Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark

“But we need to work together…”

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"Before she could move..."

Note: This post is the fifty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 58. You can read the previous installments here.

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but I have a hunch that most professional writers rarely go back to reread their own work. In an interview with The Paris Review, the novelist François Mauriac puts his finger on why revisiting a published story can be such an unpleasant experience:

I only reread my books when I have to in correcting proofs. The publication of my complete works condemned me to this; it is as painful as rereading old letters. It is thus that death emerges from abstraction, thus we touch it like a thing: a handful of ashes, of dust.

The more you unpack this statement, the more insightful it becomes. Reading one of your published stories is like reading an old letter in several ways: it confronts you with the image of yourself when you were younger, it makes your mistakes more visible in hindsight, and it shows you how insidiously the present has turned into the dead past. It’s the fossilized remnant of a process that used to be alive, and as soon as a work of art is locked into its final form, you see all kinds of problems with it. This isn’t necessarily because you could do any better now, but because a story on the page always seems less interesting than it did in your head. When you’re experiencing the work of other writers, you rarely dwell on how else it might have been done, but when you’re reading your own stuff, it’s hard to think about anything else.

This kind of estrangement from a work to which you devoted so much time and energy is unbearably sad—or it would be, if the writer didn’t immediately move on to the next thing. And it explains why the rare story that you can enjoy for its own sake becomes so precious. Usually, it’s something that came fairly easily, as if you were simply transcribing a moment of inspiration that descended from somewhere higher up, or rose from the depths of the subconscious. Isaac Asimov called it “writing over my head,” saying: “I occasionally write better than I ordinarily do…When I reread one of these stories or passages, I find it hard to believe that I wrote it, and I wish ardently that I could write like that all the time.” (Asimov said that he cried whenever he reread the ending of his own story “The Ugly Little Boy.”) Alternatively, you can feel safely detached from one of your own works if you were operating as an artist for hire, without much of a personal stake in the result, but did your job at a high level of technical proficiency. Steven Spielberg has said that the only one of his movies that he can watch with his kids as if he hadn’t directed it, rather than remembering what it was like on the set each day, is Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can see why: it was George Lucas’s baby, and what Spielberg brought to the project was a matchless eye and a useful degree of distance from the material. And I’m not surprised that the result delights him as much as it does me.

"But we need to work together..."

When it comes to my own work, there’s almost nothing that I can read now for my own pleasure. Occasionally, like Mauriac, I’ll need to correct page proofs, and I always have to gather my courage a bit: you’re strictly limited in the number of changes you can make, and you can’t imperceptibly massage the text in the way you can when you’re fiddling with a draft in Word. Reviewing proofs shortly after you’ve finished a story is even wore than reading an old letter—it’s like encountering an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend soon after a breakup, when you realize that you’ll never be able to take back what happened. (Not every writer feels this way, and some, like James Joyce, notoriously rewrote entire sections of the manuscript in galley form. But I’ve always assumed that making extensive changes at this stage will only introduce unforeseen complications, so I try to restrict myself to altering a word or a punctuation mark here and there.) Even after my feelings have cooled and a story sits on the shelf like a dead thing, it’s hard for me to look at it again: it’s like being confronted with your irrevocable life choices all at once. And if I had to make a list of the bits and pieces of my fiction that I wouldn’t mind reading again, it represents a tiny slice of the whole: maybe “The Boneless One,” most of “Kawataro” and “The Whale God,” the second half of “Ernesto,” the closing summation in The Icon Thief, and the plane crash and tunnel chase in City of Exiles. That’s about it.

In most of these cases, I was writing over my head, either because I was following up on a good idea that seemed to come out of nowhere, or because I was able to subordinate myself to the mechanics of a plot that I’d already set in motion. And of all the pages I’ve published, Chapter 58 of Eternal Empire might be my favorite—which is to say, if you forced me to pick something to read again, it’s the one I’d probably chose. It isn’t the most complex or difficult thing I’ve written: once I knew that Wolfe and Ilya would team up to take down a dacha full of gangsters and save Maddy, it was mostly just a matter of not screwing it up. But I had a great time writing it, and I still have a good time reading the result. The confluence of names I mentioned above is part of the reason why: it’s one of the few occasions when I felt that I was writing fanfic for my own creations, not because I was indulging myself, but because it combined characters for a payoff that I never would have imagined when I wrote the first book in the series. It’s obviously indebted to scenes like the shootout at the Victory Motel in both the novel and the film versions of L.A. Confidential, and if Wolfe at the climax of City of Exiles slipped into the Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs, she’s closer here to the Starling of Hannibal. It’s the finest moment for my favorite character in the trilogy, which is reason enough for me to like it. Throughout this entire author’s commentary, I’d been looking forward to writing about it, but now that I’m here, I find that I don’t have much to say except that I think it’s pretty damned good. And I’m going back to read it again now…

“The mirror shattered into spiderwebs…”

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"The mirror shattered into spiderwebs..."

Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 43. You can read the previous installments here.

“I am truly at my happiest not when I am writing an aria for an actor or making a grand political or social point,” Aaron Sorkin said a while back to Vanity Fair. “I am at my happiest when I’ve figured out a fun way for somebody to slip on a banana peel.” I know what he means. In fact, nothing makes me happier than when an otherwise sophisticated piece of entertainment cheerfully decides to go for the oldest, corniest, most obvious pratfall—which is a sign of an even greater sophistication. My favorite example is the most famous joke in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy nonchalantly draws his gun and shoots the swordsman. It’s the one gag in the movie that most people remember best, and if you’re a real fan, you probably know that the scene was improvised on the set to solve an embarrassing problem: they’d originally scheduled a big fight scene, but Harrison Ford was too sick to shoot it, so he proposed the more elegant, and funnier, solution. But the most profound realization of all is that the moment works precisely because the film around it depends so much on craft and clockwork timing to achieve its most memorable effects. If every joke in the movie were pitched on that level, not only wouldn’t we remember that scene, but we probably wouldn’t be talking about Raiders at all, just as most of us don’t look back fondly on 1941. It’s the intelligence, wit, and technical proficiency of the rest of the movie that allows that one cornball moment to triumphantly emerge.

You often see the same pattern when you look at the movies in which similar moments occur. For instance, there’s a scene in Annie Hall—recently voted the funniest screenplay of all time—in which the audience needs to be told that Alvy and Annie are heading for Los Angeles. To incorporate that information, which had been lost when a previous scene was cut, Woody Allen quickly wrote and shot the bit in which he sneezes into a pile of cocaine. It included all the necessary exposition in the dialogue, but as editor Ralph Rosenblum writes in his memoir When The Shooting Stops:    

Although this scene was written and shot just for this information, audiences were always much more focused on the cocaine, and when Woody sneezes into what we’ve just learned is a two-thousand-dollar cache, blowing white powder all over the living room—an old-fashioned, lowest-common-denominator, slip-on-the-banana-peel joke—the film gets its single largest laugh. (“A complete unplanned accident,” says Woody.) The laughter was so great at each of our test screenings that I kept having to add more and more feet of dead film to keep the laughter from pushing the next scene right off the screen…Even so, the transitional information was lost on many viewers: when they stop laughing and spot Alvy and Annie in a car with Rob, who’s discussing how life has changed for him since he emigrated to Beverly Hills, they are momentarily uncertain about how or why the couple got there.

"As they ran, neither woman spoke..."

And while the two moments are very different, it’s revealing that in both cases, an improvised moment of slapstick was introduced to crack an unanticipated narrative problem. It’s no surprise that when writers have to think their way out of dilemma, they often turn to the hoariest, most proven building blocks of story, as if they’d briefly written a scene using the reptile brain—while keeping all the other levels of the brain alive and activated. This is why scenes like this are so delightful: they aren’t gratuitous, but represent an effective way of getting a finely tuned narrative to where it needs to be. And I’d also argue that this runs in both directions, particularly in genre fiction. Those big, obvious moments exist to enable the more refined touches, but also the other way around: a large part of any writer’s diligence and craft is devoted to arranging the smaller pieces so that those huge elements can take shape. As Shane Black pointed out years ago, a lot of movies seem to think that audiences want nothing but those high points, but in practice, it quickly grows exhausting. (Far too many comedies these days seem to consist of nothing but the equivalent of Alvy sneezing into the cocaine, over and over and over again.) And Sorkin’s fondness for the banana-peel gag arises, I suspect, from his realization that when such a moment works, it’s because the less visible aspects of the story around it are working as well.

My novels contain a few of these banana peels, although not as many as I’d like. (One that I still enjoy is the moment in City of Exiles when Wolfe trips over the oversized chess pieces during the chase scene at the London Chess Classic.) And while it’s not quite the same thing, there’s something similar at work in Chapter 43 of Eternal Empire, which features nothing less than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two women, one a runaway bride, the other still wearing her bridesmaid’s dress. If I’ve done my job properly, the scene should work both on its own terms and as an homage to something you’d see on a soapy network or basic cable show like Revenge. And I kind of love the result. I like it, in part, because I know exactly how much thought was required to line up the pieces of the plot to get to this particular payoff: it’s the kind of set piece that you spend ninety percent of the novel trying to reach, only to hope that it all works in the end. The resulting fight lasts for about a page—I’m not trying to write Kill Bill here—but I still think it’s one of the half dozen or so most satisfying moments in the entire trilogy, and it works mostly because it isn’t afraid to go for a big, borderline ridiculous gesture. (If Eternal Empire is my favorite of the three books, and on most days it is, it’s because it contains as many of those scenes as the previous two installments combined, and only because of the groundwork that comes with two volumes’ worth of accumulated backstory.) And although there’s no banana peel, both Wolfe and Asthana are falling now, and they won’t land until the book is over…

The greatest opening shots in movies

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Blue Velvet

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 20, 2011.

When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same yesterday with closing shots—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click for the titles:

Solving the second act problem

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Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

David Mamet, in Three Uses of the Knife, tells what he claims is an old joke from the Algonquin Round Table: “A couple of guys are sitting around talking. One says, ‘How’s the play going?’ The other says, ‘I’m having second act problems.’ Everybody laughs. ‘Of course you’re having second act problems!'” And no wonder. Beginnings and endings are tricky, too, but we can approach them with a couple of proven rules: get into the action as late as possible, leave it as early as you can. Middles, by contrast, tend to turn into an unstructured mess of complications, with the beginning a distant memory and the end nowhere in sight. This is especially true of the start of the second act, when the main problem of the first act gives way to an even more serious obstacle, and it’s no accident that in everything I’ve written, it’s invariably this part of the story that goes through the greatest number of tightenings and revisions. Whenever it comes up, it feels like I’m confronting the problem for the first time, but I’ve slowly managed to figure out a few guidelines that might be helpful:

1. Cut transitional material as much as possible. Second acts are difficult because they’re all about transitions. You’re departing from the first major movement of the narrative into something larger, which usually means that there are a lot of pieces to slide into place. Unfortunately, this is also the moment when the attention of the reader or audience is likely to drag, so you need to be even more ruthless about cutting here than usual. If a story is two hundred pages long, and you’ve already cut as much as you can from the beginning and the end, it isn’t a bad idea to turn to page 100 and see if there’s anything you can excise from the twenty pages to either side. Any architectural structure has its points of weakness or stress, and in long works of fiction, it’s likely to be right here. And the best solution is to cut directly from the end of one action to the center of the next, as in the wonderful act break in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which moves without pause from Marion clutching the medallion in snowy Nepal to the rooftops of Cairo.

Seven Samurai

2. Put the pieces together in a different order. The opening of a novel generally presents a clear sequence of events, and even if you’ve restructured the story elsewhere, you’ll often find that the order of the initial chapters remains more or less the same. In a story with a three-act structure, this isn’t true of the beginning of the second act, in which the characters have been introduced, the machinery of the plot has been set in motion along various parameters, and the resulting material can be presented in a number of ways. If the second act of a novel begins with five or six chapters that move between characters, it’s often useful to rearrange them to find the order that flows most naturally. It’s even better if you can cut or combine scenes. I’ve also learned that if you’re writing a number of different plot threads that have been left in a state of suspense, it’s best to avoid resolving the immediate problem in at least one of them until the others have gotten further along: the reader will be more interested in following Susan on a plane to Samarkand if he’s still wondering how Jack will get out of prison in Jeddah.

3. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Second acts can feel like a chore, but when properly done, they can be immensely satisfying. Since you’ve already established your characters and central conflict, this is the chance for them to really come into their own. The second act of a movie like Seven Samurai enriches the situation presented in the first act and looks ahead to the action of the third, but is also fascinating in its own right—but only because the director and writers have done the necessary work. A second act lacks the obvious payoffs of the story’s beginning and end, but the fact that the author needs to work all the harder to maintain our interest often results in surprising, unpredictable storytelling. This is a big part of the reason why the second installments in movie trilogies, like The Empire Strikes Back, are often the best: deprived of easy dramatic solutions, the story has no choice but to explore its own world, go off in ingenious directions, and give the characters room to play. Whether or not there are second acts in our own lives remains an open question, but they certainly exist in fiction. So there’s no excuse for not handling them well.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2012 at 10:16 am

“Inside, there were five racks of paintings…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 23. You can read the earlier installments here.)

The painting at the center of The Icon Thief is basically a MacGuffin. There, I said it. At this point, I hope there isn’t any doubt about the sincerity of my respect for and fascination with Marcel Duchamp and the ways in which his example and influence are deeply entwined with the themes of this novel, to the point where the decision to structure the plot around the mystery of Étant Donnés seems all but inevitable. But it wasn’t. If I’d been ordered to change the premise to involve the theft and recovery of a different work of art entirely, I could have done so with minimal disruption to much of the surrounding story. I would have had to construct a new conspiracy theory around a different artist and write a new ending to accommodate the shift in emphasis, but perhaps seventy percent of the novel—everything involving Powell’s investigation, the Russian mob, and much of the art world material as well—would have survived intact. Would it have required major surgery? Of course. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad as the grueling rewrites that I’ve been asked to do for other projects.

That’s the nature of the MacGuffin: an object that exists to drive the plot and characters, but which could easily be replaced by something else, if necessary. And this is true even of objects that seem inextricably connected to the stories in which they appear. You could replace the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the Rod of Aaron or the Urim and Thummim or any number of other equivalent artifacts without changing an iota of the plot, aside from a few lines of dialogue. I’ve argued elsewhere that a good MacGuffin can immeasurably enrich the story in which it appears, or at least give the writer ideas for scenes or images that never would have occurred to him otherwise, and this is certainly true of The Icon Thief. But it says something about the nature of suspense fiction, and perhaps its limitations, that its components are so interchangeable. I knew from the beginning that this novel, as a conspiracy thriller set in the art world, would need to be structured around a particular work of art, and Étant Donnés was by far the best I found—and, if I’m going to be totally honest here, one of the best that anyone has ever found. But that doesn’t mean that something else wouldn’t have worked more or less as well.

You could even make the argument that other works of art would have been more appropriate, given the factual background of the novel itself. In Chapter 23 of The Icon Thief, Ilya finally penetrates to the art vault in which the painting is kept, after using a number of the clever tricks so dear to the heist story. Inside, he finds a rack of paintings, of which I write: “He did not give them a second glance, although one was a Braque and the other was a Bonnard.” These paintings are mentioned only in passing, but they’re really a nod to the other directions that the plot might have taken. Braque and Bonnard were two of the artists in the collection of Paul Rosenberg, an art collector who plays a crucial role in the true story that secretly lurks in the background of the novel, and if I were a real stickler for accuracy, I would have chosen one of these artists, or Picasso or Matisse, instead. If I chose Duchamp, it was only because he was the artist I wanted to write about. In fact, Rosenberg, at least to my knowledge, never collected Duchamp, although he certainly could have, and so I felt justified in awarding him this fictional painting.

Which brings us to another important point about MacGuffins. Study for Étant Donnés doesn’t actually exist, although I was careful to find a place it could have occupied in Duchamp’s catalog and to explain how it might have remained unknown to the larger art world. And the primary reason I went with a fictional painting, along with the various revelations about its provenance and history that I wanted to make, was that I needed a painting that would work as a MacGuffin. In particular, it needed to be relatively small, so that it could be smuggled unobtrusively out of Russia and so that Ilya could carry it out of the mansion under one arm—and, later in the novel, roll it up and conceal it beneath his clothes. In retrospect, this strikes me as a bit of a cheat, which is why, in Eternal Empire, I structure an important plot point around a real work of art, the Peter the Great egg made by the House of Fabergé, and take pains to characterize its appearance and provenance as accurately as possible. Here, though, the invented painting falls under the anthropic principle of this particular novel: without it, the rest of the story couldn’t exist in its current form. And this painting still has a long way to go…

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2012 at 10:06 am

Indy movies

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On Saturday, my wife and I spent seven hours at the River East theater in Chicago, watching a marathon of the Indiana Jones movies, which I still insist on calling a trilogy, in advance of their release tomorrow on Blu-ray. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen all three films on the big screen—I spent a wonderful day watching them all at the sadly departed UC Theater in Berkeley over a decade ago—but it had been a long time since I’d seen them from start to finish. The experience, I’m happy to say, was close to perfect: the digital prints were gorgeous, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, and the movies were as satisfying as ever. And the fact that we left before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t diminish my appreciation for what the original trilogy achieved. Like everyone else, I’m critical of George Lucas: he remains, as David Thomson notes, the saddest of moguls, and his career over the last twenty years has consisted of one long retreat. And yet with these three films, he shaped and enriched my inner life more than any other filmmaker, and for that, I’m forever grateful.

Of the three, Raiders is by far the most cinematically exciting: it was made when Steven Spielberg was still only thirty-four, with the greatest natural eye in movie history, and the result is dazzlingly assembled—it may be his most technically thrilling film of any kind. A great deal of this can be credited to the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, which pulls off the difficult job of moving between set pieces conceived by the director and producer while lavishing every scene with ingenious and delightful beats. (Even so modest a sequence as the “bad dates” scene is a small masterpiece of acting, writing, editing, and direction.) The script for Temple of Doom, by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, is far more problematic, and the connective material is considerably less graceful, but the big set pieces—the opening sequence in Shanghai, the spike room, the mine car chase—reach dizzying heights. By comparison, the action in Last Crusade is competent, inventive, but less divinely inspired, and there isn’t an action sequence here that really holds up with the best of the first two movies.

Yet Last Crusade has always been my favorite of the three, and one of my favorite movies of any kind, which gets at a very important point: these films aren’t about action or special effects, as fine as they may be, but about a certain spirit, a promise about the kinds of experiences and adventures that the movies can offer us, and Last Crusade captures that spirit perfectly. It’s both endearingly innocent and highly sophisticated, and it expresses, as Truffaut would have said, both an idea of life and an idea of cinema—and the fact that the ideas are straight out of a boy’s book of adventures doesn’t make them any less moving or less true. Looking back, I’ve begun to realize that it’s as responsible as any movie for the direction my own life has taken: I saw it when I was about ten years old, and it was arguably the first in a sequence of books, movies, and television shows that convinced me that I wanted to tell stories for a living. Other movies have since become more important to me, and I fully see its limitations, but few works of art have ever seized my imagination in quite the same way.

And its spirit is one that I’ve been trying to recapture in my own work ever since. One night after college, I was watching Temple of Doom with my family when I dozed off near the end and awoke as the closing credits began to roll. Somehow, in that moment between sleep and waking, I heard something in the score by John Williams—it’s the unbearably beautiful theme that appears in “Slave Children’s Crusade”—that I’d never heard before: it seemed to crystallize, in a few bars of music, everything that I hoped to accomplish as a storyteller. My first novel, a long adventure story set in India, may have been my subconscious effort to work out that one moment of dreamlike inspiration. And while that novel remains unpublished, one of the great challenges I now face as a writer is gradually nudging my work back to that theme, which has been reduced to a subtle, almost imperceptible note in my published novels and stories. I’m still trying to figure out what shape it will take. But it’s there. And I have a hunch that Indy will be the one to show me the way.

The greatest opening shots in movies

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When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same with closing shots last week—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click or mouse over for the titles:

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