Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Thinking in tones

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I started to realize that the cover of the magazine was this blank space, this canvas, that had problems of its own, and I really started to enjoy shooting this cover…when Rolling Stone went to color. I had to change to color, too, and it was very scary. I was glad I came from a school of black and white because I learned to look at things in tones, highlights…

Remember, too, that Rolling Stone was printed on newsprint, rag print, and ink sinks into the magazine. So the only thing that would make it on the cover were pictures that had two or three colors, primary colors, a very posterlike effect. In a strange way, you almost had to make the color look like black and white. So I developed a very graphic use of form and color just to survive the printing process.

Annie Leibovitz, in an interview with David Felton

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June 24, 2017 at 7:30 am

Writing the vegetables

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In the huge interview with Empire that I recommended earlier this week, Christopher McQuarrie shares a story from the editing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. McQuarrie and Tom Cruise had assembled a rough cut of the entire movie, and it wasn’t playing well. To be fair, it never does, especially when it includes a lot of unfinished visual effects, but what they were seeing left them particularly depressed, and after watching the first half, they walked outside to get some air and brace themselves for the rest. (McQuarrie refers to it as a “Cut me, Mick” moment, and anyone who has dreaded going back to a troubled project can probably relate.) McQuarrie describes what happened next:

We went back in and sat down and Eddie [Hamilton] had cut together a big chunk of the second half of the movie. And we got to the moment—no music in it, nothing, total rough cut—and [Ilsa] said: “Come away with me.” Tom and I looked at each other, and we’re like, “Do you feel that? That kind of worked! That was actually good!” And then there was the scene in the safe house when they’re all fighting with each other, and that was working. All of a sudden, we were looking at it and going, “You know, all the vegetables of the movie are actually tracking. They’re actually playing really well. It’s all the action that’s not worked out yet.”

McQuarrie quickly moves on, but the notion of a story’s “vegetables”—the scenes that exist to get from one high point to another—stuck with me, along with the idea that you can evaluate a work in progress by keeping an eye on those interstitial scenes.

On some level, this seems to run contrary to one of the central tenets of storytelling, which is that if you nail the big moments and don’t actively screw anything up, the rest will take care of itself. (As Howard Hawks put it: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.”) And in practice, viewers or readers will forgive almost anything if a story delivers when it counts. But the vegetables are important, too—to facilitate the climaxes, as worthwhile scenes in themselves, and as a kind of index of the whole. I’ve noted elsewhere that the famous moments that we remember rely on the surrounding material to have an impact. Revealingly, such scenes rarely, if ever, come at the very beginning, which is when writers feel the most pressure to start off with a bang—which only indicates the extent to which they depend on context and preparation. That pattern holds throughout the story. A novel or movie that consists of just one high point after another is likely to be exhausting, while one that conceives itself as a delivery system for awesome moments may fall flat whenever something amazing isn’t happening. To some extent, this is a matter of personal taste. I gave up on Game of Thrones in part because of its tendency to sag between character deaths, while I never got tired of Mad Men, which was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. The most reasonable approach, unless you’re Matthew Weiner, is a deliberate balance in which the quieter scenes enable the more conventionally exciting sequences. The vegetables may not be the main attraction, but they play the same role in a story that aromatics like onions and garlic have in cooking. They add flavor and bind the rest together.

The vegetables can also be tasty in themselves. A few weeks ago, I finally saw Hamilton onstage, and my big takeaway was how good the second act is—it’s just one great song after another. Yet on paper, it also consists mostly of vegetables, with characters talking about politics or setting up information that will pay off later on. You can see this clearly in “Take a Break,” a purely functional song that exists solely to establish the fact that Hamilton is away from his family, but is so lovingly written and performed that it becomes a showstopper. Even better is “The Election of 1800,” which just moves the political pieces around, but thrills me to no end. (I love it in part because it reminds me of Evita, which is nothing but vegetables, but so cleverly delivered that we don’t even notice. And neither musical could exist, at least not at this level of success, if they hadn’t found solutions to the problem of treating politics in song.) You may not notice such functional scenes on your first encounter, or even your tenth, but the more you listen to a soundtrack or watch a movie, the more they stand out. They’re often the ones that I end up revisiting the most, in part because they can’t take our attention for granted, so they have to exist at a high level of craft. I’ve read the novel The Silence of the Lambs maybe ten times, but the one chapter that I never tire of reading is the one in which Clarice Starling searches the storage unit that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. It really only exists to get the plot to the next stage, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches, like how the resourceful Clarice fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. And you really start to appreciate this sort of scene when you notice its total absence from Hannibal Rising.

For a writer, the best thing about vegetables, as well as a potential pitfall, is that you can always find ways of improving them, which isn’t always true of the big moments. Novelists may not be in the same position as filmmakers who have to wait for special effects to be rendered, but if you’ve ever written a novel, you know that you eventually stop seeing the scenes that made you want to write it in the first place. You’ve read them so many times that they become invisible, and it can be hard to look past your preconceptions to see what’s actually on the page. With purely functional scenes, it’s easy to retain your detachment, and you can keep tinkering with them even when you lack the energy to tackle larger issues. Ideally, the vegetables can even serve as a gauge of quality, as they did with McQuarrie and Cruise: if the small stuff is working, there’s reason to hope that the big stuff is, too. But proportionality also matters, and endless fiddling on minor details can blind you to a scene’s true importance. (Martin Scorsese threatened to take his name off Raging Bull because he couldn’t hear a background character ordering a Cutty Sark in a bar.) Fretting too much over the vegetables can turn into procrastination, or a form of avoidance. As Carl Richards of the New York Times points out, it’s when you’re looking for excuses to avoid moving to the next stage that you seize onto finicky little items: “What color should the logo be?” “I can’t find an agent.” “It could use another round of edits.” “I’m not sure what font to use.” That’s when the vegetables tend to call to you the most. The best approach is to utilize this impulse to polish the small parts until they shine, while keeping it under control so that you don’t lose sight of the overall picture. Vegetables in a story are good for you. But you don’t want to neglect the meat.

Quote of the Day

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[My] many hours of physical effort as a youth also meant that my body, never frail but also initially not particularly strong, has lasted much longer than a sedentary occupation might have otherwise permitted. Above all, work and solitude, the two conditions of a mathematician’s best hours, became at an early age my frequent companions.

Robert P. Langlands, “Mathematical Retrospections”

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June 23, 2017 at 7:30 am

Too far to go

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Note: Spoilers follow for the third season of Fargo.

A year and a half ago, I wrote on this blog: “Fargo may turn out to be the most important television series on the air today.” Now that the third season has ended, it feels like a good time to revisit that prediction, which turned out to be sort of right, but not for the reasons that I expected. When I typed those words, cracking the problem of the anthology series felt like the puzzle on which the future of television itself depended. We were witnessing an epochal shift of talent, which is still happening, from movies to the small screen, as big names on both sides of the camera began to realize that the creative opportunities it afforded were in many ways greater than what the studios were prepared to offer. I remain convinced that we’re entering an entertainment landscape in which Hollywood focuses almost exclusively on blockbusters, while dramas and quirky smaller films migrate to cable, or even the networks. The anthology series was the obvious crossover point. It could draw big names for a limited run, it allowed stories to be told over the course of ten tight episodes rather than stretched over twenty or more, it lent itself well to being watched in one huge binge, and it offered viewers the prospect of a definitive conclusion. At its best, it felt like an independent movie given the breathing room and resources of an epic. Fargo, its exemplar, became one of the most fascinating dramas on television in large part because it drew its inspiration from one of the most virtuoso experiments with tone in movie history—a triangulation, established by the original film, between politeness, quiet desperation, and sudden violence. It was a technical trick, but a very good one, and it seemed like a machine that could generate stories forever.

After three seasons, I haven’t changed my mind, even if the show’s underlying formula feels more obvious than before. What I’ve begun to realize about Fargo is that it’s an anthology series that treats each season as a kind of miniature anthology, too, with scenes and entire episodes that stand for nothing but themselves. In the first season, the extended sequence about Oliver Platt’s supermarket magnate was a shaggy dog story that didn’t go anywhere, but now, it’s a matter of strategy. The current season was ostensibly focused on the misfortunes of the Stussey brothers, played with showy brilliance by Ewan McGregor, but it allowed itself so many digressions that the plot became more like a framing device. It opened with a long interrogation scene set in East Germany that was never referenced again, aside from serving as a thematic overture to the whole—although it can’t be an accident that “Stussey” sounds so much like “Stasi.” Later, there was a self-contained flashback episode set in the science fiction and movie worlds of the seventies, including an animated cartoon to dramatize a story by one of the characters, which turned the series into a set of nesting dolls. It often paused to stage the parables told by the loathsome Varga, which were evidently supposed to cast light on the situation, but rarely had anything to do it. After the icy control of the first season and the visual nervousness of the second, the third season threaded the needle by simultaneously disciplining its look and indulging its penchant for odd byways. Each episode was like a film festival of short subjects, some more successful than others, and unified mostly by creator Noah Hawley’s confidence that we would follow him wherever he went.

Mostly, he was right, although his success rate wasn’t perfect, as it hardly could have been expected to be. There’s no question that between Fargo and Legion, Hawley has been responsible for some of the most arresting television of the last few years, but the strain occasionally shows. The storytelling and character development on Legion were never as interesting as its visual experiments, possibly because a show can innovate along only so many parameters at once. And Fargo has been so good at its quirky components—it rarely gives us a scene that isn’t riveting in itself—that it sometimes loses track of the overall effect. Like its inspiration, it positions itself as based on true events, even though it’s totally fictional, and in theory, this frees it up to indulge in loose ends, coincidences, and a lack of conventional climaxes, just like real life. But I’ve never entirely bought this. The show is obsessively stylized and designed, and it never feels like a story that could take place anywhere but in the fictional Coenverse. At times, Hawley seems to want it both ways. The character of Nikki Swango, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is endlessly intriguing, and I give the show credit for carrying her story through to what feels like a real conclusion, rather than using her suffering as an excuse to motivate a male protagonist. But when she’s gratuitously targeted by the show’s villains, only to survive and turn into an avenging angel, it’s exactly what I wanted, but I couldn’t really believe a second of it. It’s just as contrived as any number of storylines on more conventional shows, and although the execution is often spellbinding, it has a way of eliding reasonable objections. When it dispatches Nikki at the end with a standard trick of fate, it feels less like a subversion than the kind of narrative beat that the show has taught us to expect, and by now, it’s dangerously close to a cliché.

This is where the anthology format becomes both a blessing and a curse. By tying off each story after ten episodes, Fargo can allow itself to be wilder and more intense than a show that has to focus on the long game, but it also gets to indulge in problematic storytelling devices that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny if we had to live with these characters for multiple seasons. Even in its current form, there are troubling patterns. Back in the first season, one of my few complaints revolved around the character of Bill Oswalt, who existed largely to foil the resourceful Molly as she got closer to solving the case. Bill wasn’t a bad guy, and the show took pains to explain the reasons for his skepticism, but their scenes together quickly grew monotonous. They occurred like clockwork, once every episode, and instead of building to something, they were theme and variations, constantly retarding the story rather than advancing it. In the third season, incredibly, Fargo does the same thing, but worse, in the form of Chief Moe Dammik, who exists solely to doubt, undermine, and make fun of our hero, Gloria Burgle, and without the benefit of Bill’s underlying sweetness. Maybe the show avoided humanizing Dammik because it didn’t want to present the same character twice—which doesn’t explain why he had to exist at all. He brought the show to a halt every time he appeared, and his dynamic with Gloria would have seemed lazy even on a network procedural. (And it’s a foil, significantly, that the original Fargo didn’t think was necessary.) Hawley and his collaborators are only human, but so are all writers. And if the anthology format allows them to indulge their strengths while keeping their weaknesses from going too far, that may be the strongest argument for it of all.

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June 22, 2017 at 8:45 am

Posted in Television

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Quote of the Day

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The scholar is always studying, always ready and eager to learn. The scholar knows the connections of this specialty with the subject as a whole; he knows not only the technical details of his specialty, but its history and its present standing; he knows about the others who are working on it and how far they have reached. He knows the literature, and he trusts nobody; he himself examines the original paper. He acquires firsthand knowledge not only of its intellectual content, but also of the date of the work, the spelling of the author’s name, and the punctuation in the title; he insists on getting every detail of every reference absolutely straight. The scholar tries to be as broad as possible…These are the things, some of the things, that go to make up a pro.

Paul Halmos, I Want to Be a Mathematician

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June 22, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Borges Test

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In his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, who was arguably the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, offers a useful piece of advice:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven—though those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books. Those notes are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

Later stories in the same vein include “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” one of my favorites, in which Borges writes: “In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me.” It’s a considerate way of saving time for both the author and the reader, and it’s unfortunate that it’s become so associated with Borges that it’s hard for other writers to utilize it without turning it into an homage. And it only works for stories in which an idea, rather than characterization or style, constitutes the primary attraction.

It’s also no accident that Borges arrived at this method after years as a great reader of mystery fiction and, to a lesser extent, of science fiction and fantasy, which are the genres most vulnerable to the charge that they have nothing to offer but an idea. The most damning case against the hard science fiction epitomized by John W. Campbell’s Astounding is that many of these stories could be reduced to a paragraph of plot summary with minimal loss. Most fans, I think, can relate to the experience of being halfway through a story and impatiently skipping to the end, since the writing and characters don’t provide nearly enough incidental pleasure to justify wading through the rest. At its worst, you get the kind of scientific problem story published by Analog at its least inviting, with the reader forced to stare at names on the page and incomprehensible jargon for twenty minutes, only to be rewarded with the narrative equivalent of a word problem in a physics textbook. And this doesn’t extend to bad stories alone, but to some of the important works ever published in the genre. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that almost all of Asimov’s robot stories could be condensed to a few sentences that lay out the situation and the solution without losing much of the experience. (A trickier example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I suspect would work better as a five-page Borges story. The idea of an alternate World War II novel in which the characters are reading an alternate World War II novel about our own world, filled with plausible inaccuracies, is one that Borges would have loved. Ursula K. LeGuin famously referred to Dick as “our own homegrown Borges,” and it’s noteworthy that Dick, as an American novelist, just went ahead and wrote the whole book.)

You could say much the same of detective fiction of the locked-room variety, which exists entirely to deliver the twist, and which might work better as one of the one-minute mysteries that children consume in grade school. (“What made Encyclopedia Brown so sure? Turn to page 61 for the solution to ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap.’”) This frequent inability of the mystery to rise above its origins as a puzzle is part of the reason that they irritated the critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote in his famous essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”:

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails…It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while…You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.

Under such circumstances, it can be a courtesy for one reader to summarize the contents of such a story for another. Many of Borges’s best essays consist of little more than a condensed version of another book, from William Beckford’s Vathek to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, as filtered through his unique sensibilities. And you see a similar impulse, at much lower level, when we go online to read the spoilers for a bad movie that we have no intention of ever seeing.

But when you’re a writer, particularly of mystery or science fiction, you need to constantly ask yourself why your story is better than its own summary. (If anything, this is especially true of science fiction mysteries, which is the category in which I tend to write.) One obvious answer is to make it as short as possible. There’s a grand tradition of short science fiction—one of the first anthologies I ever owned was One Hundred Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I still love—and the platonic ideal is a story that takes no longer to read than it would to be orally told the premise. The other approach is to emphasize qualities that can’t be summarized, like character, style, atmosphere, and suspense. In science fiction, my favorite example is A.E. van Vogt, whose plots defy summarization, and who justifies his existence only by making readers feel as if they’ve lived through an experience that they can’t explain. On the mystery side, Edmund Wilson hints at this when he describes the Sherlock Holmes stories as “fairy tales,” and in his consideration of Raymond Chandler, he also gets at one of the risks:

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms…It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough.

If you can’t do either of the above, then the idea probably isn’t ready yet. That’s the Borges test. And if you decide that it would work better as a short story by Borges, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s far from alone.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 9:10 am

Quote of the Day

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In his essay “The Art of Fiction,” [Henry] James speaks of the “immense sensibility…that takes to itself the faintest hints of life…and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” He celebrates the novelist’s intuitive faculty “to guess the unseen from the seen,” but the word guess may be inadequate, for it is a power, I think, generated by the very discipline to which the writer is committed. The discipline itself is empowering, so that a sentence spun from the imagination confers on the writer a degree of perception or acuity or heightened awareness that a sentence composed with the strictest attention to fact does not.

E.L. Doctorow, Creationists

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June 21, 2017 at 7:30 am

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