Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Roman Polanski

The Ratner Pack

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Yesterday, the director Brett Ratner joined the depressingly long list of powerful men in Hollywood who have been accused of sexual harassment, misconduct, or assault. The charges leveled by the Los Angeles Times are both damning and horrifyingly familiar, but one detail in particular might ring a bell for attentive readers. One of the women who share their stories is Eri Sasaki, who claims that Ratner dangled the prospect of a speaking part in Rush Hour 2 in exchange for sex. In response, Ratner’s attorney, Martin Singer, called her charges “absurd” and “nonsensical,” explaining to the Times: “The movie was obviously already cast and shooting, so the notion that there would be a discussion of getting her a speaking role in the middle of a movie shoot is ridiculous.” Let’s table that argument for a second, and turn to the even more sordid case of James Toback, who supposedly used a similar line on dozens of women for decades. Four days before Toback was the subject of his own exposé in the Times, the reporter Hillel Aron asked him about the allegation “that you approach women on the street and offer them film roles, and talk about how you want to be involved with them, working in movies, and then the conversation quickly switches in some way to sex.” Toback replied:

Lemme be really clear about this. I don’t want to get a pat on the back, but I’ve struggled seriously to make movies with very little money, that I write, that I direct, that mean my life to me. The idea that I would offer a part to anyone for any other reason than that he or she was gonna be the best of anyone I could find is so disgusting to me. And anyone who says it is a lying cocksucker or c—t or both…Anyone who says that, I just want to spit in his or her fucking face.

In both cases, the reasoning, evidently, is that no real director would ever offer a woman a part in a film in exchange for sex if he weren’t completely serious about following through. Why aren’t people convinced by this?

If Ratner and Toback trade in the same line of garbage, either directly or through a surrogate, that shouldn’t come as a surprise—the two of them have been close for years. There was talk a while back of Ratner directing Toback’s screenplay about John DeLorean, which never got off the ground, while Toback has referred to the younger director as “my friend and L.A. housemate.” Ratner, for his part, said to Variety earlier this year: “My closest friends are James Toback, Roman Polanski, Warren Beatty, Bob Evans—these are the guys who have helped me and given me the best advice.” Even if we leave out Polanski, that’s quite a list. Over a decade ago, Vanity Fair ran a glowing profile of Ratner that included a quote that I’ve never forgotten:

When I screen a movie, before I show it to anybody, I show it to one of three people: Warren [Beatty], Bob Evans, or Bob Towne, because they’re the smartest guys in the business. They tell me the truth, they’re not kissing my ass.

At the time, I’ll confess that I did little more than give credit to Ratner for seeking out interesting mentors—even if Beatty and Evans seem now like models for something other than good manners toward women. (As for Towne, he’s mentioned in the recent coverage only because Ratner is accused of making “an aggressive come-on” years ago to his daughter Katharine, whom he allegedly followed into a bathroom at a movie star’s house in Los Angeles, saying: “I like ’em chubby sometimes.” Singer, Ratner’s lawyer, who is really doing his client no favors, replies: “Even if hypothetically this incident occurred exactly as claimed, how is flirting at a party, complimenting a woman on her appearance, and calling her to ask her for a date wrongful conduct?”)

But the roll call of Ratner’s buddies is striking for other reasons. Beatty, Evans, Towne, and even Toback are undeniably smart guys, but they’ve also had a rough stretch in Hollywood. Beatty’s recent career has consisted of a long retreat punctuated by an embarrassing failure, Evans and Towne’s travails are the stuff of legend, and Toback hasn’t been in a position to direct a movie on more than a shoestring budget in more than a decade. (The most pathetic detail in the Toback exposé has to be his favorite pickup line, which he delivered in locations like the Kinko’s on the Upper West Side: “My name’s James Toback. I’m a movie director. Have you ever seen Black and White or Two Girls and a Guy?” And if the woman in question hadn’t, he was happy to pull out a copy of the DVD.) You could argue that the ups and downs of their careers have turned Beatty, Evans, and the rest into unusually interesting sources of advice, and you’d be right. And their recent setbacks have made them more available to swap war stories with an eager young protégé than, say, Steven Spielberg might be. But I don’t think that Ratner was really looking for such insights, at least not when it came to making movies: I think he was seeking out the aura of Hollywood in the seventies. Ratner’s filmography consists of some of the least memorable or personal movies of the last twenty years, but it’s in his unproduced projects that you start to get a sense of his inner life. One was the DeLorean movie, which Evans was rumored at one time to be producing. Another was a film with a lead character—to which Johnny Depp was attached—clearly based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel room in New York. And as the latest accusations broke, Ratner was developing a movie about none other than Hugh Hefner, with Jared Leto set to star, which fell apart over the last twenty-four hours.

It isn’t hard to see the pattern here. Ratner may sign up to direct X-Men: The Last Stand or Hercules, but his heart obviously lies with biopics about a certain type of man. They may never get made, but in the meantime, they allow him to daydream. A lot of us contemplate such lives with a certain sick fascination—I’ve listened endlessly to Evans’s audiobook of his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture—but Ratner seems to have done everything he can to put it in into practice, first in the circle of older men with which he surrounds himself, and second in the way he evidently treats many of the women who cross his path. (His production company, incidentally, is called RatPac, which evokes yet another glamorized era of bad behavior.) It’s the sort of perverse nostalgia that we can glimpse even in Harvey Weinstein, whose abuse of women seems modeled after an even earlier period, in which studio moguls treated human beings as their personal property. Some of these men also made great works of art, which doesn’t excuse their actions, but Ratner seems content to imitate and reenact their legacy in every way except the one that really counts: by making films that viewers would admire and remember. You can get surprisingly far by paying lip service to a set of cultural values that you have no interest in realizing yourself, except as a pretext for the acquisition of sex, money, and power. And it doesn’t stop in Hollywood. I can’t overlook the fact that one of Ratner’s movies, Tower Heist, originally had a different title before it was changed in preproduction, and while I can’t say for sure what drew him to the project, I can venture a good guess. As Ratner mused earlier this summer to The Hollywood Reporter: “In retrospect, it would have been a bigger hit if it had been called Trump Heist.”

“To spare another man’s life…”

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"Asthana halted..."

Note: This post is the sixtieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 59. You can read the previous installments here.

Why do our villains always have to die? Roger Ebert says somewhere—I haven’t been able to track down the exact reference—that he’d be happier if a movie ended with the hero sealing the bad guy’s fate with a few well-chosen lines of dialogue, followed by a closeup of the bastard’s face as he absorbs his predicament. And there’s no question that this would be much more satisfying than the anticlimactic death scenes that most stories tend to deliver. It’s safe to say that if a book or screenplay goes through the trouble of creating a nice, hateful antagonist, it’s usually for the sake of his ultimate comeuppance: we want to see him pay for what he’s done, and hopefully suffer in the process. In practice, the manner in which he ends up being dispatched rarely lives up to the punishment we’ve mentally assigned to him in advance. For one thing, it’s often too fast. We want him to perish at a moment of total recognition, and the nature of most fictional deaths means that the realization is over almost before it begins. (This may be the real reason why so many villains are killed by falling from a great height. It leaves the hero’s hands relatively clean, however illogically, and it also allows for at least a few seconds of mute astonishment and understanding to cross the bad guy’s face. The story goes that during the filming of Die Hard, director John McTiernan let Alan Rickman drop a second before he was expecting it. Rickman was understandably furious, but the look he gives the camera is worth it: there are few things more delicious than seeing him lose that mask of perfect, icy control.)

All things being equal, it’s best to allow the villain to live to deal with the consequences. But there are also situations in which a death can feel dramatically necessary. I’ve never forgotten what Robert Towne once said about a similar plot point at the end of Chinatown. Originally, Towne had wanted the movie to conclude on an ambiguous note, but he was overruled by Roman Polanski. Years later, Towne said:

In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending, that I don’t think that what I had in mind could have been done; that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.

Chinatown, of course, ends with anything but the villain getting what he deserves, but the principle is largely the same. In some respects, it’s a matter of contrast. A story that consists of one act of violence after another might benefit from a more nuanced ending, while one that teases out its complexities would go out best with a stark, sudden conclusion. I’ve always preferred the brutally abbreviated last scene of The Departed to that of Infernal Affairs, for instance, because that twisty, convoluted story really needs to close with a full stop. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”

"To spare another man's life..."

And a villain’s death can be necessary in order to close off the story completely: it’s like scorching the end of a nylon rope to prevent it from unraveling. Death is nothing if not definitive, and it can seem unfair to the viewer or reader to leave the narrative open at one end after they’ve come so far already. The decision as to whether or not to spare the villain is a tricky one, and it can be determined by forces from much earlier in the narrative. In his director’s commentary for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they spent countless drafts trying to figure out ways for Ethan to kill Solomon Lane, only to find that none of the results seemed satisfying. The reason, they discovered, was that Lane hadn’t done enough to make Ethan hate him in particular: it just wasn’t personal, so it didn’t need to end with anything so intimate as a fight to the death. A story’s internal mechanics can also push the ending in the other direction. The original draft of The Icon Thief, which persisted almost until the book went out to publishers, had all three of the primary antagonists surviving, and in fact, Maddy even asks Ilya to spare Sharkovsky’s life. In the rewrite, I realized that Lermontov had to die to balance out the death of another character earlier in the novel, which in itself was a very late addition, and that Maddy had to be the one to take that revenge. This kind of narrative bookkeeping, in which the writer cooks the numbers until they come out more or less right, is something that every author does, consciously or otherwise. In this case, it was a choice that ended up having a huge impact on the rest of the series, and it influenced many other judgment calls to come, to an extent that I’m not sure I recognized at the time.

Chapter 59 of Eternal Empire, for example, is maybe the bloodiest sequence in the entire trilogy, in emotional impact if not in raw body count: it includes the deaths of two major characters and a fair amount of collateral damage. I get rid of Asthana, whom I liked so much that I kept her around for an entire novel after I originally planned to dispose of her, and Vasylenko, whose presence has haunted the series from the start. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy with Asthana’s swan song, which consists of a complicated set of feints and maneuvers against Wolfe. It’s fair to both characters, and it gives Asthana a second or two to process how she’s been outsmarted. (I wasn’t thinking of Arrested Development, but it’s hard for me to read it now without imagining Asthana saying to herself: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) But I’m not particularly pleased by how I handled Vasylenko’s death, which is too bad, since by all rights it ought to be the climax of all three books. In some ways, I wrote myself into a corner: there’s really no plausible way to keep Vasylenko alive, or to extend his confrontation with Ilya for longer than a couple of paragraphs, and in my eagerness to write a definitive ending to the series, I may have rushed past the moment of truth. In my defense, the chapter has to provide closure for multiple pairs of characters—Ilya and Maddy, Ilya and Wolfe, Ilya and Vasylenko, Wolfe and Asthana—and I do what I can to give each of them the valediction they deserve. If I had to do it over again, I might have toyed with switching Asthana and Vasylekno’s final scenes, in order to close the novel on a position of greater strength, but this probably wouldn’t have been possible. The Icon Thief ended with Maddy asking Ilya to spare another man’s life; Eternal Empire had to conclude with her asking for the opposite. They don’t end in the same way. But Maddy isn’t the same person she was when we started…

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 16, 2014.

A while back, William Weir wrote an excellent piece in Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; in the three years before the article was written, there was only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to—or an outright plagiarism of—a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

William Weir has an excellent piece in today’s Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; over the last three years, there has been only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2014 at 9:34 am

Noir and the limits of control

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Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray in The Killing

“The curious task of economics,” Friedrich Hayek writes, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” You could say much the same thing about noir. The classic film noir, as well as its counterpart in fiction, is ultimately about the limits of control: its protagonists are generally tough, competent, and driven, but they’re brought up against an unfair universe that seems determined to unravel their perfect heist, getaway, or murder. It’s a sharp contrast to the kind of international thriller I’ve found myself writing, which ever since the time of Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth has been defined by a cult of competence. In a well-constructed suspense novel, it’s often the smartest and most capable character who wins, and the hero is frequently defined by his intelligence and skill—possibly because he tends to be so amoral in other ways. The men and women in film noir may be equally smart and tenacious, but that doesn’t always change their fate.

The tension between human control and what the universe really has in mind for us is baked into noir itself, which was often the product of smart writers and directors hedged in by the studio system. It’s often been noted that the classic film noir was created by a reaction against constraints: shadows and minimal lighting are used, as they were in Citizen Kane, to disguise cheap or incomplete sets, while shooting at night is a way of dealing with a compressed production schedule. You also see it in the kinds of plots to which it repeatedly returns. If an A-list picture is sold by a star, a B movie is sold by a poster, title, and tagline, usually involving a girl with a gun. If there’s a place where pulp fiction intersects with noir, it’s on the paperback cover, which tells us precisely what kind of story to expect. Or so we think. In reality, the truth is more complicated, and part of the reason noir indulges in such convoluted plots—the flashbacks, the impersonations, the returns from the dead—is to push against these conventions in the only way it can.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

But if the elaboration of the plot is usually complicated, the ending tends to be brutally simple. There’s no better example than Chinatown. Robert Towne spins a deliciously complicated story, and although I’ve seen the movie countless times, I don’t think I could accurately describe it in its details. Yet it comes down to very simple themes—murder, greed, incest—and ends in a way that makes nonsense of Towne’s beautiful script. As Towne himself says:

In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending…that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.

And it’s only appropriate that the cruelest of all endings should have been imposed on the story after the fact by a director whose own life became so saturated with guilt.

The ironic resolution isn’t confined to film, of course, and it reaches its height in novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Yet there’s also a sense in which the constraints of Hollywood itself encouraged a peculiarly tragic view of life. The Hays Code made it impossible for crime to go unpunished, and when a movie gives us a hero of great shrewdness and ability whose motives are less than pure, when he’s inevitably required to fail, it’s often the result of some cruel, meaningless trick. This has sometimes been taken as a sign of contempt by the filmmakers toward the limitations that the code imposed, but it also reflects a deeper understanding of how useless our most ingenious plans can be.  My own favorite example is the end of The Killing, in which a meticulously plotted heist is foiled by a little dog on the airport tarmac. It’s arbitrary, unfair, and frustrating, but there’s also something strangely satisfying in Sterling Hayden’s final line: “Eh, what’s the difference?”

Readers in Chicago are invited to attend the panel “The Lure of Noir” at the annual Printers Row Lit Fest at 4:00 pm on Saturday, in which I’ll be discussing the subject with novelists Bryan Gruley, Brian D’Amato, Libby Fischer Hellmann, and moderator Robert Goldsborough. More details can be found here.

“A simple severing of the knot”

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I don’t think that it’s altogether fair or correct to say simply that [Chinatown] didn’t turn out the way I’d imagined when writing…In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending, that I don’t think that what I had in mind could have been done; that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.

Robert Towne, quoted in Screenwriters on Screen-Writing

Written by nevalalee

September 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

24 and art’s dubious morality

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Today the AV Club tackles an issue that is very close to my own heart: to what extent can we enjoy art that contradicts our own moral beliefs? The ensuing discussion spans a wide range of works, from Gone With the Wind to the films of Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson, but I’m most intrigued by an unspoken implication: that morally problematic works of art are often more interesting, and powerful, than those that merely confirm our existing points of view. When our moral convictions are challenged, it seems, it can yield the same sort of pleasurable dissonance that we get from works that subvert our aesthetic assumptions. The result can be great art, or at least great entertainment.

For me, the quintessential example is 24, a show that I loved for a long time, until it declined precipitously after the end of the fifth season. Before then, it was the best dramatic series on television, and its reactionary politics were inseparable from its appeal. Granted, the show’s politics were more about process than result—nearly every season ended with the exposure of a vast right-wing conspiracy, even if it was inevitably uncovered through massive violations of due process and civil rights—and it seems that the majority of the show’s writers and producers, aside from its creator, were politically liberal to moderate. Still, the question remains: how did they end up writing eight seasons’ worth of stories that routinely endorsed the use of torture?

The answer, I think, is that the writers were remaining true to the rules that the show had established: in a series where the American public is constantly in danger, and where the real-time structure of the show itself rules out the possibility of extended investigations—or even interrogations that last more than five minutes—it’s easier and more efficient to show your characters using torture to uncover information. The logic of torture on 24 wasn’t political, but dramatic. And while we might well debate the consequences of this portrayal on behavior in the real world, there’s no denying that it resulted in compelling television, at least for the first five seasons.

The lesson here, as problematic as it might seem, is that art needs to follow its own premises to their logical conclusion, even if the result takes us into dangerous places. (As Harold Bloom likes to point out, reading Shakespeare will not turn us into better citizens.) And this is merely the flip side of another crucial point, which is that works of art knowingly designed to endorse a particular philosophy are usually awful, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. At worst, such works are nothing but propaganda; and even at their best, they seem calculated and artificial, rather than honestly derived, however unwillingly, from the author’s own experience. As usual, John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, says it better than I can:

The question, to pose it one last way, is this: Can an argument manipulated from the start by the writer have the same emotional and intellectual power as an argument to which the writer is forced by his intuition of how life works? Comparisons are odious but instructive: Can a Gulliver’s Travels, however brilliantly executed, ever touch the hem of the garment of a play like King Lear? Or: Why is the Aeneid so markedly inferior to the Iliad?

In my own work, I’ve found that it’s often more productive to deliberately construct a story that contradicts my own beliefs and see where it leads me from there. My novelette “The Last Resort” (Analog, September 2009) is designed to imply sympathy, or even complicity, with ecoterrorism, which certainly goes against my own inclinations. And I’m in the middle of outlining a novel in which the main character is a doubting Mormon whose experiences, at least as I currently conceive the story, actually lead her to become more devout. This sort of thing is harder than writing stories that justify what I already believe, but that’s part of the point. In writing, if not in life, it’s often more useful to do things the hard way.

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