Friday, December 31, 2004

What You Don't Need to See

It is odd, the things that will niggle at you. For the last few days I have been working, in the back of my head, at a theory I am calling "what you leave out". Lemme 'splain. We have been watching a lot of movies over the vacation, including HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Nothing in common, right? Well, not a whole lot, perhaps, except that both directors know when not to drag the watcher through a process that is implicit. I think this is a good thing.

William Goldman, in Adventures in the Screen Trade has a whole rant about the end of NBNW. About the end: it's a literal cliffhanger: Cary Grant is reaching to save his love interest, Eva Marie Saint, who is hanging off the face of Mt. Rushmore(!); a nasty spy has just grabbed the tschostke which contains vital microfilm, and is about to step on Grant's hand, sending him and Eva Marie plummetting. Meanwhile, the mastermind of the whole evil plan is just waiting to be reunited with the microfilm and then he's going to flee the country and menace America with the data. How long does it take to save Grant and the goil and America? And marry off Grant and Eva Marie and send them on their honeymoon? 43 seconds total.

A shot rings out, the spy drops to the ground, the tschotske breaks open disclosing the microfilm, there's a shot of the American forces--one sharpshooter who has clearly taken out the spy, plus a few others including the American spymaster--arresting the mastermind. Cary Grant has gotten a firmer handhold and is reaching to Eva Marie. She keeps saying, I can't; he keeps saying she can. Finally he says, "Come on, Mrs. Thornhill!" (Grant's character is Roger Thornhill). He pulls her up--into the upper berth of a sleeper car. They kiss, and in one of those heavyhanded 50s Freudian moments, their train goes into a tunnel, and THE END comes up.

What didn't we need to see there? Pretty much anything else. What, more James Mason spitting his defiance at the world? Cary Grant pulling Saint up, dusting off his clothes, and handing the microfilm over to the authorities? The wedding ceremony? Goldman says "I don't know of a more adroit ending to a film." Well, maybe. But he's certainly right that you don't need to see all that other stuff.

So, I was also watching HP3 with Younger Girl, and managed to sum up, to my own satisfaction, why it is far superior to the first two films. Again, toward the end, Harry and Hermione have gone back into time, saved Buckbeak the hippogriff, faced down dementors, and, flying on Buckbeak, head off to spring Sirius Black from prison. Buckbeak lands on top of a high tower where Black is imprisoned. They open the prison door, Black looks up, and the next thing you see is the three of them, Harry, Sirius, and Hermione, soaring away on Buckbeak. Similarly, the film ends, still at Hogwarts, with Harry getting a new high-tech broom and flying off into the air joyously.

What don't you see? Black greeting them with relief; Harry formally introducing Black to Buckbeak (hippogriffs are sticklers for protocol), all of them getting on to the hippogriff and flying away. And, at the end, the obligatory Everyone Gets off the Train in London scene (it works fine in the book) which has already been the finish of the last two HP films. The first two films, directed by Chris Columbus (of whose work I am not a fan) dwelled with stultifying literalness over every single scene in the books. Alfonso Cuaron, who directed HP3, cut some bits here and there--but the film moves where it should, and he tucks all sorts of details in the background without stopping to linger.

So now I'm on a mission to notice what does and doesn't need to be in the books I'm reading and the movies I'm seeing. In the hope, of course, that I can learn to leave out the things that don't need to be there in my own work.


Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

When we saw "The Return of the King" in the theatres, we discussed on the drive back the material (even then known to have run nearly an hour) that had been excluded and would presumably be added for the DVD. They included every adroit segue the film had.

In one scene, Aragorn & company win the support of the dead legions to go fight with them at the siege of Minas Tirith. Later, they show up on ships to help lift the siege. An easy guess: the extended version would include a scene in which they board those ships. (And it did.)

In the theatrical cut, the potato-complexioned orc battlemaster whom a friend wittily called Darth Tater disappears in the chaos of the rout; we never learn what happened to him. That's fine; we don't have to follow the fate of every minor character in battle. Except, just as I guessed, the extended version showed him getting his just deserts.

And so on. (Remember how the first battering ram failed to knock down the gate of Minas Tirith, so the orcs brought up the flaming wolf's-head Grond? In the extended version, we get the scene in which they decide to do so.) What a well-considered edit it was, eliminating all that fluff! And all of it was restored for the "complete" version.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

We haven't looked at the extended version yet--maybe this weekend. Are there additional scenes that add to the work, rather than expand it?

12:23 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

There are one or two.

An additional point. I read Joe Haldeman's recent novel Camouflage over the summer, a very intelligent and well-done SF thriller. There is a pulse-pounding climax, and the novel ends about a page later. It struck me that most writers would have added a short chapter as denouement, which would have explained, and dramatized, various already-made or easily inferred points. These Haldeman dealt with in a few well-hewn sentences.

I remember that I used to read (or at least skim) the SF novels of Debra Doyle and James Mcdonald. They were always identically structured, the structure of a made-for-TV movie (or a movie edited for television.) The climax would lead into the penultimate set of commercials (or for the books, a chapter break), and then there would be a last scene, set the next day or so, that would reprise and tie things up with a bow. In TV scripts this is called the Epilogue. Most movies have what is tacitly an Epilogue (and the networks would place those penultimate commercials at its start), and Macdonald would follow this exactly.

It was very impressive to see Haldeman's novel -- which told the reader everything, but only once -- slingshot away at the end instead of sitting us down for the rehash. Hitchcock also knew enough to do this; most hacks don't.

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Dave Smeds:

I made the mistake of reading the latest Robert Jordan novel, Book 10 of THE WHEEL OF TIME. 700 pages of nothing but cutting-room-floor material, with perhaps the exception of the final half of the last page of the last chapter (before the epilogue). The characters were all in the same situations and facing the same dilemmas at the end of the book that they'd been confronting at the beginning. One could quite easily go from the end of Book 9 to the beginning of (the forthcoming) Book 11 and be unaware of missing anything.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

There are a number of series books about which I often think, should have stopped with the last book. In some cases, should have stopped with the book before last. And yet I have heard the authors of some of these series say that they kept them going because they found they had "more to say." What, exactly, might that have been?

1:55 PM  
Blogger Ken Houghton said...

"My child needs to go to college."

7:56 AM  

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