Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Cornell

“Wolfe entered the visitors’ room…”

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"Wolfe entered the visitors' room..."

Note: This post is the thirty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 31. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Given the recent lawsuit over “Stairway to Heaven” and its alleged similarities to “Taurus” by Spirit, there’s been a lot of talk online about where homage—or a common artistic language and tradition—shades into plagiarism. (For what it’s worth, I think it’s clear that Jimmy Page, for all his talents, crossed the line on more than one occasion, and that he profited handsomely by borrowing uncredited ideas from artists who died poor and neglected.) Writers frequently steal from one another, just as they cull images and stories from the world around them, and in most cases, it’s all part of the process of bricolage, the endless gleaning of material that occupies much of an author’s time. Creativity, as I’ve said frequently before, is about combinations, and artistic genius often has more to do with finding unexpected connections between existing components than inventing something new altogether, although the two often go hand in hand. Shakespeare, for one, was a master of uniting disparate stories gleaned from his wide reading into a surprising whole, and a play like The Merchant of Venice is practically a collage of appropriated material, assembled into a strange new animal by juxtaposition and the animating force of the playwright’s imagination.

We see the same principle at work today, perhaps more so than ever, given the range of potential sources that artists have at their disposal. Years ago, I read a critic—I can’t remember who—who argued that Quentin Tarantino’s truest precursor was Joseph Cornell, and while it’s hard to imagine two less similar temperaments, the comparison is a clever one. Tarantino is our most inspired collagist, and like Cornell, his combinations are an expression of a peculiar view of life. For Cornell, it was about finding beauty while excavating and combining the most unlikely of objects, and for Tarantino, it’s both a kind of cultural salvage mission and a metaphor for how he sees the world. Tarantino’s films are loaded with coincidences, cruel ironies, and tricks that the universe plays on its characters, all of which are just another word for fate. That sense of multiple protagonists jostling one another for room, and of one plot segueing abruptly into another before the previous story has had time to conclude, is inseparable from his view of filmmaking as a pileup of influences, and it’s hard to see which tendency came first. The result may seem chaotic, but it’s all of a piece, and that sense of a larger vision behind it is a big part of what separates Tarantino from his imitators.

"Ezekiel is among the exiles in Babylon..."

I’ve always approached The Icon Thief and its sequels as collages, with their elements thrown together as coherently as I can manage, and sometimes the sources show. In City of Exiles, for instance, there’s a major plot thread in which a female FBI agent consults a prisoner for help in tracking down another killer, and as at least one reviewer has pointed out, this sounds a lot like The Silence of the Lambs. I was fully aware of the parallels as I was writing it, as well as of the fact that a law enforcement officer turning to an imprisoned criminal for insight has become a cliché of its own. And no surprise: it’s a nifty little device, and like many tropes that thrive over time, it’s a way of injecting a touch of suspense into scenes of exposition. (Much of the last season of Hannibal has been devoted to ringing as many variations on that theme as possible, and a lot of the fun comes from noticing how blatantly it refers to its own predecessors, including Jonathan Demme’s movie.) As with most things in fiction, familiar elements can work just fine if invigorated by context and specificity, and if I’ve done my job, the scenes between Wolfe and Ilya will work both as part of the story and as a nod to Harris. Or, as John Gardner speaks of an homage to Edgar Allan Poe in The Art of Fiction: “The reader both sees the image in his mind…and sees Poe grinning and waving from the wings.”

Still, if I was going to use this device at all, I wanted to combine it with something else, which is why Chapter 31 also includes the first major introduction of the theme of Ezekiel’s vision, a motif that will recur periodically until the end of the novel. I’m aware that some readers feel that this material seems tacked on, but in fact, it predates much of the plot: I’ve wanted to write a novel about the merkabah for years, and such elements as my interpretation of the tragedy at the Dyatlov Pass and the ultimate nature of Karvonen’s mission were designed as solutions to mysteries for which the vision would provide the clues. It also serves the immediate needs of the story by giving Wolfe a way into Ilya’s head. The one thing Wolfe and Ilya—who otherwise might be the least similar characters in the entire series—have in common is a fascination with scripture and its interpretation, even as they approach it from radically different directions, as a Mormon and a Russian Jew. As usual, when I created these characters, I had no idea that they’d end up spending so much time together, and if their backgrounds make for a nice fit, it’s because they both emerged from my own interest in how we read texts, religious and otherwise. And when all your characters are aspects of yourself, they’ll often have surprising things to tell each other…

A young person’s guide to Wes Anderson

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Wes Anderson makes movies suffused with a sense of diligent play, like a bright child assembling a craft project out of construction paper and elbow macaroni. It’s fun, but it’s also deadly serious, and you wouldn’t want to interrupt him before he’s done. My own favorite is The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which comes closer than any film I’ve ever seen to approximating the kind of movie I would have made when I was twelve years old, given the full resources of a willing studio—and I mean this as a compliment in the strongest possible way. Anderson has often been compared to Joseph Cornell, another misleadingly childlike artist of great meticulousness, and his new film Moonrise Kingdom is his most intricate Cornell box to date. (It also reflects the vision of cowriter Roman Coppola, whose first big job as a filmmaker was designing and executing the ingenious practical effects for his father’s version of Dracula.)

Not surprisingly, Moonrise Kingdom is especially wise when it comes to rendering the inner lives of precocious children, notably Sam and Suzy, two twelve-year-olds who run away from home in New England in 1965. Anderson’s approach has always been to treat his younger characters as miniature adults, and while this can come off as rather arch to adult eyes, I suspect that I would have related strongly to these kids when I was their age—like Sam, I was always in a rush to grow up. Part of the charm of Anderson’s children lies in their slightly flat performances: like the child actors who provide the voices for Bill Meléndez’s Peanuts specials, they don’t always seem to fully understand their own dialogue, but the result is an appealing sense of children playing roles that are just barely over their heads. (If I could pair one director with any film project, my dream would be to have Wes Anderson direct the movie version of Encyclopedia Brown.)

If Moonrise Kingdom has a problem, it’s that the adult characters aren’t seen as clearly as the children. The cast is very engaging, but several of the characters, like Tilda Swinton’s demon from social services, are pure caricature, while Jason Schwartzman’s scenes play like a parody of a Wes Anderson movie. There are a lot of funny moments here—I laughed happily throughout the entire film—but at the back of my mind, I suspect that this would have been a stronger movie if Anderson had focused on the kids and kept the grownups offscreen. He simply doesn’t have much to say about his adult characters this time around, which is a shame from the man who gave us Bill Murray in Rushmore and Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums. (It isn’t surprising that Anderson is most comfortable with adults who act like overgrown children.)

What I missed in Moonrise Kingdom was the presence of a more disciplined authorial hand, which Owen Wilson, of all people, supplied in Anderson’s early work and Noah Baumbach brought to The Life Aquatic. Anderson’s best movies have scripts that are as obsessively structured as his camera moves, and while Moonrise Kingdom makes some interesting structural choices—it opens with Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which, like the movie itself, separately introduces four different ensembles before bringing them together for the grand climax—the result ends up feeling a little too scattered. Left to his own devices, Anderson isn’t especially good at constructing a shapely narrative: the movie is more like a stroll through the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, with their slices of lives at perfect 1:12 scale. It’s a trip I’d gladly make again, but mostly just for another glimpse of Sam and Suzy, moving off through the woods in the distance.

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