THIS IS TO the obsessed, to those who risk it all to be fastest, first or best, to those who refuse to submit to the safe and comfortable tedium of predictability, to those who drag us along in their turbulent, restless wakes. Our dreams become their obsessions, and in the process, all of us either advance or retreat. The obsessed are the enemies of the status quo; they operate beyond the gravitational pull of reason. They go for the record, ignore the experts and turn their backs on conventional wisdom. Here’s to those captives of their obsessions who will risk an early appointment in Samara to set a new standard.
For the obsessed, there is no choice. Their instinct to act replaces any need to reflect. Some pursue their obsessions without any realistic expectation for success. But then reality is seldom a consideration. The very doing somehow keeps at bay the unthinkable fact of their own mortality. Some solitary performers operate alone. Others operate in groups, unified and possessed by the same obsession. None of them know when to turn back: The money can run out -so can the food and water -but they keep going, frantic and sleepless, succored by their manias.
Werner Herzog is a German film maker whose best-known work is Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Last November he finished his latest film, Fitzcarraldo, millions over budget, years behind schedule. It’s a film about obsession, made by a man possessed. It’s based on a true story about a man named Fitzcarrald who, at the beginning of the century, wanted to build an opera house in the middle of a South American jungle. This involved moving a steamboat overland from one jungle river to another. Sounds obsessive.
In real life, Fitzcarrald got the Indians to at least take the ship apart to move it. That didn’t interest Herzog; he wanted a very large steamship moved in its entirety by Indians. The only location that satisfied him was deep within the Peruvian jungle near the Ecuadorian border -an area that, at one point, involved moving the boat over a 40-degree incline. Jack Nicholson was to star; he bowed out early. Mick Jagger actually worked on the film but couldn’t take the delays. Their replacements weren’t as bankable at the box office, but that didn’t stop Herzog. The deaths of extras didn’t stop him. Tribal warfare didn’t stop him. He wanted the ship moved without any special effects. No models of battleships in bathtubs filmed to resemble reality. He was going for the reality of his dreams. He was going for images that we not only have never seen but also have never imagined. In his words, “We are doing things almost against the laws of nature, things that have no technical precedence -moving a ship this large over a mountain. But I have no fear. Aside from not being afraid, I am not even allowed to be afraid. If I started to panic, the film would disintegrate in less than a day.”
MOVING FROM the jungle to a group of men who worked for a company called Data General that was nestled in the woods along Route 128 outside of Boston, we see an obvious connection. Their story is powerfully told in Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Soul of a New Machine. Their project -on which the company was betting a good portion of the store- required the development of an entirely new, highly complex computer in an unprecedentedly short time frame. They succeeded, but that’s not the point. For the years it took to accomplish the mission, the group of computer engineers propelled themselves and their machine forward “…breathing on it to make it come to life.” Completely obsessed, never entirely certain of where they were heading, the engineers inhabited “a land of mists and mirrors.” The new computer was successfully marketed in 1980. The Soul of a New Machine is particularly interesting in its depiction of the bereavement many of the team members felt when their work was done. One interesting footnote is that a key member of that Data General team, Steve Wallach, has moved to Dallas to form a new high technology firm: the Parsec Corporation.
Here’s to all of them: to Ross Perot Jr. and Jay Coburn and their record-establishing helicopter flight around the world, to Jimmy Connors and Carl Yazstremski, to Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose, to Dr. Donald Seldin at Southwestern Medical School. It’s lucky for the rest of us that they follow the advice of Coach Bob in John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire: “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”