Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Last week, I finally saw The Revenant. I know that I’m pretty late to the party here, but I don’t have a chance to watch a lot of movies for grownups in the theater these days, and it wasn’t a film that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town. At this point, a full review probably isn’t of much interest to anyone, so I’ll confine myself to observing that it’s an exquisitely crafted movie that I found very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat for me—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd it all was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog actively seeks out these moments, even if he maintains a straight face.) And it took me about five minutes to realize that the movie and I were fundamentally out of sync. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with a sudden arrow through a character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a kind of complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are probably more fluent speakers alive than you might think. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I hadn’t felt before and haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are rough and a little uncertain, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out when it was close to its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that was either an homage or outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what feels like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself says in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stuck in the brain because we couldn’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are both so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

As a result, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like a demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were so nice that he said them twice. It’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

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September 27, 2016 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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David Mamet

What do you do when you are pushing your luck beyond its limits? You must behave like a good philosopher and ask what axiom you must infer that you are acting under. Having determined that, you ask if this axiom, in the long run, will leave you a winner…If the axiom which you are acting under is not designed to make you money, you may find that your real objective at the game is something else: you may be trying to prove yourself beloved of God.

David Mamet, “Things I Have Learned Playing Poker on the Hill”

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September 27, 2016 at 7:30 am

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A pause and a silence

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Harold Pinter

Interviewer: You’re very clear about the differences between a pause and a silence. The silence is the end of a movement?

Pinter: Oh, no! These pauses and silences! I’ve been appalled. Occasionally when I’ve run into groups of actors, normally abroad, they say a silence is obviously longer than a pause. Right. Okay, so it is. They’ll say, this is a pause, so we’ll stop. And after the pause we’ll start again. I’m sure this happens all over the place and thank goodness I don’t know anything about it. From my point of view, these are not in any sense a formal kind of arrangement. The pause is a pause because of what has just happened in the minds and guts of the characters. They spring out of the text. They’re not formal conveniences or stresses but part of the body of action. I’m simply suggesting that if they play it properly they will find that a pause—or whatever the hell it is—is inevitable. And a silence equally means that something has happened to create the impossibility of anyone speaking for a certain amount of time—until they can recover from whatever happened before the silence.

Harold Pinter, in an interview with Mel Gussow

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September 26, 2016 at 7:38 am

The poet on the desert island

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W.H. Auden

Rhymes, meters, stanza forms, etc., are like servants. If the master is fair enough to win their affection and firm enough to command their respect, the result is an orderly happy household. If he is too tyrannical, they give notice; if he lacks authority, they become slovenly, impertinent, drunk, and dishonest.

The poet who writes “free” verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry, and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor—dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

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September 25, 2016 at 7:30 am

The exact placing of a comma

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Paul Valéry

It happened at certain stages in my life that poetry became a way of cutting myself off from the world…It is no bad thing if certain men have the strength of mind to attach more value and significance to determining a remote decimal number, or to the exact placing of a comma, than to the most resounding of news items, the most terrible catastrophe, or even to their own lives…

To outlaw the arbitrary: to shut out accidents, politics, the chaos of events, and the fluctuations of fashion; to attempt to draw from oneself some work more exquisite than one might have hoped for; to find strength in oneself not to be satisfied with less than prolonged struggles, to set about a passionate quest for the solving of problems imperceptible to most people, in defiance of the headlong rush, the distractions (however affecting) that intrude from the outside world—this is something that appeals to me…In circumstances so appalling, what could be done except to endure, destitute as one was of any means of action that might cope with the extraordinary commotion of a world gone mad?

Paul Valéry, Collected Works

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September 24, 2016 at 7:30 am

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Hollywood confidential

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Curtis Hanson

Curtis Hanson, who died earlier this week, directed one movie that I expect to revisit endlessly for the rest of my life, and a bunch of others that I’m not sure I’ll ever watch again. Yet it’s those other films, rather than his one undisputed masterpiece, that fascinate me the most. L.A. Confidential—which I think is one of the three or four best movies made in my lifetime—would be enough to secure any director’s legacy, and you couldn’t have blamed Hanson for trying to follow up that great success with more of the same. Instead, he delivered a series of quirky, shaggy stories that followed no discernible pattern, aside from an apparent determination to strike out in a new direction every time: Wonder Boys, 8 Mile, In Her Shoes, Lucky You, Too Big to Fail, and Chasing Mavericks. I’ve seen them all, except for the last, which Hanson had to quit halfway through after his health problems made it impossible for him to continue. I’ve liked every single one of them, even Lucky You, which made about as minimal an impression on the world as any recent film from a major director. And what I admire the most about the back half of Hanson’s career is its insistence that a filmmaker’s choice of projects can form a kind of parallel narrative, unfolding invisibly in the silences and blank spaces between the movies themselves.

There comes a point in the life of every director, in fact, when each new film is freighted with a significance that wasn’t there in the early days. Watching Bridge of Spies recently, I felt heavy with the knowledge that Spielberg won’t be around forever. We don’t know how many more movies he’ll make, but it’s probably more than five and fewer than ten. As a result, there’s a visible opportunity cost attached to each one, and a year of Spielberg’s time feels more precious now than it did in the eighties. This sort of pressure becomes even more perceptible after a director has experienced a definitive triumph in the genre for which he or she is best known. After Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese seemed anxious to explore new kinds of narrative, and the result—the string of movies that included The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, and Hugo—was sometimes mixed in quality, but endlessly intriguing in its implications. Years ago, David Thomson wrote of Scorsese: “His search for new subjects is absorbing and important.” You could say much the same of Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, or any number of other aging, prolific directors with the commercial clout to pick their own material. In another thirty years or so, I expect that we’ll be saying much the same thing about David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. (If a director is less productive and more deliberate, his unfinished projects can end up carrying more mythic weight than most movies that actually get made, as we’re still seeing with Stanley Kubrick.)

Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

Hanson’s example is a peculiar one because his choices were the subject of intense curiosity, at least from me, at a much earlier stage than usual. This is in part because L.A. Confidential is a movie of such clarity, confidence, and technical ability that it seemed to herald a director who could do just about anything. In a way, it did—but not in a manner that anyone could have anticipated. Hanson’s subsequent choices could come off as eccentric, and not after the fashion of Steven Soderbergh, who settled into a pattern of one for himself, one for the masses. The movies after Wonder Boys are the work of a man who was eager to reach a large popular audience, but not in the sense his fans were expecting, and with a writerly, almost novelistic approach that frustrated any attempt to pin him down to a particular brand. It’s likely that this was also a reflection of how hard it is to make a modestly budgeted movie for grownups, and Hanson’s filmography may have been shaped mostly by what projects he was able to finance. (This also accounts for the confusing career of his collaborator Brian Helgeland, who drifted after L.A. Confidential in ways that make Hanson seem obsessively focused.) His IMDb page was littered with the remains of ideas, like an abortive adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White, that he was never able to get off the ground. His greatest accomplishment, I suspect, was to make the accidents of a life in Hollywood seem like the result of his own solitary sensibilities.    

Yet we’re still left with the boundless gift of L.A. Confidential, which I’ve elsewhere noted is the movie that has had the greatest impact on my writing life. (My three published novels are basically triangulations between L.A. Confidential, Foucault’s Pendulum, and The Day of the Jackal, with touches of Thomas Harris and The X-Files, but it was Hanson, even more than James Ellroy, who first taught me the pleasures of a triple plot.) It has as many great scenes as The Godfather, and as deep a bench of memorable performances, and it’s the last really complicated story that a studio ever allowed itself. When you look at the shine of its images and the density of its screenplay, you realize that its real descendants can be found in the golden age of television, although it accomplishes more in two and a half hours than most prestige dramas can pull off in ten episodes. It’s a masterpiece of organization that still allows itself to breathe, and it keeps an attractive gloss of cynicism while remaining profoundly humane. I’m watching it again as I write this, and I’m relieved to find that it seems ageless: it’s startling to realize that it was released nearly two decades ago, and that a high school student discovering it now will feel much as I did when I saw Chinatown. When it first came out, I was almost tempted to undervalue it because it went down so easily, and it took me a few years to recognize that it was everything I’d ever wanted in a movie. And it still is—even if Hanson himself always seemed conscious of its limitations, and restless in his longing to do more.

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September 23, 2016 at 8:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Tom Stoppard

I think that in the future I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness. I should have the courage of my lack of convictions.

Tom Stoppard, quoted in The New Yorker

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September 23, 2016 at 7:30 am

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