Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The greatest game never played

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When I was writing Astounding, I was constantly mindful of the need to cut down the manuscript as much as possible. I had contracted to write a book of a certain length, and it came in much longer than expected—the first draft was twice the length of what eventually saw print, which in itself was significantly larger than what my publisher had anticipated. As a result, I had to remove a lot of material that I would have loved to include. This was especially hard for the period after John W. Campbell’s death. Campbell was clearly my central figure, so I couldn’t continue the book for long after he was gone, but I also didn’t want to leave my other primary subjects hanging. This meant that I had to compress the final acts of three incredibly eventful lives into a relatively short epilogue, which led to certain compromises. In his memoirs, Isaac Asimov devotes hundreds of thousands of words to the last two decades of his life, and in my book, I cover them in about six pages. Much the same holds true for Robert A. Heinlein, whose authorized biographer spends a substantial chunk of the second of two huge volumes on the period that I recount in a brief summary. But perhaps the most regrettable case of all was that of L. Ron Hubbard. In the popular imagination, Hubbard is associated with the era of the Sea Org, in which he served as the commodore of a private navy that wandered the oceans for years. This is perhaps the most colorful, outwardly fascinating phase in Hubbard’s life, and it serves as the centerpiece of most treatments of his career. I had just a couple of pages to hit the hight points, and while this was the right choice for the book as a whole, I also regret the loss of a lot of interesting stories that I didn’t have room to discuss.

For instance, there’s the curious story of the touch football game that never happened between the Church of Scientology and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (The details can be found in Hubbard’s FBI file, which is available in its entirety online.) On October 23, 1978, Jerry Velona, the minister of public affairs for the Church of Scientology of Boston, wrote under the church’s official letterhead to Richard Bates, the special agent in charge of the local branch of the FBI. The letter began: “The Church of Scientology of Boston puts together a touch football game each year with which to play various other teams and groups. We play the games in the Boston area and charge an admission fee which is then donated to charity.” Velona continued:

This year instead of playing local fraternities and colleges as we usually do, we decided it would be more fun to play teams comprised of groups with which we have dealings in other areas. This will afford us an opportunity to get to know you personally and will also be used as a gimmick to attract more attendance which will play off in turn toward the charity. The charity we have chosen this year is the Jimmy Fund.

The Jimmy Fund, which was founded in 1948, raises money for cancer care and research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and it was a surprising charity for the church to support, given Hubbard’s past statements on the subject. (“Cancer is not caused…It always requires a second-dynamic or sexual upset, such as the loose of children or some other mechanism to bring about a condition known as cancer. This is cancer at the outset.”) But that isn’t really the point.

Velona’s coy reference to groups “with which we have dealings in other areas” wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the letter’s recipients, as we’ll see shortly. But he was just coming to the point:

We hereby challenge you to a game to be played sometime over the next 4-6 weeks. We are currently putting together a schedule so we have some open time to play with. Our team is comprised solely of members of the Church but I must warn you that we are very good and have never lost. Our softball team played the New England Patriots a couple of years ago and beat them soundly.

It probably isn’t worth unpacking any of this too closely, but the last two sentences seem particularly typical of the language of Scientology, with its claim that the church has “never lost” bolstered by the irrelevant detail that it once beat a professional football team at softball, followed immediately by a line that contradicts the previous statement: “Please let me know as soon as you can if you’re game. We don’t practice much so don’t think you have to put together a professional team.” Velona seems to anticipate some of his correspondent’s potential objections, and he writes reassuringly: “There is no ulterior motive behind this. It is simply a way to get out from behind our desks and have some fun and raise some money for a worthy cause at the same time.” (The phrase “there is no ulterior motive behind this” would sound ominous coming from anyone, and especially when you consider the source.) And Velona closed cordially: “I look forward to hearing from you soon. If you accept our challenge I will contact you to make specific arrangements.”

The FBI’s only response was to forward the letter to Washington, D.C. with a note attached: “Boston will not acknowledge the enclosed letter in that due to investigative commitments, personnel of the Boston Division are not available for such frivolity.” That seems reasonable enough. And while this whole incident might seem like a sideshow, I think it gets at something meaningful about the culture of the church in the late seventies. Hubbard doesn’t seem to have been directly involved with this episode, but it reflects an important aspect of the mindset that he instilled in his followers, even in his absence. This was the decade of the Snow White Program, in which the church—acting on Hubbard’s orders—planted spies throughout the federal government, including the Internal Revenue Service. On July 8, 1977, FBI agents raided branches in three cities to seize documents pertaining to the case, as well as to the church’s plans to discredit or frame its critics. Two months before Velona’s invitation, eleven members of the church, including Hubbard’s wife Mary Sue, were indicted on conspiracy charges. And the letter is just one example of how the prankish side of Hubbard’s personality, as expressed through the institutions that he created, could insidiously shade into illegality and abuse, as well as the other way around. (Another good illustration is the practice of overboarding, in which offenders in the Sea Org were tossed without warning into the sea. From a distance, it might have seemed like fun and games. But some of them nearly drowned.) As we’ve all learned in the last few years, the line between mere trolling and outright criminality can be faint indeed, especially when such impulses are paradoxically driven by a stark sense of loyalty to an authoritarian leader. On some level, the invitation to the FBI may have been meant in earnest, but on another, it was the act of an unrepentant bunch of trolls. And like their successors in other areas of life, they had studied at the feet of the master.

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2018 at 9:24 am

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Quote of the Day

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Educations are divided into splendid educations, thorough classical educations, and average educations. All very old men have splendid educations; all men who apparently know nothing else have thorough classical educations; nobody has an average education.

Stephen Leacock, Literary Lapses

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December 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

The man on the table

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The myth of the new scientific or technological man presents to us the image of the man in the white coat; the man who embodies the gnosis achieved by the new methods of inquiry. This man thus in modest actuality but also—and here is the first element of the mythical—in infinite potentiality knows the secrets of things, what their effective structures are, and therefore how they work…But if the man in the white coat is free to control, and as intentionally motivated by creative and moral purposes, as the mythical image proclaims—and otherwise there is little hope in the image—then the man on the table, the object of the inquiry of the same scientist, must also be in part free. Thus man as a free being, the object of inquiry, must in part be incomprehensible in terms of objective and universal laws, and even creative outside the bounds of those laws, and consequently potentially destructive of them as well. Any freedom in the object under control reduces inevitably the freedom of the controller to work his will. As Tillich was wisely wont to remark, man can always look back at his controller—and, we lesser mortals might add, cheat on an objective test.

Langdon Gilkey, Religion and the Scientific Future

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December 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

The asymmetry of history

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Wherever God or Christ are represented as symbols for everlasting truth or justice they are given in the symmetric frontal view, not in profile. Probably for similar reasons public buildings and houses of worship, whether they are Greek temples or Christian basilicas and cathedrals, are bilaterally symmetric. It is, however, true that not infrequently the two towers of Gothic cathedrals are different, as for instance in Chartres. But in practically every case this seems to be due to the history of the cathedral, namely to the fact that the towers were built in different periods. It is understandable that a later time was no longer satisfied with the design of an earlier period; hence one may speak here of historic asymmetry.

Hermann Weyl, Symmetry

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December 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

Go set a playwright

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If you follow theatrical gossip as avidly as I do, you’re probably aware of the unexpected drama that briefly surrounded the new Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin. In March, Lee’s estate sued producer Scott Rudin, claiming that the production was in breach of contract for straying drastically from the book. According to the original agreement, the new version wasn’t supposed to “depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters,” which Sorkin’s interpretation unquestionably did. (Rudin says just as much on the record: “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics. It wouldn’t be of interest. The world has changed since then.”) But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. As a lawyer consulted by the New York Times explains:

Does “spirit” have a definite and precise meaning, or could there be a difference of opinion as to what is “the spirit” of the novel? I do not think that a dictionary definition of “spirit” will resolve that question. Similarly, the contract states that the characters should not be altered. In its pre-action letter, Harper Lee’s estate repeatedly states that the characters “would never have” and “would not have” done numerous things; unless as a matter of historical fact the characters would not have done something…who is to say what a creature of fiction “would never have” or “would not have” done?

Now that the suit has been settled and the play is finally on Broadway, this might all seem beside the point, but there’s one aspect of the story that I think deserves further exploration. Earlier this week, Sorkin spoke to Greg Evans of Deadline about his writing process, noting that he took the initial call from Rudin for good reasons: “The last three times Scott called me and said ‘I have something very exciting to talk to you about,’ I ended up writing Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, so I was paying attention.” His first pass was a faithful version of the original story, which took him about six months to write: “I had just taken the greatest hits of the book, the most important themes, the most necessary themes. I stood them up and dramatized them. I turned them into dialogue.” When he was finished, he had a fateful meeting with Rudin:

He had two notes. The first was, “We’ve got to get to the trial sooner.” That’s a structural note. The second was the note that changed everything. He said, “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He’s got to become Atticus,” and of course, he was right. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and change as a result, and a protagonist has to have a flaw. And I wondered how Harper Lee had gotten away with having Atticus be Atticus for the whole book, and it’s because Atticus isn’t the protagonist in the book. Scout is. But in the play, Atticus was going to be the protagonist, and I threw out that first draft. I started all over again, but this time the goal wasn’t to be as much like the book as possible. The goal wasn’t to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and then gently transfer it to a stage. I was going to write a new play.

This is fascinating stuff, but it’s worth emphasizing that while Rudin’s first piece of feedback was “a structural note,” the second one was as well. The notions that “a protagonist has to change” and “a protagonist has to have a flaw” are narrative conventions that have evolved over time, and for good reason. Like the idea of building the action around a clear sequence of objectives, they’re basically artificial constructs that have little to do with the accurate representation of life. Some people never change for years, and while we’re all flawed in one way or another, our faults aren’t always reflected in dramatic terms in the situations in which we find ourselves. These rules are useful primarily for structuring the audience’s experience, which comes down to the ability to process and remember information delivered over time. (As Kurt Vonnegut, who otherwise might not seem to have much in common with Harper Lee, once said to The Paris Review: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”) Yet they aren’t essential, either, as the written and filmed versions of To Kill a Mockingbird make clear. The original novel, in particular, has a rock-solid plot and supporting characters who can change and surprise us in ways that Atticus can’t. Unfortunately, it’s hard for plot alone to carry a play, which is largely a form about character, and Atticus is obviously the star part. Sorkin doesn’t shy away from using the backbone that Lee provides—the play does indeed get to the jury trial, which is still the most reliable dramatic convention ever devised, more quickly than the book does—but he also grasped the need to turn the main character into someone who could give shape to the audience’s experience of watching the play. It was this consideration, and not the politics, that turned out to be crucial.

There are two morals to this story. One is how someone like Sorkin, who can fall into traps of his own as a writer, benefits from feedback from even stronger personalities. The other is how a note on structure, which Sorkin takes seriously, forced him to engage more deeply with the play’s real material. As all writers know, it’s harder than it looks to sequence a story as a series of objectives or to depict a change in the protagonist, but simply by thinking about such fundamental units of narrative, a writer will come up with new insights, not just about the hero, but about everyone else. As Sorkin says of his lead character in an interview with Vulture:

He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.

In other words, Sorkin’s new perspective on Atticus also required him to rethink the roles of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, which may turn out to be the most beneficial change of all. (This didn’t sit well with the Harper Lee estate, which protested in its complaint that black characters who “knew their place” wouldn’t behave this way at the time.) As Sorkin says of their lack of agency in the original novel: “It’s noticeable, it’s wrong, and it’s also a wasted opportunity.” That’s exactly right—and I like the last reason the best. In theater, as in any other form of narrative, the technical considerations of storytelling are more important than doing the right thing. But to any experienced writer, it’s also clear that they’re usually one and the same.

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2018 at 8:39 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

The tip of the spear

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Over the last couple of days, mostly by coincidence, I’ve been thinking about two sidelong portraits of great directors. One is Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, the diary by Eleanor Coppola that was later adapted into the unforgettable movie Hearts of Darkness. The other is Filmworker, a documentary about Leon Vitali, who served for decades as the assistant to Stanley Kubrick. By approaching their more famous subjects from an angle, they end up telling us more about Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick than a more direct engagement ever could, just as we arguably learn more about Sylvia Plath from Janet Malcolm’s oblique The Silent Woman than by reading volumes of the poet’s books and letters. Major artists, especially movie directors, can be overwhelming to contemplate, and they’re hard to view objectively, as Eleanor Coppola notes in her journal:

[Francis] started talking about how lonely he was. How essentially there are only two positions for most everybody to take with him. One is to kiss his ass, tell him he is great, and be paralyzed with admiration. The other is to resist him. That is, show him that no matter how rich and successful and talented he is, they are not impressed. Hardly anyone can just accept him, say, “That’s great, and so what?”

That’s equally true of biographers and critics, which is why it can be so valuable to listen to the memories of family members and associates who were close enough to see their subjects from all sides, if never quite to take them for granted.

Between Eleanor Coppola and Vitali, it’s hard to say who had the more difficult time of it. In Notes, Coppola hints at what it was like to be married to a director whose fame in the seventies exceeded that of any of his contemporaries: “When I am cashing a check or using a credit card, people often ask me if I am related to Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes I say I am married to him. People change before my eyes. They start smiling nervously and forget to give me my package or change. I think I look fairly normal. I wear sweaters and skirts and boots. Maybe they are expecting a Playboy bunny.” But that level of recognition can also cause problems of its own. Coppola has a revealing passage about the aftermath of her husband’s birthday:

His gifts were unloaded onto the table in the hall. This morning I was straightening up. I couldn’t help reading some of the cards. “Thanks for letting me participate in your greatness. Love…” Some days I am tried and just want out. It seems hopeless. There will always be a fresh crop of adoring young protégées waiting in the wings. This current situation stated during Godfather II. I was on location with Francis, away from San Francisco, my friends and the things that stimulated and interested me at the time. I was so angry with myself, angry that I couldn’t just get totally happy focusing on Francis and the making of his film. Someone else did.

That last line is left hanging, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of so much outside adoration.

In Kubrick’s case, much of this tension seems to have been unloaded onto Vitali, who was the director’s right arm for the last quarter century of his life. Vitali was a promising young actor who made a strong impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but he became fascinated by Kubrick, whom he approached with the offer to work for him in any capacity whatsoever. Kubrick took him up on it, and Vitali found himself testing five thousand children for the role of Danny in The Shining. For the next twenty years, they were inseparable, as Vitali saw after everything from casting and coaching actors to checking the foreign dubs and transfers for every film in the director’s back catalog. He was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and he was the perpetual object both of Kubrick’s unexpected tenderness and his sudden wrath. (Vitali also appeared on camera one last time, his face unseen, as the figure in the red cloak who asks Tom Cruise for the password for the house in Eyes Wide Shut.) Serving as a director’s personal assistant can be a hellish job in any case, and it was apparently even worse in the service of such a notorious perfectionist. Vitali lasted in that role for longer than seems humanly possible, and Kubrick had no compunction about using him for such unenviable tasks as informing the actor Tim Colceri, who had been cast eight months earlier as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, that he had lost the role to R. Lee Ermey. And the work continued even after Kubrick’s death. Before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali personally checked one out of every five prints, or over five hundred in all, by screening them nonstop for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, he had to ask someone else to watch the screen for a few minutes so he could leave the room to throw up. Speaking of this period in the documentary, Vitali, who is otherwise so candid, says after a moment: “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

But you also see why he stayed with Kubrick so long. As another interview subject in Filmworker notes, Vitali wasn’t just a spear carrier, but “the tip of the spear” in one of the most complex operations in the history of filmmaking, and that position can be very addictive. (You could compare it, perhaps, to the role of the White House chief of staff, an awful job that usually has people lining up for it, at least under most presidents.) Kubrick and Coppola were very different in their directorial styles, as well as in their personal lives, but few other filmmakers have ever managed the hat trick of being simultaneously brilliant, independent, and the beneficiary of massive studio resources. Coppola only managed to stay in that position for a few years—he was personally on the line for millions of dollars if Apocalypse Now was a failure, and after he miraculously pulled it off, he threw it all away on One From the Heart. Kubrick hung in there for decades, and he depended enormously on the presence of Vitali, who served as his intermediary to Warner Bros. According to the documentary, Kubrick would often sign his assistant’s name to scathing letters to the studio, and after his death, Vitali bore much of the repressed rage from people who had felt slighted or mistreated by the director during his lifetime. Eleanor Coppola’s position was obviously very different, and she shared in its material rewards in ways that Vitali, who was left in borderline poverty, never did. But if they ever meet, they might have a lot to say to each other. Coppola closes her book with an account of reading the journals of American pioneers during the westward expansion, of which she writes:

I particularly identified with one account in which a family in their journey reached the landmark Independence Rock. The husband described scaling the sides and the remarkable view from the top. The woman wrote about trying to find a patch of shade at the base where she could nurse the baby and cook lunch for the family.

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