Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of the impossible

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Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

A couple of years ago, after I saw Jack Reacher, I wrote the following about Tom Cruise, whom I still regard as the most interesting movie star we have: “He’s more of a great producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star who can also get movies made.” I didn’t think much of that observation at the time, but when I look back, it seems to explain a lot about what makes Cruise both so consistent and so enigmatic. A producer credit can mean just about anything in Hollywood, from the person who willed an entire movie into existence to the financier who signed the checks to the studio executive who was in the right place at the right time. On the highest level, though, a producer is an aggregator of talent and money, a magnet to whom capable professionals and funding are drawn. By that definition, a major movie star, whose involvement can be all that takes a project out of turnaround and puts it into production, is frequently the only producer who counts. If you start to think of Cruise, then, as less a star than an industry player who can get movies to happen, he ranks among the greatest producers in history. And the Mission: Impossible franchise is the jewel in the crown, a series of sandboxes for five distinct directors to play with the idea of a studio tentpole, linked only by the master orchestrator who assembles the pieces.

This may be why it has taken so long for the series to get the recognition it deserves. The Mission: Impossible movies have always been financially successful, but it wasn’t until Ghost Protocol—and now Rogue Nation, which by all accounts is just as superb—that they began to inspire anything like affection. Most franchises thrive on our fondness for a central character, but Ethan Hunt is nothing but whatever the screenplay happens to require. Cruise is the undeniable creative force behind these films, but he’s also turned himself into a studio executive’s idea of an obedient movie star, a pro who gets to the set on time, always gives everything he has, and defers throughout to the overall operation. Each installment is less a movie in itself than a kind of object lesson, with endless variations, in what a big studio production ought to be. Hence the way Cruise, with a producer’s sure instincts, has used the franchise as a springboard for untapped talent (J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird), a showcase for memorable sidekick or villain performances (Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Philip Seymour Hoffman), or a halfway house for gifted screenwriters who had spent years in the wilderness (Robert Towne, Christopher McQuarrie). The result works precisely to the extent that it gives us our money’s worth, and few franchises over the years have so consistently embodied the basic reasons I go to the movies.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

Yet there’s something about the impersonality of the result that can be a little alienating, and I think this has contributed more to the ambivalence many viewers feel toward Cruise than any of his public missteps—which, in any case, are far less damaging than countless transgressions for which many lesser stars have been forgiven. It’s hard to feel much love for him, any more than we feel love for, say, Brian Grazer, and Cruise himself seems increasingly reluctant to build a film around his star power alone. When you look at the trailers for his movies, you find that many of them fall back on the same gimmick: instead of opening on the star, as the ads for most movies would, they establish the story and situation for up to a minute without showing Cruise at all, and when he first appears, it’s as a slow fade into a glowering closeup of his face. (You see the same pattern in the teasers for Mission: Impossible III, Collateral, Ghost Protocol, and Jack Reacher, and there are probably others I’ve forgotten.) It sells us on the movie first, then slides in Cruise toward the middle, as if to seal the deal. It’s a neat trick, but it also has the effect of subordinating the star to the producer. He’s an important piece, even the keystone, but he derives his value solely from the machine he sets in motion. And we might like him better as a human being if he’d stuck to movies like Cocktail or Days of Thunder, in which he coasted on his considerable charm alone.

But the history of popular entertainment is richer and more intriguing thanks to Cruise’s withdrawal into the producer’s chair. At times, he reminds me a little of Napoleon, and not just in terms of stature: both are genetic freaks who were statistically bound to emerge sooner or later, and their success depended largely on being born into a time that could put them to use. Napoleon was a political and administrative genius who also had the physical endurance and luck of a soldier; Cruise was a handsome kid with a knack for acting who also had a relentlessly pragmatic sense of the possible. Which isn’t to say that his instincts are always infallible, any more than they were for Spielberg or Hitchcock. His attempt to become something like a real studio mogul at United Artists fizzled out quickly, and efforts like Lions for Lambs, Knight and Day, Oblivion, and Rock of Ages have revealed something less than a flawless understanding of what the public wants. In recent years, he has seemed content to be nothing but an action star, and he’s proven just as capable of this as might be expected—although I also feel the loss of the actor who starred in Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia. As always, his choices serve as a microcosm of the movie industry as a whole, which has moved away from human stories to four-quadrant blockbusters, and Cruise seems determined to demonstrate that he’s as good at this as he was at anything else. And he is. But convincing audiences to love him for it may be the most impossible mission of all.

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Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Pohl and the pulpsters

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The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl

Along with the sixteen volumes of the Richard Francis Burton translation of the Arabian Nights, my other great find at this year’s Newberry Library Book Fair is the memoir The Way The Future Was by Frederik Pohl. While he never achieved the same degree of mainstream recognition as many of his contemporaries, Pohl arguably embodied more aspects of science fiction than any other figure of the golden age: he was a novelist, short story writer, essayist, literary agent to the likes of Isaac Asimov, and acclaimed editor of magazines like Galaxy and If. He made his first professional sale in 1937 and continued writing up to his death two years ago, in a career that spanned eight decades, which reminds me of Bernstein’s sad, wonderful line from Citizen Kane: “I was there before the beginning, and now it’s after the end.” Pohl’s memoir is chatty, loaded with memorable gossip, and full of valuable advice—I’ve already posted the words of wisdom that he gleaned from the editor John W. Campbell. And it’s an essential read for anyone trying to make a mark in science fiction, or indeed any kind of writing, with its chronicle of the ups and downs of a freelance author’s career. (As both writer and editor, Pohl knew how the system worked from both sides, and he’s especially eloquent on the challenges of running a magazine on a limited budget.)

The meat of the book focuses on the height of the pulp era, which saw new magazines popping up seemingly every day for fans of westerns, mysteries, adventure, true confessions, and science fiction and fantasy itself. Pohl, who became a professional editor at the age of nineteen, estimates that there were five hundred titles in all, with annual sales of about a hundred million copies—a number that seems inconceivable today, when the number of widely circulated fiction magazines, literary or otherwise, can be counted on two hands. The pulps represented one extreme of a culture that simply read more for entertainment than we do now, with the high end occupied by the likes of The Saturday Evening Post, which paid writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald thousands of dollars for a single story. (Annualized for inflation, that’s more than most mainstream publishers pay on average for an entire novel.) Readership was especially high in the sticks, where movie houses were harder to find and demand was high for a cheap, disposable diversion. They all flourished for a decade or two, and then, abruptly, they were gone, finished off first by the paper shortages of the Second World War and then by television and paperbacks. And the fact that they vanished so utterly is less surprising than the fact that a handful of titles, like Analog, have stuck around at all.

Astounding Science Fiction (October 1955)

As with the heyday of paperback porn, it’s easy to romanticize the lost world of the pulps: as Theodore Sturgeon would later note, ninety percent of everything is crud, and the percentage for pulp fiction was probably higher. (Pohl says drily: “It was not all trash. But trash was the way to bet it.”) Given the pathetic rates on the low end of the scale—a penny a word at best—it’s not surprising that the good writers either got out of the pulps as soon as they could or avoided them entirely. Still, for those of us who see writing as a job like any other, it’s hard not to be enticed by the life that Pohl describes:

If you want to think of a successful pulp writer in the late thirties, imagine a man with a forty-dollar typewriter on a kitchen table. By his right hand is an ashtray with a cigarette burning in it and a cup of coffee or bottle of beer within easy reach. Stacked just past his typewriter are white sheets, carbons, and second sheets. Stacked to his left are finished pages, complete with carbon copies. he has taught himself to type reasonably neatly because he can’t afford a stenographer, and above all he has taught himself to type fast. A prolific pulpster could keep up a steady forty or fifty words a minute for long periods; there were a few writers who wrote ten thousand words a day and kept it up for years on end.

And for those who survived, the pulps were a remarkable training ground. Pohl believes that all it takes to be published are “luck, determination, and a few monkey tricks of style and plot,” and writers who made it out alive emerged with a bag of monkey tricks that no other school could offer. Pair those tricks with a good idea and a little curiosity about human life, and they were unstoppable. And although self-publishing, particularly in digital form, has revived certain aspects of that lifestyle, we’re still missing the structure that turned aspiring pulpsters into real writers, as embodied by editors like Campbell and Pohl. Editors, as Pohl notes, often took an active hand in shaping a story, either by nurturing problematic work into a publishable form or pitching ideas to authors, and even when they only served as gatekeepers, it was that sieve—or refinery—that forced their writers to grow. Pohl quotes James Blish’s observation that more than half of the major science-fiction writers of the last century were born within a year or two of 1920, which implies that it was tied to a particular event. Blish doesn’t know what this event was, and Pohl hypothesizes that it had something to do with the “social confusion and experimentation” of the thirties, but I suspect that the real answer is closer to home. The pulps were the pressure cooker that produced the popular fiction that dominated the next eighty years, and if we want to reproduce those conditions, it isn’t hard to see the limiting factor. The world already has plenty of writers; what it needs is a few hundred more paying magazines, and the editors who made them run.

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Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The thousand and one footnotes

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Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Francis Burton

In recent years, whenever I’ve bought a movie on Blu-ray, it’s been with as much of an eye to the special features as to the quality of the film itself. The gold standard remains the special edition of The Lord of the Rings, which is practically a film school in a box, but when I look at my shelves, I see plenty of titles—ranging from The Lovely Bones to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—that I don’t think I’d own at all if it weren’t for their featurettes and supplements. These days, with sales of home media falling everywhere, bonus content is one proven way of convincing consumers to pay for a physical disc, and it appeals to our natural interest in commentaries, ephemera, and glimpses into the creative process. In some ways, you could see them as an updated version of the original bonus feature: the footnote. Footnotes and endnotes originally evolved to meet a utilitarian end, but as everyone from the compilers of the Talmud to Nicholson Baker have long since realized, they can provide peculiar pleasures of their own, a kind of parallel narrative to the main work that allows for asides and digressions that don’t fit within the primary argument. A long footnote is often more interesting than the text to which it refers, precisely because it feels so superfluous, and an entire industry has sprung up around copiously annotated editions of our favorite books, of which The Annotated Sherlock Holmes remains the undisputed champion.

I got to thinking about this after scoring a copy of what amounts to the most extraordinary collection of footnotes in the English language. It’s the sixteen-volume translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton of the Arabian Nights, or rather The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, which I picked up for a song this weekend at the Newberry Library Book Fair in Chicago. I’ve coveted this set ever since I first saw it in the library at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and when I see it in my office now, I feel like pinching myself. Much of the book’s fascination emerges from the figure of Burton himself, an unlikely combination of James Frazer, T.E. Lawrence, and Indiana Jones who comes as close any real historical figure to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials. He was a British adventurer, soldier, spy, and explorer who spoke close to thirty languages; he was among the first Europeans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, in disguise, under constant threat of discovery and death; he searched, unsuccessfully, for the source of the Nile; he survived a spear through the face in Africa. His legend tends to obscure his real achievements, but as Jorge Luis Borges notes in his fine essay “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights,” it’s the legendary Burton who survives. (Burton was clearly an enormous influence on Borges, and you see echoes of him everywhere in the latter’s stories, particularly in his lists of arcane facts and exotica.)

Sir Richard Francis Burton

And while I’m not sure I’ll make it through all sixteen volumes, I have every intention of reading every single one of Burton’s notes, which have a well-deserved reputation for raciness. Burton notoriously embraced the sexual and scatological elements of the original stories, to the point where the set was originally published in a private limited edition designed to get around the obscenity laws of the time. And there’s little question that his readers saw the annotations as a major selling point. Burton’s challenge, as Borges puts it, was “to interest nineteenth-century British gentlemen in the written version of thirteenth-century oral Muslim tales.” And in order to appeal to “the respectable men of the West End, well equipped for disdain and erudition but not for belly laughs or terror,” he loaded up his work with special features:

The text’s marvels—undoubtedly adequate in Kordofan or Bulaq, where they were offered up as true—ran the risk of seeming rather threadbare in England…To keep his subscribers with him, Burton abounded in explanatory notes on “the manners and customs of Muslim men.”

The result was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a deluxe box set with a commentary track and a fat disc of supplements, and I suspect that many of the set’s original purchasers, like me, were more interested in Burton’s special features—with their vast repository of sexual, ethnographical, and anecdotal material—than in the stories themselves.

As Borges concludes: “At fifty, a man has accumulated affections, ironies, obscenities, and copious anecdotes; Burton unburdened himself of them in his notes.” And boy, did he ever. Among the translation’s unique characteristics is an entire index devoted to the footnotes alone—presumably as a convenience to readers who just wanted to get to the good parts—and browsing through it feels like a trip to a bazaar of indescribable, vaguely dirty riches. (A few of the entires, chosen at random, include: “Female depravity going hand in hand with perversity of taste,” “Hymeneal blood resembles that of pigeon-poult,” and “Women, peculiar waddle of.”) Borges rightly observes that Burton’s commentary “is encyclopedic and seditious and of an interest that increases in inverse proportion to its necessity,” which is true of all footnotes, but especially here. A brief reference in one story to contraception, for instance, inspires two long paragraphs on the history of the condom, complete with prices and advice on usage, and the appendix includes what was then the longest discussion of homosexuality ever to appear in English. A lot of the material seems to have been chosen for its appeal to the idealized male reader of the time, in a sort of anticipation of the articles in Playboy, and as calculated as it all feels, it certainly works. It’s the richest collection of bonus features ever published, and thanks to Burton’s legacy, it comes across as even more. As Borges says, it’s like listening to a commentary track recorded by Sinbad the Sailor himself.

Quote of the Day

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A.E. van Vogt

When I wrote confession-type stories, every sentence…had to contain an emotion in it. For example, you don’t say, “I lived at 323 Brand Street.” You say, “Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my tiny bedroom at 323 Brand Street.”

A.E. van Vogt

Written by nevalalee

July 27, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Operation Bunnyhug

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Winston Churchill

I have crossed out on the attached paper many unsuitable names. Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by code words which imply a boastful and overconfident sentiment, such as “Triumphant,” or, conversely, which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency, such as “Woebetide,” “Massacre,” “Jumble,” “Trouble,” “Fidget,” “Flimsy,” “Pathetic,” and “Jaundice.” They ought not to be names of a frivolous character, such as “Bunnyhug,” “Billingsgate,” “Aperitif,” and “Ballyhoo.” They should not be ordinary words often used in other connections, such as “Flood,” “Smooth,” “Sudden,” “Supreme,” “Full Force,” and “Full Speed.” Names of living people, ministers, or commanders should be avoided, e.g. “Bracken.”

After all, the world is wide, and intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names which do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called “Bunnyhug” or “Ballyhoo.”

Winston Churchill, in a memo to General Hastings Ismay

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2015 at 7:30 am

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