Friday, March 29, 2013

Entry#8: Deja Vu Burnout!

Déjà vu burnout

I had a very interesting conversation at work the other day. Major Tom, Captain Steve, and I were talking about spoilers. We weren’t talking about the usual spoilers, like when someone gives away the ending of a film. Instead we were talking about cultural spoilers. Sometimes you can be so familiar with something that it becomes clichéd; even if you haven’t read it, heard it, or seen it. Some movies, books, and music become so heavily referenced that we become overly familiar with them. This familiarity causes the work to become predictable, even if you haven’t experienced it. 

A prime example of this for me is Frankenstein. I love Frankenstein. I had the Remco action figure when I was a kid. I watched the Boris Karloff movies I lot. And I feel that Karloff’s performance in the original Universal films is superb.  I really dig Peter Cushing as the titular doctor in the Hammer films. However, I can’t sit through reading the book.

Major Tom had asked if it was the writing style, or the language? 

No, it’s not that. I’m used to that style of writing. What gets me is that I’m so familiar with the story that I lose interest in it. Even though I haven’t read the book, I still know what happens. 

Captain Steve suggested that I really don’t know what happens. But I really do know what happens. I know it from commentaries about the novel, and various documentaries. I’ve been mostly spoiled for it. 

Frankenstein is so ingrained in not just our culture, but also world culture. Even if you haven’t read Mary Shelley’s novel, you are already spoiled for it. It is one of the most popular novels of all time, and rightly so. The portion of it that I have read is stunningly beautiful. It was way ahead of its time. It also signifies the birth of the horror and sci-fi genres respectively. If it wasn’t for Frankenstein, we’d have no horror. We’d have no sci-fi. And on top of that, Mary Shelley was only eighteen when she wrote it! She is the mother of all monsters. 

As for the adaptations of Frankenstein, they are a mixed bag. They run the gamut of glorious (the James Whale directed originals) to the gory (Kenneth Branagh’s version from 1995). Hammer Films made a whole series of Frankenstein movies; in which Peter Cushing, as Baron Frankenstein, was the lead. These films took a drastic departure from the original novel; especially since they were about the mad scientist himself, and not the creature. They are fun pastiches in their own right. And while Whale’s adaptation isn’t faithful to the source material, it is the standard by which all other adaptations are judged. Karloff’s performance is one of the best every committed to film. And Colin Clive was both frightening, and magnetic, as Baron Frankenstein. There was also the underappreciated, but wonderful, The Bride; starring Sting as Baron Frankenstein, Jennifer Beals as the titular Bride, and Clancy Brown as the Monster.

All of these films have one thing in common: The Monster is sympathetic. Frankenstein is the villain. This same thread runs through Mary Shelley’s original novel. Though unlike Whale’s film, the monster isn’t as childlike in her novel. He’s well-spoken, worldly, and somewhat dangerous. Still, you can’t blame him for wanting his revenge. His own father rejected him out of disgust. This is an echo of Shelley’s own relation ship with her father. She was somewhat of a wild child. So much so, that she eloped at age eighteen with Percy Shelley. And for her mother (also named Mary) she died after giving birth to Mary. Yes, she wrote horror, and lived it. Part of me feels as much empathy for Mrs. Shelley herself, as I do her most famous creation. I feel that I need to both honor her, and satisfy my curiosity, by reading her most famous work.      

However it has gotten to a point where I may never have the patience to read it. I’m so familiar with the story that it has become been-there-done-that territory. This is a real shame, because I’d love to read it through someday. I didn’t encounter the same problem with Dracula by Bram Stoker. I also didn’t encounter the same problem with Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. But I have this stumbling block with Frankenstein. Similarly, I had a mild stumbling block with Dante’s Divine Comedy, but that was eventually overcome. 

What if I were to read something more contemporary? Let’s say Stephen King’s The Shining? Granted, Kubrick’s film is different in tone from the novel. But would I find myself just reading over a book that I’m overly familiar with culturally? One wonders how I’d react if I’d read Shelley’s novel first, before seeing the James Whale version. Though that’d be a neat trick if I could read a Victorian novel before age five!  

Familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, over-familiarity can be a very bad thing. For example, I can’t listen to a Beatles’ album without being bored. I know the lyrics, the album titles, the track listings, there’s nothing new there. It’s gotten to a point where if I hear a Beatles song I think, “Not this again.” I can probably handle a song or two, but not an entire album. My mind feels numb, and I feel bored. 

I’ve talked with people who couldn’t watch The Godfather the whole way through, because of all the parodies over the years. Though they haven’t seen the movie before, the parodies of Marlon Brando as Don Vito have made it redundant for some people. And we all know the story of Romeo and Juliet. This can make it very difficult for even experienced Shakespeare watchers to sit through. 

There’s also the over-used movie quotes. I could easily live the rest of my life without hearing, “Say hello to my little friend,” ever again. That’s one movie quote that can, and should, be retired. I hate to say it, but, “Luke, I am your father,” is headed there as well. 

In other words: You can have too much of a good thing. 

I sometimes feel that something similar has happened with Star Wars. It’s part of the culture, which is a good thing. But when shows like How I Met Your Mother (and everything else) over-reference it, it becomes a bit stale. Granted, that’s not a fault of Star Wars itself, more the perception of it.

And that brings me back to Frankenstein. Perhaps this has more to do with perception, than the actual novel? Of course it does deal in perception. There’s nothing wrong with the novel. I’ve just been born in a century when the mass media allowed for various adaptations of Frankenstein. On top of that, it is a public domain work; anyone can make a Frankenstein movie (even Andy Warhol). This allowed for the cultural saturation of the novel. This is a good thing, as it has kept the story alive for over one-hundred years. In four years, we’ll have the two-hundredth anniversary of its publication. There’s no sign of the love for this novel diminishing. All writers everywhere wish they could have such longevity and popularity. Mary Shelley wrote other novels, which will be rediscovered in time. But her most popular work is so rich in texture, that scholars are still examining new layers of this work. 

And that brings me to a final thought…

Maybe I have unconsciously cheated myself by not allowing the novel to wash over me?  Just as some people will avoid the most popular books ever written, just because they are popular, I could have denied myself of a great read. In that case, this may have more to do with perception, rather than over familiarity? 

Sometime, before the year is out, I will read Frankenstein in its entirety. And you will all read what I thought of it. 

I promise. 

Text Copyright Johnny X. 2013. 

Some Propellerheads, anyone? Is History Repeating?


Monday, March 11, 2013

Entry#7: Do You Know Where Your Towel Is Today?


Do You Know Where Your Towel Is Today?
There are certain people who become fixtures in our lives. We couldn’t imagine a world without them. Douglas Adams was one of those people for me.

I first encountered the writing of Douglas Adams when I was twelve…

Wait; let me back up a bit.

I first heard of his writing when I was eleven. This all came to me by an indirect source; The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In the now classic gaming book The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Guide to the Universe, there is a very interesting disclaimer. 

It read like this, “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Guide to the Universe is not related to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and is in no way meant to infringe on that property.”

Being overly observant as I am, I read the copyright page. I’m forever grateful that I did. Reading that disclaimer lead me to think, “What is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?” And what connection did it have to TMNT? I returned to my local bookstore a few weeks later. I was to see these large, leather-bound books with gold letters on the spines. They read, “The More than Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide--Douglas Adams.”

That answered my question, sort of. Now, I had to read this impressive tome. It was so impressive, that it had a gold-colored creature on the cover, a parody of the “smiley face.” And that silly creature was sticking his tongue out, and laughing. I had to read this book. I needed to know, “What was the secret of the Hitchhiker’s Guide?”

I had placed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on my Christmas list that year. I asked, and I had received. This proves that Santa Claus not only exists, but that he must indeed be of alien origin. I read that first novel as if it were an actual guide book. Granted, I knew it was fiction, but I wanted it to be real. I wanted to carry a messenger bag like Ford Prefect (which I do). I wanted to know where my towel was at all times. And I wanted to see these odd places first hand. And, I wanted to sample a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, no matter what the cost!

Needless to say, I was in love with this book. It was, and still is, my first love. You never forget your first. I wanted more of this strange universe as recounted by Douglas Adams. And for my thirteenth birthday (in the early 90’s) I was given that same large, leather-bound volume I had seen at age eleven. I still have it on my bookshelf. It sits next to a large collection of Douglas Adams books; both fiction and non-fiction. I also received another great gift that year: an audio book of Douglas Adams himself reading The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I could then hear his voice reading his work in his own words!

I listened to that audio book throughout that summer. I then read that large, leather-bound book. It was then comprised of the first four novels in the series; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, The Universe, and Everything; and So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish. Since that summer I have read, and re-read, and re-read those books consistently. And once more, I didn’t have to wait long for another book in the series. Adams published Mostly Harmless about a year later! It was from that point on that I have made it my mission in life to track down EVERYTHING Adams wrote. Some guys get turned on by cars. Some get into baseball. I wanted to be a writer, and nothing else.

Why did Douglas Adams work connect with me so completely? The answer to that is a long one.

First, he wasn’t boring.

One of the great sins of our culture is that we purposefully bore children to death with really overbearing books. We drill it into their heads that “real” writing must be slow, overly long, and dull as watching paint dry; but without the heady aroma and side effects. Granted, I had the joys of Encyclopedia Brown, and Choose Your Own Adventure at that age. I also discovered Sherlock Holmes around the same time. But none of it could compare to the humor I found in Adams’ work. Though that time that Sherlock and Watson dressed in drag to infiltrate that Hong Kong brothel; you have to admit that was funny. Oh, you didn’t read that book? Well, I’m sure Sir Arthur would have written it, had he been given the chance.

Second, the works of Douglas Adams are philosophical.

All of his novels are detailed analyses of the society around us. Whether it was conscious or not, Adams became a great social critic. The absurd civilizations he wrote about mirror our own world. The outrageous choices that are made by seemingly “enlightened” societies are just as illogical as our own. An example is the survivors of the Ark in Space and their tree-killing ways. Or, be it the Krikkit Men, hell bent on annihilating the universe using sports equipment. Or, the senile Man Who Rules the Universe. These are all clear metaphors for the world around us.

Third, they were the first novels I could quote.

The dialogue and scenarios are memorable episodes; both on the page, the airwaves, and the idiot box. And in recent years, it has been adapted for the silver screen. One can vividly see Ford, Arthur, Zaphod, and Trillian in their mind’s eye. And one can see themselves in these characters.

That brings me to point number four.

These books are not about heroes. They are not about extraordinary people. They are about the everyman on an adventure. Arthur Dent is that everyman. This tradition goes back to the medieval mystery play, simply titled, Everyman. We also see echoes of it in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Though, if the truth be told, Douglas Adams was much funnier than Dante.

Everyman always had a guide. In this case, Ford Prefect is that guide. Dante had his Virgil, Arthur had his Ford. And along the way, the two go from one odd situation to another. In the end, both learn about the universe around them; in all its greatness, and foibles. We are all everymen on an adventure. We are all drifting through the galaxy on one great starship. And we are all trying to figure out why we are here. And much like The Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question, the question is more complex than the answer.

I was shocked in 2001, when I learned of Douglas Adams’ death. He was only forty-nine years old. He’d left behind a wife, a daughter, and a legacy of humor. He also left behind tireless efforts to save the world from itself. His conservationist efforts are often overlooked. But his quest to help preserve endangered species, and humanity, are among his finest works. It is these works, both on, and off the page, that have ensured his memory will endure. Writers never really die. As long as their work is available, people will hear their voices. Future generations will discover their work, and then pass it onto the next generation.

Douglas Adams inspired me to become a writer. And when I find myself in difficult times, I remind myself of his struggles. He once went from having a seven-thousand pound overdraft, to having over eight million books in print. He once hitchhiked from England to Greece, got food poisoning, and lived to tell about it. And Douglas Adams got to jam with Pink Floyd on his forty-second birthday. What started out as an idle thought, “I wish someone would write a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” evolved into a cross-cultural phenomenon.

Here’s ten things you didn’t know about Douglas Adams.

1. He has an asteroid named for him. DNA-42-2001

2. He was six-foot tall at age twelve. He would eventually grow to be six-foot- two.

3. He was a left-handed.

4. Adams was also a skilled guitarist. He not only jammed with Pink Floyd, he also jammed with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.

5. He introduced Lalla Ward (former Dr. Who companion) to her
husband, biologist Richard Dawkins.

6. He was a patron of the Dian Fossy Gorilla Fund.

7. Adams was script editor for Dr. Who. He wrote four episodes, “City of Death,” Pirate Planet,” and “Shada.” The Christmas Special of 2012 was based on an unproduced script Adams had left behind…nearly thirty-three years ago.

8. Another asteroid was named in honor of Arthur Dent. It is simply named, “ArthurDent.”

9. He was close friends with Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame. The two collaborated on a rarely-seen TV pilot, “Down From the Trees.” 

10. Adams had predicted the invention of the E-book. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is electronically updated via the Sub-ether net as well. Perhaps he predicted downloads to iPads, and other electronic devices?

Stay cool and froody, kids.

Copyright Johnny X. 2013
Video From the Vaults
Douglas Adams made a guest appearance on Letterman in 1985. This was during the promotion for So Long, and Thanks For All The Fish.