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 art of preemptive ingenuity

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Yesterday, my wife drew my attention to the latest episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, which irresistibly combines two of my favorite topics—film and graphic design. Its subject is Annie Atkins, who has designed props and visual materials for such works as The Tudors and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Her account of how a misspelled word nearly made it onto a crucial prop in the latter film is both hilarious and horrifying.) But my favorite story that she shares is about a movie that isn’t exactly known for its flashy art direction:

The next job I went onto—it would have been Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was a true story. We made a lot of newspapers for that film, and I remember us beginning to check the dates against the days, because I wanted to get it right. And then eventually the prop master said to me, “Do you know what, I think we’re just going to leave the dates off.” Because it wasn’t clear [what] sequence…these things were going to be shown in. And he said, you know, if you leave the dates off altogether, nobody will look for it. But if you put something there that’s wrong, then it might jump out. So we went with no dates in the end for those newspapers.

As far as filmmaking advice is concerned, this is cold, hard cash, even if I’ll never have the chance to put it into practice for myself. And I especially like the fact that it comes out of Bridge of Spies, a writerly movie with a screenplay by none other than the Coen Brothers, but which was still subject to decisions about its structure as late in the process as the editing stage.

Every movie, I expect, requires some degree of editorial reshuffling, and experienced directors will prepare for this during the production itself. The absence of dates on newspapers is one good example, and there’s an even better one in the book The Conversations, which the editor Walter Murch relates to the novelist Michael Ondaatje:

One thing that made it possible to [rearrange the order of scenes] in The Conversation was Francis [Coppola]’s belief that people should wear the same clothes most of the time. Harry is almost always wearing that transparent raincoat and his funny little crepe-soled shoes. This method of using costumes is something Francis had developed on other films, quite an accurate observation. He recognized that, first of all, people don’t change clothes in real life as often as they do in film. In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do—which is only natural—so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

Murch observes: “There’s a delicate balance between the timeline of a film’s story—which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months—and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed clothes.”

The editor concludes: “It’s amazing how consistent you can make somebody’s costume and have it not stand out.” (Occasionally, a change of clothes will draw attention to editorial manipulation, as one scene is lifted out from its original place and slotted in elsewhere. One nice example is in Bullitt, where we see Steve McQueen in one scene at a grocery store in his iconic tweed coat and blue turtleneck, just before he goes home, showers, and changes into those clothes, which he wears for the rest of the movie.) The director Judd Apatow achieves the same result in another way, as his longtime editor Brent White notes: “[He’ll] have something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know exactly where it goes in the movie. Does it service the end? Does it go early? So he’ll shoot the same exact scene, the same exchange, with the actors in different wardrobes, so that I can slot it in at different points.” Like the newspapers in Bridge of Spies, this all assumes that changes to the plan will be necessary later on, and it prepares for them in advance. Presumably, you always hope to keep the order of scenes from the script when you cut the movie together, but the odds are that something won’t quite work when you sit down to watch the first assembly, so you build in safeguards to allow you to fix these issues when the time comes. If your budget is high enough, you can include reshoots in your shooting schedule, as Peter Jackson does, while the recent films of David Fincher indicate the range of problems that can be solved with digital tools in postproduction. But when you lack the resources for such expensive solutions, your only recourse is to be preemptively ingenious on the set, which forces you to think in terms of what you’ll want to see when you sit down to edit the footage many months from now.

This is the principle behind one of my favorite pieces of directorial advice ever, which David Mamet provides in the otherwise flawed Bambi vs. Godzilla:

Always get an exit and an entrance. More wisdom for the director in the cutting room. The scene involves the hero sitting in a café. Dialogue scene, blah blah blah. Well and good, but when you shoot it, shoot the hero coming in and sitting down. And then, at the end, shoot him getting up and leaving. Why? Because the film is going to tell you various things about itself, and many of your most cherished preconceptions will prove false. The scene that works great on paper will prove a disaster. An interchange of twenty perfect lines will be found to require only two, the scene will go too long, you will discover another scene is needed, and you can’t get the hero there if he doesn’t get up from the table, et cetera. Shoot an entrance and an exit. It’s free.

I learned a corollary from John Sayles: at the end of the take, in a close-up or one-shot, have the speaker look left, right, up, and down. Why? Because you might just find you can get out of the scene if you can have the speaker throw the focus. To what? To an actor or insert to be shot later, or to be found in (stolen from) another scene. It’s free. Shoot it, ’cause you just might need it.

This kind of preemptive ingenuity, in matters both large and small, is what really separates professionals from amateurs. Something always goes wrong, and the plan that we had in mind never quite matches what we have in the end. Professionals don’t always get it right the first time, either—but they know this, and they’re ready for it.

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 2

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In the June 8, 1992 issue of The New Republic, the journalist Carl Bernstein published a long essay titled “The Idiot Culture.” Twenty years had passed since Watergate, which had been followed by what Bernstein called “a strange frenzy of self-congratulation and defensiveness” on the part of the press about how it had handled the story. Bernstein felt that the latter was more justified than the former, and he spent four pages decrying what he saw as an increasing obsession within the media with celebrity, gossip, and the “sewer” of political discourse. He began by noting that the investigation by the Washington Post was based on the unglamorous work of knocking on doors and tracking down witnesses, far from the obvious centers of power, and that the Nixon administration’s response was “to make the conduct of the press the issue in Watergate, instead of the conduct of the president and his men” and to dismiss the Post as “a fountain of misinformation.” Bernstein observed that both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had displayed a Nixonian contempt for the press, but the media itself hadn’t gone out of its way to redeem itself, either. And he reserved his harshest words for what he saw as the nadir of celebrity culture:

Last month Ivana Trump, perhaps the single greatest creation of the idiot culture, a tabloid artifact if ever there was one, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. On the cover, that is, of Condé Nast’s flagship magazine, the same Condé Nast/Newhouse/Random House whose executives will yield to nobody in their solemnity about their profession, who will tell you long into the night how seriously in touch with American culture they are, how serious they are about the truth.

By calling Ivana Trump “the single greatest creation of the idiot culture,” Bernstein pulled off the rare trick of managing to seem both eerily prescient and oddly shortsighted at the exact same time. In fact, his article, which was published a quarter of a century ago, returned repeatedly to the figure of Donald Trump. As an example of the media’s increasing emphasis on titillation, he cited the question that Diane Sawyer asked Marla Maples, Trump’s girlfriend at the time, on ABC News: “All right, was it really the best sex you ever had?” He also lamented: “On the day that Nelson Mandela returned to Soweto and the allies of World War II agreed to the unification of Germany, the front pages of many ‘responsible’ newspapers were devoted to the divorce of Donald and Ivana Trump.” To be fair, though, he did sound an important warning:

Now the apotheosis of this talk-show culture is before us…A candidate created and sustained by television…whose willingness to bluster and pose is far less in tune with the workings of liberal democracy than with the sumo-pundits of The McLaughlin Group, a candidate whose only substantive proposal is to replace representative democracy with a live TV talk show for the entire nation. And this candidate, who has dismissively deflected all media scrutiny with shameless assertions of his own ignorance, now leads both parties’ candidates in the polls in several major states.

He was speaking, of course, of Ross Perot. And while it’s easy to smile at a time when the worst of political television was The McLaughlin Group, it’s also a reminder of how little has changed, on the anniversary of the election of the man whom Bernstein has called “dangerous beyond any modern presidency.” (I also can’t resist pointing out that the Ivana Trump cover of Vanity Fair included this headline in the lower right corner: “Hilary Clinton: Will She Get to the White House With or Without Him?” And this was half a year before Bill Clinton was even elected president.)

Yet it’s the “Condé Nast/Newhouse/Random House” nexus that fascinates and troubles me the most. In the biography Newhouse, Thomas Maier quotes an unnamed source who worked on The Art of the Deal, which Si Newhouse aggressively packaged for the protégé of his friend Roy Cohn: “It’s obvious that this book was like Vanity Fair, the preeminent example of a certain instinct that Si has for a kind of glamour and power and public presence. It’s like Trump was a kind of shadow for him, in the sense that Si is so shy and so bumbling with words and so uncomfortable in social situations. I think his attraction to Trump was that he was so much his opposite. So out there, so aggressive, so full of himself.” More pragmatically, Trump was also a major advertiser. Maier quotes the editor Tina Brown, speaking way back in 1986: “If you were producing a funny magazine, you’d have to go for people like Trump…[But] there is also that awful commercial fact that you can’t make fun of Calvin Klein, Donald Trump, and Tiffany.” And this wasn’t just theoretical. Maier writes:

Those who were truly powerful in its world were granted immunity from any real journalistic scrutiny. When Donald Trump was a high-flying entrepreneur, he learned that Vanity Fair was preparing a short item about how the doorknobs were falling off in Trump Tower. Shortly after this journalistic enterprise was launched, however, Brown received a call from Si Newhouse, who had gotten a call from Trump himself…Newhouse was not going to let Trump’s advertising cease because of some silly little item. (Only after he suffered a huge financial loss in the 1990s did the magazine dare to examine Trump in any critical way.)

Given the vast reach of Newhouse’s media empire, this is truly frightening. And it’s hard not to see the hand of Roy Cohn, whose fifty-second birthday in 1979 seems to have been the moment when Newhouse and Trump first found themselves in the same room. “More than anyone else outside the direct kinship of blood,” Maier writes, “Cohn seemed to hold the keys to Si Newhouse’s world.” Cohn prided himself on being a power broker, and he eagerly used Newhouse’s publications to reward his patrons and punish his enemies. (There were also more tangible compensations. According to Maier, Sam Newhouse, Sr. once wrote Cohn a check for $250,000 to get him out of a financial jam, much as Si would later do, at Cohn’s request, for Norman Mailer.) And this intimacy was expressed in public in ways that must have seemed inexplicable to ordinary readers. On April 3, 1983, Cohn appeared on the cover of Newhouse’s Parade, which had the highest circulation of any magazine in the world, with a story titled “You Can Beat the IRS.” Cohn spent much of the article mocking the accusations of tax evasion that had been filed against him, and he offered tips about keeping your financial information private that were dubious even at the time:

Keep one step ahead of them: If there is a problem, change bank accounts so they can’t grab your funds by knowing from your records where you bank. If they get canceled checks and information from your bank, they will be in a position to know much more about your life than is acceptable.

And this was just a dry run. Cohn was serving as a placeholder, first for his patron, then for his ultimate pupil. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at how Cohn and Newhouse are part of a direct line that connects Reagan to Trump, and what this means for us today.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2017 at 8:29 am

The sound of the teletypes

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A few days ago, after a string of horrifying sexual harassment accusations were leveled against the political journalist Mark Halperin, HBO announced that it was canceling a planned miniseries based on an upcoming book by Halperin and John Heilemann about last year’s presidential election. (Penguin, their publisher, pulled the plug on the book itself later that day.) It’s hard to argue with this decision, which also raises the question of why anyone thought that there would be demand for a television series on this subject at all. We’re still in the middle of this story, which shows no sign of ending, and the notion that viewers would voluntarily submit themselves to a fictionalized version of it—on top of everything else—is hard to believe. But it isn’t the first time that this issue has come up. Over four decades ago, while working on the adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the screenwriter William Goldman ran up against the same skepticism, as he recounts in his great book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

When I began researching the Woodward-Bernstein book, before it was published, it seemed, at best, a dubious project. Politics were anathema at the box office, the material was talky, there was no action, etc., etc. Most of all, though, people were sick to fucking death of Watergate. For months, whenever anyone asked me what I was working on, and I answered, there was invariably the same reply: “Gee, don’t you think we’ve heard enough about Watergate?” Repeated often enough, that can make you lose confidence.

He concludes: “Because, of course, we had. Had enough and more than enough. Years of headlines, claims and disclaimers, lies, and occasional clarifying truths.”

This certainly sounds familiar. And even if that Trump miniseries never happens, we can still learn a lot from the effort by one of America’s smartest writers to come to terms with the most complicated political story of his time. When Goldman was brought on board by Robert Redford, he knew that he could hardly turn down the assignment, but he was uncomfortably aware of the challenges that it would present: “There were all those goddam names that no one could keep straight: Stans and Sturgis and Barker and Segretti and McCord and Kalmbach and Magruder and Kleindienst and Strachan and Abplanalp and Rebozo and backward reeled the mind.” (If we’re lucky, there will come a day when Manafort and Gates and Goldstone and Veselnitskaya and Page and even Kushner will blur together, too.) As he dug into the story, he was encouraged to find a lot of interesting information that nobody else seemed to know. There had actually been an earlier attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate, for instance, but the burglars had to turn back because they had brought the wrong set of keys. Goldman was so taken by this story that it became the opening scene in his first draft, as a way of alerting viewers that they had to pay attention, although he later admitted that it was perhaps for the best that it was cut: “If the original opening had been incorporated, and you looked at it today, I think you would wonder what the hell it was doing there.” Despite such wrong turns, he continued to work on the structure, and as he was trying to make sense of it, he asked Bob Woodward to list what he thought were the thirteen most important events in the Watergate story. Checking what he had written so far, he saw that he had included all of them already: “So even if the screenplay stunk, at least the structure would be sound.”

As it turned out, the structure would be his primary contribution to the movie that eventually won him an Academy Award. After laboring over the screenplay, Goldman was infamously ambushed at a meeting by Redford, who informed him that Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron had secretly written their own version of the script, and that he should read it. (Goldman’s account of the situation, which he calls “a gutless betrayal” by Redford, throws a bit of shade that I’ve always loved: “One other thing to note about [Bernstein and Ephron’s] screenplay: I don’t know about real life, but in what they wrote, Bernstein was sure catnip to the ladies.”) From his perspective, matters got even worse after the hiring of director Alan Pakula, who asked him for multiple versions of every scene and kept him busy with rewrites for months. A subplot about Woodward’s love life, which Goldman knew would never make it into the film, turned out to be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Finally, he says, the phone stopped ringing, and he didn’t have any involvement with the film’s production. Goldman recalls in his book:

I saw it at my local neighborhood theater and it seemed very much to resemble what I’d done; of course there were changes but there are always changes. There was a lot of ad-libbing, scenes were placed in different locations, that kind of thing. But the structure of the piece remained unchanged. And it also seemed, with what objectivity I could bring to it, to be well directed and acted, especially by the stars.

In the end, however, Goldman says that if he could live his entire movie career over again, “I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

But the thing that sticks in my head the most about the screenplay is the ending. Goldman writes: “My wife remembers my telling her that my biggest problem would be somehow to make the ending work, since the public already knew the outcome.” Here’s how he solved it:

Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon’s top aides. It was a goof that, for a while, cost them momentum. I decided to end the story on their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn’t stop them. The notion behind it was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.

In practice, this meant that the movie doesn’t even cover the book’s second half, which is something that most viewers don’t realize. (In his later memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman writes: “In All the President’s Men, we got great credit for our faithfulness to the Woodward-Bernstein book. Total horseshit: the movie ended halfway through the book.”) Instead, it gives us the unforgettable shot of the reporters working in the background as Nixon’s inauguration plays on television, followed by the rattle of the teletype machines covering the events of the next two years. The movie trusts us to fill in the blanks because we know what happened next, and it works brilliantly. If I bring this up now, it’s because the first charges have just been filed in the Mueller investigation. This is only the beginning. But when the Trump movie gets made, and it probably will, today might be the very last scene.

Bringing up the bodies

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For the last few weeks, my wife and I have been slowly working our way through Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s devastating documentary series Vietnam. The other night, we finished the episode “Resolve,” which includes an extraordinary sequence—you can find it here around the twenty-five minute mark—about the war’s use of questionable metrics. As narrator Peter Coyote intones: “Since there was no front in Vietnam, as there had been in the first and second World Wars, since no ground was ever permanently won or lost, the American military command in Vietnam—MACV—fell back more and more on a single grisly measure of supposed success: counting corpses. Body count.” The historian and retired Army officer James Willbanks observes:

The problem with the war, as it often is, are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important. So, in this particular case, what you could count was dead enemy bodies.

And as the horrifying images of stacked bodies fill the screen, we hear the quiet, reasonable voice of Robert Gard, a retired lieutenant general and former chairman of the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: “If body count is the measure of success, then there’s the tendency to count every body as an enemy soldier. There’s a tendency to want to pile up dead bodies and perhaps to use less discriminate firepower than you otherwise might in order to achieve the result that you’re charged with trying to obtain.”

These days, we casually use the phrase “body count” to describe violence in movies and video games, and I was startled to realize how recent the term really is—the earliest reported instance is from 1962, and the oldest results that I can find in a Google Book search are from the early seventies. (Its first use as a book’s title, as far as I can determine, is for the memoir of William Calley, the officer convicted of murder for his involvement in the My Lai massacre.) Military metaphors have a way of seeping into everyday use, in part because of their vividness and, perhaps, because we all like to think of ourselves as fighting in one war or another, but after watching Vietnam, I think that “body count” ought to be forcibly restored to its original connotations. It doesn’t take a lot of introspection to see that it was a statistic that was only possible in a war in which the enemy could be easily dehumanized, and that it encouraged a lack of distinction between military and civilian combatants. Like most faulty metrics, it created a toxic set of incentives from the highest levels of command to the soldiers on the ground. As the full extent of the war’s miscalculations grew more clear, these facts became hard to ignore, and the term itself came to encapsulate the mistakes and deceptions of the conflict as a whole. Writing in Playboy in 1982, Philip Caputo called it “one of the most hideous, morally corrupting ideas ever conceived by the military mind.” Yet most of its emotional charge has since been lost. Words matter, and as the phrase’s significance is obscured, the metric itself starts to creep back. And the temptation to fall back on it increases in response to a confluence of specific factors, as a country engages in military action in which the goals are unclear and victory is poorly defined.

As a result, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a return to body count. As far back as 2005, Bradley Graham of the Washington Post reported: “The revival of body counts, a practice discredited during the Vietnam War, has apparently come without formal guidance from the Pentagon’s leadership.” More recently, Reed Richardson wrote on FAIR:

In the past few years, official body count estimates have made a notable comeback, as U.S. military and administration officials have tried to talk up the U.S. coalition’s war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq…For example, last August, the U.S. commander of the Syrian-Iraq war garnered a flurry of favorable coverage of the war when he announced that the coalition had killed 45,000 ISIS militants in the past two years. By December, the official ISIS body count number, according to an anonymous “senior U.S. official,” had risen to 50,000 and led headlines on cable news. Reading through that media coverage, though, one finds little skepticism about the figures or historical context about how these killed in action numbers line up with the official estimates of ISIS’s overall size, which have stayed stubbornly consistent year after year. In fact, the official estimated size of ISIS in 2015 and 2016 averaged 25,000 fighters, which means the U.S. coalition had supposedly wiped out the equivalent of its entire force over both years without making a dent in its overall size.

Richardson sums up: “As our not-too-distant past has clearly shown, enemy body counts are a handy, hard-to-resist tool that administrations of both parties often use for war propaganda to promote the idea we are ‘winning’ and to stave off dissent about why we’re fighting in the first place.”

It’s worth pointing out, as Richardson does, that such language isn’t confined to any one party, and it was equally prevalent during the Obama administration. But we should be even more wary of it now. (Richardson writes: “In February, Gen. Tony Thomas, the commander of US Special Operations Command, told a public symposium that 60,000 ISIS fighters had been killed. Thomas added this disingenuous qualifier to his evidence-free number: ‘I’m not that into morbid body count, but that matters.’”) Trump has spent his entire career inflating his numbers, from his net worth to the size of his inauguration crowds, and because he lacks a clear grasp of policy, he’s more inclined to gauge his success—and the lack thereof by his enemies—in terms that lend themselves to the most mindless ways of keeping score, like television ratings. He’s also fundamentally disposed to claim that everything that he does is the biggest and the best, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. This extends to areas that can’t be easily quantified, like international relations, so that every negotiation becomes a zero-sum game in which, as Joe Nocera put it a few years ago: “In every deal, he has to win and you have to lose.” It encourages Trump and his surrogates to see everything as a war, even if it leads them to inflict just as much damage on themselves, and the incentives that he imposes on those around him, in which no admission of error is possible, drag down even the best of his subordinates. And we’ve seen this pattern before. As the journalist Joe Galloway says in Vietnam: “You don’t get details with a body count. You get numbers. And the numbers are lies, most of ‘em. If body count is your success mark, then you’re pushing otherwise honorable men, warriors, to become liars.”

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2017 at 8:15 am

The screenwriter paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The playboy and the playwright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The desolation of slog

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

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

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

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

Out of the past

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You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.

Vertigo

About halfway through the beautiful, devastating finale of Twin Peaks—which I’ll be discussing here in detail—I began to reflect on what the figure of Dale Cooper really means. When we encounter him for the first time in the pilot, with his black suit, fastidious habits, and clipped diction, he’s the embodiment of what we’ve been taught to expect of a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI occupies a role in movies and television far out of proportion to its actual powers and jurisdiction, in part because it seems to exist on a level intriguingly beyond that of ordinary law enforcement, and it’s often been used to symbolize the sinister, the remote, or the impersonal. Yet when Cooper reveals himself to be a man of real empathy, quirkiness, and faith in the extraordinary, it comes almost as a relief. We want to believe that a person like this exists. Cooper carries a badge, he wears a tie, and he’s comfortable with a gun, but he’s here to enforce human reason in the face of a bewildering universe. The Black Lodge might be out there, but the Blue Rose task force is on it, and there’s something oddly consoling about the notion that it’s a part of the federal government. A few years later, Chris Carter took this premise and refined it into The X-Files, which, despite its paranoia, reassured us that somebody in a position of authority had noticed the weirdness in the world and was trying to make sense of it. They might rarely succeed, but it was comforting to think that their efforts had been institutionalized, complete with a basement office, a place in the org chart, and a budget. And for a lot of viewers, Mulder and Scully, like Cooper, came to symbolize law and order in stories that laugh at our attempts to impose it.

Even if you don’t believe in the paranormal, the image of the lone FBI agent—or two of them—arriving in a small town to solve a supernatural mystery is enormously seductive. It appeals to our hopes that someone in power cares enough about us to investigate problems that can’t be rationally addressed, which all stand, in one way or another, for the mystery of death. This may be why both Twin Peaks and The X-Files, despite their flaws, have sustained so much enthusiasm among fans. (No other television dramas have ever meant more to me.) But it’s also a myth. This isn’t really how the world works, and the second half of the Twin Peaks finale is devoted to tearing down, with remarkable cruelty and control, the very idea of such solutions. It can only do this by initially giving us what we think we want, and the first of last night’s two episodes misleads us with a satisfying dose of wish fulfillment. Not only is Cooper back, but he’s in complete command of the situation, and he seems to know exactly what to do at every given moment. He somehow knows all about Freddie and his magical green glove, which he utilizes to finally send Bob into oblivion. After rescuing Diane, he uses his room key from the Great Northern, like a magical item in a video game, to unlock the door that leads him to Mike and the disembodied Phillip Jeffries. He goes back in time, enters the events of Fire Walk With Me, and saves Laura on the night of her murder. The next day, Pete Martell simply goes fishing. Viewers at home even get the appearance by Julee Cruise that I’ve been awaiting since the premiere. After the credits ran, I told my wife that if it had ended there, I would have been totally satisfied.

But that was exactly what I was supposed to think, and even during the first half, there are signs of trouble. When Cooper first sees the eyeless Naido, who is later revealed to be the real Diane, his face freezes in a huge closeup that is superimposed for several minutes over the ensuing action. It’s a striking device that has the effect of putting us, for the first time, in Cooper’s head, rather than watching him with bemusement from the outside. We identify with him, and at the very end, when his efforts seemingly come to nothing, despite the fact that he did everything right, it’s more than heartbreaking—it’s like an existential crisis. It’s the side of the show that was embodied by Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura Palmer, whose tragic life and horrifying death, when seen in its full dimension, put the lie to all the cozy, comforting stories that the series told us about the town of Twin Peaks. Nothing good could ever come out of a world in which Laura died in the way that she did, which was the message that Fire Walk With Me delivered so insistently. And seeing Laura share the screen at length with Cooper presents us with both halves of the show’s identity within a single frame. (It also gives us a second entry, after Blue Velvet, in the short list of great scenes in which Kyle MacLachlan enters a room to find a man sitting down with his brains blown out.) For a while, as Cooper drives Laura to the appointment with her mother, it seems almost possible that the series could pull off one last, unfathomable trick. Even if it means erasing the show’s entire timeline, it would be worth it to save Laura. Or so we think. In the end, they return to a Twin Peaks that neither of them recognize, in which the events of the series presumably never took place, and Cooper’s only reward is Laura’s scream of agony.

As I tossed and turned last night, thinking about Cooper’s final, shattering moment of comprehension, a line of dialogue from another movie drifted into my head: “It’s too late. There’s no bringing her back.” It’s from Vertigo, of course, which is a movie that David Lynch and Mark Frost have been quietly urging us to revisit all along. (Madeline Ferguson, Laura’s identical cousin, who was played by Lee, is named after the film’s two main characters, and both works of art pivot on a necklace and a dream sequence.) Along with so much else, Vertigo is about the futility of trying to recapture or change the past, and its ending, which might be the most unforgettable of any film I’ve ever seen, destroys Scotty’s delusions, which embody the assumptions of so many American movies: “One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be rid of the past forever.” I think that Lynch and Frost are consciously harking back to Vertigo here—in the framing of the doomed couple on their long drive, as well as in Cooper’s insistence that Laura revisit the scene of the crime—and it doesn’t end well in either case. The difference is that Vertigo prepares us for it over the course of two hours, while Twin Peaks had more than a quarter of a century. Both works offer a conclusion that feels simultaneously like a profound statement of our helplessness in the face of an unfair universe and like the punchline to a shaggy dog story, and perhaps that’s the only way to express it. I’ve quoted Frost’s statement on this revival more than once: “It’s an exercise in engaging with one of the most powerful themes in all of art, which is the ruthless passage of time…We’re all trapped in time and we’re all going to die. We’re all traveling along this conveyor belt that is relentlessly moving us toward this very certain outcome.” Thirty seconds before the end, I didn’t know what he meant. But I sure do now. And I know at last why this show’s theme is called “Falling.”

Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2017 at 9:40 am

The number nine

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Note: This post reveals plot details from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

One of the central insights of my life as a reader is that certain kinds of narrative are infinitely expansible or contractible. I first started thinking about this in college, when I was struggling to read Homer in Greek. Oral poetry, I discovered, wasn’t memorized, but composed on the fly, aided by the poet’s repertoire of stock lines, formulas, and images that happened to fit the meter. This meant that the overall length of the composition was highly variable. A scene that takes up just a few lines in the Iliad that survives could be expanded into an entire night’s recital, based on what the audience wanted to hear. (For instance, the characters of Crethon and Orsilochus, who appear for only twenty lines in the existing version before being killed by Aeneas, might have been the stars of the evening if the poet happened to be working in Pherae.) That kind of flexibility originated as a practical consequence of the oral form, but it came to affect the aesthetics of the poem itself, which could grow or shrink to accommodate anything that the poet wanted to talk about. Homer uses his metaphors to introduce miniature narratives of human life that don’t otherwise fit into a poem of war, and some amount to self-contained short stories in themselves. Proust operates in much the same way. One observation leads naturally to another, and an emotion or analogy evoked in passing can unfold like a paper flower into three dense pages of reflections. In theory, any novel could be expanded like this, like a hypertext that opens into increasingly deeper levels. In Search of Lost Time happens to be the one book in existence in which all of these flowerings have been preserved, with a plot could fit into a novella of two hundred unhurried pages.

Something similar appears to have happened with the current season of Twin Peaks, and when you start to think of it in those terms, its structure, which otherwise seems almost perversely shapeless, begins to make more sense. In the initial announcement by Showtime, the revival was said to consist of nine episodes, and Mark Frost even said to Buzzfeed:

If you think back about the first season, if you put the pilot together with the seven that we did, you get nine hours. It just felt like the right number. I’ve always felt the story should take as long as the story takes to tell. That’s what felt right to us.

It was doubled to eighteen after a curious interlude in which David Lynch dropped out of the project, citing budget constraints: “I left because not enough money was offered to do the script the way I felt it needed to be done.” He came back, of course, and shortly thereafter, it was revealed that the length of the season had increased. Yet there was never any indication that either Lynch or Frost had done any additional writing. My personal hunch is that they always had nine episodes of material, and this never changed. What happened is that the second act of the show expanded in the fashion that I’ve described above, creating a long central section that was free to explore countless byways without much concern for the plot. The beginning, and presumably the end, remained more or less as conceived—it was the middle that grew. And a quick look at the structure of the season so far seems to confirm this. The first three episodes, which take Cooper from inside the Black Lodge to slightly before his meeting with his new family in Las Vegas, seemed weird at the time, but now they look positively conventional in terms of how much story they covered. They were followed by three episodes, the Dougie Jones arc, that were expanded beyond recognition. And now that we’ve reached the final three, which account for the third act of the original outline, it makes sense for Cooper to return at last.

If the season had consisted of just those nine episodes, I suspect that more viewers would have been able to get behind it. Even if the second act had doubled in length—giving us a total of twelve installments, of which three would have been devoted to detours and loose ends—I doubt that most fans would have minded. It’s expanding that middle section to four times its size, without any explanation, that lost a lot of people. But it’s clearly the only way that Lynch would have returned. For most of the last decade, Lynch has been contentedly pottering around with odd personal projects, concentrating on painting, music, digital video, and other media that don’t require him to be answerable to anyone but himself. The Twin Peaks revival, after the revised terms had been negotiated with Showtime, allowed him to do this with a larger budget and for a vastly greater audience. Much of this season has felt like Lynch’s private sketchbook or paintbox, allowing him to indulge himself within each episode as long as the invisible scaffolding of the original nine scripts remained. The fact that so much of the strangeness of this season has been visual and nonverbal points to Lynch, rather than Frost, as the driving force on this end. And at its best, it represents something like a reinvention of television, which is the most expandable or compressible medium we have, but which has rarely utilized this quality to its full extent. (There’s an opening here, obviously, for a fan edit that condenses the season down to nine episodes, leaving the first and last three intact while shrinking the middle twelve. It would be an interesting experiment, although I’m not sure I’d want to watch it.)

Of course, this kind of aggressive attack on the structure of the narrative doesn’t come without a cost. In the case of Twin Peaks, the primary casualty has been the Dougie Jones storyline, which has been criticized for three related reasons. The first, and most understandable, is that we’re naturally impatient to get the old Cooper back. Another is that this material was never meant to go on for this long, and it starts to feel a little thin when spread over twelve episodes. And the third is that it prevents Kyle MacLachlan, the ostensible star of the show, from doing what he does best. This last criticism feels like the most valid. MacLachlan has played an enormous role in my life as a moviegoer and television viewer, but he operates within a very narrow range, with what I might inadequately describe as a combination of rectitude, earnestness, and barely concealed eccentricity. (In other words, it’s all but indistinguishable from the public persona of David Lynch himself.) It’s what made his work as Jeffrey in Blue Velvet so moving, and a huge part of the appeal of Twin Peaks lay in placing this character at the center of what looked like a procedural. MacLachlan can also convey innocence and darkness, but by bringing these two traits to the forefront, and separating them completely in Dougie and Dark Cooper, it robs us of the amalgam that makes MacLachlan interesting in the first place. Like many stars, he’s chafed under the constraints of his image, and perhaps he even welcomed the challenges that this season presented—although he may not have known how his performance would look when extended past its original dimensions and cut together with the rest. When Cooper returned last night, it reminded me of how much I’ve missed him. And the fact that we’ll get him for two more episodes, along with everything else that this season has offered us, feels more than ever like a gift.

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2017 at 9:17 am

Amplifying the dream

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In the book Nobody Turn Me Around, Charles Euchner shares a story about Bayard Rustin, a neglected but pivotal figure in the civil rights movement who played a crucial role in the March on Washington in 1963:

Bayard Rustin had insisted on renting the best sound system money could buy. To ensure order at the march, Rustin insisted, people needed to hear the program clearly. He told engineers what he wanted. “Very simple,” he said, pointing at a map. “The Lincoln Memorial is here, the Washington Monument is there. I want one square mile where anyone can hear.” Most big events rented systems for $1,000 or $2,000, but Rustin wanted to spend ten times that. Other members of the march committee were skeptical about the need for a deluxe system. “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear,” Rustin said. If the Mall was jammed with people baking in the sun, waiting in long lines for portable toilets, anything could happen. Rustin’s job was to control the crowd. “In my view it was a classic resolution of the problem of how can you keep a crowd from becoming something else,” he said. “Transform it into an audience.”

Ultimately, Rustin was able to convince the United Auto Workers and International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Unions to raise twenty thousand dollars for the sound system, and when he was informed that it ought to be possible to do it for less, he replied: “Not for what I want.” The company American Amplifier and Television landed the contract, and after the system was sabotaged by persons unknown the night before the march, Walter Fauntroy, who was in charge of operations on the ground, called Attorney General Robert Kennedy and said: “We have a serious problem. We have a couple hundred thousand people coming. Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we’ve done?”

The system was fixed just in time, and its importance to the march is hard to overstate. As Zeynep Tufekci writes in her recent book Twitter and Tear Gas: “Rustin knew that without a focused way to communicate with the massive crowd and to keep things orderly, much could go wrong…The sound system worked without a hitch during the day of the march, playing just the role Rustin had imagined: all the participants could hear exactly what was going on, hear instructions needed to keep things orderly, and feel connected to the whole march.” And its impact on our collective memory of the event may have been even more profound. In an article in last week’s issue of The New Yorker, which is where I first encountered the story, Nathan Heller notes in a discussion of Tufekci’s work:

Before the march, Martin Luther King, Jr., had delivered variations on his “I Have a Dream” speech twice in public. He had given a longer version to a group of two thousand people in North Carolina. And he had presented a second variation, earlier in the summer, before a vast crowd of a hundred thousand at a march in Detroit. The reason we remember only the Washington, D.C., version, Tufekci argues, has to do with the strategic vision and attentive detail work of people like Rustin. Framed by the Lincoln Memorial, amplified by a fancy sound system, delivered before a thousand-person press bay with good camera sight lines, King’s performance came across as something more than what it had been in Detroit—it was the announcement of a shift in national mood, the fulcrum of a movement’s story line and power. It became, in other words, the rarest of protest performances: the kind through which American history can change.

Heller concludes that successful protest movements hinge on the existence of organized, flexible, practical structures with access to elites, noting that the sound system was repaired, on Kennedy’s orders, by the Army Corps of Engineers: “You can’t get much cozier with the Man than that.”

There’s another side to the story, however, which neither Tufekci or Heller mention. In his memoir Behind the Dream, the activist Clarence B. Jones recalls:

The Justice Department and the police had worked hand in hand with the March Committee to design a public address system powerful enough to get the speakers’ voices across the Mall; what march coordinators wouldn’t learn until after the event had ended was that the government had built in a bypass to the system so that they could instantly take over control if they deemed it necessary…Ted [Brown] and Bayard [Rustin] told us that right after the march ended those officers approached them, eager to relieve their consciences and reveal the truth about the sound system. There was a kill switch and an administration official’s thumb had been on it the entire time.

The journalist Gary Jounge—whose primary source seems to be Jones—expands on this claim in his book The Speech: “Fearing incitement from the podium, the Justice Department secretly inserted a cutoff switch into the sound system so they could turn off the speakers if an insurgent group hijacked the microphone. In such an eventuality, the plan was to play a recording to Mahalia Jackson singing ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ in order to calm down the crowd.” And in Pillar of Fire, Taylor Branch identifies the official in question as Jerry Bruno, President Kennedy’s “advance man,” who “positioned himself to cut the power to the public address system if rally speeches proved incendiary.” Regardless of the truth of the matter, it speaks to the extent to which Rustin’s sound system was central to the question of who controlled the march and its message. If nothing else, the people who sabotaged it understood this intuitively. (I should also mention the curious rumor, shared by Dave Chapelle in a recent comedy special on Netflix: “I heard when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a PA system that Bill Cosby paid for.” It’s demonstrably untrue, but it also speaks to the hold that the sound system has on the stories that we tell about the march.)

But what strikes me the most is the sheer practicality of the ends that Rustin, Fauntroy, and the others on the ground were trying to achieve. Listen to how they describe it: “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear.” “How can you keep a crowd from becoming something else?” “Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we’ve done?” They weren’t worried about history, but about making it safely to the end of the day. Rustin had been thinking about this march for two decades, and he spent years actively planning for it, conscious that it presented massive organizational challenges that could only be addressed by careful preparation in advance. He had specifically envisioned it as ending at the Lincoln Memorial, with a crowd filling the National Mall, a huge space that imposed enormous logistical problems of its own. The primary purpose of the sound system was to allow a quarter of a million people to assemble and disperse in a peaceful fashion, and its properties were chosen with that end in mind. (As Euchner notes: “To get one square mile of clear sound, you need to spend upwards of twenty thousand dollars.”) A system of unusual power, expense, and complexity was the minimum required to ensure the orderly conclusion of an event on this scale. But when the audacity to envision the National Mall as a backdrop was combined with the attention to detail to make it work, the result was an electrically charged platform that would amplify any message, figuratively and literally, which made it both powerful and potentially dangerous. Everyone understood this. The saboteurs did. So did the Justice Department. The march’s organizers were keenly aware of it, which was why potentially controversial speakers—including James Baldwin—were excluded from the program. In the end, it became a stage for King, and at least one lesson is clear. When you aim high, and then devote everything you can to the practical side, the result might be more than you could have dreamed.

The world spins

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Note: This post discusses plot points from Sunday’s episode of Twin Peaks.

“Did you call me five days ago?” Dark Cooper asks the shadowy shape in the darkness in the most recent episode of Twin Peaks. It’s a memorable moment for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he’s addressing the disembodied Philip Jeffries, who was played by David Bowie in Fire Walk With Me, and is now portrayed by a different voice actor and what looks to be a sentient tea kettle. But that didn’t even strike me as the weirdest part. What hit me hardest is the implication that everything that we’ve seen so far this season has played out over less than a week in real time—the phone call to which Dark Cooper is referring occurred during the second episode. Admittedly, there are indications that the events onscreen have unfolded in a nonlinear fashion, not to draw attention to itself, but to allow David Lynch and Mark Frost to cut between storylines according to their own rhythms, rather than being tied down to chronology. (The text message that Dark Cooper sends at the end of the scene was received by Diane a few episodes ago, while Audrey’s painful interactions with Charlie apparently consist of a single conversation parceled out over multiple weeks. And the Dougie Jones material certainly feels as if it occurs over a longer period than five days, although it’s probably possible to squeeze it into that timeline if necessary.) And if viewers are brought up short by the contrast between the show’s internal calendar and its emotional duration, it’s happened before. When I look back at the first two seasons of the show, I’m still startled to realize that every event from Laura’s murder to Cooper’s possession unfolds over just one month.

Why does this feel so strange? The obvious answer is that we get to know these characters over a period of years, while we really only see them in action for a few weeks, and their interactions with one another end up carrying more weight than you might expect for people who, in some cases, met only recently. And television is the one medium that routinely creates that kind of disparity. It’s inherently impossible for a movie to take longer to watch than the events that it depicts—apart from a handful, like Run Lola Run or Vantage Point, that present scrambled timelines or stage the same action from multiple perspectives—and it usually compresses days or weeks of action within a couple of hours. With books, the length of the act of reading varies from one reader to the next, and we’re unlikely to find it particularly strange that it can take months to finish Ulysses, which recounts the events of a single day. It’s only television, particularly when experienced in its original run, that presents such a sharp contrast between narrative and emotional time, even if we don’t tend to worry about this with sitcoms, procedurals, and other nonserialized shows. (One interesting exception consists of shows set in high school or college, in which it’s awfully tempting to associate each season with an academic year, although there’s no reason why a series like Community couldn’t take place over a single semester.) Shows featuring children or teenagers have a built-in clock that reminds us of how time is passing in the real world, as Urkel or the Olsen twins progress inexorably toward puberty. And occasionally there’s an outlier like The Simpsons, in which a quarter of a century’s worth of storylines theoretically takes place within the same year or so.

But the way in which a serialized show can tell a story that occurs over a short stretch of narrative time while simultaneously drawing on the emotional energy that builds up over years is one of the unsung strengths of the entire medium. Our engagement with a favorite show that airs on a weekly basis isn’t just limited to the hour that we spend watching it every Sunday, but expands to fill much of the time in between. If a series really matters to us, it gets into our dreams. (I happened to miss the initial airing of this week’s episode because I was on vacation with my family, and I’ve been so conditioned to get my fix of Twin Peaks on a regular basis that I had a detailed dream about an imaginary episode that night—which hasn’t happened to me since I had to wait a week to watch the series finale of Breaking Bad. As far as I can remember, my dream involved the reappearance of Sheriff Harry Truman, who has been institutionalized for years, with his family and friends describing him euphemistically as “ill.” And I wouldn’t mention it here at all if this weren’t a show that has taught me to pay close attention to my dreamlife.) Many of us also spend time between episodes in reading reviews, discussing plot points online, and catching up with various theories about where it might go next. In a few cases, as with Westworld, this sort of active analysis can be detrimental to the experience of watching the show itself, if you see it as a mystery with clues that the individual viewer is supposed to crack on his or her own. For the most part, though, it’s an advantage, with time conferring an emotional weight that the show might not have otherwise had. As the world spins, the series stays where it was, and we’ve all changed in the meantime.

The revival of Twin Peaks takes this tendency and magnifies it beyond anything else we’ve seen before, with its fans investing it with twenty-five years of accumulated energy—and this doesn’t even account for the hundreds of hours that I spent listening to the show’s original soundtrack, which carries an unquantifiable duration of its own. And one of the charming things about this season is how Lynch and Frost seem to have gone through much the same experience themselves, mulling over their own work until stray lines and details take on a greater significance. When Dark Cooper goes to his shadowy meeting above a convenience store, it’s paying off on a line that Mike, the one-armed man, uttered in passing during a monologue from the first Bush administration. The same applies to the show’s references to a mysterious “Judy,” whom Jeffries mentioned briefly just before disappearing forever. I don’t think that these callbacks reflect a coherent plan that Lynch and Frost have been keeping in their back pockets for decades, but a process of going back to tease out meanings that even they didn’t know were there. Smart writers of serialized narratives learn to drop vague references into their work that might pay off later on. (Two of my favorite examples are Spock’s “Remember” at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the Second Foundation, which Isaac Asimov introduced in case he needed it in a subsequent installment.) What Twin Peaks is doing now is analogous to what the writers of Breaking Bad did when they set up problems that they didn’t know how to solve, trusting that they would figure it out eventually. The only difference is that Lynch and Frost, like the rest of us, have had more time to think about it. And it might take us another twenty-five years before we—or they—figure out what they were actually doing.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2017 at 9:08 am

The sense of an ending

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Note: This post discusses details from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

When I was working as a film critic in college, one of my first investments was a wristwatch that could glow in the dark. If you’re sitting through an interminable slog of a movie, sometimes you simply want to know how much longer the pain will last, and, assuming that you have a sense of the runtime, a watch puts a piece of narrative information at your disposal that has nothing to do with the events of the story itself. Even if you’re enjoying yourself, the knowledge that a film has twenty minutes left to run—which often happens if you’re watching it at home and staring right at the numbers on the display of your DVD player—affects the way you think about certain scenes. A climax plays differently near the end, as opposed to somewhere in the middle. The length of a work of art is a form of metadata that influences the way we watch movies and read books, as Douglas Hofstadter points out in Gödel, Escher, Bach:

You have undoubtedly noticed how some authors go to so much trouble to build up great tension a few pages before the end of their stories—but a reader who is holding the book physically in his hands can feel that the story is about to end. Hence, he has some extra information which acts as an advance warning, in a way. The tension is a bit spoiled by the physicality of the book. It would be so much better if, for instance, there were a lot of padding at the end of novels…A lot of extra printed pages which are not part of the story proper, but which serve to conceal the exact location of the end from a cursory glance, or from the feel of the book.

Not surprisingly, I tend to think about the passage of time the most when I’m not enjoying the story. When I’m invested in the experience, I’ll do the opposite: I’ll actively resist glancing at the clock or looking to see how much time has elapsed. When I know that the credits are going to roll no matter what within the next five minutes, it amounts to a spoiler. With Twin Peaks, which has a narrative that can seemingly be cut anywhere, like yard goods, I try not to think about how long I’ve been watching. Almost inevitably, the episode ends before I’m ready for it, in part because it provides so few of the usual cues that we’ve come to expect from television. There aren’t any commercial breaks, obviously, but the stories also don’t divide neatly into three or four acts. In the past, most shows, even those that aired without interruption on cable networks, followed certain structural conventions that allow us to guess when the story is coming to an end. (This is even more true of Hollywood movies, which, with their mandated beat sheets—the inciting incident, the midpoint, the false dawn, the crisis—practically tell the audience how much longer they need to pay attention, which may be the reason why such rules exist in the first place.) Now that streaming services allow serialized stories to run for hours without worrying about the narrative shape of individual episodes, this is less of an issue, and it can be a mixed blessing. But at its best, on a show like Twin Peaks, it creates a feeling of narrative suspension, cutting us off from any sense of the borders of the episode until the words Starring Kyle MacLachlan appear suddenly onscreen.

Yet there’s also another type of length of which we can’t help but be conscious, at least if we’re the kind of viewers likely to be watching Twin Peaks in the first place. We know that there are eighteen episodes in this season, the fourteenth of which aired last night, and the fact that we only have four hours left to go adds a degree of tension to the narrative that wouldn’t be there if we weren’t aware of it. This external pressure also depends on the knowledge that this is the only new season of the show that we’re probably going to get, which, given how hard it is to avoid this sort of news these days, is reasonable to expect of most fans. Maybe we’ve read the Rolling Stone interview in which David Lynch declared, in response to the question of whether there would be additional episodes: “I have no idea. It depends on how it goes over. You’re going to have to wait and see.” Or we’ve seen that David Nevins of Showtime said to Deadline: “It was always intended to be one season. A lot of people are speculating but there’s been zero contemplation, zero discussions other than fans asking me about it.” Slightly more promisingly, Kyle MacLachlan told the Hollywood Reporter: “I don’t know. David has said: ‘Everything is Twin Peaks.’ It leads me to believe that there are other stories to tell. I think it’s just a question of whether David and Mark want to tell them. I don’t know.” And Lynch even said to USA Today: “You never say never.” Still, it’s fair to say that the current season was conceived, written, and filmed to stand on its own, and until we know otherwise, we have to proceed under the assumption that this is the last time we’ll ever see these characters.

This has important implications for how we watch it from one week to the next. For one thing, it means that episodes near the end will play differently than they would have earlier in the season. Last night’s installment was relatively packed with incident—the revelation of the identity of Diane’s estranged half sister, Andy’s trip into the void, the green gardening glove, Monica Bellucci—but we’re also aware of how little time remains for the show to pay off any of these developments. Most series would have put an episode like this in the fourth slot, rather than the fourteenth, and given the show’s tendency to drop entire subplots for months, it leaves us keenly aware that many of these storylines may never be resolved. Every glimpse of a character, old or new, feels like a potential farewell. And with each episode that passes without the return of Agent Cooper, every minute in which we don’t see him increases our sense of urgency. (If this were the beginning of an open-ended run, rather than the presumptive final season, the response to the whole Dougie Jones thread would have been very different.) This information has nothing to do with the contents of the show itself, which, with one big exception, haven’t changed much since the premiere. But it’s hard not to think about it. In some ways, this may be the greatest difference between this season and the initial run, since there was always hope that the series would be renewed by ABC, or that Fire Walk With Me would tie off any loose ends. Unlike the first generation of fans, we know that this is it, and it can hardly fail to affect our impressions, even if Lynch still whispers in our heads: “You never say never.”

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2017 at 8:48 am

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