Alec Nevala-Lee

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The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 3

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By now, it might seem obvious that the best way to approach Nostradamus is to see it as a kind of game, as Anthony Boucher describes it in the June 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds: “A fascinating game, to be sure, with a one-in-a-million chance of hitting an astounding bullseye. But still a game, and a game that has to be played according to the rules. And those rules are, above all things else, even above historical knowledge and ingenuity of interpretation, accuracy and impartiality.” Boucher’s work inspired several spirited rebukes in print from L. Sprague de Camp, who granted the rules of the game but disagreed about its harmlessness. In a book review signed “J. Wellington Wells”—and please do keep an eye on that last name—de Camp noted that Nostradamus was “conjured out of his grave” whenever there was a war:

And wonder of wonders, it always transpires that a considerable portion of his several fat volumes of prophetic quatrains refer to the particular war—out of the twenty-odd major conflicts that have occurred since Dr. Nostradamus’s time—or other disturbance now taking place; and moreover that they prophesy inevitable victory for our side—whichever that happens to be. A wonderful man, Nostradamus.

Their affectionate battle culminated in a nonsense limerick that de Camp published in the December 1942 version of Esquire, claiming that if it was still in print after four hundred years, it would have been proven just as true as any of Nostradamus’s prophecies. Boucher responded in Astounding with the short story “Pelagic Spark,” an early piece of fanfic in which de Camp’s great-grandson uses the “prophecy” to inspire a rebellion in the far future against the sinister Hitler XVI.

This is all just good fun, but not everyone sees it as a game, and Nostradamus—like other forms of vaguely apocalyptic prophecy—tends to return at exactly the point when such impulses become the most dangerous. This was the core of de Camp’s objection, and Boucher himself issued a similar warning:

At this point there enters a sinister economic factor. Books will be published only when there is popular demand for them. The ideal attempt to interpret the as yet unfulfilled quatrains of Nostradamus would be made in an ivory tower when all the world was at peace. But books on Nostradamus sell only in times of terrible crisis, when the public wants no quiet and reasoned analysis, but an impassioned assurance that We are going to lick the blazes out of Them because look, it says so right here. And in times of terrible crisis, rules are apt to get lost.

Boucher observes that one of the best books on the subject, Charles A. Ward’s Oracles of Nostradamus, was reissued with a dust jacket emblazoned with such questions as “Will America Enter the War?” and “Will the British Fleet Be Destroyed?” You still see this sort of thing today, and it isn’t just the books that benefit. In 1981, the producer David L. Wolper released a documentary on the prophecies of Nostradamus, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, that saw subsequent spikes in interest during the Gulf War—a revised version for television was hosted by Charlton Heston—and after the September 11 attacks, when there was a run on the cassette at Blockbuster. And the attention that it periodically inspires reflects the same emotional factors that led to psychohistory, as the host of the original version said to the audience: “Do we really want to know about the future? Maybe so—if we can change it.”

The speaker, of course, was Orson Welles. I had always known that The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was narrated by Welles, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently that I realized that he hosted it onscreen as well, in one of my favorite incarnations of any human being—bearded, gigantic, cigar in hand, vaguely contemptuous of his surroundings and collaborators, but still willing to infuse the proceedings with something of the velvet and gold braid. Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club once described the documentary as “a brain-damaged sequel” to Welles’s lovely F for Fake, which is very generous. The entire project is manifestly ridiculous and exploitative, with uncut footage from the Zapruder film mingling with a xenophobic fantasy of a war of the West against Islam. Yet there are also moments that are oddly transporting, as when Welles turns to the camera and says:

Before continuing, let me warn you now that the predictions of the future are not at all comforting. I might also add that these predictions of the past, these warnings of the future are not the opinions of the producers of the film. They’re certainly not my opinions. They’re interpretations of the quatrains as made by scores of independent scholars of Nostradamus’ work.

In the sly reading of “my opinions,” you can still hear a trace of Harry Lime, or even of Gregory Arkadin, who invited his guests to drink to the story of the scorpion and the frog. And the entire movie is full of strange echoes of Welles’s career. Footage is repurposed from Waterloo, in which he played Louis XVIII, and it glances at the fall of the Shah of Iran, whose brother-in-law funded Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which was impounded by the revolutionary government that Nostradamus allegedly foresaw.

Welles later expressed contempt for the whole affair, allegedly telling Merv Griffin that you could get equally useful prophecies by reading at random out of the phone book. Yet it’s worth remembering, as the critic David Thomson notes, that Welles turned all of his talk show interlocutors into versions of the reporter from Citizen Kane, or even into the Hal to his Falstaff, and it’s never clear where the game ended. His presence infuses The Man Who Saw Tomorrow with an unearned loveliness, despite the its many awful aspects, such as the presence of the “psychic” Jeane Dixon. (Dixon’s fame rested on her alleged prediction of the Kennedy assassination, based on a statement—made in Parade magazine in 1960—that the winner of the upcoming presidential election would be “assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term.” Oddly enough, no one seems to remember an equally impressive prediction by the astrologer Joseph F. Goodavage, who wrote in Analog in September 1962: “It is coincidental that each American president in office at the time of these conjunctions [of Jupiter and Saturn in an earth sign] either died or was assassinated before leaving the presidency…John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 at the time of a Jupiter and Saturn conjunction in Capricorn.”) And it’s hard for me to watch this movie without falling into reveries about Welles, who was like John W. Campbell in so many other ways. Welles may have been the most intriguing cultural figure of the twentieth century, but he never seemed to know what would come next, and his later career was one long improvisation. It might not be too much to hear a certain wistfulness when he speaks of the man who could see tomorrow, much as Campbell’s fascination with psychohistory stood in stark contrast to the confusion of the second half of his life. When The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was released, Welles had finished editing about forty minutes of his unfinished masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind, and for decades after his death, it seemed that it would never be seen. Instead, it’s available today on Netflix. And I don’t think that anybody could have seen that coming.

A better place

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Note: Spoilers follow for the first and second seasons of The Good Place.

When I began watching The Good Place, I thought that I already knew most of its secrets. I had missed the entire first season, and I got interested in it mostly due to a single review by Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, which might be my favorite piece so far from one of our most interesting critics. Nussbaum has done more than anyone else in the last decade to elevate television criticism into an art in itself, and this article—with its mixture of the critical, personal, and political—displays all her strengths at their best. Writing of the sitcom’s first season finale, which aired the evening before Trump’s inauguration, Nussbaum says: “Many fans, including me, were looking forward to a bit of escapist counterprogramming, something frothy and full of silly puns, in line with the first nine episodes. Instead, what we got was the rare season finale that could legitimately be described as a game-changer, vaulting the show from a daffy screwball comedy to something darker, much stranger, and uncomfortably appropriate for our apocalyptic era.” Following that grabber of an opening, she continues with a concise summary of the show’s complicated premise:

The first episode is about a selfish American jerk, Eleanor (the elfin charmer Kristen Bell), who dies and goes to Heaven, owing to a bureaucratic error. There she is given a soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a Senegal-raised moral philosopher. When Chidi discovers that Eleanor is an interloper, he makes an ethical leap, agreeing to help her become a better person…Overseeing it all was Michael, an adorably flustered angel-architect played by Ted Danson; like Leslie Knope, he was a small-town bureaucrat who adored humanity and was desperate to make his flawed community perfect.

There’s a lot more involved, of course, and we haven’t even mentioned most of the other key players. It’s an intriguing setup for a television show, and it might have been enough to get me to watch it on its own. Yet what really caught my attention was Nussbaum’s next paragraph, which includes the kind of glimpse into a critic’s writing life that you only see when emotions run high: “After watching nine episodes, I wrote a first draft of this column based on the notion that the show, with its air of flexible optimism, its undercurrent of uplift, was a nifty dialectical exploration of the nature of decency, a comedy that combined fart jokes with moral depth. Then I watched the finale. After the credits rolled, I had to have a drink.” She then gives away the whole game, which I’m obviously going to do here as well. You’ve been warned:

In the final episode, we learn that it was no bureaucratic mistake that sent Eleanor to Heaven. In fact, she’s not in Heaven at all. She’s in Hell—which is something that Eleanor realizes, in a flash of insight, as the characters bicker, having been forced as a group to choose two of them to be banished to the Bad Place. Michael is no angel, either. He’s a low-ranking devil, a corporate Hell architect out on his first big assignment, overseeing a prankish experimental torture cul-de-sac. The malicious chuckle that Danson unfurls when Eleanor figures it out is both terrifying and hilarious, like a clap of thunder on a sunny day. “Oh, God!” he growls, dropping the mask. “You ruin everything, you know that?”

That’s a legitimately great twist, and when I suggested to my wife—who didn’t know anything about it—that we check it out on Netflix, it was partially so that I could enjoy her surprise at that moment, like a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire eagerly watching an unsuspecting friend during the Red Wedding.

Yet I was the one who really got fooled. The Good Place became my favorite sitcom since Community, and for almost none of the usual reasons. It’s very funny, of course, but I find that the jokes land about half the time, and it settles for what Nussbaum describes as “silly puns” more often than it probably should. Many episodes are closer to freeform comedy—the kind in which the riffs have less to do with context than with whatever the best pitch happened to be in the writers room—than to the clockwork farce to which it ought to aspire. But its flaws don’t really matter. I haven’t been so involved with the characters on a series like this in years, which allows it to take risks and get away with formal experiments that would destroy a lesser show. After the big revelation in the first season finale, it repeatedly blew up its continuity, with Michael resetting the memories of the others and starting over whenever they figured out his plan, but somehow, it didn’t leave me feeling jerked around. This is partially thanks to how the show cleverly conflates narrative time with viewing time, which is one of the great unsung strengths of the medium. (When the second season finally gets on track, these “versions” of the characters have only known one another for a couple of weeks, but every moment is enriched by our memories of their earlier incarnations. It’s a good trick, but it’s not so different from the realization, for example, that all of the plot twists and relationships of the first two seasons of Twin Peaks unfolded over less than a month.) It also speaks to the talent of the cast, which consistently rises to every challenge. And it does a better job of telling a serialized story than any sitcom that I can remember. Even while I was catching up with it, I managed to parcel it out over time, but I can also imagine binging an entire season at one sitting. That’s mostly due to the fact that the writers are masters of structure, if not always at filling the spaces between act breaks, but it’s also because the stakes are literally infinite.

And the stakes apply to all of us. It’s hard to come away from The Good Place without revisiting some of your assumptions about ethics, the afterlife, and what it means to be a good person. (The inevitable release of The Good Place and Philosophy might actually be worth reading.) I’m more aware of how much I’ve internalized the concept of “moral desert,” or the notion that good behavior will be rewarded, which we should all know by now isn’t true. In its own unpretentious way, the series asks its viewers to contemplate the problem of how to live when there might not be a prize awaiting us at the end. It’s the oldest question imaginable, but it seems particularly urgent these days, and the show’s answers are more optimistic than we have any right to expect. Writing just a few weeks after the inauguration, Nussbaum seems to project some of her own despair onto creator Michael Schur:

While I don’t like to read the minds of showrunners—or, rather, I love to, but it’s presumptuous—I suspect that Schur is in a very bad mood these days. If [Parks and Recreation] was a liberal fantasia, The Good Place is a dystopian mindfork: it’s a comedy about the quest to be moral even when the truth gets bent, bullies thrive, and sadism triumphs…Now that his experiment has crashed, [the character of] Michael plans to erase the ensemble’s memories and reboot. The second season—presuming the show is renewed (my mouth to God’s ear)—will start the same scheme from scratch. Michael will make his afterlife Sims suffer, no matter how many rounds it takes.

Yet in the second season hinges on an unlikely change of heart. Michael comes to care about his charges—he even tries to help them escape to the real Good Place—and his newfound affection doesn’t seem like another mislead. I’m not sure if I believe it, but I’m still grateful. It isn’t a coincidence that Michael shares his name with the show’s creator, and I’d like to think that Schur ended up with a kinder version of the series than he may have initially envisioned. Like Nussbaum, he tore up the first draft and started over. Life is hard enough as it is, and the miracle of The Good Place is that it takes the darkest view imaginable of human nature, and then it gently hints that we might actually be capable of becoming better.

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September 27, 2018 at 8:39 am

The surprising skepticism of The X-Files

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Note: To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the premiere of The X-Files, I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on September 9, 2013.

Believe it or not, this week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of The X-Files, which aired its first episode on September 10, 1993. As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I didn’t watch the pilot that night, and I’m not even sure that I caught the second episode, “Deep Throat.” “Squeeze,” which aired the following week, is the first installment that I clearly remember seeing on its original broadcast, and I continued to tune in afterward, although only sporadically. In its early days, I had issues with the show’s lack of continuity: it bugged me to no end that after every weekly encounter with the paranormal—any one of which should have been enough to upend Scully’s understanding of the world forever—the two leads were right back where they were at the start of the next episode, and few, if any, of their cases were ever mentioned again. Looking back now, of course, it’s easy to see that this episodic structure was what allowed the show to survive, and that it was irrevocably damaged once it began to take its backstory more seriously. In the meantime, I learned to accept the show’s narrative logic on its own terms. And I’m very grateful that I did.

It’s no exaggeration to say that The X-Files has had a greater influence on my own writing than any work of narrative art in any medium. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite work of art, or even my favorite television show—only that Chris Carter’s supernatural procedural came along at the precise moment in my young adulthood that I was most vulnerable to being profoundly influenced by a great genre series. I was thirteen when the show premiered, toward the end of the most pivotal year of my creative life. Take those twelve months away, or replace them with a different network of cultural influences, and I’d be a different person altogether. It was the year I discovered Umberto Eco, Stephen King, and Douglas R. Hofstadter; Oliver Stone’s JFK set me on a short but fruitful detour into the literature of conspiracy; I bought a copy of Very by the Pet Shop Boys, about which I’ll have a lot more to say soon; I acquired copies of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories; and I took my first deep dive into the work of David Lynch and, later, Jorge Luis Borges. Some of these works have lasted, while others haven’t, but they all shaped who I became, and The X-Files stood at the heart of it all, with imagery drawn in equal part from Twin Peaks and Dealey Plaza and a playful, agnostic spirit that mirrored that of the authors I was reading at the same time.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

And this underlying skepticism—which may seem like a strange word to apply to The X-Files—was a big part of its appeal. What I found enormously attractive about the show was that although it took place in a world of aliens, ghosts, and vampires, it didn’t try to force these individual elements into one overarching pattern. Even in its later seasons, when it attempted, with mixed results, to weave its abduction and conspiracy threads into a larger picture, certain aspects remained incongruously unexplained. The same world shaped by the plans of the Consortium or Syndicate also included lake monsters, clairvoyants, and liver-eating mutants, all of whom would presumably continue to go about their business after the alien invasion occurred. It never tried to convert us to anything, because it didn’t have any answers. And what I love about it now, in retrospect, is the fact that this curiously indifferent attitude toward its own mysteries arose from the structural constraints of network television itself. Every episode had to stand on its own. There was no such thing as binge-watching. The show had to keep moving or die.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why even fundamentally skeptical viewers, like me, could become devoted fans, or why Mulder and Scully could appear on the cover of the Skeptical Inquirer. It’s true that Scully was never right, but it’s remarkable how often it seemed that she could be, which is due as much to the show’s episodic construction as to Gillian Anderson’s wonderful performance. (As I’ve mentioned before, Scully might be my favorite character on any television show.) Every episode changed the terms of the game, complete with a new supporting cast, setting, and premise—and after the advent of Darin Morgan, even the tone could be wildly variable. As a result, it was impossible for viewers to know where they stood, which made a defensive skepticism seem like the healthiest possible attitude. Over time, the mythology grew increasingly unwieldy, and the show’s lack of consistency became deeply frustrating, as reflected in its maddening, only occasionally transcendent reboot. The X-Files eventually lost its way, but not until after a haphazard, often dazzling initial season that established, in spite of what its creators might do in the future, that anything was possible, and no one explanation would ever be enough. And it’s a lesson that I never forgot.

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September 14, 2018 at 9:00 am

The writer’s defense

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“This book will be the death of me,” the writer Jose Chung broods to himself halfway through my favorite episode of Millennium. “I just can’t write anymore. What possessed me to be a writer anyway? What kind of a life is this? What else can I do now, with no other skills or ability? My life has fizzled away. Only two options left: suicide, or become a television weatherman.” I’ve loved this internal monologue—written by Darin Morgan and delivered by the great Charles Nelson Reilly—ever since I first heard it more than two decades ago. (As an aside, it’s startling for me to realize that just four short years separated the series premiere of The X-Files from “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense,” which was enough time for an entire fictional universe to be born, splinter apart, and reassemble itself into a better, more knowing incarnation.) And I find that I remember Chung’s words every time I sit down to write something new. I’ve been writing for a long time now, and I’m better at it than I am at pretty much anything else, but I still have to endure something like a moment of existential dread whenever I face the blank page for the first time. For the duration of the first draft, I regret all of my decisions, and I wonder whether there’s still a chance to try something else instead. Eventually, it passes. But it always happens. And after spending over a decade doing nothing else but writing, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s always going to be this way.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways of dealing with it. In fact, I’ve come to realize that most of my life choices are designed to minimize the amount of time that I spend writing first drafts. This means nothing else but the physical act of putting down words for the first time, which is when I tend to hit my psychological bottom. Everything else is fine by comparison. As a result, I’ve shunted aspects of my creative process to one side or the other of the rough draft, which persists as a thin slice of effort between two huge continents of preparation and consolidation. I prefer to do as much research in advance as I can, and I spend an ungodly amount of time on outlines, which I’ve elsewhere described as a stealth first draft that I can trick myself into thinking doesn’t matter. My weird, ritualistic use of mind maps and other forms of random brainstorming is another way to generate as many ideas as possible before I need to really start writing. When I finally start the first draft, I make a point of never going back to read it until I’ve physically typed out the entire thing, with my outline at my elbow, as if I’m just transcribing something that already exists. Ideally, I can crank out that part of the day’s work in an hour or less. Once it’s there on the screen, I can begin revising, taking as many passes as possible without worrying too much about any given version. In the end, I somehow end up with a draft that I can stand to read. It isn’t entirely painless, but it involves less pain than any other method that I can imagine.

And these strategies are all just specific instances of my favorite piece of writing advice, which I owe to the playwright David Mamet. I haven’t quoted it here for a while, so here it is again:

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

As I’ve noted before, I badly wish that I could somehow send this paragraph back in time to my younger self, because it would have saved me years of wasted effort. But what Mamet doesn’t mention, perhaps because he thought that it was obvious, is that buried in that list of “achievable steps” is a monster of a task that can’t be eliminated, only reduced. There’s no getting around the time that you spend in front of the blank page, and even the best outline in the world can only take away so much of the pain. (An overly detailed outline may even cause problems later, if it leads to a work that seems lifeless and overdetermined—which leaves us with the uncomfortable fact that a certain amount of pain at the writing stage is necessary to avoid even greater trouble in the future.)

Of course, if you’re just looking to minimize the agony of writing that first draft, there are easier ways to anesthetize yourself. Jose Chung pours himself a glass of whiskey, and I’ve elsewhere characterized the widespread use of mind-altering chemicals by writers—particularly caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol—as a pragmatic survival tactic, like the other clichés that we associate with the bohemian life. And I haven’t been immune. For years, I’d often have a drink while working at night, and it certainly didn’t hurt my productivity. (A ring of discolored wood eventually appeared on the surface of my desk from the condensation on the glass, which said more about my habits than I realized at the time.) After I got married, and especially after I became a father, I had to drastically rethink my writing schedule. I was no longer writing long into the evening, but trying to cram as much work as I could into a few daylight hours, leaving me and my wife with a little time to ourselves after our daughter went to bed. As a result, the drinking stopped, and the more obsessive habits that I’ve developed in the meantime are meant to reduce the pain of writing with a clear head. This approach isn’t for everyone, and it may not work for anyone else at all. But it’s worth remembering that when you look at a reasonably productive writer, you’re really seeing a collection of behaviors that have accrued around the need to survive that daily engagement with the empty page. And if they tend to exhibit such an inexplicable range of strategies, vices, and rituals, ultimately, they’re all just forms of defense.

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September 12, 2018 at 8:21 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 fault in our stars

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Earlier this week, the writer Eric Vilas-Boas wrote an emotional essay for TV Guide about a personal crisis that was recently catalyzed by an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In “Far Beyond the Stars,” Commander Benjamin Sisko—played, as always, by Avery Brooks, who also directs—hallucinates that he’s really Benny Russell, a black science writer living in New York in the fifties. The story aired for the first time on February 11, 1998, but even after over twenty years, its themes are still uncomfortably close to home, as Vilas-Boas observes: “The halls of magazines and newspapers remain difficult to break into without (white, often male) contacts or mentors. Just from my experience alone, that’s often meant policing my own behavior to appear more ‘white’ and less threatening: straightening my hair, cutting my hair, or holding my tongue in meetings when I’ve heard something unquestionably offensive.” And after quoting the extraordinary speech that Russell delivers toward the end, in a single unbroken take that amounts to some of the best work of Brooks’s career, Vilas-Boas writes:

I can’t think about that last line [“You can pulp a story but you cannot destroy an idea. Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge.”] without crying. I can’t think about it without thinking about what ancient knowledge has been destroyed in the systemic abuse of marginalized peoples. I can’t watch that episode without thinking about the times I felt most worthless and undeserving of my jobs as a writer and editor in white-dominant workplaces. I can’t watch Russell’s plaintive bargaining with his editor over his stories without thinking about times I’ve policed myself in the process to appear less aggressive, less brown, less assertive, and less likely to cause problems, because of what I perceived as a clear power imbalance…That’s not an uncommon story, if you care to pay attention, but for people of color or other marginalized groups, it’s unavoidable.

Until yesterday, I had never seen “Far Beyond the Stars.” What prompted me to check it out last night, apart from the power of Vilas-Boas’s article, was a screen shot of René Auberjonois as Douglas Pabst, the editor of the fictional magazine Incredible Tales. The episode’s supporting characters are played by members of the show’s regular cast, many of whom are allowed to wear their real faces on camera for the first time—but Auberjonois is clearly made up and costumed to resemble John W. Campbell, down to the browline glasses. And the teleplay by Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler, based on a story by Marc Scott Zicree, is filled with affectionate nods to the pulps, along with a few forgivable inaccuracies. (Incredible is implausibly depicted as occupying a spacious, beautiful newsroom, with writers on salary typing up stories at their own desks. In reality, Campbell spent most of his career sharing a single tiny office with his assistant editor, Kay Tarrant, and there was little more than a spare chair for visitors. But it’s Sisko’s dream, after all, and it certainly looks great on television.) But Pabst’s response to Russell’s desire to write a story with a black protagonist rings all too true:

Look, Benny, I’m a magazine editor, I am not a crusader. I am not here to change the world, I’m here to put out a magazine. Now, that’s my job. That means I have to answer to the publisher, the national distributors, the wholesalers and none of them are going to want to put this story on the newsstand. For all we know, it could cause a race riot…The way I see it, you can either burn it or you can stick it in a drawer for fifty years or however long it takes the human race to become color-blind.

Earlier in the episode, Pabst expresses himself even more bluntly: “The average reader’s not going to spend his hard-earned cash on stories written by Negroes.”

And unfortunately, this isn’t much of an exaggeration. Russell inevitably reminds many viewers of Samuel R. Delany, and remarkably enough, the episode aired six months before the publication of Delany’s landmark essay “Racism and Science Fiction,” in which he shared a very similar anecdote from 1967:

I submitted Nova for serialization to the famous SF editor of Analog magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell rejected it, with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character. That was one of my first direct encounters, as a professional writer, with the slippery and always commercialized form of liberal American prejudice: Campbell had nothing against my being black, you understand…In the phone call Campbell made it fairly clear that this was his only reason for rejecting the book. Otherwise, he rather liked it.

In fact, Campbell was willing to print stories with black protagonists, notably Mack Reynolds’s “Black Man’s Burden” and its sequels—as long as all of its characters sounded just like John W. Campbell. Otherwise, he had minimal interest in diversifying the magazine. On May 1, 1969, he wrote to the fan Ron Stoloff: “If Negro authors are extremely few—it’s solely because extremely few Negroes both wish to, and can, write in open competition.” In the same letter, Campbell extended his views to the characters as well: “Think about it a bit, and you’ll realize why there is so little mention of blacks in science fiction; we see no reason to go saying ‘Lookee lookee lookee! We’re using blacks in our stories! See the Black Man! See him in a spaceship!’ It is my strongly held opinion that any Black should be thrown out of any story, spaceship, or any other place—unless he’s a black man. That he’s got no business there just because he’s black, but every right there if he’s a man.”

As I’ve noted here before, there are two implications here. The first is that all protagonists should be white males by default, a stance that Campbell might not even have seen as problematic—and even if race wasn’t made explicit, the magazine’s illustrations overwhelmingly depicted its characters as white. There’s also a clear sense that black heroes have to “earn” their presence in the magazine, which, given the hundreds of cardboard “competent men” that Campbell cheerfully featured over the years, is laughable in itself. In fiction, as in life, if you’re black, you’ve evidently got to be twice as good to justify yourself. Science fiction has come a long way in the last half century, but it still has room to grow, and you could even argue that the discussion about race within fan culture has degenerated since the first airing of “Far Beyond the Stars.” (The ongoing debate over programming at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention only points to how fraught such issues remain.) Sisko’s closing monologue, in which he wonders if his entire world might exist only in Benny Russell’s imagination, is a little on the nose, but it’s a reminder that all of these stories emerged in response to similar hopes and fears. And at its best, science fiction can provide solace—or outrage—that we can put to use in our own lives. As Vilas-Boas concludes:

Six months later, I see a therapist regularly, largely to talk about my feelings, something that sounds like a cliché but is really a product of how much I’ve bottled up and held in every day of my life. I’ve had panic attacks since then, but I handle them better. In its own way, “Far Beyond the Stars” helped me set a rubric for them, to know that they have a prior trigger in my life, to recognize the world’s problems are not inextricably linked to my reactions to them. No matter how big or small, it would be Captain Sisko’s job to keep his cool and get his crew out of danger…And in the end, there’s no hiding. There’s only one thing I can do, in the words of Sisko: “Stay here and finish the job I started.”

A comedian reads the newspaper

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A few days ago, I was leafing through Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce, the monumental biography of the legendary standup comic by Albert Goldman and Lawrence Schiller. My eye was caught by a description of a typical performance by Bruce, who died in 1966:

When Lenny starts to spritz, interspersed with the hip jargon, riding along the bops and beats of his Broadway-Brooklyn tachycardic speech pattern, are allusions to big sounds like Stravinsky, Picasso, Charlie Parker, José Limon and James Joyce. Jazz, existentialism, analysis, peyote cults, and California. He’s concerned about the racial scene and the man in the White House and the economy, the way the country is changing. Speaks from experience, done an awful lot of reading.

These days, we may not expect our comedians to drop allusions to Stravinsky or José Limon, but we’re still interested in what they have say about “the racial scene and the man in the White House and the economy, the way the country is changing.” It’s part of a tradition of turning to standup comics for wisdom—or truth—that can largely be traced back to Bruce himself. And here’s the punchline, as Goldman delivers it: “The image is a bitch to sustain. Lenny isn’t that knowledgable about jazz. He’s never been to Europe since the Navy. Most everything he knows, he picks up from the movies.”

This pressure to seem informed about current events is one to which most of us can relate, and it must be particularly challenging to those figures who find themselves at the forefront of the culture, where we expect them to be inhumanly knowledgeable about everything while making the result seem effortless. As Goldman points out, though, there are ways of getting around it: “Mort Sahl found the solution before Lenny. It’s called osmosis.” He continues:

The way Sahl worked? Wherever he was, at home or on the road, he would have his room lined with magazines and books. He never read anything. A voracious skimmer. By flipping through this and staring at that, reading a sentence here and picking up a word there, he got a very good idea of where everything was. When he went into his monologue, you would swear that he had digested the whole world for that week. Charles de Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower, segregation, Shelley Berman, trade unions, Marty, Dave Brubeck, New York, Berkeley, Beckett, newspapers, coffeehouses, sandals, J.D. Salinger, filter-tip cigarettes, the State Department, Dick Clark, German radios, birth control, Charles Van Doren, Adlai Stevenson, natural-shoulder suits, Cuba, Israel, Dave Garroway, the Diners’ Club, Billy Graham, sports cars, the Strategic Air Command—wow! A barrage!

And if you replace that catalog of topics with one that seems more current—Red Hen, zero tolerance, “This is America,” Harley Davidson, and that’s just this week—it still captures something of what we expect from our late night hosts and talking heads on a daily basis.

The ability to skim a newspaper and turn it into a monologue for an audience every night is a valuable skill, and it can earn millions for those who possess it. But there’s no particular reason that comedians or pundits need to do the skimming themselves. In the period about which Goldman is writing, Bruce’s solution centered on the unlikely figure of Terry Lane, his assistant and a former burlesque drummer:

Lenny doesn’t need all this crap. He has an imagination and he’s really funny, not just nervous, like Sahl. But the trick is the same. Neither a reader nor a skimmer, what’s he supposed to do? Just accept it? Be a schmuck? Oh, no! There are always people who can help you. You don’t have to take a lot of shit from them either. Just sit a guy like Terry down and say: “Now look man, here’s the gig. I need an intellectual seeing-eye dog. Somebody who can check out the papers every day, read Time and Newsweek, do a little research for me, and just set me up nice so when I go out on the floor tonight, I’m the best-informed person in the city. Dig?”

What Goldman is describing here is basically the relationship between a star comic and his head writer, as enacted in a seedy hotel room in Times Square instead of backstage at The Tonight Show. And while Terry Lane’s résumé may no longer be typical—his equivalent today would be more likely to have gone to Harvard—his personal qualifications are much the same: “What grabbed Lenny was the fact that Terry was a reader…Lenny hadn’t got the patience, the concentration, the sitzfleisch. When pushed too hard he got terrible headaches. But Terry there, at the table between shows, would sit, riddling off titles like a college English professor…Lenny was impressed.”

But the real takeaway here is how this approach to current events has expanded outward from the nightclubs to radio and cable news, which is where Bruce’s true successors can be found. Goldman nicely describes the skill in question:

And the system works fine. Terry or Richey or Benny or whoever is traveling with Lenny is always a smart, studious sort of cat, who can feed him facts and help him learn big new words out of the dictionary. After all, what is literacy? Words. How do you learn words? Hear them. If you have a good ear and a tongue that can mimic anything you hear, you can learn whole languages by rote. Lenny is a mind-mouth man. His brain is located somewhere between his ears and his tongue. All he has to do is get the hang of a word, and he finds a place to slip it into his act.

These days, many of us get our news exactly from such “mind-mouth” men or women, whose gift consists of taking a few headlines and spinning them into thirty minutes of daily content. On the left, they’ve traditionally come from the ranks of improv, standup, and sketch comedy; on the right, which has trouble coming up with funny people, from talk radio. (Rush Limbaugh got his start as a disc jockey, which points to the fact that his true power is the ability to talk into a microphone for hours.) I’m not denigrating this talent, which is so rare that only a handful of people seem capable of doing it for large audiences at any one time. And we could do worse than to take our political cues from the writers at The Daily Show. But it’s still a simulacrum of insight, rather than the real thing. And we need to think hard about what happens when so many people turn to it for their information—including the man in the White House.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2018 at 8:20 am

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