Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Cove

Broyles’s Law and the Ken Burns effect

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For most of my life as a moviegoer, I’ve followed a rule that has served me pretty well. Whenever the director of a documentary narrates the story in the first person, or, worse, appears on camera, I start to get suspicious. I’m not talking about movies like Roger and Me or even the loathsome Catfish, in which the filmmakers, for better or worse, are inherently part of the action, but about films in which the director inserts himself into the frame for no particular reason. Occasionally, I can forgive this, as I did with the brilliant The Cove, but usually, I feel a moment of doubt whenever the director’s voiceover begins. (In its worst form, it opens the movie with a redundant narration: “I first came across the story that you’re about to hear in the summer of 1990…”) But while I still think that this is a danger sign, I’ve recently concluded that I was wrong about why. I had always assumed that it was a sign of ego—that these directors were imposing themselves on a story that was really about other people, because they thought that it was all about them. In reality, it seems more likely that it’s a solution to a technical problem. What happens, I think, is that the director sits down to review his footage and discovers that it can’t be cut together as a coherent narrative. Perhaps there are are crucial scenes or beats missing, but the events that the movie depicts are long over, or there’s no budget to go back and shoot more. An interview might bridge the gaps, but maybe this isn’t logistically feasible. In the end, the director is left with just one person who is available to say all the right things on the soundtrack to provide the necessary transitions and clarifications. It’s himself. In a perfect world, if he had gotten the material that he needed, he wouldn’t have to be in his own movie at all, but he doesn’t have a choice. It isn’t a failure of character, but of technique, and the result ends up being much the same.

I got to thinking about this after reading a recent New Yorker profile by Ian Parker of the documentarian Ken Burns, whose upcoming series on the Vietnam War is poised to become a major cultural event. The article takes an irreverent tone toward Burns, whose cultural status encourages him to speechification in private: “His default conversational setting is Commencement Address, involving quotation from nineteenth-century heroes and from his own previous commentary, and moments of almost rhapsodic self-appreciation. He is readier than most people to regard his creative decisions as courageous.” But Parker also shares a fascinating anecdote about which I wish I knew more:

In the mid-eighties, Burns was working on a deft, entertaining documentary about Huey Long, the populist Louisiana politician. He asked two historians, William Leuchtenburg and Alan Brinkley, about a photograph he hoped to use, as a part of the account of Long’s assassination; it showed him protected by a phalanx of state troopers. Brinkley told him that the image might mislead; Long usually had plainclothes bodyguards. Burns felt thwarted. Then Leuchtenburg spoke. He’d just watched a football game in which Frank Broyles, the former University of Arkansas coach, was a commentator. When the game paused to allow a hurt player to be examined, Broyles explained that coaches tend to gauge the seriousness of an injury by asking a player his name or the time of day; if he can’t answer correctly, it’s serious. As Burns recalled it, Broyles went on, “But, of course, if the player is important to the game, we tell him what his name is, we tell him what time it is, and we send him back in.”

Hence Broyles’s Law: “If it’s super-important, if it’s working, you tell him what his name is, and you send him back into the game.” Burns decided to leave the photo in the movie. Parker continues:

Was this, perhaps, a terrible law? Burns laughed. “It’s a terrible law!” But, he went on, it didn’t let him off the hook, ethically. “This would be Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’—‘I can do anything I want. I’ll pay the town drunk to crawl across the ice in the Russian village.’” He was referring to scenes in Herzog’s Bells from the Deep, which Herzog has been happy to describe, and defend, as stage-managed. “If he chooses to do that, that’s okay. And then there are other people who’d rather do reenactments than have a photograph that’s vague.” Instead, Burns said, “We do enough research that we can pretty much convince ourselves—in the best sense of the word—that we’ve done the honorable job.”

The reasoning in this paragraph is a little muddled, but Burns seems to be saying that he isn’t relying on “the ecstatic truth” of Herzog, who blurs the line between fiction and reality, or the reenactments favored by Errol Morris, who sometimes seems to be making a feature film interspersed with footage of talking heads. Instead, Burns is assembling a narrative solely out of primary sources, and if an image furthers the viewer’s intellectual understanding or emotional engagement, it can be included, even if it isn’t strictly accurate. These are the compromises that you make when you’re determined to use nothing but the visuals that you have available, and you trust in your understanding of the material to tell whether or not you’ve made the “honorable” choice.

On some level, this is basically what every author of nonfiction has to consider when assembling sources, which involves countless judgment calls about emphasis, order, and selection, as I’ve discussed here before. But I’m more interested in the point that this emerges from a technical issue inherent to the form of the documentary itself, in which the viewer always has to be looking at something. When the perfect image isn’t available, you have a few different options. You can ignore the problem; you can cut to an interview subject who tells the viewers about what they’re not seeing; or you can shoot a reenactment. (Recent documentaries seem to lean heavily on animation, presumably because it’s cheaper and easier to control in the studio.) Or, like Burns, you can make do with what you have, because that’s how you’ve defined the task for yourself. Burns wants to use nothing but interviews, narration, and archival materials, and the technical tricks that we’ve come to associate with his style—like the camera pan across photos that Apple actually calls the Ken Burns effect—arise directly out of those constraints. The result is often brilliant, in large part because Burns has no choice but to think hard about how to use the materials that he has. Broyles’s Law may be “terrible,” but it’s better than most of the alternatives. Burns has the luxury of big budgets, a huge staff, and a lot of time, which allows him to be fastidious about his solutions to such problems. But a desperate documentary filmmaker, faced with no money and a hole in the story to fill, may have no other recourse than to grab a microphone, sit down in the editing bay, and start to speak: “I first came across the story that you’re about to hear in the summer of 1990…”

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2017 at 9:12 am

You are not the story

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As I see it, two lessons can be drawn from the Mike Daisey fiasco: 1. If a story seems too good to be true, it probably is. 2. A “journalist” who makes himself the star of his own story is automatically suspect. This last point is especially worth considering. I’ve spoken before about the importance of detachment toward one’s own work, primarily as a practical matter: the more objective you are, the more likely you are to produce something that will be of interest to others. But there’s an ethical component here as well. Every writer, by definition, has a tendency toward self-centeredness: if we didn’t believe that our own thoughts and feelings, or at least our modes of expression, were exceptionally meaningful, we wouldn’t feel compelled to share them. When properly managed, this need to impose our personalities on the world is what results in most works of art. Left unchecked, it can lead to arrogance, solipsism, and a troubling tendency to insert ourselves into the spotlight. This isn’t just an artistic shortcoming, but a moral one. John Gardner called it frigidity: an inability to see what really counts. And frigidity paired with egotism is a dangerous combination.

Simply put, whenever an author, especially of a supposed work of nonfiction, makes himself the star of a story where he obviously doesn’t belong, it’s a warning sign. This isn’t just because it reveals a lack of perspective—a refusal to subordinate oneself to the real source of interest, which is almost never the author himself—but because it implies that other compromises have been made. Mike Daisey is far from the worst such offender. Consider the case of Greg Mortenson, who put himself at the center of Three Cups of Tea in the most self-flattering way imaginable, and was later revealed not only to have fabricated elements of his story, but to have misused the funds his charity raised as a result. At first glance, the two transgressions might not seem to have much in common, but the root cause is the same: a tendency to place the author’s self and personality above all other considerations. On one level, it led to self-aggrandizing falsehood in a supposed memoir; on another, to a charity that spent much of its money, instead of building schools, on Mortenson’s speaking tours and advertisements for his books.

It’s true that some works of nonfiction benefit from the artist’s presence: I wouldn’t want to take Werner Herzog out of Grizzly Man or Claude Lanzmann out of Shoah. But for the most part, documentaries that place the filmmaker at the center of the action should raise our doubts as viewers. Sometimes it leads to a blurring of the message, as when Michael Moore’s ego overwhelms the valid points he makes. Occasionally, it results in a film like Catfish, in which the blatant self-interest of the filmmakers taints the entire movie. And it’s especially problematic in films that try to tackle complex social issues. (It took me a long time to see past the director’s presence in The Cove, for instance, to accept it as the very good movie it really is. But it would have been even better without the director’s face onscreen.)

One could argue, of course, that all forms of journalism, no matter how objective, are implicitly written in the first person, and that every documentary is shaped by an invisible process of selection and arrangement. Which is true enough. But a real artist expresses himself in his choice of details in the editing room, not by inserting himself distractingly into the frame. We rarely, if ever, see Errol Morris in his own movies, while David Simon—who manifestly does not suffer from a lack of ego—appears in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets only in the last couple of pages. These are men with real personalities and sensibilities who express themselves unforgettably in the depiction of other strong personalities in their movies and books. In the end, we care about Morris and Simon because they’ve made us care about other people. They’ve earned the right to interest us in their opinions through the painstaking application of craft, not, like Mortenson or Daisey, with self-promoting fabrication. There will always be exceptions, but in most cases, an artist’s best approach lies in invisibility and detachment. Because in the end, you’re only as interesting as the facts you present.

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2012 at 10:47 am

The making of a novelette (part 3)

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In his nice little book Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block, while describing how he incorporates all kinds of disparate elements into his fiction, uses an image for the creative process that I’ve always thought was particularly appropriate:

I may borrow a bit of physical description, for example, or a mannerism, or an oddity of speech. I may take an incident in the life of someone I know and use it as an item of background data in the life of one of my characters. Little touches of this sort get threaded into my characters much as bits of ribbon and cloth are woven into a songbird’s nest—for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.

Most writers, I imagine, can relate to this. As carefully as any novel or story may be planned, many of its constituent parts will end up being the result of chance, impulse, or random inspiration. “Kawataro” is no exception. Although what I’ve described so far might sound like a fairly rational process, that rationality, if it exists at all, occurs mostly in the intermediate planning stage. When it comes to the details of the novel itself—the characters, the scenes, the small touches that make a story live—the process is much more intuitive, and the results can take even the author by surprise.

The backgrounds of the characters in “Kawataro,” for instance, were a combination of pragmatism and personal inclination. For my viewpoint character, Hakaru, I had a particular type in mind: a smart, observant outsider, but not a scientist, which would allow me to explain certain concepts to the reader in a way that was hopefully unobtrusive. I’ve used the figure of a journalist in a number of stories (including the upcoming “Warning Sign” and “The Boneless One”), partly because I’m married to one, but also because it’s a job that involves asking questions and going into unusual places, which is useful from a storytelling point of view. For a change of pace, I decided to have Hakaru (named, incidentally, for this man) be a videographer with a research background. I knew that projects like the one I was describing were usually videotaped, so he had a good reason for being there. Plus I’ve done a lot of video production myself, so I could easily describe his work if necessary (although it ended up not entering the story at all).

My other main character, Dr. Nakaya, was a bit more determined by the plot I had already sketched out. She had to be a scientist involved in the study of language formation among the burakumin of my fictional village. At some point, it occurred to me that she might also be a burakumin herself. Once these details had been established, her character quickly fell into place: intelligent, slightly severe, but emotionally involved with the predicament of these villagers in ways that were only gradually revealed. As for the other characters, they were mostly functional types—a few fell into the category of characters, familiar from The X-Files, destined only to be victims—but I tried to invest them with at least some specificity. (For some reason, I love Miyamoto’s pink shirt, which is inspired by a similar shirt worn by a figure in The Cove.) And the three sinister children at the heart of the story were clearly rooted in my memories of spooky kids from The Grudge and similar movies, with one of them wearing a red raincoat that was my homage to Don’t Look Now. (It’s an homage that would seem overly obvious in a straight horror movie, but which works pretty well in a different genre.)

Now that I had a general plot and a cast of characters, all that remained was to fill out the story itself. Many of the scenes were dictated by the shape of the conventional story I’d chosen: an outsider arrives in a small town, meets the locals, is confronted with violent and seemingly supernatural events, and finally discovers a rational explanation. In the details, though, I was free to indulge myself. The scene in which a little girl with a bouncing ball watches Dr. Nakaya argue with Miyamoto, then later implicates her in his murder, was a straight homage to The Third Man. Many of the visual details of the story—the rain, the figure in the woods, the children’s drawings unexpectedly revealing a monster—were taken from the vocabulary of horror movies. The layout of my imaginary village determined the beats of the chase scenes. And the image of the dead innkeeper, folded up like a frog, came from a dream I had over ten years ago, which I was glad to finally use here.

In the end, then, I had a story constructed from many dissimilar elements—an article in a science magazine, a Japanese legend, a few character ideas, memories of favorite movies, even dreams—which all came together, I hope, in a seamless and inevitable way. Tomorrow, I’ll wind up the discussion by talking a bit about the revision and submission process, and how I feel about the story that resulted. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2011 at 10:20 am

The making of a novelette (part 2)

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Note: As before, spoilers for my novelette “Kawataro” follow.

Audiences dislike formulas for a reason. There are few things more depressing than realizing you’re about to sit through a movie or TV episode that you’ve seen, in various forms, a thousand times before. (See: almost every recent episode of Glee.) But there are also times when, like it or not, formulas can be useful. Formulas are really just story structures that have proven effective over time. And a good formula, if not relied upon exclusively, can provide a narrative line on which the writer can hang more interesting things—character, atmosphere, information—while trusting that a classic story form will hopefully keep the reader engaged. For “Kawataro,” then, after deciding on the basic scientific story, I decided to structure the plot itself around one of my favorite science fiction conventions. In X-Files parlance, this was going to be a Monster of the Week.

It’s important to remember that the original premise of “Kawataro” could have been used as the basis for any number of stories. The primary elements were an isolated Japanese village, a community of deaf burakumin, and a genetic syndrome that would be revealed only at the end of the story. I could have assembled these pieces in all kinds of ways. “Kawataro” could have been a love story, with the heroine falling for one of her patients and trying to figure out why he was growing weak; it could have been a straight adventure, with a team of scientists searching for a remote village of the deaf; it even could have been a simple medical mystery, with the story dryly following the main character as she tested and rejected various hypotheses. (I’ve seen a lot of stories like this in Analog.) For whatever reason, though—perhaps because I’d been attracted by the narrative possibilities of myxedema madness—the idea that seized my attention was something closer to horror, verging on a ghost story, which meant that I almost certainly needed a creature to serve as a red herring.

So what would this creature look like? As opposed to the early stages of the process, where I could transfer the setting from Israel to Japan without batting an eye, by now, I was operating under severe constraints—which, as I’ve said before, is where creative breakthroughs usually occur. My creature had to be Japanese. It had to be a part of local folklore. It had to be capable of driving the plot forward, probably through a series of killings. And it had to be adequately explained by the science I’d cooked up so far. It seemed to me, then, that the ideal creature was a sort of Japanese vampire. And after I’d poked around online for a bit, it didn’t take long to come up with the figure of the kappa, or kawataro, which fit my purposes admirably: it worked for the setting, it was suitably mysterious, and best of all, its traditional description was startlingly similar to the symptoms of extreme hypothyroidism. (This is the sort of serendipity, familiar to all writers, that tells you that you’re on the right track.)

At this point, the major elements of the plot had fallen into place: a series of mysterious killings in a Japanese village, blamed on the figure of the kawataro, but later revealed to be something else entirely. (I called my creature a kawataro, instead of kappa, by the way, because I preferred the sound of it and because the literal meaning of kawataro—”river boy,” as opposed to kappa, “river child”—served as a clue to the reader.) I was pretty happy when I arrived at this narrative structure, because I knew that the device of periodic killings, while familiar, would serve to hold the reader’s attention and allow me to deliver a lot of atmosphere and suspense. I also knew that this was a story I could write, that would engage me, and that I could probably put together in publishable form in less than two weeks. (The knowledge that a story is squarely in one’s wheelhouse means a lot, especially when the really hard work is about to begin.)

The next step was to drill deeper. Although I only had a few days allocated to pure research, it was still enough time for me to quickly read a couple of books on Japanese villages, a very useful New Yorker article, and the wonderful book Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, which I’d been meaning to read anyway. I rewatched The Cove, one of my favorite recent documentaries, taking notes on setting and atmosphere. Some articles on the burakumin gave me the idea of structuring the conflict in the early part of the story around the merger of two villages. Bit by bit, then, I was fleshing out a world that had taken shape in my imagination, and, just as importantly, I was getting an idea of the feel of the story, which I was sensing would be a homage to Japanese horror: The Cove meets The Grudge. Next week, I’ll be talking about how I turned all of these pieces into an actual story, and what happened when I sent it out for submission. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

Written by nevalalee

April 22, 2011 at 10:08 am

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