Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Shawshank Redemption

“But I still can’t figure out why…”

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"But I still can't figure out why..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 33. You can read the previous installments here.

When the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo escaped from prison for the second time earlier this summer, the media drew the obvious comparisons. The Guardian called it “a Hollywood-style escape,” while Patrick Radden Keefe of The New Yorker wrote:

A jail break is a kind of math problem, and when we read about these incidents there is a tendency to marvel at the ingenuity on display and to start identifying with, and even rooting for, the escapee. This is probably only natural. Chapo is hardly the first antihero to seize the popular imagination, and the most reliable formula of the Hollywood thriller is to place your protagonist in a situation from which there is no escape, and then watch while he escapes.

All of the elements were there: a cell covered by security cameras, except for one crucial corner; a secret tunnel complete with lights, air ducts, and even a motorcycle modified to run on rails; and, of course, a frantic manhunt and search for the escapee’s accomplices. Compared to the rather grubby details of the previous month’s New York prison escape, it felt like a slick, efficient production, if not particularly original. (As Keefe observes: “Chapo, famously, has a thing for tunnels.”)

If the result reminded many observers of a movie, it was also because we associate that kind of elaborate escape effort, involving a huge amount of outside support, with fiction. And for good reason. In real life, there’s rarely the infrastructure or the desire to break a single human being out of prison, no matter how powerful he or she might have been on the outside. Roger Ebert put his finger on this point in his review of Die Hard 2, which turns on the rescue of a different sort of drug tyrant, this time modeled on Noriega—although not, incidentally, named Mr. Falcon:

A more serious problem involves the whole rescue operation itself. When Manuel Noriega was taken captive and returned to the United States to stand trial, there was little serious effort to save him: At the end, he was a refugee in his own country, reduced to seeking asylum in the residence of a Vatican diplomat. Would anyone have the means, the money and the will to mount such a vast and complicated terrorist operation simply to save one drug-connected dictator? Even if he does bear an uncanny resemblance to Fidel Castro? I doubt it.

Ebert concludes: “But on the other hand, I don’t care.” The attempted escape is really just the engine to drive the plot, and from a writer’s point of view, it’s the escape that enables the plan, not the other way around.

"He can talk to other thieves..."

This may be why prison break stories are much more effective when told from the point of view of the man behind bars. When the story focuses on the plotters on the outside, their motivations always seem somewhat forced: it’s unclear why any prisoner would be worth all that trouble, particularly in criminal enterprises that tend to quickly reassemble themselves under a new hierarchy, and which could be run as easily from within jail as outside it. (Goodfellas conveys this beautifully.) For the prisoner himself, though, the reasons are abundantly clear. The details of the escape in The Shawshank Redemption are as implausible, in their own way, as in any pulp thriller, but we accept and are even moved by them because they’re expressions of Andy and Red’s desire for freedom. A prison break told from the inside is an allegory for the human condition; from the outside, it feels like another mechanical pursuit of a MacGuffin. And it’s inherent to the way these stories are structured. A plot in which a prisoner is rescued by others, no matter how many justifications we invent, both distances us emotionally from the action and arouses all kinds of intellectual objections. The difference between a story in which we don’t believe a single second and one in which we’re involved at every moment can turn on something as basic as that question of emphasis.

Of course, sometimes a writer doesn’t have a choice. Much of Eternal Empire focuses on the escape from prison of Vasylenko, a Russian vor whose situation sets off most of the alarms I mention above: he’s an old man, more than capable of running a criminal network from the inside, and dangerous enough that most of his associates would probably be glad just to be rid of him. So why break him out at all? After some thought, I hit on a fairly interesting rationale. In Chapter 33, Wolfe lampshades all of the obvious objections, and then figures it out:

There’s one thing a thief can do that nobody else can. He can talk to other thieves…Vasylenko is useful only as a symbol. An icon in the form of a man. He can open doors, guarantee safe passage, draw on the full resources of the brotherhood. But only if he’s there in person.

I still like this explanation, because it very helpfully drives the rest of the plot: Vasylenko has to be physically transported at great risk to Moldova, one of the few countries where the old ways still have force, to facilitate the larger conspiracy in which he plays only a small part. Ilya, his companion in the escape, has more personal motivations. And between the two of them, they provide just enough of a reason for the reader to want to see where they’re going next…

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2015 at 8:29 am

“You know how this works…”

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"You know how this works..."

Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 22. You can read the previous installments here.

“An artist,” Edgar Degas wrote, “must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.” In other words, with diligence, cunning, thoroughness, and full awareness that even the smallest mistake could betray him. Of course, in real life, most crimes aren’t carried out with nearly this degree of intention: they’re impulsive, messy, and poorly planned. When a robbery or con game rises to the standard of ingenuity set by fiction, it’s so rare that it becomes newsworthy, and the press coverage tends to start by comparing it to a scene out of the movies. Reading about the recent prison break in upstate New York, we’re both horrified by the idea of two convicted murderers on the loose and oddly tickled by the details: stuffed dummies, a taunting note left behind for the authorities, and a long crawl through a pipe straight out of The Shawshank Redemption. And it’s hard to escape the implication that the prisoners were explicitly thinking in those terms. The specifics of the plan might have been determined by the vulnerabilities of the prison itself, but its overall effect, it comes off almost as an homage to what the movies have taught us an escape like this ought to look like.

Of all the forms of criminal activity available as subjects for fiction, writers have shown a particular interest in three types: the prison break, yes, but also the heist and the confidence game. Each one emphasizes a different set of qualities that recalls the act of writing itself. A heist represents the moment when meticulous planning collides with a few precious moments of luck or serendipity; a con game is about the creation of trust and plausibility out of countless careful details. (On a queasier level, you could also say that fiction’s persistent fascination with serial killers comes from a similar place. The ingenious predators of Saw or The Following have less in common with their counterparts in real life than with the screenwriters who created them, and if there’s an element of wish fulfillment in the depiction, it’s not so much about killing as about control. Jigsaw is so omniscient that he might as well have written the script for his own movie, and it runs both ways. When you look at the notebooks of the Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, they look eerily like props, as if he’d taken his cues—if not his intentions—directly from John Doe in Seven.)

"This is your lucky day..."

As for a prison break, it’s nothing if not a lesson about the importance of constraints. That said, there’s a touch of dishonesty in the way most novels and movies approach any “impossible” heist or escape: the protagonists always show great apparent resourcefulness in defeating the security measures and eluding the guards, but both sides of the equation have been manipulated in advance by the writer, who sets each obstacle in place with an eye to how to overcome it. Hence the convenient ventilation shafts that materialize wherever necessary; the moving laser beams that follow a predictable pattern, rather than simply creating an impassable grid; or the impregnable vaults, like the one in the first Mission: Impossible movie, equipped with every deterrent device imaginable except a functional security camera. For fans of the genre, spotting the writer’s workarounds is part of the fun. And if prison breaks sometimes feel more satisfying than heists, it’s because the author, like his characters, is forced to deal with problems that can’t be waved away. Stone walls may not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t always there.

The prison break sequence in Eternal Empire, which reaches its climax in Chapter 22, was cobbled together out of many such components. Some of the details, like the limpet mines that the attackers affix to the prison van’s doors, or the way in which one of the criminals poses as a traffic policeman to cheerfully wave other cars toward an alternate route, were taken from similar incidents in real life; others were determined by the physical demands of the location, or nods to scenes I’d enjoyed in other books or movies. (The vehicles that surround the van, boxing it in, come straight from The Usual Suspects.) If there’s one thing that dissatisfies me, it’s the white surgical masks that the assailants wear: I wanted to give them something distinctive, but ever since Point Break raised the bar, the movies have given us heists with thieves masked as clowns, nuns, and whatever else a writer can imagine, and the well of ideas is running a little dry. Still, the result is one of the most effective set pieces in any of these novels, or at least one of the few I can stand to read over again. It’s the kind of scene every writer ought to write at least once. And like most good prison breaks, it never goes quite as smoothly as planned…

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2015 at 10:41 am

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