Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Gibson

Opening with a fight

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A play begins when a world in some state of equipoise, always uneasy, is broken into by a happening. Since it is not equipoise we have paid to see, but the loosing and binding of an evening’s disorder, the sooner the happening the better; these plays open fast…If the happening has an impact in itself—a ghost at midnight makes a certain claim on our attention—so much sooner will we join in the play. It is hardly by chance that so many openings are violent. The playwright who was my teacher said he liked to open a play “with a fight” because it awoke not only the audience’s interest but his own.

William Gibson, Shakespeare’s Game

Written by nevalalee

July 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

The children are our future

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Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey in Children of Men

Sometimes a great film takes years to reveal its full power. Occasionally, you know what you’ve witnessed as soon as the closing credits begin to roll. And very rarely, you realize in the middle of the movie that you’re watching something extraordinary. I’ve experienced this last feeling only a handful of times in my life, and my most vivid memory of it is from ten years ago, when I saw Children of Men. I’d been looking forward to it ever since seeing the trailer, and for the first twenty minutes or so, it more than lived up to my expectations. But halfway through a crucial scene—and if you’ve seen the movie, you know the one I mean—I began to feel the movie expanding in my head, as Pauline Kael said of The Godfather Part II, “like a soft bullet.” Two weeks later, I wrote to a friend: “Alfonso Cuarón has just raised the bar for every director in the world.” And I still believe this, even if the ensuing decade has clarified the film’s place in the history of movies. Cuarón hasn’t had the productive career that I’d hoped he would, and it took him years to follow up on his masterpiece, although he finally earned his Oscar for Gravity. The only unambiguous winner to come out of it all was the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzeki, who has won three Academy Awards in a row for refinements of the discoveries that he made here. And the story now seems prescient, of course, as Abraham Riesman of Vulture recently noted: “The film, in hindsight, seems like a documentary about a future that, in 2016, finally arrived.” If nothing else, the world certainly appears to be run by exactly the sort of people of whom Jarvis Cocker was warning us.

But the most noteworthy thing about Children of Men, and the one aspect of it that its fans and imitators should keep in mind, is the insistently visceral nature of its impact. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I was blown away the most by three elements: the tracking shots, the use of music, and the level of background detail in every scene. These are all qualities that are independent of its politics, its message, and even, to some extent, its script, which might be its weakest point. The movie can be refreshingly elliptical when it comes to the backstory of its characters and its world, but there are also holes and shortcuts that are harder to forgive. (Its clumsiest moment, for me, is when Theo is somehow able to observe and overhear Jasper’s death—an effective scene in itself—from higher ground without being noticed by anyone else. We aren’t sure where he’s standing in relation to the house, so it feels contrived and stagy, a strange lapse for a movie that is otherwise so bracingly specific about its geography.) But maybe that’s how it had to be. If the screenplay were as rich and crowded as the images, it would turn into a Christopher Nolan movie, for better or worse, and Cuarón is a very different sort of filmmaker. He’s content to leave entire swaths of the story in outline form, as if he forgot to fill in the blanks, and he’s happy to settle for a cliché if it saves time, just because his attention is so intensely focused elsewhere.

Michael Caine in Children of Men

Occasionally, this has led his movies to be something less than they should be. I really want to believe that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the strongest installment in the series, but it has real structural problems that stem precisely from Cuarón’s indifference to exposition: he cuts out an important chunk of dialogue that leaves the climax almost incomprehensible, so that nonreaders have to scramble to figure out what the hell is going on, when we should be caught up in the action. Gravity impressed me enormously when I saw it on the big screen, but I’m not particularly anxious to revisit it at home, where its technical marvels run the risk of being swallowed up by its rudimentary characters and dialogue. (It strikes me now that Gravity might have some of the same problems, to a much lesser extent, as Birdman, in which the use of extended takes makes it impossible to give scenes the necessary polish in the editing room. Which also implies that if you’re going to hire Lubzeki as your cinematographer, you’d better have a really good script.) But Children of Men is the one film in which Cuarón’s shortcomings are inseparable from his strengths. His usual omissions and touches of carelessness were made for a story in which we’re only meant to glimpse the overall picture. And its allegory is so vague that we can apply it to whatever we like.

This might sound like a criticism, but it isn’t: Children of Men is undeniably one of the major movies of my lifetime. And its message is more insightful than it seems, even if it takes a minute of thought to unpack. Its world falls apart as soon as humanity realizes that it doesn’t have a future, which isn’t so far from where we are now. We find it very hard, as a species, to keep the future in mind, and we often behave—even in the presence of our own children—as if this generation will be the last. When a society has some measure of economic and political security, it can make efforts to plan ahead for a decade or two, but even that modest degree of foresight disappears as soon as stability does. In Children of Men, the childbirth crisis, which doesn’t respect national or racial boundaries, takes the sort of disruptions that tend to occur far from the developed world and brings them into the heart of Europe and America, and it doesn’t even need to change any of the details. The most frightening thing about Cuarón’s movie, and what makes it most relevant to our current predicament, is that its extrapolations aren’t across time, but across the map of the world as it exists today. You don’t need to look far to see landscapes like the ones through which the characters move, or the ways in which they could spread across the planet. In the words of William Gibson, the future of Children of Men is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed yet.

Shakespeare and the myth of the idea

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Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had an experience like this. You’re at a party, making small talk about what you do for a living, when a bystander pipes up: “You know, my friends always tell me I should be a writer. I’m always coming up with great ideas for stories.” At that point, if you’re lucky, you can nod politely and move on to another subject, but some writers aren’t so fortunate. Isaac Asimov complained that he’d frequently be approached by strangers at events or conventions who gave him some version of the following pitch: “I’ve got an idea for a bestselling novel. If you like, I can give it to you to write, and we can split the profits.” His response was usually something like this: “I’ll tell you what: I’ve got a better plan. I’ll come up with an idea, and you write the book.” According to Asimov, no one ever took him up on the offer. And although it’s easy to smile at this, it gets at a common misconception about fiction—and about what writers do—that clouds the way many readers regard even our greatest authors.

Ideas are the easy part. Give me a few hours and a stack of magazines, and I can come up with half a dozen perfectly legitimate ideas for short stories. Not all of them will be turn out to be viable, but they’ll all look equally plausible, and some of them may even get published. There’s a reason, though, that I write maybe two short stories a year at most, and it isn’t just an issue of time. Coming up with an idea is child’s play compared to the laborious work of constructing a plot and peopling it with convincing characters, a process that can feel less like the result of inspiration than an excursion into no-man’s land, in which a gain of ten inches can pass for a victory. I’m as guilty as anyone of stumbling across an interesting idea, thinking that it would make a great movie, and then promptly forgetting all about it, but I know better than to try to tell this to someone who actually writes and sells screenplays. Ideas are cheap; execution is what counts, and it’s what separates a true writer from a spinner of daydreams.

The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

We all know this, of course, but conflating ideas with the resulting stories is a mistake that you see even among professional critics and academics. It’s a critical commonplace, for instance, that Shakespeare wasn’t much of a plotmaker, since he lifted his basic ideas from existing stories and historical texts. It’s tempting to buy into this argument, since it helps restore a god of poetry to more human dimensions, but unfortunately, it isn’t true. A glance at the primary sources of Hamlet or King Lear reveals how inventive Shakespeare really was: he often takes as inspiration only a sentence or two from a much longer work—something like the logline of a screenplay—and transforms even this gossamer premise beyond recognition. Nearly every scene in Hamlet is an original invention, as is the double plot of King Lear, to say nothing of such crowded, ingenious original stories as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline. (Shakespeare’s Game by the playwright William Gibson, which I just finished reading, does a nice job of reminding us how artful the construction of the plays really is.)

Shakespeare, in short, was as good at plot as he was at everything else, and diminishing his achievement simply because the bare bones of the story were already there is to deeply misunderstand what a writer does. (It’s interesting to note that many of Shakespeare’s cleverest plots, like The Merchant of Venice, arise from a fusion of one or more existing stories. Here, as in almost everything, creativity arises from combination.) It’s one thing to lift a few incidents from Holinshed, and quite another to create Falstaff. And while it may seem that Shakespeare, of all writers, doesn’t require defending, there’s no better place to draw the line between idea and story, if only because he provides other writers with such a sensational model to follow. As T.S. Eliot points out, it can be dangerous to imitate Shakespeare’s style, but in the tactical elaboration of his ideas into character and action—in which we catch him thinking in a way that we can’t in his poetry—he’s practical and instructive. Taking ideas and turning them into something more is exactly what professional writers do, and Shakespeare, along with so much else, was the ultimate professional.

Written by nevalalee

May 15, 2013 at 8:59 am

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