Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The world spins

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Note: This post discusses plot points from Sunday’s episode of Twin Peaks.

“Did you call me five days ago?” Dark Cooper asks the shadowy shape in the darkness in the most recent episode of Twin Peaks. It’s a memorable moment for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he’s addressing the disembodied Philip Jeffries, who was played by David Bowie in Fire Walk With Me, and is now portrayed by a different voice actor and what looks to be a sentient tea kettle. But that didn’t even strike me as the weirdest part. What hit me hardest is the implication that everything that we’ve seen so far this season has played out over less than a week in real time—the phone call to which Dark Cooper is referring occurred during the second episode. Admittedly, there are indications that the events onscreen have unfolded in a nonlinear fashion, not to draw attention to itself, but to allow David Lynch and Mark Frost to cut between storylines according to their own rhythms, rather than being tied down to chronology. (The text message that Dark Cooper sends at the end of the scene was received by Diane a few episodes ago, while Audrey’s painful interactions with Charlie apparently consist of a single conversation parceled out over multiple weeks. And the Dougie Jones material certainly feels as if it occurs over a longer period than five days, although it’s probably possible to squeeze it into that timeline if necessary.) And if viewers are brought up short by the contrast between the show’s internal calendar and its emotional duration, it’s happened before. When I look back at the first two seasons of the show, I’m still startled to realize that every event from Laura’s murder to Cooper’s possession unfolds over just one month.

Why does this feel so strange? The obvious answer is that we get to know these characters over a period of years, while we really only see them in action for a few weeks, and their interactions with one another end up carrying more weight than you might expect for people who, in some cases, met only recently. And television is the one medium that routinely creates that kind of disparity. It’s inherently impossible for a movie to take longer to watch than the events that it depicts—apart from a handful, like Run Lola Run or Vantage Point, that present scrambled timelines or stage the same action from multiple perspectives—and it usually compresses days or weeks of action within a couple of hours. With books, the length of the act of reading varies from one reader to the next, and we’re unlikely to find it particularly strange that it can take months to finish Ulysses, which recounts the events of a single day. It’s only television, particularly when experienced in its original run, that presents such a sharp contrast between narrative and emotional time, even if we don’t tend to worry about this with sitcoms, procedurals, and other nonserialized shows. (One interesting exception consists of shows set in high school or college, in which it’s awfully tempting to associate each season with an academic year, although there’s no reason why a series like Community couldn’t take place over a single semester.) Shows featuring children or teenagers have a built-in clock that reminds us of how time is passing in the real world, as Urkel or the Olsen twins progress inexorably toward puberty. And occasionally there’s an outlier like The Simpsons, in which a quarter of a century’s worth of storylines theoretically takes place within the same year or so.

But the way in which a serialized show can tell a story that occurs over a short stretch of narrative time while simultaneously drawing on the emotional energy that builds up over years is one of the unsung strengths of the entire medium. Our engagement with a favorite show that airs on a weekly basis isn’t just limited to the hour that we spend watching it every Sunday, but expands to fill much of the time in between. If a series really matters to us, it gets into our dreams. (I happened to miss the initial airing of this week’s episode because I was on vacation with my family, and I’ve been so conditioned to get my fix of Twin Peaks on a regular basis that I had a detailed dream about an imaginary episode that night—which hasn’t happened to me since I had to wait a week to watch the series finale of Breaking Bad. As far as I can remember, my dream involved the reappearance of Sheriff Harry Truman, who has been institutionalized for years, with his family and friends describing him euphemistically as “ill.” And I wouldn’t mention it here at all if this weren’t a show that has taught me to pay close attention to my dreamlife.) Many of us also spend time between episodes in reading reviews, discussing plot points online, and catching up with various theories about where it might go next. In a few cases, as with Westworld, this sort of active analysis can be detrimental to the experience of watching the show itself, if you see it as a mystery with clues that the individual viewer is supposed to crack on his or her own. For the most part, though, it’s an advantage, with time conferring an emotional weight that the show might not have otherwise had. As the world spins, the series stays where it was, and we’ve all changed in the meantime.

The revival of Twin Peaks takes this tendency and magnifies it beyond anything else we’ve seen before, with its fans investing it with twenty-five years of accumulated energy—and this doesn’t even account for the hundreds of hours that I spent listening to the show’s original soundtrack, which carries an unquantifiable duration of its own. And one of the charming things about this season is how Lynch and Frost seem to have gone through much the same experience themselves, mulling over their own work until stray lines and details take on a greater significance. When Dark Cooper goes to his shadowy meeting above a convenience store, it’s paying off on a line that Mike, the one-armed man, uttered in passing during a monologue from the first Bush administration. The same applies to the show’s references to a mysterious “Judy,” whom Jeffries mentioned briefly just before disappearing forever. I don’t think that these callbacks reflect a coherent plan that Lynch and Frost have been keeping in their back pockets for decades, but a process of going back to tease out meanings that even they didn’t know were there. Smart writers of serialized narratives learn to drop vague references into their work that might pay off later on. (Two of my favorite examples are Spock’s “Remember” at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the Second Foundation, which Isaac Asimov introduced in case he needed it in a subsequent installment.) What Twin Peaks is doing now is analogous to what the writers of Breaking Bad did when they set up problems that they didn’t know how to solve, trusting that they would figure it out eventually. The only difference is that Lynch and Frost, like the rest of us, have had more time to think about it. And it might take us another twenty-five years before we—or they—figure out what they were actually doing.

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August 22, 2017 at 9:08 am

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.

Revenge of the list

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: A few minor spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

When I try to explain my mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movie, I find myself turning, heretically, to a story about the franchise’s greatest rival. Nicholas Meyer was, in many ways, the J.J. Abrams of his day: a hugely talented, relatively young outsider who was brought in to correct the course of a series that had lost its sense of purpose. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan, but he was able to find elements—like its echoes of the Horatio Hornblower novels—that he could highlight and enlarge. When he signed on to write and direct the first sequel, however, five separate scripts had already been written, and he had to prepare a workable screenplay in twelve days. His response to the challenge resulted in one of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes ever, as Meyer recounts it in his memoir The View From the Bridge:

“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose…”

We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I never tire of retelling this story, both as an illustration of the power of lists as a creative tool and as a reminder of how surprising, organic narratives can emerge from the most artificial of beginnings. And it’s as true today as it ever was. In the excellent bonus features for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they began writing the movie with a list of action set pieces, and that important emotional beats—including Ilsa Faust’s motivations and the entire character of Attlee—emerged when they put those scenes in a certain order. Matthew Weiner and his core writing staff assembled a list of possible themes and ideas to revisit when it came time to plot out the final season of Mad Men. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen The Peanuts Movie, of which I wrote: “[It] sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan…The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials.” And now, of course, we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which struck me when I first saw it as a kind of greatest hits collection from the original trilogy, only to have this confirmed by the same Wired interview with J.J. Abrams that I discussed yesterday: “When we began working on this film, Larry [Kasdan] and I started by making a list of things that we knew held interest for us, the things we wanted to see, the things we felt were important.”

Nicholas Meyer and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet the fact remains that The Wrath of Khan comes off as a seamless burst of pure story, while The Force Awakens, for all its considerable merits, still feels like a list. (The best thing that could be said for it, and this shouldn’t be lightly disregarded, is that it’s the right list. ) When you look at the list that Meyer put together for Star Trek, with the notable exception of Khan himself, you see that it consists of ideas that audiences hadn’t seen before. The Force Awakens, by contrast, is a list of things that are familiar, and once we’ve seen a couple of moments or images that remind us of the original movies, we naturally start a mental checklist as we keep an eye out for more. Sometimes, the way it quotes its predecessors is delightful; at other times, as when it gears up for yet another aerial assault on an impregnable planetary superweapon, it’s less than wonderful. As the Resistance prepared for the attack on Starkiller Base, I felt a slight sinking feeling: two out of the first three Star Wars movies ended in exactly the same way, perhaps as a nod to The Dam Busters, and I hoped that Abrams was about to spring some kind of novel twist or variation on that theme. Obviously, he doesn’t, to the extent that he includes a story point—a small group on the ground fighting to deactivate the shield generator—lifted straight from Return of the Jedi. It isn’t hard to imagine a version of this sort of climax that would have given us something new: I’d love to see a full-on Saving Private Ryan sequence showing an infantry assault on the base, or even a naval battle. And if we didn’t get it here, it’s because Abrams and the rest were sticking closely to their list.

But this kind of respectful homage is utterly alien to the spirit of the original movies themselves, which were eager to show us things that we had never imagined. The opening scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, immediately expand the possibilities of that universe: not only does the ice planet give us a gloriously different backdrop, but the battle with the Imperial Walkers feels like a deliberate inversion of the dogfights that ended the first movie. The entire film, in fact, plays like a deliciously inverted list: it takes the things that audiences loved about Star Wars and then turns them all by a hundred and eighty degrees. The Force Awakens lacks that kind of basic invention, as much I liked so much of it. (Among other things, it makes it unnecessary to watch the prequels ever again. If Disney follows through with its plans of releasing a movie of comparable quality every year, Episode I, II, and III will start to take on the status of The Sting II or Grease 2: we’ll have trouble remembering that they even exist.) It’s possible that, like the first season of Fargo, the new movie’s energies were devoted mostly to establishing its bona fides, and that the next batch of sequels will be more willing to go into unexpected directions. Still, the fact remains that while Abrams and Kasdan made a great list, they failed to add anything new to it—which raises the troubling implication that the galaxy of Star Wars, after six films, isn’t as vast or rich with potential as we always thought it was. I hope that isn’t the case. But now that Abrams and his collaborators have gotten that list out of their system, the next thing they need to do is throw it into the nearest trash compactor.

The Force Majority

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Daisey Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Earlier this morning, when the embargo on reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was finally lifted, it was as if millions of critics suddenly cried out and were silenced by fans shouting: “No spoilers! No spoilers!” I haven’t seen the movie, of course, but I’ve been cautiously skimming the dozens of reviews that appeared a few hours ago, and most are positive and encouraging. If there’s one common caveat, it’s that the new movie is, if anything, a little too reverent toward its predecessors: Andrew O’Hehir of Salon calls it “an adoring copy.” Which, you might think, is only to be expected: loving regard for the source material is one thing, among so much else, that the prequels sorely lacked, and the best way to recover what was lost might well be to take it out of the hands of the man who invented it in the first place and entrust it to an outsider. The new movie certainly seems eager to give people what they want. And this might all seem too obvious to even state out loud—except for the fact that its release also coincides with the trailer for Star Trek Beyond, which is largely the handiwork of the very same man, and which is anything but respectful toward what inspired it. In fact, it’s anxious to look like anything except for Star Trek, and while it’s too soon to pass judgment on either movie, it doesn’t seem premature to talk about their intentions. And the fact that J.J. Abrams has taken such different approaches with our two most iconic science fiction franchises raises fascinating questions about the position that each one holds in our culture.

I don’t intend to get into the whole Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate here. (It’s enough to say, perhaps, that I’m temperamentally more inclined toward Star Trek, but I like both about equally, and each strikes me as having one indisputable masterpiece—in both cases, the first sequel—surrounded by a lot that is uneven, dated, or disposable.) But the fact that their modern incarnations happen to depend largely on the personality and decisions of a single man sheds new light on an old subject. Elsewhere, I’ve written of Abrams: “With four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality.” And I have reasons for hoping that The Force Awakens will break that pattern. But if it does, it’s because Star Wars speaks to Abrams himself in a way that Star Trek never did. He’s always been candid about his efforts to turn the latter franchise into something more like the former, as if it were a problem that had to be fixed. If Star Trek Into Darkness inspired a backlash great enough to cast the considerable merits of the first of the rebooted movies into question, it’s because by repurposing The Wrath of Khan so blatantly, it emphasized how willing Abrams has been to pillage the franchise for material while remaining indifferent to what made it special. But none of this would be interesting if Abrams himself weren’t a kind of test case for viewers everywhere, a majority of whom, it’s fair to say, would rather spend two hours of their time in the Star Wars universe.

Star Trek Into Darkness

The real question is why. You could start by defining the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars as a tale of two Campbells. The first, John W. Campbell, was the most important editor science fiction ever had, and in his three decades at the helm of Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog, he perfected a kind of plot that was essentially about solving problems through logic and ingenuity. The second, Joseph Campbell, was a Jungian scholar whose conception of the hero’s journey was based more on suffering, rebirth, and transcendence, and if the hero triumphs in the end, it’s mostly as a reward for what he endures. Star Trek—which raided many of John W. Campbell’s core writers for scripts, outlines, and spinoff books—took its cues from the former, Star Wars from the latter. And while each approach has its merits, there’s a reason why one has remained the province of a close community of fans, while the other has expanded to fill all of Hollywood. One is basically a writer’s series; the other belongs to the producers, including George Lucas himself, who recognized early on that the real power didn’t lie in the director’s chair. Star Wars is less about any particular set of ideas than about a certain tone or feeling that has rightly thrilled a generation of viewers. What’s funny, though, is how rarely it gets at the sense of transcendence that Joseph Campbell evoked, and if it ever does, it’s thanks mostly to John Williams. At their best, these are fun, thrilling movies, and it’s precisely because they take the glories of outer space for granted in a way the original Star Trek never did, perhaps because it spent more time thinking about space as something more than a backdrop for chases and narrow escapes.

And this isn’t a bug in the Star Wars franchise, but a feature. After the premiere of The Force Awakens, Patton Oswalt tweeted that it “has the best final shot of any Star Wars film,” which only reminds us of how lame the final shots of those earlier movies really are: half are basically just wide shots of a party or celebration. When we contrast them with the last five minutes of Wrath of Khan, which are among the most spine-tingling I’ve ever seen, it shows how strangely cramped Star Wars can seem by comparison. Pauline Kael noted that there’s only one moment of organic beauty in A New Hope—the double sunset on Tatooine—and later complained of the lack of satisfying climaxes in Return of the Jedi: “When Leia finally frees Han Solo from his living death as sculpture, the scene has almost no emotional weight. It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.” But this isn’t necessarily a flaw. There’s a place for what Kael called the “bam bam pow” of the Lucas approach, once we embrace its limits. If The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the original trilogy, it’s for the same reasons that some viewers were disappointed by it on its first release: it’s nothing but a second act. Star Wars has always been better at setting up situations than at paying them off. These days, that’s a strength. Abrams is notoriously more interested in creating mysteries than in resolving them, and it makes him a great fit for Star Wars, which, like most modern franchises, doesn’t have much of a stake in narrative resolution. Disney plans to release a new Star Wars movie every year for the rest of time, and if its approach to the Marvel universe is any indication, it’s the project for which Abrams was born—a franchise without any annoying third acts. But as much as I wish him well here, I hope he remembers that Star Trek deserves to go beyond it.

“A kind of symbolic shorthand…”

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"A kind of symbolic shorthand..."

Note: This post is the thirty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 36. You can read the previous installments here.

When we remember a story after the fact, our minds have a way of producing juxtapositions and connections that weren’t there before. Most fans, for instance, are aware that Kirk and Khan are never in the same place at the same time in Star Trek II, and their only real face-to-face confrontation, courtesy of a viewscreen, consists of a single scene. Still, they’re indelibly associated in our imaginations, certainly more so than the modern incarnations of the same two characters who shared so much screen time in a far less memorable movie. Similarly, in the movie version of L.A. Confidential, Jack Vincennes says just one line to Bud White—”White, you better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody”—and Bud doesn’t even bother responding. Yet we rightly think of Vincennes and White as two points in the movie’s central triangle, even if they interact largely through the contrasting shapes that they assume in our heads. As I wrote in a post on Legolas and Frodo, who also interact only once over the course of three Lord of the Rings movies: “We think of a novel or movie as a linear work of art that moves from one event to the next, but when we remember the books or films we love the most, even those that follow a strict line of action, we have a way of seeing everything simultaneously, with each piece commenting on every other.” When the book is closed and put back on the shelf, all the pages overlap, and links appear between characters that aren’t really there when the story is experienced as a sequence.

You could also make the case that separating characters can paradoxically result in a closer relationship than if they were physically together. When two characters share a scene, they can’t help but be themselves; when they’re further apart, each one begins to seem like a commentary on the other. Closeness tends to emphasize dissimilarity, while distance stresses the qualities they share. Some movies do this deliberately—like Heat, which keeps Pacino and De Niro separated and invites us to draw the parallels—while others do it by accident. (In L.A. Confidential, it seems to have been a little of both: Vincennes and White simply wouldn’t have much to talk about, and trying to force them into a conversation would have subtly diminished both men.) Movies and books benefit from the way we’ve been taught to read them, in which we assume that two lines of action will eventually converge. It’s a narrative technique as old as the Odyssey, and it can be used to create anticipation and lend structure to the story even if it never quite pays off. The first season of Fargo devoted a lot of time to foreshadowing a confrontation between two characters, played by Allison Tolman and Billy Bob Thornton, that it ultimately didn’t feel like providing. This worked well enough as a strategy to unite a lot of disconnected action, but the second season, which has consisted of a series of immensely entertaining collisions between disparate characters, reminds us of how satisfying this kind of convergence can be if it’s allowed to play out for real.

"I'm not responsible for what you've heard..."

And one of the unsung arts of storytelling lies in drawing out that distance as much as possible without losing the connection. One of the basic rules of visual design is that two elements in a composition, like two dots on a canvas, create a tension in the space between them that didn’t exist before. Elsewhere, I’ve written:

Two dots imply a line…No matter how far apart on the page the dots are placed, as long as they’re within the viewer’s visual field, they’re perceived in relation to one another, as well as to such larger elements as the edge of the paper. An impression of order or disorder—or stillness or dynamism—can be created by how close together they are, whether or not the implicit line runs parallel to the edges, or whether one dot is larger than the other. What was absolute becomes relative, and that shift carries our first big hint of design, or even story…In fiction, any kind of pairing or juxtaposition, whether it’s of two words, images, characters, or scenes, implies a logical relation, like a dream where two disconnected symbols occur together. We naturally look for affinity or causality, and for every line, we see a vector.

The tricky part is the placement. Put your dots too far apart, and they no longer seem related; too close together, and we tend to see them as a single unit. Much the same goes for characters, and it’s no accident that many of the fictional pairings we remember so vividly—like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, or Holmes and Moriarty—consist of two figures who spend most of their time apart, which only adds to the intensity when they meet at last.

I thought about this constantly when I was cracking the plot for Eternal Empire, in which Wolfe mostly keeps her distance from Maddy and Ilya, the two other points in the narrative triangle. Maddy and Ilya eventually converge in a satisfying way, but Wolfe isn’t brought into their story until the very end, and even then, their interactions are minimal. In the case of Maddy, they consist of a voice message and a long conversation in the last chapter of the book; with Ilya, Wolfe has little more than a charged exchange of glances. Yet I think that Wolfe still feels integrated into their stories, and if she does, it was because I devoted a fair amount of energy to maintaining that connection where I could. Wolfe spends a lot of time thinking about Maddy and following her movements, and even more so with Ilya—who also gets to send her a message in return. In Chapter 36, I introduce the concept of the “throw,” a symbolic shorthand used by thieves to send messages. An apple cut in half means that it’s time to divide the loot; a piece of bread wrapped in cloth means that the police are closing in. And when Wolfe finds a knot tied in a dishtowel at the crime scene in Hackney Wick, she realizes that Ilya is saying: I’m not responsible for what you’ve heard. As a narrative device that allows them to communicate under the eyes of Ilya’s enemies, it works nicely. But I also love the idea of a visual symbol that allows two people to speak over a distance, which is exactly what happens in many novels, if not always so explicitly. As Nabokov puts it so beautifully in his notes to Eugene Onegin, which I read while plotting out this trilogy: “There is a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another…”

“And the shackles came open in his hands…”

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"The process was fairly straightforward..."

Note: This post is the nineteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 20. You can read the previous installments here.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most expertly crafted adaptations of a novel ever made, with a fine script by Ted Tally, but there’s one plot point that few, if any, viewers could be expected to follow the first time around. It involves the handcuff key that Hannibal Lecter uses to escape from prison in Memphis. In the novel, this detail is hammered home, with an interior monologue from Lecter that all but winks at the reader (“Handcuffs and leg irons open with a handcuff key. Like mine.”) and an entire page about how he constructed it from a stolen ballpoint pen. The movie condenses it to four quick moments, easy to miss if you blink:

  1. When Chilton visits Lecter in his cell in Baltimore, he’s holding the pen. When he leaves it behind, the camera pushes in on it, followed by a cut to Lecter’s expressionless face.
  2. Much later, at the handoff at the airport in Memphis, Chilton can’t find his pen to sign the paperwork, and we push in again on Lecter’s eyes.
  3. In his Memphis holding cell, Lecter removes a short metal tube from inside his mouth. If we’re exceptionally observant, we’ll recognize it as a piece of the pen.
  4. Finally, we see him hide the tube between his fingers just before he’s handcuffed by Boyle and Pembry.

And that’s it. Another movie might have clarified the sequence by having the key discovered and identified in Lecter’s cell after he escapes—which, in fact, is what happens in the novel. Or it might have avoided any confusion by having Lecter free himself in some other way. The whole point of the sequence, after all, is that the guards aren’t as cautious as the staff at the asylum, and it would have been easy to show them doing something especially careless. Really, though, it works best as it is. Boyle and Pembry aren’t stupid; they just don’t fully appreciate the danger. By having the scene turn on Lecter’s considerable ingenuity, even if the details are hard to follow, the movie builds him up as an even more formidable figure than before. Lecter doesn’t benefit from being lucky: he’s just incredibly patient, ready to take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself after years in prison, and capable of manipulating the situation to his own advantage. There’s even a sense in which forcing us to put the pieces together after the fact makes the scene even more effective. In the moment, we may not be entirely sure how Lecter got out of his cuffs, but reconstructing the logic puts us briefly in his place, and we’re left with the distinct impression that nobody else alive could have pulled this off.

"And the shackles came open in his hands..."

I wound up confronting a similar set of problems in Ilya Severin’s story, and they also turned, curiously, on an escape from shackles. Early in City of Exiles, we’re introduced to a minor character named Roman Brodsky, a fixer and former entry man from whom Ilya extracts some useful information. He also liberates a set of lock picks from Brodsky’s apartment. We don’t see these picks again until the very last page of the novel, when we realize that Ilya has smuggled them into prison in the binding of one of his books. As with Lecter’s key, the details of how they got there are somewhat opaque: a reader who bothers to flip backward in the novel will find a few hints along the way, but they’re so oblique as to be practically nonexistent. And when I introduced them again at the end, I didn’t have any particular purpose in mind. I only knew that I wanted the novel to close on a note of potential action for Ilya, while pointing toward his escape in the next book. I didn’t know what form it would take, but I assumed that a set of lock picks would be useful no matter what. (I know I’ve used this example before, but I always think of the moment at the end of Wrath of Khan when Spock lays his hand against McCoy’s unconscious face and says: “Remember.” At the time, the producers didn’t know what it meant, but they figured it would come in handy in the sequel.)

As it turns out, I was half right. Eternal Empire includes an elaborate prison break, starting in Chapter 20, as Ilya and Vasylenko are loaded into a van for a hearing in London. As soon as Ilya is shackled in his private cubicle, out of sight of the guards, he removes the picks from where they’ve been taped between his shoulders and gets to work on his leg irons. The funny thing is that when you look at his actions in the context of the overall scene, they aren’t strictly necessary. Like any good escape plan in fiction, there are a lot of components, including some help from the outside: within a handful of pages, the van is going to be hijacked by Vasylenko’s men. I make a point of noting that the guards don’t carry keys for the shackles—the prisoners are supposed to be freed by a different security team at the courthouse—but there’s no reason why one of their accomplices couldn’t have brought his own lockpicking kit along. Having Ilya carry the picks himself only introduces an extra set of risks. Yet it made narrative sense to do it this way, even if it wasn’t entirely logical. It allowed me to pay off the reveal at the end of the previous novel, which was already in print and couldn’t be ignored. And it allowed Ilya to play a more active role in his escape, rather than just sitting tight until someone came to release him. Like Lecter, Ilya can’t just be lucky; he also has to be smart. And if he’s going to escape from his chains, he has to free himself with his own hands…

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2015 at 8:54 am

The list of a lifetime

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I miss Roger Ebert for a lot of reasons, but I always loved how fully he occupied the role of the celebrity critic while expanding it into something more. “Two thumbs up” has become a way of dismissing an entire category of film criticism, and Ebert was as responsible for its rise as anyone else, although he can hardly be blamed for his imitators. Yet he wouldn’t have been nearly as good at it—and he was damned good, especially when paired with Gene Siskel—if it hadn’t been built on a foundation of shrewdness, taste, and common sense that came through in every print review he wrote. He knew that a rating system was necessary, if only to give shape to his discussions with Gene, but he was also aware of its limitations. (For proof, you need only turn to his classic review of the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, which transforms, unexpectedly, into an extended essay on the absurdity of reconciling a thoughtful approach to criticism with “that vertical thumb.”) Read any critic for any length of time, whether it’s Pauline Kael or David Thomson or James Wood, and you start to see the whole business of ranking works of art, whether with thumbs or with words, as both utterly important and inherently ridiculous. Ebert understood this profoundly.

The same was true of the other major tool of the mainstream critic: the list. Making lists of the best or worst movies, like handing out awards, turns an art form into a horse race, but it’s also a necessary evil. A critic wants to be a valued guide, but more often, he ends up serving as a signpost, pointing up the road toward an interesting vista while hoping that we’ll take in other sights along the way. Lists are the most useful pointers we have, especially for viewers who are encountering the full variety of movies for the first time, and they’ve played an enormous role in my own life. And when you read Ebert’s essay on preparing his final list for the Sight & Sound poll, you sense both the melancholy nature of the task and his awareness of the power it holds. Ebert knows that adding a movie to his list naturally draws attention to it, and he pointedly includes a single “propaganda” title—here it’s Malick’s Tree of Life—to encourage viewers to seek it out. Since every addition requires a removal, he clarifies his feelings on this as well:

Once any film has ever appeared on my [Sight & Sound] list, I consider it canonized. Notorious or Gates of Heaven, for example, are still two of the ten best films of all time, no matter what a subsequent list says.

In short, he approaches the list as a game, but a serious one, and he knows that pointing one viewer toward Aguirre or The General makes all of it worthwhile.

Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

I thought of his example repeatedly when I revised my list of my ten favorite movies. Four years had gone by since my last series of posts on the subject, and the passage of time had brought a bit of reshuffling and a pair of replacements: L.A. Confidential and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had given way to Vertigo and Inception. And while it’s probably a mistake to view it as a zero-sum game, it’s hard not to see these films as commenting on one another. L.A. Confidential remains, as I said long ago, my favorite of all recent Hollywood movies, but it’s a film that invests its genre with greater fluency and complexity without challenging the rules on a deeper level, while Vertigo takes the basic outline of a sleek romantic thriller and blows it to smithereens. As much as I love them both, there’s no question in my mind as to which one achieves more. The contest between Inception and Wrath of Khan is harder to judge, and I’m not sure that the latter isn’t ultimately richer and more rewarding. But I wanted to write about Inception ever so slightly more, and after this weekend’s handwringing over the future of original ideas in movies, I have a hunch that its example is going to look even more precious with time. Inception hardly needs my help to draw attention to it, but to the extent that I had a propaganda choice this time around, it was this one.

Otherwise, my method in ranking these films was a simple one. I asked myself which movie I’d save first—solely for my own pleasure—if the last movie warehouse in the world were on fire. The answer was The Red Shoes. Next would be Blue Velvet, then Chungking Express, and so on down the line. Looking at the final roster, I don’t think I’d make any changes. Like Ebert, who kept La Dolce Vita on his list because of how it reflected the arc of his own life, I’m aware that much of the result is a veiled autobiography: Blue Velvet, in particular, galvanized me as a teenager as few other movies have, and part of the reason I rank it so highly is to acknowledge that specific debt. Other films are here largely because of the personal associations they evoke. Yet any movie that encapsulates an entire period in my life, out of all the films I was watching then, has to be extraordinary by definition: it isn’t just a matter of timing, at least not if it lasts. (You could even say that a great movie, like Vertigo, is one that convinces many different viewers that it’s secretly about them.) Ebert knew that there was no contradiction in embracing The Tree of Life as both the largest cosmic statement since 2001 and an agonizingly specific evocation of his own childhood. Any list, like any critic, lives in two worlds, and each half gains meaning from the other. And when I think of my own list and the choices it made, I can only quote Ebert one last time: “To add a title, I must remove one. Which film can I do without? Not a single one.”

How the Vulcan got his ears

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Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

When the writer and director Nicholas Meyer was first approached about the possibility of working on the sequel to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, his initial response was: “Star Trek? Is that the one with the guy with the pointy ears?” Meyer, who tells this story in his engaging memoir The View from the Bridge, went on to cleverly stage the opening scene of Wrath of Khan—which is probably the one movie, aside from Vertigo, that I’ve discussed more often on this blog than any other—so that those ears are literally the first thing we see, in a shot of a viewscreen taken from over Spock’s shoulder. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken at length about how Meyer’s detachment from the source material resulted in by far the best movie in the franchise, and one of the most entertaining movies I’ve ever seen: because he wasn’t beholden to the original series, he was free to stock it with things he liked, from the Horatio Hornblower novels to A Tale of Two Cities. But it’s revealing that he latched onto those ears first. As the reaction to Leonard Nimoy’s death last week amply proved, Spock was the keystone and entry point to that entire universe, and our love for him and what he represented had as much to do with his ears as with what was going on in the brain between them.

These days, Spock’s ears are so iconic that it can be hard to recognize how odd they once seemed. Spock was one of the few elements to survive from the original series pilot “The Cage,” and even at the time, the network was a little perturbed: it raised concerns over his allegedly satanic appearance, which executives feared “would scare the shit out of every kid in America.” (They would have cared even less for Gene Roddenberry’s earliest conceptions, in which Spock was described as having “a slightly reddish complexion.”) Accordingly, the first round of publicity photos for the show were airbrushed to give him normal ears and eyebrows. In any event, of course, Spock didn’t scare kids, or ordinary viewers—he fascinated them. And those ears were a large part of his appeal. As Meyer intuitively understood, they were a fantastic piece of narrative shorthand, a signal to anyone flipping through channels that something interesting was happening onscreen. Spock’s ears said as much about the show’s world and intentions as Kirk’s opening voiceover, and they did so without a word of dialogue.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet they wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if they hadn’t served as the visual introduction to a character who revealed greater depths the moment he began to speak. Spock was ostensibly a creature of pure logic, but he was much more, as Roger Ebert noted in his original review of Wrath of Khan:

The peculiar thing about Spock is that, being half human and half Vulcan and therefore possessing about half the usual quota of human emotions, he consistently, if dispassionately, behaves as if he possessed very heroic human emotions indeed. He makes a choice in Star Trek II that would be made only by a hero, a fool, or a Vulcan.

And while Robert Anton Wilson once claimed, with a straight face, that Spock was an archetypal reincarnation of the Aztec god Mescalito, whose pointed ears also appear on Peter Pan and the Irish leprechaun, his truest predecessor is as close as Victorian London. Meyer—whose breakthrough as a novelist was The Seven Per-Cent Solution—was the first to explicitly make the connection between Spock and Sherlock Holmes, whom Spock obliquely calls “an ancestor of mine” in The Undiscovered Country. Both were perfect reasoning machines, but they used logic to amplify, rather than undercut, their underlying qualities of humanity. “A great heart,” as Watson says, “as well as…a great brain.”

There’s a lesson here for storytellers of all kinds, and like most such examples, it’s easy to explain and all but impossible to replicate. Spock began as a visual conceit that could be grasped at once, deepened over time into a character whose basic qualities were immediately comprehensible and intriguing, and then became much more, aided in no small part by a magnificent performance by Nimoy. The autism advocate Temple Grandin has spoken of how much of herself she saw in Spock, a logical being trying to make his way in a world of more emotional creatures, and there’s no question that many Star Trek fans felt the same way. Spock, at least, carried his difference openly, and those who wear Starfleet pins on their lapels or don pointed ears at conventions are quietly allying themselves with that sense of otherness—which turns, paradoxically, into a sense of identity. “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human,” Kirk says at the end of Wrath of Khan, and what feels like a contradiction gets at something more profound. Humanity, whether in reality or in fiction, is something we have to earn with every choice we make. Spock’s journey as a character was so compelling that it arguably saved Star Trek three times over, and neither the franchise or science fiction as we know it would be the same if we hadn’t heard the story through his ears.

“Before I knew thy face or name…”

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"Rogozin turned to face her..."

Note: This post is the seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 6. You can read the previous installments here.

If I had to sum up the creative process in just one phrase, it would be as the conversion of the arbitrary into the inevitable. A finished work of art presents itself to us as a coherent set of symbols, but the process behind it is always somewhat random and contingent. A single decision that seemed like an intuitively good idea at the time can have unpredictable repercussions down the line, and each link in that chain represents just one out of many diverging possibilities. Some alternatives are clearly better than others, but it’s impossible to say which one is the best, and even an artist’s most logical choices are predicated on moments that emerged earlier out of impulse and chance. Revising the result so that it seems all of a piece may feel like trickery, but it’s really another instance of how art strains to imitate life. A lifetime is made up of countless incidents that could have gone any number of ways, and it’s often the smallest things—a smile, a harsh or kind word, a book or article read at the right time—that nudge us along the path we end up taking. And if it all seems obvious in retrospect, it’s only because we’ve engaged in a form of editing and unconscious revision of our own.

In fiction, both halves of the process—the arbitrary and the inevitable—are equally essential. In order to write a story that seems inevitable in itself, we first need to generate a sufficient amount of arbitrary material, like the chaos that precedes the biblical act of creation. Sometimes that search for randomness can be conscious and systematic; more often, it’s merely a result of the way authors think, gleaning bits and pieces of action, imagery, and information that might be useful later. Attaining a critical mass of raw data, which can consist equally of research, imagination, and personal experience, is an indispensable initial step, for the architects as much as the gardeners. A few decent hunches, or details that might as well have been drawn out of a hat, provide the initial set of constraints required to guide the rest. Later, we can be more logical about the details we introduce to fill in the gaps, and logic takes over entirely at certain stages of writing and revision, but those elements grow like a crystal around the seed that chance provides. And this can apply as much to the largest aspects of a story, like plot and character, as to the tiny touches a writer puts in because it felt right at the time.

"Before I knew thy face or name..."

Take the character of Vitaly Rogozin in Eternal Empire. He’s only onstage for a handful of chapters, and he serves largely as a plot point to advance the overall story, but as supporting figures go in these books, he’s a pretty good one. His core conception—a famous dissident and exile who turns out to have been working for Russian intelligence all along—feels like the kind of thing a novel like this would have in mind from the beginning. Yet nearly everything I know about him was decided either on a whim or as a consequence of prior choices I’d made without much thought. Rogozin first appears in City of Exiles as the handler Karvonen meets at the opening of the novel, and the role he plays there is purely functional. He doesn’t even have a name, and in the earliest drafts, he didn’t have much in the way of distinguishing characteristics either. When I belatedly realized that this character, whoever the hell he was, would play a major role in any sequel, I went back and introduced a few details that were sufficiently specific to pay off in the next book but vague enough to leave me some wriggle room. (Whenever I add escape hatches like this, I always think of the moment at the end of Wrath of Khan when Spock touches McCoy’s head and says “Remember.” At the time, nobody involved knew what it meant, but they were shrewd enough to know it would come in handy in Star Trek III.)

Ultimately, I say only that Karvonen’s handler is missing two fingers on his left hand. Why? I don’t know. It seemed memorable; it was concise enough to be tossed off in a sentence of description; and it made it clear that the unnamed handler wasn’t someone else we were going to meet later—which may have been the most important consideration. When it came to fleshing out the character for Eternal Empire, I hit quickly on the idea of making him a literary figure like Solzhenitsyn, although his appearance is closer to Nabokov’s, because it struck me as a choice that would hold my own interest. His missing fingers turned into a piece of backstory: as a reluctant recruit in the Soviet army, he blew them off himself rather than take part in the invasion of Prague. (This feels a lot like an idea I lifted from somewhere else, although I can’t for the life of me remember from where.) And the mistake that betrayed him, as revealed in Chapter 6, was like a filament strung between two narrative necessities. Wolfe’s first clue to his identity was a quote from the poet John Donne in one of the handler’s emails. Donne was another detail I found lying around in City of Exiles, where it was introduced for unrelated thematic reasons, but it also looks ahead to later in Eternal Empire, when the same poem exposes the true motivations of another major character. If it works, it should feel like something I had in mind from the start. Which is just another form of deception…

Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2015 at 9:41 am

“What are you offering?”

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"What are you offering?"

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering the epilogue. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve noted before, writing a series of novels is a little like producing a television series: the published result, as Emily Nussbaum says, is the rough draft masquerading as the final product. You want a clear narrative arc that spans multiple installments, but you also don’t want to plan too far in advance, which can lead to boredom and inflexibility. With a television show, you’re juggling multiple factors that are outside any one showrunner’s control: budgets, the availability of cast members, the responses of the audience, the perpetual threat of cancellation. For the most part, a novelist is insulated from such concerns, but you’re also trying to manage your own engagement with the material. A writer who has lost the capacity to surprise himself is unlikely to surprise the reader, which means that any extended project has to strike a balance between the knowns and the unknowns. That’s challenging enough for a single book, but over the course of a series, it feels like a real high-wire act, as the story continues to evolve in unexpected ways while always maintaining that illusion of continuity.

One possible solution, which you see in works in every medium, is to incorporate elements at an early stage that could pay off in a number of ways, depending on the shape the larger narrative ends up taking. My favorite example is from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Leonard Nimoy wanted Spock to die, and his death—unlike its hollow pastiche in Star Trek Into Darkness—was meant to be a permanent one. Fortunately, writer and director Nicholas Meyer was shrewd enough to build in an escape hatch, especially once he noticed that Nimoy seemed to be having a pretty good time on the set. It consisted of a single insert shot of Spock laying his hand on the side of McCoy’s unconscious face, with the enigmatic word: “Remember.” As Meyer explains on his commentary track, at the time, he didn’t know what the moment meant, but he figured that it was ambiguous enough to support whatever interpretation they might need to give it later on. And whether or not you find the resolution satisfying in The Search for Spock, you’ve got to admit that it was a clever way out.

"It was a lock-picking kit..."

The more you’re aware of the serendipitous way in which extended narratives unfold, the more often you notice such touches. Breaking Bad, for instance, feels incredibly cohesive, but it was often written on the fly: big elements of foreshadowing—like the stuffed animal floating in the swimming pool, the tube of ricin concealed behind the electrical outlet, or the huge gun that Walter buys at the beginning of the last season—were introduced before the writers knew how they would pay off. Like Spock’s “Remember,” though, they’re all pieces that could fit a range of potential developments, and when their true meaning is finally revealed, it feels inevitable. (Looking at the list of discarded endings that Vince Gilligan shared with Entertainment Weekly is a reminder of how many different ways the story could have gone.) You see the same process at work even in the composition of a single novel: a writer will sometimes introduce a detail on a hunch that it will play a role later on. But the greater challenge of series fiction, or television, is that it’s impossible to go back and revise the draft to bring everything into line.

City of Exiles is a good case in point. In the epilogue, I wanted to set up the events of the next installment without locking myself down to any one storyline, in case my sense of the narrative evolved; at the time I was writing it, I didn’t really know what Eternal Empire would be about. (In fact, I wasn’t even sure there would be a third installment, although the fact that I left a few big storylines unresolved indicates that I at least had some hopes in that direction.) What I needed, then, were a few pieces of vague information that could function in some way in a sequel. Somewhat to my surprise, this included the return of a supporting character, the lawyer Owen Dancy, whom I’d originally intended to appear just once: it occurred to me later on that it might be useful to let him hang around. When he comes to visit Ilya in prison, I didn’t know what that might mean, but it seemed like a development worth exploring. The same is true of the lock-picking tools that Ilya examines on the very last page, which I knew would come in handy. As I said yesterday, a draft can feel like a message—or an inheritance—from the past to the future. And you try to leave as much useful material as possible for the next version of you who comes along…

“Karvonen kept an eye on them…”

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"Karvonen kept an eye on them..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 34. You can read the earlier installments here

“You’ve got to stick to your principles,” as Ray Fiennes says at the end of In Bruges, and that’s as true of characters as of authors. I’ve spoken endlessly here about the importance of constraints, which serve as an aid to creativity by focusing the writer’s thoughts within a restricted range, and this applies equally to the actions of the players within the story. We all have codes, stated or unstated, by which we live our lives, and our decisions have meaning only in the way that they navigate between the needs of the moment and the larger values in which we believe. Without that tension, life would be less interesting, and so would fiction. Characters emerge most fully when they’re given something to react against, and while the external conflicts of the plot provide a convenient source of pressure, it can be even more powerful when the protagonist’s dilemma emerges from within. And at best, the two kinds of pressure fuse into one: events in the world push against the internal struggle, and it can be hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins.

This is particularly true, perhaps counterintuitively, of villains. With heroes, we can generally make a few assumptions about their behavior if they’re going to remain sympathetic: a hero never kills without cause, and if he breaks the law or violates what we think of as a reasonable standard of morality, he usually has a good excuse. Villains, in theory, aren’t nearly so bounded—they can do whatever they like, provided that they remain fun to watch. In practice, though, an antagonist who is a pure psychopath, as in so many dreary horror movies or thrillers, rarely holds our attention for long. As countless writers have observed, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and it’s less compelling to invent a character who wakes up in the morning deciding what evil acts to perform than to create someone who does terrible things for what he sees as a valid reason. This doesn’t prevent us from writing big, operatic villains: think of Khan, whose every action is motivated by what he thinks is justifiable revenge, or Hannibal Lecter, who prefers when possible to eat only the rude.

"The man crumpled to the floor..."

And a villain’s fate is correspondingly more interesting if it emerges from where his code collides with the events of the narrative. Khan, again, is a great example: he’s got superhuman intellect and strength, but ultimately, his drive for vengeance leads him to make a number of crucial tactical errors. In City of Exiles, Lasse Karvonen—and it’s interesting to note how the consonants K and N recur in these villainous characters’ names, perhaps as a nod to Cain—is as close to a pure force of evil as any I’ve written, but he, too, has values of his own. Karvonen’s case is an unusual one because of his background: he’s Finnish, but he’s working for Russia, his country’s historical enemy, because he sees it as a larger stage for his talents. That contradiction fuels many of his decisions throughout the novel, and his actions can best be understood as an attempt to prove that he can play this ruthless game more capably than a Russian ever could. At the heart of it all, however, is a fundamental assumption. He’ll do whatever it takes to keep his employers happy, but he draws the line at hurting another Finn.

Inevitably, he’ll be asked to break this rule, and the choice he makes when the time comes will turn out to determine his fate. For that moment to have any meaning, though, his code needs to be clearly established. I allude to it first in Chapter 26, perhaps a little too neatly—”He had never spilled a drop of Finnish blood, and he never would”—but it’s Chapter 34 that locks it into the reader’s memory. It’s a self-contained scene with little connection to the rest of the story, and I arrived at it mostly just to give Karvonen something to do at this stage in his journey. (He’s on a cruise ferry bound from Stockholm to Helsinki, and many of the details of the chapter come from my research on these cruises, which offer clubs, shopping, and other entertainment options for passengers.) When Karvonen sees a Russian man abusing his Finnish girlfriend, he takes quick, effective revenge, and it’s a satisfying moment mostly because it does triple duty. It’s perfectly in character for Karvonen; it reminds us of the tensions beneath his unruffled surface; and it sets us up for the turning point, more than a hundred pages later, when his principles will be tested for real…

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2014 at 9:48 am

The rediscovered country

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your pop culture dealmaker, the thing that someone can profess to enjoy and gain your total respect, no matter what?”

These days, with a baby in the house, my moviegoing habits have become much less adventurous, but in my prime, I saw just about everything. Back in New York, I averaged a couple of movies a week, including first runs, indie films, and revivals at the Film Forum or other independent theaters. Some of my favorite memories revolve around such special programs: I ducked out of work on at least one occasion to catch a showing at the retrospective at the Walter Reade of the works of Michael Powell—which remains the high point of my moviegoing life—and I’d sometimes sit through three or four screenings a day, knowing I might never get another chance to see these movies on the big screen, or at all. Usually, attendance was sparse, especially for deep cuts like Oh, Rosalinda! and Ill Met by Moonlight, and more than once, I’d look around at the other audience members and quietly ask myself, “Who are these people?” Film lovers, sure, but of a particularly curious type, often on the older side, with an obsessive interest in movies that weren’t even fashionably nerdy. (I still remember some of the conversations I overheard in the ticket line: “Well, most people assume that The Edge of the World was a quota quickie, but in fact…”)

And I’d like to think that if I ever stopped to have a conversation with one of my fellow attendees, we’d have become friends. To my regret, I never put this to the test, and it’s likely that the outcome might have been a little disappointing—a momentary meeting of minds between a couple of weirdos. Still, the promise of finding someone with whom you can talk about your secret pop cultural passions is enticing. Online, of course, it’s possible to find active fan forums about just about anything, but that doesn’t compare to a mutual discovery made in the course of ordinary small talk, or the sense of embarking on a pilgrimage with other kindred souls. Sometimes, such connections lead to even more than you’d expect. A long time ago, I ended up seeing The Muppets Take Manhattan at a midnight screening at the Landmark Sunshine on East Houston Street, with a girl I’d just started to get to know well, and at drinks before the movie, we found ourselves talking at length about the devastating impact of the events of Return of the Jedi on the ecology of the forest moon of Endor. Two years later, I married her. And while I can’t say that conversation was the only reason, it certainly didn’t hurt.

The Muppets Take Manhattan

Really, though, when we’re drawn to others because of a common cultural interest, it’s often more out of a sense of shared biography, rooted in childhood or adolescence. For most of us, the odd corners of movies, music, or literature we’ve colonized arise from an accident of our life stories: maybe we watched Twin Peaks with our parents, or stumbled across Little, Big in the local library, or acquired a copy of The Queen is Dead at just the right time. Finding someone who cares about the same things implies a larger network of shared experience, a belated encounter with an existence that ran parallel to yours. When we look back at our friends from high school, or even college, we sometimes find that we don’t have much in common with them aside from the fact that we lived through the same four years of memories—which can be meaningful in itself. A quirk of timing provides us with a shared language, a vocabulary of references, and we feel a kinship that might not exist if we’d met later on. Pop culture provides a second, invisible alma mater, a school of life that we were all attending together without ever knowing it, and that sense of connection is all the stronger the further back in memory it goes.

But sometimes the truest connections come from neither the obscure nor the intensely personal, but from a dive into more familiar waters. If you confess that you have an irrational love of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for instance, it’s very likely that we’re going to be friends. This has nothing to do with sentimentality: I wasn’t a Star Trek fan growing up, and I didn’t see Khan until I was in my early twenties. For whatever reason, though, it quickly came to stand for much of what I love about the movies, as well as the act of storytelling itself, in part because of the circumstances under which it was made. But even if you don’t have any interest in such matters, and simply find yourself caught up by what Pauline Kael called the film’s “large, sappy, satisfying emotions,” it’s a good sign. I’m pretty sure that Wrath of Khan came up during the date with my future wife I mentioned above, and although she later confessed to me that she hadn’t seen it after all—she had confused it in her mind with her memories of the audio storybook—I forgave her. The following year, we found ourself back at Landmark Sunshine, at yet another midnight showing, bursting into applause with a roomful of strangers at “Khaaaan!” And it was surely the best of times.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2014 at 9:56 am

“And each man recognized the other for what he was…”

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"Ilya looked more closely at the man's face..."

Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 20. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Every novel is the product of countess internal tensions, an attempt by the author to balance all the competing considerations that need to be taken into account, and the result is necessarily a compromise. The legendary biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, in his classic book On Growth and Form, argued that the shape of an organism’s body was a kind of living force diagram, the product of all the pressures and stresses exerted on it constantly by gravity, and much the same is true of a story. Ideally, it would evolve organically from a single perfect premise, but in practice, you find that the different pieces push against one another in unexpected ways. Let’s say you’re writing a thriller with a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist. Even if these two characters are separated for long stretches of the story, it’s sensible to think that there will eventually come a time when they’re in direct confrontation. Not only is this good narrative practice, but it’s a useful way of deciding which story, out of the many possible alternatives, you want to tell. All else being equal, a story that leads inexorably to a collision between two opposing players—whether it’s a hero or a villain or a husband and a wife—is likely to generate a lot of interesting material along the way.

Occasionally, however, you find the story changing before your eyes, until the big, obvious climax that you had in mind becomes logistically impossible. Nothing should be simpler than arranging events to give these characters the cathartic encounter that they deserve, but the narrative often has plans of its own. A nice example occurs in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of my ten favorite movies of all time, as well as a fascinating case study in how a fine story can emerge from the least promising of circumstances. Khan is one of the great movie villains, Kirk is at his heroic best, and each man is fundamentally defined by how he relates to the other—a point that Star Trek Into Darkness, in which Khan barely seems aware of Kirk at all, manages to miss completely. It’s startling to realize, then, that in the original film, Khan and Kirk are never in the same place at the same time, and the sum of all their interactions, conducted over viewscreen and communicator, are the matter of a few minutes, although those moments are unforgettable. (In retrospect, watching Khan and Kirk tussle in “Space Seed” seems actively strange, especially because one of the two combatants is clearly Shatner’s stunt double.)

"And each man recognized the other for what he was..."

It’s easy to understand why the story keeps its hero and villain apart: the entire narrative is predicated on two parallel lines of action, with Kirk and Khan attempting to outmaneuver and outsmart each other at a distance. Structure, in short, trumped a conventional line of action, and yet the writing and acting are pitched at such a high level that we don’t miss it at all. In writing City of Exiles, I was faced with a similar dilemma. I had created a formidable new character, Lasse Karvonen, specifically to serve as an antagonist to Ilya; looking back at my original notes for the story, one of the first things I jotted down was that the novel would be a kind of duel of assassins, with these two men hunting one another across Europe. It sounded like a pretty good premise, and it still does. When the time came to break the story down, however, another factor unexpectedly intervened. I found that I was constructing more or less the same kind of plot that I had already written in The Icon Thief, with Ilya, on the run from the law, continually remaining one step ahead of his pursuers. I didn’t feel like covering that ground again, so I ultimately cut the Gordian knot—spoilers ahead—by having Ilya captured by the police at the end of Part I.

This decision ended up opening up the entire novel, as well as its sequel, and it was absolutely the right choice. However, it also involved a radical reconception of the story I’d envisioned. Now Karvonen would be opposed to Wolfe instead of Ilya, and unbelievably, given my initial intentions, Ilya and Karvonen barely exchange a word. They run into one another briefly in Chapter 15, although neither man knows who the other one is, and it’s only in Chapter 20 that they’re given anything like a good look at each other. Even here, the structure of the scene prevented me from making this interaction any more than an exchange of glances. In that instant, though, each man sees his counterpart for what he really is, and it’s possible that I even gave the moment more emphasis than was strictly plausible because I knew it was the only one I would ever get. That glance is all that remains of the story I had once intended to tell, and part of me still wonders how the plot would have unfolded if I had allowed Ilya to retain his freedom. In any case, Wolfe ended up being a perfectly capable opponent for Karvonen, and Ilya’s role, in which he’s forced to outthink his adversary from within a prison cell, is considerably more interesting than what I’d formerly planned. These two men will never meet again. But the parts they will play in each other’s lives are far from over…

Star Trek into detachment

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Star Trek Into Darkness

Note: Spoilers follow for Star Trek Into Darkness.

On Friday, my wife and I went to the movies for the first time in six months, which is the longest I’ve gone without seeing a film in theaters since I was old enough to be watching movies at all. There wasn’t much suspense about what we’d be seeing: ever since my daughter was born in December, I knew that the first movie I’d see on the big screen would be Star Trek Into Darkness. And on balance, I think I made the right choice, even if the film itself ends up feeling like much less than the sum of its parts. It’s a slick, enjoyable blockbuster that does everything it can to give the audience its money’s worth, but it’s also a little hollow, especially because it constantly asks us to compare it to a film that ranks among my ten favorite movies of all time while falling short in every measure. I knew going in that Benedict Cumberbatch was Khan, but I wasn’t prepared for how little the movie would understand his character’s true nature: Khan is a great villain to the extent that he’s obsessed with Kirk, and the duel between these two men ought to be intensely personal. As valiantly as Cumberbatch works in the role, turning him into a terrorist with a vendetta against all of Starfleet robs him of much of his appeal.

And this is a minor problem compared to a larger issue that has me slightly concerned about the future of the franchise: its lack of character. I’m not talking about the members of the crew—who are all nicely drawn, even if the script spends most of its time putting them through manufactured conflicts, and often feels as if it’s checking items off a list—but about the filmmakers themselves. After two movies, the first of which I enjoyed tremendously, I still don’t know how J.J. Abrams and his collaborators feel about Star Trek, except as a delivery system for cool moments and action scenes. Part of this is due to Abrams himself: with four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality. There’s a reason why his fondness for lens flares has become a punchline, because it’s the only recognizable stylistic element in all of his work, aside from a tendency to spin an air of mystery around nonexistent surprises. And this is fundamentally out of tune with the spirit of the series itself, which has always been at its best as reflection of the idiosyncratic, prickly individuals who created it.

Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I’m aware that it might seem a little strange for me to wish for more of a personal take on the material, since I’ve frequently drawn a sharp contrast between such doomed passion projects as John Carter and the sleek, impersonal machinery of a movie like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Detachment, I’ve often said, is the key to making good art, and I still believe this. What’s less obvious, and something I’m only starting to figure out now, is that detachment, paradoxically, is useful to the extent that it allows a personal statement to emerge. For evidence, we need only turn to the very film that the Abrams movies revisit so obsessively. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story behind Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite Hollywood legends: Nicholas Meyer, a novelist and screenwriter with limited prior interest in Star Trek, cobbled together a story from six earlier drafts over the course of one long weekend, and the result was a beautiful, ingenious script with real emotional resonance. (To compare the ending of Wrath of Khan with its homage in Into Darkness is to be reminded of the difference between earned feeling and efficient, facile manipulation.)

And the really strange thing about Meyer’s detachment is that it resulted in a movie that was profoundly, even eccentrically personal. Meyer didn’t care much about Star Trek, so he filled the movie with a list of things he liked: the nautical mood and motifs, the sense of the Enterprise as Horatio Hornblower in space, the references to Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities. In Meyer’s version of Starfleet, characters freely quote Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, and they actually read physical books, which is perfectly in tune with the original series and its successors, which gain much of their charm from how they refract and reinterpret elements of our own culture. The current films, by contrast, seems to take place in a universe devoid of any cultural memory or artifacts of the past, aside from “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. For all the obligatory nods that Abrams and crew make to the history of the franchise, it’s still a work of limited knowledge and curiosity about everything else that matters. And as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it might as well take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

Lessons from Great TV #3: Star Trek

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I came to Star Trek in a rather roundabout way. I’d watched it casually for years—although until recently, I’d seen more episodes of The Animated Series than of the original show—but it wasn’t until after college, when I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for the first time, that I fell in love with the franchise. My sense of the show is thus oddly reversed, almost like a mirror universe, shall we say: for me, Star Trek consists of one great movie with several television series hovering unaccountably around it, and it owes as much to Nicholas Meyer as to Gene Roddenberry. Even now, when I’ve started to go back and fill in the gaps in my education, I’ve still only seen maybe a tenth of the material available. And after making an effort recently to watch the most famous episodes of the original series, many of them for the first time, I found most of them sadly dated, with even such justly revered landmarks as “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Balance of Terror” hard to watch with a straight face.

The one great thing that the series has going for it, and where Roddenberry’s genius—along with his original conception—is most strongly felt, is its cast of characters. Television excels at allowing a large cast to grow together until their collective history becomes almost another presence in itself, and even Wrath of Khan wouldn’t be nearly as effective without that sense of shared experience. You can see it clearly in “Mirror, Mirror,” my favorite episode of the original series, in which Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura find themselves switching places with their counterparts in a much darker universe. Much of the comedy that ensues comes from seeing evil doppelgängers of the characters we know—Sulu is especially priceless—and from the fact that Kirk, far from being confused by the situation, slips into his new role a little too easily. Most deliciously and subtly of all, aside from the goatee, Spock remains more or less the same in both worlds: cool, logical, and willing to listen to reason. And none of this would work if we didn’t know these people so well. That, in any universe, is the secret of television that lasts.

Tomorrow: The pitfalls of the comedy pilot.

Written by nevalalee

July 4, 2012 at 9:50 am

A Game of Therons

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Let’s talk about Charlize Theron. Last month, after my wife and I finally rented Young Adult, I found myself brought up short by a startling realization: Theron may be the best young actress we have. I’d always been in awe of her work in Monster, of course, which, as Roger Ebert rightly notes, is one of the great performances of all time, starting, like Andy Serkis’s Gollum, as an awesome special effect, then creeping its way back toward humanity—although the rest of the movie is strangely undeveloped, as if it simply condensed, like dew, around Theron’s portrayal. When you consider that only a couple of years later, Theron was playing the lovely Rita on Arrested Development, you realize that we’re dealing with an actress of daunting range and versatility who has often been underestimated, like Penélope Cruz, because of her beauty. Young Adult is a showcase for all her best qualities: she’s funny, devastating, and totally fearless, even if, once more, she’s often better than the movie around her.

I had to repeat these facts to myself more than once after seeing Snow White and the Huntsman, in which Theron, it pains me to say, is resplendently awful. It’s a shame, because I’d been looking forward to this performance—if not the rest of the movie—for a long time. Unfortunately, just about everything about her approach is misconceived, and it isn’t even artful enough to make for good camp. In her thorny crown and raven’s-wing robes, she looks great, and director Rupert Sanders frames her in striking ways, but when she opens her mouth, she’s betrayed both by the script and by a few basic miscalculations. She starts at a high pitch of intensity that leaves her with nowhere to go, and although she grows louder and more strident as the movie drags on, she’s never truly frightening. (Her appearance on Top Chef, in which she seemed to be trying out aspects of her Evil Queen persona for the amusement of the other guests, was much more interesting.)

Watching her, I was oddly reminded of Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which he plays my favorite of all movie villains. In his chatty memoir The View From the Bridge, director Nicholas Meyer writes of watching Montalban play the part for the first time, and notes that while the performance was skilled and professional, there was one problem: he delivered every line at the top of his lungs. Meyer’s response, when he had a chance to discuss the role with Montalban, was brilliant, and it’s one I wish Sanders had followed:

I began [with] something like this: “You know, I read Laurence Oliver say somewhere that an actor should never show an audience his top. Once you show an audience your top, they know you have nowhere else to go…”

Montalban did not jump up and toss me out but narrowed his eyes in attention. “Another thing,” I went on before I could chicken out. “The really scary thing about crazy people is you never know what they’re going to do next. They can be very quiet but that doesn’t reduce the terror because at any second they might leap—”

Montalban, to his credit, took the advice to heart—his response, according to Meyer, was “You’re going to direct me! This is wonderful!”—and it shows in his final performance, which is a marvel, for all its operatic qualities, of nuance, understatement, and deathly quiet. (Consider, for instance, how gently he whispers to Chekov, even while lifting him by the front of his spacesuit: “Why?” You can watch the moment at the 2:00 mark here.)

Just imagine how much more interesting Theron would have been, if, like Montalban, she never showed the top of her range: if she had played the queen as cold, quiet, and serenely convinced that she was the hero of her own story. (Why, really, would an Evil Queen need to rant and rave if she already holds everyone around her in thrall to her power?) Theron certainly could have delivered this performance—as Young Adult amply demonstrates, she can be a subtle, resourceful actress—but, like Montalban, she needed someone to direct her. Rupert Sanders has talent, and he delivers what is basically a calculated simulation of an epic fantasy film with considerable visual skill, but as Joseph Kosinksi demonstrated with Tron: Legacy, the fact that a director makes beautiful commercials doesn’t always mean that he knows how to tell a story. It’s too bad, because all the pieces were there. All that was missing was the magic.

My ten great movies #10: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

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As someone who is deeply fascinated by the lives of artists under pressure, it’s hard for me to separate Star Trek II from the legend behind its creation, which is one of the most interesting of all Hollywood stories. The first Star Trek film had been a financial success, but also grossly expensive, and hardly beloved, prompting producer Harve Bennett to turn over the reins to the least likely man imaginable: Nicholas Meyer, the prickly author of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and the furthest thing in the world from a Trekkie. Yet Meyer’s skepticism about the project allowed him to slash the budget, swiftly assemble a fine script from the bones of several unusable drafts, and reinvigorate the entire franchise with some badly missed humor and a nautical sense of adventure—a classic example of how detachment can be more valuable to an artist than passionate involvement.

Of course, none of this would matter if the movie itself weren’t so extraordinary—”wonderful dumb fun,” as Pauline Kael said in the New Yorker, and so much more. This is, in fact, pop entertainment of the highest order, a movie of great goofiness and excitement whose occasional lapses into camp make it all the more endearing. It feels big, but its roots in television and classic Hollywood—as embodied by star Ricardo Montalban—lend it an appealing modesty, a determination to give the audience a good time that smacks less of space opera than relaxed operetta. Like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it’s a studio film that ends up saying more than it ever intended about the reasons we love the movies in the first place. And it still lights up my imagination. As I’ve probably said before, Star Trek: The Motion Picture makes me want to be a special effects designer, but Wrath of Khan makes me want to join Starfleet.

Tomorrow: The most perfect story in the movies.

Cinematic comfort food

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Last night, my wife and I were getting ready to watch The Next Three Days, which we’d rented from Netflix, only to be confronted by a frustratingly common occurrence: the disc stalled in our player, then died. The problem, weirdly, seems to be that movies released by Lionsgate (including Mad Men, alas) are incompatible with our LG Blu-ray player, an issue that has been widely noted but not, to my knowledge, fixed. Faced with the prospect of a movieless night, we frantically checked our on-demand queue for a backup option, and while we nearly went with Die Hard With a Vengeance—a revealing choice in itself, as you’ll see—a sudden inspiration and a quick search led to the following question: “Want to watch Speed?”

Which, of course, we did. And it was great. It’s always a pleasure when a movie you haven’t seen in years holds up as well as you remember, and Speed is still stunningly good. (Looking back, it’s clear that it came out at just the right time in the history of special effects, in which stunts could be cleaned up digitally, but were still reliant on old-fashioned manpower. These days, I suspect that a lot of the big moments would be rendered in CGI, much to the movie’s loss.) And the evening’s resounding success made me reflect on the role of cinematic comfort food, which, for lack of a better definition, is any movie that comes to mind when somebody asks, “Well, so what do you feel like watching?”

But maybe we can do better than that. The essential characteristic of movie comfort food is that it’s ideally suited to be seen on television—which, in fact, is where we often see it first. It’s a movie that can be watched multiple times, even internalized, without any loss of enjoyment, to the point where we can tune in halfway and know precisely where we are. It generally features appealing actors we might not necessarily pay to watch in a theater—hence the fact that Keanu Reeves stars in at least three classic comfort food movies (Speed, Point Break, and my beloved Bram Stoker’s Dracula). And it tends to tell clean, simple, satisfying stories that are exciting without being overwhelming: escapist action or comedy, not intense violence or suspense.

Occasionally, a movie that fits these criteria crosses over into the realm of art, as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan does for me. For the most part, though, these are movies that might not make our list of the best movies of all time, but still occupy a special place in our hearts—perhaps because they’re often movies we first saw as teenagers. For me, they include Sneakers; any of the great Nicolas Cage trifecta of ’90s action movies, especially Con Air; the vintage Bruce Willis movie of your choice; and more recently, and inexplicably, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, which may hold the record for the movie most often found playing in the background in our house. You’ll probably have a list of your own. And while these aren’t all great movies, I wouldn’t want to live without them. Or Ghostbusters.

Making a list, checking it twice

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Let’s make a list of things we like.
—Nicholas Meyer

With these eight words, director Nicholas Meyer saved Star Trek. The story of how he cobbled together elements of five different screenplay drafts to come up with the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in twelve days is one of my favorite Hollywood stories, and I’ve already told it here, so I won’t repeat it again. What strikes me about this story today, though, is the fact that it began in the simplest way possible: with a list. In particular, it was a list of story elements and plot devices—Khan, the Genesis project, a certain character’s death scene—that were already there, but hadn’t been combined into a coherent shape. And the fact that the result paid off so handsomely is a lesson for all writers about the power of lists.

Because lists are incredibly useful. Most novels start as a list of some kind—of characters, of moments, of plot points—but it’s also smart to keep making lists as the project develops, especially when you’re stuck for inspiration. These can be lists of locations, of objects in a scene, of possible props, of the contents of someone’s pockets, or even of material you’ve written and discarded along the way, any one of which might solve a problem or spark an idea. Such lists are especially useful in writing comedy or action, in which the best material is organically generated by the natural aspects of a setting or situation. As Alfred Hitchcock says:

For example, Cary Grant in North by Northwest gets trapped in an auction room. He can’t get out because there are men in front of him or men behind him. The only way out is to do what you’d do in an auction room. Bid. He bid crazily and got himself thrown out. Similarly, when he was chased by a crop duster, he ran and hid in a cornfield. There was one thing that crop duster could do—dust some crops. That drove him out…I don’t believe in going into an unusual setting and not using it dramatically.

The legendary animator Shamus Culhane makes a similar point in Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

Ultimately, lists are useful because they remind you of what you already have. The process often resembles what David Mamet says about the slate piece, in bringing out the hidden information already inherent in the story. At other times, it’s more like figuring out how to use a standing set. While writing, I’m amused by how often a prop or location that I mentioned in passing early in a novel ends up playing an important role twenty chapters later. Similarly, the great silent comedians could walk onto a set and immediately start planning gags and bits of business, simply based on what was already lying around.

The trouble, of course, is that I don’t have a roomful of props to stare at. A novelist’s mind can resemble the storeroom at the end of Citizen Kane, a jumble of material acquired over a lifetime, none of which useful if we can’t remember what is there. A list is the first step toward making a catalog. It distills a mine of existing information into a form that you can process more easily, so you won’t be tempted, as many writers are, to fix plot problems with additional research. Nine times out of ten, when you have a problem to solve, the answer is probably already there, implicit in what you’ve already written or imagined. And all you need to get started is a list.

The joy of commentary tracks

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While I still haven’t gotten around to tackling the definitive appreciation of The Simpsons that I’ll inevitably need to write one day, in the meantime, I thought I’d highlight an underappreciated element of that show’s legacy: its DVD commentary tracks. Over the past decade or so, even as I’ve stopped watching the show itself, its commentary tracks—featuring Matt Groening, the showrunners for each season, and an assortment of writers, directors, and producers—have become an inseparable part of my life. Since I already know most of the episodes by heart, I’ll often play an audio commentary in the background while I’m exercising or doing chores around the house, to the point where I’ve probably listened to some of these tracks twenty times or more. And every other year or so, I’ll systematically work through the entire series, as I’m doing now, going backward from season thirteen all the way to the premiere.

It’s hard to explain why, but these commentaries have become weirdly important to me, sometimes even exceeding the importance of the episodes themselves—especially at this point in the series, when the underlying material tends to be mediocre or worse. Even for middling episodes, though, the commentaries are still compelling: two of my favorites are for “The Principal and the Pauper” and “Bart to the Future,” episodes that probably rank near the bottom of the pack. A Simpsons commentary track is simply the best radio show in the world, with a roomful of smart, nerdy guys talking with great enthusiasm about a subject of intense interest to them, and to me. In the process, I’ve enjoyed getting to know people like writers David Mirkin, Matt Selman, and Ron Hauge, and directors Mark Kirkland, Susie Dietter, and Jim Reardon, who otherwise would just be names on a screen. And I’ve painlessly absorbed a lot of valuable information about storytelling—such as the observation, by Josh Weinstein, I think, that five minutes of sentiment is too much, but fifteen seconds is just right.

At this point, though, after twenty listens or more, I’ve begun to suck most of the pulp out of these commentaries, so I’ve been casting about for alternatives. Futurama, not surprisingly, has commentaries that are equally engaging, and it’s always fun to listen to David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler, among others, unpack the show’s many references. (Futurama remains the only series that ever inspired me to look up the Wikipedia article on P versus NP.) And I’ve spoken before about how much I love audio commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola: his voice is warm, grandfatherly, almost conspiratorial, drawing you into a frank discussion of his triumphs and disappointments, generous with both his philosophy of life and the technical side of filmmaking. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to hanging out with Coppola himself, and a reminder that the best commentary tracks are a reflection of the artist’s personality.

What else? My single favorite commentary for a movie is probably Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s track for The Usual Suspects, where they cheerfully point out plot holes and continuity errors while imparting, almost incidentally, a lot of irreverent observations on the creative process. A close second is Nicholas Meyer’s commentary for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which provides a great deal of candid insight into one of my favorite movies, as well as the art of storytelling itself. (“Storyteller,” Meyer tells us, is what he always puts down when asked for his profession on customs forms.) David Mamet is usually captivating, even when he’s being glib or cagey; I recently put on his commentary track for House of Games, featuring Ricky Jay, while preparing my tax returns, which made the process a lot more bearable. And I’m always looking for others. If you’re a commentary track addict like me, and if you have any special favorites, I’d love to hear about them.

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