Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Conversation

Forward the foundation

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On February 6, which already seems like a lifetime ago, the private company SpaceX conducted a successful launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which some enthusiasts hope will eventually serve as the vehicle for a manned mission to Mars. Its dummy payload consisted of Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster, permanently mounted to the second stage, which is currently orbiting the sun. A mannequin dressed as an astronaut, “Starman,” sits in the driver’s seat, and its stereo system was set to continuously play David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Even at the time, it struck me as a resplendently tacky gesture—which may have been the whole point—and in retrospect, it feels like a transitional moment for Musk, who would never again be able to take his uncritical press coverage for granted. Of all the comments that it inspired, the most prescient may have been from the space archaeologist Alice Gorman, who wrote on The Conversation:

The sports car in orbit symbolizes both life and death. Through the body of the car, Musk is immortalized in the vacuum of space. The car is also an armor against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality…The red sports car symbolizes masculinity—power, wealth and speed—but also how fragile masculinity is. Stereotypically, the red sports car is the accessory of choice in the male midlife crisis, which men use to rebel against perceived domestication.

On another level, the launch also served as a nerd’s version of the gold record on the Voyager spacecraft, loaded with pop culture signifiers that wouldn’t have made it through the approval process at NASA. Apart from the David Bowie song, its cargo included a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glove compartment, along with a matching towel and a Don’t Panic sign on the dashboard, as well as a secret payload. After the launch, it was revealed that the roadster also included a tiny quartz optical disk, designed to last for billions of years, that could theoretically store every book ever written. In the end, it ended up carrying just three. As Nova Spivack, a founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, explained in a blog post:

Our goal…is to permanently archive human knowledge for thousands to billions of years. We exist to preserve and disseminate humanity’s knowledge across time and space, for the benefit of future generations. To accomplish this we have begun building special Arch libraries (pronounced: “Arks”). Our first Arch libraries are data crystals that last billions of years. We plan to use many media types over time however—whatever material is the best available for the goal. We are very happy to announce that our first Arch library, containing the Isaac Asimov Foundation trilogy, was carried as payload on today’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, en route to permanent orbit around the Sun.

Technically, the survival of Asimov’s work isn’t quite as assured as that of the Voyager gold record—it will be annihilated, along with everything else, when the sun’s red giant phase reaches the orbit of Mars in about seven billion years. (This might seem like a meaningless distinction, but I also suspect that Asimov would have been the first to make it.) Yet it’s still a remarkable tribute, and the way in which the Foundation trilogy ended up in space is instructive in itself. In his post, Spiwack writes:

Asimov’s Foundation series was the inspiration for the Arch Mission Foundation, many years ago when we first conceived of this project. It is a metaphor for what we hope this can become, and it is the perfect cornerstone as our mission begins…The series’ protagonist, Hari Seldon, endeavors to preserve and expand upon all human culture and knowledge through a 30,000 year period of turmoil. We felt this was a very fitting first payload to include in the Arch…This truly can evolve into Asimov’s vision of an Encyclopedia Galactica someday — an encyclopedia containing all the knowledge accumulated by a galaxy-spanning civilization.

In an interview with Mashable, Spiwack adds that he loved the Foundation books as a teenager, and that they were “in the air around MIT” when he did summer research there in college. Sending the disk to space wasn’t originally part of the plan, but, as the article notes, it may have influenced the choice of texts: “[Spiwack had] heard Elon Musk loved the trilogy too, and maybe he’d be able to press one of the five disks into the SpaceX founder’s hands some day.”

I’m in favor of any effort to preserve information in a lasting form for future generations, even if the impulse reflects a midlife crisis that we’re experiencing as a society as a whole—a life stage, which spans decades, in which we’re forced to contemplate the choices that we’ve made as a species. (Arch’s true predecessor isn’t the Voyager record, but the Rosetta Project of the Long Now Foundation, which has developed a nickel disk that can store microscopic etchings of thousands of pages.) And such projects are always about more than they seem. Even in the original story “Foundation,” the Encyclopedia Galactica is nothing but an elaborate mislead, as Hari Seldon himself reveals at the end:

The Encyclopedia Foundation, to begin with, is a fraud, and always has been…It is a fraud in the sense that neither I nor my colleagues care at all whether a single volume of the Encyclopedia is ever published. It has served its purpose, since by it…we attracted the hundred thousand scientists necessary for our scheme, and by it we managed to keep them preoccupied while events shaped themselves, until it was too late for any of them to draw back.

This is very far from what Spivack calls “Asimov’s vision of an Encyclopedia Galactica…containing all the knowledge accumulated by a galaxy-spanning civilization.” But the unconscious motive might well be the same. When you assemble people for this kind of project, the reasoning goes, there might be interesting consequences that you can’t predict in advance—and I confess that I sort of believe this. “We really just did it as a test,” Spivack said of the disk to Mashable. “If we’d known it would go to space, we would have put more stuff on it.”

One breath, one blink

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Gene Hackman in The Conversation

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 14, 2017.

A while back, my wife, who is a professional podcaster, introduced me to the concept of the “breath” in audio editing. When you’re putting together an episode for a medium like radio, you often find yourself condensing an interview or splicing together two segments, and you can run into trouble when those edits interfere with the speaker’s natural breathing rhythms. As an excellent tutorial from NPR explains it:

Breaths are a problem when they are upcut or clipped. An upcut breath is one that is edited so it’s incomplete (or “chopped”)—only the first or last part is audible…Missing breaths are just that—breaths that have been removed or silenced. They sound unnatural and can cause some listeners to feel tense…Breaths are also problematic when they don’t match the cadence of the speech (i.e. a short, quick breath appears in the middle of a slower passage)…

When editing breaths, listen closely to the beginning and end. If replacing a breath, choose one that matches the cadence and tone of the words around it.

For example, a short, quick breath is useful during an interruption or an excited, quick-paced reply. A longer breath is appropriate for a relaxed, measured response…As a rule of thumb, do not remove breaths—it sounds unnatural.

I’m particularly interested in the idea that a poorly edited breath can make the listener feel anxious without knowing it, which reminds me of something that the film editor Walter Murch says in his book In The Blink of an Eye. Murch writes that when he was editing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, he noticed that Harry Caul, the character played by Gene Hackman, would frequently blink around the point where he had decided to make a cut. “It was interesting,” Murch says, “but I didn’t know what to make of it.” Then he happened to read an interview with the director John Huston that shed an unexpected light on the subject:

To me, the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes…Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.

Murch was fascinated by this, and he began to pay closer attention to blinking’s relationship to emotional or cognitive states. He concluded that blinks tend to occur at instants in which an internal separation of thought has taken place, either to help it along or as an involuntary reflex that coincides with a moment of transition. (It also reminds me a little of the work of the philosopher Andy Clark, who notes, as Huston did, that the mind only processes a scene when something changes.)

Walter Murch

As Murch writes in In the Blink of an Eye: “Start a conversation with somebody and watch when they blink. I believe you will find that your listener will blink at the precise moment he or she ‘gets’ the idea of what you are saying, not an instant earlier or later…And that blink will occur where a cut could have happened, had the conversation been filmed.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that an editor should worry about when the actors are blinking, but that if he or she is making the cut in the right spot, as a kind of visual punctuation, the blinks and the cuts will coincide anyway. Apart from Murch’s anecdotal observations, I don’t know if this phenomenon has ever been studied in detail, but it’s intriguing. For instance, it suggests that breathing in audio and blinking in film are two aspects of the same thing. Both are physiological phenomena, but they’re also connected with cognition in profound ways, especially when we’re trying to communicate with others. When we’re talking to someone else, we don’t stop to breathe in arbitrary places, but at moments when the sense of what we’re saying has reached a natural break. Hence the function of the comma, which is a visual marker that sets apart clauses or units of information on the page, as well as a vestigial trace of the pause that would have occurred in conversation—even if we usually don’t stop when we’re reading it silently to ourselves. And I’ve spoken elsewhere of the relationship between breathing and the length of sentences or lines of poetry, in which the need to breathe is inseparable from the necessity of pausing for consolidation or comprehension.

Editors care about these issues because they’re essentially playing a confidence trick. They’re trying to create an impression of continuity while assembling many discrete pieces, and if they fail to honor the logic of the breath or the blink, the listener or viewer will subconsciously sense it. This is the definition of a thankless task, because you’ll never notice it when it works, and when it doesn’t, you probably won’t even be able to articulate the problem. I suspect that the uneasiness caused by a poorly edited stretch of audio or film is caused by the rhythms of one’s own body falling out of sync with the story: when a work of art is flowing properly, we naturally adjust ourselves to its rhythms, and a dropped or doubled breath can shake us out of that sense of harmony. After a while, addressing this becomes a matter of instinct, and a skilled editor will unconsciously take these factors into account, much as an author eventually learns to write smoothly without worrying about it too much. We only become aware of it when something feels wrong. (It’s also worth paying close attention to it during the revision phase. The NPR tutorial notes that problems with breaths can occur when the editor tries to “nickel and dime” an interview to make it fit within a certain length. And when James Cameron tried to cut Terminator 2 down to its contractual length by removing just a single frame per second from the whole movie, he found that the result was unwatchable.) When we’re awake, no matter what else we might be doing, we’re breathing and blinking. And it’s a testament to the challenges that all editors face that they can’t even take breathing for granted.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2018 at 8:23 am

The art of preemptive ingenuity

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Yesterday, my wife drew my attention to the latest episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, which irresistibly combines two of my favorite topics—film and graphic design. Its subject is Annie Atkins, who has designed props and visual materials for such works as The Tudors and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Her account of how a misspelled word nearly made it onto a crucial prop in the latter film is both hilarious and horrifying.) But my favorite story that she shares is about a movie that isn’t exactly known for its flashy art direction:

The next job I went onto—it would have been Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was a true story. We made a lot of newspapers for that film, and I remember us beginning to check the dates against the days, because I wanted to get it right. And then eventually the prop master said to me, “Do you know what, I think we’re just going to leave the dates off.” Because it wasn’t clear [what] sequence…these things were going to be shown in. And he said, you know, if you leave the dates off altogether, nobody will look for it. But if you put something there that’s wrong, then it might jump out. So we went with no dates in the end for those newspapers.

As far as filmmaking advice is concerned, this is cold, hard cash, even if I’ll never have the chance to put it into practice for myself. And I especially like the fact that it comes out of Bridge of Spies, a writerly movie with a screenplay by none other than the Coen Brothers, but which was still subject to decisions about its structure as late in the process as the editing stage.

Every movie, I expect, requires some degree of editorial reshuffling, and experienced directors will prepare for this during the production itself. The absence of dates on newspapers is one good example, and there’s an even better one in the book The Conversations, which the editor Walter Murch relates to the novelist Michael Ondaatje:

One thing that made it possible to [rearrange the order of scenes] in The Conversation was Francis [Coppola]’s belief that people should wear the same clothes most of the time. Harry is almost always wearing that transparent raincoat and his funny little crepe-soled shoes. This method of using costumes is something Francis had developed on other films, quite an accurate observation. He recognized that, first of all, people don’t change clothes in real life as often as they do in film. In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do—which is only natural—so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

Murch observes: “There’s a delicate balance between the timeline of a film’s story—which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months—and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed clothes.”

The editor concludes: “It’s amazing how consistent you can make somebody’s costume and have it not stand out.” (Occasionally, a change of clothes will draw attention to editorial manipulation, as one scene is lifted out from its original place and slotted in elsewhere. One nice example is in Bullitt, where we see Steve McQueen in one scene at a grocery store in his iconic tweed coat and blue turtleneck, just before he goes home, showers, and changes into those clothes, which he wears for the rest of the movie.) The director Judd Apatow achieves the same result in another way, as his longtime editor Brent White notes: “[He’ll] 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.” Like the newspapers in Bridge of Spies, this all assumes that changes to the plan will be necessary later on, and it prepares for them in advance. Presumably, you always hope to keep the order of scenes from the script when you cut the movie together, but the odds are that something won’t quite work when you sit down to watch the first assembly, so you build in safeguards to allow you to fix these issues when the time comes. If your budget is high enough, you can include reshoots in your shooting schedule, as Peter Jackson does, while the recent films of David Fincher indicate the range of problems that can be solved with digital tools in postproduction. But when you lack the resources for such expensive solutions, your only recourse is to be preemptively ingenious on the set, which forces you to think in terms of what you’ll want to see when you sit down to edit the footage many months from now.

This is the principle behind one of my favorite pieces of directorial advice ever, which David Mamet provides in the otherwise flawed Bambi vs. Godzilla:

Always get an exit and an entrance. More wisdom for the director in the cutting room. The scene involves the hero sitting in a café. Dialogue scene, blah blah blah. Well and good, but when you shoot it, shoot the hero coming in and sitting down. And then, at the end, shoot him getting up and leaving. Why? Because the film is going to tell you various things about itself, and many of your most cherished preconceptions will prove false. The scene that works great on paper will prove a disaster. An interchange of twenty perfect lines will be found to require only two, the scene will go too long, you will discover another scene is needed, and you can’t get the hero there if he doesn’t get up from the table, et cetera. Shoot an entrance and an exit. It’s free.

I learned a corollary from John Sayles: at the end of the take, in a close-up or one-shot, have the speaker look left, right, up, and down. Why? Because you might just find you can get out of the scene if you can have the speaker throw the focus. To what? To an actor or insert to be shot later, or to be found in (stolen from) another scene. It’s free. Shoot it, ’cause you just might need it.

This kind of preemptive ingenuity, in matters both large and small, is what really separates professionals from amateurs. Something always goes wrong, and the plan that we had in mind never quite matches what we have in the end. Professionals don’t always get it right the first time, either—but they know this, and they’re ready for it.

One breath, one blink

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Gene Hackman in The Conversation

A few weeks ago, my wife, who is a professional podcaster, introduced me to the concept of the “breath” in audio editing. When you’re putting together an episode, you often find yourself condensing an interview or splicing together two segments, and you can run into trouble when those edits interfere with the speaker’s natural breathing rhythms. As an excellent tutorial from NPR explains it:

Breaths are a problem when they are upcut or clipped. An upcut breath is one that is edited so it’s incomplete (or “chopped”)—only the first or last part is audible…Missing breaths are just that—breaths that have been removed or silenced. They sound unnatural and can cause some listeners to feel tense…Breaths are also problematic when they don’t match the cadence of the speech (i.e. a short, quick breath appears in the middle of a slower passage)…

When editing breaths, listen closely to the beginning and end. If replacing a breath, choose one that matches the cadence and tone of the words around it.

For example, a short, quick breath is useful during an interruption or an excited, quick-paced reply. A longer breath is appropriate for a relaxed, measured response…As a rule of thumb, do not remove breaths—it sounds unnatural.

As I read this, I grew particularly interested in the idea that a poorly edited breath can make the listener feel anxious without knowing it, which reminded me of what the film editor Walter Murch says in his book In The Blink of an Eye. Murch writes that when he was editing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, he noticed that Harry Caul, the character played by Gene Hackman, would frequently blink around the point where he had decided to make a cut. “It was interesting,” Murch says, “but I didn’t know what to make of it.” Then he happened to read an interview with the director John Huston that shed an unexpected light on the subject:

To me, the perfect film is as thought it were unwinding behind your eyes…Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.

Murch was fascinated by this, and he began to pay closer attention to blinking’s relationship to emotional or cognitive states. He concluded that blinks tend to occur at instants in which an internal separation of thought has taken place, either to help it along or as an involuntary reflex that coincides with a moment of transition.

Walter Murch

As Murch writes: “Start a conversation with somebody and watch when they blink. I believe you will find that your listener will blink at the precise moment he or she ‘gets’ the idea of what you are saying, not an instant earlier or later…And that blink will occur where a cut could have happened, had the conversation been filmed.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that an editor should worry about when the actors are blinking, but that if he or she is making the cut in the right spot, as a kind of visual punctuation, the blinks and the cuts will coincide anyway. Apart from Murch’s anecdotal observations, I don’t know if this phenomenon has ever been studied in detail, but it’s intriguing. It’s also evident that breathing in audio and blinking in film are two aspects of the same thing. Both are physiological phenomena, but they’re also connected with cognition in profound ways, especially when we’re trying to communicate with others. When we’re talking to someone else, we don’t stop to breathe in arbitrary places, but at moments when the sense of what we’re saying has reached a natural break. Hence the function of the comma, which is a visual marker that sets apart clauses or units of information on the page, as well as a vestigial trace of the pause that would have occurred in conversation, even if we don’t stop when we’re reading it silently to ourselves. And I’ve spoken elsewhere of the relationship between breathing and the length of sentences or lines of poetry, in which the need to breathe is inseparable from the necessity of pausing for consolidation or comprehension.

What makes these issues important to editors is that they’re essentially playing a confidence trick. They’re trying to create an impression of continuity while assembling many discrete pieces, and if they fail to honor the logic of the breath or the blink, the listener or viewer will subconsciously sense it. This is the definition of a thankless task, because you’ll never notice it when it works, and when it doesn’t, you probably won’t even be able to articulate the problem. I suspect that the uneasiness caused by a badly edited stretch of audio or film is caused by the rhythms of one’s own body falling out of sync with the story: when a work of art is flowing properly, we naturally adjust ourselves to its rhythms, and a dropped or doubled breath can shake us out of that sense of harmony. After a while, addressing this becomes a matter of instinct, and a skilled editor will unconsciously take these factors into account, much as an author eventually learns to write smoothly without worrying about it too much. We only become aware of it when something feels wrong. (It’s also worth paying close attention to it during the revision phase. The NPR tutorial notes that problems with breaths can occur when the editor tries to “nickel and dime” an interview to make it fit within a certain length. And when James Cameron tried to cut Terminator 2 down to its contractual length by removing just a single frame per second from the whole movie, he found that the result was unwatchable.) When we’re awake, no matter what else we might be doing, we’re breathing and blinking. And it’s a testament to the challenges that editors face that they can’t even take breathing for granted.

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2017 at 9:08 am

“Are you still willing to play your part?”

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"Where were we?"

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 44. You can read the previous installments here.

When you conceive of a story as a kind of puzzle box, one of the most satisfying tricks you can play is to write a scene that can be read in two different ways. At first, it suggests one obvious interpretation—if you’ve done it right, it shouldn’t even raise any questions—but on a second encounter, it says something else, based solely on the fresh perspective that the reader or audience brings to it. The canonical example here is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. It opens with the paranoid sound expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, eavesdropping on an illicit meeting in the park between a young couple, Mark and Ann, who are having an affair. Harry has been hired to follow them by Ann’s husband, but later, as he cleans up and edits the tape recording, he hears a line spoken by Mark for the first time: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” Before long, Harry, who obsessively replays that part of the conversation, becomes convinced that his client is planning to have Mark and Ann killed. Of course, that isn’t what happens, and it turns out in the end that Mark and Ann were planning to murder Ann’s husband. Harry’s interpretation of the recording was wrong: it wasn’t “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” but “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” meaning that they have to kill him first. And it’s only when the audience, along with Harry, glimpses the full picture that the line reveals its real meaning at last.

Which is an amazing feat of storytelling—except that it cheats. Walter Murch, who was left to edit the film by himself after Coppola ran off to film The Godfather Part II, was never able to make the audience understand the true meaning of that critical line of dialogue, and he ultimately hit upon a solution that broke the movie’s own rules. During one take, Frederic Forrest, who played Mark, had flubbed his line reading, inadvertently placing the emphasis on the wrong word: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” As Murch recounts in Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen:

I noted that reading at the time…and filed it away as being inappropriate. But a year later during the mixing of the film I suddenly thought, let’s see what happens if we substitute that “inappropriate” reading with its different inflection into the final reel. It might help tip audiences into understanding what had happened: that the “victims” were really the “plotters.” So I mixed it into the soundtrack in place of the original reading and took the finished film to [Coppola]…I prepared him for the change and wondered what his reaction would be when he heard it. It was a risky idea because it challenged one of the fundamental premises of the film, which is that the conversation itself remains the same, but your interpretation of it changes. I was prepared to go back to the original version. But he liked it, and that’s the way it remains in the finished film.

"Are you still willing to play your part?"

And it was the right call, even if it was a bit of a cheat. When we look at the books or movies that execute the priceless gag of having a scene appear to mean one thing but turn out to mean another, some degree of trickery is almost always involved. No film has ever pulled it off as beautifully as The Sixth Sense, with its closing montage of moments that we suddenly see in a new light, but on a second viewing, we’re acutely aware of how the script walks right up to the edge of deceiving us unfairly. (My favorite example is Lynn’s line “You got an hour,” which works when we think she’s talking to Malcolm, but not if she’s just telling her son that she’s making some triangle pancakes.) The Usual Suspects cheats even more blatantly by giving us a fake flashback—a gimmick that can be justified by the presence of an unreliable narrator, but which still feels like a lapse in an otherwise elegant movie. It’s also common for a story to omit necessary information, so that the dialogue, while not actively misleading, only gives us part of the picture. You frequently see this in movies like Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, which involve us in the planning of a heist but withhold a few details so that we don’t know what the protagonists really have in mind. In small does, this can be delightful, but it verges on being a cliché in itself, and when taken too far, it violates the implicit contract between the story and the audience, which is that we’ll be allowed to see what the main character does and draw our own conclusions.

Chapter 44 of Eternal Empire represents my own effort in that line, and I’m reasonably happy with how it turned out. The chapter opens at the tail end of what seems like a routine conversation between Maddy and Tarkovsky, then follows Maddy as she goes down to the yacht’s tender bay to meet Ilya, who is evidently preparing for Tarkovsky’s assassination. That isn’t really the case, of course, and I had a good time drawing on the standard bag of tricks for this sort of misdirection. Maddy acts as if she’s scoping out Tarkovsky’s office for the kill, when in fact she’s there to warn him, and her ensuing conversation with Ilya is filled with lines of the “He’d kill us if he had the chance” variety. (“Are we safe?” “If you’re asking if the pieces are in place, then yes, we’re ready.” “And are you still willing to play your part?” “I don’t think I have a choice.”) Looking at it objectively, I’d say that the result does its job with a minimum of jiggery-pokery, although there’s always a touch of cheating—which some readers will hate no matter what—when you don’t reveal everything that your point of view character might be thinking. Fortunately, my usual narrative mode is fairly clinical and detached: I don’t use interior monologue, and I prefer to convey emotion through action, which dovetails nicely with the requirements of a scene like this. The chapter works because it isn’t so far removed from what I normally do as a writer, which allows the characters to keep their secrets. And I’d do it again if I had the chance…

The second system effect

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Why are second novels or movies so consistently underwhelming? Even if you account for sticky variables like heightened pressure, compressed turnaround time, and unrealistic expectations, the track record for works of art from Thirteen Moons to The Postman suggests that the sophomore slump is real. For the economist Daniel Kahneman, writing in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s a case of regression to the mean: any artistic breakthrough is by definition an outlier, since only exceptional efforts survive to come to light at all, and the next attempt reverts back to the artist’s natural level of ability. There’s also a sense in which a massive triumph removes many of the constraints that allowed for good work in the first place. By now, it’s a cliché to note that the late installments in a popular series, from Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire, feel like they haven’t been edited. And it’s certainly true that authors who have sold a million copies have greater leverage when it comes to pushing against—or outright ignoring—editorial notes, if they even receive them at all. Editors are as human as anyone else, and since commercial success is such a crapshoot, you can’t blame them for not wanting to get in the way of a good thing. It didn’t hurt Rowling or Martin, but in the case of, say, the later novels of Thomas Harris, you could make a case that a little more editorial control might have been nice for everyone involved.

Yet there’s also a third, even more plausible explanation, which I recently encountered in The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., the seminal work on software engineering that provided my quote of the day. Writing about what he calls “the second system effect,” Brooks notes:

An architect’s first work is apt to be spare and clean. He knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he does it carefully and with great restraint.

As he designs the first work, frill after frill and embellishment after embellishment occur to him. These get stored away to be used “next time.” Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.

The second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs. When he does his third and later ones, his prior experiences will confirm each other as to the general characteristics of such systems, and their differences will identify those parts of his experience that are particular are not generalizable.

Francis Ford Coppola

Brooks concludes: “The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one.” And it’s startling how well this statement describes so many sophomore efforts in film and literature. It’s the difference between Easy Rider and The Last Movie, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Kafka, Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, in which a spare, disciplined first work is succeeded by a movie that contains everything up to and including the kitchen sink. In your initial attempt at any kind of storytelling, you find that the natural arc of the project tends toward removal and subtraction: you cut, pare back, and streamline, either because of your natural caution or because you don’t have the resources you need, and although each edit is necessary, it carries a charge of regret. A decrease in constraints in the second project only add fuel to an artist’s natural tendency to overindulge. And while the result may be a likable mess—a lot of us prefer Mallrats to Clerks—it rarely exhibits the qualities that first drew us to an artist’s work. (Even in movies made by committee, there’s an assumption that viewers want a bigger, louder, and busier version of what worked the first time around, which leads to so much of the bloat that we find in blockbuster sequels.)

So what’s an artist to do? Brooks has some advice that everyone trying to follow up an initial effort should keep in mind:

How does the architect avoid the second-system effect? Well, obviously he can’t skip his second system. But he can be conscious of the peculiar hazards of that system, and exert extra self-discipline to avoid functional ornamentation and to avoid extrapolation of functions that are obviated by changes in assumptions and purposes.

Translated into artistic terms, this means nothing more or less than treating a second attempt as exactly as hazardous as it really is. If anything, the track record of sophomore efforts should make writers even more aware of those risks, and even more relentless about asking the hard questions after a big success has made it possible to ignore them. When Francis Ford Coppola followed The Godfather with The Conversation, it was both a regathering and an act of discipline—in a movie largely about craft and constraints—that enabled the grand gestures to come. Coppola certainly wasn’t beyond insane acts of overreaching, but in this case, his instincts were sound. And I have a feeling that a lot of writers and filmmakers, in retrospect, wish that they could have skipped their second system and gone straight to their third.

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2015 at 10:25 am

My life as a paleontologist

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Concept art for Jurassic World

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve only ever wanted two jobs in my life: paleontologist and novelist. And the fact that I gave up the former goal around the time I turned ten years old doesn’t mean that I don’t look back on it with nostalgia. Reading the paleontologist Stephen Brusatte’s affectionate piece on The Conversation on the appeal of Jurassic World, I felt an odd twinge of regret for a life never led. Brusatte is actually a bit younger than I am—he was nine when Jurassic Park came out, while I was thirteen—and his article is a reminder that the world is still turning out freshly minted paleontologists, most of whom are distinguished by the fact that they held onto that initial spark of curiosity after the rest of us moved on. Jurassic Park, both as a book and as a movie, was responsible for countless careers in the field, just as Star Trek was for the hard sciences and Indiana Jones was for archaeology, but such works can more accurately be seen as igniting something that was already there, or providing an avenue for a certain kind of personality. Everyone knows how it feels to be excited by a book or movie into the prospect of an exotic career; the difference between real paleontologists and the rest of us is that the urge never faded. If there’s one thing you know when you meet a novelist or a paleontologist, it’s that you’re looking at the systematic working out in adulthood of a childhood dream.

Yet the two fields also have a surprising amount in common. In the beginning, both are fundamentally choices about what to spend your time thinking about: when you’re in grade school, you can’t think of anything better to occupy your time than dinosaurs. Later, as your understanding of the subject expands, it becomes slightly more subtle, if no less vast. At its heart, paleontology is the methodical reconstruction of facts that used to be obvious. Few things would have felt less equivocal at the time than a living triceratops—Jack Horner has called them “the cows of the Cretaceous”— but understanding and rediscovering such animals now requires the assemblage of countless tiny, almost invisible details, both in the world and in the mind. Fiction, in turn, is the creation of the obvious, or inevitable, from the small and easily missed. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky once compared the act of writing to mining for radium: “The output an ounce, the labor a year.” Both fiction and paleontology require that we sift through a huge amount of material in search for a few useful fragments. The difference is that the writer generates his own dirt and then sorts through it. But in both cases, the trick lies in identifying a promising tract of ground in the first place.

Concept art for Jurassic World

Both are also about developing a way of seeing. The evolutionary anthropologist Elwyn Simons has compared the hunt for fossils in the jumbled rock of the Egyptian desert to the ability to find a single rare word in a mass of text, and both fields depend on refining the observer’s eye. Even more important, perhaps, is the ability to see facts in their larger context, while valuing the significance that each detail carries in themselves. One of the first things any writer learns is how crucial a glance, a gesture, or a single image can be: each element deserves as loving a consideration as we can give it. But it also needs to be subordinated to the overall effect. This kind of double vision, in which a stone or bone fragment is granted intense meaning in itself while occupying a place in the larger pattern, is central to all of science. Both are characterized by a constant oscillation between the concrete and the abstract, with the most ingenious theoretical constructs grounded in an engagement with the tangible and particular. Every insight is built on backbreaking labor, and the process itself becomes part of the point. Genuine discoveries are infrequent, so in the meantime, you have the field and the lab, and the workers who survive are the ones who come to love the search for its own sake.

So I’d like to think that if I’d become a paleontologist instead of a writer, my inner life would be more or less the same, even if its externals were very different. (If nothing else, I’d have gone outdoors occasionally.) But even then, I suspect that I’d spend about the same amount of time in my own head. As Stephen Jay Gould writes:

No geologist worth anything is permanently bound to a desk or laboratory, but the charming notion that true science can only be based on unbiased observation of nature in the raw is mythology. Creative work, in geology and anywhere else, is interaction and synthesis: half-baked ideas from a barroom, rocks in the field, chains of thought from lonely walks, numbers squeezed from rocks in a laboratory, numbers from a calculator riveted to a desk, fancy equipment usually malfunctioning on expensive ships, cheap equipment in the human cranium, arguments before a roadcut.

Which all circles back to the point with which I started: that life is ultimately a choice about what to think about. Last year, I finally realized my destiny by writing about dinosaurs for the first time, in my short story “Cryptids.” Even if it isn’t my strongest work—and I still think the ending could be better—it felt like a homecoming of sorts. I got to think about dinosaurs again. And I don’t know what more I could ever want.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2015 at 9:50 am

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