Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 2016

Insider awards, outsider art

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Concept art for Inside Out

I really have no business writing about the Oscars at all. My curtailed moviegoing habits these days mean that I only saw one of the Best Picture nominees—Mad Max: Fury Road, which was awesome—and for all my good intentions, I haven’t yet managed to catch up with the others at home. (My wife is a journalist, and like all her peers, she’s been a passionate member of team Spotlight ever since she saw the earliest photos of the cast’s painfully accurate khakis, brown shoes, and blue button-down shirts.) I can’t even write about Chris Rock’s monologue, since I was putting my daughter to bed when it aired, although the rest of the telecast struck me as the most professional ceremony in years: it hit its marks and moved like clockwork with a minimum of cringeworthiness, even if there weren’t many memorable moments. The ongoing debate about diversity and representation in popular culture is an important one, and it’s going to be even more central to my life and this blog as I continue working on Astounding, which raises huge questions about our default assumptions about the stories we tell. But today, I’d like to focus on just one issue. Why, in the name of all that is good and holy, wasn’t Inside Out nominated for Best Picture?

Because it’s a real mystery. Inside Out was one of the five most successful films at the domestic box office over the last calendar year, and it was the second most highly rated movie over the same period on Rotten Tomatoes, coming in behind Fury Road by just a hair. (It actually has a higher unadjusted score, but falls back a notch because it had fewer total reviews.) It also comes at the end of a stretch in which the Academy has been uncharacteristically willing to find room for animated features in the Best Picture race, as well as in their own category—as long as they’re made by Pixar. And Inside Out is the best Pixar movie ever made outside the Toy Story franchise, or at least the most visually and narratively inventive: its rousing aesthetic freedom is a reminder that even the best recent animated movies have been bound by gravity and mindlessly realistic texture mapping. Yet in a year in which the Academy Awards embraced unconventional nominees without regard to genre, from Mad Max to The Martian, Inside Out didn’t make the cut. And since there were only eight nominees, there was ample room for two more, according to a confusing sliding scale that I don’t even think most awards buffs understand. It wouldn’t have had to knock any other deserving movies out of the way: there was a slot right there waiting for it. But it was nowhere in sight.

Inside Out

This might seem like a moot point for a movie that won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, made a ton of money, and choked up audiences worldwide. (My wife cried so much when we watched it that she practically went into anaphylactic shock.) But the larger implications are worth raising. It’s tough to analyze the collective psychology behind something like the Oscar nominations, which is why the problem of racism in Hollywood has been so difficult to address: it’s less the result of obvious structural shortcomings than an emergent property arising from countless small decisions made by players acting independently. When you try to find a solution, it slips through your fingers. Still, when the industry votes together, inclinations that might pass unseen on the individual level suddenly become all too visible. And in the case of animated features, when you amplify those tendencies to a point where they result in a concrete outcome, like a nomination or lack thereof, it’s obvious that a lot of voters find something vaguely suspect about animation itself. Thanks in a large part to its history as a children’s medium, it still feels like kid’s stuff, despite so much evidence to the contrary—or the fact that studios are increasingly dependent on a global audience for movies that are either animated or might as well be. It’s treated like outsider art, maybe because it naturally tends to attract visionary weirdos who wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere else.

This isn’t the Academy’s only blind spot: it also doesn’t much care for subtitles, sequels, or movies that fail to break even. But when you take into account the usual inverse relationship between artistic merit and job creation, the reluctance to recognize animated features as playing a grownup’s game is even harder to justify: these movies can take half a decade to make, employ hundreds of people, and involve the solution of many intractable creative and technical problems. (In fact, the development of Inside Out appears to have been exceptionally difficult: Pete Docter has spoken of how the entire script was junked halfway through, once they realized that Joy had to go on her adventure with Sadness, rather than Fear. It’s the best example imaginable of the Andrew Stanton approach—“The films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them”—succeeding, for once, to a spectacular degree.) And what makes Inside Out such an instructive test case is that everything else was lined up in its favor. It was moving, formally elegant, incredibly entertaining, and it wasn’t a sequel, the last of which probably counted against Toy Story 2, which was also unambiguously the biggest critical and box office success of its year. For an animated film not just to get nominated, but to win, would require both a masterpiece and a sea change in how such movies are regarded by the industry that relies on them so much. And if that ever happens, it’ll be a reason to be joyful.

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February 29, 2016 at 10:01 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

The composer on the couch

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Leonard Bernstein

Perhaps a good way to begin would be to recall the question I am very often asked about a practical aspect of the creative process which is, perhaps, a superficial question, but which brings up a lot of others. The question is, “Do you compose at the piano, or at a desk, or where?” Well, the answer to that is that I sometimes do compose at the piano, and sometimes at a desk, and sometimes in airports, and sometimes walking along the street; but mostly I compose in bed, lying down, or on a sofa, lying down. I should think that most composing by almost any composer happens lying down. Many a time my wife has walked into the studio and found me lying down and has said, “Oh, I thought you were working, excuse me!” And I was working, but you’d never have known it.

Now this is a kind of trance state, I suppose, which doesn’t exactly sound like a very ideal condition for working, but rather a condition for contemplating, but there is a very strong relation between creative work and contemplation…What is conceived in this trance? Well, at the best, the utmost that can be conceived is a totality, a Gestalt, a work…The next-to-greatest thing that can happen is to conceive an atmosphere…which is not the same as a totality of a work, because that doesn’t involve the formal structure…But if you’re not that lucky, you can still conceive a theme…It can be a basic, pregnant idea or motive which promises great results, great possibilities of development. You know without even trying to fool with it that it’s going to work, upside down and backward, and that it’s going to make marvelous canons and fugues…This is very different from conceiving only a tune. Tunes can’t be developed; themes can.

Leonard Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music

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February 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

Heinlein’s index cards

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Robert A. Heinlein

I keep with me at all times 3 x 5 file cards on which I make notes—at my bedside, in my bath, at my dining table, at my desk, and everywhere, and I invariably have them on my person whenever I am away from home, whether for fifteen minutes or six months. An idea for a story is jotted down on such a card and presently is filed under an appropriate category, in my desk. When enough notes have accumulated around an idea to cause me to think of it as an emergent story, I pull those cards out of category files, assign a working title, and give it a file separator with the working title written on the index. Thereafter, new notes are added to the bundle as they occur to me. At the present time I am filing notes under sixteen categories and under fifty-three working titles.

A story may remain germinating for days only, or for years—two of my current working titles are more than twenty years old. But once I start to write a story the first draft usually is completed in a fairly short time. Thereafter I spend time as necessary in cutting, revising, and polishing. Then the opus is smooth-typed and sent to market.

Robert A. Heinlein, quoted in Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century

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February 27, 2016 at 7:30 am

An astounding announcement

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Astounding Science Fiction (October 1955)

I’m very pleased to announce that Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, has agreed to publish my nonfiction book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. This project has been in the works for a long time, and if I haven’t mentioned it here before, it was mostly out of a superstitious aversion to talking about it before I knew for sure that it was going to happen—but now it looks like it is. We’re still hashing out a few details, including the timeline for delivery and publication, although I suspect that it won’t be in stores until around the first half of 2018. And everything from the title to the release date is subject to change. What isn’t in doubt, thankfully, is that I’ll finally have the chance to write the book that I’ve been mulling over for most of the last year: the definitive account, I hope, of how modern science fiction, along with so much else, emerged from the personalities and lives of four flawed but remarkable writers whose careers intersected in unbelievable ways. It’s a jaw-dropping story that I expect to discuss at length on this blog in the months and years to come. And I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to bring it to a wider readership.

This isn’t the place to talk about the book in depth, but I should probably say something about its origins. As longtime readers will know, I’ve been fortunate enough to place stories on a regular basis in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Analog, once known as Astounding, is the oldest continuously published science fiction magazine in the world—it recently celebrated its thousandth issue—and it’s impossible to write for it for long without reflecting on its history. My thoughts came to focus on Campbell, who is one of the most important, and enigmatic, figures in the popular culture of the twentieth century. Campbell wrote the classic novella “Who Goes There?,” which has been adapted three times as The Thing; he gave up writing at the age of twenty-seven to take the helm of Astounding, where he discovered or developed Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and countless other major writers, laying down most of the rules for modern science fiction along the way; he collaborated closely with L. Ron Hubbard on the therapy that became known as dianetics, and was its greatest promoter and champion before falling out with the future founder of Scientology; he edited the first version of Dune; and despite his massive influence, by the end of his life, his political, social, and scientific views had estranged him from many of his former fans. The Three Laws of Robotics and Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health both came from the same place. And the real question is why.

The first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science

Campbell, in short, is more than worthy of a book on his own, and the fact that there has never been a full-length biography devoted to his life astonished me, as it still does now. (As I shopped around the proposal, I kept thinking of what Lin-Manuel Miranda once said: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” And a Campbell biography abundantly qualifies.) When I began this project, my goal was to give Campbell the book that he deserved, and it still is, although its scope has widened considerably from what I originally conceived. Campbell remains at the center, but when you expand that circle slightly outward, the first three names that fall within its circumference are Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, whose lives he touched in profound ways. Unlike Campbell, these three writers have already been the subjects of exhaustive memoirs or biographies. But focusing on the points where their lives collided—particularly over the fifteen-year period that starts with Campbell assuming the editorship of Astounding in 1937, runs through World War II, and concludes with the publication of Dianetics—reveals fascinating patterns and parallels. Each man, for instance, was deeply changed by the atomic bomb and the Cold War, and each underwent a traumatic divorce and remarriage at a hinge point in his career. And their wives, whose roles in the history of science fiction have often been overlooked, will play a crucial part in this story.

In any event, I hope to continue covering as wide a range of topics on this blog as always, but you shouldn’t be surprised if the emphasis shifts ever so slightly toward science fiction, particularly as I prepare to discuss the subject more often in public. (I’m currently scheduled to talk about Campbell at the Nebula Conference in Chicago in May, and I hope to do the same at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City in August.) And I wouldn’t have tackled this project in the first place if I didn’t believe that it would seize the imaginations of readers who have never cracked a science fiction magazine. Campbell and his writers shaped our inner lives in ways that can be hard to appreciate today, when science fiction seems so inevitable. In fact, it was the result of many specific choices, often made by Campbell himself, and such conventions as the central role of manned space exploration are less a prediction about the future than a narrative strategy that arose from a particular place and time. And Campbell’s fingerprints are visible on everything from Star Trek to the recent controversy over the Hugo Awards. Teasing out those connections and relating them to the ongoing debates within the genre—which is a canary in the mineshaft for the larger culture—is going to be the pivot around which my life revolves for the next two years. I’ll have more updates soon. And I couldn’t be happier that I can share it with you here first, or more astounded that I get to do it at all.

Quote of the Day

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Peter and the Starcatcher

I love the idea that theater is the world’s first interactive game. Technology will come and go, but theater will always be interactive, and will always be something that happens right in front of your face that is made by people just for you. Just in that time. Just before your eyes, in real time, live. It will never be just the same. Even if they do all the same things the next day, something is going to be different. The audience, the weather, a noise—something will be forgotten, something will be better. That’s why I work in theater.

Rick Elice, to Gothamist

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2016 at 7:30 am

“Are you still willing to play your part?”

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"Where were we?"

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 44. You can read the previous installments here.

When you conceive of a story as a kind of puzzle box, one of the most satisfying tricks you can play is to write a scene that can be read in two different ways. At first, it suggests one obvious interpretation—if you’ve done it right, it shouldn’t even raise any questions—but on a second encounter, it says something else, based solely on the fresh perspective that the reader or audience brings to it. The canonical example here is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. It opens with the paranoid sound expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, eavesdropping on an illicit meeting in the park between a young couple, Mark and Ann, who are having an affair. Harry has been hired to follow them by Ann’s husband, but later, as he cleans up and edits the tape recording, he hears a line spoken by Mark for the first time: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” Before long, Harry, who obsessively replays that part of the conversation, becomes convinced that his client is planning to have Mark and Ann killed. Of course, that isn’t what happens, and it turns out in the end that Mark and Ann were planning to murder Ann’s husband. Harry’s interpretation of the recording was wrong: it wasn’t “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” but “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” meaning that they have to kill him first. And it’s only when the audience, along with Harry, glimpses the full picture that the line reveals its real meaning at last.

Which is an amazing feat of storytelling—except that it cheats. Walter Murch, who was left to edit the film by himself after Coppola ran off to film The Godfather Part II, was never able to make the audience understand the true meaning of that critical line of dialogue, and he ultimately hit upon a solution that broke the movie’s own rules. During one take, Frederic Forrest, who played Mark, had flubbed his line reading, inadvertently placing the emphasis on the wrong word: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” As Murch recounts in Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen:

I noted that reading at the time…and filed it away as being inappropriate. But a year later during the mixing of the film I suddenly thought, let’s see what happens if we substitute that “inappropriate” reading with its different inflection into the final reel. It might help tip audiences into understanding what had happened: that the “victims” were really the “plotters.” So I mixed it into the soundtrack in place of the original reading and took the finished film to [Coppola]…I prepared him for the change and wondered what his reaction would be when he heard it. It was a risky idea because it challenged one of the fundamental premises of the film, which is that the conversation itself remains the same, but your interpretation of it changes. I was prepared to go back to the original version. But he liked it, and that’s the way it remains in the finished film.

"Are you still willing to play your part?"

And it was the right call, even if it was a bit of a cheat. When we look at the books or movies that execute the priceless gag of having a scene appear to mean one thing but turn out to mean another, some degree of trickery is almost always involved. No film has ever pulled it off as beautifully as The Sixth Sense, with its closing montage of moments that we suddenly see in a new light, but on a second viewing, we’re acutely aware of how the script walks right up to the edge of deceiving us unfairly. (My favorite example is Lynn’s line “You got an hour,” which works when we think she’s talking to Malcolm, but not if she’s just telling her son that she’s making some triangle pancakes.) The Usual Suspects cheats even more blatantly by giving us a fake flashback—a gimmick that can be justified by the presence of an unreliable narrator, but which still feels like a lapse in an otherwise elegant movie. It’s also common for a story to omit necessary information, so that the dialogue, while not actively misleading, only gives us part of the picture. You frequently see this in movies like Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, which involve us in the planning of a heist but withhold a few details so that we don’t know what the protagonists really have in mind. In small does, this can be delightful, but it verges on being a cliché in itself, and when taken too far, it violates the implicit contract between the story and the audience, which is that we’ll be allowed to see what the main character does and draw our own conclusions.

Chapter 44 of Eternal Empire represents my own effort in that line, and I’m reasonably happy with how it turned out. The chapter opens at the tail end of what seems like a routine conversation between Maddy and Tarkovsky, then follows Maddy as she goes down to the yacht’s tender bay to meet Ilya, who is evidently preparing for Tarkovsky’s assassination. That isn’t really the case, of course, and I had a good time drawing on the standard bag of tricks for this sort of misdirection. Maddy acts as if she’s scoping out Tarkovsky’s office for the kill, when in fact she’s there to warn him, and her ensuing conversation with Ilya is filled with lines of the “He’d kill us if he had the chance” variety. (“Are we safe?” “If you’re asking if the pieces are in place, then yes, we’re ready.” “And are you still willing to play your part?” “I don’t think I have a choice.”) Looking at it objectively, I’d say that the result does its job with a minimum of jiggery-pokery, although there’s always a touch of cheating—which some readers will hate no matter what—when you don’t reveal everything that your point of view character might be thinking. Fortunately, my usual narrative mode is fairly clinical and detached: I don’t use interior monologue, and I prefer to convey emotion through action, which dovetails nicely with the requirements of a scene like this. The chapter works because it isn’t so far removed from what I normally do as a writer, which allows the characters to keep their secrets. And I’d do it again if I had the chance…

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