especially to stories that generate a deliberate ambiguity, as Chris Nolan says of the ending of Inception:

Interviewer: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Interviewer: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated.

Ambiguity, as I’ve said elsewhere, is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. That specificity requires a great deal of knowledge on the author’s part, perhaps more here than anywhere else. And as Fitzgerald notes, if you do it properly, they’ll be too impressed by your knowledge to protest—or they’ll protest in all the right ways.

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