Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Keith Phipps

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 3

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By now, it might seem obvious that the best way to approach Nostradamus is to see it as a kind of game, as Anthony Boucher describes it in the June 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds: “A fascinating game, to be sure, with a one-in-a-million chance of hitting an astounding bullseye. But still a game, and a game that has to be played according to the rules. And those rules are, above all things else, even above historical knowledge and ingenuity of interpretation, accuracy and impartiality.” Boucher’s work inspired several spirited rebukes in print from L. Sprague de Camp, who granted the rules of the game but disagreed about its harmlessness. In a book review signed “J. Wellington Wells”—and please do keep an eye on that last name—de Camp noted that Nostradamus was “conjured out of his grave” whenever there was a war:

And wonder of wonders, it always transpires that a considerable portion of his several fat volumes of prophetic quatrains refer to the particular war—out of the twenty-odd major conflicts that have occurred since Dr. Nostradamus’s time—or other disturbance now taking place; and moreover that they prophesy inevitable victory for our side—whichever that happens to be. A wonderful man, Nostradamus.

Their affectionate battle culminated in a nonsense limerick that de Camp published in the December 1942 version of Esquire, claiming that if it was still in print after four hundred years, it would have been proven just as true as any of Nostradamus’s prophecies. Boucher responded in Astounding with the short story “Pelagic Spark,” an early piece of fanfic in which de Camp’s great-grandson uses the “prophecy” to inspire a rebellion in the far future against the sinister Hitler XVI.

This is all just good fun, but not everyone sees it as a game, and Nostradamus—like other forms of vaguely apocalyptic prophecy—tends to return at exactly the point when such impulses become the most dangerous. This was the core of de Camp’s objection, and Boucher himself issued a similar warning:

At this point there enters a sinister economic factor. Books will be published only when there is popular demand for them. The ideal attempt to interpret the as yet unfulfilled quatrains of Nostradamus would be made in an ivory tower when all the world was at peace. But books on Nostradamus sell only in times of terrible crisis, when the public wants no quiet and reasoned analysis, but an impassioned assurance that We are going to lick the blazes out of Them because look, it says so right here. And in times of terrible crisis, rules are apt to get lost.

Boucher observes that one of the best books on the subject, Charles A. Ward’s Oracles of Nostradamus, was reissued with a dust jacket emblazoned with such questions as “Will America Enter the War?” and “Will the British Fleet Be Destroyed?” You still see this sort of thing today, and it isn’t just the books that benefit. In 1981, the producer David L. Wolper released a documentary on the prophecies of Nostradamus, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, that saw subsequent spikes in interest during the Gulf War—a revised version for television was hosted by Charlton Heston—and after the September 11 attacks, when there was a run on the cassette at Blockbuster. And the attention that it periodically inspires reflects the same emotional factors that led to psychohistory, as the host of the original version said to the audience: “Do we really want to know about the future? Maybe so—if we can change it.”

The speaker, of course, was Orson Welles. I had always known that The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was narrated by Welles, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently that I realized that he hosted it onscreen as well, in one of my favorite incarnations of any human being—bearded, gigantic, cigar in hand, vaguely contemptuous of his surroundings and collaborators, but still willing to infuse the proceedings with something of the velvet and gold braid. Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club once described the documentary as “a brain-damaged sequel” to Welles’s lovely F for Fake, which is very generous. The entire project is manifestly ridiculous and exploitative, with uncut footage from the Zapruder film mingling with a xenophobic fantasy of a war of the West against Islam. Yet there are also moments that are oddly transporting, as when Welles turns to the camera and says:

Before continuing, let me warn you now that the predictions of the future are not at all comforting. I might also add that these predictions of the past, these warnings of the future are not the opinions of the producers of the film. They’re certainly not my opinions. They’re interpretations of the quatrains as made by scores of independent scholars of Nostradamus’ work.

In the sly reading of “my opinions,” you can still hear a trace of Harry Lime, or even of Gregory Arkadin, who invited his guests to drink to the story of the scorpion and the frog. And the entire movie is full of strange echoes of Welles’s career. Footage is repurposed from Waterloo, in which he played Louis XVIII, and it glances at the fall of the Shah of Iran, whose brother-in-law funded Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which was impounded by the revolutionary government that Nostradamus allegedly foresaw.

Welles later expressed contempt for the whole affair, allegedly telling Merv Griffin that you could get equally useful prophecies by reading at random out of the phone book. Yet it’s worth remembering, as the critic David Thomson notes, that Welles turned all of his talk show interlocutors into versions of the reporter from Citizen Kane, or even into the Hal to his Falstaff, and it’s never clear where the game ended. His presence infuses The Man Who Saw Tomorrow with an unearned loveliness, despite the its many awful aspects, such as the presence of the “psychic” Jeane Dixon. (Dixon’s fame rested on her alleged prediction of the Kennedy assassination, based on a statement—made in Parade magazine in 1960—that the winner of the upcoming presidential election would be “assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term.” Oddly enough, no one seems to remember an equally impressive prediction by the astrologer Joseph F. Goodavage, who wrote in Analog in September 1962: “It is coincidental that each American president in office at the time of these conjunctions [of Jupiter and Saturn in an earth sign] either died or was assassinated before leaving the presidency…John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 at the time of a Jupiter and Saturn conjunction in Capricorn.”) And it’s hard for me to watch this movie without falling into reveries about Welles, who was like John W. Campbell in so many other ways. Welles may have been the most intriguing cultural figure of the twentieth century, but he never seemed to know what would come next, and his later career was one long improvisation. It might not be too much to hear a certain wistfulness when he speaks of the man who could see tomorrow, much as Campbell’s fascination with psychohistory stood in stark contrast to the confusion of the second half of his life. When The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was released, Welles had finished editing about forty minutes of his unfinished masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind, and for decades after his death, it seemed that it would never be seen. Instead, it’s available today on Netflix. And I don’t think that anybody could have seen that coming.

The critical path

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Renata Adler

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 16, 2016.

Every few years or so, I go back and revisit Renata Adler’s famous attack in the New York Review of Books on the reputation of the film critic Pauline Kael. As a lifelong Kael fan, I don’t agree with Adler—who describes Kael’s output as “not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless”—but I respect the essay’s fire and eloquence, and it’s still a great read. What is sometimes forgotten is that Adler opens with an assault, not on Kael alone, but on the entire enterprise of professional criticism itself. Here’s what she says:

The job of the regular daily, weekly, or even monthly critic resembles the work of the serious intermittent critic, who writes only when he is asked to or genuinely moved to, in limited ways and for only a limited period of time…Normally, no art can support for long the play of a major intelligence, working flat out, on a quotidian basis. No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth…

The simple truth—this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable—is not a day’s work for a thinking adult. Some critics go shrill. Others go stale. A lot go simultaneously shrill and stale.

Adler concludes: “By far the most common tendency, however, is to stay put and simply to inflate, to pretend that each day’s text is after all a crisis—the most, first, best, worst, finest, meanest, deepest, etc.—to take on, since we are dealing in superlatives, one of the first, most unmistakable marks of the hack.” And I think that she has a point, even if I have to challenge a few of her assumptions. (The statement that most works of art “inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth,” is particularly strange, with its implicit division of all artistic productions into the sheep and the goats. It also implies that it’s the obligation of the artist to provide a worthy subject for the major critic, when in fact it’s the other way around: as a critic, you prove yourself in large part through your ability to mine insight from the unlikeliest of sources.) Writing reviews on a daily or weekly basis, especially when you have a limited amount of time to absorb the work itself, lends itself inevitably to shortcuts, and you often find yourself falling back on the same stock phrases and judgments. And Adler’s warning about “dealing in superlatives” seems altogether prescient. As Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club pointed out a few years back, the need to stand out in an ocean of competing coverage means that every topic under consideration becomes either an epic fail or an epic win: a sensible middle ground doesn’t generate page views.

Pauline Kael

But the situation, at least from Adler’s point of view, is even more dire than when she wrote this essay in the early eighties. When Adler’s takedown of Kael first appeared, the most threatening form of critical dilution lay in weekly movie reviews: today, we’re living in a media environment in which every episode of every television show gets thousands of words of critical analysis from multiple pop culture sites. (Adler writes: “Television, in this respect, is clearly not an art but an appliance, through which reviewable material is sometimes played.” Which is only a measure of how much the way we think and talk about the medium has changed over the intervening three decades.) The conditions that Adler identifies as necessary for the creation of a major critic like Edmund Wilson or Harold Rosenberg—time, the ability to choose one’s subjects, and the freedom to quit when necessary—have all but disappeared for most writers hoping to make a mark, or even just a living. To borrow a trendy phrase, we’ve reached a point of peak content, with a torrent of verbiage being churned out at an unsustainable pace without the advertising dollars to support it, in a situation that can be maintained only by the seemingly endless supply of aspiring writers willing to be chewed up by the machine. And if Adler thought that even a monthly reviewing schedule was deadly for serious criticism, I’d be curious to hear how she feels about the online apprenticeship that all young writers seem expected to undergo these days.

Still, I’d like to think that Adler got it wrong, just as I believe that she was ultimately mistaken about Kael, whose legacy, for all its flaws, still endures. (It’s revealing to note that Adler had a long, distinguished career as a writer and critic herself, and yet she almost certainly remains best known among casual readers for her Kael review.) Not every lengthy writeup of the latest episode of Riverdale is going to stand the test of time, but as a crucible for forming a critic’s judgment, this daily grind feels like a necessary component, even if it isn’t the only one. A critic needs time and leisure to think about major works of art, which is a situation that the current media landscape doesn’t seem prepared to offer. But the ability to form quick judgments about works of widely varying quality and to express them fluently on deadline is an indispensable part of any critic’s toolbox. When taken as an end itself, it can be deadening, as Adler notes, but it can also be the foundation for something more, even if it has to be undertaken outside of—or despite—the critic’s day job. The critic’s responsibility, now more than ever, isn’t to detach entirely from the relentless pace of pop culture, but to find ways of channeling it into something deeper than the instantaneous think piece or hot take. As a daily blogger who also undertakes projects that can last for months or years, I’m constantly mindful of the relationship between my work on demand and my larger ambitions. And I sure hope that the two halves can work together. Because, like it or not, every critic is walking that path already.

Written by nevalalee

April 18, 2017 at 9:00 am

The critical path

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Renata Adler

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to mention Renata Adler’s famous attack in the New York Review of Books on the reputation of the film critic Pauline Kael. As a lifelong Kael fan, I don’t agree with Adler—who describes Kael’s output as “not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless”—but I respect the essay’s fire and eloquence, and it’s still a great read. What I’d forgotten is that Adler opens with an assault, not on Kael alone, but on the entire enterprise of professional criticism itself. Here’s what she says:

The job of the regular daily, weekly, or even monthly critic resembles the work of the serious intermittent critic, who writes only when he is asked to or genuinely moved to, in limited ways and for only a limited period of time…Normally, no art can support for long the play of a major intelligence, working flat out, on a quotidian basis. No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth…

The simple truth—this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable—is not a day’s work for a thinking adult. Some critics go shrill. Others go stale. A lot go simultaneously shrill and stale.

Adler concludes: “By far the most common tendency, however, is to stay put and simply to inflate, to pretend that each day’s text is after all a crisis—the most, first, best, worst, finest, meanest, deepest, etc.—to take on, since we are dealing in superlatives, one of the first, most unmistakable marks of the hack.” And I think that she has a point, even if I have to challenge a few of her assumptions. (The statement that most works of art “inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth,” is particularly strange, with its implicit division of all artistic productions into the sheep and the goats. It also implies that it’s the obligation of the artist to provide a worthy subject for the major critic, when in fact it’s the other way around: as a critic, you prove yourself in large part through your ability to mine insight from the unlikeliest of sources.) Writing reviews on a daily or weekly basis, especially when you have a limited amount of time to absorb the work itself, lends itself inevitably to shortcuts, and you often find yourself falling back on the same stock phrases and judgments. And Adler’s warning about “dealing in superlatives” seems altogether prescient. As Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club pointed out a few years back, the need to stand out in an ocean of competing coverage means that every topic under consideration becomes either an epic fail or an epic win: a sensible middle ground doesn’t generate page views.

Pauline Kael

But the situation, at least from Adler’s point of view, is even more dire than when she wrote this essay in the early eighties. When Adler’s takedown of Kael first appeared, the most threatening form of critical dilution lay in weekly movie reviews: today, we’re living in a media environment in which every episode of every television show gets thousands of words of critical analysis from multiple pop culture sites. (Adler writes: “Television, in this respect, is clearly not an art but an appliance, through which reviewable material is sometimes played.” Which is only a measure of how much the way we think and talk about the medium has changed over the intervening three decades.) The conditions that Adler identifies as necessary for the creation of a major critic like Edmund Wilson or Harold Rosenberg—time, the ability to choose one’s subjects, and the freedom to quit when necessary—have all but disappeared for most writers hoping to make a mark, or even just a living. To borrow a trendy phrase, we’ve reached a point of peak content, with a torrent of verbiage being churned out at an unsustainable pace without the advertising dollars to support it, in a situation that can be maintained only by the seemingly endless supply of aspiring writers willing to be chewed up by the machine. And if Adler thought that even a monthly reviewing schedule was deadly for serious criticism, I’d be curious to hear how she feels about the online apprenticeship that all young writers seem expected to undergo these days.

Still, I’d like to think that Adler got it wrong, just as I believe that she was ultimately mistaken about Kael, whose legacy, for all its flaws, still endures. (It’s revealing to note that Adler had a long, distinguished career as a writer and critic herself, and yet she almost certainly remains best known among casual readers for her Kael review.) Not every lengthy writeup of the latest episode of The Vampire Diaries is going to stand the test of time, but as a crucible for forming a critic’s judgment, this daily grind feels like a necessary component, even if it isn’t the only one. A critic needs time and leisure to think about major works of art, which is a situation that the current media landscape doesn’t seem prepared to offer. But the ability to form quick judgments about works of widely varying quality and to express them fluently on deadline is an indispensable part of any critic’s toolbox. When taken as an end itself, it can be deadening, as Adler notes, but it can also be the foundation for something more, even if it has to be undertaken outside of—or despite—the critic’s day job. The critic’s responsibility, now more than ever, isn’t to detach entirely from the relentless pace of pop culture, but to find ways of channeling it into something deeper than the instant think piece or hot take. As a blogger who frequently undertakes projects that can last for months or years, I’m constantly mindful of the relationship between my work on demand and my larger ambitions. And I sure hope that the two halves can work together. Because like it or not, every critic is walking that path already.

Written by nevalalee

February 16, 2016 at 8:55 am

Psycho, Black Swan, and the problem of surprise

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A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a memorable showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho at the CSO, with a live orchestra playing Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score. It was the second time in just over a year that I’d watched Psycho with a live audience—I saw it last August in Grant Park—and it’s always a lot of fun: everyone is appropriately jaded by the film’s most famous scene, but then there’s that second murder, which is much less well known, and which invariably results in a big scream from the audience, fifty years after the movie’s original release.

Before the screening, we attended a discussion of the film with the AV Club’s Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, where Phipps shared the following story (which, if you haven’t seen Psycho, I’d advise you to skip):

I took a friend to see Psycho…Not only had he never seen Psycho, he had somehow managed to remain ignorant of its twist. We sat in front of a pair of elderly women who decided to provide a running commentary about the film, specifically about how much things had changed since the 1960s. “Gas sure was cheap back then,” one commented as Janet Leigh pulled into a gas station. “Cars sure were big back then,” the other responded. (It might just be my memory making the story better, but I could swear one of them also said, “It sure was dark back then.”) It was annoying. But not as annoying as the moment shortly after Leigh’s death, when one said, “Isn’t he pretending to be his mother or something?”

Phipps says that he then saw his friend “tense up with rage.” Well, sure. These days, it’s so rare for anyone to see Psycho without any previous knowledge that those women deserved, if not to be stabbed in the shower, then at least to watch that awful psychiatrist’s speech over and over again.

Not long after seeing Psycho at the CSO, I had a plot point for Black Swan spoiled for me, appropriately enough, by an anonymous commenter on the AV Club. Needless to say, I tensed up with rage, and was afraid that the movie had been ruined. But when I mentioned this on Twitter, Scott Tobias responded: “No worries. The film will work for you (or not) regardless.” And, strangely enough, he was right. I don’t think my experience of the movie was any less compelling because I knew where the story was going. I may even have enjoyed it slightly more.

So what makes Black Swan different from Psycho? One difference, obviously, is that it’s a greater crime to spoil a classic: Psycho is one of a handful of movies that will probably be watched a hundred years from now, while the jury is still out on Black Swan. More important, though, is the nature of Psycho’s secrets, which fundamentally undermine the movie that the audience is anticipating: first the star is murdered, and then the killer turns out to be something…unexpected. Black Swan’s spoilers are inherent in its premise: we know from early on that this movie will be about a young woman going mad, and the only surprise lies in what form that madness will take.

Is there a lesson here for writers? I’d like to think of it as another example of the power of constraints. Psycho tells us that it’s a film of suspense, then radically destroys our expectations of what to expect from such a movie. Black Swan, by contrast, establishes from its opening scenes that it’s a psychological horror film, then does pretty much what we expect, even if it gives itself more stylistic leeway than Psycho does. The former kind of surprise, needless to say, is much more powerful than the latter, but it only works if the story first lays down the rules that it intends to break. In a film in which anything can happen, it’s hard to expect the audience to be surprised—or moved—by what eventually does.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2010 at 7:50 pm

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