Martha Bayles: October 2006 Archives
Paul Klee was not childish, despite frequent comparisons between his art and that of children...
I've long wanted to do a parody of the Dan Brown PR machine. Finally, here 'tis:
DECODING DAN BROWN
The following is a transcription of the pitch session for Dan Brown's next novel, The Botticelli Botch. Present are the author, his new agent Bizzy Boca, his new publisher Ernst Kluliss, and (getting in on the ground floor) the famous film producer Sam Schnellgeld.
Dan: (arriving ten minutes late): Sorry, guys. Crazy schedule. Can't wait to get back to New Hampshire and the writer's life. Bizzy, did you lay out my basic position? Royalties, rights, creative control, profit-sharing on the movie deal. I'd really rather not get ripped off this time.
Sam (arriving two minutes later): Well, hello dream team. Bizzy, that skirt is hot.
Bizzy: It's so exciting to have you here, Sam.
Ernst: Yes, and for a stodgy old bookbinder like me, it's exciting to do business with a real Hollywood mogul.
Sam: How about you, Danny? You excited?
Dan: Sure. But we need to close quickly. I have another appointment in an hour. Crazy schedule. Can't wait to get back to New Hampshire -
Sam: No biggie. I got lunch in twenty. So Bizzy, you wet dream, lay it on me. And please, no retread. The Da Vinci Code is a hard act to follow. Will this new one get all the religious nuts crawling out of the woodwork to do our marketing for us?
Dan: I'll make the pitch, if you don't mind. Bizzy's still learning the names. Sam, Ernst, The Botticelli Botch will not be a retread. For starters, the opening money shot will not be in Paris but in Florence. The Uffizi.
Sam: Uffizi, eh? Didn't know you were into automatic weapons. I confess, I did wonder why your wacko Opus Dei albino monk didn't shoot the curator with an Uzi. But here's some advice: if you're taking the Mafia route, use Russians. More sadistic, and no goddamn lobbyists. Does this one start with a murder, too?
Dan: No, a rape. Under Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.
Ernst: Splendid! And who will play the victim? How about Kiera Knightly? She certainly has the face and figure to be a descendant of Mary Magdalene. And personally, I'd be very interested in meeting her.
Bizzy: Don't you just love the Mary Magdalene theme in The Da Vinci Code? The Holy Grail as her uterus, and Jesus as her stud muffin? I meant to tell you, Dan: I dreamed I was part of the bloodline, right down through the Merovingian dynasty. Talk about royalty!
Dan: Actually, I'm skipping that plot. Too much hate mail from narrow-minded Christians who won't even consider that Emperor Constantine might have cooked up the whole Jesus-divinity thing in order to stamp out goddess worship. Not to mention all those nit-picking Bible scholars. My facts all come from Henry Lincoln's Holy Blood, Holy Grail, I tell them, and if he were a charlatan, would the BBC have funded his programs?
Bizzy: Plus it's a novel. It's scary, isn't it, how some people can't distinguish between fact and fiction? The Da Vinci Code is a work of the human imagination!
Ernst: And a tribute to the human spirit, unfettered by the chains of religious dogma.
Sam: For marketing, you're probably right to sideline the Jesus stuff. I gotta hand it to Sony. It was brilliant to hire that Jesus-freak consultant - you know, that Jonathan Bock guy - to set up a "Da Vinci Dialogue" at the Sony Pictures website. Company-sponsored blogging catches the mall rats, so why not the Bible thumpers? The more they blog, the more they want to see the movie. It's amazing how your average mouth-breather will do anything to feel like he's part of the industry.
Ernst: Wish we could do that in publishing. But the masses want to be Dan Brown, not Ernst Kluliss. Ha-ha.
Sam: Trouble is, you can only milk that for so long, before some harpy like Barbara Nicolosi comes along and accuses you of turning people into "useful Christian idiots." Next time, I fear, it'll be The Last Temptation of Christ all over again - pickets, not tickets.
Dan: I beg you, don't mention that title. Some lunatic in Athens keeps emailing me about how that Greek writer, Katzi-somebody--
Ernst: Nikos Katzantzakis. He also wrote Zorba the Greek and an amazing, if interminable, re-creation of the Odyssey. A passionate, learned man who--
Dan: Right. So this lunatic keeps emailing me I should read The Last Temptation of Christ, because Katzi-what's-his-face deals with Jesus' humanity and the relationship with Mary Magdalene in "a really profound way." This implication being that I don't.
Bizzy: Oh, please. How many copies did it sell? Danny, I gotta ask you. You're not going to drop the Sacred Feminine riff, are you? Despite what you hear, Joe Six-Pack's not the one making movie choices these days.
Ernst: My priority too, Dan. All those book clubs out there - overwhelmingly female. The books are mainly an excuse to swill wine and talk about their sex lives. But who cares? Book groups move product. Ha-ha.
Bizzy: Poor men! Sometimes I wonder what's left in the culture for them.
Sam: Sports, video games, online porn.
Dan: Now, Sam, you're making my pitch for me. The Botticelli Botch will unite the male and female demographic like no other book. Every writer has a secret, and mine is something I learned in prep school.
Bizzy: By the way, we don't advertise Dan's not-so-humble background. Not only did he go to Phillips Exeter, he also taught there for a few years.
Dan: Yeah, during my semi-failed literary career. But I did learn something from cramming literature down adolescent throats. Why do ordinary people buy novels? Out of mixed motives. On the one hand, they want a fast-paced story that will keep them turning pages and get their mind off their troubles.
Ernst: Sad but true. Which is why we publish Dean Koontz and Christine Feehan.
Dan: But people also aspire to higher things. Great books, great art - a lot of Americans crave to know more about them. But they also associate them with snobbery and pretentiousness, which they hate. So the road to riches is to satisfy the public's craving for high culture without setting off their anti-snobbery alarm.
Ernst: You mean, revive the middlebrow?
Dan: Oh, no. You can't go back to dumbing down high culture and spoon-feeding it to people. You gotta spike it, twist the meaning, hit 'em where they live. What do most readers learn from The Da Vinci Code?
Sam: That Jesus was Abraham and his seed are a bunch of French Frogs?
Dan: You assume they make that connection. They don't. Who reads Genesis these days? No, what people learn is what they want to learn: namely, that you can travel around Europe, visit all those museums, churches, and castles, and understand it all, without effort. You don't need a Ph.D. or even a B.A. Western Civilization is a riddle, and if you know the solution - which you can get from one book, mine - you're good to go.
Ernst: Brilliant! But please, make it two books. Tell us about The Botticelli Bitch.
Dan: That's Botch. Cue the Power Point, Bizzy. This time I'm not using a painting that's half flaked away. Compared with Leonardo's The Last Supper, Botticelli's The Birth of Venus will knock your socks off. I'm jumping ahead, but imagine the camera panning down this babe as she covers her boobs with her right hand and pulls her hair over her privates with her left.
Ernst: Astonishing! I've seen the painting dozens of times, but it never occurred to me that she's being modest. How unlike Venus!
Dan: If you'll forgive me: "Our preconceived notions are so powerful that our mind blocks out the incongruity and overrides our eyes."
Bizzy: The Da Vinci Code, chapter 58, page 242.
Sam: Wow, chapter and verse. Where'd you get her, Danny?
Dan: Hands off, she's mine. Anyway, while the camera is eyeballing Venus, we hear the soundtrack of a terrible assault - male grunting and cursing, female screaming and crying. The war between the Roman Catholic Church and Sacred Womanhood is ratcheting to a new level, as the stunning and intelligent Dr. I. Connie Klast, professor of Feminist Art History at Georgetown University and world-famous expert on Botticelli, is being brutally raped by a priest.
Ernst: Splendid! Timely! The Church won't have a leg to stand on! What kind of priest, if I may ask? A Jesuit? It would be nice to avoid an embarrassing mistake, like having an Opus Dei monk, when there aren't any.
Dan: No problem. The assailant is a Dominican, from the secret Twenty-Ninth Province, known as the Manfriars. The Manfriars were founded in 1498, the year Pope Alexander VI had the excommunicated monk, Savonarola, burned and hanged.
Sam: Burned and hanged at the same time?
Dan: Yup, and in the same place, the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, where Savonarola staged his famous Bonfires of the Vanities, in which he burned all the luxury goods he could lay his hands on - including several "pagan" paintings by his loyal follower Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, a.k.a. Botticelli.
Sam: I'm liking it. Whatever it costs, we'll shoot these scenes on location at the ... Pizza della Whatever. But wait a minute. Who are the good guys? You're saying Botticelli was a follower of the creep who burned his pictures?
Dan: That's right. Savonarola was a magnetic figure. Look at this portrait of him by Fra Bartolommeo.
Sam: Wow, intense. Look at the schnozz! Maybe Tim Roth? Love the hood, by the way.
Ernst: Monks From the Hood? Ha-ha. But seriously, Dan, if I get your drift, you're making Savonarola and Botticelli the good guys. But who are the bad guys? The pope? That could work - dollar for dollar, your pope is your most reliable movie villain, next to your Nazi and your oil CEO. But how will you twist the meaning so it hits ''em where they live?
Dan: Cue the painting again, Bizzy. Check yourselves, guys. You're drooling, like me. None of us can take our eyes off that sexy Venus. The feminist art historians have got us pegged. What is the essence of art? The male gaze. Admiring, yes. But also lustful, possessive, controlling. For 2,500 years, depicting nude women (and in the case of queer artists like Michelangelo, nude men) has been a way of asserting power over them. My heroine, Connie, became interested in Botticelli for that reason. Her first book, Beauty As Rape, denounced Botticelli for reducing his model, the young Simonetta Cattaneo, to a passive object literally blown about by the winds. It's no accident that Simonetta was the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici, brother of Botticelli's patron, Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Sam: Hold on, my eyes are glazing over. I thought we were talking entertainment here.
Dan: Let me translate. Simonetta is the hottest babe in Tuscany, married at 15 to a dull dude named Marco Vespucci (whose only claim to fame is that they named America after his cousin, Amerigo). Every rich playboy in Florence wants Simonetta, but the one who gets her is Giuliano - brother of the city's godfather. Giuliano wins a big jousting tournament under a banner with her picture on it, painted by Botticelli. She becomes Giuliano's prize, but then dies a year later - never having really lived. All her life she's been a possession, an ornament, a trophy. Now look at the painting again. Not the naked flesh. The eyes. See how sad they are?
Ernst: That's why the painting is so lovely. There are many other portraits of Simonetta, but most have a vacant expression. Only Botticelli captured her soul.
Dan: It's not a question of soul. It's a question of gender politics. As Connie comes to realize, the sadness, the victimization, is the whole point. Botticelli wasn't just painting the objectified Venus, he was painting the Venus who resists being objectified. This work is subversive! Look at how awkwardly Venus is drawn - her left shoulder barely exists, and her left forearm is the size of her calf. An objective observer not blinded by reverence for Renaissance art might say that he botched it. And Connie is that observer. For reasons I will relate in a moment, she sees through all the lies about this being a great painting. In truth, it's a deliberate botch!
Ernst: Dan, you've done it again! I'm on the edge of my seat! Why did Botticelli botch it?
Dan: Because he understood. He, too, was in love with Simonetta. But as an employee of the Medici, he had to keep his distance. But distance reveals truth. Botticelli came to understand the patriarchal system - in essence, he became a radical feminist. Like Savonarola.
Ernst: What? Savonarola a radical feminist?
Dan: How do you know he wasn't? Or rather, what has conditioned you to think that he wasn't? What got burned on his Bonfire? Silk dresses, lacy lingerie, cosmetics, fancy wigs, corsets, paintings of nude women - all the trappings of female oppression! Why did Botticelli throw some of his own paintings onto the flames?
Bizzy: To liberate the women! To empower them!
Dan: Right! But then the Church cracked down, condemning Savonarola to a horrible death and forcing Botticelli to spend the rest of his life painting the Virgin Mary. This is where the Manfriars come in. Savonarola was a Dominican, but when he began to crusade for women's rights, the order got into trouble with the pope. They knew that if they didn't deal with Savonarola, the pope would shut them down. So they founded the Manfriars, a secret province devoted to the suppression of the Sacred Feminine. Their first act was to hand Savonarola over to be hanged and burned. Then they went after the artists, making sure they painted gorgeous, sexy nudes for powerful men to ogle. This was called the Renaissance, and we've all been brainwashed - even you, Ernst - into thinking it produced great art. In truth, it was a huge propaganda campaign on the part of the nobility and the Church to keep women in their place. And the deadliest weapon in this campaign was beauty. The beauty of helpless girls like Simonetta, turned against them as the instrument of their oppression.
Bizzy: Oh Dan, that's beautiful. Excuse me - I'm choking up.
Ernst: I'm beginning to see, Dan. A dramatic medieval tale, full of passion and blood, that also illustrates the very truth you revealed in the previous novel. I must say, I admire your integrity.
Sam: I'm liking it, too. But I'm a little worried about the broad who gets raped. What's her name, Connie? An art history professor? That's gonna put a crimp in the casting.
Dan: Not at all. Remember, I described Connie as "stunning and intelligent." In fact, when I get all the details worked out, she may turn out to be a descendant of Simonetta - and if I'm feeling bold, of Botticelli. That's why she understands. When she was growing up in a Dominican orphanage, the nuns made her pose for figure drawing classes. So some of her earliest memories are of shivering in a cold drafty classroom, stark naked, while everyone stared at her - not just the other girls, who hated her beauty, but also the nuns, including a couple of real bull dykes.
Sam: Good, that could work. As long as she's not too young. You know lawyers.
Dan: Do I ever. No, I think that can be done tastefully - to establish Connie's character as a dynamic teacher who empowers female students. Kind of like Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile. The contemporary plot, which will be action-packed, involves a struggle between Connie's students and the Georgetown administration over a production of The Vagina Monologues - you know, that play where women talk candidly about their, uh ...
Bizzy: See? Even Dan can't say it. I did the play all four years at Smith. What an experience! So empowering!
Sam: Hmm. Not sure that will fly at the box office. Could we maybe fudge the details?
Bizzy: No problem. At most schools the play is part of "V Day," which is devoted to raising awareness of violence against women. At the stricter Catholic schools, they allow the anti-violence activities but not the play (which is kind of raunchy).
Ernst: Well, we certainly don't want to make strict Catholics look good! The trick, Dan, will be to frame the conflict so that it looks as though normal women are being oppressed by the Church.
Dan: No problem. I'll background the play, and foreground the big event planned for Georgetown's V Day: a keynote address by Connie, in which she reveals the hidden truth about Renaissance art, and explains why The Birth of Venus was not included in Savonarola's bonfire. Thanks to the Florentine art market, the painting soon became too valuable to burn, anyway. So it lives on today, complete with its botched drawing, as a reminder of the injustices that have killed literally trillions of women.
Sam: Very nice. But I'm still fuzzy on the rape. How does that fit? I'll be frank: I don't see a lot of box office in old Connie.
Dan: She's not old! And like I said, she's a knockout! Maybe we could even use the same actress to play her and Simonetta.
Ernst: I would discourage that. Why have just one pretty face when you can have two?
Dan: The point is, Connie's a framing device. We begin with the rape, then flash back to 15th-century Florence, where we witness the whole back-story, including Simonetta's stunted life, the founding of the Manfriars, and the destruction of Savonarola and Botticelli. Next we flash forward through the centuries, highlighting the Manfriars' more horrible deeds, and end up with the conspiracy to silence Connie. We show the rape as a political act, orchestrated by the province and the Florentine authorities, then accompany Connie back to Georgetown, where, deeply traumatized, she's on the verge of quitting - until, miraculously, her students appear and through their devotion to her message, start the healing process. On the big day, when the president of the university is about to announce the cancellation of the keynote speech, we see Connie, bruised but not broken, struggle to the podium and proclaim the truth to the world. Tears stream down thousands of fresh young faces, the music swells, and once again the camera pans the succulent body of Botticelli's Venus - only this time, it lingers on those sad, sad eyes.
Bizzy: Omigod, I can't stand it! Anyone got a Kleenex?
Ernst: Here, my dear. And they say the novel is dead!
Sam: Nice, Danny. Like the yadda-yadda at the end. Have your people call my people. Meanwhile I'm outta here. Lunch is getting cold.
This parody first appeared in the Claremont Review of Books