Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 18, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Crowns, The Alamo, Malls, and 1603
It looks like the renovations at the Paul Robeson Theatre on the A&T
campus are nearly done. So the A&T production of Crowns is about the last
show they'll be doing at the Carolina Theatre downtown.
They sure made good use of the space last week, though, with a
delightful presentation of a musical about ... hats.
Not just any hats, mind you. The hats that African-American women
wore to church during the darkest times as well as the bright ones. "Our
crowns have been bought and paid for," says the quotation that framed the
stage. "All we have to do is wear them."
The collection of Black church music was wonderful (and well
performed), but the life of the show came from the sassy, defiant, pious,
compassionate, aching, gossipy, fervent, or sexy monologues taken from the
book Crowns by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.
And, of course, the hats. Stacked up on giant hatracks rising like
firepoles the whole height of the stage, the hats were gorgeous or delightful,
humorous or ridiculous, but always, the moment they were put on, they truly
did become regal.
In fact, it was contagious. I had to wear a hat myself to church last
Sunday. Of course, being a man, I had to take it off the minute I got inside.
But there really is something about putting on a hat that completes you.
Forty-four years ago, John Wayne used his own money to make an epic
movie about the Alamo, where a group of Texan heroes stood for a while
against the Mexican army of Santa Anna, until they died to the last man.
It's the seminal story of Texas history, but to tell the truth, the John
Wayne version felt to me, even at the age of nine, like it was trying too hard to
make sure we felt how noble everybody was.
That's not how it feels when you watch the new The Alamo, directed and
co-written by John Lee Hancock, who also directed The Rookie and wrote A
Perfect World, which was one of Kevin Costner's most honest and moving films.
Along with writers Leslie Bohem and Stephen Gaghan, Hancock was able
to take a complicated history and make it clear and effective. While no film can
ever deal with all the relationships and characters and issues in an important
historical event, The Alamo comes close.
Sam Houston isn't sugar-coated -- Dennis Quaid plays him as a hard-drinking man who can't quite decide whether to be a loser or a leader. In
trying to explain why Houston didn't attempt to relieve the siege of the Alamo
and in fact retreated before Santa Anna for a long way before he stood and
fought (and won) at San Jacinto, the filmmakers chose to give him a good
But of course the heart of the story isn't with Houston, it's inside the
walls of the Alamo. In this version of the film, the conflict between Jim Bowie
(Jason Patric) and William Travis (Patrick Wilson) over who should be in
command is presented realistically, as ambition and jealousy yield to necessity
in the cauldron of battle.
Davy Crockett offers Billy Bob Thornton the chance to play his most
likeable character, from wry comments about his own legend to the
extraordinary image of his fiddle-playing as an act of defiance.
A couple of Black slaves depict the fact that the people fighting for
freedom in the Alamo were, in fact, slaveowners, part of whose motivation in
trying to wrest Texas away from Mexico was to establish it as a territory where
the U.S. government could never interfere with slavery.
And, without belaboring the point, the film doesn't hide the fact that
while Santa Anna might have been something of a buffoon, he was also a
Mexican patriot who came very close to holding the territorial integrity of
Mexico against the Americans who came to steal one of the best parts of their
The only problem with the intricacy and accuracy of this film is that it
doesn't have the artificial clarity that would have made it more of an action
picture. After all, except for the final onslaught, the "battle" of the Alamo was a
siege, and sieges generally consist of sitting there getting blasted by enemy
artillery for days on end.
Still, I'll take the slightly slower movement of a fine movie like this one
over the fakeness of, say, Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor a few years ago. Or, for
that matter, the equally fake, melodramatic, and overwrought From Here to
Eternity, though at least that film had the virtue of being good melodrama.
And in The Alamo, while there are women, there aren't many and they
aren't hopping into and out of bed with the heroes. In short, they didn't wreck
the story with pointless romance. This is a war picture, about men doing what
men do when things seem worth fighting and dying for.
That doesn't mean women won't enjoy it. The two women in our group
that watched the movie enjoyed it, despite having to wince a few times at the
violence, which was not excessive.
History is hard to film well. Those facts keep getting in the way of telling
a good story. But when it works, it's well worth seeing.
So I recommend The Alamo highly -- with the warning that I also liked
the Lawrence Kasdan historical film from 1994, Wyatt Earp, which a lot of
other people thought was too long and tedious.
The Call of the Mall, by Paco Underhill (who also wrote Why We Buy) is
that rare thing -- a highly readable book by a genuine scientist.
Underhill researches malls with a definite purpose in mind: His clients
are mall owners, managers, and builders, who hire him to tell them how to
make their malls work better, or how to design them more effectively in the first
So in this book, Underhill takes us through an "average" mall (I kept
seeing Four Seasons Mall and Carolina Circle Mall and Friendly Center, of
course), explaining what so many malls are doing wrong -- and the sound
commercial reasoning behind some of the decisions of the mall-makers.
By the end, Underhill does a good job of getting us past the visceral
rejection of malls that is so trendy among American elites, while making very
clear the reasons why so many malls are dying these days.
I can't be the only citizen of Greensboro who recognized that, as mall
architecture goes, the Carolina Circle mall was much better designed and more
attractive than Four Seasons. Its only insuperable problem was its location, at
the far edge of a city that is cursed with a tedious and impenetrable system of
Until I read this book, though, I didn't know why I so strongly preferred
the open design of Friendly Center to the big ugly box of Four Seasons.
It's not just the gross inconvenience of shopping in the box and having to
lug everything six miles out to the edge of the parking lot several times during
each pre-Christmas shopping trip (about the only time I go to Four Seasons).
It's also the fact that Friendly Center's management has actually made
some effort to make the experience of driving and parking and walking around
a pleasure instead of a nasty chore.
The book is also full of excellent advice about how to reinvent malls so
that they actually satisfy more of our desires when we congregate, not just to
shop, but to discover ourselves as a community.
1603: The Death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Return of the Black
Plague, the Rise of Shakespeare, Piracy, Witchcraft, and the Birth of the
Stuart Era may have the longest subtitle of any book I've ever read all the way
But author Christopher Lee does a fine job of pulling together a lot of
issues in English history that came together in that one year.
It's always iffy with a book like this ... how much will be comprehensible
to a reader who isn't already familiar with the cast of characters? I believe,
though, that Lee has done a good job of making everything clear even to those
to whom "Shakespeare" is just a name from high school and "Raleigh" is a city
in North Carolina.
This isn't one of the great books of period-based history, like Barbara
Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, nor is it the kind of
deep penetration of life in a longlost era epitomized by Dorothy Hartley's
brilliant The Lost Country Life.
But with this book you do surround yourself with one of those single
years that made a difference in history without having any great wars or
So if you watched Touching Evil this past week, based on my
recommendation, you saw, as promised, an excellent show. But why did they
have to throw in a few completely needless, character-inappropriate, and
counterfactual attacks on the conduct of the war in Iraq?
It seems like the American entertainment media have decided, all at
once, to stop pretending that they are part of the same country that most of us
live in. Their attitudes are "truth," and they'll ram it down our throats whether
we like it or not.
And in the process, they date their productions as surely as Reefer
Madness. They are products of a particular brief period in American media
history -- and not a terribly smart time, either.
But I guess it's good to know who isn't on our side in America's struggle
to save civilization from the wrecking ball of organized terrorism. In fact, these
people would sneer at that very sentence.
The way people used to sneer at Churchill's warnings until it was way too
late to defeat Nazism before it would cost millions of lives to do it.
Keep the nights of May 7th and 8th open on your calendar -- that is, if
you're interested in seeing my production of Fiddler on the Roof, presented
free of charge at the LDS meetinghouse on Pinetop Road. We have a terrific cast
and it's shaping up into a production well worth a couple of hours of your time.
And you can't beat the price ...