Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Al Jean

Keeping us in suspense

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The Red Wedding

At last night’s presidential debate, when moderator Chris Wallace asked if he would accept the outcome of the election, Donald Trump replied: “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?” It was an extraordinary moment that immediately dominated the headlines, and not just because it was an unprecedented repudiation of a crucial cornerstone of the democratic process. Trump’s statement—it seems inaccurate to call it a “gaffe,” since it clearly reflects his actual views—was perhaps the most damaging remark anyone could have made in that setting, and it reveals a curious degree of indifference, or incompetence, in a candidate who has long taken pride in his understanding of the media. It was a short, unforgettable sound bite that could instantly be brought to members of both parties for comment. And it wasn’t an arcane matter of policy or an irrelevant personal issue, but an instantly graspable attack on assumptions shared by every democratically elected official in America, and presumably by the vast majority of voters. Even if Trump had won the rest of the debate, which he didn’t, those six words would have erased whatever gains he might have made. Not only was it politically and philosophically indefensible, but it was a ludicrous tactical mistake, an unforced error in response to a question that he and his advisors knew was going to be asked. As Julia Azari put it during the live chat on FiveThirtyEight: “The American presidency is not the latest Tana French novel—leaders can’t keep the people in suspense.”

But the phrase that he used tells us a lot about Trump. I’m speaking as someone who has devoted my fair share of thought to suspense itself: I’ve written a trilogy of thrillers and blogged here about the topic at length. When I think about the subject, I often start with what John Updike wrote in a review of Nabokov’s Glory, which is that it “never really awakens to its condition as a novel, its obligation to generate suspense.” What Updike meant is that stories are supposed to make us wonder about what’s going to happen next, and it’s that state of pleasurable anticipation that keeps us reading. It can be an end in itself, but it can also be a literary tool for sustaining the reader’s interest while the writer tackles other goals. As Kurt Vonnegut once said of plot, it isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of life, but a way to keep readers turning pages. Over time, the techniques of suspense have developed to the point where you can simulate it using purely mechanical tricks. If you watch enough reality television, you start to notice how the grammar of the editing repeats itself, whether you’re talking about Top Chef or Project Runway or Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The delay before the judges deliver their decision, the closeups of the faces of the contestants, the way in which an editor pads out the moment by inserting cutaways between every word that Padma Lakshmi says—these are all practical tools that can give a routine stretch of footage the weight of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. You can rely on them when you can’t rely on the events of the show itself.

Donald Trump

And the best trick of all is to have a host who keeps things moving whenever the contestants or guests start to drag. That’s where someone like Trump comes in. He’s an embarrassment, but he’s far from untalented, at least within the narrow range of competence in which he used to operate. When I spent a season watching The Celebrity Apprentice—my friend’s older sister was on it—I was struck by how little Trump had to do: he was only onscreen for a few minutes in each episode. But he was good at his job, and he was also the obedient instrument of his producers. He has approached the campaign with the same mindset, but with few of the resources that are at an actual reality show’s disposal. Trump’s strategy has been built around the idea that he doesn’t need to spend money on advertising or a ground game, as long as the media provides him with free coverage. It’s an interesting experiment, but there’s a limit to how effective it can be. In practice, Trump is less like the producer or the host than a contestant, which reduces him to acting like a reality star who wants to maximize his screen time: say alarming things, pick fights, act unpredictably, and generate the footage that the show needs, while never realizing that the incentives of the contestants and producers are fundamentally misaligned. (He should have just watched the first season of UnREAL.) When he says that he’ll keep us in suspense about accepting the results of the election, he’s just following the reality show playbook, which is to milk such climactic moments for all they’re worth.

Yet this approach has backfired, and television provides us with some important clues as to why. I once believed that the best analogy to Trump’s campaign was the rake gag made famous by The Simpsons. As producer Al Jean described it: “Sam Simon had a theory that if you repeat a joke too many times, it stops being funny, but if you keep on repeating it, it might get really funny.” Trump performed a rake gag in public for months. First we were offended when he made fun of John McCain’s military service; then he said so many offensive things that we became numb to it; and then it passed a tipping point, and we got really offended. I still think that’s true. But there’s an even better analogy from television, which is the practice of keeping the audience awake by killing off major characters without warning. As I’ve said here before, it’s a narrative trick that used to seem daring, but now it’s a form of laziness: it’s easier to deliver shocking death scenes than to tell interesting stories about the characters who are still alive. In Trump’s case, the victims are ideas, or key constituents of the electorate: minorities, immigrants, women. When Trump turned on Paul Ryan, it was the equivalent of one of those moments, like the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones, when you’re supposed to gasp and realize that nobody is safe. His attack on a basic principle of democracy might seem like more of the same, but there’s a difference. The strategy might work for a few seasons, but there comes a point at which the show cuts itself too deeply, and there aren’t any characters left that we care about. This is where Trump is now. And by telling us that he’s going to keep us in suspense, he may have just made the ending a lot less suspenseful.

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2016 at 8:08 am

Moss Hart’s train scene, or the importance of slowing things down

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George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

In his famous theatrical memoir Act One, Moss Hart talks about the quiet scene that saved an entire play. The work was Once in a Lifetime, the first of his eight collaborations with George S. Kaufman, and although it was a classic comedy loaded with gags and funny lines, it died on the stage: at every performance, he could sense the audience growing more restless, and he ended up with three days left before opening night with no idea of how to fix it. Finally, Sam Harris, the producer, delivered a verdict: “It’s a noisy play, kid. One of the noisiest plays I’ve ever been around.” Harris continued:

Except for those two minutes at the beginning of the first act, there isn’t another spot in this whole play where two people sit down and talk quietly to each other…It’s a tiring play to sit through, kid. I can almost feel them begin to get tired all around me. That stage is so damn full of actors and scenery and costumes and props all the time they never get a chance to catch their breath and listen to the play. Sure they laugh, but I think they’re longing to see that stage just once with maybe two or three people on it quietly talking the whole thing over. Give them a chance to sit back themselves and kind of add the whole thing up.

Rocked by this advice, Hart went for a long, solitary walk through the moonlit night, and at four in the morning, the answer hit him. All it would require was one new scene, using an existing set—a train—where two of the characters could talk over what had happened in the plot so far. It would give the audience a breather, as well as a chance to consolidate the story, and it wouldn’t cost anything to stage, although it would require throwing away another set that had been built at great expense. Hart went to Kaufman with the idea the next day, and although it took some convincing, they finally went ahead with it. And on opening night, not only did the scene work wonderfully as a pause in the action, but it got an enormous reaction in its own right. Jokes got huge laughs; even straight lines seemed funny; and the rest of the play sped along on the resulting momentum, all thanks to one scene in which the audience, for once, had been given a chance to process what had happened and anticipate what came next. Hart concludes: “The vital scenes of a play are played as much by the audience, I suppose, as they are by the actors on stage.”

Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

There are a lot of lessons to be unpacked here, which is why I’ve devoted so much space to this story. (I owe my knowledge of it, incidentally, to a rather unlikely souce: Al Jean’s commentary track on the fifteenth season of The Simpsons, in which he notes that Hart’s story taught him to insert a quiet scene with Homer and Marge in bed, just talking over the plot, whenever an episode wasn’t working. It’s for insights like this that I continue to buy and listen to the box sets for later seasons, even after I’ve mostly lost interest in the episodes themselves.) The first is the obvious point that a movie, book, or play can’t consist of one manic high point after another: if a story is too exhausting, or too “noisy,” it’s only going to wear out the audience. So many action movies, for instance, consist of nothing but one big set piece after another, as if they’re terrified of allowing the viewer’s attention to stray for a second. The result is usually the opposite: the audience wearily regards every gunfight or car chase as more of the same. A break in the action allows us to decide how we feel about the story so far, instead of just reacting to one development after another, and by including moments of quiet, the high points can stand out, rather than degenerating into a blur of activity.

And this is about more than just giving the audience a physical breather. The best works of art appeal to multiple parts of the brain, and there’s a sense of relief when a narrative that has been operating on an immediate, visceral level slows down to allow our more contemplative selves to join in on the fun. One of my favorite examples is the little scene between Indy and his father on the blimp in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which gives us some wonderful character moments—”I respected your privacy. And I taught you self-reliance“—as well as a briefing on where we’ve been and where we’re going, just before the chase begins anew. (It’s telling that both Hart’s train scene and Indy’s blimp scene take place on modes of transportation, as the characters find themselves in transit from one plot point to another. That’s shrewd story construction, since it reassures the audience that we’re still heading somewhere even as the plot applies the brakes.) And it’s a lesson I’ve tried to apply to my own fiction, which otherwise threatens to consist of one damned thing after another. If you’ve done it properly, everything else seems to play at a higher level. As Mahler says: “If you think you’re boring your audience, go slower, not faster.”

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2013 at 8:14 am

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