Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, from the current movie of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Posted by Hello
Douglas Adams Doesn't Panic

by William S. Kowinski

Pretty much as expected, on its second weekend The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy feature dropped from #1 to #3 in U.S. box office, behind Paris Hilton's R rated "House of Wax" (talk about typecasting) and the opening of Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven." However, total attendance was weak, the 11th straight week of decline.

But the feature film business is changing quickly, and longevity on DVD is slowly becoming more important than big box office in the theatres, though that opening weekend remains the Holy Grail, with or without Monty Python. Just as I predicted a fall-off in theatres, I'll predict a long and prosperous future for Hitchhiker on DVD. The question will be whether there's enough interest for sequels, and I expect there will be. The economics of moviemaking are also shifting, with cheaper visual effects, so as long as you don't have a lot of high priced stars, you can afford to aim for the DVD market. I expect audiences are already getting bored with clashes of huge digital armies, so good acting, good stories and good filmmaking will also determine long-term success. I haven't seen Hitchhiker again since my first look last weekend, but I'll bet there's more to appreciate on multiple viewings. I'll see it again just for the dolphins.

This week I'd like to concentrate on Douglas Adams and the array of influences that came together in his stories. Much of the biographical information comes from "'>Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams"'> by M.J. Simpson (Justin Charles & Co., Boston, 2003).

text continues after photos...

Douglas Adams, seen attempting to shrink his head in a futile bid to subdue his massive tallness. Don't try this at home. Posted by Hello
As far as I know, Leonard Nimoy was the first to make the connection between feeling alienated as a child, and playing a space alien effectively in a TV drama. Douglas Adams wrote about a lot of space aliens effectively, and though "alienated" may not conjure up the exactly right images, as a child he certainly must have felt like an alien. He was tall. Really tall. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly tall he was.

He towered. He lived in a different universe from his classmates scurrying like little mice below him. He was Gulliver at the Lilliputian Preparatory, which the wee ordinary people called the Brentwood School.

Also his large human selfness took an unusually long time to develop. Born in 1952, he didn't speak until the age of four (or so he said as an adult, when it became difficult for people to stop him from speaking, or to correct his stories which may or may not correspond more or less exactly to the facts, or at all) and in Prep school he was still uncoordinated. (Another comparatively tall and large person who was physically unstable as a youth was Gene Roddenberry.)

Though he was living on a higher plane, young Douglas was affable and cheerful, and if he had been a bit more working class, he would have been called "a clever lad." He was reproached for inserting jokes in his history essays. But his English teacher once gave him a ten out of ten for an adventure story he wrote, the only time in that teacher's thirty year tenure he gave a student full marks. It was recognition at a crucial time, and remained enormously important to Adams for the rest of his life.

Young Douglas Adams was also involved in photography and in acting. He performed in several school plays, including an historical drama. No word on whether he inserted jokes. He was also learning to play piano and left-handed guitar. The Beatles were his major enthusiasm in 1964. He later would say his chief influences had been the Beatles and Monty Python: "Both were messages out of the void saying there are people out there who know what it's like to be you." And if you've read the previous Hitchhiker post here (or continue down the page when you finish this one) you'll see that Adams-among others-- performed that exact function for me. And I suspect, for many others.

By 1964 '>Doctor Who was on the air in England, and the first Douglas Adams script for that long-running series was that Christmas, when it was dramatized to entertain his fellow boarders at school. He was eleven at the time.

He later did write episodes of Doctor Who and edited a season's worth of others, at the prime of that series' life. This was one way in which he lived out a baby boomer's dream: he became part of a TV world as an adult that he wanted to be part of as a child.

He was born at the end of the first third of the baby boom generation, and TV as a storytelling medium had existed for only a few years. But boomer children also got their stories from movies, books, comic books and magazines, and especially in England, from radio (in the U.S. most commercial radio serials faded away in the early 1950s.) With the Hitchhiker saga alone, Adams became a storyteller in all of those media---another boomer dream fulfilled. His storytelling also extended to video games and the Internet, which weren't even science fiction in his childhood.

In 1966 a weekly TV program of satirical news called '>The Frost Report began, starring David Frost and featuring a young writer-performer named John Cleese. Adams would later say that seeing Cleese on this show gave him the ambition to be a comedy writer and performer, confirmed in 1969 when '>Monty Python's Flying Circus began broadcasting weekly.

Adams left Brentwood School in 1970, having been accepted into Cambridge University for 1971. So in the interim, Douglas took off for Europe, and stuck out his thumb. He used a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe, and one starry night he thought how interesting it would be to travel up there, and that somebody ought to write '>The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. (But Adams told this story so many times that he eventually confessed he no longer remembered the actual events, just the story.)

'>Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett Posted by Hello
The choice of Cambridge was deliberate and fateful. He knew what apparently the British still know (since Simpson seems to assume this knowledge in his book), that a certain kind of British comedy developed there in the 1950s through the seventies, which combined with other influences to create the feverishly intelligent satire and outrageous comedy that has captivated the smarter people of the world for 40 years or so.

The "first generation" of Cambridge wits, who honed their skills in the famous Footlights performing society made their impact in England and then the U.S. in the early to mid 1960s. The aforementioned David Frost was a Footlighter (he was its secretary) as was John Cleese. Frost brought topical satire to the U.S. with a colonial version of the TV series "'>That Was the Week That Was," which pioneered "fake news" long before John Stewart, and sketch comedy on news of the week. Baby boomers in particular remember this as an early inkling that TV didn't have to be a vast wasteland all the time.

Yet another couple of Cambridge writer-performers called Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller teamed up with two from Oxford, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, for a fringe festival show that was so out there that it was beyond the fringe. '>Beyond the Fringe eventually became a theatrical sensation on Broadway in the early 60s; President John F. Kennedy attended a performance.

Nothing like this had ever been seen or heard in America---and most of us, not in New York, only heard it: there immediately was a best-selling LP record, which contained bits we learned by heart. (We did see the quartet perform some of the sketches on various TV shows and specials.) A typical World War II epic and all its patriotic solemnity is totally sent up, as a soldier panting for a suicide mission pleads with his officer, "sir, I want to be one of the few." "I'm sorry," his officer replies, "there are far too many."

The show included probably the best Shakespearian satire of all time, complete with an Olivier parody ("and now is dagger twixt gut and bladder intertwined," "O saucy Worchester!")

Though they were a one-hit wonder as a quartet, the members of Beyond the Fringe became enormous influences for many years, although only two of them in comedy. Jonathan Miller, who had a medical degree, first became an author and then a director of dramatic theatre and opera throughout the world. He is now Sir Jonathan Miller. Alan Bennett became a celebrated playwright; his best-known work in the U.S. is probably "'>The Madness of King George," owing to the movie version. Though both produced outstanding and influential work, neither particularly emphasized being funny.

Of the four, the one generally considered the most brilliant at comedy was '>Peter Cook. Eventually he re-teamed with Dudley Moore in a series of Fringe-like theatre productions, then legendary British TV shows and several feature films, particularly the original version of '>"'>Bedazzled." When Cook's drinking got the better of him, Dudley Moore began a successful acting career using his considerable comedic skills in Hollywood films such as "'>10" and "'>Arthur'>." But when Peter Cook died, Dudley Moore was so devastated that he took to calling Cook's phone just to hear his voice on the answering machine.

'>And now for something completely different Posted by Hello
One key to Peter Cook's comedy in particular, and to what makes the Cambridge-bred comedy different, is words. Cambridge also happens to be where one of the more famous and influential 20th century styles of philosophy was centered, called "analytic philosophy" or "language analysis." Its most famous proponents at Cambridge were '>Bertrand Russell and '>Ludwig Wittgenstein, but probably the most influential on students in the 50s was '>G.E. Moore, who died in 1958 and was buried in the town of Cambridge. Moore had been a towering intellect at Cambridge for a half century. He was known for testing philosophical assumptions disguised in philosophical language with logical analysis of what the words actually meant. He was a philosophical champion of ordinary language and common sense, and particularly effective in applying language analysis to ethical reasoning.

In his rigorous analysis, Moore and his followers revealed paradoxes in how we use language, and like the paradoxes at the heart of Buddhism, these can actually be quite funny. Beyond the Fringe included possibly the only satire on the Cambridge School of philosophy to make it to Broadway, in a conversation supposedly between Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, including their inflections.

How people talk and what their words say about them, as well as how people use language to obfuscate, cheat and lie to others and themselves, is a common feature of the Cambridge comedians. Think of the Monty Python debate in the famous Pet Shop sequence over whether the bird is dead. Language is central to even the craziest Python sight gags.

Monty Python was on British TV when Adams attended Cambridge, and was a powerful impetus to be funny. Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and John Cleese had all been Cambridge students, while Michael Palin and Terry Jones were Oxford, so the Beyond the Fringe Oxbridge connection was replicated.

So in a sense Douglas Adams was "third generation" in contemporary British comedy to come out of Cambridge. And just as the Python group were in awe of Peter Cook (Michael Palin presented the recent BBS four part retrospective of his work), Adams took the first opportunity he got to meet John Cleese, by interviewing him for the Cambridge paper. He subsequently got to fulfill yet another fantasy, this time of interviewers---he not only worked with Cleese but hired him to work on his programs on several occasions, including the celebrated Doctor Who cameo with Eleanor Bron. Shoe on the other foot sort of thing.

Of course Adams' shoes were huge anyway. They were titanic, as big as a starship. If you thought the Starship Titanic was immense, you could easily fit it into one of those shoes with plenty of room left over for the Heart of Gold. If you know what I mean.

Lalla Ward and Tom Baker in "Doctor Who," perhaps in the Adams' lost episodes, "Shada" Posted by Hello
Douglas Adams eventually got into Footlights, made an impression, met the Monty Python group, wrote for them in their final Cleese-less season (even appeared in backgrounds), and did his first professional writing as Graham Chapman's partner. After working on several failed or aborted projects (one for Ringo Starr, another for Paul McCartney), Adams was contributing comedy bits to ongoing BBC programs when producer Simon Brett asked him if he had any program ideas.

Adams had just spent considerable time on several comedy science fiction scripts that never got made, including a film version of the Guinness Book of World Records involving some very competitive space aliens. That one was dropped because the producers felt there was no market for comedy science fiction. So Adams offered a number of conventional ideas, none of which seemed to interest Brett. Finally Brett said, "Do you know what I'd like to do? Comedy science fiction."

The rest is history. But it wasn't then.

It was a shot in the dark, and some feel it might have been Adams' last. He was fed up with being an unsuccessful writer. Like almost everything that does become successful, the Hitchhiker radio project benefited from the good fortune of the right people, and some very good timing. The timing included Star Wars, which had just come out, and revived interest in space fiction. The good people included not only the cast but Simon Brett, who guided Hitchhiker through the shoals of BBC bureaucracy. He blocked the idea of a studio audience (standard for comedy) and supervised production in the same studio where the legendary Goon Show with Peter Sellers was recorded. When BBC executives listened to the completed programs in complete silence, one of them asked Brett, "Simon, is it funny?" "It is," he replied. And so it was approved.

In the midst of all this, Adams was offered a job. Not knowing the fate of Hitchhiker, he took it. It wasn't a bad job. He was writing for Doctor Who, and became the script supervisor for one of its best seasons.

Though that season was abruptly ended by a strike that stopped production on Douglas' own script ("'>Shada"), he transformed it into his first '>Dirk Gently book. He also became good friends with the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, and his costar and then-wife, Lalla Ward, and managed to remain friends with both after their acrimonious split, and even after he introduced Ward to the man she married next, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, also a close Adams friend.

'>The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on BBC radio became a cult hit, based at first on word of mouth. Few people knew about the first episode before it aired but the talk about it was so strong, the BBC had to rebroadcast it along with the second episode. Eventually the Hitchhiker books happened the same way---some initial excitement for the first book, then craziness for the second. In a few years time, Douglas Adams was famous and well on the way to being rich.

John Lennon in "Help!" Posted by Hello
To examine influences on Hitchhiker is to examine influences on the audience as well as the creators. There were specific and conscious influences on the way the Hitchhiker tales were told. For example, at several levels it harks back to '>Gulliver's Travels (but then, quite a lot of successful science fiction, from H.G. Wells to Star Trek, also does). The ordinary person on a journey into weirdness is the basic plot of '>Pilgrim's Progress to '>Alice in Wonderland. But the type of comedy it applied had a context that was just as important in how it was received as how it was created. People had to find it funny, after all, and there were precedents that helped make a receptive environment.

The Beyond the Fringe/Monty Python Oxbridge impact has already been duly described. They in turn influenced others who influenced the public. Douglas Adams' fascination with the Beatles has also been noted, but they also shaped humor in this period, through their music, their personalities and John Lennon's writings, as well as their films, "'>A Hard Day's Night" (1964) and'> Help!" (1965). The whole spirit of the Beatles---which was partly a working class Liverpool expression and understanding reflected in Alan Sillitoe's novels, the Liverpool poets, etc.--- permeated the 1960s and well beyond it. It's there in transmuted form not only in Douglas Adams but more recently in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

They all influenced one another in the heady 1960s of England Swings. Richard Lester worked with the Goon Show players and directed the Beatles films. John Lennon's only solo film work was in Lester's "'>How I Won the War" (1967) which was an extended Beyond the Fringe sketch, a visual "Aftermyth of War." Lester's "'>The Bed-Sitting Room," (1969) written by The Goon Show's Spike Milligan, with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the cast, was Oxbridge crossed with Samuel Beckett and Dr. Strangelove. Later, the Monty Python film, "'>Life of Brian" was financed by George Harrison, and they returned the favor by making "'>The Rutles," a Beatles parody that Harrison loved but Douglas Adams felt was too mean-spirited.

There was at least one American influence, and possibly another. Intelligent science fiction comedy in print had been pioneered by novelist and short story writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (who Adams acknowledged as a major influence.) Novels such as '>Cat's Cradle, '>God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and '>Slaughterhouse Five demonstrate a similar teeming inventiveness and pointed sense of humor. Vonnegut's alter ego, fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, came up with imaginative ideas very congenial to the improbability drive, the restaurant at the end of the universe and other Adams inventions in Hitchhiker.

The other possible influence was the West Coast gang of four known as Firesign Theatre, who started out in radio but achieved fame with a series of 1960s comedy albums that staked out new ground between the surrealistic and the psychedelic. Their 1971 album, '>"I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus," portrayed a Disney-style park with a theme of the future, set in the future. It is an extraordinary piece of aural comedy, probably the best and most unified lengthy piece that Firesign did. It seems unlikely that Adams hadn't heard it, or at least heard of it. But it is very American, and resembles Hitchhiker only in the general tenor of the comedy.

In fact, without an assist from the improbability drive, it's unlikely that Hitchhiker would have been made in America, unless of course it could be made badly. For intelligent humor about a subject, the subject itself has to be taken seriously, and that's generally not the case in America regarding science fiction. Science fiction was introduced in the U.S. essentially through pulp magazines in the 1930s, with their lurid covers and often bad writing. Despite excellent exceptions in prose and on screen, cheesy 1950s movies and Saturday morning space hero shows for children added to the image of science fiction as already ridiculous to begin with.

But science fiction was introduced to England in the 19th century by works of recognized literary quality: chiefly by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Wells' early "scientific romances" were praised by literary contemporaries like Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford. His work was taken seriously as an innovation in the literary novel.

Many distinguished English authors, from C.S. Lewis to Kingsley Amis, and of course George Orwell and Aldous Huxley (and more recently, South African-born Doris Lessing and Canadian English author Margaret Atwood) wrote works in the science fiction vein. All this helped make the gentle and literate humor of Douglas Adams, not only in Hitchhiker but in his Dirk Gently books, congenial to the English public.

That makes the Hitchhiker movie all the more impressive. Created in Hollywood for Disney, it still managed to maintain the spirit of Adams' humor, when it could have been turned into an American parody with all the subtly of '>Mars Attacks!

Douglas Adams Posted by Hello
Though he wrote other things and got involved in many other projects, Hitchhiker dominated the rest of Douglas Adams' life. It stretched to a trilogy of four and then five volumes, in many different editions, and the BBC TV series, a video game, and even an ongoing attempt to create an Internet Hitchhiker's Guide.

Then there was the movie, which Adams tried to get made for the last 20 years of his life. He'd even moved his family to southern California for that purpose. M.J. Simpson's book is interesting on this point, in that he nearly comes out and says that the frustrations involved in trying to get the movie made, contributed to Adams death. But Simpson also implies that Adams was his own worst enemy in getting the movie made. The project was stymied once again--Adams couldn't complete a script---or at least one short enough to film---and he didn't like the scripts that others did.

Though not known to have a heart condition except a flutter diagnosed days before as not serious, Adams had one heart attack while working out in the gym, and it was fatal. Adams' close friend and business partner, Robbie Stamp was producing the film by then, and after Adams' death, with the encouragement of Douglas' widow, Jane, he went ahead. Director Jay Roach got screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick involved. Kirkpatrick had never met Adams and hadn't read the Hitchhiker books. But he got access to Adams' notes and previous scripts (which included characters and other elements not found in the books), and he soon learned about the vast army of fans that the film needed to please, just to begin with.

So Kirkpatrick tried to change as little as possible, and only add what would make Hitchhiker work as a movie. Apart from coming up with a Hollywood ending, he concentrated on making a relationship out of the Arthur Dent and Trillian encounters. He decided to give each what the other needed and was looking for. Arthur needs the spirit of adventure of a hitchhiker, and Trillian needs to be understood. In the film, Arthur blows their first meeting on earth by not being spontaneous. His "journey" (which has become a film school cliché) is to free himself so he doesn't make that mistake again, so he can get the girl, because he is the guy who does understand her.

I'm not sure it actually makes all that much difference, but it does give this film another element of needed symmetry, and perhaps something for people to relate to who aren't getting the humor. As for the new stuff, much has been made of the new villain played by John Malkovich, but he actually has a pretty small-although striking---and innocuous part. His chief function is as an excuse for our intrepid band to get the empathy gun, which when turned on someone, causes them to feel exactly what the person pointing the gun at them is feeling. I don't know if that's Adams or Kirkpatrick, but it's inspired. Having Trillian kidnapped by the Vogons and rescued when our heroes---just in the nick of time-- fill out the proper form, is also inspired, and very much in the Adams spirit, though it seems to be a plot point Kirkpatrick added.

The funeral service for Douglas Adams in 2002 began with Bach's Schubler Chorales (in his first Dirk Gently novel, Adams had a time traveler bring back one element from an alien culture that hadn't existed on earth before: the music of Bach) and ended with the Beatles' "Paperback Writer."

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Elsewhere in the Universe...

My preview essay on "Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith" was published today in the San Francisco Chronicle, and can be found here.

I'll have more on the subject on this site later.