Michael Crichton’s death this past week seems to have been lost in the protracted celebration around Obama’s victory, but his passing is worthy of a pause. I was never a big fan of his novels but like many other culture watchers, have been flabbergasted by the prodigious scope of his interests, intellect and output.
I had a personal encounter with Crichton several years ago, and it left a lasting impression on me. I have to be candid and say right up front how uncomfortable I am with the “my encounter with a celebrity” anecdotal form. In a culture that has made a multi-billion dollar industry around celebritism, it feels awkward (and a pathetic attempt at high mindedness) to create a distinction between the transgressive invasiveness of Gawker et al and my one up story about talking with a cultural luminary. But I’m willing to take that risk because the content of that encounter is worth repeating.
While I was staying at a swanky spa near Tucson, I signed up for a hike organized for the guests. Because I’m a fast walker, it didn’t take long to move ahead of the rest of the hikers. Just one other guest seemed interested in keeping a fast pace as well, so the two of us ended up doing the mountain climb together.
Off on our own, we began to talk. My lanky companion seemed to have something intelligent and informed to say about every topic I brought up, from painting to politics to science to psychology. Very early into this exchange I realized I was having one of the most fascinating conversations of my life.
I know a lot of very intelligent people who are extremely well read and love to talk, but this guy was different. I have never had a protracted conversation with someone with that breadth of knowledge who was also so self-effacing. There was no name-dropping or a subtextual need to be right. He listened carefully to what I was saying, something I have found to be an extremely rare quality in most people.
I didn’t know who my hiking companion was until we reached the summit and the guide took me aside to whisper his identity in my ear. But because Crichton had been so unpretentious and open, it didn’t really seem to matter.
On the hike back down, we went deeper into more controversial topics. Genuinely curious about what he thought, I steered our conversation towards the paranormal. As a graduate of Harvard Medical School, he was not a likely candidate for open-mindedness on edgy issues like crop circles, energy healing and psychic insight. But I was wrong. He freely shared a few nonlinear experiences of his own.
He said that he used to subscribe to an extremely linear, rational worldview. But one of his wives (there were 5 or 6—in sequence of course!) had a close friend whose profession was advising Fortune 50 companies on future trends. “Her entire methodology was non-analytical and intuition-based, but she was so good she had retainers with a variety of major corporations who consulted with her on a regular basis.”
At first Crichton was skeptical. But he said that he had to change his point of view fairly quickly when she repeatedly demonstrated her uncanny ability to read his mind and know things she had no business knowing.
“The first time I met her she came to stay with us in Kauai. At the time I was just learning Microsoft Word and couldn’t quite figure out how to format my manuscript. I struggled silently while she was working on her own in the other room. As I sat there puzzling over my problem, I suddenly hear her calling to me without provocation on my part. ‘Michael, there are actually four different ways in which you can format that page.’ She then proceeded to list each of them in detail. After that experience, I quit questioning her skills.”
So she sensed that he was struggling with formatting a page in Word? Big deal. But here’s the clincher. He had just come up with the idea for the series ER, and he went to Hollywood to shop it around. He could find no takers. The feedback he received from nearly everyone was, “Your idea is too technical for the average couch potato television watcher. No one will be able to understand anything that is going on. It just isn’t a viable idea.”
When he got back to Kauai, he told his psychic friend about his unilateral lack of success. Without a moment’s hesitation she told him, “You have to do this! It will be a phenomenal success. Fund it yourself.”
So that’s exactly what he did. And of course that series ushered in a huge new genre, medical procedure television.
What I liked about the way he told this story was the respect he had for what lay outside his ability to reason. “I don’t understand how she and people like her know what they know. It doesn’t fit with any of the western models of reality I have studied. But I have to give it a place at the table nonetheless.”
Many people have talked about Crichton’s contrarianism. He questioned the validity of global warming in his novel State of Fear, and that position led to him being sucked into the vacuum of antiscientism that characterized the horrible, awful, thank the lord it’s almost over Bush administration. Being a contrarian is one thing, but the timing on that particular topic was extremely inopportune. And many found his scathing book about sexual harassment, Disclosure, both inflammatory and anti-female. The view in that book is bleak, to be sure.
But I couple those accusations with my 5-hour stream of consciousness conversation with him. His open, expansive mind was in full frontal display, and that experience makes it easier for me to view him as an incredibly curious thinker who sometimes was, like the rest of us, just plain wrong.
Ty Burr of the Boston Globe wrote a more thorough homage to Crichton’s life and work. I like Burr’s evenhanded view of Crichton’s oeuvre and have included his piece below as a counterpoint:
For better and occasionally for worse, Michael Crichton’s 6-foot-9 frame loomed over the culture like an educated T. Rex. Without the novelist/screenwriter/director, who died Tuesday at 66 of cancer, there would be no “Jurassic Park,” “Andromeda Strain,” or “ER.” On the other hand, without Crichton, there would also be no “Congo,” “The Lost World,” or “Disclosure.” The films he contributed to are a varied lot, and some of them are downright awful (including a few he directed himself, such as “Looker” and “Runaway”). The tension in any Crichton project was always between the high intelligence of the central concept and the lowdown pulp verve of the storytelling. Sometimes the pulp won. Sometimes that made for a better novel or movie. Other times, not so much.
But what a strange career the man had, from Harvard Medical School to the top of the book and movie charts, to Hollywood blockbusters, to tortuous best-selling jeremiads against Japanese businessmen and global warming activists. The consistent themes of his work are the consequences of man’s own hubris and a thoroughgoing paranoia. Someone is always coming up with a brilliant notion in Crichton, and it always goes kablooey. Bring dinosaurs back to life? OK, but they’ll escape and gobble you up. Organ transplants? Fine, until the medical establishment starts harvesting them for profit. Robots? Forget about the robots: They’ll shoot you down (“Westworld”) or come after you with knives (“Runaway”). Plastic surgery, biotech implants, chasing tornadoes? All terrible, terrible ideas (“Looker,” “The Terminal Man,” “Twister”).
After a while his high-minded anxiety spilled over into social paranoias like Japanese economic competitiveness (“Rising Sun”) and predatory women in the workplace (“Disclosure”), and the books and films became smaller and more shrill. Crichton’s milieu, it turned out, was that of the what-if, not the what now?
In person, he was by all accounts a good and gracious man, and one absolutely driven to create. Who knows what the motor was, but impatience and impossibly high standards seemed to have played a part. This is a man who dropped his Harvard English major because the professors didn’t like his writing; in other words, he was too good for them. Crichton wrote his first bestsellers under a pseudonym (two of them, actually) while going to med school; he had published seven by the time he got his degree. By then, he had also already served as a visiting fellow in anthropology at Cambridge. The egghead credentials were part of the persona that developed over the decades. Crichton’s work, even at its poppiest, had to be taken seriously because he was, you know, smarter than you.
At their best, his books and movies work precisely because of that tension between Harvard and Hollywood, between Crichton the academic wonk and Crichton the commercial player. “The Andromeda Strain” (novel 1969, movie 1971) was a bolt from the blue when it came out: A crackerjack suspense tale about a team of scientists on the track of a killer germ from outer space, the film grounded its B-movie premise with A-level science. It was also scary as hell. “Westworld” (1973), his first film as director, gave us Yul Brynner as a malfunctioning gunslinger cyborg – an image for the ages (and one slated for an upcoming remake).
With “Terminal Man” (1974, directed by Mike Hodges) and “Coma” (1978, based on a Robin Cook novel but adapted and directed by Crichton), the filmmaker’s limitations became apparent: His science-based gravitas blinded him to the inherent B-movie pleasures of his own plots. “Coma,” in particular, seemed oblivious to the ghoulish silliness of its central image, that of comatose patients strung up in a warehouse by the dozens. (Although it did provide one of the goofier lines of dialogue in film history, when Genevieve Bujold breathlessly exclaims “Zey’re pooting patients in a coma!”)
Crichton stumbled through the ’70s and ’80s – the standout is the atypical period heist film “The Great Train Robbery” (1979), an overlooked gem featuring a fine Sean Connery performance – but relocated his mojo with “Jurassic Park,” a project that delivered on one of the richest what-ifs imaginable: What if dinosaurs ruled the earth – again? Steven Spielberg took the best-selling novel to glory on the screen, underscoring once again how Crichton’s ideas needed a great director to realize them to their utmost.
The results live on as a four-star studio theme park ride, and it’s no coincidence at all that “Jurassic Park” is about an actual theme park; whether the writer intended it or not, the story works as a metaphor for the best-laid plans of the entertainment industry going deliciously awry. I’d like to think it wasn’t an accident but a knowing reflection of its creator’s dual selves. Crichton was a paradox in action: a successful crank, a showman with graduate degrees, and a creative force who, when it all clicked, got us high on apocalypse.