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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 24, 2004

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


Shall We Dance, Forceflex, Chase's Calendar, and Sondheim

I like to dance, and I like movies, but that doesn't mean I'm going to like movies about dancing.

Let's face it. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire aren't going to make any more dance movies. Neither are Leslie Caron or Cyd Charisse. But we have all their old movies on DVD and if we're desperate for movie dancing, we can watch to our hearts' content.

However, I'm married to a lifelong dancer who instilled a love of dance in our daughters; I find myself at dance movies from time to time without exactly planning to go.

Which explains my presence at Shall We Dance last Saturday night. My expectations were low. J-Lo, to be precise, and while Richard Gere had great attitude and decent footwork in Chicago, I wasn't expecting him to thrill me, either.

But the word of mouth had gotten there ahead of us. The theater was pretty full, for a movie that's been out for weeks. And when I looked around, I realized that I was probably in the younger half of the audience.

Apparently word had gotten out that this was a movie that people who had grown up with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire might actually enjoy.

And it is, truly, a wonderful movie. It even has some great dancing in it.

But it's set at a dancing school, and it's about competitive ballroom dancing, so I expected the same plotline as in Strictly Ballroom, an independent film from 1992, and the Vanessa Williams vehicle Dance With Me from 1998. Or, for that matter, the plot of The Bad News Bears, since they all focused on whether the underdog would win.

That ain't this movie. Instead, this is a movie about people who come to learn to dance because they're hungry for something and dancing seems to them to offer hope of their getting it.

Richard Gere plays John Clark, a middle-aged man whose wife (Susan Sarandon at her best, which is saying something) can't find any gift to give him for his birthday because ... he doesn't want anything that comes in a box.

But he does want something. And at first we worry that what he wants is an affair with moody dance-teacher Paulina, played by Jennifer Lopez. Certainly his wife suspects that his absences on Wednesday nights are because he's doing the horizontal two-step with some other woman.

As the plot works itself out, however, what we find are people who hurt each other without malice, and who are decent enough to change in order to try to make other people happy.

Every minor character is given a life; the script is so generous that every character has a "moment" -- a chance for us to warm to the actor and delight in his character.

There are moments of electricity, of dancing that is visceral and moving. But most of the dancing we see is either comically exaggerated or comically inept. Because this is a dancing school, the characters are beginners, and the movie does not give any of them a miraculous transformation.

By the end, we love everybody -- especially the Stanley Tucci and Lisa Ann Walter characters, whom they play with brilliance, humor, and truth.

Based on a 1997 Japanese film, Shall We Dance is that rare thing: A movie for grownups.

And from what I saw in the theater on Saturday night, if you make a movie for grownups, they'll come see it. In large numbers.

*

Glad has made a serious improvement in the plastic kitchen garbage bag. Their new "ForceFlex" bags have a strange-looking bumpy texture and they're just a little harder to open. But once you cram them full of garbage, they prove their worth.

You know how sharp-cornered boxes and many other items poke through and tear the ordinary garbage bag. That's why the advertising emphasizes how strong the plastic is.

Well, this plastic is strong, too, but it also flexes (hence the name), so that so far we've gotten far fewer punctures and no tearing at all. Highly recommended.

*

Some people love calendars -- not the pictures, but the sheer flow of days in sevens and lunar cycles and solar cycles, weekends and Wednesdays and all the interesting special days that punctuate the year.

If you're one of those (and I'm married to one), then you need to know about Chase's Calendar of Events. This expensive book comes out every year. As thick as a phone book, it includes thousands of "special event" days, festivals in many places, anniversaries of births and deaths of famous people, and of course all the holidays you can imagine.

My wife and our even-more-calendar-obsessed ten-year-old have taken to consulting Chase's and deciding which events during the upcoming month we're going to commemorate, sometimes seriously, but more often whimsically.

For instance, November 1st is "Author's Day." Since our family includes an author, that day has some resonance at our house. But we celebrate it, not as an extra birthday for Dad, but as a time to call attention to favorite authors and celebrate their contribution to our lives.

November 8th is Margaret Mitchell's birthday, and for all its lack of political correctness, her novel Gone With the Wind was, in my opinion, the Great American Novel of the first half of the 20th century.

November 9th is the fifteenth anniversary of the coming down of the Berlin Wall. That's worth some celebration, I think!

November 14th is, delightfully enough, "Teddy Bear Day." I'm not sure whether this means you should carry your favorite old teddy bear around with you all day, or go buy a new one. Maybe both.

And November 17th is "Homemade Bread Day." I absolutely believe this should be a national holiday. Our only disagreement is whether we should break out the breadmaker or go to Great Harvest and get some wonderful loaves of their "homemade" bread ...

Chase's Calendar of Events costs $64.95 new -- and the 2005 edition is coming out right away. But you can find used ones for ridiculously low prices -- I've seen $1.99 online -- for the good reason that the information about festivals will be out of date in any but the current year's issue.

So it all depends on your purpose. The birthday and anniversary information will be current forever, if you do a little arithmetic.

*

Stephen Sondheim is an extraordinary composer and lyricist. Mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist who pioneered the modern book musical, Sondheim also studied composition and musical theory, so that he brings a deep understanding of several musical traditions to his work as a Broadway composer.

At the same time, he has bought into the sad idea that "high" art is above the audience.

The result is that while he has written some truly wonderful songs and powerful, innovative theatrical moments, most of his musicals deliberately shut out many audience members who might have taken Sondheim to heart the way they did Rodgers and Hammerstein -- or Cole Porter, or the Gershwins, to hark back to an earlier era.

Still, it is impossible to work in musical theatre without being aware of the powerful presence and influence of Stephen Sondheim. Which is why, to a select few, a new book called Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions is a wonderful achievement.

Author Mark Eden Horowitz, a senior music specialist in the Library of Congress, interviewed Sondheim about several of his musicals, including Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, and Sweeney Todd.

Their conversation is fluid and fascinating, though it involves two experts on music theory and often can't avoid jargon and concepts that are simply beyond the casual reader's understanding. Even though I've worked in musical theatre for years, much of the high-level musical theory was beyond me -- but that didn't keep it from being fascinating, if only to see the level at which Sondheim operates.

The book also includes a complete songlisting, discography and bibliography of Sondheim's works -- a valuable reference work in its own right, and something of a wish list for those, like me, who weren't aware of many of the most interesting recordings of Sondheim's songs.

Sandwiched between the conversation and the reference material is Sondheim's own list of "Songs I Wish I'd Written." Again, it's another wish list; and his reasons are also illuminating.

Sondheim isn't always right -- for instance, he's on record as despising Les Miserables, which meant he was incapable of understanding the deep emotional resonance of that great musical play. But right or not, he's always interesting and has something to teach the aspiring songwriter.

And Horowitz's contribution to the conversation is astonishing in the questions he thinks to ask and the deep understanding of Sondheim's work, and musical theatre in general, that he brings to the table.

*

I've seen the Lilian Jackson Braun "cat" novels in the mystery section of the bookstore for many years, and always figured that they weren't for me. For one thing, I'm allergic to cats and therefore have never been able to observe them at close range. For another thing, I'm irritated by those who ascribe impossible levels of intelligence to animals, however beloved they might be.

But having exhausted all the books I brought with me on a recent trip, I was trapped in an airport that had only a limited selection of books in English. Braun's The Cat Who Talked Turkey was the only plausible choice.

I expected it to be a cozy -- you know, like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mysteries, where the violence is largely offstage and the central characters have good manners and wit, or at least charm.

And I suppose it is, but without the tight plotting that one expects from a cozy. In fact, the mystery was almost secondary. The main flow of the book centered around events in the town and a sort of arms-length romance.

Which would have been fine with me, except that Braun seems to take it for granted that her readers already love small-town life and therefore she provides nothing in the book itself to tell us why we should care. So either you love it from page one, or you reach the end of the book never quite having understood why it was written.

In a way, Braun's series is the mystery genre's equivalent to the Jan Karon novels about smalltown Christian life. There really isn't a central storyline, just one minor problem after another, almost always with a pleasant (and surprisingly easy) solution.

For some readers, what I have just described will sound like the kiss of death; for others, like just the sort of comfortable, homey experience you've been wishing for.

The mystery genre today is big enough to include Dennis Lehane and Sue Grafton, Sharyn McCrumb and Walter Mosley, Robert Parker and Lilian Jackson Braun. That's a lot of room; if you can't find a mystery writer to love, you're just not trying.


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