Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 2017

Quote of the Day

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If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of of ordered relations and a contravention to that order. Dirt, then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system.

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger

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July 27, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Battle of Dunkirk

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During my junior year in college, I saw Christopher Nolan’s Memento at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for no other reason except that I’d heard it was great. Since then, I’ve seen all of Nolan’s movies on their initial release, which is something I can’t say of any other director. At first, it was because I liked his work and his choices intrigued me, and it only occurred to me around the time of The Dark Knight that I witnessing a career like no other. It’s tempting to compare Nolan to his predecessors, but when you look at his body of work from Memento to Dunkirk, it’s clear that he’s in a category of his own. He’s directed nine theatrical features in seventeen years, all mainstream critical and commercial successes, including some of the biggest movies in recent history. No other director alive comes close to that degree of consistency, at least not at the same level of productivity and scale. Quality and reliability alone aren’t everything, of course, and Nolan pales a bit compared to say, Steven Spielberg, who over a comparable stretch of time went from The Sugarland Express to Hook, with Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and the Indiana Jones trilogy along the way, as well as 1941 and Always. By comparison, Nolan can seem studied, deliberate, and remote, and the pockets of unassimilated sentimentality in his work—which I used to assume were concessions to the audience, but now I’m not so sure—only point to how unified and effortless Spielberg is at his best. But the conditions for making movies have also changed over the last four decades, and Nolan has threaded the needle in ways that still amaze me, as I continue to watch his career unfold in real time.

Nolan sometimes reminds me of the immortal Byron the Bulb in Gravity’s Rainbow, of which Thomas Pynchon writes: “Statistically…every n-thousandth light bulb is gonna be perfect, all the delta-q’s piling up just right, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this one’s still around, burning brightly.” He wrote and directed one of the great independent debuts, leveraged it into a career making blockbusters, and slowly became a director from whom audiences expected extraordinary achievements while he was barely out of the first phase of his career. And he keeps doing it. For viewers of college age or younger, he must feel like an institution, while I can’t stop thinking of him as an outlier that has yet to regress to the mean. Nolan’s most significant impact, for better or worse, may lie in the sheer, seductive implausibility of the case study that he presents. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a succession of young directors, nearly all of them white males, who, after directing a microbudgeted indie movie, are handed the keys to a huge franchise. This has been taken as an instance of category selection, in which directors who look a certain way are given opportunities that wouldn’t be offered to filmmakers of other backgrounds, but deep down, I think it’s just an attempt to find the next Nolan. If I were an executive at Warner Bros. whose career had overlapped with his, I’d feel toward him what Goethe felt of Napoleon: “[It] produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.” Nolan is the most exciting success story to date of a business model that he defined and that, if it worked, would solve most of Hollywood’s problems, in which independent cinema serves as a farm team for directors who can consistently handle big legacy projects that yield great reviews and box office. And it’s happened exactly once.

You can’t blame Hollywood for hoping that lightning will strike twice, but it’s obvious now that Nolan is like nobody else, and Dunkirk may turn out to be the pivotal film in trying to understand what he represents. I don’t think it’s his best or most audacious movie, but it was certainly the greatest risk, and he seems to have singlehandedly willed it into existence. Artistically, it’s a step forward for a director who sometimes seemed devoted to complexity for its own sake, telling a story of crystalline narrative and geographical clarity with a minimum of dialogue and exposition, with clever tricks with time that lead, for once, to a real emotional payoff. The technical achievement of staging a continuous action climax that runs for most of the movie’s runtime is impressive in itself, and Nolan, who has been gradually preparing for this moment for years, makes it look so straightforward that it’s easy to undervalue it. (Nolan’s great insight here seems to have been that by relying on the audience’s familiarity with the conventions of the war movie, he could lop off the first hour of the story and just tell the second half. Its nonlinear structure, in turn, seems to have been a pragmatic solution to the problem of how to intercut freely between three settings with different temporal and spatial demands, and Nolan strikes me as the one director both to whom it would have occurred and who would have actually been allowed to do it.) On a commercial level, it’s his most brazen attempt, even more than Inception, to see what he could do with the free pass that a director typically gets after a string of hits. And the fact that he succeeded, with a summer box office smash that seems likely to win multiple Oscars, only makes me all the more eager to see what he’ll do next.

It all amounts to the closest film in recent memory to what Omar Sharif once said of Lawrence of Arabia: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that’s four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert—what would you say?” Dunkirk is half as long as Lawrence and consists almost entirely of action, and it isn’t on the same level, but the challenge that it presented to “the man with the money” must have been nearly as great. (Its lack of women, unfortunately, is equally glaring.) In fact, I can think of only one other director who has done anything comparable. I happened to see Dunkirk a few weeks after catching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen, and as I watched the former movie last night, it occurred to me that Nolan has pulled off the most convincing Kubrick impression that any of us have ever seen. You don’t become the next Kubrick by imitating him, as Nolan did to some extent in Interstellar, but by figuring out new ways to tell stories using all the resources of the cinema, and somehow convincing a studio to fund the result. In both cases, the studio was Warner Bros., and I wonder if executives with long memories see Nolan as a transitional figure between Kubrick and the needs of the DC Extended Universe. It’s a difficult position for any director to occupy, and it may well prevent Nolan from developing along more interesting lines that his career might otherwise have taken. His artistic gambles, while considerable, are modest compared to even Barry Lyndon, and his position at the center of the industry can only discourage him from running the risk of being difficult or alienating. But I’m not complaining. Dunkirk is the story of a retreat, but it’s also the latest chapter in the life of a director who just can’t stop advancing.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2017 at 9:21 am

Quote of the Day

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Scientific truth, like puristic truth, must come about by controversy. Personally this view is abhorrent to me. It seems to mean that scientific truth must transcend the individual, that the best hope of science lies in its greatest minds being often brilliantly and determinedly wrong, but in opposition, with some third, eclectically minded, middle-of-the-road nonentity seizing the prize while the great fight for it, running off with it, and sticking it into a textbook for sophomores written from no point of view and in defense of nothing whatsoever. I hate this view, for it is not dramatic and it is not fair; and yet I believe that it is the verdict of the history of science.

Edwin Boring, History, Psychology, and Science

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July 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

The elements of negation

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In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White provide the useful precept: “Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid timid, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.” After offering a few illustrations for the sake of comparison, such as “He was not very often on time” as opposed to “He usually came late,” they conclude:

All [these] examples show the weakness inherent in the word not. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what it is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express even a negative in a positive form.

Along with all the other benefits that come with preferring positives over negatives, there’s the subtle point, which Strunk and White don’t mention explicitly, that it forces the writer to think just a little harder at a time when he or she would probably prefer otherwise. The sentence “Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works” is both longer and less interesting than “Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca significant,” but it’s also easier to write. It’s in that one additional pass, as the writer has to figure out what something is, rather than what it isn’t, that insight tends to happen. All else being equal, the best writing rules are the ones that oblige us to move beyond the obvious answer.

The other problem with negation is that it carries its positive form along with it, like an unwanted ghost or a double exposure. In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, with my emphasis: “The feeling is as if the negation of a proposition had to make it true in a certain sense, in order to negate it.” Wittgenstein continues, in an oddly beautiful passage:

“If I say I did not dream last night, still I must know where to look for a dream; that is, the proposition ‘I dreamt,’ applied to this actual situation, may be false, but mustn’t be senseless.”—Does that mean, then, that you did after all feel something, as it were the hint of a dream, which made you aware of the place which a dream would have occupied?

Again: if I say “I have no pain in my arm,” does that mean that I have a shadow of the sensation of pain, which as it were indicates where the pain might be? In what sense does my present painless state contain the possibility of pain?

Or as he puts it a few paragraphs earlier: “A red patch looks different from when it is there from when it isn’t there—but language abstracts from this difference, for it speaks of a red patch whether it is there or not.”

When it comes to conveying meaning, this fact has real practical consequences. As The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes: “Not only are negative statements (e.g., ‘Paris isn’t the capital of Spain’) generally less informative than affirmatives (‘Paris is the capital of France’), they are morphosyntactically more marked (all languages have negative markers while few have affirmative markers) and psychologically more complex and harder to process.” In a footnote, it adds:

One consequence of the formal markedness asymmetry is that a negative statement embeds its affirmative counterpart within it; when Nixon famously insisted “I am not a crook” or Clinton “I did not have sex with that woman,” the concealed affirmation was more significant than the surface denial. The same asymmetry is exploited in non-denial denials, such as Republican campaign operative Mary Matalin’s disingenuous protest “We’ve never said to the press that Clinton’s a philandering, pot-smoking draft-dodger.”

Politics is the arena where literary style, like sociology, is tested in the real world, which makes it all the more striking to see how often politicians turn to the negative form when forced to issue denials. Like the phrase “Mistakes were made,” the “I am not a crook” statement has become such a cliché that you’d think that they would avoid it, but it still appears regularly—which implies that it fulfills some deep psychological need.

So what kind of need is it? The philosopher Henri Bergson gets close to the heart of the matter, I think, in a very evocative passage in Creative Evolution, which I’ve highlighted in a few places for emphasis:

Negation is not the work of pure mind, I should say of a mind placed before objects and concerned with them alone. When we deny, we give a lesson to others, or it may be to ourselves. We take to task an interlocutor, real or possible, whom we find mistaken and whom we put on his guard. He was affirming something: we tell him he ought to affirm something else (though without specifying the affirmation which must be substituted). There is no longer then, simply, a person and an object; there is, in face of the object, a person speaking to a person, opposing him and aiding him at the same time; there is a beginning of society. Negation aims at some one, and not only, like a purely intellectual operation, at some thing. It is of a pedagogical and social nature. It sets straight or rather warms—the person warned and set straight being, possibly by a kind of doubling, the very person who speaks.

Politicians are an unusual species because so many of their private utterances become public, and their verbal slips, as on the analyst’s couch, are where they reveal the most. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve overheard them talking to themselves. When Nixon said, “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” he was introducing a word into the conversation that hadn’t been there before, because it had already been rattling around in his brain. And when a politician speaks in the negative, it offers us a peek into the secret conversation that he has been having in his head all along: “I am not a crook,” “I did not have sex with that woman,” “I did not collude.”

Quote of the Day

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Not a single prophet, during more than a century of prophecies, analyzing the degradation of the romantic culture, or planning the split of the romantic atom, ever imagined anything like fascism. There was, in the lap of the future, communism and syndicalism and whatnot; there was anarchism, and legitimism, and even all-papacy; war, peace, pan-Germanism, pan-Slavism, Yellow Peril, signals to the planet Mars; there was no fascism. It came as a surprise to all, and to themselves, too.

Giuseppe Borgese, “The Intellectual Origins of Fascism”

Written by nevalalee

July 25, 2017 at 7:30 am

The secret museum

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A while back, I published a novel titled The Icon Thief. It was inspired in part by Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic installation Étant Donnés, which Jasper Johns once called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” From the moment I first saw it, I knew that it was destined to form the basis of a conspiracy thriller, and since someone clearly had to do it eventually, I figured that it might as well be me. (As Lin-Manuel Miranda said to Grantland: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?”) Here’s how two characters in the book describe it:

“I went to see the installation last year,” Tanya said. “It’s in its own room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When you go inside, you see an antique wooden door set into a brick archway. At first, it looks like there’s nothing else there. But if you go closer to the door, you see light coming through a pair of eyeholes. And if you look inside—”

“—you see a headless woman on a bed of dry grass,” Maddy said. “She’s nude, and her face is missing or obscured. In one hand, she’s holding a lamp. There’s a forest with a moving waterfall in the background. Duchamp built the figure himself and covered it in calfskin. The illusion is perfect.”

And while I’ve noted the affinities between David Lynch and Duchamp before, last night’s episode of Twin Peaks, which featured the discovery of a headless body in a field—with one hand raised in a familiar pose—is the clearest indication that I’ve seen so far of an ongoing conversation between these two remarkable artists.

I’m not the first one to propose that Lynch was influenced by Étant Donnés, a connection that the director recently seemed to confirm himself. Five years ago, Lynch produced a lithograph titled E.D., pictured above, which depicts a mirror image of the body from the installation, partially concealed by what looks a lot to me like a velvet curtain. In his spectacularly useful monograph on the piece, the scholar Michael R. Taylor writes:

American filmmaker David Lynch…attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts between 1966 and 1967 and had a solo exhibition in 1969 at the Paley Library Gallery in Philadelphia, a time period that coincided with the public unveiling of Duchamp’s final work. Lynch’s interest in erotic tension and forbidden pleasure are particularly evident in the unsettling yet spellbindingly beautiful film Blue Velvet. In one particularly disturbing scene, the teenage character played by Kyle MacLachlan peers from behind the slats of a wardrobe door to witness a violent sexual encounter between a psychotic criminal (Dennis Hopper) and his female victim (Isabella Rossellini), apparently referencing earlier readings of Étant Donnés as a voyeuristic scene of sadistic violence.

In reality, Blue Velvet seems like less an intentional homage than a case of aesthetic convergence. Lynch has spoken of how the story came out of his youthful fantasies: “I had always wanted to sneak into a girl’s room to watch her into the night, and…maybe, at one point or another, I would see something that would be the clue to a murder mystery.” This is very close to the experience of seeing Étant Donnés itself, although, according to one source, “Lynch states to this day that he has not actually seen the piece in person.” And while I don’t think that he has any reason to lie, I also don’t see any particular reason to believe him.

In short, I was wrong when I wrote two weeks ago: “This might represent the only time in which my love of Twin Peaks will overlap with my professional interests.” And for those who are inclined to dig deeper, there are plenty of parallels between Lynch and Duchamp, aside from their obvious interest in voyeurism and the exposed female body. There’s the waterfall in the background, for one thing, and the fact that no photos of the interior were allowed to be published for fifteen years after it was unveiled—which reminds me a little of Laura telling Cooper that she’ll see him again in twenty-five years. But they also form a line of succession. Temperamentally, the two men couldn’t seem more different: Duchamp may have been “the most intelligent man of the twentieth century,” as Guillaume Apollinaire famously said, but his career came down to a series of chilly, not particularly funny jokes that can be appreciated solely on an intellectual level, not an emotional or visceral one. In other words, he’s very French. By comparison, Lynch is quintessentially American, and even his weirdest visual byways come from a place of real feeling. He’s not as penetrating or rigorous as Duchamp, but far more accessible and likable. On a more fundamental level, though, they can start to seem like brothers. Duchamp spent two decades building Étant Donnés in secret, and there’s something appealingly homemade about the result, with its trompe l’oeil effects cobbled together out of bits of wire and a biscuit tin. Lynch has always been the same sort of tinkerer, and he’s happiest while working on some oddball project at home, which makes it all the more amazing that he’s been entrusted on a regular basis with such huge projects. When you try to imagine Duchamp tackling Dune, you get a sense of how unlikely Lynch’s career has really been.

And the way in which Lynch has quietly revisited Étant Donnés at unpredictable intervals beautifully illustrates how influence works in the real world. When the installation was first put on display in Philadelphia, Lynch was in his early twenties, and even if he didn’t see it in person, it would have been hard to avoid hearing about it at length in art circles. It was a scandal, and a striking image or a work of art encountered at a formative age has a way of coming back into the light at odd times. I should know: I spent my teenage years thinking about Lynch, sketching images from his movies, and listening to Julee Cruise. Every now and then, I’ll see something in my own work that emerges from that undercurrent, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. (There’s a scene in The Icon Thief in which Maddy hides in a closet from the villain, and it’s only as I type this that I realize that it’s an amalgam of Lynch and Duchamp—Maddy fights him off with a snow shovel inspired by Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm.) And Lynch seems to have been haunted by his spiritual predecessor as much as he has haunted me. Lynch has said of his early interest in art: “I had this idea that you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and you paint. And that’s it. Maybe girls come into it a little bit, but basically it’s the incredible happiness of working and living that life.” He claims that it was Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit that inspired him to construct his existence along those lines, but Duchamp was the best possible model. Of the countless artists who followed his example, Lynch just happens to be the one who became rich and famous. And as we enter the closing stretch of Twin Peaks, I can think of no better guide than Duchamp himself, who once said, in response to a question about what his work meant: “There is no solution because there is no problem.”

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2017 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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Discovery…is a new idea emerging in connection with a fact found by chance or otherwise. Consequently, there can be no method for making discoveries, because philosophic theories can no more give inventive spirit and aptness of mind to men, who do not possess them, than knowledge of the laws of acoustics or optics can give a correct ear or good sight to men deprived of them by nature. But good methods can teach us to develop and use to better purpose the faculties with which nature has endowed us, while poor methods can prevent us from turning them to good account. Thus the genius of inventiveness, so precious in the sciences, may be diminished or even smothered by a poor method, while a good method may increase and develop it.

Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2017 at 7:30 am

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