Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Republics exist only on the tenure of being constantly agitated…As health lies in labor, and there is no royal road to it but through toil, so there is no republican road to safety but in constant distrust.

Wendell Phillips, “Public Opinion”

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

Shoot the piano player

with 2 comments

In his flawed but occasionally fascinating book Bambi vs. Godzilla, the playwright and director David Mamet spends a chapter discussing the concept of aesthetic distance, which is violated whenever viewers remember that they’re simply watching a movie. Mamet provides a memorable example:

An actor portrays a pianist. The actor sits down to play, and the camera moves, without a cut, to his hands, to assure us, the audience, that he is actually playing. The filmmakers, we see, have taken pains to show the viewers that no trickery has occurred, but in so doing, they have taught us only that the actor portraying the part can actually play the piano. This addresses a concern that we did not have. We never wondered if the actor could actually play the piano. We accepted the storyteller’s assurances that the character could play the piano, as we found such acceptance naturally essential to our understanding of the story.

Mamet imagines a hypothetical dialogue between the director and the audience: “I’m going to tell you a story about a pianist.” “Oh, good: I wonder what happens to her!” “But first, before I do, I will take pains to reassure you that the actor you see portraying the hero can actually play the piano.” And he concludes:

We didn’t care till the filmmaker brought it up, at which point we realized that, rather than being told a story, we were being shown a demonstration. We took off our “audience” hat and put on our “judge” hat. We judged the demonstration conclusive but, in so doing, got yanked right out of the drama. The aesthetic distance had been violated.

Let’s table this for now, and turn to a recent article in The Atlantic titled “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen.” To prosecute the case laid out in the headline, the film critic Christopher Orr draws on Eric Lax’s new book Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking, which describes the making of Irrational Man—a movie that nobody saw, which doesn’t make the book sound any less interesting. For Orr, however, it’s “an indictment framed as an encomium,” and he lists what he evidently sees as devastating charges:

Allen’s editor sometimes has to live with technical imperfections in the footage because he hasn’t shot enough takes for her to choose from…As for the shoot itself, Allen has confessed, “I don’t do any preparation. I don’t do any rehearsals. Most of the times I don’t even know what we’re going to shoot.” Indeed, Allen rarely has any conversations whatsoever with his actors before they show up on set…In addition to limiting the number of takes on any given shot, he strongly prefers “master shots”—those that capture an entire scene from one angle—over multiple shots that would subsequently need to be edited together.

For another filmmaker, all of these qualities might be seen as strengths, but that’s beside the point. Here’s the relevant passage:

The minimal commitment that appearing in an Allen film entails is a highly relevant consideration for a time-strapped actor. Lax himself notes the contrast with Mike Leigh—another director of small, art-house films—who rehearses his actors for weeks before shooting even starts. For Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Stone and her co-star, Ryan Gosling, rehearsed for four months before the cameras rolled. Among other chores, they practiced singing, dancing, and, in Gosling’s case, piano. The fact that Stone’s Irrational Man character plays piano is less central to that movie’s plot, but Allen didn’t expect her even to fake it. He simply shot her recital with the piano blocking her hands.

So do we shoot the piano player’s hands or not? The boring answer, unfortunately, is that it depends—but perhaps we can dig a little deeper. It seems safe to say that it would be impossible to make The Pianist with Adrian Brody’s hands conveniently blocked from view for the whole movie. But I’m equally confident that it doesn’t matter the slightest bit in Irrational Man, which I haven’t seen, whether or not Emma Stone is really playing the piano. La La Land is a slightly trickier case. It would be hard to envision it without at least a few shots of Ryan Gosling playing the piano, and Damien Chazelle isn’t above indulging in exactly the camera move that Mamet decries, in which it tilts down to reassure us that it’s really Gosling playing. Yet the fact that we’re even talking about this gets down to a fundamental problem with the movie, which I mostly like and admire. Its characters are archetypes who draw much of their energy from the auras of the actors who play them, and in the case of Stone, who is luminous and moving as an aspiring actress suffering through an endless series of auditions, the film gets a lot of mileage from our knowledge that she’s been in the same situation. Gosling, to put it mildly, has never been an aspiring jazz pianist. This shouldn’t even matter, but every time we see him playing the piano, he briefly ceases to be a struggling artist and becomes a handsome movie star who has spent three months learning to fake it. And I suspect that the movie would have been elevated immensely by casting a real musician. (This ties into another issue with La La Land, which is that it resorts to telling us that its characters deserve to be stars, rather than showing it to us in overwhelming terms through Gosling and Stone’s singing and dancing, which is merely passable. It’s in sharp contrast to Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, one of its clear spiritual predecessors, in which it’s impossible to watch Liza Minnelli without becoming convinced that she ought to be the biggest star in the world. And when you think of how quirky, repellent, and individual Minnelli and Robert De Niro are allowed to be in that film, La La Land starts to look a little schematic.)

And I don’t think I’m overstating it when I argue that the seemingly minor dilemma of whether to show the piano player’s hands shades into the larger problem of how much we expect our actors to really be what they pretend that they are. I don’t think any less of Bill Murray because he had to employ Terry Fryer as a “hand double” for his piano solo in Groundhog Day, and I don’t mind that the most famous movie piano player of them all—Dooley Wilson in Casablanca—was faking it. And there’s no question that you’re taken out of the movie a little when you see Richard Chamberlain playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in The Music Lovers, however impressive it might be. (I’m willing to forgive De Niro learning to mime the saxophone for New York, New York, if only because it’s hard to imagine how it would look otherwise. The piano is just about the only instrument in which it can plausibly be left at the director’s discretion. And in his article, revealingly, Orr fails to mention that none other than Woody Allen was insistent that Sean Penn learn the guitar for Sweet and Lowdown. As Allen himself might say, it depends.) On some level, we respond to an actor playing the piano much like the fans of Doctor Zhivago, whom Pauline Kael devastatingly called “the same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.” But it can serve the story as much as it can detract from it, and the hard part is knowing how and when. As one director notes:

Anybody can learn how to play the piano. For some people it will be very, very difficult—but they can learn it. There’s almost no one who can’t learn to play the piano. There’s a wide range in the middle, of people who can play the piano with various degrees of skill; a very, very narrow band at the top, of people who can play brilliantly and build upon a technical skill to create great art. The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills. Directing is just a technical skill.

This is Mamet writing in On Directing Film, which is possibly the single best work on storytelling I know. You might not believe him when he says that directing is “just a technical skill,” but if you do, there’s a simple way to test if you have it. Do you show the piano player’s hands? If you know the right answer for every scene, you just might be a director.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

A dynamic organizing principle

with 3 comments

The mathematical idea acts as a dynamic organizing principle on a certain body of mathematics. It is used as much to generate questions and further ideas as it is to answer questions, that is, to generate theorems. The activity that is generated by the idea is open-ended in the sense that future research is always possible. However, the potential of the idea may be optimized in certain mathematical results…A strong idea may have numerous optimal results associated with it. Moreover, this idea may be joined with other ideas to produce even stronger results. The whole matter is a dynamic flux of mathematical activity with occasional points of relative stability that we call theorems.

The usual sequence of definition, axiom, theorem, proof does not apply to the mathematical idea. The idea may not even precede the result. It is conceivable that the result comes first. In trying to understand the result…we may become aware of what we have called the “idea.” When we have isolated “what is really going on” we would then proceed to apply that principle as widely as our imaginations and knowledge will allow. I conclude that mathematics is not merely a body of facts arranged and justified by a stringent logical structure. The logical structure of mathematics gives theorems their stability, but when we remove logic as the focal point of mathematics and replace it by the “idea” we see that the seeming stability of mathematics is not absolute. The data can be structured in many different ways corresponding to what we are interested in and to the mathematical ideas that arise to do the structuring. These ideas arise in response to the question, “What is going on here?”

William Byers, How Mathematicians Think

Written by nevalalee

September 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

The instrument that we are

leave a comment »

Everyone asks, “What exactly do you do?” We call what we are doing “research.” We are trying to discover something, to discover it through what we can make, for other people to take part in. It demands a long, long preparation of the instrument that we are. The question always is: Are we good instruments? For that we have to know: What is the instrument for?

The purpose is to be instruments that can transmit truths which otherwise would remain out of sight. These truths can appear from sources deep inside ourselves or far outside ourselves. Any preparation we do is only part of the complete preparation. The body must be ready and sensitive, but that isn’t all. The voice has to be open and free. The emotions have to be open and free. The intelligence has to be quick. All of these have to be prepared. There are crude vibrations that can come through very easily and fine ones that come through only with difficulty. In each case the life we are looking for means breaking open a series of habits.

Peter Brook, The Shifting Point

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

Songs of distant earth

leave a comment »

For a few months in the early seventies, a curious debate briefly raged about sex in space. In designing the aluminum plaques that would be carried by two of the Pioneer spacecraft in case they were ever recovered by extraterrestrials, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake had included line drawings of an anatomically correct man and woman, and the response was about what you’d expect. As Sagan recalled in The Cosmic Connection:

The principal feminine criticism is that the woman is drawn incomplete—that is, without any sign of external genitalia. The decision to omit a very short line in this diagram [for the pudendal cleft] was made partly because conventional representation in Greek statuary omits it. But there was another reason: Our desire to see the message successfully launched on Pioneer 10. In retrospect, we may have judged NASA’s scientific-political hierarchy as more puritanical than it is…

Yet it is clear that at least some individuals were offended even by the existing representation. The Chicago Sun-Times, for example, published three versions of the page in different editions all on the same day: In the first the man was represented whole; in the second, suffering from an awkward and botched airbrush castration; and in the final version—intended no doubt to reassure the family man dashing home—with no sexual apparatus at all…The Philadelphia Inquirer published on its front page an illustration of the plaque, but with the nipples of the woman and the genitalia of the man removed. The assistant managing editor was quoted as saying: “A family newspaper must uphold community standards.”

A few years later, when a team led by Sagan had a chance to include a much more elaborate message on the golden phonograph records on the Voyager spacecraft, an identical issue arose. Timothy Ferris, one of the producers of the project, reveals in the new book The Voyager Golden Record: “NASA vetoed a photograph of a naked man and pregnant woman holding hands, likely concerned about the same prudish reaction stirred up by the nude drawings on the Pioneer plaques.” In the end, the record included a pair of vague, unrevealing diagrams—on the level of a grade school sex education class—and a reduced variation of the Pioneer drawing. Any aliens who are curious about human sexual reproduction, which is probably the single most fundamental fact about our culture, will come away very confused. And this wasn’t the only instance in which the team felt political pressure. Ferris recounts of the process of choosing the music:

A few politically motivated requests did crop up, among them a strange plea that we include a third-rate Russian nightclub standard on grounds that it might please the rulers of the Soviet Union. (We listened politely, then passed.) When we arrived at the Kennedy Space Center for the first Voyager launch, a NASA official confronted me to complain, “Damn it, Tim, how could a good Irish boy like yourself not put an Irish song on the record, knowing that Tip O’Neill is speaker of the House?” I was sorry to disappoint him, but one seldom succeeds at anything by trying to please everybody.

And before we smile, let’s take a moment to reflect that if a similar project were attempted today—presumably with Neil DeGrasse Tyson in charge—it would be approximately a million times worse. Just imagining the think pieces, tweets, and cable news segments makes my head hurt.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve just received my copy of The Voyager Golden Record box set, a Kickstarter project that turned about as well as I could have hoped: three hefty records of translucent gold vinyl, beautiful packaging, and a fascinating book. Listening to the music is like playing the strangest, most moving mix tape ever made, although it still leaves me with the same response expressed in my favorite joke from Saturday Night Live: “Send more Chuck Berry.” But if it were compiled again right now, I doubt that Berry would even make the cut. His obituaries from earlier this year were filled with an uneasy tension between his unquestioned stature and his private misbehavior, and if we’ve never totally assimilated it, it’s mostly because we’ve never been forced to do so. If we were putting together the Voyager record today, we’d have no choice but to deal with it directly, and I have a hunch that Berry would be quietly vetoed for exactly the same reasons that Chuck Klosterman applauds his inclusion:

I suspect the main reason “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen [for the Voyager record] is that it just seemed like a reasonable track to select. But it was more than reasonable. It was, either deliberately or accidentally, the best possible artist for NASA to select…Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis. Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned forty. Rock music is tied to myth and legend…Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.

In fact, “Johnny B. Goode” just barely made it onto the record, as Ferris recalls: “Carl initially called it ‘awful.’ But he soon came around on that one, going so far as to politely remind [Alan] Lomax, who derided Berry’s music as ‘adolescent,’ that Earth is home to many adolescents.”

If nothing else, the Voyager anniversary release reminds us that we should be grateful that it happened at all, since it occurred at perhaps the one moment in our history when such a notion was technologically, culturally, and politically possible. Ferris says that he and Sagan “backed into the concept” of a record in their attempt to encode more material in a limited amount of space, but the fact that it led them to focus on music was the happiest of accidents. (He also debunks a famous story that I’ve spread here before: “Rumors to the contrary, we did not strive to include the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ only to be disappointed when we couldn’t clear the rights. We did consider that lovely track for a time but soon moved on. It’s not the Beatles’ strongest work, and the witticism of the title, if charming in the short run, seems unlikely to remain funny for a billion years.”) Ferris argues that even the phonograph format itself is charged with significance:

A diamond dances along the undulations of the groove; its intricate motions vibrate an attached crystal (in the case of ceramic phono cartridges, like the ones attached to the Voyager probes); the vibrations generate a flow of electricity that’s amplified and sent to the speakers. At no point in this process is it possible to say with assurance just how much information the record contains or how accurately a given stereo has translated it. You never know whether a record might sound even better if played with a different phono cartridge, or at a different stylus pressure, or through different equipment. The open-mindedness of the medium seemed akin to the grand gesture of sending a record to the stars—and, for that matter, to scientific research, where one is always aware that more can be learned.

I’m not sure that I entirely believe this, but I’ll buy it. The Voyager record stands as one shining instance in which the highest ideals of science fiction found an embodiment in the real world, and perhaps you need to be a teenager to be as entranced by it as I once was. But earth is home to many adolescents.

Written by nevalalee

September 15, 2017 at 8:56 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Nature forever puts a premium on reality. What is done for effect is seen to be done for effect; what is done for love is felt to be done for love. A man inspires affection and honor because he was not lying in wait for these. The things of a man for which we visit him were done in the dark and cold.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Behavior”

Written by nevalalee

September 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

%d bloggers like this: