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.”

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