Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Indiana Jones

The road to a classical education

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D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Last week, I read Daniel Mendelsohn’s touching account in The New Yorker of his youthful correspondence with Mary Renault, the author of The King Must Die and other novels set in ancient Greece. Mendelsohn’s tribute to her generosity is very moving, and it’s a story that I think every writer should read, if only to be reminded of how important even small acts of kindness to a fan can be, and the impact they can have on a young person’s life. Most readers will probably take the greatest interest in Mendelsohn’s discussion of how Renault’s novels, with their frank treatment of homosexuality, helped him come to terms with being gay, but I was even more struck by the fact that her books also inspired him to become a classicist. “The writers we absorb when we’re young bind us to them, sometimes lightly, sometimes with iron,” Mendelsohn writes. “In time, the bonds fall away, but if you look very closely you can sometimes make out the pale white groove of a faded scar, or the telltale chalky red of old rust.”

In a sense, the choice of an undergraduate major is one of the few reasonably pure decisions most of us ever make. The process of choosing a career, especially your first job, is usually constrained by many factors out of your control, but in theory, college presents a limitless—and dizzyingly accessible—range of possibilities. I still remember the heady thrill I felt while browsing through the course catalog as a freshman, and the realization that I really could become, say, an astrophysicist, if only I was willing to put in the necessary work. Obviously, going to a good college is a privilege that not everyone can afford, and our choices are probably more limited than they seem: I probably wouldn’t have made much of an astrophysicist, or psychologist, or any of the other professions that briefly seemed so enticing. Yet it’s one of the few times in our lives when we’re at least given the illusion of being able to influence our own fates, even if we’re often too young at the time to really know what we’re doing.

Mary Renault

Like Mendelsohn, my decision to become a classicist was informed by the books I read growing up. First among them is the D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths, a volume I all but memorized in grade school, and which I still think is one of the ten best children’s books ever written. Like all great books for kids, it draws you in at first with its surface pleasures, especially its gorgeous illustrations, only to reveal surprising depths. It’s a wise, intelligent retelling of Greek mythology without a trace of condescension, and it taught me things that came in handy years later in my college classes: I’ll never forget my pride as the only student in my section who recognized an obscure reference to the story of Tithonus, who was transformed into a cicada when his lover, the goddess Eos, asked that he be granted eternal life, but forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. When one of my classmates asked how I knew this, I replied simply: “From D’Aulaires.” And I wasn’t alone: I know for a fact that many of my fellow concentrators could trace their love of classical literature to the same book.

And it was only the first in a long chain of books that led me further down the same path. I have a hunch that my urge to learn Latin and Greek was subconsciously influenced by the Indiana Jones trilogy, in which a knowledge of dead languages was clearly a prerequisite, as well as by my love of such authors as Robert Graves and Umberto Eco, for whom such proficiency was a given. Later, I was haunted by John Gardner’s admonition, in The Art of Fiction, that “the really serious-minded way” for a writer to build his vocabulary was to study classical and modern languages. As a result, when I got to college, I was primed to at least take a few courses in Classics, and would probably have ended up majoring in it anyway even if I hadn’t been given an extra quixotic push by the book Who Killed Homer? But the seeds had been planted long before. My life, like Mendelsohn’s, would have been completely different if you’d taken away only five or six books that I read almost by accident. And I wear their faded scars with pride.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

Indy movies

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On Saturday, my wife and I spent seven hours at the River East theater in Chicago, watching a marathon of the Indiana Jones movies, which I still insist on calling a trilogy, in advance of their release tomorrow on Blu-ray. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen all three films on the big screen—I spent a wonderful day watching them all at the sadly departed UC Theater in Berkeley over a decade ago—but it had been a long time since I’d seen them from start to finish. The experience, I’m happy to say, was close to perfect: the digital prints were gorgeous, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, and the movies were as satisfying as ever. And the fact that we left before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t diminish my appreciation for what the original trilogy achieved. Like everyone else, I’m critical of George Lucas: he remains, as David Thomson notes, the saddest of moguls, and his career over the last twenty years has consisted of one long retreat. And yet with these three films, he shaped and enriched my inner life more than any other filmmaker, and for that, I’m forever grateful.

Of the three, Raiders is by far the most cinematically exciting: it was made when Steven Spielberg was still only thirty-four, with the greatest natural eye in movie history, and the result is dazzlingly assembled—it may be his most technically thrilling film of any kind. A great deal of this can be credited to the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, which pulls off the difficult job of moving between set pieces conceived by the director and producer while lavishing every scene with ingenious and delightful beats. (Even so modest a sequence as the “bad dates” scene is a small masterpiece of acting, writing, editing, and direction.) The script for Temple of Doom, by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, is far more problematic, and the connective material is considerably less graceful, but the big set pieces—the opening sequence in Shanghai, the spike room, the mine car chase—reach dizzying heights. By comparison, the action in Last Crusade is competent, inventive, but less divinely inspired, and there isn’t an action sequence here that really holds up with the best of the first two movies.

Yet Last Crusade has always been my favorite of the three, and one of my favorite movies of any kind, which gets at a very important point: these films aren’t about action or special effects, as fine as they may be, but about a certain spirit, a promise about the kinds of experiences and adventures that the movies can offer us, and Last Crusade captures that spirit perfectly. It’s both endearingly innocent and highly sophisticated, and it expresses, as Truffaut would have said, both an idea of life and an idea of cinema—and the fact that the ideas are straight out of a boy’s book of adventures doesn’t make them any less moving or less true. Looking back, I’ve begun to realize that it’s as responsible as any movie for the direction my own life has taken: I saw it when I was about ten years old, and it was arguably the first in a sequence of books, movies, and television shows that convinced me that I wanted to tell stories for a living. Other movies have since become more important to me, and I fully see its limitations, but few works of art have ever seized my imagination in quite the same way.

And its spirit is one that I’ve been trying to recapture in my own work ever since. One night after college, I was watching Temple of Doom with my family when I dozed off near the end and awoke as the closing credits began to roll. Somehow, in that moment between sleep and waking, I heard something in the score by John Williams—it’s the unbearably beautiful theme that appears in “Slave Children’s Crusade”—that I’d never heard before: it seemed to crystallize, in a few bars of music, everything that I hoped to accomplish as a storyteller. My first novel, a long adventure story set in India, may have been my subconscious effort to work out that one moment of dreamlike inspiration. And while that novel remains unpublished, one of the great challenges I now face as a writer is gradually nudging my work back to that theme, which has been reduced to a subtle, almost imperceptible note in my published novels and stories. I’m still trying to figure out what shape it will take. But it’s there. And I have a hunch that Indy will be the one to show me the way.

What makes a good MacGuffin?

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Reading over my thoughts from yesterday on the concept of the MacGuffin, I realize that an attentive reader might argue that I’ve mixed up cause and effect. I imply that some MacGuffins are more interesting than others, but isn’t that just because the movies surrounding them are better at persuading me to care? Isn’t MacGuffin in a good movie always more interesting, by definition, than a similar plot point in a bad one? Take the Sankara stones. Viewers have always been divided over the merits of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which I love—but there’s no denying that the magical rocks at the heart of the story are a little lame. They’re arguably less interesting, as artifacts, than the crystal skull that so many of us would like to forget. Yet yesterday I listed them, with a completely straight face, next to the Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in a list of great MacGuffins, even though I’m still not entirely sure what those stones are supposed to do. The Sankara stones, in short, were clearly grandfathered in on account of my affection for my favorite movie franchise. Which suggests that conventional wisdom may be right, and the nature of the MacGuffin doesn’t really matter.

This is probably true, to a point. But I’d argue that while the Sankara stones may not be especially interesting, the Kali cult—with its ties to Gunga Din—certainly is. And while the stones almost certainly appeared in Temple of Doom after the decision to set the film in India had already been made, once the stones were in place, the movie found some exciting ways to use them. A good MacGuffin, you see, is one that takes a story to interesting places, both for the writer and the audience. Can it generate conflict on its own? No. But at its best, it provides the sort of richness and imaginative texture that can only make a good story better. True, an audience will always respond more to character and conflict than to a MacGuffin presented out of context. But I can’t imagine an audience that wouldn’t welcome a clever MacGuffin as a sort of bonus, a plum in the pudding of the story, or relish the chance to explore it with a hero the viewer cares about. A good MacGuffin plays the same role as the locations and gadgets in a Bond movie: no replacement for story, but still great fun when properly used.

For the writer, in turn, a good MacGuffin—that is, one that seizes the author’s own imagination and interest—can open up the action of a story in surprising ways. My first novel, The Icon Thief, is built around the theft of a painting, and for purposes of the plot, it could have been just about any work of art produced by a famous artist before a certain point in history. After weeks of reading books of art history in search of a suitable work, however, I settled on an imaginary study for Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, one of the most fascinating works of art in any museum. I could have chosen a painting by Picasso or Matisse or Bonnard, or something that wasn’t a painting at all. But once I settled on Duchamp, I found myself entering an entire world of unexplored stories and ideas. If I’d chosen something else, ninety percent of the action of the novel would have unfolded in exactly the same way (although the ending probably would have been different). Yet I can’t help but think that Duchamp gave the story greater interest, texture, and emotional depth, once I learned to care about him in the way that my characters would.

That’s why I feel that choosing an arbitrary or meaningless MacGuffin is a mistake, or at least a miscalculation: it robs the author of a valuable source of narrative inspiration, which can be used to fuel the story itself. In the end, a good MacGuffin has the same quality as any useful aspect of fiction: it opens more doors than it closes. As in improv comedy, where performers are encouraged to say “Yes, and…” to every idea, the writer looks for elements that will lead him to surprising places, rather than locking him down. The humble MacGuffin, so neglected and disdained by those who should know better, can be the engine that drives the story for both the characters and the author. It can suggest action, location, atmosphere, background—everything, in short, except conflict itself. And while it’s possible that a writer will be so entranced by his MacGuffin that he neglects to create interesting characters, a tendency that one often sees in members of the Dan Brown school, that’s going to be a risk in any case. But once the crucial elements are in place, I can’t conceive of a story that wouldn’t be enriched by the web of associations evoked by a great MacGuffin.

Written by nevalalee

January 11, 2012 at 10:00 am

Tintin and the secret of the MacGuffin

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For the second time this week, I find myself reviewing a movie based on a beloved work of art about which I know practically nothing. Yesterday, it was the novels of John le Carré; today, it’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. And while I’ve always found le Carré dauntingly formidable, if anything, Hergé has the opposite problem—there’s almost too much good stuff here, and it’s all very enticing. (The A.V. Club has a nice Gateways to Geekery on the subject that seems like a good place to start.) Steven Spielberg’s earnest adaptation, while far from perfect, is enough to make me want to take the leap into the comics at last: as a character, Tintin is paper-thin, but winning, and I probably would have been obsessed by the movie that surrounds him if I’d seen it at the age of eight. As it stands, for all its energy, wit, and visual invention, it never takes hold in the way it constantly seems on the point of doing, and the problem, I think, lies in the secret of the Unicorn itself. In short, it lies in the MacGuffin.

A MacGuffin, of course, is the object or plot element that drives a work of fiction. The term was coined by Hitchcock, but Spielberg knows it as well as anyone, having structured the Indiana Jones series around three unforgettable objects: the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara stones, and the Holy Grail. (We’ll just pretend that the crystal skull never happened, as Spielberg himself seems increasingly inclined to do.) Tintin takes its cues from Indy in more ways than one—although this may simply be a case of inspiration returning at last to its original source—so obviously the story is structured around a similar quest: three parchments, hidden within three model ships, leading to a legendary treasure. And what is the treasure, you ask? Well, it’s…treasure. Four hundredweight of pirate gold, as we’re repeatedly reminded, sunk at the bottom of the sea. That’s a lot of gold. Yet even as the movie worked its sometimes exhausting magic, I felt a bit of a sinking feeling myself, once I realized that the object of Tintin’s quest was going to be nothing but a convenient haul of pirate booty.

Conventional wisdom holds that the MacGuffin itself doesn’t matter; the important thing, we’re told, is the desire and conflict it arouses in the characters. Every few years, then, someone has the fashionable idea to construct a MacGuffin around nothing at all: the “government secrets” of North by Northwest, the mysterious briefcases of Ronin and Pulp Fiction, the Rabbit’s Foot of Mission: Impossible III. To a point, the conventional wisdom is right: we aren’t going to care about any object, no matter how shrouded in importance, if we don’t care about the characters, too. Yet part of me insists that a storyteller should at least pretend to find the MacGuffin interesting, and worth taking seriously, especially if the characters will be wholly defined by their quest. It would be one thing if Tintin had an emotional stake in the chase, or even, like Indy, an inner life, but he’s characterized solely by his pluck in pursuit of that pirate treasure. And I’m past the point where I’m intrigued by pirate treasure for its own sake.

And that’s the real problem. An interesting MacGuffin doesn’t guarantee interesting characters, but a boring one will make the characters boring, too, if the MacGuffin is all they want. A director with great stars and superb confidence in his craft, like Hitchcock or the John Huston of The Maltese Falcon, can get away with a MacGuffin spun out of thin air, but for most works of art, it’s probably safer to go with something less arbitrary. This lesson is lost, unfortunately, on writers and directors who have been told that MacGuffins don’t matter, but still haven’t figured out why. Tintin is the third movie in less than two months built around a MacGuffin that the movie barely bothers to develop, after the nuclear codes of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and the unspoken secrets of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Both films get away with it because of the level of skill involved, as does Tintin, to a point. But then I think of Indy at the Well of Souls, and I’m reminded that a MacGuffin can be far more. It can be something that gets in your dreams.

Written by nevalalee

January 10, 2012 at 10:00 am

Frank Darabont and the screenplay of doom

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Writers are hired and fired from movies all the time, but few departures were more widely reported than Frank Darabont’s exit from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Darabont himself has expressed amazement that the media cared so much: “Where were you guys when that other script four years ago went in the shitter? You weren’t paying attention because it wasn’t Spielberg, and it wasn’t Lucas, and it wasn’t Indiana Jones.” But it was hard not to care, especially when the movie itself turned out to be such a disappointment. For all its other problems, the story was especially weak, and it was common knowledge that Darabont had written a draft that Spielberg loved, but Lucas rejected. (As I’ve said before, Hollywood is the kind of place where the man who wrote The Shawshank Redemption is getting script notes from the guy who wrote Attack of the Clones.)

So it became almost an article of faith that the Darabont version would have resulted in a much better movie. And yet Darabont’s Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, which I finally read over the weekend, isn’t all that great either. It’s incrementally more interesting than the final version, with some nice action scenes and a much better understanding of the relationship between Indy and Marion. There’s a pleasant air of intrigue and a few inspired double-crosses (which makes the insipid “triple agent” of the final version all the more infuriating). But the machinery of the plot takes a long time to get going, the central adventure never quite takes hold, and I missed Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, if not Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt. If I had been Lucas, I probably would have asked for a rewrite as well. But the real takeaway is that no rewrite could have made up for the shakiness of the underlying conception.

The trouble is that in any version, the crystal skull simply isn’t an interesting artifact. Darabont himself seems slightly bored by it, and doesn’t bother explaining what it does or why it matters until the script is halfway over. Even in the last act, when we finally enter the City of the Gods, we aren’t quite sure what the big deal is. Compared to a movie like Last Crusade, which had a wonderful screenplay by Jeffrey Boam that made the emotional stakes exceptionally clear, it’s hard to forgive this kind of narrative confusion, especially when the payoff is so underwhelming. (Its treatment in the final version of the script, as written by David Koepp, is even less satisfying: instead of searching for the skull, most of the movie is devoted to putting it back where it came from, which isn’t the best way to build narrative momentum.)

Of course, you could argue that the artifact is less important than the man pursuing it: Temple of Doom, after all, is essentially about the recovery of some sacred rocks. But City of the Gods is an uncomfortable reminder that we aren’t interested in the things Indy does because we like Indiana Jones; we like Indiana Jones because he does interesting things. Without a decent plot, he becomes the Harrison Ford of the past decade, the man David Thomson accurately saw as a “limited, anxious actor” with little interest in charming the audience. Given the right material, Ford can be wonderful, but he was never an actor who could elevate a film simply with his own presence. He needed Indy as much as Indy needed him. And neither Darabont nor his successors, alas, could ever quite figure out how to bring Indy back.

Steven Spielberg and the child’s eye

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Because I left for London halfway through the Super Bowl, and was away from my desk for the rest of the week, I’ve only just now seen the latest trailer for Super 8, in which J.J. Abrams clearly stakes his claim to be the next Steven Spielberg. Whether Abrams can pull it off remains unknown: he’s tremendously gifted, but his talents, even on the big screen, are those of a brilliant writer and television producer, while Spielberg—who is credited as a producer on Super 8—has nothing less than the greatest eye in movies. Still, this trailer, which includes more references to Spielberg’s early work than I thought were possible in less than thirty seconds, gives me an excuse to talk about one of the most unexpectedly fascinating careers in American film. And there’s no better place to start than with the trailer’s final shot, that of a child staring at something unimaginable offscreen, which remains the central image in all of Spielberg’s work.

The first thing to realize about Spielberg, whose work is thematically richer than many of his critics like to admit, is that his films fall into two categories: that of real life shading imperceptibly into the unknown, and that in which the unknown—which includes the historical, the futuristic, and the fantastic—takes center stage. The first category, with its elements of the director’s own autobiography, is the dominant mode in Spielberg’s early work, most notably in Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and the producer’s sidelights of Poltergeist, Gremlins, and The Goonies. Those early films display an interest in the lives of small towns, and of children, that Spielberg seems to have lost in recent years, perhaps as an inevitable result of fame and incredible wealth. Even his most impressive later work, from Schindler’s List to Munich, lacks the urgency of those suburban stories, which may be why the evocation of that period in the Super 8 trailer fills me with such fierce nostalgia.

Of course, this raises the question of where to put the Indiana Jones series, still a trilogy in my own heart, which is both Spielberg’s least personal work and his greatest achievement. Watching those films now, they seem increasingly outside the main line of Spielberg’s development, and much more the work of George Lucas, which goes a long way toward explaining why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was so disappointing. And the almost complete absence of children is especially striking. As much as I love Short Round, he’s more of a tiny adult than a real boy, and none of Temple of Doom takes place through his eyes, much less those of the child slaves in the background. In Spielberg’s early work, by contrast, many of the greatest moments of awe and terror are filtered through a child’s perspective: the abducted boy in Close Encounters, the girl who vanishes in Poltergeist, even the little boy devoured in Jaws.

And yet the Indiana Jones trilogy remains a child’s dream of what it means to be a man—whether an archaeologist, a professor, or even a writer of thrilling stories. Despite the lack of children, the child’s point of view isn’t gone: it disappears from the movie, but embeds itself in the audience. With a nod to the impeccable taste of Carey Mulligan, who calls it her favorite film, no work of art takes me back to my boyhood like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which remains the movie that cuts closest to the reasons why I want to tell stories for a living. Of Hitchcock, David Thomson says, “His great films are only partly his; they also belong to the minds that interpret them.” The same is true, in a way, of Indy, but it has nothing to do with interpretation. Pull back from the screen, and the missing children are there, in the audience, relishing a boy wonder’s vision of what it means to be a grownup. If Super 8 can generate even a fraction of that wonder, Abrams can begin to set himself against Spielberg. Until then, he can only get in line.

George Lucas: Writer of a Lost Art

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As long as we’re on the subject of beloved artists who experienced a marked decline in quality, let’s talk about…George Lucas. (Because, obviously, no one has ever discussed this before.) I’m not going to go into all the ways that Lucas’s recent work has been disappointing—you have the entire Internet for that—but I do think it’s important to highlight the ways in which Lucas was, at his best, a remarkable writer.

Exhibit A is the famous transcript, which appeared online last year, of an early story conference for Raiders of the Lost Ark. (You can find a nice clean copy here.) Seated around a table with Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan, Lucas spins out one idea after another, laying the groundwork not only for Raiders but for the entire Indiana Jones series. The whole transcript is worth a look, but there are a few particular moments that are especially valuable. Here’s Lucas on the importance of a structured plan, and the usefulness of making lists:

In the end I want to end up with a list of scenes. And the way I work generally is I figure a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes depending on which scale you want to work on. A thirty scene thing means that each scene is going to be around four pages long. A sixty one means that every scene is going to run twenty pages long…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out. Especially a thing like this.

(The process might sound mechanical, but in my own experience, nearly all complex narratives begin in a similar way: you start with ideas for a certain number of scenes, and know you’ll need a certain number of chapters, so you do your best to make the two numbers fit.)

On plausibility:

The trouble with cliff hangers is, you get somebody into something, you sort have to get them out in a plausible way. A believable way, anyway. That’s another important concept of the movie—that it be totally believable.

On the proper use of backstory:

We’ve established that he’s a college professor. It doesn’t have to be done in a strong way. It starts out in a museum. They just call him doctor this and doctor that. We can very easily make that transition, and very quickly establish that whole side of his character. [Italics mine.]

Finally, this wonderful moment:

Spielberg: One thing you should do—He’s on this airplane. There are about four or five passengers around him. He’s asleep and these passengers are looking at him. We don’t know why. They they all get up and put on parachutes, and they jump out the door. He wakes up when he hears the door open, and realizes he’s all alone. The door to the cockpit is locked. The airplane begins to go into a spin. He’s trapped in this airplane and it’s going down. The whole thing was a set up. That’s a great cliffhanger, to see how he gets out.

Lucas: That’s great. Then what happens? One sentence further and it’s a great idea. [Italics mine, of course.]

So what happened between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? The simplest answer: for Raiders, Lucas was working for a studio. For Crystal Skull, he was the studio. Raiders was made under a surprising number of limitations—Spielberg had just come off the notorious flop 1941, and was anxious to prove that he could deliver a movie on time and under budget—while Crystal Skull had no limitations at all. And without limitations, as I’ve pointed out before, an artist is free to indulge in all of his worst impulses, until the small moments of ingenuity that made him so special are gone.

Remember, above all else: a good artist needs to be criticized. Every writer needs a handful of early readers whose feedback he or she trusts. At first, it will probably be one or two close friends; later, hopefully, it will be an editor. But Lucas is the richest man in Hollywood; he produces and owns the Star Wars franchise outright; he doesn’t need to listen to critics. And he might reasonably argue that he doesn’t have to. But no matter what your level of success, you need someone to tell you when you’ve lost your way. And Lucas, sad to say, hasn’t had this for a long time.

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