Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 18th, 2010

Technology and its discontents

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Tron: Legacy, which is the worst movie I’ve seen all year, is the most compelling proof I’ve found in a while that Hollywood needs to take a step back from technology. Granted, Tron has all kinds of other issues—it’s a classic example of why a director who makes great television commercials might not yet be ready for a feature film—but its fatal flaw is one of technological overload. In the old days, special effects were about solving problems; today, at least for most films, it’s a question of rendering time. And I can’t help wondering if the makers of Tron, faced with greater limitations, might have noticed that their movie lacked a coherent story, interesting characters, or even a sense of the rules of its own imaginary world.

Which isn’t to say that technology is always bad. Like many writers, I have mixed feelings about the technological resources at my disposal, but I’m generally thankful for the ease and convenience they afford. Google is an amazing tool, and while it isn’t a replacement for more traditional methods of research, it certainly allowed me to write a complicated novel in half the time that it might have taken even ten years ago. And when I look at the handwritten drafts of, say, Charles Dickens, it leaves me deeply grateful that I can type my manuscripts in Microsoft Word:

But as with most things in life, there are tradeoffs. I’ve spoken before about how the ease of typing in Word has deprived me of some of the creative moments that occasionally arise when writing by hand. John Gardner’s typo of “murder” for “mirror” obviously has much greater impact on a typewriter, when it stares you in the face until laboriously corrected, than on Word, where it can be deleted and retyped at once. And it’s even possible that Rossini would never have composed his Prayer of Moses in its current form if he had been using blotting paper instead of sand.

Walter Murch, the legendary film editor I’ve mentioned before, experienced a similar loss of providential randomness when he switched from old-fashioned editing machines to nonlinear systems like Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Charles Koppleman describes the issue eloquently in his wonderful book Behind the Seen:

The efficiency, speed, and increased choices of non-linear editing all have their benefits. But systems like Avid or Final Cut Pro obliterate some film editing tasks that contribute to the editor’s creative process. As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him a chance to see footage in another context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.

Murch, like most artists, has developed ways of injecting “happy accidents” into a creative process that might otherwise seem too efficient. Tomorrow, I’ll be discussing some of the methods that Murch has used, as well as a few more tricks that work for me.

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Rossini’s moment of randomness

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This week’s discussion of intentional randomness reminds me of a beautiful story, which I first read in W.H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, about the composer Gioachino Rossini, best known for The Barber of Seville. Rossini was writing his opera Moses in Egypt when, he says, a charming friend kept him up all night. The following day, exhausted, he made a careless mistake:

When I was writing the chorus in G Minor, I suddenly dipped my pen into the medicine bottle instead of the ink; I made a blot, and when I dried it with sand (blotting paper had not been invented then) it took the form of a natural, which instantly gave me the idea of the effect which the change from G minor to G major would make, and to this blot all the effect—if any—is due.

Which is not so different from what John Gardner says in On Writers and Writing: “A typo of ‘murder’ for ‘mirror’ can change the whole plot of a novel.”

On Rossini’s story, Auden observes: “Such an act of judgment, distinguishing between Chance and Providence, deserves, surely, to be called inspiration.” The process of writing a novel, much like that of an opera, is full of such moments of providential chance. The writer’s task, along with much else, is to know what to do when they happen.

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2010 at 12:25 am

Quote of the Day

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The Paris Review: And the function of the editor? Has one ever had literary advice to offer?

Vladimir Nabokov: By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2010 at 12:24 am

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