Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Woody Allen

Laugh and let die

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Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle

Note: Minor spoilers follow for American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Ever since the Golden Globes, there’s been a lot of talk about the state of modern cinematic comedy, and especially about how the category has expanded to include films that we wouldn’t necessarily classify with the likes of Airplane! Two of the year’s presumptive Oscar frontrunners, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, are ostensible comedies that are really closer in tone to Goodfellas, and along with the other nominees for the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy—Her, Nebraska, and Inside Llewyn Davis—they made for a rather melancholy slate. Which isn’t to say that these movies aren’t consistently, brutally funny. David O. Russell has become the hottest director in America thanks largely to his ability to marry a compassionate view of his characters to a prankish, almost anarchic humor, and Scorsese has long been a stealth comic master. (Most of Scorsese’s great classics, with the possible exception of Raging Bull, could be recut into savage comedies, although probably at the expense of a “Layla” montage or two.) And what we’re seeing here is less a new development than a confirmation that comedy can, and should, emerge from some unexpectedly dark places.

I’ve noted before that the line between comedy and tragedy is finer than you might suspect, even at the highest levels: give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending, and you have a play that is tonally indistinguishable from All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare incorporates the threat of death into many of his problem comedies, and although it’s narrowly averted in the end, we’re still left with a sense that it could have gone either way. You might even argue that it’s the relative absence of death that allows American Hustle and Wolf to squeak into comedic territory. Nobody dies in American Hustle—unless you count a brief flashback, almost too quick to process, to an unrelated contract killing—and the stakes are exclusively emotional: Russell prefers to mine conflict from his characters, rather than generating suspense in more conventional ways, and we’re too interested in their interactions to be overly concerned about whether they’ll get away with their central con, much less get whacked by the mob. The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t contain much in the way of death, either, and the most lamented character is a distant relative whose offscreen demise leaves millions of dollars inconveniently stranded in Switzerland. (Jordan Belfort’s grief at this, needless to say, is perfectly genuine.)

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

And yet the idea of risk, physical and emotional, is central to both movies, as it is to many of the greatest comedies. If contemporary comedies suffer from one flaw, it’s that they often take place in a sanitized world devoid of danger, when it’s really in response to danger that laughter is most cathartic. Many of the biggest laughs I’ve had at the movies have been at lines or moments that stand in contrast to a mood of mounting tension or excitement: think of the Indiana Jones trilogy, the films of Quentin Tarantino, or the Bruce Willis movie of your choice. It’s perhaps no accident that both American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are joined, oddly, by musical homages to James Bond: a cover of “Goldfinger” plays in the background of Belfort’s lavish wedding, and Jennifer Lawrence’s showstopping rendition of “Live and Let Die” may be Hustle‘s single most memorable moment. The Bond movies, many of which are thinly disguised comedies in themselves, know that we’re more likely to be amused by a gag when it emerges in counterpoint to action or violence. Bond’s frequently derided one-liners—“Shocking!”—have become a cliché, but like most other clichés in these movies, they exist because they fundamentally work.

That may be why there are surprisingly few “pure” comedies among my own favorite movies. When a film wants nothing more than to make us laugh, I’m likely to find it a little unsatisfying: the best jokes are all about surprise, or catching us with our guard down, which is why a movie that tries to spring a gag every minute can start to seem thin and forced. (This also works the other way around: a movie that is unrelentingly grim can feel equally untrue to life.) Humor is at its most powerful when it’s set against a dramatic baseline, however exaggerated, that provides a contrast to the moments when the comedy erupts. The best movies of Wes Anderson, not to mention Woody Allen, are strangely preoccupied with death, and Kubrick’s genius lay in constructing movies that were so finely poised between comedy and tragedy that they evolve in our own minds between viewings: The Shining becomes a richer, more baroque comedy each time I see it, and Eyes Wide Shut is really a farce played at the speed of a dirge. My favorite description of any of Kubrick’s films is Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on Barry Lyndon: “When I saw it, I thought it was very serious, and then I saw it the second time, and I said, ‘This is fucking hilarious!'” And that’s the zone in which real comedy thrives.

Comedy and the high-functioning psychotic

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Patton Oswalt

Last week, I noted that there isn’t a lot of humor in my writing, which I chalked up to the fact that I’ve spent most of my life as an author developing other elements of fiction. However, there’s an alternative explanation: maybe I’m just not wired for comedy, at least not compared to those who are good enough to do it for a living. A recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry reports that comedians tend to score higher on four categories of psychotic traits, measured against a control group of actors—who are used to going on stage—and individuals working in noncreative fields. These tendencies include “unusual experiences,” such as a belief in psychic phenomena; impulsive or antisocial behavior; difficulty in focusing for long periods of time; and anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure. (This last quality won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Woody Allen, whose working title for the film that eventually became Annie Hall was Anhedonia.) And although any study like this needs to be taken with a grain of salt, it certainly seems consistent with what we know about the inner lives of most comedians.

But there’s also a paradox here, which is that performing comedy on stage is one of the most demanding of all creative professions, and those who succeed at it have invested inhuman amounts of time and energy into perfecting their craft, which requires all the traits of focus and organization that true psychotics might seem to lack. In an interview last week with The A.V. Club, Patton Oswalt described his process of preparation for his first HBO special in terms more suited to an athletic event:

It was my dream to do a half-hour on HBO, so that was a big deal for me. I know this is such a cliché and other comedians have said this, but I did treat it like a prizefight. I treated it like I’m ready to go in to the most perfect half-hour that I could, and I was doing sets non-stop. In clubs, I just booked myself everywhere leading up to it. On the nights that I had off, I would find a stage somewhere where I could work on a big chunk of it over and over and over again.

Trevor Noah

Later, however, Oswalt was told by his director that he’d been preparing so obsessively that he’d drained the life out of the material—he’d performed the same routines so often that all the spontaneity was gone. The director’s advice: “Tomorrow night I want you to go out, go get dinner, go see a movie, forget that you’re doing the special, and then on Friday, when you do the special, I guarantee you, it’ll all come rushing back into your head, and you’ll have a great set.” And it worked. Which gets close to the heart of the inherent contradiction, and the challenge, of being a good comedian. If comedy’s origins lie in the kinds of lateral, nonlinear thinking that we associate in their more extreme forms with certain kinds of mental illness, its execution depends on systematic rehearsal, revision, and refinement, all of which has to remain invisible to the audience. The perfect comedy set has an organic, inevitable structure, but it also feels as if it’s being thought up by the performer on the fly, no matter how many weeks or months or preparation really lie behind every line.

That’s true of all great works of art, of course; if we’re aware of the effort that has gone into an artistic production, it implies that the effort wasn’t enough. (Or as Whistler puts it: “Industry in art is a necessity—not a virtue—and any evidence of the same, in the production, is a blemish, not a quality; a proof, not of achievement, but of absolutely insufficient work, for work alone will efface the footsteps of work.”) In comedy, that balance between the spontaneous and the structured is especially crucial, and difficult, which is why there are so many more psychotics than there are comedians, and so few great comedians overall. Watching a flawless comedy set, like Trevor Noah’s eight perfect minutes on Live at the Apollo in London, allows us to see a virtuoso craftsman at work, and it’s all the more remarkable when we consider how seamlessly these raw emotional materials have been transmuted into a skilled performance. It requires a personality both sane enough to master a nearly impossible skill and crazy enough to be drawn to it in the first place. And although that combination may be rare, it’s more amazing that it happens at all.

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2014 at 9:47 am

How to think in the shower

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Cary Grant in Charade

I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.

Paul Graham

I know what he means. For as long as I can remember, my morning shower has been my best thinking time, the protected space in which I can most comfortably work through whatever problems I’m trying to solve. And while it’s easy to let your mind wander, which, as Graham points out, is a good way of discovering what really matters to you at the moment, I’ve decided that this time is too precious to be left entirely to chance. When I’m writing a novel, I try to look over my notes for the day just before I turn on the water, and I usually find that I’ve come up with a number of new ideas before it shuts off. If I’m stuck for a topic for a blog post, I’ll take whatever sliver of inspiration I can—often in the form of one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies—and mull it over for five minutes as the shower runs. More often than not, I’ll emerge with something useful. It works so consistently, in fact, that I’ve come to see it as an essential part of my writing routine, an extension of my office or brain. And I’m far from alone in this. Woody Allen, for instance, takes his showers very seriously:

I’ve found over the years that any momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy…The shower is particularly good in cold weather. This sounds so silly, but I’ll be working dressed as I am and I’ll want to get into the shower for a creative stint. So I’ll take off some of my clothes and make myself an English muffin or something and try to give myself a little chill so I want to get in the shower. I’ll stand there with steaming hot water coming down for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, just thinking out ideas and working on plot. Then I get out and dry myself and dress and then flop down on the bed and think there.

Allen here is as insightful as always—if you haven’t checked out Eric Lax’s Conversations With Woody Allen, from which this quote is taken, you really should—but he’s particularly shrewd on identifying a shower as a moment of change. In the shower, we’re taken out of our usual environment; we become semiaquatic creatures, in a humid little cube, and it’s at such points of transition that our minds are likely to move in promising directions.

The shower scene in Psycho

There are other ways of encouraging this kind of mental and physical shift, most of them linked to relaxing, unconscious activities: taking a walk, doing routine chores, shaving. But there’s also something about the shower itself that seems especially conductive to mental activity. Alone, unclothed, we’re in a particularly vulnerable state, which is what makes the shower’s most famous cinematic appearance so effective. All the same, we’re in a state of relaxation, but also standing, and although I know that a lot of writers have done good thinking in the bathtub, I don’t think it’s quite as conducive to the kind of focused mental trip that the shower provides. You can read in the bathtub, after all, as long as you’re careful with the pages, while the shower is an enforced citadel of quiet. Hanging a radio or, worse, an iPad on the tile robs us of one of our last remaining fortresses of solitude. It’s best just to stand there in the cone of white noise that the cascade of water creates, as removed from the world as we can be while still remaining awake, and it’s the best time I know for uninterrupted, right-brained, intuitive thought.

And keeping an eye on your thoughts in the shower isn’t just a way of working through problems, but of clarifying which problems really matter. To close on Paul Graham once again:

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

In the shower, we come as close as we can to who we really are when all the masks are gone, and we can learn a lot about ourselves by seeing where our minds wander. My own shower has a little window that looks out on my backyard, and I’ll often catch myself looking out at the square of lawn behind my house, thinking over my life, what I’ve accomplished, and what still remains to be done. It’s something like the state we enter as we’re drifting off to sleep, but with our eyes wide open. When we emerge, we’re refreshed and at peace, with a new perspective on the tasks ahead. If this were a new invention, it would seem like magic. And it is.

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2013 at 8:44 am

Keeping it short

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Elie Weisel

Yesterday, I noted that Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic film about the Holocaust, uses its own enormous length as a narrative strategy: its nine-hour runtime is a way of dramatizing, assimilating, and ultimately transforming the incomprehensible vastness of its subject. But there are other valid approaches as well, even to similar material. Here’s Elie Wiesel talking to The Paris Review:

I reduce nine hundred pages [the original length of Night] to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Instead of expanding his work to encompass the enormity of the events involved, Wiesel cuts it down to its core. It’s just one of millions of such stories that could have been told, and its power is only increased by the sense that it’s a single volume in an invisible library of libraries.

A big book is immediately impressive, even newsworthy, but if anything, the author’s hand is more visible in shorter works. The implicit premise of a long book is that it’s giving us an entire world, and in many of the great social epics—from War and Peace to A Suitable Boy—the writer himself is invisible by design. A short work, by contrast, is more about selection, and it foregrounds the author’s choices: the boundaries of the narrative are set within a narrow window, and the result is just as evocative for what it omits as includes. Every painter knows that one of the hardest decisions in making a new composition is knowing where to put the frame. If a big novel is the literary equivalent of a huge pane of plate glass, a short book is more like what the great architect Christopher Alexander has called a Zen view, a tiny opening in a wall that only exposes a fraction of the landscape. When we see a spectacular panorama all at once, it becomes dead to us after a day or two, as if it were part of the wallpaper; if we view it through a tiny opening, or glimpse it only as we pass from one room to the next, it remains vital forever, even if we live with it for fifty years. A short work of narrative sets up some of the same vibrations, with a sense that there’s more taking place beyond the edge of the pane, if only we could see it.

Woody Allen

A shorter length is also more suited for stories that hinge on the reader’s suspension of belief, or on the momentary alignment of a few extraordinary factors. This includes both comedy and its darker cousin noir. Great comic works, whether in fiction, film, or drama, tend to be relatively short, both because it’s hard to sustain the necessary pitch for long and because the story often hinges on elements that can’t be spun out forever: coincidence, misunderstanding, an elaborate series of mistakes. Another turn of the screw and you’ve got a thriller, which tends to be similarly concise. Some of the best suspense novels in the language were written to fit in a pocket: The Postman Always Rings Twice is maybe 120 pages long, Double Indemnity even shorter, the Travis McGee books a reliable 150 or so. Like comedy, noir and suspense are built on premises that would fall apart, either narratively or logically, if spun out to six hundred pages: characters are presented to us at their lowest point, or at a moment of maximum intensity, and it doesn’t particularly matter what they were doing before or after the story began. That kind of concentration and selectiveness is what separates great writers from the rest: the secret of both comedy and suspense is knowing what to leave out.

And that’s equally true of the movies, even if it’s something that a filmmaker discovers only after hard experience. Cutting a novel can be agonizing, but it’s all the more painful to excise scenes from a movie, when the footage you’re removing represents hundreds or thousands of hours of collective effort—which is why an editor like Walter Murch never visits the set, allowing him to remain objective. There’s no better contemporary model of cinematic brevity than Woody Allen, whose movies rarely run more than ninety minutes, partly because his own attention starts to wander: “For me, if I make a film which is one hour forty minutes, it’s long. I just run out of story impetus after a certain time.” And although he’s never said so in public, it’s clear that he arrived at this artistic philosophy in the late seventies, after laboring hard with the screenwriter Marshall Brickman on a three-hour monster of a comedy. Its working title was Anhedonia, and it was going to cover every aspect of its protagonist’s life—childhood, career, romance—with countless surreal sketches and fantasy sequences. The result was an unwatchable mess, so it was only with the help of editor Ralph Rosenblum that Allen was able to find its heart: a quirky, focused love story, with only two major characters, that ran a clean 93 minutes. It was Annie Hall.

Quote of the Day

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Woody Allen in Bananas

I needed a climax for that film [Bananas], and I didn’t have the money for the traditional chase. So I made it a trial. It’s always much cheaper.

Woody Allen

Written by nevalalee

October 4, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day

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“My biggest life lesson…”

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I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that eighty percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were eighty percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out without ever getting that pack. They couldn’t do it, that’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing, so once you do it, if you actually write your film script, or write your novel, you are more than halfway towards something good happening. So that I was say my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.

Woody Allen, to Collider

Written by nevalalee

September 22, 2012 at 9:50 am

For love or money

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Whenever I think about the relationship between writing and money, I remember an exchange in What’s New Pussycat? between Peter O’Toole and Woody Allen:

O’Toole: Did you find a job?
Allen: Yeah, I got something at the striptease. I help the girls dress and undress.
O’Toole: Nice job.
Allen: Twenty francs a week.
O’Toole: Not very much.
Allen: It’s all I can afford.

It’s a great gag, but the reason I like it so much is that it points to a universal truth: when we’re doing what we love for a living, we’ll gladly pay for the privilege. (Incidentally, this exchange, which you can watch starting at the 2:53 mark here, forms part of Allen’s movie debut, which shows how fully realized his persona was from the very beginning.)

Here’s another example. I have a friend who loves to knit, and whenever I see her, she’s always working on scarves and socks as gifts for friends. (She even hopes to raise goats for their wool one day.) When she’s asked if she’d ever consider selling her work on Etsy, however, she says no. Why? Given how much effort and energy she invests in one pair of socks, she says, she’d have to sell them for something like three hundred dollars in order to be fairly compensated for her time. Knitting by hand is a losing proposition, at least in financial terms, but she does it because she enjoys it. This is true of a lot of hobbies, even when we get paid for our work. When we bring the tomatoes from our garden to sell at the farmer’s market, we don’t expect to break even on the transaction, but it’s still gratifying to make the sale.

And this is often true of writing as well. Even setting aside the fact that I do a lot of my writing for free—I haven’t seen a cent from this blog, for one thing—the writing I do for money doesn’t always make sense from a financial point of view. When I publish a story in Analog, for instance, I get paid, at most, seven cents a word. Given the fact that it takes me two solid weeks to research, outline, and write even a relatively short story, when I do the math, I find that I’m basically working for minimum wage. And this is one of the best possible outcomes for this kind of writing. Analog, as it happens, is at the high end of what science fiction magazines can pay these days, with many of the smaller magazines, in any genre, essentially asking authors to write for free. The days in which a writer like Isaac Asimov could make a comfortable living from his short fiction alone are long gone.

So why do I do it? Mostly because I grew up loving the kinds of stories that Analog publishes, and I’m still tickled by the prospect of appearing in its pages, to the point where I’ll more or less pay for the chance, at least when you measure my work in terms of its opportunity cost. For the past couple of years, I’ve been in the enviable position of having at least one story in the pipeline at all times, but after my novelette “The Voices” comes out next month in the September issue, I won’t have anything coming up. And although my schedule this year is uncomfortably packed as it is, I’ll almost certainly take a couple of weeks off at some point to knock out another story, without any guarantee of acceptance, even though my time could be more profitably spent in other ways. And if I could, I’d do this even more often. One short story a year isn’t very much. But it’s all I can afford.

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2012 at 9:53 am

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