Sunday, October 22, 2006

Centathlon vs. Centathlon

The centathlete has marveled for years that Everyone has seen The Usual Suspects, The Shawshank Redemption, Clerks and Scarface, though none were initial blockbusters. If the post-post-modern brain is a computer, these movies are preinstalled, bundled programs in the operating system.

These programs are used as frequently as Microsoft Word. Snippets of dialogue such as
“Say hello to my li’l frien’!,” pop up in everyday conversations, eliciting communal enthusiasm. American cineplexes have spawned new memeplexes.

The transfer of these codes, the download of these programs, apparently takes place privately more than publicly. The average American sees
five movies in a theater per year, plus an untold number at home (the annual average of 1,456 hours of TV-watching, four hours per day, no doubt includes dozens of movies, if not more).

In comparison, the average American reads three books per year. 47% of Americans
read literature of any kind, down from 56% 20 years prior.

If you’re like the centathlete, coming across numbers in successive paragraphs makes you antsy, if not woozy. So, in a desperate attempt to be “
moved by statistics” à la George Bernard Shaw, in this case about books and movies, the spreadsheet-challenged centathlete opened a little-used program tucked away in his gray matter.

As his cerebellum creaked, he coaxed the microprocessor to import data (for kicks the centathlete likes to utter that word with the pinched, neutered tone of an antique cyborg—“day-ta”). The Modern Library Top 100 Novels migrated first and subsequently appeared in a primitive, chronological array:

Decade* Number of Top 100 Novels
1900-1909 14
1910-1919 9
1920-1929 16
1930-1939 18
1940-1949 12
1950-1959 12
1960-1969 11
1970-1979 7
1980-1989 1
1990-1999 0
* Programming note: the several series of novels that appear as one entry on the list are placed according to the year the final installment was published.

The
annus mirabilis of the centathlon was 1934, which saw the publication of six Top 100 novels, as well as the second book of the Studs Lonigan trilogy. No other year had more than three.

The weight toward the first half of the century is immediately notable (69), as is the paucity of books from the last 30 years (8). 1983’s Ironweed is the most recent list member. Is the centathlon essentially a multi-dig archeological study?

If you’ve written a novel and would like it to be acclaimed by serious critics, it’s best to be dead; only ten Top 100 authors are living. If you’re not so fortunate, you must be mature; Salman Rushdie (#90), age 59, is the youngest of the survivors.

Were novels better way back when? Should we sing
“Those Were the Days” like Archie and Edith Bunker? Maybe we should—as a child the centathlete thought the opening line, rendered Jabberwockyian by the actors’ Queens accents, was, “By the wigglin’ milliplay.”

Of course, a book is made great as it is reread by many, which requires time passing. And no doubt the authors and scholars who submitted their choices to The Modern Library were themselves experienced and mature in aggregate.

The centathlete has always preferred the novels of people older than he, without fully understanding why. For an explanation, he turns to an
interview with Martin Amis, the eminent novelist and son of another eminent novelist, Kingsley Amis:
“On the whole, you resist the younger writers. It's partly because with the older ones time has had a chance to separate the less excellent. With the young ones it's a bit of a lucky dip, isn't it? Who knows which ones will stay the distance? And there must be other causes for this reluctance. My father once said, and said it well, I think, that the trouble with younger writers is that they're telling you, "It's not like that anymore. It's like this now." Which of course you're very reluctant to hear, and maybe it's worse when it's your own son telling you, too.”
Authority looms over Amis’s dichotomy: “it was like this” vs. “it’s like this now.” Reading an older author is like taking instruction from a parent or an older teacher, manager or officer. This is natural when you’re in the bloom of youth or starting a new job; the lessons and perspective you receive are understood to empower you to forge ahead within a healthy or successful framework.

But what happens when you reach a Certain Age and that manager is ten or twenty years younger? A new framework is implicitly erected. Insight and innovation trump experience.

The centathlete reads the odd novel by a younger writer—a David Mitchell, a Zadie Smith, a Jonathan Safran Foer—more for courage than for education. Content and style both seem bold, if not audacious. There’s a shock to the system in finding an edifying tale dramatizing the coping with 9/11 (Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) or projecting a futuristic clone-exploiting Korean society (Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), or one weaving a finely threaded multi-culti tapestry (Smith’s On Beauty).

Time flies or crawls; the younger innovators inevitably proliferate and the aging reader is left to assess his or her own authority in the continuum of storytelling: It was like this, it is like this, it will be like this.

Crack the neck, keep the blood flowing upward. Books thus processed, the next data migration took place: the American Film Institute’s
100 Best American movies of the century. Watching all these movies would constitute a centathlon, although a less rigorous one than the book-reading course—a Little Junior to the Big Papa. Another primitive chronology appeared:

Decade Number of Top 100 Movies
1900-1909 0
1910-1919 1
1920-1929 2
1930-1939 15
1940-1949 12
1950-1959 20
1960-1969 18
1970-1979 18
1980-1989 6
1990-1999 8

For an art form that began around
1895, it’s not surprising that 70 of these celebrated movies came out in the last half-century. With regard to years, 1939 claims 5 releases, although it was not as remarkable as 1934 was for publishing; both 1951 and 1969 claim 4 releases, and 6 other years claim 3.

The recent drop-off is not as steep as it was in the first, book-related list, suggesting that cinematic greatness remains a contemporary phenomenon. Perhaps the AFI keeps the truly “Modern Library.”

Whirrrr, the microprocessor strains. The screen flickers, the program lurches. The centathlete twitches. Gotta go deep, while there’s time.

As if it were an all-in-one
Ginsu, Jack LaLanne Juicer and Ronco Rotisserie, the program sliced, diced, liquefied and roasted these rival centathlons. In seconds (or perhaps a week had passed) an odd-looking casserole-file opened, steamy and aromatic. Five—or six—of the Top 100 novels were made into Top 100 movies:

The Grapes of Wrath
The Maltese Falcon
A Clockwork Orange
From Here to Eternity
An American Tragedy
(retitled A Place in the Sun)
* Heart of Darkness could be included with this bunch, as it was retold in Apocalypse Now.

This cross-reference shows that great books can be made into great movies and that the inverse process has yet to be successfully demonstrated. Johnny Carson
quipped about the relationship between the two genres:
“There was this billy goat at a movie studio who found and ate a can of film. When a nanny asked him how he liked it, he said, ‘It was all right but I liked the book better.’"
(“Ho ho ho!” Ed McMahon likely chortled.)

This “joke” plays on the accepted wisdom that a movie can’t do a book justice. While limping along resolutely, the centathlete has not seen a goat of either sex. The reference evokes the corny folksiness of Carson’s humor (the recollection of which always cues McMahon’s sycophantic buffoonery).

To be candid, the book-oriented centathlon has also seemed at times to be corny, outmoded, directed backwards into a time when stories and life lessons were experienced differently. Yep, movies and TV shows generate more interest and
discussion than books, bumming out lots of readers.

The centathlete (sniffle, sniffle), a page-turning minority member, can get glum because reading great books is waning, and nobody… WAIT! Or in the words of Lee Corso—former college roommate of
Burt Reynolds and current college football guru—Not so fast, my friend!

Reading is still Big Fun. “Only 1 percent of
respondents admitted to cracking a book—and liking it—in 1948. But today, that number has leapt to 12 percent,” according to a report in The Christian Science Monitor. Moreover, thanks in large part to Oprah, more people than ever are sharing the reading experience through book clubs, which now total more than 500,000.

Hope springs eternal (or at least for the time being) for the novel! It seems academics have always kept the faith that literature matters as much if not more than cinema, as Jesper Juul, a scholar of computer/video games, incidentally
noted, “In literary theory, it has always been presupposed that one has read perhaps 1000 books and seen a 1000 movies.”

The centathlete has to chuckle: only a literary theorist would give books such numerical weight in the face of contemporary leisure habits.

In
Half-Real, his book about video games (the average adult man plays 7.6 hours per week and the average adult woman 7.4 hours per week), Juul discusses his subjects’ incorporation of a fictional world, the essence of literature and cinema, with real, “fixed” rules, the essence of traditional card and board games.

The
first video game appeared in either 1958 or 1962; there are already many distinct types, as there are different types of books and movies. Juul notes,
“…The Sims mirrors the appearance of the realistic novel of the late nineteenth century, when, broadly speaking, novels began to describe everyday life rather than heroes and dramatic events. Art forms develop in part by shifting emphasis: The details of everyday life can be interesting; painting does not have to represent anything; rhythm can be as important as melody. Video games develop the same
way.”
Let’s add Reality TV to the pile of developing art. The show Survivor, like The Sims, combines rules and fiction—and viewers can’t get enough Tribal Council. The metastasis of such programming (Road Rules, Big Brother, The Apprentice, etc.) suggests that rules themselves have become a significant aesthetic dynamic in today’s fiction.

The centathlete recalls the 1996 flick, Scream, in which this dynamic was
explicitly dramatized:

Randy: There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. [crowd boos]

Randy: BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. [crowd cheers and raises their bottles]
Randy: The sin factor! It's a sin. It's an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, "I'll be right back." Because you won't be back.
Stu: I'm gettin' another beer, you want one?
Randy: Yeah, sure.
Stu: I'll be right back. [crowd cheers]
Randy: See, you push the laws and you end up dead. Okay, I'll see you in the kitchen with a knife.

And most of them do end up dead (making any novelists among them more eligible for the Modern Library’s next Top 100). The next year saw Scream 2, which continued to
emphasize rules:

Randy: [from the trailer] There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to create a successful sequel. Number one: the body count is always bigger. Number two: the death scenes are always much more elaborate - more blood, more gore - *carnage candy*. And number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.

Reality TV and video games, due to their nature, in fact surpass the Scream movies in this emphasis and artistic manipulation. The
introduction or substantial variation of rules with each season is crucial to the enjoyment of shows like Survivor, as it is for each upgrade of games like The Sims. Once the game begins, the contestants animatedly debate the rules’ merits and discuss their strategic responses to them. The presentation of these discussions is an expected component of a Reality TV narrative. The perpetual, accelerated evolution and dramatization of rules indicates that they are not so “fixed,” complicating the “real” aspect of the game world.

What does this mean for literature? Many novels, such as The Da Vinci Code, approach cinema in narrative style and sensibility. The centathlete notes but has not read examples of the
increasingly popular literary subgenre, the novel based on a video game. These books appear to superimpose character development through the depiction of the “inner life,” that traditionally novelistic attribute, on icons of the newer, interactive medium.

Who will cross in the other direction? The future, ambitiously literary author will be tempted to approach the video game experience stylistically, with creative rule-making as important as characterization. It will be like this…

Now, if we re-sort all this data in order to—whirrrrrrrrrr. Freeze. The program craps out, the hardware shuts down. Agh, it’s just as well.

A few simple statistics can move you to giddiness and delusions of foresight. The centathlete gives the final word to Benjamin Disraeli via the always
quotable Mark Twain, who may never have seen a movie and definitely never played Space Invaders:

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."


Coming soon…



Howards End
Appointment in Samarra