Thursday, January 8, 2015

John Warner's Unlikely Inspiration

In the 70th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, John Warner, author of Tough Day for the Army (LSU Press) talks about the movie Airplane.

There is no movie I’ve seen more times than Airplane. There was a period when I could recite the dialogue almost word for word. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more charming than a ten-year-old quoting lines like, “Joey, have you ever been in a…a Turkish prison.”

Airplane may also be the single greatest influence on my writing, period.

The main reason I’ve seen Airplane multiple-hundred times is an accident of history, in that the movie was released near the dawn of the home VCR era when my family acquired a Buick-sized VHS, a gift to my father on his 40th birthday. This was 1980 when the video store was the camera store, the entire selection a shelf of maybe 50 titles above the tripods.

The first two movies we rented were Kramer v. Kramer (both dull and weirdly upsetting to my ten-year-old self), and Airplane ,which I watched over and over and over again.

In a movie of legendary gags, my favorite one is in the credits. As the characters make their way into the airport, we hear a series of parking announcements from what seem to be pre-recorded voices over the public address system, alternating between male and female voices.

The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone.

Soon, though, a dispute breaks out between the two voices:

Male announcer: The red zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the white zone.

Female announcer: No, the white zone is for loading of passengers and there is no stopping in a RED zone.

Male announcer: The red zone has always been for loading and unloading of passengers. There's never stopping in a white zone.

Female announcer: Don't you tell me which zone is for loading, and which zone is for stopping!

Male announcer: Listen Betty, don't start up with your white zone shit again.

After a break, we hear the true nature of the argument.

Male announcer: There's just no stopping in a white zone.

Female announcer: Oh really, Vernon? Why pretend, we both know perfectly well what this is about. You want me to have an abortion.

Male announcer: It's really the only sensible thing to do, if its done safely. Therapeutically, there's no danger involved.

Even as I barely understood the dark subtext underneath, I was tickled by this notion, that one thing could suddenly become another and that under everything there were characters and stories.

This impulse is carried out in a number of the stories in Tough Day for the Army.

One of them, “Return-to-Sensibility Problems after Penetrating Captive Bolt Stunning of Cattle in Commercial Beef Slaughter Plant #5867: Confidential Report” is inspired by a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association (JAVMA) that was one of the most horrifying reading experiences of my life, as a detached, clinical tone outlined the “mooing,” “bellowing,” and “twitching” of “improperly stunned” cattle that had been hung on the “bleed rail.” The events underlying the published report must have been horrifying to witness.

I wondered what would happen if the author could not contain that horror, and it began to leak into the report itself, and soon I had a story.

Another story, “Corrections and Clarifications,” is written entirely in the form of newspaper corrections for a small town newspaper. It is explicitly inspired by the “Red Zone” scene from Airplane, where a formal, official voice slowly breaks down and reveals what’s going on underneath all of these mistakes.

While other stories in the collection are less formally inventive, I realize that all of them share a similar sensibility in that they are grounded in the same manner as all good jokes. They ask a “What if?”

What if a fraternity decided to waterboard its pledges?

What if Jesus had a first career as a minor league hockey player?

What if a con-monkey blackmailed an innocent man?

All of these stories owe a debt to Airplane, a movie that asks, “What if?” of everything – What if the co-pilot was Kareem Abdul Jabbar? What if we make Beaver Cleaver’s mother speak jive? What if we make a running gag about the homonyms “surely” and “Shirley"?

The movie is unrestrained, downright risky in its willingness to be goofy.

I can’t think of a better source of inspiration for writing fiction.