Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Brexit pursued by a bear

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Over the weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Paddington 2, which can accurately be described as the best live-action children’s movie since Paddington. These are charming films, and the worst that can be said of them is that they’re clearly trying hard to be better than they have any right to be. Unlike an artist like Hayao Miyazaki, who constructs stories according to his own secret logic and ends up seizing the imagination of adults and children across the world, director Paul King and his collaborators are more in the tradition of Pixar, which does amazing work and never lets you forget it for a second. (If you want to reach back even further, you could say that these movies split the difference between Babe, a technically phenomenal film that somehow managed to seem effortless, and Babe: Pig in the City, an unquestioned masterpiece that often felt on the verge of flying apart under the pressure of George Miller’s ambitions.) Paddington 2, in particular, is so indebted to the work of Wes Anderson, especially The Grand Budapest Hotel, that it seems less like a pastiche than an unauthorized knockoff. Is it really an act of homage to painstakingly recreate the look of a movie that came out less than four years ago? But it also doesn’t matter. It’s as if King and his collaborators realized that Anderson’s work amounted to an industrial process that was being wasted if it wasn’t being used to make a children’s movie, so they decided to copy it before the patent expired. The result isn’t quite on the level of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a major work of art that also seems to have been made by and for twelve-year-old kids. But it’s more than enough until Anderson finally makes the Encyclopedia Brown adaptation of my dreams.

Paddington 2 also doubles as the best advertisement for Britain in film since the heyday of the Ministry of Information, with a roster of such ringers as Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, and Joanna Lumley, as well as a wonderfully diverse supporting cast. (It also gives Hugh Grant—the quintessential British export of the last quarter of a century—his best role in a long time.) It’s the most loving portrait of London that any movie has provided in years, with a plot driven by an implausible treasure hunt that serves as an excuse to tour such landmarks as Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Watching it is almost enough to make you forget the fact that just a few months before production began, the United Kingdom narrowly voted to effectively withdraw from its role as a global power. It might seem like a stretch to see a children’s movie through the lens of Brexit, but nearly every British film of the postwar period can be read as a commentary on the nation’s sometimes painful efforts to redefine itself in a changing world order. Nostalgia is often a strategy for dealing with harsher realities, and escapism can be more revealing than it knows, with even the James Bond series serving as a form of wishful thinking. And America should be paying close attention. A nation on the decline no longer has the luxury of having its movies stand for nothing but themselves, and Britain provides a striking case study for what happens to a culture after its period of ascendancy is over. The United States, like its nearest relation, threw away much of its credibility a year and a half ago in a fit of absentmindedness.

This partially accounts for our sudden fascination with Britain and its royal family, which seems to have risen to levels unseen since the death of Princess Diana. Part of it amounts to an accident of timing—the flurry of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth birthday and sapphire jubilee generated a flood of content that was more available to American viewers than ever before, and we were unusually primed to receive it. Over the last year or so, my wife and I have watched something like three different documentaries about the Windsors, along with The Crown and The Great British Baking Show, the soothing rhythms of which make Top Chef seem frantic by comparison. Above all else, we’ve followed the saga of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, which has often been mined for clues as to its possible social and political significance. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker:

This may be because [the engagement is] legit the only bit of non-terrible news that’s happened in the last year. But there’s more to it than that. This is a royal wedding for non-royalists, even for anti-royalists…There is another important way in which Markle’s arrival reconfigures what Prince Philip reportedly calls “the Firm.” Not only is she American, she is also of mixed race: Markle’s mother is African-American, and her father is white…Whatever else Markle brings to the gilded royal table in terms of glamour, intelligence, and charm, her experience of racial prejudice is unprecedented among members of the royal family. At a time when racial bigotry and nativism is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic, the coming to prominence at the heart of Britain’s First Family of an American woman whose ancestors were enslaved could not be more welcome, or more salutary.

The unstated point is that even as the United Kingdom goes through convulsions of its own, at least it gets to have this. And we can’t be blamed for wanting to clutch some of it to ourselves. After quoting Princess Diana’s wish that she become “a queen of people’s hearts,” Mead adds:

For those of us horrified by the President’s imperial, autocratic instincts—by his apparent wish to reinstate a feudal system with himself at its apex, attended by a small court of plutocrats who, like him, have been even further enriched by Republican tax reform—might we not claim Harry and Meghan as the monarchs of our hearts? Might they not serve as paradoxical avatars of our own hopes for a more open, more international, more unified, and fairer world?

It’s hard to quarrel with this basically harmless desire to comfort ourselves with the images of the monarchy, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. The building blocks of so much of my inner life—from the Sherlock Holmes stories to the movies of Powell and Pressburger—reflect a nostalgia for an England, as Vincent Starrett put it, “where it is always 1895.” It’s an impulse as old as Walt Disney, a Chicago child whose studio turned into a propaganda mill in the early sixties for the values of the Edwardian era. (As much as I love Mary Poppins, it’s hard to overlook the fact that it premiered just a few weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and against a backdrop of race riots in Philadelphia.) America has nostalgic myths of its own, but it tends to fall back on its British forebears when it feels particularly insecure about its own legacy. When it becomes too difficult to look at ourselves, we close our eyes and think of England.

Quote of the Day

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Just as the results of that primitive process of mental digestion, verbal symbolism, may be used for the satisfaction of other needs than symbolization, so all other instinctive acts may serve the expressive function. Eating, traveling, asking or answering questions, construction, destruction, prostitution—any or all such activities may enter into rites; yet rites in themselves are not practical, but expressive. Ritual, like art, is essentially the active termination of a symbolic transformation of experience. It is born in the cortex, not in the “old brain”; but it is born of an elementary need of that organ, once the organ has grown to human estate.

Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

The pursuit of trivia

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Over the last few months, my wife and I have been obsessively playing HQ Trivia, an online game show that until recently was available only on Apple devices. If you somehow haven’t encountered it by now, it’s a live video broadcast, hosted by the weirdly ingratiating comedian Scott Rogowsky, in which players are given the chance to answer twelve multiple-choice questions. If you get one wrong, you’re eliminated, but if you make it to the end, you split the prize—which ranges from a few hundred to thousands of dollars—with the remaining contestants. Early on, my wife and I actually made it to the winner’s circle four times, earning a total of close to fifty bucks. (Unfortunately, the game’s payout minimum means that we currently have seventeen dollars that we can’t cash out until we’ve won again, which at this point seems highly unlikely.) That was back when the pool of contestants on a typical evening consisted of fewer than ten thousand players. Last night, there were well over a million, which set a new record. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than twice the number of people who watched the first airing of the return of Twin Peaks. It’s greater than the viewership of the average episode of Girls. In an era when many of us watch even sporting events, award ceremonies, or talk shows on a short delay, HQ Trivia obliges its viewers to pay close attention at the same time for ten minutes or more at a stretch. And we’re at a point where it feels like a real accomplishment to force any live audience, which is otherwise so balkanized and diffused, to focus on this tiny node of content.

Not surprisingly, the game has inspired a certain amount of curiosity about its ultimate intentions. It runs no advertisements of any kind, with a prize pool funded entirely by venture capital. But its plans aren’t exactly a mystery. As the reporter Todd Spangler writes in Variety:

So how do HQ Trivia’s creators plan to make money, instead of just giving it away? [Co-founder Rus] Yusupov said monetization is not currently the company’s focus. That said, it’s “getting a ton of interest from brands and agencies who want to collaborate and do something fun,” he added. “If we do any brand integrations or sponsors, the focus will be on making it enhance the gameplay,” Yusupov said. “For a user, the worst thing is feeling like, ‘I’m being optimized—I’m the product now.’ We want to make a great game, and make it grow and become something really special.”

It’s worth remembering that this game launched only this past August, and that we’re at a very early stage in its development, which has shrewdly focused on increasing its audience without any premature attempts at turning a profit. Startups are often criticized for focusing on metrics like “clicks” or “eyeballs” without showing how to turn them into revenue, but for HQ, it makes a certain amount of sense—these are literal eyeballs, all demonstrably turned to the same screen at once, and it yields the closest thing that anyone has seen in years to a captive audience. When the time comes for it to approach sponsors, it’s going to present a compelling case indeed.

But the specter of a million users glued simultaneously to their phones, hanging on Scott Rogowsky’s every word, fills some onlookers with uneasiness. Rogowsky himself has joked on the air about the comparisons to Black Mirror, and several commentators have taken it even further. Ian Bogost says in The Atlantic:

Why do I feel such dread when I play? It’s not the terror of losing, or even that of being embarrassed for answering questions wrong in front of my family and friends…It’s almost as if HQ is a fictional entertainment broadcast, like the kind created to broadcast the Hunger Games in the fictional nation of Panem. There, the motion graphics, the actors portraying news or talk-show hosts, the sets, the chyrons—they impose the grammar of television in order to recreate it, but they contort it in order to emphasize that it is also fictional…HQ bears the same sincere fakery, but seems utterly unaware that it is doing so.

And Miles Surrey of The Ringer envisions a dark future, over a century from now, in which playing the app is compulsory:

Scott—or “Trill Trebek,” or simply “God”—is a messianic figure to the HQties, the collective that blindly worships him, and a dictatorial figure to the rest of us…I made it to question 17. My children will eat today…You need to delete HQ from your phones. What appears to be an exciting convergence of television and app content is in truth the start of something terrifying, irreparable, and dangerous. You are conditioned to stop what you’re doing twice a day and play a trivia game—that is just Phase 1.

Yet I suspect that the real reason that this game feels so sinister to some observers is that it marks a return to a phenomenon that we thought we’d all left behind, and which troubled us subconsciously in ways that we’re only starting to grasp. It’s appointment television. In my time zone, the game airs around eight o’clock at night, which happens to be when I put my daughter to bed. I never know exactly how long the process will take—sometimes she falls asleep at once, but she tends to stall—so I usually get downstairs to join my wife about five or ten minutes later. By that point, the game has begun, and I often hear her say glumly: “I got out already.” And that’s it. It’s over until the same time tomorrow. Even if there were a way to rewind, there’s no point, because the money has already been distributed and nothing else especially interesting happened. (The one exception was the episode that aired on the day that one of the founders threatened to fire Rogowsky in retaliation for a profile in The Daily Beast, which marked one of the few times that the show’s mask seemed to crack.) But believe it or not, this is how we all used to watch television. We couldn’t record, pause, or control what was on, which is a fact that my daughter finds utterly inexplicable whenever we stay in a hotel room. It was a collective experience, but we also conducted it in relative isolation, except from the people who were in the same room as we were. That’s true of HQ as well, which moves at such a high speed that it’s impossible to comment on it on social media without getting thrown off your rhythm. These days, many of us only watch live television together at shared moments of national trauma, and HQ is pointedly the opposite. It’s trivial, but we have no choice but to watch it at the exact same time, with no chance of saving, pausing, or sharing. The screen might be smaller, but otherwise, it’s precisely what many of us did for decades. And if it bothers us now, it’s only because we’ve realized how dystopian it was all along.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2018 at 9:20 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

The sacrifices of the heart

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When a nation, or individual, declines the experiences that present themselves to passionate hearts only, they are automatically turned out from the realm of history. The heart of man either falls in love with somebody or something, or it falls ill. It can never go unoccupied. And the great question for mankind is what is to be loved or hated next, whenever an old love or fear has lost its hold…Our energies flow into new channels each time that our hearts leap. And each leap of our hearts remakes our bodies, our habits, and our institutions. Since any heart that has the privilege of loving is willing to suffer for its love, our social customs are the fruit of these sufferings which reshape our ways of life. The Body Politic as well as the cellular body is the reward of the sacrifices which our heart has paid for its privilege to love.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution

Written by nevalalee

January 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

The myths of our lives

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I have said elsewhere that we have to make myths of our lives, the point being that if we do, then every grief or inexplicable seizure by weather, woe, or work can—if we discipline ourselves and think hard enough—be turned into account, be made to yield further insight into what it is to be alive, to be a human being, what the hazards are of a fairly usual, everyday kind. We go up to Heaven and down to Hell a dozen times a day—at least I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. It literally keeps one from falling on one’s face.

That is one way to keep alive in self-made solitary confinement. I have found it useful also these past days to say to myself, “What if I were not alone? What if I had ten children to get off to school every morning and a massive wash to do before they got home? What if two of them were in bed with flu, cross and at a loose end?” That is enough to send me back to solitude as if it were—as it truly is—a fabulous gift from the gods.

May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2018 at 7:30 am

American Stories #10: Hamilton

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

On August 6, 2015, Hamilton opened at the Richard Rogers Theatre in New York, where it has played to full houses ever since. It marked the moment at which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical exploded into the popular consciousness, and it also means that we’re approaching an important crossover point. In about three weeks, Hamilton will have spent more time on Broadway under a Trump presidency—either prospective or actual—than it did under Barack Obama. And its reception has been so inseparable from the historical era in which it happened to reach a vast audience, after spending more than five years in writing and development, that this fact seems more than simply symbolic. To a greater extent than any other recent work of art, this musical has engaged in a continuous dialogue with its country, and its most Shakespearean quality is the way in which it always seems to be speaking about current events. Its Broadway premiere occurred less than a month after Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency, and although his announcement is remembered mostly for equating Mexican immigrants with rapists, the words that he uttered a few seconds earlier were even more revealing: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you.” Among other things, Hamilton is a story about who “you” and “we” really are in America, and while its answer to that question has remained consistent, the culture in which its echoes are heard has changed with bewildering speed. During the campaign, I found it almost physically painful to think about the line “Immigrants—we get the job done,” which was received so enthusiastically by its listeners that Miranda had to add a few beats of silence to absorb the applause. I wanted to believe it, but I was also afraid that the job wouldn’t get done after all, and it didn’t. But it wasn’t the fault of our immigrants, who have found themselves back at the center of our politics even as they remain marginalized in other ways. And we might all be better off now if it really had been up to them.

Like many people, I haven’t stopped listening to Hamilton since. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a live singalong at the public library in Oak Park that drew hundreds of adults and children over the course of two days—they had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the crowd. It was unbearably moving. Yet it’s also undeniable that Hamilton plays so well in part because it leaves so much unsaid. As the Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro has written:

The idea that this musical “looks like America looks now” in contrast to “then,” however, is misleading and actively erases the presence and role of black and brown people in Revolutionary America, as well as before and since…Despite the proliferation of brown and black bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. For the space of only a couple of bars, a chorus member assumes the role of Sally Hemings, but is recognizable as such only by those who catch Jefferson’s reference to the enslaved woman with whom he had an ongoing sexual relationship. Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.

I don’t think that there’s any question that Monteiro is basically right here, and that the diversity of Hamilton’s cast allows it to absorb America’s racial legacy into the overwhelming charisma of its performers, rather than confronting it explicitly in the text. (A song that addressed it directly, “Cabinet Battle #3,” was cut from the finished show, although it appears on The Hamilton Mixtape.) Unless you happen to actually be Mike Pence, it won’t make you uncomfortable for even a fraction of a second, which may have been necessary for it to reach its present cultural status. I’m grateful for what it does accomplish, but its success also points to how many stories have yet to be told. And perhaps it was more important that it gave us a chance, through a beneficent sleight of hand, to take pride in our history one last time.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2018 at 9:18 am

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