Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Quentin Tarantino

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.

Who went there?

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John Carpenter's The Thing

One of the high points of this year’s Academy Awards was the composer Ennio Morricone’s richly deserved win for the original score of The Hateful Eight. The standing ovation he received—only a few years after being recognized for lifetime achievement—was a testament to how his music has filled the inner lives of so many moviegoers, including me. (He’s most famous for his work on such spaghetti westerns as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but I’m most likely to hum the theme from Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables.) Morricone wrote fifty minutes of original music for The Hateful Eight, his first studio assignment in more than a decade, but given the film’s three-hour runtime, Quentin Tarantino filled in some of the gaps in the best way imaginable: by inserting unused cues that Morricone had written over thirty years earlier for John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tarantino has also been candid about the ways in which the entire movie is an homage to The Thing itself, a touchstone for his career ever since Reservoir Dogs, and reflected here in such elements as the snowy setting, the air of paranoia, and the indispensable Kurt Russell. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Carpenter’s movie isn’t perfect, but it has some of the greatest sustained sequences of pure terror in the entire genre, and its amazing practical effects need to be studied by everyone who hopes to scare audiences in ways that will hold up forever.

Yet it’s also worth remembering that before The Thing was a movie—three movies, actually, and four if you count the unauthorized remake Horror Express—it was a story, and a remarkable one. The writer and editor John W. Campbell, who stands at the center of my upcoming book Astounding, is a complicated, often enigmatic figure, but when he was still in his twenties, he was responsible for one undeniable achievement: his novella “Who Goes There?”, published under the pen name Don A. Stuart and the basis for every version of The Thing, is the best science fiction short story ever written. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. It wasn’t until recently, in fact, that I realized the extent to which nearly everything I’ve done in the short fiction line, especially “The Boneless One,” has been an attempt to replicate what Campbell did first and best. (I’ve been influenced by Carpenter’s The Thing as well, of course, and indirectly by its blatant homage in “Ice,” which is still one of the half dozen or so best episodes of The X-Files.) Suspense has rarely been an integral part of science fiction; for the most part, it’s a genre that prefers to affect its readers in other ways. For various reasons, ranging from my own narrative strengths and weaknesses to the kinds of stories I enjoy reading myself, I’ve focused on suspense more often than most other writers. And if you’re interested in science fiction that wants to scare or shake up the reader, there’s never been a purer, more inspired example than what Campbell did back in 1938.

"Who Goes There?"

And it’s unlike anything else he ever wrote. In many ways, it’s a classic instance of the story taking control of the writer, rather than the other way around. Campbell had initially written up the basic idea in a humorous style, as “The Brain Stealers of Mars” in Thrilling Wonder Stories, but by shifting the location to earth and reimagining it as a work of horror, he ended up with a masterpiece. The story of a scientific expedition in Antarctica that discovers a frozen spaceship in the ice, then inadvertently thaws an alien capable of taking the form and characteristics of any living being, including the members of the team itself, is such a good premise that Campbell was unable to resist it. It’s still sensational: scary, atmospheric, full of ideas. For the most part, it’s all business, and pointedly uninterested in teasing out the philosophical implications of a narrative in which no one is what he seems—which is all to its benefit. The iconic scenes in “Who Goes There?” have been copied and redone to death, but the original has lost none of its power. Take the moment in which the men stand in a tense circle, testing blood samples drawn from the team to see which ones react when poked with a hot wire. One of their number, Connant, has just been exposed as an alien, provoking a despairing comment from Garry, the expedition commander:

Garry spoke in a low, bitter voice. “Connant was one of the finest men we had here—and five minutes ago I’d have sworn he was a man. Those damnable things are more than imitation.”

Garry shuddered and sat back in his bunk. And thirty seconds later, Garry’s blood shrank from the hot platinum wire, and struggled to escape the tube, struggled as frantically as a suddenly feral, red-eyed, dissolving imitation of Garry struggled to dodge the snake-tongue weapon Barclay advanced at him, white faced and sweating…

This is fantastically good stuff, and Carpenter—who drew on this passage for the single scariest moment in The Thing, and maybe in any movie—knew it. When you watch the movie with the original story in mind, it’s hard not to be struck by faithfully Carpenter follows its essential beats, which unfold beautifully from that gorgeous premise. Even when Campbell was first plotting it out, he knew that he was onto something special. In a letter to his friend Robert Swisher, he wrote: “I had more fun writing that story than I’ve gotten out of any I ever turned out.” It shows. Despite the claustrophobic setting and the unforgettable body horror, it all but vibrates with Campbell’s pleasure at having such a good story to tell. And it made as a great an impression then as it does now. A.E. van Vogt read most of it standing up at a newsstand, and he was so overwhelmed by it that he was inspired to start writing science fiction again. If Campbell had done nothing else for the rest of his career, it would be enough to ensure his immortality: it was named the greatest science fiction novella ever written in a poll taken by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and it has only gained in stature over time, even if most fans know it best through its filmed incarnations. And the original deserves to be cherished in its own right. It’s as good an example as any I know of how a single idea, cranked out on a manual typewriter for a cent and a half per word, can survive forever, changing shape and assuming other forms in the imaginations of visionaries from Carpenter to Tarantino. But Campbell went there first.

Written by nevalalee

March 2, 2016 at 9:28 am

The thumbnail rule

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Book covers by Chip Kidd

In his charming book Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, the legendary cover designer Chip Kidd writes: “Here is a very cool, simple design trick: If a piece of visual information looks interesting when it is small, then it will look even more so when you make it big.” More recently, in an interview with the Longform podcast, he expanded on the origins of this insight:

Even when I was in school, pre-computer, there’s a reason that thumbnail sketches are called thumbnail sketches—because they are small, and they are distillations, and they are supposed to be a simplification of the idea that you have. So that hasn’t changed. Most graphic designers that I know sketch stuff out small…I’ve been mindful of how this stuff looks like as a postage stamp pretty much from the beginning, and part of that was also because—probably before you were born—there was something called the Book of the Month Club. And the Book of the Month Club used to buy a group ad on the back page of The New York Times Book Review every week, where they showed as many of these goddamned books—all, you know, current bestsellers—at postage stamp or sub-postage stamp size. And so it wasn’t like I was ever told to design with that in mind, but it was always interesting to see how one of my designs would be reconfigured for this ad. And sometimes it would change it and take away some of the detail, or sometimes they would keep it.

As a general design rule—if it looks good small, it’ll look good big—this isn’t so different from the principle of writing music for crappy speakers, as memorably expressed by the record producer Bill Moriarty:

All that low end in the guitar? It’s useless in the small speakers. It’s just taking up frequencies the bass or drums or organs or tenor instruments can occupy. You have to be ruthless in cutting away useless frequencies so the record is loud and jumps out of all speakers. Make the record sound outstanding on little crap speakers since that’s where most people will hear it. I’ve found when I do this it still sounds great on the fancy speakers.

A reduction in scale, in other words, is a kind of editing strategy: by forcing you to remove everything that doesn’t read at a smaller size or at a lower resolution, you’re compelled to simplify and streamline. It also allows you to see patterns, good or bad, that might not be obvious otherwise. This is why I often do what I call a visual edit on my work, reducing each page to a size that is almost too small to read comfortably as I scroll quickly through the manuscript: sections or paragraphs that seem out of tune with the overall rhythms of the story jump out, and I’ll often see things to cut that wouldn’t have struck me if I’d been reading as I normally would.

Ad for the Book of the Month Club

Navigating changes in scale is central to what artists do, particularly in fields in which the intended user could potentially experience the work in any number of ways. It’s why smart theater directors try to watch a play from every section of a theater, and why film editors need to be particularly sensitive to the different formats in which a movie might be viewed. As Charles Koppelman describes the editor Walter Murch’s process in Behind the Seen:

The “little people” are another one of Walter’s handmade edit room tools. These are paper cutouts in the shapes of a man and a woman that he affixes to each side of his large screening monitor. They are his way of dealing with the problem of scale.

As an editor, Murch must remember that images in the edit room are only 1/240 the square footage of what the audience will eventually see on a thirty-foot-wide screen…It’s still easy to forget the size of a projected film, which can trick an editor into pacing a film too quickly, or using too many close-ups—styles more akin to television. The eye rapidly apprehends the relatively small, low-detail images on a TV. Large-scale faces help hold the attention of the audience sitting in a living room with lots of distractions or ambient light. But in movies, images are larger than life and more detailed, so the opposite is true. The eye needs time to peruse the movie screen and take it all in.

And such considerations are far from theoretical. A director like Tom Hooper, for example, who got his start in television, seems to think exclusively in terms of composition for a video monitor, which can make movies like The King’s Speech unnecessarily alienating when seen in theaters. I actually enjoyed his version of Les Misérables, but that’s probably because I saw it at home: on the big screen, all those characters bellowing their songs directly into the camera lens might have been unbearable. (At the opposite end of the spectrum, Quentin Tarantino, a much more thoughtful director, will be releasing two different versions of The Hateful Eight, one optimized for massive screens, the other for multiplexes and home viewing. As Variety writes: “The sequences in question play in ‘big, long, cool, unblinking takes’ in the 70mm version, Tarantino said. ‘It was awesome in the bigness of 70, but sitting on your couch, maybe it’s not so awesome. So I cut it up a little bit. It’s a little less precious about itself.'”) And we’ve all had to endure movies in which the sound seems to have been mixed with total indifference to how it would sound on a home theater system, with all the dialogue drowned out by muddy ambient noise. We can’t always control how viewers or audiences will experience what we do, but we can at least keep the lower end in mind, which has a way of clarifying how the work will play under the best possible circumstances. An artist has to think about scale all the time, and when in doubt, it’s often best to approach the work as if it’s a thumbnail of itself, while still retaining all the information of the whole. At least as a rule of thumb.

You Only Write Twice

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The opening titles of Skyfall

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, the playwright and screenwriter Jez Butterworth shares one of his personal rules for his work on the upcoming James Bond movie: “You know, like Bond doesn’t have scenes with other men. Bond shoots other men—he doesn’t sit around chatting to them. So you put a line through that.” Butterworth makes it all sound rather easy—as the rest of the article indicates, he’s a reliable source of pithy observations on craft—but in fact, the process of writing Spectre seems to have been anything but straightforward. As the leaked emails from the Sony hack make clear, work on the script is still ongoing, and a dream team of Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan, and Butterworth himself has been struggling for months to crack the movie’s third act. (A typical line from the leaked correspondence, written in all caps in the original: “We need to cut twenty pages and this whole set piece could go.”) In the meantime, shooting has already started, and it’s never a good sign when writers are still straining to figure out the ending for a $300 million production.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have mixed feelings about discussing the documents from the Sony hack, and as a writer, I’d hate to see notes about one of my works in progress leaked to the public. Yet the handwringing over Spectre is useful in the reminder it provides of how even the most handsomely compensated—and talented—writers in the world remain at the mercy of notes, and how they’re no more capable of solving problems at will than the rest of us, even when the stakes are so high. And if the studio consensus on the draft is accurate, the notes aren’t wrong: the screenwriters seem to be having trouble even with creating a compelling bad guy, which is the one thing that a Bond movie can be expected to do well. (It also gives me pause about the casting of Christoph Waltz, which would otherwise seem like an exciting development. Waltz has been a fantastic presence in exactly two movies, both scripted by Quentin Tarantino, but without a strong character and great dialogue, he tends to fade into the background—he doesn’t bring the same charisma to an underwritten part in the way that, say, Mads Mikkelsen or Javier Bardem have done.)

Jez Butterworth

Of course, plot problems aren’t new to the Bond franchise, even when the series has had ample time to develop a script. There was a gap of four years between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, due mostly to financial problems at MGM, which should have been plenty of time to work out any kinks in the story. When I watched Skyfall again the other day, though, I found myself newly annoyed by the way the plot falls apart halfway through. Bardem’s grand scheme, which involves getting caught on purpose, degenerates into a shootout that has nothing to do with the rest of his plan—he could have saved a lot of time and trouble by simply flying to London and taking a cab to the building where M’s hearing is taking place, which is essentially what he does anyway. And this isn’t a question of plausibility, which doesn’t have much to do with the Bond movies, but rather of simple dramatic payoff: if you’re going to make a big deal about the bad guy’s insanely complicated gambit, he’d better have something good up his sleeve.

What’s worse, it all could have been fixed with a simple change—by having the hearing take place within MI-6 itself, prompting Bardem to get himself caught in order to attack it—but apparently the temptation to indulge in an elaborate subway chase, which is admittedly cool, was too great to resist. More to the point, though, is the fact that we just don’t know. Maybe objections were raised and dismissed; maybe production on certain sets had already begun, forcing the writers to work with what they had; or maybe altering the scene would have caused problems elsewhere in the movie that I haven’t anticipated. (It doesn’t help that Skyfall was the second of three movies released over the course of twelve months, along with The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness, that imprison the villain inside a glass cube and include some variation on the line: “He meant to get caught!”) A movie, much more than a novel or play, is a machine with many moving parts, and all a writer can really do is keep from getting caught in the gears. Spectre may yet turn out to be a great movie, and it wouldn’t be the first to survive late problems at the screenplay stage. And if it ends with Bond escaping from certain doom at the last minute, it’ll be based on firsthand experience.

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2014 at 9:08 am

The best worst year

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Faye Wong in Chungking Express

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 1994 pop culture would you want to experience again for the first time?”

Just up the street from our house in Oak Park stands the middle school that my daughter will attend in about ten years. Whenever I push her past it in her stroller, I whisper: “Honey, I apologize in advance.” I’m kidding, but not entirely. Middle school is hell for just about everyone, and although this fact is widely recognized, it’s unclear what can be done. When you throw kids from ages twelve to fourteen together in one crowded arena, you’re going to get conflict: everyone seems stranded at a different stage of maturity or development—physical, emotional, and intellectual—and along with these changes comes the impulse to take the first tentative steps at defining one’s personality. You find yourself worrying for the first time about whether you’re wearing the right clothes or listening to the right kind of music, and you receive urgent messages to conform even as you start to figure out who you really are. The result is a nightmare for most kids with anything resembling an individual point of view, and in some ways, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over it, even though my life since has been exceptionally happy.

Yet I don’t think I’d be the person I am now without what I went through in the years 1993-1994, which have started to seem like a weird hinge moment of my life. I’ve spoken before about what happened to me around the age of thirteen: I discovered Borges, Eco, and Douglas Hofstadter in quick succession, dove deep into David Lynch and The X-Files, and that summer, I wrote my first novel. But if 1993 was my headlong plunge into peculiarity, 1994 was a kind of course correction. I started to notice that I wasn’t much like anyone else around me—I still remember a classmate’s incredulity when I told him that my favorite band was The Art of Noise—so I decided to do something about it. Other factors conspired to push me in that direction. For a while, we had both MTV and Spin at home, and I studied both closely. I walked past a record store on the way home from school every day, and I bought a copy of The Downward Spiral from the same cashier from whom I’d earlier purchased Very by the Pet Shop Boys. And once I was able to take the train to Berkeley on my own, I saw a lot of movies, many of which have stayed with me ever since.

Quentin Tarantino

As a result, I feel an intense range of emotions when I think back on the pop culture of 1994. It’s possible that any year would seem similarly charged if you were thirteen or fourteen at the time—it’s an age when you’re particularly susceptible to being permanently shaped by whatever you encounter—but it also happens to have been a shared moment in which the culture as a whole was working through similar issues. By now, it’s a cliché to talk about the alternate visions offered by Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, and also a little misleading: Forrest Gump was an eccentric, ambitious, technically exquisite kind of entertainment that we don’t seem likely to see again. But the movies and music produced that year do seem to engage in a tricky triangulation between indie crediblity and popular success, or, if you prefer, between alternative and mainstream. The acts of appropriation extended in both directions, and its breakthrough figure was Quentin Tarantino, whose style was based on his ability to give a unifying form to a dizzying collage of influences. (As David Thomson wrote much later: “Anyone as blessed with a sense of movie shape might get away with knowing nothing else.”)

And it’s no accident that I owe Tarantino thanks for championing my favorite work of art from 1994, although I didn’t encounter it until the following year: Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. I first saw it on another foraging expedition: I’d found that my local Chinese channel showed subtitled movies every Friday night, and they were invariably more inventive and energetic than anything else on the air. Chungking Express was even more special. Today, it feels very much like the product of its time, and I fell in love with it the moment I heard Faye Wong’s cover of “Dreams” by the Cranberries. But there was something particularly lovely, and personal, about its refusal to shoehorn its two stories into a conventional shape, whether by adding a third installment or by connecting them again at the end. (I remember being deeply concerned by the possibly that Brigitte Lin might reappear to shoot Tony Leung.) As I’ve noted elsewhere, a movie with three stories feels like a closed triptych, while two stories feels as open as life. And it taught me something I’ve tried to remember ever since. It’s possible to have it both ways, to be true to yourself and to the world you occupy, as long as you have sufficient energy, imagination, and love.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2014 at 9:47 am

Birds of a feather

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Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage

A while back, for the book Inventory by The A.V. Club, the director Paul Thomas Anderson shared his list of “Two movies that without fail or question will make me stop dead in my tracks and watch them all the way to the very end, no matter what else is happening or needs to get done.” The films were The Birdcage and The Shining. His second choice probably won’t raise many eyebrows—The Shining‘s fingerprints are all over his work, particularly There Will Be Blood—but the first one might give us pause. Yet when I watched it over the weekend, I had no trouble seeing why Anderson finds it so appealing. There’s the astonishing opening shot, for instance, which zooms across the waters of South Beach and continues in an unbroken movement into the club where Robin Williams is greeting patrons and overseeing his floor show of drag queens. Among other things, it’s impossible not to see it as an influence on the opening tracking shot of Boogie Nights, which would come out the following year. (The cinematographer here, incidentally, was Emmanuel Lubezki, who would go on to do spectacular work for the likes of Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón and win an Oscar for his indispensable contributions to Gravity.)

After almost twenty years, it’s fair to say that The Birdcage holds up as an unexpectedly rich, sophisticated slice of filmmaking. Like many of Anderson’s own films, it has a deep bench of supporting players anchored by a generous lead performance: I felt like watching it primarily as a reminder of how good Robin Williams could be with the right direction and material, and what stands out the most is his willingness to dial down his natural showiness to highlight the more flamboyant performances taking place on all sides. He’s essentially playing the straight man—well, sort of—to Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria, but his restrained energy and intelligence give all the actors around him an additional kick. Not surprisingly, for a movie directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Elaine May, it’s often subversively clever, like a Woody Allen film disguised as a studio crowdpleaser. Lane’s very first line is a reference to The Red Shoes, and the film is packed with nods to gay culture, like the way Lane’s show begins with the opening notes of “The Man Who Got Away,” a la Judy at Carnegie Hall, that probably went over the heads of much of its audience. But I don’t think even I would have watched it nearly as attentively or affectionately without the clue from Anderson.

Paul Thomas Anderson

And Anderson clearly knew what he was doing. Whenever you’re asked to provide a list of your favorite movies or other works of art, there are several competing impulses at play: you’re torn between providing a list of major milestones, the films that speak to you personally, or simply the ones that you enjoy the most. There’s also an awareness that a surprising choice can be notable in its own right. After composing his final list for the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies of all time, Roger Ebert wrote:

Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose [The Tree of Life] is my propaganda title.

Whether or not Anderson was thinking explicitly in these terms, there’s no question in my mind that he listed The Birdcage so prominently as a way of highlighting it in the reader’s mind. This is a great movie, he seems to be saying, that you may not have sufficiently appreciated, and listing it here without comment does more to lock it in the memory than any number of words of critical analysis.

That’s the real pleasure—and value—of lists like this, which otherwise can start to seem like pointless parlor games. We don’t learn much from the debates over whether Vertigo really deserves to be ranked above Citizen Kane, but it can be enlightening to discover that Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films include titles like “The Bad News Bears,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Rolling Thunder,” and “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” (Going through the Sight and Sound lists of great directors is like a miniature education in itself: after seeing that both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola named Andrej Wadja’s Ashes and Diamonds in their top ten, there’s no way that I can’t not see this movie.) Once we’ve worked our way through the established canon, as determined by a sober critical consensus, the next step ought to be seeking out the movies that people we admire have singled out for love, especially when they take us down unexplored byways. After watching one movie through Anderson’s eyes, I wish he’d tossed out a few more titles, but maybe it’s best that he left us with those two. And the next time The Birdcage comes up on television, it’ll stop me dead in my tracks.

“Wolfe entered the visitors’ room…”

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"Wolfe entered the visitors' room..."

Note: This post is the thirty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 31. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Given the recent lawsuit over “Stairway to Heaven” and its alleged similarities to “Taurus” by Spirit, there’s been a lot of talk online about where homage—or a common artistic language and tradition—shades into plagiarism. (For what it’s worth, I think it’s clear that Jimmy Page, for all his talents, crossed the line on more than one occasion, and that he profited handsomely by borrowing uncredited ideas from artists who died poor and neglected.) Writers frequently steal from one another, just as they cull images and stories from the world around them, and in most cases, it’s all part of the process of bricolage, the endless gleaning of material that occupies much of an author’s time. Creativity, as I’ve said frequently before, is about combinations, and artistic genius often has more to do with finding unexpected connections between existing components than inventing something new altogether, although the two often go hand in hand. Shakespeare, for one, was a master of uniting disparate stories gleaned from his wide reading into a surprising whole, and a play like The Merchant of Venice is practically a collage of appropriated material, assembled into a strange new animal by juxtaposition and the animating force of the playwright’s imagination.

We see the same principle at work today, perhaps more so than ever, given the range of potential sources that artists have at their disposal. Years ago, I read a critic—I can’t remember who—who argued that Quentin Tarantino’s truest precursor was Joseph Cornell, and while it’s hard to imagine two less similar temperaments, the comparison is a clever one. Tarantino is our most inspired collagist, and like Cornell, his combinations are an expression of a peculiar view of life. For Cornell, it was about finding beauty while excavating and combining the most unlikely of objects, and for Tarantino, it’s both a kind of cultural salvage mission and a metaphor for how he sees the world. Tarantino’s films are loaded with coincidences, cruel ironies, and tricks that the universe plays on its characters, all of which are just another word for fate. That sense of multiple protagonists jostling one another for room, and of one plot segueing abruptly into another before the previous story has had time to conclude, is inseparable from his view of filmmaking as a pileup of influences, and it’s hard to see which tendency came first. The result may seem chaotic, but it’s all of a piece, and that sense of a larger vision behind it is a big part of what separates Tarantino from his imitators.

"Ezekiel is among the exiles in Babylon..."

I’ve always approached The Icon Thief and its sequels as collages, with their elements thrown together as coherently as I can manage, and sometimes the sources show. In City of Exiles, for instance, there’s a major plot thread in which a female FBI agent consults a prisoner for help in tracking down another killer, and as at least one reviewer has pointed out, this sounds a lot like The Silence of the Lambs. I was fully aware of the parallels as I was writing it, as well as of the fact that a law enforcement officer turning to an imprisoned criminal for insight has become a cliché of its own. And no surprise: it’s a nifty little device, and like many tropes that thrive over time, it’s a way of injecting a touch of suspense into scenes of exposition. (Much of the last season of Hannibal has been devoted to ringing as many variations on that theme as possible, and a lot of the fun comes from noticing how blatantly it refers to its own predecessors, including Jonathan Demme’s movie.) As with most things in fiction, familiar elements can work just fine if invigorated by context and specificity, and if I’ve done my job, the scenes between Wolfe and Ilya will work both as part of the story and as a nod to Harris. Or, as John Gardner speaks of an homage to Edgar Allan Poe in The Art of Fiction: “The reader both sees the image in his mind…and sees Poe grinning and waving from the wings.”

Still, if I was going to use this device at all, I wanted to combine it with something else, which is why Chapter 31 also includes the first major introduction of the theme of Ezekiel’s vision, a motif that will recur periodically until the end of the novel. I’m aware that some readers feel that this material seems tacked on, but in fact, it predates much of the plot: I’ve wanted to write a novel about the merkabah for years, and such elements as my interpretation of the tragedy at the Dyatlov Pass and the ultimate nature of Karvonen’s mission were designed as solutions to mysteries for which the vision would provide the clues. It also serves the immediate needs of the story by giving Wolfe a way into Ilya’s head. The one thing Wolfe and Ilya—who otherwise might be the least similar characters in the entire series—have in common is a fascination with scripture and its interpretation, even as they approach it from radically different directions, as a Mormon and a Russian Jew. As usual, when I created these characters, I had no idea that they’d end up spending so much time together, and if their backgrounds make for a nice fit, it’s because they both emerged from my own interest in how we read texts, religious and otherwise. And when all your characters are aspects of yourself, they’ll often have surprising things to tell each other…

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