Issue 080
May 9, 2023


Earning trust and spending trust

Rodenianites —

I watched 2001 for the first time. Yes, it turns out I had never sat through the whole thing. It was one of those movies like The Godfather, where I had hallucinated seeing it via a million media references (“Simpsons” gags, parodies), but had never actually put my eyeballs on it. Well, I saw it. And my big take away was: Damn, HAL is barely in the thing. I thought this was a movie about a homicidal AI? But it’s really just a space poem about a block of cobalt. “Grip shoes” — ha ha! Those spaceship models looked great, and Kubrick made us look and look some more. Beautiful, loved it all, even the bizarro ending which made Intersteller’s wormhole scene a little less impressive.

I watched The Lost Boys for the first time. What a thing — a 90 minute movie from the ‘80s. No fat in these productions. (Certainly none on Saxophone Man.) Every second working for its place. The writers and directors really believed in the ability for the audience to bridge gaps (so many gaps) in storytelling. The whole movie, insanely, takes place over two or three days in movie time. It’s like they were speed running everything — relationships, tension, backstory. This would be done as a four season TV show today. Most jarring was how stiff Feldman was. I’m guessing it was bad Schumacher direction? Feldman 1985, Goonies — nails it. 1986, Stand By Me — absolutely nails it. The Lost Boys — it’s like they picked him up at random from a Penn Station toilet. But, the whole fandango makes up for its flaws with the most spectacularly camp last line of any movie.

I reread the excellent Omission essay by John McPhee. Full of classic McPhee-isms. But also, can we just marvel at this stuff for a second:

The ultimate piece ran at fifty-five thousand words in three consecutive issues of the magazine. “Oranges,” seven years earlier, had grown in the same way, but my aptitude for selection needed growing, too.

55,000 words on oranges. As he was editing this piece, it was also being prepared for publication by FSG just a few months later. Like this, McPhee has produced an absurd number of non-fiction books. Truly a different era of publishing. Peak in some ways, and of course, not peak in many others. I wish the billionaires in this world of ours had a little more creative impulse, and would fund a few extra 55,000 words pieces on Oranges, Apples, or whatever happened to be found interesting by an interesting mind. The economics of these pieces worked because (I think?) for a few scant decades there was an advertising aberration / arbitrage moment for media like this. A post-war moment in history where a) the middle class had money to spend, and b) were exceedingly pliable, and c) mass media wasn’t quite as mass or direct as it is today. So magazines and newspapers were a novel vector into the minds of Consumers and could really crank up the CPMs. This model was (obviously) disrupted by the internet / Google (really, truly, Google was and still is the Ad Gorilla), hence the collapse of local newspapers and the loss of 55,000 word pieces on oranges.

Still: Grateful for all McPhee has been allowed to put out there.

Related to this is the work of Robert Caro. You know, I’ve never read The Power Broker, his first white whale. Or any of his Lyndon Johnson books. (Though I want to read them all now!) But I did read Working, about his process, which was fabulous. (I also wrote about Working nearly four years ago, in Ridgeline.) It’s full of insights into the work of a man who clearly knows how to work (his books are huge, and universally lauded as classics):

To really show political power, you had to show the effect of power on the powerless, and show it fully enough so the reader could feel it.

Interviews: silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it — as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer.

On Johnson’s intense drive:

And then I felt I had found a way not to lecture the reader on the contrast between what Lyndon Johnson was coming from and what he was striving toward, and how that contrast helped explain the desperation, the frenzied, frantic urgency of his efforts — a way not to tell the reader but to show the reader that point instead. I don’t know whether I succeeded in doing that or not, but for what it’s worth here’s what I wrote about when Lyndon Johnson first came to Washington.

And then:

Well, of course he was running — from the land of dog-run cabins to this. Everything he had ever wanted, everything he had ever hoped for, was there. And that gigantic stage lit up by the brilliant sun, that façade of the Capitol—that place — showed him that. Showed him that, and if I could write it right, would show the reader as well.

I mean, damn. (Also: I get this impulse.)

In the new doc, Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, Gottleib’s daughter, Lizzie, gives us a glimpse at the men who produced these books — obsessions, really, on the part of Caro, full-throttled manic obsessions — on power and politics in the 20th century. Caro is just a mensch through and through. A guy committed to his life mission: the writing of these books. Again, books from a different era. Books that would be (most likely) impossible to pull off today. Caro worked on each of his five books for nearly a decade, and the industry — editor Gottleib and publisher Knopf and agent Lynn Nesbit — found a way to fund him. Even that first one, where they were taking a huge bet on if the public wanted a 1,000+ page book on Robert Moses.

In the end, they had to slice some 350,000 words from The Power Broker because there wasn’t a spine that could otherwise hold the book. Caro asked for two editions and Gottleib replied: I can maybe get the public to care about Moses once, but not twice.

On the topic of omitting and editing, George Saunders continues to deliver in his most excellent Substack newsletter (the most excellent? so much kindness and generosity it’s a little overwhelming). On editing his CommComm story, which took some NINE YEARS to get right. Nine years. Short story. Didn’t give up. Dozens of drafts. This is how work is done:

“Jeez, I am so lost here, and getting older all the time. Dear God, just let me make a few weird sparks and see if I can cobble those into something that is not a story but might look somewhat like one.”

And on the topic of Great Writing Newsletters, Alexander Chee’s The Querent is also fabulous, as are his courses. I still hold that my week studying with Chee at Tin House in 2016 was peak writing wisdom density. I still go back to my notes from that class.

I’m thinking about craft and rhythm everywhere these days because I’m deep in editing / revision phase of my next book. So I’m looking looking looking for hints, for codes. I started rewatching Fargo Season 2 because I was starved for competent TV and wanted to remind myself it was possible. Fargo’s a miraculous show and season two (all the seasons, really) a miraculous season. You give yourself up to it — all weirdness and quirks inclusive — because the writers earn your trust, and then spend it wisely and strangely.

I watched Inception with a friend and her ten year old son (he picked it!) and it was fun to talk through with him. He loved it, was entranced. (Except for the kissing scenes which, yuck, cover those eyes.) The script is surprisingly solid (I mean, you give it a little leeway on technical logistics, but it holds together far more heartily than the spaghetti-covered walls of Tenet) and the whole effect compelling. Even for a precocious ten year old.

Then we all agreed to watch Blade Runner 2049, which I didn’t love when I first saw it. Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite contemporary directors (Sicario is a tonal masterpiece, and I adore both Arrival and Dune — if you watch them all in sequence, you realize Villeneuve has a small but well-defined set of visual and aural tools in his toolkit; he deploys them similarly in each film, is a master craftsman in establishing tone and, uh, film vibe? sure, film vibe), so I figured I’d give it another chance. Still don’t LOVE LOVE it (the pacing feels all over the place; the last 45 minutes drag in frustrating ways; Robin Wright never seems to fully arrive; and I will forever have a Leto allergy), but am more forgiving of its flaws, and open to its charms (visually, so much; Gosling dying on the steps in the snow — chefs kiss). Also, I’m a Gosling pushover. The best scene, it turns out, was written by the man himself: the baseline test.

Gently orthogonal to Villeneuve and Dune sits Benjamin Clementine (he appeared in the film as the Royal Space Messenger or whatever that character was). Mr. Otherworldly Cheekbones. His musical talents are even more impressive than his calcium phosphate. Portraits Of Lovelustreman (Part 1) is remarkable. But I’ll always have a soft spot for his Tiny Desk Concert back in 2016. What I love about his music: some of the Rufus Wainwright theatrics but with less self-consciousness? Maybe it’s just that French je ne sais quoi world weariness that no American will ever possess. (When Americans do it, they become Tom Waits, which is also good, but also different.) And, you gotta respect Clementine’s commitment to the single looping ostinato for an entire piece, atop which he syncopates all sorts of wild vocal phrasings.

Anyway, just more looking looking looking — for rhythm, voice, tone, well executed, where trust is engendered and trust is well spent. When you watch something or read something and it falls flat, it’s because (for me, at least), it’s missing a core “purpose,” may simply be going through the motions of “movie” or “book” or “song” but doesn’t know why or believe in itself. Something has been green lit, and the budget has been defined, and the budget must be spent. Hence: This hunk of mediocre media birthed from the halls of NYC or LA. But when purpose is there, mediums sing. That purpose may be to show how power works in our democracy, or it may be something about oranges. But those stories aren’t doled out as piles of facts. They’re wrapped in beautiful rhythms. Crafting with care serves a purpose: it bears aloft trust and hones attention. The pages / words / images become hard won pages / words / images. You feel that when you read / listen / look.

I can’t turn off my radar, my barometer, whatever it is. It pings in one way when the media fails, when the heart is absent, and pings in a whole different way when the thing is elevated and elevating.

For the past week I’ve been neck deep in this next book of mine. My editor came and stayed with me. Side by side we worked through this thing. I have a lot I need to write about Good Solitude vs Bad Solitude, especially in the context of creative work. For another time. In the meantime, I’ve been writing a SPECIAL PROJECTS members-only newsletter called Nightingalingale about this next book. Just sent out issue 145, amazingly.

This is Roden, and I’m Craig Mod. And I’ve got a book to layout and keep editing.