Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Deadspin

Musings of a cigarette smoking man

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After the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton died earlier this week, Deadspin reprinted a profile by Steve Oney from the early eighties that offers a glimpse of a man whom many of us recognized but few of us knew. It captured Stanton at a moment when he was edging into a kind of stardom, but he was still open about his doubts and struggles: “It was Eastern mysticism that began to help me. Alan Watts’s books on Zen Buddhism were a very strong influence. Taoism and Lao-tse, I read much of, along with the works of Krishnamurti. And I studied tai chi, the martial art, which is all about centering oneself.” Oney continues:

But it was the I Ching (The Book of Changes) in which Stanton found most of his strength. By his bedside he keeps a bundle of sticks wrapped in blue ribbon. Several times every week, he throws them (or a handful of coins) and then turns to the book to search out the meaning of the pattern they made. “I throw them whenever I need input,” he said. “It’s an addendum to my subconscious.” He now does this before almost everything he undertakes—interviews, films, meetings. “It has sustained and nourished me,” he said. “But I’m not qualified to expound on it.”

I was oddly moved by these lines. The I Ching doesn’t tell you what the future will be, but it offers advice on how to behave, which makes it the perfect oracle for a character actor, whose career is inextricably tied up with luck, timing, persistence, and synchronicity.

Stanton, for reasons that even he might have found hard to grasp, became its patron saint. “What he wants is that one magic part, the one they’ll mention in film dictionaries, that will finally make up for all the awful parts from early in his career,” Oney writes. That was thirty years ago, and it never really happened. Most of the entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is devoted to listing Stanton’s gigantic filmography, and its one paragraph of analysis is full of admiration for his surface, not his depths:

He is among the last of the great supporting actors, as unfailing and visually eloquent as Anthony Mann’s trees or “Mexico” in a Peckinpah film. Long ago, a French enthusiastic said that Charlton Heston was “axiomatic.” He might want that pensée back now. But Stanton is at least emblematic of sad films of action and travel. His face is like the road in the West.

This isn’t incorrect, but it’s still incomplete. In Oney’s profile, the young Sean Penn, who adopted Stanton as his mentor, offers the same sort of faint praise: “Behind that rugged old cowboy face, he’s simultaneously a man, a child, a woman—he just has this full range of emotions I really like. He’s a very impressive soul more than he is a mind, and I find that attractive.” I don’t want to discount the love there. But it’s also possible that Stanton never landed the parts that he deserved because his friends never got past that sad, wonderful face, which was a blessing that also obscured his subtle, indefinable talent.

Stanton’s great trick was to seem to sidle almost sideways into the frame, never quite taking over a film but immeasurably enriching it, and he’s been a figure on the edges of my moviegoing life for literally as long as I can remember. He appeared in what I’m pretty sure was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater, Philip Borsos’s One Magic Christmas, which prompted Roger Ebert to write: “I am not sure exactly what I think about Harry Dean Stanton’s archangel. He is sad-faced and tender, all right, but he looks just like the kind of guy that our parents told us never to talk to.” Stanton got on my radar thanks largely to Ebert, who went so far as to define a general rule: “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” And my memory is seasoned with stray lines and moments delivered in his voice. As the crooked, genial preacher in Uforia: “Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” Or the father in Pretty in Pink, after Molly Ringwald wakes him up at home one morning: “Where am I?” Or Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ, speaking to the aged Jesus: “You know, I’m glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you.” One movie that I haven’t seen mentioned in most retrospectives of his career is Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart, in which Stanton unobtrusively holds his own in the corner of the film that killed Zoetrope Studios. Thomson describes his work as “funny, casual, and quietly disintegrating,” and when the camera dollies to the left near the beginning of the film as he asks Frederick Forrest’s character why he keeps buying so much junk, it’s as if he’s talking to Coppola himself.

Most of all, I’ve always loved Stanton’s brief turn as Carl, the owner of the Fat Trout trailer park in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which he offered the FBI agents “a cup of Good Morning America.” And one of the great pleasures of the revival of Twin Peaks was the last look it gave us of Carl, who informed a younger friend: “I’ve been smoking for seventy-five years—every fuckin’ day.” Cigarettes were curiously central to his mystique, as surely as they shaped his face and voice. Oney writes: “In other words, Stanton is sixty going on twenty-two, a seeker who also likes to drive fast cars, dance all night, and chain-smoke cigarettes with the defiant air of a hood hanging out in the high school boy’s room.” In his last starring role, the upcoming Lucky, he’s described as having “outlived and out-smoked” his contemporaries. And, more poignantly, he said to Esquire a decade ago: “I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive.” Smoking, like casting a hexagam, feels like the quintessential pastime of the character actor—it’s the vice of those who sit and wait. In an interview that he gave a few years ago, Stanton effortlessly linked all of these themes together:

We’re not in charge of our lives and there are no answers to anything. It’s a divine mystery. Buddhism, Taoism, the Jewish Kabbalah—it’s all the same thing, but once it gets organized it’s over. You have to just accept everything. I’m still smoking a pack a day.

If you didn’t believe in the I Ching, there was always smoking, and if you couldn’t believe in either one, you could believe in Stanton. Because everybody’s got to believe in something.

The longform trap

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"Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?"

By now, many of you have probably heard about the uproar surrounding an article that was published two weeks ago by the sports site SB Nation. For those who missed it, here’s a quick summary: Jeff Arnold, a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, wrote a 12,000-word profile of the former Oklahoma City policeman Daniel Holtzclaw, who was convicted in December of multiple counts of rape and sexual battery of women he had detained while on duty. The piece, titled “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?,” focused on the subject’s collegiate football career, which Arnold had covered in Michigan. Within hours of the story’s appearance, a growing furor mounted online over its many inexplicable aspects: it took a weirdly sympathetic tone toward a man responsible beyond a reasonable doubt for reprehensible crimes, relied almost entirely on sources inclined in Holtzclaw’s favor, and repeatedly cast aspersions on the characters of his victims. In its readiness to emphasize the defense case and the words of those who believed in Holtzclaw’s innocence, it seemed poised to attempt a Making a Murderer, only to fall lamely back onto the qualification that yes, he was guilty, but let’s talk about something else instead. And its muddled final paragraph gives a good sense of its confusions:

Pending an improbable successful appeal, everything [Holtzclaw] had worked for was now gone, likely never to be recovered, ever again. Recovery, if there is any, appears to be something deserved only by the victims of a man whose belief in his innocence will apparently be, like the way he once pursued his dream of playing in the NFL, unrelenting, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The backlash was swift and furious, and SB Nation quickly pulled the entire piece. Editorial director Spencer Hall—who had read the article before its release—posted a note calling its publication “a complete breakdown of a part of the editorial process at SB Nation” and characterizing the story itself as “a complete failure.” Its editor, Glenn Stout, was fired, and the site broke all ties with Arnold, although the damage was already done. And the only silver lining to the whole fiasco was the coverage of the incident by Deadspin, which jumped on it right away and followed up with an excellent analysis of what went wrong. That postmortem, written by Greg Howard, ought to be read by everybody who cares about the challenges confronting online journalism today, as brought into stark relief by a moment in which the system collapsed entirely. And one statement in particular deserves to be memorized by all writers, editors, and readers:

There is no such thing as longform writing. There is such a thing as features writing—profiles, investigations, essays—and if it’s prestigious, that’s mainly because of its association with careful selection of subjects and with vigorous research, reporting, editing, copy-editing, and fact-checking. A feature carries an implicit assertion that a publication has invested money, time, talent, effort, and care to produce something of depth. Longform is a variant of feature writing—a branding strategy, really—that confuses a secondary indicator (length) for the thing itself (quality). As the name implies, it asserts nothing more than that a certain mass has been attained.

"Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?"

I’ve been mulling over this observation ever since. The profile made a lot of mistakes, and Howard shrewdly notes that it committed the basic error of treating the people around Holtzclaw as sources instead of subjects. But above all else, it was the result of an inability to distinguish between length and quality. The story was produced by a “vertical” designed explicitly to produce long articles, which are perceived as lending prestige to sites that otherwise focus on short pieces: the implication is that time and resources are being devoted to the development of meaningful journalism. Unfortunately, length might be a convenient heuristic, but it isn’t a guarantee, especially when a site mandates a certain word count before a story gets the prestige treatment, which is exactly the opposite of how it should work. (Howard writes: “One freelancer said that per the terms of the contract, the story [for SB Nation Longform] had to be at least 4,000 words long.”) And if that confusion persists, it’s because it’s easier than evaluating a story on its real merits. A few years back, the New York Times article “Snow Fall” set a new standard for the presentation of long works of reportage online, and countless pieces ever since have copied its look, but not its level of craftsmanship. With its splashy header image, pullout quotes, tastefully integrated photos, and endless wall of text, “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” looked exactly the way such stories are supposed to look—all it was missing was parallax scrolling. But it wasn’t a good piece. It was a simulation of one.

And it’s tempting, even for other writers, to judge and share stories based solely on that surface sheen. As Barry Petchesky of Deadspin noted in an earlier piece on the same subject: “These are the pieces that people praise without reading.” We’ve all been guilty of this: I’ve often linked to articles on this blog based on little more than a cursory skim to verify that they look like reputable sources, which means that I’m part of the problem. Last year, I wrote a pair of posts titled “The AutoContent Wizard,” in which I noted that the majority of listicles or slideshows are a kind of content mirage, cranked out for the convenience of the creator rather than the enjoyment of the audience. When I look back, though, I think I missed a key point by failing to draw a similar conclusion about longreads: the pursuit of length for its own sake can also take the place of reasoned critical judgment. (It reminds me of my argument that Apple has turned thinness and lightness into proxies for innovation, since they’re easier to measure and quantify, even if they lack a meaningful relationship to the user experience.) Overworked editors, under enormous pressure to produce content on a regular basis, aren’t going to be inclined to kill a piece that has already consumed time and effort. And such a situation will lead to occasional implosions. As Petchesky concluded:

There had never been a complete failure of concept and execution quite like this one, but it was nearly inevitable. If a company has a gorgeous CMS designed for longform, and a mandate to produce longform, and staff in place to present longform, it’s going to publish longform—whether the stories are there or not.

The only solution is for readers and editors to conscientiously distinguish between legitimate journalism and the mimics, like cryptic insects, that pose as the real thing. It won’t be easy. But it sure beats the alternative.

Written by nevalalee

March 1, 2016 at 9:25 am

Roger and me

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Roger Ebert

Somewhere in my parents’ home, there’s a book with both its front and back covers missing. When it first fell into my hands, it was brand new, and I would have been about eight years old, which I remember because I can still see exactly where it stood on the bookcase in our old house. The strange thing is that it wasn’t on a shelf I could reach: either someone took it down for me or I made a point of retrieving it myself, and it’s been so long that I’m not sure which was the case. All I know is that for the next ten years, it was rarely out of my sight, and throughout the most formative decade of my life, it was probably the book I read the most. Even now, I know much of it by heart, and I’ll occasionally find its phrases and rhythms appearing in my work, like fragments of my own memories. It was Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, and when I look back now, I realize that it wasn’t just the book that first introduced me to the movies—which would be legacy enough—but one that made me think for the first time about journalism, criticism, and countless other aspects of the world and culture around me.

I’ve written at greater length about Ebert’s role in my life here and here, and I won’t repeat myself. I never had a chance to tell him in person how much he meant to me, although I’d like to think that he saw what I wrote here, and he certainly heard much the same thing from countless other writers and movie lovers. Still, the fact that I never met Ebert, despite having lived the last few years of my life in Chicago, will always remain a profound regret, although I’m very grateful that I got to see him in person at the celebration of his favorite film music at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For a while, Ebert and Gene Siskel were my two favorite guys on television, and I can still hum the opening theme for At the Movies, which was always a high point of my week. I’ll never forget where I was when I learned that Gene Siskel had died, and I’m sure I’ll remember where I was when I heard that Ebert was gone. (To give you a sense of how big a part of my life Ebert was, my wife called me with the news from work, and a college friend emailed later that day to say she was thinking of me.)

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel

If there’s a silver lining to Ebert’s death, it’s that it gives us a sense of how deeply he influenced a whole generation of writers and critics. Will Leitch’s bittersweet remembrance in Deadspin, which recounts how he benefited from Ebert’s example and generosity, then foolishly threw it all away, is essential reading. But the words that linger with me the most are those of Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club, which reflect my own feelings to an almost frightening extent:

Cinema is a river with many tributaries, and I’m sure I’m not alone among movie-crazy teenagers in the ‘80s in using Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion as the boat downstream. You go through all the four-star reviews. You see Taxi Driver, and then of course you have to see Raging Bull, and then every other Martin Scorsese picture that sits on the video shelf. (And then you get into the movies that influenced Scorsese, which is a lifetime in itself.) You argue with him, you glean insights in the things you watch, you learn an entire new way of thinking, talking, and writing about the movies. And you never stop watching. You never stop debating. You have a companion for life, even now that his is over.

“The old man was around for a long time,” Ebert says of John Wayne in The Shootist, and although Ebert was only in his thirties when he wrote those words, the same could be said about his own career. Ebert was the one who first taught me that, at his best, a critic is sort of an island of stability, staying at the same desk for forty years to regard a changing world through a very particular lens, until his body of work says as much about the decades through which he lived as about the movies themselves. Ebert once seemed more stable—and certainly more substantial—than most, and at his prime, it was hard to believe that he would ever be gone. Toward the end, of course, this changed. Yet it’s in the last act of his life that his influence will be the most profound: he proved that criticism, a trade that has often been denigrated and dismissed, can give us the tools to face the fact of our own mortality with honor. At the end of his life, Ebert seemed reduced to little more than his words and, remarkably, his thumb, as if his most famous trademark had really been a mysterious preparation for a time when it would be all that remained. And in the end, his words were enough.

Written by nevalalee

April 5, 2013 at 8:24 am

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