Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Vertigo

American Stories #3: Vertigo

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

Vertigo, which may well be the most beautiful art object ever made in America, was based on a French novel, D’entre les morts, by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who wrote it in the express hope that Alfred Hitchcock would adapt it into a movie. I don’t know if Hitchcock ever explained why he transferred the setting to San Francisco, but I suspect that he was reasoning backward from its proximity to the Spanish missions, which would provide a bell tower tall enough for a woman to leap to her death, but not so high that a man couldn’t plausibly run up the stairs. Once the decision was made, Hitchcock indulged in his customary preference for utilizing his locations to their fullest. It gave us Madeline’s plunge into the bay near the Golden Gate Bridge and her haunting speech by the rings of the redwood tree: “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.” Above all else, it allowed Hitchcock to give Judy a room at the Empire Hotel, lit from outside by its green neon sign, which enabled the single greatest shot in all of cinema. And the resulting film is inseparable from the state of which Joan Didion wrote:

Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me. I think it comes out of being a “daughter of the Golden West.” A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions—leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways—those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California.

Vertigo, like many of the best movies to come out of Hollywood, is about how the prize is won and then lost because of greed, jealousy, or nostalgia. As Scotty says despairingly to Judy at the end: “You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.”

Like many great works of American art, Vertigo lingers in the imagination because it oscillates so nervously between its surface pleasures and its darkest depths. It’s both the ultimate Hitchcock entertainment, with its flawless cinematography, iconic Edith Head costumes, and romantic Bernard Herrmann score, and the most psychologically complex film I’ve ever seen. It’s as mysterious as a movie can be, but it’s also grounded in its evocative but realistic San Francisco settings. Early on, it can come off as routine, even banal, which leaves us even less prepared for its climax, which is a sick joke that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in film, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps its crucial revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any cinematic adaptation has been more significant—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful and painful. When Judy turns to the camera and the image is flooded with red, we’re as close to the heart of movies as we’ll ever get. The more we learn about Hitchcock’s treatment of women, the more confessional it all seems, and it implicates us as well: Scotty desires, attains, and finally destroys Judy in his efforts to turn her into Madeline, and it ends up feeling like the most honest story that Hollywood has ever told about itself.

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January 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

Out of the past

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You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.

Vertigo

About halfway through the beautiful, devastating finale of Twin Peaks—which I’ll be discussing here in detail—I began to reflect on what the figure of Dale Cooper really means. When we encounter him for the first time in the pilot, with his black suit, fastidious habits, and clipped diction, he’s the embodiment of what we’ve been taught to expect of a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI occupies a role in movies and television far out of proportion to its actual powers and jurisdiction, in part because it seems to exist on a level intriguingly beyond that of ordinary law enforcement, and it’s often been used to symbolize the sinister, the remote, or the impersonal. Yet when Cooper reveals himself to be a man of real empathy, quirkiness, and faith in the extraordinary, it comes almost as a relief. We want to believe that a person like this exists. Cooper carries a badge, he wears a tie, and he’s comfortable with a gun, but he’s here to enforce human reason in the face of a bewildering universe. The Black Lodge might be out there, but the Blue Rose task force is on it, and there’s something oddly consoling about the notion that it’s a part of the federal government. A few years later, Chris Carter took this premise and refined it into The X-Files, which, despite its paranoia, reassured us that somebody in a position of authority had noticed the weirdness in the world and was trying to make sense of it. They might rarely succeed, but it was comforting to think that their efforts had been institutionalized, complete with a basement office, a place in the org chart, and a budget. And for a lot of viewers, Mulder and Scully, like Cooper, came to symbolize law and order in stories that laugh at our attempts to impose it.

Even if you don’t believe in the paranormal, the image of the lone FBI agent—or two of them—arriving in a small town to solve a supernatural mystery is enormously seductive. It appeals to our hopes that someone in power cares enough about us to investigate problems that can’t be rationally addressed, which all stand, in one way or another, for the mystery of death. This may be why both Twin Peaks and The X-Files, despite their flaws, have sustained so much enthusiasm among fans. (No other television dramas have ever meant more to me.) But it’s also a myth. This isn’t really how the world works, and the second half of the Twin Peaks finale is devoted to tearing down, with remarkable cruelty and control, the very idea of such solutions. It can only do this by initially giving us what we think we want, and the first of last night’s two episodes misleads us with a satisfying dose of wish fulfillment. Not only is Cooper back, but he’s in complete command of the situation, and he seems to know exactly what to do at every given moment. He somehow knows all about Freddie and his magical green glove, which he utilizes to finally send Bob into oblivion. After rescuing Diane, he uses his room key from the Great Northern, like a magical item in a video game, to unlock the door that leads him to Mike and the disembodied Phillip Jeffries. He goes back in time, enters the events of Fire Walk With Me, and saves Laura on the night of her murder. The next day, Pete Martell simply goes fishing. Viewers at home even get the appearance by Julee Cruise that I’ve been awaiting since the premiere. After the credits ran, I told my wife that if it had ended there, I would have been totally satisfied.

But that was exactly what I was supposed to think, and even during the first half, there are signs of trouble. When Cooper first sees the eyeless Naido, who is later revealed to be the real Diane, his face freezes in a huge closeup that is superimposed for several minutes over the ensuing action. It’s a striking device that has the effect of putting us, for the first time, in Cooper’s head, rather than watching him with bemusement from the outside. We identify with him, and at the very end, when his efforts seemingly come to nothing, despite the fact that he did everything right, it’s more than heartbreaking—it’s like an existential crisis. It’s the side of the show that was embodied by Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura Palmer, whose tragic life and horrifying death, when seen in its full dimension, put the lie to all the cozy, comforting stories that the series told us about the town of Twin Peaks. Nothing good could ever come out of a world in which Laura died in the way that she did, which was the message that Fire Walk With Me delivered so insistently. And seeing Laura share the screen at length with Cooper presents us with both halves of the show’s identity within a single frame. (It also gives us a second entry, after Blue Velvet, in the short list of great scenes in which Kyle MacLachlan enters a room to find a man sitting down with his brains blown out.) For a while, as Cooper drives Laura to the appointment with her mother, it seems almost possible that the series could pull off one last, unfathomable trick. Even if it means erasing the show’s entire timeline, it would be worth it to save Laura. Or so we think. In the end, they return to a Twin Peaks that neither of them recognize, in which the events of the series presumably never took place, and Cooper’s only reward is Laura’s scream of agony.

As I tossed and turned last night, thinking about Cooper’s final, shattering moment of comprehension, a line of dialogue from another movie drifted into my head: “It’s too late. There’s no bringing her back.” It’s from Vertigo, of course, which is a movie that David Lynch and Mark Frost have been quietly urging us to revisit all along. (Madeline Ferguson, Laura’s identical cousin, who was played by Lee, is named after the film’s two main characters, and both works of art pivot on a necklace and a dream sequence.) Along with so much else, Vertigo is about the futility of trying to recapture or change the past, and its ending, which might be the most unforgettable of any film I’ve ever seen, destroys Scotty’s delusions, which embody the assumptions of so many American movies: “One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be rid of the past forever.” I think that Lynch and Frost are consciously harking back to Vertigo here—in the framing of the doomed couple on their long drive, as well as in Cooper’s insistence that Laura revisit the scene of the crime—and it doesn’t end well in either case. The difference is that Vertigo prepares us for it over the course of two hours, while Twin Peaks had more than a quarter of a century. Both works offer a conclusion that feels simultaneously like a profound statement of our helplessness in the face of an unfair universe and like the punchline to a shaggy dog story, and perhaps that’s the only way to express it. I’ve quoted Frost’s statement on this revival more than once: “It’s an exercise in engaging with one of the most powerful themes in all of art, which is the ruthless passage of time…We’re all trapped in time and we’re all going to die. We’re all traveling along this conveyor belt that is relentlessly moving us toward this very certain outcome.” Thirty seconds before the end, I didn’t know what he meant. But I sure do now. And I know at last why this show’s theme is called “Falling.”

Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2017 at 9:40 am

The last tango

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Bernardo Bertoclucci, Marlon Brando, and Maria Schneider on the set of Last Tango in Paris

When I look back at many of my favorite movies, I’m troubled by a common thread that they share. It’s the theme of the control of a vulnerable woman by a man in a position of power. The Red Shoes, my favorite film of all time, is about artistic control, while Blue Velvet, my second favorite, is about sexual domination. Even Citizen Kane has that curious subplot about Kane’s attempt to turn Susan into an opera star, which may have originated as an unkind reference to William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, but which survives in the final version as an emblem of Kane’s need to collect human beings like playthings. It’s also hard to avoid the feeling that some of these stories secretly mirror the relationship between the director and his actresses on the set. Vertigo, of course, can be read as an allegory for Hitchcock’s own obsession with his leading ladies, whom he groomed and remade as meticulously as Scotty attempts to do with Madeline. In The Shining, Jack’s abuse of Wendy feels only slightly more extreme than what we know Kubrick—who even resembles Jack a bit in the archival footage that survives—imposed on Shelley Duvall. (Duvall’s mental health issues have cast a new pall on those accounts, and the involvement of Kubrick’s daughter Vivian has done nothing to clarify the situation.) And Roger Ebert famously hated Blue Velvet because he felt that David Lynch’s treatment of Isabella Rossellini had crossed an invisible moral line.

The movie that has been subjected to this kind of scrutiny most recently is Last Tango in Paris, after interview footage resurfaced of Bernardo Bertolucci discussing its already infamous rape scene. (Bertolucci originally made these comments three years ago, and the fact that they’ve drawn attention only now is revealing in itself—it was hiding in plain sight, but it had to wait until we were collectively prepared to talk about it.) Since the story first broke, there has been some disagreement over what Maria Schneider knew on the day of the shoot. You can read all about it here. But it seems undeniable that Bertolucci and Brando deliberately withheld crucial information about the scene from Schneider until the cameras were rolling. Even the least offensive version makes me sick to my stomach, all the more so because Last Tango in Paris has been an important movie to me for most of my life. In online discussions of the controversy, I’ve seen commenters dismissing the film as an overrated relic, a vanity project for Brando, or one of Pauline Kael’s misguided causes célèbres. If anything, though, this attitude lets us off the hook too easily. It’s much harder to admit that a film that genuinely moved audiences and changed lives might have been made under conditions that taint the result beyond retrieval. It’s a movie that has meant a lot to me, as it did to many other viewers, including some I knew personally. And I don’t think I can ever watch it again.

Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

But let’s not pretend that it ends there. It reflects a dynamic that has existed between directors and actresses since the beginning, and all too often, we’ve forgiven it, as long as it results in great movies. We write critical treatments of how Vertigo and Psycho masterfully explore Hitchcock’s ambivalence toward women, and we overlook the fact that he sexually assaulted Tippi Hedren. When we think of the chummy partnerships that existed between men like Cary Grant and Howard Hawks, or John Wayne and John Ford, and then compare them with how directors have regarded their female collaborators, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. (The great example here is Gone With the Wind: George Cukor, the original director, was fired because he made Clark Gable uncomfortable, and he was replaced by Gable’s buddy Victor Fleming. Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were forced to consult with Cukor in secret.) And there’s an unsettling assumption on the part of male directors that this is the only way to get a good performance from a woman. Bertolucci says that he and Brando were hoping to get Schneider’s raw reaction “as a girl, instead of as an actress.” You can see much the same impulse in Kubrick’s treatment of Duvall. Even Michael Powell, one of my idols, writes of how he and the other actors frightened Moira Shearer to the point of tears for the climactic scene of The Red Shoes—“This was no longer acting”—and says elsewhere: “I never let love interfere with business, or I would have made love to her. It would have improved her performance.”

So what’s a film buff to do? We can start by acknowledging that the problem exists, and that it continues to affect women in the movies, whether in the process of filmmaking itself or in the realities of survival in an industry that is still dominated by men. Sometimes it leads to abuse or worse. We can also honor the work of those directors, from Ozu to Almodóvar to Wong Kar-Wai, who have treated their actresses as partners in craft. Above all else, we can come to terms with the fact that sometimes even a masterpiece fails to make up for the choices that went into it. Thinking of Last Tango in Paris, I was reminded of Norman Mailer, who wrote one famous review of the movie and was linked to it in another. (Kael wrote: “On the screen, Brando is our genius as Mailer is our genius in literature.”) Years later, Mailer supported the release from prison of a man named Jack Henry Abbott, a gifted writer with whom he had corresponded at length. Six weeks later, Abbott stabbed a stranger to death. Afterward, Mailer infamously remarked:

I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.

But it isn’t—at least not like this. Last Tango in Paris is a masterpiece. It contains the single greatest male performance I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t worth it.

The strange loop of Westworld

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The maze in Westworld

In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, the critic Emily Nussbaum delivers one of the most useful takes I’ve seen so far on Westworld. She opens with many of the same points that I made after the premiere—that this is really a series about storytelling, and, in particular, about the challenges of mounting an expensive prestige drama on a premium network during the golden age of television. Nussbaum describes her own ambivalence toward the show’s treatment of women and minorities, and she concludes:

This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way—like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld…The American Old West is a logical fantasy only if you’re the cowboy—or if your fantasy is to be exploited or enslaved, a desire left unexplored…So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that Westworld? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.

I agree with many of her reservations, especially when it comes to race, but I think that she overlooks or omits one important point: conscious or otherwise, it’s a brilliant narrative strategy to make a work of art partially about the process of its own creation, which can add a layer of depth even to its compromises and mistakes. I’ve drawn a comparison already to Mad Men, which was a show about advertising that ended up subliminally criticizing its own tactics—how it drew viewers into complex, often bleak stories using the surface allure of its sets, costumes, and attractive cast. If you want to stick with the Nolan family, half of Chris’s movies can be read as commentaries on themselves, whether it’s his stricken identification with the Joker as the master of ceremonies in The Dark Knight or his analysis of his own tricks in The Prestige. Inception is less about the construction of dreams than it is about making movies, with characters who stand in for the director, the producer, the set designer, and the audience. And perhaps the greatest cinematic example of them all is Vertigo, in which Scotty’s treatment of Madeline is inseparable from the use that Hitchcock makes of Kim Novak, as he did with so many other blonde leading ladies. In each case, we can enjoy the story on its own merits, but it gains added resonance when we think of it as a dramatization of what happened behind the scenes. It’s an approach that is uniquely forgiving of flawed masterpieces, which comment on themselves better than any critic can, until we wonder about the extent to which they’re aware of their own limitations.

Inception

And this kind of thing works best when it isn’t too literal. Movies about filmmaking are often disappointing, either because they’re too close to their subject for the allegory to resonate or because the movie within the movie seems clumsy compared to the subtlety of the larger film. It’s why Being John Malkovich is so much more beguiling a statement than the more obvious Adaptation. In television, the most unfortunate recent example is UnREAL. You’d expect that a show that was so smart about the making of a reality series would begin to refer intriguingly to itself, and it did, but not in a good way. Its second season was a disappointment, evidently because of the same factors that beset its fictional show Everlasting: interference from the network, conceptual confusion, tensions between producers on the set. It seemed strange that UnREAL, of all shows, could display such a lack of insight into its own problems, but maybe it isn’t so surprising. A good analogy needs to hold us at arm’s length, both to grant some perspective and to allow for surprising discoveries in the gaps. The ballet company in The Red Shoes and the New York Inquirer in Citizen Kane are surrogates for the movie studio, and both films become even more interesting when you realize how much the lead character is a portrait of the director. Sometimes it’s unclear how much of this is intentional, but this doesn’t hurt. So much of any work of art is out of your control that you need to find an approach that automatically converts your liabilities into assets, and you can start by conceiving a premise that encourages the viewer or reader to play along at home.

Which brings us back to Westworld. In her critique, Nussbaum writes: “Westworld [is] a come-hither drama that introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She implies that this is a bug, but it’s really a feature. Westworld wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it weren’t being produced with this cast, on this network, and on this scale. We’re supposed to be impressed by the time and money that have gone into the park—they’ve spared no expense, as John Hammond might say—but it isn’t all that different from the resources that go into a big-budget drama like this. In the most recent episode, “Dissonance Theory,” the show invokes the image of the maze, as we might expect from a series by a Nolan brother: get to the center to the labyrinth, it says, and you’ve won. But it’s more like what Douglas R. Hofstadter describes in I Am a Strange Loop:

What I mean by “strange loop” is—here goes a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out.

This neatly describes both the park and the series. And it’s only through such strange loops, as Hofstadter has long argued, that any complex system—whether it’s the human brain, a robot, or a television show—can hope to achieve full consciousness.

“There’s something we need to talk about…”

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"There's something we need to talk about..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 50. You can read the previous installments here.

Suspense is usually the most linear of genres, but a lot of thrillers include exactly one flashback. You know the one I mean: it comes near the end, just after the big twist, to explain precisely how you were fooled. In a heist movie, it frequently involves the revelation that the plan you thought the protagonists were following was actually something else entirely, and in films that are heavily dependent on fridge logic, it can reveal that much of the movie you believed you were watching was really an elaborate mislead. At its best, as with the unforgettable flashback that occurs two-thirds of the way through Vertigo, it can singlehandedly justify the whole concept of flashbacks in general; at its worst, in a movie like Now You See Me, it can leave you asking why you bothered taking any interest in the plot at all. And these reveals seem to be becoming more common, as the need to find new variations on old surprises has caused such plots to become ever more convoluted and implausible. (We’re at a point now where a single flashback scene isn’t enough: we’re treated to entire flashback montages, replaying what seems like half of the movie from a different point of view. When handled well, as in The Illusionist, this sort of thing can be delightful, but it can also leave a viewer feeling that the film hasn’t played fair with its obligation to mislead us with what it shows, rather than what it omits.)

This sort of flashback is obviously designed to save a surprise for the end of the movie, which is where we’ve been conditioned to expect it—even if some violence has to be done to the fabric of the narrative to put the reveal in the last ten minutes, instead of where it naturally occurred. This isn’t a new strategy. Jack Woodford, the pulp writer whose instructional book Trial and Error was carefully studied by Robert A. Heinlein, thought that all stories should end with a punch ending, and he offered a very useful tip on how to artificially create one:

A good way to do this is to go ahead and end it with the usual driveling collection of super-climaxes, anti-climaxes and what not that amateurs end stories with, and then go over it, find where the punch ending is, rework the ending so that the anti-climaxes, if there is anything in them at all that really needs to be told, come before the final crux ending.

This is why so many stories contrive to withhold crucial information until the point where it carries the most impact, even if it doesn’t quite play fair. (You frequently see this in the early novels of Frederick Forsyth, like The Odessa File or The Dogs of War, which leave out a key element of the protagonist’s motivation, only to reveal it at the climax or on the very last page. It’s such a good trick that you can almost forgive Forsyth for reusing it three or four times.)

"Let it play out..."

Another advantage to delaying the explanatory scene for as long as possible is that it turns an implausible twist into a fait accompli. I’ve noted before that if there’s a particularly weak point in the story on which the credibility of the plot depends, the best strategy for dealing with it is to act as if has already happened, and to insert any necessary justifications after you’ve presented the situation as blandly as possible. Readers or audiences are more likely to accept a farfetched plot development after it has already been taken for granted. If they had been allowed to watch it unfold from scratch, during the fragile early stages, they would have been more likely to object. (My favorite example is how in the two great American drag comedies, Some Like it Hot and Tootsie, we never see the main characters make the decision to pose as women—we cut to them already in makeup and heels, which mostly prevents us from raising any of the obvious objections.) This explains why the expository flashback, while often ludicrously detailed, rarely shows us the one scene that we really want to see: the conversation in which one character had to explain to the rest what he wanted them to do, and why. Even a classic twist ending like the one in The Sting falls apart when we imagine the characters putting it into words. The act of speaking the plan aloud would only destroy its magic.

I put these principles to good use in Chapter 50 of Eternal Empire, which rewinds the plot slightly to replay a crucial scene in its entirety. Structuring it as a flashback was clearly meant to preserve the surprise, but also to downplay its less plausible angles. For the story to work, Maddy had to reveal herself to Tarkovsky, justify her good intentions, and propose a complicated counterplot, all in the course of a single conversation. I think that the chapter does a decent job of pulling it off, but placing the discussion here, after the effects of the decision have already been revealed, relieves it of some of the weight. The reader is already invested in the premise, simply by reading the events of the preceding chapters, and I hoped that this would carry us past any gaps in the logic. But it’s worth noting that I never actually show the crux of the conversation, in which Maddy spells out the plan she has in mind. Asking a character to fake his death for the sake of some elaborate charade is a scene that can’t possibly play well—which might be why we almost never see it, even though a similar twist seems to lie at the bottom of half of the surprise endings ever written. We don’t hear Maddy telling Tarkovsky what she wants him to do; we just see the results. It’s a form of selective omission that goes a long way toward making it all acceptable. But as the reader will soon discover, the plan hasn’t gone quite as well as they think…

The prop master

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Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal

When we break down the stories we love into their constituent parts, we’re likely to remember the characters first. Yet the inanimate objects—or what a theater professional would call the props—are what feather that imaginary nest, providing a backdrop for the narrative and necessary focal points for the action. A prop can be so striking that it practically deserves costar status, like the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, or a modest but unforgettable grace note, like the cake of soap that Leopold Bloom carries in his pocket for much of Ulysses. It can be the MacGuffin that drives the entire plot or the lever that enables a single crucial moment, like the necklace that tips off Scotty at the end of Vertigo. Thrillers and other genre novels often use props to help us tell flat characters apart, so that an eyepatch or a pocket square is all that distinguishes a minor player, but this kind of cheap shorthand can also shade into the highest level of all, in which accessories like Sherlock Holmes’s pipe or summon up an entire world of romance and emotion. And even if the props merely serve utilitarian ends, they’re still an aspect of fiction that writers could do well to study, since they can provide a path into a story or a solution to a problem that resists all other approaches.

They can also be useful at multiple stages. I’ve known for a long time that a list of props, like lists of any kind, can be an invaluable starting point for planning a story. The most eloquent expression of this I’ve ever found appears, unexpectedly, in Shamus Culhane’s nifty book Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

A list of props can be particularly useful when a story takes place within a closed universe with a finite number of possible combinations. Any good bottle episode invests much of its energy into figuring out surprising ways to utilize the set of props at hand, and I used an existing catalog of props—in the form of the items available for purchase from the commissary at Belmarsh Prison—to figure out a tricky plot point in Eternal Empire.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

What I’ve discovered more recently is that a list of props also has its uses toward the end of the creative process, when a short story or novel is nearly complete. If I have a decent draft that somehow lacks overall cohesiveness, I’ll go through and systematically make a list of all the props or objects that appear over the course of the story. Whenever I find a place where a prop that appears in one chapter can be reused down the line, it binds events together that much more tightly. When we’re writing a first draft, we have so much else on our minds that we tend to forget about object permanence: a prop is introduced when necessary and discarded at once. Giving some thought to how those objects can persist makes the physical space of the narrative more credible, and there’s often something almost musically satisfying when a prop unexpectedly reappears. (One of my favorite examples occurs in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. During the sequence in which Faye Wong breaks into Tony Leung’s apartment to surreptitiously rearrange and replace some of his possessions, she gives him a new pair of sandals, throwing the old pair behind the couch. Much later, after she floods his living room by mistake, one of the old sandals comes floating out from its hiding place. It only appears onscreen for a moment, and nobody even mentions it, but it’s an image I’ve always treasured.)

And in many cases, the props themselves aren’t even the point. I’ve said before that one of the hardest things in writing isn’t inventing new material but fully utilizing what you already have. Nine times out of ten, when you’re stuck on a story problem, you’ll find that the solution is already there, buried between the lines on a page you wrote months before. The hard part is seeing past your memories of it. A list of props, assembled as drily as if you were a claims adjuster examining a property, can provide a lens through which the overfamiliar can become new. (This may be why histories of the world in a hundred objects, or whatever, are so popular: they give us a fresh angle on old events by presenting them through props, not personalities.) When you look at it more closely, a list of props is really a list of actions, or moments in which a character expresses himself by performing a specific physical activity. Unless you’re just giving us an inventory of a room’s contents, as Donna Tartt loves to do, a prop usually appears only when it’s being used for something. Props thus represent the point in space where intention becomes action, expressed in visual or tactile terms—which is exactly what a writer should always be striving to accomplish. And a list of props is nothing less than a list of the times which the story is working more or less as it should.

The list of a lifetime

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I miss Roger Ebert for a lot of reasons, but I always loved how fully he occupied the role of the celebrity critic while expanding it into something more. “Two thumbs up” has become a way of dismissing an entire category of film criticism, and Ebert was as responsible for its rise as anyone else, although he can hardly be blamed for his imitators. Yet he wouldn’t have been nearly as good at it—and he was damned good, especially when paired with Gene Siskel—if it hadn’t been built on a foundation of shrewdness, taste, and common sense that came through in every print review he wrote. He knew that a rating system was necessary, if only to give shape to his discussions with Gene, but he was also aware of its limitations. (For proof, you need only turn to his classic review of the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, which transforms, unexpectedly, into an extended essay on the absurdity of reconciling a thoughtful approach to criticism with “that vertical thumb.”) Read any critic for any length of time, whether it’s Pauline Kael or David Thomson or James Wood, and you start to see the whole business of ranking works of art, whether with thumbs or with words, as both utterly important and inherently ridiculous. Ebert understood this profoundly.

The same was true of the other major tool of the mainstream critic: the list. Making lists of the best or worst movies, like handing out awards, turns an art form into a horse race, but it’s also a necessary evil. A critic wants to be a valued guide, but more often, he ends up serving as a signpost, pointing up the road toward an interesting vista while hoping that we’ll take in other sights along the way. Lists are the most useful pointers we have, especially for viewers who are encountering the full variety of movies for the first time, and they’ve played an enormous role in my own life. And when you read Ebert’s essay on preparing his final list for the Sight & Sound poll, you sense both the melancholy nature of the task and his awareness of the power it holds. Ebert knows that adding a movie to his list naturally draws attention to it, and he pointedly includes a single “propaganda” title—here it’s Malick’s Tree of Life—to encourage viewers to seek it out. Since every addition requires a removal, he clarifies his feelings on this as well:

Once any film has ever appeared on my [Sight & Sound] list, I consider it canonized. Notorious or Gates of Heaven, for example, are still two of the ten best films of all time, no matter what a subsequent list says.

In short, he approaches the list as a game, but a serious one, and he knows that pointing one viewer toward Aguirre or The General makes all of it worthwhile.

Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

I thought of his example repeatedly when I revised my list of my ten favorite movies. Four years had gone by since my last series of posts on the subject, and the passage of time had brought a bit of reshuffling and a pair of replacements: L.A. Confidential and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had given way to Vertigo and Inception. And while it’s probably a mistake to view it as a zero-sum game, it’s hard not to see these films as commenting on one another. L.A. Confidential remains, as I said long ago, my favorite of all recent Hollywood movies, but it’s a film that invests its genre with greater fluency and complexity without challenging the rules on a deeper level, while Vertigo takes the basic outline of a sleek romantic thriller and blows it to smithereens. As much as I love them both, there’s no question in my mind as to which one achieves more. The contest between Inception and Wrath of Khan is harder to judge, and I’m not sure that the latter isn’t ultimately richer and more rewarding. But I wanted to write about Inception ever so slightly more, and after this weekend’s handwringing over the future of original ideas in movies, I have a hunch that its example is going to look even more precious with time. Inception hardly needs my help to draw attention to it, but to the extent that I had a propaganda choice this time around, it was this one.

Otherwise, my method in ranking these films was a simple one. I asked myself which movie I’d save first—solely for my own pleasure—if the last movie warehouse in the world were on fire. The answer was The Red Shoes. Next would be Blue Velvet, then Chungking Express, and so on down the line. Looking at the final roster, I don’t think I’d make any changes. Like Ebert, who kept La Dolce Vita on his list because of how it reflected the arc of his own life, I’m aware that much of the result is a veiled autobiography: Blue Velvet, in particular, galvanized me as a teenager as few other movies have, and part of the reason I rank it so highly is to acknowledge that specific debt. Other films are here largely because of the personal associations they evoke. Yet any movie that encapsulates an entire period in my life, out of all the films I was watching then, has to be extraordinary by definition: it isn’t just a matter of timing, at least not if it lasts. (You could even say that a great movie, like Vertigo, is one that convinces many different viewers that it’s secretly about them.) Ebert knew that there was no contradiction in embracing The Tree of Life as both the largest cosmic statement since 2001 and an agonizingly specific evocation of his own childhood. Any list, like any critic, lives in two worlds, and each half gains meaning from the other. And when I think of my own list and the choices it made, I can only quote Ebert one last time: “To add a title, I must remove one. Which film can I do without? Not a single one.”

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