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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 25, 2004

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


Bourne, A Rat's Tale, and The Amateur Marriage

In The Bourne Supremacy, Matt Damon proves that he's the kind of actor who can sustain an action franchise. He's an actor with a much broader range than this character allows -- the whole point of Bourne is that he's a killing machine who can't even remember his own past. But that's the thing that makes Damon work so well in the role: We can believe he's as smart, alert, skilled, and strong as Bourne is supposed to be -- and yet we never forget that he's also a human being in a desperate situation.

Supremacy is a very good action flick. It never lets up. And just when you think it's over, it goes on ... until it earns a climax that makes the story mean a lot more than most action flicks ever try for.

My only complaint is that the director, Paul Greengrass, had way too many cool ideas about how to make himself the star of the movie. Far too often, the camera jumps around so much that you can't tell what's going on.

Maybe the director's theory was that during real crises, things become blurry. Unfortunately, that's not actually true. Your memory of events afterward might be blurry, but during the crisis itself, adrenalin makes you hyperaware of everything that's going on. That's why people talk about how time slowed down or held still.

If Greengrass's goal was to confuse us, then he succeeded -- though I will say that despite the gimmicks, everything eventually becomes just clear enough that you don't walk out of the theater wondering what happened.

Still, how hard is it to confuse the audience? We sit down in the seats knowing little about the story. All you have to do to bewilder us is be incompetent. So the showy, jumpy, blurry shots Greengrass afflicted us with achieved nothing more than pretentious incompetence.

The trouble is, this movie is going to be a hit (Greengrass's first), so Greengrass is going to assume that it was because of, rather than in spite of, his scene-stealing gimmicks.

Just remember that good directors don't have to distract you from the story and make you notice how clever they are.

The other problem is that people who read and loved Robert Ludlum's Bourne novels are going to be frustrated at how little this film has to do with the book of the same title.

But what choice did screenwriter Tony Gilroy have? Ludlum's original books were written back during the Cold War. The world has changed. You either have to make it a period movie, or you have to completely transform the situation to fit the modern world. So you keep the character and make up a whole new story that is true to the kind of tale Ludlum originally wrote.

Regard this as a new creation of Bourne, not an adaptation of Ludlum's original novels. Rather the way Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, and Tom Welling have all played very good -- but very different -- versions of Superman.

*

Stories about animals that act human are a lot more fun than stories about humans who act like animals.

Some of the greatest works of children's literature have been talking-animal stories: Charlotte's Web being the first that comes to mind.

But within that category there's a lot of variety.

Charlotte's Web belongs to the category of "stories about animals who talk to each other, but not to humans." Of course, author E.B. White pushed the envelope by having the spider, Charlotte, spin webs that contained words that for some unintelligible reason made people get all impressed with the pig who lived in the stall where Charlotte's literate weavings were displayed.

If I had been in that story, I would have wanted to catch that spider and put her webs on display. Forget the pig. Eat the pig!

But that's why Charlotte's Web is a great work of literature. Some authors are born great, and some have greatness thrust upon them ...

Felix Salten's Bambi, on the other hand, is a much more serious talking-animal story. Yes, the animals do speak to each other, with some quite-sophisticated dialogue for creatures with brains so small (check out the conversation of the midges, for instance).

The Disney version of Bambi is cute as ... as a talking skunk, while Felix Salten's original is serious literature with tragedy at its heart.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is E.B. White's Stuart Little, which, in my opinion, was much improved by the movies. Stories about animals who not only talk, but talk to humans, usually push the envelope too far for me. I'm willing to buy the premise that animals communicate with each other in ways that are represented in the story by speech.

But when they put on pants and go to school, my eyes glaze over. I'll admit right now that this is a serious defect in my character, so don't bother writing to tell me how Stuart Little changed your life or made you a lifelong reader or taught you how to cinch the cattle futures market when you grew up and married the governor of Arkansas.

At least in the Stuart Little movies, I could see the mouse talking and driving his unsafe-at-any-speed automobile.

But, just in case you haven't had your fill of talking-animal stories, here's a new entry, a charming little book by Tor Seidler: A Rat's Tale.

Montague Mad-Rat was named for his insane uncle, which causes him some embarrassment. But what does that matter, after he falls in love with a smart but somewhat helpless upper-class rat from the wharfs?

Who knew that rats could be almost as class-conscious as the English? Heaven help the sewer rat who loves a hoity-toity wharf rat. But if he can save the rats from having their docks sold out from under them, will he be worthy of his beloved? Or will he just be a rat with a hobby of painting seashells?

It is completely silly. The rats wear clothes and use umbrellas. But at least they can't talk directly to humans.

Let's face it, if the story is charmingly written, with just a touch of adult snideness, it can be quite enjoyable even for those of us who just can't stand the sight of animals in pants. I liked A Rat's Tale, and maybe you will, too.

*

Anne Tyler is one of the best novelists alive. Unlike many of the much-praised literary bouffes of our day, she aims her stories at volunteer readers who want to be moved and entertained, not offended or impressed. She doesn't think she invented sex, and she doesn't think you opened the book to see just how annoyingly a writer can manipulate the language.

What she actually does is create real, complicated, fascinating characters whose lives don't come out particularly right, but are worth living nonetheless.

Her recent Back When We Were Grownups was one of the best novels I've ever read, a compelling examination of a woman who doesn't believe she belongs in the family to which she has devoted her life.

But Tyler's new novel, The Amateur Marriage, is a different kind of book. In a way, it's not actually a novel, but rather more a series of vignettes, moments from the lives of two people who stumbled into each other's lives and never realized how happy they were in the midst of making each other miserable.

Michael and Pauline met in Anne Tyler's beloved Baltimore on the brink of World War II, and lurched through all the major trends of the ensuing years. They had children, one of whom got caught up in the drugs and rebellion of the sixties; they got sick of each other and, in the new freedom of the time, found divorce a tempting option.

To show everything that happened, step by step, probably would have taken far more pages than Tyler wanted to write. And to make it into a traditional novel, she would have had to either invent more "pivotal incidents" or make the things that happened into more of a melodrama.

Instead, by skipping over great swathes of years at a time, Tyler seems to be saying, Things went on pretty much as you'd expect, because people don't really change. They either get used to each other or accommodate each other ... or not.

It's quite possible you'll find yourself frustrated by this loose structure. There were characters whose deaths were simply ... skipped. There are reunions that amount to little, separations that are never really resolved.

In other words, it's like life.

But we don't read novels to have an experience like life. Heck, we're living lives, complete with all the incompleteness. We turn to fiction to have an author assure us that it means something. And on its surface, The Amateur Marriage seems to be saying that there is no meaning.

Only it doesn't say that. It does show that if people could just be a little more self-aware, they might be able to see through themselves and not do the things that wreck their own lives. The fact that nobody in this book ever seems to realize anything important until it's way too late to do anything about it doesn't change the fact that happiness really wasn't out of reach, even as it was beyond their nature to reach it.

This may, indeed, by Tyler's bid to show us real tragedy: characters who are exactly lifesize, but filled with a kind of mad nobility, who are crippled by their very virtues. People who need each other for the very traits that are most annoying.

I didn't love this book the way I did Back When We Were Grownups, but that's like saying that I didn't like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court as much as I liked The Prince and the Pauper, or that I think Hamlet doesn't hold a candle to King Lear. So what? If Anne Tyler had never written anything but The Amateur Marriage, she would be an important and rewarding writer.

I happened to listen to this one, unabridged, on tape, with Blair Brown doing a gorgeous job of reading. But it reads beautifully on paper, too, with your own imagination supplying the voices and faces of people that, if you have a heart, you'll come to love and maybe, as I did, shed a tear for now and then.

*

The American Idol: Season 3 cd of Greatest Soul Classics would be worth owning even if you weren't following the show. Even if you know that the whole American Idol concept was invented as a way to sell records that no one would otherwise buy.

Everybody does a much better job in this studio recording than they did in their live performances during the competition. As should be expected, since on stage there was nobody to say, "Stop. Not working. Do it again, this way."

So George Huff does a far better job of "Me and Mrs. Jones" than he did on the show, and Matt Rogers and Jon Peter Lewis are not even embarrassing to listen to. In fact, I enjoyed the whole cd, even if a few of the cuts made me want to dig out the original from my forty-gig collection of ripped cds.

The standouts, though, are the three divas who should have been the final three: Fantasia Barrino, La Toya London, and Jennifer Hudson. Don't buy it as a souvenir of the show. Buy it for the songs.


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