Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Point Break

“You know how this works…”

leave a comment »

"You know how this works..."

Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 22. You can read the previous installments here.

“An artist,” Edgar Degas wrote, “must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.” In other words, with diligence, cunning, thoroughness, and full awareness that even the smallest mistake could betray him. Of course, in real life, most crimes aren’t carried out with nearly this degree of intention: they’re impulsive, messy, and poorly planned. When a robbery or con game rises to the standard of ingenuity set by fiction, it’s so rare that it becomes newsworthy, and the press coverage tends to start by comparing it to a scene out of the movies. Reading about the recent prison break in upstate New York, we’re both horrified by the idea of two convicted murderers on the loose and oddly tickled by the details: stuffed dummies, a taunting note left behind for the authorities, and a long crawl through a pipe straight out of The Shawshank Redemption. And it’s hard to escape the implication that the prisoners were explicitly thinking in those terms. The specifics of the plan might have been determined by the vulnerabilities of the prison itself, but its overall effect, it comes off almost as an homage to what the movies have taught us an escape like this ought to look like.

Of all the forms of criminal activity available as subjects for fiction, writers have shown a particular interest in three types: the prison break, yes, but also the heist and the confidence game. Each one emphasizes a different set of qualities that recalls the act of writing itself. A heist represents the moment when meticulous planning collides with a few precious moments of luck or serendipity; a con game is about the creation of trust and plausibility out of countless careful details. (On a queasier level, you could also say that fiction’s persistent fascination with serial killers comes from a similar place. The ingenious predators of Saw or The Following have less in common with their counterparts in real life than with the screenwriters who created them, and if there’s an element of wish fulfillment in the depiction, it’s not so much about killing as about control. Jigsaw is so omniscient that he might as well have written the script for his own movie, and it runs both ways. When you look at the notebooks of the Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, they look eerily like props, as if he’d taken his cues—if not his intentions—directly from John Doe in Seven.)

"This is your lucky day..."

As for a prison break, it’s nothing if not a lesson about the importance of constraints. That said, there’s a touch of dishonesty in the way most novels and movies approach any “impossible” heist or escape: the protagonists always show great apparent resourcefulness in defeating the security measures and eluding the guards, but both sides of the equation have been manipulated in advance by the writer, who sets each obstacle in place with an eye to how to overcome it. Hence the convenient ventilation shafts that materialize wherever necessary; the moving laser beams that follow a predictable pattern, rather than simply creating an impassable grid; or the impregnable vaults, like the one in the first Mission: Impossible movie, equipped with every deterrent device imaginable except a functional security camera. For fans of the genre, spotting the writer’s workarounds is part of the fun. And if prison breaks sometimes feel more satisfying than heists, it’s because the author, like his characters, is forced to deal with problems that can’t be waved away. Stone walls may not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t always there.

The prison break sequence in Eternal Empire, which reaches its climax in Chapter 22, was cobbled together out of many such components. Some of the details, like the limpet mines that the attackers affix to the prison van’s doors, or the way in which one of the criminals poses as a traffic policeman to cheerfully wave other cars toward an alternate route, were taken from similar incidents in real life; others were determined by the physical demands of the location, or nods to scenes I’d enjoyed in other books or movies. (The vehicles that surround the van, boxing it in, come straight from The Usual Suspects.) If there’s one thing that dissatisfies me, it’s the white surgical masks that the assailants wear: I wanted to give them something distinctive, but ever since Point Break raised the bar, the movies have given us heists with thieves masked as clowns, nuns, and whatever else a writer can imagine, and the well of ideas is running a little dry. Still, the result is one of the most effective set pieces in any of these novels, or at least one of the few I can stand to read over again. It’s the kind of scene every writer ought to write at least once. And like most good prison breaks, it never goes quite as smoothly as planned…

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2015 at 10:41 am

Cinematic comfort food

leave a comment »

Last night, my wife and I were getting ready to watch The Next Three Days, which we’d rented from Netflix, only to be confronted by a frustratingly common occurrence: the disc stalled in our player, then died. The problem, weirdly, seems to be that movies released by Lionsgate (including Mad Men, alas) are incompatible with our LG Blu-ray player, an issue that has been widely noted but not, to my knowledge, fixed. Faced with the prospect of a movieless night, we frantically checked our on-demand queue for a backup option, and while we nearly went with Die Hard With a Vengeance—a revealing choice in itself, as you’ll see—a sudden inspiration and a quick search led to the following question: “Want to watch Speed?”

Which, of course, we did. And it was great. It’s always a pleasure when a movie you haven’t seen in years holds up as well as you remember, and Speed is still stunningly good. (Looking back, it’s clear that it came out at just the right time in the history of special effects, in which stunts could be cleaned up digitally, but were still reliant on old-fashioned manpower. These days, I suspect that a lot of the big moments would be rendered in CGI, much to the movie’s loss.) And the evening’s resounding success made me reflect on the role of cinematic comfort food, which, for lack of a better definition, is any movie that comes to mind when somebody asks, “Well, so what do you feel like watching?”

But maybe we can do better than that. The essential characteristic of movie comfort food is that it’s ideally suited to be seen on television—which, in fact, is where we often see it first. It’s a movie that can be watched multiple times, even internalized, without any loss of enjoyment, to the point where we can tune in halfway and know precisely where we are. It generally features appealing actors we might not necessarily pay to watch in a theater—hence the fact that Keanu Reeves stars in at least three classic comfort food movies (Speed, Point Break, and my beloved Bram Stoker’s Dracula). And it tends to tell clean, simple, satisfying stories that are exciting without being overwhelming: escapist action or comedy, not intense violence or suspense.

Occasionally, a movie that fits these criteria crosses over into the realm of art, as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan does for me. For the most part, though, these are movies that might not make our list of the best movies of all time, but still occupy a special place in our hearts—perhaps because they’re often movies we first saw as teenagers. For me, they include Sneakers; any of the great Nicolas Cage trifecta of ’90s action movies, especially Con Air; the vintage Bruce Willis movie of your choice; and more recently, and inexplicably, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, which may hold the record for the movie most often found playing in the background in our house. You’ll probably have a list of your own. And while these aren’t all great movies, I wouldn’t want to live without them. Or Ghostbusters.

%d bloggers like this: