Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The act of killing

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Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the first two episodes of Mindhunter, the new Netflix series created by Joe Penhall and produced by David Fincher. We took in the installments over successive nights, but if you can, I’d recommend viewing them back to back—they really add up to a single pilot episode, arbitrarily divided in half, and they amount to a new movie from one of the five most interesting American directors under sixty. After the first episode, I was a little mixed, but I felt better after the next one, and although I still have some reservations, I expect that I’ll keep going. The writing tends to spell things out a little too clearly; it doesn’t always avoid clichés; and there are times when it feels like a first draft of a stronger show to come. Fincher, characteristically, sometimes seems less interested in the big picture than in small, finicky details, like the huge titles used to identify the locations onscreen, or the fussily perfect sound that the springs of the chair make whenever the bulky serial killer Ed Kemper sits down. (He also gives us two virtuoso sequences of the kind that he does better than just about anyone else—a scene in a noisy club with subtitled dialogue, which I’ve been waiting to see for years, and a long, very funny montage of two FBI agents on the road.) For long stretches, the show is about little else than the capabilities of the Red Xenomorph digital camera. Yet it also feels like a skeleton key for approaching the work of a man who, in fits and starts, has come to seem like the crucial director of our time, in large part because of his own ambivalence toward his fantasies of control.

Mindhunter is based on a book of the same name by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker about the development of behavioral science at the FBI. I read it over twenty years ago, at the peak of my morbid interest in serial killers, which is a phase that a lot of us pass through and that Fincher, revealingly, has never outgrown. Apart from Alien 3, which was project that he barely understood and couldn’t control, his real debut was Seven, in which he benefited from a mechanical but undeniably compelling script by Andrew Kevin Walker and a central figure who has obsessed him ever since. John Doe, the killer, is still the greatest example of the villain who seems to be writing the screenplay for the movie in which he appears. (As David Thomson says of Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK: “[He’s] so omniscient he must be the scriptwriter.”) Doe’s notebooks, rendered in comically lavish detail, are like a nightmare version of the notes, plans, and storyboards that every film generates, and he alternately assumes the role of writer, art director, prop master, and producer. By the end, with the hero detectives reduced to acting out their assigned parts in his play, the distinction between Doe and the director—a technical perfectionist who would later become notorious for asking his performers for hundreds of takes—seems to disappear completely. It seems to have simultaneously exhilarated and troubled Fincher, much as it did Christopher Nolan as he teased out his affinities with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and both men have spent much of their subsequent careers working through the implications of that discovery.

Fincher hasn’t always been comfortable with his association with serial killers, to the extent that he made a point of having the characters in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo refer to “a serial murderer,” as if we’d be fooled by the change in terminology. Yet the main line of his filmography is an attempt by a surprisingly smart, thoughtful director to come to terms with his own history of violence. There were glimpses of it as early as The Game, and Zodiac, his masterpiece, is a deconstruction of the formula that turned out to be so lucrative in Seven—the killer, wearing a mask, appears onscreen for just five minutes, and some of the scariest scenes don’t have anything to do with him at all, even as his actions reverberate outward to affect the lives of everyone they touch. Dragon Tattoo, which is a movie that looks a lot better with time, identifies its murder investigation with the work of the director and his editors, who seemed to be asking us to appreciate their ingenuity in turning the elements of the book, with its five acts and endless procession of interchangeable suspects, into a coherent film. And while Gone Girl wasn’t technically a serial killer movie, it gave us his most fully realized version to date of the antagonist as the movie’s secret writer, even if she let us down with the ending that she wrote for herself. In each case, Fincher was processing his identity as a director who was drawn to big technical challenges, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network, without losing track of the human thread. And he seems to have sensed how easily he could become a kind of John Doe, a master technician who toys sadistically with the lives of others.

And although Mindhunter takes a little while to reveal its strengths, it looks like it will be worth watching as Fincher’s most extended attempt to literally interrogate his assumptions. (Fincher only directed the first two episodes, but this doesn’t detract from what might have attracted him to this particular project, or the role that he played in shaping it as a producer.) The show follows two FBI agents as they interview serial killers in search of insights into their madness, with the tone set by a chilling monologue by Ed Kemper:

People who hunt other people for a vocation—all we want to talk about is what it’s like. The shit that went down. The entire fucked-upness of it. It’s not easy butchering people. It’s hard work. Physically and mentally, I don’t think people realize. You need to vent…Look at the consequences. The stakes are very high.

Take out the references to murder, and it might be the director talking. Kemper later casually refers to his “oeuvre,” leading one of the two agents to crack: “Is he Stanley Kubrick?” It’s a little out of character, but also enormously revealing. Fincher, like Nolan, has spent his career in dialogue with Kubrick, who, fairly or not, still sets the standard for obsessive, meticulous, controlling directors. Kubrick never made a movie about a serial killer, but he took the equation between the creative urge and violence—particularly in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining—as far as anyone ever has. And Mindhunter will only become the great show that it has the potential to be if it asks why these directors, and their fans, are so drawn to these stories in the first place.

Quote of the Day

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Yes, it is crazy, to sit savoring…impossibilities, while headlines yell at you and the wolf whuffs through the keyhole. Yet now and then it cannot harm you, thus to enjoy a short respite from reality…You are doubly blessed, to possess in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time.

M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf

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October 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

The problem of painting

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I am interested…only in the problem of painting, of how to make a better painting according to certain laws that are inherent in the making of a good picture—and not at all in private extraversions or introversions of specific individuals…When a painting is evolved from imaginative principles I am strongly inclined to turn away because I have greater faith that intellectual clarity is better and more entertaining than imaginative wisdom or emotional richness. I believe in the theoretical aspects of painting because I believe it produced better painting, and I think I can say I have been a fair exponent of the imaginative idea.

I have come to the conclusion that it is better to have two colors in right relation to each other than to have a vast confusion of emotional exuberance in the guise of ecstatic fullness or poetical revelation—both of which qualities have, generally speaking, long since become second-rate experience. I had rather be intellectually right than emotionally exuberant, and I could say this of any other aspect of my personal experience.

Marsden Hartley, “Art and the Personal Life”

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October 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

The third thought

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[Improv teacher Del Close said] to always go to your third thought. Sounds really simple, but when you’re onstage, your first thought is knee-jerk. Your second thought is usually okay, but not great. Del would make you stay in a scene until you found your third thought, which was a little above and beyond what most other teachers would suggest. Basically, he wanted your third thought for your character choice, your third thought for your premise or your scene, your third thought for your heightened move…Another lesson was to always play to the top of your intelligence. If you treat the audience like poets and geniuses, that’s what they will become.

Adam McKay, in an interview with Mike Sacks in Poking a Dead Frog

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October 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

The imagination of form

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In his new book The Shadow in The Garden, James Atlas—the acclaimed author of biographies of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow—quotes Leon Edel, the legendary biographer of Henry James: “A writer of lives is allowed the imagination of form but not of fact.” The line appears in the introductory “manifesto” to Edel’s Principia Biographica, in which he also states:

In a sense all lives are clutter composed as the poet said of “the butt-ends of my days and ways.” If biography reproduces this it reproduces habitual disorder. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: “Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear among the far louder noises of experience like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.” If we apply these words to biography we can see that a writer of lives must extract individuals from their chaos yet create an illusion that they are in the midst of life—in the way that a painter arrives at an approximation of a familiar visage on a canvas. The biographer who is unable to do this creates a waxworks, a dummy, a papier-mâché, and often a caricature.

And he concludes with a daunting challenge to biographers of all kinds: “The biographer truly succeeds if a distinct literary form can be found for the particular life.”

For the last two years, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, as I try to put together a literary biography that cuts between the stories of four complicated major figures and the important people in their lives, along with a huge amount of cultural background about the history of science fiction. The arrangement is basically chronological, but within that framework, there’s room for an infinite number of permutations. It’s difficult enough to figure out how to move between the four major players, who had periods of intense collaboration in which their careers overlapped, but also spent decades in different parts of the country. Knowing where to put the transitions has been the most obvious structural challenge that Astounding has presented, but even within each section, there are countless problems to solve. For the sake of clarity, I’ve often had to arrange the material according to theme, without doing violence to the timeline, which is a tricky balancing act in itself. To engage the reader, I’ll often start a chapter with a striking incident, then backtrack, which requires a certain finesse. And this doesn’t even get at the bane of the biographer’s existence, which is how to decide what to include or exclude. Atlas’s description of himself while writing his biography of Schwartz sounds a lot like I feel right now:

I was drowning in documentation. Manuscripts, clippings, transcriptions of interviews, and Xeroxed articles lay strewn about the floor. I crawled around amid the notecards laid out as if for some immense game of solitaire until I developed rug burns on my knees…My original fear that I wouldn’t have enough documentation soon gave way to despair about how I would get it all in.

So what exactly do biographers do? The secret, I think, is to realize that concerns about form aren’t just a courtesy to the reader, to whom structure provides a conceptual scaffolding, but to the author. When you hit on the right shape, it turns into a machine for making choices, just as the internal logic of the narrative does for a novelist. Writing of Edel’s distinction between “form” and “fact,” Atlas writes:

The “fact” part I got (though I would come to question the whole notion that there was such a thing as fact). It had never occurred to me that the “form” could be so elastic—that, in effect, you could construct a biography however you liked. Richard Holmes had a useful term form this method: “nonfiction storytelling,” biography that has “a protagonist, a time-sequence, a plot, and a dramatic pattern of human cause and effect.” Nonfiction storytelling: that’s what I was after.

You could argue that a person’s life doesn’t naturally fall into such neat stages, any more than our everyday existence follows the conventions of a plot, and that it’s just a short step from this approach to the clumsy shoehorning of true events into a stock screenplay formula that we see in so many biopics. But some kind of storytelling is required to convey information in a way that the reader can understand and absorb, and it’s no more artificial than the “convention” that books should consist of signatures of folded paper sewn together into a binding. Structure is a delivery system for facts and ideas, just as the physical book delivers the text to our eyes and brain, and any artifice that it imposes seems trivial compared to the costs of doing without it altogether.

The best way for a biographer to figure this out, of course, is to learn from the works of others. Writing of his experience in reading Edel’s biography of Henry James, Atlas captures the way in which even small choices can take on an outsized significance when you’re working in the same genre as a master: “I also liked the way Edel broke up the chapters into manageable size, then broke them up into still smaller bits separated by roman numerals; it didn’t make you feel, as so many biographies did, that you were traversing an arid desert of type. The narrative was well paced; clearly a lot of thought had gone into the beginnings and endings of sections.” Atlas also benefited from a piece of valuable advice from the critic Dwight Macdonald, Schwartz’s literary executor, who told him: “Omission, generalization, intensification: that’s your clue.” But like any extended work of art, a biography ultimately reflects the personality of its creator, which can’t be hidden, although it also shouldn’t go out of its way to draw attention to itself. As Edel writes:

A biographer who works as an artist becomes the biography. An “impersonal” biography is tasteless and without character, force, or authority. “The thing that is necessarily overlooked,” said Wallace Stevens, “is the presence of the determining personality.” Why “necessarily?” A good and useful life must be fashioned by a “determining personality.” The biographer unable to select and arrange significant detail is like a painter who smudges his canvas.

This is sound, sensible advice—maybe a little too sound and sensible. When you’re dealing with what Joyce Carol Oates calls the “small infinity” of materials at hand, it can be hard to keep it in mind. But I take comfort in the fact that Edel ends his manifesto, not with an Olympian detachment, but with a line from Virginia Woolf that sums up the whole messy business: “Yes, writing lives is the devil!”

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October 13, 2017 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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October 13, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The art of obfuscation

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In the book Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, a long excerpt of which recently appeared on Nautilus, the academics Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum investigate the ways in which short-term sources of distraction can be used to conceal or obscure the truth. One of their most striking examples is drawn from The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman, which recounts the aftermath of the brutal assassination of the Guatemalan bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera. Brunton and Nissenbaum write:   

As Goldman documented the long and dangerous process of bringing at least a few of those responsible within the Guatemalan military to justice for this murder, he observed that those threatened by the investigation didn’t merely plant evidence to conceal their role. Framing someone else would be an obvious tactic, and the planted evidence would be assumed to be false. Rather, they produced too much conflicting evidence, too many witnesses and testimonials, too many possible stories. The goal was not to construct an airtight lie, but rather to multiply the possible hypotheses so prolifically that observers would despair of ever arriving at the truth. The circumstances of the bishop’s murder produced what Goldman terms an “endlessly exploitable situation,” full of leads that led nowhere and mountains of seized evidence, each factual element calling the others into question. “So much could be made and so much would be made to seem to connect,” Goldman writes, his italics emphasizing the power of the ambiguity.

What interests me the most about this account is how the players took the existing features of this “endlessly exploitable situation,” which was already too complicated for any one person to easily understand, and simply turned up the volume. They didn’t need to create distractions out of nothing—they just had to leverage and intensify what was naturally there. It’s a clever strategy, because it only needs to last long for enough to run out the clock until the possibility of any real investigation has diminished. Brunton and Nissenbaum draw a useful analogy to the concept of “chaff” in radar countermeasures:

During World War II, a radar operator tracks an airplane over Hamburg, guiding searchlights and anti-aircraft guns in relation to a phosphor dot whose position is updated with each sweep of the antenna. Abruptly, dots that seem to represent airplanes begin to multiply, quickly swamping the display. The actual plane is in there somewhere, impossible to locate owing to the presence of “false echoes.” The plane has released chaff—strips of black paper backed with aluminum foil and cut to half the target radar’s wavelength. Thrown out by the pound and then floating down through the air, they fill the radar screen with signals. The chaff has exactly met the conditions of data the radar is configured to look for, and has given it more “planes,” scattered all across the sky, than it can handle…That the chaff worked only briefly as it fluttered to the ground and was not a permanent solution wasn’t relevant under the circumstances. It only had to work well enough and long enough for the plane to get past the range of the radar.

The authors conclude: “Many forms of obfuscation work best as time-buying ‘throw-away’ moves. They can get you only a few minutes, but sometimes a few minutes is all the time you need.”

The book Obfuscation appeared almost exactly a year ago, but its argument takes on an additional resonance now, when the level of noise in our politics has risen to a degree that makes the culture wars of the past seem positively quaint. It can largely, but not entirely, be attributed to just one man, and there’s an ongoing debate over whether Trump’s use of the rhetorical equivalent of chaff is instinctive, like a squid squirting ink at its enemies, or a deliberate strategy. I tend to see it as the former, but that doesn’t mean that his impulsiveness can’t product the same result—and perhaps even more effectively—as a considered program of disinformation and distraction. What really scares me is the prospect of such tricks becoming channeled and institutionalized the hands of more capable surrogates, as soon as an “endlessly exploitable situation” comes to pass. In The Art of Political Murder, Goldman sums up “the seemingly irresistible logic behind so much of the suspicion, speculation, and tendentiousness” that enveloped the bishop’s death: “Something like this can seem to have a connection to a crime like that.” All you need is an event that produces a flood of data that can be assembled in any number of ways by selectively emphasizing certain connections while deemphasizing others. The great example here is the Kennedy assassination, which generated an unbelievable amount of raw ore for obsessive personalities to sift, like a bin of tesserae that could be put together into any mosaic imaginable. Compiling huge masses of documentation and testimony and placing it before the public is generally something that we only see in a governmental investigation, which has the time and resources to accumulate the information that will inevitably be used to undermine its own conclusions.   

At the moment, there’s one obvious scenario in which this precise situation could arise. I’ve often found myself thinking of Robert Mueller in much the way that Quinta Jurecic of the Washington Post characterizes him in an opinion piece starkly titled “Robert Mueller Can’t Save Us”: “In the American imagination, Mueller is more than Trump’s adversary or the man who happens to be investigating him. He’s the president’s mythic opposite—the anti-Trump…Mueller is an avatar of our hope that justice and meaning will reassert themselves against Trumpian insincerity.” And I frequently console myself with the image of the Mueller investigation as a kind of bucket in which every passing outrage, briefly flaring up in the media only to be obscured by its successors, is filed away for later reckoning. As Jurecic points out, these hopes are misplaced:

There’s no way of knowing how long [Mueller’s] investigation will take and what it will turn up. It could be years before the probe is completed. It could be that Mueller’s team finds no evidence of criminal misconduct on the part of the president himself. And because the special counsel has no obligation to report his conclusions to the public—indeed, the special-counsel regulations do not give him the power to do so without the approval of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein—we may never know what he uncovers.

She’s right, but she also misses what I think is the most frightening possibility of all, which is that the Russia investigation will provide the exact combination of factors—“too many witnesses and testimonials, too many possible stories”—to create the situation that Goldman described in Guatemala. It’s hard to imagine a better breeding ground for conspiracy theories, alternate narratives, and false connections, and the likely purveyors are already practicing on a smaller scale. The Mueller investigation is necessary and important. But it will also provide the artists of obfuscation with the materials to paint their masterpiece.

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