Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Mamet

Writing with scissors

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Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

Shoot the piano player

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frogs for snakes

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If you’re the sort of person who can’t turn away from a show business scandal with leaked memos, insider anecdotes, and accusations of bad conduct on both sides, the last two weeks have offered a pair of weirdly similar cases. The first involves Frank Darabont, the former showrunner of The Walking Dead, who was fired during the show’s second season and is now suing the network for a share of profits from the most popular series in the history of cable television. In response, AMC released a selection of Darabont’s emails intended to demonstrate that his firing was justified, and it makes for queasily riveting reading. Some are so profane that I don’t feel comfortable quoting them here, but this one gives you a sense of the tone:

If it were up to me, I’d have not only fired [these two writers] when they handed me the worst episode three script imaginable, I’d have hunted them down and f—ing killed them with a brick, then gone and burned down their homes. I haven’t even spoken to those worthless talentless hack sons-of-bitches since their third draft was phoned in after five months of all their big talk and promises that they’d dig deep and have my back covered…Calling their [script] “phoned-in” would be vastly overstating, because they were too busy wasting my time and your money to bother picking the damn phone up. Those f—ing overpaid con artists.

In an affidavit, Darabont attempted to justify his words: “Each of these emails must be considered in context. They were sent during an intense and stressful two-year period of work during which I was fighting like a mother lion to protect the show from harm…Each of these emails was sent because a ‘professional’ showed up whose laziness, indifference, or incompetence threatened to sink the ship. My tone was the result of the stress and magnitude of this extraordinary crisis. The language and hyperbole of my emails were harsh, but so were the circumstances.”

Frankly, I don’t find this quite as convincing as the third act of The Shawshank Redemption. As it happened, the Darabont emails were released a few days before a similar dispute engulfed Steve Whitmire, the puppeteer who had been performing Kermit the Frog since the death of Jim Henson. After the news broke last week that Whitmire had been fired, accounts soon emerged of his behavior that strikingly echoed the situation with Darabont: “He’d send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director,” Brian Henson told the New York Times. Whitmire has disputed the characterization: “Nobody was yelling and screaming or using inappropriate language or typing in capitals. It was strictly that I was sending detailed notes. I don’t feel that I was, in any way, disrespectful by doing that.” And his defense, like Darabont’s, stems from what he frames as a sense of protectiveness toward the show and its characters. Of a plot point involving Kermit and his nephew Robin on the defunct series The Muppets, Whitmire said to the Hollywood Reporter:

I don’t think Kermit would lie to him. I think that as Robin came to Kermit, he would say “Things happen, people go their separate ways, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about you.” Kermit is too compassionate to lie to him to spare his feelings…We have been doing these characters for a long, long time and we know them better than anybody. I thought I was aiding to keep it on track, and I think a big reason why the show was canceled…was because that didn’t happen. I am not saying my notes would have saved it, but I think had they listened more to all of the performers, it would have made a really big difference.

Unfortunately, the case of Whitmire, like that of Darabont, is more complicated than it might seem. Henson’s children have come out in support of the firing, with Brian Henson, the public face of the company, saying that he had reservations about Whitmire’s behavior for over a decade:

I have to say, in hindsight, I feel pretty guilty that I burdened Disney by not having recast Kermit at that point because I knew that it was going to be a real problem. And I have always offered that if they wanted to recast Kermit, I was all for it, and I would absolutely help. I am very glad we have done this now. I think the character is better served to remove this destructive energy around it.

Elsewhere, Lisa Henson told the Times that Whitmire had become increasingly controlling, refusing to hire an understudy and blackballing aspiring puppeteers after the studio tried to cast alternate performers, as a source said to Gizmodo: “[Steve] told Disney that the people who were in the audition room are never allowed to work with the Muppets again.” For a Muppet fan, this is all very painful, so I’ll stop here, except to venture two comments. One is that Darabont and Whitmire may well have been right to be concerned. The second is that in expressing their thoughts, they alienated a lot of the people around them, and their protectiveness toward the material ended in them being removed from the creative process altogether. If they were simply bad at giving notes—and the evidence suggests that at least Darabont was—they weren’t alone. No one gives or takes notes well. You could even argue that the whole infrastructure of movie and television production exists to make the exchange of notes, which usually goes in just one direction, incrementally less miserable. And it doesn’t work.

Both men responded by trying to absorb more creative control into themselves, which is a natural response. Brian Henson recalls Whitmire saying: “I am now Kermit, and if you want the Muppets, you better make me happy, because the Muppets are Kermit.” And the most fascinating passage in Darabont’s correspondence is his proposal for how the show ought to be run in the future:

The crew goes away or stands there silently without milling or chattering about bullshit that doesn’t apply to the job at hand…The director [and crew]…stand there and carefully read the scene out loud word for word. Especially and including all description…The important beats are identified and discussed in terms of how they are to be shot. In other words, sole creative authority is being taken out of the director’s hands. It doesn’t matter that our actors are doing good work if the cameras fail to capture it. Any questions come straight to me by phone or text. If necessary I will shoot the coverage on my iPhone and text it to the set. The staging follows the script to the letter and is no longer willy-nilly horseshit with cameras just hosing it down from whatever angle…If the director tries to not shoot what is written, the director is beaten to death on the spot. A trained monkey is brought in to complete the job.

Reading this, I found myself thinking of an analogous situation that arose when David Mamet was running The Unit. (I’m aware that The Unit wasn’t exactly a great show—I don’t think I got through more than two episodes—but my point remains the same.) Mamet, like Darabont, was unhappy with the scripts that he was getting, but instead of writing everything himself, he wrote a memo on plot structure so lucid and logical that it has been widely shared online as a model of how to tell a story. Instead of raging at those around him, he did what he could to elevate them to his level. It strikes me as the best possible response. But as Kermit might say, that’s none of my business.

Written by nevalalee

July 19, 2017 at 9:02 am

Avocado’s number

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Earlier this month, you may have noticed a sudden flurry of online discussion around avocado toast. It was inspired by a remark by a property developer named Tim Gurner, who said to the Australian version of 60 Minutes: “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocados for nineteen bucks and four coffees at four dollars each.” Gurner’s statement, which was fairly bland and unmemorable in itself, was promptly transformed into the headline “Millionaire to Millennials: Stop Buying Avocado Toast If You Want to Buy a Home.” From there, it became the target of widespread derision, with commentators pointing out that if owning a house seems increasingly out of reach for many young people, it has more to do with rising real estate prices, low wages, and student loans than with their irresponsible financial habits. And the fact that such a forgettable sentiment became the focal point for so much rage—mostly from people who probably didn’t see the original interview—implies that it merely catalyzed a feeling that had been building for some time. Millennials, it’s fair to say, have been getting it from both sides. When they try to be frugal by using paper towels as napkins, they’re accused of destroying the napkin industry, but they’re also scolded over spending too much at brunch. They’re informed that their predicament is their own fault, unless they’re also being idealized as “joyfully engaged in a project of creative destruction,” as Laura Marsh noted last year in The New Republic. “There’s nothing like being told precarity is actually your cool lifestyle choice,” Marsh wrote, unless it’s being told, as the middle class likes to maintain to the poor, that financial stability is only a matter of hard work and a few small sacrifices.

It also reflects an overdue rejection of what used to be called the latte factor, as popularized by the financial writer David Bach in such books as Smart Women Finish Rich. As Helaine Olen writes in Slate:

Bach calculated that eschewing a five-dollar daily bill at Starbucks—because who, after all, really needs anything at Starbucks?—for a double nonfat latte and biscotti with chocolate could net a prospective saver $150 a month, or $2,000 a year. If she then took that money and put it all in stocks that Bach, ever an optimist, assumed would grow at an average annual rate of eleven percent a year, “chances are that by the time she reached sixty-five, she would have more than $2 million sitting in her account.”

There are a lot of flaws in this argument. Bach rounds up his numbers, assumes an unrealistic rate of return, and ignores taxes and inflation. Most problematic of all is his core assumption that tiny acts of indulgence are what prevent the average investor from accumulating wealth. In fact, big, unpredictable risk factors and fixed expenses play a much larger role, as Olen points out:

Buying common luxury items wasn’t the issue for most Americans. The problem was the fixed costs, the things that are difficult to cut back on. Housing, health care, and education cost the average family seventy-five percent of their discretionary income in the 2000s. The comparable figure in 1973: fifty percent. Indeed, studies demonstrate that the quickest way to land in bankruptcy court was not by buying the latest Apple computer but through medical expenses, job loss, foreclosure, and divorce.

It turns out that incremental acts of daily discipline are powerless in the face of systemic factors that have a way of erasing all your efforts—and this applies to more than just personal finance. Back when I was trying to write my first novel, I was struck by the idea that if I managed to write just one hundred words every day, I’d have a manuscript in less than three years. I was so taken by this notion that I wrote it down on an index card and stuck it to my bathroom mirror. That was over a decade ago, and while I can’t quite remember how long I stuck with that regimen, it couldn’t have been more than a few weeks. Novels, I discovered, aren’t written a hundred words at a time, at least not in a fashion that can be banked in the literary equivalent of a penny jar. They’re the product of hard work combined with skills that can only be developed after a period of sustained engagement. There’s a lot of trial and error involved, and you can only arrive at a workable system through the kind of experience that comes from addressing issues of craft with maximal attention. Luck and timing also play a role, particularly when it comes navigating the countless pitfalls that lie between a finished draft and its publication. In finance, we’re inclined to look at a historical return series and attribute it after the fact to genius, rather than to variables that are out of our hands. Similarly, every successful novel creates its own origin story. We naturally underestimate the impact of factors that can’t be credited to individual initiative and discipline. As a motivational tool, there’s a place for this kind of myth. But if novels were written using the literary equivalent of the latte factor, we’d have more novels, just as we’d have more millionaires.

Which isn’t to say that routine doesn’t play a crucial role. My favorite piece of writing advice ever is what David Mamet writes in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

A lot of writing comes down to figuring out what to do on any given morning—but it doesn’t mean doing the same thing each day. Knowing what achievable steps are appropriate at every stage is as important here as it is anywhere else. You can acquire this knowledge as systematically or haphazardly as you like, but you can also do everything right and still fail in the end. (If we define failure as spending years on a novel that will never be published, it’s practically a requirement of the writer’s education.) Books on writing and personal finance continue to take up entire shelves at bookstores, and they can sound very much alike. In “The Writer’s Process,” a recent, and unusually funny, humor piece in The New Yorker, Hallie Cantor expertly skewers their tone—“I give myself permission to write a clumsy first draft and vigorously edit it later”—and concludes: “Anyway, I guess that’s my process. It’s all about repetition, really—doing the same thing every single day.” We’ve all heard this advice. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But when you don’t take the big picture into account, it’s just a load of smashed avocado.

Hollywood in Limbo

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In his essay on the fourth canto of Dante’s Inferno, which describes the circle of Limbo populated by the souls of virtuous pagans, Jorge Luis Borges discusses the notion of the uncanny, which has proven elusively hard to define:

Toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, or the end of the eighteenth, certain adjectives of Saxon or Scottish origin (eerie, uncanny, weird) came into circulation in the English language, serving to define those places or things that vaguely inspire horror…In German, they are perfectly translated by the word unheimlich; in Spanish, the best word may be siniestro.

I was reminded of this passage while reading, of all things, Benjamin Wallace’s recent article in Vanity Fair on the decline of National Lampoon. It’s a great piece, and it captures the sense of uncanniness that I’ve always associated with a certain part of Hollywood. Writing of the former Lampoon head Dan Laikin, Wallace says:

Poor choice of partners proved a recurring problem. Unable to get traction with the Hollywood establishment, Laikin appeared ready to work with just about anyone. “There were those of us who’d been in the business a long time,” [development executive Randi] Siegel says, “who told him not to do business with certain people. Dan had a tendency to trust people that were probably not the best people to trust. I think he wanted to see the good in it and change things.” He didn’t necessarily have much choice. If you’re not playing in Hollywood’s big leagues, you’re playing in its minors, which teem with marginal characters…“Everyone Danny hung out with was sketchy,” says someone who did business with Laikin. Laikin, for his part, blames the milieu: “I’m telling you, I don’t surround myself with these people. I don’t search them out. They’re all over this town.”

Years ago, I attended a talk by David Mamet in which he said something that I’ve never forgotten. Everybody gets a break in Hollywood after twenty-five years, but some get it at the beginning and others at the end, and the important thing is to be the one who stays after everyone else has gone home. Wallace’s article perfectly encapsulates that quality, which I’ve always found fascinating, perhaps because I’ve never had to live with it. It results in a stratum of players in the movie and television industry who haven’t quite broken through, but also haven’t reached the point where they drop out entirely. They end up, in short, in a kind of limbo, which Borges vividly describes in the same essay:

There is is something of the oppressive wax museum about this still enclosure: Caesar, armed and idle; Lavinia, eternally seated next to her father…A much later passage of the Purgatorio adds that the shades of the poets, who are barred from writing, since they are in the Inferno, seek to distract their eternity with literary discussions.

You could say that the inhabitants of Hollywood’s fourth circle of hell, who are barred from actually making movies, seek to distract their eternity by talking about the movies that they wish they could make. It’s easy to mock them, but there’s also something weirdly ennobling about their sheer persistence. They’re survivors in a profession where few of us would have lasted, if we even had the courage to go out there in the first place, and at a time when such people seem more likely to end up at something like the Fyre Festival, it’s nice to see that they still exist in Hollywood.

So what is it about the movie industry that draws and retains such personalities? One of its most emblematic figures is Robert Towne, who, despite his Oscar for Chinatown and his reputation as the dean of American screenwriters, has spent his entire career looking like a man on the verge of his big break. If Hollywood is Limbo, Towne is its Caesar, “armed and idle,” and he’s been there for five decades. Not surprisingly, he has a lot of insight into the nature of that hell. In his interview with John Brady in The Craft of the Screenwriter, Towne says:

You are often involved with a producer who is more interested in making money on the making of the movie than he is on the releasing of the movie. There is a lot of money to be made on the production of a movie, not just in salary, but all sorts of ways that are just not altogether honest. So he’s going to make his money on the making, which is really reprehensible.

“Movies are so difficult that you should really make movies that you feel you absolutely have to make,” Towne continues—and the fact that this happens so rarely implies that the studio ecosystem is set up for something totally different. Towne adds:

It’s easier for a director and an actor to be mediocre and get away with it than it is for a writer. Even a writer who happens to be mediocre has to work pretty hard to get through a script, whereas a cameraman will say to the director, “Where do you think you want to put the camera? You want it here? All right, I’m going to put it here.” In other words, a director can be carried along by the production if he’s mediocre, to some extent; and that’s true of an actor, too.

Towne tosses off these observations without dwelling on them, knowing that there’s plenty more where they came from, but if you put them together, you end up with a pretty good explanation of why Hollywood is the way it is. It’s built to profit from the making of movies, rather than from the movies themselves, which is only logical: if it depended on success at the box office, everybody would be out of a job. The industry also has structures in place that allow people to skate by for years without any particular skills, if they manage to stick to the margins. (In any field where past success is no guarantee of future performance, it’s the tall poppies that get their heads chopped off.) Under such conditions, survival isn’t a matter of talent, but of something much less definable. A brand like National Lampoon, which has been leveled by time but retains some of its old allure, draws such people like a bright light draws fish in the abyss, and it provides a place where they can be studied. The fact that Kato Kaelin makes an appearance in these circles shouldn’t be surprising—he’s the patron saint of those who hang on for decades for no particular reason. And it’s hard not to relate to the hope that sustains them:

“What everyone always does at the company is feel like something big is about to happen, and I want to be here for it,” [creative director] Marty Dundics says. “We’re one hit movie away from, or one big thing away from, being back on top. It’s always this underdog you’re rooting for. And you don’t want to miss it. That big thing that’s about to happen. That was always the mood.”

Extend that mood across a quarter of a century, and you have Hollywood, which also struggles against the realization that Borges perceives in Limbo: “The certainty that tomorrow will be like today, which was like yesterday, which was like every day.”

The sound and the furry

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Last week, the podcast 99% Invisible devoted an episode to the editing and sound design tricks used by the makers of nature documentaries. For obvious reasons, most footage in the wild is captured from a distance using zoom lenses, and there’s no equivalent for sound, which means that unless David Attenborough himself is standing in the shot, the noises that you’re hearing were all added later. Foley artists will recreate hoofbeats or the footsteps of lions by running their hands over pits filled with gravel, while animal vocalizations can be taken from sound catalogs or captured by recordists working nowhere near the original shoot. This kind of artifice strikes me as forgivable, but there are times when the manipulation of reality crosses a line. In the fifties Disney documentary White Wilderness, lemmings were shown hurling themselves into the ocean, which required a helping hand: “The producers took the lemmings to a cliff in Alberta and, in some scenes, used a turntable device to throw them off the edge. Not only was it staged, but lemmings don’t even do this on their own. Scientists now know that the idea of a mass lemming suicide ritual is entirely apocryphal.” And then there’s the movie Wolves, which rented wolves from a game farm and filmed them in an artificial den. When Chris Palmer, the director, was asked about the scene at a screening, it didn’t go well:

Palmer’s heart sank, but he decided to come clean, and when he did, he could feel the excitement leave the room. Up to this moment, he had assumed people wouldn’t care. “But they do care,” he realized. “They are assuming they are seeing the truth…things that are authentic and genuine.”

When viewers realize that elements of nature documentaries utilize the same techniques as other genres of filmmaking, they tend to feel betrayed. When you think about the conditions under which such movies are produced, however, it shouldn’t be surprising. If every cut is a lie, as Godard famously said, that’s even more true when you’re dealing with animals in the wild. As David Mamet writes in On Directing Film:

Documentaries take basically unrelated footage and juxtapose it in order to give the viewer the idea the filmmaker wants to convey. They take footage of birds snapping a twig. They take footage of a fawn raising its head. The two shots have nothing to do with each other. They were shot days or years, and miles, apart. And the filmmaker juxtaposes the images to give the viewer the idea of great alertness. The shots have nothing to do with each other. They are not a record of what the protagonist did. They are not a record of how the deer reacted to the bird. They’re basically uninflected images. But they give the viewer the idea of alertness to danger when they are juxtaposed. That’s good filmmaking.

Mamet is trying to make a point about how isolated images—which have little choice but to be “uninflected” when the actors are some birds and a deer—can be combined to create meaning, and he chose this example precisely because the narrative emerges from nothing but that juxtaposition. But it also gets at something fundamental about the grammar of the wildlife documentary itself, which trains us to think about nature in terms of stories. And that’s a fiction in itself.

You could argue that a movie that purports to be educational or “scientific” has no business engaging in artifice of any kind, but in fact, it’s exactly in that context that this sort of manipulation is most justified. Scientific illustration is often used when a subject can’t be photographed directly—as in Ken Marschall’s wonderful paintings for Dr. Robert D. Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic—or when more information can conveyed through an idealized situation. In Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s detailed drawings: “In the case of the vertebrate species, her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can plausibly be included in one scene.” Landry’s compositions of a troop of baboons or a herd of elephants could never have been captured in a photograph, but they get at a truth that is deeper than reality, or at least more useful. As the nature illustrator Jonathan Kingdon writes in Field Notes on Science and Nature:

Even an outline sketch that bears little relationship to the so-called objectivity of a photograph might actually transmit information to another human being more selectively, sometimes even more usefully, than a photograph. For example, a few quick sketches of a hippopotamus allow the difference between sexes, the peculiar architecture of amphibious existence in a giant quadruped, and the combination of biting and antlerlike clashing of enlarged lower jaws to be appreciated at a glance…”Outline drawings”…can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent.

On some level, nature documentaries fall into much the same category, providing us with idealized situations and narratives in order to facilitate understanding. (You could even say that the impulse to find a story in nature is a convenient tool in itself. It’s no more “true” than the stories that we tell about human history, but those narratives, as Walter Pater observes of philosophical theories, “may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.”) If anything, our discomfort with more extreme kinds of artifice has more to do with an implicit violation of the contract between the filmmaker and the audience. We expect that the documentarian will go into the field and shoot hundreds of hours of footage in search of the few minutes—or seconds—that will amaze us. As Jesse David Fox of Vulture wrote of the stunning iguana and snake chase from the new Planet Earth series: “This incredible footage is the result of the kind of extreme luck that only comes with hard work. A camera crew worked from dusk to dawn for weeks filming the exact spot, hoping something would happen, and if it did, that the camera would be in focus.” After shooting the hatchlings for weeks, they finally ended up with their “hero” iguana, and this combination of luck and preparation is what deserves to be rewarded. Renting wolves or throwing lemmings off a cliff seems like a form of cheating, an attempt to fit the story to the script, rather than working with what nature provided. But the boundary isn’t always clear. Every documentary depends on a sort of artificial selection, with the best clips making it into the finished result in a kind of survival of the fittest. But there’s also a lot of intelligent design.

The Mule and the Beaver

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If you wanted to construct the most prolific writer who ever lived, working from first principles, what features would you include? (We’ll assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that he’s a man.) Obviously, he would need to be capable of turning out clean, publishable prose at a fast pace and with a minimum of revision. He would be contented—even happy—within the physical conditions of writing itself, which requires working indoors at a desk alone for hours on end. Ideally, he would operate within a genre, either fiction or nonfiction, that lent itself to producing pages fairly quickly, but with enough variety to prevent burnout, since he’d need to maintain a steady clip every day for years. His most productive period would coincide with an era that gave him steady demand for his work, and he would have a boundless energy that was diverted early on toward the goal of producing more books. If you were particularly clever, you’d even introduce a psychological wrinkle: the act of writing would become his greatest source of satisfaction, as well as an emotional refuge, so that he would end up taking more pleasure in it than almost anything else in life. Finally, you’d provide him with cooperative publishers and an enthusiastic, although not overwhelming, readership, granting him a livelihood that was comfortable but not quite lavish enough to be distracting. Wind him up, let him run unimpeded for three or four decades, and how many books would you get? In the case of Isaac Asimov, the total comes to something like five hundred. Even if it isn’t quite enough to make him the most productive writer of all time, it certainly places him somewhere in the top ten. And it’s a career that followed all but axiomatically from the characteristics that I’ve listed above.

Let’s take these points one at a time. Asimov, like all successful pulp writers, learned how to crank out decent work on deadline, usually limiting himself to a first draft and a clean copy, with very little revision that wasn’t to editorial order. (And he wasn’t alone here. The pulps were an unforgiving school, and they quickly culled authors who weren’t able to write a sentence well enough the first time.) From a young age, Asimov was also drawn to enclosed, windowless spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he had a persistent daydream about running a newsstand in the subway, where he could put up the shutter and read magazines in peace. After he began to write for a living, he was equally content to work in his attic office for up to ten hours a day. Yet it wasn’t fiction that accounted for the bulk of his output—which is a common misconception about his career—but a specific kind of nonfiction. Asimov was a prolific fiction writer, but no more so than many of his contemporaries. It was in nonfiction for general readers that he really shone, initially with such scientific popularizations as The Chemicals of Life and Inside the Atom. At first, his work drew on his academic and professional background in chemistry and biochemistry, but before long, he found that he was equally adept at explaining concepts from the other sciences, as well as such unrelated fields as history and literature. His usual method was to work straight from reference books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, translating and organizing their concepts for a lay audience. As he once joked to Martin Gardner: “You mean you’re in the same racket I am? You just read books by the professors and rewrite them?”

This kind of writing is harder than it sounds. Asimov noted, correctly, that he added considerable value in arranging and presenting the material, and he was better at it than just about anyone else. (A faculty member at Boston University once observed him at work and exclaimed: “Why, you’re just copying the dictionary!” Asimov, annoyed, handed the dictionary to him and said: “Here. The dictionary is yours. Now go write the book.”) But it also lent itself admirably to turning out a lot of pages in a short period of time. Unlike fiction, it didn’t require him to come up with original ideas from scratch. As soon as he had enough projects in the hopper, he could switch between them freely to avoid becoming bored by any one subject. He could write treatments of the same topic for different audiences and cannibalize unsold material for other venues. In the years after Sputnik, there was plenty of demand for what he had to offer, and he had a ready market for short articles that could be collected into books. And since these were popular treatments of existing information, he could do all of the work from the comfort of his own office. Asimov hated to fly, and he actively avoided assignments that would require him to travel or do research away from home. Before long, his productivity became a selling point in itself, and when his wife told him that life was passing him by, Asimov responded: “If I do manage to publish a hundred books, and if I then die, my last words are likely to be, ‘Only a hundred!’” Writing became a place of security, both from life’s small crises and as an escape from an unhappy marriage, and it was also his greatest source of pleasure. When his daughter asked him what he would do if he had to choose between her and writing, Asimov said: “Why, I would choose you, dear.” But he adds: “But I hesitated—and she noticed that, too.”

Asimov was a complicated man—certainly more so than in the version of himself that he presented to the public—and he can’t be reduced to a neat set of factors. He wasn’t a robot. But those five hundred books represent an achievement so overwhelming that it cries out for explanation, and it wouldn’t exist if certain variables, both external and internal, hadn’t happened to align. In terms of his ability and ambition, Asimov was the equal of Campbell, Heinlein, or Hubbard, but in place of their public entanglements, he channeled his talents into a safer direction, where it grew to gargantuan proportions that only hint at how monstrous that energy and passion really were. (He was also considerably younger than the others, as well as more naturally cautious, and I’d like to believe that he drew a negative lesson from their example.) The result, remarkably, made him the most beloved writer of them all. It was a cultural position, outside the world of science fiction, that was due almost entirely to the body of his nonfiction work as a whole. He never had a bestseller until late in his career, but the volume and quality of his overall output were enough to make him famous. Asimov was the Mule, the unassuming superman of the Foundation series, but he conquered a world from his typewriter. He won the game. And when I think of how his talent, productivity, and love of enclosed spaces combined to produce a fortress made of books, I think of what David Mamet once said to The Paris Review. When asked to explain why he wrote, Mamet replied: “I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.”

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2017 at 9:54 am

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