Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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The doomsday defense

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Note: Plot details follow for the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.”

You don’t usually get to pinpoint the precise moment at which your life changed, but for me, it occurred at about a quarter past nine on the evening of Friday, March 31, 1995. I was watching television in my bedroom, just a few feet away from a set that had been inconveniently placed against the wall by the foot of the bed. Because of its location, the most logical way to watch it was seated on the rug, all but pressed up against the screen, which meant that I experienced much of the second season of The X-Files from a position where I was close enough to touch it. That night, the episode was “Humbug,” and the scene that grabbed me the most was the Alligator Man’s funeral, which culminates in a character played by the circus performer Jim Rose clawing his way out of the grave to drive a steel spike into his own chest. After the attendees spill out of their chairs, Mulder waits for a beat and then deadpans: “I can’t wait for the wake.” And while this was far from the first outright joke to appear on the show—it had the usual number of quips and smart remarks that you see in any procedural—something about that line felt different from everything that came before it. It seemed to stand slightly above and to one side of the action, inviting us to note how absurd it all was before diving in even deeper. In allowing Mulder and Scully to be ironic about the situations in which they found themselves, it singlehandedly expanded the possibilities of a series that already seemed capable of anything. But it also brutally awakened us to how limited the show and its audience had been all along.

I thought of this moment again while watching the show last night, in which Mulder, now decades older, digs through a carton of videocassettes, looking in vain for a tape that no longer seems to exist. When Scully says that it can’t have been that good of an episode, Mulder shoots back: “It’s not about the episode, Scully. It’s about my memory of seeing my first Twilight Zone. It changed me. You don’t forget that.” The author of these lines, of course, is Darin Morgan, and I’d like to think that this exchange is a nod to the undeniable fact that his work changed the lives of countless viewers when it first aired more than twenty years ago. The core of Morgan’s achievement—which I define as the episodes “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “War of the Coprophages,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” along with “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” and “Somehow Satan Got Behind Me” from Millennium and “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” and now “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” on the current revival—is my favorite body of work by any single writer on television. Over the years, it has certainly meant more to me than any other. Morgan is often remembered as the writer who introduced a note of black comedy into The X-Files, but his real contribution was his insight that humor is the only way of dealing with certain truths that can’t be ignored. A fluke monster or zombie isn’t nearly as terrifying as the knowledge that after a lifetime of struggling for love, approval, and security, we’re all destined to die alone. Not even Mulder and Scully can do anything about this. What else can you do but laugh?

“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is probably the last episode of The X-Files that we’ll ever get from Darin Morgan, and it plays like a valediction to a show that has consumed more of his life—and mine—than either of us had any right to expect. (If “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was Morgan’s most modest effort since “Humbug,” “Forehead Sweat” returns to the insane formal experimentation of the two episodes featuring the writer Jose Chung, and its only real shortcoming is the unavoidable absence of the late Charles Nelson Reilly.) In typical Morgan fashion, it starts out as a riff on the Mandela Effect, complete with a reference to the Berenstain Bears, and then quietly begins to drop hints that our existential predicament is worse than we ever suspected. Morgan’s central theme has always been the futility of our pretensions in the face of death, but now he implies that even Mulder and Scully may have been wasting their time all along. He pins the blame on one figure in particular, and it isn’t the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Beneath its surface whimsy, this is the angriest, most politically charged episode in the history of The X-Files, and while some of its gags about a border wall may seem too on the nose, Morgan is writing for a future audience that will hopefully find them more obscure. But he’s also posing a question that feels all too relevant. Now that we’re living in a time when crimes can be committed in plain sight because millions of Americans seem willing to forgive, overlook, or deny everything, what’s the point of a government conspiracy? Mulder has devoted his life to searching for the truth, but even if he finds it, it’s possible that nobody will care.

Morgan doesn’t have an answer, and our world continues to change too rapidly to be satirized by even the most sophisticated works of art. (At one point in the episode, a character refers to “our current president” uttering the phrase “Nobody knows for sure.” I couldn’t place the reference, so I looked it up online, only to find that Trump had tweeted it about the status of the Dreamers just the day before the episode aired. As a radio host on The Simpsons once marveled of a computerized disk jockey: “How does it keep up with the news like that?”) But maybe the overall arc of Morgan’s career offers us a reason for hope. He never felt entirely at home in the writers room, and his skepticism toward the show itself was manifested both in his fondness for Scully—no one has ever done a better job of writing for her—and in his open contempt for Mulder. For years after leaving the series, he kicked around Hollywood without any writing credits, and he often came off as ambivalent toward his own accomplishments. Now he seems to have made his peace with it, and his status as a relative outsider allows him to express his affection for the show’s legacy more honestly than someone like Chris Carter ever could. “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was like an olive branch to the characters with whom, for better or worse, he’ll always be associated, and “Forehead Sweat” feels like his farewell. At the end, with a sentimentality that would seem excessive coming from anyone else, Scully says to Mulder: “I want to remember it how it was. I want to remember how it all was.” So do I. In particular, I want to remember Jose Chung, whose last act, after being fatally attacked by an axe murderer, was to point to Terry O’Quinn and ask: “Don’t you just love that mustache?” And when I remember Darin Morgan, all I want to do is thank him. For all of it.

Flowers of evil

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Note: Spoilers follow for Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

The best way to start talking about Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which is a movie that I liked a lot, is to quote from one of its few negative reviews. It’s the debut animated feature from Studio Ponoc, a new production company founded by veterans of the legendary Studio Ghibli, and it’s impossible to watch it without being reminded of its predecessors, as the critic David Ehrlich notes on IndieWire:

Mary and the Witch’s Flower may not be a great film—it occasionally struggles just to be a good one—but it’s a convincing proof-of-concept, and that might be more important in the long run…Studio Ponoc’s first effort feels like a high-end knockoff that’s been made with the best of intentions. It has the taste and texture of a vegan hot dog, and ultimately the same effect—a lie that satisfies those who can’t shake their craving for the truth…There’s a thin line between homage and theft, and [director Hiromasa] Yonebayashi doesn’t seem to care where it is…Borrowing liberally from [Studio] Ghibli’s signature iconography, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is less of a new creation than it does a Miyazaki Mad-Lib…There’s a bootlegged vibe to it, and even the best moments feel like they’ve been photocopied from a true original.

Ehrlich concludes with a note of paradoxical praise: “There’s something indivisibly pure about the fact that Yonebayashi and his team have refused to let something beautiful die just because the rest of the world were willing to lower their standards. It’s thrilling that Studio Ponoc even exists, and that they’ve come so close to cloning the movies we once feared that people would no longer make.” I enjoyed Mary and the Witch’s Flower a lot more than Ehrlich did, and I don’t agree with everything that he says here. (For instance: “The chintzier the storytelling becomes, the cheaper the animation begins to seem.” Yet when it comes to the Ghibli style, cheapness is in the eye of the beholder. When My Neighbor Totoro was first released in this country, Leonard Klady of Variety wrote dismissively of its “adequate television technical craft,” and it isn’t hard to see how he reached that conclusion about one of the most beautiful movies ever made.) But Ehrlich’s argument is also fundamentally sound. Watching Mary awakened me to the extent to which the qualities of the films of Hayao Miyazaki are vulnerable to imitation, or even parody. It isn’t just their nostalgic settings or young female protagonists, but their pacing, which inserts extra beats of quiet into scenes that most movies tend to skip entirely. The characters in a Miyazaki movie are always pausing to absorb or react to what they hear and see, and they always wait until the others are done talking before they speak for themselves. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is full of such moments, and in a medium that is acutely conscious of timing, this can’t be accidental.

This may seem like a minor point, but every movie is the sum of countless small touches, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower gets so many subtle things just right that it’s easy to underestimate the degree of craft and technique involved. It’s about an ordinary girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a school of magic, but unlike certain other stories in the same vein, it doesn’t conclude with her embracing this new world. Instead, after realizing that its inhabitants are borderline sociopaths, she rejects it and returns gratefully to her old life. (At the end, when she tosses aside the flower of the title, it reminded me of Dirty Harry throwing away his badge.) This is a startling choice, but the movie earns it, mostly through some surprisingly understated design work. Mary’s home village is every bit as enticing as the ones in Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service—you can’t help but want to live there. The magical Endor College is grotesque by comparison, as Ehrlich writes:

It’s FAO Schwarz on an impossibly grand scale…The colors are garish, the Ghibli touches call attention to themselves, and the action is so confined to a few simple locations that Endor eventually comes to resemble an abandoned playground, a spectacular palace of unrealized potential.

Yet he also complains: “There’s no other credible explanation for why Mary develops such a quick distaste for this sky-high fantasy world…We don’t get a clear sense of why she might not want to be there.” But if I had to decide between her village and Endor College, I know which one I’d choose.

And what I liked the most about Mary and the Witch’s Flower was how it quietly repurposes the tools of Studio Ghibli as a statement against a certain kind of storytelling. Miyazaki often draws inspiration from other works of art—Ponyo is essentially a retelling of The Little Mermaid, and Spirited Away has touches of Lewis Carroll—but the result usually seems to refer to nothing but itself. Mary isn’t just a refutation of Harry Potter, but of all the children’s movies that offer the consoling fantasy that we’d be able to solve our problems if only we had access to magic, and that the answer to heartbreak in this world lies in escaping from it entirely. The best of the Studio Ghibli movies end with a return to everyday life, but it’s weirdly encouraging to see a studio of younger animators applying this lesson in defiance of all the forces that might encourage them to make other forms of entertainment. Miyazaki is old enough at this point to do whatever he likes, and Studio Ponoc is willing to follow his example in ways that aren’t obvious. The great temptation with Mary and the Witch’s Flower must have been to imitate only the attributes of its models that lend themselves to marketing and merchandising. What it really achieves is something richer and more subversive, and in positioning Miyazaki’s values so directly against those of its rivals, it amounts to a declaration of purpose. Mary may be a knockoff, but its heart is in the right place, and we need it now more than ever.

The pursuit of trivia

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Over the last few months, my wife and I have been obsessively playing HQ Trivia, an online game show that until recently was available only on Apple devices. If you somehow haven’t encountered it by now, it’s a live video broadcast, hosted by the weirdly ingratiating comedian Scott Rogowsky, in which players are given the chance to answer twelve multiple-choice questions. If you get one wrong, you’re eliminated, but if you make it to the end, you split the prize—which ranges from a few hundred to thousands of dollars—with the remaining contestants. Early on, my wife and I actually made it to the winner’s circle four times, earning a total of close to fifty bucks. (Unfortunately, the game’s payout minimum means that we currently have seventeen dollars that we can’t cash out until we’ve won again, which at this point seems highly unlikely.) That was back when the pool of contestants on a typical evening consisted of fewer than ten thousand players. Last night, there were well over a million, which set a new record. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than twice the number of people who watched the first airing of the return of Twin Peaks. It’s greater than the viewership of the average episode of Girls. In an era when many of us watch even sporting events, award ceremonies, or talk shows on a short delay, HQ Trivia obliges its viewers to pay close attention at the same time for ten minutes or more at a stretch. And we’re at a point where it feels like a real accomplishment to force any live audience, which is otherwise so balkanized and diffused, to focus on this tiny node of content.

Not surprisingly, the game has inspired a certain amount of curiosity about its ultimate intentions. It runs no advertisements of any kind, with a prize pool funded entirely by venture capital. But its plans aren’t exactly a mystery. As the reporter Todd Spangler writes in Variety:

So how do HQ Trivia’s creators plan to make money, instead of just giving it away? [Co-founder Rus] Yusupov said monetization is not currently the company’s focus. That said, it’s “getting a ton of interest from brands and agencies who want to collaborate and do something fun,” he added. “If we do any brand integrations or sponsors, the focus will be on making it enhance the gameplay,” Yusupov said. “For a user, the worst thing is feeling like, ‘I’m being optimized—I’m the product now.’ We want to make a great game, and make it grow and become something really special.”

It’s worth remembering that this game launched only this past August, and that we’re at a very early stage in its development, which has shrewdly focused on increasing its audience without any premature attempts at turning a profit. Startups are often criticized for focusing on metrics like “clicks” or “eyeballs” without showing how to turn them into revenue, but for HQ, it makes a certain amount of sense—these are literal eyeballs, all demonstrably turned to the same screen at once, and it yields the closest thing that anyone has seen in years to a captive audience. When the time comes for it to approach sponsors, it’s going to present a compelling case indeed.

But the specter of a million users glued simultaneously to their phones, hanging on Scott Rogowsky’s every word, fills some onlookers with uneasiness. Rogowsky himself has joked on the air about the comparisons to Black Mirror, and several commentators have taken it even further. Ian Bogost says in The Atlantic:

Why do I feel such dread when I play? It’s not the terror of losing, or even that of being embarrassed for answering questions wrong in front of my family and friends…It’s almost as if HQ is a fictional entertainment broadcast, like the kind created to broadcast the Hunger Games in the fictional nation of Panem. There, the motion graphics, the actors portraying news or talk-show hosts, the sets, the chyrons—they impose the grammar of television in order to recreate it, but they contort it in order to emphasize that it is also fictional…HQ bears the same sincere fakery, but seems utterly unaware that it is doing so.

And Miles Surrey of The Ringer envisions a dark future, over a century from now, in which playing the app is compulsory:

Scott—or “Trill Trebek,” or simply “God”—is a messianic figure to the HQties, the collective that blindly worships him, and a dictatorial figure to the rest of us…I made it to question 17. My children will eat today…You need to delete HQ from your phones. What appears to be an exciting convergence of television and app content is in truth the start of something terrifying, irreparable, and dangerous. You are conditioned to stop what you’re doing twice a day and play a trivia game—that is just Phase 1.

Yet I suspect that the real reason that this game feels so sinister to some observers is that it marks a return to a phenomenon that we thought we’d all left behind, and which troubled us subconsciously in ways that we’re only starting to grasp. It’s appointment television. In my time zone, the game airs around eight o’clock at night, which happens to be when I put my daughter to bed. I never know exactly how long the process will take—sometimes she falls asleep at once, but she tends to stall—so I usually get downstairs to join my wife about five or ten minutes later. By that point, the game has begun, and I often hear her say glumly: “I got out already.” And that’s it. It’s over until the same time tomorrow. Even if there were a way to rewind, there’s no point, because the money has already been distributed and nothing else especially interesting happened. (The one exception was the episode that aired on the day that one of the founders threatened to fire Rogowsky in retaliation for a profile in The Daily Beast, which marked one of the few times that the show’s mask seemed to crack.) But believe it or not, this is how we all used to watch television. We couldn’t record, pause, or control what was on, which is a fact that my daughter finds utterly inexplicable whenever we stay in a hotel room. It was a collective experience, but we also conducted it in relative isolation, except from the people who were in the same room as we were. That’s true of HQ as well, which moves at such a high speed that it’s impossible to comment on it on social media without getting thrown off your rhythm. These days, many of us only watch live television together at shared moments of national trauma, and HQ is pointedly the opposite. It’s trivial, but we have no choice but to watch it at the exact same time, with no chance of saving, pausing, or sharing. The screen might be smaller, but otherwise, it’s precisely what many of us did for decades. And if it bothers us now, it’s only because we’ve realized how dystopian it was all along.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2018 at 9:20 am

American Stories #10: Hamilton

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

On August 6, 2015, Hamilton opened at the Richard Rogers Theatre in New York, where it has played to full houses ever since. It marked the moment at which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical exploded into the popular consciousness, and it also means that we’re approaching an important crossover point. In about three weeks, Hamilton will have spent more time on Broadway under a Trump presidency—either prospective or actual—than it did under Barack Obama. And its reception has been so inseparable from the historical era in which it happened to reach a vast audience, after spending more than five years in writing and development, that this fact seems more than simply symbolic. To a greater extent than any other recent work of art, this musical has engaged in a continuous dialogue with its country, and its most Shakespearean quality is the way in which it always seems to be speaking about current events. Its Broadway premiere occurred less than a month after Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency, and although his announcement is remembered mostly for equating Mexican immigrants with rapists, the words that he uttered a few seconds earlier were even more revealing: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you.” Among other things, Hamilton is a story about who “you” and “we” really are in America, and while its answer to that question has remained consistent, the culture in which its echoes are heard has changed with bewildering speed. During the campaign, I found it almost physically painful to think about the line “Immigrants—we get the job done,” which was received so enthusiastically by its listeners that Miranda had to add a few beats of silence to absorb the applause. I wanted to believe it, but I was also afraid that the job wouldn’t get done after all, and it didn’t. But it wasn’t the fault of our immigrants, who have found themselves back at the center of our politics even as they remain marginalized in other ways. And we might all be better off now if it really had been up to them.

Like many people, I haven’t stopped listening to Hamilton since. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a live singalong at the public library in Oak Park that drew hundreds of adults and children over the course of two days—they had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the crowd. It was unbearably moving. Yet it’s also undeniable that Hamilton plays so well in part because it leaves so much unsaid. As the Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro has written:

The idea that this musical “looks like America looks now” in contrast to “then,” however, is misleading and actively erases the presence and role of black and brown people in Revolutionary America, as well as before and since…Despite the proliferation of brown and black bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. For the space of only a couple of bars, a chorus member assumes the role of Sally Hemings, but is recognizable as such only by those who catch Jefferson’s reference to the enslaved woman with whom he had an ongoing sexual relationship. Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.

I don’t think that there’s any question that Monteiro is basically right here, and that the diversity of Hamilton’s cast allows it to absorb America’s racial legacy into the overwhelming charisma of its performers, rather than confronting it explicitly in the text. (A song that addressed it directly, “Cabinet Battle #3,” was cut from the finished show, although it appears on The Hamilton Mixtape.) Unless you happen to actually be Mike Pence, it won’t make you uncomfortable for even a fraction of a second, which may have been necessary for it to reach its present cultural status. I’m grateful for what it does accomplish, but its success also points to how many stories have yet to be told. And perhaps it was more important that it gave us a chance, through a beneficent sleight of hand, to take pride in our history one last time.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2018 at 9:18 am

American Stories #9: 808s & Heartbreak

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

If there’s a common thread that connects many of the works of art that I’ve been discussing here, it’s the way in which our private selves can be invaded by our lives as members of a larger nation, until the two become neurotically fused into one. This is probably true of all countries, but its deeper connection with the notion of personal reinvention feels especially American, and no celebrity embodies it as much as Kanye West. It might seem impossible to make sense of the political evolution of a man who once told us that President Bush didn’t care about black people and then ended up—despite the efforts of a concerned time traveler—taking a very public meeting with Donald Trump. Yet if one of our most ambitious, talented, and inventive artists can be frequently dismissed by critics as “oblivious,” it may only be because he’s living two years ahead of the rest of us, and he’s unusually committed to working out his confusions in public. We should all feel bewildered these days, and West doesn’t have the luxury of keeping it to himself. It might seem strange to single out 808s & Heartbreak, which looks at first glance like his least political work, but if this is the most important album of the last ten years, and it is, it’s largely because it reminded us of how unbearable emotion can be expressed through what might seem to casual listeners like cold detachment. It’s an insight that has crucial implications for those of us who just want to get through the next few years, and while West wasn’t the first to make it, he was remarkably candid about acknowledging his sources to the New York Times:

I think the fact that I can’t sing that well is what makes 808s so special…808s was the first album of that kind, you know? It was the first, like, black new wave album. I didn’t realize I was new wave until this project. Thus my connection with Peter Saville, with Raf Simons, with high-end fashion, with minor chords. I hadn’t heard new wave! But I am a black new wave artist.

This is exactly right, and it gets at why this album, which once came off as a perverse dead end, feels so much now like the only way forward. When I think of its precursors, my mind naturally turns to the Pet Shop Boys, particularly on Actually, which was first released in 1987. A song like “Shopping” anticipates 808s in its vocal processing, its dry drum machine, its icy synthesizers, and above all in how it was widely misconstrued as a reflection of the Thatcherite consumerism that it was criticizing. That’s the risk that you run as an ironist, and West has been punished for it more often than anybody else. And while these two worlds could hardly seem further apart, the underlying impulses are weirdly similar. New wave is notoriously hard to define, but I like to think of it as a movement occupied by those who aren’t comfortable in rock or punk. Maybe you’re just a huge nerd, or painfully shy, or not straight or white, or part of a group that has traditionally been penalized for expressing vulnerability or dissent. One solution is to remove as much of yourself from the work as possible, falling back on irony, parody, or Auto-Tune. You make a virtue of reticence and understatement, trusting that your intentions will be understood by those who feel the same way. This underlies the obsessive pastiches of Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, whose 69 Love Songs is the other great album of my adult life, as well as West’s transformation of himself into a robot programmed to feel pain, like an extended version of the death of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. West has taken it further in the years since—“Blood on the Leaves” may be his most scandalous mingling of the political and the personal—but it was 808s that introduced it to his successors, for whom it serves both as a formula for making hits and as an essential means of survival. Sometimes the only way to make it through the coldest winter is to turn it into the coldest story ever told.

American Stories #8: Mad Men

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

These days, it’s impossible for me to think about Mad Men without taking into account the accusations leveled against its creator, Matthew Weiner, at the height of last year’s overdue reckoning with sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry. Weiner wasn’t the first or last man whose body of work I’ve admired to be accused of such behavior, but his case is more tangled up than usual with my feelings toward his career. Here’s the most widely reported version of the interaction described by former Mad Men writer Kater Gordon, who won an Emmy for the brilliant episode “Meditations in an Emergency”:

Gordon says she was harassed by Weiner late one night when he allegedly said to her that she owed it to him to let him see her naked. She says she “froze and tried to brush [the comments] off” by continuing to work with Weiner that evening in the office…“I knew immediately when he crossed the boundary that it was wrong,” Gordon told The Information. “But I didn’t know then what my options were. Having a script or some sentences cued up as an arsenal—like a self-defense harassment arsenal—I could have used that in that moment, and it would have saved me years of regret that I didn’t handle that situation differently.”

Gordon was “let go” from the show a year later, and Weiner has contested her version of events. But it’s worth noting how both of them frame the alleged incident in terms of their identity as writers. Gordon speaks of not having “a script or some sentences cued up as an arsenal,” while Weiner’s spokesperson said in a statement: “Mr. Weiner spent eight to ten hours a day writing dialogue aloud with Miss Gordon, who started on Mad Men as his writers assistant.” And it’s that otherwise inexplicable “Miss Gordon”—which makes Weiner sound as if he still thinks that he’s actually living in the sixties—that may be the most revealing detail of all.

After hearing Gordon’s story, Marti Noxon, who served as a consulting producer on the show, said on Twitter: “Anyone with an even cursory knowledge of the show Mad Men could imagine that very line coming from the mouth of Pete Campbell.” Mad Men offers plenty of material for those who want to mine it for insights into its creator’s inner life, and while it’s probably worth resisting this temptation, it isn’t entirely irrelevant, either. This is a show that has meant more to me than just about any other television series. It premiered just one month after my future wife and I started dating, and it aired its finale when my daughter was two years old, which means that it provided a backdrop and a soundtrack to my feelings about adulthood, marriage, and children. And it may not have always been for the best. I’ve noted before how its period setting allowed it to depict attitudes that were ostensibly the object of criticism, while also evoking a twisted, almost subliminal nostalgia, in part because its surfaces were so seductive. Like so many American movies and television shows, Mad Men is a critique of masculinity that undermines its own points by embodying them in a man who looks like Jon Hamm. I suspect that the male viewers who responded to the way Don spoke, dressed, smoked, and drank far outnumbered those who were inspired by his portrayal to ask hard questions of themselves—and this doesn’t even get at his treatment of women. What occurred between Weiner and Gordon, if true, feels like a distorted version of the relationship between Don and Peggy, and if the show itself never took it in that direction, it may only be because Weiner’s instincts were better as a writer than they were in his personal life. But they weren’t infallible. As time goes on, issues like the show’s frequent confusion over what to do with Betty and its inability to tell extended stories about black characters seem less like forgivable shortcomings than lamentably missed opportunities. This is still the best television drama I’ve ever seen, but I wouldn’t want to live in it. And it’s clear by now that it succeeded in part because there are a lot of people who would.

Written by nevalalee

January 10, 2018 at 8:45 am

American Stories #7: The Simpsons

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

By now, it might seem that there isn’t anything new to say about The Simpsons, but it’s worth emphasizing how much it depended on an accident of timing. When it premiered, there hadn’t been a successful animated show in primetime since The Flintstones, and it clearly bore the fingerprints of its most famous predecessor. It was a family sitcom designed more or less along the lines of the ones that had come before it—Matt Groening came up with the concept in the waiting room before a pitch meeting—and while its tone and attitude were new, its structure in the early days was resolutely conventional. If it rapidly evolved, this was thanks in large part to luck. Bit players like Apu or Principal Skinner, introduced for the sake of a specific gag, stuck around to be brought back for a few lines at a time because they depended only on the availability of a core voice cast, which meant that the population of Springfield naturally increased. The number of potential characters was as infinite as it was on a good sketch comedy show, with no limits on how many could appear in a single scene. As the animation grew more sophisticated, the writers began to see that they could literally go anywhere and do anything, within the limits imposed by the patience and ability of the animators. (The directors, who were occasionally overwhelmed, joked about being asked to draw “an elephant stampede in a hall of mirrors,” but they invariably rose to the challenge.) Instead of a series about a family, which is what its title still implied, it became a show about everything in the world, and early breakthroughs like Bart the Murderer expanded its scope to all of popular culture. Its network was content to leave it alone. And if it ultimately emerged as a work of art vast enough to form the basis of its own metaphorical language, it was because the medium had risen to meet the ambitions of its writers at that exact moment.

The first eight seasons of The Simpsons remain the greatest case study imaginable for what happens when a small group of smart people is given creative freedom within a form that imposes minimal constraints on the imagination, given enough ingenuity and intelligence. Yet the same elements that enabled the show’s success also contributed to its decline, which will last, in the end, for at least twice as long as its golden age. From the beginning, the cast and crew were predominately white and male, and its treatment of minorities is finally drawing the scrutiny that it deserves. Its producers engaged in a form of category selection in hiring new writers who looked pretty much like they did, which was both a symptom and a cause of the lack of diversity in the industry as a whole, and the result was an echo chamber, brilliant and dead, that seemed disconnected from anything but itself. There’s also a hint of the pattern of generational succession that you see in so many successful startups. The founding members tend to be weirdos like George Meyer or John Swartzwelder, who are willing to take creative chances in oddball projects like the magazine Army Man, but as the enterprise becomes more successful, the second wave of hires comes from Harvard, with talent that is conventionally accomplished but deeply risk averse. And the series today looks more or less like you might expect. It’s a show that continues to grow on a technical level—although its animation has also grown more conservative—but hasn’t advanced creatively in fifteen years; it settles for the kind of cleverness that plays well in the room but is unlikely to make an impression on viewers; and it has no real incentive to change. The Simpsons is still the best show ever made about America. But the most American thing about it might be its downfall.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2018 at 8:35 am

American Stories #6: The Shining

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

“Vanderbilts have stayed here, and Rockefellers, and Astors, and Du Ponts,” Stuart Ullmann, the manager of the Overlook Hotel, smugly informs Jack Torrance in the opening pages of Stephen King’s The Shining. “Four presidents have stayed in the Presidential Suite. Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon.” After Torrance replies that they shouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon, Ullmann adds, frowning, that the hotel was later purchased by a man named Horace Derwent, “millionaire inventor, pilot, film producer, and entrepreneur.” Just in case we don’t make the connection, here’s what Torrance, now the caretaker, thinks to himself about Derwent hundreds of pages later, while leafing through the scrapbook that he finds in the hotel’s basement:

[Derwent was] a balding man with eyes that pierced you even from an old newsprint photo. He was wearing rimless spectacles and a forties-style pencil mustache that did nothing at all to make him look like Errol Flynn. His face was that of an accountant. It was the eyes that made him look like someone or something else…[His movie studio] ground out sixty movies, fifty-five of which glided right into the face of the Hayes Office and spit on its large blue nose…During one of them an unnamed costume designer had jury-rigged a strapless bra for the heroine to appear in during the Grand Ball scene, where she revealed everything except possibly the birthmark just below the cleft of her buttocks. Derwent received credit for this invention as well, and his reputation—or notoriety—grew…Living in Chicago, seldom seen except for Derwent Enterprises board meetings…it was supposed by many that he was the richest man in the world.

There’s only one mogul who fits that description, and it isn’t William Randolph Hearst. By hitching his story to the myth of Howard Hughes, who died shortly before the novel’s publication but would have been alive during much of its conception and writing, King taps into an aspect of the American experience symbolized by his reclusive subject, the aviator, engineer, and movie producer who embodied all of his nation’s virtues and vices before succumbing gradually to madness. It’s no surprise that Hughes has fascinated directors as obsessive as Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, Christopher Nolan—who shelved a Hughes biopic to focus instead on the similar figure of Batman—and even Orson Welles, whose last film, F for Fake, included an extended meditation on the Clifford Irving hoax. As for Stanley Kubrick, who once listed Hughes’s Hell’s Angels among his favorite movies, he could hardly have missed the implication. (If we see the Overlook’s mysterious owner at all in the movie, it’s in the company of the otherwise inexplicable man in the dog costume, who is identified in the novel as Derwent’s lover, while in the sequel Doctor Sleep, which I haven’t read, King evidently associates him with the ghost who offers the toast to Wendy: “Great party, isn’t it?”) The film’s symbols have been analyzed to death, but they only externalize themes that are there in the novel, and although King was dissatisfied by the result, his attempt to treat this material more explicitly in the later miniseries only shows how right Kubrick was to use them instead as the building blocks of a visual language. The Overlook is a stage for reenacting the haunted history of its nation, much of which can only be expressed as a ghost story, and it isn’t finished yet. Looking at the pictures in the scrapbook from the hotel’s grand opening in 1945, Torrance thinks: “The war was over, or almost over. The future lay ahead, clean and shining.”

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2018 at 7:46 am

American Stories #5: Couples

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

At a time when many of us are more conscious than usual of living through history, for better or worse, we’ve naturally started to look for parallels from the past, which partially explains the cultural impact of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War. One undervalued source of insight is the fiction of John Updike, who around the time of Rabbit Redux began to conceive of his novels as snapshots of the eras in which they took place. (It’s the kind of strategy that you can pursue only when you’re reasonably sure that you’ll be able to publish a book every few years for the rest of your life.) Updike’s contribution is especially valuable because his personal wariness toward progressivism—he was in favor of American intervention in Vietnam—allowed him to engage in a level of detailed, everyday reportage that might elude many writers who were more committed to social change. Couples, which is set in the waning days of Camelot, has the clearest affinities to our own time, and it marks the author’s most ambitious attempt to weave a single narrative out of our national and private selves, as Adam Begley writes in his biography Updike:

In an elaborately patterned novel, the chain of significance that links sex, children, the Kennedys, adultery, divorce, and abortion is just one strand of meaning among many…In the novel’s first scene, the Hanemas, Piet and Angela, are getting ready for bed after a party. In an attempt to seduce his wife, Piet does a handstand in the bedroom; Angela, who’s seen this stunt before, tells him, “Shh. You’ll wake the children.” This rebuke only eggs him on; he toddles toward the bed on his knees, imitating their younger daughter: “Dadda, Dadda, wake up-up, Dadda. The Sunnay paper’s here, guess what? Jackie Kenneny’s having a baby!”

Months afterward, the daughter tells her father: “Daddy, wake up! Jackie Kenneny’s baby died because it was born too tiny.” A few pages later, Piet thinks to himself as his children watch television: “This poison was their national life. Not since Korea had Piet cared about news. News happened to other people.”

The novel’s centerpiece is a satirical tour de force, lasting almost thirty pages, set on November 22, 1963. Foxy, Piet’s lover, hears the news of the Kennedy assassination during a dental appointment—as Updike did—and her reaction echoes her guilt over the affair: “She tried to picture the dead man, this young man almost of her generation, with whom she could have slept.” Her dentist, Freddy Thorne, is planning to throw a party that night, and he laments on being told that he should cancel: “But I’ve bought all the booze.” On the next page, we read:

The Thornes decided to have their party after all. In the late afternoon, after Oswald had been apprehended and Johnson sworn in, and the engines of national perpetuity had demonstrated their strength, Georgene called all the houses of the invited and explained that the food and liquor had been purchased, that the guests had bought their dresses and had their tuxedos cleaned, that she and Freddy would feel lonely tonight and the children would be so disappointed, that on this terrible day she saw nothing wrong in the couples who knew each other feeling terrible together. In a way, Georgene explained to Angela, it would be a wake, an Irish wake, and a formal dinner-dance was very fitting for the dead man, who had had such style.

Updike based the account on a real party, of which he recalled years later: “We didn’t know what gesture to make, so we made none.” And the result should resonate with all of us who have ever heard the news of an unspeakable tragedy and then blithely gone on with our lives. (A quip about the discovery that Oswald was a leftist echoes the train of thought that runs through so many minds after the latest mass shooting or terrorist attack: “Did you hear? It wasn’t one of ours, it was one of theirs.”) “We had become detached from the national life,” Updike said later. “Our private lives had become the real concern.” This doesn’t seem to be our problem now. But it still rings true when Piet watches his friends dancing and thinks: “It seemed that the couples were gliding on the polished top of Kennedy’s casket.”

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2018 at 9:00 am

American Stories #4: A Wrinkle in Time

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

These days, it’s hard to read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time without being struck by its description of the planet Camazotz, with its picture of perfect suburban conformity: “The doors of all the houses opened simultaneously, and out came women like a row of paper dolls. The print of their dresses was different, but they all gave the appearance of being the same.” (In the trailer for the upcoming movie, in which the Murry children are brilliantly reimagined as being of mixed race, the sequence has shades of Get Out.) Camazotz has often been interpreted as an allegory for a totalitarian society, as Anna Quindlen writes in her introduction to a recent paperback edition: “The identical houses outside which identical children bounce balls and jump rope in mindless unison evoke the fear so many Americans had of Communist regimes that enshrined the interests of state-mandated order over the rights of the individual.” In fact, L’Engle’s true inspiration was much closer to home. As she says in a fascinating interview with Justin Wintle in The Pied Pipers:

I think it sprang mostly from seeing Camazotz round the country. When you leave New York tonight you’ll be flying over Camazotz—house after house after house, the people in them all watching the same television programs, and all eating the same things for dinner, and the kids in their mandatory uniforms of blue jeans and satchels or whatever. I keep getting asked whether Camazotz is a protest against Communism. I suppose it is, but really it’s against forced conformity of any kind.

And L’Engle is far too elusive and interesting a writer to be easily categorized. When Wintle casually refers to “Christian piety” as an element in her books, L’Engle devastatingly responds: “I wrote A Wrinkle in Time as a violent rebellion against Christian piety.” She elaborates:

New England is Congregational. It’s been Congregational ever since this country was born. Life in a little tiny village tends to revolve around the church. If there’s any reading done the minister does it. Not many others read books, so if you want to know something you have to consult the minister. I got to know several Congregational ministers when I lived in the country simply from the hunger of having somebody to talk to who didn’t discount words…I think that in all fairness I could be anti-church. I’m not sure why, and I know it’s a contradiction. I still go to church.

In explaining why the book’s antagonist, IT, is a gigantic brain, L’Engle explains that “the brain tends to be vicious when it’s not informed by the heart”—which implies that IT might have been a naked heart as well. And Meg’s confrontation with IT culminates in what I think is the most moving passage in all of children’s literature:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

The italics are mine. A Wrinkle in Time asks us to love our enemies, but it also knows how difficult this is, and L’Engle’s final message is one of hope for those of us who fall short of our own high ideals: “I was looking for…something that would tumble over the world’s idea of what is successful and what is powerful. Therefore Meg succeeds through all her weaknesses and all her faults.”

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2018 at 9:01 am

American Stories #3: Vertigo

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

Vertigo, which may well be the most beautiful art object ever made in America, was based on a French novel, D’entre les morts, by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who wrote it in the express hope that Alfred Hitchcock would adapt it into a movie. I don’t know if Hitchcock ever explained why he transferred the setting to San Francisco, but I suspect that he was reasoning backward from its proximity to the Spanish missions, which would provide a bell tower tall enough for a woman to leap to her death, but not so high that a man couldn’t plausibly run up the stairs. Once the decision was made, Hitchcock indulged in his customary preference for utilizing his locations to their fullest. It gave us Madeline’s plunge into the bay near the Golden Gate Bridge and her haunting speech by the rings of the redwood tree: “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.” Above all else, it allowed Hitchcock to give Judy a room at the Empire Hotel, lit from outside by its green neon sign, which enabled the single greatest shot in all of cinema. And the resulting film is inseparable from the state of which Joan Didion wrote:

Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me. I think it comes out of being a “daughter of the Golden West.” A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions—leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways—those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California.

Vertigo, like many of the best movies to come out of Hollywood, is about how the prize is won and then lost because of greed, jealousy, or nostalgia. As Scotty says despairingly to Judy at the end: “You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.”

Like many great works of American art, Vertigo lingers in the imagination because it oscillates so nervously between its surface pleasures and its darkest depths. It’s both the ultimate Hitchcock entertainment, with its flawless cinematography, iconic Edith Head costumes, and romantic Bernard Herrmann score, and the most psychologically complex film I’ve ever seen. It’s as mysterious as a movie can be, but it’s also grounded in its evocative but realistic San Francisco settings. Early on, it can come off as routine, even banal, which leaves us even less prepared for its climax, which is a sick joke that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in film, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps its crucial revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any cinematic adaptation has been more significant—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful and painful. When Judy turns to the camera and the image is flooded with red, we’re as close to the heart of movies as we’ll ever get. The more we learn about Hitchcock’s treatment of women, the more confessional it all seems, and it implicates us as well: Scotty desires, attains, and finally destroys Judy in his efforts to turn her into Madeline, and it ends up feeling like the most honest story that Hollywood has ever told about itself.

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January 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

American Stories #2: Citizen Kane

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

In his essay collection America in the Dark, the film critic David Thomson writes of Citizen Kane, which briefly went under the portentous working title American:

Citizen Kane grows with every year as America comes to resemble it. Kane is the willful success who tries to transcend external standards, and many plain Americans know his pent-up fury at lonely liberty. The film absorbs praise and criticism, unabashed by being voted the best ever made or by Pauline Kael’s skillful reassessment of its rather nasty cleverness. Perhaps both those claims are valid. The greatest film may be cunning, slick, and meretricious.

It might be even more accurate to say that the greatest American movie ever made needs to be cunning, slick, and meretricious, at least if it’s going to be true to the values of its country. Kane is “a shallow masterpiece,” as Kael famously put it, but it could hardly be anything else. (Just a few years later, Kael expressed a similar sentiment about Norman Mailer: “I think he’s our greatest writer. And what is unfortunate is that our greatest writer should be a bum.”) It’s a masterwork of genial fakery by and about a genial faker—Susan Alexander asks Kane at their first meeting if he’s a professional magician—and its ability to spin blatant artifice and sleight of hand into something unbearably moving goes a long way toward explaining why it was a favorite movie of men as different as Charles Schulz, L. Ron Hubbard, and Donald Trump.

And the most instructive aspect of Kane in these troubled times is how completely it deceives even its fans, including me. Its portrait of a man modeled on William Randolph Hearst is far more ambiguous than it was ever intended to be, because we’re distracted throughout by our fondness for the young Welles. He’s visible all too briefly in the early sequences at the Inquirer, and he winks at us through his makeup as an older man. As a result, the film that Hearst wanted to destroy turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his legacy—it makes him far more interesting and likable than he ever was. The same factor tends to obscure the movie’s politics, as Kael wrote in the early seventies:

When Welles was young—he was twenty-five when the film opened—he used to be accused of “excessive showmanship,” but the same young audiences who now reject “theatre” respond innocently and wholeheartedly to the most unabashed tricks of theatre—and of early radio plays—in Citizen Kane. At some campus showings, they react so gullibly that when Kane makes a demagogic speech about “the underprivileged,” stray students will applaud enthusiastically, and a shout of “Right on!” may be heard.

Kane is a master manipulator, but so was Welles, and our love for all that this film represents shouldn’t blind us to how the same tricks can be turned to more insidious ends. As Kane says to poor Mr. Carter, shortly after taking over a New York newspaper at the age of twenty-five, just as Jared Kushner once did: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.” Hearst understood this. And so does Steve Bannon.

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January 2, 2018 at 9:00 am

American Stories #1: The Postman Always Rings Twice

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today.

The opening sentence of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice—“They threw me off the hay truck about noon”—is my favorite first line of any novel, and I’ve written about it here before. Yet when you look more closely at the paragraph in which it appears, you find that what Tom Wolfe praised as the “momentum” of Cain’s style is carrying you past some significant material. Here’s how it reads in full:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Cain described his narrator, Frank, as “a hobo with good grammar,” but he’s also a white man who passes easily back and forth across the border between Mexico and southern California. When he meets Cora, the wife of the doomed gas station owner Nick Papadakis, he drops a casual reference to “you people,” prompting her to shoot back: “You think I’m Mex…Well, get this. I’m just as white as you are, see? I may have dark hair and look a little that way, but I’m just as white as you are.” But Frank sees to the bottom of her indignation at once: “It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.”

Yet it’s Nick Papadakis, whom Frank always calls “the Greek,” who somehow emerges as the book’s most memorable creation—he may be the most vivid murder victim in all of crime fiction—and Cain’s ability to make him real while channeling everything that we know about him through the narrator’s contempt is an act of immense technical skill. Nick is also the figure in whom the story’s secret theme comes most clearly into view. In order to be alone with Cora, Frank tricks Nick into going into town to buy a new neon sign, and he comes back with a resplendent declaration of love for his adoptive land: “It had a Greek flag and an American flag, and a hand shaking hands…It was all in red, white and blue.” Later, after Nick has unknowingly survived a botched attempt on his life, he proudly shows Frank his scrapbook: “He had inked in the curlicues, and then colored it with red, white and blue. Over the naturalization certificate, he had a couple of American flags, and an eagle.” It isn’t the murderous couple’s shared lust, but Cora’s resentment toward her immigrant husband, that really drives the story, and it spills out in her bitter words to Frank: “Do you think I’m going to let you wear a smock, with Service Auto Parts printed on the back…while he has four suits and a dozen silk shirts?” It still rings uncomfortably true today, and it echoed in the imagination of Cain’s most unlikely imitator. As Alice Kaplan writes in Looking for The Stranger:

When [Albert] Camus said The Postman Always Rings Twice inspired The Stranger, he didn’t go into detail. It is easy to imagine that when he observed the effect Cain got by using “the Greek” in place of a proper name, he realized he could create a similar effect by calling the murder victim in his own novel “the Arab.”

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

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Note: To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the release of Titanic, I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 16, 2012.

Is it possible to watch Titanic again with fresh eyes? Was it ever possible? When I caught Titanic 3D five years ago in Schaumburg, Illinois, it had been a decade and a half since I last saw it. (I’ve since watched it several more times, mostly while writing an homage in my novel Eternal Empire.) On its initial release, I liked it a lot, although I wouldn’t have called it the best movie of a year that gave us L.A. Confidential, and since then, I’d revisited bits and pieces of it on television, but had never gone back and watched the whole thing. All the same, my memories of it remained positive, if somewhat muted, so I was curious to see what my reaction would be, and what I found is that this is a really good, sometimes even great movie that looks even better with time. Once we set aside our preconceived notions, we’re left with a spectacularly well-made film that takes a lot of risks and seems motivated by a genuine, if vaguely adolescent, fascination with the past, an unlikely labor of love from a prodigiously talented director who willed himself into a genre that no one would have expected him to understand—the romantic epic—and emerged with both his own best work and a model of large-scale popular storytelling.

So why is this so hard for some of us to admit? The trouble, I think, is that the factors that worked so strongly in the film’s favor—its cinematography, special effects, and art direction; its beautifully choreographed action; its incredible scale—are radically diminished on television, which was the only way that it could be seen for a long time. On the small screen, we lose all sense of scope, leaving us mostly with the charisma of its two leads and conventional dramatic elements that James Cameron has never quite been able to master. Seeing Titanic in theaters again reminds us of why we responded to it in the first place. It’s also easier to appreciate that it was made at precisely the right moment in movie history, an accident of timing that allowed it to take full advantage of digital technology while still deriving much of its power from stunts, gigantic sets, and practical effects. If it were made again today, even by Cameron himself, it’s likely that much of this spectacle would be rendered on computers, which would be a major aesthetic loss. A huge amount of this film’s appeal lies in its physicality, in those real crowds and flooded stages, all of which can only be appreciated in the largest venue possible. Titanic is still big; it’s the screens that got small.

It’s also time to retire the notion that James Cameron is a bad screenwriter. It’s true that he doesn’t have any ear for human conversation, and that he tends to freeze up when it comes to showing two people simply talking—I’m morbidly curious to see what he’d do with a conventional drama, but I’m not sure that I want to see the result. Yet when it comes to structuring exciting stories on the largest possible scale, and setting up and delivering climactic set pieces and payoffs, he’s without equal. I’m a big fan of Christopher Nolan, for instance—I think he’s the most interesting mainstream filmmaker alive—but his films can seem fussy and needlessly intricate compared to the clean, powerful narrative lines that Cameron sets up here. (The decision, for instance, to show us a simulation of the Titanic’s sinking before the disaster itself is a masterstroke: it keeps us oriented throughout an hour of complex action that otherwise would be hard to understand.) Once the movie gets going, it never lets up. It moves toward its foregone conclusion with an efficiency, confidence, and clarity that Peter Jackson, or even Spielberg, would have reason to envy. And its production was one of the last great adventures—apart from The Lord of the Rings—that Hollywood ever allowed itself.

Despite James Cameron’s reputation as a terror on the set, I met him once, and he was very nice to me. In 1998, as an overachieving high school senior, I was a delegate at the American Academy of Achievement’s annual Banquet of the Golden Plate in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an extraordinarily surreal event that I hope to discuss in more detail one of these days. The high point of the weekend was the banquet itself, a black-tie affair in a lavish indoor auditorium with the night’s honorees—a range of luminaries from science, politics, and the arts—seated in alphabetical order at the periphery of the room. One of them was James Cameron, who had swept the Oscars just a few months earlier. Halfway through the evening, leaving my own seat, I went up to his table to say hello, only to find him surrounded by a flock of teenage girls anxious to know what it was like to work with Leonardo DiCaprio. Seeing that there was no way of approaching him yet, I chatted for a bit with a man seated nearby, who hadn’t attracted much, if any, attention. We made small talk for a minute or two, but when I saw an opening with Cameron, I quickly said goodbye, leaving the other guest on his own. It was Dick Cheney.

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December 20, 2017 at 9:00 am

How to be useful

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In his recent review in The New Yorker of a new collection of short stories by Susan Sontag, the critic Tobi Haslett quotes its author’s explanation of why she wrote her classic book Illness as Metaphor: “I wanted to be useful.” I was struck enough by this statement to look up the full version, in which Sontag explains how she approached the literary challenge of addressing her own experience with cancer:

I didn’t think it would be useful—and I wanted to be useful—to tell yet one more story in the first person of how someone learned that she or he had cancer, wept, struggled, was comforted, suffered, took courage…though mine was also that story. A narrative, it seemed to me, would be less useful than an idea…And so I wrote my book, wrote it very quickly, spurred by evangelical zeal as well as anxiety about how much time I had left to do any living or writing in. My aim was to alleviate unnecessary suffering…My purpose was, above all, practical.

This is a remarkable way to look at any book, and it emerged both from Sontag’s own illness and from her awareness of her peculiar position in the culture of her time, as Haslett notes: “Slung between aesthetics and politics, beauty and justice, sensuous extravagance and leftist commitment, Sontag sometimes found herself contemplating the obliteration of her role as public advocate-cum-arbiter of taste. To be serious was to stake a belief in attention—but, in a world that demands action, could attention be enough?”

Sontag’s situation may seem remote from that of most authors, but it’s a problem that every author faces when he or she decides to tackle a book, which usually amounts to a call for attention over action. We write for all kinds of reasons, some more admirable than others, and selecting one idea or project over another comes down prioritizing such factors as our personal interests, commercial potential, and what we want to think about for a year or more of our lives. But as time goes by, I’ve found that Sontag’s test—that the work be useful—is about as sensible a criterion as any. I’ve had good and bad luck in both cases, but as a rule, whenever I’ve tried to be useful to others, I’ve done well, and whenever I haven’t, I’ve failed. Being useful doesn’t necessarily mean providing practical information or advice, although that’s a fine reason to write a book, but rather writing something that would have value even if you weren’t the one whose name was on the cover, simply because it deserves to exist. You often don’t know until long after you start if a project meets that standard, and it might even be a mistake to consciously pursue it. The best approach, in the end, might simply to develop a lot of ideas in hope that some small fraction will survive. I still frequently write just for my own pleasure, out of personal vanity, or for the desire to see something in print, but it only lasts if the result is also useful, so it’s worth at least keeping it in mind as a kind of sieve for deciding between alternatives. As Lin-Manuel Miranda once put it to Grantland, in words that have never ceased to resound in my head: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?”

One of my favorite examples is the writer Euell Gibbons, who otherwise might seem less like Susan Sontag than any human being imaginable. As John McPhee writes in a short reminiscence, “The Forager,” in the New York Times:

Euell had begun learning about wild and edible vegetation when he was small boy in the Red River Valley. Later, in the dust‐bowl era, his family moved to central New Mexico. They lived in a semi‐dugout and almost starved there. His father left in a desperate search for work. The food supply diminished until all that was left were a few pinto beans and a single egg, which no one would eat. Euell, then teen‐aged and one of four children, took a knapsack one morning and left for the horizon mountains. He came hack with puffball mushrooms, piñon nuts, and fruits of the yellow prickly pear. For nearly a month, the family lived wholly on what he provided, and he saved their lives. “Wild food has meant different things to me at different times,” he said to me once. “Right then it was a means of salvation, a way to keep from dying.”

In years that followed, Euell worked as a cowboy. He pulled cotton. He was for a long time a hobo. He worked in a shipyard. He combed beaches. The longest period during which he lived almost exclusively on wild food was five years. All the while, across decades, he wished to be a writer. He produced long pieces of fiction and he had no luck…He passed the age of fifty with virtually nothing published. He saw himself as a total failure, and he had no difficulty discerning that others tended to agree.

What happened next defied all expectation. McPhee writes: “Finally, after listening to the advice of a literary agent, he sat down to try to combine his interests. He knew his subject first- and second-hand; he knew it backward to the botanies of the tribes. And now he told everybody else how to gather and prepare wild food.” The result was the book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which became the first in a bestselling series. At times, Gibbons didn’t seem to know how to handle his own success, as McPhee recalls:

He would live to be widely misassessed. His books gave him all the money he would ever need. The deep poverty of his other years was not forgotten, though, and he took to going around with a minimum of $1,500 in his pocket, because with any less there, he said, he felt insecure. Whatever he felt, it was enough to cause him, in his last years, to appear on television munching Grape-Nuts—hard crumbs ground from tough bread—and, in doing so, he obscured his accomplishments behind a veil of commercial personality. He became a household figure of a cartoon sort. People laughed when they heard his name. All too suddenly, he stood for what he did not stand for.

But Gibbons also deserves to be remembered as a man who finally understood and embraced the admonition that a writer be useful. McPhee concludes: “He was a man who knew the wild in a way that no one else in this time has even marginally approached. Having brought his knowledge to print, he died the writer he wished to be.” Gibbons and Sontag might not have had much in common—it’s difficult to imagine them even having a conversation—but they both confronted the same question: “What book should I write?” And we all might have better luck with the answer if we ask ourselves instead: “What have I done to survive?”

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2017 at 8:14 am

The Eye of the Skeksis

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Every now and then, you’re able to date the precise moment when your life incrementally changed. For me, one of those turning points was January 9, 1983, when the documentary The World of the Dark Crystal aired on public television, a few weeks after the movie itself debuted in theaters. (This weekend marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of its initial release.) It seems implausible now that I would have watched it at the time, but fortunately, my dad taped it, and it must have lived in our house for years afterward, like a tiny imaginative bomb waiting for its chance to detonate. As I’ll mention in a second, our copy cut off the first four minutes of the documentary—it must have taken my dad that long to get the videocassette recorder set up—and I didn’t see it in its entirety until decades later. It was preserved for me by chance, and when I look at it today, it feels doubly precious. We’re living in an era when a series like The Lord of the Rings can offer dozens of hours of production footage, much of it beautifully presented, while even the most mediocre blockbusters usually provide a bonus disc packed with special features. The World of the Dark Crystal isn’t even an hour long, but it was enough to fuel my imagination for a lifetime. And it wasn’t just an element of what would eventually come to be known as an electronic press kit, or even an anomaly like Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, but a labor of love in its own right, a document made by creative artists who were convinced that what they were doing was worth recording because it had the potential to change movies forever.

That isn’t how it worked out, but at least it changed me, and the moment in particular that I never forgot comes near the beginning of the documentary. Our copy of the tape abruptly opened with a shot of the artist Brian Froud, who provided the movie’s conceptual designs, wandering across the moor near his home in Devon. Shortly afterward, it cut to a sequence of Froud seated at his drafting table, working on a sketch of a Skeksis and musing on the soundtrack:

Jim [Henson] had feelings about what the major creatures were, and some of their characteristics, and it was my job to show how they looked. I always start with the eye—the eye is the focal point of all these characters. And for the Skeksis, they needed to have a penetrating stare….They are part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.

He drew rapidly for the camera, filling in the details around the eye before extending the illustration—with what struck me at the time as a startling flourish—into the downward curve of the mouth. Watching the movement of the pencil, I experienced what I can only describe as a moment of revelation. If nothing else, it was probably the first time that I’d ever seen an artist actually drawing, and it kindled something in me that has never entirely gone away.

I must have been about six years old when it really took hold, and I reacted much like any other kid when presented with this sort of stimulus: I imitated it. To be specific, I slavishly copied that one drawing, not just in its final shape, but in the process that Froud took to get there. I started with the eye, like he did, and then ritualistically added in the rest. It never would have occurred to me to do otherwise, and I suspect that I drew it hundreds of times, sometimes as a doodle in the margin of a notepad, occasionally more systematically, which doesn’t even include the countless other drawings that I made of creatures that were “part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.” It wasn’t so much a reaction to The Dark Crystal itself—which I liked, although not as much as Labyrinth—as to that brief glimpse of a creative mind expressed in the pencil on the page. Combined with a few technical tricks that I picked up from the show The Secret City, which is worth a blog post of its own, it was enough to turn me into a pretty good artist, at least by the standards of the second grade. (It’s worth noting that both The World of the Dark Crystal and The Secret City aired on public television, which is also where Jim Henson made his most lasting impact, and an argument in itself for defending it as a proving ground for the imaginations of the young.) I haven’t done a lot of art in recent years, except when sketching with my daughter, and I knew by the end of college that I didn’t have it in me to be a painter. But I’m grateful to have even a little of it, and I owe it largely to that chance encounter with a Skeksis.

I don’t doubt that there are kids who experienced the same kind of epiphany while watching the lovingly detailed profiles of conceptual designers John Howe and Alan Lee—Froud’s old collaborator—in the special features for The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit provides hours more, and those featurettes, unlike so much else in those bloated box sets, remain fascinating and magical. (The life of a fantasy illustrator must not be a particularly lucrative one under most circumstances, and one of the small pleasures of watching the behind-the-scenes footage from these two trilogies is seeing Howe and Lee growing visibly more prosperous.) But something in the fragmentary nature of The World of the Dark Crystal was stimulating in itself. It wasn’t a textbook, but a series of hints, and it left me to fill in the gaps on my own. You can draw a straight line from that pencil drawing to my interest in science fiction and fantasy, not just as fan, but as someone with an interest in the practicalities of how it all gets done. The forms have changed, but the underlying impulse remains the same. And what really haunts me is the fact that the scene at the drawing table occurs just a minute and a half after our tape started, and my dad could easily have missed it. If it had taken him a few minutes longer to cue up the recorder that night, he might have skipped it entirely, and opened instead with the sequence in which the creatures that Froud designed were coming to life in Jim Henson’s workshop. And maybe I would have become a puppeteer.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2017 at 8:28 am

Science fiction studies

Book

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Forthcoming from Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, on August 14, 2018.

Selected Nonfiction

“Karl Rove’s Labyrinth.” The Daily Beast. November 20, 2012. Essay on Karl Rove’s surprising love of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

“Lessons from The X-Files.” Salon. September 17, 2013. The twentieth anniversary of The X-Files and its lessons for modern television.

“Xenu’s Paradox: The Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard and the Making of Scientology.” Longreads. February 1, 2017. An overview of the science fiction and fantasy stories of the controversial founder of dianetics and the Church of Scientology. Featured on The A.V. Club on March 12, 2017.

Reviews of Classic Stories

Astounding Stories #1: Galactic Patrol
Astounding Stories #2: For Us, the Living
Astounding Stories #3: “The Legion of Time”
Astounding Stories #4: Sinister Barrier
Astounding Stories #5: Death’s Deputy and Final Blackout
Astounding Stories #6: “Microcosmic God” and “E for Effort”
Astounding Stories #7: “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”
Astounding Stories #8: The World of Null-A
Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”
Astounding Stories #10: “Way in the Middle of the Air”
Astounding Stories #11: The Moon is Hell
Astounding Stories #12: “Izzard and the Membrane”
Astounding Stories #13: “The Cold Equations”
Astounding Stories #14: The Heinlein Juveniles
Astounding Stories #15: The Space Merchants
Astounding Stories #16: “Witches Must Burn”
Astounding Stories #17: The Thiotimoline Papers
Astounding Stories #18: “Noise Level”
Astounding Stories #19: They’d Rather Be Right

Blog Posts

“Asimov’s ABCs.” Isaac Asimov on the secret of group creativity. October 28, 2014.
“Pohl and the pulpsters.” Frederik Pohl and the world of the pulp writer. July 28, 2015.
“Who went there?” John W. Campbell and The Thing. March 2, 2016.
“Smoking on spaceships.” A short history of smoking in science fiction. March 15, 2016.
“The myth of the competent man.” Science fiction’s most persistent delusion. April 12, 2016.
“Back to the Futurians.” Science fiction fandom in the thirties as a social network. July 26, 2016.
“Days of Futurians Past.” New Fandom and the Futurians. July 27, 2016.
“Return to Dimension X.” The golden age of radio science fiction. August 9, 2016.
“Advertising the future.” A history of advertising in Astounding. September 8, 2016.
“Beyond cyberspace.” John W. Campbell, Norbert Wiener, and cybernetics. October 7, 2016.
“To be or not to be.” Alfred Korzybski’s ideas and their influence on science fiction. October 11, 2016.
“Fear of a female planet.” The absence of women in science fiction. December 7, 2016.
“The Slan solution.” The supermen of Slan, “Solution Unsatisfactory,” and dianetics. December 12, 2016.
“From Xenu to Xanadu.” L. Ron Hubbard and Donald Trump. February 2, 2017.
“A Hawk from a Handsaw.” Uri Geller, Robert Anton Wilson, and a few sinister hawks. February 15-17, 2017.
“The Imaginary Dr. Kutzman.” A lost refutation of dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. February 23, 2017.
“The moon is a harsh fortress.” Hubbard’s “Fortress in the Sky” and its influence on Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. February 27, 2017.
“The dianetics epidemic.” Dianetics as a viral phenomenon. March 2, 2017.
“The innumerable ways of being a man.” Sir Richard Francis Burton’s influence on Hubbard. March 8, 2017.
“Falls the Shadow.” John W. Campbell’s parallels to Orson Welles. March 17, 2017.
“The Mule and the Beaver.” The sources of Isaac Asimov’s remarkable productivity. March 22, 2017.
“The vision thing.” Two cinematic versions of “Who Goes There?” April 21, 2017.
“The dark side of the moon.” Charles Manson and science fiction. March 24, 2017.
“The acid test.” Attitudes toward LSD and other drugs in science fiction. April 27, 2017.
“Of a Fyre on the Moon.” The Fyre Festival and Voyage Beyond Apollo. May 1, 2017.
“Hubbard in the Wild.” L. Ron Hubbard’s sojourn in Alaska. May 25, 2017.
“The bed of the future.” Howard Hughes, Hugo Gernsback, Heinlein, and the ultimate bed. June 27, 2017.
“The science fiction sieve.” John W. Campbell and the boundaries of science fiction. June 28, 2017.
“The saucer people.” Flying saucers in Astounding. July 7, 2017.
“The search for the zone.” Twin Peaks and Heinlein’s “Universe.” July 10, 2017.
“Children of the Lens.” Science fiction and the early video game Spacewar. July 14, 2017.
“Bester of Both Worlds.” The genius of Alfred Bester. August 11, 2017.
“The creeps of the cosmos.” William S. Burroughs and Scientology. August 16, 2017.
“Handbook for morals.” The mass-buying tactics of the Church of Scientology. August 25, 2017.
“Asimov’s close encounter.” Asimov’s vendetta against Close Encounters of the Third Kind. August 30, 2017.
“The First Foundation.” Campbell, Asimov, Jack Williamson, and psychohistory. September 5-7, 2017.
“The passion of the pulps.” More on the absence of women in science fiction. September 12, 2017.
“Sci-Fi and Si.” Si Newhouse, Condé Nast, and Analog. October 2, 2017.
“Two against the gods.” Hubbard and William Bolitho’s Twelve Against the Gods. October 4, 2017.
“The Heirs of Sputnik.” Sputnik, science fiction, and the Cold War. October 6, 2017.
“The flicker effect.” W. Grey Walter, John W. Campbell, and the Dream Machine. October 10, 2017.
“When Del met Elron.” An encounter between Hubbard and comedy legend Del Close. October 20, 2017.
“The Strange Land.” More on Charles Manson and science fiction. November 20, 2017.

Written by nevalalee

December 8, 2017 at 8:25 am

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The art of preemptive ingenuity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2017 at 8:29 am

The sound of the teletypes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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