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Understanding Screenwriting #10: Synecdoche, New York, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #10: Synecdoche, New York, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Synecdoche, New York; Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist; The Rape of Europa; Elizabeth:The Golden Age; Till the End of Time; 30 Rock; ER; Desperate Housewives; Mad Men, but first…

Fan Mail: Maura had the same problem with the character of Sidney in Rachel Getting Married that I did. Here are some of the reasons why. After I wrote the item on the film, I came across an interview with the director Jonathan Demme in which he talked about how the actors were allowed to improvise. Generally one should discount by 10% any claim by directors or actors that they improvised, and also realize that usually the worst scenes in a movie are those that actors are improvising in. Demme mentioned that he originally wanted Paul Thomas Anderson to play Sidney, but Anderson was busy directing There Will Be Blood. The character and his family were not originally written as black and while it might be considered a very liberal thing not to mention it at all in the film, it is also not particularly realistic and, as in this case, robs the characters of texture and depth.

Theoldboy took me to task for not mentioning Dennis Hopper’s long monologue at the opening of the Crash pilot. As I said in my first column, I am going wide, not deep, so there will be aspects of the scripts that will be left out. But I figure part of what I am doing here is trying to get you thinking about the writing of films and televisions shows, which I obviously did in theoldboy’s case. Yeah for me.

Synecdoche, New York(2008. Written by Charlie Kaufman. 124 minutes): You would think that since 8 ½ is one of my two all-time favorite movies and that since I like (but not love as much as some other people do) Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays, I would love or at least like Synecdoche, New York. You would be wrong.

The film’s story is simple. Yes it really is. Small-time stage director Caden Cotard’s wife leaves him and with the help of a McArthur “genius” grant he tries to stage a representation of his life. 8 ½ is even simpler: Guido Anselmi is trying to get over a creative block and direct a movie. Whereas 8 ½ is fast, funny, and light on its feet, Synecdoche, New York is none of those things. Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Brunello Rondi have created a wonderful gallery of characters for their story. Kaufman has not. Caden mopes around before his wife leaves, and he mopes around after she leaves, and Kaufman has not given Philip Seymour Hoffman any other notes to play. Caden’s wife Adele is also a one-note character, and Catherine Keener cannot do anything more with her than whine. Kaufman has given Samantha Morton maybe two notes to play as Hazel, which makes her stand out a bit from the others. It just gets to be a pain hanging out with these characters. Think of the lively characters in previous Kaufman films and you will see what I mean about this group.

The storytelling is very lethargic. It takes almost half an hour before Adele leaves, and almost as long again for Caden to come up with his idea for a show. Then the mechanics of putting on Caden’s “show” bog down the film even further. Yes, this is supposed to be slightly surreal (and it is not surreal enough), but the “genius” grants do not carry enough money to mount the kind of production Caden is doing. Not only does Synecdoche, New York suffer in comparison to 8 ½, but also in comparison with Bob Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthur’s 8 ½ ripoff, All That Jazz, where we get a lot of details, artistic, personal, and financial, about putting on a show. What both the earlier films do and what Synecdoche, New York fails to do is to give you a sense of the joys as well as the agonies of creation. If creative work was as dreary as Kaufman makes it out to be, nobody would be doing it.

It probably would not make a lot of difference if the film had a different director, but Kaufman certainly does not help his own script. He makes the basic rookie mistake most people do when they direct their first feature: he lets the actors talk too slowly. It may look realistic on the set, but it seems slow on film. It also kills the comic rhythm, as in the scene with the doctor who keeps saying “No.” I think if the playing were goosed up a little bit, it might be funny. Kaufman the director does not have as much of an interesting visual style as the directors who have shot his previous scripts, which drags down the film even more. The script is not good enough for the repetitive two-shots and close-ups Kaufman uses. Sometimes writers should not be allowed to direct. Hopefully, since Kaufman is a smart as well as talented fellow, he will do better in the future both as writer and director. I, for one, hope so.

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist(2008. Screenplay by Lorene Scafaria, based on the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. 91 minutes): In my last column (US#9), I wrote about how we decide to go to see a particular film. That is an issue with this film as well.

My wife and I saw the trailer for this and thought it looked cute. We are great fans of Michael Cera, who plays Nick, from Arrested Development and Juno. On the other hand, it was hardly aimed at our demographic, and how much contemporary music could we listen to without going deaf? The reviews were reasonably good, but still. Then one review caught my eye, since it mentioned something none of the trailers, ads, or other reviews had bothered to mention. While Nick is straight, the two other members of his band are gay. And apparently no big deal was made of it in the film. So how does the film handle that? Very well, thank you, mainly by not making a big deal out of it. It is just a given that everybody in the film accepts, and it appears the audiences are accepting it as well.

There is more to the film than that. It is only 90 minutes long and does not overstay its welcome. But beyond the question of length, it is a beautifully proportioned movie. Scafaria has balanced the characters so that this is not just Nick’s story, but also Norah’s story. Both are given full development as characters, within the limitations of the romantic dramedy structure. The supporting characters are nicely drawn, both gay and straight. No scene runs longer than it needs to, and Scafaria balances the Nick and Norah dialogue scenes with virtually silent scenes of Norah’s drunk friend Caroline staggering around New York.

The script is also good at giving the actors scenes to play. It would have been easy, and lazy, just to set up Nick as another of Michael Cera’s baffled adolescents. In films like Juno and Superbad he is the straight man to the other wacky characters. Here Scafaria has given him more to do, and Cera responds with his best and most varied performance. He is still using his deadpan look, but using it as effectively as Buster Keaton used his. And it turns out Cera has a killer smile when he needs it; not a Julia-Roberts-twenty-million-dollars-a-picture dazzler, but one that is right for the character. Scafaria’s Caroline is a wonderful opportunity for the fearless Ari Gaynor, especially in her toilet scene, which I will not spoil for you. And Scafaria realizes that Nick’s yellow Yugo is a major character in the film, so it gets its own star entrance scene.

Scafaria also balances the script with details that we only learn slowly over the course of the film. Norah, unlike Nick and his Yugo, is introduced slowly. When Norah brushes past a doorman at a club, I assumed it was just efficiency on the part of the filmmakers. But when she keeps doing it, we suspect there may be more to it. Look at how long into the picture it takes before we find out about her background. Scafaria also can be delightfully misleading. Late in the picture, a recording system is left on and we assume it means somebody will hear what is being recorded. Guess again. The bit’s payoff is funny and charming, as well as something that I am sure helped the film keep a PG-13 rating.

And kudos also to the sound mixers: the music was not too loud.

The Rape of Europa(2006. Written by Richard Berge and Bonnie Cohen and Nichole Newnham, based on the book The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas. 117 minutes): This documentary played brief theatrical runs earlier this year and is now out on DVD. It is also scheduled to be shown on PBS in November, so you have no excuse for missing it.

As the subtitle of Nicholas’s book pretty much tells you, this is about the efforts of the Allies to protect the art treasures of Europe during the Second World War. From a writing point it is particularly interesting because of its main line of development. In order to break through the German lines at Cassino in Italy in early 1944, the Allies bombed the monastery on Monte Cassino. There was an outcry over this, and the Allies became determined to do what they could to protect the treasures of Europe. Several months later, for example, the bombing of the German rail lines in Florence became a precision bombing raid that destroyed the rail lines without hurting anything else. As the film progresses, the steps by the Allies to protect what they can get more and more complex. And the issue becomes even more difficult as they discover how much art the Nazis have looted and hidden. Some documentaries just dribble off after they have made their main points. This is a film that gets more interesting and compelling the longer it goes on. It is one of the few films, either fiction or documentary, that I wanted to be longer. What happened then? What did we do next? I suppose they had to stop somewhere, but as the film makes clear, the story is still going on.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age(2007. Written by William Nicholson and Michael Hirst. 114 minutes): This is another one I missed in theatres and picked up on HBO.

Officially this is the sequel to the good 1998 film Elizabeth, but it is more an unofficial remake of the 1955 costumer The Virgin Queen. In that potboiler, the Queen is enchanted by Sir Walter Raleigh, who falls in love with one of her ladies-in-waiting. Much yelling ensues, since Elizabeth is played by Bette Davis.

I get the feeling that Elizabeth: The Golden Age may have started out as something different. The 1998 Elizabeth was about her coming to power, and the current film focuses to a large degree on her dealing with the threat of Mary of Scotland and the Spanish Armada. The most interesting plot elements involve her and her Chief of Homeland Security, Sir Francis Walsingham, trying to outwit Mary and her Spanish supporters. The potentially best scene in the script, which is unfortunately rushed over, is Walsingham realizing he has played right into the hands of the Spanish. Which means the Big Finish of the film is the Brits beating the Spanish Armada.

So what does all that have to do with Sir Walter Raleigh and his girlfriend? Not a damned thing. But the film spends more time than it should on the love “triangle,” which means that when we get down to dealing with Armada, the film implies that Raleigh was deeply involved in the battle. Sir Francis Drake, the real genius behind the battle, is reduced to not a lot more than a walk-on. I suppose people with no knowledge of the actual events won’t care, but for some of us…

It’s just like the old days in Hollywood. Darryl F. Zanuck was producing the 1935 biopic Cardinal Richelieu. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had Zanuck hire Cameron Rogers as an historical advisor. When Rogers objected to something as historically wrong, Zanuck thought for a minute and said, “Aw, the hell with you. Nine out of ten people are going to think he’s Rasputin anyway.”

Till the End of Time(1946. Screenplay by Allen Rivkin, based on the novel They Dream of Home by Niven Busch. 105 minutes): And this rarity was one I picked up on Turner Classic Movies.

This 1946 movie is about three GIs returning home after the end of the war, and one of them is dealing with artificial limbs he acquired after being wounded in combat. No, it is not The Best Years of Our Lives, which came out a few months later and won critical praise and a pile of Academy Awards.

Till the End of Time is the working class version of Lives, a little grittier and less sentimental. Cliff Harper ends up with a job in a factory, and William Tabeshaw loses the money he was saving to buy a ranch to some gamblers. The big finish is not a wedding as in Lives, but a brawl in a bar that would have felt right at home in a B western. Rivkin’s script has some nice characterization and some lovely moments, such as Cliff’s homecoming. He had hoped to surprise his parents, but they are out when he arrives. So he simply walks around the house, looking at everything he obviously remembers from growing up there. That’s a lovely idea for a scene, but it does not work here. Edward Dmytryk was not the director William Wyler was, but then who was? Dmytryk’s problem is that Cliff, the lead in the film, is played by Guy Madison, at the beginning of his career. He had been spotted by David O. Selznick and put into a small part in Since You Went Away. He was a great looking guy and effective in that part, but he has neither the emotional or vocal expressiveness to carry a lead in his second film. He is rather blank-faced and we don’t really get what he is feeling about the house. Look at Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath sorting through her family heirlooms to see what this scene should have been.

Madison later improved a bit and went on to star in westerns on television and in the movies, where his limited acting talent was obscured by horses, guns, cowboys, and Indians. Here he has scenes with Dorothy McGuire and Robert Mitchum, both early in their careers, and they blow him off the screen. Bill Williams, who also later went on to star in westerns, plays the vet with the artificial legs and he brings a real edginess to the part. Even more that Oscar-winner Harold Russell, a real wounded vet, did to his similar role in Lives.

Till the End of Time was produced by Dore Schary, who mentions it only in passing in his memoir. Schary was a nice guy. Samuel Goldwyn produced Lives. Sometimes you need a real son of a bitch as producer to protect the script.

30 Rock(2008. Episode “Do-over” written by Tina Fey. 30 minutes): A Sweeps episode. And also the season opener.

I am writing this on the morning of November 4th, but by the time you read this, you will probably know if Tina Fey is going to have to continue her brilliant Sarah Palin impression for another four years or not. As much as I love the impression—I think Fey does Palin better than Palin does—on the basis of this season opening episode of 30 Rock, I really want her back doing serious work on 30 Rock.

One brief digression on Fey as Palin before I get into the episode. Did anyone else find the opening sketch of the November 1st Saturday Night Live as extraordinary as I did? Here was John McCain making fun of himself and his campaign, which he was good at, having had a lot of practice with Leno and Letterman. But here also was Fey’s devastating parody of his running mate, which, along with Palin’s own ineptitude, has done a lot to hurt McCain’s campaign. Had McCain given up on the campaign by then, or did he really think he was going to pull it out, which may happen? Or was he so irritated at being saddled by the conservatives with a running mate who was losing him votes that he was perfectly willing to be a part of satirizing her “going rogue”? Can you imagine any other presidential candidate in your lifetime going on television to satirize his own running mate three days before the election? Well, as everybody said, this was an historic election.

Ah yes, 30 Rock. You remember how they used to say that Seinfeld was a show “about nothing”? It was not. Each episode was incredibly densely packed. Watch an episode and then try to explain the plot of it to somebody. It ain’t easy. 30 Rock has finally hit that peak with this episode. It brings back Jack from his job in Washington and gets him his old job back. In other words, another of those “We have to clean up last season’s cliffhanger and get things back to normal” plotlines. Here it goes by so quickly you don’t have time to think about it. The main plot of the episode is Liz dealing with Bev, a woman from an adoption agency. Liz wants to adopt, which will be a running storyline throughout the season. Bev inspects Liz’s work environment and gets knocked out by nunchucks. Where did they come from? That’s a whole other plotline. Bev loses her memory and Liz gets a do-over at the office. The gags here come from what we know by the beginning of the third season about these characters. So does the do-over work? Not a chance.

The show is touting its upcoming guest stars, but they could tout the writing.

ER (2008. Episode “Haunted” written by Karen Maser. 60 minutes): A Sweeps episode.

Time to bring back another character and get rid of him. In this case it is Dr. Ray Barnett, a doctor who had an affair with Neela that did not end well, to put it politely. He walked out into the street and lost his legs in an accident. He now shows up, having been off for a year doing rehabilitation medicine in Baton Rouge, mostly dealing with veterans. (Make up your own connection to Till the End of Time). What we get are some nice scenes with Ray and Neela, although Maser is going more for the soap opera elements than she really needs to. At least Ray and Neela part as friends. He does not get blown up or have a helicopter dropped on him. We have a lot of people to say goodbye to and a little restraint is appreciated.

Desperate Housewives (2008. Episode “There’s Always a Woman” written by John Paul Bullock. 60 minutes): A Sweeps episode.

Desperate Housewives is finally getting back into the groove in this episode. Mrs. McCluskey decides to hide out with her sister, Roberta, giving them a great scene in the hospital where Mrs. McCluskey makes the proposition. Roberta is even more of a loose cannon than Mrs. McCluskey is, which promises to be fun, especially since Roberta is played by Lily Tomlin, who has great chemistry with Kathryn Joosten.

Susan and Jackson make an attempt to start from scratch in a lovely little scene in which they talk on cellphones with him outside her window.

Carlos inadvertently gives one of the women at the club an orgasm while he massages her. She asks him to accompany her on a trip to Europe, apparently not aware he knows what he has done. Gabby objects until the woman, Mrs. Hildebrand, suggests taking Gabby along too, since they will be looking at fashion shows. It sounds relatively innocent, until a look on Mrs. Hildebrand’s face suggests otherwise. She is played, after all, by Frances Conroy, Ruth Fisher from Six Feet Under, and you do not bring in somebody that high powered just to waste them in a nice little old lady part.

And best of all is Lynette’s assumption that Tom is having an affair with Anne Schilling, a real estate woman who is also the mother of one of her kid’s classmates. We think he is too, or else that Dave is setting him up. What we and Tom discover that Lynette does not is that it is their son Porter having the affair. MILF, indeed. And is Lynette eventually going to find out? Probably. But will she feel guilty because Porter is the one she was flirting with on-line in a previous episode…

So, nice scenes and great setups for future episodes. Can’t beat that.

Mad Men(2008. Episode “Meditations on an Emergency” written by Matthew Weiner & Kater Gordon. 50 minutes): This was the season finale, and I wish I’d liked it more.

It is October 1962 and we get the Cuban Missile Crisis, complete with one of Kennedy’s television speeches. Everyone is worried about the possibility of nuclear war, and the episode captures the feeling of fear of the time. I was on the East Coast then, and it seemed like old times. But putting that against the possible sale and/or disintegration of SC seemed rather obvious, especially in the scenes with the “guys” in the office trying to find out what was going on. The “guys” did not seem as well-defined as they usually are.

Don finally returned to SC, but he and everybody there seemed remarkably casual about his absence. And he did not seem in any particular hurry to catch up on his work. And he seemed, at least a first, to have almost no response to the news of the sale. One would have expected, given the level of writing and acting on this show, that we would see something that would tell us that he was at least thinking about it.

Betty learns that she is pregnant, and deliberating disobeying the doctor’s orders, goes horseback riding. We know why she is doing it: she doesn’t want the baby. A little, but not enough, is made of her considering an abortion. Keep in mind that abortion was illegal then, Roe v. Wade eleven years in the future. More could have been done with this.

Peggy finally tells Pete that she had his baby. He is of course shocked. It is a good scene, but not a great one. Matthew Weiner, in an interview in the Los Angeles Times the morning the episode ran, said of the scene and Elizabeth Moss’s performance, “We’ve given her the best scene of her career.” It was not. It never gets under the surface of the scene the way the best of the Mad Men scenes do.

When Weiner and the writers are on the money, they make it look easy. It’s not, especially on a show like this that depends on nuance and detail. As an example of how difficult it is, look at the Mad Men parody on Saturday Night Live the night before the episode ran. Even though they had Jon Hamm, John Slattery, and Elizabeth Moss, the parody still did not work. To do Mad Men or even a parody of it right, the writers have to bring their best game.

Well, there is always next season.

I did not find out, by the way, until well after I had written this, that Andrew Johnston, who did the wonderfully detailed episode recaps of Mad Men for The House Next Door, had died. Unlike many of the people who commented on Matt Zoller Seitz’s season wrap, I did not know Johnston, but I followed his pieces on this show religiously. Like one of those commenting, I found myself asking why there suddenly were not any pieces from him. Now I know. But in keeping with Matt’s suggestion that we should talk about the show rather than Andrew, let me point out that it is one of the few shows on television that can stand up to the kind of extraordinary intellectual analysis that Andrew gave it. Yes, you can talk about the mythology of Lost and Heroes, but Mad Men demands the kind of thinking about that Andrew gave it. He and his insights will be missed.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch

There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.

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Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch

“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.

The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”

Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.

There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”

The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.

The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.

There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”

And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.

In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.

This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”

John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

Our most-read articles of 2018 comprise pretty much everything we do best.

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018
Photo: Rockstar Games

Like last year, it wasn’t the most highly praised or viciously excoriated film, album, or TV show that garnered the most attention among Slant readers in 2018. It was a so-called “average” star rating of a video game that led to our most-read—or, rather, looked at—article of the year. More predictably, lists proved to be increasingly popular, particularly among cinephiles. Aside from a few pieces that didn’t make the cut—like our career-spanning interview with Jodie Foster and our five-star review of Synapse Films’s Blu-ray restoration of the original Suspiria—this list comprises pretty much everything we do best. Alexa Camp
 

The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

10. The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.” Budd Wilkins

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

9. Album Review: Mariah Carey’s Caution

At a mere 10 tracks, Caution is Mariah’s leanest album in 25 years. With the exception of the formulaic “With You,” which sounds like an outtake from E=MC2, the R&B and adult contemporary-style ballads that launched (and re-launched) her career have been largely replaced here by textured, midtempo grooves. Caution feels like the album Mariah has wanted to make all along: one that throws caution to the wind and sees her embracing her inner weirdo. And, ironically, it took her ending up back at Sony Music to do it. Sal Cinquemani

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

8. Game Review: Far Cry 5

With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister. Justin Clark

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

7. All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

6. Film Review: Aquaman

The best point of comparison for Aquaman is Black Panther, another superhero movie about a king of a forgotten realm reclaiming his throne. But whereas Ryan Coogler’s surprisingly affecting superhero film restored weight to both the choreography and the drama of the genre, Aquaman remains adrift, so much fantasy flotsam and jetsam floating before our eyes. Pat Brown

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

5. The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

4. Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War

What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, err, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. Keith Uhlich

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

3. TV Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes. Michael Haigis

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

2. Every Pixar Movie Ranked from Worst to Best

If The Incredibles was essentially a superhero riff on male mid-life crisis, Incredibles 2 primarily concerns male anxiety about women taking over traditionally masculine roles. Brad Bird’s film also touches heavily on the uncertainty and doubt that many women feel about pursuing their dreams at the expense of spending time with their families. These are weighty topics to pursue in an animated action-comedy, and Bird, with a light tone and deft touch, manages to give them their due. This is a fleeter, funnier film than the original, and the director gets considerable comedic mileage out of Jack-Jack’s wild capriciousness, as evidenced by Incredibles 2‘s single most hilarious sequence, in which the baby uses its multifarious abilities—fire, lasers, multiplying, turning into a gremlin—to battle a feral raccoon just for the hell of it. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Keith Watson

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

1. Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2

For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable. Scaife

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Top 10 Radiohead Music Videos

To celebrate Radiohead’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we take a look back at the group’s best and most innovative music videos.

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Top 10 Radiohead Music Videos
Photo: Alex Lake/Nasty Little Man

Twenty-five years ago, the world was introduced to Radiohead by way of their debut single, “Creep.” Thom Yorke and company may have soured to their very first modern rock hit, but as we said in our list of the Best Singles of the 1990s, for which the song ranked at #37, “Creep” is rivaled only by “Every Breath You Take” as the ultimate kind-of-obsessive/kind-of-romantic crush anthem, with guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s perfectly timed blasts of electricity turning it from slightly creepy to threatening. The track peaked on the Billboard pop chart in September of 1993, a full year after its initial release, and Radiohead would go on to become one of the most influential bands in rock history. To celebrate the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we take a look back at their best and most innovative music videos.

Editors’ Note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2013.

10. “Burn the Witch” (Dir: David Mould). “Stand in the shadows/To the gallows/This is a round-up,” Thom Yorke cautions at the start of “Burn the Witch,” with all the paranoia and politically shaded intrigue we’ve come to expect from the Radiohead frontman. Directed by Chris Hopewell, the music video for the track depicts a government official sent to inspect the strange goings-on in a small village, where he’s burned alive in a giant wooden statue in a scene reminiscent of the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. The clip features stop-motion animation in the style of the 1960s-era U.K. children’s show Trumpton. Sal Cinquemani

9. “Paranoid Android” (Dir: Magnus Carlsson). Radiohead commissioned Swedish animator Magnus Carlsson for this bizarre and somewhat graphic video, which sees the titular protagonist of Carlsson’s series Robin encountering various unsavory or unearthly characters, including a prostitute in a tree, a deranged businessman, and an angel flying a helicopter. Cinquemani

8. “House of Cards” (Dir: James Frost). When the “House of Cards” video came out, it struck me as a tech geek’s gimmick, but in retrospect, its motion-capture technique is used for deeply human ends. First we see two faces in close-up, their physicality rendered as blue-ish data points. Then, indistinct bodies at a party and a whole suburban landscape being wiped away in Etch-A-Sketch fashion. It’s a kind of digitally envisioned nightmare: Every pixel of everything we know, instantly erased. Paul Rice

7. “No Surprises” (Dir: Grant Lee). Lo-fi simplicity tends to work best for Radiohead’s live-action videos. In “No Surprises,” we get to watch Thom Yorke gasp for breath as a water chamber fills and releases around his head. It’s a sly sadomasochistic dream that could be his, or that of plenty of Radiohead haters everywhere. Rice

6. “Daydreaming” (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson). In this video for 2016’s “Daydreaming,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera follows Thom Yorke through numerous locales, from hotel hallways to laundromats. The images, lucid and confrontational, exude an almost gestural quality as they cut from interior and exterior spaces, with Yorke waltzing in a sleep-like torpor toward a hole—or spacious studio igloo?—somewhere on a snow-capped mountain. The world here appears at once real and imagined, and by the time the fire within the hole lights Yorke’s face and the song grinds to a halt, Anderson dramatically reaffirms most of our beliefs about Radiohead’s music as, above all else, the prettiest soundtrack in the world to one man’s devotion to his own alienation. Ed Gonzalez

5. “Just” (Dir: Jamie Thraves). There’s a Kafkaesque absurdity to the simple concept of “Just” that gets and stays under the skin. A man lies down in the middle of a monochromatic city sidewalk. People trip on him and ask how he is and why he’s there. Finally, he tells the crowd (though we never know, since the subtitles cut out), and they all lie with him, presumably in conjoined doom. Rice

4. “Knives Out” (Dir: Michel Gondry). Thematically evocative of the director’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the elaborate, seemingly single-take “Knives Out” juxtaposes emotional and physical hardship via Michel Gondry’s signature surreal imagery, including singer Thom Yorke’s head replaced by a giant heart in which he stores a Polaroid photograph of his fiancée, whose critical condition he may very well have been responsible for. Cinquemani

3. “Pyramid Song” (Dir: Shynola). Thom Yorke and company have long been champions of animation, and “Pyramid Song” is their best, most heartfelt work in the form. A man—or a thing (the figure could be human or beast)—dives into a lost civilization, wading through bones to a home where he watches TV. CG allows for meticulous detail, but the gorgeous design by artist collective Shynola is purposely murky, full of unknown layers, and like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, released the same year, it suggests a ruined past we can never get back. Rice

2. “Fake Plastic Trees” (Dir: Jake Scott). Jake Scott, noted music video director and son of Sir Ridley, has said that his striking clip for Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” filmed in an aircraft hangar in Van Nuys, California, is an allegory on death and reincarnation. His claim is borne out by images of colorful characters, old and young, strolling the aisles of a neon-lit supermarket, being watched on surveillance cameras, and eventually carted off to a heavenly looking “exit.” Cinquemani

1. “Karma Police” (Dir: Jonathan Glazer). Director Jonathan Glazer claims that this creepy revenge clip, in which a car slowly follows a man running down a desolate road only to have the tables turned thanks to a chance gasoline leak, was inspired by a bad dream. His remarkable use of point of view implicates the spectator in the video’s action, but it’s the spooky way with which he fashions a Möbius strip from karmic irony that makes “Karma Police” Radiohead’s finest contribution to the music-video medium. Cinquemani

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