Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The act of killing

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Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the first two episodes of Mindhunter, the new Netflix series created by Joe Penhall and produced by David Fincher. We took in the installments over successive nights, but if you can, I’d recommend viewing them back to back—they really add up to a single pilot episode, arbitrarily divided in half, and they amount to a new movie from one of the five most interesting American directors under sixty. After the first episode, I was a little mixed, but I felt better after the next one, and although I still have some reservations, I expect that I’ll keep going. The writing tends to spell things out a little too clearly; it doesn’t always avoid clichés; and there are times when it feels like a first draft of a stronger show to come. Fincher, characteristically, sometimes seems less interested in the big picture than in small, finicky details, like the huge titles used to identify the locations onscreen, or the fussily perfect sound that the springs of the chair make whenever the bulky serial killer Ed Kemper sits down. (He also gives us two virtuoso sequences of the kind that he does better than just about anyone else—a scene in a noisy club with subtitled dialogue, which I’ve been waiting to see for years, and a long, very funny montage of two FBI agents on the road.) For long stretches, the show is about little else than the capabilities of the Red Xenomorph digital camera. Yet it also feels like a skeleton key for approaching the work of a man who, in fits and starts, has come to seem like the crucial director of our time, in large part because of his own ambivalence toward his fantasies of control.

Mindhunter is based on a book of the same name by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker about the development of behavioral science at the FBI. I read it over twenty years ago, at the peak of my morbid interest in serial killers, which is a phase that a lot of us pass through and that Fincher, revealingly, has never outgrown. Apart from Alien 3, which was project that he barely understood and couldn’t control, his real debut was Seven, in which he benefited from a mechanical but undeniably compelling script by Andrew Kevin Walker and a central figure who has obsessed him ever since. John Doe, the killer, is still the greatest example of the villain who seems to be writing the screenplay for the movie in which he appears. (As David Thomson says of Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK: “[He’s] so omniscient he must be the scriptwriter.”) Doe’s notebooks, rendered in comically lavish detail, are like a nightmare version of the notes, plans, and storyboards that every film generates, and he alternately assumes the role of writer, art director, prop master, and producer. By the end, with the hero detectives reduced to acting out their assigned parts in his play, the distinction between Doe and the director—a technical perfectionist who would later become notorious for asking his performers for hundreds of takes—seems to disappear completely. It seems to have simultaneously exhilarated and troubled Fincher, much as it did Christopher Nolan as he teased out his affinities with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and both men have spent much of their subsequent careers working through the implications of that discovery.

Fincher hasn’t always been comfortable with his association with serial killers, to the extent that he made a point of having the characters in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo refer to “a serial murderer,” as if we’d be fooled by the change in terminology. Yet the main line of his filmography is an attempt by a surprisingly smart, thoughtful director to come to terms with his own history of violence. There were glimpses of it as early as The Game, and Zodiac, his masterpiece, is a deconstruction of the formula that turned out to be so lucrative in Seven—the killer, wearing a mask, appears onscreen for just five minutes, and some of the scariest scenes don’t have anything to do with him at all, even as his actions reverberate outward to affect the lives of everyone they touch. Dragon Tattoo, which is a movie that looks a lot better with time, identifies its murder investigation with the work of the director and his editors, who seemed to be asking us to appreciate their ingenuity in turning the elements of the book, with its five acts and endless procession of interchangeable suspects, into a coherent film. And while Gone Girl wasn’t technically a serial killer movie, it gave us his most fully realized version to date of the antagonist as the movie’s secret writer, even if she let us down with the ending that she wrote for herself. In each case, Fincher was processing his identity as a director who was drawn to big technical challenges, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network, without losing track of the human thread. And he seems to have sensed how easily he could become a kind of John Doe, a master technician who toys sadistically with the lives of others.

And although Mindhunter takes a little while to reveal its strengths, it looks like it will be worth watching as Fincher’s most extended attempt to literally interrogate his assumptions. (Fincher only directed the first two episodes, but this doesn’t detract from what might have attracted him to this particular project, or the role that he played in shaping it as a producer.) The show follows two FBI agents as they interview serial killers in search of insights into their madness, with the tone set by a chilling monologue by Ed Kemper:

People who hunt other people for a vocation—all we want to talk about is what it’s like. The shit that went down. The entire fucked-upness of it. It’s not easy butchering people. It’s hard work. Physically and mentally, I don’t think people realize. You need to vent…Look at the consequences. The stakes are very high.

Take out the references to murder, and it might be the director talking. Kemper later casually refers to his “oeuvre,” leading one of the two agents to crack: “Is he Stanley Kubrick?” It’s a little out of character, but also enormously revealing. Fincher, like Nolan, has spent his career in dialogue with Kubrick, who, fairly or not, still sets the standard for obsessive, meticulous, controlling directors. Kubrick never made a movie about a serial killer, but he took the equation between the creative urge and violence—particularly in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining—as far as anyone ever has. And Mindhunter will only become the great show that it has the potential to be if it asks why these directors, and their fans, are so drawn to these stories in the first place.

The pickup artists

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Felicity Jones in Rogue One

Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a series of mostly unheralded technological and cultural developments that have allowed movies to be shaped more like novels—that is, as works of art that remain malleable and open to revision almost up to the last minute. Digital editing tools allow for cuts and rearrangements to be made relatively quickly, and they open up the possibility of even more sophisticated adjustments. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for instance, includes shots in which an actor’s performance from one take was invisibly combined with another, while the use of high-definition digital video made it possible to crop the frame, recenter images, and even create camera movement where none was there before. In the old days, the addition of new material in postproduction was mostly restricted to voiceovers that played over an existing shot to clarify a plot point, or to pickup shots, which are usually inserts that can filmed on the cheap. (It would be amusing to make a list of closeup shots of hands in movies that actually belong to the editor or director. I can think of two examples off the top of my head: The Conversation and The Usual Suspects.) In some cases, you can get the main cast back for new scenes, and directors like Peter Jackson, who learned how useful it could be to have an actor constantly available during the shooting of The Lord of the Rings, have begun to allocate a few weeks into their schedule explicitly for reshoots.

As I was writing this post, my eye was caught by an article in the New York Times that notes that the famous subway grate scene in The Seven Year Itch was actually a reshoot, which reminds us that this isn’t anything new. But it feels more like a standard part of the blockbuster toolbox than it ever did before, and along with the resources provided by digital editing, it means that movies can be continually refined almost up to the release date. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the full range of such tools are available only to big tentpole pictures, which means that millions of dollars are required to recreate the kind of creative freedom that every writer possesses while sitting alone at his or her desk.) But we still tend to associate reshoots with a troubled production. Reports of new footage being shot dogged Rogue One for most of the summer, and the obvious rejoinder, which was made at the time, is to argue that such reshoots are routine. In fact, the truth was a bit more complicated. As the Hollywood Reporter pointed out, the screenwriter Tony Gilroy was initially brought in for a rewrite, but his role quickly expanded:

Tony Gilroy…will pocket north of $5 million for his efforts…[He] first was brought in to help write dialogue and scenes for Rogue’s reshoots and was being paid $200,000 a week, according to several sources. That figure is fairly normal for a top-tier writer on a big-budget studio film. But as the workload (and the reshoots) expanded, so did Gilroy’s time and paycheck.

Gareth Edwards and Diego Luna on the set of Rogue One

The article continued: “Gilroy started on Rogue One in June, and by August, he was taking a leading role with Edwards in postproduction, which lasted well into the fall. The reshoots are said to have tackled several issues in the film, including the ending.” This is fairly unprecedented, at least in the way it’s being presented here. You’ll occasionally hear about one director taking over for another, but not about one helming reshoots for a comparable salary and a writer’s credit alone. In part, this may be a matter of optics: Disney wouldn’t have wanted to openly replace the director for such an important release. It may also reflect Tony Gilroy’s peculiar position in Hollywood. Gilroy never seemed particularly content as a screenwriter, but his track record as a director has been mixed, so he responded by turning himself into a professional fixer, like a Robert Towne upgraded for the digital age. And the reshoots appear to have been both unusually extensive and conceived with a writerly touch. As editor John Gilroy—Tony’s brother—told Yahoo Movies UK:

[The reshoots] gave you the film that you see today. I think they were incredibly helpful. The story was reconceptualized to some degree, there were scenes that were added at the beginning and fleshed out. We wanted to make more of the other characters, like Cassian’s character, and Bodhi’s character…The scene with Cassian’s introduction with the spy, Bodhi traipsing through Jedha on his way to see Saw, these are things that were added. Also Jyn, how we set her up and her escape from the transporter, that was all done to set up the story better.

The editor Colin Goudie added: “The point with the opening scenes that John was just describing was that the introductions in the opening scene, in the prologue, [were] always the same. Jyn’s just a little girl, so when you see her as an adult, what you saw initially was her in a meeting. That’s not a nice introduction. So having her in prison and then a prison breakout, with Cassian on a mission…everybody was a bit more ballsy, or a bit more exciting, and a bit more interesting.” In other words, the new scenes didn’t just clarify what was already there, but brought out character points that didn’t exist at all, which is exactly the sort of thing that a writer does in a rewrite. And it worked. Rogue One can feel a little mechanical at times, but all of the pieces come together in a satisfying way, and it has a cleaner and more coherent narrative line than The Force Awakens. The strategies that it used to get there, from the story reel to the reshoot, were on a larger scale than usual, but that was almost certainly due to the tyranny of the calendar. Even more than its predecessor, Rogue One had to come out on schedule and live up to expectations: it’s the film that sets the pattern for an annual Star Wars movie between now and the end of time. The editorial team’s objective was to deliver it in the window available, and they succeeded. (Goudie notes that the first assembly was just ten minutes longer than the final cut, thanks largely to the insights that the story reel provided—it bought them time at the beginning that they could cash in at the end.) Every film requires some combination of time, money, and ingenuity, and as Rogue One demonstrates, any two of the three can be used to make for a lack of the third. As Goudie concludes: “It was like life imitating art. Let’s get a band of people and put them together on this secret mission.”

“Where all other disguises fell away…”

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"Where all other disguises fell away..."

Note: This post is the forty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 45. You can read the previous installments here.

Occasionally, a piece of technology appears in the real world that fits the needs of fiction so admirably that authors rush to adopt it in droves. My favorite example is the stun gun. The ability to immobilize characters without killing or permanently incapacitating them is one that most genre writers eventually require. It allows the hero to dispatch a henchman or two while removing the need to murder them in cold blood, which is essential if your protagonist is going to remain likable, and it also lets the villain temporarily disable the hero while still keeping him alive for future plot purposes. Hence the ubiquitous blow to the back of the head that causes unconsciousness, which was a cliché long before movies like Conspiracy Theory ostentatiously drew attention to it. The beauty of the stun gun is that it produces all of the necessary effects—instantaneous paralysis with no lasting consequences—that the convention requires, while remaining comfortably within the bounds of plausibility. In my case, it was the moment when Mathis is conveniently dispatched toward the end of Casino Royale that woke me up to its possibilities, and I didn’t hesitate to use it repeatedly in The Icon Thief. By now, though, it’s become so overused that writers are already seeking alternatives, and even so meticulous an entertainment as the David Fincher version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo falls back on the even hoarier device of knockout gas. But the stun gun is here to stay.

Much the same principle applies to the two most epochal technological developments of our time, which have affected fiction as much as they’ve transformed everyday life: the cell phone and the Internet. Even the simple flip phone was a game changer, instantly rendering obsolete all stories that depend on characters being unable to contact one another or the police—which is why service outages and spotty coverage seem so common in horror movies. It’s hard not to watch movies or television from earlier in this century without reflecting on how so many problems could be solved by a simple phone call. (I’m catching up on The People v. O.J. Simpson, and I find myself thinking about the phones they’re using, or the lack thereof, as much as the story itself.) And the smartphone, with the instant access it provides to all the world’s information, generates just as many new problems and solutions, particularly for stories that hinge on the interpretation of obscure facts. Anyone writing conspiracy fiction these days has felt this keenly: there isn’t much call for professional symbologists when ordinary bystanders can solve the mystery by entering a couple of search terms. In City of Exiles, there’s a dramatic moment when Wolfe asks Ilya: “What is the Dyatlov Pass?” On reading it, my editor noted, not unreasonably: “Doesn’t anybody there have a cell phone?” In the end, I kept the line, and I justified it to myself by compressing the timeline: Wolfe has just been too busy to look it up herself. But I’m not sure if it works.

"It was a search engine request..."

Search engines are a particularly potent weapon of storytelling, to the point where they’ve almost become dangerous. At their best, they can provide a neat way of getting the story from one plot point to the next: hence the innumerable movie scenes in which someone like Jason Bourne stops in an Internet café and conducts a few searches, cut into an exciting montage, that propel him to the next stage of his journey. Sometimes, it seems too easy, but as screenwriter Tony Gilroy has said on more than one occasion, for a complicated action movie, you want to get from one sequence to the next with the minimum number of intermediate steps—and the search engine was all but designed to provide such shortcuts. More subtly, a series of queries can be used to provide a glimpse into a character’s state of mind, while advancing the plot at the same time. (My favorite example is when Bella looks up vampires in the first Twilight movie.) Google itself was ahead of the curve in understanding that a search can provide a stealth narrative, in brilliant commercials like “Parisian Love.” We’re basically being given access to the character’s interior monologue, which is a narrative tool of staggering usefulness. Overhearing someone’s thoughts is easy enough in prose fiction, but not in drama or film, and conventions like the soliloquy and the voiceover have been developed to address the problem, not always with complete success.  Showing us a series of search queries is about as nifty a solution as exists, to the point where it starts to seem lazy.

And an additional wrinkle is that our search histories don’t dissipate as our thoughts do: they linger, which means that other characters, as well as the viewer or reader, have potential access to them as well. (This isn’t just a convention of fiction, either: search histories have become an increasingly important form of evidence in criminal prosecutions. This worries me a bit, since anyone looking without the proper context at my own searches, which are often determined by whatever story I’m writing at the time, might conclude that I’m a total psychopath.) I made good use of this in Chapter 45 of Eternal Empire, in which Wolfe manages to access Asthana’s search history on her home computer and deduces that she was looking into Maddy Blume. It’s a crucial moment in the narrative, which instantly unites two widely separated plotlines, and this was the most efficient way I could devise of making the necessary connection. In fact, it might be a little too efficient: it verges on unbelievable that Asthana, who is so careful in all other respects, would fail to erase her search history. I tried to make it more acceptable by adding an extra step with a minimum of technical gobbledegook—Asthana has cleared her browser history, so Wolfe checks the contents of the disk and memory caches, which are saved separately to her hard drive—but it still feels like something of a cheat. But as long as search histories exist, authors will use them as a kind of trace evidence, like the flecks of cigarette ash that Sherlock Holmes uses to identify a suspect. And unlike most clues, they’re written for all to see…

The lure of true crime

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American Tragedy by Lawrence Schiller

A few months ago, I wrote a short blog post about Lawrence Schiller, the photographer, packager, and all-around hustler who famously collaborated with Norman Mailer on such books as The Executioner’s Song. I’d started thinking about Schiller again thanks to the birthday video he directed decades ago for Kris Jenner as a favor to her husband Robert Kardashian, which resurfaced recently online. And I was intrigued enough by the connection to dig a little further into Schiller and his work, which includes a massive tome called American Tragedy, billed as “the uncensored story of the O.J. Simpson defense.” I had a plane trip and a few quiet weeks coming up, so I snared a copy. And I devoured it. I liked it so much, in fact, that I moved on to Schiller’s Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, another “uncensored story,” this one about the JonBenét Ramsey case, which I never thought I’d want to read about again. After just a couple of days, I’ve already burned halfway through it. (American Tragedy sheds additional light, incidentally, on Schiller’s relationship with Kardashian, which I mischaracterized slightly in my initial post. I’d thought that Schiller and Kardashian simply moved in the same circles, but it turns out that they met each other through their ex-wives. And Stephanie Schiller even ended up working with Kris Jenner on the “little team of elves” that revived her husband Bruce’s career in the early nineties—which is just another example of the tangled connections that you find everywhere in Schiller’s life.)

It isn’t hard to figure out what makes Schiller’s books so compelling. Both American Tragedy and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town exist almost entirely in the present tense, with any backstory minimized in favor of a methodical, understated accumulation of detail and incident that Schiller seems to have learned from Mailer: they read like The Executioner’s Song with all the poetry removed. They aren’t great works of art, but there’s something undeniably seductive about the smooth way in which they feed information to the reader about such insanely complicated stories. Schiller also has genuine talents as a reporter, even if his methods and his relationships with his subjects raise questions of their own. (He got to know the O.J. Simpson team, for instance, while ghostwriting Simpson’s book I Want to Tell You, and he even helped to clean up, edit, and assemble the audio recordings of Mark Furhman’s racist statements that were played in court—a degree of involvement that would be unthinkable for most conventional journalists.) American Tragedy is loaded with stories and insights that I’d either forgotten or never known, particularly about the crucial role played by Barry Scheck, the founder of the Innocence Project, in raising reasonable doubt about the blood evidence. And it leaves me in a peculiar position as Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson premieres tomorrow: I’ve relived every aspect of this case so recently that I don’t think I have the capacity to take any more. Except, of course, that I probably do.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

As a culture, we’ve developed a newfound fixation on a certain kind of true crime story, embodied first of all by Serial, then by The Jinx, and these days by Making a Murderer, of which I’ve watched five out of ten episodes so far. (The fact that the second season of Serial, which abandons the crime angle, has received a fraction of the attention of the first indicates that listeners were drawn more to the story of Adnan and Hae than to anything about Sarah Koenig’s methods.) Like Schiller’s books, which run to close to a thousand pages in paperback, the podcast and miniseries formats allow cases to be examined at extravagant length, until we feel as if we’re being injected with a slow drip of names, dates, and circumstantial evidence. I’ve noted before that a filmmaker like Errol Morris could have covered the same ground as Serial—and Making a Murderer—in less than two hours, but I’ve since come to realize that the expansive runtime is part of the point. Such stories, like the conspiracy theories into which they often imperceptibly shade, satisfy a fundamental craving we have for information, at a time when processing and making sense of the facts at our disposal has begun to feel like a central challenge of modern life. We’re drawn to detective stories for much the same reason, but a true crime provides us with more details than a fictional one would ever dare, along with the tantalizing prospect of a hidden order visible if we just look at the clues from the right angle. And it’s only when the case is developed on an epic scale that it offers us the illusion that we can make sense of it ourselves.

Because it is an illusion, and it’s one to which a murder mystery lends itself particularly well. We can absorb thousands of details about an unsolved homicide to an extent that we generally can’t about, say, foreign policy or climate change, because the vivid nature of the crime generates a kind of electrical field in which all the pieces can align. (It’s why David Fincher, whose films, as I noted last week, are often about their own complexity, has been drawn to no fewer than three different stories about serial killers, to the point where, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he insisted on using the term “serial murderer” instead, as if no one would notice that he was revisiting the same territory.) And it’s the futility of the search itself that we find so compelling. My return last year to the true crime genre came courtesy of Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision, a book so compulsively disturbing and fascinating that I almost wish I hadn’t read it. Those familiar with the Jeffrey MacDonald case know that it’s a bottomless pit that has swallowed up investigators like McGinniss, Janet Malcolm, and even Errol Morris himself. But it’s the messy, exasperating, unsolvable cases that obsess us the most. It’s only when the evidence refuses to come together into a coherent picture, extending the search indefinitely, that we can turn it into an obsession—a fact I find more intriguing than any of the mediations on the nature of truth that Koening provided at the end of Serial. Facts multiply, interpretations collide, patterns emerge and disappear, but only after a critical mass of information has been achieved. And the rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader.

“And what does that name have to do with this?”

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"The word on the side of your yacht..."

Note: This post is the thirtieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 29. You can read the previous installments here.

Earlier this week, in response to a devastating article in the New York Times on the allegedly crushing work environment in Amazon’s corporate offices, Jeff Bezos sent an email to employees that included the following statement:

[The article] claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter is heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either…I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the [Times] would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

Predictably, the email resulted in numerous headlines along the lines of “Jeff Bezos to Employees: You Don’t Work in a Dystopian Hellscape, Do You?” Bezos, a very smart guy, should have seen it coming. As Richard Nixon learned a long time ago, whenever you tell people that you aren’t a crook, you’re really raising the possibility that you might be. If you’re concerned about the names that your critics might call you, the last thing you want to do is put words in their mouths—it’s why public relations experts advise their clients to avoid negative language, even in the form of a denial—and saying that Amazon isn’t a soulless, dystopian workplace is a little like asking us not to think of an elephant.

Writers have recognized the negative power of certain loaded terms for a long time, and many works of art go out of their way to avoid such words, even if they’re central to the story. One of my favorite examples is the film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Coming off Seven and Zodiac, David Fincher didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a director of serial killer movies, so the dialogue exclusively uses the term “serial murderer,” although it’s doubtful how effective this was. Along the same lines, Christopher Nolan’s superhero movies are notably averse to calling their characters by their most famous names: The Dark Knight Rises never uses the name “Catwoman,” while Man of Steel, which Nolan produced, avoids “Superman,” perhaps following the example of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which indulges in similar circumlocutions. Robert Towne’s script for Greystoke never calls its central character “Tarzan,” and The Walking Dead uses just about every imaginable term for its creatures aside from “zombie,” for reasons that creator Robert Kirkman explains:

One of the things about this world is that…they’re not familiar with zombies, per se. This isn’t a world [in which] the Romero movies exist, for instance, because we don’t want to portray it that way…They’ve never seen this in pop culture. This is a completely new thing for them.

"And what does that name have to do with this?"

Kirkman’s reluctance to call anything a zombie, which has inspired an entire page on TV Tropes dedicated to similar examples, is particularly revealing. A zombie movie can’t use that word because an invasion of the undead needs to feel like something unprecedented, and falling back on a term we know conjures up all kinds of pop cultural connotations that an original take might prefer to avoid. In many cases, avoiding particular words subtly encourages us treat the story on its own terms. In The Godfather, the term “Mafia” is never uttered—an aversion, incidentally, not shared by the original novel, the working title of which was actually Mafia. This quietly allows us to judge the Corleones according to the rules of their own closed world, and it circumvents any real reflection about what the family business actually involves. (According to one famous story, the mobster Joseph Colombo paid a visit to producer Al Ruddy, demanding that the word be struck from the script as a condition for allowing the movie to continue. Ruddy, who knew that the screenplay only used the word once, promptly agreed.) The Godfather Part II is largely devoted to blowing up the first movie’s assumptions, and when the word “Mafia” is uttered at a senate hearing, it feels like the real world intruding on a comfortable fantasy. And the moment wouldn’t be as effective if the first installment hadn’t been as diligent about avoiding the term, allowing it to build a new myth in its place.

While writing Eternal Empire, I found myself confronting a similar problem. In this case, the offending word was “Shambhala.” As I’ve noted before, I decided early on that the third novel in the series would center on the Shambhala myth, a choice I made as soon as I stumbled across an excerpt from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, in which she states that Vladimir Putin had taken a particular interest in the legend. A little research, notably in Andrei Znamenski’s Red Shambhala, confirmed that the periodic attempts by Russia to confirm the existence of that mythical kingdom, carried out in an atmosphere of espionage and spycraft in Central Asia, was a rich vein of material. The trouble was that the word “Shambhala” itself was so loaded with New Age connotations that I’d have trouble digging my way out from under it: a quick search online reveals that it’s the name of a string of meditation centers, a music festival, and a spa with its own line of massage oils, none of which is exactly in keeping with the tone that I was trying to evoke. My solution, predictably, was to structure the whole plot around the myth of Shambhala while mentioning it as little as possible: the name appears perhaps thirty times across four hundred pages. (The mythological history of Shambhala is treated barely at all, and most of the references occur in discussions of the real attempts by Russian intelligence to discover it.) The bulk of those references appear here, in Chapter 29, and I cut them all down as much as possible, focusing on the bare minimum I needed for Maddy to pique Tarkovsky’s interest. I probably could have cut them even further. But as it stands, it’s more or less enough to get the story to where it needs to be. And it doesn’t need to be any longer than it is…

Hanging a lantern on it

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John Rhys-Davies in The Return of the King

For Christmas, I finally got my own copy of the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray. About a year ago, I’d laboriously worked my way through all the commentary tracks and special features on the discs I’d borrowed from my brother-in-law, and I realized that it was a real treasure trove of insights into filmmaking and storytelling—the closest thing I’ve found to a film school in a box set. Not surprisingly, I decided that I had to own it for myself. Playing it again now, I’ve started to see that part of the reason these supplementary materials are so fascinating is because they show us a director and creative team coping with a subject larger than they’d ever confronted before. The Lord of the Rings movies are fantastic, but not perfect, and much of the fun of the commentaries is hearing Peter Jackson and his collaborators discussing what they might have done differently, or analyzing problems that they were never quite able to crack. You’ll often get richer insights from a director talking about an unworkable project than about one in which the pieces just seemed to fall into place: I find The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo more interesting to think about than The Social Network, even though I vastly prefer the latter movie, and I have the feeling that I’d learn a hell of a lot from the commentaries to The Hobbit.

There’s one particular moment in The Return of the King that I’ve been thinking about recently. Aragorn has just succeeded in raising the army of the dead at the White Mountains, and with its help, he’s routed the orcs at the siege of Minas Tirith. Later, with an expedition looming against Mordor itself, the king of the dead asks Aragon to release them from their oath, leading to this aside from Gimli: “Bad idea. Very handy in a tight spot, these lads, despite the fact they’re dead.” Aragorn, of course, lets them go—and it’s a good thing he does, at least within the context of the movie we’re watching. As Jackson points out in his commentary, an invincible army of ghosts is a fatal narrative device: if they can’t be killed, there’s no suspense in any battle. He goes on to say that he hated the idea, but felt that he had to include it out of fidelity to the books, so he did what he could to delay their involvement and them out of the way as soon as possible. Even in its final form, their appearance still feels like something of a cheat, with all the prior action we’ve seen on the battlefield rendered more than a little irrelevant. But the movie buys back a lot of credibility with Gimli’s muttered observation, in which he basically speaks, as he often does, for the audience.

The Return of the King

In other words, the movie anticipates the viewer’s objection, and instead of ignoring it or rewriting the story to remove it, it calls attention to it. And while this may not be the best solution, it kind of works. In the past, I’ve talked about the anthropic principle of fiction, which briefly states that the most fundamental aspects of a story should be built around its least plausible elements. If the narrative hinges on a coincidence, a freak occurrence, or some odd fact of nature—as we often see in mystery and science fiction—it’s not too much to tailor the setting, the major beats of the plot, and even the primary characters to make a tenuous idea more credible when it comes. (My favorite example from my own work is my short story “Ernesto,” which ended up being set in the Spanish Civil War and featuring Ernest Hemingway as the lead simply so I could justify an undiagnosed outbreak of erysipelas.) This approach tends to work better in short fiction, in which every element can be introduced to ultimately serve a specific twist or pivotal moment. A longer work, like a novel or feature film, pushes back a little more: the story is so large that not every detail can be contingent on a single narrative problem. And in practice, you often end up with necessary but infuriatingly uncooperative moments that don’t quite track, but can’t be cut.

All you can do, in the end, is make it seem intentional, by spotlighting it to the point where the reader can’t accuse you of overlooking it through carelessness. In television, it’s called lampshading or hanging a lantern, while Brian Eno, in his Oblique Strategies, says: “Magnify the most difficult details.” Or, in the language of software development: “It isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.” You see it whenever a novelist points out that a plot point is exactly like the kind of thing you’d see in a bad novel, or when a writer claims that he’d hesitate to mention an improbable coincidence if he weren’t describing factual events, or when Bruce Willis simply says: “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” This isn’t anyone’s idea of a great solution, and it should only be used as a last resort. (If nothing else, it’s an example of authorial desperation masquerading as cleverness and then drawing attention to itself, none of which are enviable qualities in fiction.) Sometimes, though, the end justifies the means—even if it isn’t the kind of thing you want to do more than once per story, if at all. A novelist needs to be a good liar, and the greatest deceivers, as we all know, don’t press the point too much. When you’re called on it, there are times when you have to double down. But it’s better not to give yourself away in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2015 at 9:32 am

Cutting the Dragon

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The editing room of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Last week, I picked up a copy of the Blu-ray of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which is only the second or third movie I’ve bought for myself all year. Readers with long memories might be slightly surprised by this, since I’ve gone on the record as saying that I’m not a fan of the original book and only guardedly positive on the adaption. My initial thoughts on it remain more or less the same: “As the credits roll, we know we’ve been treated to a slick, professional studio product, with isolated flashes of beauty and cruelty, but we aren’t sure why. And I don’t think Fincher knows, either.” Yet I’ve thought about the movie repeatedly over the last two years, thanks partly to my fascination with David Fincher himself and partly to David Thomson’s enthusiastic reappraisal. More to the point, I also had a feeling that the special features on the video release would be spectacular: Fincher is a director whose process is always interesting, regardless of the outcome, and I’m at a point in my life—when it can be hard to find time to sit down for two hours with a movie I’ve seen before—when I’m just as likely to buy a movie based on its production featurettes. (Among other things, this explains why I own a copy of The Lovely Bones.)

And I was right. Dragon Tattoo makes for an intriguing case study, since it represents a first-class director and creative team doing their best to wrestle with some inherently intractable material. The novel provides a superficially complicated narrative with a lot of suspects, not much action, and two leads who never meet until the halfway point, so nearly every scene consists of a solution to problems that the audience, ideally, will never notice. Editor Angus Wall notes that the final cut of The Social Network was essentially the same as the screenplay, minus a few words, while Dragon Tattoo had to be largely reinvented in the editing room. And the featurette “In the Cutting Room,” which follows Wall and Kirk Baxter—who won their second consecutive Oscar for their work here—as they try to figure out a shape for the story they’ve been given, is worth spending ten dollars on the disc set alone. It’s full of the little aperçus of wisdom that all great film editors seem to have at their fingertips, like the fact that they’ve learned to go faster, not slower, if the audience seems confused. And as is often the case, a movie that presents issues that might never be solved to anyone’s satisfaction ends up being more instructive than a tidier project: it’s no accident that the best book ever written on film editing is about Walter Murch and Cold Mountain.

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

What struck me the most about seeing Wall and Baxter at work is how technology has both increased their range of options and guaranteed that their contributions will remain all the more invisible. Numerous scenes in Dragon Tattoo made use of split screens to combine an actor’s performance in one take with that of a second actor in another, a kind of magic that only works, by definition, when it goes unseen, even if it has the potential to shape the audience’s experience more profoundly than any number of flashier techniques. The large frame granted by the RED digital camera—which provides a margin of unused image on all sides—allowed Fincher and his editors to quietly crop, stabilize, and recenter shots, change the timing of pans and tilts, and even create movement out of nothing in the editing room. It all represents a set of tools, when combined with reshoots and additional dialogue recording, that bring the process of editing a movie ever closer to that of revising a novel, in which the author isn’t strictly limited by the footage that already exists. Traditional film editing is a kind of amalgam between subtractive sculpture, collage, and musical composition; now it feels more like an extension of the act of directing or screenwriting itself.

And this fascinates me, because I’ve always thought of film editing as possibly the closest parallel in all the arts to what a writer does for a living, or at least the richest source of potential metaphors and analogies. Writers soon discover that their artistic freedom, if not exactly an illusion, has to be carefully qualified: you spend about half of every project inventing new material and the other half living with what you’ve already made, and while each day theoretically represents a fresh start, in practice, life is short enough that you find yourself making do with what you have. The editor, in his quiet room far from the chaos of the set, represents the purest expression I know of that confrontation between the possible and the actual. (David Mamet speaks in On Directing Film of the collaboration between the Apollonian side of the writer that plans the structure and the Dionysian side that writes the dialogue, and it’s possible that I’m drawn to the figure of the editor as the detached Apollonian craftsman versus the Dionysian confusion of moviemaking itself.) It’s in the nature of art to blur such boundaries, and ingenious, obsessive directors like Fincher will always seek ways of pushing the region in which meaningful choices can be made as far into the process as possible. And despite—or because of—the fact that writers can take these possibilities for granted, we can learn a lot from the fields in which they’re being realized for the first time, as if the history of storytelling were being played out again before our very eyes.

Tinker, Tailor, and how to spot a murderer

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Any review I write of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will inevitably be brought up against the fact that I don’t know much about John le Carré. For various reasons, I’ve never been able to get into his work, despite trying and failing several times. This may seem like a strange admission from someone who, rather to his own surprise, has found himself making a living as a suspense novelist, but my own interests are considerably removed from le Carré’s: I’m not necessarily fascinated by spycraft or the Cold War for its own sake, so whenever I open one of his meticulously crafted novels, I feel a greater cultural shock upon entering this world than I do with, say, Fredrick Forsyth, who is probably the lesser artist, but who has a greater journalistic interest in keeping the lay reader engaged. All the same, I do intend to take the plunge into le Carré one of these days—there’s just no avoiding him if you have any interest at all in the history of the thriller—but it hasn’t happened yet.

Perhaps fortunately, then, I was able to approach the chilly new adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with something close to an open mind. (I also haven’t seen the famous television adaptation with Alec Guinness as George Smiley.) And while I’m obviously unable to judge its faithfulness to the source material, it certainly captures my idea of le Carré: tense, reserved, hermetic. As other reviewers have noted, it plunges you at once into a world of names, tradecraft, and technical language, to an extent that, refreshingly, gives the audience almost too much credit. It’s a testament to the quality of the cast, especially Gary Oldman’s restrained but powerful turn as Smiley, and director Tomas Alfredson, who creates a nice, faintly rotting atmosphere, that we’re interested and engaged the entire time, assuming that we can make the leap into the world that the movie has created. The film certainly doesn’t go out of its way to pull us in: it’s a mole hunt, revolving around the search for a traitor at the highest levels of British intelligence, but the stakes are less about the loss of real secrets than a sense of clubby betrayal, which we can only regard from a distance.

This refusal to hold the audience’s hand can be intriguing, but there are also times when it works against the story that the movie is trying to tell. For example, while I love its avoidance of the chronological chryons (“Four years earlier,” “Present day”) that clutter up so many of our suspense films, there’s also a crucial moment when we’re confused about whether or not a certain scene is a flashback, which diffuses the impact of an important surprise. More damagingly, for the mole hunt to have any weight at all, we need to know something about the men under suspicion, but for the most part, we know them only at sight, with their relationships expressed by a veiled exchange of glances, or not at all. As someone who has come down more than once against backstory, I applaud the decision to leave much of this material to implication, but I can’t help feeling that the movie takes it slightly too far, with at least one major character so thinly developed that it’s impossible, and rightly so, to take him as a suspect.

This reluctance to spell things out can be addressed, to a point, by thoughtful casting, and indeed, the actors—Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt, and a very winning Benedict Cumberbatch—tell us far more about their characters than is conveyed by the script itself. In at least one respect, however, the casting is a bit too clever, leading to the movie’s one real flaw, also shared by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Spoilers for both movies follow, at least by implication.) I’ve long since learned that the easiest way to spot a murderer, or a mole, is to look for a famous actor cast in what seems, at first, to be an insignificant supporting part, or at least a part with nothing obvious to attract a well-known name. Because actors of a certain caliber generally won’t take such small roles, at least not without good reason, the observant viewer suspects that there’s more to this character than meets the eye. It’s always possible, of course, that a really clever movie will employ a famous face as a deliberate distraction…but in the end, the casting in both Tinker, Tailor and Dragon Tattoo gives away the game. I doubt that Smiley would approve.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2012 at 10:17 am

Reflections on a Dragon Tattoo

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My feelings about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are a matter of record. No other cultural sensation of recent years has left me so cold: where others see a masterpiece, I see a book that is amateurishly plotted, lurid but airless, overlong, and, worst of all, often grindingly dull. I’m not passing judgment on the novel’s many fans; only trying, unsuccessfully, to figure out what they find so compelling. I’m on the outside, looking in. Which made me all the more interested, paradoxically, in seeing David Fincher’s film of the book. As I’ve said before, with Zodiac and The Social Network, Fincher has gone from a filmmaker toward whom I’ve always felt considerable ambivalence to one of my four or five favorite contemporary directors. He’s an impeccable craftsman with a nice, chilly style, and to my eyes, he seemed like just the man to pare away the worst of the book’s shortcomings to reveal the germ of a decent story at its heart.

The good news is that the movie is much better than the book. Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian skillfully foreshorten the novel’s interminable opening and closing sections, cut down on the number of meaningless suspects, and make the logic of the investigation, if not exactly plausible, at least visually comprehensible. In many ways, this is a more impressive display of Fincher’s craft than a more engaging story might have afforded: for a movie with little conventional suspense and even less real action, it’s surprisingly absorbing, and seems much shorter than its actual length of nearly three hours. Like all of Fincher’s movies, it looks and sounds great. And the cast is excellent, especially Rooney Mara as Lisbeth: it’s a performance based as much on makeup and costume design as any real conception of the character—much of her acting is done by the back of her head, and those amazing earrings—but Mara commits fearlessly to the part, and whenever she’s onscreen, the movie gains an additional charge.

Unfortunately, while the film does a nice job of addressing the story’s tedium, it doesn’t do much for its essential pointlessness. What, exactly, is this movie about? Like the book, the film ruminates endlessly on the complexities of the Vanger company and its tangled family tree, only to give us a killer at the end whose identity and motivations are completely arbitrary. The characters make wildly implausible deductions and even more inexplicable decisions, as when Blomkvist, effectively portrayed by Daniel Craig, figures out who the killer is, then rushes over immediately to the suspect’s isolated house, alone and unarmed. Perhaps most unforgivably, while the movie, like the book, is superficially concerned with violence against women, it has nothing interesting to say on the subject—aside from endorsing some astonishing forms of revenge—and often seems content to simply titillate the audience. From Fincher, who is capable of much better things, this is a particular disappointment.

Despite its obvious technical merits, then, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo feels like a step backward for one of our most interesting directors. If Fincher had only made Seven, The Game, and Panic Room, I might have felt differently: in that case, this film would have seemed like the best he was capable of delivering. But after The Social Network, and in particular after Zodiac, Fincher has emerged as a director who can follow through masterfully on genre conventions while also teasing out deeper possibilities. He’s still a master of mise-en-scène, and, like Hitchcock, he’s fond of nice sick touches—his use of “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” is especially inspired—but Dragon Tattoo finds him oddly unengaged. As the credits roll, we know we’ve been treated to a sleek, professional studio product, with isolated flashes of beauty and cruelty, but we aren’t sure why. And I don’t think Fincher knows, either.

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

On endless endings

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In popular fiction, the ending is everything. An audience is often surprisingly tolerant of poor storytelling, at least after they’ve been engaged by the plot—either by having been hooked by a good beginning or, more prosaically, by having paid eleven dollars for the privilege of watching it—but a bad ending is something they won’t forgive. Conversely, a great ending, especially one that takes the audience by surprise, can send a story’s prospects into the stratosphere: Inception, for instance, where I was impressed by the movie but unsure of my reaction until the startling final shot. Similarly, I love the ending of The Departed, which replaces the morally ambiguous conclusion of Infernal Affairs with a simple severing of the knot. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”

Much worse, of course, is the protracted or endless ending. We’ve all experienced books or movies that drag out the story long after a natural climax has been reached, like The Return of the King, a great movie, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a not-so-great book. With a book, at least you have a vague sense of how many more pages remain, but at the movies, I’ve often found myself hoping for a cut to black after a particularly cathartic moment, only to find that the story still had another ten minutes or more to run. Far more unusual is a movie that ends before we were expecting, but at what, in retrospect, was just the right time—which always inspires what I can only describe as surprised relief in the audience. And fiction abides by the same rules. In his valuable, if somewhat dated, Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz lays down the law:

Do not resolve the main plot problem on page 200 and continue to page 220 before typing “The End.” When the reader knows what happened, he doesn’t want to read on while the characters gab about how awful it was. If your plot contains an element of mystery, the explanations should be given throughout the climactic scene and not as an afterthought when all the action strings have been tied and cut. On the other hand, try to leave a couple of pages after the climax to let the reader settle down from that peak of emotion—a thousand words, no more.

This is good advice, although the limit of a thousand words is probably too restrictive. The two novels I’ve written have fairly similar structures: an intense climax, a short concluding chapter to tie off a few loose ends, and then a separate epilogue to set the stage for the next installment. Needless to say, I do my best to make sure that the material after the climax is as quick and concise as possible. More than one chapter of denouement, for instance, is almost certainly too much—a flaw that I’d argue applies even to that greatest of all thrillers, The Silence of the Lambs. (Thomas Harris uses a similarly long denouement for a sensational fakeout at the end of Red Dragon, which is why it’s surprising to see him play it straight in the sequel.)

As far as pushing the climax to the end is concerned, the quintessential example among thrillers is probably The Day of the Jackal. Frederick Forsyth’s debut is still the best international suspense novel ever written, thanks largely to its tight, almost mathematical pacing. The book’s three sections grow progressively compressed in length and scope: the second section is half as long as the first and covers about half as much time, while the third is even shorter, giving a sense of continuous acceleration. The main plot resolves itself on the next-to-last page, and Forsyth even saves a small surprise for the very end. It looks easy, but it isn’t: Forsyth’s subsequent novels, although some are very good, never quite manage to sustain the suspense so beautifully. And if it were easy, after all, it wouldn’t be so rare.

The singular destiny of David Fincher

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The most extraordinary thing about last night’s Academy Awards, which were otherwise inexplicably awkward, was the idea that in today’s Hollywood, five men like David Fincher, David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, and Joel and Ethan Coen could be competing for Best Director, with only the unstoppable force of Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech excluding Christopher Nolan from the final slot on that list. It was perhaps inevitable that Hooper would end up playing the spoiler, but despite the outcome, the sight of so many unpredictable, talented, and relatively young directors in one room was enough to make me feel lucky for the chance to watch their careers unfold—and that includes Hooper, as long as last night’s coronation doesn’t lull him into premature complacency. (His next big project, an adaptation of Les Misérables, doesn’t bode especially well.)

That said, David Fincher deserved to win. And one day he will. Of all the directors on that list, he’s the one who seems most capable of making a major movie that can stand with the greatest American films, which is something that I never would have guessed even five years ago. For a long time, Fincher struck me as the most erratic of technical perfectionists, at least as far as my own tastes were concerned: before The Social Network, he had made one of my favorite movies (Zodiac); one of my least favorite (Fight Club); one that was good, but limited (Seven); and several that I can barely remember (The Game, Panic Room, and the rest). But as of last night, he seems capable of anything—aside from the ambitious dead end of Benjamin Button, which only proves that Fincher needs to stay away from conventional prestige projects.

Because the crucial thing about Fincher is that his technical proficiency is the least interesting or distinctive thing about him. The world is full of directors who can do marvelous things with digital video, who know how to choreograph physical and verbal violence, and who display a fanatic’s obsession with art direction, sound, and special effects. What sets Fincher apart is his willingness, which even Nolan lacks, to lavish these considerable resources on small, surprising stories. Many of my favorite movies, from Ikiru to The Insider, are the result of a great director training his gifts on subjects that might seem better suited for television. The Social Network, which grows deeper and sadder the more often I watch it, belongs proudly to that tradition. And I have a feeling that an Oscar would have made it much harder for Fincher to continue along that path.

A win last night might also have calcified Fincher’s perfectionist habits into mere self-indulgence, which is a risk that will never entirely go away. Fincher has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to elicit fine performances from his actors, but his approach to filmmaking, with its countless takes, has more often been an emotional dead end for directors. In On Directing Film, David Mamet sums up the traditional case against multiple takes:

I’ve seen directors do as many as sixty takes of a shot. Now, any director who’s watched dailies knows that after the third or fourth take he can’t remember the first; and on the set, when shooting the tenth take, you can’t remember the purpose of the scene. And after shooting the twelfth, you can’t remember why you were born. Why do directors, then, shoot this many takes? Because they don’t know what they want to take a picture of. And they’re frightened.

Fincher, of course, is more likely to ask for a hundred takes of a shot, let alone sixty. So far, the results speak for themselves: The Social Network and Zodiac are two of the most beautifully acted ensemble movies of the last decade. They’re so good, in fact, that they’ve singlehandedly forced me to rethink my own feelings about multiple takes in the digital era. In the old days, when  film stock was too expensive to be kept running for long, the need to stop and restart the camera after every take quickly sucked all the energy out of a set. Now that videotape is essentially free, multiple takes become more of a chance to play and explore, and can result in acting of impressive nuance and subtlety. (In a recent post, David Bordwell does a nice job of highlighting how good Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in The Social Network really is.) But they’re only useful if the director remains hungry enough to channel these takes into unforgettable stories. An Oscar, I suspect, would have taken much of that hunger away.

My gut feeling, after last night, is that if Fincher continues to grow, his potential is limitless. Over the past few years, he has already matured from a director who, early on, seemed interested in design above all else to an artist whose technique is constantly in the service of story, as well as an authentic interest in his characters and the worlds they inhabit. This mixture of humanism (but not sentimentality) and technical virtuosity is precious and rare, and it’s enough to put Fincher at the head of his generation of filmmakers, as long as he continues to follow his gift into surprising places. At first glance, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seems like a step back, but at least it affords the range of tones and locations that he needs. And if last night’s loss forces him to search all the more urgently for great material, then perhaps we’re all better off in the end.

The Fugitive and the art of beginnings

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The other day, as we were talking about the divergent career paths that the leads of Star Wars had taken, my wife asked me what the last great Harrison Ford movie had been. I answered without hesitation: The Fugitive. And, immediately, I wanted to watch it again. Much to my relief, I found that it’s still a great movie. In particular, the first half hour strikes me as close to perfect: it plunges us right into the action, elegantly introduces the hero and his dilemma, and then all but throws us into the next stage of the story. Ideally, on first viewing, we’re too caught up in the narrative to think about the craft on display. It might even seem easy. But it isn’t.

Which brings us to a larger question: at what point in the story should a novel or movie begin? If the answer seems obvious—a story should begin at the beginning—that’s a good thing, because it means we’ve been spoiled by works of art that, by and large, begin at the right time. But the question of where an extended narrative should begin is as old as the Iliad and as recent as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (I don’t want to harp on this subject yet again, but if Stieg Larsson had known exactly where to begin and end his story, that book would have been infinitely more readable.)

The short answer is that the narrative should begin as late in the story as possible. In movie terms: burn the first reel. David Mamet, as always, is endlessly quotable:

Almost any film can be improved by throwing out the first ten minutes. That exposition, which assuaged the script reader, the coverage writer, the studio exec, the star and her handlers puts the audience to sleep sleep sleep. Get right into the action, and the audience will figure it out. (Simple test, for the unbelieving: when you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatever understanding what’s going on?)

And this is as true for novels as of movies, if not more so. One useful test: on rereading a novel, do you skip the first thirty pages to get to the good stuff? If so, make a careful note of where you begin rereading, because that’s more or less where the novel should have begun. The same principle applies if you leave off reading before the end. For instance, I rarely reread the opening of The Day of the Jackal, and I’ll usually skip several of the explanatory chapters near the end of The Silence of the Lambs. And these are two beautifully constructed novels, which implies how hard it can be to put together the pieces.

In the case of The Fugitive, the credited screenwriters, Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, the director, Andrew Davis, and the six editors made a series of strong choices. (Perhaps luck played a role as well: filming was evidently begun before the script was finished, and the screenplay had a lot of uncredited hands.) The film could have opened with an ordinary day in the life of Dr. Richard Kimble, or at the party in which he and his wife were last seen, or even at his graduation from medical school. Instead, it opens exactly where the real story begins: at the moment of his wife’s murder. Necessary information is conveyed in a series of rapid flashbacks. And Kimble is arrested, tried, and convicted before the credits are over. (After such a virtuoso opening, it’s no surprise that the movie’s second half is a little deflating.)

Of course, if your movie is called The Fugitive, and based on a famous television show of the same name, you probably have a pretty good sense of where your story needs to start. For an original novel, it isn’t always as clear. In general, as John Gardner says, a novel should open “when the action actually begins,” which comes perilously close to tautology. Ultimately, experience is the only guide. At the beginning, it’s likely that the author will write one or more opening chapters that will need to be cut, later on, as the true shape of the novel becomes clear. Which is fine. But the best solution, by far, is not to write the unnecessary scenes in the first place.

(That said, I’m not a fan of novels or movies that begin at a dramatic moment near the climax, then flash back to show how the protagonist got into this mess. There are exceptions, of course—The Usual Suspects is one of the greatest, and Michael Clayton just barely gets away with it—but for the most part, it makes the story look, as Gardner puts it, “gimmicky and self-regarding.” Far better, I think, to find a striking scene that takes place early in the story’s chronology, and begin there. Every shift in time forces the reader to stop and regroup. The novel will be more readable if you pick the right opening moment and run with it.)

The trouble with endings

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Warning: This discussion, for obvious reasons, contains unavoidable spoilers.

What makes a great ending? There are as many different kinds of endings as there are works of art, of course, but as I look at my own favorites, I find that the best endings often don’t feel like endings at all. The most extreme version, the unresolved ending, has been used in books as dissimilar as Rabbit, Run and Smilla’s Sense of Snow, but the best example I know is from The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that I first read when I was fourteen (which, honestly, is about the right age). My feelings about the book itself have evolved over time, but the power of that final paragraph has never entirely departed:

She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen present tense. All waits, suspended. Suspend the autumn trees, the autumn sky, anonymous people. A blackbird, poor fool, sings out of season from the willows by the lake. A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.

Such a note of ambiguity can be tough to pull off, however, especially in mainstream fiction. Fowles, a master of the form even in his earliest novels, gets away with it; most novelists, including myself, probably can’t, at least not without annoying the reader. Yet the appeal of the unresolved ending raises an important point. Unless the writer is deliberately trying to emphasize the story’s artificiality, the best endings, like the best curtain lines, seem to promise something more: ideally, it should seem that the author has chosen the most appropriate moment to end the story, but that the story could also go on and on, like life itself.

It’s important, then, for the author to resist the temptation to tie a neat bow on the narrative. While writing a novel, most authors know that they aren’t supposed to editorialize or address the reader directly, that the meaning of the novel should be conveyed through action, and that the story’s themes, if any, should remain implicit in the narrative itself—and yet, very often, all these good habits go out the window on the final page, as if the pressure to explain exactly what the story means has become too great for the writer to resist. Deep down, every writer wants to end a novel like The Great Gatsby, as the themes of the story ascend to the universal:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

But Fitzgerald, like Fowles, was a master, and like many of the great masters, his example can be dangerous. For most writers, the rules for good writing are the same from first page to last: understatement, brevity, and objectivity are almost always preferable to their opposites. Indeed, the simpler ending is usually better, especially for a complex story. In film, there’s no better example than Chinatown, where Roman Polanski replaced Robert Towne’s original, more complex conclusion with, in Towne’s words, “a simple severing of the knot.”

For a thriller, in particular, the story needs to end as soon after the climax as possible. The denouement of The Day of the Jackal, the most perfectly constructed of all suspense novels, lasts for less than a page. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by contrast, the action falls for something like 170 pages—which is another reason why I’m not a huge fan of that book. Compare this to the conclusion of The Turn of the Screw, which resolves the action in the story’s final word, while also raising as many questions as it answers:

I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

I can only end, as I often do, by quoting Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” Or, if you’re a novelist, at least a nice place in Chinatown.

The Girl Whose Books Aren’t Very Good

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At first glance, Joan Acocella’s openly contemptuous piece on Stieg Larsson in The New Yorker looks like the comprehensive takedown that the Millennium trilogy has long deserved, but I don’t think she quite pulls it off. Acocella devotes a few paragraphs to the trilogy’s “almost comical faults”—bad writing, poor dialogue, irrelevant detail—but concludes by saying that Larsson is “a very good storyteller.” Which is almost exactly wrong. I’ve only read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and I have no plans to read the others, but it seems clear to me that Larsson’s faults—and virtues—are very different from the ones that Acocella describes.

First, the good. I don’t think that Larsson’s writing is nearly as bad as others have said. Although it’s true that almost every paragraph could be revised to be sharper and tighter—as editor June Casagrande has done, to amusing effect—that’s true of virtually all mainstream suspense fiction, and Larsson is no worse an offender than most. If nothing else, his prose was smooth and propulsive enough to keep me reading Dragon Tattoo for what must have been hundreds of pages, even as I slowly realized that nothing of interest was happening, or going to happen. (More about this later.)

What else? Larsson knows how to create an atmospheric setting, even if he rarely follows through. And his two main protagonists are perfectly fine. Blomkvist is something of a Mary Sue, yes, but again, he’s no worse than many other lead characters in suspense fiction. And Lisbeth Salander, at her best, is pretty much as advertised: an intriguing, memorable avenging angel. Her scene of revenge against her abusive guardian is the only really good scene in the entire first novel, and it’s so powerful that it almost provides enough momentum to propel the reader through the ensuing three hundred pages of complete inaction. Almost.

And that’s the problem. Despite what Acocella says, I don’t think that Larsson is a good storyteller at all. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo presents itself as a locked room mystery, but the solution is so banal that I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed anything more interesting. Deductions are made by such farfetched devices as a girl’s facial expression in an old photograph, which, even if it were plausible, just doesn’t work on the page. And the author’s idea of compounding the mystery is to introduce us to dozens of interchangeable uncles, aunts, and cousins, all potential suspects, none of them memorable. As Borges wrote:

The amateurs [of the detective story]…are partial to the story of a jewel placed within the reach of fifteen men—that is, of fifteen names, because we know nothing about their characters—which then disappears into the heavy fist of one of them. They imagine that the act of ascertaining to which name the fist belongs is of considerable interest.

And even these shortcomings wouldn’t matter as much if the novel were at least streamlined and concise, which it isn’t. The ideal thriller should be a perfect machine with no superfluous parts, but Dragon Tattoo is so padded that it resembles another Borges creation, the Book of Sand, in which the reader is always an infinite number of pages from the beginning and the end. It’s no exaggeration to say that, given half an hour and a red pencil, a third of the novel could easily have been cut, especially from its opening and closing sections, with no loss whatsoever.

So why are these novels so popular? Acocella seems to have no idea, aside from the possibility that readers are turned on by the trilogy’s lurid combination of feminism and rape, or, in a particularly lame conjecture, by the books’ “up-to-dateness, particularly of the technological variety.” The real answer, I suspect, is that Larsson’s combination of superficial readability and intense boredom has convinced a lot of readers that they’re reading something good for them. And for those who think I’m being unfair, I have a simple test. Read The Silence of The Lambs. Then read Dragon Tattoo again. And if you still feel like defending Stieg Larsson, then, perhaps, we can talk.

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