Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Vanity Fair

Bonfire of the vanities

with one comment

A while back, Michael Wolff, the journalist and controversial author of Fire and Fury, observed of a certain presidential candidate in an article for Vanity Fair:

Bill Clinton’s sexual life…is about shame and need, whereas his seems to be about an entirely different conception of marriage and family. It’s a resistance to modern marriage—to the man-woman parity thing. He’s unreconstructed, and proudly so. He’s shameless. There’s no apology about him doing what he wants to do…[He arguably] is the most anti-family-values candidate in the race (this or any other). And yet, in some sense—which could be playing well with the right wing—what he may be doing is going to the deeper meaning of family values, which is about male prerogative, an older, stubborn, my-way-or-the-highway, when-men-were-men, don’t-tread-on-me kind of thing…He has always been surrounded by concentric and sometimes intersecting circles of reasonable and professional people and greater and lesser inappropriate types…It is, however…the inappropriate ones that dominate his mind share, staffers who have tended him so long and enabled him so well…that they are, in their fashion, crazy, too.

It was the summer of 2007, and Wolff was writing about Rudy Giuliani. (I’ve slightly edited the text above to replace personal names with pronouns.) At the time, Giuliani seemed to have a genuine shot at becoming the Republican candidate for president, which only points to how much time as passed—and also, sadly, to the ways in which we’ve come full circle.

In the early days of the Trump administration, one of the few silver linings was that we seemed to be seeing less of Giuliani than I had once feared. For reasons of my own, though, I decided last year to read a very interesting book titled The Campaign, by Evan J. Mandery, which recounts his experiences as the research director for Ruth Messinger’s doomed campaign for mayor of New York in 1997. As a result, I ended up thinking more about Giuliani than I might have liked, and I was particularly struck by a story that I either had forgotten or had never heard. Mandery’s book is structured as a diary, and in an entry from early August, he writes:

On an otherwise sleepy Sunday, we’re awakened by the news that Vanity Fair will publish an article this Wednesday (we have an advance copy) verifying that Giuliani has been having an extramarital affair with his communications director, Cristyne Lategano, and that he has bullied the press into suppressing the story…According to the article’s author, [Jennet] Conant, Lategano “openly idolizes Giuliani,” which generally helps one survive at City Hall.

I haven’t read the original article, which doesn’t seem to be available online, and it’s worth noting that both Giuliani and Lategano have steadfastly denied the allegations. In 2000, however, Giuliani’s wife, Donna Hanover, alluded to the rumors at a news conference in which she announced their separation: “For several years, it was difficult to participate in Rudy’s public life because of his relationship with one staff member.” And her spokeswoman later confirmed that Hanover was referring to Lategano.

But the alleged affair itself was less interesting than the responses that it inspired, both from Giulani’s team and from the media. According to Mandery, the Messinger campaign prudently declined to get involved, but a war of words broke out in New York. Local reporters pushed back against the article’s insinuation that they had neglected to pursue the story, with the Daily News writing in an editorial: “Adultery is a serious charge, and to move it from rumor to print requires real proof, which Vanity Fair apparently doesn’t have.” As for the mayor’s people, Mandery recalls:

Rather than attack the truth of the charges directly, the Giuliani team is attacking them indirectly by questioning Vanity Fair’s journalistic methods. Deputy Mayor Randy Levine faults the story for replying exclusively on unnamed sources. “It’s the worst kind of scurrilous journalism,” he said, “based on anonymous sources and hearsay.” “Where are the sources?” he asks…Lategano says, “Allegations by unnamed sources are not true, and there is no need to comment on malicious works of fiction.”

As Trump put it last year: “Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names…it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers.” And when a reporter pressed him about his response to the rumors, Giuliani responded in a fashion that Trump might have admired: “That’s a really cheap question.”

And then, remarkably, it all sort of went away. Lategano remained on the payroll, Giuliani handily won the election, and everyone forgot about it—particularly after Giuliani left Hanover for another woman, Judith Nathan, with whom he had evidently had an affair. Last month, after fifteen years of marriage, Nathan filed for divorce. Two weeks later, Giuliani announced that he was joining Trump’s legal team. I have less insight into his inner life than I do for just about anyone else on the planet, but it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t feel the parallels between the president and himself, and that those resonances don’t shed some light on some of his actions in recent days. (Speaking of the Stormy Daniels case, Giuliani said earlier this week: “Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton?” It was widely seen as an inexplicable statement that only made matters worse, but deep down, he might have just been thinking of the Lategano story, which broke in the middle of his own reelection campaign.) If Trump and Giuliani seem to be operating by their own playbook, it might be because they both know from experience how quickly such stories can fade in the fire and fury of a tumultuous public life. But things can change. Back in 1997, the journalist Michael Tomasky criticized the Vanity Fair article in New York Magazine, and he wondered aloud about what might be said in its defense:

First, that if the mayor’s marriage is on the rocks, it’s news. Sure, of a sort: he’s a public figure. Plug in George Steinbrenner or Donald Trump or Brad Pitt for Giuliani, and the papers run with it. Yes. But nobody’s going to wag a sanctimonious finger at Steinbrenner, [and] no editorialist is going to argue that the public may suffer from Trump’s infidelity.

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2018 at 8:58 am

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 3

leave a comment »

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.

The Ratner Pack

leave a comment »

Yesterday, the director Brett Ratner joined the depressingly long list of powerful men in Hollywood who have been accused of sexual harassment, misconduct, or assault. The charges leveled by the Los Angeles Times are both damning and horrifyingly familiar, but one detail in particular might ring a bell for attentive readers. One of the women who share their stories is Eri Sasaki, who claims that Ratner dangled the prospect of a speaking part in Rush Hour 2 in exchange for sex. In response, Ratner’s attorney, Martin Singer, called her charges “absurd” and “nonsensical,” explaining to the Times: “The movie was obviously already cast and shooting, so the notion that there would be a discussion of getting her a speaking role in the middle of a movie shoot is ridiculous.” Let’s table that argument for a second, and turn to the even more sordid case of James Toback, who supposedly used a similar line on dozens of women for decades. Four days before Toback was the subject of his own exposé in the Times, the reporter Hillel Aron asked him about the allegation “that you approach women on the street and offer them film roles, and talk about how you want to be involved with them, working in movies, and then the conversation quickly switches in some way to sex.” Toback replied:

Lemme be really clear about this. I don’t want to get a pat on the back, but I’ve struggled seriously to make movies with very little money, that I write, that I direct, that mean my life to me. The idea that I would offer a part to anyone for any other reason than that he or she was gonna be the best of anyone I could find is so disgusting to me. And anyone who says it is a lying cocksucker or c—t or both…Anyone who says that, I just want to spit in his or her fucking face.

In both cases, the reasoning, evidently, is that no real director would ever offer a woman a part in a film in exchange for sex if he weren’t completely serious about following through. Why aren’t people convinced by this?

If Ratner and Toback trade in the same line of garbage, either directly or through a surrogate, that shouldn’t come as a surprise—the two of them have been close for years. There was talk a while back of Ratner directing Toback’s screenplay about John DeLorean, which never got off the ground, while Toback has referred to the younger director as “my friend and L.A. housemate.” Ratner, for his part, said to Variety earlier this year: “My closest friends are James Toback, Roman Polanski, Warren Beatty, Bob Evans—these are the guys who have helped me and given me the best advice.” Even if we leave out Polanski, that’s quite a list. Over a decade ago, Vanity Fair ran a glowing profile of Ratner that included a quote that I’ve never forgotten:

When I screen a movie, before I show it to anybody, I show it to one of three people: Warren [Beatty], Bob Evans, or Bob Towne, because they’re the smartest guys in the business. They tell me the truth, they’re not kissing my ass.

At the time, I’ll confess that I did little more than give credit to Ratner for seeking out interesting mentors—even if Beatty and Evans seem now like models for something other than good manners toward women. (As for Towne, he’s mentioned in the recent coverage only because Ratner is accused of making “an aggressive come-on” years ago to his daughter Katharine, whom he allegedly followed into a bathroom at a movie star’s house in Los Angeles, saying: “I like ’em chubby sometimes.” Singer, Ratner’s lawyer, who is really doing his client no favors, replies: “Even if hypothetically this incident occurred exactly as claimed, how is flirting at a party, complimenting a woman on her appearance, and calling her to ask her for a date wrongful conduct?”)

But the roll call of Ratner’s buddies is striking for other reasons. Beatty, Evans, Towne, and even Toback are undeniably smart guys, but they’ve also had a rough stretch in Hollywood. Beatty’s recent career has consisted of a long retreat punctuated by an embarrassing failure, Evans and Towne’s travails are the stuff of legend, and Toback hasn’t been in a position to direct a movie on more than a shoestring budget in more than a decade. (The most pathetic detail in the Toback exposé has to be his favorite pickup line, which he delivered in locations like the Kinko’s on the Upper West Side: “My name’s James Toback. I’m a movie director. Have you ever seen Black and White or Two Girls and a Guy?” And if the woman in question hadn’t, he was happy to pull out a copy of the DVD.) You could argue that the ups and downs of their careers have turned Beatty, Evans, and the rest into unusually interesting sources of advice, and you’d be right. And their recent setbacks have made them more available to swap war stories with an eager young protégé than, say, Steven Spielberg might be. But I don’t think that Ratner was really looking for such insights, at least not when it came to making movies: I think he was seeking out the aura of Hollywood in the seventies. Ratner’s filmography consists of some of the least memorable or personal movies of the last twenty years, but it’s in his unproduced projects that you start to get a sense of his inner life. One was the DeLorean movie, which Evans was rumored at one time to be producing. Another was a film with a lead character—to which Johnny Depp was attached—clearly based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel room in New York. And as the latest accusations broke, Ratner was developing a movie about none other than Hugh Hefner, with Jared Leto set to star, which fell apart over the last twenty-four hours.

It isn’t hard to see the pattern here. Ratner may sign up to direct X-Men: The Last Stand or Hercules, but his heart obviously lies with biopics about a certain type of man. They may never get made, but in the meantime, they allow him to daydream. A lot of us contemplate such lives with a certain sick fascination—I’ve listened endlessly to Evans’s audiobook of his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture—but Ratner seems to have done everything he can to put it in into practice, first in the circle of older men with which he surrounds himself, and second in the way he evidently treats many of the women who cross his path. (His production company, incidentally, is called RatPac, which evokes yet another glamorized era of bad behavior.) It’s the sort of perverse nostalgia that we can glimpse even in Harvey Weinstein, whose abuse of women seems modeled after an even earlier period, in which studio moguls treated human beings as their personal property. Some of these men also made great works of art, which doesn’t excuse their actions, but Ratner seems content to imitate and reenact their legacy in every way except the one that really counts: by making films that viewers would admire and remember. You can get surprisingly far by paying lip service to a set of cultural values that you have no interest in realizing yourself, except as a pretext for the acquisition of sex, money, and power. And it doesn’t stop in Hollywood. I can’t overlook the fact that one of Ratner’s movies, Tower Heist, originally had a different title before it was changed in preproduction, and while I can’t say for sure what drew him to the project, I can venture a good guess. As Ratner mused earlier this summer to The Hollywood Reporter: “In retrospect, it would have been a bigger hit if it had been called Trump Heist.”

Hollywood in Limbo

with 2 comments

In his essay on the fourth canto of Dante’s Inferno, which describes the circle of Limbo populated by the souls of virtuous pagans, Jorge Luis Borges discusses the notion of the uncanny, which has proven elusively hard to define:

Toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, or the end of the eighteenth, certain adjectives of Saxon or Scottish origin (eerie, uncanny, weird) came into circulation in the English language, serving to define those places or things that vaguely inspire horror…In German, they are perfectly translated by the word unheimlich; in Spanish, the best word may be siniestro.

I was reminded of this passage while reading, of all things, Benjamin Wallace’s recent article in Vanity Fair on the decline of National Lampoon. It’s a great piece, and it captures the sense of uncanniness that I’ve always associated with a certain part of Hollywood. Writing of the former Lampoon head Dan Laikin, Wallace says:

Poor choice of partners proved a recurring problem. Unable to get traction with the Hollywood establishment, Laikin appeared ready to work with just about anyone. “There were those of us who’d been in the business a long time,” [development executive Randi] Siegel says, “who told him not to do business with certain people. Dan had a tendency to trust people that were probably not the best people to trust. I think he wanted to see the good in it and change things.” He didn’t necessarily have much choice. If you’re not playing in Hollywood’s big leagues, you’re playing in its minors, which teem with marginal characters…“Everyone Danny hung out with was sketchy,” says someone who did business with Laikin. Laikin, for his part, blames the milieu: “I’m telling you, I don’t surround myself with these people. I don’t search them out. They’re all over this town.”

Years ago, I attended a talk by David Mamet in which he said something that I’ve never forgotten. Everybody gets a break in Hollywood after twenty-five years, but some get it at the beginning and others at the end, and the important thing is to be the one who stays after everyone else has gone home. Wallace’s article perfectly encapsulates that quality, which I’ve always found fascinating, perhaps because I’ve never had to live with it. It results in a stratum of players in the movie and television industry who haven’t quite broken through, but also haven’t reached the point where they drop out entirely. They end up, in short, in a kind of limbo, which Borges vividly describes in the same essay:

There is is something of the oppressive wax museum about this still enclosure: Caesar, armed and idle; Lavinia, eternally seated next to her father…A much later passage of the Purgatorio adds that the shades of the poets, who are barred from writing, since they are in the Inferno, seek to distract their eternity with literary discussions.

You could say that the inhabitants of Hollywood’s fourth circle of hell, who are barred from actually making movies, seek to distract their eternity by talking about the movies that they wish they could make. It’s easy to mock them, but there’s also something weirdly ennobling about their sheer persistence. They’re survivors in a profession where few of us would have lasted, if we even had the courage to go out there in the first place, and at a time when such people seem more likely to end up at something like the Fyre Festival, it’s nice to see that they still exist in Hollywood.

So what is it about the movie industry that draws and retains such personalities? One of its most emblematic figures is Robert Towne, who, despite his Oscar for Chinatown and his reputation as the dean of American screenwriters, has spent his entire career looking like a man on the verge of his big break. If Hollywood is Limbo, Towne is its Caesar, “armed and idle,” and he’s been there for five decades. Not surprisingly, he has a lot of insight into the nature of that hell. In his interview with John Brady in The Craft of the Screenwriter, Towne says:

You are often involved with a producer who is more interested in making money on the making of the movie than he is on the releasing of the movie. There is a lot of money to be made on the production of a movie, not just in salary, but all sorts of ways that are just not altogether honest. So he’s going to make his money on the making, which is really reprehensible.

“Movies are so difficult that you should really make movies that you feel you absolutely have to make,” Towne continues—and the fact that this happens so rarely implies that the studio ecosystem is set up for something totally different. Towne adds:

It’s easier for a director and an actor to be mediocre and get away with it than it is for a writer. Even a writer who happens to be mediocre has to work pretty hard to get through a script, whereas a cameraman will say to the director, “Where do you think you want to put the camera? You want it here? All right, I’m going to put it here.” In other words, a director can be carried along by the production if he’s mediocre, to some extent; and that’s true of an actor, too.

Towne tosses off these observations without dwelling on them, knowing that there’s plenty more where they came from, but if you put them together, you end up with a pretty good explanation of why Hollywood is the way it is. It’s built to profit from the making of movies, rather than from the movies themselves, which is only logical: if it depended on success at the box office, everybody would be out of a job. The industry also has structures in place that allow people to skate by for years without any particular skills, if they manage to stick to the margins. (In any field where past success is no guarantee of future performance, it’s the tall poppies that get their heads chopped off.) Under such conditions, survival isn’t a matter of talent, but of something much less definable. A brand like National Lampoon, which has been leveled by time but retains some of its old allure, draws such people like a bright light draws fish in the abyss, and it provides a place where they can be studied. The fact that Kato Kaelin makes an appearance in these circles shouldn’t be surprising—he’s the patron saint of those who hang on for decades for no particular reason. And it’s hard not to relate to the hope that sustains them:

“What everyone always does at the company is feel like something big is about to happen, and I want to be here for it,” [creative director] Marty Dundics says. “We’re one hit movie away from, or one big thing away from, being back on top. It’s always this underdog you’re rooting for. And you don’t want to miss it. That big thing that’s about to happen. That was always the mood.”

Extend that mood across a quarter of a century, and you have Hollywood, which also struggles against the realization that Borges perceives in Limbo: “The certainty that tomorrow will be like today, which was like yesterday, which was like every day.”

The luxury of disruption

with 3 comments

Uber Apps

What we maybe should’ve realized sooner was that we are running a political campaign and the candidate is Uber.

—Travis Kalanick, to Vanity Fair

Earlier this week, Susan J. Fowler, a software engineer, published a long post on her personal blog with the pointedly neutral title “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” It’s a gripping read that exposes a corporate culture that is dysfunctional both toward women—with its sexism, rampant sexual harassment, the dismissal of such concerns by human resources, and a steadily diminishing percentage of female employees—and toward just about everyone else: “It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job.” The piece, or at least its reception, has prompted Uber founder Travis Kalanick to hire former Attorney General Eric Holder to look into these allegations, a measure which is presumably intended to impress us with its seriousness, but which comes off as an unintentionally hilarious way of investigating one’s own company. (As Thornton McEnery of Dealbreaker puts it: “Travis seems to only have one move: Hire a former Obama administration official and hope that’s what caring looks like.”) The news doesn’t really affect me personally: as I’ve explained elsewhere, I deleted Uber a long time ago for other reasons. But what strikes me the most about Fowler’s essay is its tone, which is calm, controlled, and understated, even when she relates incidents of profound humiliation. For instance, when she reported her manager’s inappropriate sexual advances, she was told that her only options were either to find a different team or to continue to report to the man who harassed her, at the risk of a poor performance review. In response, Fowler writes: “I remarked that this didn’t seem like much of a choice.”

That “remarked” is what sticks with me. It casts Fowler as an objective observer to her own story, and it isn’t just a rhetorical device, although she maintains it masterfully throughout the essay. (The only place where she falters is at the end, where she writes, not altogether convincingly: “I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was. Such a strange experience. Such a strange year.”) Even at work, from the very beginning, Fowler did exactly what she had to do: she took screenshots of her interactions with her manager, kept records, went through proper channels, and was good at her job. In the end, it didn’t matter, at least not at Uber itself. When she requested a transfer to another project, she was told that she had “undocumented performance problems,” and after asking for more information, she was told, bewilderingly: “Performance problems aren’t always something that has to do with work, but sometimes can be about things outside of work or your personal life.” But even if the discipline that she displays here didn’t lead to the professional results that she deserved, it’s indispensable when it comes to sharing her experiences. As my wife pointed out, when a woman comes forward with this kind of story, she has to do everything right. Any perceived shortcoming or compromise will be seized upon as an excuse to undermine her credibility. Fowler, to her credit, appears to have conducted herself with unwavering intelligence and integrity—but if she hadn’t, we probably wouldn’t have heard her account at all. Silicon Valley loves to talk about “failing faster,” but a woman in her situation doesn’t get to fail and try again. She gets exactly one chance. And the fact that she pulled it off isn’t an accident, but a reflection of the inhuman standards that we impose on all those who dare to speak out.

Uber

When we look at Uber itself, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. I won’t even get into the instances of illegal or unethical activity by individual drivers, or the legal actions and protests the company has weathered from taxi companies, both of which were probably unavoidable. But even when we set these aside, Uber’s corporate track record is exceptionally toxic. It misled prospective drivers by exaggerating potential earnings and minimizing the cost of leasing or buying a car. Its employees ordered thousands of rides from its competitors and canceled them, both to waste the drivers’ time and to lure them into joining Uber instead. One project focused on inserting moles into Lyft to learn about its launch plans and recruit its drivers. As I’ve discussed at great length in my previous post on the subject, an executive at Uber threatened to dig into the background of a journalist who was critical of its policies, and another shrugged off the ensuing outrage with the hashtag #HatersGonnaHate. They’ve even used their internal tracking system to follow the movements of reporters and politicians. You’d expect to see an intense level of scrutiny directed toward any startup that grew as quickly and had as much of an impact as Uber has, but even if you account for this, the company has demonstrated in half a dozen different ways that it’s an ethical mess. Unlike Fowler, who had to retain a laserlike focus to tell her story in a credible way, Uber gets to fail and flail endlessly on the assumption that it will eventually be forgiven. And maybe it will be. I’d be the first to admit that Uber is built on a transformative idea, a useful service, and a beautiful app, which means that it had to screw up to a truly remarkable degree to convince its users to delete it. Well, as Angelica Schuyler once said to Kalanick’s favorite founding father, congratulations. It has invented a new kind of stupid.

And its culture is inseparable from the idea of “disruption,” which has saturated Silicon Valley to the point where it stands as an article of faith. You’re supposed to break down entire industries and rebuild them in your own image, an approach that favors grand, risky bets rather than systematic growth. But it also tends to attract people, at least on the executive level, who can afford to fail repeatedly because they’ve been granted unlimited second chances, like Fowler’s manager, whose every act of harassment was treated as his first offense. It’s a luxury that isn’t granted to women, or to employees who don’t look more or less like the guys who hired them. Disruption itself is a creed that could only be embraced by those who have their existing cultural and social safety nets firmly in place, and who know that they can’t fall far. Not surprisingly, rather than enforcing the difficult sort of discipline which depends on an endless series of invisible ethical choices, Uber’s usual response to controversy is to radically overcompensate in the other direction, usually by throwing money at it. After Kalanick, who until recently was a member of President Trump’s economic advisory council, expressed only mild criticism of the executive order on refugees, the founders of Lyft announced that they would donate a million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union—to which Uber retorted that it would establish a fund of three million dollars to defend its affected drivers. Hiring Eric Holder is a similarly flashy gesture meant to correct the slow drift toward the bottom that the company seems fated to repeat, as if it were settling to its natural level. Like a politician granted a free pass by his base, Uber seems convinced that we’ll overlook everything else if it delivers the services we expect. And just as in politics, that’s probably true, up until the moment that it isn’t.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2017 at 9:34 am

“The mirror shattered into spiderwebs…”

leave a comment »

"The mirror shattered into spiderwebs..."

Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 43. You can read the previous installments here.

“I am truly at my happiest not when I am writing an aria for an actor or making a grand political or social point,” Aaron Sorkin said a while back to Vanity Fair. “I am at my happiest when I’ve figured out a fun way for somebody to slip on a banana peel.” I know what he means. In fact, nothing makes me happier than when an otherwise sophisticated piece of entertainment cheerfully decides to go for the oldest, corniest, most obvious pratfall—which is a sign of an even greater sophistication. My favorite example is the most famous joke in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy nonchalantly draws his gun and shoots the swordsman. It’s the one gag in the movie that most people remember best, and if you’re a real fan, you probably know that the scene was improvised on the set to solve an embarrassing problem: they’d originally scheduled a big fight scene, but Harrison Ford was too sick to shoot it, so he proposed the more elegant, and funnier, solution. But the most profound realization of all is that the moment works precisely because the film around it depends so much on craft and clockwork timing to achieve its most memorable effects. If every joke in the movie were pitched on that level, not only wouldn’t we remember that scene, but we probably wouldn’t be talking about Raiders at all, just as most of us don’t look back fondly on 1941. It’s the intelligence, wit, and technical proficiency of the rest of the movie that allows that one cornball moment to triumphantly emerge.

You often see the same pattern when you look at the movies in which similar moments occur. For instance, there’s a scene in Annie Hall—recently voted the funniest screenplay of all time—in which the audience needs to be told that Alvy and Annie are heading for Los Angeles. To incorporate that information, which had been lost when a previous scene was cut, Woody Allen quickly wrote and shot the bit in which he sneezes into a pile of cocaine. It included all the necessary exposition in the dialogue, but as editor Ralph Rosenblum writes in his memoir When The Shooting Stops:    

Although this scene was written and shot just for this information, audiences were always much more focused on the cocaine, and when Woody sneezes into what we’ve just learned is a two-thousand-dollar cache, blowing white powder all over the living room—an old-fashioned, lowest-common-denominator, slip-on-the-banana-peel joke—the film gets its single largest laugh. (“A complete unplanned accident,” says Woody.) The laughter was so great at each of our test screenings that I kept having to add more and more feet of dead film to keep the laughter from pushing the next scene right off the screen…Even so, the transitional information was lost on many viewers: when they stop laughing and spot Alvy and Annie in a car with Rob, who’s discussing how life has changed for him since he emigrated to Beverly Hills, they are momentarily uncertain about how or why the couple got there.

"As they ran, neither woman spoke..."

And while the two moments are very different, it’s revealing that in both cases, an improvised moment of slapstick was introduced to crack an unanticipated narrative problem. It’s no surprise that when writers have to think their way out of dilemma, they often turn to the hoariest, most proven building blocks of story, as if they’d briefly written a scene using the reptile brain—while keeping all the other levels of the brain alive and activated. This is why scenes like this are so delightful: they aren’t gratuitous, but represent an effective way of getting a finely tuned narrative to where it needs to be. And I’d also argue that this runs in both directions, particularly in genre fiction. Those big, obvious moments exist to enable the more refined touches, but also the other way around: a large part of any writer’s diligence and craft is devoted to arranging the smaller pieces so that those huge elements can take shape. As Shane Black pointed out years ago, a lot of movies seem to think that audiences want nothing but those high points, but in practice, it quickly grows exhausting. (Far too many comedies these days seem to consist of nothing but the equivalent of Alvy sneezing into the cocaine, over and over and over again.) And Sorkin’s fondness for the banana-peel gag arises, I suspect, from his realization that when such a moment works, it’s because the less visible aspects of the story around it are working as well.

My novels contain a few of these banana peels, although not as many as I’d like. (One that I still enjoy is the moment in City of Exiles when Wolfe trips over the oversized chess pieces during the chase scene at the London Chess Classic.) And while it’s not quite the same thing, there’s something similar at work in Chapter 43 of Eternal Empire, which features nothing less than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two women, one a runaway bride, the other still wearing her bridesmaid’s dress. If I’ve done my job properly, the scene should work both on its own terms and as an homage to something you’d see on a soapy network or basic cable show like Revenge. And I kind of love the result. I like it, in part, because I know exactly how much thought was required to line up the pieces of the plot to get to this particular payoff: it’s the kind of set piece that you spend ninety percent of the novel trying to reach, only to hope that it all works in the end. The resulting fight lasts for about a page—I’m not trying to write Kill Bill here—but I still think it’s one of the half dozen or so most satisfying moments in the entire trilogy, and it works mostly because it isn’t afraid to go for a big, borderline ridiculous gesture. (If Eternal Empire is my favorite of the three books, and on most days it is, it’s because it contains as many of those scenes as the previous two installments combined, and only because of the groundwork that comes with two volumes’ worth of accumulated backstory.) And although there’s no banana peel, both Wolfe and Asthana are falling now, and they won’t land until the book is over…

The Nichols improvisation

leave a comment »

Elaine May and Mike Nichols

It’s hard to imagine this now, but there was a year or so in the early sixties when the hottest ticket in show business consisted of a man and a woman simply talking on stage. An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May premiered on Broadway on October 8, 1960, and over the course of three hundred performances, it gave mainstream audiences their first real taste of improvisation as a comedic art, with sketches that encouraged a kind of collusion—or collaboration—between the audience and the performers themselves. It wasn’t purely improvised: for most of the night, Nichols and May ran through established routines, with only one scene opened up to suggestions from the crowd, but the impression of a theatrical tightrope act persisted even in bits that had been thoroughly refined. The young, attractive duo had emerged from a hugely talented circle of improvisational actors and comedians in Chicago, the precursor to the Second City, and it’s not a stretch to say that much of what comedy became in the ensuing fifty years originated right here. But after the year was up, they simply walked away, like Jordan at his prime, except that they never returned.

Nichols, of course, went on to become one of the most acclaimed film, theater, and television directors of his generation, while May quietly burrowed into much odder places. And at first, the contrast between Nichols the master improviser and his later directorial career can seem rather stark. David Thomson’s assessment is typical:

Mike Nichols is an unquestioned figure in our culture, a smart man, a funny man, a proven success in cabaret, on records, as a stage director, and as a deliverer of talking-point movies—movies that are smart, funny, “adult,” “on the pulse,” and “of their moment.” Yet I find it hard to grasp a him in there, a movie director: after fifteen or so films, is there anything more substantial than a high reputation and a producer’s instinct for what smart people might want to see?”

For many of us, even if we love film, Nichols never quite emerged as a personality in the same way that his most revered contemporaries did, even if he was unquestionably more adept at holding a stage than the rest of them combined. And in the days since his death, which put a full stop on one of the most accomplished—and curiously impersonal—of all careers in movies and the stage, that paradox has seemed even harder to resolve. I’ll miss Nichols, but I never really knew him.

Mike Nichols

When you dig a little deeper, though, you find a possible answer that casts a surprising light on the nature of improvisation. Improv comedy is often seen as a kind of controlled chaos, but it owes its survival, like jazz, to the continuous imposition of rigorous rules and discipline. The best improvisers are excruciatingly aware of where they stand from one moment to the next, and the ongoing management of the comedic situation demands a peculiar sort of watchfulness. It’s the overarching superego that allows the id to take hold, and you can see it clearly in the original clips of Nichols and May at work. Nichols plays the straight man, which is only another way of saying that he unobtrusively directs the sketch as it unfolds, feeding May the necessary setup for each payoff and gently creating the conditions that she needs to arrive at the punchline. It’s the same set of skills—as enabler, facilitator, and willing conspirator—that served him so well later on. You get a glimpse of his bag of tricks in a late interview he did with May in Vanity Fair:

The greatest rule was yours, Elaine: when in doubt, seduce. That became the rule for the whole group. And looking back, because I did teach acting for a while, we figured out over a long time that there were only three kinds of scenes in the world—fights, seductions, and negotiations.

That sense of what works and what doesn’t, developed in real time under unforgiving conditions, lasted throughout Nichols’s career, even if the subjects he chose felt less wild and more like those of a shrewd packager of talent. Nichols frequently took risks with weird, original material, but his most successful films—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, even The Birdcage—were all adaptations, as if he instinctively sought proven vessels that could then be crammed with life and ideas. It’s the résumé of a man who valued structure, even as he tested it, and it’s an example that many of his stated admirers, like Judd Apatow, could stand to follow. And if Nichols never quite received the popular adulation of some of his peers, even as he continued to rack up awards, it may have been because it made it look too easy. You could make a case that his real impact on our culture has been greater than that of Coppola or Scorsese, and just a bit below Spielberg and Lucas, but it’s an influence that feels almost subliminal, a way of regarding the process of acting and comedy itself. Perhaps because he was so famous so early, he always seemed content to disappear. But he never forgot how to seduce.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2014 at 10:22 am

%d bloggers like this: