I remember having a discussion about aviation with one of my colleagues over lunch. His theory was, if people actually knew how airplanes worked, they wouldn’t get in one. I mean, try telling people that you have this HUGE odd-shaped tin can than you’re gonna put them inside, move it really fast and hope that some kind of pressure differential will make it fly. The majority of reactions would fall somewhere within the spectrum of a polite “Thanks, but no thanks” and sending you to the funny farm.At least now, you see so much air travel that you might have the luxury of assuming that, if so many people have survived the experience, you might as well give it a try. Imagine being among the people the makers of the first aircrafts pitched the idea to. How would you have reacted?
To me, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are like that. He takes something we’re used to, transplants it in a world of his making, and explains it in the simplest possible terms. And when he does that, it sounds utterly absurd. For instance, in The Truth, a man called William De Worde begins to publish a newspaper (a concept nobody in Discworld has heard of), and his assistant comes up with the idea of putting ads in it for money. They recruit a man named Cut-me-own-throat Dibbler to sell the ad space. The exchange is as follows:
‘Oh,’ said Dibbler. ‘So . . . what would I be selling, exactly?’
Space,’ said Sacharissa.
Dibbler beamed again. ‘Just space? Nothing? Oh, I can do that. I can sell nothing like anything.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘It’s only when I try to sell something that everything goes wrong.’
See what I mean? One of the chief pleasures of reading Terry Pratchett is to rediscover normal life and laugh at its absurdity.
All of the above exposition serves to explain why, to a film lover like me, a book like Moving Pictures is a small treasure. It’s not the best of his books (it doesn’t have the satisfying weight of his Night Watch series), but it does have some amazing send-ups of Hollywood. It starts with the following paragraph, which should give you a fair idea of how it works:
This is space. It’s sometimes called the final frontier.
(Except that of course you can’t have a final frontier, because there’d be nothing for it to be a frontier to, but as frontiers go, it’s pretty penultimate . . .)
The book is set in a once-deserted place called Holy Wood, where a bunch of people have set up studios to produce motion pictures. The technology to make them involves having a bunch of imps sitting inside a box and painting each frame of a scene onto a film of octo-cellulose. There’s a man who moves a little handle that advances the film frame by frame. The handle also drives a whip to hit the imps and make them paint faster. “Isn’t that cruel?” asks one character of the handleman. “Oh no, not really. I get a rest every half an hour,” comes the response.
The book traces the rise and fall of Holy Wood – the profusion of movie studios, megalomaniacal producers, the celebrity status accorded to movie stars, big budget extravanganzas – until it all comes crashing down and takes the Discworld to the brink of destruction. The saviour turns out to be a large golden man with a sword whom everyone thinks looks like their uncle Oswald.
What makes this book such interesting reading is the sheer volume and diversity of inside jokes. The leading lady says at one point, “I want to be left alone.” She has dreams of walking over a grate and having her skirt billow up. A movie producer gets an idea of making a big budget production called Blown Away – a love story set against the backdrop of a civil war. It ends with “Frankly, I don’t give a damn.” A troll says to a restaurateur called Sham Harga at one point: “Play it again, Sham.” A movie producer comes up with the idea of inserting a single frame with an ad inside the film. There’s a wonder dog called Laddie, and a talking dog that acts as its agent and teaches it the concept of “percentage of the gross.” An alchemist called Peavie even comes up with the following idea:
“Well,” said Peavie, uncomfortably, “what you do is, you take some corn, and you put it in, say, a Number 3 crucible, with some cooking oil, you see, and then you put a plate or something on top of it, and when you heat it up it goes bang, I mean, not seriously bang, and when it’s stopped banging you take the plate off and it’s metamorphosed into these, er, things . . . “ He looked at their uncomprehending faces. “You can eat it,” he mumbled apologetically. “If you put butter and salt on it, it tastes like salty butter.”
He calls it banged grains.
And above all this, my favourite image from the book, and one I am tempted to list as a Freeze Frame post: At one point, a giant woman carries a screaming ape while she climbs up a tall building.
The giant eventually falls from the tower and dies.
“’Twas beauty killed the beast,” said the Dean, who liked to say things like that.
“No it wasn’t,” said the Chair. “It was it splatting into the ground like that.”
ps: If you haven’t read anything by Terry Pratchett, this might be a good time to start. I recommend Guards! Guards! as a starting point.