Alec Nevala-Lee

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Peak television and the future of stardom

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Earlier this week, I devoured the long, excellent article by Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez of Vulture on the business of peak television. It’s full of useful insights and even better gossip—and it names plenty of names—but there’s one passage that really caught my eye, in a section about the huge salaries that movie stars are being paid to make the switch to the small screen:

A top agent defends the sums his clients are commanding, explaining that, in the overall scheme of things, the extra money isn’t all that significant. “Look at it this way,” he says. “If you’re Amazon and you’re going to launch a David E. Kelley show, that’s gonna cost $4 million an episode [to produce], right? That’s $40 million. You can have Bradley Whitford starring in it, [who is] gonna cost you $150,000 an episode. That’s $1.5 million of your $40 million. Or you could spend another $3.5 million [to get Costner] on what will end up being a $60 million investment by the time you market and promote it. You can either spend $60 [million] and have the Bradley Whitford show, or $63.5 [million] and have the Kevin Costner show. It makes a lot of sense when you look at it that way.”

With all due apologies to Bradley Whitford, I found this thought experiment fascinating, and not just for the reasons that the agent presumably shared it. It implies, for one thing, that television—which is often said to be overtaking Hollywood in terms of quality—is becoming more like feature filmmaking in another respect: it’s the last refuge of the traditional star. We frequently hear that movie stardom is dead and that audiences are drawn more to franchises than to recognizable faces, so the fact that cable and streaming networks seem intensely interested in signing film stars, in a post-True Detective world, implies that their model is different. Some of it may be due to the fact, as William Goldman once said, that no studio executive ever got fired for hiring a movie star: as the new platforms fight to establish themselves, it makes sense that they’d fall back on the idea of star power, which is one of the few things that corporate storytelling has ever been able to quantify or understand. It may also be because the marketing strategy for television inherently differs from that for film: an online series is unusually dependent on media coverage to stand out from the pack, and signing a star always generates headlines. Or at least it once did. (The Vulture article notes that Woody Allen’s new series for Amazon “may end up marking peak Peak TV,” and it seems a lot like a deal that was made for the sake of the coverage it would produce.)

Kevin Costner in JFK

But the most plausible explanation lies in simple economics. As the article explains, Netflix and the other streaming companies operate according to a “cost-plus” model: “Rather than holding out the promise of syndication gold, the company instead pays its studio and showrunner talent a guaranteed up-front profit—typically twenty or thirty percent above what it takes to make a show. In exchange, it owns all or most of the rights to distribute the show, domestically and internationally.” This limits the initial risk to the studio, but also the potential upside: nobody involved in producing the show itself will see any money on the back end. In addition, it means that even the lead actors of the series are paid a flat dollar amount, which makes them a more attractive investment than they might be for a movie. Most of the major stars in Hollywood earn gross points, which means that they get a cut of the box office receipts before the film turns a profit—a “first dollar” deal that makes the mathematics of breaking even much more complicated. The thought experiment about Bradley Whitford and Kevin Costner only makes sense if you can get Costner at a fixed salary per episode. In other words, movie stars are being actively courted by television because its model is a throwback to an earlier era, when actors were held under contract by a studio without any profit participation, and before stars and their agents negotiated better deals that ended up undermining the economic basis of the star system entirely.

And it’s revealing that Costner, of all actors, appears in this example. His name came up mostly because multiple sources told Vulture that he was offered $500,000 per episode to star in a streaming series: “He passed,” the article says, “but industry insiders predict he’ll eventually say ‘yes’ to the right offer.” But he also resonates because he stands for a kind of movie stardom that was already on the wane when he first became famous. It has something to do with the quintessentially American roles that he liked to play—even JFK is starting to seem like the last great national epic—and an aura that somehow kept him in leading parts two decades after his career as a major star was essentially over. That’s weirdly impressive in itself, and it testifies to how intriguing a figure he remains, even if audiences aren’t likely to pay to see him in a movie. Whenever I think of Costner, I remember what the studio executive Mike Medavoy once claimed to have told him right at the beginning of his career:

“You know,” I said to him over lunch, “I have this sense that I’m sitting here with someone who is going to become a great big star. You’re going to want to direct your own movies, produce your own movies, and you’re going to end up leaving your wife and going through the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle.”

Costner did, in fact, end up leaving his first wife. And if he also leaves film for television, even temporarily, it may reveal that “the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle” has a surprising final act that few of us could have anticipated.

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May 27, 2016 at 9:03 am

“Asthana glanced over at the television…”

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"A woman was standing just over his shoulder..."

Note: This post is the eighteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 19. You can read the previous installments here.

A quarter of a century ago, I read a story about the actor Art Carney, possibly apocryphal, that I’ve never forgotten. Here’s the version told by the stage and television actress Patricia Wilson:

During a live performance of the original Honeymooners, before millions of viewers, Jackie [Gleason] was late making an entrance into a scene. He left Art Carney onstage alone, in the familiar seedy apartment set of Alice and Ralph Kramden. Unflappable, Carney improvised action for Ed Norton. He looked around, scratched himself, then went to the Kramden refrigerator and peered in. He pulled out an orange, shuffled to the table, and sat down and peeled it. Meanwhile frantic stage managers raced to find Jackie. Art Carney sat onstage peeling and eating an orange, and the audience convulsed with laughter.

According to some accounts, Carney stretched the bit of business out for a full two minutes before Gleason finally appeared. And while it certainly speaks to Carney’s ingenuity and resourcefulness, we should also take a moment to tip our hats to that humble orange, as well as the prop master who thought to stick it in the fridge—unseen and unremarked—in the first place.

Theatrical props, as all actors and directors know, can be a source of unexpected ideas, just as the physical limitations or possibilities of the set itself can provide a canvas on which the action is conceived in real time. I’ve spoken elsewhere of the ability of vaudeville comedians to improvise routines on the spot using whatever was available on a standing set, and there’s a sense in which the richness of the physical environment in which a scene takes place is a battery from which the performances can draw energy. When a director makes sure that each actor’s pockets are full of the litter that a character might actually carry, it isn’t just a mark of obsessiveness or self-indulgence, or even a nod toward authenticity, but a matter of storing up potential tools. A prop by itself can’t make a scene work, but it can provide the seed around which a memorable moment or notion can grow, like a crystal. In more situations than you might expect, creativity lies less in the ability to invent from scratch than to make effective use of whatever happens to lie at hand. Invention is a precious resource, and most artists have a finite amount of it; it’s better, whenever possible, to utilize what the world provides. And much of the time, when you’re faced with a hard problem to solve, you’ll find that the answer is right there in the background.

"Asthana glanced over at the television..."

This is as true of writing fiction as of any of the performing arts. In the past, I’ve suggested that this is the true purpose of research or location work: it isn’t about accuracy, but about providing raw material for dreams, and any writer faced with the difficult task of inventing a scene would be wise to exploit what already exists. It’s infinitely easier to write a chase scene, for example, if you’re tailoring it to the geography of a particular street. As usual, it comes back to the problem of making choices: the more tangible or physical the constraints, the more likely they’ll generate something interesting when they collide with the fundamentally abstract process of plotting. Even if the scene I’m writing takes place somewhere wholly imaginary, I’ll treat it as if it were being shot on location: I’ll pick a real building or locale that has the qualities I need for the story, pore over blueprints and maps, and depart from the real plan only when I don’t have any alternative. In most cases, the cost of that departure, in terms of the confusion it creates, is far greater than the time and energy required to make the story fit within an existing structure. For much the same reason, I try to utilize the props and furniture you’d naturally find there. And that’s all the more true when a scene occurs in a verifiable place.

Sometimes, this kind of attention to detail can result in surprising resonances. There’s a small example that I like in Chapter 19 of Eternal Empire. Rogozin, my accused intelligence agent, is being held without charges at a detention center in Paddington Green. This is a real location, and its physical setup becomes very important: Rogozin is going to be killed, in an apparent suicide, under conditions of heavy security. To prepare these scenes, I collected reference photographs, studied published descriptions, and shaped the action as much as possible to unfold logically under the constraints the location imposed. And one fact caught my eye, purely as a matter of atmosphere: the cells at Paddington Green are equipped with televisions, usually set to play something innocuous, like a nature video. This had obvious potential as a counterpoint to the action, so I went to work looking for a real video that might play there. And after a bit of searching, I hit on a segment from the BBC series Life in the Undergrowth, narrated by David Attenborough, about the curious life cycle of the gall wasp. The phenomenon it described, as an invading wasp burrows into the gall created by another, happened to coincide well—perhaps too well—with the story itself. As far as I’m concerned, it’s what makes Rogozin’s death scene work. And while I could have made up my own video to suit the situation, it seemed better, and easier, to poke around the stage first to see what I could find…

Written by nevalalee

May 7, 2015 at 9:11 am

The unbreakable television formula

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Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Watching the sixth season premiere of Community last night on Yahoo—which is a statement that would have once seemed like a joke in itself—I was struck by the range of television comedy we have at our disposal these days. We’ve said goodbye to Parks and Recreation, we’re following Community into what is presumably its final stretch, and we’re about to greet Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as it starts what looks to be a powerhouse run on Netflix. These shows are superficially in the same genre: they’re single-camera sitcoms that freely grant themselves elaborate sight gags and excursions into surrealism, with a cutaway style that owes as much to The Simpsons as to Arrested Development. Yet they’re palpably different in tone. Parks and Rec was the ultimate refinement of the mockumentary style, with talking heads and reality show techniques used to flesh out a narrative of underlying sweetness; Community, as always, alternates between obsessively detailed fantasy and a comic strip version of emotions to which we can all relate; and Kimmy Schmidt takes place in what I can only call Tina Fey territory, with a barrage of throwaway jokes and non sequiturs designed to be referenced and quoted forever.

And the diversity of approach we see in these three comedies makes the dramatic genre seem impoverished. Most television dramas are still basically linear; they’re told using the same familiar grammar of establishing shots, medium shots, and closeups; and they’re paced in similar ways. If you were to break down an episode by shot length and type, or chart the transitions between scenes, an installment of Game of Thrones would look a lot on paper like one of Mad Men. There’s room for individual quirks of style, of course: the handheld cinematography favored by procedurals has a different feel from the clinical, detached camera movements of House of Cards. And every now and then, we get a scene—like the epic tracking shot during the raid in True Detective—that awakens us to the medium’s potential. But the fact that such moments are striking enough to inspire think pieces the next day only points to how rare they are. Dramas are just less inclined to take big risks of structure and tone, and when they do, they’re likely to be hybrids. Shows like Fargo or Breaking Bad are able to push the envelope precisely because they have a touch of black comedy in their blood, as if that were the secret ingredient that allowed for greater formal daring.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

It isn’t hard to pin down the reason for this. A cutaway scene or extended homage naturally takes us out of the story for a second, and comedy, which is inherently more anarchic, has trained us to roll with it. We’re better at accepting artifice in comic settings, since we aren’t taking the story quite as seriously: whatever plot exists is tacitly understood to be a medium for the delivery of jokes. Which isn’t to say that we can’t care deeply about these characters; if anything, our feelings for them are strengthened because they take place in a stylized world that allows free play for the emotions. Yet this is also something that comedy had to teach us. It can be fun to watch a sitcom push the limits of plausibility to the breaking point, but if a drama deliberately undermines its own illusion of reality, we can feel cheated. Dramas that constantly draw attention to their own artifice, as Twin Peaks did, are more likely to become cult favorites than popular successes, since most of us just want to sit back and watch a story that presents itself using the narrative language we know. (Which, to be fair, is true of comedies as well: the three sitcoms I’ve mentioned above, taken together, have a fraction of the audience of something like The Big Bang Theory.)

In part, it’s a problem of definition. When a drama pushes against its constraints, we feel more comfortable referring to it as something else: Orange is the New Black, which tests its structure as adventurously as any series on the air today, has suffered at awards season from its resistance to easy categorization. But what’s really funny is that comedy escaped from its old formulas by appropriating the tools that dramas had been using for years. The three-camera sitcom—which has been responsible for countless masterpieces of its own—made radical shifts of tone and location hard to achieve, and once comedies liberated themselves from the obligation to unfold as if for a live audience, they could indulge in extended riffs and flights of imagination that were impossible before. It’s the kind of freedom that dramas, in theory, have always had, even if they utilize it only rarely. This isn’t to say that a uniformity of approach is a bad thing: the standard narrative grammar evolved for a reason, and if it gives us compelling characters with a maximum of transparency, that’s all for the better. Telling good stories is hard enough as it is, and formal experimentation for its own sake can be a trap in itself. Yet we’re still living in a world with countless ways of being funny, and only one way, within a narrow range of variations, of being serious. And that’s no laughing matter.

The crowded circle of television

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The cast of Mad Men

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite TV show of the year so far?”

There are times when watching television can start to feel like a second job—a pleasurable one, to be sure, but one that demands a lot of work nevertheless. Over the last year, I’ve followed more shows than ever, including Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Hannibal, Community, Parks and Recreation, House of Cards, The Vampire Diaries, and True Detective. For the most part, they’ve all had strong runs, and I’d have trouble picking a favorite. (If pressed, I’d probably go with Mad Men, if only for old times’ sake, with Hannibal as a very close second.) They’re all strikingly different in emphasis, tone, and setting, but they also have a lot in common. With one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment, these are dense shows with large casts and intricate storylines. Many seem devoted to pushing the limits of how much complexity can be accommodated within the constraints of the television format, which may be why the majority run for just ten to thirteen episodes: it’s hard to imagine that level of energy sustained over twenty or more installments.

And while I’m thrilled by the level of ambition visible here, it comes at a price. There’s a sort of arms race taking place between media of all kinds, as they compete to stand out in an increasingly crowded space with so much competing for our attention. Books, even literary novels, are expected to be page-turners; movies offer up massive spectacle to the point where miraculous visual effects are taken for granted; and television has taken to packing every minute of narrative time to the bursting point. (This isn’t true of all shows, of course—a lot of television series are still designed to play comfortably in the background of a hotel room—but it’s generally the case with prestige shows that end up on critics’ lists and honored at award ceremonies.) This trend toward complexity arises from a confluence of factors I’ve tried to unpack here before: just as The Simpsons was the first freeze-frame sitcom, modern television takes advantage of our streaming and binge-watching habits to deliver storytelling that rewards, and even demands, close attention.

Matthew McConaughey on True Detective

For the most part, this is a positive development. Yet there’s also a case to be made that television, which is so good at managing extended narratives and enormous casts of characters, is also uniquely suited for the opposite: silence, emptiness, and contemplation. In a film, time is a precious commodity, and when you’re introducing characters while also setting in motion the machinery of a complicated story, there often isn’t time to pause. Television, in theory, should be able to stretch out a little, interspersing relentless forward momentum with moments of quiet, which are often necessary for viewers to consolidate and process what they’ve seen. Twin Peaks was as crowded and plotty as any show on the air today, but it also found time for stretches of weird, inexplicable inaction, and it’s those scenes that I remember best. Even in the series finale, with so many threads to address and only forty minutes to cover them all, it devotes endless minutes to Cooper’s hallucinatory—and almost entirely static—ordeal in the Black Lodge, and even to a gag involving a decrepit bank manager rising from his desk and crossing the floor of his branch very, very slowly.

So while there’s a lot of fun to be had with shows that constantly accelerate the narrative pace, it can also be a limitation, especially when it’s handled less than fluently. (For every show, like Orange is the New Black, that manages to cut expertly between subplots, there’s another, like Game of Thrones, that can’t quite seem to handle its enormous scope, and even The Vampire Diaries is showing signs of strain.) Both Hannibal and Mad Men know when to linger on an image or revelation—roughly half of Hannibal is devoted to contemplating its other half—and True Detective, in particular, seemed to consist almost entirely of such pauses. We remember such high points as the final chase with the killer or the raid in “Who Goes There,” but what made the show special were the scenes in which nothing much seemed to be happening. It was aided in this by its limited cast and its tight focus on its two leads, so it’s possible that what shows really need to slow things down are a couple of movie stars to hold the eye. But it’s a step in the right direction. If time is a flat circle, as Rust says, so is television, and it’s good to see it coming back around.

The dreamlife of television

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Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad

I’ve been dreaming a lot about Breaking Bad. On Wednesday, my wife and I returned from a trip to Barcelona, where we’d spent a beautiful week: my baby daughter was perfectly happy to be toted around various restaurants, cultural sites, and the Sagrada Familia, and it came as a welcome break from my own work. Unfortunately, it also meant that we were going to miss the Breaking Bad finale, which aired the Sunday before we came home. For a while, I seriously considered bringing my laptop and downloading it while we were out of the country, both because I was enormously anxious to see how the show turned out and because I dreaded the spoilers I’d have to avoid for the three days before we returned. In the end, I gritted my teeth and decided to wait until we got home. This meant avoiding most of my favorite news and pop cultural sites—I was afraid to even glance past the top few headlines on the New York Times—and staying off Twitter entirely, which I suppose wasn’t such a great loss. And even as we toured the Picasso Museum and walked for miles along the marina with a baby in tow, my thoughts were rarely very far from Walter White.

This must have done quite a number on my psyche, because I started dreaming about the show with alarming frequency. My dreams included two separate, highly elaborated versions of the finale, one of which was a straightforward bloodbath with a quiet epilogue, the other a weird metafictional conclusion in which the events of the series were played out on a movie screen with the cast and crew watching them unfold—which led me to exclaim, while still dreaming: “Of course that’s how they would end it!” Now that I’ve finally seen the real finale, the details of these dreams are fading, and only a few scraps of imagery remain. Yet the memories are still emotionally charged, and they undoubtedly affected how I approached the last episode itself, which I was afraid would never live up to the versions I’d dreamed for myself. I suspect that a lot of fans, even those who didn’t actually hallucinate alternate endings, probably felt the same way. (For the record, I liked the finale a lot, even if it ranks a notch below the best episodes of the show, which was always best at creating chaos, not resolving it. And I think about its closing moments almost every day.)

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

And it made me reflect on the ways in which television, especially in its modern, highly serialized form, is so conducive to dreaming. Dreams are a way of assembling and processing fragments of the day’s experience, or recollections from the distant past, and a great television series is nothing less than a vast storehouse of memories from another life. When a show is as intensely serialized as Breaking Bad was, it can be hard to remember individual episodes, aside from the occasional formal standout like “Fly”: I can’t always recall what scenes took place when, or in what order, and an especially charged sequence of installments—like the last half of this final season—tends to blend together into a blur of vivid impressions. What I remember are facial expressions, images, bits of dialogue: “Stay out of my territory.” “Run.” “Tread lightly.” And the result is a mine of moments that end up naturally incorporated into my own subconscious. A good movie or novel exists as a piece, and I rarely find myself dreaming alternate lives for, say, Rick and Ilsa or Charles Foster Kane. With Walter White, it’s easy to imagine different paths that the action could have taken, and those byways play themselves out in the deepest parts of my brain.

Which may explain why television is so naturally drawn to dream sequences and fantasies, which are only one step removed from the supposedly factual events of the shows themselves. Don Draper’s dreams have become a huge part of Mad Men, almost to the point of parody, and this has always been an art form that attracts surreal temperaments, from David Lynch to Bryan Fuller, even if they tend to be destroyed by it. As I’ve often said before, it’s the strangest medium I know, and at its best, it’s the outcome of many unresolved tensions. Television can feel maddeningly real, a hidden part of your own life, which is why it can be so hard to say goodbye to a great show. It’s also impossible to get a lasting grip on it or to hold it all in your mind at once, especially if it runs for more than a few seasons, which hints at an even deeper meaning. I’ve always been struck by how poorly we integrate the different chapters in our own past: there are entire decades of my life that I don’t think about for months on end. When they return, it’s usually in the hours just before waking. And by teaching us to process narratives that can last for years, it’s possible that television subtly trains us to better understand the shapes of our own lives, even if it’s only in dreams.

Written by nevalalee

October 7, 2013 at 8:27 am

Posted in Television

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Critical television studies

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The cast of Community

Television is such a pervasive medium that it’s easy to forget how deeply strange it is. Most works of art are designed to be consumed all at once, or at least in a fixed period of time—it’s physically possible, if not entirely advisable, to read War and Peace in one sitting. Television, by contrast, is defined by the fact of its indefinite duration. House of Cards aside, it seems likely that most of us will continue to watch shows week by week, year after year, until they become a part of our lives. This kind of extended narrative can be delightful, but it’s also subject to risk. A beloved show can change for reasons beyond anyone’s control. Sooner or later, we find out who killed Laura Palmer. An actor’s contract expires, so Mulder is abducted by aliens, and even if he comes back, by that point, we’ve lost interest. For every show like Breaking Bad that has its dark evolution mapped out for seasons to come, there’s a series like Glee, which disappoints, or Parks and Recreation, which gradually reveals a richness and warmth that you’d never guess from the first season alone. And sometimes a show breaks your heart.

It’s clear at this point that the firing of Dan Harmon from Community was the most dramatic creative upheaval for any show in recent memory. This isn’t the first time that a show’s guiding force has departed under less than amicable terms—just ask Frank Darabont—but it’s unusual in a series so intimately linked to one man’s particular vision. Before I discovered Community, I’d never heard of Dan Harmon, but now I care deeply about what this guy feels and thinks. (Luckily, he’s never been shy about sharing this with the rest of us.) And although it’s obvious from the opening minutes of last night’s season premiere that the show’s new creative team takes its legacy seriously, there’s no escaping the sense that they’re a cover band doing a great job with somebody else’s music. Showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port do their best to convince us out of the gate that they know how much this show means to us, and that’s part of the problem. Community was never a show about reassuring us that things won’t change, but about unsettling us with its endless transformations, even as it delighted us with its new tricks.

The Community episode "Remedial Chaos Theory"

Don’t get me wrong: I laughed a lot at last night’s episode, and I was overjoyed to see these characters again. By faulting the new staff for repeating the same beats I loved before, when I might have been outraged by any major alterations, I’m setting it up so they just can’t win. But the show seems familiar now in a way that would have seemed unthinkable for most of its first three seasons. Part of the pleasure of watching the series came from the fact that you never knew what the hell might happen next, and it wasn’t clear if Harmon knew either. Not all of his experiments worked: there even some clunkers, like “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” in the glorious second season, which is one of my favorite runs of any modern sitcom. But as strange as this might have once seemed, it feels like we finally know what Community is about. It’s a show that takes big formal risks, finds the emotional core in a flurry of pop culture references, and has no idea how to use Chevy Chase. And although I’m grateful that this version of the show has survived, I don’t think I’m going to tune in every week wondering where in the world it will take me.

And the strange thing is that Community might have gone down this path with or without Harmon. When a show needs only two seasons to establish that anything is possible, even the most outlandish developments can seem like variations on a theme. Even at the end of the third season, there was the sense that the series was repeating itself. I loved “Digital Estate Planning,” for instance, but it felt like the latest attempt to do one of the formally ambitious episodes that crop up at regular intervals each season, rather than an idea that forced itself onto television because the writers couldn’t help themselves. In my review of The Master, I noted that Paul Thomas Anderson has perfected his brand of hermetic filmmaking to the point where it would be more surprising if he made a movie that wasn’t ambiguous, frustrating, and deeply weird. Community has ended up in much the same place, so maybe it’s best that Harmon got out when he did. It’s doubtful that the series will ever be able to fake us out with a “Critical Film Studies” again, because it’s already schooled us, like all great shows, in how it needs to be watched. And although its characters haven’t graduated from Greendale yet, its viewers, to their everlasting benefit, already have.

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

Wouldn’t it be easier to write for television?

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Last week, I had dinner with a college friend I hadn’t seen in years, who is thinking about giving up a PhD in psychology to write for television in Los Angeles. We spent a long time commiserating about the challenges of the medium, at least from a writer’s point of view, hitting many of the points that I’ve discussed here before. With the prospects of a fledgling television show so uncertain, I said, especially when the show might be canceled after four episodes, or fourteen, or forty, it’s all but impossible for the creator to tell effective stories over time. Running a television show is one of the hardest jobs in the world, with countless obstacles along the way, even for critical darlings. Knowing all this, I asked my friend, why did he want to do this in the first place?

My friend’s response was an enlightening one. The trouble with writing novels or short stories, he said, is the fact that the author is expected to spend a great deal of time on description, style, and other tedious elements that a television writer can cheerfully ignore. Teleplays, like feature scripts, are nothing but structure and dialogue (or maybe just structure, as William Goldman says), and there’s something liberating in how they strip storytelling down to its core. The writer takes care of the bones of the narrative, which is where his primary interest presumably lies, then outsources the work of casting, staging, and art direction to qualified professionals who are happy to do the work. And while I didn’t agree with everything my friend said, I could certainly see his point.

Yet that’s only half of the story. It’s true that a screenwriter gets to outsource much of the conventional apparatus of fiction to other departments, but only at the price of creative control. You may have an idea about how a character should look, or what kind of home he should have, or how a moment of dialogue, a scene, or an overall story should unfold, but as a writer, you don’t have much control over the matter. Scripts are easier to write than novels for a reason: they’re only one piece of a larger enterprise, which is reflected in the writer’s relative powerlessness. The closest equivalent to a novelist in television isn’t the writer, but the executive producer. Gene Roddenberry, in The Making of Star Trek, neatly sums up the similarity between the two roles:

Producing in television is like storytelling. The choice of the actor, picking the right costumes, getting the right flavor, the right pace—these are as much a part of storytelling as writing out that same description of a character in a novel.

And the crucial point about producing a television series, like directing a feature film, is that it’s insanely hard. As Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant point out in their surprisingly useful Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, as far as directing is concerned, “If you’re doing it right, it’s not that fun.” As a feature director or television producer, you’re responsible for a thousand small but critical decisions that need to be made very quickly, and while you’re working on the story, you’re also casting parts, scouting for locations, dealing with the studio and the heads of various departments, and surviving on only a few hours of sleep a night, for a year or more of your life. In short, the amount of effort required to keep control of the project is greater, not less, than what is required to write a novel—except with more money on the line, in public, and with greater risk that control will eventually be taken away from you.

So it easier to write for television? Yes, if that’s all you want to do. But if you want control of your work, if you want your stories to be experienced in a form close to what you originally envisioned, it isn’t easier. It’s much harder. Which is why, to my mind, John Irving still puts it best: “When I feel like being a director, I write a novel.”

Lessons from great (and not-so-great) television

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It can be hard for a writer to admit being influenced by television. In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner struck a disdainful note that hasn’t changed much since:

Much of the dialogue one encounters in student fiction, as well as plot, gesture, even setting, comes not from life but from life filtered through TV. Many student writers seem unable to tell their own most important stories—the death of a father, the first disillusionment in love—except in the molds and formulas of TV. One can spot the difference at once because TV is of necessity—given its commercial pressures—false to life.

In the nearly thirty years since Gardner wrote these words, the television landscape has changed dramatically, but it’s worth pointing out that much of what he says here is still true. The basic elements of fiction—emotion, character, theme, even plot—need to come from close observation of life, or even the most skillful novel will eventually ring false. That said, the structure of fiction, and the author’s understanding of the possibilities of the form, doesn’t need to come from life alone, and probably shouldn’t. To develop a sense of what fiction can do, a writer needs to pay close attention to all types of art, even the nonliterary kind. And over the past few decades, television has expanded the possibilities of narrative in ways that no writer can afford to ignore.

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider a show like The Wire, which tells complex stories involving a vast range of characters, locations, and social issues in ways that aren’t possible in any other medium. The Simpsons, at least in its classic seasons, acquired a richness and velocity that continued to build for years, until it had populated a world that rivaled the real one for density and immediacy. (Like the rest of the Internet, I respond to most situations with a Simpsons quote.) And Mad Men continues to furnish a fictional world of astonishing detail and charm. World-building, it seems, is where television shines: in creating a long-form narrative that begins with a core group of characters and explores them for years, until they can come to seem as real as one’s own family and friends.

Which is why Glee can seem like such a disappointment. Perhaps because the musical is already the archest of genres, the show has always regarded its own medium with an air of detachment, as if the conventions of the after-school special or the high school sitcom were merely a sandbox in which the producers could play. On some level, this is fine: The Simpsons, among many other great shows, has fruitfully treated television as a place for narrative experimentation. But by turning its back on character continuity and refusing to follow any plot for more than a few episodes, Glee is abandoning many of the pleasures that narrative television can provide. Watching the show run out of ideas for its lead characters in less than two seasons simply serves as a reminder of how challenging this kind of storytelling can be.

Mad Men, by contrast, not only gives us characters who take on lives of their own, but consistently lives up to those characters in its acting, writing, and direction. (This is in stark contrast to Glee, where I sense that a lot of the real action is taking place in fanfic.) And its example has changed the way I write. My first novel tells a complicated story with a fairly controlled cast of characters, but Mad Men—in particular, the spellbinding convergence of plots in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”—reminded me of the possibilities of expansive casts, which allows characters to pair off and develop in unexpected ways. (The evolution of Christina Hendricks’s Joan from eye candy to second lead is only the most obvious example.) As a result, I’ve tried to cast a wider net with my second novel, using more characters and settings in the hopes that something unusual will arise. Television, strangely, has made me more ambitious. I’d like to think that even John Gardner would approve.

Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2011 at 8:41 am

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

The doomsday defense

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Note: Plot details follow for the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.”

You don’t usually get to pinpoint the precise moment at which your life changed, but for me, it occurred at about a quarter past nine on the evening of Friday, March 31, 1995. I was watching television in my bedroom, just a few feet away from a set that had been inconveniently placed against the wall by the foot of the bed. Because of its location, the most logical way to watch it was seated on the rug, all but pressed up against the screen, which meant that I experienced much of the second season of The X-Files from a position where I was close enough to touch it. That night, the episode was “Humbug,” and the scene that grabbed me the most was the Alligator Man’s funeral, which culminates in a character played by the circus performer Jim Rose clawing his way out of the grave to drive a steel spike into his own chest. After the attendees spill out of their chairs, Mulder waits for a beat and then deadpans: “I can’t wait for the wake.” And while this was far from the first outright joke to appear on the show—it had the usual number of quips and smart remarks that you see in any procedural—something about that line felt different from everything that came before it. It seemed to stand slightly above and to one side of the action, inviting us to note how absurd it all was before diving in even deeper. In allowing Mulder and Scully to be ironic about the situations in which they found themselves, it singlehandedly expanded the possibilities of a series that already seemed capable of anything. But it also brutally awakened us to how limited the show and its audience had been all along.

I thought of this moment again while watching the show last night, in which Mulder, now decades older, digs through a carton of videocassettes, looking in vain for a tape that no longer seems to exist. When Scully says that it can’t have been that good of an episode, Mulder shoots back: “It’s not about the episode, Scully. It’s about my memory of seeing my first Twilight Zone. It changed me. You don’t forget that.” The author of these lines, of course, is Darin Morgan, and I’d like to think that this exchange is a nod to the undeniable fact that his work changed the lives of countless viewers when it first aired more than twenty years ago. The core of Morgan’s achievement—which I define as the episodes “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “War of the Coprophages,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” along with “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” and “Somehow Satan Got Behind Me” from Millennium and “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” and now “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” on the current revival—is my favorite body of work by any single writer on television. Over the years, it has certainly meant more to me than any other. Morgan is often remembered as the writer who introduced a note of black comedy into The X-Files, but his real contribution was his insight that humor is the only way of dealing with certain truths that can’t be ignored. A fluke monster or zombie isn’t nearly as terrifying as the knowledge that after a lifetime of struggling for love, approval, and security, we’re all destined to die alone. Not even Mulder and Scully can do anything about this. What else can you do but laugh?

“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is probably the last episode of The X-Files that we’ll ever get from Darin Morgan, and it plays like a valediction to a show that has consumed more of his life—and mine—than either of us had any right to expect. (If “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was Morgan’s most modest effort since “Humbug,” “Forehead Sweat” returns to the insane formal experimentation of the two episodes featuring the writer Jose Chung, and its only real shortcoming is the unavoidable absence of the late Charles Nelson Reilly.) In typical Morgan fashion, it starts out as a riff on the Mandela Effect, complete with a reference to the Berenstain Bears, and then quietly begins to drop hints that our existential predicament is worse than we ever suspected. Morgan’s central theme has always been the futility of our pretensions in the face of death, but now he implies that even Mulder and Scully may have been wasting their time all along. He pins the blame on one figure in particular, and it isn’t the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Beneath its surface whimsy, this is the angriest, most politically charged episode in the history of The X-Files, and while some of its gags about a border wall may seem too on the nose, Morgan is writing for a future audience that will hopefully find them more obscure. But he’s also posing a question that feels all too relevant. Now that we’re living in a time when crimes can be committed in plain sight because millions of Americans seem willing to forgive, overlook, or deny everything, what’s the point of a government conspiracy? Mulder has devoted his life to searching for the truth, but even if he finds it, it’s possible that nobody will care.

Morgan doesn’t have an answer, and our world continues to change too rapidly to be satirized by even the most sophisticated works of art. (At one point in the episode, a character refers to “our current president” uttering the phrase “Nobody knows for sure.” I couldn’t place the reference, so I looked it up online, only to find that Trump had tweeted it about the status of the Dreamers just the day before the episode aired. As a radio host on The Simpsons once marveled of a computerized disk jockey: “How does it keep up with the news like that?”) But maybe the overall arc of Morgan’s career offers us a reason for hope. He never felt entirely at home in the writers room, and his skepticism toward the show itself was manifested both in his fondness for Scully—no one has ever done a better job of writing for her—and in his open contempt for Mulder. For years after leaving the series, he kicked around Hollywood without any writing credits, and he often came off as ambivalent toward his own accomplishments. Now he seems to have made his peace with it, and his status as a relative outsider allows him to express his affection for the show’s legacy more honestly than someone like Chris Carter ever could. “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was like an olive branch to the characters with whom, for better or worse, he’ll always be associated, and “Forehead Sweat” feels like his farewell. At the end, with a sentimentality that would seem excessive coming from anyone else, Scully says to Mulder: “I want to remember it how it was. I want to remember how it all was.” So do I. In particular, I want to remember Jose Chung, whose last act, after being fatally attacked by an axe murderer, was to point to Terry O’Quinn and ask: “Don’t you just love that mustache?” And when I remember Darin Morgan, all I want to do is thank him. For all of it.

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.

The pursuit of trivia

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Over the last few months, my wife and I have been obsessively playing HQ Trivia, an online game show that until recently was available only on Apple devices. If you somehow haven’t encountered it by now, it’s a live video broadcast, hosted by the weirdly ingratiating comedian Scott Rogowsky, in which players are given the chance to answer twelve multiple-choice questions. If you get one wrong, you’re eliminated, but if you make it to the end, you split the prize—which ranges from a few hundred to thousands of dollars—with the remaining contestants. Early on, my wife and I actually made it to the winner’s circle four times, earning a total of close to fifty bucks. (Unfortunately, the game’s payout minimum means that we currently have seventeen dollars that we can’t cash out until we’ve won again, which at this point seems highly unlikely.) That was back when the pool of contestants on a typical evening consisted of fewer than ten thousand players. Last night, there were well over a million, which set a new record. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than twice the number of people who watched the first airing of the return of Twin Peaks. It’s greater than the viewership of the average episode of Girls. In an era when many of us watch even sporting events, award ceremonies, or talk shows on a short delay, HQ Trivia obliges its viewers to pay close attention at the same time for ten minutes or more at a stretch. And we’re at a point where it feels like a real accomplishment to force any live audience, which is otherwise so balkanized and diffused, to focus on this tiny node of content.

Not surprisingly, the game has inspired a certain amount of curiosity about its ultimate intentions. It runs no advertisements of any kind, with a prize pool funded entirely by venture capital. But its plans aren’t exactly a mystery. As the reporter Todd Spangler writes in Variety:

So how do HQ Trivia’s creators plan to make money, instead of just giving it away? [Co-founder Rus] Yusupov said monetization is not currently the company’s focus. That said, it’s “getting a ton of interest from brands and agencies who want to collaborate and do something fun,” he added. “If we do any brand integrations or sponsors, the focus will be on making it enhance the gameplay,” Yusupov said. “For a user, the worst thing is feeling like, ‘I’m being optimized—I’m the product now.’ We want to make a great game, and make it grow and become something really special.”

It’s worth remembering that this game launched only this past August, and that we’re at a very early stage in its development, which has shrewdly focused on increasing its audience without any premature attempts at turning a profit. Startups are often criticized for focusing on metrics like “clicks” or “eyeballs” without showing how to turn them into revenue, but for HQ, it makes a certain amount of sense—these are literal eyeballs, all demonstrably turned to the same screen at once, and it yields the closest thing that anyone has seen in years to a captive audience. When the time comes for it to approach sponsors, it’s going to present a compelling case indeed.

But the specter of a million users glued simultaneously to their phones, hanging on Scott Rogowsky’s every word, fills some onlookers with uneasiness. Rogowsky himself has joked on the air about the comparisons to Black Mirror, and several commentators have taken it even further. Ian Bogost says in The Atlantic:

Why do I feel such dread when I play? It’s not the terror of losing, or even that of being embarrassed for answering questions wrong in front of my family and friends…It’s almost as if HQ is a fictional entertainment broadcast, like the kind created to broadcast the Hunger Games in the fictional nation of Panem. There, the motion graphics, the actors portraying news or talk-show hosts, the sets, the chyrons—they impose the grammar of television in order to recreate it, but they contort it in order to emphasize that it is also fictional…HQ bears the same sincere fakery, but seems utterly unaware that it is doing so.

And Miles Surrey of The Ringer envisions a dark future, over a century from now, in which playing the app is compulsory:

Scott—or “Trill Trebek,” or simply “God”—is a messianic figure to the HQties, the collective that blindly worships him, and a dictatorial figure to the rest of us…I made it to question 17. My children will eat today…You need to delete HQ from your phones. What appears to be an exciting convergence of television and app content is in truth the start of something terrifying, irreparable, and dangerous. You are conditioned to stop what you’re doing twice a day and play a trivia game—that is just Phase 1.

Yet I suspect that the real reason that this game feels so sinister to some observers is that it marks a return to a phenomenon that we thought we’d all left behind, and which troubled us subconsciously in ways that we’re only starting to grasp. It’s appointment television. In my time zone, the game airs around eight o’clock at night, which happens to be when I put my daughter to bed. I never know exactly how long the process will take—sometimes she falls asleep at once, but she tends to stall—so I usually get downstairs to join my wife about five or ten minutes later. By that point, the game has begun, and I often hear her say glumly: “I got out already.” And that’s it. It’s over until the same time tomorrow. Even if there were a way to rewind, there’s no point, because the money has already been distributed and nothing else especially interesting happened. (The one exception was the episode that aired on the day that one of the founders threatened to fire Rogowsky in retaliation for a profile in The Daily Beast, which marked one of the few times that the show’s mask seemed to crack.) But believe it or not, this is how we all used to watch television. We couldn’t record, pause, or control what was on, which is a fact that my daughter finds utterly inexplicable whenever we stay in a hotel room. It was a collective experience, but we also conducted it in relative isolation, except from the people who were in the same room as we were. That’s true of HQ as well, which moves at such a high speed that it’s impossible to comment on it on social media without getting thrown off your rhythm. These days, many of us only watch live television together at shared moments of national trauma, and HQ is pointedly the opposite. It’s trivial, but we have no choice but to watch it at the exact same time, with no chance of saving, pausing, or sharing. The screen might be smaller, but otherwise, it’s precisely what many of us did for decades. And if it bothers us now, it’s only because we’ve realized how dystopian it was all along.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2018 at 9:20 am

American Stories #10: Hamilton

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

On August 6, 2015, Hamilton opened at the Richard Rogers Theatre in New York, where it has played to full houses ever since. It marked the moment at which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical exploded into the popular consciousness, and it also means that we’re approaching an important crossover point. In about three weeks, Hamilton will have spent more time on Broadway under a Trump presidency—either prospective or actual—than it did under Barack Obama. And its reception has been so inseparable from the historical era in which it happened to reach a vast audience, after spending more than five years in writing and development, that this fact seems more than simply symbolic. To a greater extent than any other recent work of art, this musical has engaged in a continuous dialogue with its country, and its most Shakespearean quality is the way in which it always seems to be speaking about current events. Its Broadway premiere occurred less than a month after Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency, and although his announcement is remembered mostly for equating Mexican immigrants with rapists, the words that he uttered a few seconds earlier were even more revealing: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you.” Among other things, Hamilton is a story about who “you” and “we” really are in America, and while its answer to that question has remained consistent, the culture in which its echoes are heard has changed with bewildering speed. During the campaign, I found it almost physically painful to think about the line “Immigrants—we get the job done,” which was received so enthusiastically by its listeners that Miranda had to add a few beats of silence to absorb the applause. I wanted to believe it, but I was also afraid that the job wouldn’t get done after all, and it didn’t. But it wasn’t the fault of our immigrants, who have found themselves back at the center of our politics even as they remain marginalized in other ways. And we might all be better off now if it really had been up to them.

Like many people, I haven’t stopped listening to Hamilton since. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a live singalong at the public library in Oak Park that drew hundreds of adults and children over the course of two days—they had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the crowd. It was unbearably moving. Yet it’s also undeniable that Hamilton plays so well in part because it leaves so much unsaid. As the Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro has written:

The idea that this musical “looks like America looks now” in contrast to “then,” however, is misleading and actively erases the presence and role of black and brown people in Revolutionary America, as well as before and since…Despite the proliferation of brown and black bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. For the space of only a couple of bars, a chorus member assumes the role of Sally Hemings, but is recognizable as such only by those who catch Jefferson’s reference to the enslaved woman with whom he had an ongoing sexual relationship. Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.

I don’t think that there’s any question that Monteiro is basically right here, and that the diversity of Hamilton’s cast allows it to absorb America’s racial legacy into the overwhelming charisma of its performers, rather than confronting it explicitly in the text. (A song that addressed it directly, “Cabinet Battle #3,” was cut from the finished show, although it appears on The Hamilton Mixtape.) Unless you happen to actually be Mike Pence, it won’t make you uncomfortable for even a fraction of a second, which may have been necessary for it to reach its present cultural status. I’m grateful for what it does accomplish, but its success also points to how many stories have yet to be told. And perhaps it was more important that it gave us a chance, through a beneficent sleight of hand, to take pride in our history one last time.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2018 at 9:18 am

American Stories #9: 808s & Heartbreak

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

If there’s a common thread that connects many of the works of art that I’ve been discussing here, it’s the way in which our private selves can be invaded by our lives as members of a larger nation, until the two become neurotically fused into one. This is probably true of all countries, but its deeper connection with the notion of personal reinvention feels especially American, and no celebrity embodies it as much as Kanye West. It might seem impossible to make sense of the political evolution of a man who once told us that President Bush didn’t care about black people and then ended up—despite the efforts of a concerned time traveler—taking a very public meeting with Donald Trump. Yet if one of our most ambitious, talented, and inventive artists can be frequently dismissed by critics as “oblivious,” it may only be because he’s living two years ahead of the rest of us, and he’s unusually committed to working out his confusions in public. We should all feel bewildered these days, and West doesn’t have the luxury of keeping it to himself. It might seem strange to single out 808s & Heartbreak, which looks at first glance like his least political work, but if this is the most important album of the last ten years, and it is, it’s largely because it reminded us of how unbearable emotion can be expressed through what might seem to casual listeners like cold detachment. It’s an insight that has crucial implications for those of us who just want to get through the next few years, and while West wasn’t the first to make it, he was remarkably candid about acknowledging his sources to the New York Times:

I think the fact that I can’t sing that well is what makes 808s so special…808s was the first album of that kind, you know? It was the first, like, black new wave album. I didn’t realize I was new wave until this project. Thus my connection with Peter Saville, with Raf Simons, with high-end fashion, with minor chords. I hadn’t heard new wave! But I am a black new wave artist.

This is exactly right, and it gets at why this album, which once came off as a perverse dead end, feels so much now like the only way forward. When I think of its precursors, my mind naturally turns to the Pet Shop Boys, particularly on Actually, which was first released in 1987. A song like “Shopping” anticipates 808s in its vocal processing, its dry drum machine, its icy synthesizers, and above all in how it was widely misconstrued as a reflection of the Thatcherite consumerism that it was criticizing. That’s the risk that you run as an ironist, and West has been punished for it more often than anybody else. And while these two worlds could hardly seem further apart, the underlying impulses are weirdly similar. New wave is notoriously hard to define, but I like to think of it as a movement occupied by those who aren’t comfortable in rock or punk. Maybe you’re just a huge nerd, or painfully shy, or not straight or white, or part of a group that has traditionally been penalized for expressing vulnerability or dissent. One solution is to remove as much of yourself from the work as possible, falling back on irony, parody, or Auto-Tune. You make a virtue of reticence and understatement, trusting that your intentions will be understood by those who feel the same way. This underlies the obsessive pastiches of Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, whose 69 Love Songs is the other great album of my adult life, as well as West’s transformation of himself into a robot programmed to feel pain, like an extended version of the death of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. West has taken it further in the years since—“Blood on the Leaves” may be his most scandalous mingling of the political and the personal—but it was 808s that introduced it to his successors, for whom it serves both as a formula for making hits and as an essential means of survival. Sometimes the only way to make it through the coldest winter is to turn it into the coldest story ever told.

American Stories #8: Mad Men

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

These days, it’s impossible for me to think about Mad Men without taking into account the accusations leveled against its creator, Matthew Weiner, at the height of last year’s overdue reckoning with sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry. Weiner wasn’t the first or last man whose body of work I’ve admired to be accused of such behavior, but his case is more tangled up than usual with my feelings toward his career. Here’s the most widely reported version of the interaction described by former Mad Men writer Kater Gordon, who won an Emmy for the brilliant episode “Meditations in an Emergency”:

Gordon says she was harassed by Weiner late one night when he allegedly said to her that she owed it to him to let him see her naked. She says she “froze and tried to brush [the comments] off” by continuing to work with Weiner that evening in the office…“I knew immediately when he crossed the boundary that it was wrong,” Gordon told The Information. “But I didn’t know then what my options were. Having a script or some sentences cued up as an arsenal—like a self-defense harassment arsenal—I could have used that in that moment, and it would have saved me years of regret that I didn’t handle that situation differently.”

Gordon was “let go” from the show a year later, and Weiner has contested her version of events. But it’s worth noting how both of them frame the alleged incident in terms of their identity as writers. Gordon speaks of not having “a script or some sentences cued up as an arsenal,” while Weiner’s spokesperson said in a statement: “Mr. Weiner spent eight to ten hours a day writing dialogue aloud with Miss Gordon, who started on Mad Men as his writers assistant.” And it’s that otherwise inexplicable “Miss Gordon”—which makes Weiner sound as if he still thinks that he’s actually living in the sixties—that may be the most revealing detail of all.

After hearing Gordon’s story, Marti Noxon, who served as a consulting producer on the show, said on Twitter: “Anyone with an even cursory knowledge of the show Mad Men could imagine that very line coming from the mouth of Pete Campbell.” Mad Men offers plenty of material for those who want to mine it for insights into its creator’s inner life, and while it’s probably worth resisting this temptation, it isn’t entirely irrelevant, either. This is a show that has meant more to me than just about any other television series. It premiered just one month after my future wife and I started dating, and it aired its finale when my daughter was two years old, which means that it provided a backdrop and a soundtrack to my feelings about adulthood, marriage, and children. And it may not have always been for the best. I’ve noted before how its period setting allowed it to depict attitudes that were ostensibly the object of criticism, while also evoking a twisted, almost subliminal nostalgia, in part because its surfaces were so seductive. Like so many American movies and television shows, Mad Men is a critique of masculinity that undermines its own points by embodying them in a man who looks like Jon Hamm. I suspect that the male viewers who responded to the way Don spoke, dressed, smoked, and drank far outnumbered those who were inspired by his portrayal to ask hard questions of themselves—and this doesn’t even get at his treatment of women. What occurred between Weiner and Gordon, if true, feels like a distorted version of the relationship between Don and Peggy, and if the show itself never took it in that direction, it may only be because Weiner’s instincts were better as a writer than they were in his personal life. But they weren’t infallible. As time goes on, issues like the show’s frequent confusion over what to do with Betty and its inability to tell extended stories about black characters seem less like forgivable shortcomings than lamentably missed opportunities. This is still the best television drama I’ve ever seen, but I wouldn’t want to live in it. And it’s clear by now that it succeeded in part because there are a lot of people who would.

Written by nevalalee

January 10, 2018 at 8:45 am

American Stories #7: The Simpsons

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

By now, it might seem that there isn’t anything new to say about The Simpsons, but it’s worth emphasizing how much it depended on an accident of timing. When it premiered, there hadn’t been a successful animated show in primetime since The Flintstones, and it clearly bore the fingerprints of its most famous predecessor. It was a family sitcom designed more or less along the lines of the ones that had come before it—Matt Groening came up with the concept in the waiting room before a pitch meeting—and while its tone and attitude were new, its structure in the early days was resolutely conventional. If it rapidly evolved, this was thanks in large part to luck. Bit players like Apu or Principal Skinner, introduced for the sake of a specific gag, stuck around to be brought back for a few lines at a time because they depended only on the availability of a core voice cast, which meant that the population of Springfield naturally increased. The number of potential characters was as infinite as it was on a good sketch comedy show, with no limits on how many could appear in a single scene. As the animation grew more sophisticated, the writers began to see that they could literally go anywhere and do anything, within the limits imposed by the patience and ability of the animators. (The directors, who were occasionally overwhelmed, joked about being asked to draw “an elephant stampede in a hall of mirrors,” but they invariably rose to the challenge.) Instead of a series about a family, which is what its title still implied, it became a show about everything in the world, and early breakthroughs like Bart the Murderer expanded its scope to all of popular culture. Its network was content to leave it alone. And if it ultimately emerged as a work of art vast enough to form the basis of its own metaphorical language, it was because the medium had risen to meet the ambitions of its writers at that exact moment.

The first eight seasons of The Simpsons remain the greatest case study imaginable for what happens when a small group of smart people is given creative freedom within a form that imposes minimal constraints on the imagination, given enough ingenuity and intelligence. Yet the same elements that enabled the show’s success also contributed to its decline, which will last, in the end, for at least twice as long as its golden age. From the beginning, the cast and crew were predominately white and male, and its treatment of minorities is finally drawing the scrutiny that it deserves. Its producers engaged in a form of category selection in hiring new writers who looked pretty much like they did, which was both a symptom and a cause of the lack of diversity in the industry as a whole, and the result was an echo chamber, brilliant and dead, that seemed disconnected from anything but itself. There’s also a hint of the pattern of generational succession that you see in so many successful startups. The founding members tend to be weirdos like George Meyer or John Swartzwelder, who are willing to take creative chances in oddball projects like the magazine Army Man, but as the enterprise becomes more successful, the second wave of hires comes from Harvard, with talent that is conventionally accomplished but deeply risk averse. And the series today looks more or less like you might expect. It’s a show that continues to grow on a technical level—although its animation has also grown more conservative—but hasn’t advanced creatively in fifteen years; it settles for the kind of cleverness that plays well in the room but is unlikely to make an impression on viewers; and it has no real incentive to change. The Simpsons is still the best show ever made about America. But the most American thing about it might be its downfall.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2018 at 8:35 am

American Stories #6: The Shining

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

“Vanderbilts have stayed here, and Rockefellers, and Astors, and Du Ponts,” Stuart Ullmann, the manager of the Overlook Hotel, smugly informs Jack Torrance in the opening pages of Stephen King’s The Shining. “Four presidents have stayed in the Presidential Suite. Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon.” After Torrance replies that they shouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon, Ullmann adds, frowning, that the hotel was later purchased by a man named Horace Derwent, “millionaire inventor, pilot, film producer, and entrepreneur.” Just in case we don’t make the connection, here’s what Torrance, now the caretaker, thinks to himself about Derwent hundreds of pages later, while leafing through the scrapbook that he finds in the hotel’s basement:

[Derwent was] a balding man with eyes that pierced you even from an old newsprint photo. He was wearing rimless spectacles and a forties-style pencil mustache that did nothing at all to make him look like Errol Flynn. His face was that of an accountant. It was the eyes that made him look like someone or something else…[His movie studio] ground out sixty movies, fifty-five of which glided right into the face of the Hayes Office and spit on its large blue nose…During one of them an unnamed costume designer had jury-rigged a strapless bra for the heroine to appear in during the Grand Ball scene, where she revealed everything except possibly the birthmark just below the cleft of her buttocks. Derwent received credit for this invention as well, and his reputation—or notoriety—grew…Living in Chicago, seldom seen except for Derwent Enterprises board meetings…it was supposed by many that he was the richest man in the world.

There’s only one mogul who fits that description, and it isn’t William Randolph Hearst. By hitching his story to the myth of Howard Hughes, who died shortly before the novel’s publication but would have been alive during much of its conception and writing, King taps into an aspect of the American experience symbolized by his reclusive subject, the aviator, engineer, and movie producer who embodied all of his nation’s virtues and vices before succumbing gradually to madness. It’s no surprise that Hughes has fascinated directors as obsessive as Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, Christopher Nolan—who shelved a Hughes biopic to focus instead on the similar figure of Batman—and even Orson Welles, whose last film, F for Fake, included an extended meditation on the Clifford Irving hoax. As for Stanley Kubrick, who once listed Hughes’s Hell’s Angels among his favorite movies, he could hardly have missed the implication. (If we see the Overlook’s mysterious owner at all in the movie, it’s in the company of the otherwise inexplicable man in the dog costume, who is identified in the novel as Derwent’s lover, while in the sequel Doctor Sleep, which I haven’t read, King evidently associates him with the ghost who offers the toast to Wendy: “Great party, isn’t it?”) The film’s symbols have been analyzed to death, but they only externalize themes that are there in the novel, and although King was dissatisfied by the result, his attempt to treat this material more explicitly in the later miniseries only shows how right Kubrick was to use them instead as the building blocks of a visual language. The Overlook is a stage for reenacting the haunted history of its nation, much of which can only be expressed as a ghost story, and it isn’t finished yet. Looking at the pictures in the scrapbook from the hotel’s grand opening in 1945, Torrance thinks: “The war was over, or almost over. The future lay ahead, clean and shining.”

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2018 at 7:46 am

American Stories #5: Couples

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

At a time when many of us are more conscious than usual of living through history, for better or worse, we’ve naturally started to look for parallels from the past, which partially explains the cultural impact of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War. One undervalued source of insight is the fiction of John Updike, who around the time of Rabbit Redux began to conceive of his novels as snapshots of the eras in which they took place. (It’s the kind of strategy that you can pursue only when you’re reasonably sure that you’ll be able to publish a book every few years for the rest of your life.) Updike’s contribution is especially valuable because his personal wariness toward progressivism—he was in favor of American intervention in Vietnam—allowed him to engage in a level of detailed, everyday reportage that might elude many writers who were more committed to social change. Couples, which is set in the waning days of Camelot, has the clearest affinities to our own time, and it marks the author’s most ambitious attempt to weave a single narrative out of our national and private selves, as Adam Begley writes in his biography Updike:

In an elaborately patterned novel, the chain of significance that links sex, children, the Kennedys, adultery, divorce, and abortion is just one strand of meaning among many…In the novel’s first scene, the Hanemas, Piet and Angela, are getting ready for bed after a party. In an attempt to seduce his wife, Piet does a handstand in the bedroom; Angela, who’s seen this stunt before, tells him, “Shh. You’ll wake the children.” This rebuke only eggs him on; he toddles toward the bed on his knees, imitating their younger daughter: “Dadda, Dadda, wake up-up, Dadda. The Sunnay paper’s here, guess what? Jackie Kenneny’s having a baby!”

Months afterward, the daughter tells her father: “Daddy, wake up! Jackie Kenneny’s baby died because it was born too tiny.” A few pages later, Piet thinks to himself as his children watch television: “This poison was their national life. Not since Korea had Piet cared about news. News happened to other people.”

The novel’s centerpiece is a satirical tour de force, lasting almost thirty pages, set on November 22, 1963. Foxy, Piet’s lover, hears the news of the Kennedy assassination during a dental appointment—as Updike did—and her reaction echoes her guilt over the affair: “She tried to picture the dead man, this young man almost of her generation, with whom she could have slept.” Her dentist, Freddy Thorne, is planning to throw a party that night, and he laments on being told that he should cancel: “But I’ve bought all the booze.” On the next page, we read:

The Thornes decided to have their party after all. In the late afternoon, after Oswald had been apprehended and Johnson sworn in, and the engines of national perpetuity had demonstrated their strength, Georgene called all the houses of the invited and explained that the food and liquor had been purchased, that the guests had bought their dresses and had their tuxedos cleaned, that she and Freddy would feel lonely tonight and the children would be so disappointed, that on this terrible day she saw nothing wrong in the couples who knew each other feeling terrible together. In a way, Georgene explained to Angela, it would be a wake, an Irish wake, and a formal dinner-dance was very fitting for the dead man, who had had such style.

Updike based the account on a real party, of which he recalled years later: “We didn’t know what gesture to make, so we made none.” And the result should resonate with all of us who have ever heard the news of an unspeakable tragedy and then blithely gone on with our lives. (A quip about the discovery that Oswald was a leftist echoes the train of thought that runs through so many minds after the latest mass shooting or terrorist attack: “Did you hear? It wasn’t one of ours, it was one of theirs.”) “We had become detached from the national life,” Updike said later. “Our private lives had become the real concern.” This doesn’t seem to be our problem now. But it still rings true when Piet watches his friends dancing and thinks: “It seemed that the couples were gliding on the polished top of Kennedy’s casket.”

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2018 at 9:00 am

American Stories #4: A Wrinkle in Time

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

These days, it’s hard to read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time without being struck by its description of the planet Camazotz, with its picture of perfect suburban conformity: “The doors of all the houses opened simultaneously, and out came women like a row of paper dolls. The print of their dresses was different, but they all gave the appearance of being the same.” (In the trailer for the upcoming movie, in which the Murry children are brilliantly reimagined as being of mixed race, the sequence has shades of Get Out.) Camazotz has often been interpreted as an allegory for a totalitarian society, as Anna Quindlen writes in her introduction to a recent paperback edition: “The identical houses outside which identical children bounce balls and jump rope in mindless unison evoke the fear so many Americans had of Communist regimes that enshrined the interests of state-mandated order over the rights of the individual.” In fact, L’Engle’s true inspiration was much closer to home. As she says in a fascinating interview with Justin Wintle in The Pied Pipers:

I think it sprang mostly from seeing Camazotz round the country. When you leave New York tonight you’ll be flying over Camazotz—house after house after house, the people in them all watching the same television programs, and all eating the same things for dinner, and the kids in their mandatory uniforms of blue jeans and satchels or whatever. I keep getting asked whether Camazotz is a protest against Communism. I suppose it is, but really it’s against forced conformity of any kind.

And L’Engle is far too elusive and interesting a writer to be easily categorized. When Wintle casually refers to “Christian piety” as an element in her books, L’Engle devastatingly responds: “I wrote A Wrinkle in Time as a violent rebellion against Christian piety.” She elaborates:

New England is Congregational. It’s been Congregational ever since this country was born. Life in a little tiny village tends to revolve around the church. If there’s any reading done the minister does it. Not many others read books, so if you want to know something you have to consult the minister. I got to know several Congregational ministers when I lived in the country simply from the hunger of having somebody to talk to who didn’t discount words…I think that in all fairness I could be anti-church. I’m not sure why, and I know it’s a contradiction. I still go to church.

In explaining why the book’s antagonist, IT, is a gigantic brain, L’Engle explains that “the brain tends to be vicious when it’s not informed by the heart”—which implies that IT might have been a naked heart as well. And Meg’s confrontation with IT culminates in what I think is the most moving passage in all of children’s literature:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

The italics are mine. A Wrinkle in Time asks us to love our enemies, but it also knows how difficult this is, and L’Engle’s final message is one of hope for those of us who fall short of our own high ideals: “I was looking for…something that would tumble over the world’s idea of what is successful and what is powerful. Therefore Meg succeeds through all her weaknesses and all her faults.”

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2018 at 9:01 am

American Stories #3: Vertigo

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

Vertigo, which may well be the most beautiful art object ever made in America, was based on a French novel, D’entre les morts, by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who wrote it in the express hope that Alfred Hitchcock would adapt it into a movie. I don’t know if Hitchcock ever explained why he transferred the setting to San Francisco, but I suspect that he was reasoning backward from its proximity to the Spanish missions, which would provide a bell tower tall enough for a woman to leap to her death, but not so high that a man couldn’t plausibly run up the stairs. Once the decision was made, Hitchcock indulged in his customary preference for utilizing his locations to their fullest. It gave us Madeline’s plunge into the bay near the Golden Gate Bridge and her haunting speech by the rings of the redwood tree: “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.” Above all else, it allowed Hitchcock to give Judy a room at the Empire Hotel, lit from outside by its green neon sign, which enabled the single greatest shot in all of cinema. And the resulting film is inseparable from the state of which Joan Didion wrote:

Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me. I think it comes out of being a “daughter of the Golden West.” A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions—leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways—those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California.

Vertigo, like many of the best movies to come out of Hollywood, is about how the prize is won and then lost because of greed, jealousy, or nostalgia. As Scotty says despairingly to Judy at the end: “You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.”

Like many great works of American art, Vertigo lingers in the imagination because it oscillates so nervously between its surface pleasures and its darkest depths. It’s both the ultimate Hitchcock entertainment, with its flawless cinematography, iconic Edith Head costumes, and romantic Bernard Herrmann score, and the most psychologically complex film I’ve ever seen. It’s as mysterious as a movie can be, but it’s also grounded in its evocative but realistic San Francisco settings. Early on, it can come off as routine, even banal, which leaves us even less prepared for its climax, which is a sick joke that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in film, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps its crucial revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any cinematic adaptation has been more significant—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful and painful. When Judy turns to the camera and the image is flooded with red, we’re as close to the heart of movies as we’ll ever get. The more we learn about Hitchcock’s treatment of women, the more confessional it all seems, and it implicates us as well: Scotty desires, attains, and finally destroys Judy in his efforts to turn her into Madeline, and it ends up feeling like the most honest story that Hollywood has ever told about itself.

Written by nevalalee

January 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

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