Posts Tagged ‘Seven Samurai’
Note: Spoilers follow for the most recent episode of Westworld.
I’ve written a lot on this blog about the power of ensembles, which allow television shows to experiment with different combinations of characters. Usually, it takes a season or two for the most fruitful pairings to emerge, and they can take even the writers by surprise. When a series begins, characters tend to interact based on where the plot puts them, and those initial groupings are based on little more than the creator’s best guess. Later, when the strengths of the actors have become apparent and the story has wandered in unanticipated directions, you end up with wonderful pairings that you didn’t even know you wanted. Last night’s installment of Westworld features at least two of these. The first is an opening encounter between Bernard and Maeve that gets the episode off to an emotional high that it never quite manages to top: it hurries Bernard to the next—and maybe last—stage of his journey too quickly to allow him to fully process what Maeve tells him. But it’s still nice to see them onscreen together. (They’re also the show’s two most prominent characters of color, but its treatment of race is so deeply buried that it barely even qualifies as subtext.) The second nifty scene comes when Charlotte, the duplicitous representative from the board, shows up in the Man in Black’s storyline. It’s more plot-driven, and it exists mostly to feed us some useful pieces of backstory. But there’s an undeniable frisson whenever two previously unrelated storylines reveal a hidden connection.
I hope that the show gives us more moments like this, but I’m also a little worried that it can’t. The scenes that I liked most in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” were surprising and satisfying precisely because the series has been so meticulous about keeping its plot threads separated. This may well be because at least one subplot is occurring in a different timeline, but more often, it’s a way of keeping things orderly: there’s so much happening in various places that the show is obliged to let each story go its own way. I don’t fault it for this, because this is such a superbly organized series, and although there are occasional lulls, they’ve been far fewer than you’d expect from a show with this level of this complexity. But very little of it seems organic or unanticipated. This might seem like a quibble. Yet I desperately want this show to be as great as it shows promise of being. And if there’s one thing that the best shows of the last decade—from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Fargo—have in common, it’s that they enjoy placing a few characters in a room and simply seeing what happens. You could say that Westworld is an inherently different sort of series, and that’s fine. But it’s such an effective narrative machine that it leaves me a little starved for those unpredictable moments that television, of all media, is the most likely to produce. (Its other great weakness is its general air of humorlessness, which arises from the same cause.) This is one of the most plot-heavy shows I’ve ever seen, but it’s possible to tell a tightly structured story while still leaving room for the unexpected. In fact, that’s one sign of mastery.
And you don’t need to look far for proof. In a pivotal passage in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, one of my favorite books on the movies, Donald Richie writes of “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and he goes to to say:
Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained. It has been said that after a film is over all that remains are a few scattered images, and if they remain then the film was memorable…Further, if one remembers carefully one finds that it is only the uneconomical, mysterious images which remain…Kurosawa’s films are so rigorous and, at the same time, so closely reasoned, that little scenes such as this appeal with the direct simplicity of water in the desert.
“Rigorous” and “closely reasoned” are two words that I’m sure the creators of Westworld would love to hear used to describe their show. But when you look at a movie like Seven Samurai—which on some level is the greatest western ever made—you have to agree with Richie: “What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.”
I don’t know if Westworld will ever become confident enough to offer viewers more water in the desert, but I’m hopeful that it will, because the precedent exists for a television series giving us a rigorous first season that it blows up down the line. I’m thinking, in particular, of Community, a show that might otherwise seem to have little in common with Westworld. It’s hard to remember now, after six increasingly nutty seasons, but Community began as an intensely focused sitcom: for its debut season, it didn’t even leave campus. The result gave the show what I’ve called a narrative home base, and even though I’m rarely inclined to revisit that first season, the groundwork that it laid was indispensable. It turned Greendale into a real place, and it provided a foundation for even the wildest moments to follow. Westworld seems to be doing much the same thing. Every scene so far has taken place in the park, and we’ve only received a few scattered hints of what the world beyond might be like—and whatever it is, it doesn’t sound good. The escape of the hosts from the park feels like an inevitable development, and the withholding of any information about what they’ll find is obviously a deliberate choice. This makes me suspect that this season is restricting itself on purpose, to prepare us for something even stranger, and in retrospect, it will seem cautious, compared to whatever else Westworld has up its sleeve. It’s the baseline from which crazier, more unexpected moments will later arise. Or, to take a page from the composer of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” this season is the aria, and the variations are yet to come.
One of the greatest compliments that we can pay to any story is that it seems shorter than it actually is. It’s obviously best for a narrative to be only as long as it has to be, and no more, which means that the creator needs to be willing to cut wherever necessary. (Sometimes it’s even better if these time or length limits are imposed from the outside. I’ve always maintained that Blue Velvet, my favorite American movie ever, was tremendously improved by a contractual stipulation that forced David Lynch and editor Duwayne Dunham to cut it from three hours down to two. And as much as I’m enjoying the streaming renaissance on Netflix, I sometimes wish that the episodes of these shows were shorter: without a fixed time slot, there’s no incentive to trim any given installment, and a literal hour of television tends to drag toward the end.) But it’s nice when a movie, in particular, grips us so completely that we don’t realize how long we’ve been watching it. I still remember being so absorbed by Michael Mann’s The Insider that I was startled to realize, when I checked my watch after the screening, that it was two and a half hours long: I would have guessed that it was closer to ninety minutes. And you only need to compare the experience of watching the original cut of Seven Samurai with, say, four episodes of the second season of True Detective to realize that three and a half hours can be something very different in subjective and objective time.
But there’s another storytelling trick that deserves just as much attention, which is the ability to make a short work of art seem longer. I’m not talking about the way in which even a twenty minutes of a bad sitcom can seem interminable, but of how a story can somehow persuade us that we’ve lived through a longer and more meaningful experience than seems possible to encompass within a limited timeframe. On some level, this is an illusion that you encounter in most narratives of any kind: with the exception of the rare works designed to unfold in real time, we’re asked to believe that the relatively short period that it takes to physically view or read the story really covers days, weeks, or months of action, and occasionally much longer. Many biopics, for instance, ask us to go through an entire lifetime in a couple of hours, and the fact that the result is usually so unsatisfying only indicates how hard it is to pull this off. But it has a greater chance of succeeding when it uses our perceptions of time to convince us, in a pleasurable way, that we’ve seen and felt more than could be packed into a single sitting. We could start with Citizen Kane, which is exactly a minute short of two hours long—which, like Blue Velvet, probably reflects an attempt to meet a contractually mandated length. Yet more than any other movie, it feels like a full picture of a man’s life, and the fact that it asks us to assemble Kane’s story from the fragments of other people’s memories offers a very important clue as to how this kind of thing works.
Because one of the best ways to create a subjective impression of length is through contrasts: the alternation of big and little, loud and soft, fast and slow. I got to thinking about this while listening to “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” which is one of the two or three best songs in Hamilton. It’s as epic a number as you could imagine, and it leaves you feeling as if you’ve lived through an unforgettable experience, but it lasts just four minutes. In his notes in Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda explains how it works:
Part of the inspiration for the structure of “Yorktown” is what I call the “Busta Rhymes soft-loud-soft technique. On countless songs, Busta will give you the smoothest, quietest delivery and then full-on scream the next verse. It makes for a delightful tension and release, and it’s entirely vocal. Same here. “I have everything I wanted but I can’t die today / We’re going into battle / Here’s what my friends are doing / Hercules Mulligan!” Thank you and God bless you, Busta Rhymes.
It isn’t hard to see why this kind of alternation creates an impression of length, in the much same way that we find with the experiments with chronology in Kane. With every transition, the listener has to readjust, and the mental effort of these regroupings draws out our perception of time passing. The switching costs of moving from one moment to the next allow the story to do with a juxtaposition what would otherwise require a pause. As the old proverb says, a change is as good as a rest.
And this phenomenon emerges from something fundamental in how our brains are wired. As the neurologist David Eagleman says about the perception of time in everyday life:
When our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated.
In other words, it takes a while for the brain to process new information, leading to a subjective impression of extended time. It’s why travel or a change of scenery can make our lives seem to slow down, and why we’re advised to use surprise or variety to keep the days from turning into a blur. The real challenge for artists is to combine different kinds of time within the same narrative. A movie or book that consists of nothing but action will quickly become boring, and so will a string of talky interior scenes. If you can speed it up and slow it down in the right proportions, the result, at its finest, will make you feel as if you’ve lived a rich, fulfilling life over the course of two hours. Hamilton does this beautifully. So does Kane—and you could even argue that the best reason to use a nonlinear narrative, rather than as a gimmick, is the ability it presents to treat time as a tool. You’re not just painting a picture; you’re asking the audience to assemble a puzzle. And it helps to use different kinds of pieces.
This is my favorite screenplay of all time—a massively detailed film of more than three hours that establishes its central conflict in the first minute, involves us in the lives of more than a dozen important characters, and treats us to the immense satisfaction of seeing epic action foreshadowed, spelled out, and unforgettably delivered. It’s a story so organic, simple, and rich with possibility that it’s astonishing that it took half a century of cinema for a great director to discover. At well over three hours, this is a long movie, yet it never seems padded or excessive: every scene flows naturally from the premise, until it becomes a film that feels like it could go on forever, like life itself. Elsewhere, I’ve quoted the critic Donald Richie on “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” which Seven Samurai has in abundance:
Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained…
What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.
Kurosawa’s ability here to combine rigorous narrative logic with moments of intuitive beauty, the product of a perfectly matched right and left brain, is unsurpassed. Figures glimpsed only for a minute—like the merchant who tries to sell buns to the farmers, then ends up grimly eating them himself—are vividly sketched with an almost Shakespearean depth and economy, and the major characters manage to be both archetypal and endearingly human. Mifune, deservedly, receives most of the attention, but when I think of this film, my thoughts turn first to Takashi Shimura’s Kambei, wise enough to know that this is nothing but a fool’s errand, yet still strangely drawn to the joy of war and combat. Like many great works of art, from the tragedies of Shakespeare on down, Seven Samurai has it both ways: we’re both exhilarated by its vision of the samurai code and keenly aware, in the end, of the emptiness of the ensuing victory. “Again we’ve survived,” Shimura says to his companion, only to add, in the very last scene: “And again we’ve lost.”
Tomorrow: The freshest, most timeless masterpiece of the forties.
The idea that the brain can be neatly divided into its left and right hemispheres, one rational, the other intuitive, has been largely debunked, but that doesn’t make it any less useful as a metaphor. You could play an instructive game, for instance, by placing movie directors on a spectrum defined by, say, Kubrick and Altman as the quintessence of left-brained filmmaking and its right-brained opposite, and although such distinctions may be artificial, they can generate their own kind of insight. Christopher Nolan, for one, strikes me as a fundamentally left-brained director who makes a point of consciously willing himself into emotion. (Citing some of the cornier elements of Interstellar, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates theorizes that they were imposed by the studio, but I think it’s more likely that they reflect Nolan’s own efforts, not always successful, to nudge the story into recognizably human places. He pulled it off beautifully in Inception, but it took him ten years to figure out how.) And just as Isaiah Berlin saw Tolstoy as a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, many of the recent films of Wong Kar-Wai feel like the work of a right-brained director trying to convince himself that the left hemisphere is where he belongs.
Of all my favorite directors, the one who most consistently hits the perfect balance between the two is Akira Kurosawa. I got to thinking about this while reading the editor and teacher Richard D. Pepperman’s appealing new book Everything I Know About Filmmaking I Learned Watching Seven Samurai, which often reads like the ultimate tribute to Kurosawa’s left brain. It’s essentially a shot for shot commentary, cued up to the definitive Criterion Collection release, that takes us in real time through the countless meaningful decisions made by Kurosawa in the editing room: cuts, dissolves, wipes, the interaction between foreground and background, the use of music and sound, and the management of real and filmic space, all in service of story. It’s hard to imagine a better movie for a study like this, and with its generous selection of stills, the book is a delight to browse through—it reminds me a little of Richard J. Anobile’s old photonovels, which in the days before home video provided the most convenient way of revisiting Casablanca or The Wrath of Khan. I’ve spoken before of the film editor as a kind of Apollonian figure, balancing out the Dionysian personality of the director on the set, and this rarely feels so clear as it does here, even, or especially, when the two halves are united in a single man.
As for Kurosawa’s right brain, the most eloquent description I’ve found appears in Donald Richie’s The Films of Akira Kurosawa, which is still the best book of its kind ever written. In his own discussion of Seven Samurai, Richie speaks of “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and continues:
Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained. It has been said that after a film is over all that remains are a few scattered images, and if they remain then the film was memorable…Further, if one remembers carefully one finds that it is only the uneconomical, mysterious images which remain…
Kurosawa’s films are so rigorous and, at the same time, so closely reasoned, that little scenes such as this appeal with the direct simplicity of water in the desert…[and] in no other single film are there as many as in Seven Samurai.
What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.
Richie goes on to list several examples: the old crone tottering forward to avenge the death of her son, the burning water wheel, and, most beautifully, the long fade to black before the final sequence of the villagers in the rice fields. My own favorite moment, though, occurs in the early scene when Kambei, the master samurai, rescues a little boy from a thief. In one of the greatest character introductions in movie history, Kambei shaves his head to disguise himself as a priest, asking only for two rice balls, which he’ll use to lure the thief out of the barn where the boy has been taken hostage. This information is conveyed in a short conversation between the farmers and the townspeople, who exit the frame—and after the briefest of pauses, a woman emerges from the house in the background, running directly toward the camera with the rice balls in hand, looking back for a frantic second at the barn. It’s the boy’s mother. There’s no particular reason to stage the scene like this; another director might have done it in two separate shots, if it had occurred to him to include it at all. Yet the way in which Kurosawa films it, with the crowd giving way to the mother’s isolated figure, is both formally elegant and strangely moving. It offers up a miniature world of story and emotion without a single cut, and like Kurosawa himself, it resists any attempt, including this one, to break it down into parts.
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 13, 2011. Visual spoilers follow. Cover your eyes!
As I’ve noted before, the last line of a novel is almost always of interest, but the last line of a movie generally isn’t. It isn’t hard to understand why: movies are primarily a visual medium, and there’s a sense in which even the most brilliant dialogue can often seem beside the point. And as much the writer in me wants to believe otherwise, audiences don’t go to the movies to listen to words: they go to look at pictures.
Perhaps inevitably, then, there are significantly more great closing shots in film than there are great curtain lines. Indeed, the last shot of nearly every great film is memorable, so the list of finalists can easily expand into the dozens. Here, though, in no particular order, are twelve of my favorites. Click for the titles:
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.
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.
[Kurosawa] is particularly averse to any scene which would tend to explain a past action, to predicate itself in history as it were. Kurosawa’s premises are all in the future and this is what makes them so suspenseful, one is always having to wait and see.
Just as he always cuts out business which gets a character from one place to another, which, for merely geographical reasons, has him—say—opening and closing doors; so, Kurosawa is impatient with any shot which lasts too long for no good reason. His short scenes are often mere flashes. In Seven Samurai one of the shots showing a man pierced by an arrow is just twelve frames (1/2 second) long. If you blink, you miss it…Another example is during one of the fight scenes in Sugata. There was a cut showing the opponent flying through the air, having been thrown by Sanshiro. Kurosawa calculated its length and viewed it. Everyone said that it was tremendous. Kurosawa said it looked just like a kite. He halved it, then halved it again. The resulting flash is precisely what he wanted.