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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.