Alec Nevala-Lee

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My great books #9: On Directing Film

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On Directing Film

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here

When it comes to giving advice on something as inherently unteachable as writing, books on the subject tend to fall into one of three categories. The first treats the writing manual as an extension of the self-help genre, offering what amounts to an extended pep talk that is long on encouragement but short on specifics. A second, more useful approach is to consolidate material on a variety of potential strategies, either through the voices of multiple writers—as George Plimpton did so wonderfully in The Writer’s Chapbook, which assembles the best of the legendary interviews given to The Paris Review—or through the perspective of a writer and teacher, like John Gardner, generous enough to consider the full range of what the art of fiction can be. And the third, exemplified by David Mamet’s On Directing Film, is to lay out a single, highly prescriptive recipe for constructing stories. This last approach might seem unduly severe. Yet after a lifetime of reading what other writers have to say on the subject, Mamet’s little book is still the best I’ve ever found, not just for film, but for fiction and narrative nonfiction as well. On one level, it can serve as a starting point for your own thoughts about how the writing process should look: Mamet provides a strict, almost mathematical set of tools for building a plot from first principles, and even if you disagree with his methods, they clarify your thinking in a way that a more generalized treatment might not. But even if you just take it at face value, it’s still the closest thing I know to a foolproof formula for generating rock-solid first drafts. (If Mamet himself has a flaw as a director, it’s that he often stops there.) In fact, it’s so useful, so lucid, and so reliable that I sometimes feel reluctant to recommend it, as if I were giving away an industrial secret to my competitors.

Mamet’s principles are easy to grasp, but endlessly challenging to follow. You start by figuring out what every scene is about, mostly by asking one question: “What does the protagonist want?” You then divide each scene up into a sequence of beats, consisting of an immediate objective and a logical action that the protagonist takes to achieve it, ideally in a form that can be told in visual terms, without the need for expository dialogue. And you repeat the process until the protagonist succeeds or fails at his or her ultimate objective, at which point the story is over. This may sound straightforward, but as soon as you start forcing yourself to think this way consistently, you discover how tough it can be. Mamet’s book consists of a few simple examples, teased out in a series of discussions at a class he taught at Columbia, and it’s studded with insights that once heard are never forgotten: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” “Here is a tool—choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you chose.” “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate those rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.” “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” “Now, why did all those Olympic skaters fall down? The only answer I know is that they hadn’t practiced enough.” And my own personal favorite: “The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.”

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November 12, 2015 at 9:00 am

My great books #7: The Biographical Dictionary of Film

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The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is one of the weirdest books in all of literature, and more than the work of any other critic, it has subtly changed the way I think about both life and the movies. His central theme—which is stated everywhere and nowhere—is the essential strangeness of turning shadows on a screen into men and women who can seem more real to us than the people in our own lives. His writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of his earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies. And his looniness is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing much the same thing. (If his work is a secret novel, its real precursor is Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. A recent, bewildered review of his latest book on The A.V. Club is a good example of the reaction he gets from readers who aren’t in on the joke.)

But if you leave him with nothing but his perversity and obsessiveness, you end up with Armond White, while Thomson succeeds because he’s also lucid, encyclopedically informed, and ultimately sane, although he does his best to hide it. The various editions of The Biographical Dictionary of Film haven’t been revised so much as they’ve accumulated: Thomson rarely goes back to rewrite earlier entries, but tacks on new thoughts to the end of each article, so that it grows by a process of accretion, like a coral reef. The result can be confusing, but when I go back to his earlier articles, I remember at once why this is still the essential book on film. I’ll look at Thomson on Coppola (“He is Sonny and Michael Corleone for sure, but there are traces of Fredo, too”); on Sydney Greenstreet (“Indeed, there were several men trapped in his grossness: the conventional thin man; a young man; an aesthete; a romantic”); or on Eleanor Powell’s dance with Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 (“Maybe the loveliest moment in films is the last second or so, as the dancers finish, and Powell’s alive frock has another half-turn, like a spirit embracing the person”). Or, perhaps most memorably of all, his thoughts on Citizen Kane, which, lest we forget, is about the futile search of a reporter named Thompson:

As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

It’s a strange, seductive, indispensable book, and to paraphrase Thomson’s own musings on Welles, it’s the greatest career in film criticism, the most tragic, and the one with the most warnings for the rest of us.

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November 10, 2015 at 9:00 am

The films of a life

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Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

The other week, while musing on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—which I still haven’t seen—I noted that we often don’t have the chance to experience the movies that might speak most urgently to us at the later stages of our lives. Many of us who love film encounter the movies we love at a relatively young age, and we spend our teens and twenties devouring the classics that came out before we were born. And that’s exactly how it should be: when we’re young, we have the time and energy to explore enormous swaths of the canon, and we absorb images and stories that will enrich the years to come. Yet we’re also handicapped by being relatively inexperienced and emotionally circumscribed, at least compared to later in life. We’re wowed by technical excellence, virtuoso effects, relentless action, or even just a vision of the world in which we’d like to believe. And by the time we’re old enough to judge such things more critically, we find that we aren’t watching movies as much as we once were, and it takes a real effort to seek out the more difficult, reflective masterpieces that might provide us with signposts for the way ahead.   

What we can do, however, is look back at the movies we loved when we were younger and see what they have to say to us now. I’ve always treasured Roger Ebert’s account of his shifting feelings toward Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which he called “a page-marker in my own life”:

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was ten years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him.

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

And when we realize how our feelings toward certain movies have shifted, it can be both moving and a little terrifying. Life transforms us so insidiously that it’s often only when we compare our feelings to a fixed benchmark that we become aware of the changes that have taken place. Watching Citizen Kane at twenty and again at thirty is a disorienting experience, especially when you’re hoping to make a life for yourself in the arts. Orson Welles was twenty-five when he directed it, and when you see it at twenty, it feels like both an inspiration and a challenge: part of you believes, recklessly, that you could be Welles, and the possibilities of the next few years of your life seem limitless. Looking back at it at thirty, after a decade’s worth of effort and compromise, you start to realize both the absurdity of his achievement and how singular it really is, and the movie seems suffused with what David Thomson calls Welles’s “vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” You begin to understand the ambivalence with which more experienced filmmakers regarded the Wellesian monster of energy and ambition, and it quietly affects the way you think about Kane‘s reflections on time and old age.

The more personal our attachment to a movie, the harder these lessons can be to swallow. The other night, I sat down to watch part of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, for the first time in several years. It’s a movie I thought I knew almost frame by frame, and I do, but I hadn’t taken the emotional component into account. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in high school, both for its incredible beauty and for the vision it offered of a life in the arts. Later, as I rewatched it in college and in my twenties, it provided a model, a warning, and a reminder of the values I was trying to honor. Now, after I’ve been through my own share of misadventures as a writer, it seems simultaneously like a fantasy and a bittersweet emblem of a world that still seems just out of reach. I’m older than many of the characters now—although I have yet to enter my Boris Lermontov phase—and my heart aches a little when I listen to Julian’s wistful, ambitious line: “I wonder what it feels like to wake up in the morning and find oneself famous.” If The Red Shoes once felt like a promise of what could be, it’s starting to feel to me now like what could have been, or might be again. Ten years from now, it will probably feel like something else entirely. And when that time comes, I’ll let you know what I find.

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July 23, 2014 at 9:30 am

The best closing shots in film

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Lawrence of Arabia

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 13, 2011. Visual spoilers follow. Cover your eyes!

As I’ve noted before, the last line of a novel is almost always of interest, but the last line of a movie generally isn’t. It isn’t hard to understand why: movies are primarily a visual medium, and there’s a sense in which even the most brilliant dialogue can often seem beside the point. And as much the writer in me wants to believe otherwise, audiences don’t go to the movies to listen to words: they go to look at pictures.

Perhaps inevitably, then, there are significantly more great closing shots in film than there are great curtain lines. Indeed, the last shot of nearly every great film is memorable, so the list of finalists can easily expand into the dozens. Here, though, in no particular order, are twelve of my favorites. Click for the titles:

Jerry Goldsmith on the art of the film score

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Jerry Goldsmith

Working to timings and synchronising your musical thoughts with the film can be stimulating rather than restrictive. Scoring is a limitation but like any limitation it can be made to work for you. Verdi, except for a handful of pieces, worked best when he was “turned on” by a libretto. The most difficult problem in music is form, and in a film you already have this problem solved for you. You are presented with a basic structure, a blueprint, and provided the film has been well put together, well edited, it often suggests its own rhythms and tempo. The quality of the music is strictly up to the composer. Many people seem to assume that because film music serves the visual it must be something of secondary value. Well, the function of any art is to serve a purpose in society. For many years, music and painting served religion. The thing to bear in mind is that film is the youngest of the arts, and that scoring is the youngest of the music arts. We have a great deal of development ahead of us.

Jerry Goldsmith, quoted in Music for the Movies

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July 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

Daniel Clowes on the lessons of film editing

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To me, the most useful experience in working in “the film industry” has been watching and learning the editing process. You can write whatever you want and try to film whatever you want, but the whole thing really happens in that editing room. How do you edit comics? If you do them in a certain way, the standard way, it’s basically impossible. That’s what led me to this approach of breaking my stories into segments that all have a beginning and end on one, two, three pages. This makes it much easier to shift things around, to rearrange parts of the story sequence. It’s something that I’m really interested in trying to figure out, but there are pluses and minuses to every approach. For instance, I think if you did all your panels exactly the same size and left a certain amount of “breathing room” throughout the story, you could make fairly extensive after-the-fact changes, but you’d sacrifice a lot by doing that…

It’s a very mysterious process: you put together a cut of the film and at the first viewing it always seems just terrible, then you work on it for two weeks and you can’t imagine what else you could do with it; then six months later, you’re still working on it and making significant changes every day. It’s very odd, but you kind of know when it’s there.

Daniel Clowes, quoted by Todd Hignite in In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists

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October 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

Fiction into film: L.A. Confidential

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Of all the movies I’ve ever seen, Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential has influenced my own work the most. This isn’t to say that it’s my favorite movie of all time—although it’s certainly in the top ten—or even that I find its themes especially resonant: I have huge admiration for Ellroy’s talents, but it’s safe to say that he and I are operating under a different set of obsessions. Rather, it’s the structure of the film that I find so compelling: three protagonists, with three main stories, that interweave and overlap in unexpected ways until they finally converge at the climax. It’s a narrative structure that has influenced just about every novel I’ve ever written, or tried to write—and the result, ironically, has made my own work less adaptable for the movies.

Movies, you see, aren’t especially good at multiple plots and protagonists. Most screenplays center, with good reason, on a single character, the star part, whose personal story is the story of the movie. Anything that departs from this form is seen as inherently problematic, which is why L.A. Confidential’s example is so singular, so seductive, and so misleading. As epic and layered as the movie is, Ellroy’s novel is infinitely larger: it covers a longer span of time, with more characters and subplots, to the point where entire storylines—like that of a particularly gruesome serial killer—were jettisoned completely for the movie version. Originally it was optioned as a possible miniseries, which would have made a lot of sense, but to the eternal credit of Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, they decided that there might also be a movie here.

To narrow things down, they started with my own favorite creative tool: they made a list. As the excellent bonus materials for the film make clear, Hanson and Helgeland began with a list of characters or plot points they wanted to keep: Bloody Christmas, the Nite Owl massacre, Bud White’s romance with Lynn Bracken, and so on. Then they ruthlessly pared away the rest of the novel, keeping the strands they liked, finding ways to link them together, and writing new material when necessary, to the point where some of the film’s most memorable moments—including the valediction of Jack Vincennes and the final showdown at the Victory Motel, which repurposes elements of the book’s prologue—are entirely invented. And the result, as Ellroy says, was a kind of “alternate life” for the characters he had envisioned.

So what are the lessons here? For aspiring screenwriters, surprisingly few: a film like L.A. Confidential appears only a couple of times each decade, and the fact that it was made at all, without visible compromise, is one of the unheralded miracles of modern movies. If nothing else, though, it’s a reminder that adaptation is less about literal faithfulness than fidelity of spirit. L.A. Confidential may keep less than half of Ellroy’s original material, but it feels as turbulent and teeming with possibility, and gives us the sense that some of the missing stories may still be happening here, only slightly offscreen. Any attempt to adapt similarly complex material without that kind of winnowing process, as in the unfortunate Watchmen, usually leaves audiences bewildered. The key is to find the material’s alternate life. And no other movie has done it so well.

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August 8, 2011 at 10:12 am

Fiction into film: The Silence of the Lambs

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It’s been just over twenty years now since The Silence of the Lambs was released in theaters, and the passage of time—and its undisputed status as a classic—sometimes threatens to blind us to the fact that it’s such a peculiar movie. At the time, it certainly seemed like a dubious prospect: it had a director known better for comedy than suspense, an exceptional cast but no real stars, and a story whose violence verged on outright kinkiness. If it emphatically overcame those doubts, it was with its mastery of tone and style, a pair of iconic performances, and, not incidentally, the best movie poster of the modern era. And the fact that it not only became a financial success but took home the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as the four other major Oscars, remains genre filmmaking’s single most unqualified triumph.

It also had the benefit of some extraordinary source material. I’ve written at length about Thomas Harris elsewhere, but what’s worth emphasizing about his original novel is that it’s the product of several diverse temperaments. Harris began his career as a journalist, and there’s a reportorial streak running through all his best early books, with their fascination with the technical language, tools, and arcana of various esoteric professions, from forensic profiling to brain tanning. He also has a Gothic sensibility that has only grown more pronounced with time, a love of language fed by the poetry of William Blake and John Donne, and, in a quality that is sometimes undervalued, the instincts of a great pulp novelist. The result is an endlessly fascinating book poised halfway between calculated bestseller and major novel, and all the better for that underlying tension.

Which is why it pains me as a writer to say that as good as the book is, the movie is better. Part of this is due to the inherent differences in the way we experience movies and popular fiction: for detailed character studies, novels have the edge, but for a character who is seen mostly from the outside, as an enigma, nothing in Harris prepares us for what Anthony Hopkins does with Hannibal Lecter, even if it amounts to nothing more than a few careful acting decisions for his eyes and voice. It’s also an example of how a popular novel can benefit from an intelligent, respectful adaptation. Over time, Ted Tally’s fine screenplay has come to seem less like a variation on Harris’s novel than a superlative second draft: Tally keeps all that is good in the book, pares away the excesses, and even improves the dialogue. (It’s the difference between eating a census taker’s liver with “a big Amarone” and “a nice Chianti.”)

And while the movie is a sleeker, more streamlined animal, it still benefits from the novel’s strangeness. For better or worse, The Silence of the Lambs created an entire genre—the sleek, modern serial killer movie—but like most founding works, it has a fundamental oddity that leaves it out of place among its own successors. The details of its crimes are horrible, but what lingers are its elegance, its dry humor, and the curious rhythms of its central relationship, which feels like a love story in ways that Hannibal made unfortunately explicit. It’s genuinely concerned with women, even as it subjects them to horrible fates, and in its look and mood, it’s a work of stark realism shading inexorably into a fairy tale. That ability to combine strangeness with ruthless efficiency is the greatest thing a thriller in any medium can do. Few movies, or books, have managed it since, even after twenty years of trying.

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July 12, 2011 at 8:39 am

Fiction into film: The English Patient

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A few months ago, after greatly enjoying The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje’s delightful book-length interview with Walter Murch, I decided to read Ondaatje’s The English Patient for the first time. I went through it very slowly, only a handful of pages each day, in parallel with my own work on the sequel to The Icon Thief. Upon finishing it last week, I was deeply impressed, not just by the writing, which had drawn me to the book in the first place, but also by the novel’s structural ingenuity—derived, Ondaatje says, from a long process of rewriting and revision—and the richness of its research. This is one of the few novels where detailed historical background has been integrated seamlessly into the poetry of the story itself, and it reflects a real, uniquely novelistic curiosity about other times and places. It’s a great book.

Reading The English Patient also made me want to check out the movie, which I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, when I watched it as part of a special screening for a college course. I recalled admiring it, although in a rather detached way, and found that I didn’t remember much about the story, aside from a few moments and images (and the phrase “suprasternal notch”). But I sensed it would be worth revisiting, both because I’d just finished the book and because I’ve become deeply interested, over the past few years, in the career of editor Walter Murch. Murch is one of film’s last true polymaths, an enormously intelligent man who just happened to settle into editing and sound design, and The English Patient, for which he won two Oscars (including the first ever awarded for a digitally edited movie), is a landmark in his career. It was with a great deal of interest, then, that I watched the film again last night.

First, the good news. The adaptation, by director Anthony Minghella, is very intelligently done. It was probably impossible to film Ondaatje’s full story, with its impressionistic collage of lives and memories, in any kind of commercially viable way, so the decision was wisely made to focus on the central romantic episode, the doomed love affair between Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). Doing so involved inventing a lot of new, explicitly cinematic material, some satisfying (the car crash and sandstorm in the desert), some less so (Almásy’s melodramatic escape from the prison train). The film also makes the stakes more personal: the mission of Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) is less about simple fact-finding, as it was in the book, than about revenge. And the new ending, with Almásy silently asking Hana (Juliette Binoche) to end his life, gives the film a sense of resolution that the book deliberately lacks.

These changes, while extensive, are smartly done, and they respect the book while acknowledging its limitations as source material. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of Apocalypse Now, another milestone in Murch’s career, movies aren’t very good at conveying abstract ideas, but they’re great for showing us “the look of a battle, the expression on a face, the mood of a country.” On this level, The English Patient sustains comparison with the works of David Lean, with a greater interest in women, and remains, as David Thomson says, “one of the most deeply textured of films.” Murch’s work, in particular, is astonishing, and the level of craft on display here is very impressive.

Yet the pieces don’t quite come together. The novel’s tentative, intellectual nature, which the adaptation doesn’t try to match, infects the movie as well. It feels like an art film that has willed itself into being an epic romance, when in fact the great epic romances need to be a little vulgar—just look at Gone With the Wind. Doomed romances may obsess their participants in real life, but in fiction, seen from the outside, they can seem silly or absurd. The English Patient understands a great deal about the craft of the romantic epic, the genre in which it has chosen to plant itself, but nothing of its absurdity. In the end, it’s just too intelligent, too beautifully made, to move us on more than an abstract level. It’s a heroic effort; I just wish it were something a little more, or a lot less.

The best closing shots in film

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Warning: Visual spoilers follow. Cover your eyes!

As I’ve noted before, the last line of a novel is almost always of interest, but the last line of a movie generally isn’t. It isn’t hard to understand why: movies are primarily a visual medium, after all, and there’s a sense in which even the most brilliant dialogue can often seem beside the point. And as much the writer in me wants to believe otherwise, audiences don’t go to the movies to listen to words: they go to look at pictures.

Perhaps inevitably, then, there are significantly more great closing shots in film than there are great curtain lines. Indeed, the last shot of nearly every great film is memorable, so the list of finalists can easily expand into the dozens. Here, though, in no particular order, are twelve of my favorites. Click or mouse over for the titles:

The act of killing

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Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the first two episodes of Mindhunter, the new Netflix series created by Joe Penhall and produced by David Fincher. We took in the installments over successive nights, but if you can, I’d recommend viewing them back to back—they really add up to a single pilot episode, arbitrarily divided in half, and they amount to a new movie from one of the five most interesting American directors under sixty. After the first episode, I was a little mixed, but I felt better after the next one, and although I still have some reservations, I expect that I’ll keep going. The writing tends to spell things out a little too clearly; it doesn’t always avoid clichés; and there are times when it feels like a first draft of a stronger show to come. Fincher, characteristically, sometimes seems less interested in the big picture than in small, finicky details, like the huge titles used to identify the locations onscreen, or the fussily perfect sound that the springs of the chair make whenever the bulky serial killer Ed Kemper sits down. (He also gives us two virtuoso sequences of the kind that he does better than just about anyone else—a scene in a noisy club with subtitled dialogue, which I’ve been waiting to see for years, and a long, very funny montage of two FBI agents on the road.) For long stretches, the show is about little else than the capabilities of the Red Xenomorph digital camera. Yet it also feels like a skeleton key for approaching the work of a man who, in fits and starts, has come to seem like the crucial director of our time, in large part because of his own ambivalence toward his fantasies of control.

Mindhunter is based on a book of the same name by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker about the development of behavioral science at the FBI. I read it over twenty years ago, at the peak of my morbid interest in serial killers, which is a phase that a lot of us pass through and that Fincher, revealingly, has never outgrown. Apart from Alien 3, which was project that he barely understood and couldn’t control, his real debut was Seven, in which he benefited from a mechanical but undeniably compelling script by Andrew Kevin Walker and a central figure who has obsessed him ever since. John Doe, the killer, is still the greatest example of the villain who seems to be writing the screenplay for the movie in which he appears. (As David Thomson says of Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK: “[He’s] so omniscient he must be the scriptwriter.”) Doe’s notebooks, rendered in comically lavish detail, are like a nightmare version of the notes, plans, and storyboards that every film generates, and he alternately assumes the role of writer, art director, prop master, and producer. By the end, with the hero detectives reduced to acting out their assigned parts in his play, the distinction between Doe and the director—a technical perfectionist who would later become notorious for asking his performers for hundreds of takes—seems to disappear completely. It seems to have simultaneously exhilarated and troubled Fincher, much as it did Christopher Nolan as he teased out his affinities with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and both men have spent much of their subsequent careers working through the implications of that discovery.

Fincher hasn’t always been comfortable with his association with serial killers, to the extent that he made a point of having the characters in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo refer to “a serial murderer,” as if we’d be fooled by the change in terminology. Yet the main line of his filmography is an attempt by a surprisingly smart, thoughtful director to come to terms with his own history of violence. There were glimpses of it as early as The Game, and Zodiac, his masterpiece, is a deconstruction of the formula that turned out to be so lucrative in Seven—the killer, wearing a mask, appears onscreen for just five minutes, and some of the scariest scenes don’t have anything to do with him at all, even as his actions reverberate outward to affect the lives of everyone they touch. Dragon Tattoo, which is a movie that looks a lot better with time, identifies its murder investigation with the work of the director and his editors, who seemed to be asking us to appreciate their ingenuity in turning the elements of the book, with its five acts and endless procession of interchangeable suspects, into a coherent film. And while Gone Girl wasn’t technically a serial killer movie, it gave us his most fully realized version to date of the antagonist as the movie’s secret writer, even if she let us down with the ending that she wrote for herself. In each case, Fincher was processing his identity as a director who was drawn to big technical challenges, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network, without losing track of the human thread. And he seems to have sensed how easily he could become a kind of John Doe, a master technician who toys sadistically with the lives of others.

And although Mindhunter takes a little while to reveal its strengths, it looks like it will be worth watching as Fincher’s most extended attempt to literally interrogate his assumptions. (Fincher only directed the first two episodes, but this doesn’t detract from what might have attracted him to this particular project, or the role that he played in shaping it as a producer.) The show follows two FBI agents as they interview serial killers in search of insights into their madness, with the tone set by a chilling monologue by Ed Kemper:

People who hunt other people for a vocation—all we want to talk about is what it’s like. The shit that went down. The entire fucked-upness of it. It’s not easy butchering people. It’s hard work. Physically and mentally, I don’t think people realize. You need to vent…Look at the consequences. The stakes are very high.

Take out the references to murder, and it might be the director talking. Kemper later casually refers to his “oeuvre,” leading one of the two agents to crack: “Is he Stanley Kubrick?” It’s a little out of character, but also enormously revealing. Fincher, like Nolan, has spent his career in dialogue with Kubrick, who, fairly or not, still sets the standard for obsessive, meticulous, controlling directors. Kubrick never made a movie about a serial killer, but he took the equation between the creative urge and violence—particularly in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining—as far as anyone ever has. And Mindhunter will only become the great show that it has the potential to be if it asks why these directors, and their fans, are so drawn to these stories in the first place.

The man with the plan

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This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Reservoir Dogs, a film that I loved as much as just about every other budding cinephile who came of age in the nineties. Tom Shone has a nice writeup on its legacy in The New Yorker, and while I don’t agree with every point that he makes—he dismisses Kill Bill, which is a movie that means so much to me that I named my own daughter after Beatrix Kiddo—he has insights that can’t be ignored: “Quentin [Tarantino] became his worst reviews, rather in the manner of a boy who, falsely accused of something, decides that he might as well do the thing for which he has already been punished.” And there’s one paragraph that strikes me as wonderfully perceptive:

So many great filmmakers have made their debuts with heist films—from Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run to Michael Mann’s Thief to Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects—that it’s tempting to see the genre almost as an allegory for the filmmaking process. The model it offers first-time filmmakers is thus as much economic as aesthetic—a reaffirmation of the tenant that Jean-Luc Godard attributed to D. W. Griffith: “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” A man assembles a gang for the implementation of a plan that is months in the rehearsal and whose execution rests on a cunning facsimile of midmorning reality going undetected. But the plan meets bumpy reality, requiring feats of improvisation and quick thinking if the gang is to make off with its loot—and the filmmaker is to avoid going to movie jail.

And while you could nitpick the details of this argument—Singer’s debut was actually Public Access, a movie that nobody, including me, has seen—it gets at something fundamental about the art of film, which lies at the intersection of an industrial process and a crime. I’ve spoken elsewhere about how Inception, my favorite movie of the last decade, maps the members of its mind heist neatly onto the crew of a motion picture: Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the set designer, Eames the actor, and Arthur is, I don’t know, the line producer, while Fischer, the mark, is a surrogate for the audience itself. (For what it’s worth, Christopher Nolan has stated that any such allegory was unconscious, although he seems to have embraced it after the fact.) Most of the directors whom Shone names are what we’d call auteur figures, and aside from Singer, all of them wear a writer’s hat, which can obscure the extent to which they depend on collaboration. Yet in their best work, it’s hard to imagine Singer without Christopher McQuarrie, Tarantino without editor Sally Menke, or Wes Anderson without Owen Wilson, not to mention the art directors, cinematographers, and other skilled craftsmen required to finish even the most idiosyncratic and personal movie. Just as every novel is secretly about the process of its own creation, every movie is inevitably about making movies, which is the life that its creators know most intimately. One of the most exhilarating things that a movie can do is give us a sense of the huddle between artists, which is central to the appeal of The Red Shoes, but also Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, in which Tom Cruise told McQuarrie that he wanted to make a film about what it was like for the two of them to make a film.

But there’s also an element of criminality, which might be even more crucial. I’m not the first person to point out that there’s something illicit in the act of watching images of other people’s lives projected onto a screen in a darkened theater—David Thomson, our greatest film critic, has built his career on variations on that one central insight. And it shouldn’t surprise us if the filmmaking process itself takes on aspects of something done in the shadows, in defiance of permits, labor regulations, and the orderly progression of traffic. (Werner Herzog famously advised aspiring directors to carry bolt cutters everywhere: “If you want to do a film, steal a camera, steal raw stock, sneak into a lab and do it!”) If your goal is to tell a story about putting together a team for a complicated project, it could be about the Ballet Lermontov or the defense of a Japanese village, and the result might be even greater. But it would lack the air of illegality on which the medium thrives, both in its dreamlife and in its practical reality. From the beginning, Tarantino seems to have sensed this. He’s become so famous for reviving the careers of neglected figures for the sake of the auras that they provide—John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Keith Carradine—that it’s practically become his trademark, and we often forget that he did it for the first time in Reservoir Dogs. Lawrence Tierney, the star of Dillinger and Born to Kill, had been such a menacing presence both onscreen and off that that he was effectively banned from Hollywood after the forties, and he remained a terrifying presence even in old age. He terrorized the cast of Seinfield during his guest appearance as Elaine’s father, and one of my favorite commentary tracks from The Simpsons consists of the staff reminiscing nervously about how much he scared them during the recording of “Marge Be Not Proud.”

Yet Tarantino still cast him as Joe Cabot, the man who sets up the heist, and Tierney rewarded him with a brilliant performance. Behind the scenes, it went more or less as you might expect, as Tarantino recalled much later:

Tierney was a complete lunatic by that time—he just needed to be sedated. We had decided to shoot his scenes first, so my first week of directing was talking with this fucking lunatic. He was personally challenging to every aspect of filmmaking. By the end of the week everybody on set hated Tierney—it wasn’t just me. And in the last twenty minutes of the first week we had a blowout and got into a fist fight. I fired him, and the whole crew burst into applause.

But the most revealing thing about the whole incident is that an untested director like Tarantino felt capable of taking on Tierney at all. You could argue that he already had an inkling of what he might become, but I’d prefer to think that he both needed and wanted someone like this to symbolize the last piece of the picture. Joe Cabot is the man with the plan, and he’s also the man with the money. (In the original script, Joe says into the phone: “Sid, stop, you’re embarrassing me. I don’t need to be told what I already know. When you have bad months, you do what every businessman in the world does, I don’t care if he’s Donald Trump or Irving the tailor. Ya ride it out.”) It’s tempting to associate him with the producer, but he’s more like a studio head, a position that has often drawn men whose bullying and manipulation is tolerated as long as they can make movies. When he wrote the screenplay, Tarantino had probably never met such a creature in person, but he must have had some sense of what was in store, and Reservoir Dogs was picked up for distribution by a man who fit the profile perfectly—and who never left Tarantino’s side ever again. His name was Harvey Weinstein.

The screenwriter paradox

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A few weeks ago, I had occasion to discuss “Time Risk,” a huge blog post—it’s the length of a short book—by the screenwriter Terry Rossio. It’s endlessly quotable, and I encourage you to skim it yourself, although you might come away with the impression that the greatest form of time risk is trying to write movies at all. Rossio spends much of the piece encouraging you to write a novel or make an animated short instead, and his most convincing argument is basically unanswerable:

Let’s examine the careers of several brand-name feature screenwriters, to see how they did it. In the same way we can speak of a Stephen King novel, or a Neil Simon play, we can talk about the unique qualities of a Woody Allen screenplay—Whoops, wait. Allen is best known as a director. Okay, how about a Lawrence Kasdan script—Whoops, same thing. Kasdan gained fame, even for his screenwriting, through directing his own work. Let’s see, James Cameron, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Nora Ephron, Coen Brothers, John Milius, Cameron Crowe, hmn—

Wait! A Charlie Kaufman screenplay. Thank goodness for Charlie Kaufman, or I wouldn’t be able to think of a single brand-name screenwriter working today, who didn’t make their name primarily through directing. Okay, perhaps Aaron Sorkin, but he made his main fame in plays and television. Why so few? Because—screenwriters do the bulk of their work prior to the green light. Cameras not rolling. Trying to get films made. They toil at the wrong end of the time risk curve, taking on time risk in a myriad of forms.

As Rossio memorably explains a little later on: “It’s only when cameras are rolling that power accumulates, and brands are established.” I found myself thinking about this while reading Vulture’s recent list of the hundred best screenwriters of all time, as determined by forty of their fellow writers, including Diablo Cody, Zak Penn, Wesley Strick, Terence Winter, and a bunch of others who have achieved critical acclaim and name recognition without being known predominantly for directing. And who did they pick? The top ten are Billy Wilder, Joel and Ethan Coen, Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, William Goldman, Charlie Kaufman, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, and Ernest Lehman. Of the ten, only Goldman has never directed a movie, and of the others, only Kaufman, Towne, and Lehman are primarily known for their screenwriting. That’s forty percent. And the rest of the list consists mostly of directors who write. Glancing over it, I find the following who are renowned mostly as writers: Aaron Sorkin, Paddy Chayefsky, Frances Marion, Buck Henry, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Bo Goldman, Eric Roth, Steven Zaillian, Callie Khouri, Richard Curtis, Dalton Trumbo, Frank Pierson, Cesare Zavattini, Norman Wexler, Waldo Salt, Melissa Mathison, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Alvin Sargent, Ben Hecht, Scott Frank, Jay Presson Allen, John Logan, Guillermo Arriaga, Horton Foote, Leigh Brackett, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, David Webb Peoples, Burt Kennedy, Charles Lederer, John Ridley, Diablo Cody, and Mike White. Borderline cases include Paul Schrader, David Mamet, Elaine May, Robert Benton, Christopher McQuarrie, and Shane Black. Even when you throw these names back into the hopper, the “pure” screenwriters number maybe four in ten. And this is a list compiled from the votes of writers who have every reason to highlight the work of their underappreciated colleagues.

So why do directors dominate? I can think of three possible reasons. The first, and perhaps the most likely, is that in a poll like this, a voter’s mind is more likely to turn to a more famous name at the expense of equally deserving candidates. Hence the otherwise inexplicable presence on the list of Steven Spielberg, whose only two credits as a screenwriter, Close Encounters and A.I., owe a lot more, respectively, to Paul Schrader and Stanley Kubrick. Another possibility is that Hollywood is structured to reward writers by turning them into directors, which implies that many of the names here are just screenwriters who ascended. This would be a tempting theory, if it weren’t for the presence of so many auteurs—Welles, Tarantino, the Coens—who started out directing their own screenplays and never looked back. And the third explanation is the one that Rossio offers: “[Screenwriters] toil at the wrong end of the time risk curve.” Invisibility, fungibility, and the ability to do competent work while keeping one’s head down are qualities that the system encourages, and it’s only in exceptional cases, after a screenwriter directs a movie or wins an Oscar, that he or she is given permission to be noticed. (Which doesn’t mean that there weren’t simply some glaring omissions. I’m a little stunned by the absence of Emeric Pressburger, who I think can be plausibly set forth as the finest screenwriter of all time. It’s possible that his contributions have been obscured by the fact that he and Michael Powell were credited as writer, producer, and director of the movies that they made as the Archers, but the division of labor seems fairly clear. And I don’t think any other writer on this list has three scripts as good as those for The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and A Canterbury Tale, along with your choice of A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Small Back Room, and I Know Where I’m Going!)

The one glaring exception is Joe Eszterhas, who became a household name, along with his rival Shane Black, as the two men traded records throughout the nineties for the highest price ever paid for a script. As he tells it in his weirdly riveting book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood:

I read about Shane’s sale [for The Last Boy Scout]—and my record being broken—on the front page of the Los Angeles Times while I was vacationing at the Kahala Hilton in Hawaii. Shane’s sale pissed me off. I wanted my record back. I wanted to see an article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about me setting a new record. I flew home from Hawaii and sat down immediately and stated writing the most commercial script I could think of. Twelve days later, I had my record back. I had the article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about my new record. And I had my $3 million.

The script was Basic Instinct. Would it have been enough to make Eszterhas famous if he hadn’t been paid so much for it? I don’t know—although it’s worth noting that he had previously held the record for City Hall, which was never made, and Big Shots, which nobody remembers, and he sold millions of dollars’ worth of other screenplays that never got produced. And the moment that made it all possible has passed. Eszterhas didn’t make the Vulture list; studios are no longer throwing money at untested properties; and even a monster sale doesn’t guarantee anything. The current record is still held by the script for Déjà Vu, which sold for $3 million against $5 million over a decade ago, and it serves as a sort of A/B test to remind us how much of success in Hollywood is out of anyone’s hands. There were two writers on Déjà Vu. One was Bill Marsilii, who hasn’t been credited on a movie since. The other was Terry Rossio.

Sci-Fi and Si

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In 1959, the newspaper magnate Samuel I. Newhouse allegedly asked his wife Mitzi what she wanted for their upcoming wedding anniversary. When she told him that she wanted Vogue, he bought all of Condé Nast. At the time, the publishing firm was already in negotiations to acquire the titles of the aging Street & Smith, and Newhouse, its new owner, inherited this transaction. Here’s how Carol Felsenthal describes the deal in Citizen Newhouse:

For $4 million [Newhouse] bought Charm, Living for Young Homemakers, and Mademoiselle. (Also included were five sports annuals, which he ignored, allowing them to continue to operate with a minimal staff and low-overhead offices—separate from Condé Nast’s—and to earn a small but steady profit.) He ordered that Charm be folded into Glamour. Living for Young Homemakers become House & Garden Guides. Mademoiselle was allowed to survive because its audience was younger and better educated than Glamour’s; Mademoiselle was aimed at the college girl, Glamour at the secretary.

Newhouse’s eldest son, who was known as Si, joined Glamour at the age of thirty-five, and within a few years, he was promoted to oversee all the company’s magazines. When he passed away yesterday, as his obituary in the Times notes, he was a media titan “who as the owner of The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and other magazines wielded vast influence over American culture, fashion and social taste.”

What this obituary—and all the other biographies that I’ve seen—fails to mention is that when the Newhouses acquired Street & Smith, they also bought Astounding Science Fiction. In the context of two remarkably busy lives, this merits little more than a footnote, but it was a significant event in the career of John W. Campbell and, by extension, the genre as a whole. In practice, Campbell was unaffected by the change in ownership, and he joked that he employed Condé Nast to get his ideas out, rather than the other way around. (Its most visible impact was a brief experiment with a larger format, allowing the magazine to sell ads to technical advertisers that didn’t make smaller printing plates, but the timing was lousy, and it was discontinued after two years.) But it also seems to have filled him with a sense of legitimacy. Campbell, like his father, had an uncritical admiration for businessmen—capitalism was the one orthodoxy that he took at face value—and from his new office in the Graybar Building on Lexington Avenue, he continued to identify with his corporate superiors. When Isaac Asimov tried to pick up a check at lunch, Campbell pinned his hand to the table: “Never argue with a giant corporation, Isaac.” And when a fan told him that he had written a story, but wasn’t sure whether it was right for the magazine, Campbell drew himself up: “And since when does the Condé Nast Publications, Incorporated pay you to make editorial decisions?” In fact, the change in ownership seems to have freed him up to make the title change that he had been contemplating for years. Shortly after the sale, Astounding became Analog, much to the chagrin of longtime fans.

Some readers discerned more sinister forces at work. In the memorial essay collection John W. Campbell: An Australian Tribute, the prominent fan Redd Boggs wrote: “What indulgent publisher is this who puts out and puts up with Campbell’s personal little journal, his fanzine?…One was astounded to see the magazine plunge along as hardily as ever after Condé Nast and Samuel I. Newhouse swallowed up and digested Street & Smith.” He went on to answer his own question:

We are making a mistake when we think of Analog as a science fiction magazine and of John W. Campbell as an editor. The financial backer or backers of Analog obviously do not think that way. They regard Analog first and foremost as a propaganda mill for the right wing, and Campbell as a propagandist of formidable puissance and persuasiveness. The stories, aside from those which echo Campbell’s own ideas, are only incidental to the magazine, the bait that lures the suckers. Analog’s raison d’être is Campbell’s editorials. If Campbell died, retired, or backslid into rationality, the magazine would fold instantly…

Campbell is a precious commodity indeed, a clever and indefatigable propagandist for the right wing, much superior in intelligence and persuasive powers to, say, William F. Buckley, and he works for bargain basement prices at that. And if our masters are as smart as I think they are…I feel sure that they would know how to cherish such heaven-sent gifts, even as I would.

This is an ingenious argument, and I almost want to believe it, if only because it makes science fiction seem as important as it likes to see itself. In reality, it seems likely that Si Newhouse barely thought about Analog at all, which isn’t to say that he wasn’t aware of it. His Times obituary notes: “He claimed to read every one of his magazines—they numbered more than fifteen—from cover to cover.” This conjures up the interesting image of Newhouse reading the first installment of Dune and the latest update on the Dean Drive, although it’s hard to imagine that he cared. Campbell—who must have existed as a wraith in the peripheral vision of Diana Vreeland of Vogue, who worked in the same building for nearly a decade—was allowed to run the magazine on his own, and it was tolerated as along as it remained modestly profitable. Newhouse’s own interests ran less to science fiction than toward what David Remnick describes as “gangster pictures, romantic comedies, film noir, silent comedies, the avant-garde.” (He did acquire Wired, but his most profound impact on our future was one that nobody could have anticipated—it was his idea to publish Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.) When you love science fiction, it can seem like nothing else matters, but it hardly registers in the life of someone like Newhouse. We don’t know what Campbell thought of him, but I suspect that he wished that they had been closer. Campbell wanted nothing more than to bring his notions, like psionics, to a wider audience, and he spent the last decade of his career with a publishing magnate within view but tantalizingly out of reach—and his name was even “Psi.”

Writing with scissors

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Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

The playboy and the playwright

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In 1948, the playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson spent four months teaching a legendary writing course at the University of Illinois. His lectures were published as The Human Nature of Playwriting, a book that until recently was remarkably difficult to find—I ended up photographing every page of it in the reading room of the Newberry Library. (A digital edition is now available for eight dollars on Kindle, which is a real bargain.) It’s as much about living a meaningful life as it is about becoming a good writer, and my favorite passage is Raphaelson’s praise of those who live by their wits:

I intend to gamble to my dying day on my capacity to provide bread and butter, a roof and an overcoat. That kind of gambling, where you pit yourself against the primary hazards of life, is something I believe in. Not merely for writers, but for everyone. I think security tends to make us timid. You do well at something, you know you can continue doing well at it, and you hesitate about trying anything else. Then you begin to put all your energies into protecting and reinforcing what you have. You become conservative and face all the dangers of conservatism in an age when revolutions, seen and unseen, are occurring every day.

One of the students in his class was the young Hugh Hefner, who was twenty-two years old. And the more I think about Hefner’s implausible career, which ended yesterday, the more I suspect that he listened intently to Raphaelson, even if his inner life was shaped less by the stage than by the movies. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese writes of Hefner’s teenage days working as an usher at the Rockne Theater in Chicago: “As he stood watching in the darkened theater, he often wished that the lights would never turn on, that the story on the screen would continue indefinitely.”

And Hefner’s improbable existence starts to make more sense if see him as at the star of a movie that he was furiously writing in real time. These impulses were central to his personality, as Talese notes:

Not content with merely presenting fantasy, [Hefner] wished to experience it, connect with it, to synthesize his strong visual sense with his physical drives, and to manufacture a mood, a love scene, that he could both feel and observe…He was, and had always been, visually aware of whatever he did as he did it. He was a voyeur of himself. He acted at times in order to watch. Once he allowed himself to be picked up by a homosexual in a bar, more to see than to enjoy sex with a man. During Hefner’s first extramarital affair, he made a film of himself making love to his girlfriend, a 16mm home movie that he keeps with cartons of other personal documents and mementos, photo albums, and notebooks that depict and describe his entire personal life.

Talese observes elsewhere that as Playboy grew in popularity, Hefner dressed the set with the obsessiveness of an experienced stage manager:

The reclusive Hefner was now beginning to reveal himself in his own pages…by inserting evidence of his existence in the backgrounds of nude photographs that were shot exclusively for Playboy. In a picture of a young woman taking a shower, Hefner’s shaving brush and comb appeared on the bathroom sink. His tie was hung near the mirror. Although Hefner was now presenting only the illusion of himself as the lover of the women in the pictures, he foresaw the day when, with the increasing power of his magazine, he would truly possess these women sexually and emotionally; he would be realizing his readers’ dreams, as well as his own, by touching, wooing, and finally penetrating the desirable Playmate of the Month.

“[Hefner] saw himself as a fantasy matchmaker between his male readers and the females who adorned his pages,” Talese writes, and the logical conclusion was to assume this role in reality, as a kind of Prospero composing encounters for real men and women. In The Human Nature of Playwriting, Raphaelson advises:

If you start writing and suddenly it isn’t going where you want it to go, what you expected to happen can’t happen, and you are within five pages of your second-act curtain and you’re stuck, there is a procedure which I have found invaluable. I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character, and by “major” I mean a scene in which they are in conflict and explore each other…I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.

Hefner clearly conceived of the Playboy Mansion as a stage where such “thorough exploration” could take place, and its habitués included everyone from Gene Siskel to Shel Silverstein. The Playboy offices also attracted a curious number of science fiction writers, including Ray Russell and my hero, Robert Anton Wilson, who answered the letters in the Playboy Forum as an associate editor for five years. (Wilson writes in Cosmic Trigger: “You all want to know, of course, does Hef really fuck all the Playmates, and is he really homosexual…We have no real inside information—but our impression is that Hef has made love to a lot of the Playmates, though by no means all of them, and that he is not homosexual.”) On September 2, 1962, after participating in a symposium on the future, Robert A. Heinlein attended a party at the mansion, of which he recalled:

This fabulous house illustrated a couple of times in Playboy—and it really is fabulous, with a freeform swimming pool in the basement, a bar under that with a view window into the pool, and all sorts of weird and wonderful fancies…I saw my chum Shel Silverstein…I got into a long, drunken, solemn discussion with Hefner in the bar and stayed until 7:30am—much too late or early, both from health and from standpoint of proper behavior of a guest. I like Hefner very much—my kind of son of a bitch. No swank at all and enjoying his remarkable success.

But it can be dangerous when a man creates a dream, walks into it, and invites the rest of us to follow. Hefner sometimes reminds me of John Updike—another aspiring cartoonist who took the exploration of extramartial sex as his artistic territory—but he’s also uncomfortably reminiscent of another famous figure. Talese writes: “Although there were numerous men who were far wealthier than Hefner, the public was either unaware or unenvious of them since they rarely appeared on television and never called attention to the fact that they were enjoying themselves.” It’s hard to read these words now without thinking at once of Donald Trump, whose victory over Ted Cruz in the primaries Hefner hailed as “a sexual revolution in the Republican Party.” Like Trump, Hefner became a caricature of himself over time, perhaps failing to heed Raphaelson’s warning: “When you make money and are known as being a competent and well-heeled fellow, it’s natural to accept yourself at that value and to be horrified at the thought that you should ever again be broke—that is, that anyone should know of it.” And Talese’s description of Hefner in the sixties carries a new resonance today:

Hugh Hefner saw himself as the embodiment of the masculine dream, the creator of a corporate utopia, the focal point of a big-budget home movie that continuously enlarged upon its narcissistic theme month after month in his mind—a film of unfolding romance and drama in which he was simultaneously the producer, the director, the writer, the casting agent, the set designer, and the matinee idol and lover of each desirable new starlet who appeared on cue to enhance, but never upstage, his preferred position on the edge of satiation.

This sounds a lot like our current president. Trump had a long association with Playboy, and while we may never know how much of his personality was shaped in some way by Hefner, I suspect that it was just as profound as it was for countless other American males of his generation. It might seem a stretch to draw the line from Raphaelson to Hefner to Trump—but we’re all part of the play now. And the curtain hasn’t fallen yet.

The monotonous periodicity of genius

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Yesterday, I read a passage from the book Music and Life by the critic and poet W.J. Turner that has been on my mind ever since. He begins with a sentence from the historian Charles Sanford Terry, who says of Bach’s cantatas: “There are few phenomena in the record of art more extraordinary than this unflagging cataract of inspiration in which masterpiece followed masterpiece with the monotonous periodicity of a Sunday sermon.” Turner objects to this:

In my enthusiasm for Bach I swallowed this statement when I first met it, but if Dr. Terry will excuse the expression, it is arrant nonsense. Creative genius does not work in this way. Masterpieces are not produced with the monotonous periodicity of a Sunday sermon. In fact, if we stop to think we shall understand that this “monotonous periodicity ” was exactly what was wrong with a great deal of Bach’s music. Bach, through a combination of natural ability and quite unparalleled concentration on his art, had arrived at the point of being able to sit down at any minute of any day and compose what had all the superficial appearance of being a masterpiece. It is possible that even Bach himself did not know which was a masterpiece and which was not, and it is abundantly clear to me that in all his large-sized works there are huge chunks of stuff to which inspiration is the last word that one could apply.

All too often, Turner implies, Bach leaned on his technical facility when inspiration failed or he simply felt indifferent to the material: “The music shows no sign of Bach’s imagination having been fired at all; the old Leipzig Cantor simply took up his pen and reeled off this chorus as any master craftsman might polish off a ticklish job in the course of a day’s work.”

I first encountered the Turner quotation in The New Listener’s Companion and Record Guide by B.H. Haggin, who cites his fellow critic approvingly and adds: “This seems to me an excellent description of the essential fact about Bach—that one hears always the operation of prodigious powers of invention and construction, but frequently an operation that is not as expressive as it is accomplished.” Haggin continues:

Listening to the six sonatas or partitas for unaccompanied violin, the six sonatas or suites for unaccompanied piano, one is aware of Bach’s success with the difficult problem he set himself, of contriving for the instrument a melody that would imply its underlying harmonic progressions between the occasional chords. But one is aware also that solving this problem was not equivalent to writing great or even enjoyable music…I hear only Bach’s craftsmanship going through the motions of creation and producing the external appearances of expressiveness. And I suspect that it is the name of Bach that awes listeners into accepting the appearance as reality, into hearing an expressive content which isn’t there, and into believing that if the content is difficult to hear, this is only because it is especially profound—because it is “the passionate, yet untroubled meditation of a great mind” that lies beyond “the composition’s formidable technical frontiers.”

Haggins confesses that he regards many pieces in The Goldberg Variations or The Well-Tempered Clavier as “examples of competent construction that are, for me, not interesting pieces of music.” And he sums up: “Bach’s way of exercising the spirit was to exercise his craftsmanship; and some of the results offer more to delight an interest in the skillful use of technique than to delight the spirit.”

As I read this, I was inevitably reminded of Christopher Orr’s recent article in The Atlantic, “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen,” which I discussed here last week. Part of Orr’s case against Allen involves “his frenetic pace of one feature film a year,” which can only be described as monotonous periodicity. This isn’t laziness, of course—it’s the opposite—but Orr implies that the director’s obsession with productivity has led him to cut corners in the films themselves: “Ambition simply isn’t on the agenda.” Yet the funny thing is that this approach to making art, while extreme, is perfectly rational. Allen writes, directs, and releases three movies in the time it would take most directors to finish one, and when you look at his box office and awards history, you see that about one in three breaks through to become a financial success, an Oscar winner, or both. And Orr’s criticism of this process, like Turner’s, could only have been made by a professional critic. If you’re obliged to see every Woody Allen movie or have an opinion on every Bach cantata, it’s easy to feel annoyed by the lesser efforts, and you might even wish that that the artist had only released the works in which his inspiration was at its height. For the rest of us, though, this really isn’t an issue. We get to skip Whatever Works or Irrational Man in favor of the occasional Match Point or Midnight in Paris, and most of us are happy if we can even recognize the cantata that has “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” If you’re a fan, but not a completist, a skilled craftsman who produces a lot of technically proficient work in hopes that some of it will stick is following a reasonable strategy. As Malcolm Gladwell writes of Bach:

The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, [Dean] Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great.

As Simonton puts it: “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.” But if there’s a risk involved, it’s that an artist will become so used to producing technically proficient material on a regular basis that he or she will fall short when the circumstances demand it. Which brings us back to Bach. Turner’s remarks appear in a chapter on the Mass in B minor, which was hardly a throwaway—it’s generally considered to be one of Bach’s major works. For Turner, however, the virtuosity expressed in the cantatas allowed Bach to take refuge in cleverness even when there was more at stake: “I say that the pretty trumpet work in the four-part chorus of the Gloria, for example, is a proof that Bach was being consciously clever and brightening up his stuff, and that he was not at that moment writing with the spontaneity of those really creative moments which are popularly called inspired.” And he writes of the Kyrie, which he calls “monotonous”:

It is still impressive, and no doubt to an academic musician, with the score in his hands and his soul long ago defunct, this charge of monotony would appear incredible, but then his interest is almost entirely if not absolutely technical. It is a source of everlasting amazement to him to contemplate Bach’s prodigious skill and fertility of invention. But what do I care for Bach’s prodigious skill? Even such virtuosity as Bach’s is valueless unless it expresses some ulterior beauty or, to put it more succinctly, unless it is as expressive as it is accomplished.

And I’m not sure that he’s even wrong. It might seem remarkable to make this accusation of Bach, who is our culture’s embodiment of technical skill as an embodiment of spiritual expression, but if the charge is going to have any weight at all, it has to hold at the highest level. William Blake once wrote: “Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.” He was right. But it can also be a vehicle, by definition, for literally everything else. And sometimes the real genius lies in being able to tell the difference.

The desolation of slog

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Over the last few months, I’ve developed a hobby that I’d have trouble justifying even to myself—I’ve spent countless hours watching the special features for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, a series that I don’t even like. (It would be nice to pretend that I’ve been celebrating the eightieth anniversary of the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel, which took place last week, but I frankly wasn’t even aware of it until the other day.) My deep dive into Hobbit featurettes came out of a confluence of circumstances that I doubt will ever recur. I’ve always loved the production videos for The Lord of the Rings, which I’ve compared elsewhere to a film school in a box set, and for years, they’ve served as my evening comfort food of choice, especially on days when I’m so tired from work and parenting to do anything but stare blankly at a television screen. During a period when I was exceptionally busy with the book, I worked through most of them yet again, proceeding backward from The Return of the King to Fellowship. Before long, though, I’d burned through them all, and it occurred to me that I might be able to get a similar fix from that other series of movies about Middle-earth. A glance at Amazon and some good timing revealed that I could buy the extended editions of all three Hobbit films for about ten dollars apiece. I’d been meaning to check out the special features ever since seeing the extraordinary authorized video that highlighted Jackson’s exhaustion during the filming of The Battle of the Five Armies, and shelling out thirty bucks for fifteen DVDs seemed like it would provide a decent return on investment.

As it turned out, it did. Not because of the featurettes themselves, which for the most part are a step down from their equivalents for The Lord of the Rings, but because of the light that they inadvertently shed on what went wrong with The Hobbit. Viewers hoping for Peter Jackson’s equivalent of Burden of Dreams or Hearts of Darkness are likely to be disappointed—the tone of the bonus features is relentlessly upbeat, and there are only occasional admissions of the possibility that anything might be going sideways. (Jackson’s graying hair, fluctuating weight, and visible tiredness tell us more than anything that he says aloud.) What sticks with you, unfortunately, is the length and tediousness of most of these videos, which seem like an expression of the same misconceptions that went into the movies themselves. The Hobbit trilogy reunited much of the original cast and crew for a project that, on paper, had no excuse for not reproducing at least some of the magic of its predecessor. Yet it feels for all the world like an attempt at reverse engineering, based only on the qualities of the first trilogy that could be most efficiently replicated. The Lord of the Rings consisted of three movies that came close to three hours each; therefore, so does The Hobbit. Viewers loved the epic battle scenes of the earlier films, so The Hobbit gives them lots of the same. A badass action sequence in which Legolas defies gravity? Check. A love triangle? Why not? Fan service reappearances from Elrond, Saruman, Galadriel, and other characters we liked the first time around? Of course.  And when the characters couldn’t return, The Hobbit finds their non-union equivalents. Bard the Bowman is called “the Aragon of The Hobbit” so often in the bonus features that I lost count.

By now, many viewers have come to see The Hobbit as a kind of simulation of the original, recreating it in broad, quantitative strokes while missing most of the qualitative factors that made The Lord of the Rings special. What surprised me, at this late date, was the discovery that the bonus features did exactly the same thing. The Lord of the Rings featurettes expanded to epic length because there was simply so much to explore, from conceptual design to training the horses to the workers at Weta who made so many suits of chain mail that they literally rubbed away their fingerprints. With The Hobbit, the special features seem to be just as long, if not longer, and they seem to have been driven by the same logic that went into the movies. Viewers love having multiple discs of bonus material, the reasoning goes, so we’ll give it to them—and if you’re simply weighing the physical size of these editions against the Lord of the Rings box sets that you already own, you’ll be happy. (It’s the opposite of the metric preferred by Apple, which uses thinness as a proxy for quality.) But it’s hard to convey how bloated these videos are. To give just one example, there’s a scene in The Desolation of Smaug in which the Master of Laketown, played gamely by Stephen Fry, eats a plate of goat testicles for breakfast. As the bonus features take pains to inform us, they aren’t real testicles, but carefully molded meatballs, although Fry still had to gulp them down in vast quantities. In a Lord of the Rings featurette, this detail might have merited a cutaway shot, a funny outtake, and a dry witticism during Fry’s talking head. With The Hobbit, it goes on for minutes on end. I had my laptop out while I was watching it, and when I glanced up after what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, they were still talking about testicles.

It isn’t hard to guess what happened. The creators of the bonus features—who, it must be said, know how to put together an attractive, professional product—were expected to produce a certain volume of footage, on the assumption that fans would be happy with hours of anything. As a result, the most trivial byways of the production, like the fake testicles, get the same loving treatment as the hallway fight in Inception. I don’t blame the makers of the featurettes, who were just doing their best, but the mindset of the producers who gave them a brief that measured the quality of the outcome by how many discs it managed to fill. (Some of it, I hasten to add, is worth watching. Aside from the weirdly candid postmortem of The Battle of Five Armies that I mentioned above, there’s a fascinating treatment of the orchestrations for The Desolation of Smaug, and my attention perks up whenever Richard Taylor, Alan Lee, or John Howe appear onscreen.) But I keep going back to the fatal flaw of The Hobbit movies themselves. After a certain point, you lose track of why you’re here, so you fall back on benchmarks and targets that worked the first time around. You forget that people didn’t love The Lord of the Rings because each movie was three hours long, but the movies were long because there was so much there that people would love. The tale grew in the telling, as Tolkien famously said, but it’s a mistake to confuse that growth for the imaginative impulse that nurtured it. Bonus features might seem like a modest form of art, but the Lord of the Rings featurettes were a masterpiece of their kind, and those for The Hobbit bear exactly the same relationship to their predecessors as the films did. What was lacking in both cases was a basic clarity of thought. As John Fowles wrote in his great novel Daniel Martin, about an English screenwriter in Hollywood: “Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation.”

Musings of a cigarette smoking man

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After the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton died earlier this week, Deadspin reprinted a profile by Steve Oney from the early eighties that offers a glimpse of a man whom many of us recognized but few of us knew. It captured Stanton at a moment when he was edging into a kind of stardom, but he was still open about his doubts and struggles: “It was Eastern mysticism that began to help me. Alan Watts’s books on Zen Buddhism were a very strong influence. Taoism and Lao-tse, I read much of, along with the works of Krishnamurti. And I studied tai chi, the martial art, which is all about centering oneself.” Oney continues:

But it was the I Ching (The Book of Changes) in which Stanton found most of his strength. By his bedside he keeps a bundle of sticks wrapped in blue ribbon. Several times every week, he throws them (or a handful of coins) and then turns to the book to search out the meaning of the pattern they made. “I throw them whenever I need input,” he said. “It’s an addendum to my subconscious.” He now does this before almost everything he undertakes—interviews, films, meetings. “It has sustained and nourished me,” he said. “But I’m not qualified to expound on it.”

I was oddly moved by these lines. The I Ching doesn’t tell you what the future will be, but it offers advice on how to behave, which makes it the perfect oracle for a character actor, whose career is inextricably tied up with luck, timing, persistence, and synchronicity.

Stanton, for reasons that even he might have found hard to grasp, became its patron saint. “What he wants is that one magic part, the one they’ll mention in film dictionaries, that will finally make up for all the awful parts from early in his career,” Oney writes. That was thirty years ago, and it never really happened. Most of the entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is devoted to listing Stanton’s gigantic filmography, and its one paragraph of analysis is full of admiration for his surface, not his depths:

He is among the last of the great supporting actors, as unfailing and visually eloquent as Anthony Mann’s trees or “Mexico” in a Peckinpah film. Long ago, a French enthusiastic said that Charlton Heston was “axiomatic.” He might want that pensée back now. But Stanton is at least emblematic of sad films of action and travel. His face is like the road in the West.

This isn’t incorrect, but it’s still incomplete. In Oney’s profile, the young Sean Penn, who adopted Stanton as his mentor, offers the same sort of faint praise: “Behind that rugged old cowboy face, he’s simultaneously a man, a child, a woman—he just has this full range of emotions I really like. He’s a very impressive soul more than he is a mind, and I find that attractive.” I don’t want to discount the love there. But it’s also possible that Stanton never landed the parts that he deserved because his friends never got past that sad, wonderful face, which was a blessing that also obscured his subtle, indefinable talent.

Stanton’s great trick was to seem to sidle almost sideways into the frame, never quite taking over a film but immeasurably enriching it, and he’s been a figure on the edges of my moviegoing life for literally as long as I can remember. He appeared in what I’m pretty sure was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater, Philip Borsos’s One Magic Christmas, which prompted Roger Ebert to write: “I am not sure exactly what I think about Harry Dean Stanton’s archangel. He is sad-faced and tender, all right, but he looks just like the kind of guy that our parents told us never to talk to.” Stanton got on my radar thanks largely to Ebert, who went so far as to define a general rule: “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” And my memory is seasoned with stray lines and moments delivered in his voice. As the crooked, genial preacher in Uforia: “Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” Or the father in Pretty in Pink, after Molly Ringwald wakes him up at home one morning: “Where am I?” Or Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ, speaking to the aged Jesus: “You know, I’m glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you.” One movie that I haven’t seen mentioned in most retrospectives of his career is Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart, in which Stanton unobtrusively holds his own in the corner of the film that killed Zoetrope Studios. Thomson describes his work as “funny, casual, and quietly disintegrating,” and when the camera dollies to the left near the beginning of the film as he asks Frederick Forrest’s character why he keeps buying so much junk, it’s as if he’s talking to Coppola himself.

Most of all, I’ve always loved Stanton’s brief turn as Carl, the owner of the Fat Trout trailer park in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which he offered the FBI agents “a cup of Good Morning America.” And one of the great pleasures of the revival of Twin Peaks was the last look it gave us of Carl, who informed a younger friend: “I’ve been smoking for seventy-five years—every fuckin’ day.” Cigarettes were curiously central to his mystique, as surely as they shaped his face and voice. Oney writes: “In other words, Stanton is sixty going on twenty-two, a seeker who also likes to drive fast cars, dance all night, and chain-smoke cigarettes with the defiant air of a hood hanging out in the high school boy’s room.” In his last starring role, the upcoming Lucky, he’s described as having “outlived and out-smoked” his contemporaries. And, more poignantly, he said to Esquire a decade ago: “I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive.” Smoking, like casting a hexagam, feels like the quintessential pastime of the character actor—it’s the vice of those who sit and wait. In an interview that he gave a few years ago, Stanton effortlessly linked all of these themes together:

We’re not in charge of our lives and there are no answers to anything. It’s a divine mystery. Buddhism, Taoism, the Jewish Kabbalah—it’s all the same thing, but once it gets organized it’s over. You have to just accept everything. I’m still smoking a pack a day.

If you didn’t believe in the I Ching, there was always smoking, and if you couldn’t believe in either one, you could believe in Stanton. Because everybody’s got to believe in something.

Talking the Talk

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A few days ago, while reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, I came across the following passage about William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker:

Nowadays Shawn is nearly as famous for his oddities as for his editorial prowess. The catalog of his phobias and behavioral tics, the intrigue (especially his decades-long office romance with Lillian Ross, which was meant to be a deep, deep secret and become, with the passage of time, merely the obvious but unmentionable status quo), the passive-aggressive manipulation of colleagues and contributors, the velvet tenacity of his grip on power…it’s all almost enough to make us forget the astonishing success with which he steered the magazine.

Earlier this week, Lillian Ross passed away at the age of ninety-nine. Her personal life, like Shawn’s, often received more attention than her professional accomplishments, and her obituaries predictably devoted a lot of space to their affair, which might have chagrined but not surprised her. In an era when celebrity journalists like Norman Mailer and Gay Talese were on the ascendant, she cautioned reporters against placing themselves at the center of the story—although she also wrote a late memoir of her life with Shawn, Here But Not Here, that caused a firestorm of controversy within its tiny world when it was released two decades ago. In his New York Times review, Charles McGrath called it “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions,” and it struck many readers as an odd departure for a reporter who had been complimented for her ability to fade into the background. And while its title sounded like a motto for objective reporting, it actually came from something that Shawn—whom Updike later praised for his “disinterested standards”—liked to say about his home life: “I am there, but I am not there.”

But Ross, Shawn, and their magazine entered the inner lives of their readers in ways that transcended the efforts of reporters who asked more insistently for our attention. In her book Reporting, Ross offered her personal rules for conducting journalism:

Reporting is difficult, partly because the writer does not have the leeway to play around with the lives of people, as he does in fiction. There are many other restrictions, too…Your attention at all times should be on your subject, not on you. Do not call attention to yourself. As a reporter, serve your subject, do not yourself. Do not, in effect say, “Look at me. See what a great reporter I am!” Do not, if you want to reveal that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, write, “I am showing that the Emperor is already naked.”

A few more admonitions: do not promote yourself; do not advertise yourself; do not sell yourself. If you have a tendency to do these things, you should go into some line of work that may benefit from your talents as a promoter, a salesman, or an actor. Too many extraneous considerations have been imposed on reporting in recent years, and it is time now to ask writers who would be reporters to report.

Decades later, in speaking of her reputation as a fly on the wall, Ross struck a rather different note: “What craziness! A reporter doing a story can’t pretend to be invisible, let alone a fly; he or she is seen and heard and responded to by the people he or she is writing about. A reporter is always chemically involved in a story.”

Ross might sound like she’s contradicting herself, but I don’t think that she is. It helps to focus on the words “chemically involved,” which makes reporting sound like an industrial process—which, in the hands of Shawn’s writers, including Ross and Updike, is what it became. A recent tribute describes Ross as “an early architect” of the Talk of the Town section, which puts her at the center of a certain way of viewing the world. The Talk of the Town has always been characterized less by any particular subject than by its voice, which Begley capably evokes in an account of one of Updike’s early pieces, in which he visited a lawn care business in Southampton:

The resulting journalistic trifle is mildly amusing and fairly typical of The Talk of the Town, save for the exurban expedition…The reporter (“we,” by hallowed New Yorker convention) gathers a comically copious amount of information about the product, allows its makers to display a comical commercial enthusiasm, and adds to the comedy by appearing (almost) to share that enthusiasm.

In this case, the product was a lawn treatment that dyed the grass green, but The Talk of the Town remains the magazine’s place to accommodate more famous subjects who have something to promote. Its stance toward such material allows its interviewees to plug film or book projects while keeping them at a bemused distance, and a lot of it hinges on that remarkable “we.” (It’s the counterpart of the “you” that appears so often in its movie reviews.) Updike gently mocked it years later: “Who, after all, could that indefatigably fascinated, perpetually peripatetic ‘we’ be but a collection of dazzled farm-boys?” But it’s still our ideal of a certain kind of nonfiction—privileged, lightly ironic, with dashes of surprising insight that don’t prevent you from turning the page.

Ross was one of the inventors of that voice, which was the chemical trick that she used to dissolve herself into a story. It allowed trivial pieces to be rapidly produced, while also allowing for deeper engagement when the opportunity presented itself. (To push the analogy from Updike’s article to the breaking point, it was “the desired combination of a dye that would immediately color the lawn and a fertilizer that would eventually rejuvenate it.”) And much of the success of The New Yorker lay in the values that its readers projected onto that “we.” As Begley describes the characters in Updike’s story “Incest”:

The young couple…are college educated, living in a small, pleasant New York apartment furnished with bamboo chairs, a modernist sofa, a makeshift bed, bookshelves filled with books. They’re familiar with Proust and Freud and the pediatric pronouncements of Dr. Benjamin Spock…Jane sips vermouth after dinner, listening to Bach on the record player while she reads The New Republic—if the story hadn’t been intended for publication in The New Yorker, surely she would have been reading that magazine instead.

Norman Mailer, a New Journalist who actually published a collection titled Advertisements for Myself, was dismissive of the magazine’s hold on its readers: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.” He’s speaking of The Talk of the Town, as refined by Ross and Shawn, and it’s still true today. Updike made fun of that “we” because he could—but for many readers, then and now, the grass on that side was definitely greener.

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