Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Quote of the Day

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My own rule of thumb for this is if I have an idea and I propose the idea, and the director does not like it, I will retreat—okay. But then, at the right moment, maybe a week later, I will say, “You know, because of what we have done in the last week, maybe we could look at that idea.” And if the director says no—okay. And then, at an extreme case, I will pitch it one more time. Again, it has to be at the right moment. And if the director still says no, then I drop it forever. I won’t—I can’t make a pest of myself about this idea. If I’ve been turned down three times, I will abandon the idea. Anthony Minghella had a phrase for that, which says, “If three Russians tell you you’re drunk, lie down.” Because they’re the experts. Not two, but three.

Walter Murch, in an interview on Web of Stories

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September 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

Don’t look now

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Note: This post discusses elements of the series finale of HBO’s Sharp Objects.

It’s been almost twenty years since I first saw Don’t Look Now at a revival screening at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I haven’t seen it again, but I’ve never gotten over it, and it remains one of my personal cinematic touchstones. (My novelette “Kawataro,” which is largely an homage to Japanese horror, includes a nod to its most famous visual conceit.) And it’s impossible to convey its power without revealing its ending, which I’m afraid I’ll need to do here. For most of its length, Nicholas Roeg’s movie is an evocative supernatural mystery set in Venice, less about conventional scares than about what the film critic Pauline Kael describes as its “unnerving cold ominousness,” with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a husband and wife mourning the recent drowning death of their daughter. Throughout the movie, Sutherland glimpses a childlike figure in a red raincoat, which his daughter was wearing when she died. Finally, in the film’s closing minutes, he catches up with what he thinks is her ghost, only to find what Kael calls “a hideous joke of nature—their own child become a dwarf monstrosity.” A wrinkled crone in red, who is evidently just a serial killer, slashes him to death, in one of the great shock endings in the history of movies. Kael wasn’t convinced by it, but it clearly affected her as much as it did me:

The final kicker is predictable, and strangely flat, because it hasn’t been made to matter to us; fear is decorative, and there’s nothing to care about in this worldly, artificial movie. Yet at a mystery level the the movie can still affect the viewer; even the silliest ghost stories can. It’s not that I’m not impressionable; I’m just not as proud of it as some people are.

I had much the same reaction to the final scene of Sharp Objects, a prestige miniseries that I’ve been watching for two months now with growing impatience, only to have my feelings turn at the very end into a grudging respect. It’s a strange, frustrating, sometimes confusing show that establishes Jean-Marc Vallée, coming off the huge success of Big Little Lies, as one of our major directors—he’s got more pure craft at his disposal than just about anyone else working in television. (I don’t remember much about The Young Victoria, but it was clear even then that he was the real thing.) The series is endlessly clever in its production design, costuming, and music, and the actors do the best that they can with the material at hand. The first trailer led me to expect something heightened and Gothic, with a duel of wills between daughter Celeste (Amy Adams) and mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson), but the show itself spends most of its length going for something sadder and more wounded, and I don’t think it entirely succeeds. Like Big Little Lies, it exploits the structure of a mystery, but it isn’t particularly interested in furnishing clues or even basic information, and there are long stretches when it seems to forget about the two teenage girls who have been murdered in Celeste’s haunted hometown. Celeste is a bad reporter and a lousier investigator, which wouldn’t matter if this were really a psychological study. Yet the series isn’t all that interested in delving into its characters, either, apart from their gorgeously lit surfaces. For most of its eight episodes, it hits the same handful of notes, and by the end, we don’t have much more insight into Celeste, Adora, or anybody else than we did after the pilot. It has a few brilliant visual notions, but very little in the way of real ideas.

Then we come to the end, or the last minute of the finale, which I think is objectively staggering. (I’m not going to name the killer, but if you haven’t seen the show yet, you might want to skip this entire paragraph.) After an extended fake denouement that should serve as a warning sign in itself, Celeste stumbles across the truth, in the form of a few gruesome puzzle pieces that have been hiding in plain sight, followed by a smash cut to black. Aside from an unsettling montage of images during the closing credits, that’s it. It turns the entire series into the equivalent of a shaggy dog story, or an elephant joke, and I loved it—it’s a gigantic “screw you” to the audience that rises to Hitchcockian levels of bad taste. Yet I’m not entirely sure whether it redeems the rest of the series. When I replay Sharp Objects in my head, it seems to start out as a mystery, transition into a simulacrum of a character study, and then reveal at the last second that it was only messing with us. If it had been two hours long, it would have been very effective. But I don’t know if it works for a television series, even with a limited run, in which the episodes in the protracted second act can only deliver one tone at once. If this were a movie, I’d want to see it again, but I don’t think I’ll ever revisit the dusty middle innings of Sharp Objects, much of which was only marking time. As a confidence game, it works all too well, to the point that many critics thought that it was onto something profound. For some viewers, maybe it was. But I’d be curious to hear how they come to terms with that ending, which cuts so savagely away from anything like human resolution that it makes a mockery of the notion that this was ever about the characters at all.

And it works, at least to a point. If nothing else, I’ve been thinking about it ever since—as Kael says, I’m no less impressionable than anyone else, even if I’m not proud of it. But I’d also argue that the conventions of the prestige drama, which made this project possible in the first place, also interfere with its ultimate impact. There’s no particular reason why Sharp Objects had to be eight episodes long, and you could make a strong case that it would work better if the entire experience, like Don’t Look Now, were experienced in a single sitting. In the end, I liked it enough to want to see a shorter version, which might feel like a masterpiece. In a funny way, Sharp Objects represents the opposite problem as Gone Girl, another fascinating project that Gillian Flynn adapted from her own novel. That movie was a superb Hitchcockian toy that stumbled when it asked us to take it seriously at the end, while Sharp Objects is a superficially serious show that exposes itself in its final seconds as a twisted game. I prefer the latter, and that final shock is delivered with a newfound professionalism that promises great things from both Flynn and Vallée. (It certainly ends on a higher note than the first season of Big Little Lies, which also closed with an inexplicable ending that made much of the show seem meaningless, except not in a good way.) But the interminable central section makes me suspect that the creators were so seduced by Amy Adams—“so extraordinarily beautiful yet not adding up right for ordinary beauty,” as Kael said of Julie Christie—that they forgot what they were supposed to be doing. Kael ends her review on a typically inscrutable note: “It’s like an entertainment for bomb victims: nobody excepts any real pleasure from it.” But what I might remember most about Sharp Objects is that sick tingle of pleasure that it offered me at the very end, just after I’d given up looking for it.

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2018 at 8:47 am

The pencil and paper level

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The best education in film is to make one. I would advise any neophyte director to try to make a film by himself. A three-minute short will teach him a lot. I know that all the things I did at the beginning were, in microcosm, the things I’m doing now as a director and producer. There are a lot of noncreative aspects to filmmaking which have to be overcome, and you will experience them all when you make even the simplest film: business, organization, taxes, etc., etc. It is rare to be able to have uncluttered artistic environment when you make a film, and being able to accept this is essential.

The point to stress is that anyone seriously interested in making a film should find as much money as he can as quickly as he can and go out and do it. And this is no longer as difficult as it once was. When I began making movies as an independent in the early 1950s I received a fair amount of publicity because I was something of a freak in an industry dominated by a handful of huge studios. Everyone was amazed that it could be done at all. But anyone can make a movie who has a little knowledge of cameras and tape recorders, a lot of ambition and—hopefully—talent. It’s gotten down to the pencil and paper level. We’re really on the threshold of a revolutionary new era in film.

Stanley Kubrick, in an interview with Joseph Gelmis in The Film Director as Superstar

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August 25, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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August 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

The science of survival

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When I heard that Christopher McQuarrie had been hired to write and direct a second movie in the Mission: Impossible series, my initial reaction, curiously enough, was disappointment. I loved Rogue Nation, but I’ve always liked the way in which the franchise reinvents itself with every installment, and it was a little strange to contemplate a film that simply followed up on the characters and storylines from the previous chapter. (When I saw the trailer for Mission: Impossible—Fallout, my first thought was, “Oh, it’s a sequel.”) Now the reviews are in, and they indicate that Fallout might not just be the best of them all, but one of the greatest action movies of all time. This is a tribute to McQuarrie, of course, whom I’ve admired for decades, but the reaction also indicates that the rest of the world is catching up to a central fact about Tom Cruise himself. In the past, I’ve described him as a great producer who happens to occupy the body of a movie star—like a thetan occupying its host, perhaps—and Mission: Impossible is his unlikely masterpiece. Like one of the legendary moguls of old Hollywood, Cruise has treated it as a springboard for untapped talent (J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird), a showcase for memorable supporting performances (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paula Patton, Rebecca Ferguson), or a halfway house for gifted screenwriters who had spent years in the wilderness (Robert Towne, McQuarrie). It’s a secret studio that Cruise has built and run in plain sight, with far more skill and success than he displayed at the head of United Artists. Whether or not it’s a breakaway hit, Fallout seems to have awakened critics to the singular nature of his accomplishment. I can’t wait to see it.

Yet there’s a darker element to Cruise’s career, obviously, and I’ve never really addressed it here. There are countless possible approaches to the problem of his relationship to Scientology, but I may as well start with the video—which has been publicly available for over a decade—of Cruise accepting an award from David Miscavage. With a huge medal hanging from his neck, Cruise addresses the crowd at the podium, standing near a huge portrait of L. Ron Hubbard:

I’m really honored to be with you…Thank you for your confidence in me. I’ve personally been very privileged to see what you do to help, to protect, to serve all of us. I’ll tell you something—that I have never met a more competent, a more intelligent, a more tolerant or compassionate being outside of what I’ve experienced from LRH. And I’ve met the leaders of leaders, okay. I’ve met them all. So I say to you, sir, we are lucky to have you and thank you—and to you, L. Ron Hubbard, sir, I will take this as a half-ack. I will continue on my way. Okay, these are the times now, people. Okay, these are the times we will all remember. Were you there? What did you do? I think you know that I am there for you. And I do care so very, very, very much. So what do you say? We gonna clean this place up? Okay? Because we’re counting on you. Okay? All right? To LRH!

Apart from “half-ack,” a reference to a concept in Scientology that might count as the weirdest inside joke of all time, I’m struck the most by the offhand familiarity of “LRH.” It isn’t “Hubbard,” or “Ron,” or even “the Commodore,” but his initials. I use the same abbreviation in the notes in my book, because I need to repeat it so often, and its usage here makes it seem as if Hubbard is never far from the minds of his devotees. (In light of the upcoming movie, incidentally, it’s worth remembering that Hubbard once wrote: “Only Scientologists will be functioning in areas experiencing heavy fallout in an atomic war.”)

And given everything else that we know about Hubbard, it can seem incredible that a pulp writer from the thirties—a man who otherwise might be mentioned in the same breath, if he were lucky, as A.E. van Vogt and L. Sprague de Camp—dominates the inner life of the world’s last surviving movie star. Yet it isn’t entirely inexplicable. Aside from the details that Lawrence Wright exhaustively provides in Going Clear, I don’t have much insight into Cruise’s feelings toward Scientology, but I can venture a few observations. The first is that the church knew exactly what it had in Cruise. A desire to recruit celebrities, or their relatives, is visible in the earliest days of dianetics, starting with Hubbard’s assistants Greg Hemingway and Richard De Mille, and continuing all the way through the likes of Frank Stallone. Cruise, like John Travolta, was the real thing, and the church has spared no expense in earning and maintaining his favor. He may show a dismaying lack of interest in the welfare of the members who clean the ship on which he once celebrated his birthday, but his personal experience within the church can hardly have been anything but wonderful. The second point is a little trickier. When Cruise says that auditing changed his life, I don’t doubt it. I’ve spoken with a number of former Scientologists, and even those who are highly critical of the overall movement say that the therapy itself was frequently beneficial, which is probably true of any system that allows people to talk through their problems on a regular basis with an outwardly sympathetic listener. As John W. Campbell once wrote to the writer Eric Frank Russell: “Why, for God’s sake, do you think I thought dianetics was so important? Hell, man, because I knew it was, because I tried it, and it helped.” Or as William S. Burroughs said more succinctly: “Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos. You see it works.”

You could say much the same of psychoanalysis or behavioral therapy, but it certainly seems to have worked in Cruise’s case, which leads us to the most relevant point of all. If there’s one theme that I like to emphasize here, it’s that we rarely understand the reasons for our own success. We’re likely to attribute it to hard work or skill, when it might be the result of privilege or luck, and it’s easy to tell ourselves stories about cause and effect. Cruise has succeeded in life beyond all measure, and it’s no surprise that he credits it to Scientology, because this was exactly what he was told to expect. In Scientology: The Now Religion, which was published in 1970, the author George Malko recounts an interview that he had with a church member named Bob Thomas:

“When you’re clear,” Thomas said, “you’re free in the mental sense, but you want to extend your influence and power and so on.” Thus becoming an operating thetan is not merely being at cause mentally, but at cause over matter, energy, space, and time in the physical, total sense.” When I suggested that this implied that an operating thetan could levitate, rise right up into the air and hang there, Thomas sat forward in his chair and said, “Right. These are the ultimate goals that are envisioned. I’m saying that these are the ultimate things it is hoped man is capable of, if he really has those potentials, which we assume he has…That’s what’s happening in Scientology: people are finding out more and more about themselves, and the more they find out about themselves, the freer they are. And we envision no ultimate limitation on how free an individual can be. Beyond the state of clear, there are these grades of operating thetans. When you’re clear, you’re free in the mental sense, but you want to extend your influence and power as a spiritual being. And that road is a higher road which Mr. Hubbard is researching at this moment.”

When I read these words, and then watch Cruise hanging off an airplane or scaling the Burj Khalifa, they take on another resonance. Cruise may be our greatest movie star and producer—but he also acts like a man who thinks that he can fly.

Quote of the Day

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The ideal, for me, is to obtain right away what will work—and without retouches. If they are necessary, it falls short of the mark. The immediate is chance. At the same time it is definitive. What I want is the definitive by chance.

Jean-Luc Godard, to Andrew Sarris in Interviews with Film Directors

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July 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

Critical thinking

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When you’re a technology reporter, as my wife was for many years, you quickly find that your subjects have certain expectations about the coverage that you’re supposed to be providing. As Benjamin Wallace wrote a while back in New York magazine:

“A smart young person in the Valley thinks being a reporter is basically being a PR person,” says one tech journalist. “Like, We have news to share, we’d like to come and tell you about it.” Reporters who write favorably about companies receive invitations to things; critics don’t. “They’re very thin-skinned,” says another reporter. “On Wall Street, if you call them a douchebag, they’ve already heard seventeen worse things in the last hour. Here, if you criticize a company, you’re criticizing the spirit of innovation.”

Mike Isaac of the New York Times recently made a similar observation in an interview with Recode: “One of the perceptions [of tech entrepreneurs] is A) Well, the press is slanted against us in some way [and] B) Why aren’t they appreciating how awesome we are? And like all these other things…I think a number of companies, including and especially Uber, get really upset when you don’t recognize the gravitas of their genius and the scope of how much they have changed.” Along the same lines, you also sometimes hear that reporters should be “supporting” local startups—which essentially means any company not based in Silicon Valley or New York—or businesses run by members of traditionally underrepresented groups.

As a result, critical coverage of any kind can be seen as a betrayal. But it isn’t a reporter’s job to “support” anything, whether it’s a city, the interests of particular stakeholders, or the concept of innovation itself—and this applies to much more than just financial journalism. In a perceptive piece for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson notes that similar pressures apply to movie critics. She begins with the example of Ocean’s 8, which Cate Blanchett, one of the film’s stars, complained had been reviewed through a “prism of misunderstanding” by film critics, who are mostly white and male. And Wilkinson responds with what I think is a very important point:

They’re not wrong about the makeup of the pool of critics. And this discussion about the demographic makeup of film critics is laudable and necessary. But the way it’s being framed has less helpful implications: that the people whose opinions really count are those whom the movie is “for.” Not only does that ignore how most movies actually make their money, but it says a lot about Hollywood’s attitude toward criticism, best revealed in Blanchett’s statement. She compared studio’s “support” of a film—which means, essentially, a big marketing budget—with critics’ roles in a film’s success, which she says are a “really big part of the equation.” In that view, critics are mainly useful in how they “support” movies the industry thinks they should like because of the demographic group and audience segment into which they fall.

This has obvious affinities to the attitude that we often see among tech startups, perhaps because they’re operating under similar conditions as Hollywood. They’re both risky, volatile fields that depend largely on perception, which is shaped by coverage by a relatively small pool of influencers. It’s true of books as well. And it’s easy for all of them to fall into the trap of assuming that critics who aren’t being supportive somehow aren’t doing their jobs.

But that isn’t true, either. And it’s important to distinguish between the feelings of creators, who can hardly be expected to be objective, and those of outside players with an interest in an enterprise’s success or failure, which can be emotional as much as financial. There are certain movies or startups that many of us want to succeed because of what they say about an entire industry or culture. Black Panther was one, and it earned a reception that exceeded the hopes of even the most fervent fan. A Wrinkle in Time was another, and it didn’t, although I liked that movie a lot. But it isn’t a critic’s responsibility to support a work of art for such reasons. As Wilkinson writes:

Diversifying that pool [of critics] won’t automatically lead to the results the industry might like. Critics who belong to the same demographic group shouldn’t feel as if they need to move in lockstep with a movie simply because someone like them is represented in it, or because the film’s marketing is aimed at them. Women critics shouldn’t feel as if they need to ‘support’ a film telling a woman’s story, any more than men who want to appear to be feminists should. Black and Latinx and Asian critics shouldn’t be expected to love movies about black and Latinx and Asian people as a matter of course.

Wilkinson concludes: “The best reason to diversify criticism is so that when Hollywood puts out movies for women, or movies for people of color, it doesn’t get lazy.” I agree—and I’d add that a more diverse pool of critics would also discourage Hollywood from being lazy when it makes movies for anyone.

Diversity, in criticism as in anything else, is good for the groups directly affected, but it’s equally good for everybody. Writing of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko, the author Eve L. Ewing recently said on Twitter: “Hire Asian-American writers/Korean-American writers/Korean folks with different diasporic experiences to write about Pachinko, be on panels about it, own reviews of it, host online roundtables…And then hire them to write about other books too!” That last sentence is the key. I want to know what Korean-American writers have to say about Pachinko, but I’d be just as interested in their thoughts on, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. And the first step is acknowledging what critics are actually doing, which isn’t supporting particular works of art, advancing a cause, or providing recommendations. It’s writing reviews. When most critics write anything, they thinking primarily about the response it will get from readers and how it fits into their career as a whole. You may not like it, but it’s pointless to ignore it, or to argue that critics should be held to a standard that differs from anyone else trying to produce decent work. (I suppose that one requirement might be a basic respect or affection for the medium that one is criticizing, but that isn’t true of every critic, either.) Turning to the question of diversity, you find that expanding the range of critical voices is worthwhile in itself, just as it is for any other art form, and regardless of its impact on other works. When a piece of criticism or journalism is judged for its effects beyond its own boundaries, we’re edging closer to propaganda. Making this distinction is harder than it looks, as we’ve recently seen with Elon Musk, who, like Trump, seems to think that negative coverage must be the result of deliberate bias or dishonesty. Even on a more modest level, a call for “support” may seem harmless, but it can easily turn into a belief that you’re either with us or against us. And that would be a critical mistake.

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