Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Cameron

The bedtime story

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Earlier this morning, I finally got my hands on the companion book to James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, which is airing this month on AMC. Naturally, I immediately looked for references to the four main subjects of Astounding, and the passage that caught my eye first was an exchange between Cameron and Steven Spielberg:

Spielberg: The working title of E.T. was Watch the Skies. Which is sort of the last line from The Thing. I just remember looking at the sky because of the influence of my father, and saying, only good should come from that. If it ain’t an ICBM coming from the Soviet Union, only good should come from beyond our gravitational hold…He was a visionary about that, yet he read all the Analog. Those paperbacks? And Amazing Stories, the paperbacks of that. I used to read that along with him. Sometimes, he’d read those books to me, those little tabloids to me at night.

Cameron: Asimov, Heinlein, all those guys were all published in those pulp magazines.

Spielberg: They were all published in those magazines, and a lot of them were optimists. They weren’t always calculating our doom. They were finding ways to open up our imagination and get us to dream and get us to discover and get us to contribute to the greater good.

The discussion quickly moves on to other subjects, but not before hinting at the solution to a mystery that I’ve been trying to figure out for years, which is why the influence of Astounding and its authors can be so hard to discern in the work of someone like Spielberg. In part, it’s a matter of timing. Spielberg was born in 1946, which means that he would have been thirteen when John W. Campbell announced that that his magazine was changing its title to Analog. As a result, at a point at which he should have been primed to devour science fiction, Spielberg doesn’t seem to have found its current incarnation all that interesting, for which you can hardly blame him. Instead, his emotional associations with the pulps were evidently passed down through his father, Arnold Spielberg, an electrical engineer who worked for General Electric and RCA. The elder Spielberg, remarkably, is still active at the age of 101, and just two months ago, he said in an interview with GE Reports:

I was also influenced by science fiction. There were twins in our neighborhood who read one of the first sci-fi magazines, called Astounding Stories of Science and Fact. They gave me one copy, and when I brought it home, I was hooked. The magazine is now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and I still get it.

And while I don’t think that there’s any way of verifying it, if Arnold Spielberg—the father of Steven Spielberg—isn’t the oldest living subscriber to Analog, he must be close.

This sheds light on his son’s career, although perhaps not in the way that you might think. Spielberg is such a massively important figure that his very existence realigns the history of the genre, and when he speaks of his influences, we need to be wary of the shadow cast by his inescapable personality. But there’s no denying the power—and truth—of the image of Arnold Spielberg reading from the pulps aloud to his son. It feels like an image from one of Spielberg’s own movies, which has been shaped from the beginning by the tradition of oral storytelling. (It’s worth noting, though, that the father might recall things differently than the son. In his biography of the director, Joseph McBride quotes Arnold Spielberg: “I’ve been reading science fiction since I was seven years old, all the way back to the earliest Amazing Stories. Amazing, Astounding, Analog—I still subscribe. I still read ’em. My kids used to complain, ‘Dad’s in the bathroom with a science-fiction magazine. We can’t get in.'”) For Spielberg, the stories seem inextricably linked with the memory of being taken outside by his father to look at the stars:

My father was the one that introduced me to the cosmos. He’s the one who built—from a big cardboard roll that you roll rugs on—a two-inch reflecting telescope with an Edmund Scientific kit that he had sent away for. [He] put this telescope together, and then I saw the moons of Jupiter. It was the first thing he pointed out to me. I saw the rings of Saturn around Saturn. I’m six, seven years old when this all happened.

Spielberg concludes: “Those were the stories, and just looking up at the sky, that got me to realize, if I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace.”

But it also testifies to the ways in which a strong personality will take exactly what it needs from its source material. Elsewhere in the interview, there’s another intriguing reference:

Spielberg: I always go for the heart first. Of course, sometimes I go for the heart so much I get a little bit accused of sentimentality, which I’m fine [with] because…sometimes I need to push it a little further to reach a little deeper into a society that is a little less sentimental than they were when I was a young filmmaker.

Cameron: You pushed it in the same way that John W. Campbell pushed science fiction [forward] from the hard-tech nerdy guys who had to put PhD after their name to write science fiction. It was all just about the equations and the math and the physics [and evolved to become much more] human stories [about] the human heart.

I see what Cameron is trying to say here, but if you’ve read enough of the magazine that turned into Analog, this isn’t exactly the impression that it leaves. It’s true that Campbell put a greater emphasis than most of his predecessors on characterization, at least in theory, but the number of stories that were about “the human heart” can be counted on two hands, and none were exactly Spielbergian—although they might seem that way when filtered through the memory of his father’s voice. And toward the end, the nerds took over again. In Dangerous Visions, which was published in 1967, Harlan Ellison wrote of “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” It was the latter version of the magazine that Spielberg would have seen as a boy—which may be why, when the time came, he made a television show called Amazing Stories.

One breath, one blink

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Gene Hackman in The Conversation

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 14, 2017.

A while back, my wife, who is a professional podcaster, introduced me to the concept of the “breath” in audio editing. When you’re putting together an episode for a medium like radio, you often find yourself condensing an interview or splicing together two segments, and you can run into trouble when those edits interfere with the speaker’s natural breathing rhythms. As an excellent tutorial from NPR explains it:

Breaths are a problem when they are upcut or clipped. An upcut breath is one that is edited so it’s incomplete (or “chopped”)—only the first or last part is audible…Missing breaths are just that—breaths that have been removed or silenced. They sound unnatural and can cause some listeners to feel tense…Breaths are also problematic when they don’t match the cadence of the speech (i.e. a short, quick breath appears in the middle of a slower passage)…

When editing breaths, listen closely to the beginning and end. If replacing a breath, choose one that matches the cadence and tone of the words around it.

For example, a short, quick breath is useful during an interruption or an excited, quick-paced reply. A longer breath is appropriate for a relaxed, measured response…As a rule of thumb, do not remove breaths—it sounds unnatural.

I’m particularly interested in the idea that a poorly edited breath can make the listener feel anxious without knowing it, which reminds me of something that the film editor Walter Murch says in his book In The Blink of an Eye. Murch writes that when he was editing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, he noticed that Harry Caul, the character played by Gene Hackman, would frequently blink around the point where he had decided to make a cut. “It was interesting,” Murch says, “but I didn’t know what to make of it.” Then he happened to read an interview with the director John Huston that shed an unexpected light on the subject:

To me, the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes…Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.

Murch was fascinated by this, and he began to pay closer attention to blinking’s relationship to emotional or cognitive states. He concluded that blinks tend to occur at instants in which an internal separation of thought has taken place, either to help it along or as an involuntary reflex that coincides with a moment of transition. (It also reminds me a little of the work of the philosopher Andy Clark, who notes, as Huston did, that the mind only processes a scene when something changes.)

Walter Murch

As Murch writes in In the Blink of an Eye: “Start a conversation with somebody and watch when they blink. I believe you will find that your listener will blink at the precise moment he or she ‘gets’ the idea of what you are saying, not an instant earlier or later…And that blink will occur where a cut could have happened, had the conversation been filmed.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that an editor should worry about when the actors are blinking, but that if he or she is making the cut in the right spot, as a kind of visual punctuation, the blinks and the cuts will coincide anyway. Apart from Murch’s anecdotal observations, I don’t know if this phenomenon has ever been studied in detail, but it’s intriguing. For instance, it suggests that breathing in audio and blinking in film are two aspects of the same thing. Both are physiological phenomena, but they’re also connected with cognition in profound ways, especially when we’re trying to communicate with others. When we’re talking to someone else, we don’t stop to breathe in arbitrary places, but at moments when the sense of what we’re saying has reached a natural break. Hence the function of the comma, which is a visual marker that sets apart clauses or units of information on the page, as well as a vestigial trace of the pause that would have occurred in conversation—even if we usually don’t stop when we’re reading it silently to ourselves. And I’ve spoken elsewhere of the relationship between breathing and the length of sentences or lines of poetry, in which the need to breathe is inseparable from the necessity of pausing for consolidation or comprehension.

Editors care about these issues because they’re essentially playing a confidence trick. They’re trying to create an impression of continuity while assembling many discrete pieces, and if they fail to honor the logic of the breath or the blink, the listener or viewer will subconsciously sense it. This is the definition of a thankless task, because you’ll never notice it when it works, and when it doesn’t, you probably won’t even be able to articulate the problem. I suspect that the uneasiness caused by a poorly edited stretch of audio or film is caused by the rhythms of one’s own body falling out of sync with the story: when a work of art is flowing properly, we naturally adjust ourselves to its rhythms, and a dropped or doubled breath can shake us out of that sense of harmony. After a while, addressing this becomes a matter of instinct, and a skilled editor will unconsciously take these factors into account, much as an author eventually learns to write smoothly without worrying about it too much. We only become aware of it when something feels wrong. (It’s also worth paying close attention to it during the revision phase. The NPR tutorial notes that problems with breaths can occur when the editor tries to “nickel and dime” an interview to make it fit within a certain length. And when James Cameron tried to cut Terminator 2 down to its contractual length by removing just a single frame per second from the whole movie, he found that the result was unwatchable.) When we’re awake, no matter what else we might be doing, we’re breathing and blinking. And it’s a testament to the challenges that all editors face that they can’t even take breathing for granted.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2018 at 8:23 am

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

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Note: To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the release of Titanic, I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 16, 2012.

Is it possible to watch Titanic again with fresh eyes? Was it ever possible? When I caught Titanic 3D five years ago in Schaumburg, Illinois, it had been a decade and a half since I last saw it. (I’ve since watched it several more times, mostly while writing an homage in my novel Eternal Empire.) On its initial release, I liked it a lot, although I wouldn’t have called it the best movie of a year that gave us L.A. Confidential, and since then, I’d revisited bits and pieces of it on television, but had never gone back and watched the whole thing. All the same, my memories of it remained positive, if somewhat muted, so I was curious to see what my reaction would be, and what I found is that this is a really good, sometimes even great movie that looks even better with time. Once we set aside our preconceived notions, we’re left with a spectacularly well-made film that takes a lot of risks and seems motivated by a genuine, if vaguely adolescent, fascination with the past, an unlikely labor of love from a prodigiously talented director who willed himself into a genre that no one would have expected him to understand—the romantic epic—and emerged with both his own best work and a model of large-scale popular storytelling.

So why is this so hard for some of us to admit? The trouble, I think, is that the factors that worked so strongly in the film’s favor—its cinematography, special effects, and art direction; its beautifully choreographed action; its incredible scale—are radically diminished on television, which was the only way that it could be seen for a long time. On the small screen, we lose all sense of scope, leaving us mostly with the charisma of its two leads and conventional dramatic elements that James Cameron has never quite been able to master. Seeing Titanic in theaters again reminds us of why we responded to it in the first place. It’s also easier to appreciate that it was made at precisely the right moment in movie history, an accident of timing that allowed it to take full advantage of digital technology while still deriving much of its power from stunts, gigantic sets, and practical effects. If it were made again today, even by Cameron himself, it’s likely that much of this spectacle would be rendered on computers, which would be a major aesthetic loss. A huge amount of this film’s appeal lies in its physicality, in those real crowds and flooded stages, all of which can only be appreciated in the largest venue possible. Titanic is still big; it’s the screens that got small.

It’s also time to retire the notion that James Cameron is a bad screenwriter. It’s true that he doesn’t have any ear for human conversation, and that he tends to freeze up when it comes to showing two people simply talking—I’m morbidly curious to see what he’d do with a conventional drama, but I’m not sure that I want to see the result. Yet when it comes to structuring exciting stories on the largest possible scale, and setting up and delivering climactic set pieces and payoffs, he’s without equal. I’m a big fan of Christopher Nolan, for instance—I think he’s the most interesting mainstream filmmaker alive—but his films can seem fussy and needlessly intricate compared to the clean, powerful narrative lines that Cameron sets up here. (The decision, for instance, to show us a simulation of the Titanic’s sinking before the disaster itself is a masterstroke: it keeps us oriented throughout an hour of complex action that otherwise would be hard to understand.) Once the movie gets going, it never lets up. It moves toward its foregone conclusion with an efficiency, confidence, and clarity that Peter Jackson, or even Spielberg, would have reason to envy. And its production was one of the last great adventures—apart from The Lord of the Rings—that Hollywood ever allowed itself.

Despite James Cameron’s reputation as a terror on the set, I met him once, and he was very nice to me. In 1998, as an overachieving high school senior, I was a delegate at the American Academy of Achievement’s annual Banquet of the Golden Plate in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an extraordinarily surreal event that I hope to discuss in more detail one of these days. The high point of the weekend was the banquet itself, a black-tie affair in a lavish indoor auditorium with the night’s honorees—a range of luminaries from science, politics, and the arts—seated in alphabetical order at the periphery of the room. One of them was James Cameron, who had swept the Oscars just a few months earlier. Halfway through the evening, leaving my own seat, I went up to his table to say hello, only to find him surrounded by a flock of teenage girls anxious to know what it was like to work with Leonardo DiCaprio. Seeing that there was no way of approaching him yet, I chatted for a bit with a man seated nearby, who hadn’t attracted much, if any, attention. We made small talk for a minute or two, but when I saw an opening with Cameron, I quickly said goodbye, leaving the other guest on his own. It was Dick Cheney.

Written by nevalalee

December 20, 2017 at 9:00 am

One breath, one blink

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Gene Hackman in The Conversation

A few weeks ago, my wife, who is a professional podcaster, introduced me to the concept of the “breath” in audio editing. When you’re putting together an episode, you often find yourself condensing an interview or splicing together two segments, and you can run into trouble when those edits interfere with the speaker’s natural breathing rhythms. As an excellent tutorial from NPR explains it:

Breaths are a problem when they are upcut or clipped. An upcut breath is one that is edited so it’s incomplete (or “chopped”)—only the first or last part is audible…Missing breaths are just that—breaths that have been removed or silenced. They sound unnatural and can cause some listeners to feel tense…Breaths are also problematic when they don’t match the cadence of the speech (i.e. a short, quick breath appears in the middle of a slower passage)…

When editing breaths, listen closely to the beginning and end. If replacing a breath, choose one that matches the cadence and tone of the words around it.

For example, a short, quick breath is useful during an interruption or an excited, quick-paced reply. A longer breath is appropriate for a relaxed, measured response…As a rule of thumb, do not remove breaths—it sounds unnatural.

As I read this, I grew particularly interested in the idea that a poorly edited breath can make the listener feel anxious without knowing it, which reminded me of what the film editor Walter Murch says in his book In The Blink of an Eye. Murch writes that when he was editing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, he noticed that Harry Caul, the character played by Gene Hackman, would frequently blink around the point where he had decided to make a cut. “It was interesting,” Murch says, “but I didn’t know what to make of it.” Then he happened to read an interview with the director John Huston that shed an unexpected light on the subject:

To me, the perfect film is as thought it were unwinding behind your eyes…Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.

Murch was fascinated by this, and he began to pay closer attention to blinking’s relationship to emotional or cognitive states. He concluded that blinks tend to occur at instants in which an internal separation of thought has taken place, either to help it along or as an involuntary reflex that coincides with a moment of transition.

Walter Murch

As Murch writes: “Start a conversation with somebody and watch when they blink. I believe you will find that your listener will blink at the precise moment he or she ‘gets’ the idea of what you are saying, not an instant earlier or later…And that blink will occur where a cut could have happened, had the conversation been filmed.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that an editor should worry about when the actors are blinking, but that if he or she is making the cut in the right spot, as a kind of visual punctuation, the blinks and the cuts will coincide anyway. Apart from Murch’s anecdotal observations, I don’t know if this phenomenon has ever been studied in detail, but it’s intriguing. It’s also evident that breathing in audio and blinking in film are two aspects of the same thing. Both are physiological phenomena, but they’re also connected with cognition in profound ways, especially when we’re trying to communicate with others. When we’re talking to someone else, we don’t stop to breathe in arbitrary places, but at moments when the sense of what we’re saying has reached a natural break. Hence the function of the comma, which is a visual marker that sets apart clauses or units of information on the page, as well as a vestigial trace of the pause that would have occurred in conversation, even if we don’t stop when we’re reading it silently to ourselves. And I’ve spoken elsewhere of the relationship between breathing and the length of sentences or lines of poetry, in which the need to breathe is inseparable from the necessity of pausing for consolidation or comprehension.

What makes these issues important to editors is that they’re essentially playing a confidence trick. They’re trying to create an impression of continuity while assembling many discrete pieces, and if they fail to honor the logic of the breath or the blink, the listener or viewer will subconsciously sense it. This is the definition of a thankless task, because you’ll never notice it when it works, and when it doesn’t, you probably won’t even be able to articulate the problem. I suspect that the uneasiness caused by a badly edited stretch of audio or film is caused by the rhythms of one’s own body falling out of sync with the story: when a work of art is flowing properly, we naturally adjust ourselves to its rhythms, and a dropped or doubled breath can shake us out of that sense of harmony. After a while, addressing this becomes a matter of instinct, and a skilled editor will unconsciously take these factors into account, much as an author eventually learns to write smoothly without worrying about it too much. We only become aware of it when something feels wrong. (It’s also worth paying close attention to it during the revision phase. The NPR tutorial notes that problems with breaths can occur when the editor tries to “nickel and dime” an interview to make it fit within a certain length. And when James Cameron tried to cut Terminator 2 down to its contractual length by removing just a single frame per second from the whole movie, he found that the result was unwatchable.) When we’re awake, no matter what else we might be doing, we’re breathing and blinking. And it’s a testament to the challenges that editors face that they can’t even take breathing for granted.

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2017 at 9:08 am

“She stared at the burning ship…”

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"There was no one else there..."

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 51. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, an animated video was released online that showed the sinking of the Titanic rendered in real time—all two hours and forty minutes of it. Watching it in shorter stretches is a surprisingly compelling experience, no matter where you start it playing. You’re struck, above all, by just how little seems to happen for so long, until the horrifying ending, in which the bulk of the ship is sucked underwater in less than ninety seconds. It’s riveting, but it’s also a rebuke to conventional narrative. And the Titanic story presents other problems as well. It’s hard to maintain clarity and momentum on any ship sinking at night. You’re dealing with the constrained geography of a big ship itself, in which it can be hard to keep track of where people are and what they’re doing, much of which has to be described using an unfamiliar vocabulary. Darkness and the sheer number of moving bodies make it even harder to maintain a clean line of action. And the way a nautical disaster unfolds resists the natural pacing of a story, with a moment of disaster followed by long stretches of nothing, as the ship sluggishly lists or sinks. Sometimes, as in the case of the Costa Concordia, there isn’t even a clear end point: it just lies there crippled in the water. Everything either happens so fast that it can’t be grasped or so slowly that even the participants start to feel impatient. If I had to write a script about it from scratch, I’m not entirely sure how I’d structure it. Maybe as a love story?

As I’ve noted here before, James Cameron’s Titanic may not have aged well when it comes to some of its more granular qualities, like dialogue, but it’s unsurpassed at staging and choreographing huge blocks of action, and it does it so invisibly that it’s easy to underestimate how hard it really was. It brilliantly solves all the problems I mentioned above, and it does such a good job of keeping the audience informed and oriented throughout that I’d be tempted to use it as a case study in a screenwriting class. The decision to show us an animated visualization of the ship’s destruction at the beginning of the movie, for instance, with a character from the present explaining the physics behind each stage, is a masterstroke: it delivers exposition and foreshadowing all at once, and it allows us to keep track where we are during the sinking without thinking about it twice. Victor Garber’s lovely scene with the ship’s blueprints accomplishes much the same thing. (I’d even argue that the love story itself, and most of its associated plot points, originated a solution to the problem of how to fill those crucial hours of sinking time in which not much of anything else is happening.) When I began work on Eternal Empire, I was forced to think about all of this more systematically. I was writing a novel about a yacht that had to sink, which meant I had to crack all the narrative issues that it presented—and I ended up watching Titanic itself more than once.

"She stared at the burning ship..."

Once I knew that the ship had to be destroyed, I turned my attention to how to do it, which was driven both by practical concerns and by the kind of story I wanted to tell. The easiest way to sink a yacht is to approach it in a smaller vessel and detonate a shaped charge against the hull, as used with such devastating effect against the U.S.S. Cole. I toyed with using a remote-controlled boat, but I quickly discarded the idea, mostly for aesthetic reasons. It just didn’t seem interesting or spectacular enough, and I sensed that it would be hard to stage it in an exciting way. An unmanned boat coming up against a yacht at night didn’t give me much in the way of striking imagery, or even a perspective from which to describe the events, unless I broke one of my own rules as a writer and wrote it from the point of view of an objective observer. Since an attack like this would go unnoticed until the moment the explosives detonated, I just didn’t see a way of structuring it, properly, as a series of escalating beats, and I also thought that it would take too long for the reader to figure out what had happened. Basically, I wanted to be able to provide just the right amount of tension before all hell broke loose: enough to make Maddy aware of the inevitable disaster, but not so much that it dissipated the shock. And I wanted it to be visually memorable.

I finally decided to use a drone. In my defense, I should point out that I wrote this sequence at a time when a drone strike wasn’t a total cliché. (Looking back at my notes, I seem to have finished writing this chapter just a week or so before seeing The Bourne Legacy, which used a drone in a similar way. I was probably troubled by this at the time, but it didn’t stop me from pressing on, which was the right choice: I suspect that most people’s memories of that movie are pretty hazy anyway.) The attack would still be over in the blink of an eye, and it ended up covering less than a page. But the nature of a drone, and the staging of the scene on the water, gave me three useful beats, while an attack by boat would have given me only one. Maddy hears the whine of a rocket just before the shadow boat that accompanies the yacht goes up in flames; she sees the drone circling back in her direction in the sky; and finally she sees another line of white as a second rocket smashes into the yacht itself. The result reads like a continuous rush of action, as it should, but the fact that it can be disassembled into smaller components makes the action just a bit more clear. I had to depart slightly from logic to make it work: in actuality, the yacht should have been the primary target, with the shadow boat coming next, but I wanted Maddy to witness the first explosion before feeling the second. The result, I think, is a sweet little scene. And the attack isn’t over yet…

Written by nevalalee

May 5, 2016 at 9:04 am

The Jedi mind trick

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BB-8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.

—Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

At some point over the next few hours, perhaps as you’re reading this post, The Force Awakens is projected to surge past Avatar to become the highest-grossing movie in the history of the North American box office. We usually don’t adjust such figures for inflation, of course, probably because there wouldn’t be as many records broken each year if we did, and it’s all but certain that the original Star Wars will remain tops in the franchise in terms of tickets sold. Yet it’s impossible to discount this achievement. If the latest installment continues on its present trajectory, it has a good chance of cracking the adjusted top ten of all time—it would need to gross somewhere north of $948 million domestic to exceed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and earn a spot on that rarefied list, and this is starting to feel like a genuine possibility. Given the changes in the entertainment landscape over the last century, this is beyond flabbergasting. But even this doesn’t get at the real, singular nature of what we’re witnessing today. The most unexpected thing about the success of The Force Awakens is how expected it was. And at a time when Hollywood is moving increasingly toward a tentpole model in which a handful of blockbusters finance all the rest, it represents both a historic high point for the industry and an accomplishment that we’re unlikely to ever see again.

When you look at the lineal timeline of the most successful films at the domestic box office, you have to go back seventy-five years to find a title that even the shrewdest industry insider could have reasonably foreseen. This list, unadjusted for inflation, consists of Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Titanic, and Avatar. Gone With the Wind, which claimed the title that The Birth of a Nation had won a quarter of a century earlier, is the one exception: there’s no doubt that David O. Selznick hoped that it could be the biggest film of its era, even before the first match had been struck for the burning of Atlanta. Every other movie here is a headscratcher. No studio insider at the time would have been willing to bet that The Sound of Music—which Pauline Kael later called The Sound of Money—would outgross not just Doctor Zhivago and Thunderball that year, but every other movie ever made. The Godfather and Jaws were both based on bestselling novels, but that’s hardly a guarantee of success, and both were troubled productions with untested directors at the helm. Star Wars itself hardly needs to be discussed here. Columbia famously passed on E.T., and Titanic was widely regarded before its release as a looming disaster. And even Avatar, which everyone thought would be huge, exceeded all expectations: when you take regression to the mean into account, the idea that James Cameron could break his own record is so implausible that I have a hard time believing it even now.

Avatar

Which is just another way of saying that these movies were all outliers: unique, idiosyncratic projects, not part of any existing franchise, that audiences discovered gradually, often to the bewilderment of the studios themselves. The Force Awakens was different. It had barely been announced before pundits were speculating that it could set the domestic record, and although Disney spent much of buildup to its opening weekend downplaying such forecasts—with the implication that rival studios were inflating projections to make its final performance seem disappointing—it’s hard to believe that the possibility hadn’t crossed everybody’s mind. Most movie fans will remember that William Goldman said “Nobody knows anything” in Adventures in the Screen Trade, but it’s worth quoting the relevant paragraph in full. After noting that everyone in town except for Paramount turned down Raiders of the Lost Ark, he continues:

Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that may just cost them, when all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video-game money are totaled, over a billion dollars? Because nobody, nobody—not now, not ever—knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.

If Hollywood has learned anything since, it’s that you don’t pass on Star Wars. Whatever you might think of its merits as a movie, The Force Awakens marks the one and only time that somebody knew something. And it’s probably the last time, too. It may turn into the reassuring bedtime story that studio executives use to lull themselves to sleep, and Disney may plan on releasing a new installment on an annual basis forever, but the triumphant rebirth of the franchise after ten years of dormancy—or three decades, depending on how you feel about the prequels—is the kind of epochal moment that the industry is doing its best to see never happens again. We aren’t going to have another chance to miss Star Wars because it isn’t going to go away, and the excitement that arose around its return can’t be repeated. The Force Awakens is both the ultimate vindication of the blockbuster model and a high-water mark that will make everything that follows seem like diminishing returns. (More insidiously, it may be the Jedi mind trick that convinces the studios that they know more than they do, which can only lead to heartbreak.) Records are made to be broken, and at some point in my lifetime, another movie will take the crown, if only because inflation will proceed to a point where the mathematics become inevitable. But it won’t be a Star Wars sequel. And it won’t be a movie that anyone, not even a Jedi, can see coming.

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2016 at 8:13 am

“This is the finest yacht I’ve ever seen…”

with 2 comments

"This is the finest yacht I've ever seen..."

Note: This post is the thirty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 37. You can read the previous installments here.

A few days ago, I was leafing through What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry—I’m putting together some artwork for my daughter’s birthday—when I found myself entranced by a cutaway diagram of an ocean liner run by a crew of mice. I was originally planning to hang it on the wall for Beatrix’s party, but now I’m tempted to keep it for myself. It reminds me, inevitably, of the similar cutaway set that Wes Anderson employs in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which he says was the image around which the entire movie was built, and it also made me reflect on the appeal of a ship as a backdrop for stories. It’s impossible to look at this kind of image without imagining a whole world of plots to go along with it, even more so than for one of Scarry’s lovingly rendered city scenes. I haven’t spent much time on the water, but I’m drawn instinctively to that setting: my novelette “The Boneless One,” which I briefly considered calling “The Knife Aquatic,” was mostly inspired by my fascination with this sort of research yacht, and a good chunk of Eternal Empire takes place on the megayacht of a Russian oligarch. And although I’ve written elsewhere about why I’m drawn to such ships for their thematic resonances, I don’t think I’ve ever drilled down to the deeper reasons why authors from Melville to Katherine Anne Porter have seen a ship as perfect stage for a human drama that assumes a larger significance.

Most obviously, a shipboard setting imposes certain constraints that can only be fruitful. Much as a bottle episode in a television show encourages the writers to think more intently about the meaning or usefulness of every prop and corner of the soundstage, a story or sequence set primarily in a single closed location forces a novelist to be smarter about utilizing the materials at hand. It’s the closest that a written work can come to the intensity of a stage play, in which the resources you have are starkly limited, and you have to squeeze every drop of dramatic potential from a few available items. This is true of any focused setting, of course, but it seems all the more true with a ship. There’s a sense of isolation inherent to the vessel itself: with most bottle stories, you have to invent reasons why the characters can’t just leave, while an oceangoing ship is necessarily a world of its own for much of its journey. A more subtle factor is the way in which the ship itself is designed to be self-contained. Even on a megayacht, there’s little room for what isn’t functional, and all of the pieces are designed to work together. A ship, even more than a house, is a network of architectural connections, and the ways in which those linkages play out—as expressed most fully in a cutaway diagram—naturally suggests lines of action. The result, as I write in one of my favorite lines in Eternal Empire, is “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”

"She had studied the yacht's layout very carefully..."

A ship is also an irresistible location because it allows the writer to have it both ways: it’s both an isolated setting and one that allows for the possibility of movement from one point to the next. And there are all kinds of metaphorical overtones here that are probably best left unstated. In her author’s note to Ship of Fools, which I read while researching my own novel, Porter writes:

The title of this book is a translation from the German of Das Narrenschiff, a moral allegory by Sebastian Brant…When I began thinking about my novel, I took for my own this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity. It is by no means new—it was very old and durable and dearly familiar when Brant used it; and it suits my purpose exactly.

Reading this, it’s hard not to think that Porter is being a bit too explicit, especially when she adds: “I am a passenger on that ship.” These allegorical qualities are obvious enough without forcing them on the reader’s attention, and I can forgive it mostly if I think of that note as a kind of cutaway diagram in itself, laying open the novel’s innards as it proceeds on its way. And Porter, at least, is in good company. As Melville himself wrote in White-Jacket: “For a ship is a bit of terra firm cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.”

Chapter 37 of Eternal Empire was my attempt to put this kind of cutaway diagram into prose form. It starts, deliberately, on the sun deck, the highest point of the ship, allowing for a view of the entire yacht, and then proceeds down through the salon and the cabins, with Maddy’s thoughts filling in the rest. There’s a narrative rationale for the attention that the yacht receives here—Maddy has good reasons to learn everything she can about the layout, the security system, and the routine of the crew—and it also gives the reader a map for navigating some complicated action in the book’s second half. Really, though, my impulse here is the same as the one that causes Steve Zissou to say to the audience directly: “Let me tell you about my boat.” And when Rahim, Maddy’s friend, brags about the “watertight bulkheads, thicker plate, and stronger scantlings” that allow the yacht to be ready for anything, I hope that most readers will think of the Titanic. (I revisited James Cameron’s movie more than once while writing these scenes, particularly the lovely moment when Thomas Andrews, played by Victor Garber, uses a cutaway diagram of his own to explain why they’re all screwed.) In the end, if writers are drawn to ships, it’s for the reason that Émile Chartier expresses so beautifully: “Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.” And that’s true of novels, too…

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