Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 13, 2003
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Chicago, Drumline, Adaptation, & a Manifesto
If you care about the quality of fiction, B.R. Myers's A Reader's
Manifesto (Melville House, paper, $9.95) is absolutely vital reading.
An abridged version of this book was published in Atlantic Monthly a
while back, and provoked some interesting responses. Most responses were
favorable, for the simple reason that Myers's main points are obviously true:
Most of the fiction that is being praised these days as "brilliant" and
"compelling" is actually quite awful.
Myers focuses on the writing style and, using passages quoted in reviews
that praised these books extravagantly, he shows that in fact the writing is
wretched by any rational standard. Repetitive, dull, confusing, unclear, and
often dimwitted in their effort to seem smart, these writers deserve no serious
attention -- and yet the reviewers seem to try to outdo each other in declaring
them "better" than the great writers of the past.
Personally, I don't think style is as important as the content of fiction --
what happens and why. But I care a great deal about clarity, something that I
think all good writers must strive for, and great ones achieve -- and this is one
of the points about style that Myers demonstrates clearly.
This slim book ends with a delightful response to those who have argued
against him, showing that (1) most of them don't actually attempt to answer
him at all, but instead assume that he's attacking the dead writers that he
uses as examples of what contemporary writers don't measure up to, and (2)
the rest of them basically concede that the passages he quotes are indeed
awful, but it's so mean and unfair of him to choose those passages.
Passages which, by and large, were chosen by the very same reviewers in
order to praise these bad writers.
And those of you currently taking literature courses, read this book and
then insist your teachers do likewise. Nobody should be considered qualified to
teach contemporary literature without being familiar with all the issues raised
by A Reader's Manifesto.
The movie musical has finally been resurrected.
There have been several tries. Evita was a lavish attempt, for instance,
well performed by an excellent cast. Because it was a sung-through musical, it
overcame the curse of having actors suddenly burst forth in song. I think it
would have succeeded, except for the fact that the writing was childish, the
music dull, and the lyrics downright embarrassing.
Then there was Moulin Rouge, a dull retelling of the Camille/La Boheme
storyline (young man falls in love with prostitute dying of consumption). Here
the filmmakers attempted to cover up the badness of the writing and
choreography by doing a lot of jump cuts a la MTV. But film editors can't
create choreography that wasn't there in the first place. All they achieved was
making a merely dull film downright irritating.
Now, however, someone has figured out how to do it right. Chicago is
brilliantly conceived, written, directed, and performed. Rene Zellweger, Richard
Gere, and Catherine Zeta-Jones are absolutely astonishing. We knew they
could act, but who knew they could sing and dance with such intensity and
They are supported by a cast that simply has no weaknesses. The
choreography is good, the storyline is simple but clever and satirical, the music
is pretty good.
But the most important element making this the first excellent movie
musical in many, many years is the very wise way the writers and director
worked the songs into the story. They are staged -- literally, on a soundstage,
as if being performed before an audience -- but then are intercut with the
realistic story, so that we receive the songs as the imaginings or attitude of the
Ever since Rogers and Hammerstein's "My Boy Bill" in Oklahoma!, the
ideal has been for songs to move the storyline forward, and Chicago achieves
that in spades. This was possible, of course, because two of the main
characters are professional singers, and treating their lawyer as just another
entertainer was part of the point of the film. Such a technique might not have
worked for Oliver! or Fiddler on the Roof, but then, they found their own way.
In other words, Chicago's specific technique might not work for many
other movie musicals; what's needed is not imitation, but the same level of
intelligence and creativity.
Then again, when I think back to James Brooks's delightful I'll Do
Anything, which was shot as a musical but then had its songs removed
because it failed its test screenings, I can't help but wonder how it might have
worked if this intercutting technique had been used. (And if you missed I'll Do
Anything in the theaters, give it a try. It's Nick Nolte's warmest performance,
and Joely Fisher, Tracy Ullman, and Albert Brooks are at their best.)
Be aware that the costumes are egregiously skimpy and the attitude
quite cynical -- not everyone will be comfortable and children should be left at
home, because Oklahoma! it ain't. But that aside, this is not only the best
musical in years, it is also one of the best movies this year.
Adaptation should be awful. For one thing, it's about a writer -- and
not just a writer, but a writer suffering from writer's block, which in the past as
resulted in some of the most embarrassingly bad books and movies and stories
ever created. After all, how pathetic is it for a writer to think that the most
interesting story he can tell is how hard it is for him to tell stories? The
audience's obvious answer is to say, Then let somebody else do it and stop
What makes Adaptation so delicious is that screenwriter Charlie
Kaufman knows how pathetic it is, and makes fun of the desperation that
drives a writer to such narcissism. Indeed, so convoluted are the levels of irony
and the layers of structure that this movie defies synopsis.
So of course I'll try to give you at least a taste. Charlie Kaufman (the real
screenwriter of Being John Malkovich) is hired to adapt Susan Orlean's book
The Orchid Thief into a film. A true story about Orlean's encounter with John
Laroche, an orchid hunter is thus interwoven with the fictional story about
Kaufman's attempt to make a movie out of a plotless book.
Add to this Kaufman's fabrication of a twin brother, Donald Kaufman,
who is given a screenwriting credit on the real film, just to confuse us, and
some truly outrageous but openly confessed manipulation of the storyline, so
that even as we are riveted with tension we know that the ending is completely
fabricated ... and we have an experience every bit as creative, strange, and
wonderful as we got from Being John Malkovich.
Nicholas Cage gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the twin brothers,
and not just because we are able to tell them apart instantly without the
slightest help from makeup and only a little help from costuming. The surly
passion that is always just under the surface in a Cage performance works to
bring life to what could have been a dull character (how much of someone
else's self-inflicted suffering can we put up with?), and his Donald is
extravagant without ever becoming unbelievable.
Of course, Meryl Streep's look-how-clever-an-actress-I-am style of
performance is as off-putting as ever, but her falseness is overwhelmed by the
honesty of actors like Cage, Chris Cooper as John Laroche, Brian Cox as the
real screenwriting guru Robert McKee, and many others.
As a writer who has gone through all the boring-to-others struggles
Kaufman depicts, I have to say that I have never seen such an honest if slightly
exaggerated portrayal of just how weirdly heroic a struggle it can be to squeeze
out even a bad story -- and how hard it is to live with a writer. (My wife
endorses the film completely on that count.)
I am also impressed with how kind Kaufman is to his characters. Even
though he clearly has contempt for hack screenwriters and for screenwriting
seminars, Kaufman gives McKee smart things to say and makes Donald not so
much a bad writer as an oblivious one with a good heart. In many ways this
movie is the opposite of About Schmidt, which hates everybody it sees, and the
difference is that even though Kaufman is every bit as honest about the foibles
of humanity, at the end of the movie you are left with hope and delight.
Still, much as I love it, I must warn you that it is an arty film, and those
who expect straightforward storytelling will be completely weirded out.
Because I don't watch Nickelodeon (why watch, when my eight-year-old
can tell me the plot of every episode of every show on it?) or MTV (because I
have a life), I had heard nothing about Drumline or the actors in it.
Incredibly enough, it's about a marching band. Yep, somebody thought
there was a movie in that.
Now, I was in a marching band in high school back in the 1960s. I
performed with both a Sousaphone and an E-flat alto horn (because French
horns don't do well on the field), and I loved it.
But a movie? What would it be, some kind of Revenge of the Nerds to the
tune of "The Stars and Stripes Forever"?
How could I have guessed that it would be a gently told story about an
arrogant young drummer from Harlem who finds love and community when he
gets a scholarship to play in the marching band at a black college in Georgia?
And make no mistake -- even though most of the characters are black,
this is not a "black movie" in the sense that white people won't get it. White
people most definitely will get it, because every issue in it is human and
Nick Cannon, as the young drummer, is an astonishing young actor who
has a great future ahead of him. Orlando Jones, who has had a brilliant career
playing character roles, is powerful as the band leader. Zoe Saldana and
Leonard Roberts also create characters that we come to love.
At the end, if you don't find yourself smiling -- and drumming on
anything that will make a sound -- then you might as well turn in your
membership card in the human race, because it has obviously expired.
If you're reading this on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, you still have
time to come see the Summit Players' performance of "Once Upon a Mattress"
at the LDS meetinghouse (3719 Pinetop Rd., off Westridge in Greensboro) on
Friday and Saturday, 17 and 18 January.
A terrific young cast gives a delightful performance of this musical
retelling of "The Princess and the Pea." If you've seen our previous
productions, you'll recognize some of your favorite local actors, and we've got
new faces as well. And since Emily Card (as Princess Winnifred) is leaving soon
for Los Angeles, this is the last chance for a while to see her perform on a
Admission is free (no donations accepted) and we encourage you to find a
babysitter for children under 8. (We don't have any sound amplification, and
when little children make any kind of noise it becomes impossible for people
near you to hear.)