Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 2015

The monster in the writers room

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Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

Note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of Hannibal.

When it comes to making predictions about television shows, my track record is decidedly mixed. I was long convinced, for instance, that Game of Thrones would figure out a way to keep Oberyn Martell around, just because he was such fun to watch, and to say I was wrong about this is something of an understatement. Let the record show, however, that I said here months ago that the third season of Hannibal would end with Will Graham getting a knife through his face:

In The Silence of the Lambs, Crawford says that Graham’s face “looks like damned Picasso drew it.” None of the prior cinematic versions of this story have dared to follow through on this climax, but I have a feeling, given the evidence, that Fuller would embrace it. Taking Hugh Dancy’s face away, or making it hard for it look at, would be the ultimate rupture between the series and its viewers. Given the show’s cancellation, it may well end up being the very last thing we see. It would be a grim note on which to end. But it’s nothing that this series hasn’t taught us to expect.

This wasn’t the hardest prediction in the world to make. One of the most distinctive aspects of Bryan Fuller’s take on the Lecter saga is his willingness to pursue elements of the original novels that other adaptations have avoided, and the denouement of Red Dragon—with Will lying alone, disfigured, and mute in the hospital—is a downer ending that no other version of this story has been willing to touch.

Of course, that wasn’t what we got here, either. Instead of Will in his hospital bed, brooding silently on the indifference of the natural world to murder, we got a hysterical ballet of death, with Will and Hannibal teaming up to dispatch Dolarhyde like the water buffalo at the end of Apocalypse Now, followed by an operatic plunge over the edge of a cliff, with our two star-crossed lovers locked literally in each other’s arms. And it was a worthy finale for a series that has seemed increasingly indifferent to anything but that unholy love story. The details of Lecter’s escape from prison are wildly implausible, and whatever plan they reflect is hilariously undercooked, even for someone like Jack Crawford, who increasingly seems like the world’s worst FBI agent in charge. Hannibal has never been particularly interested its procedural elements, and its final season took that contempt to its final, ludicrous extreme. In the novel Red Dragon, Will, despite his demons, is a competent, inspired investigator, and he’s on the verge of apprehending Dolaryhyde through his own smarts when his quarry turns the tables. In Fuller’s version, unless I missed something along the way, Will doesn’t make a single useful deduction or take any meaningful action that isn’t the result of being manipulated by Hannibal or Jack. He’s a puppet, and dangerously close to what TV Tropes has called a Woobie: a character whom we enjoy seeing tortured so we can wish the pain away.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

None of this should be taken as a criticism of the show itself, in which any narrative shortcomings can hardly be separated from Fuller’s conscious decisions. But as enjoyable as the series has always been—and I’ve enjoyed it more than any network drama I’ve seen in at least a decade—it’s something less than an honest reckoning with its material. As a rule of thumb, the stories about Lecter, including Harris’s own novels, have been the most successful when they stick most closely to their roots as police procedurals. Harris started his career as a crime reporter, and his first three books, including Black Sunday, are masterpieces of the slow accumulation of convincing detail, spiced and enriched by a layer of gothic violence. When you remove that foundation of realistic suspense, you end up with a character who is dangerously uncontrollable: it’s Lecter, not Harris, who becomes the author of his own novel. In The Annotated Dracula, Leslie S. Klinger proposes a joke theory that the real author of that book is Dracula himself, who tracked down Bram Stoker and forced him to make certain changes to conceal the fact that he was alive and well and living in Transylvania. It’s an “explanation” that rings equally true of the novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, which read suspiciously as if Lecter were dictating elements of his own idealized autobiography to Harris. (As far as I know, nobody has seen or heard from Harris since Hannibal Rising came out almost a decade ago. Are we sure he’s all right?)

And there are times when Hannibal, the show, plays as if Lecter had gotten an executive producer credit sometime between the second and third seasons. If anything, this is a testament to his vividness: when properly acted and written, he dominates his stories to a greater extent than any fictional character since Sherlock Holmes. (In fact, the literary agent hypothesis—in which the credited writer of a series is alleged to be simply serving as a front—originated among fans of Conan Doyle, who often seemed bewildered by the secondary lives his characters assumed.) But there’s something unsettling about how Lecter inevitably takes on the role of a hero. My favorite stretch of Hannibal was the back half of the second season, which looked unflinchingly at Lecter’s true nature as a villain, cannibal, and destroyer of lives. When he left the entire supporting cast to bleed slowly to death at the end of “Mizumono,” it seemed impossible to regard him as an appealing figure ever again. And yet here we are, with an ending that came across as the ultimate act of fan service in a show that has never been shy about appealing to its dwindling circle of devotees. I can’t exactly blame it for this, especially because the slow dance of seduction between Will and Hannibal has always been a source of sick, irresistible fascination. But we’re as far ever from an adaptation that would force us to honestly confront why we’re so attached to a man who eats other people, or why we root for him to triumph over lesser monsters who make the mistake of not being so rich, cultured, or amusing. Lecter came into this season like a lion, but he went out, as always, like a lamb.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 31, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The fourteenth magazine

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The first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science

William Clayton was the successful publisher of a large group of pulp-paper action-adventure magazines. At the time there were, I think, thirteen. They made a diverse family. Among them were magazines devoted to western, detective, air, war, love, and adventure stories—at least one magazine of just about every popular type. Routinely each month, the editors of these and other magazines bought eye-catching pictures for the covers of their next issues, the engraver made plates for them, and the printer furnished final proofs of them, all thirteen assembled rectangularly on a single large sheet of paper…

Now, there were blank places on this sheet. The proofs occupied places in four rows of four columns each, only thirteen of the sixteen places being filled. This meant that month after month three of the sixteen places would stare empty at Clayton, in effect reproving him for not having three more magazines so that they need not be empty. I venture upon certainty when I say that Clayton on looking at this sheet would often have these particular money-lustful thoughts: “If I had sixteen magazines I’d get the three additional covers cheap…The paper for the covers, now going wasted, would be free…There would be very little added charge for press time…” The empty places would continually have urged him to have one to three more magazines…

I saw that Clayton was not to be stopped from having another magazine…Next morning I pumped myself full of combativeness and charged into Clayton’s office. It was all as easy as pie…There’d be an action-adventure Astounding Stories of Super-Science! I was to get right to work on it.

Harry Bates

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August 30, 2015 at 7:29 am

How to sound precocious

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Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins

We decided we’re going to write a song which is really an obnoxious song, because when we were kids we used to make up these obnoxious words, like “coba-floba-flobolous” or something—it means absolutely nothing, and people would say “What? What does that mean?” And we’d say, “Ah, it’s a secret word…” And people would be mystified.

So we said “We gotta do something obnoxious.” But “obnoxious” is not a very nice word, and since it’s an English nanny it should be “atrocious,” there you go, so we wanted a super-colossal atrocious word—so there’s part of the song already, super-colossal-atrocious…What rhymes with atrocious? “Precocious”—you’re smart! So there we had “precocious,” “atrocious,” and “docious”—why not? It rhymes…So then something really ridiculous—”califragilistic”—it sounds like something great. So we finally put together the word. So I’ve summarized there in one sentence what took us two weeks.

Richard M. Sherman

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August 29, 2015 at 7:26 am

The Friends fallacies

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The apartment from Friends

Last year, the real estate site Movoto took a close look at the houses and apartments featured in fifteen iconic television series, crunching the numbers to see which characters would really be able to afford the homes in which their fictional lives took place. Not surprisingly, many shows turned out to paint an unrealistic picture of how much house you can have, and the lead exhibit, as usual, was Friends. Rachel and Monica—a fashion coordinator and a chef—were estimated to earn a combined monthly salary of $9,300, while a comparable apartment of 1,126 square feet in Greenwich Village would set them back $5,000 every month, or well over half their gross income. “Most sitcoms,” a related article on Fast Company concludes, “ultimately serve as lifestyle advertising,” and there’s no question that viewers are often left with unrealistic expectations about the quality of life they can reasonably expect upon, say, moving to New York after college. But this only gets at part of the answer. If the apartment on Friends is twice the size it should be, it’s because it’s essentially an ordinary apartment cut in half longitudinally and unfolded to create an invisible proscenium arch. Monica and Rachel aren’t living alone: they’re sharing the space with three cameras.

The sets in sitcoms, in other words, aren’t explicitly designed to arouse viewer envy, at least not in terms of their size: they’re simply a pragmatic response to the logistics of shooting a three-camera sitcom with a live audience, and the proportions of these apartments roughly match those of the soundstage. In another Fast Company article, the interior designer Iñaki Aliste Lizarralde, who is often asked to recreate sitcom sets for his clients, goes into greater detail about the compromises that the format entails:

Almost all the shows have triangular proportions to lend the sensation of depth to the sets. Even the apparently squared sets are in fact trapezoidal…and sometimes it’s very difficult to translate to a sheet as “real houses” because all the tricks of the set decorators are in evidence.

A show filmed using a single camera isn’t subject to the same limitations, which is why a series like Girls can get away with sticking its characters into cramped, depressing, “realistic” spaces. Whether Friends would have seized the imagination of its audience to the same extent if it had been shot in the same way is something we’ll never know. But there’s no doubt that some combination of the show’s practical demands and the attractiveness of the cast and their stories fused into one in the minds of many viewers, until they could no longer safely be separated.

Parks and Recreation

It’s a pattern that we see repeated in other elements of storytelling, in which conventions that were originally introduced to solve specific problems of writing, staging, acting, or direction become bundled up with the larger fantasy that the narrative presents. The fact that actors in so many movies and television shows are always smoking doesn’t point to a vast conspiracy with the tobacco companies: it’s more a reflection of an actor’s need to do something with his or her hands. Actors are always looking for bits of business, and the cigarette—with the rituals of lighting, puffing, gesturing, and stubbing it out on the ashtray—is manifestly the best prop ever devised, even if its collateral damage has been immense. Similarly, the ensemble cast of a show like Friends, which provides writers with useful pairings and combinations for generating plots, leads to a form of unrealism of its own. Most of us don’t spend our lives hanging out with the same set of six friends from our twenties, and we don’t engage in humorous adventures with our colleagues after work. People drift apart; they move away; they find themselves more preoccupied with marriage and children; and the last thing many of us want to do is spend more time with the people we see at the office. But none of this prevents me from watching Parks and Recreation and feeling a stab of regret that I never found that kind of family in the workplace. (If anything, shows that have suffered from creative turnover, with supporting players disappearing abruptly and stars departing over contract disputes, are closer to real life than the few that manage to keep their core casts intact.)

You could even say that the idea of a plot itself affects the way we see our own lives, and not always for the better. For reasons of economy, fiction is usually tightly focused on one aspect of the protagonist’s world: our real lives are a constant balance between the competing demands of work, love, family, and other kinds of fulfillment, while stories generally only have room for one of the above. That’s often the correct choice, as far as constructing a workable plot is concerned, but it rarely reflects the complexity and messiness of everyday reality. And the imperative for a story to deliver a neat beginning, middle, and end has problems of its own. A romantic comedy, for instance, focuses on a single slice in the story of two people, and very few have ever tried to consider what might happen in the years and decades after that closing kiss. (From a viewer’s perspective, this isn’t always a bad thing. Many of the best fictional romances actively create a dynamic of tensions that would realistically shake any relationship apart within a matter of weeks. It’s hard to imagine Cary Grant settling down with the Katherine Hepburn of Bringing Up Baby, but that movie is so fun precisely because it creates an impossible pairing and focuses intently on the handful of days in which it could be expected to survive.) Movies and television aren’t out to fill us with dissatisfaction: they’re only trying to crack the hard problem of holding our attention for an hour or two. But when we make lives of our own, we need to use a different set of blueprints.

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August 28, 2015 at 8:47 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2015 at 7:26 am

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Surviving the German forest

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Jad Abumrad

Recently, I was leafing through Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire, an updated and expanded version of her classic illustrated guide to radio, when I came across the following story from Radiolab host Jad Abrumad:

The station manager came to me and he said, “Hey, do you want to do an hour on Wagner’s Ring Cycle?” Had I done five minutes of research, I would’ve realized that Wagner’s Ring Cycle is an eighteen-hour cycle of operas that tries to encompass the totality of European art in one work. You got imagery, you got music, you got psychology, it was supposed to be “the work of art that ended art.” I could’ve found this out in thirty seconds, but I didn’t, and so I thought to myself: “Wagner, Wagner, Wagner, I don’t know much about Wagner. But, uh, sure, okay, Wagner, why not.”

Fast-forward a couple months, I had missed four deadlines, I’m on the verge of getting fired, and I haven’t slept for four days. I had the pressure of ideas that I just couldn’t reach, I had the pressure of being a newbie and talking to people who were very sophisticated. And I had the pressure of deadlines that were going “splat!” left, right, and center.

Abrumad concludes: “And we at Radiolab have given this state a name, because it happens quite often. We call it ‘the German forest.'” And it’s a place, I think, where most storytellers find themselves sooner later. When you begin a project of any size, whether it’s a long essay or a short story or an entire novel, you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of material you have to cover, and one of the hardest part of the process is translating the inchoate mass of ideas in your head into something that can be consumed in a sequential form. Abrumad doesn’t minimize the difficulties involved, but he notes that wandering through that forest is an essential stage in any creative endeavor:

When I head the Wagner thing on the radio later, I was like, “Whoa, somewhere in the middle of that trauma, I think I found my voice. There’s a real correlation between time spent in the German forest and these moments of emergence. And to be clear, the German forest changes. That sense of, the work is just too big to put my head around this, how am I gonna do this, that never changes. But what does change is that the terror gets reframed for you, because now, you’ve made it out a few times. You can see over the treetops, and into the future, to where, there you are, you’re still there, you’re still alive.

Notes by Ira Glass

What interests me about this the most, though, is that Abrumad—a MacArthur fellow and very smart guy—is working in a form that has laid down strict rules for managing its material. As I’ve noted elsewhere, because radio poses such unique challenges, it has to be particularly ruthless about sustaining the listener’s attention. In the previous edition of Abel’s book, Ira Glass lays out the formula in a quote that I never tire of repeating:

This is the structure of every story on our program—there’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says “this happened then this happened then this happened”—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means, and then on to the next sequence of actions…Anecdote then reflection, over and over.

Glass frames this structure as a courtesy to the listener, but, more subtly, it’s also there for the sake of the storyteller. It isn’t a map of the forest, exactly, but a compass, or, even better, a set of rules for orienting yourself, and the tricks that survive are the ones that provide value both during the writing process and in the act of reading or listening. You can think of the rules of storytelling as a staircase with the author on one end and the audience at the other, allowing them to meet in the middle. Their primary purpose is to ensure that a project can be brought to completion, but they also allow the finished product to serve its intended purpose, just as the rules of architecture are both a strategy for building a house that won’t fall down halfway through and a blueprint for livable spaces.

And this is a particularly useful way to think about all “rules” of writing or storytelling, particularly plot and structure. Kurt Vonnegut says: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.” And, he might have added, of keeping writers writing. Similarly, in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner notes that one of the hardest lessons for a writer to learn is how to treat each unit on its own terms:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

You write a story, as David Mamet likes to say, the same way you write a turkey: one bite at a time. And a few seconds of thought reveal that both the writer and the reader benefit from that approach. You find your way through the forest step by step, just as the reader or listener will, and if you’re lucky, you’ll come to the same conclusion that Abrumad does: “You begin to recognize the German forest for what it is. It’s actually a tool. It’s the place you have to go to hear the next version of yourself.”

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2015 at 10:11 am

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