Friday, December 19, 2014

'Player Piano' Could be a Very Funny Movie

1885 Player Piano
Internet Grab
Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano could be made into a very comical movie.

You know how a player piano works? The notes to a song are coded into a punched tape that operates the keyboard, thus creating music, of a sort, without a pianist.

The premise of this novel is that almost every job has been replicated by a punched tape that operates an elaborate mechanical contraption. Vonnegut didn't know a lot about science or technology, but he extrapolated from the player piano, plus electricity, vacuum tubes, and a few other technologies common in the 1950s, to imagine a world in which there is nothing much for human beings to do.

The author had great fun imagining how different automated systems might work, and a set designer or an animator would have great fun trying to replicate the machines, systems, and environments that he describes. In a word, they are all clunky when compared to modern technologies—complicated and rigid, and rather endearing,  like a player piano.

The novel is organized around one serious plot, exploring philosophical themes, and a comical subplot, for the sake of satirical comment. The rather transparent premise of the subplot is that a spiritual leader of a major Asian country, the Shah of Bratpuhr, is touring the highly automated United States as a potential customer for American technologies. The Shah's nephew, Khashdrahr Miasma (Cash Drawer Miasma?) serves as his interpreter. Here's how Vonnegut describes the Shah: “wizened and wise and dark as cocoa, encrusted with gold brocade and constellations of twinkling gems.” For total contrast, Vonnegut presents Khashdrahr as “nervous, grinning, young, and forever apologetic for his own lack of éclat or power.” Can't you just see these two guys on a movie screen?

From the point of view of the Shah and his nephew, every aspect of American life is baffling and bizarre, filling this subplot with satire and sarcasm. One stop on their tour is Carlsbad Caverns, which is the home of a vast computer, described by the author as a “subterranean jungle of steel, wire, and glass that filled the chamber in which they stood, and thirty larger ones beyond.” Vonnegut's primitive vision of the progress of computer technology is inadvertently comical, but the Shah's reaction to this machine is broadly sarcastic. Khashdrahr explains that “people in his land sleep with smart women and make good brains cheap. Save enough wire to go to moon a thousand times.”

Even the main plot has a way of dissolving into a humorous scene. The protagonist, Paul, has been expecting a big promotion. The division manager who tells him he got the job, spends the whole interview cleaning a rifle, and pretending to shoot phantom birds in his den, and at the end he takes Paul back into his living room where they join their wives to enjoy a recording of a rousing march called "Stout Hearted Men." An actor like John Goodman could have a lot of fun with this caricature, especially if playing off some nebbishy actor like William H. Macy as Paul.

One long section is a cheeky portrayal of the hollowness of organized recreation. Anyone who's ever been on a company morale-building outing will alternately wince and laugh at the rules for getting to know one another, the team sports, and the skits extolling the group's value system. Vonnegut exaggerates the company retreat into a surreal comedy.

Despite it's antiquated feel, all of this satire, irony, and hilarity is in service of a theme that is very relevant to contemporary life: what is the value of labor? What are humans for? Do humans have any value other than as workers? What do time-saving devices save time for? How does a person shape his life without a job? These issues are much more relevant now than when Vonnegut imagined this problem. With the advent of computerization, more and more jobs are actually being eliminated. Just the other day, an article in the New York Times noted that the number of men in the work force has gone down significantly, and questioned what are these guys doing with their lives. And the next day, there was an article about the reduced number of women who are working, and how they were shaping their lives. At an even more basic level, the question is, should we just follow every technology wherever it takes us? Or should managers and decision-makers spare a thought for human needs and values when they plan the uses of new technologies?

The theme is reinforced by a host of minor characters: a guy who can fix anything, a guy who makes a living by betting on a TV show about music, a guy who is gaga over different uniforms, a frustrated laborer who has an extra-marital relationship, and his defeated wife who forgives him; a stay-at-home mom who is glad her dishwasher broke down because it gives her something to do; a real estate salesman who tries hard not to sell an old-fashioned farm that has been on the market for a long time.

Surprisingly, mixed in with all this humor and philosophizing are several scenes with penetrating character analysis. For instance, Paul feels guilty about his position as a manager in an automated society because so many people feel left out, useless, and under-valued. But when he tries to show his wife, Anita, the problem that is bothering him, she takes the point personally, being somewhat self-conscious about her own background, and they get into a big row. Later, after Paul has inadvertently become the leader of a rebellion against the system, he is captured and put on trial. He takes the opportunity to speak eloquently for the value of human labor, but a lie detector and a skillful questioner, reveal that the real motive behind his fervor is hatred of his own father, who was considered the founder of the automated system. It's amazing that Vonnegut would throw this bit of Freudian analysis into the midst of a defense of human values.

I found it challenging to rock back and forth between broad humor and penetrating character analysis.  Good acting and directing could portray this change of tone.

The theme of this book is so important that it could be required reading for an MBA program: not just how to manage the economic engine, but how to put human values above the self-enhancing values of science and technology. If you could put it on the screen, making a joke of the clunky machines and bringing out the pathos of the quirky characters, Player Piano could be a very relevant, and very funny, movie.