It's finally here! (Not that you've heard of it yet)
The thing about pop culture is that, generally speaking, you're never in a state of anticipation for that long.
I'm not talking about the replacement of explosions and quick-cut edits for suspense in a lot of by-the-book action thrillers these days, though that's a topic for another column, I suppose. Nor do I intend here to bewail the ever-increasing propensity of movie trailers, entertainment magazines, and even our very own Internet to give away spoilers.
No, what I mean is that, for most of us, our own short attention spans and studio planning alike combine to let us know the Next Big Thing (the thing we should be talking about, salivating for, queuing up at, or generally planning to spend our hard-earned money upon) only when the Big Thing in question actually is next. Right now, for example, I've been deluged by information about the new movie "300." Everywhere I turn, all I can see is a whole bunch of heavily armed and lightly clothed Spartans. A month ago? Thermopylae was either a distant memory from college or a new kind of skiing gear, not sure which.
The point being that when I got excited about "300" I didn't have long to wait. Which makes sense, of course. As T.S. Eliot didn't say, mankind cannot bear very many new hot, must-see items; and Omar Khayyam put it best when he (almost) said, "The Moving Media-Cultural Industry writes about an item; and, having writ, practically ensuring a big opening weekend or huge first-time ratings certain to drop off in subsequent weeks (unless you're Heroes or Night at the Museum), Moves on". Economics of contemporary entertainment are all about front-loading for those of us who are in a state of uncertainty right now; so you're never waiting for anything too long.
The exception is when you're intimately involved in the process, or you know someone who is; then you can see how intense and dedicated the work on these projects can be. And here we get to the point, which is:
My good friend Matt Polly, who I've known for over a decade. You'd like him. Straight-arrow Kansas guy, bright as a shiny new button that's been carefully gone over by a top-notch cleaning crew, uproariously funny, great writer. Went to Princeton, but took a leave of absence in the middle – as lots of college students do – to go train in martial arts at the Shaolin Temple in China and learn the ins and outs of a foreign country in the process – which is something most college students, I think, don't do. Being the aforementioned brainy guy and bright writer, Matt, after amusing friends and strangers alike with his tales of rural Chinese politics and intense, exotic martial arts techniques, decided to turn his adventures into a book.
And here's where the anticipation came in. As one of the aforementioned friends, I couldn't wait to see all the adventures, laid out in Matt's inimitable style, from beginning to end. But, you know, writing takes time. And so I, along with his other friends, waited. And as the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into a couple of years, and we saw Matt wrestling with the book, a small – the smallest – smidgen of doubt began to creep into our minds: What if it wasn't good?
I mean, of course it was going to be good – refer to two paragraphs above, straight-arrow, bright, funny, great writer, etc., etc. – but what if it wasn't? Because here's the thing: it's the anticipation that kills you – which Hollywood studios know, as well. If you don't have that much time to get excited or invested, then how much of a comedown can, say, "Ghost Rider" really be? Easy come, easy go, anticipation-wise. So better for them to make the buzz intense but short. (Six words of proof: Star Wars, Episodes One through Three.) But the creative types responsible for the shows, the movies, the books – and the people who know them and like them – don't have that luxury. And so, when finally - finally! – Matt cautiously showed me and a few of his other friends the galleys of his soon-to-be published book, and I turned to the first page with anticipation, I'd be lying to say there wasn't a little concern, too.
Of course, I shouldn't have worried. Matt pulled it off: "American Shaolin," is a coming of age memoir, a rollicking action tale, and a serious investigation of a country's culture packed into one. If you're a reader of Foreign Affairs or The Atlantic Monthly but are always a bit peeved that their martial arts coverage hasn't been quite up to snuff, you'll love this book. If, on the other hand, you like watching old Jackie Chan movies but have always left wondering why they never get around to discussing urban renewal in Beijing, well, this is the book for you, too. And if you don't fall into either of those categories – hard to imagine, but I suppose there are some people left out there – but just want a great read, well, voila. And you don't even need to feel all this anticipation we've been talking about, since you don't know Matt – but, I suspect, you'll be hearing more about him soon.
I should add that I get absolutely nothing from this other than the pleasure of helping out an old friend and the delight in recommending a good book, but those aren't small pleasures, as anyone who's whispered to their friends about "The Lives of Others" or "The Class" is well aware. Have to go now; there are apparently 300 Spartans in desperate straits and the studios have convinced me that they need my attention right away.