Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Simon

The Wire cutter

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Clarke Peters on The Wire

Earlier this week, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, posted a fascinating piece on his blog about the recent conversion of the series from standard to high definition. Like everything Simon writes, it’s prickly, dense with ideas, and doesn’t sugarcoat his own opinions. He has mixed feelings about the new release, and although he ultimately comes down in favor of it, he doesn’t exactly give it a ringing endorsement:

At the last, I’m satisfied that while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has significant merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups, and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.

The whole post is worth a read, both for its insights and for its reminder of how much craft went into making this great series so convincing and unobtrusive. We don’t tend to think of The Wire as a visually meticulous show, in the manner of Mad Men or House of Cards, but of course it was, except that its style was designed not to draw attention to itself—which requires just as many subtle decisions, if not more.

Simon likes to present himself as a visual naif, “some ex-police reporter in Baltimore” who found himself making a television series almost by accident, but he’s as smart on the subject of filmmaking he is on anything else. Here he is on the development of the show’s visual style, as overseen by the late director Bob Colesberry:

Crane shots didn’t often help, and anticipating a moment or a line of dialogue often revealed the filmmaking artifice. Better to have the camera react and acquire, coming late on a line now and then. Better to have the camera in the flow of a housing-project courtyard or squad room, calling less attention to itself as it nonetheless acquired the tale.

Compare this to the exchange between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut in their famous interview:

Hitchcock: When a character who has been seated stands up to walk around a room, I will never change the angle or move the camera back. I always start the movement on the closeup…In most movies, when two people are seen talking together, you have a closeup on one of them, a closeup on the other…and suddenly the camera jumps back for a long shot, to show one of the characters rising to walk around. It’s wrong to handle it that way.

Truffaut: Yes, because that technique precedes the action instead of accompanying it. It allows the public to guess that one of the characters is about to stand up, or whatever. In other words, the camera should never anticipate what’s about to follow.

David Simon

As it happened, when The Wire premiered twelve years ago, widescreen televisions were just coming on the market, and the industry shift toward high definition occurred about two seasons in, after the show had already established its defining look. Simon notes that he felt that a shift to widescreen halfway through the run of the series—as The West Wing was among the first to attempt—would draw unwanted attention to its own fictionality:

To deliver the first two seasons in one template and then to switch-up and provide the remaining seasons in another format would undercut our purpose tremendously, simply by calling attention to the manipulation of the form itself. The whole story would become less real, and more obviously, a film that was suddenly being delivered in an altered aesthetic state. And story, to us, is more important than aesthetics.

In the end, The Wire took a more subtle approach. Each scene was shot in widescreen, but composed for a 4:3 image, and the decision was made early on to tell much of the story in medium shots, with minimal use of closeups. This served the needs of the narrative while granting the show some flexibility when it came to the prospect of a future conversion, which, if nothing else, is easier now than ever before. (During the filming of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra spent most of one night manually enlarging every frame of the scene in which Jimmy Stewart breaks down while praying: it was a spontaneous, irreproducible moment, and they couldn’t get a closeup in any other way. These days, as I noted in my piece on The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, you can do it with a click of a mouse.)

Still, there are always tradeoffs. This isn’t the first time a filmmaker has been forced to deal with shifting formats, and when you look back on the two most significant previous moments in the history of aspect ratios—the introduction of CinemaScope and the dawn of home video—you find directors and producers struggling with similar issues. Many early movies shot on widescreen, from Oklahoma! to Around the World in Eighty Days to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, were actually filmed twice, with an alternate version prepared for theaters that hadn’t yet made the conversion. And we know that the problem of filming a movie both for theatrical release and for television obsessed Kubrick, who composed each shot for The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut so that it could be shown either letterboxed or in full frame. (Kubrick was good, but not perfect: the full frame versions, which expose regions of the image that would be matted in theaters, occasionally lead to small goofs, like the shadow of the helicopter clearly visible in one of the opening shots of The Shining.) Making movies at such transitional moments is an inevitable part of the evolution of the medium, but it’s never fun: you find yourself simultaneously dealing with the past and some unforeseen future, when the present provides plenty of challenges of its own.

Exorcising the ghosts

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George Saunders

Over the weekend, The New York Times Style Magazine ran a fascinating series of short pieces by writers confronting their own early work. (The occasion for the feature is an auction being held at Christie’s next month by PEN American Center, in which seventy-five first editions with annotations by their authors will go up for sale. If I could get just one, it would be David Simon’s copy of Homicide.) The reflections here are full of intriguing insights, one of which I quoted here on Sunday. There’s Philip Roth’s description of the analytic session in Portnoy’s Complaint as “an appropriate vessel” for the kind of uncensored, frequently repellent story he wanted to write—a nice reminder of how a novel’s most distinctive qualities often represent a solution to particular narrative problems. I also liked George Saunders’s account of revisiting his first collection of short stories, which is full of “ghost-phrases” that he was positive were there, but must have been cut along the way. The version of a story that a writer carries in his or her head is an amalgam of variations, with each draft superimposed over the one before, and it sometimes bears little resemblance to what finally ended up in print.

But the comment that stuck with me the most was from Lydia Davis, who writes tightly compressed, elliptical short stories, some of them only a paragraph long. (I’ve only read a few of them, but they’re extraordinary—worthy contributions to a tradition of parables that goes back through Borges and Kafka. Of all contemporary writers whose work I feel I need to study more closely, Davis is near the top, largely because her virtues are so different from mine.) Appropriately enough, her contribution isn’t much longer than most of the stories that inspired it, but it’s been rattling around in my head ever since:

I read a story through again and again, whether it’s a long story or a short one (or a very very short one). If anything bothers me, even very subtly, I reread it many times, consider alternatives, put the story away for a while, read it again. I don’t consider a story finished until nothing bothers me anymore—though there are a few stories that never completely satisfied me but that I felt were good enough to go out in the world as they were. I simply couldn’t think what more I could do to them.

Lydia Davis

And the line that really gets me is “until nothing bothers me anymore.” On some level, that’s the only standard to which writers ought to hold themselves, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction: “When the amateur writer lets a bad sentence stand in his final draft, though he knows it’s bad, the sin is frigidity.” The trouble, of course, is that revising a story is like trying to catch a trout with your bare hands. Whenever you think you’ve got a grip on it, it slips through, and one change can set off a series of little crises elsewhere in the draft. To switch to another metaphor, it’s like the horseshoe nail that lost the kingdom: revising a word in a sentence can change the rhythm, which throws off the paragraph, and suddenly the entire chapter—or the whole novel—needs to be rethought. And I’m only slightly exaggerating. At the moment, I’m nearing the end of a significant rewrite of my current novel, with a long list of changes big and small, and although most live on the level of the sentence or paragraph, I won’t know how they really play until I sit down tonight and read the whole thing straight through. That read, in turn, will suggest additional changes, meaning that the novel has to be read yet again, and so on and so forth until I collide with my deadline on Friday.

Ideally, each round of changes will be less extensive than the one before, gradually converging, like a function approaching its limit, at the story’s ideal form, or at least something close enough. This seems to be what Davis is describing, and it’s clear that her stories demand nothing less: they’re so condensed and intense, like poetry, that a single wrong word would tear them apart. The problem is that even as the story nears its perfect shape, if it even exists, the author is changing in the meantime: the standards you had when you started may not be the ones you have now, after you’ve been shaped by the work itself. Much of writing consists of managing that threefold relationship between the story, your original intentions, and whatever you’re feeling today. When the process doesn’t go perfectly, which is to say most of the time, you end up with the ghost-phrases that Saunders describes, a mismatch between the story in your head and its published form. Davis seems determined to exorcise those ghosts, and by her own account, she usually succeeds. She wouldn’t be here if she didn’t. And if the rest of us are still haunted by our ghost-phrases, well, we can take heart in the words of Jez Butterworth, who notes that a matter of milliseconds can make the difference between nearly and really—even if the process can start to feel a little like Butterworth’s own script for Edge of Tomorrow. You try, fail, and repeat.

The white piece of paper

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Rob Lowe on The West Wing

“Why is this so hard?”
“‘Cause it’s a white piece of paper.”
“How high are the stakes?”
“How high can you count?”
“So what do you do?”
“Whatever it takes to get started. And we read new memos, and we try new themes, and we hear new slogans, and we test new lines, and after a few weeks of that…we’ve still got a white piece of paper.”

The West Wing, “100,000 Airplanes”

The first three seasons of The West Wing have a lot of virtues—along with some equally obvious flaws—but what I like about it the most is that it’s fundamentally a show about writing. When you’re an author entering an unfamiliar world or profession, even one that you’ve meticulously researched and explored, you naturally look for a hook that allows you to relate it to your own experience. A show called The West Wing could have focused on any element of the executive branch, but it’s no accident that Aaron Sorkin ended up centering so much of it on a speechwriter, a communications director, and a press secretary, all of whom spend most of their time dealing with words.

I’ve been hard on Sorkin in the past, mostly due to my disappointment in the first season of The Newsroom, but there’s no denying that he’s as adept as anyone alive at filling that blank piece of paper. Sometimes, his facility can be a problem in itself: he has a way of falling back on old tricks, bombast, straw men, and a lovingly crafted simulation of the way intelligent people talk. Yet even the worst of his vices go hand in hand with tremendous strengths, and we only need to compare Sorkin to other writers who have tried and failed to write smart characters—as in every line of dialogue in Dan Brown’s novels—to remember how talented he really is. It’s impossible to watch an extended run of The West Wing, as my wife and I have been doing over the last few weeks, and not emerge wanting to sound smarter and more capable. And when I feel the need to punch up the dialogue in my own work, I’ll often go back to reread a few old West Wing transcripts in hopes of picking up some of that magic.

Rob Lowe on The West Wing

Of course, The West Wing works because it takes place in a world that can sustain a heightened conversational register. Everyone is blindingly smart, as well as on the right side of history, and you can sometimes sense Sorkin straining when called upon to write characters of different backgrounds or opinions. If the show has one glaring weakness, it’s that enormous chunks of dialogue could easily be transposed from one player to another without much in the way of revision: everyone shares the same values, and if the characters stay distinct in our minds, it’s thanks more to performance and delivery than writing. Compare it to a show like The Wire, which adeptly handles so many different voices, and The West Wing can start to seem limited. In some ways, it’s an expression of the different ways in which Sorkin and David Simon—a veteran reporter for the Baltimore Sun—came to television: instead of will and craft rising to create a simulation of experience, it’s experience straining to bend craft to accommodate all the things it needs to say.

And what fascinates me the most about The West Wing, when viewed from a distance of so many years, is how fully its politics are an expression of a shrewd narrative strategy. Many of us catch ourselves wishing that our real policymakers were as articulate and principled as the ones here, but it’s a fantasy created less by a coherent vision of politics than by a writing style. The show’s idealism, which everyone agrees was its most striking characteristic, isn’t a political or philosophical stance, but a set of tactics that allowed Sorkin to maneuver so gracefully within a narrow range. (You can say much the same thing about the cynicism of House of Cards: it’s easier to write a television show when everyone breathes the same air, whether it’s tainted or pure.) The West Wing came to mean so much to so many people because it happened to be written by a man whose talents were best exercised within a show that gave us our best versions of ourselves. It’s as happy a marriage between talent and subject as television has ever provided. But it all emerged from those small daily choices and compromises demanded by a white piece of paper.

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July 14, 2014 at 10:09 am

“I knew you were coming…”

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"The police are downstairs..."

(Note: This post is the fortieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 39. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I don’t write mysteries; I write suspense. The two genres are often conflated, and I’ll sometimes see myself categorized as a mystery novelist, but there’s an important distinction between the two. Mysteries are ultimately about who committed a crime, with the revelation of the killer’s identity withheld until the end, while suspense novels are more about how and why the crime was committed, and how to stop or capture the criminal. There can be an element of mystery along the way, of course, and both of my published novels include a few big revelation scenes, but they’re ultimately more about the chase than the investigation. I love a good mystery, and expect that I’ll try my hand at one eventually—I have a particular weakness for the locked room variety, like The Three Coffins or Rim of the Pit—but they require an entirely distinct set of skills, with the emphasis less on action than on constructing an airtight puzzle. In the meantime, though, I’m writing suspense, which means that I’m occasionally forced to make choices that no honest mystery author would condone.

In my novels, for instance, people tend to confess rather easily. As we’ve all learned from David Simon, a good interrogation scene is an art form in itself, and the best, at least in fiction, do a masterful job of tacking toward and away from the truth, as the suspect’s evasions and inconsistencies weave themselves into a snug little noose. This sort of thing takes time, however, and in my own work, I’m often torn between the need to make a scene like this plausible without detracting from the overall momentum of the plot. As a result, I’m sometimes obliged to stage a confrontation, interrogation, and confession in the course of a single chapter, just so the story can advance without interruption to the next phase. I try my best to make the result read as smoothly as possible, but it’s an issue that more than one reader has raised, to the point where I sometimes feel that I’ve fallen into the trap of countless bad courtroom dramas, in which a confession on the witness stand occurs at the most convenient possible time.

"I knew you were coming..."

All the same, I think it’s the right choice, especially when you take the big picture into account. A suspense novel, at least in the form that I’ve tried to tackle, is a lot like a shark: it needs to keep moving to stay alive. This results in a lot of narrative shortcuts, which, as William Goldman has pointed out, are really intended to save time. In my books, as in most television procedurals, forensic analysis takes place a little faster than it would in the real world, investigations have fewer dead ends, and a confession can sometimes be obtained in an hour—or fifteen minutes—when the demands of the plot require it. Writing a novel like The Icon Thief requires a kind of ongoing triangulation between plausibility and momentum, and having been through the process a few times on my own, I’m much more forgiving of other narratives that do the same thing. And when a book or movie is really good, like L.A. Confidential, it can stage an interrogation in a way that reveals character, advances the plot, and remains believable, all in the course of a few tense minutes.

There’s nothing in The Icon Thief as good as the interrogation scene in L.A. Confidential, but I did what I could to make my shortcuts as unobjectionable as possible. Chapter 39, for example, has to cover an unbelievable amount of ground in less than nine pages: Powell and Wolfe need to confront Natalia Onegina—a character we’ve only seen a couple of times before—and get her to confess to her sister’s accidental death, while also providing backstory and explaining how the murder ties into to the larger art world narrative. To my eyes, the result works fairly well, but it’s highly compressed, and in a true mystery novel, I probably would have spread this material over more than one chapter. Structurally, however, I didn’t have much of a choice, and although I did my best to pack the scene with as many beats of resistance, evasion, misdirection, and compulsion as possible, the fact that they unfold so quickly strains the fabric of the novel’s reality a little more than I would like. For what it is, though, it’s a tightly constructed scene, and it allows us to move quickly to what comes next. We’re going on a raid tonight…

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2013 at 8:49 am

“The boy in the cooler was looking rather the worse for wear…”

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"The boy in the cooler..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 30. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Everybody loves a good autopsy scene. There are few narrative tropes, in fact, where our experience of something in fiction bears such a slender relation to what our feelings about it would be in real life. We’re all fascinated by autopsies in novels or onscreen, when we might not last more than a minute or two in an actual morgue, and resent being confronted by images of real death or decay. It isn’t hard to pin down the roots of this fascination: an autopsy scene provides a safe zone, within the comforting confines of the crime procedural, for us to look squarely at issues of death, disease, and the human body that we otherwise might like to forget. Forensic pathology has its own lore and body of knowledge, like any technical trade, and in this case, it’s being applied to a machine with which we’re all intimately familiar. And although it’s ultimately a form of voyeurism, it strikes me as relatively harmless, as long as it’s kept to the confines of fiction. Speaking for myself, I can say that while I was eager to research most of my locations firsthand, this is one instance in which I was happy to rely on secondary sources for most of my information.

The trouble with autopsy scenes is that anyone who has read more than a few thrillers or watched a police procedural on television has probably seen dozens of them. We’re bored by the Y-shaped incision and the medical examiner’s detached commentary into the tape recorder, so any author who decides to write such a scene has to take the reader’s familiarity—and potential boredom—with the genre’s conventions into account. I’ve written two autopsy scenes in my published work, and in both cases, I did my best to make them at least somewhat distinctive. For City of Exiles, I decided to focus on the specifics of forensic procedure in the United Kingdom, which meant reading several books on the subject, many of which I plucked from the true crime shelves in bookstores in London. I also based certain details on coroner’s reports for similar crimes, in which the victim’s body was set on fire. (Incidentally, the best account of an autopsy I’ve read is in David Simon’s great Homicide, which I highly recommend to any authors who want to write such a scene for themselves, and my favorite fictional autopsy is probably the one in Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event.)

"They were standing in a small room..."

The autopsy scene in Chapter 30 of The Icon Thief was a late addition to the plot, and resulted from a number of narrative considerations. As I’ve mentioned before, in the first draft, the figure of Powell was only dimly realized, and much less interesting than either Maddy or Ilya. One of my objectives in the rewrite was to invigorate him as a protagonist, both by going into his inner life in more detail and by giving him interesting things to do. A previous chapter, in which he engages in a bit of illegal entry to obtain a piece of crucial evidence, was created from scratch with this in mind, and this scene was conceived for the same reason. In the initial draft, this was a much weaker chapter with Powell and Wolfe having a conversation at the office about the progress of the investigation, which was about as interesting as it sounds. Reading over the novel again, it occurred to me that conveying the same information at an autopsy would at least give me a colorful background, and would serve a secondary purpose by reintroducing the plot point of the three Armenians whom Sharkovsky kills in Brighton Beach, a scene that I’d written to insert a necessary action beat in the first act of the novel, but which, in earlier versions, was never mentioned again.

The result was a chapter that solved a number of story problems at once, and it was a pleasure to write, despite its gruesome content. To give the scene some additional interest, I decided to set it in a part of the morgue that novels don’t normally visit. In a previous chapter, I’d depicted the use of multislice computed tomography to examine a mummified body; here, I decided to show the decomp room, where bodies in an advanced state of decay are brought. This was partially due to the fact that at this point, the victims in question have been dead for quite some time, but also because I wanted to describe a location that was distinct from the autopsy rooms that we’ve all seen before. Writing a good autopsy scene, I discovered, was not so different from describing a murder: it’s the specifics that make a familiar scene memorable. I focused, then, on some necessarily gory details—such as the fact that the loose skin on the hands of a decomposing body has a way of slipping off altogether, like a glove—and the look of the room itself, with its gray acrylic floors, exhaust fan, and gently sloping tables. The result isn’t all that essential to the plot, but it’s a nice little set piece that serves its intended purpose. I certainly won’t forget it soon…

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2013 at 9:50 am

Lessons from Great TV #9: Mad Men

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Earlier this year, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, made headlines by arguing that critics and viewers should wait until an entire season of a television show is complete before picking apart individual episodes. While Simon’s position wasn’t entirely consistent—he also seemed to think that audiences weren’t paying enough attention to the finer points of the story—he raises a fair point. With the rise of the great serial dramas, it can be hard to tell where a show is going with a character or a subplot, and it’s often true that you don’t see the full shape of a season until the last episode airs. One could even say that it’s meaningless to talk about self-contained episodes at all, any more than you’d review an individual chapter of a novel: when a show is operating at a high enough level, it all feels like one seamless web of narrative, and aside from the occasional striking experiment, like the “Fly” episode of Breaking Bad, it’s often hard to remember where one episode leaves off and another begins. (Incidentally, as far as the recent debate over binge-watching is concerned, I can only say that watching this past season of Mad Men one week at a time gave it a cumulative power that I don’t think would have existed if I’d seen it all in a couple of sittings. Viewing it over the course of three months made me feel as though I’d lived through something real with these characters, and it only made the final episode—and final shot—all the more powerful.)

Perhaps the best recent example of a show’s conclusion putting the rest of the season into perspective is the final episode of Mad Men’s third season, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” While the rest of the season had been far from uneventful—among other things, it included both the Kennedy assassination and an unfortunate incident with a riding lawn mower—the series also seemed more willing than ever to take its time, building long sequences around a mood, a sense of place, a hint of things to come. Yet all the while, the show was assembling its narrative pieces in plain sight, as methodically as a game of Mouse Trap, and in the season finale, the trap was sprung. There’s a dazzling succession of plot turns, the lead characters make some irrevocable choices, and before we know it, the show has blown up its own foundations—Don’s marriage and the offices of Sterling Cooper—and left us with a fresh start. It’s thrilling to watch even now, and as creator Matthew Weiner observes on his commentary track, it’s closest thing you can have to an action movie that consists entirely of scenes of people talking in a room. There’s something peculiarly satisfying about seeing the show indulge in the sort of meaty payoffs and gags, like Joan’s big entrance or Pete’s exchange in the elevator with Harry, that it often eschews as too straightforward. And none of this would be nearly as effective without the slow build of the episodes that came before it, which the finale retroactively clarifies, illuminates, and justifies, all to the strains of “Shahdaroba.”

Tomorrow: Television’s brightest timeline.

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2012 at 9:43 am

You are not the story

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As I see it, two lessons can be drawn from the Mike Daisey fiasco: 1. If a story seems too good to be true, it probably is. 2. A “journalist” who makes himself the star of his own story is automatically suspect. This last point is especially worth considering. I’ve spoken before about the importance of detachment toward one’s own work, primarily as a practical matter: the more objective you are, the more likely you are to produce something that will be of interest to others. But there’s an ethical component here as well. Every writer, by definition, has a tendency toward self-centeredness: if we didn’t believe that our own thoughts and feelings, or at least our modes of expression, were exceptionally meaningful, we wouldn’t feel compelled to share them. When properly managed, this need to impose our personalities on the world is what results in most works of art. Left unchecked, it can lead to arrogance, solipsism, and a troubling tendency to insert ourselves into the spotlight. This isn’t just an artistic shortcoming, but a moral one. John Gardner called it frigidity: an inability to see what really counts. And frigidity paired with egotism is a dangerous combination.

Simply put, whenever an author, especially of a supposed work of nonfiction, makes himself the star of a story where he obviously doesn’t belong, it’s a warning sign. This isn’t just because it reveals a lack of perspective—a refusal to subordinate oneself to the real source of interest, which is almost never the author himself—but because it implies that other compromises have been made. Mike Daisey is far from the worst such offender. Consider the case of Greg Mortenson, who put himself at the center of Three Cups of Tea in the most self-flattering way imaginable, and was later revealed not only to have fabricated elements of his story, but to have misused the funds his charity raised as a result. At first glance, the two transgressions might not seem to have much in common, but the root cause is the same: a tendency to place the author’s self and personality above all other considerations. On one level, it led to self-aggrandizing falsehood in a supposed memoir; on another, to a charity that spent much of its money, instead of building schools, on Mortenson’s speaking tours and advertisements for his books.

It’s true that some works of nonfiction benefit from the artist’s presence: I wouldn’t want to take Werner Herzog out of Grizzly Man or Claude Lanzmann out of Shoah. But for the most part, documentaries that place the filmmaker at the center of the action should raise our doubts as viewers. Sometimes it leads to a blurring of the message, as when Michael Moore’s ego overwhelms the valid points he makes. Occasionally, it results in a film like Catfish, in which the blatant self-interest of the filmmakers taints the entire movie. And it’s especially problematic in films that try to tackle complex social issues. (It took me a long time to see past the director’s presence in The Cove, for instance, to accept it as the very good movie it really is. But it would have been even better without the director’s face onscreen.)

One could argue, of course, that all forms of journalism, no matter how objective, are implicitly written in the first person, and that every documentary is shaped by an invisible process of selection and arrangement. Which is true enough. But a real artist expresses himself in his choice of details in the editing room, not by inserting himself distractingly into the frame. We rarely, if ever, see Errol Morris in his own movies, while David Simon—who manifestly does not suffer from a lack of ego—appears in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets only in the last couple of pages. These are men with real personalities and sensibilities who express themselves unforgettably in the depiction of other strong personalities in their movies and books. In the end, we care about Morris and Simon because they’ve made us care about other people. They’ve earned the right to interest us in their opinions through the painstaking application of craft, not, like Mortenson or Daisey, with self-promoting fabrication. There will always be exceptions, but in most cases, an artist’s best approach lies in invisibility and detachment. Because in the end, you’re only as interesting as the facts you present.

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2012 at 10:47 am

Fact, fiction, and truth in labeling

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Last year, I wrote a couple of posts about the strange case of Q.R. Markham, the suspense novelist who was later revealed to have constructed his debut thriller, Assassin of Secrets, out of a crazy patchwork quilt of plagiarized passages from other novels. Since then, the unfortunate author—under his true name of Quentin Rowan—has been featured in his own New Yorker profile by Lizzie Widdicombe, which quotes an unnamed fan as claiming that Rowan’s book is actually a secret masterpiece: “What might have been just another disposable piece of banal commercial trash has now been lifted to the level of art.” Others thought that it might have been a deliberate prank, a work of stealth literary criticism, or simply an impressive act of construction in its own right. And these are, in fact, all things that it is possible for a novel to be—just not this particular novel, which was clearly a case of plagiarism born of insecurity and fear. And to Rowan’s credit, he has never tried to claim otherwise.

Yet the idea of a novel constructed out of other novels, like a longer version of Jonathan Lethem’s famous essay in Harper’s, is an interesting one. I might even buy and read it. But the issue is one of truth in labeling. If Rowan had been honest about his method, he’d deserve the ironic accolades that he has subsequently received, but the fact remains that until his exposure, he never claimed to be anything but a suspense writer in the vein of Ian Fleming, which makes his book a work of plagiarism. Similarly, there’s always a place for works of art that mix fact with narrative imagination in pursuit of a larger artistic goal, as long as it’s properly labeled. Norman Mailer beautifully mingles journalism with artistic reconstruction in The Executioner’s Song, and much of the appeal of Frederick Forsyth’s spy novels comes from his use of real historical figures and events. But both works are clearly shelved in the fiction section. It’s when a story with invented elements is shelved with nonfiction—even metaphorically, as in the case of Mike Daisey—that we start to get into trouble.

Labels matter. By stating that a work of art is fiction or nonfiction, novel or memoir, the author is entering into a contract with the reader, one that can be violated only in very rare cases. Now, it’s true that a work of art occasionally benefits from ambiguity over whether what it depicts is real or not. I wouldn’t give up a movie like Exit Through the Gift Shop, for instance, which gains much of its fascination, at least on subsequent viewings, from the question of how much the director has manipulated events behind the scenes. But such cases are extraordinarily uncommon. In film, the result is more often a movie like the loathsome Catfish, in which the inherent interest of the story itself is suffocated by the filmmakers’ palpable vanity and dishonesty. Meanwhile, in print, even as some authors claim to be constructing a more challenging synthesis of artifice and reality, in practice, it’s often a case of a writer combining the easiest, most obvious elements of fiction and nonfiction to get cheap dramatic effects or a marketing hook without the trouble of well-constructed storytelling or real journalism. See: Three Cups of Tea, A Million Little Pieces, and now Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.

The fact is, journalism is hard. Writing novels is also hard, in different sort of way. And it’s accomplishment enough for a lifetime to become good at either one. Before a writer decides to operate in some kind of hybrid mode, he needs to ask himself whether he’s tried to master the infinite complexities inherent in the practice of straight fiction or nonfiction, which, when honestly pursued, are capable of almost anything. For those who claim that it’s necessary to depart from the facts to tell an artistic and moving story, I’d ask them to first check out our many works of truly great nonfiction, ranging from David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure to David Simon’s Homicide, all fully reported and documented, and see if there’s any way they could possibly have been improved. And for those who believe that the conventional novel, unadulterated by plagiarisms, appropriations, or winking narrative shortcuts, is exhausted, well, I can only quote what Borges said, through his editor, to the translator who claimed that it was impossible to render one of his poems properly: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

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