Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Rosenblum

The life of a title

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Track listing for Kanye West's Waves

So I haven’t heard all of Kanye West’s new album yet—I’m waiting until I can actually download it for real—but I’m excited about what looks to be a major statement from the artist responsible for some of my favorite music of the last decade. Predictably, it was also the target of countless barbs in the weeks leading up to its release, mostly because of what have been portrayed as its constant title changes: it was originally announced as So Help Me God, changed to Swish, made a brief stopover at Waves, and finally settled on The Life of Pablo. And this was all spun as yet another token of West’s flakiness, even from media outlets that have otherwise been staunch advocates of his work. (A typical headline on The A.V. Club was “Today in god, we’re tired: Kanye West announces album title (again).” This was followed a few days later by the site’s rave review of the same album, which traces a familiar pattern of writers snarking at West’s foibles for months, only to fall all over themselves in the rush to declare the result a masterpiece. The only comparable figure who inspires the same disparity in his treatment during the buildup and the reception is Tom Cruise, who, like Kanye, is a born producer who happens to occupy the body of a star.) And there’s a constant temptation for those who cover this kind of thing for a living to draw conclusions from the one scrap of visible information they have, as if the changes in the title were symptoms of some deeper confusion.

Really, though, the shifting title is less a reflection of West’s weirdness, of which we have plenty of evidence elsewhere, than of his stubborn insistence on publicizing even those aspects of the creative process that most others would prefer to keep private. Title changes are a part of any artist’s life, and it’s rare for any work of art to go from conception to completion without a few such transformations along the way: Hemingway famously wrote up fifty potential titles for his Spanish Civil War novel, notably The Undiscovered Country, before finally deciding on For Whom the Bell Tolls. As long as we’re committed to the idea that everything needs a title, we’ll always struggle to find one that adequately represents the work—or at least catalyzes our thoughts about it—while keeping one eye on the market. Each of my novels was originally written and sold with a different title than the one that ended up on its cover, and I’m mostly happy with how it all turned out. (Although I’ll admit that I still think that The Scythian was a better title for the book that wound up being released as Eternal Empire.) And I’m currently going through the same thing again, in full knowledge that whatever title I choose for my next project will probably change before I’m done. I don’t take the task any less seriously, and if anything, I draw comfort from the knowledge that the result will reflect a lot of thought and consideration, and that a title change isn’t necessarily a sign that the process is going wrong. Usually, in fact, it’s the opposite.

Track listing for Kanye West's The Life of Pablo

The difference between a novel and an album by a massive pop star, of course, is that the latter is essentially being developed in plain sight, and any title change is bound to be reported as news. There’s also a tendency, inherited from movie coverage, to see it as evidence of a troubled production. When The Hobbit: There and Back Again was retitled The Battle of the Five Armies, it was framed, credibly enough, as a more accurate reflection of the movie itself, which spins about ten pages of Tolkien into an hour of battle, but it was also perceived as a defensive move in response to the relatively disappointing reception of The Desolation of Smaug. In many cases, nobody wins: All You Need Is Kill was retitled Edge of Tomorrow for its theatrical release and Live Die Repeat on video, a series of equivocations that only detracted from what tuned out to be a superbly confident and focused movie—which is all the evidence we need that title trouble doesn’t have much correlation, if any, with the quality of the finished product. And occasionally, a studio will force a title change that the artist refuses to acknowledge: Paul Thomas Anderson consistently refers to his first movie as Sydney, rather than Hard Eight, and you can hear a touch of resignation in director Nicholas Meyer’s voice whenever he talks about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (In fact, Meyer’s initial pitch for the title was The Undiscovered Country, which, unlike Hemingway, he eventually got to use.)

But if the finished product is worthwhile, all is forgiven, or forgotten. If I can return for the second time in two days to editor Ralph Rosenblum’s memoir When the Shooting Stops, even as obvious a title as Annie Hall went through its share of incarnations:

[Co-writer Marshall] Brickman came up to the cutting room, and he and Woody [Allen] engaged in one of their title sessions, Marshall spewing forth proposals—Rollercoaster Named Desire, Me and My Goy, It Had to be Jew—with manic glee. This seemed to have little impact on Woody, though, for he remained committed to Anhedonia until the very end. “He first sprung it on me at an early title session,” remembers Brickman. “Arthur Krim, who was the head of United Artists then, walked over to the window and threatened to jump…”

Woody, meanwhile, was adjusting his own thinking, and during the last five screenings, he had me try out a different title each night in my rough-cut speech. The first night it was Anhedonia, and a hundred faces looked at me blankly. The second night it was Anxiety, which roused a few chuckles from devoted Allen fans. Then Anhedonia again. Then Annie and Alvy. And finally Annie Hall, which, thanks to a final burst of good sense, held. It’s hard now to suppose it could ever have been called anything else.

He’s right. And I suspect that we’ll feel the same way about The Life of Pablo before we know it—which won’t stop it from happening again.

“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…

A cut above the rest

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Saul Bass in the editing room

The other day, my wife pointed me to a recent poll by the Motion Picture Editors Guild of the best-edited movies of all time. Most of the usual suspects are here, although not, curiously, The Usual Suspects: Raging Bull and Citizen Kane top the list, followed by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Psycho, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as a few enticing surprises. (I’ve never seen All That Jazz, which sits at number four, although the fact that a subplot revolves around the protagonist’s attempts to edit a movie of his own makes me wonder if there’s a touch of sentiment involved.) What struck me the most about the ranking is its fundamental oddity: it seems natural that a list like this would exist for movies, but it’s hard to imagine a similar one for books or albums, which are as intensely edited as any motion picture. So, for that matter, are plays, songs, magazine articles, and podcasts. Nearly any work of art, in fact, has undergone an editing process, if we take this to mean only the systematic arrangement of its component parts. To take a slightly offbeat example: Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” might seem like a trifle, but it’s ruthlessly organized, with a lot of ideas—some, admittedly, lifted from Chuck Berry—flowing seamlessly together. The editing, if we’re willing to grant that a pop song can be as consciously constructed as a film by Martin Scorsese, is brilliant. So why are we so used to talking about it in movies and nowhere else?

A few possible explanations come to mind, starting with the fact that the roles of movie editor and director usually, although not always, reside in two different people. Choices about editing can be hard to separate from earlier choices about structure, and the division of labor in movie production—with structural decisions shared among the screenwriter, editor, director, and others—make film editing feel like a pursuit in itself, which is less obvious in a novel or album. (Literary editors and music producers play a crucial role in the arrangement of the pieces in their respective fields, but their contribution is harder to define.) It doesn’t hurt that movie editors are probably the only ones we’ve ever seen accepting an award on television, or that books on film editing considerably outnumber those of any other kind. Perhaps most relevant of all is the very nature of editing a movie, which differs from other types of editorial work in that the amount of raw material is fixed. When you’re writing a book, it’s possible to write new chapters to fill in the gaps in the story; a recording artist can always lay down a fresh version of a track; but a movie editor is stuck with the dailies that the director delivers. These days, this isn’t necessarily true: directors like Peter Jackson plan for reshoots even before principal photography begins, and modern software allows for considerable freedom in creating new shots in post. But the image still persists of the editor exercising his or her will on a resistant mass of footage, solving narrative problems under enormous constraints. Which is what makes it so fascinating.

The editing room of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

So what do we mean when we say that a movie had great editing? There’s an old chestnut, which isn’t any less true for being so familiar, that if you’ve noticed the editing in a movie, the editor has done a poor job. That’s right as far as it goes, and it’s equally correct that the showier moments in a smartly edited movie have a way of obscuring more meaningful work. The multiple film stocks in JFK might grab the eye, but they’re much less impressive than the massive amount of information that the movie allows the viewer to absorb. Famous cuts, like the one from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia or the time jump in 2001, are the ones we recall, but we’re less prone to take notice of how expertly those films keep us oriented in two of the most confusing environments imaginable—the desert and outer space. And we’re often barely aware of how much of a movie has been constructed in postproduction. When you compare the script of The Usual Suspects with the final result, it’s hard not to conclude that the movie’s secret hero, its true Keyser Soze, is editor John Ottman: the whole closing montage of sounds, images, and dialogue, which is the first thing many of us remember, isn’t even hinted at in the screenplay. But we aren’t meant to see any of this. We’re left with the stubborn, redundant axiom that if a movie is great, its editing was great as well. That’s why the Editors Guild poll is foremost a list of terrific movies, and one of the first such lists that I’d recommend to anyone who was interested in learning more about film.

That said, as I’ve suggested above, there are times when we can’t help but be grateful for the problems that a movie’s editor has solved. Managing the delivery of complicated information, as we often see in the movies of David Fincher, poses tremendous challenges, and Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo play like thrillers in which most of the drama is unfolding in the editing room. Casino, which I recently watched again just for my own pleasure, does this kind of thing so beautifully that it makes The Wolf of Wall Street seem a little lame by comparison. When it comes to keeping the audience grounded during complex action, we’re likely to think first of the films of Paul Greengrass, who has ruined much of modern action filmmaking by chopping up the footage so fluently that he encourages less talented filmmakers to do the same—hence the vast divide between The Bourne Supremacy and Quantum of Solace. (Although if I had to name one movie that still fills me with awe at how expertly it choreographs and assembles action on a large scale, it would have to be Titanic.) And editors have often been called upon to pull shape and logic out of seemingly unworkable footage. Annie Hall wasn’t even a love story before Ralph Rosenblum, by his own account, saw what its three hours of raw material were really about, and the result is a film that seems perfect, even if it was anything but preordained. Elsewhere, I’ve described creativity as the conversion of the arbitrary into the inevitable. And that, really, is what editors do.

Keeping it short

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Elie Weisel

Yesterday, I noted that Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic film about the Holocaust, uses its own enormous length as a narrative strategy: its nine-hour runtime is a way of dramatizing, assimilating, and ultimately transforming the incomprehensible vastness of its subject. But there are other valid approaches as well, even to similar material. Here’s Elie Wiesel talking to The Paris Review:

I reduce nine hundred pages [the original length of Night] to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Instead of expanding his work to encompass the enormity of the events involved, Wiesel cuts it down to its core. It’s just one of millions of such stories that could have been told, and its power is only increased by the sense that it’s a single volume in an invisible library of libraries.

A big book is immediately impressive, even newsworthy, but if anything, the author’s hand is more visible in shorter works. The implicit premise of a long book is that it’s giving us an entire world, and in many of the great social epics—from War and Peace to A Suitable Boy—the writer himself is invisible by design. A short work, by contrast, is more about selection, and it foregrounds the author’s choices: the boundaries of the narrative are set within a narrow window, and the result is just as evocative for what it omits as includes. Every painter knows that one of the hardest decisions in making a new composition is knowing where to put the frame. If a big novel is the literary equivalent of a huge pane of plate glass, a short book is more like what the great architect Christopher Alexander has called a Zen view, a tiny opening in a wall that only exposes a fraction of the landscape. When we see a spectacular panorama all at once, it becomes dead to us after a day or two, as if it were part of the wallpaper; if we view it through a tiny opening, or glimpse it only as we pass from one room to the next, it remains vital forever, even if we live with it for fifty years. A short work of narrative sets up some of the same vibrations, with a sense that there’s more taking place beyond the edge of the pane, if only we could see it.

Woody Allen

A shorter length is also more suited for stories that hinge on the reader’s suspension of belief, or on the momentary alignment of a few extraordinary factors. This includes both comedy and its darker cousin noir. Great comic works, whether in fiction, film, or drama, tend to be relatively short, both because it’s hard to sustain the necessary pitch for long and because the story often hinges on elements that can’t be spun out forever: coincidence, misunderstanding, an elaborate series of mistakes. Another turn of the screw and you’ve got a thriller, which tends to be similarly concise. Some of the best suspense novels in the language were written to fit in a pocket: The Postman Always Rings Twice is maybe 120 pages long, Double Indemnity even shorter, the Travis McGee books a reliable 150 or so. Like comedy, noir and suspense are built on premises that would fall apart, either narratively or logically, if spun out to six hundred pages: characters are presented to us at their lowest point, or at a moment of maximum intensity, and it doesn’t particularly matter what they were doing before or after the story began. That kind of concentration and selectiveness is what separates great writers from the rest: the secret of both comedy and suspense is knowing what to leave out.

And that’s equally true of the movies, even if it’s something that a filmmaker discovers only after hard experience. Cutting a novel can be agonizing, but it’s all the more painful to excise scenes from a movie, when the footage you’re removing represents hundreds or thousands of hours of collective effort—which is why an editor like Walter Murch never visits the set, allowing him to remain objective. There’s no better contemporary model of cinematic brevity than Woody Allen, whose movies rarely run more than ninety minutes, partly because his own attention starts to wander: “For me, if I make a film which is one hour forty minutes, it’s long. I just run out of story impetus after a certain time.” And although he’s never said so in public, it’s clear that he arrived at this artistic philosophy in the late seventies, after laboring hard with the screenwriter Marshall Brickman on a three-hour monster of a comedy. Its working title was Anhedonia, and it was going to cover every aspect of its protagonist’s life—childhood, career, romance—with countless surreal sketches and fantasy sequences. The result was an unwatchable mess, so it was only with the help of editor Ralph Rosenblum that Allen was able to find its heart: a quirky, focused love story, with only two major characters, that ran a clean 93 minutes. It was Annie Hall.

Writing is cutting

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Movies are made in the editing room. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: you can shoot the best raw footage in the world, but if it doesn’t cut together, the movie isn’t going to work. Beyond their basic responsibilities of maintaining continuity and spacial coherence, the editor is largely responsible for shaping a film’s narrative momentum, streamlining and clarifying the story, and making sure it runs the proper length. And sometimes the editor’s role goes even further. As Charles Koppelman writes in Behind the Seen:

[Walter] Murch says it’s common in editing, and normally easy, to steer scenes five or ten degrees in either direction from their intended course. Shading intensity, favoring a character, softening a moment—that’s “the bread and butter of film editing,” as he calls it. “It also seems that flipping the polarity of a scene—going completely the opposite way from where things were originally intended—is something relatively easy to do in film editing.”

And although there are countless famous cases of movies being radically rewritten in the editing room, like Ralph Rosenblum’s brilliant reshaping of Annie Hall, a casual comparison between the published screenplays and the finished versions of most great movies reveals that crucial changes are being made all the time. To pick just one example: the closing montage of words and images at the end of The Usual Suspects, which gives the entire movie much of its power, is totally absent in the script, and a lot of the credit here needs to be given to editor John Ottman. And smaller, less flashy examples are visible everywhere you look.

At first glance, it might seem as if a novelist is in a somewhat different position. A film editor is constrained by the material at hand, and although in certain cases he may have some input when it comes to expensive reshoots, for the most part, he has no choice but to make do with the footage that results from principal photography, which can be massaged and reconceived, but only to some extent, with the help of clever cutting, wild lines, and lucky discoveries in the slate piece. (The slate piece, as I’ve mentioned before, is the second or two of stray film left at the beginning of a take, before the actors have even begun to speak. Mamet likes to talk about finding important bits of footage in this “accidental, extra, hidden piece of information,” and he isn’t lying—the evocative, ominous shots of empty corridors in the hospital scene in The Godfather, for instance, were salvaged from just such a source.) A novelist, by contrast, can always write new material to fill in the gaps or save an otherwise unworkable scene, and it doesn’t cost anything except time and sanity. In reality, however, it isn’t quite that easy. The mental state required for writing a first draft is very different from that of revision, and while writers, in theory, benefit from an unlimited range of possibilities, in practice, they often find themselves spending most of their time trying to rework the material that they already have.

This is why I’ve become increasingly convinced that writing is revision, and in particular, it’s about cutting and restructuring, especially with regard to reducing length. Fortunately, this is one area, and possibly the only area, in which writers have it easier now than ever before. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White writes:

Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.

There’s something appealing about the image of a writer literally cutting his work using scissors and tape, and it’s possible that there’s something tactile in the process that would lead to happy accidents—which makes me want to try it sometime. These days, however, it’s so easy to cut and restructure files in Word that it seems insane for a writer not to take full advantage of the opportunity. Like editing a movie in Final Cut Pro, it’s nondestructive: you can try anything out and reverse it with a keyboard shortcut. You can cut as much as you like and restore it with ease, as long as you’ve taken the precaution of saving a new version with every round of revision. And I’ve learned that if it occurs to you that something could be cut, it should be. Nine times out of ten, once that initial change has been made, you won’t even remember what was there before—and if, five or ten rereadings later, you find that you still miss it, it’s a simple matter to restore what used to be there.

And almost invariably, the shorter and more focused the story becomes, the better it gets. Not only is cutting a story as much as possible the best trick I know, in some ways, it’s the only trick I know. When I look back at my own published work, I naturally divide it into several categories, based on how happy I am with the finished result. At the top are the stories—The Icon Thief, “The Boneless One,” and a handful of others—that I don’t think I’d change much at all, followed by a bunch that I’d like to revise, and a couple that I wish hadn’t seen print in their current form. Without exception, my regrets are always the same: I wish I’d cut it further. The conception is sound, the writing is fine, but there are a few scenes that go on too long. And although it’s impossible to know how you’ll feel about one of your stories a year or two down the line, I almost always wish I’d made additional cuts. That’s why, as I begin the final push on Eternal Empire, I’m cutting even more savagely than my critical eye might prefer, trying to think in terms of how I’ll feel ten months from now, when the novel is published. (The divergence between my present and future selves reminds me a little of the gap between Nate Silver’s “now-cast” and his election day forecast, which will finally converge on November 6.) I don’t know what my future self will think of this novel. But I can almost guarantee that he’ll wish that I’d cut a little more.

“Louis Barlow, the assistant special agent in charge…”

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(Note: This post is the sixteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 15. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Nearly every filmmaker can tell you stories about a great performance that was cut, for various reasons, from the final version of a movie. William Goldman gives a nice account in Which Lie Did I Tell? of Linda Hunt’s lost supporting turn in Maverick; the editor Ralph Rosenblum has a heartbreaking anecdote in When The Shooting Stops about actor Monroe Arnold, whose brilliant performance was cut entirely from Goodbye Columbus; and you can hear similar stories from half the cast of The Thin Red Line. (The A.V. Club has an nice list of other examples.) And if this happens frequently in movies, it’s even more common in novels, where it’s much easier to cut, condense, or even scrap characters entirely. A handful of writers have spoken about this, and at least one—Stephen King in the uncut edition of The Stand—has even restored a missing character. But I’d guess that nearly every novel of any length probably includes characters whose original roles were considerably more extensive than what eventually ended up in print.

In The Icon Thief, the greatest casualty was the character of Louis Barlow, the FBI assistant special agent in charge. Barlow originated as a convenient foil for Powell, my British investigator, and when I conceived the character, I didn’t have much more in mind than a cross between Landsman from The Wire and Alec Baldwin in The Departed. In writing the first draft, however, I got to like Barlow a lot—he was an amusing character, outwardly crude but much smarter than he seemed, who injected some welcome humor into an essentially serious novel. Unfortunately, a lot of it didn’t survive. As I’ve mentioned before, when I restructured the novel, I was forced to condense much of Powell’s material, and the real casualty here was Barlow—in the original draft, he first appears in a big scene in the fifth chapter, and in the final version, he doesn’t show up until we’re past the first hundred pages. As a result, he’s the one character in this book whose image, in my own mind, is much different than what the reader sees.

Chapter 15 is my attempt to salvage as much of Barlow’s material from the first draft as I could, while also conveying a lot of essential information as efficiently as possible. The result is almost comically condensed. Over the course of a single chapter, Powell needs to hear about a mysterious language on a wiretap; convince Barlow to give him an audio sample; bring in a graduate student to translate, and get him security clearance; explain to Wolfe how he figured out that the language was Assyrian, and how bringing in the translator has given him a source inside the wire team; and use the resulting translation to determine that the men under surveillance are planning to attend a party in Southampton. We’re introduced to a handful of new characters and given additional background material on several more. This is a lot of material, and it’s all essentially designed to get us to a single plot point: Powell and Wolfe are going to stake out the house in the Hamptons. And I’ve only got five pages to cover it.

The challenge was to get through all this material in a way that was light on its feet without feeling overly rushed, and I think it sort of works, although I had to use a lot of tricks to get there. For instance, there were originally two agents listening to the wire, but I combined them into one character to save room—a nice novelistic illustration of Occam’s Razor, which says that you never want more moving parts than you need. I made good use of First Blood author David Morrell’s tip to cut the first and last paragraphs of a scene that isn’t working, which gets me into and out of the heart of the chapter without any delay. And the result, I think, is a nice example of an expository chapter that reads well in its own right—and I doubt I would have zipped through this information quite as efficiently if I hadn’t been forced to do so by structural constraints. When you have ten pages worth of material to convey in half the space, you find ways of doing it in less time. And that’s the moral here: I miss Barlow and the scenes that he lost, but in the end, I didn’t really need him.

Tree of Codes and the slate piece

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Yesterday’s post about Ralph Rosenblum’s excavation of Annie Hall from the brilliant mess of Anhedonia reminds me, not quite randomly, of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Twee of Codes. (Excuse me, I mean Tree of Codes—and I can’t believe that I’m the first to make that particular joke.) It certainly has an astonishing premise: Foer has literally carved a new story out of a larger novel, Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, by selectively removing most of the text, leaving only a few scattered words on each page. The result, which uses elaborate die cuts to remove the deleted passages, looks amazing, even if Foer sounds oddly dissatisfied by the outcome. (“French flaps would have been nice.”) If nothing else, it’s a reminder of how important a book’s physical body can be.

I haven’t read Tree of Codes yet—among other things, I don’t have forty bucks to spend on it—and while I don’t think it absolves Foer from his obligation, as a major novelist, to write more conventional fiction, I’m impressed by its ambition. It’s worth noting, though, that this particular experiment isn’t so different from what every film editor is called upon to do: extracting a useful narrative out of an existing mass of intractable material. Annie Hall is only the most extreme example. Nearly every movie, for the sake of pacing and coherence, especially if it can’t afford reshoots, is forced to combine scenes that originally appeared in different parts of the film, say, or use a reaction shot from one scene to bridge an unrelated gap. David Mamet, in his otherwise disappointing Bambi vs. Godzilla, has a terrific passage about this, which is worth quoting in its entirety:

Stuck in a scene, in the editing room, sometimes the roof falls in: an actor has not picked up his cue, and the scene stops dead—there is no cutaway (no other actor to cut to, to “pace up” the sequence), and the movie grinds to a halt.

“If only,” the director or editor says, “if only the actor sitting there like a sphinx had looked to his left: if he’d looked to his left, instead of his right, I could intercut his close-up with a shot of the other actor and pace up the scene.”

But no, the actor never looked to his left, and the scene is doomed to death. But perhaps there is one hope.

The director says, “Check the slate piece.”

What is the slate piece?

Here’s how it goes: When the shot is set up, the actors are called in and placed. The sound guy calls “rolling,” the camera is turned on, the operator tells the camera assistant to “mark it,” the assistant puts the slate board (the once actual slate with chalk markings, now electronic) in front of the lens to record on film the shot’s number and take. The shot is thus “slated,” the director calls “action,” and the take begins.

But, we may note, there was a moment, when the camera was filming, before the shot was slated, when the actor was waiting for action to be called. In this moment he may have looked to his left, his right, up or down, frowned, or smiled or yawned or done any number of things that just might magically come to the aid of a stalled or otherwise doomed shot.

This accidental, extra, hidden piece of information is called the slate piece. And most of moviemaking, as a writer, a director, a designer, is the attempt not to invent but to discover that hidden information—the slate piece—that is already lurking in the film.

Which strikes me as very similar to what Foer has done here. His task was hugely complicated, of course, by the fact that not just the words themselves but their order was fixed and immovable. To create a workable narrative from this material, his ingenuity must have been pushed to its limits—which, in itself, is admirable, especially in a writer whose work can otherwise seem, er, a little undisciplined.

It’s unclear how useful his example is to the rest of us (I can’t imagine Tree of Codes as anything but an interesting experiment) but it does raise the question of how writers can selectively use constraints as a spur to creativity. I’ll be writing more about this later today.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2010 at 11:19 am

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