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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 4, 2005

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


Obsessions, Beautiful Country, Secret Identity, Enna Burning

There are some songs that should never have been written. They are so miserably annoying that once you get them in your head they just won't leave.

The other day I played through the whole Elton John "Greatest Hits" collection and there it was, like a cockroach at a banquet, "Candle in the Wind."

Clumsy lyrics that don't fit the music. Sappy sentiment about Marilyn Monroe that has never resonated with me. A tune that is catchy without being attractive or interesting.

For five days, whenever I wasn't doing something else, there were those horrible phrases: "Wish I could have known you but I was just a kid"; "Hello, Norma Jean"; "The candle burned out long before the legend ever did."

Even singing "I'm a Little Teapot" a few dozen times didn't purge my mind of that song.

Maybe it's because it got all that airtime when Princess Diana died and Elton John revised the lyrics to be even more awkward and sappy.

But if they find me dead, with my brains beaten out against a brick wall, it wasn't murder. I did it myself, trying to stop thinking of that song.

*

Speaking of really annoying things that won't go away, have you noticed the solitaire game called "Spider" that infests Windows XP? Mercifully, I was using XP for years before I noticed a guy on the airplane playing this card game that I'd never seen before.

It looked like about eight decks' worth of cards, and he was moving long piles of them around and making them disappear and it looked fun. So I looked deep in the start menus and found it.

I hate this game. I'm not bad at it -- at the medium level I win a bit more than half my games. It's challenging enough that I find myself concentrating on it so intensely that it affects me the way "Tetris" did when it first came out -- I see its patterns and movements even when I'm not playing.

A computer hallucinogen, that's what it is. Crack without any exhilaration at all. I'm not even having fun. It's like some evil witch set me to doing the same task over and over again and I can't break free of the spell.

Of course I realize it's my own mental dysfunction. I obsess on things. Usually on completely loathsome things, like the "Crooked Clintons" or "Candle in the Wind." I can make an addiction out of anything.

Thank heaven I grew up in a house utterly without alcohol or tobacco or coffee, or I'd be a chain-smoking, hyped-up drunk by now.

*

Because our sixth-grader is keeping middle school hours now, my wife and I realized on Friday that we could go to a one-o'clock movie showing and be done in plenty of time that we can be home when she gets back from school.

So we caught the early showing of Beautiful Country. We didn't know anything about the film except that there were Asians in it along with Nick Nolte and Tim Roth.

Those are two actors we admire (as actors; I can't forget that Nick Nolte joined the contemptible group that refused to applaud for Elia Kazan at the Oscars because Kazan was actually an American patriot during the Cold War).

It's just as well we knew so little, because if someone had told me the premise -- the grownup son of a Vietnamese woman and an American GI flees to America to find his father -- I probably wouldn't have gone.

I would have expected it to be bitter and unpleasant about America, making a caricature of the GI father and showing the kid's disappointment as his quest came to nothing.

Why? Because I'm cynical about independent movies. Most of those that have important actors in them are intellectual and arty -- that's how they get actors to take less than their normal asking price.

And given the sorry state of "intellectuals" and, for that matter, "art" these days, that usually means that it will be suffused with bigotry and arrogance and, above all, hatred for ordinary Americans.

So when the movie began and I realized what it was going to be about, I sighed quietly and resigned myself to lasting as long as I could before I finally got fed up and walked out.

But I never did walk out. Never got fed up, either. Because Beautiful Country is not arty, it's art; not intellectual, but intelligent.

It begins with the fact that no character in the film is a caricature. Even those we glimpse only briefly, even the most repulsive bad guys (there are a few), all seem real, as if we would find them fascinating if we only could watch them a little longer.

The story moves slowly, but I did not wish it to be any faster. This isn't I, Robot or War of the Worlds, it's a deeply human story of a search for a home and several decent people who find that home isn't a place, it's the people they love and sacrifice for and serve.

I'm not going to tell you the plot, except to say that none of my dark expectations took place. I loved every minute of this movie, and every aspect of it.

The writing -- including the subtitles during the early Vietnamese portion of the film; including the pidgin English as the characters try to converse in a language that is not their own -- is brilliantly simple. The filming is beautiful, even when it depicts bleak surroundings. The acting is flawless and never overdone -- and that means something, since Roth and Nolte are both scenery chewers if given the chance.

This is not light entertainment. Though there's humor in it, it's not a comedy; though there are tears, it's not a tragedy; though there's a love story, it's not a romance.

It is, quite simply, two hours of Truth and Beauty.

My guess is that it's too quiet and decent and lovely and real to be in serious contention for an Oscar. But it's very high on my best-of-the-year list.

*

I would have told you the names of the writer and director and the actors that didn't have marquee value but still made me love them -- but Time-Warner's Road Runner is nonfunctional at our house. (And they've revised their automated answering system so that there is no option to leave a message or find out information about Road Runner.)

Thus I didn't have access to IMDB-pro (Internet Movie Data-Base) and so I had to rely on memory alone.

It's astonishing how dependent we've become on high-speed internet in our family. With Road Runner missing, we walk around the house like a bunch of depressed ghosts. Sure, we could use dial-up, but that would be so slow that it wouldn't even be fun.

It sure doesn't take long to get so used to things that were once luxuries, that we regard it as our right, and somebody is depriving us if we don't have it exactly the way we want it.

*

Just when I thought there was nothing new to say in the Superman storyline, along comes a graphic novel that pops the whole thing to a new level.

Secret Identity, conceived and written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Stuart Immonen, is a sort of alternate-universe Superman. It takes place in a world where the Superman comics exist, so that the hero, a teenager named Clark Kent, has grown up with all the miserable jokes about his "being" a superhero, though of course he is not.

He takes it all with reasonably good humor, but he also resents his parents a little for giving him a joke name -- they get to laugh at it, but he has to bear it over and over again.

Until the day that something changes, and he finds that he really does have the powers of Superman.

Only it can't be the same -- he wasn't adopted, he isn't an alien. He just ... has the strength and speed and hearing and X-ray vision.

Unlike the "real" Superman, though, this Clark Kent doesn't have to figure things out. He already knows -- from reading the comics -- what he's supposed to wear and how he's supposed to act.

It's exhilarating at first -- especially the flying -- but he also takes on heavy responsibilities. And the government, far from accepting that Superman now exists, regards him as dangerous and goes to great efforts to get him under control.

Finally, though, he works out a modus vivendi with the feds and marries and has children and watches them grow up to become people he is proud of. We watch his whole life in this book, and so instead of having that repetitive cliffhanger-driven watch-for-the-sequel feeling that comics usually give us, Secret Identity is a complete -- and compelling -- story.

Best of all, nobody was trying to be "edgy," which means that the art, instead of being obscure and unintelligible as with so many graphic novels, is always clear, even though it's also fascinating, with surprising camera angles and unusually expressive faces.

I'd have to class this comic as a PG-13 because of its candor about the relationship between Clark and his wife -- nothing pornographic, but I wouldn't give it to a kid who didn't already know the facts of life.

It seems to me that it's a book for grownups anyway. I don't think kids are ready to get the full power of a story about the stages of life that they have not yet reached.

In a way, aren't superhero comics always about children becoming adults? That is, the superhero represents to the powerless child all the great things he'll be able to do when he finally gets his "powers."

The fact that, compared to the fantasy, adulthood is always a disappointment doesn't change the power of the dream. Se simply trade dreams; we adults then harbor a fantasy of childhood as a carefree era of dandelion-wine enthusiasm and adventure.

The fact is that life is hard at every age, but also rewarding. Children get the adventure of learning and discovering and aspiring; adults get the joys of having accomplished something, of planting and growing children, and then of remembering and giving meaning to what has gone before. Children live in the future, adults more in the past, but there's a grace to such symmetry.

And Secret Identity captures something of the view from both ends of that passage.

*

I have recently reviewed two books by Shannon Hale -- Goose Girl and Princess Academy. I gave them both a top rating -- though Goose Girl is the more monumental work.

I recently read Hale's other book, Enna Burning, which is a sequel to Goose Girl. The same sensibility is at play. Hale is the real thing, a writer whose books are good even when she's not at her best.

And she's not at her best in Enna Burning, not because she writes badly, but because the book is a sequel and Hale hasn't learned how to make the sequel stand alone.

She assumes that we already know and care about the characters.

This assumption was fine for Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, but that's because those three volumes were really part of a single work (Tolkien himself divided the story into six books, something we often overlook).

But Hale is not simply continuing the same story. She follows a character who was, in Goose Girl, quite minor, and frankly, I didn't remember that character particularly well or care much about her. Intriguing things happen right from the start of Enna Burning, but they are merely that: intriguing. Not emotionally involving.

It takes a surprisingly long time to develop any kind of emotional stake in the story, in part because the tale is so relentlessly about the magic, whereas with Hale's other books, the story is first and foremost about characters and relationships.

By the end, though, the book is perfectly satisfying -- well above average -- and I'm glad I read it. I just thought you should know that this book is not the place to begin your acquaintance with Shannon Hale. She's a young writer and still feeling her way through a difficult and complicated art. But her talent and vision are so excellent that even when she doesn't make all the right choices, she still brings off a powerful tale.


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