Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 2015

“That’s all I was asked to give…”

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"Bogdan spoke first..."

Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 38. You can read the previous installments here.

Ever since I got it for Christmas, I’ve been slowly working my way through the special features for the Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, which, among its other pleasures, offers us the chance to listen once more to the voice of Christopher McQuarrie, one of the smartest men in movies. As with such legendary screenwriters as David Mamet or Robert Towne, nearly everything McQuarrie has to say is of interest, and his commentary track and interviews are loaded with insights into the challenges of making a huge franchise movie by the seat of your pants. (My favorite tip is that if you’re filming a scene with a lot of exposition, keep the characters in tight closeup, against a backdrop that can be easily recreated in the studio, just in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot.) And he tells an amusing anecdote about how the movie solved a tricky narrative problem. The film’s obvious high point is the lengthy sequence at the Vienna Opera House, culminating in the assassination of the Chancellor of Austria, but for a long time, they didn’t know how the killing tied in with the rest of the script. McQuarrie and his producer Tom Cruise brainstormed various possibilities, but they were all impossibly convoluted, and they only slowed down the story at a crucial hinge point. Finally, on the day of the shoot, Cruise came up with a single line: “Killing the Chancellor tonight was a statement—the start of a new phase.” And that, incredibly, was all they needed.

I love this kind of thing, in part because it echoes how Alfred Hitchcock solved a similar dilemma in North by Northwest—a movie that Cruise consciously evokes in Rogue Nation‘s opening scene. In his famous interview with François Truffaut, which was recently the subject of its own documentary, Hitchcock says:

My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?”
The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and an exporter.”
“But what does he sell?”
“Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer.
Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!

And the suspense genre, in particular, often boils down to an exercise in seeing how little information you need to get from one point in the story to another.

"That's all I was asked to give..."

This can also apply to what was once a series of scenes: to accelerate the narrative, you cut the sequence down to the one moment that gets the point across. Pauline Kael hints at something like this in her initial, mostly unfavorable review of Raging Bull:

[Scorsese] makes this movie out of remembered high points, leaping from one to another. When Jake is courting the fifteen-year-old platinum-blond Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he takes her to a miniature-golf course, and their little golf ball rolls into a little wooden church and never comes out. The scene is like one of a series in an old-movie montage showing the path to marriage. But Scorsese just puts in this one step; probably for him it stands for the series.

Kael may be right, but I think it’s more likely that additional material was written, shot, or improvised, and Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker kept cutting it until they ended up with the one scene that they needed. Raging Bull, like Goodfellas and Casino, is full of this kind of compression because it covers a large expanse of time, but the same is equally true of stories that cover a lot of space. You try to skip as many transitional moments as possible, and sometimes you end up nudging the balance a bit too far in the wrong direction. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne magically reappears in the besieged Gotham City after escaping from a foreign prison, and the film doesn’t provide any information whatsoever about how he did it. It’s easy to say “Well, he’s Batman,” but the lack of even the slightest nod toward the problem momentarily takes us out of the movie—a rare but not totally uncharacteristic lapse in an otherwise superbly organized film.

Chapter 38 of Eternal Empire provides a nice example of a single moment that takes the place of what could have been an entire sequence. Earlier in the novel, I establish that Vasylenko has been sprung from prison solely because he can provide safe passage, using his connections with the criminal underworld, on Ilya’s journey across Europe. To justify this, I needed to provide at least one instance in which those contacts were employed, and it ended up taking the form of this scene, in which Ilya and Bogdan visit the home of a “bride of the brotherhood” in Yalta. It’s a cute little chapter, in which Ilya obtains some necessary equipment, learns about the next phase of his mission, and even has a brief moment of emotional connection with the woman who has given him refuge. (It’s a small touch, but it will pay off much later, in the very last scene of the entire trilogy.) What’s funny, though, is that this could have been part of a much longer story arc. In his previous appearance, Ilya was in Moldova, or nearly five hundred miles to the west, and I don’t talk at all about how he got from one place to another, although he certainly could have had a few adventures along the way. At this point in the novel, though, it’s more important to keep the story clocking along, so his encounter with Katya—whose background, I’m fairly sure, was lifted from a few paragraphs in Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education—has to stand in for the rest. I think that it works, and even if the reader momentarily wonders how Ilya got here, it doesn’t really matter. His next meeting, as we’re about to see, will be far more interesting…

Quote of the Day

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December 31, 2015 at 7:30 am

The rendering time

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No-knead bread

Over the last month, I’ve started to bake bread at home, initially as an activity to share with my daughter. Not surprisingly, I’ve been relying on the no-knead recipe first developed by Jim Lahey and popularized by Mark Bittman a decade ago in the New York Times, which I recently rediscovered after neglecting it for years. As many amateur bakers know, it’s simplicity itself: instead of kneading, you mix a very wet dough with a tiny amount of yeast, and then let it rise for about eighteen hours. Bittman quotes Harold McGee, author of the legendary tome On Food and Cooking, who says:

It makes sense. The long, slow rise does over hours what intensive kneading does in minutes: it brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile in a high proportion of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.

Bittman continues: “Mr. McGee said he had been kneading less and less as the years have gone by, relying on time to do the work for him.” And the results, I’m pleased to confirm, are close to foolproof: even if you’re less than precise or make a few mistakes along the way, as I have, you almost always get a delicious, light, crusty loaf.

And the idea that you can use the power of time to achieve results that would otherwise require intensive work is central to much of modernist cuisine, as the freelance genius and food scientist Nathan Myhrvold notes in his massive book of the same name. Government food safety guidelines, he points out, are based on raising the core temperature of meat to a certain minimum, which is often set unreasonably high to account for different cooking styles and impatient chefs. In reality, most pathogens are killed by temperatures as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit—but only if the food has been allowed to cook for a sufficient length of time. The idea that a lower temperature can be counterbalanced by a longer time is the basic premise behind sous vide, in which food is cooked in a warm water bath for hours rather than more rapidly over high heat. This works because you’re trading one kind of precision for another: the temperature is carefully controlled over the course of the cooking process, but once you’re past a certain point, you can be less precise about the time. Anyone who has ever prepared a meal in a crock pot knows this, and the marvel of sous vide lies in how it applies the same basic insight to a wider variety of recipes. (In fact, there’s a little gadget that you can buy for less than a hundred dollars that can convert any crock pot into a sous vide machine, and although I haven’t bought one for myself yet, I intend to try it one of these days.)

Sous vide

But the relationship between intensity and time has applications far beyond the kitchen. Elsewhere, I’ve talked about the rendering time that all creative acts seem to require: it seems that you just have to live with a work of art for a certain period, and if your process has become more efficient, you still fill that time by rendering or revising the work. As Blinn’s Law states: “As technology advances, rendering time remains constant.” And rendering, of course, is also a term from the food industry, in which the inedible waste from the butcher shop is converted, using time and heat, into something useful or delicious. But one lesson that artists quickly learn is that time can be used in place of intensity, as well as the other way around. Many of the writing rules that I try to follow—trim ten percent from each draft, cut the beginning and ending of every scene, overlap the action, remove transitional moments—are tricks to circumvent a protracted revision process, with intense work and scrutiny over a focused window taking the place of a longer, less structured engagement. If I just sat and fiddled with the story for months or years, I’d probably end up making most of the same changes, but I use these rules of thumb to hurry up the revisions that I would have made anyway. They aren’t always right, and they can’t entirely take the place of an extended period of living with a story, but I can rely on them to get maybe ninety percent of the way there, and the time I save more than compensates for that initial expenditure of energy.

And art, like cooking, often consists of finding the right balance between time and intensity. I’ve found that I write best in bursts of focused activity, which is why I try to keep my total working time for a short story to a couple of weeks or so. But I’ve also learned to set the resulting draft aside for a while before the final revision and submission, which allows me to subconsciously work through the remaining problems and find any plot holes. (On a few occasions that I haven’t done this, I’ve submitted a story only to realize within a day or two that I’d overlooked something important.) The amount of real work I do remains the same, but like dough rising quietly on the countertop, the story has time to align itself in my brain while I’m occupied with other matters. And while time can do wonders for any work of art, the few good tricks I use to speed up the process are still necessary: you aren’t likely to give up on your dough just because it takes an extra day to rise, but the difference between a novel that takes twelve months to write and one that takes three years often amounts to one you finish and one you abandon. The proper balance depends on many outside factors, and you may find that greater intensity and less time, or vice versa, is the approach you need to make it fit with everything else in your life. But baking no-knead bread has reminded me that we have a surprising amount of control over the relationship between the two. And as we approach the start of a new year—or what the Irish once called the Day of the Buttered Bread—we should start to think about what we can set to rise, or render, right now.

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December 30, 2015 at 8:34 am

Quote of the Day

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Lynn Nottage

The problem [in theater] is that you have all these institutions that have invested in buildings that are very expensive and have to be maintained, and they have to have something to put on their stage and to feed the desires of their subscribers, and as a result they’re selecting work that is popular enough to sell tickets. Which means that writers are creating work to get produced. And I’m like, what if you stopped thinking that way? Theater today doesn’t have to exist in the proscenium anymore.

Lynn Nottage, to American Theatre

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December 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

Revenge of the list

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: A few minor spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

When I try to explain my mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movie, I find myself turning, heretically, to a story about the franchise’s greatest rival. Nicholas Meyer was, in many ways, the J.J. Abrams of his day: a hugely talented, relatively young outsider who was brought in to correct the course of a series that had lost its sense of purpose. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan, but he was able to find elements—like its echoes of the Horatio Hornblower novels—that he could highlight and enlarge. When he signed on to write and direct the first sequel, however, five separate scripts had already been written, and he had to prepare a workable screenplay in twelve days. His response to the challenge resulted in one of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes ever, as Meyer recounts it in his memoir The View From the Bridge:

“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose…”

We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I never tire of retelling this story, both as an illustration of the power of lists as a creative tool and as a reminder of how surprising, organic narratives can emerge from the most artificial of beginnings. And it’s as true today as it ever was. In the excellent bonus features for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they began writing the movie with a list of action set pieces, and that important emotional beats—including Ilsa Faust’s motivations and the entire character of Attlee—emerged when they put those scenes in a certain order. Matthew Weiner and his core writing staff assembled a list of possible themes and ideas to revisit when it came time to plot out the final season of Mad Men. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen The Peanuts Movie, of which I wrote: “[It] sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan…The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials.” And now, of course, we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which struck me when I first saw it as a kind of greatest hits collection from the original trilogy, only to have this confirmed by the same Wired interview with J.J. Abrams that I discussed yesterday: “When we began working on this film, Larry [Kasdan] and I started by making a list of things that we knew held interest for us, the things we wanted to see, the things we felt were important.”

Nicholas Meyer and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet the fact remains that The Wrath of Khan comes off as a seamless burst of pure story, while The Force Awakens, for all its considerable merits, still feels like a list. (The best thing that could be said for it, and this shouldn’t be lightly disregarded, is that it’s the right list. ) When you look at the list that Meyer put together for Star Trek, with the notable exception of Khan himself, you see that it consists of ideas that audiences hadn’t seen before. The Force Awakens, by contrast, is a list of things that are familiar, and once we’ve seen a couple of moments or images that remind us of the original movies, we naturally start a mental checklist as we keep an eye out for more. Sometimes, the way it quotes its predecessors is delightful; at other times, as when it gears up for yet another aerial assault on an impregnable planetary superweapon, it’s less than wonderful. As the Resistance prepared for the attack on Starkiller Base, I felt a slight sinking feeling: two out of the first three Star Wars movies ended in exactly the same way, perhaps as a nod to The Dam Busters, and I hoped that Abrams was about to spring some kind of novel twist or variation on that theme. Obviously, he doesn’t, to the extent that he includes a story point—a small group on the ground fighting to deactivate the shield generator—lifted straight from Return of the Jedi. It isn’t hard to imagine a version of this sort of climax that would have given us something new: I’d love to see a full-on Saving Private Ryan sequence showing an infantry assault on the base, or even a naval battle. And if we didn’t get it here, it’s because Abrams and the rest were sticking closely to their list.

But this kind of respectful homage is utterly alien to the spirit of the original movies themselves, which were eager to show us things that we had never imagined. The opening scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, immediately expand the possibilities of that universe: not only does the ice planet give us a gloriously different backdrop, but the battle with the Imperial Walkers feels like a deliberate inversion of the dogfights that ended the first movie. The entire film, in fact, plays like a deliciously inverted list: it takes the things that audiences loved about Star Wars and then turns them all by a hundred and eighty degrees. The Force Awakens lacks that kind of basic invention, as much I liked so much of it. (Among other things, it makes it unnecessary to watch the prequels ever again. If Disney follows through with its plans of releasing a movie of comparable quality every year, Episode I, II, and III will start to take on the status of The Sting II or Grease 2: we’ll have trouble remembering that they even exist.) It’s possible that, like the first season of Fargo, the new movie’s energies were devoted mostly to establishing its bona fides, and that the next batch of sequels will be more willing to go into unexpected directions. Still, the fact remains that while Abrams and Kasdan made a great list, they failed to add anything new to it—which raises the troubling implication that the galaxy of Star Wars, after six films, isn’t as vast or rich with potential as we always thought it was. I hope that isn’t the case. But now that Abrams and his collaborators have gotten that list out of their system, the next thing they need to do is throw it into the nearest trash compactor.

Quote of the Day

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Karlheinz Stockhausen

What is important is neither linearity or non-linearity, but the change, the degree of change from something that doesn’t move to other events with different tempos.

Karlheinz Stockhausen

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December 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The forced error

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R2-D2 and J.J. Abrams on the set of The Force Awakens

Note: Oblique spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

At this point, it might seem that there isn’t anything new left to say about The Force Awakens, but I’d like to highlight a revealing statement from director J.J. Abrams that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been given its due emphasis before. It appears in an interview that was published by Wired on November 9, or over a month in advance of the film’s release. When the reporter Scott Dadich asks if there are any moments from the original trilogy that stand out to him, Abrams replies:

It would be a much shorter conversation to talk about the scenes that didn’t stand out. As a fan of Star Wars, I can look at those movies and both respect and love what they’ve done. But working on The Force Awakens, we’ve had to consider them in a slightly different context. For example, it’s very easy to love “I am your father.” But when you think about how and when and where that came, I’m not sure that even Star Wars itself could have supported that story point had it existed in the first film, Episode IV. Meaning: It was a massively powerful, instantly classic moment in movie history, but it was only possible because it stood on the shoulders of the film that came before it. There had been a couple of years to allow the idea of Darth Vader to sink in, to let him emerge as one of the greatest movie villains ever. Time built up everyone’s expectations about the impending conflict between Luke and Vader. If “I am your father” had been in the first film, I don’t know if it would have had the resonance. I actually don’t know if it would have worked.

Taken in isolation, the statement is interesting but not especially revelatory. When we revisit it in light of what we now know about The Force Awakens, however, it takes on a startling second meaning. It’s hard not to read it today without thinking of a particular reveal about one new character and the sudden departure of another important player. When I first saw the film, without having read the interview in Wired, it immediately struck me that these plot points were in the wrong movie: they seemed much more like moments that would have felt more at home in the second installment of the sequel trilogy, and not merely because the sequence in question openly pays homage to the most memorable scene in The Empire Strikes Back. To venture briefly into spoilerish territory: if Kylo Ren had been allowed to dominate the entirety of The Force Awakens “as one of the greatest movie villains ever,” to use Abrams’s own words, the impact of his actions and what we learn about his motivations would have been far more powerful—but only if they had been saved for Episode VIII. As it stands, we’re introduced to Ren and his backstory all but in the same breath, and it can’t help but feel rushed. Similarly, when another important character appears and exits the franchise within an hour or so of screentime, it feels like a wasted opportunity. They only had one chance to do it right, and compressing what properly should have been the events of two films into one is a real flaw in an otherwise enjoyable movie.

The Empire Strikes Back

And what intrigues me the most about the quote above is that Abrams himself seems agonizingly aware of the issue. When you read over his response again, it becomes clear that he isn’t quite responding to the question that the interviewer asked. Instead, he goes off on a tangent that wouldn’t even have occurred to him if it hadn’t already been on his mind. I have no way of looking into Abrams’s brain, Jedi style, but it isn’t difficult to imagine what happened. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt—the three credited screenwriters, which doesn’t even take into account the countless other producers and executives who took a hand in the process—must have discussed the timing of these plot elements in detail, along with so many others, and at some point, the question would have been raised as to whether they might not better be saved for a later movie. Abrams’s statement to Wired feels like an undigested excerpt from those discussions that surfaced in an unrelated context, simply because he happened to remember it in the course of the interview. (Anyone who has ever been interviewed, and who wants to give well-reasoned responses, will know how this works: you often end up repurposing thoughts and material that you’ve worked up elsewhere, if they have even the most tangential relevance to the topic at hand.) If you replace “Darth Vader” with “Kylo Ren” in Abrams’s reply, and make a few other revisions to square it with Episode VII, you can forensically reconstruct one side of an argument that must have taken place in the offices of Bad Robot on multiple occasions. And Abrams never forgot it.

So what made him decide to ignore an insight so good that he practically internalized it? There’s no way of knowing for sure, but it seems likely that contract negotiations with one of the actors involved—and those who have seen the movie will know which one I mean—affected the decision to move this scene up to where it appears now. Dramatically speaking, it’s in the wrong place, but Abrams and his collaborators may not have had a choice. As he implies throughout this interview and elsewhere, The Force Awakens was made under conditions of enormous pressure: it isn’t just a single movie, but the opening act in the renewal of a global entertainment franchise, and the variables involved are so complicated that no one filmmaker can have full control over the result. (It’s also tempting to put some of the blame on Abrams’s directing style, which rushes headlong from one plot point to another as if this were the only new Star Wars movie we were ever going to get. The approach works wonderfully in the first half, which is refreshingly eager to get down to business and slot the necessary pieces into place, but it starts to backfire in the second and third acts, which burn through big moments so quickly that we’re left scrambling to feel anything about what we’ve seen.) Tomorrow, I’m going to talk a little more about how the result left me feeling both optimistic and slightly wary of what the future of Star Wars might bring. But in this particular instance, Abrams made an error. Or he suspects that he did. And when he searches his feelings, he knows it to be true.

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December 28, 2015 at 10:16 am

Quote of the Day

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Bruce Norris

I tend to write in the “realistic” form because it limits what’s possible and that gives a play a rigidity, a structure. A more freeform approach to writing a play feels loose and a little bit flimsy to me. I like the firm structure that’s imposed by realism, not just realistic behavior, but realistic furniture and facts. If you want to demonstrate something about the way we behave and interact with each other, then it’s really useful to have a concrete world there to interact with. I think when people want to write about dreams and magic onstage, they often don’t have much they want to say about behavior. They want to talk about ideas and not behavior.

Bruce Norris, to Watch & Listen

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December 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

“You get to think so much…”

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Quiara Alegría Hudes

I end up spending too much money on journals if I write too much about the play beforehand. And I tend to get rid of a journal if there is a page inside that I don’t like. So I write on legal pads. My dad made me a writing desk—he is a carpenter. I keep my desk clean. I walk around my room, I pace a lot—that’s my process. I only know just enough to get me started, and then I write. I don’t know where it’s going until I write the first few scenes. After that, I can sit down and write the play…If I write and I start to cry that usually is a good sign. I always have my cup of coffee, my little totem items that are around my desk—and of course music. I always have my music…

I love it. You have to. When I talk to young writers they always want to know how do you make it, how do you know if you are good enough, or how do you become a writer. And I’m like, figure out some way that you can live spending your life writing. And after two years you will know. If you don’t like waking up every day and writing, you will know. Writing is an incredible way to spend your day, and if you don’t love it, it’s not for you. You get to think so much. That’s such a pleasure.

Quiara Alegría Hudes, to Brooklyn Rail

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December 27, 2015 at 7:30 am

The Case of Wagner

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Richard Wagner

Even in his general sketch of the action, Wagner is above all an actor. The first thing that occurs to him is a scene which is certain to produce a strong effect, a real actio, with a basso-relievo of attitudes; an overwhelming scene. This he now proceeds to elaborate more deeply, and out of it he draws his characters. The whole of what remains to be done follows of itself, fully in keeping with a technical economy which has no reason to be subtle…Concerning the “actual requirements of the stage” Wagner would have about the same opinion as any other actor of today: a series of powerful scenes, each stronger than the one that preceded it—and, in between, all kinds of clever nonsense. His first concern is to guarantee the effect of his work; he begins with the third act, he approves his work according to the quality of its final effect. Guided by this sort of understanding of the stage, there is not much danger of one’s creating a drama unawares. Drama demands inexorable logic: but what did Wagner care about logic…?

Everybody knows the technical difficulties before which the dramatist often has to summon all his strength and frequently to sweat his blood: the difficulty of making the plot seem necessary and the unravelment as well, so that both are conceivable only in a certain way, and so that each may give the impression of freedom (the principle of the smallest expenditure of energy). Now the very last thing that Wagner does is to sweat blood over the plot; and on this and the unravelment he certainly spends the smallest possible amount of energy. Let anybody put one of Wagner’s “plots” under the microscope, and I wager that he will be forced to laugh.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner

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December 26, 2015 at 7:30 am

The immortal world of marionettes and dolls

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The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright

I do not fear, for my part, to formulate my creed. I believe in the immortal world of marionettes and dolls. Doubtless there is nothing human in the way of flesh in these little beings of wood or cardboard; but there is in them something of the divine, however little it may be. They do not live like ourselves, and yet they do live. They live as do the immortal gods…

Certainly dolls and marionettes are very little gods, but they are gods none the less: they resemble the smaller idols of antiquity. They resemble even more the figures by which the savage clumsily assayed to portray the invisible. And what are they like, if not like idols, since they are idols themselves? Their function is an absolutely religious one. They bring to little children the only vision of the divine which is intelligible to them. They represent all the religion accessible to the most tender age. They are the cause of our first dream. They inspire our first fears and hopes. Pierrot and Polichinelle contain as much divine anthropomorphism as can be comprehended by brains scarcely formed, although already terribly active. They are the Hermes and the Zeus of our little children. And every doll is still a Persephone, a Kore, to our little girls.

I should like these words to be taken in their most literal sense.

Anatole France, La Vie Litteraire

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December 25, 2015 at 7:30 am

The Rite of Stravinsky

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Igor Stravinsky

For me as a creative musician, composition is a daily function that I feel compelled to discharge. I compose because I am made for that and cannot do otherwise…I am far from saying that there is no such thing as inspiration…Work brings inspiration if inspiration is not discernible in the beginning.

I stumble across something unexpected. This unexpected element strikes me. I make a note of it. At the proper time, I put it to profitable use.

What fascinated me most of all in [Petrushka] was that the different rhythmic episodes were dictated by the fingers themselves…Fingers are not to be despised; they are great inspirers and, in contact with a musical instrument, often give birth to unconscious ideas which might otherwise never come to life.

I would go on eternally revising my music were I not too busy composing more of it.

I am the first to recognize that daring is the motive force of the finest and greatest artist. I approve of daring; I set no limits to it.

Igor Stravinsky

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December 24, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Santa Claus conquers the Martians

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Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas

Like most households, my family has a set of traditions that we like to observe during the holiday season. A vinyl copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas spends most of December on our record player, and I never feel as if I’m really in the spirit of things until I’ve listened to Kokomo Jo’s Caribbean Christmas—a staple of my own childhood—and The Ventures’ Christmas Album. My wife and I have started watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Santa Claus, not to be confused with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, on an annual basis: it’s one of the best episodes that the show ever did, and I’m still tickled by it after close to a dozen viewings. (My favorite line, as Santa deploys a massive surveillance system to spy on the world’s children: “Increasingly paranoid, Santa’s obsession with security begins to hinder everyday operations.”) But my most beloved holiday mainstay is the book Santa Claus and His Elves by the cartoonist and children’s author Mauri Kunnas. If you aren’t Finnish, you probably haven’t heard of it, and readers from other countries might be momentarily bemused by its national loyalties: Santa’s workshop is explicitly located on Mount Korvatunturi in Lapland. As Kunnas writes: “So far away from human habitation is this village that no one is known to have seen it, except for a couple of old Lapps who stumbled across it by accident on their travels.”

I’ve been fascinated by this book ever since I was a child, and I was saddened when it inexplicably went missing for years, probably stashed away in a Christmas box in my parents’ garage. When my mother bought me a new copy, I was overjoyed, and as I began to read it to my own daughter, I was relieved to find that it holds up as well as always. The appeal of Kunnas’s book lies in its marvelous specificity: it treats Santa’s village as a massive industrial operation, complete with print shops, factories, and a fleet of airplanes. Santa Claus himself barely figures in the story at all. The focus is much more on the elves: where they work and sleep, their schools, their hobbies, and above all how they coordinate the immense task of tracking wish lists, making toys, and delivering presents. (Looking at Kunnas’s lovingly detailed illustrations of their warehouses and machine rooms, it’s hard not to be reminded of an Amazon fulfillment center—and although Jeff Bezos comes closer than anyone in history to realizing Santa’s workshop for real, complete with proposed deliveries by air, I’d like to think that the elves get better benefits.) As you leaf through the book, Santa’s operation starts to feel weirdly plausible, and everything from the “strong liniment” that he puts on his back to the sauna that he and the elves enjoy on their return adds up to a picture that could convince even the most skeptical adult.

Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas

The result is nothing less than a beautiful piece of speculative fiction, enriched by the tricks that all such writers use: the methodical working out of a seemingly impossible premise, governed by perfect internal logic and countless persuasive details. Kunnas pulls it off admirably. In the classic study Pilgrims Through Space and Time, J.O. Bailey has an entire section titled “Probability Devices,” in which he states: “The greatest technical problem facing the writer of science fiction is that of securing belief…The oldest and perhaps the soundest method for securing suspension of disbelief is that of embedding the strange event in realistic detail about normal, everyday events.” He continues:

[Jules] Verne, likewise, offers minute details. Five Weeks in a Balloon, for instance, figures every pound of hydrogen and every pound of air displaced by it in the filling of the balloon, lists every article packed into the car, and states every detail of date, time (to the minute), and topography.

Elsewhere, I’ve noted that this sort of careful elaboration of hardware is what allows the reader to accept the more farfetched notions that govern the story as a whole—which might be the only thing that my suspense fiction and my short science fiction have in common. Filling out the world I’ve invented with small, accurate touches might be my single favorite part of being a writer, and the availability of such material often makes the difference between a finished story and one that never leaves the conceptual stage.

And when I look back, I wonder if I might not have imbibed much of this from the Santa Claus story, and in particular from Kunnas. Santa, in a way, is one of the first exposures to speculative fiction that any child gets: it inherently strains credulity, but you can’t argue with the gifts that appear under the tree on Christmas Day, and reconciling the implausibility of that story with the concrete evidence requires a true leap of imagination. Speculating that it might be the result of an organized conspiracy of adults is, if anything, an even bigger stretch—just as maintaining secrecy about a faked moon landing for decades would have been a greater achievement than going to the moon for real. Santa Claus, oddly enough, has rarely been a popular subject in science fiction, the Robot Santa on Futurama aside. As Gary Westfahl notes in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: “As a literature dedicated by its very nature to breaking new ground, perhaps, science fiction is not well suited as a vehicle for ancient time-honored sentiments about the virtues of love and family life. (It’s no accident that the genre’s most famous treatment of Christmas lies in the devastating ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” which you should read right now if you haven’t before.) But I suspect that those impulses have simply been translated into another form. Robert Anton Wilson once commented on the prevalence of the “greenish-skinned, pointy-eared man” in science fiction and folklore, and he thought they might be manifestations of the peyote god Mescalito. But I prefer to think that most writers are secretly wondering what the elves have been doing all this time…

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December 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

Cutty Sark and the semicolon

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Vladimir Nabokov

In an interview that was first published in The Paris Review, the novelist Herbert Gold asked Vladimir Nabokov if an editor had ever offered him any useful advice. This is what Nabokov said in response:

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!”

I’ve always adored that thunderous stet, which tells us so much about Nabokov and his imperious resistance to being edited by anybody. Today, however, I’m more interested in the previous sentence. A semicolon, as Nabokov puts it, can indeed be a point of honor. Nabokov was perhaps the most painstaking of all modern writers, and it’s no surprise that the same perfectionism that produced such conceptual and structural marvels as Lolita and Pale Fire would filter down to the smallest details. But I imagine that most authors can relate to how a single punctuation mark in a manuscript can start to loom as large as the finger of God in the Sistine Chapel.

And there’s something about the semicolon that seems to inspire tussles between writers and their editors—or at least allows it to stand as a useful symbol of the battles that can occur during the editorial process. Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine about the relationship between Robert Caro, author of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb:

“You know that insane old expression, ‘The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,’ or something like that?” Gottlieb asked me. “That’s really true of Bob. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

It’s possible that the semicolon keeps cropping up in such stories because its inherent ambiguity lends itself to disagreement. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” And I’ve more or less eliminated semicolons from my own work for much the same reason.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Raging Bull

But the larger question here is why artists fixate on things that even the most attentive reader would pass over without noticing. On one level, you could take a fight over a semicolon as an illustration of the way that the creative act—in which the artist is immersed in the work for months on end—tends to turn mountains into molehills. Here’s one of my favorite stories about the making of Raging Bull:

One night, when the filmmakers were right up against the deadline to make their release date, they were working on a nothing little shot that takes place in a nightclub, where a minor character turns to the bartender and orders a Cutty Sark. “I can’t hear what he’s saying,” [Martin Scorsese] said. Fiddling ensued—extensive fiddling—without satisfying him. [Producer Irwin] Winkler, who was present, finally deemed one result good enough and pointed out that messengers were standing by to hand-carry release prints to the few theaters where the picture was about to premiere. At which point, Scorsese snapped. “I want my name taken off the picture,” he cried—which bespeaks his devotion to detail. It also bespeaks his exhaustion at the end of Raging Bull, not to mention the craziness that so often overtakes movies as they wind down. Needless to say, he was eventually placated. And you can more or less hear the line in the finished print.

And you could argue that this kind of microscopic attention is the only thing that can lead to a work that succeeds on the largest possible scale.

But there’s another story that gets closer to truth. In Existential Errands, Norman Mailer describes a bad period in his life—shortly after he was jailed for stabbing his second wife Adele—in which he found himself descending into alcoholism and unable to work. His only source of consolation were the scraps of paper, “little crossed communications from some wistful outpost of my mind,” that he would find in his jacket pocket after a drunken night. Mailer writes of these poems:

I would go to work, however, on my scraps of paper. They were all I had for work. I would rewrite them carefully, printing in longhand and ink, and I would spend hours whenever there was time going over these little poems…And since I wasn’t doing anything else very well in those days, I worked the poems over every chance I had. Sometimes a working day would go by, and I might put a space between two lines and remove a word. Maybe I was mending.

Which just reminds us that a seemingly minuscule change can be the result of a prolonged confrontation with the work as a whole. You can’t obsess over a semicolon without immersing yourself in the words around it, and there are times when you need such a focal point to structure your engagement with the rest. It’s a little like what is called a lakshya in yoga: the tiny spot on the body or in the mind on which you concentrate while meditating. In practice, the lakshya can be anything or nothing, but without it, your attention tends to drift. In art, it can be a semicolon, a word, or a line about Cutty Sark. It may not be much in itself. But when you need to tether yourself to something, even a semicolon can be a lifeline.

Quote of the Day

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Ayad Akhtar

I think of myself as a narrative artist. I don’t think of myself as a novelist or screenwriter or playwright. All of those modalities of processing and experiencing narrative are obviously very different, and I’m not sure that I prefer any one to the other. I think the novel gives you the opportunity to have a kind of interiority that you can’t have in the theater, which is pure exteriority. That pure exteriority, paradoxically, creates a much more heightened interiority for the audience. So if you want to really deeply touch the viewer or the reader, the theater might be the most powerful way to do it. When it’s done right, obviously. When it’s not done right it’s really boring.

Ayad Akhtar, to Guernica

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December 22, 2015 at 7:30 am

A neat little package

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Structural Packaging by Paul Jackson

Like a lot of other people, I spent most of yesterday afternoon wrapping my holiday presents. It sounds like it should be a relaxing activity—A Charlie Brown Christmas playing on vinyl, a hot beverage, rolls of paper and ribbon on the floor by the tree—but it’s always a little more frustrating than I expect, even without a three-year-old insisting that she can wrap everything herself. Some packages, like books or big rectangular boxes, are satisfying and easy to wrap. Yet there are always a few gifts that stubbornly refuse to cooperate. They’ve got weird shapes, or protrusions, or they’re soft and amorphous, and since you never have all the gift bags you need, you end up trying to adapt your simpleminded method of wrapping a box to something that isn’t a box, and the result is always a bit hideous. Even boxes themselves can be tough: a small box is much less forgiving than a large one, and if your estimate of how much paper you’ll need is off by even a centimeter, you often have to start all over again. (It’s for much the same reason that short fiction can be harder to write than a novel.) I always think that there has to be a better way, and, of course, there is. The trouble is, like most people, I wrap presents only a few times a year, with weeks or months going by between birthdays and holidays, so I’ve never bothered to develop that particular skill set. Whenever I do it again, I feel as if I’m figuring out how to wrap a present for the first time. If I did it more frequently, or if I had to wrap hundreds of presents at once, I’d probably come up with a few good tricks. As it stands, I get pretty good at it by the end of each wrapping session, and the next time around, I find that I’ve forgotten everything I learned.

My real problem is that I insist on wrapping every present as if it were a rectangular prism, since that’s the one thing I sort of know how to do. In fact, there’s an objectively right way to wrap any shape, assuming that you’re willing to put the effort into it. (It probably isn’t a worthwhile use of energy for a present that is just going to be torn apart on Christmas Eve, but bear with me here.) Wrapping a package is largely a problem of translation: you’re attempting to capture the essential information about a three-dimensional shape in a two-dimensional form. In design terms, you’re trying to construct a net—a single, two-dimensional piece that locks around itself to enclose a polyhedron. And a net that has been logically conceived is an object of rare beauty. There’s a lovely book called Structural Packaging by Paul Jackson that discusses this in detail, and it handles the topic with a level of clarity and precision that should serve as an inspiration to anyone interested in solving creative problems. Jackson writes: “A net is either absolutely correct and perfect, or incorrect and in need of correction. In design, the concept of perfection is almost unknown—how can a magazine layout, or a color, or a choice of fabric be described as perfect?—but in package design perfection is achievable and necessary.” Elsewhere, he says that he has developed “a simple system—a formula, even—for creating the strongest possible one-piece net that will enclose any volumetric form which has flat faces and straight sides,” and he advises his readers that for the best results, his method “must be followed accurately, almost to the point of obsession—at least at first.”

How to Wrap Five Eggs by Hideyuki Oka

So how would Paul Jackson wrap a package? The first step, after you’ve figured out the overall shape, is to construct a dummy using sheets of card and masking tape. You cut loose the lid, which is the one set of cuts that you know you have to make, and place a tab on the edge opposite the hinge. The rest of the process, which tells you how to fold the dummy flat, consists of a set of elegant rules of the kind that I find hard to resist. Jackson tells you to cut the shortest edges first, and to continue to cut, proceeding from short edges to long, until the entire net can be unfolded. (This makes intuitive sense: a design that situates its hinges along the longest edges will be the strongest, and it will also occupy the smallest area of the card that will be used to manufacture the finished version.) You then place more tabs on alternate edges, starting with the lid tab—as Jackson notes, any net, no matter how complicated, will have an even number of edges, so this approach always works. Finally, you determine the shape of each tab, one by one, based on the shape of the face to which it will be joined. Jackson notes: “There is no quick way to do this—every tab must be designed carefully and accurately, one at a time.” This is the point, in other words, at which the general rules give way to close observation and analysis. Jackson says that if this method is executed with complete accuracy, it gives you a remarkably strong net; if it’s even slightly less accurate, the net will be noticeably weaker. And he frames the discussion with an important reminder: “Sometimes, creativity comes from thinking freely without limitations, and sometimes it comes from learning something thoroughly and then applying it. Structural packaging is definitely in the latter category.”

And I can’t help but compare this to other kinds of creative thinking, particularly writing, which is the art form I know best. When you’re writing a story, you’re performing a similar act of translation, turning the three-dimensional world around you into a form that conveys the same information on the printed page. And it’s all too easy to approach every subject using the same handful of tricks: trying to cram every story into the same formula—as so many mainstream movies do—isn’t so different from wrapping every present, no matter how unusual its shape, as if it were a box with rectangular sides. In reality, you need to tell each story on its own terms, evaluating the problems it presents according to the basic rules of craft. (As David Mamet puts it in On Directing Film: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate this rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”) And even after you’ve followed the rules to the letter, you still have to put in the tabs, or the connections between scenes and ideas, which can only be done by paying close attention to the shape and relationship of the constituent parts. You learn this only by doing it repeatedly, which is why it’s important to write every day: otherwise, you’re like someone who wraps presents a few times a year and has to figure it out from scratch each time. I’m reminded of another book, How to Wrap Five Eggs by Hideyuki Oka, that seems as far from Jackson as you could possibly get: it’s about the lost art of traditional Japanese packaging, in which eggs were bound together using just a few wisps of rice straw. But both approaches, as Oka says, represent “a kind of crystallization of the wisdom that comes from everyday life.” This can emerge either from systematic theory or from the accumulated experience of generations. The first step is to respect the package itself. And when you’re done, you can tie a bow on it.

Written by nevalalee

December 21, 2015 at 9:29 am

Quote of the Day

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Annie Baker

There’s very little conscious strategy behind the subject matter for my plays. There’s a lot of strategizing in the actual researching and writing of a play. But in terms of what it’s about, and who the main characters are, and what the setting is, it really is something that just comes to me. It’s not like I’m saying, “I could write a play about this, or I could write a play about that. Which is the better play?” I can only hold one play in my mind at a time.

Annie Baker, to Bomb Magazine

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December 21, 2015 at 7:30 am

Getting the hell out of the way

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Stephen Adley Guirgis

A big part of being a writer is about just listening to the different voices in your head and writing down what they need to say. I know that might sound a little mysterious, but, really, it’s not that mysterious when you think about it. What does a baseball player do? See the ball, hit the ball. A quarterback reads and reacts. A fisherman casts his line and hopefully reels something in. That’s what writers do…But the process is always the same, and if the process is successful, it’s usually because we left “thinking about it” out of the equation. The thinking part comes before and after. But the actual act of writing is about something else. It’s about getting the hell out of the way. And the reason I suggest that the writing process isn’t so mysterious as it sounds is because, I mean, “getting the hell out of the way” applies to, like, almost everything we do or try to do, like, all the time. Like, if you got up the nerve to kiss the girl, and then you kissed her, and she didn’t belt you in the mouth, then what happened really? I know for me that what probably happened is that I succeeded in getting the hell out of the way. That’s what a writer’s gotta do—which is probably why I spend so much time avoiding it.

Stephen Adley Guirgis, in an interview with L.A. Theatre Works

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December 20, 2015 at 7:30 am

Why do poets make bad politicians?

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W.H. Auden

Poets are, by the nature of their interests and the nature of artistic fabrication, singularly ill-equipped to understand politics or economics. Their natural interest is in singular individuals and personal relations, while politics and economics are concerned with large numbers of people, hence with the human average (the poet is bored to death by the idea of the Common Man) and with impersonal, to a great extent involuntary, relations. The poet cannot understand the function of money in modern society because for him there is no relation between subjective value and market value; he may be paid ten pounds for a poem which he believes is very good and took him months to write, and a hundred pounds for a piece of journalism which costs him but a day’s work…

All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman.

In a war or a revolution, a poet may do very well as a guerrilla fighter or a spy, but it is unlikely that he will make a good regular soldier, or, in peace time, a conscientious member of a parliamentary committee.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

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December 19, 2015 at 7:30 am

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