Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Indecent Exposure

The Sony Network

leave a comment »

David Fincher

Like a lot of other people, I’ve spent the last few days reading articles about the leaked documents from the massive hack at Sony Pictures. I don’t necessarily feel good about this—regardless of who was responsible for it, the leak amounts to a massive invasion of privacy that will affect the lives of the company’s employees for years to come—but it’s hard to turn away. For an industry that shapes the dreamlife of much of the planet, the daily work of film production, especially on the corporate side, remains largely unseen and misunderstood. In recent years, special features on home video have turned into a major selling point, ironically as a kind of defense against piracy, so we’ve been given detailed looks at every aspect of filmmaking from casting to catering to the editing room. Yet we aren’t likely to see a featurette about the development process. It’s a running joke that nobody outside of Hollywood seems to know what a producer, let alone a studio executive, really does, but that isn’t an accident. There’s an enormous incentive to keep it as opaque as possible, and when we see a producer claim the Best Picture award on Oscar night, it’s no surprise that it’s generally a face that we’ve never seen before or since.

If the Sony leak is any indication, some of those faces are about to become a lot more familiar. In the past, detailed journalistic accounts of studio politics have focused on infamous trainwrecks: Final Cut on Heaven’s Gate, The Devil’s Candy on The Bonfire of the Vanities, and the very best of them all, David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure, on the David Begelman scandal at Columbia. Occasionally, a producer himself will pen a memoir—as Art Linson did with What Just Happened?—but they’re often more interesting for what they omit than what they reveal. What sets the hack at Sony apart is the volume and sheer mundanity of the information released. Media coverage has focused on the juiciest tidbits, like the heated exchange of emails between Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal over the troubled biopic of Steve Jobs, but as fascinating as that material can be, it’s ultimately less interesting than the glimpses we get of the tedious grind of the studio’s operations from week to week: the PowerPoint slides, the spreadsheets, the internal surveys of employee grievances. It’s like any other company, except that the widgets it makes have the power, at their best, to permanently change the inner lives of millions.

William Goldman

Except, of course, they rarely do. If there’s one theme running through the emails and ephemera that have been released so far, it’s a persistent frustration with a system that compels the studio to make movies in which it doesn’t really believe. On the one hand, this manifests as a palpable desire that Adam Sandler would just go away; on the other, a kind of obsession—visible on multiple occasions—with David Fincher, who stands as one of the few living filmmakers capable of making ambitious, critically acclaimed movies that are also commercial hits. (After The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sony seems to have thought of Fincher as their guy, as Warner Bros. must feel about Chris Nolan, so it must have stung when he went to Fox to make Gone Girl.) Throughout it all, there’s a paralyzing effort to reconcile the vagaries of talent and craft with the need to hit financial targets for quarter after quarter. It’s a combination that can pit a personality, or a studio, permanently against itself, and while that kind of tension can occasionally result in spectacular work, the real challenge lies in keeping the machine going for long enough to yield the outliers, the exceptions, the movies that we remember.

“Studio executives,” writes William Goldman, “share one thing in common with baseball managers; they wake up every morning with the knowledge that sooner or later they’re going to be fired.” They’re also working in a field that is explicitly predicated on taking big risks in which the results of a single decision may not be obvious for years—at which point the reckoning can come with blinding speed. Given this unavoidable fact, it’s understandable if executives try to manage that risk in large ways, by focusing on proven franchises and supposed sure things, and small, by thinking in terms of safe corporate clichés and internal maneuvering. You can’t control how audiences will react to Men in Black 3, but you can sort of control how your contribution is perceived by your coworkers. Execs get a bad rap as business school graduates who think they can all give notes to David Mamet, but they’re really talking about something they care about in the only language they know, or in ways they think will allow them to survive. And all of us who try to create things for a living do the same. It’s easy to fall into the trap of worrying more about how we’re seen by editors or agents than about the ruthless demands of the work itself. We’re all just trying to make it to tomorrow, and we’ve all compromised ourselves along the way. Sony just happens to have been unlucky enough to show it.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2014 at 9:54 am

Fact, fiction, and truth in labeling

with 4 comments

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: