Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Raging Bull

Cutty Sark and the semicolon

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Vladimir Nabokov

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 22, 2015.

In an interview that was first published in The Paris Review, the novelist Herbert Gold asked Vladimir Nabokov if an editor had ever offered him any useful advice. This is what Nabokov said in response:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

I’ve always adored that thunderous stet, which tells us so much about Nabokov and his imperious resistance to being edited by anybody. Today, however, I’m more interested in the previous sentence. A semicolon, as Nabokov puts it, can indeed be a point of honor. Nabokov was perhaps the most painstaking of all modern writers, and it’s no surprise that the same perfectionism that produced such conceptual and structural marvels as Lolita and Pale Fire would filter down to the smallest details. But I imagine that even ordinary authors can relate to how a single punctuation mark in a manuscript can start to loom as large as the finger of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

And there’s something about the semicolon that seems to inspire tussles between writers and their editors—or at least allows it to stand as a useful symbol of the battles that can occur during the editorial process. Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine about the relationship between Robert Caro, author of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb:

“You know that insane old expression, ‘The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,’ or something like that?” Gottlieb asked me. “That’s really true of Bob. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

It’s possible that the semicolon keeps cropping up in such stories because its inherent ambiguity lends itself to disagreement. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” And I’ve more or less eliminated semicolons from my own work for much the same reason.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Raging Bull

But the larger question here is why artists fixate on things that even the most attentive reader would pass over without noticing. On one level, you could take a fight over a semicolon as an illustration of the way that the creative act—in which the artist is immersed in the work for months on end—tends to turn mountains into molehills. Here’s one of my favorite stories about the making of Raging Bull:

One night, when the filmmakers were right up against the deadline to make their release date, they were working on a nothing little shot that takes place in a nightclub, where a minor character turns to the bartender and orders a Cutty Sark. “I can’t hear what he’s saying,” [Martin Scorsese] said. Fiddling ensued—extensive fiddling—without satisfying him. [Producer Irwin] Winkler, who was present, finally deemed one result good enough and pointed out that messengers were standing by to hand-carry release prints to the few theaters where the picture was about to premiere. At which point, Scorsese snapped. “I want my name taken off the picture,” he cried—which bespeaks his devotion to detail. It also bespeaks his exhaustion at the end of Raging Bull, not to mention the craziness that so often overtakes movies as they wind down. Needless to say, he was eventually placated. And you can more or less hear the line in the finished print.

And you could argue that this kind of microscopic attention is the only thing that can lead to a work that succeeds on the largest possible scale.

But there’s yet another story that gets closer to truth. In Existential Errands, Norman Mailer describes a bad period in his life—shortly after he was jailed for stabbing his second wife Adele—in which he found himself descending into alcoholism and unable to work. His only source of consolation were the scraps of paper, “little crossed communications from some wistful outpost of my mind,” that he would find in his jacket pocket after a drunken night. Mailer writes of these poems:

I would go to work, however, on my scraps of paper. They were all I had for work. I would rewrite them carefully, printing in longhand and ink, and I would spend hours whenever there was time going over these little poems…And since I wasn’t doing anything else very well in those days, I worked the poems over every chance I had. Sometimes a working day would go by, and I might put a space between two lines and remove a word. Maybe I was mending.

Which just reminds us that a seemingly minuscule change can be the result of a prolonged confrontation with the work as a whole. You can’t obsess over a semicolon without immersing yourself in the words around it, and there are times when you need such a focal point to structure your engagement with the rest. It’s a little like what is called a lakshya in yoga: the tiny spot on the body or in the mind on which you concentrate while meditating. In practice, the lakshya can be anything or nothing, but without it, your attention tends to drift. In art, it can be a semicolon, a word, or a line about Cutty Sark. It may not be much in itself. But when you need to tether yourself to something, even a semicolon can be a lifeline.

“That’s all I was asked to give…”

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"Bogdan spoke first..."

Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 38. You can read the previous installments here.

Ever since I got it for Christmas, I’ve been slowly working my way through the special features for the Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, which, among its other pleasures, offers us the chance to listen once more to the voice of Christopher McQuarrie, one of the smartest men in movies. As with such legendary screenwriters as David Mamet or Robert Towne, nearly everything McQuarrie has to say is of interest, and his commentary track and interviews are loaded with insights into the challenges of making a huge franchise movie by the seat of your pants. (My favorite tip is that if you’re filming a scene with a lot of exposition, keep the characters in tight closeup, against a backdrop that can be easily recreated in the studio, just in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot.) And he tells an amusing anecdote about how the movie solved a tricky narrative problem. The film’s obvious high point is the lengthy sequence at the Vienna Opera House, culminating in the assassination of the Chancellor of Austria, but for a long time, they didn’t know how the killing tied in with the rest of the script. McQuarrie and his producer Tom Cruise brainstormed various possibilities, but they were all impossibly convoluted, and they only slowed down the story at a crucial hinge point. Finally, on the day of the shoot, Cruise came up with a single line: “Killing the Chancellor tonight was a statement—the start of a new phase.” And that, incredibly, was all they needed.

I love this kind of thing, in part because it echoes how Alfred Hitchcock solved a similar dilemma in North by Northwest—a movie that Cruise consciously evokes in Rogue Nation‘s opening scene. In his famous interview with François Truffaut, which was recently the subject of its own documentary, Hitchcock says:

My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?”
The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and an exporter.”
“But what does he sell?”
“Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer.
Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!

And the suspense genre, in particular, often boils down to an exercise in seeing how little information you need to get from one point in the story to another.

"That's all I was asked to give..."

This can also apply to what was once a series of scenes: to accelerate the narrative, you cut the sequence down to the one moment that gets the point across. Pauline Kael hints at something like this in her initial, mostly unfavorable review of Raging Bull:

[Scorsese] makes this movie out of remembered high points, leaping from one to another. When Jake is courting the fifteen-year-old platinum-blond Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he takes her to a miniature-golf course, and their little golf ball rolls into a little wooden church and never comes out. The scene is like one of a series in an old-movie montage showing the path to marriage. But Scorsese just puts in this one step; probably for him it stands for the series.

Kael may be right, but I think it’s more likely that additional material was written, shot, or improvised, and Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker kept cutting it until they ended up with the one scene that they needed. Raging Bull, like Goodfellas and Casino, is full of this kind of compression because it covers a large expanse of time, but the same is equally true of stories that cover a lot of space. You try to skip as many transitional moments as possible, and sometimes you end up nudging the balance a bit too far in the wrong direction. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne magically reappears in the besieged Gotham City after escaping from a foreign prison, and the film doesn’t provide any information whatsoever about how he did it. It’s easy to say “Well, he’s Batman,” but the lack of even the slightest nod toward the problem momentarily takes us out of the movie—a rare but not totally uncharacteristic lapse in an otherwise superbly organized film.

Chapter 38 of Eternal Empire provides a nice example of a single moment that takes the place of what could have been an entire sequence. Earlier in the novel, I establish that Vasylenko has been sprung from prison solely because he can provide safe passage, using his connections with the criminal underworld, on Ilya’s journey across Europe. To justify this, I needed to provide at least one instance in which those contacts were employed, and it ended up taking the form of this scene, in which Ilya and Bogdan visit the home of a “bride of the brotherhood” in Yalta. It’s a cute little chapter, in which Ilya obtains some necessary equipment, learns about the next phase of his mission, and even has a brief moment of emotional connection with the woman who has given him refuge. (It’s a small touch, but it will pay off much later, in the very last scene of the entire trilogy.) What’s funny, though, is that this could have been part of a much longer story arc. In his previous appearance, Ilya was in Moldova, or nearly five hundred miles to the west, and I don’t talk at all about how he got from one place to another, although he certainly could have had a few adventures along the way. At this point in the novel, though, it’s more important to keep the story clocking along, so his encounter with Katya—whose background, I’m fairly sure, was lifted from a few paragraphs in Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education—has to stand in for the rest. I think that it works, and even if the reader momentarily wonders how Ilya got here, it doesn’t really matter. His next meeting, as we’re about to see, will be far more interesting…

Cutty Sark and the semicolon

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Vladimir Nabokov

In an interview that was first published in The Paris Review, the novelist Herbert Gold asked Vladimir Nabokov if an editor had ever offered him any useful advice. This is what Nabokov said in response:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

I’ve always adored that thunderous stet, which tells us so much about Nabokov and his imperious resistance to being edited by anybody. Today, however, I’m more interested in the previous sentence. A semicolon, as Nabokov puts it, can indeed be a point of honor. Nabokov was perhaps the most painstaking of all modern writers, and it’s no surprise that the same perfectionism that produced such conceptual and structural marvels as Lolita and Pale Fire would filter down to the smallest details. But I imagine that most authors can relate to how a single punctuation mark in a manuscript can start to loom as large as the finger of God in the Sistine Chapel.

And there’s something about the semicolon that seems to inspire tussles between writers and their editors—or at least allows it to stand as a useful symbol of the battles that can occur during the editorial process. Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine about the relationship between Robert Caro, author of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb:

“You know that insane old expression, ‘The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,’ or something like that?” Gottlieb asked me. “That’s really true of Bob. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

It’s possible that the semicolon keeps cropping up in such stories because its inherent ambiguity lends itself to disagreement. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” And I’ve more or less eliminated semicolons from my own work for much the same reason.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Raging Bull

But the larger question here is why artists fixate on things that even the most attentive reader would pass over without noticing. On one level, you could take a fight over a semicolon as an illustration of the way that the creative act—in which the artist is immersed in the work for months on end—tends to turn mountains into molehills. Here’s one of my favorite stories about the making of Raging Bull:

One night, when the filmmakers were right up against the deadline to make their release date, they were working on a nothing little shot that takes place in a nightclub, where a minor character turns to the bartender and orders a Cutty Sark. “I can’t hear what he’s saying,” [Martin Scorsese] said. Fiddling ensued—extensive fiddling—without satisfying him. [Producer Irwin] Winkler, who was present, finally deemed one result good enough and pointed out that messengers were standing by to hand-carry release prints to the few theaters where the picture was about to premiere. At which point, Scorsese snapped. “I want my name taken off the picture,” he cried—which bespeaks his devotion to detail. It also bespeaks his exhaustion at the end of Raging Bull, not to mention the craziness that so often overtakes movies as they wind down. Needless to say, he was eventually placated. And you can more or less hear the line in the finished print.

And you could argue that this kind of microscopic attention is the only thing that can lead to a work that succeeds on the largest possible scale.

But there’s another story that gets closer to truth. In Existential Errands, Norman Mailer describes a bad period in his life—shortly after he was jailed for stabbing his second wife Adele—in which he found himself descending into alcoholism and unable to work. His only source of consolation were the scraps of paper, “little crossed communications from some wistful outpost of my mind,” that he would find in his jacket pocket after a drunken night. Mailer writes of these poems:

I would go to work, however, on my scraps of paper. They were all I had for work. I would rewrite them carefully, printing in longhand and ink, and I would spend hours whenever there was time going over these little poems…And since I wasn’t doing anything else very well in those days, I worked the poems over every chance I had. Sometimes a working day would go by, and I might put a space between two lines and remove a word. Maybe I was mending.

Which just reminds us that a seemingly minuscule change can be the result of a prolonged confrontation with the work as a whole. You can’t obsess over a semicolon without immersing yourself in the words around it, and there are times when you need such a focal point to structure your engagement with the rest. It’s a little like what is called a lakshya in yoga: the tiny spot on the body or in the mind on which you concentrate while meditating. In practice, the lakshya can be anything or nothing, but without it, your attention tends to drift. In art, it can be a semicolon, a word, or a line about Cutty Sark. It may not be much in itself. But when you need to tether yourself to something, even a semicolon can be a lifeline.

“A terrible possibility began to gather in her mind…”

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"As she brooded over this..."

Note: This post is the twentieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 21. You can read the previous installments here.

Casino Royale is my favorite Bond film, and one of the most entertaining movies I’ve ever seen: it’s the one installment in the franchise that I never tire of watching, and it’s fun just to think about. But there’s a single moment toward the end that always struck me as a headscratcher. After Bond wins the big poker tournament, defeating the villainous Le Chiffre, he and Vesper celebrate with a late dinner and cocktails in the restaurant at the titular casino. Vesper gets a text message, checks it, and says that Mathis—their local contact, played by the indispensable Giancarlo Giannini—needs to see her. She leaves. Bond sits there for a minute alone, then mutters to himself, reflectively: “Mathis…” A second later, he’s on his feet, and he dashes outside just in time to see Vesper being herded into a car by a couple of thugs. He sets off in pursuit, and we’re quickly plunged into a crazy chase, a surprise reversal, a crash, and the most memorable torture scene in the entire series. It isn’t for another twenty breathless minutes, in fact, that Bond, recovering afterward in the hospital, explains how he realized that Mathis was a traitor: he was the only one who could have told Le Chiffre that Bond had discovered his poker tell. Mathis is dispatched with a stun gun to the solar plexus, and that’s that.

But it all raises a few questions, to the point where it actively distracted me on my first couple of viewings. We’ll leave aside the fact that Mathis actually isn’t the mole: in fact, as Bond realizes too late, Vesper was the one who tipped off Le Chiffre. Mathis is ultimately exonerated, although this point is revealed so casually, in a line of throwaway dialogue, that most viewers could be forgiven for missing it. More to the point, we’re never given any indication of Bond’s thought process before he jumps to the conclusion that Mathis betrayed them. Usually, this kind of “Oh, crap” moment is triggered by a clue, or a bunch of them, that the audience and the character in question put together at the same time, as we see most memorably in The Usual Suspects. Here, the reasoning is left deliberately opaque, and the gap between Bond’s sudden brainstorm and its explanation is so long—and so crowded with action—that any connective thread is lost. This isn’t a fatal flaw, and it doesn’t impair our enjoyment of what follows. But it’s striking that the blue-chip screenwriting team of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis evidently decided that all we needed was the dawning realization in Bond’s eyes, without giving us any indication of what caused it. (It wasn’t a choice made in the editing room, either: the original script follows exactly the same sequence of beats.)

"A terrible possibility began to gather in her mind..."

This interests me because it reflects the kind of shorthand that such stories often use when covering familiar territory. We’ve all seen movies that move from A to B to C, where A is a clue, B is the hero’s eureka moment, and C is the explanation. Casino Royale omits A altogether and relegates C to the status of a footnote, so the middle factor—the light that goes off in Bond’s head—is all we have left. It all but advertises the fact that A and C are basically irrelevant, or could be replaced by any number of arbitrary components: all that matters is the effect they have on Bond. Which only works if you assume that the audience is sophisticated enough to recognize the trope and fill in the blanks on its own. (It reminds me a little of an observation that Pauline Kael made about Raging Bull, in which Scorsese uses a single vivid scene to represent would have been an entire montage in another movie: “Probably for him it stands for the series.”) It’s revealing, too, that it appears here, in a movie that is otherwise more than happy to spin long chains of plot points. An “Oh, crap” moment depends on the film being ever so slightly ahead of the audience, and Casino Royale neatly circumvents the challenge by giving viewers no information whatsoever that might allow them to anticipate the next move.

And while I’m probably reading too much into it, or making conscious what really would have been an intuitive choice by the writers, it also feels like an acknowledgment of how artificial such moments of insight can be. It all depends on the hero seeing a pattern that had been there all along, and to keep the solution from being too obvious, we often see our protagonist making an enormous inductive leap based on the flimsiest possible evidence. There’s a moment much like this in Chapter 21 of Eternal Empire. Wolfe has just been told that Ilya, who has been held without talking for months at Belmarsh Prison, has suddenly agreed to cooperate with the authorities, and that he’s due for a hearing that day at the Central Criminal Court in London. Meanwhile, Vasylenko, his former mentor, is slated to attend a separate appeal that morning. The coincidence of the two court appearances being scheduled at the same time, along with the fact that Ilya and Vasylenko will be transported on the same prison van, allows Wolfe to conclude that they’re planning to escape. That single germ of suspicion is enough to send her racing out of the office, sending her chair rolling backward—the procedural equivalent of the cloud of dust that the Road Runner leaves in his wake. Is this moment plausible? No more or less than Bond’s. Which is another way of saying that it’s exactly as plausible as it needs to be…

Written by nevalalee

June 4, 2015 at 9:15 am

An unfinished decade

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Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

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 topic: “What movie from our best films of the decade so far list doesn’t deserve to be on there?”

Toward the end of the eighties, Premiere Magazine conducted a poll of critics, directors, writers, and industry insiders to select the best films of the previous decade. The winners, in order of the number of votes received, were Raging Bull, Wings of Desire, E.T., Blue Velvet, Hannah and Her Sisters, Platoon, Fanny and Alexander, Shoah, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Do the Right Thing, with The Road Warrior, Local Hero, and Terms of Endearment falling just outside the top ten. I had to look up the list to retype it here, but I also could have reconstructed much of it from memory: a battered copy of Premiere’s paperback home video guide—which seems to have vanished from existence, along with its parent magazine, based on my inability, after five minutes of futile searching, to even locate the title online—was one of my constant companions as I started exploring movies more seriously in high school. And if the list contains a few headscratchers, that shouldn’t be surprising: the poll was held a few months before the eighties were technically even over, which isn’t close to enough time for a canon to settle into a consensus.

So how would an updated ranking look? The closest thing we have to a more recent evaluation is the latest Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the best films ever made. Pulling out only the movies from the eighties, the top films are Shoah, Raging Bull, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, Fanny and Alexander, A City of Sadness, Do the Right Thing, L’Argent, The Shining, and My Neighbor Totoro, followed closely by Come and See, Distant Voices Still Lives, and Once Upon a Time in America. There’s a degree of overlap here, and Raging Bull was already all but canonized when the earlier survey took place, but Wings of Desire, which once came in second, is nowhere in sight, its position taken by a movie—Blade Runner—that didn’t even factor into the earlier conversation. The Shining received the vote of just a single critic in the Premiere poll, and at the time it was held, My Neighbor Totoro wouldn’t be widely seen outside Japan for another three years. Still, if there’s a consistent pattern, it’s hard to see, aside from the obvious point that it takes a while for collective opinion to stabilize. Time is the most remorseless, and accurate, critic of them all.

Inception

And carving up movies by decade is an especially haphazard undertaking. A decade is an arbitrary division, much more so than a single year, in which the movies naturally engage in a kind of accidental dialogue. It’s hard to see the release date of Raging Bull as anything more than a quirk of the calendar: it’s undeniably the last great movie of the seventies. You could say much the same of The Shining. And there’s pressure to make any such list conform to our idea of what a given decade was about. The eighties, at least at the time, were seen as a moment in which the auteurism of the prior decade was supplanted by a blockbuster mentality, encouraged, as Tony Kushner would have it, by an atmosphere of reactionary politics, but of course the truth is more complicated. Blue Velvet harks back to the fifties, but the division at its heart feels like a product of Reaganism, and the belated ascent of Blade Runner is an acknowledgment of the possibilities of art in the era of Star Wars. (As an offhand observation, I’d say that we find it easier to characterize decades if their first years happen to coincide with a presidential election. As a culture, we know what the sixties, eighties, and aughts were “like” far more than the seventies or nineties.)

So we should be skeptical of the surprising number of recent attempts to rank works of art when the decade in question is barely halfway over. This week alone, The A.V. Club did it for movies, while The Oyster Review did it for books, and even if we discount the fact that we have five more years of art to anticipate, such lists are interesting mostly in the possibilities they suggest for later reconsideration. (The top choices at The A.V. Club were The Master, A Separation, The Tree of Life, Frances Ha, and The Act of Killing, and looking over the rest of the list, about half of which I’ve seen, I’d have to say that the only selection that really puzzled me was Haywire.) As a culture, we may be past the point where a consensus favorite is even possible: I’m not sure if any one movie occupies the same position for the aughts that Raging Bull did for the eighties. If I can venture one modest prediction, though, it’s that Inception will look increasingly impressive as time goes on, for much the same reason as Blade Runner does: it’s our best recent example of an intensely personal version thriving within the commercial constraints of the era in which it was made. Great movies are timeless, but also of their time, in ways that can be hard to sort out until much later. And that’s true of critics and viewers, too.

A few tips on faking it

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Citizen Kane

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 28, 2012.

It’s always satisfying when a story comes full circle, or when a moment near the end of the narrative reveals a pattern of symbols or themes that was only dimly visible before. This kind of structure requires both careful planning and some degree of luck: a story that is too obviously structured can seem artificial or contrived, while the best kind of deep structure can take even the author by surprise. More often, however, a writer will reach the end of a project only to find that its structure is shapeless or absent, with a story that seems like nothing but a series of loosely connected events. The smart thing to do at this point would be to throw out the whole thing and start again—something that few of us have the courage to attempt. The alternative is, well, to fake it: to look for a few quick fixes that will make the story look more structured than it really is, in hopes of fooling the casual reader or critic. Is it cheating? Sure. But it’s a form of cheating of which nearly every artist has been guilty at one time or another, and once you’re aware of it, you start to see it everywhere you look. With just a few simple tricks, soon you, too, will be faking it with the best:

1. If you can’t find a theme, pretend it’s there anyway. Ideally, theme ought to arise organically from the events of the story itself, rather than being conceived beforehand or imposed after the fact. Sometimes, though, you wind up a theme that seems thin or nonexistent. The answer, if you’re determined to fake it, is to pick a theme that seems appropriate and mention it on the slightest pretext. The great recent example is Pixar’s Brave, which repeats the word “fate” so insistently that it clearly hopes that nobody notices that it doesn’t have much to do with fate at all, or at least has little of interest to say on the subject. I’m not above this kind of thing myself: when the title of my second novel was changed at the last minute to City of Exiles, which I selected more or less because it sounded good, I went back and tweaked the draft in places to tease out the theme of exile wherever possible. Hopefully, this kind of retouching should be invisible, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find a real theme lurking there after all. In storytelling, as in jazz, sometimes you just need to fake it till you make it.

Concept art for Brave

2. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. History, as Mark Twain says, doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. So, too, does a good novel: elements that occur early in the story can, and should, come back to play a larger role. As before, we’d like to believe that this is the result of serendipity or good planning, but I’ve found that it doesn’t hurt to go back, when you’re nearing the end of a writing project, to see if there are elements that could be profitably reintroduced. A character who appears only once and never returns, or a detail introduced in the book’s early pages that doesn’t play a part later on, is an annoying loose end; bring them back again at an unexpected time, and you start to look pretty smart. In City of Exiles, for instance, an unscrupulous solicitor named Owen Dancy appears early in the book, only to never be mentioned again. This struck me as an oversight, so not only did I bring him back, but I had him play a crucial part in the epilogue. As soon as something occurs twice, it starts to look like structure, and three times is even better. This kind of systematic mining of one’s work for meaningful repetitions is something that every writer should do. Like the Plains Indians, we try to use every part of the animal.

3. When in doubt, go back to where you started. When we see the NO TRESPASSING sign at Xanadu for the last time at the end of Citizen Kane, it feels like a circle has closed; the same is true of the picket fence and red roses in the opening and closing shots of Blue Velvet. At its best, this kind of bookending reflects a ring or circular structure that has been part of the work from the beginning, but sometimes only the illusion of symmetry is required. You see this in movies, like the original Spider-Man, that repeat the opening narration again at the end: it feels like a recurrence of deeper themes, when it may just be a simple editing trick. (At a higher level, you have a movie like Raging Bull, which reportedly didn’t work at all in test screenings until a snippet of the closing scene was appended to the beginning.) A true ring composition demands detailed planning, while mechanically opening and closing on the same phrase or image requires no skill at all—but if you aren’t sure how to end a story, even the fake version will often get you ninety percent of the way there. Because it’s always satisfying when a story, or a blog post, comes full circle. Isn’t it?

Written by nevalalee

November 26, 2014 at 9:00 am

The riffs of Wall Street

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Jonah Hill and Jon Bernthal in The Wolf of Wall Street

Over the weekend, I watched The Wolf of Wall Street for the second time, and I came away with two thoughts: 1) I like this movie one hell of a lot. 2) It still feels about twenty minutes too long. And unlike Casino—a propulsive three-hour epic that I wouldn’t know where to trim—it’s easy to identify the scenes where the movie grows slack. Most of them, unfortunately, revolve around Jonah Hill, an actor whose performances I enjoy and who works mightily in the service of an unwieldy enterprise. Hill is a massively energetic presence and an unparalleled comic riffer, and Scorsese appears to have fallen in love with his talents to the point of grandfatherly indulgence. The scene in which Hill’s character delivers a briefcase of cash to Jon Bernthal, for instance, seems to go on forever at a point in the story when momentum is at a premium, mostly so Hill can deliver two or three inventively obscene tirades. It’s amusing, but it would have been just as good, or better, at half the length. And while for all I know, the entire scene might exist word for word in Terence Winter’s script, it certainly feels like an exercise in creative improvisation, and it caused me to reflect about the shifting role of improv in film, both in Scorsese’s work and in the movies as a whole.

Improv has been a part of cinema, in one way or another, since the days of silent film, and directors have often leaned on actors who were capable of providing great material on demand. (Sigourney Weaver says as much in Esquire‘s recent oral history of Ghostbusters: “Bill [Murray] was kind of expected to come up with brilliant things that weren’t in the script, like day after day after day. Ivan [Reitman] would say, “All right, Bill, we need something here.”) Given the expense of physical celluloid and repeated setups, though, it wasn’t simply a matter of allowing performers to riff on camera, as many viewers assume. More frequently, an actor would arrive on set with unscripted material that he or she had worked out privately or in rehearsal, and the version that ended up in the finished scene was something that had already gone through several rounds of thought and revision. Things began to change with the widespread availability of excellent digital cameras and the willingness of directors like Judd Apatow to let actors play off one another in real time, since tape was cheap enough to run nonstop at marginal additional cost. When the results are culled and chiseled down in the editing room, they can be spectacular, like catching lightning in a bottle, and the approach has begun to influence movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, which was shot on conventional film.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson in The Departed

Like all good tricks, though, the improv approach gets tired after a while, and Apatow’s movies since Funny People and This is 40 have presented increasingly diminishing returns. The trouble lies in a fundamental disconnect between improv, character, and situation. A line may be hilarious in the moment, but if the riffs don’t build into something that enhances our understanding of the people involved, they start to feel exhausting or enervating—or, worst of all, like the work of actors treading water in hopes of a laugh. We aren’t watching a story, but a collection of notions, and they’re at their weakest when they’re the most interchangeable. Hill’s riffs in The Wolf of Wall Street are funny, sure, but they’re only variations on the hyperaggressive, pointedly offensive rants that he’s delivered in countless other movies. By the time the film is over, we still aren’t entirely sure who his character is; there are intriguing hints of his weird personal life early on, but they’re mostly discarded, and the movie is too busy to provide us with anything like a payoff. Many of Hill’s big scenes consist of him hitting the same two or three beats in succession, and for a movie that is already overlong, I can’t help but wish that Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker had kept Hill’s one best take and saved the rest for the special features.

Of course, many of the most memorable lines and moments in Scorsese’s own filmography have arisen from improvisation—“You talkin’ to me?” in Taxi Driver, “I’m a clown? I amuse you?” in Goodfellas, the confrontation between DeNiro and Pesci while fixing the television in Raging Bull—so it’s hard to blame him for returning to the same well. Yet when we compare Hill’s work to those earlier scenes, it only exposes its emptiness. “You talking to me?” and “I’m a clown?” are unforgettable because they tell us something about the characters that wasn’t there in the script, while The Wolf of Wall Street only tells us how inventively profane Jonah Hill can be. And this isn’t Hill’s fault; he’s doing what he can with an underwritten part, and he’s working with a director who seems more willing to linger on scenes that would have been pared down in the past. We see hints of this in The Departed, in which Scorsese allows Nicholson to ham it up endlessly—imitating a rat, smashing a fly and eating it—in his scene at the restaurant with DiCaprio, but there, at least, it’s a set of lunatic grace notes for a character that the screenplay has already constructed with care. Improv has its place in movies, especially in the arms race of modern comedy, which is increasingly expected to deliver laughs without a pause. But as in so many other respects, The Wolf of Wall Street is a warning about the dangers of excess.

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