Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Art is Artifice, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 17, 2013

Continuing our discussion about the difference between publishable and unpublishable:

Corleone

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) at the fatal moment

I said last week that real = unpublishable, and artifical = publishable. Let me qualify that a bit.

“Artificial,” in the sense I intend it, does not mean fake, phony, made up. It means crafted with deliberate artistic intent.

“Artificial” means employing artifice to achieve the expression of a Deeper Truth.

The artist is seeking the real by means of the artificial.

Have you ever seen any of Monet’s Water Lilies in person? If you stand back at a viewing distance of, say, twenty feet, the illusion is astonishing. The artist has captured light reflecting off water so brilliantly that it makes you catch your breath.

Now walk up to the painting. Get close. Look again.

All you see now are blobs of paint on canvas. There’s no shining water at all.

Here’s another example:

The scene in Godfather I when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) shoots and kills police captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) and mafioso Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) in Louis’ Italian restaurant in the Bronx.

What is the Deeper Truth in this scene? How did Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, the director and screenwriters, employ artifice to take us there?

First, consider that this same event could have been filmed in hundreds of alternate ways. The scene could have been played, for example, from the point of view of Capt. McCluskey. The filmmakers could have presented it as the tragic climax of an honorable life lived by a brave cop, cut down at the peak of his powers by a cunning, murderous gangster.

That way of seeing the event may, in fact, contain elements of truth. But it would not be the Deeper Truth, at least not the deeper truth of this particular story.

The following are some of the elements Coppola and Puzo manipulated with artifice to deliver to the audience their version of the deeper truth:

Lighting.

Atmosphere.

Musical score.

Sound design.

Prior context.

Subsequent context.

Dialogue.

Action.

Point of view.

Rhythm of editing.

Selection of shots.

Time compression and expansion.

In other words, deliberate artistic intention.

Artifice.

In this scene, what exactly is the Deeper Truth that the filmmakers wished to convey?

Are they depicting a significant milestone in Michael’s character arc—from “civilian” in the movie’s opening wedding scene to “Godfather” in the film’s final moment?

Remember, too, that this scene at Louis’ restaurant has been set up by previous scenes (prior context) in which Michael has volunteered to commit these murders. No one has coerced him. The role of killer is his idea.

MICHAEL

They’re gonna search me when I first meet them, right? So I can’t have a weapon then. But if Clemenza can figure a way to have a weapon planted for me, then I’ll kill them both.

Are the filmmakers showing Michael’s descent into evil? Are these murders the precursors to his masterminding of the cold-blooded assassinations, in the movie’s climax, of the heads of all Five Families?

Or are the moviemakers demonstrating for us that Michael’s seeming corruption is taking place within the context of a greater corruption, as evinced by Sollozzo’s attempt to murder Michael’s father and McCluskey’s complicity as a cop on the take—so that Michael is in fact the only honorable member of this triangle, a hero we in the audience are correct to be rooting for?

Are they saying that Michael’s motivation—love of his father, loyalty to his family, the upholding of a code of honor, even if it is one framed outside the law—is nobler than the totally amoral criminal conventions of the men he’s about to kill?

Are the filmmakers invoking Fate in this scene? Are they saying it is Michael’s destiny, like a character in a royal family in Sophocles or Shakespeare, to be inevitably sucked into the drama of “the sins of the fathers?”

Or are they positioning Michael as a more modern tragic hero, whose fate is the product of his own misguided decisions?

Remember, too, what will happen in the story immediately after this scene (post context). Michael will exit the restaurant and be whisked away by a waiting car. He will be spirited out of the country to Sicily, where he will meet and marry Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli)—and be marinated for months in the undiluted old-country ethos of the Sicilian mafia. So that when he eventually returns to the States his transformation from civilian to Godfather will be many steps further along.

Do you see what I mean about this scene delivering a Deeper Truth?

To that end, the moviemakers shot it dark and moody, lit in such a way that the characters’ faces appeared hellish and damned, while every scrape of a chair-leg against the white-tile floor echoed ominously in a spare, chalk-on-the-blackboard sound environment. They filmed the scene entirely from Michael’s point of view, with an excruciating, slowly-escalating editing rhythm of tension and suspense, which culminated in a shadowy closeup on Michael’s face (with his jaw swollen from a blow delivered a few days earlier by Capt. McCluskey) as the sound of the screeching brakes of an approaching subway train rises in the background … until Michael stands, fires the fatal shots, drops the weapon, and, as the musical score drives the operatic drama to its climax, is caught up by the getaway car and driven away.

My own feeling is that the filmmakers intended to make all of the statements above.

That is the Deeper Real they were using Artifice to achieve.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

3 Responses to “Art is Artifice, Part Two”

  1. Basilis
    July 18, 2013 at 7:02 am

    Great stuff!

    (And, since mentioned by antares, I’ll have to check out about the lightning. I don’t recall it at all!)

  2. Janis
    July 18, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Interesting that you used Monet as a metaphor for what you were talking about. I’ve been thinking about that lately and have come to the conclusion that all art is impressionist, only the French impressionist painters make it obvious.

    ALL ART only comes most of the way to its audience. As a listener or watcher, you have to reach into yourself and fill in the remaining gap with something from within yourself. You complete the work by witnessing it. The impressionist painters just made it obvious by handing us well-placed blobs of glop and letting our brains turn them into lilies, wheat, and lace.

    THAT’S why we feel that great art teaches us something about ourselves. It has to, because we have to rummage through ourselves to complete it when we watch it or listen to it.

    That’s also why great art is only a simulacrum of reality. Reality comes the full 100% of the way, and even then, somehow we still manage to shoehorn a shim of self-insertion between it and us. (Even then, we want that gap where we can assert ourselves.) But nevertheless, reality comes as close to us as anything else can.

    Art is made when we know there’s a gap, and we let the audience play in it. That gap is the audience’s sandbox, and their territory.

    And great artists know it. They know that:

    1) the gap is not their territory,
    2) they aren’t allowed to take it over, and
    3) the fun the audience gets from playing in it is why they are witnessing the art.

    Like not taking over someone else’s square inches at the dinner table, it’s freaking rude to expand into that gap. Don’t take over their sandbox.

    And great art doesn’t try to be real because reality comes too close. That’s why it only simulates reality.

    Crappy art usually either doesn’t come close enough or comes too close. It either doesn’t give the audience enough reason to do the extra work of rummaging (and it’s work; you need to persuade them to do it, get their buy in) or it doesn’t leave them a big enough sandbox to play in. Both are errors born of ego. “I’m so wonderful the peons will rush to fill the gap of their own accord,” or “I can fill that gap better than those peons ever could.”

    (An interesting side effect of the fact that all art is impressionist: no two of us ever witness the same work. No one of us ever witness the same work twice.)

    Anyhow. Ramble over.

  3. July 26, 2013 at 11:51 am

    I think the key to such scenes is not releasing the tension. I think Coppula and Puzo understood tension and the need to not only build it but maintain it. These questions you ask are tension. Tension=question.