Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Mad Men

The strange loop of Westworld

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The maze in Westworld

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

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

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

Inception

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

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

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

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

The Westworld expansion

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Anthony Hopkins on Westworld

Note: Spoilers follow for the series premiere of Westworld.

Producing a television series, as I’ve often said here before, is perhaps the greatest test imaginable of the amount of control that a storyteller can impose on any work of art. You may have a narrative arc in mind that works beautifully over five seasons, but before you even begin, you know that you’ll have to change the plan to deal with the unexpected: the departure of a star, budgetary limitations, negotiations with the network. Hanging overhead at all times is the specter of cancellation, which means that you don’t know if your story will be told over an hour, one season, or many years. You may not even be sure what your audience really wants. Maybe you’ve devoted a lot of thought to creating nuanced, complicated characters, only to realize that most viewers are tuning in for sex, violence, and sudden death scenes. It might even be to your advantage to make the story less realistic, keeping it all safely escapist to avoid raising uncomfortable questions. If you’re going to be a four-quadrant hit, you can’t appeal to just one demographic, so you’ve got to target some combination of teenagers and adults of both sexes. This doesn’t even include the critics, who are likely to nitpick the outcome no matter what. All you can really do, in the end, is set the machine going, adjust it as necessary on the fly, try to keep the big picture in mind, and remain open to the possibility that your creation will surprise you—which are conditions that the best shows create on purpose. But it doesn’t always go as it should, and successes and failures alike tend to wreak havoc with the plans of their creators. Television, you might say, finds a way.

The wonderful thing about Westworld, which might have the best pilot for any show since Mad Men, is that it delivers exceptional entertainment while also functioning as an allegory that you can read in any number of ways. Michael Crichton’s original movie, which I haven’t seen, was pitched as a commentary on the artificially cultivated experience offered to us by parks like Disney World, an idea that he later revisited with far more lucrative results. Four decades later, the immersive, open world experience that Westworld evokes is more likely to remind us of certain video games, which serve as a sandbox in which we can indulge in our best or worst impulses with maximum freedom of movement. (The character played by Ed Harris is like a player who has explored the game so throughly that he’s more interested now in looking for exploits or glitches in the code.) Its central premise—a theme park full of androids that are gradually attaining sentience—suggests plenty of other parallels, and I’m sure the series will investigate most of them eventually. But I’m frankly most inclined to see it as a show about the act of making television itself. Series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have evidently mapped out a narrative for something like the next five or six seasons, which feels like an attempt to reassure viewers frustrated by the way in which serialized, mythology-driven shows tend to peter out toward the end, or to endlessly tease mysteries without ever delivering satisfying answers. But I wonder if Nolan and Joy also see themselves in Dr. Ford, played here with unusual restraint and cleverness by Anthony Hopkins, who looks at his own creations and muses about how little control he really has over the result.

Evan Rachel Wood on Westworld

It’s always dangerous to predict a show’s future from the pilot alone, and I haven’t seen the other episodes that were sent to critics for review. Westworld’s premise is also designed to make you even more wary than usual about trying to forecast a system as complicated as an ambitious cable series, especially one produced by J.J. Abrams. (There are references to the vagaries of television production in the pilot itself, much of which revolves around a technical problem that forces the park’s head writer to rewrite scenes overnight, cranking up the body count in hopes that guests won’t notice the gaps in the narrative. And one of its most chilling moments comes down to the decision to recast a key supporting role with a more cooperative performer.) After the premiere, which we both loved, my wife worried that we’ll just get disillusioned by the show over time, as we did with Game of Thrones. It’s always possible, and the number of shows over the last decade that have sustained a high level of excellence from first episode to last basically starts and ends with Mad Men—which, interestingly, was also a show about writing, and the way in which difficult concepts have to be sold and marketed to a large popular audience. But I have high hopes. The underlying trouble with Game of Thrones was a structural one: one season after another felt like it was marking time in its middle stretches, cutting aimlessly between subplots and relying on showy moments of violence to keep the audience awake, and many of its issues arose from a perceived need to keep from getting ahead of the books. It became a show that only knew how to stall and shock, and I would have been a lot more forgiving of its sexual politics if I had enjoyed the rest of it, or if I believed that the showrunners were building to something worthwhile.

I have more confidence in Westworld, in part because the pilot is such a confident piece of storytelling, but also because the writers aren’t as shackled by the source. And I feel almost grateful for the prospect of fully exploring this world over multiple seasons with this cast and these writers. Jonathan Nolan, in particular, has been overshadowed at times by his brother Christopher, who would overshadow anyone, but his résumé as a writer is just as impressive: the story for Memento, the scripts for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, and that’s just on the movie side. (I haven’t seen Person of Interest, but I’ve heard it described as the best science fiction show on television, camouflaged in plain sight as a procedural.) Nolan has always tended to cram more ideas into one screenplay than a movie can comfortably hold, which is a big part of his appeal: The Dark Knight is so overflowing with invention that it only underlines the limpness of the storytelling in most of the Marvel movies. What excites me about Westworld is the opportunity it presents for Nolan to allow the story to breathe, going down interesting byways and exploring its implications at length. And the signs so far are very promising. The plot is a model of story construction, to the point where I’d use it as an example in a writing class: it introduces its world, springs a few big surprises, tells us something about a dozen characters, and ends on an image that is both inevitable and deliciously unexpected. Even its references to other movies are more interesting than most. A visual tribute to The Searchers seems predictable at first, but when the show repeats it, it becomes a wry commentary on how an homage can take the place of real understanding. And a recurring bit with a pesky fly feels like a nod to Psycho, which implicated the audience in similar ways. As Mrs. Bates says to us in one of her last lines: “I hope they are watching. They’ll see.”

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2016 at 9:45 am

“But some things can’t be undone…”

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"But some things can't be undone..."

Note: This post is the sixty-second—and final—installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering the epilogue. You can read the previous installments here.

How do you end a series that has lasted for three books and more than a thousand pages? To some extent, no conclusion can be completely satisfying, so it makes sense to focus on what you actually stand a chance of achieving. There’s a reason, for instance, that so few series finales live up to our hopes: a healthy television show has to cultivate and maintain more narrative threads than can be resolved in a single episode, so any finale has to leave certain elements unaddressed. In practice, this means that entire characters and subplots are ignored in favor of others, which is exactly how it should be. During the last season of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner and his writing team prepared a list of story points that they wanted to revisit, and reading it over again now is a fascinating exercise. The show used some of the ideas, but it omitted many more, and we never did get a chance to see what happened to Sal, Dr. Faye, or Peggy’s baby. This kind of creative pruning is undoubtedly good for the whole, and it serves as a reminder of Weiner’s exceptional skill as a showrunner. Mad Men was one of the most intricate dramas ever written, with literally dozens of characters who might have earned a resonant guest appearance in the closing stretch of episodes. But Weiner rightly forced himself to focus on the essentials, while also allowing for a few intriguing digressions, and the result was one of the strongest finales I’ve ever seen—a rare example of a show sticking the landing to maintain an impossibly high standard from the first episode to the last.

It’s tempting to think of a series finale as a piece of valuable real estate in which every second counts, or as a zero-sum game in which every moment devoted to one character means that another won’t have a chance to appear. (Watching the Mad Men finale, I found myself waiting for my favorite supporting players to pop up, and as soon as they had their scene, I couldn’t help thinking: That’s the last thing I’ll ever see them do.) But it can be dangerous to take such a singleminded approach to any unit of narrative, particularly for shows that have thrived on the unpredictable. My favorite example is the series finale of Twin Peaks, which wasn’t even meant to end the show, but provided as perfect a conclusion as any viewer could want—an opinion that I’ll continue to hold even after the new season premieres on Showtime. Instead of taking time to check in with everyone in their huge cast, David Lynch and Mark Frost indulge in long, seemingly pointless set pieces: the scene in the bank with Audrey, with the decrepit manager shuffling interminable across the floor to get her a drink of water, and especially the sequence in the Black Lodge, which is still the weirdest, emptiest twenty minutes ever to air on network television. You can imagine a viewer almost shouting at the screen for Lynch and Frost to get back to Sheriff Truman or Shelly or Donna, but that wouldn’t have been true to the show’s vision. Similarly, the Mad Men finale devotes a long scene to a character we’ve never seen before or since, the man at the encounter group who ends up inspiring Don’s return to humanity. It might seem like a strange choice, but it was the right call: Don’s relationships with every other character were so burdened with history that it took a new face to carry him over the finish line.

"And she fears that one will ask her for eternity..."

I found myself dealing with many of the same issues when it came to the epilogue of Eternal Empire, which was like the final season of a television series that had gone on for longer than I’d ever expected. Maddy and Wolfe had already received a sendoff in the previous chapter, so I only had to deal with Ilya. Pragmatically, the scene could have been about anything, or nothing at all. Ilya was always a peculiar character: he was defined mostly by action, and I deliberately refrained from detailing large portions of his backstory, on the assumption that he would be more interesting the less we knew about his past. It would have been easy to give him a conclusion that filled in more of his background, or that restored something of what he had lost—his family, a home, his sense of himself as a fundamentally good man. But that didn’t seem right. Another theme that you often see in series finales, particularly for a certain type of sitcom, is the showrunner’s desire to make every character’s dreams come true: the last season of Parks and Recreation, in particular, was a sustained exercise in wish fulfillment. I can understand the need to reward the characters that we love, but in Ilya’s case, what I loved about him was inseparable from the fact of his rootlessness. The novel repeatedly draws a parallel between his situation and that of the Khazars, the tribe of nomads that converted to Judaism before being erased from history, and I once compared him to the tzaddikim, or the unknown men and women for whose sake God refrains from destroying the world.  Above all else, he was the Scythian, a wanderer of the steppes. I chose these emblems intuitively, but they clearly all have something in common. And it implied that Ilya would have to depart the series as he began it: as a man without a country.

What we get, in the end, is this quiet scene, in which Ilya goes to visit the daughter of the woman who had helped him in Yalta. The woman was a bride of the brotherhood, a former convict who gave up her family to work with the thieves, and her daughter ended up as the servant of a gangster in Moldova, five hundred miles away. Ilya gives her some money and her mother’s address, which he hopes will allow them to build a new life together, and then leaves. (The song that is playing on the girl’s cassette deck, incidentally, is Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree.” This might be the nerdiest, most obscure inside joke of the entire series: it’s the song that appears in a deleted epigraph in the page proofs of Gravity’s Rainbow, before Thomas Pynchon removed it prior to publication. I’d wanted to use it, in some form, since The Icon Thief, and the fact that it includes the word “eternity” was a lucky coincidence.) It all makes for a subdued conclusion to the trilogy, and I came up with it fairly late in the process: as far as I can remember, the idea that there was a connection between the women in Yalta and Moldova didn’t occur to me until I’d already outlined the scenes, and this conclusion would have been an equally late addition. And it works, more or less, even if it feels a little too much like the penultimate scene of The Bourne Supremacy. It seemed right to end the series—which was pointedly made up of big, exaggerated gestures—on a gentle note, which implies that reuniting a parent and her child might be an act of greater significance than saving the world. I don’t know where Ilya goes after this, even though I spent the better part of four years trying to see through his eyes. But I suspect that he just wants to be left in peace…

The air of unreality

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Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer on UnREAL

I’ve often said that a work of art is secretly about the process of its own creation, and that seems especially true of the Lifetime series UnREAL. Reviewing its uneven but compelling first season, which followed a pair of ruthless reality show producers as they manipulated their contestants, their coworkers, and themselves, I wrote:

UnREAL isn’t without its problems, which grow increasingly evident as the season progresses…The love triangle between Rachel, Adam, and her hunky bore of an ex-boyfriend Jeremy never settles into anything more than a gimmick…The plotting is a sometimes uneasy mix of cynicism, soap opera, and narrative convenience…By making [its fictional reality series] into a kind of perfect storm of worst-case scenarios, the show holds our attention for the short term, but it ends up making the entire season less interesting: we don’t want life and death, but the small betrayals and reversals that underlie the shows we take for granted.

I concluded: “At its best, this is a remarkably assured series, with its two halves vibrating against each other in ways that can make you tingle with excitement. But the more it cranks up the drama, the less it implicates us, and it all ends up feeling safely unreal.” And I was especially curious to see how it would handle the transition to its second season.

Having watched the first couple of episodes of its current run, I’m still not sure. But I have the feeling that the show’s co-creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, would agree with many of the criticisms I mentioned above. Here are a few excerpts from the remarkably candid profile of Shapiro by D.T. Max that was published last week in The New Yorker:

Executives at Lifetime offered to buy the idea [of UnREAL] immediately. Afterward, Shapiro had second thoughts worthy of a victorious Bachelor contestant: “I was calling 411, asking, ‘Do you have the main number for HBO?’” She couldn’t reach any executives there—this is her story, anyway—and she proceeded with Lifetime…

The studio also asked the writers to expand the role of Jeremy…He fit the aesthetic of Lifetime movies but was not Shapiro’s type…Jeremy, she told me, was “conceived as a one-season character.” Later, she e-mailed me: “I could not get on board with the idea of Jeremy being Rachel’s ‘Mr. Big’ (which was brought up).” Still, the studio had pushed for Josh Kelly to return. “They can ask you to do it, but they can’t make you,” she told me. Like Rachel, Shapiro frequently has to decide whether she is a bomb-thrower or an inside player with misgivings. In this case, she decided to play nice.

Which all leads up to a vivid moment when Carol Barbee, the showrunner, enters the writers’ room and says: “Come on. Let’s put on our big-boy pants and make a story for Jeremy.”

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

Reading this, I found myself wondering how Josh Kelly, the actor who plays Jeremy, would respond—or the executives at Lifetime itself. (Elsewhere in the article, Shaprio says of Kelly: “All I can say is we employ a veteran, and he’s a good person.” She continues: “Integrating Jeremy was a small price to pay for having a black bachelor and letting Quinn and Rachel go all the way to darkness.”) Every television show, it seems safe to assume, is the product of similar compromises, but it’s rare to see them discussed in public for a series that hasn’t even aired two full seasons yet, and which hasn’t exactly been an invulnerable ratings juggernaut. A hint of backstage conflict doesn’t necessarily tarnish the brand of UNReal, which is explicitly about the tussles behind the scenes of a troubled series, and if anything, it adds an intriguing layer of subtext. Shaprio says of Rachel, her fictional alter ego: “It’s really about ‘I’m savvy enough and smart enough that I know I have to give the network all the frosting and the froufrou and all the titties that they need, and in the process I’m going to slip them this super-important thing.’” Yet if I were Shaprio, I’d be a little uncomfortable with how the article portrayed my relationship with the collaborators who have enabled this show to exist. This includes co-creator Marti Noxon, who says of her partnership with Shapiro: “I don’t think I’ve had as contentious and fruitful a collaboration since I worked with Matt Weiner on Mad Men.”

That quote, in itself, is a small masterpiece of spin, pairing “contentious” with “fruitful” to imply that one leads to the other, and cleverly dropping the name of the one show that ought to silence any concerns we might have about disquiet on the set. But the comparison also works against the series itself. Matthew Weiner, a notorious perfectionist, had contentious interactions with his cast, his crew, and his network, but the result was a show that was staggeringly consistent in tone and quality. You can’t say this about UnREAL, in which the strain of its competing forces is clearly visible: the new season, especially, has struggled to top the delicious toxicity of its debut while keeping the plot wheels turning, and it sometimes verges on shrill. Thanks to the glimpse that we’ve been given of its travails, I’ll be watching the series with even greater interest than before—although I also run the risk of excusing its flaws because of what we now know about its internal tensions. Such justifications are tempting, but flimsy. Every television show in history has suffered from conflict among its collaborators, network interference, competing incentives, and characters whom the show’s writing staff would prefer to forget. When a series is working, you don’t see any of it, as you so often do with UnREAL. Shapiro knows as well as anyone how much of television is an illusion, and most of the fun of this show lies in how it picks the medium apart. But the result would be even more persuasive if it were better about creating those illusions on its own.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2016 at 9:16 am

The great scene theory

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The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” Thomas Carlyle once wrote, and although this statement was criticized almost at once, it accurately captures the way many of us continue to think about historical events, both large and small. There’s something inherently appealing about the idea that certain exceptional personalities—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon—can seize and turn the temper of their time, and we see it today in attempts to explain, say, the personal computing revolution though the life of someone like Steve Jobs. The alternate view, which was expressed forcefully by Herbert Spencer, is that history is the outcome of impersonal social and economic forces, in which a single man or woman can do little more than catalyze trends that are already there. If Napoleon had never lived, the theory goes, someone very much like him would have taken his place. It’s safe to say that any reasonable view of history has to take both theories into account: Napoleon was extraordinary in ways that can’t be fully explained by his environment, even if he was inseparably a part of it. But it’s also worth remembering that much of our fascination with such individuals arises from our craving for narrative structures, which demand a clear hero or villain. (The major exception, interestingly, is science fiction, in which the “protagonist” is often humanity as a whole. And the transition from the hard science fiction of the golden age to messianic stories like Dune, in which the great man reasserts himself with a vengeance, is a critical turning point in the genre’s development.)

You can see a similar divide in storytelling, too. One school of thought implicitly assumes that a story is a delivery system for great scenes, with the rest of the plot serving as a scaffold to enable a handful of awesome moments. Another approach sees a narrative as a series of small, carefully chosen details designed to create an emotional effect greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to the former strategy, it’s hard to think of a better example than Game of Thrones, a television series that often seems to be marking time between high points: it can test a viewer’s patience, but to the extent that it works, it’s because it constantly promises a big payoff around the corner, and we can expect two or three transcendent set pieces per season. Mad Men took the opposite tack: it was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. Like the theories of history I mentioned above, neither type of storytelling is necessarily correct or complete in itself, and you’ll find plenty of exceptions, even in works that seem to fall clearly into one category or the other. It certainly doesn’t mean that one kind of story is “better” than the other. But it provides a useful way to structure our thinking, especially when we consider how subtly one theory shades into the other in practice. The director Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie consisted of three great scenes and no bad scenes, which seems like a vote for the Game of Thrones model. Yet a great scene doesn’t exist in isolation, and the closer we look at stories that work, the more important those nonexistent “bad scenes” start to become.

Leo Tolstoy

I got to thinking about this last week, shortly after I completed the series about my alternative movie canon. Looking back at those posts, I noticed that I singled out three of these movies—The Night of the Hunter, The Limey, and Down with Love—for the sake of one memorable scene. But these scenes also depend in tangible ways on their surrounding material. The river sequence in The Night of the Hunter comes out of nowhere, but it’s also the culmination of a language of dreams that the rest of the movie has established. Terence Stamp’s unseen revenge in The Limey works only because we’ve been prepared for it by a slow buildup that lasts for more than twenty minutes. And Renée Zellweger’s confessional speech in Down with Love is striking largely because of how different it is from the movie around it: the rest of the film is relentlessly active, colorful, and noisy, and her long, unbroken take stands out for how emphatically it presses the pause button. None of the scenes would play as well out of context, and it’s easy to imagine a version of each movie in which they didn’t work at all. We remember them, but only because of the less showy creative decisions that have already been made. And at a time when movies seem more obsessed than ever with “trailer moments” that can be spliced into a highlight reel, it’s important to honor the kind of unobtrusive craft required to make a movie with no bad scenes. (A plot that consists of nothing but high points can be exhausting, and a good story both delivers on the obvious payoffs and maintains our interest in the scenes when nothing much seems to be happening.)

Not surprisingly, writers have spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, and it’s noteworthy that one of the most instructive examples comes from Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace is nothing less than an extended criticism of the great man theory of history: Tolstoy brings Napoleon onto the scene expressly to emphasize how insignificant he actually is, and the novel concludes with a lengthy epilogue in which the author lays out his objections to how history is normally understood. History, he argues, is a pattern that emerges from countless unobservable human actions, like the sum of infinitesimals in calculus, and because we can’t see the components in isolation, we have to content ourselves with figuring out the laws of their behavior in the aggregate. But of course, this also describes Tolstoy’s strategy as a writer: we remember the big set pieces in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but they emerge from the diligent, seemingly impersonal collation of thousands of tiny details, recorded with what seems like a minimum of authorial interference. (As Victor Shklovsky writes: “[Tolstoy] describes the object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time.”) And the awesome moments in his novels gain their power from the fact that they arise, as if by historical inevitability, from the details that came before them. Anna Karenina was still alive at the end of the first draft, and it took her author a long time to reconcile himself to the tragic climax toward which his story was driving him. Tolstoy had good reason to believe that great scenes, like great men, are the product of invisible forces. But it took a great writer to see this.

My alternative canon #8: Down with Love

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Ewan McGregor in Down with Love

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

I didn’t see Down with Love when it first came out in theaters, almost exactly thirteen years ago, and at the time, it seems to have puzzled most viewers and critics. By the time I finally caught up to it on video, Mad Men had been on the air for several seasons, which went a long way toward making Peyton Reed’s unlikely gem more comprehensible: on its release, it seemed like an abandoned orphan, or a dead end, while hindsight has transformed it into a necessary transitional stage between The Hudsucker Proxy and the world of Sterling Cooper. As a result, it’s easier to appreciate now, and you don’t need to be familiar with the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies it’s ostensibly parodying—I’m certainly not—to enjoy its surface delights. The look of the early sixties is reproduced with a precision that Matthew Weiner would have reason to envy, and the film can indulge in the kinds of sight gags that he never could, as when Barbara and her friend Vikki march into a party wearing houndstooth and canary-yellow coats, respectively, and then remove their outer layers in tandem to reveal complementary outfits underneath. (Vikki, incidentally, is played by Sarah Paulson, who is unforgettably funny here a full decade before her big breakthrough.) Its canny visual pleasures, from the smutty use of split screens to the cheerful fakery of the sets, accomplish with seeming effortlessness what One From the Heart, for all its agonized labor, never could. And when the two leads burst into song over the closing credits, it’s a joyous, inevitable climax that I’d take over all of Chicago or Moulin Rouge!

But the real reason I love this movie is because of a pivotal scene that qualifies, I think, as the weirdest and gutsiest moment in any mainstream comedy of the last twenty years. (Please note that a big spoiler follows.) In a static medium shot that lasts an unbelievable three minutes, most of it without any music, Barbara delivers an epic confessional monologue to Catcher Block, her romantic target, explaining that the film’s entire plot was the result of an insanely convoluted plan to get him to fall in love with her, starting with the simple first step of writing “an international bestseller.” At a time when extended takes and tracking shots have become increasingly routine, this is the only one that still fills me with awe. It strands the movie without a backup plan, depending on an irrational faith in the screenplay, in Renée Zellweger’s performance, and, perhaps most crucially, in the cut to Ewan McGregor’s bewildered reaction. A lot of movies pretend to take showy risks, but this is the real thing, a shot that blows up the entire story and can’t be fixed in the editing room. Maybe the lightness of the surrounding material has kept it from receiving its full due; more plausibly, maybe it just didn’t work for a majority of viewers. But it sure worked for me, in large part because it zeroes in, almost by accident, on the ludicrous fallacy of every writer’s life—the idea that the solution to all of your personal problems lies in writing a bestselling book. Barbara’s plan is crazy, but it works. And here’s a related confession of my own: I conceived this whole alternative canon mostly just as an excuse to talk about Down With Love.

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2016 at 8:31 am

I can dream, can’t I?

with 6 comments

Inception

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

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

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

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

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

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