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: