Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 2016

Living off the grid

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Note: Details are given below for the solution to today’s New York Times crossword.

A week ago, I subscribed to the New York Times crossword puzzle. I’m still not at a point where I can read the news for more than a few minutes without becoming consumed by rage, so I’ve been looking for something else to fill my spare time. Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of work to do, but there are always gaps, and you can only read The A.V. Club or even The Lisle Letters for so long. The crossword seemed like a pretty good idea, especially when I caught a deal on the price of an annual subscription—it’s just twenty bucks for the entire year. And it felt a bit like coming home. There was a brief period about a decade ago in which I loved doing crosswords: I could reliably finish a Monday puzzle in two to three minutes and a Saturday puzzle in under half an hour, and I even attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2008, after they switched venues to a hotel within walking distance of my apartment in Brooklyn. At my peak, I was studying lists of the most common obscure words (ETUI, ASTA, and the rest), venturing into the world of cryptics and acrostics, and even constructing a few puzzles of my own, including a notoriously difficult one that was given out to the guests at my wedding. Eventually, I burned out, and since I don’t have much time for hobbies, I hadn’t gone back to it until a few days ago.

So how did it feel? Picking up a crossword puzzle again after so long is sort of like tuning into a soap opera that you haven’t watched since college: you’re amazed that they’ve kept cranking them out in the meantime, and astonished at how little has changed. All the stock clues and answers greeted me like old friends, and I note that the puzzle still leans heavily on such hoary fallback options as MAITAI, NEHI, and AFLAC. The only difference, really, is me—I’m rusty. I’m lucky if I finish a Monday puzzle in five minutes, let alone three, and I’ll often find an error or two after I’m done. Fortunately, I’m more conscious of my limits than I used to be. When I attended the tournament all those years ago, I arrived, as I’m sure many novices do, with the secret hope that maybe I’d surprise everyone and win the whole thing. It was a dream that lasted roughly halfway through my first puzzle, when I saw that the solvers around me were finishing before I’d even had a chance to read through a third of the clues. It’s a humbling experience. Crosswords, in their oddball way, are an objective test of skill, at least for the community of people who have spent an inordinate amount of time solving and thinking about them. If the same handful of names tend to end up in the winner’s circle, it’s because there’s minimal luck involved, at least when you average it out over seven puzzles.

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

And while I’m certainly not the first person to note this, a crossword embodies many of the tools, in miniature form, that we use to solve larger problems. When I first tackle a puzzle—like the one in today’s paper by Molly Young—I begin by scanning clues quickly, starting at 1-Across, until I find a way in. Here, it happened to be “Preceder of Barbara or Clara” (SANTA), just because it was the first obvious one I saw. It’s an arbitrary starting point that serves as the seed from which a unique route through the crossword unfolds. (No two solving paths are the same, although it would be interesting to track the processes of expert solvers and see if any patterns emerge.) I already had a hunch, after reading the clue “New push-up bra from Apple?”, that all of the theme answers would begin with the letter “I,” and fortunately, I was right. After getting ILIFT, the northwest corner was a piece of cake. I caught a lucky break with “British P.M. between Churchill and Macmillan,” because I’ve been watching Jeremy Northam play Anthony EDEN on The Crown. The rest unfolded organically, following the path of least resistance, until it finally encountered a few rough spots that didn’t succumb right away. Today, for me, these were the northeast and southeast corners.  At that point, you just have to stare at the same few clues, cycling between them until something clicks, and after I realized that “It can help you get a leg up” was OTTOMAN, I was basically done.

In the end, I didn’t make any mistakes, and my solving time was well within my historical average. (I won’t say how long it took me, because sharing your crossword times is like telling somebody how much money you make: anyone who solved it more quickly than you did won’t care, and anyone who took longer will just get annoyed.) And the process is roughly analogous to my approach to tackling any creative problem. I look for the easiest way in, try for one good guess toward the beginning, follow the most intuitive route, seek out catalysts, fall back on experience and old tricks, and rely on luck for the rest. If this were a Friday or Saturday puzzle, it would also include a much larger component of brute force, wrong turns, and frustration. I don’t necessarily think that the result makes you more creative: it’s such a hermetic, closed universe, with its own rules, that it doesn’t open onto anything more. And the correlation between skill here and meaningful talent elsewhere is unreliable at best. But as a short-term, self-contained, single-serving reminder of those basic capabilities, they have real value. They aren’t the only puzzles in life that you should try to solve, and when pursued too far, they can lead to a dead end—like any hobby. Still, at a time when so many dilemmas loom with no obvious solution, it’s consoling, maybe even sustaining, to spend time on puzzles that you know have an answer, in a world defined by black and white.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2016 at 8:27 am

Quote of the Day

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Portrait of Gustave Flaubert by Eugène Giraud

Great art is scientific and impersonal. One should, by an effort of the spirit, transport oneself into the characters, not draw them to oneself. That, at any rate, is the method.

Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to George Sand

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

Moana and the two studios

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Concept art for Moana

If the history of animation had a portentous opening voiceover, it would probably say: “In the beginning was the storyboard.” The earliest animated cartoons were short and silent, so it made sense to plan them out as a series of rough thumbnail sketches. Even after they added sound and dialogue and became longer in length, the practice survived, which is why so many of the classic Disney movies are so episodic. They weren’t plotted on paper from beginning to end, but conceived as a sequence of set pieces, often with separate teams, and they were planned by artists who thought primarily with a pencil. This approach generated extraordinary visual achievements, but it could also result in movies, like Alice in Wonderland, that were brilliant in their individual components but failed to build to anything more. Later, in the eighties, Disney switched over to a production cycle that was closer to that of a live-action feature, with a traditional screenplay serving as the basis for future development. This led to more coherent stories, and it’s hard to imagine a film like Frozen being written in any other way. But another consequence was a retreat of visual imagination. When the eye no longer comes first, it’s harder for animators to create sequences that push against the boundaries of the medium. Over time, the movies start to look more or less the same, with similar character designs moving through beautifully rendered backgrounds that become ever more photorealistic for no particular reason.

The most heartening development in animation in recent years, which we’ve seen in Inside Out and Zootopia and now Moana, is the movement back toward a kind of animated feature that isn’t afraid to play with how it looks. Inside Out—which I think is the best movie Pixar has ever made—remains the gold standard, a film with a varied, anarchic style and amazing character design that still tells an emotionally effective story. Zootopia is more conventionally structured, but sequences like the chase through Little Rodentia are thrillingly aware of the possibilities of scale. Moana, in turn, may follow all the usual beats, but it’s also more episodic than usual, with self-contained sequences that seem to have been developed for their visual possibilities. I’m thinking, in particular, of the scenes with the pygmy Kakamora pirates and the encounter with Jermaine Clement’s giant coconut crab Tamatoa. You could lift these parts out and replace them with something else, and the rest of the story would be pretty much the same. For most movies, this would be a criticism, but there’s something about the episodic structure that allows animation to flourish, because each scene can be treated as a work of art in itself. Think, for instance, of Pinocchio, and how the plot wanders from Stromboli to Pleasure Island to Monstro almost at fancy. If it were made again today, the directors would probably get notes about how they should “establish” Monstro in the first act. But its dreamlike procession of wonders is what we remember the most fondly, and it’s exactly the quality that a conventional script would kill.     

Concept art for Moana

The fact that Disney and Pixar are rediscovering this sort of loose, shaggy energy is immensely promising, and I’m not entirely sure how it happened. (It doesn’t seem to be uniformly the case, either: Finding Dory was a lovely movie, but it was plotted to within an inch of its life.) Pinning down the cause becomes even tricker when we remember that all of these movies are in production at the same time. If so many storytelling tricks seem to recur—like the opening scene that shows the protagonist as a child, or the reveal in the third act that an apparently friendly character is really a bad guy—it’s probably because the same people were giving notes or actively engaged in multiple stories for years. Similarly, the move toward episodic structure may be less a conscious decision than the result of an atmosphere of experimentation that has started to permeate the studio. I’d love to think that it might be due to the influence through John Lasseter of Hayao Miyazaki, who thinks naturally in the language of dreams. The involvement of strong songwriters like Robert and Kristen Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda may also play a part: when you’ve got a great song at the heart of a scene, you’re more likely to think of visuals that rise to the level of the music. Another factor may be the rise of animators, like Moana producer Osnat Shurer, who came up through the ranks in the Pixar shorts, which are more willing to take stylistic risks. Put them all together with veteran directors like Ron Clements and John Musker, and you’ve got a recipe for self-contained scenes that push the envelope within a reliable formula.

But the strongest possibility of all, I think, is that we’re seeing what happens when the Pixar and Disney teams begin to work side by side. It’s been exactly ten years since Pixar was acquired by its parent company, which is just about the right amount of time for a cultural exchange to become consistently visible onscreen. The two divisions seem as if they’re trying to outdo each other, and the most obvious way is to come up with visually stunning sequences. This kind of competition will naturally manifest itself on the visual end: it’s hard for two teams of writers to keep an eye on each other, and any changes to the story won’t be visible until the whole thing is put together, while it’s likely that every animator has a good idea of what everybody else is doing. (Pixar headquarters itself was designed to encourage an organic exchange of ideas, and while it’s a long drive from Emeryville to Burbank, even that distance might be a good thing—it allows the divisions to compete on the basis of finished scenes, rather than works in progress.) It isn’t a foolproof method, and there will inevitably come a day when one studio or the other won’t overcome the crisis that seems to befall every animated feature halfway through production. But if you wanted to come up with a system that would give animators an incentive to innovate within the structure of a decent script, it’s hard to imagine a better one. You’ve got separate teams of animators trying to top each other, as they did on Alice, and a parent studio that has figured out how to make those episodes work as part of a story. That’s a great combination. And I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2016 at 9:13 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

The Westworld variations

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Jeffrey Wright on Westworld

Note: Spoilers follow for the most recent episode of Westworld.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the power of ensembles, which allow television shows to experiment with different combinations of characters. Usually, it takes a season or two for the most fruitful pairings to emerge, and they can take even the writers by surprise. When a series begins, characters tend to interact based on where the plot puts them, and those initial groupings are based on little more than the creator’s best guess. Later, when the strengths of the actors have become apparent and the story has wandered in unanticipated directions, you end up with wonderful pairings that you didn’t even know you wanted. Last night’s installment of Westworld features at least two of these. The first is an opening encounter between Bernard and Maeve that gets the episode off to an emotional high that it never quite manages to top: it hurries Bernard to the next—and maybe last—stage of his journey too quickly to allow him to fully process what Maeve tells him. But it’s still nice to see them onscreen together. (They’re also the show’s two most prominent characters of color, but its treatment of race is so deeply buried that it barely even qualifies as subtext.) The second nifty scene comes when Charlotte, the duplicitous representative from the board, shows up in the Man in Black’s storyline. It’s more plot-driven, and it exists mostly to feed us some useful pieces of backstory. But there’s an undeniable frisson whenever two previously unrelated storylines reveal a hidden connection.

I hope that the show gives us more moments like this, but I’m also a little worried that it can’t. The scenes that I liked most in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” were surprising and satisfying precisely because the series has been so meticulous about keeping its plot threads separated. This may well be because at least one subplot is occurring in a different timeline, but more often, it’s a way of keeping things orderly: there’s so much happening in various places that the show is obliged to let each story go its own way. I don’t fault it for this, because this is such a superbly organized series, and although there are occasional lulls, they’ve been far fewer than you’d expect from a show with this level of this complexity. But very little of it seems organic or unanticipated. This might seem like a quibble. Yet I desperately want this show to be as great as it shows promise of being. And if there’s one thing that the best shows of the last decade—from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Fargo—have in common, it’s that they enjoy placing a few characters in a room and simply seeing what happens. You could say that Westworld is an inherently different sort of series, and that’s fine. But it’s such an effective narrative machine that it leaves me a little starved for those unpredictable moments that television, of all media, is the most likely to produce. (Its other great weakness is its general air of humorlessness, which arises from the same cause.) This is one of the most plot-heavy shows I’ve ever seen, but it’s possible to tell a tightly structured story while still leaving room for the unexpected. In fact, that’s one sign of mastery.

Evan Rachel Wood on Westworld

And you don’t need to look far for proof. In a pivotal passage in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, one of my favorite books on the movies, Donald Richie writes of “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and he goes to to say:

Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained. It has been said that after a film is over all that remains are a few scattered images, and if they remain then the film was memorable…Further, if one remembers carefully one finds that it is only the uneconomical, mysterious images which remain…Kurosawa’s films are so rigorous and, at the same time, so closely reasoned, that little scenes such as this appeal with the direct simplicity of water in the desert.

“Rigorous” and “closely reasoned” are two words that I’m sure the creators of Westworld would love to hear used to describe their show. But when you look at a movie like Seven Samurai—which on some level is the greatest western ever made—you have to agree with Richie: “What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.

I don’t know if Westworld will ever become confident enough to offer viewers more water in the desert, but I’m hopeful that it will, because the precedent exists for a television series giving us a rigorous first season that it blows up down the line. I’m thinking, in particular, of Community, a show that might otherwise seem to have little in common with Westworld. It’s hard to remember now, after six increasingly nutty seasons, but Community began as an intensely focused sitcom: for its debut season, it didn’t even leave campus. The result gave the show what I’ve called a narrative home base, and even though I’m rarely inclined to revisit that first season, the groundwork that it laid was indispensable. It turned Greendale into a real place, and it provided a foundation for even the wildest moments to follow. Westworld seems to be doing much the same thing. Every scene so far has taken place in the park, and we’ve only received a few scattered hints of what the world beyond might be like—and whatever it is, it doesn’t sound good. The escape of the hosts from the park feels like an inevitable development, and the withholding of any information about what they’ll find is obviously a deliberate choice. This makes me suspect that this season is restricting itself on purpose, to prepare us for something even stranger, and in retrospect, it will seem cautious, compared to whatever else Westworld has up its sleeve. It’s the baseline from which crazier, more unexpected moments will later arise. Or, to take a page from the composer of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” this season is the aria, and the variations are yet to come.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2016 at 8:35 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

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The irresponsible physicist

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Eugene Wigner

Physics chooses certain mathematical concepts for the formulation of the laws of nature, and surely only a fraction of all mathematical concepts is used in physics. It is true also that the concepts which were chosen were not selected arbitrarily from a listing of mathematical terms but were developed, in many if not most cases, independently by the physicist and recognized then as having been conceived before by the mathematician. It is not true, however, as is so often stated, that this had to happen because mathematics uses the simplest possible concepts and these were bound to occur in any formalism. As we saw before, the concepts of mathematics are not chosen for their conceptual simplicity—even sequences of pairs of numbers are far from being the simplest concepts—but for their amenability to clever manipulations and to striking, brilliant arguments…

A possible explanation of the physicist’s use of mathematics to formulate his laws of nature is that he is a somewhat irresponsible person. As a result, when he finds a connection between two quantities which resembles a connection well known from mathematics, he will jump at the conclusion that the connection is that discussed in mathematics simply because he does not know of any other similar connection. It is not the intention of the present discussion to refute the charge that the physicist is a somewhat irresponsible person. Perhaps he is. However, it is important to point out that the mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena. This shows that the mathematical language has more to commend it than being the only language which we can speak; it shows that it is, in a very real sense, the correct language.

Eugene Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2016 at 7:30 am

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