Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Quote of the Day

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December 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

The tip of the spear

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Over the last couple of days, mostly by coincidence, I’ve been thinking about two sidelong portraits of great directors. One is Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, the diary by Eleanor Coppola that was later adapted into the unforgettable movie Hearts of Darkness. The other is Filmworker, a documentary about Leon Vitali, who served for decades as the assistant to Stanley Kubrick. By approaching their more famous subjects from an angle, they end up telling us more about Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick than a more direct engagement ever could, just as we arguably learn more about Sylvia Plath from Janet Malcolm’s oblique The Silent Woman than by reading volumes of the poet’s books and letters. Major artists, especially movie directors, can be overwhelming to contemplate, and they’re hard to view objectively, as Eleanor Coppola notes in her journal:

[Francis] started talking about how lonely he was. How essentially there are only two positions for most everybody to take with him. One is to kiss his ass, tell him he is great, and be paralyzed with admiration. The other is to resist him. That is, show him that no matter how rich and successful and talented he is, they are not impressed. Hardly anyone can just accept him, say, “That’s great, and so what?”

That’s equally true of biographers and critics, which is why it can be so valuable to listen to the memories of family members and associates who were close enough to see their subjects from all sides, if never quite to take them for granted.

Between Eleanor Coppola and Vitali, it’s hard to say who had the more difficult time of it. In Notes, Coppola hints at what it was like to be married to a director whose fame in the seventies exceeded that of any of his contemporaries: “When I am cashing a check or using a credit card, people often ask me if I am related to Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes I say I am married to him. People change before my eyes. They start smiling nervously and forget to give me my package or change. I think I look fairly normal. I wear sweaters and skirts and boots. Maybe they are expecting a Playboy bunny.” But that level of recognition can also cause problems of its own. Coppola has a revealing passage about the aftermath of her husband’s birthday:

His gifts were unloaded onto the table in the hall. This morning I was straightening up. I couldn’t help reading some of the cards. “Thanks for letting me participate in your greatness. Love…” Some days I am tried and just want out. It seems hopeless. There will always be a fresh crop of adoring young protégées waiting in the wings. This current situation stated during Godfather II. I was on location with Francis, away from San Francisco, my friends and the things that stimulated and interested me at the time. I was so angry with myself, angry that I couldn’t just get totally happy focusing on Francis and the making of his film. Someone else did.

That last line is left hanging, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of so much outside adoration.

In Kubrick’s case, much of this tension seems to have been unloaded onto Vitali, who was the director’s right arm for the last quarter century of his life. Vitali was a promising young actor who made a strong impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but he became fascinated by Kubrick, whom he approached with the offer to work for him in any capacity whatsoever. Kubrick took him up on it, and Vitali found himself testing five thousand children for the role of Danny in The Shining. For the next twenty years, they were inseparable, as Vitali saw after everything from casting and coaching actors to checking the foreign dubs and transfers for every film in the director’s back catalog. He was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and he was the perpetual object both of Kubrick’s unexpected tenderness and his sudden wrath. (Vitali also appeared on camera one last time, his face unseen, as the figure in the red cloak who asks Tom Cruise for the password for the house in Eyes Wide Shut.) Serving as a director’s personal assistant can be a hellish job in any case, and it was apparently even worse in the service of such a notorious perfectionist. Vitali lasted in that role for longer than seems humanly possible, and Kubrick had no compunction about using him for such unenviable tasks as informing the actor Tim Colceri, who had been cast eight months earlier as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, that he had lost the role to R. Lee Ermey. And the work continued even after Kubrick’s death. Before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali personally checked one out of every five prints, or over five hundred in all, by screening them nonstop for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, he had to ask someone else to watch the screen for a few minutes so he could leave the room to throw up. Speaking of this period in the documentary, Vitali, who is otherwise so candid, says after a moment: “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

But you also see why he stayed with Kubrick so long. As another interview subject in Filmworker notes, Vitali wasn’t just a spear carrier, but “the tip of the spear” in one of the most complex operations in the history of filmmaking, and that position can be very addictive. (You could compare it, perhaps, to the role of the White House chief of staff, an awful job that usually has people lining up for it, at least under most presidents.) Kubrick and Coppola were very different in their directorial styles, as well as in their personal lives, but few other filmmakers have ever managed the hat trick of being simultaneously brilliant, independent, and the beneficiary of massive studio resources. Coppola only managed to stay in that position for a few years—he was personally on the line for millions of dollars if Apocalypse Now was a failure, and after he miraculously pulled it off, he threw it all away on One From the Heart. Kubrick hung in there for decades, and he depended enormously on the presence of Vitali, who served as his intermediary to Warner Bros. According to the documentary, Kubrick would often sign his assistant’s name to scathing letters to the studio, and after his death, Vitali bore much of the repressed rage from people who had felt slighted or mistreated by the director during his lifetime. Eleanor Coppola’s position was obviously very different, and she shared in its material rewards in ways that Vitali, who was left in borderline poverty, never did. But if they ever meet, they might have a lot to say to each other. Coppola closes her book with an account of reading the journals of American pioneers during the westward expansion, of which she writes:

I particularly identified with one account in which a family in their journey reached the landmark Independence Rock. The husband described scaling the sides and the remarkable view from the top. The woman wrote about trying to find a patch of shade at the base where she could nurse the baby and cook lunch for the family.

Quote of the Day

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It is all too easy to make some plausible simplifying assumptions, do some elaborate mathematics that appear to give a rough fit with at least some experimental data, and think one has achieved something. The chance of such an approach doing anything useful, apart from soothing the theorist’s ego, is rather small.

Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit

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December 13, 2018 at 7:30 am

Two ways of looking at Nancy

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For the last month or so, I’ve been browsing with mingled amusement and wonder through the book How to Read Nancy by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden. It’s a witty manual on the art of the comic strip that takes the form of an obsessive commentary, extending for nearly a hundred pages, on a single installment of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, pictured above, which ran on August 8, 1959. In the abstract, this sounds like the sort of activity that might be embraced by a background character in a Thomas Pynchon novel, but in Karasik and Newgarden’s hands, it makes a weird kind of sense. As the strip is broken down into its raw components—the horizon line, the word balloons, the panel gutters—it rises up again as something strangely monumental, and the insights that emerge can be surprisingly profound. For instance, here are the authors on Nancy’s garden hose:

Here the hose…is the prescribed problem-solving tool, a deus ex machina direct from the Sears lawn and garden center. Its most obvious function is routing pressurized water from the leaky spigot to Nancy’s itchy trigger finger. But that route has been detoured. Winding and curved like a black cobra in repose, out of the panel and then back in, the hose also diverts and achingly prolongs the proceedings…In the overall composition of this strip, the hose diagrams and embodies this quickening narrative tension. Functioning somewhat like a dining room table extension leaf, it sustains the tension created by the first two attacks on the left—as well as ensuring the inevitable release on the furthest right.

Your fondness for this book will probably depend on your patience for this sort of thing, but I mostly love it, and its annotations often lead in unexpected directions. The reference to Sears, for example, is no accident. According to Karasik and Newgarden, Bushmiller “routinely claimed the Sears, Roebuck catalog as a major inspiration,” and his use of common objects and props as a source for gags placed him in the same creative line as “Buster Keaton, Otto Mesmer, Jacques Tati, and other master craftsmen of the twentieth century’s visual humor.” They expand on this a few pages later:

Ernie Bushmiller discussed his process: “It is difficult to explain how an idea is born…I start with a blank piece of drawing paper and I just sweat and stew until I think of a subject that seems likely to produce a ludicrous situation.” Visual stimulation via Life magazine ads, the Sears, Roebuck catalog, and other printed ephemera often jump-started the procedure for him. “When I find an item that seems likely, I start to kick it around in my mind to see if I can work out a funny situation. If nothing jells after a reasonable time I discard it and try another item. Sooner or later my mind warms up and I get the nucleus of an idea…I keep a lot of notes on gags that haven’t quite materialized; I look these over from time to time and sometimes the solution comes to me and I am able to salvage some of these undeveloped ideas.”

Karasik and Newgarden note that the Sears, Roebuck fall catalog for the year in which the strip was drawn included illustrated ads for hoses, pistol grip nozzles, and gun and holster toys “for backyard lawmen.” And while it’s impossible to know for certain, they speculate that these pictures “passed right under Ernie’s nose and smelled ripe for a fresh twist on some reliable themes.”

It’s also impossible to close this book without a renewed appreciation for Nancy itself, which at its best was remarkably hilarious, weird, and poetic. Like Peanuts—or even Dennis the Menace or The Family Circus—it’s one of those strips that can seem inexplicable to readers who first encounter it decades after its golden years, and I confess that until recently, I’d never given it much thought. As it happens, however, Nancy has been back in the news for other reasons. After Bushmiller’s death, the strip fell into the hands of various caretakers, and in April, the role was assumed by a cartoonist who works under the pseudonym Olivia Jaimes. Overnight, its tone changed dramatically, as Nancy and Sluggo were ushered into the world of cell phones and social media, and the results are often startlingly funny. Much of the new incarnation’s appeal comes from how unceremoniously it seemed to depart from the conventions that the strip had established, but Jaimes is closer to Bushmiller than it might appear. As the normally reclusive artist explains in a recent interview with Vulture, she keeps her own notebook full of gags:

It’s just the Notes app on my phone. Everybody I’ve talked to, every cartoonist, or like, the vast majority of us, have some notes program with ideas, and maybe a third of them are comprehensible and the rest you’re like, What was I thinking when I wrote this down? Autocorrect is terrible for this. Autocorrect has probably killed hundreds of jokes for people, because they have a great idea and they write it down, but they spell it wrong, so it changes to something else, and then they’re like, What was this idea?

And just like Bushmiller, Jaimes is inspired by physical objects and the associations that they evoke. It’s one thing to put a cell phone in Nancy’s hand, but it’s quite another to consider how its presence would change her life, or to ask what the absence of other props might mean:

I realized that all of the nouns that Nancy used to have are being supplanted by a phone. Things that she would have lying around the house to make up a joke are gone. She uses megaphones for a ton of things in Bushmiller’s strips, and I don’t have megaphones lying around my house. So how, then, can Nancy solve problems, given that technology is advancing to the point where problems are being solved in really nonphysical ways? That’s why I’m making her learn robotics. It opens up a wider range of visual gags to make down the line.

The italics are mine. Nancy’s megaphone is gone, replaced by a new category of props that lead to gags and stories that are as organic, in their way, as Sluggo’s water pistol. (As Jaimes observes: “I’m basically cutting out a third of my life that people could relate to if I exclude phones.”) Not surprisingly, the results have been controversial among longtime Nancy fans, whom Jaimes seems happy to annoy—but the strip as it currently exists is a worthy successor to the version that Karasik and Newgarden thought was worth anatomizing for tens of thousands of words. As they write in the conclusion of their analysis of the garden hose: “Tension is a prerequisite of laughter.” And all that it took to restore this tension to Nancy was the addition of a few crucial objects.

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December 12, 2018 at 8:37 am

Quote of the Day

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Anthropology, abstractly conceived as the study of man, is actually the study of men in crisis by men in crisis. Anthropologists and their objects, the studied, despite opposing positions in the “scientific” equation have this much in common: if not equally, still they are each objects of contemporary imperial civilization. The anthropologist who treats the indigene as an object may define himself as relatively free, but that is an illusion…For the anthropologist is himself a victim, and his power of decision is a fiction.

Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive

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December 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Great Man and the WASP

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Last week, the New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat published a piece called “Why We Miss the WASPs.” Newspaper writers don’t get to choose their own headlines, and it’s possible that if the essay had run under a different title, it might not have attracted the same degree of attention, which was far from flattering. Douthat’s argument—which was inspired by the death of George H.W. Bush and his obvious contrast with the current occupant of the White House—can be summarized concisely:

Bush nostalgia [is] a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more—a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today. Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs—because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

Douthat ostentatiously concedes one point to his critics in advance: “The old ruling class was bigoted and exclusive and often cruel, it had failures aplenty, and as a Catholic I hold no brief for its theology.” But he immediately adds that “building a more democratic and inclusive ruling class is harder than it looks, and even perhaps a contradiction in terms,” and he suggests that one solution would be a renewed embrace of the idea that “a ruling class should acknowledge itself for what it really is, and act accordingly.”

Not surprisingly, Douthat’s assumptions about the desirable qualities of “a ruling class” were widely derided. He responded with a followup piece in which he lamented the “misreadings” of those who saw his column as “a paean to white privilege, even a brief for white supremacy,” while never acknowledging any flaws in his argument’s presentation. But what really sticks with me is the language of the first article, which is loaded with rhetorical devices that both skate lightly over its problems and make it difficult to deal honestly with the issues that it raises. One strategy, which may well have been unconscious, is a familiar kind of distancing. As Michael Harriot writes in The Root:

I must applaud opinion writer Ross Douthat for managing to put himself at an arms-length distance from the opinions he espoused. Douthat employed the oft-used Fox News, Trumpian “people are saying…” trick, essentially explaining that some white people think like this. Not him particularly—but some people.

It’s a form of evasiveness that resembles the mysterious “you” of other sorts of criticism, and it enables certain opinions to make it safely into print. Go back and rewrite the entire article in the first person, and it becomes all but unreadable. For instance, it’s hard to imagine Douthat writing a sentence like this: “I miss Bush because I miss the WASPs—because I feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.”

But even as Douthat slips free from the implications of his argument on one end, he’s ensnared at the other by his own language. We can start with the term “ruling class” itself, which appears in the article no fewer than five times, along with a sixth instance in a quotation from the critic Helen Andrews. The word “establishment” appears seventeen times. If asked, Douthat might explain that he’s using both of these terms in a neutral sense, simply to signify the people who end up in political office or in other positions of power. But like the “great man” narrative of history or the “competent man” of science fiction, these words lock us into a certain set of assumptions, by evoking an established class that rules rather than represents, and they beg the rather important question of whether we need a ruling class at all. Even more insidiously, Douthat’s entire argument rests on the existence of the pesky but convenient word “WASP” itself. When the term appeared half a century ago, it was descriptive and slightly pejorative. (According to the political scientist Andrew Harris, who first used it in print, it originated in the “the cocktail party jargon of the sociologists,” and the initial letter initially stood for “wealthy.” As it stands, the term is slightly redundant, although it still describes exactly the same group of people, and foregrounding their whiteness isn’t necessarily a bad idea.) Ultimately, however, it turned into a tag that allows us to avoid spelling out everything that it includes, which makes it easier to let such attitudes slip by unexamined. Let’s rework that earlier sentence one more time: “I miss Bush because I miss the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants—because I feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.” And this version, at least, is much harder to “misread.”

At this point, I should probably confess that I take a personal interest in everything that Douthat writes. Not only are we both Ivy Leaguers, but we’re members of the same college class, although I don’t think we ever crossed paths. In most other respects, we don’t have a lot in common, but I can relate firsthand to the kind of educational experience—which John Stuart Mill describes in today’s quotation—that leads public intellectuals to become more limited in their views than they might realize. Inspired by a love of the great books and my summer at St. John’s College, I spent most of my undergraduate years reading an established canon of writers, in part because I was drawn to an idea of elitism in its most positive sense. What I didn’t see for a long time was that I was living in an echo chamber. It takes certain forms of privilege and status for granted, and it makes it hard to talk about these matters in the real world without a conscious effort of will. (In his original article, Douthat’s sense of the possible objections to his thesis is remarkably blinkered in itself. After acknowledging the old ruling class’s bigotry, exclusivity, and cruelty, he adds: “And don’t get me started on its Masonry.” That was fairly low down my list of concerns, but now I’m frankly curious.) I understand where Douthat is coming from, because I came from it, too. But that isn’t an excuse for looking at the WASPs, or a dynasty that made a fortune in the oil business, and feeling “nostalgic for their competence,” which falls apart the second we start to examine it. If they did rule us once, then they bear responsibility for the destruction of our planet and the perpetuation of attitudes that put democracy itself at risk. If they’ve managed to avoid much of the blame, it’s only because it took decades for us to see the full consequences of their actions, which have emerged more clearly in the generation that they raised in their image. It might well be true, as Douthat wrote, that they trained their children “for service, not just success.” But they also failed miserably.

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December 11, 2018 at 9:13 am

Quote of the Day

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My education, I thought, had failed to create [feelings of human sympathy] in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis, while the whole course of my intellectual cultivation had made precocious and premature analysis the inveterate habit of my mind. I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else.

John Stuart Mill, Autobiography

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December 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

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