Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Guide for the Perplexed

Blazing the trail

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When I’m looking for insights into writing, I often turn to the nonliterary arts, and the one that I’ve found the most consistently stimulating is film editing. This is partially because the basic problem that a movie editor confronts—the arrangement and distillation of a huge mass of unorganized material into a coherent shape—is roughly analogous to what a writer does, but at a larger scale and under conditions of greater scrutiny and pressure, which encourages the development of pragmatic technical solutions. This was especially true in the era before digital editing. As Walter Murch, my hero, has pointed out, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. A movie like Apocalypse Now generates something like seven tons of raw footage, so an editor, as Murch notes, needs “a strong back and arms.” At the same time, incredibly, he or she also has to keep track of the location of individual frames, which weigh just a few thousandths of an ounce. With such software tools as Final Cut Pro, this kind of bookkeeping becomes relatively easier, and I doubt that many professional editors are inclined to be sentimental about the old days. But there’s also a sense in which wrestling with celluloid required habits of mind and organization that are slowly being lost. In A Guide for the Perplexed, which I once described as the first book I’d recommend to anyone about almost anything, Werner Herzog writes:

I can edit almost as fast as I can think because I’m able to sink details of fifty hours of footage into my mind. This might have something to do with the fact that I started working on film, when there was so much celluloid about the place that you had to know where absolutely every frame was. But my memory of all this footage never lasts long, and within two days of finishing editing it becomes a blur in my mind.

On a more practical level, editing a movie means keeping good notes, and all editors eventually come up with their own system. Here’s how Herzog describes his method:

The way I work is to look through everything I have—very quickly, over a couple of days—and make notes. For all my films over the past decade I have kept a logbook in which I briefly describe, in longhand, the details of every shot and what people are saying. I know there’s a particularly wonderful moment at minute 4:13 on tape eight because I have marked the description of the action with an exclamation point. These days my editor Joe Bini and I just move from one exclamation point to the next; anything unmarked is almost always bypassed. When it comes to those invaluable clips with three exclamation marks, I tell Joe, “If these moments don’t appear in the finished film, I have lived in vain.”

What I like about Herzog’s approach to editing is its simplicity. Other editors, including Murch, keep detailed notes on each take, but Herzog knows that all he has to do is flag it and move on. When the time comes, he’ll remember why it seemed important, and he has implicit faith in the instincts of his past self, which he trusts to steer him in the right direction. It’s like blazing a trail through the woods. A few marks on a tree or a pile of stones, properly used, are all you need to indicate the path, but instead of trying to communicate with hikers who come after you, you’re sending a message to yourself in the future. As Herzog writes: “I feel safe in my skills of navigation.”

Reading Herzog’s description of his editorial notes, I realized that I do much the same thing with the books that I read for my work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Whenever I go back to revisit a source, I’ll often see underlinings or other marks that I left on a previous pass, and I naturally look at those sections more closely, in order to remind myself why it seemed to matter. (I’ve learned to mark passages with a single vertical line in the outer margin, which allows me to flip quickly through the book to scan for key sections.) The screenwriter William Goldman describes a similar method of signaling to himself in his great book Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which he talks about the process of adapting novels to the screen:

Here is how I adapt and it’s very simple: I read the text again. And I read it this time with a pen in my hand—let’s pick a color, blue. Armed with that, I go back to the book, slower this time than when I was a traveler. And as I go through the book word by word, page by page, every time I hit anything I think might be useful—dialogue line, sequence, description—I make a mark in the margin…Then maybe two weeks later, I read the book again, this time with a different color pen…And I repeat the same marking process—a line in the margin for anything I think might make the screenplay…When I am done with all my various color-marked readings—five or six of them—I should have the spine. I should know where the story starts, where it ends. The people should be in my head now.

Goldman doesn’t say this explicitly, but he implies that if a passage struck him on multiple passes, which he undertook at different times and states of mind, it’s likely to be more useful than one that caught his eye only once. Speaking of a page in Stephen King’s novel Misery that ended up with six lines in the margin—it’s the scene in which Annie cuts off Paul’s foot—Goldman writes: “It’s pretty obvious that whatever the spine of the piece was, I knew from the start it had to pass through this sequence.”

And a line or an exclamation point is sometimes all you need. Trying to keep more involved notes can even be a hindrance: not only do they slow you down, but they can distort your subsequent impressions. If a thought is worth having, it will probably occur to you each time you encounter the same passage. You often won’t know its true significance until later, and in the meantime, you should just keep going. (This is part of the reason why Walter Mosley recommends that writers put a red question mark next to any unresolved questions in the first draft, rather than trying to work them out then and there. Stopping to research something the first time around can easily turn into a form of procrastination, and when you go back, you may find that you didn’t need it at all.) Finally, it’s worth remembering that an exclamation point, a line in the margin, or a red question mark are subtly different on paper than on a computer screen. There are plenty of ways to flag sections in a text document, and I often use the search function in Microsoft Word that allows me to review everything I’ve underlined. But having a physical document that you periodically mark up in ink has benefits of its own. When you repeatedly go back to the same book, manuscript, or journal over the course of a project, you find that you’ve changed, but the pages have stayed the same. It starts to feel like a piece of yourself that you’ve externalized and put in a safe place. You’ll often be surprised by the clues that your past self has left behind, like a hobo leaving signs for others, or Leonard writing notes to himself in Memento, and it helps if the hints are a little opaque. Faced with that exclamation point, you ask yourself: “What was I thinking?” And there’s no better way to figure out what you’re thinking right now.

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2017 at 9:08 am

The certainty of salvation

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Lotte Eisner and Werner Herzog

We German filmmakers were still a fragile group in 1974, so when a friend called me from Paris to say that Lotte [Eisner] had suffered a massive stroke and I should get on the next airplane, I started looking for flights, before realizing it wasn’t the correct way to proceed. I was unable to accept that Lotte might die, and though it was the start of the onslaught of an early winter, I decided to walk from Munich to Paris. My pilgrimage was a million steps in rebellion against her death.

I stuffed a bundle of clothes and a map into a duffel bag, then set off in the straightest line possible, sleeping under bridges, in farms and abandoned houses. I made only one detour—to the town of Troyes, where I marveled at the cathedral—and ended up walking across the Vosges mountains for about twenty miles…I’m not superstitious, but did feel that coming by foot would prevent Lotte’s death. The Catholic Church has a wonderful term for this: Heilsgewissheit, the certainty of salvation.

I moved with the faith of a pilgrim, convinced that Lotte would be alive when I got to Paris four weeks later. When I arrived in town I stopped at a friend’s place to take shelter from the rain and sat in his office, steam coming off my clothes, utterly exhausted after having walked the last fifty miles without a break. I gave him my compass, which I no longer needed, and walked to Lotte’s home. She was very surprised, but happy to see me.

Years later, bedridden and nearly blind, unable to read or see films, Lotte wrote to me, asking if I would visit her. I went to Paris, where she told me, “Werner, there is still some spell cast that prevents me from dying. But I can barely walk. I am saturated with life [lebenssatt]. It would be a good time for me now.” Jokingly, I said, “Lotte, I hereby lift the spell.” Two weeks later she died. It was the right moment for her.

Werner Herzog, A Guide for the Perplexed

Written by nevalalee

January 1, 2016 at 6:34 am

The Gospel According to Herzog

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Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo

When you’re a voracious reader with a large library, you sometimes get the feeling that there aren’t any books left to discover. There are certainly books left to be read, both old and new, but you’d like to think that you have a decent idea of the territory. Yet it’s always possible to be surprised and astonished by a book you didn’t know existed, which is exactly what happened to me last week. The book is A Guide for the Perplexed by the German director Werner Herzog, which I received as a belated holiday gift from my parents. I’m a Herzog fan, but not a completist: I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored material, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. But I’m stunned by this book. It’s a revised and expanded version of Herzog on Herzog, a collection of his conversations with Paul Cronin that was originally published more than a decade ago, and I’m filled with regret at the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance—I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all.

Over the last few days, A Guide for the Perplexed has practically been attached to my hand, and I’ve already devoured hundreds of pages, browsing in it at random. It’s a huge book, but every paragraph explodes with insight. Even if you don’t have any interest in Herzog, you should pick up a copy just to read for your own pleasure: you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately arrested. Here are a few lines picked almost at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Peter Zeitlinger [Herzog’s cinematographer] is always trying to sneak “beautiful” shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.

Those who read own the world. Those who watch television lose it.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s own stories, which are seemingly inexhaustible. He provides his own perspective on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by his jacket and a catalog in his pocket, and he wanted to keep going—or the threat that kept Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) But there are countless relatively unknown stories that jump off the page: Herzog posing as a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys he needed for Aguirre, forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo, stealing his first camera, shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. We hear about the unexpected targets of Herzog’s disdain, from David Bowie (“The man is a neon light bulb”) to legendary firefighter Red Adair (“He was extremely meticulous, cowardly, and overly bureaucratic”), as well as his contempt for cinéma vérité, a panel discussion on which he concluded by saying: “I’m no fly on the wall. I am the hornet that stings. Happy New Year, losers.”

Yet little of this would matter, aside from its enormous entertainment value, if we weren’t also treated to a dazzling array of insights on screenwriting, cinematography, sound, financing, documentary filmmaking, editing, and storytelling of all kinds. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example sustains and nourishes the rest of us. In On Directing Film—the other essential book I’d recommend to any aspiring filmmaker—David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. Thati’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he even tells attendees at his Rogue Film School to watch Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as illustrations of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog himself says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2015 at 9:44 am

Werner Herzog on editing

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Werner Herzog on the set of Rescue Dawn

I have always been very specific about what I film, and never shoot endless amounts of footage. Every second of celluloid costs money, so the impetus when shooting on film is to expose as little raw stock as possible. Even today, when I make a film on video I never end up with a lot of footage. If you let the tape run and run, you’ll have three hundred hours of mediocrity. Some filmmakers wear the fact they have so much material as a badge of honor, but attempting to be encyclopedic is a misguided strategy, practiced only by accountants. Most filmmakers with that much footage don’t know what they’re doing; I know I’m talking to a spendthrift when I meet a director who tells me they worked for years editing a film…

I can identify the strongest material at great speed, and rarely change my mind once I make a decision. Usually we can piece together a first assembly of what the final film will be in less than a fortnight. We never look at what we edited the previous day; every morning we start from the point where we finished the day before. Once we have worked through the entire film, we work backwards; this keeps the material fresh and ensures that only footage of the highest caliber remains. It isn’t that I have a particularly slovenly attitude to the editing process; I’m just ruthless with the decisions I make. I feel safe in my skills of navigation and never try out twenty different versions of the same sequence.

Werner Herzog, A Guide for the Perplexed

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2015 at 8:50 am

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