Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Signal Watch Reads: Rin Tin Tin - The Life and the Legend, Susan Orlean (2011 - audiobook)

I am not entirely certain why I decided to read this book.  I've not read any prior Orlean, and I had literally never seen anything with Rin Tin Tin in it other than a few scant moments of the circa 1990 series, Rin Tin Tin: K9 Cop.  It is true that I like a happy looking dog, and I was marginally aware of a strange history of the pooch.  But after reading the Larry Tye Superman book, a topic I knew entirely too much about to ever wonder where it was going, and partially because, lately,  I've been thinking a lot about the lifespan of a media-driven concept - as the 20th Century and the first media giants fade in the collective memory, Rin Tin Tin seemed to be a good place to pick up that thread again as any.

Certainly I was curious as to what became of the media empire that I knew once existed and, today, there's not a kid out there who knows what the words "Rin Tin Tin" mean.

And, hey, it's about dogs.  I'm a fan.

Susan Orlean is perhaps most famous for the book she wrote, The Orchid Thief, which was turned into a Meryl Streep movie which I confess that I have never seen (Adaptation).  In Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, Orlean traces more than a century of history, from the ramshackle, lonely and unpredictable childhood of Lee Duncan, the man who would find a litter of German Shepard puppies in a kennel within an evacuated German base in WWI France, straight through to the modern era of DVD's and memorabilia collection.  And, of course, the tangled existence of a very real dog who became a screen legend, only to become a fictional character with his passing, and becoming the sort of property that people wind up suing one another over until the value of the property has fallen through the bottom.

Orlean weaves her own story into the book, not one that's particularly remarkable as these things go, but it gives the reader context when it comes to her research, what sparked her interest, how the misty memories of both the dog on the television in the 1950's series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and her relationship with an knowable grandfather echoed back to her as she tried to bring the past into the present, with things both on the screen and real.  And, it's an honest approach as Orlean necessarily frames her experience hunting down the folks who are still alive from Lee Duncan's family, those associated with the show and a Texas woman who has been breeding heirs of Rin Tin Tin in Texas, and who was smart enough to run out and trademark Rin Tin Tin when Hollywood had not.

It's a fresh approach, and, as Orlean herself narrated the audiobook I listened to, you get the exact meaning of the author in her inflection and emphasis.  That said - it's also a little odd hearing her discuss the topic.  As I understand it, much of the fuss made over The Orchid Thief was about Orlean observing people with a genuine passion for something she didn't entirely understand, passion she observed for the first time in her life.  Here, she steps in late to the Rin Tin Tin game and in both reflecting her story (which, in all fairness, is about 5-10% of the book at most) she claims a bit of the same madness that drove Lee Duncan to forge a life around a dog that came and went during a relatively brief part of his own life, and that of Bert Leonard, the man who produced the 50's TV series and carried the Rinty torch in Hollywood for decades until his death in 2006.

The history Orlean relates is fascinating and sprawling.  Orleans is fortunate to have come across an unpublished manuscript Duncan wrote as an autobiography, and it seems there were multiple drafts of movies that were to tell the life of Lee Duncan and his discovery of Rin Tin Tin as first a puppy and then how they came together into the movies (and beyond, one assumes).

And while we get some biographical sketches of the key players, she's not focused so much on dates and names of children, etc... so much as she's curious about what dogs mean in general in the American context, and what the illusion of a real dog that became a multimedia character before the term "multimedia" had ever been thought up, all named Rin Tin Tin, all after a dog that starred in a few movies (always named Rin Tin Tin in those movies as well as in fact), and wound up on lunchboxes, comic books and anything you could name in that mid-20th Century bonanza of merchandising that found it's footing with Mickey and Superman just prior to WWII.

There's a telling moment in the book where Orlean, who states that she's never used an archive before, admits she thought it was going to be a real drag to go through all of Lee Duncan's records, letters, etc... and is surprised to find herself becoming engrossed and seems to tip her hand a bit.  Despite years of writing, she's just never done this kind of in-depth, primary resource research before, something a good portion of responsible graduate students do endlessly, working away in libraries and archives, pursuing their own passions.

You can, of course, have a passion without primary-source research, but there felt like there was something between the lines - that maybe Orleans - who never really says why she decided to write about Rin Tin Tin in the first place, seems to be getting into the idea after the fact.  And maybe that's okay.  True-believers come in with a  narrative in mind.

That said, there's one moment she gives herself in the book, where she describes visiting a memorabilia collector, and she feels a little odd watching him talk about his collection in the way us collectors can and would do well not to do so with strangers (some of us have learned the hard way), and she notes to herself that on a sunny California day, when she could have been at the beach, she was in an apartment also looking at Rin Tin Tin collectibles, and ... dot dot dot...  I guess I'm a freak, too, is the message.   But you want to say, "no.  You're a tourist.  You're on an assignment.  When you're gone, this guy will still be here with his toys, hoping he can make some money off them before he has a heart attack and someone throws it all away".

And maybe that was - as good as the book was and is - my problem with it.  She desperately wants to be attached to the material, enough so to put herself into a non-fictional narrative in which she plays no practical or tertiary part, but because she's drawing attention to herself as narrator and yet she can't seem to fully grasp people right out in front of her.  She flirts dangerously with coming off as the backpacker who comes back after six weeks of parentally-funded Eurorail rides telling you how great each and every city they visited was, and how the people there were so authentic.

Reading the history and current state of Rin Tin Tin as a once extremely popular movie feature (he almost won the first Oscar for best actor, but the Academy decided they needed people to take the awards seriously and wrangled the voting process to make sure a human got the statue), and knowing the state of both the "property" that is Rin Tin Tin in 2015, and the deeply faded memory in the American psyche, it all frays a bit at the edges.  The supposition that "there will always be a Rin Tin Tin", a mantra of the book, feels a bit dubious when the only hyperlink out there leading directly to Rin Tin Tin is for a dogfood brand I've never seen on a shelf and the only movie to get produced in years was a direct-to-video clunker I had the misfortune of watching this weekend.  And a bit of Googling shows that the trademark was still in dispute in 2013.

All of this makes it seem impossible for Rinty to make any sort of comeback, to get exposure of any kind as the name of a poor dog dead for 83 years as of Aug. 10, seems to do what all long-lived Hollywood properties seem to do - just become a weird magnet for legal battles.

There's a lot here, and Orlean finds a way to form a tapestry from scraps of a larger picture than you'd expect.

I am concerned I've written something like 10,000 words here that will make you think I didn't like the book.  Quite the opposite.  I had some qualms and questions, and I know Orlean had to end it on a bit of an upnote, sincere or otherwise.  I think she chose an interesting direction to take the book, not a "just the facts" style reporting like I got out of Tye's Superman book.  Seeking motivation for all involved made her try a little harder when her characters weren't quite as upfront as the likes of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and she had Bert Lester turning down Disney money because he wanted to maintain the integrity of the character (he'd come to regret that decision).

But, you know, watching the 2007 movie, you can see what Bert was on about.  Rin Tin Tin was never a clownish character, nor a talking puppet in the manner of the Air Buddies.  His adventures weren't so much cute as rugged, including when he was paired with a boy on television rather than with grown adults as he'd been in many of his movies.  It seems like, even in the world of CGI and all that, there is, in fact, a place for the sorts of themes of loyalty and bravery and dedication that comprised those early Rinty movies and the 1950's series.

I'd be curious to see what Hollywood would do with Orleans' book, with the story of Lee Duncan and Rin Tin Tin, or with the potential for revitalizing the character in another go at the big or small screen as a brave hearted German Shepard.

Who doesn't like a dog?


picky said...

This is a fascinating review because I love what you say about Orlean being a tourist of sorts. It's why every time I think I'd like to teach a comics course, I think of you and immediately say, "Nah." I didn't come to comics early, but I'm fascinated by them. It's not the same.

And I think Orlean's telling would bother me for the same reason. Plus, I like my nonfiction a bit cleaner than that, without the personal side so much. I didn't mind it at all in James Bradley's FLYBOYS because his pop was one of the dudes raising the flag at Iwo Jima. But here I think I'd mind it, especially as I'm not a gal for memoirs.

The League said...

I would certainly not discourage you from teaching a course on comics just because you weren't a sad case in middle school who turned to Batman for excitement. Not that I know anything about that. You don't need to (and I hope you would not bother with) the sort of actuarial/ accounting/ trivia hoarding of comics nerddom. Teaching critical analysis of any media is a worthy pursuit, and while history is important, it's also highly attainable. It's barfed all over the internet and there are a few bibles of comics history you can knock out in a couple of weeks. But teaching how to read comics critically as juxtaposition of art and word (see: Scott McCloud) and movements in comics could each be a semester course.

I'm not sure if it's still available, but Christine Blanch did a good job of exploring the same by using gender studies as her focus for a MOOC a few years back. My issues were never with Blanch, but the way MOOCs function. If the course is still up (I think at Coursera), you could do worse than to check it out and get some ideas.

If I have an issue with Orlean as tourist, it's the emphasis on the "look at me! I'm part of this!" aspect that both works and grates as the book goes along that doesn't really resolve itself. If you want to be part of the narrative, you need your own narrative curve, and she has to force it to occur. And you never get past the idea that while she's warmed to the freaks and misfits, the lack of coverage she gives them except to mention "oh, this one weirdo collector and I hung out", told me things I'm not sure she understood she was conveying.

picky said...

How odd! I actually started a MOOC today! Everything I've read says you get out of it what you're willing to put in (not so different from a traditional course), so we'll see. If it's crap, I'll just drop it.

And thanks for the encouragement. Does a gal good.

The League said...

Yeah, we should chat about your experience when it's underway! I used to deliver online education for a living, and the MOOC format is a little antithetical to how I think of educational delivery. .