tone, pacing, and the occasional magic axe

Trinitarily, my father, my son, and I went to see Avengers: Infinity War yesterday. Did I enjoy it?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

There was awe. I’ll give it that: awe at the film’s scale, its craftsmanship, at what so many people had collaborated to create. The post-credits scene—with its geektastic reveal—followed about ninety minutes of names. Staggering, if you think about it. My grandparents’ lives spanned the transition from Model T to Apollo 11. I’ve lived through both the 1970s Captain America and Captain America: Civil War—in a way, the greater leap of human imagination. Even Neil Armstrong would have given Kevin Feige credit for piloting the Marvel Cinematic Universe through Phase 3.

The supreme creative credit of this Wagnerian epic—yes, Wagnerian, all the way down to dwarves forging magic weapons—belongs to the writing team. May they rest in peace, I’m assuming. Can you imagine being handed eighteen films, each carrying their own weight of lore and complications and fan expectations from decades of comic book canon, and being told to write a script that gives every major character—and more than a handful of minor ones—their moment to shine? (Except Hawkeye, of course.) Absolutely boggling.

And yet.

They weren’t kidding when they called this thing Infinity War. It felt both infinite and like going to war. My heart started racing after the first scene—in a bad, “I drank too much coffee” way—and that unpleasant cardiac sensation never let up. The audience roared and groaned and yelled for much of the film; I’ve never heard anything like it. This was deep-tissue cinema. My mind feels bruised this morning.

Look, plenty of movies feature deaths and explosions, even the occasional flung planet. What happened here?

I’d pin it to that nebulous question of tone, a key aspect of every creative work, from 2h 40m hour blockbusters to 500-word essays you read in a couple of minutes and then feel absolutely compelled—even obligated?—to share across all your social media accounts, probably more than once.

The weird thing about tone is you can’t see it on the page. You can only feel it as you experience—watch, hear, read—the work. Often, it’s hard to perceive it even then, if you’re the work’s creator. You need fresh eyes.

In his memoir, Act One: An Autobiography, legendary playwright Moss Hart tells the story of writing his first Broadway show with his writing partner, the great George S. Kaufman.

The musical’s penultimate scene was a true extravaganza. It featured legions of performers, lavish costumes, props, expensive scenery—every tool in the toolbox and every pigment on the canvas coming together for maximum spectacle. This was the kind of thing considered essential at the time for any big Broadway show. They’d put a fortune into this one scene.

The show fell flat in previews.

Hart’s nascent playwriting career was on the line. If the show flopped, he would return to his life of poverty on Coney Island. In desperation, he turned to producer Sam Harris for advice. They’d thrown everything he had at this thing—why wasn’t it working?

“It’s a noisy play, kid,” he reiterated without explanation. “One of the noisiest plays I’ve ever been around.”

“But why, Mr. Harris?” I persisted. “It’s no noisier than any other play.”

“Oh, yes, it is,” he replied. “Just think about it. Except for those two minutes at the beginning of the first act, there isn’t another spot in this whole play where two people sit down and talk quietly to each other. Is that right, or isn’t it?”

I looked at him, a little stunned, and said, “Is that what you mean by noisy?”

“Maybe noisy is the wrong word,” he said. “But I’ve watched this play through maybe a hundred times, and I think one of the main things wrong with it is that it tires an audience out. It’s a tiring play to sit through, kid … I can almost feel them begin to get tired all around me. That stage is so damn full of actors and scenery and costumes and props all the time they never get a chance to catch their breath and listen to the play. Sure they laugh, but I think they’re longing to see that stage just once with maybe two or three people on it quietly talking the whole thing over. Give them a chance to sit back themselves and kind of add the whole thing up.” He signaled the waiter for the check, then laughed. “Once this show gets under way nobody ever talks to each other. They just keep pounding away like hell and running in and out of that scenery. It’s a noisy play, kid, you take my word for it.”

Hart understands what’s missing and, at the very last minute, convinces Kaufman they should cut out the penultimate scene. They toss all those expensive props and setpieces out in the alley behind the theater and replace the whole thing with a quiet moment between two characters.

On opening day, that quiet little scene gives the audience a chance to absorb and take stock of everything they’d seen up until that point. And then, from that place of understanding, the final scene lands like, well, Thor’s dwarf-forged axe flung from a rainbow bridge. The show is a hit and Hart’s career is made.

This anecdote has remained with me like few things I’ve read about the creative process. I think about it often when I’m working on something important. After all the hard work of building and shaping something, there has to be a moment when you step back and attempt to perceive the whole. You need a fresh pair of eyes on it, too. Sometimes, if you look at something quietly, if you take a breath and let it in, the masterstroke reveals itself. Sometimes that quiet final change makes the piece, especially in the biggest, the most spectacular, the very loudest things you create. Think of the creative works you love most dearly. Was it the spectacle? Or the quiet right before?