Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Kill Bill

The man with the plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A writer’s reflections on violence

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Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino was right to be mad. Last week, in an interview with the journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News, Tarantino reacted testily when asked for his thoughts on the cultural impact of violence in the movies: “Don’t ask me a question like that. I’m not biting. I refuse your question…You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey.” And although Tarantino ultimately comes off, as he often does in his press appearances, as a bit of a dick, it’s hard to blame him. For most of his career, he’s found himself at the center of the debate over cinematic violence, despite the fact that most of his films, Kill Bill notwithstanding, aren’t nearly as violent as their reputations would imply. A movie like Pulp Fiction contains only a few seconds of actual violence, as opposed to the nonstop killing we see in many mainstream action films, so Tarantino’s irritation at being asked such questions again isn’t hard to understand. Yet while I don’t much feel like entering that particular discussion either, I think it’s worth asking why the same handful of works and artists are repeatedly invoked as illustrations of violence in the media, even as countless other, even more violent movies are quickly forgotten.

The statement by Wayne La Pierre of the NRA in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre was stupefying on many levels, but especially with regard to the movies he mentioned, which were limited to “blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers.” Setting aside the fact that neither is a slasher film, or even particularly graphic in its onscreen violence, it’s a little odd that the most recent of the two movies he decries is more than a decade old, when dozens of objectively more violent films have been released in the meantime. Clearly, these movies, both of which I admire with reservations, aren’t disposable or forgettable: they’re ambitious, stylish, problematic films that implicate us as much as the characters, and many viewers still haven’t gotten over it. Most audiences, it seems, handle cinematic bloodshed in much the same way as I’ve noted they deal with surprises. They don’t mind being surprised, or shown graphic violence, in the context of a genre they understand, but when their assumptions about a work of art are called into question—or if it makes them uncomfortable—they feel what Pauline Kael, Tarantino’s favorite movie critic, observed all these years ago about Bonnie and Clyde:

Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde

Of course, the kind of violence that really shakes and infuriates an audience is very rare, which is why LaPierre had to reach so far back in time for his examples. For most works of art, violence functions for the artist much as smoking does for actors. The reason why there’s so much smoking in movies isn’t because Hollywood is determined to glamorize tobacco use, or is somehow in the pocket of the cigarette companies, but because smoking is a tremendously useful tool for performers, who are always looking for something to do with their hands: it gives them a wide range of ways to emphasize lines or emotional beats, and no comparable bit of business has managed to take its place. Similarly, violence is a proven, replicable way of provoking a reaction from the audience, and it doesn’t require much skill to pull off. Suspense in itself is tremendously hard to achieve, but putting a pistol in a character’s hand is easy, and in an art form starved for reliable tricks, it isn’t surprising that filmmakers often turn to violence for dramatic effects. Movies don’t glorify violence; they glorify the narrative jolts that violence can provide. When a movie resorts to periodic bursts of violence to keep the audience awake, it’s simply following Raymond Chandler’s dictum: “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”

And I’m no exception. I’ve noted before how I inserted a violent scene into the first part of The Icon Thief because I felt that the story was lacking a necessary action beat, and I’ve often found myself parceling out moments of violence throughout my novels—which tend to have a pretty high body count—as if laying in dance numbers in a musical. I feel justified in doing this because this is one of the conventions of suspense fiction, and I’d like to believe that the violence in my novels is at least inventive, powerful, and integral to the plot. But I have misgivings about it as well, if only because I see all too clearly how violence can become a crutch, a way of artificially propping up a story that lacks organic excitement. Here, as in everything else, it all comes to down to craft. When I think about the works of art that will be experienced by my daughter Beatrix—who, after all, was named after a character in a Tarantino movie—I find that I’m less worried about her seeing violent films than in settling for movies that use violence as a substitute for craftsmanship. The problem isn’t violent movies; the problem is bad movies of any kind. And the only way to discourage mindless violence is to honor those artists who use it mindfully and well.

All I want for Christmas

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Beatrix Evelyn Nevala-Lee, my daughter, was born in Chicago in the early morning of December 19. Both mom and baby are doing fine. Beatrix, as astute readers may have already guessed, is named for both one of my favorite figures in world literature and one of my favorite characters from any recent movie, both of them strong female role models. “Evelyn” was chosen largely because it goes nicely with my last name—nobody seems to know what it means, with derivations ranging from a variant of “Ava” to the French for “hazelnut”—and it also allows me to pretend that she was named after Evelyn Beatrice Hall, the English biographer best known for a famous fake quotation from Voltaire.

She’s less than a week old, but I’m learning something new from Beatrix every day, and it was clear from the moment I first looked into her eyes that my life would never be the same. I expect that the changes will be visible both on this blog and in my other work, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of my discoveries here. As an author, the greatest lesson I’ve taken away so far is that even after a lifetime of writing, there are still fundamental things about human existence that I have yet to experience firsthand, and I have a feeling that even my best work will start to feel, in retrospect, like only a fraction of the story. But if nothing else, to quote another great fictional character, Beatrix is already the best thing my name has ever been attached to.

Written by nevalalee

December 24, 2012 at 9:50 am

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