Chekhov’s hunting rifle; Chekhov’s ornamental sword

We’ve talked about “Chekhov’s gun“–the rule in storytelling that when you show a gun early in a story, you have to use it before the end.  You’ve established expectations that need to be fulfilled.  We’ve also noticed its use in movies like Birdman.  Here are a couple more examples I’ve encountered recently.

Israel Horovitz is a well-known playwright who recently turned his play My Old Lady into a movie with Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Kline plays a bitter sad-sack who has been left a French apartment by his father, only to discover that it is inhabited by its elderly former owner and her daughter (Smith and Thomas).  Under a quirky French law, Kline not only can’t sell the apartment, he has to pay Smith a kind of reverse mortgage every month.  Drama, heartbreak, revelation, and resolution ensue. There is much talk of death and suicide.  And there is a hunting rifle, which Kline plays with early on in the movie. We wait patiently for the hunting rifle to make its next appearance. We are not disappointed.

The movie is not bad but not great.  Horovitz obviously knows how to construct a story.  But as is often the case, a good play doesn’t always make a compelling movie. Like many adaptations, this one felt claustrophobic and talky to me, and the basic situation and relationships among the characters felt contrived.  The ultimate hunting rifle scene is well-handled, though — it took place off-camera, so we don’t know what happened at first. Will this be a tragedy, or a comedy?

The other movie is Stolen Moments, a ridiculously bad silent movie that Rudolf Valentino made just before he became a star.  I could write about it in my intermittent series of post about writers in the movies, because Valentino plays “a Brazilian writer of novels in English,” according to the intertitles.  But really, it’s not worth it.  The storytelling is about as primitive as it can be, and that includes the use of Chekhov’s sword.  Valentino’s butler goes takes the sword down from the wall and goes after him in an unmotivated drunken rage.  Valentino easily disarms him and sends him packing.  And then puts the sword on the table, where it sits patiently awaiting the final, confused climax, when, of course, it will be used to better effect.

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No! Not an unreliable narrator!

In my post about first person narrative, I forgot to mention the sub-genre of unreliable first-person narrators.  In my misspent book-reading youth I was quite enamored of such contrivances, even though I’ve never bothered with them in my own writing.  An obvious example of an unreliable narrator is Huckleberry Finn, who often doesn’t quite understand the events or people he’s describing, so readers have to intuit what’s really happening.

But that’s pretty straightforward.  More interesting, to me at any rate, are narrators who at first seem to be reliable, but whom we gradually realize aren’t, thereby requiring us to reassess the entire story.  Just typing that sentence makes me want to re-read Nabokov’s Pnin and Pale Fire, which blew me away when I first read them decades ago.

I watch movies more than I read books nowadays (they’re shorter!), and unreliable narration seems to show up constantly in films and even in TV shows.  Mad Men does it all the time.  In last week’s episode (the first episode of the last half-season), we suddenly see one of Don’s old flames modeling a chinchilla coat for him.  We are never told that this didn’t actually happen–we just have to figure out what’s going on in reality and what’s going on in Don’s somewhat enigmatic imagination.

The one time I really didn’t expect unreliable narration was in Hitchcock’s movie Stage Fright.  This is a straightforward Hitchcock thriller, except for an early flashback that (spoiler alert) turns out to be a false version of a murder.

No! Not an unreliable narrator!

IMDB tells us that audiences were baffled and then enraged by this device, and I think I read somewhere that Hitchcock later called it the worst directorial decision he made in his career.  It certainly gives you a jolt.

As I said, I don’t do this sort of thing in my writing, but I find myself close to the Huckleberry Finn style of unreliable narration sometimes in The Portal and its sequel, both of which are narrated by a young teenager.  Sometimes, to be true to his character, he can’t be allowed to quite understand what’s going on.

I hope this doesn’t enrage my readers.

The Maysles Brothers and “Salesman”

The documentary film-maker Albert Maysles has died, and the media is awash in appreciations.  I’m no expert on documentaries, but the Maysles brothers’ first major film, Salesman, has haunted me ever since I first saw it.  It’s about four door-to-door Bible salesmen from the Boston area in the late 1960s.  They sell Bibles in a grimy Boston winter; they go to a Bible-selling convention in Chicago; they sell Bibles in Florida.  Gradually the film starts to focus on one of the salesmen, Paul Brennan, “The Badger”, who has lost his Bible-selling mojo.  We see him struggle; we see the other salesmen try to help him.  We yearn for him to succeed.

Here is the description of the movie from the Criterion web site:

A landmark American documentary, Salesman captures in vivid detail the bygone era of the door-to-door salesman. While laboring to sell a gold-embossed version of the Good Book, Paul Brennan and his colleagues target the beleaguered masses—then face the demands of quotas and the frustrations of life on the road. Following Brennan on his daily rounds, the Maysles discover a real-life Willy Loman, walking the line from hype to despair.

But, you know, Brennan isn’t really Willy Loman.  There is no dramatic ending to his story.  Nothing is resolved, because in real life, life just goes on.  But it all seems somehow indescribably weird and poignant at the same time.

Here is a brief scene from the movie on YouTube.

Isn’t that strange?  Why did the husband put on that awful version of “Yesterday”?  If he didn’t want his wife to buy the Bible, why didn’t he just say so?  Or did he just like his music loud?  I don’t get it, but it happened, and life goes on.

Part of Salesman‘s appeal for me, I suppose, is that I grew up in Boston (as did the Maysles) and I knew people like Paul Brennan and the other salesmen.  But there’s something universal about the movie–and something unforgettable, for me at least.  Their later movie Grey Gardens is much more famous and is also unforgettable, but that’s at least partially because of the over-the-top characters it focuses on.  In Salesman, the characters are as ordinary as you and me.  And forty years later, I still remember them.

My own Imitation Game

Went to see The Imitation Game, and it’s pretty good!  Alan Turing was, of course, a seminal figure in computer science, and his imitation game, or Turing Test, provides an interesting way of thinking about artificial intelligence.

It turns out that I include a Turing Test in my novel Replica.  Here’s the setup: After an assassination attempt, President Randall Forrester has ordered the kidnapping of brilliant scientist Shana York so that she can create an android replica of him to take his place at public events.  Now she is holding a Turing Test to see if Forrester’s frightened aide, George Hunt, can tell the difference between the real president and the fake one.  The scene begins with Forrester confronting his replica, and continues with the test.

The door opened, and Forrester stood there, grinning. The grin disappeared as his eyes met those of his replica. Shana felt the android’s hand slip from her shoulder.

They looked like twins reunited after a lifetime—except there was no joy on their faces, only a kind of frightened fascination. Neither spoke.

“Do you still want the test?” Shana asked after a while.

Forrester glanced at her irritably, as if she had intruded on Replica coversomething that didn’t concern her. He managed a cold smile. “Of course. I just felt like spending a quiet moment ahead of time with my friend here. I must say he’s a handsome fellow.”

“You should check out the size of his ego, too.”

The smile didn’t waver. “That’s precisely the sort of thing I will be checking out,” he said. He advanced into the room. Shana had been obsessed with the man for so long that it wasn’t even disconcerting to be in a room with two of him. There could have been a dozen Forresters, and they would only have seemed natural projections of her state of mind.

Forrester went right up to the android, reached out a hand, and stroked his jaw. The android didn’t move. “He came from a scraping they took of the inside of my cheek,” Forrester said. “Is that a miracle or an obscenity? Both, undoubtedly. How does it feel to be an obscenity, my friend?”

The android didn’t reply.

Forrester looked at Shana. “What is he, the village idiot? That’s not the way I would act if someone insulted me.”

“He does what I tell him to do,” Shana responded. “If you want him to act like you, I’ll tell him to.”

“I see.” He turned back to the android. “If Ms. York told you to jump headfirst out the window, would you do it?”

The android slowly nodded.

Forrester laughed. “Ever get the temptation, Ms. York?”

“Yes, but I manage to remind myself that he isn’t you.”

“Of course. You know, I had you pegged from the start, Ms. York. But enough. Why don’t you run ahead while I make sure my friend’s tie is knotted properly and his hair is combed just like mine. I’m dying to find out how well George does in picking out his boss.”

Shana didn’t like leaving the android alone with Forrester, but that was stupid; soon enough she hoped to leave him for good. “All right. When you get downstairs, Randall,” she said to the android, “you are the president. Understood?”

“Understood.”

Shana left them and went down to the hot, dusty parlor where Hunt was sitting in a wing chair covered with a graying sheet. “A few minutes,” she said.

He nodded, and they waited in silence.

When the two of them finally came downstairs, Shana could feel Hunt become tense. Twice as many Forresters to be afraid of. She tried to pick out the real one. She couldn’t. “Well, George, are you ready?” one of them said. “Be careful, your job depends on this.”

The other one said, “That was clever. That was really clever.”

The first one’s smile faded a little. “Don’t patronize me, you zombie.”

“Oh, I get it—you pretend you’re me losing my temper. Too facile. You’ll have to do better than that.”

The first Forrester swiped at the dirty sheet covering the couch and sat down. “I don’t see why we have to do this in filth,” he muttered. “Come on, George. We’ll stop bickering if you ask us something penetrating and clever.”

Shana turned to Hunt. He looked as if he were about to become ill.

“Come on, George,” Forrester-standing-up said. “We can’t spend the entire campaign here.”

“Tell me about our education policy in the second administration,” Hunt offered.

“Oh, George, how dull. You helped write the plank, of course. For one thing, we’re going to propose a stiff tax on automated equipment designed to replace humans. We’ll use those funds to establish retraining programs for laid-off workers. We’ll also provide bonuses and other incentives for people who retrain as teachers. That way, we’ll provide both a disincentive for layoffs and a boost for education.”

“He could’ve got that answer out of The New York Times, George,” Forrester-on-the-couch remarked. “You and I know what we’re really up to. These disincentive laws are just window dressing. If we get the kind of majorities in Congress we expect—”

“I see the game,” Forrester-standing-up interrupted. “Take whatever I say and go it one better. Why don’t you ask him a question and let me act smug and superior.”

“Don’t interrupt me,” the other one said. “I don’t allow zombies to interrupt me.”

Forrester-standing-up turned on Shana, the veins in his forehead bulging. “Is that all you’ve managed to accomplish here—to teach this thing how to insult me?”

“Bravo!” the seated Forrester shouted. “What you’ve actually taught him is a good imitation of me with my dignity wounded.”

“Oh, now you’ve got him judging my performance.” He mopped his brow. “Come on, George. The test is over. Surely you can make up your mind by now.”

“Now he’s acting decisive and presidential, George. ‘The war is over and I’ve won.’ Notice that the creature still hasn’t shown that it knows anything. Keep going, George. Ask obscure questions. Probe. You can do it.”

“I can’t,” Hunt said softly.

“What’s the problem, George?”

“Don’t let him browbeat you, George.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, George.”

Hunt looked at Shana. “I can’t stand any more,” he said.

“You don’t know which is which?”

He shook his head. “Do you?”

“No.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” they both shouted in unison.

Shana walked behind the two Forresters, who both turned and glared at her. She put her hands behind each one’s head. When she touched the one who was seated, he suddenly smiled, and she smiled back. She gave a slight tug, and he slumped forward. She held out the cartridge to the one who was standing up. “Here you are, Mr. President,” she said. There was the slightest emphasis on the word you.

The room was silent. Forrester ignored the proffered cartridge. Shana stood behind the android, her free hand on his shoulder. He was soaked with sweat, and so was she.

Then Forrester started to laugh, so loud the furniture seemed to vibrate with his merriment. “You really couldn’t tell, could you, George?”

Hunt shook his head.

“Well, the joke’s on me, obviously. Fifty-four years of developing a personality, and here Ms. York comes along in a few months and duplicates it. What do you think of that, George?”

“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“Oh, absolutely, I’m delighted. Congratulations, Ms. York.”

Shana didn’t respond.

“Suddenly modest, are we? Most commendable. Anyway, you’ve done it. So let’s get started, shall we, George?”

“Right away?”

“Why not? Let the android give that damn speech in St. Louis tonight. What’s after that?”

“Breakfast meeting in Atlanta, news conference at the White House.”

“I should do the news conference, I suppose. I can come back here for the substitution, and you can update me on what went on. Any problem with that?”

Hunt shrugged and looked at Shana. “Can you get him ready?”

Shana breathed deeply. “It’ll take a while. I’ll have to implant some memories to give him a reason for being here. Any ideas?”

“Oh, George brought me here to check the place out for campaign strategy sessions,” Forrester suggested. “Can you make him believe that?”

“If you give me some time.”

“Yes, well, George will wait for you. I have better things to do.”

“And afterwards I’m free to leave?”

“Oh, of course. I’m sure George has worked it all out. And, Ms. York, let me just say how much I’ve enjoyed our little meetings.”

“You’re too kind,” Shana replied. She bent down and reinserted the cartridge in the android’s skull. “Let’s go upstairs,” she murmured to him.

“And don’t jump out any windows, my friend,” Forrester added. “I need you.”

The android ignored him and followed Shana.

Okay, it’s not exactly the way Turing imagined it.  But, hey, it’s a novel!

The New York Times proclaims “Love, Actually” a Christmas classic

I guess this is my annual Love, Actually post.  The New York Times  ran an article recently contemplating which recent holiday movies were classics.  And Love, Actually makes the cut:

The director Richard Curtis fills the cast with nearly every great British actor, and they make even ridiculous moments — Mr. Grant’s dancing to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (for My Love)” through 10 Downing Street — seem like master classes.

Thanks to the way-back machine that is the Internet, we can see what the Times had to say about the film back in 2003, when it first came out.  You don’t see reviews of major movies much worse than this one:

”Love Actually” is a patchwork of contrived naughtiness and forced pathos, ending as it began, with hugging and kissing at the airport (where returning passengers are perhaps expressing their relief at being delivered from an in-flight movie like this one). The loose ends are neatly tied up, as they are when you seal a bag of garbage — or if you prefer, rubbish.

Yikes. (Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 63%, slightly over the line from rottenness. Audiences like it much better, coming in at 73%.)

Speaking of hugging and kissing at the airport, the latest episode of The New Girl features the cast at the airport heading to various places for the holidays. It plays a cover of “God Only Knows” at one point as it cuts from character to character, clearly a reference to the soundtrack of Love, Actually.  Does a movie become a classic when a sitcom pays homage to it?

“Birdman” and Chekhov’s Gun

Birdman has gotten great reviews for its acting and its zippy direction.  Underneath the long tracking shots and the magic realism, though, it’s a pretty standard backstage drama, the kind that would not have seemed out of place in the 1930s.  There’s the aging movie star risking everything to gain legitimacy by directing and starring in a Broadway play.  There’s the backstage romantic tension.  There’s the jaded New York Times critic, writing her reviews in longhand on a barstool.  There’s the ex-wife, the rehabbing daughter, the long-suffering lawyer . . .

And there’s even a pretty straightforward example of Chekhov’s gun.

Spoiler alert, I guess.

In the final scene of the play that the movie star (Michael Keaton) is staging, he is supposed to aim a gun at another actor (Edward Norton).  At one of the preview performances, Norton, who is a talented jerk, complains to Keaton that the gun isn’t real enough; he can’t react appropriately to a toy gun.  End of scene.

Well, you can’t really have a character complain that a gun doesn’t look real enough without bringing this back into the plot in a big way, can you?

It’s opening night.  Norton has been sleeping with Michael Keaton’s daughter.  Keaton is being sued by an actor he dropped from the play. The Times critic has guaranteed to Keaton that she’s going to give the play a terrible review, no matter how good it is.   Things can’t get any worse for him.  We see him backstage before the final scene, loading a real gun . .

The plot device is hackneyed, but the movie actually does a clever job of playing against our expectations.  The thing worked for me, even as I said to myself: Ah, come on . . .

Actually, I’d have enjoyed the movie even without the tracking shots and Keaton flying through the air above Manhattan.

Writers in movies: The Romantic Englishwoman

Another in a random series.

The Romantic Englishwoman is a 1975 movie with A-list credentials: it stars Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson, it’s co-written by Tom Stoppard, and it’s directed by Joseph Losey (who also directed Accident and The Go-Between).  I love Tom Stoppard, but I hated this movie.

Caine plays a successful novelist and screenwriter; Jackson is his do-nothing, dissatisfied wife.  They have a beautiful kid, a beautiful house, beautiful friends, a nanny, but, well, you know.  Jackson goes off to Baden Baden for reasons she can’t articulate.  Caine is insanely jealous.  She comes home and in turn is jealous of him and the nanny.  He decides to write a screenplay about all this.  He invites the good-looking drug dealer she met in Baden Baden (Helmut Berger) to stay with them, basically trying to stage-manage his screenplay.  There are complications.  Jackson runs off with the drug dealer; Caine goes in pursuit.  They get back together again, in an abrupt ending that neither my wife and I understood in the slightest.  But perhaps that’s because we had long since stopped caring.  (By the way, that sexy poster has nothing much to do with the movie, although Jackson does have a brief, weird nude scene.  It’s kind of depressing to think that she’s now 78.  We should all stay young and gorgeous forever!)

You can see that intelligent people were behind the movie.  It’s about fiction mirroring reality (or maybe vice versa), and it seems like half the shots in the film involve showing someone’s reflection in a window or a mirror.  The plot has the makings of a thriller (the drug dealer is being pursued by bad guys), but the movie shrugs this off in favor of baffling deep meanings.  (And the Caine character tells his producer that he doesn’t want to write a thriller.)  But the movie didn’t bother making anyone even slightly sympathetic, so I just wasn’t interested in the deep meanings.

Caine’s character isn’t particularly interesting.  He’s a selfish jerk, which is of course entirely accurate for a writer, but we don’t get any sense of why he’s so successful, what makes him tick, or how he writes.  I can think of a couple dozen Michael Caine movies that I enjoyed more.  And virtually anything else by Tom Stoppard.