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:

An awkward utilitarianism

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Two decades ago, the critic James Wood published a scathing review in The New Republic of James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow. Wood acknowledged that the book was “very diligent,” but he found that it suffered from at least two fatal flaws. The first was that it was insufficiently reverent toward the novelist whom Wood considered “the greatest writer of American prose of the twentieth century,” a shortcoming that he framed in amusingly petty terms: “[Atlas] writes of Bellow as if he were writing a life of Joyce Carol Oates or Richard Ford, some middler who oddly managed to bag the Nobel Prize.” And a page or so later: “Atlas proceeds as if he were writing the life of Stanley Elkin, not the unfolding of a will-to-greatness.” His second objection was that Atlas had paid undue attention to the unpleasant details of Bellow’s personal life. After quoting from a speech that Bellow once gave at his birthplace—“We are people capable of freedom, and some of us are even willing to take chances for the sake of freedom”—Wood made an extraordinary argument:

A biographer should write the history of this passage to freedom, should see that a superior soul with superior gifts has to be accounted for. It is an elitist assumption, no doubt; but without such an assumption the biography of a great writer leaks away its rationale. Bellow’s “sins”—how he treated his wives, and how self-regarding he was—were committed in the process of creating an imperishable body of work. It is not so much that they should be “forgiven,” whatever this means, than that they must be judged in the light of the work of which we are the beneficiaries. An awkward but undeniable utilitarianism must be in play: the number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than can be counted on two hands, yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.

It’s fair to say that the final sentence—which could be applied equally well to, say, James Levine or Roman Polanski—probably wouldn’t fly today. But it’s worth looking at some of the “sins” that caused Wood to recoil so strongly. He doesn’t cite any specific passage from Atlas’s biography, but he must have been thinking of moments like this, which concerns Bellow and his second wife Sondra Tschacbasov:

On Labor Day, Bellow came to pick up [his son Adam], but Sondra wouldn’t let him go. Bellow alleged that she tore his clothes and “bruised” him. “He beat me up,” Sondra countered, claiming she was “bedridden for a week. Did I give him a slap? I did. But he retaliated violently—more than once.”

This doesn’t make for pleasant reading, regardless of your feelings toward Bellow himself. Just two years ago, however, the scholar Zachary Leader published the first bulky volume of The Life of Saul Bellow, a massive undertaking that was widely seen as a respectful corrective to Atlas’s work. (The second half, which covers the last four decades of Bellow’s life, is due later this year.) In the course of his research, Leader was allowed to read an unpublished memoir by Tschacbasov, in which she gives a graphically detailed version of the same incident: “He was spoiling for it, I could see his tense lip and twitch that always telegraphed a simmering rage…I slapped him and he grabbed me by the ponytail and swung me around punching me with his other hand. I was bruised for a week and took out a restraining order.” And in a letter that Tschacbasov wrote to her lawyer shortly afterward, she describes her injuries as “severe bone bruises behind one ear, cuts on my left temple and left eyelid, and a bad bruise on my left breast. My scalp is a mess of lumps and bruises.”

As Principal Skinner once said to Superintendent Chalmers: “Oh. That’s much worse.” And remember, this is from the biography that was supposed to rehabilitate Bellow’s reputation. (It also includes an account of an incident of which Tschacbasov wrote to Bellow: “As you know, you dragged me from the car by my hair across the lawn, kicked me and whipped me with your cap.”) Leader spends much of his discussion of this episode parsing whether Tschacbasov’s slap—which she didn’t mention to her lawyer—could be “mistaken for an attack,” and he concludes: “Both parties were shading the truth.” He also apologetically explains that he’s only bringing up these accusations at all “because they are part of the life Bellow lived as he wrote Herzog.” In the finished novel, which is clearly based on the end of Bellow’s marriage, Herzog merely fantasizes about beating up his wife Madeleine, who is leaving him for another man:

Herzog…pictured what might have happened if instead of listening so intensely and thoughtfully he had hit Madeleine in the face. What if he had knocked her down, clutched her hair, dragged her screaming and fighting around the room, flogged her until her buttocks bled. What if he had! He should have torn her clothes, ripped off her necklace, brought his fists down on her head.

“In early versions of the novel, Herzog uses physical force on Madeleine,” Leader writes, referring us in a short footnote to another study of the most autobiographical of American novelists—and then he just moves on. As far as I can tell, none of the reviews of Leader’s biography, and there were a lot, dealt with this material at any length. Of course, that was two years ago, and if we haven’t gotten around to Bellow yet, like André Gide, it’s because it hasn’t occurred to us. He can get in line. Which is a form of utilitarianism in itself.

And I’d like to think that James Wood might have second thoughts now about his “awkward but undeniable utilitarianism,” or at least about its undeniability. Learning to deny it is largely what the events of the last six months have been about, and it matters what our most prominent literary critic thinks about our greatest novelist, even—or especially—if their relationship was even closer than they let on. In The Shadow in Garden, James Atlas’s book on the art of biography, he refers to Wood as one of Bellow’s three “nonconsanguineous” sons, and he notes of the critic’s negative review of a memoir by the novelist’s actual son Greg Bellow:

At least Wood was upfront about his partisanship: he mentioned that he had co-taught a course with Bellow at Boston University. And if you looked back at a tribute in The New Republic Wood had written eight years earlier, just after Bellow’s death, it emerged that they had been close friends: their daughters had played together; Wood and Bellow had played piano (Wood) and recorder (Bellow) duets. And they grew still closer toward the end: “In the final year of Bellow’s life, as he became very frail, I would read some of his own prose to him.”

It’s hard for anyone to acknowledge the worst about a man whom he loved—but it’s equally true that if our current moment can’t force James Wood to rethink Saul Bellow, then it might not be worth as much as we hope. It can’t just be an excuse to find more reasons to hate Brett Ratner. We have to look closely at the men who might be our fathers. It’s worth noting that along with Wood, Atlas lists two other men as Bellow’s three surrogate sons. One was Martin Amis. The other was Leon Wieseltier, Wood’s editor at The New Republic, who was accused last year of decades of sexual harassment, and who also wrote admiringly after Bellow’s death: “I always had the feeling about Saul that he was inwardly at war, that he breakfasted with his demons.”

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

The Potion of Circe

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Daniel Ellsberg

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 29, 2016.

In 1968, Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who would later become famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers, had a meeting with Henry Kissinger. At the time, Kissinger had spent most of his career as a consultant and an academic, and he was about to enter government service—as the National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon—for the first time. (Their conversation is described in Ellsberg’s memoir Secrets, and I owe my own discovery of it to a surprisingly fine article on Ellsberg and Edward Snowden by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker.) Ellsberg, who had been brought in for a discussion about the Vietnam War, had a word of advice for Kissinger. He said:

Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret…I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

At first, Ellsberg said, Kissinger would feel “exhilarated” at having access to so much information. But he cautioned: 

Second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess…You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information…you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t…and that all those other people are fools.

Over a longer period of time—not too long, but a matter of two or three years—you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information…In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?”

Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon

After a while, Ellsberg concluded, this “mental exercise” would become so tortuous that Kissinger might cease to pay attention altogether: “The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.” Ellsberg compared this sort of secret information to the potion of Circe, which turned Odysseus’s men into swine and left them incapable of working with other humans. And it’s a warning worth bearing in mind even for those of us who don’t have access to classified intelligence. Ellsberg’s admonition is really about distinguishing between raw information—which can be acquired with nothing but patience, money, or the right clearances—and the more elusive quality of insight. It applies to everyone who has ever wound up with more facts on a specific subject than anybody else he or she knows, which is just as true of writers of theses, research papers, and works of nonfiction as it is of government advisors. In researching my book Astounding, for instance, I’ve seen thousands of pages of letters and other documents that very few other living people have studied. They aren’t classified, but they’re hard to obtain and inconvenient to read, and I’m reasonably sure that I’m the only person in recent years who has tried to absorb them in their entirety. But a lot of other people could have done it. I didn’t have to be smart: I just had to be willing to reach out to the right librarians, sit in a chair for long periods, stare at a microfilm reader, and take decent notes.

There’s something to be said, of course, for being the one who actually goes out and does it. And there’s a sense in which this kind of drudgery is an indispensable precursor to insight: you’re more likely to come up with something worthwhile if you’ve mined the ore yourself, and there’s a big difference between taking the time to unearth it personally and having it handed to you. Reading a hundred grainy pages to discover the one fact you need isn’t the same thing as finding it on Wikipedia. It’s necessary, if not sufficient, and as Ellsberg notes, the “moron” stage is one that everyone needs to pass through in order to emerge on the other side. (A lot of us are also feeling nostalgic these days for the kind of government moron whom Ellsberg describes, who at least respected the information he had, rather than ignoring or dismissing any data that didn’t suit his political needs.) But it’s important to draw a line between the kind of expertise that accumulates steadily as a function of time—which any good drudge can acquire—and the kind that builds up erratically through thought and experience. It’s obvious in other people, but it can be hard to see it in ourselves. For long stretches, we’ll have acquired just enough knowledge to be dangerous, and we can only hope that we won’t do any lasting damage. And even if we’ve been warned, it’s a lesson that has to be learned firsthand. As Ellsberg ends the story: “Kissinger hadn’t interrupted this long warning…He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn’t take it as patronizing, as I’d feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn’t have the clearances yet.”

Written by nevalalee

March 1, 2018 at 9:00 am

The scorpion and the snake

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At the end of the most haunting speech in Citizen Kane, Mr. Bernstein says wistfully: “I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.” And I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t think about Orson Welles, who increasingly seems to have led one of the richest and most revealing of all American lives. He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of all places. As a young man, he allegedly put together a résumé worthy of a Hemingway protagonist, including a stint as a bullfighter, before he was out of his teens. In New York, he unquestionably made a huge impact on theater and radio, and he even had a hand in the development of the modern superhero and the invasion of science fiction into the mainstream, in the form of a classic—and possibly exaggerated—case of mass hysteria fueled by the media. His reward was what remains the most generous contract that any newcomer has ever received from a major movie studio, and he responded at the age of twenty-five with what struck many viewers, even on its first release, as the best film ever made. (If you’re an ambitious young person, this is the sort of achievement that seems vaguely plausible when you’re twenty and utterly absurd by the time you’re thirty.) After that, it was all downhill. His second picture, an equally heartbreaking story about an American family, was taken out of his hands. Welles became distracted by politics and stage conjuring, fell in love with Dolores del Río, married Rita Hayworth, and played Harry Lime in The Third Man. He spent the rest of his life wandering from one shoot to the next, acquiring a reputation as a ham and a sellout as he tried to scrounge up enough money to make a few more movies, some of them extraordinary. Over the years, he became so fat that he turned it into a joke for his audiences: “Why are there so few of you, and so many of me?” He died alone at home in the Hollywood Hills, typing up a few pages of script that he hoped to shoot the next day, shortly after taping an appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. His last film performance was as Unicron, the devourer of planets, in The Transformers: The Movie.

Even the barest outlines of his story, which I’ve written out here from memory, hint at the treasure hoard of metaphors that it offers. But that also means that we need to be cautious when we try to draw lessons from Welles, or to apply his example to the lives of others. I was once so entranced by the parallels between Welles and John W. Campbell that I devoted an entire blog post to listing them in detail, but I’ve come to realize that you could do much the same with just about any major American life of a certain profile. It presents an even greater temptation with Donald Trump, who once claimed that Citizen Kane was his favorite movie—mostly, I suspect, because it sounded better than Bloodsport. And it might be best to retire the comparisons between Kane and Trump, not to mention Jared Kushner, only because they’re too flattering. (If anything, Trump may turn out to have more in common with Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, the corrupt sheriff of a border town who frames a young Mexican for murder, only to meet his downfall after one of his closest associates is persuaded to wear a wire. As the madam played by Marlene Dietrich says after his death: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”) But there are times when he leaves me with no choice. As Eli Rosenberg of the Washington Post noted in a recent article, Trump is oddly fond of the lyrics to a song titled “The Snake,” which he first recited at a primary event in Cedar Falls, Iowa, saying that he had read it “the other day.” He repeatedly returned to it throughout the campaign, usually departing from his scripted remarks to do so—and it’s a measure of the dispiriting times in which we live that this attracted barely any attention, when by most standards it would qualify as one of the weirdest things that a presidential candidate had ever done. Trump read it again with a flourish at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference: “Did anyone ever hear me do ‘The Snake’ during the campaign? I had five people outside say, ‘Could you do “The Snake?”‘ Let’s do it. I’ll do it, all right?”

In “The Snake,” a woman takes pity on a snake in the snow and carries it home, where it bites her with the explanation: “Oh shut up, silly woman. You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.” As Trump helpfully says: “You have to think of this in terms of immigration.” There’s a lot to unpack here, sadly, and the article in the Post points out that the original song was written by Oscar Brown Jr., a black singer and social activist from Chicago whose family isn’t particularly happy about its appropriation by Trump. Other observers, including Fox News, have pointed out its similarities to “The Scorpion and the Frog,” a fable that has made appearances in movies from The Crying Game to Drive. Most commentators trace it back to Aesop, but its first known appearance is in Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, which was released in 1955, and it’s likely that we owe its most familiar version to none other than Welles himself. (Welles had written Harry Lime’s famous speech about the cuckoo clocks just a few years earlier, and Mr. Arkadin was based on the radio series The Lives of Harry Lime.) Here’s how Welles delivers it:

And now I’m going to tell you about a scorpion. This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. “No,” said the frog, “no thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me and the sting of the scorpion is death.” “Now, where,” asked the scorpion, “is the logic in that?” For scorpions always try to be logical. “If I sting you, you will die. I will drown.” So, the frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back. But just in the middle of the river, he felt a terrible pain and realized that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. “Logic!” cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. “There is no logic in this!” “I know,” said the scorpion, “but I can’t help it—it’s my character.” Let’s drink to character.

And just as Arkadin raises the possibility that the scorpion is himself, you’ll often see arguments that that Trump subconsciously identifies with the snake. As Dan Lavoie, an aide to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, recently wrote on Twitter, with what seems like almost an excess of shrewdness: “Historians will view it as obvious that Trump was describing himself in ‘The Snake.’ His over-the-top recitation will be the narrative device for the first big post-Trump documentary.”

We often explain real life to ourselves in terms drawn from the movies, and one way to capture the uncanny quality of the Trump administration is to envision the rally scene in Citizen Kane with the candidate delivering “The Scorpion and the Frog” to the crowd instead—which only indicates that we’ve already crossed into a far stranger universe. But the fable also gets at a deeper affinity between Trump and Welles. In his book Rosebud, which is the best treatment of Welles that I’ve seen, the critic David Thomson returns obsessively to the figure of the scorpion, and he writes of its first appearance on film:

The Welles of this time believed in so little, and if he was to many a monstrous egotist, still he hated his own pride as much as anything. We should remember that this is the movie in which Arkadin delivers the speech—so much quoted afterward, and in better films, that it seems faintly spurious now in Arkadin—about the scorpion and the frog. It is a description of self-abuse and suicide. That Welles/Arkadin delivers it with a grandiose, shining relish only illustrates the theatricality of his most heartfelt moments. That Welles could not give the speech greater gravity or sadness surely helps us understand the man some often found odious. And so a speech full of terror became a cheap trick.

What sets Trump’s version apart, beyond even Welles’s cynicism, is that it’s both full of terror and a cheap trick. All presidents have told us fables, but only to convince us that we might be better than we truly are, as when Kane archly promises to help “the underprivileged, the underpaid, and the underfed.” Trump is the first to use such rhetoric to bring out the worst in us. He can’t help it. It’s his character. And Trump might be like Arkadin in at least one other way. Arkadin is a millionaire who claims to no longer remember the sources of his wealth, so he hires a private eye to investigate him. But he really hasn’t forgotten anything. As Thomson writes: “Rather, he wants to find out how easily anyone—the FBI, the IRS, the corps of biography—might be able to trace his guilty past…and as this blunt fool discovers the various people who could testify against him, they are murdered.”

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2018 at 9:31 am

The fictional sentence

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Of all the writers of the golden age of science fiction, the one who can be hardest to get your head around is A.E. van Vogt. He isn’t to everyone’s taste—many readers, to quote Alexei and Cory Panshin’s not unadmiring description, find him “foggy, semi-literate, pulpish, and dumb”—but he’s undoubtedly a major figure, and he was second only to Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov when it came to defining what science fiction became in the late thirties and early forties. (If he isn’t as well known as they are, it’s largely because he was taken out of writing by dianetics at the exact moment that the genre was breaking into the mainstream.) Part of his appeal is that his stories remain compelling and readable despite their borderline incoherence, and he was unusually open about his secret. In the essay “My Life Was My Best Science Fiction Story,” which was originally published in the volume Fantastic Lives, van Vogt wrote:

I learned to write by a system propounded in a book titled The Only Two Ways to Write a Story by John W. Gallishaw (meaning by flashback or in consecutive sequence). Gallishaw had made an in-depth study of successful stories by great authors. He observed that the best of them wrote in what he called “presentation units” of about eight hundred words. Each of these units contained five steps. And every sentence in it was a “fictional sentence.” Which means that it was written either with imagery, or emotion, or suspense, depending on the type of story.

So what did these units look like? Used copies of Gallishaw’s book currently go for well over a hundred dollars online, but van Vogt helpfully summarized the relevant information:

The five steps can be described as follows: 1) Where, and to whom, is it happening? 2) Make clear the scene purpose (What is the immediate problem which confronts the protagonist, and what does it require him to accomplish in this scene?) 3) The interaction with the opposition, as he tries to achieve the scene purpose. 4) Make the reader aware that he either did accomplish the scene purpose, or did not accomplish it. 5) In all the early scenes, whether protagonist did or did not succeed in the scene purpose, establish that things are going to get worse. Now, the next presentation unit-scene begins with: Where is all this taking place. Describe the surroundings, and to whom it is happening. And so forth.

Over the years, this formula was distorted and misunderstood, so that a critic could write something like “Van Vogt admits that he changes the direction of his plot every eight hundred words.” And even when accurately stated, it can come off as bizarre. Yet it’s really nothing more than the principle that every narrative should consist of a series of objectives, which I’ve elsewhere listed among the most useful pieces of writing advice that I know. Significantly, it’s one of the few elements of craft that can be taught and learned by example. Van Vogt learned it from Gallishaw, while I got it from David Mamet’s On Directing Film, and I’ve always seen it as a jewel of wisdom that can be passed in almost apostolic fashion from one writer to another.

When we read van Vogt’s stories, of course, we aren’t conscious of this structure, and if anything, we’re more aware of their apparent lack of form. (As John McPhee writes in his wonderful new book on writing: “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”) Yet we still keep reading. It’s that sequence of objectives that keeps us oriented through the centrifugal wildness that we associate with van Vogt’s work—and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he approached the irrational side as systematically as he did everything else. I’d heard at some point that van Vogt based many of his plots on his dreams, but it wasn’t until I read his essay that I understood what this meant:

When you’re writing, as I was, for one cent a word, and are a slow writer, and the story keeps stopping for hours or days, and your rent is due, you get anxious…I would wake up spontaneously at night, anxious. But I wasn’t aware of the anxiety. I thought about story problems—that was all I noticed then. And so back to sleep I went. In the morning, often there would be an unusual solution. All my best plot twists came in this way…It was not until July 1943 that I suddenly realized what I was doing. That night I got out our alarm clock and moved into the spare bedroom. I set the alarm to ring at one and one-half hours. When it awakened me, I reset the alarm for another one and one-half hours, thought about the problems in the story I was working on—and fell asleep. I did that altogether four times during the night. And in the morning, there was the unusual solution, the strange plot twist…So I had my system for getting to my subconscious mind.

This isn’t all that different from Salvador Dali’s advice on how to take a nap. But the final sentence is the kicker: “During the next seven years, I awakened myself about three hundred nights a year four times a night.” When I read this, I felt a greater sense of kinship with van Vogt than I have with just about any other writer. Much of my life has been spent searching for tools—from mind maps to tarot cards—that can be used to systematically incorporate elements of chance and intuition into what is otherwise a highly structured process. Van Vogt’s approach comes as close as anything I’ve ever seen to the ideal of combining the two on a reliable basis, even if we differ on some of the details. (For instance, I don’t necessarily buy into Gallishaw’s notion that every action taken by the protagonist needs to be opposed, or that the situation needs to continually get worse. As Mamet writes in On Directing Film: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” And that’s often enough.) But it’s oddly appropriate that we find such rules in the work of a writer who frequently came across as chronically disorganized. Van Vogt pushed the limits of form further than any other author of the golden age, and it’s hard to imagine Alfred Bester or Philip K. Dick without him. But I’m sure that there were equally visionary writers who never made it into print because they lacked the discipline, or the technical tricks, to get their ideas under control. Van Vogt’s stories always seem on the verge of flying apart, but the real wonder is that they don’t. And his closing words on the subject are useful ones indeed: “It is well to point out again that these various systems were, at base, just automatic reactions to the writing of science fiction. The left side of the brain got an overdose of fantasizing flow from the right side, and literally had to do something real.”

Life in four dimensions

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Yesterday, I happened to stumble across a review that the pianist Glenn Gould gave to the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Gould had performed on the soundtrack of George Roy Hill’s movie—which I haven’t seen—but he had mixed feelings about both the result and its source material, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them in public:

Slaughterhouse-Five has been brought to the screen with such fidelity that if you happen to be one of that black-humored author’s legion of fans, an outing at your neighborhood cinema will probably provide one of the cinematic highlights of the season…Vonnegut, of course, is to the current crop of college frosh as J.D. Salinger was to the youth of my day—a dispenser of those too-easily accessible home truths that one somehow never does get at home. And precisely because he quite ruthlessly exploits certain aspects of the generation gap—especially those widened by an inability to agree on forms of humor appropriate to the articulation of the human situation—I suspect that much of his work will date quickly and reveal that supposed profundities of an opus like Slaughterhouse-Five as the inevitable clichés of an overgeneralized, underparticularized view of humanity.

This is a little harsh, and in retrospect, Gould underestimated Vonnegut’s staying power, which turned out to be considerable indeed. I’ve occasionally resisted Vonnegut for some of the same reasons that he gives here, but I don’t think there’s any denying his skill and intelligence, even if his great talent was to put just the right words to feelings that his core group of fans already wanted to believe.

It isn’t clear what drew Gould to work on the movie version, for which he provided about fifteen minutes of music. In his review, he places particular emphasis on the novel’s treatment of time, which is what readers tend to remember best:

[The protagonist Billy Pilgrim] becomes, as Vonnegut puts it, “unstuck in time” and thereafter meanders back and forth across the expanse of his quite unexceptional life and finally uncovers an ability to project himself fourth-dimensionally as well. When going on Earth gets tough, Billy simply fantasizes an extraterrestrial existence [and] shacks up in a geodesic dome with the woman of his dreams.

The inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, who resemble sentient plumber’s helpers, exist in the fourth dimension, as Vonnegut explains through one of Billy Pilgrim’s letters:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was what when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Purely by coincidence, I read Gould’s review on the same day that I saw an article in the journal Electric Lit titled “What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach Us About Coping with the Internet.” Once you get past the obligatory clickbait headline, Jaya Saxena’s essay is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on one of the unavoidable facts about our online lives, which is that all of our past selves exist on it simultaneously. Saxena writes:

On Earth, I am always quoting an article about health care in America. I am always calling someone “retarded” as a term of endearment. I am always telling people that I am safe and nowhere near Mumbai. I am always defending the concept of “Steak and Blowjob” day. I am always hugging a friend I see every day and never see anymore, bragging about stealing rum from a frat house, performatively announcing that I will be using Twitter to amplify other voices, telling someone I’ve cut out of my life that I love them…Anyone scrolling through my Facebook feed, which has existed since 2004, or who Googles enough to unearth my awful old blog, can see everything I’ve posted — every misguided opinion, every drunk photo and inside joke — with the clarity and presence of the moment I posted it. I am 17 and 24 and 31, forever.

But Saxena resists the solution presented by the Tralfamadorians, which is to focus on the good moments in life and ignore the rest, as “irresponsible,” proposing instead that we do the opposite: “We can remember that between one post a decade ago and now, there were endless versions of ourselves and others, changing and choosing. And that we will continue to do so in ways we can’t see until we look back.”

Gould was also critical of what he saw as “Vonnegut’s favorite message, [which] is that we must concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad ones.” But by the early seventies, when his review of the movie appeared, Gould had come “unstuck in time” himself. He had retired from live performance nearly a decade earlier, preferring to concentrate on recording. In the studio, he could literally focus on the good moments and ignore the rest, splicing together performances out of the best parts of multiple takes—and you could even see the physical album itself as a representation, like the Rocky Mountains, of a work of art that an audience could only experience “like beads on a string.” Unlike a listener at a concert, I can drop the needle on my vinyl copy of Two and Three Part Inventions wherever I like. (I’m reminded of the character in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a record album on his living room wall so that he can enjoy the music all at once.) Gould also welcomed the chance to engage in a dialogue with his past selves in a way that would have been impossible before the advent of recording. He recorded The Goldberg Variations twice, a quarter of a century apart, and I’ve always wondered what a third version would have sounded like, if he hadn’t died at the age of fifty. And he might have had some useful insights into our online lives. In “The Prospects of Recording,” which he published shortly after his retirement from touring, Gould quoted a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.” And he hinted obliquely at a way in which we can cope in a world that exists in four dimensions, whether we’re talking about all of history or simply about our own lives:

In the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge which were tended by the medieval scholastics—an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early Middle Ages—can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them.

The allure of unknowing

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Although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!”

—E.B. White, The Elements of Style

Last night, while watching the new X-Files episode “Ghouli,” which I actually sort of liked, I found myself pondering the ageless question of why this series is so uneven. It isn’t as if I haven’t wondered about this before. Even during the show’s golden years, which I’d roughly describe as its first five seasons, it was hard not to be struck by how often a classic installment was followed a week later by one that was insultingly bad. (This might explain the otherwise inexplicable reference in last week’s “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” to “Teso dos Bichos,” a terrible episode memorable mostly for interrupting the strongest run that the series ever had. As Reggie says: “Guys, if this turns out to be killer cats, I’m going to be very disappointed.”) Part of this may be due to the fact that I’ve watched so many episodes of this show, which had me tuning in every week for years, but I don’t think that it’s just my imagination. Most series operate within a fairly narrow range of quality, with occasional outliers in both sides, but the worst episodes of The X-Files are bad in ways that don’t apply to your average procedural. They aren’t simply boring or routine, but confusing, filled with illogical behavior by the main characters, ugly, and incoherent. There are also wild swings within individual episodes, like “Ghouli” itself, which goes so quickly from decent to awful to inexplicable to weirdly satisfying that it made me tired to watch it. And while last season proved that there are worse things than mere unevenness—with one big exception, it consisted of nothing but low points—I think it’s still worth asking why this series in particular has always seemed intent on punishing its fans with its sheer inconsistency.

One possible explanation is that The X-Files, despite its two regular leads, was basically an anthology show, which meant that every episode had to start from scratch in establishing a setting, a supporting cast, and even a basic tone. This ability to change the rules from one week to the next was a big part of what made the show exciting, but it also deprived it of the standard safety net—a narrative home base, a few familiar faces in the background—on which most shows unthinkingly rely. It’s a testament to the clarity and flexibility of Chris Carter’s original premise that it ever worked at all, usually thanks to a line or two from Scully, leafing through a folder in the passenger seat of a rental car, to explain why they were driving to a small town in the middle of nowhere. (In fact, this stock opening became less common as the show went on, and it never really found a way to improve on it.) It was also a science fiction and fantasy series, which meant that even the rules of reality tended to change from one installment to another. As a result, much of the first act of every episode was spent in orienting the audience, which represented a loss of valuable screen time that otherwise could have been put to other narrative ends. Watching it reminds us of how much other shows can take for granted. In Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet writes: “When you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatever understanding what’s going on?” That’s true of most dramas, but not necessarily of The X-Files, in which you could sit through an episode from the beginning and still be lost halfway through. You could make a case that this disorientation was part of its appeal, but it wasn’t a feature. It was a bug.

And the most damning criticism that you can advance against The X-Files is that its narrative sins were routinely overlooked or forgiven by its creators because it was supposedly “about” confusion and paranoia. Early on, the myth arose that this was a series that deliberately left its stories unresolved, in contrast to the tidy conclusions of most procedurals. As the critic Rob Tannenbaum wrote in Details back in the late nineties:

What defines The X-Files is the allure of unknowing: Instead of declaring a mystery and solving it by the end of the show, as Columbo and Father Dowling did, Carter has spent five year showing us everything except the truth. He is a high-concept tease who understands an essential psychological dynamic: The less you give, the more people want. Watching The X-Files is almost an interactive venture. It’s incomplete enough to compel viewers to complete the blank parts of the narrative.

This might be true enough of many of the conspiracy episodes, but in the best casefiles, and most of the mediocre ones, there’s really no doubt about what happened. Mulder and Scully might not end up with all of the information, but the viewers usually do, and an episode like “Pusher” or “Ice” is an elegant puzzle without any missing pieces. (Even “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” which is explicitly about the failure of definitive explanations, offers a reading of itself that more or less makes sense.) Unfortunately, the blank spaces in the show’s mytharc were also used to excuse errors of clarity and resolution, which in turn encouraged the show to remain messy and unsatisfying for no good reason.

In other words, The X-Files began every episode at an inherent disadvantage, with all of the handicaps of a science fiction anthology show that had to start from nothing each week, as well as a premise that allowed it to explain away its narrative shortcomings as stylistic choices, which wasn’t true of shows like Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. All too often, this was a deadly combination. In an academic study that was published when the show was still on the air, the scholar Jan Delasara writes:

When apprehended consciously, narrative gaps may seem random accidents or continuity errors. Who substitutes the dead dog for Private McAlpin’s corpse in the episode “Fresh Bones?” And why? What did the demon’s first wife remember but not tell her husband in “Terms of Endearment?” Who is conducting the experiment in subliminal suggestion along with chemical phobia enhancement in “Blood?” Is Mulder’s explanation really what’s going on?

Delasara argues that such flaws are the “disturbing gaps and unresolved questions” typical of supernatural horror, but it’s fair to say that in most of these cases, if the writers could have come up with something better, they would have. The X-Files had a brilliant aesthetic that also led to the filming of scripts that never would have been approved on a show that wasn’t expressly about dislocation and the unknown. The result often left me alienated, but probably not in the way that the creators intended. Mulder and Scully might never discover the full truth—but that doesn’t excuse their writers.

Written by nevalalee

February 1, 2018 at 8:53 am

Childhood’s end

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my childhood. One of the inciting factors was the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which I enjoyed a great deal when I finally saw it. It’s a blue-chip horror film, with a likable cast and fantastic visuals, and its creators clearly care as much about the original novel as I do. In theory, the shift of its setting to the late eighties should make it even more resonant, since this is a period that I know and remember firsthand. Yet it isn’t quite as effective as it should be, since it only tells the half of the story that focuses on the main characters as children, and most of the book’s power comes from its treatment of memory, childhood, and forgetfulness—which director Andy Muschietti and his collaborators must know perfectly well. Under the circumstances, they’ve done just about the best job imaginable, but they inevitably miss a crucial side of a book that has been a part of my life for decades, even if I was too young to appreciate it on my first reading. I was about twelve years old at the time, which means that I wasn’t in a position to understand its warning that I was doomed to forget much of who I was and what I did. (King’s uncanny ability to evoke his own childhood so vividly speaks as much as anything else to his talents.) As time passes, this is the aspect of the book that impresses me the most, and it’s one that the movie in its current form isn’t able to address. A demonic clown is pretty scary, but not as much as the realization, which isn’t a fantasy at all, that we have to cut ourselves off from much of who we were as children in order to function as adults. And I’m saying this as someone who has remained almost bizarrely faithful to the values that I held when I was ten years old.

In fact, it wouldn’t be farfetched to read Pennywise the Dancing Clown as the terrifying embodiment of the act of forgetting itself. In his memoir Self-ConsciousnessJohn Updike—who is mentioned briefly in It and lends his last name to a supporting character in The Talisman—described this autobiographical amnesia in terms that could serve as an epigraph to King’s novel:

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, these disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self—skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormenter, relentlessly pushing his cartoons ad posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school—strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot.

Updike sounds a lot here like King’s class clown Richie Tozier, and his contempt toward his teenage self is one to which most of us can relate. Yet Updike’s memories of that period seem slightly less vivid than the ones that he explored elsewhere in his fiction. He only rarely mined them for material, even as he squeezed most of his other experiences to the last drop, which implies that even Updike, our greatest noticer, preferred to draw a curtain of charity across himself as an adolescent. And you can hardly blame him.

I was reminded of this by the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” which is about nothing less than the ways in which we misremember our childhoods, even if this theme is cunningly hidden behind its myriad other layers. At one point, Scully says to Reggie: “None of us remember our high school years with much accuracy.” In context, it seems like an irrelevant remark, but it was evidently important to Darin Morgan, who said to Entertainment Weekly:

When we think back on our memories from our youth, we have a tendency—or at least I do—to imagine my current mindset. Whenever I think about my youth, I’m like, “Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?” And then you drive by high school students and you go, “Oh, that’s why I didn’t do it. Because I was a kid.” You tend to think of your adult consciousness, and you take that with you when you’re thinking back on your memories and things you’ve done in the past. Our memories are sometimes not quite accurate.

In “Forehead Sweat,” Morgan expresses this through a weird flashback in which we see Mulder’s adult head superimposed on his preadolescent body, which is a broad visual gag that also gets at something real. We really do seem to recall the past through the lens of our current selves, so we’re naturally mortified by what we find there—which neatly overlooks the point that everything that embarrasses us about our younger years is what allowed us to become what we are now. I often think about this when I look at my daughter, who is so much like me at the age of five that it scares me. And although I want to give her the sort of advice that I wish I’d heard at the time, I know that it’s probably pointless.

Childhood and adolescence are obstacle courses—and occasional horror shows—that we all need to navigate for ourselves, and even if we sometimes feel humiliated when we look back, that’s part of the point. Marcel Proust, who thought more intensely about memory and forgetting than anybody else, put it best in Within a Budding Grove:

There is no man…however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded…We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.

I believe this, even if I don’t have much of a choice. My childhood is a blur, but it’s also part of me, and on some level, it never ended. King might be speaking of adolescence itself when he writes in the first sentence of It: “The terror…would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end.” And I can only echo what Updike wistfully says elsewhere: “I’ve remained all too true to my youthful self.”

The holy chore

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A lesson any writer can use. Don’t be afraid. That simple; don’t let them scare you. There’s nothing they can do to you. If they kick you out of films, do TV. If they kick you out of TV, write novels. If they won’t buy your novels, sell short stories. Can’t do that, then take a job as a bricklayer. A writer always writes. That’s what he’s for. And if they won’t let you write one kind of thing, if they chop you off at the pockets in the marketplace, then go to another marketplace. And if they close off all the bazaars, then by God go and work with your hands until you can write, because the talent is always there. But the first time you say, “Oh, Christ, they’ll kill me!” then you’re done. Because the chief commodity a writer has to sell is his courage. And if he has none, he is more than a coward. He is a sellout and a fink and a heretic, because writing is a holy chore.

Harlan Ellison, Dangerous Visions

Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

Flowers of evil

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Note: Spoilers follow for Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

The best way to start talking about Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which is a movie that I liked a lot, is to quote from one of its few negative reviews. It’s the debut animated feature from Studio Ponoc, a new production company founded by veterans of the legendary Studio Ghibli, and it’s impossible to watch it without being reminded of its predecessors, as the critic David Ehrlich notes on IndieWire:

Mary and the Witch’s Flower may not be a great film—it occasionally struggles just to be a good one—but it’s a convincing proof-of-concept, and that might be more important in the long run…Studio Ponoc’s first effort feels like a high-end knockoff that’s been made with the best of intentions. It has the taste and texture of a vegan hot dog, and ultimately the same effect—a lie that satisfies those who can’t shake their craving for the truth…There’s a thin line between homage and theft, and [director Hiromasa] Yonebayashi doesn’t seem to care where it is…Borrowing liberally from [Studio] Ghibli’s signature iconography, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is less of a new creation than it does a Miyazaki Mad-Lib…There’s a bootlegged vibe to it, and even the best moments feel like they’ve been photocopied from a true original.

Ehrlich concludes with a note of paradoxical praise: “There’s something indivisibly pure about the fact that Yonebayashi and his team have refused to let something beautiful die just because the rest of the world were willing to lower their standards. It’s thrilling that Studio Ponoc even exists, and that they’ve come so close to cloning the movies we once feared that people would no longer make.” I enjoyed Mary and the Witch’s Flower a lot more than Ehrlich did, and I don’t agree with everything that he says here. (For instance: “The chintzier the storytelling becomes, the cheaper the animation begins to seem.” Yet when it comes to the Ghibli style, cheapness is in the eye of the beholder. When My Neighbor Totoro was first released in this country, Leonard Klady of Variety wrote dismissively of its “adequate television technical craft,” and it isn’t hard to see how he reached that conclusion about one of the most beautiful movies ever made.) But Ehrlich’s argument is also fundamentally sound. Watching Mary awakened me to the extent to which the qualities of the films of Hayao Miyazaki are vulnerable to imitation, or even parody. It isn’t just their nostalgic settings or young female protagonists, but their pacing, which inserts extra beats of quiet into scenes that most movies tend to skip entirely. The characters in a Miyazaki movie are always pausing to absorb or react to what they hear and see, and they always wait until the others are done talking before they speak for themselves. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is full of such moments, and in a medium that is acutely conscious of timing, this can’t be accidental.

This may seem like a minor point, but every movie is the sum of countless small touches, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower gets so many subtle things just right that it’s easy to underestimate the degree of craft and technique involved. It’s about an ordinary girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a school of magic, but unlike certain other stories in the same vein, it doesn’t conclude with her embracing this new world. Instead, after realizing that its inhabitants are borderline sociopaths, she rejects it and returns gratefully to her old life. (At the end, when she tosses aside the flower of the title, it reminded me of Dirty Harry throwing away his badge.) This is a startling choice, but the movie earns it, mostly through some surprisingly understated design work. Mary’s home village is every bit as enticing as the ones in Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service—you can’t help but want to live there. The magical Endor College is grotesque by comparison, as Ehrlich writes:

It’s FAO Schwarz on an impossibly grand scale…The colors are garish, the Ghibli touches call attention to themselves, and the action is so confined to a few simple locations that Endor eventually comes to resemble an abandoned playground, a spectacular palace of unrealized potential.

Yet he also complains: “There’s no other credible explanation for why Mary develops such a quick distaste for this sky-high fantasy world…We don’t get a clear sense of why she might not want to be there.” But if I had to decide between her village and Endor College, I know which one I’d choose.

And what I liked the most about Mary and the Witch’s Flower was how it quietly repurposes the tools of Studio Ghibli as a statement against a certain kind of storytelling. Miyazaki often draws inspiration from other works of art—Ponyo is essentially a retelling of The Little Mermaid, and Spirited Away has touches of Lewis Carroll—but the result usually seems to refer to nothing but itself. Mary isn’t just a refutation of Harry Potter, but of all the children’s movies that offer the consoling fantasy that we’d be able to solve our problems if only we had access to magic, and that the answer to heartbreak in this world lies in escaping from it entirely. The best of the Studio Ghibli movies end with a return to everyday life, but it’s weirdly encouraging to see a studio of younger animators applying this lesson in defiance of all the forces that might encourage them to make other forms of entertainment. Miyazaki is old enough at this point to do whatever he likes, and Studio Ponoc is willing to follow his example in ways that aren’t obvious. The great temptation with Mary and the Witch’s Flower must have been to imitate only the attributes of its models that lend themselves to marketing and merchandising. What it really achieves is something richer and more subversive, and in positioning Miyazaki’s values so directly against those of its rivals, it amounts to a declaration of purpose. Mary may be a knockoff, but its heart is in the right place, and we need it now more than ever.

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