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Rubbish and Art

The oil fields went back to pumping, and gasoline flowed across America again. Above the great and prosperous nation flew Superman...

-- William Kotzwinkle, Superman III

This webpage observation really isn't about rubbish or art. It's about the pretty awful novelization of a pretty rotten movie, Superman III. Don't get me wrong -- no matter what I write over the next few paragraphs, I do not want you to go out and read this book. I am not the literary version of Siskel and Ebert, after all; I only try to recommend good books to you, my refined and genteel viewing audience.

And before you raise that eyebrow, I was indeed reading a novelization of Superman III. Why? That's my business and not yours, so if you would be kind enough to sit back and open up your mind, we're going to go tripping...

Theodore Sturgeon once noted that "90% of everything is crap." It's pretty clear that Superman III falls well within that 90% no matter what criteria you apply -- it's not good enough to recommend to anybody, but it isn't bad enough to be memorable. It's just mediocre -- the spelling is mediocre (although all the "alright"s and misuses of "principal" add quaint flavour, like sand to a Chicken McNugget), the characterizations are mediocre (It's one thing to believe that Richard Pryor (aka Gus Gorman) could be a prodigal computer programmer; it's quite another to think that he was born an electrical engineer as well, the inherent superiority of engineers notwithstanding), and the sciency schlock is hilariously mediocre (Kryptonite, as it turns out, is an "intense fusion" including 27.71% Xenon, which is a chemically inert gas. And let's not forget the classic "A hundred signals ran through a gate, stopping just at the edge of an Infinite Page Fault, and held steady" (p.120) ). Superman is clearly an anti-Darwinist -- all the folks he rescues from death in the book are nitwits. Even cute little Ricky Lane had to be rescued by a thresher (driven by a "dull witted farmhand" who is "lazily dreaming of corn liquor and sex") because, "Ricky, in a fit of boyish abandon had knocked himself out on a stone." (p. 108)

In a desperate attempt to appeal to hormone-ridden young teenagers while maintaining a PG rating, the book litters itself with thinly veiled double entendres. My all time favourite had to be the daydream of that same thresher-driver that almost threshed Ricky:

Naked damsels as featured on the calendars at the local garage came to him, bearing large jugs. He put the jugs to his lips. (p. 109)

If that doesn't appeal to the Mad Magazine connoisseur in you, I don't know what would.

Naturally, there were some things that bugged me. The characterization of Richard Pryor's character may well have been satirical blaxploitation -- I haven't seen Shaft, so I wouldn't know -- but it bugged me. The fact that Gus Gorman was portrayed as a jive-speaking idiot bugged me, but some of the stereotypes he alludes to -- a person who started drinking at age six, who bums off welfare cheques, whose idea of the good life consists of diamond rings an albino alligator pants -- all of these things really disturb me. Sure, they were meant to be humourous, but I find it suspicious that the only black character in the book is a lecherous, self-centred hedonist who was raised on the streets. The shallow portrayals of the drunken former football star, all of the rednecks and the ugly women who look like Stalin and would just as soon castrate a man as blink did not endear themselves to me either. To be sure, this novelization (and the movie that preceded it) was meant to be nothing more than fluff, but it is seriously degrading fluff, and the messages it reinforces bug me.

But other than the stereotypical characterizations, the novel didn't bug me that much. Strangely enough, some parts of the novel did endear themselves to me.

At first, I attributed this to the fact that I am getting soft and old and stupid, but then I reflected on the novel a bit more and realize that there is more to this novel than a shoddy merchandising ploy. You won't discover the more thoughtful aspects of the book by reading the front cover ("This time SUPERMAN really has his hands full."), but I don't feel that every aspect of this novelization was driven by advertising, and I would like to show you why.

Oddly enough, the first intriguing aspect to the story is its premise: That all the world is run by computer, and that if these computers can be programmed to go wrong, then nastiness results from which only SUPERMAN can save us. Does this sound familiar? It should. It's the reason the Y2K bug frightens so many people; we know that computers control many aspects of our lives, and we fear the consequences if these computers were to go awry. Granted, in this case Richard Pryor (probably) did not take over the world's computer system via a telephone line, and the Super-computer he comes up with is the same model that William Shatner talked to death so frequently in Star Trek, but the end results of the fiction and the non-fiction are the same: potential catastrophe. This similarity makes me wonder where the person who came up with this premise got his or her idea. Were people freaking out about Y2K back in the 70s?

Another social issue that pops up its head in Superman III is that of oil. Ross Webster, the primary bad guy, wants to take over the world's oil supply. In doing so he instigates an energy crisis that finally shakes Richard Pryor out of his self-centredness. It's not difficult to see the inspiration for these scenes of gas shortages; America faced heavy energy crises in the late 70s as a result of embargos and huge cars. I find the way that an important historical event embedded itself into popular culture interesting. What history lessons are we weaving into our culture today? And how obvious are those lessons now?

The other aspect I found interesting was the sensitivity of some of the writing. I mean, Clark Kent's repeated lamentations at his inability to live a normal life and marry a pretty lady like Lana Lang is undoubtedly hokey and forced, but I fell for them. Maybe I just identify with the klutzy Kent, although I have no delusions of Supermanhood. I even identified with the smarmy obnoxious cute kid Ricky when he was being mocked for his athletic inability. Considering that I rarely identify myself with smarmy cute kids, I can reach only two conclusions: Either I am going senile or William Kotzwinkle has some talent. And as I am in denial about my decaying mental ability, we'll just have to explore the latter possibility.

What kind of name is William Kotzwinkle, anyways? Despite the man's fame and fortune -- he wrote the novelization of E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, which must have sold a copy or two -- I suspect that Kotzwinkle is but a pseudonym for a writer who (wisely) wishes to distance himself or herself from hack jobs like Superman III. Even people who write prose for a living need to eat, and sometimes you write what's popular, not what's good. (Poets, on the other hand, face no such dilemna. They survive without food and shelter for months on end, subsisting on lofty thoughts and quirky rhyme-schemes alone.) Granted, my suspicion that William Kotzwinkle is fictitous is nothing more than suspicion. Kotzwinkle may well exist, living in some shiny suburb with his wife and 2.3 kids and minivan. But there's some circumstantial evidence that makes me wonder...

When describing one link of an implausible chain of events during the movie's opening scene, he writes, "Anyone familiar with the habits of rolling gumballs knows they are unlikely to stop until they find a delivery man carrying a tray of custard pies."(p. 22)

When Superman saves Columbia from a tornado designed to destroy the country's crop of coffee beans, the grateful citizens voice their gratitude: "'Super Gringo!' called the grateful workers, tossing their hats in the air. Now their monthly salaries of $2.45 would be paid! Now they would not starve." (p. 130) Could that have been a stab at social consciousness?

In "developing" the character of blonde Lorilei Ambrosia, the love interest in evil Ross Webster's life, Kotzwinkle must show that Ambrosia has a brain behind the... pretty face. Part of the way he accomplishes this is by selecting some highbrow reading material for her -- but instead of books by Shakespeare or Descartes or Einstein, he opts for the less obvious duo of Emmmanuel Kant and Jean-Paul Sartre. (p. 162)

Of course it's all circumstantial evidence. Regardless of whether Kotzwinkle exists, though, I get the impression that he is either a writer who writes much better than this when he gets the opportunity, or he is a hack with talent. As I mentioned way up in my first paragraph, none of this makes Superman III worth reading -- or watching, for that matter (although I do recall seeing the movie several times, myself). What interested me was the complexity of life I noticed when trying to understand why I liked such a mediocre novel. Superman III is indeed mediocre -- but it isn't uniformly mediocre. Even something as shallow and contrived as this has a (somewhat) interesting story behind it. Knowing that makes it so much harder to slot the world into neatly labelled, well defined boxes: "Good" and "Bad," "Right" and "Wrong," and even "Art" and "Rubbish."

[sigh] I wonder how I will vote in the upcoming election?


Surprise, surprise! William Kotzwinkle appears to exist! In fact, he won a World Fantasy award in 1977 for his novel Doctor Rat. More recently, he wrote The Bear Went Over The Mountain, which sounds decent as well. I shall have to put him on my reading list... and hope that he never discovers this page. Kotzwinkle is a wonderful name! Really! If I had to have a funny-sounding name, I would want it to be Kotzwinkle! Honest!

Is this news surprising? Not really. As I mentioned, prose writers have to eat. I do notice, however, that his novelization of Superman III is not featured in the novels he has written, at least not on the Weird Fiction page devoted to him. Surprise, surprise. (But then again, neither is his detective fiction.)