Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Godfather Part III

The holy grail of props

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Grail diary from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What movie prop would you love to own?”

Twenty years ago, when I first saw Jurassic Park, the moment that stuck with me the most wasn’t the raptor attack or even Jeff Goldblum’s creepy laugh: it was the park brochure that appears briefly onscreen before Laura Dern tramples it into the mud. We see it for little more than a second, but the brevity of its role is exactly what struck me. A prop artist—or, more likely, a whole team of them—had painstakingly written, typeset, and printed a tangible piece of ephemera for the sake of that fleeting gag. In a way, it seemed to stand in for the unseen efforts that lie behind every frame of film, those invisible touches of craft and meticulous labor that add up to make the story a little more real. Looking back, I recognize how showy that shot really is: it wasn’t captured by accident, even if it’s staged like a throwaway, and it calls attention to itself in a degree that most good props probably shouldn’t. And my reaction makes me feel uncomfortably like the hypothetical moviegoers that Pauline Kael imagined being impressed by Doctor Zhivago: “The same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.”

But it’s still delightful. I’ve always been fascinated by movie props, perhaps because they feel like the purest expression of the glorious waste of filmmaking: an object is lovingly crafted and aged by hand simply to be photographed, or to sit out of focus in the background of a single shot. My appreciation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy went up another notch after I watched hours of production featurettes last winter, many of which focused on the prop department. I learned, for instance, that the artisans who made the hundreds of sets of chain mail wore down their own fingerprints in the process, and that Theoden’s armor included a golden sun stamped on the inside of the breastplate, where no one but Bernard Hill would ever see it. Each touch is imperceptible, but in the aggregate, they add up to a vision of a world that remains totally convincing: even if we quibble over Peter Jackson’s narrative choices, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his determination to build up so much detail before an audience even existed to see it—if they ever noticed it at all. Props are designed to serve the story, not to dominate it, and I’d be inclined to call it a thankless task if I weren’t so profoundly grateful for the result.

Brochure from Jurassic Park

Maybe because I’m an author, I’ve always been especially taken by props that involve written text, whether they’re John Doe’s notebooks from Seven or the obsessively detailed newspapers of the future that we glimpse in Children of Men. I think I find such props so fascinating because they feel like a reversal of the way words and filmed images naturally relate: if a screenplay serves as the engine or blueprint of the movie as a whole, these words exist only for their visual properties, which can only be convincing if someone has taken the time to treat them as if they were meant to be read in their own right. When a movie falls short here, it can pull you out of the story even more drastically than most comparable mistakes: my favorite example is from The Godfather Part III, which prominently displays a headline from The Wall Street Journal with text that seems to have been copied and pasted from a computer instruction manual. (These days, movies seem aware of how much every shot is likely to be scrutinized, so they’re more likely to take the time to write something up for the sake of viewers and their pause buttons, like Captain America’s to-do list.)

As far as I’m concerned, the greatest prop of them all has to be the grail diary in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We see it clearly for maybe a total of thirty seconds, but those few glimpses were enough to fuel a lifetime’s worth of daydreams: I sometimes think I owe half of my inner life to Henry Jones’s battered little notebook. As it happens, you can read the whole thing online, or some simulacrum of it, thanks to the efforts of such prop replica masters as Indy Magnoli, whose work goes on eBay for nine hundred dollars or more—and I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted, years ago, to pick up one for myself. Recently, the original prop went up for auction at Christie’s, and while I’ve love to be able to tell you that I was the one who shelled out $30,000 for it, sadly, it wasn’t me. Still, I’m probably better off. Up close, a prop rarely has the same magic that it had in the scant seconds you saw it onscreen; an object that seemed unbearably precious can turn out to be made of pasteboard and hot glue. If we believed in it for the brief interval of time in which it appeared on camera, it succeeded. Which is true of everything about the movies. And if we dreamed about it afterward, well, then it belongs to us all the more.

“The greatest and most terrible sight…”

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"Feeling the ground shake..."

Note: This post is the forty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 45. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the dangers of writing any kind of fiction, literary or mainstream, is how quickly the story can start to exist within a closed circle of assumptions. The rules of a genre aren’t a bad thing: as I’ve noted elsewhere, they’re essentially a collection of best practices, tricks and techniques that have accumulated over time through the efforts of countless writers. A trick that survives is one that has repeatedly proven itself, and much of the pleasure of reading comes from watching as the author honors, subverts, or pushes against the constraints that the narrative imposes. The trouble is when a story moves so far from the real world that its characters cease to exhibit recognizable human behavior, as its internal rules become ever more strict and artificial. A show like The Vampire Diaries, for instance, takes a surprisingly casual approach to murder, with the average episode boasting a body count in the high single digits, and the reaction to each additional death amounts to a shrug and a search for a shovel. Within the confines of the show, it works, but the second we start to measure it against any kind of reality, it comes precariously close to collapsing.

That’s true of literary fiction as well. Even great authors operate within limits when it comes to the kinds of situations and characters they can comfortably depict. In Genius and Lust, Norman Mailer draws a memorable comparison between the tonal ranges of Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller:

The cruelest criticism ever delivered of Henry James is that he had a style so hermetic his pen would have been paralyzed if one of his characters had ever entered a town house, removed his hat, and found crap on his head (a matter, parenthetically, of small moment to Tolstoy let us say, or Dostoyevsky or Stendhal). Hemingway would have been bothered more than he liked. Miller would have loved it.

The more closely we read certain writers or genres, the more we see how much they stick to their particular circles. Sometimes that circle is determined by what the author can talk about through firsthand experience; sometimes it’s the result of a genre enforcing an unstated decorum, a set of rules about what can and can’t be said.

"The greatest and most terrible sight..."

When it comes to suspense and mystery fiction, these rules can lead to a suspension of emotion, at least of certain kinds. A murder mystery never shows much regret over the fate of the departed; it’s too busy moving on to a trail of clues to waste any time in mourning. Suspense works along similar lines. Sometimes a pivotal death will serve to motivate an ensuing course of action, but along the way, the bodies tend to pile up without much in the way of consequence. I wouldn’t say that my own novels take this as far as The Vampire Diaries, but when I look back on The Icon Thief and its sequels, there are times when I get a little uneasy with the way in which the plot advances on moments of casual violence. (On a much higher level, you can hear some of the same ambivalence in Francis Coppola’s voice when he talks about The Godfather, and by the time he gets to The Godfather Part III, he seems outright weary at having to supply the hits and kills that the audience has come to expect.) There’s a mechanical pleasure to be had in seeing a story run fluently through those conventions, but when you step briefly outside, you start to see how limited a picture of the world it really presents.

That’s why I’m particularly proud of Chapter 45 of City of Exiles. It’s a short chapter, as short, in fact, as I could make it, and my agent even suggested that it be cut. I’m glad I kept it, though, because it represents one of the few points in the entire series when we pull away from the primary characters and depict an event from an outside perspective. In it, I introduce a character named Ivan, fishing on the ice with his dog, who happens to witness the crash of Chigorin’s private plane. In some ways, my decision to cut away here was a pragmatic one: none of the passengers is in any condition to directly experience what happens, and there’s a world of difference, in any case, between describing a plane crash from the inside and showing how it appears on the ground. On a more subtle level, I wanted to depart from the closed circle of the novel to reinforce the horror of the moment, even if it’s described as clinically as everything else. Objectively speaking, City of Exiles is a violent book, and there are times when the faces of the victims start to blur together. Here, for once, I wanted to suggest how it would feel to a man who didn’t know he was part of the story. Ivan won’t be coming back again, but it was important, if only for a moment, to see through his eyes…

As tears go by

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Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men

I’m not really a crier. I don’t think reading a book has ever caused me to shed tears, although many—from The High King to The Magus—have left me an emotional wreck. And the short list of movies at which I’ve cried is an eclectic one. I almost always tear up a little during The Last Temptation of Christ, although invariably at a different time; I welled up during the first minute of the extraordinary documentary Ballets Russes, as it cuts between archival images of ballet dancers in their prime and the same dancers fifty years later, all of them still beautiful; and the only time I’ve ever really lost it at the movies, I’ve got to admit, is during the last scene of Saving Private Ryan. As different as these films are, all these moments have one thing in common: they take place during or shortly after a scene when the face of a young man is juxtaposed with the same man in old age. If I’m moved, it’s both at the thought of the fleetingness of human life and at the ability of the movies to express it. Cinema can cross enormous expanses of time and space in a single cut, and the ones that we remember are often those that push this ability to its limit: the cut from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, or the bone and the spaceship in 2001. But it’s especially powerful when it’s applied to something as simple as a human face.

Of the three movies I mentioned earlier, Ballets Russes might be the most haunting of all, because its leaps over time are real. The Last Temptation of Christ uses makeup to effect its changes, much as the intensely moving fantasy scene at the end of 25th Hour did many years later, and Saving Private Ryan simply uses a different actor to convey the passage of five decades. But there’s nothing quite like seeing time itself do the work. You get a glimpse of it at the end of The Godfather Part III, when we cut from Michael’s final tragedy to images of him dancing with the women he has loved and lost—Apollonia, Faye, Mary—and remember, in passing, how young Al Pacino was when the series began. The Up series by Michael Apted is structured around such a miracle, as, in their own way, are the Harry Potter films. And now we have Boyhood by Richard Linklater, shot over the course of twelve years, allowing us to watch actor Ellar Coltrane age from first grade to a senior in high school, and to witness time work more subtly on his parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. I haven’t seen Boyhood yet, but I’ve watched its trailer several times, and I’m as excited about it as any movie I can remember: Richard Linklater has always been one of the most inventive and ambitious directors of his generation, while gaining only a fraction of the acclaim of his peers, and this is his most daring gamble yet.

Kiernan Shipka and January Jones on Mad Men

Television, of course, allows us to see the same process unfold, and though it’s usually so gradual that we barely even see it, it can still catch us by surprise. I don’t think there’s ever been a greater stroke of casting luck than when Matthew Weiner selected Kiernan Shipka, then eight years old, to play Sally Draper on Mad Men. When we set the earliest episodes of the series, with Sally running around with a dry cleaning bag over her head, next to its current run, as she takes on aspects of both her mother and her father while negotiating her own adolescence, it reminds us of the creative coups that television can achieve almost by accident. Sally, in a way, has become one of the three or four most essential characters on the show, a visible marker that expresses the show’s themes of change more vividly than its writing ever could. (Comparing Sally to Bobby, who has barely registered as a character over seven seasons, only underlines how much chance is involved.) Television, by its very nature, is about the passage of time, and its presence in our lives lends it an almost unbearable intimacy. Seeing Sally grow up in real time, or going back to watch the earliest episodes of any series that runs for many seasons, informs us that we’re all aging, too.

This may be why I’ve grown more sentimental as I watch my own daughter grow up. It happens so slowly that I can’t see it from day to day, but when I look back at her baby photos from a few months ago, or hold my newborn niece in my arms, I’m amazed by the changes that have taken place right before my eyes. And it’s affected the way I think about the books I read, the movies and television I watch, and the music I play. If I choke up at unexpected moments these days—playing “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” on the ukulele, reading The Lorax aloud—it’s partially because I have another life apart from my own to think about, but also because my subliminal awareness of the passage of time charges everything with new meaning. In The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander makes a surprising statement, and I’m just going to leave it here:

To set the stage further for understanding unity in a building, I go back to the emotional underpinning of the living structure, its personal character, its rootedness in feeling…What feeling, exactly? What am I aiming for in a building, in a column, in a room? How do I define it for myself, so that I feel it clearly, so that it stands as a beacon to guide me in what I do every day?

What I am for is, most concretely, sadness…I try to make the building so that it carries my eternal sadness. It comes, as nearly as I can in a building, to the point of tears…

What makes it sad is that it comes closest, in the physical concrete beams and columns and walls, as close as possible, to the fact of my existence on this earth. It reminds me of it, it makes me take part in it. So when it happens, it is also a kind of joy, a happiness.

The limitations of technique

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Recently, as I prepare to make the last round of cuts and revisions to my third novel, I’ve been reading one of my favorite books, Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen. The book’s rather cumbersome subtitle is How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema, and while this may not sound like a page-turner to most people, it’s one of the five or six best books on film I know. As I’ve made clear before, Walter Murch—the man whom David Thomson describes as “the scholar, gentleman, and superb craftsman of modern film,” and whom Lawrence Weschler calls, more simply, “the smartest man in America”—is one of my heroes, and for those who are interested in narrative and technical craft of any kind, this book is a treasure trove. Yet here’s the thing: I don’t much care for Cold Mountain itself. I watched it dutifully when I first read the book, and although I’ve since revisited Koppelman’s account of Murch’s editing process countless times, nothing of the actual movie has lingered in my memory. I was startled last night, for instance, to realize that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an important supporting character: his performance, like the rest of the movie, has simply melted away.

This paradox grows all the stronger when we examine the rest of Murch’s filmography. The English Patient, as I’ve said elsewhere, is an intelligent movie of impressive texture and skill, and Murch deserved the two Oscars he won for it. But as with Cold Mountain, I can barely remember anything about it, with only a handful of images left behind even after two viewings. I couldn’t get more than halfway through Hemingway & Gellhorn, despite being fascinated by Murch’s account of his work on it at last year’s Chicago Humanities Festival. Murch has worked as a sound designer on many great movies, above all Apocalypse Now, but when it comes to his primary work as an editor, his only unqualified masterpiece remains The Conversation. (As strange as it sounds, of all the movies that he’s edited, the one I enjoy the most is probably The Godfather Part III.) I have no doubt that Murch approached all these projects with the same care, diligence, and ingenuity that shines through all of his published work and interviews, but in movie after movie, that last extra piece of inspiration, the one that might have given a film a permanent place in my imagination, just isn’t there.

Part of this may be due to the inherent limitations of an editor’s role, since even the most inventive and resourceful editor is ultimately constrained by the material at hand and the quality of his collaborators. But I prefer to think of it, in a larger sense, as a warning about the limits of technique. Movies, for the most part, are technically wonderful, and they’ve been advancing along all the dimensions of craft—cinematography, sound, art direction—since the invention of the medium. Progress in art is never linear, but with respect to craft, progress is continuous and ongoing, with each generation adding to its predecessor’s bag of tricks, and as a result, movies look and sound better now than they ever have before. Moreover, nearly without exception, professionals in film are good at their jobs. Even the directors we love to hate, like Michael Bay, arrived at their position after a fierce process of natural selection, and in the end, only the most tremendously talented and driven artists survive. (Bay, alas, has one of the greatest eyes in movies.) Not everyone can be as articulate or intelligent as Murch, but for the most part, movies these days, on a technical level, are the product of loving craftsmanship.

So why are most movies so bad? It has nothing to do with technique, and everything to do with the factors that even the greatest craftsmen can’t entirely control. When you look at a student project from any of our major film schools, the technical aspects—the lighting, the camerawork, even the acting—are generally excellent. It’s the stories that aren’t very good. For all the tricks that storytellers have accumulated and shared over a century of making movies, decent scripts are either tantalizingly elusive or destroyed along the way by the hands of studio executives—which is one role in the movie business where talent does not tend to rise to the top. And the proof is everywhere, from John Carter on down. If there’s one movie artist who rivals Murch for his intelligence, good advice, and willingness to discuss aspects of his craft, it’s screenwriter William Goldman, who hasn’t written a movie since Dreamcatcher. Technique only gets you so far; the rest is a mystery. And even Murch understands this. On the wall of his editing studio, we’re told, hangs a brass “B.” Koppelman explains what it means: “Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable…Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods.”

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