Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Orson Welles

The prankster principle

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Totoro in Toy Story 3

In an interview with McKinsey Quarterly, Ed Catmull of Pixar was recently asked: “How do you, as the leader of a company, simultaneously create a culture of doubt—of being open to careful, systematic introspection—and inspire confidence?” He replied:

The fundamental tension [at Pixar] is that people want clear leadership, but what we’re doing is inherently messy. We know, intellectually, that if we want to do something new, there will be some unpredictable problems. But if it gets too messy, it actually does fall apart. And adhering to the pure, original plan falls apart, too, because it doesn’t represent reality. So you are always in this balance between clear leadership and chaos; in fact that’s where you’re supposed to be. Rather than thinking, “Okay, my job is to prevent or avoid all the messes,” I just try to say, “well, let’s make sure it doesn’t get too messy.”

Which sounds a lot like the observation from the scientist Max Delbrück that I never tire of quoting: “If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you [can] nail it down…I called it the ‘Principle of Limited Sloppiness.’”

Most artists are aware that creativity requires a certain degree of controlled messiness, and scientists—or artists who work in fields where science and technology play a central role, as they do at Pixar—seem to be particularly conscious of this. As the zoologist John Zachary Young said:

Each individual uses the store of randomness, with which he was born, to build during his life rules which are useful and can be passed on…We might therefore take as our general picture of the universe a system of continuity in which there are two elements, randomness and organization, disorder and order, if you like, alternating with one another in such a fashion as to maintain continuity.

I suspect that scientists feel compelled to articulate this point so explicitly because there are so many other factors that discourage it in the pursuit of ordinary research. Order, cleanliness, and control are regarded as scientific virtues, and for good reason, which makes it all the more important to introduce a few elements of disorder in a systematic way. Or, failing that, to acknowledge the usefulness of disorder and to tolerate it to a certain extent.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

When you’re working by yourself, you find that both your headspace and your workspace tend to arrive at whatever level of messiness works best for you. On any given day, the degree of clutter in my office is more or less the same, with occasional deviations toward greater or lesser neatness: it’s a nest that I’ve feathered into a comfortable setting for productivity—or inactivity, which often amounts to the same thing. It’s tricker when different personalities have to work together. What sets Pixar apart is its ability to preserve that healthy alternation between order and disorder, while still releasing a blockbuster movie every year. It does this, in part, by limiting the number of feature films that it has in production at any one time, and by building in systems for feedback and deconstruction, with an environment that encourages artists to start again from scratch. There’s also a tradition of prankishness that the company has tried to preserve. As Catmull says:

For example, when we were building Pixar, the people at the time played a lot of practical jokes on each other, and they loved that. They think it’s awesome when there are practical jokes and people do things that are wild and crazy…Without intending to, the culture slowly shifts. How do you keep the shift from happening? I can’t go out and say, “Okay, we’re going to organize some wild and crazy activities.” Top-down organizing of spontaneous activities isn’t a good idea.

It’s hard to scale up a culture of practical jokes, and Pixar has faced the same challenges here as elsewhere. The mixed outcomes of Brave and, to some extent, The Good Dinosaur show that the studio isn’t infallible, and a creative process that depends on a movie sucking for three out of four years can run into trouble when you shift that timeline. But the fact that Pixar places so much importance on this kind of prankishness is revealing in itself. It arises in large part from its roots in the movies, which have been faced with the problem of maintaining messiness in the face of big industrial pressures almost from the beginning. (Orson Welles spoke of “the orderly disorder” that emerges from the need to make quick decisions while moving large amounts of people and equipment, and Stanley Kubrick was constantly on the lookout for collaborators like Ken Adam who would allow him to be similarly spontaneous.) There’s a long tradition of pranks on movie sets, shading imperceptibly from the gags we associate with the likes of George Clooney to the borderline insane tactics that Werner Herzog uses to keep that sense of danger alive. The danger, as Herzog is careful to assure us, is more apparent than real, and it’s more a way of fruitfully disordering what might otherwise become safe and predictable. But just by the right amount. As the artist Frank Stella has said of his own work: “I disorder it a little bit or, I should say, I reorder it. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to claim that I had the ability to disorder it. I wish I did.”

How I like my Scully

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.”

Dana Scully, as I’ve written elsewhere, is my favorite television character of all time, but really, it would be more accurate to say that I’m in love with a version of Scully who appeared in maybe a dozen or so episodes of The X-Files. Scully always occupied a peculiar position on the series: she was rarely the driving force behind any given storyline, and she was frequently there as a sounding board or a sparring partner defined by her reactions to Mulder. As such, she often ended up facilitating stories that had little to do with her strengths, as if her personality was formed by the negative space in which Mulder’s obsessions collided the plot points of a particular episode. She was there to move things along, and she could be a badass or a convenient victim, a quip machine or a martyr, based solely on what the episode needed to get to its destination. That’s true of many protagonists on network dramas or procedurals: they’re under so much pressure to advance the plot that they don’t have time to do anything else. But even in the early seasons, a quirkier, far more interesting character was emerging at the edges of the frame. I’m not talking about the Scully of the abduction or cancer or pregnancy arcs, who was defined by her pain—and, more insidiously, by her body. I’m talking about the Dana Scully of whom I once wrote: “The more I revisit the show, the more Scully’s skepticism starts to seem less like a form of denial than a distinct, joyous, sometimes equally insane approach to the game.”

And this is the Scully who was on full display last night, in Darin Morgan’s lovely “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” Morgan is rightly revered among X-Files fans as the staff writer who expanded the tonal possibilities of the show while questioning many of its basic assumptions, but it’s also worth noting how fully he understood and loved Scully, to an extent that wasn’t even true of Chris Carter himself. If you’re intuitively skeptical of the show’s premises, Scully is the natural focal point, since she’s already raised most of the obvious objections. What Morgan created, especially in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “War of the Coprophages,” was a character who both acknowledged the madness of her situation and took a bemused, gleeful pleasure in navigating it with dignity, humor, and humanity intact. Morgan’s vision of life was often despairing, but he grasped that Scully saw the way out of the dilemma more truly than Mulder ever could. In a world where everyone dies alone, regardless of whether it’s because of a monster attack or suicide or heart disease, we can’t do much more than retain our detachment and our ability to laugh at its absurdity. (This incarnation of Scully belonged to Morgan, but Vince Gilligan did a nice job of simulating it in episodes like “Small Potatoes” and “Bad Blood,” which suggests that X-Files writers ought to be judged by how well they understood her at her best.)

Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Objectively speaking, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” isn’t one of Morgan’s finest efforts, and it’s probably the most minor episode he’s written since “Humbug.” Its central premise—a monster who turns into a man when he’s bitten by a human being—is the best pure idea he’s ever had, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The plots of Morgan’s classic episodes don’t sound particularly promising when you reduce them to a capsule description: they’re more an excuse to ring a series of variations on a theme and to wander down whatever weird byways he wants to explore. The twist in “Were-Monster” is so clever that it seems to have handcuffed him a little, and as goofy as the episode often is, it’s surprisingly straightforward as a narrative. (This actually becomes a gag in itself, as the monster lays out his backstory in a ludicrously detailed flashback that is so informative that even Mulder has trouble believing it.) But it’s also possible that this wasn’t the time or place for an installment like “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” which pushed against the conventions of a show that was still cranking out an episode every week. It’s been twenty years since “Jose Chung,” and I think that Morgan intuitively understood that there was no point in undermining something that no longer existed. “Were-Monster” isn’t a subversion, but a renewal of a certain vision about these characters that has been lost for decades. As David Thomson said about Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, after filling a page with a list of its shortcomings: “Still, it was done.”

And although it tracks the Night Stalker version of Morgan’s script fairly closely, in the small details, it feels just right. There’s something here that wasn’t always evident in his earlier work: an obvious affection for the characters, including Mulder himself, for whom Morgan seemed to have little patience. Morgan has always spoken about his stint on The X-Files with a touch of ambivalence, and it’s doubtful that he ever felt entirely comfortable in the writer’s room. With the passage of time, he seems to have realized how much the show meant to him, and “Were-Monster” plays like an act of reconciliation between the series and the writer who provided it with its finest moments. It’s full of touches that I’d be tempted to call fan service, except that they feel more like Morgan’s notes to himself, or a belated acknowledgment that he loved these characters even when he was ruthlessly satirizing them. At one point, Scully glances up from an autopsy table and says: “I forgot how much fun these cases could be.” Watching it, I said aloud: “Me, too.” And it’s a message from Morgan to the fans who have revisited his episodes dozens of times. It doesn’t reach the heights of his best work—although I reserve the right to revise my opinion—but it does something even better: it reminds us, in a way that the previous two episodes did not, of why this show meant so much to us for so long. Later, after listening to a particularly screwy rant from her partner, Scully smiles to herself and says: “Yeah, this is how I like my Mulder.” And even if we never see these versions of them again, for now, they exist. It was done. And it’s a miracle.

Written by nevalalee

February 2, 2016 at 9:22 am

The orderly disorder

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Orson Welles

Sometimes what seems disorderly has a perfectly logistic purpose. But in order to explain why I’m changing the scene would take ten minutes of conference. So I don’t explain, and it looks as though I am being capricious. When I’m outside, the position of the sun determines everything: I’ll suddenly jump from one sequence to another, even go into a sequence that wasn’t planned for that day, if the light suddenly becomes right for it. The sun is the most beautiful light in the world, and the way to make it beautiful is to film it at its moment; so that means jumping. Those are the technical reasons for the orderly disorder. Then sometimes the actors aren’t right on that day, you see that they need another day, another mood. The thing isn’t working. Then you must change, and the change does everybody good. Sometimes, when all the lights are in one position, in order to move logically to the next scene as planned creates an enormous waste of time. And rather than lose time in moving the lights, I confuse everybody else by jumping to the next thing I know we can shoot. I think you will agree that the disorder doesn’t mean that we work slowly. I think it is terribly necessary to work quickly.

Orson Welles

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2015 at 7:22 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day

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My ten great movies #5: Citizen Kane

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“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” writes Charles Foster Kane to his guardian, Mr. Thatcher, only to confess in the following scene: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper—I just try everything I can think of.” In those two lines, Citizen Kane captures the romance of what it means to be young, gifted, and boundless of ambition, and in particular, what it meant to be Orson Welles, twenty-five, already famous, and given the keys to the greatest train set a boy ever had. This honeymoon wouldn’t last forever, of course, and Welles barely survived two more years in Hollywood. But the memory of those days lives on, in Kane and in much of The Magnificent Ambersons, with Kane in particular serving as both the most lasting movie ever made in America and a bittersweet emblem of what might have been.

Kane is famously the film that inspired the careers of more directors than any other, and even for those of us who express ourselves in other ways, it’s a shining example of what can be accomplished when respect for the lessons of craft is combined with a reckless disregard of the rules. Most of the great innovations in the arts and sciences come when an individual of genius changes fields, and with Welles, with his unsurpassed training in theater and radio, Hollywood not only got a genuine boy wonder, but gave him the freedom and resources he needed to do great work—a lucky combination that would never happen again. Welles came to RKO with a willingness to try everything once and, more importantly, to listen to the likes of Gregg Toland and benefit from their skill and experience. Without this bedrock of craft, Kane would be a mess of inspirations; without inspiration, it would be pointless technique. But for once, blessedly, a Hollywood film had both. And the movies would never be the same.

Tomorrow: The best movie about writing ever made.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #8: The Third Man

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Even for passionate movie lovers, two things tend to date the classic films of the thirties and forties: their sets, with the inescapable smell of the studio, and their orchestral scores, which to modern ears tend to sound depressingly alike. It’s quite possible, then, that we have both the city of Vienna and Anton Karas to thank for the fact that The Third Man still seems so fresh. The zither score, combined with the extraordinary locations, result in a film that seems both utterly of its time and completely modern—and one that requires less of a mental adjustment to enjoy than any other movie of its era I know. Combine this with Graham Greene’s great script, with its uncredited contributions from Orson Welles and others, and we have what is both the breeziest and darkest of noirs, a film I love so much that I steal from it directly both in my novelette “Kawataro” and the conclusion of my novel City of Exiles.

Everyone knows how completely Welles dominates the movie with only a reel or so of screen time—which, while delicious, seems much more of its period than the rest of the film—to the point where our memory of Harry Lime tends to overshadow the rest of the cast: Joseph Cotten, the very moving Alida Valli, and especially Trevor Howard as Major Calloway, who contributes perhaps the film’s most stylish performance. The big moments—Harry’s entrance, the ferris wheel scene, the great closing shot—are deservedly famous, but I also like the small touches: the wizened little boy with the ball; the moment when Sgt. Paine (the wonderful Bernard Lee) loads the picture of a rhinoceros into the slide projector by mistake; or the glimpses we get into the work of hack writer Holly Martens though the eyes of his admiring readers: “I never knew there were snake charmers in Texas.” But as Carol Reed’s great film reminds us, there are certainly snakes in Vienna. And they’re very charming.

Tomorrow: The triumph of the studio system.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

The films of a life

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Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

The other week, while musing on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—which I still haven’t seen—I noted that we often don’t have the chance to experience the movies that might speak most urgently to us at the later stages of our lives. Many of us who love film encounter the movies we love at a relatively young age, and we spend our teens and twenties devouring the classics that came out before we were born. And that’s exactly how it should be: when we’re young, we have the time and energy to explore enormous swaths of the canon, and we absorb images and stories that will enrich the years to come. Yet we’re also handicapped by being relatively inexperienced and emotionally circumscribed, at least compared to later in life. We’re wowed by technical excellence, virtuoso effects, relentless action, or even just a vision of the world in which we’d like to believe. And by the time we’re old enough to judge such things more critically, we find that we aren’t watching movies as much as we once were, and it takes a real effort to seek out the more difficult, reflective masterpieces that might provide us with signposts for the way ahead.   

What we can do, however, is look back at the movies we loved when we were younger and see what they have to say to us now. I’ve always treasured Roger Ebert’s account of his shifting feelings toward Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which he called “a page-marker in my own life”:

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was ten years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him.

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

And when we realize how our feelings toward certain movies have shifted, it can be both moving and a little terrifying. Life transforms us so insidiously that it’s often only when we compare our feelings to a fixed benchmark that we become aware of the changes that have taken place. Watching Citizen Kane at twenty and again at thirty is a disorienting experience, especially when you’re hoping to make a life for yourself in the arts. Orson Welles was twenty-five when he directed it, and when you see it at twenty, it feels like both an inspiration and a challenge: part of you believes, recklessly, that you could be Welles, and the possibilities of the next few years of your life seem limitless. Looking back at it at thirty, after a decade’s worth of effort and compromise, you start to realize both the absurdity of his achievement and how singular it really is, and the movie seems suffused with what David Thomson calls Welles’s “vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” You begin to understand the ambivalence with which more experienced filmmakers regarded the Wellesian monster of energy and ambition, and it quietly affects the way you think about Kane‘s reflections on time and old age.

The more personal our attachment to a movie, the harder these lessons can be to swallow. The other night, I sat down to watch part of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, for the first time in several years. It’s a movie I thought I knew almost frame by frame, and I do, but I hadn’t taken the emotional component into account. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in high school, both for its incredible beauty and for the vision it offered of a life in the arts. Later, as I rewatched it in college and in my twenties, it provided a model, a warning, and a reminder of the values I was trying to honor. Now, after I’ve been through my own share of misadventures as a writer, it seems simultaneously like a fantasy and a bittersweet emblem of a world that still seems just out of reach. I’m older than many of the characters now—although I have yet to enter my Boris Lermontov phase—and my heart aches a little when I listen to Julian’s wistful, ambitious line: “I wonder what it feels like to wake up in the morning and find oneself famous.” If The Red Shoes once felt like a promise of what could be, it’s starting to feel to me now like what could have been, or might be again. Ten years from now, it will probably feel like something else entirely. And when that time comes, I’ll let you know what I find.

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2014 at 9:30 am

A boyhood at the movies

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Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, and Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane

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 question: “What’s your favorite movie of the year so far?”

I don’t think there’s another movie this year that I’ve been more excited to watch than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Anyone who has visited Linklater’s IMDb page over the last decade or so has been curious to see how this project—which he’s been filming off and on for more than twelve years—would turn out, and the rapturous response indicates that the wait has been worth it. I’ve always been deeply moved by depictions of growth and aging in film, whether imagined, as in The Last Temptation of Christ or Saving Private Ryan, or real, as in the wonderful documentary Ballets Russes, and Boyhood, which follows actor Ellar Coltrane as he ages before our eyes from grade school to college, seems like the ultimate realization of this theme, which the movies can depict so mysteriously. The irony, of course, is that I probably won’t see it for a while, because I have a daughter of my own at home. And I have a feeling that the viewers who would benefit the most from this movie—the parents of small children—will probably wait for it to show up on video, even as art houses are packed this weekend with twentysomethings with kids still in their future.

As I’ve noted here all too often, now that I’m a father, my moviegoing habits have been severely curtailed. (The only new films I’ve seen so far this year are The LEGO Movie and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which I liked, even if the parts in the latter seem just as interchangeable as those in the former—it’s the ultimate Wes Anderson construction set.) And while I’ve thought a great deal what this means for my love of movies now, it only recently occurred to me to consider its implications for my cinematic education in the past. When I look back at my life, it seems likely that I’ll have seen most of the movies I love in my teens and twenties, when I was single, possessed of disposable income, and willing to make the long trek to an independent theater or midnight screening. Those trips to the Brattle or the UC Theatre were a central part of my young adulthood, and the way I think about the movies was deeply shaped by my early experiences. In retrospect, I was lucky: the act of sitting in a darkened roomful of strangers to see a scratchy print of Ikiru seems increasingly remote from the lives of budding cinephiles, so I feel like I came along at just the right time.

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight

But the fact that I saw so many of these movies when my firsthand knowledge of the world was so limited seems like an important factor as well. When you’re young and impressionable, you tend to be drawn to works of art that speak to you in a language you understand, either because they resonate with your own life or because they’re exhilarating on a formal or visceral level. As a teenager, I never had much interest in movies that reflected my life back to me—it took me years to get into John Hughes, for instance—but I fell in love with films that appealed to my senses in new ways. I was a devotee of Kubrick before I started middle school, largely because his virtues were the kind that I could immediately understand and admire: scope, symmetry, meticulousness, and intimate attention to image and sound. Even if you’ve never been out of your hometown or a narrow emotional comfort zone, you can react instinctively to films that thrill your eyes and ears. And the canon of my own favorite movies is still primarily a young man’s list, even if I’ve since come to appreciate the depths that the best of them conceal beneath their spectacular surfaces.

Of course, that’s the path that most of us follow: we’re drawn to the movies at a young age, gradually refine our tastes to look beyond their surface aspects, and end up with a personal pantheon populated both by old favorites and by films that we might have found difficult or uninviting at an earlier stage. At the moment, though, I sometimes fear that the process has been arrested for me just at the point when I’m ready to make new discoveries. The list of filmmakers who honestly confront the problems of marriage or old age is vanishingly small compared to those who construct beautiful fantasies, and even in the work of highly gifted directors, like Paul Thomas Anderson, we can sometimes sense enormous talent and will compensating for a lack of experience. It’s revealing that the most essential movie of them all, Citizen Kane, is a young man’s systematic impersonation of the old man he might one day become, and the difference between Welles as Kane and the incredible creation of his later years reminds us of how even the greatest movies can fail to predict what life has in store. Welles later made his aging a central part of his work, but far more of us have seen him in Kane than in Chimes at Midnight. And as we get older, as hard as it might be, it’s all the more crucial to make time for the films that speak to us now.

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