Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Leigh Brackett

The invisible library

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Over the last week, three significant events occurred in the timeline of my book Astounding. The page proofs—the typeset text to which the author can still make minor changes and corrections—were due back at my publisher on Wednesday. Yesterday, I received a boxful of uncorrected advance copies, which look great. And I got paid. This last point might not seem worth mentioning, but it’s an aspect of the process that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. An advance payment for a book, which is often the only money that a writer ever sees, is usually delivered in three installments. (The breakdown depends on the terms of the contract, but it’s roughly divided into thirds, although the first chunk is generally a little larger than the others, and the middle one tends to be the smallest.) One piece is paid on signing; another on acceptance of the manuscript; and the last on publication. In practice, the payments can get held up for one reason or another, and in my case, nearly two and a half years passed between the first installment and the second. That’s a long time to stretch it out. And it points to one of the challenges of the publishing industry, which is that it’s survivable only by writers who have either an alternative source of income or a robust support structure. This naturally limits the kinds of voices and the range of subjects that it can accommodate. I don’t think that I could have written this book in under three years if I had been working a regular job, and the fact that I managed to pull it off at all was thanks to luck, good timing, and a very patient spouse.

But it also provided me with fresh insight into one of my great unanswered questions about this project, which was why no one had ever done it before. A biography of John W. Campbell seemed like such an obvious and necessary book that I was amazed to realize that it didn’t exist, and it was that moment of realization that inspired this whole enterprise. If anything like it had been attempted in the past, even in an obscure academic publication, I don’t think I would have tackled it in the first place. One explanation for its absence is that the best time for such a book would have been in the late seventies, when such writers as Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl were publishing their memoirs, and by the time various obstacles had been sorted out, its moment had come and gone. And it’s also true that Campbell’s life presents particular challenges that might dissuade potential biographers. It would have been a tough project for anyone, and one of my advantages may have been that I underestimated the difficulties that it would present. But the simple fact, as I’ve come to appreciate, is that the odds are against any book seeing the light of day. This one hinged on a combination of factors so unlikely that I have trouble believing it myself, and if just one of those pieces had failed to fall into place, it never would have happened. Maybe someone else would have tried again a decade from now, but I’m not sure. If it seems inevitable to me now, that’s another reason to reflect on the many books that have yet to be written. (Even within the field of science fiction, there are staggering omissions. There’s no biography or study of Leigh Brackett, for instance, and I strongly encourage someone else to pitch it before I do.) This book exists, which is a miracle in itself. But for every book that sees print, there’s an invisible library of unwritten—and equally worthy—books behind it.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2018 at 8:33 am

My alternative canon #3: The Long Goodbye

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Poster for The Long Goodbye by Jack Davis

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

During my freshman year of college, one of my first orders of business was to watch a bunch of movies I’d never had the chance to see. This was back in the late nineties, long before Netflix or streaming video, and filling in the gaps in my cinematic education was a far more haphazard process than it is now: I’d never even had a Blockbuster card. (When I finally got a video store membership, the first movie I rented at the Garage Mall in Cambridge was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.) I saw many of these films on videocassette in one of the viewing booths at Lamont Library, where you could borrow a pair of headphones and watch a title from the open stacks: it’s how I was introduced to Vertigo, Miller’s Crossing, 8 1/2, the first half of Chimes at Midnight—I never finished it—and many others, including The Long Goodbye. I’d wanted to watch it ever since reading Pauline Kael’s ecstatic review from The New Yorker, especially for the line: “What separates [Robert] Altman from other directors is that time after time he can attain crowning visual effects…and they’re so elusive they’re never precious. They’re like ribbons tying up the whole history of movies.” And when I finally took it in alone one night, I liked it for what it clearly was: a quirky satire of Los Angeles noir that managed to remain compelling despite devoting a total of about five minutes to the plot. Many of its scenes seemed even quirkier then than they did in its initial release, as when Elliott Gould, playing Philip Marlowe, is menaced by a gang of thugs that turns out to include a young, mustachioed Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But it wasn’t until I saw it again a few years later, with an enthusiastic audience at the Brattle Film Archive, that I realized how funny it was. It’s perhaps the one film, aside from M*A*S*H, in which Altman seems so willing to structure comedic set pieces with a genuine setup and payoff, with a big assist from screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who uses the framework of Raymond Chandler’s original novel as a kind of low-horsepower engine that keeps the whole thing running. The film’s basic pleasures are most obvious in the scene in which Mark Rydell’s gangster smashes a Coke bottle across his own girlfriend’s face and then says to Marlowe: “That’s someone I love! And you I don’t even like!” But an even better example is the scene in which Marlowe is hit by a car, followed by a cut to an unconscious figure in a hospital covered from head to toe in bandages—followed in turn by a shot of Marlowe, in the same room, looking balefully at the patient in the next bed. Described like this, it sounds unbearably corny, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so delighted by a gag. In fact, it might be my favorite comedy ever. (It also has my favorite movie poster, drawn with Mad-style dialogue balloons by Jack Davis, which includes a joke that I didn’t get for years. Robert Altman: “This is Nina van Pallandt, who portrays a femme fatale involved in a deceptive plot of shadowy intrigue!” Van Pallandt: “How do you want me to play it?” Altman: “From memory!”) Movies from The Big Lebowski to Inherent Vice have drawn on its mood and incomparable air of cool, but The Long Goodbye remains the great original. It tried to deflate a myth, but in the process, it became a delicious myth in itself. And part of me still wants to live in its world.

Written by nevalalee

June 8, 2016 at 9:00 am

Astounding Stories #10: “Way in the Middle of the Air”

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Way in the Middle of the Air

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

The golden age of science fiction, at least as I define it, ended in May 1950, with the initial publication of the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in Astounding. (Technically, the issue would have appeared on newsstands the month before, but let’s not split hairs.) Yet with every end comes a beginning, and science fiction itself was far from dead: The Martian Chronicles was released just a few weeks later, and it success marked a signal moment in the genre’s passage into the mainstream. Its author, Ray Bradbury, had been desperate to get into the pages of Astounding, but despite the patient mentoring of Leigh Brackett and the friendship of Robert A. Heinlein, he was only able to sell one short story and a couple of minor pieces. In the end, he was the only major science fiction writer of his era who emerged outside the influence of John W. Campbell, and this wasn’t simply an oversight. Campbell had met Bradbury and critiqued his submissions at length, and the two men shared mutual close friends, but they never saw eye to eye. And while Campbell’s overall track record remains unimpeachable—it’s all but inevitable that he would overlook a promising talent or two out of the dozens he developed—it still feels like a loss. When I raised the issue at a panel last month at the Nebula Conference, the editor Stanley Schmidt said that it was less a question of a failure to recognize talent than of Bradbury not quite fitting in with Campbell’s vision, which is true enough. But it’s hard not to see his absence as anything less than a gap in the history of the magazine.

My favorite story in The Martian Chronicles is “Mars is Heaven!”, which appears under the title “The Third Expedition,” but the one that I’ve been thinking about the most is “Way in the Middle of the Air,” which starkly exposes both Bradbury’s strengths and his limitations. Bradbury had trouble selling it: it was published for the first time in the book itself, although it later appeared in Raymond A. Palmer’s Other Worlds Science Stories, and when you read it, you can see why. It’s about a small town in the South whose entire black population packs up and leaves on a rocket for Mars. The story is seen through the eyes of a group of white landowners, who sit sullenly watching the exodus from the porch of a hardware store. Its satirical targets are obviously the racists who are left behind, and there’s no question that Bradbury’s heart was in the right place. But the result is still intensely problematic, at least to modern readers. The black colonists are seen mostly as a monolithic mass moving through the center of town: “And in that slow, steady channel of darkness that cut across the white glare of day were touches of alert white, the eyes, the ivory eyes staring ahead, glancing aside, as the river, the long and endless river, took itself from old channels into a new one.” And the only reasonable reaction to lines like “the watermelon patches, if any, were left alone to heat their hidden liquors in the sun” and “in still farther meadows, the watermelons lay, unfingerprinted” is to wish fervently that they didn’t exist.

Ray Bradbury

But the real problem is that once the colonists have left for Mars, we never hear from them again. In the text as it stands, the implication is that they all returned to Earth, like everybody else, when war broke out back home—which feels even less plausible in this case than it does for the other settlers. Bradbury was keenly aware of this omission, and his reaction to it is fascinating in itself. In the biography Becoming Ray Bradbury, Jonathan R. Eller writes:

For his October 1949 submission of The Martian Chronicles typescript, he had prepared a short narrative bridge passage to explain why these people did not appear anywhere else in the saga. In this bridge, titled “The Wheel,” the interplanetary journey is portrayed like a spiritual saga in miniature, an Old Testament-style journey to the Promised Land. In this brief interlude, the actual destination is really less important than the freedom it stands for—the black pioneers deviate from course and eventually end up on Venus. But this option was too facile and dismissive, and Bradbury soon realized it; “The Wheel” was deleted from the Chronicles before the galleys were set, and Bradbury instead completed a full and logical sequel set on Mars.

This sequel, “The Other Foot,” appeared in The Illustrated Man, but it doesn’t fit in with the chronology of The Martian Chronicles: for its plot to make sense, it requires that only black colonies exist on Mars. For all his efforts and good intentions, Bradbury was unable to find a place for these colonists anywhere in his larger story.

Which tells us a lot about the author himself. If the Bradbury of this period has a weakness, it’s that he’s prone to falling in love with an image or a gag or a twist for its own sake, without considering how it fits into the big picture or working out its deeper implications. You see a similar problem in “The Silent Towns,” an equally discomfiting story in the same collection, and he was so taken, it seems, by the effect of “Way in the Middle of the Air”—which is an undeniably powerful story—that he made room for it here, despite his full knowledge that the absence of the black colonists in the rest of the narrative would create a self-evident hole. (He ultimately appears to have had second thoughts about it: the story was omitted in the British publication and in the later 1997 edition.) For many readers, his most appealing quality as a writer is the warm streak of nostalgia that pervades his fiction, but it can also shade into sentimentality in its worst sense, in which the symbols and trappings of small-town America are conflated with a coherent set of values. Personally, I prefer Bradbury in his darker, more sinister mode, which is why I think his masterpiece is “Mars is Heaven!”, which begins as an evocation of idyllic Americana and twists it into an unforgettable nightmare. “Way in the Middle of the Air” deserves to be read and remembered, if only because it’s the kind of story that few other authors of the era could even have contemplated writing: it’s impossible to imagine it ever running in Astounding. But it strands its colonists in the middle of the air, and it would be left to other writers to take them to the stars.

The Judd Apatow paradox

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Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, and Leslie Mann

I don’t think I’ve ever read an interview with a film editor that didn’t fascinate me from beginning to end, and Jonah Weiner’s recent New York Times Magazine profile of Brent White—Judd Apatow’s editor of choice—is no exception. Film editors need to think more intensely and exclusively about problems of structure than any other creative professional, and they represent a relatively neglected source of insights into storytelling of all kinds. Here are a few choice tidbits:

There are moments where [Will Ferrell] is thinking what the joke is, then he knows what the joke is, and then he’s saying the joke. Making the leap from one to two to three. What I’m doing is tightening up that leap for him: improving the rhythm, boom-boom-boom.

I reverse-engineer the scene to make sure I can get to the joke. Then it becomes bridge-building. How do I get to this thing from this other thing I like?

[Apatow will sometimes] have something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know exactly where it goes in the movie. Does it service the end? Does it go early? So he’ll shoot the same exact scene, the same exchange, with the actors in different wardrobes, so that I can slot it in at different points.

Weiner’s piece happened to appear only a few weeks after Stephen Rodrick of The New Yorker published a similar profile of Allison Jones, Apatow’s casting director, and it’s hard not to take them as two halves of a whole. Jones initiates the process that White completes, looking, as the article notes, for “comedic actors who, more than just delivering jokes, [can] improvise and riff on their lines, creating something altogether different from what was on the page.” (As Apatow puts it: “Allison doesn’t just find us actors; she finds us people we want to work with the rest of our lives.”) White then sifts through that mountain of material—which can be something like two million feet of film for an Apatow movie, an amount once reserved for the likes of Stanley Kubrick—to pick out the strongest pieces and fit them into some kind of coherent shape. It’s an approach that has been enormously influential on everything from a single-camera sitcom like Parks & Recreation, which allows actors to improvise freely without the pressure of a live audience, to a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street, which indulges Jonah Hill’s riffs almost to a fault. And although it’s been enabled by the revolution in digital video and editing, which allows miles of footage to be shot without bankrupting the production, it also requires geniuses like Jones and White who can facilitate the process on both ends.

Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye

Yet as much as I admire what Jones, White, and the rest have done, I’m also a little skeptical. There’s no avoiding the fact that the Apatow approach has suffered from diminishing returns: if I had to list The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and This is 40 in order of quality, I’d end up ranking them by release date. From one minute to another, each can be hilarious, but when your comedic philosophy is predicated on keeping the camera rolling until something good happens, there’s an unavoidable loss of momentum. The greatest comedies are the ones that just won’t stop building; Apatow’s style has a way of dissipating its own energy from one scene to the next, precisely because each moment has to be built up from scratch. A Frat Pack comedy may objectively have more jokes per minute than Some Like It Hot or Annie Hall, but they start to feel like the comedic equivalent of empty calories, leaving you diverted but unsatisfied, and less energized by the end than exhausted. The fact that Anchorman 2 exists in two versions, with the same basic structure but hundreds of different jokes, can be taken, if you’re in a generous mood, as a testament to the comic fertility of the talents involved—but it can also start to look like evidence of how arbitrary each joke was in the first place. If one funny line can be removed and another inserted seamlessly in its place, it reminds us that neither really had to be there at all.

But if I’m being hard on Apatow and his collaborators, it’s because their approach holds such promise—if properly reined in. Comedy depends on a kind of controlled anarchy; when the balance slips too much to the side of control, as in the lesser works of the Coen Brothers, the result can seem arch and airless. And at their best, Apatow’s films have an unpredictable, jazzy charge. But a few constraints, properly placed, can allow that freedom to truly blossom. A movie like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye can’t be accused of sticking too much to the script: perhaps five minutes total is devoted to the plot, and much of the rest consists of the characters simply hanging around. Yet it uses the original Chandler novel, and the structure provided by Leigh Brackett’s screenplay, as a low-horsepower engine that keeps the whole thing moving at a steady but leisurely clip. As a result, it feels relaxed in a way that Apatow’s movies don’t. The latter may seem loose and shaggy, but they’re also characterized by an underlying tension, almost a desperation, to avoid going for more than a few seconds without a laugh, and it cancels out much of the gain in spontaneity. It promises us that we’ll be hanging out for two hours with a bunch of fun people, but it leaves us feeling pummeled. By freeing itself from the script, it turns itself, paradoxically, into a movie that can’t stop moving. The great comedies of the past could live in the spaces between jokes; the modern version has to be funny or die.

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