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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 1, 2005

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


Springsteen, Hitchhiker, xXx, Wi-Fi, and Jane Fonda

Pop music is such a transient thing. Singers and groups appear out of nowhere, capture our imagination and get intense airplay ... and then with their second album, they disappear.

Others, however, can have their ups and downs, but they retain a committed audience, and their careers go on and on.

Bruce Springsteen had a couple of times when he burned in the public consciousness with a white-hot fire. Born to Run made him a genuine star, but as his albums grew more thoughtful and mature, his position in the public mind began to fade. It was with Born in the USA that he soared again to the very top of American rock and pop.

Since then, when he "fades" it isn't very far or very long. And even the albums that generated no hits and little airplay are still rewarding for listeners.

His newest album is no exception. Devils & Dust is full of songs that are musically interesting, full of intensity, and ripe with meaning.

The title track, for instance, could have been a bigoted attack on religious people -- Springsteen's politics are, after all, in line with clowns like Al Franken and Nancy Pelosi. But Springsteen does not forget his art when he has a point to make -- in fact, that's when he remembers it most. So instead of an attack, he offers a reminder of what faith is supposed to lead to, especially in a time of war.

This is not an album for children or squeamish adults. "Reno" is the first person account of a visit with a prostitute, and he pulls no punches -- if the song were filmed as written, it would be rated NC-17. But it isn't a film, and Springsteen is never morally confused about what's going on. Instead, the song is a study in contrasts, leaving us with a sense of the profound emptiness of the transaction.

The same clear moral vision informs the much more hopeful "Long Time Comin'," the song of a father who is discouraged with parenthood -- not having had much of an example from his own father. But the song ends with hope for the kind of father he means to be for the new baby on the way.

Some of the songs are presented as prose rather than verse -- "Reno" was a single paragraph. And "Black Cowboys" is also written out as a short-short story, about a ghetto kid who grows up surrounded by the danger and death of drivebys and drugs. He reads about the black cowboys of the old days on the frontier and, when he sees his mother get completely caught up in the life of her drug-dealing boyfriend, the kid steals the boyfriend's stash of money and takes off for the prairies of his dreams.

The songs can be incantatory and lyrical; the lyrics range from harsh and beautiful poetry to simple chants. For my money, Springsteen joins only Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon as creators of consistently fine and meaningful songs whose words speak powerfully over the decades of the rock era. It's a fine legacy for our culture to leave behind.

*

By the way, Springsteen's album is packaged in a new kind of jewel case. Don't try to pry it open at the end. Press the button and let it pop up.

And the disc inside is two-sided -- cd on one side and dvd on the other. I suppose that's convenient. Maybe it's even cheaper and keeps costs down. I just find it annoying, though, because you can't leave it out of the jewel case, since there's no surface that it's safe to let dust gather on.

*

I never much cared for Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker series. I kept trying to read them, and I could see that the author was enormously amused with his story. But I didn't find it funny enough to keep me reading, because there was nothing and no one to care about. It was all about how clever the author was. I find that irritating, even when the author is, in fact, clever.

But the promos for the movie The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy looked wonderful and funny, and the whole family was really looking forward to seeing it.

The good news is that nobody fell asleep. We watched to the end, and enjoyed ourselves, and were glad we saw it.

Once.

Because at the end, what did it matter? The screenplay came to a rather sweet resolution, but I kept thinking, I've seen movies that are every bit as inventive and funny as this one, but also have a soul, that core of understanding that makes the audience think: This story knows something that I need to know.

And every one of those movies was by Terry Gilliam. Gilliam is notorious for making movies that have no real ending, but Time Bandits and Brazil aren't half bad in the ending department, and are brilliant and wrenching in ways that Hitchhiker's Guide doesn't attempt.

The existence of Terry Gilliam's movies doesn't mean Adams's books shouldn't be filmed. My point is merely that the same kind of scattershot cynically-funny imagination can result in something deeper than a kleenex.

But by all means, go see this movie. Martin Freeman is wonderful as Arthur Dent, and Mos Def is radiant as Ford Prefect. Zooey Deschanel, in her first leading role in a major movie (as Trillian), is a delightful cross between Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day -- girl next door, but with an elfin grace that hints at a sophistication far beyond her apparent years.

The film really is inventive; the special effects are excellent and delightful. There are times when you might feel that the film is anti-religious, but relax: ultimately the film is an affirmation of a sense of purpose in the universe. It's as if Adams wanted to have it both ways: The universe is absurd, but it still means something after all. And what does it mean? Love, baby. Welcome to 1967.

*

The XXX franchise is an interesting response to the James Bond series. It follows the formula pretty faithfully: Glamorous sexy women, one of whom is an enemy who has to be killed before the movie is over; lots of cool high-tech devices; implausible but earnest plots in which the world must be saved from ridiculously elaborate conspiracies with truly vile villains; all ending with great adventurous confrontations between the hero and the villain, mano a mano.

The difference is that instead of having the same character and changing actors as they age, XXX has a new hero character -- and therefore a new leading actor -- every time.

With xXx: State of the Union, Ice Cube -- oh how I wish an actor this good had an actual name -- plays Darius Stone, the newest incarnation of the agent designated Triple-X. Helped out of prison by Samuel L. Jackson and equipped by Scott Speedman with his cute new tools-of-the-trade, Stone instead goes back to his roots in the most dangerous parts of Washington DC, where an ex-lover and a whole bunch of hoodlums are persuaded, with surprising ease, to save the President's life -- and the whole U.S. government -- from a coup by the right-wing Secretary of Defense (Willem Dafoe).

Forget the politics. Of course Hollywood paints conservatives as a dire threat to America and liberals as the good and righteous leaders we really need. But in this movie, the president is so utterly vapid and Willem Dafoe so compelling that it has the opposite effect: liberals look helpless and stupid and clueless, and even when they're dangerous, conservatives at least are interesting ...

Look, this is not great art. Ice Cube doesn't have to do any acting beyond having steely-eyed expressions whenever he isn't actually talking. But there are cool stunts and snappy dialogue and the action never stops. It's great fun, and if the idea of seeing it twice is faintly ridiculous, so what? When an entertaining evening at the movies is enough, why complain because it's not War and Peace?

This movie is what it is, and my wife and I enjoyed it enormously -- not least because there was never a time my wife had to take off her glasses to hide from gratuitous violence.

*

I was slow to adopt wi-fi, relying instead on cable hookups in hotel rooms for my internet connection on the road. But gradually I've become a convert to the whole wi-fi culture.

It began when I wanted to hook up with the broadband internet connection at friends' houses. They had wireless networks, so I got PC cards that let me access their cable modems.

Then I got a Hawking Hi-Gain wi-fi card with a more-powerful-than-usual antenna built in and entered the wonderful world of dropped signals ...

But it's not that bad. For instance, when I had to hook up with the internet in the Auckland airport in order to send in a column, I was able to sit on the floor outside one of the fancy-dancy airline lounges and log onto their signal.

Trapped for a long layover in Cincinnati, I found a long countertop with lots of outlets for laptops. The wi-fi signal wasn't all that reliable -- I paid for it, but it kept dropping and I'd have to reconnect. But it got the job done and time that might have been wasted was put to good use.

Yesterday, I was driving home from a faculty meeting at Southern Virginia University, where I'll be teaching next fall. I had an essay due for the new Writers of the Future anthology, which was due the previous Friday, and I needed to send it off.

So I pulled off the freeway at the big Barnes & Noble in Roanoke and carried my laptop into the café. Hooking up with the internet cost $3.95 for two hours, which was all I needed (you can get better rates if you pay by the month). Not only did I get the essay sent off, but I was also able to deal with some edits that were needed on an op-ed piece (on the demise of the television Star Trek franchise) I had been asked to write for the LA Times a few days before.

It was all time-sensitive stuff that could not have waited till I got home. It was nice to know that by pulling in to a bookstore I could make my connection. Plus, Barnes & Noble has great hot chocolate.

Wi-fi connections are proliferating, and it's still a bewildering array of competing services. Some consolidation is bound to take place, and those who constantly need to sign onto the internet while traveling will welcome the day when they can pay one check to a service provider and hook up anywhere.

But for me, with less constant need, it's just nice to know that I can stop in at a LaptopLane in many an airport, or at a Barnes & Noble or Borders when on the road, and get dependable broadband access so I can do research or submit articles and stories and edits.

*

I know there are a lot of people who hate Jane Fonda, and I'll admit, I'm still more than a little annoyed at her behavior during the Vietnam era. But I also know that she's a wonderfully talented actress with a record of achievement that only a few have ever matched or surpassed.

Even some of the roles she herself regards as too slight to mention are brilliantly performed -- like her wonderful work in George Roy Hill's 1962 film of Period of Adjustment, based on a Tennessee Williams play. And at her best, in Klute and Barefoot in the Park and On Golden Pond and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, she is one of the great ones.

She's also the daughter of Henry Fonda, an actor who played some of the most beloved and memorable characters in the history of film.

So when her autobiography, Jane Fonda: My Life So Far, appeared in the bookstores, I didn't hesitate -- I bought it. And not the book, either -- the cd version, which she read herself. If I'm going to hear her story, I might as well listen to her tell it to me in her own voice.

It was a wise decision. Fonda is, in fact, an extremely intelligent woman and a fine writer. Not only that, but she is utterly unashamed and open in the telling of this tale. Anything she doesn't talk about, I don't want to know, because she certainly does not spare herself.

One of the usual frustrations in reading biographies is the fact that so little is known about the subject's childhood. This is even true with most autobiographies, since famous autobiographers usually skip right over those early years and get straight to the adult life that made them famous. Yet childhood is the very time when character is formed and the rest of life is spent largely responding to the events and perceptions of that era.

Nowhere is that more clearly proved than in the pages of Fonda's book, where she spends fully a quarter of the pages on her early years. That she and her father had a complicated relationship is well known. But the dominant relationship of her childhood was with her mother, a depressive woman who committed suicide before Fonda was in her teens.

Fonda is generous in her assessment of other people, but also unsparing in talking truthfully about what they did and didn't do, and how she reacted to it at the time and later. Nor does she paint herself as some kind of saint or victim. Her writing is cold in one sense -- she has detached herself enough to be perceptive and balanced in viewing everything, including her own choices and actions -- and warm in another -- it is tinged with love and regret, with real feelings, both remembered and present.

Her style -- and it is her style, there's no ghost writer intervening here -- is lucid and compelling. Every now and then she's a bit writerly, but it's very rare. This is not a pretentious book. And when you hear her performing the book it feels so utterly real that it's as if you're sitting on a sofa with her, listening to her pour out the account of a fascinating life.

For actors, this book is useful. For celeb-hounds, clear the table, here comes a full plate.

But the greatest value of this book is to young women who have been abused or molested, or for some other reason have such low self-esteem that they become the desperately unhappy foils for the kind of men who exploit such damaged women. I've known quite a few in my years in theatre -- women who can't see their own beauty and talent and strength and intelligence because they see everything through the lens of depression and worthlessness.

How Fonda fought her way upward and out of this permanent victim status is a compelling story.

What complicates it further is that her first truly independent action, tied to her divorce from Roger Vadim, the birth of her daughter Vanessa, and her love and admiration for her father and the heroic liberal roles he played, was her activism during the Vietnam War.

She does not back down from any of her political positions. And, given the life she had led up to that point, the sources of her information -- she was living in France when she first became radicalized -- and her subsequent distrust of any source of information that might have given her a more balanced perspective, her political positions become completely understandable.

That she is partly wrong on some of her conclusions (and profoundly right on others) hardly makes her unique. That she took some actions that were wrong -- harming some who did not deserve harm as well as weakening her own effectiveness -- she candidly admits.

But keep this in perspective. She wasn't an elected official wielding the powers of office when she made what mistakes she made; she was a young woman emerging from the ignorance and self-involvement of the life of jet-set celebrities, trying to connect with the real world and act out in her life the kind of role that her father had made so admirable in The Grapes of Wrath and Twelve Angry Men and Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

She didn't send soldiers into combat without any intention of victory -- nor did she cut off the funding of an ally. Those were the sins of Presidents and Congressmen, and people died because of them. In the midst of a controversial war, Jane Fonda took a side and then fought for it with intensity and commitment.

But there were lines she did not cross. With the FBI and other government agencies tracking her as if she were an Al Qaeda terrorist, they never caught her advocating the desertion of any of the soldiers she worked with -- and they would have loved to paste a charge of sedition on her. She says she loved her country throughout all her activities, and there's no reason to doubt her. Just as I loathed the presidency of Bill Clinton and felt free to say so, she loathed the governments that waged the Vietnam War ... and said so. Because she loved her country and wanted it to be better than it was -- according to her understanding of what "better" would be.

So it is possible to disagree with her conclusions about the Vietnam War and dislike or even condemn the actions she took, while still admiring her integrity, her courage, her personal achievements, her art, and the life she has led.

Unlike, say, Barbra Streisand, whose life and career are littered with stepped-on people who did nothing but good for her, Fonda has been kind and generous to friends and rivals alike -- that is not her own assessment, that is what I hear from people in the industry and what I read from those who have worked with her and then written about the experience. Fonda is, as a human being, definitely one of the good guys.

Listening to her book on cd is as close to having a real conversation with her as I will ever come, I'm sure. And that's fine -- in person, I'm sure she would find my politics at least as irritating as I find hers. But I'm glad we've had this "conversation," and since the same experience is available to anyone who wants to have it, I highly recommend the audiobook.

But even if you only read what she has to say in cold print, I heartily recommend this book as one of the finest autobiographies I've ever read.

*

Don't forget that Lerner & Loewe's Brigadoon opens with a dress rehearsal tonight (Thursday, May 5th), and will play Friday and Saturday as well. Showtime is 7 p.m. each night, and the performances are at the LDS Church on Pinetop, right across from Claxton elementary. (Pinetop comes off Westridge between Friendly and Bryan Expressway.) Admission is free, and anyone school age and older is welcome.


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