Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker

My ten creative books #10: A Guide for the Perplexed

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

As regular readers know, I’m a Werner Herzog fan, but not a completist—I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored territory, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. Yet Herzog himself is endlessly fascinating. Daniel Zalewski’s account of the making of Rescue Dawn is one of my five favorite articles ever to appear in The New Yorker, and if you’re looking for an introduction to his mystique, there’s no better place to start. For a deeper dive, you can turn to A Guide for the Perplexed, an expanded version of a collection of the director’s interviews with Paul Cronin, which was originally published more than a decade ago. As I’ve said here before, I regret the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance, and I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all. It’s huge, but every paragraph explodes with insight, and you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately transfixed. Here’s one passage picked at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Or take Herzog’s description of his relationship with his cinematographer: “Peter Zeitlinger is always trying to sneak ‘beautiful’ shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.”

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s stories, which are inexhaustible. He provides his own point of view on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by a catalog in his jacket pocket, and he asked to keep going—or how he discouraged Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) We see Herzog impersonating a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys that he needed for Aguirre; forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo; stealing his first camera; and shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example is enough to sustain and nourish the rest of us. In On Directing Film, David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he recommends Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as examples of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

The living wage

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Over the last few years, we’ve observed an unexpected resurgence of interest in the idea of a universal basic income. The underlying notion is straightforward enough, as Nathan Heller summarizes it in a recent article in The New Yorker:

A universal basic income, or U.B.I., is a fixed income that every adult—rich or poor, working or idle—automatically receives from government. Unlike today’s means-tested or earned benefits, payments are usually the same size, and arrive without request…In the U.S., its supporters generally propose a figure somewhere around a thousand dollars a month: enough to live on—somewhere in America, at least—but not nearly enough to live on well.

This concept—which Heller characterizes as “a government check to boost good times or to guard against starvation in bad ones”—has been around for a long time. As one possible explanation for its current revival, Heller suggests that it amounts to “a futurist reply to the darker side of technological efficiency” as robots replace existing jobs, with prominent proponents including Elon Musk and Richard Branson. And while the present political climate in America may seem unfavorable toward such proposals, it may not stay that way forever. As Annie Lowery, the author of the new book Give People Money, recently said to Slate: “Now that Donald Trump was elected…people are really ticked off. In the event that there’s another recession, I think that the space for policymaking will expand even more radically, so maybe it is a time for just big ideas.”

These ideas are certainly big, but they aren’t exactly new, and over the last century, they’ve attracted support from some surprising sources. One early advocate was the young Robert A. Heinlein, who became interested in one such scheme while working on the socialist writer Upton Sinclair’s campaign for the governorship of California in 1934. A decade earlier, a British engineer named C.H. Douglas had outlined a plan called Social Credit, which centered on the notion that the government should provide a universal dividend to increase the purchasing power of individuals. As the Heinlein scholar Robert James writes in his afterword to the novel For Us, the Living:

Heinlein’s version of Social Credit argues that banks constantly used the power of the fractional reserve to profit by manufacturing money out of thin air, by “fiat.” Banks were (and are) required by federal law to keep only a fraction of their total loans on reserve at any time; they could thus manipulate the money supply with impunity…If you took away that power from the banks by ending the fractional reserve system, and instead let the government do the exact same thing for the good of the people, you could permanently resolve the disparities between production and consumption. By simply giving people the amount of money necessary to spring over the gap between available production and the power to consume, you could end the boom and bust business cycle permanently, and free people to pursue their own interests.

And many still argue that a universal basic income could be accomplished, at least in part, by fiat currency. As Lowery writes in her book: “Dollars are not something that the United States government can run out of.”

Heinlein addressed these issues at length in For Us, the Living, his first attempt at a novel, which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, miraculously transports a man from the present into the future mostly so that he can be subjected to interminable lectures on monetary theory. Here’s one mercifully short example, which sounds a lot like the version of basic income that you tend to hear today:

Each citizen receives a check for money, or what amounts to the same thing, a credit to each account each month, from the government. He gets this free. The money so received is enough to provide the necessities of life for an adult, or to provide everything that a child needs for its care and development. Everybody gets these checks—man, woman, and child. Nevertheless, practically everyone works pretty regularly and most people have incomes from three or four times to a dozen or more times the income they receive from the government.

Years later, Heinlein reused much of this material in his far superior novel Beyond This Horizon, which also features a man from our time who objects to the new state of affairs: “But the government simply gives away all this new money. That’s rank charity. It’s demoralizing. A man should work for what he gets. But forgetting that aspect for a moment, you can’t run a government that way. A government is just like a business. It can’t be all outgo and no income.” And after he remains unwilling to concede that a government and a business might serve different ends, another character politely suggests that he go see “a corrective semantician.”

At first, it might seem incongruous to hear these views from Heinlein, who later became a libertarian icon, but it isn’t as odd as it looks. For one thing, the basic concept has defenders from across the political spectrum, including the libertarian Charles Murray, who wants to replace the welfare state by giving ten thousand dollars a year directly to the people. And Heinlein’s fundamental priority—the preservation of individual freedom—remained consistent throughout his career, even if the specifics changed dramatically. The system that he proposed in For Us, the Living was meant to free people to do what they wanted with their lives:

Most professional people work regularly because they like to…Some work full time and some part time. Quite a number of people work for several eras and then quit. Some people don’t work at all—not for money at least. They have simple tastes and are content to live on their heritage, philosophers and mathematicians and poets and such. There aren’t many like that however. Most people work at least part of the time.

Twenty years later, Heinlein’s feelings had evolved in response to the Cold War, as he wrote to his brother Rex in 1960: “The central problem of today is no longer individual exploitation but national survival…and I don’t think we will solve it by increasing the minimum wage.” But such a basic income might also serve as a survival tactic in itself. As Heller writes in The New Yorker, depending on one’s point of view, it can either be “a clean, crisp way of replacing gnarled government bureaucracy…[or] a stay against harsh economic pressures now on the horizon.”

Inside the sweatbox

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Yesterday, I watched a remarkable documentary called The Sweatbox, which belongs on the short list of films—along with Hearts of Darkness and the special features for The Lord of the Rings—that I would recommend to anyone who ever thought that it might be fun to work in the movies. It was never officially released, but a copy occasionally surfaces on YouTube, and I strongly suggest watching the version available now before it disappears yet again. For the first thirty minutes or so, it plays like a standard featurette of the sort that you might have found on the second disc of a home video release from two decades ago, which is exactly what it was supposed to be. Its protagonist, improbably, is Sting, who was approached by Disney in the late nineties to compose six songs for a movie titled Kingdom of the Sun. (One of the two directors of the documentary is Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, a producer whose other credits include Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Moon.) The feature was conceived by animator Roger Allers, who was just coming off the enormous success of The Lion King, as a mixture of Peruvian mythology, drama, mysticism, and comedy, with a central plot lifted from The Prince and the Pauper. After two years of production, the work in progress was screened for the first time for studio executives. As always, the atmosphere was tense, but no more than usual, and it inspired the standard amount of black humor from the creative team. As one artist jokes nervously before the screening: “You don’t want them to come in and go, ‘Oh, you know what, we don’t like that idea of the one guy looking like the other guy. Let’s get rid of the basis of the movie.’ This would be a good time for them to tell us.”

Of course, that’s exactly what happened. The top brass at Disney hated the movie, production was halted, and Allers left the project that was ultimately retooled into The Emperor’s New Groove, which reused much of the design work and finished animation while tossing out entire characters—along with most of Sting’s songs—and introducing new ones. It’s a story that has fascinated me ever since I first heard about it, around the time of the movie’s initial release, and I’m excited beyond words that The Sweatbox even exists. (The title of the documentary, which was later edited down to an innocuous special feature for the DVD, refers to the room at the studio in Burbank in which rough work is screened.) And while the events that it depicts are extraordinary, they represent only an extreme case of the customary process at Disney and Pixar, at least if you believe the ways in which that the studio likes to talk about itself. In a profile that ran a while back in The New Yorker, the director Andrew Stanton expressed it in terms that I’ve never forgotten:

“We spent two years with Eve getting shot in her heart battery, and Wall-E giving her his battery, and it never worked. Finally—finally—we realized he should lose his memory instead, and thus his personality…We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.

This statement appeared in print six months before the release of Stanton’s live action debut John Carter, which implies that this method is far from infallible. And the drama behind The Emperor’s New Groove was unprecedented even by the studio’s relentless standards. As executive Thomas Schumacher says at one point: “We always say, Oh, this is normal. [But] we’ve never been through this before.”

As it happens, I watched The Sweatbox shortly after reading an autobiographical essay by the artist Cassandra Smolcic about her experiences in the “weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid” environment of Pixar. It’s a long read, but riveting throughout, and it makes it clear that the issues at the studio went far beyond the actions of John Lasseter. And while I could focus on any number of details or anecdotes, I’d like to highlight one section, about the firing of director Brenda Chapman halfway through the production of Brave:

Curious about the downfall of such an accomplished, groundbreaking woman, I began taking the company pulse soon after Brenda’s firing had been announced. To the general population of the studio — many of whom had never worked on Brave because it was not yet in full-steam production — it seemed as though Brenda’s firing was considered justifiable. Rumor had it that she had been indecisive, unconfident and ineffective as a director. But for me and others who worked closely with the second-time director, there was a palpable sense of outrage, disbelief and mourning after Brenda was removed from the film. One artist, who’d been on the Brave story team for years, passionately told me how she didn’t find Brenda to be indecisive at all. Brenda knew exactly what film she was making and was very clear in communicating her vision, the story artist said, and the film she was making was powerful and compelling. “From where I was sitting, the only problem with Brenda and her version of Brave was that it was a story told about a mother and a daughter from a distinctly female lens,” she explained.

Smolcic adds: “During the summer of 2009, I personally worked on Brave while Brenda was still in charge. I likewise never felt that she was uncertain about the kind of film she was making, or how to go about making it.”

There are obvious parallels between what happened to Allers and to Chapman, which might seem to undercut the notion that the latter’s firing had anything to do with the fact that she was a woman. But there are a few other points worth raising. One is that no one seems to have applied the words “indecisive, unconfident, and ineffective” to Allers, who voluntarily left the production after his request to push back the release date was denied. And if The Sweatbox is any indication, the situation of women and other historically underrepresented groups at Disney during this period was just as bad as it was at Pixar—I counted exactly one woman who speaks onscreen, for less than fifteen seconds, and all the other faces that we see are white and male. (After Sting expresses concern about the original ending of The Emperor’s New Groove, in which the rain forest is cut down to build an amusement park, an avuncular Roy Disney confides to the camera: “We’re gonna offend somebody sooner or later. I mean, it’s impossible to do anything in the world these days without offending somebody.” Which betrays a certain nostalgia for a time when no one, apparently, was offended by anything that the studio might do.) One of the major players in the documentary is Thomas Schumacher, the head of Disney Animation, who has since been accused of “explicit sexual language and harassment in the workplace,” according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. In the footage that we see, Schumacher and fellow executive Peter Schneider don’t come off particularly well, which may just be a consequence of the perspective from which the story is told. But it’s equally clear that the mythical process that allows such movies to “suck” for three out of four years is only practicable for filmmakers who look and sound like their counterparts on the other side of the sweatbox, which grants them the necessary creative freedom to try and fail repeatedly—a luxury that women are rarely granted. What happened to Allers on Kingdom of the Sun is still astounding. But it might be even more noteworthy that he survived for as long as he did.

The master of time

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I saw Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah for the first time seven years ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Those ten hours amounted to one of the most memorable moviegoing experiences of my life, and Lanzmann, who died yesterday, was among the most intriguing figures in film. “We see him in the corners of some of his shots, a tall, lanky man, informally dressed, chain-smoking,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review, and it’s in that role—the dogged investigator of the Holocaust, returning years afterward to the scene of the crime—that he’ll inevitably be remembered. He willed Shoah into existence at a period when no comparable models for such a project existed, and the undertaking was so massive that it took over the rest of his career, much of which was spent organizing material that had been cut, which produced several huge documentaries in itself. And the result goes beyond genre. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody observes that Lanzmann’s film is “a late flowering of his intellectual and cultural milieu—existentialism and the French New Wave,” and he even compares it to Breathless. He also memorably describes the methods that Lanzmann used to interview former Nazis:

The story of the making of Shoah is as exciting as a spy novel…Lanzmann hid [the camera] in a bag with a tiny hole for the lens, and had one of his cameramen point it at an unsuspecting interview subject. He hid a small microphone behind his tie. A van was rigged with video and radio equipment that rendered the stealthy images and sounds on a television set. “What qualms should I have had about misleading Nazis, murderers?” Lanzmann recently told Der Spiegel. “Weren’t the Nazis themselves masters of deception?” He believed that his ruses served the higher good of revealing the truth—and perhaps accomplished symbolic acts of resistance after the fact. As he explained in 1985, “I’m killing them with the camera.”

The result speaks for itself, and it would be overwhelming even if one didn’t know the story of how it was made. (If the world were on fire and I could only save a few reels from the entire history of cinema, one of them would be Lanzmann’s devastating interview of the barber Abraham Bomba.) But it’s worth stressing the contrast between the film’s monumental quality and the subterfuge, tenacity, and cleverness that had to go into making it, which hint at Lanzmann’s secret affinities with someone like Werner Herzog. Brody writes:

The most audacious thing Lanzmann did to complete Shoah was, very simply, to take his time. His initial backers expected him to deliver a two-hour film in eighteen months; his response was to lie—to promise that it would be done as specified, and then to continue working as he saw fit. Lanzmann borrowed money (including from [Simone de] Beauvoir) to keep shooting, and then spent five years obsessively editing his three hundred and fifty hours of footage. He writes that he became the “master of time,” which he considered to be not only an aspect of creative control but also one of aesthetic morality. He sensed that there was just “one right path” to follow, and he set a rule for himself: “I refused to carry on until I had found it, which could take hours or days, on one occasion I am not likely to forget it took three weeks.”

Shoah is like no other movie ever made, but it had to be made just like every other movie, except even more so—which is a fact that all documentarians and aspiring muckrakers should remember. After one interview, Brody writes, “Lanzmann and his assistant were unmasked, attacked, and bloodied by the subject’s son and three young toughs.” Lanzmann spent a month in the hospital and went back to work.

When it finally came out in 1985, the film caused a sensation, but its reach might have been even greater three decades later, if only because the way in which we watch documentaries has changed. Lanzmann rightly conceived it as a theatrical release, but today, it would be more likely to play on television or online. Many of us don’t think twice about watching a nonfiction series that lasts for nine hours—The Vietnam War was nearly double that length—and Shoah would have become a cultural event. Yet there’s also something to be said for the experience of seeing it in a darkened auditorium over the course of a single day. As Ebert put it:

[Lanzmann] uses a…poetic, mosaic approach, moving according to rhythms only he understands among the only three kinds of faces we see in this film: survivors, murderers and bystanders. As their testimony is intercut with the scenes of train tracks, steam engines, abandoned buildings and empty fields, we are left with enough time to think our own thoughts, to meditate, to wonder…After nine hours of Shoah, the Holocaust is no longer a subject, a chapter of history, a phenomenon. It is an environment. It is around us.

That said, I’d encourage viewers to experience it in any form that they can, and there’s no denying that a single marathon session makes unusual demands. At the screening that I attended in Chicago, at least two audience members, after a valiant struggle, had fallen asleep by the end of the movie, which got out after midnight, and as the lights went up, the man in front of me said, “That last segment was too long.” He was probably just tired.

In fact, the final section—on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—is essential, and I often think of its central subject, the resistance fighter Simcha Rotem. In May 1943, Rotem attempted a rescue operation to save any survivors who might still be in the ghetto, making his way underground through the sewers, but when he reached the surface, he found no one:

I had to go on through the ghetto. I suddenly heard a woman calling from the ruins. It was darkest night, no lights, you saw nothing. All the houses were in ruins, and I heard only one voice. I thought some evil spell had been cast on me, a woman’s voice talking from the rubble. I circled the ruins. I didn’t look at my watch, but I must have spent half an hour exploring, trying to find the woman whose voice guided me, but unfortunately I didn’t find her.

Rotem, who is still alive today, moved from one bunker to another, shouting his password, and Lanzmann gives him the last words in a film that might seem to resist any ending:

There was still smoke, and that awful smell of charred flesh of people who had surely been burned alive. I continued on my way, going to other bunkers in search of fighting units, but it was the same everywhere…I went from bunker to bunker, and after walking for hours in the ghetto, I went back toward the sewers…I was alone all the time. Except for that woman’s voice, and a man I met as I came out of the sewers, I was alone throughout my tour of the ghetto. I didn’t meet a living soul. At one point I recall feeling a kind of peace, of serenity. I said to myself: “I’m the last Jew. I’ll wait for morning, and for the Germans.”

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2018 at 8:41 am

St. George and the Bulldozer

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On February 28, 1962, the poet W.H. Auden delivered a lecture at Mt. Holyoke College that has since been reprinted under the title “The Poet and the City.” Auden opens with the observation—which remains as true today as it was half a century ago—that a surprising number of people claim that they want to be writers. He continues with devastating precision:

Among these would-be writers, the majority have no marked literary gift. This in itself is not surprising; a marked gift for any occupation is not very common. What is surprising is that such a high percentage of those without any marked talent for any profession should think of writing as the solution. One would have expected that a certain number would imagine that they had a talent for medicine or engineering and so on, but this is not the case. In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.

Auden’s explanation is that capitalism has reduced the worker to a mere laborer on behalf of impersonal forces, which leads the ordinary individual to be drawn to the dream of being in control of one’s life. He concludes: “It is only natural, therefore, that the arts which cannot be rationalized in this way—the artist still remains personally responsible for what he makes—should fascinate those who, because they have no marked talent, are afraid, with good reason, that all they have to look forward to is a lifetime of meaningless labor. This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which an artist works; he, and in our age, almost nobody else, is his own master.”

Of course, writers operate under severe constrains and limitations of their own, and Auden goes on to list four reasons why the writing life is especially difficult in the modern era. One is the loss of the belief that the universe is eternal, which undermines the notion that art is meant to be enduring; another is our doubt in the existence of objective phenomena, which destroys the conception of art as an accurate representation of reality; and the third is our fear that our culture will fail to last long enough for our work to be appreciated or understood after we’re gone. (Auden speaks here with an echo of science fiction: “Technology, with its ever accelerating transformation of man’s way of living, has made it impossible for us to imagine what life will be like even twenty years from now.”) But it’s his fourth reason that interests me the most. Auden calls it “the disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds,” which he characterizes as a reversal of the assumptions of the ancient world:

To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfills his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.

And Auden adds darkly: “In consequence the arts, literature in particular, have lost their traditional principal human subject, the man of action, the doer of public deeds.”

At first, this might seem like an overstatement, but Auden makes a convincing case. He begins by returning to the specter of technology, which looms menacingly over the entire lecture:

The advent of the machine has destroyed the direct relation between a man’s intention and his deed. If St. George meets the dragon face to face and plunges a spear into its heart, he may legitimately say “I slew the dragon,” but, if he drops a bomb on the dragon from an altitude of twenty thousand feet, though his intention—to slay it—is the same, his act consists in pressing a lever and it is the bomb, not St. George, that does the killing.

The same holds true of the public works and monuments of the past. If Pharaoh orders that the fens be drained, it’s a measure of his power over human beings that he can get ten thousand subjects to do his bidding. Today, the same project could be accomplished in six months by “a hundred men with bulldozers,” reducing it to nothing more than a feat of civil engineering, with most of the work performed by machines that aren’t motivated by loyalty or fear. (Auden notes with some alarm: “It is now possible to imagine a world in which the only human work on such projects will be done by a mere handful of persons who operate computers.”) And his next observation is the one that resonates the most: “It is extremely difficult today to use public figures as themes for poetry because the good or evil they do depends less upon their characters and intentions than upon the quantity of impersonal force at their disposal.”

Yet I don’t think this is entirely true, at least not right now, when character, intent, and the power of words seem more relevant than ever, even if they require some quantity of “impersonal force.” To illustrate his point, Auden observes that it would be difficult to write a good poem about Winston Churchill: “All attempts to write about persons or events, however important, to which the poet is not intimately related in a personal way are now doomed to failure.” But this intimate relationship, or its emotional equivalent, is exactly what our national politics have achieved. As Yascha Mounk writes in a recent New Yorker review of the book The Increasingly United States by Daniel J. Hopkins, the Democratic and Republican parties have turned into “mega-identities,” embodied by “a politics in which all Americans fancy themselves bit actors in the same great drama of state, cheering or jeering an identical cast of heroes and villains.” The logical culmination is a head of state who assumes the role of a producer or television star. Even if he or she were an artist of impeccable taste, Auden points out that the results would be chilling:

A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of horror for, given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only come into being through selective breeding, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, absolute obedience to its Director, and a large slave class kept out of sight in cellars.

Total control is a writer’s dream, but a nightmare in reality. And we’d be better off if such impulses led to bad novels, rather than to what Auden calls the “romantic answer” to what we want to do with our lives: “I want to be an explorer, a racing motorist, a missionary, President of the United States.”

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2018 at 8:18 am

The castle on the keyboard

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In March, the graphic artist Susan Kare, who is best known for designing the fonts and icons for the original Apple Macintosh, was awarded a medal of recognition from the professional organization AIGA. It occurred to me to write a post about her work, but when I opened a gallery of her designs, I found myself sidetracked by an unexpected sensation. I felt happy. Looking at those familiar images—the Paintbrush, the Trash Can, even the Bomb—brought me as close as I’ve come in a long time to what Proust describes after taking a bite of the madeleine in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time:

Just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on color and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden…and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

In my case, it wasn’t a physical location that blossomed into existence, but a moment in my life that I’ve tried repeatedly to evoke here before. I was in my early teens, which isn’t a great period for anyone, and I can’t say that I was content. But for better or worse, I was becoming whatever I was supposed to be, and throughout much of that process, Kare’s icons provided the inescapable backdrop.

You could argue that nostalgia for computer hardware is a fairly recent phenomenon that will repeat itself in later generations, with children who are thirteen or younger today feeling equally sentimental toward devices that their parents regard with indifference—and you might be right. But I think that Kare’s work is genuinely special in at least two ways. One is that it’s a hallmark of perhaps the last time in history when a personal computer could feel like a beguiling toy, rather than an indispensable but utilitarian part of everyday life. The other is that her icons, with their handmade look and origins, bear the impression of another human being’s personality in ways that would all but disappear within a few years. As Alexandra Lange recounts in a recent profile of Kare:

In 1982, [Kare] was a sculptor and sometime curator when her high-school friend Andy Hertzfeld asked her to create graphics for a new computer that he was working on in California. Kare brought a Grid notebook to her job interview at Apple Computer. On its pages, she had sketched, in pink marker, a series of icons to represent the commands that Hertzfeld’s software would execute. Each square represented a pixel. A pointing finger meant “Paste.” A paintbrush symbolized “MacPaint.” Scissors said “Cut.” Kare told me about this origin moment: “As soon as I started work, Andy Hertzfeld wrote an icon editor and font editor so I could design images and letterforms using the Mac, not paper,” she said. “But I loved the puzzle-like nature of working in sixteen-by-sixteen and thirty-two-by-thirty-two pixel icon grids, and the marriage of craft and metaphor.”

That same icon editor, or one of its successors, was packaged with the Mac that I used, and I vividly remember clicking on that grid myself, shaping the building blocks of the interface in a way that seems hard to imagine now.

And Kare seems to have valued these aspects of her work even at the time. There’s a famous series of photos of her in a cubicle at Apple in 1984, leaning back in her chair with one New Balance sneaker propped against her desk, looking impossibly cool. In one of the pictures, if you zoom in on the shelf of books behind her, it’s possible to make out a few titles, including the first edition of Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfuss, with an introduction by none other than R. Buckminster Fuller. Kare has spoken highly of this book elsewhere, most notably in an interview with Alex Pang of Stanford, to whom she explained:

One of my favorite parts of the book is its list of hobo signals, that hobos used to contact each other when they were on the road. They look like they’re in chalk on stones…When you’re desperate for an idea—some icons, like the piece of paper, are no problem; but others defy the visual, like “undo”—you look at things like hobo signs. Like this: “Man with a gun lives here.” Now, I can’t say that anything in this book is exactly transported into the Macintosh interface, but I think I got a lot of help from this, just thinking. This kind of symbol appeals to me because it had to be really simple, and clear to a group of people who were not going to be studying these for years in academia. I don’t understand a lot of them—“These people are rich” is a top hat and a triangle—but I always had that at Apple. I still use it, and I’m grateful for it.

And it seems likely that this was the “symbol dictionary” in which Kare discovered the Bowen Knot, a symbol once used to indicate “interesting features” at Swedish campgrounds, which lives on as the Command icon on the Mac.

According to Kare, the Bowen Knot originally represented a castle with four turrets, and if you’re imaginative enough, you can imagine it springing into being from the keys to either side of the space bar, like the village from Proust’s teacup. Like the hobo signs, Kare’s icons are a system of signals left to those who might pass by in the future, and the fact that they’ve managed to survive at Apple in even a limited way is something of a miracle in itself. (As the tech journalist Mike Murphy recently wrote: “For whatever reason, Apple looks and acts far more like a luxury brand than a consumer-technology brand in 2018.” And there isn’t much room in that business for castles or hobo signs.) When you click through the emulated versions of the earliest models of the Macintosh on the Internet Archive, it can feel like a temporary return to those values, or like a visit to a Zen garden. Yet if we only try to recapture it, we miss the point. Toward the end of In Search of Lost Time, Proust experiences a second moment of revelation, when he stumbles in a courtyard and catches himself “on a flagstone lower than the one next it,” which reminds him of a similar sensation that he had once felt at the Baptistry of St. Mark in Venice. And what he says of this flash of insight reminds me of how I feel when I look at the Happy Mac, and all the possibilities that it once seemed to express:

As at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all my apprehensions about the future, all my intellectual doubts, were dissipated. Those doubts which had assailed me just before, regarding the reality of my literary gifts and even regarding the reality of literature itself were dispersed as though by magic…Merely repeating the movement was useless; but if…I succeeded in recapturing the sensation which accompanied the movement, again the intoxicating and elusive vision softly pervaded me, as though it said, “Grasp me as I float by you, if you can, and try to solve the enigma of happiness I offer you.”

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2018 at 8:50 am

The president is collaborating

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Last week, Bill Clinton and James Patterson released their collaborative novel The President is Missing, which has already sold something like a quarter of a million copies. Its publication was heralded by a lavish two-page spread in The New Yorker, with effusive blurbs from just about everyone whom a former president and the world’s bestselling author might be expected to get on the phone. (Lee Child: “The political thriller of the decade.” Ron Chernow: “A fabulously entertaining thriller.”) If you want proof that the magazine’s advertising department is fully insulated from its editorial side, however, you can just point to the fact that the task of reviewing the book itself was given to Anthony Lane, who doesn’t tend to look favorably on much of anything. Lane’s style—he has evidently never met a smug pun or young starlet he didn’t like—can occasionally turn me off from his movie reviews, but I’ve always admired his literary takedowns. I don’t think a month goes by that I don’t remember his writeup of the New York Times bestseller list May 15, 1994, which allowed him to tackle the likes of The Bridges of Madison County, The Celestine Prophecy, and especially The Day After Tomorrow by Allan Folsom, from which he quoted a sentence that permanently changed my view of such novels: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.” But he seems to have grudgingly liked The President is Missing. If nothing else, he furnishes a backhanded compliment that has already been posted, hilariously out of context, on Amazon: “If you want to make the most of your late-capitalist leisure-time, hit the couch, crack a Bud, punch the book open, focus your squint, and enjoy.”

The words “hit the couch, crack a Bud, punch the book open, [and] focus your squint,” are all callbacks to samples of Patterson’s prose that Lane quotes in the review, but the phrase “late-capitalist leisure-time” might require some additional explanation. It’s a reference to the paper “Structure over Style: Collaborative Authorship and the Revival of Literary Capitalism,” which appeared last year in Digital Humanities Review, and I’m grateful to Lane for bringing it to my attention. The authors, Simon Fuller and James O’Sullivan, focus on the factory model of novelists who employ ghostwriters to boost their productivity, and their star exhibit is Patterson, to whom they devote the same kind of computational scrutiny that has previously uncovered traces of collaboration in Shakespeare. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Patterson doesn’t write most of the books that he ostensibly coauthors. (He may not even have done much of the writing on First to Die, which credits him as the sole writer.) But the paper is less interesting for its quantitative analysis than for its qualitative evaluation of what Patterson tells us about how we consume and enjoy fiction. For instance:

The form of [Patterson’s] novels also appears to be molded by contemporary experience. In particular, his work is perhaps best described as “commuter fiction.” Nicholas Paumgarten describes how the average time for a commute has significantly increased. As a result, reading has increasingly become one of those pursuits that can pass the time of a commute. For example, a truck driver describes how “he had never read any of Patterson’s books but that he had listened to every single one of them on the road.” A number of online reader reviews also describe Patterson’s writing in terms of their commutes…With large print, and chapters of two or three pages, Patterson’s works are constructed to fit between the stops on a metro line.

Of course, you could say much the same of many thrillers, particularly the kind known as the airport novel, which wasn’t just a book that you read on planes—at its peak, it was one in which many scenes took place in airports, which were still associated with glamor and escape. What sets Patterson apart from his peers is his ability to maintain a viable brand while publishing a dozen books every year. His productivity is inseparable from his use of coauthors, but he wasn’t the first. Fuller and O’Sullivan cite the case of Alexandre Dumas, who allegedly boasted of having written four hundred novels and thirty-five plays that had created jobs for over eight thousand people. And they dig up a remarkable quote from The German Ideology by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who “favorably compare French popular fiction to the German, paying particular attention to the latter’s appropriation of the division of labor”:

In proclaiming the uniqueness of work in science and art, [Max] Stirner adopts a position far inferior to that of the bourgeoisie. At the present time it has already been found necessary to organize this “unique” activity. Horace Vernet would not have had time to paint even a tenth of his pictures if he regarded them as works which “only this Unique person is capable of producing.” In Paris, the great demand for vaudevilles and novels brought about the organization of work for their production, organization which at any rate yields something better than its “unique” competitors in Germany.

These days, you could easily imagine Marx and Engels making a similar case about film, by arguing that the products of collaboration in Hollywood have often been more interesting, or at least more entertaining, than movies made by artists working outside the system. And they might be right.

The analogy to movies and television seems especially appropriate in the case of Patterson, who has often drawn such comparisons himself, as he once did to The Guardian: “There is a lot to be said for collaboration, and it should be seen as just another way to do things, as it is in other forms of writing, such as for television, where it is standard practice.” Fuller and O’Sullivan compare Patterson’s brand to that of Alfred Hitchcock, whose name was attached to everything from Dell anthologies to The Three Investigators to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It’s a good parallel, but an even better one might be hiding in plain sight. In her recent profile of the television producer Ryan Murphy, Emily Nussbaum evokes an ability to repackage the ideas of others that puts even Patterson to shame:

Murphy is also a collector, with an eye for the timeliest idea, the best story to option. Many of his shows originate as a spec script or as some other source material. (Murphy owned the rights to the memoir Orange Is the New Black before Jenji Kohan did, if you want to imagine an alternative history of television.) Glee grew out of a script by Ian Brennan; Feud began as a screenplay by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam. These scripts then get their DNA radically altered and replicated in Murphy’s lab, retooled with his themes and his knack for idiosyncratic casting.

Murphy’s approach of retooling existing material in his own image might be even smarter than Patterson’s method of writing outlines for others to expand, and he’s going to need it. Two months ago, he signed an unprecedented $300 million contract with Netflix to produce content of all kinds: television shows, movies, documentaries. And another former president was watching. While Bill Clinton was working with Patterson, Barack Obama was finalizing a Netflix deal of his own—and if he needs a collaborator, he doesn’t have far to look.

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