Proust’s coffee

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:


The Evolution of Pace In Popular Movies

Abstract

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.

David Bordwell:

source: Wasily on Wiki

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.

 


Sympathy for the Devil

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?


Cowen and Taleb (and Norm)

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.

More:

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.

More:

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.

source.

Also re: Jesus, how about Norm Macdonald on the topic:

source

View at Medium.com


Sunday Scrapbasket

  • Work by Ai Weiwei at Marciano Foundation:
  • down the docks, San Pedro:
  • Good illustration of Satan in the Wikipedia page for him:

from Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio (1740) by Pu Songling

  • Looking into the history of the USA and Chile, found this.

  Declassified notes Richard Helms, CIA director, took at a September 15, 1970 meeting at the White House

game plan

make the economy scream

  • This is a take I didn’t know I had until I saw it expressed:

of course.  these rascals hired her and they knew who she was.  it didn’t work for them like it did for Fox so they threw her under the bus, but they’re no more principled than she is.

  • moving books around:

 

  • happy fate to be in attendance at the longest World Series game ever played.  Beginning:

End:

 


Ron Hansen

found in my notes some quotes from an interview with novelist Ron Hansen:

You may pray to God for guidance about some decision in your life, and God might say, ‘Look inside yourself and see what you want. It’s not necessary for you to be a priest. It’s not necessary for you to be married. It’s whatever you decide.’ In essence, God says, ‘Surprise me.’ We’re co-creators in a lot of ways, and what God relishes most about us is our creative freedom.

How about this:

For me, each Mass has a plot. It’s a kind of murder mystery. There is for me within the liturgy a sense of the importance of this celebration-this reenactment of the conspiracy and murder and resurrection of an innocent man. Here’s a man who on the eve of his betrayal celebrates dinner with his friends. Then he’s led away and whipped and has all these terrible things happen to him. But at the end the story we find out it’s a comedy, because it has such a wonderful, happy ending. And we get to share in it, in this mystery of the redemption.

love the idea of Mass as murder mystery slash comedy.

The opening of Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford:

He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue.  Green weeds split the porch steps, a wasp nest clung to an attic gable, a rope swing looped down from a dying elm tree and the ground below it was scuffed soft as flour.  Jesse installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evening as his wife wiped her pink hands on a cotton apron and reported happily on their two children.  Whenever he walked about the house, he carried serval newspapers – the Sedalia Daily Democrat, the St. Joseph Gazette, and the Kansas City Times – with a foot-long .44 caliber pistol tucked into a fold.  He stuffed flat pencils into his pockets.  He played by flipping peanuts to squirrels.  He braided yellow dandelions into his wife’s yellow hair.  He practiced out-of-the-body travel, precognition, sorcery.  He sucked raw egg yolks out of their shells and ate grass when sick, like a dog.  He would flop open the limp Holy Bible that had belonged to his father, the late Reverend Robert S. James, and would contemplate whichever verses he chanced upon, getting privileged messages from each.  The pages were scribbled over with penciled comments and interpretations; the cover was cool to his cheek as a shovel.  He scoured for nightcrawlers after earth-battering rains and flipped them into manure pails until he could chop them into writhing sections and sprinkle them over his garden patch.  He recorded sales and trends at the stock exchange but squandered much of his capital on madcap speculation.  He conjectured about foreign relations, justified himself with indignant letters, derided Eastern financiers, seeded tobacco shops and saloons with preposterous gossip about the kitchens of Persia, the Queen of England, the marriage rites of the Latter Day Saints.  He was a faulty judge of character, a prevaricator, a child at heart.  He went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch.


What was up with Will Shakespeare?

It’s 1588.  You walk into a play-house.  A guy walks out on stage and says:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire crouch for employment.

But pardon, and gentles all, the flat unraised spirits that have dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object: can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?

or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may attest in little place a million; and let us, ciphers to this great accompt, on your imaginary forces work.

That’s how Henry V opens.

That ref to the wooden O is (as I understand the only time) we hear about the Globe Theater from Shakespeare himself’s mouth or pen or whatever. Got to thinking about it in London in May.

Shakes is so good.  That “o for a muse of fire” is so good.  Like a Jimi Hendrix moment:

A dude who’s gone so far in his art that he’s got nothing left to do but scream at Heaven to let him ascend.

One time Yang saw this at my house and said, “is Shakespeare good?” Solid question.  To answer it I suggested we watch:

which, I think is pretty good.  Yang pointed out that in this version, the music does do a lot of the work.

By the time Shakespeare wrote Henry V he’d already done  Romeo & Juliet, Richard IIIA Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Much Ado About Nothing, and thirteen other plays.

That’s if you believe the story.

The “Chandos Portrait” at the National Gallery in London.

There was a def a real guy Shakespeare, a real person who was born and died.  In his own lifetime this Will Shakespeare was famous for writing plays.  Pirate editions of plays with Shakespeare’s name on them would be sold like scripts of The Godfather on the streets of New York.

Far as I can see, Will Shakespeare gave no evidence of giving a shit about the text/publishing of his plays.  Didn’t appear to care.  The fact we are reading them now would’ve probably shocked him or else he also wouldn’t have cared about that.  What he cared about was like getting a coat of arms.

Is this headline correct?  I dunno, I think he wasn’t exactly a nobody in Stratford.

There’s much bureaucratic evidence that Will Shakespeare existed.  Probably at least sometimes he was a semi-gangster.

He was around brothels and bars.  The last hot young playwright got stabbed to death in a bar.

from Wiki

Read this book recently:

I agree with some of the points in this New Criterion hammering of it.  There’s a lotta coulda woulda shoulda.  But then again if there wasn’t the book would be like five pages long.

Did Shakespeare really write all those plays?

The evidence suggests to me that yeah, real guy Will Shakespeare wrote at least most of them.

Top piece of evidence: in Shakespeare’s lifetime, real guy Shakespeare was known for writing these plays.  His name was on ’em.

Well, some of ’em.

I don’t see Shakespeare’s name in the “bad quarto” of Henry V.

The scholars tell me that’s fine.  Consider the folios!  Put together by Shakespeare’s friends after his death!  Henry V is in there, perhaps typeset from the “foul papers” of Shakespeare himself in fact!  It counts.

OK whatever.

Second best piece of evidence: Shakespeare’s fellow writers were jealous of him.

Catty remarks from the time are recorded.

He also turns up in a contemporary diary getting off a pretty good joke about boning a groupie.

Third best evidence: there’s a “voice” to the Shakespeare plays.  You can feel if if you read a bunch of the best plays.  I admit I haven’t read all of ’em.  But I’ve read maybe a third, and I’ve read some Christopher Marlowe plays and some Ben Johnson plays, and you can tell a difference.  The plays marked Shakespeare are better.  In fact half the time that’s how they decide whether to include one or not.

That’s the weakest evidence, who knows what kinda bias my brain is bringing to the table when they’re presented as Shakespeare plays.  Some computer/AI type analysis of word usage and so on suggests maybe he didn’t write the Henry VI ones but those suck anyway I’m told.

I think you have to admit Shakespeare wrote some of Shakespeare’s plays, right?

Not everyone agrees:

Rylance thinks now that William Shakespeare was most likely a front for a small band of writers, perhaps headed by Francis Bacon, which included, among others, Lady Mary Sidney. He argues that in the seventeenth century it wouldn’t have been appropriate for persons of rank to write for the public theatre; therefore they would need to do so anonymously. “If you even suggest that Shakespeare would have had to be at court, it’s heretical,” van Kampen said. “It’s a metaphor, and it’s about Englishness.”

(from this New Yorker profile by Cynthia Zanin).

The idea that Shakespeare was really Francis Bacon feels to me like someone five hundred years from now claiming

perhaps Barack Obama wrote Dave Chappelle’s routines and Kendrick Lamar’s raps.

or maybe

it’s possible Hillary Clinton wrote Shonda Rhimes’ shows.

 “I want to be Shakespeare,” he told us. “You should all want to be Shakespeare, too.”

That’s Denis Johnson.  I think that quote got me back into Shakespeare.

Shakespeare scholars are not usually people who are in the habit of cranking out scripts on tight deadlines or have necessarily been around showbiz.

The experience of seeing how scripts get writ makes me wonder if Shakespeare was a showrunner. If we should think of him like Aaron Sorkin or Shonda or Ryan Murphy.  Both himself a wildly talented craftsman but also a quality controller supervising and directing other writers.

Shakespeare is a happy hunting ground for minds that have lost their balance

Joyce has Stephen say in Ulysses.

 

 

 

 

 


Ian Buruma

Ian Buruma is a great writer.  I’ve learned so much from his books, his writings on Japan were super illuminating to me, and Year Zero is a powerful work by a great mind.

That piece in NYRB by the Canadian radio guy who used to punch women in the head and choke them by surprise and be a monster to co-workers was not acceptable or valuable or at all necessary.

Source

Didn’t Jon Robson write a whole book about this?

One of the great talents of Ian Buruma (in my experience as a reader) is opening his eyes, comprehending and informing himself and then sharing ideas about the currents of culture. I hope he keeps doing that.


Writing Course from Stephen J. Cannell

Our friends over at Monkey Trial put this one up.  Led us to the Stephen J. Cannell website, where there’s a short but thorough and helpful writing course available fro free.  Adding it to my category Writing Advice From Other People.

 


The Gambler (2014)

Saw this clip on some retweet of this fellow’s Twitter.

I was struck by

  • the bluntness and concision of the advice
  • the fact that the advice contains a very specific investment strategy down to what funds you should be in (80% VTSAX, 20% VBTLX)
  • the compelling performance of an actor I’d never seen opposite Wahlberg (although I’d say it drops off at “that’s your base, get me?”)

It appeared this was from the 2014 film The Gambler

The film is interesting.  Mark Wahlberg plays a compulsive gambler and English professor.  There are some extended scenes of Wahlberg lecturing his college undergrads on Shakespeare, Camus, and his own self-absorbed theories of literature, failure, and life.  The character is obnoxious, self-pitying, logorrheic and somewhat unlikeable as a hero. Nevertheless his most attractive student falls in love with him.  William Monahan, who won an Oscar for The Departed, wrote the screenplay. The film itself is a remake of 1974 movie directed by James Toback, in which James Caan plays the Mark Wahlberg role.

Here’s the interesting thing.  Watching the 2016 version, I realized the speech I’d seen on Twitter that first caught my attention is different.  The actor’s different — in the movie I watched it’s John Goodman.

What happened here?  Had they recast the actor or something?  The twitterer who put it up is from South Africa, did they release a different version of the movie there?

Did some investigating and found the version I saw was made by this guy, JL Collins, a financial blogger.

Here’s a roundup of his nine basic points for financial independence.

He did a pretty good job as an actor I think!  I believe the scene in the movie would be strengthened from the specificity of his advice.  And the line about every stiff from the factory stiff to the CEO is working to make you richer is cool, maybe an improvement on the script as filmed.  I’ll have to get this guy’s book.

It would make a good commercial for Vanguard.

VTSAX vs S&P 500:

Readers, what does the one to one comparison of JL Collins and John Goodman teach us about acting?


The Moviegoer

Took this one off my shelf the other day.  Think I was supposed to read it in college but never finished it.  The plot didn’t propel me along, but there’s some magic to it for sure.  A relaxed New Orleans kind of existentialism.  

What’s the narrator looking for?  Even he doesn’t know. 

He sees a young man reading on the bus, and types him:

Good old Walker Percy:

At one point the narrator sees William Holden on the street:

Ah, William Holden. Already we need you again. Already the fabric is wearing thin without you.


What is a story? What is narrative?

“Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent… But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.

says McKee.

What is a story?  What makes something a story?  It’s a question of personal and professional interest here at Helytimes.  The dictionary gives me this for narrative:

a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

boldface mine.

The human brain is wired to look for patterns and connections.  Humans think in stories and seem to prefer a story, even a troubling story, to random or unrelated events.  This can trick us as well as bring us wisdom and pleasure.

Nicholas Nassem Taleb discusses this in The Black Swan:

Narrative is a way to compress and store information.

From some investing site or Twitter or something, I came across this paper:

“Cracking the enigma of asset bubbles with narratives,” by Preston Teeter and Jörgen Sandberg in Strategic Organization.  You can download a PDF for free.

Teeter and Sandberg suggest that “mathematical deductivist models and tightly controlled, reductionist experiments” only get you so far in understanding asset bubbles.  What really drives a bubble is the narrative that infects and influences investors.

Clearly, under such circumstances, individuals are not making rational, cool-headed decisions based upon careful and cautious fundamental analysis, nor are their decisions isolated from the communities in which they live or the institutions that govern their lives.  As such, only by incorporating the role of narratives into our research efforts and theoretical constructs will we be able to make substantial progress toward better understanding, predicting, and preventing asset bubbles.

Cool!  But, of course, we need a definition of narrative:

But first, in order to develop a more structured view of how bubbles form, we also need a means of identifying the structural features of the narratives that emerge before, during, and after asset bubbles. The most widely used method of evaluating the structural characteristics of a narrative is that based on Formalist theories (see Fiol, 1989Hartz and Steger, 2010Pentland, 1999Propp, 1958). From a structural point of view, a narrative contains three essential elements: a “narrative subject,” which is in search of or destined for a certain object; a “destinator” or source of the subject’s ideology; and a set of “enabling and impeding forces.” As an example of how to operationalize these elements, consider the following excerpt from another Greenspan (1988) speech:

More adequate capital, risk-based capital, and increased securities powers for bank holding companies would provide a solid beginning for our efforts to ensure financial stability. (p. 11)

OK great.  Let’s get to the source here.  Fiol, Hartz and Steger, and Pentland are all articles about “narrative” in business settings.  Propp is the source here.  Propp is this man:

Vladimir Propp, a Soviet analyst of folktales, and his book is this:

I’ve now examined this book, and find it mostly incomprehensible:

Propp’s 31 functions (summarized here on Wikipedia) are pretty interesting.  How a Soviet theorist would feel about his work on Russian folktales being used by Australian economists to assess asset bubbles in capitalist markets is a fun question.  Maybe he’d be horrified, maybe he’d be delighted.  Perhaps he’d file it under Function 6:

TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to acquire something valuable. They press further, aiming to con the protagonists and earn their trust. Sometimes the villain make little or no deception and instead ransoms one valuable thing for another.

There’s some connection here to Dan Harmon’s story circles.

But when it comes to the definition of what makes a story go, I like the blunter version, expressed by David Mamet in this legendary memo to the writers of The Unit::

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

Cracking the enigma of narrative is a fun project.

ps don’t talk to me about Aristotle unless you’ve REALLY read The Poetics. 


Old Tweets

Man I went through my old Tweets, and none of them were racist or anything, but they were terrible!

If you don’t look back on your old writing without disgust you’re not growing, so healthy enough I guess.  But you’d think for something I spent so much time doing I’d’ve come up with some better ones.

Here are the only ones I felt like might be worth saving, putting them here as much for myself as for my small but influential readership.

When I don’t like writing it’s usually because it’s too writingy.

The Biblical story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream: first case of a Jewish psychiatrist?

If there were a restaurant in LA that sold angel meat, Jonathan Gold would eat there.

Today’s surprising Supreme Court Fact: Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a high school cheerleader.

Whenever I’m in New York, I visit this little shop know, down in the Flatiron, and have my shoes professionally tied.

Addition to Hely’s Great Things: When an old person says “blankety-blank” instead of swears.

An airport? A state forest? An interchange? All fine things to have named after you. But only Melba has a peach thing AND a toast.

One thing I’d like to see is a giant eating baked potatoes, one after another, like grapes.

Ate a piece of gum today that was in stick form, instead of hard, candied pill form.  It was like visiting Old Sturbridge Village.

If I’m gonna see a play, by the end the stage better be a MESS.

What real-life show is “Game of Thrones” the porn parody of?

The taste of a drop of air conditioner water landing in your mouth. #mynewyork

There’s only one political issue I’m deeply passionate about: colonizing the moon with convicts. I’m opposed.

Let’s argue!  I’ll start!  All jazz is perfect.

my favorite cob food? corn, no brainer

It’s unreasonable of Don Cheadle to expect the other members of Ocean’s Eleven will understand his ludicrous slang.

Most of my money ($660) comes from my 1992 dance hit “It’s OK To Dress Up (When You’re The Birthday Girl)”

I think I could sell idiots salted coffee.

“Fine, FINE, we’ll just name ANOTHER one after John Muir, then we can all go home.” – another tense meeting at the US Forest Service.

In this age of baby carrots it’s such a power move to eat a regular carrot.

If you’re into immutable laws you pretty much have to go with physics, right?

TRIVIA: What is the most spilled beverage in the world?  Give up?  It’s water.  (Trick question because I was counting waterfalls.)

Vali rolled with it admirably when he came back to our seats at the Arclight and found me telling the history of IKEA to a stranger.

Was bowling invented so teens of different genders could examine each other’s butts?

“I like your shirt!” = “I noticed your shirt!”

LA etiquette: it’s rude to point out that someone’s production company has never produced anything.

The most important ingredient in any recipe is money.

Movie pitch: Fuckboi Academy

Nothing pisses me off more than when some fuckface in my Instagram is having a nice vacation

My best hope for Olympic glory would be as the falling down guy someone helps in a true display of sportsmanship

What did the TV writer say when he arrived in Hell?  “How’re the hours?”

You know what sounds terrible but is actually perfectly nice? The stall in the bathroom of the Yucca Valley Walmart, where I wrote this.


What is moral?

Goya, Death of the Picador

How do we decide what’s good or bad, right or wrong?

A interesting question obvs.  One every person answers for themselves somehow.

But how many of us can articulate our answer?

Would you come up with something like “not harming anyone else”?  Living with honor and honesty and compassion?

Really, I doubt most of us bother to articulate a moral philosophy or definition of morals.  We sorta just go with what feels right or wrong.

Right?

About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.

This is a quote attributed to Hemingway.

One thing I think is wrong is quote sites that don’t include the source or context for the quote.

(Brainy Quotes has the nerve to suggest how you can cite Brainy Quotes itself as the source.)

As always, hunting the source proves enriching.  Hemingway said this in chapter one of his book Death In The Afternoon.  

Back up just a few pages.  Here’s how Hemingway starts the book:

In Hemingway’s day, what was most repugnant about bullfighting was the suffering of horses.

Horses (this is described in the book) would get gored and have their entrails hanging out and trailing like grotesque ribbons.

At what bullfights remain this problem has been mostly eliminated, I believe, by armoring the horses.  At the only bullfight I ever saw in person, the horses were unharmed, though nine bulls were killed, one of them especially tortured because of the incompetence of the matador (lit. “killer”). (This video is upsetting if you don’t like seeing bulls hurt, but you can see how horses are now protected.)

Hemingway continues, justifying why he got into bullfighting even though he likes horses:

I was trying to write then, and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.

A theme Hemingway came back to frequently.

He mentions Goya’s Los Desastros de la Guerra.

Plate 44: Yo lo vi (I saw this)

Hemingway continues:

       So I went to Spain to see bullfights and to try to write about them for myself.  I thought they would be simple and barbarous and cruel and that I would not like them, but that I would see certain definite action which would give me the feeling of life and death that I was working for.  I found the definite action ; but the bullfight was so far from simple and I liked it so much that it was much too complicated for my then equipment for writing to deal with and, aside from four very short sketches, I was not able to write anything about it for five years — and I wish I would have waited ten.  However, if I had waited long enough I probably never would have written anything at all since there is a tendency when you really begin to learn something about a thing not to want to write about it but rather to keep on learning about it always and at no time, unless you are very egotistical, which, of course, accounts for many books, will you be able to say: now I know all about this and will write about it.  Certainly I don not say that now ‘ every year I know there is more to learn, but I know some things which may be interesting now, and I may be away from the bullfights for a long time and I might as well write what I know about them now. Also it might be good to have a book about bullfighting in English and a serious book on such an unmoral subject may have some value.

So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after and judged by these moral standards, which I do not defend, the bullfight is very moral to me because I feel very fine while it is going on and have a feeling of life and death and mortality and immortality, and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine.  Also, I do not mind the horses; not in principle, but in fact I do not mind them.

Just thought is was interesting, this succinct definition of morality came in the context of why it shouldn’t bother us to see horses mangled during the ritual killing of bulls.

 

 


Is E. M. Forster “wrong”? (or, maybe, are our meanings different than his?)

Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.

So says Forster in Aspects of The Novel.

But this is the exact opposite way I feel most professional TV writers talk about this.  Shorthanded, “plot” means the events and “story” is the emotional journeys of the characters.

Over here commenter Kenny Chaffin, a writer himself, puts it succinctly:

I’m not sure I’d say Forster was wrong, but these words seem to have an inverted meaning in 2018 Hollywood.  When you have plot and no story, the audience will be bored.


Interview: John Levenstein

I thought I might interview John Levenstein, “retired” television writer, for Helytimes.  His takes and philosophies as expressed on his Twitter are really interesting and perhaps a Q &A would be of value to younger or aspiring writers.

Away we go!

John, you’ve been a writer on a million cool shows, and with your podcast, John Levenstein’s Retirement Party, and your Twitter feed, and in real life, I feel you’ve taken on a kind of mentoring role to a lot of young writers. Can you give us a roundup of some advice you give to young writers of comedy, people who are interested in comedy, or curious about a career in showbiz?

I feel like a lot of people unconsciously take the approach that they’re not in it to achieve their goals so much as to have a story about how things almost worked out. There’s a difference in what it takes to succeed versus what it takes to tell your parents you tried. Actors used to be advised to drop off headshots at every agency in town and keep checking back. That’s not an example of how to get an agent. It’s an example of how to tell your parents you did everything you could so get off my back! You need to take a more unorthodox and original approach to your career. And lie to your parents. Who cares? You can’t approach this by trying to be “correct.” It’s hard to stand out. Don’t go through life with the story that you were almost an Olympic athlete except you broke your ankle when you were 14. Failure can be great to learn from. But don’t hold it too dear. My last talk to a college class was called “the fetishization of failure” and I scared the shit out of a bunch of kids.

Why are executives so frustrating and how have you effectively (or ineffectively) dealt with them?

I’ve gotten better at dealing with executives, but also they’ve made more allowances for me as I’ve gotten older. I’d say take the note or don’t take the note, But don’t project so much power onto the executive that you become rebellious. No one is making you do anything. They won’t take the keyboard away from you. They might get mad. They might not pick up your project.

I try to treat executives as peers. I think language is important. I try to get the executives I work with to call their notes “pitches,” because that’s what they are and are all coming up with hundreds of them every day. And rejecting them for various reasons, some frivolous. But call a pitch a “note” and it is supposed to get due consideration or answered on its own terms. Not everything has to be responded to on its own terms.

I’m dictating onto my phone. Please clean this up a little if necessary, buddy

If you were starting over what do you wish you knew?

I wish I’d known (if I were starting over) that my efforts counted. I was planting seeds, even as I thought I was bombing out. People would remember me from years earlier. I was becoming a better writer. I was gaining life experience. I thought I was invisible, but I was making an impression.

What makes people care about a story?

I think for people to care about a story, they have to identify with someone, preferably more than one person. I’d rather have the audience intensely relate to aspects of character or behavior than feel fondness for a character. I rely on the actor to win the audience over—they live for that. And then the series of incidents has to be surprising. That’s a moving target. More misdirection is required these days to stay ahead of the audience. In television I think too much attention is paid to making sure stories are clear and not enough effort is put into obscuring them. There should be a final story step where you hide your work, if you haven’t already.

What does it take to succeed?

I’d say cultivate the side of yourself that is different from what anyone else has to offer. Figure out the strong points of view that you have that you assumed everyone had. Push up against the world enough to know that you’re different. That’s your voice. 20 years ago you could get a writing job by writing a strong sample of an existing sitcom. Now you need to express yourself in an original pilot script or video or some other form. I would choose the format that leads to the fullest expression of your voice, at least to start.

And (lowers voice) no one else will tell you this, but a good way to stand out is to choose arenas where other people are not being irreverent. An appropriate email is wallpaper. Be funny. Take a chance in a business correspondence. You won’t get a staff writing job by being the best writers assistant. You’ll get it by being the funniest writers assistant.

What makes you mad in the entertainment or comedy business?

Not much makes me mad in terms of results anymore. I can deal with little injustices. But process stuff can still make me crazy. I don’t like rules. I don’t like tyrannical show runners. I try not to put myself in positions I won’t like. In terms of my career, I have not gotten a shit deal, so I try not to act like I have. Some very successful people have chips on their shoulders

Beautiful. Well I think we have enough for a Helytimes post. Anything you wish I’d asked or you’d like to answer?

No I am good. I have not reread my responses. I’m living with them, Steve. Thanks!


Montenegro in the news

Montenegro in the news:

made me think of:

Gatsby is finally telling his backstory to Nick:

       “Then came the war, old sport. It was a great relief and I tried very hard to die but I seemed to bear an enchanted life. I accepted a commission as first lieutenant when it began. In the Argonne Forest I took two machine-gun detachments so far forward that there was a half mile gap on either side of us where the infantry couldn’t advance. We stayed there two days and two nights, a hundred and thirty men with sixteen Lewis guns, and when the infantry came up at last they found the insignia of three German divisions among the piles of dead. I was promoted to be a major and every Allied government gave me a decoration–even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!”

Little Montenegro! He lifted up the words and nodded at them–with his smile. The smile comprehended Montenegro’s troubled history and sympathized with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people. It appreciated fully the chain of national circumstances which had elicited this tribute from Montenegro’s warm little heart. My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines. He reached in his pocket and a piece of metal, slung on a ribbon, fell into my palm. “That’s the one from Montenegro.” To my astonishment, the thing had an authentic look.

“Orderi di Danilo,” ran the circular legend, “Montenegro, Nicolas Rex.”

“Turn it.”

“Major Jay Gatsby,” I read, “For Valour Extraordinary.”

#teammontenegro


Best ever cover of a Penguin book


Succession

Watching (and enjoying) HBO’s Succession.  Reminded me of something I heard Francis Ford Coppola say in an interview (with Harvard Business Review of all places) about how he tries to write down the theme of a project in one word on a notecard.

ALISON BEARD: And when you get stuck creatively, if you don’t know where a script should go or how a movie should end, how do you get yourself unstuck?

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Well, if my intuition and asking the question just what feels better to me doesn’t give it to me, I have a little exercise where any project I work on, I have what the theme is in a word or two. Like on The Conversation, it was privacy. On The Godfather, it was succession. So I always have that word, and I encourage my children to do the same, to break it all down beyond everything else. Don’t tell me it’s a coming-of-age story, because that’s not specific. What, specifically, is it?

And if you have that word, then when you reach an impasse, you just say, well, what is the theme related to the decision? Should it be this or should it be that? Then I say, well, what does the theme tell me? And usually, if you go back to that word, it will suggest to you which way to go and break the roadblock.

Is succession the one-word theme of Succession?

How about this part:

 


Playing It Down

E. B. White in the Paris Review.  Thurber:

INTERVIEWER

Does the fact that you’re dealing with humor slow down the production?

THURBER

It’s possible. With humor you have to look out for traps. You’re likely to be very gleeful with what you’ve first put down, and you think it’s fine, very funny. One reason you go over and over it is to make the piece sound less as if you were having a lot of fun with it yourself. You try to play it down. In fact, if there’s such a thing as a New Yorker style, that would be it—playing it down.