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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.