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Scheming Toys

[whitespace] Author Noah Hawley takes apart 'Small Soldiers'

By David Templeton

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, his planned rendezvous with Noah Hawley--author of the acclaimed novel A Conspiracy of Tall Men--runs into a few unanticipated snags. Who smells a plot?

Outside the theater, a large, stocky fellow holds a wrinkled cardboard sign, proclaiming his willingness to "work for food." Under that Magic-Markered phrase is another: "Advertising space available; Please ask for details."

Inside the cavernous lobby, I am surrounded by a fluttering swarm of amped-up entertainment seekers. It's not quite noon, and this place is already packed. I glance about for author Noah Hawley, whom I am to meet here, presumably to see Disturbing Behavior, a thriller in which authority-questioning teens discover their parents' evil plot to surgically turn them all into happy, smiling automatons.

After examining Hawley's picture on the cover of his sensational new book, A Conspiracy of Tall Men (Harmony, 1998), I scan the faces of the crowd as they assemble into neat, obedient lines in front of the multi-windowed box office. A big digital signboard proclaims that a number of movies are already sold out: Saving Private Ryan, Something About Mary, Zorro--everything but Disturbing Behavior and Small Soldiers. The latter is a noisy fantasy about G.I. Joe-ish action toys secretly armed with high-tech military munitions chips.

I'd better get in line. Oops. Too late. "Disturbing Behavior Sold Out," taunts the blinking sign as I arrive at the little window.

"You can still see Small Soldiers," suggests the happy, smiling automaton behind the glass. At this point Hawley arrives. He looks even younger than he does in the picture (he's actually 31). Quickly sizing up the situation--"Sold Out? Go figure," he says--the author votes to go along with the toy flick.

Hawley's been receiving a lot of attention lately. The book, his first, began generating a buzz long before publication last month. A surprisingly intelligent, refreshingly literate thriller, it breaks all the rules of the genre with its tale of Felix, a professor of conspiracy theory who is faced with a real-life conspiracy (or is it?) when his wife is killed in a plane crash--on a flight to Rio that Felix didn't know she was planning to take. A Conspiracy of Tall Men has been optioned by actor Patrick Stewart, who plans to play the professor in the movie. Good word of mouth on the novel--it may turn out to be the best new novel of the year--has turned Hawley into an overnight celebrity, a situation he views with characteristic suspicion.

"It's incredibly odd to wake up one morning," he shrugs, "and realize that your name has become a commodity."

And speaking of commodities.

"I kept thinking about the paradox of Small Soldiers," he relates later, after the movie, as he bites into a turkey sandwich at a café down the street. "Here's a movie about toys, a movie that satirizes mindless consumerism of violence, that was a product placement for itself, an advertisement for the toys that would be spawned by the toys the movie was about.

"This is what corporate America is now giving us," he says. "This idea of synergy, of mixing all these different types of media together. A movie is no longer just a movie, it's also a set of action figures, a paperback novelization, a Happy Meal."

"An A&E biography of the filmmaker," I add to the list. "A T.V. special on the making of the movie, broadcast by the station that is owned by the movie company that also owns the toy company."

"Exactly," Hawley laughs. "With tiny advertisements stuck to pieces of fruit in the grocery store."

Not to mention the cardboard signs of homeless panhandlers.

"In the movie, the toy company truck driver talked about this a little. He had a very anti-globalization bent in him. He said, 'Pretty soon everything is going to be one big corporation.' I think that's true." He sips his water.

"It's not just with kids' movies either," he observes. "There's this whole World War II thing going on now. Saving Private Ryan--a World War II movie. Have you seen those Gap ads with the people dancing to Big Band songs? Ever wonder why Swing Dancing is so popular now? I even read somewhere that they've now discovered all this color footage from the second World War, that no one had ever seen before. It's sort of amazing to me."

"Not to be conspiratorial or anything," he continues, "but you have to wonder what sort of meetings are going on. It all seems a bit sinister to me. It seems deliberate--and the hallmark of any good conspiracy is seeing the pattern within the chaos, right?"

At this point Hawley sounds more than a little like one of the colorful conspiracists from his book. Not so, he insists. "I became very familiar with the mindset of conspiracy theorists while writing the book," he explains, "which I see less as a thriller than as a story about an academic grieving for his dead wife."

Even so, he's grown to appreciate the logic of being paranoid.

"I think this whole Earth basically operates to move money around," he theorizes. "I really believe that. People make products, people buy products, people are products."

"When people ask me if I'm worried about all this Apocalypse stuff, with some evil New World Order about to descend upon us, I always say, "Well, this is a world based on consumerism, right? So what good would it do to put the population in camps?' No one could buy leisure wear, or VCRs, or go to the movies, or buy action figures."

"As long as we continue to shop," Noah Hawley wryly concludes, "I think maybe we'll be okay."

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Web extra to the August 6-12, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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