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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 3, 2005

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


Ice, Anger, Bells, Paper, and Water

The theatrical promos for Ice Princess made it look like a formulaic sports movie. But it had figure skating in it, so my wife thought that it at least might be fun to watch.

That's the reason why she watches the winter Olympics, and I don't.

But on the web, our ten-year-old saw a very different story -- one about a girl who is a physics whiz and gets into figure skating originally just to study the physics of the jumps and turns the skaters make.

Which explains why she went to the movie with high expectations, and her mother with some hope, and I went with the glum wish that at least it not make me want to crawl under my chair.

And yet we were all pleasantly surprised, because Ice Princess was not only better than it needed to be, it was actually good.

Yes, it's an ice skating movie, but the competition story isn't cliched, and it isn't about winning and losing, or not just about that. All the characters turn out to be interesting and in some ways admirable. And the relationships between mothers and daughters and between fellow skaters are realistic, complex, and moving.

I cried twice, and neither time had to do with winning or losing a competition. (One time involved a Zamboni, and the other didn't.)

We expect Kim Cattrall and Joan Cusack to give wonderful performances, and they both deliver. (I really like the fact that as Cusack has gotten older, she is playing more serious roles; and Cattrall reminds us that she can do a lot more as an actor than play the brash sex-hungry vamp of Sex and the City.)

The surprise is that they actually managed to find young actors who can skate and act. Hayden Panettiere as Cattrall's daughter gives a show-stealing performance in a surprisingly complex role; Trevor Blumas as the heroine's love interest is broodingly beautiful but also does a good job of acting.

The standout, though, is Michelle Trachtenberg, who finesses the role of physics-geek-turned-skater. She played the title role in Harriet the Spy back in 1996; she has grown up very nicely, into an actress rather like Scarlett Johansson, except that her face registers emotion like an actual living person.

It's still not the kind of movie that everyone will necessarily like. Young girls, yes; skating fans, for sure. But also people who care about mother-daughter relationships and people who like to find small movies that far transcend a very limited genre.

*

The Upside of Anger is the movie that should get all the praise that was given to Sideways. It's smart, it's funny, it's brilliantly acted by everybody in it, and the writing shows genuine understanding of human nature.

But it won't get all that praise, because it isn't arty and pretentious, and ordinary people who go to the theater to be moved and entertained instead of just impressed might love it.

Joan Allen gets a chance to play a complicated character who gets to chew the scenery a little, and she never strikes a false note. Did you know she could do comedy?

And Kevin Costner has finally found the part he should play. Not the epic hero. Not the tragic hero. Just a guy. With some flaws, but also with a good heart. I have never enjoyed a performance by this actor more.

Look, not everyone will like this movie. There's some ugly language in it. There's no shocking nudity, but people do some things that you wish they wouldn't -- though they're all believable enough in the culture the film takes place in. This is definitely an adult film, not because it's immoral (quite the opposite) but because it's painfully real.

What is it about, you ask?

If I tell you, it'll just sound like a lot of other movies. Husband and father fails to come home one day, wife realizes that he's run off to Sweden with his secretary, she gets angry and becomes very hard to live with, and the four daughters also display their anger and loss in different and sometimes dangerous ways.

Trust me, though: This movie is so richly written and beautifully performed and subtly directed that through most of it you think you're watching a comedy, except for the sudden moments of tragedy, and amid all the laughing and crying you never once think about the "art of the filmmaker" -- all you think about and care about is these wonderful, sad, angry, funny people who are making life so hard for each other despite their best intentions.

Aw, just go see it.

*

I had two images of bellringers. One was of a maniac cackling with glee as he pulled on the rope of a solitary bell. The other was of a clerkish-looking fellow playing the keyboard of a modern carillon, where electronic keys trigger the striking of hammers against bells.

Recently, though, I learned that there is an old and wonderful tradition of bands of bellringers who work in the towers of churches -- mostly in England, but scattered also throughout the world. Never paid more than a token salary, they learn to play one of the most complicated instruments in music: a towerful of bells.

I first heard about them from one of their number, Alex Lindsay, who had recently returned to New Zealand after a year in England. Now, Alex is the kind of man who, when you mention some absurdly dangerous sport, can immediately tell you one of his most awful experiences while actually doing it. I won't tell you his experience with jumping out of an airplane with his chute harness too loosely strapped around his legs.

But the passion of his life might well be one of the safest: ringing bells in Anglican churches and cathedrals.

Alex showed me how the music of belltowers is annotated, in series of numbers called "changes" that make no sense at all until you see bellringers in action. Not having a belltower in his satchel, he recommended that when we visited Christchurch, New Zealand, we stop in on Tuesday night and see if the bellringers there would allow us to witness their practice.

So we did, though not without trepidation. For of course the first question they asked us was whether we were ringers, and we had to say no -- and not likely to become such, since the nearest belltower to Greensboro of the sort they ring is in Charleston.

But, outsiders though we were, they let us in. Up the winding stair to the belfry we climbed, glad that we'd been using the stairs in our hotel more than the elevator, so we were sort of in shape. It helped, too, that the stairs had a closed center instead of the open shaft like one of the towers we had climbed in Gaudi's Templo de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. In Christchurch Cathedral, you didn't have to pray your way to the top. Just climb.

There were a couple of visiting ringers there that night, and some new ringers who were still learning the technique. Practice for the newest ringer seemed to be nothing but repeatedly ringing the same bell. At first I thought, Is this like the wax on, wax off sequence in The Karate Kid, where you first build up the muscles needed to do the real job later?

But soon I learned there was something much more difficult going on. For she was not just ringing the bell -- she was ringing the bell to an absolutely regular rhythm. She was concentrating. And it was hard.

Because there's a double stroke. The bell is mounted on a wheel, and when you pull on the rope, it rotates once, upward; then you pull again, and the bell swings all the way around to tilt, once again, upward. Only on one pass the rope is wound up, and in the other direction, it unwinds. So each time, you are pulling on a different part of the rope.

And unlike any other musical instrument I know of, there is a long gap between the ringer's action and the actual sound of the bell. So it's not just a matter of pulling; you are learning how long it takes from the pull to the sound. And the two pulls don't necessarily have the same time lag. So if you just pull in a steady rhythm, you'll have a syncopated ring pattern -- ding-DONG ... ding-DONG -- instead of a steady DONG .. DONG .. DONG.

Gradually more ringers showed up, and it was time to start the group practice. The youngest ringer, a beginner, was put in the starting position -- for reasons that soon became clear. The others each took a bell rope; of the six of them, the conductor was in the fifth position.

By then the visiting Englishman had cheerfully explained to us much of what was going on -- for instance, that's how we knew that bellringers call their groups "bands," and that the ringers at Westminster Cathedral are quite exclusive, but that most others are welcoming of strangers.

The young man announced that he was starting, and counted, and then pulled.

Of course, nothing happened -- it would take a long moment for his bell to ring. But before that sound came, the woman in the 2 position had already pulled; and as the first bell was sounding, the woman in position 3 pulled her rope.

In other words, the rhythm they were finding had nothing at all to do with the actual sounds they heard, and everything to do with what they saw -- they were doing a dance together, keeping perfect rhythm, and only after they pulled did the sound of the bells tell them what they had wrought.

Which means, of course, that mistakes were audible throughout downtown Christchurch. There is no way to practice bellringing secretly.

The experienced bellringers kept their rhythm perfectly, regardless of what the young man in the first position did. Most of the time he was right in time, or close; sometimes, though, he didn't keep pace perfectly and his bell sounded after too long a gap from 6, and sometimes so late that 1 sounded just after 2. But he did not apologize or break his concentration; he simply recovered the rhythm and did better with each change.

For they did not continue going in sequence around the circle: 1-2-3-4-5-6. The conductor would call out, "Four to Five," and then "Four to Six," and the ringer in position 4 would now ring as the fifth or sixth in the sequence. Or something like that -- they knew exactly what was intended, and what the rest of them were supposed to do about it, and each person pulled at exactly the right time to ring the bells in the new order.

There is no other musical instrument that requires such perfect awareness of what everyone else in the ensemble is doing. For they were, in effect, playing the same instrument. It was as if six people were playing the same saxophone, each responsible for one of the fingerings, and in order to play a tune they all had to trust all the others to do their job exactly right; but whether they did or not, you had to get it right.

No wonder they are such an accepting society; anyone who has mastered this art has learned how to subsume himself so utterly and selflessly in a group that it would be absurd to deny a ringer entrance to any tower in the world.

This sort of belltower is actually rare, outside of England. Of perhaps 4500 towers in the world, all but a few hundred are in England. It's a secret part of Anglicanism, apparently, that such bands of lifetime volunteer musicians should exist among them.

I felt privileged to watch them; but I also felt like an intruder. Our very presence was a potential distraction, and it would be wrong to do anything to take their mind from the music. So when they paused for a rest, we took our leave, with many thanks, and made our way back down the tower.

One of them followed to make sure we figured out how to open the multi-locked door -- help that we needed, I might add. And as we walked away from the cathedral, headed for our dinner at Strawberry Fare (quite possibly the best dessert restaurant in the world), we heard the bells ringing out over the square, following us a long way up the street, and I thought: I know what goes into this music. It made it all the sweeter to my ears.

*

David Liss's A Conspiracy of Paper is probably in the mystery section of the bookstore -- and that's not unfair, since the book did win the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Mark my words, though, this is far more than a whodunnit or a detective novel. It is set in the early 1700s in London, where Benjamin Weaver is a semi-lapsed Jew who, after a broken leg ended his career as a pugilist, is now working as a "thief-taker."

This was before London had any police. Not that police were unknown -- the French had had them for years. But the independent-minded British had no desire for any of the trappings of the absolute monarchy that was France -- especially since in those days the French and British relationship ranged between mere rivalry and bitter enmity.

So laws were enforced by citizens -- either the mob that gave chase when someone cried out, Stop! Thief! or the thief-taker, who gathered his witnesses and brought an action before a magistrate.

In fact, while Robert Peel is given credit for creating the first official London police force (which is why they were nicknamed "bobbies"), the first unofficial police were organized by Henry Fielding, who, besides writing Tom Jones and other pivotal works of fiction, was also a magistrate; and in order to help make the streets of London safe enough for decent citizens to walk abroad without having to wield a sword or pistol just to get back home with their wallets and their lives, he organized the Bow Street Runners, men he sent out to bring in reluctant witnesses and defendants.

A Conspiracy of Paper takes place at the time of the great South Sea Bubble, an era when the South Sea Company tried to horn in on the Bank of England's business of brokering what we would now call government bonds. It was the era when the British stock exchange was first being developed, and its workings were a mystery even to most of the people who invested in the market.

Benjamin's father was a stockbroker, and when he dies under circumstances that might have been murder, there are hundreds of people who blamed him for the money they lost in the market -- especially because he was a Jew and a foreigner. Of course, no one credited him with the money they gained ...

Benjamin finds that his puglistic past is as useful as his family connections in the financial markets -- not to mention his connections from the time in his life when he made his living as a thief and highwayman, occupations that were hanging offenses in England at the time.

Best of all, the entire novel is written in a modified 18th-century style. I say this is "best of all" because the modification consists of moving the story forward at the breakneck pace modern readers expect, instead of meandering off in whatever direction strikes the author's fancy, as writers of the time were wont to do. So we have the flavor and wit of the language of the era of great raconteurs in glittering salons, and yet all the makings of a thriller and a mystery and a rather lovely romance in the bargain.

*

Husband Peter Dickinson and wife Robin McKinley both write fantasy fiction, but in some ways they are opposites. Dickinson is a jewel-maker. His stories are small but they shine, and you can see them sparkle no matter what direction you see them from. His faux scholarly story "Flight" remains one of my favorite short fantasies, and his novel Eva is an unforgettable tragedy.

Robin McKinley, on the other hand, is a weaver. At first her novels seem to be a net broadly spread; only as you are entrapped within her stories do you see how fine the weave is after all. She first captivated audiences with Beauty. her retelling of the old Beauty and the Beast story.

Recently they combined to create a powerful, original collection of stories about one of the "elements" in an older cosmology: Earth, Air, Fire, and, the subject of this book, Water. Of the six stories in Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits, each of them wrote half, presented in alternating order.

Usually when readers pick up a book of fantasy fiction, they want to be immersed in a magical world.  Let the story sprawl, they say, so I can see many places in this fairyland; yet let the world always seem larger than the story I'm reading, so I can dream about returning here and finding something new.

Fantasy short stories usually fail to deliver this, because there simply aren't pages enough to create the world.

But in this book, both Dickinson and McKinley succeed in giving us the sense that we have stumbled upon a story that is part of a much larger world. And, remarkably enough, no two stories take place in the same world. There is no overlap. Each one is, in fact, a different kind of fantasy. Though there is one frequent theme: girls entrapped in painful, dangerous families.

So we get one story about a modern young woman trapped in the service of her family, who dreams of a desert she can reach only by the touch of water. Another is about a girl who finds a merwoman trapped, after the high waves of a storm, in a pool of water. Another young woman is tapped to be the apprentice and heir of one of the magical guardians who protects the world from outside marauders.

My favorite, though, is Dickinson's meticulous and haunting "Sea Serpent," in which a Merlin-like figure seeks to move a set of standing stones protected by a women's religion, across a dangerous body of water to his own site.

Despite -- or because of -- the fact that with each new story we enter a different world, the stories are all intriguing. They leave you wishing you could have more tales set in that place, using those magics. And maybe there will be.


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