Saturday, February 29, 2020

Clive Cussler

Clive Cussler has died.  The best-selling author passed away in his home in Arizona at the age of 88.  The only thing worse than reaching an age where you have outlived most of your favorite authors is the alternative.

It might seem strange for a man who made his living writing about the sea to reside in Arizona.  Cussler became famous for his nautical themed books where the protagonist, Dirk Pitt, was an agent for NUMA, the National Underwater Maritime Agency.  Cussler, himself was an avid underwater archaeologist and explorer, personally leading the team that discovered the sunken wreckage of the Confederate Civil War submarine, the CSS H. L. Hunley

So, why did he live miles from the ocean in Arizona?

Well, I love the ocean, too.  And after a hurricane in Galveston left me with a permanent slight limp, well, the deserts of New Mexico sounded pretty good.  I understand perfectly.  I love the ocean and I know exactly where it is when I want to visit.

Cussler wrote so much about the ocean—and his books were so financially successful—that he actually started an organization named NUMA, which has located dozens of lost wrecks, including the S.S. Carpathia (the ship that rescued the passenger of the Titanic) and possibly the Mary Celeste.  (Historians are still arguing about the last one, but that is the nature of historians.)

I first ran across the works of Clive Cussler while I worked for Bantam Books.  I was given a preproduction copy of Raise the Titanic and encouraged to read it before it came out for sale to the general public.  I will confess that I hated the book, thinking the plot, actually raising the doomed ship and sailing it to New York, finishing the ill-fated voyage only 65 years late, was absurd.  And this was years before Robert Ballard located the wreck and proved that the vessel had broken into two large pieces.  (Now that I think about it, I was right, the plot was absurd.)

Bantam wisely ignored my advice and published the book.  This was the general pattern of books I read for Bantam.  If I thought a manuscript was horrible, each would invariably become best sellers.  Books I thought were wonderful usually disappeared from the market faster than donuts at a faculty meeting.   Let’s see--among the books I told New York would never amount to anything were Jaws, Amityville Horror, Saturday Night Fever, and every romance novel—especially those by Barbara Cartland.  The only book that I raved about that ever actually amounted to anything was “Ecotopia”.  That book has become a staple on college campuses, and is still in print.

I had a little trouble with Raise the Titanic.  I convinced a book store in San Antonio that the book was worth selling, convincing them to put together a display in their window.  But the order for a case of 40 copies of the book got a little garbled at the warehouse, and the bookseller was shipped 40 cases of the book.  I suggested that the store put the book on sale, marking down the price a little, moved a few cases of the book around to other stores and eventually managed to have only…. about a thousand too many copies of the book.

Bantam wanted me to see if I could locate a pickup truck and ferry them to a landfill, perhaps destroying the books with a garden hose, first.  Well, I lived in Texas and didn’t know a family without a pickup truck, mine included.  But, the idea of destroying a thousand copies of a book was intolerable.  Even that book.  So, I took them all home.

At the time, The Doc was in med school in San Antonio.  (Technically, I guess that made her The Doc-In-Training.)  In any case, we lived near the hospital in a neighborhood that got hundreds of kids ringing our door for Halloween.  That year, I handed out to every kid a handful of candy and a brand-new copy of Raise the Titanic.  I gave away about 300 copies of the book that night to children who rather clearly didn’t want them.

For a brief moment, I felt pretty good, having made a huge effort to spread literacy by introducing children to the joys of reading.  That feeling lasted until the next morning, when I went outside to drive to work.  Up and down the street were hundreds of copies of Raise the Titanic—in yards, on sidewalks, and in the street.

If you are wondering what happened to the roughly 700 other copies, I kept a case in the trunk of my company car, dropping off a dozen copies at every hospital, retirement home, and school I passed.  I think about a hundred copies made their way into the Texas Prison system.  It took about a year, but I finally managed to give them all away. 

Well, mostly.  Every now and then, as I search around the house for a desperately needed book, I stumble across a forgotten copy.  Every time I think I have gotten rid of the last copy, I find another one.  (Except today, of course.  I was going to post a photo of one, but can’t find one.)

Bantam also sent me Cussler’s three prior books, and I read them, and slowly and somewhat begrudgingly began to appreciate them.  I began to think of them as present-day science fiction, an American version of James Bond meets Admiral Hornblower.  Over the last five decades, I have read at least of dozen of his later works, and while none of them qualify as great literature, I still enjoyed them.  I keep a packed suitcase in the closet, containing just the essentials if I get called away.  As having a book to read is an absolute necessity, there is a Dirk Pitt novel waiting for me in the bag.

And now that I think about it—I’m going to go look for one of those copies of Raise the Titanic again.  It’s time to reread it.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

But, the Pieces Fit

In retirement, I’ve gone back to school, where I’m working on a bachelor’s degree in Art History.  Naturally, the history part is relatively easy, but the art half of the equation is an uphill climb for someone with no measurable amount of artistic talent.  Still, the courses are fascinating and my professors are all exceedingly kind to a ‘non-traditional’ student in their classrooms (that’s education-speak for ‘old fart’).

After delivering a little over 6,000 lectures, being a student again is a little strange.  It took a while, but I finally stopped answering the instructor’s hypothetical questions during a lecture.  And with difficulty, I can sit quietly when the audiovisual equipment acts up and my fellow students offer insanely impractical solutions. It’s not my circus.

Just this week, I was discussing the day’s reading assignment with another student before class.  When I opined that the author had used thirty pages to say something that could have been more clearly stated in two paragraphs, another student remarked, “You should take an upper level history course—all the reading is like that!”

The student I had been talking with almost lost it—as he had taken several upper level history courses from me a few years ago.  

The class in art conservation and restoration is interesting.  We are practicing on terra-cotta flower pots.  After carefully painting them and testing them with various solvents and resins—the professor not-so-carefully broke them into pieces and threw some of the pieces away.  It is now my task to somehow put the poor pot back together.  I fear that my prized flowerpot will never be able to play the piano again. 

After being checked out on cheap terra-cotta pots, I will be more than willing to do the same thing for your prized Ming vase.  I know the procedure—first, you break it with a rock…

The pieces of the pot do not go back together as easily as you might imagine.  The terra-cotta didn’t really break cleanly, some of the edges crumbled into dust.  Imagine a jigsaw puzzle where the edges of the pieces got sanded down a little.  As it is now, I suspect that my restored pot may look like something Picasso produced.

All of this reminds me of the remains of an old church I visited in Central Mexico.  Once a prosperous Catholic church, the building had been a revolutionary target during the War of the Reforms in 1850.  Though it seems unlikely today, in Mexico’s past there were several occasions when the prosperity and conservatism of the Catholic Church came under attack by the Mexican people.  There were even times when it was possible that the church might completely vanish.  Today, the Mexican Constitution still contains anti-clerical provisions that, though largely ignored, severely restrict the Church’s role in public affairs.

At various times during wars and revolutions, churches were sacked, priests were assassinated, and the state confiscated church property.  During the War of the Reform, this particular church was looted and all of the fabulous stone statues and sculpted facades were turned into rubble.  In particular, the stone carvings that made up the front face of the church were busted into crumbled debris.

What was left of building remained more or less intact, and for over a century the former church was employed for a variety of secular uses.  What had been intricate carvings became building blocks used to create walls breaking up the vast chapel into rooms and hallways.  For a while, the former church was used as a dormitory for Protestant missionaries, as a warehouse, and even as a bowling alley.  Locals delight in telling gullible tourists that the building was used as a brothel, but the tale is almost certainly apocryphal since the building is far too prominently located within the city to have ever been a whorehouse.

Eventually, the city decided to restore the former church and with cooperation from the local diocese, work commenced to restore the old building.  The interior walls were dismantled carefully, recovering as much as possible of the pieces of the former artwork.  Luckily, most of the stonework had originally been in the form of large stone cubes, sort of like a large stone three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle.

As these stone blocks were recovered, they were carefully placed on racks, awaiting a somewhat problematic restoration.  There were huge problems with the restoration, however.  Both interior and exterior walls had been destroyed and it was impossible to tell whether any individual carved block of rock was originally part of the altar, of the nave, or of the church’s ornamental facade.  Much worse was the fact that no one alive had ever seen the original and there were no drawings or photographs.

Think of several three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles mixed together, the edges all worn enough that any piece will fit in several locations, and the boxes the puzzles came in are missing the photographs and instructions.  There are almost an infinite number of possible reconstructions.

When I visited, the conservation team was carefully numbering the blocks and photographing the carved faces of the stones.  Then, using a computer, the digitized images were carefully fitted together until they had recreated an image of the long-lost graceful carved facade of the old church.

Working carefully and slowly, the team rebuilt the facade, using as little concrete filler as possible between the stones.  The result was remarkable.  Though still covered with a protective net of wires to hold the work together while the concrete cured, here was the beautiful face of an early church from the colonial period of Mexico, lost for over a century and a half, restored.

Sculpted stone columns flanked each side of a delicately carved portico.  Niches in the walls protected the statues of the church’s patron saints. Together once again, the stones that had been carefully fit into place revealed a church with a clearly defined Baroque style.

Within a year of the restoration, a painting of the old church was located in Paris.  The French artist had visited the town during the heyday of the silver boom and, impressed by the beauty of the church, had rendered the facade of the church in an oil painting that he had taken back to France.

The computer algorithms had matched the stones with mathematical accuracy, the restorers had carefully fitted the pieces together, and according to the painting—not a single piece was in the correct position.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Permanently Linked to War

Years ago, I read Is Paris Burning, the story about the liberation of Paris from the Nazis by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.  The book is fantastic and well-documented, since the authors interviewed as many of the survivors of the siege as possible, including General Dwight Eisenhower and General Dietrich von Choltitz, the German officer who deliberately disobeyed Hitler’s order to destroy Paris so the Allies could not capture it.

I have often wondered just why so many bad movies are made from the butchered carcasses of good books.  It would seem relatively simple for a script to adhere to the guidelines of a successful book—which I acknowledge is easy for me to say since I have never attempted to write a screenplay. 

Still, I don’t think I could list in an hour the number of disastrous movies that resulted from scripts so dramatically different from the original publication that not even the author could find the vestigial traces of his former work.  On the other hand, I can name several good movies that closely followed the original novel—Lonesome Dove, Dr. Zhivago, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Bladerunner come to mind. 

Then, in contrast, there are the movies in which you wonder if anyone bothered to read more than the back cover of the book.  I was going to list a few examples of this, but just think of any bad movie you have ever seen.  Since not even Hollywood would actually pay for the movie rights to a bad book, chances are they butchered an otherwise decent novel.

In the case of the 1966 production of Is Paris Burning, we can’t blame the writers of the screenplay, Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal.  I haven’t seen the original screenplay, but these two authors are certainly talented enough to have delivered the director, René Clément, a decent script. 

Courtesy of Netflix, I recently re-watched the film.  The movie is horrible, and not because of the occasional historical inaccuracies.  Yes, the crowd scenes show lots of people with clothes and hair styles from two decades after the war, and many of the German tanks are rather obviously thinly disguised American tanks.  You can also spot a few television antennas on buildings, and other anomalies.  None of these details really matters:  the movie is bad because President Charles de Gaulle stomped all over it.

It seems de Gaulle controlled the rights to where and when the movie could be filmed, and his approval had quite a few “qualifications”.  First, the participation and bravery of the resistance fighters could contain very little of the activities of the student communists.  The students are still in the film, but they are all murdered for not following orders.

Second, because of de Gaulle, the film had to be filmed in black and white.  President de Gaulle would allow Nazi flags and uniforms to be filmed on the streets of Paris, but only if the colors were changed.  Red Nazi flags were changed to green, and black SS uniforms were actually dark purple.  In both cases, when filmed in black and white, the colors appear correct.  (I would love to see a copy of the film using the computer ‘colorized’ technique.  The idea of storm troopers in purple—or is that “aubergine”?—uniforms sounds wonderful.)

Grudgingly, I will admit that de Gaulle may have had a point.  During filming, one startled postal worker came across some actors in German uniforms and ran away screaming, “They’re back!  They’re back!” (Well, to his credit, he didn’t surrender.)

There is one quick scene towards the end of the movie that I can’t stop thinking about.  Two SS officers show up with orders to remove an old tapestry from the Louvre and take it back to Berlin as a gift from Goering to Hitler.  Unfortunately, explains General von Choltitz, the Louvre is in the part of Paris under the control of the Resistance. 

The scene is historically accurate, though it was actually Heinrich Himmler who ordered the tapestry’s removal, not Goering.  The old tapestry in question was, of course, the famous Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a visual retelling of the invasion and conquest of England by William the Conqueror, in 1066.  Roughly 230 feet long, the tapestry tells the story from the Norman point of view using approximately 1400 embroidered images along with Latin text.  The fact that the tapestry is not only a priceless work of art but an important historical document has seldom spared it from being seen as a prize of war.

Napoleon (Were you wondering how I was going to work him into this?) considered the tapestry to be an important propaganda tool, which is only natural—that is precisely why Bishop Odo, the brother of William the Conqueror had the tapestry created.  While he was planning his own invasion of England, Napoleon had the cloth removed from the Bayeux Cathedral and sent to the Musée Napoléon, formerly the Louvre.  When Napoleon’s invasion was called off, the tapestry no longer had any significance, so he had the tapestry returned to the town of Bayeux.

At the time, no special significance was seen in the tapestry.  During the French Revolution, the military had requisitioned the cloth to be used as a tarp to protect military wagons.  The only reason the artifact survived is because a local lawyer spirited the cloth bundle away and hid it in his home until the madness of the revolution had ended.

Once again, the value of the tapestry as propaganda supporting an invasion of England was recognized by the Germans in World War II, and once again, the tapestry was taken to the Louvre while a planned invasion was being prepared.

What seems odd to me is that in the thousand-year history of the Bayeux Tapestry, the priceless art object has been on display only twice at the world’s premier art museum, and both times have been because the work was taken there by force—once, by Napoleon, and the second time, by the Nazis.

Although we think of the tapestry as a work of art today, perhaps, because it was made to commemorate a successful invasion, twice—over 750 years after its creation—it has also been considered a propaganda tool for war and more recent invasions.  Or could it be that would-be conquerors believe it to be a magic talisman for successful conquest?