Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Stone

“That doesn’t sound like the Putin I know…”

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"That doesn't sound like the Putin I know..."

Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 41. You can read the previous installments here.

In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he described what he claimed to have been the creative process behind his poem “The Raven.” He portrayed each element as the result of a long chain of logical reasoning, as in his account of how he arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:

Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Ever since, critics have been inclined to read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, or even a sly parody, since few poets seem to have ever approached their work in such a calculating way. But I think it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like one of those pictures showing a bullet being shot through an apple: it slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that really occurred within seconds.

In other words, Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages, consciously or otherwise: the search for symbols that can do double or triple duty within the poem. Poetry is the art of compression, and the hunt for fruitful images or metaphors is ultimately a way of saving space—you pack each line with maximum meaning by looking for combinations of words that can stand both for themselves and something else. “A violet by a mossy stone” says more in six words than most writers could do in sixty, and we see much the same impulse in Robert Graves’s list of poetical images from The White Goddess:

Sometimes, in reading a poem, the hairs will bristle at an apparently unpeopled and eventless scene described in it, if the elements bespeak [the goddess’s] unseen presence clearly enough: for example, when owls hoot, the moon rides like a ship through scudding cloud, trees sway slowly together above a rushing waterfall, and a distant barking of dogs is heard; or when a peal of bells in frosty weather suddenly announces the birth of the New Year.

What these images all have in common—along with what Graves calls their evocation of the muse—is that they stand at the center of an aura of associations: each one trails a hidden story behind it, and it allows the poem to convey the same amount of meaning with fewer components.

"But they can't do it alone..."

This may seem like a mechanical way of describing the craft of poetry, but I suspect that authors of all kinds, if they look how their writing evolves, would point to the moments in which they did more with less as the places where their work was most effective. This is particularly true of forms that are constantly managing their own complexity. A conspiracy theory, for instance, which I’ve elsewhere called a sort of surrogate for the act of writing itself, is more powerful when assembled out of elements that carry their own cognitive charge. The early seasons of The X-Files evoked a world of intrigue using a few well-chosen symbols—smallpox vaccination scars, for instance—and it grew less compelling and more confusing as the names of the players multiplied. Even conspiracy theories that depend on the accumulation of detail rely on a few vivid images to keep the rest of the pieces in line. I’ve watched Oliver Stone’s JFK maybe a dozen times over the last twenty years, and although I’d have trouble remembering exactly what argument he’s making, I can’t forget the magic bullet, whether or not I believe in it. A conspiracy theory might seem to have little in common with a poem, but both depend on a certain economy of means. There’s a good reason why the Freemasons or the Illuminati reappear so often in such theories: just as a poet like Robert Graves returns repeatedly to images of the moon, conspiracy theorists fall back on metaphors that have proven their memorable qualities over time.

You see a similar progression toward simplicity in my own novels, each of which is basically a conspiracy thriller with different kinds of window dressing. The Icon Thief spends an exorbitant amount of time laying out a complicated theory involving Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, and the Black Dahlia murder, both because the story was about complexity and because it was what I felt comfortable writing at the time, and it occupies fifty or more pages of the finished book. City of Exiles has a conspiracy centering on the Dyatlov Pass incident, which had to be described at length, but it devotes half as much space as its predecessor to laying out the details, in part because I wanted to cut down on this sort of thing, but also because the elements were inherently evocative. Eternal Empire cuts it even further: the historical conspiracy that drives the plot, such as it is, is described in a couple of dialogue scenes, most notably in Chapter 41. And when I look back, I think that I was able to condense this material so much because I hit on the right cluster of symbols. If the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe says, is the most poetical subject in the world, there are a few words that perform much the same function in conspiracy fiction, and the best of them all—at least for now—is Putin. Vladimir Putin is the Lenore of Eternal Empire, and his name and all it embodies is enough to spark the reader’s imagination when paired with a few intriguing details. Putin’s aura allowed me to do in five pages what The Icon Thief did in fifty. And I couldn’t have written this book without him…

The unusual suspects

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The Usual Suspects

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What 1995 pop culture would you want to experience again for the first time?”

Yesterday, while discussing a scene from one of my own novels, I mentioned two movies in passing: The Usual Suspects and Seven. These references appeared in separate paragraphs, to illustrate two different ideas, and I don’t think I made any particular connection between them at the time. Obviously, though, they’re a natural pair: they collectively made a star out of Kevin Spacey, and they were released within a month of each other in 1995. (In fact, I vividly remember watching them both for the first time on home video on the same weekend, although this wouldn’t have been until the year after, when Spacey had already won his Oscar. Seven made a greater immediate impression, but I’d go on to watch my tape of The Usual Suspects maybe a dozen times over the next couple of years.) When I cited them here, I didn’t think much about it. I’ve thought about both of these movies a lot, and they served as convenient genre touchstones for the points I wanted to make. And I took for granted that most readers of this blog would have seen them, or at least be familiar enough with them for their examples to be useful.

But this may have been an unwarranted assumption. In one’s own life, twenty years can pass like the blink of an eye, but in pop culture terms, it’s a long time. If we take a modern high school sophomore’s familiarity with the movies of two decades ago as the equivalent of my knowledge of the films of 1975, we soon see that we can’t assume anything at all. I saw myself then as a film buff, and although I can laugh a little now at how superficial any teenager’s grasp of movie history is likely to be, I was genuinely curious about the medium and eager to explore its past. Looking at a list of that year’s most notable movies, though, I’m chagrined at how few of them I’ve seen even now. There was Jaws, of course, and my obsession with Kubrick made me one of the few teens who willingly sat through all of Barry Lyndon. I’m fairly sure I’d seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Nashville at that point, although the chronology is a bit muddled, and both were films I had to actively seek out, as I did later with Amarcord. The Rocky Horror Picture Show had premiered on television a few years earlier on Fox, and I watched it, although I don’t have the slightest idea what I thought of it at the time. And I didn’t rent Dog Day Afternoon until after college.

Anthony Hopkins in Nixon

In fact, I’d guess that the only two movies from that year that your average teenage boy is likely to have seen, then and now, are Jaws and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even today, there are big gaps in my own knowledge of the year’s top grossers: I’ve still never seen Shampoo, despite its status as one of the three great Robert Towne scripts, and I hadn’t even heard of Aloha, Bobby, and Rose. When we advance the calendar by two decades, the situation looks much the same. Toy Story, the biggest hit of that year, is still the one that most people have seen. I’m guessing that Heat and Die Hard With a Vengeance hold some allure for budding genre fans, as do Clueless and Sense and Sensibility for a somewhat different crowd. The Usual Suspects and Seven are safe. And I’d like to think that Casino still draws in younger viewers out of its sheer awesomeness, which makes even The Wolf of Wall Street seem slightly lame. But many of the other titles here are probably just names, the way Funny Lady or The Apple Dumpling Gang are to me, and it would take repeated acts of diligence to catch up with some of these movies, now that another twenty years of cinema have flowed under the bridge. Awards completists will check out Braveheart, Apollo 13, Babe, and Leaving Las Vegas, but there are countless other worthy movies that risk being overlooked.

Take Nixon, for example. At the time, I thought it was the best film of its year, and while I wouldn’t rank it so highly these days, it’s still a knockout: big, ambitious, massively entertaining, and deeply weird. It has one of the greatest supporting casts in movies, with an endlessly resourceful lead performance by Anthony Hopkins that doesn’t so much recall Nixon himself as create an indelible, oddly sympathetic monster of its own. But even on its initial release, it was a huge flop, and it hasn’t exactly inspired a groundswell of reappraisal. Even if you’re an Oliver Stone fan—and I don’t know how many devotees he has under the age of thirty—it’s probably not one of his top five movies that anyone is likely to check off. (The rough equivalent would be a diehard Coppola enthusiast deciding it was time to watch The Cotton Club.) The only reason I’ve seen it is because I was old enough to catch in theaters, when I’ve never made time to rent Salvador or Talk Radio. And if I were talking to a bright fifteen year old who wanted to see some good movies,  I don’t know when Nixon would come up, if ever. But if it’s worth mentioning at all, it’s less for its own merits than as part of a larger point. Everyone will give you a list of movies to watch, but there’s a lot worth discovering that you’ll have to seek out on your own, once you move past the usual suspects.

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2015 at 9:51 am

The conspiratorial urge

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Donald Sutherland and Kevin Costner in JFK

Like Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but this wasn’t always the case. There was a period of a year or so in my early teens when I must have read a dozen books, in their entirety or in part, on the Kennedy assassination, ranging from the Warren Commission Report itself to works on a sliding scale of lunacy ranging from Case Closed to Appointment in Dallas. This was mostly thanks to Oliver Stone’s JFK, a film that strikes me now as a maddeningly skillful, highly irresponsible work of fiction, as well as, inconveniently, one of the greatest of all American movies. When I first saw it, though, I was prepared to take much of it at face value, partially because I encountered it during a golden age for conspiracy fiction: Foucault’s Pendulum had been released a few years earlier, and The X-Files had premiered that fall. As a result, I was primed to soak up reams of conspiracy literature, and not just on the assassination but on all aspects of history and culture: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s books on the Shroud of Turin—which in my weaker moments I still find oddly persuasive—and endless works on the secrets of the Bible, the Masons, and even, yes, the Rosicrucians, spiraling out into the larger subjects of the paranormal and occult. (There comes a point in every kid’s life when he tries to move a salt shaker with his mind, and in some ways, I’ve never entirely left it, although I’d like to think I’ve channeled those energies into more constructive pursuits.)

This was also the year in which I wrote my first novel, typing up three hundred pages of science fiction using WordStar at my parents’ office, and when I look back at it now, I can see how closely those two impulses were entwined. It’s possible that puberty leads to a surge in an obsessive kind of creativity, the kind that results in drawing endless pages of comics or picking up the guitar, and to the extent that I was drawn to conspiracies, both real and imaginary, it wasn’t because I distrusted the government or the official version of history, but because I fell in love with a creative act. Writing a novel and constructing a conspiracy theory seemed like similar pursuits: they both involved sustained intellectual effort, wide reading, and a considerable amount of ingenuity. In retrospect, I wasn’t entirely wrong, at least not at the time. I happened to come of age at an era when conspiracy theories still involved weeks of sleuthing in libraries and piecing together fragments of information from many scattered sources, none of which were easily accessible. It may seem strange to wax nostalgic about an age of paranoia, but I miss the old days. Conspiracy theories have always been weirdly distorted versions of conventional scholarship, both in their methods and in the kinds of personalities they attract, and just as the ease of searching texts leads to a loss in serious academic work—you no longer need to read all the books on a library shelf to get the references you need—even contemporary conspiracy theories are looking a little thin.

The umbrella man's umbrella

Yet even in their modern, increasingly hysterical form, conspiracy theories can best be understood as a literary impulse. An even better analogy might be that of the collage: you’re assembling information into a larger, surprising pattern, and much of the power of the result comes from its resonance with its original form. We remember Picasso welding a bicycle seat and handlebars together to create the head of a bull because it forces us to see its constituent parts in a new light, and we’re drawn to conspiracies about the life of Jesus, say, because of the way it combines familiar elements—the wedding at Cana, the last supper—into something novel. The “best” conspiracy theories are the ones that seem to invent the least: they’re about juxtapositions and recombinations, or laying a new scrim on the lens to bring out unexpected details. That’s why a subject like the Kennedy assassination has turned out to be so fruitful. There’s an overwhelming amount of material available, some of it contradictory and enigmatic, so it feels like a bin of mosaic pieces that can be set together in countless ways. To add yet another analogy to the mix, it’s like a magnet that draws certain personalities who are unconsciously in search of a subject. A writer can weigh and discard various ideas for a long time before finding the one that magically clicks, and I have a feeling that a lot of conspiracy theorists were born looking for an event that would allow them to indulge their existing hunger for interpretation. The urge to create comes first, and its darker companions, like paranoia, emerge as a way of justifying the work itself.

But a line needs to be drawn here. History isn’t fiction; real life isn’t a novel; and while the creative urge in storytelling often leads the author to discover more about himself and how the world works, conspiracies encourage emotional retreat and alienation. When I read Foucault’s Pendulum for the first time, I was seduced by its inventiveness and erudition, and I totally missed its larger point about the pathology of paranoia, or how our urge to connect everything to everything else can distort reality’s irreducible mysteries. In my own fiction, I’ve taken pains, almost to a fault, to have it both ways: The Icon Thief and City of Exiles both end on the revelation that the historical conspiracies they describe are something other than what they seemed. Part of this is my desire to show some residual respect for the real people and events I use—Duchamp wasn’t a Rosicrucian, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing a novel that made that point in earnest, however ingenious the argument might have been. But it had even more to do with a shift in my own priorities. For all the cleverness involved in the construction of a good conspiracy, it pales compared to the intellectual effort required to see the world as a whole, with all its contradictions, its dead ends, and its combination of unfathomable complexity and frustrating simplicity. That’s the real challenge, and it’s work enough for a lifetime. And in the end, we’re all acting alone.

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2013 at 9:20 am

The surprising skepticism of The X-Files

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Tomorrow, believe it or not, marks the twentieth anniversary of The X-Files, which aired its first episode on September 10, 1993. As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I didn’t watch the pilot that night; I’m not even sure I watched the second episode, “Deep Throat.” “Squeeze,” which aired the following week, is the first installment I remember seeing on its original broadcast, and later, I continued to tune in, although only sporadically at first. In its early days, I had some issues with the show’s lack of continuity: it bugged me to no end that after every weekly encounter with the paranormal—any one of which should have been enough to upend Mulder or Scully’s understanding of the world forever—the two leads were right back where they were at the start of the next episode, and few, if any cases were ever mentioned again. Looking back now, of course, it’s easy to see that this episodic structure was what allowed the show to survive, and that it was irrevocably damaged once it began to take its backstory more seriously. In the meantime, I eventually learned to accept the show’s narrative logic on its own terms. And I’m very grateful that I did.

It’s no exaggeration to say that The X-Files has had a greater influence on my own writing than any work of narrative art in any medium. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite work of art, or even my favorite television show. What it does mean is that Chris Carter’s supernatural procedural came along at just the point in my life when I was ready to be profoundly influenced by a great genre series. I was thirteen when the show premiered, and the more I age, the more this starts to seem like the pivotal year of my creative development. Take that year away, or replace it with a different set of cultural influences, and I’d be a different person altogether. It was the year I discovered the work of Umberto Eco and Douglas Hofstadter; Oliver Stone’s JFK set me on a short but fruitful detour into the literature of conspiracy; and it marked my first deep dive into the work of David Lynch and, later, Jorge Luis Borges. Some of these works have lasted for me, while others haven’t, but they’ve all played a part in shaping who I am, and The X-Files stood at the heart of it all, with imagery drawn in equal part from Twin Peaks and Dealey Plaza and a playful, agnostic spirit that mirrored those of the intellectuals and authors I was reading at the same time.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

And this underlying skepticism—which may seem like a strange word to apply to The X-Files—was a big part of its appeal. What I found enormously attractive about the show was that although it took place in a world filled with aliens, ghosts, and vampires, it didn’t try to force all of these individual elements into one overarching pattern. Even in its later seasons, when it attempted, with mixed results, to weave its abduction and conspiracy threads into a larger picture, certain aspects remained stubbornly, incongruously unexplained: the same world shaped by the plans of the Consortium or Syndicate also included lake monsters, clairvoyants, and liver-eating mutants, all of whom would presumably continue to go about their own lives after the alien invasion occurred. The show, remarkably, never tried to convert us to anything. It didn’t have any answers. And what I love about it now, in retrospect, is the fact that this oddly indifferent attitude toward its own mysteries arose from the vagaries of network television itself. Every episode had to stand on its own. There was no such thing as binge-watching. The show had to keep moving or die.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why even fundamentally skeptical viewers, like me, could become devoted fans—or why Mulder and Scully could appear on the cover of the Skeptical Inquirer. It’s true that Scully was never right, but it’s remarkable how often it seemed that she could be, or should be, which is due as much to the show’s episodic construction as to Gillian Anderson’s wonderful performance. (As I’ve mentioned before, Scully might be my favorite character on any television show.) With every episode changing the terms of the game, complete with a new supporting cast, setting, and premise, it was impossible for viewers to know where they stood, and a defensive skepticism was as healthy an attitude as any. If the show premiered again today, I have a feeling that much of this quality would be lost: there would be greater pressure to establish a mythology up front, or to tell overarching stories that required thirteen episodes to completely unfold. The X-Files did go this way eventually, alas, but not until after a haphazard, remarkably rich initial season that established, in spite of what its creators might try in the future, that anything was possible, and no one explanation would ever be enough. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little more about how deeply the result has influenced my own fiction, and why I suspect that it will continue to do so.

Written by nevalalee

September 9, 2013 at 9:06 am

Twenty years later: Oliver Stone’s JFK

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Twenty years ago today, Oliver Stone’s JFK was released in theaters, sparking a pop cultural phenomenon that seems all the more peculiar with the passage of time. It wasn’t merely the fact that such a dense, layered film was a big commercial hit, although it was—it grossed more than $70 million domestically, equivalent to over $130 million today—or that it had obviously been made with all the resources of a major studio. It’s that for a few months, even before its release, the movie seemed to occupy the center of the national conversation, inspiring magazine covers, a resurgence of interest in the Kennedy assassination that has never died down, and memorable parodies on Seinfeld and The Simpsons. In my own life, for better or worse, it’s had a curious but undeniable influence: many of my current literary and cultural obsessions can be traced back to three years in my early teens, when I saw JFK, read Foucault’s Pendulum, and became a fan of The X-Files. As a result, for several years, I may have been the only teenager in the world with a JFK poster on his bedroom wall.

Of course, none of this would have happened if the movie itself weren’t so ridiculously entertaining. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on the merits of JFK, but these days, I believe that it’s a genuinely great movie, one of the few recent Hollywood films—along with Stone’s equally fascinating but underrated Nixon—to advance and build upon what Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane. It’s hard to imagine this now, in the days of W and Wall Street 2, but there was a time when Oliver Stone was the most interesting director in America. At his peak, when he was in the zone, I don’t think anyone—not Scorsese, not Spielberg—could match Stone for sheer technical ability. JFK, his best movie, is one of the most expertly crafted films ever made, an incredibly detailed movie of over three hours that never allows the eye to wander. In particular, the cinematography and editing (at least in the original version, not the less focused director’s cut available on Blu-ray) set a standard that hasn’t been matched since, even as its use of multiple film stocks and documentary footage has become routine enough to be imitated by Transformers 3.

Watching it again earlier this year, I was newly dazzled by the riches on display. There’s the film’s effortless evocation of New Orleans, Dallas, and Washington in the sixties, with the local color of countless locations and neighborhoods picked up on the fly. There’s the compression of the marriage of Lee Harvey and Marina Oswald into five sad minutes—a compelling short film in itself. There’s Donald Sutherland’s loony, endless monologue as the mysterious X, which covers as much conspiracy material as a season’s worth of The X-Files. There’s the astounding supporting cast, which has proven so central to the Kevin Bacon game, and the mother of all courtroom speeches. And most unexpectedly, there’s Kevin Costner, at the height of his stardom, providing a calm center for all this visual, narrative, and textural complexity. It’s safe to say that JFK would never have been made without Costner, whose considerable charisma does more than anything else to turn Jim Garrison, one of the shiftier characters in recent memory, into something like Eliot Ness.

And that’s the problem. JFK is magnificent as cinema, but ludicrous as history. There’s something frightening about how Stone musters such vibrant craft to such questionable ends: in the years since, nearly every point that the movie makes has been systematically dismantled, and if Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is any indication of the cultural mood, it seems that many of us are finally coming around to the realization that, as unthinkable as it seems, Oswald probably acted alone. It’s perhaps only now, then, that we can watch this film with a cool head, as a great work of fiction that bears only superficial resemblance to actual events, and whose paranoid vision of history is actually less strange than the truth. JFK needs to be seen, studied, and appreciated, but first, one should watch Zodiac, or, even better, Errol Morris’s beguiling “The Umbrella Man,” posted earlier this month at the New York Times website. Morris is working on his own movie about the assassination, and if this sample is any indication, it’s the corrective that JFK, for all its brilliance, sorely needs. As subject Josiah “Tink” Thompson says:

What it means is, if you have any fact which you think is really sinister…Forget it, man. Because you can never, on your own, think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact. A cautionary tale!

Written by nevalalee

December 20, 2011 at 10:34 am

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