Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Citizen Kane

The confidence tricksters

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When I look back at my life, I find that I’ve always been fascinated by a certain type of personality, at least when observed from a safe distance. I may as well start with Orson Welles, who has been on my mind a lot recently. As David Thomson writes in Rosebud: “Yes, he was a trickster, a rather nasty operator, a credit thief, a bully, a manipulator, a shallow genius…a less than wholesome great man…oh, very well, a habitual liar, a liar of genius.” But in his discussion of the late masterwork F for Fake, Thomson also hints at the essence of Welles’s appeal:

The happiness in F for Fake, the exhilaration, comes from the discovery and the jubilation that knows there is no higher calling than being a magician, a storyteller, a fake who passes the time. This is the work in which Welles finally reconciled the lofty, European, intellectual aspect of himself and the tent show demon who sawed cute dames and wild dreams in half. For it can be very hard to live with the belief that nothing matters in life, that nothing is solid or real, that everything is a show in the egotist’s head. It loses friends, trust, children, home, money, security, and maybe reason. So it is comforting indeed, late in life, to come upon a proof that the emptiness and the trickery are valid and sufficient.

Welles claimed afterward that he had been “faking” his confession of being a charlatan, as if it were somehow incompatible with being an artist—although the great lesson of his life is that it can be possible and necessary to be both at the same time.

This is the kind of figure to whom I’m helplessly drawn—the genius who is also a con artist. You could even make much the same case, with strong reservations, for L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t like him or most of his work, and he caused more pain to other people than anyone else in Astounding. Yet the best clue I’ve ever found to figuring out his character is a passage by Lawrence Wright, who writes shrewdly in Going Clear:

The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man…The tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man. Hubbard himself seemed to revolve on this same axis…But to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling.

I’ve spent more time thinking about this than I ever wanted, and I’ve grudgingly concluded that Wright has a point. Hubbard was frankly more interesting than most of his detractors, and he couldn’t have accomplished half of what he did if it weren’t for his enormous, slippery gifts for storytelling, in person if not on the page. (On some level, he also seems to have believed in his own work, which complicates our picture of him as a con artist—although he certainly wasn’t averse to squeezing as much money out of his followers as possible.) I’ve often compared Welles to Campbell, but he has equally profound affinities with Hubbard, whose favorite film was Citizen Kane, and who perpetuated a science fiction hoax that dwarfed The War of the Worlds.

But I’m also attracted by such examples because they get at something crucial about the life of any artist, in which genius and trickery are often entwined. I don’t think of myself as a particularly devious person, but I’ve had to develop certain survival skills just to keep working, and a lot of writers come to think of themselves in the fond terms that W.H. Auden uses in The Dyer’s Hand:

All those whose success in life depends neither upon a job which satisfies some specific and unchanging social need, like a farmer’s, nor, like a surgeon’s, upon some craft which he can be taught by others and improve by practice, but upon “inspiration,” the lucky hazard of ideas, live by their wits, a phrase which carries a slightly pejorative meaning. Every “original” genius, be he an artist or a scientist, has something a bit shady about him, like a gambler or madman.

The similarities between the artist and the confidence man tend to appeal to authors with a high degree of technical facility, like David Mamet, who returns to the subject obsessively. In the lovely essay “Pool Halls,” Mamet writes: “The point of the pool hall was the intersection of two American Loves: the Game of Skill and the Short Con…Well, I guess that America is gone. We no longer revere skill, and the short con of the pool hustle and the Murphy Man and the Fuller Brush Man. The short con, which flourished in a life lived on the street and among strangers, has been supplanted by the Big Con of a life with no excitement in it at all.”

As Mamet implies, there’s something undeniably American about these figures. The confidence man has been part of this country’s mythology from the beginning, undoubtedly because it was a society that was inventing itself as it went along. There’s even an element of nostalgia at work. But I also don’t want to romanticize it. Most of our trickster heroes are white and male, which tells us something about the privilege that underlies successful fakery. A con man, like a startup founder, has to evade questions for just long enough to get away with it. That’s true of most artists, too, and the quintessentially American advice to fake it till you make it applies mostly to those who have the cultural security to pull it off. (If we’re so fascinated by confidence tricksters who were women, it might be because they weren’t held back by impostor syndrome.) Of course, the dark side of this tradition, which is where laughter dies in the throat, can be seen in the White House, which is currently occupied by the greatest con artist in American history. I don’t even mean this as an insult, but as a fundamental observation. If we’re going to venerate the con man as an American archetype, we have to acknowledge that Trump has consistently outplayed us all, even when the trick, or troll, was unfolding in plain sight. This also says something about our national character, and if Trump reminds me of Hubbard, he’s also forced me to rethink Citizen Kane. But there’s another side to the coin. During times of oppression and reaction, a different kind of deviousness can emerge, one that channels these old impulses toward ingenuity, inventiveness, resourcefulness, humor, and trickery, which are usually used to further the confidence man’s private interests, toward very different goals. If we’re going to make it through the next two years, we need to draw deeply on this tradition of genius. I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2018 at 8:32 am

The Other Side of Welles

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“The craft of getting pictures made can be so brutal and devious that there is constant need of romancing, liquor, and encouraging anecdotes,” the film critic David Thomson writes in his biography Rosebud, which is still my favorite book about Orson Welles. He’s referring, of course, to a notoriously troubled production that unfolded over the course of many years, multiple continents, and constant threats of financial collapse, held together only by the director’s vision, sheer force of will, and unfailing line of bullshit. It was called Chimes at Midnight. As Thomson says of Welles’s adaptation of the Falstaff story, which was released in 1965:

Prodigies of subterfuge and barefaced cheek were required to get the film made: the rolling plains of central Spain with mountains in the distance were somehow meant to be the wooded English countryside. Some actors were available for only a few days…so their scenes had to be done very quickly and sometimes without time to include the actors they were playing with. So [John] Gielgud did his speeches looking at a stand-in whose shoulder was all the camera saw. He had to do cutaway closeups, with timing and expression dictated by Welles. He felt at a loss, with only his magnificent technique, his trust of the language, and his fearful certainty that Welles was not to be negotiated with carrying him through.

The result, as Thomson notes, was often uneven, with “a series of spectacular shots or movie events [that] seem isolated, even edited at random.” But he closes his discussion of the movie’s troubled history with a ringing declaration that I often repeat to myself: “No matter the dreadful sound, the inappropriateness of Spanish landscapes, no matter the untidiness that wants to masquerade as poetry, still it was done.”

Those last three words have been echoing in my head ever since I saw The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’s legendary unfinished last film, which was finally edited together and released last weekend on Netflix. I’m frankly not ready yet to write anything like a review, except to say that I expect to watch it again on an annual basis for the rest of my life. And it’s essential viewing, not just for film buffs or Welles fans, but for anyone who wants to make art of any kind. Even more than Chimes at Midnight, it was willed into existence, and pairing an attentive viewing with a reading of Josh Karp’s useful book Orson Welles’s Last Movie amounts to a crash course in making movies, or just about anything else, under the the most unforgiving of circumstances. The legend goes that Citizen Kane has inspired more directorial careers than any other film, but it was also made under conditions that would never be granted to any novice director ever again. The Other Side of the Wind is a movie made by a man with nothing left except for a few good friends, occasional infusions of cash, boundless ingenuity and experience, and the soul of a con artist. (As Peter Bogdanovich reminds us in his opening narration, he didn’t even have a cell phone camera, which should make us even more ashamed about not following his example.) And you can’t watch it without permanently changing your sense of what it means to make a movie. A decade earlier, Welles had done much the same for Falstaff, as Thomson notes:

The great battle sequence, shot in one of Madrid’s parks, had its big shots with lines of horses. But then, day after day, Welles went back to the park with just a few men, some weapons, and water to make mud to obtain the terrible scenes of close slaughter that make the sequence so powerful and such a feat of montage.

That’s how The Other Side of the Wind seems to have been made—with a few men and some weapons, day after day, in the mud. And it’s going to inspire a lot of careers.

In fact, it’s temping for me to turn this post into a catalog of guerrilla filmmaking tactics, because The Other Side of the Wind is above all else an education in practical strategies for survival. Some of it is clearly visible onscreen, like the mockumentary conceit that allows scenes to be assembled out of whatever cameras or film stocks Welles happened to have available, with footage seemingly caught on the fly. (Although this might be an illusion in itself. According to Karp’s book, which is where most of this information can be found, Welles stationed a special assistant next to the cinematographer to shut off the camera as soon as he yelled “Cut,” so that not even an inch of film would be wasted.) But there’s a lot that you need to look closely to see, and the implications are intoxicating. Most of the movie was filmed on the cheapest available sets or locations—in whatever house Welles happened to be occupying at the time, on an unused studio backlot, or in a car using “poor man’s process,” with crew members gently rocking the vehicle from outside and shining moving lights through the windows. Effects were created with forced perspective, including one in which a black tabletop covered in rocks became an expanse of volcanic desert. As with Chimes of Midnight, a closeup in an interior scene might cut to another that was taken years earlier on another continent. One sequence took so long to film that Oja Kodar, Welles’s girlfriend and creative partner, visibly ages five years from one shot to another. For another scene, Welles asked Gary Graver, his cameraman, to lie on the floor with his camera so that other crew members could drag him around, a “poor man’s dolly” that he claimed to have learned from Jean Renoir. The production went on for years before casting its lead actor, and when John Huston arrived on set, Welles encouraged him to drink throughout the day, both for the sake of characterization and as a way to get the performance that he needed. As Karp writes, the shoot was “a series of strange adventures.”

This makes it even more difficult than usual to separate this movie from the myth of its making, which nobody should want to do in the first place. More than any other film that I can remember, The Other Side of the Wind is explicitly about its own unlikely creation, which was obvious to most of the participants even at the time. This extends even to the casting of Peter Bogdanovich, who plays a character so manifestly based on himself—and on his uneasy relationship to Welles—that it’s startling to learn that he was a replacement at the last minute for Rich Little, who shot hours of footage in the role before disappearing. (As Frank Marshall, who worked on the production, later recalled: “When Peter came in to play Peter, it was bizarre. I always wondered whether Peter knew.”) As good as John Huston is, if the movie is missing anything, it’s Welles’s face and voice, although he was probably wise to keep himself offscreen. But I doubt that anyone will ever mistake this movie for anything but a profoundly personal statement. As Karp writes:

Creating a narrative that kept changing along with his life, and the making of his own film, at some point Welles stopped inventing his story and began recording impressions of his world as it evolved around him. The result was a film that could never be finished. Because to finish it might have meant the end of Orson’s own artistic story—and that was impossible to accept. So he kept it going and going.

This seems about right, except that the story isn’t just about Welles, but about everyone who cared for him or what he represented. It was the testament of a man who couldn’t see tomorrow, but who imposed himself so inescapably on the present that it leaves the rest of us without any excuses. And in a strange quirk of fate, after all these decades, it seems to have appeared at the very moment that we need it the most. At the end of Rosebud, Thomson asks, remarkably, whether Welles had wasted his life on film. He answers his own question at once, in the very last line of the book, and I repeat these words to myself almost every day: “One has to do something.”

The scorpion and the snake

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At the end of the most haunting speech in Citizen Kane, Mr. Bernstein says wistfully: “I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.” And I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t think about Orson Welles, who increasingly seems to have led one of the richest and most revealing of all American lives. He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of all places. As a young man, he allegedly put together a résumé worthy of a Hemingway protagonist, including a stint as a bullfighter, before he was out of his teens. In New York, he unquestionably made a huge impact on theater and radio, and he even had a hand in the development of the modern superhero and the invasion of science fiction into the mainstream, in the form of a classic—and possibly exaggerated—case of mass hysteria fueled by the media. His reward was what remains the most generous contract that any newcomer has ever received from a major movie studio, and he responded at the age of twenty-five with what struck many viewers, even on its first release, as the best film ever made. (If you’re an ambitious young person, this is the sort of achievement that seems vaguely plausible when you’re twenty and utterly absurd by the time you’re thirty.) After that, it was all downhill. His second picture, an equally heartbreaking story about an American family, was taken out of his hands. Welles became distracted by politics and stage conjuring, fell in love with Dolores del Río, married Rita Hayworth, and played Harry Lime in The Third Man. He spent the rest of his life wandering from one shoot to the next, acquiring a reputation as a ham and a sellout as he tried to scrounge up enough money to make a few more movies, some of them extraordinary. Over the years, he became so fat that he turned it into a joke for his audiences: “Why are there so few of you, and so many of me?” He died alone at home in the Hollywood Hills, typing up a few pages of script that he hoped to shoot the next day, shortly after taping an appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. His last film performance was as Unicron, the devourer of planets, in The Transformers: The Movie.

Even the barest outlines of his story, which I’ve written out here from memory, hint at the treasure hoard of metaphors that it offers. But that also means that we need to be cautious when we try to draw lessons from Welles, or to apply his example to the lives of others. I was once so entranced by the parallels between Welles and John W. Campbell that I devoted an entire blog post to listing them in detail, but I’ve come to realize that you could do much the same with just about any major American life of a certain profile. It presents an even greater temptation with Donald Trump, who once claimed that Citizen Kane was his favorite movie—mostly, I suspect, because it sounded better than Bloodsport. And it might be best to retire the comparisons between Kane and Trump, not to mention Jared Kushner, only because they’re too flattering. (If anything, Trump may turn out to have more in common with Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, the corrupt sheriff of a border town who frames a young Mexican for murder, only to meet his downfall after one of his closest associates is persuaded to wear a wire. As the madam played by Marlene Dietrich says after his death: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”) But there are times when he leaves me with no choice. As Eli Rosenberg of the Washington Post noted in a recent article, Trump is oddly fond of the lyrics to a song titled “The Snake,” which he first recited at a primary event in Cedar Falls, Iowa, saying that he had read it “the other day.” He repeatedly returned to it throughout the campaign, usually departing from his scripted remarks to do so—and it’s a measure of the dispiriting times in which we live that this attracted barely any attention, when by most standards it would qualify as one of the weirdest things that a presidential candidate had ever done. Trump read it again with a flourish at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference: “Did anyone ever hear me do ‘The Snake’ during the campaign? I had five people outside say, ‘Could you do “The Snake?”‘ Let’s do it. I’ll do it, all right?”

In “The Snake,” a woman takes pity on a snake in the snow and carries it home, where it bites her with the explanation: “Oh shut up, silly woman. You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.” As Trump helpfully says: “You have to think of this in terms of immigration.” There’s a lot to unpack here, sadly, and the article in the Post points out that the original song was written by Oscar Brown Jr., a black singer and social activist from Chicago whose family isn’t particularly happy about its appropriation by Trump. Other observers, including Fox News, have pointed out its similarities to “The Scorpion and the Frog,” a fable that has made appearances in movies from The Crying Game to Drive. Most commentators trace it back to Aesop, but its first known appearance is in Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, which was released in 1955, and it’s likely that we owe its most familiar version to none other than Welles himself. (Welles had written Harry Lime’s famous speech about the cuckoo clocks just a few years earlier, and Mr. Arkadin was based on the radio series The Lives of Harry Lime.) Here’s how Welles delivers it:

And now I’m going to tell you about a scorpion. This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. “No,” said the frog, “no thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me and the sting of the scorpion is death.” “Now, where,” asked the scorpion, “is the logic in that?” For scorpions always try to be logical. “If I sting you, you will die. I will drown.” So, the frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back. But just in the middle of the river, he felt a terrible pain and realized that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. “Logic!” cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. “There is no logic in this!” “I know,” said the scorpion, “but I can’t help it—it’s my character.” Let’s drink to character.

And just as Arkadin raises the possibility that the scorpion is himself, you’ll often see arguments that that Trump subconsciously identifies with the snake. As Dan Lavoie, an aide to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, recently wrote on Twitter, with what seems like almost an excess of shrewdness: “Historians will view it as obvious that Trump was describing himself in ‘The Snake.’ His over-the-top recitation will be the narrative device for the first big post-Trump documentary.”

We often explain real life to ourselves in terms drawn from the movies, and one way to capture the uncanny quality of the Trump administration is to envision the rally scene in Citizen Kane with the candidate delivering “The Scorpion and the Frog” to the crowd instead—which only indicates that we’ve already crossed into a far stranger universe. But the fable also gets at a deeper affinity between Trump and Welles. In his book Rosebud, which is the best treatment of Welles that I’ve seen, the critic David Thomson returns obsessively to the figure of the scorpion, and he writes of its first appearance on film:

The Welles of this time believed in so little, and if he was to many a monstrous egotist, still he hated his own pride as much as anything. We should remember that this is the movie in which Arkadin delivers the speech—so much quoted afterward, and in better films, that it seems faintly spurious now in Arkadin—about the scorpion and the frog. It is a description of self-abuse and suicide. That Welles/Arkadin delivers it with a grandiose, shining relish only illustrates the theatricality of his most heartfelt moments. That Welles could not give the speech greater gravity or sadness surely helps us understand the man some often found odious. And so a speech full of terror became a cheap trick.

What sets Trump’s version apart, beyond even Welles’s cynicism, is that it’s both full of terror and a cheap trick. All presidents have told us fables, but only to convince us that we might be better than we truly are, as when Kane archly promises to help “the underprivileged, the underpaid, and the underfed.” Trump is the first to use such rhetoric to bring out the worst in us. He can’t help it. It’s his character. And Trump might be like Arkadin in at least one other way. Arkadin is a millionaire who claims to no longer remember the sources of his wealth, so he hires a private eye to investigate him. But he really hasn’t forgotten anything. As Thomson writes: “Rather, he wants to find out how easily anyone—the FBI, the IRS, the corps of biography—might be able to trace his guilty past…and as this blunt fool discovers the various people who could testify against him, they are murdered.”

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2018 at 9:31 am

American Stories #2: Citizen Kane

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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

In his essay collection America in the Dark, the film critic David Thomson writes of Citizen Kane, which briefly went under the portentous working title American:

Citizen Kane grows with every year as America comes to resemble it. Kane is the willful success who tries to transcend external standards, and many plain Americans know his pent-up fury at lonely liberty. The film absorbs praise and criticism, unabashed by being voted the best ever made or by Pauline Kael’s skillful reassessment of its rather nasty cleverness. Perhaps both those claims are valid. The greatest film may be cunning, slick, and meretricious.

It might be even more accurate to say that the greatest American movie ever made needs to be cunning, slick, and meretricious, at least if it’s going to be true to the values of its country. Kane is “a shallow masterpiece,” as Kael famously put it, but it could hardly be anything else. (Just a few years later, Kael expressed a similar sentiment about Norman Mailer: “I think he’s our greatest writer. And what is unfortunate is that our greatest writer should be a bum.”) It’s a masterwork of genial fakery by and about a genial faker—Susan Alexander asks Kane at their first meeting if he’s a professional magician—and its ability to spin blatant artifice and sleight of hand into something unbearably moving goes a long way toward explaining why it was a favorite movie of men as different as Charles Schulz, L. Ron Hubbard, and Donald Trump.

And the most instructive aspect of Kane in these troubled times is how completely it deceives even its fans, including me. Its portrait of a man modeled on William Randolph Hearst is far more ambiguous than it was ever intended to be, because we’re distracted throughout by our fondness for the young Welles. He’s visible all too briefly in the early sequences at the Inquirer, and he winks at us through his makeup as an older man. As a result, the film that Hearst wanted to destroy turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his legacy—it makes him far more interesting and likable than he ever was. The same factor tends to obscure the movie’s politics, as Kael wrote in the early seventies:

When Welles was young—he was twenty-five when the film opened—he used to be accused of “excessive showmanship,” but the same young audiences who now reject “theatre” respond innocently and wholeheartedly to the most unabashed tricks of theatre—and of early radio plays—in Citizen Kane. At some campus showings, they react so gullibly that when Kane makes a demagogic speech about “the underprivileged,” stray students will applaud enthusiastically, and a shout of “Right on!” may be heard.

Kane is a master manipulator, but so was Welles, and our love for all that this film represents shouldn’t blind us to how the same tricks can be turned to more insidious ends. As Kane says to poor Mr. Carter, shortly after taking over a New York newspaper at the age of twenty-five, just as Jared Kushner once did: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.” Hearst understood this. And so does Steve Bannon.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2018 at 9:00 am

The final problem

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In 1966, Howard L. Applegate, an administrator for the science fiction manuscript collection at Syracuse University, wrote to the editor John W. Campbell to ask if he would be interested in donating his papers. Campbell replied that he no longer possessed most of the original files, and he concluded: “Sorry, but any scholarly would-be biographers are going to have a tough time finding any useful documentation on me! I just didn’t keep the records!” Fortunately for me, this statement wasn’t totally true—I’ve spent the last two years combing through thousands of pages of letters, magazines, and other documents to assemble a picture of Campbell’s life, and if anything, there’s more here than any one person can absorb. I haven’t read it all, but I feel confident that I’ve looked at more of it than anyone else alive, and I often relate to what Robin W. Winks writes in his introduction to the anthology The Historian as Detective:

Historians pose to themselves difficult, even impossibly difficult, questions. Since they are reasonably intelligent and inquiring and since they do not wish to spend their lives upon a single question or line of investigation, they normally impose a time limit upon a given project or book (or the time limit is imposed for them by a “publish or perish” environment). They will invariably encounter numerous unforeseen difficulties because of missing papers, closed collections, new questions, and tangential problems; and the search through the archive, the chase after the single hoped-to-be-vital manuscript, has an excitement of its own, for that dénouement, the discovery, an answer may—one always hopes—lie in the next folio, in the next collection, in the next archive.

My work is more modest in scale than that of most academic historians, but I can understand the importance of a deadline, the hope that the next page that I read will contain a crucial piece of information, and the need for impossible questions. When I first got my hands on the microfilm reels of Campbell’s letters, I felt as if I’d stumbled across a treasure trove, and I found a lot of fascinating material that I never would have discovered otherwise. As I worked my way through the images, one inch at a time, I kept an eye on how much I had left, and as it dwindled, I felt a sinking feeling at the thought that I might never find certain answers. In fact, I never did resolve a few important issues to my satisfaction—although perhaps that wasn’t the right way to approach this particular Nachlass. In his introduction, Winks draws a telling contrast between the American and the European schools of history:

With sufficient diligence American historians can expect to find the answer—or at least an answer—to most factual or non-value questions they may choose to put to themselves. As a result, American researchers tend to begin with the questions they wish to entertain first (Did failed farmers truly move West to begin life anew in the eighteen-forties? Did immigrants reinforce older patterns of life or create new ones?), confident that the data can be found. European historians, on the other hand, are likely to begin with the available source materials first, and then look to see what legitimate questions they might ask of those sources. (Here are the private papers of Joseph Chamberlain, or of Gladstone, or of Disraeli. What do they tell me of British polities? Of Queen Victoria? Of the Jameson Raid? Of the development of British tariff policy? Of Colonial affairs? Of Ireland?)

Winks’s point is that American scholars have the advantage when it comes to sources, since there are vast archives available for every state with materials dating back to their founding. In writing about the history of science fiction, which is its own country of the mind, I’ve found that the situation is closer to what he says about European historiography. I’m far from the first person to explore this material, and I’m astounded by the diligence, depth of experience, and mastery of the facts of the fans I’ve met along the way, who have saved me from countless mistakes. In some areas, I’ve also been fortunate enough to build on the efforts of previous scholars, like Sam Moskowitz, whose book The Immortal Storm was accurately described by the fan historian Harry Warner, Jr.: “If read directly after a history of World War II, it does not seem like an anticlimax.” (I’m similarly grateful for the work of the late William H. Patterson, who did for Heinlein what I’m hoping to do for Campbell, thereby relieving me of much of the necessity of going over the same ground twice.) But there were also times at which I had to start with the available resources and see what they had to offer me. A lot of it was tedious and unrewarding, as detective work undoubtedly is in the real world. As Winks writes:

Much of the historian’s work, then, like that of the insurance investigator, the fingerprint man, or the coroner, may to the outsider seem to consist of deadening routine. Many miles of intellectual shoe leather will be used, for many metaphorical laundry lists, uninformative diaries, blank checkbooks, old telephone directories, and other trivia will stand between the researcher and his answer. Yet the routine must be pursued or the clue may be missed; the apparently false trail must be followed in order to be certain that it is false; the mute witnesses must be asked the reasons for their silence, for the piece of evidence that is missing from where one might reasonably expect to find it is, after all, a form of evidence in itself.

And the real point of asking a question is less the possibility of an answer than the motivation that it provides for you to keep digging. Winks nicely evokes the world in which the historian lives:

Precisely because the historian must turn to all possible witnesses, he is the most bookish of men. For him, no printed statement is without its interest. For him, the destruction of old cookbooks, gazetteers, road maps, Sears Roebuck catalogues, children’s books, railway timetables, or drafts of printed manuscripts, is the loss of potential evidence. Does one wish to know how the mail-order business was operated or how a Nebraska farmer might have dressed in 1930? Look to those catalogues. Does one wish to know whether a man from Washington just might have been in New York on a day in 1861 when it can be proved that he was in the capital on the day before and the day after? The timetables will help tell us of the opportunity.

But it’s only with a specific question in mind that the historian—or biographer—will bother to seek out such arcana at all, and you’re often rewarded with something that has nothing to do with the reasons why you originally looked. (Sometimes you find it on the other side of the page.) Every setback that I’ve encountered in search of a specific piece of information has opened new doors, and a question is simply the story that we tell ourselves to justify the search. The image that I like to use isn’t a private eye, but the anonymous reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane, whose boss, the shadowy Mr. Rawlston, tells him to solve the mystery of Kane’s last words: “See ‘em all! Get in touch with everybody that ever worked for him, whoever loved him, whoever hated his guts. I don’t mean go through the city directory, of course.” But that’s what you wind up doing. And as I near the end of this book, I’m haunted by what Rawlston says just before we cut to the lightning flash that illuminates the face of Susan Alexander: “It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.”

The greatest trick

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In the essay collection Candor and Perversion, the late critic Roger Shattuck writes: “The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks.” He never explains what he means by “trick,” but toward the end of the book, in a chapter on Marcel Duchamp, he quotes a few lines from the poet Charles Baudelaire from the unpublished preface to Flowers of Evil:

Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all the revision and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation?

Baudelaire is indulging here in an analogy from the theater—he speaks elsewhere of “the dresser’s and the decorator’s studio,” “the actor’s box,” and “the wrecks, makeup, pulleys, chains.” A trick, in this sense, is a device that the artist uses to convey an idea that also draws attention to itself, in the same way that we can simultaneously notice and accept certain conventions when we’re watching a play. In a theatrical performance, the action and its presentation are so intermingled that we can’t always say where one leaves off and the other begins, and we’re always aware, on some level, that we’re looking at actors on a stage behaving in a fashion that is necessarily stylized and artificial. In other art forms, we’re conscious of these tricks to a greater or lesser extent, and while artists are usually advised that such technical elements should be subordinated to the story, in practice, we often delight in them for their own sake.

For an illustration of the kind of trick that I mean, I can’t think of any better example than the climax of The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone attends the baptism of his godson—played by the infant Sofia Coppola—as his enemies are executed on his orders. This sequence seems as inevitable now as any scene in the history of cinema, but it came about almost by accident. The director Francis Ford Coppola had the idea to combine the christening with the killings after all of the constituent parts had already been shot, which left him with the problem of assembling footage that hadn’t been designed to fit together. As Michael Sragow recounts in The New Yorker:

[Editor Peter] Zinner, too, made a signal contribution. In a climactic sequence, Coppola had the stroke of genius (confirmed by Puzo) to intercut Michael’s serving as godfather at the christening of Connie’s baby with his minions’ savagely executing the Corleone family’s enemies. But, Zinner says, Coppola left him with thousands of feet of the baptism, shot from four or five angles as the priest delivered his litany, and relatively few shots of the assassins doing their dirty work. Zinner’s solution was to run the litany in its entirety on the soundtrack along with escalating organ music, allowing different angles of the service to dominate the first minutes, and then to build to an audiovisual crescendo with the wave of killings, the blaring organ, the priest asking Michael if he renounces Satan and all his works—and Michael’s response that he does renounce them. The effect sealed the movie’s inspired depiction of the Corleones’ simultaneous, duelling rituals—the sacraments of church and family, and the murders in the street.

Coppola has since described Zinner’s contribution as “the inspiration to add the organ music,” but as this account makes clear, the editor seems to have figured out the structure and rhythm of the entire sequence, building unforgettably on the director’s initial brainstorm.

The result speaks for itself. It’s hard to think of a more powerful instance in movies of the form of a scene, created by cuts and juxtaposition, merging with the power of its storytelling. As we watch it, consciously or otherwise, we respond both to its formal audacity and to the ideas and emotions that it expresses. It’s the ultimate trick, as Baudelaire defines it, and it also inspired one of my favorite passages of criticism, in David Thomson’s entry on Coppola in The Biographical Dictionary of Film:

When The Godfather measured its grand finale of murder against the liturgy of baptism, Coppola seemed mesmerized by the trick, and its nihilism. A Buñuel, by contrast, might have made that sequence ironic and hilarious. But Coppola is not long on those qualities, and he could not extricate himself from the engineering of scenes. The identification with Michael was complete and stricken.

Before reading these lines, I had never considered the possibility that the baptism scene could be “ironic and hilarious,” or indeed anything other than how it so overwhelmingly presents itself, although it might easily have played that way without the music. And I’ve never forgotten Thomson’s assertion that Coppola was mesmerized by his own trick, as if it had arisen from somewhere outside of himself. (It might be even more accurate to say that coming up with the notion that the sequences ought to be cut together is something altogether different from actually witnessing the result, after Zinner assembled all the pieces and added Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor—which, notably, entwines three different themes.) Coppola was so taken by the effect that he reused it, years later, for a similar sequence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, admitting cheerfully on the commentary track that he was stealing from himself.

It was a turning point both for Coppola and for the industry as a whole. Before The Godfather, Coppola had been a novelistic director of small, quirky stories, and afterward, like Michael coming into his true inheritance, he became the engineer of vast projects, following up on the clues that he had planted here for himself. (It’s typical of the contradictions of his career that he placed his own baby daughter at the heart of this sequence, which means that he could hardly keep from viewing the most technically nihilistic scene in all his work as something like a home movie.) And while this wasn’t the earliest movie to invite the audience to revel in its structural devices—half of Citizen Kane consists of moments like this—it may have been the first since The Birth of a Nation to do so while also becoming the most commercially successful film of all time. Along the way, it subtly changed us. In our movies, as in our politics, we’ve become used to thinking as much about how our stories are presented as about what they say in themselves. We can even come to prefer trickery, as Shattuck warns us, to true ideas. This doesn’t meant that we should renounce genuine artistic facility of the kind that we see here, as opposed to its imitation or its absence, any more than Michael can renounce Satan. But the consequences of this confusion can be profound. Coppola, the orchestrator of scenes, came to identify with the mafioso who executed his enemies with ruthless efficiency, and the beauty of Michael’s moment of damnation went a long way toward turning him into an attractive, even heroic figure, an impression that Coppola spent most of The Godfather Parts II and III trying in vain to correct. Pacino’s career was shaped by this moment as well. And we have to learn to distinguish between tricks and the truth, especially when they take pains to conceal themselves. As Baudelaire says somewhere else: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The space between us all

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In an interview published in the July 12, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone, the rock star David Crosby said: “My time has gotta be devoted to my highest priority projects, which starts with tryin’ to save the human race and then works its way down from there.” The journalist Ben Fong-Torres prompted him gently: “But through your music, if you affect the people you come in contact with in public, that’s your way of saving the human race.” And I’ve never forgotten Crosby’s response:

But somehow operating on that premise for the last couple of years hasn’t done it, see? Somehow Sgt. Pepper’s did not stop the Vietnam War. Somehow it didn’t work. Somebody isn’t listening. I ain’t saying stop trying; I know we’re doing the right thing to live, full on. Get it on and do it good. But the inertia we’re up against, I think everybody’s kind of underestimated it. I would’ve thought Sgt. Pepper’s could’ve stopped the war just by putting too many good vibes in the air for anybody to have a war around.

He was right about one thing—the Beatles didn’t stop the war. And while it might seem as if there’s nothing new left to say about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary today, it’s worth asking what it tells us about the inability of even our greatest works of art to inspire lasting change. It’s probably ridiculous to ask this of any album. But if a test case exists, it’s here.

It seems fair to say that if any piece of music could have changed the world, it would have been Sgt. Pepper. As the academic Langdon Winner famously wrote:

The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released…At the time I happened to be driving across the country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. For a brief while, the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.

The crucial qualifier, of course, is “at least in the minds of the young,” which we’ll revisit later. To the critic Michael Bérubé, it was nothing less than the one week in which there was “a common culture of widely shared values and knowledge in the United States at any point between 1956 and 1976,” which seems to undervalue the moon landing, but never mind. Yet even this transient unity is more apparent than real. By the end of the sixties, the album had sold about three million copies in America alone. It’s a huge number, but even if you multiply it by ten to include those who were profoundly affected by it on the radio or on a friend’s record player, you end up with a tiny fraction of the population. To put it another way, three times as many people voted for George Wallace for president as bought a copy of Sgt. Pepper in those years.

But that’s just how it is. Even our most inescapable works of art seem to fade into insignificance when you consider the sheer number of human lives involved, in which even an apparently ubiquitous phenomenon is statistically unable to reach a majority of adults. (Fewer than one in three Americans paid to see The Force Awakens in theaters, which is as close as we’ve come in recent memory to total cultural saturation.) The art that feels axiomatic to us barely touches the lives of others, and it may leave only the faintest of marks on those who listen to it closely. The Beatles undoubtedly changed lives, but they were more likely to catalyze impulses that were already there, providing a shape and direction for what might otherwise have remained unexpressed. As Roger Ebert wrote in his retrospective review of A Hard Day’s Night:

The film was so influential in its androgynous imagery that untold thousands of young men walked into the theater with short haircuts, and their hair started growing during the movie and didn’t get cut again until the 1970s.

We shouldn’t underestimate this. But if you were eighteen when A Hard Day’s Night came out, it also means that you were born the same year as Donald Trump, who decisively won voters who were old enough to buy Sgt. Pepper on its initial release. Even if you took its message to heart, there’s a difference between the kind of change that marshals you the way that you were going and the sort that realigns society as a whole. It just isn’t what art is built to do. As David Thomson writes in Rosebud, alluding to Trump’s favorite movie: “The world is very large and the greatest films so small.”

If Sgt. Pepper failed to get us out of Vietnam, it was partially because those who were most deeply moved by it were more likely to be drafted and shipped overseas than to affect the policies of their own country. As Winner says, it united our consciousness, “at least in the young,” but all the while, the old men, as George McGovern put it, were dreaming up wars for young men to die in. But it may not have mattered. Wars are the result of forces that care nothing for what art has to say, and their operations are often indistinguishable from random chance. Sgt. Pepper may well have been “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization,” as Kenneth Tynan hyperbolically claimed, but as Harold Bloom reminds us in The Western Canon:

Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything.

Great works of art exist despite, not because of, the impersonal machine of history. It’s only fitting that the anniversary of Sgt. Pepper happens to coincide with a day on which our civilization’s response to climate change will be decided in a public ceremony with overtones of reality television—a more authentic reflection of our culture, as well as a more profound moment of global unity, willing or otherwise. If the opinions of rock stars or novelists counted for anything, we’d be in a very different situation right now. In “Within You Without You,” George Harrison laments “the people who gain the world and lose their soul,” which neatly elides the accurate observation that they, not the artists, are the ones who do in fact tend to gain the world. (They’re also “the people who hide themselves behind a wall.”) All that art can provide is private consolation, and joy, and the reminder that there are times when we just have to laugh, even when the news is rather sad.

The A/B Test

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, there’s a profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Farhad Manjoo, who describes how the founder of Facebook is coming to terms with his role in the world in the aftermath of last year’s election. I find myself thinking about Zuckerberg a lot these days, arguably even more than I use Facebook itself. We just missed overlapping in college, and with one possible exception, which I’ll mention later, he’s the most influential figure to emerge from those ranks in the last two decades. Manjoo depicts him as an intensely private man obliged to walk a fine line in public, leading him to be absurdly cautious about what he says: “When I asked if he had chatted with Obama about the former president’s critique of Facebook, Zuckerberg paused for several seconds, nearly to the point of awkwardness, before answering that he had.” Zuckerberg is trying to figure out what he believes—and how to act—under conditions of enormous scrutiny, but he also has more resources at his disposal than just about anyone else in history. Here’s the passage in the article that stuck with me the most:

The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition, or seniority. They are concerned only with quantifiable outcomes about people’s actions on the site. That data, at Facebook, is the only real truth…This ideal runs so deep that the people who make News Feed often have to put aside their own notions of what’s best. “One of the things we’ve all learned over the years is that our intuition can be wrong a fair amount of the time,” John Hegeman, the vice president of product management and a News Feed team member, told me. “There are things you don’t expect will happen. And we learn a lot from that process: Why didn’t that happen, and what might that mean?”

Reading this, I began to reflect on how rarely we actually test our intuitions. I’ve spoken a lot on this blog about the role of intuitive thinking in the arts and sciences, mostly because it doesn’t get the emphasis it deserves, but there’s also no guarantee that intuition will steer us in the right direction. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has devoted his career to showing how we tend to overvalue our gut reactions, particularly if we’ve been fortunate enough to be right in the past, and the study of human irrationality has become a rich avenue of research in the social sciences, which are often undermined by poor hunches of their own. It may not even be a matter of right or wrong. An intuitive choice may be better or worse than the alternative, but for the most part, we’ll never know. One of the quirks of Silicon Valley culture is that it claims to base everything on raw data, but it’s often in the service of notions that are outlandish, untested, and easy to misrepresent. Facebook comes closer than any company in existence to the ideal of an endless A/B test, in which the user base is randomly divided into two or more groups to see which approaches are the most effective. It’s the best lab ever developed for testing our hunches about human behavior. (Most controversially, Facebook modified the news feeds of hundreds of thousands of users to adjust the number of positive or negative posts, in order to gauge the emotional impact, and it has conducted similar tests on voter turnout.) And it shouldn’t surprise us if many of our intuitions turn out to be mistaken. If anything, we should expect them to be right about half the time—and if we can nudge that percentage just a little bit upward, in theory, it should give us a significant competitive advantage.

So what good is intuition, anyway? I like to start with William Goldman’s story about the Broadway producer George Abbott, who once passed a choreographer holding his head in his hands while the dancers stood around doing nothing. When Abbott asked what was wrong, the choreographer said that he couldn’t figure out what to do next. Abbott shot back: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.” Intuition, as I’ve argued before, is mostly about taking you from zero ideas to one idea, which you can then start to refine. John W. Campbell makes much the same argument in what might be his single best editorial, “The Value of Panic,” which begins with a maxim from the Harvard professor Wayne Batteau: “In total ignorance, try anything. Then you won’t be so ignorant.” Campbell argues that this provides an evolutionary rationale for panic, in which an animal acts “in a manner entirely different from the normal behavior patterns of the organism.” He continues:

Given: An organism with N characteristic behavior modes available. Given: An environmental situation which cannot be solved by any of the N available behavior modes, but which must be solved immediately if the organism is to survive. Logical conclusion: The organism will inevitably die. But…if we introduce Panic, allowing the organism to generate a purely random behavior mode not a member of the N modes characteristically available?

Campbell concludes: “When the probability of survival is zero on the basis of all known factors—it’s time to throw in an unknown.” In extreme situations, the result is panic; under less intense circumstances, it’s a blind hunch. You can even see them as points on a spectrum, the purpose of which is to provide us with a random action or idea that can then be revised into something better, assuming that we survive for long enough. But sometimes the animal just gets eaten.

The idea of refinement, revision, or testing is inseparable from intuition, and Zuckerberg has been granted the most powerful tool imaginable for asking hard questions and getting quantifiable answers. What he does with it is another matter entirely. But it’s also worth looking at his only peer from college who could conceivably challenge him in terms of global influence. On paper, Mark Zuckerberg and Jared Kushner have remarkable similarities. Both are young Jewish men—although Kushner is more observant—who were born less than four years and sixty miles apart. Kushner, whose acceptance to Harvard was so manifestly the result of his family’s wealth that it became a case study in a book on the subject, was a member of the final clubs that Zuckerberg badly wanted to join, or so Aaron Sorkin would have us believe. Both ended up as unlikely media magnates of a very different kind: Kushner, like Charles Foster Kane, took over a New York newspaper from a man named Carter. Yet their approaches to their newfound positions couldn’t be more different. Kushner has been called “a shadow secretary of state” whose portfolio includes Mexico, China, the Middle East, and the reorganization of the federal government, but it feels like one long improvisation, on the apparent assumption that he can wing it and succeed where so many others have failed. As Bruce Bartlett writes in the New York Times, without a staff, Kushner “is just a dilettante meddling in matters he lacks the depth or the resources to grasp,” and we may not have a chance to recover if his intuitions are wrong. In other words, he resembles his father-in-law, as Frank Bruni notes:

I’m told by insiders that when Trump’s long-shot campaign led to victory, he and Kushner became convinced not only that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about America, but that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about the two of them.

Zuckerberg and Kushner’s lives ran roughly in parallel for a long time, but now they’re diverging at a point at which they almost seem to be offering us two alternate versions of the future, like an A/B test with only one possible outcome. Neither is wholly positive, but that doesn’t make the choice any less stark. And if you think this sounds farfetched, bookmark this post, and read it again in about six years.

From Xenu to Xanadu

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L. Ron Hubbard

I do know that I could form a political platform, for instance, which would encompass the support of the unemployed, the industrialist and the clerk and day laborer all at one and the same time. And enthusiastic support it would be.

L. Ron Hubbard, in a letter to his wife Polly, October 1938

Yesterday, my article “Xenu’s Paradox: The Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard and the Making of Scientology” was published on Longreads. I’d been working on this piece, off and on, for the better part of a year, almost from the moment I knew that I was going to be writing the book Astounding. As part of my research, I had to read just about everything Hubbard ever wrote in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, and I ended up working my way through well over a million words of his prose. The essay that emerged from this process was inspired by a simple question. Hubbard clearly didn’t much care for science fiction, and he wrote it primarily for the money. Yet when the time came to invent a founding myth for Scientology, he turned to the conventions of space opera, which had previously played a minimal role in his work. Both his critics and his followers have looked hard at his published stories to find hints of the ideas to come, and there are a few that seem to point toward later developments. (One that frequently gets mentioned is “One Was Stubborn,” in which a fake religious messiah convinces people to believe in the nonexistence of matter so that he can rule the universe. There’s circumstantial evidence, however, that the premise came mostly from John W. Campbell, and that Hubbard wrote it up on the train ride home from New York to Puget Sound.) Still, it’s a tiny fraction of the whole. And such stories by other writers as “The Double Minds” by Campbell, “Lost Legacy” by Robert A. Heinlein, and The World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt make for more compelling precursors to dianetics than anything Hubbard ever wrote.

The solution to the mystery, as I discuss at length in the article, is that Hubbard tailored his teachings to the small circle of followers he had available after his blowup with Campbell, many of whom were science fiction fans who owed their first exposure to his ideas to magazines like Astounding. And this was only the most dramatic and decisive instance of a pattern that is visible throughout his life. Hubbard is often called a fabulist who compulsively embellished own accomplishments and turned himself into something more than he really was. But it would be even more accurate to say that Hubbard transformed himself into whatever he thought the people around him wanted him to be. When he was hanging out with members of the Explorers Club, he became a barnstormer, world traveler, and intrepid explorer of the Caribbean and Alaska. Around his fellow authors, he presented himself as the most productive pulp writer of all time, inflating his already impressive word count to a ridiculous extent. During the war, he spun stories about his exploits in battle, claiming to have been repeatedly sunk and wounded, and even a former naval officer as intelligent and experienced as Heinlein evidently took him at his word. Hubbard simply became whatever seemed necessary at the time—as long as he was the most impressive man in the room. It wasn’t until he found himself surrounded by science fiction fans, whom he had mostly avoided until then, that he assumed the form that he would take for the rest of his career. He had never been interested in past lives, but many of his followers were, and the memories that they were “recovering” in their auditing sessions were often colored by the imagery of the stories they had read. And Hubbard responded by coming up with the grandest, most unbelievable space opera saga of them all.

Donald Trump

This leaves us with a few important takeaways. The first is that Hubbard, in the early days, was basically harmless. He had invented a colorful background for himself, but he wasn’t alone: Lester del Rey, among others, seems to have engaged in the same kind of self-mythologizing. His first marriage wasn’t a happy one, and he was always something of a blowhard, determined to outshine everyone he met. Yet he also genuinely impressed John and Doña Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and many other perceptive men and women. It wasn’t until after the unexpected success of dianetics that he grew convinced of his own infallibility, casting off such inconvenient collaborators as Campbell and Joseph Winter as obstacles to his power. Even after he went off to Wichita with his remaining disciples, he might have become little more than a harmless crank. As he began to feel persecuted by the government and professional organizations, however, his mood curdled into something poisonous, and it happened at a time in which he had undisputed authority over the people around him. It wasn’t a huge kingdom, but because of its isolation—particularly when he was at sea—he was able to exercise a terrifying amount of control over his closest followers. Hubbard didn’t even enjoy it. He had wealth, fame, and the adulation of a handful of true believers, but he grew increasingly paranoid and miserable. At the time of his death, his wrath was restricted to his critics and to anyone within arm’s reach, but he created a culture of oppression that his successor cheerfully extended against current and former members in faraway places, until no one inside or outside the Church of Scientology was safe.

I wrote the first draft of this essay in May of last year, but it’s hard to read it now without thinking of Donald Trump. Like Hubbard, Trump spent much of his life as an annoying but harmless windbag: a relentless self-promoter who constantly inflated his own achievements. As with Hubbard, everything that he did had to be the biggest and best, and until recently, he was too conscious of the value of his own brand to risk alienating too many people at once. After a lifetime of random grabs for attention, however, he latched onto a cause—the birther movement—that was more powerful than anything he had encountered before, and, like Hubbard, he began to focus on the small number of passionate followers he had attracted. His presidential campaign seems to have been conceived as yet another form of brand extension, culminating in the establishment of a Trump Television network. He shaped his message in response to the crowds who came to his rallies, and before long, he was caught in the same kind of cycle: a man who had once believed in nothing but himself gradually came to believe his own words. (Hubbard and Trump have both been described as con men, but the former spent countless hours auditing himself, and Trump no longer seems conscious of his own lies.) Both fell upward into positions of power that exceeded their wildest expectations, and it’s frightening to consider what might come next, when we consider how Hubbard was transformed. During his lifetime, Hubbard had a small handful of active followers; the Church of Scientology has perhaps 30,000, although, like Trump, they’re prone to exaggerate such numbers; Trump has millions. It’s especially telling that both Hubbard and Trump loved Citizen Kane. I love it, too. But both men ended up in their own personal Xanadu. And as I’ve noted before, the only problem with that movie is that our affection for Orson Welles distracts us from the fact that Kane ultimately went crazy.

Land of the giants

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Zootopia and Captain America: Civil War

Earlier this morning, I found myself thinking about two of my favorite movie scenes of the year. One is the sequence in Zootopia in which Judy Hopps chases a thief into the neighborhood of Little Rodentia, where she suddenly seems gigantic by comparison, tiptoeing gingerly past buildings the size of dollhouses. The other is the epic fight between the superheroes in Captain America: Civil War, in which Ant-Man reverses his usual shrinking power to transform himself into Giant Man. Both are standout moments in very good movies, and they have a lot in common. In each one, a normally meek and physically vulnerable character is abruptly blown up to gargantuan proportions, a situation that offers up more natural comedy than if it had involved a more conventional hero. (It’s a lot of fun to see Hank Pym treating the rest of the Avengers as his personal action figures, when it wouldn’t mean much of anything to see a giant Hulk.) Both are bright daytime scenes that allow us to scrutinize every detail of their huge central figure, which is logically satisfying in a way that a movie like the Godzilla remake isn’t: the latter is so weirdly loyal to the notion that you shouldn’t show the monster that it keeps cutting away nervously even when Godzilla ought to be the biggest thing in sight.

Most of all, of course, these scenes play with scale in ways that remind us of how satisfying that basic trick can be. A contrast in scale, properly handled, can be delightful, and it’s even more instructive to see it here, in a pair of mainstream studio movies, than it might be in more refined contexts. As the architect Christopher Alexander writes in The Nature of Order:

The first thing I noticed, when I began to study objects which have life, was that they all contain different scales. In my new language, I would now say that the centers these objects are made of tend to have a beautiful range of sizes, and that these sizes exist at a series of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them. In short, there are big centers, middle-sized centers, small centers, and very small centers…[Scale] provides a way in which one center can be helped in its intensity by other smaller centers.

It might seem like a leap from the harmonious gradation of scale that Alexander is describing here and the goofy appearance of Giant Man, but both draw on the same underlying fact, which is that contrasts of size provide a standard of measurement. When Giant Man shows up, it feels like we’re seeing him and the rest of the Avengers for the first time.

King Kong and Citizen Kane

The movies have always taken pleasure in toying with our sense of proportion: there’s a reason why a new version of King Kong seems to pop up every few decades. If film is naturally drawn to massive contrasts of scale, it’s in part because it’s so good at it. It’s hard to imagine another medium that could pull it off so well, aside from our own imaginations, and movies like The Thief of Baghdad have reveled in bringing the giants and ogres of folklore—who are like a small child’s impression of the adult world—to life. Every movie that we see in theaters becomes a confrontation with giants. When we watch Bogart and Bergman on the big screen in Casablanca, their faces are the size of billboards, and you could argue that we respond to giants in the movies because they force the other characters to experience what the rest of us feel in the auditorium. Hollywood has always seen itself as a land of giants, even if it’s populated by moral pygmies, as Gloria Swanson reminds us in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And I’ve always been struck by the fact that the classic posters for King Kong and Citizen Kane are so similar, with the title character looming over smaller figures who stand terrified at the level of his ankles. Kane and Kong, whose names go together so well, are both monsters who came out of RKO Pictures, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that Orson Welles, like Brando, grew so large toward the end of his life.

The idea that a giant might symbolize the gigantic qualities of the work of art in which it appears isn’t a new one. In his great essay “Gravity’s Encyclopedia,” which I seem to think about all the time, the scholar Edward Mendelson lists what he calls “encyclopedic narratives”—The Divine Comedy, Gargantua and Patnagruel, Don Quixote, Faust, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow—and observes that they all have one thing in common:

All encyclopedias metastasize their monstrousness by including giants or gigantism: the giants who guard the pit of hell in Dante, the eponymous heroes of Rabelais, the windmills that Don Quixote takes for giants, the mighty men whom Faust sends into battle, Moby-Dick himself, the stylistic gigantism of Joyce’s “Cyclops,” and, in Gravity’s Rainbow, the titans under the earth and the angel over Lübeck whose eyes go “towering for miles.”

Your average blockbuster is even more gargantuan, in its way, than even a great novel, since it involves the collaboration of hundreds of artisans and the backing of an enormous corporation that can start to seem vaguely monstrous itself. Like most adult moviegoers, I hope that Hollywood gives us more intimate human stories, too. But we can also allow it a few giants.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2016 at 9:01 am

The strange loop of Westworld

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The maze in Westworld

In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, the critic Emily Nussbaum delivers one of the most useful takes I’ve seen so far on Westworld. She opens with many of the same points that I made after the premiere—that this is really a series about storytelling, and, in particular, about the challenges of mounting an expensive prestige drama on a premium network during the golden age of television. Nussbaum describes her own ambivalence toward the show’s treatment of women and minorities, and she concludes:

This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way—like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld…The American Old West is a logical fantasy only if you’re the cowboy—or if your fantasy is to be exploited or enslaved, a desire left unexplored…So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that Westworld? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.

I agree with many of her reservations, especially when it comes to race, but I think that she overlooks or omits one important point: conscious or otherwise, it’s a brilliant narrative strategy to make a work of art partially about the process of its own creation, which can add a layer of depth even to its compromises and mistakes. I’ve drawn a comparison already to Mad Men, which was a show about advertising that ended up subliminally criticizing its own tactics—how it drew viewers into complex, often bleak stories using the surface allure of its sets, costumes, and attractive cast. If you want to stick with the Nolan family, half of Chris’s movies can be read as commentaries on themselves, whether it’s his stricken identification with the Joker as the master of ceremonies in The Dark Knight or his analysis of his own tricks in The Prestige. Inception is less about the construction of dreams than it is about making movies, with characters who stand in for the director, the producer, the set designer, and the audience. And perhaps the greatest cinematic example of them all is Vertigo, in which Scotty’s treatment of Madeline is inseparable from the use that Hitchcock makes of Kim Novak, as he did with so many other blonde leading ladies. In each case, we can enjoy the story on its own merits, but it gains added resonance when we think of it as a dramatization of what happened behind the scenes. It’s an approach that is uniquely forgiving of flawed masterpieces, which comment on themselves better than any critic can, until we wonder about the extent to which they’re aware of their own limitations.


And this kind of thing works best when it isn’t too literal. Movies about filmmaking are often disappointing, either because they’re too close to their subject for the allegory to resonate or because the movie within the movie seems clumsy compared to the subtlety of the larger film. It’s why Being John Malkovich is so much more beguiling a statement than the more obvious Adaptation. In television, the most unfortunate recent example is UnREAL. You’d expect that a show that was so smart about the making of a reality series would begin to refer intriguingly to itself, and it did, but not in a good way. Its second season was a disappointment, evidently because of the same factors that beset its fictional show Everlasting: interference from the network, conceptual confusion, tensions between producers on the set. It seemed strange that UnREAL, of all shows, could display such a lack of insight into its own problems, but maybe it isn’t so surprising. A good analogy needs to hold us at arm’s length, both to grant some perspective and to allow for surprising discoveries in the gaps. The ballet company in The Red Shoes and the New York Inquirer in Citizen Kane are surrogates for the movie studio, and both films become even more interesting when you realize how much the lead character is a portrait of the director. Sometimes it’s unclear how much of this is intentional, but this doesn’t hurt. So much of any work of art is out of your control that you need to find an approach that automatically converts your liabilities into assets, and you can start by conceiving a premise that encourages the viewer or reader to play along at home.

Which brings us back to Westworld. In her critique, Nussbaum writes: “Westworld [is] a come-hither drama that introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She implies that this is a bug, but it’s really a feature. Westworld wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it weren’t being produced with this cast, on this network, and on this scale. We’re supposed to be impressed by the time and money that have gone into the park—they’ve spared no expense, as John Hammond might say—but it isn’t all that different from the resources that go into a big-budget drama like this. In the most recent episode, “Dissonance Theory,” the show invokes the image of the maze, as we might expect from a series by a Nolan brother: get to the center to the labyrinth, it says, and you’ve won. But it’s more like what Douglas R. Hofstadter describes in I Am a Strange Loop:

What I mean by “strange loop” is—here goes a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out.

This neatly describes both the park and the series. And it’s only through such strange loops, as Hofstadter has long argued, that any complex system—whether it’s the human brain, a robot, or a television show—can hope to achieve full consciousness.

The low road to Xanadu

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Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote of Donald Trump: “He’s like Charles Foster Kane, without any of the qualities that make Kane so misleadingly attractive.” If anything, that’s overly generous to Trump himself, but it also points to a real flaw in what can legitimately be called the greatest American movie ever made. Citizen Kane is more ambiguous than it was ever intended to be, because we’re distracted throughout by our fondness for the young Orson Welles. He’s visible all too briefly in the early sequences at the Inquirer; he winks at us through his makeup as an older man; and the aura he casts was there from the beginning. As David Thomson points out in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself. Given his greatest opportunity, [screenwriter Herman] Mankiewicz could only invent a story that was increasingly colored by his mixed feelings about Welles and that, he knew, would be brought to life by Welles the overpowering actor, who could not resist the chance to dress up as the old man he might one day become, and who relished the young showoff Kane just as he loved to hector and amaze the Mercury Theater.

You can see Welles in the script when Susan Alexander asks Kane if he’s “a professional magician,” or when Kane, asked if he’s still eating, replies: “I’m still hungry.” And although his presence deepens and enhances the movie’s appeal, it also undermines the story that Welles and Mankiewicz set out to tell in the first place.

As a result, the film that Hearst wanted to destroy turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his legacy—it makes him far more interesting and likable than he ever was. The same factor tends to obscure the movie’s politics. As Pauline Kael wrote in the early seventies in the essay “Raising Kane”: “At some campus showings, they react so gullibly that when Kane makes a demagogic speech about ‘the underprivileged,’ stray students will applaud enthusiastically, and a shout of ‘Right on!’ may be heard.” But in an extraordinary review that was published when the movie was first released, Jorge Luis Borges saw through to the movie’s icy heart:

Citizen Kane…has at least two plots. The first, pointlessly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits: a vain millionaire collects statues, gardens, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, men and women…The second plot is far superior…At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any apparent unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances…In a story by Chesterton—“The Head of Caesar,” I think—the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.

Borges concludes: “We all know that a party, a palace, a great undertaking, a lunch for writers and journalists, an enterprise of cordial and spontaneous camaraderie, are essentially horrendous. Citizen Kane is the first film to show such things with an awareness of this truth.” He might well be talking about the Trump campaign, which is also a labyrinth without a center. And Trump already seems to be preparing for defeat with the same defense that Kane did.

Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane

Yet if we’re looking for a real counterpart to Kane, it isn’t Trump at all, but someone standing just off to the side: his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. I’ve been interested in Kushner’s career for a long time, in part because we overlapped at college, although I doubt we’ve ever been in the same room. Ten years ago, when he bought the New York Observer, it was hard not to think of Kane, and not just because Kushner was twenty-five. It recalled the effrontery in Kane’s letter to Mr. Thatcher: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” And I looked forward to seeing what Kushner would do next. His marriage to Ivanka Trump was a twist worthy of Mankiewicz, who married Kane to the president’s daughter, and as Trump lurched into politics, I wasn’t the only one wondering what Ivanka and Kushner—whose father was jailed after an investigation by Chris Christie—made of it all. Until recently, you could kid yourself that Kushner was torn between loyalty to his wife’s father and whatever else he might be feeling, even after he published his own Declaration of Principles in the Observer, writing: “My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite.” But that’s no longer possible. As the Washington Post reports, Kushner, along with former Breitbart News chief Stephen K. Bannon, personally devised the idea to seat Bill Clinton’s accusers in the family box at the second debate. The plan failed, but there’s no question that Kushner has deliberately placed himself at the center of Trump’s campaign, and that he bears an active, not passive, share of the responsibility for what promises to be the ugliest month in the history of presidential politics.

So what happened? If we’re going to press the analogy to its limit, we can picture the isolated Kane in his crumbling estate in Xanadu. It was based on Hearst Castle in San Simeon, and the movie describes it as standing on the nonexistent desert coast of Florida—but it could just as easily be a suite in Trump Tower. We all tend to surround ourselves with people with whom we agree, whether it’s online or in the communities in which we live, and if you want to picture this as a series of concentric circles, the ultimate reality distortion field must come when you’re standing in a room next to Trump himself. Now that Trump has purged his campaign of all reasonable voices, it’s easy for someone like Kushner to forget that there is a world elsewhere, and that his actions may not seem sound, or even sane, beyond those four walls. Eventually, this election will be over, and whatever the outcome, I feel more pity for Kushner than I do for his father-in-law. Trump can only stick around for so much longer, while Kushner still has half of his life ahead of him, and I have a feeling that it’s going to be defined by his decisions over the last three months. Maybe he’ll realize that he went straight from the young Kane to the old without any of the fun in between, and that his only choice may be to wall himself up in Xanadu in his thirties, with the likes of Christie, Giuliani, and Gingrich for company. As the News on the March narrator says in Kane: “An emperor of newsprint continued to direct his failing empire, vainly attempted to sway, as he once did, the destinies of a nation that had ceased to listen to him, ceased to trust him.” It’s a tragic ending for an old man. But it’s even sadder for a young one.

The long and the short of it

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Dorothy Comingore in Citizen Kane

One of the greatest compliments that we can pay to any story is that it seems shorter than it actually is. It’s obviously best for a narrative to be only as long as it has to be, and no more, which means that the creator needs to be willing to cut wherever necessary. (Sometimes it’s even better if these time or length limits are imposed from the outside. I’ve always maintained that Blue Velvet, my favorite American movie ever, was tremendously improved by a contractual stipulation that forced David Lynch and editor Duwayne Dunham to cut it from three hours down to two. And as much as I’m enjoying the streaming renaissance on Netflix, I sometimes wish that the episodes of these shows were shorter: without a fixed time slot, there’s no incentive to trim any given installment, and a literal hour of television tends to drag toward the end.) But it’s nice when a movie, in particular, grips us so completely that we don’t realize how long we’ve been watching it. I still remember being so absorbed by Michael Mann’s The Insider that I was startled to realize, when I checked my watch after the screening, that it was two and a half hours long: I would have guessed that it was closer to ninety minutes. And you only need to compare the experience of watching the original cut of Seven Samurai with, say, four episodes of the second season of True Detective to realize that three and a half hours can be something very different in subjective and objective time.

But there’s another storytelling trick that deserves just as much attention, which is the ability to make a short work of art seem longer. I’m not talking about the way in which even a twenty minutes of a bad sitcom can seem interminable, but of how a story can somehow persuade us that we’ve lived through a longer and more meaningful experience than seems possible to encompass within a limited timeframe. On some level, this is an illusion that you encounter in most narratives of any kind: with the exception of the rare works designed to unfold in real time, we’re asked to believe that the relatively short period that it takes to physically view or read the story really covers days, weeks, or months of action, and occasionally much longer. Many biopics, for instance, ask us to go through an entire lifetime in a couple of hours, and the fact that the result is usually so unsatisfying only indicates how hard it is to pull this off. But it has a greater chance of succeeding when it uses our perceptions of time to convince us, in a pleasurable way, that we’ve seen and felt more than could be packed into a single sitting. We could start with Citizen Kane, which is exactly a minute short of two hours long—which, like Blue Velvet, probably reflects an attempt to meet a contractually mandated length. Yet more than any other movie, it feels like a full picture of a man’s life, and the fact that it asks us to assemble Kane’s story from the fragments of other people’s memories offers a very important clue as to how this kind of thing works.


Because one of the best ways to create a subjective impression of length is through contrasts: the alternation of big and little, loud and soft, fast and slow. I got to thinking about this while listening to “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” which is one of the two or three best songs in Hamilton. It’s as epic a number as you could imagine, and it leaves you feeling as if you’ve lived through an unforgettable experience, but it lasts just four minutes. In his notes in Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda explains how it works:

Part of the inspiration for the structure of “Yorktown” is what I call the “Busta Rhymes soft-loud-soft technique. On countless songs, Busta will give you the smoothest, quietest delivery and then full-on scream the next verse. It makes for a delightful tension and release, and it’s entirely vocal. Same here. “I have everything I wanted but I can’t die today / We’re going into battle / Here’s what my friends are doing / Hercules Mulligan!” Thank you and God bless you, Busta Rhymes.

It isn’t hard to see why this kind of alternation creates an impression of length, in the much same way that we find with the experiments with chronology in Kane. With every transition, the listener has to readjust, and the mental effort of these regroupings draws out our perception of time passing. The switching costs of moving from one moment to the next allow the story to do with a juxtaposition what would otherwise require a pause. As the old proverb says, a change is as good as a rest.

And this phenomenon emerges from something fundamental in how our brains are wired. As the neurologist David Eagleman says about the perception of time in everyday life:

When our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated.

In other words, it takes a while for the brain to process new information, leading to a subjective impression of extended time. It’s why travel or a change of scenery can make our lives seem to slow down, and why we’re advised to use surprise or variety to keep the days from turning into a blur. The real challenge for artists is to combine different kinds of time within the same narrative. A movie or book that consists of nothing but action will quickly become boring, and so will a string of talky interior scenes. If you can speed it up and slow it down in the right proportions, the result, at its finest, will make you feel as if you’ve lived a rich, fulfilling life over the course of two hours. Hamilton does this beautifully. So does Kane—and you could even argue that the best reason to use a nonlinear narrative, rather than as a gimmick, is the ability it presents to treat time as a tool. You’re not just painting a picture; you’re asking the audience to assemble a puzzle. And it helps to use different kinds of pieces.

Loving the alienator

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Donald Trump

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

—Mark 8:36

Whether or not you’re a believer, you eventually end up with your own idea of who Jesus might have been. I like to think of him as the ultimate pragmatist. If you accept his central premise—that the kingdom of heaven, whatever it is, is something that is happening right now—then his ethical system, as impossible as it might seem for most of us to follow, becomes easier to understand. It’s about eliminating distractions, focusing on what really counts, and removing sources of temptation before they have a chance to divert us from the true goal. Poverty, as Michael Grant puts it in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, is a practical solution to a concrete problem: “Excessive wealth might be a positive disadvantage, since its too lavish enjoyment could distract its possessors from the overriding vital matter at hand.” And as Grant observes elsewhere:

Certainly, “blessed are the meek”…but that is because “they shall inherit the earth.” Since nothing less than this is at stake, a contentious spirit is wholly out of place, for it will only distract attention and energy from the preeminent task. It is not even worth hating your enemies…In the urgent circumstances, Jesus believed, it was a sheer waste of time. Love them instead, just as much as you love everyone else; pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek. For why not avoid hostilities and embroilments which, beside the infinitely larger issue, are ultimately irrelevant and distracting?

“Love your enemies,” in other words, is nothing but sensible advice. Which doesn’t it make it any easier to do it for real, rather than merely paying it lip service, when it strikes us as inconvenient.

Take the case of Donald Trump. It’s fair to say that I feel less love toward Trump than I do toward any other American public figure of my lifetime. At my best, I just want to go back to the days when I could safely ignore him; at my worst, I want him to suffer some kind of humiliating, career-ending comeuppance, although I’m well aware that real life rarely affords such satisfactions. (If anything, it’s more likely to give us the opposite.) I’m also uncomfortably conscious that this is exactly the kind of reaction that he wants to evoke from me. It’s a victory. No matter what happens in this election, Trump has added perceptibly to the world’s stockpile of hate, resentment, and alienation. Hating him and what he stands for is easy; what isn’t so easy is trying to respond in ways that don’t merely feed into the cycle of hatred. The answer—and I wish it were different—is right there in front of us. We’re told to love our enemies. Jesus, the pragmatic philosopher, knew that there wasn’t time for anything else. But when I think about doing the same with Trump, I feel a bit like Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, when she realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz:

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, as always, are mine. It isn’t too much to ask. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this, and quite another to grant that we’re obliged to do it for someone like Donald Trump.

The Simpsons episode "Brush with Greatness"

So here’s my best shot. Trump grew up wanting nothing more than to please his own demanding father. Early in his career, he was just one real estate developer among many. He ended up concluding that the only values worth pursuing were the acquisition of money and power, abstracted from any possible benefit except as a way of keeping score. What’s worse, he received plenty of validation that his assumptions were correct. He’s never had any reason to grow or change. Instead, as we all do, he’s become more like himself as he’s aged, while categorizing the human beings around him as sources of income, enemies, or potential enablers. Behind his bluster, he’s deeply insecure, as we all are. He refuses to take responsibility for his actions, he can’t admit a mistake, and he blames everyone but himself when things go wrong. (When he says that the first debate was “rigged” because someone tampered with his mike and the moderator was against him, I’m reminded of what David Mamet says in On Directing Film: “Two reasons are equal to no reasons—it’s like saying: ‘I was late because the bus drivers are on strike and my aunt fell downstairs.’”) He seems unhappy. It’s hard to imagine him taking pleasure in reading a book, preparing a meal, or really anything aside from trolling the electorate and putting his name on buildings and planes. He appears to have no affection for anyone or anything, except perhaps his own children. And he’s the creation of forces that even he can’t control. He’s succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, but only by becoming the full-time monster that was only there in flashes before. Trump uses the system, but it also uses him. He has transformed himself into exactly what he hopes people want him to be, and he’s condemned to do it forever. And when the end comes—”As it must to all men,” the newsreel narrator reminds us in Citizen Kane—he’ll have to ask himself whether it was worth it.

I know that this comes perilously close to what the onlookers say after seeing Marge Simpson’s nude portrait of Mr. Burns: “He’s bad, but he’ll die. So I like it.” But it’s the best I can do. I can’t love Trump, but I can sort of forgive him, and pity him, for becoming what he was told to be, and for abandoning what makes us human and valuable—empathy, compassion, humility—in favor of an identity assembled from who we are at our worst. In a way, I’m even grateful to him, for much the same reason that George Saunders expressed in The New Yorker: “Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail. But I imagine it that way now.” If Trump didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. He’s a better cautionary tale than any I could have imagined, because he won the trappings of success at a spiritual cost that isn’t tragic so much as deeply sad. He’s like Charles Foster Kane, without any of the qualities that make Kane so misleadingly attractive. When I think of the abyss of his ego, which draws like a battery on the love of his supporters and flails helplessly in every other situation, it feels like the logical extension of a career spent in the pursuit of wealth and celebrity divorced from any other consideration beyond himself. Like all mortals, Trump had exactly one chance to live a meaningful life, with greater resources than most of us ever get, and this is what he did with it. The closest I can come to loving him is the acknowledgment that I might have done the same, if I had been born with his circumstances and incentives. He’s not so different from me, as I fear I might have been in his shoes. And if I love Trump, in some weird way, it’s because I’m thankful I’m not him.

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2016 at 9:28 am

“Three years earlier…”

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"Three years earlier..."

Note: This post is the twenty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 26. You can read the previous installments here.

Of all the tidbits of writing advice I’ve picked up over the years, one I never tire of quoting comes courtesy of the legendary pulp novelist Jack Woodford. In his classic book Trial and Error—which manages to be both a useful writer’s manual and a gem of self-promotion—Woodford says:

The trouble with most first short stories is that they have their beginnings buried in their middles. Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action.

Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place. Now you need no longer wail, “But I don’t know how to start a story!”

To my eye, this is what a writing tip should be: practical, immediately applicable, and just a little mechanical. Putting it into practice is a matter of copying and pasting. If it works, great; if not, it’s easy to reverse it. But what strikes me the most about it now is that although Woodford is talking about how to start a story, when you generalize it, it’s really a rule about flashbacks. I’ve always seen flashbacks as a dangerous tool: they interrupt what ought to be a continuous flow of action, whether internal or external, and offer the temptation to spend time on backstory, rather than revealing character through action. But they also have their uses. As Woodford notes, you usually want to get the story moving in the very first sentence, and a flashback can be used, paradoxically, to enable narrative momentum by placing the exposition at a point where the plot can sustain it. When you follow Woodford’s approach, you find that the flashback naturally appears during an organic pause, where the plot has to regroup to take a breather anyway. All stories, if they aren’t going to exhaust the reader, need a few stretches of relative flatness to balance out the high points, and it’s valuable real estate. If you find that you really need a flashback—if only because the backstory would be more vivid or interesting if clustered in a single unit, rather than dispersed—then it probably belongs at a moment when the story can afford to slow down.

"They regarded each other in silence..."

And like most useful writing tools, a flashback can be perform a double duty, inserting a moment of delay where it increases the suspense. Elsewhere, I’ve used the movie Snowpiercer as an example: just before the protagonist is about to reach the end of his violent quest, he pauses, lights a cigarette, and tells us a little about himself for the first time. Anywhere else, and the speech would have seemed like a misstep; here, it both postpones the climax at a point of maximum tension and reminds us of the stakes involved at just the right moment. Snowpiercer may be the most relentlessly linear action movie I’ve ever seen—it tracks the hero’s progress from one train compartment to another, so that his movement through physical space exactly parallels the structure of the story—and it cleverly places what amounts to a flashback at the only spot where it wouldn’t interrupt the plot’s forward motion. But even more loosely constructed stories can benefit from its example. Not every narrative needs to move singlemindledly from A to B, and in certain exceptional works, like The English Patient or Citizen Kane, the movement between past and present and back again can almost become a character in itself. But chronological order is the baseline from which we depart only with good reason. And those departures work best when they occur in places where the rhythm allows for a regathering.

The flashback that opens Part II of Eternal Empire is an interesting case, because it was written long after the rest of the novel was complete. My editor had suggested clarifying the relationship between Maddy and Ilya, which otherwise depends mostly on the reader’s knowledge of The Icon Thief, and I realized that she had a good point: much of the action of the novel’s second half hinges on the evolving understanding between these two characters. It also gave me a chance to revisit a piece of the story that the previous books had left unexplored. And because the novel was already so tightly structured, it made sense to stick it here. Last week, I noted that I usually start any writing project with three or four big twists in mind, and I’ll outline the book so that each of these occur at the end of a section. As a result, the beginning of the next section benefits from the residual momentum that the previous climax has generated. Inserting the flashback here put it at a point where I could trust that the reader, having come this far, would at least make it through the next few pages, and it provided a useful way of delaying the resolution of the previous scene, which ended with the hood coming down over Maddy’s head. It wasn’t part of my original conception, but once it was there, it seemed to strengthen, rather than weaken, the surrounding material. And when we catch up with Maddy again, waiting in the back of the car for whatever is coming next, we know exactly what brought her there…

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2015 at 9:57 am

My ten great movies #1: The Red Shoes

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Like all great films, but much more so, The Red Shoes—which I think is the greatest movie ever made—works on two levels, as both a story of life and a story of film. As the latter, it’s simply the most inventive movie ever made in Technicolor, second only to Citizen Kane in its abundance of tricks and flourishes. These range from small cinematic jokes (like its use of the scrolling title Forty-five minutes later, subsequently borrowed by Scorsese in The Aviator, to indicate the passage of time within a single shot) to effects of unforgettable emotional power (like the empty spotlight on the stage in the final scene). It’s the definitive work by a pair of filmmakers who had spent the previous decade on an unparalleled streak, making more great films in ten years than five ordinary directors could produce in an entire career. And The Red Shoes was the movie they had been building toward all along, because along with everything else, it’s the best film we have about the artistic process itself.

And even here, it works on multiple levels. As a depiction of life at a ballet company, it may not be as realistic as it seems—Moira Shearer, among others, has dismissed it as pure fantasy—but it feels real, and it remains the most romantic depiction of creative collaboration yet captured on film. (It inspired countless careers in dance, and certainly inspired me to care deeply about ballet, an art form toward which I’d been completely indifferent before seeing this movie.) And as an allegory, it’s unsurpassed: Lermontov’s cruelty toward Vicky is really a dramatization of the dialogue between art and practicality that takes place inside every artist’s head. This may be why The Red Shoes is so important to me now: from the moment I first saw it, it’s been one of my ten favorite films, but over the years, and especially after I decided to become a writer, my love for it has increased beyond what I feel toward almost any other work of art. Yet Vicky’s final words still haunt me, as does Lermontov’s offhand remark, which stands as a permanent warning, and enticement, to artists of all kinds: “The red shoes are never tired.”

Written by nevalalee

May 22, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #5: Citizen Kane

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“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” writes Charles Foster Kane to his guardian, Mr. Thatcher, only to confess in the following scene: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper—I just try everything I can think of.” In those two lines, Citizen Kane captures the romance of what it means to be young, gifted, and boundless of ambition, and in particular, what it meant to be Orson Welles, twenty-five, already famous, and given the keys to the greatest train set a boy ever had. This honeymoon wouldn’t last forever, of course, and Welles barely survived two more years in Hollywood. But the memory of those days lives on, in Kane and in much of The Magnificent Ambersons, with Kane in particular serving as both the most lasting movie ever made in America and a bittersweet emblem of what might have been.

Kane is famously the film that inspired the careers of more directors than any other, and even for those of us who express ourselves in other ways, it’s a shining example of what can be accomplished when respect for the lessons of craft is combined with a reckless disregard of the rules. Most of the great innovations in the arts and sciences come when an individual of genius changes fields, and with Welles, with his unsurpassed training in theater and radio, Hollywood not only got a genuine boy wonder, but gave him the freedom and resources he needed to do great work—a lucky combination that would never happen again. Welles came to RKO with a willingness to try everything once and, more importantly, to listen to the likes of Gregg Toland and benefit from their skill and experience. Without this bedrock of craft, Kane would be a mess of inspirations; without inspiration, it would be pointless technique. But for once, blessedly, a Hollywood film had both. And the movies would never be the same.

Tomorrow: The best movie about writing ever made.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2015 at 9:00 am

A few tips on faking it

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Citizen Kane

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 28, 2012.

It’s always satisfying when a story comes full circle, or when a moment near the end of the narrative reveals a pattern of symbols or themes that was only dimly visible before. This kind of structure requires both careful planning and some degree of luck: a story that is too obviously structured can seem artificial or contrived, while the best kind of deep structure can take even the author by surprise. More often, however, a writer will reach the end of a project only to find that its structure is shapeless or absent, with a story that seems like nothing but a series of loosely connected events. The smart thing to do at this point would be to throw out the whole thing and start again—something that few of us have the courage to attempt. The alternative is, well, to fake it: to look for a few quick fixes that will make the story look more structured than it really is, in hopes of fooling the casual reader or critic. Is it cheating? Sure. But it’s a form of cheating of which nearly every artist has been guilty at one time or another, and once you’re aware of it, you start to see it everywhere you look. With just a few simple tricks, soon you, too, will be faking it with the best:

1. If you can’t find a theme, pretend it’s there anyway. Ideally, theme ought to arise organically from the events of the story itself, rather than being conceived beforehand or imposed after the fact. Sometimes, though, you wind up a theme that seems thin or nonexistent. The answer, if you’re determined to fake it, is to pick a theme that seems appropriate and mention it on the slightest pretext. The great recent example is Pixar’s Brave, which repeats the word “fate” so insistently that it clearly hopes that nobody notices that it doesn’t have much to do with fate at all, or at least has little of interest to say on the subject. I’m not above this kind of thing myself: when the title of my second novel was changed at the last minute to City of Exiles, which I selected more or less because it sounded good, I went back and tweaked the draft in places to tease out the theme of exile wherever possible. Hopefully, this kind of retouching should be invisible, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find a real theme lurking there after all. In storytelling, as in jazz, sometimes you just need to fake it till you make it.

Concept art for Brave

2. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. History, as Mark Twain says, doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. So, too, does a good novel: elements that occur early in the story can, and should, come back to play a larger role. As before, we’d like to believe that this is the result of serendipity or good planning, but I’ve found that it doesn’t hurt to go back, when you’re nearing the end of a writing project, to see if there are elements that could be profitably reintroduced. A character who appears only once and never returns, or a detail introduced in the book’s early pages that doesn’t play a part later on, is an annoying loose end; bring them back again at an unexpected time, and you start to look pretty smart. In City of Exiles, for instance, an unscrupulous solicitor named Owen Dancy appears early in the book, only to never be mentioned again. This struck me as an oversight, so not only did I bring him back, but I had him play a crucial part in the epilogue. As soon as something occurs twice, it starts to look like structure, and three times is even better. This kind of systematic mining of one’s work for meaningful repetitions is something that every writer should do. Like the Plains Indians, we try to use every part of the animal.

3. When in doubt, go back to where you started. When we see the NO TRESPASSING sign at Xanadu for the last time at the end of Citizen Kane, it feels like a circle has closed; the same is true of the picket fence and red roses in the opening and closing shots of Blue Velvet. At its best, this kind of bookending reflects a ring or circular structure that has been part of the work from the beginning, but sometimes only the illusion of symmetry is required. You see this in movies, like the original Spider-Man, that repeat the opening narration again at the end: it feels like a recurrence of deeper themes, when it may just be a simple editing trick. (At a higher level, you have a movie like Raging Bull, which reportedly didn’t work at all in test screenings until a snippet of the closing scene was appended to the beginning.) A true ring composition demands detailed planning, while mechanically opening and closing on the same phrase or image requires no skill at all—but if you aren’t sure how to end a story, even the fake version will often get you ninety percent of the way there. Because it’s always satisfying when a story, or a blog post, comes full circle. Isn’t it?

Written by nevalalee

November 26, 2014 at 9:00 am

Going the Distance

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Fantasy Costumes

Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Émile Chartier

I don’t often promote outside projects here—aside from the fact that this blog owes its very existence to the germinal impulse to market my own work—but I wanted to take a moment to encourage you to visit the online magazine The Distance, if you haven’t done so already. My wife, Wailin Wong, is the site’s editor and sole reporter, using all the resources that its sponsor, the software company Basecamp, can afford, and each story is beautifully written, illustrated, and designed. For all its surface pleasures, though, its mandate is seductively simple: it publishes deeply researched profiles, one each month, of privately held businesses that have been in operation for twenty-five years or more, and its subjects have ranged from a suburban bra store to an educational music program to the developer of the modern hamburger patty machine. In other words, if most business stories feel like a snapshot of the present moment—a new product, a new update, a new earnings report, often from a company that has been in existence for only a few years—The Distance is more like a series of portraits taken over time, showing how these businesses have changed and evolved. And while I’m far from an objective observer here, I think it’s a site that should be read by everyone interested in business, creativity, or the risks involved in constructing any lasting vision.

Because what strikes me the most about The Distance is that while each piece centers on a memorable, often highly eccentric entrepreneur—you could write a whole essay on how it takes a certain kind of idiosyncratic personality to build and sustain a business for a quarter of a century—the real, hidden protagonist of all these stories is time itself, as it is in a movie like Citizen Kane. A company that survives for so long, like a novel or a human face, is partially a reflection of a single individual’s will, but also of the outside forces that have edited it like a second author, to the point where the shape it finally takes is one that never could have been predicted at the outset. Horween Leather was founded at a time when leather was widely used for industrial components like seals and gaskets, but as the realities of the market and global production changed, it evolved along with them, moving into high-end goods like cordovan shoes and expensive watchbands. The Hala Kahiki became a tiki bar because its owners happened to economize by redoing the walls of their original tavern with bamboo fencing, which suggested a theme that has persisted for nearly fifty years. It’s as if each owner is engaged in an ongoing collaboration with the marketplace, which imposes incremental revisions and occasional wholesale reinventions over the course of the company’s lifespan.

Hala Kahiki

You see this kind of evolution everywhere in business—Lloyd’s of London was originally a coffeehouse where sailors would gather to make deals, and Nintendo started out by selling playing cards—but it takes a certain breadth of vision to make those patterns visible. It’s no coincidence that The Distance focuses on private businesses that haven’t taken outside investment: publicly traded firms or startups funded by venture capital rarely have the luxury of figuring things out over decades. Yet the example that these companies provide is a crucial one, even if it isn’t conventionally newsworthy, or if its lesson is ultimately one of how little we can predict or control. The single greatest obstacle facing most startups lies in finding a way to accelerate these evolutionary processes to fit within the timeframe that venture funding demands. You can see traces of it everywhere in the language entrepreneurs use, from the concept of the pivot, in which a company drastically changes its mission overnight, to the clichéd admonition to fail faster. But these buzzwords also hint at an underlying terror, a suspicion that the model under which such companies operate may be unable to tolerate the kind of gradual adaptation that a successful business requires. Time is an asset that most lean startups don’t have, which is why so many focus on apps or crowdsourced services that can be rapidly developed and discarded, rather than big, ambitious ideas that require complicated infrastructure to get off the ground.

Whether it’s possible to compress the kind of extended, serendipitous refinement that results in a company like Horween Leather into such unforgiving timelines, while still creating products and services that can change people’s lives, is an open question. All I know is that it’s a problem with enormous implications for our entire culture, and that the examples we find in The Distance amount to an indispensable starting point. As Bruce MacGilpin, the founder of the art storage company The Icon Group, says in the most recent story:

The thing that the old timer brings to any business is the confluence of experiences that they have over time, because sometimes you learn by trial and error and by sticking your hand in the fire when you didn’t really want to…So it’s often a difficult, evolutionary process…You try to capitalize on the right things and minimize the wrong ones.

MacGilpin doesn’t sound all that different from a startup founder fresh out of college talking at this year’s FailCon, but the process he’s describing unfolds across decades, not over eighteen months. And while money can make up part of the difference, there are also qualities that time alone can provide. What separates a company like Fantasy Costumes from the cheap pop-up stores that compete with it each October is the depth of its inventory, an assortment that has grown like a living organism over close to fifty Halloweens. It can’t be developed from scratch; time and chance selected it as much as its owner did. That’s true of everything about these firms. And the first step to understanding the challenges that affect creative endeavors of all kinds is listening very carefully to the stories that the survivors have to tell.

Written by nevalalee

November 10, 2014 at 11:18 am

The films of a life

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Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

The other week, while musing on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—which I still haven’t seen—I noted that we often don’t have the chance to experience the movies that might speak most urgently to us at the later stages of our lives. Many of us who love film encounter the movies we love at a relatively young age, and we spend our teens and twenties devouring the classics that came out before we were born. And that’s exactly how it should be: when we’re young, we have the time and energy to explore enormous swaths of the canon, and we absorb images and stories that will enrich the years to come. Yet we’re also handicapped by being relatively inexperienced and emotionally circumscribed, at least compared to later in life. We’re wowed by technical excellence, virtuoso effects, relentless action, or even just a vision of the world in which we’d like to believe. And by the time we’re old enough to judge such things more critically, we find that we aren’t watching movies as much as we once were, and it takes a real effort to seek out the more difficult, reflective masterpieces that might provide us with signposts for the way ahead.   

What we can do, however, is look back at the movies we loved when we were younger and see what they have to say to us now. I’ve always treasured Roger Ebert’s account of his shifting feelings toward Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which he called “a page-marker in my own life”:

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was ten years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him.

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

And when we realize how our feelings toward certain movies have shifted, it can be both moving and a little terrifying. Life transforms us so insidiously that it’s often only when we compare our feelings to a fixed benchmark that we become aware of the changes that have taken place. Watching Citizen Kane at twenty and again at thirty is a disorienting experience, especially when you’re hoping to make a life for yourself in the arts. Orson Welles was twenty-five when he directed it, and when you see it at twenty, it feels like both an inspiration and a challenge: part of you believes, recklessly, that you could be Welles, and the possibilities of the next few years of your life seem limitless. Looking back at it at thirty, after a decade’s worth of effort and compromise, you start to realize both the absurdity of his achievement and how singular it really is, and the movie seems suffused with what David Thomson calls Welles’s “vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” You begin to understand the ambivalence with which more experienced filmmakers regarded the Wellesian monster of energy and ambition, and it quietly affects the way you think about Kane‘s reflections on time and old age.

The more personal our attachment to a movie, the harder these lessons can be to swallow. The other night, I sat down to watch part of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, for the first time in several years. It’s a movie I thought I knew almost frame by frame, and I do, but I hadn’t taken the emotional component into account. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in high school, both for its incredible beauty and for the vision it offered of a life in the arts. Later, as I rewatched it in college and in my twenties, it provided a model, a warning, and a reminder of the values I was trying to honor. Now, after I’ve been through my own share of misadventures as a writer, it seems simultaneously like a fantasy and a bittersweet emblem of a world that still seems just out of reach. I’m older than many of the characters now—although I have yet to enter my Boris Lermontov phase—and my heart aches a little when I listen to Julian’s wistful, ambitious line: “I wonder what it feels like to wake up in the morning and find oneself famous.” If The Red Shoes once felt like a promise of what could be, it’s starting to feel to me now like what could have been, or might be again. Ten years from now, it will probably feel like something else entirely. And when that time comes, I’ll let you know what I find.

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2014 at 9:30 am

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