2011-01-08

Book Review 61: The View from the Bridge

When I began to focus on work I made myself a new rule: no speech in a screenplay by me was going to be more than ten lines long. This restriction was a killer. I was going to have to learn to write all over again, write in a way where literacy itself was a disadvantage. Later, watching the work of Steven Spielberg, I understand how much my verbal facility worked against me. It's better if you can think in pictures. What happens to your scene when you turn off the sound in your head?

Another rule: how many pages can you write of a screenplay before it is absolutely necessary for someone to speak?
Page 32

Nicholas Meyer, the man who saved the Star Trek movie franchise with his scripts for Star Treks II and VI has written an interesting book called The View from the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood. Is this a good book worth reading? The short answer is no; the longer answer is much more complicated. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but the package doesn’t quite hold up. It feels like the book is 2 or 3 drafts away from being great.

The problem is that while it’s intended to be a memoir, it lacks a story. A good memoir tells the story of the person writing it. It’s not a catalog of events in that person’s life. It has to go beyond that. A View from the Bridge does not.

That being said, there are germs of that here. The sections where Meyer talks about the two Star Trek movies are fascinating. His story about making “The Day After” and about his work on Don Quixote are also excellent. The reason for that is that Meyer’s passion and excitement come through. He's really trying to tell us something in these sections. In other parts of the book, when he’s talking about his first successes and his other movies, I can see that he’s excited about them, but it leaves me feeling, “Good for you!” I don’t mean that sarcastically. The problem with that is I don’t feel as strong a connection to what he’s talking about. He’s listing events in his life, but not telling us a bigger story.

I think Meyer has a story in here, but it needs more digging. His meditations on writing, language, cinema, art, and more are fascinating, but they get lost in the narrative. I think this is a book I’ll be talking about more over the course of the year, as I use different paragraphs as jumping off points for deeper discussions.

That’s the big disappointment I have with this book. There’s a lot of really good stuff in there. It’s just lost among the other stuff.

Now I’ll get more specific about some of the interesting areas.

Meyer has one of the most positive opinions of William Shatner that I’ve read in any of the Star Trek related books (except, of course, for those written by Shatner and possibly Leonard Nimoy).

As part of my ongoing cinematic education, I was now learning how to write for a star. As a man, William Shatner is refreshingly free of ego. He is polite, attentive, unassuming, interested in other people and what they do. But as a leading actor, he is very protective, particularly of Kirk, his screen persona. Once I understood the paradoxical duality—not ego, but enormous vanity—of his character, it became easier to understand and address his concerns. Put simply (perhaps too simply), he wanted to be the first man through the door. If the messenger delivered the message, he didn't want that messenger to tower over him. He didn't mind that the film dealt with a man growing old; he just didn't want to specify that man's exact age. (Not unreasonable if you think about it. What actor wishes to find himself rejected for the role of a fifty-year-old because he's already played a character who owns to sixty-two?)

Page 91

Once he figured out the trick to writing for Shatner, he had to figure out how to direct him. He implies that Shatner was just too intense much of the time. The best way to get Shatner to calm down and give a more understated performance? Bore him.

The second take was similarly heavy-handed but, as it happened, no good for sound. (A stratagem I had contrived beforehand.) The third take, I think the focus was soft—and so on. Eventually Shatner became bored and when he got bored he got good. He dropped the attitudes he was prone to strike and instead became Kirk, with no trimmings. It was a good trick to stumble on and it happened early enough in the shoot that I was able to make good use of it throughout. The only difficulty was ensuring that Shatner, who got better with every take, did not have to appear in a two-shot with someone who was at his best on take one and thereafter deteriorated.) When all's said and done, however, a director can only do so much; Shatner's triumph in the movie is his own, the product of his own intuition and his gift.

page 112

Despite his respect and skill in using Shatner, however, even Meyer knew when to stay away. He was approached to write Star Trek V, the film Shatner would direct.

It was in early '87 when I heard rumblings about the next Star Trek film.Taking a leaf from Nimoy's playbook, William Shatner's quid pro quo for participating in the new movie was directing it. I was again asked to write the screenplay. When I asked what the film was to be about, I was told, "the search for God."

This did not strike me as an especially promising premise. How could such a search possibly conclude? Fortunately, I had the multiple excuses of my Fatal Attraction chores and my imminent departure abroad.

page 175

Meyer does a nice job in discussing Star Trek VI. He goes on a deep discussion of the politics of an impending Klingon-Federation alliance, against the back drop of the impending fall of the USSR.

Meyer had approached his Star Trek stories with more realism than Gene Roddenberry had. That’s likely part of the reason he was successful. At the beginning of the Star Trek II process, Meyer was already reimagining the Federation into a more militaristic entity than the idealised version of Roddenberry .

But none of the foregoing altered the parameters of the universe Roddenberry had set up. He was emphatic that Starfleet was not a military organization but something akin to the Coast Guard. This struck me as manifestly absurd, for what were Kirk's adventures but a species of gunboat diplomacy wherein the Federation (read America, read the Anglo-Saxons) was always right and aliens were—in Kipling's queasy phrase—"lesser breeds"? Yes, there was lip service to minority participation, but it was clear who was driving the boat.

Page 81

By the time Star Trek VI rolled around, Meyer’s views were diverging further from Roddenberry’s. Meyer fought for his script, and I’m glad he did. It’s an excellent movie. I’m more impressed with Meyer’s humility after the fact, where he acknowledges mishandling the discussions.

It was not, as I say, my finest hour. Roddenberry was old and in ill health and soon to die. The fact that I was tired and unwilling to revisit the screenplay when it was almost time to start shooting was of less moment than my conviction that what was in the script was correct. I left the meeting and returned to work, leaving others to mop up the damage I had done. I like to think of myself as a decent, straight-shooting person but as I write these lines, I have to admit that I am not always the person I like to believe I am.

page 214-215

Meyer takes several moments in the book for self-reflection. He wanted to make “The Day After” because it needed to be made. But Meyer, an opponent of nuclear stockpiles began to question that belief later in the book. In Star Trek VI, we have conspirators trying to preserve their cold war, and they were regarded as crazy. But Meyer gives that some more thought later on.

In fact, however, a wonderful new chapter in human history is not what has occurred. Instead, we got 9/11 and a resurgent form of human horror, terrorism, in which incalculable destruction is visited upon us not by dictators and armies but rather by crazies with box cutters and primitive but lethally destructive capabilities. The age of the suicide bomber was at hand. How long before that bomb would prove to be a nuclear one? Was this any improvement on the cold war era or is it not, in fact, much worse? As awful as MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) was, no one was actually destroyed. But as of 2001, the world became an infinitely more dangerous place—all of which now leads me to wonder if the conspirators of Star Trek VI were not more justified than we gave them credit for being. Knowing what I now know (in the famous formulation of Senator Clinton), would I still maintain that Valeris, Cartwright, and their Klingon counterparts were misguided in their attempts to thwart detente between the Federation and the Klingon Empire?

I also confess to being troubled by the Vulcan mind meld, clearly a form of torture, wherein Spock attempts to forcibly extract vital information from the traitor, Valeris. In light of the Bush administration's treatment of "enemy combatants," I blush.

Page 231

Meyer is frank about his shortcomings as a writer. His biggest problem is writing too much.

"You want to solve all your problems with dialogue," Elliot [Silverstein] observed bluntly. "But movies aren't dialogue, they're pictures. Contrast Star Trek with Mission Impossible," he went on, ever the pedagogue (Star Trek again. What was it with Star Trek?) "Turn off the video on both and listen. Star Trek works fine; it becomes a radio play because it's all dialogue. On the other hand, Mission: Impossible without the visuals is just a series of sound effects. Now try it the other way round: if you turn on the picture and turn off the sound, Star Trek becomes essentially a series of talking heads. Mission: Impossible, by contrast, looks like a movie.”

Page 30

He takes that advice to heart as he begins to think more about writing his scripts. Word economy dogs his scripts.

Things weren't all or always terrible. During this time, I wrote a couple of television movies that were actually filmed. It's hard to convey what a thrill it was to finally hear actors speaking my lines. I wasn't always happy with their performances or the editing or the direction, or the lines themselves, for that matter (always too many words; I was always mentally reaching for a pencil to scratch things out—picky, picky, picky), but I was far from unhappy.

Page 36

Movies must move, and faces as well as actions can often do the work of words. In fact, I have since computed that the attrition rate for dialogue in a screenplay of mine, between the first draft and the answer print, i.e., finished movie is 50 percent. Half the words will go, and you will save yourself time and money if you lose as many as possible before the cameras start rolling.Cutting out the words in the editing room is possible, even inevitable, but cutting them beforehand is usually better.

page 104

I like this for a few reasons. The humility this expert screenplay writer demonstrates about his screenplay writing appears both genuine and insightful.

Meyer also discusses his feelings on the language of film itself. Despite his directorial success he struggles with it at times.

The bad news is that I came to movie making late, especially working with the camera. While Steven Spielberg was playing with lenses, I was playing with typewriters, and the difference is all too obvious. The camera and its possibilities were alien to me—a fine situation for a film director. And remember, I'm a slow learner.

Page 65

In my films, I care less for the photography and composition of the images than I do for what the people are saying and doing. I would a thousand times sooner direct actors and help shape their performance rather than work on special effects. I have this theory that the film can be anything but out of focus and audiences will tolerate it, so long as what they are watching is interesting.Ditto the sound. On the other hand, I, as an audience member, respond like everyone else to ravishing or original imagery in the movies, to nifty sound effects. I am as seducible as the next man. Even as I disapprove of the contentless image-makers, I envy them; envy their technical facility and their cheerful, absent-minded amorality. Hey, it's the movies—let's blow something up.

Page 71

Meyer also talks about language while adapting Don Quixote. He goes on at length about how Cervantes used the words to create the epic. This appears to be where Meyer’s passion lies. It really comes out as he talks about writing. With this kind of energy, he probably could have written this book about his journey as a writer or his passion for story telling. He could have used that framework to tie the book together.

He travelled to Spain just so he could soak in Cervantes.

After Mari-Carmen returned to California, we stayed on in Spain, renting a house outside Marbella where a mountain outside my office window looked suspiciously like the Paramount logo and reminded me daily of what I was supposed to be doing there. It goes without saying that, other than the broad philosophical approach I had outiined to Tanen, I had no idea how to go about adapting a thousand-plus-page novel to the screen. All I knew for certain was that Los Angeles was not the place to try; the phone rang too often there. Here, away from all distractions, Rachel would learn to eat soft food, and I would fool around with Quixote, whose real subject, I realized on closer examination, was not the Don's monomania-Chivalry-but Cervantes's: words.

One way you know that the Dark Ages have ended is each country's discovery—starting with Italy and working its way west—of its own vernacular for purposes of literature, hitherto the province of the classical tongues, Greek and Latin. But suddenly you have Dante writing The Divine Comedy in Italian;in France, Corneille, Racine, and Moliere are discovering French; in England,first Chaucer, then Marlowe, Spenser, and Shakespeare are drunk on English;and in Spain, in the same year Macbeth is written comes the first part of Don Quixote, composed in colloquial Spanish. The book is likewise high on the possibilities of language. There are big plots, little plots, poems, short stories, anecdotes, jokes, asides, puns, more poems, more tangents . . . every kind of language was grist for Cervantes's mill. (This was true for Shakespeare, too: his vocabulary -- the vocabulary of someone linguistically intoxicated was fifty thousand words. It's been shrinking ever since; I daresay we're down to about five thou?

page 178-179

Meyer sees his strength as a story teller. He sees himself as someone who can take an idea and make it into something. That’s what he does with his scripts and his movies. And because that is his strength in those media, it’s all the more disappointing that he doesn’t do that with his memoir.

That is the sort of artist I am; not of the first rank, perhaps not even of the second, but I do recognize something original when I see it; I can preserve it for others to savor, even if the originator of the act is unaware or unappreciative of just what it is he or she has done. I could never write The Odyssey, but I can probably make it into a very good screenplay. That is the other thing I am besides being a teacher. A storyteller. Not the creator of stories, but rather the re-creator. I would never have imagined anything as original as Sherlock Holmes—but I might, with some success, imagine him meeting Sigmund Freud. If someone had said their two names together first.

page 156

The only project that resonated with me was the first one I was offered following Lauren’s death: HBO commissioned me to write and direct an adaptation of The Odyssey, a tale that had been my favorite since the age of five when an uncle of mine had told it to me as an ongoing bedtime story. I knew this material inside out, and it wrote itself In the process I realized I was also writing my autobiography, the story of a man trying to get back to his wife;more, it was the tale of a man punished for his inability to distinguish between cleverness and wisdom. Yes, it wrote itself.

Page 238

Meyer directed The Day After, a landmark TV movie about the aftermath of nuclear war in the 1980s. I mentioned it earlier in this post. You can read more about that movie on Wikipedia. I bring it up again, because it was such an important project for Meyer. Of course it was an important project for the country, too, but for Meyer, it helped him to understand more about himself.

"I think this is where we find out who you really are," [Meyer’s therapist] suggested quietly.

Which is one of the most dreadful (and useful) things anyone has ever said to me. I knew the moment the words were out of his mouth that I would have to direct The Day After. I had entered psychoanalysis to find out who I was—and now I was going to.

It wasn't all that easy rounding up people to be in the movie or work on it, either. Everyone was as spooked as I was. When I approached Gayne Rescher, my cinematographer from Star Trek II, and asked him to photograph the movie, he said he wasn't up for it.

"You mean," I badgered, "that you prefer to sit around at dinner parties and bitch about the state of the world, but when someone offers you the chance to put your work in the service of your beliefs, you're gonna turn it down?" He frowned unhappily. "I think," I pressed shamelessly on, "that this is where we find out who you really are."

Damned useful, that phrase. I crowbarred a lot of people with it.

page 141

In that film, Meyer really saw his ability to change minds with the power of story-telling. With something as basic as a movie, he could influence the President of the United States.

But at least one person's mind was changed by the film. When President Reagan signed the intermediate range missile treaty in Iceland, I got a lovely card from someone who said, “Don’t think your film didn’t have something to do with this," which turned out to be intuitively prescient. Some years after I had a weird confirmation of this fact. I was speaking at Oxford, and a student asked if I'd ever read Reagan's autobiography. I said I hadn't, whereupon he handily produced a photocopied page for me in which the president described his reaction to the film, essentially allowing as to how it had altered his perception of the nuclear subject. Remember, this was a president who saw life in terms of movies, and it had taken a movie to help him see that nuclear wars are unwinnable. Later, when I met Edmund Morris, author of Reagan's biography Dutch, he confirmed the paragraph in his book that stipulates the only time he ever saw Reagan depressed was after viewing The Day After. Reagan,who had come to power contemplating a winnable nuclear war ("if we have enough shovels ..." etc.), had changed his mind.

Page 154

As I wrap this up, I want to bring us back to Star Trek. Meyer can bring a slightly different perspective to the franchise that the actors can. His identity isn’t as tied up in the show in the way that Shater, Nimoy, Koenig, Takei, Doohan, and the other actors felt theirs were. He doesn’t have the strong feelings about Shatner and Nimoy that other people do. They were colleagues but Meyer had some distance. He also doens’t portray himself as the wonder kid that other authors said he was. That professional distance makes things interesting. And yet, his feelings mirror those of the cast, just from a slightly different perspective.

The common theme through most of the Star Trek memoirs I’ve read and reviewed over the years is ambivalence. Those involved in the creation are amazed at the phenomenal success. The show is responsible for both giving theme stardom and for limiting their stardom.

Meyer tries to answer the question of whether Star Trek is art. At the end, he’s just not sure.

But I suspect that in the long run it is the long run itself that counts. StarTreks importance-- or lack of same -- will not be determined by how much money the films have made; it will not be determined by critical appraisals in varying venues. No, time is the ultimate arbiter of Art. When Nixon visited China he banqueted with that wily courtier, Zhou Enlai, and asked him during the meal what he thought of the French Revolution.

“It’s too early to tell,” was Zhou’s answer.

Page 251

And so with Star Trek. I cannot gauge its value or understand its meaning except subjectively. While the films are not ones I would have deliberately chosen as a vehicle for self-expression (I did begin this book by acknowledging the happenstance paths of life and their unlooked for consequences), I cannot deny that my life has been changed—enriched—as a result of my association with the series, and perhaps the lives of others have been affected as well. Who’s to say if I had got to make my film version of Robertson Davies’s novel Fifth Business that as many people would’ve been affected by the result? How many scientists and astronauts at NASA were first inspired by the silliness that was Star Trek to reach for the stars? Answer? A lot.

Page 252

In some ways, as this memoir has shown, I have had similar feelings about Star Trek. I could evidently “do it” while at the same time I told myself for long periods that I simply didn’t get it.
That can no longer be said to be entirely true. And by this point it would also seem graceless of me to insist that it is. Enough time has passed so that.though I may not be able to assess the lasting merit of Star Trek, I can certainly give some consideration to how Star Trek has changed me.

Page 253

This is one of my lengthier reviews and it seems odd that I felt compelled to say so many things about a book that I didn’t enjoy as much as I had hoped. But in this book, Meyer says a lot of interesting things. They just don’t all come together to tell the story of Nicholas Meyer, of a story he wants to tell. It’s a collection of anecdotes and data without a theme to tie it all together.

If you are a fan of Nicholas Meyer and want to know more about the things he’s done, or if you are a completist who wants to read everything related to the Star Trek movies, pick up a copy ofThe View from the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood. If you’re a more casual fan, or you are just looking for a good memoir, you can probably skip this one.

1 comment:

icedgurl said...

InViTiNg YoU tO TrEK mY SiTe aNd LeAvE SoMe TrAiLs! ThAnK YoU! :]