Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Vijith Assar

The gospel of nouns and verbs

leave a comment »

The Elements of Style

That’s not a Bible issue.

Franklin Graham, on the presidential refugee order

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White advise in The Elements of Style. It’s one of the first rules that many aspiring writers hear, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why it works. When you make a point of telling stories and expressing thoughts using tangible nouns and concrete verbs, you quickly find that the result is more vivid, clear, and memorable. It’s an exercise in clarity that amounts to a form of courtesy, not just to the reader, but to yourself. Not every idea can be conveyed in the form of images or actions, but by at least making the effort, you’re more likely to discover the areas where your own thinking is muddled or incomplete. The reverse also holds true. Just as a safety handbook becomes a sabotage manual when you just do the opposite of everything it says, The Elements of Style can be used to confuse and mislead, simply by inverting each of its rules into its own negation. By relying on the passive voice, vague language, and empty abstractions, you can make it harder for readers to understand what you’re really saying, or even to think for themselves. As George Orwell knew, such tactics can be used deliberately by governments to discourage critical thinking, and they can also be used unconsciously to avoid uncomfortable truths that we’d prefer not to confront. (My favorite illustration is Vijith Assar’s “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar,” which is maybe the single best piece of online content I’ve seen in the last decade.)

And for an example of its potential consequences, you don’t need to look any further than an ongoing experiment that has been underway, in one form or another, for close to two thousand years. It’s called the New Testament. I’ve spoken before of my admiration for The Five Gospels, an ambitious attempt to use modern scholarly tools and consensus to uncover the original core of Jesus’s message. The Jesus Seminar takes a number of approaches to evaluating the authenticity of this material, but one of its most powerful methods comes down to an application of simple common sense. By definition, anything that Jesus said that survived to be written down in the latter half of the first century must have persisted for decades by word of mouth. We can get a rough sense of how that oral tradition might have looked by figuring out, almost from first principles, what kind of material is most likely to be passed down with a minimum of alteration. It tends to consist mostly of short, pithy, self-contained sayings or stories with distinctive ideas, memorable images, or apparent paradoxes. The resulting “database” of parables and aphorisms can be used as a baseline from which we can analyze the rest, and what we find, inevitably, is that the teachings that pass this initial test are concrete, rather than abstract—a gospel of nouns and verbs. You could even say that the whole point of Strunk and White’s rule is to make written prose approximate the vigor and power of spoken language. And the sayings of Jesus that have been transmitted to us intact exemplify a predominantly oral culture at its best.

The Five Gospels

As the scholars of the Jesus Seminar take pains to point out, identifying certain verses as more likely to have emerged from an oral tradition doesn’t mean that we should ignore the rest. But it’s no exaggeration to say that when we read the gospels with an eye to emphasizing what might plausibly have been recalled by Jesus’s original listeners, we end up with a picture that is startlingly different from what many of us hear in church. For one thing, it’s a message that consists largely of specific actions. Here are some of the sayings that seem most likely to be authentic:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to everyone who begs from you. Love your enemies.

The Jesus Seminar also identifies verses in which the sentiment appears to have been modified over time to make it more palatable. Matthew, for instance, has “Give to the one who begs from you,” which feels like a softening of Luke’s impossible “Give to everyone who begs from you.” In addition, we end up losing many extended passages of theological exposition that seem unlikely to have been remembered by anyone. Most strikingly, this means giving up nearly all of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus does little else but make claims about himself or expound upon his own nature—a portrait that is inconsistent with both the mechanics of oral transmission and what little we know about Jesus himself.

And I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this gospel is very different from the one that I associate with going to church, which sometimes seems to consist of nothing but metaphysical claims and confessions of belief. This is partially a statistical artifact: the original words of Jesus, whatever they were, account for a very small percentage of the verses in the New Testament. But I think there’s also something more insidious at work. Organized religion embraces abstract language for the same reason that it was incorporated into the gospels in the first place: it makes it easier to live with the underlying message by diluting it beyond recognition, and it excludes outsiders while smoothing over inconvenient issues that might divide the congregation. It’s far easier to meditate on the nature of Christ than to consider the true implications of the words “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.” (One of the first notable schisms within the church, revealingly, was over a choice of adjectives.) Like many forms of institutionalized abstraction, it has real implications for the inner lives of its believers. It makes it possible for millions of Christians to convince themselves that the recent presidential order on refugees is consistent with the values that Jesus explicitly expressed toward the poor, the vulnerable, and the homeless. Franklin Graham, whose own charity is named for the parable that tells us that compassion goes beyond borders, says that it isn’t a biblical issue. Maybe it isn’t, at least not in the subset of the Bible that he has chosen to take to heart. But Orwell had a word for it—doublethink. And Graham would do well to remember the verse that reads: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

The power of the punchline

with one comment

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

A few days ago, my wife sent me a link to “Jamie and Jeff’s Note to the Babysitter,” a McSweeney’s piece by Paul William Davies. I thought it was hilarious, both because I’ve written similar letters myself and because it’s a true rarity: a properly constructed page of humorous writing that fully develops its funny conceit from start to finish. Like many of its peers, it basically takes the form of a list, a format that the Harvard Lampoon pioneered decades ago, but unlike most, it doesn’t rely on that framework as an excuse to string together a loose series of unrelated gags. Instead, it benefits from the fact that its central idea lends itself naturally to the list structure, and above all from its last line, which Davies clearly knows is gold. Like Vijith Assar’s very different but equally excellent “Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar”—which is probably my favorite McSweeney’s piece ever—it has a punchline. And that makes all the difference. (The lack of a punchline is why so many “Shouts and Murmurs” pieces in The New Yorker seem to wither away into nothing: they tend to suffer from what I’ve elsewhere identified as that magazine’s distrust of neat endings, which leads to articles that conclude at the most arbitrary place imaginable, as if the writer had suffered a stroke before typing the final paragraph.)

And it got me thinking about the power of the punchline, not just to end a piece on a strong note, but to enable everything that comes before it. In his commentary track for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie talks at length about the challenges involved in structuring the fantastic sequence set at the Vienna Opera House. I’ve watched it maybe five times now, and it gets better with every viewing: I’m convinced that if it had been directed by, say, Brian DePalma, we’d already be calling it one of the most virtuosic scenes that the genre has ever produced. It’s an immensely complicated piece of suspense with simultaneous action unfolding on three or four different levels, and it was evidently a nightmare to stage and edit. But McQuarrie had an ace up his sleeve. The moment when Ethan has to figure out how to save the Chancellor of Austria from two different assassins, with only a single bullet at his disposal, is priceless, and the whole crazy machine builds to that punchline. McQuarrie knew it would work. And although I don’t think he says so explicitly, he obviously felt liberated to indulge in such a teasingly long, complex set piece because he had that destination in mind. (And he probably wishes he’d done the same with the rest of the movie, the ending of which was being constantly rewritten even as the film was being shot—not that you can tell from the final result.)

Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

A punchline, in short, can reach backward in a work of art to allow for greater flexibility in the journey, which is something that most writers eventually learn. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman makes the same point in a discussion of the famous twenty-minute chase in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

There were two reasons I wrote it so long. One: I felt without such an implacable, irresistible enemy, the move to South America wouldn’t wash. Two: I wrote it so long because I had the confidence to be able to do it. And that confidence was born of one thing—I knew the Sundance Kid couldn’t swim…

When you have what you hope is gold in your hands, you can ruin it all by poor placement. If, for example, when Butch and Sundance were fording the stream on their way to Hole-in-the-Wall, Butch had said, “Why do you always get nervous around water?” and Sundance had said, “Because I can’t swim,” that wouldn’t have been so smart.

So I saved it for the moment just before the jump off the cliff. In point of fact, the entire Superposse chase is structured toward that moment. I was positive that no matter how badly the chase as a whole might be done, the swimming revelation, followed by the jump off the cliff, would save me. The jump was, had to be, surefire.

In other words, when you know you’ve got a good punchline, you’re free to develop what comes before it in the fashion it deserves. The opposite point also holds true: when you don’t know where you’re going, you’re more likely to flail around, casting about for ways to make the action more “interesting” when you lack a basic end point. I always try to keep a residue of unresolved problems—to borrow a phrase from the film editor Walter Murch—throughout the writing process, but I also know more or less where a story will conclude, and whenever I’ve broken that rule, as in my short story “Cryptids,” I think the weakness shows. On the plus side of the column, I allowed myself to take The Icon Thief into strange byways because I knew that the ending, in which Maddy breaks into the installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would be memorable no matter what I did, and a story like “The Whale God” hinges almost entirely on its killer last line. And while writing my first radio script, for a project that I hope to be able to discuss in more detail soon, I gained confidence from the knowledge that the ending would work. A good punchline is a great thing in itself, but it’s even more valuable as a kind of seed crystal that shapes the preceding material before the reader is even aware of it, so that the ending comes as both surprising and inevitable. Or in the words of David Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.”

Pictures at an exhibition

leave a comment »

Silhouette by Kara Walker

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 piece of art has actually stopped you in your tracks?”

“All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music,” Walter Pater famously said, but these days, it seems more accurate to say that all art aspires toward the condition of advertising. There’s always been a dialogue between the two, of course, and it runs in both directions, with commercials and print ads picking up on advances in the fine arts, even as artists begin to utilize techniques initially developed on Madison Avenue. Advertising is a particularly ruthless medium—you have only a few seconds to grab the viewer’s attention—and the combination of quick turnover, rapid feedback, and intense financial pressure allows innovations to be adapted and refined with blinding speed, at least within a certain narrow range. (There’s a real sense in which the hard lessons that Jim Henson, say, learned while shooting commercials for Wilkins Coffee are what made Sesame Street so successful.) The difference today is that the push for virality—the need to attract eyeballs in brutal competition with countless potential diversions—has superseded all other considerations, including the ability to grow and maintain an audience. When thousands of “content providers” are fighting for our time on equal terms, there’s no particular reason to remain loyal to any one of them. Everything is an ad now, and it’s selling nothing but itself.

This isn’t a new idea, and I’ve written about it here at length before. What really interests me, though, is how even the most successful examples of storytelling are judged by how effectively they point to some undefined future product. The Marvel movies are essentially commercials or trailers for the idea of a superhero film: every installment builds to a big, meaningless battle that serves as a preview for the confrontation in an upcoming sequel, and we know that nothing can ever truly upset the status quo when the studio’s slate of tentpole releases has already been announced well into the next decade. They aren’t bad films, but they’re just ever so slightly better than they have to be, and I don’t have much of an interest in seeing any more. (Man of Steel has plenty of problems, but at least it represents an actual point of view and an attempt to work through its considerable confusions, and I’d sooner watch it again than The Avengers.) Marvel is fortunate enough to possess one of the few brands capable of maintaining an audience, and it’s petrified at the thought of losing it with anything so upsetting as a genuine surprise. And you can’t blame anyone involved. As Christopher McQuarrie aptly puts it, everyone in Hollywood is “terribly lost and desperately in need of help,” and the last thing Marvel or Disney wants is to turn one of the last reliable franchises into anything less than a predictable stream of cash flows. The pop culture pundits who criticize it—many of whom may not have jobs this time next year—should be so lucky.

Untitled Film Still #30 by Cindy Sherman

But it’s unclear where this leaves the rest of us, especially with the question of how to catch the viewer’s eye while inspiring an engagement that lasts. The human brain is wired in such a way that the images or ideas that seize its attention most easily aren’t likely to retain it over the long term: the quicker the impression, the sooner it evaporates, perhaps because it naturally appeals to our most superficial impulses. Which only means that it’s worth taking a close look at works of art that both capture our interest and reward it. It’s like going to an art gallery. You wander from room to room, glancing at most of the exhibits for just a few seconds, but every now and then, you see something that won’t let go. Usually, it only manages to intrigue you for the minute it takes to read the explanatory text beside it, but occasionally, the impression it makes is a lasting one. Speaking from personal experience, I can think of two revelatory moments in which a glimpse of a picture out of the corner of my eye led to a lifelong obsession. One was Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills; the other was the silhouette work of Kara Walker. They could hardly be more different, but both succeed because they evoke something to which we instinctively respond—movie archetypes and clichés in Sherman’s case, classic children’s illustrations in Walker’s—and then force us to question why they appealed to us in the first place.

And they manage to have it both ways to an extent that most artists would have reason to envy. Sherman’s film stills both parody and exploit the attitudes that they meticulously reconstruct: they wouldn’t be nearly as effective if they didn’t also serve as pin-ups for readers of Art in America. Similarly, Walker’s cutouts fill us with a kind of uneasy nostalgia for the picture books we read growing up, even as they investigate the darkest subjects imaginable. (They also raise fascinating questions about intentionality. Sherman, like David Lynch, can come across as a naif in interviews, while Walker is closer to Michael Haneke, an artist who is nothing if not completely aware of how each effect was achieved.) That strange combination of surface appeal and paradoxical depth may be the most promising angle of attack that artists currently have. You could say much the same about Vijith Assar’s recent piece for McSweeney’s about ambiguous grammar, which starts out as the kind of viral article that we all love to pass around—the animated graphics, the prepackaged nuggets of insight—only to end on a sweet sucker punch. The future of art may lie in forms that seize on the tools of virality while making us think twice about why we’re tempted to click the share button. And it requires artists of unbelievable virtuosity, who are able to exactly replicate the conditions of viral success while infusing them with a white-hot irony. It isn’t easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. This is the game we’re all playing, like it or not, and the artists who are most likely to survive are the ones who can catch the eye while also burrowing into the brain.

%d bloggers like this: