Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Cask of Amontillado

The Coco Chanel rule

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Coco Chanel

“Before you leave the house,” the fashion designer Coco Chanel is supposed to have said, “look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” As much as I like it, I’m sorry to say that this quote is most likely apocryphal: you see it attributed to Chanel everywhere, but without the benefit of an original source, which implies that it’s one of those pieces of collective wisdom that have attached themselves parasitically to a famous name. Still, it’s valuable advice. It’s usually interpreted, correctly enough, as a reminder that less is more, but I prefer to think of it as a statement about revision. The quote isn’t about reaching simplicity from the ground up, but about taking something and improving it by subtracting one element, like the writing rule that advises you to cut ten percent from every draft. And what I like the most about it is that its moment of truth arrives at the very last second, when you’re about to leave the house. That final glance in the mirror, when it’s almost too late to make additional changes, is often when the true strengths and weaknesses of your decisions become clear, if you’re smart enough to distinguish it from the jitters. (As Jeffrey Eugenides said to The Paris Review: “Usually I’m turning the book in at the last minute. I always say it’s like the Greek Olympics—’Hope the torch lights.'”)

But which accessory should you remove? In the indispensable book Behind the Seen, the editor Walter Murch gives us an important clue, using an analogy from filmmaking:

In interior might have four different sources of light in it: the light from the window, the light from the table lamp, the light from the flashlight that the character is holding, and some other remotely sourced lights. The danger is that, without hardly trying, you can create a luminous clutter out of all that. There’s a shadow over here, so you put another light on that shadow to make it disappear. Well, that new light casts a shadow in the other direction. Suddenly there are fifteen lights and you only want four.

As a cameraman what you paradoxically do is have the gaffer turn off the main light, because it is confusing your ability to really see what you’ve got. Once you do that, you selectively turn off some of the lights and see what’s left. And you discover that, “OK, those other three lights I really don’t need at all—kill ’em.” But it can also happen that you turn off the main light and suddenly, “Hey, this looks great! I don’t need that main light after all, just these secondary lights. What was I thinking?”

This principle, which Murch elsewhere calls “blinking the key,” implies that you should take away the most important piece, or the accessory that you thought you couldn’t live without.

Walter Murch

This squares nicely with a number of principles that I’ve discussed here before. I once said that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed, and when you follow the Chanel rule, on a deeper level, the missing accessory is still present, even after you’ve taken it off. The remaining accessories were presumably chosen with it in mind, and they preserve its outlines, resulting in a kind of charged negative space that binds the rest together. This applies to writing, too. “The Cask of Amontillado” practically amounts to a manual on how to wall up a man alive, but Poe omits the one crucial detail—the reason for Montresor’s murderous hatred—that most writers would have provided up front, and the result is all the more powerful. Shakespeare consistently leaves out key explanatory details from his source material, which renders the behavior of his characters more mysterious, but no less concrete. And the mumblecore filmmaker Andrew Bujalski made a similar point a few years ago to The New York Times Magazine: “Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., ‘I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.’) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.”

This is a piece of advice that many artists could stand to take to heart, especially if they’ve been blessed with an abundance of invention. I like Interstellar, for instance, but I have a hunch that it would have been an even stronger film if Christopher Nolan had made a few cuts. If he had removed Anne Hathaway’s speech on the power of love, for instance, the same point would have come across in the action, but more subtly, assuming that the rest of the story justified its inclusion in the first place. (Of course, every film that Nolan has ever made strives valiantly to strike a balance between action and exposition, and in this case, it stumbled a little in the wrong direction. Interstellar is so openly indebted to 2001 that I wish it had taken a cue from that movie’s script, in which Kubrick and Clarke made the right strategic choice by minimizing the human element wherever possible.) What makes the Chanel rule so powerful is that when you glance in the mirror on your way out the door, what catches your eye first is likely to be the largest, flashiest, or most obvious component, which often adds the most by its subtraction. It’s the accessory that explains too much, or draws attention to itself, rather than complementing the whole, and by removing it, we’re consciously saying no to what the mind initially suggests. As Chanel is often quoted as saying: “Elegance is refusal.” And she was right—even if it was really Diana Vreeland who said it. 

How to be ambiguous

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Kim Novak in Vertigo

Note: I’m traveling for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared on May 22, 2013.

Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.

As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.

And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.

Written by nevalalee

May 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

How to be ambiguous

with 3 comments

Kim Novak in Vertigo

Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.

As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.

And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.

Written by nevalalee

May 22, 2013 at 9:23 am

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