Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Usual Suspects

“This was the ending that had awaited him all along…”

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"Closing the door behind him..."

Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 47. You can read the previous installments here.

One of my favorite storytelling tricks is the false ending, in which the writer fools us into thinking that we’ve reached a satisfying conclusion, only to pause, regroup, and push forward into something even deeper. The great example here is The Usual Suspects. After listening to Verbal spin his convoluted tale for well over an hour, Detective Kujan turns the tables, bombarding Verbal with a version of events—aided by a barrage of flashbacks over a dramatic underscore—in which Dean Keaton was Keyser Soze all along. It’s a convincing performance, and if you went into the film knowing nothing except that it was supposed to have a famous twist, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was it, even if it wasn’t as good as you expected. Yet the sequence flies in the face of one of the few scraps of objective information that the audience has been given: the very first scene in the movie, in which Keaton dies. And if we temporarily forget this, it’s partially because ninety complicated minutes have unspooled in the meantime, but also because Kujan’s closing argument is assembled to look and sound like the end of the movie. It’s a perfectly decent flashback montage, of the sort that is often used to reveal the solution to a mystery, and we have no way of knowing that the movie is about five minutes away from using an even better montage to blow our minds for real. (The unsung hero here, as I never tire of saying, is editor and composer John Ottman, whose contributions elevate the movie beyond what was there in McQuarrie’s script and Singer’s direction.)

Which, when you think about it, is a surprisingly subtle point. It isn’t the logical consistency of the fake ending that fools us, but the way in which it mimics the visual, rhythmic, and aural conventions of the real endings to which we’re accustomed. We’re subconsciously attuned to how a movie feels as it draws toward its conclusion, and for a fake ending to work, it has to give us the full package, which is more important than whether or not it makes sense. And the absence of such cues can tip us off to the trick prematurely. Zootopia, for instance, has what would otherwise seem like an ingenious fake ending, but the movie rushes past it a little too quickly: if it were the real climax, we’d be savoring it, and the fact that the script treats it in an almost perfunctory way is a clue that we shouldn’t take it seriously. If a movie really wants to trick us, it has to edit that fake ending as if it were the real thing, and in particular, it has to pay close attention to the music, which often tells us what to feel. The score at the end of a movie usually swells to carry us out of the theater, and if many fake endings fail to convince, it’s because they’re too quiet. (I’m surprised at how rarely movies use our knowledge of scoring conventions against us. Movie music often prompts us to feel relieved—as when the score softly creeps in again after a long stretch of silence in which the heroine is exploring the deserted house—and I’d love it if a film gave us a few bars to release the tension, and then the jump scare.)

"This was the ending that had awaited him all along..."

The fact that movies almost never exploit a fake ending to its logical extent is hard to explain, especially because the medium lends itself so naturally to such a mislead. We know exactly how many pages remain in a book, and we generally have a pretty good idea of how long an episode of a television series will last. With a movie, unless we’re watching it at home and have carefully scrutinized the back of the video box beforehand, we don’t really know how much longer it has to go, and even if we can guess that it’s about two hours, twenty minutes in either direction gives it plenty of room to play with our expectations. (Douglas Hofstadter once jokingly proposed padding out novels with fake pages toward the end, to create the same kind of effect, and I sometimes experience this when a book ends, without my knowledge, with a preview of the next installment in the series.) But if the movies seem reluctant to push that kind of fakeout as far as it can go, it might be because the benefits are canceled out by unanticipated side effects. A really convincing fake ending would have the audience putting on its coats and preparing to exit the theater, only to be yanked back into the story, and that sort of manipulation can easily turn viewers against it. Fooling us into the physiological response created by a real ending might make it impossible for us to respond in that way when the movie actually ends. This might explain why the handful of movies that really sell a fake ending, like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or James Mangold’s Identity, time it so that it occurs only a few minutes, or seconds, before the real thing, compressing the two into one.

Chapter 47 of Eternal Empire occurs long before the ending of the book, but it includes a narrative fakeout that required me to take many of these issues into account. It’s the culmination of the subplot in which Ilya has been forced to assassinate Tarkovsky, and at the end of the chapter, he appears to do exactly that, shooting Tarkovsky in cold blood in the oligarch’s stateroom. Or at least that’s how it looks. Needless to say, there’s something else going on, and within the next couple of scenes, we’ll be let into the secret plan that has been unfolding in plain sight. When a valued reader gave me notes on the first draft, however, he said that he didn’t buy the scene as written—he knew, somehow, that Tarkovsky was still alive. When I went back to reread the relevant section, I saw my mistake: I had written it as if I knew what was coming. If Ilya had shot Tarkovsky for real, this would have been the tragic endpoint of the entire trilogy: the instant in which his true nature as a killer overtook his attempts to become something more, swept up by circumstances beyond his control. I would have lingered on this moment, which would have been one of the major climaxes of the whole series, and the existing version didn’t give it the attention that it deserved. In the revision, then, I slowed it down, putting in the equivalent of a dramatic orchestral sting to play over Tarkovsky’s apparent death, and I dwelled on it as if the entire book had been building to this passage. Which, in a sense, it had. (The rewrite also gave me my single favorite line in the novel, the description of the yacht as “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”) Does it work? I can’t say. But at least it has a chance…

“Are you still willing to play your part?”

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"Where were we?"

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 44. You can read the previous installments here.

When you conceive of a story as a kind of puzzle box, one of the most satisfying tricks you can play is to write a scene that can be read in two different ways. At first, it suggests one obvious interpretation—if you’ve done it right, it shouldn’t even raise any questions—but on a second encounter, it says something else, based solely on the fresh perspective that the reader or audience brings to it. The canonical example here is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. It opens with the paranoid sound expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, eavesdropping on an illicit meeting in the park between a young couple, Mark and Ann, who are having an affair. Harry has been hired to follow them by Ann’s husband, but later, as he cleans up and edits the tape recording, he hears a line spoken by Mark for the first time: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” Before long, Harry, who obsessively replays that part of the conversation, becomes convinced that his client is planning to have Mark and Ann killed. Of course, that isn’t what happens, and it turns out in the end that Mark and Ann were planning to murder Ann’s husband. Harry’s interpretation of the recording was wrong: it wasn’t “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” but “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” meaning that they have to kill him first. And it’s only when the audience, along with Harry, glimpses the full picture that the line reveals its real meaning at last.

Which is an amazing feat of storytelling—except that it cheats. Walter Murch, who was left to edit the film by himself after Coppola ran off to film The Godfather Part II, was never able to make the audience understand the true meaning of that critical line of dialogue, and he ultimately hit upon a solution that broke the movie’s own rules. During one take, Frederic Forrest, who played Mark, had flubbed his line reading, inadvertently placing the emphasis on the wrong word: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” As Murch recounts in Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen:

I noted that reading at the time…and filed it away as being inappropriate. But a year later during the mixing of the film I suddenly thought, let’s see what happens if we substitute that “inappropriate” reading with its different inflection into the final reel. It might help tip audiences into understanding what had happened: that the “victims” were really the “plotters.” So I mixed it into the soundtrack in place of the original reading and took the finished film to [Coppola]…I prepared him for the change and wondered what his reaction would be when he heard it. It was a risky idea because it challenged one of the fundamental premises of the film, which is that the conversation itself remains the same, but your interpretation of it changes. I was prepared to go back to the original version. But he liked it, and that’s the way it remains in the finished film.

"Are you still willing to play your part?"

And it was the right call, even if it was a bit of a cheat. When we look at the books or movies that execute the priceless gag of having a scene appear to mean one thing but turn out to mean another, some degree of trickery is almost always involved. No film has ever pulled it off as beautifully as The Sixth Sense, with its closing montage of moments that we suddenly see in a new light, but on a second viewing, we’re acutely aware of how the script walks right up to the edge of deceiving us unfairly. (My favorite example is Lynn’s line “You got an hour,” which works when we think she’s talking to Malcolm, but not if she’s just telling her son that she’s making some triangle pancakes.) The Usual Suspects cheats even more blatantly by giving us a fake flashback—a gimmick that can be justified by the presence of an unreliable narrator, but which still feels like a lapse in an otherwise elegant movie. It’s also common for a story to omit necessary information, so that the dialogue, while not actively misleading, only gives us part of the picture. You frequently see this in movies like Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, which involve us in the planning of a heist but withhold a few details so that we don’t know what the protagonists really have in mind. In small does, this can be delightful, but it verges on being a cliché in itself, and when taken too far, it violates the implicit contract between the story and the audience, which is that we’ll be allowed to see what the main character does and draw our own conclusions.

Chapter 44 of Eternal Empire represents my own effort in that line, and I’m reasonably happy with how it turned out. The chapter opens at the tail end of what seems like a routine conversation between Maddy and Tarkovsky, then follows Maddy as she goes down to the yacht’s tender bay to meet Ilya, who is evidently preparing for Tarkovsky’s assassination. That isn’t really the case, of course, and I had a good time drawing on the standard bag of tricks for this sort of misdirection. Maddy acts as if she’s scoping out Tarkovsky’s office for the kill, when in fact she’s there to warn him, and her ensuing conversation with Ilya is filled with lines of the “He’d kill us if he had the chance” variety. (“Are we safe?” “If you’re asking if the pieces are in place, then yes, we’re ready.” “And are you still willing to play your part?” “I don’t think I have a choice.”) Looking at it objectively, I’d say that the result does its job with a minimum of jiggery-pokery, although there’s always a touch of cheating—which some readers will hate no matter what—when you don’t reveal everything that your point of view character might be thinking. Fortunately, my usual narrative mode is fairly clinical and detached: I don’t use interior monologue, and I prefer to convey emotion through action, which dovetails nicely with the requirements of a scene like this. The chapter works because it isn’t so far removed from what I normally do as a writer, which allows the characters to keep their secrets. And I’d do it again if I had the chance…

The intelligence community

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Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

One of the major dividends of the success of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is that it marks the return to public consciousness of the screenwriter and director Christopher McQuarrie, who has a deserved reputation as one of the smartest and most underused men in Hollywood. McQuarrie has been around for a long time: it’s been close to twenty years since he won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, and more than fifteen since he directed The Way of the Gun, a deeply flawed movie that I haven’t been able to stop watching or thinking about ever since. A fruitful partnership with Tom Cruise, starting with Valkyrie, brought him his first credited scripts in years, and with Jack Reacher and now Rogue Nation, McQuarrie has become hard to avoid. Which is all to our benefit. His commentary track with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects may be my favorite of all time, and I go back and listen to it every couple of years just to hear those voices again. And with McQuarrie making the media rounds this week to promote his first unqualified hit, particularly in a remarkably candid interview with Deadline, we’ve got a rich trove of new insights from a man who, like David Mamet or Robert Towne, seemingly can’t open his mouth without shedding light on some unexpected aspect of filmmaking.

McQuarrie’s reputation is inextricably linked to his years in exile, and there are moments when he can’t help sounding like one of the hard-boiled characters in his own movies. In particular, I’m thinking of James Caan’s “adjudicator” in The Way of the Gun, who delivers a line that I’ve never forgotten: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” Deadline describes him as “Cruise’s accomplice in problem solving,” which is pretty much how most screenwriters like to see themselves—as the unheralded, pragmatic fixers who parachute in, like Towne famously did for The Godfather, to save troubled productions for a paycheck before moving on. McQuarrie has benefited, as Towne did before him, from falling in with Cruise, a movie star with the soul of a producer whose track record at mounting and executing deliriously complicated projects has attuned him to the value of the creative resource that a talented writer’s brain affords. As McQuarrie describes it, it sounds less like two moguls overseeing a multimillion-dollar production that a huddle between a couple of canny conspirators: “You’re confronted with an obstacle that seems so insurmountable and Tom always says the same thing. If there’s any two people who can figure this out, it’s us. We’re going to figure it out. And, usually we do.”

Christopher McQuarrie on the set of "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

This is undoubtedly romanticized, and it’s the closest McQuarrie ever comes to sounding like one of the suits that he skewers so expertly elsewhere—including in Rogue Nation itself, in which the venal spies in charge of the intelligence community often play as parodies of studio heads, with their cheerful indifference to the lives or careers that hang on their decisions. (As William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, the scariest sentence that a writer can hear from an executive has to be: “We have a special relationship with Tom Cruise.”) But it’s amply borne out by the film, which, more than any of its predecessors, is emphatically a screenwriter’s movie. It lacks a jaw-dropping set piece to compare with the Burj Khalifa ascent in Ghost Protocol, but it has a distinctly better story and structure, and at its best, it’s a marvel of smart, efficient craftsmanship. A few years ago, I drew a distinction between action that seems to have been worked out on the page and the kind that is assembled in the editing room, and I singled out Ghost Protocol, along with Drive and The International, as among a handful of recent movies that have given us coherent, inventive, written action scenes:

They have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They make memorable use of their locations. They have small setups, payoffs, and surprises along the way…Each is centered on the personalities of the characters involved—indeed, each scene unfolds as a series of logical choices, which is something you’ll never hear said of Transformers. And these are all things that can only be planned at the screenplay stage.

And Rogue Nation honors and elevates that standard. I liked it a lot from start to finish, but the scene that sticks in my mind the most is the extended set piece that unfolds place backstage during a premiere of Turnadot at the Vienna Opera House. We’ve seen this exact scene before—there’s never been an opera performance in an action movie that didn’t end in bloodshed—and I settled into it with a slight sense of resignation, wondering if McQuarrie would be content, as Quantum of Solace was, to merely use his location as an attractive backdrop. I shouldn’t have worried. McQuarrie knows his territory, and even as he structures much of the sequence as an explicit homage to the Albert Hall climax in The Man Who Knew Too Much, he’s determined to show the rest of us how it’s done. The result unspools as an increasingly dazzling series of surprises, reversals, and complications, making inspired use of the setting and of the music itself, and it culminates with a sweet little twist, as Ethan Hunt figures out how to save the Austrian chancellor from no fewer than three assassins. It’s as lovingly hewn and polished as any scene from McQuarrie’s filmography, and it’s only one high point in a film that never takes anything for granted, including the ending, which saw the director and star halting production in an attempt to get it just right. Like just about everything else, it paid off. McQuarrie, like the spies in his movie, spent years as a man without a country. But it’s his nation now.

The unusual suspects

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The Usual Suspects

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 topic: “What 1995 pop culture would you want to experience again for the first time?”

Yesterday, while discussing a scene from one of my own novels, I mentioned two movies in passing: The Usual Suspects and Seven. These references appeared in separate paragraphs, to illustrate two different ideas, and I don’t think I made any particular connection between them at the time. Obviously, though, they’re a natural pair: they collectively made a star out of Kevin Spacey, and they were released within a month of each other in 1995. (In fact, I vividly remember watching them both for the first time on home video on the same weekend, although this wouldn’t have been until the year after, when Spacey had already won his Oscar. Seven made a greater immediate impression, but I’d go on to watch my tape of The Usual Suspects maybe a dozen times over the next couple of years.) When I cited them here, I didn’t think much about it. I’ve thought about both of these movies a lot, and they served as convenient genre touchstones for the points I wanted to make. And I took for granted that most readers of this blog would have seen them, or at least be familiar enough with them for their examples to be useful.

But this may have been an unwarranted assumption. In one’s own life, twenty years can pass like the blink of an eye, but in pop culture terms, it’s a long time. If we take a modern high school sophomore’s familiarity with the movies of two decades ago as the equivalent of my knowledge of the films of 1975, we soon see that we can’t assume anything at all. I saw myself then as a film buff, and although I can laugh a little now at how superficial any teenager’s grasp of movie history is likely to be, I was genuinely curious about the medium and eager to explore its past. Looking at a list of that year’s most notable movies, though, I’m chagrined at how few of them I’ve seen even now. There was Jaws, of course, and my obsession with Kubrick made me one of the few teens who willingly sat through all of Barry Lyndon. I’m fairly sure I’d seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Nashville at that point, although the chronology is a bit muddled, and both were films I had to actively seek out, as I did later with Amarcord. The Rocky Horror Picture Show had premiered on television a few years earlier on Fox, and I watched it, although I don’t have the slightest idea what I thought of it at the time. And I didn’t rent Dog Day Afternoon until after college.

Anthony Hopkins in Nixon

In fact, I’d guess that the only two movies from that year that your average teenage boy is likely to have seen, then and now, are Jaws and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even today, there are big gaps in my own knowledge of the year’s top grossers: I’ve still never seen Shampoo, despite its status as one of the three great Robert Towne scripts, and I hadn’t even heard of Aloha, Bobby, and Rose. When we advance the calendar by two decades, the situation looks much the same. Toy Story, the biggest hit of that year, is still the one that most people have seen. I’m guessing that Heat and Die Hard With a Vengeance hold some allure for budding genre fans, as do Clueless and Sense and Sensibility for a somewhat different crowd. The Usual Suspects and Seven are safe. And I’d like to think that Casino still draws in younger viewers out of its sheer awesomeness, which makes even The Wolf of Wall Street seem slightly lame. But many of the other titles here are probably just names, the way Funny Lady or The Apple Dumpling Gang are to me, and it would take repeated acts of diligence to catch up with some of these movies, now that another twenty years of cinema have flowed under the bridge. Awards completists will check out Braveheart, Apollo 13, Babe, and Leaving Las Vegas, but there are countless other worthy movies that risk being overlooked.

Take Nixon, for example. At the time, I thought it was the best film of its year, and while I wouldn’t rank it so highly these days, it’s still a knockout: big, ambitious, massively entertaining, and deeply weird. It has one of the greatest supporting casts in movies, with an endlessly resourceful lead performance by Anthony Hopkins that doesn’t so much recall Nixon himself as create an indelible, oddly sympathetic monster of its own. But even on its initial release, it was a huge flop, and it hasn’t exactly inspired a groundswell of reappraisal. Even if you’re an Oliver Stone fan—and I don’t know how many devotees he has under the age of thirty—it’s probably not one of his top five movies that anyone is likely to check off. (The rough equivalent would be a diehard Coppola enthusiast deciding it was time to watch The Cotton Club.) The only reason I’ve seen it is because I was old enough to catch in theaters, when I’ve never made time to rent Salvador or Talk Radio. And if I were talking to a bright fifteen year old who wanted to see some good movies,  I don’t know when Nixon would come up, if ever. But if it’s worth mentioning at all, it’s less for its own merits than as part of a larger point. Everyone will give you a list of movies to watch, but there’s a lot worth discovering that you’ll have to seek out on your own, once you move past the usual suspects.

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2015 at 9:51 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

A cut above the rest

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Saul Bass in the editing room

The other day, my wife pointed me to a recent poll by the Motion Picture Editors Guild of the best-edited movies of all time. Most of the usual suspects are here, although not, curiously, The Usual Suspects: Raging Bull and Citizen Kane top the list, followed by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Psycho, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as a few enticing surprises. (I’ve never seen All That Jazz, which sits at number four, although the fact that a subplot revolves around the protagonist’s attempts to edit a movie of his own makes me wonder if there’s a touch of sentiment involved.) What struck me the most about the ranking is its fundamental oddity: it seems natural that a list like this would exist for movies, but it’s hard to imagine a similar one for books or albums, which are as intensely edited as any motion picture. So, for that matter, are plays, songs, magazine articles, and podcasts. Nearly any work of art, in fact, has undergone an editing process, if we take this to mean only the systematic arrangement of its component parts. To take a slightly offbeat example: Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” might seem like a trifle, but it’s ruthlessly organized, with a lot of ideas—some, admittedly, lifted from Chuck Berry—flowing seamlessly together. The editing, if we’re willing to grant that a pop song can be as consciously constructed as a film by Martin Scorsese, is brilliant. So why are we so used to talking about it in movies and nowhere else?

A few possible explanations come to mind, starting with the fact that the roles of movie editor and director usually, although not always, reside in two different people. Choices about editing can be hard to separate from earlier choices about structure, and the division of labor in movie production—with structural decisions shared among the screenwriter, editor, director, and others—make film editing feel like a pursuit in itself, which is less obvious in a novel or album. (Literary editors and music producers play a crucial role in the arrangement of the pieces in their respective fields, but their contribution is harder to define.) It doesn’t hurt that movie editors are probably the only ones we’ve ever seen accepting an award on television, or that books on film editing considerably outnumber those of any other kind. Perhaps most relevant of all is the very nature of editing a movie, which differs from other types of editorial work in that the amount of raw material is fixed. When you’re writing a book, it’s possible to write new chapters to fill in the gaps in the story; a recording artist can always lay down a fresh version of a track; but a movie editor is stuck with the dailies that the director delivers. These days, this isn’t necessarily true: directors like Peter Jackson plan for reshoots even before principal photography begins, and modern software allows for considerable freedom in creating new shots in post. But the image still persists of the editor exercising his or her will on a resistant mass of footage, solving narrative problems under enormous constraints. Which is what makes it so fascinating.

The editing room of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

So what do we mean when we say that a movie had great editing? There’s an old chestnut, which isn’t any less true for being so familiar, that if you’ve noticed the editing in a movie, the editor has done a poor job. That’s right as far as it goes, and it’s equally correct that the showier moments in a smartly edited movie have a way of obscuring more meaningful work. The multiple film stocks in JFK might grab the eye, but they’re much less impressive than the massive amount of information that the movie allows the viewer to absorb. Famous cuts, like the one from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia or the time jump in 2001, are the ones we recall, but we’re less prone to take notice of how expertly those films keep us oriented in two of the most confusing environments imaginable—the desert and outer space. And we’re often barely aware of how much of a movie has been constructed in postproduction. When you compare the script of The Usual Suspects with the final result, it’s hard not to conclude that the movie’s secret hero, its true Keyser Soze, is editor John Ottman: the whole closing montage of sounds, images, and dialogue, which is the first thing many of us remember, isn’t even hinted at in the screenplay. But we aren’t meant to see any of this. We’re left with the stubborn, redundant axiom that if a movie is great, its editing was great as well. That’s why the Editors Guild poll is foremost a list of terrific movies, and one of the first such lists that I’d recommend to anyone who was interested in learning more about film.

That said, as I’ve suggested above, there are times when we can’t help but be grateful for the problems that a movie’s editor has solved. Managing the delivery of complicated information, as we often see in the movies of David Fincher, poses tremendous challenges, and Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo play like thrillers in which most of the drama is unfolding in the editing room. Casino, which I recently watched again just for my own pleasure, does this kind of thing so beautifully that it makes The Wolf of Wall Street seem a little lame by comparison. When it comes to keeping the audience grounded during complex action, we’re likely to think first of the films of Paul Greengrass, who has ruined much of modern action filmmaking by chopping up the footage so fluently that he encourages less talented filmmakers to do the same—hence the vast divide between The Bourne Supremacy and Quantum of Solace. (Although if I had to name one movie that still fills me with awe at how expertly it choreographs and assembles action on a large scale, it would have to be Titanic.) And editors have often been called upon to pull shape and logic out of seemingly unworkable footage. Annie Hall wasn’t even a love story before Ralph Rosenblum, by his own account, saw what its three hours of raw material were really about, and the result is a film that seems perfect, even if it was anything but preordained. Elsewhere, I’ve described creativity as the conversion of the arbitrary into the inevitable. And that, really, is what editors do.

True Detective and the post-twist world

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Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey on True Detective

Note: Spoilers follow for the first season of True Detective.

I’ve written more than once on this blog about how tired I’ve grown of the mechanical twists that television shows keep throwing at their viewers, which substitute a character death or a totally unmotivated reveal for the hard work of patient storytelling. The real problem with the culture of the twist, I’ve found, is that if it persists for too long, it paradoxically discourages audience involvement. When a movie like The Usual Suspects informs us that the plot we think we’ve been following isn’t the real story after all, it’s a delight; extended indefinitely, and with the prospect of repeated fake-outs baked into our expectations into advance, it prevents us from investing anything into the story we’re watching at the moment, knowing throughout that it could all be arbitrarily yanked away. That kind of constant guardedness can be refreshing after a lifetime of watching shows that go through the same tired motions, but it runs the risk of hardening into a formula of its own, and one that robs us of the basic pleasures of giving ourselves over to a long narrative. I like being surprised as much as anyone else, but when it means nothing but one empty reversal after another, the stuff in the middle starts to feel dangerously like a waste of time.

What pleases me the most about the first season of True Detective, which I finally watched this week, is how surprisingly untwisty it turned out to be. For all the obsessive scrutiny of its alleged clues, ultimately, this was a show that didn’t need insane plot developments to keep an audience’s attention. It relied, instead, on two great performances, a boatload of atmosphere, and a deep dive into the conventions of its own genre, presented more or less straight. This isn’t a deconstruction or subversion of noir, but an extended attempt to honor the best of what this kind of story can do, and nearly every scene glows with confidence in its own material. At a time when many shows seem afraid to allow the viewer’s eye to stray for a second, this is a series willing to take its time, to linger on moments and images, and to eschew easy attempts to drum up the suspense. Most series about a serial killer would throw in a few more bodies along the way, or tie the plot into the plight of the next potential victim, but True Detective is content to open with one striking crime scene and then focus most of its efforts on the past. And the fact that it remains so watchable over its eight hours speaks to the level of craft and commitment on display.

Matthew McConaughey on True Detective

The show isn’t perfect. There are times when it seems to check off items on a list of procedural or Southern Gothic conventions essentially at fancy—devil worship, bikers, meth cooks—without any attempt to tie them all together. Occasionally, the endless scenes of Marty and Rust interviewing witnesses and suspects start to feel like an epic episode of Law and Order, and the moments when an old lady or a catatonic victim abruptly blurts out a key piece of evidence can seem a little hacky. Despite some valiant work by Michelle Monaghan, the character of Marty’s wife never feels anything more than obligatory, and she’s really only there to bring her husband into focus. Perhaps most damagingly, for a show that engages in endless existential talk about the nature of evil, it’s oddly complacent when it comes to the darkness it depicts. Once the idea of a family cult devoted to ritual murder and human sacrifice is introduced, it’s taken almost for granted, with little thought as to how such monsters persist over so many generations. If only one killer were involved, it could be written off as an instance of the evil that men do, but the solution that the show presents raises questions that it doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring.

Still, these are quibbles compared to the largeness of its overall achievement, which represents some of the best television I’ve seen in an already excellent year. More than anything else, it gives us a pair of characters whom I’ve come to know and care about as much as a viewer possibly can, and it refreshingly refused to throw any of it away for the sake of a late shock. And because it kept the stakes so intimate, it feels like a show that could run forever, even if the cast and setting change from one season to the next. A series that thrives on contrivance and surprise inevitably burns out after a few years of increasingly heightened stakes; a show based, instead, on observation and personality, with occasional sequences of breathtaking intensity, can afford to approach the same material from a range of angles, rather than feeling the pressure to top itself time and again. For all its old-fashioned virtues, True Detective feels as much as anything I’ve seen this decade like the future of television, a story that digs into itself over a fixed period of time rather than casting off in increasingly unsustainable directions. And that might be the most surprising twist of all.

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2014 at 9:33 am

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