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.

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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.

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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

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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

The pause that refreshes

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For most writers, working too hard is the least of their problems, but sometimes it’s necessary to slow down. In this respect, I’m a bigger offender than most. As regular readers will know, I’m a member of the cult of productivity: I believe that in order to write well, you need to write a lot, and I take pride in the fact that I can reliably crank out a few pages on demand. (Although not without the preliminary work of brainstorming, researching, and outlining, which effectively triples my writing time, without even counting revision.) Yet as I start the process of outlining The Scythian, I’m repeatedly reminded of the fact that it’s occasionally good to pause, look around, and see where you are. Because it’s in the moments between sessions of furious activity, when no visible work is being done, that some of our most important insights take place.

In the old days, writers found plenty of occasions to pause during the day, simply because their materials demanded it. You had quills to cut, inkwells to fill, or, later, typewriter ribbons to replace. (Not to mention figuring out how to reboot WordPerfect.) These tasks were tedious, but they also provided useful intervals of downtime. I never get tired of quoting these lines from Behind the Seen about the great film editor Walter Murch, who found moments of surprising introspection on an old-fashioned editing machine:

As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him the chance to see footage in other context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas.

These days, of course, with modern editing systems and word processing programs, such blank spaces have become harder to find. (Although it’s likely that later generations will look back with amazement on how we managed to get so much work done without the benefit of neural implants.) And while Word still crashes from time to time—in my case, for some reason, whenever I try to use the highlighting tool—that isn’t a substitute for more regular pauses.

In fact, I suspect that many of the brainstorming tools used by writers, including myself, are actually veiled ways of slowing down the creative process, which allows the two hemispheres of the brain to fall into line. Mind maps are a great example. I’ve found that mind maps drawn by hand are infinitely more useful than those made with a computer program, simply because they take longer to make. When I’m seated with a pad of cheap paper, letting my pen wander across the page, I have no choice but to slow down and let my thoughts wander at the same pace as the physical act of writing. As a result, when I’m reviewing the action of the scene I’m outlining, I find myself drilling deeper into individual moments, when I might have hurried past them if I were typing lines into a text box. The activity itself doesn’t really matter: the important thing is to ruminate for an hour or so at a fairly slow speed. Drawing a mind map conveniently gives my eye and hand something to do while my brain does the work.

Other writers will find their own ways of inserting a pause into the creative process. Often just the act of getting up from one’s desk, walking around the room, and doing a few chores—although nothing mentally taxing—will allow the brain to relax. I’ve spoken before of how shaving is the perfect activity for this sort of thing, and I’m not the only one. Here’s Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, on dealing with writer’s block:

For if a pinch of snuff, or a stride or two across the room will not do the business for me—I take a razor at once; and having tried the edge of it upon the palm of my hand, without further ceremony, except that of first lathering my beard, I shave it off.

Woody Allen, as I’ve noted before, takes a shower or a walk in the park, and I’ll often get ideas while doing the dishes. Just about anything, in fact, can be used to insert a pause into one’s routine—except going online. Not every writer needs to go as far as Jonathan Franzen, who glued an Ethernet cable into his laptop and broke it off, but it’s worth remembering that nearly all the time you spend online could be more profitably used somewhere else, even if that means doing nothing at all. Which raises the question, of course, of why you’re even reading this post…but lucky for you, I’m done.

Written by nevalalee

February 2, 2012 at 9:51 am

The lost years of Alexander Payne

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It’s hard to believe that seven years have passed since the release of Alexander Payne’s Sideways. When I first saw it, I thought it was close to perfect, if resolutely minor, but if anything, it has grown even more impressive over time—and in retrospect, it’s more clearly a predictor of the last decade’s dominant strain in comedy. In the years since it first appeared, countless directors have tried to recreate its heady mixture of slapstick and intensely observed discomfort—much of Judd Apatow’s recent output feels like a younger, hipper version of Payne’s work, and both Jason Reitman and The Office owe a lot to it as well—but none has ever quite managed to satisfy its audience on so many levels. In fact, I loved it so much that I wrote at the time, without any sense that I was voicing an ironic prophecy: “If there’s any director who ought to make an annual movie for the next twenty years, it’s Alexander Payne.”

Cut to the present day, when Payne’s lack of productivity has been so notorious that it inspired its own article in the New York Times. Payne hasn’t been inactive—he developed various projects, shot the pilot for Hung, and was “credited” with longtime writing partner Jim Taylor on the script for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry—but it’s still a startling gap between Sideways and his new film The Descendants. It’s true that the vagaries of Hollywood can lead to long hiatuses in careers for no discernible reason, but Payne himself seems to view his case as exceptional: he says that he hoped to have directed five more movies by now, and intends to pick up the pace. But there’s no escaping a sense that he may have lost some of the most productive years of his life. The Times article, by Frank Bruni, ends on a sobering note:

“They say you can do honest, sincere work for decades, but you’re given in general a 10-year period when what you do touches the zeitgeist—when you’re relevant,” [Payne] observed during another of our talks. “And I’m aware of that, and I don’t want my time to go by.”

Did the seven years between Sideways and The Descendants eat up some of his charmed decade, or is that decade just beginning now?

He was silent a few seconds.

“I have no idea,” he said.

That said, it’s hard to imagine Payne, or anyone else, making a movie like The Descendants every year. It’s precisely the film by Payne that everyone was hoping to see: small, intimate, agonizingly well-observed, yet emotionally and thematically ambitious in a way that sneaks up on you over time. It’s so modest in tone that it’s easy to overlook how beautifully shot and designed it is: its locations, its art direction, even the clothes by Wendy Chuck—all those Hawaiian shirts tucked into khakis!—are among the most subtly satisfying I’ve seen all year. And, not least of all, it features George Clooney’s most moving performance. Payne has always been great with actors, and watching what he does here with Clooney, who gets to indulge in everything from broad physical comedy to moments that draw on Brando’s scene with his dead wife in Last Tango in Paris, makes you feel the loss of the past seven years even more keenly.

Payne’s case is a difficult one, because he’s a formal perfectionist who tells shaggy human stories that feel as if they should be more numerous than they are. And while The Descendants was worth the wait, there’s still a sense of incompleteness to Payne’s filmography, as if a few lines had gone missing on IMDb. I don’t know if Payne, or his audience, would be any happier if he had been more like Woody Allen, who makes two minor films in a row so that everyone dismisses him, then comes roaring back with Midnight in Paris. But Allen’s career, with its amazing variety and productivity, comes closest to a model of what a director like Payne should be. Now that Spike Lee is taking a break, Allen is one of the few major directors who makes a virtue out of quantity—which, as I’ve noted here before, is often what makes quality possible. The Descendants is a great movie. And it makes me sincerely hope that we aren’t at the end of Payne’s ten years of relevance, but the beginning.

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November 21, 2011 at 9:59 am

Turn off, tune out, drop in

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For most of the past decade, I’ve been wearing white headphones. I got my first iPod nine years ago, when I was a senior in college, and at the time, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. (Today, it looks like a big brick of lucite, but that’s another story.) I’ve updated my music player twice since then, and there’s rarely been a day when I didn’t put on those white earbuds. I drive only very rarely and walk or take public transit almost everywhere around Chicago, as I did when I was living in Boston and New York, so the iPod and its successors have always been a big part of my life. But now, reluctantly, I’m starting to let it go. And I’m writing this post partly as a way of reminding myself why.

I’d been thinking about taking the headphones off for a long time, but it was only last week, when I saw the documentary Public Speaking, that I decided to do something about it. Public Speaking is Martin Scorsese’s loving portrait of occasional writer and professional raconteur Fran Lebowitz. (On her legendary writer’s block: “It’s more of a writer’s blockade.”) Lebowitz doesn’t own a cell phone, a Blackberry, or a computer, and seems vaguely puzzled by those who do. In the film, while miming someone texting furiously, she notes that when you’re down there, on your mobile device, you’re nowhere else, including wherever you happen to be. And much of Lebowitz’s own brilliance and charm comes from her intense engagement with her surroundings.

None of this is exactly groundbreaking, of course, but for whatever reason, it crystallized something in my own mind. For a while, I’ve been obsessed by the fact that every moment in a writer’s life is, potentially, a time that can be used for creation. A writer can’t be working all the time, of course—that way lies madness—but much of the art of surviving as an artist is knowing how to exploit what stray moments of creativity we’re given. Many of my best ideas have popped spontaneously into my head, as I’ve said in the past, while shaving, or while doing otherwise mindless chores like washing the dishes. I’ve quoted Woody Allen on this point before, but because it’s some of the most useful writing advice I know, I’ll quote him again, from Eric Lax’s great Conversations with Woody Allen:

I never like to let any time go unused. When I walk somewhere in the morning, I still plan what I’m going to think about, which problem I’m going to tackle. I may say, This morning I’m going to think of titles. When I get in the shower in the morning, I try to use that time. So much of my time is spent thinking because that’s the only way to attack these writing problems.

And walking alone, as Colin Fletcher and others have realized, is perhaps the best time for thinking. I’ve rarely had to deal with a plot problem that couldn’t be solved, all but unconsciously, by a short walk to the grocery store.  And yet here’s the thing: when my iPod is playing, it doesn’t work. Music, I’m increasingly convinced, anesthetizes the right side of the brain. Sometimes it can help your mind drift and relax, which can lead to insight as well, but for the most part, it’s an excuse to avoid leaving yourself open to ideas—which is unacceptable when you’re counting on those ideas to survive. So from now on, whenever I go out, I’m leaving the headphones at home. Not all the time, perhaps: there are times when I just need to hear, I don’t know, “Blue Monday.” But for the most part, for the first time in years, I’m going to try and listen to my thoughts.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2011 at 9:04 am

Midnight in Paris and the true golden age

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Yesterday my wife and I finally caught a screening of Midnight in Paris, which is already on track to become Woody Allen’s highest-grossing movie since Hannah and Her Sisters. While it’s definitely one of Allen’s slighter films, it’s easy to see why it’s doing so well: it’s clever and fun, and by the end, it’s hard not to be charmed by its premise. I was especially envious of the fact that my wife managed to enter the theater without knowing the movie’s central twist, which is that—spoiler alert—the main character, played by Owen Wilson, travels back in time to Paris in the 1920s, allowing him to rub elbows with Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and many other luminaries. (I was really hoping for a cameo by Duchamp, but had to settle for Dali and Man Ray.)

The funny thing is that even though I liked the movie a lot, I responded more to its air of Parisian romance (the cinematography, by the legendary Darius Khondji, is gorgeous) than to its underlying conceit, which is that it would be awesome to have the chance to hang out with your favorite writers. In my own experience, writers generally aren’t great company: the best ones put so much of themselves into their work that there isn’t much left for social niceties. And that applies to great writers as much as to anyone else. Joyce and Proust met only once, at a party thrown by art patrons Violet and Sydney Schiff, and while they evidently shared a carriage ride home, they didn’t have much to say to each other. (Proust, evidently, spent most of the night complaining about his health problems.)

And in the end, the books themselves are more than enough. It’s possible to know Proust more intimately than just about any other person, because he put so much of himself into his writing. Reading, as others have pointed out, is the only form of time travel that we’re currently afforded, and the nice thing about being a reader in the present is that you can access so much of previous eras. One of the messages of Midnight in Paris is that every generation, even the ones that we idealize today, has looked back to a lost golden age. But objectively speaking, if there’s a real golden age, it’s right now, even if you’re the kind of person—like me—who tends to be stuck in the past. There’s simply more past than ever before, in libraries, record shops, movie houses, and, yes, even online. And I’d never want to give up any of it.

That said, it’s still fun to think about what your own golden age might be (as the AV Club did last year, in one of my favorite Q&As). I’d happily spend an afternoon with any version of Orson Welles, or, if we’re going to restrict ourselves to a more recent period, to Coppola and the Zoetrope Studios, ideally in the narrow window after Apocalypse Now and before One From the Heart. As I’ve mentioned before, I’d love to go back in time to Berkeley of the 1970s. And there’s something very tempting about that party with Proust and Joyce, which was also attended by Picasso, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev. In the end, though, I’m happiest here, because I can enjoy the best of the past and look forward to more to come. The trouble with going back in time, after all, is that you’d know all that was coming, good and bad, and would never have the chance to be surprised by a masterpiece—or even just a very good Woody Allen movie. And where’s the fun in that?

Woody Allen on the discipline of writing

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Woody Allen: I used to get at it [writing] early in the morning and work at it and stay at it and write and rewrite and rethink and tear up my stuff and start over again. I came up with such a hard-line approach—I never waited for inspiration; I always had to go in and do it. You know, you gotta force it. So I could always do the writing and rewriting because I’d force myself. I found a million little tricks over the years to help get through that unpleasant time…

Eric Lax: What are some of the million little tricks you’ve found?

Woody Allen: Always setting myself something to think about for the project at any given free moment: When I go into the shower in the morning; when I go to sleep at night; when I’m waiting for an elevator. Somebody told me years ago about a major league pitcher who always wanted to be a pitcher. When he was growing up on his farm his father told him, “Whenever you’re sitting around pick up a stone and try and hit a blade of grass with it, try and hit a twig with it. Make use of every moment.” And that sounds very logical to me.

Eric Lax, Conversations with Woody Allen

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2011 at 12:00 am

Beyond the valley of procrastination

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Whenever I think about the virtues of procrastination, and how misunderstood a part of the creative process it is, I remember a story that Roger Ebert tells of the late director Russ Meyer. When they were working on the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—and yes, I’m aware that we aren’t exactly talking The King’s Speech here—Ebert writes:

Working with Meyer was exhilarating but demanding. He equated writing with typing. He kept his office door open, and whenever he couldn’t hear my typewriter keys, he’d shout, “What’s the matter?”

Meyer, in other words, felt that when a writer wasn’t physically typing, he was just wasting time. (I imagine that a lot of editors and studio executives feel the same way.) Yet every professional writer knows that maybe ten percent of his or her workday—at most—is spent actually typing. The rest is spent pacing, staring into space, or, most likely, goofing off on the Internet. And yet, with the possible exception of that last example, these are the times when the real writing occurs. In most cases, typing is only the working out of a conception that has already arisen from a much less expected place.

As I’ve mentioned before, Woody Allen sets himself plot problems to solve while he’s taking a walk or in the shower. I can testify from my own experience that when I assign myself a problem before I go to the grocery store, by the time I get home again, I’ve almost invariably solved it. Why? It might be that a change of scene puts my brain to work. It may even be a case of Faculty X, in which the left brain slows down long enough to let the right brain catch up. Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that an act of procrastination can be creatively liberating in ways that discipline alone never can.

This might be the final, most mysterious secret of good writing: that it takes place at the most unexpected times. It can happen on walks, in the shower, or, in Nicholas Meyer’s case, in the bathtub. And when procrastination calls, it’s important to let it do its work. Without the structure of a daily routine, procrastination can easily turn into an excuse to avoid the hard work of writing; within that structure, though, it’s an indispensable part of the process. That’s why it’s important to build breaks into your schedule, to use downtime judiciously, and to be brave enough, when necessary, to be lazy.

Written by nevalalee

March 4, 2011 at 9:07 am

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations

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As the New York Times recently pointed out, Google’s new online book database, which allows users to chart the evolving frequency of words and short phrases over 5.2 million digitized volumes, is a wonderful toy. You can look at the increasing frequency of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, for example—not surprisingly, they’ve all become a lot more common over the past few decades—or chart the depressing ascent of “alright.” Most seductively, perhaps, you can see at a glance how literary reputations have risen or fallen over time. Take these five, for example:

It’s hard not to see that, for all the talk of the death of Freud, he’s doing surprisingly well, and even passed Shakespeare in the mid-’70s (around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, as Woody Allen’s creative peak). Goethe experienced a rapid fall in popularity in the mid-’30s, though he had recovered nicely by the end of World War II. Tolstoy, by contrast, saw a spike sometime around the Big Three conference in Tehran, and a drop as soon as the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. And Kafka, while less popular during the satisfied ’50s, saw a sudden surge in the paranoid decades thereafter:

Obviously, it’s possible to see patterns anywhere, and I’m not claiming that these graphs reflect real historical cause and effect. But it’s fun to think about. Even more fun is to look at the relative popularity of five leading American novelists of the last half of the twentieth century:

The most interesting graph is that for Norman Mailer, who experiences a huge ascent up to 1970, when his stature as a cultural icon was at his peak (just after his run for mayor of New York). Eventually, though, his graph—like those of Gore Vidal, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow—follows the trajectory that we might suspect for that of an established, serious author: a long, gradual rise followed by a period of stability, as the author enters the official canon. Compare this to a graph of four best-selling novelists of the 1970s:

For Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace, and Arthur Hailey—and if you don’t recognize their names, ask your parents—we see a rapid rise in popularity followed by an equally rapid decline, which is what we might expect for authors who were once hugely popular but had no lasting value.

It’ll be interesting to see what this graph will look like in fifty years for, say, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, and in which category someone like Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling will appear. Only time, and Google, will tell.

Tree of Codes and the power of constraints

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The more I think about Tree of Codes, the more I’m reminded of another Woody Allen observation, which also appears in Eric Lax’s book:

There’s no question that comedy is harder to do than serious stuff. There’s also no question in my mind that comedy is less valuable than serious stuff.

Similarly, it’s clear that Tree of Codes was much harder to write, at least in some ways, than most conventional novels, but in the end, it’s also probably less valuable. I’d much rather see Foer really tackle a genre piece, for example, after the fashion of Michael Chabon, although I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

Still, there’s something to be said for an artist willing to work under such serious constraints. Writers, in particular, stand to benefit from deliberate restrictions, much more than, say, filmmakers, who are already forced to deal with severe constraints—of time, budget, location—that don’t apply to fiction. (The history of film, unless you’re James Cameron, is a history of solving problems using limited resources.) A writer is limited only by talent, and perhaps by time, which means that most restrictions need to be imposed from the outside. Which is often a good idea.

So what form should these restrictions take? You could try writing under a set of challenging formal rules, as poets do, or within a massive symbolic architecture, like Dante and Joyce. But for ordinary mortals, the most productive constraint is a very different one, and it’s such an important point that I’m putting it in boldface:

For most writers, the best and most useful constraint is genre.

Genre is often seen as a crutch, allowing a writer to let established formulas take the place of invention—but ideally, the opposite is true. By pushing back against a genre’s conventions, and finding ways of telling fresh stories within those constraints, a writer is forced to be much more inventive than if he or she had complete narrative freedom. As P.D. James puts it in The Paris Review:

…I thought writing a detective story would be a wonderful apprenticeship for a “serious” novelist, because a detective story is very easy to write badly but difficult to write well. There is so much you have to fit into eighty or ninety-thousand words—not just creating a puzzle, but an atmosphere, a setting, characters…Then when the first one worked, I continued, and I came to believe that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.

It’s even possible, she might have added, to discover things about men and women that wouldn’t have occurred to the author at all without the genre’s constraints. This is also one of the virtues of an intricate plot, which can test a writer’s ingenuity as much as any elaborate symbolic structure, and has the additional benefit of not being unreadable. Which, really, isn’t a bad place to start.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Lessons from Woody Allen

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So today is Woody Allen’s 75th birthday, which gives me an excuse to talk about two of my favorite books on film: When the Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins, by Allen’s frequent editor, the late Ralph Rosenblum, and Conversations With Woody Allen, by Eric Lax.

Ralph Rosenblum was a legendary editor best known for extracting what became Annie Hall out of three hours of brilliant but shapeless footage. It’s hard to believe, but Annie Hall, which seems so focused and inevitable now, was originally a steam-of-consciousness comedy called Anhedonia, in which Diane Keaton’s character appeared only in passing. Rosenblum and Allen, faced with what looked like an unsalvageable movie, carved out its core love story by making massive cuts, juxtaposing previously unrelated scenes, adding music, and incorporating a few strategic voiceovers. If revision is the heart of creation, then Rosenblum’s work here ranks among the most creative acts in the history of movies.

As for Conversations With Woody Allen, it consists of thematically arranged interviews between Allen and Eric Lax over the past forty years, from Bananas to Whatever Works. (It also has a very nice Chip Kidd cover.) Opening it at random, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the density of insights per page. Here, for example, is Allen on finding time to develop ideas:

If I’m sitting somewhere for ten minutes unoccupied, my mind just clicks into it. I can’t help it. I come home and I’m thinking about it. It just works that way. I even try to think about it when I get into bed to go to sleep.

I never like to let any time go unused. When I walk somewhere in the morning, I still plan what I’m going to think about, which problem I’m going to tackle. I may say, This morning I’m going to think of titles. When I get in the shower in the morning, I try to use that time. So much of my time is spent thinking because that’s the only way to attack these writing problems.

(Aside: You may have noticed that I like using examples from film to talk about fiction. The reason for this, besides the fact that I love movies, is that I believe that most good fiction arises from action and structure, which result, if done correctly, in what we think of as character and theme. And the nice thing about action and structure is that they can be taught by example, while such matters as style and voice can only come from long practice.

Many, perhaps most, books on writing concentrate on style and voice, which means that they focus, unhelpfully, on what is largely unteachable. Books on film and screenwriting, by contrast, have no problem discussing issues of action and structure, which makes them especially useful for writers who are still working on the fundamentals of craft. So if I tend to cite Woody Allen or David Mamet as often as John Gardner, you’ll know the reason why.)

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2010 at 7:35 pm

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