Thursday, April 19, 2007

Culture Shock 04.19.07: Vonnegut, Bob Clark leave enduring legacies

Writer Kurt Vonnegut and filmmaker Bob Clark are two men whose names you'd never expect to see together in a single sentence.

And you wouldn't see them together now had Vonnegut and Clark not died within days of each other.

Vonnegut died April 11 from brain injuries he suffered in a fall weeks earlier. Clark, along with his son, died April 4 when his car collided with a sport utility vehicle driven by an alleged drunk driver.

In books like "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Breakfast of Champions," Vonnegut voiced the disaffection both of his own generation, which fought in World War II, and of the Vietnam era. You know "Slaughterhouse-Five" is important because it is both required reading for students and frequently banned from public schools.

Clark's importance is less obvious. As a director, he'll never rank among the top tier. But his films are easily among the most culturally significant of the past 30 years.

I was still in high school when I read every one of Vonnegut's books the local library had. They included "Breakfast of Champions" and several of his lesser efforts. I didn't get to the undisputed classics like "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "The Sirens of Titan" until later.

His short, declarative sentences and black humor are tailor-made for cynical teens. It's only when you're older that you can appreciate the underlying humanism of Vonnegut's works. He's mad at the world because he wants it to be better, even if he really doesn't have much hope for that.

My favorite of his short stories is "Harrison Bergeron," reprinted in "Welcome to the Monkey House." It begins, "The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal."

The story is as strong an indictment of the implications of socialism as you'll ever read. And Vonnegut was an admitted socialist. Which probably explains why he was so bitter.

Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, when the Allies firebombed the city, an event central to "Slaughterhouse-Five" and to Vonnegut's whole worldview. He faced his own mortality long before it faced him.

When he died, my friends filled their online journals and blogs with Vonnegut quotes, most dealing with death. Several quoted from "Slaughterhouse-Five." In it, a race of extraterrestrials, the Tralfamadorians, can see in four dimensions — the fourth being time. Since they can see any moment in a person's life, they view death as no big deal. There are always moments when the person is still alive. As the Tralfamadorians say of death, "So it goes."

"Galapagos," a novel often cited as Vonnegut's worst (or least good), has one amusing conceit. A few pages before any character dies, an asterisk appears beside his or her name.

Put the two books together, and we're always alive, but with asterisks floating beside us. Like all true Americans, Vonnegut was full of contradictions.

And so was Clark.

He started out directing low-budget horror films. His 1974 movie "Black Christmas" became the model for slasher films, predating John Carpenter's more famous film, "Halloween," by four years. And like most good horror films, Hollywood has remade it.

Clark then directed 1982's "Porky's" and its sequel, "Porky's II: The Next Day," thus inventing the modern teen sex comedy. "Porky's" lineage leads directly to the "American Pie" franchise.

But Clark's defining moment came in 1983, when he directed "A Christmas Story."

Based in the stories of Jean Shepherd, "A Christmas Story" is now a holiday classic, aired 24 hours straight on Christmas Day, a role formerly reserved for "It's a Wonderful Life."

From there, Clark's career descended to "Rhinestone" and "Baby Geniuses," but he'd already made his mark on the culture.

"Black Christmas," "Porky's" and "A Christmas Story" make for one improbable resume. But those films form a legacy that will keep Clark with us for years to come.

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