Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Eric Lax

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.

How to think in the shower

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Cary Grant in Charade

I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.

Paul Graham

I know what he means. For as long as I can remember, my morning shower has been my best thinking time, the protected space in which I can most comfortably work through whatever problems I’m trying to solve. And while it’s easy to let your mind wander, which, as Graham points out, is a good way of discovering what really matters to you at the moment, I’ve decided that this time is too precious to be left entirely to chance. When I’m writing a novel, I try to look over my notes for the day just before I turn on the water, and I usually find that I’ve come up with a number of new ideas before it shuts off. If I’m stuck for a topic for a blog post, I’ll take whatever sliver of inspiration I can—often in the form of one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies—and mull it over for five minutes as the shower runs. More often than not, I’ll emerge with something useful. It works so consistently, in fact, that I’ve come to see it as an essential part of my writing routine, an extension of my office or brain. And I’m far from alone in this. Woody Allen, for instance, takes his showers very seriously:

I’ve found over the years that any momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy…The shower is particularly good in cold weather. This sounds so silly, but I’ll be working dressed as I am and I’ll want to get into the shower for a creative stint. So I’ll take off some of my clothes and make myself an English muffin or something and try to give myself a little chill so I want to get in the shower. I’ll stand there with steaming hot water coming down for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, just thinking out ideas and working on plot. Then I get out and dry myself and dress and then flop down on the bed and think there.

Allen here is as insightful as always—if you haven’t checked out Eric Lax’s Conversations With Woody Allen, from which this quote is taken, you really should—but he’s particularly shrewd on identifying a shower as a moment of change. In the shower, we’re taken out of our usual environment; we become semiaquatic creatures, in a humid little cube, and it’s at such points of transition that our minds are likely to move in promising directions.

The shower scene in Psycho

There are other ways of encouraging this kind of mental and physical shift, most of them linked to relaxing, unconscious activities: taking a walk, doing routine chores, shaving. But there’s also something about the shower itself that seems especially conductive to mental activity. Alone, unclothed, we’re in a particularly vulnerable state, which is what makes the shower’s most famous cinematic appearance so effective. All the same, we’re in a state of relaxation, but also standing, and although I know that a lot of writers have done good thinking in the bathtub, I don’t think it’s quite as conducive to the kind of focused mental trip that the shower provides. You can read in the bathtub, after all, as long as you’re careful with the pages, while the shower is an enforced citadel of quiet. Hanging a radio or, worse, an iPad on the tile robs us of one of our last remaining fortresses of solitude. It’s best just to stand there in the cone of white noise that the cascade of water creates, as removed from the world as we can be while still remaining awake, and it’s the best time I know for uninterrupted, right-brained, intuitive thought.

And keeping an eye on your thoughts in the shower isn’t just a way of working through problems, but of clarifying which problems really matter. To close on Paul Graham once again:

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

In the shower, we come as close as we can to who we really are when all the masks are gone, and we can learn a lot about ourselves by seeing where our minds wander. My own shower has a little window that looks out on my backyard, and I’ll often catch myself looking out at the square of lawn behind my house, thinking over my life, what I’ve accomplished, and what still remains to be done. It’s something like the state we enter as we’re drifting off to sleep, but with our eyes wide open. When we emerge, we’re refreshed and at peace, with a new perspective on the tasks ahead. If this were a new invention, it would seem like magic. And it is.

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2013 at 8:44 am

Turn off, tune out, drop in

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For most of the past decade, I’ve been wearing white headphones. I got my first iPod nine years ago, when I was a senior in college, and at the time, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. (Today, it looks like a big brick of lucite, but that’s another story.) I’ve updated my music player twice since then, and there’s rarely been a day when I didn’t put on those white earbuds. I drive only very rarely and walk or take public transit almost everywhere around Chicago, as I did when I was living in Boston and New York, so the iPod and its successors have always been a big part of my life. But now, reluctantly, I’m starting to let it go. And I’m writing this post partly as a way of reminding myself why.

I’d been thinking about taking the headphones off for a long time, but it was only last week, when I saw the documentary Public Speaking, that I decided to do something about it. Public Speaking is Martin Scorsese’s loving portrait of occasional writer and professional raconteur Fran Lebowitz. (On her legendary writer’s block: “It’s more of a writer’s blockade.”) Lebowitz doesn’t own a cell phone, a Blackberry, or a computer, and seems vaguely puzzled by those who do. In the film, while miming someone texting furiously, she notes that when you’re down there, on your mobile device, you’re nowhere else, including wherever you happen to be. And much of Lebowitz’s own brilliance and charm comes from her intense engagement with her surroundings.

None of this is exactly groundbreaking, of course, but for whatever reason, it crystallized something in my own mind. For a while, I’ve been obsessed by the fact that every moment in a writer’s life is, potentially, a time that can be used for creation. A writer can’t be working all the time, of course—that way lies madness—but much of the art of surviving as an artist is knowing how to exploit what stray moments of creativity we’re given. Many of my best ideas have popped spontaneously into my head, as I’ve said in the past, while shaving, or while doing otherwise mindless chores like washing the dishes. I’ve quoted Woody Allen on this point before, but because it’s some of the most useful writing advice I know, I’ll quote him again, from Eric Lax’s great Conversations with Woody Allen:

I never like to let any time go unused. When I walk somewhere in the morning, I still plan what I’m going to think about, which problem I’m going to tackle. I may say, This morning I’m going to think of titles. When I get in the shower in the morning, I try to use that time. So much of my time is spent thinking because that’s the only way to attack these writing problems.

And walking alone, as Colin Fletcher and others have realized, is perhaps the best time for thinking. I’ve rarely had to deal with a plot problem that couldn’t be solved, all but unconsciously, by a short walk to the grocery store.  And yet here’s the thing: when my iPod is playing, it doesn’t work. Music, I’m increasingly convinced, anesthetizes the right side of the brain. Sometimes it can help your mind drift and relax, which can lead to insight as well, but for the most part, it’s an excuse to avoid leaving yourself open to ideas—which is unacceptable when you’re counting on those ideas to survive. So from now on, whenever I go out, I’m leaving the headphones at home. Not all the time, perhaps: there are times when I just need to hear, I don’t know, “Blue Monday.” But for the most part, for the first time in years, I’m going to try and listen to my thoughts.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2011 at 9:04 am

Woody Allen on the discipline of writing

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Woody Allen: I used to get at it [writing] early in the morning and work at it and stay at it and write and rewrite and rethink and tear up my stuff and start over again. I came up with such a hard-line approach—I never waited for inspiration; I always had to go in and do it. You know, you gotta force it. So I could always do the writing and rewriting because I’d force myself. I found a million little tricks over the years to help get through that unpleasant time…

Eric Lax: What are some of the million little tricks you’ve found?

Woody Allen: Always setting myself something to think about for the project at any given free moment: When I go into the shower in the morning; when I go to sleep at night; when I’m waiting for an elevator. Somebody told me years ago about a major league pitcher who always wanted to be a pitcher. When he was growing up on his farm his father told him, “Whenever you’re sitting around pick up a stone and try and hit a blade of grass with it, try and hit a twig with it. Make use of every moment.” And that sounds very logical to me.

Eric Lax, Conversations with Woody Allen

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2011 at 12:00 am

Tree of Codes and the power of constraints

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The more I think about Tree of Codes, the more I’m reminded of another Woody Allen observation, which also appears in Eric Lax’s book:

There’s no question that comedy is harder to do than serious stuff. There’s also no question in my mind that comedy is less valuable than serious stuff.

Similarly, it’s clear that Tree of Codes was much harder to write, at least in some ways, than most conventional novels, but in the end, it’s also probably less valuable. I’d much rather see Foer really tackle a genre piece, for example, after the fashion of Michael Chabon, although I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

Still, there’s something to be said for an artist willing to work under such serious constraints. Writers, in particular, stand to benefit from deliberate restrictions, much more than, say, filmmakers, who are already forced to deal with severe constraints—of time, budget, location—that don’t apply to fiction. (The history of film, unless you’re James Cameron, is a history of solving problems using limited resources.) A writer is limited only by talent, and perhaps by time, which means that most restrictions need to be imposed from the outside. Which is often a good idea.

So what form should these restrictions take? You could try writing under a set of challenging formal rules, as poets do, or within a massive symbolic architecture, like Dante and Joyce. But for ordinary mortals, the most productive constraint is a very different one, and it’s such an important point that I’m putting it in boldface:

For most writers, the best and most useful constraint is genre.

Genre is often seen as a crutch, allowing a writer to let established formulas take the place of invention—but ideally, the opposite is true. By pushing back against a genre’s conventions, and finding ways of telling fresh stories within those constraints, a writer is forced to be much more inventive than if he or she had complete narrative freedom. As P.D. James puts it in The Paris Review:

…I thought writing a detective story would be a wonderful apprenticeship for a “serious” novelist, because a detective story is very easy to write badly but difficult to write well. There is so much you have to fit into eighty or ninety-thousand words—not just creating a puzzle, but an atmosphere, a setting, characters…Then when the first one worked, I continued, and I came to believe that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.

It’s even possible, she might have added, to discover things about men and women that wouldn’t have occurred to the author at all without the genre’s constraints. This is also one of the virtues of an intricate plot, which can test a writer’s ingenuity as much as any elaborate symbolic structure, and has the additional benefit of not being unreadable. Which, really, isn’t a bad place to start.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Lessons from Woody Allen

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So today is Woody Allen’s 75th birthday, which gives me an excuse to talk about two of my favorite books on film: When the Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins, by Allen’s frequent editor, the late Ralph Rosenblum, and Conversations With Woody Allen, by Eric Lax.

Ralph Rosenblum was a legendary editor best known for extracting what became Annie Hall out of three hours of brilliant but shapeless footage. It’s hard to believe, but Annie Hall, which seems so focused and inevitable now, was originally a steam-of-consciousness comedy called Anhedonia, in which Diane Keaton’s character appeared only in passing. Rosenblum and Allen, faced with what looked like an unsalvageable movie, carved out its core love story by making massive cuts, juxtaposing previously unrelated scenes, adding music, and incorporating a few strategic voiceovers. If revision is the heart of creation, then Rosenblum’s work here ranks among the most creative acts in the history of movies.

As for Conversations With Woody Allen, it consists of thematically arranged interviews between Allen and Eric Lax over the past forty years, from Bananas to Whatever Works. (It also has a very nice Chip Kidd cover.) Opening it at random, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the density of insights per page. Here, for example, is Allen on finding time to develop ideas:

If I’m sitting somewhere for ten minutes unoccupied, my mind just clicks into it. I can’t help it. I come home and I’m thinking about it. It just works that way. I even try to think about it when I get into bed to go to sleep.

I never like to let any time go unused. When I walk somewhere in the morning, I still plan what I’m going to think about, which problem I’m going to tackle. I may say, This morning I’m going to think of titles. When I get in the shower in the morning, I try to use that time. So much of my time is spent thinking because that’s the only way to attack these writing problems.

(Aside: You may have noticed that I like using examples from film to talk about fiction. The reason for this, besides the fact that I love movies, is that I believe that most good fiction arises from action and structure, which result, if done correctly, in what we think of as character and theme. And the nice thing about action and structure is that they can be taught by example, while such matters as style and voice can only come from long practice.

Many, perhaps most, books on writing concentrate on style and voice, which means that they focus, unhelpfully, on what is largely unteachable. Books on film and screenwriting, by contrast, have no problem discussing issues of action and structure, which makes them especially useful for writers who are still working on the fundamentals of craft. So if I tend to cite Woody Allen or David Mamet as often as John Gardner, you’ll know the reason why.)

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2010 at 7:35 pm

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