Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Limey

The great scene theory

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The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” Thomas Carlyle once wrote, and although this statement was criticized almost at once, it accurately captures the way many of us continue to think about historical events, both large and small. There’s something inherently appealing about the idea that certain exceptional personalities—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon—can seize and turn the temper of their time, and we see it today in attempts to explain, say, the personal computing revolution though the life of someone like Steve Jobs. The alternate view, which was expressed forcefully by Herbert Spencer, is that history is the outcome of impersonal social and economic forces, in which a single man or woman can do little more than catalyze trends that are already there. If Napoleon had never lived, the theory goes, someone very much like him would have taken his place. It’s safe to say that any reasonable view of history has to take both theories into account: Napoleon was extraordinary in ways that can’t be fully explained by his environment, even if he was inseparably a part of it. But it’s also worth remembering that much of our fascination with such individuals arises from our craving for narrative structures, which demand a clear hero or villain. (The major exception, interestingly, is science fiction, in which the “protagonist” is often humanity as a whole. And the transition from the hard science fiction of the golden age to messianic stories like Dune, in which the great man reasserts himself with a vengeance, is a critical turning point in the genre’s development.)

You can see a similar divide in storytelling, too. One school of thought implicitly assumes that a story is a delivery system for great scenes, with the rest of the plot serving as a scaffold to enable a handful of awesome moments. Another approach sees a narrative as a series of small, carefully chosen details designed to create an emotional effect greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to the former strategy, it’s hard to think of a better example than Game of Thrones, a television series that often seems to be marking time between high points: it can test a viewer’s patience, but to the extent that it works, it’s because it constantly promises a big payoff around the corner, and we can expect two or three transcendent set pieces per season. Mad Men took the opposite tack: it was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. Like the theories of history I mentioned above, neither type of storytelling is necessarily correct or complete in itself, and you’ll find plenty of exceptions, even in works that seem to fall clearly into one category or the other. It certainly doesn’t mean that one kind of story is “better” than the other. But it provides a useful way to structure our thinking, especially when we consider how subtly one theory shades into the other in practice. The director Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie consisted of three great scenes and no bad scenes, which seems like a vote for the Game of Thrones model. Yet a great scene doesn’t exist in isolation, and the closer we look at stories that work, the more important those nonexistent “bad scenes” start to become.

Leo Tolstoy

I got to thinking about this last week, shortly after I completed the series about my alternative movie canon. Looking back at those posts, I noticed that I singled out three of these movies—The Night of the Hunter, The Limey, and Down with Love—for the sake of one memorable scene. But these scenes also depend in tangible ways on their surrounding material. The river sequence in The Night of the Hunter comes out of nowhere, but it’s also the culmination of a language of dreams that the rest of the movie has established. Terence Stamp’s unseen revenge in The Limey works only because we’ve been prepared for it by a slow buildup that lasts for more than twenty minutes. And Renée Zellweger’s confessional speech in Down with Love is striking largely because of how different it is from the movie around it: the rest of the film is relentlessly active, colorful, and noisy, and her long, unbroken take stands out for how emphatically it presses the pause button. None of the scenes would play as well out of context, and it’s easy to imagine a version of each movie in which they didn’t work at all. We remember them, but only because of the less showy creative decisions that have already been made. And at a time when movies seem more obsessed than ever with “trailer moments” that can be spliced into a highlight reel, it’s important to honor the kind of unobtrusive craft required to make a movie with no bad scenes. (A plot that consists of nothing but high points can be exhausting, and a good story both delivers on the obvious payoffs and maintains our interest in the scenes when nothing much seems to be happening.)

Not surprisingly, writers have spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, and it’s noteworthy that one of the most instructive examples comes from Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace is nothing less than an extended criticism of the great man theory of history: Tolstoy brings Napoleon onto the scene expressly to emphasize how insignificant he actually is, and the novel concludes with a lengthy epilogue in which the author lays out his objections to how history is normally understood. History, he argues, is a pattern that emerges from countless unobservable human actions, like the sum of infinitesimals in calculus, and because we can’t see the components in isolation, we have to content ourselves with figuring out the laws of their behavior in the aggregate. But of course, this also describes Tolstoy’s strategy as a writer: we remember the big set pieces in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but they emerge from the diligent, seemingly impersonal collation of thousands of tiny details, recorded with what seems like a minimum of authorial interference. (As Victor Shklovsky writes: “[Tolstoy] describes the object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time.”) And the awesome moments in his novels gain their power from the fact that they arise, as if by historical inevitability, from the details that came before them. Anna Karenina was still alive at the end of the first draft, and it took her author a long time to reconcile himself to the tragic climax toward which his story was driving him. Tolstoy had good reason to believe that great scenes, like great men, are the product of invisible forces. But it took a great writer to see this.

My alternative canon #6: The Limey

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Terence Stamp in The Limey

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

The Limey, like many of the films of Steven Soderbergh, works brilliantly despite its best intentions. Not much happens, at least not by the standards of the average crime movie: it’s ninety minutes of scrambled footage spun from little more than style, atmosphere, clever locations, canny music choices, and the electric charge of a willing and able cast. Yet every frame pulses with life. It’s impossible to believe any of it, any more than we can believe in the plot of, say, Haywire, but what’s real enough is the obvious pleasure of everybody involved. Terence Stamp is sensational, of course, but so are Peter Fonda, Luis Guzmán, Nicky Katt, Barry Newman, and the rest. And for all its ravishing tricks with editing and time—as when Fonda is introduced with what amounts to a miniature trailer for his character, or how the film uses archival footage from the vintage Stamp vehicle Poor Cow to show the protagonist in flashback—it isn’t afraid to deliver juicy set pieces, including the single best scene in Soderbergh’s work. I’ll go even further: I don’t think there’s a more exhilarating moment in all of movies than when Stamp, beaten up by goons and dumped on the sidewalk, staggers to his feet and totters back inside to wreak an unseen revenge. (It’s a sequence that turns, crucially, on Stamp’s age: you can almost feel his bones creaking as he straightens up.)

What’s funny about the scene, of course, is that it’s an immensely satisfying moment in a movie that seems otherwise determined to frustrate our expectations. It’s as if Soderbergh inserts it here just to prove that he can, in much the same way that he tosses off a genre piece like Contagion every few years simply to remind us that he’s better at it than pretty much anyone else. As a matter of narrative strategy, though, it’s a shrewd, even essential choice: once the scene is over, we’re willing to follow the movie wherever it wants to go, no matter how much misdirection and digression it throws at us in the meantime. As it stands, we barely even notice that this is a revenge movie without the revenge, or that its stylistic innovations, as delightful as they are, don’t have much to do with the bones of the story. (The writer Lem Dobbs wasn’t pleased with the result, and he airs his grievances in a famously combative commentary track with Soderbergh, which hasn’t stopped the two men from working together again.) Yet that’s also Soderbergh’s greatest strength. He knows how to use star power and conventional narrative payoffs to enable his loonier experiments, and he’s constantly looking to see how much or how little he can get away with using. When it misfires, it’s usually because the proportions are wrong, which is often in the eye of the beholder: Ocean’s 12, for instance, strikes me as a fascinating effort to spin a feature film out of as little substance as possible. If you make twenty movies like this in a row, eventually, you’ll end up with one in which the balance is perfect. Viewers probably won’t agree on which one it is. But for my money, it’s here.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

John Wick and the revenge of the underdog

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Keanu Reeves in John Wick

Over the weekend, my wife and I caught up on video with John Wick, the latest—and in some ways the most appealing—entry in a growing subgenre of modestly scaled thrillers designed to appeal to hardcore action fans. In era when even the latest installments in the Die Hard or Expendables franchises are cut to avoid an R rating, a cohort of smaller action movies, like The Raid: Redemption or Dredd, has emerged to fill the gap, using minuscule budgets and straightforward stories to deliver real bloodshed and gunplay. If John Wick is the most likable of the bunch, that’s due largely to casting: it’s as packed with welcome faces in supporting roles as a Michael Mann film, and it’s also a surprising showcase for the talents of Keanu Reeves. Reeves is often dismissed as an actor, but in the right part, in movies from Point Break to Speed, he has a precise, graceful physical presence, and it’s never been so capably used as it is here. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch frame and cut the action to show us as much of their star as possible, and in scenes like the extended close-quarters gun battle scored to Kaleida’s “Think,” in which Reeves mows down scores of goons in a crowded nightclub, we’re close to the balletic ideal of gun fu. Even after an hour of nonstop action, we aren’t wearied by it, and much of this is thanks to the approach allowed by Reeves’s particular set of skills.

Yet there’s a touch of dissonance to the casting that undermines the premise ever so slightly. Wick himself was originally conceived as a character in his sixties—screenwriter Derek Kolstad envisioned him as Paul Newman—and while Reeves may be over fifty, he sure as heck doesn’t look it. As a result, Wick never comes off as vulnerable or outmatched, even when he’s up against a seemingly inexhaustible army of antagonists. The movie, to my relief, is clever about world-building and backstory, and elements like Wick’s late wife are introduced with a refreshing concision, but it miscalculates a little when it comes to setting up its hero as the ultimate killing machine. There’s an amusing monologue delivered by Michael Nyqvist, as a charming Russian mobster, explaining the origins of Wick’s nickname: “He’s not the boogeyman, he’s the guy you send to kill the boogeyman.” But the story comes before we’ve seen Wick in action, which spoils the surprise, such as it is, when he springs to life. The movie could have delayed that piece of exposition much longer, as Snowpiercer does, or even omitted it entirely. Reeves’s physicality, when activated, is more eloquent than any speech, as is Nyqvist’s initial muted response on the phone when told that Wick is coming after them: “Oh.”

Keanu Reeves in John Wick

And as much as I like John Wick, I can’t help but wonder how it might have played with a hero who seemed at genuine risk. I don’t think there’s a more exhilarating moment in all of movies than the scene in The Limey when Terence Stamp, beaten up by goons and dumped on the sidewalk, gets to his feet, pulls the gun from the back of his waistband, and totters back inside to wreak his unseen revenge. It’s a sequence that turns, crucially, on Stamp’s age: you can almost feel his bones creaking as he straightens up. Recast it with, say, Jason Statham, and it’s just another action beat, maybe a bit more inventive than most. Revenge narratives are inherently more satisfying when the protagonist’s resources are reduced to a minimum, but John Wick doesn’t have much interest in this: Wick is superbly trained, as well as possessed of all but limitless funds and access to weaponry, and his reputation precedes him. As a result, we’re deprived of one of the most satisfying conventions in any revenge story, as the villains slowly begin to realize what they’re really up against. Replace “John Wick” in every line of dialogue with “Batman,” as in “He stole Batman’s car and killed his dog,” and you get a sense of how foreordained the action becomes. It’s fun, in its own way, but it also denies itself a more delicious buildup, and for no particular reason.

Looking back, I feel like I’m being harder on this movie than I meant to be: in most respects, it’s a superb little exercise. But the script is written with such clarity and skill that we’re all the more aware of its acts of triangulation. John Wick begins with a nice, straightforward premise—Wick goes after the mob after they kill his dog—but it dilutes it toward the end, when Wick loses his mentor as well. I can understand the impulse to raise the stakes for the third act, but it would have been more effective to make the movie entirely about the dog: for most viewers, a dog’s death is more than enough reason to drive a revenge story forward. (About ten minutes into the movie, my wife, who clearly knew nothing about it going in, said in complete seriousness: “I really hope the dog doesn’t die.”) John Wick, at its best, is a reminder of the pleasures of economy, from the clean lines of its story to its striking, silent hero: Reeves probably has fewer words to speak here than any lead actor in years, and we don’t miss them. The fact that it works so well with its bones so exposed is a tribute to everyone involved. But it remains a slick, efficient toy, rather than a movie, like The Limey, that drills into something deeper about how we’d all like to carry ourselves with our backs against the wall. Perhaps that would have been too much to ask from a film content to linger luxuriantly on its surfaces. But in the sequel, I’m hoping that this young dog can show us a few new tricks.

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2015 at 8:41 am

Haywire and the two sides of Soderbergh

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The frustrating, and exhilarating, thing about the films of Steven Soderbergh is that you never know which Soderbergh you’re going to get. There’s Soderbergh the impeccable craftsman, playful, slightly remote, but still invested in giving the audience a good time, as in Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11, and the brilliant Contagion. Then there’s Soderbergh the deconstructor, the creator of the chilly, often perversely uninviting experiments that dot his filmography from Kafka to The Girlfriend Experience. (One of my favorite Soderbergh movies, Ocean’s Twelve, lies on the uneasy dividing line between the two.) As a result, seeing a Soderbergh film without advance preparation is one of the few real gambles left in moviegoing: sometimes entertaining, sometimes perplexing, but rarely uninteresting. I’ll admit, however, that I went to Haywire hoping to see the former kind of film, a riff by a great director reveling in his own virtuosity, and that it was with a slightly sinking feeling that I realized that the movie would fall squarely in the latter category. I like my Soderbergh chilly, but here, he’s glacial, and in more ways than one.

Of course, the idea of a clinical and narratively austere art house film featuring former mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano is intriguing in itself, and in many ways, Haywire is more fun to think about than to watch. Throughout the film, the reasoning behind Soderbergh’s peculiar choices is always clear, even if they don’t always work. Take the lack of music during the fight scenes. As Soderbergh says to the A.V. Club:

Because we had people who were really doing it, and really could do it, I felt like to drown those sounds out with music, or have them competing with music, would really diminish the fights. It was never intended that we would have music over those fights.There was some pushback over that. There were days, especially for the scene on the beach on the end, where some people were trying to convince me to put score over it, and I just wouldn’t.

As it turns out, both Soderbergh and his critics at the studio were right: the lack of music does highlight the skill and physicality of the performers, but it also saps the movie of momentum whenever it stops for an action sequence. It’s a perfectly justifiable decision, and an oddly principled one, that comes at the expense of the messy compromise between vision and execution that nearly every good movie requires. The same comes with the lack of backstory. Regular readers will know that I hate backstory, but even I wanted slightly more information to ground my understanding of these characters. Haywire is a story of betrayal, with Carano as a private contractor on the run from her own employers, but without any sense of who these people are, it’s hard to care beyond the level of Spy Vs. Spy. As before, it’s a gutsy narrative decision that incidentally undercuts the entire movie. Here, as elsewhere, Soderbergh is just a little too smart for his own good.

None of this would matter if we enjoyed watching the actors, but while Soderbergh stages his fight scenes with panache, he doesn’t devote nearly as much attention to the dialogue or performances. Part of the problem is Carano herself: she’s a striking presence, but with her blank affect and limited range, she’s like Sasha Grey as an action star. Soderbergh surrounds her with capable ringers, but of the supporting cast, only Michael Fassbender, as a treacherous British agent, seems like he’s doing more than dropping by the set for the day. One late sequence, between Ewan McGregor, as Carano’s conniving boss, and Bill Paxton, as her father, is a particular disappointment: Soderbergh strands these two excellent actors together in a remote house, with the promise of a juicy scene to come, but has no idea what to do with them. As the iciness of Soderbergh’s conception drains the life from his cast, it grows increasingly frustrating to watch these actors denied their fair chance to connect with the audience. Soderbergh has always been a director who needs the viewer to meet him halfway, but here, he doesn’t even seem willing to allow that.

The day before seeing Haywire, my wife and I rewatched Soderbergh’s The Limey, one of my favorite movies, and an example of everything Haywire is not. (The same screenwriter, Lem Dobbs, also wrote both films, although you’d never be able to guess it.) Not much happens in The Limey; it’s ninety minutes of scrambled footage spun from little more than style, atmosphere, and the electric charge of a willing cast. Yet every moment of the movie pulses with life: it’s impossible to believe any of it, any more than we can believe in the plot of Haywire, but what’s real enough is the obvious pleasure of everyone involved. Terence Stamp is sensational, of course, but so are Peter Fonda, Luis Guzmán, Nicky Katt, Barry Newman, and many others. And for all the film’s ravishing tricks with editing and time—as when Fonda is introduced with what amounts to a miniature trailer for his character—it isn’t afraid to deliver big moments, including the single best scene in all of Soderbergh’s work. When Stamp picks himself up from the street, dusts himself off, and pulls a second gun from his waistband, we’re suddenly at the heart of movies: pure cinema and pure storytelling. Soderbergh, as much as any director alive, has shown that he can do both. Let’s hope that he does so again.

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2012 at 9:28 am

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