Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Godfather

The greatest trick

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In the essay collection Candor and Perversion, the late critic Roger Shattuck writes: “The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks.” He never explains what he means by “trick,” but toward the end of the book, in a chapter on Marcel Duchamp, he quotes a few lines from the poet Charles Baudelaire from the unpublished preface to Flowers of Evil:

Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all the revision and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation?

Baudelaire is indulging here in an analogy from the theater—he speaks elsewhere of “the dresser’s and the decorator’s studio,” “the actor’s box,” and “the wrecks, makeup, pulleys, chains.” A trick, in this sense, is a device that the artist uses to convey an idea that also draws attention to itself, in the same way that we can simultaneously notice and accept certain conventions when we’re watching a play. In a theatrical performance, the action and its presentation are so intermingled that we can’t always say where one leaves off and the other begins, and we’re always aware, on some level, that we’re looking at actors on a stage behaving in a fashion that is necessarily stylized and artificial. In other art forms, we’re conscious of these tricks to a greater or lesser extent, and while artists are usually advised that such technical elements should be subordinated to the story, in practice, we often delight in them for their own sake.

For an illustration of the kind of trick that I mean, I can’t think of any better example than the climax of The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone attends the baptism of his godson—played by the infant Sofia Coppola—as his enemies are executed on his orders. This sequence seems as inevitable now as any scene in the history of cinema, but it came about almost by accident. The director Francis Ford Coppola had the idea to combine the christening with the killings after all of the constituent parts had already been shot, which left him with the problem of assembling footage that hadn’t been designed to fit together. As Michael Sragow recounts in The New Yorker:

[Editor Peter] Zinner, too, made a signal contribution. In a climactic sequence, Coppola had the stroke of genius (confirmed by Puzo) to intercut Michael’s serving as godfather at the christening of Connie’s baby with his minions’ savagely executing the Corleone family’s enemies. But, Zinner says, Coppola left him with thousands of feet of the baptism, shot from four or five angles as the priest delivered his litany, and relatively few shots of the assassins doing their dirty work. Zinner’s solution was to run the litany in its entirety on the soundtrack along with escalating organ music, allowing different angles of the service to dominate the first minutes, and then to build to an audiovisual crescendo with the wave of killings, the blaring organ, the priest asking Michael if he renounces Satan and all his works—and Michael’s response that he does renounce them. The effect sealed the movie’s inspired depiction of the Corleones’ simultaneous, duelling rituals—the sacraments of church and family, and the murders in the street.

Coppola has since described Zinner’s contribution as “the inspiration to add the organ music,” but as this account makes clear, the editor seems to have figured out the structure and rhythm of the entire sequence, building unforgettably on the director’s initial brainstorm.

The result speaks for itself. It’s hard to think of a more powerful instance in movies of the form of a scene, created by cuts and juxtaposition, merging with the power of its storytelling. As we watch it, consciously or otherwise, we respond both to its formal audacity and to the ideas and emotions that it expresses. It’s the ultimate trick, as Baudelaire defines it, and it also inspired one of my favorite passages of criticism, in David Thomson’s entry on Coppola in The Biographical Dictionary of Film:

When The Godfather measured its grand finale of murder against the liturgy of baptism, Coppola seemed mesmerized by the trick, and its nihilism. A Buñuel, by contrast, might have made that sequence ironic and hilarious. But Coppola is not long on those qualities, and he could not extricate himself from the engineering of scenes. The identification with Michael was complete and stricken.

Before reading these lines, I had never considered the possibility that the baptism scene could be “ironic and hilarious,” or indeed anything other than how it so overwhelmingly presents itself, although it might easily have played that way without the music. And I’ve never forgotten Thomson’s assertion that Coppola was mesmerized by his own trick, as if it had arisen from somewhere outside of himself. (It might be even more accurate to say that coming up with the notion that the sequences ought to be cut together is something altogether different from actually witnessing the result, after Zinner assembled all the pieces and added Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor—which, notably, entwines three different themes.) Coppola was so taken by the effect that he reused it, years later, for a similar sequence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, admitting cheerfully on the commentary track that he was stealing from himself.

It was a turning point both for Coppola and for the industry as a whole. Before The Godfather, Coppola had been a novelistic director of small, quirky stories, and afterward, like Michael coming into his true inheritance, he became the engineer of vast projects, following up on the clues that he had planted here for himself. (It’s typical of the contradictions of his career that he placed his own baby daughter at the heart of this sequence, which means that he could hardly keep from viewing the most technically nihilistic scene in all his work as something like a home movie.) And while this wasn’t the earliest movie to invite the audience to revel in its structural devices—half of Citizen Kane consists of moments like this—it may have been the first since The Birth of a Nation to do so while also becoming the most commercially successful film of all time. Along the way, it subtly changed us. In our movies, as in our politics, we’ve become used to thinking as much about how our stories are presented as about what they say in themselves. We can even come to prefer trickery, as Shattuck warns us, to true ideas. This doesn’t meant that we should renounce genuine artistic facility of the kind that we see here, as opposed to its imitation or its absence, any more than Michael can renounce Satan. But the consequences of this confusion can be profound. Coppola, the orchestrator of scenes, came to identify with the mafioso who executed his enemies with ruthless efficiency, and the beauty of Michael’s moment of damnation went a long way toward turning him into an attractive, even heroic figure, an impression that Coppola spent most of The Godfather Parts II and III trying in vain to correct. Pacino’s career was shaped by this moment as well. And we have to learn to distinguish between tricks and the truth, especially when they take pains to conceal themselves. As Baudelaire says somewhere else: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The double awareness

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Laurence Olivier

Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.

—William Blake

Earlier this week, I picked up a copy of Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio, a collection of transcribed lessons from the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who is best known to viewers today for his role as Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II. (I was watching it again recently, and I was newly amazed at how great Strasberg is—you can’t take your eyes off him whenever he’s onscreen.) The book is loaded with insights from one of method acting’s foremost theorists and practitioners, but the part that caught my eye was what Strasberg says about Laurence Olivier:

When we see certain performances of Olivier we sometimes tend to say, “Well, it’s a little superficial.” Why are they superficial? There is great imagination in them, more imagination than in a lot of performances which are more organic because Olivier is giving of himself more completely at each moment. Is it that his idea of the part and the play is not clear? On the contrary, it is marvelously clear. You know exactly why he is doing each little detail. In his performance you watch an actor’s mind, fantastic in its scope and greatness, working and understanding the needs of the scene. He understands the character better than I ever will. I don’t even want to understand the character as much as he does, because I think it is his understanding that almost stops him from the completeness of the response.

Strasberg goes on to conclude: “If we criticize Larry Olivier’s performance, it is only because it seems to us the outline of a performance. It is not a performance. Olivier has a fine talent, but you get from him all of the actor’s thought and a lot of his skill and none of the actual talent that he has.” And while I don’t intend to wade into a comparison of the method and classical approaches to acting, which I don’t have the technical background to properly discuss, Strasberg’s comments strike me as intuitively correct. We’ve all had the experience of watching an artist and becoming more preoccupied by his or her thought process than in the organic meaning of the work itself. I’ve said that David Mamet’s movies play like fantastic first drafts in which we’re a little too aware of the logic behind each decision, and it’s almost impossible for me to watch Kevin Spacey, for instance, without being aware of the cleverness of his choices, rather than losing myself in the story he’s telling. Sometimes that sheer meretriciousness can be delightful in itself, and it’s just about the only thing that kept me watching the third season of House of Cards. As David Thomson said: “[Spacey] can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.”

Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

But there’s a deeper truth here, which is that under ideal conditions, our consciousness of an artist’s choices can lead to a kind of double awareness: it activates our experience of both the technique and the story, and it culminates in something more compelling than either could be on its own. And Olivier himself might agree. He once said of his own approach to acting:

I’ve frequently observed things, and thank God, if I haven’t got a very good memory for anything else, I’ve got a memory for little details. I’ve had things in the back of my mind for as long as eighteen years before I’ve used them. And it works sometimes that, out of one little thing that you’ve seen somebody do, something causes you to store it up. In the years that follow you wonder what it was that made them do it, and, ultimately, you find in that the illuminating key to a whole bit of characterization…And so, with one or two extraneous externals, I [begin] to build up a character, a characterization. I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.

When we watch the resulting performance, we’re both caught up in the moment and aware of the massive reserves of intelligence and craft that the actor has brought to bear on it over an extended period of time—which, paradoxically, can heighten the emotional truth of the scene, as we view it with some of the same intensity of thought that Olivier himself did.

And one of the most profound things that any actor can do is to move us while simultaneously making us aware of the tools he’s using. There’s no greater example than Marlon Brando, who, at his best, was both the ultimate master of the method technique and a genius at this kind of trickery who transcended even Olivier. When he puts on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront or cradles the cat in his arms in The Godfather, we’re both struck by the irrational rightness of the image and conscious of the train of thought behind it. (Olivier himself was once up for the role of Don Corleone, which feels like a hinge moment in the history of movies, even if I suspect that both he and Brando would have fallen back on many of the same tactics.) And Brando’s work in Last Tango in Paris is both agonizingly intimate and exposed—it ruined him for serious work for the rest of his career—and an anthology of good tricks derived from a lifetime of acting. I think it’s the greatest male performance in the history of movies, and it works precisely because of the double awareness that it creates, in which we’re watching both Brando himself and the character of Paul, who is a kind of failed Brando. This superimposition of actor over character couldn’t exist if some of those choices weren’t obvious or transparent, and it changes the way it lives in our imagination. As Pauline Kael said in the most famous movie review ever written: “We are watching Brando throughout this movie, with all the feedback that that implies…If Brando knows this hell, why should we pretend we don’t?”

“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…

Sex and the single shark

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Jaws by Peter Benchley

A few weeks ago, I picked up a used copy of the original hardcover edition of Peter Benchley’s Jaws. It caught my eye in part because of the iconic cover art, designed by the legendary Paul Bacon, who passed away earlier this summer. Although the painting was redrawn for the paperback, which later became the basis for one of the great movie posters, it’s still a work of graphic genius, second only to Chip Kidd’s dust jacket design for Jurassic Park in the unexpected way it came to define an entire franchise. And upon leafing through the novel itself—I’m still only halfway through—I was struck by how much it differs, not just from its film adaptation, but from what we’ve come to expect from a modern thriller. There’s a lot of background material on the town of Amity, some engaging, some not, including an entire subplot about the mayor’s mob connections. Most stupefying of all is the huge amount of space devoted to a plot thread, which the movie omits entirely, about an affair between Chief Brody’s wife and Hooper, the oceanographer played in the film by Richard Dreyfuss. It takes up something like sixty uninterrupted pages right in the middle of the novel, and frankly, it’s terrible, complete with passages of awful, clinical, mid-seventies lovemaking as bad as anything from Irving Wallace, who wrote about sex, as one critic put it, as if he’d never had it himself. (A tip to writers: any passage that unblushingly includes the phrase “her genitals” probably doesn’t need to exist.)

Reading the section again today, it’s hard to shake a sense that it must have struck many readers at the time as about as pointless as it seems now. Benchley can be a fine writer elsewhere, but I’d like to think that a modern editor would have taken him firmly by the hand and advised him to cut the whole thing. In fact, the man who edited Jaws was Thomas Congdon, an editor at Doubleday whose clients would later include David Halberstam and Russell Baker, and his collaboration with Benchley has been documented in exceptional detail, thanks to a fascinating story that the journalist Ted Morgan wrote for The New York Times Magazine around the time of the book’s publication. Congdon commissioned the novel from Benchley before a single word of it had been written, and he worked closely with the author, starting at the outline phase, which is unusual in itself. And Congdon, unbelievably, is the one we have to thank for what I have no choice but to call, ahem, the Dreyfuss affair. As Morgan writes:

When Benchley wrote a sex scene between the police chief and his wife, Congdon’s sense of propriety was offended: “I don’t think there’s any place for wholesome married sex in this kind of book,” he wrote. Benchley obediently turned the wife into an adulteress, who has an affair with a young marine scientist. [Italics mine.]

The poster for Jaws

Still, for all I know, Congdon may have been right. It certainly didn’t hurt the novel: half of Morgan’s article is devoted to cataloging its massive sales figures and proceeds from subsidiary rights, and this is all before the movie came out. (The name “Steven Spielberg” never appears, and the only person mentioned from the film side is producer Richard Zanuck.) And while Jaws might seem like a genre unto itself, it has to be read in the context of seventies bestsellerdom, which was dominated by the likes of Wallace, Jacqueline Susann, and Harold Robbins, who spiced up every story with generous helpings of smut. You might even say that the movie version of Jaws, which spawned the modern blockbuster, marks a transitional moment in more ways than one: the only remotely erotic moment in the film is Susan Backlinie’s nude swim at the very beginning, followed by the unavoidable sexual overtones of the ensuing shark attack. Mass culture was moving into an era in which the adult obsessions of the seventies would give way to a fascination with hardware and special effects, calculated to appeal to a teenage male audience that would have found Ellen Brody’s midlife sexual awakening even less interesting than I did. The real love affair in the movie is between the audience and the shark, or, more precisely, between Spielberg’s camera and the shark’s elusive silhouette. Anything else would be superfluous.

As it happens, Jaws wasn’t the first major motion picture of that decade to shy away from sexual elements in the source material. Mario Puzo’s original novel of The Godfather goes on for page after page about Lucy Mancini, Sonny’s girlfriend, and in particular about an odd feature of her anatomy and its subsequent surgical correction. Francis Coppola found it about as weird as many readers undoubtedly did:

I started to read the book. I got only fifty pages into it. I thought, it’s a popular, sensational novel, pretty cheap stuff. I got to the part about the singer supposedly modeled on Frank Sinatra and the girl Sonny Corleone liked so much because her vagina was enormous—remember that stuff in the book? It never showed up in the movie. Anyway, I said, “My God, what is this—The Carpetbaggers? So I stopped reading and said, “Forget it.”

Not every movie from that era shied away from the sexual elements—The Exorcist sure as hell didn’t—but it’s hard not to see the pattern here. As audiences changed, books that were written in part with an eye to the movie rights began to tone down the sex, then cut it altogether, knowing that it was unlikely to survive the adaptation anyway. Readers didn’t seem to miss it, either. And while I’d say that it was no great loss, I also wish that we had books and movies large enough to accommodate good sex in fiction, when necessary, along with more innocent thrills. Pop culture is a ship in which we’re all traveling together, and to get the range of stories we deserve, we’re going to need a bigger boat.

The second system effect

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Why are second novels or movies so consistently underwhelming? Even if you account for sticky variables like heightened pressure, compressed turnaround time, and unrealistic expectations, the track record for works of art from Thirteen Moons to The Postman suggests that the sophomore slump is real. For the economist Daniel Kahneman, writing in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s a case of regression to the mean: any artistic breakthrough is by definition an outlier, since only exceptional efforts survive to come to light at all, and the next attempt reverts back to the artist’s natural level of ability. There’s also a sense in which a massive triumph removes many of the constraints that allowed for good work in the first place. By now, it’s a cliché to note that the late installments in a popular series, from Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire, feel like they haven’t been edited. And it’s certainly true that authors who have sold a million copies have greater leverage when it comes to pushing against—or outright ignoring—editorial notes, if they even receive them at all. Editors are as human as anyone else, and since commercial success is such a crapshoot, you can’t blame them for not wanting to get in the way of a good thing. It didn’t hurt Rowling or Martin, but in the case of, say, the later novels of Thomas Harris, you could make a case that a little more editorial control might have been nice for everyone involved.

Yet there’s also a third, even more plausible explanation, which I recently encountered in The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., the seminal work on software engineering that provided my quote of the day. Writing about what he calls “the second system effect,” Brooks notes:

An architect’s first work is apt to be spare and clean. He knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he does it carefully and with great restraint.

As he designs the first work, frill after frill and embellishment after embellishment occur to him. These get stored away to be used “next time.” Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.

The second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs. When he does his third and later ones, his prior experiences will confirm each other as to the general characteristics of such systems, and their differences will identify those parts of his experience that are particular are not generalizable.

Francis Ford Coppola

Brooks concludes: “The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one.” And it’s startling how well this statement describes so many sophomore efforts in film and literature. It’s the difference between Easy Rider and The Last Movie, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Kafka, Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, in which a spare, disciplined first work is succeeded by a movie that contains everything up to and including the kitchen sink. In your initial attempt at any kind of storytelling, you find that the natural arc of the project tends toward removal and subtraction: you cut, pare back, and streamline, either because of your natural caution or because you don’t have the resources you need, and although each edit is necessary, it carries a charge of regret. A decrease in constraints in the second project only add fuel to an artist’s natural tendency to overindulge. And while the result may be a likable mess—a lot of us prefer Mallrats to Clerks—it rarely exhibits the qualities that first drew us to an artist’s work. (Even in movies made by committee, there’s an assumption that viewers want a bigger, louder, and busier version of what worked the first time around, which leads to so much of the bloat that we find in blockbuster sequels.)

So what’s an artist to do? Brooks has some advice that everyone trying to follow up an initial effort should keep in mind:

How does the architect avoid the second-system effect? Well, obviously he can’t skip his second system. But he can be conscious of the peculiar hazards of that system, and exert extra self-discipline to avoid functional ornamentation and to avoid extrapolation of functions that are obviated by changes in assumptions and purposes.

Translated into artistic terms, this means nothing more or less than treating a second attempt as exactly as hazardous as it really is. If anything, the track record of sophomore efforts should make writers even more aware of those risks, and even more relentless about asking the hard questions after a big success has made it possible to ignore them. When Francis Ford Coppola followed The Godfather with The Conversation, it was both a regathering and an act of discipline—in a movie largely about craft and constraints—that enabled the grand gestures to come. Coppola certainly wasn’t beyond insane acts of overreaching, but in this case, his instincts were sound. And I have a feeling that a lot of writers and filmmakers, in retrospect, wish that they could have skipped their second system and gone straight to their third.

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2015 at 10:25 am

The adaptation game

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Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut

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: “Have you ever had a movie (or other media) experience enhanced by a lack of familiarity with the source material?

There was a time in my life when I took it as an article of faith that if I wanted to see a movie based on a novel, I had to read the book first. When I was working as a film critic in college, this policy made sense—I wanted my reviews to seem reasonably informed—so I devoured the likes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Bridget Jones’s Diary mere days before seeing their adaptations in theaters. Later, I tackled the original material out of a vague sense of guilt or obligation, as I did with Watchmen, a comparison that did Zack Snyder’s movie version no favors. In almost every instance, though, it meant that I watched the resulting film through a kind of double exposure, constantly comparing the events on screen with their equivalents, or lack thereof, on the page. It’s how I imagine fans of Twilight or The Hunger Games regard the adaptations of their own favorite properties, the quality of which is often judged by how faithfully they follow their sources. And it wasn’t until recently that I gave up on the idea of trying to read every book before seeing the movie, in part because I have less free time, but also because my attitudes toward the issue have changed, hopefully for the better.

In fact, I’d like to propose a general rule: the priority of one version of a story over another is a fact, not a value judgment. This apples to remakes and homages as much as to more straightforward adaptations. After enough time has passed, the various approaches that different artists take to the same underlying narrative cease to feel like points on a timeline, and more like elements of a shared constellation of ideas. I saw The Silence of the Lambs long before reading Thomas Harris’s original novels, later added Manhunter to the mix, and have been having a hell of a good time going back to the books with the cast of Hannibal in mind. I don’t know how I’d feel about these characters and stories if I’d read each book as it came out and watched the adaptations later, but I’d like to think that I’d have ended up in more or less the same place, with each element sustaining and enriching every other. The same is true of a movie like L.A. Confidential, which is less a faithful translation of the book into film than a rearrangement of the pieces that James Ellroy provided, an “alternate life,” as the author himself puts it, for the men and women he had imagined. Would I feel the same way if I’d read the book first? Maybe—but only if enough time had passed to allow me to regard the movie in its own right.

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

Ultimately, I’ve come to think that out of all the ways of experiencing works of art with a common origin, the best option is to absorb them all, but to leave sufficient space between each encounter. I watched Infernal Affairs long before The Departed, but the earlier movie had faded almost entirely when I saw the remake, and now I find that I can switch back and forth between the two films in full appreciation of each one’s strengths. (The Departed is less a remake than an expansion of the tightly focused original: its bones are startlingly similar, but fleshed out with an hour’s worth of digressions and elaborations, all of which I love.) Occasionally, of course, the memory of one version is so strong that its alternate incarnations can’t compete, and this doesn’t always work to the benefit of the original. A few years ago, I tried to read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather for the first time, and I found that I just couldn’t finish it: Coppola’s movie is remarkably faithful, while elevating the material in almost every way, to the point where the novel itself seems oddly superfluous. This isn’t the case with The Silence of the Lambs, which I’m reading again now for maybe the tenth time with undiminished delight, but it’s a reminder of how unpredictable the relationship between the source and its adaptation can be.

And in retrospect, I’m grateful that I experienced certain works of art without any knowledge of the originals. I’ve enjoyed movies as different as The Name of the Rose and Lolita largely because I didn’t have a point of reference: the former because I didn’t know how much I was missing, the latter because I realized only later how much it owed to the book. And if you have the patience, it can be rewarding to delay the moment of comparison for as long as possible. I’ve loved Eyes Wide Shut ever since its initial release, fifteen years ago, when I saw it twice in a single day. A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, and I was struck by the extent to which Kubrick’s movie is nearly a point-for-point adaptation. (The only real interpolation is the character of Ziegler, played by Sydney Pollack, who looms in the memory like a significant figure, even though he only appears in a couple of scenes.) Kubrick was famously secretive about his movie’s plot, and having read the novel, I can see why: faithful or not, he wanted it to be seen free of expectations—although I have a hunch that the film might have been received a little more warmly if viewers had been given a chance to acclimate themselves to its origins. But that doesn’t make him wrong. Stories have to rise or fall on their own terms, and when it comes to evaluating how well a movie works, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Like cats and dogs

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George Lucas and Indiana

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 fictional pet would you most like to own?”

If there’s a universal rule among screenwriters, it’s that if you kill a dog, you lose the audience. I’m not talking about stories that hinge on the death of a beloved pet: Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows may break our hearts, but we’ll accept it if it’s the event around which the entire narrative turns, and we’ll probably remember it forever. But you need to be careful when it comes to treating the death of a dog as just another plot point. Filmmakers from Michael Bay to Beau Willimon—who famously offed a dog in the first scene of House of Cards—have noted that viewers who can absorb the deaths of countless human characters without blinking will turn against the story the instant a dog is killed. In his commentary track with Christopher McQuarrie on The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer notes that you see a dog for roughly three seconds on the ship that explodes at the movie’s climax, and after the preview screenings, someone invariably asked: “Did the dog die?” And Barbet Schroeder observes: “You know, if a filmmaker has a dog killed in a film, it will be felt ten times more by the audience than if you kill a human being…I had to kill a dog in Single White Female and I had so many problems.”

And it isn’t just dogs, either. Animals of all kinds evoke a curious kind of sympathy in the audience, and it’s especially hard to turn one into a villain. (This applies, at least, to mammals: we seem to have no trouble accepting a cold-blooded creature as a remorseless killing machine.) In his commentary for The Return of the King, Peter Jackson says that he had endless trouble with the mumakil, the massive elephantine creatures that attack Minas Tirith. Viewers, he found, were more likely to feel sorry for them, so he cut most of the shots of mumakil being pierced by arrows, keeping only the one that Legolas takes down singlehanded. I’d also bet that a lot of moviegoers remember the dog that gets killed—and not without reason—in No Country for Old Men more vividly than most of that film’s other victims. And its inverse, in which a character shows exceptional kindness to animals, is sometimes a strategy of its own. Will Graham on Hannibal can be a glum, inaccessible hero, but he’s redeemed to large extent by the love he shows to his dogs, and lazier movies and television shows often use the protagonist’s pets as a narrative shorthand for his likability. It’s no accident that the most influential book on screenwriting ever written is called Save the Cat!

Marlon Brando in The Godfather

Dogs have played a surprisingly large role in the history of cinema. These days, Lassie may have been reduced to little more than a corporate spokesdog, but Rin Tin Tin, as Susan Orlean reminds us, was once the most popular star in Hollywood—there’s a longstanding rumor that he won the first Oscar vote for Best Actor, only to have the award overruled. And we all owe a great deal to a dog named Indiana: George Lucas’s Alaskan malamute is responsible for no fewer than two iconic movie characters, since the image of Chewbacca as copilot on the Millennium Falcon was inspired by his memories of driving around with his dog in the front seat. Occasionally, dogs will be treated to cameos, like Michael Powell’s two cocker spaniels, Erik and Spangle, who pop up in Contraband, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going!, and A Matter of Life and Death. And screenwriters, in particular, love their dogs, perhaps because life has taught them to bitterly distrust everybody else. When Robert Towne was fired from Greystoke, he gave the writing credit to his sheepdog, P.H. Vazak, who subsequently became the first dog to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

If dogs are a more common sight in movies than cats, it’s because they’re a director’s idea of the perfect actor: they hit their marks, act on command, and can be relied upon to listen to instructions. Cats refuse to be trained, and the only real strategy the movies have ever developed, short of tossing a cat into the frame for the sake of a jump scare, has been to film the cat for hours in hopes that it does something interesting, as George Stevens did in The Diary of Anne Frank. The most iconic cat in movies is probably the one Don Corleone cradles in The Godfather, and even that was something of an accident—Coppola simply saw the cat wandering around the studio that day and thrust it impulsively into Brando’s hands. And my favorite cinematic cat, the one that appears in Saul Bass’s incredible opening titles for Walk on the Wild Side, gives a nuanced performance that was essentially created in the editing room. (Digital effects, of course, have made the whole business somewhat easier, and the news that Kevin Spacey has just been cast as a talking cat in an upcoming movie fills me with an odd kind of delight.) Dogs simply exist to love and be loved, while cats, like audiences, are more fickle in their affections. And if filmmakers generally avoid them, it’s probably because making a movie is enough like herding cats already.

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