Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 2016

Hamlet’s birthday

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Last year, on my birthday, I wrote a post reflecting on how it felt to turn thirty-five, drawing liberally on The Divine Comedy, which opens when Dante is the same age—or, as he puts it, “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way.” When I look back, the comparison seems even more forced now than it did then, but it came out of a place of real feeling. I was going through a rough period as a writer, after a number of projects had failed to gain traction, and I was thinking more intensely than usual about what might come next. “A human life,” I wrote at the time, “makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.” When I typed those words, there was an element of wishful thinking involved, but they turned out to be more true than I could have guessed. Today, I’m working on a book that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated a year ago, and I’m already feeling the impact. In startup jargon, it was a career pivot, or a course correction, and although it emerged naturally from my background and interests, it still took me by surprise. In all likelihood, Astounding will turn out to be the most interesting book I’ve ever written, or ever will, which means that when I wrote that birthday post, I was on the verge of providing an inadvertent case study of how even the most considered plan can continue to generate surprises long after you think its outlines have been fixed. Which, I suppose, is what Dante was saying all along.

It might seem strange to use the age of a literary character as a benchmark for evaluating your own life, but it’s no weirder than measuring yourself against peers your own age or, ugh, even younger, which all writers inevitably do. (My favorite observation on the subject comes courtesy of Tom Lehrer: “It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”) And it isn’t just Dante who inspires this kind of reflection. You can hear an echo of it in the trendy notion of “the Jesus year,” which, if anything, is even more pretentious. Most intriguing of all is the case of Hamlet, whose age is as vague as Dante’s is precise. In the first four acts of the play that bears his name, Hamlet strikes us, as Harold Bloom puts it, as “a young man of about twenty or less,” which squares neatly with the fact that he’s a student at Wittenberg University. Yet in Act V, the gravedigger explicitly says that the prince is thirty. This has been explained away as a mistake in the text or an artifact of Shakespeare’s repeated revisions, which overlooks how psychologically and dramatically sound it is: the Hamlet of the last act seems far wiser and more mature than the one we’ve met before, and I actually prefer the joke theory that he somehow ages a decade or more in his brief trip overseas. Hamlet has undergone a dramatic change in his absence, and his illogical increase in age is a subliminal clue as to how we’re supposed to perceive his transformation.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

And that curious fusion of the twenty- and thirty-year-old versions of the prince hints at one of the most unforgettable qualities of his character, even as it also explains why the actors with the ability to play him tend to be closer to forty. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom notes that “no one else in all Shakespeare seems potentially so free as the crown prince of Denmark,” and he goes on to list a few of the possibilities:

There is a bewildering range of freedoms available to Hamlet: he could marry Ophelia, ascend to the throne after Claudius if waiting was bearable, cut Claudius down at almost any time, leave for Wittenberg without permission, organize a coup (being the favorite of the people), or even devote himself to botching plays for the theater. Like his father, he could center upon being a soldier, akin to the younger Fortinbras, or conversely he could turn his superb mind to more organized speculation, philosophical or hermetic, than has been his custom. Ophelia describes him, in her lament for his madness, as having been courtier, soldier, and scholar, the exemplar of form and fashion for all Denmark. If The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is “poem unlimited,” beyond genre and rules, then its protagonist is character unlimited, beyond even such precursors as the biblical David or the classical Brutus. But how much freedom can be afforded Hamlet by a tragic play? What project can be large enough for him?

But that’s how everyone feels at twenty. Or at least it’s how I did. You think you’re capable of anything, and there were times in my twenties when I felt as potentially free as Hamlet at the beginning of the play. But age closes off the number of paths available, one by one, until you’re more like Hamlet at the end: resigned, with equanimity or otherwise, to the role that fate has assigned to you. That’s why Hamlet continues to fascinate us. He’s our greatest image of youthful potential, until he isn’t, which is why he somehow manages to seem both twenty and thirty within the span of a few weeks. Yet that juxtaposition, for all its absurdity, gets at something fundamental in how we all see ourselves: as a superimposition of all the people we were in the past, coexisting together in the more limited person we necessarily embody today. (Or as Frank Sinatra says more eloquently in Sinatra at the Sands: “Now I guess you folks have heard, or read, or been told somewhere that recently I became fifty years old, and I’m here to tell you right now, it’s a dirty Communist lie. Direct from Hanoi—it came right outta there! My body may be fifty, but I’m twenty-eight!” Sinatra goes on to add: “And I would further like to say that I’d be twenty-two if I hadn’t spent all those years drinking with Joe E. Lewis, who nearly wrecked me.”) Shakespeare, as it happens, was thirty-seven when he wrote Hamlet, or just a year older than I am now. That’s enough to make a mockery of anyone’s ambitions, but it also gives me hope. We’re all walking the same path through the forest—and our greatest consolation is that Dante and Shakespeare have been there before us.

Quote of the Day

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Blaise Cendrars

A hundred worlds, a thousand movements, a million dramas simultaneously enter the range of the eye with which cinema has endowed man…Everything is rhythm, word, life. No more need to demonstrate. We are in communion. Focus the lens on the hand, the corner of the mouth, the ear, and drama emerges, expands on a background of luminous mystery. Already there is no need for dialogue, soon characters will be judged useless. At high speed the life of flowers is Shakespearean.

Blaise Cendrars, “The ABCs of Cinema”

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2016 at 7:30 am

The limits of money

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Olga Kurylenko in Empires of the Deep

Over the last week, I’ve read two stories that shed an unexpected light on the role of money in the artistic process. The first was the excellent Vulture article about the business of peak television, which I’ve already discussed here in detail. It notes that unprecedented amounts of cash are being thrown at prestige television series, with the top one percent of stars benefiting disproportionately, while actors who once might have played leading roles in network procedurals are struggling to get the same parts. After a decade in which pundits constantly predicted the demise of scripted television under an onslaught of cheap reality shows, the industry has expanded to make room for more writers than ever before—which has led to a corresponding shortage of qualified line producers. But a spike in financial resources doesn’t always translate into good storytelling. The difference between the first and second seasons of True Detective is a reminder, if we needed one, that the exact same factors on paper can yield very different results in practice, if that vital spark is missing. And what we’re really seeing is less a golden age than a codification of a new set of conventions. “Prestige television,” like “literary fiction,” is a genre, not a measure of quality, and its usual characteristics include ten episodes per season, a streaming or cable platform, outstanding production values, and a white male antihero. It may not always be great television, but as long as it satisfies the executives investing in new programming, it doesn’t have to be.

The other article that caught my eye was “Sunk,” Mitch Moxley’s memorable account in The Atavist of the Chinese billionaire Jon Jiang’s doomed attempt to bring his dream movie project, Empires of the Deep, to fruition. It defies easy summary, but the short version is that Jiang wrote an original screenplay, originally called Mermaid Island, and enlisted a bewildering array of collaborators—including the French filmmaker Pitof and the starlet Olga Kurylenko—to make it happen, only to blow more than $100 million on a production that chewed up a revolving door of screenwriters and directors and has yet to produce any usable footage. (Of the many strange stories that the article relates, perhaps the weirdest involves Irene Violette, the actress cast as a mermaid who had to slip out a window in the dead of night to get out of her contract.) Many of the cast and crew seem to have consoled themselves with the idea that great movies can emerge from troubled shoots, and it’s heartbreaking to hear how director Jonathan Lawrence hoped to make this unholy mess into something like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the entire debacle hinges on what seems, at first, like a baffling paradox. Jiang had enormous financial resources to throw at the production, but he also cut corners, used cheap costumes and special effects, and never paid anyone on time. In spite of appearances, it’s possible that he invested very little of his own money in the film: a former production executive told Moxley that he believes that the billionaire relied mostly on outside investors, all of whom lost almost everything.

Colin Farrell on True Detective

But I think the real explanation is more nuanced than this, and it ties back to the uneasy relationship between money, media, and creative freedom. The case of Empires of the Deep is only an exaggerated version of the dilemma that arises whenever the writer of the script is also the head of the studio, or at least the man who holds the pursestrings: without a higher authority to keep his worst tendencies in check, you end up with a movie that films the first draft of the script and has no incentive to make it any better. The situation becomes even more dire when the mogul in question seems to have no idea of how the medium works. You’d think that Jiang, a real estate tycoon, would at least have some notion of how to turn a blueprint into something real, but he appears to have taken a very different set of lessons from his business ventures. On visiting one of Jiang’s properties in Beijing, Moxley writes: “Although it’s only a decade old, up close the brick homes look cheap and worn, like so many properties hastily erected during China’s boom.” A movie made using the same principles would look pretty much like what we see here. Moxley also notes that the issue of guanxi, or relationships and connections, may have posed problems on the set. He observes:

One’s loyalty depends on who it is one has the strongest relationship with. That might be the director or a cinematographer or a producer—but it’s rarely the audience or the movie’s bottom line, which are generally the two highest priorities for American movies.

This is a remarkably shrewd point, and not just because it implies that what the production lacked, like many television shows, was a good line producer, whose job is to navigate those very networks. It might make us smile, but the plain fact is that such misaligned incentives are at the root of many artistic failures, and China doesn’t have a monopoly on this. A version of guanxi exists, in a less obvious form, at every Hollywood studio: each decision, from the lowest level to the highest, ultimately hinges on an individual executive’s desire not to get fired, which makes otherwise inexplicable choices easier to understand. Office politics, lines of succession, changes of regime, or the desire to maintain a relationship with a star can have a far greater impact on what gets made than “the audience or the movie’s bottom line.” This can be true of television, too: the need for streaming services like Hulu or Amazon to enhance their profiles, in the absence of concrete ratings, can lead to shows being produced that are less about real quality than its simulation, which for many viewers is more than enough. (Witness the success of House of Cards, which started the whole streaming revolution in the first place, despite a consistent lack of good writing.) Money isn’t the root of all evil in art: more worthwhile stories have died because of a lack of money than because of its overabundance. But without the constraints that a real audience provides, making a good movie can be harder than squeezing a mermaid through the eye of a needle.

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2016 at 9:02 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

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The art of serendipity

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Douglas R. Hofstadter

Serendipitous observation and quick exploration of potential are vital elements in [creativity]. What goes hand in hand with the willingness to playfully explore a serendipitous connection is the willingness to censor or curtail an exploration that seems to be leading nowhere. It is the flip side of the risk-taking aspect of serendipity. It’s fine to be reminded of something, to see an analogy or a vague connection, and it’s fine to try to map one situation or concept onto another in the hopes of making something novel emerge—but you’ve also got to be willing and able to sense when you’ve lost the gamble, and to cut your losses…

Frantic striving to be original will usually get you nowhere. Far better to relax and let your perceptual system and your category system work together unconsciously, occasionally coming up with unbidden connections. At that point, you—the lucky owner of the mind in question—can seize the opportunity and follow out the proffered hint. This view of creativity has the conscious mind being quite passive, content to sit back and wait for the unconscious to do its remarkable broodings and brewings.

The most reliable kinds of genuine insight come not from vague reminding experiences…but from strong analogies in which one experience can be mapped onto another in a highly pleasing way. The tighter the fit, the deeper the insight, generally speaking. When two things can both be seen as instances of one abstract phenomenon, it is a very exciting discovery. Then ideas about either one can be borrowed in thinking about the other, and that sloshing-about of activity may greatly illumine both at once…

A mapping-recipe that often yields interesting results is projection of oneself into a situation: “How would it be for me?”

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2016 at 8:40 am

The mad dash of lyricism

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Mário de Andrade

Inspiration is short-lived, violent. Any obstacle whatsoever upsets it and even silences it. When art is added to lyricism to create poetry, this process does not consist of halting the mad dash of the lyric state to warn it of the stones and barbed-wire fences across the road. Let it stumble, fall, wound itself. Art is a subsequent weeding out of all irksome repetitions, romantic sentimentalities, and useless or unexpressive details.

Mário de Andrade, Hallucinated City

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

Peak television and the future of stardom

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Earlier this week, I devoured the long, excellent article by Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez of Vulture on the business of peak television. It’s full of useful insights and even better gossip—and it names plenty of names—but there’s one passage that really caught my eye, in a section about the huge salaries that movie stars are being paid to make the switch to the small screen:

A top agent defends the sums his clients are commanding, explaining that, in the overall scheme of things, the extra money isn’t all that significant. “Look at it this way,” he says. “If you’re Amazon and you’re going to launch a David E. Kelley show, that’s gonna cost $4 million an episode [to produce], right? That’s $40 million. You can have Bradley Whitford starring in it, [who is] gonna cost you $150,000 an episode. That’s $1.5 million of your $40 million. Or you could spend another $3.5 million [to get Costner] on what will end up being a $60 million investment by the time you market and promote it. You can either spend $60 [million] and have the Bradley Whitford show, or $63.5 [million] and have the Kevin Costner show. It makes a lot of sense when you look at it that way.”

With all due apologies to Bradley Whitford, I found this thought experiment fascinating, and not just for the reasons that the agent presumably shared it. It implies, for one thing, that television—which is often said to be overtaking Hollywood in terms of quality—is becoming more like feature filmmaking in another respect: it’s the last refuge of the traditional star. We frequently hear that movie stardom is dead and that audiences are drawn more to franchises than to recognizable faces, so the fact that cable and streaming networks seem intensely interested in signing film stars, in a post-True Detective world, implies that their model is different. Some of it may be due to the fact, as William Goldman once said, that no studio executive ever got fired for hiring a movie star: as the new platforms fight to establish themselves, it makes sense that they’d fall back on the idea of star power, which is one of the few things that corporate storytelling has ever been able to quantify or understand. It may also be because the marketing strategy for television inherently differs from that for film: an online series is unusually dependent on media coverage to stand out from the pack, and signing a star always generates headlines. Or at least it once did. (The Vulture article notes that Woody Allen’s new series for Amazon “may end up marking peak Peak TV,” and it seems a lot like a deal that was made for the sake of the coverage it would produce.)

Kevin Costner in JFK

But the most plausible explanation lies in simple economics. As the article explains, Netflix and the other streaming companies operate according to a “cost-plus” model: “Rather than holding out the promise of syndication gold, the company instead pays its studio and showrunner talent a guaranteed up-front profit—typically twenty or thirty percent above what it takes to make a show. In exchange, it owns all or most of the rights to distribute the show, domestically and internationally.” This limits the initial risk to the studio, but also the potential upside: nobody involved in producing the show itself will see any money on the back end. In addition, it means that even the lead actors of the series are paid a flat dollar amount, which makes them a more attractive investment than they might be for a movie. Most of the major stars in Hollywood earn gross points, which means that they get a cut of the box office receipts before the film turns a profit—a “first dollar” deal that makes the mathematics of breaking even much more complicated. The thought experiment about Bradley Whitford and Kevin Costner only makes sense if you can get Costner at a fixed salary per episode. In other words, movie stars are being actively courted by television because its model is a throwback to an earlier era, when actors were held under contract by a studio without any profit participation, and before stars and their agents negotiated better deals that ended up undermining the economic basis of the star system entirely.

And it’s revealing that Costner, of all actors, appears in this example. His name came up mostly because multiple sources told Vulture that he was offered $500,000 per episode to star in a streaming series: “He passed,” the article says, “but industry insiders predict he’ll eventually say ‘yes’ to the right offer.” But he also resonates because he stands for a kind of movie stardom that was already on the wane when he first became famous. It has something to do with the quintessentially American roles that he liked to play—even JFK is starting to seem like the last great national epic—and an aura that somehow kept him in leading parts two decades after his career as a major star was essentially over. That’s weirdly impressive in itself, and it testifies to how intriguing a figure he remains, even if audiences aren’t likely to pay to see him in a movie. Whenever I think of Costner, I remember what the studio executive Mike Medavoy once claimed to have told him right at the beginning of his career:

“You know,” I said to him over lunch, “I have this sense that I’m sitting here with someone who is going to become a great big star. You’re going to want to direct your own movies, produce your own movies, and you’re going to end up leaving your wife and going through the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle.”

Costner did, in fact, end up leaving his first wife. And if he also leaves film for television, even temporarily, it may reveal that “the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle” has a surprising final act that few of us could have anticipated.

Written by nevalalee

May 27, 2016 at 9:03 am

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