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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 27, 2005

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


Walk the Line, Pride, Children's Books

There's a lot of Oscar buzz for Walk the Line, the bio-pic about country singers Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. I wish they would let up on that sort of thing so that you don't go to the theater expecting Million Dollar Baby or Ray.

Because Walk the Line isn't as heavy as either of those films, in large part because Cash, while falling into the standard rock-and-roll-hero traps of drugs and easy sex, started out and stayed a believer, and he had loyal friends who saw him through it all -- June Carter not the least of them. The movie never despairs.

Naturally, being a product of Hollywood, there are the perfunctory depictions of Christians as being smug, hypocritical, and judgmental -- but the fact is, there's no shortage of these types in or out of Christianity, and the movie makes no bones about the fact that its heroes are also Christians.

The script was created under the aegis of the only child Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash had together, and the children of Cash's first marriage, to Vivian Cash (played powerfully by Ginnifer Goodwin), have been heard to complain about the depiction of their mother. The story seems to want to explain away all of Cash's wrongdoing and disloyalty as being either accidental or deserved.

But it's also worth pointing out that even if the movie's depiction of Vivian Cash was absolutely accurate, the character as shown would not have appeared this way to her own children. And such people do exist -- possessive and controlling. There is no pleasing them. So even if the movie is unfair to the real woman, Vivian Cash is quite believable as a character.

The real delights, of course, are the performances of Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash. They both do their own singing, and it can be a challenge. The real June Carter had a harsh country twang, which was part of the Carter Family sound but can grate on the ears; she wisely softened this and sang (to put it bluntly) better than the person she was portraying.

Joaquin Phoenix had no such luxury. Johnny Cash's voice was too well known and is far too memorable; he had to imitate Cash's quirks. The cavalier way he treated pitch; his slow, almost sluggish pacing; his seemingly deadpan attitude that actually came across heartfelt. I remember as a kid unfamiliar with country music, Cash seemed to me like a bad singer whose career was inexplicable. I have long since learned better -- and I have to say that Phoenix has done a superb job of capturing both the weaknesses and the strengths of Cash's voice.

Of course, it's one thing to hear them sing while watching them on the screen -- they are both compelling performers, real stars who have the personal charisma to match those of the stars they're portraying. When you listen to the soundtrack album from the movie, however, you realize that while you might someday want to buy an album of Witherspoon and Phoenix singing in their own voices (I suspect they're both very good singers), you really won't listen over and over to an album of them imitating Carter and Cash.

Instead, you'll really want to hear The Legend of Johnny Cash, which virtually covers the soundtrack of the movie anyway -- including a duet with June Carter on "Jackson." Or The Essential Johnny Cash, with remastered original recordings that include two duets with June, though most of the tracks overlap.

At the heart of the movie, though, the music takes a back seat to Cash's complicated relationship with his father, played with real discernment -- and stubborn blindness -- by Robert Patrick. This story thread allows us to see how a man who seems to have everything -- fame and fortune -- is still in pain, not just the self-inflicted pain of drugs and a broken marriage, but the deep ache that comes from a broken childhood.

And I really liked seeing that Cash kept his original players, even though they weren't all that good, throughout the early years of success -- precisely the time when many a rising star can easily be persuaded to jettison the people who helped him get started.

*

I didn't think we needed a new movie of Pride and Prejudice. The Simon Langton-directed miniseries from 1995 that brought us Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Darcy and Elizabeth, and the marvelous Crispin Bonham-Carter and Susannah Harker as Bingley and Jane, was so close to perfect that I was at a loss to figure out what this new feature film could possibly bring us in 150 minutes that the miniseries did not do better in 310.

The answer surprised me. While the main storyline was effectively abridged by screenwriter Deborah Moggach, and the performances were quite good, what stole the movie for me was the glorious creation of an authentic-seeming world. For the feature film, there was a bit of a budget for splurging on extras -- we don't just see a handful of officers on the village street, we see a whole red-coated troop; we don't just have a few dancers in a single ballroom at the country dances, we have a whole house that is positively packed with guests.

And the look of them echoes the kind of earnest tattiness that we associate with country styles even today -- clothing that people who don't have much time to worry about style will wear because it's still perfectly good.

I wished sometimes that the writing and acting had stayed truer to the reserve and good manners that English society of the time (and Jane Austen herself) insisted upon; Caroline Bingley's behavior is so nakedly snobbish that in fact it would have been regarded as repulsive even by snobs of the time, and it removed any possibility of clever repartee.

Donald Sutherland as the father completely missed the man's wit and air of amusement; he tries to play him with an earnestness that makes him seem merely weak instead of detached.

And the script gives lines for Elizabeth to say to her mother that would simply have been unspeakable in the era -- one simply did not speak to one's parents with such harsh candor.

On the other hand, we see glimpses of the working life in the country, the animals and laundry and mud that were always close by. In particular, I loved the delicious use of a character that does not exist in Austen -- a servant girl who sings as she moves about her labors. She becomes more than just a part of the background; we realize that the lives of all these people are possible only because they are rich -- even the ones who think themselves poor -- and they have the labor of the truly poor to sustain them. They may worry about the relative status of the rich, the very rich, the obscenely rich, and the titled; but they are all unconsciously yet brutally snobbish in their attitude toward their servants, who are barely noticed.

And for all its flaws, this is no Emma, a miserable adaptation of Austen that missed the meaning of the key scenes. On the contrary, writer Moggach and director Joe Wright absolutely understand the story and almost always get it right. The added scenes, the altered settings, and the long one-take montages are quite wonderful.

Rosamund Pike is luminous as Jane and Tom Hollander is utterly believable as Mr. Collins (usually he's played for laughs). If Bingley seems to be played (by Simon Woods) more as a hairdo than a character, that's really the fault of the compression rather than the actor; the same shortening of the story is what makes the characters of Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend), Lydia (Jena Malone), and Charlotte Lucas (Claudie Blakley) almost vanishingly small, though well-acted for all that.

As for Darcy, I had not seen Matthew MacFadyen before, but I hope to again -- he accomplished what I did not think possible: he kept me from wishing for Colin Firth's portrayal.

If you haven't seen the miniseries, I urge you to get your hands on the set of DVDs -- it is truer to the original story. But this feature film is also wonderful, and brings much to the story that is fresh and real.

*

When we were kids, we knew that every year, Nana Lu and Grandpa would send every one of us a new pair of pajamas for Christmas.

Wow. Thrilling. Especially when Dad would make us change into the new jammies and let him take a picture of us.

(The old kind, with film. In fact, so old that the film was actually on a roll, and you had to thread the film and wind it by hand. And the flashbulb had to be changed each time. And when a roll of film was finished, Dad went out into the darkroom he had built in the garage and developed the film and made the prints himself. And then he mailed them to his parents to show them that we not only got their present, we were already wearing the pajamas. And when I say "mailed," I mean in an envelope, with a stamp. And yet we thought we were a happy family.)

Now I'm older, and it's kind of fun to be the relative who sends the nieces and nephews presents that you absolutely know they will be bored with on Christmas day, smug in the knowledge that when all the thrilling new toys have lost their wonder, there will be your gift, still serviceable.

Which brings me to books.

All right, I was the weird kid who was more excited about getting books for Christmas than almost anything. But most kids look at a book as the kind of thing they're likely to get in their stocking, from that old do-gooder Santa Claus, or from the eccentric aunt.

But three days into Christmas vacation, when all their little NintenDogs have barked their brains out and their Fly Pen is recharging and they've used their new cellphone to call everybody they know, twice, and it's now recharging, they look around and there is that book and so, with a huge sigh of woe, they pick up the book and throw themselves down on the bed fully intending to be bored to death.

And instead they fall in love. Or at least, they do if you chose the right book.

The trouble with buying books for kids is, they're not for you. So if you read them and really like them, maybe the kids will like them or maybe they won't, because you tested them on the wrong audience.

Well, let's face it. Books are hard to buy for someone else, no matter how old they are. Just because you love it -- or the Newbery voters loved it -- or the reviewer for the Rhino Times loved it -- doesn't mean this or that particular kid is going to like it one bit.

And vice versa. Sometimes there are books I don't really care for, which happen to be wonderful for some kids. Or many kids. Maybe most kids.

Take, for instance, the books of Eva Ibbotson. She was mentioned to me by a relative who runs the children's book department of a major bookstore. She hadn't read Ibbotson herself -- I had asked her for a certain kind of children's story that a student of mine needed to research in order to compare it to some older children's books.

That's why I bought The Secret of Platform 13 and Island of the Aunts. Because I'm such a conscientious teacher (i.e., I hate it when my students have read something and I haven't).

These are both books about strange magical people who venture into the normal world -- our world -- in order to carry out some weird quest, to the delight of children and the consternation of adults.

Specifically, Island of the Aunts is about three weird sisters who run a sort of hospice for animals on a secret island. They're getting older and they realize that they have no one to carry on their work of healing and helping stray creatures of sea, land, and air -- often of the mythical variety.

So they decide to go to the regular world (England is regular, more or less) and kidnap some children.

Two of the sisters do an excellent job of kidnapping precisely the kind of child who will be relieved to be removed from an unloving, frustrating, dangerous household; but the third messes up and takes a very spoiled rich boy who is not remotely interested in devoting his life to caring for wonderful beasts. Hijinks ensue.

The Secret of Platform 13, on the other hand, is either the opposite book (if you're feeling generous) or the identical book with only a couple of changes (if you're feeling cynical). In this one, an unpleasant, rich and selfish human woman kidnaps a child on a railway platform in order to raise him as her own. Only the child happens to be the newborn prince of a magical island kingdom full of all the creatures of folklore -- hags, banshees, fairies, and so on.

So an expedition must be mounted to bring back the kidnapped prince. Hijinks ensue.

Moment by moment, both books are funny, witty, and rather inventive. So why am I not delighted?

Because all that Ibbotson seems to care about is being funny, witty, and rather inventive. She doesn't waste much time on story. There is one, but it's almost perfunctory and often more than a little moralistic and tedious. The bad guys are nasty more than evil; and mythical creatures purported to be evil always seem to be misunderstood -- and usually are good, in their own weird way.

I never found a single thing to care about.

Now, for some readers, that's not even a bad thing. Funny, witty, and rather inventive are more than enough to delight them. For instance, take Mary Poppins -- please. I had a teacher thrust it upon me when I was at the ideal age -- 9 -- and I got two chapters into it and could hardly keep my eyes on the page. It was so unutterably boring.

You see, it tried so hard to be charming (i.e., funny, witty, and rather inventive) that it quickly cloyed; and there was nothing in the story that I could take seriously enough to care about it.

That's right, I was the kind of vile, repulsive child who thought Mary Poppins was lame.

So who am I to tell anybody not to read Eva Ibbotson? I personally know dozens of people who love her work. Some of them are children. And does every book have to be great?

You know the children who are going to be the victims of your delayed-reaction Christmas gifts this year. Are they delighted by whimsy, or do they need strong emotionally-gripping stories. If they're in the former group, then Ibbotson delivers.

An odd thing about Platform 13, though. It seems to me that this book, which came out precisely during the time that J.K. Rowling was developing her Harry Potter series, feels like it could have been the blueprint for the funny, witty, and rather inventive aspects of the Harry Potter universe. Chatty ghosts that hang about not wishing to frighten anyone; hags and witches and other creatures who are really quite nice in their way; repulsive "regular" people who are unmitigatedly evil and cruel to children ... if this book doesn't make you think of the Dursleys and platform 8-1/2 (or was it 9-3/4?) and all the whimsical aspects of the magical world of the Harry Potter books, then you haven't read the Harry Potter books.

There's nothing wrong with this, actually. All storytellers borrow elements from other storytellers' work. And Rowling didn't copy, she put these elements to a different use. Or rather, she subsumed them in a much larger, deeper story full of reality and pain.

In fact, for some of us, it is precisely the Dursley sections and the whimsical bits (Hermione's campaign for the liberation of house-elfs, for instance) that strike some of us as the tedious bits in the Harry Potter novels. Whereas others regard them as their favorites.

I suspect that the latter group will love Ibbotson, and the former group will not.

Kate Dicamillo's The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread is also cursed with whimsy -- not just in the world, but in the writing. The author actually talks down to readers in a way that some children will find offensive -- though some adults will find it "charming." "Do you know the meaning of Perfidy? Go and look it up, children." This sort of thing always seems to me like an author trying to be ingratiating while really being condescending. Sort of a Lady Catherine De Bourg effect.

The story is not as empty as the Ibbotson books -- hidden amid all the charm and whimsy is a brave little story, even if it is cursed with genre cliches. Despereaux is a mouse -- a talking one, naturally -- but of course he's the very smallest mouse, and the least concerned with following the rules. A nonconformist mouse. And Dicamillo seems committed to telling children that all adults who expect children to conform to social norms are evil, and that really admirable children will always defy the rules.

This seems harmless enough in a story about a mouse, but nobody wants to actually raise a child who is seriously committed to breaking down all the rules governing civilized behavior -- because they're not all meaningless. Some of them, in fact, keep you from dying young, and others keep you from having children you aren't ready to take care of, and others just make you more pleasant company and more likely to get a decent job.

We all have our delightfully nonconformist friends. But please note that the nonconformists you like are the ones who are only selectively nonconformist. The one who bursts into song on a bus or tips total strangers for unusual "services" is harmless enough and always good for an anecdote later. But the one who thinks it's funny to break wind in an elevator or drive on the wrong side of the road, honking at all the cars that are coming at him -- he quickly loses his charm.

So I, frankly, am quite sick of stories that urge children to flout the rules. It's as tedious and moralistic as the old-time stories that always had morals urging children to obey all the rules.

All right, the sermon is over. Despite my annoyances and misgivings, despite Dicamillo's intrusive and condescending asides to the reader, The Tale of Despereaux is quite an enjoyable book. True, it must have been a thin year in the children's book world for this to win the Newbery Medal. But I suspect that few adults and fewer children will be bothered by the things that bothered me. And I believe that if you read this one aloud to five-year-olds, they'll love it every bit as much as the eight-year-olds who can read it themselves.

For me, Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, is far more successful. This is the story of a boy growing up with his mother and sisters in the year after their father simply disappeared. It has been emotionally devastating to them all, to have him simply gone -- especially since most other people assume he ran off on purpose.

Then one day, while tending his baby sister in the laundry room of their apartment building, Gregor dives after her when she gets sucked down an air vent, in the best Alice-in-Wonderland tradition, and they find themselves in a strange underground land where humans are smaller than the fierce rats who are at war with them. To Gregor's delight, he learns that his father is still alive -- but kept prisoner by the rats. He embarks on a quest to rescue his father, only to learn that by doing so, he is fulfilling an ancient prophecy.

There is plenty of invention and wit in this story, but it also has characters you can believe in and dilemmas that matter -- it's a tale that invites you to care. And I did. This one I recommend to readers like me, who like their magic laced with reality.

But since not all readers are like me, and the Ibbotson and Dicamillo books are very good ones of their kind, I hope you will see past my own distaste for them and recognize if they seem like books that the children you plan to victimize this Christmas will enjoy -- at least on that third day, when the toys are all recharging.


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