Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dan Kois

The dreamlife of angels

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A few weeks ago, I finally got my hands on a copy of The World Only Spins Forward, the oral history of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. The journalists Isaac Butler and Dan Kois have delivered a book that feels indispensable, particularly at this historical moment, and it’s impossible to open it to a random page without being immediately sucked into the narrative. Its most vivid figure, not surprisingly, is Kushner himself, who emerges both as an authentic genius and as an insufferable collaborator. Here, for instance, is the account of his first viewing of Declan Donnellan’s landmark production in London:

Kushner: I typed up my notes on the plane flying back to the United States. I spent the entire flight just typing up notes. There were, like, fifty pages of notes. I hit the send button on the fax machine as soon as I landed, not thinking about what time it was in London.

Donnellan: Nick [Ormerod] and I came home, and I thought we’d been burgled because there was so much paper floating around! It turned out it was all coming from the fax machine.

And the director Oskar Eustis recalls: “The way Tony gives notes on his shows is incredibly difficult for every director he’s ever worked with. There’s a few directors who have essentially turned the room over to Tony and let him do the line-by-line work with the actors. There are directors who have barred Tony from the room and forced him to accept it. But there’s never been the ‘normal’ relationship between playwright and director with Tony. It doesn’t exist.”

Yet as much as I enjoyed Butler and Kois’s book, which should be required reading for anyone interested in politics or theater, it leaves one aspect of the story unexplored. Kushner is present throughout as an activist, an intellectual, a creative force, and a prickly personality, but only rarely as a writer. We hear surprisingly little about the decisions that went into the construction of these two massive plays. As far as the oral version is concerned, it’s as if Kushner took his grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, went away for a while, and came back with Millennium Approaches. Even his struggles with Perestroika, which he has never finished revising, occur mostly offstage. The closest we get to a look at his process is a tantalizing glimpse like this:

Kushner: We made a mistake. When I wrote Perestroika, it was five acts long. We had this play, Millennium Approaches, that everybody was really loving. Oskar and I both felt that Perestroika should replicate it in some way. It was inevitable that we were going to try to squeeze Perestroika into a three-act structure. It doesn’t work in three acts…

Eustis: The thing he did, and it remains the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen a writer do: he took this difficulty of making these characters change and he made it the content of the play.

This is heady stuff, but it just leaves us wanting more. And when Kushner does appear in the book, it’s often in the thankless role of a giver of notes, not that of the artist who somehow set this whole unlikely project into motion in the first place.

The picture that emerges is that of a play shaped profoundly by its cast and directors, which seems fair enough—Kushner wrote many of these roles for the actors who originally performed them in San Francisco. But also points to a weakness of the oral history format itself. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen an explosion in the form, both online and in print, and I’ve devoted entire posts here to similar books about the Creative Artists Agency and Saturday Night Live. And it isn’t difficult to see why they’re so popular. When properly done, they’re compulsively readable, and it’s much easier to envision the average reader plowing through ten thousand words of oral history than a conventional article of the same length. (For me, the ultimate example remains the twelve thousand words that Thrillist devoted to a single scene from The Avengers.) It also has its problems, as The World Only Spins Forward, which is an exemplary model of the genre, makes all too clear. It values the anecdotal over the introspective. The fact that it depends on good stories means that it can overstate how much of a phenomenon took place in public, or overemphasize the importance of elements that lend themselves to retelling. It naturally hinges on the candor and cooperation of the participants, which means that Kushner’s reticence about his own creative process leaves a hole in the narrative, however open he might be on other topics. When you rely entirely on the voices of others, it can lead to insights that wouldn’t emerge in any other way, but it also means that certain subjects receive less attention than they deserve. You can’t write an oral history about how a play was written in private, which would require a combination of memoir, interview, and textual analysis that just isn’t possible in the oral form. And the result serves as a reminder between the difference between history and what another gay icon once called “the bones from which someday a man might make history.”

None of this would matter if Butler and Kois’s book weren’t so good, and its limits only serve to highlight Kushner’s genius. The greatness of Angels in America lies precisely in its ability to orchestrate a range of voices, including ones that had rarely been seen before on the stage, and to fit them into a compelling structure. It demands something more than simple transcription, including weird, intuitive choices of the kind that an oral history can never completely manage. (Kushner’s play also deserves credit for making its viewers uncomfortable. The book compares its cultural impact to that of Hamilton, which is comparatively reluctant to explore the darker aspects of American history. Hamilton isn’t likely to disturb or implicate you unless you’re actually Mike Pence, and I have little doubt that Angels, which inspired protests as well as huge box office, is ultimately the greater work of art.) It’s the kind of play that could only have emerged through much solitary, unglamorous work, and it’s this unspoken element that may end up being the most instructive. We’re living in a time in which private life is under constant threat of being obliterated by the public, which may be another reason why oral history is thriving. At such moments, it can seem hard to justify the creation of imaginative literature, much of which necessarily occurs out of sight. The World Only Spins Forward is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and it provides a crucial perspective as we try to figure out what kind of culture we’re going to get out of this agonized period of regression and rebellion, which has so much in common with the decade that produced Angels in America. But it takes a real effort of the will to keep the silent, lonely, even prophetic figure of the writer alive in the murmur of so many other voices. And that’s where the great work begins.

The Uncanny Birdman

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Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

Frankly, I don’t think anyone needs to read an entire blog post on how I felt about the Oscars. You can’t throw a stone—or an Emma Stone—today without hitting a handful of think pieces, of which the one by Dan Kois on Slate is typical: he hyperbolically, though not inaccurately, describes the win of Birdman over Boyhood as the ceremony’s greatest travesty in twenty years. So I’m not alone when I say that after an afternoon of doing my taxes, the four hours I spent watching last night’s telecast were only marginally more engaging. It wasn’t a debacle of Seth MacFarlane proportions, but it left me increasingly depressed, and not even the sight of Julie Andrews embracing Lady Gaga, which otherwise ought to feel like the apotheosis of our culture, could pull me out of my funk. It all felt like a long slog toward the sight of a movie I loved getting trounced by one I like less with every passing day. Yet I’m less interested in unpacking the reasons behind the snub than in trying to figure out why this loss stings more than usual, especially because indignation over the Best Picture winner is all but an annual tradition. The most deserving nominee rarely, if ever, wins; it’s much more surprising when it happens than when it doesn’t. So why did this year’s outcome leave me so unhappy?

I keep coming back to the idea of the uncanny valley. You probably know that Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, was the first to point out that as the appearance of an artificial creature grows more lifelike, our feelings toward it become steadily more positive—but when it becomes almost but not quite human, small differences and discrepancies start to outweigh any points of similarity, and our empathy for it falls off a cliff. It’s why we can easily anthropomorphize and love the Muppets, but we’re turned off by the dead eyes of the characters in The Polar Express, and find zombies the most loathsome of all. (Zombies, at least, are meant to be terrifying; cognitively, it’s more troubling when we’re asked to react warmly to a digital Frankenstein that just wants to give us a hug.) And there’s an analogous principle at work when it comes to art. A bad movie, or one that falls comfortably outside our preferences, can be ignored or even enjoyed on its own terms, but if it feels like a zombified version of something we should love, it repels us. If a movie like The King’s Speech wins Best Picture, I’m not entirely bothered by this: it looks more or less like the kind of film the Oscars like to honor, and I can regard it as a clunky but harmless machine, even if it wasn’t made for me. But Birdman is exactly the kind of movie I ought to love, but don’t, so its win feels strangely creepy, even as it represents a refreshingly unconventional choice.

Edward Norton in Fight Club

The uncanny valley troubles us because it’s a parody of ourselves: we’re forced to see the human face as it might appear to another species, which makes us wonder if our own standards of beauty might be equally alienating if our perspectives were shifted a degree to one side. That’s true of movies, too; a film that hits all the right marks but leaves us cold forces us to question why, exactly, we like what we do. For me, the classic example has always been Fight Club. Like Birdman, it’s a movie of enormous technical facility—ingenious, great to look at, and stuffed with fine performances. To its credit, it has more real ideas in any ten minutes, however misguided, than Birdman has in its entirety. Yet I’ve always disliked it, precisely because it devotes so much craft to a story with a void at its center. It’s the ultimate instance of cleverness as an end in itself, estranging us from its characters, its material, and its muddled message with a thousand acts of meaningless virtuosity. And I push back against it with particular force because it’s exactly the kind of movie that someone like me, who wasn’t me, might call a masterpiece. (It may not be an accident that both Birdman and Fight Club benefit from the presence of Edward Norton, who, like Kevin Spacey, starts as a blank but fills out each role with countless fiendishly clever decisions. If you’re going to make a movie like this at all, he’s the actor you want in your corner.)

As a result, the Oscars turned into a contest, real or perceived, between Boyhood, which reflected the most moving and meaningful memories of my own life despite having little in common with it, and Birdman, which confronted me with a doppelgänger of my feelings as a moviegoer. It’s no wonder I reacted so strongly. Yet perhaps it isn’t all bad. Birdman at least represents the return of Michael Keaton, an actor we didn’t know how much we’d missed until he came roaring back into our lives. And if David Fincher could rebound from Fight Club to become one of the two or three best directors of his generation, the same might be true of Iñárritu—although it isn’t encouraging that he’s been so richly rewarded for indulging in all his worst tendencies. Still, as Iñárritu himself said in his acceptance speech, time is the real judge. The inevitable backlash to Birdman, which is already growing, should have the effect of gently restoring it to its proper place, while Boyhood’s stature will only increase. As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, Birdman is an audacious experiment that never needs to be repeated, while we need so many more movies like Boyhood, not so much because of its production schedule as because of its genuine curiosity, warmth, and generosity towards real human beings. As Mark Harris puts it, so rightly, on Grantland: “Birdman, after all, is a movie about someone who hopes to create something as good as Boyhood.”

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2015 at 10:00 am

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