Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Moneyball

A novelist’s view of the campaign

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A few weeks ago, there was a lot of talk about whether polls for the presidential race were slanted toward the Democratic side. Nate Silver has done a better job of demolishing these claims than I ever could, although it’s worth pointing out that, on its face, the allegation never made sense: if the media were really lining up behind Obama, it’s unclear what they’d have to gain by artificially boosting his numbers, which would only encourage complacency and decrease turnout. (That said, if the polls had been running in the other direction, I’m sure we’d see similar accusations of bias from the left, as we did in 2004.) It’s also important to note that while members of the media, as individuals, may skew more liberal than otherwise—for the same reasons that such people tend to be disproportionately drawn to careers in journalism and the arts—their professional and collective decisions arise from a different set of impulses. The men and women who cover the news, like the rest of us, tend to be motivated by a complicated combination of ambition, pragmatism, time constraints, and the professional conservatism that comes from working in an industry that is still trying to figure out its own business model.

This just means that reporters, especially on the political side, essentially tell stories for a living. More than most kinds of reporting, covering a campaign is something like writing a novel: while most journalism focuses on the recent past or, at most, the immediate present, political reporting is inevitably about one particular date in the future. It’s about constructing hypothetical situations, mapping out possible developments, and marshaling evidence that can inherently be interpreted in multiple ways—which is almost a form of highly specialized speculative fiction. But apart from its predictive tendencies, political journalism is also inclined to look for dramatic narratives. A campaign in which one candidate is consistently ahead in crucial polls over the course of many months is the equivalent of a novel in which the stakes never change. As a result, the media is generally predisposed to depict the race as being closer than it actually is. This is why countless news stories over the past few months have referred to the presidential race as “virtually tied,” even when swing states told a different story. A close race means increased voter engagement, more clicks, and a greater appearance of balance. And emphasizing one number over another is a storytelling choice.

Of course, the campaigns are telling stories too, and both sides of this year’s election have their share of novelistic sensibilities. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s campaign manager, has written a novel and television scripts and served as a consultant for The Ides of March, and as I’ve mentioned before, Obama himself once seriously considered becoming a novelist. And where it counts, Obama hasn’t changed: when Michael Lewis writes, in his excellent Vanity Fair profile, of “the president sitting down and trying to persuade himself to think or feel a certain way first,” the temperament he’s describing is fundamentally a novelistic one. I suspect, for instance, that Obama approached Wednesday’s debate as a writer might approach a transitional chapter in a novel. A campaign, like any extended narrative, can’t consist entirely of high points: you need to carefully select the moments when you bring out your maximum firepower. I have a hunch that Obama looked at the situation and concluded, correctly, that Romney was a stronger debater; that the topic of the debate, domestic policy, was his own weakest selling point; and that the media narrative was predisposed to give Romney a victory to maintain the suspense. Not surprisingly, he decided to play it safe, much as a writer might decide to conserve his powder for more important scenes to come.

The trouble is that a campaign, like a novel, tends to be judged by its audience moment to moment, and unlike readers, we can’t move on right away to the next chapter. Viewed objectively, this wasn’t a very interesting debate—Romney’s Big Bird quip was the only memorable line of the night—but for twenty-four hours, it was all anyone wanted to talk about, which is like reviewing a novel based only on a single scene. And for the Romney campaign, clearly, this wasn’t a transitional chapter, but something like the second turning point in a screenplay, in which the setbacks of the previous section are clarified and transcended in advance of the crucial third act. In that respect, Romney did a very good job—although I can’t help but be skeptical of the storytelling instincts of a man whose favorite novel is Battlefield Earth. At every moment, we’re watching two different stories being written in parallel, in real time, and nobody knows what the ending will be. But in politics, as in fiction, it comes down to the long game. As David Mamet says, “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” Or, in this case, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Written by nevalalee

October 5, 2012 at 10:08 am

The Best Movies of 2011, Part 2

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5. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. A personal triumph for Tom Cruise the producer, if not the actor: when he isn’t hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa, his presence onscreen is strangely detached, and much less interesting than that of Paula Patton, the movie’s real human star. Yet there’s no doubt that Cruise himself willed this movie into existence, assembling a creative team, headed by director Brad Bird, that delivered a film that comes close to the ideal modern blockbuster: sleek, totally impersonal, but so expertly crafted that it brushes our objections aside. The year’s most purely satisfying entertainment, and the ultimate advertising reel for IMAX.

4. The Descendants. Watching this film makes me wish all the more that Alexander Payne had been making an annual movie for the past ten years: this is a beguiling family drama, shot through with moments of high and low comedy, and blessed with great local color and a sly supporting cast. As usual, Payne gives us characters who seem like caricatures and then edges them back toward humanity, but his touch has rarely been more assured than it is here, and he coaxes fine work from George Clooney (in his most moving performance), Shailene Woodley, and Judy Greer, whose expression of surprise at a crucial moment is one of my favorite movie memories of the year.

3. The Tree of Life. One of the strangest movies ever made, and certainly one of the most ambitious, The Tree of Life isn’t a complete success, but it’s hard to imagine how it could have done more: it’s one of those rare films whose reach exceeds its grasp only because of the grandeur of a great director’s dreams. Terrence Malick wants nothing less than to present us with a symphonic essay on man’s place in the universe, as seen through the lens of one family’s experience—and while the sequences in outer space, as conceived by the legendary Douglas Trumbull, are stunning, it’s in the evocation of a Texas childhood, anchored by Brad Pitt’s forbidding father, that the movie finally achieves the poetry it works so urgently to create.

2. Moneyball. A thrilling baseball movie with hardly any baseball, a heroic presentation of statistical analysis, and a great film starring Jonah Hill: the wonder isn’t so much that Moneyball achieves the impossible, but that it makes it look so easy. I wasn’t a fan of Bennett Miller’s Capote, which was so subdued that it almost faded from the screen as you watched it, but he emerges here as a director of considerable wit and intelligence, with a more relaxed and engaging way with actors and story, aided immeasurably by the work of Michael Lewis and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. At the center, again, is Brad Pitt, this time with his stardom on full display: more than any actor in the world right now, he’s playing a grown man’s game.

1. Certified Copy. It’s beautiful and infuriating, frustrating and seductive, and although it initially looks like a more cerebral version of Before Sunrise, it’s really a work of stealth science fiction. The more I think about it, the more I doubt that there’s any one “solution” to the puzzle it presents, and I no longer care whether the characters played by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche are strangers, married, estranged, or living out one or more possibilities in converging timelines: all I know is that I like spending time with them in Tuscany, and that the problem that Abbas Kiarostami poses to us is less important than the picture of a marriage it creates. A modest, but hugely important, reminder of film’s possibilities.

Honorable Mention: Among the other films I wrote about at length this year, I also enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Tabloid; Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and parts of Hugo, Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, Source Code, and Captain America, although my most memorable experience at the movies, as well as the longest, was the twenty-fifth anniversary release of Shoah.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2012 at 10:01 am

A writer’s intuition, right or wrong

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Intuition is getting a bad rap these days. As both the book and movie of Moneyball have made clear, the intuition of baseball scouts is about as useful as random chance, and the same might be said of stock pickers, political pundits, and all other supposed sources of insight whose usefulness is rarely put to a rigorous test. Intuition, it seems, is really just another word for blind guessing, at least as far as accuracy is concerned. The recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, goes even further, providing countless illustrations of how misleading our intuition can be, and how easily it can be distracted by irrelevant factors. (For example, something as simple as rolling a certain number on a rigged roulette wheel can influence our estimates of, say, how many African countries are in the United Nations. Don’t ask me how or why, but Kahneman’s data speaks for itself.)

And yet it’s hard to give up on intuition entirely. For one thing, it’s faster. I believe it was Julian Jaynes who pointed out that intuition is really just another word for the acceleration of experience: after we’ve been forced to make decisions under similar circumstances a certain number of times, the intermediate logic falls away, and we’re left with what feels like an intuitive response. Play it in slow motion, and all the steps are still there, in infinitesimal form. This kind of intuition strikes me as essentially different from the sort debunked above, and it’s especially useful in the arts, when no amount of statistical analysis can take the place of the small, mysterious judgment calls that every artist makes on a daily basis. In writing, as in everything else, the fundamentals of craft are acquired with difficulty, then gradually internalized, freeing the writer’s conscious mind to deal with unique problems while intuition takes care of the rest. And without such intuitive shortcuts, a long, complex project like a novel would take forever to complete.

Every artist develops this sort of intuition sooner or later, making it possible to skip such intermediate steps. As I’ve noted before, Robert Graves has described it as proleptic or “slantwise” thinking, a form of logic that goes from A to C without pausing for B. All great creative artists have this faculty, and the greater the artist, the more pronounced it becomes. One of the most compelling descriptions of poetic intuition I’ve ever seen comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in a brief aside about Shakespeare. Gardner points to the fact that in Hamlet, the normally indecisive prince has no trouble sending Rosencrantz and Guidenstern to their deaths offstage, and with almost no explanation, a detail that strikes some readers as inconsistent. “If pressed,” Gardner writes, “Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to.” Fair enough. But then Gardner continues:

But the explanation I’ve put in Shakespeare’s mouth is probably not the true one. The truth is very likely that almost without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter…Shakespeare’s instinct told him, “Get back to the business between Hamlet and Claudius,” and, sudden as lightning, he was back.

That intuition, “sudden as lightning,” is what every writer hopes to develop. And while none of us have it to the extent that Shakespeare did, it’s always satisfying to see it flash forth, even in a modest way. Earlier this week, while reading through the final version of City of Exiles, I noticed a place where the momentum of the story seemed to flag. I made a note of this, then moved on. Later that day, I was working on something else entirely when I suddenly realized how to fix the problem, which was just a matter of eliminating or tightening a couple of paragraphs. After making these changes, I read the chapter over again, but this was almost a formality: I knew the revisions would work. There’s no way of objectively measuring this, of course, and there were probably other approaches that would have worked as well or better. But intuition provided one possible solution when I needed it. And without many such moments, right or wrong, I’d never finish a novel at all.

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

Bill James on why he writes

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Every form of strength is also a form of weakness….Pretty girls tend to become insufferable because, being pretty, their faults are too much tolerated. Possessions entrap men, and wealth paralyzes them. I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communication of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say.

Bill James, quoted by Michael Lewis in Moneyball

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2011 at 7:58 am

Moneyball and the dusty middle innings

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Moneyball is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and the second great film in four months starring Brad Pitt. (A few more like this, and I’ll even forgive him for Benjamin Button.) It’s the first film in a while in which Pitt’s star power has been on full, dazzling display, and it’s especially welcome in a sports movie that is designed to frustrate, or at least challenge, our expectations. This is an absorbing, often exhilarating film, but not for the usual reasons: despite Billy Beane’s shrewdness and vision, and the lasting impact he’s had on baseball, he’s never won a championship, and probably never will, now that his insights have spread far and wide. Moneyball, contrary to the subtitle of its source material, isn’t about winning an unfair game, but about surviving it—which makes it much more poignant than Michael Lewis’s book, which was unable to witness the aftermath of its own revolution.

And one of the film’s great virtues is that it treats survival on one’s own terms as something noble. Watching it, I was reminded of Roger Angell’s praise of Bull Durham, which the A.V. Club quoted a few months ago:

It assumes you’re going to stay with the game, even in its dreariest, dusty middle innings, when the handful of folks in the stands are slumped down on their spines waiting for something to happen, even a base on balls.

At its best, Moneyball—which loves a base on balls—is an unsentimental look at those dusty middle innings, and what it really takes to say in the game. The A’s may never win another title against a big-market team, but they played competitively long after being dismissed. And one of the film’s unspoken messages is that Beane was happier scheming and cobbling together a team in Oakland than he would have been as part of the Red Sox machine, even if it cost him a World Series. As Bennett Miller, director of Moneyball, recently said to the New York Times: “He would have died in Boston. It wouldn’t have been his show. He likes to be the guerrilla in the mountains in combat fatigues.”

One of the reasons why the book and movie of Moneyball have such wide appeal—even to those, like me, who have close to no interest in sports—is that it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to one’s own life. In my own case, it reminds me, inevitably, of being a writer. Deciding to become a novelist is something like entering professional sports: you start with dreams of a multimillion-dollar contract, but in the end, you feel lucky just to get picked in the draft. And while you may get occasional bursts of attention and praise, for the most part, it’s about playing in every game, practicing in solitude, and making small, crucial choices that nobody will notice. If writing a great novel can be compared to a baseball feat, it isn’t DiMaggio’s hitting streak, but Ted Williams’s .406 year, in which every swing counted, day after unglamorous day.

And the first, necessary duty is simply to survive. A writer doesn’t have the benefit of sabermetrics, but he or she inevitably develops a comparable suite of tricks, both practical and artistic, to keep playing. These tricks often boil down to boring formulas or rules of thumb: structure stories in three acts, get into scenes late and out of them early, cut every draft by at least 10%. And the process of internalizing these tricks—and I’m stretching the metaphor here, but whatever—is something like increasing one’s on-base percentage: it’s nothing fancy, but over time, it adds up to runs, which allow players and teams to endure. In the end, no matter what the other rewards might be, a writer, like a baseball player, is incredibly lucky to be in the show. But if you want to keep playing a grown man’s game, as Moneyball understands, luck by itself isn’t enough.

Written by nevalalee

September 26, 2011 at 9:21 am

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