Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Spielberg

Exile in Dinoville

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Earlier this month, a writer named Nick White released Sweet & Low, his debut collection of short fiction. Most of the stories are set in the present day, but one of them, “Break,” includes a paragraph that evokes the early nineties so vividly that I feel obliged to transcribe it here:

For the next few weeks, the three of us spent much of our free time together. We would ride around town listening to Regan’s CDs—she forbid us to play country music in her presence—and we usually ended the night with Forney and me sitting on the hood of his car watching her dance to Liz Phair’s “Never Said”: “All I know is that I’m clean as a whistle, baby,” she sang to us, her voice husky. We went to a lot of movies, and most of the time, I sat between them in a dark theater, our breathing taking the same pattern after a while. We saw Jurassic Park twice at the dollar theater, and I can still remember Forney’s astonishment when the computer-generated brachiosaur filled up the giant screen. “Amazing,” he whispered. “Just amazing.”

And while it may seem like the obvious move to conjure up a period by referring to the popular culture of the time, the juxtaposition of Liz Phair and a brachiosaur sets off its own chain of associations, at least in my own head. Jurassic Park was released on June 11, 1993, and Exile in Guyville came out just eleven days later, and for many young Americans, in the back half of that year, they might as well have been playing simultaneously.

At first, they might not seem to have much to do with each other, apart from their chronological proximity—which can be meaningful in itself. Once enough time has passed, two works of art released back to back can start to seem like siblings, close in age, from the same family. In certain important ways, they’ll have more in common with each other than they ever will with anyone else, and the passage of more than two decades can level even blatant differences in surprising ways. Jurassic Park was a major event long before its release, a big movie from the most successful director of his generation, based on a novel that had already altered the culture. What still feels most vivid about Exile in Guyville, by contrast, is the sense that it was recorded on cassette in total solitude, and that Phair had willed it into existence out of nothing. She was just twenty-six years old, or about the same age as Spielberg when he directed Duel, and the way that their potential was perceived and channeled along divergent lines is illuminating in itself. But now that both the album and the movie feel like our common property, it’s easy to see that both were set apart by a degree of technical facility that was obscured by their extremes of scale. Jurassic Park was so huge that it was hard to appreciate how expertly crafted it was in its details, while Phair’s apparent rawness and the unfinished quality of her tracks distracted from the fact that she was writing pop songs so memorable that I still know all the lyrics after a quarter of a century.

Both also feel like artifacts of a culture that is still coming to terms with its feelings about sex—one by placing it front and center, the other by pushing it so far into the background that a significant plot twist hinges on dinosaurs secretly having babies. But their most meaningful similarity may be that they were followed by a string of what are regarded as underwhelming sequels, although neither one made it easy on their successors. In the case of Jurassic Park, it can be hard to remember the creative breakthrough that it represented. Before its release, I studied the advance images in Entertainment Weekly and reminded myself that the effects couldn’t be that good. When they turned out to be better than I could have imagined, my reaction was much the same as Forney’s in Nick White’s story: “Amazing. Just amazing.” When the movie became a franchise, however, something was lost, including the sense that it was possible for the technology of storytelling to take us by surprise ever again. It wasn’t a story any longer, but a brand. A recent profile by Tyler Coates in Esquire captures much the same moment in Phair’s life:

Looking back, at least for Phair, means recognizing a young woman before she earned indie rock notoriety. “I think what’s most evocative is that lack of self-consciousness,” she said. “It’s the first and last time that I have on record before I had a public awareness of what I represented to other people. There’s me, and then there’s Liz Phair.”

And her subsequent career testifies to the impossible position in which she found herself. A review on All Music describes her sophomore effort, Whip-Smart, as “good enough to retain her critical stature, not good enough to enhance it,” which in itself captures something of the inhuman expectations that critics collectively impose on the artists they claim to love. (The same review observes that “a full five years” separated Exile in Guyville from Whitechocolatespaceegg, as if that were an eternity, even though this seems like a perfectly reasonable span in which to release three ambitious albums.) After two decades, it seems impossible to see Whip-Smart as anything but a really good album that was doomed to be undervalued, and it was about to get even worse. I saw Phair perform live just once, and it wasn’t in the best of surroundings—it was at Field Day in 2003, an event that had been changed at the last minute from an outdoor music festival to a series of opening acts for Radiohead at Giants Stadium. Alone on a huge stage with a guitar, her face projected on a JumboTron, Phair seemed lost, but as game as usual. The tenth anniversary of Exile in Guyville was just around the corner, and a few weeks later, Phair released a self-titled album that was excoriated almost anywhere. Pitchfork gave it zero stars, and it was perceived as a blatant bid for commercial success that called all of her previous work into question. Fifteen years later, it’s very hard to care, and time has done exactly what Phair’s critics never managed to pull off. It confirmed what we should have known all along. Phair broke free, expanded to new territories and crashed through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, and, well, there it is. She found a way.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2018 at 8:41 am

The bedtime story

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Earlier this morning, I finally got my hands on the companion book to James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, which is airing this month on AMC. Naturally, I immediately looked for references to the four main subjects of Astounding, and the passage that caught my eye first was an exchange between Cameron and Steven Spielberg:

Spielberg: The working title of E.T. was Watch the Skies. Which is sort of the last line from The Thing. I just remember looking at the sky because of the influence of my father, and saying, only good should come from that. If it ain’t an ICBM coming from the Soviet Union, only good should come from beyond our gravitational hold…He was a visionary about that, yet he read all the Analog. Those paperbacks? And Amazing Stories, the paperbacks of that. I used to read that along with him. Sometimes, he’d read those books to me, those little tabloids to me at night.

Cameron: Asimov, Heinlein, all those guys were all published in those pulp magazines.

Spielberg: They were all published in those magazines, and a lot of them were optimists. They weren’t always calculating our doom. They were finding ways to open up our imagination and get us to dream and get us to discover and get us to contribute to the greater good.

The discussion quickly moves on to other subjects, but not before hinting at the solution to a mystery that I’ve been trying to figure out for years, which is why the influence of Astounding and its authors can be so hard to discern in the work of someone like Spielberg. In part, it’s a matter of timing. Spielberg was born in 1946, which means that he would have been thirteen when John W. Campbell announced that that his magazine was changing its title to Analog. As a result, at a point at which he should have been primed to devour science fiction, Spielberg doesn’t seem to have found its current incarnation all that interesting, for which you can hardly blame him. Instead, his emotional associations with the pulps were evidently passed down through his father, Arnold Spielberg, an electrical engineer who worked for General Electric and RCA. The elder Spielberg, remarkably, is still active at the age of 101, and just two months ago, he said in an interview with GE Reports:

I was also influenced by science fiction. There were twins in our neighborhood who read one of the first sci-fi magazines, called Astounding Stories of Science and Fact. They gave me one copy, and when I brought it home, I was hooked. The magazine is now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and I still get it.

And while I don’t think that there’s any way of verifying it, if Arnold Spielberg—the father of Steven Spielberg—isn’t the oldest living subscriber to Analog, he must be close.

This sheds light on his son’s career, although perhaps not in the way that you might think. Spielberg is such a massively important figure that his very existence realigns the history of the genre, and when he speaks of his influences, we need to be wary of the shadow cast by his inescapable personality. But there’s no denying the power—and truth—of the image of Arnold Spielberg reading from the pulps aloud to his son. It feels like an image from one of Spielberg’s own movies, which has been shaped from the beginning by the tradition of oral storytelling. (It’s worth noting, though, that the father might recall things differently than the son. In his biography of the director, Joseph McBride quotes Arnold Spielberg: “I’ve been reading science fiction since I was seven years old, all the way back to the earliest Amazing Stories. Amazing, Astounding, Analog—I still subscribe. I still read ’em. My kids used to complain, ‘Dad’s in the bathroom with a science-fiction magazine. We can’t get in.'”) For Spielberg, the stories seem inextricably linked with the memory of being taken outside by his father to look at the stars:

My father was the one that introduced me to the cosmos. He’s the one who built—from a big cardboard roll that you roll rugs on—a two-inch reflecting telescope with an Edmund Scientific kit that he had sent away for. [He] put this telescope together, and then I saw the moons of Jupiter. It was the first thing he pointed out to me. I saw the rings of Saturn around Saturn. I’m six, seven years old when this all happened.

Spielberg concludes: “Those were the stories, and just looking up at the sky, that got me to realize, if I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace.”

But it also testifies to the ways in which a strong personality will take exactly what it needs from its source material. Elsewhere in the interview, there’s another intriguing reference:

Spielberg: I always go for the heart first. Of course, sometimes I go for the heart so much I get a little bit accused of sentimentality, which I’m fine [with] because…sometimes I need to push it a little further to reach a little deeper into a society that is a little less sentimental than they were when I was a young filmmaker.

Cameron: You pushed it in the same way that John W. Campbell pushed science fiction [forward] from the hard-tech nerdy guys who had to put PhD after their name to write science fiction. It was all just about the equations and the math and the physics [and evolved to become much more] human stories [about] the human heart.

I see what Cameron is trying to say here, but if you’ve read enough of the magazine that turned into Analog, this isn’t exactly the impression that it leaves. It’s true that Campbell put a greater emphasis than most of his predecessors on characterization, at least in theory, but the number of stories that were about “the human heart” can be counted on two hands, and none were exactly Spielbergian—although they might seem that way when filtered through the memory of his father’s voice. And toward the end, the nerds took over again. In Dangerous Visions, which was published in 1967, Harlan Ellison wrote of “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” It was the latter version of the magazine that Spielberg would have seen as a boy—which may be why, when the time came, he made a television show called Amazing Stories.

The dawn of man

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

Almost from the moment that critics began to write about 2001, it became fashionable to observe that the best performance in the movie was by an actor playing a computer. In his review in Analog, for example, P. Schuyler Miller wrote:

The actors, except for the gentle voice of HAL, are thoroughly wooden and uninteresting, and I can’t help wondering whether this isn’t Kubrick’s subtle way of suggesting that the computer is really more “human” than they and fully justified in trying to get rid of them before they louse up an important mission. Someday we may know whether the theme of this part is a Clarke or a Kubrick contribution. I suspect it was the latter…perhaps just because Stanley Kubrick is said to like gadgets.

This criticism is often used to denigrate the other performances or the film’s supposed lack of humanity, but I prefer to take it as a tribute to the work of actor Douglas Rain, Kubrick and Clarke’s script, and the brilliant design of HAL himself. The fact that a computer is the character we remember best isn’t a flaw in the movie, but a testament to its skill and imagination. And as I’ve noted elsewhere, the acting is excellent—it’s just so understated and naturalistic that it seems vaguely incongruous in such spectacular settings. (Compare it to the performances in Destination Moon, for instance, and you see how good Keir Dullea and William Sylvester really are here.)

But I also think that the best performance in 2001 isn’t by Douglas Rain at all, but by Vivian Kubrick, in her short appearance on the phone as Heywood Floyd’s daughter. It’s a curious scene that breaks many of the rules of good storytelling—it doesn’t lead anywhere, it’s evidently designed to do nothing but show off a piece of hardware, and it peters out even as we watch it. The funniest line in the movie may be Floyd’s important message:

Listen, sweetheart, I want you to tell mommy something for me. Will you remember? Well, tell mommy that I telephoned. Okay? And that I’ll try to telephone tomorrow. Now will you tell her that?

But that’s oddly true to life as well. And when I watch the scene today, with a five-year-old daughter of my own, it seems to me that there’s no more realistic little girl in all of movies. (Kubrick shot the scene himself, asking the questions from offscreen, and there’s a revealing moment when the camera rises to stay with Vivian as she stands. This is sometimes singled out as a goof, although there’s no reason why a sufficiently sophisticated video phone wouldn’t be able to track her automatically.) It’s a scene that few other films would have even thought to include, and now that video chat is something that we all take for granted, we can see through the screen to the touchingly sweet girl on the other side. On some level, Kubrick simply wanted his daughter to be in the movie, and you can’t blame him.

At the time, 2001 was criticized as a soulless hunk of technology, but now it seems deeply human, at least compared to many of its imitators. Yesterday in the New York Times, Bruce Handy shared a story from Keir Dullea, who explained why he breaks the glass in the hotel room at the end, just before he comes face to face with himself as an old man:

Originally, Stanley’s concept for the scene was that I’d just be eating and hear something and get up. But I said, “Stanley, let me find some slightly different way that’s kind of an action where I’m reaching—let me knock the glass off, and then in mid-gesture, when I’m bending over to pick it up, let me hear the breathing from that bent-over position.” That’s all. And he says, “Oh, fine. That sounds good.” I just wanted to find a different way to play the scene than blankly hearing something. I just thought it was more interesting.

I love this anecdote, not just because it’s an example of an evocative moment that arose from an actor’s pragmatic considerations, but because it feels like an emblem of the production of the movie as a whole. 2001 remains the most technically ambitious movie of all time, but it was also a project in which countless issues were being figured out on the fly. Every solution was a response to a specific problem, and it covered a dizzying range of challenges—from the makeup for the apes to the air hostess walking upside down—that might have come from different movies entirely.

2001, in short, was made by hand—and it’s revealing that many viewers assume that computers had to be involved, when they didn’t figure in the process at all. (All of the “digital” readouts on the spacecraft, for instance, were individually animated, shot on separate reels of film, and projected onto those tiny screens on set, which staggers me even to think about it. And even after all these years, I still can’t get my head around the techniques behind the Star Gate sequence.) It reminds me, in fact, of another movie that happens to be celebrating an anniversary this year. As a recent video essay pointed out, if the visual effects in Jurassic Park have held up so well, it’s because most of them aren’t digital at all. The majority consist of a combination of practical effects, stop motion, animatronics, raptor costumes, and a healthy amount of misdirection, with computers used only when absolutely necessary. Each solution is targeted at the specific problems presented by a snippet of film that might last just for a few seconds, and it moves so freely from one trick to another that we rarely have a chance to see through it. It’s here, not in A.I., that Spielberg got closest to Kubrick, and it hints at something important about the movies that push the technical aspects of the medium. They’re often criticized for an absence of humanity, but in retrospect, they seem achingly human, if only because of the total engagement and attention that was required for every frame. Most of their successors lack the same imaginative intensity, which is a greater culprit than the use of digital tools themselves. Today, computers are used to create effects that are perfect, but immediately forgettable. And one of the wonderful ironies of 2001 is that it used nothing but practical effects to create a computer that no viewer can ever forget.

The art of preemptive ingenuity

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Yesterday, my wife drew my attention to the latest episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, which irresistibly combines two of my favorite topics—film and graphic design. Its subject is Annie Atkins, who has designed props and visual materials for such works as The Tudors and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Her account of how a misspelled word nearly made it onto a crucial prop in the latter film is both hilarious and horrifying.) But my favorite story that she shares is about a movie that isn’t exactly known for its flashy art direction:

The next job I went onto—it would have been Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was a true story. We made a lot of newspapers for that film, and I remember us beginning to check the dates against the days, because I wanted to get it right. And then eventually the prop master said to me, “Do you know what, I think we’re just going to leave the dates off.” Because it wasn’t clear [what] sequence…these things were going to be shown in. And he said, you know, if you leave the dates off altogether, nobody will look for it. But if you put something there that’s wrong, then it might jump out. So we went with no dates in the end for those newspapers.

As far as filmmaking advice is concerned, this is cold, hard cash, even if I’ll never have the chance to put it into practice for myself. And I especially like the fact that it comes out of Bridge of Spies, a writerly movie with a screenplay by none other than the Coen Brothers, but which was still subject to decisions about its structure as late in the process as the editing stage.

Every movie, I expect, requires some degree of editorial reshuffling, and experienced directors will prepare for this during the production itself. The absence of dates on newspapers is one good example, and there’s an even better one in the book The Conversations, which the editor Walter Murch relates to the novelist Michael Ondaatje:

One thing that made it possible to [rearrange the order of scenes] in The Conversation was Francis [Coppola]’s belief that people should wear the same clothes most of the time. Harry is almost always wearing that transparent raincoat and his funny little crepe-soled shoes. This method of using costumes is something Francis had developed on other films, quite an accurate observation. He recognized that, first of all, people don’t change clothes in real life as often as they do in film. In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do—which is only natural—so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

Murch observes: “There’s a delicate balance between the timeline of a film’s story—which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months—and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed clothes.”

The editor concludes: “It’s amazing how consistent you can make somebody’s costume and have it not stand out.” (Occasionally, a change of clothes will draw attention to editorial manipulation, as one scene is lifted out from its original place and slotted in elsewhere. One nice example is in Bullitt, where we see Steve McQueen in one scene at a grocery store in his iconic tweed coat and blue turtleneck, just before he goes home, showers, and changes into those clothes, which he wears for the rest of the movie.) The director Judd Apatow achieves the same result in another way, as his longtime editor Brent White notes: “[He’ll] have something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know exactly where it goes in the movie. Does it service the end? Does it go early? So he’ll shoot the same exact scene, the same exchange, with the actors in different wardrobes, so that I can slot it in at different points.” Like the newspapers in Bridge of Spies, this all assumes that changes to the plan will be necessary later on, and it prepares for them in advance. Presumably, you always hope to keep the order of scenes from the script when you cut the movie together, but the odds are that something won’t quite work when you sit down to watch the first assembly, so you build in safeguards to allow you to fix these issues when the time comes. If your budget is high enough, you can include reshoots in your shooting schedule, as Peter Jackson does, while the recent films of David Fincher indicate the range of problems that can be solved with digital tools in postproduction. But when you lack the resources for such expensive solutions, your only recourse is to be preemptively ingenious on the set, which forces you to think in terms of what you’ll want to see when you sit down to edit the footage many months from now.

This is the principle behind one of my favorite pieces of directorial advice ever, which David Mamet provides in the otherwise flawed Bambi vs. Godzilla:

Always get an exit and an entrance. More wisdom for the director in the cutting room. The scene involves the hero sitting in a café. Dialogue scene, blah blah blah. Well and good, but when you shoot it, shoot the hero coming in and sitting down. And then, at the end, shoot him getting up and leaving. Why? Because the film is going to tell you various things about itself, and many of your most cherished preconceptions will prove false. The scene that works great on paper will prove a disaster. An interchange of twenty perfect lines will be found to require only two, the scene will go too long, you will discover another scene is needed, and you can’t get the hero there if he doesn’t get up from the table, et cetera. Shoot an entrance and an exit. It’s free.

I learned a corollary from John Sayles: at the end of the take, in a close-up or one-shot, have the speaker look left, right, up, and down. Why? Because you might just find you can get out of the scene if you can have the speaker throw the focus. To what? To an actor or insert to be shot later, or to be found in (stolen from) another scene. It’s free. Shoot it, ’cause you just might need it.

This kind of preemptive ingenuity, in matters both large and small, is what really separates professionals from amateurs. Something always goes wrong, and the plan that we had in mind never quite matches what we have in the end. Professionals don’t always get it right the first time, either—but they know this, and they’re ready for it.

The screenwriter paradox

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A few weeks ago, I had occasion to discuss “Time Risk,” a huge blog post—it’s the length of a short book—by the screenwriter Terry Rossio. It’s endlessly quotable, and I encourage you to skim it yourself, although you might come away with the impression that the greatest form of time risk is trying to write movies at all. Rossio spends much of the piece encouraging you to write a novel or make an animated short instead, and his most convincing argument is basically unanswerable:

Let’s examine the careers of several brand-name feature screenwriters, to see how they did it. In the same way we can speak of a Stephen King novel, or a Neil Simon play, we can talk about the unique qualities of a Woody Allen screenplay—Whoops, wait. Allen is best known as a director. Okay, how about a Lawrence Kasdan script—Whoops, same thing. Kasdan gained fame, even for his screenwriting, through directing his own work. Let’s see, James Cameron, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Nora Ephron, Coen Brothers, John Milius, Cameron Crowe, hmn—

Wait! A Charlie Kaufman screenplay. Thank goodness for Charlie Kaufman, or I wouldn’t be able to think of a single brand-name screenwriter working today, who didn’t make their name primarily through directing. Okay, perhaps Aaron Sorkin, but he made his main fame in plays and television. Why so few? Because—screenwriters do the bulk of their work prior to the green light. Cameras not rolling. Trying to get films made. They toil at the wrong end of the time risk curve, taking on time risk in a myriad of forms.

As Rossio memorably explains a little later on: “It’s only when cameras are rolling that power accumulates, and brands are established.” I found myself thinking about this while reading Vulture’s recent list of the hundred best screenwriters of all time, as determined by forty of their fellow writers, including Diablo Cody, Zak Penn, Wesley Strick, Terence Winter, and a bunch of others who have achieved critical acclaim and name recognition without being known predominantly for directing. And who did they pick? The top ten are Billy Wilder, Joel and Ethan Coen, Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, William Goldman, Charlie Kaufman, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, and Ernest Lehman. Of the ten, only Goldman has never directed a movie, and of the others, only Kaufman, Towne, and Lehman are primarily known for their screenwriting. That’s forty percent. And the rest of the list consists mostly of directors who write. Glancing over it, I find the following who are renowned mostly as writers: Aaron Sorkin, Paddy Chayefsky, Frances Marion, Buck Henry, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Bo Goldman, Eric Roth, Steven Zaillian, Callie Khouri, Richard Curtis, Dalton Trumbo, Frank Pierson, Cesare Zavattini, Norman Wexler, Waldo Salt, Melissa Mathison, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Alvin Sargent, Ben Hecht, Scott Frank, Jay Presson Allen, John Logan, Guillermo Arriaga, Horton Foote, Leigh Brackett, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, David Webb Peoples, Burt Kennedy, Charles Lederer, John Ridley, Diablo Cody, and Mike White. Borderline cases include Paul Schrader, David Mamet, Elaine May, Robert Benton, Christopher McQuarrie, and Shane Black. Even when you throw these names back into the hopper, the “pure” screenwriters number maybe four in ten. And this is a list compiled from the votes of writers who have every reason to highlight the work of their underappreciated colleagues.

So why do directors dominate? I can think of three possible reasons. The first, and perhaps the most likely, is that in a poll like this, a voter’s mind is more likely to turn to a more famous name at the expense of equally deserving candidates. Hence the otherwise inexplicable presence on the list of Steven Spielberg, whose only two credits as a screenwriter, Close Encounters and A.I., owe a lot more, respectively, to Paul Schrader and Stanley Kubrick. Another possibility is that Hollywood is structured to reward writers by turning them into directors, which implies that many of the names here are just screenwriters who ascended. This would be a tempting theory, if it weren’t for the presence of so many auteurs—Welles, Tarantino, the Coens—who started out directing their own screenplays and never looked back. And the third explanation is the one that Rossio offers: “[Screenwriters] toil at the wrong end of the time risk curve.” Invisibility, fungibility, and the ability to do competent work while keeping one’s head down are qualities that the system encourages, and it’s only in exceptional cases, after a screenwriter directs a movie or wins an Oscar, that he or she is given permission to be noticed. (Which doesn’t mean that there weren’t simply some glaring omissions. I’m a little stunned by the absence of Emeric Pressburger, who I think can be plausibly set forth as the finest screenwriter of all time. It’s possible that his contributions have been obscured by the fact that he and Michael Powell were credited as writer, producer, and director of the movies that they made as the Archers, but the division of labor seems fairly clear. And I don’t think any other writer on this list has three scripts as good as those for The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and A Canterbury Tale, along with your choice of A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Small Back Room, and I Know Where I’m Going!)

The one glaring exception is Joe Eszterhas, who became a household name, along with his rival Shane Black, as the two men traded records throughout the nineties for the highest price ever paid for a script. As he tells it in his weirdly riveting book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood:

I read about Shane’s sale [for The Last Boy Scout]—and my record being broken—on the front page of the Los Angeles Times while I was vacationing at the Kahala Hilton in Hawaii. Shane’s sale pissed me off. I wanted my record back. I wanted to see an article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about me setting a new record. I flew home from Hawaii and sat down immediately and stated writing the most commercial script I could think of. Twelve days later, I had my record back. I had the article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about my new record. And I had my $3 million.

The script was Basic Instinct. Would it have been enough to make Eszterhas famous if he hadn’t been paid so much for it? I don’t know—although it’s worth noting that he had previously held the record for City Hall, which was never made, and Big Shots, which nobody remembers, and he sold millions of dollars’ worth of other screenplays that never got produced. And the moment that made it all possible has passed. Eszterhas didn’t make the Vulture list; studios are no longer throwing money at untested properties; and even a monster sale doesn’t guarantee anything. The current record is still held by the script for Déjà Vu, which sold for $3 million against $5 million over a decade ago, and it serves as a sort of A/B test to remind us how much of success in Hollywood is out of anyone’s hands. There were two writers on Déjà Vu. One was Bill Marsilii, who hasn’t been credited on a movie since. The other was Terry Rossio.

Asimov’s close encounter

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By the early seventies, Isaac Asimov had achieved the cultural status, which he still retains, of being the first—and perhaps the only—science fiction writer whom most ordinary readers would be able to name. As a result, he ended up on the receiving end of a lot of phone calls from famous newcomers to the field. In 1973, for example, he was contacted by a representative for Woody Allen, who asked if he’d be willing to look over the screenplay of the movie Sleeper. Asimov gladly agreed, and when he met with Allen over lunch, he told him that the script was perfect as it was. Allen didn’t seem to believe him: “How much science fiction have you written?” Asimov responded: “Not much. Very little, actually. Perhaps thirty books of it altogether. The other hundred books aren’t science fiction.” Allen was duly impressed, turning to ask his friends: “Did you hear him throw that line away?” Asimov turned down the chance to serve as a technical director, recommending Ben Bova instead, and the movie did just fine without him, although he later expressed irritation that Allen had never sent him a letter of thanks. Another project with Paul McCartney, whom Asimov met the following year, didn’t go anywhere, either:

McCartney wanted to do a fantasy, and he wanted me to write a story out of the fantasy out of which a screenplay would be prepared. He had the basic idea for the fantasy, which involved two sets of musical groups: a real one, and a group of extraterrestrial imposters…He had only a snatch of dialogue describing the moment when a real group realized they were being victimized by imposters.

Asimov wrote up what he thought was an excellent treatment, but McCartney rejected it: “He went back to his one scrap of dialogue, out of which he apparently couldn’t move, and wanted me to work with that.”

Of all of Asimov’s brushes with Hollywood, however, the most intriguing involved a director to whom he later referred as “Steve Spielberg.” In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, Asimov writes:

On July 18, 1975, I visited Steve Spielberg, a movie director, at his room in the Sherry-Netherland. He had done Jaws, a phenomenally successful picture, and now he planned to do another, involving flying saucers. He wanted me to work with him on it, but I didn’t really want to. The visual media are not my bag, really.

In a footnote, Asimov adds: “He went on to do it without me and it became the phenomenally successful Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I have no regrets.” For an autobiography that devotes enormous amounts of wordage to even the most trivial incidents, it’s a remarkably terse and unrevealing anecdote, and it’s hard not to wonder if something else might have been involved—because when Asimov finally saw Close Encounters, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this week with a new theatrical release, he hated it. A year after it came out, he wrote in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine:

Science Digest asked me to see the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and write an article for them on the science it contained. I saw the picture and was appalled. I remained appalled even after a doctor’s examination had assured me that no internal organs had been shaken loose by its ridiculous sound waves. (If you can’t be good, be loud, some say, and Close Encounters was very loud.) To begin with there was no accurate science in it; not a trace; and I said so in the article I wrote and which Science Digest published. There was also no logic in it; not a trace; and I said that, too.

Asimov’s essay on Close Encounters, in fact, might be the most unremittingly hostile piece of writing I’ve seen by him on any subject, and I’ve read a lot of it. He seems to have regarded it as little more than a cynical commercial ploy: “It made its play for Ufolators and mystics and, in its chase for the buck, did not scruple to violate every canon of good sense and internal consistency.” In response to readers who praised the special effects, he shot back:

Seeing a rotten picture for the special effects is like eating a tough steak for the smothered onions, or reading a bad book for the dirty parts. Optical wizardry is something a movie can do that a book can’t, but it is no substitute for a story, for logic, for meaning. It is ornamentation, not substance. In fact, whenever a science fiction picture is praised overeffusively for its special effects, I know it’s a bad picture. Is that all they can find to talk about?

Asimov was aware that his negative reaction had hurt the feelings of some of his fans, but he was willing to accept it: “There comes a time when one has to put one’s self firmly on the side of Good.” And he seemed particularly incensed at the idea that audiences might dare to think that Close Encounters was science fiction, and that it implied that the genre was allowed to be “silly, and childish, and stupid,” with nothing more than “loud noise and flashing lights.” He wasn’t against all instances of cinematic science fiction—he had liked Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, faintly praising the latter as “entertainment for the masses [that] did not try to do anything more,” and he even served as a technical consultant on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But he remained unrelenting toward Close Encounters to the last: “It is a marvelous demonstration of what happens when the workings of extraterrestrial intelligence are handled without a trace of skill.”

And the real explanation comes in an interview that Asimov gave to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, in which he recalled of his close encounter with Spielberg: “I didn’t know who he was at the time, or what a hit the film would be, but I certainly wasn’t interested in a film that glorified flying saucers. I still would have refused, only with more regret.” The italics are mine. Asimov, as I’ve noted before, despised flying saucers, and he would have dismissed any movie that took them seriously as inherently unworthy of consideration. (The editor John W. Campbell was unusually cautious on the subject, writing of the UFO phenomenon in Astounding in 1959: “Its nature and cause are totally indeterminable from the data and the technical understanding available to us at the time.” Yet Asimov felt that even this was going too far, writing that Campbell “seemed to take seriously such things as flying saucers [and] psionic talents.”) From his point of view, he may well have been right to worry about the “glorification” of flying saucers in Close Encounters—its impact on the culture was so great that it seems to have fixed the look of aliens as reported by alleged abductees. And as a man whose brand as a science popularizer and explainer depended on his reputation for rationality and objectivity, he couldn’t allow himself to be associated with such ideas in any way, which may be why he attacked the movie with uncharacteristic savagery. As I’ve written elsewhere, a decade earlier, Asimov had been horrified when his daughter Robyn told him one night that she had seen a flying saucer. When he rushed outside and saw “a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum” in the sky, he was taken aback, and as he ran into the house for his glasses, he said to himself: “Oh no, this can’t happen to me.” It turned out to be the Goodyear blimp, and Asimov recalled: “I was incredibly relieved!” But his daughter may have come even closer to the truth when she said years later to the New York Times: “He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

The Battle of Dunkirk

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During my junior year in college, I saw Christopher Nolan’s Memento at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for no other reason except that I’d heard it was great. Since then, I’ve seen all of Nolan’s movies on their initial release, which is something I can’t say of any other director. At first, it was because I liked his work and his choices intrigued me, and it only occurred to me around the time of The Dark Knight that I witnessing a career like no other. It’s tempting to compare Nolan to his predecessors, but when you look at his body of work from Memento to Dunkirk, it’s clear that he’s in a category of his own. He’s directed nine theatrical features in seventeen years, all mainstream critical and commercial successes, including some of the biggest movies in recent history. No other director alive comes close to that degree of consistency, at least not at the same level of productivity and scale. Quality and reliability alone aren’t everything, of course, and Nolan pales a bit compared to say, Steven Spielberg, who over a comparable stretch of time went from The Sugarland Express to Hook, with Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and the Indiana Jones trilogy along the way, as well as 1941 and Always. By comparison, Nolan can seem studied, deliberate, and remote, and the pockets of unassimilated sentimentality in his work—which I used to assume were concessions to the audience, but now I’m not so sure—only point to how unified and effortless Spielberg is at his best. But the conditions for making movies have also changed over the last four decades, and Nolan has threaded the needle in ways that still amaze me, as I continue to watch his career unfold in real time.

Nolan sometimes reminds me of the immortal Byron the Bulb in Gravity’s Rainbow, of which Thomas Pynchon writes: “Statistically…every n-thousandth light bulb is gonna be perfect, all the delta-q’s piling up just right, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this one’s still around, burning brightly.” He wrote and directed one of the great independent debuts, leveraged it into a career making blockbusters, and slowly became a director from whom audiences expected extraordinary achievements while he was barely out of the first phase of his career. And he keeps doing it. For viewers of college age or younger, he must feel like an institution, while I can’t stop thinking of him as an outlier that has yet to regress to the mean. Nolan’s most significant impact, for better or worse, may lie in the sheer, seductive implausibility of the case study that he presents. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a succession of young directors, nearly all of them white males, who, after directing a microbudgeted indie movie, are handed the keys to a huge franchise. This has been taken as an instance of category selection, in which directors who look a certain way are given opportunities that wouldn’t be offered to filmmakers of other backgrounds, but deep down, I think it’s just an attempt to find the next Nolan. If I were an executive at Warner Bros. whose career had overlapped with his, I’d feel toward him what Goethe felt of Napoleon: “[It] produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.” Nolan is the most exciting success story to date of a business model that he defined and that, if it worked, would solve most of Hollywood’s problems, in which independent cinema serves as a farm team for directors who can consistently handle big legacy projects that yield great reviews and box office. And it’s happened exactly once.

You can’t blame Hollywood for hoping that lightning will strike twice, but it’s obvious now that Nolan is like nobody else, and Dunkirk may turn out to be the pivotal film in trying to understand what he represents. I don’t think it’s his best or most audacious movie, but it was certainly the greatest risk, and he seems to have singlehandedly willed it into existence. Artistically, it’s a step forward for a director who sometimes seemed devoted to complexity for its own sake, telling a story of crystalline narrative and geographical clarity with a minimum of dialogue and exposition, with clever tricks with time that lead, for once, to a real emotional payoff. The technical achievement of staging a continuous action climax that runs for most of the movie’s runtime is impressive in itself, and Nolan, who has been gradually preparing for this moment for years, makes it look so straightforward that it’s easy to undervalue it. (Nolan’s great insight here seems to have been that by relying on the audience’s familiarity with the conventions of the war movie, he could lop off the first hour of the story and just tell the second half. Its nonlinear structure, in turn, seems to have been a pragmatic solution to the problem of how to intercut freely between three settings with different temporal and spatial demands, and Nolan strikes me as the one director both to whom it would have occurred and who would have actually been allowed to do it.) On a commercial level, it’s his most brazen attempt, even more than Inception, to see what he could do with the free pass that a director typically gets after a string of hits. And the fact that he succeeded, with a summer box office smash that seems likely to win multiple Oscars, only makes me all the more eager to see what he’ll do next.

It all amounts to the closest film in recent memory to what Omar Sharif once said of Lawrence of Arabia: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that’s four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert—what would you say?” Dunkirk is half as long as Lawrence and consists almost entirely of action, and it isn’t on the same level, but the challenge that it presented to “the man with the money” must have been nearly as great. (Its lack of women, unfortunately, is equally glaring.) In fact, I can think of only one other director who has done anything comparable. I happened to see Dunkirk a few weeks after catching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen, and as I watched the former movie last night, it occurred to me that Nolan has pulled off the most convincing Kubrick impression that any of us have ever seen. You don’t become the next Kubrick by imitating him, as Nolan did to some extent in Interstellar, but by figuring out new ways to tell stories using all the resources of the cinema, and somehow convincing a studio to fund the result. In both cases, the studio was Warner Bros., and I wonder if executives with long memories see Nolan as a transitional figure between Kubrick and the needs of the DC Extended Universe. It’s a difficult position for any director to occupy, and it may well prevent Nolan from developing along more interesting lines that his career might otherwise have taken. His artistic gambles, while considerable, are modest compared to even Barry Lyndon, and his position at the center of the industry can only discourage him from running the risk of being difficult or alienating. But I’m not complaining. Dunkirk is the story of a retreat, but it’s also the latest chapter in the life of a director who just can’t stop advancing.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2017 at 9:21 am

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