Author Archive for Adam Sadler

04
Jan
10

It’s his way or the Norway

As the movie Avatar recently reminded us, there is little more inspiring than a super, super badass.  Colonel Miles Quaritch enjoys wielding guns, scowling, piloting giant robots, and not repairing his awesome scars with wimpy plastic surgery.  He looks like this:

Colonel Miles Quaritch: The Action Figure

Actual Photo

No doubt any movie would benefit from having such a character as part of its dramatis personae.  I think we can all agree that The Curious Case of Colonel Quaritch would have been both a critical and commercial success.

However, Quaritch pales in comparison to a real-life badass, a man whose very name inspires simultaneous shudders of ecstasy and terror: Knut Haugland.

Action figure available soon.

Unfortunately, we lost Haugland this past Christmas at the age of 92.  Even more unfortunately, I didn’t even know the man existed until today, when his obituary appeared in the New York Times (login required).  While reporter William Grimes already did a fine job tabulating Haugland’s impressive list of accomplishments, it’s clear that he also failed to imbue his article with an appropriate amount of flabbergastedness (or is it flabbergastronomy?).  After all, this is a guy who had enough real-life adventures for two Colonel Quariches, and with the assistance of neither CGI nor battlemechs.  I hope Grimes won’t mind me correcting his oversight.

1. Resistance Training

First of all, Haugland was a bona-fide, badass, undercover WWII commando.  While eking out an ordinary living as a worker at a radio factory in Nazi-occupied Norway, he secretly used his communications expertise to not only support but to help lead the resistance.  Although he had already fought the Nazis in a more traditional military setting, which I assume was also full of crazy badassery, I skip ahead to this period mainly because of the following events.  To quote the obituary (emphasis mine):

“Twice he was captured and escaped, once by back-flipping over a snow bank and running off into the woods before his guards could use their weapons.”

I repeat, he escaped the Nazis by doing a fucking back flip.  And in the very next sentence:

“A third time, surrounded by the Gestapo at a maternity hospital in Oslo where he had set up a transmitter in a chimney, he shot his way to freedom with a pistol.”

Shot his way to freedom out of a maternity hospital? I don’t know about you, but I’m picturing something exactly like this in every way:

More famously, he took part in an event known as The Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage, which involved a) paradropping into enemy territory, b) surviving in an isolated cabin for four months, without supplies, during the harsh Norwegian winter, c) MacGyvering a radio out of a car battery and fishing rods, and d) being a part of the team that blew up a Nazi hydro plant.  Apparently, people back the also thought this was pretty hardcore, as it was made into a 1965 movie, with the enticing tagline “COME FROZEN HELL OR HIGH ADVENTURE.”  I’ll take high adventure, please.

2. The Wrath of Kon-Tiki

After the war was over, one would think that even a badass like Haugland would have every reason to seek early retirement, light a nice fire in the hearth, pour a glass of scotch, put his feet up, and never take them down again.  However, this is not the story of an ordinary badass; let’s not forget that this unassuming Norwegian radioman was a super badass.  His next outing, only two years after the end of the war, was a little jaunt known as the Kon-Tiki Expedition.

I really wish more people these days had heard of the Kon-Tiki.  Basically, six crazy Scandinavians built a raft out of balsa wood and sailed it over four thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean, because they could.  All right, to be more accurate, they made the voyage to prove that it could be done, on the theory that ancient South Americans might have been the original colonizers of the islands of the South Pacific.

The Kon Tiki

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip...

The voyage took more than three months, included at least one spectacular rescue of a man overboard, and ended in a shipwreck that left the crew stranded on a remote island until they were rescued by a tribe of friendly natives.  Let me emphasize, as I did for Haugland’s wartime exploits, that this all happened in REAL LIFE.  Naturally, this adventure also became a movie – a documentary this time – that went on to win an Oscar.

***

So how does a Norwegian man with the nebbishy profession of radio expert and the dorky-sounding name Knut Haugland end up having so many adventures that they were fodder for two movies?  Obviously, my thesis holds: the man is a serious bad dude.  I can scarcely imagine what he would have accomplished if he had been, instead, a master of archery named John Rambo.

THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN KIDNAPPED BY NINJAS. ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO RESCUE THE PRESIDENT?

Knut Haugland’s answer would definitely be “Ja.”

It’s clear that the world lost a great man last month, one whose sense of humility I haven’t even touched on, and whose fearless, brazen spirit I could never do justice.

I suggest we honor him in a way everyone can appreciate: a special-effects laden trilogy in which Haugland’s character discovers he can travel through time.  You take it from here, James Cameron.

14
Dec
09

Seeing Author People (the intentional fallacy part II)

Editor’s note: the following was received in a repeating signal, broadcast by a digital beacon from the middle of the Bornean Jungle. As of now, Blanka Hsudler’s location is unknown.

***

Previously in this space, I’ve discussed the so-called “fallacy of the author,” which states that an artistic work should be judged on its own merits without preconceptions about authorial intent. Although this has always been a touchstone of my attitude as a reader, it’s caused considerable problems in my approach to writing. Trying to write with a background in literary criticism is like trying to play the lottery while having a basic understanding of math.

The Fallacy, in particular, seems designed to undermine the creative act. After all, the very name of the thing declares that authorship is a lie. How am I supposed to put words on the page when I have no say in the meaning of the finished work?

The dilemma is encapsulated nicely in this scene (linked in part I) from the marginally-entertaining Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School. For a practically-minded man like protagonist Thornton Melon, it makes perfect sense that the ultimate authority on a Kurt Vonnegut novel would be the writer himself. He learns a hard lesson about lit theory when his college professor gives Vonnegut’s paper an F, and moreover declares that its author “doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.” Of course, poor Kurt learns a harder lesson, one that really tugs at a fellow writer’s heartstrings, when Melon cancels his paycheck. As far as I am concerned, the most important lesson in Back to School is always ask to be paid beforehand, in cash.

***

That authors often don’t understand the “hidden meaning” in their own work is hardly news. But if I can’t tell you what my own book is about, what’s the point of writing at all? Worse, what if I’m writing one thing and it turns out to be just the opposite? Take The Merchant of Venice: critics still can’t decide if poor old William Shakespeare meant Shylock to be a greedy old caricature hilariously bitch-slapped by karma, or an sweet man soured by the bitter pill of society’s salty aspersions.

Two modern interpretations of the character:
Laurence Olivier

Sir Laurence Olivier as Shylock, 1973

Al Pacino

Al Pacino as Shylock, 2004

This, of course, ignores the obvious answer that Shylock is supposed to be an ambiguous figure. For the sake of this analysis I’ll pretend that shades of gray weren’t invented till Impressionism.

***

Another example from the Bard: I’m pretty sure “to thine own self be true,” the words said by Polonius to his son in Hamlet, wasn’t meant as sound advice. Until he’s accidentally stabbed while hiding behind some curtains (in a scene that I find hilarious — is that so wrong?), Polonius is presented as a senile, lecture-happy dotard, a sort of medieval Larry King who hails from Denmark instead of Mesopotamia. I’m pretty sure it’s no coincidence that his advice sounds like the title of a bad self-help book or an even worse memoir (an Amazon search turns up a painfully comprehensive list of both).

An astute reader might point out that Shakespeare isn’t the best source to use when discussing authorial intent, since we’re not actually sure the guy wrote his own plays. Or existed. But whether a non-entity can truly intend anything is a question I’ll leave to the philosophers (or Tom Huxter).

The point is, it can seem impossible to get a message across when all readers have to go on is the written word. Even when the message is right there in the text, someone is likely to come along who gets it completely backwards. Worst of all, everything being relative, perhaps it’s the author himself who’s misunderstood the whole thing. So, why write at all? It’s certainly enough of a dilemma to make one tear one’s hair out.

Shakespeare, BEFORE and AFTER

Shakespeare, too, was distressed to learn about the Fallacy of the Author.

***

Next time: Some foolproof ideas about how to write, in spite of the Fallacy. Or at least, some foolish ideas.

23
Oct
09

Blanka Potter and the Rainforest Sojourn

It’s been weeks, and I’m still unwilling to leave the safety of my jungle retreat.  Every time I try to walk more than a quarter mile, my legs start to hurt, so I turn back.  And why not – this place has everything I need.  Except ice packs for my legs.  Maybe I can rig something up with strips of tree bark, freshly chilled by the night dews.  Yes… chilled bark.  I’ll make a note of it.

I spent most of the last week constructing a banana-leaf latticework to fence in the clearing, securing the panels with strips of leather.  The leather I found in a surprisingly large space beneath one of the nearby forest giants, which I suspect is a fig tree; at least, the area around and under its spidery roots is littered with green, sticky lumps, sweating droplets of sap that ooze out and then congeal before they’re fully formed.  I stepped on one by mistake and it burst like an outraged balloon.

It gets worse.  Ant swarms large enough to ballroom dance with roam the area, carrying fruit away by the bushel.  There are so many wasps and mosquitoes around that it’s like the tree has attracted its own atmosphere: 78% buzzing wings, 20% chitin, 2% instant madness.

I’ve given the tree what I feel is an appropriate name: the Deathly Hollow.  Yeah, that seems catchy.  Because, you know, there’s a creepy hollow space underneath.

The tree, approximately. Any resemblance to a tree from the Harry Potter franchise is wholly deliberate.

The tree, approximately. Any resemblance to a tree from the Harry Potter franchise is wholly coincidental. I mean, deliberate.

Only the promise of something useful, something man-made gave me reason to approach at all – a sparkle in the shadows.  In the a pile of tiny bones tucked beneath the roots (no doubt this place was the ancient den of some undersized predator), I found both my useful leather scraps, and the source of the sparkle: a belt buckle.  It’s the damndest thing to find in the middle of the jungle.  I cached it in an unused hammock along with the rest of my things.  Maybe I’ll look at it later; no need to spoil the surprise.  The only thing I have in large quantities, after all, is time.  As long as you don’t count the vast informational wastelands of the Internet.

***

My blog-writing colleague (or, as I prefer to call him, my blolleague) earlier made comments about leaving me locked out the office during his absence.  I have to assume he is speaking in metaphors, as the only triumphant return I can make right now is wholly electronic.  Freedom of information notwithstanding, I am a prisoner here, with nature herself as my jailer.  That is, until I recover my strength and find my way back to civilization.

Perhaps I’ll find a clue to my quest on the official Harry Potter™ website, featuring tons of cool games, message boards to discuss the raddest new Potter trends, and also instructions on how to perform real wizardry – everything from transforming a glass of water into a Gin and Tonic (alcoholus anonamus!) to, later that evening, magically fooling a sobriety test (breathalyzer malfunctiono!).  Visit today, Uncomma commands you!

***

J.K. Rowling and/or Warner Brothers: please send all money to Uncomma, c/o Jungle Clearing, Unexplored Interior, Borneo.  Make out checks to Blanka Hsudler, not Tom Huxter, who apparently has no interest in being reimbursed for his myriad pop culture references.

12
Oct
09

Sequel Opportunity

Part 2 of my comments on the Fallacy of the Author are coming soon.  Meanwhile:

***

In recent years, Broadway seems to have largely converted to a religion originally popularized by the Hollywood elite.  No, not the one you’re thinking of.

As you drive through the streets of Los Angeles every morning, you can hear its zen-like mantra being chanted, drone-like, by hundreds of executives over their morning meal of the blood of interns and screenwriting hopefuls.

ESTABLISHED FRANCHISE, EASY MONEY.  ESTABLISHED FRANCHISE, EASY MONEY.

The same force that impels nearly every summer blockbuster to be either a sequel, superhero movie, or adaptation of yet another young-adult book about vampires has slowly but surely crept into the brains of the (theoretically) more artistically-minded backers of musical theater.

There’s Spamalot and the Producers, each based on a popular decades-old film comedy, and Young Frankenstein, which builds upon the formula by adapting another movie from the already screen-to-stage success Mel Brooks.

There’s Hairspray, based on a movie and later adapted into one, reminiscent of the moment in 30 Rock where Jenna Maroney receives an award for her role in Mystic Pizza, the “best performance in a movie based on a musical based on a movie.”

Let’s not forget Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins… uh… The Rescuers Down Under?  Well, I’m sure that’s coming in the next year or two.  Might be a good time to invest in mouse suits.

And of course, there’s Shrek.  I heard a radio ad for this show recently, featuring a likeably generic theatrical version of Smashmouth’s “I’m a Believer.” “I’m a Believer” was originally made a hit by the Monkees  in 1966, who at that point neither played their instruments nor wrote their own music (the song is by Neil Diamond).  When the theme you choose to represent yourself is a rewrite of a cover of a song by a band who was created specifically for a TV show… well, enough said.

***

So, yeah.  Half of Broadway (and my understanding is that we’re mostly talking about the successful half) is made up of recycled material.

But what compelled me to write about this trend is someone who took the mantra of “Established Franchise” a step further.

This Guy.

Andrew Lloyd Webber at work.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is the man behind The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Cats (as well as Starlight Express, which is, depressingly, not the only musical performed mostly on roller skates).  So far, so good.  But he is also the man behind the recently announced Love Never Dies, which is a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera.  Ten years after the events of the first musical, the Phantom finds himself inhabiting that most mysterious of places: Cooooney Island.  OOoooOOoooOOO!

If Las Vegas is a well-groomed, smooth-talking Hollywood mobster, and Atlantic City is the squinting, spitting real deal, then Coney Island is like the old Russian guy who lives upstairs from both of them and runs a Pinochle game for quarters out of his bedroom.  Nestled at the south end of Brooklyn, New York, it’s a faded boardwalk, a grimy beach, many, many rides that go around in circles, and, on weekends, a crowd of locals too fat to know humility.

To be fair, Coney Island is actually a pretty scary place, something I’ll explain in a future article.  This will help give you an idea of what I mean, though.

Classic literature comes alive!

Which circle of Hell is the one where your head is attached to a demon's tongue? I'm going to guess... seventh?

***

For some reason, the idea of a sequel to a musical rubs me the wrong way.  I’m no musical theater aficionado, and even when I am I much prefer the upbeat silliness of Singing in the Rain or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to the often too-serious tone of Webber’s work.  However, it’s certainly no exaggeration to say that Phantom’s lavish production values, its pop flair, and its operatic ambitions helped define a whole era of musical theater.  Trying to drag this icon of decades past into the new, Shrek-friendly Broadway environment seems akin to forcing Neil Armstrong to pilot the Star Tours ride at Disneyland.

What I think doesn’t matter, of course.  We’ll have to wait and see what happens, and these days there’s only one way to measure success.  At least Webber knows the game, commenting that “if it does a third as well as the old Phantom I’ll still be very happy.”  I’m sure he will, given that Phantom’s lifetime take is something on the order of $3 billion.

Hell, maybe in a few years I’ll come around and write Opera Phantom 3: Revenge of the Fallen.

***

Next time on Uncomma: More literary theory.  Thrilling!

07
Oct
09

You killed my author, prepare to die

I’d only intended to stay a day or two while I recovered from exhaustion, but by now it seems that the abandoned camp has become my temporary home.  The trees are less dense here, so the place has the feel of a vaulted cathedral compared to the shadowy netherworld just a few yards away; at night, the dim glow of the Google logo on my laptop gives the clearing the subtle sheen of a polished stone.  If I really squint, I can even pretend that the clusters of beady, hungry eyes out beyond the edge of the clearing are candles twinkling serenely at the end of some neglected alcove.

I’m only joking about the eyes, of course.  Death here comes without the luxury of a warning.

But I won’t let it worry me.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately.  This is, clearly, no substitute for the real thing.

I’ve been reminded, though, of an essay I read in one of the first classes I took on literary theory.  I can’t remember the title or the author (clearly, it made quite an impression), but it dealt with the Fallacy of the Author (also known as the Intentional Fallacy, or, more whimsically, the Death of the Author), an idea which has informed my reading process ever since.

The concept states, basically, that when we read we shouldn’t worry about the author’s intentions.  The words, once written, speak for themselves and we should look to them if we want to find out what a work means.

Music provides some illumination into how this should work.  Beethoven’s Ode to Joy has lyrics by Frederick Schiller – lyrics so majestically overblown that they practically float away like a German airship.

No ticket.

But even without its lyrics, perhaps more so without the distracting verbal flourishes, the chords and melody exude joy.  We don’t need to know what, precisely, inspired joy in Beethoven in order to understand  the piece’s meaning.  In fact, this one is best left alone, because I’m pretty sure he’d just won a bunch of money betting on a slapping contest.  Perhaps Joy was the name of the winning competitor.

***

SIDEBAR: Speaking of Beethoven, what if the radioactive goo that simultaneously blinded and empowered Daredevil had gone into his ears instead of his eyes?  We might have ended up with a deaf but eagle-eyed avenger, spotting danger before it appears.  Tough to get his attention, though, if he’s not looking at you.

Ludwig van Murdock

Hey Daredevil, help me light my barbecue? Daredevil? DAREDEVIL? ...Ah, I'll just do it myself.

But I digress.

***

Ode to Joy is just that – a celebration of human emotion.  Things get more complex when we deal with popular music, in which lyrics play a central role.  What do we make of something like Layla by Derek and the Dominos?  The song’s narrator begs the eponymous Layla to leave her neglectful husband and be with him instead.

I tried to give you consolation/When your old man had let you down/Like a fool, I fell in love with you/You turned my whole world upside down. (Eric Clapton could have been incredibly emo if he’d been born 30 years later.)

Rock fans know that Clapton wrote Layla about Beatle George Harrison’s wife, whom Clapton would later marry.  The song is grounded in fact, which lends it an extra dose of poignancy.

Layla provides a nice illustration of the limits of the Intentional Fallacy.  If we ignore Clapton and look at the song on its own, we can still understand the narrator’s woe.  The listener may even be able to see its sentiments reflected in his own life.  Clearly, though, the feelings expressed were intensely personal ones for Clapton, and ignoring this aspect of the song excises a whole layer of meaning.

***

The Fallacy of the Author comes in handy when parsing more opaque songs like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.  It’s only natural to want to find meaning in a song that is one of the few things people remember from the ‘70s, and Stairway’s words clearly have a lot going on.

Then again, If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow/Don’t be alarmed now/It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen just sounds a lot like Robert Plant forgot the lyrics mid-session and decided to ad lib.  The thing makes little enough sense that it’s not surprising some listeners thought the whole point of the song was as cover for a backmasked salute to Satan.

Much has been made of the song’s symbolism, its reference to Celtic mythology, etc., etc., etc.  But without asking the songwriter himself, any conjectures are just that.  For all we know, a drug-addled, Tolkien-loving Plant may have thought he was writing a sequel to The Lord of the Rings.

No Stairway? Denied.

No Stairway? Denied.

In the end, it is probably best not to worry about what was intended here.  Authorial intent, as in the case of Layla, can sometimes make things work on another level, but mostly, listeners trying to unscramble the contorted brainwaves of an earlier decade in search of illumination are just going to do themselves an injury.  Some see Stairway as a parable about materialism, some hear a call to arms for the grand tradition of western mythology, and of course, there’s always the Satanists-with-a-sound-engineer theory.

Myself, I find it’s easiest, and most accurate, to say what I always say when someone asks “what’s this song about?”

Uh, heroin?

***

Next time on Uncomma: what the Fallacy means to writers – or Why Kurt Vonnegut totally deserved that F.

23
Sep
09

A New Player Has Joined the Battle!

*receiving packets*

Tom Huxter?  Are you there?

Call me Blanka.

The Author as a Young Man (image may not be visually accurate)

The Author as a Young Man (image may not be visually accurate)

Those Borneo jungles sure do a number on a guy.  Baroque constructions of mahogany and vines bar the way in every direction.  That darkness, so oppressive you think you can hear it breathing just behind you.

At least leaves are pretty awesome, right?

It’s been 2 months since I entered this primordial labyrinth, and I had nearly given up hope of communication with the outside world.  Late last night, though, I stumbled into a ramshackle encampment, little more than a collection of hammocks strung up beneath the canopy.  Exhausted from hacking my way through the undergrowth and famished from two solid weeks of eating nothing but crunchy and terrifyingly ugly beetles, I collapsed into the soft embrace of an abandoned firepit and was overtaken by the night.

My dreams were strange ones.  I found myself in my childhood, attending a series of Memorial Day barbecues thrown by a series of increasingly unnatural beasts, each serving food more poorly prepared than the last.  When, finally, a subhuman Lizard-man handed me a hamburger that was little more than a cinder between two slices of charcoal, it was the last straw.  I awoke coughing up firepit ashes.

But this choking, dusty cloud brought with it a silver lining.  While still lying prone among the charred logs, I spotted the reassuring wink of a wireless router at the edge of my vision.  I had missed it, concealed as it was beneath the dazzling blues of a stumpy rhododendron at the edge of the clearing.

I can’t tell you what happened to the owner of this network.  All I know is LinksysHelpMeI’mTrappedInTheBorneoJungle is unsecured and working at speeds of up to 3 mb/s.  For now, I’m just going to write for a while and hope the cable company doesn’t notice it’s no longer getting paid for service.

***

Anyways, on to business.  It was fully my intention to help Tom Huxter christen the Uncomma blog.  Really.  In an alternate, better reality it would have been me smashing a bottle of champagne on the hull of the HMS Uncomma before its maiden voyage into the great unknown.  Then again with my luck the maiden voyage would probably have ended up something like this (That is, top heavy and without the weighty ballast of actual ideas).  So maybe it’s ok that here in our dimension I end up being the guy who shows up three hours after the ship has left, and falls into the harbor.  And by the way, where’d this empty champagne bottle come from?

Confession time: I like writing, but I can’t promise I’ll always be readily available to clumsily spill my thoughts all over the Internet; after all, I am on a mission.  This jungle has got to be good for something.

Now, bear with me.  There’s got to be a three-pronged outlet around here somewhere…

***

Next time… I stick my hand into a random grab bag of uninspired topics and complain about whichever one comes out.