Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Rodrick

The passages of power

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Robert Caro

Every year or so, I go back and read Charles McGrath’s profile of the biographer Robert Caro, which is one of my favorite features ever published in The New York Times Magazine. (My favorite piece of all, if I’m being honest with myself, is Stephen Rodrick’s account of the notorious meltdown by Lindsay Lohan during the filming of The Canyons—and you’d probably learn a lot about human nature by reading those two articles back to back.) Caro, who was recently honored with a lifetime achievement medal from the National Book Foundation, has long been a hero of mine, for reasons that I’ve described at length elsewhere. He’s eighty years old now, and for most of his career, he has remained obsessively focused on two men: the city planner Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson. Yet his real subject is the nature of power in America, a theme that he has kept at the forefront of his work even at his bleakest moments. McGrath writes:

At the lowest point during the writing of The Power Broker, when Caro had run out of money and was close to despair about being able to finish, [Caro’s wife Ina] sold their house in suburban Long Island, moved the family…to an apartment in the Bronx and took a job teaching school to keep him going. “That was a bad time, a very bad time,” Caro recalled.

In an interview published this week with Rachel Syme of Matter, Caro goes into greater detail about this bad period:

This book took seven years. And money played a big part of this. We didn’t have any savings. I was a reporter. And I thought it was only going to take a year, so I couldn’t quit. I got a contract for $5,000, they gave me $2,500 as an advance. So I was trying for half the year to keep my job and work on the book, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. And I heard about a grant for one year, and I got it. And I remember I told Ina, we are finally going to get to go to France. I thought, they are giving me this money for a year, and this outline is only going to take me nine months! Of course at the end of the year, I’d hardly started, and we were just broke.

So Ina sold the house, but that only gave us — this was before the real estate boom — $25,000 of profit. That was enough to live for a year in an apartment in the Bronx. And then I was just totally broke, and Ina went to work. Then I got hurt and couldn’t get out of bed for a long time. So she had to stop and do the research.

Caro adds that he still remembers the exact amount of their monthly rent in those years—$362.73—because they constantly worried how to pay it, and that Ina began to take a circuitous route on her walk home to avoid passing the butcher and dry cleaner to whom they owed money.

Robert Moses

And here’s the quote that sticks in my head the most: “But I must say, for several years, I had very little hope of finishing the book,” Caro says. “When I thought about the book, I didn’t feel powerful. I believed no one was going to read it. And I was just thinking I have to finish, but I don’t know how we are going to make it.” The italics are mine. The Power Broker was written by a man who felt all but powerless, doubted that he would ever finish it, and feared that nobody would read the result even if he did. (Caro recalls: “All this time, all I’m hearing is nobody is going to read a book on Robert Moses, including from my first editor. He said, ‘It’s a good book, but nobody is going to read it. You have to prepare yourselves for a very small printing.'”) For a writer, that kind of financial squeeze, as I know from personal experience, enforces a relentless logic. You can quantify the cost of every wasted day—and, even more terrifyingly, of every day spent on real work. Caro realized, for instance, that in order to give the reader a full picture of Moses’s impact on the city, he had to tell the story of one of the neighborhoods that were destroyed. The result, “One Mile,” is one of the most powerful chapters in the book, and probably the first that most readers remember. Caro knew that it would take him six months to research and write, and he didn’t have the money or time. But he did it it anyway. When you take that kind of decision and multiply it by the scale of the book that he envisioned, you’ve got seven years spent in utter suspense over whether any of it would make a difference. It couldn’t have been less like the power that he was trying to describe.

But he pulled it off magnificently. And it’s an example that is worth remembering now more than ever. We’re entering a era in which the media will be forced to confront the rise to power of a man it resoundingly did not want to see in the White House. (Only two mainstream newspapers endorsed Donald Trump.) In the aftermath of the election, writers and journalists can’t be blamed for asking themselves how much power they really have, in the face of a post-truth environment in which fake news was just as influential as the real thing. The answer, honestly, is that they have almost none. Yet this might be the only position from which they can speak honestly about power itself. As Caro says to Matter: “You have to deal with the powerless. You couldn’t just write about how power works, you had to write about its effect on people who didn’t have power, both for good and for ill.” And it’s that invisible dynamic between the subject and its author—between one man of enormous power and another who could wield nothing but words—that made Caro’s work so enduring. The Power Broker is as massive a book as can be physically encompassed between two covers, and its scale, I think, was partly a result of Caro’s attempt to match himself to Moses. He might not have been able to build highways and bridges, but he could construct a book on the same scale. The result had a greater impact on Moses’s reputation than any of the monuments that he left to himself. It took Caro seven years, but he did it, starting from nothing. And we owe it to ourselves to do the same.

Written by nevalalee

November 18, 2016 at 8:16 am

The Judd Apatow paradox

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Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, and Leslie Mann

I don’t think I’ve ever read an interview with a film editor that didn’t fascinate me from beginning to end, and Jonah Weiner’s recent New York Times Magazine profile of Brent White—Judd Apatow’s editor of choice—is no exception. Film editors need to think more intensely and exclusively about problems of structure than any other creative professional, and they represent a relatively neglected source of insights into storytelling of all kinds. Here are a few choice tidbits:

There are moments where [Will Ferrell] is thinking what the joke is, then he knows what the joke is, and then he’s saying the joke. Making the leap from one to two to three. What I’m doing is tightening up that leap for him: improving the rhythm, boom-boom-boom.

I reverse-engineer the scene to make sure I can get to the joke. Then it becomes bridge-building. How do I get to this thing from this other thing I like?

[Apatow will sometimes] have something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know exactly where it goes in the movie. Does it service the end? Does it go early? So he’ll shoot the same exact scene, the same exchange, with the actors in different wardrobes, so that I can slot it in at different points.

Weiner’s piece happened to appear only a few weeks after Stephen Rodrick of The New Yorker published a similar profile of Allison Jones, Apatow’s casting director, and it’s hard not to take them as two halves of a whole. Jones initiates the process that White completes, looking, as the article notes, for “comedic actors who, more than just delivering jokes, [can] improvise and riff on their lines, creating something altogether different from what was on the page.” (As Apatow puts it: “Allison doesn’t just find us actors; she finds us people we want to work with the rest of our lives.”) White then sifts through that mountain of material—which can be something like two million feet of film for an Apatow movie, an amount once reserved for the likes of Stanley Kubrick—to pick out the strongest pieces and fit them into some kind of coherent shape. It’s an approach that has been enormously influential on everything from a single-camera sitcom like Parks & Recreation, which allows actors to improvise freely without the pressure of a live audience, to a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street, which indulges Jonah Hill’s riffs almost to a fault. And although it’s been enabled by the revolution in digital video and editing, which allows miles of footage to be shot without bankrupting the production, it also requires geniuses like Jones and White who can facilitate the process on both ends.

Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye

Yet as much as I admire what Jones, White, and the rest have done, I’m also a little skeptical. There’s no avoiding the fact that the Apatow approach has suffered from diminishing returns: if I had to list The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and This is 40 in order of quality, I’d end up ranking them by release date. From one minute to another, each can be hilarious, but when your comedic philosophy is predicated on keeping the camera rolling until something good happens, there’s an unavoidable loss of momentum. The greatest comedies are the ones that just won’t stop building; Apatow’s style has a way of dissipating its own energy from one scene to the next, precisely because each moment has to be built up from scratch. A Frat Pack comedy may objectively have more jokes per minute than Some Like It Hot or Annie Hall, but they start to feel like the comedic equivalent of empty calories, leaving you diverted but unsatisfied, and less energized by the end than exhausted. The fact that Anchorman 2 exists in two versions, with the same basic structure but hundreds of different jokes, can be taken, if you’re in a generous mood, as a testament to the comic fertility of the talents involved—but it can also start to look like evidence of how arbitrary each joke was in the first place. If one funny line can be removed and another inserted seamlessly in its place, it reminds us that neither really had to be there at all.

But if I’m being hard on Apatow and his collaborators, it’s because their approach holds such promise—if properly reined in. Comedy depends on a kind of controlled anarchy; when the balance slips too much to the side of control, as in the lesser works of the Coen Brothers, the result can seem arch and airless. And at their best, Apatow’s films have an unpredictable, jazzy charge. But a few constraints, properly placed, can allow that freedom to truly blossom. A movie like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye can’t be accused of sticking too much to the script: perhaps five minutes total is devoted to the plot, and much of the rest consists of the characters simply hanging around. Yet it uses the original Chandler novel, and the structure provided by Leigh Brackett’s screenplay, as a low-horsepower engine that keeps the whole thing moving at a steady but leisurely clip. As a result, it feels relaxed in a way that Apatow’s movies don’t. The latter may seem loose and shaggy, but they’re also characterized by an underlying tension, almost a desperation, to avoid going for more than a few seconds without a laugh, and it cancels out much of the gain in spontaneity. It promises us that we’ll be hanging out for two hours with a bunch of fun people, but it leaves us feeling pummeled. By freeing itself from the script, it turns itself, paradoxically, into a movie that can’t stop moving. The great comedies of the past could live in the spaces between jokes; the modern version has to be funny or die.

The starlet’s dilemma

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Madeleine Stowe in Revenge

Over the past week or so, while spending a lot of quality time with our newborn on the living room couch, my wife has burned through the entire first season of Revenge on Netflix. It’s a great, trashy show that moves swiftly and doles out surprises at a satisfying rate, and it benefits enormously from the presence of Madeleine Stowe. Stowe, as those of us old enough to remember can attest, is talented, charismatic, and still a knockout, and although she was never quite a major star, she was notable enough to be granted an entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. Then, for close to a decade, she disappeared. And as tempting as it is to wonder where she’s been all this time, her long absence isn’t hard to figure out: it’s simply one of countless illustrations of the fact that an attractive woman’s options for starring roles in Hollywood dry up sometime before she turns forty. Stowe is currently lucky enough to be anchoring a hit series, but she’s a notable exception. As a glance at her fellow cast members in Bad Girls is enough to confirm, it’s far more common for promising young actresses to simply disappear, unless they’re smart or fortunate enough to make good, hard career choices at a time when they’re most vulnerable to being thrown away.

This, in a word, is the starlet’s dilemma—the complicated series of obstacles that an actress needs to navigate if she wants to have a career past her early thirties. And although it may not seem to hold many lessons for the rest of us, it fascinates me largely because it’s only the most visible example of a predicament that every artist faces sooner or later. Even the most successful and prolific career in the arts boils down to a finite number of choices: you can’t take more than one starring part or write more than one novel at a time. We make these decisions using all the information available to us at the moment, but it’s often not until after years have passed and we look back at our body of work that we start to see what the real shape of our lives has been. Throughout it all, we’re haunted by the fact that our work may cease to be marketable overnight, and that there are plenty of bright young things eager to take our place. Making the kinds of choices that result in a sustainable career requires a maturity and tactical intelligence that few of us have at twenty, thirty, or even forty. And as Stephen Rodrick’s wonderful New York Times piece on Lindsay Lohan and Paul Schrader reminds us, even beauty, talent, and early luck can’t prevent a promising career from being derailed beyond hope of return.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

Which brings us to Jennifer Lawrence. At first glance, Lawrence is in an enviable position: she occupies the center of one enormous franchise, serves a valued supporting player in another, and has the talent to take on a wide range of projects. At twenty-two, she’s made all the right choices. Yet her career over the next ten years is likely to resemble a sort of Hunger Games in itself, as she accepts or turns down roles while fending off the incursions of the next wave of talented newcomers. Personally, I can’t help but wonder how she felt watching Jodie Foster at the Golden Globes on Sunday, shortly after claiming an award of her own. Foster’s speech—the most riveting I’ve ever seen at an awards ceremony—stands as a reminder of the tremendous odds against any actress, Lawrence included, having the chance to occupy such a podium under similar circumstances. A few have carped at the fact that Foster, at fifty, seems too young to be receiving a lifetime achievement award, which ignores the fact that any actress who is still bankable at such an age deserves a prize. Actresses face the same pressures that all creative professionals do, except at a drastically accelerated rate, and in public, and the fact that so few make it this far only underlines the impossibility of the task. And even for someone as talented as Lawrence, the clock is already ticking.

Faced with this situation, young actresses have three possible options. They can trust in their talent and continue to seek out challenging lead and supporting parts, potentially in smaller movies or television; they can move into producing or directing; or they can extend their viability for a few years by engaging in various forms of cosmetic enhancement. Given the daunting odds against the first two courses of action, it isn’t surprising that most choose the third. It’s the same choice any artist makes when he or she decides to stick with the safe and familiar—the only difference is that starlets wear their decisions on their faces. And while trading away their looks in the long term for a few extra seasons of bankability may seem shortsighted, it takes an exceptionally resourceful personality to take the harder road. Which is part of the reason why our best actresses tend to age more gracefully. You can say that Meryl Streep has continued to look great well into her sixties because it was clear that she had the talent to remain a commanding actress without resorting to desperate cosmetic measures, but I’d like to think that the causal arrow runs in the other direction: a woman so smart in her acting is likely to be wise enough to avoid plastic surgery, or at least intelligent enough to be subtle about it. In any case, I don’t think it’s an accident that Hollywood’s smartest women tend to age almost preternaturally well—call it the Kathryn Bigelow effect. And it’s a reminder to the rest of us, as if we needed it, that in the long run, smart is the only kind of sexy that counts.

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2013 at 9:50 am

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