Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A writer’s playlists

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Music continues to be the best way to keep me seated in the chair and writing. Even so, it still takes me years to write a book…I still use music to write scenes. I am embarrassed to admit that I actually have playlists titled “Joyful,” “Worried,” “Hopeful,” “Destruction,” “Disaster,” “Sorrow,” “Renewal,” and so forth. I choose one track and play it for however long it takes me to finish the scene. It could be hundreds of times. The music ensures that emotion is a constant, even when I am doing the mental work of crafting the story, revising sentences as I go along. It enables me to return to the emotional dream after my focus has been interrupted by barking dogs, doorbells, or my husband bringing me lunch…Even when no one else is home, I put on headphones. It has the psychological effect of cutting me off from the world. It dampens sensory distractions and emphasizes the aural sense, the one needed for listening to the voice of the story. I take off the headphones when dinner is ready. I put them back on after dinner or the next morning. The emotional mood is still there. The hypnotic effect takes hold; when I hear the violins, I’m back in a cramped, cold room in China. Auditory memory has become the story’s emotional memory.

Amy Tan, Where the Past Begins

Written by nevalalee

November 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

The metal vultures and the dragon

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If you’ve ever wasted an hour of your life arguing with a total stranger online, you might feel like echoing Jorge Luis Borges when he writes of such encounters: “[This is] something in which I swear never to involve myself again, for the time granted to mortals is not infinite and the fruit of these discussions is in vain.” The difference is that Borges was writing of his conversations with German sympathizers in 1940, at a time when Argentina was officially neutral, and the interactions of which he speaks occurred in person, with those whom he calls “the charlatans and apologists that indefatigable fate obliges me to encounter on the streets and in the houses of Buenos Aires.” These days, our political discourse has been irrevocably balkanized, with each group relying on its own separate news sources and websites, and any hope of a real dialogue seems to be gone. As a result, when I picture Argentina in the forties—which Borges describes in an extraordinary series of essays, “Notes on Germany and the War,” collected in his Selected Non-Fictions—I can’t help but see it as a test case for happens when such attitudes clash between men and women who are likely to speak to each other on the sidewalk, at the grocery store, and at cocktail parties, and at a time when it was still socially permissible to express support of Adolf Hitler. I’m far from an expert in this period, and my knowledge of it comes entirely from Borges, so whatever conclusions I draw from it can hardly be anything but artificial. But I think that it’s still worth seeing if we can find any insights here into our own era, when such debates tend to be conducted either remotely or not at all.

And when I read these essays now, I find that what Borges reports of Buenos Aires in the early years of the war seems uncomfortably resonant. Borges loved German culture, which didn’t make it any easier for him to talk to Argentine Germanophiles: “I have tried to speak of Germany and the German things that are imperishable; I have mentioned Hölderlin, Luther, Schopenhauer, and Leibniz; I have discovered that my ‘Germanophile’ interlocutor could barely identify those names and preferred to discuss a more or less Antarctic archipelago that the English discovered in 1592 and whose relation to Germany I have yet to perceive.” His description of the hodgepodge of ideas on which the Germanophile’s worldview depended is both devastating and utterly familiar:

Total ignorance of things Germanic does not, however, exhaust the definition of our Germanophiles. There are other unique characteristics that are, perhaps, equally essential. Among them: the Germanophile is greatly distressed that the railroad companies of a certain South American republic have English stockholders. He is also troubled by the hardships of the South African war of 1902.

Replace “the railroad companies” with “Uranium One” and “the South African war” with “Benghazi,” or your choice of fixations, and this paragraph might have been written yesterday. As Borges sums up: “One might infer from this that the Germanophile is actually an Anglophobe. He is perfectly ignorant of Germany, and reserves his enthusiasm for any country at war with England.”

This rings painfully true of our own moment, in which politics, from the national to the personal,  often seems to consist of the members of one party relishing the punishment of another, even if it goes against their own best interests. But Borges—who, as I discussed in detail years ago, is Karl Rove’s favorite writer—isn’t done yet:

Disdaining these dry abstractions, my interlocutor begins or outlines a panegyric to Hitler: that providential man whose indefatigable discourses preach the extinction of all charlatans and demagogues, and whose incendiary bombs, unmitigated by verbose declarations of war, announce from the firmament the ruin of rapacious imperialism…I always discover that my interlocutor idolizes Hitler, not in spite of the high-altitude bombs and the rumbling invasions, the machine guns, the accusations and lies, but because of those acts and instruments. He is delighted by evil and atrocity. The triumph of Germany does not matter to him; he wants the humiliation of England and a satisfying burning of London. He admires Hitler as he once admired his precursors in the criminal underworld of Chicago. The discussion becomes impossible because the offenses I ascribe to Hitler are, for him, wonders and virtue. The apologists of Amigas, Ramírez, Quiroga, Rosas, or Urquiza pardon or gloss over their crimes; the defender of Hitler derives a special pleasure from them…He is the cunning man who longs to be on the winning side.

The italics are mine. As Borges writes in his story “Emma Zunz,” all that need to be changed here are “the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names.”

In another essay, Borges remembers the man who came to his house to proudly announce that the Germans had taken Paris: “I felt a confusion of sadness, disgust, malaise. Then it occurred to me that his insolent joy did not explain the stentorian voice or the abrupt proclamation. He added that the German troops would soon be in London. Any opposition was useless, nothing could prevent their victory. That was when I knew that he, too, was terrified.” This speaks for itself. But what troubles me the most is Borges’s conclusion:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

After the war, Borges explored these themes in one of his most haunting stories, “Deutsches Requiem,” in which he attempted to write from the point of view of “the ideal Nazi.” Its narrator, the subdirector of a concentration camp, writes out his confession as he prepares to face the firing squad, and his closing words feel like a glimpse of our own future, regardless of the names of those in power: “Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.”

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2017 at 8:54 am

Quote of the Day

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It is easy to see what the defining marks of a great engineer are destined to be. They will not be the marks of mere “efficiency” nor of mere technological knowledge nor of technological skill…The characteristic marks of the great engineer will be four: Magnanimity—Scientific Intelligence—Humanity—Action.

Cassius Jackson Keyser, Mathematical Philosophy

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

The art of preemptive ingenuity

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Yesterday, my wife drew my attention to the latest episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, which irresistibly combines two of my favorite topics—film and graphic design. Its subject is Annie Atkins, who has designed props and visual materials for such works as The Tudors and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Her account of how a misspelled word nearly made it onto a crucial prop in the latter film is both hilarious and horrifying.) But my favorite story that she shares is about a movie that isn’t exactly known for its flashy art direction:

The next job I went onto—it would have been Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was a true story. We made a lot of newspapers for that film, and I remember us beginning to check the dates against the days, because I wanted to get it right. And then eventually the prop master said to me, “Do you know what, I think we’re just going to leave the dates off.” Because it wasn’t clear [what] sequence…these things were going to be shown in. And he said, you know, if you leave the dates off altogether, nobody will look for it. But if you put something there that’s wrong, then it might jump out. So we went with no dates in the end for those newspapers.

As far as filmmaking advice is concerned, this is cold, hard cash, even if I’ll never have the chance to put it into practice for myself. And I especially like the fact that it comes out of Bridge of Spies, a writerly movie with a screenplay by none other than the Coen Brothers, but which was still subject to decisions about its structure as late in the process as the editing stage.

Every movie, I expect, requires some degree of editorial reshuffling, and experienced directors will prepare for this during the production itself. The absence of dates on newspapers is one good example, and there’s an even better one in the book The Conversations, which the editor Walter Murch relates to the novelist Michael Ondaatje:

One thing that made it possible to [rearrange the order of scenes] in The Conversation was Francis [Coppola]’s belief that people should wear the same clothes most of the time. Harry is almost always wearing that transparent raincoat and his funny little crepe-soled shoes. This method of using costumes is something Francis had developed on other films, quite an accurate observation. He recognized that, first of all, people don’t change clothes in real life as often as they do in film. In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do—which is only natural—so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

Murch observes: “There’s a delicate balance between the timeline of a film’s story—which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months—and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed clothes.”

The editor concludes: “It’s amazing how consistent you can make somebody’s costume and have it not stand out.” (Occasionally, a change of clothes will draw attention to editorial manipulation, as one scene is lifted out from its original place and slotted in elsewhere. One nice example is in Bullitt, where we see Steve McQueen in one scene at a grocery store in his iconic tweed coat and blue turtleneck, just before he goes home, showers, and changes into those clothes, which he wears for the rest of the movie.) The director Judd Apatow achieves the same result in another way, as his longtime editor Brent White notes: “[He’ll] have something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know exactly where it goes in the movie. Does it service the end? Does it go early? So he’ll shoot the same exact scene, the same exchange, with the actors in different wardrobes, so that I can slot it in at different points.” Like the newspapers in Bridge of Spies, this all assumes that changes to the plan will be necessary later on, and it prepares for them in advance. Presumably, you always hope to keep the order of scenes from the script when you cut the movie together, but the odds are that something won’t quite work when you sit down to watch the first assembly, so you build in safeguards to allow you to fix these issues when the time comes. If your budget is high enough, you can include reshoots in your shooting schedule, as Peter Jackson does, while the recent films of David Fincher indicate the range of problems that can be solved with digital tools in postproduction. But when you lack the resources for such expensive solutions, your only recourse is to be preemptively ingenious on the set, which forces you to think in terms of what you’ll want to see when you sit down to edit the footage many months from now.

This is the principle behind one of my favorite pieces of directorial advice ever, which David Mamet provides in the otherwise flawed Bambi vs. Godzilla:

Always get an exit and an entrance. More wisdom for the director in the cutting room. The scene involves the hero sitting in a café. Dialogue scene, blah blah blah. Well and good, but when you shoot it, shoot the hero coming in and sitting down. And then, at the end, shoot him getting up and leaving. Why? Because the film is going to tell you various things about itself, and many of your most cherished preconceptions will prove false. The scene that works great on paper will prove a disaster. An interchange of twenty perfect lines will be found to require only two, the scene will go too long, you will discover another scene is needed, and you can’t get the hero there if he doesn’t get up from the table, et cetera. Shoot an entrance and an exit. It’s free.

I learned a corollary from John Sayles: at the end of the take, in a close-up or one-shot, have the speaker look left, right, up, and down. Why? Because you might just find you can get out of the scene if you can have the speaker throw the focus. To what? To an actor or insert to be shot later, or to be found in (stolen from) another scene. It’s free. Shoot it, ’cause you just might need it.

This kind of preemptive ingenuity, in matters both large and small, is what really separates professionals from amateurs. Something always goes wrong, and the plan that we had in mind never quite matches what we have in the end. Professionals don’t always get it right the first time, either—but they know this, and they’re ready for it.

Quote of the Day

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Ambition makes a writer reach beyond what he has already achieved. And this is when, out of his security, he can make misjudgments. This misjudgment might have to do with something small, such as a matter of style, a way of writing that has crept up on a writer. Sometimes it is more serious, the very conception of a book. The more the writer feels ill at ease, the harder he tries, using all the resources of his talent, to prove his point; and then, seeing him suffer to do so, one is more than half in sympathy with him.

V.S. Naipaul, A Writer’s People

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

The gray backdrop

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In the most recent issue of The Paris Review, the photographer Joel Meyerowitz contributes a visual essay on the studio of Paul Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence, the subject of his new book Cézanne’s Objects. Meyerowitz says that a visit there resulted in “a flash of insight” that has influenced his own work ever since:

Cézanne painted his studio walls a dark gray with a hint of green. Every object in the studio, illuminated by a vast north window, seemed to be absorbed into the gray of this background. There were no telltale reflections around the edges of the objects to separate them from the background itself, as there would have been had the wall been painted white. Therefore, I could see how Cézanne, making his small, patch-like brush marks, might have moved his gaze from object to background, and back again to the objects, without the familiar intervention of the illusion of space. Cézanne’s was the first voice of “flatness,” the first statement of the modern idea that a painting was simply paint on a flat canvas, nothing more, and the environment he made served this idea. The play of light on this particular tone of gray was a precisely keyed background hum that allowed a new exchange between, say, the red of an apple and the equal value of the gray background. It was a proposal of tonal nearness that welcomed the idea of flatness.

He continues with a rhapsody on the effects of gray: “As I walked around Cézanne’s studio, I noticed that light bouncing up from the warm wooden flooring tinted the gray nearest it with rose and that under the shelves the light caromed back and forth between wall and shelf, carrying the subtle tones of whatever was nearby.”

After reading this, I went looking for contemporary descriptions of the studio, and I found several in the collection Conversations with Cézanne. One visitor, Jules Borély, recalls: “At my request we went up to the studio. I saw a high, wide room with empty, inanimate walls and a bay window that opened onto an olive grove.” The poet and critic Joachim Gasquet leaves us a more detailed account: “Cézanne was finishing his portrait of my father. I had sat in on the sessions. The studio was almost empty. The easel, the little taboret, the chair where my father was sitting, and the stove were its only furnishings. Cézanne stood as he worked. Canvases were piled up against the wall, in a corner. The soft, even light gave a blue tinge to the walls.” And Alex Danchev writes in Cézanne: A Life:

Most of the upper floor was taken up by the studio itself, a large, airy room eight meters by seven…and over seven meters from floor to cornice. Its walls were painted pale gray; it had a plain pine floor. Two south-facing windows looked out over the lower garden, and beyond. The north-facing studio window was a great glass wall, three meters high and five meters wide…The terracing of the hillside brought the olive grove in the upper garden to the level of the windowsill; Cézanne complained of the green reflections. “You can no longer get anyone to do anything right. I had this built here at my expense and the architect would never do what I wanted. I’m a shy person, a bohemian. They mock me. I haven’t got the strength to resist. Isolation, that’s all I’m fit for. At least that way no one would get his hooks into me.”

Yet it isn’t quite correct to say that the walls were bare. The descriptions of Cézanne’s studio make it clear that there was always something casually tacked up on every surface, along with the canvases in progress. In Conversations with Cézanne, Emile Bernard remembers:

The next day I arrived in Aix by the earliest tram and went to surprise Cézanne in his studio outside of town…I was tremendously pleased to see, hanging on his studio wall, the landscape study I had made the previous year. It represented the beautiful view of Aix from the lower studio. The painting of the skulls was tacked to the wall, abandoned.

Francis Jourdain records that Cézanne “talked exuberantly about a Daumier lithograph pinned to the wall,” while in Émile Zola’s novel L’Oeuvre, which is a thinly disguised portrait of his old friend, we read: “Just now the studio walls happened to be covered with a series of sketches Claude had made on a recent visit to the haunts of their boyhood.” Even today, in the version of the studio that has been turned into a museum, there are pictures hanging on the walls, but it has the air of a moment preserved in amber, and it’s very different from what it must have been in the artist’s lifetime—a working surface, in a constant state of transition, where he could impulsively hang anything that he wanted to keep handy. And when Cézanne “moved his gaze from object to background,” as Meyerowitz puts it, his eye would have been just as likely to have been caught by a sketch pinned up for future reference as by the flat, absorbent surface of the wall itself.

Meyerowitz’s insights are profound, but it would be all too easy to come away thinking that the gray walls were what counted. In fact, it’s the interaction between the flatness of the backdrop and the fertile confusion of the foreground that seems to be the matrix where truly creative work takes place. Conversations with Cézanne includes a description by the critics R.P. Rivière and Jacques Schnerb of the artist’s two studios in Aix—he had another workspace in an apartment in town—that captures a quality that I miss from Meyerowitz’s cool, hermetic reading:

His studios, the one on the rue Bourgeon and the one on the road to Aubasane in the country, were in great disorder, chaotic disorder. The walls were bare and the light harsh. Half-empty tubes, brushes with long-dried paint, and lunch leftovers that had served as subjects for still lifes littered the tables. In one corner [of the studio on the rue Bourgeon] lay a whole collection of parasols, whose rough frames must have come from a vendor in town, the iron lance made by the neighboring blacksmith. Near them lay game-bags used to carry food to the countryside.

It’s in those parasols, not to mention the “lunch leftovers,” that we seem to get a glimpse of the real Cézanne, who chose his gray walls as a corrective to the clutter that fills any creative life. Gray alone would have been stifling, while the chaos on its own would have been overwhelming, and Cézanne, instinctively or otherwise, knew that he needed both.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

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