Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 2016

“You wait, but you don’t wait too long…”

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Sam Shepard

Interviewer: Where do you need to be—mentally, physically—to write?

Shepard: Right at the heart of it. You wait, but you don’t wait too long, and then you pounce and sit right in the middle of it. I’m working on a monologue now. At the very beginning I thought, oh, if I wait a couple of days maybe more material will come. But I didn’t, and I’m glad. More material would have come, but I wouldn’t have written it down…

Interviewer: You’re often spoken of as the greatest living American playwright. Do you feel you’ve achieved something substantial?

Shepard: Yes and no. If you include the short stories and all the other books and you mash them up with some plays and stuff, then, yes, I’ve come at least close to what I’m shooting for. In one individual piece, I’d say no. There are certainly some plays I like better than others, but none that measure up.

Sam Shepard, to Alexis Soloski of the New York Times

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2016 at 7:30 am

The world and everything in it

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Children's Art by Miriam Lindstrom

A child may work on the development and elaboration of one or several of these symbols over a considerable length of time, covering sheets of paper with his many examples of the same subject or a jumbled assortment of several, along with some miscellaneous scribbling. At this stage a child’s picture often shows a collection of unrelated ideas, a sampling of many enterprises in formula making. These are all rapidly executed, not patiently toiled over, and each “picture” is finished within a very few minutes. (It is not uncommon, however, for a child younger than four, who does not yet make schemata, happily to scribble and scrawl in dreamy fashion for a long time on a single sheet of paper without feeling at any moment that he has “finished” his picture.)

Many four-year-olds and most five-year-olds have perfected to their own satisfaction, through such practice, a repertory of several symbols that they take pride in and that they can use readily and exactly. They often like to see these figures clearly and neatly set forth, one at a time, without irrelevant markings on the paper. The concept is definite, competently executed, and if they can draw the letters of their name as well, this is all that they feel belongs in their finished picture…

By six, children generally are ready to make a picture of anything that can be thought of, composing it with combinations of the schemata they command and creating new schemata as occasion requires, filling in with verbal narrative the action that is not clearly pictured. One little girl of six explained her picture of a confetti-dotted arc as “the world and everything in it.”

—Miriam Lindstrom, Children’s Art

Written by nevalalee

January 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

Elsa and the two Ilsas

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Frozen

Last weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Disney on Ice, about a third of which was devoted to a Cliffs Notes version of Frozen. Hearing those familiar songs again in an arena with a raucous family audience, I was struck once more by how that film’s spectacular success emerged from the intersection of two peerless bags of tricks: the musical and the animated cartoon. Disney has taken cues from Broadway for a long time, of course, but in Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, they found a creative duo that understood those stage conventions inside and out, and the movie runs off their knowledge like a battery. Lopez, in particular, emerged as such a fluent ventriloquist of the Sesame Street style in Avenue Q that I remember talking to an acquaintance of his—a member of the same musical theater circles—who assumed that he could do nothing else. In fact, as it soon became clear, he can do just about anything. He reminds me at times of a less cynical version of Stephin Merritt, a master of formulas who has imbibed the grammar and, yes, the clichés of his medium so completely that he can deploy them almost without thinking. And what sets Lopez apart is that he’s both totally aware of how manipulative that framework can be and willing to use it in the service of what feels like genuine, unfaked emotion.

When you watch Frozen through that lens, you start to notice how many of its most memorable effects are achieved by an ingenious rearrangement of those basic components. In “For the First Time in Forever,” for instance, when the movie cuts away from Anna—who takes the song up a half-step with every verse—to Elsa singing the emotional counterpoint of “Let it Go,” and then begins to cut between them, it amounts to a fantastic structural trick that moves us before we even know why. During the reprise at the ice palace, Anna sings in major key, Elsa in minor, and it culminates in a miniature quodlibet that somehow evokes all of Les Misérables in less than a minute. Most famous of all, of course, is “Let It Go” itself, which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, seems to have recentered the entire movie as soon as it was written. And the really revealing point is that the Lopezes began with certain stock elements without worrying too much about where they fit into the script. “For the First Time in Forever” is a classic “I want” number, which is often ironically reprised later in the story, and “Let It Go” was known as “Elsa’s badass song” in the outline before it became something closer to “Defying Gravity.” (Idina Menzel was cast before any of the music had been written, so they were clearly writing with her strengths in mind.) And once the song was in place, the whole movie was reshaped around it, like the tail wagging the dog. As Lopez-Anderson has said: “If it weren’t framed by the right story, [the song] wouldn’t connect with people.”

Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

And musicals aren’t the only genre in which a compelling character can result from the spaces left by the manipulation of big blocks of narrative. In an interview about the writing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie said:

The…question for me was figuring out the structure of the movie, and we decided to just start with the action—we thought about what kinds of action set pieces we always wanted to do, and then we put them into some semblance of an order to try and figure out what journey that would put our characters on…I rearranged two sequences and changed one specific detail. I took the underwater sequence and the motorcycle chase and put them back to back, creating one monster action set piece in the middle of the movie. When I did that, it created a great relentless set piece, but I blew up the movie—suddenly, characters’ motives that made sense in the previous draft didn’t work anymore. If Ilsa is running from both Ethan and Lane, where is she running to? Figuring that out necessitated the creation of act one and the introduction of British intelligence into the movie, and that in turn led us to all the consequences in the third act. So action really drove story.

Critics have long noted that the action and musical genres have a lot in common, but I’m not sure if anyone has ever noticed how both can recombine stock elements to generate information about a character. In this case, it resulted in Ilsa Faust, who—with apologies to Imperator Furiosa, with whom she shares her initials—is the most interesting woman in an action movie in years.

And it applies to other genres as well. At the risk of stretching the argument, I’d argue that the most famous fictional Ilsa of all—as played by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca—benefits from the same kind of narrative recombination. Casablanca is a kind of musical already, both because of its memorable songs and in the way its great set pieces play like solos or duets of unforgettable dialogue. And if much of Bergman’s appeal comes from her real confusion on the set about which man she was supposed to love the most, with her scenes being constantly rewritten on the fly, that embodies a kind of musical logic, too: director Michael Curtiz and his team of screenwriters seem to have chosen sequences based on how well they played in the moment, with Ilsa’s motivations evolving based on the emotional logic that the scenes imposed, rather than the other way around. If the result works so well, that’s a tribute to Bergman’s performance, which provides a connective thread between inconsistent conceptions of Ilsa’s character: the scene in which she pulls a gun on Rick to get the letters of transit doesn’t have much to do with anything else, but because of Bergman, we buy it, at least for as long as it takes to get us to the next moment. Umberto Eco famously said that Casablanca is made up of memories of other movies, but the intersection of all those incompatible elements resulted in a character that no one can ever forget. Ilsa and her two namesakes have that much in common: they emerge, as if by icy magic, when you set the right pieces side by side.

Quote of the Day

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Theresa Rebeck

I’m a big stick-with-the-basics girl. I think people should understand how to build a character and express character, how to complete an action, what obstacles are, pay attention, make sure the sound of your dialogue is good…Like a character has a need and an obstacle, and what that character’s gonna do to get what he or she wants, and then how the other characters fold into that, and what their needs are. I think all of that is really the nuts and bolts of it, and that, if you’ve got all that, then you can do anything else. I mean, I look at like, Endgame or Waiting for Godot, which are truly expressionistic weird experiences, but their character work and the language and the action and the forward motion is all in place…I think…there’s sort of something in the air, still, from postmodernism, that’s all about being unconventional, and that people are thinking about that too much and that a play can’t exist without those building blocks.

Theresa Rebeck, to the Wilma Theater blog

Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

“He had played his part admirably…”

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"Laszlo, the bosun of the megayacht..."

Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 40. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, I briefly discussed the notorious scene in The Dark Knight Rises in which Bruce Wayne reappears—without any explanation whatsoever—in Gotham City. Bane’s henchmen, you might recall, have blown up all the bridges and sealed off the area to the military and law enforcement, and the entire plot hinges on the city’s absolute isolation. Bruce, in turn, has just escaped from a foreign prison, and although its location is left deliberately unspecified, it sure seems like it was in a different hemisphere. Yet what must have been a journey of thousands of miles and a daring incursion is handled in the space of a single cut: Bruce simply shows up, and there isn’t even a line of dialogue acknowledging how he got there. Not surprisingly, this hiatus has inspired a lot of discussion online, with most explanations boiling down to “He’s Batman.” If asked, Christopher Nolan might reply that the specifics don’t really matter, and that the viewer’s attention is properly focused elsewhere, a point that the writer John Gardner once made with reference to Hamlet:

We naturally ask how it is that, when shipped off to what is meant to be his death, the usually indecisive prince manages to hoist his enemies with their own petard—an event that takes place off stage and, at least in the surviving text, gets no real explanation. If pressed, Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to…

Gardner concludes: “The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.” And while this might seem to apply equally well to The Dark Knight Rises, it doesn’t really hold water. The absence of an explanation did yank many of us out of the movie, however briefly, and it took us a minute to settle back in. Any explanation at all would have been better than this, and it could have been conveyed in less than a sentence. It isn’t an issue of plausibility, but of narrative flow. You could say that Bruce’s return to the city ought to be omitted, in the same way a director like Kurosawa mercilessly cuts all transitional moments: when you just need to get a character from Point A to Point B, it’s best to trim the journey as much as you can. In this instance, however, Nolan erred too much on one side, at least in the eyes of many viewers. And it’s a reminder that the rules of storytelling are all about context. You’ve got to judge each problem on its own terms and figure out the solution that makes the most sense in each case.

"He had played his part admirably..."

What’s really fascinating is how frequently Nolan himself seems to struggle with this issue. In terms of sheer technical proficiency, I’d rank him near the top of the list of all working directors, but if he has one flaw as a filmmaker, aside from his lack of humor, it’s his persistent difficulty in finding the right balance between action and exposition. Much of Inception, which is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, consists of the characters breathlessly explaining the plot to one another, and it more or less works. But he also spends much of Interstellar trying with mixed success to figure out how much to tell us about the science involved, leading to scenes like the one in which Dr. Romilly explains the wormhole to Cooper seemingly moments before they enter it. And Nolan is oddly prone to neglecting obligatory beats that the audience needs to assemble the story in their heads, as when Batman appears to abandon a room of innocent party guests to the Joker in The Dark Knight. You could say that such lapses simply reflect the complexity of the stories that Nolan wants to tell, and you might be right. But David Fincher, who is Nolan’s only peer among active directors, tells stories of comparable or greater complexity—indeed, they’re often about their own complexity—and we’re rarely lost or confused. And if I’m hard on Nolan about this, it’s only a reflection of how difficult such issues can be, when even the best mainstream director of his generation has trouble working out how much information the audience needs.

It all boils down to Thomas Pynchon’s arch aside in Gravity’s Rainbow: “You will want cause and effect. All right.” And knowing how much cause will yield the effect you need is a problem that every storyteller has to confront on a regular basis. Chapter 40 of Eternal Empire provides a good example. For the last hundred pages, the novel has been building toward the moment when Ilya sneaks onto the heavily guarded yacht at Yalta. There’s no question that he’s going to do it; otherwise, everything leading up to it would seem like a ridiculous tease. The mechanics of how he gets aboard don’t really matter, but I also couldn’t avoid the issue, or else readers would rightly object. All I needed was a solution that was reasonably plausible and that could be covered in a few pages. As it happens, the previous scene ends with this exchange between Maddy and Ilya: “But you can’t just expect to walk on board.” “That’s exactly what I intend to do.” When I typed those lines, I didn’t know what Ilya had in mind, but I knew at once that they pointed at the kind of simplicity that the story needed, at least at this point in the novel. (If it came later in the plot, as part of the climax, it might have been more elaborate.) So I came up with a short sequence in which Ilya impersonates a dockwalker looking for work on the yacht, cleverly ingratiates himself with the bosun, and slips below when Maddy provides a convenient distraction. It’s a cute scene—maybe a little too cute, in fact, for this particular novel. But it works exactly as well as it should. Ilya is on board. We get just enough cause and effect. And now we can move on to the really good stuff to come…

Quote of the Day

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Will Eno

The total effect and meaning of a play probably always has to include the audience’s private responses and conjurings, and if the thoughts and feelings of the play can ping back and forth between audience and performer, a large and meaningful amount of area can be covered. The monologue strikes me as an elegant and economical way to accomplish that pinging.

Will Eno, to The Guardian

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

The droid you’re looking for

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The ZTE Maven

A few weeks ago, I replaced my iPhone 5 with a cheap Android device. Yesterday, Apple reported that its phone sales had slowed to their lowest growth rate ever. Clearly, the two facts are connected—and I’m not entirely kidding about this. My phone had been giving me problems for about six months, ever since the display was cracked in an accident last year, but I managed to soldier on with a replacement screen until shortly after Christmas. A gentle fall from my sofa to the carpeted floor was enough to finish it off, and dead lines appeared on the touchscreen, forcing me to rotate the phone repeatedly to perform even the simplest of tasks. (For a while, I seriously considered trying to write all of my texts without using the letter “P,” which was the only one that was permanently disabled.) Finally, I gave in. I was still several months away from my next upgrade, so I went to what my daughter called “the boring cell phone store” to evaluate my options. After about five minutes of consideration, I ended up shelling out forty bucks for a Chinese-made Android model, reasoning that it would make a serviceable interim phone, if nothing else, until I could shop around for a more lasting replacement. But as it turns out, I love this goddamned little phone. I like it so much, in fact, that it’s caused me to question my lifelong devotion to Apple, which has begun to seem like an artifact of a set of assumptions about consumer technology that no longer apply.

My new phone is a ZTE Maven that runs Android 5.1. Its specs aren’t particularly impressive: eight gigs of storage, 4.5-inch screen, 1.2Ghz quad-core processor. Online reviews give it an average of three stars out of five. But I’ve been consistently delighted by it. The camera is significantly worse than the one for my old phone—a real issue for the parent of a three-year-old, since nearly every shot I take of my daughter, who refuses to sit still, ends up smeared into an indecipherable blur. But I’ve learned to live with it. And in every other respect, it either matches or exceeds my iPhone’s performance. Google apps, which I use for email, maps, and web browsing, load much faster and more smoothly than before. Notifications are so seamless that they take much of the fun out of checking my email: I simply know at a glance whether or not I’ve got a new message, while my old phone kept me in delightful suspense as it slowly spun its wheels. Eight gigabytes doesn’t leave me with any room for media, but between Google Photos, which I now use to store all of my old pictures in the cloud, and streaming music from Amazon and other sources, I don’t need to keep much of anything on the phone itself. And while it might seem unfair to compare a newish Android device to an iPhone that is several product cycles behind, the fact that the latter cost ten times as much is a big part of the reason that I held onto it for so long.

The iPhone 5

And to repeat: this phone cost forty dollars. It doesn’t matter if I drop it in the toilet or lose it or break it, or if my eye is caught by something new. There’s nothing stored on it that can’t be replaced. I have close to zero connection to it as a consumer fetish item, which, paradoxically, makes me regard it with even more affection than my old iPhone. If an iPhone lags, it feels like a betrayal; if this phone stalls for a few seconds, which happens rarely, I want to give it an encouraging pat on the head and say that I know it’s doing its best. And it constantly surprises me on the upside. Part of this is due to the relentless march of technology, in which a phone that would have seemed miraculous ten years ago is now being all but given away, but it more subtly reflects the fact that the actual phone is no longer a significant object in itself. Instead, it’s a tiny aperture that provides a window between two huge collections of information to either side. You could think of our online existence as an hourglass, with one large bulb encompassing the data and activities of our personal lives and the other embracing everything in the cloud. The slender neck connecting those two gigantic spheres is your phone—it’s the channel through which one passes into the other. And we’re at a stage where it doesn’t really matter what physical device provides the interface where those larger masses press together, like the film that forms between two soap bubbles. You could even argue that the cheaper the device, the more it fulfills its role as an intermediary, rather than as a focal point.

As a result, my crummy little Android phone—which, once again, isn’t even all that crummy—feels more like the future than whatever Apple is currently marketing. There’s something slightly disingenuous in the way Apple keeps pushing users to the cloud, to the extent of removing all of its old ports and optical drives, while still insisting that this incorporeal universe of information can best be accessed through a sleek, expensive machine. Elsewhere, I’ve written that Apple seems to use thinness or lightness as a quantifiable proxy for good design, and it could theoretically do the same with price, although the odds of this actually happening seem close to zero. Apple’s business model depends so much on charging a premium that it doesn’t feel much pressure to innovate below the line, at least not in ways that are visible to consumers. But this isn’t just about cheap phones: it’s about the question of whether we need any particular phone, rather than a series of convenient, provisional, and ultimately disposable lenses through which to see the content on the other side. The truth, I think, is that we don’t need much of a phone at all, or that it only has to be the phone we need for the moment—and it should be priced at a point at which we have no qualms about casually replacing it when necessary, any more than we’d think twice about buying a new light bulb when the old one burns out. If the Internet, as people never tire of telling us, is a utility like heat or running water, the phone isn’t even the fuse box: it’s the fuse. And it took a forty-dollar phone to get me to realize this.

Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2016 at 9:48 am

Posted in Writing

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