Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The will to walk onstage

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About a year ago, I picked up a copy of the book Actors at Work, which consists of interviews with fourteen stage and screen professionals by the casting director Rosemarie Tichler and the playwright Barry Jay Kaplan. It’s an engaging, informative read, openly modeled on the legendary interviews on craft conducted by The Paris Review, and its subjects include the likes of Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and Patti LuPone. By accident, however, it ends with chapters devoted to two actors whose legacies have been profoundly changed in the intervening decade. One is Kevin Spacey, whose career seems effectively over in the aftermath of revelations about his sexual misconduct; the other is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose partner, Mimi O’Donnell, provides an account of their life together in an autobiographical essay that appeared last week in Vogue. Spacey and Hoffman never appeared onstage or onscreen together, and they don’t seem to have spoken of each other publicly while both were alive, but they were linked in the minds of many fans. In his entry on Hoffman in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson even wrote: “Meanwhile, search him out, as you might Kevin Spacey. There is the same very dangerous talent at work—astounding, yet so pronounced it could help make its own prison.” Yet it seems clear now that they were profoundly dissimilar—and not just because Spacey was a born character actor who systematically transformed himself into a leading man, while Hoffman was manifestly a star who was pigeonholed for too long as a character actor.

There are moments in Actors at Work, in fact, when they seem to be engaging in an unintentional dialogue. Here’s Spacey speaking of his two years at Juilliard:

What I learned more than anything else—and which I am enormously, enormously grateful for—is technique. What I learned was how do you get up every night for eight weeks, or twelve weeks or fourteen weeks or six months, into a run of a play and always be alive and always be there and always have your breath and always be energetic and always be ready to respond even on those nights when it doesn’t hit you, and somehow the performance, the audience—you just feel it’s not happening. It is technique that gets you through it. It is what you can do technically even if it’s not connected emotionally on that particular night.

To be honest, I find this fascinating, but it represents a very different approach from what Hoffman describes, in which he sometimes seems to be addressing Spacey himself:

You have tools at your disposal. You have a mind that you’ve soaked up with as much information as possible, and all those things help you get inside it. But the ultimate execution of it is something that is almost ninety-five percent will…I remember an acting teacher saying, “Eventually, you gotta decide to do the play every night.” It’s one of the best pieces of teaching I ever got. If you don’t decide to do it—and sixty percent of actors don’t decide to do it—they go do it anyway. The minute you decide to do it, it’s you doing the work to create the will to walk onstage.

This philosophical contest between technique and will can also be seen in their performances that have been preserved on film. Spacey always seemed to be pretending, however brilliantly, while Hoffman had a way of disappearing into even the tiniest parts—you could rarely catch him “acting,” while much of the pleasure of watching Spacey lay in our conspiratorial sense of his choices from one minute to the next. (There’s a scene in L.A. Confidential in which he does little else except make two phone calls, in a single take, and I can never watch it without marveling at how he handles the receiver of the telephone.) You can also see it in how they planned their careers. Spacey recalls: “I did cotton to the idea that if you were as specific in your choices of what you did as you were as an actor in a role, then you might find things that were right for you, that would challenge you and be interesting to do…I had made a very clear decision ten years earlier to start focusing on film and see if I could carve out a career. I had done it. American Beauty was out, and I thought, it just doesn’t get better than this.” Hoffman, by contrast, was far more intuitive:

The next role I want to play is the next role I want to play, I guess is the answer. I don’t know what that is until I actually see it. It has to be in the moment. Life has to flow. If you don’t let life flow, it’s hard to create. You can’t control creation. The minute I try to control what I’m going to act, what parts I’m going to play, they become something that I don’t want to act. It becomes a heady thing. It becomes, if I just play that part, then I’ll play that part, and then I’d better be over there. It becomes something that’s just structure and math, not creative.

Yet when you look at their filmographies, you can see the difference at once. Hoffman almost never took on a role that wasn’t fascinating, while the last fifteen years of Spacey’s career consisted largely of a series of dead ends. So much of an actor’s career is out of his hands that instinct often counts for more than cleverness.

But while it’s tempting to read Hoffman’s struggle with drug addiction as a reflection of the trauma that he repeatedly underwent as an actor, while Spacey held it at arm’s length, the truth seems to have been utterly different. As O’Donnell writes in Vogue: “I hesitate to ascribe Phil’s relapse after two decades to any one thing, or even to a series of things, because the stressors—or, in the parlance, triggers—that preceded it didn’t cause him to start using again, any more than being a child of divorce did. Lots of people go through difficult life events. Only addicts start taking drugs to blunt the pain of them.” And she deliberately rejects the notion that acting may have been to blame:

Phil went into rehearsal for Mike Nichols’s production of Death of a Salesman, and he threw himself into it with his usual intensity. Willy Loman is one of the great tragic roles of twentieth-century theater, and Phil gave one of the rawest and most honest performances of his career. It asked a lot of him and it exhausted him, but it had nothing to do with his relapse. If anything, doing seven shows a week kept him from using, because it would have been impossible to do that on drugs. Though he continued to drink after evening shows, he was otherwise clean, and as the days left in the show’s limited run wound down, I began to dread what would happen when it was over.

This couldn’t be more less like Spacey, who was engaging in predatory behavior even while serving as the artistic director of the Old Vic, during the busiest period of his creative life. Acting saved Hoffman, until it didn’t, while Spacey appears to have used it as coldly as he did anything else. David Thomson wrote of Spacey years ago: “He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.” We don’t need to accept this. But we also need to recognize that even the will to walk onstage may not always be enough.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

The planet hunter’s commandments

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Behold the heavens and the great vastness thereof, for a planet could be anywhere therein. Thou shalt dedicate thy whole being to the search project with infinite patience and perseverance. Thou shalt set no other work before thee for the search shall keep thee busy enough. Thou shalt take the plates at opposition time lest thou be deceived by asteroids near their stationary positions. Thou shalt duplicate the plates of a pair at the same hour angle lest refraction distortions overtake thee. Thou shalt give adequate overlap of adjacent plate regions lest the planet play hide and seek with thee. Thou shalt not become ill in the dark of the moon lest thou fall behind the opposition point. Thou shalt have no dates except at full moon when long exposure plates cannot be taken at the telescope. Many false planets shall appear before thee and thou shalt check every one with a third plate. Thou shalt not engage in any dissipation, that thy years may be many, for thou shalt need them to finish the job.

Clyde Tombaugh, “The Ten Special Commandments for a Would-Be Planet Hunter”

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December 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The refractory spirits

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I have spoken of the scientific attainments necessary for the chemical philosopher; I will say a few words of the intellectual qualities necessary for discovery, or for the advancement of the science. Amongst them patience, industry, and neatness in manipulation, and accuracy and minuteness in observing and registering the phenomena which occur are essential. A steady hand and a quick eye are most useful auxiliaries; but there have been very few great chemists who have preserved these advantages through life; for the business of the laboratory is often a service of danger, and the elements, like the refractory spirits of romance, though the obedient slave of the magician, yet sometimes escape the influence of his talisman and endanger his person. Both the hands and eyes of others however may be sometimes advantageously made use of. By often repeating a process or an observation, the errors connected with hasty operations or imperfect views are annihilated; and, provided the assistant has no preconceived notions of his own, and is ignorant of the object of his employer in making the experiment, his simple and bare detail of facts will often be the best foundation for an opinion.

Sir Humphry Davy, Consolations in Travel

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December 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Eye of the Skeksis

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Every now and then, you’re able to date the precise moment when your life incrementally changed. For me, one of those turning points was January 9, 1983, when the documentary The World of the Dark Crystal aired on public television, a few weeks after the movie itself debuted in theaters. (This weekend marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of its initial release.) It seems implausible now that I would have watched it at the time, but fortunately, my dad taped it, and it must have lived in our house for years afterward, like a tiny imaginative bomb waiting for its chance to detonate. As I’ll mention in a second, our copy cut off the first four minutes of the documentary—it must have taken my dad that long to get the videocassette recorder set up—and I didn’t see it in its entirety until decades later. It was preserved for me by chance, and when I look at it today, it feels doubly precious. We’re living in an era when a series like The Lord of the Rings can offer dozens of hours of production footage, much of it beautifully presented, while even the most mediocre blockbusters usually provide a bonus disc packed with special features. The World of the Dark Crystal isn’t even an hour long, but it was enough to fuel my imagination for a lifetime. And it wasn’t just an element of what would eventually come to be known as an electronic press kit, or even an anomaly like Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, but a labor of love in its own right, a document made by creative artists who were convinced that what they were doing was worth recording because it had the potential to change movies forever.

That isn’t how it worked out, but at least it changed me, and the moment in particular that I never forgot comes near the beginning of the documentary. Our copy of the tape abruptly opened with a shot of the artist Brian Froud, who provided the movie’s conceptual designs, wandering across the moor near his home in Devon. Shortly afterward, it cut to a sequence of Froud seated at his drafting table, working on a sketch of a Skeksis and musing on the soundtrack:

Jim [Henson] had feelings about what the major creatures were, and some of their characteristics, and it was my job to show how they looked. I always start with the eye—the eye is the focal point of all these characters. And for the Skeksis, they needed to have a penetrating stare….They are part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.

He drew rapidly for the camera, filling in the details around the eye before extending the illustration—with what struck me at the time as a startling flourish—into the downward curve of the mouth. Watching the movement of the pencil, I experienced what I can only describe as a moment of revelation. If nothing else, it was probably the first time that I’d ever seen an artist actually drawing, and it kindled something in me that has never entirely gone away.

I must have been about six years old when it really took hold, and I reacted much like any other kid when presented with this sort of stimulus: I imitated it. To be specific, I slavishly copied that one drawing, not just in its final shape, but in the process that Froud took to get there. I started with the eye, like he did, and then ritualistically added in the rest. It never would have occurred to me to do otherwise, and I suspect that I drew it hundreds of times, sometimes as a doodle in the margin of a notepad, occasionally more systematically, which doesn’t even include the countless other drawings that I made of creatures that were “part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.” It wasn’t so much a reaction to The Dark Crystal itself—which I liked, although not as much as Labyrinth—as to that brief glimpse of a creative mind expressed in the pencil on the page. Combined with a few technical tricks that I picked up from the show The Secret City, which is worth a blog post of its own, it was enough to turn me into a pretty good artist, at least by the standards of the second grade. (It’s worth noting that both The World of the Dark Crystal and The Secret City aired on public television, which is also where Jim Henson made his most lasting impact, and an argument in itself for defending it as a proving ground for the imaginations of the young.) I haven’t done a lot of art in recent years, except when sketching with my daughter, and I knew by the end of college that I didn’t have it in me to be a painter. But I’m grateful to have even a little of it, and I owe it largely to that chance encounter with a Skeksis.

I don’t doubt that there are kids who experienced the same kind of epiphany while watching the lovingly detailed profiles of conceptual designers John Howe and Alan Lee—Froud’s old collaborator—in the special features for The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit provides hours more, and those featurettes, unlike so much else in those bloated box sets, remain fascinating and magical. (The life of a fantasy illustrator must not be a particularly lucrative one under most circumstances, and one of the small pleasures of watching the behind-the-scenes footage from these two trilogies is seeing Howe and Lee growing visibly more prosperous.) But something in the fragmentary nature of The World of the Dark Crystal was stimulating in itself. It wasn’t a textbook, but a series of hints, and it left me to fill in the gaps on my own. You can draw a straight line from that pencil drawing to my interest in science fiction and fantasy, not just as fan, but as someone with an interest in the practicalities of how it all gets done. The forms have changed, but the underlying impulse remains the same. And what really haunts me is the fact that the scene at the drawing table occurs just a minute and a half after our tape started, and my dad could easily have missed it. If it had taken him a few minutes longer to cue up the recorder that night, he might have skipped it entirely, and opened instead with the sequence in which the creatures that Froud designed were coming to life in Jim Henson’s workshop. And maybe I would have become a puppeteer.

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December 15, 2017 at 8:28 am

Quote of the Day

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Photography appears to be an easy activity; in fact, it is a varied and ambiguous process in which the only common denominator among its practitioners is their instrument. What emerges from this recording machine does not escape the economic constraints of a world of waste, of tensions that become increasingly intense and of insane ecological consequences…To take photographs means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis…It is a way of life.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Aperture History of Photography, Book 1

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December 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

The breaking of the vessels

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In his famous Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defines chemistry as “an art whereby sensible bodies contained in vessels, or capable of being contained therein, are so changed, by means of certain instruments, and principally fire, that their several powers and virtues are thereby discovered, with a view to philosophy, or medicine.” As his source, Johnson cites the Dutch chemist and physician Herman Boerhaave, who writes in Elements of Chemistry, a textbook that was first published in the early eighteenth century:

Chemistry is an art that teaches us how to perform certain physical operations, by which bodies that are discernible by the senses, or that may be rendered so, and that are capable of being contained in vessels, may by suitable instruments be so changed, that particular determined effects may be thence produced, and the causes of those effects understood by the effects themselves, to the manifold improvement of various arts…The objects, in observing or changing of which this art is conversant, are all sensible bodies…especially if they are naturally capable of being contained in vessels, or by the power of this art, may be so changed, as to be confined within.

As a nineteenth-century professor and science writer named T. Berry Smith rather poetically explains: “The moon, though a sensible body, is no object of chemistry, for it is not capable of being contained in vessels.”

I was charmed enough by this definition to want to learn more about Boerhaave, whose biography Johnson wrote up as a young man in four issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine. Boerhaave is best remembered today for his work as a teacher and for his isolation of the chemical urea from urine, but in Johnson’s hands, he becomes a kind of early superscience hero in whom physical strength is inseparable from mental ability:

Boerhaave [was] a man formed by nature for great designs, and guided by religion in the exertion of his abilities. He was of a robust and athletic constitution of body, so hardened by early severities, and wholesome fatigue, that he was insensible of any sharpness of air, or inclemency of weather. He was tall, and remarkable for extraordinary strength. There was, in his air and motion, something rough and artless, but so majestic and great, at the same time, that no man ever looked upon him without veneration, and a kind of tacit submission to the superiority of his genius…The diligence with which he pursued his studies, is sufficiently evident from his success. Statesmen and generals may grow great by unexpected accidents, and a fortunate concurrence of circumstances, neither procured nor foreseen by themselves; but reputation in the learned world must be the effect of industry and capacity.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is a line that seems to anticipate Sherlock Holmes, or at least Dr. Joseph Bell: “He could, with uncommon readiness and certainty, make a conjecture of men’s inclinations and capacity by their aspect.”

There’s a lot of Johnson himself in this description, which, as the writer Paul Fussell points out, is really about a combined figure whom “we can only call Boerhaave-Johnson.” Boerhaave is never mentioned by name in The Life of Johnson, but its subject was intensely interested in chemistry, as Boswell observed during a visit to his library: “I observed an apparatus for chymical experiments, of which Johnson was all his life very fond.” He also conflated his own physical strength with his intelligence, as we see in some of the stories that Boswell recounts:

Many instances of [Johnson’s] resolution may be mentioned. One day, at Mr. Beauclerk’s house in the country, when two large dogs were fighting, he went up to them, and beat them till they separated; and at another time, when told of the danger there was that a gun might burst if charged with many balls, he put in six or seven, and fired it off against a wall. Mr. Langton told me, that when they were swimming together near Oxford, he cautioned Dr. Johnson against a pool, which was reckoned particularly dangerous; upon which Johnson directly swam into it. He told me himself that one night he was attacked in the street by four men, to whom he would not yield, but kept them all at bay, till the watch came up, and carried both him and them to the round-house. In the playhouse at Lichfield, as Mr. Garrick informed me, Johnson having for a moment quitted a chair which was placed for him between the side-scenes, a gentleman took possession of it, and when Johnson on his return civilly demanded his seat, rudely refused to give it up; upon which Johnson laid hold of it, and tossed him and the chair into the pit.

In his later essays, Johnson mentions Boerhaave only a couple of times, most notably in a discussion of clearly defining one’s terms, in which he praises the chemist for not assuming any previous knowledge on the part of his readers. This impulse found its greatest expression in the Dictionary, in which we can glimpse Boerhaave—a friend and early supporter of Carl Linnaeus, who took this project to its ultimate level—in its determination to confine everything in the world to its own proper vessel. And Boerhaave seems to have remained Johnson’s ideal of what a man might accomplish. In Young Sam Johnson, James L. Clifford writes:

One might almost piece together a picture of Johnson as he saw himself, or as he hoped to be, from selected passages in the life of Boerhaave—a man whose fortune had not been “sufficient to bear the expenses of a learned eduction,” but who through sheer determination had broken through “the obstacles of poverty.” Always it was Boerhaave’s “insatiable curiosity after knowledge” that had driven him on. Though subject to depression and lowness of spirits, yet “he asserted, on all occasions, the divine authority and sacred efficacy of the holy scriptures.” He had a large, robust physique and was remarkable for physical strength…The vigor and activity of his mind “sparkled visibly in his eyes,” and “he was always cheerful and desirous of promoting mirth by a facetious and humorous conversation.”

At one point in his biography of Boerhaave, Johnson writes in a revealing aside: “It is, I believe, a very just observation that men’s ambition is, generally, proportioned to their capacity.” The real vessel, in short, is the individual human being. And great accomplishment only occurs in lives that are big enough to contain it.

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