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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 24, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Open Range, R Ratings, and American Girls

I can think of several reasons why so many reviewers disliked The Open Range, the powerful new western starring Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, and Annette Bening.

Critics generally regard the western as an exhausted genre. Therefore they look for something edgy and, usually, incongruously modern that "brings something new." This movie doesn't play that game.

It's a movie directed by and starring Kevin Costner, whom the critics love to hate. Many of them seem to walk into any Costner picture expecting to detest it. Not that Costner hasn't done a lot to provoke such expectations -- but what he is good at, he does very, very well, and hostile critics might miss it.

Mostly, though, I think the response to The Open Range has been so skeptical because it absolutely requires that the audience be able to comprehend serious moral questions.

Ordinary movie-goers can do this with ease. But critics are extraordinarily ill-suited to the task, because they're used to a different mode of decoding a film.

Critics are trained to notice the methodology and evaluate a film in its artistic context.

Audiences notice what happens in the story, and why it happens; they care about the characters; they compare the film to its context in real life.

(Too many critics have no idea what real life is for ordinary people. They think it's either Philadelphia Story or American Beauty.)

The Open Range is a real-world film. A film for grown-ups: people who have already faced many serious moral dilemmas in their lives and know just how hard those choices can be.

There's no point in bringing kids to this movie. Young kids will be disturbed by the bad things that happen; older kids will just be bored, because it doesn't provide the gung-ho adventure of, say, Spider-Man or Pirates of the Caribbean -- both excellent films, mind you.

Open Range is doing something else.

It takes you into the only realistic western town that I've ever seen on film. Where most westerns show townspeople as a shadowy background to a showdown between the hero and the evil cattle baron, The Open Range lets you see them as individuals and families, people with jobs, with hopes and fears. People who want their town to be better than it is, but mostly just want to be left alone.

Without wasting time on the obsessive camera work of, say, Heaven's Gate or Days of Heaven, The Open Range takes just enough time to give you a sense of the time it took to get from one place to another, of what the western life was like.

Costner did not make this film on the cheap. He took six shots to get one man buried; it could have been done with only one camera set-up; an action director wouldn't have shown the scene at all -- just a board sticking up out of the grave as they rode away.

But for this movie, every moment of those six shots was important. We saw that these men cared enough to dig the grave a quarter mile away, so it would be near the base of the only tree. We saw some of their love for a good friend -- even though they barely allowed any of their emotion to show. We saw how long it took, despite their grim resolve, to move on to the next phase of their struggle, including getting another of their companions to a doctor.

It was a reticent society, where people didn't burden each other with every detail of their feelings or their past history until it became important. A man wouldn't think of spending a night in a single woman's house -- it would hurt her reputation. Two men could be friends for ten years and not know each other's real names or the most agonizing memories they carried around with them.

And yet it was an extraordinarily open society, too, in another way. Trust could be formed immediately, and when a man called you his friend, it meant something. A woman can say, "I've had a lot of disappointments in my life," and her man can answer her, "I won't be one of them," and you know that he means it, that he'll keep his word.

To some critics, I think this feels like fantasyland.

To me, it felt a lot more like home. Like the world I've been living in, off and on, throughout my life.

Most of the people I know do keep their word -- especially to their wives and husbands, but to their children and family and friends as well.

Most of the people I know don't seek celebrity among strangers, but instead look to earn the trust and respect of the best people they actually know.

There are other societies and other sets of rules, and at times I have to go out into that stab-you-in-the-back, what's-in-it-for-me society. And I know that there are lots of folks who never escape from that darker world -- in many cases because they carry it with them, being themselves untrustworthy, fame-hungry, and inconstant, so they see only those traits in others.

Some people fling the label "cliched" or "sentimental" at a movie that shows good people who aren't hypocrites, who are trying to learn how to be better human beings, who do brave and decent things -- and sometimes terrible things, when the need is great.

A movie like this isn't cliched or sentimental. It's civilized. Movies like this promote the values which, if people believe in them and try to live up to them, help preserve civilization -- and, more to the point, make a civilization worth preserving.

The funny thing is, the "edgy" movies, the cynical ones that see only darkness -- movies like American Beauty and The Hours and About Schmidt and The Piano, to cite four of the most prominent and loathsome of them -- are virtually unwatchable, like taking really nasty medicine for 120 minutes at a time, only to find out that it's the medicine itself that's making you sick.

While the real medicine, the stuff that can heal wounds and sicknesses -- personal ones and societal ones -- can be presented beautifully, movingly, with great humor and warmth. Like The Open Range.

I'm not a fan of Annette Bening, but in this film she is strong and real and warm. Kevin Costner has a limited range as an actor, but it suits this character and this movie perfectly. Robert Duvall is a miraculously good actor who has always had the gift of showing love without seeming unmanly.

Together with an extraordinary supporting cast (including the great character actor Michael Jeter, who died before this film was released), they create a world full of danger, with terrible choices to be made, but wonderful ones, too. I was not bored for a moment in this movie. I cared; I believed; I understood.

My wife and I went back and saw it again the next day, and loved it even more the second time.

*

It is possible to read this film as some kind of allegory of the recent war in Iraq. Resist the temptation to interpret the film that way. Instead simply recognize that some of the grown-up moral dilemmas these people face are the kinds of dilemmas faced by societies that must choose whether or not war can be or should be avoided, and how to wage a war if war should come.

In other words, this film is about big, real, important human issues, and so it's bound to overlap with events in the real world. But if you watch this film looking only for allegorical correspondences with the war in Iraq, you'll find them -- plenty of them -- but you'll miss most of the movie. This movie is about everything, not just one thing.

*

The Open Range is rated R. I know some people who, in order to keep their lives free of moral garbage, have simply made it a rule not to go to R-Rated movies. Some even go so far as to ban PG-13 movies from their homes.

And I'm not going to argue with them! But I would like to point out that the MPAA rating system is not well-suited to making moral decisions. Instead, the rating system is designed to avoid complaints.

So if a movie is packed with foul language or nudity or sex scenes, you can't complain -- it was rated R, so you were warned and should have stayed away.

If you want to judge your movies in order to avoid a specific list of unpleasantnesses, I suggest you go to www.screenit.com, which gives you detailed lists of exactly what potentially disturbing or offensive elements occur in every film in general release. It gives you a lot more information than the MPAA rating systm.

But the R rating is sometimes used for movies that don't have any sex or nudity or horribly graphic violence or seriously foul language. The Open Range, for instance, has none of those things. It is truly not likely to offend most people. There's definitely some violence, and some bad stuff happens -- but it's more in the story than in the images.

So if you use the R rating as your absolute arbiter, you'll miss a great movie that would add some truth and, yes, beauty to your life. While there are plenty of nasty, filthy little movies that skirt the line very carefully, so that while they bring you nothing worth seeing, they don't quite cross the line into R territory.

Generally speaking, you know what a movie is offering by the way it's promoted. You know that My Boss's Daughter is going to be full of leering innuendo and edge-of-the-line sexual situations. But it's rated PG-13.

Don't let the MPAA rating system replace your own moral judgment. It's not fit for the job. And now and then you'll miss something truly fine.

*

Speaking of movies, this may be the end-of-summer dumping ground, but don't despair -- there's at least one great one coming in September.

I speak of Secondhand Lions, written and directed by Tim McCanlies, and starring Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, Haley Joel Osment, and Kyra Sedgwick.

The promos look great, and those who have read the script report that this is going to be an unforgettably great film. It's a funny, fantastical romp, but it's also a moving story of what family should and shouldn't be.

Limited release on 19 September -- which, with my luck, won't include Greensboro.

*

There are plenty of book series for young girls, some pretty good, some pretty awful, but the class of the genre has always been the American Girl series.

Of course, they're no slackers when it comes to marketing. If you got sucked into buying everything, you'd be broke -- and your whole house would be decorated in a half-dozen periods of American history.

Still, at core they do a responsible job of giving young readers a realistic view of a wide range of the American past, while telling pretty good (if sometimes rather too safely innocuous) stories.

Our daughter has her favorite characters, and reads many of the books, but her favorite thing is the Theater Kit. What a great idea -- to give girls a script and a lot of ideas about how to put on a short play with your friends. We've already had one delightful day of rehearsal and performance in front of a very friendly audience -- the parents of the actresses.

You can still get Theater Kits -- used -- on Amazon.com.

And American Girl magazine isn't just a supplemental sales catalogue -- on the contrary, it's full of interesting features and activities, and all the pictures of children show them in age-appropriate clothing. In other words, this is a magazine that won't try to turn your daughters into Lil' Kim.

*

I really wanted to read a good biography of Generalissimo Franco, the dictator of Spain until the mid-1970s.

Franco, by Gabrielle Ashford Hodges, isn't it.

Apparently Hodges thought that the word biography meant second-rate Freudian case study. Certainly that's what she wrote. And after wading through page after page in which she got sidetracked from actual information about Franco to ridiculous psychobabble, I gave up.

They ought to have a warning label when a biographer tries to put the subject onto a couch instead of under a microscope.

*

Best short movie review of the week:

The delightful lady sitting beside us at the 8:45 Friday showing of The Open Range told us all we need to know about 2 Fast 2 Furious in these words:

"It has a lot of young people driving very fast cars. And it also has a story about them."

Nuff said.

*

Worst movie behavior of the week:

At that same 8:45 Friday showing, a family brought their young kids and spread them across a row of seats. The boys at one end scuffled with each other continually. The people in front of them asked them to be quiet, to no avail; one of these adults had to get up and move somewhere else so he could watch the movie.

During some of the more emotionally tense scenes, the girl we guessed to be about four whined to her mother, "I don't want to see this movie." We thought she showed far better judgment than the parents who brought her.

One of the kids had brought a toy with a bright red light on one end, which was whirled around by child after child, causing a really irritating distraction.

Through all this, the father did absolutely nothing to control his children.

The mother took the one child with sense enough to complain out of the theater several times -- but kept bringing her back in.

The most irritating thing was that for the amount they had spent on tickets for these children, they could easily have hired a babysitter and left them home, improving the theater-going experience for everyone else -- and opening up a half dozen seats in that sold-out showing.

What were they thinking?

They sure weren't thinking about the other people in that theater, who had paid to see a movie, not admire the superb job they were doing of not civilizing their children.

Movie theaters are not your living room. If your children (or you) cannot cooperate in creating a quiet, nondistracting environment for other people to view the film, wait for the movie to come out on DVD and watch it at home.


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