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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 20, 2004

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


Around the Terminal in 80 Days, St. Dale, Locusts, Queens, and Meat

There are two new movies this week, and they both suffer from the same disease, though in one case it's nearly fatal, and in the other, it's just irritating.

Around the World in 80 Days was a wonderful book by Jules Verne. His purpose was to convince his audience that it really was possible, back in the late 1800s, to travel around the world in 80 days, along the way having marvelous adventures and cleverly surmounting great obstacles.

The David Niven/Cantinflas movie of nearly fifty years ago brought the book to delightful life -- changed, but still faithful to the spirit of the original.

Now we have Jackie Chan in the role of Passepartout, who is supposed to be the amusing sidekick. But since he's the star, and Steve Coogan, as Phileas Fogg, is virtually unknown, the part of Passepartout has been inflated to the point of nearly exploding the story. For much of the film, it's barely about Phileas Fogg and his round-the-world bet at all.

But that would have been endurable if the writers of this film had not been so contemptuous of believability. And believability matters. If the events are not possible, if we don't believe they might really happen, then the story has no point at all. When any absurd or stupid thing can happen, then who cares what does happen?

The repeated joke is that Phileas Fogg invented everything. However, they can't make up their mind which time period this film takes place in. Victoria is queen (Kathy Bates, in the one good cameo in the film), and the Wright brothers have not yet built their airplane, though for some reason they're wandering around in the cactus-filled desert between Reno and San Francisco (which, in case you didn't know, doesn't exist -- it's high mountains and lakes or California's Central Valley between those two cities). But electric lights are still a shocking novelty, and yet streamlining is already incorporated in the inventor's designs, and ... then they build a flying machine out of the kind of wood that you'd find on a ship. Ludicrous.

But far worse than the silly technological mistakes is the writers' penchant for elaborately set-up sight gags. Let's see -- how many wretched movies have depended for all their humor on jokes that are engineered like Rube Goldberg contraptions? The Money Pit, the Home Alone movies, that hideous one about trying to kill a mouse that I walked out of a few years ago; when is somebody going to catch on that those gags just aren't funny enough to justify the destruction of the believability of the film?

This movie was written by three Davids: David Titcher (a former writer with who's the Boss, whose last feature film was Morgan Stewart's Coming Home, a Jon Cryer vehicle in the 1980s), David Benullo (who wrote Cupid, a dark little incest story that was no doubt a riot), David Goldstein (who, mercifully, has no other film to be blamed for). Watch these guys -- if they ever combine forces again, stay away.

The director was Frank Coraci, whose previous films include The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer. Since Coraci has shown he can do comedy that arises out of character and situation, one can only conclude that this movie was a cynical exercise by all concerned. No one's heart went into this film, and without that, comedy is always doomed to fail.

The other movie that destroys believability is Stephen Spielberg's The Terminal. The deep dishonesty of this movie is merely irritating because Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, along with many less-well-known actors, give such honest performances.

This film is based on a real incident that occurred in France, the country that invented mindless bureaucracy. A man's native country suffers a revolution while he's on an international flight, and when he arrives, his passport and visa are no longer valid. Therefore he can't enter the country; but he also can't go home. So he lives in the airport.

The fact is it couldn't happen in New York -- at least not as shown. That's not the problem, though -- we'll buy the premise readily enough, if the rest of the story is good.

The trouble is, Stephen Spielberg doesn't know how to tell an honest, straightforward story. He always has to cheat -- to get cheap laughs and to get cheap sentiment. He really does believe his audience is infinitely stupid, and heaven knows his movie grosses suggest that perhaps we are. Or maybe we're beginning to catch on.

Anything for a gag:

Tom Hanks's character has been living in the airport long enough to learn English -- but he still runs into the women's restroom. He walks into a plate glass window. He mispronounces "cheat" so it sounds like a bad word, even though the Slavic language he speaks makes a clear distinction between sh and ch. This is all stupid, cheap humor; the only thing that saves it is that Hanks's performance is so perfectly tuned that he saves Spielberg the humiliation he deserves for even asking an actor to do these things.

Worse, though, is the rank manipulation of character. Stanley Tucci's character is rule-obsessed. Except when Spielberg wants him to be vindictive and hateful. Which is dropped the moment Spielberg wants to make him suddenly understanding. All without motivation. Tucci tries, but ... he's given nothing but stick-figure writing to work with.

As for Catherine Zeta-Jones, this is one of her best performances, giving us a character with some nuance. But then, near the end of the film, she goes through a complete reversal of everything we thought she had learned through her association with Hanks. Supposedly it's both a noble sacrifice and a return-to-type, but it can't be both, and Spielberg thinks it can.

These characters -- and the minor characters, as well -- amount to nothing. By the end, it's obvious Spielberg has no idea what real human beings are like, and throws away his actors' work in order to get cheap effects. When the charming mop-wielding Indian makes a spectacularly noble but utterly stupid and pointless sacrifice near the end, we know we're being led around by an idiot -- and I don't mean the actor.

As a final manipulation, Hanks's character is finally on the verge of getting the thing he came to America for, but for no reason at all, the person who could give it to him in three seconds makes him sit and wait. Then we cut to Hanks leaving, and we are meant to think he didn't get it. But then we realize, he did! Only by then we don't care, because we know we're just being arbitrarily jerked around.

Spielberg has such contempt for his audience that isn't it about time we returned the favor?

Because of the caliber of Spielberg's cast, The Terminal is a more watchable movie; but for exactly the same reason, it's more of a dismal shame that it's not a better movie. It was so close; it could have been so good; and Spielberg himself is the complete reason why it wasn't.

At least the makers of Around the World in 80 Days have the excuse that they were hired by Disney to make a piece of junk, an expectation which they almost completely fulfilled. But The Terminal pretends to be something fine, which makes its failure all the worse.

*

One of the perks of my job as a novelist is that now and then I'm given a chance to look at someone else's book in advance of publication, in order to make some comment that might appear on the cover of the book to help promote it.

That's why I've had a chance to read Sharyn McCrumb's next book, St. Dale, which will appear on February 18th of 2005. And if you don't know why that date is significant, then you really need this book.

Though McCrumb is famous for two mystery series, one set in Appalachia with the tone of a beautiful dream, the other delightfully comic.

St. Dale, however, is a completely different kind of project. McCrumb has set herself the bold task of following in Chaucer's footsteps, only instead of heading for the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, these pilgrims are on a tour bus, determined to lay wreaths in memory of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., on all the major NASCAR tracks, ending at Daytona.

McCrumb's idea is that we now choose secular saints, but with many of the same impulses that led our forebears to choose saints in centuries past. Why Elvis, and not John Lennon? Why Dale Earnhardt, and not any of the other NASCAR drivers who have died?

By the end of this book, some of the characters, at least, have an answer to such questions.

This book is funny. Just like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the humor can be heartwarming or ribald, acid or slapstick.

But McCrumb is also a powerful novelist, and she doesn't just settle for laughs. She has assembled a marvelous collection of characters -- a NASCAR-hating woman judge who has been dragged along by her Earnhardt-smitten sister; an old man bringing his senile wife as a kind of farewell gesture; a young couple who get married before the first race and use the rest of the tour as their honeymoon; a priest who is accompanying a dying boy whose last wish was this tour; and the tour guide, a one-time NASCAR driver who is desperate to get back in the game.

All these characters get a chance to tell their stories. And all their stories are marvelous. Yet everything comes together as a single novel that is full of magic and laughter, wonder and love. McCrumb may have begun this project as a lark, but she finished it as the greatest work of her career so far -- a novel that captures the heart of that part of America that is dismissed, by the ignorant, as "redneck."

I've already read it, and you have to wait eight months. Eat your hearts out.

*

In recent years, popular historians have produced a spate of books that take a narrow theme that allows for an interesting, quirky new view of familiar historical events.

Sometimes, as with Seabiscuit or The Perfect Storm, the result is a coherent set of stories that amount to something. They can capture the public imagination and become deserved bestsellers.

The first of these might have been Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, a book that examined the turmoil of the 14th century, in which the Plague decimated Europe and transformed society in ways that led quite directly to our modern world.

But not all such attempts are successful. Marilyn Yalom's Birth of the Chess Queen: A History seemed promising. When chess originated, the piece that stood beside the King was the Vizier or the General, and it was weak -- like the King, it could only move one square, but unlike the King, could do it only on the diagonal.

Somehow, and for some reason, in Europe the piece became female, and then became almost absurdly powerful.

The history of the chess pieces as they made their way from India to Persia, then to the Muslim world and on to Europe, is fascinating enough. But it soon becomes clear that there's only enough real material here for a fifty-page essay.

What fills the rest of the pages? For a while, it's Yalom's speculation about which medieval queens might have caused Europeans to see the second most important chess piece as a female consort rather than an appointed second-in-command. (The practice of turning over-achieving pawns into queens began when the pawns were actually turning into viziers or generals -- something that is possible in the real world.)

But soon it degenerates into a long diatribe on why showing the one female as the most dangerous on the chessboard says something about the view of women in our society. Come on, this stuff was old by the end of the seventies. Are there historians who still think that force-fitting history to the ideological fads of the present says something useful about either then or now?

Jeffrey A. Lockwood's Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier is a much better book, not least because Lockwood himself is a practicing scientist, who has made significant discovers about the reasons why locusts once raged in vast swarms across the American midwest, but now are seemingly gone.

The reason for the great plagues of locusts that came more than once every decade is partly human-caused: Wheat was the perfect crop for the locusts, and one of the reasons they were able to thrive in such vast numbers was that farmers had replaced the more recoverable prairie lands with millionsof acres of wheat from horizon to horizon.

Another reason was that settlers had slaughtered tens of thousands of the birds that once fed on millions of locusts.

The reason for the locusts' disappearance was also human intervention. Lockwood puts it briefly as a matter of "plows and cows." Locust eggs and nympths can be drowned when their hatching grounds are too wet. When slopes are grazed by cattle, the soil holds less water; so it runs off into the valleys where the locusts then drown.

Meanwhile, what locusts don't drown are killed by the plow and the harrow. Plows bury the eggs deeper, so most of the young can't reach the surface when they hatch. While the harrow turns the eggs up to the surface, where they are a favorite delicacy of birds.

Most ironically, though, is the role of Yellowstone National Park in the creation of these locust plagues. For during the years when the locusts did not come out to destroy much of American agriculture, they survived in high mountain valleys, where conditions were right for them to breed and reproduce. And when farming was forbidden in the high valleys of Yellowstone, it preserved the breeding grounds of the locust plagues for generations, though no one realized at the time that this was where they were coming from.

Lockwood, however, soon reveals an almost pathological sympathy for the locusts. He shares the common environmentalist attitude that human beings cause havoc wherever they go, and therefore shouldn't go anywhere; when the more honest view is simply that humans are yet one more cataclysmic pressure in the ongoing history of evolution. The arrival of humans changes things -- just like volcanos or a meteor impact or the orbital cycles that cause ice ages and thaws.

The difference is that humans often suffer the consequences of their own actions, and can decide which of them to try to ameliorate. It's pointless and unscientific to consider humans to be the one group of living things that must be forbidden to fulfil their genetic heritage and act on their natural impulses because they're somehow "bad."

Instead, we might celebrate the ability of humans, unique among all the natural forces, to recognize the unintended consequences of our actions and change them or compensate for them.

Despite Lockwood's rather anti-human rhetoric, however, the book, like his scientific work, is valuable. You just have to filter out the moral judgments -- the religion, in other words -- and stick to the fascinating and illuminating facts.

*

Leblon is open now as a churrascaria, and the verdict is in. We took some friends to dinner on both Wednesday and Thursday nights of last week, and the conclusion we heard from everyone is that the whole experience is wonderful.

Even without the flamboyance of the rodizio-style service -- meat sliced from spits, which you grab with tongs and place on your plate -- this would be the best meat in town. The intensely flavorful picanha (garlic sirloin) and bacon-wrapped turkey are matched by great sausage, chicken, lamb, pork, and various other cuts of beef, not to mention salmon with an amazing passion-fruit sauce (or, for traditionalists, a good tartar sauce).

One of our friends realized something that had never occurred to me: "This is a great place for me to have a dinner meeting, because you start eating right away -- we'll get a lot more business done if there isn't an hour of drinking on an empty stomach first!"

I can't comment on the wine selection, but those who know tell me that it's excellent. For me, there's only one drink at Leblon: guaraná, a soft drink that looks like a rich cream soda or apple beer, but tastes like nothing else.

The salad bar is great -- along with traditional greens and vegetables, there are artichoke hearts and hearts of palm, the Leblon specialty avocado dressing, and lots of delicious ready-made salads.

There are two sets of waiters. The churrasco team -- the ones who carry around the spits of meat and the sharp, sharp knives -- consists of native Brazilians with years of experience. The other waiters, who bring drinks and silverware and swap clean plates for used ones, are local. All of them are attentive and quick.

And when they trade your salad plate for the meat plate, take a moment and go get some rice, cover it with black bean stew, and add a dollop of farofa. A Brazilian meal wouldn't be Brazilian without them!

Keep in mind, however, that the goal here is not to get the most food for the least money. You aren't getting the cheapest cuts of meat to keep the price down -- you're getting some of the best food in North Carolina, in enormous quantities. But at less than thirty dollars a person -- less if you choose to have salad only, more if you choose an expensive wine -- it's still an amazing bargain for food this fine.


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