Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jaws

Quote of the Day

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Steven Spielberg on the set of Jaws

Years ago, one of Broadway’s great play doctors and original writers commented that the classical three-act structure of a well-made play could be summed up this way: In the first act, you get a guy up in a tree. In the second act, you throw rocks at him. In the third act, you get him down again. When I told this to Steven [Spielberg], he observed that making Jaws was a four-act structure. “In Act One, I get into a tree, and for the next three acts, people throw rocks at me.”

Carl Gottlieb, The Jaws Log

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October 21, 2016 at 7:30 am

Stranger in the same land

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Stranger Things

Note: Spoilers follow for Stranger Things.

One of the first images we see on the television show Stranger Things is a poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing. (In fact, it’s only as I type this now that it occurs to me that the title of the series, which premiered earlier this summer on Netflix, might be an homage as well.) It’s hanging in the basement of one of the main characters, a twelve year old named Mike, who is serving as the Dungeon Master of a roleplaying campaign with three of his best friends. You can see the poster in the background for most of the scene, and in a later episode, two adults watch the movie at home, oblivious to the fact that a monster from another dimension is stalking the inhabitants of their town in Indiana. Not surprisingly, I was tickled to see my favorite story by John W. Campbell featured so prominently here: Campbell wrote “Who Goes There?” back in 1937, and the fact that it’s still a reference point for a series like this, almost eighty years later, is astounding. Yet apart from these two glimpses, The Thing doesn’t have much in common with Stranger Things. The former is set in a remote Antarctic wasteland in which no one is what he seems; the latter draws from a different tradition in science fiction, with gruesome events emerging from ordinary, even idyllic, surroundings, and once we’ve identified all the players, everything is more or less exactly what it appears to be. It flirts with paranoia, but it’s altogether cozy, even reassuring, in how cleverly it gives us just what we expect.

That said, Stranger Things is very good at achieving what it sets out to do. The date of the opening scene is November 6, 1983, and once Mike’s best friend Will is pulled by a hideous creature into a parallel universe, the show seems determined to reference every science fiction or fantasy movie of the previous five years. Its most obvious touchstones are E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but there are touches of The Fury as well, and even shades of Stephen King. (Will’s older brother, played by Charlie Heaton, looks eerily like a young King, and the narrative sometimes feels like an attempt to split the difference between Firestarter and It.) Visually, it goes past even Super 8 in its meticulous reconstruction of the look and feel of early Steven Spielberg, and the lighting and cinematography are exquisitely evocative of its source. The characters and situations are designed to trigger our memories, too, and the series gets a lot of mileage out of recombining the pieces: we’re invited to imagine the kids from The Goonies going after whatever was haunting the house in Poltergeist, with a young girl with psychokinetic powers taking the place of E.T. As Will’s mother, Winona Ryder initially comes off as a combination of the Melinda Dillon and Richard Dreyfuss characters from Close Encounters—she’s frantic at Will’s disappearance, but she also develops an intriguing streak of obsession, hanging up holiday lights in her house and watching them flicker in hopes of receiving a message from her missing son. And it can be fun to see these components slide into place.

Winona Ryder on Stranger Things

It’s only when the characters are asked to stand for something more than their precursors that the series starts to falter. Ryder’s character doesn’t develop after the first couple of episodes, and she keeps hitting the same handful of notes. Once the players have been established, they don’t act in ways that surprise us or push against the roles that they’ve been asked to embody, and most of the payoffs are telegraphed well in advance. The only adult character who really sticks in the mind is the police chief played by David Harbour, and that’s due less to the writing than to Harbour’s excellent work as a rock-solid archetype. Worst of all, the show seems oddly uncertain about what to do with its kids, who should be the main attraction. They all look great with their bikes and walkie-talkies, and Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin is undeniably endearing—he’s the show’s only entirely successful character. But they spend too much time squabbling among themselves, when a story like this really demands that they present a unified front against the adult world. For the most part, the interpersonal subplots do nothing but mark time: we don’t know enough about the characters to be invested in their conflicts or romances, and far too many scenes play like a postponement of the real business at hand. Any story about the paranormal is going to have one character trying to get the others to believe, but it’s all in service of the moment when they put their differences aside. When everyone teams up on Stranger Things, it’s satisfying, but it occurs just one episode before the finale, and before we have a chance to absorb or enjoy it, it’s over.

And part of the problem, I think, is that Stranger Things tells the kind of story that might have been better covered in two hours, rather than eight. When I go back and watch the Spielberg films that the series is trying to evoke, what strikes me first is an unusual absence of human conflict. In both Close Encounters and E.T., the shadowy government operatives turn out to be unexpectedly benevolent, and the worst villains we see are monsters of venality, like the councilmen who keep the beaches open in Jaws or the developers who build on a graveyard in Poltergeist. For the most part, the characters are too busy dealing with the wonders or terrors on display to fight among themselves. In The Goonies, the kids are arguing all the time, like the crew in Jaws, but it never slows down the plot: they keep stumbling into new set pieces. It’s a strategy that works fine for a movie, in which the glow of the images and situations is enough to carry us to the climax, but a season of television can’t run on that battery alone. As a result, Stranger Things feels obliged to bring in conflicts that will keep the wheels turning, even if it lessens the appeal of the whole. The men in black are anonymous bad guys, full stop, and the show isn’t above using them to pad an episode’s body count, with the psychokinetic girl Eleven snapping their necks with her mind. (I kept expecting her to simply blow up the main antagonist, as Amy Irving—Spielberg’s future wife—did to John Cassavetes in The Fury, and I was half right.) Sustaining a sense of awe or dread over multiple episodes would have been a much harder trick than getting the lighting just right. And the strangest thing about Stranger Things is that it makes us think it might have been possible.

Hail to the King

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Stephen King

“The golden age of science fiction,” the fan editor Peter Graham once wrote, “is twelve.” And it seems fair to say that the golden age of horror fiction comes shortly thereafter. If science fiction tends to take hold of the imagination of curious kids in search of stories in which intelligence is a means of empowerment, rather than isolation, they often latch onto horror in the years when middle school and the onset of adolescence send them looking for a kind of narrative that can put their terrors into a more tangible form. Between the ages of twelve and thirteen, I read so much Stephen King that it’s a wonder I had time to do anything else: at least fifteen novels in all, from Carrie to Needful Things. And I know that I’m not alone in saying that the best time to discover King is when you’re just a little too young for it to be appropriate. The recent rise in fiction geared exclusively toward young adults, which includes its share of horror titles, isn’t a bad thing, but it means that a teenager looking for interesting reading material is less likely to turn first to The Shining or The Stand. Which is a loss in itself—because I’ve come to realize that King, for me, wasn’t just a gateway drug into reading in general, but toward an especially valuable mode of fiction that I can only describe as modernist realism put into the service of more primal fears.

King has never ceased to produce bestsellers, but if his reputation continues to rest on a main sequence of early books—stretching roughly from ‘Salem’s Lot through It—this isn’t just a question of his having produced his best work in his youth. He was, and is, a writer of enormous talent, but he was also the right man at the right time. His most influential novels appeared in the mid- to late seventies, at a time when mainstream fiction was uniquely enterprising in turning the tools of modernist realism onto genre plots. The first category to take full advantage of that bag of tricks, not surprisingly, was the suburban sex novel: the difference between Peyton Place and Updike’s Couples is more one of style than of substance. A few earlier horror novels, notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, had covered some of the same ground, with meticulous, almost fussily detailed looks at upper-class households on the verge of crossing over into the supernatural, but King was the first to do it over multiple books. And it was a surpassingly good trick. King’s basic formula, with convincing observations of everyday life providing a backdrop for increasingly horrifying events, may seem obvious now, but surprisingly few other writers have pursued it consistently. (One exception is Peter Straub, whose Ghost Story is one of those late entries in a genre that has a way of codifying everything that came before.)

John Updike

And much of King’s appeal comes from his ability to create what John Updike called “specimen lives,” with carefully constructed characters who turn out to be both timelessly interesting and emphatically of their era. King’s novels are rooted much more in the culture and politics of the seventies than we tend to remember. The Shining often reads like a haunted house story informed by Watergate, as when Stuart Ullmann smugly informs Jack Torrance that Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon all stayed in the hotel’s presidential suite: “I wouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon,” Jack replies. And The Stand originated in a confluence of ideas that could only have occurred at a particular historical moment, as King recounts in Danse Macabre:

The story about the CBW spill in Utah…became entwined in my thoughts about Patty Hearst and the SLA, and one day while sitting at my typewriter…I wrote—just to write something: The world comes to an end but everybody in the SLA is somehow immune. Snake bit them. I looked at that for a while and then typed: No more gas shortages.

When we turn to his characters themselves, we find finely nuanced portraits of ordinary individuals who wouldn’t have been out of place in an Updike novel. Time has turned them into period pieces, but they’re as valuable, in their way, as the literary novels of the time, and the care that King lavished on assembling those mundane lives goes a long way toward explaining the power of the terror that follows.

Gradually, King strayed from that template, particularly as his own success made it more difficult for him to write convincingly about protagonists who weren’t members of the upper middle class. (The transitional novel here is It, in which nostalgia takes the place of reportage for the first time, and which a character observes of his friends: “And then there’s the passingly curious fact that you’re all rich.”) But those early novels—in which King fused the textured social observation of the seventies with something older and darker—stand as permanent landmarks, and when we look at lesser efforts in the same vein, we’re reminded of how hard it really was. One reason why Jaws reads so strangely today, as I’ve noted before, is that it’s an early attempt to fuse the slightly sordid air of a sexy bestseller with a monster story, and the two halves don’t work together: instead of allowing each piece to enhance the other, Benchley gives us a hundred interminable pages about Ellen Brody’s affair that never connect in satisfying ways to the action on the boat. King cracked the code in a way that Benchley didn’t, and a book like Pet Sematary is a master class in fusing a realistic psychological novel with a plot out of Poe. In time, both King and the culture around him moved on, and the artistic moment that produced his best novels seems to have passed. But the books still exist, for whatever teenagers or adults feel like seeking them out, and for lucky readers, they can still spark the kind of hunger that they once awoke in me.

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October 30, 2015 at 8:28 am

Sex and the single shark

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Jaws by Peter Benchley

A few weeks ago, I picked up a used copy of the original hardcover edition of Peter Benchley’s Jaws. It caught my eye in part because of the iconic cover art, designed by the legendary Paul Bacon, who passed away earlier this summer. Although the painting was redrawn for the paperback, which later became the basis for one of the great movie posters, it’s still a work of graphic genius, second only to Chip Kidd’s dust jacket design for Jurassic Park in the unexpected way it came to define an entire franchise. And upon leafing through the novel itself—I’m still only halfway through—I was struck by how much it differs, not just from its film adaptation, but from what we’ve come to expect from a modern thriller. There’s a lot of background material on the town of Amity, some engaging, some not, including an entire subplot about the mayor’s mob connections. Most stupefying of all is the huge amount of space devoted to a plot thread, which the movie omits entirely, about an affair between Chief Brody’s wife and Hooper, the oceanographer played in the film by Richard Dreyfuss. It takes up something like sixty uninterrupted pages right in the middle of the novel, and frankly, it’s terrible, complete with passages of awful, clinical, mid-seventies lovemaking as bad as anything from Irving Wallace, who wrote about sex, as one critic put it, as if he’d never had it himself. (A tip to writers: any passage that unblushingly includes the phrase “her genitals” probably doesn’t need to exist.)

Reading the section again today, it’s hard to shake a sense that it must have struck many readers at the time as about as pointless as it seems now. Benchley can be a fine writer elsewhere, but I’d like to think that a modern editor would have taken him firmly by the hand and advised him to cut the whole thing. In fact, the man who edited Jaws was Thomas Congdon, an editor at Doubleday whose clients would later include David Halberstam and Russell Baker, and his collaboration with Benchley has been documented in exceptional detail, thanks to a fascinating story that the journalist Ted Morgan wrote for The New York Times Magazine around the time of the book’s publication. Congdon commissioned the novel from Benchley before a single word of it had been written, and he worked closely with the author, starting at the outline phase, which is unusual in itself. And Congdon, unbelievably, is the one we have to thank for what I have no choice but to call, ahem, the Dreyfuss affair. As Morgan writes:

When Benchley wrote a sex scene between the police chief and his wife, Congdon’s sense of propriety was offended: “I don’t think there’s any place for wholesome married sex in this kind of book,” he wrote. Benchley obediently turned the wife into an adulteress, who has an affair with a young marine scientist. [Italics mine.]

The poster for Jaws

Still, for all I know, Congdon may have been right. It certainly didn’t hurt the novel: half of Morgan’s article is devoted to cataloging its massive sales figures and proceeds from subsidiary rights, and this is all before the movie came out. (The name “Steven Spielberg” never appears, and the only person mentioned from the film side is producer Richard Zanuck.) And while Jaws might seem like a genre unto itself, it has to be read in the context of seventies bestsellerdom, which was dominated by the likes of Wallace, Jacqueline Susann, and Harold Robbins, who spiced up every story with generous helpings of smut. You might even say that the movie version of Jaws, which spawned the modern blockbuster, marks a transitional moment in more ways than one: the only remotely erotic moment in the film is Susan Backlinie’s nude swim at the very beginning, followed by the unavoidable sexual overtones of the ensuing shark attack. Mass culture was moving into an era in which the adult obsessions of the seventies would give way to a fascination with hardware and special effects, calculated to appeal to a teenage male audience that would have found Ellen Brody’s midlife sexual awakening even less interesting than I did. The real love affair in the movie is between the audience and the shark, or, more precisely, between Spielberg’s camera and the shark’s elusive silhouette. Anything else would be superfluous.

As it happens, Jaws wasn’t the first major motion picture of that decade to shy away from sexual elements in the source material. Mario Puzo’s original novel of The Godfather goes on for page after page about Lucy Mancini, Sonny’s girlfriend, and in particular about an odd feature of her anatomy and its subsequent surgical correction. Francis Coppola found it about as weird as many readers undoubtedly did:

I started to read the book. I got only fifty pages into it. I thought, it’s a popular, sensational novel, pretty cheap stuff. I got to the part about the singer supposedly modeled on Frank Sinatra and the girl Sonny Corleone liked so much because her vagina was enormous—remember that stuff in the book? It never showed up in the movie. Anyway, I said, “My God, what is this—The Carpetbaggers? So I stopped reading and said, “Forget it.”

Not every movie from that era shied away from the sexual elements—The Exorcist sure as hell didn’t—but it’s hard not to see the pattern here. As audiences changed, books that were written in part with an eye to the movie rights began to tone down the sex, then cut it altogether, knowing that it was unlikely to survive the adaptation anyway. Readers didn’t seem to miss it, either. And while I’d say that it was no great loss, I also wish that we had books and movies large enough to accommodate good sex in fiction, when necessary, along with more innocent thrills. Pop culture is a ship in which we’re all traveling together, and to get the range of stories we deserve, we’re going to need a bigger boat.

The title search

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Crash

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What pop-culture title duplication do you find most annoying?”

At the thrift store up the street from my house, there’s a shelf that an enterprising employee has stocked with a selection of used books designed to make you look twice: The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Paris Wife, The Tiger’s Wife, A Reliable Wife, American Wife, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and probably some others I’ve forgotten. It’s funny to see them lined up in a row, but there’s a reason this formula is so popular: with an average of just three words, it gives us the germ of a story—at least in terms of its central relationship—and adds a touch of color to distinguish itself from its peers. As with the premises of most bestsellers, the result is both familiar and a little strange, telling us that we’re going to be told the story of a marriage, which is always somewhat interesting, but with a distinctive twist or backdrop. It’s perhaps for analogous reasons that the three most notable mainstream thrillers of the past decade are titled The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train, the last of which is still awaiting its inevitable adaptation by David Fincher. Girl, in the context of suspense, has connotations of its own: when used to refer to an adult woman, it conveys the idea that she looks harmless, but she isn’t as innocent as she seems. (And I’m far from immune from this kind of thing: if there’s one noun that challenges Girl when it comes to its omnipresence in modern thriller titles, it’s Thief.)

When you look at the huge range of words available in any language, it can feel strange to reflect that the number of marketable titles often feels like a limited pool. Whenever I’m about to write a new story, I check Amazon and the Internet Science Fiction Database to make sure that the title hasn’t been used before, and in many cases, I’m out of luck. (Occasionally, as with “Cryptids,” I’ll grab a title that I’m surprised has yet to be claimed, and it always feels like snagging a prime domain name or Twitter handle.) Titles stick to the same handful of variations for a lot of reasons, sometimes to deliberately evoke or copy a predecessor, sometimes—as with erotica—to enable keyword searches, and sometimes because we’ve agreed as a culture that certain words are more evocative than others. As David Haglund of Slate once observed, everyone seems to think that tacking American onto the start of a title lends it a certain gravitas. For many movies, titles are designed to avoid certain implications, while inadvertently creating new clichés of their own. Studios love subtitles that allow them to avoid the numerals conventionally attached to a sequel or prequel, which is why we see so many franchise installments with a colon followed by Origins, Revolution, Resurrection, or Genesis, or sequels that offer us the Rise of, the Age of, the Dawn of, or the Revenge of something or other. I loved both Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a problem that their titles could easily have been interchanged.

Twilight

Then, of course, there are the cases in which a title is simply reappropriated by another work: Twilight, The Host, Running Scared, Bad Company, Fair Game. This sort of thing can lead to its share of confusion, some of it amusing. Recently, while watching the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, my wife was puzzled by a sequence revolving around the movie Crash, only to belatedly realize that it was referring to the one by David Cronenberg, not Paul Haggis. From a legal perspective, there’s no particular reason why a title shouldn’t be reused: titles can’t be copyrighted, although you could be sued for unfair competition if enough money were on the line. Hence the inadvisability of publishing your own fantasy series called Game of Thrones or The Wheel of Time, although Wheel of Thrones is still ripe for the taking. (In Hollywood, disputes over titles are sometimes used as a bullying tactic, as in the otherwise inexplicable case of The Butler, which inspired Warner Bros. to file for arbitration because it had released a silent film of the same name in 1916. There’s also the odd but persistent rumor that Bruce Willis agreed to star in Live Free or Die Hard on condition that he be given the rights to the title Tears of the Sun—which raises the question if it was worth the trouble. Such cases, which are based on tenuous legal reasoning at best, always remind me of David Mamet’s line from State and Main, which knows as much as any film about how movie people think: “I don’t need a cause. I just need a lawyer.”)

Which just reminds us that titles are like any other part of the creative process, except more so. We feel that our choices have a talismanic quality, even if their true impact on success or failure is minimal, and it’s only magnified by the fact that we only have a handful of words with which to make an impression. No title alone can guarantee a blockbuster, but we persist in thinking that it can, which may be why we return consistently to the same words or phrases. But it’s worth keeping an observation by Jorge Luis Borges in mind:

Except for the always astonishing Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (which the English, equally beautifully, called The Arabian Nights) I believe that it is safe to say that the most celebrated works of world literature have the worst titles. For example, it is difficult to conceive of a more opaque and visionless title than The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, although one must grant that The Sorrows of Young Werther and Crime and Punishment are almost as dreadful.

And that’s as true today as it ever was—it’s hard to think of a less interesting title than Breaking Bad. Still, the search continues, and sometimes, it pays off. Years ago, a writer and his editor were struggling to come up with a title for a debut novel, considering and discarding such contenders as The Stillness in the Water, The Silence of the Deep, and Leviathan Rising. Ultimately, they came up with over a hundred possibilities, none of them any good, and it was only twenty minutes before they were set to go to the printer that the editor finally gave up and said: “Okay, we’ll call the thing Jaws.”

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July 17, 2015 at 8:53 am

The unusual suspects

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The Usual Suspects

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What 1995 pop culture would you want to experience again for the first time?”

Yesterday, while discussing a scene from one of my own novels, I mentioned two movies in passing: The Usual Suspects and Seven. These references appeared in separate paragraphs, to illustrate two different ideas, and I don’t think I made any particular connection between them at the time. Obviously, though, they’re a natural pair: they collectively made a star out of Kevin Spacey, and they were released within a month of each other in 1995. (In fact, I vividly remember watching them both for the first time on home video on the same weekend, although this wouldn’t have been until the year after, when Spacey had already won his Oscar. Seven made a greater immediate impression, but I’d go on to watch my tape of The Usual Suspects maybe a dozen times over the next couple of years.) When I cited them here, I didn’t think much about it. I’ve thought about both of these movies a lot, and they served as convenient genre touchstones for the points I wanted to make. And I took for granted that most readers of this blog would have seen them, or at least be familiar enough with them for their examples to be useful.

But this may have been an unwarranted assumption. In one’s own life, twenty years can pass like the blink of an eye, but in pop culture terms, it’s a long time. If we take a modern high school sophomore’s familiarity with the movies of two decades ago as the equivalent of my knowledge of the films of 1975, we soon see that we can’t assume anything at all. I saw myself then as a film buff, and although I can laugh a little now at how superficial any teenager’s grasp of movie history is likely to be, I was genuinely curious about the medium and eager to explore its past. Looking at a list of that year’s most notable movies, though, I’m chagrined at how few of them I’ve seen even now. There was Jaws, of course, and my obsession with Kubrick made me one of the few teens who willingly sat through all of Barry Lyndon. I’m fairly sure I’d seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Nashville at that point, although the chronology is a bit muddled, and both were films I had to actively seek out, as I did later with Amarcord. The Rocky Horror Picture Show had premiered on television a few years earlier on Fox, and I watched it, although I don’t have the slightest idea what I thought of it at the time. And I didn’t rent Dog Day Afternoon until after college.

Anthony Hopkins in Nixon

In fact, I’d guess that the only two movies from that year that your average teenage boy is likely to have seen, then and now, are Jaws and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even today, there are big gaps in my own knowledge of the year’s top grossers: I’ve still never seen Shampoo, despite its status as one of the three great Robert Towne scripts, and I hadn’t even heard of Aloha, Bobby, and Rose. When we advance the calendar by two decades, the situation looks much the same. Toy Story, the biggest hit of that year, is still the one that most people have seen. I’m guessing that Heat and Die Hard With a Vengeance hold some allure for budding genre fans, as do Clueless and Sense and Sensibility for a somewhat different crowd. The Usual Suspects and Seven are safe. And I’d like to think that Casino still draws in younger viewers out of its sheer awesomeness, which makes even The Wolf of Wall Street seem slightly lame. But many of the other titles here are probably just names, the way Funny Lady or The Apple Dumpling Gang are to me, and it would take repeated acts of diligence to catch up with some of these movies, now that another twenty years of cinema have flowed under the bridge. Awards completists will check out Braveheart, Apollo 13, Babe, and Leaving Las Vegas, but there are countless other worthy movies that risk being overlooked.

Take Nixon, for example. At the time, I thought it was the best film of its year, and while I wouldn’t rank it so highly these days, it’s still a knockout: big, ambitious, massively entertaining, and deeply weird. It has one of the greatest supporting casts in movies, with an endlessly resourceful lead performance by Anthony Hopkins that doesn’t so much recall Nixon himself as create an indelible, oddly sympathetic monster of its own. But even on its initial release, it was a huge flop, and it hasn’t exactly inspired a groundswell of reappraisal. Even if you’re an Oliver Stone fan—and I don’t know how many devotees he has under the age of thirty—it’s probably not one of his top five movies that anyone is likely to check off. (The rough equivalent would be a diehard Coppola enthusiast deciding it was time to watch The Cotton Club.) The only reason I’ve seen it is because I was old enough to catch in theaters, when I’ve never made time to rent Salvador or Talk Radio. And if I were talking to a bright fifteen year old who wanted to see some good movies,  I don’t know when Nixon would come up, if ever. But if it’s worth mentioning at all, it’s less for its own merits than as part of a larger point. Everyone will give you a list of movies to watch, but there’s a lot worth discovering that you’ll have to seek out on your own, once you move past the usual suspects.

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June 12, 2015 at 9:51 am

Tying the knot

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Bowline

McKenzie Funk’s recent piece in The New York Times Magazine on the wreck of the Kulluk, the doomed oil rig sent by Shell to drill an exploratory well in the Arctic Sea, is one of the most riveting stories I’ve read in a long time. The whole thing is full of twists and turns—I devoured it in a single sitting—but my favorite moment involves a simple knot. Faced with a rig with a broken emergency line, Craig Matthews, the chief engineer of the tugboat Alert, came up with a plan: they’d get close enough to grab the line with a grappling hook, reel it in, and tie it to their own tow cable with a bowline. After two tries, they managed to snag the line, “thicker than a man’s arm, a soggy dead weight.” Funk describes what happened next:

Now Matthews tried to orient himself. A knot he could normally tie with one hand without looking would have to be tackled by two people, chunk by chunk. The chief mate helped him lift the line again, and together they hurriedly bent it and forced the rabbit through the hole…Matthews had planned to do a second bend, just in case, but he was exhausted. “Is that it?” Matthews recalls the chief mate asking. His answer was to let the towline slide over the edge.

And although plenty of other things would go wrong later on, the knot held throughout all that followed.

The story caught my eye because it reminded me, as almost everything does these days, of the creative process. When you’re a writer, you generally hone your craft on smaller projects, short stories or essays that you can practically hold in one hand. Early on, it’s like learning to tie a bowline for the first time—as Brody does in Jaws—and it can be hard to even keep the ends straight, but sooner or later, you internalize the steps to the point where you can take them for granted. As soon as you tackle a larger project, though, you find that you suddenly need to stop and remember everything you thought you knew by heart. Most of us don’t think twice about how to tie our shoelaces, but if we were told to make the same knot in a rope the thickness of a fire hose, we’d have to think hard. A change in scale forces us to relearn the most basic tricks, and at first, we feel almost comically clumsy. That’s all the more true of a collaborative effort, like making a movie or staging a play, which can often feel like two people tying a knot together while being buffeted by wind and waves. (Technically, a novel or play is more like one big knot made up of many other knots, but maybe this analogy is strained enough as it is.)

Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot by Fedele Fischetti

Knots have long fascinated novelists, like Annie Proulx, perhaps because they’re the purest example of an abstract design intended to perform a functional task. As Buckminster Fuller points out in Synergetics, you can tie a loose knot in a rope spliced together successively from distinct kinds of fiber, like manila and cotton, and slip it from one end to the other: the materials change, but the knot stays the same. Fuller concludes, in his marvelously explicit and tangled prose: “The knot is not the rope; it is a weightless, mathematical, geometrical, metaphysically conceptual, pattern integrity tied momentarily into the rope by the knot-conceiving, weightless mind of the human conceiver—knot-former.” That’s true of a novel, too. You can, and sometimes do, revise every sentence of a story into a different form while leaving the overall pattern the same. Knots themselves can be used to transmit information, as in the Incan quipu, which record numbers and even syllables in the form of knotted cords. And Robert Graves has suggested that the Gordian knot encoded the name of a Phrygian god, which could only be untied by reading the message one letter at a time. Alexander the Great simply cut it with his sword—a solution that has occurred to more than one novelist frustrated by the mess he’s created.

You could write an entire essay on the metaphors inherent in knots, the language of which itself is rich with analogies: the phrase “the bitter end,” for instance, originates in ropeworking, referring to the end of the rope that is tied off. Most memorable is Fuller’s own suggestion that the ropeworker himself is a kind of thinking knot:

The metabolic flow that passes through a man is not the man. He is an abstract pattern integrity that is sustained through all his physical changes and processing, a knot through which pass the swift strands of concurrent ecological cycles—recycling transformations of solar energy.

And if we’re all simply knots passing through time, the prospect of untying and redoing that pattern is far more daunting than doing the same for even the most complicated novel. We’re all a little like Matthews on the deck of the Alert: we’d like to do a second bend to be safe, but sometimes we have no choice but to let the line slip over the side. That’s true of the small things, like sending out a story when we might prefer to noodle over it forever, and the large, like choosing a shape for your life that you hope will get the job done. And all we can really do is tie the knot we know best, let it go, and hang on to the bitter end.

Written by nevalalee

January 6, 2015 at 9:58 am

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