Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Tony Kushner

The feathers and the smoke

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I read the comics. I got liberated from reading the New York Times and addicted to reading Newsday because it has comics, and the New York Times doesn’t. I get very cranky if I don’t have my comics every day…Theater is as much a part of trash culture as it is high art. It always is that. And it’s incredibly important for people who are working in theater to always remember that it’s show biz and it’s sort of sleazy, and a lot of the traditions that you’ve inherited and a lot of the ways that you have at your disposal for telling a story are ways that were developed by, incredibly, sort of lowbrow, popular entertainment. The theater always has to function as popular entertainment. Or at least the theater that I do, because I don’t have the talent for doing anything else…It has to have the jokes and it has to have the feathers and the mirrors and the smoke.

Tony Kushner, in an interview reprinted in Tony Kushner in Conversation

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July 8, 2018 at 7:30 am

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 3

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On December 4, 1983, the readers of Parade magazine were treated to the cover story “How to Stay Fit” by President Ronald Reagan. In the article, Reagan, or his ghostwriter, described his fitness and diet regimen, which included “the cutting, hauling, and stacking of the wood” at his ranch, and finished:

I don’t want to be be overbearing about the need for exercise, but I would encourage each of you reading this article to think how you could get a little more physical activity into your life. I guarantee that you will feel better both physically and mentally…The next time they report I’m out riding or chopping or otherwise getting the old circulation going, why don’t you get out there and enjoy some exercise yourself? If all of us do, America will be in better shape, too. I’ll be thinking of you. Good health to you all.

In retrospect, it’s hard to read this without reflecting that it appeared at the exact moment that the Reagan administration was studiously ignoring—if not actively mocking—the AIDS crisis. It must have seemed odd to many people even at the time, and its backstory is even stranger. The attorney Roy Cohn had met with Ed Rollins, Reagan’s campaign manager, who was concerned about public perception of the president’s age and health. Cohn recalls in his own autobiography: “I thought about it, and I said it seemed to me that a well-placed magazine article showing the president’s physical prowess would be the best answer. The obvious magazine was Parade…The article served its purpose. It was widely received and acclaimed.”

Parade was “obvious,” needless to say, because it was published by Cohn’s good friend Si Newhouse, and everyone in the Reagan camp was pleased by the result, including Nancy Reagan, who, according to Roger Stone, “thanked [Cohn] profusely for it. She knew that Roy could get things done, and she respected and used people who could get things done.” Stone, like Ed Rollins, later worked on the Trump campaign, and much of Cohn’s advice, particularly on the media, has been passed down to the current administration. In all of the profiles about Cohn’s relationship with Trump—which often mention Rupert Murdoch, but not Si Newhouse—it’s this aspect that strikes me the most. Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer wrote last summer in the New York Times: “Among the many things Mr. Trump learned from Mr. Cohn during these years was the importance of keeping one’s name in the newspapers. Long before Mr. Trump posed as his own spokesman, passing self-serving tidbits to gossip columnists, Mr. Cohn was known to call in stories about himself to reporters.” And in Vanity Fair, which has seamlessly pivoted to attacking Trump after decades in which it glorified him, Marie Brenner wrote:

Another of Cohn’s tactics was to befriend the town’s top gossip columnists, such as Leonard Lyons and George Sokolsky, who would bring Cohn to the Stork Club. He was irresistible to tabloid writers, always ready with scandal-tinged tales. “Roy would be hired by a divorce client in the morning and be leaking their case in the afternoon,” New Yorker writer Ken Auletta recalled. Columnist Liz Smith said she learned to distrust most items he gave her. A similar reliance on the press would also become a vital component of the young Trump’s playbook.

And when Trump heard of Cohn’s death, according to the Times, he said to himself: “Wow, that’s the end of a generation. That’s the end of an era.”

Roy Cohn would receive his most famous afterlife as the most vivid character in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, in which he dominates the play to an extent that seems to have troubled even his creator. (In an interview with Adam Mars Jones, Kushner said: “I’m a little worried that in the process of figuring [Cohn] out I’ve overdone it and he’s maybe too sympathetic a character.”) It’s a stunning portrait, and it resonates even more deeply today. Reading it over this week, I was most struck by the speech in the first part, Millennium Approaches, that Cohn delivers to his doctor, Henry, as his body is ravaged by AIDS:

Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that…Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows…I have clout. A lot. I can pick up this phone, punch fifteen numbers, and you know who will be on the other end in under five minutes, Henry?

Henry ventures his best guess: “The President.” Roy shoots back at him: “Even better, Henry. His wife.”

This has the ring of authenticity, and the speech itself reflects what Cohn evidently believed about himself. (In a profile written a decade ago by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, Roger Stone said: “Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed.”) Toward the end of Perestroika, the second part of the play, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg says to the dying Cohn:

They beat you. You lost. (Pause). I decided to come here so I could see could I forgive you. You who I have hated so terribly I have borne my hatred for you up into the heavens and made a needlesharp little star in the sky out of it…I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. Hoping I’d get to see you die more terrible than I did. And you are, ’cause you’re dying in shit, Roy, defeated. And you could kill me, but you couldn’t ever defeat me. You never won. And when you die all anyone will say is: better he had never lived at all.

I don’t know if Kushner ever really believed this—one of Cohn’s last lines in the play is “I win!”—but it doesn’t seem true now. Cohn wasn’t defeated at all, although the extent of his victory took thirty years to become manifest. On the day after the election, Stone told Vanity Fair, Trump mused: “Wouldn’t Roy love to see this moment? Boy, do we miss him.” And when I think of Cohn today, I remember these lines from Kushner, and I know that the play isn’t over:

Roy: I’m immortal, Ethel. (He forces himself to stand) I have forced my way into history. I ain’t never gonna die.
Ethel Rosenberg: (A little laugh, then) History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.

On a wing and a prayer

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“It was the greatest career move in the history of entertainment,” David Thomson writes in an entry in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. He’s speaking, of course, of Ronald Reagan:

He was a hugely successful and evasive president, as blind to disaster, inquiry, and humiliation as he was to the Constitution. And he was as lucky as he had been a loser in pictures…To paraphrase Gore Vidal, the wisdom and integrity of someone told where to stand and what to say for twenty years were made manifest. The fraudulence of the presidency was revealed so that the office could never quite be honored again.

When I look at these lines now, especially that last sentence, they can start to seem rather quaint. But Reagan has a lot to tell us about Trump, and not simply because he looks so much better by comparison. “An actor is playing the president,” Paul Slansky lamented in The Clothes Have No Emperor, a book—with its painstaking chronology of the unlikely events of the Reagan Administration—that looks increasingly funny, resonant, and frightening these days. Yet the presidency has always been something of a performance. As Malcolm Gladwell recently noted to The Undefeated, most presidents have been white men of a certain age and height:

Viewed statistically it’s absurd. Why would you limit your search for the most important job in the land to this tiny group of people? But it’s an incredibly common thing. We do a category selection before we do individual analysis.

In other words, we cast men who look the part, and then we judge them by how well they fulfill our idea of the role.

Reagan, like Trump, was unusually prone to improvising, or, in Thomson’s words, “deftly feeding the lines and situations of Warner Brothers in the 1940s back into world affairs.” Occasionally, he would tell a story to put himself in a favorable light, as when he made the peculiar claim—to Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal, no less—that he had personally shot documentary film of the concentration camps after World War II. (In reality, Reagan spent the war in Hollywood, where he assisted in processing footage taken by others in Europe.) But sometimes his reasons were harder to pin down. On December 12, 1983, Reagan told a story in a speech to the annual convention of the Congressional Medal Honor Society:

A B‑17 was coming back across the channel from a raid over Europe, badly shot up by anti‑aircraft; the ball turret that hung underneath the belly of the plane had taken a hit. The young ball‑turret gunner was wounded, and they couldn’t get him out of the turret there while flying. But over the channel, the plane began to lose altitude, and the commander had to order, “Bail out.” And as the men started to leave the plane, the last one to leave—the boy, understandably, knowing he was being left behind to go down with the plane, cried out in terror—the last man to leave the plane saw the commander sit down on the floor. He took the boy’s hand and said, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” Congressional Medal of honor posthumously awarded.

Reagan recounted this story on numerous other occasions. But as Lars-Erik Nelson, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News, subsequently determined, after checking hundreds of Medal of Honor citations from World War II: “It didn’t happen. It’s a Reagan story…The president of the United States went before an audience of three hundred real Congressional Medal of Honor winners and told them about a make‑believe Medal of Honor winner.”

There’s no doubt that Reagan, who often grew visibly moved as he recounted this story, believed that it was true, and it has even been used as a case study in the creation of false memories. Nelson traced it back to a scene in the 1944 movie Wing and a Prayer, as well as to a similar apocryphal item that appeared that year in Reader’s Digest. (The same story, incidentally, later became the basis for an episode of Amazing Stories, “The Mission,” starring Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland and directed by Steven Spielberg. Tony Kushner once claimed that Spielberg’s movies “are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism,” and this is the most compelling point I’ve seen in that argument’s favor.) But the most Trumpian aspect of the entire incident was the response of Reagan’s staff. As the Washington Post reported a few days later:

A determined White House is searching the records of American servicemen awarded the Medal of Honor in an effort to authenticate a disputed World War II story President Reagan told last week at a ceremony honoring recipients of the medal…The White House then began checking records to document the episode. Reagan is said by aides to be certain that he saw the citation exactly as he recounted it. The citations are summarized in a book published by Congress, but none of these summaries seem to fit precisely the episode Reagan described, although some are similar…The White House is now attempting to look beyond the summaries to more detailed accounts to see if one of the episodes may be the one Reagan mentioned. “We will find it,” said Misty Church, a researcher for the White House.

They never did. And the image of White House staffers frantically trying to justify something that the president said off the cuff certainly seems familiar today.

But what strikes me the most about this story is that Reagan himself had nothing to gain from it. Most of Trump’s fabrications are designed to make him look better, more successful, or more impressive than he actually is, while Reagan’s fable is rooted in a sentimental ideal of heroism itself. (It’s hard to even imagine a version of this story that Trump might have told, since the most admirable figure in it winds up dead. As Trump might say, he likes pilots who weren’t shot down.) Which isn’t to say that Reagan’s mythologizing isn’t problematic in itself, as Nelson pointed out:

[It’s] the difference between a make-believe pilot, dying nobly and needlessly to comfort a wounded boy, and the real-life pilots, bombardiers and navigators who struggled to save their planes, their crews and themselves and died trying. It’s the difference between war and a war story.

And while this might seem preferable to Trump’s approach, which avoids any talk of sacrifice in favor of scenarios in which everybody wins, or we stick other people with the cost of our actions, it still closes off higher levels of thought in favor of an appeal to emotion. Reagan was an infinitely more capable actor than Trump, and he was much easier to love, which shouldn’t blind us to what they have in common. They were both winging it. And the most characteristic remark to come out of the whole affair is how Larry Speakes, the White House spokesman under Reagan, responded when asked if the account was accurate: “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.”

The temple of doom

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Steven Spielberg on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I think America is going through a paroxysm of rage…But I think there’s going to be a happy ending in November.

—Steven Spielberg, to Sky News, July 17, 2016

Last month, Steven Spielberg celebrated his seventieth birthday. Just a few weeks later, Yale University Press released Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films by the critic Molly Haskell, which has received a surprising amount of attention for a relatively slender book from an academic publisher, including a long consideration by David Denby in The New Yorker. I haven’t read Haskell’s book, but it seems likely that its reception is partially a question of good timing. We’re in the mood to talk about Spielberg, and not just because of his merits as a filmmaker or the fact that he’s entering the final phase of his career. Spielberg, it’s fair to say, is the most quintessentially American of all directors, despite a filmography that ranges freely between cultures and seems equally comfortable in the past and in the future. He’s often called a mythmaker, and if there’s a place where his glossy period pieces, suburban landscapes, and visionary adventures meet, it’s somewhere in the nation’s collective unconscious: its secret reveries of what it used to be, what it is, and what it might be again. Spielberg country, as Stranger Things was determined to remind us, is one of small towns and kids on bikes, but it also still vividly remembers how it beat the Nazis, and it can’t keep from turning John Hammond from a calculating billionaire into a grandfatherly, harmless dreamer. No other artist of the last half century has done so much to shape how we feel about ourselves. He took over where Walt Disney left off. But what has he really done?

To put it in the harshest possible terms, it’s worth asking whether Spielberg—whose personal politics are impeccably liberal—is responsible in part for our current predicament. He taught the New Hollywood how to make movies that force audiences to feel without asking them to think, to encourage an illusion of empathy instead of the real thing, and to create happy endings that confirm viewers in their complacency. You can’t appeal to all four quadrants, as Spielberg did to a greater extent than anyone who has ever lived, without consistently telling people exactly what they want to hear. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how film serves as an exercise ground for the emotions, bringing us closer on a regular basis to the terror, wonder, and despair that many of us would otherwise experience only rarely. It reminds the middle class of what it means to feel pain or awe. But I worry that when we discharge these feelings at the movies, it reduces our capacity to experience them in real life, or, even more insidiously, makes us think that we’re more empathetic and compassionate than we actually are. Few movies have made viewers cry as much as E.T., and few have presented a dilemma further removed than anything a real person is likely to face. (Turn E.T. into an illegal alien being sheltered from a government agency, maybe, and you’d be onto something.) Nearly every film from the first half of Spielberg’s career can be taken as a metaphor for something else. But great popular entertainment has a way of referring to nothing but itself, in a cognitive bridge to nowhere, and his images are so overwhelming that it can seem superfluous to give them any larger meaning.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Jaws

If Spielberg had been content to be nothing but a propagandist, he would have been the greatest one who ever lived. (Hence, perhaps, his queasy fascination with the films of Leni Riefenstahl, who has affinities with Spielberg that make nonsense out of political or religious labels.) Instead, he grew into something that is much harder to define. Jaws, his second film, became the most successful movie ever made, and when he followed it up with Close Encounters, it became obvious that he was in a position with few parallels in the history of art—he occupied a central place in the culture and was also one of its most advanced craftsmen, at a younger age than Damien Chazelle is now. If you’re talented enough to assume that role and smart enough to stay there, your work will inevitably be put to uses that you never could have anticipated. It’s possible to pull clips from Spielberg’s films that make him seem like the cuddliest, most repellent reactionary imaginable, of the sort that once prompted Tony Kushner to say:

Steven Spielberg is apparently a Democrat. He just gave a big party for Bill Clinton. I guess that means he’s probably idiotic…Jurassic Park is sublimely good, hideously reactionary art. E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism. They’re fascinating for that reason, because Spielberg is somebody who has just an astonishing ear for the rumblings of reaction, and he just goes right for it and he knows exactly what to do with it.

Kushner, of course, later became Spielberg’s most devoted screenwriter. And the total transformation of the leading playwright of his generation is the greatest testament imaginable to this director’s uncanny power and importance.

In reality, Spielberg has always been more interesting than he had any right to be, and if his movies have been used to shake people up in the dark while numbing them in other ways, or to confirm the received notions of those who are nostalgic for an America that never existed, it’s hard to conceive of a director of his stature for whom this wouldn’t have been the case. To his credit, Spielberg clearly grasps the uniqueness of his position, and he has done what he could with it, in ways that can seem overly studied. For the last two decades, he has worked hard to challenge some of our assumptions, and at least one of his efforts, Munich, is a masterpiece. But if I’m honest, the film that I find myself thinking about the most is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It isn’t my favorite Indiana Jones movie—I’d rank it a distant third. For long stretches, it isn’t even all that good. It also trades in the kind of casual racial stereotyping that would be unthinkable today, and it isn’t any more excusable because it deliberately harks back to the conventions of an earlier era. (The fact that it’s even watchable now only indicates how much ground East and South Asians have yet to cover.) But its best scenes are so exciting, so wonderful, and so conductive to dreams that I’ve never gotten over it. Spielberg himself was never particularly pleased with the result, and if asked, he might express discomfort with some of the decisions he made. But there’s no greater tribute to his artistry, which executed that misguided project with such unthinking skill that he exhilarated us almost against his better judgment. It tells us how dangerous he might have been if he hadn’t been so deeply humane. And we should count ourselves lucky that he turned out to be as good of a man as he did, because we’d never have known if he hadn’t.

An unfinished decade

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Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What movie from our best films of the decade so far list doesn’t deserve to be on there?”

Toward the end of the eighties, Premiere Magazine conducted a poll of critics, directors, writers, and industry insiders to select the best films of the previous decade. The winners, in order of the number of votes received, were Raging Bull, Wings of Desire, E.T., Blue Velvet, Hannah and Her Sisters, Platoon, Fanny and Alexander, Shoah, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Do the Right Thing, with The Road Warrior, Local Hero, and Terms of Endearment falling just outside the top ten. I had to look up the list to retype it here, but I also could have reconstructed much of it from memory: a battered copy of Premiere’s paperback home video guide—which seems to have vanished from existence, along with its parent magazine, based on my inability, after five minutes of futile searching, to even locate the title online—was one of my constant companions as I started exploring movies more seriously in high school. And if the list contains a few headscratchers, that shouldn’t be surprising: the poll was held a few months before the eighties were technically even over, which isn’t close to enough time for a canon to settle into a consensus.

So how would an updated ranking look? The closest thing we have to a more recent evaluation is the latest Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the best films ever made. Pulling out only the movies from the eighties, the top films are Shoah, Raging Bull, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, Fanny and Alexander, A City of Sadness, Do the Right Thing, L’Argent, The Shining, and My Neighbor Totoro, followed closely by Come and See, Distant Voices Still Lives, and Once Upon a Time in America. There’s a degree of overlap here, and Raging Bull was already all but canonized when the earlier survey took place, but Wings of Desire, which once came in second, is nowhere in sight, its position taken by a movie—Blade Runner—that didn’t even factor into the earlier conversation. The Shining received the vote of just a single critic in the Premiere poll, and at the time it was held, My Neighbor Totoro wouldn’t be widely seen outside Japan for another three years. Still, if there’s a consistent pattern, it’s hard to see, aside from the obvious point that it takes a while for collective opinion to stabilize. Time is the most remorseless, and accurate, critic of them all.

Inception

And carving up movies by decade is an especially haphazard undertaking. A decade is an arbitrary division, much more so than a single year, in which the movies naturally engage in a kind of accidental dialogue. It’s hard to see the release date of Raging Bull as anything more than a quirk of the calendar: it’s undeniably the last great movie of the seventies. You could say much the same of The Shining. And there’s pressure to make any such list conform to our idea of what a given decade was about. The eighties, at least at the time, were seen as a moment in which the auteurism of the prior decade was supplanted by a blockbuster mentality, encouraged, as Tony Kushner would have it, by an atmosphere of reactionary politics, but of course the truth is more complicated. Blue Velvet harks back to the fifties, but the division at its heart feels like a product of Reaganism, and the belated ascent of Blade Runner is an acknowledgment of the possibilities of art in the era of Star Wars. (As an offhand observation, I’d say that we find it easier to characterize decades if their first years happen to coincide with a presidential election. As a culture, we know what the sixties, eighties, and aughts were “like” far more than the seventies or nineties.)

So we should be skeptical of the surprising number of recent attempts to rank works of art when the decade in question is barely halfway over. This week alone, The A.V. Club did it for movies, while The Oyster Review did it for books, and even if we discount the fact that we have five more years of art to anticipate, such lists are interesting mostly in the possibilities they suggest for later reconsideration. (The top choices at The A.V. Club were The Master, A Separation, The Tree of Life, Frances Ha, and The Act of Killing, and looking over the rest of the list, about half of which I’ve seen, I’d have to say that the only selection that really puzzled me was Haywire.) As a culture, we may be past the point where a consensus favorite is even possible: I’m not sure if any one movie occupies the same position for the aughts that Raging Bull did for the eighties. If I can venture one modest prediction, though, it’s that Inception will look increasingly impressive as time goes on, for much the same reason as Blade Runner does: it’s our best recent example of an intensely personal version thriving within the commercial constraints of the era in which it was made. Great movies are timeless, but also of their time, in ways that can be hard to sort out until much later. And that’s true of critics and viewers, too.

The better angels

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Tony Kushner

Almost exactly twenty years ago, on April 12, 1995, Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, was honored at an event at Northwestern University. While taking questions from the audience, he was asked whether he thought there was such a thing as nonpolitical theater. His response:

Well, I don’t think there’s anything that’s not political. As they say, the absence of an ideology is an ideology. It’s a conservative ideology. And a politics that seeks to efface its presence is part of the great mythmaking project of bourgeois, capital society…

I feel uncomfortable talking about theater artists. I will say that, for instance, Steven Spielberg is apparently a Democrat. He just gave a big party for Bill Clinton. I guess that means he’s probably idiotic. I feel I can trash people in the film industry and, of course, they read about these terrible things that I say about them and then I’m having a smaller and smaller market in Hollywood as a result. [Laughter.] Forrest Gump is bad reactionary art and Jurassic Park is sublimely good, hideously reactionary art. E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism. They’re fascinating for that reason, because Spielberg is somebody who has just an astonishing ear for the rumblings of reaction, and he just goes right for it and he knows exactly what to do with it.

This wasn’t the first time that Kushner had expressed this opinion: the previous year, in an interview with the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, he described Spielberg as a “front-runner for the Reagan counterrevolution.” What’s astonishing, of course, is that many years later, Kushner went on to become one of Spielberg’s most productive collaborators, writing the screenplays for Munich and Lincoln, with another historical drama in the works as we speak. As far as I know, Kushner—who is more likely to describe Spielberg these days as “one of the great filmmakers of all time”—has never directly addressed the sea change in his feelings, which leaves us free to speculate. It’s possible that Kushner simply mellowed a little with age; or that he was moved, like so many other moviegoers, by the transition in Spielberg’s career after Schindler’s List; or that he realized that working with the most successful director in history would allow him to write scripts that had a decent change of being made, which is something that even a Pulitzer winner can’t take for granted. Really, though, it’s likely that it was some combination of all the above, as well as a recognition that political art is much more effective when executed with peerless technical proficiency. Spielberg is simply the best there is; Kushner, when given the chance to work with him, seemed more than happy to acknowledge this.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Munich

Which gets at a tricky point about political art in general. Writers are often warned against trying to inject particular ideological or social concerns into their stories; we’re told that our themes should arise organically from an extended engagement with plot and character, rather than being imposed from above, and that audiences are haunted the most by works of art in which the conclusions seem to emerge almost against the author’s will. What deserves to be emphasized, though, is that political content in itself isn’t a kind of poison pill that makes for bad art; it simply allows bad art, the kind that ought to be revised into something better, to be tolerated and widely seen in what amounts to draft form. A mediocre play of no particular merit might lie in a drawer forever, but if it embraces a viewpoint that happens to resonate with how its audience already feels about a certain subject, it’s more likely to get a sympathetic reception. When the audience, to use David Mamet’s image, leaves the theater humming its own sense of virtue, it’s likely to forgive a lot of other things. Which means that it’s easier for political art to get away with things like flat characters, muddled storytelling, and stretches of outright boredom—which are the source of its bad reputation.

This doesn’t mean that artists have to avoid politics, but it does mean that they need to try just as hard to live up to their own standards of good storytelling as they would if they were writing a straight comedy or drama. (Even the most talented writers suffer from a streak of laziness, and political art’s one great liability is that it allows us to indulge in it. Politics is a little like pornography; it can be shoddy on every level but still find an audience.) And I suspect that’s why Kushner was ultimately drawn to Spielberg. He understood the difference between art that we politely applaud and the kind that grabs us and doesn’t let go, and he evidently came to see that Spielberg’s relentless focus on craft, which once struck him as reactionary, was a weapon in its own right. What makes a film like Munich so extraordinary—and I think it’s one of the great movies of the last decade—is that it uses all the conventions of the thriller, and every trick Spielberg has acquired in a lifetime of popular moviemaking, to tell a story that implicates all of us in frightening, complicated ways. And Kushner’s unstated acceptance of this is more revealing than any number of his more explicit pronouncements on the subject. There’s a place for politics in art, just as there’s a place for everything else, but only if it refuses to settle for anything less than a Spielberg.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2015 at 10:28 am

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