Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Searchers

The greatest opening shots in movies

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Blue Velvet

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 20, 2011.

When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same yesterday with closing shots—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click for the titles:

“As Ethan spoke, Maddy studied him…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 22. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Character is a mystery. In case it isn’t abundantly clear by now, I’m a left-brained, systematic, architectural novelist who loves his outlines and plans, but even I’m frequently surprised by the ways in which my characters evolve—although it’s important to qualify this. When E.M. Forster said that the characters in his novels often behaved in unexpected ways, Nabokov scoffed, saying that his characters were galley slaves. Of the two, I’m probably closer to Nabokov than Forster, and indeed, on a line by line basis, my characters’ actions are laid out meticulously, moving from one clear objective to another. When I stand back, however, I’m often amazed by the patterns that have appeared on a larger scale, almost as an emergent property of the text. As I discussed in yesterday’s post, themes tend to inevitably appear over the course of several novels without the author being aware of it, and character, too, is something that can’t be entirely planned. And as much as I try to keep the individual building blocks of the plot under control, there’s often something inexplicable slouching to be born in the background.

While writing The Icon Thief and its sequels, I’ve been repeatedly taken off guard by how my characters have grown, often by finding a small hint dropped in one book and expanding it in the next. The most obvious example, and one that won’t be fully clear until City of Exiles comes out in December, is that of Rachel Wolfe. Wolfe began essentially as a character of convenience, simply because Alan Powell, one of my three major protagonists, needed someone to talk to. Given the nature of the plot I had in mind, I knew this character would be an FBI agent, and the idea of making her a woman came fairly late in the game. Even after I wrote the first draft, Wolfe remained a fairly colorless character, and I vividly remember trying to figure out ways to make her more distinctive. For a while, I toyed with the prospect of making her Indian, which would later manifest itself in an important character in the second book. When it occurred to me that, instead, she could be a Mormon, the idea was immediately appealing, and at first, I saw it as a convenient way to flesh out her role with a few small character details. What I never could have anticipated is that this version of Wolfe would seize my imagination to the point where, incredibly, she became the lead character in City of Exiles, a book in which her Mormonism is central to the story. It seems inevitable now. But that certainly wasn’t the case at the time.

Characters, in short, tend to emerge from a combination of factors: they’re shaped by the demands of the plot, by inspirations from real life and fiction, by my own inner life, and by what I can only call moments of serendipity. Nowhere is this more clear than in the characters of Maddy and Ethan. They’d been knocking around in my brain for a long time, ever since my freshman year in college, when I wrote a fragment of a screenplay that began as a character study of two of my close friends, then evolved into a ridiculously ambitious script that would engage the two greatest American movies ever shot in Technicolor: Vertigo and The Searchers. Very little of this project has survived in the present book, although the characters still retain the names of their inspirations—the roles played by Kim Novak and John Wayne in their respective films. Later, I thought about reusing these characters in a very different storyline, inspired by a tragic pair of suicides that took place in the New York art world around the time I was conceiving the novel. This was a much stronger influence on the first draft, and it was later minimized in the revision in ways I’ll explain at the proper point. But the central idea—of two smart, attractive people joined in a kind of folie à deux—remains central to The Icon Thief.

Little if any of this is obvious to the casual reader, but these tangled origins invisibly influenced the final versions of these characters, and contributed, at least in my eyes, to the richness of the resulting story. Chapter 22 is when Maddy and Ethan really interact for the first time, after crossing paths more briefly as rival analysts at the art fund, and at first glance, it’s a simple chapter, consisting entirely of them talking at the party and exchanging dueling interpretations of Duchamp’s life and work. But there’s a lot going on under the surface—their mutual attraction, their recognition of the qualities they share, and the sense that until now they’ve misjudged each other—and it’s a direct result of the path that these characters have followed in my head over the last decade. Reading the chapter now, I can see how they’ve evolved by a process of accretion, like a coral reef, with aspects of their personalities that I conceived ten years ago overlapping with elements that I added much later, inspired by relationships I’ve witnessed, authors I’ve read, and the changes that take place in any writer’s life over a long period of time. I care about them more than the clockwork plot around them may suggest, and I’ve been especially glad to revisit them in the novel I’m writing now. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, as Flaubert did of Madame Bovary, that Maddy Blume is me. But although I didn’t plan it this way, it can’t be an accident that their initials are the same…

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2012 at 10:13 am

By any other name

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The next time you’re talking to a writer and get stuck for topics of conversation, here’s a tip: ask him where he gets the names of his characters. Not every name has an interesting meaning, of course, aside from the fact that it sounded good to the author at the time. But in my experience, most writers tend to invest a lot of thought and energy into coming up with character names, to the point where the names of even minor players have a long story behind them. In some ways, it’s not unlike choosing a name for a baby: you need to think of every possible scenario in which the name might backfire, whether because it calls up unwanted associations or lends itself too easily to a playground taunt. If it’s the name of a character in a novel, much less a series, you need to be particularly careful, because you’re going to be living with it for a long time. As a result, I generally spend a full day, maybe two, at the beginning of any novel project just coming up with names for ten or twelve important characters, which is much less fun than it sounds.

So what are the rules, if any? The critic James Wood has noted, quite fairly, that characters in a novel usually have different names, which is inherently unrealistic: “Whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?” Wood is perfectly right, of course, but even he would probably be the first to admit that this is an acceptable break from reality—like the fact that a character in a movie can always find a parking space when he needs one—that allows us to save time and confusion. Unless there’s a good reason why we should be uncertain as to which John or Elizabeth we’re reading about, it’s always wise to keep your characters’ names different and distinctive. In my own work, I try to avoid giving important characters names that start with the same letter, a rule that many other writers also seem to follow. (Now that I’m on my third novel with a shared cast of characters, this rule has become a real pain, but I still stick with it when I can.)

In the case of The Icon Thief, the names of the characters came about in all kinds of ways. Maddy and Ethan were a pair of characters who had been kicking around in my head for at least ten years, ever since I had the idea, way back in college, of writing a novel or screenplay that combined elements of two of the greatest of all American movies, Vertigo and The Searchers. The project was ridiculously ambitious, even for me, and I finally scrapped it, although not without emerging with two characters whose first names were taken from the leads of those films: Madeline Elster and Ethan Edwards. Alan Powell, as I’ve mentioned before, was named for Michael Powell, although his first name was Dennis for many drafts before I changed it to something that suited him better. And Ilya Severin was originally Ilya Kaverin, which I discarded, after spending more than two years living with that name, upon deciding that it was just too similar to that of a certain iconic character from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The rest of my characters have names that were chosen more or less at random. Rachel Wolfe, for instance, is just a name I like, combining the name of a close friend and an acquaintance in a way that strikes me as just right. John Reynard is a fun one: his first name is the most boring one imaginable, but his last name is that of a famously foxy trickster, which serves as a clue to some of his contradictions. Anzor Archvadze was one of the few plausibly Georgian names I could come up with that didn’t make my eyes cross, while Sharkovsky and Vasylenko were chosen for the sound, and Louis Barlow just looks like the name of an FBI assistant special agent in charge. And then we have the mysterious Alexey Lermontov, named, of course, for Anton Walbrook’s character in The Red Shoes. In my mind, he’s always been played by Walbrook, and I’d like to think that he gained something from the association, even if it’s just the slightest whisper of resonance from the character who, unforgettably, summed up the fate of the heroine in his ballet: “Oh, in the end, she dies.”

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2012 at 9:51 am

The greatest opening shots in movies

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When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same with closing shots last week—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click or mouse over for the titles:

My fifty essential movies

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Yesterday I posted a list of my fifty essential books—that is, the fifty books that I would keep if I were deprived of all others. When I tried to do the same for movies, I found that the task was slightly easier, if only because I had fewer titles to choose from. (In both cases, I’ve tried to limit myself to books and movies that I actually own.) The result, as before, is a portrait of myself as expressed in other people’s works of art—which, in the end, may be the most accurate kind of self-portrait there is.

As usual, there are a few caveats. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible. This means omitting some of the very best movies of all time—The Rules of the Game and Tokyo Story, for instance—that I admire enormously but encountered too late for them to burrow into my subconscious. There’s an obvious preference for entertainment over art, as is generally the case in a home video library. And many of the movies named below might be ranked differently, or left out altogether, on another day (or hour). As of today, January 5, 2011, here’s how the canon looks to me:

1. The Red Shoes (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
2. Chungking Express (d. Wong Kar-Wai)
3. Blue Velvet (d. David Lynch)
4. Casablanca (d. Michael Curtiz)
5. The Third Man (d. Carol Reed)
6. Eyes Wide Shut (d. Stanley Kubrick)
7. L.A. Confidential (d. Curtis Hanson)
8. Seven Samurai (d. Akira Kurosawa)
9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (d. Nicholas Meyer)
10. Citizen Kane (d. Orson Welles)

11. Vertigo (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
12. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (d. Steven Spielberg)
13. Lawrence of Arabia (d. David Lean)
14. The Shining (d. Stanley Kubrick)
15. A Canterbury Tale (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
16. The Empire Strikes Back (d. Irwin Kershner)
17. The Last Temptation of Christ (d. Martin Scorsese)
18. Inception (d. Christopher Nolan)
19. The Silence of the Lambs (d. Jonathan Demme)
20. Spellbound (d. Jeffrey Blitz)

21. Mary Poppins (d. Robert Stevenson)
22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (d. Stanley Kubrick)
23. The Godfather (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
24. Spirited Away (d. Hayao Miyazaki)
25. Casino Royale (d. Martin Campbell)
26. Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (d. Errol Morris)
27. JFK (d. Oliver Stone)
28. Barry Lyndon (d. Stanley Kubrick)
29. Miller’s Crossing (d. Joel and Ethan Coen)
30. Sleeping Beauty (d. Clyde Geronimi)

31. Psycho (d. Alfred Hitchcock)
32. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (d. Quentin Tarantino)
33. The Untouchables (d. Brian DePalma)
34. Raiders of the Lost Ark (d. Steven Spielberg)
35. The Dark Knight (d. Christopher Nolan)
36. Last Tango in Paris (d. Bernardo Bertolucci)
37. Children of Men (d. Alfonso Cuarón)
38. The Departed (d. Martin Scorsese)
39. The Godfather Part II (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
40. Crumb (d. Terry Zwigoff)

41. The Searchers (d. John Ford)
42. The Usual Suspects (d. Bryan Singer)
43. The Long Goodbye (d. Robert Altman)
44. Zodiac (d. David Fincher)
45. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
46. Boogie Nights (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
47. Taxi Driver (d. Martin Scorsese)
48. The Limey (d. Steven Soderbergh)
49. Dancer in the Dark (d. Lars von Trier)
50. Pink Floyd The Wall (d. Alan Parker)

Random observations: I had to look up the names of two of the directors (for Spellbound and Sleeping Beauty). Up until a few minutes ago, the last place on this list was occupied by The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which I had to drop after realizing that I’d left out Last Tango in Paris. I allowed myself more than one movie per director, with the largest number of slots occupied by Kubrick (four), Powell and Pressburger (three) and Scorsese (three). And I’m slightly surprised to find that my three favorite movies of the last decade are evidently Spellbound, Spirited Away, and Casino Royale.

Sharp observers might be able to guess which film occupies the top spot in the list of my favorite movies of the past year, which I’m hoping to post later this week. And in any case, if you have a Netflix account that you aren’t using, well, hopefully this will give you a few ideas.

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