Shadows and Blur Part 4 — The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had lost the use of his limbs and voice, dictated his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, one letter at a time.  Claude Mendibil, shown here as she transcribes, devised a time-saving system of reciting the letters of the alphabet for Bauby   in order of their frequency in French words and waiting for him to blink in response.  Image via

Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had lost the use of his limbs and voice, dictated his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, one letter at a time. Claude Mendibil, shown here as she transcribes, devised a time-saving system of reciting the letters of the alphabet for Bauby in order of their frequency in French words and waiting for him to blink in response.
Image via



In his book In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki upholds the value of art that captures "the uncertainty of the mental process" rather than "neatly packaged conclusions."   

Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir, The Diving Bell and The Buttefly: A Memoir of Life in Death, makes use of this principle to describe the transformation Bauby underwent after a massive stroke left him unable to use his arms, legs, and voice.  Here is the book's opening passage:

"Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day.  My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving bell holds my whole body prisoner.  My room emerges slowly from the gloom.  I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children’s drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris-Roubaix bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock."

Jean-Dominique Bauby
The Diving Bell and The Buttefly: A Memoir of Life in Death
Translated by Jeremy Leggatt

Note the reliance on images of confusion and uncertainty.  Echoing Bauby's writing, Julian Schnabel's film version employs blurred lens focus and unexpected shot framing to convey Bauby's experience of first emerging from the coma after his stroke.

Note that the unknowing has been rendered clearly.  The readers and viewers of these works will experience Bauby's initial confusion without being confused about whether they are correctly absorbing the material.  Bauby and Schnabel have created portraits of confusion, not confusing portraits.  

What is not known may be impossible to render, but our unknowing can nevertheless be rendered with precision.

Thank you for reading.

Shadows and Blur Part 2 — Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon

Maya Deren.   Image via

Maya Deren.  
Image via


The previous post looked at Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which explores the role of shadows in traditional Japanese architecture.  Near the end of the book, he identifies an analogous principle in literature:

“One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is a contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.”  Indeed, it would not be far wrong to say that the narrative technique we call “stream of consciousness” has an ancient history in Japanese letters.  It is not that Japanese writers have been ignorant of the powers of concision and articulation.  Rather, they have felt that certain subjects — the vicissitudes of the emotions, the fleeting perceptions of the mind — are best couched in a style that conveys something of the uncertainty of the mental process and not just its neatly packaged conclusions.”

In Praise of Shadows, p. 45

(Translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon provides a great example of art that conveys such mental uncertainty, and it employs shadows of light and of mind. 

(If for some reason the video does not play, you can see it here)

It’s worth noting two things about the film:

1.  The imagery is perfectly clear.  The composition of the scenes are such that we know what we are seeing at all points.   

2.  Because of this clarity, we are abled to discern a strange, shadowed logic.  We can read the various narrative leaps and gaps not as some mistake on our part as viewers, but as questions raised by the film, a clearly articulated riddle. 

Sometimes, a writing student will produce a piece of writing about an uncertain moment, and when pressed, explain that the writing is uncertain because the character on the page is uncertain.  This fails to note the distinction between an uncertain portrait and a portrait of uncertainty.

To employ the use of shadows, whether the literal shadows Tanizaki wrote of when describing the Sumiya Teahouse or the metaphorical ones that create mental uncertainty, is not to eschew clarity.  Deren’s film provides and example of art that renders unknowing with arresting clarity.

Thank you for reading.

Opposites part 3 — Harpo

Harpo Marx.  Image via .

Harpo Marx.  Image via


That clowns have a scary edge to them is well known.  The observation, however, is less frequently made of comics, where it is equally true.  The best comics inspire laughter that draws upon delight but also fear.  (Think of how Shakespeare's fools not only entertain but deliver frightening truths.)  One of Richard Pryor's most famous routines was a reenactment of a heart attack.  

This all points back to the principle of Opposites, one of twelve 'guideposts for actors' identified by Michael Shurtleff in his book, Audition. Harpo Marx's performances routinely bring together opposites—joy and anger, libidinal aggression and prepubescent innocence, and more.

One particularly striking set of opposites in his work is that between slapstick and the sublime, especially evident when he pauses to play a harp solo.

Note how these instantaneous shifts in and out the sublime do not negate the slapstick that precedes it.  To the contrary, these moments deepen both the slapstick and the entire performance.  

The sublime is a crucial element of the Marx Brothers' humor at large.  Without it, Groucho's wagging eyebrows are merely waggish.

Thank you for reading.

Opposites part 1 — Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett.  Image via .

Charles Burnett.  Image via


In his classic book on acting, Audition, casting director Michael Shurtleff offers a series of twelve guideposts that help actors enrich their performance.  The fifth of those is Opposites.

Whatever you decide is your motivation in the scene, the opposite of that is also true and should be in it . . . 

Think about a human being: in all of us there exists love and there exists hate, there exists creativity and there exists an equal tendency toward self-destructiveness, there exists sleeping and waking, there exists night and there exists day, sunny moods and foul moods, a desire to love and a desire to kill.  Since these extremities do exist in all of us, then they must also exist in each character in each scene.  Not all opposites, of course, not this exhaustive listing I’ve just given, but some of them.  If it is a love scene, there is bound to be hate in it too; if there is need, great need, for someone, we are bound to resent that need.  Both emotions should be in the scene; it is lopsided and untrue if only one is.

Michael Shurtleff, Audition, pp. 77-78 

We saw how this applies to narrative in our discussion of bridges, where one section of a song or book or film can challenge and thereby deepen the surrounding ideas.

Charles Burnett's masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, shows this principle in action, especially in its portrayal of children.  

Note how these scenes are made richer by the opposites play and war.  The games these children play are both fun and frightening.  They have life-and-death hovering over them, which not only adds realism but also depth to our sense of their emotional life.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 4 supplement — 2001: A Space Odyssey


Shots of the stargate through which protagonist David Bowman travels in the final minutes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Images via and

A newspaper contest—probably the Washington Post Style section—once invited readers to send in alternate film endings that would have changed the history of film.  One of the winning entries said something like, “At the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, something comprehensible happens.”

Near the end of the film, the film’s protagonist, David Bowman, an astronaut who is investigating a mysterious monolith, is pulled through something of a magic portal, a stargate.  (See the pictures above.) 

Soon after this we see him as an old man, looking up from a bed in an otherworldly chamber.

The ending can dissected in many ways, but Stanley Kubrick, the director, seems not to concern himself with whether his audience can explain what happened.  Instead, having pushed us out through a magic portal, he leaves us drifting through the weightless sensation that whatever awaits us is beyond our understanding.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 4 — Magic Portals

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doniel.  Image via .

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doniel.  Image via


Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows tells the story of young Antoine Doniel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), a Parisian boy whose dreams exceed the dreary possibilities at hand. Unloved at home, unsatisfied at school, he acts out and is eventually suspended, arrested, and, near the end of the film, sent to a juvenile prison. 

And then . . . 

Though the film has taken place almost entirely in Paris, this ending, Antoine's escape through the prison fence into the landscape of the seashore, feels both surprising and right.  The scale of Antoine’s freedom and the speed with which he attains it speak of his spirit and the soul-smothering life from which he has emerged. 

It also evokes the fact that sometimes, life provides us with a magic portal.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 3 supplement — Interruptions

The final shot of  Thelma and Louise .  Image via

The final shot of Thelma and Louise.  Image via

Some endings present the sense of ending midair.


The final shot of Thelma & Louise stops with their car in midair. Sure, Thelma and Louise are about to die, but for interrupting this ending to freeze on this last moment of freedom evokes a sense of triumph.


Another example—the end of Finnegans Wake:

Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he'd come from Arkangels, I sink I'd die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There's where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

The final lines of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.

Difficult as Joyce's prose may be, one can get a sense of what ending mid-sentence does.  It conveys the sense of motion with a vividness that a concluded thought cannot equal.

Two musical analogs to these include . . .


The razor cut at the end of “I Want You / She’s So Heavy” evokes desperation, and this builds through the lengthy outro.  Interrupting the song brings home the sense that for this singer, everything is beyond his control.


Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Wasted Time” also ends with a hard cut, and this interruption gives weight to the song’s theme.  If time is a precious resource that must not be wasted, it may be gone before we have a chance to ready ourselves.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 3 — Ending In Motion

Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman as Elaine and Ben in The Graduate.  Image via .

Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman as Elaine and Ben in The Graduate.  Image via


Linear art forms such as music, film, and fiction present pictures of change.  We start at point A and end at point Z.  One interesting twist on this is to end early, at point S, where we are pointed at Z and yet have a ways to go. 

This approach trades away satiation of the audience's expectations and leaves them with an anticipation of those expectations being fulfilled.

At the end of Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate, Benjamin comes to rescue Elaine from the world of their parents and their twisted mores.  Consider that the film could have ended a little later, as they arrive at some destination and perhaps try to have a life together.  Ending in motion by way of the bus ride emphasizes the film’s true theme: liberation.


The end of Good Will Hunting also dwells on escape.  Viewers know Will has decided to go find his former girlfriend Skylar, who lives on the other side of the country.  The film could have ended with Skylar answering her doorbell, finding Will on her front step, and their final kiss.  But the film's actual ending leaves viewers with anticipation of that moment, and this is important because more than he needs Skylar, Will needs to open himself to new possibilities.  This final wide shot of Will’s car disappearing down the highway emphasizes precisely that.  He is in motion as the whole world stretches out in front of him.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 2 supplement — The Baptism Scene

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone.  Image via .

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone.  Image via


Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather leaves by way of the front door, or something that looks very much like it.  The film opens with Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) holding court in his office, where he is greeted as “Don Corleone.”  It ends almost three hours later with Vito’s youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) holding court in his office, a sign that the transition of power is complete.

The credibility of this moment is set up by something of a storytelling wide shot, the masterfully edited baptism scene.

Here we see a number of murders committed simultaneously around the city as Michael stands as godfather to his sister’s child.  Scenes of the fatal gunshots are intercut with Michael’s renunciations of evil at the baptismal font.   

Consider the importance of this scene’s panorama:

The editing shows Michael’s killers traveling to multiple locations, a demonstration of the geographic reach of his power.

That his enemies can be killed while he stands in a suit and tie demonstrates the insular nature of his status. 

The contrast of his calm demeanor in the church (including his lies to the priest) with the violence of the murders committed in his name marks his character’s evolution.  Earlier in the film, we saw a jittery Michael assassinate one of his father’s rivals and a corrupt policeman.  This panoramic demonstration of his power reveals to the audience how far Michael has come.  Once he begged to serve.  Now he presides.

The film has been building toward huge explosion.  Only after this can the film end in his office, where he is greeted as “Don Corleone."

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 1 supplement — Ending by reentering

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in  The Producers .  Image via .

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers.  Image via


The Mel Brooks film The Producers tells the story of a Broadway hustler, Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel), and his accountant, Leopold Bloom (played by Gene Wilder), who decide to stage a flop and keep their investors’ money.  They get their hands on an awful musical, Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, and oversell shares to investors, confident they will never have to pay them back.  Little did they expect that the show’s awfulness is misread by the audience as brilliant irony.  The show is a success, and now the two, who now owe the play's profits many times over, are in trouble.

The story ends with the two sent off to jail.  As the credits roll, the two are seen selling shares of a new show, Prisoners of Love, to their fellow inmates and the warden.  The story thus ends by reentering the building it just left.  It as if the front door is a revolving door, and those attempting to exit are simply thrown back in.

This is a familiar comic device, one that plays on the idea of people’s inability to learn their lessons, a riff repeated several times in this Abbot & Costello routine.

Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 3 supplement — High Noon

Katy Jurado as Helen Ramírez in  High Noon .  Image via .

Katy Jurado as Helen Ramírez in High Noon.  Image via


The opening theme and credits of High Noon play over actions whose exact meanings are unknown.  

The first man to appear looks menacing, and his expressions inflect the arrival of the second man with a sense of impending action.  This is further heightened by the arrival of the third man.  Though we can’t hear their words, whatever they are talking about something gets them up on their horses and riding somewhere together.

Even a first-time viewer might have a sense of what is about to unfold (the theme-song lyrics offer ideas).  Still, this beginning charges the film with questions.  Before we’ve heard even a word of dialogue, we ask, “What is about to happen?” and “How will things play out for these three?”

Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 2 supplement — The Warriors

Dorsey Wright as Cleon, the leader of the Warriors.  The Coney Island Wonder Wheel glows in the background.  Image via .

Dorsey Wright as Cleon, the leader of the Warriors.  The Coney Island Wonder Wheel glows in the background.  Image via


Walter Hill’s 1979 film The Warriors, based on Sol Yurick’s novel, has a relatively simple premise: a street gang from Coney Island, the Warriors, must find their way home from the Bronx while being pursued by all the other gangs in the city, who wrongly suspect them of having murdered someone who was going to unite all of the city’s gangs. 

The opening credits are shown over a seven-minute montage that brilliantly maps out the movie’s premise.

The film opens on a nighttime shot of a The Wonder Wheel, a Coney Island landmark.

A subway train pulls into a station, with the Wonder Wheel still in the background.

We see the Warriors board the train, intercut with a speech from their leader, Cleon, briefing them on the gathering they are about to attend.

Image via .

As their subway train makes its way, we see other gangs getting on other trains, intercut with shots of gang members consulting subway maps.  Even non-New Yorkers will get the idea that the Warriors are traveling from one end of the city to another.  (For cinematic reasons, the film proceeds to take great liberties with the geography of NYC's subway lines.) 

Finally, we see a wide shot of hundreds of gang members gathered outdoors as the Warriors wend their way through the crowd.  Cyrus steps forward to address the gangs, and the plot soon ignites.

Roger Hill as Cyrus.  Image via .

Roger Hill as Cyrus.  Image via


The film's introduction may not refer to future plot points, as the newsreel at the beginning of Citizen Kane does, but it teaches the audience the simple rules of the story premise and sketches in the landscape.   Rival gangs and a long trip across the length of the city stand between the Warriors and their safe arrival home.

Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 2 — Introduction as Panorama

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane.  Image via .

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane.  Image via


Operas and musicals typically start with an overture, a medley of the melodies to come. 


In addition to allowing the theatergoers to find their seats and settle in for the show, a musical overture serves several purposes.

  • It plants themes in the ears of the audience, so that the melodies will be more quickly discerned when they are sung within the context of the show.
  • It establishes the show’s emotional and dramatic range and thereby helps the audience clear out the requisite mental space.

A similar approach shows up in literature and film.

Citizen Kane begins with the death of the title character, Charles Foster Kane.  But this is immediately followed by a newsreel (3:33-13:57) that documents the highlights of Kane’s life.  Those familiar with the movie will note that this newsreel effectively sketches out many of the themes that the film then proceeds to explore in greater detail.  The audience is thus familiar with many of the faces and landscapes, and the viewers’ minds are prepared for the film’s scope and tone.

None of this gives away the central story, which is about Kane’s private life, not the public one captured in the newsreel.  By presenting the material in the form of a newsreel (cleverly shown to be flapping off of the projector reel at the end of the scene), the film suggests to the audience that the known facts of Kane’s life are the stuff of manufactured legend.  The panorama thus sketches in the story of Kane’s life in order to ask, “What don’t we know?”

Thank you for reading.

Tradeoffs Part 1 — Tradeoffs as shared points of reference.

Producer/engineer Young Guru, mulling tradeoffs at the mixing console.  Image via .

Producer/engineer Young Guru, mulling tradeoffs at the mixing console.  Image via


When we discuss art, it’s natural for us to employ evaluative language.  Doing so, however, often overlooks the fact that evaluative language only points back at us, the audience.  It doesn’t point at the work.  We can argue about the best Ella Fitzgerald performance or Joni Mitchell song, but those arguments only establish the taste of those in conversation.  It does little to illuminate what the artists themselves are up to.  

Nevertheless, we need language with which to talk about art.  For example, when I read a student work, and it’s not working for me, I need to be able to talk about why in terms that are concrete, beyond dispute.  One way to do that is to describe my experience of the work.  “I was confused on page four because . . . .”  A writer can hardly disagree with such a statement from a reader.  She can’t say, “No, you weren’t confused.”  The objective nature of the conversation helps keep things clear for all.

Another way to talk in concrete terms is to discuss the tradeoffs made by the artist.   Even when two people disagree on a work’s success or failure, they can agree on the tradeoffs that were made and what resulted from those tradeoffs. 

For instance, in my posts about musical time, I listed some tradeoffs that are made when drumming becomes rounder (more even) or less round (more uneven).

Whether or not I can persuade you that Ringo Starr’s sense of time is better than a drum machine’s (which is really a conversation about my listening), we can agree that Ringo’s imperfect time-keeping infuses the Beatles with a certain vulnerability that a drum machine cannot.  Likewise, we can agree that if the Beatles had used a drum machine that rendered perfectly even time, the result might have been something less vulnerable and more invincible.

Tradeoffs, thus

  • Provide concrete points of reference for people who may disagree as to a work’s success or failure.
  • Help us remember that creativity is all about choices.

The language of tradeoffs thus help us distinguish between conversations about the artist’s choices from conversations about our response to those choices.   The different tradeoffs each of us might make reflect differences of intuition and taste. 

The language of tradeoffs therefore helps us take responsibility for how we receive the work.

Thank you for reading.

Roughness Part 2 supplement — Robert McKee’s Solar System

Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, whose lectures and writing on story design have influenced a generation of screenwriters and novelists.  Image via .

Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, whose lectures and writing on story design have influenced a generation of screenwriters and novelists.  Image via


In his famous book on screenwriting, Robert McKee lays out a convincing picture of what a story’s cast of characters might accomplish:

Imagine a cast as a kind of solar system with the protagonist as the sun, supporting roles as the planets around the sun, bit players as satellites around the planets — all held in orbit by the gravitational pull of the star at the center, each pulling at the tides of the others’ nature. 

Consider this hypothetical protagonist: He’s amusing and optimistic, then morose and cynical; he’s compassionate, then cruel; fearless, then fearful.  This four-dimensional role needs a cast around him to delineate his contradictions, characters towards whom he can act and react in different ways at different times and places.  These supporting characters must round him out so that his complexity is both consistent and credible.

Character A, for example, provokes the protagonist’s sadness and cynicism, while Character B brings out his witty, hopeful side.  Character C inspires his loving and courageous emotions, while Character D forces him first to cower in fear, then to strike out in fury.  The creation and design of Characters A, B, C, and D is dictated by the needs of the protagonist.  They are what they are principally to make clear and believable, through action and reaction, the complexity of the central role.

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting, p. 379 

Consider, for instance, how The Mary Tyler Moore Show evokes this principle.  The show’s central character, Mary Richards, is the sun around which all other characters revolve.

Clockwise from upper left: Valerie Harper, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Ted Knight, Mary Tyler Moore, Gavin McCloud.  Image via .

Clockwise from upper left: Valerie Harper, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Ted Knight, Mary Tyler Moore, Gavin McCloud.  Image via

  • Her best friend and neighbor, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), brings out the side of Mary that is cynical about life in a male-dominated culture.
  • Her other neighbor, Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) creates a point of contrast for Mary’s down-to-earth side, her rejection of shallow, bourgeois mores. 
  • New writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin McCloud) brings out Mary’s idealism. 
  • Newsroom boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) activates her striving and desire for recognition.
  • Anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) brings out her principles.

And so forth. 

Notice how roughness and comic exaggeration characterize these supporting roles.  Their obsessions, their actions, their facial expressions reach extremes that Mary’s never do.  As in many sit-coms, the main character plays straight against everyone else in the cast.  Yet without the roughness, the flaws, embodied in the various supporting roles, the show does not feel complete.  Indeed Mary herself, per McKee’s insights, requires all of these characters orbiting around her to appear whole.

Thank you for reading.

Roughness Part 2 — Character and the Genius of Michael K. Williams

Michael K. Williams.  Image via .

Michael K. Williams.  Image via


Those lucky enough to have seen the series The Wire will never forget the character Omar, brought to life by the brilliant Michael K. Williams

Omar stood outside of the cops-and-robbers dynamic of the main storyline because he robbed drug dealers.  His alliances shifted constantly, and the sense that he lived by a strict, if unorthodox, moral code of his own allowed his character to lay bare the sham moralities of the everyone else on the landscape, as he does in the following scene.

In a cast filled with some of the most talented character actors of a generation, Williams stood out for various reasons—the restraint of his portrayal and the truth of his performance (likely informed by his youth on the streets of East Flatbush), a surprising combination of warmth, humor, and cold-blooded clarity. 

He might also be recognized by the low, resonant rasp of his voice and the scar that slices down his beautiful face.  Though show-biz culture might reduce such traits either to disqualifiers (“I can’t cast anyone with a scar”) or the be-all of his on-screen presence (“Get me the guy with the scar!”), for Williams, these traits are merely elements of who he is as an actor.  His work neither dwells on nor eschews these traits; they are elements of his physical beauty and the larger truth of his artistry.  His acting thus exemplifies what a creator in any medium might aim to produce—work that accommodates one's whole self.  This is how Williams creates characters who feel complete and thus more lifelike.

And pulling back the lens, The Wire at large felt whole, more alive, because viewers felt they had seen all of the story.  The heroes of the show, Omar among them, were not the shallow, airbrushed fantasies of the street found on lesser dramas.  The intersection of their rough edges and beauty revealed something profound, something that felt complete and alive.  The truth is never the whole truth without all of its surprising detail.

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 4c — Questions

Legendary film editor and film sound mixer Walter Murch.  Image via .

Legendary film editor and film sound mixer Walter Murch.  Image via

Author Michael Ondaatje met Murch during the making of  The English Patient,  an adaptation of Ondaatje's novel that was edited by Murch.  The conversations they had inspired Ondaatje's book of interviews with Murch,  The Conversations.

Author Michael Ondaatje met Murch during the making of The English Patient, an adaptation of Ondaatje's novel that was edited by Murch.  The conversations they had inspired Ondaatje's book of interviews with Murch, The Conversations.

In the two previous posts, I suggested that artists do as little talking as possible as they listen to feedback and process it through their intuition.   

When a particular piece of feedback does not resonate intuitively, sometimes it pays to ask questions.  The resulting conversation may reveal that the critique in question had misstated things. 

A great example of this is found in The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Michael Ondaatje’s book of interviews with film editor and sound mixer Walter Murch.  In this excerpt, Murch relates how the producer of the Godfather (for which Murch mixed the sound), responded to composer Nina Rota’s music score. 

Murch: There was an intense crisis with the music.  When Bob Evans heard Nina Rota’s music, he felt it would sink the film, that it was too lugubrious and didn’t have enough energy. . .  

Ondaatje: You mean the main theme music?

Murch: Yes . . . well, all the music.

Ondaatje: My God, it’s a trademark!

Murch: Well, nobody knew that at the time.  Remember, someone at MGM wanted to cut “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz

(Murch told Ondaatje that Evans actually wanted to replace Nina Rota with Henry Mancini, to give the score more of an American flavor.)

Murch: Frequently what happens in film is that people, especially distracted executives, will say, I hate—pick one—the music, camerawork, art direction, acting in your film.  But if you actually get under the skin of that prejudice, you can discover the particular thing they really hate — the pea under the mattress.  It often comes down to one or two small things that spoil everything else.  When I talked to Bob Evans, it turned out he hated the music for the horse’s-head scene, where Woltz pulls the sheet back and the severed head of his half-million-dollar horse is revealed in the bed.  Maybe because Woltz is the head of a studio and Evans was the head of a studio and it’s a particularly striking, grisly scene—the first violence in the film—he felt the music should be appropriate to that.

I tried to listen to what Nino had written with Bob Evans’s ears, and I thought he had a point.  The music, as it was originally written, was a waltz and it played against the horror of the event.  It was sweet carousel music.  You were seeing those horrible images, but the music was counterpointing the horror of the visuals.  Perhaps it needed to be crazier a little earlier . . . 

. . . You now heard, superimposed on each other, things that were supposed to be separate in time.  So it starts off as the same piece of music, but then begins—just as Woltz realizes that something is wrong—to grate against itself.  There is now a disorienting madness to the music that builds and builds to the moment when Woltz finally pulls the sheet back.   

We played this version for Evans, and he thought it was fantastic. . .

The result was that some of the heat was taken off the music. 

Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, pp. 99-102 

Murch’s intuition about the music, that it was great, prompted him to dig further into the meaning of the feedback from Evans.  One can only imagine what the film might have been with out Rota’s score. 

Composer Nina Rota.  Image via

Composer Nina Rota.  Image via


Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 1 supplement — Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”

Martin Sheen in Terrence Malick's film  Badlands , which tells the story of serial-killer and is said to be part of the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen's album  Nebraska .  Image via .

Martin Sheen in Terrence Malick's film Badlands, which tells the story of serial-killer and is said to be part of the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen's album Nebraska.  Image via


Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska was originally created as a series of song demos for the E Street Band.  At some point, Springsteen decided that he preferred the sparse demos to full-band versions.

The spare arrangements on the album suit the lonely mood of the songs.  As you listen to the following, however, note how important the ambient space is to how you hear and process the song.  


The absence of other instrumentation leaves room for us to turn over the music and lyrics.  The sense of spaciousness also evokes the wide open landscape that stretches out behind the story.  Nothing occludes our view of distant horizons.  This helps us feel as if we are looking back on the killer's life and watching him approach his final horizon and perhaps the "great void" of which he has been told.

This song invites considerable reflection, and Springsteen was wise to recognize that his audience needed some room in which to do the creative work of listening. 

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Innovates

El Matador State Beach, California.  Image via .

El Matador State Beach, California.  Image via


I’ve suggested that audiences take what they are given and do their own creative work, which follows the process outlined in Clark Terry’s formulation for learning jazz improvisation: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  In the case of an audience member, someone absorbing a work of art, her innovation lies in her attaining a new understanding of something that lies outside the artwork.

The process might be quite similar to what happens when sitting on a beach and listening to the waves.  It inevitably produces some insight beyond what is happening in front of us.  The rhythm of the waves starts a process that might lead the person on the shore to realize what’s going on with a particular aspect of her life.  That insight is her innovation, the product of her creative imagination.

Likewise, when she listens to music or reads a book, she reaches insights about herself or life that are not part of what she heard or read.  The music or writing she encounters launches her on a process of discovery that soon becomes her own.  Her access to that discovery may rely on the particular workings of the music or writing, but the discoveries are hers.  Indeed, her discoveries may be quite different from someone else’s. 

The nature of the discoveries may remain too abstract to put into words, but her attainment of them feels palpable.  She listens to the Jupiter Symphony or “Midnight Train to Georgia” and discovers something by way of taking in the various images and then imitating and assimilating them with herself and her experience. 

Thus, when we peruse favorite albums looking to find what it is we want to hear, we are not only asking ourselves a question about what music we want to keep us company, we are asking ourselves about which place within ourselves we might want to access through the innovative creative work we do as listeners.

Perhaps audience members know less of their own creative powers than artists do, for artists study audience responses to their work.  They inevitably find that just as the rhythm of the waves inspires all kinds of thoughts about life beyond the shoreline, some of the most successful art simply gives the audience a point of departure for a journey of its own devising.

Thank you for reading.


Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Assimilates

We’ve been exploring the creative process of the audience.  I’ve offered Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz —“Imitate, assimilate, innovate” — as a framework for understanding the creative work we do as listeners, readers, viewers, and so forth.

Yesterday, I offered the idea that our attraction to idiosyncratic works of art testifies to the fact that those absorbing the art engage in some act of imitation (because the more idiosyncratic a work is, the more easily it can be imitated).  Today, I offer snapshots of audience assimilation.

I met one friend of mine, Kelly, while she was carrying five copies of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity.  She explained that she was buying up all the copies she could find before the movie version was released.  “I want to get copies for all my friends before they print up new copies with John Cusack’s face on the cover.  I hate when publishers do that.”  She wanted her friends to have the freedom to imagine the story’s protagonist, Rob Fleming, on their own. I am not sure if the book was actually ever issued with a new cover featuring John Cusack’s face, but Kelly’s concern still holds.  Readers feel a certain right to work with what they are given, and they are protective of that right. 

My ever-insightful friend, Kelly.

My ever-insightful friend, Kelly.


It seems to me she identified an important aspect of audience creativity, our assimilation of the work.  Our assimilation of the work requires a bit of freedom to embellish and augment what we have absorbed.  In the case of High Fidelity, my friend had noticed how a movie version of a book can encroach upon one’s own mental version of the story, thus implicitly valuing the work of her own imagination.

We can find many parallels.  When MTV emerged, music listeners started seeing videos images of the songs in their heads, and to some of them this also felt like an unwelcome encroachment.  The sense was that the video got it wrong.  The song didn’t look that way inside one’s head.

Most common of all might be when fans of a book encounter the movie version and feel that the film, even if it has accurately reproduced the plotlines, disagrees with too much of what they had imagined.

In all of these cases we are encountering the fact that an audience not only imitates the work but also expands upon it.  Indeed, they feel protective of what their interpretive powers have produced.

Thank you for reading.