Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 2017

The conveyor belt

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For all the endless discussion of various aspects of Twin Peaks, one quality that sometimes feels neglected is the incongruous fact that it had one of the most attractive casts in television history. In that respect—and maybe in that one alone—it was like just about every other series that ever existed. From prestige dramas to reality shows to local newscasts, the story of television has inescapably been that of beautiful men and women on camera. A show like The Hills, which was one of my guilty pleasures, seemed to be consciously trying to see how long it could coast on surface beauty alone, and nearly every series, ambitious or otherwise, has used the attractiveness of its actors as a commercial or artistic strategy. (In one of the commentary tracks on The Simpsons, a producer describes how a network executive might ask indirectly about the looks of the cast of a sitcom: “So how are we doing aesthetically?”) If this seemed even more pronounced on Twin Peaks, it was partially because, like Mad Men, it took its conventionally glamorous actors into dark, unpredictable places, and also because David Lynch had an eye for a certain kind of beauty, both male and female, that was more distinctive than that of the usual soap opera star. He’s continued this trend in the third season, which has been populated so far by such striking presences as Chrysta Bell, Ben Rosenfield, and Madeline Zima, and last night’s episode features an extended, very funny scene between a delighted Gordon Cole and a character played by Bérénice Marlohe, who, with her red lipstick and “très chic” spike heels, might be the platonic ideal of his type.

Lynch isn’t the first director to display a preference for actors, particularly women, with a very specific look—although he’s thankfully never taken it as far as his precursor Alfred Hitchcock did. And the notion that a film or television series can consist of little more than following around two beautiful people with a camera has a long and honorable history. My two favorite movies of my lifetime, Blue Velvet and Chungking Express, both understand this implicitly. It’s fair to say that the second half of the latter film would be far less watchable if it didn’t involve Tony Leung and Faye Wong, two of the most attractive people in the world, and Wong Kar-Wai, like so many filmmakers before him, uses it as a psychological hook to take us into strange, funny, romantic places. Blue Velvet is a much darker work, but it employs a similar lure, with the actors made up to look like illustrations of themselves. In a Time cover story on Lynch from the early nineties, Richard Corliss writes of Kyle MacLachlan’s face: “It is a startling visage, as pure of line as an art deco vase, with soft, all-American features and a comic-book hero’s jutting chin—you could park a Packard on it.” It echoes what Pauline Kael says of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet: “She even has the kind of nostrils that cover artists can represent accurately with two dots.” MacLachlan’s chin and Rossellini’s nose would have caught our attention in any case, but it’s also a matter of lighting and makeup, and Lynch shoots them to emphasize their roots in the pulp tradition, or, more accurately, in the subconscious store of images that we take from those sources. And the casting gets him halfway there.

This leaves us in a peculiar position when it comes to the third season of Twin Peaks, which, both by nature and by design, is about aging. Mark Frost said in an interview: “It’s an exercise in engaging with one of the most powerful themes in all of art, which is the ruthless passage of time…We’re all trapped in time and we’re all going to die. We’re all traveling along this conveyor belt that is relentlessly moving us toward this very certain outcome.” One of the first, unforgettable images from the show’s promotional materials was Kyle MacLachlan’s face, a quarter of a century older, emerging from the darkness into light, and our feelings toward these characters when they were younger inevitably shape the way we regard them now. I felt this strongly in two contrasting scenes from last night’s episode. It offers us our first extended look at Sarah Palmer, played by Grace Zabriskie, who delivers a freakout in a grocery store that reminds us of how much we’ve missed and needed her—it’s one of the most electrifying moments of the season. And we also finally see Audrey Horne again, in a brutally frustrating sequence that feels to me like the first time that the show’s alienating style comes off as a miscalculation, rather than as a considered choice. Audrey isn’t just in a bad place, which we might have expected, but a sad, unpleasant one, with a sham marriage and a monster of a son, and she doesn’t even know the worst of it yet. It would be a hard scene to watch with anyone, but it’s particularly painful when we set it against our first glimpse of Audrey in the original series, when we might have said, along with the Norwegian businessman at the Great Northern Hotel: “Excuse me, is there something wrong, young pretty girl?”

Yet the two scenes aren’t all that dissimilar. Both Sarah and Audrey are deeply damaged characters who could fairly say: “Things can happen. Something happened to me.” And I can only explain away the difference by confessing that I was a little in love in my early teens with Audrey. Using those feelings against us—much as the show resists giving us Dale Cooper again, even as it extravagantly develops everything around him—must have been what Lynch and Frost had in mind. And it isn’t the first time that this series has toyed with our emotions about beauty and death. The original dream girl of Twin Peaks, after all, was Laura Palmer herself, as captured in two of its most indelible images: Laura’s prom photo, and her body wrapped in plastic. (Sheryl Lee, like January Jones in Mad Men, was originally cast for her look, and only later did anyone try to find out whether or not she could act.) The contrast between Laura’s lovely features and her horrifying fate, in death and in the afterlife, was practically the motor on which the show ran. Her face still opens every episode of the revival, dimly visible in the title sequence, but it also ended each installment of the original run, gazing out from behind the prison bars of the closing credits to the strains of “Laura Palmer’s Theme.” In the new season, the episodes generally conclude with whatever dream pop band Lynch feels like showcasing, usually with a few cool women, and I wouldn’t want to give that up. But I also wonder whether we’re missing something when we take away Laura at the end. This season began with Cooper being asked to find her, but she often seems like the last thing on anyone’s mind. Twin Peaks never allowed us to forget her before, because it left us staring at her photograph each week, which was the only time that one of its beautiful faces seemed to be looking back at us.

Quote of the Day

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[Science fiction] is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

Darko Suvin, “Estrangement and Cognition”

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July 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

Finding out the lay of the land

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I am trying to express an attitude toward the building of very simple models. I don’t think that models…lead directly to prescription for policy or even to detailed diagnosis. But neither are they a game. They are more like reconnaissance exercises. If you want to know what it’s like out there, it’s all right to send two or three fellows in sneakers to find out the lay of the land and whether it will support human life. If it turns out to be worth settling, then that requires an altogether bigger operation. The job of building usable larger-scale econometric models on the basis of whatever analytical insights come from simple models is much more difficult and less glamorous. But it may be what God made graduate students for. Presumably he had something in mind.

Robert M. Solow, Growth Theory

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July 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

A blazoned book of language

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Individuals recognize in the use of many words an original and a transferred meaning, and good speakers and poets have in all times, now more, now less consciously, refreshed and intensified these transferences, or imitated them. Thus poetic metaphor is an outgrowth of the natural transferences of normal speech. It was a general transition, no doubt, when people spoke of ruffled or of deep or of stormy feelings; this general usage was revived and deepened when, to quote a very well chosen example, Wordsworth wrote:

The gods approve
The depth and not the tumult of the soul.

The usual poetic metaphors, then, are individual creations on the model of the regular linguistic transference. The picturesque saying that “Language is a book of faded metaphors” is exactly the reverse of reality, where poetry is rather a blazoned book of language.

Leonard Bloomfield, An Introduction to the Study of Language

Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The fanfic disposition

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Yesterday, I mentioned Roxane Gay’s insightful opinion piece on the proposed HBO series Confederate, which was headlined “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” I’m still sorting out my own feelings toward this show, an alternate history set in the present day in which the South won the Civil War, but I found myself agreeing with just about everything that Gay writes, particularly when she confesses to her own ambivalence:

As a writer, I never wish to put constraints upon creativity nor do I think anything is off limits to someone simply because of who they are. [Creators] Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss are indeed white and they have as much a right to create this reimagining of slavery as anyone. That’s what I’m supposed to say, but it is not at all how I feel.

And I was especially struck by Gay’s comparison of the show’s premise to fanfic. Her essay, which appeared in the New York Times, only uses the phrase “fan fiction” once, linking to a tweet from the critic Pilot Bacon, and while its use in reference to Confederate isn’t literally true—at least not if we define fanfic as a derivative work based on characters or ideas by another author—its connotations are clear. Fairly or not, it encapsulates the notion that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are appropriating existing images and themes to further their own artistic interests.

Even if we table, for now, the question of whether the criticism is justified, it’s worth looking at the history of the word “fanfic” as a pejorative term. I’ve used it that way here myself, particularly in reference to works of art that amount to authorial wish fulfillment toward the characters, like the epilogue to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (Looking back at my old posts, I see that I even once used it to describe a scene in one of my own novels.) Watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies recently with my wife, I commented that certain scenes, like the big fight at Dol Guldur, felt like fanfic, except that Peter Jackson was somehow able to get Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee to reprise all their old roles. And you often see such comparisons made by critics. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw devoted an entire article on The Daily Dot to the ways in which J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child resembled a wok of “badfic,” while Ian Crouch of The New Yorker tried to parse the difference between fanfic and such works as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea:

Fan fiction is surely not a new phenomenon, nor is it an uninteresting one, but it is different in kind and quality from a work like Rhys’s, or, to take a recent example, Cynthia Ozick’s remarkable new novel, Foreign Bodies, which reimagines the particulars of The Ambassadors, by Henry James. Not only do these books interpret texts in the public domain…but they do so with an admirable combination of respect and originality.

As a teenager, I wrote a lot of X-Files fanfic, mostly because I knew that it would give me a readily available audience for the kind of science fiction that I liked, and although I look back on that period in my life with enormous affection—I think about it almost every day—I’m also aware of the limitations that it imposed on my development as a writer. The trouble with fanfic is that it allows you to produce massive amounts of material while systematically avoiding the single hardest element of fiction: the creation of imaginary human beings capable of sustaining our interest and sympathy. It begins in an enviable position, with a cast of characters to which the reader is already emotionally attached. As a result, the writer can easily be left in a state of arrested development, with superb technical skills when it comes to writing about the inner life of existing characters, but little sense of how to do it from scratch. This even holds true when the writer is going back to characters that he or she originally created or realized onscreen. When J.K. Rowling revisits her most famous series or Peter Jackson gives us a fight scene with Elrond and the Ringwraiths, there’s an inescapable sense that all of the heavy lifting took place at an earlier stage. These artists are trading on the affection that we hold toward narrative decisions made years ago, instead of drawing us into the story in the moment. And even when the name on the title page or the director’s credit is the same, readers and viewers can sense when creators are indulging themselves, rather than following the logic of the underlying material.

This all means that fanfic, at its worst, is a code word for a kind of sentimentality, as John Gardner describes it in The Art of Fiction:

If the storyteller appears to stock response (our love of God or country, our pity for the downtrodden, the presumed warm feelings all decent people have for children and small animals)…then the effect is sentimentality, and no reader who’s experienced the power of real fiction will be pleased by it.

Replace “children and small animals” with Harry Potter and Gandalf, and you have a concise description of how fanfic works, encouraging readers to plow through tens of thousands of words because of the hard work of imaginative empathy that someone else did long ago. When Gay and Bacon compare Confederate to fan fiction, I think that this is what they mean. It isn’t drawing on existing characters, but on a collection of ideas, images, and historical events that carry an overwhelming emotional charge before Benioff and Weiss have written a line. You could argue that countless works of art have done the same thing—the canonical work of Civil War fanfic has got to be Gone With the Wind—but if slavery seems somehow different now, it’s largely because of the timing, as Gay notes: “We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context. We live in a starkly divided country with a president who is shamefully ill equipped to bridge that divide.” Benioff and Weiss spent years developing their premise, and when they began, they couldn’t have anticipated the environment in which their announcement would be received. I don’t want the project to be canceled, which would have a freezing effect throughout the industry, but they should act as if they’re going to be held to a higher standard. Because they will be.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

The driver and the signalman

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In his landmark book Design With Nature, the architect Ian L. McHarg shares an anecdote from the work of an English biologist named George Scott Williamson. McHarg, who describes Williamson as “a remarkable man,” mentions him in passing in a discussion of the social aspects of health: “He believed that physical, mental, and social health were unified attributes and that there were aspects of the physical and social environment that were their corollaries.” Before diving more deeply into the subject, however, McHarg offers up an apparently unrelated story that was evidently too interesting to resist:

One of the most endearing stories of this man concerns a discovery made when he was undertaking a study of the signalmen who maintain lonely vigils while operating the switches on British railroads. The question to be studied was whether these lonely custodians were subject to boredom, which would diminish their dependability. It transpired that lonely or not, underpaid or not, these men had a strong sense of responsibility and were entirely dependable. But this was not the major perception. Williamson learned that every single signalman, from London to Glasgow, could identify infallibly the drivers of the great express trains which flashed past their vision at one hundred miles per hour. The drivers were able to express their unique personalities through the unlikely and intractable medium of some thousand tons of moving train, passing in a fraction of a second. The signalmen were perceptive to this momentary expression of the individual, and Williamson perceived the power of the personality.

I hadn’t heard of Williamson before reading this wonderful passage, and all that I know about him is that he was the founder of the Peckham Experiment, an attempt to provide inexpensive health and recreation services to a neighborhood in Southeast London. The story of the signalmen seems to make its first appearance in his book Science, Synthesis, and Sanity: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Living, which he cowrote with his wife and collaborator Innes Hope Pearse. They relate:

Or again, sitting in a railway signal box on a dark night, in the far distance from several miles away came the rumble of the express train from London. “Hallo,” said my friend the signalman. “Forsyth’s driving her—wonder what’s happened to Courtney?” Next morning, on inquiry of the stationmaster at the junction, I found it was true. Courtney had been taken ill suddenly and Forsyth had deputized for him—all unknown, of course, to the signalman who in any case had met neither Forsyth nor Courtney. He knew them only as names on paper and by their “action-pattern” impressed on a dynamic medium—a unique action-pattern transmitted through the rumble of an unseen train. Or, in a listening post with nothing visible in the sky, said the listener: “That’s ‘Lizzie,’ and Crompton’s flying her.” “Lizzie” an airplane, and her pilot imprinting his action-pattern on her course.

And while Williamson and Pearse are mostly interested in the idea of an individual’s “action-pattern” being visible in an unlikely medium, it’s hard not to come away more struck, like McHarg, by the image of the lone signalman, the passing machine, and the transient moment of connection between them.

As I read over this, it occurred to me that it perfectly encapsulated our relationship with a certain kind of pop culture. We’re the signalmen, and the movie or television show is the train. As we sit in our living rooms, lonely and relatively isolated, something passes across our field of vision—an episode of Game of Thrones, say, which often feels like a locomotive to the face. This is the first time that we’ve seen it, but it represents the end result of a process that has unfolded for months or years, as the episode was written, shot, edited, scored, and mixed, with the contributions of hundreds of men and women we wouldn’t be able to name. As we experience it, however, we see the glimmer of another human being’s personality, as expressed through the narrative machine. It isn’t just a matter of the visible choices made on the screen, but of something less definable, a “style” or “voice” or “attitude,” behind which, we think, we can make out the amorphous factors of influence and intent. We identify an artist’s obsessions, hangups, and favorite tricks, and we believe that we can recognize the mark of a distinctive style even when it goes uncredited. Sometimes we have a hunch about what happened on the set that day, or the confluence of studio politics that led to a particular decision, even if we have no way of knowing it firsthand. (This was one of the tics of Pauline Kael’s movie reviews that irritated Renata Adler: “There was also, in relation to filmmaking itself, an increasingly strident knowingness: whatever else you may think about her work, each column seemed more hectoringly to claim, she certainly does know about movies. And often, when the point appeared most knowing, it was factually false.”) We may never know the truth, but it’s enough if a theory seems plausible. And the primary difference between us and the railway signalman is that we can share our observations with everyone in sight.

I’m not saying that these inferences are necessarily incorrect, any more than the signalmen were wrong when they recognized the personal styles of particular drivers. If Williamson’s account is accurate, they were often right. But it’s worth emphasizing that the idea that you can recognize a driver from the passage of a train is no less strange than the notion that we can know something about, say, Christopher Nolan’s personality from Dunkirk. Both are “unlikely and intractable” mediums that serve as force multipliers for individual ability, and in the case of a television show or movie, there are countless unseen variables that complicate our efforts to attribute anything to anyone, much less pick apart the motivations behind specific details. The auteur theory in film represents an attempt to read movies like novels, but as Thomas Schatz pointed out decades ago in his book The Genius of the System, trying to read Casablanca as the handiwork of Michael Curtiz, rather than that of all of its collaborators taken together, is inherently problematic. And this is easy to forget. (I was reminded of this by the recent controversy over David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s pitch for their Civil War alternate history series Confederate. I agree with the case against it that the critic Roxane Gay presents in her opinion piece for the New York Times, but the fact that we’re closely scrutinizing a few paragraphs for clues about the merits of a show that doesn’t even exist only hints at how fraught the conversation will be after it actually premieres.) There’s a place for informed critical discussion about any work of art, but we’re often drawing conclusions based on the momentary passage of a huge machine before our eyes, and we don’t know much about how it got there or what might be happening inside. Most of us aren’t even signalmen, who are a part of the system itself. We’re trainspotters.

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