Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Todd VanDerWerff

Threading the needle

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Camel engraving by Heath

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

—Matthew 19:24

When people find an idea disturbing, especially if they have no choice but to trust its source, they’re often perversely eager to twist themselves into knots to avoid its implications. The quotation above provides as striking an example as any I know. Over the years, there have been many attempts to make this image from the New Testament seem less nonsensical or extreme than it initially appears: we’re told, for instance, that the eye of the needle was really a gate in Jerusalem through which a camel couldn’t fit without removing most of its baggage, or that “camel” is a faulty transcription for the Greek word for “cable” or “rope.” In fact, there’s no evidence that this passage means anything else than what it clearly states: the earliest attestation of the gate theory, which I remember hearing in Sunday school, dates from many centuries later. It’s a strange picture, but that’s why it lingers in the imagination. The Jesus Seminar, an imperfect but ambitious attempt to recover the historical deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, gives it high marks for authenticity, for the very reason that later readers found it so problematic. In their words:

The fact that this saying has been surrounded by attempts to soften it suggests that it was probably original with Jesus.

But it isn’t hard to see why many listeners would prefer to wave it away, even to the point of distorting the original or taking refuge in an apocryphal explanation. If it really refers to a camel squeezing through a gate, it seems that much more possible: if the camel can get through simply by unburdening itself, it implies that you can be just a little rich, but not too rich, and still push your way inside. The history of Christianity—and most other religions—consists of taking an uncompromising original message and looking for ways to pay homage to it while keeping things more or less as they already are. We’d all like to have it both ways, and the implication that reconciling wealth with eternal salvation isn’t just difficult, but physically impossible, makes most of us uneasy. But even those of us who aren’t conventionally religious would benefit from taking those words to heart. However we envision our own happiness, whether as a form of fulfillment in this life or as a reward in the world to come, there’s no denying that we’re more likely to reach it if we’re unrelenting about renouncing everything else. And this applies as much to something as modest as writing stories for a living as to trying to save one’s soul, which, to a writer, amounts to more or less the same thing.

Stewart Brand

I’ve been pondering this a lot recently, particularly in relation to making a living through art, which is often compared to threading a needle. It’s a phrase we see tossed around frequently, especially with respect to navigating our way through a world that seems ever more hostile to the idea of creative careers. If you want to be a novelist or freelance writer or critic, you soon find that the eye of that needle has grown increasingly narrow, as publishers are squeezed by declining sales, magazine circulation continues to fall, and websites search for sustainable business models while readers expect to read everything for free. I’ve been writing for a living for close to ten years now, and I don’t think I’m any closer to threading that needle than I ever was: if anything, the environment for writers has become so challenging that I’m not sure I would have tried to write professionally if I were faced with the same decision today. A few weeks ago, Todd VanDerWerff of Vox wrote a long article about the pitfalls confronting anyone trying to make it as a writer online—or anywhere else—in this climate, and if it peters out in the end without a solution, that isn’t his fault. Nobody, including people whose job it is to think about this stuff all the time, has yet managed to come up with a good answer. And the clock is ticking for all of us.

But the first step is to honestly acknowledge the challenges at stake. We aren’t dealing with a rope and a needle, or a camel and a gate, but a camel and a freaking needle. And it’s likely that anyone who pursues this life with any kind of seriousness will have to be just as methodical about stripping everything else away. I’ve always been heartened by what Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, had to say about voluntary simplicity: “What I find far more interesting [is] the sheer practicality of the exercise.” Anybody who tries to make a living as an artist soon finds that scaling back everything else isn’t just practical, but essential: threading that needle demands time, as well as many failed attempts, and you have to give up a lot to buy the necessary number of years it takes to get there. It doesn’t mean that you have to go up into the garret at once, as Thoreau advised, but it does mean that you can’t fool yourself into thinking that you can get there with half measures, or by pretending that the needle is a gate. The needles of the art world come in different sizes, but they’re all getting smaller, and if we can’t control the top line, we can at least control the bottom, by sacrificing as much as we can to buy the time we need. If we aren’t willing to do this, there are plenty of others who will. A compromise here and there may seem harmless. But sooner or later, one of those straws will break the camel’s back.

Written by nevalalee

August 18, 2015 at 10:24 am

American horror stories

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Colin Farrell on True Detective

As a devoted viewer of the current golden age of television, I sometimes wake up at night haunted by the question: What if the most influential series of the decade turns out to be American Horror Story? I’ve never seen even a single episode of this show, and I’m not exactly a fan of Ryan Murphy. Yet there’s no denying that it provided the catalyst for our growing fascination with the anthology format, in which television shows are treated less as ongoing narratives with no defined conclusion than as self-contained stories, told over the course of a single season, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. And American Horror Story deserves enormous credit for initially keeping this fact under wraps. Until its first season finale aired, it looked for all the world like a conventional series, and Murphy never tipped his hand. As a result, when the season ended by killing off nearly every lead character, critics and audiences reacted with bewilderment, with many wondering how the show could possibly continue. (It’s especially amusing to read Todd VanDerWerff’s writeup on The A.V. Club, which opens by confessing his early hope that this might be an anthology series—”On one level, I knew this sort of blend between the miniseries and the anthology drama would never happen”—and ends with him resignedly trying to figure out what might happen to the Harmon family next year.)

It was only then that Murphy indicated that he would be tackling a different story each season. Even then, it took critics a while to catch on: I even remember some grumbling about the show’s decision to compete in the Best Miniseries category at the Emmys, as if it were some kind of weird strategic choice, when in fact it’s the logical place for a series like this. And at a time when networks seem inclined to spoil everything and anything for the sake of grabbing more viewers, the fact that this was actually kept a secret is a genuine achievement. It allowed the series to take the one big leap—killing off just about everybody—that nobody could have seen coming, but which was utterly consistent with the rules of its game. (It wouldn’t be the first or last time that horror, which has always been a sandbox for quick and dirty experimentation, pointed the way for more reputable genres, but that’s a topic for another post.) The result cleared a path for critical favorites from True Detective to Fargo to operate in a format that offers major advantages: it can draw big names for a limited run, it allows stories to be told over the course of ten tightly structured episodes rather than stretched over twenty or more, it lends itself well to being watched in one huge binge, and it offers viewers the chance for a definitive conclusion.

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey on True Detective

Yet the element of surprise that made the first season of American Horror Story so striking no longer exists. When we’re watching a standard television series, we go into it with a few baseline assumptions: the show may kill off important characters, but it isn’t likely to wipe out most of its cast at once, and it certainly won’t blow up its entire premise. American Horror Story worked because it walked all over those conventions, and it fooled its viewers because it shrewdly kept its big structural conceit a secret. But it reminds me a little of what Daffy Duck said after performing an incredible novelty act that involved blowing himself up with nitroglycerin: “I can only do it once.” With all the anthology series that follow, we know that everything is on the table: there’s no reason for the show to preserve anything at all. And it affects the way we watch these shows, not always to their benefit. During the first season of True Detective, fan speculation spiraled off in increasingly wild directions because we knew that there was no long game to keep the show from being exactly as crazy as it liked. There wasn’t any reason why Cohle or Hart couldn’t be the killer, or that they couldn’t both die, and I spent half the season convinced that Hart’s wife was maybe the Yellow King, if only because she otherwise seemed like just another thankless female character—and that couldn’t be what the show had in mind, could it?

And if viewers seem to have turned slightly against True Detective in retrospect, it’s in part because nothing could have lived up to the more outlandish speculations. It was simply an excellent genre show, without a closing mindblower of a twist, and I liked it just fine. And it’s possible that the second season will benefit from those adjusted expectations, although it has plenty of other obstacles to overcome. Maintaining any kind of continuity for an anthology show is challenging enough, and True Detective has made it as hard on itself as possible: its cast, its period, its setting, its structure, even its overall tone have changed, leaving only the whisper of a conceit embedded in the title. Instead of Southern Gothic, its new season feels like an homage to those Los Angeles noirs in which messy human drama plays out against a backdrop of urban development, which encompasses everything from Chinatown to L.A. Confidential to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I’m a little mixed on last night’s premiere: these stories gain much of their power from contrasts between characters, and all the leads here share a common dourness. The episode ends with three haunted cops meeting each other for the first time, but they haven’t been made distinctive enough for that collision to seem particularly exciting. Still, despite some rote storytelling—Colin Farrell’s character is a divorced dad first seen dropping off his son at school, because of course he is—I really, really want it to work. There are countless stories, horror and otherwise, that the anthology format can tell. And this may turn out to be its greatest test yet.

Forget about your House of Cards

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Kevin Spacey on House of Cards

Forget about your house of cards
And I’ll do mine
And fall under the table, get swept under
Denial, denial…

—Radiohead, “House of Cards”

Note: Major spoilers follow for the third season of House of Cards.

Watching the season finale of House of Cards, I found myself reflecting on the curious career of director James Foley, who has helmed many of the show’s most memorable episodes. Foley is the quintessential journeyman, a filmmaker responsible for one movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, that I’ll probably revisit at least once a decade for the rest of my life, and a lot of weird, inexplicable filler, from The Corruptor to Perfect Stranger. It’s a messy body of work that still earned him a coveted entry in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which David Thomson writes: “You could put together a montage of scenes by Foley that might convince anyone that he was—and is—a very hot director.” And that’s equally true of House of Cards, which would allow you to cut together enough striking scenes and images to convince you that it was the hottest show on television. I’ve noted before that I’ve never seen a series in which every technical element was brought to such a consistent pitch of intensity: the cinematography, art direction, sound design, editing, and music are among the best I’ve ever seen. Foley’s handling of the finale is masterful. And yet it’s only a sad coda to a deeply disappointing, often outright frustrating show, which in its most recent season pulled off the neat trick of being both totally implausible and grindingly boring.

And it didn’t have to be this way. As infuriating as House of Cards often was, there was an undeniable charge, in the very last shot of the second season, when Underwood walked into the Oval Office and rapped his hand against the desk. We seemed primed to embark on a spectacular run of stories, with a scheming, murderous, Machiavellian psychopath positioned to move onto a grander stage. What we got, instead, was an Underwood who seemed oddly hapless and neutered. He’s still a hypocrite, but with no coherent plans for domination, and hardly any sense of what he wants to accomplish with the power he sought for so long. If the show were actively working to subvert our expectations, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case: for most of the season, it seemed as adrift as its protagonist, who starts off with poor approval ratings, a nonexistent mandate, and no ability to advance his agenda, whatever the hell it might be. In the abstract, I can understand the narrative reasoning: you want to open with your hero at a low point to give him somewhere to go. But if you can imagine, instead, a scenario in which Underwood starts out as popular and powerful, only to fight ruthlessly in secret against a scandal, old or new, that threatens to undermine it all, you start to glimpse the kind of drama that might have been possible.

House of Cards

And what’s really dispiriting is that all the right pieces were there, only to be systematically squandered. In Petrov, a thinly veiled surrogate for Putin, the show gave Underwood his first truly formidable antagonist, but instead of a global game of chess being played between two superb manipulators, we’re treated to the sight of Underwood rolling over time and time again. The one really shrewd plot point—in which Petrov extorts Underwood into forcing Claire to resign as UN ambassador—would have been much more effective if Claire had been any good at her job, which she manifestly isn’t. The interminable subplot about the America Works bill would have been fine if it had all been a blind for Underwood to consolidate his power, but it’s not: he just wants to give people jobs, and his attempts at extraconstitutional maneuvering seem like a means to an end, when they should have been the end in themselves. We keep waiting for Underwood, our ultimate villain, to do something evil, inspired, or even interesting, but he never does. And the show’s one great act of evil, in the form of Rachel’s fate, feels like a cynical cheat, because the show hasn’t done the hard work, as Breaking Bad repeatedly did, of earning the right to coldly dispose of one of its few sympathetic characters. (As it stands, there’s a touch of misogyny here, in which an appealing female player is reintroduced and killed simply to further the journey of a white male antihero in a supporting role.)

Yet House of Cards remains fascinating to think about, if not to watch, because so many talented people—David Fincher, Eric Roth, Tony Gilroy—have allowed it to drift off the rails. I’ve spoken at length before, most notably in Salon, about the dangers inherent in delivering a television series a full season at a time: without the intense scrutiny and feedback that comes from airing week to week, a show is likely to grow complacent, or to push deeper into a narrative dead end. In Vox, Todd VanDerWerff argues that this season can best be understood as a reaction to the show’s critics, a failed attempt to make a hard turn into a character drama, which only proves that it isn’t enough to plot a course correction once per season. And there’s a larger blindness here, perhaps one enabled by the show’s superficial gorgeousness. Is what Frank Underwood does interesting because he’s Underwood, or is he interesting because he does interesting things? I’d argue that it’s the latter, and that the echo chamber the Netflix model creates has lulled the show into thinking that we’ll follow its protagonist anywhere, when it has yet to honestly earn that level of trust. (In a way, it feels like a reflection of its leading man: Kevin Spacey may be the most intelligent actor alive when it comes to the small decisions he makes from moment to moment, but he’s been frequently misguided in his choice of star parts.) House of Cards is still a fun show to dissect; if I were teaching a course on television, it’s the first case study I’d assign. But that doesn’t mean I need to give it any more of my time.

Exactly the right number of cooks

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Too Many Cooks

By now, many of you have probably already seen, and can’t unsee, “Too Many Cooks.” If not, you can watch it here, and I’ll wait until you’re done. For those who can’t be bothered—and I don’t entirely blame you—I should explain that it’s a viral video, written by Casper Kelly, which starts out as a savage takedown of insipid sitcom opening titles from the likes of Family Matters and Full House, only to evolve gradually into something much darker and weirder. I’m not going to even try analyzing it here; there are already plenty of think pieces that cheerfully read too much into it. (I’m looking at you, Todd VanDerWerff.) But I will say that it feels both utterly insane and strangely inevitable, like watching all of Mulholland Drive in the span of eleven minutes. It isn’t perfect, and the quality of the parody varies considerably, but there’s a reason why it’s making so many heads explode. As Dave Sims writes in The Atlantic: “It’s the classic anti-comedy premise of taking so long with something that it goes from being funny, to being not very funny, to being boring, to suddenly becoming hilarious again.”

In other words, it’s a rake gag, which is partially true, although this really only explains the first few minutes. “Too Many Cooks” is a lot of things, but it’s also a sketch engaged in a constant dialogue with its own length, as well as the viewer’s expectations of how long a joke like this can be sustained. Sims goes on to point out—with a nod to his colleague Joe Reid—that “Too Many Cooks” would work even better if the video didn’t have that little timer at the bottom, telling you how long it had left to run. It would work beautifully, for instance, as a short subject before a midnight movie, maybe Mulholland Drive itself. In fact, that’s more or less how it originally aired, as part of Adult Swim‘s infomercial block, which unleashes odd, self-contained sketches on unsuspecting viewers at four in the morning. And what interests me the most about it, at least from a writer’s perspective, is how its strangest and most memorable qualities naturally arise from the format in which it was first presented. It acquired a new life online, but it came out of television, and it’s as a piece of television that it can best be understood.

Marc Farley in Too Many Cooks

A few days ago, on Reddit, writer Casper Kelly shared the following story about how the short was conceived:

I think it was a shower idea—just simply the idea of a show sitcom [sic] open that doesn’t stop. It made me laugh. But I didn’t think it could work for eleven minutes so I didn’t do anything with it. Then my coworker Jim Fortier (Squidbillies) told the idea to Mike Lazzo (head of Adult Swim) at a party and he laughed. So I decided to go for it. I told Mike I wasn’t sure it could work for eleven minutes—just adding actors. Mike said even Andy Kaufman would only do that for about four minutes—and then I needed to start zigging and zagging. He was right.

Which highlights a crucial, easily overlooked detail: nearly every informercial that Adult Swim airs is exactly eleven minutes long, give or take thirty seconds or so. If “Too Many Cooks” had been conceived from the beginning as an online video, without any length restrictions, Kelly might have been content to stick with his original four-minute conception, and the result would have looked a lot like the superficially similar sketch from MADtv that failed to set the world on fire.

Instead, Kelly was forced to think harder to fill the space he had, and the constraints of the format with which he was presented took him into increasingly demented, and inspired, places. In a way, it’s an inversion of the phenomenon that I’ve discussed here before with regard to television, in which fixed network timeslots force creators to deal with less room, not more. As I wrote then: “For most shows, though, the episodic format provides a useful set of constraints…It’s a force for selection, compression, and external structure, all of which a series discards at its own peril.” When a show lacks those boundaries, as we often see with Netflix Originals, the result can seem sloppy or overlong. And while shorter is generally better than longer, “Too Many Cooks” proves that even the opposite constraint can push the material into interesting directions, as the writer stretches himself further than he would have if left to his own devices. It’s like structure in poetry, in which a poet often has to fill out a thought to make it to the end of a line or stanza. Sometimes, this leads to simple padding, and not even “Too Many Cooks” is entirely exempt. But it’s still a valuable lesson. In fiction or film, you can do anything you like, but it’s only when you give up some of your freedom that you learn what “anything” really means.

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2014 at 9:01 am

Community values

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The Community episode "Basic Sandwich"

Community has been canceled. It was a move that took a lot of us, including me, by surprise, and it was announced just as I’d absorbed the happy news that Hannibal was coming back for at least one more season. For shows that are perpetually on the bubble, renewal and cancellation decisions can seem arbitrary or worse, but this one was especially inexplicable: Community has never been a highly rated show, but it’s still been consistent enough to think that NBC would want to keep it in reserve, along with Parks and Recreation, to fill a few slots in the spring after other shows have failed and the entire lineup is competing against football on Thursday. (Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club laid out that scenario here.) Instead, at a moment when the series seemed so confident in renewal that it ended the season with an episode that all but took it for granted, it’s gone. Later today, the network’s Bob Greenblatt is scheduled to go into more detail about the thought process behind this decision, and I’m curious about what he’ll say, even if the explanation turns out to be as boring as I expect: sitcoms still cost more to produce than reality shows, so if you’re going to hold onto a mediocre performer, better it be something like The Biggest Loser.

Of course, the peculiar thing about watching a cult series these days is that you just never know what might happen. Shows with poor ratings but a vehement fanbase have been resurrected in surprising ways, whether via another network (Cougar Town), a streaming service (Arrested Development), or a Kickstarter campaign (Veronica Mars), and it’s easy to imagine Community taking any one of these routes. (If Dan Harmon wants my money, I’m pretty much willing to give it to him with no questions asked.) The possibility of a show returning in some other form isn’t a new phenomenon: Police Squad did just fine for itself on the big screen, while movies as different as Serenity and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me indicate that executives are willing to take a flier on a niche property for the sake of tapping into an existing audience, even if the results are never quite as successful as anyone hopes. And if we’ve learned one thing from the curious ups and downs of Arrested Development, it’s that even after years of speculation, rumor, and teasing possibilities, you sometimes do get what you want—although the form it takes may not be what you expected.

The cast of Community

As a result, when a show like Community ends, it’s less of a full stop than an ellipsis, possibly with a question mark attached. And for a series that always had its eye so clearly on the long game, it represents a real loss, at least for now. Sitcoms have traditionally had an uneasy relationship to the very idea of a finale: since every episode was meant to stand on its own, even the penultimate installment of a show usually felt like business as usual, saving all the thankless work of setting up the ending for the following week. (“The Puerto Rican Day” episode of Seinfeld, for instance, which was the last regular episode before its finale, really could have aired at any point in the show’s run.) Aside from the practicalities of syndication, in which episodes can aired in any order, there’s a good reason why sitcoms often prefer to confine all this material to the finale: it generally isn’t a lot of fun. Community was always a little different; each season had a clear arc, albeit with room for many bizarre digressions, and even if this was designed in part to gently mock the whole idea of overarching storylines, if the show knew that it was ending for real, the tone of the entire season would have been very different.

As stands, we’re not going to get that season, and even if it materializes in some other form, it’s inevitably going to be altered by outside circumstances. (Obviously, this is nothing new to Community, which has never been as free as it would have liked to shape its stories according to their internal needs: over the past two seasons alone, it weathered the firing and return of its creator and the departure of a pair of crucial cast members, and the strain on the storytelling often showed.) It’s instructive to compare this to Parks and Recreation, which just ended its own season with an episode that felt empathically like a series finale: it found room for all of its lead and supporting characters, included callbacks to six years of history, tied emotional bows on every major storyline, and concluded with a flashforward that worked beautifully as a closing gag. Watching it, I assumed that Michael Shur and his collaborators had approached it as a potential ending while waiting on the resolution of the show’s fate, but in fact, it seems that they’d already been guaranteed a renewal. In other words, their approach was the exact opposite of Community, which structured its finale with another season in mind even as its future hung by a thread. I shouldn’t be surprised: no other sitcom on television has consistently taken such big risks. And if it had played it safe at this last, critical moment, it wouldn’t be the show I’ve grown to love.

The art of improvisation

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John Coltrane

Yesterday, while writing about what currently stands as my favorite show on television, I concluded: “The only thing I can say for sure is that both Hannibal and his show have a plan.” Shortly after typing this line, however, I realized that it was a little misleading. Clearly, this is a show with its eye on the long game, and I hope that Bryan Fuller and his team get the five seasons that they need to tell this story properly. Yet there’s also room for improvisation within the structure laid down by Thomas Harris’s novels and the show’s own narrative arc. Anyone reading the excellent weekly walkthroughs that Fuller has been giving to Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club knows that Hannibal often makes radical changes late in the game. The identity of Will’s secret admirer, for instance, was changed at the last minute to simplify a complicated storyline after several episodes had already been shot, and the shocking revelation at the end of last week’s installment was originally intended to conclude the first season. Fuller’s explanation for this last change is particularly revealing:

I just think it’s so much better for [it to happen] in this way, as opposed to putting [it] as part of the cliffhanger of the first season, because it actually would have taken a bit of the power away from that last moment between Will and Hannibal, which I think needs to have its air.

This only means that the series has both an overarching plan and the freedom to move around within it as the material itself suggests changes and improvements, which is the key to good improvisation. Television, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, provides some of our most fascinating case studies in the tension between structure and serendipity, since so much of it unfolds in public. I’ve argued that a show like House of Cards suffers from its inability to react in real time to its own reception, and in recent years, we’ve seen examples of shows that improvise brilliantly within a strong narrative framework (Breaking Bad) and ones that suffer either from too little structure (Glee) or from an existing plan imposed on reluctant material (How I Met Your Mother). The ability to balance these two extremes is the mark of a great artist, and not just in works of narrative. Improvisation itself is a concept rooted in music and poetry, and from the beginning, it referred to a form of invention within constraints. An oral poet can improvise verse on demand thanks to an existing structure of meter, rhyme, and traditional formulas and epithets, while musical improvisers from Bach to Coltrane know how to wander far and wide while always returning to the rigorous logic of the chord progression.

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

In fact, you could make a convincing argument that structure is what makes good improvisation possible. Improv comedy thrives on implicit rules that provide beautiful guidelines for any kind of storytelling: add new information, focus on the here and now, establish the location, and don’t block your partners. A good improviser is always thinking ahead, and one of the keenest pleasures of a great improv set is watching the performers file away details that can recur later to give the scene a shape and a punchline. I’ve said before that formulas and clichés originate as a way of solving problems, and one of their most valuable functions is to provide a framework for exploration: a crime procedural, for instance, is flexible enough to accommodate any number of vignettes and locations, and if you drift too far from the point, the formula is always there to lock you back into focus. Matt Groening likes to talk about the “rubber-band” reality of The Simpsons, which allows the logic to be stretched for the sake of a joke, only to quickly snap back, and much of the joy of its classic seasons comes from that push and pull. (Like any rubber band, though, it gets looser over time, and that loss in elasticity goes a long way toward explaining why the show grew increasingly less interesting.)

There are also times when the illusion of improvisation can be as powerful as its presence. Anyone who has spent time listening to live jazz knows that many of those “improvised” riffs are really just good tricks, kept in the performer’s back pocket and brought out periodically to wow the audience, and that’s true for narrative as well. Some of my favorite movies are those that give the appearance, from minute to minute, of being made up on the fly, only to reveal a meticulous design in the end, as in the best work of Steven Soderbergh or the Coen Brothers. (It’s interesting to note, in passing, that both Soderbergh and the Coens edit their own movies under pseudonyms, which implies that finding the right balance between structure and discovery requires an especially intimate engagement with the raw footage.) Done properly, it feels like real life, which also reveals surprising shapes behind apparent randomness. And as a writer, I know that I only feel comfortable going off on tangents when I know that there’s a larger structure waiting in reserve when I need it. The underlying plan can take the form of an existing work, a detailed outline, or a sequence of chords in a fake book, but whatever it is, it allows us to be more daring than we could otherwise be. If we’re not sure how to find our way home, we aren’t likely to stray far from the path, but once we have a good map and compass, we can really explore the territory.

The hero paradox

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Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Every year, the Academy Awards telecast makes us sit through a bunch of pointless montages, and every year, we get to complain about it. As I mentioned last week, I’ve long since gotten over most of the weird choices made by the Oscars—I like to remind myself that the ceremony isn’t designed for the television audience, but for the movers and shakers sitting in the auditorium itself—and I’ve resigned myself to the prospect of a few pointless production numbers. But the montages always seem particularly strange. They don’t add much in the way of entertainment value, and the opportunity cost for what is already an overlong show is unforgivably high: one fewer montage, and perhaps we might have had room for Dennis Farina in the In Memoriam reel, not to mention the canceled appearance by Batkid. This year’s ceremony, with its “salute to heroes” theme, resulted in an even more random assortment of clips than usual: here’s Gandhi, and Lawrence of Arabia, and just as we start to think there’s a pattern emerging, here’s Sidney Poitier as Mr. Tibbs. (I actually had to look up In the Heat of the Night to reassure myself that it hadn’t been based on a true story.)

The result was inexplicable enough that it inspired Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club to tweet: “Next year: A tribute to protagonists!” But it also raises the larger question of what a hero really is, at least in terms of what we look for in storytelling. From a producer’s point of view, the answer is simple: a hero is the actor with the greatest amount of screen time, or whose face takes up the most room on the poster. (Or as the producer Scott Rudin once said when asked what a movie was about: “It’s about two movie stars.”) A writer might put it somewhat differently. The protagonist of a movie is the character whose actions and decisions drive the plot, and if he or she happens to embody qualities that we associate with heroism—courage, integrity, selflessness, resourcefulness—it’s because these attributes lend themselves both to wishful identification from the audience and to interesting choices and behavior within the confines of the story. All things being equal, a brave, committed individual will end up doing things on camera that we’ll hopefully want to watch. It has nothing to do with morality; it’s a logistical choice that results in more entertaining narratives. Or at least it should be.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

The trouble, of course, is that when you’re not sure about your own story, you tend to fixate more on what the hero is than the more crucial matter of what he does. Screenwriters are always told to make their leading characters more heroic and likable, as if this were something that could be separated from the narrative itself. At worst, the movie simply serves up a chosen one, either explicitly or implicitly, which is often an excuse to give us a protagonist who is interesting and important just because we’re told he is. Sometimes, this problem can be a subtle one. Watching The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for the first time over the weekend, I felt that even though Jennifer Lawrence sells the hell out of the part, Katniss Everdeen herself is something of a wet blanket. This isn’t anyone’s fault: Katniss as written is almost unplayable, since she needs to be admirable enough to inspire a revolution and carry a franchise, vulnerable enough to serve as one corner of a love triangle, and a resourceful warrior who also hates the idea of killing. That’s a lot for any one character to shoulder, and it means that poor Katniss herself is often the least interesting person on the screen.

In general, though, it’s hard for a hero to come to life in the way a more incidental character can, simply because he’s under so much pressure to advance the plot. The great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky hinted at this last week on Reddit:

The difference between character actors and the leading men is that everything the leading men do is on film. Character actors have to invent that life off screen and bring that reality on screen. It’s much more imaginative work and the hours are better.

That’s why we often find ourselves wishing that we could spend more time with the supporting cast of a television show: they’re so much more full of life and vitality than the lead, whose every action is designed to carry forward a huge, creaking machine. Being a hero is a thankless role, both in fiction and in real life, and it inevitably leads to a loss of freedom, when in theory the hero should be more free than anyone else. As Harold Bloom observes of Hamlet, he could be anything in the world, but he’s doomed to play out the role in which he has been cast. Finding a way to balance a hero’s narrative burden with the freedom he needs to come alive in the imagination is one of a writer’s greatest challenges. And if the movies succeeded at this more often, those montages at the Oscars would have made a lot more sense.

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