Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Will Harris

Multiple personalities

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Harry Nilsson

When I was in my early twenties, I was astonished to learn that “One,” “Coconut,” the soundtrack to The Point, and “He Needs Me”—as sung by Shelley Duvall in Popeye and, much later, in Punch-Drunk Love—were all written by the same man, who also sang “Everybody’s Talkin'” from Midnight Cowboy. (This doesn’t even cover “Without You” or “Jump Into the Fire,” which I discovered only later, and it also ignores some of the weirder detours in Harry Nilsson’s huge discography.) At the time, I was reminded of Homer Simpson’s response when Lisa told him that bacon, ham, and pork chops all came from the same animal: “Yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.” Which is exactly what Nilsson was. But it’s also the kind of diversity that arises from decades of productive, idiosyncratic work. Nilsson was a facile songwriter with a lot of tricks up his sleeve, as he notes in an interview in the book Songwriters on Songwriting:

Most [songs] I find you can write in less time than it takes to sing them. The concept, if there is a concept, or the hook, is all you’re concerned with. Because you know you can go back and fill in the pieces. If you get a front line and a punch line, it’s a question of just filling in the missing bits.

And given Nilsson’s diverse, prolific output, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I encountered him in so many different guises before realizing that they were all aspects of a single creative personality.

Of course, not every career generates this kind of enticing randomness. Nilsson occupied a curious position for much of his life, stuck somewhere halfway between superstardom and seclusion, and it freed him to make a long series of odd, peculiar choices. When other artists end up in the same position, it’s often less by choice than by necessity. When you look at the résumé of a veteran supporting actor or working writing, you usually find that they resist easy categorizations, since each credit resulted from a confluence of circumstances that may never be repeated. A glance at the filmography of any character actor inspires moment after moment of recognition, as you realize, for instance, that the same guy who played Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street was also the dad in Rachel Getting Married and Tars in Interstellar. A few artists have the luxury of shaping careers that seem all of a piece, but others aren’t all that interested in it, or find that their body of work is determined more by external factors. Most actors aren’t in a position to turn down a paycheck, and learning how and why they took one role and not another is part of what makes Will Harris’s A.V. Club interviews in “Random Roles” so fascinating. When you’re at the constant mercy of trends and casting agents, you can end up with a career that looks like it should belong to three different people. And as someone like Matthew McConaughey can tell you, that goes for stars as well.

Jessica Alba

It’s particularly true of actresses. I’ve spoken here before of the starlet’s dilemma, in which young actresses are required to balance the needs of extending their shelf life as ingenues for a few more seasons with the very different set of choices required to sustain a career over decades. In many cases, the decisions that make sense now, like engaging in cosmetic surgery, can come back to haunt them later, but the pressure to extend their prime earning years is immense, and it’s no surprise that few manage to navigate the pitfalls that Hollywood presents. I was reminded of this while leafing—never mind why—through the latest issue of Allure, which features Jessica Alba on its cover. Alba has recently begun a second act as the head of her own consumer goods company, and she seems far happier and more satisfied in that role than she ever was as an actress: she admits that she tried to be what everyone else wanted her to be, and she accepted roles and made choices without a larger plan in mind. The result, sadly, was a career without shape or character, determined by an industry that could never decide whether Alba was best suited for comedy, romance, or action. I don’t think any of her movies will still be watched twenty years from now, and I expect that we’ll be surprised one day to remember that the founder of the Honest Company was also a movie star, in the way it amuses us to reflect that Martha Stewart used to be a model.

So how do you end up with a career more like Nilsson’s and less like Alba’s, given countless uncontrollable factors that can govern a life in the arts? You can begin, perhaps, by remembering like an artist, like any human being, will play many roles, and not all of them are going to be consistent. When you look back at what you’ve done, it can be hard to find any particular shape, aside from what was determined by the needs of the moment, and it may even be difficult to recognize the person who thought that a particular project was a good idea—if you had any choice in the matter at all. (When I look at my own career, I find that it divides neatly in two, with one half in science fiction and the other in suspense, with no overlap between them whatsoever, a situation that was created almost entirely by the demands of the market.) But if you need to wear multiple hats, or even multiple personalities, you can at least strive to make all of them interesting. Consistency, as Emerson puts it, is the hobgoblin of little minds, and it’s an equally elusive goal in the arts: the only way to be consistent is to be dependably mediocre. The life you get by staying true to yourself in the face of external pressure will be more interesting than the one that results from a perfect plan. It can even be easier to have two careers than one. And if you try too hard to make everything fit into a single frame, you might find that one is the loneliest number.

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2015 at 10:40 am

A life in random roles

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Stephen Tobolowsky in Groundhog Day

Slowly but surely, with one wonderful piece after another, the Random Roles interviews that Will Harris does for The A.V. Club have turned into one of my favorite things on the Internet. The premise is simple: Harris sits down with an actor, usually one best known for character parts, to discuss an assortment of the movies and television shows in which he or she has appeared—except that the subjects don’t know in advance what roles he’s going to bring up. It results in a kind of Inside the Actors Studio for actors who might have trouble filling an auditorium, even as their faces and voices constitute an essential piece of our lives as viewers and moviegoers. I’m talking about the likes of Stephen Tobolowsky, Kurtwood Smith, and Ted Levine, actors whose names we often don’t know, even as their presence sends a charge through the screen whenever they appear. We’d recognize them on the street, but if we did, we might think they sold us a car or that we knew them in college, when in fact they’ve been insinuating themselves into our consciousness in tiny increments, a line or two at a time.

Occasionally, you’ll see a bigger name pop up—Harris has spoken with Morgan Freeman, Don Johnson, and Timothy Dalton, all in the last few months—but the most engaging interviews tend to be with actors who have thrived for decades in small parts, or who spent years in the wilderness before or after their shot at the big time. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the working artist who puts as much life as possible into a few seconds of screen time on the way to the next paycheck, and not surprisingly, these interviews are all repositories of craft, knowledge, and great stories. In today’s installment, for instance, Harris talks to Kurt Fuller, who is practically the embodiment of “Hey, it’s that guy!” Here he is talking about his first onscreen appearance, as an unnamed cameraman on Knight Rider:

And my line was, “The car talks. The car talks!” And I said it just about that badly. I remember the director said to me—and this has been said to me by that director, but also by Ivan Reitman during Ghostbusters 2, which was very early on as well, when I was petrified—”Do less than you ever thought it was possible to do.” And that’s been very good advice. The more I take it, the better I feel. I can overact in two seconds.

Kurt Fuller on Supernatural

If these pieces are invariably more interesting and insightful than what usually comes out of the press junkets we get from more recognizable stars, that’s largely thanks to Harris, who seems to prepare for each interview by watching everything the subject has ever done, but it’s also due to the peculiar position of the character actor. To endure for forty years in Hollywood on one scene at a time requires enormous professionalism, versatility, and talent, and your indispensability relies on the fact that you can be taken for granted. There’s no opportunity to sulk in your trailer or fight with your director: you’re there solely to make each scene, and your fellow performers, just a little bit better. This requires considerable depth of experience, as well as an underlying pragmatism and lack of ego that comes less from natural modesty than a recognition of how best to get things done. (For an unforgettable illustration of the contrast between the life of a character actor and that of a star, check out Tobolowsky’s story of working with Steven Seagal in The Glimmer Man.)

Occasionally, you’ll see a performer with a character actor’s soul launched unexpectedly into the ranks of leading men, and it’s always worth paying attention to the result, which serves almost as a referendum on how much trickery we’re willing to tolerate. (What David Thomson says of Kevin Spacey applies strongly here: “He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.”) It’s possible that movies and television shows work best in the way Renaissance painting did, with a singular, inexplicable presence at the center—the mystery of stardom—surrounded by figures at the edges, rendered with unobtrusive craft, that serve to bring out the main subject. These anonymous putti and cherubim don’t often have a chance to tell their stories, and they’ve long since learned to be content with being passed over at a glance, but when they do talk, we’re reminded of how crucial they can be. As Jeffrey Tambor says to Harris: “The great thing about acting is that you kind of do what’s there and do it the best you can.” And when you’re done, you cash your check, call your agent, and move on to your next small moment of vividness.

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2014 at 9:40 am

Hell is other movies

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Robert Altman

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 question: “What’s your personal pop culture hell?”

Dante has always been one of the shrewdest and most surprising of writers, and the most striking aspect of his vision of hell is how its residents create it for themselves. Unlike Shakespeare, whose greatest gift lies in the depiction of personality in transition, Dante gives us a series of figures captured in a single characteristic moment for all eternity. The effect is both heightened, like a series of frescoes, and strangely realistic. We like to think of ourselves as creatures who are constantly evolving, but from a godlike or four-dimensional perspective, as Rust notes in True Detective, our lives would appear as a single emblematic shape. (Borges says much the same thing in one of his essays, in which he defines a divine intelligence as one that could grasp the inconceivable figure traced by all of an individual’s movements throughout a lifetime as easily as we see a triangle.) And because Dante is visiting the souls of the damned, their shapes take the form of their worst moments, whether it’s the act of suicide that transforms Pietro della Vigna into a dead tree or leaves Paulo and Francesca whipped by the winds of illicit passion.

Much the same can be said of artists, who, after they’re gone, leave behind a visible legacy in the form of a shelf of books, a monograph of paintings, or a stack of movies or episodes. When we think back on the careers of the artists we know best, it often seems oddly sculptural, as if each successive film or novel were a component in a larger edifice being built over time. One of the hardest parts about working in any creative field is sensing what that larger shape will be when you’re considering projects from moment to moment. You see this in stark terms, for instance, in the résumés of actors and actresses, who need to engage in a complicated calculation that weighs the immediate merits of any given role against its place in the overall picture. I’ve written before about what I call the starlet’s dilemma, in which the pressure to extend one’s prime earning years can lead to decisions that compromise any prospect of a lasting career. And if there’s one recurring theme in Will Harris’s wonderful Random Roles interviews on The A.V. Club, it’s that when you’re focusing on the parts that happen to be available at the time, you end up with a filmography that can take you by surprise, and not always in a good way.

Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Every lasting career has its ups and downs, of course, and you could argue that too much consistency is the mark of a mediocre artist: any creative decision is a risk, and what feels like a step forward can turn out to be going in the wrong direction. If we’re lucky, over the long run, the hits will outweigh the misses, and our failures will be blessedly forgotten. Robert Altman, for one, was the kind of director who almost obstinately refused to be kept to any one path, leading to a famous piece of admiring snark from Pauline Kael:

Robert Altman is almost frighteningly nonrepetitive. He goes out in a new direction every time, and scores an astonishing fifty percent—one on, one off. M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller has now been followed by Images. I can hardly wait for his next movie.

Which, it turns out, was The Long Goodbye, his best movie, at least to my eyes, and lasting proof that this kind of approach can pay dividends over the long run. But it also means that you could compile a festival of Altman’s misfires and come away with the impression that he was the worst director in the world.

If I were curating a film festival for my own personal hell, then, I’d approach the problem in Dantesque terms, and feature all of my favorite directors at their worst moments. I’m not talking about movies that are merely disappointing, like Shutter Island, or ambitious failures, like The Fountain or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We’re looking at the likes of Attack of the Clones or U-Turn or The Ladykillers: movies so dire they make you wonder what you saw in these directors in the first place. They’re films in which virtues are twisted into vices, and the decisions and idiosyncrasies that drew you to a filmmaker’s work become monstrously distorted. In this life, we’re lucky enough to be able to ignore the duds from the artists we admire, and we can judge them only by their best. Hell, however, operates by different rules. In the seventh circle, Dante is confronted by the shade of Brunetto Latini, a man he loved, racing on foot forever through the circle of the sodomites, and although he’s compelled by poetic logic to put him there, it breaks his heart. It’s a special kind of torture to see your heroes’ mistakes without their corresponding successes, and that’s the hell I envision for myself. It even has a name: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

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