Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘No Country For Old Men

Going for the kill

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for the X-Files episode “Home Again.”

One of the unexpected but undeniable pleasures of the tenth season of The X-Files is the chance it provides to reflect on how television itself has changed over the last twenty years. The original series was so influential in terms of storytelling and tone that it’s easy to forget how compelling its visuals were, too: it managed to tell brooding, cinematic stories on a tiny budget, with the setting and supporting cast changing entirely from one episode to the next, and it mined a tremendous amount of atmosphere from those Vancouver locations. When it pushed itself, it could come up with installments like “Triangle”—one of the first television episodes ever to air in widescreen—or “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” none of which looked like anything you’d ever seen before, but it could be equally impressive in its moody procedural mode. Yet after a couple of decades, even the most innovative shows start to look a little dated. Its blocking and camera style can seem static compared to many contemporary dramas, and one of the most intriguing qualities of the ongoing reboot has been its commitment to maintaining the feel of the initial run of the series while upgrading its technical aspects when necessary. (Sometimes the best choice is to do nothing at all: the decision to keep the classic title sequence bought it tremendous amounts of goodwill, at least with me, and the slightly chintzy digital transformation effects in “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” come off as just right.)

This week’s episode, Glen Morgan’s “Home Again,” is interesting mostly as an illustration of the revival’s strengths and limitations. It’s basically a supernatural slasher movie, with a ghostly killer called the Band-Aid Nose Man stalking and tearing apart a string of unsympathetic victims who have exploited the homeless in Philadelphia. And the casefile element here is even more perfunctory than usual. All we get in the way of an explanation is some handwaving about the Tibetan tulpa, which the show undermines at once, and the killer turns out to be hilariously ineffective: he slaughters a bunch of people without doing anything to change the underlying situation. But there’s also a clear implication that the case isn’t meant to be taken seriously, except as a counterpoint to the real story about the death of Scully’s mother. Even there, though, the parallels are strained, and if the implicit point is that the case could have been about anything, literally anything would have been more interesting than this. (There’s another point to be made, which I don’t feel like exploring at length here, about how the show constantly falls back on using Scully’s family—when it isn’t using her body—to put her through the wringer. Scully has lost her father, her sister, and now her mother, and it feels even lazier here than usual, as if the writers thought she’d had too much fun last week, which meant that she had to suffer.)

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny on The X-Files

What we have, then, are a series of scenes—four, to be exact—in which an unstoppable killer goes after his quarry. There’s nothing wrong with this, and if the resulting sequences were genuinely scary, the episode wouldn’t need to work so hard to justify its existence. Yet none of it is particularly memorable or frightening. As I watched it, I was struck by the extent to which the bar has been raised for this kind of televised suspense, particularly in shows like Breaking Bad and Fargo, which expertly blend the comedic and the terrifying. Fargo isn’t even billed as a suspense show, but it has given us scenes and whole episodes over the last two seasons that built the pressure so expertly that they were almost painful to watch: I’ve rarely had a show keep me in a state of dread for so long. And this doesn’t require graphic violence, or even any violence at all. Despite its title, Fargo takes its most important stylistic cue from another Coen brothers movie entirely, and particularly from the sequence in No Country For Old Men in which Llewelyn Moss awaits Anton Chigurh in his motel room. It’s the most brilliantly sustained sequence of tension in recent memory, and it’s built from little more than our knowledge of the two characters, the physical layout of the space, and a shadow under the door. Fargo has given us a version of this scene in every season, and it does it so well that it makes it all the less forgivable when an episode like “Home Again” falls short.

And the funny thing, of course, is that both Fargo and Breaking Bad lie in a direct line of descent from The X-Files. Breaking Bad, obviously, is the handiwork of Vince Gilligan, who learned much of what he knows in his stint on the earlier show, and who revealed himself in “Pusher” to be a master of constructing a tight suspense sequence from a handful of well-chosen elements. And Fargo constantly winks at The X-Files, most notably in the spaceship that darted in and out of sight during the second season, but also in its range and juxtaposition of tones and its sense of stoicism in the face of an incomprehensible universe. If an episode like “Home Again” starts to look a little lame, it’s only because the show’s descendants have done such a good job of expanding upon the basic set of tools that the original series provided. (It also points to a flaw in the show’s decision to allow all the writers to direct their own episodes. It’s a nice gesture, but it also makes me wonder how an episode like this would have played in the hands of a director like, say, Michelle McLaren, who is an expert at extending tension to the breaking point.) Not every Monster of the Week needs to be a masterpiece, but when we’re talking about six episodes after so many years, there’s greater pressure on each installment to give us something special—aside from killing off another member of the Scully family. Because if the show were just a little smarter about dispatching its other victims, it might have decided to let Margaret Scully live.

Written by nevalalee

February 11, 2016 at 9:30 am

Like cats and dogs

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George Lucas and Indiana

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 question: “What fictional pet would you most like to own?”

If there’s a universal rule among screenwriters, it’s that if you kill a dog, you lose the audience. I’m not talking about stories that hinge on the death of a beloved pet: Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows may break our hearts, but we’ll accept it if it’s the event around which the entire narrative turns, and we’ll probably remember it forever. But you need to be careful when it comes to treating the death of a dog as just another plot point. Filmmakers from Michael Bay to Beau Willimon—who famously offed a dog in the first scene of House of Cards—have noted that viewers who can absorb the deaths of countless human characters without blinking will turn against the story the instant a dog is killed. In his commentary track with Christopher McQuarrie on The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer notes that you see a dog for roughly three seconds on the ship that explodes at the movie’s climax, and after the preview screenings, someone invariably asked: “Did the dog die?” And Barbet Schroeder observes: “You know, if a filmmaker has a dog killed in a film, it will be felt ten times more by the audience than if you kill a human being…I had to kill a dog in Single White Female and I had so many problems.”

And it isn’t just dogs, either. Animals of all kinds evoke a curious kind of sympathy in the audience, and it’s especially hard to turn one into a villain. (This applies, at least, to mammals: we seem to have no trouble accepting a cold-blooded creature as a remorseless killing machine.) In his commentary for The Return of the King, Peter Jackson says that he had endless trouble with the mumakil, the massive elephantine creatures that attack Minas Tirith. Viewers, he found, were more likely to feel sorry for them, so he cut most of the shots of mumakil being pierced by arrows, keeping only the one that Legolas takes down singlehanded. I’d also bet that a lot of moviegoers remember the dog that gets killed—and not without reason—in No Country for Old Men more vividly than most of that film’s other victims. And its inverse, in which a character shows exceptional kindness to animals, is sometimes a strategy of its own. Will Graham on Hannibal can be a glum, inaccessible hero, but he’s redeemed to large extent by the love he shows to his dogs, and lazier movies and television shows often use the protagonist’s pets as a narrative shorthand for his likability. It’s no accident that the most influential book on screenwriting ever written is called Save the Cat!

Marlon Brando in The Godfather

Dogs have played a surprisingly large role in the history of cinema. These days, Lassie may have been reduced to little more than a corporate spokesdog, but Rin Tin Tin, as Susan Orlean reminds us, was once the most popular star in Hollywood—there’s a longstanding rumor that he won the first Oscar vote for Best Actor, only to have the award overruled. And we all owe a great deal to a dog named Indiana: George Lucas’s Alaskan malamute is responsible for no fewer than two iconic movie characters, since the image of Chewbacca as copilot on the Millennium Falcon was inspired by his memories of driving around with his dog in the front seat. Occasionally, dogs will be treated to cameos, like Michael Powell’s two cocker spaniels, Erik and Spangle, who pop up in Contraband, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going!, and A Matter of Life and Death. And screenwriters, in particular, love their dogs, perhaps because life has taught them to bitterly distrust everybody else. When Robert Towne was fired from Greystoke, he gave the writing credit to his sheepdog, P.H. Vazak, who subsequently became the first dog to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

If dogs are a more common sight in movies than cats, it’s because they’re a director’s idea of the perfect actor: they hit their marks, act on command, and can be relied upon to listen to instructions. Cats refuse to be trained, and the only real strategy the movies have ever developed, short of tossing a cat into the frame for the sake of a jump scare, has been to film the cat for hours in hopes that it does something interesting, as George Stevens did in The Diary of Anne Frank. The most iconic cat in movies is probably the one Don Corleone cradles in The Godfather, and even that was something of an accident—Coppola simply saw the cat wandering around the studio that day and thrust it impulsively into Brando’s hands. And my favorite cinematic cat, the one that appears in Saul Bass’s incredible opening titles for Walk on the Wild Side, gives a nuanced performance that was essentially created in the editing room. (Digital effects, of course, have made the whole business somewhat easier, and the news that Kevin Spacey has just been cast as a talking cat in an upcoming movie fills me with an odd kind of delight.) Dogs simply exist to love and be loved, while cats, like audiences, are more fickle in their affections. And if filmmakers generally avoid them, it’s probably because making a movie is enough like herding cats already.

“An iris seemed to open on his past…”

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"Such an escape was no longer possible..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 35. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Motivation is a tricky thing. I’ve long believed that character is best expressed through action, and that a series of clear objectives, linked to a compelling plot, will tell you more about a protagonist than the most detailed account of his life before the story began. And these objectives don’t need to be major ones. To slightly mangle one of my favorite observations from Kurt Vonnegut, if a character just wants a drink of water, I’m automatically more interested in him than if I’m told that he had an unhappy childhood. My favorite example of misapplied backstory is the novel Contact, in which Carl Sagan, a man of uncanny brilliance, attempts to engage us with his characters in a way that is sadly miscalculated. We’re told that these characters are fascinating, usually through a long biographical digression, but they aren’t given anything interesting to do within the story itself—which is astonishing, given the narrative stakes involved. As no less than Gregory Benford noted in his review in the New York Times:

Characterization proceeds by the dossier method often used by C.P. Snow, with similar results—told much but shown little, we get career profiles, some odd habits, earnest details. The narrative comes to a stop while an expository lump cajols us into finding this person interesting.

These “expository lumps” are such a hallmark of bad fiction that I’ve basically excluded anything like them from my own work, sometimes to a fault. Readers of my early drafts often comment that they’d like more background on the characters, and they can’t all be wrong. As a result, I’ve gingerly experimented with introducing more backstory, usually in the form of a flashback at a point in the novel where it won’t break the narrative momentum. Backstory, I’ve found, isn’t the enemy: the problem is its tendency to draw the story off into tangents, when most novels really ought to proceed along an uninterrupted narrative line. But there are times when some additional motivation, rooted in a character’s past, can enrich the story and give actions in the present greater resonance. The test is whether what happened then enhances our understanding and appreciation of what is happening now. If the answer is no, it can safely be cut; if yes, it can be retained, but only in as unobtrusive a way as possible.

"An iris seemed to open on his past..."

The most significant piece of backstory in The Icon Thief is the death of Ilya Severin’s parents. This was an element that I added fairly late in the process, after I’d already written the first draft, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. I introduced this detail because Ilya’s desire for retribution, in the original draft, was vivid but somewhat abstract: he’d been betrayed by those he trusted, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that he’d value revenge over simple self-preservation. It was while reading another thriller—I think it was Trevanian’s uneven but often excellent Shibumi—that I reflected that a more personal violation might make his behavior more credible. The trouble with killing his parents is that it’s a somewhat familiar trope, which is why I tend to underplay it in the sequels, and once I’d introduced it, I was stuck with it for what turned out to be two more novels. It wasn’t the kind of thing that could just be ignored, and it occasionally caused problems for the stories I wanted to tell, in which Ilya had to appear to come to terms with the men he hated.

Still, I think it works fairly well when introduced here, in Chapters 33 and 35 of The Icon Thief. Among other things, it allows Sharkovsky, by revealing the secret, to briefly gain the upper hand over Ilya, who can sometimes seem preternaturally imperturbable. And by deepening Ilya’s motivation, it makes the rest of the novel more believable. At the end of the chapter, Ilya escapes from the courthouse, in an action scene that is probably my favorite in the entire book—it was a lot of fun to work out the various beats, from Ilya discovering that the meeting is under surveillance to eluding the security guards to fleeing through the construction site next door, only to end up across the street from police headquarters. (The moment when he checks to make sure that the bag at the exchange doesn’t have a tracking device is directly inspired by a similar device in No Country For Old Men.) But it was important for me to establish that Ilya, having escaped, couldn’t simply decide to leave town. The backstory I provide here allows me to keep Ilya around, and on that level, it’s a good thing. But it certainly made my life more complicated…

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2013 at 9:50 am

Two shots from Psycho, or the power of dread

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is full of unforgettable images, but two of the greatest are often overlooked. The first is that oddly melancholy moment when, from over Janet Leigh’s shoulder, we see the bathroom door open through the translucent shower curtain, the camera silently holding for a few seconds on the silhouette of the figure beyond, before the curtain is drawn aside and all hell breaks loose. The second, from the great staircase scene, is the shot of the door opening at the top of the steps, also in silence, shortly before Martin Balsam’s detective meets his startling end. Neither shot draws attention to itself, but both are utterly essential: for a few agonizing seconds, we know exactly what’s going to happen next, and that sense of dread heightens our terror and horror at what immediately follows.

Dread, terror, and horror: these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re very different things, and all writers of horror or suspense should understand the distinction. The definitive explanation is Orson Scott Card’s, in the introduction to his collection Maps in a Mirror, and if you’ve never read it, please check it out here. Dread, he explains, is the fear you feel when you know that something is wrong, but aren’t quite sure what it is—the strange sound in the house, the creaking floorboard, the light under the closed door. Terror is when the killer or monster is coming at you at last. And horror is the aftermath: the body, the blood, Janet Leigh’s staring eye. Of the three, horror is the weakest, while dread is the strongest, because it preys on our fears and imagination. As Card writes:

True, bad things happen to my characters. Sometimes terrible things. But I don’t show it to you in living color. I don’t have to. I don’t want to. Because, caught up in dread, you’ll imagine far worse things happening than I could ever think up to show you myself.

At their most effective, the tools of dread seem so simple that it’s easy to underestimate the craft required. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King observes that the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door. Very true—but only if the pieces of the story have been properly assembled in advance, so that we’re afraid to find out what might be on the other side. I’ve rarely had as hair-raising an experience at the movies as the first time I saw No Country For Old Men, but its greatest image, like those in Psycho, is one of the simplest: a closed hotel room door, seen from inside, with light visible underneath, which is suddenly blocked off by the shadow of a man in the hallway. Nothing could be simpler—except that film has already established the characters of the men both inside and outside the room, and without that essential groundwork, the tension wouldn’t be nearly as unbearable.

And the tools of dread, like all fictional devices, can be misused when taken out of context. Ti West’s ’80s horror pastiche The House of the Devil has a lot of fans, but for all its cleverness, I think it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the workings of true horror. It repeatedly shows its heroine moving past dark doorways, and each time she does, our heart rate accelerates—but time and again, nothing happens. And after an hour of establishing the layout of this terrifying house, when the horror finally does come, the film commits the ultimate crime: it cuts away to a room we’ve never seen. The mounting sense of dread turns out to be just another tease, even if more skillfully executed than most. Because the ultimate lesson of dread is that, to justify itself, it must turn to terror. The shower curtain draws back. The figure appears on the stairs. And sooner or later, something comes out of that door.

Hunting the great white shark

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Last week, my good friend Erin Chan Ding interviewed Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and the recent In the Garden of Beasts, for the Huffington Post. The interview is well worth reading in its entirety, but I was especially struck by Larson’s description of how he got the idea for his latest book, which focuses on the experience of William Dodd, the first United States ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, and his daughter Martha. Larson says:

I mean, the way the whole thing got started was that I was looking for an idea and reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I was following my own advice and reading voraciously and promiscuously when I was looking for an idea. That book had always been on my list of book to read, and I was instantly enthralled…I was looking for characters through whose eyes I can tell that story. At some point, I came across Dodd’s diary and at some point after that, I came across Martha’s memoir…So once I found them, and I got a sense of the interesting characters. Then it was a question of finding as much about them as I could.

What I love about this account is that it treats a writer’s search for ideas as an active, focused process that involves wide reading and deep thinking. This may seem obvious, but it’s not the way we tend to think about creative ideas, which sometimes feel like external events that come to us by luck and happenstance. I’m currently reading Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which argues that until around 1200 BC, humans weren’t fully conscious or introspective in the way they are now, but experienced important decisions as auditory hallucinations originating in the right hemisphere of the brain, which were interpreted as the voices of gods or muses. And while the jury is still out on Jaynes’s overall thesis, it strikes me as very similar to how we still think about the origin of creative ideas.

Ideas, we’re often told, arise from somewhere outside the artist, who is occasionally fortunate enough to catch one as it drifts by. Even the language we use in discussing this problem implies that ideas originate from a specific, mystical place. The very questions “Where do ideas come from?” and “Where do you get your ideas?” implicitly assume, in their wording, that there’s a location, external to the author, where ideas can be obtained. Hence the slightly flip response of authors like Neil Gaiman, who has been known to say that he gets his ideas “from a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,” or Stephen King, who at one point in his career said he got his ideas from Utica. (Perhaps, in the parlance of No Country For Old Men, we can say that we get ideas from “the gettin’ place.”)

Yet the reality is often closer to what Larson describes above, when he says that he “voraciously and promiscuously” sought an idea. And this is as true for novelists as it is for nonfiction writers. The issue is slightly obscured, of course, by the fact that such intellectual voracity is inseparable from a professional writer’s daily routine. But when you look at the origins of great works of fiction, you often find that external inspiration can’t be separated from the deliberate pursuit of ideas. One of the most famous such origin stories, which William Goldman says changed novels and movies forever, was when Peter Benchley was walking along a beach and thought to himself: “What if the shark got territorial?” The idea, apparently, came out of nowhere. But Benchley was already thinking about sharks when the idea came, and spent years researching and developing the idea before he wrote Jaws.

Looking for ideas, then, is something like fishing. Clearly there’s a lot of luck involved: even the best fisherman is constrained, to a point, by what happens to swim by. But there are ways in which you can control the circumstances. You select your equipment, pick your location, know how to use your tools, and above all else, know how to react when you feel that first tug on the line. All of these things come with time and experience. Similarly, as a writer, you hone your craft until it becomes intuitive, choose a promising area to start exploring, and learn to recognize a good idea when you see one. (As a writer, you can even use a net instead of a rod and reel, or, in certain situations, dynamite.) Sooner or later, if you’ve done your work properly, you’ll catch something. And sometimes, very occasionally, it might even be a shark.

True Grit and the Coen Brothers

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I mean, who says exactly what they’re thinking? What kind of game is that?
—Kelly Kapoor, The Office

True Grit, as many critics have already noted, is the first movie that Joel and Ethan Coen have made without irony. I liked it a lot, but spent the entire movie waiting for a Coenesque twist that never came—which left me wondering if the twist was the fact that there was no twist. The truth, I think, is somewhat simpler: a combination of affection for the original source material and a desire by the Coens to show what they could do with a straightforward genre piece. (I also suspect that, after decades of thriving in the margins, the Coens were juiced by the prospect of their first real blockbuster.)

As much as I enjoyed True Grit, I found myself nostalgic for the old Coens, rather to my own surprise. There was a time, not long ago, when I would have argued that the Coen brothers, for all their craft and intelligence, were the most overrated directors in the world. In particular, I felt that the very qualities that made them so exceptional—their craft, their visual elegance, their astonishing control—made them especially unsuited for comedy, which requires more spontaneity and improvisation than they once seemed willing to allow. And even their best movies, like Fargo, never escaped a faint air of condescension toward their own characters.

As a result, with the notable exception of The Hudsucker Proxy, which I’ve always loved, I’ve never found the Coens all that funny—or at least not as funny as their admirers insist. Despite my affection for The Dude, I was never as big a fan of the movie in which he found himself, which reads wonderfully as a script, but never really takes off on the screen. And when the Coens try to work in pure comedic mode—as in The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, and the inexplicable Burn After Reading (which, I’ll grant, does have its admirers)—I find the results close to unwatchable.

In recent years, though, something happened. No Country For Old Men, though it never quite justifies the narrative confusion of its last twenty minutes, is both incredibly tense on the first viewing and hugely amusing thereafter. A Serious Man struck me as close to perfect—their best since Miller’s Crossing, which is still their masterpiece. The Coens, it seemed, had finally relaxed. Their craft, as flawless as ever, had been internalized, instead of storyboarded. Age and success had made them more humane. True Grit feels like the logical culmination of this trend: it’s a movie made, strangely enough, for the audience.

That said, though, I hope that their next movie finds the Coens back in their usual mode. (The rumor that they might still adapt The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is very promising.) True Grit is dandy, but it’s a movie that any number of other directors (like Steven Spielberg, its producer) might have made. For most filmmakers, this retreat from eccentricity would be a good thing, but the Coens have earned the right to be prickly and distinctive. With True Grit, they’ve proven their point: they can make a mainstream movie with the best of them. Now it’s time to get back to work.

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