Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 2015

The pen that jiggled

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Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The discovery [of pulsars] was almost totally unexpected. We learned later of a radio astronomer at another observatory—I won’t say who or where—who several years earlier was observing a portion of the sky to the right of Orion, northward, where we now know there to be a pulsar. And he saw his pen [on the recording device] begin to jiggle. And he was about to go home for the day, and thought his equipment was misbehaving. And he kicked the table and the pen stopped jiggling.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Reading the rock

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Elwyn Simons

I think that the best collectors are like great pianists, or great painters, they really have talents that are almost inexplicable, but also it usually takes a lot of time to get really good…I think it’s a form of seeing. It’s seeing order in a random background. For instance, in the Egyptian desert where we hunt fossils, the desert surface is all covered with stones of all sorts and colors that have survived from wind erosion. It’s called desert pavement, or serir in Arabic, and this serir is a very jumbled mass of lumps of rock of all different colors and if there’s a bone with a tooth in it in that background, it’s not easy to see that in the pattern. I guess it’s kind of comparable to some people who, if they’re given a book in which some word occurs only once, can flip through and find it. There are people who can scan pages very rapidly and find a word like that, something that’s very rare compared to the surface of print in all those pages.

Elwyn Simons

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Under the covers

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What great albums do you love that have ugly album covers?”

There are two kinds of readers in this world: those who keep the dust jackets on their books, and those who take them off. For most of my life, I’ve been in the latter camp. Whenever I’m out with a hardcover, I’ll usually leave the dust jacket behind, and although I’ll restore it as soon as the book is back on the shelf, I feel more comfortable carrying an anonymous spine in public. The reasons can be a little hard to parse, even for me. On a practical level, an unsecured dust jacket can be cumbersome and inconvenient: it has a way of slipping up or down whenever you’re reading a book that isn’t flat on a table, which leads to rumpled and torn corners. Really, though, it’s a matter of discretion. I don’t necessarily want to advertise what I’m reading for everyone else to see, and a book cover, among other things, is an advertisement, as well as an invitation to judge. Whenever we’re in close proximity to other readers, we all do it, but I prefer to avoid it entirely. Reading, for me, is an immersion in a private world, and what I do there is my own business. And this holds true whether or not the title could be construed as odd or embarrassing. (Only once in my adult life have I ever constructed a paper slipcover to conceal the cover of a book I was reading on the subway. It was the Bible.)

This is particularly true of covers that aggressively sell the contents to the point of active misrepresentation, which seems to be the case pretty often. As I’ve said before in reference to my own novels, a book’s cover art is under tremendous pressure to catch the buyer’s eye: frequently, it’s the only form of advertising a book ever gets. Hence the chunky fonts, embossed letters, and loud artwork that help a book stand out on shelves, but feel vaguely obscene when held in the hand. And the cover image need bear little resemblance to the material inside. Back in the heyday of pulp fiction, seemingly every paperback original was sold with the picture of a girl with a gun, even if the plot didn’t include any women at all. Hard Case Crime, the imprint founded by my friend and former colleague Charles Ardai, has made a specialty of publishing books with covers that triangulate camp, garishness, and allure, and sometimes it gleefully pushes the balance too far. I was recently tempted to pick up a copy of their reprint of Michael Crichton’s Binary, an early pulp thriller written under the pseudonym John Lange, but the art was about ten percent too lurid: I just couldn’t see myself taking it on a plane. There’s no question that it stood out in the store, but it made me think twice about taking it home.

Binary by John Lange

In theory, once we’ve purchased a book, album, or movie, its cover’s work is done, as with any other kind of packaging. And yet we also have to live with it, even if the degree of that engagement varies a lot from one medium to another. In an ideal world, every book would come with two covers—one to grab the browser’s eye, the other to reside comfortably on a shelf at home—and in fact, a lot of movies take this approach: the boxes for my copies of The Godfather Trilogy and The Social Network, among others, come with a flimsy fake cover to display in stores, designed to be removed to present a more sober front at home. It’s not so different from the original function of a dust jacket, which was meant solely as a protective covering to be thrown away after the book was purchased. In practice, I don’t feel nearly the same amount of ambivalence toward ugly DVD or album covers as I do with books: the experience of watching a movie or listening to music is detachable from the container in which it arrives, while a book is all of a piece. That said, there are a couple of movies in my collection, like Say Anything, that I wish didn’t look so egregiously awful. And like a lot of Kanye fans, I always do a double take when the deliberately mortifying cover art for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy pops up in my iTunes queue.

But I don’t often think consciously about album art these days, any more than I can recall offhand how the box covers look for most of my movies. And there’s a sense in which such packaging has grown increasingly disposable. For many of us, the only time we’ll see the cover art for a movie or album is as a thumbnail on Amazon before we click on it to download. Even if we still buy physical discs, the jewel case is likely to be discarded or lost in a closet as soon as we’ve uploaded it in digital form. Covers have become an afterthought, and the few beautiful examples that we still see feel more like they’re meant to appeal to the egos of the artists or designers, as well as a small minority of devoted fans. But as long as physical media still survive, the book is the one format in which content and packaging will continue to exist as a unit, and although we’ll sometimes have to suffer through great books with bad covers, we can also applaud the volumes in which form and content tell a unified story. Pick up a novel like The Goldfinch, and you sense at once that you’re in good hands: regardless of how you feel about the book itself, the art, paper, and typesetting are all first-rate—it’s like leafing through a Cadillac. I feel happy whenever I see it on my shelf. And one of these days, I may even finish reading it.

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2015 at 10:19 am

Quote of the Day

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Stephen Spender

How easy it is to explain here the poem that I would have liked to write! How difficult it would be to write it. For writing it would imply living my way through the imaged experience of all those ideas, which here are mere abstractions, and such an effort of imaginative experience requires a lifetime of patience and watching.

Stephen Spender

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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“And the shackles came open in his hands…”

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"The process was fairly straightforward..."

Note: This post is the nineteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 20. You can read the previous installments here.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most expertly crafted adaptations of a novel ever made, with a fine script by Ted Tally, but there’s one plot point that few, if any, viewers could be expected to follow the first time around. It involves the handcuff key that Hannibal Lecter uses to escape from prison in Memphis. In the novel, this detail is hammered home, with an interior monologue from Lecter that all but winks at the reader (“Handcuffs and leg irons open with a handcuff key. Like mine.”) and an entire page about how he constructed it from a stolen ballpoint pen. The movie condenses it to four quick moments, easy to miss if you blink:

  1. When Chilton visits Lecter in his cell in Baltimore, he’s holding the pen. When he leaves it behind, the camera pushes in on it, followed by a cut to Lecter’s expressionless face.
  2. Much later, at the handoff at the airport in Memphis, Chilton can’t find his pen to sign the paperwork, and we push in again on Lecter’s eyes.
  3. In his Memphis holding cell, Lecter removes a short metal tube from inside his mouth. If we’re exceptionally observant, we’ll recognize it as a piece of the pen.
  4. Finally, we see him hide the tube between his fingers just before he’s handcuffed by Boyle and Pembry.

And that’s it. Another movie might have clarified the sequence by having the key discovered and identified in Lecter’s cell after he escapes—which, in fact, is what happens in the novel. Or it might have avoided any confusion by having Lecter free himself in some other way. The whole point of the sequence, after all, is that the guards aren’t as cautious as the staff at the asylum, and it would have been easy to show them doing something especially careless. Really, though, it works best as it is. Boyle and Pembry aren’t stupid; they just don’t fully appreciate the danger. By having the scene turn on Lecter’s considerable ingenuity, even if the details are hard to follow, the movie builds him up as an even more formidable figure than before. Lecter doesn’t benefit from being lucky: he’s just incredibly patient, ready to take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself after years in prison, and capable of manipulating the situation to his own advantage. There’s even a sense in which forcing us to put the pieces together after the fact makes the scene even more effective. In the moment, we may not be entirely sure how Lecter got out of his cuffs, but reconstructing the logic puts us briefly in his place, and we’re left with the distinct impression that nobody else alive could have pulled this off.

"And the shackles came open in his hands..."

I wound up confronting a similar set of problems in Ilya Severin’s story, and they also turned, curiously, on an escape from shackles. Early in City of Exiles, we’re introduced to a minor character named Roman Brodsky, a fixer and former entry man from whom Ilya extracts some useful information. He also liberates a set of lock picks from Brodsky’s apartment. We don’t see these picks again until the very last page of the novel, when we realize that Ilya has smuggled them into prison in the binding of one of his books. As with Lecter’s key, the details of how they got there are somewhat opaque: a reader who bothers to flip backward in the novel will find a few hints along the way, but they’re so oblique as to be practically nonexistent. And when I introduced them again at the end, I didn’t have any particular purpose in mind. I only knew that I wanted the novel to close on a note of potential action for Ilya, while pointing toward his escape in the next book. I didn’t know what form it would take, but I assumed that a set of lock picks would be useful no matter what. (I know I’ve used this example before, but I always think of the moment at the end of Wrath of Khan when Spock lays his hand against McCoy’s unconscious face and says: “Remember.” At the time, the producers didn’t know what it meant, but they figured it would come in handy in the sequel.)

As it turns out, I was half right. Eternal Empire includes an elaborate prison break, starting in Chapter 20, as Ilya and Vasylenko are loaded into a van for a hearing in London. As soon as Ilya is shackled in his private cubicle, out of sight of the guards, he removes the picks from where they’ve been taped between his shoulders and gets to work on his leg irons. The funny thing is that when you look at his actions in the context of the overall scene, they aren’t strictly necessary. Like any good escape plan in fiction, there are a lot of components, including some help from the outside: within a handful of pages, the van is going to be hijacked by Vasylenko’s men. I make a point of noting that the guards don’t carry keys for the shackles—the prisoners are supposed to be freed by a different security team at the courthouse—but there’s no reason why one of their accomplices couldn’t have brought his own lockpicking kit along. Having Ilya carry the picks himself only introduces an extra set of risks. Yet it made narrative sense to do it this way, even if it wasn’t entirely logical. It allowed me to pay off the reveal at the end of the previous novel, which was already in print and couldn’t be ignored. And it allowed Ilya to play a more active role in his escape, rather than just sitting tight until someone came to release him. Like Lecter, Ilya can’t just be lucky; he also has to be smart. And if he’s going to escape from his chains, he has to free himself with his own hands…

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2015 at 8:54 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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The list of a lifetime

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I miss Roger Ebert for a lot of reasons, but I always loved how fully he occupied the role of the celebrity critic while expanding it into something more. “Two thumbs up” has become a way of dismissing an entire category of film criticism, and Ebert was as responsible for its rise as anyone else, although he can hardly be blamed for his imitators. Yet he wouldn’t have been nearly as good at it—and he was damned good, especially when paired with Gene Siskel—if it hadn’t been built on a foundation of shrewdness, taste, and common sense that came through in every print review he wrote. He knew that a rating system was necessary, if only to give shape to his discussions with Gene, but he was also aware of its limitations. (For proof, you need only turn to his classic review of the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, which transforms, unexpectedly, into an extended essay on the absurdity of reconciling a thoughtful approach to criticism with “that vertical thumb.”) Read any critic for any length of time, whether it’s Pauline Kael or David Thomson or James Wood, and you start to see the whole business of ranking works of art, whether with thumbs or with words, as both utterly important and inherently ridiculous. Ebert understood this profoundly.

The same was true of the other major tool of the mainstream critic: the list. Making lists of the best or worst movies, like handing out awards, turns an art form into a horse race, but it’s also a necessary evil. A critic wants to be a valued guide, but more often, he ends up serving as a signpost, pointing up the road toward an interesting vista while hoping that we’ll take in other sights along the way. Lists are the most useful pointers we have, especially for viewers who are encountering the full variety of movies for the first time, and they’ve played an enormous role in my own life. And when you read Ebert’s essay on preparing his final list for the Sight & Sound poll, you sense both the melancholy nature of the task and his awareness of the power it holds. Ebert knows that adding a movie to his list naturally draws attention to it, and he pointedly includes a single “propaganda” title—here it’s Malick’s Tree of Life—to encourage viewers to seek it out. Since every addition requires a removal, he clarifies his feelings on this as well:

Once any film has ever appeared on my [Sight & Sound] list, I consider it canonized. Notorious or Gates of Heaven, for example, are still two of the ten best films of all time, no matter what a subsequent list says.

In short, he approaches the list as a game, but a serious one, and he knows that pointing one viewer toward Aguirre or The General makes all of it worthwhile.

Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

I thought of his example repeatedly when I revised my list of my ten favorite movies. Four years had gone by since my last series of posts on the subject, and the passage of time had brought a bit of reshuffling and a pair of replacements: L.A. Confidential and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had given way to Vertigo and Inception. And while it’s probably a mistake to view it as a zero-sum game, it’s hard not to see these films as commenting on one another. L.A. Confidential remains, as I said long ago, my favorite of all recent Hollywood movies, but it’s a film that invests its genre with greater fluency and complexity without challenging the rules on a deeper level, while Vertigo takes the basic outline of a sleek romantic thriller and blows it to smithereens. As much as I love them both, there’s no question in my mind as to which one achieves more. The contest between Inception and Wrath of Khan is harder to judge, and I’m not sure that the latter isn’t ultimately richer and more rewarding. But I wanted to write about Inception ever so slightly more, and after this weekend’s handwringing over the future of original ideas in movies, I have a hunch that its example is going to look even more precious with time. Inception hardly needs my help to draw attention to it, but to the extent that I had a propaganda choice this time around, it was this one.

Otherwise, my method in ranking these films was a simple one. I asked myself which movie I’d save first—solely for my own pleasure—if the last movie warehouse in the world were on fire. The answer was The Red Shoes. Next would be Blue Velvet, then Chungking Express, and so on down the line. Looking at the final roster, I don’t think I’d make any changes. Like Ebert, who kept La Dolce Vita on his list because of how it reflected the arc of his own life, I’m aware that much of the result is a veiled autobiography: Blue Velvet, in particular, galvanized me as a teenager as few other movies have, and part of the reason I rank it so highly is to acknowledge that specific debt. Other films are here largely because of the personal associations they evoke. Yet any movie that encapsulates an entire period in my life, out of all the films I was watching then, has to be extraordinary by definition: it isn’t just a matter of timing, at least not if it lasts. (You could even say that a great movie, like Vertigo, is one that convinces many different viewers that it’s secretly about them.) Ebert knew that there was no contradiction in embracing The Tree of Life as both the largest cosmic statement since 2001 and an agonizingly specific evocation of his own childhood. Any list, like any critic, lives in two worlds, and each half gains meaning from the other. And when I think of my own list and the choices it made, I can only quote Ebert one last time: “To add a title, I must remove one. Which film can I do without? Not a single one.”

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