Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Wong Kar-Wai

The conveyor belt

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For all the endless discussion of various aspects of Twin Peaks, one quality that sometimes feels neglected is the incongruous fact that it had one of the most attractive casts in television history. In that respect—and maybe in that one alone—it was like just about every other series that ever existed. From prestige dramas to reality shows to local newscasts, the story of television has inescapably been that of beautiful men and women on camera. A show like The Hills, which was one of my guilty pleasures, seemed to be consciously trying to see how long it could coast on surface beauty alone, and nearly every series, ambitious or otherwise, has used the attractiveness of its actors as a commercial or artistic strategy. (In one of the commentary tracks on The Simpsons, a producer describes how a network executive might ask indirectly about the looks of the cast of a sitcom: “So how are we doing aesthetically?”) If this seemed even more pronounced on Twin Peaks, it was partially because, like Mad Men, it took its conventionally glamorous actors into dark, unpredictable places, and also because David Lynch had an eye for a certain kind of beauty, both male and female, that was more distinctive than that of the usual soap opera star. He’s continued this trend in the third season, which has been populated so far by such striking presences as Chrysta Bell, Ben Rosenfield, and Madeline Zima, and last night’s episode features an extended, very funny scene between a delighted Gordon Cole and a character played by Bérénice Marlohe, who, with her red lipstick and “très chic” spike heels, might be the platonic ideal of his type.

Lynch isn’t the first director to display a preference for actors, particularly women, with a very specific look—although he’s thankfully never taken it as far as his precursor Alfred Hitchcock did. And the notion that a film or television series can consist of little more than following around two beautiful people with a camera has a long and honorable history. My two favorite movies of my lifetime, Blue Velvet and Chungking Express, both understand this implicitly. It’s fair to say that the second half of the latter film would be far less watchable if it didn’t involve Tony Leung and Faye Wong, two of the most attractive people in the world, and Wong Kar-Wai, like so many filmmakers before him, uses it as a psychological hook to take us into strange, funny, romantic places. Blue Velvet is a much darker work, but it employs a similar lure, with the actors made up to look like illustrations of themselves. In a Time cover story on Lynch from the early nineties, Richard Corliss writes of Kyle MacLachlan’s face: “It is a startling visage, as pure of line as an art deco vase, with soft, all-American features and a comic-book hero’s jutting chin—you could park a Packard on it.” It echoes what Pauline Kael says of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet: “She even has the kind of nostrils that cover artists can represent accurately with two dots.” MacLachlan’s chin and Rossellini’s nose would have caught our attention in any case, but it’s also a matter of lighting and makeup, and Lynch shoots them to emphasize their roots in the pulp tradition, or, more accurately, in the subconscious store of images that we take from those sources. And the casting gets him halfway there.

This leaves us in a peculiar position when it comes to the third season of Twin Peaks, which, both by nature and by design, is about aging. Mark Frost said in an interview: “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.” One of the first, unforgettable images from the show’s promotional materials was Kyle MacLachlan’s face, a quarter of a century older, emerging from the darkness into light, and our feelings toward these characters when they were younger inevitably shape the way we regard them now. I felt this strongly in two contrasting scenes from last night’s episode. It offers us our first extended look at Sarah Palmer, played by Grace Zabriskie, who delivers a freakout in a grocery store that reminds us of how much we’ve missed and needed her—it’s one of the most electrifying moments of the season. And we also finally see Audrey Horne again, in a brutally frustrating sequence that feels to me like the first time that the show’s alienating style comes off as a miscalculation, rather than as a considered choice. Audrey isn’t just in a bad place, which we might have expected, but a sad, unpleasant one, with a sham marriage and a monster of a son, and she doesn’t even know the worst of it yet. It would be a hard scene to watch with anyone, but it’s particularly painful when we set it against our first glimpse of Audrey in the original series, when we might have said, along with the Norwegian businessman at the Great Northern Hotel: “Excuse me, is there something wrong, young pretty girl?”

Yet the two scenes aren’t all that dissimilar. Both Sarah and Audrey are deeply damaged characters who could fairly say: “Things can happen. Something happened to me.” And I can only explain away the difference by confessing that I was a little in love in my early teens with Audrey. Using those feelings against us—much as the show resists giving us Dale Cooper again, even as it extravagantly develops everything around him—must have been what Lynch and Frost had in mind. And it isn’t the first time that this series has toyed with our emotions about beauty and death. The original dream girl of Twin Peaks, after all, was Laura Palmer herself, as captured in two of its most indelible images: Laura’s prom photo, and her body wrapped in plastic. (Sheryl Lee, like January Jones in Mad Men, was originally cast for her look, and only later did anyone try to find out whether or not she could act.) The contrast between Laura’s lovely features and her horrifying fate, in death and in the afterlife, was practically the motor on which the show ran. Her face still opens every episode of the revival, dimly visible in the title sequence, but it also ended each installment of the original run, gazing out from behind the prison bars of the closing credits to the strains of “Laura Palmer’s Theme.” In the new season, the episodes generally conclude with whatever dream pop band Lynch feels like showcasing, usually with a few cool women, and I wouldn’t want to give that up. But I also wonder whether we’re missing something when we take away Laura at the end. This season began with Cooper being asked to find her, but she often seems like the last thing on anyone’s mind. Twin Peaks never allowed us to forget her before, because it left us staring at her photograph each week, which was the only time that one of its beautiful faces seemed to be looking back at us.

My alternative canon #1: A Canterbury Tale

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Sheila Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different.

I’ve frequently said that The Red Shoes is my favorite movie of all time, but it isn’t even the most remarkable film directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Red Shoes succeeds in large part by following through on its promises: it takes place in a fascinating world and tells a story of high melodrama, with an obvious determination to deliver as much color and atmosphere to the audience as possible, and its brilliance emerges from how consistently it lives up to its own impossible standards. A Canterbury Tale, which came out five years earlier, is in many respects more astonishing, because it doesn’t seem to have any conventional ambitions at all. It’s a deliberately modest film with a story so inconsequential that it verges on a commentary on the arbitrariness of all narrative: three young travelers, stranded at a small village near Canterbury during World War II, attempt to solve the mystery of “the glue man,” an unseen figure who throws glue at the hair of local women to discourage them from going out at night—and that, incredibly, is it. When the glue man’s identity is revealed, it’s handled so casually that the moment is easy to miss, and not even the protagonists themselves seem all that interested in the plot, which occupies about ten minutes of a film that runs over two hours in its original cut. And the fact that the movie itself was openly conceived as a light propaganda picture doesn’t seem to work in its favor.

Yet this is one of the most beautiful movies ever made, a languid series of funny, moving, and evocative set pieces that reminded me, when I first saw it, of Wong Kar-Wai magically set loose in wartime Britain. There are the usual flourishes of cinematic playfulness from Powell and Pressburger—including a cut from a medieval falcon to a modern warplane that anticipates Kubrick in 2001—but the tone is atypically relaxed and gentle, with even less plot than in its spiritual sequel I Know Where I’m Going! Despite the title, it doesn’t have much to do with Chaucer, except that the lead characters are all pilgrims who have been damaged in different ways and are healed by a journey to Canterbury. (Years later, I stayed at a tiny hotel within sight of the cathedral, where I verified that the movie was on sale at its gift shop.) It’s nostalgic and vaguely conservative, but it also looks ahead to the New Wave with its visual zest, greediness for location detail, and willingness to take happy digressions. The cast includes the lovely ingenue Sheila Sim, who later married Richard Attenborough, and Eric Portman as Colpeper, the local magistrate, who, in a typically perverse touch from the Archers, is both their virtuous embodiment of high Tory ideals and kind of a creepy weirdo. Sim died earlier this year, but when she looks up at the clouds in the tall grass with Portman, she lives forever in my heart—along with the film itself, which keeps one foot in the past while somehow managing to seem one step ahead of every movie that came after it.

My ten great movies #3: Chungking Express

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According to legend, it took Wong Kar-Wai six weeks to make Chungking Express, from initial conception to final cut, during a break in the editing of his troubled martial arts epic Ashes of Time. If true, it’s the strongest possible example I can imagine of the role of luck and spontaneity in the creation of great works of cinema: nothing Wong has done since has been as insightful, beautiful, or moving, even as his films have disappeared down the rabbit hole of Kubrickian perfectionism. My Blueberry Nights, while minor, represented a step in the right direction: this is a man who needs to make a quick, stylish, unassuming movie at least once a year. Because while it might not rank at the top of my list, of all the movies I’ve ever seen, Chungking Express is the one I love the most, a vision of life that I want to believe, even if it only exists in the head of one of our most interesting directors.

A few years ago, on a trip to Hong Kong, I made a point of seeking out some of this movie’s emotional landmarks, especially a certain outdoor escalator. But in a sense, I already spent most of my twenties trying to recreate these moments, in another great city. The two stories in Chungking Express are a portrait of lonely lives, struggling to connect in tentative ways, mostly at night: a subject that might have seemed grim in the hands of a different director, but here becomes delightfully, irresistibly romantic. The discovery of beauty in everyday spaces—lunch counters, trains, cramped apartments—is one of cinema’s greatest strengths, and Wong is its most seductive recent practitioner. His other films, especially Fallen Angels, are invariably fascinating, but this is the one where all the stars aligned. It may never happen again, but thank God, it happened here.

Tomorrow: A thriller that outdid Hitchcock by way of Duchamp.

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May 20, 2015 at 9:00 am

Left brain, right brain, samurai brain

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Seven Samurai

The idea that the brain can be neatly divided into its left and right hemispheres, one rational, the other intuitive, has been largely debunked, but that doesn’t make it any less useful as a metaphor. You could play an instructive game, for instance, by placing movie directors on a spectrum defined by, say, Kubrick and Altman as the quintessence of left-brained filmmaking and its right-brained opposite, and although such distinctions may be artificial, they can generate their own kind of insight. Christopher Nolan, for one, strikes me as a fundamentally left-brained director who makes a point of consciously willing himself into emotion. (Citing some of the cornier elements of Interstellar, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates theorizes that they were imposed by the studio, but I think it’s more likely that they reflect Nolan’s own efforts, not always successful, to nudge the story into recognizably human places. He pulled it off beautifully in Inception, but it took him ten years to figure out how.) And just as Isaiah Berlin saw Tolstoy as a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, many of the recent films of Wong Kar-Wai feel like the work of a right-brained director trying to convince himself that the left hemisphere is where he belongs.

Of all my favorite directors, the one who most consistently hits the perfect balance between the two is Akira Kurosawa. I got to thinking about this while reading the editor and teacher Richard D. Pepperman’s appealing new book Everything I Know About Filmmaking I Learned Watching Seven Samurai, which often reads like the ultimate tribute to Kurosawa’s left brain. It’s essentially a shot for shot commentary, cued up to the definitive Criterion Collection release, that takes us in real time through the countless meaningful decisions made by Kurosawa in the editing room: cuts, dissolves, wipes, the interaction between foreground and background, the use of music and sound, and the management of real and filmic space, all in service of story. It’s hard to imagine a better movie for a study like this, and with its generous selection of stills, the book is a delight to browse through—it reminds me a little of Richard J. Anobile’s old photonovels, which in the days before home video provided the most convenient way of revisiting Casablanca or The Wrath of Khan. I’ve spoken before of the film editor as a kind of Apollonian figure, balancing out the Dionysian personality of the director on the set, and this rarely feels so clear as it does here, even, or especially, when the two halves are united in a single man.

Seven Samurai

As for Kurosawa’s right brain, the most eloquent description I’ve found appears in Donald Richie’s The Films of Akira Kurosawa, which is still the best book of its kind ever written. In his own discussion of Seven Samurai, Richie speaks of “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and continues:

Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained. It has been said that after a film is over all that remains are a few scattered images, and if they remain then the film was memorable…Further, if one remembers carefully one finds that it is only the uneconomical, mysterious images which remain…

Kurosawa’s films are so rigorous and, at the same time, so closely reasoned, that little scenes such as this appeal with the direct simplicity of water in the desert…[and] in no other single film are there as many as in Seven Samurai.

What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.

Richie goes on to list several examples: the old crone tottering forward to avenge the death of her son, the burning water wheel, and, most beautifully, the long fade to black before the final sequence of the villagers in the rice fields. My own favorite moment, though, occurs in the early scene when Kambei, the master samurai, rescues a little boy from a thief. In one of the greatest character introductions in movie history, Kambei shaves his head to disguise himself as a priest, asking only for two rice balls, which he’ll use to lure the thief out of the barn where the boy has been taken hostage. This information is conveyed in a short conversation between the farmers and the townspeople, who exit the frame—and after the briefest of pauses, a woman emerges from the house in the background, running directly toward the camera with the rice balls in hand, looking back for a frantic second at the barn. It’s the boy’s mother. There’s no particular reason to stage the scene like this; another director might have done it in two separate shots, if it had occurred to him to include it at all. Yet the way in which Kurosawa films it, with the crowd giving way to the mother’s isolated figure, is both formally elegant and strangely moving. It offers up a miniature world of story and emotion without a single cut, and like Kurosawa himself, it resists any attempt, including this one, to break it down into parts.

The best worst year

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Faye Wong in Chungking Express

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 question: “What 1994 pop culture would you want to experience again for the first time?”

Just up the street from our house in Oak Park stands the middle school that my daughter will attend in about ten years. Whenever I push her past it in her stroller, I whisper: “Honey, I apologize in advance.” I’m kidding, but not entirely. Middle school is hell for just about everyone, and although this fact is widely recognized, it’s unclear what can be done. When you throw kids from ages twelve to fourteen together in one crowded arena, you’re going to get conflict: everyone seems stranded at a different stage of maturity or development—physical, emotional, and intellectual—and along with these changes comes the impulse to take the first tentative steps at defining one’s personality. You find yourself worrying for the first time about whether you’re wearing the right clothes or listening to the right kind of music, and you receive urgent messages to conform even as you start to figure out who you really are. The result is a nightmare for most kids with anything resembling an individual point of view, and in some ways, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over it, even though my life since has been exceptionally happy.

Yet I don’t think I’d be the person I am now without what I went through in the years 1993-1994, which have started to seem like a weird hinge moment of my life. I’ve spoken before about what happened to me around the age of thirteen: I discovered Borges, Eco, and Douglas Hofstadter in quick succession, dove deep into David Lynch and The X-Files, and that summer, I wrote my first novel. But if 1993 was my headlong plunge into peculiarity, 1994 was a kind of course correction. I started to notice that I wasn’t much like anyone else around me—I still remember a classmate’s incredulity when I told him that my favorite band was The Art of Noise—so I decided to do something about it. Other factors conspired to push me in that direction. For a while, we had both MTV and Spin at home, and I studied both closely. I walked past a record store on the way home from school every day, and I bought a copy of The Downward Spiral from the same cashier from whom I’d earlier purchased Very by the Pet Shop Boys. And once I was able to take the train to Berkeley on my own, I saw a lot of movies, many of which have stayed with me ever since.

Quentin Tarantino

As a result, I feel an intense range of emotions when I think back on the pop culture of 1994. It’s possible that any year would seem similarly charged if you were thirteen or fourteen at the time—it’s an age when you’re particularly susceptible to being permanently shaped by whatever you encounter—but it also happens to have been a shared moment in which the culture as a whole was working through similar issues. By now, it’s a cliché to talk about the alternate visions offered by Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, and also a little misleading: Forrest Gump was an eccentric, ambitious, technically exquisite kind of entertainment that we don’t seem likely to see again. But the movies and music produced that year do seem to engage in a tricky triangulation between indie crediblity and popular success, or, if you prefer, between alternative and mainstream. The acts of appropriation extended in both directions, and its breakthrough figure was Quentin Tarantino, whose style was based on his ability to give a unifying form to a dizzying collage of influences. (As David Thomson wrote much later: “Anyone as blessed with a sense of movie shape might get away with knowing nothing else.”)

And it’s no accident that I owe Tarantino thanks for championing my favorite work of art from 1994, although I didn’t encounter it until the following year: Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. I first saw it on another foraging expedition: I’d found that my local Chinese channel showed subtitled movies every Friday night, and they were invariably more inventive and energetic than anything else on the air. Chungking Express was even more special. Today, it feels very much like the product of its time, and I fell in love with it the moment I heard Faye Wong’s cover of “Dreams” by the Cranberries. But there was something particularly lovely, and personal, about its refusal to shoehorn its two stories into a conventional shape, whether by adding a third installment or by connecting them again at the end. (I remember being deeply concerned by the possibly that Brigitte Lin might reappear to shoot Tony Leung.) As I’ve noted elsewhere, a movie with three stories feels like a closed triptych, while two stories feels as open as life. And it taught me something I’ve tried to remember ever since. It’s possible to have it both ways, to be true to yourself and to the world you occupy, as long as you have sufficient energy, imagination, and love.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2014 at 9:47 am

Developing the edges

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Stephin Merritt

Of all the pieces of writing advice I know, one of the most useful, at least in terms of immediate applicability, is that you should strive to omit the beginning and end of each scene, and jump from middle to middle. (I’m pretty sure that the original source of this admonition is William Goldman, either in Which Lie Did I Tell? or Adventures in the Screen Trade, although for the life of me I’ve never been able to track down the passage itself.) This only means that when you’re writing a first draft, your initial stab at the material has a way of gradually ramping into the chapter or sequence and then ramping down again, as you work your way into and out of the events taking place in your imagination, and in the rewrite, most of this material can be cut. In its simplest form, this involves nothing more than cutting the first and last few paragraphs of every chapter and seeing how it reads, a trick I first learned from David Morrell, author of First Blood. This expedient got me out of a major jam in The Icon Thief—the first third of the book never really flowed until I ruthlessly cut the beginning and end of each scene—and ever since, I’ve made a point of consciously reviewing everything I write to see if the edges can be trimmed.

Like any good rule, though, even this one can be overused, so I’ve also learned to keep an eye out for the exceptions. In screenwriting parlance, a story that dashes from one high point to another is “all legs,” with no room for anything but the plot, which robs the reader of any chance to process the incidents or get to know the characters. Usually, when you’re blocking out a story, lulls in the plot will naturally suggest themselves—if anything, they can start to seem too abundant—but it’s also worth asking yourself, when a story seems to be all business and no atmosphere, whether you can pull back slightly from time to time. In other words, there will be moments when you’ll want to invert your normal practice: you’ll cut the middle and develop the edges. This results in a change of pace, a flat stretch that provides a contrast to all those peaks, and it allows the reader to regroup while setting the climaxes into greater relief. (In musical terms, it’s something like the hypothetical song that Stephin Merritt once described, which moves repeatedly between the first and fourth chords while avoiding the fifth, creating a sense of wandering and unrealized expectations.)

Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

There are other benefits to focusing on the edges of the scene as well, particularly if you’ve explicitly stated or dramatized something that might be more effectively left to implication. I’ve quoted the director Andrew Bujalski on this point before, but I’m not ashamed to cite him again, since it’s one of the most interesting writing tidbits I’ve seen all year:

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity. (E.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

This is especially true when it comes to elements that inherently grab a reader’s attention, like violence or sex. These are powerful tools, but only when used sparingly, and novels that contain too much of either can seem exhausting. In particular, I’ve learned to save extended depictions of violence—which might otherwise overwhelm the kinds of stories I’m telling—for two or three climactic points per novel, while writing around it as much as possible in the meantime.

And final point to bear in mind is that when we look back at the works of art we’ve experienced, it’s often the stuff at the edges that we remember the most. Mad Men, for instance, has increasingly become a show about those edge moments, and I can’t remember a single thing about the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown, which is crammed with action and chases, except for one quiet scene between the two great character actors Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. A truly great artist, like Wong Kar-Wai at his best or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in A Canterbury Tale, can even give us a story that is about nothing but the edges, although this is probably something that only geniuses should attempt. Even for the rest of us, though, it’s worth acknowledging that even the most crowded, eventful story needs to make room for anticipation, pauses, and silence, as Moss Hart understood. So the next time you’re reading over a story and you find your interest starting to flag, instead of ratcheting up the tension even further, try restructuring part of it to emphasize the edge over the center. In many cases, you’ll find that the center is still there, exerting its gravitational pull, but you just can’t see it.

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March 12, 2014 at 9:36 am

Writing what you never knew you needed

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Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

I’ve said more than once that whenever I start a new writing project, I’m trying to end up with a story that I want to read. That’s the kind of thing writers tend to say when asked why they’re drawn to certain types of material, and in a limited sense, it’s true. When I look back at my body of work, it’s clear that it reflects my own particular tastes in fiction: I like tight, detailed narratives with an emphasis on plot and unusual ideas, and for the most part, that’s the kind of story I’ve written. To the extent that the outcome ever surprises me, it’s usually because of the subject matter—I’ll often decide to write a story about a world I know little about, trusting in research and brainstorming to take me into unexpected places. That element of the unknown goes a long way toward keeping the process interesting, and one of the trickiest parts of being a writer is balancing the desire to express one’s own personality with the need to discover something new. The result, if I’ve done it right, is a story that contains a touch of the unanticipated while also looking more or less like the unwritten work I had in mind. Or, as the artist Carl Andre puts it: “A creative person is a person who simply has a desire…to add something to the world that’s not there yet, and goes about arranging for that to happen.”

But there’s an inherent shortcoming to this approach, which lies in the fact that the works of art that matter the most to us often show us something we never knew we needed. When I think about the movies I love, for instance, they tend to be films that blindsided me completely, either with their stories themselves or with the way in which they were told. Knowing what I know about myself, it doesn’t come as a surprise that I’d enjoy the hell out of a movie like Gravity or Inception, but I never would have expected that my favorite movie of all time would turn out to be The Red Shoes, or that I’d passionately love recent films as different as Once, In Bruges, and Certified Copy. These are movies that snuck into my heart, rather than selling me in advance on their intentions, and I feel all the more grateful because they modestly expanded my sense of the possible. As much as I admire a director like Christopher Nolan, there’s no question that he’s primarily adept at delivering exactly the kind of movie that I think I want: a big, expensive, formally ambitious entertainment with just enough complexity to set it apart from the work of other skilled popular filmmakers. And while Nolan’s career has been extraordinary, it’s of a different order entirely from that of, say, Wong Kar-Wai, who at his best made small, messy, gorgeous movies that I never could have imagined on my own.

William Shimell and Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy

The same is true of fiction. Looking back over the list of my own favorite novels, surprisingly few resemble the stories I’ve tried to write myself. I love these books because they come from places that I haven’t explored firsthand, whether it’s the sustained performance of a massive novel of ideas like The Magic Mountain or a bejeweled toy like Dictionary of the Khazars. When it comes to novels that stick more closely to the categories that I understand from the inside, like The Day of the Jackal or The Silence of the Lambs, my appreciation is a little different: it’s a respect for craft, for the flawless execution of a genre I know well, and although nothing can diminish my admiration for these books, it’s altogether different from the feeling I get from a novel that comes to us as a fantastic mythical beast, or as a dispatch from some heretofore unexplored country. And it doesn’t need to be deliberately difficult or obscure. Books from Catch-22 to The Time Traveler’s Wife have left me with the sense that I’ve finished reading something that nobody else, least of all me, could have pulled off. (It’s also no accident that it took me a long time to get around to many of the books I’ve mentioned above. More than even the most difficult movies, few of which demand more than two or three hours of our attention, a novel that doesn’t resemble the ones we’ve read before demands a considerable leap of faith.)

That said, I don’t know if it’s possible for writers to feel that away about their own work, especially not for something the size of a novel, in which any flashes of outside inspiration need to share space with months or years of continuous effort. (A short story or poem, which can be conceived and written in a more compressed window of time, is more likely to retain some of that initial strangeness.) But it does imply that writing only the kinds of stories we already like goes only part of the way toward fulfilling our deepest artistic needs. A reader who spends his or her life reading only one kind of book—romance, fantasy, science fiction—ends up with a limited imaginative palate, and a big part of our literary education comes from striking out into books that might seem unfamiliar or uninviting. For writers, this means following a story wherever it takes us, giving up some measure of control, and even deliberately pushing forward into areas of writing that we don’t fully understand, trusting that we’ll find something new and worthwhile along the way. Like all ventures into the unknown, it carries a degree of risk, and we may find that we’ve invested time and energy that we can’t recover into a story that was never meant to be. But it’s far more dangerous to never take that risk in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2014 at 9:56 am

The Layla effect

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Derek and the Dominos

I don’t think there’s a more powerful moment in all of rock music than the transition between the two halves of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. For three minutes, we’ve been living near the heart of a man’s romantic and sexual agony: the critic Dave Marsh calls it one of those rare songs in which “a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or a suicide.” Then there’s a trailing off, a pause, and we’re launched into Jim Gordon’s transcendent piano coda, which takes over the rest of the track and leads us triumphantly to the end. It’s unclear how the two halves are meant to relate, or whether the coda is the sound of love fulfilled or abandoned, but the juxtaposition of the two movements creates an effect that is far more profound than either of them taken separately. The result is a song that has obsessed me—and so many others—from the moment I first heard it, to the point where I’ve written much of my current novel with “Layla” playing in the background.

This sort of synergy, in which two seemingly unrelated components are set side by side to create a larger whole, is such a powerful artistic tool that it deserves special consideration. Some of the most memorable pop songs ever written, from “Hey Jude” to “Dry the Rain,” consist of two contrasting halves joined together in a way that only seems more mysterious with time. In many cases, the pieces weren’t originally meant to go together at all: the piano coda to “Layla” was composed as a separate piece, and was joined to the first half—which had already been written and recorded—when Clapton happened to hear Gordon playing it in the studio one day. These sorts of decisions may seem like serendipity, but they’re really an expression of craft on a deeper level: I suspect that Clapton intuitively sensed that the song was incomplete without some form of resolution, and that he seized on the coda as the missing piece he needed, precisely because it seemed like a dispatch from a different world entirely.

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

We see this effect in other forms of art as well. I mentioned recently that many of Shakespeare’s most resonant plots—from The Merchant of Venice to King Lear—arise from the combination or juxtaposition of two previously unrelated storylines. There’s no better example of this than The Winter’s Tale, the most beautiful and mysterious of the late romances, which moves from a tragedy of sexual jealousy in Sicily to the gentlest of pastoral comedies in Bohemia. (It’s a transition that may work better on the page than in performance: the production I saw several years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Sam Mendes, did a fine job with the tormented first half, but turned the second half into an aimless hootenanny. As usual, comedy is harder to stage than tragedy, and this is never more clear than when one follows right after the other.) On a more calculated level, we find a similar transition halfway through Psycho: I’ve seen this movie countless times, and I still get a chill when I first glimpse the sign of the Bates Motel through the rain, which reminds me of which movie I’m really watching.

On one level, the impact of such juxtapositions is easy to explain: creativity, as Arthur Koestler points out in The Act of Creation, is about combinations, and when two contrasting pieces are set side by side, it’s no surprise that elements of the first half can bring out unsuspected qualities of the other. (You often see this in visual art, which has long been familiar with the power of the diptych.) But that doesn’t tell us why the pieces can vibrate so memorably in certain cases, while in others they just tend to lie there—or why two unrelated pieces are so much more effective than three, even as the rule of three works so powerfully in other contexts. A work of three parts, with its tidy tripod of effects, can come across as a piece of artistic calculation, or like the three stages of an argument, while two implies something deeper. There’s no better example than Chungking Express, with its two parallel stories of policemen in love: Wong Kar-Wai originally planned to tell three, but only had time for two, an accident for which we can all be profoundly grateful. Three stories would have come across as a narrative device, while two seem like life itself, and like the coda for “Layla,” it feels as if it could go on and on.

“You really want to keep going?”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 24. You can read the earlier installments here.)

As Sandra Bullock notes in Speed, “Relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.” All the same, they can be a lot of fun to watch. It’s surprisingly hard for works of art in any medium to tell convincing love stories, but it helps when they take place in the context of an exciting story, and it isn’t hard to see why: the symptoms of excitement and emotional infatuation are roughly the same, and when a movie sets our hearts racing for other reasons, it’s easy to transfer those feelings to the characters themselves. Roger Ebert points out that the best movie romances take place against a backdrop of adventure and suspense, and his own favorites include films like Casablanca, Notorious, and Gone With the Wind. In recent years, this kind of love story has fallen out of fashion, which is a shame. Although Titanic provides one gigantic counterexample, the fact remains that most romantic movies are set in a world that has been drained of danger, emotional or otherwise, and without that sense of vicarious risk, it’s hard for us to relate to the feelings unfolding onscreen.

The same point applies to novels as well. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is an effective love story largely because the stakes, outside the immediate circle of characters, are so high. Few books have affected me as deeply as The Magus by John Fowles, which embeds two extraordinarily complicated love stories within a web of mythology, intrigue, and betrayal—the novelistic equivalent of Hitchock’s achievement in Vertigo. And the stakes don’t need to arise from the story alone: they can be artistic and creative as well. My favorite movie romance, Chungking Express, is irresistible precisely because of the incredible artistic balancing act that Wong Kar-Wai performs before our eyes, and it’s impossible to separate the romantic longing of its two central stories from the director’s own intoxicating love of cinema. And it’s no accident that our most compelling depiction of sexual jealousy and obsession can be found in the pages of Marcel Proust, the most original and accomplished novelist of the last hundred years.

At first glance, this may not have much to do with The Icon Thief, which is a love story only in passing. Yet I don’t think I could have written convincingly about Maddy and Ethan’s relationship—which, as I’ve mentioned before, I’d been thinking about for years—without the structure of the thriller around it. Even before I had the rest of the plot, I wanted to tell a story about two very different people who enter into a relationship and are destroyed by the qualities of sympathy and imagination that drew them together in the first place, and the result works better in a thriller, at least in my hands, than it would in a more ordinary setting. Maddy and Ethan, like the tragic couple in real life who partially inspired their story, end up in a folie à deux, enabling one another in their delusions precisely because they’re so intelligent and so much on the same wavelength, until it tears them apart at the worst possible moment. And although I wouldn’t stress this point too much, it’s possible that their story lightly externalizes the kinds of ordinary, less dramatic heartbreaks that most of us feel at one time or another—which is why it can be so effective to see them enacted within the context of a thriller.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, in Chapter 24, we only see them drawing closer together, and it’s no accident that the initial flicker of romance occurs as they both enter into physical danger for the first time. I was careful to structure the action of this chapter—in which they illicitly explore Archvadze’s mansion and stumble across a heist in progress—to parallel the heightening of their more private feelings. They’re challenging and testing one another every step of the way, and as Maddy notes, if they were to stop the escalation, “the evening would conclude in some other way”—which I still think is the sexiest line I’ve ever written. And I don’t think I could have written this love story at all without the support of the surrounding thriller. Romance in my novels tends to be left implicit and offstage, partially because I think it’s more interesting that way, but also because I don’t always trust myself to write it the way it deserves. What I can do is write an exciting scene about two characters who begin to suspect that their feelings for one another may go deeper than mere friendship. And if I do it right, that’s all we need…

More sights, more sounds

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“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” John Cusack’s character notes in High Fidelity, and this sentiment goes a long way toward explaining why we find lists of all kinds so fascinating. As I’ve argued before, a list of one’s favorite books or movies is as close to an honest self-portrait as any of us will ever come, and this isn’t a recent convention: as far back as the Iliad, we encounter the ascending scale of affection, in which a hero defines himself by ranking what matters to him most. (Quick story: Back in college, soon after High Fidelity came out, I pointed out this similarity to one of my classics professors. Later that week, I went to see the movie a second time—and saw my professor sitting three rows in front of me. The following day, he entered the classroom and said: “Alec, you’re my pop culture hero.” And that was the high point of my career as a classical scholar.)

This is what makes the Sight & Sound poll so irresistible. Most of the coverage has revolved, understandably enough, around the displacement of Citizen Kane by Vertigo at the top of the list, but the real story lies further down, in the lists of individual critics, which were posted on the site this morning after a short delay. Reading a critic’s list gives us as accurate a thumbnail sketch as we can possibly have of a stranger’s personality, tastes, and idiosyncrasies: I don’t think there’s any way to learn more about a person in thirty words or less. When I look at the list of author Kim Newman, for instance, the fact that he named both A Canterbury Tale and Duck Amuck tells me more about him in five seconds than I’d probably learn from reading one of his books. The same goes with critic Mark Kermode, whose list includes Brazil, Don’t Look Now, and Mary Poppins.

Looking at the top 250 offers even more food for thought. If I’d been surprised earlier by the absence of Powell and Pressburger from the top fifty, the explanation is readily at hand: every single one of their great movies made the long list—The Red Shoes, yes, but also A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus, and I Know Where I’m Going!—which suggests that without a consensus choice, all these classic films simply split the vote. (When we see the list of directors ranked by number of total votes, I expect that they’ll be in the top ten.) I was delighted to see that the second-highest Kubrick movie on the list, after 2001, is Barry Lyndon, and that Miyazaki is represented by both Totoro and Spirited Away. And the short list of movies from the past few years to make the list is a fascinating one: The Tree of Life, There Will Be Blood, WALL-E, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Melancholia.

As always, the list provides ample occasion for reflection, argument, and education. It tells me that the director whose work I need to seek out most urgently, along with Tarkovsky, is Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a reminder that critical tastes can change radically over time, as we see in the critical ascent of such movies, overlooked at their first release, as Vertigo, Rio Bravo, Imitation of Life, and Singin’ in the Rain, not to mention The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It tells me that I wasn’t entirely wrong, seven years ago, about the enduring reputation of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, which got votes from three critics. And it tells me that my own tastes lie more or less within the mainstream, with a few outliers: of my own recent top ten, the only two not to make the cut were L.A. Confidential and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, neither of which received a single vote—which only confirms that in some respects, I’m still ahead of the curve.

Deeper into Vertigo

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Exactly seven years ago, on August 6, 2005, on the blog that I used to maintain with several of my college friends, I wrote the following:

In about seven years, the British magazine Sight and Sound will conduct its next critics’ poll of the greatest movies ever made, which has been held every decade since 1952. It’s always hard to handicap these things, but I have two predictions: 1) Vertigo will finally unseat Citizen Kane from the top of the list. 2) More than one critic, maybe a bunch of them, will name 2046 as one of the best movies of all time.

I’ll need to wait until next week, when Sight & Sound publishes the full results of its critics’ poll, to verify my second prediction—although at this stage In the Mood for Love is clearly the Wong Kar-Wai film to beat. And while my prediction about Vertigo, which did indeed top the latest list, may seem impressive, it isn’t quite as smart as it seems: last time, Vertigo came in second to Kane by only five votes. All the same, I’m almost never right about this sort of thing, so you’ll excuse me if I take some satisfaction in this rare display of prescience.

Still, in some ways, it’s a shame, because Vertigo deserves better than the crushing weight of expectation that such an honor inevitably confers. It’s undeniably a great movie, certainly one of the best of all time, but it’s also a film that gradually imbeds itself in your subconscious, growing in your imagination over the course of many years, with levels of meaning that can’t be fully appreciated after an initial viewing. I have the sinking feeling that a lot of people are going to watch Vertigo for the first time because of this poll and come away wondering what the big deal is about. It took me years to sort through my own feelings about Kane, a cheeky, flashy, shallow masterpiece that has been unfairly suffocated by its own reputation. Eventually, perhaps, we’ll be able to watch Vertigo again in the way it deserves. But probably not for a while.

I’ve written about Vertigo numerous times on this site, so for my full thoughts on this extraordinary movie, please see here and here. It missed my recent rundown of my own top ten films, but only by the narrowest of margins, and while it may not be my favorite film overall, its greatest moments soar higher than those of any other movie I can name. In particular, as I’ve said before, the hotel room scene culminates in the greatest shot in the history of cinema, and its third act is among the most emotionally overwhelming. For the moment, then, let’s give the obligatory nod to Hitchcock while also acknowledging the film’s other makers, especially the screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, who adapted the novel D’entre les morts and added the crucial shift in point of view that lends the movie much of its impact, and the composer Bernard Herrmann, who delivered a score that contributes, more than any other I know, to the movie’s hypnotic spell.

As for the rest of the poll, it’s exactly what it should be: an endless source of surprise, argument, and inspiration. Everyone will have their own list of omissions—mine is that there’s nothing by Powell and Pressburger and no sign of Casablanca—but overall, these are fascinating movies that provide enough imaginative fuel for a lifetime. For me, it’s a reminder that I need to watch more Tarkovsky (I hadn’t even heard of Mirror, which made the top ten on the directors’ list) and finally finish Metropolis, which has remained paused halfway through in my Netflix queue for years. But more than anything else, the list is a reminder of how inexhaustible the world of great movies really is, even for those of us who care about it deeply. As I’ve written before, when I discovered the 1982 edition of the Sight & Sound poll sometime in the third grade, it changed my life forever. Thirty years down the line, it hasn’t lost any of its power.

Written by nevalalee

August 6, 2012 at 9:50 am

My ten great movies #3: Chungking Express

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According to legend, it took Wong Kar-Wai six weeks to make Chungking Express, from initial conception to final cut, during a break in the editing of his troubled martial arts epic Ashes of Time. If true, it’s the strongest possible example I can imagine of the role of luck and spontaneity in the creation of great works of art: nothing Wong has done since has been as insightful, beautiful, or moving, even as his films have disappeared down the rabbit hole of Kubrickian perfectionism. My Blueberry Nights, while minor, represented a step in the right direction: this is a man who needs to make a quick, stylish, unassuming movie at least once a year. Because while it might not rank at the top of my list, of all the movies I’ve ever seen, Chungking Express is the one I love the most, a vision of life that I want to believe, even if it only exists in the head of one of our most interesting directors.

On the day this post appears, I’ll have been in Hong Kong for most of the past two weeks, and I suspect I’ll have tried to seek out many of this movie’s emotional landmarks, especially a certain outdoor escalator. But in a sense, I already spent most of my twenties trying to recreate these moments, in another great city: Chungking Express is a portrait of lonely lives, struggling to connect in tentative ways, mostly at night—a subject that might have seemed grim in the hands of a different director, but here becomes delightfully, irresistibly romantic. The discovery of beauty in everyday spaces—lunch counters, trains, cramped apartments—is one of cinema’s greatest strengths, and Wong is its most seductive recent practitioner. His other films, especially Fallen Angels, are invariably fascinating, but this is the one where all the stars aligned. It may never happen again, but thank God, it happened here.

Tomorrow: An art house thriller that outdid Hitchcock by way of Duchamp.

Written by nevalalee

December 7, 2011 at 10:00 am

Von Trier’s obstructions

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As you see [filmmaking] makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone—just look at Orson Welles or look at even people like Truffaut. They have become clowns.

—Werner Herzog, in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

The news that Lars Von Trier has been expelled from Cannes for his decidedly ill-advised remarks is depressing in more ways than one, although I can’t fault the festival for its decision. I don’t think that von Trier is really a Nazi sympathizer; I think he’s a provocateur who picked the wrong time and place to make a string of increasingly terrible jokes. But the fact that he ended up in such a situation in the first place raises questions of its own about the limitations of the provocateur’s life. Von Trier, who used to be something of a hero of mine, has always been testing his audiences, but there’s a difference between a director who pushes the bounds of taste out of some inner compulsion, and one who is simply going through the motions. Von Trier, it seems, has gradually become the latter.

There was a time when I thought that von Trier was one of the major directors of the decade, along with Wong Kar-Wai, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong. Dancer in the Dark is still the last great movie musical, a remarkable instance of a star and director putting their soul and sanity on the line for the sake of a film, and a rebuke to directors who subject their audiences to an emotional ordeal without demanding the same of themselves. Just as impressive was The Five Obstructions, von Trier’s oddly lovable experiment with the director Jørgen Leth, which remains the best cinematic essay available on the power of constraints. (Von Trier had recently announced a remake with Martin Scorsese as the test subject, a prospect that made me almost giddy with joy. I’d be curious to see if this is still happening, in light of von Trier’s recent troubles.)

But the cracks soon began to show. I greatly admired Dogville, which was a major work of art by any definition, but it lacked the crucial sense that von Trier was staking his own soul on the outcome: he was outside the movie, indifferent, paring his nails, and everything was as neat as mathematics. At the time, I thought it might be the only movie of its year that I would still remember a decade later, but now I can barely recall anything about it, and don’t have much inclination to watch it again. I tried very hard to get through Manderlay and gave up halfway through—Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance, through no fault of her own, might be the most annoying I’ve ever seen. And I still haven’t watched Antichrist, less out of indifference than because my wife has no interest in seeing it. (One of these days, I’ll rent it while she’s out of town, which will be a fun weekend.)

And now we have the Cannes imbroglio, which only serves as a reminder that every director—indeed, every artist—ultimately becomes a caricature of himself, in ways that only reveal what was already there. That was true of Orson Welles, who in his old age fully became the gracious ham and confidence trickster he had always been, except more so, in ways that enhance our understanding of him as a young man. The same will be true, I’m afraid, of von Trier. The spectacle that he presented is even less flattering when we try to imagine the same words being said by Herzog, or even someone like Michael Haneke—men who are provocateurs, yes, but only as an expression of their deepest feelings about the world, something that is no longer true of von Trier, if it ever was. Von Trier, clearly, was just joking. But he revealed much more about himself than if he were trying to be serious.

Hayao Miyazaki and the future of animation

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Yesterday was the seventieth birthday of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, the director of Spirited Away, which makes this as appropriate a time as any to ask whether Miyazaki might be, in fact, the greatest living director in any medium. He certainly presents a strong case. My own short list, based solely on ongoing quality of output rather than the strength of past successes, includes Martin Scorsese, Wong Kar-Wai, and Errol Morris, but after some disappointing recent work by these last three, Miyazaki remains the only one who no longer seems capable of delivering anything less than a masterpiece. And he’s also going to be the hardest to replace.

Why is that? Trying to pin down what makes Miyazaki so special is hard for the same reason that it’s challenging to analyze any great work of children’s fiction: it takes the fun out of it. I’m superstitiously opposed to trying to figure out how the Alice books work, for example, in a way that I’m not for Joyce or Nabokov. Similarly, the prospect of taking apart a Miyazaki movie makes me worry that I’ll come off as a spoilsport—or, worse, that the magic will somehow disappear. That’s one reason why I ration out my viewings of Ponyo, one of the most magical movies ever made, so carefully. And it’s why I’m going to tread cautiously here. But it’s still possible to hint at some of the qualities that set Miyazaki apart from even the greatest animators.

The difference, and I apologize in advance for my evasiveness, comes down to a quality of spirit. Miyazaki is as technically skilled as any animator in history, of course, but his craft would mean little without his compassion, and what I might also call his eccentricity. Miyazaki has a highly personal attachment to the Japanese countryside—its depiction of the satoyama is much of what makes My Neighbor Totoro so charming—as well as the inner lives of small children, especially girls. He knows how children think, look, and behave, which shapes both his characters and their surrounding movies. His films can seem as capricious and odd as the stories that very young children tell to themselves, so that Spirited Away feels both beguilingly strange and like a story that you’ve always known and only recently rediscovered.

Which is why Miyazaki is greater than Pixar. Don’t get me wrong: Pixar has had an amazing run, but it’s a singularly corporate excellence. The craft, humor, and love of storytelling that we see in the best Pixar movies feels learned, rather than intuitive; it’s the work of a Silicon Valley company teaching itself to be compassionate. Even the interest in children, which is very real, seems like it has been deliberately cultivated. Pixar, I suspect, is run by men who love animation for its own sake, and who care about children only incidentally, which was also true of Walt Disney himself. (If they could make animated movies solely for adults, I think they would, as the career trajectory of Brad Bird seems to indicate. If nothing else, it would make it easier for them to win an Oscar for Best Picture.)

By contrast, the best Miyazaki movies, like the Alice books, are made for children without a hint of condescension, or any sense that children are anything but the best audience in the world. And as traditional animation is replaced by monsters of CGI that can cost $200 million or more, I’m afraid that this quality will grow increasingly rare. We’ve already seen a loss of personality that can’t be recovered: it’s impossible to be entirely original, not to mention eccentric, with so much money on the line. The result, at best, is a technically marvelous movie that seems to have been crafted by committee, even if it’s a committee of geniuses. Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece, and not good enough.

Miyazaki is seventy now, and judging from Ponyo, he’s still at the top of his game. I hope he keeps making movies for a long time to come. Because it’s unclear if the world of animation, as it currently exists, will ever produce anyone quite like him again.

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