The Dominance of Story (plus: once-and-for-allism)

In his forward to the short story collection Night Shift, Stephen King opined on the dominance of story:

All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer’s craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven.

Night Shift, Page xxx

It’s a good notion and I think it captures what a lot of people look for out of stories (whether they be books or movies or whatever), as evidenced by King’s outsized success. Of course, nothing is absolute and attempts to boil storytelling down to a simple rule are probably doomed to failure. This reminded me of the opening lines from Clive Barker’s Imajica (I quoted this before, in reference to genres, something similarly difficult to boil down to their essence):

It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course-thousands in fact-but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center. And even this essential trio would not remain intact; or so he taught. It would steadily diminish as the story unfolded, three becoming two, two becoming one, until the stage was left deserted.

Needless to say, this dogma did not go unchallenged. The writers of fables and comedies were particularly vociferous in their scorn, reminding the worthy Quexos that they invariably ended their own tales with a marriage and a feast. He was unrepentant. He dubbed them cheats and told them they were swindling their audiences out of what he called the last great procession, when, after the wedding songs had been sung and the dances danced, the characters took their melancholy way off into darkness, following each other into oblivion.

Imajica, Page 1

Likewise, there are lots of books and movies that challenge King’s assertion that story value dominates other aspects of fiction. There are some that even succeed. Indeed, King wrote that line in 1977, and in the intervening decades, even he has written stories that are perhaps less story focused than that line might imply. Like a lot of things, it’s good to have a guideline, but you can break it if you know what you’re doing. Alas, it turns out that breaking these sorts of guidelines is quite difficult.

All of this came about this morning as I flailed about, trying to find something to put on the blog, and stumbled across the King line in my notes right after reading Tyler Cowen’s piece on the intellectual mistake of once-and-for-allism:

“Once-and-for-allism” occurs when people decide that they wish to stop worrying about an issue at the margin. They might either dismiss the issue, or they might blow up its importance but regard the issue as hopeless and undeserving of further consideration. Either way, they seek to avoid the hovering sense of “I’ve still got to devote time and energy to figuring this out.” They prefer “I am now done with this issue, once and for all!” Thus the name of the syndrome.

I see once-and-for-allism with so many issues, but one recent example would be the forthcoming path of Covid and Long Covid. Most people just don’t want to think about it any more, and so they settle on something (“it’s just a cold!” or “it will bankrupt the nation!”) rather than having to do lots of intellectual revisions based on the stream of new data.

He gives lots of other examples in his post (like crypto, UFOs, abortion *ahem*, etc…), and perhaps one we could add storytelling and/or genre definitions to that list.

Link Dump

Just the usual interesting dump of links from the depths of ye olde internets:

  • AI Movie Posters – Yeah, yeah, I know, Dall-E has the momentum right now (and it’s great), but these AI generated, avant-garde movie posters are fun too.
  • List of Stories set in a future now past – Wikipedia has fun stuff if you know where to look.
  • The Market Basket on Boston Road – This is phenomenal. Not even sure if it’s real or not, but does that really matter?
  • Old Japanese Commercial – I don’t even know what it’s advertising, but it’s absolutely terrifying nightmare fuel.
  • Sam Raimi Defends Horror Films on UK’s Central Weekend in 1987 – TV is not as adversarial these days, this is a hell of a show (and boy do a lot of folks not come off well in their dismissive criticism of films they haven’t seen).
  • Who Ate the Pizza? – Feels staged, but it’s still funny
  • In defense of crypto(currency) – I’ve linked to some stuff that’s been (highly) critical of crypto in the past, but the underlying data structures and technology are interesting. I’ve always thought of crypto as a solution in search of a problem, and while it has solved some problems (i.e. thwarting man-in-the-middle attacks, enabling criminal enterprises, etc…), they’re, um, not all favorable. As currently constructed, these systems aren’t especially useful, but the engineering problems aren’t entirely insurmountable and the amount of money tied up in these schemes (even with recent tumbles) means there’s a big incentive to fix them. Healthy skepticism still warranted though.

And I’ll leave you with the tweet of the week (those poor librarians, but I can’t stop laughing):

The Book Queue

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of these Book Queues, but since the TBR pile is getting larger, I figured it’s time. Back when blogs were a thing, posts like this were common enough even if they aren’t particularly useful, but I do find that posting it publicly does motivate me to actually read the books I have sitting on the shelf (as opposed to picking out something new and shiny and reading that instead). So let’s get to it:

  • Authority and Freedom, by Jed Perl – Subtitled: “A Defense of the Arts”, this looks to be an exploration for the enjoyment of the arts as art (as opposed to art as political statement, or personal confession, or whatever deeper meaning people insist on projecting into a lot of art). It’s a subject that I’ve been thinking about recently, and will hopefully provide some new avenues of exploration.
  • The Immediate Experience, by Robert Warshow – Subtitled: “Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture”, this looks to be a variation on the theme of the previous book. Warshow was apparently annoyed by the critical establishment’s dismissal of popular culture (in favor of higher art, etc…)
  • A Culture of Fact, by Barbara J. Shapiro – In this age of practiced disinformation, fake news, and social media, taking a look at how we, as a species, came to respect facts in the first place, might be a good idea. I’ve had this on my list since Neal Stephenson kept name-checking it during his interviews promoting Fall and now Termination Shock, but I finally found a copy. It seems to be somewhat of a dry, academic tome, but certainly a worthwhile subject.
  • Reunion, by Christopher Farnsworth – Alright, that’s enough with the snooty non-fiction, how about some trashy fiction? I actually don’t know anything about this book other than that it’s written by Farnsworth, who I’ve enjoyed since discovering his President’s Vampire series, which were a whole boatload of fun. Not sure when he’ll get back to those vampire books, but in the meantime, he’s written several thrillers and other fun little stories.
  • The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi – Another one based solely on the author. Scalzi has this habit of glomming onto some fun cultural meme and turning it into a book that I’m not in love with (see also: Redshirts), but his books are generally snappy and fun, so I always check them out.
  • Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki – The last of the Hugo novel finalists on my list, I’ve actually started reading this. It was probably my least anticipated of the nominees, but despite (or perhaps because of) that, I’m finding it surprisingly good. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, and it really shouldn’t work, but so far, it’s actually pulling off a decent balancing act. It’s still early and there’s plenty of room for a downturn, but still happy enough with this so far…
  • XX, by Rian Hughes – This feels something like a cultural heir to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Lots of visual experimentation with typefaces, modern epistolary (i.e. story told partially through emails and wikipedia pages and the like), images, collages, and so on. It’s more based around alien signals from space than the haunted house of House of Leaves, but it sounds interesting (and oh, it’s, like, a thousand pages, great).
  • Upgrade, by Blake Crouch – I’ve enjoyed Crouch’s last few books, in part because the appear to be one-off stories rather than series. This one hasn’t been released yet, but it’s definitely on the list…
  • Heat 2, by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner – Not sure what inspired Mann to revisit the characters from Heat in novel form, but I love that movie, so I’m certainly onboard (perhaps it was a pandemic project, like what Tarantino did…) This book is cowritten by Meg Gardiner, who has been writing police procedurals and serial killer novels for a while. I checked out Unsub, which was solid airport thriller fare, even if it isn’t doing anything particularly new. I might check out more from that series too… Heat 2 doesn’t come out until August, but I’m onboard.

I’m sure you’ll be seeing more about these in coming months, so stay tuned.

Weird Movie of the Week: Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we engaged in a private-eye-led Witch Hunt. This time, um, well, I guess we’ll just say that Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway:

CIA agents Palmer and Gagano are tasked with the perilous mission of destroying “The Soviet Union!” As they enter the system using a VR simulation, their mission quickly turns into a delirious trap, far more complex than expected, as the fabric of reality starts unraveling around them.

Longtime readers know that this series of posts is somewhat inconsistent in that I don’t always watch the weird movie in question (usually due to availability), but this one was on Amazon Prime Streaming, so while the description above sounds a little funky, this was how I summed it up:

Imagine Adult Swim commissioning Alejandro Jodorowsky to make a Too Many Cooks style pastiche of a late-era Philip K. Dick fever dream inflected novel. I’m still not sure if that’s good or bad, but it’s certainly not boring.

Ah yes, that gets to the weirdness.

Stop motion characters from Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway

I’m just going to quickly list a few things that are in this movie, just to give you more of an idea:

  • A good portion of the film is stop-motion animation where our heroes run around wearing paper masks of famous people in a virtual reality world
  • There’s a cocain snorting black Batman who is referred to as “Batfro”. I think he’s the mayor or something?
  • Stalin is portrayed as Scottish?
  • There are 3 ninjas called Spaghetti, Ravioli and Baltazar
  • At one point a pair of fly monsters show up. One of them shoots laser beams from its eyes and accidentally immolates itself. The other fly creature pulls his hand off and candy comes pouring out like he’s some sort of piñata.
  • I know my description involves Philip K. Dick and a lot of people throw that out as a descriptor, but it’s very clearly an influence here – one of the characters is even named Palmer Eldrich.

And there’s lots more where that came from. As you might intuit from all of this, the film is a bit of a mess. It’s certainly not beginners fare, though I suspect there’s a very specific type of person who will get a lot out of this. Who those people are, I have no idea. I found it interesting from an almost anthropological observational standpoint, but that sort of detached reserve is obviously not what’s driving this whole thing. Anyway, if you’re a veteran of weird movies, this one might due the trick.

SF Book Review – Part 39: 2022 Hugo Awards SF Finalists

Since I’m playing along with the 2022 Hugo Awards process and I’ve made good progress on the novels, I figured I’d split out the SF finalists in one post (look for another post covering the fantasy finalists coming soon).

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir has already been reviewed and remains at the top of my ballot. I’m not particularly sanguine about its chances, given the current Hugo voter’s obsession with social issues and character, as opposed to the science or ideas that drive Weir’s book. I suspect they’d see it as a bit of a throwback, but then, it did make the ballot in the first place, so who knows? I only have one book left, but I don’t see it budging this one from the top of my ranking.

A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine – The sequel to the 2020 Hugo Best Novel, A Memory Called Empire, this one is essentially more of the same. Which is to say, it’s competent space opera fodder that I enjoyed quite a bit! Is it good enough to be the best SF of the year? That’s the rub.

One of my complaints about A Memory Called Empire was that while it hinted at an alien threat throughout the story, it mostly covered a predictable thread of court intrigue and political power struggle right up to its completely expected conclusion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and there’s something to be said for a well executed take on standard tropes.

This sequel shifts focus to that alien threat, and once again, it feels like Martine is playing with the standard playbook – this time for first contact stories. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that and it’s reasonably well executed, but Martine seems far more interested in exploring the galactic empire she’s set up, and all the baggage that goes along with imperialism and colonialism, especially as it relates to the relationship between our two main protagonists. Which is well drawn and I enjoy spending time with those characters, even if it feels like we’ve been down this road before. In general, this focus on character over action does muck with the pacing, and the more military SF aspects of the story get shorter shrift. There’s also a thread involving the emperor-to-be and imperial communications that feels a bit tacked on, though it is eventually tied back into the overall narrative well enough.

It’s ultimately a worthy sequel to the first novel, better in some ways, but ultimately there’s not much new here. It’s a totally cromulent experience for sure, but if you’ve read a bunch of first contact stories before, you won’t be particularly surprised, and if you have been following along with the Hugos for the past few years, similar social issues and character beats have been hit pretty hard by other nominees. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that and there’s something to be said about well executed versions of standard tropes, but I don’t know that this rises to the level of best SF of the year.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers – At this point, I’ve read all of the books in Chambers’ popular Wayfarers series and have come away with somewhat mixed impressions. As I summarized on Chambers’ most recent Hugo-nominated entry in the series:

I’ve generally enjoyed the books in this series, a space opera that focuses on nice people, rather than grim despair or dystopia (as a lot of modern takes go). The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a character-driven, episodic narrative about the crew of a hyperspace tunneling ship that had seen better days. Most of the events covered in the book were well done but underwhelming, though it ended on a relatively strong note and the characters were enjoyable. The next book, A Closed and Common Orbit, focused much closer on two of the characters from the first book, and was significantly better for it. Like the first book, the stakes and tension weren’t particularly high, but the two characters at the heart of the story were endearing and interesting and once again, the ending was strong.

Alas, the third entry in the series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, was my least favorite so far. A set of day-in-the-life character sketches almost completely devoid of tension or drama, it really didn’t work for me at all. At first glance, this most recent entry in the series has a similar tone.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within book cover

The story takes place at the Five-Hop One-Stop, a sort of truck-stop in space, as three visitors and the proprietor get stuck together due to a freak accident in orbit around them that prevents any traffic from coming or going. All the characters are from different alien races, and none are human. As you might guess from Chambers’ generally positive attitude and optimistic vibes, this isn’t going to be a pressure-cooker situation where inter-species conflict threatens to explode, but there’s actually lots of interesting exploration going on here. Sure, most of it just comes down to various characters talking and attempting to understand one another’s cultures and perspectives, or even other races not present in the book, but it works a lot better than the previous book. Naturally these conversations hit on a lot of topics of interest to human readers, even if the characters aren’t human, and given the general politics of the Hugos the past few years, I think you know what you’re in for – though it’s nowhere near as ham-fisted or preachy as some other nominees have a tendency to be…

This lends itself to some mild tension and conflict, though it never really boils over into anything even remotely threatening. Perhaps the most memorable discussion involves us humans and our weird obsession with cheese and how it’s made, and how disgusting it is to the aliens, which is very funny. There’s one genuine argument between two of the characters, but that’s understandable enough, even to the characters themselves. One character has a bit of separation anxiety with their sibling stuck in orbit, but that’s not played up too hard. And there’s an incident involving a child in danger, but we all know it will work out fine in the end, and of course it does. I guess that’s a spoiler, but not really.

All in all, it’s another enjoyable entry into an enjoyable series, with likable characters and a nice positive attitude. I can see why it’s popular, especially with Hugo voters, and while I enjoyed it well enough, I don’t think it rises to the level of best SF of the year. Indeed, I’d put it about on par with A Desolation Called Peace with a similar notion of being a generally well executed version of something we’ve seen before. If Chambers is ever able to harness her storytelling powers to generate something more compelling, and populate it with these likable characters she’s so good at creating, that would be a true winner. These slice-of-life sketches are all well and good, but they don’t tend to stay with me…

So that covers the 2022 Hugo Awards SF finalists. Stay tuned for a look at the fantasy-oriented finalists. I only have one book left to go there, but it may be a few weeks. In the meantime, maybe I’ll give the Short Stories a whirl…

Link Dump

The usual spin through the depths of ye olde internets:

  • The Silurian Hypothesis: Would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record? – (Wikipedia has a much shorter summary.) Named after the fictional species from Doctor Who, the reality of this situation is much more mundane and boring than you might think. It turns out that not much would actually survive very long (certain plastics or nuclear waste, for example). Ironically, if this theoretical civilization made it to the Moon or Mars and left something there, it’d be much more likely to be intact…
  • Jason lives? The court battle that’s killing ‘Friday the 13th’ – Since another Friday the 13th has passed, it’s time to check in on the legal battles that have kept Jason from the screen since 2009. It turns out that copyright law is complicated and while the original screenwriter technically has rights to the characters and sequels, he doesn’t have rights to the title Friday the 13th or to international distribution. Arguably, he doesn’t even have rights to do a movie with an adult Jason. Ultimately, this thing won’t end until Victor Miller and Sean Cunningham come to some sort of agreement.
  • The Thing That Makes It Work Means It Doesn’t – Ryan Broderick on the paradox at the heart of social media:

…platforms are still stuck in a perpetual state of being terrible and, thus, good. Twitter and Tumblr are both fantastic examples of this bizarre tension, with user bases that are valuable in vastly different ways, but drawn to the apps because of features that make them unmonetizeable. Tumblr is essentially the greatest archive of possible copyright infringement ever created, which has led to an inscrutable and dense remix culture that conversely also drives a lot of what’s cool online. Meanwhile, Twitter is a poorly-incentivized battle royal for rich people, artists, and furries that only works because the barrier of entry for logging on and threatening to kill a columnist you don’t like is low enough that you can do it while still enraged from something you read while on the toilet.

That’s all for now!

Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s discussion of the book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. This sort of nuts-and-bolts stuff is endlessly fascinating, so let’s get back to some quotes from the book:

M: In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do – which is only natural – so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

… there’s a delicate balance between the time line of a film’s story – which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months – and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed his clothes.

Page 162

This makes me wonder about films where characters are constantly changing outfits. Is there a point where, if you change costumes often enough, the disadvantages boomerang back to being flexible because every scene has a different costume anyway? Probably not entirely, but maybe there’s something to that…

M: I guess I am drawn to stories where you have to get under the skin of rather unlikely and sometimes unlikeable characters.

How you do that, as an editor, ultimately comes down to selecting the shots, and moments within shots, where the character looks appealing yet problematic at the same time – conflicted, in other words. If you have a choice of seven different shots, which one shows that conflict best? There are many tiny but telling details the editor includes or eliminates in order to make the audience aware of the deeper aspects of character.

For instance, if you are wearing a hat, as soon as you tip the hat slightly back on your head, it gets noticed – you’re sending a message via the angle of the hat: I’m a happy-go-lucky guy. Or if you ram the hat down on your head, you’re saying, I don’t want to talk to anybody. Or if you tip it forward, you say, I’m aggressive…. But if you’re trying to be earnest, the tipped-back hat doesn’t quite send the right message.

In film there are endless versions of this, where a look, an aspect, an attitude, a gesture is fortuitously correct or incorrect, and either amplifies or contradicts the message the filmmakers want to convey.

I’m using “hat” as a metaphor: one moment is always going to be the most revealing, in the best sense, of the inner character, at that point in the film.

Page 174

Sometimes when you read criticism of a movie, people read a lot into the smallest detail and there are certainly times when that sort of extrapolation is inaccurate, but then you read stuff like the above and it isn’t always as far-fetched as it might seem.

Gene Hackman and an Air Freshener in The Conversation

They reference a scene in The Conversation where Gene Hackman’s character blows on a little air freshener – it’s a tiny moment, but revealing.

M: There’s a wonderful quotation from Goethe – he must have been frustrated at some point about the difficulty of communication. He said, “Utterly futile trying to change, by writing, someone’s fixed inclination. You will only succeed in confirming him of his opinion, or if he has none, drenching him in yours.”

O: There’s a poet in Vancouver who said, “I’ll see it when I believe it!”

M: Exactly. I’m sure Goethe didn’t think that way most of the time, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept writing. He was talking in black-and-white terms: Agree with me or not! The richest zone of communication is in the grey area, around things like your staircase, where the reader is somewhat receptive to what the author writes but also brings along his own images, and ideas, which in a creative way do violence to the author’s vision and ideas. A synergy results from what the writer presents and what the reader brings. That communication, initially present in neither the sender or the receiver, is greater than the message of the writer alone or the thoughts of the reader alone.

Page 209

There’s a lot here that’s relevant to the current state of discourse in the world. That rich zone in the grey area is obliterated by most of what passes for discourse these days. Everyone’s so afraid of being misinterpreted that the sort of synergy that Murch is referring to here becomes difficult. A lot of people complaining about making things “too political” are talking about this sort of thing. It’s not that politics exist that’s the problem, it’s the lack of potential synergy…

M: There’s a great game… Negative Twenty Questions. … It was invented by John Wheeler, a quantum physicist who was a young graduate student of Neils Bohr’s in the 1930s. … he thought up a parlour game that reflects the way the world is constructed at a quantum level. It involves, say, four people. Michael, Anthony, Walter, and Aggie. From the point of view of one of those people, Michael, the game that’s being played is the normal Twenty Questions – Ordinary Twenty Questions, I guess you’d call it. So Michael leaves the room, under the illusion that the other three players are going to look around and collectively decide on the chosen object to be guessed by him – say, the alarm clock. Michael expects that when they’ve made their decision they will ask him to come back in and try to guess the object in fewer than twenty questions.

Under normal circumstances, the game is a mixture of perspicacity and luck: No, it’s not bigger than a breadbox. No, you can’t eat it… Those kinds of things.

But in Wheeler’s version of the game, when Michael leaves the room, the three remaining players don’t communicate with one another at all. Instead, each of them silently decides on an object. They call Michael back in.

So there’s a disparity between what Michael believes and what the underlying truth is: Nobody knows what anyone else is thinking. The game proceeds regardless, which is where the fun comes in.

Michael asks Walter: Is the object bigger than a breadbox? Walter – who has picked the alarm clock – says, No. Now, Anthony has chosen the sofa, which is bigger than a breadbox. And since Michael is going to ask him the next question, Anthony must quickly look around the room and come up with something else – a coffee cup! – which is smaller than a breadbox. So when Michael asks Anthony, If I emptied out my pockets, could I put their contents in this object? Anthony says, Yes.

Now Aggie’s choice may have been the small pumpkin carved for Halloween, which could also contain Michael’s keys and coins, so when Michael says, Is it edible? Aggie says, Yes. That’s a problem for Walter and Anthony, who have chosen inedible objects: they now have to change their selection to something edible, hollow, and smaller than a breadbox.

So a complex vortex of decision making is set up, a logical but unpredictable chain of ifs and thens. To end successfully, the game must produce, in fewer than twenty questions, and object that satisfies all of the logical requirements: smaller than a breadbox, hollow, et cetera. Two things can happen: Success – this vortex can give birth to an answer that will seem to be inevitable in retrospect: Of course! It’s the ______! And the game ends with Michael still believing he has just played Ordinary Twenty Questions. In fact, no one chose the ______ to start with, and Anthony, Walter, and Aggie have been sweating it out, doing these hidden mental gymnastics, always one step ahead of failure.

Which is the other possible result: Failure – the game can break down catastrophically. By question 15, let’s say, the questions asked have generated logical requirements so complex that nothing in the room can satisfy them. And when Michael asks Anthony the sixteenth question, Anthony breaks down and has to confess that he doesn’t know, and Michael is finally let in on the secret: The game was negative Twenty Questions all along. Wheeler suggests that the nature of perception and reality, at the quantum level, and perhaps above, is somehow similar to this game.

Pages 210- 212

Murch then applies this to filmmaking and the collaborative process of constantly adjusting due to various aspects of the production. This sort of collaboration can be precarious, but Murch argues that it’s preferable to a monolithic vision.

M: One of the reasons I lobby for the increased collaboration of everyone who can have a voice on a film is that through collaboration you add facets to the work. The work is going to be seen by millions of people, over many decades and under very many different circumstances, and even though the film is a fixed thing, you want it to be multifaceted so that different people will see different things in it, and come away rewarded.

The best, easiest way to get that multifacetedness is to allow the collaboration of lots of people, as well as Chance, which is sometimes Fate in costume. Each of those moments of collaboration, each contribution by someone other than the director, adds a slightly different perspective to the work, some chisel mark slightly at an angle to the central vision. And each of these moments, these facets, has the potential to make the work “sparkle” in a creative sense, and make it more accessible to a greater variety of people over a longer period of time.

If, instead, the film is a single, monolithic vision, the viewer has no option other than to submit to it on its own terms, bow down to it, or turn away from it.

Page 242

Easier said than done, for sure, and you’re inviting that catastrophic failure element from Negative Twenty Questions, but when it works? Seems worth it.

M: In film, at the moment of the cut you are juxtaposing one image with another, and that’s the equivalent of rhyme. It’s how rhyme and alliteration work in poetry, or how we juxtapose two words or two images, and what that juxtaposition implies. Either by emphasizing the theme or by countering it, modulating it, like an invisible Greek chorus. What’s being stated may be one thing, but by juxtaposing two different images at the moment of the cut, and makin them as striking as possible, we can say, Yes, but there’s something else going on here.

The trick is to make that flow an organic part of the process. Editing is a construction, a mosaic in three dimensions, two of space and one of time. It’s a miniature version of the way films are made, which is an artificial, piece-by-piece process.

Page 268

Murch has being doing this long enough that he says he knows when to cut because he almost involuntarily flinches when watching a shot, and he knows that flinch moment is when to cut. He apparently does this down to the frame (i.e. 1/24th of a second), which is astounding and seemingly tedious.

M: … what he meant was, How are you doing? … So I answered, Oh yeah, I’m very happy. Things are great! But later that evening I kept mulling over that question, thinking, What I said was the right social response, but what’s the real response to that question – from one director to another? The closest I came was, No, I’m not happy, but I would be absolutely miserable if I were prevented from doing what I’m doing now. Don’t stop me – I’m miserable, but don’t stop me. I’m miserable in the amazing, cosmic way that a director is miserable.

There’s a phrase from something Martha Graham once said about that process. She calls it “blessed unrest.”

Pages 282 – 283

That’s a great phrase and gets at a core contradiction of the human condition. It reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The “flow” state is difficult to get into and often involves very hard work that doesn’t seem like it would be enjoyable, but once you get there, you lose track of everything else and never want to leave. “Blessed unrest” seems like a good descriptor of that sort of thing.

M: … films, when they work, are functioning at a complex level of harmonic interaction – of sounds and images and acting and costume and art direction and photography and on and on. At the beginning we have a script which, complex as it may be, is like a simple melodic line, but we don’t yet have an orchestrated score. The director – who is the closest we have to the conductor of the piece, visually speaking – doesn’t have a way of orchestrating all these things except through talking and instruction by example and sometimes, it seems, through some kind of divine intervention. If every decision that had to be made on the film had to be articulated, spelled out in detail, the film would never get done…

O: But surely on one level, the lack of rules and codes,and the lack of a too pre-meditated theory is what keeps film alive. Obviously film is an art form and it’s a made form, but what’s wonderful about film is how it also catches an uncontrolled reality. There’s the chance of the accidental, which then can be selected, chosen, and shaped by the director and the editor. But to begin with something too controlled… it’s why I cannot stand cartoons, which are a hundred percent premeditated, totally manipulative, and therefore completely artificial.

Pages 306 – 307

Alrighty then, I think I’ve mined this book enough for now. though there’s lots of other fascinating topics discussed throughout (for example, I didn’t even get into Murch’s attempts to develop a sorta Movie notation like music has, based on the I Ching). Suffice it to say that it’s a highly recommended book for anyone interested in how film actually works.

Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Part 1

A few weeks ago, the Academy Awards were wracked with controversy. I speak, of course, of the decision not to air several important categories during the broadcast, among them Best Film Editing and Best Sound. Nothing else of note occurred during the ceremony. Anyway, by pure coincidence, I happened to be reading a book about just how important Film Editing can be.

During the making of The English Patient, the author who wrote the book the movie was based on, Michael Ondaatje, was able to observe the whole process. He met the editor of the film, Walter Murch, and the two became friends. Ondaatje became fascinated with film editing, sound, and sound editing, and decided to write a book about those subjects with Murch. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film basically consists of several in-depth interviews with Ondaatje and Murch. For the uninitiated, Murch is something of a legend in the Editing community. He doesn’t have the cache that the directors he worked with have, but you’ve almost certainly seen (or heard) his work. Between editing and sound, he’s worked on all three Godfather movies, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, The English Patient, and the famous re-edit of Touch of Evil, amongst others.

It’s a fascinating book and recommended for those who want to understand the lesser discussed aspects of filmmaking. I took note of interesting passages and discussions throughout the book, which we’ll cover now. The first concerns the interrogation (and torture) scene from The English Patient. It was apparently a particularly grueling shoot for the actors, so there was a lot of footage to work with.

And what did Walter Murch do with this scene?

Well, he had been reading the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte on the “Nazi character,” and he plucked from his reading the fact that the Nazis hated any demonstration of weakness. This idea was certainly not in my original paragraph, not in Minghella’s script, nor in any of the hundred minutes of footage that had been shot and that somehow had to be cut down to a nerve-racking three or four minutes. Every scene, every film, for Murch, needs to have a larger science of patterns at work within it, and this would be the idea or concept that governed how he cut the scene.

At one point Caravaggio/Dafoe says, before he even sees the razor, “Don’t cut me.” He says it once. Walter has the interrogator pause in his questioning when he hears this, extending the time of his response. He has threatened the spy with the idea of cutting off his thumbs, but only in a casual, not serious, way. When Caravaggio says, “Don’t cut me,” the German pauses for a second, a flicker of disgust on his face. The interrogation continues. Walter found another take of Dafoe’s line, this one with more quaver in the voice, and decided to put it in again, a few seconds later. So Dafoe repeats his fear. And now time stops.

We see the look on the German. And now we know he has to do what he was previously just thinking about. To emphasize this, Murch, at that very moment, pulls all the sound out of the scene, so there is complete silence. And we, even if we don’t realize it as we sit in the theatre, are shocked and the reason is that quietness. Something terrible has been revealed by the spy, about his own nature, and now something terrible is going to happen.

Page xx

But sure, editing isn’t important enough to reward on the broadcast. Apparently Murch liked to quote French filmmaker Robert Bresson to the effect that a film is born three times – in the writing of the script, in the shooting, and in the editing. In the case of The English Patient, there was also a fourth, which was Ondaatje’s original novel. The above anecdote, about Murch injecting a repeated line that wasn’t in the script and wasn’t shot, is a good example of Bresson’s notion.

Willem Dafoe in The English Patient

In discussing a re-edit he did for Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, Murch makes a fascinating observation about the perceived length of a film:

M: … Linearity does sometimes present its own problems, however, particularly regarding a film’s perceived length. That was true with The Coversation, and The Talented Mr. Ripley as well. Those three films are told from the point of view of the central character: the Apostle, Harry Caul, Tom Ripley. FIlms with a single point of view are on borrowed time if they are more than two hours long. Since there’s only one point of view, there’s no relief if the audience is not one hundred percent with the film, and it can subsequently seem too long even if it isn’t objectively so.

O: When you say point of view, in terms of film, you’re talking about focusing on just one character –

M: In The Talented Mr. Ripley, everything the audience sees is either Tom Ripley or something Tom Ripley sees. There are no scenes where we go off with other characters – as is always happening in The English Patient, for instance, where you have a complex dance, different people with different attitudes to the same events. But Ripley is about Tom Ripley. Likewise The Apostle – there’s only the Apostle’s story.

O: And that’s deadly, you think?

M: No, no, it’s not deadly, it’s just that the clock runs faster with that kind of film, and unless there’s something wildly unusual or different about it, it’s better not to have those films be more than two hours long. The Conversation is only one hour, fifty-two minutes. Even then, some people think it’s too long. With more points of view, you can sustain that juggling act for longer, just because it’s richer and more complex. A symphony can be longer than a sonata.

Pages 33-34

Not so much editing, but more on framing:

I’ve never thought about it quite like that, but as I get older, I do seem to keep thinking that a given movie (or book) is too long. This sort of perception could certainly play a role, and I’ll have to keep it in mind.

It’s a rule, of course, that normally you never allow anyone to look into the camera unless you want to “break the frame” and have the characters directly address the audience, usually for laughs.

Yet in Apocalypse Now, you’re right, actors look into the camera quite often and it seems to integrate effortlessly into the flow of the film. … In that briefing scene where Willard gets his mission, the characters are looking straight at the camera when they talk to Willard. If they are doing that, the mathematically correct thing would be to have Willard looking at the camera too. Instead he’s looking to the left side of the lens, which is correct according to conventional film grammar. Yet you never feel the general is looking at the audience: you believe he’s looking at Willard. But when Willard finally does look at the camera, at the end of the scene, you feel he’s looking at us – at the audience – and thinking: Can you believe this?

Pages 70-71

Again, there’s not editing here because Coppola apparently never shot the scene in a conventional way, but it’s interesting nonetheless. It speaks to the collaborative nature of filmmaking though, and Murch has some interesting thoughts there too:

M: … How do you get 150 temperamental artistic types to work together on the same project, and make something that not only comes in on schedule, on budget, but that has an artistic coherence. It’s simply beyond the ability of a single person, a director or a producer, to cause that to happen by any series of direct commands. It’s so complicated that it just can’t be done. The question is: How does it happen?

If you’ve ever remodelled a house, you’ll know how difficult it is even to get four or five carpenters to agree on anything: billions of people have been building houses, for thousands of years – “houseness” should almost be encoded in our DNA. And yet when you remodel, it’s very common to go double over budget and schedule. By comparison, we’ve only been making films for a hundred years, and a film crew is made up of sometimes hundreds of people, yet somehow, miraculously, at the end of “only” a year, there is, one hopes, a wonderful, mysterious, powerful, coherent, two-hour-long vision that has no precedent – and the more original the vision, the more the process is amazing. And yet studios are furious with us if we go ten percent over budget and schedule!

Pages 84-85

As someone who is currently working on some large scale software development efforts, I can say there’s something similarly complicated going on there. It turns out that predicting effort, predicting the future, is kinda difficult, especially as a project grows in size and scope.

Murch also does a lot of sound editing, and there are similar dynamics at work:

M: … Not having music also gives the emotional effect of not cutting away.

When music makes an entrance in a film there’s the emotional equivalent of a cutaway. Music functions as an emulsifier that allows you to dissolve a certain emotion and take it in a certain direction. When there’s no music, the filmmakers are standing back saying, simply, Look at this. Without appearing to comment.

Page 103

One of the observations Murch and Ondaatje make about The Godfather is that the music almost always punctuates at the end of the scene.

The Godfather

For instance, the scene at the restaurant is mostly played quietly, without music, until the deed is done and Michael is walking away.

M: And also all this is predicated on Francis’s decision to not have music during the scene. In the hands of another filmmaker, there would be tension music percolating under the surface. But Francis wanted to save everything for those big chords after Michel’s dropped the gun. Even after he shoots, there’s silence, and in your mind you hear Clemenza saying, “Remember, drop the gun. Everyone will be looking at the gun, so they won’t look at your face.” So Michael shoots them and then there’s this moment of silence and then he drops the gun.

O: He doesn’t even drop it, he tosses it! It’s a much more extraordinary gesture than a subtle drop.

M: Yeah, as if to say: Look at this gun! The gun hits the ground, and then the music finally comes in. It’s a classic example of the correct use of music, which is a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than a device that creates the emotion. …

Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids. There’s no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music – just like steroids build up muscle. It gives you an edge, it gives you a speed, but it’s unhealthy for the organism in the long run.

Page 122

Music is often overused or used as a crutch for removing ambiguity from a scene and heightening the emotion, but ambiguity can be a good thing…

O: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk before about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

M: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or the actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix – even though it had been ambiguous up to that point – I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of haemorrhaging of the organism.

Page 105

In case you can’t tell, Murch is something of a renaissance man, and that comes out in these conversations, like this one about seiche tones:

M: I did think of an experiment which would be fascinating to do. To record the bell tone – the carillon, in fact – of San Francisco Bay. Every body of water – it doesn’t matter whether it’s a puddle or Lake Superior – has what they call a seiche tone. Even if you can’t see it, the water is vibrating, undulating at a resonant frequency that is keyed to the size of the body of water. San Francisco Bay I think has a seiche tone of one hour and forty three minutes. A wave will cross the bay and then come back in that time period. These are very large waves, undetectable by our normal senses.

On top of that are the waves – the chop – that we can see, and then little micro-waves that are just part of the texture of the water. If you set up a pole at some point in the bay, and has a laser beam that reflected off the surface of the water and continuously measured the distance between the tip of the beam and the surface of the water, you would be plotting a series of curves. You could print that out as a series of wave forms, like the record of an earthquake seismograph. One of the wave forms would be this big seiche tone, which would vary over a long period of time, hours. Others would be quicker and more obvious.

Now you can take that wave form and speed it up and render it audible as a series of tones. I don’t know what it would sound like, but the bay would have a (hums) tone. Then superimposed on that would be all these other tones of the smaller and smaller waves. It would be some kind of music.

Page 110

Jeeze, why didn’t I think of that?

M: … Renoir in particular was extremely interested in realistic sound. He went so far in one direction that he almost came around the other side. There’s a wonderful quote by him where he says that dubbing – replacing the original sound with something else – is an invention of the devil and that if such a thing had been possible in the thirteenth century, the practitioners would have been burned at the stake for preaching the duality of the soul!

Renoir felt that a person’s voice was an expression of that person’s soul, and that to fool around with it in any way was to do the devil’s work. The devil is frequently represented as having a voice at odds with what you see. In The Exorcist, the voice that the girl speaks with is not her own voice. This idea of devilry and duality and dubbing, there’s something to be explored there.

Page 113

I don’t think Renoir would have liked the Italian filmmaking of the 70s.

M: … At a certain point during the editing of The Godfather, Francis cut it down to two hours and twenty minutes. But it was clear it didn’t work at that length. Then, when we restored the length, somehow, having gone down so deep, it didn’t come back exactly to where it was before – we had learned things by going that far.

Page 130

Interesting how taking things to extremes can recontextualize the whole process and result in something better.

O: You developed a wonderful theory about editing a few years ago, in your book In the Blink of an Eye: that often the best place to cut from one shot to another coincides with the actor’s blinking, especially if the actor is good – since a blink naturally signals a closure to a thought.

M: From my early editing experiences I became convinced that there was a connection between the patterns of a person’s eye blinks and the patters of their thoughts. That blinks are the equivalent of mental punctuation marks – commas, periods, semicolons, et cetera – separating and thus providing greater articulation to our thoughts. I owe the equation Cut = Blink to the director John Huston – he put forth the idea in an interview with Louise Sweeney in the early 1970s.

The upshot of all this is that I believe the pattern of cuts in a film, to be at its best, needs to reflect or acknowledge the pattern of thoughts of the characters in the film – which ultimately means the thought patterns of the audience. In arranging the sequence of shots, the editor is in effect “blinking” for the audience, and the resulting cuts will seem most natural and graceful when they fall where the blink would fall in an exchange between two people in conversation.

Pages 141-142

This seems like the sort of thing most of us would notice subconsciously, but because an editor has such a difficult job, it has to be more conscious.

I’ll end this post here for now, but there’s plenty left in the book to cover, which I’ll save for next week….

Weird Movie of the Week: Witch Hunt

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we noshed on Champagne and Bullets. This time, we engage in a private-eye-led Witch Hunt:

Detective Philip Lovecraft lives in Los Angeles in the 1950s when an ambitious Senator is holding hearings, on Magic. Magic is the new influence in Tinsel Town. Lovecraft is unique in that he is the only one who refuses to use magic in his work. Shortly after he is hired, he finds his client, Kim Hudson, accused of the murder of her husband, a film executive. Philip uses the talents of a local witch, Kropotkin, to explain what is happening only to see her accused of the murder and sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Reminiscent of Roger Rabbit, without the toons.

It’s a made-for-HBO movie from 1994 (i.e. before they kicked off the whole prestige cable drama thing) that is directed by Paul Schrader, stars Dennis Hopper as Detective Lovecraft, and Penelope Ann Miller as the femme fatale. With music by Angelo Badalamenti. It’s a sorta sequel to Cast a Deadly Spell (directed by Martin Campbell and starring Fred Ward as the detective), which was actually a pretty fantastic mashup of 40s gumshoe noir and Lovecraftian horror.

Witch Hunt

By all accounts this sequel is not as good, but the frustrating thing about it is that it doesn’t appear to be available to watch anywhere (there’s a VHS on Amazon for $54). I know that movie productions are complicated legal constructs and that rights can get messy, but it was made specifically for HBO, how is it not on HBO Max? Well, you can watch Cast a Deadly Spell on HBO Max, so there is that (and I’d recommend it if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing).

A 4K Wish List

The recent release of the 4K Godfather Trilogy boxed set has prompted me to think of other movies from my 4K Wish List. I know it’s deeply uncool to be interested in physical media, the various competing formats for HDR, and so on, though I guess streaming services also benefit from 4K restorations and HDR (even if bitrates can’t really compete with physical, but there I go again with the uncool focus on technical details).

The Godfather Trilogy 4K Boxed Set

Anyway, physical media is clearly in a weird place right now. On the one hand, it’s clearly on the decline. The sheer convenience of streaming can’t be overcome by the marginally better quality of the image, and it makes sense. On the other hand, boutique physical media shops like Criterion, Arrow, Shout/Scream Factory, Vinegar Syndrome, Severin, Kino Lorber, and others are other here releasing special editions ranging from current releases to screen classics to the most obscure exploitation trash from the 70s and 80s that you’ve never heard of…

Even weirder, though, is that while you’ve got pristine, 4K UHD special editions with commentary tracks and other special features of something like Tammy and the T-Rex, lots of popular, classic movies don’t have anything nearly as impressive (please don’t interpret this as a slight against Tammy and the T-Rex, which is great and absolutely deserves the treatment…)

Up until a few weeks ago, The Godfather was #1 on my list, but they finally put out a release aligned with the 50th Anniversary and it looks fantastic. So what else am I pining for? Some of these are just generally unavailable, but some are infamous for having many double-dip releases and so on, so it’s weird that they haven’t made the leap to 4K.

  • The Terminator – This might be the movie I’ve seen the most times in my life, talking at least triple digits here. And yet, even the Blu-Rays that are available are the barest of bare-bones releases. James Cameron movies in general seem to be lagging behind in terms of releases. Aliens is also lacking 4K, though there are rumors that it’s coming sometime in 2022. I wouldn’t mind a 4K of The Abyss or, really, any of Cameron’s other movies. There is a 4K of Terminator 2, but they had done the restoration for a theatrical 3D release a while back, and so the colors are apparently all off from what it should be (and I hate 3D in general, so…) Still, if I could only choose one Cameron, it would be the original Terminator.
  • Pulp Fiction – And again, most of Tarantino’s catalog in general is missing from the 4K world, and I’d probably go for… all of it? I know Tarantino doesn’t want to do commentary tracks on his own movies (and I get it!), but they’re so infused with cinematic references that they could really benefit from one of them film historian commentaries that are common on a lot of these boutique physical media releases…
  • Heat – This was supposed to come out last year, but got delayed. It’s “in limbo, but is still expected to arrive on the format sometime” in 2022. Fingers crossed.
  • Star Wars – Duh. Of course, there are 4K releases of the trilogy, but not on physical media and they’re the whole Special Edition that no one likes.
  • Raise the Red Lantern – And once again, we have a director (Zhang Yimou) whose whole early filmography is largely absent from US releases. Indeed, even the old, poor quality DVDs are out of print and ridiculously expensive. I blame China, but hopefully someday we’ll get some Zhang releases…
  • Sleuth – As far as I know, the rights are all tied up by some gigantic pharmaceutical company who thinks the money to be gained by a release of a good movie like this is small potatoes (which, when compared to the multi-billion dollar drugs they make, is probably true). Not sure why they don’t just sell off their library of films that they have no interest in… (I believe this same company owns the rights to The Heartbreak Kid, which is why there’s no good release of that either).
  • The Driver – And yes, most of Walter Hill’s early filmography (there are some Region 2 Blu-Rays out there, but they’re not great). Dude’s got an interesting filmography, would be great for one of these boutique companies to resurrect. Who doesn’t want a 4K of Streets of Fire?

I’ll stop it here, but there’s tons of movies that could really benefit from that 4K bump in quality, and honestly, there’s lots of stuff (particularly foreign movies) that could just do with any release whatsoever.