Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 2011

Learning from the masters: Charles Schulz

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The case of Charles M. Schulz is a peculiar one, because there are really two faces to Peanuts. There’s the strip itself, which remains one of the most original, arresting, and entertaining works of art of the twentieth century. And then there’s Peanuts the franchise, the source of Vince Guaraldi albums, television specials, and countless other forms of merchandise, some of which are worthwhile, but which also tend to overshadow the deeper qualities of the strip itself. (Hence the response to the well-meaning but somewhat confused Tumblr blog 3eanuts, which gives readers the impression that the original strips need to be altered to bring out their underlying bleakness.) Which is too bad, because Peanuts, at its best, is the greatest contemporary example of how a uniquely personal work of art can enter the dreamlife of millions.

And its impact has been incalculable. I recently picked up a copy of Todd Hignite’s seductive book In the Studio: Conversations with Contemporary Cartoonists, and if there’s a single underlying theme, stated or unstated, it’s the massive influence of Peanuts. For cartoonists like Seth and Chris Ware, not to mention Bill Watterson, Schulz is the artist who transformed the mainstream comic strip into a personal, even autobiographical form, at a time when there were nearly no precedents for such an achievement. Even now, it’s hard to think of another artist who managed to write a daily strip that was so funny and so bleak, so personal and so universal. Given the current splintering of the media landscape, we may never see anything like it ever again.

It’s difficult to understand this now, but during the peak years of the strip—which I’d place from roughly 1960 to 1974, although any attempt to define its golden years before 1980 or so is basically arbitrary—it was read avidly on college campuses by the same people who would go on to devour the likes of Jules Feiffer in the Village Voice. With its use of the jargon of psychoanalysis and philosophy, its depictions of depression and failure, and its relentlessly black humor, it felt like a comic strip for grownups, even as kids went nuts for it as well. And as David Michaelis points out in his invaluable Schulz and Peanuts, its adult fans, like Feiffer, reacted with deep suspicion to the commercialization of strip. How could America’s greatest poet of quiet desperation also be shilling for MetLife?

But the real point is that these two aspects of Schulz’s life shouldn’t be separated. Peanuts was both intensely personal and the biggest marketing phenomenon this side of Disney. It was used to sell cars, insurance, and Easter Egg kits even as the strip itself grew ever sadder and more pessimistic. In some ways, this still feels like the most subversive coup in the history of American popular culture. Not until The Simpsons—which, we’re told, owed much of its early popularity to “all the pretty colors”—was a work of art so ubiquitous and so misunderstood. And both cases speak to the universality of master craftsmanship. For Peanuts and The Simpsons alike, there’s no clear line dividing the popular from the sublime: it’s one seamless work of art.

As with The Simpsons, there’s no denying that Peanuts underwent a decline in its final years, and in particular was never the same after the mid-1980s. But to quibble over the fact that Schulz managed only thirty years of unparalleled excellence is like asking why Beethoven only managed to come up with nine decent symphonies. (Which sounds like something that Lucy might ask Schroeder). Strip by strip, panel by panel, it’s one of the richest bodies of work produced by any American artist, a lens through which the culture of half a century can be glimpsed. As such, it was an essential part of my education, and The Complete Peanuts will be among the first books that my own children will read. I can’t imagine giving them a greater gift.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 31, 2011 at 7:23 am

Learning from the masters: Stephin Merritt

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Like most people, I first caught up with Stephin Merritt, best known as the creative force behind The Magnetic Fields, sometime after the release of 69 Love Songs, which is simply the richest album of pop music released in my lifetime. Since then, I’ve endlessly explored Merritt’s work—including his many side projects, notably Future Bible Heroes, sung by the always charming Claudia Gonson—until his songs have taken up permanent residence in my subconscious. And more than any other contemporary songwriter, Merritt has consistently made his own creative process the secret subject of his music. He exemplifies songwriting as both an art form and a craft, thanks both to his productivity and his remarkable technical skill.

His productivity is perhaps the important thing. Although he’s slowed down a bit since 69 Love Songs, Merritt remains more than capable of cranking things out when necessary, and sometimes it shows—his discography is full of charming but disposable novelty songs. And yet the fact that he’s writing novelty songs at all is striking in itself. I love Arcade Fire, for instance, and yet it’s hard to take them altogether seriously when every song sounds like the second coming of Christ. By contrast, it’s impossible to imagine Merritt coming off as bombastic or sanctimonious. His prevailing mode consists of light, facile irony, and he seems more interested in superficial cleverness than anything else—until, of course, he blindsides you with emotion.

And the effect is a cumulative one. Merritt was especially smart, or fortunate, in conceiving a magnum opus that played to his strengths, which are productivity and understatement. 69 Love Songs manages to seem epic while being composed of the most modest parts imaginable, like a cathedral built out of matchsticks. Maybe a quarter of the songs are throwaways, and even some of the strongest tracks (“The Book of Love,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”) feel like clever realizations of a single image or conceit. And yet their very modesty is appealing. Individually, the songs feel tossed off, almost like divertissements, but taken together, they seem as big as all of pop music. (As David Mamet points out, the nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it has to look like a nail.)

Of course, this productivity wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t harnessed to an impressive level of technical skill. Merritt is massively informed about the history of music, and although he never seems to strain, his bag of tricks, both musical and lyrical, is deeper than that of almost any other active songwriter. Part of the fun of listening to his songs is the obvious pleasure he takes in rhyme, genre, song structure, and ironic pastiche. Like the Pet Shop Boys in their classic period, he understands that irony and detachment can be more affecting than simple earnestness. (After spending much of the week listening to 808s & Heartbreak, I can’t help thinking that Merritt could do amazing things with Auto-Tune.) And when he does decide to pull out all the stops—as in “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” possibly his most underrated song—the result is stunning.

With his recent albums, Merritt has begun to move toward a lusher, more acoustic sound, but I still prefer his earlier work, where the songs sounded like they’d been recorded with a Casio keyboard on the lowest deck of the Titanic. (Get Lost, probably his strongest conventional album, represents an ideal balance between the two extremes.) And he still seems capable of almost anything. If great drama, to quote Mamet once again, consists of people doing extraordinarily moving things in the simplest manner possible, then Merritt isn’t just one of our finest songwriters—he’s one of our best storytellers of any kind.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2011 at 9:01 am

Quote of the Day

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I don’t think there are any clichés I try to avoid. As soon as I spot a cliché, I go for it. I feel like clichés are the most useful thing in songwriting. They’re the tool on which you build all the rest of the song. Clichés that other people should try to avoid, I suppose, are rhyming “dance” with “romance,” or putting the word “love” at the end of a line and having to rhyme it. That’s about it. If you want to write a love song, you need to not try to write it for a particular person in a particular situation. It needs to be vague, otherwise you’re going to fall into trap after trap of trying to rhyme with somebody’s name. Keep it vague.

Stephin Merritt, to The AV Club

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2011 at 8:26 am

Learning from the masters: Jim Henson

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Many careers in movies have been cut short too soon, but the death of Jim Henson sometimes feels like the greatest loss of all. It’s especially tragic because Henson died in 1990, just as advances in digital effects—in The Abyss, in Terminator 2, and above all in Jurassic Park—were threatening to make his life’s work seem obsolete, when in fact he was more urgently needed than ever. Despite the occasional gesture in the direction of practical effects by the likes of Guillermo Del Toro, Henson still feels like the last of the great handmade magicians. As David Thomson points out:

Jim Henson’s early death was all the harder to take in that he worked with the odd, the personal, the wild, and the homemade, and flourished in the last age before the computer. It’s therefore very important that Henson was not just the entrepreneur and the visionary, but often the hand in the glove, the voice, and the tall man bent double, putting on a show.

As you can tell from the cake topper at my wedding, I’ve always been a Henson fan (although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you), but his achievement was recently underlined for me by the museum exhibition Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, which I’ve seen twice. The first time was at the Smithsonian in the fall of 2008. It was a stressful time for me—I’d just parted ways with my first agent, had to scrap an entire novel, and was working on a second without a lot to show for it—but the Henson exhibition was a vivid reminder of why I’d taken these risks in the first place. Seeing it again at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry a few months ago, when I was in a much better place professionally, only served to reassure me that I’m still on the right track.

Aside from Henson’s commitment to character and storytelling, which I already knew, I was left with two big takeaways from the exhibition. The first was the breadth of Henson’s talent and experience. He wasn’t just a puppeteer, but a gifted graphic artist, animator, cartoonist, experimental filmmaker, and jack of all arts and crafts, which is exactly what a good puppeteer needs to be. Looking at his sketches, drawings, and scripts leaves you stunned by his curiosity and enthusiasm regarding every element of the creative process. Long before his death, he was already exploring computer animation, and if he had lived, it’s likely that he would have brought about the fusion of CGI with practical effects promised by Jurassic Park and sadly neglected ever since.

The second remarkable thing about Henson was his perseverance. It’s startling to realize that by the time The Muppet Show premiered in 1976, Henson had already been working hard as a puppeteer for more than twenty years. Even the ephemera of his early career—like the series of short commercials he did for Wilkins Coffee, or his turn as the La Choy Dragon—have incredible humor and charm. And it was that extended apprenticeship, the years of dedication to building characters and figuring out how to make them live, that made Sesame Street possible when the time came. Jim Henson did what few artists in any medium have ever done: he willed an entire art form into existence, or at least into the mainstream. And of his example, as David Thomson concludes, “we are in urgent need of young artists taking it up all over the world.”

Quote of the Day

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I don’t know exactly where ideas come from, but when I’m working well ideas just appear. I’ve heard other people say similar things—so it’s one of the ways I know there’s help and guidance out there. It’s just a matter of our figuring out how to receive the ideas or information that are waiting to be heard.

Jim Henson

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2011 at 8:03 am

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A nice little milestone

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Here’s a gratifying moment: with my third published novelette, “Kawataro,” I’ve finally made the cover of Analog. It feels pretty good. (Not sure if this issue is on newsstands yet, but I’ll let you know when you can pick up a copy at your local Barnes & Noble or Borders—assuming that one still exists.)

Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2011 at 2:20 pm

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