Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘On Directing Film

The fairy tale theater

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It must have all started with The Princess Switch, although that’s so long ago now that I can barely remember. Netflix was pushing me hard to watch an original movie with Vanessa Hudgens in a dual role as a European royal and a baker from Chicago who trade places and end up romantically entangled with each other’s love interests at Christmas, and I finally gave in. In the weeks since, my wife and I have watched Pride, Prejudice, and MistletoeThe Nine Lives of ChristmasCrown for ChristmasThe Holiday CalendarChristmas at the Palace; and possibly one or two others that I’ve forgotten. A few were on Netflix, but most were on Hallmark, which has staked out this space so aggressively that it can seem frighteningly singleminded in its pursuit of Yuletide cheer. By now, it airs close to forty original holiday romances between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, and like its paperback predecessors, it knows better than to tinker with a proven formula. As two of its writers anonymously reveal in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

We have an idea and it maybe takes us a week or so just to break it down into a treatment, a synopsis of the story; it’s like a beat sheet where you pretty much write what’s going to happen in every scene you just don’t write the scene. If we have a solid beat sheet done and it’s approved, then it’s only going to take us about a week and a half to finish a draft. Basically, an act or two a day and there’s nine. They’re kind of simple because there are so many rules so you know what you can and can’t do, and if you have everything worked out it comes together.

And the rules are revealing in themselves. As one writer notes: “The first rule is snow. We really wanted to do one where the basic conflict was a fear that there will not be snow on Christmas. We were told you cannot do that, there must be snow. They can’t be waiting for the snow, there has to be snow. You cannot threaten them with no snow.” And the conventions that make these movies so watchable are built directly into the structure:

There cannot be a single scene that does not acknowledge the theme. Well, maybe a scene, but you can’t have a single act that doesn’t acknowledge it and there are nine of them, so there’s lots of opportunities for Christmas. They have a really rigid nine-act structure that makes writing them a lot of fun because it’s almost like an exercise. You know where you have to get to: People have to be kissing for the first time, probably in some sort of a Christmas setting, probably with snow falling from the sky, probably with a small crowd watching. You have to start with two people who, for whatever reason, don’t like each other and you’re just maneuvering through those nine acts to get them to that kiss in the snow.

The result, as I’ve learned firsthand, is a movie that seems familiar before you’ve even seen it. You can watch with one eye as you’re wrapping presents, or tune in halfway through with no fear of becoming confused. It allows its viewers to give it exactly as much attention as they’re willing to spare, and at a time when the mere act of watching prestige television can be physically exhausting, there’s something to be said for an option that asks nothing of us at all.

After you’ve seen two or three of these movies, of course, the details start to blur, particularly when it comes to the male leads. The writers speak hopefully of making the characters “as unique and interesting as they can be within the confines of Hallmark land,” but while the women are allowed an occasional flash of individuality, the men are unfailingly generic. This is particularly true of the subgenre in which the love interest is a king or prince, who doesn’t get any more personality than his counterpart in fairy tales. Yet this may not be a flaw. In On Directing Film, which is the best work on storytelling that I’ve ever read, David Mamet provides a relevant word of advice:

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim says of fairy tales the same thing Alfred Hitchcock said about thrillers: that the less the hero of the play is inflected, identified, and characterized, the more we will endow him with our own internal meaning—the more we will identify with him—which is to say the more we will be assured that we are that hero. “The hero rode up on a white horse.” You don’t say “a short hero rode up on a white horse,” because if the listener isn’t short he isn’t going to identify with that hero. You don’t say “a tall hero rode up on a white horse,” because if the listener isn’t tall, he won’t identify with the hero. You say “a hero,” and the audience subconsciously realize they are that hero.

Yet Mamet also overlooks the fact that the women in fairy tales, like Snow White, are often described with great specificity—it’s the prince who is glimpsed only faintly. Hallmark follows much the same rule, which implies that it’s less important for the audience to identify with the protagonist than to fantasize without constraint about the object of desire.

This also leads to some unfortunate decisions about diversity, which is more or less what you might expect. As one writer says candidly to Entertainment Weekly:

On our end, we just write everybody as white, we don’t even bother to fight that war. If they want to put someone of color in there, that would be wonderful, but we don’t have control of that…I found out Meghan Markle had been in some and she’s biracial, but it almost seems like they’ve tightened those restrictions more recently. Everything’s just such a white, white, white, white world. It’s a white Christmas after all—with the snow and the people.

With more than thirty original movies coming out every year, you might think that Hallmark could make a few exceptions, especially since the demand clearly exists, but this isn’t about marketing at all. It’s a reflection of the fact that nonwhiteness is still seen as a token of difference, or a deviation from an assumed norm, and it’s the logical extension of the rules that I’ve listed above. White characters have the privilege—which is invisible but very real—of seeming culturally uninflected, which is the baseline that allows the formula to unfold. This seems very close to John W. Campbell’s implicit notion that all characters in science fiction should be white males by default, and while other genres have gradually moved past this point, it’s still very much the case with Hallmark. (There can be nonwhite characters, but they have to follow the rules: “Normally there’ll be a black character that’s like a friend or a boss, usually someone benevolent because you don’t want your one person of color to not be positive.”) With diversity, as with everything else, Hallmark is very mindful of how much variation its audience will accept. It thinks that it knows the formula. And it might not even be wrong.

My ten creative books #10: A Guide for the Perplexed

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

As regular readers know, I’m a Werner Herzog fan, but not a completist—I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored territory, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. Yet Herzog himself is endlessly fascinating. Daniel Zalewski’s account of the making of Rescue Dawn is one of my five favorite articles ever to appear in The New Yorker, and if you’re looking for an introduction to his mystique, there’s no better place to start. For a deeper dive, you can turn to A Guide for the Perplexed, an expanded version of a collection of the director’s interviews with Paul Cronin, which was originally published more than a decade ago. As I’ve said here before, I regret the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance, and I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all. It’s huge, but every paragraph explodes with insight, and you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately transfixed. Here’s one passage picked at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Or take Herzog’s description of his relationship with his cinematographer: “Peter Zeitlinger is always trying to sneak ‘beautiful’ shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.”

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s stories, which are inexhaustible. He provides his own point of view on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by a catalog in his jacket pocket, and he asked to keep going—or how he discouraged Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) We see Herzog impersonating a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys that he needed for Aguirre; forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo; stealing his first camera; and shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example is enough to sustain and nourish the rest of us. In On Directing Film, David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he recommends Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as examples of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

My ten creative books #7: On Directing Film

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On Directing Film

Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

When it comes to giving advice on something as inherently unteachable as writing, books on the subject tend to fall into one of three categories. The first treats the writing manual as an extension of the self-help genre, offering what amounts to an extended pep talk that is long on encouragement but short on specifics. A second, more useful approach is to consolidate material on a variety of potential strategies, either through the voices of multiple writers—as George Plimpton did so wonderfully in The Writer’s Chapbook, which assembles the best of the legendary interviews given to The Paris Review—or through the perspective of a writer and teacher, like John Gardner, generous enough to consider the full range of what the art of fiction can be. And the third, exemplified by David Mamet’s On Directing Film, is to lay out a single, highly prescriptive recipe for constructing stories. This last approach might seem unduly severe. Yet after a lifetime of reading what other writers have to say on the subject, Mamet’s little book is still the best I’ve ever found, not just for film, but for fiction and narrative nonfiction as well. On one level, it can serve as a starting point for your own thoughts about how the writing process should look: Mamet provides a strict, almost mathematical set of tools for building a plot from first principles, and even if you disagree with his methods, they clarify your thinking in a way that a more generalized treatment might not. But even if you just take it at face value, it’s still the closest thing I know to a foolproof formula for generating rock-solid first drafts. (If Mamet himself has a flaw as a director, it’s that he often stops there.) In fact, it’s so useful, so lucid, and so reliable that I sometimes feel reluctant to recommend it, as if I were giving away an industrial secret to my competitors.

Mamet’s principles are easy to grasp, but endlessly challenging to follow. You start by figuring out what every scene is about, mostly by asking one question: “What does the protagonist want?” You then divide each scene up into a sequence of beats, consisting of an immediate objective and a logical action that the protagonist takes to achieve it, ideally in a form that can be told in visual terms, without the need for expository dialogue. And you repeat the process until the protagonist succeeds or fails at his or her ultimate objective, at which point the story is over. This may sound straightforward, but as soon as you start forcing yourself to think this way consistently, you discover how tough it can be. Mamet’s book consists of a few simple examples, teased out in a series of discussions at a class he taught at Columbia, and it’s studded with insights that once heard are never forgotten: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” “Here is a tool—choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you chose.” “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate those rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.” “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” “Now, why did all those Olympic skaters fall down? The only answer I know is that they hadn’t practiced enough.” And my own personal favorite: “The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.”

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August 7, 2018 at 9:00 am

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

The fictional sentence

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Of all the writers of the golden age of science fiction, the one who can be hardest to get your head around is A.E. van Vogt. He isn’t to everyone’s taste—many readers, to quote Alexei and Cory Panshin’s not unadmiring description, find him “foggy, semi-literate, pulpish, and dumb”—but he’s undoubtedly a major figure, and he was second only to Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov when it came to defining what science fiction became in the late thirties and early forties. (If he isn’t as well known as they are, it’s largely because he was taken out of writing by dianetics at the exact moment that the genre was breaking into the mainstream.) Part of his appeal is that his stories remain compelling and readable despite their borderline incoherence, and he was unusually open about his secret. In the essay “My Life Was My Best Science Fiction Story,” which was originally published in the volume Fantastic Lives, van Vogt wrote:

I learned to write by a system propounded in a book titled The Only Two Ways to Write a Story by John W. Gallishaw (meaning by flashback or in consecutive sequence). Gallishaw had made an in-depth study of successful stories by great authors. He observed that the best of them wrote in what he called “presentation units” of about eight hundred words. Each of these units contained five steps. And every sentence in it was a “fictional sentence.” Which means that it was written either with imagery, or emotion, or suspense, depending on the type of story.

So what did these units look like? Used copies of Gallishaw’s book currently go for well over a hundred dollars online, but van Vogt helpfully summarized the relevant information:

The five steps can be described as follows: 1) Where, and to whom, is it happening? 2) Make clear the scene purpose (What is the immediate problem which confronts the protagonist, and what does it require him to accomplish in this scene?) 3) The interaction with the opposition, as he tries to achieve the scene purpose. 4) Make the reader aware that he either did accomplish the scene purpose, or did not accomplish it. 5) In all the early scenes, whether protagonist did or did not succeed in the scene purpose, establish that things are going to get worse. Now, the next presentation unit-scene begins with: Where is all this taking place. Describe the surroundings, and to whom it is happening. And so forth.

Over the years, this formula was distorted and misunderstood, so that a critic could write something like “Van Vogt admits that he changes the direction of his plot every eight hundred words.” And even when accurately stated, it can come off as bizarre. Yet it’s really nothing more than the principle that every narrative should consist of a series of objectives, which I’ve elsewhere listed among the most useful pieces of writing advice that I know. Significantly, it’s one of the few elements of craft that can be taught and learned by example. Van Vogt learned it from Gallishaw, while I got it from David Mamet’s On Directing Film, and I’ve always seen it as a jewel of wisdom that can be passed in almost apostolic fashion from one writer to another.

When we read van Vogt’s stories, of course, we aren’t conscious of this structure, and if anything, we’re more aware of their apparent lack of form. (As John McPhee writes in his wonderful new book on writing: “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”) Yet we still keep reading. It’s that sequence of objectives that keeps us oriented through the centrifugal wildness that we associate with van Vogt’s work—and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he approached the irrational side as systematically as he did everything else. I’d heard at some point that van Vogt based many of his plots on his dreams, but it wasn’t until I read his essay that I understood what this meant:

When you’re writing, as I was, for one cent a word, and are a slow writer, and the story keeps stopping for hours or days, and your rent is due, you get anxious…I would wake up spontaneously at night, anxious. But I wasn’t aware of the anxiety. I thought about story problems—that was all I noticed then. And so back to sleep I went. In the morning, often there would be an unusual solution. All my best plot twists came in this way…It was not until July 1943 that I suddenly realized what I was doing. That night I got out our alarm clock and moved into the spare bedroom. I set the alarm to ring at one and one-half hours. When it awakened me, I reset the alarm for another one and one-half hours, thought about the problems in the story I was working on—and fell asleep. I did that altogether four times during the night. And in the morning, there was the unusual solution, the strange plot twist…So I had my system for getting to my subconscious mind.

This isn’t all that different from Salvador Dali’s advice on how to take a nap. But the final sentence is the kicker: “During the next seven years, I awakened myself about three hundred nights a year four times a night.” When I read this, I felt a greater sense of kinship with van Vogt than I have with just about any other writer. Much of my life has been spent searching for tools—from mind maps to tarot cards—that can be used to systematically incorporate elements of chance and intuition into what is otherwise a highly structured process. Van Vogt’s approach comes as close as anything I’ve ever seen to the ideal of combining the two on a reliable basis, even if we differ on some of the details. (For instance, I don’t necessarily buy into Gallishaw’s notion that every action taken by the protagonist needs to be opposed, or that the situation needs to continually get worse. As Mamet writes in On Directing Film: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” And that’s often enough.) But it’s oddly appropriate that we find such rules in the work of a writer who frequently came across as chronically disorganized. Van Vogt pushed the limits of form further than any other author of the golden age, and it’s hard to imagine Alfred Bester or Philip K. Dick without him. But I’m sure that there were equally visionary writers who never made it into print because they lacked the discipline, or the technical tricks, to get their ideas under control. Van Vogt’s stories always seem on the verge of flying apart, but the real wonder is that they don’t. And his closing words on the subject are useful ones indeed: “It is well to point out again that these various systems were, at base, just automatic reactions to the writing of science fiction. The left side of the brain got an overdose of fantasizing flow from the right side, and literally had to do something real.”

Raising the roof

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Whenever I return from a walk with my daughter and catch my first glimpse of our house at the corner, I feel happy. It was built over a hundred years ago, and although it isn’t any nicer than the houses to either side, it’s a little bit taller, and the high peak of its roof gives it a distinctive silhouette—as soon as I see it, I know that I’m home. Years ago, when my wife and I were looking for a place to start our family, I knew that I wanted a roof like this. I was partially inspired by the architect Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which may be the best book that I’ve ever read on any subject. Alexander writes:

We believe that [the] connection between the geometry of roofs, and their capacity to provide psychological shelter, can be put on empirical grounds: first, there is a kind of evidence which shows that both children and adults naturally incline toward the sheltering roofs, almost as if they had archetypal properties…Despite fifty years of the flat roofs of the “modern movement,” people still find the simple pitched roof the most powerful symbol of shelter.

In fact, my own roof doesn’t quite meet those standards. As Alexander notes: “This sheltering function cannot be created by a pitched roof, or a large roof, which is merely added to the top of an existing structure. The roof itself only shelters if it contains, embraces, covers, surrounds the process of living.” Instead of coming down to the rooms themselves, the roof of my house covers an attic that we never use. And sometimes this means that our living space feels slightly incomplete.

But maybe I should be grateful that I have a roof like this at all. In his essay “The Inevitable Box,” reprinted in his recent collection Four Walls and a Roof, Reinier de Graaf writes of the triumph of the architectural cube, which he calls “the natural outcome of all rational parameters combined”:

When did the pitched roof stop being a necessity? The dirty secret of modern architecture is that it never did. We stopped using it without any superior solution having presented itself. The omission of the pitched roof is an intentional technological regression, a deliberate forgoing of the best solution in favor of an aesthetic ideal, eschewing function for form—the symbol of a desire for progress instead of progress itself. We choose to endure the inconvenience. After all, architecture and the box have had an inconvenient relation for centuries. The pitched roof helped them avoid seeing eye to eye. It was what stood between architecture and the naked truth, what prevented the box from being a box. In our drift toward the box, the pitched roof was a necessary casualty—no progress without cruelty! With bigger things at stake, the pitched roof had to go.

Yet the psychological power of the pitched roof still persists. Alexander quotes the French psychiatrist Menie Gregoire, who wrote in the early seventies: “At Nancy the children from the apartments were asked to draw a house. These children had been born in these apartment slabs which stand up like a house of cards upon an isolated hill. Without exception they each drew a small cottage with two windows and smoke curling up from a chimney on the roof.”

Alexander concedes that this preference might be “culturally induced,” but he also makes a strong case for why the pitched roof is an inherently superior form. When properly conceived—so that the interior ceilings come right up to the roof itself—it seems to surround and shelter the living space, rather than sitting on top like a cap; it becomes a distinctive element that defines the house from a distance; and it even forms a connection with people on the ground, if the eaves come low enough around the entrance to be touched. There are also practical advantages. In On Directing Film, David Mamet contrasts the “unlivable” designs of countercultural architecture with the patterns of traditional design, which he uses to make a point about storytelling:

If you want to tell a story, it might be a good idea to understand a little bit about the nature of human perception. Just as, if you want to know how to build a roof, it might be a good idea to understand a little bit about the effects of gravity and the effects of precipitation. If you go up into Vermont and build a roof with a peak, the snow will fall off. You build a flat roof, the roof will fall down from the weight of the snow—which is what happened to a lot of the countercultural architecture of the 1960s. “There may be a reason people have wanted to hear stories for ten million years,” the performance artist says, “but I really don’t care, because I have something to say.”

But the opposite of a box isn’t necessarily a house with a pitched roof. It can also be what de Graaf calls “the antibox,” in which straight lines of any kind have been omitted. He argues that such buildings, exemplified by the work of Frank Gehry, have turned architecture “into a game of chance,” relying on computer models to determine what is possible: “Authorship has become relative: with creation now delegated to algorithms, the antibox’s main delight is the surprise it causes to the designers.” And he concludes:

The antibox celebrates the death of the ninety-degree angle—in fact, of every angle. Only curves remain. Floor, walls, and roof smoothly morph into a single continuous surface that only the most complex geometrical equations can capture. In its attempts to achieve a perfect ergonomic architecture—enveloping the body and its movement like a glove—the antibox falls into an age-old trap, only with more sophistication and virtuosity. The antibox is nothing more than form follows function 2.0, that is, a perfectly executed mistake.

I think that Gehry is a genius, even if some of his buildings do look like a big pile of trash, and that what he does is necessary and important. But it’s also revealing that the triumph of the box generated a reaction that didn’t consist of a return to the sensible pitched roof, but of the antibox that disregards all angles. Neither seems to have been conceived with an eye to those who will actually live or work there, any more than most performance art is concerned with the audience’s need for storytelling. Stories take on certain forms for a reason, and so should houses, embodied by the pitched roof—which is the point where two extremes meet. For all its shortcomings, when I look at my own house, I don’t just see a building. I see the story of my life.

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December 5, 2017 at 9:43 am

Shoot the piano player

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In his flawed but occasionally fascinating book Bambi vs. Godzilla, the playwright and director David Mamet spends a chapter discussing the concept of aesthetic distance, which is violated whenever viewers remember that they’re simply watching a movie. Mamet provides a memorable example:

An actor portrays a pianist. The actor sits down to play, and the camera moves, without a cut, to his hands, to assure us, the audience, that he is actually playing. The filmmakers, we see, have taken pains to show the viewers that no trickery has occurred, but in so doing, they have taught us only that the actor portraying the part can actually play the piano. This addresses a concern that we did not have. We never wondered if the actor could actually play the piano. We accepted the storyteller’s assurances that the character could play the piano, as we found such acceptance naturally essential to our understanding of the story.

Mamet imagines a hypothetical dialogue between the director and the audience: “I’m going to tell you a story about a pianist.” “Oh, good: I wonder what happens to her!” “But first, before I do, I will take pains to reassure you that the actor you see portraying the hero can actually play the piano.” And he concludes:

We didn’t care till the filmmaker brought it up, at which point we realized that, rather than being told a story, we were being shown a demonstration. We took off our “audience” hat and put on our “judge” hat. We judged the demonstration conclusive but, in so doing, got yanked right out of the drama. The aesthetic distance had been violated.

Let’s table this for now, and turn to a recent article in The Atlantic titled “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen.” To prosecute the case laid out in the headline, the film critic Christopher Orr draws on Eric Lax’s new book Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking, which describes the making of Irrational Man—a movie that nobody saw, which doesn’t make the book sound any less interesting. For Orr, however, it’s “an indictment framed as an encomium,” and he lists what he evidently sees as devastating charges:

Allen’s editor sometimes has to live with technical imperfections in the footage because he hasn’t shot enough takes for her to choose from…As for the shoot itself, Allen has confessed, “I don’t do any preparation. I don’t do any rehearsals. Most of the times I don’t even know what we’re going to shoot.” Indeed, Allen rarely has any conversations whatsoever with his actors before they show up on set…In addition to limiting the number of takes on any given shot, he strongly prefers “master shots”—those that capture an entire scene from one angle—over multiple shots that would subsequently need to be edited together.

For another filmmaker, all of these qualities might be seen as strengths, but that’s beside the point. Here’s the relevant passage:

The minimal commitment that appearing in an Allen film entails is a highly relevant consideration for a time-strapped actor. Lax himself notes the contrast with Mike Leigh—another director of small, art-house films—who rehearses his actors for weeks before shooting even starts. For Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Stone and her co-star, Ryan Gosling, rehearsed for four months before the cameras rolled. Among other chores, they practiced singing, dancing, and, in Gosling’s case, piano. The fact that Stone’s Irrational Man character plays piano is less central to that movie’s plot, but Allen didn’t expect her even to fake it. He simply shot her recital with the piano blocking her hands.

So do we shoot the piano player’s hands or not? The boring answer, unfortunately, is that it depends—but perhaps we can dig a little deeper. It seems safe to say that it would be impossible to make The Pianist with Adrian Brody’s hands conveniently blocked from view for the whole movie. But I’m equally confident that it doesn’t matter the slightest bit in Irrational Man, which I haven’t seen, whether or not Emma Stone is really playing the piano. La La Land is a slightly trickier case. It would be hard to envision it without at least a few shots of Ryan Gosling playing the piano, and Damien Chazelle isn’t above indulging in exactly the camera move that Mamet decries, in which it tilts down to reassure us that it’s really Gosling playing. Yet the fact that we’re even talking about this gets down to a fundamental problem with the movie, which I mostly like and admire. Its characters are archetypes who draw much of their energy from the auras of the actors who play them, and in the case of Stone, who is luminous and moving as an aspiring actress suffering through an endless series of auditions, the film gets a lot of mileage from our knowledge that she’s been in the same situation. Gosling, to put it mildly, has never been an aspiring jazz pianist. This shouldn’t even matter, but every time we see him playing the piano, he briefly ceases to be a struggling artist and becomes a handsome movie star who has spent three months learning to fake it. And I suspect that the movie would have been elevated immensely by casting a real musician. (This ties into another issue with La La Land, which is that it resorts to telling us that its characters deserve to be stars, rather than showing it to us in overwhelming terms through Gosling and Stone’s singing and dancing, which is merely passable. It’s in sharp contrast to Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, one of its clear spiritual predecessors, in which it’s impossible to watch Liza Minnelli without becoming convinced that she ought to be the biggest star in the world. And when you think of how quirky, repellent, and individual Minnelli and Robert De Niro are allowed to be in that film, La La Land starts to look a little schematic.)

And I don’t think I’m overstating it when I argue that the seemingly minor dilemma of whether to show the piano player’s hands shades into the larger problem of how much we expect our actors to really be what they pretend that they are. I don’t think any less of Bill Murray because he had to employ Terry Fryer as a “hand double” for his piano solo in Groundhog Day, and I don’t mind that the most famous movie piano player of them all—Dooley Wilson in Casablanca—was faking it. And there’s no question that you’re taken out of the movie a little when you see Richard Chamberlain playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in The Music Lovers, however impressive it might be. (I’m willing to forgive De Niro learning to mime the saxophone for New York, New York, if only because it’s hard to imagine how it would look otherwise. The piano is just about the only instrument in which it can plausibly be left at the director’s discretion. And in his article, revealingly, Orr fails to mention that none other than Woody Allen was insistent that Sean Penn learn the guitar for Sweet and Lowdown. As Allen himself might say, it depends.) On some level, we respond to an actor playing the piano much like the fans of Doctor Zhivago, whom Pauline Kael devastatingly called “the same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.” But it can serve the story as much as it can detract from it, and the hard part is knowing how and when. As one director notes:

Anybody can learn how to play the piano. For some people it will be very, very difficult—but they can learn it. There’s almost no one who can’t learn to play the piano. There’s a wide range in the middle, of people who can play the piano with various degrees of skill; a very, very narrow band at the top, of people who can play brilliantly and build upon a technical skill to create great art. The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills. Directing is just a technical skill.

This is Mamet writing in On Directing Film, which is possibly the single best work on storytelling I know. You might not believe him when he says that directing is “just a technical skill,” but if you do, there’s a simple way to test if you have it. Do you show the piano player’s hands? If you know the right answer for every scene, you just might be a director.

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