Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘American Stories

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

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