Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Errol Morris

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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that elevates even the sloppiest prose: it attains a kind of dignity and solidity that can be hard to see in its unpublished form.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

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

Twenty years later: Oliver Stone’s JFK

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Twenty years ago today, Oliver Stone’s JFK was released in theaters, sparking a pop cultural phenomenon that seems all the more peculiar with the passage of time. It wasn’t merely the fact that such a dense, layered film was a big commercial hit, although it was—it grossed more than $70 million domestically, equivalent to over $130 million today—or that it had obviously been made with all the resources of a major studio. It’s that for a few months, even before its release, the movie seemed to occupy the center of the national conversation, inspiring magazine covers, a resurgence of interest in the Kennedy assassination that has never died down, and memorable parodies on Seinfeld and The Simpsons. In my own life, for better or worse, it’s had a curious but undeniable influence: many of my current literary and cultural obsessions can be traced back to three years in my early teens, when I saw JFK, read Foucault’s Pendulum, and became a fan of The X-Files. As a result, for several years, I may have been the only teenager in the world with a JFK poster on his bedroom wall.

Of course, none of this would have happened if the movie itself weren’t so ridiculously entertaining. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on the merits of JFK, but these days, I believe that it’s a genuinely great movie, one of the few recent Hollywood films—along with Stone’s equally fascinating but underrated Nixon—to advance and build upon what Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane. It’s hard to imagine this now, in the days of W and Wall Street 2, but there was a time when Oliver Stone was the most interesting director in America. At his peak, when he was in the zone, I don’t think anyone—not Scorsese, not Spielberg—could match Stone for sheer technical ability. JFK, his best movie, is one of the most expertly crafted films ever made, an incredibly detailed movie of over three hours that never allows the eye to wander. In particular, the cinematography and editing (at least in the original version, not the less focused director’s cut available on Blu-ray) set a standard that hasn’t been matched since, even as its use of multiple film stocks and documentary footage has become routine enough to be imitated by Transformers 3.

Watching it again earlier this year, I was newly dazzled by the riches on display. There’s the film’s effortless evocation of New Orleans, Dallas, and Washington in the sixties, with the local color of countless locations and neighborhoods picked up on the fly. There’s the compression of the marriage of Lee Harvey and Marina Oswald into five sad minutes—a compelling short film in itself. There’s Donald Sutherland’s loony, endless monologue as the mysterious X, which covers as much conspiracy material as a season’s worth of The X-Files. There’s the astounding supporting cast, which has proven so central to the Kevin Bacon game, and the mother of all courtroom speeches. And most unexpectedly, there’s Kevin Costner, at the height of his stardom, providing a calm center for all this visual, narrative, and textural complexity. It’s safe to say that JFK would never have been made without Costner, whose considerable charisma does more than anything else to turn Jim Garrison, one of the shiftier characters in recent memory, into something like Eliot Ness.

And that’s the problem. JFK is magnificent as cinema, but ludicrous as history. There’s something frightening about how Stone musters such vibrant craft to such questionable ends: in the years since, nearly every point that the movie makes has been systematically dismantled, and if Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is any indication of the cultural mood, it seems that many of us are finally coming around to the realization that, as unthinkable as it seems, Oswald probably acted alone. It’s perhaps only now, then, that we can watch this film with a cool head, as a great work of fiction that bears only superficial resemblance to actual events, and whose paranoid vision of history is actually less strange than the truth. JFK needs to be seen, studied, and appreciated, but first, one should watch Zodiac, or, even better, Errol Morris’s beguiling “The Umbrella Man,” posted earlier this month at the New York Times website. Morris is working on his own movie about the assassination, and if this sample is any indication, it’s the corrective that JFK, for all its brilliance, sorely needs. As subject Josiah “Tink” Thompson says:

What it means is, if you have any fact which you think is really sinister…Forget it, man. Because you can never, on your own, think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact. A cautionary tale!

Written by nevalalee

December 20, 2011 at 10:34 am

McKinney versus McGonagall

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On Saturday, my wife and I went to see Tabloid, Errol Morris’s hugely entertaining new documentary about the strange life of Joyce McKinney, former beauty queen, dog cloner, and kidnapper of the manacled Mormon. We went to see it at Landmark Century, one of Chicago’s leading art house theaters, and because certain shows can get pretty crowded on the weekends, I made sure that we got there forty minutes early. Once we arrived, though, I was surprised to find that the theater itself was almost dead, and we were the first ones to be seated for Tabloid. And while the other seats gradually filled, the auditorium was never more than halfway full. It was almost, I mused to myself, as if everyone else in the world was off seeing some other movie.

That movie, of course, was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which we ended up seeing the following day. The contrast couldn’t have been greater: although we saw Harry Potter at an early matinee on Sunday afternoon, the theater was packed, mostly with adults, all doing their part to contribute to the most lucrative opening weekend of all time. It’s tempting, then, to see these two films as extreme ends of the moviegoing spectrum. Tabloid is a modest production even by Morris’s standards—he doesn’t do any of his usual reenactments or even any shooting on location, with the entire film consisting of talking heads, graphics, and archival footage—while Deathly Hallows is one of the most expensive movies ever made. Taken together, its two parts cost something like $250 million, meaning that Morris’s entire filmography could probably be financed by the first five minutes alone.

Beyond their scale and subject matter, the films also differ radically in their conceptions of storytelling. Tabloid is structured around an unfolding sequence of surprises: it’s best to go in without knowing anything about McKinney’s peculiar story, but even if you’ve studied it closely, you’re almost certainly going to be startled by some of the revelations in store. Deathly Hallows, by contrast, is built on a complete absence of surprise: for the most part, viewers are hoping to see the literal realization of events that they’ve been anticipating in detail for years, and in many cases have all but memorized before entering the theater. Deathly Hallows isn’t out to surprise us, but to satisfy us with the exemplary execution of a foreordained plot—which is something that it does very well.

But while I have to admit that I liked Tabloid just a bit better than Deathly Hallows, there’s room in this world for both kinds of stories. They also have more in common than you might think, at least when it comes to fulfilling our expectations. It’s absurd to expect a $250 million movie based on the most popular fantasy series of all time to surprise us in more than superficial ways. (This is the same reason why a Pixar film, as I’ve said before, generally can’t be as beguiling or strange as a Miyazaki movie.) And there’s also something predictable about Morris’s very unpredictability. As much as a Harry Potter fan goes into Deathly Hallows expecting something very specific, I go into a Morris movie expecting eccentricity, odd twists, and weird lights on human behavior. His brand, in some ways, is as consistent as Potter’s. Both are necessary; both are oddly comforting. And there’s room in everyone’s life for both.

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2011 at 9:51 am

Hayao Miyazaki and the future of animation

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Yesterday was the seventieth birthday of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, the director of Spirited Away, which makes this as appropriate a time as any to ask whether Miyazaki might be, in fact, the greatest living director in any medium. He certainly presents a strong case. My own short list, based solely on ongoing quality of output rather than the strength of past successes, includes Martin Scorsese, Wong Kar-Wai, and Errol Morris, but after some disappointing recent work by these last three, Miyazaki remains the only one who no longer seems capable of delivering anything less than a masterpiece. And he’s also going to be the hardest to replace.

Why is that? Trying to pin down what makes Miyazaki so special is hard for the same reason that it’s challenging to analyze any great work of children’s fiction: it takes the fun out of it. I’m superstitiously opposed to trying to figure out how the Alice books work, for example, in a way that I’m not for Joyce or Nabokov. Similarly, the prospect of taking apart a Miyazaki movie makes me worry that I’ll come off as a spoilsport—or, worse, that the magic will somehow disappear. That’s one reason why I ration out my viewings of Ponyo, one of the most magical movies ever made, so carefully. And it’s why I’m going to tread cautiously here. But it’s still possible to hint at some of the qualities that set Miyazaki apart from even the greatest animators.

The difference, and I apologize in advance for my evasiveness, comes down to a quality of spirit. Miyazaki is as technically skilled as any animator in history, of course, but his craft would mean little without his compassion, and what I might also call his eccentricity. Miyazaki has a highly personal attachment to the Japanese countryside—its depiction of the satoyama is much of what makes My Neighbor Totoro so charming—as well as the inner lives of small children, especially girls. He knows how children think, look, and behave, which shapes both his characters and their surrounding movies. His films can seem as capricious and odd as the stories that very young children tell to themselves, so that Spirited Away feels both beguilingly strange and like a story that you’ve always known and only recently rediscovered.

Which is why Miyazaki is greater than Pixar. Don’t get me wrong: Pixar has had an amazing run, but it’s a singularly corporate excellence. The craft, humor, and love of storytelling that we see in the best Pixar movies feels learned, rather than intuitive; it’s the work of a Silicon Valley company teaching itself to be compassionate. Even the interest in children, which is very real, seems like it has been deliberately cultivated. Pixar, I suspect, is run by men who love animation for its own sake, and who care about children only incidentally, which was also true of Walt Disney himself. (If they could make animated movies solely for adults, I think they would, as the career trajectory of Brad Bird seems to indicate. If nothing else, it would make it easier for them to win an Oscar for Best Picture.)

By contrast, the best Miyazaki movies, like the Alice books, are made for children without a hint of condescension, or any sense that children are anything but the best audience in the world. And as traditional animation is replaced by monsters of CGI that can cost $200 million or more, I’m afraid that this quality will grow increasingly rare. We’ve already seen a loss of personality that can’t be recovered: it’s impossible to be entirely original, not to mention eccentric, with so much money on the line. The result, at best, is a technically marvelous movie that seems to have been crafted by committee, even if it’s a committee of geniuses. Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece, and not good enough.

Miyazaki is seventy now, and judging from Ponyo, he’s still at the top of his game. I hope he keeps making movies for a long time to come. Because it’s unclear if the world of animation, as it currently exists, will ever produce anyone quite like him again.

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