Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Roger Ebert

Invitation to look

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Note: This post discusses plot elements from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

In order to understand the current run of Twin Peaks, it helps to think back to the most characteristic scene from the finale of the second season, which was also the last episode of the show to air for decades. I’m not talking about Cooper in the Black Lodge, or any of the messy, unresolved melodrama that swirled around the other characters, or even the notorious cliffhanger. I mean the scene at Twin Peaks Savings and Loan that lingers interminably on the figure of Dell Mibbler, an ancient, doddering bank manager whom we haven’t seen before and will never see again, as he crosses the floor, in a single unbroken shot, to get a glass of water for Audrey. Even at the time, when the hope of a third season was still alive, many viewers must have found the sequence agonizingly pointless. Later, when it seemed like this was the last glimpse of these characters that we would ever have, it felt even less explicable. With only so many minutes in any given episode, each one starts to seem precious, especially in a series finale, and this scene took up at least two of them. (Now that we’ve finally gotten another season, I’m not sure how it will play in the future, but I suspect that it will feel like what it must have been intended to be—a precarious, unnecessary, but still pretty funny gag.) Anecdotally speaking, for a lot of viewers, the third season is starting to feel like that bank scene played over and over again. In theory, we have plenty of room for digressions, with eighteen hours of television to fill. But as the tangents and apparent dead ends continue to pile up, like the scene last night in which the camera spends a full minute lovingly recording an employee sweeping up at the Bang Bang Bar, it sometimes feels like we’ve been tricked into watching Dell Mibbler: The Return.

Yet this has been David Lynch’s style from the beginning. Lynch directed only a few hours of the initial run of Twin Peaks, but his work, particularly on the pilot, laid down a template that other writers and directors did their best to follow. And many of the show’s iconic images—the streetlight at the corner where Laura was last seen, the waterfall, the fir trees blowing in the wind—consist of silent shots that are held for slightly longer than the viewer would expect. One of the oddly endearing things about the original series was how such eerie moments were intercut with scenes that, for all their quirkiness, were staged, shot, and edited more or less like any other network drama. The new season hasn’t offered many such respites, which is part of why it still feels like it’s keeping itself at arm’s length from its own history. For better or worse, Lynch doesn’t have to compromise here. (Last night’s episode was perhaps the season’s most plot-heavy installment to date, and it devoted maybe ten minutes to advancing the story.) Instead, Lynch is continuing to educate us, as he’s done erratically throughout his career, on how to slow down and pay attention. Not all of his movies unfold at the same meditative pace: Blue Velvet moves like a thriller, in part because of the circumstances of its editing, and Wild at Heart seems like an attempt, mostly unsuccessful, to sustain that level of frantic motion for the film’s entire length. But when we think back to the scenes from his work that we remember most vividly, they tend to be static shots that are held so long that they burn themselves into our imagination. And as movies and television shows become more anxious to keep the viewer’s interest from straying for even a second, Twin Peaks remains an invitation to look and contemplate.

It also invites us to listen, and while much of Lynch’s fascination with stillness comes from his background as a painter, it also emerges from his interest in sound. Lynch is credited as a sound designer on Twin Peaks, as he has been for most of his movies, and the show is suffused with what you might call the standard-issue Lynchian noise—a low, barely perceptible hum of static that occasionally rises to an oceanic roar. (In last night’s episode, Benjamin Horne and the character played by Ashley Judd try vainly to pin down the source of a similar hum at the Great Northern, and while it might eventually lead somewhere, it also feels like a subtle joke at Lynch’s own expense.) The sound is often associated with electronic or recording equipment, like the video cameras that are trained on the glass cube in the season premiere. My favorite instance is in Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey stumbles across the tableau of two victims in Dorothy’s apartment, one with his ear cut off, the other still standing with his brains shot out. There’s a hum coming from the shattered television set, and it’s pitched at so low a level that it’s almost subliminal, except to imperceptibly increase our anxiety. You only really become aware of it when it stops, after Jeffrey closes the door behind him and, a little later, when Frank shoots out the television tube. But you can’t hear it at all unless everything else onscreen is deathly quiet. It emerges from stillness, as if it were a form of background noise that surrounds us all the time, but is only audible when the rest of the world fades away. I don’t know whether Lynch’s fascination with this kind of sound effect came out of his interest in stillness or the other way around, and the most plausible explanation is that it all arose from the same place. But you could build a convincing reading of his career around the two meanings of the word “static.”

Taken together, the visual and auditory elements invite us to look on in silence, which may be a reflection of Lynch’s art school background. (I don’t know if Lynch was directly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, a work of art that obsessed me so much that I wrote an entire novel about it, but they both ask us to stand and contemplate the inexplicable without speaking. And when you see the installation in person at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as I’ve done twice, the memory is inevitably entwined with the low hum of the room’s climate control system.) By extending this state of narrative suspension to the breaking point, Twin Peaks is pushing in a direction that even the most innovative prestige dramas have mostly avoided, and it still fascinates me. The real question is when and how the silence will be broken. Lynch’s great hallmark is his use of juxtaposition, not just of light and dark, which horrified Roger Ebert so much in Blue Velvet, but of silence and sudden, violent action. We’ve already seen hints of this so far in Twin Peaks, particularly in the scenes involving the murderous Ike the Spike, who seems to be playing the same role, at random intervals, that a figure of similarly small stature did at the end of Don’t Look Now. And I have a feeling that the real payoff is yet to come. This might sound like the wishful thinking of a viewer who is waiting for the show’s teasing hints to lead somewhere, but it’s central to Lynch’s method, in which silence and stillness are most effective when framed by noise and movement. The shot of the two bodies in Dorothy’s apartment leads directly into the most dramatically satisfying—and, let it be said, most conventional—climax of Lynch’s career. And remember Dell Mibbler? At the end of the scene, the bank blows up.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2017 at 9:06 am

The art of the anti-blurb

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In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the critic Dan Chiasson offers up an appraisal of the poet Bill Knott, who died in 2014. To be honest, I’d either never heard of Knott or forgotten his name, but I suspect that he might have been pleased by this. Knott, who taught for decades at Emerson College, spent his entire career sticking resolutely to the edges of the literary world, distancing himself from mainstream publishers and electing to distribute his poems himself in cheap editions on Amazon. Chiasson relates:

The books that did make it to print usually featured brutal “anti-blurbs,” which Knott culled from reviews good and bad alike: his work was “grotesque,” “malignant,” “tasteless,” and “brainless,” according to some of the big names of the day.

Here are a few more of the blurbs he reprinted: “Bill Knott’s ancient, academic ramblings are part of what’s wrong with poetry today. Ignore the old bastard.” “Bill Knott bores me to tears.” “Bill Knott should be beaten with a flail.” “Bill Knott’s poems are so naïve that the question of their poetic quality hardly arises…Mr. Knott practices a dead language.” According to another reminiscence by the editor Robert P. Baird, Knott sometimes took it even further: “On his various blogs, which spawned and deceased like mayflies, he posted collages of rejection slips and a running tally of anti-blurbs: positive reviews and compliments that he’d carved up with ellipses to read like pans.” Even his actual negative reviews weren’t enough—Knott felt obliged to create his own.

The idea of a writer embracing his attackers has an obvious subversive appeal. Norman Mailer, revealingly, liked the idea so much that he indulged in it no fewer than three times, and far less nimbly than Knott did. After the release of The Deer Park, he ran an ad in The Village Voice that amounted to a parody of the usual collage of laudatory quotes—“The year’s worst snake pit in fiction,” “Moronic mindlessness,” “A bunch of bums”—and noted in fine print at the bottom, just in case we didn’t get the point: “This advertisement was paid for by Norman Mailer.” Two decades later, he decided to do the same thing with Marilyn, mostly as a roundabout way of responding to a single bad review by Pauline Kael. As the editor Robert Markel recalls in Peter Manso’s oral biography:

The book was still selling well when [Mailer] came in with his idea of a full two-page ad. Since he was now more or less in the hands of [publisher] Harold Roth, there was a big meeting in Harold’s office. What he wanted to do was exactly what he’d done with The Village Voice ad for The Deer Park: present all the positive and negative reviews, including Kael’s, setting the two in opposition. Harold was very much against it. He thought the two pages would be a stupid waste of money, but more, it was the adversarial nature of the ad as Norman conceived it.

Ultimately, Mailer persuaded Roth to play along: “He implied he’d made a study of this kind of thing and knew what he was talking about.” And five years down the line, he did it yet again with his novel Ancient Evenings, printing up a counter display for bookstores with bad reviews for Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Leaves of Grass, and his own book, followed by a line with a familiar ring to it: “The quotations in this poster were selected by Norman Mailer.”

This compulsiveness about reprinting his bad reviews, and his insistence that everyone know that he had conceived and approved of it, is worth analyzing, because it’s very different from Knott’s. Mailer’s whole life was built on sustaining an image of intellectual machismo that often rested on unstable foundations, and embracing the drubbings that his books received was a way of signaling that he was tougher than his critics. Like so much else, it was a pose—Mailer hungered for fame and attention, and he felt his negative reviews as keenly as anyone. When Time ran a snarky notice of his poetry collection Deaths for the Ladies, Mailer replied, “in a fury of incalculable pains,” with a poem of his own, in which he compared himself to a bull in the ring and the reviewer to a cowardly picador. He recalled in Existential Errands:

The review in Time put iron into my heart again, and rage, and the feeling that the enemy was more alive than ever, and dirtier in the alley, and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.

This is probably a much healthier response. But in the contrast between Mailer’s expensive advertisements for himself and Knott’s photocopied chapbooks, you can see the difference between a piece of performance art and a philosophy of life truly lived. Of the two, Mailer ends up seeming more vulnerable. As he admits: “I had secret hopes, I now confess, that Deaths for the Ladies would be a vast success at the bar of poetry.”

Of course, Knott’s attitude was a bit of a pose as well. Chiasson once encountered his own name on Knott’s blog, which referred to him as “Chiasson-the-Assassin,” which indicates that the poet’s attitude toward critics was something other than indifference. But it was also a pose that was indistinguishable from the man inside, as Elisa Gabbert, one of Kott’s former students, observed: “It was kind of a goof, but that was his whole life. It was a really grand goof.” And you can judge them by their fruits. Mailer’s advertisements are brilliant, but the product that they’re selling is Mailer himself, and you’re clearly supposed to depart with the impression that the critics have trashed a major work of art. After reading Knott’s anti-blurbs, you end up questioning the whole notion of laudatory quotes itself, which is a more productive kind of skepticism. (David Lynch pulled off something similar when he printed an ad for Lost Highway with the words: “Two Thumbs Down!” In response, Roger Ebert wrote: “It’s creative to use the quote in that way…These days quotes in movie ads have been devalued by the ‘quote whores’ who supply gushing praise to publicists weeks in advance of an opening.” The situation with blurbs is slightly different, but there’s no question that they’ve been devalued as well—a book without “advance praise” looks vaguely suspicious, so the only meaningful fact about most blurbs is that they exist.) Resistance to reviews is so hard for a writer to maintain that asserting it feels like a kind of superpower. If asked, Mailer might have replied, like Bruce Banner in The Avengers: “That’s my secret. I’m always angry.” But I have a hunch that the truth is closer to what Wolverine says when Rogue asks if it hurts when his claws come out: “Every time.”

Don’t stay out of Riverdale

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In the opening seconds of the series premiere of Riverdale, a young man speaks quietly in voiceover, his words playing over idyllic shots of American life:

Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath. The name of our town is Riverdale.

Much later, we realize that the speaker is Jughead of Archie Comics fame, played by former Disney child star Cole Sprouse, which might seem peculiar enough in itself. But what I noticed first about this monologue is that it basically summarizes the prologue of Blue Velvet, which begins with images of roses and picket fences and then dives into the grass, revealing the insects ravening like feral animals in the darkness. It’s one of the greatest declarations of intent in all of cinema, and initially, there’s something a little disappointing in the way that Riverdale feels obliged to blandly state what Lynch put into a series of unforgettable images. Yet I have the feeling that series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who says that Blue Velvet is one of his favorite movies, knows exactly what he’s doing. And the result promises to be more interesting than even he can anticipate.

Riverdale has been described as The O.C. meets Twin Peaks, which is how it first came to my attention. But it’s also a series on the CW, with all the good, the bad, and the lack of ugly that this implies. This the network that produced The Vampire Diaries, the first three seasons of which unexpectedly generated some of my favorite television from the last few years, and it takes its genre shows very seriously. There’s a fascinating pattern at work within systems that produce such narratives on a regular basis, whether in pulp magazines or comic books or exploitation pictures: as long as you hit all the obligatory notes and come in under budget, you’re granted a surprising amount of freedom. The CW, like its predecessors, has become an unlikely haven for auteurs, and it’s the sort of place where a showrunner like Aguirre-Sacasa—who has an intriguing background in playwriting, comics, and television—can explore a sandbox like this for years. Yet it also requires certain heavy, obvious beats, like structural supports, to prop up the rest of the edifice. A lot of the first episode of Riverdale, like most pilots, is devoted to setting up its premise and characters for even the most distracted viewers, and it can be almost insultingly on the nose. It’s why it feels obliged to spell out its theme of dark shadows beneath its sunlit surfaces, which isn’t exactly hard to grasp. As Roger Ebert wrote decades ago in his notoriously indignant review of Blue Velvet: “What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses.”

Blue Velvet

As a result, if you want to watch Riverdale at all, you need to get used to being treated occasionally as if you were twelve years old. But Aguirre-Sacasa seems determined to have it both ways. Like Glee before it, it feels as if it’s being pulled in three different directions even before it begins, but in this case, it comes off less as an unwanted side effect than as a strategy. It’s worth noting that not only did Aguirre-Sacasa write for Glee itself, but he’s also the guy who stepped in rewrite Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which means that he knows something about wrangling intractable material for a mass audience under enormous scrutiny. (He’s also the chief creative officer of Archie Comics, which feels like a dream job in the best sort of way: one of his projects at the Yale School of Drama was a play about Archie encountering the murderers Leopold and Loeb, and he later received a cease and desist order from his future employer over Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which depicted its lead character as coming out of the closet.) Riverdale often plays like the work of a prodigiously talented writer trying to put his ideas into a form that could plausibly air on Thursdays after Supernatural. Like most shows at this stage, it’s also openly trying to decide what it’s supposed to be about. And I want to believe, on the basis of almost zero evidence, that Aguirre-Sacasa is deliberately attempting something almost unworkable, in hopes that he’ll be able to stick with it long enough—on a network that seems fairly indulgent of shows on the margins—to make it something special.

Most great television results from this sort of evolutionary process, and I’ve noted before—most explicitly in my Salon piece on The X-Files—that the best genre shows emerge when a jumble of inconsistent elements is given the chance to find its ideal form, usually because it lucks into a position where it can play under the radar for years. The pressures of weekly airings, fan response, critical reviews, and ratings, along with the unpredictable inputs of the cast and writing staff, lead to far more rewarding results than even the most visionary showrunner could produce in isolation. Writers of serialized narratives like comic books know this intuitively, and consciously or not, Aguirre-Sacasa seems to be trying something similar on television. It’s not an approach that would make sense for a series like Westworld, which was produced for so much money and with such high expectations that its creators had no choice but to start with a plan. But it might just work on the CW. I’m hopeful that Aguirre-Sacasa and his collaborators will use the mystery at the heart of the series much as Twin Peaks did, as a kind of clothesline on which they can hang a lot of wild experiments, only a certain percentage of which can be expected to work. Twin Peaks itself provides a measure of this method’s limitations: it mutated into something extraordinary, but it didn’t survive the departure of its original creative team. Riverdale feels like an attempt to recreate those conditions, and if it utilizes the Archie characters as its available raw material, well, why not? If Lynch had been able to get the rights, he might have used them, too.

What comes next

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Isaac Asimov

In the memoir I. Asimov, which Isaac Asimov wrote when he knew that he was dying from complications of an HIV infection acquired years earlier from a blood transfusion, its author says:

Comparatively early in life I managed to have it ground into my brain that there was no disgrace in dying after seventy, but that dying before seventy was “premature” and was a reflection on a person’s intelligence and character.

Asimov blamed this on the Bible verse that tells us that “the years of our life are threescore and ten,” and he observes that his opinion was “unreasonable, of course; quite irrational.” Still, I have a hunch that many of us continue to share that view, if only subconsciously. This year may or may not have had a greater number of celebrity deaths than usual, but it certainly seemed that way, and many of the ones that stung the most—David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher—were of artists who were between the ages of fifty and seventy. They had been around for enough to feel like legends, but not quite old enough for us to think that their stories were over, and it felt, in some cases, as if we’d been deprived of another decade or two of work. (It’s a measure of Bowie’s hold over my imagination that even after we’ve lost so many others, his death is still the one that hurts the most, and I think that the post I wrote after hearing the news might be the best thing I’ve ever written on this blog.)

When a science fiction writer dies, there’s an additional pang of regret that he or she didn’t live “to see the future,” which, if anything, is even more irrational. But that doesn’t make it wrong. In the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell published the complete chart of Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History, which extended from the present day to past the year 2100. In his editor’s note, Campbell wrote:

It might be of very real interest to you to trace in on this suggestion of the future your own life line. My own, I imagine, should extend up to about 1980—a bit beyond the time of “Roads Must Roll” and “Blowups Happen.” My children may see the days of “Logic of Empire.” Where does your life line fall? Where will your children’s end?

Campbell, in fact, had no intention of dying at all. In a biographical sketch from the early fifties, he said: “It’s my intention to live at least two hundred years, because I damn well want to find out how this mess comes out, and that’s the only way I know of that I can do it.” A few years later, he extended the timeline, saying that he planned “to see what happens next—if I have to hang around for another five hundred years or so to do so!” Toward the end of the sixties, when he was painfully conscious of his failing health, he wrote, more modestly, that he hoped to keep editing the magazine for another thirty years, noting that he would be “just shy of ninety” in 1998.

Robert A. Heinlein's Future History

Campbell’s fullest statement on human longevity came in an editorial titled “Oh King, Live Forever!”, which was published in the April 1949 issue of Astounding. Campbell began with the statement:

At some point in the history of the world and the history of medical science, a point will be reached such that a child born at that time can, if he chooses—and has reasonable luck so far as mechanical damage goes—live practically forever. This point in time will be some forty or more years before the perfection of the full requirements for continuous life—and this point may already have passed, without our knowing it.

He continued by saying that it shouldn’t be too hard to extend the human lifespan by a few decades, and he concluded:

The first advance of thirty years would be no “eternal youth” treatment. But—science tends to advance exponentially. That thirty-year reprieve might give just the time needed for research to extend your life another forty years. And that forty years might—

It’s an argument that perfectly anticipates those of such later transhumanists as Ray Kurzweil, author of books like Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. And for all I know, it might be right—someday.

As it turned out, Campbell was only sixty-one when he died, and while his death was sudden, it was far from unexpected: he had been suffering from gout, high blood pressure, and other ailments for years. It’s easy to regret that both he and Asimov failed to make it to the twenty-first century. But Campbell lived to see the moon landing. So did Asimov, who once wrote, like Campbell, that he hoped to keep on living as long as he was still curious to see how the story would turn out. In his movie review of The Sea Inside, which is about a quadriplegic who demands the right to die, Roger Ebert made a similar statement:

I believe I would want to live as long as I could, assuming I had my sanity and some way to communicate…If a man is of sound mind and not in pain, how in the world can he decide he no longer wants to read tomorrow’s newspaper?

When he wrote those words, Ebert—who once called Campbell “my hero”—was a few years away from his own very public struggle with mortality. But the desire to see what happens next is very strong, and it’s particularly moving when you think of the times through which Campbell, Asimov, and the rest all lived. It’s been a rough twelve months, and I can’t say that I’m particularly sorry to say goodbye to 2016. But I still want to know what comes next.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2016 at 9:24 am

The excerpt opinion

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Norman Mailer

“It’s the rare writer who cannot have sentences lifted from his work,” Norman Mailer once wrote. What he meant is that if a reviewer is eager to find something to mock, dismiss, or pick apart, any interesting book will provide plenty of ammunition. On a simple level of craft, it’s hard for most authors to sustain a high pitch of technical proficiency in every line, and if you want to make a novelist seem boring or ordinary, you can just focus on the sentences that fall between the high points. In his famously savage takedown of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, Martin Amis quotes another reviewer who raved: “There is not a single ugly or dead sentence.” Amis then acidly observes:

Hannibal is a genre novel, and all genre novels contain dead sentences—unless you feel the throb of life in such periods as “Tommaso put the lid back on the cooler” or “Eric Pickford answered” or “Pazzi worked like a man possessed” or “Margot laughed in spite of herself” or “Bob Sneed broke the silence.”

Amis knows that this is a cheap shot, and he glories in it. But it isn’t so different from what critics do when they list the awful sentences from a current bestseller or nominate lines for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. I laugh at this along with anyone else, but I also wince a little, because there are few authors alive who aren’t vulnerable to that sort of treatment. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out: “You could compile the worst book in the world entirely out of selected passages from the best writers in the world.”

This is even more true of authors who take considerable stylistic or thematic risks, which usually result in individual sentences that seem crazy or, worse, silly. The fear of seeming ridiculous is what prevents a lot of writers from taking chances, and it isn’t always unjustified. An ambitious novel opens itself up to savaging from all sides, precisely because it provides so much material that can be turned against the author when taken out of context. And it doesn’t need to be malicious, either: even objective or actively sympathetic critics can be seduced by the ease with which a writer can be excerpted to make a case. I’ve become increasingly daunted by the prospect of distilling the work of Robert A. Heinlein, for example, because his career was so long, varied, and often intentionally provocative that you can find sentences to support any argument about him that you want to make. (It doesn’t help that his politics evolved drastically over time, and they probably would have undergone several more transformations if he had lived for longer.) This isn’t to say that his opinions aren’t a fair target for criticism, but any reasonable understanding of who Heinlein was and what he believed—which I’m still trying to sort out for myself—can’t be conveyed by a handful of cherry-picked quotations. Literary biography is useful primarily to the extent that it can lay out a writer’s life in an orderly fashion, providing a frame that tells us something about the work that we wouldn’t know by encountering it out of order. But even that involves a process of selection, as does everything else about a biography. The biographer’s project isn’t essentially different from that of a working critic or reviewer: it just takes place on a larger scale.

John Updike

And it’s worth noting that prolific critics themselves are particularly susceptible to this kind of treatment. When Renata Adler described Pauline Kael’s output as “not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless,” any devotee of Kael’s work had to disagree—but it was also impossible to deny that there was plenty of evidence for the prosecution. If you’re determined to hate Roger Ebert, you just have to search for the reviews in which his opinions, written on deadline, weren’t sufficiently in line with the conclusions reached by posterity, as when he unforgivably gave only three stars to The Godfather Part II. And there isn’t a single page in the work of David Thomson, who is probably the most interesting movie critic who ever lived, that couldn’t be mined for outrageous, idiotic, or infuriating statements. I still remember a review on The A.V. Club of How to Watch a Movie that quoted lines like this:

Tell me a story, we beg as children, while wanting so many other things. Story will put off sleep (or extinction) and the child’s organism hardly trusts the habit of waking yet.

And this:

You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours). You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life.

The reviewer quoted these sentences as examples of the book’s deficiencies, and they were duly excoriated in the comments. But anyone who has really read Thomson knows that such statements are part of the package, and removing them would also deny most of what makes him so fun, perverse, and valuable.

So what’s a responsible reviewer to do? We could start, maybe, by quoting longer or complete sections, rather than sentences in isolation, and by providing more context when we offer up just a line or two. We can also respect an author’s feelings, explicit or otherwise, about what sections are actually important. In the passage I mentioned at the beginning of this post, which is about John Updike, Mailer goes on to quote a few sentences from Rabbit, Run, and he adds:

The first quotation is taken from the first five sentences of the book, the second is on the next-to-last page, and the third is nothing less than the last three sentences of the novel. The beginning and end of a novel are usually worked over. They are the index to taste in the writer.

That’s a pretty good rule, and it ensures that the critic is discussing something reasonably close to what the writer intended to say. Best of all, we can approach the problem of excerpting with a kind of joy in the hunt: the search for the slice of a work that will stand as a synecdoche of the whole. In the book U & I, which is also about Updike, Nicholson Baker writes about the “standardized ID phrase” and “the aphoristic consensus” and “the jingle we will have to fight past at some point in the future” to see a writer clearly again, just as fans of Joyce have to do their best to forget about “the ineluctable modality of the visible” and “yes I said yes I will Yes.” For a living author, that repository of familiar quotations is constantly in flux, and reviewers might approach their work with a greater sense of responsibility if they realized that they were playing a part in creating it—one tiny excerpt at a time.

“To spare another man’s life…”

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"Asthana halted..."

Note: This post is the sixtieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 59. You can read the previous installments here.

Why do our villains always have to die? Roger Ebert says somewhere—I haven’t been able to track down the exact reference—that he’d be happier if a movie ended with the hero sealing the bad guy’s fate with a few well-chosen lines of dialogue, followed by a closeup of the bastard’s face as he absorbs his predicament. And there’s no question that this would be much more satisfying than the anticlimactic death scenes that most stories tend to deliver. It’s safe to say that if a book or screenplay goes through the trouble of creating a nice, hateful antagonist, it’s usually for the sake of his ultimate comeuppance: we want to see him pay for what he’s done, and hopefully suffer in the process. In practice, the manner in which he ends up being dispatched rarely lives up to the punishment we’ve mentally assigned to him in advance. For one thing, it’s often too fast. We want him to perish at a moment of total recognition, and the nature of most fictional deaths means that the realization is over almost before it begins. (This may be the real reason why so many villains are killed by falling from a great height. It leaves the hero’s hands relatively clean, however illogically, and it also allows for at least a few seconds of mute astonishment and understanding to cross the bad guy’s face. The story goes that during the filming of Die Hard, director John McTiernan let Alan Rickman drop a second before he was expecting it. Rickman was understandably furious, but the look he gives the camera is worth it: there are few things more delicious than seeing him lose that mask of perfect, icy control.)

All things being equal, it’s best to allow the villain to live to deal with the consequences. But there are also situations in which a death can feel dramatically necessary. I’ve never forgotten what Robert Towne once said about a similar plot point at the end of Chinatown. Originally, Towne had wanted the movie to conclude on an ambiguous note, but he was overruled by Roman Polanski. Years later, Towne said:

In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending, that I don’t think that what I had in mind could have been done; that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.

Chinatown, of course, ends with anything but the villain getting what he deserves, but the principle is largely the same. In some respects, it’s a matter of contrast. A story that consists of one act of violence after another might benefit from a more nuanced ending, while one that teases out its complexities would go out best with a stark, sudden conclusion. I’ve always preferred the brutally abbreviated last scene of The Departed to that of Infernal Affairs, for instance, because that twisty, convoluted story really needs to close with a full stop. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”

"To spare another man's life..."

And a villain’s death can be necessary in order to close off the story completely: it’s like scorching the end of a nylon rope to prevent it from unraveling. Death is nothing if not definitive, and it can seem unfair to the viewer or reader to leave the narrative open at one end after they’ve come so far already. The decision as to whether or not to spare the villain is a tricky one, and it can be determined by forces from much earlier in the narrative. In his director’s commentary for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they spent countless drafts trying to figure out ways for Ethan to kill Solomon Lane, only to find that none of the results seemed satisfying. The reason, they discovered, was that Lane hadn’t done enough to make Ethan hate him in particular: it just wasn’t personal, so it didn’t need to end with anything so intimate as a fight to the death. A story’s internal mechanics can also push the ending in the other direction. The original draft of The Icon Thief, which persisted almost until the book went out to publishers, had all three of the primary antagonists surviving, and in fact, Maddy even asks Ilya to spare Sharkovsky’s life. In the rewrite, I realized that Lermontov had to die to balance out the death of another character earlier in the novel, which in itself was a very late addition, and that Maddy had to be the one to take that revenge. This kind of narrative bookkeeping, in which the writer cooks the numbers until they come out more or less right, is something that every author does, consciously or otherwise. In this case, it was a choice that ended up having a huge impact on the rest of the series, and it influenced many other judgment calls to come, to an extent that I’m not sure I recognized at the time.

Chapter 59 of Eternal Empire, for example, is maybe the bloodiest sequence in the entire trilogy, in emotional impact if not in raw body count: it includes the deaths of two major characters and a fair amount of collateral damage. I get rid of Asthana, whom I liked so much that I kept her around for an entire novel after I originally planned to dispose of her, and Vasylenko, whose presence has haunted the series from the start. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy with Asthana’s swan song, which consists of a complicated set of feints and maneuvers against Wolfe. It’s fair to both characters, and it gives Asthana a second or two to process how she’s been outsmarted. (I wasn’t thinking of Arrested Development, but it’s hard for me to read it now without imagining Asthana saying to herself: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) But I’m not particularly pleased by how I handled Vasylenko’s death, which is too bad, since by all rights it ought to be the climax of all three books. In some ways, I wrote myself into a corner: there’s really no plausible way to keep Vasylenko alive, or to extend his confrontation with Ilya for longer than a couple of paragraphs, and in my eagerness to write a definitive ending to the series, I may have rushed past the moment of truth. In my defense, the chapter has to provide closure for multiple pairs of characters—Ilya and Maddy, Ilya and Wolfe, Ilya and Vasylenko, Wolfe and Asthana—and I do what I can to give each of them the valediction they deserve. If I had to do it over again, I might have toyed with switching Asthana and Vasylekno’s final scenes, in order to close the novel on a position of greater strength, but this probably wouldn’t have been possible. The Icon Thief ended with Maddy asking Ilya to spare another man’s life; Eternal Empire had to conclude with her asking for the opposite. They don’t end in the same way. But Maddy isn’t the same person she was when we started…

Turning every page

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Analog Science Fiction and Fact

In a note at the end of The Passage of Power, the biographer Robert A. Caro describes an important source of information about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and he concludes: “While no one (including me) has counted the number of pages…the number may be in the area of forty thousand. I don’t know how many of these pages I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot of them.” And you can feel his sense of quiet satisfaction as he says this. The four volumes that have been published of The Years of Lyndon Johnson are all great reads, but for my money, some of the best drama unfolds in the endnotes, which provide a kind of stealth parallel memoir by Caro as he plows his way through a mountain of available material. In the case of someone like Johnson, the problem isn’t a lack of data, but its overwhelming abundance: his presidential library alone contains something like forty-four million documents. Dealing with this kind of overload, which represents more than one author could read in multiple lifetimes, forces a writer to develop strategies for managing the sheer volume of possible research. You start with a list of subjects that you know will be relevant and drill down from there, following up on other leads as they emerge; you find that certain witnesses are more valuable than others, and you make a point of reading whatever they have to say; or you engage in a sort of longitudinal survey, revisiting the same ideas over time. The result, when you’re done, is both systematic and scattershot, and that’s how it should be. But eventually, you come back to what Caro’s old managing editor Alan Hathaway said to him at Newsday: “Turn every goddamn page.”

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been doing what I can to follow that advice, attacking the research for my upcoming book on two fronts. The first consists simply of going through every issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Unknown, and Analog published in editor John W. Campbell’s lifetime. So far, I’ve worked my way through about fifteen years of these magazines, from the beginning of the Great Depression to the end of World War II, with another quarter of a century to go. Obviously, I can’t stop to read, or even skim, every story, and I usually end up focusing on the editorials, the filler items, and the responses to the letters to the editor—in short, anything that Campbell himself wrote. (As for the stories themselves, I can only echo Caro by saying that I don’t know how many I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot.) Sometimes an advertisement or a piece of art will catch my eye: you could write an entire book about the International Correspondence Schools ads that opened nearly every issue, or the cigarette ads that appeared on every back cover. And the mere act of turning the pages reveals patterns that might otherwise be invisible. It gives you an overview, like a time-lapse video, of the magazine’s evolution, and I’ve found my ideas about certain topics changing perceptibly. I’ve begun to recognize how the epochal changes in the history of science fiction were really the result of many incremental shifts, and how the seeds of the golden age were planted in the work of Campbell’s predecessors, Harry Bates and F. Orlin Tremaine. This approach doesn’t allow for much in the way of granular analysis, of which I plan to do more than my share elsewhere, but the perspective that it provides has structured my thinking in profound ways.

Microfilm reader

My other source of raw data is Campbell’s correspondence. His surviving letters, which often preserve both sides of the exchange, amount to about thirty thousand pages, and this doesn’t even include hundreds of additional documents in repositories like the Heinlein Archives. The late Perry Chapdelaine published a selection of it in three huge volumes, which are invaluable, but barely scratch the surface. As I’ve known for a long time, the real treasure trove lies in the form of the seven microfilm reels in which Chapdelaine copied the entire collection, only three copies of which appear to have ever been made. (The original letters are archived at San Diego State University, but it would be difficult for me to spend the weeks or months there required to go through it properly.) Almost since this project began, I’ve been trying to get my hands on the microfilm, and last week—after a series of setbacks and snafus, including the revelation that one complete set seems to have disappeared—I managed to cobble together the whole thing with reels from the Library of Congress and Texas A&M University, along with a huge assist from the public library in Oak Park. As a result, I’ve been spending most of my recent afternoons at the library’s microfilm reader. Frankly, I hadn’t been aware of the advances in microfilm viewing technology, and I imagined myself sitting in a basement carrel like Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, the library’s setup is wonderful: it allows me to scroll quickly through the images, adjust the focus and contrast, and even take screen shots for later reference. Despite the relative convenience, though, it still presents big challenges. Many of the letters, which are photographs of carbon copies, are impossible to read, and they’re preserved in a seemingly arbitrary order. My best guess is that it will take me something like fifteen hours just to visually inspect every letter in a single reel, much less figure out what is and isn’t important.

Yet it’s already paying off. As I’ve learned through my encounters with every page of Astounding, there’s a big difference between confronting primary sources without any intermediation and reading the same material after it has been edited and curated. It’s like looking at a life as it unfolds, almost day by day, with all the messiness you’d expect, and you develop odd intuitions: when I’m scrolling rapidly through the microfilm, I can recognize certain writers at a glance, based on the kind of typewriter they used, and I can quickly sort the letters into different categories. Most of it is routine correspondence, but there are hidden gems as well. On April 17, 1962, for instance, a young reporter from the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette sent Campbell a query letter about a story he hoped to submit on PLATO, a computer-assisted educational system developed by the University of Illinois. He wrote: “It seems to me that PLATO is a nightmarish mechanical personification of the stiffened, calcified mind of Orthodox Science.” Campbell replied: “This sounds interesting. Let’s see it!” No other letters from the exchange survive, and I wouldn’t even bother mentioning it here if the reporter in question weren’t Roger Ebert. At the time, he was nineteen years old—or Isaac Asimov’s age when he sold his first short story—and five years away from becoming a film critic. It’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if Campbell, whom Ebert once called “my hero,” had taken him under his wing, and although I doubt it will even end up in the book, the discovery of this unexpected encounter between two of the most important men in my life is the kind of thing that makes it all worthwhile. And I never would have found it if I hadn’t turned every page.

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