Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: The Sound of No Hands Clapping: A Memoir, by Toby Young

Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, 2006, pp. 274.

Toby Young's second memoir (the first of course being How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) starts off after Toby's first book has got into print. It happens to catch the eye of a Hollywood producer who offers him a crack at adapting a biography about a self-destructive '70s-era record producer into a screenplay for a movie he wants to make. (The producer, identified to the reader only as the anonymous "Mr. Hollywood," is operating on the theory that if Toby succeeded in making himself seem likable in How to Lose Friends, then he ought to be able to do the same with the life story of the man in the biography.) Meanwhile a different set of producers comes around to talk about making his first book into a movie. Once again, he's in America going after the Big Time, albeit on the West coast rather than the East.

It would be a mistake to approach this book as Toby's Big Hollywood Adventure, however. No Hands Clapping is really a chronicle of his life after the events of the previous book, with his screenwriting experiences just the connecting thread running through the narrative. Along with the work's comparative looseness, it doesn't help that the freshness of the reader's first encounter with him is gone, or that he's lost some of his edge.

Toby still has ambitions, but the fire's not as hot as when he hopped across the Atlantic to work for Graydon Carter. The tensions and conflicts that did so much to make his first book interesting to me--the contrast between his intelligence and education and his starstruck hunger for glamour, his frustrated lust for the good life, the clash between his rather shallow goals and his parents' accomplishments and values--are far less evident here, having largely run their course the last time around. Toby's settling down at the end of the last book is a significant part of that, and as might be guessed, his life as a whipped (but mostly content) boyfriend, husband and father coping with domestic and mid-life crises is rather less entertaining than his earlier laddishness. He's still quite good at "losing friends and alienating people," but it starts to feel like a role he's enjoying.

The result is that this all seems more like an anticlimax to the history that made him an "icon of defeat" rather than a fully satisfactory follow-up. Still, I found chunks of the book almost as funny as How to Lose Friends, and while perhaps less insightful than the previous volume of his memoirs, it is still peppered with memorable observations by Young and the other "characters" in his story. Many of the best relate to his newfound domesticity, and as might be expected, also to the unbelievably bloated, shambling workings of what he learns to call "The Business" of film and television (admittedly, an even more overexposed subject than the glossy, Conde Nast-style magazine). One of my favorites among those he relates is the way it takes only thirty seconds for the aspirants who make it to stardom to move from the view that it's all a "crapshoot" to believing that it's "talent" and talent alone that put them at the top of the heap--a reminder that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of a society which chooses to see economic history as nothing but Horatio Alger stories and Edisonades, one's level of success tends to be inversely correlated with their understanding of how the System they inhabit really works.

However, the most provocative aspect of the book is unintended, namely what it suggests about our rhetoric of failure. Toby had chances of a kind others can scarcely dream of, thanks to his father's prominence, his familial and personal connections, and some astonishing strokes of luck, like those phone calls which started his adventures in both New York and Hollywood. (You can't be "fired from virtually every paper on Fleet Street" without being hired by them first, after all.)

By contrast, most of those who chase dreams of stardom and come to think of themselves as failures never had anything like those chances. Instead they waited for breaks that never came, their failure definable in negative terms as a lack of success that frequently is more reflective of the way the odds work against anyone, and the closed-off character of the businesses they try to enter, rather than their having been given a proper chance and blown it, as Young did again and again. This made his failures genuine failures in a way that theirs were not, while ironically putting him in a position to make a business out of telling the story of his woes that has given him something not unlike the stardom he sought in the first place, a far cozier and rosier position than is enjoyed by most of those who would call themselves "successful."

Alas, I suspect few readers will really appreciate that distinction, without which this story would not have been possible.

I suspect the author of No Hands Clapping doesn't appreciate it either.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Returning to Sahara: The Dirk Pitt Novels On Screen

Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt series has had an exceptionally unfortunate history on the big screen, each of the two attempts to film one of his novels--1980's Raise the Titanic and 2005's Sahara--ending up a notoriously expensive critical and commercial flop.1 Raise the Titanic has been blamed for killing ITC Entertainment, while Sahara resulted in a loss of over a hundred million dollars for the producer, as well as a spectacular legal battle that, as far as I can tell, has continued to this day.2 The latter is strongly connected with the more active role Cussler got as part of the terms on which the movie was made, and which he claimed the producers never honored.

Looking back it seems that there was never any question of the script closely following the book. Sahara's images of a Third World country where everyone is either a villain or an anonymous victim, its scenes in which Africans turn cannibal and attack foreign tourists, in which Pitt threatens to bury a Malian antagonist with bacon in his mouth, its climax in which a handful of Western heroes hole up in an old colonial fort and fight off a siege by vastly more numerous native soldiers they kill by the hundred, before their rescue by the cavalry (literally, a U.S. Army cavalry unit)--one doesn't have to be trained in post-linguistic turn literary theory or more than ordinarily given to approaching popular fiction as "cultural text" to see that these elements could have been problematic for a twenty-first century audience (a point highlighted by the film's producers when discussing Cussler's input on the scripts).3

The plotline about a United Nations commando team reflected the anticipations in the early '90s that the United Nations would be a more powerful, independent entity after the Cold War's close, which have long since become passé. The heavy weaponry on the Calliope probably seemed a bit over the top, like the pre-reboot James Bond--and perhaps a bit pricier than the producers wanted to go--much like the siege at the end (an idea that had already been used quite heavily in movies during those years, as with the Lord of the Rings and Matrix series, though frankly it would have made for a good set piece). Ditto for the plotline about the end of Abraham Lincoln's life (the principal bit of historical-archaeological interest the novel had).

All that makes it seem an unlikely candidate for an adaptation, but all this is the sort of thing that only seems obvious when one has actually read the material. The more casual glance that likely decided the issue simply noted that the Dirk Pitt novels were a bestselling series of globe-trotting action thrillers, a natural enough object of Hollywood's interest, especially with the surprising success of the Jason Bourne series--the film versions of which also jettisoned most of the stuff of the books--apparently encouraging the tendency to seize on such work.4 And there certainly were some reasons to think the Pitt novels would be worth a shot. The fast-paced plots and rapid-fire action of Cussler's novels are very cinematic in feel. The element of historical mystery that is a prominent feature of the series probably looked like a significant plus at the time. (After all, these were the years when Dan Brown became a full-blown pop cultural phenomenon, and the National Treasure films became the biggest success of Nicholas Cage's career.) And Sahara, which certainly had these two traits going for it, likely seemed easier to adapt than some of Cussler's other books. Its plot is a bit more grounded than lost continent tales like Atlantis Found (2000), for instance. It doesn't require nearly so much updating as the apartheid-era Vixen 03 (1978) or Cold War intrigues like Deep Six (1984) and Cyclops (1986). And for all the political difficulties mentioned above (perhaps more obvious when one starts thinking seriously about the conversion from page to screen), adapting it remained less awkward than Night Probe (1981), with its plot about the United States struggling with Britain for possession of Canada, or the Sinophobia and xenophobia-laden storyline of Flood Tide (1998).

And so it seemed like a good idea at the time--just as bad ideas usually do when people get it into their heads to act on them.

1. Those who have not seen the film might want to check out a fair review of it at the Den of Geek, written retrospectively just last year.
2. The film has in fact been taken as an object lesson in Hollywood's mismanagement of large budgets--the production budget doubling from $80 to $160 million (in part, because of script problems), and the distribution costs coming to a preposterous $81 million more. The Los Angeles Times published a special report on the matter including exceptionally detailed figures for expenses (specifying everything from the $102,884 spent on walkie-talkies, to the $48,893 Matthew McConaughey's personal chef received in compensation--more than Rainn Wilson got for playing Rudi Gunn--to bribes to various Moroccan officials).
3. Alas, such elements are common throughout Cussler's work, perhaps more so than in most thriller fiction--as with the Japanaphobia of Dragon (1990) or the treatment of immigrants as instruments of a Chinese plot for the conquest of America in Flood Tide (1998)--but his books still seem like a font of citizen-of-the-world cosmopolitanism next to the writings of John Ringo, Thomas Kratman and a good many others who have come to prominence in the past decade. Say what you will, this is certainly not a case of "now we know better."
4. The Bourne Identity (2002) dropped the plotline about 1970s-era international terrorism and the hunt for Carlos the Jackal--both long passé by that point, with that era's groups all but vanished and Carlos himself sitting in a French prison. (Since the third book, The Bourne Ultimatum, was "round two" for the Bourne-Carlos fight, the 2007 film also used a plot developed from scratch.) The element of jet set sophistication, and the edgier aspects of Jason and Marie's relationship (like his kidnapping her at gunpoint) were similarly dropped. The result, in my view anyway, was pretty thin stuff since the writers didn't really bother to replace what they removed.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reflections on the Dirk Pitt Series

I first encountered Clive Cussler circa 1993 through Sahara, which was then his latest novel. I went right through it and subsequently tracked down every other novel Cussler published before it, then went on to follow his career closely for a good many years afterward. I enjoyed virtually all of his books, a good many of the earlier ones nearly as much as Sahara (especially 1986's Cyclops and 1988's Treasure).

With their big, exciting plots encompassing wild historical theories and high-stakes geopolitical games, their abundance of gimmicks (like cool high-tech toys), their plenitude of over-the-top, cinematic action, their unflappable James Bondian protagonist and colorful James Bondian villains, and their sense of humor, I found Cussler's novels a lot of fun--and also, a model for the kind of story I was then aspiring to write. (Matthew Reilly would be an even closer fit in many respects, but he hadn't even published his first book yet.)

The inelegant, often cliché-ridden prose, the one-dimensional characters--these things only started mattering to me later on, by which time the author's tendency to repeat himself to diminishing returns would have been enough to reduce my interest, even at a less discriminating point in my history as a reader. Of course, this may have been inevitable. As of the time of this writing, Dirk Pitt's adventures have been in print for thirty-seven years, and despite the use of a rather large bag of tricks, Cussler's hero's aged enough that Pitt's grown-up kids now get in on the action. Far from letting go gracefully, or at least taking a break every now and then, Cussler kept the books coming, despite his declining enthusiasm for them (Cussler himself confessing to boredom with his creation in at least one interview).

Indeed, Cussler stepped up production sharply--through a turn to literary sharecropping on a massive scale.1 Where action thriller writers are concerned, only Tom Clancy compares with Cussler's prolific involvement in "co-authored" books to which his principal contribution seems to be his brand name. This includes not only every Dirk Pitt novel to follow 2001's Valhalla Rising (the byline of which is shared with his son Dirk), but the NUMA File series cowritten with Paul Kemprecos, the Oregon Files novels written with Craig Dirgo and Jack DuBrul, the Isaac Bell novels (cowritten with Justin Scott from the second book on) and the Fargo Adventures written with Grant Blackwood (who also "co-authored" Clancy's latest, Dead or Alive)--some twenty-five novels in five series, a considerable output even before counting his foray into nonfiction (like the two-book Sea Hunters series, also cowritten with Dirgo).2 At this point co-authored books account not only for virtually all of Cussler's output in the past decade, but for a majority of the books he has published in his four decade career (27 of 46 books of all sorts).3

That others keep on buying the books, being disappointed, complaining online and then buying the next book, again and again and again (enough to keep Cussler on the bestseller lists), astonishes me. Rather than nostalgia, I find the whole phenomenon a depressing sign of the times.

1. From the 1970s through the first half of the 1990s, Cussler published roughly one novel every two years (twelve from 1973 to 1994), where now two to three new books appear bearing the Cussler name annually, a staggering 400 percent rise in production.
2. As might be expected, I found the 1999 Numa Files novel Serpent--the first of the coauthored novels--lackluster, and while I still read Atlantis Found (2000) and Valhalla Rising, 2003's Trojan Odyssey was simply unreadable, and haven't bothered to return to the Cussler brand since.
3. The release of two more co-authored books (the Oregon Files novel The Jungle, the Fargo Adventure The Kingdom) has already been announced for this year, further increasing their share of the total (to 29 of 48). This should be considered a low estimate, however, given that not all "co-authored" books are announced as such.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why I Can't Stand The Big Bang Theory

Last summer I watched a handful of episodes of The Big Bang Theory all the way through, then gave up on the show entirely, not just irritated by what I watched, but astonished by the show's success (at the time, anyway).

I might as well start with the characters. As anyone who has seen an episode knows, the four scientists at the heart of the story--Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar)--are not just stereotypes, but very, very annoying. Of course, characters with annoying quirks can be engaging. Monk's titular character Adrian Monk is a perfect example of this, his combination of strengths and weaknesses making him compelling and endowing him with a genuine humanity, as well as affording the writers abundant inspiration for comedic material. Jim Parson's Emmy-nominated Sheldon, by contrast, never does anything more than grate, and the same goes for his friends (to varying degrees).

Of course, this is fairly standard. Treatments of "geeks" in American film and television tend to feel like they were written by the kinds of people who beat up geeks when they were growing up (if they ever did grow up). They are caricatures, and generally not good ones. Good caricature begins with an apprehension of reality, while pop culture depictions of everyone from the gifted child to the veteran scientist are caricatures of caricatures tending toward the grotesque. At the same time, the casting has often left me with the impression that the roles exist mainly to provide work to well-connected but awkward, uncharismatic (and frankly, unattractive) actors.

Big Bang is no exception to the pattern, either in the writing or the acting, all too predictably reusing, recycling and running right into the ground all the hoariest geek stereotypes and clichés--stuff that was tired in seventh grade--starting with the field of study all four of the scientists have in common, physics. After all, the greenest Hollywood hack knows that if you want to overawe an unsophisticated viewer, just throw in the word "physicist," preferably with the prefix "astro" or the word "quantum" in front of it. The average viewer may not be able to explain exactly what physics deals with, believe that the Theory of Relativity is a moral stance and think Albert Einstein's scientific contribution was his personal invention of the atomic bomb, but they realize that physics is "hard," especially because it "has math in it," and are therefore intimidated by anyone who can deal with it, so that where sheer intellectual one-upsmanship is considered, everything else is regarded as second-rate.1

Of course, pandering to widely held stupidities has never been an obstacle to popular success, and certainly there's always been an audience happy to laugh at nerds. (Remember, this show laughs at them, not "with" them.) Intellectuals like scientists may be an "elite" of sorts, but when push comes to shove, they are a rather powerless group, making them easy marks for everyone from comedians to demagogues. (As Morris Berman asked in his brilliant essay The Twilight of American Culture, "Can you imagine, in this country, a TV program along the lines of Cheers that ridiculed wealth instead of intelligence?") With anti-intellectualism running particularly hot in the last decade (as it usually does when national politics takes such turns), it may be no surprise that CBS scored a hit with a show founded on this kind of humor. And while I've never been a particular fan of Chuck Lorre's work (Cybill, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men), there does seem to be a sizable audience which clearly enjoys it.

This being the case, what really surprises me is the critical acclaim the show enjoys, and in particular the enthusiasm from the proudly self-described geeks one would expect to see right through it, to recognize that it isn't the smart or geek-friendly viewing it has been taken for. I suppose that part of it may be that instead of being relegated to supporting roles, the geeks are the core of the cast this time, and like members of a marginalized minority group they're simply excited to see such a representation of themselves on screen, even when it's an unkind one. Part of it, too, seems to be that the show's writers are relatively literate when it comes to both the science and the pop culture (indeed, I imagine many a joke goes over the average viewer's head), which is rare enough that some will regard it as an oasis of relatively intelligent viewing for that reason alone.

I say relatively. For nuanced geek-culture comedy I generally find myself having to look accross the ocean--to Britain for Spaced, or better still, to Japan for manga and anime like Genshiken (the first series, at any rate; I didn't much care for the second) or Welcome to the N.H.K. ("masterpiece" is the word that comes to my mind). As it happens, they largely dispense with the scientists, but that's partly the point: there is geek culture outside physics and computer science (as club president Madarame explains about himself and his cohorts "We're not techie otaku . . ."), and anyway, The Big Bang Theory, despite its title, isn't really about physics or physicists, even to the modest extent that the crime show Numb3rs is about mathematics and mathematicians. And these other shows are much, much better stuff than anything we're likely to get out of American network television.

1. There seems to be a widespread and deep-rooted view that there is a hierarchy of intellectual endeavor, with the physical sciences (of which physics is queen) and related engineering specialties (especially those including the words "rocket," "nuclear" or "computer") on top, ahead of the life sciences (though the word "neuro" has a cachet comparable to "astro" and "quantum" in physics; "molecular" is good too), the life sciences ahead of the social ones, and the humanities at the bottom, a view that the show routinely acknowledges (and if anything, reinforces, whether intentionally or unintentionally). A noteworthy example: in the episode "The Bad Fish Paradigm," Sheldon insists to Penny that a former girlfriend of Leonard's who possessed a Ph.d in French Literature is not a "brainiac" because "for one thing she was French, and for another it was literature."

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