Rat with wings

Pub date October 10, 2007
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

SEVENTIES FLASHBACK The ’60s were all about changing society. When that didn’t pan out, the ’70s went all inwardly focused, pursuing pleasure and spirituality. Both goals frequently commingled as fads, cults, and pop religio-psych fixes. The Age of Aquarius dawned no more: Planet Self-Help was rising, and exotic waves washed across the shore of American consciousness.

Perhaps nothing in that era’s landscape of seekerdom spread its populist wings farther — or became a more dated Me Decade punch line — than Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Richard Bach’s precious wee tome (of fewer than 10,000 words, stretched to book length by Russell Munson’s black-and-white aviary photos) was first issued in 1970 by Macmillan after numerous other publishers passed. This little-being-that-could tale is about a "one-in-a-million bird" who yearns to transcend his garbage-eating tribe by flying for the pure joy and challenge of it. Expelled from this group, he’s taken in by gull teachers operating on a "higher plane" and ultimately graduates to "working on love" with his original, dumbly materialist flock, which needs schooling the most. It’s kinda Zen, albeit with Western appeal in that the seeker is granted special FasTrak-to-enlightenment status: "You, Jon, learned so much at one time that you didn’t have to go through a thousand lives to reach this one," one teacher tells our protagonist. So Anakin Skywalker!

With collegians steeped in Herman Hesse and Carlos Castaneda fanning the flame, Seagull became a phenomenon, surpassing Gone with the Wind‘s hardcover-sales record. It topped the New York Times‘ best-seller list for 38 weeks and was translated into umpteen languages (my thrift-shop edition is English-Korean). It inspired a ballet, a spoken word record by "MacArthur Park" crooner Richard Harris, myriad parodies, and a cameo appearance on Brady Bunch daddy Mike’s bedside table. Could a movie version possibly miss?

Oh yes, it could: thanks to Paramount Home Video, the single most ridiculed flop of 1973 is newly out on DVD. Like most such whipping posts (Heaven’s Gate, Inchon, etc.), it’s not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. Still, some cringing is appropriate. Much is Bach’s fault, even though he sued Paramount over minor textual deviations. The pompous parable and sentiments behind lines like "There’s got to be more to life than fighting for fish heads!" remained all his. Lit crits carped well before film reviews dug a deeper hole. One called the book "a mishmash of Boy Scout–Khalil Gibran–Horatio Alger doing Antoine de Saint-Exupéry spouting the Qur’an as translated by Bob Dylan." But full shit-storm blame rested on the decision by the producers and director Hall Bartlett to visualize a live-action narrative starring actual gulls (controlled on set by radar signals) with dubbed Hollywood actors’ voices.

Painfully whisper-intense James Franciscus "beaked" Jonathan. Richard Crenna, Hal Holbrook, Dorothy McGuire, and Nanny and the Professor‘s Juliet Mills were other seagull ventriloquists. Perhaps evocative, simple animation à la 1971 AMC Movie of the Week classic The Point (which had music by Harry Nilsson) would have been a better path. Bartlett (his career a casualty) went on a promotional tour with "star" birds, creating a truly shitty situation in hotel rooms nationwide. That didn’t help to choke back reviewers’ laughter or massive public indifference. Nobody denied Jack Couffer’s stunning, Oscar-nominated cinematography. And Neil Diamond’s original song score — soaring or insipid, choose yer side — took on a commercial life of its own.

But the film was doomed. A second version, replacing dialogue with Sir Lawrence Olivier’s narration, was released. But when a movie’s already branded a dud, such salvage tactics never work. This screen Seagull lives on as a fabled crapsterpiece, designated "Golden Turkey" by the likes of future conservative art warden Michael Medved. Aviator turned novelist turned sage Bach found his audience shrinking, though a faithful core remains, which now forgives and even appreciates the movie he disowned. These days Love Story, Erich von Däniken (of Chariots of the Gods?), and pet rocks have little noncamp residual value. But Jonathan Livingston Seagull is still in print.