I was listening to Chuck Palahniuk on Bret Easton Ellis podcast (is this the second post in a row where I mention this podcast? It’s not for everybody but I’m into it!)
You know, if somebody had given David Foster Wallace or Sylvia Plath fourteen issues of Spider-Man to do, they’d both still be alive
says Palahniuk early in the episode. An outrageous claim. But hey, I guess outrageous claims were what I was signing up for. Would ❤️ to read a Sylvia Plath Spider-man series.
Palahniuk isn’t a writer I’ve read much of, gross out, extremist fiction not being my kinda milkshake. But when Palahniuk mentioned that he’d written a travel book about Portland, that got my attention. Travel books I’m into. So I got Palahniuk’s travel book, fugitives and refugees: A Walk In Portland, Oregon, which it turns out is part of a series Crown put out, Crown Journeys, where writers do a walking tour – sometimes pretty literally, sometimes in quotes – of a place they know well.
Turns out I’d read one of these already, Frank Conroy’s Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket. I’d read that a few years back during a weeklong stay on Nantucket, but I remember nothing from it. The book about Nantucket I like is Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, where I learned there was a neighborhood on Nantucket called New Guinea, full of people of color of various kinds. Nantucket’s worth a post of her own someday.
Stuck homebound, I got a bunch of these Crown Journeys books. An appealing quality of them is their size, just right to stuff in a bag:
Let’s start with Palahniuk’s. It’s a travel guide plus a memoir, the voice is strong and he shows, even rubs your face in, the weirdness of that town, the grubbiness and beauty all swished up together.
Katherine’s theory is that everyone looking to make a new life migrates west, across America to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, the cheapest city where they can life is Portland. This gives us the most cracked of the crackpots. The misfits among misfits.
The memory and madness:
Days, I’m working as a messenger, delivering advertising proofs form the Oregonian newspaper. Nights, I wash dishes at Jonah’s seafood restaurant. My roommates come home, and we throw food at each other. One night, cherry pie, big sticky red handfuls of it. We’re eighteen years old. Legal adults. So we’re stoned and drinking champagne every night, microwaving our escargot. Living it up.
Palahniuk is clearly more into the sex trade, underground (literal and figurative) side of the town, but he covers the gardens too, along with the Self Cleaning House and Stark’s Vacuum Cleaner Museum and the standout landmarks, along with a semi-autobiography full of vivid, intense incidents, like a beating and a moment with the mother of a dying hospital patient.
Although this book was published in 2003, reading it gives insight into why Portland is the arena of choice for “antifa” and far-night political violence LARPers and a fracture zone of America 2020.
Next up, Roy Blount Jr.’s Feet On The Street: Rambles Around New Orleans.
This one’s the best organized, divided into seven rambles: Orientation, Wetness, Oysters, Color, Food, Desire, Friends. It’s full of jokes and stories and anecdote. Of all the Crown Journeys I read, this one’s unsurprisingly the most focused on food. How can you not want a “roast beef sandwich with debris” from Mothers, or a pan-fried trout topped with “muddy water” sauce: chicken broth, garlic, anchovies, and gutted jalapeños and sprinkled with parmesan cheese.”
Blout’s book is full of autobiography too, quoting from letters he wrote as a young man, describing nights and dinners, what New Orleans meant to him as a young man and what he found on frequent returns.
I’ll bet I have been up in N. O. at every hour in every season,
he says, a cool claim.
Towards the end of the book, Blount Jr. turns kind of reflective, ruminating with some regret on an incident of insensitivity, somewhere between misunderstanding and even cruelty, towards a homosexual friend that ended badly. There’s an air of regret to it, and maybe that’s part of New Orleans, too. Feet On The Street might work best of all of these, as a book. I’ve read a lot of guides to New Orleans and this one’s a fine addition to the canon.
Blount’s a figure who doesn’t seem to quite exist as much any more, the sort of literary semi-comedian raconteur, where books are just one expression of a humorous personality. Christopher Buckley’s another guy like that.
Washington Schlepped Here is, in my opinion, the worst titled of these books. It’s a pun, first of all, but second, George Washington simply never “schlepped.” Didn’t happen. He was not a schlepper. Buckley spends a paragraph or two dealing with the title, although he seems quite pleased with it. “Pleased with himself” might be the most accurate criticism you could make of Christopher Buckley, but it’s hard not to be a little won over by his privileged charm.
Buckley’s Washington is strictly the Washington of our nation’s capital. You won’t find anything in here about the majority black population of that city. How can you write a book about Washington that doesn’t mention Ben’s Chili Bowl? E. J. Applewhite’s Washington Itself, which Buckley quotes from copiously, is a richer one volume guide to the city. But there’s a Yale-grade wit to Buckley, I won’t deny it.
I’ll let you prowl about. There’s a lot to see: the Old Senate Chamber, Statuary Hall, the Crypt, the Old Supreme Court Chamber, the Hall of Columns, along with enough murals, portraits, busts and bas reliefs to keep you going “Huh” for hours.”
Buckley takes the walking tour conceit the most seriously of any of the writers. There’s a bummer element hanging over this book, as Buckley keeps pointing out how post-9/11 security procedures and jersey barriers have made wandering the capital city less free that in it used to be. There’s a bit of filler to this one, too, as if Buckley’s sort of just taking the Wikipedia page to certain buildings and adding a few quips. A few pages are devoted to musing on specific works in specific Mall art museums. Several of the jokes rely casual shared stereotypes about politics, like that Republicans like martinis, that now feel like they’re from another universe (the book was published in 2003).
The best parts of this one come from Jeanne Fogle’s book Proximity to Power and Tony Pitch’s walking tour, both centered on Lafayette Square, which bring to life people who lived here. Places are only so interesting. It’s people that get your attention.
James M. McPherson’s Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg is just terrific. A concise, powerful tour of the battlefield, rich in detail and incident, you’re clearly in the hands of a master storyteller who knows his stuff deeply. One of McPherson’s gifts is to take us not just to the battle as it happened, but to the battlefield as it’s remembered and preserved. McPherson talks about the way the woodlands on the battlefield would’ve been more thinned out in 1863, who could see what from where, how small features of geography shaped those three days. On the artillery barrage that preceded Pickett’s Charge:
Confederate gunners failed to realize the inaccuracy of their fire because the smoke from all these guns hung in the calm, humid air and obscured their view. Several explanations for this Confederate overshooting have been offered. One theory is that as the gun barrels heated up, the powder exploded with greater force. Another is that the recoil scarred the ground, lowering the carriage trails and elevating the barrels ever so slight. The most ingenious explanation grows out of an explosion at the Richmond arsenal in March that took it out of production for several weeks. The Army of Northern Virginia had to depend on arsenals farther south for production of many of the shells for the invasion of Pennsylvania. Confederate gunners did not realize that fuses on these shells burned more slowly than those from the Richmond arsenal; thus the shells whose fused they tried to time for explosion above front-line Union troops, showering them with lethal shrapnel, exploded a split second too late, after the shells had passed over.
On such things does history turn? McPherson tells us details like that Company F of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina included four sets of twins, every one of whom was killed or wounded in the battle.
I’ve been to Gettysburg twice, and was pretty familiar with the shape of the events and landscape. But I’d wager this book would provide a pretty clear and readable introduction to the battle, even if you didn’t know very much about it. Certainly it’s much easier to comprehend than Shelby Foote’s Stars In The Courses, another short volume about Gettysburg, which has a poetry to it, but good luck using it to decipher what happened where.
Kinky is not a word that I love, and comedy music makes me uncomfortable. So I’ve never gotten too into Kinky Friedman. But The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic: a “walk” in Austin is pretty companionable. Kinky is friends with George W. Bush, and has nothing bad to say about him (this one was published in 2004, so pre Iraq catastrophe).
There are a couple of notable omissions in this book. The coolest part of Austin to me is Rainey Street, but that section’s conversion of porched houses into bars may post-date this work. There’s also nothing about the Texas State Cemetery, which I believe is unique in the United States and tells you quite a bit about the values of Texas. Maybe worth a book of its own. Also, without explanation, Friedman tosses off that he’s never been inside the Texas Capitol Building, which is the centerpiece of Austin.
Is Austin the place of all these that has changed the most in the last twenty years?
Still, you’re on a fun ramble with a personality who’s committed to entertaining. A thin volume, thick with schtick. I really liked Kinky’s introduction to Texas history, and the stuff about the ’70s music scene. If you think calling a ghost an “Apparition-American” is funny, you’ll enjoy this book. Really, any small book about Austin in this time of home-bounditude would’ve been appreciated by me.
Compact, entertaining guides to places, by writers who really have a voice – there should be more books like this. I ate these up like cookies. Surely Boston, Los Angeles/Hollywood, Seattle, San Francisco, Savannah, Nashville, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Honolulu, Charleston could all use books like this. Brooklyn?
Hell I’d even read one about San Diego.
This is a book about a scene, and the scene was Key West in the late ’60s-’70s, centered on Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Buffett, and some lesser known but memorable characters. I tried to think of other books about scenes, and came up with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, and maybe Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh, about Van Morrison’s Boston. Then of course there’s Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, referenced here in the subtitle, a mean-spirited but often beautiful book about 1920s Paris.
I was drawn to this book after I heard Walter Kirn talking about it on Bret Easton Ellis podcast (McGuane is Kirn’s ex-father-in-law, which must be one of life’s more interesting relationships). I’ve been drawn lately to books about the actual practicalities of the writing life. How do other writers do it? How do they organize their day? What time do they get to work? What do they eat and drink? How do they avoid distraction?
From this book we learn that Jim Harrison worked until 5pm, not 4:59 but 5pm, after which he cut loose. McGuane was more disciplined, even hermitish for a time (while still getting plenty of fishing done) but eventually temptation took over, he started partying with the boys, eventually was given the chance to direct the movie from his novel 92 In The Shade. That’s when things got really crazy. The movie was not a big success.
“The Sixties” (the craziest excesses bled well into the ’70s) musta really been something.
On page one of this book I felt there was an error:
That’s not the line. The line (from the Poetry Foundation) is:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ MenGang aft agley,
Part of what these writers found special about Key West, beyond the Hemingway and Tennessee Williams legends, was it just wasn’t a regular, straight and narrow place. Being a writer is a queer job, someone’s liable to wonder what it is you do all day. In Key West, that wasn’t a problem.
Key West was so irregular and libertine that you could get away with the apparent layaboutism of the writer’s life.
Some years ago I was writing a TV pilot I’d pitched called Florida Courthouse. I went down to Florida to do some research, and people kept telling me about Key West, making it sound like Florida’s Florida. Down I went on that fantastic drive where you feel like you’re flying, over Pigeon Key, surely one of the cooler drives in the USA if not the world.
The town I found at the end of the road was truly different. Louche, kind of disgusting, and there was an element of tourists chasing a Buffett fantasy. Some of the people I encountered seemed like untrustworthy semi-pirates, and some put themselves way out to help a stranger. You’re literally and figuratively way out there, halfway to Havana. The old houses, the chickens wandering, the cemetery, the heat and the shore and the breeze and the old fort and the general sense of license and liberty has an intoxicating quality. There was a slight element of forced fun, and trying to capture some spirit that may have existed mostly in legend. McKeen captures that aspect in his book:
Like McGuane, I found the mornings in Key West to be the best attraction. Quiet, promising, unbothered, potentially productive. Then in the afternoon you could go out and see what trouble was to be found. Somebody introduced me to a former sheriff of Key West, who helped me understand his philosophy of law enforcement: “look, you can’t put that much law on people if it’s not in their hearts.”
I enjoyed my time there in this salty beachside min-New Orleans and hope to return some day, although I don’t really think I’m a Key West person in my heart. I went looking for photos from that trip, and one I found was of the Audubon House.
After finishing this book I was recounting some of the stories to my wife and we put on Jimmy Buffett radio, and that led of course to drinking a bunch of margaritas and I woke up hungover.
I rate this book: four and a half margaritas.
Alcohol was his salve against a modern world he saw as a conspiracy of mediocrity on its ruling levels. Life was most bearable, he repeated, at its simplest: fishing, hunting, talking biggity in a cane chair on a board sidewalk, or horse-trading, gossiping.
Bill spoke rarely about writing, but when he did he said he had no method, no formula. He started with some local event, a well-known face, a sudden reaction to a joke or an incident. “And just let the story carry itself. I walk along behind and write down what happens.”
Q: Sir, I would like to know exactly what it was that inspired you to become a writer.
A: Well, I probably was born with the liking for inventing stories. I took it up in 1920. I lived in New Orleans, I was working for a bootlegger. He had a launch that I would take down the Pontchartrain into the gulf to an island where the run, the green rum, would be brought up from Cuba and buried, and we would dig it up and bring it back to New Orleans, and he would make scotch or gin or whatever he wanted. He had the bottles labeled and everything. And I would get a hundred dollars a trip for that, and I didn’t need much money, so I would get along until I ran out of money again. And I met Sherwood Anderson by chance, and we took to each other from the first. I’d meet him in the afternoon, we would walk and he would talk and I would listen. In the evening we would go somewhere to a speakeasy and rink, and he would talk and I would listen. The next morning he would say, “Well I have to work in the morning,” so I wouldn’t see him until the next afternoon. And I thought if that’s the sort of life writers lead, that’s the life for me. So I wrote a book and, as soon as I started, I found out it was fun. And I hand’t seen him and Mrs. Anderson for some time until I met her on the street, and she said, “Are you mad at us?” and I said, “No, ma’am, I’m writing a book,” and she said, “Good Lord!” I saw her again, still having fun writing the book, and she said, “Do you want Sherwood to see your book when you finish it?” and I said, “Well, I hadn’t thought about it.” She said, “Well, he will make a trade with you; if he don’t have to read that book, he will tell his publisher to take it.” I said, “Done!” So I finished the book and he told Liveright to take it and Liveright took it. And that was how I became a writer – that was the mechanics of it.
Stephen Longstreet reports on Faulkner in Hollywood, specifically To Have and Have Not:
Several other writers contributed, but Bill turned out the most pages, even if they were not all used. This made Bill a problem child.
The unofficial Writers’ Guild strawboss on the lot came to me.
“Faulkner is turning out too many pages. He sits up all night sometimes writing and turns in fifty to sixty pages in the morning. Try and speak to him.”
This book was great. A kind of roaming meditation on the special poignancy of urban loneliness, which is so strange and powerful because, of course, you’re around other people, even in your solitude. Also a kind of biography of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz. (The last one I was least familiar with.)
After his mother died, Andy Warhol told people she was shopping at Bloomingdales.
Even the typeface and layout of this book is pleasing. Henry Darger’s frustrations:
A conversation with Warhol’s nephew:
As a young person I lived in New York City, and can remember from time to time feeling loneliness there. A loneliness that was almost pleasurable. Of course this comes nowhere close to the form of loneliness you might feel if you were gay and alone and dying of plague. But I felt I could connect to the feeling explored here. Laing blends her own sensations through in a way that creates something special.
When I think about loneliness in New York, the work of art that comes quickest to mind might be Nico’s These Days. I listen and I’m like yes, that’s the feeling.
This one didn’t quite come off as much for me, maybe because I read it second, or maybe just because drinking is sort of just a sorry, depressive subject. A drunk when he’s drunk just isn’t that interesting. Laing herself (if I read the book right) isn’t an alcoholic, or even a beyond-standard English level drinker, although she discusses a history in an alcoholic household. But I didn’t feel the personal connection in quite the way I did with loneliness.
Writing in the mornings and swimming and indulging yourself in the afternoons – ideal lifestyle?
Hemingway is put on a “low alcohol diet (five ounces of whiskey and one glass of wine a day, a letter reports.”
in 1957 Tennessee went into psychoanalysis, and also spent a spell in what he described as a “plush-lined loony-bin” – drying out, or trying to. The seriousness with which he approached this endeavour can be gauged from his notebooks, in which he confesses day after day to “drinking a bit more than my quota.” One laconic itemisation includes: “Two Scotches at bar. 3 drinks in morning. A daiquiri at Dirty Dick’s, 3 glasses of red wine at lunch at 3 of wine at dinner – Also two Seconals so far, and a green tranquilizer whose name I do not know and a yellow one I think is called reseperine or something like that.”
The therapist was also trying to cure him of homosexuality.
I liked the parts were Laing describes the wonderful Amtrak tradition of shared tables in the dining car.
A different version of this book could’ve been called Drunk Writers and sold as like a novelty book at Urban Outfitters. Do they still sell books at Urban Outfitters?
The drinker/writer Laing profiles who I knew least about was John Berryman:
Ordered a copy.
Might have to move on to To The River, about Virginia Woolf and the river Ouse.
This is one my favorite books, I’m serious. Shelby Foote is a great interview, obviously, just watch his interviews with Ken Burns. (“Ken, you made me a millionaire,” Shelby reports telling Burns after the series aired.) You may not want to read the whole of Shelby’s three volume Civil War, it can get carried away with the lyrical, and following the geography can be a challenge. But the flavor of it, some of the most vivid moments, and anecdotes, come through in these collected conversations with inquirers over the years.
“You’ve got to remember that the Civil War was as big as life,” he explains. “That’s why no historian has ever done it justice, or ever will. But that’s the glory of it. Take me: I was raised up believing Yankees were a bunch of thieves. But it’s absolutely incredible that a people could fight a Civil War and have so few atrocities.
“Sherman marched with 60,000 men slap across Georgia, then straight up though the Carolinas, burning, looting, doing everything in the world – but I don’t know of a single case of rape. That’s amazing because hatreds run high in civil wars…
There were still a lot of antique virtues around them. Jackson once told a colonel to advance his regiment across a field being riddled by bullets. When the officer protested that nobody could survive out there, Jackson told him he always took care of his wounded and buried his dead. The colonel led his troops into the field.”
Finally treated myself to a few more of these editions. These books are casual and comfortable. They’re collections of interviews from panels, newspapers, magazines, literary journals, conference discussions. Physically they’re just the right size, the printing is quality and the typeface is appealing.
Why not start with another Mississippian, someone Foote had quite a few conversations with himself?
Wow, Walker Percy could converse.
Later, different interview:
Do we dare attempt conversation with the father of them all?
I’ve long found interviews with Faulkner, even stray details from the life of Faulkner, to be more compelling than his fiction. Maybe it’s the appealing lifestyle: courtly freedom, hunting, fishing, and all the whiskey you can handle. The life of an unbothered country squire, preserving a great tradition, going to Hollywood from time to time, turning the places of your boyhood into a world mythology.
We’ll have more to say about the Conversations with Faulkner, deserves its own post! Maybe Percy gets to the heart of it in one of his interviews:
Q: Did you serve a long apprenticeship in becoming a writer?
Percy: Well, I wrote a couple of bad novels which no one wanted to buy. And I can’t imagine anydboy doing anything else. Yes it was a long apprenticeship with some frustration. But I was lucky with the third one, The Moviegoer; so, it wasn’t so bad, I guess.
Q: Had you rather be a writer than a doctor?
Percy: Let’s just say I was the happiest doctor who ever got tuberculosis and was able to quit it. It gave me an excuse to do what I wanted to do. I guess I’m like Faulkner in that respect. You know Faulkner lived for awhile in the French Quarter of New Orleans where he met Sherwood Anderson, and Faulkner used to say if anybody could live like that and get away with it he wanted to live the same way.
For the advanced student:
1966. The Beatles return from the US, having played what will be their “last proper concert,” Candlestick Park, San Francisco, August 29. They have some time off.
For the first time in years, the four of them were able to take a break from being Beatles. With three months free, they could do what they liked. Ringo chose to relax at home with his wife and new baby. John went to Europe to play Private Gripweed in Richard Lester’s film How I Won The War. George flew to Bombay to study yoga and to be taught to play the sitar by Ravi Shankar. This left Paul to his own devices.
For a while he hangs out in London, where he’s surely the most famous person. It gets a tiresome, really. Paul gets the idea of going incognito. He arranges a fake mustache, and fake glasses, and slicks his hair back with Vasoline. He has an Aston Martin DB6 shipped to France, and across the Channel he goes. He drives around France for a bit, relaxing in Paris, sitting in cafes unrecognized. From his hotel window he shoots experimental film of cars passing a gendarme. On he goes.
Upon reaching Bordeaux, he felt a hankering for the night life. Still in disguise, he turned up at a local discothèque, but was refused entry. “I looked like old jerko. ‘No, no monsieur, non’ – you schmuck, we can’t let you in.” So he went back to his hotel and took off his scruffy overcoat, his moustache and his glasses. Then he returned to the disco where he was welcomed with open arms.
I absolutely hoovered up this book. I’ve read a bunch of Beatles books in the last few years: Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming The Beatles, the gossipy The Love You Make by Peter Brown and Steven Gaines, You Never Give Me Your Money by Peter Doggett, about the Beatles post Beatles. This last one may have been the most compelling, even though much of it is patient unraveling of complex business and tax situations (plus anecdotes about decadence.) A tragedy about the years the Beatles spent suing each other. Maybe because how a person handles that kind of stress – the stress of tedious meetings – is more revealing, the personalities really came to life.
You’d think I’d be bored of the Beatles. The facts of the history don’t even interest me that much, and I doubt there’s a Beatles song on my top 100 most played. I’m not that much of a Beatles fan, to be honest, not compared to the psychos. (A funny bit in this book is Craig Brown, saying he’s spent a few years in deep on Beatles books and lore, acknowledging he’s barely scratched the surface of like, people who know every version of the lineup of the Quarrymen.)
We don’t need a recounting of the basic beats of the plot of the Beatles. We know.
Craig Brown goes so far beyond that. He assumes you know the rough outlines, and somehow he breathes new life into these old bones. He makes moments pop. Specimens of time, how far can we go to recapturing them? That’s the real question of this book.
Brown will take an incident – the day Bob Dylan turned the Beatles on to marijuana, for instance – and turn it over from every angle, consider every account. How do we know what we know? Who’s telling us? What was their agenda? How much can they be trusted? The historigraphy, you might say. At the same time, he puts us right there as Brian Epstein looks at himself in the mirror, repeating a single word over and over.
Take Pete Best. You probably know that story, the original drummer, they replaced him with Ringo. The cruelty of how that went down, how the Beatles treated him, shocks here in Brown’s retelling. I didn’t know, for instance, that in 1967 Pete Best tried to kill himself. Brown takes us thereL
He locks the door, blocks any air gaps, places a pillow on the floor in front of the gas fire, and turns on the gas. He is fading way when his brother Rory arrives, smells gas, batters the door down and, screaming “Bloody idiot!” saves his life.
If you want to know what happened to the comedians who had to perform in between the Beatles’ sets on Ed Sullivan, this is the book for you.
Can I reprint all of Chapter 30?
Seems like I’m just approximating picking this book up in a bookshop. What harm in that?
Craig Brown: going on my Role Models and Inspirations board. In a random, unrelated search I learn that he is aunt by marriage to Florence Welch, of Florence + The Machine. That’s the kind of connection Craig Brown would track down and work over for any possible meaning. Maybe there’s something there, maybe he’d discard it to the flotsam of chance, who knows. The point is he’d track it down.
Brown’s 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret is great too, if you’re into The Crown type stuff.
loving this one. Supposedly the words of Odin himself.
Even Odin gets sloppy sometimes.
Crawford includes the Old Norse, if you need that. I’m not up on my Old Norse, I’m way behind on my Arabic as it is, my French is déchet, my Spanish is worse, most of my Irish is forgotten, but it’s cool to look at some of these syllables.
The people in the psychedelic world had been religious but had always covered it up. There was such a bad odor about being frankly religious. I mean Kesey would refer to Cosmo, meaning God; someone in the group used the word manager. Hugh Romney [a.k.a. Wavy Gravy] used to say, “I’m in the pudding and I’ve met the manager.”
On unusual style / carrying yourself as a reporter:
When I first started at Esquire, I made the mistake of trying to fit in. And given the kind of things I was sent to cover – stock car racing, the Peppermint Lounge, topless restaurants in San Francisco – not only did I not fit in no matter how hard I tried, but I would deprive myself of the opportunity to ask very basic questions that the outsider can ask. You just discover after awhile that people like to be asked questions they know the answers to.
be an odd, eccentric character… people will volunteer information to you
On American literature:
In France they discovered Faulkner – not as we would, as a very complex and somewhat arty writer, but as a primitive who had barely emerged from the ooze, somehow, to write.
At the same time they were admiring the energetic, classless and low-rent, rude, animal side of American art, our artists were striving like mad to shed all of that and to stop being hicks and rustics.
re: The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House
I want people to pay attention to what I think is my sole contribution in these areas – showing how certain fashions, certain styles, certain trends come about. They’re not like the weather. Most of our critics and historians seem to think that styles are like Bermuda highs. That it’s the spirit of the age and so cosmic in nature that you don’t have to think about how it happened. You just note that it happened, and if the weather is serious enough, you bow down. What I keep saying is that styles are created by people. And the task of a historian – which is all I picture myself as in these books – is to find out who these people are and what the competitions were that brought the styles out.
On advice to young journalists:
You should get up your courage and approach the biggest magazine you can think of that might be interested in the subject. Approach a junior editor rather than the man at the top, because the junior editors are in competition with one another to discover new writers. Even if you’ve already written it, present the story idea to the editor, because editors like to feel that they’re part of the creative process. Wait a decent interval of about two weeks and then send them a manuscript. Magazines will be in a receptive mood if you have approached them ahead of time. They’ll want it to be good, they’ll want to buy it, and they’ll want it to be a success. There’s a continual shortage of good writers and good journalists. It’s really not an overcrowded field because there’s not that much talent to go around. A lot of it is having the determination and perseverance to do the reporting.
There are several references to an article I’m not sure I’d read before, about carrier pilots operating off the USS Coral Sea, dodging missiles over North Vietnam, “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” which you can read here on Esquire’s website.
Status competition, that’s what interests Wolfe.
Making writing appear spontaneous:
I wanted the writing to appear buoyant, free and easy, spontaneous. Creating the effect of spontaneity in writing is one of the most difficult and artificial things you can do. I was much relieved to learn that Celine used to spend four or five years rewriting his novels in order to achieve the effect of someone just sitting down across the table from you, spouting up the story of his life. Writing is an extremely artificial business: it’s artificial by its very nature – you’re taking sounds and converting them into symbols on a page. To make that transference from one sense to another and reinvest the words with vigor and rhythm and spontaneity is quite a feat.
my intention, my hope, was always to get inside of these people, inside their central nervous systems, and present their experience in print from the inside.
[after he wrote an attack on The New Yorker, and everybody came after him]
I suddenly found myself denounced by the likes of Joseph Alsop, Walter Lippman (he called me an ass in print), Murray Kempton, a distinguished columnist for the New York Post. Richard Goodwin called up from the White House to denounce me; E. B. White; even J. D. Salinger, whom the press hadn’t heard from for years, sent in a telegram denouncing me as a yellow journalist. I really felt that perhaps the world was coming to an end. All these eminent people descended upon me, and I felt the sky was falling in. Then a few days later I woke up, and nothing had happened. It dawned on m that it’s very difficult to get hurt in a literary fight. In a strange way, all the shouting and shooting and the explosion were part of the literary excitement.
(funny that one of the criticisms, J.D. Salinger’s term, was that Wolfe’s attack was “gleeful.”
The next two are from an interview with Ron Reagan in “GEO, 1983. The prompt here is about Pol Pot and the then rampant Khmer Rouge:
So much of the political thought and fashion among writers and other commentators in the United States is based on the idea that liberty has always existed in a kind of mist over the left. In this country there have been very few ideologues, but there has often been a Marxist mist, the idea that there is something wonderful about socialism that if pursued correctly will lead to liberty, peace, harmony and the betterment of man in a way that nothing going on in modern industrial nation can. In the past ten years it’s been discovered that socialism, when put into effect by experts, leads only to extermination camps. This has been a terrible blow to a very fashionable idea. That’s why it’s embarrassing to dwell on Pol Pot. Pol Pot is not a maniac. He’s a man who studied the future for his country for years starting in France, and the whole Khmer Rouge movement was probably as rational an undertaking under a Marxist ruler as has ever occurred. Everywhere the experts have put socialism into effect, the result has been the gulag. Now to point this out is to be regarded as right wing. I regard it only as obvious – so obvious, in fact, that you have to be crazy to avert your eyes from it.
On why writers like Hemingway and Mailer are interested in fighters and “people who got their hands dirty”:
For this analysis, I go to Sigmund Freud. He said that writers and artists are people who discovered as youngsters that they lost out in the hurly-burly of the playground. They discovered, however, that they had the power to fantasize about such things, about the fruits of power, such as money, glory and beautiful lovers. In a way, that resonated with the fantasies and dreams of other people who were not so talented. When they are successful in presenting these fantasies to the public, they end up achieving through fantasy that which they were previously able to achieve only in fantasy. But somehow it’s not enough to be known as someone who is a skilled fantasist. That is second best; it would have been much better to have ruled the playground. So they constantly try to prove to themselves that they can rule the playground if they really try. But only rarely do you run into an obsession like that.
Wolfe later mentions he things handguns should be banned:
I think if manufacture and sale stopped, the price of the ones remaining would go up on the black market. If it became a felony nationally to possess a handgun and there was a public call to turn them in , I think you’d be surprised at how many would be turned in.
Wolfe had really done his homework to develop his styles.
I really made a concentrated effort to get in the game. I adapted a lot of things I had run across in graduate school. For example, there were these early experimental Soviet writers like Aleksei Remizov, Boris Pilniak, Andrei Sobel and the Serapion Brothers. One of them, Yevegeni Zamyatin, was best known for We, the book that Orwell’s 1984 was based on. From Zamyatin, I got the idea of oddly punctuated inner thoughts. I began using a lot of exclamation points and dashes and multiple colons. The idea was, that’s the way people think.
The four basic techniques of novels Wolfe tried to introduce to nonfiction:
The first is scene-by-scene construction. In other words, telling the entire story through a sequence of scenes rather than simple historical narration. Second is the use of real dialogue – the more the better. The third, which is the least understood of the techniques, is the use of status details. That is, noting articles of clothing, manners, the way people treat children, the way they treat servants. All the things that indicate where a person thinks he fits in society and where he hopes to go socially. The fourth is the use of point of view, which is depicting the scenes through a particular pair of eyes.
Re: psychedelia and mus:
Without that world, without Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead, there would have been no serious music by the Beatles. They take off from the Grateful Dead, starting with that album Revolver. Everything from Revolver on comes out of the American psychedelic world, to which they were turned on by Bob Dylan – in person, in private. Not by listening to his records, but by getting involved with him personally.
Here’s another thing that’s now like a foreign notion. The seven deadly sins are all sins against the self. And this is an idea that’s vanished pretty much. Lust for example. The reason that lust in Christian religion was – particularly in the form of Catholicism that originated the seven deadly sins – was considered a sin was not that some man would be leading some nice girl from Akron into white slavery, or the pages of pornographic magazines, but that he would be hurting himself by wasting his spirit on this shallow and pointless, base passion.
I hope editor Dorothy Scura doesn’t mind me quoting so extensively from her book, which is itself a roundup of other interviews. My goal is simply to share some of these wonderful insights with likeminded readers.
There was a period when I was working on a novel, not working a steady job, and I figured, “I should make sure I at least hear an hour of human conversation a day.” That was the time in my life when I watched the most Charlie Rose.
The Charlie Rose Show website used to be elegantly organized. It’s still good, but there was a neat way it used to be indexed, there was section called like “writers on writing” I appreciated.
Charlie Rose has now been banished for his crimes which sound bad enough. Sometimes in the wake of what’s (perhaps unfortunately) called “the MeToo movement” I hear like “well what about due process?!” or arguments along those lines. But shouldn’t our public media gatekeeper/narrative shapers be not just merely not sex pests, but in fact above reproach? Couldn’t we have higher standards for our public broadcasters?
This got me riled about about Brett Kavanaugh as well — like, can’t we find someone for the Supreme Court who can’t be credibly accused of anything? I believe it is possible!
Anyway. Here are some memories of moments on Charlie Rose that stuck in my craw:
- The Franzen/DFW/Mark Leyner “Future of Fiction” episode
- When John Grisham was on, and Charlie asked him “what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?” Grisham said, “figure out where you’re going to get your paycheck from.”
- Charlie needling David McCullough about selling the rights to John Adams to Tom Hanks. McCullough was going on about how Hanks came to him with the book all marked up and noted, and how THAT was what convinced him. Charlie: “But surely some money changed hands, David.”
- Charlie would often say to a guest, who was just back from Iraq or whatever, “take me there.” (In fact, I think Charlie himself even called attention to this technique.
- Charlie referencing his “girlfriend”
- In a Remembering John Updike episode, David Remnick (or maybe Updike’s editor, or both) noting that Updike wanted to “get it all down.” Like, all of life, his every thought. Is this a good instinct?
- Charlie saying “c’mon, Toby” to Tobias Scheeman’s bullshit justification about why he had sex with a Papua New Guinean tribesman in Keep The River On Your Right
During a speech in November 1957 Eisenhower employed the saying again. He told an anecdote about the maps used during U.S. military training. Maps of the Alsace-Lorraine area of Europe were used during instruction before World War I, but educational reformers decided that the location was not relevant to American forces. So the maps were switched to a new location within the U.S. for planning exercises. A few years later the military was deployed and fighting in the Alsace-Lorraine: 2
I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.
I remember learning at the Nixon library about Nixon’s writing routine when he wrote this book in a house in Apple Valley, CA:
He used a Dictaphone or wrote longhand, working in seclusion, according to Esquire Magazine.
For breakfast, he ate a bowl of Grape Nuts and drank a can of orange juice. He wrote until noon, then paused for a ham sandwich.
Believe I first heard Eisenhower’s quote from Jeff Melvoin at a WGA showrunner training like mini-camp. I’ve found it profound.
One time a female Uber driver told me the secret to winning over women is “plan ahead.”
A brief skim of Eisenhower images on NARA.GOV leads us to this gem
Noticed something about myself, but maybe it’s true for you, too. I am most productive when I am a certain level of “busy.”
When I have absolutely nothing to do, like zero, I rarely get anything done.
There’s a level of overwhelmedment where I am also useless.
But at just the right level of medium busy, my machinery hums and I get a lot done.
Surely there’s meaning in this!
(Image found by doing a search on NARA.gov for “busy.”
Original Caption: Older Citizens, Retired Persons and Those Unable to Care for Themselves Physically Are Cared for in Two Community Centers. This Man Lives at the Highland Manor Retirement Home, Keeping Busy with “Old Country” Crafts. New Ulm Is a County Seat Trading Center of 13,000 in a Farming Area of South Central Minnesota. It Was Founded in 1854 by a German Immigrant Land Company That Encouraged Its Kinsmen to Emigrate From Europe.
U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-15875
Photographer: Schulke, Flip, 1930-2008
New Ulm (Brown county, Minnesota, United States) inhabited place
Environmental Protection Agency
Persistent URL: arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=558325
OV: You teach an MFA class at Columbia called Literature from Los Angeles. Why didyou decide to do that?
PB: Why? I guess my reason is twofold. I stole the idea from a friend of mine who actually taught a class like that. She’s always complaining, “These kids never have any setting!” So I wanted to talk about setting and what setting means, not just in terms of place but what the notions of setting are. So it’s partly that. And partly a way of getting the students to read stuff they haven’t read before. So we read Chester Himes, we read Michael Jaime-Becerra; we read Wanda Coleman, we read Karen Tei Yamashita; we readBret Easton Ellis, we read Bukowski. We read a ton of stuff.
I’d like to take the class Paul Beatty lays out in this LitHub interview. Sent me to learn about Chester Himes.
Mike Davis in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, describing the prevalence of racism in Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s, cites Himes’ brief career as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers, terminated when Jack L. Warner heard about him and said: “I don’t want no niggers on this lot.” Himes later wrote in his autobiography:
Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate.
Moving stuff around in my house I found the handwritten list of words I had to look up from Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy, and their definitions.
Trull: a prostitute or a trollop.
Tellurian: an inhabitant of Earth.
Feels like I used to have a lot more spare time.
Suttree is set along the river in Knoxville, TN.
If you think Suttree might be for you, try the first sentence:
Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.
some recent Twitter stir about John Wayne’s unwoke Playboy interview from the ’70s got me looking up a phrase that stuck in my craw since I read it. It’s Charles Portis, author of True Grit, telling his impression of seeing Wayne on a movie set.
What impressions do you have of John Wayne from the film?
“Wayne was a bigger man than I expected. He was actually bigger than his image on screen, both in stature and presence. One icy morning, very early, before sunrise, we were all having breakfast in a motel…. A tourist came over to speak. Wayne rose to greet her. He stood there, not fidgeting and just hearing her out, but actively listening, and chatting with her in an easy way, as his fried eggs congealed on the plate. I took this to be no more than his nature. A gentleman at four o’clock on a cold morning is indeed a gentleman.”
Found that here on the Fort Smith National Historic Site website.
This book is an excellent size and weight. Small, portable, yet solid. It’s published by the Naval Institute Press, they who took a chance on an unknown insurance man named Tom Clancy who’d written a thriller called The Hunt For Red October.
Amazon suggested this book to me as I was browsing translations of Sun Tzu. Military history has interested me since I was a boy, maybe because 1) the stakes are so high and 2) the stories are so vivid. Metaphors and similes drawn from famous war events are powerful and stark. Consider for example Friedman’s description of the Battle of the Bulge:
… Although the Germans had caught the Allies at their culminating point, the Germans reached their own far too early. Newly created infantry units were filled with hastily trained and inexperienced conscripts. These green units could not effectively hold the territory gained by the leading panzer units. On 22 December the fog cleared and Allied air units hammered the German formations from the skies. Despite the prestaged fuel reserves, panzer units still ran out of fuel, just when they needed it to escape the Allied aerial counterattack.
Buried in there is a tactical lesson, and also an intense story about some poor children getting blown up right before Christmas.
The author was a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. If I understand right, might make this book the equivalent of a book called like Writing A Hit TV Show by a staff writer. But Friedman seems like he’s gone deep on the knowledge, and there’s a quote from Gen. Anthony Zinni on the back. Good enough for me.
Alexander The Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying — studying, vice just reading – the men who have gone before us. We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years and we should take advantage of their experience.
So goes a quote from James Mattis that opens this book. Friedman cites the example of Cortes in 1520 CE, referring to written accounts of Alexander’s battle at Gaugamela eighteen hundred years before to design his tactics against the Mexica/Aztec.
What is strategy? What is tactics? Where do they divide? Friedman summarizes Clausewitz:
Clausewitz divided warfare into tactics, actual combat between opposed military forces, and strategy, the latter being the overarching plan for using tactical engagements to achieve the ends as set forth by policy… The strategy acts as a bridge between the tactical actors (military forces) and the desired political end state of the entity those forces serve.
Much of this book is summaries of Clausewitz, really and Sun Tzu as well. How could it not be?
What I thought I remembered most of all from Clausewitz is the concept of Figerspitzengefühl, fingertips-feel, a sensing of what’s going on, and where. But I don’t have my copy of Vom Kriege at hand, and searching for fingerspitzengefühl it seems possible the term may be of later origin. Maybe it was discussed in the introduction.
Clausewitz is very concerned with will, the imposing of one’s will on the enemy, breaking the will of the enemy. Given the time and place where Clausewitz was coming from, 1800s what’s now-Germany, I can’t help but think this idea of will was connected to other philosophers like Kant who were pondering the meanings and dimensions of will around then.
Friedman picks up on the idea of will, or what he refers to as moral cohesion. He digs in on the idea of destroying the enemy’s moral cohesion.
Clausewitz defined the destruction of an enemy as “they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight” (emphasis added). This does not mean that the enemy force must be totally destroyed. Indeed, he went on to say, “when we speak of destroying the enemy’s forces we must emphasize that nothing obliges us to limit this idea to physical forces: the moral element must be considered. In other words, breaking the moral cohesion of the opposing force is destruction of that force as an effective unit and the true goal of tactics.
In a whole chapter on moral cohesion, Friedman quotes Marine Major Earl “Pete” Ellis speaking of how important it was to marines fighting insurgents in the Philippines to believe that the United States was acting from “purely altruistic motives.” Jim Storr’s The Human Face of War is quoted as well: “In general, defeat occurs when the enemy believes he is beaten… Defeat is a psychological state.”
Friedman brings out Clausewitz’s concept of “the center of gravity,” too, and points out, in a thought-provoking way that it’s not totally clear what Clausewitz meant or understood by “gravity,” and what Clausewitz understood about physics. Clausewitz died in 1831 — have we even figured out gravity now? Clausewitz noted that the center of gravity could be a capital city, an ally, the shared interests of an alliance, particular leaders, or popular opinion. The North Vietnamese correctly located the center of gravity of the US in the Vietnam War as American political will. They destroyed our moral cohesion.
Friedman is tough on the U.S war in Iraq, which he says is “a glaring example of tactics, strategy, and policy in disarray.” We need to maintain our sense of moral cohesion. It’s slipping away from us.
We get some Boyd, too, a favorite here at HelyTimes. As a bottom line lesson on tactics, this is pretty clear and cool:
Boyd says if you move and decide faster than your enemy, you will win.
Friedman concludes by pointing out that tactics are subordinate to strategy.
The tactician employs tactics that will best serve the strategy, but he must also know when a flawed strategy cannot be achieved with reasonable tactics. Duty might still demand that he try to accomplish the mission, but he will need to inform the strategist that his aims are improbable.
Taking on a big concept like tactics and attempting to codify and create a short, comprehensible theory or unified system is a nobel mission. I found On Tactics profitable to read and full of stimulating ideas and examples.
Sometimes, for instance watching Trump talk about the wall, I wonder how much of politics is just people enjoying and wallowing in different kinds of lies. Reminds me of this passage from Mark Helprin’s novel A Winter’s Tale. A mayoral election is going on in New York:
He never talked about garbage, electricity, or police. He only talked about winter, horses and the countryside. He spoke almost hypnotically about love, loyalty, and esthetics … He promised them love affairs and sleigh races, cross-country skiing on the main thoroughfares, and the transfixing blizzards that howled outside and made the heart dance.
They thought, or so it was generally stated at the time, that if they were going to be lied to, they might as well pick the liar who did it best.
Looking for this quote in my old files I found F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Beautiful and the Damned, talking about Congress:
he tried to imagine himself in Congress rooting around in the litter of that incredible pigsty with the narrow and porcine brows he saw pictured sometimes in the rotogravure sections of the Sunday newspapers, those glorified proletarians babbling blandly to the nation the ideas of high school seniors! Little men with copy-book ambitions who by mediocrity had thought to emerge from mediocrity into the lustreless and unromantic heaven of a government by the people – and the best, the dozen shrewd men at the top, egotistic and cynical, were content to lead this choir of white ties and wire collar-buttons in a discordant and amazing hymn, compounded of a vague confusion between wealth as a reward of virtue and wealth as a proof of vice, and continued cheers for God, the Constitution, and the Rocky Mountains!
Although fifteen years later [Marcel Proust] would recall his year as a soldier with total delight, as “a paradise,” at the time he complained bitterly and his mother had to write him consoling, babying letters, telling him to think of the twelve months as twelve chocolate squares.
Imagine the guys in the barracks finding your letters from your mom telling you to think about your year as twelve chocolate squares.
In his short biography of Custer, Larry McMurtry mentions a few other short biographies he judges fine, including with a characteristic lack of false modesty his own biography of Crazy Horse, and this Edmund White biography of Proust.
So, I got it and read it. Wonderful act of compression. Thoughtful, succinct, at times funny, human, gentle, this book is a great guide to the man and artist, what his work meant and what he was after.
Thought this was wild:
In 1911 Proust became a subscriber to Théàtrophone, a service that held a telephone receiver up at a concert, which allowed people to stay at home and hear live music on their receivers.
The few hundred pages of Remembrance of Things Past I was supposed to read in college (“Proust, Joyce and Modernism”: a class I chose to take!) were tough going for me. Proust won’t be hurried. This guy didn’t even get a job until he was in his thirties. This was an unpaid job, as a librarian, and eventually he got fired for being out sick too much. Proust is not interested in going at anyone’s pace except the languid pace of a man lying in bed, leisurely following the meandering paths of his own memory.
Proust always claimed that he had a bad memory and that, besides, a carefully reconstructed recollection, prompted by photos or shared reminiscences, was invariably colorless, Only an involuntary memory, triggered by a taste or smell or other sensation, could erase the passage of time and restore a past experience in its first, full effulgence.
Proust’s world was pretentious and can seem ridiculous. Proust himself was a great mimic, reducing people to fits of laughter with his impressions. He loved collecting anecdotes and gossip, grilling waiters for details (Proust was an extravagant tipper.) White says that Georg D. Painter’s Marcel Proust: A Biography, the one-volume edition, is
so amusing that it could be used as a source for a stand-up comic.
I’ll be looking into this claim.
How about Proust’s maid, Céleste?
Céleste’s great anxiety was Proust’s morning (or afternoon) coffee. It had to be ready the moment he rang for it, but the preparation took at least half an hour, since he liked the water to be dripped, drop by drop, through the grounds in order to produce the thickest, strongest possible “essence” of coffee. Nor could he bear for it to be reheated…
This is after Céleste had been standing up for hours listening to Proust recount gossip he’d collected on “rare midnight sorties,” Proust waiting til midnight to go out because he was so afraid of dust. Well, White tells us we read Proust because he knows that
only the gnarled knowledge that suffering brings us is of any real use.
Maybe Céleste pondered that while she remade the coffee.
Leaving the house was a challenge for Proust, but near the end of his life he made an outing to see Vermeer’s View of Delft:
On the night before he died Proust dictated a last sentence: “There is a Chinese patience in Vermeer’s craft.”
White tells us. Man Ray took a picture of Proust right after the author died, you can see it here if you’re so inclined. I’m told by the Met that Cocteau wrote of the scene:
Those who have seen this profile of calm, of order, of plenitude, will never forget the spectacle of an unbelievable recording device come to a stop, becoming an art object: a masterpiece of repose next to a heap of notebooks where our friend’s genius continues to live on like the wristwatch of a dead soldier.
True despair hours:
Movies have changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Several of these changes in popular English-language filmmaking practice are reflected in patterns of film style as distributed over the length of movies. In particular, arrangements of shot durations, motion, and luminance have altered and come to reflect aspects of the narrative form. Narrative form, on the other hand, appears to have been relatively unchanged over that time and is often characterized as having four more or less equal duration parts, sometimes called acts – setup, complication, development, and climax. The altered patterns in film style found here affect a movie’s pace: increasing shot durations and decreasing motion in the setup, darkening across the complication and development followed by brightening across the climax, decreasing shot durations and increasing motion during the first part of the climax followed by increasing shot durations and decreasing motion at the end of the climax. Decreasing shot durations mean more cuts; more cuts mean potentially more saccades that drive attention; more motion also captures attention; and brighter and darker images are associated with positive and negative emotions. Coupled with narrative form, all of these may serve to increase the engagement of the movie viewer.
Keywords: Attention, Emotion, Evolution, Film style, Movies, Narrative, Pace, Popular culture
Over at Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, James E. Cutting has an interesting paper about how popular movies have changed over time in terms of shot duration, motion, luminance, and cuts.
One thing that hasn’t really changed though: a three or four act structure.
In many cases, and particularly in movies, story form can be shown to have three or four parts, often called acts (Bordwell, 2006; Field, 2005; Thompson, 1999). The term act is borrowed from theater, but it does not imply a break in the action. Instead, it is a convenient unit whose size is between the whole film and the scene in which certain story functions occur. Because there is not much difference between the three- and four-act conceptions except that the latter has the former’s middle act broken in half (which many three-act theorists acknowledge; Field, 2005), I will focus on the four-act version.
The first act is the setup, and this is the portion of the story where listeners, readers, or viewers are introduced to the protagonist and other main characters, to their goals, and to the setting in which the story will take place. The second act is the complication, where the protagonists’ original plans and goals are derailed and need to be reworked, often with the help or hindrance of other characters. The third is the development, where the narrative typically broadens and may divide into different threads led by different characters. Finally, there is the climax, where the protagonist confronts obstacles to achieve the new goal, or the old goal by a different route. Two other small regions are optional bookend-like structures and are nested within the last and the first acts. At the end of the climax, there is often an epilogue, where the diegetic (movie world) order is restored and loose ends from subplots are resolved. In addition, I have suggested that at the beginning of the setup there is often a prologue devoted to a more superficial introduction of the setting and the protagonist but before her goals are introduced (Cutting, 2016).
Interesting way to think about film structure. Why are movies told like this?
Perhaps most convincing in this domain is the work by Labov and Waletzky (1967), who showed that spontaneous life stories elicited from inner-city individuals without formal education tend to have four parts: an orientation section (where the setting and the protagonist are introduced), a complication section (where an inciting incident launches the beginning of the action), an evaluation section (which is generally focused on a result), and a resolution (where an outcome resolves the complication). The resolution is sometimes followed by a coda, much like the epilogue in Thompson’s analysis. In sum, although I wouldn’t claim that four-part narratives are universal to all story genres, they are certainly widespread and long-standing
Cutting goes on:
That form entails at least three, but usually four, acts of roughly equal length. Why equal length? The reason is unclear, but Bordwell (2008, p. 104) suggested this might be a carryover from the development of feature films with four reels. Early projectionists had to rewind each reel before showing the next. Perhaps filmmakers quickly learned that, to keep audiences engaged, they had to organize plot structure so that last-seen events on one reel were sufficiently engrossing to sustain interest until the next reel began.
I love reading stuff like this, in the hopes of improving my craft at storytelling, but as Cutting notes:
Filmmaking is a craft. As a craft, its required skills are not easily penetrated in a conscious manner.
In the end you gotta learn by feel. We can feel when a story is right, or when it’s not right. I reckon you can learn more about movie story, and storytelling in general, by telling your story to somebody aloud and noticing when you “lose” them than you can by reading all of Brodwell. Anyone who’s pitched anything can probably remember moments when you knew you had them, or spontaneously edited because you could feel you were losing them.
Still, it’s fun to break apart human cognition and I look forward to more articles from Cognitive Science and am grateful they are free!
Another paper cited in this article is “You’re a good structure, Charlie Brown: the distribution of narrative categories in comic strips” by N Cohn.
Thanks to Larry G. for putting me on to this one.
I was thinking about how a lot of movies and shows (a rewatch of The Sopranos is what made me thing of this) could be called Sympathy For The Devil.
Isn’t the premise of this show to take a murderer and crime boss and get you to sympathize with him?
It’s like we understand that we’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany. We’re not in here to accumulate money. We’re in here mostly to sacrifice, to do something. The way you do it is by taking risks.
It’s taking risks for the sake of becoming more human. Like Christ. He took risks and he suffered. Of course, it was a bad outcome, but you don’t have to go that far. That was the idea.
TALEB: Before 15, and I reread it many times. I’d say, before 15, I read Dostoyevsky and I read The Idiot. There’s a scene that maybe I was 14 when I read it. Prince Myshkin was giving this story. Actually, it was autobiographical for Dostoyevsky.
He said he was going to be put to death. As they woke him up and were taking him to the execution place, he decided to live the last few minutes of his life with intensity. He devoured life, it was so pleasurable, and promised himself, if he survives, to enjoy every minute of life the same way.
And he survived. In fact, it was a simulacrum of an execution, and Dostoyevsky . . . effectively that says the guy survived. The lesson was he no longer did that. It was about the preferences of the moment. He couldn’t carry on later. He forgot about the episode. That marked me from Dostoyevsky when I was a kid, and then became obsessed with Dostoyevsky.
I discovered that I wanted to be a writer as a kid. I realized to have an edge as a writer, you can’t really know what people know. You’ve got to know a lot of stuff that they don’t know.
Also re: Jesus, how about Norm Macdonald on the topic: