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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 sound reason.

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 land.

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 place.

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 streets.

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 through.

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 decisive struggles.

*

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 ...


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