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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 panache?

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 characters.

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 boring us!

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 universal.

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 Greensboro stage.

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.)


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