Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Orr

The monotonous periodicity of genius

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Yesterday, I read a passage from the book Music and Life by the critic and poet W.J. Turner that has been on my mind ever since. He begins with a sentence from the historian Charles Sanford Terry, who says of Bach’s cantatas: “There are few phenomena in the record of art more extraordinary than this unflagging cataract of inspiration in which masterpiece followed masterpiece with the monotonous periodicity of a Sunday sermon.” Turner objects to this:

In my enthusiasm for Bach I swallowed this statement when I first met it, but if Dr. Terry will excuse the expression, it is arrant nonsense. Creative genius does not work in this way. Masterpieces are not produced with the monotonous periodicity of a Sunday sermon. In fact, if we stop to think we shall understand that this “monotonous periodicity ” was exactly what was wrong with a great deal of Bach’s music. Bach, through a combination of natural ability and quite unparalleled concentration on his art, had arrived at the point of being able to sit down at any minute of any day and compose what had all the superficial appearance of being a masterpiece. It is possible that even Bach himself did not know which was a masterpiece and which was not, and it is abundantly clear to me that in all his large-sized works there are huge chunks of stuff to which inspiration is the last word that one could apply.

All too often, Turner implies, Bach leaned on his technical facility when inspiration failed or he simply felt indifferent to the material: “The music shows no sign of Bach’s imagination having been fired at all; the old Leipzig Cantor simply took up his pen and reeled off this chorus as any master craftsman might polish off a ticklish job in the course of a day’s work.”

I first encountered the Turner quotation in The New Listener’s Companion and Record Guide by B.H. Haggin, who cites his fellow critic approvingly and adds: “This seems to me an excellent description of the essential fact about Bach—that one hears always the operation of prodigious powers of invention and construction, but frequently an operation that is not as expressive as it is accomplished.” Haggin continues:

Listening to the six sonatas or partitas for unaccompanied violin, the six sonatas or suites for unaccompanied piano, one is aware of Bach’s success with the difficult problem he set himself, of contriving for the instrument a melody that would imply its underlying harmonic progressions between the occasional chords. But one is aware also that solving this problem was not equivalent to writing great or even enjoyable music…I hear only Bach’s craftsmanship going through the motions of creation and producing the external appearances of expressiveness. And I suspect that it is the name of Bach that awes listeners into accepting the appearance as reality, into hearing an expressive content which isn’t there, and into believing that if the content is difficult to hear, this is only because it is especially profound—because it is “the passionate, yet untroubled meditation of a great mind” that lies beyond “the composition’s formidable technical frontiers.”

Haggins confesses that he regards many pieces in The Goldberg Variations or The Well-Tempered Clavier as “examples of competent construction that are, for me, not interesting pieces of music.” And he sums up: “Bach’s way of exercising the spirit was to exercise his craftsmanship; and some of the results offer more to delight an interest in the skillful use of technique than to delight the spirit.”

As I read this, I was inevitably reminded of Christopher Orr’s recent article in The Atlantic, “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen,” which I discussed here last week. Part of Orr’s case against Allen involves “his frenetic pace of one feature film a year,” which can only be described as monotonous periodicity. This isn’t laziness, of course—it’s the opposite—but Orr implies that the director’s obsession with productivity has led him to cut corners in the films themselves: “Ambition simply isn’t on the agenda.” Yet the funny thing is that this approach to making art, while extreme, is perfectly rational. Allen writes, directs, and releases three movies in the time it would take most directors to finish one, and when you look at his box office and awards history, you see that about one in three breaks through to become a financial success, an Oscar winner, or both. And Orr’s criticism of this process, like Turner’s, could only have been made by a professional critic. If you’re obliged to see every Woody Allen movie or have an opinion on every Bach cantata, it’s easy to feel annoyed by the lesser efforts, and you might even wish that that the artist had only released the works in which his inspiration was at its height. For the rest of us, though, this really isn’t an issue. We get to skip Whatever Works or Irrational Man in favor of the occasional Match Point or Midnight in Paris, and most of us are happy if we can even recognize the cantata that has “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” If you’re a fan, but not a completist, a skilled craftsman who produces a lot of technically proficient work in hopes that some of it will stick is following a reasonable strategy. As Malcolm Gladwell writes of Bach:

The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, [Dean] Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great.

As Simonton puts it: “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.” But if there’s a risk involved, it’s that an artist will become so used to producing technically proficient material on a regular basis that he or she will fall short when the circumstances demand it. Which brings us back to Bach. Turner’s remarks appear in a chapter on the Mass in B minor, which was hardly a throwaway—it’s generally considered to be one of Bach’s major works. For Turner, however, the virtuosity expressed in the cantatas allowed Bach to take refuge in cleverness even when there was more at stake: “I say that the pretty trumpet work in the four-part chorus of the Gloria, for example, is a proof that Bach was being consciously clever and brightening up his stuff, and that he was not at that moment writing with the spontaneity of those really creative moments which are popularly called inspired.” And he writes of the Kyrie, which he calls “monotonous”:

It is still impressive, and no doubt to an academic musician, with the score in his hands and his soul long ago defunct, this charge of monotony would appear incredible, but then his interest is almost entirely if not absolutely technical. It is a source of everlasting amazement to him to contemplate Bach’s prodigious skill and fertility of invention. But what do I care for Bach’s prodigious skill? Even such virtuosity as Bach’s is valueless unless it expresses some ulterior beauty or, to put it more succinctly, unless it is as expressive as it is accomplished.

And I’m not sure that he’s even wrong. It might seem remarkable to make this accusation of Bach, who is our culture’s embodiment of technical skill as an embodiment of spiritual expression, but if the charge is going to have any weight at all, it has to hold at the highest level. William Blake once wrote: “Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.” He was right. But it can also be a vehicle, by definition, for literally everything else. And sometimes the real genius lies in being able to tell the difference.

Shoot the piano player

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In his flawed but occasionally fascinating book Bambi vs. Godzilla, the playwright and director David Mamet spends a chapter discussing the concept of aesthetic distance, which is violated whenever viewers remember that they’re simply watching a movie. Mamet provides a memorable example:

An actor portrays a pianist. The actor sits down to play, and the camera moves, without a cut, to his hands, to assure us, the audience, that he is actually playing. The filmmakers, we see, have taken pains to show the viewers that no trickery has occurred, but in so doing, they have taught us only that the actor portraying the part can actually play the piano. This addresses a concern that we did not have. We never wondered if the actor could actually play the piano. We accepted the storyteller’s assurances that the character could play the piano, as we found such acceptance naturally essential to our understanding of the story.

Mamet imagines a hypothetical dialogue between the director and the audience: “I’m going to tell you a story about a pianist.” “Oh, good: I wonder what happens to her!” “But first, before I do, I will take pains to reassure you that the actor you see portraying the hero can actually play the piano.” And he concludes:

We didn’t care till the filmmaker brought it up, at which point we realized that, rather than being told a story, we were being shown a demonstration. We took off our “audience” hat and put on our “judge” hat. We judged the demonstration conclusive but, in so doing, got yanked right out of the drama. The aesthetic distance had been violated.

Let’s table this for now, and turn to a recent article in The Atlantic titled “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen.” To prosecute the case laid out in the headline, the film critic Christopher Orr draws on Eric Lax’s new book Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking, which describes the making of Irrational Man—a movie that nobody saw, which doesn’t make the book sound any less interesting. For Orr, however, it’s “an indictment framed as an encomium,” and he lists what he evidently sees as devastating charges:

Allen’s editor sometimes has to live with technical imperfections in the footage because he hasn’t shot enough takes for her to choose from…As for the shoot itself, Allen has confessed, “I don’t do any preparation. I don’t do any rehearsals. Most of the times I don’t even know what we’re going to shoot.” Indeed, Allen rarely has any conversations whatsoever with his actors before they show up on set…In addition to limiting the number of takes on any given shot, he strongly prefers “master shots”—those that capture an entire scene from one angle—over multiple shots that would subsequently need to be edited together.

For another filmmaker, all of these qualities might be seen as strengths, but that’s beside the point. Here’s the relevant passage:

The minimal commitment that appearing in an Allen film entails is a highly relevant consideration for a time-strapped actor. Lax himself notes the contrast with Mike Leigh—another director of small, art-house films—who rehearses his actors for weeks before shooting even starts. For Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Stone and her co-star, Ryan Gosling, rehearsed for four months before the cameras rolled. Among other chores, they practiced singing, dancing, and, in Gosling’s case, piano. The fact that Stone’s Irrational Man character plays piano is less central to that movie’s plot, but Allen didn’t expect her even to fake it. He simply shot her recital with the piano blocking her hands.

So do we shoot the piano player’s hands or not? The boring answer, unfortunately, is that it depends—but perhaps we can dig a little deeper. It seems safe to say that it would be impossible to make The Pianist with Adrian Brody’s hands conveniently blocked from view for the whole movie. But I’m equally confident that it doesn’t matter the slightest bit in Irrational Man, which I haven’t seen, whether or not Emma Stone is really playing the piano. La La Land is a slightly trickier case. It would be hard to envision it without at least a few shots of Ryan Gosling playing the piano, and Damien Chazelle isn’t above indulging in exactly the camera move that Mamet decries, in which it tilts down to reassure us that it’s really Gosling playing. Yet the fact that we’re even talking about this gets down to a fundamental problem with the movie, which I mostly like and admire. Its characters are archetypes who draw much of their energy from the auras of the actors who play them, and in the case of Stone, who is luminous and moving as an aspiring actress suffering through an endless series of auditions, the film gets a lot of mileage from our knowledge that she’s been in the same situation. Gosling, to put it mildly, has never been an aspiring jazz pianist. This shouldn’t even matter, but every time we see him playing the piano, he briefly ceases to be a struggling artist and becomes a handsome movie star who has spent three months learning to fake it. And I suspect that the movie would have been elevated immensely by casting a real musician. (This ties into another issue with La La Land, which is that it resorts to telling us that its characters deserve to be stars, rather than showing it to us in overwhelming terms through Gosling and Stone’s singing and dancing, which is merely passable. It’s in sharp contrast to Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, one of its clear spiritual predecessors, in which it’s impossible to watch Liza Minnelli without becoming convinced that she ought to be the biggest star in the world. And when you think of how quirky, repellent, and individual Minnelli and Robert De Niro are allowed to be in that film, La La Land starts to look a little schematic.)

And I don’t think I’m overstating it when I argue that the seemingly minor dilemma of whether to show the piano player’s hands shades into the larger problem of how much we expect our actors to really be what they pretend that they are. I don’t think any less of Bill Murray because he had to employ Terry Fryer as a “hand double” for his piano solo in Groundhog Day, and I don’t mind that the most famous movie piano player of them all—Dooley Wilson in Casablanca—was faking it. And there’s no question that you’re taken out of the movie a little when you see Richard Chamberlain playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in The Music Lovers, however impressive it might be. (I’m willing to forgive De Niro learning to mime the saxophone for New York, New York, if only because it’s hard to imagine how it would look otherwise. The piano is just about the only instrument in which it can plausibly be left at the director’s discretion. And in his article, revealingly, Orr fails to mention that none other than Woody Allen was insistent that Sean Penn learn the guitar for Sweet and Lowdown. As Allen himself might say, it depends.) On some level, we respond to an actor playing the piano much like the fans of Doctor Zhivago, whom Pauline Kael devastatingly called “the same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.” But it can serve the story as much as it can detract from it, and the hard part is knowing how and when. As one director notes:

Anybody can learn how to play the piano. For some people it will be very, very difficult—but they can learn it. There’s almost no one who can’t learn to play the piano. There’s a wide range in the middle, of people who can play the piano with various degrees of skill; a very, very narrow band at the top, of people who can play brilliantly and build upon a technical skill to create great art. The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills. Directing is just a technical skill.

This is Mamet writing in On Directing Film, which is possibly the single best work on storytelling I know. You might not believe him when he says that directing is “just a technical skill,” but if you do, there’s a simple way to test if you have it. Do you show the piano player’s hands? If you know the right answer for every scene, you just might be a director.

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