Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Laurence Sterne

The pause that refreshes

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For most writers, working too hard is the least of their problems, but sometimes it’s necessary to slow down. In this respect, I’m a bigger offender than most. As regular readers will know, I’m a member of the cult of productivity: I believe that in order to write well, you need to write a lot, and I take pride in the fact that I can reliably crank out a few pages on demand. (Although not without the preliminary work of brainstorming, researching, and outlining, which effectively triples my writing time, without even counting revision.) Yet as I start the process of outlining The Scythian, I’m repeatedly reminded of the fact that it’s occasionally good to pause, look around, and see where you are. Because it’s in the moments between sessions of furious activity, when no visible work is being done, that some of our most important insights take place.

In the old days, writers found plenty of occasions to pause during the day, simply because their materials demanded it. You had quills to cut, inkwells to fill, or, later, typewriter ribbons to replace. (Not to mention figuring out how to reboot WordPerfect.) These tasks were tedious, but they also provided useful intervals of downtime. I never get tired of quoting these lines from Behind the Seen about the great film editor Walter Murch, who found moments of surprising introspection on an old-fashioned editing machine:

As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him the chance to see footage in other context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas.

These days, of course, with modern editing systems and word processing programs, such blank spaces have become harder to find. (Although it’s likely that later generations will look back with amazement on how we managed to get so much work done without the benefit of neural implants.) And while Word still crashes from time to time—in my case, for some reason, whenever I try to use the highlighting tool—that isn’t a substitute for more regular pauses.

In fact, I suspect that many of the brainstorming tools used by writers, including myself, are actually veiled ways of slowing down the creative process, which allows the two hemispheres of the brain to fall into line. Mind maps are a great example. I’ve found that mind maps drawn by hand are infinitely more useful than those made with a computer program, simply because they take longer to make. When I’m seated with a pad of cheap paper, letting my pen wander across the page, I have no choice but to slow down and let my thoughts wander at the same pace as the physical act of writing. As a result, when I’m reviewing the action of the scene I’m outlining, I find myself drilling deeper into individual moments, when I might have hurried past them if I were typing lines into a text box. The activity itself doesn’t really matter: the important thing is to ruminate for an hour or so at a fairly slow speed. Drawing a mind map conveniently gives my eye and hand something to do while my brain does the work.

Other writers will find their own ways of inserting a pause into the creative process. Often just the act of getting up from one’s desk, walking around the room, and doing a few chores—although nothing mentally taxing—will allow the brain to relax. I’ve spoken before of how shaving is the perfect activity for this sort of thing, and I’m not the only one. Here’s Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, on dealing with writer’s block:

For if a pinch of snuff, or a stride or two across the room will not do the business for me—I take a razor at once; and having tried the edge of it upon the palm of my hand, without further ceremony, except that of first lathering my beard, I shave it off.

Woody Allen, as I’ve noted before, takes a shower or a walk in the park, and I’ll often get ideas while doing the dishes. Just about anything, in fact, can be used to insert a pause into one’s routine—except going online. Not every writer needs to go as far as Jonathan Franzen, who glued an Ethernet cable into his laptop and broke it off, but it’s worth remembering that nearly all the time you spend online could be more profitably used somewhere else, even if that means doing nothing at all. Which raises the question, of course, of why you’re even reading this post…but lucky for you, I’m done.

Written by nevalalee

February 2, 2012 at 9:51 am

In praise of David Thomson

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The publication of the fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the best book ever written on the movies, is cause for celebration, and an excuse for me to talk about one of the weirdest books in all of literature. Thomson is a controversial figure, and for good reason: his film writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of Thomson’s earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies.

First, a word about the book’s shortcomings. As in previous editions, instead of revising the entries for living subjects in their entirety, Thomson simply adds another paragraph or two to the existing filmographies, so that the book seems to grow by accretion, like a coral reef. This leads to inconsistencies in tone within individual articles, and also to factual mistakes when the entry hasn’t been updated recently enough—like the article on George Lucas, for instance, in which the latter two Star Wars prequels still evidently lie in the future. And the book is full of the kind of errors that occur when one tries to keep up, in print, with the vagaries of movie production—as when it credits David O. Russell with the nonexistent Nailed and omits The Fighter. (Now that this information is readily available online, Thomson should really just delete all of the detailed filmographies in the next edition, which would cut the book’s size by a quarter or more.)

And then, of course, there are Thomson’s own opinions, which are contrarian in a way that can often seem perverse. He’s lukewarm on Kurosawa, very hard on Kubrick (The Shining is the only movie he admires), and thinks that Christopher Nolan’s work “has already become progressively less interesting.” He thinks that The Wrestler is “a wretched, interminable film,” but he loves Nine. He displays next to no interest in animation or international cinema. There’s something to be outraged about on nearly every page, which is probably why the Dictionary averages barely more than three stars from reviewers on Amazon. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a critic whose opinions differ from your own must be corrupt, crazy, or incompetent—as many of Roger Ebert’s correspondents apparently do—then you should stay far, far away from Thomson, who goes out of his way to infuriate even his most passionate defenders.

Yet Thomson’s perversity is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing the same thing. And it’s impossible not to be challenged and stirred by his opinions. There is a way, after all, in which Kurosawa is a more limited director than Ozu—although I know which one I ultimately prefer. Kubrick’s alienation from humanity would have crippled any director who was not Kubrick. Until The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan’s movies were, indeed, something of a retreat from the promise of Memento. And for each moment of temporary insanity on Thomson’s part, you get something equally transcendent. Here he is on Orson Welles, for example, in a paragraph that has forever changed how I watch Citizen Kane:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself…As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

On Spielberg and Schindler’s List:

Schindler’s List is the most moving film I have ever seen. This does not mean it is faultless. To take just one point: the reddening of one little girl’s coat in a black-and-white film strikes me as a mistake, and a sign of how calculating a director Spielberg is. For the calculations reveal themselves in these few errors that escape. I don’t really believe in Spielberg as an artist…But Schindler’s List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens. And it helps persuade this viewer that cinema—or American film—is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.

And, wonderfully, on what is perhaps my own favorite bad movie of all time:

Yet in truth, I think Kevin [Spacey] himself is the biggest experiment, and to substantiate that one has only to call to the stand Beyond the Sea, written, produced and directed by Kev and with himself as Bobby Darin. The result is intoxicating, one of the really great dreadful films ever made, worthy of an annual Beyond the Sea award (why not give it on Oscar night?), as well as clinching evidence that this man is mad. Anything could happen.

The result, as I note above, is a massive Proustian novel in which nearly every major figure in the history of film plays a role. (Thomson has already written a novel, Suspects, that does this more explicitly, and his book-length study of Nicole Kidman is manifestly a novel in disguise.) Reading the Dictionary, which is as addictive as Wikipedia or TV Tropes, is like diving headfirst into a vast ocean, and trying to see how deep you can go before coming up for air. Although if it really is a novel, it’s less like Proust than like Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. (In that light, even the book’s mistakes seem to carry a larger meaning. What does it mean, for instance, that Thomson’s brilliant article on Heath Ledger, in which he muses on “the brief purchasing power” of fame, was “inadvertently dropped” from the fifth edition?)

And what monstrous truth does the Dictionary conceal? It’s the same truth, which applies as much to Thomson himself as it does to you and me, as the one that he spells out, unforgettably, at the end of Rosebud, his study of Orson Welles:

So film perhaps had made a wasted life?
One has to do something.

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