Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Making it simple, keeping it complex

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Ward Cunningham

Simplicity is the shortest path to a solution.

Ward Cunningham

The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.

Sol LeWitt

When I begin, I usually improvise a melody and sing words—and often those words are just clichés. If it is an old songwriting cliché, most of the time I throw it away, but sometimes I keep it, because they’re nice to have. They’re familiar. They’re like a breather for the listener. You can stop wondering or thinking for a little while and just float along with the music.

Paul Simon

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The solution for me, surely, is neither in total renunciation of the world, nor in total acceptance of it. I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes; a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

It is important to emphasize the value of simplicity and elegance, for complexity has a way of compounding difficulties and as we have seen, creating mistakes. My definition of elegance is the achievement of a given functionality with a minimum of mechanism and a maximum of clarity.

Fernando J. Corbató

Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.

Alan Perlis

David Mamet

The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of a nail, it has to look like a nail.

David Mamet

Complexity must be grown from simple systems that already work.

Kevin Kelly

While it might seem that richness suggests excess and maximal inclusion, we actually need to be selective about the elements we include, or the novel will not be rich so much as an incomprehensible blur, a smear of language. Think about the very real limitations of Pynchon as a novelist: many complain about his flat characters and slapstick humor, but without those elements to manage the text and simplify it, his already dangerously complex fiction would become unreadable.

Mike Meginnis

Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and complex. The better way is to go deeper with simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.

Jonathan Ive

A great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity. But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

—Attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Quote of the Day

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Lope de Vega

In the first act set forth the case. In the second weave together the events, in such wise that until the middle of the third act one may hardly guess the outcome. Always trick expectancy.

Lope de Vega

Written by nevalalee

September 23, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Theater, Writing

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Show me the monster

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Godzilla 2014

Over the weekend, I finally caught up with the recent remake of Godzilla. I’d wanted to see this movie for a long time, and although I was aware that a lot of viewers had found it disappointing—especially with regard to Godzilla’s own limited screen time—I was looking forward to watching a big, effects-driven blockbuster that followed what I’ve called one of the cardinal rules of suspense. You don’t show the monster. You let the viewer’s imagination do the work. It’s what Spielberg did in Jaws and Ridley Scott did in Alien. I know all this, and I believe in it. Yet after Godzilla was over, my first reaction was, well, that I wished I’d seen more of the monster. Part of me feels a little guilty even for typing this. Director Gareth Edwards and his production team are obviously harking back to Spielberg, and there’s no question that this approach is preferable to the nonstop pummeling of the senses we get from the likes of Michael Bay. But if we look back at what what Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Roland Emmerich’s own Godzilla remake, we start to realize that the truth is a little more complicated: “Steven Spielberg opened Jurassic Park by giving us a good, long look at the dinosaurs in full sunlight, and our imaginations leapt up. Godzilla hops out of sight like a camera-shy kangaroo.”

So which is it? Would Spielberg want us to show the monster or not? Or to put to put it another way, why does an approach that works for Jaws leave us so dissatisfied with Godzilla? For one thing, there’s the fact that while Jaws leaves its shark offscreen for most of the movie, it spends the intervening time developing a trio of engaging protagonists we’d happily follow on an ordinary fishing trip, while Godzilla kills off its most interesting character before the halfway mark. A director like Spielberg also knows that every delay demands a corresponding payoff: most of the flying saucers in Close Encounters stay out of sight, but when we see the mothership at last, it still has the power to delight the imagination almost forty years later. Godzilla never affords us that kind of cathartic moment, which even a movie like Peter Jackson’s King King offers almost to a fault. More subtly, it’s worth pointing out that most of the films that first come to mind when we think of the power of suggestion, like Jaws or Alien, were forced in that direction out of technical limitations. Not showing the monster is only one of a series of ingenious decisions and workarounds imposed by real constraints, and it’s no surprise if the result is more compelling than a movie that doesn’t need to sweat as hard.

Roy Scheider (and Bruce) in Jaws

But I think the real explanation is even simpler. In Jaws, it makes sense to leave the shark off screen: for the most part, we’re seeing events from the perspective of men on shore or on the boat, fighting an unseen foe, and as long as we stick to their point of view—which makes for good dramatic logic—we won’t see more than a dorsal fin or underwater shadow. The same holds for Alien, which pits its crew against a single murderous creature in a labyrinth of darkness, and even Close Encounters, where the flying objects, by definition, are elusive enough to remain unidentified. But Godzilla is hard to miss. He’s 350 feet tall. This is a creature defined by its overwhelming physical presence, and to keep him out of sight, we need to artificially depart from the perspective of those on the ground. We cut away from the main action or cheat the lighting and the camera angles, so instead of seeing things through a character’s eyes, we enforce a kind of alienation from what the human beings in the story are experiencing. (Having already been entertained but underwhelmed by Pacific Rim, I’m starting to think that any story about two or more really big monsters might be inherently undramatic: there isn’t enough room for action on a human scale when the plot turns on a fistfight between creatures the size of skyscrapers.)

In other words, Godzilla understands the “rule” that it shouldn’t show the monster, but it forgets why that rule has meaning in the first place. Watching it, I felt much the same way I did when I saw Ti West’s The House of the Devil. In that movie, we’re repeatedly shown the heroine moving past dark doorways, and each time she does, our heart rate accelerates—but time and again, nothing happens. And after an hour of establishing the layout of its terrifying house, when the horror finally does come, the film commits the ultimate crime: it cuts away to a room we’ve never seen. Maybe it knows, rightly, that dread is more effective than terror, but it forgets an even more basic rule: if you’re going to tease us with all those shots of a doorway, sooner or later, something has to come out of that door. Godzilla makes much the same mistake, which is only a reminder of the difference between approaching a genre from the outside, even from the standpoint of a loving fan, and figuring out its logic from within, as Spielberg did. Rules, to the extent they exist, are there for a reason, and it can be dangerous, especially for smart storytellers, to honor those conventions with great technical skill while failing to articulate while they’re there in the first place. And as Godzilla proves, you can be a careful, perceptive, and talented director, but still miss the monster in the room.

Quote of the Day

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John Lithgow in The Magistrate by Arthur Wing Pinero

There are certain things which must be told the audience, as quickly and conveniently as possible, at the outset of every play. Why not tell these things quite frankly and get them over with?

Arthur Wing Pinero

Written by nevalalee

September 22, 2014 at 7:30 am

The perfection of imperfection

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Dejan Stojanović

We love the dangerous cliffs of mountains, winding roads and rivers; jagged canyons and waterfalls seem most beautiful. We love the shadow of a cloud obstructing the sun and watch both the cloud and its cheerful shadow. There is something perfect to be found in the imperfect: the law keeps balance through the juxtaposition of beauty, which gains perfection through nurtured imperfection. Everything that looks too perfect is not perfect: it is too perfect to be perfect—real perfection is not too obvious; it requires effort while riding over the winding roads and flying to the clear sky to find the shadow of a cloud that was alive not long ago. That’s why we love the imperfect shapes in nature and in the works of art, look for an intentional error as a sign of the golden key and sincerity found in true mastery.

Dejan Stojanović

Written by nevalalee

September 21, 2014 at 9:00 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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The colorist’s challenge

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John Ruskin

You may, in the time which other vocations leave at your disposal, produce finished, beautiful, and masterly drawings in light and shade. But to color well, requires your life. It cannot be done cheaper. The difficulty of doing right is increased—not twofold nor threefold, but a thousandfold, and more—by the addition of color to your work. For the chances are more than a thousand to one against your being right both in form and color with a given touch: it is difficult enough to be right in form, if you attend to that only; but when you have to attend, at the same moment, to a much more subtle thing than the form, the difficulty is strangely increased,—and multiplied almost to infinity by this great fact, that, while form is absolute, so that you can say at the moment you draw any line that it is either right or wrong, color is wholly relative. Every hue throughout your work is altered by every touch that you add in other places; so that what was warm a minute ago, becomes cold when you have put a hotter color in another place, and what was in harmony when you left it, becomes discordant as you set other colors beside it; so that every touch must be laid, not with a view to its effect at the time, but with a view to its effect in futurity, the result upon it of all that is afterwards to be done being previously considered. You may easily understand that, this being so, nothing but the devotion of life, and great genius besides, can make a colorist.

John Ruskin

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2014 at 9:00 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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Erase and rewind

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The Cardigans

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your personal one-hit wonder?”

More than most other kinds of art, pop music feels like a numbers game. Each year, thousands of new tracks are released, many by unknown artists, and they percolate up through the ether, dropping one by one, until the survivor emerges as the song of the summer. Nowadays, it all feels downright Darwinian: record labels and radio stations may still serve as gatekeepers, and occasionally we’ll all end up with a copy of the same album whether we like it or not, but there are more ways for independent music to reach us than ever before. In practice, though, it turns into a long tail distribution, with a handful of outliers overwhelming the countless songs at the unlucky end, which might as well not even exist. To a greater or lesser extent, that’s true of all media: if you’re trying to make it in any industry, you naturally tend to measure yourself against the artists you know, forgetting that they’re all drawn from the highly skewed sample set of the names you’ve heard in the first place. Everyone else is invisible, until, suddenly, one of them isn’t.

In music, the process can seem especially ruthless, simply because the scale involved is so vast. Even in these days of easier access to production and distribution, there seem to be limits on how many new books, movies, or television shows the world can absorb, but a song can be streamed, judged, and forgotten within minutes, and it’s still impossible for even a professional critic to hear more than a fraction of what’s available. When a song invades the popular consciousness, or even your own brain, it can seem both inevitable and inexplicable. Music of all kinds operates within stark limits, and most big singles these days sound more or less alike, probably because they pass through the laptops of the same handful of superstar producers. Yet within those constraints, a world of variation is still possible, and a song that survives long enough to be heard by anyone is by definition an exceptional result, with the delta-qs, as Pynchon puts it in the story of Byron the immortal light bulb, lining up just right.

Jason Derulo

That’s why we associate the one-hit wonder more with music than with anything else. It seems intuitively unlikely that an author could produce a great novel by accident and be left with nothing else to say, but with music, an artist—or, more accurately, the sum of all artists—is actively collaborating with statistics. A hit single can seem like a fluke because it probably is; if it differs from hundreds of similar songs released the same year, it’s in indefinable ways that the artist himself often has trouble replicating. This isn’t for lack of opportunity: if you make it high enough on the Billboard charts, you’re usually granted another shot. It’s at that point, though, that regression to the mean extracts its revenge. If an artist’s followup single is almost always viewed as a disappointment, it’s only because we’re measuring it against an outlier of outliers. But even if it achieves a measure of commercial success, or leads to a lasting career, for a lot of listeners, it can’t have the same power as the song that grabbed us in the first place.

And repeating that kind of impact over time is rare enough that a lot of listeners, like me, ultimately give up on trying to be completists. There was a time when I thought that I had to listen to everything a band or artist produced before I could express an opinion on their work, or name one of their songs as a favorite; now, I’m content to endlessly replay a song like “Erase/Rewind” without feeling as if I need to be familiar with the complete works of the Cardigans. It also frees you from potentially embarrassing investments of time. I’m not necessarily ashamed of the fact that I’ve probably listened to Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say” more than any other single of the last five years, but I’m a little relieved that I don’t feel obliged to check out everything else he’s done. I’ve learned to be grateful for three minutes of diversion without taking on the burden of fandom. That may not be fair to the artists involved, and it’s more of a reflection of the way I listen to music in my thirties than how I might have approached it ten years ago. But I still hold out hope that somewhere, someday, I’ll hear at least one more song that will change my life.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2014 at 10:10 am

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