Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Errol Morris

Broyles’s Law and the Ken Burns effect

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For most of my life as a moviegoer, I’ve followed a rule that has served me pretty well. Whenever the director of a documentary narrates the story in the first person, or, worse, appears on camera, I start to get suspicious. I’m not talking about movies like Roger and Me or even the loathsome Catfish, in which the filmmakers, for better or worse, are inherently part of the action, but about films in which the director inserts himself into the frame for no particular reason. Occasionally, I can forgive this, as I did with the brilliant The Cove, but usually, I feel a moment of doubt whenever the director’s voiceover begins. (In its worst form, it opens the movie with a redundant narration: “I first came across the story that you’re about to hear in the summer of 1990…”) But while I still think that this is a danger sign, I’ve recently concluded that I was wrong about why. I had always assumed that it was a sign of ego—that these directors were imposing themselves on a story that was really about other people, because they thought that it was all about them. In reality, it seems more likely that it’s a solution to a technical problem. What happens, I think, is that the director sits down to review his footage and discovers that it can’t be cut together as a coherent narrative. Perhaps there are are crucial scenes or beats missing, but the events that the movie depicts are long over, or there’s no budget to go back and shoot more. An interview might bridge the gaps, but maybe this isn’t logistically feasible. In the end, the director is left with just one person who is available to say all the right things on the soundtrack to provide the necessary transitions and clarifications. It’s himself. In a perfect world, if he had gotten the material that he needed, he wouldn’t have to be in his own movie at all, but he doesn’t have a choice. It isn’t a failure of character, but of technique, and the result ends up being much the same.

I got to thinking about this after reading a recent New Yorker profile by Ian Parker of the documentarian Ken Burns, whose upcoming series on the Vietnam War is poised to become a major cultural event. The article takes an irreverent tone toward Burns, whose cultural status encourages him to speechification in private: “His default conversational setting is Commencement Address, involving quotation from nineteenth-century heroes and from his own previous commentary, and moments of almost rhapsodic self-appreciation. He is readier than most people to regard his creative decisions as courageous.” But Parker also shares a fascinating anecdote about which I wish I knew more:

In the mid-eighties, Burns was working on a deft, entertaining documentary about Huey Long, the populist Louisiana politician. He asked two historians, William Leuchtenburg and Alan Brinkley, about a photograph he hoped to use, as a part of the account of Long’s assassination; it showed him protected by a phalanx of state troopers. Brinkley told him that the image might mislead; Long usually had plainclothes bodyguards. Burns felt thwarted. Then Leuchtenburg spoke. He’d just watched a football game in which Frank Broyles, the former University of Arkansas coach, was a commentator. When the game paused to allow a hurt player to be examined, Broyles explained that coaches tend to gauge the seriousness of an injury by asking a player his name or the time of day; if he can’t answer correctly, it’s serious. As Burns recalled it, Broyles went on, “But, of course, if the player is important to the game, we tell him what his name is, we tell him what time it is, and we send him back in.”

Hence Broyles’s Law: “If it’s super-important, if it’s working, you tell him what his name is, and you send him back into the game.” Burns decided to leave the photo in the movie. Parker continues:

Was this, perhaps, a terrible law? Burns laughed. “It’s a terrible law!” But, he went on, it didn’t let him off the hook, ethically. “This would be Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’—‘I can do anything I want. I’ll pay the town drunk to crawl across the ice in the Russian village.’” He was referring to scenes in Herzog’s Bells from the Deep, which Herzog has been happy to describe, and defend, as stage-managed. “If he chooses to do that, that’s okay. And then there are other people who’d rather do reenactments than have a photograph that’s vague.” Instead, Burns said, “We do enough research that we can pretty much convince ourselves—in the best sense of the word—that we’ve done the honorable job.”

The reasoning in this paragraph is a little muddled, but Burns seems to be saying that he isn’t relying on “the ecstatic truth” of Herzog, who blurs the line between fiction and reality, or the reenactments favored by Errol Morris, who sometimes seems to be making a feature film interspersed with footage of talking heads. Instead, Burns is assembling a narrative solely out of primary sources, and if an image furthers the viewer’s intellectual understanding or emotional engagement, it can be included, even if it isn’t strictly accurate. These are the compromises that you make when you’re determined to use nothing but the visuals that you have available, and you trust in your understanding of the material to tell whether or not you’ve made the “honorable” choice.

On some level, this is basically what every author of nonfiction has to consider when assembling sources, which involves countless judgment calls about emphasis, order, and selection, as I’ve discussed here before. But I’m more interested in the point that this emerges from a technical issue inherent to the form of the documentary itself, in which the viewer always has to be looking at something. When the perfect image isn’t available, you have a few different options. You can ignore the problem; you can cut to an interview subject who tells the viewers about what they’re not seeing; or you can shoot a reenactment. (Recent documentaries seem to lean heavily on animation, presumably because it’s cheaper and easier to control in the studio.) Or, like Burns, you can make do with what you have, because that’s how you’ve defined the task for yourself. Burns wants to use nothing but interviews, narration, and archival materials, and the technical tricks that we’ve come to associate with his style—like the camera pan across photos that Apple actually calls the Ken Burns effect—arise directly out of those constraints. The result is often brilliant, in large part because Burns has no choice but to think hard about how to use the materials that he has. Broyles’s Law may be “terrible,” but it’s better than most of the alternatives. Burns has the luxury of big budgets, a huge staff, and a lot of time, which allows him to be fastidious about his solutions to such problems. But a desperate documentary filmmaker, faced with no money and a hole in the story to fill, may have no other recourse than to grab a microphone, sit down in the editing bay, and start to speak: “I first came across the story that you’re about to hear in the summer of 1990…”

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2017 at 9:12 am

The lure of true crime

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American Tragedy by Lawrence Schiller

A few months ago, I wrote a short blog post about Lawrence Schiller, the photographer, packager, and all-around hustler who famously collaborated with Norman Mailer on such books as The Executioner’s Song. I’d started thinking about Schiller again thanks to the birthday video he directed decades ago for Kris Jenner as a favor to her husband Robert Kardashian, which resurfaced recently online. And I was intrigued enough by the connection to dig a little further into Schiller and his work, which includes a massive tome called American Tragedy, billed as “the uncensored story of the O.J. Simpson defense.” I had a plane trip and a few quiet weeks coming up, so I snared a copy. And I devoured it. I liked it so much, in fact, that I moved on to Schiller’s Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, another “uncensored story,” this one about the JonBenét Ramsey case, which I never thought I’d want to read about again. After just a couple of days, I’ve already burned halfway through it. (American Tragedy sheds additional light, incidentally, on Schiller’s relationship with Kardashian, which I mischaracterized slightly in my initial post. I’d thought that Schiller and Kardashian simply moved in the same circles, but it turns out that they met each other through their ex-wives. And Stephanie Schiller even ended up working with Kris Jenner on the “little team of elves” that revived her husband Bruce’s career in the early nineties—which is just another example of the tangled connections that you find everywhere in Schiller’s life.)

It isn’t hard to figure out what makes Schiller’s books so compelling. Both American Tragedy and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town exist almost entirely in the present tense, with any backstory minimized in favor of a methodical, understated accumulation of detail and incident that Schiller seems to have learned from Mailer: they read like The Executioner’s Song with all the poetry removed. They aren’t great works of art, but there’s something undeniably seductive about the smooth way in which they feed information to the reader about such insanely complicated stories. Schiller also has genuine talents as a reporter, even if his methods and his relationships with his subjects raise questions of their own. (He got to know the O.J. Simpson team, for instance, while ghostwriting Simpson’s book I Want to Tell You, and he even helped to clean up, edit, and assemble the audio recordings of Mark Furhman’s racist statements that were played in court—a degree of involvement that would be unthinkable for most conventional journalists.) American Tragedy is loaded with stories and insights that I’d either forgotten or never known, particularly about the crucial role played by Barry Scheck, the founder of the Innocence Project, in raising reasonable doubt about the blood evidence. And it leaves me in a peculiar position as Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson premieres tomorrow: I’ve relived every aspect of this case so recently that I don’t think I have the capacity to take any more. Except, of course, that I probably do.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

As a culture, we’ve developed a newfound fixation on a certain kind of true crime story, embodied first of all by Serial, then by The Jinx, and these days by Making a Murderer, of which I’ve watched five out of ten episodes so far. (The fact that the second season of Serial, which abandons the crime angle, has received a fraction of the attention of the first indicates that listeners were drawn more to the story of Adnan and Hae than to anything about Sarah Koenig’s methods.) Like Schiller’s books, which run to close to a thousand pages in paperback, the podcast and miniseries formats allow cases to be examined at extravagant length, until we feel as if we’re being injected with a slow drip of names, dates, and circumstantial evidence. I’ve noted before that a filmmaker like Errol Morris could have covered the same ground as Serial—and Making a Murderer—in less than two hours, but I’ve since come to realize that the expansive runtime is part of the point. Such stories, like the conspiracy theories into which they often imperceptibly shade, satisfy a fundamental craving we have for information, at a time when processing and making sense of the facts at our disposal has begun to feel like a central challenge of modern life. We’re drawn to detective stories for much the same reason, but a true crime provides us with more details than a fictional one would ever dare, along with the tantalizing prospect of a hidden order visible if we just look at the clues from the right angle. And it’s only when the case is developed on an epic scale that it offers us the illusion that we can make sense of it ourselves.

Because it is an illusion, and it’s one to which a murder mystery lends itself particularly well. We can absorb thousands of details about an unsolved homicide to an extent that we generally can’t about, say, foreign policy or climate change, because the vivid nature of the crime generates a kind of electrical field in which all the pieces can align. (It’s why David Fincher, whose films, as I noted last week, are often about their own complexity, has been drawn to no fewer than three different stories about serial killers, to the point where, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he insisted on using the term “serial murderer” instead, as if no one would notice that he was revisiting the same territory.) And it’s the futility of the search itself that we find so compelling. My return last year to the true crime genre came courtesy of Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision, a book so compulsively disturbing and fascinating that I almost wish I hadn’t read it. Those familiar with the Jeffrey MacDonald case know that it’s a bottomless pit that has swallowed up investigators like McGinniss, Janet Malcolm, and even Errol Morris himself. But it’s the messy, exasperating, unsolvable cases that obsess us the most. It’s only when the evidence refuses to come together into a coherent picture, extending the search indefinitely, that we can turn it into an obsession—a fact I find more intriguing than any of the mediations on the nature of truth that Koening provided at the end of Serial. Facts multiply, interpretations collide, patterns emerge and disappear, but only after a critical mass of information has been achieved. And the rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader.

The law of similars

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Adele

Like just about everybody else in the western hemisphere, I picked up a copy of Adele’s 25 earlier this month. My favorite song on the album—which I like even more than 21—is “Remedy,” both because it’s sweeter and less bombastic than some of her other tracks, and because it reminded me naggingly of something else. It took me a few days before I realized that I was thinking of one of my secret favorite albums: Essex by Alison Moyet. There’s the same rich, bluesy, but slightly remote voice that circles around the heart of a song before attacking it directly, and when Adele sings “I will be / I will be / Your remedy,” it’s hard not to hear an echo of an artist I’ve loved since I was in high school. And I’m not the only person to draw that comparison: when I enter the relevant search into my browser bar, two of the recommended queries are “Adele Alison Moyet’s daughter” and “Adele Alison Moyet related.” She isn’t, and they aren’t, but Moyet herself has been asked about their perceived similarity. And her response to the question brought me up short: “When I saw Adele I thought: ‘I’ll give it an hour before people say I was her,’ just because I was fat. When you watch X Factor you can bet your bottom dollar, every single fat singer sounds like me as far as the judges are concerned.” And in another interview: “We were two fat girls singing torch songs. It always happens…I do get that we’re both stationary performers, but there’ll be a talented man, with an electronic background, who has much more in common with me musically…It’s lazy comparisons.”

I don’t think that’s where I was coming from—I’ve managed to get through the last two decades with only the vaguest idea of how Moyet looked, aside from on her album covers—and I’d argue that their affinity runs deeper than Moyet acknowledges. But I can understand her frustration. We all have a way of picking up on a superficial similarity between two artists, or two works of art, and using it to draw comparisons between things that are actually quite different. When one actor resembles another, or a singer reminds us in passing of one we’ve heard before, it can typecast them in our minds in a certain way, and when an entire culture sees the resemblance, it can redirect or derail entire careers. It’s the artistic equivalent of the false friend, two words in different languages that look like cognates but really have nothing in common, and it can be equally misleading for the unwary. Back when Clive Owen was being touted as the next Bond, he shrewdly put his finger on the source of the rumors: “I wear a tuxedo in Croupier and that might have had something to do with it.” In fact, Owen wouldn’t have made a great Bond: he’s an odder and more internalized actor than the role requires, and despite his looks, that tux, and the fast cars he drove for BMW, he’s far more comfortable in quirky character parts. Fortunately for us, that snap judgment didn’t have much of an impact, and both he and Daniel Craig are better off. But not every actor or artist is so lucky.

Alison Moyet

Over the weekend, I started thinking about this again while listening to the premiere episode of the second season of Serial. Back when its initial run was unfolding, I wrote: “Listening to it, I’m frequently reminded of the work of Errol Morris, who exonerated a man wrongfully convicted of murder in The Thin Blue Line and has gone on to explore countless aspects of information, memory, and the interpretation of evidence. But Morris would have covered the relevant points in two densely packed hours, while [Sarah] Koenig is closing in on fifteen hours or more.” And my first thought on learning about the subject of the new season—which centers on the case of Bowe Bergdahl, who is currently facing a court-martial on charges of deserting his post in Afghanistan—is that Koenig is doing herself no favors by straying back into Morris territory. (Morris famously, if imperfectly, explored the war in Afghanistan in the book and movie Standard Operating Procedure, and the only way Koenig could have made the Morris comparison more explicit would be by structuring a podcast around a topiary gardener and a robot scientist.) Yet the more I think about it, the more I find the comparison strained. Koenig and Morris have two very distinct styles as journalists and interviewers, and they’re seeking fundamentally different effects. Serial was never going to be The Thin Blue Line, either in terms of focus or approach, and using Morris as a club to bash Koenig over the head strikes me as unfair now, even if I still have doubts about how the last season turned out.

Of course, there’s something in the human brain, with its fondness for pattern recognition, that loves to draw such comparisons. All we can do is recognize them for what they are—as judgments made in the space of a blink—and try to separate them from our more considered critical opinions. It’s easy to draw a false analogy from a few similar properties, and it can take a long time before we recognize our mistake. (This is all the more true because the first thing we latch onto from a new artist is often something that happens to ring a bell.) And it applies to more than just art. Over a century ago, the embryologist John Graham Kerr wrote:

Striking resemblance in superficial characters provides a type of pitfall which the morphologist has at an early stage in his education to school himself to avoid. He comes across cases of amazing resemblance, e.g. in pairs of “mimetic” butterflies, between a marsupial and a placental mammal, between the organ of vision in one of the higher insects and that of one of the higher Crustacea, between the skeleton of a flagellate and that of a radiolarian, and he learns to recognize that superficial resemblance may, and frequently does, provide a cloak for fundamental unlikeness. It is, in fact, one of the main parts of his business as a morphologist to find out whether in each particular case the striking resemblance so apparent to the onlooker is an expression of resemblance in fundamental points of structure or whether, on the other hand, it is merely superficial.

And that’s as true of fans and critics as it is of morphologists, and whether we’re looking at radiolarians or just listening to something on the radio.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2015 at 9:29 am

Thinking inside the panel

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"Mister Wonderful" by Daniel Clowes

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What non-comic creative type do you want to see make a comic?”

Earlier this year, I discovered Radio: An Illustrated Guide, the nifty little manual written by cartoonist Jessica Abel and Ira Glass of This American Life. At the time, the book’s premise struck me as a subtle joke in its own right, and I wrote:

The idea of a visual guide to radio is faintly amusing in itself, particularly when you consider the differences between the two art forms: comics are about as nonlinear a medium as you can get between two covers, with the reader’s eye prone to skip freely across the page.

The more I think about it, though, the more it seems to me that these two art forms share surprising affinities. They’re both venerable mediums with histories that stretch back for close to a century, and they’ve both positioned themselves in relation to a third, invisible other, namely film and television. On a practical level, whether its proponents like it or not, both radio and comics have come to be defined by the ways in which they depart from what a movie or television show can do. In the absence of any visual cues, radio has to relentlessly manage the listener’s attention—”Anecdote then reflection, over and over,” as Glass puts it—and much of the grammar of the comic book emerged from attempts to replicate, transcend, and improve upon the way images are juxtaposed in the editing room.

And smart practitioners in both fields have always found ways of learning from their imposing big brothers, while remaining true to the possibilities that their chosen formats offer in themselves. As Daniel Clowes once said:

To me, the most useful experience in working in “the film industry” has been watching and learning the editing process. You can write whatever you want and try to film whatever you want, but the whole thing really happens in that editing room. How do you edit comics? If you do them in a certain way, the standard way, it’s basically impossible. That’s what led me to this approach of breaking my stories into segments that all have a beginning and end on one, two, three pages. This makes it much easier to shift things around, to rearrange parts of the story sequence.

Meanwhile, the success of a podcast like Serial represents both an attempt to draw upon the lessons of modern prestige television and a return to the roots of this kind of storytelling. Radio has done serialized narratives better than any other art form, and Serial, for all its flaws, was an ambitious attempt to reframe those traditions in a shape that spoke to contemporary listeners.

Sarah Koenig

What’s a little surprising is that we haven’t witnessed a similar mainstream renaissance in nonfiction comics, particularly from writers and directors who have made their mark in traditional documentaries. Nonfiction has always long been central to the comic format, of course, ranging from memoirs like Maus or Persepolis to more didactic works like Logicomix or The Cartoon History of the Universe. More recently, webcomics like The Oatmeal or Randall Munroe’s What If? have explained complicated issues in remarkable ways. What I’d really love to see, though, are original works of documentary storytelling in comic book form, the graphic novel equivalent of This American Life. You could say that the reenactments we see in works like Man on Wire or The Jinx, and even the animated segments in the films of Brett Morgen, are attempts to push against the resources to which documentaries have traditionally been restricted, particularly when it comes to stories set in the past—talking heads, archive footage, and the obligatory Ken Burns effect. At times, such reconstructions can feel like cheating, as if the director were bristling at having to work with the available material. Telling such stories in the form of comics instead would be an elegant way of circumventing those limitations while remaining true to the medium’s logic.

And certain documentaries would work even better as comics, particularly if they require the audience to process large amounts of complicated detail. Serial, with its endless, somewhat confusing discussions of timelines and cell phone towers, might have worked better as a comic book, which would have allowed readers to review the chain of events more easily. And a director like Errol Morris, who has made brilliant use of diagrams and illustrations in his published work, would be a natural fit. There’s no denying that some documentaries would lose something in the translation: the haunted face of Robert Durst in The Jinx has a power that can’t be replicated in a comic panel. But comics, at their best, are an astonishing way of conveying and managing information, and for certain stories, I can’t imagine anything more effective. We’re living in a time in which we seem to be confronting complex systems every day, and as a result, artists of all kinds have begun to address what Zadie Smith has called the problem of “how the world works,” with stories that are as much about data, interpretation, and information overload as about individual human beings. For the latter, narrative formats that can offer us a real face or voice may still hold an edge. But for many of the subjects that documentarians in film, television, or radio will continue to tackle, the comics may be the best solution they’ll ever have.

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2015 at 9:09 am

The Serial jinx

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Robert Durst in The Jinx

In the weeks since the devastating finale of The Jinx, the conversation around Andrew Jarecki’s brilliant HBO documentary—which played a crucial role in the arrest for murder of millionaire Robert Durst—has revolved around one of two themes. The first uses The Jinx as a club to beat what remains of the legacy of Serial: we’re told that this is how you tell an extended nonfiction crime story, with a series of tense, surprising revelations building to a conclusion more definitive than any viewer could have imagined. The second, more problematic discussion centers on the inconsistencies in the show’s timeline. It’s a tangled issue, outlined most capably by Kate Aurthur at Buzzfeed, but it seems clear that the filmmakers deliberately misrepresented the timing of their own interactions with Durst, playing with the chronology to create a sense of cause and effect that didn’t exist. This would be troubling enough in itself, but it also raises questions about when and how the producers decided to bring crucial evidence to the police. And while it isn’t enough to diminish Jarecki’s achievement—this is still by far the best television of any kind I’ve watched all year—it can’t help but complicate my feelings about it.

Yet the more you look at those two streams of opinion, the more they feel like variations on the same fact. What separates The Jinx from Serial isn’t artistry, intelligence, or even luck, but the fact that the former show was painstakingly edited together over a long period of postproduction, while the latter was thrown together on the fly. The Jinx goes out of its way to disguise how long its filming lasted, but it appears, at minimum, to have covered four years, two of which came after its final interview with Durst. It results in one of the most beautifully assembled works of nonfiction narrative I’ve ever seen: there’s never any sense, as we often see in other documentaries, that the filmmakers are scrambling to fill gaps in the footage. Each interview subject is presented as articulate and intelligent, without a trace of condescension, and each is allowed to say his or her piece. It’s all here, and it fits together like a fine watch. (There’s a fascinating, unspoken subtext involving the role of wealth on both sides of the camera. Durst’s alleged crimes may have been enabled by his fortune, but so was the investigation: Jarecki, who comes from a wealthy family and became a millionaire himself thanks to his involvement in the founding of Moviefone, has long used his own resources to fund explorations into the darkest sides of human nature, and it’s doubtful if another director would have had the time or ability to dwell as long on a single subject.)

Serial

And it’s hard to understate the importance of time in this kind of storytelling. The two great variables in any documentary are chance and organization: either the director stumbles across a fantastic piece of material, as Jarecki did with Capturing the Friedmans, or he fits something more recalcitrant into a beautiful shape, as Errol Morris has done consistently for decades. In both cases, time is the critical factor. Obviously, the longer you spend—or the more footage you shoot—on any subject, the greater the odds of collecting a few precious fragments of serendipity: a twist in a human life, a big revelation, an indelible moment caught on camera. It can take the same amount of time, or more, to figure out how to structure the story. Jarecki had the financial means to stick with Durst for as long as necessary, but documentarians with far fewer resources have pulled it off out of sheer will: Crumb, perhaps the best documentary ever made, was shot over a period of nine years, much of which director Terry Zwigoff spent in crippling poverty and physical pain. Shoah took eleven years: six for production, five for editing. I’ve noted before that there seems to be a fixed amount of time in which a work of art has to percolate in the creator’s brain, and for documentaries, that rendering period needs to be multiplied by a factor of five.

The real question, then, is whether Serial might have left us with an impression like that of The Jinx, if it had been edited and refined for years before being released in its entirety. I think the answer is yes. Take the exact same material, boil it down to four hours, construct it so that instead of coming in and out of focus it saved its most devastating questions and answers for the end, and the result would have felt like a definitive case for Adnan Syed’s innocence, whether or not it was right. This is more or less exactly what The Jinx does. (I don’t know why the filmmakers fudged the timeline so blatantly—you could lift out the offending sequence entirely without making the finale any less compelling—but I suspect it had something to do with hanging on to some juicy footage while still ending on Durst’s accidental confession. Once you make the smart decision to conclude the series there, it’s easy for chronological juggling to shade into outright trickery.) Which only reminds us that what Serial tried to accomplish, doing in real time what other forms of storytelling spend years perfecting in private, was close to inherently impossible. I don’t know what form Serial will take next season, and there’s no question that its structure, with the story evolving in public from week to week, was a huge selling point in its favor. But when it comes to telling a satisfying story, it may have already jinxed itself.

Written by nevalalee

April 13, 2015 at 9:05 am

The Necker Cube of Serial

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Serial

On January 13, 1999, a teenage girl named Hae Min Lee disappeared in Baltimore. The following month, shortly after her body was discovered, her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was charged with her murder. Listeners of Serial, the extraordinary radio series currently unfolding on NPR, know exactly how much this bare description leaves unsaid. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the case itself, and in any event, there are plenty of resources available for those who want to dive into the intricacies of cell phone towers and whether or not there was a pay phone at that particular Best Buy. As a writer, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of Serial itself. As far as I know, it’s an unprecedented experiment in any medium, an ongoing nonfiction narrative unspooling before an audience of millions. Producer Sarah Koenig has said that she doesn’t know how the series will end, or even what will happen from one week to the next, but this doesn’t mean she lacks information available to others: it’s the shape it will take and her ultimate conclusions that remain unclear. As such, it’s not so different from any kind of serial narrative, whether it’s Tom Wolfe writing The Bonfire of the Vanities week by week, Stephen King publishing installments of The Green Mile without knowing the ending, or even my own experience of writing a trilogy with only the vaguest idea of its final form.

The difference is that Serial is centered on factual events, and the obsessiveness, verging on paranoia, that it encourages in its audience can’t be separated from Koenig’s own efforts to resolve the tangle of problems she has imposed on herself. And its fascination lies less in any particular detail or narrative element than in the overall mindset it encourages. It implicates the listener in Koenig’s own uncertainty, in which every fact, no matter how unambiguous, can be read in at least two ways. To take one minor example: Koenig notes that after Hae’s disappearance, Adnan never tried to page her, despite the fact that he’d called her at home three times the night before she disappeared. On its face, this seems suspicious, as if Adnan knew that Hae could no longer be reached. Think about it a little longer, though, and the detail inverts itself: if Adnan were really the “charming sociopath” that prosecutors implied he was, paging Hae after her murder would have provided a convenient indication of his innocence. The fact that it never occurred to him becomes, paradoxically, a point in his favor. Or maybe not. Everything in Serial starts to take on this double significance: Koenig refers to the case as a Rubik’s Cube she’s trying to solve, but an even better analogy might be that of a Necker cube, which oscillates constantly between one of two readings. We even sense this in the way Koenig talks about her own objectives. In the beginning, it feels like a quest for Adnan’s exoneration, but as her doubts continue to multiply, it becomes less a crusade than a search for clarity of any kind.

Necker Cube

Perhaps inevitably, then, Serial occasionally suffers from the same qualities that make it so addictive, and it often undermines the very clarity it claims to be seeking. Listening to it, I’m frequently reminded of the work of Errol Morris, who exonerated a man wrongfully convicted of murder in The Thin Blue Line and has gone on to explore countless aspects of information, memory, and the interpretation of evidence. But Morris would have covered the relevant points in two densely packed hours, while Koenig is closing in on fifteen hours or more. Sometimes the length of time granted by the serial format allows her to explore interesting byways, like the odd backstory of “Mr. S,” who discovered Hae’s body; elsewhere, it feels a little like padding. Koenig devotes most of an episode, for instance, to Deirdre Enright, who runs the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia Law School, but they spend the better part of ten minutes simply commiserating over material we’ve seen before. Morris would have introduced Enright with a brief explanatory caption, given her two vivid minutes on screen, and moved on. Serial is never anything less than absorbing, but there’s often a sense that its expansive runtime has allowed it to avoid the hard choices that other nonfiction narratives demand. As a result, we’re sometimes left with the suspicion that our own confusions have less to do with the ambiguity of the case than with the sheer amount of information—not all of it relevant—we’re being asked to process.

But that’s part of the point. Koenig herself becomes one of her most provocative characters: she has a nice, dry, ingratiating manner that encourages an unusual degree of intimacy with her interview subjects, but her sheer fluency as a radio personality sometimes leaves us questioning how much of that closeness is an illusion. Which is exactly how we’re meant to feel about everyone involved. For me, the most memorable moment in the entire series comes courtesy of Adnan himself, speaking by phone from Maryland Correctional Facility:

I feel like I want to shoot myself if I hear someone else say, I don’t think he did it cause you’re a nice guy, Adnan…I would love someone to say, I don’t think that you did it because I looked at the case and it looks kind of flimsy. I would rather someone say, Adnan, I think you’re a jerk, you’re selfish, you know, you’re a crazy SOB, you should just stay in there for the rest of your life except that I looked at your case and it looks, you know, like a little off. You know, like something’s not right.

If Serial has a message, it’s that it’s necessary to look past our instinctively good or bad impressions of a person to focus on the evidence itself, even if this defies what we’ve been programmed to do as human beings. At its best, it’s a show about how inadequate our intuitions can be when faced with reality in all its complexity, which turns the search for clarity itself into a losing game. It’s a game we’ve all been playing long before the show began, and regardless of how it ends, we’ll be playing it long after it’s over.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2014 at 10:14 am

Transformed by print

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A page from my first draft

Somewhere in his useful and opinionated book Trial and Error, the legendary pulp writer Jack Woodford says that if you feel that your work isn’t as good as the fiction you see in stores, there’s a simple test to see if this is actually true. Take a page from a recent novel you admire—or one that has seen big sales or critical praise—and type the whole thing out unchanged. When you see the words in your own typewriter or computer screen, stripped of their superficial prettiness, they suddenly seem a lot less impressive. There’s something about professional typesetting that elevates even the sloppiest prose: it attains a kind of dignity and solidity that can be hard to see in its unpublished form. It isn’t just a story now; it’s an art object. And restoring it to the malleable, unpolished medium of a manuscript page often reveals how arbitrary the author’s choices really were, just as we tend to be hard on our own work because our rough drafts don’t look as nice as the stories we see in print.

There’s something undeniably mysterious about how visual cues affect the way we think about the words we’re reading, whether they’re our own or others. Daniel Kahneman has written about how we tend to read texts more critically when they’re printed in unattractive fonts, and Errol Morris recently ran an online experiment to test this by asking readers for their opinions about a short written statement, without revealing that some saw it in Baskerville and others in Comic Sans. (Significantly more of those who read it in Baskerville thought the argument was persuasive, while those who saw it in Comic Sans were less impressed, presumably because they were too busy clawing out their eyes.) Kindle, as in so many other respects, is the great leveler: it strips books of their protective sheen and forces us to evaluate them on their own merits. And I’d be curious to see a study on how the average review varies between those who read a novel in print and those who saw it in electronic form.

"Arkady arrived at the museum at ten..."

This is is also why I can’t bear to read my own manuscripts in anything other than Times New Roman, which is the font in which they were originally composed. When I’m writing a story, I’m primarily thinking about the content, yes, but I’m also consciously shaping how the text appears on the screen. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve acquired a lot of odd tics and aversions from years spent staring at my own words on a computer monitor, and I’ve evolved just as many strategies for coping. I don’t like the look of a ragged right margin, for instance, so all my manuscripts are justified and hyphenated, at least until they go out to readers. I generally prefer it when the concluding line of a paragraph ends somewhere on the left half of the page, and I’ll often rewrite the text accordingly. And I like my short lines of dialogue to be exactly one page width long. All this disappears, of course, the second the manuscript is typeset, but as a way of maintaining my sanity throughout the writing process, these rituals play an important role.

And I don’t seem to mind their absence when I finally see my work in print, which introduces another level of detachment: these words don’t look like mine anymore, but someone else’s. (There are occasional happy exceptions: by sheer accident, the line widths in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 29 happen to exactly match the ones I use at home, so “The Boneless One” looks pretty much like it did on my computer, down to the shape of the paragraphs.) Last week, I finally received an advance copy of my novel Eternal Empire, hot off the presses, and I was struck by how little it felt like a book I’d written. Part of this is because it’s been almost a year since I finished the first draft, I’ve been working on unrelated projects since then, and a lot has happened in the meantime. But there’s also something about the cold permanence of the printed page that keeps me at arm’s length from my work. Once a story can no longer be changed, it ceases to be quite as alive as it once was. It’s still special. But it’s no longer a part of you.

Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2013 at 8:35 am

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