Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Andy Clark

One breath, one blink

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Gene Hackman in The Conversation

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 14, 2017.

A while back, my wife, who is a professional podcaster, introduced me to the concept of the “breath” in audio editing. When you’re putting together an episode for a medium like radio, you often find yourself condensing an interview or splicing together two segments, and you can run into trouble when those edits interfere with the speaker’s natural breathing rhythms. As an excellent tutorial from NPR explains it:

Breaths are a problem when they are upcut or clipped. An upcut breath is one that is edited so it’s incomplete (or “chopped”)—only the first or last part is audible…Missing breaths are just that—breaths that have been removed or silenced. They sound unnatural and can cause some listeners to feel tense…Breaths are also problematic when they don’t match the cadence of the speech (i.e. a short, quick breath appears in the middle of a slower passage)…

When editing breaths, listen closely to the beginning and end. If replacing a breath, choose one that matches the cadence and tone of the words around it.

For example, a short, quick breath is useful during an interruption or an excited, quick-paced reply. A longer breath is appropriate for a relaxed, measured response…As a rule of thumb, do not remove breaths—it sounds unnatural.

I’m particularly interested in the idea that a poorly edited breath can make the listener feel anxious without knowing it, which reminds me of something that the film editor Walter Murch says in his book In The Blink of an Eye. Murch writes that when he was editing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, he noticed that Harry Caul, the character played by Gene Hackman, would frequently blink around the point where he had decided to make a cut. “It was interesting,” Murch says, “but I didn’t know what to make of it.” Then he happened to read an interview with the director John Huston that shed an unexpected light on the subject:

To me, the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes…Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.

Murch was fascinated by this, and he began to pay closer attention to blinking’s relationship to emotional or cognitive states. He concluded that blinks tend to occur at instants in which an internal separation of thought has taken place, either to help it along or as an involuntary reflex that coincides with a moment of transition. (It also reminds me a little of the work of the philosopher Andy Clark, who notes, as Huston did, that the mind only processes a scene when something changes.)

Walter Murch

As Murch writes in In the Blink of an Eye: “Start a conversation with somebody and watch when they blink. I believe you will find that your listener will blink at the precise moment he or she ‘gets’ the idea of what you are saying, not an instant earlier or later…And that blink will occur where a cut could have happened, had the conversation been filmed.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that an editor should worry about when the actors are blinking, but that if he or she is making the cut in the right spot, as a kind of visual punctuation, the blinks and the cuts will coincide anyway. Apart from Murch’s anecdotal observations, I don’t know if this phenomenon has ever been studied in detail, but it’s intriguing. For instance, it suggests that breathing in audio and blinking in film are two aspects of the same thing. Both are physiological phenomena, but they’re also connected with cognition in profound ways, especially when we’re trying to communicate with others. When we’re talking to someone else, we don’t stop to breathe in arbitrary places, but at moments when the sense of what we’re saying has reached a natural break. Hence the function of the comma, which is a visual marker that sets apart clauses or units of information on the page, as well as a vestigial trace of the pause that would have occurred in conversation—even if we usually don’t stop when we’re reading it silently to ourselves. And I’ve spoken elsewhere of the relationship between breathing and the length of sentences or lines of poetry, in which the need to breathe is inseparable from the necessity of pausing for consolidation or comprehension.

Editors care about these issues because they’re essentially playing a confidence trick. They’re trying to create an impression of continuity while assembling many discrete pieces, and if they fail to honor the logic of the breath or the blink, the listener or viewer will subconsciously sense it. This is the definition of a thankless task, because you’ll never notice it when it works, and when it doesn’t, you probably won’t even be able to articulate the problem. I suspect that the uneasiness caused by a poorly edited stretch of audio or film is caused by the rhythms of one’s own body falling out of sync with the story: when a work of art is flowing properly, we naturally adjust ourselves to its rhythms, and a dropped or doubled breath can shake us out of that sense of harmony. After a while, addressing this becomes a matter of instinct, and a skilled editor will unconsciously take these factors into account, much as an author eventually learns to write smoothly without worrying about it too much. We only become aware of it when something feels wrong. (It’s also worth paying close attention to it during the revision phase. The NPR tutorial notes that problems with breaths can occur when the editor tries to “nickel and dime” an interview to make it fit within a certain length. And when James Cameron tried to cut Terminator 2 down to its contractual length by removing just a single frame per second from the whole movie, he found that the result was unwatchable.) When we’re awake, no matter what else we might be doing, we’re breathing and blinking. And it’s a testament to the challenges that all editors face that they can’t even take breathing for granted.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2018 at 8:23 am

The notebook and the brain

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A little over two decades ago, the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers published a paper titled “The Extended Mind.” Its argument, which no one who encounters it is likely to forget, is that the human mind isn’t confined to the bounds of the skull, but includes many of the tools and external objects that we use to think, from grocery lists to Scrabble tiles. The authors present an extended thought experiment about a man named Otto who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which obliges him to rely on his notebook to remember how to get to a museum. They argue that this notebook is effectively occupying the role of Otto’s memory, but only because it meets a particular set of criteria:

First, the notebook is a constant in Otto’s life—in cases where the information in the notebook would be relevant, he will rarely take action without consulting it. Second, the information in the notebook is directly available without difficulty. Third, upon retrieving information from the notebook he automatically endorses it. Fourth, the information in the notebook has been consciously endorsed at some point in the past, and indeed is there as a consequence of this endorsement.

The authors conclude: “The information in Otto’s notebook, for example, is a central part of his identity as a cognitive agent. What this comes to is that Otto himself is best regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources…Once the hegemony of skin and skull is usurped, we may be able to see ourselves more truly as creatures of the world.”

When we think and act, we become agents that are “spread into the world,” as Clark and Chalmers put it, and this extension is especially striking during the act of writing. In an article that appeared just  last week in The Atlantic, “You Think With the World, Not Just Your Brain,” Sam Kriss neatly sums up the problem: “Language sits hazy in the world, a symbolic and intersubjective ether, but at the same time it forms the substance of our thought and the structure of our understanding. Isn’t language thinking for us?” He continues:

This is not, entirely, a new idea. Plato, in his Phaedrus, is hesitant or even afraid of writing, precisely because it’s a kind of artificial memory, a hypomnesis…Writing, for Plato, is a pharmakon, a “remedy” for forgetfulness, but if taken in too strong a dose it becomes a poison: A person no longer remembers things for themselves; it’s the text that remembers, with an unholy autonomy. The same criticisms are now commonly made of smartphones. Not much changes.

The difference, of course, is that our own writing implies the involvement of the self in the past, which is a dialogue that doesn’t exist when we’re simply checking information online. Clark and Chalmers, who wrote at a relatively early stage in the history of the Internet, are careful to make this distinction: “The Internet is likely to fail [the criteria] on multiple counts, unless I am unusually computer-reliant, facile with the technology, and trusting, but information in certain files on my computer may qualify.” So can the online content that we make ourselves—I’ve occasionally found myself checking this blog to remind myself what I think about something, and I’ve outsourced much of my memory to Google Photos.

I’ve often written here about the dialogue between our past, present, and future selves implicit in the act of writing, whether we’re composing a novel or jotting down a Post-It note. Kriss quotes Jacques Derrida on the humble grocery list: “At the very moment ‘I’ make a shopping list, I know that it will only be a list if it implies my absence, if it already detaches itself from me in order to function beyond my ‘present’ act and if it is utilizable at another time.” And I’m constantly aware of the book that I’m writing as a form of time travel. As I mentioned last week, I’m preparing the notes, which means that I often have to make sense of something that I wrote down over two years ago. There are times when the presence of that other self is so strong that it feels as if he’s seated next to me, even as I remain conscious of the gap between us. (For one thing, my past self didn’t know nearly as much about John W. Campbell.) And the two of us together are wiser, more effective, and more knowledgeable than either one of us alone, as long as we have writing to serve as a bridge between us. If a notebook is a place for organizing information that we can’t easily store in our heads, that’s even more true of a book written for publication, which serves as a repository of ideas to be manipulated, rearranged, and refined over time. This can lead to the odd impression that your book somehow knows more than you do, which it probably does. Knowledge is less about raw data than about the connections between them, and a book is the best way we have for compiling our moments of insight in a form that can be processed more or less all at once. We measure ourselves against the intelligence of authors in books, but we’re also comparing two fundamentally different things. Whatever ideas I have right now on any given subject probably aren’t as good as a compilation of everything that occurred to my comparably intelligent double over the course of two or three years.

This implies that most authors are useful not so much for their deeper insights as for their greater availability, which allows them to externalize their thoughts and manipulate them in the real world for longer and with more intensity than their readers can. (Campbell liked to remind his writers that the magazine’s subscribers were paying them to think on their behalf.) I often remember one of my favorite anecdotes about Isaac Asimov, which he shares in the collection Opus 100. He was asked to speak on the radio on nothing less than the human brain, on which he had just published a book. Asimov responded: “Heavens! I’m not a brain expert.” When the interviewer pointed out that he had just written an entire book on the subject, Asimov explained:

“Yes, but I studied up for the book and put in everything I could learn. I don’t know anything but the exact words in the book, and I don’t think I can remember all those in a pinch. After all,” I went on, a little aggrieved, “I’ve written books on dozens of subjects. You can’t expect me to be expert on all of them just because I’ve written books about them.”

Every author can relate to this, and there are times when “I don’t know anything but the exact words in the book” sums up my feelings about my own work. Asimov’s case is particularly fascinating because of the scale involved. By some measures, he was the most prolific author in American history, with over four hundred books to his credit, and even if we strip away the anthologies and other works that he used to pad the count, it’s still a huge amount of information. To what extent was Asimov coterminous with his books? The answer, I think, lies somewhere between “Entirely” and “Not at all,” and there was presumably more of Asimov in his memoirs than in An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule. But he’s only an extreme version of a phenomenon that applies to every last one of us. When the radio interviewer asked incredulously if he was an expert on anything, Asimov responded: “I’m an expert on one thing. On sounding like an expert.” And that’s true of everyone. The notes that we take allow us to pose as experts in the area that matters the most—on the world around us, and even our own lives.

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2017 at 8:40 am

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