Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Albert Brooks

A fella smarter than myself

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Gene Hackman in Heist

I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, “What would he do?”

—David Mamet, Heist

Writers, by definition, are always trying to punch above their weight. When you sit down to write a novel for the first time, you’re almost comically inexperienced: however many books you’ve read or short stories you’ve written, you still don’t know the first thing about structuring—or even finishing—a long complicated narrative. Yet we all do it anyway. This is partly thanks to the irrational optimism that I’ve said elsewhere is a crucial element of any writer’s psychological makeup, in which we’re inclined to believe that we’re smarter and more prepared than we actually are. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s the only way any of us will ever grow as writers, as we slowly evolve into the level of competence we’ve imagined for ourselves. Still, in any project, there always comes a time when a writer, however experienced, realizes that he’s taken on more than he can handle. The story is there, unwritten, and it’s beautiful in his head, but lost in the translation to the printed page. One day, he hopes, he’ll be good enough to realize it, but that doesn’t help him now. What he really needs is a way to temporarily become a better writer than he already is.

This may sound like witchcraft, but in reality, it’s something that writers do all the time. When we start out, we have no choice but to imitate the artists we admire, because when we set out to write that first page, we lack the experience of life and craft that only years of work can bring. Eventually, we move past imitation to find a voice and style of our own, but there are still times when we find ourselves compelled to channel the spirit of our betters. We do this when we start each day by reading a few pages from the work of a writer we like, or when we approach a tough moment in the plot by asking ourselves what Updike or Thomas Harris in his prime would do. Some of us go even further. In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, James Wood talks about a friend who became so obsessed by the work of the Norwegian writer Per Petterson that he copied out one of his novels word for word. This isn’t about stylistic plagiarism or slavish imitation, but a kind of sympathetic magic, a hope that we can conjure up the spirit of a more experienced writer just long enough to solve the problems in front of us.

Kevin Pollak in The Aristocrats

And the act of imitation itself can lead to surprising places. There’s a great deleted scene from the notorious documentary The Aristocrats in which Kevin Pollak delivers the titular joke in the style of Albert Brooks. After milking it for two delicious minutes, he takes a sip of coffee and says:

That’s the trippy thing about doing Brooks, though—I’m faster and funnier than I am as myself. It’s very, very sad. It’s a possession. I hate to do it because, literally, I’m listening to myself and thinking, “Why am I never this funny?”

I’m not a huge Kevin Pollak fan, but I love this clip, because it gets at something important and mysterious about the way artistic imitation works. Pollak is a skilled mimic who does a good, if not great, impression of Albert Brooks on all the superficial levels—his vocal tics, his tone, the way he holds his face and body. Somewhere along the line, though, these surface impressions work a deeper transformation, and he finds himself temporarily thinking like Brooks. This is why typing out the work of a writer we admire can be so helpful: there’s no better way of opening a window, even just for a crucial moment or two, into someone else’s brain.

The best kind of imitation, as Pollak says, is a possession, in which we will ourselves, almost unconsciously, into becoming better artists than we really are. Imitation can become dangerous, however, when we focus on the superficial without also channeling more fundamental habits of mind. This morning, while watching the new teaser trailer for Star Trek: Into Darkness, which clearly takes many of its cues from the recent films of Christopher Nolan, I was amused by the thought that while Nolan has done more than any contemporary director to push the envelope of visual and narrative complexity in mainstream movies, the big takeaway for other filmmakers—or at least those who assemble the trailers—has apparently been a “BWONG” sound effect. But big influences can arise from small beginnings. The qualities that most deserve imitation in the artists we admire have little to do with the obvious trademarks of their style, and if we imitate those aspects alone, we’re just being derivative. But sometimes it’s those little things that allow us to temporarily acquire the mindset of smarter artists than ourselves, until, finally, we’ve made it our own.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2012 at 10:12 am

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