When I was pondering the other day what purposes this blog serves for me, I forgot one very important function: it gives me a place to publicly voice my frustration at the knuckleheaded, market-driven, focus-grouped, pre-packaged mediocrity that festers in the heart of our culture, draining the passion from anything new, leeching the originality out of anything cool, and digesting everything into a soft, flavorless gruel of miserable disappointment.
What, you may be asking, has Bennion's knickers tied into such a painful little knot this afternoon? Why, it's nothing more than a glimpse I caught yesterday of a poster for an upcoming movie, a little summertime trifle called Sahara.
The poster itself is pretty unremarkable. It depicts Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz, three actors who usually inspire me to absolute indifference, dressed in heavily weathered khakis and standing in the typical action-hero triumverate pose. McConaughey is in the foreground and is scaled slightly larger than the others, so he's obviously the hero of the piece. The predominant colors are oranges, tans and browns -- appropriate for the film's setting -- and there are some vaguely Arabic-looking buildings in the background. It's a pretty generic one-sheet for a desert-based adventure film, reminiscent of advertisting for about a hundred other adventure films, including the recent Nicolas Cage vehicle National Treasure. (Yeah, I know that one had nothing to do with the desert, but the poster was similar to this one as far as pose, color scheme and overall mood.)
So far, there is nothing about this poster that evokes any particular response from me, either positive or negative. McConaughey bores me, Zahn is only vaguely familiar (even though I know I've seen him in other things), and I personally suspect that no one in America would know the name of Penelope Cruz if she hadn't shacked up with Tom Cruise for a while. Neither the title nor the graphics tells me anything about the movie's plot. For all I know, this could be a remake of the old Bogart film of the same name. I am stifling a yawn. And then I lean in and give the credits a quick once-over, as is my habit. And I see the following: "A Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt adventure." And my blood runs cold.
Oh my God, I think... they've cast Matthew McConaughey as Dirk Pitt? Dirk Pitt, the modern-day descendent of the pulp heroes I loved as a kid? Dirk Pitt, whose escapist adventures sustained me throughout puberty and after painful break-ups and on lazy summer afternoons and tedious airplane trips? Yes, the fine print confirms that this movie is indeed about Dirk Pitt, one of my all-time favorite literary characters, and the public is about to begin imagining that his face looks like an actor I find astoundingly uninteresting.
I want to scream. I want to rant. But movie theater managers tend to frown on that sort of thing. So I bite my tongue -- aside from a few choice comments that Anne patiently endures -- and begin thinking of how best to write about this outrage on my own personal Internet soapbox, a.k.a. Simple Tricks and Nonsense.
In case you've never made his acquaintance, Dirk Pitt is the star of some 18 bestselling novels by a gentleman named Clive Cussler. I first discovered the Pitt novels when I was in high school and eagerly devoured every one I could get my hands on. I remain a fan to this day, even though Cussler's writing style is best described as "adequate" and the books themselves are only slightly more respectable than check-out stand trash like the endless Mack Bolan/Executioner series. Despite these literary shortcomings, however, Dirk Pitt is the sort of character that sinks into your imagination and stays with you. His name reminds me of carefree times, and news that there's a new Pitt novel in the works is like hearing that an old friend is coming to town for the weekend and wants to go for drinks.
Pitt is the ultimate male fantasy figure: he's got a cool job that is equal parts explorer and spy (think Indiana Jones crossed with James Bond, with a little Jacques Cousteau thrown in for originality), he's independently wealthy, and he lives in an old aircraft hanger surrounded by his collection of antique and exotic automobiles. Of course he has a way with the ladies, but Pitt's life is really about hanging with the boys, finding long-lost shipwrecks, and saving the world. Sounds pretty ridiculous, I know, and I suppose it is, but the Pitt books are simply a blast to read, fast-moving and fun adventures that linger in the mind about as long as a Lifesaver stays on the tongue. I love the silly things... and I can already tell that the upcoming film version of Sahara, one of the best entries in the whole series, is probably going to be a disaster.
The problem is Matthew McConaughey, plain and simple. He's all wrong for the part. He's too cute. Pitt isn't cute. This is how Mr. Cussler describes him in the novel on which this unfortunate trainwreck-to-be of a movie is based:
Despite a deep tan, his craggy face didn't bear Arabic features. His thick ebony hair was plastered down by the salt water and the sun sparkled the drops of water clinging to the matted hair hair on his chest. He was tall, hard-bodied, and broad-shouldered, and walked with a loose grace that was impossible for most men. [Eva] guessed him to be close to forty.
As he passed Eva, the man coolly flicked his eyes over her. He was close enough so that she could see they were an opaline green, set wide with a clear glimpse of the white around the iris...
Does that sound remotely like Matthew McConaughey to anyone out there? I'll grant that he's tall and the "loose grace" thing might apply, and Anne thinks he might have green eyes (I've never noticed, myself), but with his smooth cheeks and dimply grin, McConaughey isn't anything close to "craggy." Not only that, but he's blond, for cripe's sake! Would it have been so tough to find a guy with black or even dark brown hair to play Pitt?
Leaving aside the physical requirements of the role -- I'm not naive about Hollywood's usual lack of dedication to getting such surface details right -- I don't think McConaughey has the right persona for Dirk Pitt either. To me, he comes across on-screen as a shallow, slow-talking, former frat-boy, or maybe an ex-football jock who never lost his taste for weekend keggers. He's the obnoxious wiseguy that we smart kids hated in high school because the girls thought he was gorgeous, the sort of guy who thought wedgies were hilarious.
That's not Pitt. Pitt has a fun-loving, quick-with-a-wisecrack side, but he's also capable of great brutality without showing a drop of remorse -- in the novel version of Sahara he happily feeds a bad guy toxic waste and condemns him to a slow, howling death. (The guy deserved it, of course.) In another of my favorite Pitt books, Deep Six, he throws an (evil) old woman down an open elevator shaft after telling her that his next order of business is going to be rebuilding the car -- one of his beloved antiques -- that she destroyed while trying to kill him.
I just can't see Matthew McConaughey doing those things. I can see Tom Selleck doing them, twenty years ago. Cussler's original choice for Sahara, Hugh Jackman, would've been friggin' brilliant. Even Tom Cruise, who was briefly rumored to be attached to this project, would've been appropriate despite being a bit on the short side. But I have zero confidence in ol' Matt.
I'm not pleased with Steve Zahn as Pitt's sidekick Giordino, either, and for much the same reasons. Giordino is described in the books as very clearly Italian, e.g., "Short, dark and as compact as a barrel of concrete, Albert Giordino gazed through twinkling walnut eyes that sat under a wild mane of curly black hair." Steve Zahn is short, at least, but otherwise he's nothing at all like the character is supposed to be.
I can live with Penelope Cruz as "the Pitt girl" for this adventure, Eva Rojas, although she wouldn't be my first choice. In fact, as I run down the cast list in the Internet Movie Database's entry on Sahara, I see only one casting choice of which I unreservedly approve: the wonderful William H. Macy is playing Pitt and Giordino's boss, Admiral Sandecker. That's a good choice because he's physically right for the part and he's proven time and time again that he can play anything. But all those other names -- at least the ones I recognize -- fill me with dread.
Look, I could be wrong about this. I remember how upset Lord of the Rings fans were about the casting of Liv Tyler before they saw the finished movies, and there was a huge brouhaha when word got out that Tom Cruise would be playing the Vampire Lestat in Interview with the Vampire. The difference, however, was that the actors and directors involved in those films took the source material seriously. Peter Jackson and his screenwriters expanded Arwen's part but he did nothing to contradict the tone and intentions of the original LOTR novels. Similarly, Cruise bent over backwards to capture the essence of Lestat, right down to wearing a blond wig so he looked more like the way Anne Rice described the character. I don't believe such pains are being taken with Sahara.
Here's my big problem with Matthew McConaughey in the lead role of this film: he has mostly played lightweight boyfriend roles in superficial films, romantic comedies and such. He's stumbled everytime he's tried to do something more serious. Anyone remember Amistad with fondness? How about Reign of Fire? You see my point. I fear that casting him as Pitt means that the filmmakers decided to skew the movie too far towards the silly end of the spectrum. I'm afraid they're going to play this as camp, and that's absolutely wrong for this character.
I know that Dirk Pitt is a cartoonish action hero and that current movie conventions insist upon a certain amount of levity in a story involving lost cities, sunken ships or ancient treasures. The Mummy and, to a lesser extent, the Indiana Jones films established the formula of mixing comedy and what used to be called "high adventure." But Cussler's novels, while brisk and fun, have a real element of darkness to them that most recent adventure films don't. People die some pretty horrible deaths in these books, and Pitt, as I've said, can be a real bastard. If the film version of Sahara turns out to be closer in tone to The Mummy than an actual Clive Cussler novel, then how can it legitimately be called "a Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt adventure?"
I've run across a couple of things in my googling today that suggest Cussler himself does not share my concerns. He's supposedly happy with both McConaughey and the screenplay, if not the finished movie. But I find myself wondering if that approval is genuine or if Cussler is merely acting like a shrewd businessman. Consider: if Sahara the Movie is a success, it will doubtless boost sales of Sahara the Book and probably all the other Pitt novels as well, so it's in Cussler's best interests to say the movie suits him.
Another thing to consider is that this isn't the first time a Pitt adventure has been filmed. Way back in 1980, Raise the Titanic, the break-out novel that made the series a genuine hit, became a movie starring the late Richard Jordan as Dirk. I've always liked Jordan in the lead role, but the movie itself was a boring muddle, a cheaply produced box-office flop that Cussler has spent twenty years trying to live down. I think it's possible that Cussler has had such a sour taste in his mouth over RTT all these years that any Dirk Pitt film that's even marginally better is going to earn his seal of approval. In other words, Cussler's appraisal of this new film may be seriously biased by his earlier experience.
Finally, he may simply be trying to avoid the kind of bad publicity that Anne Rice earned when she made a stink over Cruise playing her beloved Lestat. You may recall (or maybe you don't) that she very publicly slammed the casting decision and basically did her best to scuttle the movie, only to be forced into eating crow when it turned out to be a well-made, relatively faithful version of her novel. (Oddly enough, she didn't have much to say about Queen of the Damned, a film based on two of her other Lestat novels that was everything she feared Interview would be.) The whole affair made Rice look like, at best, an overprotective "parent" and, at worst, an outright kook. Perhaps Cussler is trying to not make the same mistake.
Time will tell, I suppose, and, to be fair, I haven't even seen a trailer yet. But with this cast, an untested director (who happens to be the son of Disney's chief evildoer, Michael Eisner), and a PG-13 rating, I simply can't believe that Sahara is going to be remotely successful in capturing the essence of a real "Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt adventure."Posted by jason at February 21, 2005 06:01 PM