Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 2011

Transformers: Death of the Author

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Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Never has a city been more lovingly destroyed on camera than Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. By the time the movie reaches its crowning orgy of destruction, my wife and I had been staring at the screen for close to ninety minutes, along with an enthusiastic crowd in the IMAX theater at Navy Pier. My wife had seen much of the movie being shot on Michigan Avenue, just up the street from her office at the Tribune Tower, and I think it was with a sort of grim amusement, or satisfaction, that she watched her own building crumble to pieces as an alien robot spacecraft crashed into its beautiful gothic buttresses. It’s an image that merits barely five seconds in the movie’s final hour, which devastates most of downtown Chicago in gorgeous, even sensual detail, but it still struck me as a pivotal moment in our personal experience of the movies. (And hasn’t the Tribune already suffered enough?)

Like its immediate predecessor, Transformers 3 is generally pretty lousy. (I actually liked the first one, which had the advantage of comparative novelty, as well as a genuinely nimble comic performance by Shia LaBeouf that both director and star have struggled to recreate ever since.) As a story, it’s ridiculous; as a perfunctory attempt at a coherent narrative, it’s vaguely insulting. It’s also staggeringly beautiful. For the first ten minutes, in particular, the IMAX screen becomes a transparent window onto the universe, delivering the kind of transcendent experience, with its view of millions of miles, that even Avatar couldn’t fully provide. And even after its nonstop visual and auditory assault has taken its toll on your senses, it still gives new meaning to the phrase “all the money is there on the screen.” Here, it feels like the cash used to render just one jaw-dropping frame could have been used to pay down much of the national debt.

As I watched Dark of the Moon, or rather was pummeled into submission by it, I had the nagging feeling that Armond White’s notoriously glowing review of Revenge of the Fallen deserved some kind of reappraisal. At the time, White was dismissed, not without reason, as a troll, for issuing such pronouncements as “In the history of motion pictures, Bay has created the best canted angles—ever.” And yet I don’t think he was trolling, or even entirely wrong: it’s just that he was one movie too early. Michael Bay’s genius, and I use this word deliberately, is visible in every shot of Dark of the Moon, but it’s weirdly overdeveloped in just one direction. Bay is like one of those strange extinct animals that got caught in an evolutionary arms race until they became all horns, claws, or teeth. While a director like Christopher Nolan continues to develop along every parameter of storytelling, Bay is nothing but a massive eye: cold, brilliant, and indifferent to story or feeling. And it’s pointless to deny his talents, as ridiculously squandered as they might be.

So what exactly am I saying here? To steal a phrase from Roger Ebert’s review of The Life Aquatic, I can’t recommend Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it—provided that you shell out fifteen dollars or more for the real experience in IMAX 3-D, which Bay has lovingly bullied the nation’s projectionists into properly presenting. (On video, I suspect that you might have the same reaction that my wife and I did when we rented Revenge of the Fallen: within forty minutes, both of us had our laptops out.) It’s an objectively terrible movie that, subjectively, I can’t get out of my head. As an author, I’m horrified by it: it’s a reminder of how useless, or disposable, writers can be. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s a vision of my own obsolescence, or that I believe that the robots are our future. But at this point in history, the burden is on writers to demonstrate that we’re necessary. And the momentum isn’t on our side.

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June 30, 2011 at 12:25 am

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Stumbling into a story: recognizing a great idea

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One of the accidental themes of my recent posts has been the idea that, since a novel can take up a year or more of your life, you’d better choose your subject carefully. And at first glance, the stakes can seem dauntingly high. Choosing a subject for a novel is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from the analogous process for a short story, since a novel takes considerably longer and is exponentially more complex. It’s possible to occasionally gamble on a doubtful premise for a shorter piece, or even a novelette, but for a novel, the potential cost in time and effort is far too high. And while I’ve previously outlined various ways of generating ideas, I haven’t addressed what might be the most important question of all: how do you know if an idea is worth it?

Part of me is inclined to slightly misquote A.E. Housman here, and say that I can no more define a good idea than a terrier can define a rat. Looking for good ideas is simply what writers do, consciously or unconsciously, and the process of identifying an idea for a novel is undeniably a matter of intuition. And the best ideas often come to us with a forcefulness comparable only to love at first sight, or perhaps to Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. When I first saw Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, for instance, I knew that I had to write a book about it. But at that point, I’d also been researching a novel about the art world for months, with a crucial missing piece at its center, which allowed Étant Donnés to slide neatly into place.

This gives us one important clue: great ideas don’t exist in isolation. They’re simply one important step—and not necessarily the first—in a process that will inevitably outlast that initial burst of enthusiasm. Which also means that your instinctive level of interest or excitement is not necessarily the best measure of whether an idea is good or not. As I’ve mentioned before, you’re going to be approaching a novel in all kinds of moods, and there’s going to come a time, especially after you’ve spent months on research and outlining, when you find your own premise exhausting. This kind of burnout happens to every writer. The real test of an idea’s value, then, isn’t how much you love it at first glance, but whether it’s the kind of long-term, sustainable idea that can nourish the lengthy process of writing a novel.

This is the best advice I can give: since great ideas are only meaningful as part of a process that includes craft, hard work, and a lot of luck, the best way to ensure that you’ll recognize an idea when it comes is to get the process started, now, long before the idea shows itself. You begin by deciding, once and for all, to write a novel; you tentatively arrive at a genre, a tone, maybe even a setting or some characters, while knowing that all these things are likely to change. Then you go exploring, casting your net wide at first, then gradually zeroing in on your true subject. That way, you’ve prepared a place for great ideas to nest, and are less likely to be sidetracked by ones that are seductive but unproductive—although you should always write everything down. And when you finally stumble across that great idea, if you’ve laid the groundwork accordingly, you’ll recognize it at once.

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June 29, 2011 at 10:07 am

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June 29, 2011 at 8:02 am

Stumbling into a story: top down or bottom up?

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To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
Herman Melville

Writers, we like to believe, are drawn to their craft in order to express themselves, but in most cases, the urge to write a novel comes long before any sense of what the story will actually be about. Even the greatest works of art, which seem inevitable now, were often the result of a lengthy selection process. Milton, we’re told, drew up a list of nearly one hundred possible subjects for an epic poem, including the Arthur legend and various topics from British history, before finally deciding on Paradise Lost. This systematic search for a theme, working from the top down, is one way of finding a story; but for most of us, when the time comes to choose a subject, it often makes more sense to work from the bottom up, so that we arrive at our “central” theme almost by accident.

At first glance, this seems to contradict one of the most common assumptions about writing fiction, which is that the subject of a novel must be of great personal importance to the writer himself. In my experience, however, this isn’t necessarily the case. If anything, I’d advise most writers not to choose a deeply felt or meaningful subject, especially for a first novel, because it’s hard to be objective about it. The best writing, I’m convinced, is the product of detachment as much as deep emotional engagement, and of the two, detachment is probably the more valuable quality. Which isn’t to say that you should choose a subject to which you’re utterly indifferent—after all, it’s probably going to consume a year or more of your time. But it’s better to tether your emotional involvement to a small, even invisible corner of the novel, and let the main theme emerge from there.

The history of literature is filled with books where the large, obvious elements of the story—the ones that readers assume must have engaged the writer’s interest in the first place—were incidental or secondary to the author’s original intentions. The Stand began as a novel about the Patty Hearst case. I’ve been told, rightly or not, that Nabokov invented the vast alternate universe of Ada, which takes place in a parallel world called Antiterra, mostly so he could have his characters indifferently speak in English, Russian, and French. Umberto Eco has written at length about how important elements of The Name of the Rose, including its location, themes, and historical setting, arose from specific requirements of the plot, not the other way around. And in film, Paul Thomas Anderson once set out to make a small movie about a woman in Los Angeles, which grew from that seed, character by character, until it became Magnolia.

My own experience tells me that it’s very common, and possibly preferable, to stumble backwards into the subject of a long novel. When I first began researching The Icon Thief, it was only with the vague intention of writing a book about the New York art world, with overtones of conspiracy and information overload. A passing reference in an article about art collecting, which noted that recent sales were being driven by Russian money, made me think that Russia might be a good backdrop for the story I had in mind. The result, rather to my surprise, has been a sequence of two novels, and possibly a third, in which Russian history and politics has been hugely important, to the point where it will probably end up consuming four or more years of my life. A reader might think that I was drawn to the subject by an existing fascination with Russia, when, in fact, the reverse was true: I just sort of stumbled into it. And I’m very glad I did. Because in Russia, I guess, the mighty theme chooses you.

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June 28, 2011 at 10:00 am

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June 28, 2011 at 7:50 am

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So what happened to Cars 2?

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On Saturday afternoon, at my insistence, my wife and I ended up in a theater full of excited kids and obliging parents at a screening of Cars 2, which had already received the worst reviews in the history of Pixar. Rather to my surprise, my wife enjoyed it more than I did, and the kids seemed okay with it as well (aside from the one who kicked my chair repeatedly throughout most of the last twenty minutes). Yet the film itself is undeniably underwhelming: a bright, shiny mediocrity. Cars 2 isn’t a bad movie, exactly—it’s watchable and reasonably fun—but it’s a disappointment, not only in comparison to Pixar’s past heights but also to a strong recent showing from DreamWorks, which includes How to Train Your Dragon and the sublime Kung Fu Panda series. And while Pixar can take comfort in good box office and decent audience reactions, I hope that the negative critical response inspires some introspection at the studio as to how things went wrong.

It’s important to note that it wouldn’t have taken a miracle to make Cars 2 a better movie. While the original Cars struck me as somewhat misconceived, the basic elements of the sequel are all sound: the shift in tone from nostalgic Americana to international thriller is a masterstroke, and the underlying story and premise are fine, although never particularly involving. The trouble is that the script, by writer Ben Queen, never really sparkles, at least not by the standards we’ve come to expect: there are some laughs, but only a few hit home, and the movie seems content to coast on the level of cleverness rather than taking the leap to really inspired comedy or action. Cars 2 is constantly on the verge of breaking through to something more engaging, but never quite makes it, when I suspect that another pass on the screenplay, and some honest notes, would have made all the difference.

This brings us to the second big problem: it’s hard to give notes to the man who founded the studio. John Lasseter is undeniably a genius—he’s the rare example of a great creative artist who has also demonstrated a willingness to tackle the practical problems of building a major corporation—but it was probably too much to ask one man to oversee Pixar, Disney animation, and a movie of his own. A recent New York Magazine profile makes it clear that the process left Lasseter pressed for time, which would have made it hard for him to address his own movie’s more glaring flaws. Even more importantly, it seems likely that his status as a Pixar legend and founding father prevented him from receiving the feedback he needed. Just a glance at the history of movies reminds us that the heads of studios can make remarkable producers—just look at David O. Selznick—but that even the greatest directors can’t operate entirely without accountability.

I’ve talked about Pixar’s singular culture before, in a much more comprehensive post, so I won’t repeat the same points here. But it seems clear that Pixar’s previous excellence was due to a process that allowed its central brain trust to mercilessly criticize and improve the studio’s works in progress. For Cars 2, this process seems to have broken down, partly because of Lasseter’s deserved stature, and also because of his personal attachment to the Cars franchise. (Pixar has famously canceled other projects, such as Newt, deep into the planning stages because of quality concerns, something it’s hard to imagine happening to Cars 2.) Judging from the outcome, Lasseter needs to return to what he does better than anyone else alive: overseeing the work of the world’s greatest animation studio. If not, he will end up with a legacy more like that of George Lucas than Walt Disney. And that would be a shame.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2011 at 10:05 am

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