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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 16, 2006

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


Banderas Dancing, Dried Fruit, Free Trade, and Sidewalks

Sometimes being original and honest can hurt a movie. Take the Lead, starring Antonio Banderas, looks like a ballroom-dance movie -- a genre that should be strong because of the recent reality show Dancing With the Stars.

But since the dancers in question are inner-city teenagers, the promos can make it look like just another brilliant-teacher-saves-the-rebel-kids movie, only with dancing, which might make it seem to the potential audience (as it seems to some of the kids in the movie) corny.

And besides, maybe people have burned out on dance movies for the moment. You never know when the audience will lose enthusiasm for a particular genre. Which might explain the fairly tepid box office figures for the opening weekend.

Then again, this movie was so cheaply made that it may already be in profit. You know a movie was made on the cheap when you see a boom mike in the scene. For one thing, it means they had an incompetent sound crew that wasn't holding the microphone out of frame.

They're also supposed to have somebody watching the monitor during filming in order to call out "boom" when the mike is in frame, so they can reshoot the sequence. Either that person was dozing, or the director didn't care, or they shot so few takes of each scene that during editing, they had to use the boom-mike takes because there were no alternative takes that also got the dancing or acting right.

In Take the Lead, I saw the boom mike in four separate takes. Four. This isn't just one agonizing choice for the editor, this is simple shoddiness. It's an explanation, but not an excuse, that this is director Liz Friedlander's first feature film. New Line Cinema should have made sure she had experienced people around her to avoid embarrassment like this.

But apparently nobody cared. This was clearly a throwaway movie, made without budget enough for a safety net of multiple good takes.

And yet ... against such odds, it's a truly wonderful movie. Banderas is not just a pretty face -- he knows how to act with the strength that can carry a movie. But more importantly, the script is excellent.

Writer Dianne Houston, whose experience is entirely in television up to now, has done a wonderful job of weaving together the storylines of a lot of different kids without phonying them up in order to create the normal Hollywood fairy tale.

The kids don't become brilliant dancers. At best they become interesting on the dance floor, and with some of the characters they barely become adequate.

Don't get me wrong -- there's plenty of wonderful dancing in this movie. But there's also plenty of average-to-awful dancing, and the movie doesn't pretend that these kids magically become Fred and Ginger.

Nor is dancing, by itself, the cause of the kids' success in making some good life decisions. It is more about the camaraderie that develops, and the concerned attention of their teacher. But even there, Banderas's character does not come in and instantly know just the right thing to say. He flounders about. He makes mistakes in dealing with them.

In the end, though, he achieves important things simply by not giving up or getting angry -- and by demanding excellence and determination from the kids. Thus an unpaid teacher who volunteers to teach ballroom dancing to low-income kids assigned to after-school detention becomes the founder of a New York City-wide ballroom dance program.

And the remarkable thing is -- that part of the story, at least, is true. Pierre Dulane is a real guy, who really did this stuff.

The young actors playing the kids in this movie are all wonderful. Some of them are familiar faces -- though in most cases I can't guess why, because when I look at their credits I see lists of tv shows that I not only never saw, but never even heard of.

But I want to see them again -- the powerful (and beautiful) Yaya DaCosta, girl-next-door Lauren Collins, bratty Dante Basco, and the absolutely endearing Brandon Andrews and Shawand Mckenzie, who play the fat kids as something much better than comic relief or stereotypes.

I wish I were casting a film version of my own novel Magic Street right now, because I'd cast Rob Brown ("Rock") as Mack Street in a hot second. But that's kind of a no-brainer -- this is the kid who played opposite Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, and who also played a leading role in Coach Carter. It's not as if Hollywood doesn't know the deep honesty of this young actor onscreen.

So even if you're tired of save-the-teens movies, or couldn't care less about learn-to-dance movies, give this one a try. Our whole family, including the twelve-year-old, enjoyed it all.

Meanwhile, I'm working on developing a convincing Spanish accent and faking up a Hispanic ancestry so that Antonio Banderas can play me in the movie version of my astonishingly dull life.

But maybe not. Because my wife says that if that happens, she's playing herself.

*

I'm not a dried-fruit fan. In fact, I loathe dried fruit. Rubbery, nasty things, from raisins to apricots. As God does with lukewarm believers (according to St. John the Revelator), I spew them out of my mouth.

But my wife does not feel that way. She got a catalog from a company called Meduri World Delights and was tempted beyond her ability to resist. So we ended up with tins of dried apricots, peaches, and raspberries.

Dried raspberries? OK, I broke my own rule and tried the raspberries. And I have to agree with my wife's conclusion: The flavor is amazing. The texture is still rubbery, so I'm not going to be eating a second one -- but for those who already like dried fruit, this may well be the best.

A word of warning, though: The way they keep the fruit moist and succulent is that it's thoroughly impregnated with sugar. In other words, this stuff is halfway between dried fruit and jam. Think of it as unspreadable jelly.

They have a website, but it's still "under development," so you can't order anything but a free sample of their cherries: http://www.meduriworlddelights.com/offer. So you'll just have to phone 1-877-388-8800 and ask for a catalog that will allow you to choose from dozens of different fruits and mixes.

*

Russell Roberts is coming to speak at Southern Virginia University, where I teach, and in preparation for his visit I bought and read his book The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism.

In best It's-a-Wonderful-Life fashion, Roberts's story consists of an angel -- in this case the ghost of a dead economist -- taking a factory owner from 1960 to see the future of the world if his protectionist dreams are fulfilled, as compared to the relatively free-trade world we actually live in.

The characters aren't George Bates or Clarence the angel -- but they do talk clearly and plainly about the economics of tariffs and free trade, in terms that can make sense to anyone who pays attention.

The original version was written many years ago, when Japan was reputed to be our all-powerful economic adversary. He has since updated it to make it less specific to that temporary world situation and more general.

In an era when the pressure to protect various American industries is very high, and when protestors regard the World Trade Organization as being only slightly less evil than the International Monetary Fund, it's good to have a clear, entertaining explanation of exactly why free trade is always better for the nations that practice it -- whether their economic partners reciprocate or not.

As he points out, retaliating for other nations' "unfair" subsidies, quotas, or tariffs does not punish them, it punishes our own citizens. In Roberts's view, protectionism never makes sense.

The argument for protectionism always comes down to this -- and in North Carolina, we're quite familiar with the argument! Cheaper competition from abroad threatens an industry -- in our case, textiles, when NAFTA allowed textiles to be imported duty free from Mexico. We can foresee that cheaper foreign labor is going to throw thousands of Americans out of work.

Roberts admits that many of those who lose their jobs because of free trade never recover fully, in an economic sense, from the loss of that job.

But he makes a very strong case that the children of those out-of-work workers actually do better, because they have more choices than they would have had if their parents' jobs had been protected.

Free trade distributes various industries throughout the world according to who is best able to provide it at the best price. Often a nation's only resource is the poverty of its uneducated people -- which makes them competitive in providing unskilled labor for appalling wages. But those appalling wages are better than what those people would be earning otherwise -- or they would not go to work in those jobs.

So when we "export" jobs to other countries, what we're really doing is saying, Americans are no longer willing to do that work at a competitive price. (After all, if American workers were willing to take wage-and-benefit cuts sufficient to remain competitive, the jobs would not move to other countries.) We are not losing jobs, we're rejecting them because we'd rather be out of work than to do the job at the going price.

So the jobs we lose are, by definition, lousy jobs. Admit it, former textile workers: If somebody had offered you the chance to continue your old textile job, but at Mexican wage-and-benefit levels, you would have refused it. The job was only "good" because you were paid enough to make it worthwhile.

Most people adapt to change. They may not like the change, but they adapt to it. They get by. And since the economy as a whole benefits, it creates new jobs, different jobs, more opportunities for everyone -- including the children of the displaced workers.

It's a heartless but, alas, accurate portrayal of how economies work.

Roberts also deals -- rather too briefly, I think -- with the issue of tariffs and quotas to protect industries that are vital to our national defense. His point is that the best defense is a strong economy that has the vitality and resources to gear up to replace, during wartime, any product we depended on other nations to provide us.

He also suggests we should create adequate stockpiles of any resource so vital that we could not survive without it in time of war.

But the practical reality is that every vital resource we decide to acquire only from foreign sources is a resources that we have to protect with the full might of the United States military. As the Japanese discovered during their war with China in the 1930s, their lack of self-sufficiency in oil, coupled with a U.S.-led embargo of oil, forced them either to give up the war in China (which would have been a good idea, but try telling them that) or go to open war with the United States. It did not turn out well for them.

Roberts disdains national "self-sufficiency" as a recipe for self-impoverishment. His analogy is that all of us, as households, could make our own clothes and grow our own food and build our own houses. But the time we would spend doing it, and the poor quality of our work in areas we aren't experts at, would make it ridiculously costly. We would not have time to do anything for which we might get paid enough to be prosperous.

Specialization is the order of the day -- and Roberts is mostly right. Specialization and free trade are the basis of civilization -- within the city (or, in our modern extension of the civitas, within the nation). The whole point of civilization is that we who share a village throw in together for our safety, and then specialize, trusting that whatever we need can be supplied by trading freely with those who need what we supply.

But while a nation may be (mostly) civilized, the world is not -- though it is closer today than it has ever been before. The fact remains that we cannot trust that other nations will always supply us what we need, or need what we supply; and enemies can, for capricious reasons, arbitrarily withhold some needed resource or offer it at an extortionate price (remember the oil embargo of 1973?).

So, while free trade leads to greater prosperity, national security does in fact demand that we have redundancy in sources of supply of vital resources -- including, alas, some measures of rational self-sufficiency.

Japan cannot feed itself on the land it has -- so it must make sure it remains on good terms with its suppliers of food. America, on the other hand, can supply almost everything we need. But the few things we can't, we must find substitutes for -- even if they are not economically viable.

That's why Roberts's fable of free trade is a good road map for the future -- as long as we know every possibly detour on the way, and are prepared to cut our own roads and go it alone if need be.

That means, above all, the technology must exist for us to replace our dependency on foreign oil. We don't have to actually do it (at this moment, that would be economic suicide), but we have to find the method we would use if we had to, and do our best to bring down its cost until it would not cripple us to use it.

In short, market-driven development is usually best, but sometimes it's nice to have a few government-driven developments in place.

My example is roads. Sometimes you let people cut roads where they need them. But sometimes the government lays down roads (or railroads) first so the people can follow.

*

I'm sure the people who plan roads in Greensboro are sincere, hard-working folks who are sick and tired of people sniping at them.

But I wish that somewhere in the labyrinthine maneuvers of our city government, somebody might make a little plaque and put it on a wall. It would be a simple plaque. It would say: Pedestrians first.

There are sound reasons for this. First, pedestrians really were and are first. At some point, everybody gets out of the car and walks. Second, it's healthier for us to be able, at least, to choose to walk to some destinations safely. Third, the poorest and most vulnerable element of our community is the one that is most likely to be on foot. Fourth, sidewalks are the natural setting for the public life of children, our most valuable citizens.

In short, if people can't safely walk, then we are trapped in our cars. Poor people are forced to remain even poorer because they have to be able to maintain a car in order to get any kind of job.

Families who might be able to get by with one car are forced to get two, if the stay-at-home parent can't safely walk to the store with the children.

That means that in some families, because of our shameful lack of predictable and reasonable pedestrian pathways, the wife and husband are both forced to work outside the home in order to support, not their children, but their cars.

Why isn't it a stone-cold requirement in law that adjacent commercial properties provide safe passageways for pedestrians? But just try walking from one box store to another that isn't in the same complex. It's hard to find a place in Greensboro, outside of the old downtown itself, where you can walk from one shopping area to another without at some time having to step out into the traffic lanes of busy streets.

It should have been made law years ago that all new construction in Greensboro -- indeed, in Guilford County -- be accompanied by the installation of a full complement of sidewalks. Instead, we find new urban subdivisions where maybe there's a sidewalk on one side of one street ... and that's it.

The result is that when people who walk a lot bitterly refer to using "Greensboro sidewalks," they mean "gutters."

Just try walking along Pisgah Church Road, for instance -- a major four-lane commercial road that connects commercial developments at Battleground, Lawndale, Elm, and Church, with various apartment complexes along the way.

There are sidewalks here and there. But they end abruptly, having led nowhere in particular. Then they begin again at some arbitrary point, usually on the other side of the street.

Imagine you're in a wheelchair, or pushing a stroller, or have with you several small children, and then realize that you're often going to be forced to share a lane with cars that routinely go 50 mph.

And then, to add insult to injury, a light was just installed one-seventh of a mile east of Elm, serving the entrance to the new shopping center. It has walk signals going both directions, even though the distance across the shopping center driveway is trivial.

But just to the west, the far busier intersection at Elm -- the landmark north-south street in Greensboro -- does not have walk signals. Indeed, it doesn't even have crosswalks going two of the four directions. And the new construction down North Elm doesn't have sidewalks on the very side where they might help people walk to the only shops that exist there.

Greensboro's city planners have driven our pedestrians -- and their children -- into the gutter. Or into their cars -- if they have them.

We might, out of laziness, choose to drive a tenth of a mile between box stores or shopping centers. But we shouldn't be forced to drive that sort of distance merely because nobody noticed Greensboro was a city and needed sidewalks as a basic amenity of civilized life.


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