My Winter of Flirting With Disaster

An important announcement, courtesy of The Times of London:

“To be considered for inclusion to the Dictionary of National Biography , due out in 2004, please be aware that all potential participants must die no later than 31 December, 1999, the closing date for the next edition.”

Luckily, it’s only February. Plan your social calendar accordingly.

As the above item may suggest, I’ve been in London for the past few months-working on another action-adventure film. Translation: A movie whose budget just slightly overshadows the gross domestic product of Estonia-with enough guns, missiles, atomic weapons and miscellaneous smaller ordnance to rank us just behind the Japanese Ministry of Defense in terms of military spending.

On one hand, it’s been refreshing to have been out of the United States during this head-spinning period, and to have one’s perspective on the impeachment process shaped by the ever-so-restrained British press. Using headline size as a benchmark, the Clinton-Lewinsky liaison clearly outweighs the massacres in Kosovo, but doesn’t come near the international gravitas of such heavy subjects as the Mick Jagger-Jerry Hall divorce, or the capturing of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles in a single photograph. And for those few New Yorkers who revel in Schadenfreude -no more than 7 or 8 million of us, at most-there’s particular delight to be found in local coverage of the Ron Perelman-Patricia Duff divorce. In more than one newspaper, the settlement has been described in terms of how many days they were married, and thus, how much Mr. Perelman paid for Ms. Duff’s company, per night.

On the other hand, much as I’ve enjoyed being here, I do find it unsettling that my days in London are consumed with one thought, and one thought only: Global Worldwide Domination.

How many nameless thugs do we need to steal the nuclear bomb? How many nameless goons does the villain have guarding his lair? How many nameless goons, thugs, bodyguards and henchmen won’t be returning home to their loving wives and children on the night our hero finally catches up with said villain, and kills him? And perhaps most importantly: How did this happen to me? How did I go from aspiring to write dialogue like “Hamlet: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question'” to “Thug No. 6: ‘Get him!'”?

Mind you, one can’t be too introspective about this kind of work. You do the best you can, and try to keep in mind the basic rules of all action adventure films today:

(1) The quality of any action film rises and falls in direct inverse proportion to the number of helicopters.

(2) The hero can always outrun a fireball.

(3) The villain always has a fabulous logo and astounding computer graphics.

(4) No one in any modern film has ever heard of the phrase “Make a backup copy.” The key to the plot is always held on a single 3.5-inch floppy disk.

(5) The suave, sophisticated spy never has trouble finding a parking space.

(6) Never ask the following questions: Does the megalomaniac employ an art director? Does he consult with a fashion designer about his henchmen’s wardrobe? Will we ever see the scene where he confers with his architect and interior decorator-say, Peter Eisenman and Philippe Starck-to discuss the pros and cons of worldwide global domination design?

(Actually, if you do think about it, Hitler had Joseph Goebbels in this role. Yet, to this day, we’ve never been treated to the cinematic moment where Goebbels walks into the Reichstag and inquires: ” Mein Herr! What do you think of the door handles in the bunker? Should we go off-the-shelf? Or should we have Krupp run us up a few samples?”)

If it sounds as if I’m going slightly batty here in London, consider the following conversation, which took place in early December:

“O.K.,” said one of the producers. “Assuming we’re agreed on the villain’s motivation for global worldwide domination, who should we cast?”

For a moment, I considered suggesting Patricia Duff-until it occurred to me that anyone who’s mowing lawyers down by the bushel can’t be all that bad. Then I had what I hoped would pass for an inspired idea, even if it was stolen from Paddy Chayefsky’s Network .

“I’ve got it,” I exclaimed. “Osama bin Laden. He’s perfect. Everybody’s in show business these days. CNN anchors are always playing CNN anchors in movies. So if we need a terrorist, why not cast a terrorist?”

Silence. Then, a cacophony of voices broke out: “Does he have an agent?” “What if we cut his lines?” “I bet he’s with Ovitz.” “Can you imagine his perk package?” “Trainer, nutritionist, fatwa adviser.” “And an F-18 that he gets to keep when the picture’s over.”

“Can you imagine the audit-the day he shows up at the studio to complain about his nonexistent net profits?”

“O.K., enough.” The producer sighed. “Can we get back to reality?”

“Right. I almost forgot,” I said. “What color jumpsuits do the goons wear when the megalomaniac launches his scheme for worldwide global domination?”

On a more serious note, it’s my observation that London is the place to be today, if you are young. The streets churn with masses of European youth, in a way that makes Fifth Avenue look like a ghost town.

I suspect part of the explanation for this influx lies with the Internet. Ask any one of the young workers why they’ve come here-from Poland, from Spain, Romania, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt or China-and the answer is always the same: “To learn English.” They tell you it’s the language of the digital world-and that London is only a steppingstone to our own New York-accented ZIP codes. Or, as a young Greek put it: “N.Y.C.! I.P.O.! AOL! Money!”

Coincidentally, there was a poll taken just before Christmas, to determine the most important English personality over the past 1,000 years. The list was narrowed to six men-and inspired the following editorial, which graced the pages of The Daily Telegraph :

“… But which to choose? Any newspaper will have a predisposition towards Caxton, but he did not invent printing, merely imported it. Churchill was the greatest national leader of the century, but the past thousand years have seen other British victories as decisive in preserving our way of life. If no kings are fit for consideration, it is difficult to see why Cromwell should be admitted, especially since even his admirers concede that he was “right but repulsive.” Darwin’s scientific legacy has been immense, but not entirely healthy, while Newton’s has been largely overturned.

“We should instead consider the greatest achievement of England in this millennium, which has been its language. It has spread throughout the globe, and much of its triumph has been due to its greatest exponent. The personality of the millennium has to be the man who understood and expressed personality better than anyone has ever done.

“Vote for Shakespeare.”

He won by a landslide-and offered no comment as to whether he was moving to New York City to float an I.P.O.

My Winter of Flirting With Disaster